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Furthering Spanish Fluency

We like to think of fluency as the ability to communicate comfortably, although the more formal definition has to do with proficiency in the skill areas of speaking, listening, reading and writing. Our series called "Furthering Fluency" includes advice and perspectives about achieving fluency.

Furthering Fluency Series:

Which is harder, speaking Spanish or understanding what a native speaker is saying?

Some say that the receptive skills (listening, reading) are easier than the productive skills (speaking, writing). But is that really true? It depends on your level, your personal strengths and weaknesses, and in the case of listening,4 language skills the accent, local words and speed of the speaker. Based on our experience, listening comprehension is usually the most difficult of the four language skills, and it requires a good deal of practice to become proficient.

When reading, you don’t have to generate the content, you have plenty of time and can consult your translator app, dictionary, verb tables or other references. When trying to understand what someone else is saying, you can’t control the speed and may miss some words, without the ability it play it back. Whether listening or reading, you don't need to know the grammar as much as when you are producing the content by speaking or writing. But, it isn't easy to fully understand what a native speaker is saying.

Beginning students often say that speaking is the hardest, as they are still learning to put together vocabulary and grammar while trying to speak. This is difficult until one has practiced enough. They usually understand some of what others say and are aided here by context and body language, while not being personally responsible for coming up with every word as they are when speaking.

As students progress in their knowledge of Spanish, they are better able to construct their own sentences and speak. They gain confidence and often can communicate quite a bit despite making some mistakes. At this point, students generally say that listening comprehension is the most difficult of the four skills. As beginners, our expectations for listening comprehension tend to be lower and we are more focused on speaking ourselves. Once our speaking ability is OK, we then need to be sure we can get the gist of what others say to us in a conversation.

Let's say that your Spanish is decent and you're visiting Nicaragua. You should be able to go into a bus station, tell them you need a bus to Granada and be understood. Very good. The person is then going to answer you, perhaps explaining a complication about your trip and asking you a question.  This is the real test – an unscripted conversation with a native speaker that knows no English. Can you do it? Is understanding the answer harder than what you said? Probably so.

To practice your listening skills outside of class, try listening online to the TV news reporting from a Spanish-speaking country. Watching movies with both Spanish dialogue and subtitles is a good way to practice on your own and build your listening comprehension skills (see also Have Fun Learning Spanish with Movies) before something like the test described above.

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How Much Do You Need to Know to Speak Spanish?

Students sometimes ask us how long it takes to learn Spanish. There is no set answer; it depends on the person, their learning program, how much time they devote and the level of proficiency they want to achieve. Most of us must balance the amount of time we devote to learning Spanish with other things in our lives, and that is why most of our SWC classes meet only once a week. At this planned rate, it will generally take several years to get to the point where you can have a basic conversation with a native speaker.

Studies have shown that learning just the 1000 most commonly used words of a language will cover roughly 90% what's in a spoken conversation, and 500 words will get you around 75%. There are some details behind this figure (such 1000_words_chartas what counts as a "word"), but the take-home message here is that a modest vocabulary is sufficient for conversation. And if 1000 sounds like a lot to you, it really isn't. Your vocabulary will grow way more quickly than you think as you work with your new language. And, a single word in Spanish often has various forms (verb, nouns, adjectives, adverb) so it's like "learn one, get 6 free." Of course, vocabulary by itself won't do you much good; you need to learn how to put words together into a phrase. We sometimes get new students who have used computer programs to learn mostly vocabulary but are unable to put a sentence together. The easiest way for an adult to learn to do so is to learn some rules for how Spanish works. Your teacher will help you do that. At SWC, you'll learn pronunciation and vocabulary through usage and practice. You'll learn common phrases and how to construct sentences. End result: you'll speak Spanish.

Did we mention practice? If you want to learn to speak Spanish, you need a lot of practice speaking, preferably with native speakers. Our classes are small so you'll be speaking and learning new things in every class. And don't worry about making mistakes, just go for it! The more you speak, the better you'll get.

