‘Teaching Foreign Languages in America’ with Leonore Dvorkin

Denver-based author, fitness trainer, editor, proofreader, and language teacher Lenore Dvorkin symbolizes feminine strength and health in its essential definition of body, mind, and spirit. Leonore has authored two books and numerous essays and articles in different publications, online and print. Always curious to learn about Leonore’s experience of foreign language teaching, I finally had an interview with her about teaching foreign languages. I hope readers will find it interesting and helpful in learning about language teaching and learning.

Ernest:Leonore, thank you for another interview session with me! I had long wanted to have a talk about language teaching. First of all, tell me how many languages besides English do you speak, and how did you come to learn them? Also, what is your proficiency in these languages in comparative terms?

Leonore: Thank you very much, Ernest, for this interview opportunity. I speak English (my native language), German, Spanish, and French, in that order of fluency. I also took several years of Latin in high school and college, back in the 1960s and 70s. I currently work as a private tutor of Spanish, German, and English. Years ago, when I was studying and tutoring French, I was pretty fluent in that language and had numerous pupils who were studying French. But about seven or eight years ago, I stopped tutoring French in favor of Spanish, as I could not keep the two grammar systems sufficiently straight in my own head. Since then, unfortunately, I’ve lost a lot of my prior fluency in French. My Spanish continues to improve; in addition to extensive formal study of the language, I am constantly striving to learn more on my own. Also, I have more students for Spanish than I do for either German or English, so I get a lot of practice with Spanish almost on a daily basis.

I first learned German in southern Germany, where I lived with my parents and five sisters from 1959 to 1961. At that time, I was 13 to 15 years old, and I attended a German school for the first of those two school years. My knowledge of French was gained almost solely through academic study, both in high school in the 1960s and then in the course of obtaining two Bachelor of Arts degrees in languages at two different American universities. I earned those degrees in 1972 and 1991; the first was in German and English, and the second was in German and French. I did all my university-level studying of Spanish after I obtained my second B.A., so I was a university student for a very long time, until I was in my late 50s.

Ernest: Which of these languages have you stayed most – and least – in touch with? Also, have you been reading literature or other books in these languages?

Leonore: I have kept in close touch with German by virtue of tutoring it since 1988, by receiving frequent emails in German from a good friend in Germany, and by having continued to read a fair amount of German literature. It’s pretty rare that a German movie comes to Denver, but when one does, my husband and I always go to see it. I should watch German movies on DVDs or via the Internet, but don’t. Likewise, I should listen to German radio via the Internet, but I can’t listen to words and read or produce them at the same time. The fact is I spend a lot of time at the computer. I write a great deal of email, often sending long letters to my many friends and family members. In addition, I do German to English translating, some original writing, and proofreading and editing of other people’s writing in English. The editing is becoming an ever larger part of my work.

I have read some literature in French and Spanish, but not all that much. I would love to do more such reading, but don’t have a lot of time for that. Certain South American authors, in particular, have greatly intrigued me. A lot of the reading that I do in Spanish concerns grammar, as I need to absorb as much of that as I possibly can in order to make myself a better tutor. Sadly, my formerly very diligent study of French grammar has had to go by the wayside.

Ernest:When was it that you first thought of teaching languages, and how did you start tutoring? Also, what language did you first teach, and what was that experience like?

Leonore: I started tutoring back in early 1988, when I was working on my second B.A. here at Metropolitan State College of Denver (MSCD currently has over 24,000 students). My major was German and my minor was French. One day a German professor of mine, Dr. Gudrun Clay, asked me if I would be willing to tutor a beginning German student of hers who had requested help. I was not sure how good I would be at such work, as I had never tutored before, but I said yes. I so much enjoyed working with the young lady, and was so pleased by how quickly I was able to help her improve her grade in her course, that I was soon hooked on tutoring. After that, my business grew pretty rapidly via word of mouth, referrals from various professors, ads that I placed in the campus newspaper, and flyers that I posted on campus bulletin boards. Over the course of many years, from 1988 to the present, I have taught varying combinations of German, French, Spanish and ESL (English as a Second Language). For a while, I actually had more students for French than I did for German.


Ernest:How would you rank the popularity of the various languages based on the number of students that come to learn from you? Which language has the most students and can you tell why?

Leonore: Here in the southwestern United States, and probably in many other parts of the U.S. as well, Spanish is far and away the most popular foreign language. At least two-thirds of my current students are learning Spanish.

