How I Teach - Stay afloat in Spanish lessons

13th December 2013 at 00:00
Can Japanese poetry really help with another language? Si, si

Students of Spanish constantly run up against an almost Shakespearean dilemma: ser or estar? For the uninitiated, they both translate as "to be".

A typical reaction when first presented with this superficially absurd and impossible choice is panic, soon to be washed away by a wave of ennui as the process of compare and contrast becomes mired in fine distinctions and academic qualifications. Entire books have been written on this.

What the teaching of ser and estar needs is radical simplification and a practical focus. And this is where the Japanese come to the rescue with the succinct haiku. Writing one is the ideal displacement activity for those discouraged by grammar.

The aim is to reduce the problem to its essentials. First, give children the classic rules of (Westernised) haiku, to be interpreted more or less strictly according to taste and ability: three lines of five, seven, then five syllables.

In line 1, state the subject of the poem: what it is (ser for definition). Classically, this might be a season: "It is now summer." Then, in line 2, describe the scene: "The leaves are green. Sunlight falls" (ser for description). And finally, in line 3, give an emotional response: "Here, I am content" (estar for mood).

And there you have it, the perfect, perfectly grammatical poem, inspired by one culture and realised in the words of another.

The great thing is that this formula readily accommodates both variation and differentiation. It is easy enough to use lines 1 or 2 to place a person or animal in a particular place (estar for location). Or for a more advanced group, there is scope for choosing estar to capture a fleeting moment, a change in state or a temporary condition. The season is autumn and the leaves are now, briefly, red - how poetic that, in Spanish, noun and adjective rhyme so sweetly.

Ya es otoo,

las hojas estn rojas:

estamos contentas!

Get your students to write five haiku, one for each season and the last for a day of celebration, such as Christmas Day. For added encouragement, you can put to the test one of those clever publishing apps and show the work to the public. Or, more satisfying still, get students to illustrate their favourite by hand, calligraphy-style. Speak Spanish, feel Japanese. Eventually, you might be ready to share these famous lines from Jorge Guilln's Cntico:

Soy. Ms, estoy

Es la absoluta dicha.

One line, three words, careful punctuation and a dramatic pause. Banal and incomprehensible when translated more or less literally ("I am. And more than that, I am"), yet overflowing with vitality and promise when allowed to resonate in Spanish. Why have just one word for "to be" when you can have two?

Dr Heather Martin is head of languages and of enrichment at St Faith's Independent Prep School in Cambridge, England

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Although The Simpsons may not be a conventional family, they make a great template for discussing family members in Spanish.

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