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How to be Successful Learning Spanish

Imagine how great it would be to travel to Spanish-speaking countries and speak to the locals in their language. So why not learn Spanish? Learning Spanish can be fun and you'll definitely see the benefits when you travel or otherwise use your new language skills. If you want to learn Spanish, you can be successful.

The thing is, like going to the gym or learning to play the guitar, it takes time and effort to be successful. It's not that learning a language is too hard. Finding the time can be a challenge but is generally doable. Often the greatest challenge is committing to your learning goal and sticking with it until it becomes a habit. Why a habit? Because it'll be easier to stay motivated. Just like a morning shower, you do it without thinking about it. Books have been written about this subject but we'll boil things down to a few bottom-line suggestions here. While we've included some specific strategies, this article is really about establishing a learning behavior that works.

habitTo be successful, establish a routine and stay with it so it becomes a habit. If you're taking a 90-minute class that meets every week, make that class a commitment, a routine that you don't break. For most of us that's manageable, and a class provides social support that helps (not to mention the benefits of learning with a great teacher).

Take advantage of learning opportunities that require very little time. The best way to learn a language is to practice with it a little every day. This will help you create your new habit and is often easier than less frequent, longer times. Here are some suggestions that take very little time. Surround yourself with Spanish with a near-zero time commitment (post-it notes on the bathroom mirror, sentences on the refrigerator). Learn a word every day with the SpanishDict app which will send you the word of the day at the time you choose, such as first thing in the morning (read our article about it). Make yourself some flashcards to learn new vocabulary and run through them at breakfast and during a break later in the day (read about our method). For more ideas, take a look at our tips for learning Spanish; there are lots of good ways to add some Spanish to your relaxation time or non-productive time.

As part of your new routine, plan to review what you learned in your last class and prepare for the next one. Set aside a specific time slot and study in the same place (your Spanish zone). Put it on your calendar. Use your smart phone or computer to set a reminder for your appointment with Spanish and stick to it. You need to turn your Spanish practice into a habit. Start with a modest amount of time, even if it's only 5 minutes today and 10 minutes tomorrow. Before long your brain will respond to the routine and so will you. It'll be more fun and you'll feel a good sense of accomplishment because you'll be making real progress with your Spanish! Have fun and learn!

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Beginning Conversations

What is fluency? While there is no one definition, fluency is the ability to communicate proficiently. Our students typically have the most interest in conversation and therefore think of fluency as the ability to carry on a conversation. Our classes integrate all four skill areas but with considerable emphasis on speaking and listening. These two skills need more attention since they are more difficult to acquire. After all, conversation is spontaneous and for the most part you can’t slow it down as you can with reading and writing. So do you need to know all the verb tenses and have a huge vocabulary to be “fluent?” No, and don’t worry about fluency as some mystical level that must be achieved. Language learning is a process of continual improvement. You can start having conversations pretty early in your learning and indeed you should. It’s normal to feel hesitant at first. The words don’t always seem to come, and you make mistakes. However, the key to learning a language (or a musical instrument, or many other things) is practice, practice, practice. So, we encourage our students to speak, speak, speak and accept that there will be errors, and not worry about it. Chances are that whoever you are speaking with has a pretty good idea that this is a normal language learning step and perhaps has also gone through it. Bit by bit, the words will start to flow, the pronunciation will become second nature and you’ll be getting better and better.

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Learn Spanish to Use It

Our students come to us because they want to speak Spanish. Yep, real conversation, like talking with a street vendor in Peru. Want to learn to speak Spanish? The recipe for success is simple but not easy.

1. What’s the best way? Get someone who knows both the language and how to teach it and have them teach it to you! And for things to work, it’s got to be fun and you’ve got to be participating and speaking all the time. There’s often lots of laughing in our classes at Spanish in Waterbury Center, and because we keep group size small, you’ll be speaking and learning the language. Private instruction is also a great option. Language learning software programs can be useful support tools, but to learn to speak you need to engage in a conversation with another real person.

