The talking cure

dinner-with-andreIf, in last week’s post, I came across as a bit downhearted, this week I offer a pick-me-up.

A couple of months into this project, a Spanish-speaking friend (let’s call him Andrés) generously offered to be my regular conversation partner, not as one half of an intercambio, but simply to give me the opportunity – which I only sporadically have – to experience sustained conversation in Spanish on a regular basis. Accordingly we have been meeting once a week in a local bar for upwards of 90 minutes, with no fixed agenda, and we just talk.

The experience is liberating. For some reason, the unwillingness to communicate that I wrote about last week simply evaporates and I achieve a degree of fluidity (I’m loathe to call it fluency just yet) that I’ve only ever experienced in dreams. The talk is wide-ranging and capricious, jumping from politics to psychology, by way of travel, literature, cinema, language, language learning and relationships. The 90 minutes flash by.

When I say we just talk, it’s not quite as unstructured as that. I talk; when I’m lost for words, Andrés intervenes. He takes notes and, at the end of the day, we review some of the problems I’ve had. The experience is not unlike the one that Edmund White recounts, in his autobiographical novel The Farewell Symphony, describing Lucrezia, his private teacher of Italian:

Her teaching method was clever. She invited me to gossip away in Italian as best I could, discussing what I would ordinarily discuss in English; when stumped for the next expression, I’d pause. She’d then provide the missing word. I’d write it down in a notebook I kept week after week. … Day after day I trekked to Lucrezia’s and she tore out the seams of my shoddy, ill-fitting Italian and found ways to tailor it to my needs and interests.

mydinnerwithandre-madmanOccasionally, I’ll ask Andrés if we can do the ‘Earl Stevick’ activity. That is the one that Stevick describes in Success with Foreign Languages (1989: 148):

Another of my favourite techniques is to tell something to a speaker of the language and have that person tell the same thing back to me in correct, natural form. I then tell the same thing again, bearing in mind the way in which I have just heard it. This cycle can repeat itself two or three times… An essential feature of this technique is that the text we are swapping back and forth originates with me, so that I control the content and do not have to worry about generating nonverbal images to match what is in someone else’s mind.

This technique is particularly effective when telling stories. For example, I told Andrés about a long exchange I’d had with the elderly woman who does my dry-cleaning, in which she passionately defended socialism. Having listened, Andrés told it back, in the first person, while I tried to catch the changes and improvements. Then I had another shot at it.

And all the time I keep asking myself: If I just did nothing else, could I learn any language this way? Is this all it takes: a table, two chairs, a ‘better other’, talk, reformulation, a note book, a  glass of wine? Does it matter if the ‘better other’ is not trained, knows nothing much about pedagogical grammar, is simply a native-speaker who is good enough a listener to be able to work out what it is you’re trying to say, and can reformulate it for you?

mydinnerwithandre-almostovernowWell, when I compare these conversations with the intensive classes I took earlier this year, I have to admit that the undivided attention you get in the one-to-one situation, along with the exponential increase in talking time and the chance to choose the topics and control the direction of the talk, is a huge plus.  On the other hand, I do remember valuing enormously the capacity of those (very experienced) classroom teachers to provide on the spot explanations of elusive grammar issues in response to learners’ errors, and this is perhaps the one ingredient that I would want to add to my conversations with Andrés. The one ingredient.

This is not to suggest for a moment that I am less than completely satisfied with my conversations. I know that I can go and look up the grammar stuff in my own time: I have my notes which act as a record of the difficulties I had. More important than the grammar stuff is the fact that the conversations with Andrés have endowed me with a capacity that I’ve rarely experienced in all my years speaking Spanish: the willingness to communicate (WTC).

Until recently, WTC has been construed primarily as an internal attribute of learners: something they have. However, as MacIntyre et al (2011: 93) argue, ‘perhaps it is time to widen the scope of the WTC concept to more explicitly take into account moment-to-moment dynamics within the social situation and the key role played by the communicative partner(s).’  Or, as Yashima (2012: 132) puts it: ‘WTC can only be enhanced and developed through the social processes and communicating with others. It takes two to tango.’  my-dinner-with-andre1

My experience with Andrés confirms that the willingness to communicate is much less an individual trait than a social one: not something you have but something you make. Something you make together. In fact, Andrés himself summed it up perfectly, quoting the Spanish writer Carmen Martín Gaite:  La elocuencia no está en el que habla, sino en el que oye. (Eloquence is not in the one who speaks, but in the one who listens).

