Teaching Dialect Variations

Dialect variations for the term "cabeza" or "head" as collected in a recent survey (Bennink, 2013)

Dialect variations for the term “cabeza” or “head” as collected in a recent survey

In the podcast number 49 by L de Lengua, the hosts interviewed four professors of Spanish as a foreign language who are currently teaching in Mexico. The objective was to discuss if teaching Spanish in Mexico is the same as teaching Spanish in Spain, and how they treat dialect and cultural differences in their courses. Just after the eight minute mark, one professor stated that the textbooks, which are primarily written in Spain, have to be adapted to the Mexican setting. She explained that,

en primer lugar, el español coloquial es diferente, las expresiones coloquiales que se utilizan en México y España no tienen nada que ver. Las palabras coloquiales, mucha parte del léxico… En segundo lugar, toda la parte cultural de los materiales que no se adaptan a las que los alumnos están expuestos aquí.

Last week, I discussed the impact of dialect variation on the doctor-patient communication. This week, I would like to offer a few recommendations for incorporating lexical variations in Spanish for healthcare professionals courses. As we saw last week and as we can see in this example from the L de Lengua podcast, there are important dialect differences that need to be considered when teaching Spanish to medical professionals. Unfortunately, given that healthcare professionals will encounter a diverse Hispanic population in clinic, we do not have the advantage of only presenting one variation. However, we can structure the presentation of this information in such a way that students can be provided with a general understanding as well as resources for further learning and reference. In this post, I will not go into much depth on the topic, but instead hope to offer a brief overview. In the future, I hope to return to some of these ideas and further expound on them. In the meantime, I have included resources at the end of this post that can be consulted for further information.

In terms of the general teaching of Spanish with specific purposes, two methods that have provided good results, especially in the medical setting, are the task-based approach (el enfoque por tareas) and the case study method (el método de caso). These methods help tailor the learning to the specific needs of the students and with emphasis on the daily tasks they perform in their work setting. Both methods introduce the students to a realistic setting or task, motivate participation on behalf of the student, and encourage them to reflect on what they have learned. L de Lengua also has another podcast (number 39) on the topic that offers good information regarding the proper use of this method in general.

Within this general framework, it must then be decided how to choose which variants to include and how to present them within the course. In terms of selection, we do not want to overwhelm our students with information. Therefore, we should choose the expressions which are most frequently used and most “profitable” within the medical context. The idea is to expose the student not only to the terms they will most frequently encounter, but furthermore to those which have the largest impact on their work. Although it is interesting to know that in Mexico the word chino / china can refer to someone with curly hair and can also refer to someone from the country of China, not knowing this word will not likely have an impact on the quality of care nor the treatment outcomes. On the other hand, understanding that cintura can mean lower back as well as waist or being familiar with the phrase hacerle la salpinga (to have a tubal ligation) can.

Now, in order to adequately incorporate these terms into the course material, it is important to keep in mind the difference between receptive and productive vocabulary (also known as passive and active knowledge). Izquierdo Gil (2004) explains that receptive vocabulary is that which we are able to understand but not able to produce, whereas productive vocabulary can be understood and produced. Given that the medical professionals do not need to be able to produce dialect variants but only understand them, the exercises for these terms should be different than those for the standard vocabulary and should have a goal of recognition rather than the production of the word (i.e. matching, multiple choice, fill in the blank with a word bank, following instructions given in a recording, comparing mini-dialogues after listening to them, etc.).

Finally, one must consider the proper moment to incorporate these exercises and vocabulary into the course of study. Although it can be argued that it would be faster and more effective to learn dialect variants at an advanced level because the student is able to relate the new terms with other more normalized ones they learned previously, there is sufficient evidence that students can easily begin to study dialect variants starting at a low level. However, the level of the student does have an effect on the presentation of these variants within the curriculum. At any level, these terms can be offered at the same time as their more standardized equivalents. For example, after presenting the vocabulary on the parts of the body, the dialect variants referring to body parts can be presented –keeping in mind the differentiation between the types of exercises for each type of terminology and also offering a clear explanation of the differences between each type and the purposes for learning them. Another method that can be used at more advanced levels is to present the dialect variants in a separate didactic unit in order to practice this vocabulary separately from the rest (which may avoid confusion) and to explain strategies for how to handle situations when medical professionals do not understand something the patient said.

Again, this is only a very brief overview of the strategies for teaching dialect variations in Spanish for medical professionals courses. I hope to return to the topic in more depth in the future, but for now feel free to request any bibliographic material or see the sources offered below. I am more than happy to respond to any questions you have regarding the information I presented here. Next week, I will continue the discussion of cultural aspects that should be included in Spanish for healthcare professionals courses.


Aguirre Beltrán, Blanca (1998): «Enfoque, metodología y orientaciones didácticas de la enseñanza del español con fines específicos», Carabela 44, págs. 5-118.

Altamirando Ceballo, Nancy (2006): «El español coloquial en los materiales didácticos. Una propuesta para la enseñanza de ELE en México» [en línea], Centro Virtual Cervantes, <http://cvc.cervantes.es/ensenanza/biblioteca_ele/asele/pdf/17/17_0225.pdf> [Consulta: 10/02/2013].

Cortés Moreno, Maximiliano (2000): Guía para el profesor de idiomas, Barcelona: Octaedro.

