February 02, 2006

Español: You're Soaking in It!

Okay, the first thing you have to remember when reading this post is that I am an idiot.

I don't know what the theories of language teaching are. I thought maybe the phrase I was looking for with regard to how we're being taught Spanish was "immersion," but no, that's something way more hardcore that starts much younger:

In foreign language immersion programs, the regular school curriculum is taught in the immersion language for at least half of the school day. In partial immersion programs, instructional time is divided equally between English and the immersion language throughout the elementary grades. In full immersion programs, teachers use no English at all in the early grades. In Grade 2, 3, or 4, teachers introduce English language arts and reading for one period per day and gradually move toward an even distribution of English and the immersion language by Grade 5 or 6. In the secondary school grades, immersion students typically have access to at least two course offerings in the immersion language, most often in social studies and language arts.

So one of the reasons I've put off writing a post about the way we're being taught Spanish this semester is that I'm not sure I can make an informed criticism about it, except in one respect:

Whatever method it is ain't working.

We have our first exam Monday. I'll bet you $25 that at least 1/3 of the class fails it. I'll bet you the same amount again that at least half the class doesn't make a B.

This isn't my professor's fault. My professor's a nice woman and I continue to like her bunches. We're not blaming the professor here, especially if she finds this blog, in which case I want you all to begin complaining immediately that I never shut up about mi profesora estupenda.

No, it's the curriculum, the textbook, and the overall method of instruction that I have problems with. In other words, everything else.

The way it's supposed to work in theory, as best I can tell, is that we will come to class every day, greet each other in Spanish, listen to the teacher speak about a 90/10 mixture of Spanish and English, do some out-loud exercises in groups in Spanish, and then go home, do the homework, and then come to class the next day, greet each other in Spanish . . . in other words, the idea seems to be that if you just douse everybody in Spanish, Spanish, Spanish, eventually they'll pick it up somehow. Osmosis, I guess.

That's not such a wacky idea. It works well with little children. The problem is, we're not little children. Most of the class are freshmen, straight out of high school, and they're too intimidated, too new at this whole "college" thing, to ask questions when they don't understand something.

Not that it would do them much good if they did ask questions, because our teacher answers them in Spanish. You know, the language we're trying to learn because we don't know it already? Imagine:

Student: Professor, what's "te veo?"

Teacher: ¿Clase, cuál es 'te veo' en inglés?


Teacher [more urgently]: ¿Clase, cuál es 'te veo' en inglés? ¿Cómo se dice 'te veo' en inglés?

Me [silently]: That's what he's fucking asking you! And thank goodness, because I was kind of wondering myself.

Then I go home and babelfish "te veo." Oh, all right, not really. Eventually, we get an answer from the teacher.

In Spanish.

Verb conjugation's come up this week. It's been a blast, if you enjoy watching the dirt-simple rules of regular Spanish verb conjugation not be explained ever, while the students are nonetheless expected to know how to apply them.

Teacher: Vamos a conjugar el verbo "estudiar." ¿La persona primera singular es "yo . . ."? ¿Clase?


Teacher: Rodrigo?

Roderick: No.

Teacher: ¿Carla?

Carla: NO.

Teacher: No SÉ. Cuando no sabe la respuesta, responde "no sé."

Carla: ...

Teacher: No SÉ.

Carla: No sé.

Did you see what didn't happen there? Verb conjugation! Do you know what our homework assignment was last night? To conjugate verbs!

Very few people in the class have any idea how to do this. Why would they? No one's tipped them off to the rules; the rules which Spanish, unlike English, mostly follows (note: this is for present tense only):

  • Infinitive forms end in -ar, -er, or -ir. (Example: Hablar, "to speak.")

  • First-person verbs end in -o. (Example: Hablo, "I speak.")

  • Second-person informal verbs end in -as for -ar verbs and -es for -er and -ir verbs.

  • Third-person (and second-person formal) verbs end in -a for -ar verbs and -e for -er and -ir verbs.

  • First-person plural verbs end in -amos (-ar), -emos (-er), or -imos (-ir).

  • Second-person plural verbs end in -áis (-ar), -éis (-er), or -ís (-ir).

  • Third-person plural verbs end in -an (-ar) or -en (-er, -ir).
  • There; call it "Seven Simple Rules for Conjugating My Regular Spanish Verb" or whatever, but you're now ahead of half my class. I don't mean to imply any slight against the Spanish language or anything, but regular verb conjugation in the present tense of this language is not rocket science, provided someone tells you the rules. But there, that would cut into our time to practice what we don't know:

    Student 1: Hola! Cómo estás?