2. Is it hard? No, but it’s not easy either. Learning a foreign language takes effort, so you “gotta wanna.” To learn material covered in class means you need to work with the language outside of class. That means some homework and studying. As with sports and many things, the more time you put in, the more you will progress.

3. What is the process? For adults, learning a foreign language is best accomplished through a combination of intellectual learning and practice, keeping in mind that the goal is communication. We have our students start out speaking in their first class, so their speaking skills and comfort level progress along with learning new material.

          Learn new material >>> Practice >>> Acquisition

From there, it’s just a matter of adding more to what you’ve already learned. And keep speaking and using your Spanish!

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Don’t Habitualize Errors

A number of our students come to us with some background in Spanish. Often it’s from traveling in Latin America and what we call learning “en la calle” (in the street). A good thing about this type of experience is that these students are generally comfortable speaking and have gotten over any embarrassment associated with making mistakes. The bad part is that mistakes tend to go undetected with this type of learning and then become habitualized. How does this happen? When you learn in a foreign country you pick up the language from what you see and hear, of course without exposure to any grammar. You learn to communicate even though you are not always getting it right. For example, if someone learning English said to you, “Black cat see yesterday me” you would probably understand what they were trying to say. But, say that 500 times and you glue it in your brain. That’s a problem because once it’s there, it’s hard to unglue. When you take classes with us, you’ll get “guided practice” -- we ensure that you do not perpetuate mistakes and turn them into bad habits. We use a mix of teaching techniques to keep things engaging, so you’ll develop a proper educational base and get the practice you need. We want you to habitualize Spanish AND glue it in your head…saying things right.

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Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

In our last article, Don’t Habitualize Errors, we explained how travelers who learn Spanish “en la calle” (in the street) run the risk of repeating mistakes until they become habits. While this can be a problem, learning in an immersive environment provides valuable practice. Our students who have learned some Spanish this way often have to correct some bad habits, but on the plus side they are comfortable speaking. Errors or not. Contrast this with the student who has a good academic base but lacks the practice from traveling and is hesitant to speak. To become fluent, you need to speak, speak, speak until the words flow easily just the way they do with your native language. So how do you start, when you're a beginner and still learning? You know you're going to make a bunch of mistakes, right? Many students find this to be embarrassing and are hesitant to take those first speaking steps. However, this is how we all learn a new language. You just have to go for it. And chances are that you'll be speaking with others who have gone through the same thing; they've been there and understand. The good news is that it gets easier the more you do it. So go ahead, speak, practice, get good at it.

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Moving Up the Learning Curve

Research in brain science, psychology and linguistics all contribute to theories about how we learn languages. But, let’s keep it simple and talk about the ups and downs you may experience as you learn Spanish. First, what do we mean by a “learning curve?” It refers to how fast we learn something, with the word “curve” implying that the rate is very often not constant. And so it is with leaning Spanish. As a student you are likely to experience three stages:

1) Learning the Basics. As you start out, everything is new and your reaction may be, "Gee, there’s a lot to learn." Fortunately, beginning material is straightforward and you should soon transition to "Hey, this is great! I’m learning a lot!" You are getting your building blocks and acquiring your “critical mass” -- that is, enough words and grammar to go on to the next step. You should really feel your progress at this stage.

2) Assembling the Pieces. Once you acquire that critical mass and verb-ability, you should feel a “jump” as you begin to really communicate and form your own sentences. This "I can speak now!" stage is an exciting accomplishment that you can be proud of. But, once you turn this bend you may feel like you are not progressing as quickly.

3) Steady Progress. Once you learn the easy stuff, you'll be moving on to more challenging topics. At first your reaction may be something like "Wait a minute, that’s a lot of verb tenses," but that should soon change to the "OK, I’m getting it" feeling. While the challenges are greater, so are the rewards as you are moving to real and quite useful fluency (comfortable, effective communication). This more gradual progress can be harder to notice, but it's happening. Here are some signs. Is your teacher speaking almost all the time in Spanish? And you're understanding almost everything? Do you find yourself thinking less about every word before you say it? Are you relatively at ease speaking? Can you read a book in Spanish with minimal dictionary use? Congratulations! You've made great progress and there's no limit to the level of proficiency you can achieve.

