Tag Archives: language learning

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).

Am I past it?

cursos para seniorsI had an uncle, Uncle Reid, whose hobby was learning languages. Even into advanced old age, he was forever dipping into books like Teach Yourself Urdu or Tagalog without Tears. I have no way of knowing, now, what his level of proficiency was like in these languages. I suspect that, at best, he had a passing familiarity with the rudiments of the grammar of each one, plus a basic vocabulary. Perhaps he could read simplified texts, but I doubt he could sustain a conversation over any length of time.

Nevertheless, the fact that his age was no deterrent should serve to encourage me, and allay my doubts that I might have left this present endeavor too late.  As motivated as I am, ‘at my back I always hear/Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near’.  Do I seriously believe I can reconfigure my Spanish, aged 63? Is there any evidence to suggest that I can?

Consult any book on SLA and you’ll find a lot of page space dedicated to the effects of age (or ‘maturational constraints’) on language acquisition. Questions discussed include: Is there an optimal age for learning a SL? What is the effect of different ‘ages of onset’? Are different learning processes implicated at different ages? Is native-like proficiency achievable after a certain age? And so on.

But look closely and you’ll find that all the research cited compares children with adolescents, or adolescents with young adults.  None of the research looks at mature learners, or attempts to address the question: Do maturational constraints increase with age? Or even, Is there an age of onset beyond which second language learning is not predicted?

Italian 50+On the other hand, if you google ‘am I too old to learn a language?’ you’ll find a host of happy-clappy blog posts, webzine articles etc, that – on the basis of only anecdotal evidence at best – are hugely encouraging about the ease of learning French in your retirement, or Spanish at 50. Language schools, too, offer ‘courses for mature students’, on the principle, presumably, that mature students prefer to study together, undistracted by frivolous teenagers, or – more worryingly – that mature students, due to their cognitive impairments, need special attention.

On the subject of older learners and second language acquisition, I managed to turn up only one serious study (Schulz and Elliot 2000). As the researchers point out, most studies of (old) age and SLA focus on language attrition, that is, language loss in multilingual subjects, but not on the acquisition of new languages by older learners. In their study, Schulz and Elliot report on how one of the pair (Renate Schulz, a 57-year-old professor of German) learnt Spanish during a five-month academic fellowship in Colombia.

Prefacing this account with a review of the literature on ‘cognitive aging’, they note that older adults ‘may not be able to retain information in short-term memory as well as they did before, or to process information as quickly…. They may have more difficulties in retrieving language-related information’ (2000: 109). This typically manifests itself as what is called the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ (TOT) phenomenon, whereby a word is temporarily inaccessible. ‘When older learners have a TOT experience, they tend to have fewer persistent alternates, that is, they recall fewer alternate words that resemble, in some fashion, the word they wish to retrieve’ (ibid.).  This seems to be less due to a failure of memory than to a decrease in processing speed.  ‘In summary, the research to date has shown that an older adult requires more time for many cognitive tasks and experiences more word-finding difficulties’ (ibid.)

Schulz’s own diary entries during her spell in Colombia often report some of these difficulties, such as a frustration at her inability to recall verb endings, or the problems of decoding rapid speech.  For example (p. 112):

(May 30) I get the general gist of the message, and only later (sometimes after an interaction with someone is completed and I’m doing something else) I suddenly fully understand what has been said in the previous encounter.

Sometimes I perceive myself as if I comprehend and react in slow motion!

Nevertheless, she also experienced some breakthrough moments:

(April 5) Yesterday I addressed the entire department in Spanish for several minutes before I suffered a “linguistic breakdown” and had to revert to English. Later I participated in the discussions in Spanish as well. Amazing what adrenalin can do!

(June 6) I went to see a play with C. J. I was very pleased how much I understood. I had no problem following the general plot, but did not always get the humour that caused audience to laugh.

In fact, on various objective measures of her vocabulary and grammar, both before and after the experience, she demonstrated significant improvement over the five months, suggesting that, if there were any cognitive disadvantages associated with a being ‘a mature learner’, she was able to overcome them. This is good news for me!cursos senior

Finally, and with regard to the pedagogical implications of their study, the researchers suggest that older learners may be less tolerant of classroom activities that are perceived as frivolous or time-wasting. The following comment (p. 117) chimes precisely with my own classroom experience although I’m not sure that this is necessarily an age-related issue:

Interestingly, Schulz, who in her own teaching and teacher development efforts emphasises the tenets of communicative approaches to foreign language teaching, reacted in her diary occasionally with frustration to role-play and other simulation activities. Group activities which consist of “working on inconsequential, semi-defined tasks with people who are less competent than I am” (diary entry from mid-February) also raised her ire, and in several diary entries she expressed a desire for more challenging and engaging contents.

Perhaps this proves merely that teachers make demanding learners!


Schulz, R.A., & Elliot, P. (2000) ‘Learning Spanish as an older adult,’ Hispania, 83/1, 107-119.

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!


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?


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.

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.


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.

Some background

I was 36 when I arrived in Barcelona, a relatively late-starter in terms of second language learning, and with a poor track record to boot.  Moreover, I had an English-speaking partner, so (unlike the younger generation of expatriates I would be working with) there was to be no Spanish sweetheart to kick-start my language acquisition.  As a precaution, I had taken a few informal Spanish lessons prior to leaving London, and had bought a BBC course, whose listening texts were innovatively authentic but, for all intents and purposes, impenetrable.

Teacher training, 1986.

Fashion victim? Teacher training, 1986.

