Friday, July 8, 2016

Advice on Reaching Advanced-Low on the OPI Part 2

Since I wrote the post Advice on Reaching Advanced-Low on the OPI, it has become the most popular on my blog. As I continue to tutor people who need to achieve this level, I have come to realize that there are other pieces of advice that I usually give that I should include on my blog, so I'm creating a Part 2.

Listen more -a lot more! This is often overlooked since improving speaking is the goal but as a university instructor of Spanish that uses comprehensible input (CI),  I cannot overemphasize how important it is to substantially increase the time spent doing active listening. As a non-native second language user, listening has been the primary skill I have developed and the one I started to work on more that 40 years ago when I first began to hear Spanish. Listening should precede speaking; it can help with pronunciation and developing an ear for the basic structures, so you know what sounds right and expanding your vocabulary. Recently, I came across a video of young lady who went from Intermediate-High to Advanced-Low and also cites how increasing her time spent listening in Spanish was one of the keys to moving up a level.   She had been listening, as I recall, for approximately 6 hours a week, but increased that amount to nearly 20 hours a week, which she says made a great difference for her.  Similarly, this page, from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Minnesota suggests that to reach advanced one should “engage with the language 15-20 hours per week outside of class over the course of several years”.

What should you listen to? Anything you can find that is comprehensible (80% or more) and interesting to you. There are many choices on, plus podcasts, movies and series on Netflix, online radio, music, etc. Specifically for the OPI, I'd recommend videos that are conversational-like and involve paragraph-length narrations and descriptions, which is primarily what you must produce during the interview. Here are some sites where you can hear natives doing just that on a variety of topics: ,, and

Practice telling complete, cohesive stories, especially in past tense. Complete means there should be a beginning, a middle and an end. Part of telling a complete story is the details you include. For example, let's say that you were asked about something you did recently and you tell about how you went to a restaurant to celebrate a friend's birthday. An Intermediate speaker might say :

Fui a un restaurante. Era el cumpleaños de un amigo. Es su restaurante favorito. Nuestros amigos fueron tambien. Tuvimos que esperar un poco cuando llegamos. Había mucha gente ahí. Yo comí pollo pero todos mis amigos comieron carne. Me gustó mucho. Comimos y hablamos mucho y nos divertimos. Nos quedamos en el restaurante 3 horas. Llegué tarde a casa pero dormí bien.

An Advanced speaker might the story this way, adding specific information about the relationship between the people involved and when and why things happened:

El sábado pasado, un amigo mío que celebraba su cumpleaños ese día, me invitó, junto a unos amigos mutuos, a comer a su restaurante favorito. Cuando llegué al lugar, nuestros amigos ya estaban ahí esperando una mesa ya que el sitio estaba lleno de gente que, como nostoros, no había hecho reservaciones. Gracias a Dios no tuvimos que esperar mucho pero no lo notamos porque pasamos el tiempo hablando. Ya en la mesa, llegó enseguida la mesera y menos mal, ya que todos teníamos hambre. Yo pedí pollo mientras que los otros en el grupo pidieron carne. La comida estuvo muy rica y disfrutamos mucho comer y hablar con nuestros amigos especialmente en ocasiones como ésta. La pasamos tan bien que no nos dimos cuenta que ya habían pasado 3 horas y como se hacía tarde todos decidimos que era hora de irnos. Llegué tarde a casa pero dormí bien esa noche.

The Intermediate version is more a series of sentences and only highlight the primary activites without giving details to describe some of the circumstances surrounding them. For example, “tuvimos que esperar” is mentioned in the Intermediate version but in the Advanced version, a why is given- “ya que el sitio estaba lleno de gente había hecho reservaciones”.
The Advanced version takes many of the sentences from the Intermediate version and connects them to form longer ones and also uses more cohesive devices such as ya que, mientras que and como.
It also uses more adverbial phrases like cuando, enseguida, and ya to situate the events of the story to show the relationship between them. All of these features of the Advanced version help to make the sentences flow together and make the story more complete.

As you practice telling more Advanced-like stories, try to include information about when an event took place (el sábado pasado, hace...días, etc.) and also the why behind it - (¿Por qué a ese lugar? ¿Por qué tuvieron que esperar?) Making these types of changes to the way you tell anecdotes will help you start moving closer to achieving Advanced-Low.

