A Bilingual Vision for Denver in 2022

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A Bilingual Vision for Denver in 2022
By David “El Profe”

 

Executive Summary:

 

  • There is an urgent need to change the way that World Languages are taught in the United States.

 

 

  • Currently, World Languages are taught through a traditional, grammar based approach.
    • The current success rate with this approach is .07% of students become conversational in the language that they study for a period of 2 or more years.

 

 

 

 

  • The author proposes migrating towards a conversational based approach that he has developed.
    • The author’s Let’s Start Talking!  Conversational Program has a success rate of over 80% in a period of 3-6 months.

 

 

 

About the author

David E Stevens III has been learning and teaching new languages since 2001.

Since then he has helped thousands of people learn how to speak languages, especially English and Spanish, and has done a lot of spectacular work in Colorado to bridge the gap between these two communities by breaking down the cultural and language barriers that exist.

As Director of The Language School, Denver’s top rated school to learn how to speak both Spanish and English, he has developed a fun, practical, and powerful way to learn how to speak a new language through his “Let’s Start Talking” approach to learning, which focuses first and foremost on conversation and getting people to talk.

David@TheLanguageSchool.us

+1 (720) 634-2589

https://www.facebook.com/DavidElProfeDeDenver

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidestevens3/

 

As we start the new year, I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering my purpose, identity, and vision for the future.  After much thought and careful reflection, I’ve settled on a new goal:

 

I want to make Denver America’s most bilingual city.  

 

I’m going to do this by continuing to spread The Language School’s Let’s Start Talking approach, one of the first truly conversational based programs available in the United States that I have spent the last decade creating. I want to make it easier for other teachers to teach it and their students to get access to it.  Once this is accomplished, it’s my hope that the city of Denver can serve as a model for the rest of the country, and the US can finally make the changes that it needs to make in order to improve the quality of education when it comes to learning languages.

 

The United States is an amazing country in so many ways, and has become known as the global standard for doing so many things.  Our legal policies on freedom and democracy are being studied and imitated around the world, our entertainment industry is second to none, and American innovation in science, technology, and business simply can’t be beat.  However, our education system has greatly slid backwards, and I fear if we don’t turn this around, our overall quality of life may soon dwindle.

 

I don’t aim to fix the entire education system, but I do have unmatched expertise when it comes to learning languages, and my aim is to share this expertise with the powers that be this year.  At least, I want to share this expertise locally in my home city of Denver.

 

Why does this matter?  Spanish is already being taught at every High School and University in Denver.  We also have apps!  There are so many apps and programs already available.  Well, while this is true, it’s also true that virtually no one is actually learning how to speak Spanish fluently through what’s already available.  

 

Most students, despite 2 years of required study of a World Language, never learn how to speak the language they study fluently.  Yet I can teach someone how to start speaking Spanish in 3-6 months.  It sounds preposterous, and I agree, which is why I’ve settled on sharing my expertise with other teachers and administrators across the city this year, in order to really get students speaking Spanish.

 

It wasn’t easy for me to learn how to speak Spanish.  I only learned it because growing up in Colorado and beginning my career here instilled in me such a strong desire and need to learn it that I wouldn’t give up.  But I went through the current system, and it really isn’t conducive to actually teaching students how to speak a new language.  I ultimately had to move abroad, and after experimenting with Spanish immersion in Spain, Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador, I settled on living in Córdoba, Argentina for a year and studying Spanish in a truly conversational immersion program.  

 

I studied Spanish in a total of 10 different schools, including High School, College, and Immersion programs, but I only enjoyed one of them.  Keep this in mind as you read this information.  Let me reiterate this: learning Spanish was not easy for me because the current system overcomplicates the language learning process, and I only learned how to speak Spanish because I had an incredibly strong desire and need, and I would not give up.  I tried program after program until I finally found something that worked for me.  Most students simply give up on the idea of learning how to speak a new language and come to believe that it is impossible.

 

A study by an economist in 2012 estimated that most High School students around our country spend 2 years studying a new language like Spanish, yet less than 1 in a hundred really learn how to speak it.  That’s right, less that 1% of World Language students that go through our current education system really learn how to speak the language they are studying, despite at least 2 years of mandatory studies.

 

https://www.econlib.org/archives/2012/08/the_marginal_pr.html

 

I was one of those students.  I studied High School Spanish for 2 years, and couldn’t speak a lick of it by the time I graduated.  20 years later, I’m the author of dozens of books related to learning languages, the creator of the Let’s Start Talking program, and the Director of Denver’s most well renowned school for learning languages, and I can quite honestly and confidently say that I can teach you how to start speaking Spanish in 3-6 months.  

 

Let me state this again – I can teach you how to speak Spanish in 3 to 6 months, but most students study it for at least 2 years in high school and never learn how to successfully communicate in Spanish.  

 

I’ll elaborate on how a little later in this paper, but for now, let’s think about the possibility of students citywide learning how to speak Spanish in just a few months.  Let’s imagine that we set this into motion.  What I’m proposing for the city of Denver is that we switch away from the traditional, grammar based approach that doesn’t work very well and we implement a truly conversational based methodology to teach students how to really speak Spanish in the school systems, including Secondary and Primary School systems.  

 

To be clear, this would result with most students becoming bilingual in Spanish and English by the time that they graduate from High School.  It would also mean that they could spend less time studying Spanish.  The current system requires students to study Spanish for 2 years in High School, and 99.3% of them never really learn how to speak it.  My future means students would study Spanish for 1-2 semesters and speak it well enough to speak it at work, talk to their neighbors, or travel to Mexico.