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Learning in Small Bites Helps You Remember

Did you ever cram for an exam the night before? Chances are that the material didn’t stick in your brain for the longer term. But, repeated mini-reviews can do so -- and without a big time commitment. For example, spending 10 minutes with flashcards a few times a week can “peg” or glue that new vocabulary in your brain. Think of the Spanish verb pegar, which means to glue, to paste, to stick (adhere) or to put up (poster, picture) and imagine pegging those words in your brain. So, try breaking your study efforts into more frequent, shorter blocks.

While flashcards may seem unexciting, they really can help you effectively and rapidly learn new vocabulary. We recommend that you make your own, since the act of writing and preparing each card is in itself a step toward “pegging” the material in your head. It’s worth the effort (vale la pena).

Just get some 3x5 index cards and cut them in half so you’ll have cards 2.5” wide by 3” tall. Write your word in Spanish near the top of the card and then the English translation near the bottom. Shuffle them if you want. Use the top card as a cover for the one below it. Slide the top card down to reveal the Spanish word on the one below it. When you’re ready to check your answer, reveal the English at the bottom of the card. Each successive card can go to the bottom of the deck for review, or remove the ones you know to reduce the deck down and focus on those you don’t. Chances are that you can go through them and remember most of the words in maybe 20 minutes (let’s keep each deck down to a manageable number of cards, say 20-50). Go through them again the next day. You may be surprised at how soon you can remember your new Spanish!

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Make Reading Part of Your Learning Strategy

If you are learning Spanish, reading is a big deal. Reading helps you review and remember what you’ve learned in class. Just hitting a topic once won’t glue it in your memory, whether it’s Spanish or how to use a new computer program. Reading also helps you learn new vocabulary as well as proper sentence structure. The order of the parts in a sentence are often different in Spanish than in English, so you want to become familiar with correct Spanish sentences. Learning grammar rules can be helpful, especially at beginning levels, but you should try to immerse yourself in correct usage of Spanish to learn to speak. Practicing listening and speaking are obviously important, but so is reading. Studies have shown that reading is one of the best ways to improve language proficiency. All should be part of your learning through actual use of the Spanish language.

The more Spanish you know, the more reading options you have, but reading material designed for beginners is also available. At times during our class sessions, we'll use short novels that are written specifically for your level. There is also quite a lot of material available online; here are two good sources that include free readings for beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels.

http://cvc.cervantes.es/aula/lecturas/

http://www.learnpracticalspanishonline.com/index.html

Add reading to your learning; you'll definitely get results and chances are you'll enjoy it too.

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No Hay Otra Manera

We've touched on this topic before, but it needs to be said again. The natural tendency for a student learning another language is that she/he feels embarrassed about speaking because of making mistakes. It is important to get over this. To learn to speak, you need to speak. You have to be willing to speak, knowing you will make some mistakes. Everyone, yes everyone, who learns a new language goes through this. You just can't go from "book learning" to perfect speaking without passing through imperfection en route. The good news is that it's no big deal. Others will understand and give you a break. So if you have a chance to speak with someone in Spanish, consider it a valuable opportunity and do it! Aprovechar is the what we're talking about here! This is how you'll learn to speak.

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The Adult Advantage in Language Learning

Here at SWC we have students of all ages, from babies to seniors. Yes, children are brain-wired for rapid language learning and have great memories. Their progress at learning Spanish is remarkable. So if we begin learning Spanish years later as adults, have we missed the boat? We sometimes hear people say, “I’m too old to start learning Spanish.” The fact is, anyone can learn a foreign language, regardless of age. If you’re interested and make an effort, you can do it. And, there are several factors that give adult learners advantages over kids.

As they learn their first language, kids first pick up vocabulary. They then need to learn about concepts such as how to put a sentence together and that things change between singular and plural. This ability develops naturally over time, but indeed they are starting from zero. In contrast, adults have an advantageous head start – they already know at least one language and how it works! While Spanish and English of course have their differences, overall they are pretty similar. Nouns, verb conjugation, adverbs and adjectives? Yup. The same alphabet? Nearly. Lots of words that are the same or similar? Thousands. So, adults start out way ahead.

