Last week, I read an article on the difficulties that the majority of Spanish high school students are facing in understanding spoken English. According to data taken from the latest European Survey on Language Competences (ESLC), only 12% actually understand simple expressions about everyday topics.
Given such data, a simple question arises: What is wrong with ESL programs in the current educational system in Spain? From my own experience, two main reasons immediately occur to me:
- Firstly, the quantity of English input that a student receives in class is extremely low. On average, the amount of time spent engaging in listening activities is 30 minutes per week.
- Secondly, and as importantly, the quality of the English that students hear is quite poor because: (a) Portable stereo systems have inadequate sound quality and can hardly be heard in the back of classrooms. (b) Exceptions aside, the pronunciation of non-native teachers is sometimes not quite up to standard. This fact, together with not hearing native speakers often enough, makes it hard for students to improve their listening skills.
Consequences of Dubbing
In addition, there are a few extra-academic factors, which definitely have an influence on the listening skills of high school students. One mentioned in the article is the dubbing into Spanish of movies and television shows. This alone represents an additional obstacle to ESL students because, as a result, they are not being exposed to the English language as much as it would be desirable outside of class.
Benefits of digitalization
However, I'm convinced that with the advent of media digitalization, the option to choose between Spanish and English audio tracks on multimedia content is giving students the chance to improve their language competence. It might actually be interesting to research a bit further: Will those students, who regularly watch content in English, do better than the 12% percent of students who understand simple expressions?
Pablo Montoya is both the writer and a speaker of our Spanish 1 course; he is also assisting us in developing our ESL course for Spanish speakers. For a description of our Spanish 1 course, click here
When you’re engaged in speaking a language, you don’t have time to think much about grammar. Conversations just move too fast. There are, however, a few rules that are easy to keep in mind. With time, you’ll apply them automatically.
1. Diminutive nouns with the ending -chen or -lein are neuter:
2. Nouns ending in -heit, -keit, -ung are always feminine
3. “die” is the plural article for all nouns (subject forms)
4. All seasons are masculine:
5. All days are masculine:
6. A group of prepositions contract with “das."
These all imply a “change of place” or “direction to”:
7. A predicate Adjective takes no ending
A predicate adjective follows a noun and is preceded by a form of “sein” (to be).
e.g.: einundzwanzig - twenty-one (21), neununddreißig - thirty-nine (39), etc.
9. The verb forms of formal "you" (Sie) and "they" (sie) are the same.
10. Word Order: In simple sentences, the verb is in second position.
Note: Whatever word/phrase occurs before the verb is emphasized.
A recent blog reviewed some evidence of the question: "Can Playing Language Games Make You Smarter". Anyone scanning the Internet will find a huge number of online language learning programs. In addition, there are lots of apps available for phones and tablets, including iPhones and iPads. Those are all a tremendous resource for language lovers!
Flashcards do work!
Many of the online programs and apps are based on a flashcard model, and teach words and short phrases only. Flashcards exercises are indeed an excellent way to drill and recall vocabulary. They are also perfect for grammar items, such as verb conjugations, adjective endings, noun genders, contractions, etc. In digital form, flashcards can space recall optimally, and often use pictures and combine visual and auditory information. You’re in charge of your learning and you can easily track your progress.
Are Flashcards enough?
However, one may reasonably ask: Can you really learn to speak a language by just memorizing words and word forms? For most of the European languages – and those are the ones we know best – we believe, the answer has to be no!
The reason seems quite obvious: Conversations and narratives are not just a series of isolated words or phrases. In order to create meaning, you have to choose the right words and put them into a particular sequence. Often, it's the sequence that is crucial for the meaning. As a starter, you need to show whether you're making a statement or asking a question. Add to this the need to find the correct gender of the noun (and, depending on the language, also the correct ending), the right tense and verb conjugation, the position of a preposition, etc. - and it becomes clear why speaking a foreign language is not an easy process.
The Language Games Challenge!
The challenge to those of us who are developing online language games or apps is this:
How to create compelling games that can teach much more than a series of words and phrases -- games that build the confidence to communicate?
It's the repeated use and practice of phrases and sentences in a meaningful context, that will ultimately enable you to speak with some fluency. Words and grammar rules are not enough. Conversations are a process of dynamic communication. By the time you have deliberately constructed the perfect sentence, the conversation may have already moved on.
In future blogs, we’ll review some of the available language games, and please, share with us your experiences!