 

The cost savings to our tax payers would be huge, and the public school systems need all of the help they can get in that department.  However, the real benefit would be to our business community and to our citizens.  

 

I’ve worked with hundreds of employers over the years to teach their employees how to speak a new language, and many businesses face a similar environment in Denver.  Executive management speaks English, but the employees and contractors that perform the daily operations of service or production speak Spanish.  They need mid-level management to be bilingual in order to successfully communicate within the organization.  Then you have many other businesses that want to grow sales within the Spanish speaking community, but they can’t find customer service personnel to successfully deliver the message.  This is really important, because the Spanish speaking community is huge – it currently represents approximately 30% of the population of the metro Denver area.  

 

You can do a quick Google search to see that communication skills are the most sought after skill when it comes to getting jobs.  However, these surveys aren’t even asking the right question…. What is the language of communication of choice?  Denver has become a bilingual city.  As mentioned, approximately 30% of the population speaks Spanish.  That is one out of every 3 people.  This has created a huge demand for bilingual, English/Spanish speaking employees and citizens, who can speak these languages and improve communication throughout our communities.

 

With this type of environment, it’s never been more important to teach our students how to speak Spanish, and my proposal to all those involved in our education system, from the Politicians creating policy to the Board of Education that implements it, down to the Deans, Principals and Teachers is this:  

 

We have to do better.  We have to improve the way we teach Spanish in Denver in order for our businesses to thrive, so that we can effectively communicate with our neighbors, and so that Denver can serve as a model for other cities around the country.  In order to do this, we must switch over to a conversational focused approach to teaching Spanish like what I offer in my Let’s Start Talking conversational Spanish program.

 

This isn’t a gimmick or a sales pitch.  I don’t need to convince anyone of this because the proof exists.  If you don’t believe me, look at The Language School’s reviews on Google, and then survey your typical High School Spanish student on his or her experience with Spanish class.  Furthermore, during the past two years of the pandemic, I have been recording most of my classes and putting them on YouTube for the public to see, so you can even see this in action if you don’t believe it.  I’ve invited other incredulous teachers to observe my classes, and they all leave shocked, praising my program.  If you’d like, you’re welcome to join me in some classes too!

 

The point is that I can greatly accelerate the language learning process, and I aim to create a systematic change in our educational system so that our city becomes the most bilingual city in the country, and then spread the joy across the US.

 

“Why?  How is this possible?  How is it that you can teach someone how to speak Spanish in several months, whereas I myself tried in high school and college, and can’t say anything more than ¿Dónde está la biblioteca?”  Perhaps you are asking yourself this question right now.

 

Ok, so most people will actually need some convincing here.  It’s a simple answer, but I think it merits a longer conversation about me and my journey on this path.  I studied Spanish in High School.  Like most of my peers, I didn’t take it seriously.  I really didn’t want to be in that class in the first place, but I had to if I wanted to graduate.  I disrupted class, and did the bare minimum in order to pass the class, but I really hated being forced to take Spanish in High School.  



Luckily, my High School offered a senior trip to Europe that I signed up for, and this completely changed my perspective on learning languages.  I had such a good time on that trip, despite being able to speak the local languages, that I decided I was going to learn a new language.  

 

Initially, I had settled on learning French when I came back from that trip, but when I moved out of my dad’s house into my first apartment, that changed.  All of my neighbors were from Mexico, and you could hear the music playing in the hallways every time you came home.  I’m a really friendly person, but couldn’t say much more than “Hola” when seeing my neighbors.  That was kind of frustrating for me, and I wanted to go beyond that.  


Eventually, I made friends with one of my neighbors who had moved here from Mexico.  My friends and I ended up teaching him how to speak English, while he helped us with our Spanish, and that was a really fun experience.  At the same time this was happening, I had started to work in construction.  If you’ve ever been on a construction site in Colorado, then you know the primary language being spoken is Spanish, so my desire to learn Spanish was further exacerbated by my job.  


So I switched my goal from learning French to learning Spanish, and decided to enroll in an immersion program in Spain.  I thought that this would be the way to go since my High School Spanish classes hadn’t really worked out.  

 

Boy, was I wrong!  When I got to Spain, I really couldn’t speak any Spanish, and it was incredibly frustrating.  I was in 4 hours of daily Spanish classes, but my Spanish teacher didn’t speak any English, so I was lost there.  In my book 5 Easy Steps to Speak Spanish with Confidence,  I discuss this experience in a lot more detail, and you can learn a lot more about how this program was born, but here are the highlights of this journey.

 

I actually got to the point where I was ready to give up, but only decided to keep at it after careful consideration and analysis of why I was learning Spanish.  When I fully understood that I wanted to learn Spanish to improve my relationships with Spanish speakers and create more job opportunities in the future, I realized how powerful it was, so I kept going, regardless of how challenging it was and how humiliated I felt in class.  I decided to pay less attention to my teacher, and create my own vocabulary lists of words and phrases that would help me order food in restaurants and meet new friends.  Soon after, I began successfully communicating with people in Spanish.

 

I was only in Spain for a month, but I began to communicate with people fairly fluently during that time, at least in my day to day activities of introducing myself to new people, ordering food in restaurants, and exploring Barcelona.  I want to be clear that I did not master the language in just one month, I just began being able to communicate with people about the things you normally talk about when you are meeting someone.  Shortly after the first two weeks of misery, I had a real conversation with someone for the first time in Spanish.  My confidence skyrocketed, and I just kept going from there.  


