Tuesday, June 2, 2009

One bite at a time

I'm teaching a crash course---one year of Spanish in two weeks for a homeschool student. I encouraged him to study a few minutes at a time, several times per day. "Just ten minutes!" I said. "In your car, before you go into work. Then review a vocab list as you eat lunch." Learning language in small bursts works better than trying to do marathon study sessions when you're already tired. Many times, students think it takes a four hour chunk to get any work done.

When I was writing my dissertation, which ended up being 300 pages long, a friend told me two things that helped me get a handle on the project. She said: "eat the elephant one bite at a time;" and she also said something about "mommy sized chunks." These two mantras got me through a difficult application process for an organization that I wanted to serve; and they got me through a doctoral dissertation that seemed like a monumental task. Marla Cilley, the author of the book Sink Reflections, encourages people with messy houses in a similar way: "baby steps". Whatever your slogan, it helps to be reminded that learning language happens one word at a time.

I have noticed I absorb more when I digest small chunks of information. Try learning 20 new words by reading through the list several times a day for 3 days. Cramming is torture, but creating routines helps us feel organized and in control. The progress is measurable and steady.

I encourage students to consider their day and find a few wasted moments where they can practice language. A list of phrases, a verb conjugation, or a short reading assignment wrapped around your cell phone in your pocket can make learning Spanish a priority in your life. You'll never feel bored if you take advantage of those windows of free time. Don't grind your teeth while waiting in line. Smile and study! You'll be amazed how much you can get done.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


When studying something new, variety in approaches to learning can keep our minds engaged for longer periods of time.

When children approach Spanish for the first time, they quickly become bored by bookwork. Memorizing vocabulary lists is tedious work. And learning English and Spanish equivalents requires processing all new language input through the mind's translator: not a very efficient way to "live" in another language.

Playtime in the target language allows children to absorb new expressions while doing something they love. I recall as a child feeling delighted when my mom or grandma made time to play tea party with me, or when my dad sat down on the floor to build towers out of blocks. As busy parents, it is a challenge to find time to stop and play.

As we play, as "language instructor" I create an atmosphere of linguistic immersion by describing what is happening in the play kitchen, or narrate what the fire engines are doing, or describe the problems that the baby doll is experiencing, or why it's important to be careful with the toy iron and ironing board. All in Spanish--and yet to the child it makes sense because of sound effects and the "prop". Often a child will begin to ask for vocabulary in order to be able to respond. Before long, we're having a conversation that can expand and grow into real world communication.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Intercultural Project

Ivy Tech Community College requires students in Spanish 101 on-line to conduct an intercultural project. They're encouraged to get out of their comfort zone, and to immerse themselves in Hispanic culture through visiting in someone's home, attending a cultural event or religious service, or interacting through a social networking site.

My students attended a birthday party, a quinceañera, a Cinco de Mayo fiesta, a Latino community cultural event, and a family reunion. Their reports include meaningful observations and a sense of accomplishment, as, after just 8 weeks of on-line Spanish, they've taken the step to immerse themselves in the culture and to use their Spanish language skills in the real world! Students who did some research ahead of time had the best experience, and their papers reflect their interest and their investment of time and energy. This was an excellent project! While some students reported feeling apprehensive at first, they became more comfortable as they stayed and made friends. Several commented that they never would have attended an event like the one they did, but that now that they'd broken the ice, they would be back for sure!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Out of the Mouths of Babes

I love teaching language to children. "Teaching" might not be the right word. Perhaps it is more accurate to say I love surrounding children with language. Their brains absorb the substance in which they're absorbed...or something like that.

Some children react to a new language by listening. They stop. Their eyes become wide--and they seem to be full of wonder. Some children cooperate in silent recognition that the new language serves the same purpose as their first language. They just "get it" that communication is happening, and they often answer questions correctly, but in their mother tongue. Other children rebel. "No!" they holler as they hide under the table. (Seems like that reaction is most common among children whose language teacher is related by blood--and who is switching out languages on them on the sly, without precedent.) A few children will mimic--parroting back sounds and words, often to the delight of their parents, who are footing the bill for the lessons.

I have enjoyed reading about Ana Lomba's language classes in Princeton, New Jersey, and recommending her CD and book _Play and Learn Spanish_, available at a bookstore, library, or www.analomba.com.

