What drives me?


My ideal self?

The question has come up already: what motivated me to try and rehabilitate my Spanish? Or, more precisely, what was my motive? That is to say, what is it that I want to be able to do with my Spanish? What is my goal?

And why am I motivated now, when I wasn’t before? What – if anything – has changed?

First of all, it has to be said that, living in Spain, I don’t lack a motive to speak Spanish. But why has this not translated into motivation? In his case study of the Japanese Wes, living in Hawaii, Schmidt (1983: 141) hits the nail on the head: ‘It seems necessary to recognize a distinction between the motivation, desire, or drive to communicate and motivation for studying the target language in a classroom situation or for doing certain types of self-study. The first does not necessarily imply the second.’

There has always been a need to communicate in Spanish, but this alone has not been sufficient to propel me into the classroom, or to instil good habits of study, such as using word cards or embarking on a program of extensive reading. Why was it, then, that, having experienced humiliation on a daily basis because of my poor Spanish, I wasn’t motivated to do something about it?

The theory of motivation that seemed, at the time, to best explain this reluctance to make an effort, this lethargy even, is what is known as Expectancy-Value theory, which argues that the effort you put into an activity is a function of what you expect to get out of it. Once I had achieved a modicum of communicative competence, it was clear to me that the effort involved in improving any further (such as memorizing thousands of words) would be out of all proportion to the expected gains, i.e. a barely perceptible increase in fluency.

This ‘law of diminishing returns’ is dramatically (and depressingly) demonstrated in the statistics on vocabulary acquisition: while familiarity with the 2000 most common words (in English, at least) confers coverage of something like 83% of text, the addition of another 2000 words represents only a pathetic 5% increase, and another 2000 even less than that, to the point that 10,000 words covers just 94% – a long way from the benchmark of 98% that some scholars (e.g. Nation) argue is the minimum for comfortable reading fluency.

The expectancy of value (also known as ‘bang for the buck’) is so low that it is hardly worth getting out of bed, let alone learning verb inflections.

I needed another theory of motivation that offered more hope. Dörnyei’s ‘motivational self system’ (2009a, 2009b) seemed to fit the bill, since it replaces the vague notion of ‘goal’ (or ‘value’) with the more fully elaborated notion of ‘self’, or at least ‘possible self’: ‘Possible selves act as “self-guides”, reflecting a dynamic, forward-pointing conception that can explain how someone is moved from the present towards the future’ (Dörnyei, 2009a: 213).

It seemed that I needed to envisage a Spanish-speaking version of me, an ‘ideal self’, the realization of which should be within my grasp. ‘If the person we would like to become speaks an L2, the ideal L2 self is a powerful motivator to learn the L2 because of the desire to reduce the discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves’ (Dörnyei, 2009b: 29).

Unfortunately, the person I used to want to become was far too idealized to be realistic: I had this image of myself as the voluble, sociable, totally integrated party person: engaging, witty, knowledgeable, and so on. An impossible goal, since (apart from the fact that I’m not like that in my first language), there’s no realistic way I can achieve that degree of fluency and idiomaticity, not at my age, anyway. Moreover, anything short of that goal would be way too short. That is, you can’t be half engaging and witty: it’s all or nothing. (In Harder’s [1980] memorable formulation, rather than being a wit in my second language, I would simply come across as a half-wit).

I needed to lower my sights. Native-like competence was never going to be achievable. Nor necessary. What I want to achieve is not mastery of Spanish, per se, but mastery of my Spanish, that is, the Spanish that fulfils my communicative needs. As Widdowson (1994: 284) pointed out, ‘You are proficient in language to the extent you possess it, make it your own, bend it to your will, assert yourself through it rather than simply submit to the dictates of its form […] so in a way, proficiency only comes with non-conformity.’

So, even if I’m never going to be able to internalize a fully operational version of a proficient speaker’s knowledge of Spanish, maybe I can bend it to my will, and build my own minitiuarized copy, a scale model, if you like – one which is systemically entire and internally cohesive, and works like a Hornby model train: it’s a perfect copy of the original but a fraction of its size. Not the territory but the map.

