The role of metacognition in language learning

According to Vandergrift and Goh (2o12:loc 360), “metacognition, or the act of thinking about thinking, refers to the ability of learners to control their thoughts and to regulate their own learning.”  They go on to explain that despite the fact that metacognition is key to listening (the focus of their text), its role in the classroom remains minimal. I believe metacognition is a crucial part of language learning in general, but even broadening the scope in this way, I suspect the degree to which it is integrated into language learning is probably still fairly minimal, as with listening.

Indeed, in my own language learning at school and university, I can remember there being a lot of content – grammar, vocabulary etc – but I don’t remember learning how to regulate my own learning or being helped to develop metacognitive awareness. I managed, however, to learn reasonably well in the end – I did German to A-level and French up to university level, getting good results. So what difference does metacognition and metacognitive awareness make to language learning? If I managed well enough with French and German, without any, or perhaps very little, metacognitive awareness, doesn’t that suggest it’s not really necessary as long as your teacher tells you what activities to do and when?

I would say, speaking from experience, that it hugely affects what you are able to achieve independently:

I went to work in Indonesia in 2010, and was there for a year and a half. I’d just done my CELTA. I spoke no Indonesian prior to arriving – other than a smattering of phrases that I taught myself before I left home. I did manage to learn a little bit of Indonesian while in the country, but not much. I was keen but my efforts were clumsy and ill-informed, with very little in the way of success, so I then got demotivated, as well as losing confidence, so learning was very minimal overall. Then I did my M.A. in ELT and Delta, and actually learnt a bit more about how languages are learnt and taught, coming across all manner of theories and being encouraged to consider them all critically.

I came to Italy to work last September. This time, I have had much greater resources to draw on in my language learning. I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learnt about learning and teaching English to my own learning of Italian, and, in 7 months of self-study, get myself from complete beginner to (very) low pre-intermediate level (though I sometimes still sound like a total beginner when I get my tongue all in knots! :-p ). Obviously I’ve benefitted from my knowledge of French, but I’d argue that here, it’s not just the fact that I speak French that helps, but the fact that I’m aware of how to use that skill/knowledge to my benefit while learning Italian.

I’ve been able to use a whole range of metacognitive and language learning strategies that I wasn’t able to use while learning Indonesian, as well as a range of task types, clear in my understanding of what I could achieve in using them and how to maximise that benefit. As well as not being put off by initial difficulties e.g not understanding what I was listening to when I first starting watching things without subtitles. This is part of what Vandergrift and Goh (2012) would refer to as strategy knowledge and task knowledge. I’ve also been able to manage my motivation a lot better and avoid getting discouraged when progress has been slow or when I thought I’d never get out of my “silent period“, for example. This is part of what Vandergrift and Goh (ibid) would refer to as person knowledge.

I would suggest that as learners spend the majority of their time outside the classroom and mostly don’t have the opportunity to do whole courses devoted to theories of learning and how to learn, it is up to us, as language teachers, to ensure that we help them develop sufficient metacognitive knowledge and understanding of how language learning works – how to approach tasks, how the tasks can be beneficial, what strategies you can use to gain the most benefit from them etc –  for them to be able to help themselves learn without the teacher always telling them exactly what to do and when (so that they are able to learn outside of the classroom), and, all-importantly, manage their own motivation. Vandergrift and Goh (2012) contains lots of ideas for developing metacognitive awareness in relation to the skill of listening and a lot of their ideas, I would suggest, are adaptable and applicable to other areas of language learning. I wonder how widespread their use is.

My questions for you:

  • Have you used your knowledge of learning theory and language teaching in your own language learning? How?
  • Have you helped your learners to develop their metacognitive awareness and become more able to manage their own learning? How?

Here are some posts about my own language learning and what I’ve learnt from it:

And here are some of my ideas for helping learners to develop metacognitive awareness and apply it to their learning, to help them become more autonomous:

Finally, if you have written any posts that are relevant to the theme of language learning and applying metacognitive awareness to your learning processes, or write any in response to my questions, please do link to them in the comments section of this post!

 References:

Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. Teaching and learning second language listening: metacognition in action Routledge. Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 09.13.23

How I’m learning Italian (inspired by the one and only Sandy Millin!)

Sandy’s brilliant post on how she’s learning Russian has inspired me to reflect on and write about my own efforts to learn Italian, with a bit of comparison between my way and hers.