Many people falsely assume that Spanish is an “easy” language to learn. While that is not true, there are many Spanish vocabulary words which are either identical to or very similar to their English counterparts, which helps a great deal.

Spanish is certainly a practical foreign language here in the U.S., as our Latino population is now so large. People in many jobs and professions find some knowledge of Spanish to be either useful or essential. Among them are clerks in stores, school teachers, medical workers of all sorts, police officers, supervisors of construction jobs, and employers of Latino household helpers and gardeners. Of course many people, among them the majority of my tutoring pupils, are simply in love with this rich and beautiful language and enjoy studying it as a hobby. The upshot of all this is that I am quite sure I will never lack for Spanish students!

Ernest:What are the main difficulties in teaching a foreign language like Spanish or German to a native English speaker?

Leonore: Spanish and German are both phonetic languages, which helps some. That is, once you learn the correct pronunciation of the various vowels and consonants and letter combinations, it’s pretty easy to sound out new words that you read. Contrast that with the sometimes highly irregular system of English spelling vs. pronunciation.

But here are just a few of the many difficulties. English nouns do not have gender, but Spanish nouns are either masculine or feminine. German nouns are masculine, feminine, or neuter. A multitude of other words, among them adjectives and articles, such as the/a/an, have to be altered to agree with those nouns in gender and number (singular or plural). Spanish often leaves off subject pronouns, while English usually does not. The word order in both Spanish and German sentences can be quite different from English word order. German has its notorious four cases and multiple adjective endings, and it has nine different ways of forming the plural of nouns. Spanish has two very different verbs for “to be” and learning exactly when to use each one is no easy task. The correct use of the multitude of verb tenses in both German and Spanish can be very tricky, as those uses are sometimes quite different from the uses of the same tenses in English. The correct use of the Spanish subjunctive mood is very complex. And so on!

To sum up, both German and Spanish have a lot of overlap with English, but also major differences as to vocabulary and grammar. Patience is the most important prerequisite when one sets out to learn any new language. But then, the mastery of any complex subject requires both patience and hard work.

Ernest:What age groups among your students generally master a foreign language more quickly?

Leonore: It is widely recognized that prior to the age of 12 or so, children are generally much better than most adults at mastering the correct pronunciation and intonation of the target language. In addition, they tend to learn grammar and sentence structure almost purely by listening, just as a small child learns his or her native language. This means that most new words and sentences will need to be repeated many times for them. Literate adults, on the other hand, can read in a book or be shown by a teacher things like verb conjugation patterns, from which they can then extrapolate. An attentive adult may be able to pick up grammatical patterns more quickly than a child and also retain that knowledge for longer.

I work almost exclusively with adults and teenagers. Right now, in the fall of 2010, I am working for the first time with a 10-year-old child, and I am amazed at how well he can imitate the sounds of German compared to most of my adult students. However, some adults do have a remarkable facility for acquiring a good to excellent accent in the target language. I also find that my students vary a great deal in their ability to understand, learn and retain grammar rules and patterns. Part of that depends on how well they know English grammar, and that also varies a great deal. My older students tend to know more English grammar than the younger ones do.

Thus I really can’t say that age makes a huge difference in the speed of language acquisition, at least in my own teaching experience. How fast a person learns depends on many different factors, among them linguistic background, the natural ability to hear and imitate sometimes very minor differences between sounds, how much time the person has to devote to language learning, how hard the person is willing to work, and whether or not the person is willing to put effort into all aspects of language learning: reading, writing, grammar mastery, listening comprehension, and speaking. I also need to add that advanced age seems to be no significant barrier to language learning. I know many people who continue to enthusiastically study foreign languages well into their 70s and 80s.

Ernest:What language are most of your students good at learning? What do you think is the reason for this?

Leonore: As I mentioned above, I currently have more students for Spanish than I do for German. It seems that there are many more people in this area who are willing to try to learn Spanish, perhaps due to its undisputed usefulness. Also, there is the common misconception that Spanish is easy compared to German or French, so some high school and college students enroll in Spanish classes thinking that they can easily boost their grade point average that way. I myself believed that Spanish would be relatively easy to learn until I actually started studying it!

