I did it!

presentation oxford house 03“Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” (Dr Johnson)

The same might be said of my Spanish-mediated presentation last week. Not that I did it well, but that I did it at all.

But I did it. When it was over, I walked home saying to myself a thousand times ‘I did it!  I did it!’

Did what, exactly? Well, I realized my ‘ideal L2 self’, that is, myself as a competent (albeit not proficient) presenter in Spanish. And thereby took a major step along the path of making Spanish my own. Not textbook Spanish, nor a Spanish remotely like that of a native speaker, but the kind of Spanish that enables me to realize my idea of myself as a Spanish-speaker.

How did I do it? In a previous post I made the comment, in passing, that maybe the fact of doing a presentation in a language other than the one I customarily use might teach me something about giving presentations. And it did. In a ‘dress rehearsal’ the day prior to the workshop my mentor advised me not to worry about appearing incoherent, but simply to focus on anyone in the audience who seemed to be ‘on side’, smiling, nodding, and so on. So I did (and, happily, there wasn’t just one individual smiling and nodding!) The effect was to restore the ‘social’ to the interaction, to reawaken the kind of communicative need I have been experiencing in my wine bar conversations with ‘Andrés’. I found my voice.

And it’s useful to be reminded that a workshop, even a full-blown conference plenary, is still just talk. Not a talk. But talk. And talk is inherently interpersonal. So: find your listener.público oxford house

Apart from that, what have I learned in these three months?

More than anything, I’ve learned that, to speak another language with any confidence, you have to own it. As Widdowson said, you have to make it your own, you have to bend it to your will. This will mean personalizing it, not conforming to its dictates and, inevitably, committing what in classroom terms are known as errors.

And to bend a language to your will is to recruit it for the purposes of optimizing communication in specific contexts.  It is to be resourceful, not just in the sense of using the available learning resources (online dictionaries, digital vocabulary cards, opportunities to engage with strangers etc), but resourceful in the sense of being able to deploy your existing knowledge, however limited, towards achieving your specific communicative goals in specific situations. As Canagarajah (2007: 928) put it,

Language learning involves an alignment of one’s language resources to the needs of the situation, rather than reaching a target level of competence.

It is akin to what Steven Thorne, in his plenary address at IATEFL last year, called ‘semiotic agility’ (Thorne 2013), and it is the situated resourcefulness that Pennycook celebrates in his latest book, Language and Mobility (2012). Pennycook argues that ‘passing’ as a legitimate member of the (local) discourse community is simply ‘a question of one’s language use being perceived to work’ (p. 94).  In my presentation last week, I sensed that this was the perception.  Certainly, my intuition that it was working contributed towards boosting my confidence, which in turn ratcheted up my willingness to communicate: a mutually reinforcing circle of reciprocated accommodation.

What else have I learned?

It’s a truism, but one worth shouting from the roof-tops: you get better at a language by using it. More significantly, you learn a language by using it. As Brumfit (2001: 12) puts it, ‘learning is using, and using is learning’. And he adds:

We may learn the tokens of language formally, but we learn the system by using it through reading or writing, or conversing.

In fact, my ‘learning of the tokens’ (vocabulary items, grammatical structures, and so on) does not seem to have paid huge dividends – not yet, at least. Even the time I put into trying to learn the relevant lexical phrases to use in my presentation showed only minimal returns: I managed just a handful.  As for my capacity to articulate the key polysyllabic nouns that I had rehearsed and rehearsed, such as fosilización and desestabilazión, it was frankly embarrassing.

All this does seem to confirm that, according to the ‘law of diminishing returns’, progress follows an s-shaped learning curve. To maintain the same rate of progress over time, you have to invest proportionately greater effort.

Maybe the fact that I was able to give a talk in Spanish was less to do with what I had learned in the preceding three months than the confidence – and the willingness to communicate – that the learning had generated. Certainly, I feel that my fluency has advanced more appreciably than either my accuracy or complexity.

Again, this suggests that, for some learners at least, learning about the language is less a priority than putting their limited knowledge to communicative use. More radically, this suggests that curricula that foreground communicative use, rather than grammar ‘mcnuggets’, may offer such learners a greater chance of success.  ‘If language is learned for worldly use, the learning process itself must be use-based’ (Churchill et al. 2010: 249). Not knowledge-based. Not grammar-based. Not even lexical phrase-based. Just use-based.

But what about the post-test? It’s one thing to feel that my fluency has improved, but what does the test say?

