“Learning a second language doubles life” Jacqueline Bouvier
After I had been living in Spain for some years, I was in London on a visit & talking with friends; I described my Spanish neighbours as peasants, but they said that they couldn’t be! & I realised that ‘peasant’ has only negative connotations in Britain; which goes to show how far removed British society is from it’s rural past.
I recognised that my peasant neighbours taught me more than I ever learned at University. I realised that myself & my fellow graduates had been groomed to live in a society in which someone else does all the work; bred to be middle men, or guaranteed jobs by the government, whilst all the digging, & smelting & chopping & weaving is done by others. The problem with this is that without personal experience, people are reliant on the dictates of scientists & ‘experts’; they lack the information to draw their own conclusions.
For many years I had no access to a library, so that my exposure to Spanish literature was confined to the cheap books published throughout the nineties by publishers such as Anaya, subsidised by the government which aimed to promote literacy. Previously, the subject matter available was limited to a few mouldy religious textbooks & a copy of ‘la Marca’ at the bar. Very few of my older neighbours could read or write. Speech patterns developed over centuries had hardly been influenced by outside changes & language continued to be anchored to the the physical universe.
Now that I write in Spanish I try to imagine how my neighbours would express what I want to say. For example, I myself would have difficulty in explaining why chlorinated water is so unpleasant to drink, whereas a gardener in the municipal park put it like this:
– ¡Aquella agua da mucha sed!
In the words of Fernando Lazaro “Solo podemos pensar con el lenguaje”; & it is the process of mastering the Spanish language that helps me to clarify my thoughts & impressions. I take Lazaros’ assertion that we can only think with language to further signify that clarity of expression enables us to think clearly.
Having spent some time in the linguistics section at the UCL library I was struck by how badly linguists express themselves. I get the impression that, in trying to break language down to its component parts, they have thrown the baby out with the bath water & produced a code which can only be understood by their fellow academics. I suspect that this is because language is so closely linked to its meaning that it cannot be studied for itself. I believe that the mind assimilates language when it is trying to understand something THROUGH that language; & that literature does not only teach us language, but also thought.
At the end of my aural exam at the Cervantes Institute last May I was encouraged by one of the examiners to take a teaching module in Spanish rather than continuing into Translation. I enjoyed the course, but felt that my inadequacies as a non-native would be an impediment to effective teaching.
I am an enthusiastic reader of Spanish literature, especially the realists; I love the way that the Madrid that Fortunata walked through, or the streets in ‘La Dama Errante’ can still be plotted on a map. I have a pet project to organise a literary tour through the streets of Madrid, as is done in Dublin (following the inebriated steps of Leopold Bloom); but my more immediate aim is to finish “La Tesis de Enri” part of which I have temporarily posted on my wordpress site for you to see, strictly as a work in progress.
I see my specialist subjects as Marine & Agriculture, in both of which I have an interest & some experience. I was farming for the last ten years before coming away from Spain
My wordpress blog is predominately visual; however as I was influenced by the artists Marcel Broodthaers & Laurence Weiner whilst working at Art Monthly in the 1980’s, both of whom were instrumental in the inclusion of language as a visual element in art at that time, my work since then has been continuously word inspired. The edacta project, a publishing enterprise in which three Artists Books were produced in three different languages; also included a self scrolling reproduction of the MallarmÈ poem “Un Coup de DÈs” reproducing the original format envisaged by the poet.
I recently attended the Sebald lecture at Kings Place which was given by the poet Sean O’Brien, I was interested to learn that he worked from ‘literals’, from languages that he doesn´t speak; my position is quite different in that I am only inspired by other languages, if I stick to English I only write middle-class guff.
My overwhelming motive for continuing my studies is to break away from the ‘plateau’ on which I find myself & learn to write in Spanish as well as a native speaker; my preference for UCL is due to the incomparable library in which I could study the Spanish language, not it’s ‘nocio-funcional’ cousin.
(for copies of this, & CLTA essay, please see postconsumerist.wordpress.com)
“To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words, & a man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.” (Conrad)
It is possible that nothing is ever learnt in a classroom but rather that examples are demonstrated there which are subsequently confirmed by the students’ own experience. The teachers’ role is to help the student develop methods of comprehension & confidence in his abilities. To do this the he should not only be interested in the language itself, but also in the development of the individual. A good teacher should show equal interest in all of his students, whilst at the same time taking care never to give the impression that his interest for any particular student deviates from that prescribed.
It is important to mention this because it may be the spark of understanding between himself & his teacher that animates the students’ interest in the subject. This interaction is invaluable in the classroom; it is literally worth more than all the text books & photocopies & materials heaped up together! However it is a situation that could be misconstrued by a younger or more needy student.
