Saturday, October 17, 2009

How Good Is Your Spanish?

     How do you answer this question?  Many people think that if you don't hesitate and your accent isn't obviously foreign, then you speak the language well.  This is only one facet of overall proficiency, the one on the surface that gets everyone's attention as a marker of being able to use the language.  But this can be quite subjective.  You may say something meaningful but the native speaker listening to you may focus only on your pronunciation flaws.  Likewise, you may say hardly anything at all.  Maybe your "Hi , how are you?" has a near perfect accent, native-like flow and  you could be told you speak wonderfully.  However, for us language educators we think about proficiency as a continuum and look not just at aspects like these but more at what a speaker can do with the language in broader terms.

     There are a couple of scales that describe different levels of proficiency that are used in the United States.  The government has their own- the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) scale which is basically used to test their own personnel, for example people who wil be going to fill a post overseas and need to use the language of the host country at a high level or in a professional capacity.  This scale goes from 0 (no functional ability) to 5 (highly educated and articulate native speaker).  See the speaking descriptions here.
This scale is appropriate for its applications used by the government, however since it includes much higher levels of language than are typically achieved by students in formal settings, in academia, the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) guidelines are more commonly used.

     The ACTFL guidelines' major levels go from Novice to Superior and these correspond with the ILR scale's 0-3.  See the descriptions here.  There is something very important to keep in mind when reading these descriptions and that is text type.  For example, novice speakers can only used memorized phrases    intermediate speakers speak at sentence level and advanced speakers can communicate in cohesive paragraphs. Superior level speakers can handle extended discourse.  Advanced-Low is the minimum level required for teacher certification in commonly taught languages in some states.  These guidelines are applied through an Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) with a certified tester.  The OPI measures global proficiency and takes the form of a conversation but there are no pre-set questions.  Topics are determined by the interviewee's background, experiences and level as the interview progresses.

   I first read the guidelines when they were new in the 80's, in a textbook for learning to teach Spanish.  They since have been revised, but at the time, I got the idea from reading them that if you knew all the grammar and could use it spontaneously in conversation then, you were at Superior.  But that didn't take into account text type, so you could be able to say sentences like "si no hubiera llovido, habria ido al parque" but if they are not part of a complete, connected story or part of a longer, more complex discussion on abstract topics, then you would only be rated at an Intermediate level.  Likewise, I thought that since Superior was the ultimate level, implying that those speakers made hardly any errors, native speakers would fall into this category. However, when I went through the OPI tester training, I got a more accurate picture of what the guidelines were about.  What was most surprising, as our professor explained, was that in our own language we tend to speak in the Intermediate and Advanced range in our day-to-day conversation.  Granted, the native speaker will have better pronunciation, flow and accuracy than a learner but the text type is sentence and paragraph level.  It's the back and forth, question and answer and anecdote telling of casual speech.  The higher levels are not as common in the average conversation but are rather either more formal or more linguistically complex such as the language of debates or that needed by diplomats. 

     So, if your accent isn't as good as you would like it to be, remember that there is more to using a language than that. Sure your pronunciation shouldn't interfere with someone understanding you but beyond that it's about what you can do with the language -request, express emotion and needs, tell what happened, counsel, persuade, describe, etc. and how well or to what degree of sophistication.  Keep this comparison in mind. As I have heard,  Henry Kissinger the former Secretary of State, whose first language is German, would be rated a 4+ on the ILR scale. If it weren't for his heavy accent he would be considered as a native English speaker.  Despite the accent, look at what he can do with the language.  That in itself is quite an accomplishment that we can all aspire to.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Press 2 for Spanish

Ahhh, the Spanish option.  It has been for me, a great way to keep my listening and speaking skills sharp.  Although I speak Spanish at home, that is not very challenging-just your usual  "How are you feeling today?" and "What's for dinner?" type of conversation.  From time to time  when I need to speak with a customer service representative, I choose the Spanish option to see how I fare with the rapid-fire speech and having to think on my feet as I describe a technical problem to my satellite provider or the phone company.  But the other day, I found an even better reason to pick the Spanish option.  I needed service through my home warranty company and as is so common these days, I knew I would have to go through a couple of minutes of electronic hoops. But I didn't have the patience at the moment so I decided to press 2 for Spanish and Voila! I was put straight through to a human!   That is probably the best advantage to being bilingual.  Who knew that such a human activity, language, was what could defeat a machine, this time.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Double Standard for the Non-Native Speaker

