Weekly Spanish Challenges

NOTE: This page is a synopsis of challenges sent to families back in the 2020-2021 school year.

Weekly Language Challenges below.

Challenge #1

  • Watch a movie in Spanish. Change the voiceover to Spanish and the subtitles to English. It is okay if you don’t understand everything! Your brain does a lot of work just by listening. The movie can be one you have seen a thousand times, or a brand new one. Animated films are great!
  • ASIDE: If you don’t know how to do this, Google “how to change voiceover for [XXXX device/ Hulu/ Netflix/ etc.]”, or play around on the “Settings” page to change the language. You can also search on YouTube for full length movies.

NOTE TO NATIVE SPEAKERS: Fluent Spanish-speakers are welcome to change the voiceover AND the subtitles, and notice the differences in translation. This can be pretty interesting because the translations are often done in different countries. That means that someone might say, “¿Cómo estás?” but the subtitle will read, “¿Qué tal?” (or vice-versa). Food for thought!

Challenge #2

  • Read more here about La Tomatina— a festival that takes place in Spain every August.
  • Your challenge is to try making GAZPACHO, a cold tomato soup from Spain that is incredibly refreshing on hot summer days. ¡Qué rico!

Challenge #3

  • This week, look at your clothing tags, the sticker labels on your fruits and vegetables, and the labels on cans and other food products, and notice where these things were made and where they came from. For example: clothing “Made in Guatemala”, bananas from Costa Rica, avocados from Mexico, etc. Parents: This can be a great detective game/ activity for your children at the grocery store!
  • Then, find 3-5 products from Spanish-speaking countries**; or fill in my chart on the following slide (blank chart HERE). Be sure to take a picture of the stickers/tags you find and have your parents email me so that you get credit for your work.
  • **Spanish-Speaking Countries: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Perú, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panamá, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, México, Cuba, La República Dominicana (Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico (technically a territory), Spain (España), Equatorial Guinea.

Challenge #4

  • Take 15 minutes and listen to all five of these classic songs that have been translated/ adapted to Spanish (below). Let your child guess which movie it is by LISTENING to the first few chords before watching the video!
  • Next, vote on which Spanish song translation is your favorite (parents, please email me so that your children will get credit). Note: your favorite song in Spanish might not be the same as your favorite in English, but that’s okay!

Challenge #5

  • Decide what Spanish-speaking country** your bedroom represents, and then decorate a sign for that country and hang it on your door. If you share a bedroom, you can pick two countries! Make sure to spell the name right. HERE is a link to the country flags. Email me a photo to get credit!
  • Now after dinner you can say, “Bye Mom and Dad, I’m going to Bolivia! See you later/ ¡Hasta luego!” Happy travels!

**Spanish-Speaking Countries: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Perú, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panamá, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, México, Cuba, La República Dominicana (Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico (technically a territory), Spain (España), Equatorial Guinea.

Challenge #6

  • Plantains appear very similar to bananas, but are not the same food at all: they are starchy and much harder, and cannot be eaten raw. Your challenge is to make tostones or patacones (“tohs-TOE-nays”/ “pah-tah-KOH-nays”, aka plantain chips) to munch on this week. These are a very popular snack in Spanish-speaking countries and really easy to prepare: RECIPE and more info HERE.

Challenge #7

  • This week, the Spanish Challenge is more linguistically oriented: watch the video below, starring the one and only Pato. It is action packed, fast-paced, and well worth 3 minutes and 46 seconds of your time. Email back the answer to this question: who (do you think) actually robbed the bank?

Challenge #8

  • In preparation for Day of the Dead, or El Día de [los] Muertos, you may do one (or both) of the following activities:
    • Watch the movie Coco in English–or in Spanish with English subtitles–and email me to receive credit. You have to watch it in October for it to count!
    • Color a Day of the Dead skull (more printable sheets HERE) and be sure to play this traditional song from Mexico in the background.

Spanish Challenge #9

  • Dance is a very important part of the culture in many Spanish-speaking countries. Check out THIS PAGE HERE, and then choose a song to jam out to!
  • In addition to the music on the link above, below are a few more high energy songs to enjoy.

Spanish Challenge #10

  • The Yucatan in Mexico is known for its hammock culture, especially amongst the indigenous Maya people.
  • See THIS PAGE for the rest of this challenge.

Spanish Challenge #11

  • Ask your parents or relatives if they have ever traveled to another country. If they have, see if you can find tickets, receipts, foreign currency, brochures, postcards, magnets, or anything else from their trip. Make a decorative box to store all the treasures in. Be sure to interview/ask them all about their trip! What was the weather like? What was their favorite moment there? Did anything surprise them? What language do they speak there?
  • If your parents or  relatives have not traveled abroad, use a decorative box as a “Vision Board”, where you put names and photos of all the places in the 21 Spanish-speaking countries that you would like to visit one day. Note that these cannot simply be country names—they need to be names of specific places in those countries! To complete this challenge, let me know where you have traveled or want to travel to. For those of you who are data-oriented, here is a fun INTERACTIVE MAP to chart where you have visited or want to go. #Wanderlust! 

Spanish Challenge #’s 12 & 13

  • Listen to all three Spanish Christmas songs below, and then send me the name of your favorite. Easy peasy!
  • For more Christmas songs, see THIS PAGE.
  • Instead of just one Spanish Challenge this week, I am also sending a letter detailing different Christmas and holiday traditions around the Spanish-speaking world. HERE is the link.

Spanish Challenges for the Second Semester

Working Vocabulary

My thoughts on Vocabulary Lists.