But I still needed a vision of myself at home in this reduced Spanish. I needed to see myself owning it. But doing what?


Talking the talk

One of my teachers unwittingly supplied the answer. In the second week of the intensive course, she set us the task of preparing a short presentation on a city of our choice. (Cities was the coursebook topic). This was a challenge I could really rise to, since I spend half my life giving presentations. Moreover, it is something that I am occasionally asked to do in Spanish – but which I always (regretfully) decline. I am in awe of my non-Spanish colleagues (like Ben Goldstein) who can do this.

Here, then, was my vision of my ideal Spanish self: standing in front of an audience of Spanish speakers, talking (fluently and intelligibly even if heavily accented) about teaching – IN SPANISH!

Having identified my ‘ideal self’, I now need to start to ‘substantiate my vision’ – to use Hadfield and Dörnyei’s (2013) formulation. Which means identifying the sub-set of Spanish that I need to help me articulate this self.

Then I need to find someone who can help me realize it.


Dörnyei, Z (2009a) The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dörnyei, Z. (2009b) ‘The L2 motivational self system’, in Dörnyei, Z. & Ushioda, E. (eds.) Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Hadfield, J. & Dörnyei, Z. (2013) Motivating Learners. London: Routledge.

Harder, P. (1980) ‘Discourse as self-expression— on the reduced personality of the second-language learner’, Applied Linguistics I (3): 262-270.

Schmidt, R. (1983) ‘Interaction, acculturation and the acquisition of communicative competence,’ in Wolfson, N., & Judd, E. (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Widdowson, H.G. (1994) ‘The ownership of English’, TESOL Quarterly, 28/2.

Next week: The formulae for success.


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

39 responses to “What drives me?

  • tichahana

    Re: “Why was it, then, that, having experienced humiliation on a daily basis because of my poor Spanish, I wasn’t motivated to do something about it?” I’d say that you weren’t motivated BECAUSE you experienced humiliation on a daily basis.
    This ‘ideal self’ theory sounds intriguing. First of all, it’s a realistic and an achievable goal – it’s motivating. And once you reach your goal, why not make your ideal self even more ideal? Wouldn’t it be a nice idea to start every course asking the students to visualize their ideal selves and later come back to their initial visions to adjust them?

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Hana…”Wouldn’t it be a nice idea to start every course asking the students to visualize their ideal selves and later come back to their initial visions to adjust them?” Indeed, and this is very much the thrust of the activities in the Hadfield and Dörnyei book I referenced. See also Jessica’s comment below.

  • Jessica Mackay

    Oh yum! Thank you Scott,

    I have so many questions I’m dying to ask but I’ll (try to) contain myself and see how the discussion develops. But while I’m waiting…

    We’ve heard about your previous learning experience and now about your Ideal L2 self, but what about your ‘Ought-to’ L2?
    I’ve found that with my (Catalan) students this key tenet of Dörnyei’s theory was the least important. I’m not keen on sweeping generalisations, but research in Japan and China suggests that pressure from significant others is very important in those contexts. Do you feel any kind of external pressure to improve your Spanish?

    I’m asking because I’m wondering if it’s necessary at all. As you develop a clear Ideal L2 self vision, do you deliberately downplay the ‘Ought-to’ self and become more autonmous?
    I love what you say about developing your own sense of ‘ownership’ of your Spanish. Here are some quotes from a couple of participants in my research, interviewed in 2011 discussing the activities done in class from the Hadfield & Dörnyei book you mention above.

    N: But I think it’s useful to stop and think. What do you want? Are you studying English only because of somebody told you that you have to study English or you want to learn English? (…) It help, helps me to realise that I want to do something concrete and maybe with, with English it will be easier to reach it.

