Some background

I was 36 when I arrived in Barcelona, a relatively late-starter in terms of second language learning, and with a poor track record to boot.  Moreover, I had an English-speaking partner, so (unlike the younger generation of expatriates I would be working with) there was to be no Spanish sweetheart to kick-start my language acquisition.  As a precaution, I had taken a few informal Spanish lessons prior to leaving London, and had bought a BBC course, whose listening texts were innovatively authentic but, for all intents and purposes, impenetrable.

Teacher training, 1986.

Fashion victim? Teacher training, 1986.

I was immediately plunged into a bruisingly busy timetable in a predominantly English-speaking institutional context. If Spanish was around, it existed at the periphery, like background noise: the language of shops, bars and restaurants – and hence primarily a weekend experience.

I signed up for Spanish classes in a private language school but the methodology was eccentric to say the least, and the content often irrelevant, being too firmly tied to the grammar structure of the day. Of one whole course all I remember is the sentence  El payaso hace reir a la gente (The clown makes people laugh), and the teacher’s constant use of the device Vamos a ver (Now, let’s see).

I then managed to get a place in one of the state-sponsored language schools (las Escuelas Oficiales). I was placed in a class way above my level. I hadn’t exactly cheated in the level test, but – being a language teacher and occasional test-designer myself – I was able to do the multiple choice grammar test simply by using common sense. Even when I was dropped down a level, I was still way outside my comfort zone. Again, the program was myopically grammar-focused (one whole semester dealt almost exclusively with the subjunctive), but at least the teachers had a good sense of how to set up pair and group work.

Nevertheless, frustrated by the lack of real practice, I started an intercambio (conversation exchange) with one of my students, an intense young poet with progressive tendencies. These weekly exchanges provided useful practice, although I think we were both frustrated by the way that the topics we wanted to talk about (films, literature, politics) tended to evaporate through want of the necessary linguistic means. He was also a much more disciplined student than me, and soon his level of English had far outstripped mine in Spanish.

I started another intercambio with a group of friends: the four of us met in a bar every Monday night and paired off.  V. (another chain-smoking intellectual) was uncompromisingly difficult, and impossible to understand. G. however, was the ideal partner: her English was more or less where my Spanish was. We seemed to be able to pitch the conversations at the optimal level of intelligibility, even if the content may have been relatively banal. When G. got an English-speaking boyfriend, the balance of the group shifted and my own role in scaffolding G.’s emergent English declined. Nevertheless, those well-oiled Monday night conversations probably did more for my Spanish than anything else to date.

I also tried to read in Spanish regularly: newspapers and novels, although often abandoned the latter as being too much like hard work. Watching TV and going to the movies played a minor role: my problems with decoding spoken language (more on that later) meant that my comprehension was largely pragmatic: i.e. pure guesswork (and frequently wrong). Had teletext subtitles been available, the combination of the aural and graphic signals might have made TV viewing more fruitful, but they weren’t.

Searching for input + 1 (Galicia 1988)

Searching for ‘input + 1’ on a beach in Galicia (1988)

Unhappily perhaps, my views on language learning were at the time heavily influenced by the work of Stephen Krashen (it was the mid-80s after all), which meant that (a) I was very skeptical as to the value of instructed learning, and (b) I consequently placed a lot of faith in simply picking up Spanish through exposure. In those days, immersion ruled. I was to become one of its ideological fashion victims.

In Krashen’s defense, it has to be admitted that I was not exactly energetic in terms of seeking out optimal exposure opportunities, and even when I did get ‘input’, it was mostly uncomprehended. An article in the latest Modern Language Journal (Trentman 2013) makes the point that ‘much of the language contact research has revealed that contact with locals in the target language is often not as extensive as one might have expected from an immersion setting’ (p.459).

Thirty years on, and what’s new?  First of all, I tend to avoid mentioning the thirty years. The response is often outright incredulity: “But how come your Spanish is so bad?!”

Admittedly, people are normally more polite than that (although once a particularly tactless Californian woman, gesticulating like an exorcist, gasped: ‘Ugh. Bad Spanish!’).  So, in answer to the question ‘How long have you been here?’ I hedge, and let my addressee figure that I arrived when I had already reached the point in my life beyond which it’s impossible to learn anything new, let alone a second language.

Needless to say, this reaction – whether spoken or unspoken – is unsettling, to say the least.  And on at least two counts. For a start, it’s true: I simply ought to be able to speak better Spanish after thirty years, so there must be some flaw in my nature, such as laziness, or obstinacy, or just plain stupidity, that has prevented me from integrating linguistically into the host culture. Worse is the insinuation that failure to speak your host country’s language fluently is a moral failing, a discourtesy, an indecency, even: you’re not just a bad language learner, you’re a BAD language learner.  Failure to speak the language is tantamount to a failure to integrate, which in turn must be attributed to a lack of interest in, or respect for, the host culture – and all those who embody it. To the point that, through fear of offending, you become afraid to ever open your mouth. (Not opening your mouth is not conducive to the development of fluency, it goes without saying).

train to san sebastian 1989 bw

Immersion? En route to San Sebastian, 1989.

But more galling still is the knowledge that, since my professional life is devoted largely to helping other people become better teachers of a second language, my failure to master Spanish would seem to throw into doubt everything I stand for. It’s dispiriting, to say the least, to sense that, behind your back, you’re being labeled a charlatan, or an impostor.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, I’ve shown more than a passing interest in the literature on fossilization. While it’s debatable as to whether my Spanish is irremediable (and the point of this blog is to put that notion to the test), or indeed that any second language learning experience is necessarily imperfect, the idea that many, indeed, most learners reach a ‘ceiling’ or ‘plateau’, beyond which they cannot budge, is widespread in our profession. So, my ulterior motive is to put that notion to the test, too.