Simple Phrases To Get You Started

  • Hola (hi; hello)
  • Buenos días (good morning)
  • Buenas noches (good night)
  • Sí / no (yes/no)
  • Por favor (please)
  • Gracias (thank you)
  • De nada (you’re welcome)
  • ¡Mira! (Look!)
  • ¡Vamos! (let’s go!)
  • ¡Espera! (wait)
  • ¡Espérame! (wait for me)
  • ¡Ayúdame! (help me!)
  • ¿Qué? (What?)
  • ¿Por qué? (Why?)
  • ¿Cuándo? (when?)
  • ¡Ahora! (now!)
  • ¡Corre! (run!)
  • ¡Más rápido! (faster!)
  • Otra vez (again)
  • Te amo/ te quiero (I love you)
  • Mamá, Papá/ Mom, Dad
  • ¿Dónde está? (Where is it?)
  • ¡Oye! (Hey!)
  • Necesito eso (I need that)
  • No comprendo (I don’t understand)
  • ¿Cómo estás? (How are you?)
    • Tengo hambre (I’m hungry)
    • Tengo frío (I’m cold)
    • Estoy bien (I’m good/well)
    • Estoy mal (I’m bad)
  • ¿Puedo ir al baño? (Can I go to the bathroom?)
  • Quiero… (I want)
    • colorear (to color)
    • jugar (to play)
    • construir (to build)
  • ¡Pero no quiero! (But I don’t want to!)
  • No sé. (I don’t know)
  • Adiós (goodbye)
  • Hasta luego (see you later)
  • Hasta mañana (see you tomorrow)

Sight Words

Working Vocabulary

  • Hola (hi; hello)
  • Buenos días (good morning)
  • Buenas noches (good night)
  • Adiós (goodbye)
  • Hasta luego (see you later)
  • Hasta mañana (see you tomorrow)
  • Sí / no (yes/no)
  • Por favor (please)
  • Gracias (thank you)
  • De nada (you’re welcome)
  • Me encanta (I love it)
  • Me gusta (I like it)
  • No me gusta (I don’t like it)
  • ¿Cómo te llamas? (What’s your name?)
  • Yo me llamo (my name is)
  • Yo soy (I am)
  • ¿Qué? (what?)
  • No comprendo (I don’t understand)
  • Yo dije que… (I said that…)
  • Quiero eso (I want that)
  • ¿Dónde está? (Where is it?)
  • Necesito eso (I need that)
  • ¡Oye! (Hey!)
  • ¡Eso es mío! (that’s mine!)
  • ¿Sabes qué? (you know what?)
  • Dime (tell me)
  • ¡Mira! (Look!)
  • Pues… (well…)
  • Vale (okay/ Spain)
  • ¿Puedo? (Can I?)
  • Otra vez (again)
  • ¡Corre! (run!)
  • ¡Más rápido! (faster!)
  • ¡Vamos! (let’s go!)
  • ¡Espera! (wait)
  • ¡Espérame! (wait for me)
  • ¡Ayúdame! (help me!)
  • Necesito ayuda (I need help)
  • ¡Ten cuidado! (be careful!)
  • Tengo una pregunta (I have a question)
  • Tengo un comentario (I have a comment)
  • ¿Puedo ir al baño? (Can I go to the bathroom?)
  • ¿Cómo se dice, “___” en español? (How do you say, “___” in Spanish?
  • ¿Cómo estás? (How are you?)
    • Tengo hambre (I’m hungry)
    • Tengo frío (I’m cold)
    • Tengo sed (I’m thirsty)
    • Tengo calor (I’m warm)
    • Tengo miedo (I’m scared)
    • Estoy feliz (I’m happy)
    • Estoy bien (I’m good/well)
    • Estoy mal (I’m bad)
    • Estoy cansado/a (I’m tired)
    • Estoy triste (I’m sad)
    • Estoy enojado/a (I’m angry)
    • Estoy confundido/a (I’m confused)
    • Estoy emocionado/a (I’m excited)
    • Estoy enfermo/a (I’m sick)
  • con (with)
  • y (and; pronounced: “e”)
  • porque (because)
  • mi amigo/a (my friend)
  • maestro/a (teacher)
  • El papel (paper)
  • Las pizarras (boards)
  • Los marcadores (markers)
  • La cinta (tape)
  • Los boletos (tickets)
  • Los zapatos (shoes)
  • La comida (food)
  • Los peluches (stuffed animals)
  • El dinero (money)
  • Pesos (vs. dollars)
  • El agua (water)
  • El tren (train)
  • El coche (car)
  • Mi casa (my house)
  • Todo (everything)
  • ¿Qué quieres hacer? (What do you want to do?)
  • Quiero… (I want)
    • colorear (to color)
    • jugar (to play)
    • construir (to build)
    • pintar (to paint)
    • volar (to fly)
    • trabajar (to work)
    • conducir (to drive)
    • hablar (to talk)
    • hacer (to do; to make)
    • ir (to go)
    • limpiar (to clean)
    • patinar (to skate)
    • dibujar (to draw)
    • cantar (to sing)
    • bailar (to dance)
    • ver la tele (to watch tv)
    • tomar (to take)
    • navegar (to sail)
  • ¿Adónde vas? (where are you going?)
  • Voy a México (I’m going to Mexico)
  • Voy a Chile para jugar con mis amigos (I’m going to Chile to play with my friends)
  • El supermercado (supermarket)
  • El banco (bank)
  • La fábrica (factory)
  • El teatro (theater)
  • El gimnasio (gym)
  • El museo (museum)
  • La iglesia (church)
  • El cine (movie theater)
  • El café (café)
  • ¿Cuándo? (when?)
  • ¡Ahora! (now!)
  • ¿Por qué? (why?)
  • No sé. (I don’t know)
  • Porque sí. (just because)


LINKS: Why The Rooster Crows in the MorningSimple Stories in Spanish (legends)A World of StoriesCuentos Infantiles (podcasts)Los loros disfrazados (leyenda)LORO coloring pageMitos y leyendas para niñosLas manchas del sapo- videocuento y leyenda, La Mariposa- Storytelling

Listen to the Cuban folktale The Barking Mouse below (ends at 4:21). It is in English and Spanish, and a great story!