I teach all ages--and have had students in their eighties and others under a year old. I love working with self-motivated students, who are learning for a purpose. When learners are pre-school age, their purpose is not well-defined, but they are driven by sheer curiosity to explore, to test, to try, and to expand their horizons, linguistic and otherwise. If you're a parent, consider starting your child on languages from the start. Google "bilingual baby" to get some ideas. You don't have to be fluent to be part of the child's linguistically diverse environment. Have fun!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Ordres nuevos: New Wineskins!

Hace unas semanas, tuve la oportunidad de dar una clase en una universidad cristiana. Me puse a pensar en la Biblia como un texto, con elementos de la gramática, que puedo usar para practicar la gramática con mis clases.

El proceso mental fue, como la mayoría de mis peregrinaciones cerebrales, una serie de conexiones extrañas. Primero, durante mis devociones un lunes por la madrugada, me topé con la alusión a "ordres nuevos" (new wineskins) en el evangelio de Mateo (9:17):

Me acordé de una serie de libros publicados por Castalia, una casa editorial española, que se llama: Ordres nuevos : classicos medievales en castellano actual

Por primera vez, entendí el nombre de esa serie de libros. Entonces me di cuenta de que habrá muchos conceptos, alusiones, y vocabulario que procede de las Escrituras, un texto fundamental para la humanidad y para la cultura de oeste, que podría servirme y que sería muy útil para los estudiantes, también.

Al comenzar a pensar en la Biblia con los ojos abiertos para encontrar ciertas formas gramaticales que estamos estudiando en mis clases, noté varias tendencias. Vi que los Salmos contienen una riqueza de mandatos informales. Nos acercamos a Dios de una forma "informal", de tú a Tú, porque Él nos invita a formar parte de su familia. Los evangelios por supuesto tienen ejemplos del imperfecto y el pretérito en contexto, en las parábolas de Jesús y en las historias de sus milagros. Son narraciones breves y sencillas. El imperfecto nos presenta la escena y describe a los personajes, mientras la acción se presenta en el pretérito.

Aquí adjunto un ejemplo de una actividad, con el Salmo 23, unos versículos muy conocidos, para practicar el futuro.

¡Practiquemos! Completa los pasajes de la Biblia de una forma lógica. Agrega la conjugación correcta del verbo entre paréntesis, usando el futuro. Las citas bíblicas son de la versión Reina Valera (1995).

Salmos 23: Jehová es mi pastor

Jehová es mi pastor, nada me _______________ (faltar).
En lugares de delicados pastos me ____________ (hacer) descansar; junto a aguas de reposo me ____________(pastorear). _____________(Confortar) mi alma.
________________(Guiarme) por sendas de justicia por amor de su nombre.
Aunque ande en valle de sombra de muerte, no _______________(temer / yo) mal alguno, porque tú ______________(estar) conmigo; tu vara y tu cayado me ____________(infundir) aliento.
Aderezas mesa delante de mí en presencia de mis angustiadores; unges mi cabeza con aceite; mi copa está rebosando.
Ciertamente, el bien y la misericordia me _____________(seguir) todos los días de mi vida, y en la casa de Jehová ____________(morar) por largos días.

Y los estudiantes pueden chequear sus respuestas:
Bible Gateway nos ofrece una variedad de versiones de la Biblia, desde la Reina Valera 1960 (que +/- equivale al King James) a verciones sencillas.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Programming the Keyboard

Technology is no excuse for bad grammar. There's a FaceBook group out there with a name something like, "I Judge You Based on Your Grammar" or something like that. I appreciate the reminder that good impressions are earned.

Writing in Spanish on an English-based computer is no excuse to leave off accent marks. It's easy to update your computer to allow other languages' keyboard settings. Go to Control Panel, then Regional and Language Settings. You can add other keyboards here.

I always update Microsoft Word so that my favorite keystrokes create the right "symbols" for spelling words in the languages I use. For Spanish, I go into Word and re-set the shortcut keys in Insert : Symbol : Shortcut Key. When I sit down in a computer lab, I automatically set these shortcuts so that typing in Spanish will be easy. It takes less than 2 minutes to do, and the payoff is having good spelling.