I was immediately plunged into a bruisingly busy timetable in a predominantly English-speaking institutional context. If Spanish was around, it existed at the periphery, like background noise: the language of shops, bars and restaurants – and hence primarily a weekend experience.

I signed up for Spanish classes in a private language school but the methodology was eccentric to say the least, and the content often irrelevant, being too firmly tied to the grammar structure of the day. Of one whole course all I remember is the sentence  El payaso hace reir a la gente (The clown makes people laugh), and the teacher’s constant use of the device Vamos a ver (Now, let’s see).

I then managed to get a place in one of the state-sponsored language schools (las Escuelas Oficiales). I was placed in a class way above my level. I hadn’t exactly cheated in the level test, but – being a language teacher and occasional test-designer myself – I was able to do the multiple choice grammar test simply by using common sense. Even when I was dropped down a level, I was still way outside my comfort zone. Again, the program was myopically grammar-focused (one whole semester dealt almost exclusively with the subjunctive), but at least the teachers had a good sense of how to set up pair and group work.

Nevertheless, frustrated by the lack of real practice, I started an intercambio (conversation exchange) with one of my students, an intense young poet with progressive tendencies. These weekly exchanges provided useful practice, although I think we were both frustrated by the way that the topics we wanted to talk about (films, literature, politics) tended to evaporate through want of the necessary linguistic means. He was also a much more disciplined student than me, and soon his level of English had far outstripped mine in Spanish.

I started another intercambio with a group of friends: the four of us met in a bar every Monday night and paired off.  V. (another chain-smoking intellectual) was uncompromisingly difficult, and impossible to understand. G. however, was the ideal partner: her English was more or less where my Spanish was. We seemed to be able to pitch the conversations at the optimal level of intelligibility, even if the content may have been relatively banal. When G. got an English-speaking boyfriend, the balance of the group shifted and my own role in scaffolding G.’s emergent English declined. Nevertheless, those well-oiled Monday night conversations probably did more for my Spanish than anything else to date.

I also tried to read in Spanish regularly: newspapers and novels, although often abandoned the latter as being too much like hard work. Watching TV and going to the movies played a minor role: my problems with decoding spoken language (more on that later) meant that my comprehension was largely pragmatic: i.e. pure guesswork (and frequently wrong). Had teletext subtitles been available, the combination of the aural and graphic signals might have made TV viewing more fruitful, but they weren’t.

Searching for input + 1 (Galicia 1988)

Searching for ‘input + 1’ on a beach in Galicia (1988)

Unhappily perhaps, my views on language learning were at the time heavily influenced by the work of Stephen Krashen (it was the mid-80s after all), which meant that (a) I was very skeptical as to the value of instructed learning, and (b) I consequently placed a lot of faith in simply picking up Spanish through exposure. In those days, immersion ruled. I was to become one of its ideological fashion victims.

In Krashen’s defense, it has to be admitted that I was not exactly energetic in terms of seeking out optimal exposure opportunities, and even when I did get ‘input’, it was mostly uncomprehended. An article in the latest Modern Language Journal (Trentman 2013) makes the point that ‘much of the language contact research has revealed that contact with locals in the target language is often not as extensive as one might have expected from an immersion setting’ (p.459).

Thirty years on, and what’s new?  First of all, I tend to avoid mentioning the thirty years. The response is often outright incredulity: “But how come your Spanish is so bad?!”

Admittedly, people are normally more polite than that (although once a particularly tactless Californian woman, gesticulating like an exorcist, gasped: ‘Ugh. Bad Spanish!’).  So, in answer to the question ‘How long have you been here?’ I hedge, and let my addressee figure that I arrived when I had already reached the point in my life beyond which it’s impossible to learn anything new, let alone a second language.

Needless to say, this reaction – whether spoken or unspoken – is unsettling, to say the least.  And on at least two counts. For a start, it’s true: I simply ought to be able to speak better Spanish after thirty years, so there must be some flaw in my nature, such as laziness, or obstinacy, or just plain stupidity, that has prevented me from integrating linguistically into the host culture. Worse is the insinuation that failure to speak your host country’s language fluently is a moral failing, a discourtesy, an indecency, even: you’re not just a bad language learner, you’re a BAD language learner.  Failure to speak the language is tantamount to a failure to integrate, which in turn must be attributed to a lack of interest in, or respect for, the host culture – and all those who embody it. To the point that, through fear of offending, you become afraid to ever open your mouth. (Not opening your mouth is not conducive to the development of fluency, it goes without saying).

train to san sebastian 1989 bw

Immersion? En route to San Sebastian, 1989.

But more galling still is the knowledge that, since my professional life is devoted largely to helping other people become better teachers of a second language, my failure to master Spanish would seem to throw into doubt everything I stand for. It’s dispiriting, to say the least, to sense that, behind your back, you’re being labeled a charlatan, or an impostor.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, I’ve shown more than a passing interest in the literature on fossilization. While it’s debatable as to whether my Spanish is irremediable (and the point of this blog is to put that notion to the test), or indeed that any second language learning experience is necessarily imperfect, the idea that many, indeed, most learners reach a ‘ceiling’ or ‘plateau’, beyond which they cannot budge, is widespread in our profession. So, my ulterior motive is to put that notion to the test, too.

Before outlining the steps I plan to take to crank up my Spanish, I’ll be briefly reviewing some of the literature on fossilization, and then attempting to diagnose, from a linguistic perspective, the exact nature of my own ‘arrested development’. Then the fun will start!


Trentman, E. (2013) ‘Arabic and English during study abroad in Cairo, Egypt: Issues of access and use,’ Modern Language Journal, 97/2: 457-473.

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