Bonnie: Learning Spanish

My Spanish education mostly consisted of learning then relearning basic vocabulary and faking the language in order to pass. Taking Spanish classes felt pointless. I felt like I was just taking the class for a grade, not to actually learn a second language.

Here at the UO, students spend 50 minutes four or five days a week in a classroom, and that is the only practice all day they get with the language. It is difficult to learn in this format because a student is only focusing on Spanish for a short time.

In Tim Ferriss’ article, “Why Language Classes Don’t Work: How to Cut Classes and Double Your Learning Rate,” he makes the point that you can learn conversation, but you cannot be taught it in a classroom setting.

“Grammar can be learned with writing exercises in a class of 20,” Ferriss writes. “Whereas ‘conversation’ cannot be learned in anything but a realistic one-on-one environment where your brain is forced to adapt to normal speed and adopt coping mechanisms such as delaying tactics.”

Basically, he is saying that language classes are important for grammar, but to get a full grasp of the language, one should get practice in a native environment. Business administration major Lauren Hayashi has seen just how much learning occurs when taking the plunge into a new environment.

Hayashi got the chance to study abroad in Guatemala, twice. The first time she went, she didn’t feel confident speaking Spanish. Eight months later, she travelled to Guatemala again, and this time she felt like she was much better at speaking Spanish, but she hadn’t taken any classes in between visits.

“For some reason I just felt way more comfortable speaking,” said Hayashi. “A lot of the people I saw were the same people, and they were like ‘wow your Spanish got so much better!’ And I was like that’s weird because I haven’t taken any classes.”

Traveling abroad and being immersed in a new culture can help tremendously when learning a second language. But not everyone is that lucky, and language classes can get discouraging when you aren’t keeping up.

After my sophomore year, I gave up on learning Spanish because, after many years of trying, I never felt comfortable enough to raise my hand in class and speak. I regret the decision to quit because I think learning another language is important, but I wish my Spanish classes had been taught differently.

At the UO, faculty members in the Department of Romance Languages are working hard every term to make sure students can get the best out of their experience.

“Every year, we try to improve our program,” Spanish professor Laurie deGonzalez said.

An improvement that was made to the program recently, according to deGonzalez, was to the oral exams given to students.

When I was in Spanish, the way the oral exams were given was you were partnered up with a classmate to have a five-minute conversation in front of the professor. It wasn’t a good way to determine speaking ability because everyone would memorize the responses they would give to pre-prepared questions.

Now, the oral exams are given in a way where the professor asks the students questions that require lengthy answers. It is impossible for a student to memorize what they want to say because they won’t know what they are going to be asked, so the student actually has to have a good grasp of how to speak Spanish.

They can’t just fake it, like I did.

According to deGonzalez, the Spanish program has also worked on other changes to its program. A few changes include giving students worksheets to complete before any quizzes for extra exposure to the language and having professors ask students questions that actually interest them, not just about the cultural aspect of Spanish.

Making improvements, such as these, is important so students are getting the most out of their Spanish education. While it is more difficult, deGonzalez believes that it is possible for students to learn Spanish without studying abroad.

“If you give the right type of homework, and this is where we are trying to hone in right now, the right type of input, the right type of homework, and students are enthusiastic, conscientious, and doing their work, I think it could happen,” deGonzalez said.

I wish I had enjoyed my experience with Spanish more. I wish I had been more enthusiastic about learning the language. But with these constant improvements, Spanish classes at the UO are becoming more effective and I hope they continue to improve in the future.

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Hannah Bonnie

Hannah Bonnie