How Not to Learn a Language

Within a month of moving to Valencia, Spain I was certain of one thing: I wasn’t going to learn much Spanish at Spanish language schools here.

How did I know this?

I tried. Twice.

At the first school, thanks to my Pimsleur studies, I tested into level A2 (Advanced Beginner).

I told the school I didn’t think I was at that level.

After all, their test was a series of multiple choice questions (where, even guessing, I had a 25% chance of getting the answers correct) and a writing sample (which, if they read it closely, they’d realize I could only write in the present tense and only on topics I had the vocabulary for).

They didn’t test my listening. Nor my speaking ability.

But they insisted: for my first class, which they offered for free, I should go to Level A2.

So I did.

It was one of the few times in my life I actually wanted to get up in the middle of the class and leave. Or burst into tears. I felt incredibly stupid. And never wanted to go back.

It doesn’t help that I’m a teacher. A good one, if I do say so myself. Which means I know good teaching when I see it. And this was far from it.

Here’s what not to do in a Spanish class:

  • Teach the use of “some,” “any,” “none,” “no one,” and “not any” all together.
  • In less than five minutes.
  • Giving just one example of each.
  • Explain it only in Spanish.
  • Ask “Does anyone have any questions?” but don’t wait for an answer.
  • And then give everyone a worksheet to do by themselves.
  • Next, go around the table having each student try to answer one question from the worksheet (one you choose for them).
  • And if the student doesn’t know the answer, keep prodding them, in front of the whole class, until they guess the right one.

So no. I wasn’t going back to that school.

Oh. Did I mention that the class was two hours long? And we sat in our chairs for the entire two hours?!

So at the next Spanish school, while sitting at another desk for another two hours, when the teacher tried to teach who, what, when, where, and why all at once in much the same format, I knew I was done.

But Michael and I were in this class together.

And he wanted us to give it another try.

So the next day . . . not a word was said about who, what, when, where and why. The teacher went on to something completely new.

I realized this was why they said we new students could start “anytime.” Because there’s no continuity or repetition from one day to the next!

I realized these teachers had been trained to teach in a very traditional manner. To a very specific group of students.

Who should go to a language school in Valencia?

  • Twenty-somethings.
  • Who want to meet other twenty-somethings.
  • Who want to pass the test that says they know enough of the language.

Who should not study at a language school in Valencia:

  • Ex-pats over 35.
  • Who don’t care about passing a test.
  • Who want to learn to actually speak the language.
  • Who want to be in a class with those at a similar level as them and in a similar situation to them.
  • Who want/need continuity and repetition from day-to-day in order to learn.
  • Who want to have real-world applicable lessons in the language so they can function better as a resident of this country.

Okay, okay. I realize I shouldn’t make such generalizations having only gone to two language schools. (My husband went to a third. I refused.)

So I started doing my own anecdotal research.

If you want to get a group of ex-pats to bond quickly, talk to them about their frustrations learning Spanish in Valencia. I think my favorite were the friends who actually did their homework but, in class the next day, when the twenty-somethings hadn’t done it, the teacher said, “No problem. You can do it right now.” So my friends got to pay to sit there while the students worked on the homework they were supposed to do the night before.

But don’t get me started on the pros and cons of even giving homework. . .

To his credit, my husband did some legitimate research.

Yes, it was on YouTube.

But he looks for the professionals.

In this case, the people who’ve researched how best to learn languages.

But after my experiences and anecdotal research, I didn’t need any professional to tell me . . . going to school was not going to be the best way for me to learn Spanish.

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