Thursday, June 14, 2007

Opportunities to Practice Spanish

Practicing Spanish while spending a week in Las Vegas might not be everyone's idea of fun. Since it is the closest city to where we live, we spend a good amount of time there and I probably don't associate "travel destination" with Vegas as much as people who live in other parts of the world.

I choose not to watch TV at home, so staying at a hotel gives me the opportunity to dive into pop culture every so often. This time, it also allowed me to flip through the Spanish-speaking channels and find out how much I could actually understand.

Telemundo seemed to have the most programs that I could grasp. I started out with "Laura Sin Censura" and realized that my listening comprehension skills were not ready for this level of interaction quite yet... It's a talk-show where people come to discuss their issues with each other in front of an audience and get very emotional. Being emotional usually accelerates the speed of delivery when people talk, and I found it impossible to follow.

What didn't help either is that they used a high percentage of curse words which kept being bleeped out, so that I was left with only parts of sentences, mostly delivered in tears. That didn't work. I was quite amazed that the opponents had to be held back by guards to not get at each others' throats - oh my!

I switched to another show, similar in its structure, but much more civilized, "Caso Cerrado con la Dra. Ana MarĂ­a Polo." Although the topics discussed were not uplifting, at least I could understand what was going on. I got used to Dra. Polo's pronunciation and very much appreciated the summaries that she gave before and after each break. I found that it was easier for me to understand women than men, I am not sure why. Maybe they articulated more. I would guess my level of comprehension was at about 70% - not bad, I thought!

Commercials are great to watch as well - I pretty much knew what they would be saying, plus they are repeated a few times. I think these were the easiest to grasp.

Meanwhile, I got to have a conversation with the housekeeping lady who didn't speak any English. She was very patient with me and made an effort to try to understand what I was saying, which I was very grateful for. This was one of the best situations - if I wanted her to understand me, I had to come out of my shell and speak. We were able to agree that I didn't need to leave the room for her to make it up and shared a little small talk.

The next opportunity arose at a restaurant where I was waiting for the food. A young Hispanic couple sat at the table next to ours and the lady was wearing maternity clothes. I asked her when she was expecting her baby and got to show my own growing tummy. There will never be a lack of topics to discuss among expecting mothers, that's for sure! It was very pleasant and we understood each other just fine.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Decoding Spanish to English

In working on our Spanish course, I spent most of last week decoding Spanish dialogs into English. (If you are unsure of what "decoding" really means, make sure you get a copy of our free e-book on our website - it explains it in detail.)

I should probably preface this by sharing the extent of my Spanish knowledge: I never attended a class, but spent 27 hours (yes, I counted, I wanted to know!) listening actively to the Birkenbihl Spanish course that exists for German native speakers. I did many many more hourse of passive listening, but that doesn't really count as time since I was concentrating on something else while I was playing the tapes.

Then I had a Spanish-speaking friend who wanted to keep up her Spanish and we decided to talk every morning on the phone for 30 minutes. We did that for about 6 weeks before other things started to take precedence. That was in 1999. I haven't spoken Spanish since, I just never had the need for it.

I did however pick up a book in Spanish about 5 years ago because the publisher had run out of English translations and I was determined to read it. Being eager to learn about something is very motivating!

In terms of listening to Spanish, I did get 7 years of daily exposure on the NYC subway... however, I couldn't understand most of the accents because the tapes that I had learned with were recorded by native Spaniards and sounded quite different from the Puerto Rican accent!

Back to the decoding exercise: I was happy to see that I was able to guess most of the words, primarily because I was familiar with the topics. I checked the remaining words at, which I found very helpful.

Conjugated verbs were the greatest challenge, and I was glad to find out that I could type any verb form - even without accents - into the wordreference search box, find out what the infinitive was and which person and tense I was actually dealing with - priceless!

I was thinking about how someone who has no knowledge of grammar and/or grammatical terms would go about doing this. The best I can think of is to start with a regular textbook. They all have vocabulary lists for individual chapters, as well as the grammar covered in each chapter. Since the grammar is being introduced little by little, you could figure out relatively easily how to translate verb forms into English without worrying about being faced with a subjunctive in your first lesson.

What's bothering me about that is that it will take you forever to understand the "regular" language as people speak it in everyday life. In the end, it will be more efficient to either have someone bilingual help you with decoding, or to get a text that is already decoded.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Why This Blog?

My primary reason for starting this blog is to share my perspective and experience with all the people I've met who want to be successful at learning languages. I have taught many students who believe that language learning is hard, that it will take them a long time, that it will take them years to even get anywhere.

Particularly American students are often so removed from an international community that they can’t fathom that they would ever need to speak any other language than English. So why bother?

I have two things to say about that.

1- I do believe in the power of language learning as a process of personal development. The fact that we try to understand someone speaking another language goes far beyond just understanding a foreigner. It makes us aware that we all operate from the vantage point of our own little world, expecting everyone to react as we do, since we consider it as being “normal”.

The world as we perceive it is the normal world, and anyone who doesn’t comply to its principles is “weird”, to say the least. We are judgmental, we attribute motives to someone’s seemingly incomprehensible words or actions, and we create separation. I don’t exclude myself here, as this goes on at all levels of relationships: friendships, intimate relationships, work relationships and relationships between countries.

To venture out and really put ourselves into the mind of another and see the world from another’s perspective – to literally “learn his language” is enlightening. It throws light on our own perceptions and beliefs. Hopefully it will help us understand that in the end, we all strive for the same things. I strongly believe that with every person on this planet who learns to truly master a second language, we are one step closer to peace.

2- I have taught languages for a number of years now, and I have learned – or in some cases, attempted to learn – several languages myself. Most of what I have seen as a student is not pretty. We spend a lot of time in classes, but do we really learn to communicate? As a teacher, I was often given textbooks that I was expected to use. I did my best to make it interesting, but frankly, it was often a drag. I would see the textbook and wonder “How is anyone supposed to speak after going through this? This can’t work!” And mostly, I was right.

The common, mostly unspoken, assumption that

Vocabulary + Grammar Rules + Communicative Activities = Fluency in the Language

just doesn’t work.

I am always surprised at how many language teachers are far removed from any kind of personal language learning process. I argue that “teaching someone a language” and “teaching someone how to learn a language” are vastly different concepts and need to be treated as such. With only 9% of Americans fluent in a second language, something’s just not right.

My purpose in this blog is to start learning a language myself and share my experiences. As a teacher, I know many “tricks of the trade”, but applying them myself and remembering how I feel when I don’t “get” what someone says, when I’m just lost in front of a foreign text, how much patience it takes to really start to communicate – all these things I can only experience as a language learner.

I am an advocate of the Birkenbihl Approach, about which I have written extensively, and which I studied for a few years. Most of the classes I taught have benefited from this Approach, and the students who chose to follow the steps had mind-blowing results.

You can get a short e-book outlining the Birkenbihl Approach at our website for free: It’s entitled “The 7 Language Learning Secrets Your Teachers Can’t Share With You.”