When I came back to Colorado, I enrolled in night classes at CU Boulder.  I continued to work construction during the day, and study Spanish at night.  I continued focusing on vocabulary instead of grammar, and trying to practice with everyone I could whenever I heard someone speaking Spanish.  I became really good friends with the neighbor that I mentioned earlier, and we helped each other learn how to speak our native languages simultaneously.  At work, I was quickly promoted to a supervisor, because I was the only person on the job site that could communicate with everyone.  The general contractor only spoke English, but every time a new crew came in, they only spoke Spanish.  The roofers were from Guatemala, the landscapers and the painters were from Mexico.  Someone had to greet them and direct them when they got to the job site, and that person was me! With the promotion came a big pay raise, and honestly, an easier job. 

 

If this was all possible from learning how to speak a small amount of Spanish at the age of 18, I began imagining the possibilities of entering into the business world being fully bilingual.  So I began researching colleges and universities, and settled on Eckerd College in St. Petersburg Florida, which was very well known for its International Business program and sending its students abroad. 

 

There, I continued to study Spanish, alongside International Business, and got exposed to students from all over the Spanish speaking world.  My first roommate was Cuban, my best friend was Dominican, and there were tons of Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans on campus too.  As I began spending more time with them, I realized I still wasn’t getting what I wanted out of my Spanish classes.  I wanted to speak Spanish, but the focus was still on grammar.  Verb conjugations, past, present, future, por versus para, and of course… the dreaded subjunctive!  But when I got together with my friends, I was lost in their Spanish conversations.  I could get a 100% on a Spanish exam, and read a book in Spanish, but I was completely lost if I got around a group of 3 or more native Spanish speakers.

 

So I continued studying, and decided to spend my summers traveling in South America studying Spanish in immersion schools.  That first summer I spent a month in Argentina, a month in Chile, and a month in Ecuador.  The next year, my school offered a special immersion trip to Argentina for the month of January, and I jumped on it.  That’s when I experienced my 10th Spanish program at SET Idiomas, and to date, the only real conversation based program to date.  


It was fantastic, and I had so much fun on the trip.  We were in small group classes, and the teacher taught a small piece of the grammar followed by conversational activities that focused on the grammar we were being taught.  It was almost all done orally,  We weren’t really using workbooks or anything like that, other than perhaps the occasional handout or worksheet.  

 

I started developing friendships with the locals, and no longer struggled to express myself.  I enjoyed that program so much that the following year I moved back to Córdoba, Argentina, where I did my Junior year in College as an exchange student.  I finally mastered the language, and could understand it and speak it like a native.  I made friends with Argentinos that I still have today.  I learned how to use the slang from Argentina, and really became familiar with the culture.  I even learned how to dance the Tango!

 

I came back to Florida to graduate from Eckerd the following year, and my college professors offered me an opportunity to start tutoring Spanish on campus.  I also applied for a tutoring job off campus, where I worked with high school students.  This was a unique experience for me, and I realized that most students struggled with Spanish because they either didn’t really want to be learning it, or they didn’t know how to study it.  

 

This is another really important point.  When it comes to learning how to speak a new language, you have to learn it, study it, and practice it.  Most teachers are happy to conduct class in order to teach you, and give you tests to evaluate your knowledge of what’s being taught, but they don’t tell you how to study or how to practice.  It’s up to you to learn the language, but most students don’t know how to study or practice outside of the classroom.  They simply show up to class, and then do the activities in their workbooks, but they are missing out on a few vital steps to really learn how to speak the new language.

 

On my own path to fluency, I had realized fairly early on the importance of memorizing vocabulary.  When I was in Spain during my first immersion trip, I realized that if I didn’t know what words meant, I couldn’t order the right food from restaurants.  I once ordered raw octopus… yuck!  After that, you better believe that I learned how to say ham and cheese sandwich immediately!

 

My love for words continued when I was at CU Boulder too.  While my college professor was at least using English to explain Spanish to me, the focus was on the grammar.  The pace was also really intense, and required a lot of homework between classes.  While initially I was feeling overwhelmed, I remembered how helpful memorizing vocabulary words had been for me in Spain, so I started doing something somewhat counterintuitive, which was to focus on memorizing the vocabulary.  

 

Like most students, my first instinct was to open my book up after class and complete all of the activities.  However, I would spend a lot of time flipping back and forth in the book, trying to look up what words meant, which was very time consuming.  It was taking me about 4 hours to do my Spanish homework, which was simply too much time for me while working a full time job and taking night classes.  

 

So one day I decided to create flashcards for all of the new vocabulary from the new lesson, and I memorized that before doing the activities in the book.  It took me 3 separate study sessions to memorize the vocabulary.  The first was the longest because I had to also create the flashcards, by writing the Spanish word on one side and its English meaning on the other of a 3×5 index card.  Creating the cards took about 20 minutes, and then another 10 minutes to study them.  Later that day, I studied them again for about 10 minutes.  The next morning, I woke up, and it took me less than 5 minutes to go through them all.  Immediately after, I did my homework, and it took less than an hour to complete the activities.  

 

It was amazing!  Instead of spending hours in my book, flipping through the pages trying to figure out what words meant, I spent about 45 minutes upfront memorizing the vocab, and then I could do the homework in less than an hour.  It was so much more efficient than what I had been doing to date.  By dedicating my initial homework time to memorizing vocabulary, I was able to cut my overall homework time in half.

 

This practice actually worked so well that I actually started doing the vocabulary studies in advance.  Before a new lesson, I would create flashcards for the vocabulary and memorize it in advance, so when I showed up to class I already knew what all of the new vocabulary words were, and participating in class became really fun.  It was easier for me to understand the new grammar rules the teacher was teaching, because I wasn’t using any brain power on understanding what words meant.

