Autonomous skill development (3) – text mining

This is the third in a series of posts whose goal is to explore ways of helping learners develop their language skills autonomously. The first two posts are specific to listening. The first post, which focuses on perception of connected speech can be read here and the second post on dictations as an autonomous learning tool here . This post doesn’t focus specifically on listening skill development but I have decided to include it in this series as it focuses on an autonomous learning activity. So I hereby declare the series focus expanded! 

The inspiration for this post is in part my own language learning and in part a workshop I attended this afternoon on developing speaking fluency. Text mining was one of the techniques mentioned, in terms of being a way of supporting learners to complete speaking tasks more successfully. As I understand it, learners use a text that has previously been exploited for listening/reading and highlight language that they do understand but wouldn’t use themselves unprompted. The idea is that they can then carry the language over for use in a speaking task on a similar topic. Beautifully simple. It was one of several techniques for lessening cognitive load and enabling learners to use more complex language. And, I imagine (and as was suggested), motivating for learners to be focusing on the language that they do “know” in a text, rather than only the language they aren’t familiar with, which is usually the case. I gather the idea, as explained to us today, originally came from this talk by Joan Saslow at IATEFL in 2013

So that was the workshop. What excited me is that “text mining” is something I have been doing myself, autonomously, on a regular basis this summer, in my Italian learning. Only, I hadn’t given it a label, it was just something I do and have found a lot of value in, particularly because of what I’ve done with the language mined post-mining. So the focus of this post isn’t on text mining as a means of working on spoken fluency in the classroom, but on text mining as an autonomous activity for bridging the gap between receptive and productive skills.

Aims:

  • Develop productive language resources
  • Expand vocabulary
  • Develop language awareness

Materials/tools:

  • Texts! Of any description – the more varied, the better.
  • Quizlet
  • A blog or similar

Procedure:

  • Encourage learners to read and listen extensively (for a start!). Ideally a range of texts – authentic original, authentic translations (i.e. books translated from another language into the target language, not for a language learning audience) graded readers, non-fiction, written, audio of whatever description, the more varied the better. (I’m currently actively in the middle of two books (one original Italian, one translation into Italian), two audiobooks (both translations into Italian), a science-y/technology magazine  (authentic Italian) and a graded reader (Italian for learners!), currently! As well as the inevitable dvd.)
  • Get them to highlight language that they understand but don’t produce, that could be useful for them to produce. (So that they don’t just highlight everything. Part of the trick is being selective. And how you select obviously depends on purpose, amongst other things. I don’t have a specific purpose for learning Italian but I select chunks because I can imagine myself wanting to express that meaning when I converse in Italian once I’m back in Sicily. I also select chunks if they include a structure or language point that I’ve come across and started learning about – so for example the subjunctive or use of prepositions. Of course when purpose is considered in this way, then it will probably vary from reading/listening occasion to reading/listening occasion. E.g. I won’t always be on the look out for prepositional phrases but for a spell I might be. Then I’ll move on to a new focus.)
  • Obviously if that was it, it would be a bit useless. A sort of “ah that’s a nice chunk…ok, bye bye chunk.” The trick is recycling. And lots of it. Of course seeing it used (or if not specifically it then a variation of it – that often happens) in further reading/listening is great – but if you’ve forgotten about it you might not notice it and you are also unlikely to produce it. In order to avoid this, I like to use Quizlet. I input the chunks – so already that makes me focus on them some more – and then I use the learn mode (generally on my iPad because I prefer the mobile app learn mode to the website learn mode) to help me memorise them a bit. That way, I’m more likely to remember them when I come across them again. And I do! Come across them again, that is.
  • Still not enough. Further steps much depend on the chunk. I have variously  i) tried to manipulate it if it is not a fixed chunk (could I make it refer to another time frame? could I make it stronger or weaker? how formal is it? what is a more/less formal way of expressing that? could I change the context of use/topic?) ii) tried to use in the little blog posts I write on my Italian post iii) tried to use in conversation – currently limited to Facebook chatting but once I’m back in Sicily…! iv) used it while talking to myself. And I really do think talking to yourself in the target language has value. It may mean you are crazy, I don’t know, but it’s a great way to experiment with language in a very non-threatening way. Doesn’t even have to be aloud, can be internally, in your head. I usually do it aloud when I’m cycling to and from work! I do it internally at various other times. v) used it during my weekly self-recording speaking sessions. vi) tried to use all my linguistic resources, including those acquired in this way, in my solitaire “scrabble” games. Over time, I become aware that these chunks, that I wouldn’t have produced before, have made their way into my active productive language resources.

So, it’s pretty simple really! But the keys are:

*The* keys! :-) Image taken from Google image search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification.