Andrés has given me my voice back.


MacIntyre, P.D.,Burns, C., & Jessome, A. (2011) ‘Ambivalence about communicating in a second language: A qualitative study of French immersion students’ willingness to communicate,’ Modern Language Journal, 95, 81-96.

Stevick, E. (1989) Success with Foreign Languages, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.

White, E. (1997) The Farewell Symphony, London: Chatto & Windus.

Yashima, T. (2012) ‘Willingness to communicate: Momentary volition that results in L2 behaviour’, in Mercer, S., Ryan, S., & Williams, M. (eds) Psychology for Language Learning: Insights from Research, Theory and Practice, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stills from Louis Malle’s 1981 film, My Dinner with André, New Yorker Films (permission sought and pending).

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

35 responses to “The talking cure

  • David Harbinson

    Hi Scott, I think you bring up a number of interesting points that I can relate to as a learner, albeit a not very good one and also things I see in my students. Firstly, you describe your conversational experiences as liberating which I think is an excellent description. I’ve noticed with quite a few of my students that when I am speaking to them outside of the classroom, just ‘hanging around’ they can communicate very easily, even if there are mistakes, they are ‘fluent’ in the sense that they are communicating without really thinking about it. Once they get into the classroom setting however, it’s the same familiar four walls, the whiteboard, the teacher at the front etc. and back to being a ‘student’. One student I know quite well, and outside of the class she talks quite normally, however as soon as she gets into the classroom, she becomes very shy and concious of her language. I should point out that I am teaching in Korea, and some, but not all, students still have the impression of the teacher being the fountain of knowledge – that in the class they should strive for accuracy, and that speaking is not top of the agenda.

    I have experienced similar feelings, although on a much smaller scale when I was studying Korean. Inside the class I would try to speak, the teacher would correct me, I would feel disheartened, and lose confidence. However, occasionally a few of us would go out for dinner with the teacher. And it was usually on the way to wherever it was that we were going that I would feel most liberated, just chatting away. The teacher wasn’t correcting me, and I was able to talk about anything. Well that’s not quite true, my vocabulary only allowed me to talk about quite a limited set of subjects, but anyway, I was still communicating quite freely.

    However, put me in a situation with someone I don’t know as well, and my WTC goes again. I find it very difficult to use Korean outside of the class in real situations. For very basic interactions I do okay, but ask me a question that I’m not expecting, and I usually end up just nodding, even if I understand what they are saying – it’s only five minutes later when I am halfway down the road that I think “Ah, I should have said …”. Also, when my wife’s brother (who is Korean) visits, I find it quite difficult, at least at first, to communicate with him – I usually end up sitting on the floor with my 6-year-old niece, who between us have just about enough of the other’s language to get on.

    So, it leads me to agree with you that WTC is a social trait rather than an individual one. But going straight into the real world, at least for some, is probably still going to be too overwhelming. We need the semi-formal set-ups like you have described. As a language teacher, I hope this will encourage me to think of inventive ways to break down the walls of the classroom, and take the students out of that environment, but still keep them within the safety knowing that the teacher is still there to help.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, David, for the comment. Hearing stories like yours (and noting how they resemble my own) I am more and more convinced that language is not something you ‘have’ (in the sense of a quantifiable grammar and lexicon etc) but it is something you ‘do’ in specific contexts. ‘Learning a language is not a question of acquiring grammatical structure but of expanding a repertoire of communicative contexts…. A language is not a circumscribed object but a loose confederation of available and overlapping social experiences’ (Hopper 1998:171).

      Yet we still tend to teach it (and test it) as if it were something you have.

  • Candy

    Yes yes yes. I had a student recently who said,”I have learnt more English doing nothing with you than ever before. ” I asked for an explanation because I felt we had worked quite hard. “Well, it was just you, me and the language – nothing else. I don’t need anything else.”

