Family class

I had a ten-hour family connection class this weekend. Last night I couldn’t hear over the constant buzz of all the Spanish speakers in the room. I was confused because when our instructor would ask a table to report their responses to a question, the answers were way off the topic. She was very good at picking something out of what they said to make it answer her question, but I was beginning to wonder why they were so off-course.

Today I sat with a table of ladies from the Dominican Republic who offer child care in their homes. When I explained that I love listening to their Spanish, they slowed their speech and started helping me with my language. But when the first slide came up, the lady next to me asked me what sssch meant. I had to ask her to repeat four times. It turned out that she meant, “such,” from the sentence, “David’s father is such a helicopter dad.” Oh boy. I told her it was that the dad in the case was “muy” helicopter. That didn’t help. I added “bastante.” Still not much help. We looked it up. Tal. By then, the slide show was much farther along and we had missed whatever the point of that slide had been.

It became clear to me that many of the Spanish speakers had been compensating for a lack of comprehension by copying other groups and talking whenever the instructor turned discussions over to us. They hadn’t understood what the instructor was asking them to discuss, but they tried to use at least a couple of the words they’d heard. And when she went on to present content, like how to avoid cultural conflicts with families, or when she gave examples from her own experience, they were completely lost. I started explaining to my table. They would listen to me, then rephrase what I said in better Spanish, and then we would discuss the concept (“discuss” might be a little strong for what I was doing).

The class became a wonderful challenge for me. I was fascinated to learn how American best practices look from another cultural standpoint. But I was also struck by the idea that the instructor is giving these presentations to people who probably aren’t getting what the presenting organization expects. They simply don’t have enough English to understand more than sentence-level, and they don’t have the frequent comprehensible input that they need to be able to progress. At this moment, I don’t have any answers, but I sure understand the problem better!

It was so easy for me: the presentation was on a topic I know well, in my first language, and the Spanish vocabulary was what I could either already use or guess at. But for my classmates, the topic was new, the written language was new (they had a hard time figuring out even which page we were on, since the numbers were all out of order and they were mostly text), and they sometimes had to work to make sense of what I was saying. They didn’t even try to fill in the final sheet in their handouts: goal area, specific goal, and steps to the goal. The graphic organizer helped me pull together what we had covered, but my group were still defining pasos a una meta as the class was dismissed.

Now I can see even more why it makes sense to talk with students in CI language classes about topics that fit the context, and to play with those topics in ways that the students lead. When we tell a story, review it, enlarge on it a bit, review again, and move forward with the whole class, students are with us, acquiring at their level. When we are not student-directed, students lose focus easily because discussion no longer fits their context.

Jason Fritze has said to include either new information or new structures in a class, but not both. He was talking about cultural information, but his advice works to explain why student-led language acquisition is so effective.



Right before I came home and started working on my verbs yesterday, I had a breakthrough.

At our school, we have an auto shop. My car was in it. The teacher had gone home, but had told me how to extricate the car from behind the automatic doors. I decided to fill up my windshield fluid before leaving. That was successful. But then…I didn’t know how to close the hood!

I found one of our Spanish-speaking custodians, told him I had a problem. He asked whether it was a big or a little problem. I said it wasn’t a big problem in life but it was a big problem for me. I explained how I’d opened (my door) and couldn’t shut it. Having just told Bryce’s joke about the car door, that was fresh and available vocabulary. I told him my husband would laugh at me and that I was sorry for being such a traditional (didn’t know “old-fashioned”) woman and for not knowing cars, and he smiled and said that not everyone has to know everything. Then he pushed gently on the hood and closed it.

Thanks to Jennifer, I knew the correct preposition in “Thank you for your help,” and I could tell him he was the star of my day, thanks to someone else. He asked whether I knew how to open the garage doors, and I could assure him that I did, and that I didn’t need help with that.

COULD NOT BELIEVE MY EARS! I spoke Spanish to solve a problem, and continued in Spanish for at least five minutes (we talked about other things as we went).

Suddenly I recall all the times kids and adults have come up to tell me of the thrill of being able to use their new Russian skills for a real purpose. I’d forgotten what that felt like. Superpower!

I thought I was smart, but…

One of my Russian teaching tactics has been to use stories from the newspaper as the base for embedded readings. With beginners, that means we can read pieces of an authentic text almost from day one.

Now that I’m acquiring Spanish, however, there’s an easier way: use Bryce Hedstrom’s book, Conexiones. I read the piece about eating cuy (hamsters), and went to the source for the article. I could understand it! Wow. Bryce had set me up to understand not only the main ideas, but I even understood the verbs in some tense that I can’t name. (Passive voice?) Bryce is very smart to write a whole book that acts as embedded readings for beginning learners. Someone, please do this for Russian!

This acquisition thing has me absolutely obsessing over reading Spanish. Lately I’ve been mildly frustrated by not getting verbs right. I made myself a little cheat sheet of Preterite and Imperfect forms, and I like someone’s explanation that era goes with an era. But that means I’m getting a monitor in my head, and I am trying to avoid that, even while giving myself little pop-up grammar explanations on the second reading of anything.


Now that I have a wonderful crop of editors to correct my fast writes, I have another request. Please give me suggestions about what I could read (online, ideally) to get big doses of subjunctive.

I just took this little quiz, and aced it.

