In this entry, Carolyn Eddy offers suggestions for teaching Spanish-speaking students to more quickly grasp English by exploiting cognates and by teaching high frequency academic words that do not share the same root. She draws from research and from her own secondary and post-secondary experiences as a language learner. Carolyn recently completed her undergraduate work in Spanish Language and Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in only three years, including a semester of study in Seville, Spain.
The rapid influx of immigrants into the United States has created a need for more English Language classes, as well as more effective methods of teaching the English language. English proficiency has been shown to be the strongest predictor of academic achievement among immigrant students (Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008). In order to master new content across the disciplines, students need to become competent users of the language with minimal delay. How can we expedite the learning process?
When I was beginning to learn Spanish, many of my classmates quickly became frustrated with exhaustive vocabulary lists and memorizing conjugation tables. Some soon gave up on learning another language altogether. It was years before we could correctly form complex sentences in Spanish. Given the necessity for expedience in learning English in this country, the traditional methods for teaching foreign language are largely insufficient for ELL programs.
One possible way to facilitate more rapid vocabulary development is by utilizing a morphological approach. Many words can be learned together by teaching words that contain a common morpheme. Since each word contains a common element, students learn the meaning of each morpheme separately. As more and more morphemes are added to students’ repertoire, a student is better able to hypothesize possible words for an unknown idea they want to express. I used some of these tools when I studied abroad in Spain, though in reverse. Even if I did not guess the word exactly, I could usually make myself understood. Here are a few possible vocabulary pairs that illustrate my point; some are cognates that share a Latin root and some are high frequency words that do not share a root:
Adverbs (The suffix -mente = -ly)
Adverbs (The suffix -mente = -ly)
The Gerund (The suffix -ando/-iendo = -ing)
Nouns (The suffix -dad = -ity)
Nouns (The suffix -ación = -ation)
Notice that these word pairs contain English words that are similar to and also different from their Spanish counterparts. The use of cognates allows students to more easily isolate the equivalent morphemes, such as the use of –ing for the English gerund; they can see where the words differ. Using a certain amount of cognates also cuts down on feelings of frustration that many students experience. It underlines the fact that, while English and Spanish are different in many ways, there are also many similarities. On the other hand, the most-common words in Spanish and English are typically very different from one another, so I added those to the lists of word pairs.
One thing that troubled me when I was learning Spanish was all of the themed vocabulary lists--as if the first thing one needs to know in a foreign language is the word for every single animal or kitchen appliance. Studies have shown that this strategy of teaching vocabulary through direct memorization is inefficient and ineffectual (Carlo et al., 2004). Furthermore, because Spanish-speakers need to know as much relevant English as possible in very little time, opting to teach high-frequency words first, and then advancing to more and more esoteric vocabulary, just makes more sense. These same studies also underscore the utility of cognate use as well as teaching morphological relationships to expand vocabulary. It is important to note, however, that, like all linguistic “rules,” these morpheme pairs are not all-inclusive. Exceptions do exist.
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For the many Spanish-speaking students striving to learn English in America, it is essential to keep the most immediate needs in mind. We must exploit common features across the two languages--the shared Latin roots and affixes. Taking a morphological approach to teaching English not only allows for more generative and more rapid vocabulary growth, but it also allows students to extrapolate meaning from words they have not seen before.
Carlo, M.S., August, D., McLaughlin, B., Snow, C.E., Dressler, C., Lippman, D.N., Lively, T.J., & White, C.E (2004). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabulary needs of English-language learners in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 39, 2, pp. 188-215.
Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M.M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.