I re-took the phone-up Versant test yesterday, and here are the results – on the left the pre-test, taken before I started the process, and on the right the post-test (minus the more detailed descriptors).

Pre-test (click to enlarge)

Pre-test (click to enlarge)

Post-test (click to enlarge)

Post-test (click to enlarge)

Overall, I’ve managed to improve my score by only two points (from 61 to 63), although, happily, this takes me from Intermediate High to Advanced Low, according to the Speaking Proficiency Guidelines used by the American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTEFL). I actually showed a marked regression in terms of Sentence Mastery (which subsumes grammatical accuracy) – from 79 to 71, and my Vocabulary score also retreated, although not significantly. (I have to confess that, at the time, the pre-test Sentence Mastery score of 79/80 did seem somewhat inflated).

presentation oxford house 02On the plus side, and consistent with my intuitions, there was a considerable improvement in the Fluency score, from 42 to 50. Not only did this represent an increase of almost 20% in just 3 months, but it took me into a higher band (‘speaks with ease when dealing with routine familiar tasks’, compared to ‘short contributions with evident pauses’). There was also a five-point improvement in pronunciation.

Question: was the improvement in fluency (including pronunciation) achieved at the expense of sentence mastery? That is to say, has my desire to focus on fluency meant that, in real time talk, I tend to sacrifice accuracy? Does this confirm the wisdom that there is (always?) a trade-off between accuracy and fluency?  Or, assuming that I haven’t ‘lost’ sentence mastery, and that, under different test conditions, I may be able to retrieve it, could I find a balance between accuracy and fluency, giving me an even higher overall score?

Whatever the reasons, the fact is: I improved, particularly with regard to my main goal, fluency. Verdict: de-stabilization is possible, albeit selectively.

Well, on that positive note, I’ll now bring this phase of the experiment, i.e. the blog, to a close. This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop working on my Spanish. As several commentators on this blog have noted, there are other means and resources I haven’t yet explored, not least content-based learning (i.e. learning another skill or subject in Spanish) and one-to-one classes.

For the time being, though, I’m going to take a break. Thanks for accompanying me on this journey, and special thanks to Margarita, Iñigo, Duncan Foord and his team at Oxford House, and my three teachers at UAB Idiomes. ¡Muchisimas gracias!


Brumfit, C. (2001) Individual Freedom In Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Canagarajah, S.  (2007) ‘Lingua franca English, multilingual communities, and language acquisition,’  Modern Language Journal, 91 Focus Issue.

Churchill, E.,  Okada, H.,  Nishino, T., and Atkinson, D.  (2010) ‘Symbiotic gesture and the sociocognitive visibility of grammar in second language acquisition,’  Modern Language Journal, 94.

Pennycook, A. (2012) Language and Mobility: Unexpected Places, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Thorne, S.L. 2013. ‘Plenary: Awareness, appropriacy and living language use’ in T. Pattison (ed.) IATEFL 2012: Glasgow Conference Selections, Canterbury: IATEFL.


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

25 responses to “I did it!

  • Danya

    Congratulations! (I wish I could do the same in Japanese). Reading your blog has been inspiring, because of my project and my own process as a learner of Japanese.
    It is motivating to see adults accomplishing a level in the L2 that makes them satisfied; overcoming initial fears and concerns and accomplishing their objectives in the foreign language. I believe this is the main idea when we learn a foreign language: to accomplish what we want to accomplish, and not what insitutionalized linguistic parameters tell us we should accomplish.
    Personally, I am far from having an advanced Japanese, but a while ago I opted for talking and using more than aiming at perfect sentences, which was what kept me from speaking and having fun with the language at all during my first years as a student. Now, after a class in which I had to use Japanese to teach, knowing it was not perfect is nothing compared to the beautiful feeling of having my students follow the content of what I said, laugh at a joke, or understand something they had struggled with for a while.

    I hope your process continues towards accomplishing any objective you set. I would love to attend one of your workshops in Spanish one day.

    I would like to ask you a few questions…I will send an email 🙂

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thank you, Danya – and thank you for your inspiration when I was in Japan: your talk at the JALT conference was very useful, not only as a source of ‘comprehensible input’, but as a stimulus to considering issues of aging and language learning.

      By the way, about ‘having fun’ in the language, I’m starting to realize that (for me) one of the biggest blocks to having fun in Spanish was the presence of other non-native users of Spanish, e.g. other expatriates here in Spain, who (rightly or wrongly) I felt were less than tolerant of someone having fun with a language that they had taken great pains to learn. Part of the pleasure of my conversations with Andrés is that there are no other ex-pats present. Do you think that this has any bearing on your situation in Japan?