Brain science and experience have shown us that children are definitely primed for language learning; we often say “they learn like sponges.” While this is a big deal, adults on the other hand are better positioned to focus on a topic, apply reasoning, recognize errors, and comprehend concepts and rules of grammar. This is one reason why we do teach adults about grammar. Even though it is sometimes shunned by the “secret methods” you may read about online, the fact is that learning the rules about how a language works is a good fit for the adult mind. Adults and kids learn and think differently. Adults have passed the sponge stage but moved on to be experienced and analytical. That’s not all bad.

We have to give kids the edge on pronunciation. They’re great at distinguishing between similar sounds and learn to speak a new language without any accent. In general, if you learn Spanish as an adult you will speak with an accent. Fortunately this doesn’t usually hinder communication much.

Students sometimes ask us, “How long does it take to become fluent?” This of course depends a great deal on the intensity of your learning schedule, but we are usually talking about a period of years with a non-intense schedule. That may sound like a long time, but think about how long it took you to learn your native language? How old does a child have to be before she/he can speak her/his native language competently? This is not a question that has a simple answer because language acquisition includes a number of stages, but let’s say age 4 or 5. And this is with lots of parental assistance and basically constant immersion. This doesn't mean that kids are slow learners; the fact is they are learning a ton of other things at the same time and as we said, starting from scratch. But, adult learners can learn Spanish faster than this with a reasonable level of study. Kids are great, but we have adult students who are amazing too!

That said, a child who grows up with considerable exposure to and use of two languages will become truly bilingual. That's a really tough level for an adult to achieve later in life.

So the take-home message is this: get your kids started early with Spanish and if you want to learn too, you can do it!

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Is Grammar Really Best Avoided?

I remember my first trip to Mexico. I bought a phrasebook that came with an audio cassette tape. I listened to the tape and reviewed the book, but I was basically clueless. I had learned some vocabulary, which was good. While I was able to also say some phrases that I had learned, I had no idea where they came from or anything about how the language worked. I could not construct an original sentence, and forget about understanding what anybody said to me. Still, I developed a strong desire to learn more and began taking classes. In the beginning this meant vocabulary, some greetings and simple grammar like masculine/feminine. But then I leaned some verbs and their conjugation and felt like I had finally broken through the barrier. Finally I could make an original sentence! And not just one, but thousands, just by combining my limited repertoire of nouns, adjectives and verbs. If I had not learned those simple grammar constructs, I would have still been trying to learn like a parrot – listen and repeat without understanding how to construct something new. It’s true that grammar can sometimes be less than exciting. But for me, learning how the language works (yes, that’s grammar) is the key to using it. And don't worry... classes at SWC are fun!

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Have Fun Learning Spanish with Movies

The best way to learn Spanish is practice the language as much as possible (see Immerse Yourself in Spanish the Easy Way) and make it fun. A lot of people enjoy watching a movie and learning Spanish at the same time. That’s not homework, right? And there are some great movies, whether you want shoot-em-up action or quality drama. Movies are definitely a great way to immerse yourself in genuine dialogue, as well as culture. And, it’s important to hear how native speakers speak, for the pronunciation, the rhythm and the intonation, and use of common expressions and even how sentences are put together. Movies will also help you learn new vocabulary and cement words you already know. You might even pick up some cool lines to use when the right opportunity comes along. Don't worry if you think you can't understand anything....you are in fact getting some words, learning pronunciation, and the rhythm of the speaking. Don’t hesitate to use subtitles. The table below provides a quick summary of the different subtitle options. You will want to start with English subtitles but move to both subtitles and dialogue in Spanish as you improve. You may find it helpful to first watch a movie with subtitles in English and then again with Spanish. Or try watching the movie more than once; you may be surprised at how much more you pick up the second time around. Some people like to watch a movie many times over until they have almost memorized dialogue.

