Author Archives: Scott Thornbury

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.

Why Spanish?

habitacionesWhy I have I chosen to crank up my Spanish – as opposed to any other language? The question might seem baladí, i.e. trivial or redundant, given the fact that I live in Spain, and am exposed to Spanish on a daily basis.  But I also live in Catalonia, where Catalan is the mother tongue of at least half the population, and is spoken and understood by a good many more.  Moreover, as Catalonia drifts inexorably towards secession from greater Spain, it might be politic to throw in my lot with the language that is so inextricably identified with its nationalist aspirations. What’s more, in the town where I spend most weekends (see pics), Catalan is the language of choice, and I might be better accepted, and hence more fully integrated, if I could speak it well.

So, why Spanish? A fairly obvious answer is that Spanish has more traction, globally speaking, and will stand me in good stead on trips, not just around Spain, but in Latin America. There is also a copious literature, and the undoubted pleasure of being able to read Machado or Bolaño or even Cervantes in the original is a strong motivator.

But how often do I go to ‘greater Spain’, let alone Latin America? (In the last three years I’ve spent a mere five days in the latter). And how often, indeed, do I read poetry or fiction? Wouldn’t my time be better spent learning a language that is more closely identified with ‘home’? (And which also has an impressive literature, if that’s what I’m into).

What’s more, the triumphalist rhetoric associated with Spanish never ceases to irritate me. This week sees the sixth Congreso de la Lengua Española taking place, this year in Panama. Predictably, the press is pumping itself up with facts and figures related to the global dominion of Spanish. Thus, the director of the Instituto Cervantes (roughly homologous with the British Council) writes (in El País Babelia, 12.10.13, p. 7), ‘La historia de los congresos de la lengua ocupa ya un lugar de privilegio en la imparable expansión de nuestro idioma por el mundo’ (The history of the Spanish language congresses now occupies a privileged position in the unstoppable expansion of our language in the world).  (When would even the most conservative British or US press ever refer to English as ‘our language’?)

Associated with this triumphalism is a shameless appeal to normative values. Thus, the director of the Real Academia Española (the Royal Academy) writes, in the same issue of El País (p. 6), ‘El idioma peligra si no lo aprendemos adecuadamente en la escuela, si se borran las diferencias entre los distintos registros de uso o so emplea un vocabulario o una sintaxis pobre’ (The language is at risk if it’s not learned properly in school, or if the differences between different registers [presumably formal and informal usage] are ignored, or if poor vocabulary or grammar are used’. (I hate to think how my impoverished Spanish may be contributing to ‘our’ language’s ultimate demise!)

To their credit, El País do publish a piece by the writer Antonio Muñoz Molina in which he rails against the linguistic imperialism enshrined in such conferences (‘There’s not a speech that doesn’t tout triumphant figures about the number of speakers of our language [there it is again!] and in particular with regard to its demographic progress in the US’), and he makes the point that, ‘que yo sepa, no hay congresos del la lengua inglesa, por ejemplo, y jamás he escuchado a ningún político americano o británico glosar su variedad y riqueza ni felicitarse por el número de sus hablantes’ (As far as I know, there are no conferences of English, for example, and I have never heard a single American or British politician extol its variety and richness, nor congratulate themselves on the number of its speakers).

Well, Muñoz Molina is being a little disingenuous, let’s admit: there are plenty of politicians, particularly in the US, who trumpet the supremacy of English. Nevertheless, English-language linguists are generally very wary of adopting a triumphalist attitude to English, and, if anything, the dominant discourse in academic circles is one of embarrassment rather than of celebration. And quite rightly so: the global spread of English is one reason that people like me are so inept when it comes to speaking a second language.

esteladaSo, why Spanish? Well, the (sad?) fact of the matter is that it is the language which, for better or worse, I chose to ‘inhabit’ when I arrived in Barcelona. At the time, it seemed the pragmatic thing to do. Had I first landed in Vic, or in Reus, or in Lleida, the story might have been different. But now, having accumulated a passive knowledge of around 10,000 words in Spanish (see my last post), and, given my imminent senescence, it seems only wise to build on what I’ve got, rather than start afresh.

I’m holding out the faint hope, though, that the learning strategies I acquire in de-fossilizing my Spanish might be transferable to Catalan at some not too distant date – in time, even, to coincide with my acquiring Catalan citizenship!


Expensive reading?

dictionaries 03I’m about to embark on another long conference crawl, so I’ll be away from any direct contact with Spanish for two weeks. How can I maintain the momentum (that already seems to have been flagging since I took my intensive course at the end of the summer)?

