Tag Archives: fluency

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.

Confidence tricks

GoffmanLanguage learning is often a case of taking two steps forward, then one step back.

In fact, lately it feels more like one step forward and two steps back.  It’s as if I were right back where I started. Being out of direct contact with Spanish speakers for a total of four weeks in the last two months has not helped. And a couple of negative experiences have had the effect of all but erasing my new-found confidence. Or, at least, they have exposed just how fragile that confidence is.

For instance: we are invited to a friend’s birthday party. There are lots of people we don’t know, and we are the only non-native speakers, a situation that I would normally have avoided at all costs, but which I am feeling less apprehensive about than usual, thanks to my recent Spanish ‘growth spurt’.

The initial chit-chat goes OK, but the preponderance of Catalan is daunting, and I start to worry that I won’t get much conversational mileage out of my refurbished castellano.

I am seated next to someone I don’t know, and I fluff the introductions so I don’t even catch his name. I know I should initiate some small talk but I am pole-axed with anxiety. How to begin? How to continue? Will we understand one another? And, more importantly, will he want to talk to me, once he realizes the risks that conversation with me involves?  And so on. So I orient myself away from him and towards the conversation that is going on further up the table. Nobody else is talking to him either, but by now too much time has elapsed to make starting a conversation seem natural and unforced. I pray to God the meal will be over quickly.

Later, a number of us have gathered outside in small groups, where the greater mobility afforded by standing takes some of the tension out of doing small talk. The topic, unsurprisingly, is smoking.  I start to describe the draconian anti-smoking measures I’ve just witnessed in Australia. A friend who happens to be passing raises a laugh by teasing me about my pronunciation of a particular word. Once again, I am reduced to silence. I feel I’ve been transported back 25 years.

Two failures;  two steps backward.

How to characterize these two incidents in terms of the research into SLA?

The incapacity to initiate conversation (and this happens a lot) directs me to the literature on what is called ‘willingness to communicate’ (WTC). Researchers, such as MacIntyre et al (1998 and 2011), argue that the willingness to communicate to a specific person at a specific time and place is the result of a whole constellation of social and psychological factors, some of which are inherent traits (e.g. shyness) and therefore resistant to manipulation, and others, such as one’s current state of self-confidence, which are situation-specific: ‘The state of self-confidence blends the influences of prior language learning and perceived communicative skills with the motives and anxieties experienced at a particular moment in time into a state of mind broadly characterised by a tendency to approach or avoid the L2 “right now”‘ (MacIntyre et al, 20111: 83-84).  Given that, in my Spanish classes, WTC was never a problem (in fact, I rapidly assumed the role of class clown), why am I afflicted by the lack of it in social situations such as the one I have described?

The question led me to look beyond psycholinguistics and explore sociology, specifically Erving Goffman’s performative theory of social interaction, as articulated in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959).

Goffman tellingly makes the point that ‘life may not be much of a gamble, but interaction is’ (p. 243).  Why? Because it is through social interaction that one performs oneself. But not in the sense that the self is the cause of the performance; rather, it is its product. ‘The self, … as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited’ (p. 253).  Pennycook (2007: 157) makes a similar point: ‘A performative understanding of language suggests that identities are formed in the linguistic performance rather than pregiven’. The problem is, then, that the self that I think I present in Spanish is a necessarily diminished one, and one that not only embarrasses me but (possibly worse) will embarrass my interlocutor.

‘The crucial concern is whether it [the self] will be credited or discredited’. My unwillingness to communicate stems from a fear of being discredited; my friend’s mockery of my accent seemed to vindicate the fact that this fear is well-founded.

Lady and the MonkAnd yet, there are second language learners who seem to be immune to such threats to self. Pico Iyer (1992: 101) describes just such a one:

Sachiko-san was as unabashed and unruly in her embrace of English as most of her compatriots were reticent and shy. … She was happy to plunge ahead without a second thought for grammar, scattering meanings and ambiguities as she went. Plurals were made singular, articles were dropped, verbs were rarely inflected, and word order was exploded – often, in fact, she seemed to be making Japanese sentences with a few English words thrown in. Often, moreover, to vex the misunderstandings further, she spoke both languages at once…

And, in a new book that celebrates the work of Richard Schmidt (Bergsleithner et al, 2013: 5), Schmidt recalls another fluent Japanese user of English, the famous Wes:

Why do people think his English is so good when he doesn’t use prepositions, articles, plurals, and tense? I think it’s because when people talk to him and listen to him, they don’t notice that he doesn’t use them.

In his 1983 study, Schmidt attributes this illusion of accuracy to Wes’s WTC: ‘It seems that his confidence, his willingness to communicate, and especially his persistence in communicating what he has in mind and understanding what his interlocutors have in their minds go a long way towards compensating for his grammatical inaccuracies’ (p. 161).

¡Ojalá que yo tuviera la misma confianza!

Dick SchmidtReferences

Bergsleithner, J.M., Frota, S.N., & Yoshioka, J.K (eds) (2013) Noticing and Second Language Acquisition: Studies, in honor of Richard Schmidt, Honolulu, HI.: NFLRC.

Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York, NY: Doubleday Anchor.

Iyer, P. (1992) The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, London: Black Swan.

MacIntyre, P.D., Clément, R., Dörnyei, Z., & Noels, K.A. (1998) ‘Conceptualizing willingness to communicate in a L2: A situational model of L2 confidence and affiliation,’ Modern Language Journal, 82: 545-562.

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.

Pennycook, A. (2007) Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows. London: Routledge.

Schmidt, R. (1983) ‘Interaction, acculturation and the acquisition of communicative competence,’ in Wolfson, N., and Judd, E. (eds) Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA.: Newbury House.

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?



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.

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