My experience studying university-level Spanish was nothing less than life-changing, in a way that was completely unexpected.

My initial objective was to major in Spanish (Letras), and then combine it with international business studies. I had been very successful taking 3 years of Spanish in high school, where I covered the entire Spanish grammar structure. The only problem was I couldn’t speak Spanish, (unless I translated what I was about to say in my head first), and I couldn’t understand when people spoke Spanish to me (unless they stopped and gave me time to translate each sentence in my head first). I thought this situation was acceptable, and that I just needed to study more.

During my first semester at the University of Illinois, I took a Spanish grammar class, and a Spanish conversation class. I did well in the grammar class, covering all of the Spanish grammar once again, but I had to drop the conversation class after 2 weeks, because I could say and understand very little. I now began to think it was strange that I had covered the entire Spanish grammar structure twice, but I still couldn’t speak or understand much.

I still assumed the problem was me, and I was determined to make my best effort to improve. I was convinced that if only I could understand the grammar even better, I would be able to speak. (Because I knew no other way, so more grammar had to be the way.)

During my second semester, I took a conversation class again, and another grammar class, covering all the Spanish grammar. What happened? The same thing! I still couldn’t speak! Now I felt very embarrassed.

Again, I thought the problem was me. When was I going to make that magical transition from grammar ………….. to speaking and listening?

And now an additional problem presented itself: there were no more grammar classes to take!

With no alternative strategy, I became completely discouraged and depressed, and I changed my major, and my life course.

It wasn’t until 6 years later I took a Master’s level course entitled, “Methods and Materials for Teaching English as a Second Language” and I discovered that a method based exclusively on grammar was not the only way to learn (or teach!) a language. There also was the functional approach, the communicative approach, and later I even learned the lexical approach. That was when I realized it hadn’t been my fault I couldn’t speak Spanish back then. The problem was I had been taught by using grammar only! This was so clearly ineffective, that it literally caused me to change majors, and my life path.

Let me say that again: An exclusively grammar-based method of learning Spanish literally caused me to change my life! I had to change majors and rethink my future. Fortunately, things turned out well, but it could just as easily have been dangerous: a language method playing with someone’s life. I have never forgotten that!

Ever since I began teaching 20 years ago, I’ve had many students who have had similar experiences. They come to me after studying English for years. They are very confident reading, but they feel very insecure speaking English. Usually they don’t know why they can’t speak after studying English for so long. Most of the time I discover that they too had been taught by using almost only grammar.

So I use my negative experience at my university to help my students. I’ve naturally used an eclectic method, based on a communicative approach and functional approach, only explaining grammar in moments or upon student request.
…And I have even built on that, using innovative approaches for explaining grammatical concepts when necessary, facilitating my students’ understanding of English.