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…)


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