For the last six months I have been living in Spain, a country I love. I live in a village in the mountains which is both beautiful and stimulating in so many ways not the least of which is relearning Spanish. I am not a beginner at Spanish, in fact, I am pretty much fluent or I thought I was. I am however finding the Andalusian accent challenging to say the least and my grammar is totally South American, Colombian to be specific. I learned Spanish 25 years ago in Bogota, Colombia. At the time I had just recently discovered I loved Spanish after years of being convinced I just “didn’t have the mind for it.” I became obsessed with all things Spanish from the soap operas to the literature and music. For more about my complicated love story with Spanish, check out my previous post Love is In the Air. I dove into Spanish head first and pretty much didn’t speak English for an entire year.
I am now getting by on what I learned back then but I am finding my Spanish is not really progressing because it is so easy just to rest on my laurels and use the vocabulary and grammar structures I already know. I have noticed that with many of my advanced Spanish as a second language friends, this seems to be the case.
The Problem with Being Advanced is that My Strengths Have now Become Crutches that Help Me Avoid Improving Upon My Weaknesses.
Most advanced speakers have achieved a good level of fluency and that often masks other areas in which they may be weak. For example, many advanced speakers stick to the same 3 or 4 verb tenses. In my case, I use a lot of verb tenses but I don’t know how to use the “vosotros”, third-person plural, informal because in Colombia they don’t generally use it. I have noticed some advanced speakers make the same pronunciation errors over and over again while others do what I do and stick to the same vocabulary they already know.
I reached a level of vocabulary that is such that I can describe almost anything I want without learning the actual specific word for it. I then move on with my day without ever learning the new word that would have made me a better speaker/writer. My strengths have made it easy for me to avoid my weaknesses. What I, and a lot of advanced learners need to do is adopt a beginner’s mindset. I need to open myself to Spanish again with curiosity and not block out what I don’t already know. So, how do I do that and how do I encourage my advancedstudents to do the same?
First, Identify Areas of Strength and Weakness.
Aside from the 4 skills we usually talk about in language teaching (reading, writing, speaking and listening) there are 4 other areas to focus on when people are going about their business in a second language. Those are fluency, pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. When I look at my own skills and knowledge, I see that my fluency is pretty good, I can generally keep up with the conversations around me and participate in a timely and appropriate manner. I don't have too much trouble understanding people when they speak (thick Andalusian accent excepted) and I can speak at a comfortable rate without searching for grammar or vocabulary. My Grammar is also pretty good although I could work on that "Vosotros" (second person plural informal) that is so popular in Spain but rarely used in Colombia. My pronunciation is also good albeit South American.
One of my proudest Spanish speaking moments was when a Colombian mistook me for another Colombian after speaking to me for about 10 minutes; he thought I was from another area of Colombia. If I didn't actually do a happy dance, I certainly did one in my mind, in fact, I am doing one right now just remembering!
My vocabulary however is in desperate need of improvement. The problem is I know enough to be able to describe just about anything and that means I can describe my way out of learning any of that high level, juicy vocabulary that would bring my Spanish to the next level. I can also understand enough from from context when I am reading and listening that I don't really need to look things up.
Next, Rediscover That Old Passion for Learning the Second Language and all Things Related to It.
Becoming Fascinated with Pronunciation
In the last few years I have become enamored by pronunciation. I love learning all about the sounds of English, how they sound in isolation, how they combine, and how they present themselves differently in different accents. You can help your students develop a fascination with it too by taking them back to the very beginning and learning the sounds again. My yoga class recently did something called a vowel circle in order to open up our chests and it occurred to me that it would be perfect for an English class.