One obvious answer might be to pop a novel or two into my carry-on luggage, and do some sustained reading. However, I have mixed feelings about the efficacy of the extensive reading that I have done to date. It doesn’t seem to have paid big dividends, given the time I’ve put into it.

Let me explain.

I read El País, a Spanish national newspaper, daily. At a conservative estimate, I calculate (on the basis of 200 words per 15 column centimetres) that I read around 5000 words a day. Subtracting the days each year that I might not have access to El País (fewer now that it is online, of course), let’s say I read 5000 words 300 days a year. That makes my annual exposure to written Spanish in the region of 1.5m words of running text (ignoring whatever other reading I might also be doing). What gains might I expect to accrue, given this amount of input?

Bill Grabe (2009: 273), citing recent research into the benefits of extensive reading, says:

If students read approximately a million words of running text a year, and if they know 96-98 per cent of the words, they will be exposed to 20,000 to 40,000 new words… If students learn one word in ten through context, they will learn somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 new words through extensive reading in a year.

It follows, therefore, that, in the 25 or more years that I have been reading El País daily, I should have increased my vocabulary by, minimally, 50,000 words. This would give me the (receptive) vocabulary of a fairly well educated native-speaker.

Is this in fact the case?

dictionaries 04Estimating vocabulary size is not easy (see a discussion at my other blog here), and there seem to be no freely available online tests (that I can find) that will help me do this in Spanish. So, instead, I did a fairly quick-and-dirty test using a learners’ Spanish-English dictionary. This involved simply counting the number of known words on every tenth page of the 385-page Spanish section, and then multiplying the result by 10. By ‘known words’ I mean the words that I could reliably translate into English. This gave a sight vocabulary of roughly 10,000 words (although of those 10,000 many are proper nouns, like Chile or Rusia, while even more are cognates or compounds that I don’t recall having ever seen in a text but which are easily unpacked on the basis of their morphology, e.g. inmutable, autoadhesivo etc).

10,000 words is consistent with Nation and Gu’s (2007: 103) finding that, ‘in general learners need to know around 9000-10,000 words before most texts become easily accessible for unassisted reading’. But it is a long way from the 50,000 I ought to have accumulated, according to Grabe’s figures. This is not to say that I didn’t amass these 10,000 words through reading. Only that there seem to be diminishing returns.

Why?  Are the texts too difficult? That is to say, do I know too few of the words I have been reading, i.e. less than the critical mass of 96% that are necessary in order to guess the meaning of the words I don’t know?

To check the percentage of words I typically know when I’m reading El País, I made a mini-corpus of 5000 words from the online version of last Tuesday’s edition, selecting from the world news, national news, local news, opinion, education and culture sections – i.e. a fairly representative sample of what I would typically read. Of these 5000 word tokens only 35 were unfamiliar, giving me a text coverage score well over the 98% that Nation and Gu (2007) argue is the prerequisite for ‘adequate comprehension’.

So, it seems that I’m well within the optimal zone for vocabulary acquisition. So, why do I feel that I’m not acquiring any more new words?

One answer might be, not that the texts are too hard, but that they are too easy: I already have enough words to get by and therefore I don’t experience sufficient ‘incomprehensible input’ to trigger noticing.  Or it may be that my reading is too superficial: because I’m normally satisfied if I get the gist of what I’m reading, problematic words are easily overlooked and not given the attention they require in order to register in working memory. They simply fall below the radar: an indictment of skimming and scanning as reading tasks, incidentally. Fluency comes at the expense of continued learning.

In the end, extensive reading itself may not be enough. As Nation (2001: 155) admits, ‘Vocabulary learning from extensive reading is very fragile. If the small amount of learning of a word is not soon reinforced by another meeting, then the learning will be lost.’  But he adds (p. 238): ‘Learning rates can be increased considerably by some deliberate attention to vocabulary’. Such attention might include dictionary use, and it’s significant that I seldom if ever consult a dictionary when I’m reading the paper, often because I’m reading on the train or on the bicycle at the gym, and don’t have a dictionary to hand. Moreover, the constant interruption that dictionary use involves would seem to run counter to the principles of extensive reading, defined as ‘reading in quantity and in order to gain a general understanding of what is read’ (Richards and Schmidt 2002: 193).

dictionaries 05And yet a dictionary might make all the difference. In a recent study, Ronald (2009: 94) found ‘substantial reliable evidence of the effect on a language learner’s vocabulary of monolingual dictionary use during reading’. Grabe and Stoller (1997: 119) make a similar point, based on Bill’s own experience of reading newspapers in Portuguese: ‘The use of a bilingual dictionary in a consistent and appropriate manner would appear to have a positive impact on vocabulary learning and reading development’.  Conversely, in a study by Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) where readers were deprived of the opportunity to consult a dictionary, or even to linger on unfamiliar words, vocabulary gains were minimal.

