The grammar of positive thinking: A win-win way to start the New Year

1st January 2016 at 06:00


It's January 2016. You return to school refreshed and full of resolve. You've made your New Year's resolutions, and along with some misguided stuff about hitting the gym more regularly, you are determined to be an EVEN BETTER teacher this year and for your newly resolute pupils to learn EVEN MORE.

So it's obvious what the first lesson of the term should be: 'los propósitos de Año Nuevo'. You can use the cognate 'resoluciones' to get you going if you like (and recap that thing you taught them about all nouns ending 'ción' being feminine and losing the accent when they are made plural), but 'propósitos' is both more characteristic and more instructive, with its links to the linguistically and philosophically loaded noun 'proposición' and crucially, what you propose to do.

A familiar conundrum for language teachers is how to repeat yourself without, well, just repeating yourself. Perhaps more than in any other subject, learning a new language requires you to revisit the same territory over and over and over again. That's why you need so many different strategies up your sleeve, why you need to be both progressive and traditionalist, targeting your teaching point head on, fearlessly, but also approaching it subtly and indirectly by stealth. Whatever works best.

In lesson one of the new year I will revisit verbs. Same old topic in a new context. The particular focus will be verbs in the infinitive, simply but effectively modified. The possibilities are endless.

Our resolutions can be the perennial classics. Comer menos. Comer menos chocolate. Comer más fruta. Comer sano. (Eat less, less chocolate, more fruit, healthily.) Beber menos Coca Cola. Beber más agua. Hacer más ejercicio. (Do more exercise.) We have already learned 'más +' and 'menos -' in Maths lessons. And the scope for innocent humour, always a plus in lessons (particularly those with a moral dimension), is obvious, as intrinsic to language as to human nature. After all, there will always be someone in the class who wants to rebel and eat more chocolate and watch more television. At least I hope so.

Resolutions can be aspirational. Correr más rápido. (Run faster.) (Take a moment to note that the comparative construction consists of 'more' + adjective.) Leer más libros. Aprender un nuevo idioma. Mejorar en matemáticas. Participar más. (Read more books, learn a new language, get better at maths, join in more.) They can be far-fetched, if children want to stray into the realm of dream and desire. Ser futbolista famoso. Volar a la luna. (Be a famous footballer, fly to the moon.)

Or even existential. Ser mejor amiga/hermana. (Be a better friend/sibling.) Ser más positivo. Ser más paciente.

Of course, if your pupils want to advance beyond phrases and fragments, then there is nothing to stop them building whole sentences by introducing a grammatical subject. Quiero, Espero, Voy a... (I want, I hope, I'm going... ) To do all of the above commendable things.

Best of all, in a teaching and learning context, is for New Year's resolutions to be disciplinarian. We're talking self-discipline here, needless to say; it is 2016 now and we are enlightened.

This is a very rich vein. To start with, there are the all-important indicators of top-class effort. Escuchar más y hablar menos. Trabajar bien. (Listen more and talk less. Work well.) This presents an ideal opportunity to talk about adverbs, breaking down that bland, generic 'bien' into what we might really mean by it. And although there is an adverbial suffix in Spanish analogous to its English counterpart, with 'mente' added like 'ly' to a majority of adjectives, it is much less commonly used. More often than not, Spanish deploys the simpler formula of 'con' (with) + noun. Escuchar con atención. Trabajar con cuidado. Escribir con esmero. To listen with attention, work with care, write with well, 'esmero', or exquisite care.

Then there are those more elusive everyday desiderata. Llegar a tiempo. No olvidar mi bolígrafo azul. Hacer los deberes sin quejarme. (Arrive on time, Not forget my blue pen, Do my homework without complaining.) Yes, the syntax gets more complicated, which is what makes this lesson infinitely adaptable according to age group and level of attainment.

This is also one of those many occasions when I like to take the opportunity to remind school leaders how uniquely valuable languages are in reinforcing school values. Language teachers can make any subject or any message the focus of instruction, because anything serves to fulfil the primary purpose of learning how language works and how to apply it. Time allocated to languages is never wasted, because the basic working principle is two for the price of one.

Whatever the future holds, this is a win-win way to start the new calendar year. Because let's face it, even if there is the customary collective failure of resolve, at least everyone will have learned more Spanish.


Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist and tweets at @drheathermartin.