Have you reached Advanced-Low or higher?  What did you do to get there?  If you'd like, share your story in the comments section below.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Math in Spanish

Math in Spanish

Just a few weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation on the phone with my husband. He had called me one morning as I was getting to school. I wasn't expecting the topic to be math; we rarely even make mention of it but since he uses sometimes in his work, it wasn't so surprising. The conversation went something like this:
¿Recuerdas la fórmula para un triángulo cuadrado?
¿A al cuadrado más b al cuadrado igual a c al cuadrado?
Si. Ya tengo el lado más largo es 5 y uno de los otros lados es 3. ¿De cuánto tiene que ser el otro lado?

I did the math in my head in English and Spanish, double checking myself. Then realizing the number he was looking for, 4, I told him back in Spanish.

Cuatro. Tres al cuadrado más cuatro al cuadrado iguala a cinco al cuadrado.
 Nueve más 16 iguala a 25.

I'm not that good at doing math in my head in any language and I had never done any in Spanish. But I got him the answer and felt satisfied that I used Spanish for something other than the usual conversations that I have day to day. I'm just glad that the numbers involved in this problem were not fractions or decimals. In that case I wouldn't have been able to solve it so easily!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Learning Vocabulary: My Personal Dictionary Project

I once asked a non-native colleague about expanding one’s own vocabulary.  She expressed a certain frustration as she commented that it is a never-ending challenge and for this very reason she enjoyed grammar because it was from her perspective, a more finite system that could eventually be mastered whereas vocabulary, beyond the high and mid-frequency words that you are likely to come across in general reading, the rest, low-frequency words or those limited to specific fields, are more difficult to learn.  Her point was well taken.  Although I no longer am particularly interested in  grammar, (read more about how I learned Spanish here), we agreed that acquiring vocabulary beyond the words needed for most everyday conversations can sometimes be frustrating.  Her comments prompted me to share with her my personal dictionary project which I had begun not long after graduate school.

This project originated with the realization that I was lacking vocabulary which started in my first college Spanish literature class.  I was already very comfortable with grammar, conversation, understanding the professor’s lectures and speakers on the radio (DJ’s, commercials, news).  So when I made it to literature, I naively accepted this new challenge as a way to learn more language in general, specifically vocabulary.  

The first selection we had to read was from the 18th century about scientific discovery in Spain.
I could only understand about 50% and had to look up most of the rest because little was guessable from context.  It was up to us to figure out the meaning.  Of the 20 students in the class, 75% were native speakers.  There was little incentive for the professor to give us non-natives any assistance.  So, I looked up words and wrote the translations on the pages.  It was time-consuming so I did what my classmates suggested and read without a dictionary and tried to guess meanings from context.  That was frustrating too because really there wasn’t enough to support contextualized guessing and overall it seemed imprecise and inefficient.  What I sometimes thought a word meant was at best, only a vague and superficial understanding of it, not to mention its other uses, register or collocations (natural combinations with other words that form common or accepted phrasings).  

As I continued with this approach, it got easier.  The more I read of a particular author,   I became more familiar with certain vocabulary he or she tended to use.  For example, I learned the word “talante” (will) from reading different works by Unamuno because it came up repeatedly in many of his writings dealing with conflicts between faith and doubt.  Read more about this experience here.

 My last two years of university went on like this-looking up words as I needed to in order to understand a piece of literature.   I know I acquired some incidental vocabulary, at least for reading some literary texts but it was quite random and what’s more a lot didn’t stay with me not only because most of the time I only had one encounter with a particular word but also because I didn’t do anything with them beyond mere recognition.  During the two years between college and graduate school I continued to acquire vocabulary (individual words and phrases) as I had done before studying literature- mostly listening to radio (talk shows, news, songs), some TV (this was before the internet and wide availability of Spanish-language stations on cable) and interacting with people in different situations (friends, boyfriends, people in the community).

Graduate school was mostly more of the same but a bit easier because my vocabulary had grown and I had became a better reader.  Now I was focusing on deliberately learning new words I found myself needing in writing, particularly synonyms.  I relied a lot on a Spanish thesaurus I had bought just before school started and on my experience listening to the language to feel how natural a phrase or sentence sounded.  Both during grad school and just after when I went to live in Puerto Rico, I found myself in situations needing and not knowing how to say words like hose, handle, slice, bucket.  Read more about this here.