So, I’m going to pack some Spanish novels into my carry-on. But I’m going to take a dictionary too. Fortunately, this needn’t add extra bulk. I’ve just uploaded a reputable Spanish-English dictionary on to my iPad. Let’s see if I use it!

References:

Grabe, W. (2009) Reading in a Second Language: Moving from theory to practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grabe, W. & Stoller, F.L. (1997) ‘Reading and vocabulary development is a second language a case study,’ in Coady, J. & Huckin, T. (eds) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

dictionaries 01Horst, M., Cobb, T., & Meara, P. (1998) ‘Beyond a Clockwork Orange: Acquiring second language vocabulary through reading,’ Reading in a Foreign Language, 11(2).

Nation, P., & Gu, P. Y. (2007) Focus on Vocabulary, Sydney: Macquarie University.

Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (eds) (2002) Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd edn.), Harlow: Longman.

Roland, J. (2009) ‘Repeated L2 reading with and without a dictionary,’ in Fitzpatrick, T. & Barfield, A. (eds) Lexical Processing in Second Language Learners, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Special thanks to Tom Cobb, Steve Neufeld, and James Thomas, for advice on data collection and analysis.


Formulae for success?

Williams Happy DaysI am compulsively devouring phrases. I gobble up expressions like me da pena (it upsets me) and qué buen rollo tiene (how nice he is).  It’s not just my reading of the literature on phraseology that impels me. It’s a gut-feeling that these phrases offer a shortcut to fluency, accuracy and idiomaticity.

As a youngster I was a nerd avant la lettre, and used to collect phrases from books I was reading, which I would then try to work into writing assignments at school (what now would be called plagiarism). Richmal Crompton’s Just William series was a particularly rich source. I remember co-opting the expression ‘in my official capacity’, much to the bafflement of the teacher, since I had no official capacity whatsoever.

But, even if misapplied in this instance, it was probably a sound learning strategy, and certainly one that is now a fundamental tenet of ‘the lexical approach’. As Pawley and Syder (1983) were among the first to argue, pre-fabricated phrases confer not only idiomaticity (in the sense that they make you sound more target-like) but they also aid fluency: pulling down whole phrases off the mental shelf represents big savings in terms of processing time.

More recently, researchers into both first and second language acquisition have been arguing that a ‘mental phrasicon’ not only contributes to fluency but also feeds the acquisition of grammar. According to this view, a fully syntacticalized grammar is (at least partly) constructed out of, and synthesized from, a stock of memorized phrases.

As Nick Elllis (2003, p. 67) puts it, ‘the acquisition of grammar is the piecemeal learning of many thousands of constructions and the frequency-biased abstraction of regularities within them’. In other words, memorize a chunk like ‘you must be kidding’, and you not only have a useful conversational gambit, but you are getting the raw material, in prototypical form, out of which you can extract ‘you must be joking’.  It’s a short step to ‘it must be raining’ and ‘they must be closing’.

This is true for first language acquisition and, arguably, for a second language too. ‘From the perspective of emergent grammar … learning an additional language is about enhancing one’s repertoire of fragments and patterns that enables participation in a wider array of communicative activities. It is not about building up a complete and perfect grammar in order to produce well-formed sentences’ (Lantolf and Thorne, 2006, p. 17).

(How I wish that that quote were emblazoned across the gates of our leading publishers and examination bodies!).

phrase notebookAccordingly, I decided from the outset to keep a notebook of phrases: ones that came up in class, or ones that I noticed in my out-of-class reading. I reinforced my stock of phrases by reference to two fat Spanish phraseological dictionaries. I keyed these all in to Anki, an excellent tool to aid memorization, which digitally replicates Paul Nation’s ‘word cards’ technique, randomizing the sequence, and calibrating the time lapse between items, on the principle of ‘spaced repetition’, according to your own assessment of the accuracy of your recall. (For more on Anki, see this link).

