The deep end

animals presentationIn a previous post (‘What drives me?’), I described how I had defined my ‘ideal Spanish-speaking self’ in these terms:

Standing in front of an audience of Spanish speakers, talking (fluently and intelligibly even if heavily accented) about teaching – IN SPANISH!

To which, one commentator responded (calling my bluff, perhaps?):

Re your ideal Spanish presenter self, how about setting yourself an achievable short-term goal? For example, the AESLA (Asociación Española de Linguística Aplicada) conference in Seville next year.

My first reaction was that this would be setting the bar too high – I’d be loathe to talk to such an august body in English let alone Spanish. Nevertheless, the challenge was intriguing.

Then I got this email from my friend Duncan Foord, at the Oxford House School of English here in Barcelona:

Re: presenting in English, as Jessica commented on the blog it can be really motivating to have something to aim for, an appointment with fate,  she suggested a talk in April. If that seems a bit far from your ZPD you could do a workshop in Spanish at Oxford House if you want. You would get a very supportive audience of English teachers, and some Spanish ones too and we could limit the size to as few as you want. You could get some feedback from a Spanish teacher too if you wanted.

tree presentationNow my bluff was well and truly called! But the more relaxed and familiar ambiance of Oxford House (I’ve spoken there before – in  English – on many occasions) offered a context a lot less threatening than an applied linguistics conference in Seville, so, not without some trepidation, I said yes. A series of emails followed, establishing the date (November 29th – just  over a week away!) and the topic:

Recargando las pilas: un estudio de casos de ‘desestabilización’

El fenómeno de fosilización es un hecho comúnmente aceptado en nuestra profesión, pero ¿de verdad el proceso de aprendizaje de otro idioma se acaba en algún momento? Como hablante, durante casi 30 años, de un castellano aparentemente estancado, este ponente ha tomado medidas para ‘desestabilizar’ su conocimiento del idioma y mejorar su fluidez. Esas medidas incluyen: tomar clases intensivas, leer, memorizar frases hechas, conversar con un profesor particular, etcétera, con la meta de hacer una presentación en castellano sobre el experimento. Esta es la presentación.

Recharging the batteries: a case study in ‘destabilization’

In our field, the phenomenon of fossilization is a commonly accepted fact. But is it true that the process of learning another language just stops? As a ‘stalled’ speaker of Spanish for nearly 30 years, the speaker has taken steps to ‘destabilize’ his linguistic competence and improve his fluency. These steps include: taking classes, reading, memorizing ‘chunks’, taking a private conversation class, and so on, with the goal of being able to do a presentation, in Spanish, about the experience. This is that presentation!

The imminence of the occasion has really concentrated my mind! So, what have I been doing as preparation?

debate1. Watching presentations

By doing a search on YouTube for Spanish-language videos that deal with the teaching of Spanish or of languages generally,  I’ve found a number of presentations that I’ve used as sources of useful ‘presentation language’  e.g. aquí tenéis…, en primer lugar…, como he dicho antes… (here you have… first of all…, as I said before…). I was also lucky enough to be able to attend a colloquium on teaching Spanish (in Spanish) at the JALT Conference in Kobe, Japan, last month.

2. Reading methodology texts

I bought a pile of books on SLA and language teaching methodology and am combing these for relevant lexis and phraseology (interlengua, zona de desarollo próximo, trabajo en parejas… etc).

3. Vocabulary study

Using the Anki software, I’ve been keying in and reviewing the vocabulary, lexical phrases and discourse markers that I’ve gathered from the above two activities.

4. Translation

Using Google Translate, I’ve been rendering my blog posts into an approximation of Spanish, and then going through them word by word, using online dictionaries and Google searches, to fine-tune them, correcting the grammar and vocabulary (where I recognize an error) and attempting – through the use of collocations, for example – to make the text more idiomatic. I then re-read these whenever I have an opportunity, and, from time to time, read them aloud.

5. Chatting

The forthcoming presentation has become a key theme in the weekly conversations I have with ‘Andrés’ (see the last post), and I use these to revisit the main themes that will form the structure of the presentation, such as identity, anxiety, willingness to communicate etc.

flower presentation6. Rehearsing

Silently and continuously, in my head, on long walks, at the gym, at three in the morning, on planes. And aloud: with another friend, herself a teacher of Spanish and experienced conference presenter, I’ve already had one ‘live’ rehearsal and have scheduled another. While useful, I’m conscious that these are not taking place in ‘real operating conditions’, and therefore lack the psychological pressure that may in fact reduce me to a yammering wreck on the day. Nevertheless, more than this I cannot do!

