38.3 million. That’s how many people in the U.S. speak Spanish, but if your child is studying Spanish in school, they might not be one of them. If your student is in third- or fourth-year Spanish, ask if they can follow an episode of a telenovela—or tell you what the lyrics to “Despacito” mean.
The problem is probably not with your child. Even hard-working and dedicated students can emerge from language education with little more than the basics. Why is Spanish education so ineffective in the U.S.?
Language learning is complex. As babies, we were immersed in the words, sounds, and spoken the language of our culture even before we were born. Our brains learned through immersion, through natural exposure to our language. Unfortunately, our natural cognitive processing plays little part in the methods used in most high school language programs.
Teaching in English
For one, most Spanish classes are taught in English. It’s understandable that some part of the class should be taught in a familiar language, but this practice reinforces the idea that Spanish isn’t a skill students really have to master. One solution is simple: teach in Spanish at least 50% of the time to allow students to learn how to think and speak in the language.
Grammar is Boring
You’ve probably heard moms make corrections like, “I’m so proud you RAN to the house!” when their little kids say, “Look, Mommy, I runned!” You almost never hear a parent saying, “Now, Timmy, ‘to run’ is an irregular verb.”
Unfortunately, grammar in Spanish education is often taught in isolation, as in, “Today, we’re learning present progressive.” Many fourth-year Spanish students choke on the grammar, thinking, “Do I use ser or estar? Do I need subjunctive or indicative?” and feel too inhibited to actually speak.
Finally, Spanish dialogues aren’t a great way to learn. They’re usually written to show a grammar concept, but the dialogues sound stilted. It’s crucial for students to learn and absorb the syntactical patterns of the target language. A better way is to use stories, well-known songs, and popular music to teach useful idioms and phrases. Let’s go beyond “Dora the Explorer”!
Ultimately, Spanish education in the U.S. doesn’t have to stay in the dark ages. Thanks to an abundance of media and linguistic research, it’s possible to improve Spanish education to use the cognitive processing we were literally born with. Si, se puede!
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