The problem is that there didn’t seem to be any real selection criteria, and hence no organizing principle, for the phrases that I was collecting and attempting to memorize. The dictionaries I consulted gave no indication as to the relative frequency of the phrases nor their register, although one of them at least had examples taken from authentic sources. But, basically I was choosing anything that sounded like it might be useful, especially those phrases – like no le caigo bien (He doesn’t like me) or yo tengo claro que… (I’m sure that…) – that would confer a degree of idiomaticity, without being too colloquial.

In light of the reconfigured objectives mentioned in the last post, i.e. the focus on presentation skills in Spanish, I decided to limit my ‘phrasicon’ to chunks that might be useful in terms of their relevance to the twin fields of language and learning, as well as chunks with high discourse functionality. That is to say, I wanted words and phrases that would help me talk about language teaching and that would also help organize and signpost this talk.

Spanish applied ling bookBut where to find them? By chance, rootling around in a second-hand bookshop in Barcelona, I came across a copy of the proceedings – in Spanish – of a conference on applied linguistics, convened in Valencia in 1985. A quick glance confirmed that what applied linguists were talking about in 1985, such as puntos gramaticales (grammar points) and un enfoque comunicativo (a communicative approach), is still very much what they are talking about now. Moreover, although the papers are (obviously) in the written mode, there seemed to be a good number of discourse markers, such as en primer lugar (in the first place) and veamos un ejemplo (let’s look at an example), that might be equally useful for giving semi-formal spoken presentations.

So, using this book as my ‘corpus’, I created two decks of word cards in Anki: academic collocations, and academic discourse markers, to which I added a third called academic sentence frames, which aims to capture constructions with variable slots that might offer templates for a degree of creativity. E.g. no hay motivo para pensar que… (there’s no reason to think that…) and lo que es importante subrayar es… (what is important to underscore is…’

anki screenshot

The Anki interface

I’ve been reviewing and supplementing these three decks while on planes and in airport lounges, as I travel round Australia on a conference junket. Having the Anki app on an iPad is ideal for this. Apart from anything else, you can synchronize the app with your home computer, keeping both up-to-date with new entries.

Is it working?  Yes and no. Recall of the phrases seems good in the short-term, but if I leave them a day or two, many of them have to be re-learned from scratch.

I suspect that the only way of making them stick is to force some kind of production, preferably in context. But what?  Maybe I need to write, rehearse and even record short (e.g. two-minute) segments of talks that embed as many of the phrases as possible.  Any thoughts?

libros fraseológicosReferences:

Ellis, N. (2003) ‘Constructions, chunking and connectionism,’ in Doughty, C. and Long, M. (eds.)The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Blackwell.

Lantolf, J. and Thorne, S. (2006) Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pawley, A. & Syder, F. (1983) ‘Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency,’ in Richards, J., & Schmidt, R. (eds.) Language and Communication. Harlow: Longman.


What drives me?

5000801549_148b21fecc_z

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?

124481

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.

References:

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.


What are classrooms good for?

5285506260_8969d9afc7_zMy recent experience as a student on a short intensive Spanish course has given me pause for thought. While I can’t claim that the experience was representative of all classroom language learning experiences, there were nevertheless a number of features of it that I think are fairly typical, such as the way that the coursebook determined the lesson sequence, the alternation between teacher-fronted and more learner-centred activities, a focus on form as well as on meaning, and, notionally at least, an overall allegiance to the practices (if not the principles) of communicative language teaching. (The centre’s publicity material claims that they use un método comunicativo).

So, what follows is not so much a critique of the classes themselves, nor of the teachers, nor of the materials that we used, but more a critique of the current orthodoxy, in the sense that I have described it above. I should also stress that, since the classes were experienced as if refracted through the lens of my own specific needs and dispositions (some would say obsessions), these comments should be interpreted solely in that light: the other students may have had a very different experience (and this diversity of perceptions is itself a typical feature of most classrooms, I would think).

So, what was the class good for?

The fact of the matter is that I didn’t ‘learn’ a great deal, if learning means ‘the acquisition of new information’, ‘the internalization of input’ etc. I did pick up a number of potentially useful formulaic expressions (of which I’ll be writing more about later) and had some fossilized errors brought to my attention (as mentioned in my last post), but if this was learning, it tended to be sporadic, incidental, and, in fact, largely accidental – a by-product of tasks that had an altogether different purpose.  This mismatch between what I was taught and what I learned may owe to the fact that I had been placed in a level slightly lower than my supposed one; however, it seems to me that the accidental nature of the learning is symptomatic of an approach to language teaching that presumes to know what learners need, rather than teaching them ‘at the point of need’, an approach, in other words, that imposes an agenda that is not the learner’s agenda.