The first difference between our learning is that, when not cancelling them, she is having lessons. What’s more, they are one-to-one lessons. I had a few small group lessons when I first arrived in Italy, and established that I was a terrible classroom learner. Like Sandy, I, too, felt sorry for my teacher having me as a student! I wonder if I would do better in one-to-one classes? It would be interesting to have a few and find out…

I suspect, though, like any adult learner of a foreign language, time management would be an issue. Especially, like Sandy, the whole HOMEWORK bit! During the time period of the small-group lessons, near the beginning of my time here, I mostly did my homework half an hour before the lesson started – it couldn’t have been any nearer the time because our weekly staff meetings immediately preceded the lesson time-slot! On the surface you’d have assumed I was an unmotivated, bad learner. Not so. The problem was that I was too motivated – I had already met what we were looking at in class during my own self-study. So the homework – gap fills and writing out verb conjugations and so forth – was boring.

(Or would it? If I were in a one-to-one class, then theoretically we’d be doing stuff I was interested in knowing, both in the classes and, by extension, for homework. Ah, homework. It’s compulsory to set it here, so with my own experiences in mind, I’ve worked very hard on trying to ensure that the homework I set is meaningful and of interest to my learners.)

Needless to say, I stopped the lessons (time was at a premium and the lessons weren’t doing it for me) and went it alone.

Reading

 

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Harry Potter: tutti i libri!

 

Knowing that I enjoy reading in languages others than English (especially French), I immediately decided I had to start reading in Italian. So I bought Il piccolo principe from the local bookshop (had to be done, was the first book I ever read in French too…) and downloaded a complete set of Harry Potter books in Italian onto my e-book reader. I also dug out a pdf. of Harry Potter 1 in English. I used them side by side. Sometimes I read a few paragraphs in English, followed by those paragraphs in Italian, and repeat. Sometimes I did the reverse. It was a fascinating voyage of discovery, seeing how things were said in Italian and taking care to keep an eye out for any similarities with French – lexical or grammatical. So I suppose, though I was reading extensively, I was also reading intensively – using the text to learn about language.

Eventually (somewhere part way through this first in the series), I gave up using the English version and just used the Italian version. It wasn’t a conscious decision, so much as a gradual realisation that I had enough language not to need the side-by-side translating any more. I graduated to looking words up when necessary. Initially, quite a few words. (What a terrible language learner! You’re supposed to guess by context/ignore etc. Oh well!) As time passed, fewer and fewer words. What I now rather like doing with words I don’t know is guessing what they mean and then looking them up to see if I’m right or not.

I also downloaded an audio book of Harry Potter 1, having read an article suggesting that extensive listening to audio books, in addition to extensive reading of the same books, can be beneficial. I still haven’t finished listening to it. But I’ve listened to a few chapters, some while reading at the same time and some just listening. A few of my students swear by it (they like graded readers that come complete with audio!).

It’s ok, I haven’t read Harry Potter exclusively – I’m also ploughing my way through a series of books about horses aimed at teenagers. Which is actually useful because I’ve taken up horse-riding again since I’ve been in Sicily, so having a working knowledge of that vocabulary is relevant! I’ve yet to find a use for all the magic-related vocabulary I’ve picked up… 😉

Actually, reading didn’t come first. What came first started before I even got to Italy: Memrise.

Memrise

 

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Screenshot of Memrise site

 

Once I accepted the job at IH Palermo, I downloaded “Basic Italian” from Memrise, using the app on my Ipad. From this little gem, I learnt how to say something could be dangerous (potrebbe essere pericoloso), to comment on how many taxis I could see (ci sono molti taxi), to ask where the Vatican is (dov’e il Vaticano?), and the Italian for pork (carne di maiale). Which, as a vegetarian, I haven’t had to ask for, but it’s useful to avoid on menus! *NB excuse any errors – it’s been a while since I reviewed these and I don’t often write!

Memrise teaches you chunks and provides lots of random pictures which are supposed to help you remember words. (All I can remember of the pictures was that an alarming number of them featured busty women which had nothing to do with the chunks in question! But I’m sure there were some good ones too.) It also gives you a sense of progress by likening the learning progress to growing flowers. You plant seeds, you grow them,  you water them, etc.