 

So going back to when I started tutoring students, I realized that none of them were trying to memorize vocabulary.  Teachers focus on teaching the language, but they don’t teach you how to study the language.  Learning a new language requires instruction, study, and practice, but most teachers just focus on the instruction piece.  Students don’t know how to study it or practice it, which is another reason why they don’t learn how to speak it.  As a tutor, I got to teach my students how to study the language and practice it too.  My first lesson was always on creating flashcards to memorize new vocabulary, and all of my students dramatically improved their grades after that.  

 

When I graduated from College, I had no intention of becoming a teacher.  My primary degree was in International Business, and I envisaged myself traveling the world doing business deals.  Instead, I got a job doing software sales in the midwest.  It was miserable.  I had spent so much time and energy on learning how to speak Spanish, only to land a job doing business in the least culturally diverse part of our country.  So I decided to continue tutoring Spanish on the side so that I wouldn’t lose it myself.  After all, language is use it or lose it.  

 

I advertised on Craigslist, and started getting students.  However, they weren’t the students I was expecting.  They tended to be business professionals instead of high school or college students.  They didn’t want to take the traditional approach, which is why they were calling me instead of enrolling in their local college.  They wanted to speak Spanish, they didn’t want to study it.  For the most part, they had already studied it in High School and College, but they had not learned how to really speak it.  I could relate… I never wanted to really master Spanish and the complex series of rules the language presents, but simply talk to people in Spanish.

 

Being the business student that I was, I started applying some marketing principles to teaching Spanish.  I asked what students wanted to learn, and it wasn’t the grammar.  It was conversation, so I decided not to be a traditional Spanish teacher, but to teach it conversationally.  

 

I began networking with other Spanish teachers, and found a couple of brothers from Peru that shared a similar philosophy.  We started working together and creating materials that put the focus on conversation as opposed to grammar, and then started working with small groups instead of individual students.  It was a success, and we started getting more and more students.  Essentially, we pioneered a new market in Boulder, which was teaching conversational Spanish as opposed to academic Spanish, and the results were so good that I decided to quit my job doing software sales and open my own school in Denver.

 

During the first year, I was actually met with great failure.  There weren’t any books or programs that were geared towards teaching conversation, so I had to make do with what was out there.  My Peruvian  counterparts had started publishing some great books geared towards conversational Spanish, but they were missing something.  They were geared more towards travel and didn’t focus enough on relevant, day to day conversations.

 

Everything else on the market geared towards teaching Spanish back in 2012 was highly academic and really expensive.  My students wanted conversation, but the only available resources were academic.  That’s when I realized that I was going to have to create my own program that gave students what they wanted, which was real conversation about relevant daily interactions with people at work and in the bilingual community of Denver.  My students were also really busy, being working professionals with families and social lives, so they didn’t have much time to dedicate to studying Spanish.

 

I began researching efficiency, and the fastest ways to learn a language, and came across a lot of research from Europe.  I became familiar with the idea of Language Acquisition versus Language as a Subject Matter, and started analyzing what conversations were.  A conversation is an exchange of ideas and information, with the key word being exchange.  That made me think of when I was in a jazz class playing guitar in High School, because jazz music is also conversational, where musicians are able to speak to one another with their instruments.  This led me to look for other musically inspired conversations, like gospel music.  My dad has always played percussion, so I started studying Afrocuban music and discovered that this music was rich with conversation as well, where the singers make calls and responses and so do the drummers.  That made me also think about dance, as I’m an avid Salsa dancer, and I realized that there is a similar conversation taking place between the band and the dancers as well.

 

I mention all of this because I want to make a point, and that is that most people want to learn how to speak a language.  Speaking the language conversationally is made up of calls and responses, questions and answers, or simply, exchanges of information.  I realized that I had to put the focus on the exchange, not the grammar, and that was the basis for my classes.

 

This was happening in 2012-2013, and by 2014 I started gaining a great reputation in Denver for being the person that could really teach you how to speak a language.  This was a highly experimental phase for me, and I continued researching what conversations were, and putting my new ideas into practice in the classroom.  I also started thinking about the way we learn our first language, and doing independent research into this.  I found charts and images that laid out the natural way that kids learn how to talk at home, and thought about how I could apply that to my language classes for adults.  I realized that my philosophy of memorizing vocabulary words was in line with the way that people learn their first language, one word at a time.  At some point during all of this, someone forwarded me a video of a guy talking about how you can learn any language in just 6 months:

 

https://youtu.be/d0yGdNEWdn0

 

The language instructor that sent me this was actually mocking this world renowned linguist, Chris Londsdale, and asking me to confirm that the guy was off his rocker.  Well, after watching it several times, I decided that Mr. Londsdale was absolutely right… you can learn how to speak a new language in 6 months or less.  I actually made my goal to teach students how to speak Spanish in 3 months or less, and started applying the principles he discusses in his TED Talk to my classes.  Again, through much trial and error, my program shifted further towards conversation and away from teaching rules.

 

In 2016 my son was born, and that was the icing on the cake for me.  Up until this point, I had only researched natural language acquisition, but now I got to see it in practice.  We enrolled him in an Early Childhood Education program, and his teachers informed us to try to get him to follow basic instructions to develop his understanding.  When he was about six months old, before he could talk, he could start understanding some simple commands.  Lesson 1 for the language teachers, get your students to start understanding the new language.  People naturally can understand more than they can speak because of nonverbal communication and context, so the first stage of teaching your students how to speak a new language should actually be how to understand the new language.