For me, the real benefit of these classes was the chance to be communicative within the safe ‘climbing frame’ that the classroom dynamic offered. ‘Chance’ is the operative word here, since most of these opportunities to be communicative were fortuitous, a case of grabbing some pretext to talk and running with it, rather than the pretext being built into the overall design of the lessons. For example, in one lesson, a passing reference to dogs (in a grammar exercise) precipitated a discussion about the rights and wrongs of keeping big dogs in small apartments, about attitudes to dogs in the different countries represented, and about films about dogs, during which I was able to tell a story about a neighbour and her annoying dog, this whole (highly productive and interactive) digression taking up about 25 minutes of classroom time.

To their credit, the teachers not only allowed these opportunities to evolve (in most instances), but were maximally supportive in providing help (in the form of recasts, for example) or feedback (in the form of correction).  These teacher interventions seemed to represent real learning affordances, and served to distinguish what is called ‘instructional conversation’ from the kind of talk that occurs in ‘the real world’. The conversations we had were like dress rehearsals. They gave me the confidence to make the transition into the real world, where – for the first time – I deliberately sought out opportunities to initiate talk, and elaborate on the talk of others. I remember one day in the second week where I experienced a real ‘turning point’ moment, as I crossed the street to talk to an acquaintance at length, even breathlessly, about the classes I was taking. In the old days I would have crossed the street in the other direction – i.e. to avoid such an encounter.

5285505744_7049ab1ef1_zBut it has to be stressed that these emergent and scaffolded classroom conversations were seldom planned. They emerged. What was planned was a succession of coursebook-based exercises, where the primary focus was on grammar. And on a relatively narrow range of fairly low-frequency grammatical items, at that. Or it was on vocabulary, but, again, often vocabulary that not only took the form of isolated words (as opposed to words in their typical phraseological environments) but were words of relatively low frequency and utility.

The problem is (you guessed it) the coursebook. Not this particular coursebook (which was as good in its way as any comparable EFL coursebook) but the culture of the coursebook in general. Once you pin your curriculum to the mast of a coursebook, you effectively circumscribe the learners’ ownership of the process, undermining the very sense of agency that might have impelled them to the classroom in the first place.  (It was perhaps ironic that the coursebooks were on loan: we didn’t own them).

Over the two weeks of the course there was a constant tension between the coursebook agenda and the agenda that we, the students, managed to fabricate from random affordances. The salient learning moments tended to occur when we moved away from the book, not when we were immersed in it. (This is not to say that the book’s themes, texts and tasks didn’t sometimes stimulate a conversational detour, but these detours were unintentional, and might just as easily have been motivated by copies of the local free newspaper).

Defenders of the coursebook might say that these teachers did not know (or had not been trained) how to use the books in a discriminating, and productive way. There may be some truth in this, but it seems to me that the very presence of the coursebook imposes constraints that even the best teachers find difficult to circumvent.

First there is the grammar: one of the teachers herself admitted that the grammar problems that learners of our level typically face involve structures ‘lower down’ the grammatical hierarchy, such as past tenses, por and para, and so on. Certainly, the bulk of the correction we received when we were in ‘free talking’ mode had much more to do with ‘lower level’ (and more frequent) grammar items than anything to do with the immediate syllabus.

Then there were the texts, themselves chosen or written because they embed the ‘structure of the day’: rarely authentic, inevitably out-of-date and only accidentally relevant or of interest. Then there were the tasks: primarily form-focused, and narrowly focused, at that.  Rather than the coursebook expanding opportunities for learning, it seemed to shrink them.

I have to stress that none of these criticisms is directed at the teachers themselves, nor at the actual coursebook (whose writers I happen to know!) but more at the kind of education that prioritises imported content over the locally generated. Generating lesson content locally would, of course, make a different set of demands on teachers (but demands that these teachers could easily have risen to, and, in fact, often did). More importantly, it requires a different attitude, the kind of attitude shift that a ‘dialogic’ approach assumes. As Claire Kramsch (1993: 31) put it,

A dialogic pedagogy is unlike traditional pedagogy… It sets new goals for teachers – poetic, psychological, political goals that … do not constitute any easy-to-follow method. .. Such a  pedagogy should better be described, not as a blueprint for how to teach foreign languages, but as another way of being a language teacher.

So, what are classes good for? They are good places for incidental learning to occur, particularly of the kind that emerges naturally out of classroom tasks. They are even better places to rehearse, experiment, take risks – and get ‘at the point of need’ support. These opportunities, and this support, combined with the total immersion in the language that I experienced four hours a day, five days a week, hugely facilitated my transition from the learning context into the using content. For that I am very thankful.