Things I like about Memrise:

  • It gives you chunks: I like chunks. Once I’ve learnt them and can say them, I like analysing them and seeing how they’re made and seeing if I can manipulate them to do other things.
  • Instant feedback: It gives you a chunk, in Italian or English, you touch what you think is the translation (out of the choice they give you) and it tells you if that is correct or incorrect.
  • The inbuilt spaced review: It “locks” sets until you need to “water” them.
  • Audio and visual: As well as seeing the chunks, a voice says them to you. Therefore you can repeat them after the voice.
  • Priming: You see language in the multiple choices given that you focus on subsequently. So you’ve seen it repeatedly before you focus on it, so it’s a little bit familiar already. Although, who knows how useful that is when it’s all out of context?

Things I don’t like about Memrise:

  • For the most part, it’s matching/multiple choice. It would be nice if, as well as that, you could graduate on to typing in the translation for long chunks. With multiple choice, sometimes you know which one it is because you know which ones it isn’t. (Though that in itself is an interesting exercise and tests your knowledge of other chunks, I suppose!) I think the closest you get is choosing words from a selection to form the chunks and spelling out words from a selection of letters they give you.
  • The randomness: There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to the chunks selected. I suppose you could make your own sets like on Quizlet, and then it would be more specific/tailored, but I haven’t got that far with it – it got forgotten before that!

Memrise has the dubious honour of being the only language learning app/programme that I’ve ever used properly. (I’ve also dabbled with Babel but abandoned it very quickly!) Unlike Sandy, I haven’t used Quizlet as a language learner. I’ve used it to revise Delta terminology and I’ve made self-access materials to help my learners use it (though very few of them have got particularly keen on it) but I haven’t tried to use it to learn language. I used Memrise prior to departure from the UK to give myself *something* – as that would be better than arriving in Italy with absolutely *nothing*! I didn’t use it for long after I actually got to Italy. Now that I’ve said that, I plan to open it, run through the sets and see if I can get 100% or what it teaches me this time round!

Vocabulary

So if I don’t use Quizlet and my use of Memrise has died a death, how do I learn vocabulary? Well, I haven’t used vocabulary lists, I haven’t post-it’ed my flat, I haven’t made index cards. I did have a vocabulary note book (which was an appalling example of a vocabulary notebook!) – where I’d note down any words or phrases that interested me, higgledy piggledy, and look over them periodically. I’ve also learnt a bit of various topic-related vocabulary from my course book (daily routine, things in a house, going on holiday, shopping and eating etc. the usual kind of thing!). But the majority of it, I have learnt through reading, as described above. I like the idea of using Quizlet but… a) I’m not sure what vocabulary I’d choose to input. But more importantly, b) I have limited time to devote to language learning and I really like reading and watching dvd series or films. <Bad learner flag!> …although I think I pick up a fair bit of vocabulary from those activities. I feel it’s slightly more meaningful to see vocabulary repeatedly in context rather than in flashcards/lists. Perhaps another thing for my to-do list, though, is use Sandy’s Quizlet guide and see what other people have done with it in terms of learning Italian. That will be most interesting, even if I don’t actually do the games and stuff.

I learnt fruit and vegetable vocabulary from the market, which is also my main location for recycling that vocabulary! Other food vocabulary has come via studying menus in various restaurants. Helpfully enough, my course book had a sequence dedicated to market shopping, so I learnt a few useful phrases that way too.

 

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Listening

I’ve been watching dvds – films or episodes of series – in Italian fairly regularly since my arrival in Palermo. To start with, I used subtitles in English and then very soon switched to Italian subtitles. Then I bought a DVD series with no Italian subtitles! Shock horror! So I had to watch without subtitles. At first, it was just a case of looking at moving pictures and catching the very odd word once in a while. I persevered. A few episodes in, I noticed I was no longer just looking at pictures but also actually understanding some of what was said. Now I can follow reasonably well. I haven’t used subtitles since buying this DVD series, even on subsequently bought DVDs which do have them. Why? I tried it and found the subtitles annoying.

As mentioned earlier in the post, I’m also listening to Harry Potter 1 very sporadically.

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….very sporadically!

 

I’m very unlikely to finish it in the next few weeks, but it will come in very useful over the summer, when I need to find ways to maintain my Italian while not in Italy!