    H. It’s your English. In this exercise you have to think about your English, not the English of the class of the school, no, of level 4, no, no! YOUR English, yeah.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Jessica … I knew that this post would tickle your fancy! With regard to my ‘ought-to’ self, this seems to be less of a motivator than the vision of myself as being a competent if not totally fluent speaker. I can also identify (negatively) with the ‘feared self’, the vision of myself as incapable of coping with the (hopefully unlikely) situation of one day having to fly solo.

      • Jessica Mackay

        Another facet of Dörnyei’s theory which is refelected nicely in your experience is the existence of a role model on which to base your Ideal L2 self (in your case, this would be Ben!). Tim Murphey talks about the importance of near-peer modelling. Understandably, learners can identify far better with somebody in a similar situation to their own who has learned a language successfully, than they can with the seemingly distant and unattainable goal of the native speaker.

  • Karenne Sylvester

    Wow. That’s good. To your question of “And why am I motivated now, when I wasn’t before? What – if anything – has changed?”

    I’m going to go all amateur psychologist on you and say, what’s changed is that you’re now interested in changing. So along with the goal of changing and thinking of an ideal self, I reckon that the biggest things are that somehow you came to the realisation that it is possible to do something about your fossilization, you became interested in proving yourself right and you like the idea of being proved right.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Nicely analyzed, Doktor! Yes, there was a definite moment (sometime before the summer) when I came to that realisation, as you put it, that change is possible. It was not unlike those New Year resolution moments, where (maybe a little optimistically) you vow to join a gym or to quit smoking. I’m not sure about the ‘liking being proved right’ bit: more like ‘liking to have a project and a challenge’, perhaps.

      • Karenne Sylvester

        🙂 no offence was meant by the last bit, and that might have been a bit of my own psychology as I often take on projects to prove to myself if I am right or wrong about something that I think/suspect about how my students learn, or how I learn. I do like both, being wrong and right, so true, like you it’s the challenge of the thing! Such fun,

  • Susmita

    Hello Scott and others,

    While I have been more of a ”lurker”, I am enjoying this discussion. Every morning I look forward to this mail.

    I had not read this about what Widdowson says, about possessing the language, making it your own etc. but after reading what you say I am wondering if that is what my students are doing. Have they taken an ownership of the language and bent it to such an extent that it is a new form of English? And they use this English to make their presentations with confidence and since their peer groups also use this kind of English, they are comfortable with that. How will they move beyond this? Are they not likely to be fossilized at this stage?.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Good questions, Susmita. I think that, whether we like it or not, the English that your students take ownership of, or ‘make their own’, will be different from yours or mine, or each others. It’s certainly unlikely to be a carbon copy of some ‘native speaker’s’. As Kurt Kohn nicely puts it:

      How do people make English [or Spanish] their own? The answer is deceptively simple: they acquire it. But rather than like acquiring a car or a house, people acquire English, or any other language, by creatively constructing their own version of it in their mind, hearts, and behaviour…. Acquiring a language is the very opposite of copying or cloning – it is a cognitive and emotional process of sociocultural and communicative construction … Regardless of how powerful the communicative and communal pull towards a ‘common core’ might be, the English [or Spanish] that people develop is inevitably different from any target language model they chose or were forced to adopt.

      Kohn, K. (2011) ‘English as a lingua franca and the Standard English misunderstanding’, in De Hower, A., & Wilton, A. (eds.) English in Europe Today: Sociocultural and educational perspectives, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, p. 80.

      I am relaxing into the idea that the Spanish that I will ‘make my own’ will be my Spanish, and not necessarily that of a native speaker. (I just hope that my native speaker interlocutors will be as relaxed!)

  • Paul Driver

    Hi Scott,

    I think your post demonstrates just how irrational we (us humans) are when it comes to decision making and especially so when making long-term decisions.

    Whether it’s studying, saving money or exercising we find it difficult to motivate ourselves
    when the benefits are distant, abstract or intangible. I think there’s a lot to be learned about language- learning motivation from the insights gained from case studies in behavioural economics (plus they’re fun to read).

