Years of high school Spanish and you don’t remember a thing?
Meet Spanish teacher Renzzo Reyes. He’ll tell you why.
How many of you took Spanish classes in high school but feel like you haven’t learned a thing?
Well, you’re not alone: plenty of students who studied Spanish for two or three years in high school can still only say, “Hola, como estas?” After two years of studying Spanish, a person should be able to strike up at least a basic conversation that uses past, present and future tenses. And if many of you haven’t been able to, then it’s not because you need more years of studying—it’s because you didn’t get the most out of the hours you’ve already studied.
This week, meet Renzzo Reyes, a high school teacher from NewPort Beach, California. He has degrees from Fullerton University, Chapman University, and the Complutense University of Madrid, and he has more than 14 years of experience teaching California high school students.
What do you think is most difficult for high school students studying Spanish?
The hardest thing for them is to overcome their embarrassment to speak or practice their Spanish, in class or out of class. You can’t learn a language well without speaking or practicing it.
There are a lot of students who have taken Spanish in high school, but once they graduate, they feel like they haven’t learned much or anything at all. I know that many high school teachers, like yourself, are very good teachers and have many years of experience—so, why do you think that, although students take several years of Spanish in school, they learn almost nothing?
There are several factors. First, a lack of interest on the part of the students. The students don’t have any particular interest in learning Spanish. For example, if you’re going to travel to Mexico, you’re interested in this trip. If you’re a doctor and your patients speak Spanish, you’re interested in communicating with these patients. Many high school students don’t have an interest in studying Spanish. This lack of interest means they don’t put effort into learning the language. For example, I give them cultural homework assignments [like going to a Latino event] and they don’t do them.
Second, a lack of recognition of the importance of studying Spanish in the US. Many students don’t know how important it is to study Spanish today. They don’t know that Spanish can give them a big leg up in finding a job in the future.
And third, the persistence of a traditional teaching model in schools, which emphasizes learning a language to pass a written test, not having conversations in class.
What does that mean? That you, as teachers, can’t prepare your own lesson plans?
Yes, but we have a program we need to follow. And this program is geared towards the students learning in a way that they can pass a standardized written exam. For example, there’s no oral exam requirement put in place by the school.
Do you think there’s a method for learning Spanish more quickly?
There are a lot of people who have asked me this same question, and I ask them: how many times have you practiced Spanish this week? If their response is, “I don’t have time to practice,” then I tell them, “You don’t have time to learn Spanish more quickly.”
The more days you practice, the faster you’ll learn.
What’s your opinion on those books or programs that say you can learn Spanish in 10 days, or a week, or a month?
You can’t do it. Ever. Learning a language well takes several months or years.
What’s your opinion of books that only teach phrases?
They only serve to get you out of trouble, but not for learning.
What is a big NO when it comes to learning Spanish?
DON’T try to base your Spanish learning off repetition. After a day or two without saying a phrase, you’ll forget it. You need to not only learn the definitions of words and phrases, but you also need to know how to use them in context, and explain their definitions with your own words.
What can you recommend to people who are going to study or are currently studying Spanish?
That they are more involved in Hispanic culture, so they can practice. If they can travel to a Hispanic country, that’s best. If they can’t travel, they can surround themselves with Latino friends, go to Hispanic events, etc. What they need to do is practice. If they don’t practice, they won’t learn. And of course, to not be embarrassed to speak Spanish.
So there you have it, students. If you want to learn Spanish well and retain what you learn, there are two not-so-secrets from Renzzo Reyes: 1) do more than memorize 2) practice your speaking! And planning a trip to Latin America doesn’t hurt either