“Input based language learning” - as Steve Kaufmann says in his recent YouTube video - can have a powerful "snowball effect"... "the more you understand, the more you learn."
My Spanish Experience
This has definitely been my experience these past two months of learning Spanish. Before setting off for a month in Barcelona, I armed myself with the basics of the www.gamesforlanguage.com Spanish 1 course:
-A vocabulary of about 700 practical words
-An understanding of how those words behave in the context of communication
-A grasp of how those words sound, alone and in context
I then “snowballed” my input learning: I took in whatever Spanish was spoken in my immediate surroundings; I listened to Spanish radio, watched crime series on TV, bought El País to read at breakfast, and searched the net for online news in Spanish. And, I started reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel “El juego del angel,” on my Kindle, when I got back home to Boston.
I’ve been surprised at how good my understanding of printed Spanish has become in such a short time. I’m also very pleased at my progress in understanding Spanish on radio and TV. Hearing and seeing words or phrases many times really helps improve my understanding of Spanish. I actively guess the meaning of words from the context provided and/or from other words that I've learned.
That’s all great. And, if you want to learn to speak or write - in other words, produce the language - you have to deliberately take that step. Yes, you can wait until you understand lots more vocabulary. But you won't own it until you start producing it. In my opinion, the sooner you start producing (speaking and writing) your new language, the better it is. Our one month stay in Barcelona gave me the opportunity to speak right away, to apply and adapt the phrases and sentences I had learned and practiced before.
Why stop at five (5) Languages?
Before Spanish, I had acquired five languages, all in different ways. My 1st and native language (German) just happened. (We all know how that goes). My 2nd and 3rd languages (Dutch and English) were full immersion experiences, but at different ages (9 and 11).
My 4th language (French), I learned in school and studied at a Canadian university. I was able to read Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, etc. easily in French, but even with years of school and college lessons, I was not able to hold a French conversation. That only came when I had someone to speak with.
I started learning my 5th language (Italian) with an audio-only course, which trained my listening and speaking skills. I had little understanding how the language was written, so I automatically wrote Italian using French spelling. It also took me a long time to learn to read Italian well enough to experience any “snowball effect.”
Learning Spanish Was Different...
My recent experience learning Spanish was a different one from learning my other languages. I used both “input learning" (reading and listening) and “output learning" (speaking and writing) to prepare for our stay in Spain. Reading and listening are not at all passive ways to learn a language. Your mind is actively engaged in decoding sounds and printed letters; you’re constantly guessing, looking for clues, trying things out. Similarly, when you speak and write a language, it’s a learning process. You are not just producing what you know, you’re analyzing, interpreting, you’re trying out - all with the goal of communicating something as clearly as possible.
Three(3) Practical Tips
To learn how to speak in a foreign language, you have to actively make the effort to speak, and you have to speak a lot. Getting yourself into a practicing mode for speaking a language is not hard. Assuming that you are also doing plenty of listening to your new language, here are three (3) practical tips: (Do this every day, if you can.)
- Take a short text and read it aloud, several times.
- Take a couple of new useful phrases or sentences, and say them aloud many times during the day.
- Role play short dialogues, and act out both voices. Ham it up!
If you can find an exchange partner for practicing conversations, all the better.
En route by car from Córdoba to Madrid (both “must see” tourist destinations), we turned off the main highway and followed signs to the town of Almagro (“red clay” in Arabic), where we decided to stay the night.
The Fuggers in Almagro?
After a tourist-heavy day in Córdoba - which was especially congested and noisy because it happened to be Mother’s day - we welcomed the more tranquil stay in Almagro. It’s a small and stately town with an unusual history. We learned, for one, that in 1525 the Fuggers, a German banking family, due to the financial woes of Charles I of Spain, became the beneficiaries of cinnabar mines near Almagro and Almadén. (Cinnabar is a mineral from which mercury is extracted.) The Fugger warehouse in Almagro has now been restored and tells about the rise and fall of the Fugger empire during the 16th and 17th centuries. (Above, the courtyard of the restored Fugger warehouse.)
When in Spain - Speak Spanish
Looking for a place to have dinner, we were happy to stumble upon a small restaurant that was open. At 8:15 pm, we were on the early side. Only one other table was occupied. Two Swiss German couples were chatting away about the events of their day. When the restaurant owner approached them with menus, asking “¿Inglés o español?”, one of the men answered in a voice with a distinct Swiss German accent: “Estamos en España. Español, por favor.” This was a welcome answer. The owner went out of her way to explain to them the various local dishes in Spanish and helped them select a suitable wine from the region.