     When I was in Spain as a grad student I had a conversation with a relative of a Spanish friend about fishing.  Since I had never talked about this topic before in Spanish, I didn't have a lot of vocabulary to describe things so I resorted to circumlocution and asked how to say them.  One word I was at a loss for was 'bait'.  I described it and was told to use "cebo".  Of course after 15 years of hearing Latin American varieties and 10 years of speaking like this, I continued my story pronouncing the word as 'sebo'.  I was stopped and told that I pronounced it wrong because 'sebo', with an 's', was a different word with a different meaning.  Unfortunately I didn't know that word either so I asked about it and got the idea it meant 'fat' or 'grease'. But I insisted on pronouncing 'cebo' as it would be in any part of Latin America, arguing that millions of native speakers in the Americas pronounce this way and word pairs like these can be understood by context.  Her reply was that she can understand them but can't understand me.  This was ridiculous but I didn't want to make a scene (we were in public) and it wasn't worth the trouble seeing as this was someone with a preexisting bias, so I prounounced that ONE word, out of a full conversation that surely including other words with 'ce' or 'ci',  as she asked.
     The Spanish woman's statement that she understands Spanish speakers from Latin America but not me, got me thinking that for her, there is a double standard for the non-native or second language speaker who is not seen as having any legitimate claim to the language by way of family.  He therefore supposedly falls under the authority of the native speaker with whom he interacts, regardless of his actual proficiency or fluency which might not be taken under consideration.  As a consequence, in this case, she assumed that I should be speaking as she, a Spaniard, does because it is 'proper' ,  'correct' or 'the real Spanish' .  Because the language was thought to not be 'mine', my imitation of speakers outside her country or region was not acceptable but yet, in the end, we are pronouncing the same way.  Although it is frustrating when this sort of thing happens, this person probably looked down her nose at Latin American speakers too and maybe thought she was doing me a favor in correcting me of my 'bad habits'.  After all those other speakers can't help that they were born into the language.  So even though I sound remarkably like them and even get asked by Spanish-speakers from Latin America if I have Spanish-speakers in my family, in this case, I was like a bastard child.  Same sound but the wrong parents.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Literature and the Spanish Major

If you are or were a Spanish major, most of your advanced classes were probably in literature.  This is almost always the focus of this degree program as it is with other foreign languages.  It's not unusual for non-native students to express their frustrations about the difficulty of these courses.  They can be more specialized or very broad such as a two semester suvey course covering the history of Spanish literature. There are several problems in such classes for the non-native student who has not yet achieved full fluency in the language.  To start, there is the very high level of literary language he faces when reading and the expectation on the part of the professor that he will be able to discuss it despite his limited vocabulary in speaking and writing.  Most of the words are low-frequency and therefore unfamiliar and the learner must look up many of them just to get the main idea. What's more, because there are so many new words, he cannot use contextual clues since that strategy depends on knowing a greater percentage of the vocabulary in the text.  Constant use of the dictionary slows him down and then time constraints add to the problem. One kind of solution that some departments have begun to incorporate into their programs is a 'bridge' course that will help the intermediate student improve reading skills and introduce him to literature as a way to ease the transition to the upper level classes that focus on literature and culture. This may help solve the problem of the gap in linguistic skill, as it applies to academic uses, between the beginning and advanced classes in university, particularly for someone starting their language major in college, but it ignores the fact that because literature is by and large the focus of language degree programs, there is really no significant effort made to develop the learner's professional communication skills for use in the real world after graduation.  It pushes aside the importance of the language for other purposes. Literature professors are just that, experts in literature and want to teach their speciality and no doubt as native speakers feel that this is the only justifiable area of study for anyone getting a degree in the language, especially a non-native.  That's OK.  Let's just be up front about it and call it was it is- a B.A. in Spanish Literature (not just Spanish).  The name is misleading to students and the public at large who expect  at least functional fluency for a variety of situations beyond social conversation.  Whereas there are bound to be students who major in a language because of their love of literature, this may just be wishful thinking on the part of the department.  Most students, even if they don't mind the challenge of literature, hope to use the language in some way in their future work.  Yes, courses such as Spanish for Business or Spanish for Medical Professionals are becoming more commonplace but they were meant for students majoring in those fields who want to learn or improve in the language so as to be an additional skill, a tool for communication.  Even though the level of language may not go above the intermediate level, the important thing is that they are introduced to vocabulary to talk about things other than literature or linguistics, if even that is achieved after four years.  Being able to read business contracts or import/export documents, describe cultural concepts from our own country, discuss insurance policy options with a new client, giving a business presentation or defending or critizing our country's foreign policy are examples of higher level language use that require a broader and sometimes more precise vocabulary than what is usually taught in an undergraduate program. Reading and being able to discuss el Quixote or the stories of Borges do not translate to competency in other types of communication.  Personally, I don't have a problem with literature per se.  But it's place at the center of the curriculum is at odds with the overall goals and expectations of many students who have other plans for using the language. Native speakers who major in English or Spanish in the U.S. for example, are truly specializing in literature and are aware of this.  In the case of English, if the student is interested only in language, there is Linguistics or a Communication major.  When Spanish is seen as a second language instead of a foreign language, then a degree with a name like Spanish Communcation will become available and bring more students to both the advanced study of the language and its literature.
I have been through all of this myself.  When I finished my B.A. I had strong conversational skills and I had done research on Unamuno (Spanish literary figure) and was familiar with the great works and writers of Spain and Latin America.  I was very adept at circumlocution but I couldn't have described a car problem or accident to someone or have been able to handle calls at a call center (because of the speed and taking down numbers and unfamiliar names spoken fast).  This was frustrating because I had hoped to be able to do these things if I chose to  with my degree in hand.  At those moments I began to question the validity of this piece of paper I got for my college work. Just what does it it meant to have a degree in a foreign language?