  • Scott B

    I’m glad you achieved your goals and gained an increase of fluency.
    Even if you don’t update us every Sunday, it would still be nice of you to let everyone know how your level is and what you are doing and experimenting with to improve it, maybe as a once a month thing instead.

    It’s good to see that you can still improve after having already learned the language for close to thirty years. It makes me feel that the plateau I have reached with my own learning after three years isn’t much of an obstacle and just needs a change of methods and a little bit more elbow grease.

    Thanks for letting us enjoy the journey. It has been emotional 🙂

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Scott … I will certainly keep this line open, with a view to posting updates on any new breakthroughs or insights. One thing I have discovered with this blog is that it has served as a kind of forum for other (not always satisfied) second-language learners to compare notes, a function I didn’t envisage at the beginning, and a good reason to keep it open perhaps.

  • Candy

    Bravo! I wonder if “Scott-speak” is the same in Spanish and English? Would those of us who have heard you present in English, recognise the “voice” in Spanish?

    • Nick Bilbrough

      Yes this is interesting Candy. One of the features of the way you give talks in English Scott, and I guess what keeps me wanting to come back (even if I’ve been to the talk before), is the way that you don’t create distance between yourself and the audience, and manage to make those that are listening feel that they are having a conversation with you. I’d say you do this even when the audience is huge. Were you able to do this in Spanish too?

      • Scott Thornbury

        Thanks, Nick. That is reassuring, and I now wish I’d had more time to allow for Q&A, which – although it would have tested my skills to respond spontaneously, would have contributed a more conversational register to the talk. Next time!

    • Scott Thornbury

      I wonder, Candy. There were certainly people in the audience who had been students of mine previously, or had attended talks I’ve given before: it’s a pity I didn’t have time to ask them questions like yours.

  • Rachel Appleby

    Have so enjoyed this, every Sunday morning – entertaining, but extremely informative and interesting each week.
    Your ‘findings’ certainly refocus my thoughts on simply the need to expand my own lexical base in another language: the upward spiral of using the language needs much more attention on my part, – Brumfit’s point. Yes, I can hear your rooftop shout!
    And am thrilled you “did it” – a real achievement! Congratulations – and do keep up the good work (and keep us posted if and when you can!).
    THANK you, Scott!

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Rachel. I’m still convinced that increasing and activating my existing lexicon is essential if I am going to extend my range, particularly with regard to idiomaticity – but it is a long haul – and, frankly, it was disappointing how limited my active vocabulary repertoire was, in the actual talk, compared to what I had rehearsed in my head beforehand. Maybe this really is an age thing.

  • Laura Adele

    Felicitaciones! I’ve really enjoyed reading about your experience as a Spanish language learner -makes me wish I could follow a similar path with French now.

    On a separate note, I recently read an article that addressed “semiotic theory” (related to CALL) and I’ve been struggling to understand what it really means for language learning. What did Thorne mean by “semiotic agility”? Does it have to do with the ability of interpreting context clues and signs not related to the actual words we use to communicate?

    • Scott Thornbury

      Hi Laura. When Thorne used the term ‘semiotic agility’, It was in reference to a study he was reporting about video game aficionados, and the semiotic resources that they drew on, not only in playing the games, but in talking about them to other gamers. By semiotic resources (if I recall) he meant the whole system of signs — not just linguistic, but also imagistic and gestural — that immersion in the gaming environment involves. He was suggesting that all forms of communication, especially in a digital, multi-modal world, require a similar agility to manipulate sign-systems, including, but not exclusive to, language. (I don’t have the summary of his plenary to hand at the moment, but when I do I’ll check that I have got this right!)

      • Laura Adele

        Thanks, Scott! This makes sense. I find it fascinating that our ability to use visual clues and interpret signs around us can aid so much not just to our understanding, but also to the way we are perceived in the language we are learning.

  • Delpha

    Thanks for this inspiring weekly read. Well done, Scott!

  • Cecilia

    Mil felicitaciones Scott! Thank you for sharing your journey, I have learned a lot. You made the perfect combination of methodology expertise and students’ effort. Seldom do we have the chance to see an expert speaking from the perspective of a student. Thanks to your ideas and impressions I can visualize now how to re-shape the way i am learning English and Japanese. Muchisimas gracias. Y ahora, si puedes, disfruta de un merecido descanso.