The project

Dissatisfied with the gaps left in my vocabulary, I decided to pull out all the stops in an effort to immerse myself once again in learning more vocabulary.   By vocabulary I don’t necessarily mean individual words but rather anything other than grammar itself.   I began reading newspapers and magazines and writing down any word or phrase that wasn’t part of my active vocabulary even cognates or things I could easily recognize the meaning of.  I’d also write the sentence in which I found the word or phrase to remember the context or the other words that it combined with.  After several months I had gathered a couple of legal pads filled with words.  From time to time I’d look over what I had accumulated; this was my only “study” of these items.  Nonetheless, it helped me remember many of them.  I also continued listening to a talk station and music on the radio for several hours a week.  About every month or two I’d go to Miami for a weekend to stay with my dad where I‘d spend time studying and collecting more vocabulary. Read more about my bilingual weekends in Miami here.  There I had more access to Spanish-language materials and TV and radio.  I’d rent videos of American movies with Spanish subtitles (especially those with a technical or legal theme), read the white and yellow pages (which were bilingual), read El Nuevo Herald (including advertisements), and county documents my dad received that were bilingual or trilingual (Haitian Creole is the 3rd language).  My dad and other family members would also give me bilingual owner’s manuals for anything they bought.  All of these materials were very helpful in learning practical but also more specific vocabulary.  After I had filled several legal pads with words, I found reviewing them problematic.  Since there was no order to these pages I had created, I began categorizing the words by topic in order to be able to look up an item that I recalled seeing but couldn’t remember.  So far, I only had random words.  I had begun to broaden my lexical base but it was still full of holes.  Why wasn’t reading as effective as I thought it would be?  In analyzing this process of acquiring vocabulary I realized I was only picking up what others happen to write.  If I kept doing this I’d forever be dependent on what other people wanted to say.  Although I was reading what I could about the most practical things for me, it always seemed that I still was missing words I thought I needed and didn’t come up in reading.  The solution was to decide what I wanted to learn and purposefully look for it.  It was difficult before the internet but at least I was focusing on what I was missing.  In an effort to compensate for not having primary education in Spanish, as well as to round out commonly taught semantic fields like colors, sports, professions and family, I created some 175 categories to include ones such as names (popular and historical), car parts, tools, math phrases, geographical terms, countries and nationalities.  This last one I researched as much as I could and ended up with about 8 pages of them.

No doubt a lot of people maintain lists of new vocabulary words or create their own personal dictionary at different stages of learning but perhaps one difference is the scope that I intended it to be.  It’s still a work in progress but no longer encyclopedic.  However, I have been able to actually to use it to look up words I couldn’t find in a conventional dictionary or vocabulary book. Through this project I significantly increased my active vocabulary which I feel helped me reach a higher level of proficiency.  Do you have a story about increasing your vocabulary?   Please share it in the comments section below.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

An Adventure in Circumlocution

 For how long have you ever sustained a conversation in Spanish (or your second language)? I had never thought about this until more than 20 years ago when I found myself in a day-long marathon of a conversation. How I ended up in that situation is a story in itself.

A couple of years after college and less than a year before I started grad school I heard an ad on the only Spanish-language radio station in the area announcing they were looking for bilingual sales reps for the station. Now, I had no interest in actually doing any selling, nor am I any good at it, in any language, but did that stop me? Goodness no. What did interest me was this open invitation to speak Spanish in a non-social setting, so I went. At the designated time I arrived at the station and there was instructed to wait until called to the meeting. There were few people there in the waiting area but one, a large man was speaking Spanish with a lady who worked there. As I listened I was struck by his accent, surely Venezuelan. It was an intuitive reaction, perhaps wishful thinking since just 3 years earlier I had been there to visit my then boyfriend/fiance. Compelled to speak up, I went over to him and asked in a natural tone that showed an intent to bond with him, “ ¿Tú habla' e'pañol?” followed by “¿De dónde ere'?” purposely dropping my s's. My 'presentimiento' was right. He was from Venezuela and as it turned out, from the same city as my former boyfriend where I had spent 2 weeks. We talked up a storm about his country giving me a chance to not only reminisce with him about local culture and geography but also to feel more like 'su paisana' than simply a non-native speaker who can communicate and happened to have been to an area tourists don't usually frequent. We hit it off and I offered to show him around town the following week since he had just moved here and didn't speak English.

After about 5 or 10 minutes, we were called to a conference room for what I thought was a group interview. Actually it was more of a meeting to inform us about what the job would entail. It seemed there were no real requirements and it would be commision only all of which made it less appealing even to just listen to in Spanish. I got bored very quickly and my blood sugar was dropping and so I had my excuse to duck out of there. I was ready to leave anyhow because I had already gotten what I came for.

