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Where Formal Language Programs Fail – And How To Succeed Instead

Written by: Megan Miller, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Megan Miller

A few weeks ago, I was watching this video where a group of men stood blindfolded in a room together. Only based on their conversation could they pinpoint who the white man was, and who the other Black men where. If the group guessed correctly, they were to receive suitcases of cash. If they didn’t, the white man would receive the cash. At the end of a few rounds of questions and talk about what outfits they were wearing, the television shows they remembered growing up, some of their hobbies and interests, and where they’d like to see Black men grow in the future, they took off their blindfolds.

man giving lessons on group of people

None of them correctly guessed who the white man was.

As I was watching, this video reminded me of just how much race, culture, and language are integrated. The white man was born an orphan and raised in a Black household. He lived in South Central LA. His accent, diction, cultural references, and vocabulary told the group something about his upbringing, and their assumptions and biases filled in the rest.

Language isn’t all verb conjugations

Say what you want about this experiment/entertainment venture, but it does highlight major gaps in formal language programs. More than once, I’ve had a person tell me, “I thought I knew Spanish, but I went to X and couldn’t understand a word of what anyone was saying.” They had the same issue the Black men in the experiment did: gaps in understanding diction, cultural references, and accents.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I loved school. If I could, I would have a novena candle dedicated to my hardworking high school Spanish teachers and profesores in university. Yet it wasn’t until I arrived to university that I even heard or could distinguish different accents in Spanish: castellano (Iberian Spanish), moro (Moroccan Spanish), mexicano (Mexican Spanish), Boricua (Puerto Rican Spanish), dominicano (Dominican Spanish).

There are 20 countries and one territory that speaks Spanish in the world, with multiple regions and sub-regions per country. That’s a lot of Spanish! Regional accents play a big role in what and how we hear Spanish – which is why listening to a Bad Bunny song sounds completely different than an Alejandro Fernández song, which is different than a Selena Quintanilla song. Being able to understand each different type of Spanish depends on how a person has learned, studied, or spoken a language to become an hispanohablante, or Spanish speaker – which brings us to two popular programs, via university and via Immersion Programs.

Formal university programs

The university setting includes el español culto, or an academic Spanish. The variety of accents, diction, and cultural references are taken into account and reviewed and studied from an academic perspective. It’s one thing to know idioms and slag words exist, and another altogether to use them while conversing with a different accent or diction. More often than not, only learning Spanish in an academic setting will prevent someone from first connecting to another person, as they’re seen as too polished, or too stuck-up to relate to. It’s not that a university or college degree automatically comes with an ego; formal language programs fail to teach crucial real-world language. Especially for those business or political science majors, it’s easier to assign an essay comparing and contrasting GDP spend in a macroeconomic context than it is to learn about truck safety and woodworking… but guess which one is more realistic.

On immersion programs

As language skills grow, vocabulary moves from a transactional nature (I want, where is, how much) to a relational nature (would you like, I’d like, if I could). Immersion programs are viewed as the best way to learn a language because they focus on the human-to-human connection skills that are more likely to be taken out of a syllabus.

Granted, immersion programs solve a lot of issues that people find when they go to learn a language: it forces them out of their comfort zone, but amidst the security of the group. It forces everyone to use a language, including thinking and speaking regularly in a language, which people aren’t as apt to do on their own. And it forces them to interact with people they normally wouldn’t, working in a language that at times can be uncomfortable and awkward. Through immersion, you can learn regional idioms and polish your accent to fit in better with the locals. After spending time in Spain, I described the metro “como sardinas en lata” (even though to this day, I’ve never actually seen canned sardines) and had a castellano accent. After working in a Dominican restaurant, I lost the lispy seseo and used more Spanglish. These programs can be customized to those working in the trades, and really show how learning and working in Spanish is a wonderful tool to play around with your accent and diction.

Immersion programs are great… Until they’re not. When the person changes their environment back to “the real world”, more times than not, those recently boasted language skills and confidence are no more than a wispy memory. There are no maintenance skills or upkeep at the end of immersion programs, and if there are any maintenance tips mentioned, they aren’t strong or simple enough to be followed or implemented.

Putting it all together

There’s no “right” or “wrong” answer with the best program or the worst program. Everyone learns and responds to stimuli differently. To create a Spanish language program that is the most effective, language needs to be based in realistic scenarios and around real people.

Formal education is great at teaching the rules, as formal grammar and syntax are imperative when learning a language. Having the confidence to speak to real people, using proper slang words, and even making jokes is a fantastic experience. Having enough confidence to carry on a conversation is the crux of why you’d even want to learn a language in the first place.

It’s not enough to do a semester or join a three-week program. Language needs to come home with us, and to be integrated in our daily lives. Race, culture, language, diction, and accents are real things that encompass each language, and for those working with hispanohablantes, spending separate time educating yourself on who your people are and actually speaking to them in their native language will do a world of good.

Follow me on Instagram, LinkedIn and visit my website for additional motivation and education tips. Reach out to let me know you’ve read my article; I’d love to hear from you!

Read more from Megan!

Megan Miller Brainz Magazine

Megan Miller, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Megan Miller is a leader in Spanish <> English teaching and bespoke habit-based language learning. Ever since discovering the worlds beyond words as a child, Megan has dedicated her efforts to mastering Spanish, English, and how to create lasting habits to improve and maintain language skills. She is the CEO of Aprovechar Language Solutions whose mission is to empower those in need of a bilingual voice.


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