Saturday, May 22, 2010

Study Spanish This Summer

The school year is drawing to a close for everyone in K-college. If you've been studying Spanish and want to make progress over the summer, instead of letting everything you've (probably almost) learned wash away with the summer fun, this blog posting will give you some ideas.

My suggestions are organized according to two main rubrics: age group and language proficiency level. I do not take into direct consideration the students who are unmotivated and yet are forced by their parents or other circumstances to get a tutor or work on their Spanish in some other way. 

However, to address that common situation parents face, particularly with teens, the most positive advice I can give to parents who are thinking of how to encourage a child of any age to improve their Spanish is to find a program that involves some other activity that your child likes a lot but which is conducted in Spanish. In other words, create the motivation to communicate rather than push directly on the need to learn the language, or worse, to improve a grade.

As for the motivated, let's start with youngsters, K-6. Regardless of where they are with their study of a second language, this is the age group that most benefits from an unstructured immersion environment. Throw them all together with adult native speakers of both languages (not necessarily bilingual themselves) and their young brains will soak up quite a bit. 

Depending on your community, you are likely nowadays to find day camps, church groups and even community centers where there are sufficient Spanish-speaking children to encourage bilingual day camps -- for the benefit of the English- and Spanish-speaking children.

Things get trickier in every way at adolescence. But let's still assume that the young person is motivated. Something about Spanish is fun. Find out what that "fun" was. Then create a way to continue that "fun" through the summer. However, in order to be pedagogically effective, there has to be increasingly more purposeful and deliberate analysis of the language as they get older. This means that an experienced teacher needs to be found to give some direction to the study of the language. It is easy, too easy in fact, to push vocabulary, so be sure that they are forced to use the vocabulary. With Spanish, as with most languages, this means learning verbs and how to use them. This ought not to be dry. Games can be played to make even conjugation fun, but don't stop there! They need to then have activities that "force" them to use the vocabulary in meaningful and communicative ways with each other. Language is about community. No one would or could learn any language if they grew up alone in a cave. 

College students and adults face advantages and disadvantages. Their greatest advantage, if they will harness it, is that they can analyze structures and discern patterns, use models and so forth. Their greatest disadvantage is that they no longer can soak up a language's grammar just by being exposed to it in natural speech for a few hours a day. But consider these two facts: While it takes us all about seven years to learn our first language in this unstructured way, the adult, capable of deliberate, organized and sustained effort, can learn a second language well enough to be socially functional in a couple of years, depending on the language and the effort.

For example, the closer two languages are to each other, the easier the other is to learn. For an English speaker to learn Chinese is much harder than for him or her to learn French, Spanish, German or Norwegian. Much, much harder. Even though Chinese grammar is not difficult (it's much more skeletal than English), it is painfully difficult to learn to pronounce (because of the tonal system) and read (because of the thousands of characters).

Suggestions for college students over the summer: instead of thinking of earning credits, how about spend some "unstructured" time abroad? That doesn't mean not studying grammar, it means taking charge of your language study. Take good books that focus on what you need to master. My three books (soon four) about the subjunctive, past tenses and pronouns are excellent and inexpensive tools to take, along with a paperback bilingual dictionary. Avoid English speakers when you go abroad to study. Remember: immersion is 90% psychological and only 10% geographical!

¡Buen viaje!

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