Unfortunately … that doesn’t mean I can use all the forms. I can choose perfectly when a limited number is offered with correct spelling.

Spring break

My mind went on spring break, and didn’t let my body know, so by the time the week was over, I was sick! (Not as sick as DH, who has pneumonia, but that’s another story. And now he’s in tech week with a musical, so I haven’t seen him since Sunday.)

I did my first post-break class with my (human) guinea pigs today, and was blown away by what they could use and how they could grab new structures. They have a teacher who doesn’t speak Spanish, after all. They were rocking on the penultimate version of Bryce’s La Llorona, and acting as though it was easy. One said to another, “You must have started this with a lot more Spanish than you said you had.”

I’m catching grammar mistakes in other people’s writing (though I still make plenty on my own), I can understand major parts of news reports if I sort of know what’s going on, and I’m happy with what I can get from blogs and wiki sites. One piece that is eluding me is asking questions. I’m always explaining to Russian students that questions are late-acquired, but they can’t be for me! I need them! What I really need is time to attend CI Spanish classes, but oh well. I watch them on line. And I’m asking a Spanish speaker to come do the reading in our class tomorrow and let me ask the questions for a change.

A great song site!

Today I found that I could speak in Spanish about why I like living where I do without having to think about many of the words I needed, and at a much quicker pace than earlier. This week a couple necessary words were evading me, and suddenly they are in my head.

I am getting more convinced that I prep myself to acquire when I am talking to myself in this target language–or writing–just for fun, and relaxing about the vocabulary I don’t know. I just notice it. This is different from that language teacher concept of “noticing,” I am pretty sure. Haven’t read about “noticing” in a while, but I think it has to do with grammar acquisition. I pay attention without major concern to the bits I don’t know, and then when I run across them in my input process, they seem to stick more quickly.

The most recent site I’ve found is this Learn Spanish with Bilingual Stories. I love love love how the songs are set out. And the humor on the page is fun too. I got there when I was searching for good radio stations to listen to. I’m going to be downloading that playlist app. I haven’t got the time to figure out who owns this site, but if you’re out there, thank you so much!


I got to walk with a second-language-acquisition PhD candidate last night. Her research sources suggest that the second language a person has acquired interferes more with the third language acquisition than the first one does. I think I’ve noticed that, because it’s my concern about where stuff goes in Russian that messes up my Spanish order of speech. She also shared some of what she’s learned recently about output. And then, she told me that I should be keeping notes on what it feels like to be learning this new language.

What the most CI-friendly research says about output’s contribution to language acquisition is that it helps you know what your gaps are, and you are then more likely to spot the missing information as you come across it in comprehensible input. Bingo! I had exactly that experience earlier this week, when I used “these days” instead of what I wanted to say: “sometimes.” I feel like a veces is therefore burned into my mind, because the minute I ran across it, I made a virtual head slap. Hurrah! On the other hand, while I look at my Pinterest collection of thematic vocabulary every so often, that doesn’t seem to help me acquire at all. One of my “pins” is a picture of a poster with time expressions. I use it to check off the structures I can use.

My current system: I try to get from 30 to 60 minutes daily of CI, then spend about ten minutes working on some sort of fast write and sending it off for repair. I can honestly feel my Spanish brain expanding because so many of my guesses are right (with an occasional red-letter day, meaning half of it is wrong). All of a sudden, I recognize all the endings for what I now know are preterite past tense verbs. I am now getting whatever these are called: está hablando and estába trabajando, and I know that one way to fake the future is to say voy a. I know how to use stuff like le da: today a Brianna le dieron regalos fell out of my mouth. I don’t know where it came from, but I know it meant what I wanted to say.

The only trouble I have is that I am going through about a book a night of Mira Canion’s. I don’t want to run out! Maybe I’ll make myself write embedded readings for them all, just so as to stretch them out.

That’s enough for tonight. I am about to miss a meeting. Sorry Martina! I’m taking my next Mira book off to read and hoping it doesn’t keep me up.

Complain, complain

I’m emulating Martina. Here’s what I was able to write just now, since it’s time to go to sleep and I hadn’t done my fast-write for the day. I stopped for a while to read a Mira Canion book because I needed some past tense. Spanish is kind of like Russian in past tense, but it’s a lot more complicated.

This is going off to Sandi tonight for fixing (thank you Sandi!), but in the meantime, I am betting you can understand most of it.

Yo soy profesora de ruso, y ahora trabajo en un preescolar. Yo hablo ruso, pero quiero hablar español también. Necesito hablar español antes de Junio. Yo leo en español, miro la televisión en español, y estudio el español. Me gusta esta lengua. Y me gusta aprender español, pero yo tengo un problema. Es un problema no muy grande, pero a veces estoy frustrada. Cuando yo hablo español, yo no siempre recuerdo todas las palabras, que necesito. Y en estes días, yo no entiendo cómo usar el tiempo pasado. Yo quería decir que a mis estudiantes los siento, porque yo no hablo español como una profesora. Yo se que yo tengo un vocabulario pequeño. Y yo se que no hablo corectamente. Nosotros se ríen cada dia en la clase de español. A veces se ríen porque los estudiantes saben las palabras que yo no se! Hoy mi hija dijo que yo aprendo español, y yo le respondí que no aprendo. Ella dijo ‘Tu aprendes español todos los días’. Yo pensé que la palabra ¨aprender¨ significa entender. ¿Es comico, no?