Traditional children’s song from Cuba. Listen for “gatico (cat), ratón (mouse), & queso/cheese (“K-so”)” in the song. 

Leyenda: La ratona que sabía ladrar (Cuba)

Hay una familia de ratones: Papá ratón, Mamá ratona y dos ratoncitos. La familia vive en el campo. Un día, los dos ratoncitos juegan (“WAY-gahn”) fútbol afuera.

RATONCITOS: ¡Pásala! ¡Por acá! ¡Vamos, eh?! ¡Apúrate! ¡La tengo!

RATÓN #1: ¿Sabes qué? Quiero jugar por allí.

RATÓN #2: ¡¡¡Mamá!!!

RATONCITOS: ¿Podemos ir?

MAMÁ: Pues sí, pero tengan cuidado: hay un gato.

RATONCITOS: ¿Un gato? ¿Qué es eso?

MAMÁ: Es un animal grande con bigotes.

Los dos ratoncitos son curiosos y quieren ver al gato. Andan y andan y finalmente, ven al gato detrás de una cerca. El gato se acerca y los mira fijamente.

RATÓN #1: Jajaja, ¡mira sus bigotes! ¡Qué ridículo!

RATÓN #2: ¡Sí! ¡Qué ridículo!

El gato está enojado y trata de saltar la cerca. Pero se cae y los ratoncitos se ríen mucho. 

RATONCITOS: Mira cómo temblamos, mira cómo temblamos. ¡Ooooo!

El gato trata de saltar la cerca otra vez. Cuando salta la cerca, los ratoncitos corren a toda velocidad.

RATONCITOS: ¡Papá, mamá, corren, porque el gato nos va a comer! 

Los ratoncitos corren, pero la Mamá ratona tiene un plan. Espera. Luego, el gato levanta la pata para atraparla, pero–


El gato no la toca y corre de allí muy rápido.

RATONCITOS: Sí, sí, sí, ¡fuera de aquí!

MAMÁ: Chicos, no pueden reírse de las diferencias.  Son importantes. Si yo no hubiera sabido ladrar, habríamos estado en el estómago del gato ahora.

El moraleja: Recuerdan que aprender el lenguaje de los demás y respetarlos puede salvarnos la vida.

Legend: The Mouse Who Knew How to Bark

There is a family of mice: Papa Mouse, Mama Mouse, and two little mice. The family lives in the country. One day, the two mice are playing soccer outside.

MICE: Pass it! Over here! Let’s go, eh?! Hurry up! I got it!

MOUSE #1: You know what? I want to play over there.

MOUSE #2: MOM!!!!

MICE: Can we go?

MOM: Well yes, but be careful: there’s a cat.

MICE (together): A cat? What’s that?

MOM: It’s a big animal with whiskers.

The two mice are curious and want to see the cat. They walk and they walk and finally, they see the cat behind a fence. The cat gets closer and stares at them.

MOUSE #1: Hahaha, look at his whiskers! How ridiculous!

MOUSE #2: Yes! How ridiculous!

The cat is angry and tries to jump the fence. But he falls and the mice laugh a lot.

MICE: Look at how we’re shaking, look at how we’re shaking. Ooooh!

The cat tries to jump the fence again. When he jumps the fence, the mice run at top speed.

MICE (together, as they are running): Dad, Mom, run!!!, because the cat is going to eat us!

The mice run, but Mama Mouse has a plan. She waits. Then, the cat lifts his paw to catch her, but–


The cat doesn’t touch her and runs away very quickly.

MICE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, get outta here!

MOM: Kids, you can’t laugh at differences. They are important. If I hadn’t known how to bark, we would be in the cat’s stomach right now.

Remember that learning another’s language and respecting them can save your life.

Traditional Children’s Song from Cuba

Listen for “gatico (cat), ratón (mouse), & queso/cheese (“K-so”)” in the song.


Read-Alouds for Spanish Class

Sub plans for language teachers are always a bit tricky. I remember once when I was told that my sub would be Spanish-speaking. Thoroughly delighted, I typed up three pages of plans, all in the target language. Naturally, that particular individual ending up canceling at the last minute, and my new sub wrote, “I don’t understand what this says” at the top of my carefully curated plans. Oh no!

I am not out often, but when I am, I’ve always dreamt of having plans in place, instead of writing them frantically the night before (read: @4am the morning of). How can we, as language teachers, prepare meaningful sub plans well in advance of any absences, planned or not? Keep reading for a few ideas.


Read-alouds in English are simple plans for Spanish class substitutes who don’t speak Spanish and/or don’t have Internet access in a classroom. Many folktales offer a glimpse into another country and culture, and a carefully curated list can blend seamlessly into and supplement any curriculum, with a little creative thought. NOTE: My books are in the white magazine holder on my desk.

  • For a playlist of Scholastic read-alouds in Spanish, click HERE;
  • For fairy tales in Spanish, click HERE;
  • For online read-alouds, grades K-2, click HERE;
  • And HERE are 14 Latin American Folktales for Kids.
  • Books in English – more info below.
    • Zorro and Quwi, by Rebecca Hickox
    • The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson
    • La Mariposa, by Francisco Jimenez
    • Ashes for Gold: A Tale from Mexico, by Katherine Maitland
    • Conejito: A Folktale from Panama, by Margaret Read MacDonald
    • The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!, by Carmen Agra Deedy
    • Cuckoo, by Lois Ehlert
    • The Legend of the Poinsettia, by Tomie dePaola
    • Latin Americans Thought of It: Amazing Innovations, by Eva Salinas
    • Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems

PERU: Zorro and Quwibook

  • First, tell students that the book they are going to hear today is a folktale from the [Andes] mountains of Peru. In Peru, most people speak Spanish, but many people also speak another language there called Quechua. (I mention this because in the title of the book, ‘Quwi’ is the Quechua word for ‘guinea pig’; Quechua is spoken by 9-14 million people in South America; zorro means fox in Spanish.)
  • Next, read the book ZORRO and QUWI. Feel free to take a stretch or brain break part way through if they are getting antsy. I tend to stop and ask comprehension questions throughout a story, as well.
  • After you read it, see if they can retell the tale going around the circle—everyone gets to say one sentence–or just discuss the tale and ask more questions. What would they change if they had written the story? If you/they don’t want to retell it, students can draw out the story (regular white paper is on the black shelf in the corner of the room).