 

We also learned how to do baby sign language for things like food, drink and water, because while vocal chords aren’t fully developed at this point, communication is developing.  We learned the basic signs for water, milk, food, and the bare necessities and it was life changing!  No more crying and guessing games, real communication with nonverbal gestures.

 

At 8 months, my son’s first word was water, but not in English.  It was in Spanish.  When I would give him a bath, I would constantly splash the water around a repeat “agua, agua, agua”.  One day he started trying to mimic me, and before you knew it, he was able to say agua.  So here is the lesson for stage two of teaching languages: teach your students first how to understand words in Spanish, and then how to say them.  We must first seek to understand, and then to be understood.

 

I mention all of this because I think it’s important for you to understand where I come from.  I don’t have a Masters Degree, much less a PHD, so most people in this field don’t take me seriously.  If I can get a meeting with a teacher to discuss my books, when I say I can teach someone Spanish in 3 months, with no hesitation other teachers say it is impossible.  I may not have the fancy Higher Education acronyms next to my title, but I do have years of experience from the perspective of a student and the perspective of a teacher.  Instead of continuing to study research and theory in an academic setting, I have been conducting my own research into efficient learning techniques and what conversations are, and putting that into practice in a real classroom with real students.  I started my own school and hired other teachers, and observed everyone’s collective successes and failures, while all the while going back and tweaking the lesson plans and accompanying materials to improve their efficiency in the same way a software developer would remove bugs and improve the user experience.

 

I also have the unique experience of essentially pioneering this field in Colorado, while being a business owner, a musician and a father.  Being in business has made me look at teaching from the perspective of an innovator and collaboratively creating a program with the needs of my students in mind.  This is important because most teachers are told to make sure that their students learn X, Y, and Z by the end of the semester in order to meet the goals of a standardized testing system, but they are not asking their students what they really want to learn.  Also, as mentioned previously, I’ve drawn a lot from musical conversations and seeing my son learn how to speak and applied this experience to teaching my students how to speak Spanish.  Combining this experience with my own difficult experiences of learning how to speak a new language is what made me seek to create a very unique program that works incredibly well, and my students really learn how to start speaking Spanish in 3-6 months.

 

So I don’t have a Masters Degree, but I have unmatched experience when it comes to teaching conversational Spanish.  Since 2001, most of my focus as an adult has been in this field, but it’s a field that doesn’t really exist.  I actually don’t have a Masters Degree because I don’t know what it would be in.  I’ve spoken with college professors about returning to school, but when I explain to them what I do they are completely lost.  I don’t want a Masters degree in Spanish, because what would go against what I stand for, but rather a Masters degree in conversation.  Teaching conversation doesn’t exist according to the department of education, much less conversational Spanish, so there really isn’t a Masters degree that I could get, at least to my knowledge.  

Furthermore, in some ways I think too much education can actually be a hindrance to innovation.  I had a PHD candidate start an argument with me during a presentation that I was giving at a conference several years ago because the information that I was presenting went against everything that she had been taught in her classes.  The research that she had been doing was in direct opposition to what I was doing.  She was teaching at a community college, and of course she was teaching the way she had been taught, and was experiencing extremely poor results from her students, and that was just the way it was.  She learned from the grammar based approach, had done the research that it was the right way to do it, and therefore taught that way, and there was no other way to do it.  Here I come, presenting a new way of teaching, and she just couldn’t accept it, so she stopped my presentation and began arguing with me.

 

She called me two years later and admitted she couldn’t stop thinking about my presentation.  She was left with a curiosity that wouldn’t go away.  So I invited her to come observe my classes for a week, and she accepted.  After the first class that she observed, which was my 4th level, or for students who had started from zero 4 months earlier, she came out of the classroom and asked me how long they had been studying for.  When I informed her that they had been with us for 4 months, her jaw dropped.  She told me that the students were speaking better than her 2nd year students.  She has been a customer ever since.

 

We are only as good as the information that we have.  I really want to go back to school for a Masters Degree in this field, I just don’t know exactly what it would be.  After all, I’m opposed to the traditional approach to teaching languages, and as far as I know what I do doesn’t exist.  I think the point is that I learned more about teaching languages by learning languages and then teaching them based on what my students wanted to learn than I would have had I gone through a traditional program.  I’ve had years of experience and practice as opposed to years of investigation and research into theory, which has created this really innovative and efficient way to learn how to speak Spanish.

 

I’d like to take a moment to review the vision I have, which is to make Denver the most bilingual city in America.  In order to do this, I must get other educators on board with this conversational program that I’ve created.  Remember, I’m proposing that we create a systematic change from a traditional grammar based approach to a conversational approach, that will result in the majority of students learning how to speak Spanish in 3-6 months.  Unfortunately, most educators that can make this a possibility will not be willing to consider that there is a better way to do this, and will scoff at this information.  So from here, I will try to persuade you of how this really is possible.

 

The linguist that I mentioned earlier makes the claim that anyone can learn any language in 6 months or less, and I would further argue that it can be done in only three months.  How is that possible?  Why is it that most students never learn a new language, despite 2+ years of study?  To directly answer the question of how it’s possible to learn how to speak a new language in just 3-6 months, in short, you have to make the learning process center around conversation, as opposed to the language.

