I have also learned a lot about why Americans do not excel at learning a second language (Don't even get me started about how nearly every European I know speaks several languages). First of all, most textbooks for Spanish chupan. One book I perused spent something like 22 pages covering the numbers one through ten. My class learned those in about ten minutes. Many, if not most, begin with a barrage of verbs and conjugations. How many toddlers do you know who learn all the verbs and their conjugations first?
We begin learning our first language with nouns, lots of meaningful nouns. Would you like to know the first noun one of the textbooks offered? Discoteca. It means exactly what it sounds like it means. First, the book taught all the conjugations for ir, "to go", and then bailar, "to dance", plus gustar, "to be pleasing" (one of the more difficult verbs to master), and then decir, "to say", another difficult one. From there, the student is to translate such useful sentences as "Juan likes to dance at the discotech" and "Maria says she dances at the discotech".
Having watched three toddlers learn to speak English, two of them as a second language, I decided to start with everyday nouns, and lots of them. I followed those with some important adjectives that one might actually need regularly. By the third or fourth week, the kids could theoretically say things like, "stomach sick", "good food" and "purple shirt". We ended the year learning the verb estar, one form of the verb to be. The kids could then say things like "I am sad today" and "The library is next to the supermarket." They could also act out many important phrases using just nouns and adjectives, in the same way that a toddler points to the refrigerator and says, "Apple."
Throughout this summer, we are meeting every other week for immersion activities. We toured the library the first week, made fruit kabobs and chocolate-dipped strawberries the second week, and played games on the beach the third week. I do not speak any English during these activities. The kids are unusually quiet -- not that I am complaining.
I am noticing that the kids in my class who have never before had to learn a second language keep waiting for me to fall back on English and are somewhat frustrated when I do not. This makes sense. We are in an English-speaking country. It's not as if their survival depends upon them speaking Spanish during that one hour every other week. Therefore, I think I will alter my fall plans by spending about 20 minutes per class introducing new words and concepts, utilizing English only to clarify if necessary, and then doing everything else in Spanish. Hopefully, this will help make everyone feel more comfortable with the immersion experience.
Who knows? Maybe we'll get so comfortable with Spanish that we can all take a field trip to Mexico someday!
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