Q+A with Livio Capella, the Head of Academics at El Nomad Study Abroad Programs
We're always going on about language learning, why it's valuable and what role it has both now and in your future career development. Yet, we've never really explained how we approach language learning. What makes the El Nomad classroom different from the ones you'll find online and in university? Why do we believe in taking classroom Spanish while immersed within a Spanish-speaking country? How can you effectively learn Spanish if you don't have the opportunity to go abroad?
To start answering some of these questions that are most likely swimming around in your head, we sat down with Livio Capella, the El Nomad Head of Academics, for a good old yarn (ahem, interrogation) to get the truth straight from the horses mouth.
Here's what he came up with:
"Who are you, what have you been doing with your life and why should we care?"
Ha. No pressure!
Well, my name is Livio Capella and I’m from Venezuela.
I am a professor of social sciences and sustainable development, focusing specifically on rural areas. I also spent 15 years working to support research scientists in the Universidad Central de Venezuela. I've served as an academic coordinator for the Postgraduate National Institute of Agricultural Research in Maracay and Caracas and in that role, I designed, planned and evaluated training academic programs. Yet, my love of all loves has been teaching Spanish, which I've been doing for about four years now.
In my spare time, I like to keep busy by building furniture out of recyclable materials and working on my zero-waste urban garden.
"What makes up the foundation of your Spanish classes and why are they so special?"
My classes are crafted with three main principles.
The first is “meaningful learning,” which involves connecting the students in a meaningful way with the learning material. Students learn more when they can associate that learning with their own personal experiences and feelings. It’s much less dry than traditional learning approaches and treats students as a human being rather than machine – which is what good teaching is all about.
The second principle is about delving into the “emotional intelligence” of my students. Students need to be emotionally invested in their learning, or they will quickly lose motivation or find it difficult to “see the point” of continuing with their studies. Typically, traditional classrooms focus heavily on mental capacity instead of tapping into your emotional capacity – which I think is the one of the biggest flaws in existing language learning curriculums. In the end, it’s through meaningful and emotional investment in the learning materials that students truly excel and thrive in the field of language study.
The third principle is communication. Students need to be constantly engaged and conversing with each other. After, that’s what language is all about!
I always advocate for a participatory classroom, where students feel comfortable communicating and speaking in class. If they don’t have the balls to make mistakes in class, they’ll never be able to interact with native Spanish speakers outside of class.
With these three different mentalities and methodologies, language learning in my classroom becomes far less serious and much more about creativity, confidence and problem solving.
Even though I have them practicing Spanish every day, an essential part of their studies is being outside of the classroom and in the “real” world of language learning – but more about that soon.
"Why do you think it’s beneficial to undertake Spanish classes while in a Spanish-speaking country?"
Ah! Great question.
I think learning Spanish while being in a Spanish-speaking country really helps to expand the meaningful learning and emotional intelligence of my students. It makes the language learning feel really exciting. They learn a new word in class and then suddenly they’re hearing it everywhere. It has more of that instant gratification feeling – which let’s just face it, feels really good!
Within my classes, I integrate a lot of local words spoken exclusively in Ecuador. That’s one thing that people never consider when studying Spanish – Spanish isn’t just Spanish. Spanish almost feels like a loose term to describe a bunch of different languages that occasionally (but rarely!) use the same words. Spanish in Ecuador sounds nothing like Spanish in Argentina and nothing like Spanish in Venezuela. Even Spanish in different parts of Ecuador sounds different. No one thinks about that when they start to learn Spanish.
By learning local words, students start to connect more deeply with the very heart and soul of Ecuador.
Learning Spanish is almost like the bridge they cross before truly building an emotional attachment to the people, culture and lifestyle here. When they understand more of what the locals are saying, they begin to see the culture in a whole new light. It’s like someone taking the blindfold from their eyes!
Also, at the heart of true language learning is practice. Theory means nothing without practice.
"So, why even take Spanish classes in Ecuador? Why not just learn through Immersion?"
Ahh, another good question!
Theory paths the way to becoming a proficient second language speaker. Through the theory, you understand more about the way the language works, how it’s structured and how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. It means when you don’t know a particularly word or verb conjugation, you can take an educated guess based upon the patterns that you've learnt in class.
These educated guesses really push forward your foreign language tongue, encouraging you to go outside of your comfort zone instead of saying the same words over and over. You bring more creativity to your words and start applying problem solving to everyday conversation. It also helps you teach others and pass on the gift of foreign languages.
I would also argue that learning theory strengthens your love of all languages. You start to see how much goes into linguistics. You start to read the story behind the words you use everyday.
Most of my students say they’ve learnt more about English in my Spanish classes than they ever have before. It's ironic, but so true!
"Do you think Ecuador the best place to learn Spanish in the world?"
Yes, of course! Not that I’m at all biased…
According to studies, Ecuador is the second (we were close!) best country to learn Spanish in Latin America. The people who live in the Andes articulate their consonants and vowels very well which makes the Spanish accent here easy to understand. They also use a very formal Spanish because they were heavily influenced by Spanish conquerors. Therefore, students are less likely to pick up bad language habits and they will more likely be understood in other Spanish speaking countries.
"Why do you think your Spanish classes facilitate rapid language learning more so than other Spanish classes?"
I think it all comes down to my approach and my techniques. First of all, my classes don’t follow the same structure or tick off the same boxes from the same checklist every time. The first thing I learnt as a Spanish professor was that everyone learns differently. Classes designed within the same mould rarely give students the personal tools they need to thrive as a language learner.
Secondly, I develop each one of classes with interactivity, creativity and a fresh set of eyes. I'm always looking for ways to be better and more creative in techniques I use.
Of course, there's a few techniques that seem to work every time, like facilitating role-play activities, listening to songs, reading poems, watching movies, and asking students to write short stories about their lives. I also feel body language, repetition and listening are three of the most important components in learning.
"What's your recommendation to people out there that want to learn Spanish but can't travel abroad just yet?"
Well, besides getting yo' butt down here to Ecuador, or taking online Spanish classes with me...ha, I definitely recommend finding a way to make learning Spanish (or any language for that matter!) apart of your everyday life. Make friends with latinos or other Spanish speakers in your community. Start to Integrate Spanish into your exisiting habits or pair it up with something you already love doing, like listening to music or watching movies. The less it becomes like a chore and the more it becomes about doing what you love, the more likely it is that you'll keep getting better and better.
Online Spanish Classes, huh?
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