Tag Archives: ideal self

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 deep end

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recharging the batteries: a case study in ‘destabilization’

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

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

debate1. Watching presentations

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

2. Reading methodology texts

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

3. Vocabulary study

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

4. Translation

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

5. Chatting

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

flower presentation6. Rehearsing

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

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

I’ll let you know how it goes!

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

What drives me?


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?


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.


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.

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