Similarly, most of our own efforts to speak Spanish have been met with open friendliness. This has been particularly true whenever we went off the beaten tourist path.
Most importantly, though, we found it easy and pleasant to interact with locals - in Spanish, of course: Asking for information about the town; asking for directions to the various sights and landmarks; buying gifts to take back home; looking for a restaurant to have dinner (on a Monday night when many restaurants are closed); chatting with the waiter on the magnificent Plaza Mayor (left), where we were having drinks; and with the owner of our delightful restaurant, who took obvious pleasure in explaining the local dishes to us in detail.
As part of our recent trip through Spain, we tried to combine “must see” tourist destinations (such as Granada and Seville) with smaller towns that are off the beaten track.
On our drive from Seville to Cordóba, we decided to stop at Carmona, a town of about 25,000 inhabitants and the first major town, about 25 miles east of Seville. Our travel guide only had a short entry, but we were glad that we got off the main highway: The town is located on top of a hill overlooking fertile plains and it has an interesting history.
"Europe's Oldest inhabited Town"
As we walked through Carmona’s Puerta de Sevilla, we found a dense cluster of houses and winding streets that led to a plaza in the middle of town. We actually walked to the plaza only later - after we had taken a tour in a brand new electric mini-bus. The tour and bus were the idea of an enterprising young attorney, Alfonso, who had realized that in the current economy, his legal skills could not provide sufficient income for his young family. Alfonso took us and a Canadian couple on a leisurely half-hour drive through the town. As the mini-bus slowly wound through the narrow streets, he gave us a synopsis of the town’s history. He noted that Carmona is one of Europe’s “oldest continuously inhabited towns.” (This tour was, by the way, one of the few times that we listened to a talk in English; our Canadian co-passengers did not understand Spanish.)
Moors, Washington Irving, And Movies...
During their long occupation, the Moors fortified Camona, but also built palaces and fountains. The town was captured in 1247 by Ferdinand III of Castile and served as an important crossing point between Seville and cities to the east. The bell tower of the 15th century church of San Pedro, is often called "little Giralda" as it is a replica of Seville's Giralda.(left)
Apparently, as we later learned from a sign outside the city, Washington Irving had visited Carmona less than two centuries earlier, in 1829. In “The Route of Washington Irving,” (published by the Fundación El legado andalusì), there is a long entry about Carmona, describing it aptly as a town with a “welcoming atmosphere.”
Today, the town is often used as a setting for movie shoots, 26 last year alone. We actually passed a movie set on our tour, but the crew was resting after a 50+ horse scene which had taken place the previous night in the narrow streets. Clearly, the difficult economic climate has also had an impact on Carmona. While we were there, we saw a demonstration of town residents who expressed their anger especially with Spain’s drastic cuts in education. (see picture to the right)
Before we left Carmona, we sat down at a café in the town square to have a “cortado” (espresso with a dash of hot milk); at the next table, a group of local men and women were talking about events in their lives; our waiter was friendly and chatty, and we were happily soaking it all up.
During our stay in Spain we became cognizant of how identical the payment process in restaurants and cafes is in the four (4) regions (of 17) we have visited - Catalonia, Andalusia, Castilla-La Mancha, and Madrid.
Getting your Check
Whether you are making the international sign for your wish to pay across the room or on a terrace - pretending to write with one finger in the palm of your other hand - or whether you say “la cuenta, por favor”: your waiter or waitress will go back to the register and produce a check, which she or he will present to you most likely on a plate, held by a clip.
Getting your Change
Unless you immediately put your euros onto the plate, the waiter will leave again, and return after a (short or long) while. S/he will then take the plate with the payment and return with the change. This is even true, if the waiter has to cross a street from an open air terrace, or if the register is located on another floor.The reasons for this method may range from the taxing authorities’ precise requirements, to a distrust of the waiter’s ability/honesty to handle the payment on his or her own.
Swiss and German Ways
Recent trips to Germany and Switzerland made us aware of the differences: In Switzerland any order of a coffee or a meal in a restaurant is typically accompanied by a small register slip, which is placed in a little glass when the item ordered is brought to the table. When the check is requested, the waiter just adds up the slips - sometimes in his/her head, sometimes on paper - then collects the (cash) payment and returns the change from a pouch he/she is carrying. (Visitors to Europe will also have noticed that any credit card payments are done at your table with a wireless gadget. Your credit card stays in sight!)
