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Heading Back To Spanish Class--Again!

Feb 8, 2008
I am 19 days away from starting my Spanish classes-again! When the wife and I first moved to Mexico, we enrolled in Spanish classes. In fact, we took about four months of classes and after I completed them, I am proud to tell you I could say the following:

Hi! My name is Doug.

Hi! What's your name?

Can I have a cheese sandwich?

Which way is the bathroom, please!

I took Spanish in high school, college, and for two years before moving to Mexico. I then took three hours a day, five days a week for four months. I came out able to order something in a restaurant and get directions to the toilet. Actually, I could say quite a bit more than that, but though I could make myself understood, I could not for the life of me understand what was being said back to me. This is not too unusual.

My wife read to me the other day of this poor dear in San Miguel de Allende who has had an experience similar to mine. She paid dearly to take Spanish classes in the city where she's retired. Her conclusion was that it was "just too hard" and that she can't understand Spanish when she hears it on the street.

I more than understand her pain.

My wife, who has had much less Spanish classroom time than me, is far better equipped in understanding Spanish. The first year, she far outdistanced me in her Spanish. She struggled with vocabulary and how to form sentences, but she could grasp what was being said to her on the streets. All I could do was look bug-eyed at someone who responded to my question and wonder just what country exactly I was in. I would all but have an aneurysm trying to keep up with someone speaking to me at the speed of light. The warp-speed Spanish was going to give me a brain tumor, I just knew it.

What became obvious to me was that my dear wife was the one in the community day in and day out. I was not. Though I had more vocabulary than she had, though my accent was excellent, though she had trouble rolling her "R's", she could make herself understood and understand the responses. She had trained her ear.

I have stayed in the house, mostly writing books. She has been in the city, in the stores, in the highways and byways of Mexican life, hearing far more spoken Spanish than me.

She was hearing the little kids with their beautifully melodic and lilting speech. She was hearing the slush-mouth teenagers more interested in slurring their words as though performing some rite of passage with the opposite sex. She was hearing the old people, los viejos, with their toothless Spanish pronunciations. She was actively engaged in something much neglected in Spanish as a Second Language Instruction - Ear Training.

When little Mexican kids begin forming words they seem to do so with this beautiful melody or music in their speech. Then, as they age, they develop bad speaking habits as all of us do in our native languages. However, though they grow old and begin to mush and slush their speech, they are understood. All of us have elderly relatives who talk so badly that your friends can't understand them. I've been married to my wife for 25 years and still can't understand her Dad when he talks. I don't think I've ever understood anything he's ever said to me. However, those in the immediate family have had their ears trained to understand my suegro when he speaks.

You have to engage in comprehensible listening to Spanish as you train your ear. What this means is that you need some sort of system whereby you hear understandable input of the level of Spanish you are currently at. It does no good if you are very basic, a baby in Spanish, to try and listen to a discussion of modern economic theory in Spanish. I've seen this all too often. These Spanish schools will lump you into a class with fellow students at levels from A to Z and expect you to keep up. It is not possible, and yet you find this in the Spanish schools all over Mexico. One lady who paid dearly to come to Mexico to study Spanish said she loved the experience but could not understand a thing said in class much less develop the skill to ask a question in Spanish.

If your Spanish is at the level of a two-year-old, then that is what you need to be hearing in a Spanish class. You need to hear the input that a two-year-old could understand and respond to with "goo-goo, ga-ga."

Think about it for a moment. A Mexican child who totters off to Mexico's equivalent of first grade could pretty much put to shame most, if not all, of us Americans who enroll in the local Spanish schools here. And yet, the way this child got to this point was learning Speech and not learning Language. The learning of Speech comes first. Comprehensible input and output at age-appropriate levels is what the child naturally goes through. So, by the time he or she is off for the very first day of class, there has been an ear training first, an output ability developed second.

That's where most of the Spanish courses on the planet fail. You are pushed to produce speech long before you know anything. You are put into a position to learn a great deal about the language-grammar-before you can talk in the language.

Age-level appropriate comprehensible input first.

Age-level appropriate comprehensible output-speech production second.

Learning about the language-grammar, reading, writing, comes third.

Unfortunately few, if any, schools follow this course and the result is evident.

People spend a fortune on learning about the language and end up not being able to use Spanish speech.

It's sad.
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