The First Hurdles: All About Being "Agreeable"
The first hurdles a beginning student of Spanish faces include:
1. Pronunciation problems: Students struggle with trilled RRs, vowels, spelling, cognates and false cognates. The key is finding good models to listen to and imitate.
2. Learning Vocabulary: Students struggle with how to learn vocabulary. They need to break up the task into manageable units and practice from English to Spanish in order to build an active, as opposed to a passive, vocabulary.
3. Gender of Nouns -- the concept of grammatical gender. This is coupled with learning the articles, definite and indefinite, as well as the fact that a basic noun phrase is structured: article, noun, adjective, with the article and adjective agreeing with the noun in gender and number.
4. Conjugation of Verbs in the Present Tense, with certain irregular patterns. The very concept of conjugation is foreign to English speakers. If this is not mastered early, there is really no hope of success. Regular -AR, -ER and -IR verbs, modeled by hablar, comer and vivir, are the only way to start. Irregular verbs follow patterns -- not many, but enough that they need to be consciously sorted out and examined analytically, as students would study math or chemistry.
5. Common Idioms with Hacer and Tener, Ir + a + infinitive and the concept of helping verbs + infinitive. For many students, this comes instinctively -- because English also uses helping verbs and infinitives. The key is getting students to see the parallels -- the similarities and differences. This is the main reason that the grammar-translation method has great strengths, despite its unpopularity among textbook writers (because, perhaps, if it isn't fun, it doesn't sell?)
5. How to Form a Basic Spanish sentence (statements, questions, negation). Not being able to distinguish a grammatical subject from the topic of a sentence is often the first cause of confusion. John runs in the park: John is the grammatical subject. The topic could be John, but it could also be running, or the park. Knowing that John is the doer and that run is the action he performs will help clarify subject-verb agreement... see next item
6. Subject/Verb agreement. The best method for learning subject/verb agreement is to randomize the process.
7. Reflexive Verbs -- the first taste of object pronouns -- leading to the Subject-Object Pronoun-Verb word order.
Most of these issues come at students a little faster than they should. The learning curve is often longer than the academic term in which they are confronted with them. However, a diligent and organized student who is truly engaged in the class can master these concepts -- or come very close before the next hurdle need to be faced.