Before outlining the steps I plan to take to crank up my Spanish, I’ll be briefly reviewing some of the literature on fossilization, and then attempting to diagnose, from a linguistic perspective, the exact nature of my own ‘arrested development’. Then the fun will start!


Trentman, E. (2013) ‘Arabic and English during study abroad in Cairo, Egypt: Issues of access and use,’ Modern Language Journal, 97/2: 457-473.

About Scott Thornbury

I write books about ELT methodology and teach on the MA TESOL program at the New School in New York. I live in Barcelona. View all posts by Scott Thornbury

60 responses to “Some background

  • mbenevides

    Very interesting start, Scott. I suspect that your main issue will turn out to be less to do with fossilization, and more to do with motivation and attention. Motivation since, as you note, you haven’t really *needed* Spanish beyond the practicalities of restaurants and shops, so two years or thirty would hardly make a difference. Attention since, well, you haven’t exactly been lazing around drinking cervezas with the neighbours for those three decades either, eh?

    Whatever truths you uncover, your experience appears to closely parallel my experience in Japan (not) learning Japanese as well…

    • Scott Thornbury

      Perceptive comment, Marcos. Motivation is high on the list of themes I want to address – not least: whence the sudden impulse to re-start my Spanish? Why has it taken so long? How much humiliation does it take before the urge to self-improvement?! (Questions that stray into areas of personal psychology that maybe I’d be wise not to delve into!)

      And attention – yes. As my next post will touch on, if you don’t notice the details, you’ll never appropriate them!

  • Glennie

    Spaniards ‘live in the street’ and when you arrive from another country to live in Spain, you tend to as well.

    An enormous amount of your interaction with Spanish takes place in public places and conversations normally happens in bars.

    Spanish bars are very noisy places. Imagine ‘last orders’ in a British pub on a Saturday night…it’s like that most of the day.

    The consequence? Spanish is particularly difficult to learn because you spend so much time not hearing what Spaniards are saying to you, or at least not hearing enough. You hear something like this: “My mother ……… the car………….my brother……….very angry”.

    Taking part in this kind of conversation is not only very frustrating but also absolutely exhausting as you have to listen so very intensely to hear what you are being told, and after a while you give up and just smile at people benignly without making any real attempt to follow the conversation.

    The noise level in Spain frequently makes comprehensible input incomprehensible for learners of the language. You would not have this problem learning German, for example.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Glennie, I think you’ve captured something here – although I’d be loathe to stereotype any nationality. But I do remember how – in the days that I went to bars – I used to watch people’s lips going up and down, and when they stopped going up and down, I’d try and say something that might be vaguely relevant, like ‘¿Quieres otra?’ (‘Do you want another one?) 🙂

  • stevebrown70

    Hi Scott,
    During the summer I was able to reflect a bit on my own language learning ( ), so I’m looking forward to your new blog from that point of view. But I’m also very interested in what you have to say because a lot of the learners I work with in the UK are a bit like you – they’ve been here for ages but haven’t managed to progress much in English. I’m curious to know why it’s so difficult for them, when there are people in non-English speaking countries who can achieve a really high level of proficiency with comparatively little input or exposure. I hope that reading about your experiences will help me to understand what my students have to go through. Thanks for doing this.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Steve, for the link. One thing that I suspect (having embarked on this blog) is that I’m not alone, in the sense that there are many of us out there who have experienced a similar frustration: why am I here, immersed in this language, but yet not getting any better at it? Ay ay ay.

  • Rachael Roberts

    Really looking forward to seeing how this unfolds. I spent four years in Portugal and Brazil and became pretty fluent (though far from native speaker), then four years in Poland and never progressed beyond about PreInt (despite a LOT of studying case endings etc). Of course, Polish is a lot more complicated, but I suspect the main difference was that I used Portuguese socially with friends, whereas Polish was mainly used in shops, restaurants and with taxi drivers. So the first scenario was similar to your intercambio, but over a more extended period perhaps, and the latter was similar to the point of Trentman’s you cite.In my experience you only need a fairly limited amount of language to manage everyday interactions perfectly well, and I can quite see how ESOL students manage in that way for years, as Steve mentions, especially if they are in an extended community of people speaking their first language (as I was and many ELT teachers often are).

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Rachel. Yes, if nothing else, these experiences of ‘pseudo-immersion’ act as a reality check as to what our students are themselves experiencing (or not experiencing) – those in an ESL situation, in particular.

  • Ben Naismith

    Based on my experience, if you only had to deal with one term dedicated to the subjunctive, then I would say you got off lightly!

  • kimhorne

    If I may, let me throw my seemingly fossilized Japanese, and as Marcos notes, my motivation and attention as well, into the cauldron of experimentation. As much as I’d like to conjure some magic, I’m pretty sure it’s going to take some toil to get it all to boil. I’m following your journey with great interest, Scott.

  • Brian Barbieri

    Scott, a very intriguing post and one to which I can relate at many points. Krashen’s idea of immersion being key and your defense of him strikes a chord. I am constantly surrounded by Russian, but I have to admit, I am not exactly electrified by the idea of learning Russian. Even though I have spent quite a bit of time studying Russian, it just doesn’t “grab” me. I often think to myself that this will be my only stop in a CIS or Russian Federation country and that I function well here in English. I work for an international company (at the airport no less) where everyone speaks English and get by living in the city center with only an occasional hiccup.