 

Currently, most teachers in this country teach the language.  They do not teach you how to speak the language.  Trust me, there is a huge difference here.  The language is made up of rules and grammar, but a conversation is made up of an exchange of information and ideas, typically coming in the form of a question and an answer.  So what this means is that teachers are teaching the rules and the grammar, but I’m teaching people how to make the exchange of information happen.  I don’t focus on the grammar, I teach you how to ask a question and react to a question, which is a far more efficient, natural, and fun way to learn how to speak a new language.  It also creates this snowball effect, because when students are able to almost immediately introduce themselves to a Spanish speaker and talk about what they like to do for fun, they get an immediate sense of confidence and satisfaction that encourages them to take it seriously and keep going.

 

Think about it like this… you have learned how to speak a language.  Spanish is a language.  That’s it, it’s that simple.  If you can learn one language, you can learn another, there is nothing inherently complicated about that, unless the methodology makes it complicated.  Unfortunately, that is what is happening here in the United States.  We are making the language learning process overly complicated, and it results with most people thinking that it is impossible.

 

So how did you learn your first language, English?  By speaking it.  It’s that simple.  We need to get students speaking Spanish.  Just like small children learn their first language, we need to teach them Spanish one word at a time, starting with the most important and relevant words that they need in order to start speaking Spanish.  We need to stop hammering them on verb conjugations, and the difference between por and para, and show how conversational exchanges take place using the words that they are learning.  I’ve yet to meet someone who was handed a book of grammar rules when they were 2 years old.  Yet this is the way your High School or College teacher taught you Spanish, and it needs to change.

 

I grew up in Colorado, where you frequently hear Spanish spoken.  There are Mexican restaurants everywhere, and getting invited to the quinceñera of one of your classmates in High School is pretty common.  At least, there was a time when it was common.  Unfortunately, this current environment seems to have created a lot of animosity towards the Spanish speaking communities, and it seems like we are regressing.  The Spanish speakers seem to be further isolating themselves and segregating themselves.  I recall having as many Spanish speaking friends in the 90’s and the 2000’s as I did English speaking friends.  However, since about 2010, it seems to be much more common for me to be the only “gabacho” or “gringo” present when I attend one of my friend’s parties, and people are shocked to meet the friendly American that can speak Spanish.  

 

This is not the Colorado that I remember, which is why I want to invite my American neighbors in Denver to do better.  I want to challenge my English speaking friends to learn how to speak Spanish, and return our city to being the friendly, welcoming environment it once was for our Spanish speaking neighbors.  We need to end racism and put an end to xenophobia, and remember that we are all people.  Learning how to speak Spanish will improve communication in our community, will reduce tensions caused by fear and misunderstanding, and this can lead to a reduction in crime, safer communities, and a much improved economy.

 

Colorado used to be a territory of Mexico, and the entire region has long been influenced by the Spanish language and Mexican culture.  Colorado is indeed a Spanish word – it means red, and the state was named for all of the red rocks and landscapes the Spanish speaking people encountered when first exploring the area.  I think this is really important, because in order to improve the future, we must understand our past.  There always has been great interaction here between English speakers and Spanish speakers, and more than likely there always will be.  Anything that we can do to improve this experience should be done so that we can thrive moving forward.

 

Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, we are not.  While the policy makers have their hearts in the right place with the 2 year mandatory study of a new language, it seems that their heads are not in the right place.  The current system does not work.  99.3% of students never learn how to speak a new language, when it really only takes 3-6 months if done the right way.  I know, because I studied in the current system when I was in High School, and then again in College.  I also know it’s possible to learn how to really speak a language in 3-6 months because I traveled the world, was exposed to conversational methodologies, and have spent the past 10+ years developing and implementing a conversational program in Denver with great results.

 

Look, I studied Spanish for two years in high school, so I know what goes on there.  It’s a failure… however I say that not to insult the students, nor the teachers.  The failure is not on the part of the students, nor on the part of the teachers, but rather I believe it to be a failure on the part of the politicians and administrators that set the system in motion, although it may not really be their fault either.  After all, we are only as good as the information that we have.  What I have been working on has never existed, at least not in the United States.

 

At some point in modern history, it became mandatory that students study a World Language in High School for no less than 2 years.  You see, everyone can understand the benefit of having more bilingual people in this country.  So they made it a policy, and it was dictated from the Ivory towers of Washington that High Schools needed to mandatorily teach languages in High School, and then this was researched and carried out across the country.  

 

Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough good research at the time, and the conversational approach that I advocate hadn’t been born yet.  So the traditional, grammar based approach was implemented, and here is the scenario that you face while learning a new language in High School:

 

First of all, it’s really too late – it should be mandatory in Preschool.  Preschool students are still acquiring their first language, and are able to naturally adapt to a new language much easier than someone with a solid language system in place.  By the time students have entered High School, they are already speaking English, and have developed their core system of communication around the English language.  They have also developed a lot of other things, like free will, and being forced to study a new language is quite a turn off.  Most High School students simply don’t want to be in Spanish class in the first place, so they resist it and rebel against it.  Instead of taking it seriously, they goof off and make fun of the goody two shoes and teachers’ pets, which can make it even harder for the few that really want to be in class.  Class gets disrupted over and over, and it’s just a miserable experience for all those involved.

 

Meanwhile, the teacher is dealing with his or her own challenges.  They have to deal with the school’s requirements of implementing a program to meet the standards of the education system that were designed by politicians that didn’t know what they were doing, and therefore teach Spanish in the same way that a high school English teacher teaches English, which is grammar based and simply doesn’t work.  They sit in a room of 20+ students, explaining grammar rules, and then conducting fill in the blank activities on paper to see if the students are understanding the grammar rules, which doesn’t remotely mimic the natural way people speak, or learn how to speak a new language.  

 

So the result is we have waited too long to make students learn a new language and they don’t really want to be there, and we force teachers to adhere to standards that don’t replicate the way people naturally learn language, and essentially chaos ensues in the highschool Spanish classroom.