  • Hana Tichá

    Hi Scott,
    While reading this post, I immediately remembered the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition ( I suppose that you’d be somewhere at the ‘Competent’ level (maybe even higher) and your partner could be defined as the ‘Expert’. This situation would be ideal in the formal setting of the L2 classroom, but, unfortunately, it’s unrealistic because there’s only one expert (teacher) and lots of novices, beginners, etc. However, the activities you describe might actually work in the classroom setting as well since we often teach mixed-ability classes. I’ve never heard of ‘Earl Stevick’ activity, which appears to be a bit unnatural to my taste; it’d drive me crazy to hear the same bit three times. Edmund White’s method looks much more like a real life situation and actually, this is what happens in the class; the more proficient student provides the missing word during pair or group work.
    Anyway, it seems you’re on the right track with your learning. Good luck!

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for the comment and link, Hana. I totally agree that the challenge for teachers in a classroom context is to somehow replicate the best features of one-to-one teaching, that is, maximising learner output, individualising feedback, and centering ‘the conversation’ on the learners’ needs and interests. The great advantage of the classroom, of course, is the greater number of interactions possible, and, as you say the greater number of sources of input.

  • Micaela

    Thank you for sharing these very personal experiences as a language learner. Everything you’ve discussed is applicable to being the teacher of the second language but it’s also helped remind us what it’s like to be in the shoes of the student. The ability to empathize with our students is essential but often overlooked.

  • Ruth

    Thanks for such a BEAUTIFUL post! I’ve been following your blog and it’s been very useful to me as a Brazilian English teacher living in Uruguay. Thanks for connecting theory with daily life!

  • Jean Sciberras

    Do you think recording (on a mobile phone even) part of your conversation and Andre’s reformulation for later would be useful? 🙂

    • Scott Thornbury

      Yes, Jean — I have considered doing this, but just wanted to build up a head of steam first. I’m also slightly concerned that the sensation I have of being fluent and even quite accurate will be belied when I listen to myself on tape!

  • Joe

    I would hardly be surprised if one-on-one conversations with feedback were the most effective way to study a language (with appropriate self-study between sessions). But most language learning seems to be something of a compromise, mainly of money. When you’re fairly competent in a language, it might be reasonably easy to find people willing to talk to you purely for the pleasure of your company. But to get someone to sit through 90 minutes of a beginner struggling, you usually have to pay them. And obviously it’s going to cost you far less if you share this cost with other learners. Given limited funds, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether you feel you’d learn more by having less frequent sessions with a private tutor where 100% of the attention is on you, or more frequent lessons in a classroom, where you have to share the teacher’s attention with a number of other students. And would this be different for someone not living in the country their target language is used?

    As for your teacher being untrained not being a major factor, this might have something to do with you knowing one or two things about language learning yourself. I suspect that an inexperienced language learner with no background in linguistics or teaching might benefit more from the guidance of a qualified teacher.

    Anyway, great blog. The dilemma I mentioned above is one I’m currently considering in my own language learning, so I’d be interested to hear your views.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Hi Joe — thanks for the thoughtful comment. As I said to Hana (above) there are features of the one-to-one situation that can be – indeed, should be – adapted for the group context, without overly compromising the quality of the learning experience. And, as you correctly point out, this is the only model that, for most students, is economically feasible. However, if the opportunities for scaffolded interaction of the type that the one-to-one situation affords are limited because of time spent ‘learning the system’ (which tends to happen when there are coursebooks to follow, syllabus items to tick off, and exams to pass), then the affordances that are offered by the classroom experience really are compromised, and you’d be better off finding an André!


    By just talking you can achieve a lot but your probably just using the basic 800 word vocabulary most people use in everyday speech. in your conversations Scott. I wander if you actually encounter any new vocabulary in these situations or employ simple phrase structures to express your points of view rather than getting corrected and being told how a native might express some of your sentences.
    BTW I found Dinner with Andre the most overindulgent conversation on film I’ve ever seen and died of boredom after the first 10 minutes of navelgazing. I t definitely would not have helped ME develop my language skills. Rather IT would have killed them!!!