SPAIN: The Story of Ferdinandbook; read aloud; trailer; bullfighting

  • First, ask [younger] students if they know any words in Spanish. They may offer a lot or nothing at all. You can say that one example is hola. We say hello in English, and in Spanish, we say hola!
  • Next, explain that Spanish is spoken in many different places around the world. One faraway place is called Spain. The story they are going to hear takes place in Spain. You can use the black outlined map with golden stars on it on the wall (with the fairy lights) to point to our state and then Spain–far across the ocean.
  • Read The Story of Ferdinand. Read more slowly than not. I tend to speak too quickly and always need to remind myself to slowwwww down!

MEXICO/USA: La Mariposabook; read aloud

  • Read La Mariposa to class (‘mariposa’ means butterfly). Take a stretch break part way through if they are getting antsy. Discuss—how would you feel if you were the main character? I tend to ask comprehension questions throughout a story, as well. The last page has a list of Spanish words and pronunciations.

MEXICO: Ashes for Goldbook; read aloud

PANAMA: Conejito: A Folktale from Panamabook; read aloud; another read aloud @1:12

BOLIVIA: The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!book; read aloud

MEXICO: Cuckoo, Mexico – book; read aloud

MEXICO: The Legend of the Poinsettiabook; read aloud

USA: Knuffle Bunnybook; read aloud

  • Knuffle Bunny does not seem to fit in this list of folklore, but the book could launch an interesting discussion about language itself from a more philosophical viewpoint, and how much we rely on verbal communication in our day to day lives. How are Trixie’s attempts to communicate any different than someone dropped in a country whose language s/he does not speak? Does language give us power? What kind(s)? What makes some words “real” and other words not?

PK3, PK4, KINDERGARTEN: popular cartoons

GRADES 1 & 2: Fun Spanish app.

GRADES 3 & 4: Duolingo app.

Hiking & Hyperpolyglots

Let me introduce you to my fantasy self. She is an avid hiker. Weekends are spent camping under the stars, and she knows the trails in her area better than the roads to work. She can walk with a pack on her back for 20, 30, 40km without tiring. She spends more time outdoors than indoors, and when she is inside, dreams of inhaling fresh air and the light scent of gardenias floating through a field in the middle of nowhere.

I love my fantasy self. The problem is, she is not real. Don’t get me wrong- I have hiked before (500 miles*, in fact), and I spent much of my childhood running through the back woods of Maine: being covered in bug bites and scratches from blackberry bushes just meant it was a great day, filled with adventure and fun. I own a bevy of camping gear, and binge YT documentaries on the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Continental Divide from time to time.

Continue reading “Hiking & Hyperpolyglots”

Native Speakers

Recently, I have had several questions about native (and heritage) speakers and how to improve their reading and writing skills in the target language. In list form, here are a few ideas:

  1. Doblajes, o covers en inglés. Es que, ¡me encantan! Alejandro Cázares es buenísimo como cantante y sus videos tienen toda la letra escrita, para que los nativos puedan leer y cantar a la vez. Encima, durante el proceso de escuchar, pueden aprender cómo es una adaptación–no resulta una traducción directa en muchos casos. Para empezar, una de las canciones de Ed Sheeran está aquí (por Kevin Karla y la banda) y hay otra aquí de Alejandro.
  2. Nuestra escuela tiene una suscripción a BrainPop, la cual incluye la versión española de BrainPop. Pueden aprender y ver videos relevantes a lo que están aprendiendo en clase (o de lo que les interesa) y LEER los subtítulos. Esto es un poco más académico–depende de lo que buscas en cuanto a la lectura.
  3. Educatina es otra opción educativa y muy semejante a Khan Academy, pero desafortunadamente, no hay cuenta del colegio.
  4. En cualquier momento, los niños pueden utilizar los libros bilingües y españoles en la biblioteca de mi aula. No hay problema–solo le pido que ellos me avisen antes de tomar uno.
  5. Esta PÁGINA de mi sitio web tiene un montón de chistes y enlaces. Hay un slideshow de mis chistes favoritos. Se ve mejor en un escritorio (desktop). Yo recuerdo que aprendí tanto vocabulario de Calvin y Hobbes cuando era niña (en inglés, claro, pero la traducción es muy buena) y ¡es muy divertido! Lo mejor es reír y aprender, en mi opinión.
  6. Si está permitido en casa, dales la libertad de colgar pósters o imágenes con dichos/refranes que a ellos les gustan en sus recámaras.
  7. Una idea más: crear/recopilar una carpeta llena de sus poemas favoritos, chistes favoritos, dichos/refranes favoritos, historietas favoritas, cuadros favoritos, adivinanzas favoritas, etc. Les paso unos enlaces aquí abajo para empezar su viaje. A lo mejor, ¡lo hacemos en clase! Para más ideas, piensen en lo siguiente:

PARTE II: Vas a recopilar una coleccion de todos tus ‘favoritos’ del español (en la misma carpeta que PARTE I, según ciertas categorías. Estas seran las categorias:

  1. tu poema favorito
  2. tu historieta favorito
  3. tu obra teatral o cuento favorito (Borges, Cervantes, Gabriel García Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Solorzano, Alfonsina Storni, Horacio Quiroga, Jose Martí, Isabel Allende, etc.)
  4. un párrafo favorito (~de literatura traducida o auténtica)
  5. cinco citas/ dichos/ refranes favoritos
  6. tu chiste favorito (o aquí)
  7. tu adivinanza favorita
  8. tu trabalenguas favorito
  9. tu canción favorita (~letra y/o ritmo)
  10. tu haiku favorito
  11. tu película favorita y el nombre del libro con capítulos que leíste este año
  12. tu cuadro favorito (Xul Solar, Velázquez, El Greco, Goya, Salvador Dalí, Antonio Berni, Alejandro Obregón, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Joaquín Torres García, Picasso, Vik Muniz, etc.) 

