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.

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