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!
I would love to hear your best advice for building confidence as a Spanish speaker. Let me know your ideas in the comments below!
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Thank you for writing this! As a non-native Spanish teacher, I go through the same struggles myself. It’s nice to know that others are dealing with the same thing. I also really appreciated the Joey picture!
Joey <3 !
Thank you so much for sharing. I am a non-native Spanish teacher who started out as an English teacher and was forced to teach Spanish as well. It’s a long story, but basically I found that I enjoyed teaching Spanish, got my certification, and have been teaching it every since. The hardest part of my job is the scrutiny I receive from other Spanish teachers and students who speak Spanish as their first language. You are correct when you say our credentials are judged every time we open our mouths. It’s the only profession where we have to use our brain twice as much b/c we’re having to (correctly) translate every thought! Thanks again for the encouragement. It helps knowing my struggle is not unique!
God bless you for this post. My thoughts/fears/discomfort exactly. I appreciate the tips. I’m meeting and going for a walk today with my friend’s in-laws who are visiting from Madrid. Wish me luck!
Hope it went well. I struggle with the accent from Spain… I should travel there or get into another show from Spain. 😉
I agree. It is so nice to know that others are in the same space. I have a decently high level of proficiency but I will always make mistakes. I’ve been working hard on reminding myself that I don’t speak/write English perfectly so why would I expect that of my second language. Either way, I keep looking for new resources and I love reaching out to my ELL students to learn ways they say it in their home countries as I’m preparing for a lesson.
Yes! If I make a mistake in English, I think of it as a goof. When I do it in Spanish, I feel bad about myself. Trying to change my mindset too!
I also really appreciate this post! I have the exact same feelings: as soon as I tell someone (especially in a foreign country) that I teach Spanish, I feel like I am immediately being evaluated as “la gringa.” Of course there’s more to teaching Spanish than simply knowing the language, ESPECIALLY when we’re using 90% Spanish, but unless you’re a world language teacher you don’t realize that!!! Thank you for putting yourself out there and sharing your feelings, and for providing ideas to help as well!
Great advice! I am not a Spanish teacher, but an English teacher working with lots of bilingual colleagues and Spanish speaking students, and my confidence waivers often. I also try to speak as much Spanish as possible at home with my kids, but you’re right! I never learned all the bossy Spanish a parent needs. 🙂
This post may have kept me from quitting my Spanish teaching job. Recently I have been feeling very insecure about my Spanish after butting heads with a native-speaking student who took learning Spanish from a non-native speaker really personally. I began to feel like teaching Spanish as a non-native speaker was unethical since I had essentially stolen this language from native-speakers. Am I stealing a job from a more qualified native-speaker? Then I began questioning whether I should speak Spanish to my future child or not – what would the rest of the family think if my kid makes language errors? Will he/she feel like an outsider in their own family? What if I don’t teach them Spanish at all and they can’t develop a relationship with an entire half of their heritage? Should I even continue to speak Spanish with my husband and his Spanish dominant family? Are my efforts at Spanish insulting to them? This cycle of negative thinking and fear can be so destructive.
I can only be who I am and teach the best I can teach – there is so much more to teaching Spanish than just being a great Spanish speaker. If there was someone else more qualified, then they would have been hired. I should know better than to think being a native speaker is all it takes after years of asking my Spanish-speaking husband to explain grammar and having his answer be “because it sounds right.” Your suggestions for getting better are great! I recently started an informal “club” with my AP students where we watch Celia over the weekend and catch up in class.
Your words mean so much to me! I hope you are able to continue with your Spanish and enjoy what you know and can offer to your family and students. Abrazos!
Hard to believe in the 21st century but as a non-native, black female I still get comments like “You don’t look Hispanic. How did you learn Spanish? Sigh!
OMG! Same here! I am a black female, and people get shocked when they here me speak Spanish. Unfortunately, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of people don’t have a general idea about Latin America and all the BLACK folks who live there. Hispanic is not a race nor a “look”. It’s a culture with a rainbow of races and colors. From very white to black like me. 🙂
Ugh. I can’t believe people are still saying things like this. I mean, I can… but still.
Thank you so much for this article! Having your own struggles refelected in others and seeing that it’s not just you, definitely puts things into perspective again! You are such a blessing! Thank you for being willing to expose the true vulnerability that we all feel day in and day out! I appreciate your posts and suggestions so very much!!
This! Thank you for being so open and putting this out here! I was sure I was the ONLY one to feel this…and to see the comments from others also sharing this struggle somehow encourages me beyond belief! I love the opportunity I have but I’ve never had anything challenge my own self esteem as much as teaching Spanish as a non-native speaker in a community with a very high percentage of native speakers. I’m in my 10 year of teaching but only 2nd year at the HS level teaching Spanish. (I’m endorsed k-8 and previously taught in primary.)
