When Spanish learners reach the intermediate level, let’s say B1 or B2, their progress often begins to slow and it may even come to a gradual halt. This phenomenon has a relatively straight forward explanation: when students begin their study of the language, they learn something “new” every day, particularly in terms of grammar and morphology, which makes them feel like they’re learning a ton of stuff. Once these students finish B1, their morphological-grammatical tool bags are pretty full, and they can begin to understand and make themselves understood with relative ease. They start losing that feeling of fast learning they experienced when they were constantly bombarded with new structures, tenses, vocabulary, etc.
So how do we convince students that the intermediate level is one of the most exciting phases in language learning? How do we show them that once they’ve pretty much mastered the instruments of communication, all that’s left for them to do is to learn how to play with the language, how to get over their fear of creativity, and how to enrich their speech to acquire their own voice in Spanish, one that goes far beyond simply repeating what the teacher says in the classroom? It’s the same learning path young musicians follow when, after disciplined repetition of musical pieces penned by others, they begin to explore the fascinating world of inspired self-expression by adding their own personal twists and flourishes. That’s what we should strive to achieve with our Spanish language students: that they become independent communicators capable of enjoying speaking, writing, and listening in Spanish.
One element that always produces that feeling of being a bit lost with the language is idioms and expressions, and I say that not only as a teacher but also as a student of other languages… Expressions are especially tricky, as they often contain some archaic parlance. Also, the logical consequence of verbal transmission many times shortens them to include only the important part of a longer proverb, usually its conclusion, as both speaker and listener are deeply installed in the collective memory of their community, rendering repetition of the entire saying as wholly unnecessary.
Consider the following example: Imagine a young woman who’s talking with her grandmother about looking for a different job in the hopes of taking on new challenges in her career, getting out of the same old routine… all this sounds pretty normal, many ambitious young professionals share this type of restlessness. Grandma’s mental map however is etched with the notion of honoring job stability, the type that frequently anchors an employee to one position until retirement… (a friend of mine referred to it as the “the classified worker mentality” when he explained the unbelieving shock experienced by his family when he told them he wouldn’t be taking a job offer as a public high school teacher because he wanted to pursue a career in the crazy world of Spanish as a foreign language teaching…). This nice granny, convinced that her granddaughter is making the mistake of her life, says “Mira, niña, más vale pájaro en mano…” and she ends it at that, leaving the rest of the proverb to float in interstellar space, like an enigma lost in the darkest realms of the universe. Spanish speakers will of course know what should come next “…que ciento volando”, but it may not be so obvious to Spanish learners. This is what produces intercultural confusion among our students, it’s when we urgently have to step in to resolve the syndrome known as What am I studying here? I don’t understand anything!
And to wrap up this topic until next week, imagine the following situation: the granddaughter has invited a foreign guy for dinner, who removes his shoes before making his way in socks into the family dining room. The granddaughter, who’s more tolerant and used to these types of cultural differences, doesn’t say a word. Mom doesn’t say anything either, in consideration for her daughter… but grandma, with that magical ability that all grandmas, drunks, and children seem to posses, which allows them to say exactly what they feel like saying in any given situation, looks straight at the guy and she hits him with “A donde fueres… y ya sabes quí quiero decir, bonito”.
I can just picture the poor guy standing there absolutely bewildered.
Next week we’ll take a look at ways to help our students integrate a little better and to know how to defend themselves in the turbulent waters of the Spanish idiom.
by Lauris on Thursday, July 24, 2014
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