Another good source of things to watch and listen to in other languages is Youtube. I found a lovely cartoon film which had been dubbed in Italian, which I really enjoyed watching while I was in England over Christmas, in a desperate attempt to hold on to some Italian:

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Such a lovely little story – do watch it, in whichever language you want to! 🙂

 

I haven’t used Youtube overly much while in Italy, though, due to my internet connection being limited – I get a certain number of gigabytes of data per month, which streaming would eat into massively. I plan to mine it over the summer – another thing for the Italian Maintenance list…

For the same reason (limited data connection), my use of Italian radio has been… limited. I really should either find my Ipod, which picks up radio but which I’ve managed to lose, or pick up a cheap little FM radio.

My TV doesn’t work, so that hasn’t been a possibility – perhaps next year! (I shall be living in a different flat – hurrah!)

I had some good listening practice during my recent holiday – I wound up having to make and receive a couple of phone calls – every language learner’s nightmare. I used context and key words to get by! I didn’t understand everything but I understood enough – and more than I would have expected to understand. I didn’t worry about the bits I didn’t understand. I also used strategies to check my understanding of what was important e.g. repeating it back and paraphrasing.

Maybe I should do more intensive listening? Make myself do mini-dictations and the like?

Writing

I don’t do a lot of writing. I have, however, tried one thing to give myself writing practice: I started an Italian blog. No, you can’t see it – it’s deliberately set to private!! It has a grand total of about three entries, though there is one entry in my Ipad notes that I haven’t yet uploaded, I don’t think. I can’t even remember. The majority of the writing has been done in Ipad notes, while on planes to and from Palermo. Being captive for three hours seems to work!

What I like about blogging in Italian:

  • It makes me actually use the language productively. (My receptive skills are so much stronger than my productive skills!)

What I dislike about blogging in Italian:

  • Time-consuming! So I should maybe set myself a mini-goal such as writing something once a week. Or write less per post and more frequently, until I can do it more quickly.
  • I can’t say complex things yet (or at least couldn’t when last I tried!) so frustration often accompanies it!

I really ought to dust the blog off and get using it again…

Speaking

Speaking is the missing link in my language learning. I don’t do it nearly enough. For ages I’ve been meaning to try and set up a language exchange but have kept putting it off. Why? Well, what will I say? I’m not that talkative at the best of times! What I’d really like is PSP Speaking sessions like we have in our school (an hour-long, mixed level, group discussion in English on different topics, done in pairs/small groups and then whole-group, with some feedback given) in Italian! Maybe next year I’ll get round to setting up a language exchange…

Grammar

I’ve learnt quite a bit of grammar from an A1/A2 course book that I’ve worked my way through. It’s not bad – generally involves giving you a text in Italian, reading or listening. If a listening text, the transcript is then printed for mining in subsequent activities once you’ve listened for meaning. The grammar comes out of the texts, which have clearly been written for that purpose. I suppose it works for me because I like language in context. I’ve got the B1/B2 book, but I haven’t yet done much of it. I lost my habit of getting the book out first thing in the morning, sometime soon after Christmas. I really should find it again. And remember how lucky I am that I’ve found some Italian course materials that work for me – sounds like it’s much harder with Russian!

What I haven’t done is sit down and learn verb endings. I know plenty of regular verbs/endings  in the present, and I can form the past. I have quite a few past participles (or whatever they are called in Italian, the form you use to express the past along with avere). I know some future forms. I know a handful of conditionals. But during the holidays, I noticed that since I never say “we”, I struggled when I wanted to use a conditional “we” form. Of course I found ways around it. So it probably wasn’t necessary. But perhaps it would help to have a look at some verb tables, now that I have picked up a variety of verbs and endings via reading and listening, and compare it with what I’ve picked up.

Productive vs. Receptive

Like many learners, I have a very spiky profile. My receptive skills are pretty strong, while my productive skills are a lot weaker. My receptive vocabulary is pretty big now, my productive vocabulary a lot smaller – though words and chunks are moving across all the time, the more I meet them in various contexts. Perhaps, like Sandy, I should record myself speaking and listen back for mistakes. Perhaps I should pull my finger out and sort out that language exchange. Or, have a few private lessons… I also definitely need to do more writing, as that at least would also force me to produce.

Time

I’m a big fan of little and often, so I don’t need to challenge myself to do ten minutes a day as Sandy did. What I need to do is challenge myself to vary what I do more within the time that I do use. Difficult, though, as the reading I do in the evening (20 minutes) doubles as unwinding and when I watch series in the morning, I’m eating at the same time. When I read Harry Potter during the day, again I’m generally eating. So, maybe, then, I need to *add* ten minutes of non-extensive reading/listening – related activities to what I already do.

