09 July 2015

Survival Spanish for Novice Conversation Abroad

I am officially unofficially a translator!
But students shouldn't have to be to communicate abroad.
Not everyone will need to describe the symbolism of an Incan king’s portrait in the Palacio del Gobierno or how two soldiers died defending the president in 1999 in the same room where they were later immortalized. I mean I did. Tour guide translating was the ultimate pop quiz, let me tell you.

But for the kids with me, I feel like it was more of a bad dream where you show up naked to the final for a class you'd never been to.

In Peru, I talked with tour guides and ten-year-olds, parents and pre-schoolers. The truth is, most of them spoke English as well as I spoke Spanish (otherwise why would they be working with tourists and hosting students from North Carolina?) But they indulged me. Me, I'm probably at least advanced in Spanish, having demonstrated my ability to carry on conversations on travel, food, gun control, early childhood educational goals, not to mention fulfilling my duties as an unofficial official tour guide interpreter. It took me almost 10 years to get here, though. My kiddos are NOT going to wait that long to be able to say something useful.

They shouldn't wait that long.

My Peru students who had taken Spanish before the trip felt completely ripped off. All they really needed when they were finally actually traveling TO a Spanish-speaking country was the ability to COMMUNICATE. One student said, "If they write down what they're saying, I'm good, I can read it, and I can write back. But talking?" Others said they could conjugate "and that's about it." Another would frequently dig around in her brain and come up with some essential verbs and cognates to put together into something comprehensible: a couple picked up on her lead by the end.

At the end of the trip, I informally surveyed my group, and every single kid agreed on one thing: they needed conversational practice.

Now, six-year-olds can get by on a few nouns and commands, buthe adolescent conversational range is somewhat more sophisticated and necessarily extends beyond Novice Low--but not necessarily much beyond novice. So based on my own impromptu schoolyard/bus ride chats--and the English classes who interviewed me to practice THEIR target language--I came up with a basic list of topics the young ones would need to be able to ask and answer questions on by the end of Spanish I to DO something in another country.

Numbers, dates, and days
The first thing just about everyone wanted to know was how long we'd been there and when we were leaving. Our kids need a good handle on those questions and possible responses.

Age and origin (and travel history)
They want to know how old you are (I guess I could have lied) and where you're from. They want to tell you how old they are and where they are from too. Everybody is looking for common ground, so they might plumb a little further to see where you've traveled and and they've traveled in hopes of finding an intersection.

My kids could find them a baño, I tell you what (although the signs all said S.S.H.H.) What they couldn't find was their way home in a taxi without a handwritten note or text from their host family. Oh, who am I kidding. I couldn't get us home, but that's my own spatial shortcomings. Or if they wanted to find the cheap llama keychains in Pisaq or the classroom where their amigos were stuck for another half hour, they were darned lucky they could usually find someone who spoke some English. Some remembered izquierda, but we had a big debate getting on the train about derecho vs. derecha (and dereche??? None of these kids were in my class.) Cuadras would probably come in handy as well as some key landmark-type vocabulary.

Seriously. Pretty much all one class wanted to ask me was, "Have you tried...?" over and over and over. They were genuinely curious and eager to encourage me to experience their favorites. They suggested restaurants but didn't get too specific beyond naming their favorite dishes (ceviche, hands down--convinced me to give it a second shot after getting really sick on it in Mexico years ago) and food styles (I never got around to trying chifa. Maybe next time.)

THIS is how REAL cultural exchange happens. And maybe a hot date 100% innocent and respectful date, who knows?

Hobbies and favorites
Travel is about making connections! Of course you have to have something to discuss on your innocent and respectful date, and of course it comes back to finding common ground. HINT: memorize your own favorites, because it's hard to think of your favorite book or movie in a foreign country. Talk about what you do when you're not in school (you know, your passion).

Now, culturally speaking I myself could have used more fluency in soles, Celsius, and kilometers, and perhaps Peruvian tipping practices. I also had to learn a little Peruvian vocabulary on the fly (there are no casacas or chompas in Mexico! Not that I needed them myself, even though it was winter...roche and chusco were completely new, too, and I finally found out that lapiceros are plumas.) Overall, though, I think I aced my two-week quiz.

And with these conversational topics, I think next year's Peru trip might at least feel like they've got their pants on during the exam.


  1. Thank you for sharing. I hope you and the students are having a wonderful experience. I think it's clear from your account that we need to teach according to the goals and objectives of the students. Too much of teaching is teacher-focused. We reply too heavily on legacy foreign language teaching, which doesn't do much to promote functional conversational skills.

    1. EXACTLY. I will be taking the informal survey repsonses to my colleagues!