The adult learner must present many advantages from a teachers’ point of view, the foremost being that he is attending the course voluntarily or if not, at least can see some purpose in it. However adults are more likely to come to the course with a varied level of skills & their learning consequently will be less homogenised. In a part-time course the disparity between the learners’ aims could also be quite pronounced & the teacher will have to get to know something about their expectations before he begins. As the course continues he should be aware if any student is unlikely to achieve the aims he has owned to & consider if that student needs more help.(2)
Often part-time courses to take place in borrowed premises, & the teacher would have to check invalid & emergency access & heating & cleaning arrangements with the administration prior to the commencement of the course.(3) Any relevant information can then be communicated to the students. They may be asked to sign documentation originating from the administration; or fill in forms provided by the organisation which is promoting the course. The teacher relays information from these bodies to the students. However, if problems arise beyond the teachers’ remit, other staff members should be asked to advise.
Teacher & students may decide to use email to contact each other but must be aware that no email account, indeed no online communication is entirely secure & that it is very easy for mistakes to be made when sending group email. If the student prefers, he can open a new account, which he could dedicate to course work. (4) Apart from the email address, there is no need for the teacher to obtain any personal data from the student. It is considered unadvisable (Ann Gravells) for the teacher to divulge personal information himself, as he will better command the students’ respect if he maintains a certain distance.
The course curriculum would normally be specified by the organisational body, as would any exam or assessment criteria. To avoid misunderstanding the teacher should maintain written records detailing learners’ progress (Gravells); he should be systematic when marking students’ work (Gravells) as it is important to be seen to maintain consistency in assessment decisions. To this end another staff member will be seen to validate his decisions (Gravells). However such “internal verification” is a bit of a three card trick & the student will always retain the option of querying any final result. If there seems to be a problem an assessor will examine the students work independently of the teacher, a recourse known as “internal modification” (Gravells).
Some courses are designed to meet exam criteria, in which case the teacher has no option but to coach the students to pass the exam; even if this is so, he should still talk with his students to check that all is well. Both criticism & praise are referred to as ‘feedback’; (Gravells) but neither is, I feel, particularly apt for adult learners; to avoid embarrassment these comments should be confined to marked work. As there is much ground to be covered, homework should be set & marked regularly so that the required rate of progress is achieved. Otherwise the students may become discouraged. I would minimise the amount of photocopied material, which is bulky & confusing, & ask the students to keep their own notes in exercise books (not the kind with removable pages). These will serve both as a reference for themselves, & a useful record of their progress.
If the aim of the course is rather to develop “learner communication & interpretative strategy” (Candlin) the coursework could be far more open ended, tailor made to fit particular students, & even incorporate the suggestions of the students themselves. Candlin argues that a fixed syllabus might “construct artificial encounters which lack… verisimilitude” & avoid “presenting learners with the rich & varied content data needed to excite learner affect.” Candlin expresses himself very badly, but there is no doubt that he means that the language presented should be both interesting & challenging if it is to be effective in teaching.
As I have no opportunity to meet my intended students in this essay I propose to model my course on a particular learner who is known to me. S. is a recently retired English woman who has been amicably separated from her husband for many years. With the help of her daughters she has bought a house in Southern Spain intending to spend most of her time there. She is hardworking & outgoing but it is clear to her family & friends that her greatest problem is going to be that of the isolation engendered by not speaking Spanish.
Clearly the course that would best adapt to S. is going to be highly functional. Assuming that it takes place in Spain I would like to link the classes to situations that she has already experienced, or challenges that she is about to face. I would ask her & her fellow students to carry notebooks & bring back words or phrases that we can work on together.
For course book I would take the BBCs ” España Viva” (7) partly because it is brief enough to deal with in 20 hours & partly because it conforms to the slightly colonial outlook that many adults of this generation bring to foreign language study. This attitude in itself is a barrier to learning as it tends to cut in & prevent the student from listening to the TL. Another barrier is that S, like many others, has little academic training & so is not likely to ‘study’ at all; any language that she picks up will be mostly through mimicry & general communicative flair.
With this in mind there are several techniques that I would not include in my course; the use of cloze tests is particularly problematic. If we imagine the student as struggling with a sentence in his mind, it is exactly the lacunae in his knowledge that give him so much trouble. Isn´t the cloze test like a diagram of this uncertainty? Isn’t there a danger of the blank itself being imprinted on his memory, rather than the correct word? Another teaching aid which can only have negative results is the incorrect example. I think that teachers sometimes underestimate the immediacy of their effect upon the student. If the teacher says:
– Which is correct, “Por mis hijos, o Para mis hijos?”
The student is condemned to eternal doubt, whereas if the teacher states which it is & leaves it at that the phrase has entered straight into the students’ implicit knowledge.
At the start of the course I would try very hard to impress upon S. & her fellows that they must speak in Spanish during the class. I know that this will be difficult to enforce as people are naturally garrulous when they have the opportunity to express themselves in their own language, however if I were not strict on this point I would risk wasting hours enduring pointless gossip.