    The time-honoured idea of the Homo Economicus championed by utilitarian thinkers, a being motivated by logic and rational self-interest has been shown to be a myth as it ignores the huge impact emotions, sociocultural influences (such as network effects and the expectations of others) and also how our brains are wired.

    By asking you to give a presentation your teacher has managed to connect the language with something you (presumably!) enjoy and find engaging on an emotional level. I’m sure it also connects with the expectations you have of yourself, as an experienced presentation-giver and the expectations you know others may have of you in that respect. Aside from that, it’s a tangible, short term, achievable goal (with a deadline no doubt).

    The heuristic side of decision-making and how we frame our goals have considerable impact on motivation and how we dynamically assess and perceive both the risks and benefits of our decisions, action and inaction.

    That’s my lunchtime tuppence worth anyway.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Paul… yes, it does seem that (as we’ve always known) a key role the teacher plays is in supplying short-term ‘thrills’ in the absence of a clearly envisaged long-term goal. What’s more, the presentation activity worked even better because of the presence – and interest – of the other students. My only regret, in terms of the activity sequence, is that I wasn’t given a chance to do it again, so as to be able to incorporate the useful feedback I received. I guess the teacher thought that this would tax everyone’s patience unduly. But it would have been very motivating to have experienced a degree of improvement – and fluency – the second time round. There must be a way to build repetition into the sequence in a way that has benefits for everyone.

  • Mark Makino

    As always, stimulating reading.

    Reading what you cite from Dornyei reminds of how for some reason I’m much more motivated to study Japanese when I’m on vacation in the US than when I’m residing in Japan. I suppose my ‘ideal L2 self’ is a bilingual American in the US rather than a sketchily bilingual foreigner in Japan. Or perhaps it’s just easier to see my ideal L2 self without the negative reinforcement that cultural essentialism provides.

  • philipquick

    Excuse my remarks Scott, but I wondered what would happen to you if you had a Spanish partner,who doesn’t speak English. Love strikes at any age! Forget complex motivational theories.

  • Jenny

    What philipquick says was exactly what was crossing my mind as I was reading. The beginning of my real Spanish learning was not the 6 hours a week of classes I took but meeting my first Spanish boyfriend and having to concentrate really hard to understand him and making a real effort to produce comprehensible phrases that he could understand. Besides romance, it was also the need to belong. I remember sitting around a table full of bright interesting people discussing Spanish politics and being really frustrated I couldn’t join in and then, later, really pleased with myself when I was able finally to say something which a) everyone understood, b) added something to the conversation and c) slotted in to the conversation at the right moment, not minutes afterwards when the topic had already moved on. It was the need to be understood which drove my Spanish. Now I am in the UK and no longer have this need, I am losing my Spanish, and rapidly.

  • geoffjordan

    Why are you so persuaded by Dörnyei and Ushioda’s new stuff? Why don’t you question it? Why do you just interpret your good question in their terms? This is the most disappointing episode so far. You describe your “problem” well, and then you just mumble on about Dörnyei. I expect better from you, Scott.

  • Richard Turner

    Scott, you say…

    Here, then, was my vision of my ideal Spanish self: standing in front of an audience of Spanish speakers, talking (fluently and intelligibly even if heavily accented) about teaching – IN SPANISH!

    So you need to train teachers of Spanish and then it would all fall into place . Realisation of your dream, better Spanish and better teachers of Spanish. Win, Win, Win……

  • geoffjordan

    You’re not putting the Dörnyei theory to the test, you’re just adopting its “explanation” and interpreting what’s happened to you using that explanation uncritically.

    • Jessica Mackay

      Hello again Geoff,

      As you know, I have put Dornyei’s theory to the test, using a classroom ‘intervention’ based on the activities in Jill & Zoltan’s book mentioned above. Ss were measured pre- and post- intervention on a variety of motivational constructs (WTC, Language Anxiety, etc) and motivated behaviour (using a Language Contact Profile). I also have 27 recorded interviews from T1 and T2, as well as 115 pieces of written work related to learners’ possible L2 selves, student and teacher diaries and anonymous student feedback on the activities. All of these data, both quantitative and qualitative, suggest that the theory is valid. There were significant improvements for the intervention groups compared to the control groups (taught b different teachers) and clear and vivid differences in the qualitative data.