    • Scott Thornbury

      Good question, Philip – and one that Cecilia addresses, below. I.e. are the conversations I have with Andrés simply the recycling of language I already have internalized (even if often erroneously), or am I adding to my language ‘store’? Even if I’m not ‘adding’, the fact that the knowledge that had been until now largely inert is being activated (and sorted out) is a huge plus, and sufficient justification for the time and effort put in. Meanwhile, I’m using other means to increase my vocabulary, including the digital flash cards (Anki) and reading-plus-dictionary work. So, perhaps the conversations on their own would not be sufficient to ‘learn a second language’ unless reinforced by between-session vocabulary acquisition. Good point.

      (Sadly, though, we differ on our opinion of Malle’s masterpiece!)

  • Cecilia

    Hi Scott, thanks for the topic you proposed, it is quite an insightful discussion. I think your talks with Andres are excellent for practicing the language you have already learned: I understand that you control the topics, use the vocabulary from you stock, and Andres supports you when you need a word. This is a great practice for using the acquired grammar and vocabulary more fluently. However, and I am sorry for answering your question (“… could I learn any language this way?”) too bluntly: honestly, I don’t think this practice can completely replace more systematic learning. Besides, you can do this kind of practice because you have a certain level of language (I think you mentioned C1). When I came to Japan I took Japanese classes and also, once a week, students could speak with volunteers. Well, as a complete beginner, I could do nothing but practicing what I was learning in the classes. On the other hand, a member of a “host family” used to call me on the phone for making me practice the language. I found that so stressful and tiring, it was a terrible effort to understand things I had not learned yet and to answer to her questions.
    You speak about a variety of topics with Andres. When you are speaking about literature you can say “Me gustan las novelas de Martin Gaite” and Andres might say nothing because it is grammatically correct. Nevertheless, in a classroom the teacher will tell you: instead of “novelas” you can say “obra literaria”, “trabajos”, “produccion literaria” and others, and can teach you different ways of expressing likes and dislikes, adjetives for novels, subtle tones, formal and informal expressions and more complex sentences. A good class opens a wide window. Then you practice all that with Andres and he can add “more than informal” expressions like “Esta novela es mortal”: kids and teens can use “mortal” (lethal) for something which is very good. And the advantage of having Andres’ attention on you and having your utterances kindly checked.
    All that was to say that, in my opinion, informal practice serves as a complement to formal classes. I want to stress “in my opinion” because I am obviously a “learning in the class learner”!

    • Scott Thornbury

      Hi Cecilia — thanks for your comment. You are right, of course, that a trained and experienced classroom teacher can generally provide a much richer linguistic diet than a novice. (Although sometimes there is a danger of the ‘expert’ wishing to ‘show off’ his/her knowledge, at the expense of the learners’ practice opportunities).

      You are also right, as I commented to Philip above, in suggesting that my conversations with Andrés are largely the recycling and fine-tuning of my existing linguistic competence, in the interests of achieving fluency, rather than increasing the range and complexity of this competence, and hence the exercise assumes that there is a ‘critical mass’ of language to work with. This is why a conversation class, in conjunction with formal study (although this could also be self-directed) might be the best option, especially for learners who still lack the critical mass.

      (As I write this, though, I’m conscious that I am treating language as something quantifiable, that you can ‘have’, rather than as something you can ‘do’ — see my comments to David above. Another part of me believes that ‘you can have your cake and eat it too’, that is to say, you can acquire the language by using it, and how better to use it than in sustained one-to-one conversation?)

  • Luiz Otávio Barros

    Thank you, Scott, for your inspiring and vivid account of how pushed output + feedback on emerging language has helped to bring your mojo back, so to speak.
    As I read your account, I kept wondering whether the sort of one-to-one model you’re describing would work equally well for both transactional and interactional discourse. The sort of scaffolding + retrial you’re describing happened mostly when you were talking a b o u t things, correct? Not when you were trying to engage in more interactional exchanges (which maybe would’ve surfaced more often if you’d been working with another student).
    So maybe that’s something else to bear in mind besides Cecilia’s comments on linguistic competence.
    Anyway, your answer sums it up perfectly: a pre-determined syllabus taught via formal instruction + organic syllabus created via one-to-one conversation is probably the best possible scenario.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Luiz – yes, good point about the possible limitations of the one-to-one setting, and in particular the Stevick activity I cited: it’s fine for rehearsing extended turns of a monologic type, but less amenable to dialogic interaction, since the other party (Andrés, in this case) has to be both interlocutor and instructor/facilitator/ re-formulator etc – disentangling these different roles might be a tall order. Although I have to say that I’ve seen experienced teachers do this successfully while interacting with the whole class – stepping in and out of the different roles with consummate ease. Something we should prioritize in our teacher training perhaps?