References:

Kramsch, C. (1993) Context and Culture in Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Next week: What drives me?


Back to School

Mis cuadernos

Mis cuadernos

It’s been a long time since I’ve sat in a language classroom in the role of student. But, as a way of improving my Spanish, it seems as good a place to start as any. (And I might even discover some things about classrooms that I didn’t know).

How will instruction help? Ellis (2008) cites studies in which instructed and non-instructed learners are compared and which find that the former tend to display a greater degree of ‘grammaticalization’ than those who had simply picked up the language off the street, as it were. He concludes that ‘it would follow that a learner who displays “stabilization” might be able to continue learning with the help of instruction’ (p. 31).

Encouraged by this observation, I signed up for a two-week intensive course (4 hours a day, five days a week) in the language school affiliated to one of Barcelona’s several universities.

I chose to do an intensive course on the principle that ‘short sharp shock’ is more efficacious than the long slow haul. This is a view supported in the literature: Muñoz (2012: 142), for example, cites Rifkin (2005) to the effect that ‘there may be ceiling effects in instructed [foreign languages] given the low exposure to the language…. In that respect, Rifkin argues that students must immerse themselves to reach advanced proficiency, either in a domestic immersion program or abroad’. Muñoz cites a number of studies that would seem to confirm this view.

The psychological effect of committing to a course (not to mention handing over the dosh) can’t be overemphasised. Months before the course began I was already feeling the positive effects of having assumed a degree of ‘agency’ with my Spanish: I was no longer simply adrift in a sea of potentially threatening crosslinguistic currents, at the mercy of whatever language flotsam I bumped into. Instead, I felt myself becoming a tiny bit more adventurous: initiating exchanges, venturing a joke, pushing the conversational boundaries, ‘entering the traffic’, to use Kramsch’s (2006) felicitous metaphor.

school thingsImmediately prior to the start of the course, though, I had a bit of setback in the form of an email from the course administrator, explaining that only two students (myself included) had been enrolled in the advanced class, hence the course would he reduced from 4 to 2 hours a day, but ‘the price will remain the same, since you will attend almost private lessons, which are actually more expensive’. To which was added: ‘There is also the alternative for you to attend 4 hours a day in a lower level (B2.2 – high intermediate) but with some other students’.

I have to say that I was a little nonplussed by the prospect of ‘almost private lessons’. I’m planning to enlist a private teacher later on, but in the meantime I’ve been looking forward to the group experience, not least because of the opportunities for low-risk interactive practice that this (theoretically) provides. Also, two hours a day just doesn’t seem like the most effective use of my time, and not what I understand as ‘intensive’.

In the event, after a short interview on day one I was shoehorned into the high intermediate group: 6 or so other students from a range of nationalities, and with varied learning histories and motives. All placement is a kind of compromise, let’s face it, and I resigned myself to the fact that, even if I might be sacrificing challenge, I would be rewarded by the many more opportunities for interaction.

The centre itself is well-fitted out and resourced. The four hours of each day are divided into two classes, each with a different (native speaker) teacher. The coursebook (copies of which are loaned to us for the duration of the course) forms the basis of the curriculum, the teachers having been assigned alternating units to teach. Over the two weeks I have had three teachers, all of whom are clearly very experienced, dedicated and muy simpáticas. (If they ever get to read this, I thank them unreservedly).

I kept a sketchy diary of the experience as it evolved. Here is how I summarized the pluses and minuses:

Things I like (because they seem to facilitate the achievement of my goals):

