Strong Latin American Families Immigrating to a Neighborhood Near You

Often I read or hear people complain about the influx of illegal immigrants into the United States. At first glance, I disagree with immigrating illegally anywhere. But, on a deeper, individual level, it’s easy for me to comprehend why someone might want to risk all to come to the United States from a country where family life and personal freedom is torn by violence or overwhelming corruption influencing all levels of local and national government. The United States is politically and economically free for now, but perhaps we could benefit from examples of strong Latin American families immigrating to our cities and neighborhoods.

While doing interviews for a Spanish-language radio project some time ago, I learned that it was common for Latinos who succeed in following their dreams in the United States to have lives that are effectively balanced between work and family. I spoke with Spanish speaking Latinos who live in the United States now. They came from Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and other Latin American countries. Some of them had careers in their home country before they left, and some had nothing but a dream and the courage to risk everything. Hector came here not speaking any English, with only $5 in his wallet, and within a few years was selling over $2,000,000 in real estate (mid-1990s dollars). Connie had a talent for singing in her home country, and developed it until she became an internationally known performer living in the Pacific Northwest. Buz grew up as a seasonal farm worker with his family in Texas, and became a millionaire construction company owner as an adult.

These acquaintances, and others with stories that are equally as impressive, have some things in common. Their marriages are strong, their families are an important part of their lives, and they have the faith and determination to follow their dreams. My many native Spanish-speaking friends who simply get by financially from day to day also have strong family values as shown by their actions and family unity. That, to me, is equally impressive. It should be noted here that I also know many native-born United States citizens who work hard, and are happily married with strong families. Nevertheless, as a culture, Latin America seems to provide a healthy balance to the United States.

I mentioned above that I did a Spanish-language radio project in the past. The example below is an interview with a successful family business (tortilla factory) owner named Petra. It illustrates some timeless principles to achieve a healthy family/work balance. It’s best for intermediate level and above. If you have beginning Spanish skills, the language may be too advanced and very fast. If that’s the case, you can still use the captions for understanding the vocabulary, and listen to the slower speed version of the interview (although this may still be too fast for a beginning-level speaker to understand). If you are on the edge of comprehension with the slower speed, I encourage you to listen enough times so that you can understand it without caption help, and then listen to the standard speed version to train your ear to recognize what is being said at a faster rate.

Click Here for Laptop/Desktop Version

Are Native-Speaking Language Teachers Better than Non-Native Teachers?

I was reading a teaching-related blog the other day, and saw a post from a native Spanish speaker who teaches Spanish. She said that even if a non-native (gringo) teacher has good pronunciation, it is counterproductive for him or her to teach Spanish if they don’t sound exactly like a native speaker. Counterproductive. That means having the opposite of the desired effect.

Is it better to learn beginning-level language from someone who has grown up speaking it? My native language is American English. I have taught Spanish and English as a Second Language. Which one do you think is more difficult for me to explain to beginning students? My native language, of course. I grew up speaking English without learning any of the rules first. I heard it being spoken for thousands of hours, and gained a feel for what sounds right. That’s the case for every native speaker of every language.

If a person has had to learn a second language, and s/he is now fluent in that language, s/he understands what an English speaker goes through in learning that language. That makes it much easier to explain the second language in an understandable way to others native English speakers who are beginning to learn the same language.

What about the teacher’s accent? Let me ask you this: which accent are you referring to? Do you mean a Mexican accent, an Argentine accent, a Spanish accent, a Peruvian accent? The English language equivalent is a typical accent from Boston, New Jersey, Texas, England, California, Wisconsin, etc… Can you recognize a difference between them? Of course. If you learn to enjoy speaking Spanish, and just get good enough for a native speaker to understand you, you can develop your accent the more you practice. The accent you will develop depends on the accent of the people you are listening to. Would it help you more to learn beginning Spanish with a Mexican accent if you are planning to work in South America or Spain? No. It wouldn’t necessarily be worse, but it certainly wouldn’t be better. It probably wouldn’t make a big difference either way. I think the whole idea of a native speaking teacher being superior for beginning language learners because of his/her accent is far removed from what’s most important. The skill of the teacher or quality of the e-learning program is what matters.

Do you agree or disagree with this opinion?

Are You Too Old to Learn Spanish?

You know how sometimes an incorrect belief gets around to becoming conventional wisdom? Like the world being flat, or you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? There’s another one to add to the list. Adults aren’t able to learn foreign languages. Neither practical evidence nor research support that way of thinking.  You may be 29 years old or 79 years old, and it just doesn’t matter. Do you want to learn Spanish as an adult? You can learn much faster than you learned English as a child. Essentially, there are two things you need to do, but the last one I’ll mention is more helpful than the first.