    I think that motivation is key, it seems as though I learned more Chinese in a shorter amount of time. I think that there is a correlation with interest, and perhaps more importantly, necessity. I know from personal experience that one can get along quite well with marginal Spanish in BCN. To even call my Spanish marginal is optimistic. It is just plain bad, more like a pigeon Spanish and rudimentary at best. But, I can function without any problem what whenever I am lucky enough to find myself in Catalonia. When I was in Central China, things were a bit trickier, both functionally and also culturally, which made learning the language a much more contextualized and immediately relevant experience.

    When I am asked how long I have lived here in a discussion relating to the language I can always here a bit of a “hmmmm” in their response. The reaction of the locals is similar even after living here just for one year. Also, I have met people who have studied English for just a few months and and are light years ahead of where I am in Russian. So there is an element of dismay, or perceived dismay, amongst locals when they discover I have been here for a year and can still only use a few simple functional devices and say “I am sorry, but I cannot speak Russian” which is pretty evident already.

    “It’s dispiriting, to say the least, to sense that, behind your back, you’re being labeled a charlatan, or an impostor” as a language teacher who does not speak the local language. The quote “physician, heal thyself” springs to mind as I discuss dedicating time to study, learning logs, language journals, watching TV and movies along with the importance of using authentic communication in L2. Now, if only I would consistently put this into practice myself.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Brian. You have identified some key factors here – including motivation and identity – which I hope to explore further down the line. I particularly relate to your comment about the colleagues who are ‘light years ahead’ and with whom one is often inevitably, and invidiously, compared. How many times have I asked myself. why can they do it, but I can’t?! Or, more tellingly, what sacrifices have they made that I won’t!? (By which I mean anything from sacrifices of time to sacrifices of loss of face).

  • tichahana

    This is a very interesting topic. What I like is the fact that you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone of a very successful specialist in ELT and now you are planning to look at the problem from a totally different perspective. Being an ELT teacher and an EFL learner myself, I am looking forward to reading about your observations. I agree with Marcus’s suspicion that this problem has to do with motivation, and I see eye to eye with Rachael’s implication that what also matters is the purpose of learning a language. However, I also suspect that your Spanish may be better than you think it is, but because you are a highly proficient speaker of your native language, you can never be fully satisfied with the level of your Spanish. Good luck with learning and blogging.

    • Scott Thornbury

      “I also suspect that your Spanish may be better than you think it is” – well, that’s very kind of you! I’ll shortly be posting an ‘objective’ assessment of my Spanish – so stay tuned!

  • Christopher Collins (@chriswcollins)

    A fine post to start this blog, Scott — I’ll be looking forward to future posts. In my case, I seem to dabble in languages, and learn different languages to different extents, but never getting much past the intermediate level. This is partially a reflection of my personality: I am interested in many things. Now being in the classroom in New York, I have students who come from many language backgrounds, and I seem to be learning a little bit of a number of languages. My most serious attempt at language learning was Japanese, when I lived in Tokyo, and I feel I made some serious progress, especially in terms of using the language everyday. I hope that my Japanese has fossilized — I am more concerned that it is atrophying.

    Finally, I admire how you expressed something I think about often: “But more galling still is the knowledge that, since my professional life is devoted largely to helping other people become better teachers of a second language, my failure to master Spanish would seem to throw into doubt everything I stand for. It’s dispiriting, to say the least, to sense that, behind your back, you’re being labeled a charlatan, or an impostor.”

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for the comment, Christopher: you are in the privileged position of teaching English to learners who are in an environment in which (theoretically at least) they have a lot of exposure opportunities. What I have realised, after years of living in Spain, is that we can’t take these opportunities for granted. And that, maybe, as teachers, we really need to help our learners turn these opportunities into affordances.

  • karen einstein

    Great idea, Scott! I am very much looking forward to reading of your reflections on your own L2 fossilization – given the skills, knowledge, experience and general understanding of the field which you are bringing to the project, it should be an exciting exploration.

    There in the final years in bcn I would often joke to my students (in response to queries regarding my B2 spanish and A2 Catalan after 20 years) that I had just hopped off the boat. The frustration I felt with myself at the “physician, heal thyself” (mixed-) metaphor became happily dulled over time, thanks to practiced repetition of coming up with new ways, yearly, to respond to these queries. I can’t spell either. But spelling and teaching require entirely different skill sets, a concept I would have never imagined prior to teaching. I think the same goes for adult 2nd language acquisition and teaching. Language Acquisition, language analysis, and pedagogy are entirely different areas. It is arguable that Pep Guardiola, though a good player and an absolutely brilliant coach, never had Messi’s ability.

    No student complaints, my CPE pass rates were quite good, just no shortage of well meaning inquiries regarding the correlation between 2nd language acquisition and effort. All kinds of great questions from brilliant, well intentioned, determined students as to what and how and when and where, etc to study. When web 2.0 with PLNs, SNs,etc, skyrocketed and the idea of blended learning gave greater access to a wider variety of – and access to – resources for study, I became even more aware of the fact that often (though certainly not always) the students who put the most time/effort into studying, were acquiring the language at a the same or slower rates than those who put almost no effort whatsoever into it.