Level
Dialogue
Subtitles
 Comments
1
English
Spanish
Start here. You’ll see the Spanish in writing and will recognize some words, then more as you build your skills. You'll see a sentence in Spanish and hear what it means in English.
2
Spanish
English
This is the next step. The English subtitles will help you recognize what you hear in Spanish. Processing both languages at once is not ideal but you will still learn a lot.
3
Spanish
Spanish
It’s good to go 100% Spanish. It’s usually easier to understand the written text than the spoken words. Assuming your reading ability is ok, the subtitles will help you comprehend the dialogue. Seeing and hearing the words together is doubly-good!
4
Spanish
None
If you can get the gist of the dialogue without subtitles, you will definitely be focused on listening comprehension. You will find quite a few movies with Spanish dialogue and only English subtitles, in which case you’ll have to try either level 2 or 4.

While there is no shortage of Spanish language films with subtitles available in English, perhaps less than half of them also have subtitles in Spanish. If you want Spanish subtitles, you'll want to verify they're available when you choose your movies. Netflix now was quite a bit of Spanish language content to pick from. Ask your teacher for suggestions.

Fluency is about stepping beyond the textbook and into the conversational world, where you’ll need two skills. You will need to listen quite a bit until you get good at recognizing what you hear native speakers saying in Spanish. You will also need to create and speak your own sentences, and with practice the words will flow more and more the way they do for your native tongue, as a subconscious reflex. Enjoy building your skills with movies.

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Learning a Second Language Helps Your Brain

We say it all the time: she's really smart, he's not good with languages, I can't remember anything anymore. Are we just stuck with the brain power we were born with? Are our brains going downhill as we get older? Or can we make ourselves smarter and improve our learning and memory? Fortunately, the answer to the last question is "yes." Science today is revealing more and more about how our brains function, providing us with information on things we can do to help our brains to improve function and learning effectiveness.

We know that we can learn something by practice, whether it's playing the piano or speaking a new language. Scientists talk about neuroplasticity which means that our brains are adaptable and will build up in the areas where we use them. So, the right kind of exercise for your brain can make you smarter. Here are some of the specific ways that learning a second language helps power up your brain:

A study from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, recently published in Annals of Neurology, found that learning a second language has positive effects on the brain, including improved intelligence levels, reading skills and verbal fluency. Student age doesn't matter, nor is it necessary to reach a high level of fluency.

Don't just take our word for it, check out this excellent 5-minute TED-Ed video, The benefits of a bilingual brain by Mia Nacamulli. This animated video is fun and easy to understand. Just click the YouTube play button below.

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Learning Another Language: a Brain Fitness Program

When we ask our students why they want to learn Spanish, no one says “to improve cognitive function of my brain.” It’s seldom the primary motivation but definitively one of the benefits. Viorica Marian, an expert in bilingualism and communication science at Northwestern University, recently published a study demonstrating that speaking more than one language exercises your brain and improves its ability to filter information. [Brain and Language; November, 2014]

fmri

Marian used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in volunteers who were asked to perform language comprehension tasks. She found that people who spoke two languages (as opposed to one) could more efficiently process information in the face of distractions.

When your brain works with more than one language, it’s like a continual exercise program. Your brain is constantly deciding which language to turn on and which to turn off. This strengthens your inhibitory control, the ability to focus on what matters and ignore what doesn’t. Mentally juggling more than one language strengthens this ability; it’s like a body building program for your brain.

We live in a busy world today, often with many things going on at once, and are bombarded with information. Being able to focus on the task at hand and filter out potential distractions is more important to success than ever. It now appears that the more your brain switches between languages the greater the benefit will be. According to Marian, “It’s never too late to learn another language. The benefits can be seen even after just one semester of studying.”

