Monday, 26 June 2017

Guest Post: Let's Talk about Spanish

In this guest post, our newest tutor - Señor Joel Baker - shares his story about teaching languages that stick.


My story for how I came to teach Spanish for Dreaming Spires actually began with a different Romance language: French.

Several years ago, while assisting a French teacher in a secondary school, I took a small group of 12-13 year-old boys out of the class for a small group activity of some kind, though the main reason was probably to remove the rowdier element of the class and make life easier for the teacher! While we were doing the prescribed activity I asked the boys, “do you want to learn French?” Their reaction made a real impact on me. At first they just looked puzzled. The question made no sense to them. Then after a moment one replied, “No, of course not, why would I want to do that?” or something to that effect.

Learn a language? Why???

Having worked as a prep school Spanish and French teacher, I wasn’t surprised by the answer but the sheer incomprehension struck me: not that they didn’t want to learn a foreign language (why should they?) but that they had never considered that they might – they had no sense that the purpose of all those hours of school French lessons, not to mention the homework, were provided for them to learn French (the language). 

In their world, and I dare say that of most schoolchildren in England, French (or German or Spanish) is simply a subject that you have to do and then if you are all right at it, you’ll sit a GCSE exam and get a qualification which will somehow lead to success in life. But that’s if they think about it at all. The four boys in my makeshift class that day almost certainly never had. 

My experience that day, along with many others before and since, led me to the conclusions firstly that there is a disconnect in school-based language education (at least in an English context). Languages are not primarily an object or a discipline of study, they are ill -suited to being a school subject and as long as children engage with them as a subject, they will not, by and large, learn them as a language, especially if they are obliged to take the subject/class. 

Secondly, people cannot – will not – learn to speak a foreign language unless they want to or really need to (for practical reasons). The vast majority of children I met in the four schools I worked in knew very well that they didn’t need to learn a foreign language, and they had no inclination to do so. As a result, they didn’t. Most of them did, however, pass all the necessary exams in Spanish and French.
You mean there's more to a new language
than just an exam??!!!

This does not mean that languages cannot or should not be learnt in schools, and I do not wish to get into language education theory: that is not my purpose at all. Rather my reflections thus far represent the downbeat beginning of a triumphant tale, and Dreaming Spires Spanish is a glorious chapter in that happy story, which you are invited to enter. 

Now for another story.

A few years ago I was coaching a girl through her AS level* French. We’ll call her Amy. Amy was a somewhat reluctant student of French who found herself out of her depth at AS level having passed her GCSE* with ease, hence the need for a tutor: me. Her story is very common indeed, but it is not hers that I wish to tell you. Amy had a classmate (let’s call her Emma) whose story is much more unusual and really quite inspiring. At 17 years of age, Emma was not just fluent in French; her knowledge of the language was stronger than her class teacher’s and yet she had none of the advantages that usually produce this situation.

A French parent, perhaps? No. A couple of years spent living in France? No. Rich parents who took her to France on holiday every summer? Nope. Pushy parents who made her put in extraordinary effort to excel? Still no. A French governess or live-in tutor? It’s not the nineteenth century, you know. All Emma had was the confidence, presumably received from her parents, that if she wanted to learn to speak French, then she could. And she did. Bit by bit, from about the age of twelve or thirteen she began to learn without any particular help beyond the usual school classes, mainly by reading.

As time went by, she was able to read more and more complex texts. By the time she was sixteen she was watching French television and films, reading French novels and chatting easily in French given someone to speak to. Emma may be particularly gifted and her story is unusual, but it need not be that unusual. Emma discovered French as a language – a living language – and she decided to learn it as such, not because she had to, not because she could use the qualification, but because she wanted to. Naturally Emma got the maximum points available from her French A level, which was to her about as taxing as a Sunday afternoon stroll in the Cotswolds**.

Actual stroll in the Cotswolds!

Learning a language is, oddly, at once easier and harder than most people imagine: easier because you do not need to have a special flair for languages or “to go and live there” as many people say to me: anyone can learn a foreign language, wherever they are. However it does require the discipline of frequent study and practice, some confidence and determination, no matter how much flair you have, and that is probably the main reason that so many people give up early in the process.

So if you are thinking of starting or continuing Spanish in one of my Dreaming Spires courses this year, do so because you want to learn (to speak) Spanish; remember that Spanish is a language: not a school subject (even if you can take exams in it); know that you can become a Spanish speaker, and get ready to work hard and steadily towards that end. Do these four things and you will be speaking Spanish this time next year!

Señor Baker's Spanish courses are available as Beginner and Advanced options: see the timetable here for days and times.


* GCSE exams (for those not familiar with English education) are taken at 15 or 16 years of age, usually about 10 of them, and are elementary, foundation courses, which students prepare for over one or, more often, two years. AS exams are 1st year modules of A levels. A stands for advanced and these are school-leaving exams, taken at 18 years of age, which can earn students a place on a university undergraduate course. The AS level module can stand alone however, and boost the points that a student receives from their other A-levels. It is an intermediate course, a lot harder than GCSE but not as taxing as A level.


** The Cotswolds are a nice, pretty region of Western England (parts of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and other counties) with gentle, rolling countryside, pretty towns and Roman spa cities. It’s nice: worth a visit.


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