You are definitely not alone!
You have no idea how much this post helped me. I am a new teacher in my first semester of teaching and I happened to land a Spanish job, even though I am certified in French and German instead. My Spanish is fine and I have no problem with the middle school curriculum. However, the school just took in a refugee from Honduras and plopped her right smack dab in the middle of my Spanish class. I am so embarrassed when she talks to me and I don’t understand what she is trying to say! I feel like it completely discredits me in front of my students and especially the other teachers when they hear that I can’t understand her. The problem is, her accent is very strong and she has a lisp on top of it so I’m just having such a hard time and I feel terrible! Your post made me me feel so much better about it though. It’s completely normal to feel that way even if you are a fluent speaker of the language and have been studying for 20+ years. Much less being thrown into unknown territory and practicing the language that you rarely speak and mostly just learned for fun. There are so many different levels of fluency and your level of fluency doesn’t necessarily coordinate with your ability to teach the language. Thanks for keeping me grounded!
I’m so glad my post spoke to you. It is so hard with the extra layer of accents thrown on– I feel that way with speakers from Spain!
Question: Has anyone ever gotten criticism from a student who is not a native Spanish speaker? I’ve gotten this a couple of times from native Spanish speakers and have definitely felt some insecurities, which has taken me a lot of work to overcome. However, I had a student in my Spanish 1002 class criticize my pronunciation who isn’t a native. I had the students fill out an anonymous survey in English to assess the course and one of the questions was asking about my strengths and weaknesses. One student who is a little more advanced and has a Spanish-speaking boyfriend listed “pronunciation” as my weakness (although it’s anonymous, I happened to know which student did this survey). I am not sure if it’s because I speak very slowly and use lots of gestures and actions when teaching my beginner class to make it comprehensible, or if it’s because occasionally I mess up on words when speaking in front of others (which I do in English as well sometimes-nervous habit), or if I just really have bad pronunciation. I’ve had a couple of native Spanish speakers in the past criticize my pronunciation, but I’ve also had a lot of compliments from natives and they told me I don’t have a strong foreign accent at all and that I speak it very well. I am not sure where I am going wrong, but any advice or similar experiences would be greatly appreciated!
Thanks for this–I definitely can relate to wanting to hide my Spanish teacher identity in many situations! As for ideas about getting to 90%+ in the target language, what made all the difference for me was a summer at Concordia Language Villages. I went out for the 11-day educator training course in immersion methodologies, and then stayed on to work at the Spanish language village (El Lago del Bosque) where we staff spoke 100% in Spanish with villagers for four weeks. It transformed my professional practice and I highly recommend it for others striving to meet the 90% target language goal! http://www.concordialanguagevillages.org/adult-programs/educator-programs/seminars
I love this post! Thank you!
This saved me today. It’s the third day of school and a native speaker shattered my confidence (that I’ve worked on building for ten years) in a split second. I appreciate your words and suggestions so much and will read them again and again throughout the year.
It’s amazing how even we, as grown adults, can still be affected so greatly by our students. I know it’s not personal but sometimes that armor still gets cracked and those harsh words make their way through.
This is awesome and my scenario almost exactly. I have no one at home to speak Spanish with. My husband thinks if he puts an o on a word, he said something in Spanish. Ha! I teach Spanish 1, and the woman who teaches Spanish 2-4 is from Spain. She is my very dear friend, and never makes me feel inferior because I´m not completely (maybe not more than 70%) fluent and have forgotten a lot of my advanced Spanish because I seldom get to use it. But if I open my mouth to speak to her in Spanish, I guarantee it will come out wrong. I fumble every time. So annoying! And yet, not everything she says or writes in English is perfect, and there are many times she asks me for help with something in English. So I should not feel insecure, but I do. I HATE to appear inept. Thank you for being transparent for those of us Spanish teachers who never got an immersion semester and feel SOOO judged at conventions!
Thank you for this post. I grew up in a Spanish speaking house hold but I am not able to hold a decent conversation in Spanish with out struggling through my sentence structure or finding my self lost for the right word to use. One parent spoke Spanish to us and the other hardly ever. Now with my own children I desire them to learn but my fears of teaching them the correct way to speak the language scares me. However, I have determined to push through my struggles and fear and learn with them. I am glad my reception of the language is pretty good, now I have to work on the expressive language.