    As one example (of several), a CPE class: 2 students (in their late 20s) who received “A”s when they sat the official exam (not that that is necessarily a reliable reflection of language ability) – F, who was working on an MA in Chinese and dedicated at least 10hrs weekly into preparing for our class, vs, (J) who was working on an MA in marketing, simultaneously had a job with an IT company, and spent a great deal of time playing video games and listening to new UK bands (he could have beat, hands down, any of my colleagues who so relish those “name the band in 5 seconds of tune” games).

    Nevertheless, (J) wrote compositions in all cpe genres which were brilliant in all senses – excellent articulation of complex controversial issues, brilliant organization, great phrasing, etc – all in all, interesting and fun to read, even on a sunny bcn sunday afternoon when everyone else was out enjoying the countryside or whatnot and stacks of compositions loomed like doom above me.

    F, on the other hand, wrote the type of composition that completely deflates one’s “comps corrected per hour” rate. J had never really put much effort into studying, F had always been a good student of English.

    Another student in that class (who received a “B”) was in his late 40s, a physicist who worked mostly with CERN and had almost no time to prep for class. A student in a different CPE group, a Romanian woman in her early 50s who started learning English in her 20s also managed a “B” on the official exam.

    Largely as a result of all of this, much of the research I was trying to find time for in the final bcn years involved Multiple Intelligence theory as it pertains to language learning (regardless of age, though I realize that is a significant factor). We had lots of discussions in those classes about how people learn what – foreign languages being, of course, the central, but not the sole field.

    All of this to say that although it does seem to me that motivation and discipline are important factors in language learning (or learning anything, for that matter), I’m not convinced they are the key factors. I know it’s an extreme metaphor but I’d love to be able to play soccer like Messi (or even like my neighbor, who is really very good) but no matter how much time and energy I might put into studying the game and running and practicing on various teams, I know that not only will I never reach brilliance in my soccer abilities, but at this point my soccer abilities will deteriorate with the years, even though I started playing as a kid. I realize that learning a language is entirely different than learning a sport, but I really do think the comparison has it’s uses.

    I very much look forward to your observations on fossilization as you experience and analyze it. An “interesting, relevant and challenging” issue in the field. Some things one never forgets. Thanks for that, three key concepts which have always helped guide my selection of topics and complexity in planning courses.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Karen – thanks so much for contributing some ‘real’ data to the discussion about learners’ variable outcomes (one of the GIVENS in second language acquisition literature, but for which nobody can agree on the causes!). What you seem to be suggesting is that aptitude is as much a factor as motivation, integration etc – and that’s a theme I want to pick up on later, especially with regard to my own aptitude (as measured in an objective test). Watch this space!

  • Elka Todeva

    Thank you for starting this new blog, Scott. I believe it will be an extremely powerful trigger for very important and long over due discussions in the field of (E)LT where finally there will be a better balance in terms of data with glimpses offered this time into the successes and lack of such of Anglophone learners of languages; where native speakers of English who are EL teachers, teacher trainers and applied linguists can truly put their pet theories about learning and teaching to the test with some heart felt reality checks; and where the ultimate attainment of learners of English will be looked at with new eyes and judged perhaps with added appreciation rather than in deficit terms that has often been the case.
    Those of us who have had to learn English as a second/third/… twentieth language have long considered Krashen’s ideas reductionist in many ways though at the same time useful for the field with the debates they generated through the years. Learners of English and non-native teachers of English have been expressing healthy skepticism with regard to many other bandwagons that were coming from the inner circle countries and have been offering teaching combos of their own, but for a number of reasons too complex to even mention here those voices were always more or less marginalized.

    With your blog, you are finally leveling the field in very significant ways. The richer data your blog will no doubt generate will be a wonderful opportunity for all of us to look again at the multitude of factors that shape one’s learning trajectory and to reflect on what truly expedites and facilitates learning, shortening the inevitable plateaus we all experience. There are many success stories from around the world that we will all benefit from, by sharing.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Elka, I am delighted and flattered by your post! (For those who may not know, Elka Todeva is a leading researcher and scholar in the field of fossilization, and I look forward to her comments on forthcoming posts on the subject. Elka is also a valued colleague!!)

      Humbly, I do hope that this blog will contribute, if only incrementally, to the growing literature of first-hand second language learning experiences (something I hope to devote a post to shortly).

      • Elka Todeva

        Hats off for the courage and honesty you are showing with this blog, mi querido amigo. I am hopeful that it will trigger nothing short of a tectonic shift in the way we talk about language learning and teaching. Muchísimas gracias!!!!

  • mattledding

    Hi Scott,

    Rather personal question… When you were studying Spanish, were you thinking about the Spanish, or about HOW you were learning Spanish and about HOW you were being taught?

    Did you have “I can use this!” moments with the language being used, or with the process of learning?

    Can being a “bad language learner” be the flip side of focus on being a “good language teacher” in your case? Was your motivation to learn filling a need that didn’t require learning the language?

    (Gratuitous Spanish tip- Algo que me ha ayudado mucho: los libros de ensayos de Juan Jose Millas. Surrealista, poetico, y… cortito. Dos paginas por dia. I would read them once, then backchain the sentences, reading the sentences backwards starting with the period, and this reading at a word level slowed my reading down and knocked out my probability heuristics.)

