Thursday, October 27, 2016

Middlebury Interactive Languages (A Homeschool Crew Review)

From when he was in early elementary school until this year, Matthew has studied Spanish.  After struggling through Spanish II and a semester of Spanish III, he decided to take a break from it and study Latin.  However, in today's economy, the ability to speak Spanish is a very marketable skill, so when we had the chance to review Middlebury Interactive Languages' High School Spanish I Fluency, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity for him to keep practicing his skills.  (This is a two-semester course; we received access to the first semester for the review.)

Middlebury Languages offers programs for elementary, middle school, and high school students in Spanish, French, Chinese and German.  There are two styles of courses: immersion and explicit instruction.  The fluency courses are based on an immersive methodology.  Imagine disembarking from a plane and being thrust into a foreign city and needing to navigate around.  That is very similar to how the Fluency course works. The program uses activities and videos where a student is asked to observe keywords, inflection, tone, and body language, the same as you would in person.

In working with Matthew, I began to realize a good deal of his struggle with Spanish last year was in speaking and being able to understand what others were saying. At first, he panicked because the videos feature native speakers who sometimes spoke very rapidly.  He had difficulty understanding the words, just by sound.  In this exercise, however, he did quite well because he could read as he listened.

On one hand, if he was dropped off in the middle of Madrid or Mexico City, he would be forced to listen, formulate the language in his head, and speak. That's a tall order.  At the same time, I've been to Italy but do not speak the language (Spanish, Catholic Church Latin, and Italian restaurant menus are as close as I get), and while a conversation with a native was difficult, there were plenty of opportunities to attempt to "read and speak" or read along with something like a menu. Gestures and facial expressions also were employed to convey points.  I think that while Matthew's other program focused on conversational Spanish that was more "pick a topic, and we'll talk back and forth" combined with a more traditional grammatical approach, this multi-sensory approach may be better for him.  Being able to hear and see the words he is learning, and in context, will help him gain confidence.  I think also being able to see gestures and movement help, as opposed to a face-to-face but behind desks conversation.

When you're looking at fluency in a language, learning cultural norms are crucial as well.  One of the areas where this program is better than most others I've seen is that it features examples of how Hispanic idioms are a bit different from English.

I can say that despite six years of Spanish study of my own, I never knew this.  I would never consider gordito to be a compliment, but it is. Without knowing the culture, it would be easy to find myself offended rather than flattered someone was calling me a pet name.  I think learning the culture of the people you are speaking with is just as important as the words they say.

Matthew had a relatively easy time of this. I think because he did have a history with the language, it made it easier for him to work on using Spanish rather than learning Spanish . It moves at a very rapid pace, as opposed to a more traditional course that gives you many opportunities to learn a particular set of vocabulary words or grammar concept. Unit 1 focused on greetings, culminating in the ability to introduce yourself.  

There was only a minimum of formal vocabulary and grammar included at the beginning, and Matthew felt that if he hadn't already known "Soy de Nueva Jersey y tengo quince aƱos..." from prior instruction, he would have been totally lost in the "learn where you're from, how old you are, and write an email/record a voicemail with this" sections.  I think the program is more appropriate for students who have studied with a more traditional program and are now looking to work on putting the "book knowledge" to the test in a situation that more resembles a real-world experience.  He was able to complete several activities in a single day -- he spent about 45 minutes each day and was able to finish about a third of a unit each time.

Overall, I liked this program for him. I think we are going to continue with the course to help with his fluency skills. I am looking at it to be a "bridge" for him for this year.  He's not quite ready for Spanish III because his foundation is shaky, but this is certainly strenuous enough to count as a third language credit.  Importantly, it is helping to build his skills and confidence that he really has learned more than he realized, and giving him the chance to build upon the skills he has, rather than letting them stagnate or wither.

To read about the other Middlebury Interactive Languages programs the Crew has been working on, click the banner below.

Spanish, French, German or Chinese {Middlebury Interactive Languages}

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