So, do I feel ready? Not entirely: I could do with another month at least, I feel. But, as a kind of capstone to this whole enterprise, the challenge is invigorating.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

(Illustrations from Growth in Good English, by Shane, Ferris & Keener: Laidlaw Brothers, Illinois, 1958)

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

20 responses to “The deep end

  • Jessica Mackay

    Hooray! I hope my comment didn’t needle you too much. Well done Duncan! Is this is a closed session, to help to reduce stress? If it’s recorded I’d love to see it.

    On a vaguely related note, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the distinction between WTC and Language Anxiety (LA). Rebecca Oxford summarises Gardner and MacIntyre (1993); ‘Language anxiety is fear or apprehension occurring when a learner is expected to perform in the second or foreign language.’

    In well-established and validated Motivation Questionnaires, items related to LA include;
    ‘I strongly dislike speaking in public’
    while the scale for WTC include examples such as
    ‘How likely are you to start a conversation with a group of strangers?’

    Is the distinction simply in the ‘initiation’ of the interaction? Is it me or is WTC subsumed within LA? When you give your presentation in Spanish what will you be experiencing?

    Oxford, R. L. (1999) In Arnold, J (Ed.) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.
    Gardner, R. C. and MacIntyre, P. D (1993) On the measurement of affective variables in second Language learning. Language Learning 43, 157-194.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Good question, Jessica. My immediate feeling is that anxiety may indeed be a cause of unwillingness to communicate, but not the only one. Learners may be unwilling to communicate because of resentment, as in this student statement: ‘I feel unwilling during social studies because my teacher makes fun of my mistakes’ (from MacIntyre et al.2011). Other students admit to keeping silent through not wanting to appear too good in class: ‘I was unwilling because my friends were like thinking I was trying to kiss up to my teacher’ (op.cit.). For others, it may simply be shyness: ‘When I see tourists who speak French, I want to speak them, but I am too shy to just go and speak’ (op.cit).

      Or, to turn it inside out, WTC may result from any number of factors, of which a lack of anxiety may be only one.

      I’m not sure if this helps!

      As for how I will feel – I will let you know!


    You’ve spoken a lot about your preparation but repsectfully to you ….HOW will you deal with
    A] Intonation….I haven’t heard you mention anything [in these diary blogs]about the rhtymn, stress and pronunciation issues of Spanish?
    B] Also your nerves….will you get stage fright? How will you react to people laughing at your language during a presentation? The Spanish are not such a forgiving crowd regarding foreigners speaking the lingo!!!

    good luck….

    • Scott Thornbury

      Pronunciation is the least of my worries, Philip! It’s more about getting the right words in the right order.

      But, interestingly, my ‘coach’ on Thursday’s dry run did give me some tips on pron, e.g. the ambiguous way was pronouncing efecto so that it sounded like afecto (or vice versa!) and a tendency not to pronounce the /r/ in such common words as porque (because).

      As for the audience, I have no fear on that score. I know that the fact that they are there means they will be on side.

  • Brandon Lane Ferguson

    Hola Scott,

    No sé si este mensaje te llegará demasiado tarde para servirte pero te quería recomendar un libro y me ha costado encontrar el título y los autores, ya que la última vez que usé el libro fue en el 2004 en Madrid y luego se lo presté a un amigo que se lo quedó.

    Básicamente te explica todos los conectores discursivos, el lenguaje funcional, todo en contexto, etc. Me fue muy útil y la próxima vez que vaya a España, lo voy a buscar en Casa del Libro.

    Gelabert, M.J., et al. Repertorio de funciones comunicativas del español, Niveles umbral intermedio y avanzado. Madrid: SGEL, 1996.

    La portada, si me acuerdo bien, es de un azul claro / gris.

    Te lo recomiendo!

    Un saludo,

    Brandon Ferguson

    • Scott Thornbury

      Gracias, Brandon. Acabo de añadir el libro que me has recomendado a mi ‘wish list’. Tú has adivinado correctamente que, aunque tengo muchos libros del gramática española, me hace falta un libro más funcional. ¡Agradezco tu sugerencia!

  • sendaiben

    Hi Scott

    It was great to meet you in Sendai last month. I think presenting in Spanish is a fantastic idea. I did something similar last year and gave two or three presentations in Japanese.

    A very different experience, especially if you are a veteran presenter. It’s kind of like stripping away your presenting skills, as they will be impeded by language issues. Just be ready for that.

