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5 things I know about language learning

Research says that language learning is facing a ‘difficult climate’ in England’s schools. A BBC report says that schools are introducing languages earlier but still students don’t wish to continue their language studies as they get older.

Why is the UK consistently lagging behind in languages? Is it simply that there is an arrogance associated with the dominance of the English language?

5 things I know about language learning

1: Learning needs a purpose
If students believe that English is the dominant language then this will produce a laziness when studying other languages. It will be more difficult to see the reason for study and without a purpose it is far more difficult to motivate oneself into learning. Do parents, schools or society in general encourage students to see the importance of language learning in order to fit into a global economy?
From my own experience I would suggest as well that language learning in some parts of Europe is considered normal and attainable. Living and working in the Valencian community in Spain students are brought up bilingual in Spanish and Valenciano. (Valenciano is a dialect of Catalan.) In our school children then develop that further with English throughout school. In Year 7 they begin to learn French and throughout school have the option to take Italian, German and Chinese as additional languages. Language learning is the norm. Students understand that they will be a part of a global economy and recognise the importance of language fluency if they are to take their place in such an economy.
I remember as a child having to earn French in school. Day trips to France on the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry only served to emphasise the futility of studying French as everybody one met spoke perfect English. It wasn’t until I moved to Spain that I had a genuine reason to learn to speak a foreign language. Students in the UK need to see a purpose to their language learning and that purpose comes from understanding the benefits of fluency in more than one language.

2: Learning needs to be structured and have high expectations
The article linked to above positively reports that many primary schools are starting language learning in Key Stage 1. This is a positive development but we also need to look below the surface and see the presentation and content of those lessons. By the end of Key Stage 1 the majority of our Spanish students will have a fluency in English. In most cases this will be already approaching first language fluency. What expectation is placed on language learning in Key Stage 1 classes in the UK? How can that expectation be raised? If students are learning some basic vocabulary that is a great start but where is the rigour and expectation that seven year olds can be fluently bilingual?

3: Language is easier to learn if you have an academic understanding of your native language
The recent changes to improve the standard of grammatical understanding in the UK is to be welcomed. However, it still stops way short of what  is expected in some other educational systems. Spanish students have an extremely high technical knowledge of their own language and consequently are able to apply this to learning other languages. They are able to understand quite high level concepts and rules that govern English because they can relate it to the technical knowledge that they have of their own language. This can’t be taught in any other way than through structured language lessons.
If the UK can start producing schemes of work for English language that focus on understanding grammar terms and rules then the building blocks for developing additional languages will be far more secure.

4: Language learning is most effective when it is delivered by teachers with a native fluency
A huge part of the success we have in teaching English in Spain is that we have the benefit of excellent qualified teachers with English as their home language. This makes teaching and correcting language something that is intuitive. Students consistently receive models of English in interactions throughout the day. As much language learning occurs in correcting students in the corridors and on the playgrounds as happens in class.
This immersion system for language learning is incredibly effective. A couple of years ago a student started Year 5 with no knowledge of English. One might expect starting so late would make things more difficult. By the end of Year 6 that students independently achieved Level 5 in both reading and writing. That success would not be possible without highly trained native English teachers.
Frequently we take in students from other local schools who come with excellent grades in English and a confidence that they will adapt easily due to their prior learning. What we see in every case is students that have been taught by teachers for whom English is a second language and usually these students are starting only slightly above a beginner level in English. Sadly that is the state of language learning for most students in the UK. Attracting quality teachers who have the language being taught as their native language is the key to securing higher levels and higher take up of languages in the UK.

5: Language learning is ongoing
We don’t teach students that they will learn English. We talk about reaching a fluency in English and then, the teaching continues. Language learning doesn’t stop when you achieve a particular level of proficiency but is something that develops throughout life. My own Spanish language level is sufficient to communicate but I am learning on a daily basis.

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Common English errors made by Spanish speakers

An explanation of the most common errors made by native Spanish students and how they can be corrected by the teacher.

Native Spanish speakers face a number of challenges in learning English. The translation from Spanish into English leads to common errors. If the teacher understands exactly what the error is and why it is being made then correcting the error is made easier.

Here are seven of the most common errors together with an explanation as to why the error is made. If you find this interesting and would like me to cover more of these common errors please do leave a comment below.

1: Pronunciation; “eschool, espaghettis”.
In Spanish words that begin with ‘s’ followed by a consonant start with the letter ‘e’. Students need practice in saying and writing these words correctly.

2: Common requests; “I can go to the toilet?” or “You are poorly?”
In English the habit of ‘upspeak’ is generally considered poor practice. It refers to raising the tone of the voice at the end of a statement in order to turn the statement into a question. In Spanish questions are normally formed without the use of an auxiliary verb and there is no need to invert the verb/subject order. Students need to learn that in English questions should not begin with the subject. Younger students should be able to learn this through modelling and oral repetition but older students will benefit from understanding why they are making the mistake.

3: Order of noun and adjective; “the car red”. Plural adjectives “the fats cats”.
In Spanish the order of the noun and adjective is usually opposite to English and students need to know to change the order of the noun and adjective.
In Spanish adjectives agree in gender and number with the word that they describe. Consequently students often pluralise adjectives in English. They need to be explicitly taught that adjectives in English are not plural.

4: Questions – In English questions are normally made using an auxiliary verb.
Forming questions correctly is a difficult area for Spanish learners. Students need to learn how to form questions using auxiliary verbs such as “can”, “have” and “do”.

5: Short answers to questions; “me no!”.
In English the short answer to a “yes/no” question is made by repeating the auxiliary verb with which the question has been made.
E.g. “Can you swim?” is answered with “Yes, I can.” Or, “Do you like pizza?” would be answered with “No, I don’t”.

6: Ellipsis of subject pronoun; “(Carlos) is a fast runner”.
In Spanish it is common to leave out the subject pronoun as the verb ending often contains this information. Students need to be taught to say and write the subject with the verb. In speech and in writing Spanish students often add the verb “is” when it is not needed. E.g. “Carlos is like the pizza”. This normally happens with the third person singular and is less common with other pronouns. For example, it would be more unusual to hear the error as “You is like the pizza”. This may well result from students confusing the conjugation of the third person singular verb “he likes, she eats” with the “s” sound in “is”. Students benefit from focusing on the conjugation of regular verbs in the present tense and understanding that it is only the third person singular that carries the final “s” sound.

7: Countable and uncountable nouns/there is, there are; “the people is happy” or “there is pens on the table”.
In Spanish some nouns are uncountable whereas in English those same nouns are countable. In Spanish the impersonal verb “haber” is used to express “there is” and “there are”. The same word (hay) is used for singular and plural objects which further compounds this problem.

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Filed under Teaching English to Spanish speakers