In Germany you may encounter the same methods as in Switzerland, or the waiter may just add up your check right at your table, either from memory or by consulting the menu.
(It should be noted that the “Spanish process” - as we may call it - is also typical for cash payments in hotels or finer restaurants in Germany or Switzerland.)
What we are finding interesting here in Spain is the fact that the check/payment process has never varied - whether we were in a little sandwich shop on the road or in a hotel in the city.
In a previous blog, we wrote about meeting several natives of Barcelona. Apart from the pleasure of making new friends and practicing our (Castilian) Spanish, we also got an interesting glimpse into the Catalan/Castilian issue. We were aware of it, but certainly hadn’t appreciated it enough.
Spain vs Catalonia
The struggle of Catalonia with “Spain” dates back to the early 1700s and the war for the Spanish succession. (on the left a re-enactment of a 1870 citizen revolt on the Plaza de la Vila de Gracia) However, Franco's prohibition of the Catalan language during his 40-year dictatorship is still a quite recent memory. (Franco died in 1975.) Our language-exchange contact, an architect whom we’ll call Fabian, explained to us the nature of “bilingualism” in Catalonia. He told us that basically (Castilian) Spanish is taught together with other languages in the first grade. He then clarified, “In the educational Catalan system, the weak language (Catalan) is always used as the language of communication, but subject matters also contain a lot of information in Castilian. It means that pupils are constantly switching between languages and thus, in fact, use both languages simultaneously.” So, when they finish high school, students are indeed mostly bilingual.
The (Language) Struggle continues...
A “Spanish” decision last year to give parents in Catalonia the right to have their children in primary and secondary state schools instructed only in (Castilian) Spanish led to huge protests and is now in a stand-by mode. What amazed us especially were certain statements Fabian made, such as: “When I go to Spain...”, or “The taxes we are paying to Spain...”. Catalan people still don't see themselves as a part of Spain. The current economic crisis has renewed questions about how taxes generated by Catalonia – still Spain's industrial powerhouse – are allocated by Madrid to poorer regions, when Barcelona's youth unemployment stands at 50%.
Rafael Nadal also speaks Catalan
We also learned that in addition to Catalonia and Andorra (where it is the national and only official language), Catalan is also spoken in the Balearic Islands, including Mallorca, i.e. the home of tennis champion Rafael Nadal. Rafa speaks both Castilian Spanish and Catalan, as well as Mallorquí, a dialect of Catalan. (See the Wikipedia entry for more about the Catalan language and other parts of Spain and France where Catalan dialects are still spoken.)
If You Want to Live in Barcelona Permanently...
Barcelona is really an amazing city. The architecture of the city, the cultural and recreational opportunities explain why so many people come to visit – and indeed many are staying. We are truly astonished by the bilingualism of everyone we have met in Barcelona to date. We also realize that while knowing (Castilian) Spanish is important, it is not enough. If you really want to live in this city permanently, you should also learn Catalan!
The first steps in language learning may be the hardest: Getting a good basis in a language, so you can build on it and really enjoy learning more. With “basis” I mean four simple things: 1) mastering a number of essential phrases, expressions, and short sentences that you can use with native speakers; 2) pronouncing these in a way that native speakers can understand you; 3) learning the melody of the language (the up- and-down in sentences, questions, requests, etc.); 4) gaining an understanding of grammar that you need for communication (distinguishing past, present, and future forms, identifying pronouns, and choosing the correct form of politeness).
Learning Castilian Spanish in Barcelona
No doubt, the most desirable and effective way to immerse yourself in a new language is by staying for some time a country where the language is spoken. But not all “immersion” stories are the same. Here’s one of an American ex-pat couple, Rob and Lila, whom we recently met in Barcelona. The couple had moved to Barcelona a few years before and set up an international business that they’ve been running – in English - over the Internet. Lila already knew a few languages and learned Spanish easily by watching TV, etc., but Rob, who now speaks Spanish quite well, had to learn it from the ground up, word by word.
Dogs Can be a Great Asset...
Over a glass of wine, and great-tasting “montaditos” (small, hot sandwiches), Rob told us about his “method” for learning Spanish. “Right from the beginning, my dog was my most valuable asset,” he said with a chuckle. He then told us that he went walking with his cute little pooch every day, morning, late afternoon, and evening - looking for Spanish conversations. Other dog owners were easy to talk to, and of course, their conversations revolved around dogs. They talked about what kind of dog, the dog's character, funny little anecdotes, etc. At first, Rob said, he understood very little, but he'd go home and look up words in a dictionary or find them on the Internet. This way, he explained, he built up a stock of vocabulary, little by little.