This brings me to the thorniest part of my undertaking, as it is obvious to me that functional language cannot be usefully studied for longer than forty five minutes, I would want to create an enjoyable break in the progression of the syllabus; & I would want this activity not only to further the students’ exposure to the Spanish language, but also to build up their learning skills, or literacy. To this end I would employ the reading of an authentic text. As any Spanish text at this first stage is going to be difficult I would not hesitate to read a childrens’ story with my students. Monica Vincent (8) suggests childrens’ literature & picture books as “interesting types of authentic texts”(p.214) & as to the discussion of whether the study of literature is relevant to a students’ goals Sandra McKay (9) points out that “As so far as literature can foster an overall increase in reading proficiency, it will contribute to these goals.” (p.192)
In planning the course it is not only necessary to look back at what the student has already learnt, but also to look forward to what she might go on to learn. S. is a good example of a functional student, learning Spanish for purely communicative purposes. The background culture of Spain has never really caught her attention, she is, at a certain level, hostile to it & yet to make a success of her undertaking (to live independently in Spain) she will need to engage with it. Just as the lack of a habit of learning impedes her study of Spanish; a closed mind to the influence of Spanish culture stops her from prioritising her learning. It can only be to her benefit & to mine as a teacher if she stretches her “tolerance for cultural differences.” (McKay)
Sandra McKay concludes that “literature is an ideal vehicle for illustrating language use & for introducing cultural assumptions.”(p.198) and with this assertion in mind I would introduce stories & authentic Spanish texts into the course. It would be fun to develop activities from these, encouraging the students to express themselves in Spanish. Hopefully, like S. they might have grandchildren with whom they could discuss the stories, it is very useful to link adult learning with childrens’ learning as it tends to motivate the adult. Even very simple written tasks could be set, using the vocabulary from the story.
I don’t pretend that this activity strictly fulfils the functional & communicative aims put forward by the manual. Instead I hope to set my students’ sights a little higher. Whether S. continues in Spain or not, I would like her to bring away from the course a realisation of her own learning autonomy. This would mean having the confidence to deal with texts that may be above her learning level & presumes that she has the “ability to tolerate & resolve uncertainty” for herself. (Monica Vincent. p.211)
No-one reads a language manual for pleasure because the language contained in it is dead & this can give the impression that the language itself is a dead end. J.P.Boyle quotes a teacher writing in ‘Forum’ (10):
“Most of us teach literature in the language class for the same reason we are ashamed that we teach literature: stories & poetry are interesting. We enjoy them. The students enjoy them. Our attention is engaged, as it is rarely engaged by word lists & exercises, for literature touches our common humanity.” (Power. 1981)
I would be very wary of teaching explicit grammar to my group as it is clearly not appropriate for non-academics, rather I would hope through reading & writing exercises to transfer a feeling for the language so that, instead of teaching them:
– “I can say and repeat single words and short simple phrases (11)” they might learn:
– “I can speak simply.”
Sandra McKay includes a good example of how to study a text “aesthetically” (12) Not by dissecting it to extract language information, but by discussing the ideas that it provokes. It is not only the students’ response to the text that enlivens the activity, but also that of the teacher. Perhaps this is the best argument for using authentic text in a language course, as nothing is duller than a class in which the teacher knows the answers from beginning to end.
(1) Joseph Conrad. Under Western Eyes.1910.
(2) Equal Opportunities see the Equality Commission (www.equalityhumanrights.com) for an explanation of how the U.N.s’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 led eventually to the Human Rights Act 1998 which has itself led to continuing legislation in Britain to enshrine the basic principles of dignity, fairness, equality, respect & autonomy.
(3) A checklist of classroom safety can be downloaded from: http://www.hse.gov.uk/classroom-checklist.htm
(4) Data Protection Act. 1998. See the 8 data protection principles.
(5) Ann Gravells. Preparing to Teach in the Life Long Learning Sector. 2008.
(6) C.N.Candlin. Strategies in Inter-language Communication. 1983.
(7) España Viva. 2003. BBC. 3x60min. CDs & book 224pages. £20.29.
(8) Monica Vincent. Simple Text & Reading Text. Some General Issues. From Literature & Language Teaching. eds. Brumfit & Carter. Oxford University Press. 1986.
(9) Sanda McKay. Literature in the English as a Second Language Classroom. ibid.
(10) J.P.Boyle. Testing Language with Students of Literature in ESL Situations. ibid.
(11) Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Strasbourg Council of Europe. 2001.
(12) Rosenblatt defines two types of reading; efferent (Latin: to carry away); & aesthetic, where “the readers’ primary concern is what happens during the actual reading.” Rosenblatt 1978. p. 24.
Thanks to David Hopkins for his invaluable translation of the PTLLS specifications.