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TwitShip

by Wendy V. Ash

 

I am extremely fortunate to not only teach Spanish to children, but learn more about how they acquire Spanish as a second language every day. I have an ocean of subjects that I observe and orally assess. Time and time again, I return to the simple premise that we shouldn’t teach words, we should teach ideas and concepts.

I have stated in the past that I am against direct translation. That would mean pointing to an object, saying what it is in English and then repeating it in Spanish. My belief is, that at an early age, this does nothing more than promote language discrimination. To children, words are simply WORDS. It makes no difference whether you say “blue” in English, Spanish, French, or Chinese… because for them they are registering the IDEA of “blue”.

There was an interesting incident that happened in one of my classes that exemplified this concept. A three year old boy in my class, who we shall call Alex, is fully bilingual (English/Spanish). I was teaching a lesson about the doctor and parts of the body. The doctor asks his patient “¿Qué te duele?'” (what hurts you). I asked students what that phrase might mean. To avoid direct translation, I will often act out or gesture while I am saying the phrase. Eventually someone guesses what it is correctly. In this case I paused, and asked the bilingual boy “What does ‘¿Qué te duele?” mean Alex?”. He looked puzzled, thought a bit, and pointed to his head.

There it was. To Alex, I was asking him the entire sentence in one language, because words are just words to him. He does not discriminate between the two languages. He saw the idea of what I was asking him in his head, and instead of stating the translation and saying “It means ‘What hurts you?’, he demonstrated the response to the question. This is a very common occurrence for him and you will actually see confusion on his face when anyone literally translates something to him. It is like you are saying “blue” to him twice, even though the words might sound differently.

I became more curious about the matter, so that evening as my 8 year old daughter was walking towards me I said “¿Qué te duele?”. She looked very puzzled, looked at her body, shrugged and replied “Nada.” My daughter speaks Spanish, but is not what I would consider “bilingual”. What I learned is that she too sees the “idea” first in her head and replies in the target language. In other wards, she did not say in English “Huh? What do you mean what hurts?” or any other step of translation. She did not think at all, just responded. The problem is that we put an additional step in our student’s brains when we try to translate to them.

While this might seem like common sense, this discovery allows me to integrate lessons to have your children see the idea primarily and the literal words secondarily. I encourage them being comfortable with Spanish phrases as they would be in their native language. To strengthen this ability, I have an exercise where we pass a ball to one another. When the child passes the ball, they must ask the child to whom they are passing the ball “¿Cómo te llamas?”. When the child receives the ball, they then must say “Soy (their name)” then pass the ball and ask the next child. If time allows, we do it also with “¿Cómo estás?” and the child may respond with a variety of feelings that we have learned. My purpose in this exercise is to not only see which children are getting the idea of the phrase and why, but it also allows those who are not fully at this stage to learn it through the repetition of the exercise. It also promotes Spanish dialogue amongst their peers to make them more comfortable speaking the language.

Thus, the crusade continues to fight language discrimination and make Spanish as fluid as possible. This generation will be faced with the open seas of a future global market and their success to rise to the top will depend largely on their foreign language skills.

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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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child's written spanish words on paper

by Wendy V. Ash

It depends on how it was taught.

I remember having a conversation with a Spanish teacher at my daughter’s preschool when she was returning to school in the Fall. She sighed and said “They just lose so much over the summer, it’s hard to get them back on track.” I began thinking to myself “Why MUST it be this way, and what is the workaround?”. The answer comes back to my same theory again and again. Too many think traditionally, adhere and align to the English curriculum being taught during the school year. They lose sight of the fact that these children are acquiring a second language for a minimal amount of time a week. It is crucial that they retain the most useful and basic vocabulary used conversationally. This is what makes our program successful with children who are learning to SPEAK Spanish. While it’s difficult to describe all the nuances of my method, I often term it as “relevant retention”.

If children do not learn Spanish words that are directly relevant to their environment, lifestyle and surroundings, their passive  and active vocabulary doesn’t stand a change to be triggered. What do I mean by this? Children who are taught every zoo animal, how to count to 20, and every color in the rainbow may seem impressive. However, I doubt they will see an alligator or zebra in their neighborhood or need to explain that a flower is fuchsia or violet. They may see a banana, but which is easier for them to learn and retain… “banana” or “plátano”? I’m certainly not saying that children shouldn’t expand on their vocabulary, but little learners acquiring a second language need the absolute basics and constant repetition. Otherwise, they don’t stand a chance of building a foundation of words they have retained to move on to more sophisticated vocabulary.

One of the lessons I send them off with prior to summer is a beach lesson and in the future I will include a pool lesson. I’m hoping that when they see “el sol” in the sky, when their friend “nada”, or catch “un pez” they will recall the word and remember it, or better yet USE it.

