Letting Go of Language Fear: Teaching Spanish, When You Don’t Speak it Perfectly
Inside: How to find confidence and build your language skills when you aren’t a perfect speaker.
I have a confession: I am an insecure about my Spanish.
The insecurity mainly comes from people knowing I teach it. Talking with a bunch of old friends, who are native speakers? Fine. Teaching a low-level Spanish class? No problem.
But sit me down with another teacher who speaks better Spanish, and my proficiency literally crumbles in front of me. My heart races, and I can hear the mistakes falling out of my mouth. I want clarify: I do at least, hear the errors. Somehow I just can’t stop them!
Another confession: I hate writing in Spanish on social media teacher forums. With friends I can text and message all day. But writing in a FB group, where the grammarians are just waiting to help me improve my Spanish? No thank you.
I do realize this isn’t healthy. I do know that I should love and welcome feedback. After all, I ending up learning Spanish, teaching Spanish, and raising bilingual kids without planning any of it. My credentials are not all up-to-speed. I should be wide open to it, grateful to people who help me get better.
My husband, a native Spanish speaker is like that. He insists on his English being corrected. Thanks to his thick skin, he has that strange ability to separate an honest mistake from his personhood. I get defensive when my story gets interrupted to let me know it’s tenga, not tiene; he’s grateful for the a-ha moment.
Perhaps I should listen to the words I say to my students: I’m so proud of you for trying! Who cares if you mess up? We’re all learning, every day! But I do care, because– accidentally or not– Spanish is now my job. I’m Spanish-speaking mama, making Spanish-speaking kids. My mistakes kinda do matter now.
It’s annoying to be imperfect, but it also means I totally get it when people share they’re afraid to talk to native parents… or teach an upper-level course…or admit they grew up in a Spanish-speaking home… or that they’re Spanish teachers.
In no other subject area are your credentials on the line every. single. time. you open your mouth or say something on social media. Seriously.
So, there’s our situation, us non-native speakers who aren’t where we want to be. I’ve got some thoughts and then some concrete ideas for where to go from here.
It seems we need to figure out 3 main areas:
- Make a plan to improve our proficiency, long-term.
- Figure out how make up for our language gap while teaching, in the meantime.
- How to become more confident in ourselves, wherever we are.
Working on Your Own Proficiency
Long-term, we want to grow in proficiency. There are fancy and fun ways to do this: travel, do an immersion summer, find friends who will speak with you, or take a class. If you don’t have space to do something like that now, here are some ideas for learning at home.
- Find a good Spanish podcast. This is the easiest step to take. Listen in the car, while doing housework or while getting ready in the mornings.
- Get hooked on a Spanish show on Netflix. I often multitask while watching, but it’s really better to put everything down and really soak up the language.
- Read. You can go straight to an authentic book in Spanish, choose a good YA book translated into Spanish (think Harry Potter), or you read the advanced Fluency Fast readers. I find this particularly helpful, because they often the language I need to provide in class– sort’ve like I’m filling myself up with the language I need to give.
- Listen to music in Spanish. Listen to the same songs over and over, til you’ve memorized them!
- Set your devices to Spanish, and like or follow several social media accounts.
Teaching Spanish, in the Meantime
Long-term, we’re growing and getting more fluent. But right now? Right now, you might have been thrown into Spanish 4 mid-year, because that teacher quit. There might be native speakers trying to correct you, and you find yourself reverting to English too much. Their parents chat you up in the hall and you want to die of embarrassment that you can barely understand them.
Or maybe you committed to teaching your own little kids Spanish, and are now realizing you didn’t learn how to say, “Ew get out the toilet! There are germs and it’s disgusting and if you ever do that again you will be in huge trouble!!!!”
Here are some suggestions.
Teaching a class with lots of heritage/native speakers:
- If possible, be honest and upfront. Tell them you might stumble at times, but that by being a non-native speaker you understand what it’s like for them. I let them know I was still learning; I openly looked up words I didn’t know. When we did silent reading as a bellringer, I tried to get a novel and read– to show them I was still learning, too.