De Cos Ruiz, F. Javier (2006): «Las variedades lingüísticas en la enseñanza de ELE: Aplicación a la modalidad oral andaluz» [en línea], Revista electrónica de didáctica / español como lengua extranjera 5, <http://www.mecd.gob.es/dctm/redele/Material-RedEle/Revista/2006_06/2006_redELE_6_05DeCos.pdf?documentId=0901e72b80df9f3e> [Consulta: 15/05/2013].

García–Carbonell, Amparo y Frances Watts (2007): «Perspectiva histórica des simulación y juego como estrategia docente: de la guerra al aula de lenguas para fines específicos» [en línea], Ibérica 13, págs. 65-84, <http://www.aelfe.org/documents/04%20garcia%20carbonell.pdf> [Consulta: 15/12/2012].

Giovannini, Arno, Ernest Martín Peris, María Rodriguez y Terencio Simón (1996): Profesor en acción, vol. I, «El proceso de aprendizaje»; vol. II «Áreas de trabajo» y vol. III «Destrezas», Madrid: Edelsa.

Izquierdo Gil, María Carmen (2000): «¿Qué variedades léxicas enseñar en el nivel elemental? El caso de adolescentes francohablantes en un marco escolar» [en línea], Congreso de ASELE Actas XI págs. 451-460, <http://cvc.cervantes.es/ensenanza/biblioteca_ele/asele/pdf/11/11_0451.pdf> [Consulta: 14/05/2013].

Izquierdo Gil, María Carmen (2004): «La selección del léxico en la enseñanza del español como lengua extranjera. Su aplicación al nivel elemental en estudiantes francófonos» [en línea], Tesis doctoral, Universitat de València, <http://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/9815> [Consulta: 14/05/2013].

Lahuerta Galán, Javier y Mª Rosa Pujol Vilà (1993): «La enseñanza del léxico: una cuestión de metodología», en Colección Expolingua 8, págs. 117-138. Madrid: Fundación Actilibre.

Lewis, Michael (1993): The lexical approach, London: Language Teaching Publications.

Long, Michael (2003): «Español para fines específicos: ¿Textos o tareas?» [en línea], II Congreso Internacional de Español para Fines Específicos, <http://cvc.cervantes.es/ensenanza/biblioteca_ele/ciefe/pdf/02/cvc_ciefe_02_0006.pdf> [Consulta: 09/12/2012].

Martín, Marisa (2001): «Método del Caso. Educación Superior para el siglo XXI» Boletín del Modelo Educativo Tecnológico de Monterrey 3: 6. México: Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey.

Mendoza Puertas, Jorge Daniel (2006): «Recursos en internet para la enseñanza del español médico» [en línea], RedELE Revista Electrónica de Didáctica / Español Lengua Extranjera 7, <http://www.mecd.gob.es/dctm/redele/Material-RedEle/Revista/2006_07/2006_redELE_7_09Mendoza.pdf?documentId=0901e72b80df94b7> [Consulta: 06/12/2012].

Morante, Roser (2005): El desarrollo del conocimiento léxico en segundas lenguas, Madrid: Arco Libros.

Neila González, Gabriel (2011): «Aplicación del método de los casos en la enseñanza de EFE: el caso del español de los negocios» [en línea], Marco ELE, Revista de didáctica español lengua extranjera 11, <http://marcoele.com/suplementos/metodo-de-los-casos-en-efe/> [Consulta: 06/12/2012].

Vilà Pujol, María (2007): «Dialectos, niveles, estilos y registros en la enseñanza del español como lengua extranjera» [en línea], Marco ELE 8, págs 205 – 216 <http://marcoele.com/descargas/expolingua1994_vila.pdf> [Consulta: 14/05/2013].


About abennink

Spanish and English instructor, medical interpreter and health educator. My passion around healthcare, equality, languages and education motivates me to continually seek to develop my skills in each area while also designing ways to use each one to improve the others.
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3 Responses to Teaching Dialect Variations

  1. Me gusta que hayas diferenciado la didáctica del vocabulario pasivo y el vocabulario activo. La lectura extensiva puede ayudar mucho al desarrollo del vocabulario pasivo.

    Una pregunta ¿qué crees que es mejor: aprender primero español en una clase normal para coger una base o empezar con el español de fines específicos desde el inicio del aprendizaje?

    • abennink says:

      Gracias por el comentario y la buena pregunta.

      En realidad, ambos métodos tienen sus méritos y sus inconvenientes. En primer lugar, nunca me quejo si los alumnos tienen una buena base el español antes de empezar una clase de fines específicos. Esta base permite al alumno aprender lo específico más rápidamente, centrándose solo en los aspectos de este ámbito.

      Sin embargo, un curso del español con fines específicos bien impartido también proporciona al alumno la misma base a la vez de los conceptos esenciales para su ámbito. Lo bueno de empezar así es que ayuda al alumno incorporar los nuevos conceptos en su vida laboral desde el principio. Eso motiva al alumno a seguir estudiando porque puede ver los resultados de sus esfuerzos en su día a día.

      Lo que nunca debemos hacer en cursos de español para los médicos es enseñar solo terminología a alumnos principiantes (excluyendo la gramática, la pronunciación, etc.). Tampoco debemos animar a los alumnos con poco nivel intentar realizar la entrevista médica sin tener un intérprete presente.

  2. Pingback: Literature Analysis on Dialect Variants at the CSIC | Ayuda, doctor

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