We all sat in a circle and the teacher started with a vowel. I would start with the EE sound in green. She started and a few seconds later, the person on her left started, then a few seconds later the next person started and it went around the circle. Everyone held the sound until they ran out of breath and then stopped. When the sound reached the teacher again, she started with the next sound, I would use the “i” as in silver next because it is the next sound as the mouth opens up. You could do this with your class using the “AY” in grey, “e” in red, the “A” in black, and the “o” in olive, showing students how the mouth gradually opens up to form the vowel sounds. On another day, you could start with the “O” from olive, progress to the “OW” in brown, the “O” in rose, the “OO” in wood and the “UE” in blue. Even though this exercise focuses on the basic sounds, I bet your students have never done it before and may not even be conscious of how many different vowel sounds English has.
Progressing from those very basic sounds, you could ask your advanced students to become curious about pronunciation. I know that as a beginning student of Spanish, I became aware that my pronunciation didn’t sound like the Colombian speakers around me and I loved they way they sounded. I spent weeks just listening to how they sounded and trying to figure out what I was doing differently. It finally dawned on me that they were handling their vowels totally differently that I was. It took a few weeks of consciously changing the way I was holding my mouth and producing my vowel sounds but I did it and I loved the results. You could encourage your students to become "experts" on different accents and explain how the sounds and rhythms of English change depending on who is speaking.
Your students may not want to get rid of their accents like I did but becoming more aware of the sounds of a language makes it easier to understand it. It might also be interesting for your advanced students to become familiar with accents they don’t usually hear and think about the variety of Englishes spoken around the world.
Check out this post on the First 4 Things I Teach my Students About Pronunciation for fun ideas about how to go back to the beginning.
Going Gaga over Grammar!
Grammar can often be a stumbling block for beginning students who are taught to focus on it to the exclusion of all else. I know many of my university students could explain grammar concepts to me I had never even thought about yet when they were speaking, they consistently dropped the “S” on the end of third person singular verbs in the simple present tense. This is a case in which it would be great to go back to the basics!
Advanced students often blow by grammar mistakes because they are speaking so fluently and they have been making the same mistake for years sometimes and it sounds totally correct to their ears. In this case it might be good to slow them down a bit and have them "edit" their speaking. One thing my students really enjoyed doing was taping themselves speaking for a minute or two (usually answering an opinion question about the topic we had studied that week) They would then submit it to me on our learning platform (for more about the learning platform I use, check out 7 On-Line Tools that Made My ESL/EFL Classes More Effective) I would then listen and add verbal feedback. Advanced students could also listen to their own videos listening specifically for things like did they put the final "S" on verbs in the third person present? Did they use a variety of verb tenses if it was appropriate or did they stick to the simple present, past and future?
Advanced students could also have fun paying attention to what kind of grammar their favorite authors use. They could compare how different authors use grammar. I am getting excited just thinking about this! Where is a book in Spanish so I can get started?
Very Excited about Vocabulary!!
This is my greatest sticking point in Spanish. My vocabulary is pretty good, I know all of the basic words without even having to think about them and that is great but it also means that I no longer make lists of vocabulary words like I used to. I need to go back to a beginner’s mindset of being fascinated with words and phrases.
My husband is a native Turkish speaker who learned English in school and then in the United States when we moved there after we got married. It is hard to tell that English is not his first language and that is because he never gave up his beginner’s mind set for vocabulary. He has always been hungry for words. He reads extensively in English and never lets an unknown word slip by. When he does find a word he doesn’t know, he looks it up and tries to use it in his conversations in the next few days. He especially loves idioms.
I recently learned a new word in Spanish that delighted me and made me laugh, pedo de lobo means wolf's fart and is a kind of mushroom. Encourage your advanced students to keep vocabulary notebooks, use Quizlett or do other things beginners do to learn new vocabulary. You could also encourage them to listen for idioms and share them with each other. They may be out of practice when it comes to memorizing new words at this point so it might help to share these Brain Tricks to Remember Vocabulary Longer.
What do you do to keep a beginner's mindset?
Do you find teaching advanced students more or less challenging than teaching beginners?
Do you have a beginner's mindset when it comes to teaching?
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Hi, I'm Kia.
Teaching is my passion, I have been teaching for over 20 years in 4 different continents. One of the things I have learned over the years is that I am never done learning about teaching. Both teaching and learning should be fun and inspiring.
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