 

The real kicker with this whole scenario, however, is that no one has a choice about it.  These students have to pass the class in order to graduate.  The students also have to pass the classes so that the school qualifies to get its funding from the state and the feds.  At the end of everything, the teachers have to pass the students in order to satisfy their requirements for their teaching assessments, and in the end we all lose because the system has been set up to fail, and that’s why my ambition is to rock the system.  The system should be set up to teach students how to speak the language, and test them on their conversational capabilities.  That is, after all, the purpose of studying a new language… to be able to speak it.  Not being able to explain the grammar rules.  

 

We really need to fix this system here in Denver.  There are way too many reasons for it as it has become a bilingual city.  We can teach a majority of high school students how to speak Spanish in a much faster, easier, and fun way if we switch focus from grammar to conversation, and my Let’s Start Talking program could be implemented immediately for a very modest price.  It requires almost no training for teachers to use, and students could start speaking immediately.  

 

Why should we do this?  Let’s look at the numbers.  If we remove English Language Learners from the student population in the Denver Public School system alone, we are talking about approximately 40,000 students that can be learning how to speak Spanish every year.  Under the current system and success rate of .07% of students really learning how to speak the language they are studying, approximately 280 students learn how to speak Spanish by the time they graduate every year.  

 

There are currently 16 public high schools in the area.  If each school has at least 1 full time, salaried Spanish teacher, DPS is investing at least $500,000 per year to teach students how to speak Spanish.  This is of course just an estimate, but I’m trying to be extremely moderate with these numbers.  I bet there are more than just 16 full time Spanish teachers in the DPS System.

 

Remember, students are required to study for at least two years, so we need to multiply the $500,000 in teachers salaries by two, which means the real cost for students to go through a high school Spanish program is closer to $1,000,000 total for 2 years of study.  This is for teachers’ salaries alone.  

 

I’ll admit, I don’t know what the school system is using for class materials, but if it were only $10 per student, that would add an additional $400,000 to what DPS is spending on teaching new languages.  Again, these are very modest estimates, and I’m quite confident the real number is much larger, but let’s just say the City of Denver is spending $900,000 per year for a total of $1,800,000 to teach 280 students how to speak Spanish by the time they graduate high school.

 

That means it’s costing taxpayers approximately $6,500 for each student that successfully learns how to speak Spanish.  This isn’t necessarily a high cost to learn how to speak Spanish, as I myself ended up investing $100,000+ for my college degree and immersion trips, but if we consider that 39,720 students are going through the same program and not learning the language, it’s alarming.  What’s more alarming is that 39,720 students are not only failing to learn how to speak Spanish, but coming to believe that it is impossible for them to learn how to speak Spanish.

 

Prior to the pandemic, my language school’s budget was only $300,000 per year.  I employed 15 teachers and worked with 300 students at a time (school wide, not per class!).  Those 300 students became fluent in 3-6 months, meaning I was able to produce about 600 bilingual students per year, or 1,200 in the same time frame for about $600,000, 30% of the cost of high school Spanish classes in Denver.

 

This sounds absurd, but again, it’s quite simple.  I teach people how to speak Spanish whereas high school Spanish teachers teach students grammar so that they can pass standardized tests.  Filling in blanks and choosing from options on multiple choice tests is no where close to mimicking what happens when people naturally speak a language, so students are really not learning what they should be learning.  The solution is quite simple, and it should be clear by now that I’m proposing switching from a grammar based approach to teaching languages to a conversational approach.

 

When it comes to teaching languages, there are two primary approaches to doing it.  One is called teaching language as a subject matter, which is the dominant form of teaching in the United States.  The other is called language acquisition, which is the dominant form of teaching in Europe.  This is the main reason that most Americans only speak one language, whereas the average European speaks 2-4 languages.  People tend to think that Europeans have a natural facility when it comes to learning languages, but that’s not the case.  They just do it differently, and it works.  In Europe, most students start learning a second language as soon as they start Kindergarten, but here we typically don’t get access to language classes until High School.  In Europe, they make learning languages all about conversation from the beginning, but here we make it all about grammar.

 

So what do you call someone that speaks two languages?  Bilingual, of course.  What do you call someone that speaks 3 languages?  Trilingual.  What do you call someone who only speaks one language?  American.  This is a joke I heard over and over while I was travelling the world and learning how to speak Spanish.  The sad part is that it’s for the most part true, but it could be so easily fixed, and all we have to do is start teaching conversational Spanish as opposed to grammar based Spanish.

 

Grammar has its place, and by no means am I advocating abolishing grammar, or teaching the language incorrectly.  I’m just simply trying to shift the focus for beginner students to a conversational approach.  Grammar is not fun, and can be confusing, so leading with grammar just turns students off from the language.  We need to study grammar and academic English when we are in High School so that we can perfect the language and learn how to write academic research papers in college, but we don’t grow up studying English grammar rules.  

 

Most of us learn how to speak our first language at home, with our parents, through trial and error.  We start by understanding them, and then we try repeating them, mimicking what we are hearing.  Eventually we get one word right, typically related to our needs, like food, drink, or family.  

 

My son’s first word was water.  Then milk, and then mom and dad.  He intuitively learned those words because those were his most immediate needs at the time, and the words he was hearing most often.  As he tried to say them, we encouraged him, helped him, and then lavishly rewarded him  through cheers, applause, smiles, and of course the object he desired.  Eventually he began putting together complete sentences.  Months later, he began answering our questions, and then forming his own questions for us. Voila, he was speaking.  At no point during this time did his mother or I ever introduce a grammar rule to him, or explain that what he was saying was either right or wrong because of a rule.  We simply corrected him when needed, and rewarded him when he got something right.  

