Spanish instructors share many of the same concerns. Here are some of the most common questions I am asked by those who teach Spanish, and a concise answer to each one.
I am a new teacher. What should I keep in mind?
One of the hardest things for new teachers to learn is how many times they need to repeat themselves in order for students to grasp words, concepts, and even what the homework assignment is for tonight. Be prepared to repeat yourself many times every day. You also need to get used to speaking very basic Spanish, very slowly. The sooner you form the habit of speaking very slowly in Spanish, the better.
How do I get students in my class to stop speaking out of turn?
Proximity is one of the easiest and most effective ways to deal with issues such as this one. If a teacher is close enough, most students will quiet down without you having to do anything else. Stand near the offender(s) and keep doing whatever you were doing. If a student continues to talk when you are nearby, place your hand on the back of his/her chair or on his/her desk. Do not touch the student. Do not speak to them unless you have to. After they quiet down, stay there for a short time and then move away.
How often should I give quizzes and tests?
I am a proponent of giving very short quizzes most days. Make sure these quizzes do not take long for you to make or to grade, but design them so that you can quickly identify which students are struggling (or are not studying or are not placed in the correct class). Knowing this information early and finding a solution will make your school year happier. It also helps give students’ grades a positive, solid foundation and gets them in the habit of studying Spanish every night.
What do I do when native speakers are placed in my Beginning Spanish course?
The first thing to do is to figure out whether your student is a native speaker of Spanish or a heritage learner. Native speakers who have been educated in a place where Spanish is spoken should never be placed in a beginning-level class. Heritage language learners are not native speakers. They may have grown up in an environment where Spanish was spoken or they may simply feel a connection to the Hispanic culture. Students who have Hispanic last names are not necessarily native speakers or heritage speakers.
Most heritage learners do not have experience reading or writing in Spanish. You can give these learners alternate assignments (not additional, but alternate) on a weekly, biweekly or monthly basis, making sure that you are exposing them to different writing styles. The goal is to show them that written Spanish is not the same as spoken Spanish, and that the Spanish varies based on genre and register.
Just being exposed to the idea of different writing styles and broader vocabulary is a start. If you are equipped (with knowledge and time), you can and should design writing activities for your heritage learners, so that their writing abilities in Spanish can flourish, like their writing abilities in English.
My boss (or coworker or another individual) thinks proficiency is the one true answer to foreign language learning. Is proficiency the key?
Proficiency is crucial and it is a main goal of many language programs. It is also an inevitable result of good teaching. That said, we need to keep in mind that proficiency includes both grammatical accuracy and communicative competence. “It is not enough for our students to gain communicative competence. Of course we want them to be able to communicate — to understand and be understood — but we also want their Spanish to closely resemble the Spanish of educated native speakers. Therefore, grammatical competence is [also] essential.”
Isn’t Spanish an easy language?
No one language is any more difficult than any other, nor is any language superior. The initial stages of language learning may be faster or slower depending on a learner’s first language and the language he or she is learning. For example, if your first language is Spanish, a Romance language, the first stages of learning a tonal language such as Mandarin will be slower than if you began learning French, another Romance language. However, Mandarin does not have verb conjugations. In other words, each and every language has facets that make early stages of learning more (or less) time-consuming, but the early stages are not always indicative of what the later stages include, nor of how long it will take to acquire the language.
Many people make the mistake of trying to fuse the concepts of language learning and language acquisition. In language learning, information is stored in the learner’s brain, and he or she may or may not be able to retrieve it. Language acquisition has occurred when someone can produce language automatically, without thinking about it. It is a mistake to consolidate the two concepts.
How am I going to make it through the year?
Every teacher experiences ups and downs every year. The lowest point, or the disillusionment phase, usually lasts from late October through January. The timing can vary from one individual to another, but that is when most teachers hit bottom. It can be helpful just to know that you are “normal” and that this phase will end and will be replaced by a more positive one. Teaching really does get easier, one year at a time.
How can I view my job in a positive way, even on difficult days?
Do not lose sight of the Spanish language and Hispanic culture being alive and magical, and help your students to see them in this light. “We — those of us who teach and study Spanish — have that special chispa, that special spark that makes us exotic. We get to teach about a rich and complicated [language,]… the places and cultures that were responsible for creating the Golden Age of literature and art; the merengue, tango, and flamenco that are so purely Hispanic; the muralist movement of the 20th century; the unique architecture of Antonio Gaudí; and the world-famous and easy-to-identity style of artist Fernando Botero. We are the lucky ones who… get to inspire our students to learn as much as they can about an incredibly rich and fascinating language and culture. They, in turn, will use their skills and knowledge to enhance the world.”