  • Nikw211 (@Nikw211)

    And all the time I keep asking myself: If I just did nothing else, could I learn any language this way?

    Given that the average inhabitant of a sub-Saharan African country is likely to be polylingual*, it’s rather disappointing to find that, at least as far as I know, that there seems to be a dearth of research into how Africans informally acquire multiple languages and are able to use them with great functional facility according to their needs. This is even more intriguing given that this polylingualism seems to arise in Africans from all walks of life and regardless of what kind of access they have had (or not) to formal education.

    I only know of one person – Professor Alison Phipps – who has taken an interest in what she calls ‘Languaging’ – the ability to informally acquire languages.

    If you know of any other researchers in this area, I’d be very grateful if you could let me know.

    *For example, knowledge of four languages might not be uncommon: 1) a colonial or national language such as English or French, 2) a regional language such as Yoruba, 3) a more localised dialect, such as Dakar-Wolof, 4) a religious language such as Arabic

    … the conversations with Andrés have endowed me with … the willingness to communicate (WTC).

    I meant to comment on this on last week’s (10 November) post – but have you considered the particular pressures placed on native speakers of English trying to acquire an L2?

    I lived for some years in Moscow and while there I managed to get to a (just) C1 level of competency, but one thing that I frequently experienced in conversation with many Muscovites was a panic that the moment I said ‘Sorry, what?’ or ‘What was that?’ my interlocutor would give a world-weary smirk before breaking into English (and sometimes at a level much lower than mine was in Russian), adding to my feelings of humiliation by saying ‘Oh Russian is too difficult for you, I will translate’.

    The constant threat of this experience meant that I was often anxious and I would only feel comfortable speaking to Russians if I knew in advance that they had no English at all. Similarly, when I was in Turkmenistan, I found that I could speak Russian with a great deal of fluidity when using it as a lingua franca.

    So in other words, is it possible that the reason you are relaxed and confident in your Spanish classes (as you told us last week) and also with ‘Andrés’ is because you know that the conversation is very unlikely to be switched into English at a moment’s notice?

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for the comment. The fact that there is little or no research on naturalistic acquisition across African language borders is curious, I agree, but may owe to the difficulties involved in conducting such research, e.g. being present at the kinds of encounters where such acquisition occurs. It may also be because SLA has been preoccupied with the acquisition of dominant, often colonial languages (partly because they are more thoroughly described, perhaps) rather than of local, indigenous ones, and even when these languages are a focus, the interest is in more how they blend with contact languages (typically colonizing languages) to form pidgins and creoles, than acquisition of the languages themselves. A quick search of the standard SLA texts shows no index references to African languages.

      Yes, you are right that the unstated rule that my conversations with Andrés are conducted only in Spanish, even when they run into difficulties, releases me from the fear that, in the even of a momentary difficulty on my part, he will revert to English (which he speaks extremely well) and the concomitant loss of face this will cause me.

      This puts me in an interesting ideological position, because I have long argued that the monolingual classroom is an unhelpful anachronism, yet when it comes to MY ‘classroom’, I regard the use of my L1 as an unhelpful intrusion.

  • Svetlana

    Dear Scott,

    Thank you so much for this most thrilling post. I couldn’t agree more that such conversational practice is the real art of teaching and it does work. Last year I had an individual student, female, aged 59 (!) with some rudimental knowledge of grammar, that she could never properly use but thought it was absolutely necessary. We met twice a week during a 6 month period for those exciting conversations. Olga (the student) had lots of stories to tell, she did it half in English, half in her own language, I would put down the problem words for her, then she would go through those prompts and tell the story again. On her own free will she bought the most terrifying grammar book with those horrid tables and explanations far beyond a normal person’s common knowledge, and insisted on doing some homework focusing on structures. From time to time we did some reading and listening from a coursebook to match the topic of her stories. The most frequent topics were dieting, cooking and fashion and instead of beer (like in your pictures with Andres) she would treat me to coffee, chocolates and cakes. In the summer she travelled and she was able: to win an argument with an airport authorities when her flight was delayed; to maintain an hour and a half conversation with her masseur (NNS, too); to make lots of friends with English-speaking people; to settle problems with her room at the hotel etc. Overall, Olga was able to stand up to the real world test (Carl Rogers’ idea of testing) and passed it successfully.

