Friday, May 1, 2009

Spanish Learning Chapter Seven

learn to speak spanishYes, there are conversation classes (sometimes) offered in this sequence of courses. They are supposed to be the "speaking" component of what is called, The Total Immersion Experience. But there are grave problems with even these conversation classes that we will cover later.

"There is some confusion as to what a "total immersion" program actually is. Most programs touted as Total Immersion are grammar-translation courses taught in concentrated periods of time. True Total Immersion used in second-language learning, refers to massive amounts of input with meaning, similarly to the way we are exposed to and learn our first (native) language".- Harris Winitz, Ph.D. Language Development, K.C., Mo.

So, if these classes, taught all over America in all of its colleges, do not teach you how to speak Spanish then what do they do? That is a good question. But let me say this first. Just what more boring experience can you imagine than this process of carting books to a class where a lot of rote memorization is to take place with a bunch of other students who lack the same enthusiasm as yourself. How dreadful-The Motivation Killer Factor.

These traditionally-taught classes are designed to make you a good "exegete" of the language but not a speaker of it. This means that this method, textbooks, workbooks, memorizing vocabulary words and grammar rules will equip you to be a good interpreter of written text in the target language. If you get through the dreadfully boring process of Spanish levels I-IV and do well, you will have developed some good skills for translating written text. That is about it.

I cannot begin to tell you the number of people with whom I have spoken who have gone through the traditional approach of learning Spanish and about all they can say is,

"Hi, how are you? Where's the bathroom? Can I have a cheese sandwich?"

And they've taken fours years of Spanish. What does one make of this?

A few years ago, I got it into my head that I wanted to learn the language in which the New Testament was written. This is called Koine Greek. It is no longer spoken. The approach to learning it is just like learning Classical Greek or Latin. You get a textbook, workbook, and a course syllabus. You have to memorize a lot of vocabulary words and grammar rules. Does this ring a bell? This is how so-called dead languages are learned. (Dead-Only in the sense that they are no longer spoken. These languages are very much alive in the written texts in which they are preserved for all to read.) If you've ever studied Latin, then you know what I am talking about. All you are able to do, utilizing this methodology, is learn how to translate and interpret written texts of material.

Traditionally taught Spanish courses do not equip you in developing a high degree of spoken fluency. You will learn to translate written text but that is about it.

Are you not pouring money down the drain, so to speak, if your goal is to learn how to speak the language?

I can just hear the conversation going on in your head. I can also hear the screeching coming out of the mouths of all those who have been teaching Spanish this way throughout their careers. Traditions are a hard thing to break. Why they teach a live and fluid language the way they teach a dead language totally escapes me.

Let's resort to a bit of critical thinking in case you are still having trouble with this concept that the language learning method used practically all over the globe doesn't work to teach you a high degree of spoken fluency.

Once I was trying to convince a friend of mine of the truth of this concept-traditional language methods used in practically every U.S. school are useless for teaching spoken fluency. To demonstrate this, I asked his 6-year-old daughter to help me with a demonstration.

I asked her to walk from the living room and into the kitchen. Then I asked her to walk back through the door and into the living room. I then asked her to describe what I asked her to do. She told me, with 100% accuracy, what I had told her to do and what she performed using all the correct prepositions (from, through, into). Then I asked her,

"Abby, can you tell me what a preposition is?"

She could not. She had not yet learned this term and would not for some time in her formal education.

Now, how do you suppose Abby knew not only what the prepositions meant but also to accurately repeat back to me what I told her to do using those same prepositions?

Did her mother and father send her to a formal English class with a textbook, workbook, some CD's or cassettes? Did she get a course syllabus where she read what was required of her and on what material she would be tested?

Think about this very seriously for a moment. If you have children, just think what degree of spoken fluency your child had when you first packed him off to first grade. Think of all he could understand and say before he ever started his formal education. When your child was 6 years old, he or she had already achieved a high degree of spoken fluency and you didn't have to enroll him in a "Total Immersion" course in order for him to achieve fluency. He could understand and use prepositions and other parts of speech long before he ever learned what a "part of speech" even was.

Long before learning what the names of the parts of speech were, he learned to ride the horse. He achieved spoken fluency. Then, once a high degree of spoken fluency was achieved, he hooked that horse up to the cart. He learned formal grammar.

This is why traditionally-taught foreign language courses do not work to give you a high degree of spoken fluency. It is because they put the cart (traditionally-taught grammar) before the horse (high degree of spoken fluency in the target language). The horse pulls the cart. The cart is inert and lifeless alone. It cannot move without the horse.

Does this not make sense? Is this an epiphany? I remember when this light bulb came on in my head. I recall how mad I got at how much time and effort I wasted in my days at the university trying to learn Spanish. I passed the courses. I could translate written text but could not speak Spanish.

Where I live in Mexico, there are scores of so-called Total Immersion Spanish schools. These are built on the same traditional methods. The real kicker is that are all taught in Spanish. If you cannot speak one word of Spanish and come here expecting the miracle of something called Total Immersion instruction to magically work, you will be sadly mistaken.

Can you imagine the horror?

This is another common "myth" about learning a second language. For those who finally figure out that the traditionally-taught language courses are not working, they are told they must engage in something called Total Immersion in the country where the target language is spoken.

Ok, back to critical thinking. If traditionally-taught second language instruction is, by design, unable to teach you a high degree of spoken fluency through its boring process, just imagine going through the process when the instruction is given entirely in Spanish. I haven't the slightest notion how this idea came into being. Haven't you heard this pitch?

"You can't learn Spanish here in the States. You've got to go to Mexico to get into Total Immersion."

This notion, I am convinced, was born as the result of someone figuring out that teaching foreign languages in America using the traditional method wasn't working. Someone saw that the process designed to teach you how to be a good interpreter of written text in the target language wasn't working to give you spoken fluency. So, they concluded you would have to travel to the country of the target language and spend a fortune to do so. Then the magic of a so-called Total Immersion program, based in another country, would transform you into a native speaker.

If the process wasn't working in the States, then what made someone think that it would magically work in the target language's county? Especially when the course is taught all in Spanish. It is a small wonder why less than 9% of Americans are fluent in any foreign language.

Let me make the point that coming to a Spanish-speaking country can be a very smart thing to do once you've developed a high degree of spoken fluency.

To start with the cart (formal grammatical instruction-the cart) cannot do a thing for you without the horse (spoken fluency) to pull the cart. Remember, as children we learned first how to climb on the horse long before we ever learned there was a cart to pull. Don't forget the Mexican nationals in the resort towns who managed to learn how to climb on the horse without the benefit of a cart.

This is so essential to understand. To learn Spanish, you have to use the same natural, fluid method you used to learn your native language. You have to use the same method to learn Spanish that you used to learn your native tongue. Never lose sight of this fact. Bilingual Mexicans, too poor to afford English lessons, do this all the time to learn English. More than half of all of Europeans learn this way and most are fluent in multiple languages.

Listen up, America. Learn to use the correct, natural method and you too can become bilingual. You do not have to attend formal classes or spend a fortune to study in another country. It is possible, right now, to begin acquiring a high degree of spoken fluency in Spanish.

First, it is the horse you must seek. Then, later comes the cart.


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