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Salamanca as Critical Analysis

The following article by Modern Languages Chair Tori Gilbert and Head Coach Jorge Roman appears in the summer 2014 issue of Saint David's Magazine.


If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.                     —Nelson Mandela



A few years ago Saint David’s began, through the Curriculum Initiative, the rollout of our school-wide Spanish language program. The rollout was completed last year, enabling our boys to study Spanish throughout their tenure at the school, from Pre-K through Grade Eight. In the spring of 2008 Headmaster O’Halloran began discussing with us a possible immersion experience for the boys in a Spanish-speaking country to augment and deepen what they learned at Saint David’s.

We began our search broadly. Our investigations ranged from South to Central America and finally to the cradle of the language of Castile—Salamanca.

After traveling to Salamanca in the summer of 2009, we explored what options would be possible for a relatively young group of boys to experience immersion within the traditional travel safety boundaries set by Saint David’s School trips. The school’s administration was able to work in partnership with the University of Salamanca, the provincial government, and the local schools to create a customized program just for our boys. We were satisfied with the small town feel of the city, the talent of the teachers who would work with them, the comfort of the facilities, and most of all with the proximity of the extraordinary, world-renowned historic sites and opportunities that studying in Salamanca affords.

 While most of our boys arrive in Salamanca as novice speakers, some are more advanced through their heritage or experience with the language at home. All of them benefit from the gift of immersion. Whether it is interacting with people in the cafeteria or dormitory, with shopkeepers, peers, teachers, or guides, the boys are constantly required to negotiate meaning above and beyond the words being used. Cultural life is at once relaxed and dynamic.

There have been small logistical tweaks to our trip planning from the first year, but the most important change has been the increase in the opportunities we plan for the boys to interact with their peers in both formal academic and informal situations. This is particularly important for middle school students for whom peer relationships provide such great motivation and leverage in learning.


 Critical thinking is developed in every activity we do from the time they settle into their seats on the Iberia airline to the time we come home.

How is this happening? If we compare critical thinking to the process of solving a puzzle we see that this trip is a perfect vehicle. This requires identifying pieces, establishing meaning, judging and justifying one’s opinion, finding connections, seeing the missing pieces, and finally, considering perspectives.

In everyday activities such as school, cultural day trips, and sports with students of neighboring schools, our boys are thrown into the proverbial deep end of the swimming pool, where they must use their communication skills to navigate through the Spanish language and culture.

After a couple of days in the classroom (three and a half hours per day), the boys take the plunge and start to adapt to their new surroundings, and begin to excel and enjoy their experience at Colegio Unamuno. During class, the boys work on their Spanish vocabulary and grammar, but equally important they learn about Spain’s culture (national festivals, traditional foods, and local customs).

This helps prepare them for one of their more enjoyable and daunting assignments. The students are asked to market and buy the necessary ingredients in order to make a paella (one of Spain’s national dishes). In addition to purchasing the ingredients, the boys are asked to interview the merchants about their professions. This is an extremely challenging task, considering that the majority of the merchants do not speak English. In the three years that Saint David’s boys have tackled this challenge, they have excelled and found it extremely beneficial to their progress in learning the Spanish language.

Another area where the boys have an opportunity to develop their language skills is on the playing field. Every day, the boys visit the local park in Salamanca where they engage in sports with some students from the local school. Here the boys play futbol (soccer) and baloncesto (basketball), and have a chance to teach the Spanish boys and girls how to play some American sports, such as baseball and football. With the use of some basic Spanish words and phrases (i.e., la pelota:ball; a la derecha: to the right; estoy abierto: I’m open) and plenty of hand signals, they are able to communicate and play in a friendly environment.

We are pleased to say that the sports portion of the trip has yielded some dividends. It has served as a vehicle to connect young people through the universal language of athletics. Of course, there were a number of slip-ups and faux pas along the way, but as we all know, this is an essential part of the continued physical, emotional, and spiritual development of our boys.

Finally, some highlights of the trip include a visit to a ham factory, bullfighting museum, and the aqueduct and alcazar (castle-fortress) in Segovia. Boys continue to analyze and reconstruct the puzzle that is Spain as they step back in time or adopt a new perspective. These activities allow the boys to get a sense of the whole, and to reflect on what it means for them, now that they are a little more Spanish on the inside.

What the boys accomplish can only be done through an immersive program in which the students put what they have learned in the classroom into practice (i.e., shopping at the market, ordering a meal, or conversing with local residents). This is a real test of one’s proficiency.

The difference, then, between a classroom-only Spanish class and an immersive program is that in the former case, only simulated learning takes place, while in the latter, classroom lessons are fully assimilated and integrated thanks to vital contextual support from the external environment, which also provides ample opportunity for practice and familiarization with the language. This represents real language acquisition; when proficiency is given the chance to grow into practical usefulness. When this occurs, one can be said to have learned something through and through, knowledge that is truly retained.

When asked what they learned from attending the Spanish study tour to Salamanca, here were some of the Saint David’s eighth graders’ responses:

“Overall, it was a positive experience, I surprised myself with how much Spanish I could learn in a limited amount of time . . . ”

“I discovered that Spaniards are very passionate about their sports, especially futbol . . . ”

“In the beginning I was hesitant about participating in class, but by the third or fourth day I felt very comfortable communicating in the classroom and shops . . . ”

“It was a very fun trip. I got the chance to make friends with kids from a foreign country . . . ”

Language is an important element of humanity, and learning what a fellow human speaks teaches you more about humankind as a whole. The more languages one knows, the better one understands the human race.  We are confident that learning a new language provides our boys with a greater global understanding of the world in which we live.

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