What is a “conversational” Spanish or English program?
I think it would be helpful for you to understand what learning how to speak a new language really means. It’s quite simple – it all boils down to speaking the language.
Let me explain, because that sounds absurdly easy. In a way, it is…
I studied Spanish intensively for 7 years. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone else do that, unless they plan on becoming a teacher. It wasn’t really my plan to become a teacher, but it happened by accident.
Unfortunately, I studied for so long and so hard because there were no other options back then. Now, this idea of conversational language classes is starting to catch on in the US, but it’s still not really, truthfully happening in most educational institutions. Most so called conversational programs are still taking the traditional, grammar based approach, and just doing it in smaller groups. That is not a conversational program.
Web apps are not conversational programs either.
A conversational program is when the classes are structured around a conversation as opposed to grammar.
You see, the traditional, grammar based approach typically looks like this.
You learn a piece of grammar, and then do activities based on grammar. These activities are for the most part writing activities that involve filling in blanks. There are many problems with this approach. For one, grammar is confusing, even in your own language. Think about the last time you heard someone say something the wrong way in English. Can you identify why? Probably not… it probably just sounds funny to you.
Let’s try this for an example:
- I want to learn Spanish fast.
- I want to learn Spanish quickly.
- I want to learn Spanish fastly.
Which statement is right?
Trick question…. The top two are right.
Do you know why? Probably not. I would guess that fastly just sounds funny to you, and you are right, even though you can’t explain why. At the same time, I bet you have no problems speaking English and communicating with people, and you don’t even know why.
Well, the reason for this is that you grew up speaking English. You learned it at home with friends and family, and spoke it for at least 10 years before ever looking at grammar rules.
I would be willing to bet that when you finally started learning the grammar rules that they confused you. Most people I know dreaded their high school English classes.
So why is it that you can speak English quite confidently, but now that I’m questioning your grammar, you can’t answer the question wny?
Because you learned conversational English as a kid. You learned how to speak it through trial and error. You made mistakes, corrected your mistakes, and tried tried tried again. Eventually, it became internalized, and that’s why you can speak it, but can’t explain the rules.
Now let’s apply the same concept to your 2nd language.
What is a conversation?
According to Google, a conversation is…
“a talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged.”
It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even have to be spoken. Some people estimate that some 80-90% of communication actually takes place nonverbally.
Well, if the point is on exchanging ideas, we can now simplify the process of learning a new language to exchanging information with people in a way to be understood, and this all starts with words, not grammar.
WORDS ARE THE FOUNDATION TO A CONVERSATION
MAKE VOCABULARY YOUR TOP PRIORITY
My son’s first word was “agua”. When he was a baby, I would give him a bath and splash the water around and just say agua, agua, agua. One day he started trying to repeat what I was saying, and that soon became his first word. What a great thing that was, because he then started putting it together, and when he was thirsty he would say that too. 1 less thing to cry about!
From there, other words started falling into place. Leche, comida, etc.
He wasn’t speaking full sentences, but he was using words, and we understood him!
He was exchanging information in a way that we could understand, and over the next few months he was able to start speaking both English and Spanish to us. It was amazing.
That really got me thinking about what conversational Spanish was.
I’m also a musician, and believe it or not, music has taught me how to teach languages in a really unique and powerful way.
You may or may not know this, but music is a conversation of sorts, especially when it comes to certain types of music, including church music, jam bands, and jazz.
If you’ve ever been to church, there is typically a choir, and most songs take place as a call and response. The preacher sings something and the choir responds.
Jazz is all about opening up the music to allowing the instruments to communicate with each other, and the musicians learn how to listen for a certain drum beat in order to respond to it with a specific break, or change of rhythm. Guitarists can make the piano respond in a certain way, or the rest of the group can respond as well. Jam bands essentially do the same thing.
Modern music like hip hop takes a cue from this as well, and break dancers make calls and responses to the beats and each other, and the MC or rappers verbalize these exchanges as well.
One of my favorite styles of music is Afrocuban music, where you have drummers, singers, and dancers all communicating with each other, and all three have the ability to change the “conversation” if they know what they are doing.
This comparison to music is helpful when you break it down to this concept of exchanging ideas, or information, by examining how a call and response work.
This is the basic framework for a conversation too – it’s all about a call and response.
You say A, your partner says B.
Most often this boils down to a simple question and an answer. You ask a question and your partner provides you with an answer, and vice versa.
So over the past several years, I’ve been working on this new concept of what I truly believe to be one of the first truly conversational programs in the United States. What this means is that almost every activity that you do with me has been analyzed from a conversational point of view, not a grammatical point of view, and you simply start speaking Spanish, exchanging ideas.
In the first three lessons, I do this by teaching you how to introduce yourself to a new friend in Spanish. I give you the dialogue, make you speak it, and then break it down for you. I don’t really explain to you how it works… you just do it, and learn it, and study it, then internalize it. Before you know it, you can introduce yourself to someone in Spanish.
The traditional manner would explain to you the grammar, and then have you fill in the blanks, and write essays in Spanish. Maybe at some point you build up to a dialogue, but the problem with this approach is by the time you get to the dialogue, you’ve zoned out, grown bored, and the confusion sets in around the grammar. You practice reading and writing, but you don’t practice exchanging information.
Academic programs don’t teach the call and response, the questions and the answers. They simply don’t teach you how to exchange ideas and information, which is by definition what a conversation is. Simply put, you are very unlikely to learn how to speak Spanish through a high school or college Spanish class. You will only learn grammar and theory.