I will leave you with a little Spanish joke for you Spanish-speakers that the older students loved and is a good example of how we incorporate homonyms while making it fun:

“¿Qué hace un pez desempleado?”
“¡NADA!”

Enjoy the last weeks of summer… and summer squash!

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child's written spanish words on paper

by Wendy V. Ash

It almost never fails. I will walk into one of my older grades to begin Spanish class. As I’m reciting words and phrases for them to repeat, I will hear “How do you spell that?”. I look out in the class to see the more studious students, pen in hand ready to anxiously write down a list of these words.

I reply “How do you THINK you spell it? THAT’S the way I want you to spell it”. Now, please do not misunderstand, I would never promote misspelling a word unless there were a valuable point to it. The valuable point being: Write It Right. Read It Wrong.

I often tell my students how they need to fight their “English Brain”. What I mean by that is as a non-native speaker, when anybody comes upon a Spanish word they go to their library of English phonetics to try and pronounce a Spanish word. This is a result of not physically speaking the words until they become second nature. Unfortunately, when learning a second language, the older we are, the more hard-wired we become to do this. I tell my older students they have quite the uphill battle and must try that much more.

This is why I incorporate my bilingual books in the very last lesson of a unit. Students have repeatedly heard how the words sound, so when they read them in context, they read them with their “Spanish Brain”. I will line them up in the front of the class and have them each read a page. While I don’t traditionally “test”, this is one of my many oral assessments I do to gauge a child’s progress. I carefully listen and watch as they approach a word that we covered in our unit. It’s always a wonderful thing to see them pronounce it flawlessly. It’s also a wondrous thing to see their look of discovery as they lay their eyes for the first time on a word they have been saying for weeks. Lastly, it is wonderful to see that each student is reading Spanish to their class, which is difficult enough to do in their native language. They learn to embrace their mistakes and I make sure they don’t apologize for having made a mistake.

My new rule is to have the students, if they must write, write the phonetic pronunciation followed by the correct spelling. As controversial as this might seem to some, this is what we did as small children with our native language (though you may not remember). Yet, somehow we managed to turn out okay and go on to write it, read it, and speak it right.

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Motorcyle Pic

by Wendy V. Ash

I like to characterize the purpose of my program is to concentrate on mastering familiarity of Spanish before concentrating on formality. It’s the only way, and the easiest way, to get up to speed with a second language.

It’s a little known fact amongst my students that I ride a motorcycle on the track (refer to photo) with N2 Track Days. One day, I began to think back to when I first started to learn to ride. I was so fixated on the controls, what they did and how they did it. I was so immersed on how they function, and reasonably so, that I couldn’t really enjoy the actual ride. Over time, as I became more comfortable with the mechanics of the motorcycle and it became second nature, that is when I could begin to enjoy and concentrate on other things. Those other things were higher echelons of the learning process such as speed, proper entry into a turn, or passing.

I was in my car while I was pondering this and then realized, it is the same while driving a car. When we were first driving, we had sweaty palms while the driving instructor directed us how to drive in a car clearly labeled to let others know we were an accident waiting to happen. Now that we have mastered driving, we really do not think much about what we are actually doing. Do you remember putting the keys in your car this morning? Putting it into gear? Can you recall, without moving your feet or imagining you are in your car, which is the brake and which is the gas? Most likely you cannot if you are a seasoned driver. It has become instinctual and second nature for many of us.

I decided to do an experiment while I was in my car and I invite you to try it yourself. I found if I consciously thought of what I was physically doing to control the car, I drove worse, than instead of letting it occur naturally in my psyche. This notion can be applied to many things: a motorcycle, a car, a bicycle, a unicycle and YES…
learning a second language
.

In the race to become proficient in a language, familiarity is crucial. How it sounds, how it feels when it is spoken, and its “music” are essential components to achieve this goal. Only then, can we learn to be formal and move on to spelling, conjugation, and sentence structure. After all, it is how we learned our first language. When we were learning to talk, we did not carry around flash cards that had “milk” “hungry” “diaper” that we would read to our parents and knew they were nouns. We became familiar with the language, and then comfortable with speaking it to have our needs met.

You might wonder how this relates to my teaching methods. I have witnessed first-hand students who have said words many times and have started to become familiar with them. Then they decide to start asking how it is spelled, or why is there an “o” at the end and sometimes an “a”, or why how what is described comes afterwards. The minute I start answering and explaining those questions, which involve the principles of grammar, masculine and feminine, and adjectives… is the moment that they begin thinking too hard and it will stymie their ability to be comfortable with the language. All I tell them, with many eyebrow raises from the scrutinizing teacher, is “It just IS, and you will learn what is right from hearing, speaking, and practicing it”. I also point out there is plenty of time to learn the formality of Spanish later, but let’s concentrate on the roots of speaking Spanish now.

