Questioning Spanish Curriculum in my Move to Spain

I feel like I’m in this season’s finale of My Life. I officially cut my hair, moved away from my summer work home, and I’m back in my hometown preparing for the next season. In two and a half weeks, I’ll be hopping on a plane and living the next six months of my life in Madrid, Spain.

Essentially, I’m making a bunch of lists. Things I need to do before I leave, packing lists, lists of places I need to visit in Spain, farther away cities I want to visit in Europe, and words/phrases I should definitely brush up on before I leave.

The first thing most people ask me when they hear I’m moving to Madrid for school is, “do you speak Spanish?” To which I always reply, “I’ve studied Spanish for seven years.” I believe it’s the best answer because it alludes to the fact I do know Spanish while in reality, I am dutifully unaware if I can actually speak Spanish or not.

I have done exceedingly well in every Spanish class I’ve taken, receiving A’s all seven years. Though I believe there is such a disconnect between what we are learning in class, and being able to survive in a Spanish-speaking country,

In my latest Spanish class, it was a 4000-level course entitled, “Spanish Literature and Composition” where we read classic stories from Spain and worked on our grammatical abilities. Grammar seems to be the one and only thing Spanish classes are interested in. Although grammar is important, and it sends a ping up my spine when someone speaks to me with poor grammar in English, it’s hard to understand why it’s held to such high importance. In my most recent Spanish class, we had class at 8am Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and in between each class, had to complete 30 workbook pages which we would go over together. This was in addition to memorizing the grammar rules to be able to reciprocate them for a test. Since there were typically only three grammar points per chapter, I found myself replacing the new chapter’s grammar patterns with the old chapter’s grammar in my memory as we went through the months. When you have so much meticulous work for the class, in addition to work for my other five classes, it’s hard to be especially passionate about fill-in-the-blank questions. By May, I couldn’t tell you the difference between ‘por’ and ‘para’ because we learned that in January, I got an A on the test, and we never practiced it again since. When conjugating a word, I find it’s easy to do when writing an essay, but when trying to have a conversation I have to fill the silence with “um” before computing the conjugation in my head.

There’s always an allotted amount of vocabulary in each chapter as well. Usually around 40-50 words. I’ve found that vocab is more likely to stay with me over a long period of time than grammar because the important words will instantly be incorporated into my workbook activities. I’ll feel confident when writing out original sentences because I’ve gotten to the point where I know the Spanish translation for every single word I want to use. Then we will have a listening or reading activity though, and I quickly realize I hardly know any of the phrases they are using. This is because we are so sheltered by using just the phrases and words that are taught in our textbooks. When we ask a professor how to say a new word or phrase, they generally respond with, “figure out how to say it using words you know” instead of expanding our vocabulary outside of the textbook. Although I am confident in asking directions, ordering food, and making small talk in Spanish, I am only confident in doing things when the responder also only knows the textbook vocabulary. Which makes interacting with a native speaker hard, because I’m pretty sure most native speakers will know a bit more than what McGraw-Hill covers.

It also came crashing down on me recently that I know nothing about the culture and customs in Spain. Sure, I know the dates and happenings of major historical events, but I didn’t know anything about how the people interact. I recently got coffee with Lyla, a girl I played soccer with during the fall semester who studied abroad in Madrid during the spring semester. She talked a lot about the cultural differences that had been such a shock to her. The first time Lyla went out to eat, she sat at the table for 30 minutes, becoming angered with the bad service, before she watched another table and realized the waiters only come to your table if you summon them. They don’t check in like in the US but instead let you dine on your own timetable. When riding the metro for the first few weeks, she found herself exclaiming “perdóname” every time she bumped into someone at crowded stops. It wasn’t until a woman who had lived in Wisconsin for school pulled her aside one day and said, “This isn’t the midwest, it’s a crowded city. If you say excuse me every time you bump into someone, you’ll be out of breath by 8am.” We never learned about the culture, the arts, or the food when studying Spanish, even though we learn the Spanish dialect. Lyla was thrown into the deep end, and in turn, ended up offending a few people when asking for food replacements for her vegan diet, or simply saying things that were acceptable in America but not so much overseas.

If we are told the reason languages are so pushed in higher education is because they hope we will be more willing to travel internationally and interact with native speakers, why are we not taught Spanish in a way that allows us to be confident when doing these things? I never like to complain about something without presenting a solution, and I think in this case, there are so many solutions – the only problem being I cannot solve the difficulty that is changing a curriculum.

There are two overarching ways the Spanish curriculum needs to change – a) Instead of pushing writing and reading as the predominant forms of learning, it needs to be changed to listening and speaking and b) We have to hold cultural lessons to higher importance.

To push speaking, students should be assigned partners they are required to speak with, about anything they want, at least once a week. This would be in replacement of binders full of worksheets and make students more comfortable talking to someone in their new language. It would allow them to become faster in conjugating because they have to do it during a conversation, instead of having time to think, then write. To implement culture into speaking, students could give presentations on different aspects of culture or even interactive presentations like cooking traditional food or teaching dance. As for listening, professors should make it a priority to speak to their classes in Spanish, and require students to do the same. In my sophomore year of high school, we used every Friday class period to watch a Netflix show in Spanish that was trending #1 in Spain, El Internado. Not only did I pick up the language exceedingly fast just by watching the show, but I learned the phrases that kids my age used with each other (including the curse words), and enjoyed the plot while learning. Watching a show that is popular in Spain is another way to learn about the culture – the typical way college students dress, talk, and interact with one another. Grammar is still, unfortunately, very important, especially in the Spanish language. I feel professors should still teach grammar in the same way, as textbooks have made it increasingly easier to understand the rules over the years. However, the way we practice grammar should switch to the speaking/listening format. 

The second question most people ask me when they hear I’m moving to Madrid for school is, “are you worried?” To which I always reply, “no, it’s the Spaniards who should be worried.”

Yours truly,



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