Ojalá que esto les ayude un poco. Hay que darse cuenta que esta no es una escuela de inmersión y muchas veces solo nos juntamos UNA VEZ a la semana. Por lo tanto, aprecio mucho cualquier apoyo pueden darles a sus hijos en casa ya que en primer lugar, no los veo con mucha frecuencia. Voy a requerir pronto que los hispanohablantes escriban en un diario (‘diary’) cada clase, algo semejante a un “RJ”. Escribir, escribir, escribir. Y cuando se cansen de eso, ¡A LEER!

Con cariño,

-Your Resident Linguist ❤

Language Challenge

Week #1: The Challenge

This year, students in grades 3-5 have been using the language-learning app Duolingo to supplement their Spanish study. I want to lead by example, and therefore have chosen German to study alongside my students. While I have already invited faculty and staff to join me in a friendly in-house Language Challenge, I thought that it might be fun to include our parent community as well.

Here, participants (aka Language Ninja Warriors) are challenged to work on the Duolingo app for three days a week, for only five minutes each time. The goal here is frequency. Two hours a day is not sustainable long-term, anyway, unless you are a hyperpolyglot. (More about Timothy Doner HERE.) Point being, this could be a lot of fun for everyone if a lot of us participated, and it would start a lot of conversations with students as well. We could have pockets of language teams–people who are studying the same language–throughout the community.

That said, if you are interested: 1) choose a language to study; 2) download the Duolingo app; and 3) send me a quick email so that I know you are participating.

While this is only a 15-minute commitment per week, I completely understand and respect the fact that sometimes you have to say, “No”. This is merely a chance to grab onto that lifelong dream of wanting to learn another language… and encouraging you to get started. I will send quotes and messages from time to time to keep you motivated and on track. PLEASE keep in mind that this process should be primarily enjoyable. If you have had negative language-learning experiences in the past, or have ever said, “I took four years of XXX and can’t say anything”, let this be an opportunity to clear the slate and begin anew. Here is a quote from Kató Lomb (an amazing Hungarian hyperpolyglot) to consider:

“We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly. If someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find that the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. The man somewhat skilled in medicine will not go far, and if he tries to trade on his knowledge without certification, he will be locked up as a quack doctor.

Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are supposed to board at the Venice railway station is far from useless. Indeed, it is better to do that than to remain uncertain and silent and end up back in Budapest rather than in Milan.” 

Please let me know if you would like to participate. Happy language learning!

-Your Resident Linguist

Week #2: Jump!

DUOLINGO: The Language Challenge is picking up speed. I have already talked with many parents, faculty, and staff interested in joining this friendly competition. Thinking about everyone beginning a language-learning journey and working towards a common goal is motivating in itself, but I thought I might share a few tips or pieces of advice each week, to help keep you–and me!–on track.

WEEK #2: This week, commit to a set timeduring the day when you will either 1) work on the Duolingo app; or 2) listen to your target language for five minutes (e.g. Pocoyo cartoons, radio, internet, podcast, YT channels, etc.). This exercise could easily be built into a family routine–before or after dinner, during your commute–or, alternatively, a more private practice (before anyone gets up in the morning). Remember, five minutes 3-4 times per week is more than enough. Commit to establishing a routine. Just do it–jump!

When you listen to the target language, the idea is to become accustomed to hearing a bullet train of unintelligible sounds pass you by at the speed of light (squared), and simply enjoy the cadence and rhythm. Relax. As the days pass, your brain will begin to pick up on details and cognates (words that sound similar in English), and do a lot of subconscious work. If you studied your target language in school at some point, you might begin to recall vocabulary from a lifetime ago, or distinguish between accents from different countries. Duolingo will build your vocabulary phrase by phrase; listening to the target language will train your ear.

Anyway, thank you for reading. Until next time, create and stick to your language-learning schedule. YOU CAN DO IT! And last but not least, remember that, “We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly” (-Kató Lomb, hyperpolyglot).

Week #3: Setting a Pace

DUOLINGO: I have just discovered that you can follow people on Duolingo in order to compete by number of EXP points. If you are the competitive type, search your friends’ emails and add them. I didn’t think I was that competitive… until I saw the division I was in [shield icon] and wanted to get to number one! Try it on for size, if you like.

WEEK #3: Hopefully, you have started to establish a language-learning routine. Now, the race has truly begun. After a few dozen times around the track (metaphorically speaking), you will begin to notice oddities, or so-called quirks in your target language. Many of these will fall in the category of syntax–the arrangement of words and phrases in language; or, how language is organized–that differs from your native tongue. “Juice of orange/jugo de naranja” instead of orange juice (Spanish); “I doctor/Я доктор”, instead of “I am a doctor” (Russian); “Electric brain/电脑“, instead of “computer” (Mandarin Chinese). You may not be here yet, but when you arrive, try to be flexible in your thinking. “We” are not any more right than “they” are. This is where the beautiful flower of language begins to blossom.