A week later, my new friend and I got in touch and agreed to meet for a tour of the city. We started out in the morning around 9. I had been looking forward to it since I had mentioned the idea to him. I began by giving some background about the area and its general demographics and features of the area. So far so good, even though I found that I had to circumlocute (talking your way around the vocabulary you don't know by using what you do know) more words than I expected, —until about 20 minutes into the conversation when my lack of precise vocabulary and constant circumlocution literally had me out of breath. I started hyperventilating. I had to stop talking and roll down the window, take some deep breaths and relax some 15 to 20 minutes before I could resume my informal and spontaneous presentation. When I did, I resigned myself to the fact that I would be spending the rest of the day circumlocuting and prepared myself psychologically for it. However, my confidence in being able to describe my city had eroded away so I gave up on the idea that my vocabulary was broad enough for this day-long task. By the end of the day, I felt that although I had ran a linguistic marathon, I had gained a type of stamina and confidence to make it through a day without tiring from circumlocution.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Levels of Language: The Revised ACTFL Guidelines

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has revised its guidelines which describe various levels of proficiency. These newer guidelines now include a higher level, Distinguished, as well as more detailed descriptions of the levels and video excerpts from interviews that serve as examples of what a speaker can do at the different levels. Check this page for some general information about the guidelines and this page to see the videos for Speaking along with the explanations given for the level assigned to each speaker.

The videos of the interviews are in English, which will surely interest my readers who have English as a second language but those of us who speak Spanish as a second language can also benefit by imagining how we would fair in responding to similar prompts in our second language at the different levels that are shown.

A Numbers Game or How I Made the Most Out of Living in an Area with a Small Spanish-speaking Population

People tell me I’m lucky to be in Florida because there are many Spanish speakers here. Well, yes and no. Yes, there are large numbers of Hispanics here (assuming they speak Spanish as well, although that’s not always the case) but they are not evenly distributed throughout the state. The largest concentration of Hispanics are in the bigger cities like Miami and Orlando. My town is much smaller and the percentage of Hispanics in my county according to the 2010 census is about 8% and almost 23% in the state as a whole. When I came to this area from Miami 30 years ago it was significantly less. Ironically it was back then, and in the years before the Internet, that I got most of my speaking practice. At that time I was making the most of the opportunities around me, mostly through international classmates and networking with friends. But their mere existence was not enough to guarantee the chance to hear and speak the language. For one, no one knew I was capable of sustaining a conversation until I did something about it and spoke up. Even when my best friend in college (a non-native major like me who had a similar level but had many social contacts) introduced me to her friends in Spanish, specifying to them that I could speak the language, I was still addressed in English. I quickly learned that I had to prove my ability to handle myself in a conversation by switching to Spanish and then sustained use of the language as a means of insisting on my preference. It most always worked.

Today, even though the numbers have increased dramatically, I no longer actively seek to have contact with the local Spanish-speaking community and consequently have fewer face-to-face encounters in the language. But what remains the same is the fact that in general, the Spanish speakers here also speak English and are integrated into the community and not marginalized. Because of that, if I want to use Spanish, I have to be the one to initiate the switch otherwise my interlocutor will go on obliviously in English. I have come to realize through my experiences that the number of speakers in an area doesn’t tell the whole story. If I hadn’t been a college student back when I was looking for people to speak with, I might have never even known there were any since I wouldn’t have been traveling in those circles. And even in Miami, a bilingual city, for all intents and purposes, I was not addressed in Spanish, a social reality that has not changed despite becoming fluent. Switching languages, for whatever purpose, falls to me. In the end, no matter how many Spanish speakers there may be in an area, the key is, in my humble opinion, making the most of the situation and hopeful becoming involved in the community so that through social contacts you can increase your language opportunities.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What is Your Level?

If you’re interested in getting practice in listening and reading and getting an idea about your level in those skills at the same time, check out GLOSS .  I have used this page personally and have recommended it to others who are learning or perfecting their skills in the languages available there.

This link will take you to the site’s main page where you can choose the language you are working on, the level you’re at or trying to reach, then click on “Search Lessons”. From there you can select one to start on. Each lesson takes about an hour and except for any writing assignments as a final activity for a lesson, there is feedback available when you click on “Check Answers”. What level should you start at? This site is from the Defense Language Institute and uses the government’s ILR scale. You can read the level descriptors for listening here. If you think you might be at level 2, for example, you could try out the lessons for that level. If you get most or all the answers right on a variety of lessons for that level, you are likely at that level. But if you only get answers right about half the time you’re probably at level 1+ for the modality (listening or reading) that you worked on.   Regardless of the level you're trying to reach, you're sure to find the activities challenging.

I hope that the GLOSS site will be a valuable resource to all those who use it.