Familiarity over Formality. It is a debate I contend with often and a fight I am winning a mile a minute, just like I hope my students learn to speak one day.

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CandyMan

by Wendy V. Ash

One of the sweetest rewards I have witnessed, is when children begin to connect the dots and find how speaking Spanish benefits them. The best way for them to achieve that is through dialogue in a natural conversation.

I have a student I have affectionately named “Candy Man”. Before I go into the story as to how he acquired this name, I’d like to tell you about his environment. Candy Man attends a private school in the suburbs, however, he lives in a neighborhood that is largely Hispanic. He sees the importance of the language and is eager to learn it so that he can have better communications with those around him. This insight and initiative already sets him miles ahead. As a result, and in combination with my classes, he has acquired pronunciation worthy of a native speaker.

One day I entered the classroom and Candy Man’s hand shot up eager to share a story. “Señora Wendy! I talked to somebody in Spanish the other day!”. I was amused and asked him to recount his story.

Apparently there was a neighbor next door working in his yard. Candy Man said “¡Hola!”, thinking that the man would reply “¡Hola!” back and that would be the end of the conversation. The man instead replied “¿Como estás?” (How are you?). Luckily for Candy Man, we had just finished a lesson on feelings. He dug into the catacombs of his active vocabulary and replied “Tengo hambre.” (I am hungry). The gentleman nodded and produced a candy bar from his pocket and handed it to Candy Man.

Now, while I obviously do not condone taking candy from strangers, this was an incredible moment to convey to the class. Having the courage to speak Spanish to others has its rewards and becomes useful.

Life might be like a box of chocolates, but if they speak their Spanish, they will have a future full of advantages over their monolingual peers… just like Candy Man.

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Polo

by Wendy V. Ash

I have encountered an interesting phenomenon recently with my older elementary school students. We are currently wrapping up our restaurant unit where I am teaching them how to have a conversation in Spanish with waitstaff to order basic food. Over the past two weeks we have been drilling the students to vocalize the vocabulary and enunciate it properly.

Sometimes I will say to students that the Spanish language has phonetic “tricks” and it will try to fool you… but don’t allow it! This food unit is a great way to illustrate this since some of the “tricks” are within these words. Our vocabulary list includes (pay special attention to the underlines):

pollo
hamburguesa
perro caliente

We explain that the “ll” makes the sound of “y”, that you do not sound the “h” when it is at the beginning of a word, that you do not pronounce the “u” in “gue, and how you roll your R’s when you pronounce “rr” instead of “r”. Before we did this exercise we would call children up to the board and they would write how they thought it was written while I pronounced it. They would write:

poyo
umborgessa
pado caliente
(surprisingly some would get ‘caliente” correct)

Here’s where the phenomenon occurs. I can have the children repeat again and again the pronunciation. I can show them on the board proper spelling and phonetic spelling. I place a coloring sheet or otherwise in front of them with Spanish words on it and boom… it’s back to square one and they apply English phonetics to Spanish words.

The most common was when they saw “pollo” and were saying “polo”. My solution to point out the problem is to ask the class “Are we on a horse playing on a field?”, they reply “noooo”. I then ask “Are we in a pool saying ‘Marco!’?”, they again reply “nooooo”. I then say “So WHY are we pronouncing it POLO? When you were told that ‘ll’ is pronounced ‘y’?”.

This, parents and teachers, is why I am so adamant about not writing these words down until they are comfortable with what sounds and feels correct. Otherwise, it is like they ARE playing the game ‘Marco Polo’. They are in deep water and feeling around blindly to learn a language that does not need to be as elusive as they make it.

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BuildHouse

by Wendy V. Ash

I enter a class and write on the board:

Spanish Teacher
Interpreter
Dictionary

I needed to take a moment in class to define each of the terms listed above because I have so many students ask me daily “How to you say (insert word) in Spanish?”. I have been asked how to say “dolphin”, “blink”, “root beer”, even “Cheez-It®”, and silly idioms that would never translate literally. I will never deny a child a translation if I am asked, but it is important for me to have the students, and teachers, understand our method and how we apply it.

I begin with “Spanish Teacher” and ask “Can everybody that SPEAKS Spanish be a Spanish teacher?”. Of course not. If that were the case, we would all be English teachers. There is a reason WHY teachers can teach, and it doesn’t always come down to a degree, especially when teaching a second language. I could come in and speak nothing but Spanish for an hour to the class, and I doubt they would retain very little of it, if any at all. I could also drill vocabulary for every animal in a zoo, but if you aren’t a zookeeper, it would be of little value in every day life.