Learning “Real” - Not “Textbook” Language...
Another part of his “method,” he said, was to talk with homeless people in parks for a euro or two. “They were happy to pass the time chatting with me,” he added, “and I learned real language, not just textbook phrases.”
The next step for Rob was to have regular conversation sessions with Maia, a local friend, who very patiently corrected his Spanish and explained the why and how of certain phrases. “She was wonderful,” he said. “I would treat her to a cortado (an espresso with a dash of milk) and she would practice small talk in Spanish with me.” For Rob, the hardest but most effective part of these sessions were the “language tasks” Maia prepared for him. She instructed him to go to the market or to various shops to buy specific items; or she asked him to go buy bus or train tickets, make a phone call, etc.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The key to language learning is practice, practice, practice. Obviously, when you are living in a country where the language is spoken, practice comes easier. But even then you may have to develop your own strategies and systems to improve your skills. This is especially true, if you are living in an ex-pat community or working with colleagues in an English-speaking environment. Whether you follow Rick Steves’ suggestions, are using one of the many online language programs, or are learning new foreign words with vocabulary apps, consistent practice will eventually let you build your language “basis.” You’ll then find out what a great adventure it is to travel and interact with locals - in their language.
I recently came across one of Rick Steves' articles “How to meet the locals while traveling in Europe.” As we are currently in Barcelona, Spain, I thought we would try out a couple of his suggestions.
Using Social Media to Connect. We used: Conversationexchange.com
Rick Steves lists a number of links for meeting locals through social media. While none of his links worked out for us, another site, www.coversationexchange.com, which I found by chance, set us up very well. A few days after registering, we were contacted by Fabian, a professor of architecture who teaches at a University in Barcelona. He was as eager to practice his English as we were to practice our Spanish.
We met in the “Ciutat Vella” (Catalan for “Old City”) and he took us on a tour of some special places we had not yet seen. (The picture on the right shows children playing in the Plaça de SANT FELIP NERI, where the bullet holes from Franco era executions are still visible.) The language exchange was great. Beyond that, though, he gave us a fascinating glimpse into the cultural and political struggle between Catalonia and “Spain.” (And yes, Catalonia is a part of Spain!) This ongoing push-and-shove between the two cultures is something we had been aware of, but certainly hadn’t appreciated enough. (We’re planning another blog on just that topic.)
Using Spanish Language Phrases...
Another of Steves' suggestions was also right on: “Play with kids.”; “...make friends with the parents...” At one of our favorite squares, Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia (left), we were sipping our evening aperitifs at an outdoor café, as a young woman and her two-year-old child came to sit down at the next table. It did not take long before we played peek-a-boo with the child and tried out our Spanish with the mother by asking “How old is your daughter?”, “What is her name?”, etc. (all phrases and sentences, by the way, we had remembered or adapted from our Spanish 1 course). We soon were talking away, and when Carmen told us that the brother of her Italian husband works in a restaurant in Falmouth, MA, we could even use another phrase from our course: “¡Qué coincidencia!” In our conversation with her, we gained quite a few insights into Catalan life and society. A couple of days later, Carmen introduced us to her parents as well as to her 94 year old grandmother, who had lived through the Franco years. We may not have understood all of the grandmother's painful and vivid memories. However, without our basic knowledge of Spanish, we would have missed all of it. (The grandmother speaks no English!)
Making Yourself into a Language Extrovert ...
“When you’re traveling in Europe, make yourself and extrovert, even if you’re not.” Following Rick Steves' suggestion, we try to start up a conversation with anyone who will talk to us - and we do it in Spanish. We do our shopping in Spanish, where we often make small talk with the shopkeeper or other people waiting to be served. We order our meals and ask about obscure (to us) items on the menu in Spanish. The other day, we visited Vilanova (a town about 30 minutes away) and at the Information Office, the woman asked us if we wanted her explanations in Castilian, French, or English. We chose Castilian and had no trouble following her. Since Castilian Spanish is the second language for most native Catalonians, they speak it (a little more) slowly and deliberately – a real advantage to learners like us!
We haven’t yet tried Rick Steves' trick that he calls “pal up to a pooch” - but it might be worth finding out, if pooches in Barcelona are bilingual too. The drawback is that pooches don't talk back...
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