Me Da Vergüenza: Public Speaking in Spanish Classrooms

Rant time: This happens far far too often in my class.

I’ll ask a question. And the crickets chirp while the students look deliberately at their desks, books or the wall, as if hoping that eye contact is the magical key to getting called on in my English class. I “volunteer” some luckless floor-gazer, and hear the inevitable whisper of “No sé”. I’ll prod them, because it’s never a question that “I don’t know ” is the correct answer to.
“Come on, you must have a story about your weekend/an opinion on the video/ some vague English vocabulary cluttering up your head,” I’ll verbally poke them. But…silence, until I give up and move onto another one.

Some days, it’s like pulling teeth to get even my best students willing to speak up in class. And if I want them to stand in front of everyone and say more than two mumbled words, forget about it!

The problem is, the very nature of my job requires the students to at least attempt to participate in class. I don’t stand in front of everyone and give long presentations while the students “listen” to be me (more likely completely tuning out my English rambling). I try to get them SPEAKING. Unfortunately, even with a group of high school students that loves to talk among themselves, they are ridiculously shy when it comes to speaking in English. Cue my frustration, which because I am me, usually manifests as forcing the students to stand in front of the class and speak in English, no matter how shy they are. (Yeah, I’m mean, so?)

I guess I’m frustrated in this regard because I am applying American norms to Spanish students. Specifically our norm of having oral presentations, speeches, skits and in-class speaking as a central part of education. And here…well it’s not normal to make the 14 year olds give a 3 minute speech in Spanish, let alone in a foreign language. They haven’t had teachers who get a sadistic thrill out of assigning 5 speeches a semester, and have never done impromptu speeches. While American high schools definitely have their share of the mumblers and floor-gazers (I was one of them until about 13), the general trend seems to be making the shy ones get over their fear early on. And here public speaking is seen as “something they’ll learn in college”!

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