In addition, there can also be more nebulous types of translations, or even completely untranslatable phrases. Regarding the former, Spanish does not have as many words as English, so one word can encompass numerous meanings and nuances; in English, we might have a more specific term. In fact, I have heard before that Swahili is incredibly metaphorical because it only has 5,000 words. Spanish has many more than 5,000 words–rough estimates might say 150,000 words in Spanish. Below, see a few more thoughts on the subject:


With respect to untranslatable words, komorebi/木漏れ日 (in Japanese) means ‘sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees’; there is no English equivalent. Pisanzapra (in Malay) is the time needed to eat a banana. In case you are interested, Ella Frances Sanders has two books devoted entirely to this fascinating topic. Here is one of my favorite untranslatable words:

Week #4: Climb the Mountain

DUOLINGO: You have courageously jumped into a new language. You have begun to set a pace. Now is the time to make some serious progress and climb the mountain. If you are a numbers person, note that staying in the top 10 of your division (by number of EXP points) in Duolingo allows you to advance each week to a new division. Moreover, earning a gold, silver, or bronze shield this way earns you A TON of gems. Climb to the top!

WEEK #4: This week, visit your local library and take some time to see what language-learning resources are available. I would highly recommend checking out the children’s foreign language section, along with the 400’s (Language) in the adult section, and also DVD’s, CD’s, and audiobooks for your target language. Be a Word Detective and scan the children’s books for words you know, not words you don’t. They will jump out at you! I checked out some audiobooks for German (Pimsleur) recently as well, and they are so much fun to listen to and repeat aloud, both intentionally and randomly.

Repeating words aloud allows you to get a sense for the feel, character, and personality of a language. For example, when I repeat a word, it helps me to get into the character of that language. Not only does your language have its own personality, but you also have a slightly different personality with each language you speak: that said, do not shy away from a ‘you’ that is more bold, or less so, in your target language. I tend to be more introverted in English and more extroverted in Spanish, while German feels strong and robust: I may not know what I am saying, but I will be confident, that is for sure–ja, voll! What personality traits does your new language bring out in you? What does it feel like?

Shouting random words and phrases aloud may seem silly at first, but it builds confidence and is also a technique used by some hyperpolyglots (people who speak and have studied an extreme number of languages). Accomplished linguist Alexander Arguelles employs this technique: “In [shadowing], students listen to language recordings on a portable player while briskly walking in a public place, gesticulating energetically as they shout out the foreign words and phrases they are listening to” (Babel No More, Michael Erard).

If you do not feel comfortable shouting in a public place, a more private venue is equally effective. Just make sure to repeat the words out loud. Queens, NYC has the most concentrated number of languages spoken in the world–simply imagine that you are there. You won’t understand everyone around you, ergo they won’t understand you, either. For more ear training, feel free to check out these videos by Amy Walker, an American actress and accent specialist: 21 Accents and Fun Tour of American Accents. She is amazing!

This week’s focus, then? Remember that yes, you are climbing a mountain, and yes, it will be tough to keep to a schedule some days. HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun along the way. Enjoy the climb!

Week #5: Numbers

WEEK #5- NUMBERS: Learning a language is not an overnight project. It is not even a project where there is a clear telos, or end point. You just keep chipping away at your own pace, and the graph naturally swings up and down: you make a lot of progress, a little progress, plateau, and then make more progress. At some point, you are able to communicate the bare minimum to survive in another land. Later on down the road, your thoughts drift into the target language. Your confidence improves, and you start to feel good, really good, about your proficiency level. Fluency is somewhere out there, but it is not easily defined (see this post).

Now on this journey, life can get in the way. You must deal with more pressing matters and day-to-day tasks, and before you know it, language-learning has slipped between the cracks. Duolingo? Oh yeah, that… whoops. Taking a break and allowing your new language to settle into the long-term memory portion of your cerebral region is actually crucial to success. (Isn’t there a weird satisfaction in knowing that not doing anything is justified?!) Why you took a break is irrelevant. Maybe you broke a toe last week (true fact). Maybe you are just being lazy (partially true). Maybe cleaning the house took precedence (most definitely). Whatever the reason, give yourself permission to pause and then, get back on the horse. Picking yourself up and continuing where you left off is key to success; this is where and when you will make the most progress.

It can be helpful to visualize your daily highs and lows to keep things in perspective. Initially, the language-learning process probably sounds like this–Yesss, progress! Nooooo, I forgot that word. Yes, now I remember! Up-down-up-down ad infinitum–and looks like the graph below, or f(x)=(cosx^2+3).

Fastforward a few weeks later. Despite your studying, you feel like you’re going in circles, so many circles. You know it’s all leading somewhere–where [0,0] is your target language–but it feels like nothing is happening. X means apple, Y means eats, Z means girl, A keeps popping up but the exact translation remains unclear. Rules are scattered in your mind, and none of the pieces seem to fit together. I just want to speak! You attack the language from all sides, but there seems to be no progress, just a pretty design and neat mathematical function [r > (sin (a/b)(θ)), where 0 < θ < 12π and a=5 and b=6].

And then, finally, your two-dimensional rose becomes a spiraling logarithmic beauty! Something clicks inside, and you begin to connect the dots; information that seemed irrevelant suddenly has a place; you create your first sentence in the target language! It is magical! You are no longer spinning in circles but rather, living in 3D, spiraling out into the universe, empowered by your language-learning prowess, ready to take on the world, maybe even ask a native speaker a question. Wunderbar/wonderful! [r = a^θ, where 0 < θ < 12π and a=1.25].

Yes, the Internet helped me write these equations! https://learn.desmos.com/graphing

This is, undoubtedly, a Math Tangent on this weeks’ Language Blog, but… sometimes you need a new perspective. You need to step back, recognize your progress, and then consciously decide to keep moving forward toward your goal. Your task this week, then, is about moving past fear, moving past failures, moving past guilt, just keep moving. Forgive yourself for the breaks and silly excuses, and get back on the horse. There is a whole world (read: language) out there to explore!

