Beginner Blues: A Teacher Becomes a Student (Again)

I recently enrolled on a course called Conversational Spanish for Beginners: Module 1. I’m not really a Beginner. Besides living in Colombia for several months, I’ve spent time in a dozen Spanish-speaking countries, and I also speak Portuguese and Italian. So I’m a false beginner. In fact, I’m so false that I’m a Totally-Fraudulent-Shouldn’t-Really-Be-In-The-Class Beginner. My motive for joining the class was to brush up on the language and to enjoy learning something under no pressure.

 

The class meets once a week for two hours. It’s made up of older community members (I think only two of us are under fifty), and there are between 11 and 15 students – people drop out, reappear, come late, leave early, metamorphose into owls, etc. Fortunately, we have an excellent teacher. He’s well prepared, patient, and experienced, which doesn’t mean he’s above criticism.

 

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Like my friend and colleague Scott Thornbury (see his blog here), I decided to keep a kind of diary of my experiences in this class, in order to reflect on life as a language student. Here are my observations halfway through the course:

 

Beginner doesn’t mean stupid

We’re bad at Spanish, but not necessarily at thinking. My classmates include lawyers, professors, published poets and healthcare workers. Our teacher treats us with the utmost respect, but I distinctly recall on a couple of occasions he’s told us things like, ‘when someone says ‘buenos dias’, you need to reply ‘buenos dias’’. Well, duh! My advice? Ditch the pragmatics; just teach the language.

 

Pace please, even with Beginners

Generally, class time has flown by. But we sometimes do that ‘round the room’ thing, where everyone says ‘cómo está usted?’ (‘how are you?’) or some such phrase to their partner, while we all watch and listen until it’s our turn. This slows down the pace and ends up with the naughty students (that’s me) breaking into conversation, thumb-twiddling, doodling, texting, yodeling, etc.

 

Drilling: useful but not that useful

Drilling is great for getting your tongue around a new language. Having said that, there are only so many times you can shout ‘aguacate!’ (‘avocado!’) without falling into existential despair. In fact, I have my doubts about the usefulness of some of the food items we’re being drilled on. My rule of thumb is that if I can’t name it in English and it’s not a national dish, I don’t need to know it in a foreign language.

 

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Demonstrations are better than instructions

Sometimes we begin a round-the-room dialogue drill with two absolute beginners who have no idea (a) what they are supposed to say (b) why they are saying it (c) who they are talking to. It’s been a great reminder to start with stronger students and to give very clear models.

 

Range of ability means range of opportunity for the teacher

Some of the students have extensive experience of Spanish; others have an aptitude for languages. Others have neither. It’s got me thinking ‘how could the teacher use the more advanced students to help the less advanced?’ Actually, a couple of us have taken it upon ourselves to sit with the real beginners and nurse them through difficult parts of the lesson. That’s because we’re saints.

 

Offer different modes to learn

Most of our learning has come directly through the teacher’s modeling of phrases (this must be exhausting for him), with lots of practice among the students. I’d quite like to read a text or listen to a short audio clip or watch a video or write a dialogue or do some kind of task. It’s difficult with complete beginners, but four classes in, I’d like to be exploring different modes of getting input and producing output.
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A good atmosphere can compensate for many things

While some are struggling and others are under-challenged, all of us are enjoying ourselves. We are mature enough to see the language class as an elaborate game in which you ask someone their name even if you know it; ask where someone’s from even if she happens to be your wife; and pretend to want to order some obscure fruit that looks like a radioactive hedgehog.

Overall, the class has been great so far. Muy buena y muy divertida. What about your experiences as a Beginner? Similar or different?

Los veo luego (or ‘hasta later’, as one student was heard to say last week).

 



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