      It’s interesting that most reputable refereed journals are no longer accepting articles on motivation in SLA based solely on quantitative research, as they offer nothing new to the field. It was precisely the affective, humanistic, (fuzzy, if you like, but practically applicable) nature of the theory that attracted me to it. Through research we can further define and test the underlying constructs.

  • stevebrown70

    Hi Scott,
    Unlike Geoff, I’m really pleased to see you embracing Dornyei and Ushioda’s “stuff” because (like you) I’m very curious to see how well it works for you. From a teaching point of view I’ve been trying to apply it as a way of motivating my learners for the last couple of years, with varying degrees of success. I’m finding that getting the students to identify their ideal self is, in many ways, the hardest part. You managed to happen upon yours, kind of by accident. But how does a teacher ensure that a whole class can gain a sufficiently clear picture of their ideal self in order to move on and start substantiating the vision? I feel there’s a lot more to it than getting them to talk about trees, which is what Jill Hadfield seems to be offering us…

    • Jessica mackay

      I agree with Steve that helping the learners to ‘create’ the vision is by far the hardest part of the process, but who’s to say how and when we develop an Ideal L2 self and what triggers it. Perhaps, like the order of acquisition, these classroom activities are just making the vision accessible to our learners for when they are developmentally ready. There seems to be an age / maturity effect among the participants in my study which suggests that older students already have a clearer Ideal Self in other aspects of their lives and are primed to incorporate the L2 into that vision.

      I found that repetition was essential in order to build nuance and detail into the vision. So each visualization became the basis for a process-writing activity, allowing the students to share, compare and change/improve the written version of their visions over a number of weeks. As well as providing the basis for useful language work, an added benefit was that students reported a positive effect on group dynamics, due to learning more about their classmates’ aspirations, fears and wishes.

      By the way, there’s so much more to the Hadfield & Dörnyei book than ‘talking about trees’. There are so many activities, the teacher can cherry pick what works for them. It also provides a nice walkthrough for guided visualizations, an activity that most teachers (myself included) had probably not done before. In the spirit of experimentation, I’ve tried most of the activities in the book, even (especially!) the ones which took me well out of my comfort zone. Curiously, in the student feedback, some of the most positive responses were about activities that were a bit ‘out there’. Maybe it was the novelty value, but if it engages the learners, I’m not complaining.

    • Zeee

      Hi Steve, Interesting that you mention trying to motivate your students. Alphie Kohn reckons, “Whenever you see an article or a seminar called “How to Motivate Your Students, I recommend that you ignore it. You can’t motivate another person, so framing the issue that way virtually guarantees the use of controlling devices.” “Many teachers use the word motivate but what they mean is compliance.”

      He goes on to discuss: Skilful teaching involves facilitating the process by which learners come to grapple with complex language ideas—and those ideas, as John Dewey has told us, have to emerge organically from the real-life interests and concerns of the learners. “Which verbs take regular and irregular past forms?” The correct answer is, “Who cares”. But learners might care very much about talking about their past experiences. In that context, the language skills necessary for expressing themselves may become intrinsically interesting. In the context of tasks that matters to learners, specific language skills can be taught naturally without sugarcoating, without games, and above all without offering little doggie biscuits for doing what we tell them.

      Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by Rewards. The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

      • Scott Thornbury

        Thanks, Zeee. This comment sums up very well my own experience of the intensive Spanish classes:

        “Which verbs take regular and irregular past forms?” The correct answer is, “Who cares”. But learners might care very much about talking about their past experiences.

      • stevebrown70

        Can I just point out that I have never tried to motivate my learners by asking them about regular and irregular verbs. I think if you look at Dornyei’s ideas about motivation you’ll see that compliance and the offering of rewards is not what this is about. Nor is it about sugar coating grammar mcnuggets. It’s about providing opportunities for students to get themselves in a place where they are motivated. That’s why it’s difficult to do – but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and it certainly doesn’t mean there’s no point in trying.