    Best of luck, and I would also love to see a recording if one gets made 🙂

  • Cecilia

    Hi Scott, presenting is quite a big challenge. Thank you for sharing your feelings and preparations with us. In my opinion, having a purpose to target at (exam, presentation, class) is a great way of learning a foreign language.
    You wrote that you are not feeling entirely ready. Is any presenter entirely ready for a presentation? A presenter always needs another day, another week, another month …
    Just a small comment (a bit related to Philipp’s opinions). A) Being an expert presenter, you will stress what you want to and intonation will go naturally; B) you are presenting in front of a group of academics and I am sure that most of them have struggled at some point when making a presentation in a foreign language. Not only will they be more interested in the contents you convey but they will also recognize your efforts, both English and Spanish teachers. Nerves: while preparation can do a lot to reduce nerves, I don’t think it is possible to be entirely at ease at a presentation (by the way, how do you think Spanish presenters felt when we saw you in the room at Jalt?).
    Like Ben, I also hope your presentation is recorded and you share it with us. I wish you the best of luck. Again, thanks a lot for sharing your experiences!

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for the comment, Cecilia…and encouragement. In fact, the audience (if there is one!) are more likely to be other language teachers, and the majority of them non-native-speakers of Spanish, so, hopefully, they won’t be too judgemental!

  • Svetlana

    Dear Scott,
    This post reminds of an old joke. Several people are asked how much time they need to learn to speak a language, e.g., Chinese. Some say, 5 years, some say 3, and a student answers with a question, ‘When is the exam?’ I do hate exams and tests both as a teacher and a former student (had to take my driving test 5 times before passing it), yet I have to admit that an exam in the form of some deadline does help you to learn – you mobilize all your resources, study more effectively, plan your time more carefully, your productivity increases tremendously and as long the requirements are realistic and are within your ZPD it might be an effective tool to fight fossilization. Your story is a vivid example, isn’t it? And aren’t you lucky to have such favourable conditions and friendly, understanding examiners? There is no chance you fail it. Good luck! Keep my fingers crossed for you.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Good point, Svetlana – there can be positive ‘washback’ from having a concrete task to perform at a pre-specified time. The operative words being ‘task’ and ‘perform’ – if only all testing involved some kind of performance of an authentic task – then possibly it might be more educational rather than inquisitional.

  • Isabel Gonzalez Bueno

    Hola Scott

    Por lo que veo, estás súper bien preparado. Sólo falta que tengas confianza en vos mismo. Todo va a salir de maravillas.
    Mucha suerte!

    Isabel 🙂

  • Dewars

    Desde México, un saludo y mis mejores deseos, Scott! Es en verdad gratificante seguir de cerca este blog y, como EFL teacher que soy, dar cuenta de role models como usted que sí predican con el ejemplo y procuran seguir aprendiendo al ponerse, de una en el lugar de nuestros estudiantes . Al igual que muchos por aquí, también desearía poder ver algún video de la presentación.

  • Bob Middleton

    Hello Scott,

    Three cheers for your courage on taking on the challenge of presenting outside your comfort zone.

    An interesting experience I have recently had is speaking at teacher’s meetings here in Japan in Japanese. Just sharing feedback or comments but in a group setting of 6-30 people. I have found that recording the sessions and later going through them with a native speaker familiar with the topics to be very helpful. And revealing.

    In an effort to speak clearly I tend to add many more phrases and sentences than I would if speaking in English. Rambling is what my ‘Andre’ says. I think this is to compensate for my lack of ‘key word’ vocabulary and sentence structure in the L2.

    This honest feedback serves to focus on what I am missing in the ways to express opinions (in a Japanese kind of way) and how much I am understanding of the topic being discussed. And how often I am missing nuances of the discussion. All study points I can work on (which you are already doing in a more energetic fashion than me!)

    And we do need to balance the times I just listen compared with sharing feedback. I find I am listening more these days. There seems to be a frustration of not being able to say what we want clearly that disappears with time.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Bob… yes, recording the session (or at least part of it) would be a good idea, but I’d want this to be done inconspicuously, so as (a) not to make me unnecessarily self-conscious, (b) not to make the audience think that I might be more self-conscious than I already am – thereby creating a mutually reinforcing cycle of nervousness!

      But, yes, in principle, it’s an excellent idea.

  • Rob

    Well, here I am at the end of the blog posts so far. It’s been captivating reading, Scott.
    In perhaps another case of synchronicity, today (Nov. 29), was to be the day of your presentation.

    Hope it went well.


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