Whilst living in Costa Rica, I have worked my way through two separate, yet complementary processes; teaching English and studying Spanish. I arrived in Costa Rica from Scotland with a fairly basic level of Spanish; some knowledge of the present and past tenses but with pretty limited vocabulary. Likewise, I was new to the teaching game with little experience other than my TEFL training. Nine months down the line, and it’s interesting to reflect on the development of both skills but especially the dialectical relationship between them. Here are some thoughts that I think can help students progress in learning a foreign language from the perspective of both a student and a teacher.
When you simultaneously teach a language and study one, you realize that your brain is filled with thoughts about language most of the time. Chatting regularly with North Americans and Costa Ricans has made me reflect on the way I speak English and in many cases taught me about different ways to communicate the same idea. Perhaps what interests me more though, is how language changes the ideas themselves. Spanish, English and the regional variants within them are not only the articulations of different ideas but can begin a process of altering your own interpretation of the world. An example I find interesting, is the verb ‘esperar’, used to communicate the English sentiments of ‘hope’, ‘expect’ or ‘wait’. This ambiguity is one of the many challenges presented to an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. Students always want a correct answer but often words don’t translate. Because of this, I try as much as possible to separate the second language from the first.
A principle I have learnt through teaching and I try to apply when studying is to contextualise language rather than translate it. Two key tools in this process are; detaching from your native tongue and immersing yourself in real world language. In my classroom I enforce a rule of English only. The more students are forced to speak English, the quicker they escape Spanish and begin to think in English. When students are allowed to speak Spanish, they think in Spanish but occasionally produce what is likely to be a literally translated sentence in English. This is only natural for beginners but an ‘English only’ classroom will change this more quickly than one which permits Spanish. Secondly, immersing yourself, not just in grammar, but in contextualised language, is crucial. There are many expressions and phrases in English that are used regularly but don’t particularly follow a specific grammar rule. For example, in English we use the word ‘like’ all the time without carrying much meaning. However, if, as an English student, you spend your free time watching Netflix or YouTube there is a good chance you will pick up the habits of native speakers by consciously or subconsciously mimicking the language patterns they produce. As a teacher, when I listen to a student who uses English in a more natural conversational, rather than textbook manner, I’m always impressed.
This leads me onto another thing I have noticed in my students and tried to implement in my own Spanish. I focus a lot on the filler words commonly used in the language. Often when speaking in Spanish I will need pause for thought. Because of this I have specifically practiced ‘filler words’. Examples include, ‘pues’, ‘entonces’, ‘verdad’, ‘bueno’ and ‘digamos’. Practicing these words to fall back on in certain contexts relaxes me and gives me confidence in what I’m about to say. This is because students who use equivalent words in my classes come across more comfortable within the language and far more natural. I develop this by listening carefully to as many real life conversations as possible, any time I go to the supermarket or bakery, I eavesdrop on the other customers to see what I can learn.
Feeling comfortable is by far the most important thing when speaking another language, or even your own. I’ve seen many students who produce great conversation in class but become nervous in the oral exam and don’t speak nearly as fluently. In my opinion, one of the most important jobs of a teacher is to make students feel relaxed. It is also important to remember that there is nothing wrong with making mistakes, it is only through mistakes that you learn and improve. When teaching, I never feel embarrassed for students, as mistakes are a massive part of language learning. I’ve tried as much as is possible to take that attitude across to my experience as a student. It’s inevitable that you will feel shy or embarrassed when struggling to find words but fighting through it and remembering the benefits of a confident approach can really go a long way.
My advice to anyone learning a language is first to relax, second to immerse and third to look out for what you don’t learn in class. By doing this, you will grow faster and faster as every positive experience builds your confidence, allowing you to take more risks and move further along the path to fluency.
This blog was written by Stefan Smith from Scotland. He is currently finishing his 9-month contract teaching English at Estelar, and he has successfully graduated from all of our Spanish courses. We will miss him very much, as will the Liberia basketball team!