My husband bought me a new HP for my birthday. It's tricky to figure out how to update these settings on a new operating system, but it's an investment in being able to put accents and tildes where they belong in the months and years of e-mails and blog entries to come. I'll let you know how I managed to get everything set up after I finish figuring it all out.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Redefining "Normal": Making Room for Cultural and Idiomatic Assumptions

I received a very pleasant note from a student in my on-line Spanish class who is enjoying doing each and every available grammar exercise in En Linea, the Quia textbook published by Vista that we are using in class. I'm delighted to see a student taking advantage of the opportunity to learn another language, and I said so to the student and the group:

I appreciate your good attitude. Yes, learning another language is a lot of work. I have been surprised when hired for individual Spanish tutorials to find adults who actually believe that after one 60-minute lesson they ought to be able to understand the Spanish spoken on TV. The work of learning another language is a time-consuming venture, and one that will reap many rewards throughout life. The investment of time you put in now will yield over years, but building a good foundation requires spending the hours studying, practicing, reviewing, and honing your skills. I commend you for taking advantage of all that En Linea offers you. You're getting your money's worth out of this course.

The same student had noticed the use of the article in sentences that in English might not require the use of the word "the" and I was pleased by the careful observation that comes from spending time immersed in a new language. I responded thus to the wonderful question:

Spanish uses the article to generalize, whereas English does not, so that the book entitled _War and Peace_ by Tolstoy is called _La guerra y la paz_ in Spanish. Note also that while we capitalize nearly all words in a title, in Spanish, only the first letter of the title, along with proper nouns, are capitalized. Thus, we see that one language does not fit conveniently or exactly over another language, with perfect equivalents, and you will be learning a new series of cultural practices, norms, and rules along with the vocabulary lists you've been memorizing.

The student went on to make some very careful questions relating to observations on the difference between use of the definite and indefinite articles--grammatical questions on usage that arise after spending time immersed in practice expressing himself in the target language.

If you have the time to learn a language, take advantage of the opportunity. You'll never miss the soap operas or sit-coms that you didn't watch while you were puzzling over a new grammar concept. Your brain's neurons will thank you for the workout. If you have the motivation, make the time by finding small windows. Five minutes a day is worth more than three hours of cramming before an exam. I suggested to a busy working mother of three who is in my intermediate Spanish class that she keep her textbook in her car, so that before she enters work where the demands of being a manager overwhelm her, she can spend just 5 minutes reviewing the week's lesson so that her brain can digest the new information a bit at a time.

Making room for the cultural norms that go hand-in-hand with linguistic acquisition also requires time. The idea of savoring conversation along with a meal that is shared with family and friends, rather than devouring fast food while driving and listening to the radio, is an example of a cultural custom that may seem valuable but unattainable, until we open our lives to another way of seeing "the right way to do things."

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Esta semana comienza el nuevo semestre y, para muchas universidades incluso las mías, ha habido cancelaciones de clases debido al frío y a la nieve. Cuando el lunes pasé el día en la cama, sufriendo de una gripe terrible, se me ocurrió la posibilidad de que iba a tener que cancelar el primer día de mi clase. El martes, de todos modos, me desperté mejor...me di cuenta de que quizás el cuerpo no iba a funcionar al cien por cien, pero por lo menos pude conocer al nuevo grupo de estudiantes por la tarde.

La clase de español 200 comienza en el capítulo 10 del libro _Arriba_ y la gran ironía es que el capítulo se trata de la salud, el bienestar, las enfermedades, y los médicos. En la clase, dos estudiantes han estado enfermos durante la última semana, así que tenemos amplios ejemplos para los ejercicios en clase. Esta semana nos hace risa pensar que el acto de estornudar o toser forma parte de la "realia" de nuestro aprendizaje.

Me acuerdo de una clase que di hace varios años en que se usó la primera edición de un libro de texto recién publicado. El primer capítulo de aquel libro tocaba los temas de la superstición, las brujas, y los fantasmas. El texto nos causó problemas a los profesores, si digo la verdad. Fue muy difícil conocernos entre toda la clase con preguntas así como: "¿qué piensas de la brujería?" y "crees en la astrología?" Preguntarle en español a un desconocido, "¿has visto un fantasma alguna vez?" realmente no hizo que los estudiantes se sintieran muy cómodos en la primera semana de clase. Lo peor fue que durante esa misma semana, una estudiante de la clase perdió a su hermana en circunstancias no muy claras, y no se encontró el cuerpo de su hermana por varios días. Ella tuvo que viajar a otro estado para limpiar el apartamento de su hermana y luego regresar a recuperar las tareas de la primera semana de clases. En una situación tan trágica, la última complicación que esta chica esperaba fue enfrentarse con un libro de texto que hablaba de situaciones paranormales y del más allá como algo temeroso. Por razones obvias, la casa editorial sacó una nueva edición muy pronto, y habían cambiado el tema del primer capítulo. Pero no llegó a tiempo de evitar la situación difícil para aquella estudiante.