Mil Gracias, this post was spot on for me for many reasons, but mainly because a.) I am going to be teaching Spanish 4 next year (after only ever teaching 1 and 2) and I am nervous about that for many of the reasons you mentioned above, and b.) also because I have a toddler at home who I am trying to teach Spanish. Before he was born I promised myself and my husband to only ever speak to him in Spanish. But I am finding that harder and harder to do as I need to speak quickly to him, too quickly to think in Spanish to avoid major accidents, (“Don’t jump off the mantle!” “Put the knife down!” “Take the button out of your mouth!” etc!). Also, in those quiet moments with my little guy, I want to speak in my mother tongue and say sweet things that come out naturally in English. I do only sing Spanish songs to put him to sleep; that’s more fun for me anyway since I have to sing the same songs over and over, at least in Spanish it’s a bit of a challenge!. I also find Netflix in Spanish super helpful, I have playlists on Spotify that are Spanish-language and kid appropriate (well-mostly!), and I order Spanish-language storybooks from Scholastic (teacher benefits, yay!).
At least for the Spanish 4 class, I have a full school year to prepare. I am reading through the textbook as often as I have time, and watching more Spanish-language programs on Netflix, myself. As a note, I actually find it super helpful to watch in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. Reading in Spanish while hearing it allows me to better assimilate higher level structures. I don’t see the Spanish subtitles as cheating, it’s still Spanish, it’s just hitting my brain on two levels, not one:)
Yup, I’m all about subtitles too. Sometimes things don’t stick for me unless I can read them!
I cannot tell you how much this post means to me right now. I don’t feel so alone with my feelings of inadequacy now. Muchas gracias!
The worst is Spanish speaking parents! When I don’t understand them sometimes. It’s the worst. Frequently it’s 10x harder when they start talking to you out of the blue. Then you wonder what they say about you at home. Etc… I have a question for you. I always blame it on the fact that I don’t have tons of Spanish speakers I see on a daily basis. Does having a husband spanish speaker help?? 🙂
Love this site! Thank you for creating it. I have been teaching Spanish for 29 years. I am not a native speaker and I majored in French. I have also struggled with feelings of being an impostor. Do I know it well enough? What about errors I make? This year has become very interesting since I have a native speaker from Mexico in my class. His parents do not speak English and are very challenging to understand. There is also a Honduran family whose accent really makes me question my ability. Then, my school hired a Mexican lady to translate as an aid for the student. She and I speak easily with each other in Spanish and she is very easy to understand. This helped to restore some of my confidence. Because of this opportunity, I have also been able to learn some slang and more phrases used in Mexico.
Overall, I know I am a decent teacher and try to connect with students so that they feel comfortable in my room and perhaps if they see that I could learn it adequately, they believe they can, too.
I did all the coursework for a PhD in Spanish (didn’t dissertate because life took a sudden turn when I had twins). I’d taught college level Spanish for 12 years – always with high student evaluations. I had many students change their major to Spanish after taking my classes and had others travel to Spanish speaking countries and tell me they were able to successfully communicate after a couple of semesters with me. I’ve been mistaken as a Spaniard in Costa Rica and as a Puerto Rican in Spain – so I evidently sound “ok enough” but still not like I’m speaking the same Spanish as everybody else. And I still have that impostor syndrome. I honestly thought I was the only one to feel this way and am so glad you wrote this! I find that I can understand people from Colombia very easily, yet my best friend from Honduras…I have to tell her to s.l.o.w. down. And even though she is my best friend and is only ever encouraging, when I speak Spanish to her, nothing ever comes out right. Fortunately my students are easy and just go with the flow when I trip over my tongue. Thank you for putting this into words.
Thank you for the resources and support. Due to current stay at home schooling, I have become the de facto Spanish teacher for 6 grade school grandchildren, only one of whom has had a year of classroom training. Their parents are busy with work and other home schooling, so I spend about 30 minutes with each of the six, twice a week. My background in Spanish consisted of a very poor performance in 8th grade Spanish, then 30 years later, taking a position that required me to travel to Venezuela frequently, and often without a translator. Immersive learning! (sometimes rather scary) My driver / body guard did not speak English, but we managed to teach one another enough language to get by at work, hotels, restaurants, and airports. It was a wonderful and challenging experience. Now, I have the opportunity to help the grandkids (ages 7 through 10) to learn and for me to spend time with them, even as we socially distance.
Thank you for this! I have decided to try to teach my baby Spanish, even though it is not my native language. My partner speaks no Spanish, and I am determined to do this… Pero es difícil! I have been watching more Netflix in Spanish and reading YA fiction in Spanish as well… definitely need to start finding more baby appropriate things to expose him as well.
I extra appreciated what you said about hearing mistakes after the fact- I am the same as you~ I hear my errors 90% of the time, but can’t stop them from coming out of my mouth!
Your ideas are helpful, but most importantly made me feel better about trying to do this even though it won’t be perfect. Gracias!