    Am excited by this new adventure of yours… and at seeing what comes next. You always inspire me with your courage, Scott.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Hi Matt, I think your question is echoed by Luiz (below): i.e. through whose skin was I experiencing the classes – Scott-as-teacher (and teacher trainer) or Scott-as-learner? I’d be dishonest if I said that my teaching and teacher training experience didn’t color the experience. I choose ‘color’ here deliberately, since it has no negative connotations – such as there might be with ‘distort’, ‘blur’ etc – because I think that the meta-awareness you bring to the learning process as a teacher can be very beneficial, as you are perhaps better equipped to take advantage of certain learning opportunities (such as pairs practice) because you understand the point of them. On the other hand, there’s a danger (and Luiz implies this) that you can become less tolerant of what you might believe are discredited methodological options, such as mindless parrotting, and this in turn can have a negative effect on your motivation. No doubt I’ll be returning to this theme when I start reporting on the classes I will take.

      As a footnote, though, it occurs to me that there is another way of experiencing a language lesson, and in my case that would be ‘Scott-as-user’, where the learning experience will be filtered by my experience (past and imagined future) of using the language.

      I’ll look out for the Juan Jose Millas essays: I love his regular Friday piece in El País, but I’ve never subjected them to the rigorous approach you use – and I’m intrigued by your expression ‘probability heuristics’. Is this a fancy term for ‘guesswork’?!

  • Luiz Otávio Barros

    Hi Scott,
    The A-Z blog was huge, but this one will be twice as popular. Mark my words.
    Your comments on the sheer inadequacy of the course you took got me thinking. You know, the one devoted almost exclusively to the subjunctive.
    Do you think that perhaps you were more fiercely critical of the course (and therefore less motivated) because way back then you already knew a lot about learning and teaching? Do you think that maybe – and I say maybe – a heightened sense of oblivion might’ve actually helped – or at least not hindered – the learning process?
    Anyway, you say that “It’s dispiriting, to say the least, to sense that, behind your back, you’re being labeled a charlatan, or an impostor.” Honestly, I don’t think anyone who knows you would ever label you a charlatan.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Hi Luiz – thanks for your comment (and your touching faith in my intellectual probity!) I love your wording: ‘a heightened sense of oblivion’: it evokes an image of sheep awaiting the trip to the slaughterhouse. 😉

      See my comment to Matt above. I’m going to have to try very hard not to pre-judge my Spanish classes, simply because they are not ‘dogmetic’ enough (the reference is to Dogme ELT – see Wikipedia if you’re a reader not familiar with the term). Nevertheless, I suspect that many a non-specialist (i.e. oblivious) student may have stopped going to classes where the focus was almost exclusively on the niceties of low-frequency grammar.

  • jmackay

    Welcome back Scott! My Sunday mornings were not the same without you.

    I notice that the ‘M’ word is getting a lot of mentions in the comments so far. My little heart is all-a-flutter! Is it possible to engineer a change in your motivation? Is motivation a trait or a state?

    As you have already mentioned, one pre-requisite may be to leave your comfort zone, deliberately upping the stakes. Actually, by starting this blog, you are already opening yourself to public observation, the risk of failure; the Feared L2 self. This in turn begs a question that you’ve discussed previously on your blog; Can this type of real-life pressure be recreated in instructed SLA contexts?

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks Jess… (I deleted the replica comment – I figured you’d thought the first hadn’t gone through: the WordPress default option is to require all first-time commenters to be moderated – you shouldn’t have any other problems posting in future).

      Yes, the M word is everywhere – and it was somehow prescient of me not to have blogged on M is for Motivation in An A-Z, perhaps knowing that it’s time would come. Going public about my plan does seem to have upped my sense of commitment towards following it through (a bit like telling everyone you’re going to give up smoking) and I’m less likely to find an excuse not to persevere. If that is motivation, it seems a rather negative form of it, though!.

  • Jessica Mackay

    I wondered what had happened to the comment. Thanks for the judicious pruning. Really looking forward to your journey. I’m going to try to follow your exploits and spruce up my Catalan!

  • mceupc

    We must admit that just extraordinarily committed people like Scott Thornbury , with loads of achievements in their life, are able to manifest so much flexibility along with humility. This is how you have started your interesting post, sharing with us your experience as a second language learner. Now, you are ready to expand it to motivate not only SL learners, teachers and also those who are passionate about reading and writing.
    You must be very proud of seeing your seeds grow in a fertile ground!

    Looking forward to the unfolding of your inspirational contexts, dear Scott!


  • alexcase

    Hi Scott

    Great idea for a blog, and two great blog posts to start it. Can we also have some data behind this experiment? I have a feeling you are being far too modest about your Spanish – any chance of you doing a placement test with someone and getting a starting level that we can compare your progress to? More data still (e.g. someone else’s idea of your strengths and weaknesses) being put in the public realm would be perhaps asking too much…

  • Scott Thornbury

    Hi Alex… thanks for joining in. Yes, good point: apart from my own self-assessment (more rigorous than the account I’ve so far given), I already have test data from two other sources and I am shortly going to enlist a third. I’ll be summarising the results in the post after next, and I hope to be able to do a post-test using the same testing instruments at some point or points further down the line. I was even thinking of uploading a ‘sample’ audio, in case anyone out there might like to make their own assessment. What do you think – and what should the sample consist of?

    • alexcase

      Aha, you are two steps ahead of me. That is why I was never any good at chess… I was going to suggest test preparation (like an FCE class in English) as a classic way of getting over the Intermediate hump, but not sure if there is a Spanish equivalent and it might twist the data somewhat.

      Would love to hear a sample, but unfortunately about the only Spanish I can remember is swearing, it being such a great language to do so in, the very opposite of Japanese…

  • mattledding

    Hola Scott,

    De Millás recomendo “Cuerpo y protesis”.