A veces nos enfrentamos con dificultades inesperadas. Ese año, me vi obligada a usar la fotocopiadora durante las primeras semanas para buscar otras lecturas que no serían tan extrañas y ofensivas para mi clase, ni para mis propias sensibilidades. La verdad es que, aunque sea a veces un atributo que se atribuye a la cultura hispana como algo normal y corriente, la superstición no es algo que veo como un aspecto positivo del pensamiento.

Los creyentes tenemos una relación con el Creador del universo, y no hay por qué temer las extrañezas que ocurren al azar porque sabemos que todo lo que ocurre forma parte del gran plan que tiene Dios. No tenemos todas las respuestas, pero nuestro Padre tiene la perspectiva eterna que realmente importa, y es El que nos guía en todo momento. El más allá no es algo miedoso, sino que lo que nos espera a los hijos de Dios es una vida eterna con nuestra familia en Cristo--una vida tan hermosa que las descripciones en nuestras expresiones humanas no sirven para entenderla.

Espero que los primeros días de clase no traigan muchas sorpresas. Desde el primer momento de este semestre hasta que se entregue la última página del examen final, que confiémos en El en cada momento para que nuestros estudios sean para Su gloria y nuestro bien.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Happy Epiphany!

In Hispanic cultures around the world, children leave their shoes out with some hay, and receive their gifts from the Reyes Magos on this twelfth night, which reflects back upon the wise and wealthy visitors who brought rich gifts to baby Jesus and recognized His royalty. So put your shoes by the door, and see what surprises await you!

May the light of this night, and the special baby born to be the King of Kings, rule in your heart and bring you peace. I pray that 2009 will be a year of growing faith, and may all our individual and collective endeavors, be they linguistic, nutritional, spiritual, familial, literary, financial, musical, or otherwise, bring each of us closer to God.

En la paz de Cristo,

Reyes :)

Happy Epiphany!

This twelfth day of Christmas is a special multicultural encounter, in which we reflect on the arrival of wise easterners journeying westward in pursuit of a newly-appeared star that marked the birthplace of a tiny but important world figure. In Hispanic countries, children wait until this day, Reyes, to receive their gifts. Put your shoes out--see what happens!

As the world spins seemingly out of control, retirement accounts shrivel, numbers of crimes committed in the passed year skyrocket, and wars of words and weapons rage, let us stop to reflect on the cultural clash that little King Jesus brought to the world beyond the Judean countryside. Why is Jesus' presence as a baby born in a stable something that would attract the attention of the world's leading scientists, as those star-gazers of old must have been?

A Messiah had been promised. God's Word of promise through the prophets of old gave hope to the nation of Israel. So King Herod ordered the death of all boys of the region who were around Jesus' age, trying to prevent the threatening little royal's survival. Jesus' parents became aliens, fleeing for his life into Egypt. Theirs was no caravan--they crossed the desert much like those who cross borders in embattled frontier towns of our modern age, with the clothes on their back, the water in their canteen, and not much else. Because they believed, and because they loved, they left home and family to protect their son.

Sometimes picking up and going is what God demands. In 2009, many of us will be called to pack, to move, to leave home, to move on. We probably won't be following a star, or fleeing for the safety of our eldest sons. What is significant to me this year is to recognized that in following the star, the wise men believed. They followed that strange star into the small and insignificant town of Bethlehem, to find a child born to humble but pious parents, and they trusted that He mattered.

Maybe you left your shoes out last night. Maybe you put some hay in them, or left the light on for the Reyes Magos to find your resting place. Maybe your gifts are already two weeks old, and fitting a bit snugly after two weeks of holiday munching. Whatever the case at your house, whenever and however you celebrate, may the light of Christ's presence illumine your living and learning in the coming year. May 2009 be a year of strengthened faith in God, and in all your language and literature-learning adventures, cross-country or international moves, and pursuits of stability and peace, may the Lord lead and guide.

En la paz de Cristo,