  • Jeff Mohamed

    Your mention of Expectancy-Value reminded me of something that happened when I lived in Madrid and was arranging the construction of the IH school building there.
    The building contractor spoke no English and I spoke no Spanish but we muddled through just fine. When the building work was finished, I offered the contractor free ESOL lessons at the school. I pointed out to him that learning English would make sense for him because he did a lot of work for English-speaking companies. He turned down my offer. His reason was that, when it came to negotiating and completing highly profitable contracts, he could communicate just fine in English, and Greek, and German, and Chinese, and …
    BTW, I left Madrid after two years, never having attended a Spanish class. I had picked up enough Spanish to run a language school but I was unable to hold even a simple a conversation in Spanish on any non-school-related topic.

  • Svetlana

    Dear Scott,

    Thank you very much for the opportunity to follow your blog and reply to your posts. I have been following it very attentively since the very first one and my expectations are really high – I mean I am expecting you to make a discovery – the best remedy against stabilized-fossilized language by trying different methods and techniques on your own Spanish. Isn’t it what your true motive is and isn’t it what motivates you to undergo different experiments? My impression from the very beginning was that you were like one of those scientists who were the first to try some vaccine invented by them against a deadly disease on their own body. 🙂 All this blog is not about you lecturing in perfect Spanish, I doubt that this is your true intention but it is about experimenting with your own language. Your motivation is your inquisitive mind. That is what drives you. Am I mistaken?

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Svetlana – and apologies for the delay in getting back to you. Yes, this ‘experiment’ is partly motivated by my own curiosity about second language learning, but also (as I have said) about the guilt attached to being an ‘expert’ in the field, but seemingly incapable of improving my own Spanish in the ways that I recommend learners of English (and their teachers) improve theirs!

  • alexbaileywriter

    Nice blog entry, nicely explicit about your language goal. I guess there’s a useful analogy with therapy. (I know; bear with me). Putting it crudely, the smart money is on something called solution focused brief therapy, which distinguishes itself by asking the user what tangible changes they would achieve if the course were successful. This contrasts with previously dominant methodologies that focus only *the changing of problematic behaviours*. How is this relevant to language learning? The establishing of a tangible goal allows the user to focus on outcomes, not just processes, and so it generates a purpose for the course. It also lets us see when they’ve got there! I wonder how many second language learners are ‘perpetual students’ because their language isn’t improving. And how many people visit a counsellor each week for years because they don’t know if they’re ‘better’? No shortage of punters. Perhaps traditional approaches persist because they keep teachers (or therapists) in work! I expect that’s a gross exaggeration of the way these two professions have operated, and the comparison may work only on a superficial level. Still, it feels radical to have students explain, in detail, the success criteria for their learning and to involve them in managing the process, especially with students who find it difficult to state their success criteria or to teach themselves. Which tells me this is where the smart money is.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Alex, for that intriguing perspective. While not totally relevant to your argument, but on the subject of therapy, I had often considered that what I needed more than a language teacher was a therapist, i.e. someone who could unlock the ‘block’ that was preventing me from taking more responsibility for my own learning. I’m interested in this aspect of psycholinguistics (psychoanalytic-linguistics, perhaps?) and may blog about it a little further down the line. Reading your comment suggests I might have been locked into a cycle of perpetual therapy even before I’d got myself into a perpetual classroom!

  • thesecretdos

    Can we extrapolate a little here and ask what it is that motivates so many people to watch football for a couple of hours every week? A real mystery when you follow a team that causes you nothing but heartbreak week after week, year after year. I think we are a long way from cracking the secret of motivation.

    Perhaps the answer is as simple as being that motivation is part of the human drive to survive and propagate the species? We follow football because we need to feel part of a group – groups lead to survival and protection. We learn other languages because we want to fit in with a new context. Or because we want to gain higher social cachet through our demonstrable superiority to others.

