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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.

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).

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