After almost two decades of studying the Spanish language and using it professionally, I think I am qualified to speak on this subject. In hindsight, I have determined that the majority, if not all, of the teaching strategies, are flawed in one aspect. The cart, so to speak, is put before the horse, and this can be, I believe, applied to any language.
If I were to design a language course (I am not, by the way), I would do it completely different than what is now considered the norm. What is the standard? From my experience, the model is to learn grammar rules, syntax, reading, comprehension. By the time a student finishes with their studies, they are adept at all of these, if of course, they applied themselves. Can they understand what they have read? Probably. Can they write in the foreign language? Again, perhaps but not with eased perfection. And, most importantly, can they speak the language with ease and fluidity? I will say that the vast majority cannot. Why is this?
The reason for the inability of most language learners to speak a foreign language with fluidity is because of the teaching process, which is ass-backward. Knowing what pluscuamperfect (past perfect) is in Spanish will not help me in the slightest as a language learner have a conversation with someone. What scholarly person even came up with the idea of this type of teaching? It isn’t practical for a second language learner, at least at the beginning. In fact, I would say it isn’t useful until the very end, and then it would be iffy.
So, you are asking yourself, what does David recommend? Well, that depends. How do you like that for being non-committal? Do you want to speak the language, merely be able to read it, or do you want to be able to communicate with ease and confidence? If I were in charge of designing a course on language learning, this is how I would do it for those that want to speak the language.
1) The first semester would be dedicated 100% to vocabulary building and pronunciation. I don’t care how many grammar rules you learn if you don’t know the words nothing makes sense.
2) During semester two, continuing to build on vocabulary and pronunciation; I would add all of those unique exceptions to the rules if there are any. I would then have the students start to construct both oral and written sentences, getting more complicated as the semester continues, and this is where I would begin to introduce the rules of grammar as they apply to the student’s sentences. Susy, you did great, however, in Spanish the adjective comes after the noun, and here is why.
Now that we have a robust vocabulary and pronunciation skills, and have begun to put sentences together, getting more and more complicated, and started introducing the grammar rules, we can move onward to semester three.
3) During semester three the vocabulary and pronunciation continue. Okay, I know I am not the only one that has heard a person construct the perfect sentence, but because of pronunciation and intonation, they still sounded like a goat chewing on grass. I know because, in the beginning, I would record myself. My pronunciation and intonation were awful to put it politely.
Sorry, getting back on track here with semester three, this is where I would introduce reading and oral comprehension. If you cannot understand what you are reading or hearing, what is the use of knowing a second language? The goal here would be to continue to add more and more complex materials of different genres.
4) Semester four has arrived and continuing with all from the first three semesters; this is where I would introduce conversation classes. I would pair up each student with a native speaker of the language they are learning. Would you like to guess what they would do? Yes, you got it! They would talk. The native speaker’s job is to guide the language learner. To explain what sounds more natural, versus what is grammatically correct.
Hooray! We have finished year one of our language studies. I would dare say that the majority of students following the above method would be far ahead, regarding being able to speak, than students who followed the normal –lets study all of the grammar rules, techniques that are the norm for language instruction.
Okay, so year one is over. What do we do now? Continue with the same pattern. Emphasize speaking, which means more and more vocabulary, correct pronunciation and comprehension of both reading and oral. After year two, then the student can and should begin to focus their studies on areas that are of interest to them.
As an example, if my primary purpose of learning a second language is to have the ability of oral communication, then that is where my concentration in years three — four should be. If, however, I want to be work strictly with the written word, then that is where I should focus. Maybe I want to do both oral and written. That is cool too!
My opinion, having been taught from a multitude of language professors at various language schools, and graduating with a bachelor of science in foreign languages, Spanish, not to mention many immersion in-country programs, I would not introduce formal grammar lessons until the last year of studies.
Naturally, like everything else, how well a student can communicate in a foreign language will depend much on the student’s desire, dedication and practice. Learning a language is often associated with playing a musical instrument, the more you practice, the better you will do, and this is true in no small degree, and this is, in my humble opinion, what is wrong with the way language is taught. Students learn the rules, but don’t learn how to practice what they have learned. I think it is time to put the horse before the card, not the other way around.
I believe that if we change the way we teach languages, we will see more students graduating from language courses with the ability to communicate at a high level in their second language. Right now, the majority of students within a short time forget what they have learned and are not able to communicate beyond the basics in a second language.
David Martin Tucker, Certified Spanish Medical Interpreter, CHI™, or “Spanish David” as he is known, is a certified medical interpreter whose passion for Latin American culture and language is second only to his desire to become a voice for his Spanish speaking clients. Conveying more than words, David’s continuous thirst for knowledge thrusts him into the culture of his clients.
David is an honor’s graduate from the Southern California School of Interpreting’s Medical Interpreter Program and holds bachelor degrees in both Modern Languages (Spanish) and Business from Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Southern Indiana respectively.
A founding member of the El Puente Bilingual Toastmasters in Denver, David is also a contributor to the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), and is a member of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Health Care Patient Advisory Board.