Learning a second language is a lot like a physical workout program. Both require motivation and practice and are more successful when you enjoy what you're doing. You can have fun learning something new, get more out of your visits to Spanish-speaking countries, and open up new employment opportunities. And, you’ll also reap the cognitive benefits that extend beyond language learning. Read more at http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-11/nu-bbb111014.php

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It’s About Remembering

On May 27, 2015 National Public Radio aired a story about research on the advantages of hand-written notes over those done on a laptop. That study opens the door to a related broader topic, having to do with learning Spanish and remembering what you learn. retroclass

The research project found that taking notes by hand, rather than by laptop, results in better recall of the material because it requires mental processing of the information. To take notes by hand, you need to summarize and record key points. That requires quick comprehension and synthesis, and the result is better recall. The issue with laptop note taking is that it tends to be word for word typing of what is being said.

In our SWC article Learning in Small Bites Helps You Remember we talk about how the act of writing something down, which involves a brain-eye-hand interaction, actually helps glue the material in your brain. You remember it better.

SWC teaching methods make the most of how we learn and remember. In the classroom, this means that a mix of verbal and visual content, writing things on the board, and making the class interactive and fun are key to good learning. Pictures and quirky things grab your brain’s attention. Participation does too. At SWC, you’ll be thinking, learning and speaking Spanish, with a smile on your face. We use technology as a great support tool for language learning, but our focus is always on the use of engaging methods that help our students effectively learn Spanish.

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What Does it Mean to be Bilingual or Fluent?

When someone says they are fluent or bilingual in another language, what do they mean? Well, not always the same thing; the meanings are a matter of some debate. While the terms are used most often in relation to speaking, they can also refer to the skill areas of reading, writing and listening comprehension.

bilingualA widely accepted definition of bilingual is the ability to speak two languages equally well, easily and naturally. Many consider bilingual to mean the ability to speak both languages like a native speaker. This level of proficiency can result from growing up in a home where two languages are spoken. It is also possible to learn a second language later in life, as may happen when someone immigrates to a new country where a new language is spoken. However, bilingual is also sometimes used in a much looser context, to mean just “some” ability to communicate in two languages.

Fluent is more universally understood as meaning a high skill level with a language. A person who is fluent can speak a language easily and accurately. The term is often used to describe a non-native speaker who speaks a language very well. Some people associate fluency with being able to speak without hesitation, without translating in your head as you speak.

As things stand today, these words are not clearly defined and can reflect various levels of language proficiency. There are however quite a few detailed assessment scales that clearly define levels of proficiency. One straightforward example is that used by the U.S. Department of State with its personnel, shown in the following table.

U.S. Department of State - Levels of Language Proficiency

Proficiency Code

Speaking Definitions

Reading Definitions

0 - No Practical Proficiency

No practical speaking proficiency.

No practical reading proficiency.

1 - Elementary Proficiency

Able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements

Able to read some personal and place names, street signs, office and shop designations, numbers and isolated words and phrases

2 - Limited Working Proficiency

Able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements

Able to read simple prose, in a form equivalent to typescript or printing, on subjects within a familiar context

3 - Minimum Professional Proficiency

Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics

Able to read standard newspaper items addressed to the general reader, routine correspondence, reports, and technical materials in the individual's special field.

4 - Full Professional Proficiency

Able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels pertinent to professional needs.

Able to read all styles and forms of the language pertinent to professional needs.

5 - Native or Bilingual Proficiency

Equivalent to that of an educated native speaker.

Equivalent to that of an educated native.

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These Kids will be Bilingual - Spanish Immersion

In today‘s global economy, speaking more than one language is becoming increasing important and advantageous. And, more and more schools are changing how they approach language education. The emerging model for success is language immersion education, which integrates the teaching of language and content from an early age.

studentsResearch has shown that immersing students at a young age is the best way to learn a second language. One example is the Spanish Language Immersion Program implemented in Winona, Minnesota at Madison Elementary School and open to all district families with incoming kindergarteners who wish to apply. Some classes are taught mostly or entirely in Spanish, starting in the first grade. Teachers engage students by repeating and acting things out, but kids at this age pick things up amazingly fast. As students move on to grades 2 through 4, the amount of teaching in Spanish is slowly reduced until it is about 50-50 English and Spanish, and the program continues through Grade 12.

