Introducing the JNCL Spanish Challenge and Days 1-3

The $1000 JNCL Spanish Challenge

It started as a simple wager. Two competitive guys challenging each other to see who would do better. Study Spanish every day for at least 30 minutes a day for three months. Who would show the most growth.

Mike Biglan, the CEO of Analytic Spot, and I, David Bong, Avant's CEO both have studied Spanish sporadically over the years, but neither of us can use it in real life. Mike studied it for two years in high school and I worked as a waiter/bartender in Old San Juan using Spanish for a couple of months in my long ago youth. We both studied French for 5+ years in school and I speak Japanese at a high level of proficiency. But Spanish - No.

The more we talked about it, the more we thought it would be a great way to get a first hand understanding of what language learners are going through when they learn a language. As a language assessment company, that is pretty important. So here's what we are doing. We will both take the Avant STAMP assessment before and after our three months. The one showing less growth will contribute $1000 to the JNCL-NCLIS, our national language lobbying organization to support their fight to keep funding for language education and international programs alive. We will blog and Tweet/Facebook regularly to share our experiences and ask for advice.

We hope you enjoy sharing this adventure with us.

Day 1

The CEO of Avant's technology partner, Mike Biglan and I decided to take on the joint challenge to self-study Spanish 30 minutes a day for three months, and each write a blog about it. So today I begin.

It's probably appropriate that today I'm flying to Miami for meetings before heading up to Orlando for the SCOLT Southern Conference Of Language Teachers. If I spoke Spanish I would have many opportunities to use it in Miami.

But I don't speak Spanish. Not really anyway. I have played around with Transparent Language's tools and the Duolingo app. Duolingo says I'm 3% fluent. Not sure what that means, but it's not zero. Way back in the 70's I spent a spring in San Juan working as a waiter and bartender in a classic restaurant in Old San Juan - El Patio de Sam. I don't think it's there anymore, but it was reviewed in the New York Times so it was a pretty good place for both locals and tourists. I mostly handled the tourists, but I learned enough Spanish to take orders from the locals and work with the kitchen, but it was pretty limited, and it was a long time ago.

So what's first? We are each figuring out our goals and our methodology, then we will take an Avant STAMP 4S Spanish test to get our baselines. I am shooting for Intermediate low. At the end we will assess ourselves again on STAMP and see how close we have come to our goals. On the Avant website Benchmark and Rubric Guide it shows that the benchmark for speaking and writing at this level is:

"Strings of Sentences - Variety of sentences that utilize different verbs to create independent thoughts mostly composed of a recombination of learned simple sentences with some added detail. Good accuracy with formulaic sentences with some added detail. Errors may occur as student attempts higher-level skills. Good Language Control is expected with the majority of the response."

Well, maybe I will be able to do that. Right now I can ask how to get the bathroom and understand with some words and hand gestures where to go.

I will do more research in the next few days, but my initial plan is to mostly use Transparent Language's tools because they are rich in content and have powerful technology embedded in them. (Full disclosure, Transparent is a partner of Avant). I will also play with the Duolingo vocabulary app and want to try out their conversation practice tool. I also will look at the strategies Tim Ferris uses for learning a language. He is a fellow Japanese language nerd so I naturally trust his judgment.

Day 2

After the end of work today is was panicked - How if the world am I going to find time to study 30 minutes every day? What is the world did I get myself into?

Then I remembered I was in Miami. So I turned on the radio. Thanks to the traffic I got in a good hour of listening to Spanish talk radio. It was interesting to recognize the change in my ears over the hour. What sounded like a random stream of sounds with an occasional word I recognized at first, started to actually sound like a language with patterns that I could catch and occasional phrase from. I figured out "health insurance "seguro de salud, and "la prensa lo ignoro" the press ignores it.

It was exciting. I hear about the importance of input in the teacher trainings I listen in on. I guess this is why.

Day 3

Thank you, thank you Spanish talk radio. Listening to the talk show here in Miami I can hook into content that I already know about - politics and the snowstorm up north. Context is huge I remember from those teacher trainings again. I watched some Mexican police drama on TV last night and hardly understood anything, but politics I get, and I am interested. It was like this in Japan too, when I could follow the business and economic news on TV but was lost in the soap operas. The register is higher, the language more structured.

Relating this to assessment, the ability to demonstrate higher-level language can be easier to demonstrate and measure in non-dialogue situations. This is one reason why Avant uses presentational speaking questions in our Avant STAMP test rather than trying to imitate a conversation. Not that conversation is bad, it is actually very cool and impressive that it can be done, but it makes it hard to elicit the longer chunks of language that intermediate high and advanced levels require.

I was thrilled to go to the Latin Restaurant in west Miami this morning and actually place my order in Spanish, and have the waitress understand me and not speak back to me in English. Of course, I didn't understand when she asked me if I wanted toast and said no, when I really did want toast. Even better, the Cuban style harino grits were delicious.

About the Author:

Photo: David Bong

David Bong

Co-Founder & CEO of Avant Assessment

After successful roles in consulting, sales and web service information, CEO David Bong co-founded Avant Assessment in 2001 with his wife, Sheila, and Dr. Carl Falsgraf, formerly the Director of the Center for Applied Second Language Studies at the University of Oregon. Avant is a leader in improving student outcomes in immersion and world language programs by providing data from its online, adaptive, real-world language assessments.