    “Guesswork” sounds too intentional for me… it seems like a background process, so I like the idea of unconscious heuristics when dealing with (attempted) understanding in listening or reading. But yes, you got it.

    Re: probability, I think the word came up because I am somewhat under the spell of Peter Norvig, not one of the usual suspects in SLA. (Although this is probably old hat for you Scott. I quite liked it because it wired together linguistics and Claude Shannon’s information theory, and bridged a couple of theories… even if it won’t help at all with Spanish, I thought I’d waste a moment of your time with the following…)

    source: Norvig vs. Chomsky

    “From the beginning, Chomsky has focused on the generative side of language. From this side, it is reasonable to tell a non-probabilistic story: I know definitively the idea I want to express—I’m starting from a single semantic form—thus all I have to do is choose the words to say it; why can’t that be a deterministic, categorical process? If Chomsky had focused on the other side, interpretation, as Claude Shannon did, he may have changed his tune. In interpretation (such as speech recognition) the listener receives a noisy, ambiguous signal and needs to decide which of many possible intended messages is most likely. Thus, it is obvious that this is inherently a probabilistic problem, as was recognized early on by all researchers in speech recognition, and by scientists in other fields that do interpretation: the astronomer Laplace said in 1819 “Probability theory is nothing more than common sense reduced to calculation,” and the physicist James Maxwell said in 1850 “The true logic for this world is the calculus of Probabilities, which takes account of the magnitude of the probability which is, or ought to be, in a reasonable man’s mind.”

    In my understanding, this is basically saying that we make quick guesses of what people say based on who we are and who we think the speaker is, which I guess, is not exactly rocket science. (Although Baye’s law might sneak in there.)

    Good old Millas is a beautifully unpredictable verbal acrobat, so he is a great workout for them thar filters.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Matt.

      I don’t in fact know of the work of Peter Norvig (I obviously should) but I am aware of probability theory through the work of (closer to our own domain) Nick Ellis. As he summarizes it: ‘Probabilistic and frequency-based theories of language analyse how frequency and repetition affect and ultimately bring about form in language and how probabilistic knowledge drives language comprehension and production’ (2011:658).

      Elsewhere (2006:12) he has written: ‘learning a language can thus be viewed as a statistical process in that it requires the learner to acquire a set of likelihood-weighted associations between constructions and their functional/semantic interpretations’. For example, ‘the words that we are likely to hear next, their most likely senses, the linguistic constructions we are most likely to utter next, the syllables we are likely to hear next, the graphemes we are likely to read next, and the rest of what is coming next across all levels of language representation,are made more readily available to us by our language processing systems’ (pp. 7 — 8). And he adds: ‘Language learners are intuitive statisticians; they acquire knowledge of the contingency relationships of one-way dependencies and they combine information from multiple cues (p.8).

      Or, elsewhere again (2002:172): ‘Much of language learning is the gradual strengthening of associations between co-occurring elements of the language and …fluent language performance is the exploitation of this probabilistic knowledge’.


      Ellis, N. (2011) ‘The emergence of language as a complex adaptive system’, in Simpson, J (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics, London: Routledge.

      Ellis, N (2006) ‘Language acquisition as rational contingency learning’, Applied Linguistics, 27/1.

      Ellis, N (2002) ‘Frequency effects in language processing: a review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition’, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24/2.

  • editoreltnews

    Congratulations on taking the plunge, Scott. It’s an undertaking that will resonate with mature (!) SL speakers everywhere.

    I note with interest the number of commenters whose experience, like mine, is with Japanese. I spent 23 years in Japan and my learning of Japanese went through distinct phases, each phase shaped by a combination of factors: aptitude, personality, opportunity, motivation and effort.

    A natural introvert, I’ve always been envious of people who are happy and able to communicate with little regard for accuracy or fluency. But I tend to consider motivation – in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (to buy tofu, to find a “Spanish sweetheart”, to pass a proficiency test, or to discuss a fascinating topic in depth) – as the key.

    In my case, I think the first three factors were fairly constant during my time in Japan. My fossilization began when the motivation, and hence the effort, was no longer sufficient to counteract it. Nothing irritated me more than people telling me how “perapera” (fluent) my Japanese was, because it only reminded me that I wasn’t making the effort to attend to my own higher needs.

    My Japanese fossilization is less like a stone in my shoe now that I’ve left Japan and I’m sure I’m well into the atrophy stage. But I await with great interest your findings and insights.

    Mark McBennett

  • geoffjordan

    Sounds great; I look forward to following your “progress”. I suppose you’ll do a test of your present proficiency level, will you? I recommend Long’s (2003) article “Stabilization and Fossilization in IL Development” In Doughty and Long (eds) The Handbook of SLA (chapter 16).

  • Josh Kurzweil

    Hi Scott,
    I really like the ‘participant/observer’ approach to this blog. Reflecting on my own language learning experiences has been extremely important in my development as a teacher. Part of me feels that regardless of how far I progress in a language, being in the learner’s shoes has its own rewards. That being said, I also completely understand the desire to improve and have felt that frustration with my own learning of Georgian (a pretty tough language!).

    I wanted to also share a tidbit I recently got from reading Josh Foer’s recent book “Moonwalking with Einstein.” In it, he talks about his experiences training with memory techniques, and in one chapter he discusses something he calls the ‘okay plateau’ which very much reminded me of the idea of fossilization. I found a link to a talk he give which summarizes the discussion in that chapter.

    There is also a section of the following article in the NY Times which can be found by clicking the link and searching for ‘okay plateau’ in the text.