Katherine Sprang, Ph.D, Second Language Acquisition expert, says “in some ways adults have an advantage over children.” She explains that adults can use knowledge of English to organize the different elements of a foreign language. For example, in Spanish this is a big help, because most of the sounds are the same as in English. There are a few exceptions, like the rr sound with a tongue roll as in the word ‘burrito’, or the nya sound like in ‘señor’. But, since we already are familiar with the other sounds made in the Spanish alphabet, we can give priority to learning those new sounds. We don’t have to learn them all from scratch. Another help is spotting words that look similar in both languages. Examples of these would be words like actividad, celebrar, and televisión. You already know their counterpart in English, so you don’t have to work hard to relearn them in Spanish. By noticing the difference, you speed up the learning curve of understanding the vocabulary and patterns. But, this is really just learning ABOUT a language. It’s like what a typical public school or college Spanish class does. Do you become FLUENT in speaking a language this way? No! The truth is, the more you focus on this early in your study, the more it hinders your ability to speak in the target language without having to figure out how to conjugate and pre-think your grammar.

There’s another important side to learning languages that must be practiced to truly acquire (internalize) a second language as an adult. It may be easier or harder for you, depending on your personality type. Relax. Take a deep breath. No, really, that’s it. “When the mind is relaxed and not seeking explanations or patterns”, says Sprang, “it’s capable of categorizing and sorting out information about some elements of language without conscious effort.” One thing that can help is finding a language friend online through an online language exchange service. This gives you the chance to be both learner and teacher with someone else who wants to learn your native language. This is a great way to practice your language safely. You can talk about things that truly interest you, and share your culture with someone who is in another country right now. All you need is a broadband connection and Skype. As long as you understand what your conversation partner is saying, or at least the gist of their words, you are becoming a little more fluent with each conversation.

The alpha version of my Spanish e-learning program gives you focused listening and reading practice to improve your fluency. Fluency comes from listening, not from speaking. Be consistent in your practice with the yet-to-be-named Learn Spanish Naturally product. Watch it a few times, and remember to breathe deeply and relax. Whether you feel like an old dog or a young pup, you can learn Spanish.

Mark Mayo has an M.A. in Instructional Design for Second Language Education. He has lived in South America in the past, but currently resides in Northern California with his family (and dachshunds).

A Horse with No Name

After submitting all of the final details on my M.A. degree two weeks ago, and then a wild backpacking adventure (I actually helped put out a small forest fire too!) last week, the e-learning alpha version for the first Spanish lesson is finally complete! All of my alpha testing heroes (you know who you are) now have the link to get started.

While backpacking, one of the guys started singing an old America pop tune from the 70’s: “I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to get out of the rain”. It cracked me up, but I started singing along (well, that quote is really all I can remember of the song). It comes to mind because my Spanish e-learning product is kind of like that mystical horse.

Yes, the program still needs a name. It probably will even when the Beta version comes out. At that point, I’ll encourage all site visitors to try it and leave feedback. Actually, the alpha is available right now (at the “alpha test” link at the top of the page), but the beta will undoubtedly be more refined and friendly for visitors. Maybe taking suggestions would be good? The big box language products have names referring to language-related things like the Egyptian rosetta stone, fluency, or the name of the instructor who developed his own system. I don’t intend to be a big corporation. Keeping things small and agile feels like a good way to be right now.

Branding Expert Susan Gunelius says “Your product name needs to fit within your broader brand name umbrella (Learn Spanish Naturally) while telling its own unique story to consumers. It needs to be memorable, findable (particularly on search engines), unique, understandable, and relevant.” Hmm, okay, this is going to take some brainstorming.

What is this product’s unique story? The method I use is unique in several relevant ways. It focuses on three verb forms in each lesson, and goes deep into comprehensible input. Those forms are then understood. They are there to use when needed. The next lesson reviews those three target forms and goes deeply into only three new ones. This narrow/deep strategy helps the learner to internalize the verb forms fast, rather than going over lots of “vocabulary” words in such a shallow way that they are forgotten by the time the next lesson begins. Of course, many other words are used in each lesson, but they are picked up naturally by exposure.

Also, the verb forms are presented in the form of a story. This gives context for the learner to remember what s/he is hearing. This lodges it in the brain where it needs to be, in order to be retrieved when a person is speaking Spanish.

One more unique thing, and then I’ll stop. You know how in Spanish class, you don’t even start learning past tense until towards the end of the first year? In these lessons, you start learning it in the second lesson, which is supported by current language research.

So, lots of things to consider when coming up with a one or two word product name. I know one thing, for sure. I’m not going to come up with a name alone. I would like this to be a collective effort. Granted, there aren’t many people visiting the blog yet, because it’s so new. I expect that in the next few months traffic will increase gradually in jumps and spurts. But, if you are visiting and have read this far, even a few months from now, please leave a name idea. There are no bad ideas. Your idea(s) could be the seed for the ultimate product name. It’s okay to horse around with ideas. That way, it won’t be the product with no name for much longer.

Follow up note:  It now has a name! And the beta testing is complete. You can sign up for free by clicking on the tab at the top of the page called “Register for Lesson One here!”

Mark Mayo has an M.A. in Instructional Design for Second Language Education. He has lived in South America in the past, but currently resides in Northern California with his family (and dachshunds).