  • There is lots of free-ranging, fairly unstructured classroom talk, almost always as a whole class, sometimes in the form of teacher orchestrated Q & A as a way of leading into the coursebook topic, but often spontaneous and student-initiated, arising out of, but not strictly relevant to, some form-focused activity, such as a grammar exercise.
  • Teacher’s feedback during these exchanges in the form of correction is salient, and maximally available as uptake (although the feedback can be lost unless you make a deliberate attempt to note it down, in which case you may lose your speaking turn).
  • Incidental learning, primarily of vocabulary and phrases, occurs during these exchanges and also during grammar exercises (where in fact often the grammar focus seems secondary).
  • The teachers’ ability to pull example situations out of the air to explain aspects of grammar and lexis that arise, and the excellent listening practice this provides.
  • Mistakes I make that represent fossilized forms are brought to my attention, e.g. overgeneralization of qué (‘what) when I should be using cuál (which); mas + de instead of mas + que (‘more than’) with numbers; underuse of imperfect forms with stative verbs (estaba, hacía, etc): this really does seem to verge on de-fossilization, leaving me quite often thinking (and sometimes voicing aloud) ‘I’ve spent nearly thirty years saying that without realizing it was wrong!’
  • The opportunity to ask questions and get immediate answers about language issues.
  • The other students (once the class level stabilized) and especially the way they conspire to ‘subvert’ the (coursebook) lesson by initiating their own topics, but also the easy familiarity that develops which means that opportunities to reference each others’ lives, interests, foibles etc (often in a jokey way) grow exponentially.
  • The (admittedly few) opportunities to work in pairs or small groups, such as doing collaborative writing.
  • The opportunity to re-use – and be rewarded for using – recently encountered items in subsequent stages of the lesson or even subsequent lessons (although often this requires a deliberate effort on my part, i.e. it’s not a requirement of the task).
  • The challenge of doing a presentation to the rest of the class, and the feedback on this – this was a high point.

Things I am less keen on:

  • Teacher chalk-and-talk; e.g. board-centred grammar explanations, with teachers varying in their capacity to involve the students in these stages; and/or prolonged teacher-initiated diversions on minimally relevant lexical or grammatical topics.
  • A tendency to be over-prescriptive: “people say this but they shouldn’t”, along with a lack of rigor in distinguishing between written vs. spoken grammar.
  • Overreliance on English for vocabulary explanations, either by students or teacher, when it was not always clear the extent to which the informant’s English was up to the task or that all of us spoke English well enough to understand the translation. (I was surprised how much I was irritated by this tendency to ‘fall back on’ translation: the struggle to articulate or interpret definitions and examples in Spanish seemed to be well worth the effort).
  • Overuse of the coursebook, and the way the coursebook themes and texts dictate the lesson content, even when students generate engaging topics themselves, as well as the fact that sometimes a good hour or more would be devoted to working through the previous day’s homework exercises.
  • The relatively narrow and somewhat specialised focus of the coursebook grammar syllabus. Why do writers of coursebooks think that higher level students need to spend a great deal of time focussing on low-frequency structures of relative complexity? The subjunctive was not one of the areas I had diagnosed as being a significant learning target.
  • The way the lesson depends on the class ecology, so if a particular student is absent, this delicate balance is disrupted.
  • Activities that have minimal learning outcomes, e.g. taking turns to read a text aloud, watching a 25-minute travelogue, anticipating the gaps in the lyrics of a song whose content is highly figurative and hence unpredictable.
  • Lack of much sense of urgency: if this is an intensive course, where’s the intensity? It’s almost as if the pace is more leisurely because it is an intensive course. (Admittedly, the other students seem comfortable with the pace and may indeed be instrumental in setting it).

I am a schoolboy FaucettIn the next post, I’ll describe the effect that these two weeks seem to have had on my progress, and also on my own understanding of what classroom instruction is good for – and how these benefits might be optimized.

References:

Ellis, R (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edn), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kramsch, C. (2006) ‘The traffic in meaning’, Asia Pacific Journal of Education 26, 99-104.

Muñoz, C. (ed.) (2012) Extensive Exposure Experiences in Second Language Learning, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Rifkin, B. (2005) ‘A ceiling effect in traditional classroom foreign language instruction’, Modern Language Journal, 89/1.


So, just how bad is it?

'Me Tarzan, you Jane'. Is this me?

‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’. Is this me?

By citing the cases of Alberto and Wes in my last post, I may have given the impression that my Spanish is irremediably bad: that it has either pidginized to a similar degree as had Alberto’s English, or is only minimally grammatically inflected, like Wes’s.

It’s probably not as bad as that. Before I report two objective measures of my Spanish, though, here is how I rate it myself, using criteria borrowed from the literature on cognitive psycholinguistics (e.g Skehan 1998), plus one or two others that I think are important:

