Why You Shouldn’t Speak English in Spanish Class

Luz Palmero

Luz Palmero

Take a moment to imagine yourself in your child’s shoes for a minute. You’re in Spanish class and the teacher has just started explaining a concept that you don’t fully understand. Raising your hand, you ask for clarification and the teacher gives you a smile. “En español por favor,” she reminds you.

As intimidating as it sounds, conducting a foreign language class entirely in that language is actually one of the best ways to rapidly advance in that language.

How Do Children Learn Languages?

To understand why language immersion is so effective, it’s important to first dive into the learning process. Fifty years ago, a group of educators led by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom identified six levels of learning comprehension. Bloom’s Taxonomy describes the “cognitive processes by which thinkers encounter and work with knowledge” and is often used by educators to qualify how well children understand what they’re learning.

The 6 Levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy test how well children:

  1. Remember facts and basic concepts
  2. Understand and explain concepts or ideas
  3. Apply information they have learned to new (non-textbook) situations
  4. Analyze information and draw connections among ideas
  5. Evaluate information and justify a stand or decision
  6. Create new or original work

The most basic level of comprehension is when children are able to repeat back information that they have memorized. At most language schools, teachers help students achieve this basic level of comprehension by asking students to identify the meanings of vocabulary words and recite verb endings. They then seek to help students reach the second level of learning comprehension by asking them to explain when and why they should use specific verb or noun endings.

Students in language classes that focus on drilling learn the language on an academic level. They learn how to translate written material, explain why they should use specific verb endings and communicate with basic phrases.

At Whitby, however, we want our students to go beyond the basic levels of comprehension so that they are actually able to think in another language, instead of just translating from English.

Here’s Why It’s Important to Only Speak Spanish in Spanish Class

In the U.S., many schools teach foreign language classes in English. Students memorize vocabulary, learn grammar, complete exercises in the foreign language and practice speaking about specific subjects. Students learn about the language academically, while relying on their own language to communicate within the class and to ask questions.

Yet far too often children complete years of foreign language study only to find that they’re unable to do more than ask basic questions and order in a restaurant.

Why does this happen? Quite simply because language is a skill that must be practiced. Imagine a swim instructor explaining stoke techniques, but only rarely asking students to actually get into the pool. Language learning is the same. Without diving in and extensive real-world practice, it’s unlikely students will ever progress beyond the Spanish equivalent of the doggy paddle.

You can’t learn a language by memorizing flash cards.

How the Brain Learns Language

When children learn to speak their mother tongue, they’re actually undergoing the ultimate immersion experience. They observe their parents speaking in a natural way, and gradually become more skilled at communication.

In an immersion Spanish class like at Whitby, we mimic how children naturally learn a language. We speak to children in Spanish from Day 1, repeating sentences in an easier way when they’re confused and using body language to enhance comprehension. Even when we encounter students in the hallways, we talk to them in Spanish.

This isn’t easy. Every language teacher will tell you that keeping students speaking the target language is an uphill battle. But resorting to English is not the answer.

When children take a class where only Spanish is spoken, they learn to communicate. They focus on being understood instead of being perfect. They use their body language, they find alternative words and they forge ahead, even if they don’t know the correct verb tense. After all, we make mistakes in our native language, but that doesn’t stop us from speaking.  

Why We Let Students Make Mistakes

Our belief is that students should never be interrupted. Even when students are making oral presentations in Spanish, we don’t stop them to correct their language. After the presentation, we’ll do a one-on-one to give them immediate constructive feedback. This is an opportunity to assess their progress and inform our teaching.

We’ve found that when students get corrected too quickly, they inevitably lose track of where they are and their fear takes over. Then they start mumbling, lose confidence and forget the words they want to say. Soon they’re afraid to speak at all.

We want students to feel like they can speak even if their grammar isn’t perfect. Mistakes are part of the learning process. Quite frankly, if they already had perfect language skills, they wouldn’t be in a language class.

We tell our students: You won’t have the same skills in Spanish as your mother language. That’s expected. Let yourself loose and just focus on communicating.

Letting students speak without correction is also an excellent way for educators to gather information about where students are at and identify the holes in their understanding. For example, if a student consistently struggles with the future tense, a teacher can work with them privately to increase their understanding. On the other hand, if many students show confusion about the future tense, we know we need to add a review into the curriculum.  

Spanish Immersion is the Key to Understanding

Although an immersion class feels intimidating at first, it’s the best way to help students truly learn a language. Students quickly learn how to infer meaning, even when they don’t understand every word, and discover it’s more important to communicate than to be perfect. When Whitby students are fully immersed in a language, we find it accelerates their language learning skills and helps them develop the confidence they need to speak that language in the real world.

To learn more about the Spanish immersion program at Whitby, schedule a tour of our campus or read about the nine factors that influence language learning in children.

Link to download "10 Things to Look For In an Inspirational Classroom"

Luz Palmero

Luz Palmero

Luz Palmero is an Upper School Spanish Teacher at Whitby School.