    If this theory is correct, you didn’t learn Spanish simply because you had no real need to. You didn’t really buy into any of the arguments that said you should learn the language and you saw greater returns coming from investing your time elsewhere.

    It will be interesting to see how this blog influences your Spanish learning. It could be the catalyst you need – if you think that progress is necessary because of the increased attention. Or it could be the final nail in the coffin if you (perhaps subconsciously) think that there is more to be gained from keeping the SLA process a mystery. Perhaps there is more to be gained from blogging about your lack of progress than there is in ruining it all with stories of success!

    In the meantime, you might expand your lexicon by having a look at this http://www.huffingtonpost.es/2013/10/01/palabras-hispanas-distint_n_4021362.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, once again, for your thoughtful comment.

      You’re right in thinking that the impulse to improve my Spanish and the act of blogging may be interdependent. It’s difficult to extricate the two motives: will going public improve my Spanish, by forcing me to make more of an effort than had I not? Or was the decision to do something about my Spanish really a pretext to go public, i.e. to blog? I’m not sure that I can disentangle these different motivations. Also, you may be right, that going public about my failure to improve (assuming I don’t improve) will at least allay my conscience in the face of my critics, as if to say: ‘You see, I tried!’

      I hope not. I really do want to be able to do more with my Spanish. I so badly wanted to be able to joke to the taxi driver yesterday morning, who was over the moon to have seen the Spanish astronaut, Pedro Luque, at the stand in the airport: ‘I’m sorry for you that it was me that was first in the queue’. I blurted something out, and he understood, but it so badly lacked the light touch I would have wanted.

      Thanks, too, for those links: they’ll come in handy for a talk I’m doing on Friday when I’ll be arguing that there’s no such thing as Spanish (among other languages).

  • emk

    I just discovered your journal, and I’m impressed by willingness to use yourself as experimental subject, and to report the results in such an interesting fashion.

    I learned French via independent study, including a full-time 4-month sprint from A2 to B2 a while back, culminating in a successful DELF exam. I had a few unfair advantages—my wife had spoken French to our preschoolers for years, we could speak the language at home, and I had an excellent (and when necessary, ruthless) online tutor. And perhaps most importantly, I read a good 9,000 pages of French books and watched hundreds of hours of television, on the off hope that Krashen had a good handle on at least part of the problem. It worked out pretty well; I’m socially fluent and I can usually explain complex ideas to an interested listener. Full professional fluency remains just out of reach, which isn’t too bad, considering I live in an English-speaking country.

    Identity-wise, my long term goal is to be functionally identical to an educated native speaker. A faint residual accent and a few hard-to-notice grammar errors would be OK. But this is, if you will, my 40-year-goal. In the next few years, my goal is to upgrade my social fluency to a solid professional fluency. (Call it a strong C1.)

    But my immediate, day-to-day goal is to finish a stack of sci-fi novels and another few seasons of Game of Thrones, and to pass an online university math class taught in French. I find that identity-based goals are just too stressful in the short term, because the gap between reality and the dream is too big.

    However, as proposed by the blogger Khatzumoto (of AJATT fame), I do have a “current” identity: I think of myself a French preschooler. It’s silly, but not too far off the mark, because the average French 4-year-old has received far more comprehensible input than I have, and has engaged in more interaction. And contrary to popular myth, 4-year-olds who are given the opportunity to acquire two languages will often fail to acquire the less useful one. They’re *entirely* capable of the same utility calculations as adults, perhaps even on a biological level.

    Since I was pretending to be a French preschooler—and given my geographic limitations, I was closer to a French heritage learner than anything else—I took a lively interest in heritage learners, and the conditions under which they become educated bilinguals. It turns out, that even for kids, it takes a lot of work to sound smart, witty, persuasive, culturally-aware, and so on, in each of their languages. Most such kids, if they’re lucky, wind up with decent passive skills and some basic conversational ability.

