Designing a Foreign-Language Course, Part 2

Following up on my last post about my philosophy for a language course for adult learners, in this blog post I wanted to talk a bit about the content for such a course.

To start, I want to contrast how this curriculum is designed to work in contrast with “traditional” foreign-language instruction (at least, how I experienced it when I was learning Spanish).

While traditional instruction is oriented around grammatical concepts (“let’s learn the conjugation of type 1 verbs in the present tense: camino, caminas, camina, caminamos, caminan”) in this course, we want to introduce the same concepts using speech patterns that the learner can use and re-use to express different concepts.

In a traditional language learning course, grammatical rules are introduced first, and then, afterward, examples are used to fortify the rules. This is backward from how our humans natively acquire language, which is through learning patterns, not rules (they’re different!). In this course, we will not introduce formal “rules” of the grammar until the learners are very advanced — the introduction of a grammar rule should elicit the reaction of familiarity + understanding: “oh, so that’s why that works that way”. We do not want to introduce grammatical rules until after the learners have been using those grammatical structures fluidly.

Teaching this course will require a fair amount of skill from the teacher in order to elicit the appropriate responses from the learners, though in future lessons I’ll talk a bit about the types of technology I believe that we can build to facilitate this process and make it considerably less burdensome on teachers.

I should also note that I was recently introduced to the indigenous-language preservation project called Where Are Your Keys which appears to take a similar approach to language learning — it seems they’ve actually implemented a lot of the material I’m going to vaguely wave my hands at here, so if you want some more examples of how this might look in practice, here’s a great start from them.

Learning Patterns

The primary unit of instruction, rather than being a grammatical “rule”, is a pattern for expressing an idea. In an early lesson, you might cover object location. We’ll end up using the verbs “hay” and “estar”, but we will not cover their conjugations (which are confusing!) except indirectly.

What follows is a very very basic example of discussing some objects and how they’re placed in a scene (I imagine we’d have a photo or a video with objects laid out on a table and a desk).

Q: “Hay una pluma en la mesa. ¿Donde está la pluma?”

A: “La pluma está en la mesa.” Teacher answers here

Q: “Hay un libro en la mesa. ¿Donde está el libro?”

A: Students answer here. “El libro está en la mesa”

Q: “Este es un reloj, y este es un escritorio. Hay un libro en la mesa, y hay una pluma en la mesa. ¿Que más hay en la mesa?“

A: Students answer here “Hay un reloj en la mesa.”

Q: “Muy bien. ¿Que hay en el escritorio?”

A: Students answer here: “Hay un libro en el escritorio.”

If you don’t know much Spanish this is just repeating the formula “there is a pen on the table” and “there is a book on the desk” in a few different permutations. The goal is to get the students to:

  1. identify the pattern: “hay un __ en ella __” “el / la __ está en ella ____”
  2. Be able to “remix” these patterns on their own to express concepts not covered in the examples

To achieve 2, we want to start introducing vocabulary that can then be “slotted in” to the blanks we identified in the patterns above. We can provide the students with a list of other objects (pencil, lamp, plant, person, boy, girl) and places they might be (bed, chair, nightstand) and ask the students to either write or pair-up and describe what’s around them.

Keeping things concrete

The earlier the student is in their language journey, the more concrete we want to keep their examples — the location and placement of physical objects is a good example, but we also want to make sure we anchor their vocabulary in the students’ own world. That is, as part of the activity above, we want to encourage the students to look around where they are, and describe the world that they live in — we could build in 10 minutes for the class to look up the vocabulary words for what’s around them before starting the activity so that they’re prepared with a wordbook that they can use to describe the world around them.

We want to really emphasize this learning technique to our learners — they should feel empowered to go out into the world and learn the vocabulary that’s most important to them, and then slot those words into the patterns that they’re learning in class. As we increase the patterns that learners have at their disposal, they’ll be able to form more and more complex ideas by slotting in different words into those patterns, and by combining patterns in novel ways. That combination and remixing is the goal of language learning, and that’s how we’ll get to fluidity rapidly.

Cementing the learning

After the lesson, we’ll cement both the pattern we learned and all of the vocabulary covered using a spaced-repetition program (like Anki). We’ll want to have cards with some examples of the patterns we learned + their translations

“hay un libro en la mesa” there’s a book on the table

“la pluma está en el escritorio” The pen is on the desk

And then a card for every vocabulary word:

“la pluma” the pen

“el libro” the book

“la mesa” the table


Spaced repetition will help the learner cement the knowledge and make sure that the vocabulary and patterns are at their fingertips once they need to express more complex ideas later on in the course.

All of these flashcards should be bi-directional. That is, the learner should be able to produce the English translation of the Spanish word or phrase, and the Spanish translation of the English word or phrase. The latter is much harder, but more important for achieving fluency, so we don’t want to skip it!

Some notes on pedagogy

At the beginning of the course especially, we want to draw attention to the patterns in the language as much as possible, and that might mean expressing things slightly awkwardly or more verbosely in ways that a native speaker might find grating. In particular, for Spanish at least, we want to over-emphasize the use of pronouns and articles in our examples.

For vocabulary learning, a noun should always be shown with it’s accompanying article (“el libro” never “libro”). An adjective should be shown with both it’s masculine and feminine versions (“pesado / pesada”).

And in phrases, we wan to over-emphasize the relationship between subjects and objects in a sentence. For example:

“Yo te quiero a ti pero tu no me quieres a mi” (I love you but you don’t love me)

is a very helpful pattern for beginner speakers to learn as it highlights the question between verb-subject agreement and the relationship between “te” and “a ti” / “me” and “a mi”.

Although this phrase is more verbose than what is strictly necessary, it’s definitely valid Spanish and it will help the learner in the future via the patterns that it helps to draw out.  These sorts of patterns are what we want to exploit in this course in order to get our learners comfortable with how they’ll hear and use the target language in the wild!

About the author

By michael