Saturday, April 23, 2011

Shifting to English

     Just a few days ago I came to realize that I have been slowly shifting to English only instead of trying to use Spanish on a regular basis. There is nothing pushing or forcing me to use Spanish. After all, I’m the U.S. and English is my first and primary language. English is way too convenient, even comfortable, to make any effort to continually use Spanish when I don’t have to. And I never have to. However, if I want to keep my fluency sharp and maintain my skills, there can’t be any giving into complacency. But this had never been an issue because I’ve always been extremely motivated, driven, and as some people who know me have described it, like a bulldozer.
     Up until a few years ago as I had for most of my life, I did everything I could to make Spanish a part of my everyday life. I had gotten satellite TV to have a couple dozen channels in Spanish, listened only to Spanish language radio in my area, made friends from Latin America, spoke only Spanish to my husband (who is from South America), addressed bilingual people in Spanish before English could be established in the conversation, read newspapers and magazines in the language-anything to create a mini-immersion experience for myself. So, where did my motivation go?
     Originally, my primary motivation had been integrative, a longing to be accepted as a part of the local Latin community as a legitimate speaker of the language.  I had many successes as well as failures that come with trying to cross cultural borders within the U.S.  With time, as I starting teaching, my motivation became more instrumental, with a focus on maintaining my level for professional purposes as a high level of proficiency was integral to my professional as well as personal identity.  But this change in orientation is directly connected to my husband’s experience.  When he finally became fluent in English at first we still used Spanish because it was the default language for us-the one in which we met and established our relationship.  At the same time along with the improvement of his linguistic skills, he was becoming very Americanized and wanting to be less and less involved with any Hispanics in our area.  As I realized that I had the ultimate prize, a Spanish-speaking husband with whom I was able to sustain a relationship in his language and through his culture, along with his growing distance from the Hispanic community, my culturally oriented motivation began to fade into the background while language-as-a-tool-for-communication whenever I chose to use it came to the foreground. 
     Even though my Spanish is a part of my identity, and it still is important that others are aware of it, it doesn’t concern me as much as it did before. Through my husband’s influence I have lessened my contact with the community and have come to feel that I don’t always have to use Spanish as a social marker.  I have seen that because he no longer has emotional ties to his homeland (he feels more American than Colombian, which other Latins can’t or don’t want to understand-even seeing it as some sort of betrayal to his ‘roots’) much less to the local Hispanic community, and perhaps as a consequence doesn’t take advantage of using his native language as a social marker either, and therefore faces a certain type of rejection, why should I be concerned about it?  It’s not the exact same thing, but there is some overlap, that of linguistic and cultural crossings.  In observing his experiences with them I’ve learned to downplay their impact, just as he has. 
     As for using more English when I could use Spanish for whatever reason, I know I’m bilingual enough that my fluency doesn’t fade with time but I’m more picky about when, with whom and for what purpose I use Spanish.  Home language is routine and store or restaurant transactions are not challenging, linguistically (even when it’s complicated).  They don’t present any type of ‘practice’.  The only challenge in the latter would be to not get acknowledged as a ‘learner’.  What is more interesting is explaining and solving a problem by phone, like TV repair, billing or banking problems, or arranging for some warranty work on the house. That at least requires more thinking on your feet and using some semi-technical terms.  But that’s the good thing about being bilingual in the US-using one language or another when you want to and for me that’s a way to keep from shifting back to only English.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Advice on Reaching Advanced-Low on the OPI

In the last few years, I have helped several in-service and pre-service teachers reach Advanced-Low on the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI).  Most had already taken the interview and received an Intermediate-High rating; a couple had gotten Intermediate-Mid.  Generally speaking, because their current or future career was at stake, they were naturally nervous, but also uncertain about why they had not been assigned Advanced. There were several misconceptions about what the OPI was, what was expected of them at the different levels and how they would be judged.  I’d like to post here the advice I gave to those I tutored, much of which are answers to frequently asked questions about the OPI.

What is the interview like?

The ACTFL Guidelines describe what a speaker can do at each of 4 major levels, Novice, Intermediate and Superior in terms of global functions. See the description of Advanced here. It takes the form of a conversation but has a structure that includes a warm-up, a series of probes, to see if you can handle higher level speaking tasks, level-checks, to verify the level you function at most comfortably and consistently , a role-play and a wind-down. Even though it feels like a fairly casual conversation, it’s important that you don’t limit your responses to short answers but rather elaborate on them. At the Advanced level the interviewer will try to encourage full length narration and description, albeit indirectly, with questions like “cuéntame más” or “¿cómo es /era?”, for example.

What questions will I be asked?

There is no pre-set list of questions. The interviewer doesn’t have one. Each interview is unique and the questions come from the individual’s own background and experience.

Does my grammar have to be perfect?

No, but overall, your language has to be understandable to a native speaker not used to speaking with a non-native. In other words, the listener doesn’t have to figure out your meaning, despite your errors. You can make your meaning clear using what you know of the language.
Do I have to know the subjunctive?

Not necessarily. Speakers at this level have probably studied the subjunctive and have some familiarity with it, enough to use some of the most common phrases. You may find yourself needing to use it from time to time in sentences like, “Quiero que venga el próximo fin de semana.” or “Yo esperaba que me llamara pero nunca lo hizo.” But if you are not so good at it, you could possibly avoid it, in the above sentences, for example, by saying instead, “Quiero verlo…” or “Esperaba su llamada…”

Do I have to know specific vocabulary or can I circumlocute?

An Advanced level speaker is not expected to have precise vocabulary; it is usually generic. If fact, the ability to circumlocute is expected and needed especially during the role-play, which for the Advanced level is one in that you must handle an otherwise routine situation or transaction that has a complication or unexpected turn of events. It requires you to think on your feet and so, circumlocution will help you do that.

I get nervous under pressure. What can I do about that?

The best thing to gain confidence is by practicing the required functions for this level- narrating and describing in all major time frames, present, past and future and handling a complicated situation or transaction- involving different topics.

I thought I did pretty well in the interview. Why did I get rated Intermediate-High?

You might not have made many mistakes, although Intermediate and even Advanced-Low speakers are rarely error-free. What is important is that your narrations and descriptions be in cohesive paragraphs, not just a series of sentences. They should include connecting phrases showing sequence or cause and effect, such as primero, después, antes de + inf., más tarde, entonces, aunque, como (since), and por eso, to name a few.  The good news is that Intermediate-High means you can perform the functions of Advanced but not consistently and not across a variety of topics. You may also be able to request an analysis of your interview in which they will suggest an alternate way to respond to the questions you were given.

I hope these comments will aid those who will be taking the interview in the future. If any reader has any other questions about the OPI, please post them here.

Best of luck.

UPDATE:  I've posted a second part to this post with more pieces of advice.  Read it here