- Set the boundaries for when native and heritage speakers can help you. You need to decide if you welcome suggestions during class or not. If it’s happening a lot, consider pulling the students aside to understand why they feel the need to correct. Establish when and where it’s okay, and when it’s not.
- Explain the many regional differences right off the bat (ask, “How you do you say ______ in _____?). Also, it’s worth it to explain that some street terms are different than what’s often taught in class. (“Ya’ll” and “gotta/gonna” are used, but not found in English books, for example.)
- Acknowledge but downplay their “corrections.” Perhaps say “Muy interesante” nonchalantly and add it to a vocab list or word wall posted somewhere. It may be these students are feeling insecure elsewhere, and use Spanish class as a way to show off. Try to channel that in a positive direction. (If it’s rude and needs correction, that’s another matter.)
- Give them something else to do. If the students are truly at a higher level than you, consider putting them in direct contact with books, music, and podcast that will challenge them. It’s some work upfront, but it will allow you to focus on the class.
Not Feeling Confident to Speak 90% in Class
- You can only start where you are. Are you at 50%? Shoot for 60%. You may need to do some extra prep for a while– write out your PPTs, write a story ahead of time, script out your MovieTalk.
- If you are grammar-based, I HIGHLY recommend looking into comprehensible input. There are tons of resources out there. It is MUCH easier to stay in the TL when you are using materials in the TL. Study novels together in class. The language is there, and you are only facilitating the discussion. If it’s an upper-level class, just stay one chapter ahead. Study authentic songs in Spanish, use stories that other teachers have written, and bring listening resources right into the classroom. You will grow with your students!
Speaking Spanish with Your Kids at Home
This is REALLY hard to do (so kudos to you!!). Parenting your kids means saying very complicated things. And, you are also trying to build an emotional connection that lasts a lifetime.
- Here’s a great article from Rita Rosenback on this situation to consider the pros and cons. Any Spanish you can give your kids is better than no Spanish. It is SUCH a gift. You may need to re-work your plan along the way, to always keep the relationship first, but don’t give up on it!
- Consider setting aside certain parts of the day to be Spanish-only (like bedtime), or a certain night of the week. Lean heavily on book and songs (learn together), watch movies together, and play games where the vocabulary is handy. I wouldn’t worry about mistakes (I make them all the time), as long as your children are in contact with some native speakers or materials.
Speaking Spanish as a Latino
It’s really common that kids grow up hearing Spanish their entire lives, but feel really insecure about speaking it. Maybe you got teased about errors from older siblings or family members, and clammed up. Maybe you had a time in life when speaking Spanish wasn’t cool, or your parents didn’t surround you with as much language as you needed. Your Latino last-name probably makes it worse when your language doesn’t come out impeccably.
- Be honest with your family (if you can). Explain that the jokes or teasing makes you more self-conscious. OR maybe you need to explain that you want family time to be real, honest communication. No error-correction, just help if you ask for it.
Being Confident in Yourself
Ah, this one is hard. The worst thing that can happen is that you abandon Spanish (at home or as a career) due to perfectionism. Here are a few things to remember:
- Your imperfections can be quite inspiring to your students and kids. (She laughs at her own mistakes and moves on? Wow.)
- There will always be someone better, and being native won’t always fix it. Some of you reading this actually have quite good Spanish, but every mistake still kills you. Hey, guess what? Even native speakers make mistakes. There are entire debates on Spanish teacher forums about a ser vs. estar nuance (yeah, that thing we teach the first month of Spanish 1).
- Sometimes differences are regional. Spanish is a big language, geographically. I’ve been mortified over an error on Facebook, only to find out it was just a difference between countries.
- If you find yourself cornered in a conversation that’s making you flustered, ask questions! Point the conversation away from yourself, give yourself a minute to breathe, and try to understand the other speaker.
- Sometimes, ignore. Sometimes, people are insecure in themselves and are looking trouble (whether it’s students, parents, or even fellow teachers). I’ve heard horror stories of teaching walking into other classes and correcting something in front of all the students, or a Spanish-speaking parent “testing” the teacher’s Spanish. At some point, you can’t do anything about that sort of toxicity and you have to let it go. Believe me, I’m bad at it. But I’m working on it!
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