    Foer offers some non-language learning examples and focuses on the idea of deliberate practice. For instance, he notes that most people who learn to type reach their ‘okay plateau’ and then cease to improve despite typing for hours a day. His suggestion is basically to figure out a way to create a challenging situation like forcing oneself to type faster and then actively reflecting on which parts need improvement.

    Foer’s ideas about the ‘okay plateau’ also make me think about the Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer’s concept of ‘mindful learning,’ which she explains is not mindful in the Buddhist sense of the word but rather in terms of consciously bringing oneself out of automaticity and reflecting on performance/progress.

    I wonder what types of practical applications of these ideas there might be for language learners who get stuck and aren’t improving.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Josh … absolutely fascinating, and the notion of ‘OK plateau’ captures exactly where I seem to have got to with my Spanish. Interestingly, I have an extract by Foer, about his learning of an Amazonian language, that I was planning to use at some point (I did in fact use it in An A-Z post, but I can’t remember which). It comes from a piece he wrote for The Guardian called ‘How I learned a language in 22 hours’.

      I shall certainly revisit the idea of the ‘OK plateau’ and how conscious attention and feedback may be one way of moving beyond it.

  • Sara Hannam

    Scott how nice to have the chance to see some photos of you at other stages in your life 🙂 – and what an interesting introspection you are planning here which is obviously resonating with other people who have lived in a country for many years but still wish to master the language better. A couple of thoughts.

    1. In relation to my own Greek it didn’t improve until I started working in an environment where I was required to use it professionally (for administration and in every day office type activity) – then it raced ahead in a way that others noticed before I did. It got to the point where noone expected to speak English when I was around and so I had to keep up with the Greek – I often got lost in meetings to begin with – but over time it got easier
    2. Being involved in civil society (setting up a campaign or going to public meetings and speaking at them and some other similar activities) accelerated it even more as that was again an opportunity where the urgency to convey the message forced me to use whatever linguistic tools I had and to search for new ones all the time – I found myself studying ahead (mostly lexical items and expressions) that I could use in these situation and noting down ones that other people used that I liked
    3. I still speak primarily English with my other half who is Greek (proves that romance isn’t the answer!) but we have lots of Greek friends and always speak Greek in those situations to each other as well – I maximise those opportunities even here in Oxford now that I don’t live in Greece as I am aware that numbers 1 and 2 are no longer available to me

    You can make of that what you will in research terms – is it motivation? I am not sure as that is such a massively open concept hard to pin down. I think it was the feeling of having no choice but to speak which also overcame the acute lack of confidence in wanting language produced to be perfect. I got to a point where I didn’t care about the accuracy at all – I am still at that point (!) but will happily have a conversation about all kinds of things with a range of people and will make the necessary adjustments “I am not sure if this is exactly how you would say it but its when…..”. I am not concerned about being completely accurate grammatically – but I do want to be understood – so far that seems to be possible as a combination.

    Another thought…..Albanian people on the whole come to Greece and learn the language fluently in literally a matter of weeks or months to the point where its often hard to tell whether they are Greek or not. The English (and Anglofones) come to Greece and continually stumble and struggle. The key difference surely must be the social reality of the two groups. Anglofones who work in language teaching amongst other things can exist in environments (as you pointed out) where the call to speak the language of the country is reduced. Other economic immigrants need to find jobs and build lives faster and integrate in a different way. How can we explain this?

    I look forward to the other postings on your new blog.

    By the end are you hoping your Spanish will be fluent?

    Best wishes


    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Sara, for your comment. I can very much identify. I remember when I was in charge of a department at our school in Barcelona, and we had weekly departmental meetings. These were held in Spanish and the preparation I put into them, along with the satisfaction I (mostly) got out of achieving a degree of acceptable intelligibility, was very motivating. It didn’t last very long though – either we stopped having meetings, or they stopped being in Spanish, or I stopped being in charge – or all three!

      What do I want to achieve, you ask? I’ll leave that to a forthcoming post, because I’m not even sure I know. Or if what I want to achieve is even achievable!

  • geoffjordan

    Hi Scott,

    The format of this blog is a bit weird, don’t you think? Why not give more space to the text?

  • Susmita

    Dear Scott and others,

    I have been following this blog with interest just as I did with the A-Z blog. I am a teacher trainer of teachers teaching English as a second language in India. Currently I am working in a university. I have found that a large number of students speak English very fluently with incredible number of mistakes and seem to be clueless about their mistakes. The mistakes are so many that sometimes even the meaning gets lost. I am jsut wondering, by focusing too much on fluency have we sacrificed on accuracy? Have my students’ English been fossilized to a degree that it can’t be repaired? Is it worth the while to work on the accuracy part? So, you can see why the blog interests me so much.
    Another thing is that I am going to teach on a proficiency course soon and I am wondering how much is classroom teaching going to help these students when they have not been able to ‘pick up’ the language. These set of students are different from the first set.
    I look forward to the discussion with great interest.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Susmita… welcome back! The issue of the fluency vs accuracy balance lies at the heart of all discussions of second language methodology. I wouldn’t want to rule on this. but, personally, the shift away from an almost obsessive concern for accuracy that typified many approaches before the ‘communicative’ era , and the subsequent prioritising of communicative effectiveness that came with CLT can only be a good thing. (Personally, I would rather be fluent in Spanish than accurate – except in writing). But, I agree, we may have erred too far on the side of fluency, especially for those learners whose English language purposes demand a degree of formal accuracy. I’ll have more to say on this later on, I suspect!

