Tag Archives: vocabulary

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.

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.

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