Content is just as important as language learning. Its primary purpose is not to provide material for grammar practice. Communicating interculturally requires that speakers have a broad and systematic understanding of the target culture in order to know WHAT to say, not just HOW to say it. Cultural learning is just as important for communication as language skills, and should be systematically taught from the very beginning, and not reserved for upper division courses.
One example of this can be seen in the two units in Ritmos devoted to Mexico and Spain. Students develop a solid overview of their historical development, unique cultural attitudes and relationship to each other and the USA, with special emphasis given to regionalism in each nation. Students will come away with a much deeper appreciation and respect for these countries and their people, which will encourage them to communicate and interact with native speakers.
Written texts and listening pieces are drawn from hundreds of interviews with native Spanish speakers, with content appropriate for novice and intermediate learners. This real, unscripted and normal-speed language provides students with excellent training in listening comprehension, preparing students for real encounters in the target language as well as providing natural models for their own production. Careful selection of interview questions and responses, along with varied pedagogical interventions make this authentic language accessible and ‘doable’ for beginning learners.
Y en eso me siento muy mexicano, en cosas chicas, como las botas, los cintos, la ropa mexicana, ropa que es más western. Cuando he ido yo a tiendas en Chicago, en Kansas City, o en Texas, a tiendas mexicanas, tiendas que son casi todo para mexicanos, la ropa todo el tiempo es muy western: botas, las camisas, los pantalones muy western. Y en eso, cuando me pongo yo las botas, me siento muy mexicano. Cuando me pongo yo unos ¿cómo se dicen? docksiders, me siento como muy americano, no sé por qué. Me siento muy americano cuando me pongo docksiders y muy mexicano cuando me pongo botas.
Ritmos covers grammar and structures necessary to function at the Intermediate-Low level. This implies both a reduced and expanded grammatical program: reduced in terms of number of topics, but greatly expanded in terms of review, recycling and practice.
By focusing on fewer elements in more detail, students actually achieve better linguistic proficiency more quickly. Two of the ten units provide extensive review and recycling of vocabulary and grammar from the four preceding units, giving students a chance to actually assimilate the material they are learning.
The amount of vocabulary covered is not overwhelming, consisting of roughly 15 new words per instruction day, 500-600 for the semester, selected based on word frequency, classroom utility and connection to course content.
These items are consistently reviewed and practiced, allowing students to solidify them before moving on. This leads to better retention and a much more enjoyable student experience.
Rather than using a textbook as the main element, served by ancillaries such as videos, a workbook, and online activities, Ritmos is based equally on a text and an interactive web program.
The cuaderno combines the best elements of a textbook and workbook for use both in class and independent studying. It is light, portable and designed to be used and written in; many reference features traditionally found in textbooks are handled by software, websites or handouts.
The interactive web program presents the bulk of the vocabulary, cultural learning and especially listening activities outside of class, preparing students for writing and classroom activities. This combination is much more effective for most students rather than a traditional textbook-based curriculum.
Motivating Further Study
First year Spanish courses do not exist in a vacuum, but form an important part of a full curriculum. Thus a first year program must serve the larger goal of making students fluent in Spanish and effective cross-cultural communicators. If students stop studying Spanish when they complete their language requirement, these goals are never met. Thus an effective Spanish curriculum must set as its primary goal student retention in the larger Spanish program. Ritmos achieves this by presenting useful and interesting cultural knowledge, providing useful and fun class activities, and giving students useful intercultural skills that they can apply immediately.
An important way to achieve proficiency in any language is study abroad. Thus one of the goals of Ritmos is to equip and recruit students for just such an educational experience. We achieve this by exposing students to authentic language from the very beginning, and by establishing a broad base of cultural knowledge so that learners feel comfortable communicating with people from the target cultures.
Cultural barriers are perhaps even greater than linguistic barriers when it comes to communicating with people from different backgrounds. Ritmos targets training in intercultural communication as one of its primary objectives, equal to language learning.
We believe this is not only necessary, but a critical component of Ritmos. It does no good to train students in Spanish if they refuse to actually speak it, because they are uncomfortable or unwilling to communicate with people different from themselves.
Ritmos helps students develop their ability and willingness to communicate by covering a broad base of cultural information, using guided cultural gap problems, and by having student listen to countless narratives, personal experiences of native Spanish speakers in their home countries as well as their experiences in the USA.
Real Listening Skills
Traditional Spanish textbooks include audio programs with pattern drills and listening texts read by professional speakers. This makes the Spanish relatively easy to understand, but does not train students to function in the real world.
Ritmos uses authentic, unscripted narratives that are aimed at non-native speakers. These listening tasks are conducted in the software component, which also provides vocabulary and other support to help students understand. While challenging at first, this approach develops excellent listening comprehension skills.
It also vastly improves pronunciation because students are constantly exposed to the natural cadences and pronunciation of Spanish and attempt to imitate it in their own speaking and writing.
Structure Serves Content
The purpose of grammar instruction is to enable students to understand and produce correct Spanish. Yet in most texts, grammar topics are introduced far beyond the students’ actual capability to use the structures. The ACTFL proficiency guidelines have the following description for Intermediate-Low speakers:
Speakers are able to handle successfully a limited number of uncomplicated communicative tasks
Speakers are primarily reactive
Speakers express personal meaning by combining and recombining what they know into short statements
From this description it is clear that grammar instruction needs to be very basic for the first year level. Many topics typically covered in a first year course should only be touched on for receptive skills, if at all. Instead, students should be trained to react to authentic language, handle uncomplicated tasks and develop a great deal of ‘chunks’ of language that they can combine and recombine to produce their own meaning.
In this spirit, Ritmos reduces the number of grammatical topics and works instead at student mastery of basics so they can achieve intermediate-low proficiency as quickly and efficiently as possible. This provides a solid foundation for further study, and does not heap on unnecessary frustration for students who either are not interested in grammar or who, despite our best efforts, elect to end their Spanish studies.