"Early age" is one key element; the other is the integration of Spanish with the teaching of other subjects. For example, in math class a teacher asks, “cinco menos dos?” (five minus two) and students reply, “Tres!

This isn't happening because Winona has a large Hispanic population (it's <2%); it's for other reasons. Students become truly bilingual and bi-literate; they not only speak two languages, they can also read and write in both. They learn to appreciate other cultures. And there’s more. Studies have shown that learning a second language results in improved cognitive development, enhanced problem solving ability, more flexible thinking (see SWC articles Learning a Second Language Helps Your Brain and Learning Another Language: a Brain Fitness Program). Being bilingual is a huge advantage in accessing jobs in today's global economy. How about for landing a job at a company like Keurig Green Mountain, given the number of Spanish-speaking countries that grow coffee?

See a brochure about Madison's Spanish Language Immersion Program.
See video Language Immersion Education in Minnesota

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Is there a Critical Age for Language Learning?

Is our ability to learn a language linked to age? According to the "critical period hypothesis," there is a critical window of time during the early years of life, related to brain development, when an individual is most able to learn a language. After this window closes, the ability to learn a language greatly diminishes. That's the hypothesis; whether or not it is true has been debated for decades. There is evidence both for and against it, and it's a huge topic in linguistics and language acquisition research.

In a recent study, researchers from England and the Netherlands measured brain signals in a group of native speakers and second language learners of German. The goal of the study was to assess language learning as a function of the age of acquisition. The native speakers learned German as children, whereas the second language group began learning German at ages ranging from 7 to 36. The study found that late learners had more problems with grammatical errors. The efficiency of neural processing appeared to gradually decline with the age at which second language learning started.

graph2graph1The graphs illustrate two theoretical relationships between second language learning proficiency and age. In the first, the ability to learn a second language declines linearly with increasing age. The second graph shows a critical period during early age, followed by a linear decline. Other possibilities exist as well.

While the existence of a critical period has not been proven, it is generally recognized that our ability to learn a new language is best when we are young. Based on our observations working with students of all ages here at SWC, there is no doubt that children learn languages rapidly. However, this is influenced by a number of factors unrelated to a critical period (for example, children are very motivated to learn to communicate and have near-constant immersion). While age makes a difference, motivation, natural aptitude and effort are also important. We have adults of all ages learning Spanish with us. If you are an adult and you want to learn Spanish, you can.

You might also like our article, "The Adult Advantage in Language Learning."

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Speak Spanish Without Thinking About Every Word

"I want to be able to speak Spanish without having to think about every word." That's what one of our students expressed as her goal when she started taking classes with us. This is in fact what many language learners equate with achieving fluency (see also What Does it Mean to be Bilingual or Fluent?).

As we learn a second language as adults, it's natural to have to think as we speak. It's a normal part of the learning process. We are pulling together what we've recently learned about the language...what vocabulary, think & speak which verb tense, proper sentence structure...and it takes a good deal of practice before we can do this without thinking about the details.

Being able to do something automatically or without much conscious thought is called automaticity. It doesn't matter whether you're learning a new language, to play the violin or ride a bike. You need to practice before the activity becomes automatic. Learning a second language is a "walk before you can run" kind of thing; you may find yourself progressing through several stages as you learn to speak. At first, you'll be able to communicate with a assortment of words and some gestures. Then you'll be putting together decent sentences but just in the present tense and with some errors. As you progress further, you'll be using more vocabulary and verb tenses and making fewer errors. And you won't need to think so much about every word.

We sometimes say that you need to repeat something 1,000 times to really learn it; this is sometimes called overlearning. It has to do with repetition beyond initial mastery until you can do it without a thought. Your brain is building new neural connections and you need repetition for this to happen.

LEARNING => PRACTICE => AUTOMATICITY

As you speak more and more, you'll gradually find yourself thinking less about every word before you say it. You'll feel more at ease, and you're on your way to automaticity. So, don't worry if you're not yet speaking without a lot of mental processing. Keep practicing and you'll get there.

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