Food for Thought

LANGUAGE-LEARNING IS HARD- TRUE OR FALSE?: We live in an ‘instant-gratification’ society these days. In a way, the time it takes to pronounce the word ‘instant’ is counterproductive to the actual definition of the word. When people claim that language-learning is hard, they tend to mean that they have to wait for what they want. We can’t instantly download every aspect of a language–grammar, syntax, vocabulary, intonation, tones, etc.–into our brains [at least not yet], so the language-learning process becomes frustrating. We have to wait for these linguistic pieces, or ‘documents’, to load and then synthesize… which gives the impression that language-learning is ‘hard’. In reality, it just takes more time to ‘download’ than many are willing to wait. But we all accepted dial-up at one point in time, so just wait it out. It will be worth the tried patience.

How We Learn Language

When friends or relatives hear that you are learning a foreign language, the first question they invariably ask is, “What can you say?” Unfortunately, and although usually well-intentioned, this is the wrong question. As you stammer and mutter about what you are learning in your class, instead of producing actual language, mortification settles in and you ask to be excused. What a pity, right? You know you are learning, but you can’t say anything.

Stop for a second now and think about how you learned language as a baby. Did anyone ask you on Day #1 what you could say? What about Day #200? If you are the student, give yourself a break. Babies must hear a lot of language before they begin speaking; the same is true for you. Likewise, if you know someone who is learning a new language, give them a break. Show your enthusiasm and encouragement, but avoid pressuring them to produce language.  Keep in mind that the emotional connection grows deeper and more profound as you grow older (and spend more time with a language). The same is true in your native tongue. You gain more insight and knowledge of cultural nuances every day. Fascinating, isn’t it?

When Will My Child Be Fluent?

With all due respect, this question and its answer are not as simple or black-and-white as some would want to believe.  Let’s consider its three main flaws.

1) This is not an immersion school. While its language classes may be taught 95-100% in the target language, these classes are language-specific, and not the medium of instruction for other subjects (fluency as such is possible at a much faster rate when the bulk of the day is spent in the target language). Language classes at this school are similar to Math or Science or Music classes in that there is an allotted time for each one. Specifically, Spanish classes meet twice a week (1st-5th) for 45 minutes each class. While this is impressive compared to many other elementary language programs out there, it is also misleading for both students and parents to claim that “Joey has been taking Spanish for seven years now”–meaning he began in PK and is now in fifth grade. Why is this misleading? Most people are highly disappointed upon discovering that “Joey” is not yet fluent in the target language, most of all, Joey himself. However, has he actually been taking Spanish for seven years? Let’s be realistic here and tally up the minutes, just for kicks and giggles.

MinutesDaysWeeksTotal Minutes
Total Class Minutes20475
Minutes per 24 hour day = 24×601440
CLASS DAYS (not including snow days or holidays)14.218

Conclusion? In reality, students spend about two weeks with the target language over the course of seven years, or the equivalent of an extended vacation in Mexico (i.e., full immersion, or 24/7 in the target language, and this is assuming you are not speaking to your child in English on the trip). As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, does a baby speak two weeks out of the womb? Why are you pressuring your child to produce the target language so soon?  This is discouraging for all parties involved. In doing so, you implicitly emphasize that the product is more important than the process, or journey, and moreover, that language learning and acquisition ought to happen overnight; but quite frankly, this is not the case. This sets up your student to buy into the ‘instant-gratification’ mentality; instead, let’s encourage our children and students to develop the strength of character to persevere in the long (but worthwhile) process of language acquisition. Inspire and motivate, but remember that linguistically, even as a fifth grader, your child is still an infant…

2) Now, let’s talk about fluency. Online dictionaries define fluency with increasingly vague terms, “the ability to express oneself easily and articulately” or even better, “the ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately”. Well, which is it? Does fluency encompass speaking or writing–or both? There are many translators out there who very precisely transfer highly technical, written documents from one language to another with tremendous skill, yet who do not speak the language. Can they claim fluency? What about oral cultures? Are people whose languages lack a written form not fluent?

Even if we concede on the “the ability to speak OR write a foreign language”, the question of “easily and accurately” still poses a great deal of ambiguity. In what venue, exactly? I would be lost at sea in English at a medical conference (borborygmi?), just as many would fare poorly at a philosophical one (solipsism?). In general conversation, perhaps a majority of English speakers–[as evidenced through close observation with people of all education levels, and even in television shows and Hollywood blockbusters]–use “there is” or “there’s” with plurals on a regular basis. In some regions of the Midwest, people eliminate “to be” altogether (“the paper needs turned in”, “the house needs painted”). Yes, I may be a language prude, but in terms of fluency, those are both grammatically incorrect. And what about slang? Who is fluent in their native tongue, anyway?

Obviously, someone who can only ask, “Where is the bathroom?” is not fluent in that language, but when exactly are they? It is not an easy question. Consider a four-year-old: “The typical four-year-old child will have about a 1,500-1,600-word vocabulary. […] By the time a child is 12 years old, he/she will understand (have a receptive vocabulary) of about 50,000 words” (Vocabulary Chart). A ninth grader will not learn the same 1,500-1,600 words in a language that a four-year-old learns on the playground and at school, and each four-year-old’s vocabulary differs as well (though understandably and at a certain point, they do share a common pool). That said, how can we compare these ‘common pools’ of vocabulary from school to school, when each teacher and school focuses on different words and teaching methodologies? “Fluency levels” are eventually determined and assessed on the national AP exams, but until then, we remain in the black hole of, as Saussure so elegantly phrases it, “a vague, uncharted nebula”.

3) Lastly, intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors definitely play a role. And yet, I have heard numerous times, “Why does my child not speak to me in Spanish at home?” Let’s be honest: do you speak the target language to them? I ask the question not to be rude, but rather as a reminder of what is logical. General politeness mandates that you speak to others in a language they understand. Therefore, it would be wholly nonsensical for your child to blabber to you on a regular basis in the language they are learning, as they do not associate you with the target language. Vocabulary recall in your presence is oftentimes more challenging simply because it seems out of place. The brain constantly networks and categorizes knowledge, information, and sensory input. Think about it: how many times has SEEING someone jogged your memory? So visual associations actually play a legitimate role here. Students remember vocabulary in their teacher’s presence, but at home or in a restaurant, it proves more taxing for the brain, if not practiced consistently.