    Any SLA theory that would account for the success of such conversational practice?

    I wouldn’t agree though that you can’t do anything like that in the classroom. Those moments that you described as the most enjoyable in your classroom experience looked like spontaneous conversational practice and seemed to have required no preparation on the teacher’s behalf. Yet those moments are something very memorable for the student and beneficial to their learning. In my life experience there has been only trainer who explicitly instructed her trainees by saying that if you see that a conversation has sparkled, a student is saying something that is desperate to get out of him, step back and let it go on, do not interfere. But how can we inspire the student to talk? Once he has an idea to say and wants to say it, we can just step back and prompt, if necessary, the language he needs. The aim of teaching is not mainly about language, it is about how to provoke thought and make the student want to speak. Wouldn’t you agree?

  • Alan Tait (@alanmtait)

    It would be nice to have more learners’ diaries like this, Scott. Well done for baring all, especially since you’re well known in EFL.

    I give my students homework in the form of monologue-to-camera to be reviewed in class. The topic is something relevant to the class. With some more scared students I volunteer to do it myself in Galician. (I realise monologue does not equal conversation, but I think it does help.)

    Have you tried anything similar?

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Alan… so far I’ve audio-recorded myself reading aloud (translations from my blog) but I haven’t got to the stage of video-ing myself speaking straight to camera. Sounds like it’s something I should try before my presentation on Friday. Thanks for the tip!

  • Jenna Cody

    Is this a classroom method that’s so unheard of (as you said above)? Hmm. I have a lot of private one-on-one students who ask me to take them on because this is exactly what they want.

    I also have a five-person class of engineers who keeps renewing with me because this is what they want: they see the value in it and we’ve discussed, using metalanguage, why it seems to work so well. Plus they’re too psychologically and intellectually drained after their long working days to work on language in more traditional ways – although you could argue that ‘just talking and threading language in as needed’ is actually the most traditional method of all, before other methods existed!

    At first I had to guide more as they didn’t know what to say. “Y, how was your weekend?” “X, how’s your family? What are your kids up to?” “Z, how’s that project on coding efficiency going?” “A, what do you think of this [current news item]?” Now, I’m their as their language facilitator – I give them what they don’t have themselves and encourage them to remember it – but they guide the class. Entire 2-hour lessons go by in which they talk and I occasionally join in (after all, I have a life and opinions too, they are interested in my life and thoughts, and I can provide a source of native L1 input – it’s pure content-driven teacher response at times, rather than just traditional language feedback). As needed I embroider what they say with the words, phrases and ‘idiomaticity’ that they need, and we keep a record of it – I have one too, for planning review sessions.

    It works wonders, really. The guy who had runs of speech that did not sound native-like? He sounds much more fluid now. The guy who uses tenses/perfect forms/futurity as optional ornaments rather than functional structures? Much more consistent. The guy with the pronunciation issue (ch, sh, s, k)? Much clearer. The one with fantastic grammar but a lacking vocabulary? Almost native-like now. The one who knows most complex structures but never used them? Using them more and more.

    And all this from ‘chatting’ with someone actively facilitating the chat and helping them notice the new language that comes from it. It surprises me that this seems to be such a rare way of approaching teaching.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for the comment, Jenna – your approach sounds completely consistent with ‘Dogme’ principles (I avoided mentioning the D-word in my original post, except in the tags, because I didn’t want this blog to seem like a platform, or soapbox even, for a purely Dogmetic approach).

      How, though, in your classes do you address the concern (voiced by Phillip and Cecilia above, for example) that the conversation-based class merely recycles what the learners already know, without adding to their ‘store’? For instance, you say that you ‘help them notice the new language’ that comes from the chat, but does in fact the chat evince ‘new language’? If not, where does this ‘new language’ come from?