 

This is how they teach new languages in Europe, and how we should teach them here.  If I had a magic wand, I’d change the following things about the way that we approach World Languages Education in the US.  First, we should teach languages much sooner.  If kids were exposed to pure immersion in Spanish in preschool, they would be fluent by the time they were in Kindergarten, and forever have that language. You wouldn’t even need to teach them at this age, you’d just simply need the teachers to conduct all of the day’s activities in Spanish. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen anytime soon, because it would require new funding for preschool and elementary school programs that don’t already exist, and getting politicians to increase funding for education in this country is like being a crash test dummy, you just run into one brick wall after another.

 

With this in mind, I would propose trying to improve what is already in place, something that wouldn’t cost taxpayers any additional dollars but rather save them some money and increase the effectiveness of high school Spanish programs.  Now, it’s important to understand that pure immersion doesn’t work very well for beginner Spanish students that are adolescents or adults because they are no longer in that highly intuitive learning stage.  By the time we enter High School, we’ve been speaking our first language and only our first language for over a decade, so we already have that language system in place.  So we have to apply these conversation based concepts in a way that will work for High School students, while drawing on their primary language.  This means starting with vocabulary.  

 

A lot of new studies are showing that most people use approximately the same 1,000 words for 80% of their daily communication.  That means we need to switch from teaching grammar to teaching high school students words that they are most likely to use.  We can add to the vocabulary by teaching them complete phrases and dialogues for talking with their friends about their hobbies, and show them how to put together questions and answers so that they can exchange this information.  Again, we are staying away from grammar and getting them excited about speaking Spanish.  We can also create conversation clubs where we mix the high school Spanish students with the high school ELL (English Language Learners) students and host weekly language exchanges so that they get real world practice and simultaneously help their Spanish speaking counterparts that are trying to learn English.  According to the DPS website, 42% of the student population does not speak English natively, so this type of program would add so much value to the entire system.

 

https://careers.dpsk12.org/teach/teach-at-dps/english-language-learners/

 

Again, if I could change the current system for teaching Spanish at the high school level, it would look like this:

  1. Teach students how to understand 1,000 words in spoken Spanish
  2. Teach students how to say 1,000 words in Spanish
  3. Teach students how to answer questions in Spanish
  4. Teach students how to ask questions in Spanish
  5. Teach students how to read in Spanish
  6. Teach students how to write in Spanish
  7. Teach academic grammar and rules for perfecting Spanish

 

If we really analyze the way someone learns their first language, this is the basic outline.  Small children start with words at home with their parents, then they learn how to answer questions, and then ask their own questions.  This takes place during their first 2-3 years of language development.  Then, they typically start learning how to read in either preschool or kindergarten, and then they work on their writing skills in the following years.  Finally, when entering into high school, they start learning English grammar and writing more academic papers.

 

The current system essentially does this backwards.  High School students get hit with grammar, reading, and writing to start with, with practically no emphasis on conversation or listening.  

 

In my conversational Let’s Start Talking program, I teach students the first 4 steps in my first level, which takes less than 3 months to complete.  Students are also required to read my book 5 Easy Steps to Speak Spanish with Confidence, which teaches them how to study the language and practice it outside of class.  By the end of the first level, my students know everything that they need to know in order to get on a plane and go to Mexico.  They can conversationally introduce themselves to new people, make small talk, order food, and buy things.  If you are a Spanish teacher, I’d like to honestly ask yourself if your students could do that by the end of their first semester.  Keep in mind, I’m not talking about doing it on paper, but rather live, in real time, conversationally.  The current typical high school graduate may be able to fill in blanks on an exam, but would be completely lost if they actually got on a plane and ended up in a Spanish speaking country.  

 

Well, at some point, this little rant of mine needs to come to an end, so here it is.  Learning how to speak Spanish was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done, but has been so beneficial to me that I really want to share the love and help others learn how to speak this wonderful language.  I believe that I’ve created a really wonderful program, that shifts away from grammar and more towards natural conversation, that can also greatly accelerate the learning process.  My goal is to share my knowledge and program with everyone involved in the education system here in Colorado, from the politicians that craft policy to the teachers that execute the plan, with the hopes that we can shift away from the traditional grammar based approach of teaching languages that doesn’t work very well to something that is fun, practical, and works extremely well.  Using my Let’s Start Talking program, or working with me to create something that calls on this approach has the possibility of creating tens of thousands of bilingual residents in Denver, which would surely catapult our city into the national spotlight as the most bilingual city in America.

 

If you are a student looking to learn how to speak Spanish, please get my book 5 Easy Steps to speak Spanish with Confidence, available on Amazon.  If you teach Spanish, and agree with anything that I’ve discussed, my presentations are available on Teachers Pay Teachers, and you can start using my program today at a very affordable cost.

 

If you disagree with anything that I’ve discussed in this paper, then I would like to invite you to sit down with me for further discussions.  I understand that most people will not believe this, so I’m happy to talk to you in more detail about the program I’ve created.  Likewise, if you are an administrator or policy maker, I think it’s time we met.  I’ve been doing this for over twenty years at this point, and together I believe that we can greatly benefit from more bilingual, Spanish/English speaking residents in Denver.  Despite our differences in experience, education, and experience, working together we can make Denver the most bilingual city in America!





 

5116 Deephaven Ct, Denver, CO 80239

Phone: (720) 634-2589

Email: info@thelanguageschool.us

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