Theoretical Foundations of the Spanish and Portuguese Basic Language Programs

Our Spanish and Portuguese programs view language as a social form of activity through which you’re immersed in the social setting of the classroom and in the sociocultural environment of the language you’re studying.  If it’s Spanish, you will have strong ties to the Hispanic community of Los Angeles. We foster the collaborative construction of knowledge, mediated by cultural artifacts from Latin American and Spanish cultures, as well as active exposure to and use of the language. The program also involves you by considering your preferences and by promoting self-reflective and critical thinking activities on specific aspects of learning process. The main objectives guiding the program are: (1) to introduce you to the target language and culture; (2) to promote the development of your communicative competence in the language; and (3) to develop your intercultural understanding and awareness of the challenges that affect other cultures.

            Your courses will underscore content- and task-based teaching and experiential learning. Activities in each class require that you make use of different skills – speaking, listening, writing, and reading – and work individually, in pairs, or groups to complete tasks whose main focus is on meaning, instead of just grammatical form. These activities include role plays, simulations, scenarios, chat discussions/blogs, cultural projects, interviews with and research in the Hispanic community in Los Angeles, etc. However, the formal aspects of the language are not ignored, and no matter your level of instruction (Spanish or Portuguese 120, 150, 220, and 240), you are expected to complete a series of activities with specific linguistic objectives. In addition, the program makes provisions for the metalinguistic analysis of particular aspects of the language whenever learners require it. The material with which you interact usually consists of a textbook and workbook with a strong focus on culture and the functional use of the language.  You will be exposed to a variety of cultural artifacts such as paintings, literary pieces, texts from mass and alternative media, comic strips, TV programs, movies, songs, transcripts from interactions between native speakers, and websites. Also, these artifacts reflect different cultural settings and dialects in the Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking world. 

            The strong focus on the functional use of the language and on culture that prevails in the classroom is also evident in the way you are evaluated. Throughout the semester, students in the four basic levels of instruction participate in OPI exams in which they need to use the language to solve a real-life situation (e.g., having dinner at a restaurant, changing a ticket reservation, etc.) and to answer personal and general questions. In addition, you are expected to develop group or individual projects on particular cultural or social aspects of local communities in the United States, Latin America, Spain and elsewhere. These projects are PowerPoint presentations, mini-documentaries (digital movies), and web pages. These activities not only require you to synthesize your linguistic knowledge and to activate your skills, but they also provide you with other opportunities to reflect on and immerse yourself in the world of your native and target cultures. The program also promotes your participation in study abroad programs in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Spain, and other countries.

            The content of the Spanish and Portuguese classes and they way in which students’ work is assessed are based on the theoretical and pedagogical guidelines developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). These are summarized in the National Standards for Foreign Language Education (ACTFL, 2006), whose main goals of instruction are as follows:


  • Standard 1.1: Students engage in conversations, provide and obtain information, express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions.

  • Standard 1.2: Students understand and interpret written and spoken language on a variety of topics.

  • Standard 1.3: Students present information, concepts, and ideas to an audience of listeners or readers on a variety of topics.


  • Standard 2.1: Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the culture studied.

  • Standard 2.2: Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the products and perspectives of the culture studied.


  • Standard 3.1: Students reinforce and further their knowledge of other disciplines through the foreign language.

  • Standard 3.2: Students acquire information and recognize the distinctive viewpoints that are only available through the foreign language and its cultures.


  • Standard 4.1: Students demonstrate understanding of the nature of language through comparisons of the language studied and their own.

  • Standard 4.2: Students demonstrate understanding of the concept of culture through comparisons of the cultures studied and their own.


  • Standard 5.1: Students use the language both within and beyond the school setting.

  • Standard 5.2: Students show evidence of becoming life-long learners by using the language for personal enjoyment and enrichment.


            The activities and homework assignments that you will complete in class and the assessment tools with which your work will be evaluated have been created to accomplish and reflect the instructional objectives described in the Standards. The content of your class has also been designed to develop your ability to communicate in three different modes—interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational:

  Source: ACTFL (2012). ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners: 2012 Edition. Alexandria, VA: ACTFL.

  • Gabriela C. Zapata, PhD
  • Associate Professor (Teaching)
  • Director of Spanish and Portuguese Basic Language Programs
  • Department of Spanish and Portuguese
  • University of Southern California
  • 3501 Trousdale Parkway, THH 156N
  • Los Angeles, CA 90089-0358