  • Accuracy (i.e. the extent to which my Spanish is target-like): 4/10: it’s only really accurate under conditions of zero time pressure, e.g. writing, or in non-vocalized retrospection immediately after the event, of the type ‘I said hizo. I should’ve said hice‘.  Specific problems include verb inflections, gender, pronouns, prepositions; pronunciation is heavily L1 accented; common words are frequently confused;
  • Fluency (i.e. the capacity to cope with production and reception in real time): 5/10 (although this varies widely depending on context and interlocutors); word-searching often halts speech; correct stress placement in polysyllabic words is also a problem in terms of fluid articulation; communicative effectiveness is often impeded by problems of comprehension that result from poor phonemic coding ability (also known as ‘a bad ear’).
  • Complexity (i.e. ‘the size, elaborateness, richness, and diversity of the learner’s linguistic L2 system’ ( Housen & Kuiken 2009: 464)): 4/10: vocabulary range is serviceable for day-to-day production needs, and quite good for reading relatively difficult texts; however, key areas of grammar, such as pronoun choice, reflexive verbs, past tenses, ser and estar, por and para, etc., still operate in free variation – i.e. the choice of one form over the other is random and unsystematic. There is insufficient grammatical knowledge to express complex ideas involving modality and hypothesis, or to flag the logical relationship between utterances, or to vary and embellish a simple narrative.
  • Idiomaticity: (command of formulaic language, collocation, etc) 3/10: poor command of formulaic language means I would never sound native-like, even ignoring other variables; collocations etc are still influenced by L1;
  • Appropriacy: (also known as sociolinguistic competence and includes the capacity to function in different registers): 5/10 – limited to mostly informal and one-to-one situations, due in part to difficulties choosing between tu and usted, and in using second person plural forms comfortably.
  • Strategic competence: (capacity to compensate for a limited linguistic competence, e.g. to paraphrase, to repair breakdowns, etc): 4/10: I tend either to avoid situations where this might be put to the test, or to operate on a ‘wait and see’ principle, hoping that communication breakdowns will be resolved further down the track.

For a more objective measure of my spoken Spanish, I turned to Pearson’s ‘Versant Test’, which is conducted over the phone and scored both automatically and instantly. (I was intrigued by a demonstration of the English version of this test when I saw it at a conference a few years ago). In their own words:

The Versant™ Test of Spanish, created by leading language testing experts using advanced speech processing technology, evaluates a non-native Spanish speaker’s ability to understand and to communicate appropriately in Spanish on everyday topics. Versant automated tests allow language teachers, program coordinators, and administrators to quickly, objectively, and accurately assess students’ levels of spoken Spanish skills.

And they add:

Making use of advanced speech recognition techniques, the Versant Test includes several different sections: Reading, Repeat, Opposites, Short Answer Questions, Sentence Builds, Story Retellings, and Open Questions.

The test costs $25, takes about as many minutes, and is easy to do. Moreover, it’s an interesting experience, in that, in some of its sections at least, it requires a degree of spontaneity, combined with the pressure of working against the clock, that cleverly simulates the demands of real-time speech production.

How did I do?

Here are the results (80 is the top score in each band):

Click to enlarge

Part 1: Click to enlarge

versant score 02

Part 2: Click to enlarge

What’s curious is how polarized my accuracy and fluency results are – over-generous in terms of grammatical accuracy, but a little mean, I thought, about my response to the story-telling and open questions tasks.  It also rates me more highly on the use of formulaic language than I do.  (How does it know, you may well be asking!) Anyway, I plan to take the test again in a few months’ time, to see if it can detect any improvement. For those of an empirical bent, this will constitute the pre- and post-test elements of the study.

Finally, having enrolled in a language school (of which more in the next post), I was level-tested using a customized online instrument that comprised a self-adjusting multiple-choice grammar test, followed by four short texts in C-test format. (A C-test is a kind of cloze test where the second half of every second word is blanked out and requires completion).

Here you can see a screencast of me doing the grammar section (forgive the typically Spanish background ‘jaleo’!) Those of you who speak Spanish might like to make a preliminary assessment of my level.

I was disappointed, though, that there was no test of my oral Spanish – surely easy to set up nowadays, using Skype.  When I queried this, however, I was assured that, on Day 1, my speaking would be evaluated by means of an interview.

How did I do?  On the basis of the online test, I was provisionally placed in an advanced level (C1 on the Common European Framework), the actual placement being contingent on the speaking test.

It seems, then, that both external assessments rated my Spanish more highly than I do, especially with regard to grammatical accuracy. What will this mean in terms of how I respond to formal instruction, I wonder? Specifically, will I be over- or under-challenged? Will the classroom experience penetrate the areas of my Spanish that seem to have stabilized? In what areas (accuracy, fluency etc), will I show improvement  – if any?

¡Continuará!

References:

Housen, A., & Kuiken, F. (2009) ‘Complexity, accuracy, and fluency in second language acquisition’, Applied Linguistics, 30/4.

Skehan, P. (1998) A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


%d bloggers like this: