When my referente first handed me the schedule of classes with which I would be helping this cuatrimestre (semester), I noticed that a few of them had the label "avanzado" ("advanced) attached. I thought to myself, 'All right, they just probably know a general amount of English and can get by.'
So much for applying American standards of linguistic competence to Argentina. These students are stellar. Sure, they make occasional grammatical errors, but they're few and far between (and incredibly minor!). For example, in an oral production seminar today, I planned this activity with all kinds of words related to personality qualities; it had words that some Americans don't know (e.g. jocose, tenacious, indefatigable). I made two mistakes in doing this, though. For one, a lot of high register English words derive from Latin, which just so happens to be the parent language to Spanish. So, our lofty talk is common talk to them. One point to you, Español. So, I started looking at the words that didn't derive from Latin. They still knew them! These are 3rd year college English students, and they spoke with a fluidity better than most foreign language graduates of 4-year universities in the States. What does that say about foreign language education in the US? It sucks.
Of course, my first reaction was shock. I had prepared what I thought to be a very good vocabulary-building activity, and it was being shot down like a clay pigeon as far as efficacy (another word they already knew) goes. I started wondering, 'Why the devil am I even here?' These students rock, after all. They even had a decent knowledge of American idioms. Oh, goodness, what to do...
I asked my students what it was they wanted to learn from me as an American, native English speaker. The overwhelming response was "idioms" and "proverbs." Forget linguistic competence...I'm going to have to start centering my activities on straight up culture if I'm going to actually teach them something.