For me, learning a language is unlike learning any other subject. As a student of languages, I have always found it imperative to connect the words and constructions I learn with the larger world and culture to which they belong. As a teacher of Spanish language, I am eager to give students a sense of Hispanic culture(s) even as I facilitate their learning of language; indeed, I believe that it is in this way that they will arrive at a greater love of the language, which is crucial to an effective learning process.
This means that, whenever possible, I find it incredibly important to contextualize the linguistic knowledge I am teaching. When students see how language is used in a cultural context different from their own–but with which they can identify on some level–they are made aware of how learning a language in fact entails learning a whole new worldview that extends far beyond the purely “linguistic.”
Contextualization can also sometimes mean simply relating the language to students’ everyday lives, so that they can see its immediate applicability. In a place like New York–as in so many places in the United States–the world of Spanish is not some faraway place; it coexists and indeed is an integral part of my students’ worlds. Therefore an activity in which students express basic things like “¿Cuánto cuesta?” (“How much does it cost?”) in the context of a plausible shopping outing that a student may take, for example, while not directly engaging in a specifically Hispanic cultural context, gives the student tools to begin to interact with some parts of the Hispanic worlds that permeate their own.
In order for students to actively engage with the language and cultures they are learning, they must engage with each other in the target language. In class I employ a communicative method of teaching, as described in many places including Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy by H. Douglas Brown. The communicative approach to language teaching focuses on communication in the target language as the primary goal of the class. In addition, I also employ a task-based approach to a large extent, encouraging students to learn by doing, by using the language. The task-based approach and the communicative approach work well together.
In practice, this means that I very frequently place students in pairs or groups to conduct activities in which they interact with each other. The most engaging of these activities involve an information gap in which students are curious as to each other’s answers and feel the need to express themselves fully and accurately. Creative activities and assignments also often prove highly engaging, both inside and outside of the classroom, as students become invested in their unique contributions and therefore interested in using the language correctly and effectively to convey their meaning. My approach also means that, while I will inevitably spend some of the class time explaining grammar points and linguistic constructions, I am always concerned with having students immediately practice their new knowledge and, as soon as possible, carry out activities that allow them to use it to interesting, creative, and not entirely predictable ends. As a facilitator of learning, I try to give my students the tools they need to succeed at the task at hand, and then offer myself as a resource to them as they conduct the activity. In this way I hope to allow my students the freedom to learn by doing.
I often tell my students to listen to the music of the Spanish language. I encourage them not to get stuck translating directly from English or worrying about exactly what rules they need to memorize, but rather to try to internalize the rhythms of Spanish and begin to think in Spanish. I encourage them to embrace Spanish for what it is–a beautiful language with internal logic and idiosyncrasies like any other. Certainly, memorizing rules and vocabulary is important–but only when we do not lose sight of the ultimate goal: to be able to communicate.