I moved from the US to Spain in 2018, and thought I was SO ready. I mean, I’m a Spanish teacher! I’d been teaching Spanish for six years, and I’d traveled, been to language exchanges, etc.
I was not ready. First, my brain needs a moment to “switch on” when I visit a new Spanish-speaking place, with a different accent, new colloquialisms, you know how it goes.
Anyway, that work that I’d done to keep up with my Spanish in the states did help, so I’m going to share some ideas for keeping up with your language skills.
I know, I know – we all passed those certification exams, and we’re good to go, right? Not so much. Here are three big reasons to continue to work on your language skills, even after you’re a certified profe.
Authentic, Effective Instruction
First and foremost, a language teacher with strong language skills is able to provide effective instruction. It’s not the end-all-be-all of language teaching, but the language part of it plays a pretty big role. When teachers are confident in their own language abilities, they are better able to teach the nuances of language to their students.
That’s not to say that you should be overly confident. I remember someone in my own high school Spanish class asking the teacher how to say “squirrel,” and she paused, took a beat, and said, “Erm… Esquirrel” with that rolled-R. When you don’t know something, own it and share that vulnerability with your students. Do you expect them to know everything? ¡Claro que no! Show them it’s ok to look new words up, or confirm ideas (and use your favorite dictionary to model best practices and stave off Google translate!).
Better Student and Family Communication
In my first teaching job, the student population was 80%+ heritage Spanish speakers. Which meant their parents mostly just spoke Spanish. In a classroom with Spanish-speaking students, having strong Spanish language skills can improve communication with students and parents. This not only helps your students feel more comfortable, but it enhances parent communication and those parent-teacher relationships, which we know are key for student support.
In my experience, no one appreciates when you assume anything about their language access. I only use Spanish with families after asking the adult which language they prefer for communication.
As for language discrepancies, use this as a learning opportunity! I’ve taught heritage speakers from México, Panamá, and Puerto Rico, and when I know there’s another word for something (hello fresa vs. frutilla) I’ll ask my students if they use the same word as me, or know another word.
Enhance Cultural Competency
Language and culture are inherently interconnected, and having strong language skills can improve your cultural competency. Understanding and appreciating different cultures is important in any classroom, but especially so in language class where students might be exposed to a variety of Spanish-speaking cultures. A teacher who is well-versed in the language and culture can help students better understand and appreciate the diversity of el mundo hispanohablante.
Let’s Do the Darn Thing: How to Practice your Spanish
Take a Class
The more traditional route, taking a course or class is a great way to improve your language skills. Many universities and community colleges offer Spanish courses. You could take a film, literature, or culture class in the target language. I took a Spanish sociolinguistics class in grad school and it was so interesting, plus I was exposed to different accents and vocabulary. Courses can be a great way to improve your skills in a structured way.
Another option is to take an online Spanish class. There are many online courses available, from free to paid. Online courses can be a good option for those who have busy schedules or prefer to learn at their own pace.
Language Exchange, Tandem, Intercambio
Language exchange partners are native speakers who share their languages. You can find language exchange partners online through websites like Conversation Exchange (my favorite) or Tandem. This can be a great way to practice speaking with a native speaker, and to learn more about their culture.
My biggest recommendations are to find someone with similar interests, a close language level, and schedules that align. You want to be able to continue a conversation across languages, talk about things you enjoy discussing, and have time to meet up – in person or online. My best local friends here in Spain came from language exchanges.
Input All the Way
We know how important strong input is for our students, right? It’s the same for us! Reading books, magazines, newspapers, or online articles is a stellar way to improve your vocab and grammar skills.
There are also tons of great Spanish-language shows available these days on all your favorite streaming platforms, and tons of podcasts. My favorite Spanish language podcasts are El Hilo, Entiende tu Mente, and a business podcast that I like.
I almost forgot! Social media is also a great way to keep up with your language practice. Follow your favorite “influencers” across Instagram, Tiktok, Twitter – find Spanish speaking content creators wherever you like to hang out online.
Saved the Best for Last
Travel, travel, travel. Traveling to a Spanish-speaking country is a great way to immerse yourself in the language and culture. You can practice speaking with native speakers, learn more about the culture and history, and experience language use first-hand.
It doesn’t have to be costly, either. Check out your local language teaching association to see if they offer scholarships for language immersion – here’s a list of scholarships put together by ACTFL.