Archives for the month of: October, 2015

Child dressed up for Dia de los Muertos

by Wendy V. Ash

Boo! Did that photo startle you? If so, that’s exactly the reaction I was attempting to procure. It’s the kind of reaction you would have at Halloween… but this IS NOT about Halloween. It’s about “El Día de Los Muertos”.

My response when a teacher or student asks me “How do you say Happy Halloween in Spanish?” is “Happy Halloween” using my best Spanish accent and being sure to emphasize a throaty “j” for the “h”. Then I start to wince as someone will start to mention “but isn’t it something ‘muertos’?”.

Yes, and no. That is part of what a certain holiday is called, but it is NOT Halloween. It just happens to fall around the same time. For those who do not know, “El Día de Los Muertos” is literally “The Day of The Dead”. I will leave the definition of the holiday to National Geographic so you can see for yourself the dissimilarity between the two holidays.

I have often struggled with the decision to have a lesson about El Día de Los Muertos. I have nothing against the holiday or the culture, but for the type of Spanish teacher that I am, the cons outweigh the pros. This time of year I felt the need to explain that conundrum.

Time. I am not a full-time staff Spanish teacher nor do I teach a total immersion program. If I could have more than a 1/2 hour with these bright children, I could talk about so many things. Unfortunately, many schools and preschools can neither afford the time or the price for extended classes. Thus, my focus need to be clear and concise for each minute. Teach them to speak the most basic Spanish they need for their age to start a foundation. Which brings me to…

Age. I teach ages 2 years old through 5th grade. A majority of my children are preschool through kindergarten. While the older children could get the concept of this colorful celebration, the younger children zone in on the word “dead” and that in itself opens up an entire can of inexplicable worms. Usually a conversation about many of their pets that have passed on, or more awkward still, a family member. I am highly supportive of lessons about the “cycle of life”, but as a Spanish teacher, I may make light mention of it and move on, but feel it is not my place.

Religion. While I am certainly tolerant of all religious beliefs and find them fascinating, it is also a sensitive area that I feel is better left to the professionals. When I taught at a Catholic school, it was wonderful this time of year to see the halls lined with “Día de Los Muertos” artwork. Having been raised Catholic myself, I could certainly appreciate the sentiment. However, if you were not raised Mexican and Catholic, the concept will certainly be lost on the little ones.

It’s a constant reminder to myself how to teach students so that I can maximize their language acquisition experience through high frequency vocabulary. “El Día de Los Muertos” does not fit into the criteria for my mission. The same rule applies to “El Día de Los Reyes” (coincidentally my birthday) and other incredible Hispanic holidays. I feel those lessons are better for religion or social studies class. Better yet, an inspiration for parents to teach a creative, cultural lesson at home… being sure to include all the delicious foods!

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child whispering into friend's ear

by Wendy V. Ash

I enter a room of eager parents at an open house at an area school. I walk to the front and ask:

“Raise your hand if you took Spanish in high school.”

As little less than half the hands in the room go up. Then I ask:

“How many of you can SPEAK Spanish?”

Three quarters of the hands drop with one straggler making a gesture and facial expression that I take to mean “I can get by and find a bathroom in a Spanish-speaking country and order a beer.” I then hold up a puppet of a dog I have on my hand and ask:

“How many of you know how to say THIS in Spanish?”

More hands add to the fraction left, some did not have their hands ever up at any time. In fact, one parent exclaimed “I took German!”. I choose a person who has their hand up and ask them how to say it. They reply:

“Perro” (no rolling “rr”)

Here is where I stop and point out one of the things I teach. That rolling “rr” that many don’t, or have never acquired. I explain that this, along with other pronunciation, is a crucial part of my program. Getting those muscles toned up by exercising our active vocabulary is the best way to do this and the best time is from age 2 to 7. After that, it is difficult to acquire a native accent. Besides, who doesn’t wan’t to exercise different vocal muscles to have a strong voice?

I then go on to ask:

“Does anybody know how to say ‘elephant’ or ‘zebra’ in Spanish?”

All hands go down at this point and parents look at each other to see who might know the answer. I respond:

“It is ‘elefante’ and ‘zebra’ (said with Spanish pizzaz) and the spelling is VERY similar to the English spelling. So WHY did nobody know that? After all, ‘perro’ sounds nothing like dog… yet quite a few of you remembered it and knew it.”

Again, parents are thinking to themselves, but nobody has a response. After a few seconds of building momentum I answer:

“Because we don’t see elephants and zebras walking down our streets. Because ‘elephant’ and ‘zebra’ is not in the 6% – 12% of every day vocabulary. While we could recall those words in our native language easily from the recesses of our brain outside of that 6%-12%, to do so in another language, much less at such a young age, is nearly impossible without constant exposure.”

You see, in high school I’m guessing they crammed 50% – 70% of the dictionary in 4 years (a fraction of which I’m sure you don’t recall). You learned how to conjugate up, down, and sideways but when they sent you on your way, it was up to you to speak, converse, and practice. The reality is that the latter should have been done FIRST.

Total immersion programs, which are rising in popularity but still are in small numbers and not available to all, spend far more time exposing a child to Spanish. The average time that I spend with your child in an average school or preschool is one half hour per week. That is ALL. I needed to find a way to maximize on this sliver of time. Through my lesson plans based on Spanish high frequency vocabulary, it is very possible to ingrain in them the most basic and valuable Spanish conversation they need to engage in dialogue with other speakers. Once that takes root, they can then move on to reading, which I encourage with my mini bilingual books that accompany my lessons. When reading occurs, they can begin to add on the 80% of grammar that one acquires through literacy.

Fortunately, I have the distinct advantage of clearly remembering how I acquired a second language at an early age and its processes. I combine that with linguistic teaching methods and am incredibly lucky to be able to share this with your children and students.

But SHHH! …it’s a secret!

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