Teacher Proficiency in the Target Language

Reading up on the second National Board World Language Standard has got me with teacher proficiency on the brain. If you’re a native speaker of the language you teach, obviously this is a non-issue for you. I studied Spanish in school for eight years and then went to teach English in Chile for a semester and realized I barely spoke Spanish. Here are some of the things I’ve done (from the easiest to most difficult) to get and keep my Spanish proficiency level high.

1) Netflix

This is a passive input activity that allows me to tell myself I’m being productive while shamelessly devouring shows online. Honestly Netflix has produced a ton of high-quality content in Spanish in the last couple of years that far surpasses the old Univision/Telemundo novelas (though I still have love for those as well). To get more input bang for my buck, I do usually watch these shows with Spanish subtitles on. As far as what to watch: my all-time fave is Gran Hotel. I’ve also enjoyed Casa de Papeles, Alta Mar, Ingobernable, and Chicas del Cable. I will say, however, that El Ministerio del Tiempo is such a nerdy Spanish teacher’s DREAM. It’s basically a show about time-traveling to hang out with every awesome Spaniard throughout history. Not quite appropriate to show students but so perfect for the former-AP student in each of us.

2) Using an e-reader

Much as I use practicing Spanish as an excuse to watch soaps, I use my Kindle Spanish-English dictionary as an excuse to indulge in beach-read fiction. Download a free Spanish-English dictionary onto your Kindle, and every book in Spanish becomes a perfect vocabulary building partner. Every time you come across a word you don’t know, you can highlight it and get the definition in English. It’s amazing. I usually will have one Dan Brown or Outlander novel in Spanish loaded on my Kindle just so I feel semi-productive killing time.

3) Podcasts

I feel like the quality of podcasts in general goes up every week. My two favorite Spanish-language podcasts are Radio Ambulante and Ted en Español. If you’ve found others you love, please share them in the comments. If I’m headed to a professional situation in which I’m going to be using Spanish with native speakers, I always play one of these in the car on the way there just to switch my brain over. Cult of Pedagogy and We Teach Languages are also great (English-language) podcasts for professional development, especially when there is crossover between the two!

4) Colleagues

The colleagues in my department at school fell into the habit early of only communicating with each other in Spanish. Half of us were native speakers and half of us were not, but it ended up being easier to just use Spanish all of the time for those situations in which you don’t exactly want your students to understand everything you’re saying. The fact that half of us were native speakers also helped us to hold each other accountable and kept our Spanish going at the highest level. There’s nothing to help you learn how to give students encouraging language feedback like being on the receiving end of some on a daily basis.

5) Volunteering

I found a great organization in my community that helps immigrants from Latin America transition to life in our city. I imagine in this day and age most communities in the United States have such an organization. For a couple of years I helped out with their college and career bound program, which helps young teens learn about options for applying to college and steps they need to take to achieve success in college and beyond. Some of these kids spoke very little English. One of my goals for learning Spanish in the first place was being able to help people in my community, and for me, sitting in front of person who really needs your help and is depending on you to communicate helps your trepidation with practicing your Spanish evaporate very quickly.

6) Travel

Of course, if we had all the time and money in the world, we’d do some teacher immersion travel every chance we could. I had a great experience in Central America with Common Ground International (I wrote more about that experience here). I know a few friends who have done phenomenal programs in Spain. Anytime you can link up with a student travel program and watch some of your students have their minds blown abroad is also exciting. If you need to prep for a test like the OPI, indulging in a teacher trip that helps you practice your language is definitely a good investment. I thank my time with Common Ground International for helping me score Advanced on my OPI test for sure.

Of all of these, the methods for sharpening my proficiency that I come back to the most are of course the more passive ones that sub in for activities I already do – turning on Ministerio del Tiempo instead of The Office, listening to Ted en Espanol during my morning commute, speaking Spanish to my co-worker instead of just dropping to English. Every little bit helps.

I’d love to hear more about the things you do to keep your proficiency level high. Any good Netflix shows or podcasts you’d recommend? Please share!