I move on to the word “Interpreter”. I state that myself, and my teachers are NOT interpreters. I explain what an interpreter is and the skill you would need to acquire to become one. Could myself and my teachers become interpreters if we chose to do so? Absolutely. It would simply be a matter of time, dedication, practice and passing tests, but the foundation would be there to build upon.

Lastly I talk about the word “Dictionary”. We are not walking dictionaries. We do not know every word in the dictionary, just like every English speaker does not know every word in the English dictionary. I then get a dictionary and ask the class what percentage of that dictionary do they believe we use on a daily basis with our friends, families, and teachers in conversation. The answer might surprise you. Their common answer is usually 50% and then they incrementally go down in number as the guessing continues.

The answer, that I was told, is approximately 6%.

We then hold a sliver of pages up to demonstrate that 6%. This is the Spanish they need to learn to be understood and this small fraction is where their efforts should be focused initially. There will be plenty of time to add on conjugation and vocabulary lists in their secondary education. For the time being, they need to be understood and have basic needs met when they are in a Spanish country or encounter a native speaker. They also should be able to enunciate in a proper accent to be easily understood.

One of my teachers had an excellent visual and created a “teachable moment” from this. She grabbed some popsicle sticks in a nearby cup and started building a log cabin style house. While she was building it, she was pointing out how necessary the foundation is before building any kind of house. All houses start with a strong foundation, then the aesthetics and additions are added on to the structure.

Start with a solid foundation in Spanish by speaking and learning the high frequency vocabulary you need to be understood, and then you can build your own future in Spanish whether that be a Spanish teacher, interpreter… or even a walking dictionary.

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NoEvil29027328

by Wendy V. Ash

One of my biggest frustrations is when parents allow an opportunity to teach their child a second language, slip past them. They may feel that it is an overwhelming task in addition to their busy work week. They may set the bar too high and decide if they can not raise a fully bilingual child, they have failed. Others just don’t know where to start or encourage their child to speak it. Let me relate three examples, out of many, that I have encountered in my career.

I met a high school Spanish teacher once at a playground. My daughter was playing with her children, so I encouraged my daughter to speak Spanish with them. She stopped me and said “Oh, they don’t speak Spanish. The last thing I feel like doing when I come home is teach my children how to speak Spanish.” I was stunned. One would wonder how this woman could have her kind of resources and not apply them to her own children. I did not. I knew she had become accustomed to traditional methods of teaching, and she felt overwhelmed to use the same formula at home. The thought of this process exhausted her before even attempting to undertake it.

I had a father, from Ethiopia, who was very concerned that his children were not speaking their native language at home. He said “They hear us, they understand us, but they refuse to speak it. How do I get them to speak it?”. My answer was: “Do they have things they want from you? Well, if they don’t ask for it in your language, they don’t get it.” He looked surprised. Yes, it can be that simple. It’s called bribery, and I’m not above using it. One of the most valuable early phrases my daughter learned was “puedo tener…” which means “Can I have…”. It worked surprisingly well for movies, candy, toys, TV, and any of the other one hundred things they want when they are young. When she got the movie, it was in Spanish. The beauty of it is they continually ask for things, so they must continuously repeat it, and therefore not only retain it, but become more comfortable while speaking it.

This last instance is the most common one. A parent (or are parents) speak Spanish and are bilingual. I’m not quite certain for the reason of this expectation, but they feel that their children will adopt the language seamlessly through exposure. Sometimes, they are not even speaking the language actively at home, but assume that they are being infused passively with the sound waves  from relatives. They are astounded when the child is 10 years old and does not open his mouth and start spouting poetry like Don Quixote. I am here to tell you, from my observations, exposure and input has far less of an effect on the second language equation than we would like to believe. If a child is only listening to the target language being spoken, he is not conditioning the proper muscles to enunciate the language or feels comfortable with its enunciation. If he is just being exposed to the language, he is not engaging in dialogue, which causes him to lack interaction where we learn a language best.

What is the answer for these dilemmas? If I were to provide a few it would be the following:

  • Some is better than none. Don’t overwhelm yourself with needing to teach them every word and them becoming immediately bilingual. Concentrate on common phrases you say around the house daily. I find commands to be a great place to start (such as “come here”, “put this on”, “go there”, etc.)
  • Dangle the carrot. Figure out what your child’s motivators. Use them to encourage your child to speak the target language and have their wants and needs met.
  • Output is outstanding. The more they speak the target language, the more likely they are to retain what they speak and be more comfortable in a social situation speaking Spanish.

Bilingual parents, let’s start applying the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention.” liberally and we can start taking ownership of why our children are not adopting our native tongue.

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