I’m having a bit of a tidy-up and came across the little book of useful notes I made to help me revise for my Diploma exam. There were a few pages dedicated to problems which Spanish speakers can have:
- consonant clusters – they tend to add a vowel sound or elide a consonant sound
- they have a narrower pitch range
- the schwa doesn’t exist
- there are a limited number of vowel sounds
- Latin-root cognates may have a different pronunciation e.g. study / estudiar – also often linked to the limited number of vowel sounds
- lack of subject pronouns in verb phrases
- grammatical gender
- adjectives follow the noun and also show gender and number
- freer word order
- no auxiliary do used in questions or negation
- similarity of form vs. similarity of function
- The definite article is often used with a general meaning
- false friends e.g. sensible / sensitive
- plural of the male form
- more likely to use Latin-root words where we might use phrasal verbs
There is a fabulous section in the book Learner English (Michael Swan and Bernard Smith) which has further information on speakers of Spanish and a wide variety of other languages.
At the same time as cracking down on students using L1 in the class, I’m allowing more (controlled) Spanish. It’s something which again came out of my peer observation of the low-level class we are preparing for their English university entrance exam. Perhaps now is a good time to say that it’s a written exam based on a text with comprehension questions, a Use of English section and a composition (no listening/speaking skills).
“Comprehension”. What does it mean to “comprehend” something? In the exam it means the ability to understand the text and paraphrase it to answer three comprehension questions.
I’ve noticed, across levels, that students very often comprehend both written and listening texts, but may not have the language necessary to explain them in English. As such, I’ve started giving my students the option of using English or Spanish and I think there are three good reasons for using Spanish in these cases:
- It’s quicker if you just want to check students have understood
- It motivates students who don’t have the linguistic ability to respond in English
- It helps weaker students who may not have understood in English (though obviously we shouldn’t over-use this method, as otherwise weaker students may rely on the translation)
Do the coursebooks you use have vocabulary lists for each unit at the back, with a space to put the word in L1? The Bugs series by Macmillan does, and though I’ve never used it before, I decided to get into the habit of it this year. But, asking students to translate a list of words into L1 didn’t seem like the most enthralling activity, so I made it into a game.
I divided the class into pairs and wrote some of the words on the board (but not all) grouping them into what I thought were easy, medium and difficult. Then I invited a student from the first team to come up and write a word in Spanish and they were awarded points according to which column it came from: 1 point for easy, 2 points for medium and 3 points for hard. The class enjoyed the activity and they tried to work out the meaning of the harder words by looking back at it in the unit or with the sample sentences I told them. Everyone could get involved, as weaker students also knew some of the vocabulary.
As a quick activity afterwards, I asked students to translate the words they didn’t know on the list – which again gave them the option of doing more or less depending on their level. They were much happier to sit and do some mindless copying as they had been involved in the translation stage and had had a good time with it.
I was reading Henrick Oprea’s latest post about language and thought and he posed some interesting questions about how much of our thinking is related to the language we can use. I’ve been living in Spain for six years now and I’m nowhere near fluent, but I rarely find that I can’t express myself as I use the language I know to get my point across.
However, there are some things which simply don’t translate well into Spanish and a word which has cropped up with my students recently is “procrastination”. I’ve checked a variety of sources (well, two – Google Translate and my partner’s Spanish-English dictionary) and the word has different translations, none of which convey what the word actually means: indecisión (indecision), dilación (delay) and morosidad (slowness in paying).
Whilst I find it frustrating when students ask me to translate Spanish phrases which lose their meaning when put into English, I also quite like the fact that some things are more easily conveyed in different languages. I think it adds to our cultural identity that there are some things which are Spanish, like Fería, which is nothing like a town fair in the UK; or British, like gravy!
The question of whether L1 has a place in the EFL classroom has raged for many years, and will undoubtedly still have teachers debating in the future. For some, the EFL classroom should be an environment where nothing but English is spoken, to the point where students can be expelled if they consistently speak Spanish. Others take a more relaxed attitude, arguing that an L1-free classroom can be a difficult situation to maintain, for both students and teachers.
I think that there are some activities in which we can use L1 to our advantage. Having done private classes with students to complement their school studies, I’ve seen how teachers in Spanish schools use translation of key phrases to highlight the structures within them, structures which sometimes cause problems for Spanish speakers.
In my opinion, there is good reason to translate phrases such as “I like going to the cinema a lot” from Spanish as the direct translation, which students sometimes come out with when speaking, sounds incredibly unnatural : “I like a lot to go to the cinema”.
Although it could be argued that if students use the correct structure enough it will become more natural to them, I would say that there’s no harm in having it written correctly too for students to refer back to.