I would say that different things in the three languages I have taught – German, French and Spanish – are either hard or easy for an English speaker to master. Those have to do with all aspects of the languages: pronunciation, grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary. Is there any language that is truly easy to learn, especially on an advanced level? I have never encountered or heard of one.

There are many opportunities for learning Spanish, hearing it, and using it in the United States, especially here in the Southwest. Latinos currently make up about 16% of the U.S. population and at least 20% of the population of our state, Colorado (the name means “red” in Spanish). Many signs in shops and labels on products are in both English and Spanish, and Spanish-speaking countries are popular travel destinations. Denver boasts the huge Denver Free Spanish Network and Spanish Meetup conversation groups, with thousands of members in all. Once a month, I host a lively DFSN meeting in my home. By contrast, opportunities for hearing and using German or French are far rarer here.

Ernest:Are there any printed course books of foreign languages that you use to teach your students, or do you prepare your own teaching material, especially the exercises?

Leonore: In fact, I have prepared hundreds of pages of teaching materials in both Spanish and German, but those were primarily to supplement the material presented in various textbooks. I always use one or more books to work with each individual student, varying the choice of books according to each student’s needs, abilities, and preferences. Books and other materials that I have used have included illustrated children’s books, so-called “graded readers” (in which the reading material progresses from elementary to fairly advanced), high school and college textbooks on all levels, specialized books such as those covering Spanish for medical professionals, magazines and other periodicals, and a wide range of what are known as textbook workbooks.

Textbook workbooks, my favorites, present the grammar in very clear, short segments. For example, there might be a general introduction to indirect object pronouns, showing their correct use in both the target language and English. For each individual grammar concept, there are then dozens of exercises which the student is asked to complete, as well as translation exercises in both directions and a brief reading passage. The student writes the answers directly into the spaces provided. Most such books also include comprehensive answer keys, summarizing appendices, and extensive vocabulary lists, making them treasure troves of information.

For students of Spanish, there are two superb textbook workbooks by Dorothy Richmond: 1) Spanish Verb Tenses and 2) Spanish Pronouns and Prepositions. The publisher is McGraw Hill; the second editions came out in 2010. Both books take the student from very elementary material to much more advanced concepts.

The most useful book I have found thus far for teaching German grammar is in the Schaum’s outline series. The title is simply German Grammar (McGraw Hill, 3rd edition, 1997). The authors are Elke Gschossmann-Hendershot and Lois Feuerle. The ISBN 13 is 978-0-07-025134-2.

All of the above-mentioned books are in paperback format, and they are very inexpensive compared to hardcover college textbooks. They are available in most large bookstores and on the Internet for under $20 each, a tremendous bargain.

Ernest:Do you use a computer in any way to facilitate language teaching?

Leonore: Perhaps I should, but I don’t. I figure that my students can seek out materials on the Internet just as easily as I can, and quite possibly more easily! Perhaps this is partly due to my age, but I am more oriented toward the use of books, face-to-face instruction, tapes, and CDs. The few online language instruction sites I have looked at vary greatly in quality. However, the same goes for language classes at private language schools or at the various colleges and universities in this area.

People come to me, vs. attending a class somewhere or studying on their own, for many reasons. The vast majority of my current adult students are not enrolled in university courses. Most of them work full time, and many of them also have families. They find that they do not have either the time or the money to take college courses, most of which are quite expensive and demand many hours per week of studying and doing homework. Also, due to the large numbers of students in them, most such classes offer the individual student little opportunity to speak more than a few words or sentences during a given class hour.

Ernest:Leonore, have you ever thought of joining a language teaching school instead of offering private language lessons?

Leonore: Actually, I already have classroom teaching experience. Several years ago, I taught some intermediate German classes at MSCD. For over a year, I taught English classes here in Denver for two different Molly Maid franchises. Many of the Molly Maid housecleaners are Mexican women. If their English is very limited, that can be a hindrance to them in their work, so their managers were willing to pay for English classes for them.

At MSCD, I quickly learned how much harder it is to be a good instructor than it is to be a good student. Unfortunately, the monetary and other rewards for all my work were rather meager. The Molly Maid jobs paid quite a bit better, but it was difficult to keep the women coming to class, given that most of them were married, had families, and were very tired at the end of each long, hard day cleaning houses. Eventually, the two franchise managers decided that there were too few employees continuing with the classes to justify the generous payments to me.

