by Wendy V. Ash

Bilingual. Fluent. Proficient. Native Speaker.

I’ve heard all of those terms used loosely when defining the level of someone speaking Spanish. I have been all of those labels at some point in my life. One of those I am, and will be, my entire life. What is my description I use whenever I am asked? It is simply “I speak Spanish.”

When I ask others if they speak Spanish, I usually get two replies: “I speak enough to get by” or “I took four years in high school but…”. They also seem overly concerned with the level of Spanish they currently speak. That concern will inhibit you from doing the most important thing you can do: speak Spanish. ALL Spanish speakers are works in progress, just like all English speakers.

I watched my own mother’s labels change over the years. She is a native speaker from Madrid. When she met my father, Spanish was her primary language, and she had learned English in school. Once she moved to the U.S. her fluency increased, due to being totally immersed in the target language. By the time I was in my teens, she had reached what I consider full bilingual and proficiency status as an interpreter for the court system and a written and oral test was presented (where one language is being input into your ears and you are to output the target language at almost an equal rate of speed). However, now that she has retired from that industry, I can see that her bilingualism is affected depending on which country she is currently residing. I believe it is very difficult to maintain a consistent 50/50 level of bilingualism, but that’s a post for another time.

My point is that people tend to assign more value to labels of language proficiency and forget that the basic purpose of language is to be understood. If you can make that happen and believe in it, you’re Golden Delicious.

I often compare my method of teaching to going into a store and buying an apple. One of the very first verbs I teach is “quiero“. This, means “I want” or “I love” (depending on its context), and is a very important verb in Spanish. Imagine entering a store. You see a grocer and point to an apple and say “Quiero”. You will most likely be able to obtain the apple with one word and one gesture. If you say nothing, you will be getting nothing.

Now imagine the bin to which you point has apples and oranges. You then point and say “Quiero una manzana.” (“I want an apple”). Finally, there is a bin which contains red apples, green apples, and oranges. In which case you will point and say “Quiero una manzana roja.” (“I want a red apple”).

This is an analogy of the layers I try to teach. For the limited time I have in class, and the children that come and go, I concentrate on the high frequency vocabulary that they need in their toolbox. I don’t have any expectations that my children will be bilingual upon leaving my class, but they will be able to ask for food (albeit fruit) and water, which is essential in ANY language. Should they choose to continue their language journey in their elementary and secondary schools, they will have the added benefit of native pronunciation to help them BE understood and more comfortable to verbalize Spanish.

When the beauty of this happens, they will have the ability to go beyond asking for an apple. They will be able to discuss the nuances of flavor between a Gala and a Fuji with the grocer… and then read the recipe book to bake the pie.

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