Some conclusions

Well, I’ve already drawn plenty of conclusions here , but…

  • Homework needs to be meaningful if you want your learners to actually do it!
  • Extensive reading is a very valuable learning tool and should be encouraged. It can be combined with intensive reading of the same text. (I’m sure people won’t necessarily agree with this, but it worked for me so I can live with the disagreement!)
  • Extensive listening is too!
  • Language learning is very personal: One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Many of Sandy’s methods don’t appeal to me at all and require much more discipline than I have, but they clearly work for her. Don’t force learners to learn outside the classroom in ways they don’t find useful/appealing. But do encourage experimentation with new ways of learning. (I will try Quizlet, honest…)  – This way, they/we may find more ways of learning that work for them/us.
  • Chunks are good! I agree with Sandy here. As a beginner, starting with chunks then analysing them for grammar later on is a good way forward.
  • Comparing texts in L1 and target language is useful: I found it invaluable when I started reading. I would have struggled a lot more if I hadn’t had that way in. It made reading in Italian accessible to me.
  • Reflecting on your learning is also useful: It enables you to be clear about what you’re doing and why, and to identify the gaps in it, as well as look for ways to try and fill those. Metacognitive awareness is very valuable.

I think, also, interestingly, I may be a terrible language student (in a classroom situation) but I’m not too bad of a language learner. I’m motivated, I’m self-aware, I’m fairly disciplined, I work hard. However, I could be better: I don’t vary my activities enough, I rely too heavily on extensive reading and listening.

Methodology

Well, I haven’t experienced Dogme as a learner yet, but, as with Sandy:

All good in my experience!

I would also add:

Looking ahead

What do I need to do in order to develop my Italian? And what do I need to do in order to maintain it for the nearly four months that I’ll be in the UK over this summer?

  • Keep reading! (That shouldn’t be a problem – I’m only on Harry Potter 5, L’Ordine della Fenice …)
  • Broaden my reading: investigate different genres – there must be plenty to find on the Internet: newspapers, magazines, forums etc.
  • Watch films/series in Italian regularly: I will have a decent internet connection while in the UK so no excuses!
  • Listen to Italian radio: As above!
  • Speak!: Really need to set up that language exchange…
  • Try Quizlet?: Investigate it again and see if I can make it work for me. And/or maybe try making a set on Memrise
  • Get a grammar book out: Look at the verbs, look at some other grammar and see what I have picked up from reading/listening extensively. Give it names. Look at a few rules. That kind of thing!
  • Get my course book out: It wouldn’t hurt, would it? Get that routine going again…
  • Add ten minutes! Do at least ten minutes of studying a day that isn’t extensive reading/listening.

I know from experience (the Christmas holidays – 2 weeks)  I will have to make an extra effort to keep it going during the summer. At least the fact that I’m coming back here after the summer should be a good motivating factor!

Watch this space – I’ll post an update on how my aims, above, panned out – especially over summer…

And thank you, Sandy, for inspiring this post!

(PS: to those who are waiting for me to pick up where I left off with the social side of language learning and to respond to comments on the last post I wrote in relation to this, I will get there soon, honest! I’ve been on holiday for a few days so got some catching up to do…)

The Future of Language Teaching – a reply to my critics

David Petrie blogs again in response to my response (https://reflectiveteachingreflectivelearning.com/2014/04/26/what-about-the-social-side-of-language-learning-in-response-to-david-petries-the-future-of-language-teaching/) to his blog post (http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/david-petrie/future-language-teaching-%E2%80%93-a-case-study-2034) for the Teaching English British Council website! Thank you to David for opening up a really interesting discussion – stay tuned for my next response! 😉

teflgeek

divided brain

About a week ago, I wrote a piece on “The Future of Language Teaching” for the Teaching English blog.  It seems to have been slightly controversial.

In it, I tried to paint a picture of what language learning might look like in twenty years’ time, drawing largely on themes and ideas I had come across in various talks and presentations at the IATEFL conference, as well as my own experiences as a teacher and learner.  In short, I argued that students of the future won’t need to learn languages at a language school as they’ll be able to do it all online.

You can read the full piece here: “The Future of Language Teaching – a case study from 2034

It was a deliberatively provocative piece which I wrote with the intention of opening up a debate on where we think language teaching should be going…

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12 things I’ve learnt about language learning by being a language learner!

