I recently spent a fortnight in Valencia attending a language school for 4 hours each morning. This gave me afternoons to spend on the beach, opportunities to meet other language learners from around the world and the chance to work hard on learning some Spanish.
This is the first time in a long time that I have been a classroom learner; here are some reflections on things that helped me to learn.
I had really enjoyed languages when I was at school and about 20 years ago I picked up some smatterings of Croatian and Albanian during summers spent in those countries, so I was fairly confident I would be able to be successful in making a start on learning some Spanish. (Let’s be clear: I am still very much a beginner, but I have learned lots in two weeks.) I therefore had some self-belief that while I didn’t know Spanish I would be able to learn some.
I was also very keen to have a go. During the lessons I took every opportunity to talk and to try things in Spanish (to the extent that when, as we left Valencia, an Englishman at the airport was having trouble understanding the security personnel, I wanted to explain to him in simplified Spanish what they wanted him to do rather than just using English!). As I walked to the language school each morning I rehearsed what I wanted to say, how to introduce myself to new members of the class, etc. Essentially: I worked hard.
I was not afraid to make errors. I tried things out, recycled language and structures we had used in previous lessons, listened to the corrections from the teacher but didn’t worry about making mistakes. I did make lots of mistakes! Near the end of each lesson the teacher would pick out three or four errors that had been made during the lesson, wrote them up on the board and asked us to correct them. The vast majority of them were errors I had made.
One of the things I really enjoyed was making links. Some of these links were within the language of Spanish. For example, knowing that the suffix ‘-ito’ or ‘-ita’ often means a small version of something was useful. When we met ‘mesita’ (a bed-side table) this was a small version of a ‘mesa’ (a table) and helped me to remember the word. I know what a ‘mosquito’ is (and the word is the same in Spanish), so it was rather neat that a fly is a ‘mosca’, meaning that ‘mosquito’ is really just ‘small fly’.
Other links were across different languages. There were lots of connections with French (which I took for GCSE years ago). My favourite link was comparing hair and horse. In French hair is ‘cheveux’ and horses are ‘chevaux’ (change an ‘e’ to an ‘a’). In Spanish hair is ‘cabello’ and horse is ‘caballo’ (make the same change!).
A particular advantage was the number of experts I had available to me. During the lessons there was my teacher and the invaluable apps ‘Word Reference’ and ‘Spanish Verbs’.
During the rest of the day I could ask questions of my wife and son. My wife is fluent in Spanish and son is approaching GCSE and both were happy to correct me as I haltingly spoke to them in Spanish.
Revisiting the content
I tried to force myself to reuse as much previous language as possible during the lessons. This was very helpful.
I made notes during the lessons and found these very helpful. Each evening I revisited what we had done that morning and also flipped back to previous lessons to keep things current in my mind. As we walked around town I tried to recall and use some Spanish too.
Some of the grammar I wrote out in full and explicitly set out to learn (such as irregular verbs).
I realised the importance of revisiting the language partly through the mistakes I was making. When the teacher wrote up the ‘errors of the day’, I could always correct them immediately, but would still make the errors when I was talking. I put this down to focusing on (or panicking about!) the word or idea I would need at the end of the sentence I was saying, and that then I made some silly mistakes earlier in the sentence. For example, when I wanted to talk about the three walruses we had seen at the Aquarium I was trying to recall the word for a walrus, so I used the wrong expression for ‘there are’ because my focus was elsewhere. (It should be ‘hay tres morsas’.)
Using the language
One of the lovely things about the lessons was having the opportunity to work with so many talented, interested and interesting other people. This gave rise to lots of banter and the opportunity for creativity. For example, after the verb ‘to milk a cow’ cropped up (‘ordeñar’, since you ask) we used it at every opportunity.
Outside lessons I looked for real Spanish wherever I could find it. Shopping in the supermarket was an opportunity to revise vocab for fruit and veg, adverts were often easy to understand, and athletics commentary on TV included snippets I could recognise. Even though football commentators spoke at a blisteringly fast speed they repeated a few phrases frequently, so I could even get some of what they were saying.
In the Aquarium (which is excellent – during August it is open until midnight) there were lots of boards with explanatory text. This was in Spanish and in English. I spent as much time reading the Spanish, translating it and then checking my understanding against the English version, as I did looking at the marine animals.
I was able to recognise the gaps in my knowledge and treated these in one of two ways. Some of them I wanted to deal with. This was particularly true for vocabulary that I wanted to use. Knowing the basic word for a particular thing in Spanish is often straightforward. The word for a shark (tiburón) is no more difficult than the word for a table, so why not learn it if and when I want to use it?
With some aspects of grammar it was a different story and I deliberately left big new grammar issues, knowing that they would probably be too much for me at that time. For example, I can use the present tense of verbs confidently and can express what I am going to do (a sort of version of the future, but one which uses the verb ‘ir’ (to go) in the same way we use it in English – such as “this afternoon I am going to go to the beach”). I can’t use any version of the past tense yet. Knowing that there are at least four versions and that they all work differently and have new things to learn meant I thought I should focus on other areas first. So, when there was something I didn’t know how to say but wanted to use, it was useful for me to know whether it was just a case of a missing word, or whether it would take a couple of hours of learning some new grammar.
To be continued …
I am determined to continue to learn Spanish even after term has started. I will need to think hard about how to do this effectively.
One reason for writing this blog is so I can reflect, in a week or so, about the implications for teaching and learning mathematics. (I might write about that at some point too.)