Tag Archives: learning Spanish

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)

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.

Fatal attractors

sauleda 01Me, in a pastelería (cake shop)

¿Qué es eso?


Ese pastel, allí.

Tarta de manzana.

¿Y aquella aquí… ¿Qué lleva?


Si, quiero una de este.

Which translates, more or less, as:

What is that?


This cake, over there.

Apple tart.

And that one here, what’s in it?


Yes, I want of one of this.

The translation is meant to convey the fact that the demonstratives (eso, ese, aquella, etc) are all over the place – literally – and only accidentally coincide with where I’m pointing, and with the gender or number of the thing pointed at. And, more tellingly, were I to have the same conversation again tomorrow, I might well use a whole different combination, plucked off the shelf, as it were, in a similarly random fashion.

This is as good an instance as any of how my Spanish, or pockets of it, functions in a state of ‘free variation’.

At some point, I must have been aware of the range of choices available for identifying objects near to me, near to you, and distant from both of us, and how these demonstrative adjectives and pronouns are also sensitive to number and gender, such that any decision to use one requires making a selection from 15 different options (see table below).

Understandably, I resisted learning the rules of a system that seemed impossibly complicated (three deictic points, three genders, as well as singular and plural). Instead I simply pulled demonstratives out of a hat, applying them indiscriminately, and sometimes throwing in a Catalan one for good measure. Of course, the physical context of the situations in which these items are typically used meant that pointing and eye-gaze made up for whatever incoherence resulted from my capricious grammar. Hence, there was little or no feedback as a result of miscommunication. I got the cakes I wanted.

pastelesAnd so the system (or lack of system) became entrenched. The same thing, more or less happened with past tense forms, with dependent prepositions, with clitic pronouns, with por and para, and with ser and estar. There are even sets of like-sounding words that I also deploy in free variation, the verbs planear, plantear, plantar, and planificar being a case in point. These wildly chaotic sub-systems seem to co-exist alongside other systems that are relatively stable.

In complexity theory, the fluctuations between relative stability and instability within dynamic systems are well attested. As Lewin (1993. 20-21) puts it:

Most complex systems exhibit what mathematicians call attractors, states to which the system eventually settles, depending on the properties of the system. Imagine floating in a rough and dangerous sea, one swirling around rocks and inlets. Whirlpools become established, depending on the topography of the seabed and the flow of water. Eventually, you will be drawn into one of these vortexes. There you stay until some major perturbation, or change in the flow of water, pushes you out, only to be sucked into another. This, crudely, is how one might view a dynamical system with multiple attractors.

Language learning is similarly ‘chaotic’: as Larsen-Freeman (2006: 592) notes, ‘There are no discrete stages in which learners’ performance is invariant’. And she adds (p. 593) ‘Learners do not progress through stages of development in a consistent manner. There is a great deal of variation at one time in learners’ performances and clear instability over time’.

The transition from one attractor state to another is called a phase shift, and one definition of fossilization might be ‘the absence of phase shifts’. Thus, Ellis (1999: 472) argues that ‘fossilization arises when learners fail to resolve the inherent variation in their interlanguage’. Witness my demonstratives.

But proponents of complexity theory would argue that any such stasis is an illusion: there is no permanent ‘end state’ in evolving, dynamic systems.  Hence ‘if there is no end state to language, it may be unhelpful to think in terms of fossilization as an end state to second language learning’ (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008: 10).

In a study of five Chinese learners of English, Larsen-Freeman tracked the ‘messiness’ of individual learning trajectories – a messiness not dissimilar to my random use of demonstratives. Larsen-Freeman conjectured that this very messiness might be indicative of the ‘instability that precedes a phase shift’ (2006: 611). And she adds, suggestively, ‘It is here where a pedagogical intervention might be optimal’ (ibid.).sauleda

What kind of pedagogical intervention?

I am drawn back to one of my favourite language learning accounts. Christopher Isherwood (1977:76), the writer, describes how he overcame a gap in his linguistic competence:

…Humphrey said suddenly, “You speak German so well – tell me, why don’t you ever use the subjunctive mood?” Christopher had to admit that he didn’t know how to. In the days when he had studied German, he had left the subjunctive to be dealt with later, since it wasn’t absolutely essential and he was in a hurry. By this time he could hop through the language without its aid, like an agile man with only one leg. But now Christopher set himself to master the subjunctive. Very soon, he had done so. Proud of this accomplishment, he began showing off whenever he talked: “had it not been for him, I should never have asked myself what I would do if they were to — etc., etc.” Humphrey was much amused.

In much the same way, I’m approaching the ‘holes’ in my own competence. How? A good old-fashioned students’ grammar, and a workbook of exercises. Hopefully, I will be able to find opportunities to activate, in real contexts (like the pastelería), the explicit knowledge gained from this mechanical practice, and trigger some kind of phase shift.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Formas del pronombre demostrativo (from Sánchez Pérez & Sarmiento González 2005)

Formas del pronombre demostrativo (from Sánchez Pérez & Sarmiento González 2005). Click to enlarge.



Ellis, R. (1999) ‘Item versus system learning: explaining free variation’, Applied Linguistics, 20/4, 460-80.

Isherwood, C. (1977) Christopher and His Kind: 1929-1939, London: Eyre Methuen.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2006) ‘The emergence of complexity, fluency, and accuracy in the oral and written production of five Chinese learners of English,’ Applied Linguistics, 27/4, 590-619.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewin, R. (1993) Complexity: Life on the edge of chaos, London: Phoenix Books.

Sánchez Pérez, A. y Sarmiento González, R. (2005) Gramática práctica del español actual, Madrid: SGEL.

Why Spanish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are classrooms good for?

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

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

So, what was the class good for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Next week: What drives me?

Back to School

Mis cuadernos

Mis cuadernos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things I am less keen on:

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

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


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.

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