Italian and I…

We had barely met when I first arrived in Palermo. I called bruschetta “brooshetta” , pizzeria “pizzERia” and could barely string a sentence together. I had a few Memrise chunks – they meant I could ask where the vatican is (might have got some odd looks from the good people of Palermo if I tried that!*) and comment on the large number of taxies in sight, or surmise that something might be dangerous (me attempting to do anything in Italian, perhaps?) but when I went into a bar/cafe near where I work, I didn’t have the confidence to attract their attention or the language to follow it up with getting what I wanted.

I did have a few lessons but dropped out fairly early on because of a combination of lack of time and being driven slightly mad (much as it was interesting to see the classroom from the learner point of view!). I was, however, very motivated to learn, so worked my way through an A1/A2 coursebook and picked up some useful stuff and some less than useful (the only time I’ve needed to describe my daily routine at length was in a speaking test which formed part of an entrance test when I was thinking of joining a class again! :-p ). I’ve watched a load of dvds, films and series, with then without subtitles. I’ve read extensively. I’ve used what little language I have with various people. The latter three things I’ve kept up while the coursebook (the B1 version now) has fallen by the wayside. Though now that I’ve decided to do another year here, I have renewed my intentions to pick it up and continue…

I love Italian and have enjoyed the learning process thus far. Having just been on holiday around Sicily and having succeeded in putting my language to good use, I feel extra positive about it now! So I thought I’d pull together some things I’ve learnt on my journey as a learner up til now…

12 things I’ve learnt so far from my language learning:

  • 20 mins morning and evening is worthwhile. It must be-it’s all I’ve ever have time to do during the week and I’ve dragged myself from zero to A2 in my 7 months here so far. (In my entrance test I was one point off B1 for the written bit and my speaking was in the same general ball park). However, learners often think that if they don’t have an hour or so to spend, it’s not worth starting. Being busy people, finding that hour is, of course, difficult. 20 mins could be much easier! (I’ve a project under way currently to work on making small slots of time more appealing and likely to be used!)
  • Read, read, read! When I started Harry Potter one, I was looking up rather a lot of words and I also used a parallel English text alongside the Italian, varying which I’d read first; but now (I’m half way through Order of the Phoenix) I can read, understand and only look up the occasional word (or ignore it and read on!) Also, just because I was a (very) basic user, that didn’t mean I couldn’t start reading books in Italian. Familiar stories can be very useful for soaking up new language. My experiences of extensive reading have fed into my reading project.
  • I should listen more. I’ve done well with dvd films and series but I haven’t mined radio – took ages to discover I could get it through my ipod and plug that into speakers then promptly forgot ever to do so. (Internet radio is no go because I have a limited monthly data allowance which streaming radio would kill!) I really need to dig out my ipod again…
  • (Related to above point) getting into a learning routine is really useful! I automatically do my reading each evening (and often with lunch too); for a while (3 months?) I also opened my coursebook religiously each morning with my morning cuppa. Then it just becomes what you do as part of a day rather than an added extra that can be forgotten. How can we help our learners develop helpful routines?
  • Mapping to other languages is so helpful. French is related to Italian and I have reasonable French, which I’ve used to my advantage in looking for similarities and differences, both of which are useful memory aids. Not to mention just being really *interesting*! While on holiday, my aunt (who has good Spanish and French, but little Italian) and I (good French, basic Italian) were often making comparisons between these languages and also German (we both have a smattering of that too) for both of the reasons mentioned above. So, other languages should be welcomed in the classroom, I think.
  • I can do more than I perceive. Have just been on this holiday around Sicily, which involved doing a lot of taking charge, as my aunt and uncle, who travelled round Sicily with me, have little (her) to no (him) Italian. I managed. Including several phone calls! I found I had more vocabulary than I realised and could make myself understood fairly easily. When I first arrived, as I said earlier, I once went into a bar to try and get a slice of pizza or similar, but didn’t even have enough language to get their attention and was also too scared to say anything. Progress has definitely been made and that is hugely motivating! (Which underlines how important it is to help learners discover that they can use language – a bit like the budding readers in my classes have done with reading in English…)
  • Though I didn’t give myself another (Italian) name in the end (see my post about identity here), I’ve noticed that before I speak in Italian, there is a split-second moment where my Italian mindset slips into place, just before I open my mouth. It’s not a “how do you say xxx?” type switch, more of a changing channels to my Italian channel. Maybe this is slightly related to second language identity? (I have to become “Lizzie who CAN speak Italian”…) I’ve also noticed that I respond in Italian automatically when, for example, I bump into someone and need to apologise or what have you. Without thinking. So maybe the Italian mindset is on more than I realise, but when I speak with purpose, I become aware of it?
  • I have found myself at times trying to apply what I teach to my own learning, especially, for example, the metacognitive approach for listening to stuff, and at times going completely against it (e.g. all the words I looked up initially in Harry Potter!)  I have concluded that all is very useful to be aware of, but it’s important to feel the freedom to break rules too: language learning is so personal. Rather than tell a learner you should/shouldn’t do this or that, I’d involve them in a discussion about possible ways of doing things and benefits/limitations of each.
  • Living in a country doesn’t necessarily mean you do tons of speaking to native speakers, especially if you are low level. But nevertheless, being surrounded by the language counts for a lot. Even just in terms of reminding you to study :-p But also you hear it and see it regularly, even if you don’t do much speaking. When I went to UK at Christmas, I found it much harder to study, a) having lost my routine and b) being surrounded by English again. However, as time passes, and you become more comfortable in your use of the language, exploiting opportunities that DO arise becomes easier.
  • Losing self-consciousness and focusing on communicating definitely helps. A dash of necessity is useful in making this step. And when you are understood, and manage to do what you want to do, you feel dead chuffed! Again helpful to try and replicate this to some degree in the language classroom, at whatever level. (I think I’d have found it much more motivating to do a task where use of personal details was needed than I did the language practice activity I did have to do, which was pretty much a communicative drill. Not knocking the communicative drill, but maybe an extra task too…)
  • If you speak other languages, it’s good to try and maintain them while learning the new one. I read in French regularly – generally every evening after I’ve done my 20 mins of Italian reading. (I have a 40 min piece of music that is neatly divided into two sections, so no clock watching needed!) I think a) it’s nice not to lose the previously learnt language and b) it must be good brain gym switching between languages!
  • If you learn a new word, it’s like making a new friend – in a crowd of other words, where before it would have been just part of that “sea of faces”, once you make friends with a word, it stands out. E.g. I learnt “condividere” today and then overheard some random Italians speaking and picked out that word amongst others. (Was I primed to notice it by having focused on it earlier in the day?) But like human relationships, if you only meet someone once, you may then forget their name/face and need reminding at the next meeting, when you know you know them from somewhere but can’t place them. (Which is more likely to happen when you meet them out of what you perceive as their usual context)

