posted March 2, 2010

Book Explores Nuances in Spanish Students’ Language Learning

A book by Dr. Daniel Woolsey of the Hope College Spanish faculty explores a new way of determining how well students understand two common verbs that often prove uncommonly difficult for native English speakers to grasp.

It's an approach that puts pop culture to work, relying on students' familiarity with well-known celebrities like Harrison Ford, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Britney Spears to help show whether or not they grasp the nuances in two words that when translated to English seem to have the same meaning.

Woolsey's focus is on the verbs "estar" and "ser," which in Spanish both mean "to be," although with sometimes subtle differences.  He notes that the verbs present a particular challenge to native English speakers because they've grown up with only one word to express the idea and must learn how to determine which to use.

Woolsey's book "Development of Learner Use of 'Estar + Adjective' in Contexts of Comparison within an Individual Frame of Reference: An Exploration of Contexts of Comparison and Immediate Experience" was published by LINCOM Europa of Munich, Germany, in the fall.  In it, he reviews different ways the two verbs are used and presents an overview of the way that they have been taught, and then shares his celebrity-based way of assessing students' understanding.

According to Woolsey, though traditional instruction generally teaches that "ser" is used to describe permanent characteristics while "estar" is used to describe temporary conditions, the reality is that a number of other contextual variables also play important roles in choosing between the two verbs. In fact, categorizing adjectives as characteristics or conditions sets up a false dichotomy since the majority of adjectives may be used correctly with both verbs.

"'Feliz' [happy] can be used appropriately with either 'ser' or 'estar,' though to most native speakers they are not interchangeable, that is they communicate slightly different meanings," Woolsey said.  "Furthermore, many of those meanings are contextual meanings, unrelated to linguistic features but rather tied to the situation and the speaker's intent."

"It is understandable, therefore, why deciphering those contextual meanings is one of the biggest challenges that second language learners face when acquiring 'ser' and 'estar,'" he said.

A challenge facing educators, Woolsey noted, is how to decipher whether or not their students grasp the difference.   For example, either verb could be correct in response to a question like "Is your friend happy?" depending on both the friend and the student's perception.

The approach that Woolsey highlights in his book, which he developed while pursuing his doctorate at IndianaUniversity, was a PowerPoint exercise featuring a series of questions related to well-known celebrities.  The students were first asked to describe the celebrity's appearance and disposition in a general sense, and then were asked to provide answers based on specific comparison questions and photographs.  He chose the specific mix--Harrison Ford, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Britney Spears--so that the students would respond based on people with whom they were familiar and who they shared in common, the better to create situations calculated to use "ser" or "estar."

"The progression of slides was always the same:  (1) no pictures, no comparison; (2) no pictures, comparing life stages; (3) one picture, no comparison; and (4) two pictures, comparison prompted," he said.  "These methods, along with the use of an English repeat-aloud component, help confirm speaker intent."

Woolsey applied the study to 111 undergraduate Spanish students at four different levels of proficiency while at IndianaUniversity.  He found that while the results in the comparisons were mixed, the upper-level students were consistent in using "estar" more frequently when reacting to the pictures of the celebrity.  While he feels that the methodology is a work in progress, he believes that it shows promise for future research by instructors seeking to more effectively teach and measure what students understand.

Woolsey's doctorate from Indiana University is in foreign language education, with an emphasis on second-language acquisition and critical literacy.  He has been a member of the Hope faculty since 2005.