Extrinsic factors, then, include you pressuring your child to translate words at unexpected times and in unexpected places. Putting him or her on the spot to produce the target language is 1) having unreasonable expectations (see fluency above); and 2) not being considerate of the fact that you probably aren’t associated with the target language amidst your child’s cerebral gray matter. That said, do you encourage their study? Do you encourage them to have fun during the process? Do you talk about languages and multi-lingual people in a positive light? Whether your child speaks another language at home (besides English) is yet another contributing factor…

Intrinsic factors are simply motivation-related: does your child have an interest in language(s)? Do they want to spend time outside of class reviewing, practicing, prancing around the house or running up and down the stairs reciting vocabulary and shouting creative, ridiculous sentences in the target language? As a language teacher, my hope is YES!, but I am highly aware that this is not the case for everyone. This is, however, definitely a factor and can accelerate the language-learning process by leaps and bounds.

To sum up, then, no–I cannot give you a date and time when your child will be fluent–or even conversational–in the target language, just as you could not predict the moment when your child would stutter or stammer their first word or complete sentence in their native tongue. This treatise is not meant to lower your expectations of what your child will learn here, but rather to give a more realistic assessment of and appreciation for the process of learning/acquiring another language. It is not as simple as ‘downloading vocabulary’ and then ‘outputting’ a random combination of sounds or letters. Consider, then, Lower School as the ‘formative years’ [input], or ages 0-2: their brains are receiving a great deal of information re: language rhythms, cadence, vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and intonation, coupled with gestures, culture, and meaningful contexts. It will take a while for their neural matter to sort out everything. So please refrain from pressuring your child to speak, unless he or she wants to: children are wildflowers, and will bloom when they are ready.

Tips for New Students

As there are new students in nearly every grade level in Lower School this year, please be assured that your child is not the only one adjusting to being immersed in a brand new language three times a week.  Several of you have expressed concern and inquired about extra work that your children can do outside of class to ‘catch up’ to their peers, hence this blog entry!

To begin, I believe strongly in cultivating a love for learning–and specifically, language-learning–which means that I would like any extra work outside of class time to be more enjoyable than not.  Therefore, just jump in, as the image above illustrates. My number one suggestion for new students is to check out this website and spend time watching cartoons in the target language, so that they feel more comfortable being immersed in the language (see “Cartoons” on the sidebar). The goal right now is for your child to overcome his/her discomfort with not being able to comprehend everything. Aside from that, new students are also strongly encouraged to be proactive during class time, both by watching when I point to bilingual signs as well as asking their classmates questions (“How do you say…?”). I am going to reiterate to ALL classes next week (in English!) the importance of teaching one another, particularly since we have a lot of new students this year. I believe in building a classroom culture where students learn not only from me but also from each other.

As far as specific suggestions go, many students in Lower School are familiar with and adore the show Pocoyo. Have “Spanish Saturdays” or “Taco Tuesdays”, where your child spends twenty or thirty minutes listening to and watching Spanish cartoons. (If any links don’t work, please let me know; I have to update them from time to time. Or, if your child has a favorite show not on the list, email me and I will try to find a translated version.) Your child does not need to ‘do’ anything here, just sit and be with the language; his/her brain will begin internalizing the rhythm and cadence of the language on its own, unconsciously. For more ideas, please see the “Summer Packet Letter” on the sidebar.

While it is true that other students have been taking Spanish for many years now, I have repeatedly seen new students at every grade level exhibit tremendous success in the past (this is my ninth year teaching). Give it some time (it is very early in the year!), and encourage your child to be patient, ask questions, and practice being ‘okay’ with not understanding everything. The vocabulary will come. I do not pressure students to produce language until they are ready, and remind them that babies do not speak on Day #2 out of the womb; language takes time.

Other Thoughts

A Conscious Effort: Use Spanish as much as possible, wherever you go. Make it a game. Are you waiting in line? At the mall? At the grocery store? Online waiting for a website to load? In a traffic jam? Train your brain to use those ten second blips of nothingness to be productive and stay mentally active. Try to remember a word or phrase–or several–in the target language while you are waiting. A minute here or there will prove much more effective in long-term retention than an hour or two of studying. When your skills begin to advance, work on translating what you hear in your head. Learning a language might be a challenge, but it should be a fun challenge! Make a conscious effort to incorporate Spanish into your daily life.

Bilingual Technology: Fiddle around and change your iPod, iPad, iPhone, Facebook page, laptop, email or any other gadget you may have to Spanish. You can usually find the languages under “Settings”, “International”, or “Control Panel”. Note: Only change your technological devices to Mandarin Chinese if you have some spare time on your hands and a lot of patience–sometimes it can be tricky finding your way back to English. (And yes, I do say this from experience.)

Spanish Channel: Find the Spanish channel on your television.  For that matter, find the Portuguese and Italian and Russian and Mandarin Chinese channels, too.  See if you can hear the different cadences/rhythms/intonations between the languages.  Most importantly, have fun guessing!

Number Challenges: Count to twenty in Spanish when you’re brushing your teeth every morning.  Too easy?  Count backwards.  Still too easy?  Skip count forwards and backwards (0-2-4-6-8-10-12, 11-9-7-5-3-1, etc.). Do mental math.   Don’t just memorize numbers in order; make them meaningful.  How do we use numbers in the real world?  Count change in Spanish, say the total of the restaurant bill in Spanish, jump rope or play hopscotch in Spanish.  Numbers are everywhere…!

Three Levels: 1) Recognition: you can’t remember the word, but when you see or hear it, you know what it means; 2) Production: you remember the word in both English and Spanish, and can translate it on the spot; 3) Emotional connection: you not only know the word in English and Spanish, but you also understand it…when you say it, you mean it and aren’t just translating (example: please = poooor faaaaaavvvoooooooor)