    Student 2: Muy bien. Y tú?

    Student 1: Bien, gracias. Cómo te llamas?

    Student 2: Me llamas--

    Teacher: ¡No! ¡No! No es "llamas." LLAMO! "Me LLAMO."

    Student 2: Me llamo es--

    Teacher: ¡No! ¡No! No "me llamo ES." Solo "me llamo." Por ejemplo: Me llamo Julia.

    Student 2: Me llamo Julia.

    Teacher: No, tu nombre es Christopher.

    Student 2: Tu nombre es Christopher.

    Teacher: ¡No! ¡No! (etc.)

    I've been to every class so far. At no time have I ever seen it explained to anyone what "Me llamo" MEANS.

    It means "I am called." That's why there's no "es" after it; it would be like saying "I am called is Christopher." But the kids have also been taught that "Mi nombre es . . ." is another acceptable way to state their names, and that one means "my name IS." So they're constantly sticking an "es" after "Me llamo" because they mix the two phrases up--and who can blame them, when both phrases translate to "I don't know, dude, it's just something you say like, when you meet somebody" in their minds?

    Maybe I'm an idiot, but I think it was easier the way I was taught it centuries ago, when the teacher spoke mostly English and provided lots and lots of literal translation and grammatical rules and other icky, boring stuff that's not half as fun as getting up in front of a classroom and speaking your native language to a room full of confused teenagers for 50 minutes.

    I didn't get to the homework assignments yet, did I? Here: You tell ME what someone who has absolutely not one word of Spanish in his or her vocabulary is supposed to make of this:

    Nuevos amigos: Tú y un(a) amigo(a) estudian en una universidad en Santiago de Chile. Hoy hablan después de la primera semana. Escriban el diálogo, y luego lee el diálogo con tu compañero(a) frente a la clase. Usa la guía que aparece a continuación.

    I kid you not, that is word for word part of my homework assignment from Monday afternoon. I keep thinking one thing to myself in this class:

    "What the fuck would I do if this were beginning French?"



    Student: Professor, what's "te veo?"

    Teacher: Class, what is "te veo" in English?


    Teacher [more urgently]: Class, what is "te veo" in English? How do you say "te veo" in English?

    Me [silently]: That's what he's fucking asking you! And thank goodness, because I was kind of wondering myself.


    Teacher: We are going to conjugate the verb "estudiar" (to study). The first person singular is "I . . ." Class?


    Teacher: Rodrigo?

    Roderick: No.

    Teacher: Carla?

    Carla: NO.

    Teacher: "No SÉ." When you don't know the answer, answer "No sé" ("I don't know").

    Carla: ...

    Teacher: No SÉ.

    Carla: No sé.


    Student 1: Hi! How are you!

    Student 2: Very well. And you?

    Student 1: Well, thanks. How are you called? [Lit.]

    Student 2: I are called--

    Teacher: No! No! It is not "are called." AM CALLED! "I AM CALLED."

    Student 2: I am called is--

    Teacher: No! No! Not "I am called IS." Just "I am called." For example: I am called Julia.

    Student 2: I am called Julia.

    Teacher: No, your name is Christopher.

    Student 2: Your name is Christopher.

    Teacher: No! No! (etc.)

    Posted by Ilyka at February 2, 2006 03:19 PM in ene-eme-ese-oo

    I am so glad my German instructor in college didn't do that.

    We always asked questions and received answers in English, and were explicitly told what the hell we were doing and what the (general) rules were.

    Posted by: Sigivald at February 2, 2006 04:13 PM

    The vile, nasty rumor is that native Spanish speakers who teach beginning Spanish prefer this method of instruction because it's easier for them.

    One wonders.

    Posted by: ilyka at February 2, 2006 04:20 PM

    German is a very difficult language with rigid yet confusing rules and four cases that change the endings of nouns when used, and they are all used. And that's just for starters. So if they taught German like this no one would ever learn it. (I should know about German -- I took it for five years in junior high and high school. Never did much with it, though, but damn I remember those cases. I've also taken four years of French, two of Italian, and umpteen years of Spanish; and managed to teach myself a little Russian, which is even wackier than German though really not all that much harder despite the different alphabet.)

    Spanish, though a much easier language than German -- any language except English is easier than German, really -- should not be taught this way either. This is crazy, and if I were you I'd ask for my money back. I've taken Spanish on and off for my whole school-going life, and I can tell you that's not how they used to teach it in Florida.