  • Hana Tichá

    Hi Scott!
    I’m sorry to hear it’s over but I understand you’ve reached a certain turning point in learning Spanish. I absolutely agree that if one wants to succeed, they should personalize the target language, not conform to its dictates. This is an important message for EFL teachers all around the world. Don’t worry about the test results. I’m personally very skeptical about standardized tests of any kind – there are so many areas our students may improve in significantly, but the tests won’t show (e.g. the confidence level, which is so important for the future success). Thanks for sharing your feelings. Good luck and Merry Christmas.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Hana, for this comment, and all your previous ones. Regarding the test results, I’m not worried at all – in fact I think even a two-point increase overall (in three months) is a quite an achievement, and a 20% improvement in fluency a vindication of the importance of speaking a second language rather than simply ‘learning’ it.

  • Svetlana

    Dear Scott,
    Belated congratulations on successful completion of this self-inflicted torture of destabilizing your Spanish :-)! It has definitely been successful – you have shaken your stabilized Spanish, and your lower post test score on Sentence mastery is the evidence of it, isn’t it? Before proceeding to a higher level, backsliding is inevitable in any dynamic system, be it an economy, or an ecology. The existing connections get destroyed, some doubt is cast upon their validity, and the result is a worsened performance. Yet which technique from those you tried contributed most to the process of destabilization? Roughly-tuned input in the classroom? Finely tuned feedback in your conversation with Andres? Uploading pre-fabricated chunks onto your memory while memorizing discourse makers for your presentation? The fear of failing your final presentation? Extensive reading? Language analysis and employing grammatical rules? Practising while shopping for cakes?
    What a shame really that this blog is over! It would be great if you could promise ‘to be continued’ … Alas…
    Full of hope that this blog is going to be resumed at some point.
    Thank you so much for conducting this experiment, for being so frank and open in your self-observation and sharing it with your readers!

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thank you, Svetlana, and thanks for your many insightful comments over the course of this experiment.

      Regarding your question: which techniques worked best, I think that the significant increase in fluency owes both to the intensive classroom experience and, more recently, the one-to-one conversations with Andrés. As much as I would have wished it, the memorization of formulaic chunks didn’t seem to feed into the fluency, accuracy or complexity of my Spanish in any significant way… but I think that this was due to lack of application on my part, e.g. I could have done more to activate these chunks in, for example, writing tasks.

      I will keep working on it … and… who knows… blog about it again!

  • Anna M.

    I came across your blog recently and found it very interesting. I have gone through a lot of what you describe as well particularly your experiences with vocabulary. I’m a language teacher too (I teach Spanish at a private university in the States) and also have a blog (no ads) where I write about my experiences using and learning Spanish in the U.S., touching on topics relating to vocabulary, sociolinguistics, fluency, proficiency and formal study. I will continue to check your blog as you progress. Best of luck.

  • David Warr

    Hi Scott. “Even the time I put into trying to learn the relevant lexical phrases…” How did you try to learn them? Was it “just” memorisation with anki, turning cards over back and forth? Why would you say that is? Are you still using it (assuming you’re still learning Spanish in 2014).

  • Jenna Cody

    Love the entry, but boy is that initial quote sexist. If that guy is alive (somehow I doubt it) I’d like to give him a swift kick to the pillar&rocks.

    Otherwise…yep. It’s all so obvious. Students often ask me how to do this – how to not just learn new vocabulary and grammar but to actually use it all fluently and remember it for future use. They point out that I speak Chinese well despite having used it (I never really studied – I quit the one program I tried) for many years fewer than they have studied English. And the answer is always the same: “move abroad. Make friends there. Get a job there and live your life. Use it.” They don’t like the answer for good reason: it’s not feasible for everyone. Those who’d like to work are stymied by visa restrictions and the economy, and those who’d like to study abroad find they can’t afford the English classes, which usually don’t offer financial assistance, and to study another subject they have to pass IELTS or similar…but it’s hard to do well on IELTS if you haven’t had the experience of really using the language much.

    I do find having a one-on-one tutor helps, too. I use Chinese every day, but while I may grow more fluent with what I do know, without help, I rarely grow beyond that to learn what I don’t know. She makes me read (otherwise I can be quite lazy; you would be too if the language in question were Chinese) and feeds me correct patterns and lexical chunks. If I review them later and just use, use, use them, I learn them. Without her, it wouldn’t be happening quite as effectively. (And I say ‘correct patterns” in terms of, sentences that can be understood. I’m fine with making mistakes, but if the other person just straight up can’t understand me, it’s necessary to learn how to say something so they can).

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