Initially, you don’t need to know the grammar – you just need to know the call and the response. You need to learn what to listen for, and how to respond to it, and then do it.
This also makes it incredibly powerful, practical, and useful. Can you imagine studying Spanish for only a few hours, but being able to walk up to a complete stranger, introduce yourself in Spanish, and then make small talk for 20-30 minutes?
I start with this dialogue, and this particular use case, because that is exactly what you need to start doing immediately in order to start speaking Spanish with new people, and almost everyone you are going to talk to is going to be a new person. I help you internalize this simple introduction so that you can start doing it with confidence. And there is no need to get lost in all the grammar rules, at least not initially.
Scientifically, this also works really well because by learning the calls and responses, you are activating the right parts of your brain and developing the right neurological pathways from the beginning, much in the way that a small child learns how to speak his or her first language.
Everyone has heard about people that use the right side or the left side of the brain, but there are many more components to it. The above illustration is a very simplified image of other compartments, but we can use this as an example to show you why the traditional approach simply doesn’t work well.
Most traditional, grammar based programs focus on teaching grammar through reading and writing activities.
When you read Spanish, you are typically only activating the “vision” compartment of your brain. When you write, you may activate the “vision and the touch”. Some of these traditional programs have listening components, but again you would only be activating the “hearing” department.
A real conversation would activate “touch”, “vision”, and “hearing” all at the same time. If you are speaking to someone while having dinner with them, you might even activate the “smell” and “taste” compartments, utilizing every part of your brain at the same time.
If your end goal is to have a real conversation with someone, you have to develop those neural pathways at some point, and it’s better to start doing that from the beginning, just like a child does with the first language.
Isolating specific parts of the brain throughout your Spanish studies may help at certain points during your Spanish career, but to start with, it’s so much more powerful to activate everything to begin with to develop those pathways in your brain.
It gets messy when you start by isolating the brain compartments and then trying to mix them together later. I’ve had plenty of 4 year, college degree holding majors that had to start this program from the beginning because they didn’t learn how to put it all together during school. I’m talking about students with good grades, students that can read and write Spanish perfectly… students that can fill in blanks and tell you the rules… even students that are now teaching in high school programs and are actually well qualified to do so… but they can’t order a margarita in Spanish when they go on date night with their husbands or wives.
They might freeze up when someone says ¿cómo estás? and understand the question perfectly, but they can’t make their mouth move in the right way to answer… because they never developed this simple call and response capability. They can’t make their brain, eyes, ears, and mouth work together in the right way. In fact, sometimes they get agitated, because after 4 years of Spanish they should be able to speak Spanish, but now their emotions add to the chaos in their heads and this further causes them to stumble.
Not only did they fail to develop the right connections in their brain, they have also developed bad habits by compartmentalizing their brains, which only leads to more complications in the future.
I can’t tell you how important it is to learn conversational Spanish from the beginning so that you start programming your brain to hear Spanish, understand Spanish, and produce Spanish, based on the verbal cues of questions and answers.
So the first three lessons I teach are really dedicated to programing your brain to work the right way, understanding the dynamic of answering questions and getting you comfortable with the practice of introducing yourself to strangers in your new language.
The next step is to start teaching you how to make your own questions, and understanding how to connect the right dots in a more free flowing, open conversation.
I do this by teaching you verbs, which are the most powerful part of a sentence. However, I take a way different approach to this by only teaching you what you need to know to start speaking Spanish. I do this by only teaching you the “tú” and the “yo” form (you and I).
Most programs would have you learn 6 verb conjugations for AR, ER, and IR verbs on your first day of Spanish. It’s overwhelming, intimidating, and quite frankly… useless. It only serves to make the teacher feel smart and the student to feel hopeless. It’s also completely unnatural.
The reason for this is that 99.9% of your Spanish conversations for the first 6 months are going to be almost identical: you are going to be talking to a new person, introducing yourself, and then making small talk. You are going to ask what the other person likes to do by using the “tú” form, and he or she will answer in the “yo” form. The other 4 verb conjugations are very unlikely to come up in this initial conversational exchange, so it doesn’t make sense to even start learning them until you have made it past the “tú” y “yo” forms, learning how they interact with each other, and getting comfortable with that initial call and response:
- Call – Question: Do you …?
- Response – Answer: Yes, I ….
This is now a real conversation. If you learn how to speak Spanish with me, you will learn how to do this in only 4-6 hours of class time.
This incredibly simple approach is what makes the “Let’s Start Talking!” conversational program so powerful. There is a smarter way to learn how to speak Spanish, but you have to find the right conversational program to teach you Spanish based on how a conversation works, not how the language works.
- Words give you an almost immediate ability to express your thoughts and desires, which gives you the ability to communicate. You just have to learn which words you are most likely to use when you are starting.
- Understanding how to listen to a call, or a question, will take you to the next level, and that is where studying dialogues, not grammar, is so helpful.
- Finally, learning how to make verbs interact with each other based on the situations that you are most likely to find yourself speaking Spanish in will enable you to start speaking Spanish very quickly.
This is what a conversational Spanish program is, and there are very few true conversational options that exist in the world. The program I created, the “Let’s Start Talking!” program is the only true, authentic, conversational Spanish program that I know of that is based on the framework of a conversation, which is just the simple exchange of ideas or other information.
There may be others out there… If there were, I wish I had known about them before dedicating the last 13 years of my life to developing this one.
The Spanish language, on the other hand, is incredibly complex, which is why the subject matter, or the grammar of the language, should be avoided initially. Unfortunately, almost every program on the market today follows this approach.
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