For years I have watched with amusement the number of courses that are offered for conversational Spanish. Inevitably the people who attend these conversational courses never learn to converse! But what does that mean anyway; to converse?
For me, that means sitting down across a table from someone and having a conversation, an interchange of information and ideas. It is the transfer of ideas and personality.
As you look at the levels of progression as one learns Spanish, you can see clearly where conversational Spanish fits.
In the beginning levels people learn to function. That is; get the things or information that they need or want. The dialogue includes social protocol, a few scattered words and sometimes simple sentences. Once they get the price, make the purchase or get the information needed, the interchange ends and people move on. Obviously functioning in Spanish is not conversational Spanish.
Low Conversation Spanish requires the ability to talk about oneself and ask about others.
High Conversation Spanish requires the ability to talk about abstract ideas.
In both cases one must have the ability to form sentences beyond Tarzan talk. Conversational Spanish requires the use of tenses and pronouns which are the moving parts of speech. This is never accomplished in one of those “conversational Spanish courses”. Usually these courses have situational based content, such as buying in the market, registering in a hotel, the airport, customs, taking a taxi etc. Rarely do they teach any Spanish grammar and if they do, they teach only the Present tense.
What I have noticed in the SIL Lessons over the past years is the following:
Beginning Spanish students come to Level 1 – Power Verbs with no Spanish experience. The grammatical explanations are done in English and then students practice in timed exercises with a partner. In this class they learn social protocol, numbers, and days of the week. Most importantly they learn the 100 most common Spanish verbs and how to combine them with Power Verbs such as I need, I want, I am going to, etc.
They gain a vocabulary of about 300 words. When they leave this class they can go anywhere, and get anything they want with confidence. They rarely speak in complete sentences and they flub up a lot.
But they have enough skills to get by. They cannot converse. They function at a low level.
Level 2 students learn the simple past tense (Preterit) and the use of pronouns. The grammatical explanations are done in English. They learn the rules of Spanish word order and how to form good questions and how to answer using pronouns. Most people never learned about pronouns in English to begin with, so we explain how pronouns work in English before we go into Spanish.
The Preterit is a functional tense. Its purpose is to get information about past events. Most sentences are short and there is rarely more than a three sentence interchange. Here are some examples. Did you bring the key? Yes, I brought it. When did you bring it? I brought it this morning. – Did you pay the bill? Yes, I paid it. When? Yesterday. Thanks. – Where did you put the book? I put it on the table. – Did the bus leave? Yes. When? Fifteen minutes ago. Ah shucks. Sorry.
After Level 2 students can function in present and past time. They function at a high level and can look at any Spanish sentence and see the parts of speech. Spanish is no long a foreign language to them.
In Level 3 we teach the Seven Indicative tenses. This is where students break out! They already know word order, use of pronouns and now they can begin to express their thoughts and personality in Spanish. I notice that during this class most of the instruction is done in Spanish and everyone understands exactly what is going on. By the end of this class students do not want to hear English anymore. They can hear words separated in sentences and develop tense recognition.
Tense recognition is the key to understanding. If someone is using verb forms you don’t know, then there is no way you can clearly understand. In Level 3 students move into conversational Spanish.
They can express their thoughts and feelings in seven tenses. They are still at the Low conversational level but they can sit down across the table with someone and carry on a conversation in Spanish. Their language is halting and they make mistakes, but they can self-correct and understand when corrected.
In Level 4 we learn the Present and Past Subjunctive. This class is taught in Spanish unless there are issues that need to be addressed in English. The Subjunctive moves us into the Spanish language of respect and diplomacy and finishes out the Spanish tenses. It also finishes out the Foundation Course. Students are ready to officially move into the intermediate or into Conversational Spanish. The understanding of the Spanish language is in place. Now the business at hand it to enrich vocabulary and develop communication skills. It is time to converse!
At the intermediate level you move into guided Conversational Spanish. That means that the student works within a paradigm of information. Students usually do a reading before meeting with the teacher and then there is a discussion about the chosen information. Guided Conversational Spanish develops speaking skills and vocabulary development. This level moves the student towards being able to engage native speakers in free flowing dialogue.
Total immersion Lounges have mastered the business of developing conversational skills, particularly at the high conversational level. Usually there is a lot of preparation needed to be able to succeed in these schools. In the language business this is called the foundation work which is done at the Warren Hardy School.
Finally I should mention something for you thousands of Independent Spanish learners.
The SIL Spanish Workshops handouts and prints are designed for Spanish home study. These Spanish workshops have a very clear and linear progression and they move you quickly and clearly through all the Spanish tenses. This work can be done at home or at least you will find it helpful to use these Spanish workbooks as a supplement to any course you take anywhere.
I hope this has been helpful in your understanding of Conversational Spanish and how to get there. Please send me your comments.