“¡Tonto! (Dumb!)” “¡No! ¡Eres tonto! (No! You’re dumb!)” said my kids after our Spanish lesson with “eres.” Do you want to know how to learn Spanish or what you need to do to help your kids learn Spanish?
Hopefully, you want to learn for legit reasons like ordering food, not yelling insults. Because of course my kids had to look up how to say dumb as soon as they learned “eres” (you are). 🙄
I want to start by saying this is a simplified explanation of how to learn (or acquire) another language.
If you’re nerdy like me 🤓 and like reading research, check out my sources at the end of the article for more detailed information on language acquisition.
Based on what I’ve heard from podcasts and workshops and reading articles, there are 3 key parts to learning (or acquiring) language whether it’s your first, second, or twentieth language: comprehensible input (explained below😊), time and a low affective filter.
I keep adding the word acquiring after learning because I want you and your kids to be able to speak and understand the language, not know the grammar rules.
Learning the grammar rules and how the language works is fun for me! 🥳Yup, I was the weirdo in my 8th grade Language Arts class who *loved* diagramming sentences.
But I know grammar is not fun for the majority of the world and is the biggest barrier to people acquiring another language and enjoying the process. Every year at parent conferences, I have at least one parent (if not multiple) tell me, “I took Spanish in high school/college but don’t remember any of it.”
Every.single.year. 😭 So depressing. But I know they don’t remember it because they learned the traditional textbook way with grammar instead of acquiring it.
I always ask my students at the beginning of the year what their goal in Spanish is. It’s always, “I want to speak Spanish fluently” or “I want to be able to have conversations in Spanish.” It’s NEVER “I want to learn grammar!”
3 Keys for How to Learn Spanish
1. Comprehensible Input
The good news is it’s actually pretty easy to learn (or more accurately acquire) language. In fact, you can’t stop it from happening if there is comprehensible input. I heard Dr. Krashen say at a workshop that we all acquire language the same way just like we all digest food the same way.
The input is from listening and reading activities – language that students are taking in. When students produce language through speaking and writing it’s output. You don’t acquire language from speaking and writing (output). You acquire language from listening and reading (input).
I tell my students if they just listen to me and do the reading activities that I give them in class (without any extra studying), they will get at least Bs on every test. And they do! Even the kids who don’t do anything but keep the chairs warm still get decent grades on listening and reading tests because I make sure all of my listening activities are comprehensible and engaging.
How do I make it comprehensible? By limiting the amount of vocabulary that I’m teaching, speaking s-l-o-w-l-y, and providing images, actions, or English translations to give meaning to what I’m saying. I like to provide a lot of pictures and actions or acting to give context.
But if a student or one of my kids doesn’t understand what I’m saying even with the pictures and actions, then I quickly tell them what I just said in English. Because if they don’t understand me, then it’s not comprehensible and they won’t actually learn Spanish.
Krashen and numerous other linguists’ state that making the activities interesting helps with language acquisition. My lessons include a lot of conversation, stories, and games. Conversation is my favorite part of the lesson because I get to learn more about my students and my own kids while they hear Spanish. And I usually get to make fun stories about what they say! Stories and games can be very entertaining, so it doesn’t feel like learning or class time! 🤗
The bad news for most people is that it takes time to learn a language. As I heard from Dr. Bill Van Patten on his podcast TalkinL2 with BVP, there are no shortcuts. In a classroom, this is a huge bummer because my students want to be native fluent. Not gonna happen after 2 or 3 years of high school Spanish.
We just don’t have enough class time because according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) it takes at least 280 hours to reach a level where you could survive in a Spanish-speaking country. Where you can speak minimally about day-to-day activities and personal needs like ordering in a restaurant.
And these results are based on a class of 1 – 4 people with one instructor in an immersion type setting. Very different than a US public school classroom!
This is why I get a little frustrated when I read ads or posts that say “Learn Spanish Fast!” because I think it’s a little misleading. Acquiring another language doesn’t work that way.
Even though my kids aren’t in an immersion situation with me at home, time isn’t as much of a problem at home like it is in school! Plus, I don’t have to take precious time to give my own kids tests like I do in the classroom. I love that I can just focus on teaching my kids Spanish at our own pace without tests and not forcing them to talk but letting them talk when they’re ready.
3. Affective Filter
Which leads me to my biggest piece of advice based on what I’ve read about language acquisition: do NOT make your kids speak Spanish! Let them speak when they are ready. There are certain factors that affect language acquisition including motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety. The research shows that these can help or interfere with language acquisition.
And I can tell you from what I’ve seen in the classroom, it’s true! Most of my students take Spanish because it’s required for high school graduation, not so much to learn Spanish.
My own kids aren’t super motivated to learn Spanish either. I’m forcing my kids because of how important it is to learn another language, and I know someday they’ll thank me. In the meantime, the lack of motivation isn’t helping. Hopefully, your kids are motivated!
Regardless of their levels of motivation, forcing your kids to talk when they’re not ready will most likely lower their self-confidence and increase their anxiety – 2 things you definitely don’t want!
You can encourage your kid(s) to speak to you or me (if they watch my videos) as much as possible, when they’re ready, to increase their speed of becoming fluent, as Blaine Ray recommends…but keep the affective filter in mind.
Making someone speak before they’re ready especially when they know they’re not going to sound good or use the language correctly, does not make someone feel good about themselves or their abilities.
It just increases their anxiety and makes them shut down. Trust me! I’ve watched it again and again with my students. And when they’ve shut down, all the comprehensible input in the world isn’t going to help them learn Spanish.
I’ve had my doubts about kids getting to the point where they will speak on their own. Again, because I don’t have the time in the classroom, and I have to force them to speak on tests. Talk about anxiety! 😰
But I’ve been able to watch my kids, and Aidan is now starting to use some Spanish during the day outside of our lessons. It’s minimal, but he’s speaking on his own! Yay! Which I know will give him confidence which in turn will motivate him to want to learn more in a low-anxiety situation! A triple win!
Comprehensible input, time, and a low affective filter are what you need to learn Spanish, but how do you put this into practice? Using my lessons is great place to start because I’ve provided the comprehensible input in the activities that I’ve created. Check out my Start Here page if you’re not sure where to start!
For Further Reading
Dr. Stephen Krashen’s Book Principles and Practice
Dr. Stephen Krashen’s Website – he’s posted his papers for free so teachers could read them!
Dr. Bill Van Patten’s Podcast TalkinL2 with BVP
Blaine Ray created TPRS and is currently doing research to see if encouraging speaking can increase fluency in a language.
Proficiency Guidelines from the American Council of Foreign Language Teachers (ACTFL)
ACTFL’s guide for how long it takes to learn languages