  • osnacantab

    Thanks to Twitter for drawing my attention to the fact that you have started. I had actually begun a private message starting: “Dear Scott I don’t want to post to the blog before i’s official start, but I wanted to note the following….” Here comes “the following.”

    After – 38 years – in Germany I speak quite fluent, badly broken German with an accent,, when I hear myself recorded,,, that sounds embarrassingly fossilized, ‘old boy’ English. (Ironically, I spoke with a lilting Norfolk accent until I was 11 . But when I passed the 11+ andI went to the grammar school (1946 , a first generation working class kid allowed into a formerly fee-paying grammar school by the provisions of the 1944 Education Act) I worked desparately hard hard with a supportive teacher and a close friend to make myself sound like all the middle class kids around me..

    Concertining the details, after all these years, I write German like a nearly illiterate immigrant, I can largely understand films, theatre performances,, TV, all chat around me but it is still hard to intervene passingly, skillfully and accurately in intelligent, informed argumentative discourse and, I’m ashamed to admit, I cannot read comfortably in German. I can manage computer magazines (!), the local newspaper, concert program notes,, cooking recipes , posters, timetables , but when I try novels I remain far too aware that I am trying to read in a foreign language and a misty interface cuts me off from any emotional response to what I am reading.

    All of my teaching here.was done in English, Faculty meetings were sometimes in English and I spoke English with all my colleagues and all my students. It was what they wanted. I was appointed,, after all,, to help everyone with their English, not to start and then improve my German.

    Let me jump to the end. Through most of those 30 + years I did not really need German. You can point at things in shops, So many passers by understand a few words of English. At the university I was surrounded by German speakers whose English was excellent and who were prepared to help me with tax return forms, legal contracts police fines for speeding and all that kind of jazz..

    In the early years of .a sinful state of living together unmarried, – well into the respectable state of marriage – my wife and I spoke mostly English at home.

    But ass I got drawn more into the family – in-laws and their kids and then THEIR kids, older friends and colleagues of my wife – I spoke and understood more and more German. But accuracy on my side was still not an aim – and nor, honestly, was reading in German. I cannot even nearly keep up with all that I want to read in English.

    But suddenly, at the age of, let’s say 70 plus, motivation has made a late, dramatic appearance. My wife is hard of hearing (damaged by years of screaming kids in various school playgrounds) and , to make it more comfortable, easier for my wife to hear comfortably I speak more and more exclusively in German at home and with friends. And I find myself (at last, at last) wanting to be accurate so that I can say what I mean and get it across to my listeners achieving the sort of effect on them I had in mind.

    So I’d put genuine, emotionally-based motivation as a prerequisite for avoiding or ameliorating fossilization..

    • Scott Thornbury

      Hi Dennis… yours is a moving story of how one’s language needs mature with age. One of my (less overt) motivations for getting better at Spanish is that (perish the thought) I can foresee the day when I may have to take on the responsibility for supporting my own partner in times of crisis. The practical stuff of doing shopping and ordering meals in restaurants pales into insignificance faced with the challenge of dealing with health-care workers, or insurance brokers. Or worse. I want to be up to the challenge.

  • Geoff Jordan

    Hi Scott, I just wonder, as I’m sure many do, what your current level of proficiency in Spanish is. Could you give us some idea?

  • Esteban

    You have an interesting idea for a blog here. I just started taking Polish lessons again online. I haven’t studied for five years. I’ll be following this!

    How about doing your best to blog each entry in both Spanish and English?

  • philipquick

    Hello Scott …you never actually mention your AGE as a factor in effecting your ability to get your Spanish back up to speed.I’d presuppose you’ll flatly deny it as a factor…still I’m 48 and my Romanian has fossilised like yours and I’m trying to get back on the path [inspired by you and embarassed by this state you’ve highlighted]. Unlike my young students I need about 10 goes to recall a word.Are you sure it won’t effect you, especially as you’ve enrolled on a 2 week course? Good Luck Philip in Moldova

    • Scott Thornbury

      Age is certainly a factor, Philip – but I have also used it as an excuse: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And perhaps it’s less about age than sociability. When you’re young there’s a greater need to integrate, and hence to communicate at all costs, without feeling the shame of being barely intelligible. Why I liked the classroom experience was that – although I was by far the oldest in the class – the dynamic was such that it didn’t matter: it was a self-contained social unit with its own norms and practices. Does that make sense?

  • martyn rule

    Hi Scott…You might enjoy this link with Michael Grinder ( co discoverer with Bandler as we all know by now of Neuro Linguistic Programming) .. I’m not a spokesman for the guy or any commerce.. never met him.. or any church of NLP.. but I like his take on the optimum frequency of know nothing states, non-doing, wei wu wei, or that place that is emptier of self than the average bathroom mirror.
    It’s in two parts and is recent.. I just googled and found that he held an August get together in Espana for these, his language learning insights..He was also trained by the Jesuits at a USA Catholic University so if anyone can bring about change in Spanish convictions…. it’s definitely the Spanish Inquisition…. nobody expects the etc etc.. we have three , no four.. ok we have five methods…
    Er enjoy….

    ‘ Donde esta el fish und chip shop por favor ‘ .. currently available as a handy spanglish phrasebook.

  • martyn rule

    er that should be …john grinder… woopsio

  • Rob

    Just learned about this blog. Need to work on my noticing? I think it’s more the lack of an input-rich environment.

    Looking forward to the rest of the story,

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