And last but not least, though more being reminded than having learnt:

How much I love languages, language learning and language teaching! 🙂

(* I know – I can substitute other things too…)

Italy_flag

La bella Italia – Italian flag: from commons.wikimedia.org – licensed for commercial reuse with modification

Being an Elementary language learner again…

I’ve already written a couple of posts related to being a language learner again, due to my general lack of Italian combined with a job in Palermo – you can see those posts here and here. In contrast with those, this post focuses on being in the language classroom.

I haven’t been a language learner *in a classroom* since I left university in 2006. I haven’t been an elementary language learner in a classroom since I was about 11 or 12. When I went to Indonesia, I didn’t have formal lessons – I learnt from a mixture of self-teaching from a book and ad hoc ‘tuition’ from colleagues (of the “Say it like this…. x” variety).  Today I had my second lesson. Two weeks after the first.

It turns out I’m the world’s worst student. This might come as rather a surprise to my tutors at Leeds Met and, indeed, my course mates there, but it is true! Perhaps, then, what I should say is, I’m the world’s worst *language* student. I love learning languages. But, I discovered, I hate being in the classroom as an Elementary (or less) language learner. I basically was the student that no teacher wants in their classroom.

What did I do? Let’s see…

  • I wasn’t properly engaged with what we were doing.
  • When we did alphabet flashcards, I didn’t say the letters loud and clear – I mumbled them under my breath.
  • I didn’t take notes properly.
  • I didn’t participate whole-heartedly in the group work (we had to introduce ourselves and ask basic questions to each other).
  • When we did a matching artists to their nationalities activity, I said words instead of sentences in the feedback.

I’m really not proud of this. My poor, poor teacher (who is really lovely!)…  I wasn’t being deliberately obnoxious, though – I promise! I *do* want to learn Italian. I’ve even been trying to teach myself using Memrise (the ipad app version) and reading Harry Potter in Italian, switching between the Italian and the English version. I’m really enjoying it too – it’s so interesting finding all the similarities between Italian and French.  I’ve done some studying of this sort most days since I have been here. I think I have missed either one or two. This weekend I am going back to the U.K. and will finally be reunited with the books I had bought with the intention of bringing here and learning Italian from and accidentally left in my sister’s flat.