    Posted by: Andrea Harris at February 2, 2006 06:40 PM
    cases that change the endings of nouns

    ¡Ay carumba! That's wicked evil.

    managed to teach myself a little Russian, which is even wackier than German

    That I can believe, and you've brought up a huge regret I've been having: That this school doesn't offer Russian (I think the language choices were Arabic, French, Spanish, and Japanese, but I'm too lazy to double-check that). I spent hours on this page a couple years ago and I think I can just barely ask where the restaurant is with tolerable pronunciation, but obviously I'd like to know a little more than that.

    Basically, though, I'm a language retard. I don't think I have much gift with them. Of the attempt to teach myself Gaelic that ended in shame and frustration, we will not speak.

    No, the only way I'm surviving this class is by recalling the constant harping of that jackass high school teacher I had, ol' Señor Campos: "O! As! A! Amos! Áis! An!" We must have had to recite that 20 times a week if we did it once. It was dull and it sucked but, why, look here--20 years later, I still remember it.

    Posted by: ilyka at February 2, 2006 07:10 PM

    I'm not sure if immersion works better or if I'm just stupid. When I was in my third year of high school German, a Tulane student sat next to me on the streetcar with a German novel. I asked him what year they started reading novels. That guy knew more German than I did four weeks into his first semester. Even though I was getting very good grades in it, I wasn't learning the language. I didn't take it my senior year and it's almost all gone now. I vaguely recall der, die, und das. I think immersion is better even though I know it is more frustrating.

    Posted by: Rob at February 2, 2006 09:17 PM

    I've taken Japanese and did better than I ever did with French or Spanish. I'd really like to take Japanese again, and of course, I'd jump at the chance to learn Gaelic :)

    Posted by: Ith at February 2, 2006 09:51 PM

    I hated taking beginning Spanish in college, maybve because I had already passed AP and I was just taking it to bump the GPA up. Yes, I got an A+, too.

    It was a pain in the ass watching everyone flounder, and then having them come to me because they could get away with asking me their questions in English.

    Posted by: caltechgirl at February 3, 2006 01:20 AM

    Ah yes, the Russian. I took four years of INTENSIVE Russian. It's true the alphabet is a piece of cake, but you know what isn't a piece of cake? All the irregular verbs. Not a piece of cake. But the reason why you shouldn't take it? Unless you dumb your nice tall boyfriend and take up with Ivar the Wonder Fishmongerer from Yekaterinburg, you'll have no hope in hell in getting Russian down as you'll have no opportunity to practice it (I mean you in the global sense. I am not sticking my pointy stick at you, but feel that using "one does not" is a little too British English for comfort). Hence why the only thing I can remember in Russian is how to say "I studied Russian and university and have lost my passport." Nice.

    They say that the hardest language to learn as a second language is English. The second hardest? Apparently Portuguese is a real mother to pick up as it has the most irregular verbs possible, thereby kicking Russian's ass.

    I learnt Swedish by pure immersion. It was on the TV, it was in the office, it was on the bus. However I wasn't being graded on it, and if I got a verb wrong, I got none of this "NO!NO!NO!" business, which might make me take a cane and use it with abandon.

    Posted by: Helen at February 3, 2006 01:27 AM

    Sorry. Dumb=dump.

    Stupid Helen. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

    Posted by: Helen at February 3, 2006 04:01 AM

    I'm great at learning the grammar and vocabulary of languages. But I am a conversational retard -- though I have no problem with pronunciation. It's just the leap from conjugating neat rows of verbs to actually talking about something is one my puny mind can't make.

    Posted by: Andrea Harris at February 3, 2006 08:20 AM

    I'm surprised no one mentioned the commercial reference, Madge. Cool beans.

    Posted by: Rob at February 3, 2006 04:16 PM

    Ha! I live in Florida. FLORIDA! There are very few of us left here for whom English is our native language. I took two years of high school Spanish and two years of college Spanish and learned very little.

    It was only after being tossed head first into business situations that I finally understood spoken Spanish. Like Andrea I still can't converse in it worth a damn. I mangle it every time I open my mouth but at least now I understand when I'm called a dumbass.

    Posted by: Janette at February 5, 2006 12:44 AM

    Conjugating French ain't no picnic, either. I took three years of it in elementary school (DoD school at Orly Field, host language study was required) and four years in high school. I was fluent, once upon a time. But when it comes to language, nothing is truer than "use it or lose it." My inability to conjugate verbs correctly makes me sound like an idiot whenever I try and speak French these days, although the accent remains.

    One thing, though. The more wine I drink, the better my French gets! Funnier, too.

    Posted by: Buck at February 5, 2006 03:50 PM