  • Jenna Cody

    *err, of native L2 input. (Clearly I need to take a break from the studying as it all sounds the same to me now).

    It does increase their language store, I feel, because the chats do evince new language. I try to grab things they’ve said and open questions to the class that will force out new language. For example, a few weeks ago a student was talking about meeting up with friends, and he said they talked about the olive oil scandal in Taiwan (apparently leading brands of olive oil have been falsely labeling their products, which in fact contain harmful chemicals – olive oil was something of a ‘health craze’ in Taiwan until recently). So after we all talked about how we felt about the olive oil issue, I moved it to talking about other recent food-supply scandals and scares – milk, organic baked goods, plasticizer in bottled drinks, the US beef import issue etc. and how Taiwan’s current food supply issues are similar to/different from China. All I had to do was throw out a few questions based on what the students had brought up, and an entirely new subject was born…one for which they didn’t have much of the language they needed, and I had to supply it (and, while that language is somewhat advanced – ‘plasticizer’ for instance – it’s also directly relevant to their lives vis-a-vis current events). We’ve covered health vocabulary (and functional exponents of it) by talking about kids’ illnesses and moving that to medical treatment in Taiwan and abroad, the sickest we’ve all ever been (I won – I was once so delirious from a stomach ailment in India that I hadn’t even realized the doctor had given me a shot), Taiwan’s National Health Insurance, what it’s like to care for a sick kid…one person’s bad customer service experience will be maneuvered into everyone talking about the best and worst customer experiences they’ve had (great for reviewing more advanced uses of the comparative and superlative) and how they did handle or could have handled them. That leads to weaving in language for dealing with recalcitrant company representatives. I think the system works pretty well.

    If I feel not enough new language is coming out – I can always tell by how much has been put on the board and in my notebook (and theirs, although I don’t monitor their note-taking as that’s up to them to tend to and I won’t patronize them/be their Mom) – I know it’s time to encourage the conversation to move in more fruitful directions based on the topics they’ve provided. If that’s not working, I always have a current events article or video up my sleeve that we can go through and talk about (from Malala to NSA spying to twerking).

    I know they see it too, because regardless of what’s in their notebooks, I type up what’s in mine for that class – with any additional information they may need and not think to find on their own (eg whether a noun is uncountable or not), notes on use/appropriacy, example sentences, useful word families if other forms of the root word have a higher surrender value, maybe even a four-question mini exercise to help them review the uses of things like “even if vs. even though” etc.. I give that to them in the next class, and they can do what they like with it.

    I always aim for about a page of this for a 2.5 hour class. If that review sheet is less than about one full page I’ll know it’s time to tease out more challenging topics from what they give me.

  • Jenna Cody

    (the purpose of the sheet is to give them concrete evidence that we’ve done something useful in class, it’s not meant to replace their own note-taking/creation of their own records. Anything that goes on it, including the further information, is usually something I’ve teased out of them in class – related words, how this or that verb or noun is used, the uses of even if vs. even though etc.. I don’t just hand it to them without making them do most of the work to create that information in the first place).

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Jenna… that gives a richer, more convincing idea of how an ’emergent’ approach might work in practice. It does seem that you have managed to adapt the one-to-one conversational model to accommodate the demands of the classroom.

      • Jenna Cody


        I still think about my original point sometimes – this approach, at least for some classes, is just so natural and obvious if you know how to get results and know how to prove it. So why are so few classes taught this way? You’d think more people would either independently develop their own version of it (as I have – it started because it clearly suited this particular class, which I’d begun long before I’d ever heard of Dogme, and they’re still with me) or be attracted to it as an idea. If you do it right, it’s just so naturally effective – so why is it still so rare?

  • Simon Chen

    Dear Scott,

    I really learned a lot from what you wrote and said after getting to know you from the Annual International IATEFL Conference in Birmingham. Thank you!!!
    As an English learner, i totally accept what was written here, but as an English teacher to train students to pass TOEFL, IELTS, or SAT, it seems that I have to be exam-oriented, teaching what is tested rather than truly teaching how to learn a language.

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