After that, I decided to stick with tutoring vs. classroom teaching. The advantages for me are many. I have no one over me telling me how or what to teach. I can tailor the instruction to the individual, rather than having to follow a strict curriculum. I don’t have to write or grade exams. I have no faculty meetings to attend. I can take vacations whenever I like. I make decent money. If a student needs to miss a lesson, we simply reschedule it for another time or cancel for that week; I don’t charge people for missed lessons. The students are free from the stresses of things like exams, class presentations, and long term papers to turn in. In the private setting, we are free to talk about whatever we like. Many of my students have continued with me for years, and we have become real friends in the process. In sum, this is a good, highly enjoyable job with many advantages and very few drawbacks.

Ernest:How has your language teaching experience been useful to you in your personal life and your writing?

Leonore: I became fascinated by the concept of multi-lingualism when I was 13 or 14, and I was already dreaming of a career in languages by the time I was 16 or 17. Thus, languages have been my primary interest for over 50 years. Languages are my profession and my hobby, and provide a great way to meet other people who are also passionate about foreign languages.

Of course there is always more to learn in any language, even one’s native language, but I long ago accepted the fact that there is much that I do not know and probably never will. To me, the most important results of all my years of very hard studying are these: I have a good, steady job tutoring languages and translating, and I still greatly enjoy studying, tutoring, translating, and meeting other speakers of Spanish and German. I still feel a little burst of delight whenever I read or hear a new word or idiom.

My writing, on the other hand, is done almost exclusively in English. I love my native language, and I love writing in it. It is only when I write language instruction materials or translations that the two linguistic hemispheres, the English one and the non-English one, merge with one another. Otherwise, they stay pretty separate.

Ernest:A difficult question here. If you were asked to choose between language teaching and fitness training, which would you choose and why?

Leonore: That’s a difficult question indeed! Teaching weight training was my first real job, and it still holds a special place in my heart. The program that I teach is my own creation, something of which I am immensely proud. From the YWCA, I won a state-wide award for my teaching in 1977. Teaching weight training was my only job for almost 10 years, when I was in my 30s. Still today, at the age of 64, I teach three one-hour classes per week in my home and work out two or three more hours per week by myself, also doing various types of aerobic exercise.

I love lifting weights and teaching others how to lift them. My little classes, with a maximum of four students at any one time, cheer me up and energize me. I assume they do the same for my students, a few of whom are very active and admirable ladies in their 70s. I hope to be able to go on teaching weight training for many years to come. But I could say much the same things about my language tutoring. Those many hours per week provide mental exercise for both me and my students, and the lessons are almost always fun.

My contact with my students, be they students of languages or weight training, is what allows me to be my most outgoing and cheerful self, the “me” that I like the best. Thus I can truly say that I hope I never have to give up either job, at least not until I am very old.

Ernest:Is there any unusual or inspiring story regarding your language teaching experience that you would like to share with our readers?

Leonore: I suppose that my most gratifying language teaching experiences have been the ones that involved helping numerous terribly frustrated and uncomprehending students finally understand the ins and outs of the target language grammar and then dramatically improve their grades in school. Their deep gratitude was always very heartwarming. There are few things that can compare with seeing the delight on a student’s face when he or she finally has that “Ah ha!” moment, when the light goes on and the puzzlement vanishes. It has also been a tremendous pleasure to watch many of my students go from an elementary level of language knowledge to a pretty advanced one.

Of course I have also had many wonderful experiences during my 34 years of teaching weight training. My students thus far have ranged in age from eight to 84, and more than a few of them started out at a rather low level of physical fitness. To watch people grow stronger, fitter, more flexible and more confident, sometimes attaining a level of fitness that they had never dreamed they could ever reach, has been to know that I am capable of doing some real and lasting good in the world.

A blind friend of mine, one who trains other blind people how to use special adaptive software, recently wrote me a line that brought tears to my eyes. “All my life,” he said, “all I have ever wanted to do was to help other people.” Reading those wonderful words, a light went on for me. Yes, I said to myself, that’s exactly it; that’s the key to satisfaction. Work to help other people, work to improve their lives in some way, and happiness will surely be yours.

Ernest:Many thanks, Leonore, for taking time to talk about language teaching!

Leonore: You’re more than welcome, Ernest. It was my pleasure. Many thanks again for this opportunity.

Readers can learn more about Leonore and her writer husband David Dvorkin’s writing and publications at their website www.dvorkin.com.