    So my virtual identity led me to decide upon my marching orders: If I wished to acquire an L2 to a high level in my 30s, I had to recreate the same conditions which would guarantee the success of a heritage learner. If I did anything less than that, I would have no right to whine about my age or make excuses.

    Once I started adding up what’s really involved to produce an educated native speaker, the numbers were sobering: 3 to 13 million words of input per year from birth. Over a million words of reading per year for a decade or more. Constant immersion for 20 years and a child’s overwhelming need to belong and communicate. Many heritage learners do get by with a lot less, but then, their achievements are notoriously uneven.

    And considered in light of those standards, I’m pretty happy about my progress. I can read books aimed at native 8-year-olds fluently. I can simultaneously interpret for all but the most precocious 4-year-olds, with roughly the same rate of grammatical errors (except gender, where I lag behind the development curve, but I’m still seeing lots of improvement).

    My conclusion is that at least some adults can learn languages rapidly and to a high level, especially when other coping strategies fail, and when they avoid getting too comfortable around A2/B1, where stabilization seems to be the most vicious. I think this adult acquisition tends to occur fairly often in university and grad school, especially in the absence of an L1 speech community. There’s some alchemy of identity and necessity which seems to do the trick, and it cranks out lots of fully-integrated, near-native speakers.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for that fascinating account of your own (much more energetic, I have to say) attempts to improve your French. (One of the unexpected joys of keeping this blog has been to hear how other people have managed or are managing). On the subject of exposure through reading I’ll be blogging next week. Meanwhile, I’m curious about your ‘ruthless’ online tutor: is this someone you found through one of the sites (like Myngle) that puts teachers together with learners online? Or was it a private arrangement? How were the lessons structured and in what way was he/she ruthless? Don’t feel compelled to answer, but I am obviously very curious as this is a path I might like to explore myself.

  • emk1024

    Thank you for your kinds words, and of course I’d be happy to answer. Let me start with my tutoring goals.

    At the time, I was preparing for the DELF B2 diploma, and I was intimidated by the oral section. This consists of a 10-minute presentation and a 10-minute Q&A on a randomly drawn subject, with no notes, no dictionary, and 30 minutes to organize your thoughts. Some typical subjects include, “Are single-sex schools a good idea?” and “Should Paris implement London-style tolls to reduce traffic congestion?”. The student might get 10 seconds to choose between two such subjects.

    So there I was, with my B1 “parenting French”, lots of dubious bits of stabilized interlanguage, and no academic registers whatsoever, and an exam deadline looming. So I went searching for a professional. I tried a bunch of tutors, and nobody clicked. But while searching through an online tutor directory, I hit pay dirt. I found a tutor with a masters in SLA who used to help administer the exams in question. Better yet, she was working on her 4th and 5th languages!

    Of course, gifted polyglot tutors with masters in SLA cost at least twice as much as the average tutor. So I decided to use my budget wisely, by ditching her official lesson plan and focusing on the areas where she could add the most value: linguistic feedback and conversational practice.

    30 minutes before every lesson, she’d email me a subject. I’d quickly organize my thoughts, and I’d open up the lesson with a 10-minute presentation. She’d then spend 10 minutes cross-examining me, really poking holes into my ideas and demanding clarification and counter-arguments. This is where she often showed her ruthless side. 🙂

    The remainder of the hour was dedicated to French conversation on various subjects. She had a real gift for pushing me to my limits, almost to the point of frustration, but then she’d somehow “soak up” the frustration. She also demanded that I clean up several phonetic problems, and she recorded my important errors in a Google doc.

    In a lot of ways, all this seems very similar to those spontaneous discussions in your Spanish class, and to your presentations. That kind of constant linguistic stress certainly encourages the brain to adapt rapidly!

    I’m looking forward to your piece on reading, by the way. I’m continually amazed at how much I’ve gotten out of my big stack of books, comics and TV series.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Fascinating, Eric – thanks for going into so much detail. It sounds like you lucked out with your online teacher. I have a friend who tried several, in order to maintain his Turkish, but with less success!

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