So it’s not that I lack motivation. So what is the problem then?

I think a big part of the problem was I hadn’t finished planning the lesson I was due to teach half an hour after the Italian class was to finish. I had done some planning prior to the class but I also had a bunch of other stuff to catch up with – paperwork, things I’d promised students I’d do etc. So I wanted to be planning. When I’m at work, I want to focus fully on work. Whereas, when I study at home, usually between 8 and 9 in the morning, before I go to work, I can then focus fully on the studying.

However, I will admit, I was also frustrated by the lesson content:

  • The flashcards annoyed me. Not in and of themselves, but what was on them. Which was a letter, a picture and an example word. What annoyed me was that I was trying to guess the letter pronunciation by how the letter is pronounced in the example word/picture. But it was random – some worked like that, many didn’t. G is a soft ‘g’ when you say the letter but was a hard ‘g’ for the example word, which was il gatto if I remember correctly. Also, prior to forgetting my books in the U.K., I’d had a look in them and had looked at the sounds of Italian and how letters are pronounced in combination. But when you say some as the letter of the alphabet, it sounds different. Much like happens in English. And some I had forgotten probably. So all in all, I kept getting caught out, which frustrated me. Of course it’s useful to be able to spell your name etc., so I’m not knocking it. I’m just pondering why I got so fed up with this activity during the lesson. Maybe I would have been happier if the flashcards had had only letters on and nothing else! I.e. if the picture/word isn’t going to help me say/remember how to say the letter, then I don’t want it there. I already know ‘c’ is for cat or, rather, ‘g’ is for gatto… :-p
  • Matching the picture of the painting complete with artist’s name with said artist’s country and nationality didn’t grab me. My bad – I should have focused on the fact that knowing nationalities is a good thing. (Of course, that was towards the end of the lesson so the start time of my as yet incompletely planned class was getting imminent.)
  • Other than the fact that this is a basic Italian course, I don’t know anything e.g. where we are going: we don’t have a course book – which is fine, no problem with that. But in its absence, some kind of vague plan of what we are going to cover would be nice. So that when I get frustrated with the alphabet, I can think, “it’s ok we will be covering x soon, that will be really good.” Of course, I could/should have asked. It’s only occurred to me now, as I reflect, that this is is one of the underlying things that was bugging me/making me irate earlier! So again, my bad.
  • I’m not averse to pair/group work (you would not have believed this if you were in the classroom earlier…) but I want to be saying more than “What is your name, what is your address, what is your email address etc”  (Oooh but it was interesting that the word for the @ symbol in Italian is the word for snail – or is it snail shell, I’m not quite sure – either way, very cool!) Which means, I’m impatient? I’m a less than elementary language learner, “my name is” etc is appropriate, surely? So yet again, my bad…

I left the lesson with every intention of opting out of future lessons. But on reflection, I will definitely give it another go next week. I will try and be more organised with my lesson planning i.e. just get into work earlier (I faffed a bit this morning, I’ll admit. I wasn’t in *quite* as early as usual – though still pretty early. Not early enough with the list of things to do that I had…) so that I can eliminate that stress. And I will ask about the syllabus, maybe initiate some negotiation too. This will be a much more positive response than “I don’t want to do this anymore”! Especially as I fully recognise how fortunate I am that IH Palermo offers new teachers who need it the chance to have 20hrs of Italian lessons for free. It really is a brilliant school to work for. I am so lucky to work here.

Anyway, apologies for this self-indulgent reflection, but on the other hand my blog address is reflectiveteachingreflectivelearning.com, so…. 😉 I do find it incredibly interesting, though, being in the learning seat, especially the elementary learning seat, for the first time since qualifying as a teacher. (Not counting Indonesia/Indonesian because as I mentioned I had no formal instruction…)  I think it’s a very valuable experience. What do you think?

Have you undertaken formal language instruction, esp. in a language you have no prior experience of learning, recently? Are you a good language learner? I’d love to hear about your experience of being a learner in the language classroom instead of a teacher. Has anybody else ever been as bad an adult learner as I was today?!

Meanwhile, here’s hoping next Friday will be a very different story from today for me! 🙂 Watch this space. :-p