Thursday, June 12, 2008

Practicing Between Classes

How do I practice between classes for myself or with my kids?
Thanks to a great question from Cyndy, mother to three of my students.

Working Spanish phrases into your daily routine as you learn new expressions is a great way to practice in context. Learn to set the table in Spanish in class--and then go home and do it every night for a week. Owe someone a thank-you note? Write it in Spanish (and then translate it if need be!) Be creative... try, try, and try again even if the words don't come easily on your first attempt.

Practicing language is like practicing a musical instrument. In high school I played the harp. I practiced once a week, Fridays after school, so I wouldn't make a fool of myself during my Saturday morning lesson. Needless to say, my teacher could tell. She didn't like me (I could tell). Once I went to a competition. I stayed up all night Friday night so that I could learn the piece well--and I got a blue ribbon. My teacher was not happy because she knew how I operated.

As you already might have guessed, I'm not a harpist anymore. Practicing a little bit every day works better than cramming all at once. I suggest that you find five minutes a day to do something in Spanish. The Lord's Prayer. The alphabet. A song. A favorite Psalm. A short reading from the newspaper. A Spanish radio station in the car. Ordering a sandwich at a favorite restaurant. You will work Spanish into your routine if you make yourself be creative about finding little niches of time. Tape a list of vocabulary by the bathroom sink. This study aid will not make your bathroom look "messy" but rather, your visitors will be impressed by your self-discipline.

Do you have a pen pal over the internet who knows Spanish? I have found several through web forums I'm on. If you have a career or a hobby, find someone in Latin America or Spain who shares that same profession or interest, and "talk shop" in Spanish or bilingually, for additional practice. You'll build great sets of vocabulary that way--and learn about something you already like. That is a very motivating way to learn the language you need about a subject that is familiar to you.

Read in Spanish. Get a copy of a free local Hispanic newspaper. Read the Bible in Spanish, or read a bilingual version with two parallel columns. Read something that is already familiar to you--favorite Scriptures, a novel you know well that has been translated, etc.

When you eat out, if you have a server who is Hispanic, try speaking Spanish. Will you offend? Probably not--especially if you are kind, and humble, and explain that you are new to learning Spanish, and want to practice, and hope they will be patient with you. Otherwise, they might wonder if you think that they speak bad English--so be sensitive and polite, and then jump right in and get a free lesson on greetings, foods, and social conversation--while enjoying a good meal.

I have previewed lots of tapes and CDs for learning Spanish. My favorite so far is by Ana Lomba and Marcela Summerville. It's called _Play and Learn Spanish_ and it's a book and CD that go through the daily routine of getting up, dressed, meals, playtime. Lomba is a Spanish-for-preschool teacher and small business owner in Princeton NJ. She is from Spain. Marcela Summerville is from Argentina. Their CD gives a good set of very "international" Spanish vocabulary, because of their diverse backgrounds. And as they act out the scenes and songs, the regional accents are apparent. I got a copy at Barnes and Noble for about $15 and I have recommended it to many students. It's fun to listen to. We listen to it obsessively in the car, and my five-year-old, just yesterday, was hurrying to get dressed to leave and singing in Spanish to herself "apurate, apurate" (hurry, hurry)--and why won't my accent mark work today? There is supposed to be an accent over the "u" there.

Why a children's CD--even for adults? Because I believe there is something inherently child-like about a language learner. I sometimes felt like a little girl when I lived overseas during college. I was often lost, or left out of conversations. I had to ask questions. I didn't always know what to say. Sometimes people treated me like a child and made decisions for me, or against my will. That was humiliating and difficult. Some talked down to me, as if I might not be able to understand. Others treated me with respect and dignity while speaking clearly so I could learn--and that meant a lot to me.

I believe there is something to be said for the way God created us as language learners. We learn as babies, starting with a listening period, then making and practicing sounds while we learn to understand meaning, and then reproducing those sounds into meaningful speech. A second-language experience at any age can be similar. It's a glorious moment for a person to open his or her mouth, after a long period of listening, and find that he or she is bilingual and understood in the newly acquired language. Fluency is something takes time, and is never defined. Am I there yet? we may ask ourselves. This is a question for another post. We're getting there.

Flashcards are good for improving your grammar. Make your own. I edited a set of flashcards for SparkNotes. I enjoyed the job, but never bought myself a copy when they were published, because they wanted ten bucks, and because I know that we learn more when we do things for ourselves. I did cash their check, though, and spent it on my family. :)

One of my star students, very self-motivated, made herself a textbook. It started with one list. She opened a computer file in her word processing program, and now between classes she makes lists of words and grammar as she learns them. She adds to her notes as we learn together, and week by week she goes home and returns to the computer file to make changes and notes that make sense to her. She has lists which are organized and grouped by the way HER brain works. Her memory for new words is astounding. She writes them down, and the next week she doesn't have to look them up in her notebook because she learns by organizing herself. It has taken discipline and effort for her to make time in an otherwise very busy professional life to learn a second language. After a couple years, with her hard work, she is able to converse freely in Spanish. I'm honored to have her as a student.

Not everyone learns in the same way. I would say, be brave, be creative, and find ways to practice that work for your personality and your lifestyle. And your brain--because each person is unique. When you find a system that works for you, pass it on so I can share your idea with other students. Or write a book about how you learned, so we can help teach others a second language. :)

Many of my students write and turn in little essays. I correct grammar and ask questions. That's a good way to learn new words and I love getting to know my students through their writing. So write to me about something that YOU love, whether it be a pet, a person, a field of study, a favorite recipe, a trip you're planning, a theological idea, a favorite sport--I learn with my students, always, and I'll be glad to have you teach me about what you care about.

Feliz Dia del Padre (Happy Father's Day). There's an accent over the "i" in Dia and I'm very embarrassed about the accent marks today. I have my work cut out for me today, and I will be having a conversation with my "computadora" about this issue. We had it all worked out an e-mail or two ago... but I am calmly telling myself that, compared with my dear laptop, I am bigger and I am human, so I think I can negotiate to get the accents to come out like they're supposed to. We'll keep you posted.

Hasta pronto, (until soon),

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