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The Literate Learner Featured Article of the Week

Casi perfecto: SSR in Spanish

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by Steve Gardiner
April 17, 2015

My wife Peggy and I stepped off the plane at Jorge Chavez Airport in Lima, Peru, and were immediately surrounded by shouting taxi drivers. They pressed in closer and closer, each trying to catch our attention and get our business. There was only one problem; we could not understand any of them.


My one year of high school Spanish, taken some ten years before was doing me no good as we began our first day as teachers at The American School of Lima. I decided that I would get help, learn to speak the language, and make more sense out of the city that was our new home.


First , I hired a tutor. She was great. She was a native speaker and life-long resident of Lima. She told me about the city and gave me lessons in Spanish. We used a textbook and practiced dialogues. She was a good teacher, but I wasn’t getting the results I wanted.


One day, I was walking on Avenida Arequipa, the main street in Miraflores, the district of Lima where we lived, and I saw copies of El Comercio, the largest daily newspaper in Lima, stacked on a newsstand. I walked by, but a few minutes later, I remembered reading some comments by Stephen Krashen, a reading expert from the University of Southern California. He argued that using sustained, silent reading was one of the most effective means of learning a new language. As a high school English teacher, I had been using SSR in my classroom for several years, but only in English. I thought about Krashen’s remarks and returned to the newsstand and bought a copy of El Comercio.


I went back to our apartment and sat down at the table with a Spanish/English dictionary. I had to look up enough words that it took me an hour to read the main article. The next day I read another article. And the next day another.


I continued with this process and at the end of a month, I could read the front page in an hour. Another month later I was reading most of the paper in an hour. My vocabulary was getting better every day. I was starting to see some of the connections between verb forms and tenses. I felt better about the inverted order of nouns and adjectives. In short, I was coming closer to meeting my goal of speaking and reading Spanish.


Then I noticed something even more important. By reading the newspaper, I was learning the vocabulary words that formed the daily conversations we overheard in cafes and on the street. I could understand and participate in more exchanges and develop the exchanges farther. It was fun, exciting, and exactly what I wanted to gain from our time in Lima.


I decided that every time we took a taxi, the driver was going to give me a Spanish lesson. Every time we rode a bus, the passenger next to me was going to teach me something. I hoped my questions would not offend anyone, and I quickly learned that Peruvians were eager to speak with us. When we attempted to speak in Spanish, they were delighted.


These conversations covered Peruvian history, the Incas, the Amazon jungle, the Andes Mountains, the status of local soccer teams, and the performances of famous bullfighters. As soon as a taxi driver discovered that we knew about soccer or local history, we were strong friends. More than once, we sat in front of our apartment building, finishing a conversation with a taxi driver before he drove off to find his next fare.


On our final day in Lima, nearly a year after our arrival, I needed to run a couple of last minute errands. I hailed a taxi and began another conversation. As I exited the taxi, the driver said, “Su Espanol es casi perfecto.” (“Your Spanish is almost perfect.”) What a great ending to our time in Peru!