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Learning Spanish – Speaking practice for the first time

We’ve just had our first Spanish lesson with Tanya, and it was so much fun! The mere fact that we tried it, understood each other, used a lot of language and had a laugh was a great motivation to go on.

Although I’m somewhat used to hearing Spanish, this was my first time of really interacting in it, building (relatively) long sentences and holding a meaningful conversation. What I’d expected was mostly reading from the book slowly, using the prompts for my utterances, pausing, mumbling and trying hard to extract at least something from my memory. Instead, with the help of Google Translate (from my side anyway), we had quite a lively discussion about languages for more than an hour using lots and lots of words, and asking each other to elaborate on ideas. Not bad for the first time and a perfect boost of energy for the morning!


About five months ago we decided to try learning a new language together and see how we can do it from scratch without having a teacher to going to courses. We each took a while to learn the basics (A1) in a convenient way. I went with some apps. Tanya focused on an intensive coursebook. Before the lesson, I looked through the same book and in a couple of hours I had more exposure to the language than in the previous two months with my apps…

I can’t say that Busuu was useless. It’s perfect for the first encounter with the language and drilling, but it divides learning into tiny steps and praises you a lot for completing each one of them. Plus, it uses a translation approach, so it’s impossible to immerse in the language straight away. As a result, after 15 minutes of working with the app it’s easy to believe that you’ve done a lot and it’s enough, while in reality it’s not. Bit by bit by bit… In the end it doesn’t give enough language in general and suppresses a very important skill of deducing the meaning of new words from the context.

The book, on the other hand, has all the tasks and explanations in Spanish. The large number of texts helps put everything together, practise guessing new words and improve your receptive skills very quickly. You can also adapt these texts to your own ideas thus practising a lot of language but minimising potential errors at the same time. But even so I didn’t think I would be able to hold a conversation so fast. What happened?

Obviously, learning a third/ fourth (and so on) language is much easier than the first one. But why exactly is it so? And what makes the difference for a language teacher? Here’s what I’ve discovered for myself.

Simplifying ideas and language

It must be one of the most useful skill that comes with learning more than one foreign language. In Russia quite a lot of students have a unfortunate experience of learning grammar and developing reading skills long before they start to communicate in English. So when they do, they translate from Russian. Unsurprisingly, their ideas are quite developed (as their ‘native’ thinking), but instead of putting them into more simple ones, they stick to their original thoughts and struggle with not having enough grammar and vocabulary for them. As a result, their frustration and fear of speaking is high and their English doesn’t sound natural.

However, if you learn a language with the communicative approach, you learn to balance receptive and productive skills. Ideally, at lower levels (that is before a person can speak more or less independently) all new lexis and grammar should be put into practice, slowly and with a lot of revision. Then students learn to think in a new language and simplify their ideas for the sake of successful communication.

When you’ve reached a certain level of fluency with the first language, you’ve probably also got the skill of paraphrasing and simplifying along the way. If you teach, you develop this skill all the time clarifying language to the students. If you’ve taught Beginners and children, you’ve perfected it and you’re ready for the next language) So, it seems we were well equipped) I prepared what I wanted to say in advance and looked up some vocab.

Looking for certain language structures

For every level there’s a certain curriculum, and personally, I think it’s the best thing that’s been done methodologically. For a newcomer, language is like an ocean, an unstructured flow of information. But the more experience you have in foreign languages, the more you come to understand what you need at first and what can wait, even if subconsciously. For a teacher, it becomes a list of very particular grammatical structures, topics and social situations to deal with, which will serve as the base for everything else.

For me, a person who sees the big picture first and then deals with details, it makes sense to start with the main verb structures because they allow you to make up sentences instead of short utterances. Then you add vocab to practise them. For example, first of all I look for the equivalents of:

  • the verb ‘be’ + pronouns + nationalities, basic adjectives, feelings, colours, age (depending on the language), jobs; add here ‘there is/ are…’ + places as well;
  • ‘have’ + family, friends, pets, house, basic objects;
  • present tense + most common verbs, etc.

Then I look at more particular structures or functions, like:

  • likes/dislikes – I like/ I don’t like/ I would like…
  • plans – I’m going to…
  • opinions – I think…. I agree/ disagree.. As for me…
  • generalisations – It is + adjective for impersonal sentences,
  • the infinitive of purpose (I’m reading to learn more), etc

Finally, we need question words, helping phrases and some discourse markers to get the conversation going. Here you google for something like ‘The most useful spoken phrases in Spanish’. Examples:

  • OK, well, right, good;
  • Really? Agree?
  • It depends/ Sure/ Agree/ I don’t think so.
  • What does it mean? How do you say/ pronounce…? I don’t understand
  • Who/ what/ where…?

Surely, while looking out for these things you check much more, such as basic words for social interactions (hello, buy, thank you etc), word order in a sentence, how to make questions and negative sentences, basic conjunctions (and, but, or, because, etc) to put ideas together, articles, numbers, the list goes on. It’s good to drill these things with apps and clarify pronunciation rules with them. But I still thing that speech starts with the use of verbs and verb phrases.

In our lesson we had only a couple of structures to use (present verbs and infinitives) with most of the necessary vocabulary given – ‘Hablo inglés muy bien. Leo y veo videos en francés, pero no hablo francés bien porque no lo practico.’ But at the same time I could feel that I understand the system of Spanish at this level, which is closer to French than to English. So it was easy to change some simple structures and go a little bit beyond the target language.

Using Google translator at length

What? A teacher is suggesting using a translator? In good measure and with the right approach, yes! Actually, Google Translator is quite good when it comes to short phrases put simply. I used it all the time during our lesson because I wanted to share those ideas that were out of scope of my knowledge. I wanted to use as much language as possible even if it’s by reading it from the screen. We also checked our guesses about words, their gender or conjugation, pronunciation and what else we were not sure of. Very quick and easy.

The good thing is that most words I needed were very similar to the English or French ones and it was my intention to try to use them. Do I remember them? Not really. But I’m going to look at what we discussed again and put my ideas into writing to practise this language again. In a real classroom it would have been the job of a teacher to scaffold the language and help with unknown words. In our lesson, Google performed this role almost perfectly.

It is important, though, to first do some reading and listening to learn to pronounce words and use intonation (more or less) properly. It also helps to understand how sentences are build, and to highlight those simple structures that you can use. For example, it became clear very soon, that I could say a lot using ‘It’s like…’ – ‘Para mí, el francés es como los colores y los gustos de la vida.’ Because it uses the infinitive, I don’t have to conjugate verbs, but I can still express my idea.

So, so far so good! And we’ve scheduled the next lesson already =)

Cover photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash

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