First vs. Second Language Acquisition: I am currently applying for a TEFL


I am currently applying for a TEFL position that requires intermediate knowledge of Spanish. English is my primary language, and despite having studied Spanish throughout high school and into college, I find my conversational skills lacking. In preparation for the interview I have been meeting with my friend Fredy, a certified biology teacher from Mexico who wishes to improve his English speaking skills, to practice. One week we speak entirely in English, the next completely in Spanish. But as the window of time narrows between practicing for the interview and actually participating in it, I have become increasingly nervous about our all-Spanish sessions'even to the extent that we had two English sessions back-to-back. Frustrated with myself, I tried a new approach. I realized that when I rushed to meet Fredy after a hard day's work, my brain flooded with problems and stressors in English. I went to a caf' to prepare answers to questions about my teaching and work experience in Spanish: I sat for over an hour, relaxing and conjuring words from my memory in Spanish. When I met Fredy at the library, he was shocked. I was speaking fluidly, I called to mind correct verb conjugations that I had previously forgotten, and I laughed at myself when I made a mistake: I had suddenly become the confident speaker of a secondary language, and it had everything to do with thinking before speaking.

I have noticed that my Spanish reading and writing abilities are consistent, that I can access these skills and expect the same results at any time; my Spanish speaking, however, depends heavily on my comfort level, on my motivation to engage myself, and on my confidence as a speaker of a new language. This confession may sound like standard description of language learning, but my frustration is symptomatic of the broader problem of how languages are taught in the classroom worldwide. With too much emphasis on reading and writing skills, as well as formal grammar removed from context, students of a second language struggle to accumulate skills that allow them to converse in their new language. Traditional methods are often employed in the teaching of languages. Significantly, these methods follow the primary education that informs first language acquisition: observation and informal practice. Formal instructional methods will not work if students are not granted time to listen to and practice the language in a comfortable setting. The successful student of a second language dares to be as experimental as the young, first language learner, and yet maintains the ability to reflect on progression and on roadblocks preventing it. He or she must be able to make mistakes and move on, to act on both instinct and memory.

We are quick to presume the natural aptitude of the young learner and annex the ability of acquiring a second language with ease from the capability of the adult (and even young adult) brain. While it is important to distinguish the young learner from the older for the purposes of lesson planning, this should not lead us to the solution of silent, private language learning as opposed to vocalizing language in conversational settings. For decades immersion has been privileged as the best means of second language acquisition, and yet how often is it employed in classrooms' The majority of class time should be devoted to discussion, and more vocabulary should be introduced through speech. Since the process of speech production in any language happens most often in an organic manner, second language training should prepare students for situations they will encounter when they travel or meet someone to converse with, not situations wherein they search for answers by consulting outside written sources, record these, and memorize their exact construction. More time should be spent on vocal drilling, on listening, and, especially, on speaking in discussions. With the use of visual aids, worksheets, and textbooks, teachers can equip students with vocabulary and grammatical knowledge. By provoking stimulating discussion in the classroom and providing students with the desire to engage themselves, teachers can help them to start thinking in their new language so that it becomes smoother, more natural, and a part of their daily experience.