*The* keys! 🙂 Image taken from Google image search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification.

  • Variety of activities – for genuine recycling. And I think language learning contracts may play an important role in this: I didn’t do a wide variety of learning activities regularly until I made myself a contract, and it is only through making myself (initially) follow that contract that I discovered how useful variety is. They started off as discrete individual activities on a list, but by doing them and learning more about them and how to benefit as much as possible from the interplay between them, they have now become a sort of language learning web, catching new language for me. I think in terms of scaffolding learners, then my Experimenting with English project (or anything along similar lines) could be helpful too.
A web for catching language! image from commons.wikimedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification.

A web for catching language! image from commons.wikimedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification.

  • Being on the look out for “your” language. So that when you hear or see it, you get that little glow of recognition.
  • Being willing to talk to yourself and experiment with the language that way. And talk to others too, when the opportunity arises.
  • Some memorisation. (It’s useful! Insufficient on its own but valuable as a component of a larger approach)
  • Being selective – or you highlight the whole book/article/whatever. And I think this would be the most difficult thing for learners. However, perhaps this is another facet of the activity as described in the opening to this blog post, as a classroom activity for scaffolding speaking. Perhaps it can be used as a way of helping learners become better able to use it as an autonomous learning activity. I.e. get them to discuss what chunks they’ve chosen and why. How could those chunks be useful?
  • Having time off: I still do a lot of “just” reading. I’m not reading to stop every ten seconds to highlight. If a chunk really stands out, I’ll grab it. But because of how this seems to work, even when I’m “off” – I’m still very tuned in to noticing any language I’ve grabbed previously. But I don’t transfer it to Quizlet immediately necessarily. Sometimes I do –  if it’s a – to me – particularly yummy piece of language and my computer is to hand. But often I let a handful “build up” and then transfer them over and start working on them. So, it’s not intrusive to the reading.

I think on it as a sort of “active” reading/listening – rather than just letting it all wash over me, in the hopes that some might stick, I’m actually doing something to start making it stick.

Does it work?

For me, yes. Absolutely. My productive language resources have increased a lot since I started my language learning contract (i.e. doing a variety of activities including text mining) My receptive skills have improved too, but I think this approach has helped the gap between my receptive and productive skills to not widen in the process. “Process” is perhaps the key word. This is more of an on-going process than an activity, really. More of a mindset that I’ve developed, which I think is useful for approaching language learning.

For other learners? Further research is needed!  I shall be experimenting come October… Meanwhile, try it out with your learners and let me know!

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…)

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

What about the social side of language learning? (In response to David Petrie’s “The Future of Language Teaching”)

In his post for the British Council Teaching English website, David gives us a futuristic language teaching case from 2034, study drawing on currently existent technologies and their potential uses. His closing question is,

“Do you think there’s a role for the language school? I’m not so sure.”

But what about the social side of language learning?

In the private language school where I currently work, adult learners jump at the opportunity to do things in addition to their classes e.g. Reading Group, where they read and discuss a given graded reader periodically, and PSP speaking (an hour of mixed-level English conversation) or English-speaking Thursday nights at the pub. Who do they attend with? For the latter two, it is open to any level, and learners often sign up to join with, or in the case of the pub, just turn up with, other members of their class. 

Their language classes are not only about language learning – though clearly this is key! – but also 2 hours and 40 mins to 4 hrs a week (depending on their course intensity) doing something with a group of friends, some of whom have been met in previous courses at the school, some of whom are classmates (for YL, teens, university students), with new friends made each course too, as new learners join, others leave and so the classes evolve. They enjoy being in each other’s company twice or three times a week, in the classroom, learning English together. Perhaps it should be no surprise: after all language evolved because humans are social creatures. The benefits of this in terms of language learning are, of course, the pair –  and group – work potential that is there to be mined, the collaboration, the opportunities to learn from one another, for a start.

Young learners, meanwhile, learn a lot more than language when in the classroom – they learn social skills, cognitive skills, motor skills and so on. And they have fun, too! Would they be there if their language learning at school were super effective? I’m not sure. But I do know that we don’t only have kids in need of remedial help in our YL classes. We have a mixture of brilliant kids/teens, average kids/teens and kids/teens who do need lots of extra help. To me this suggests that they don’t only attend because school language learning isn’t good enough. Some of them love English and learning, some of them doubtless are there because their parents think it is a Good Thing. The latter may start classes because of that and discover that they love learning too.

Perhaps for people who are learning English purely to get ahead in their job, David’s vision is a possible futuristic avenue. (Though I question if after working all day using a computer, as many might, they’d want their language learning to be purely computerised too?) Either way, for people who learn as a hobby, or as part of a holiday, or who combine it with socialising outside of work/school, for whom English is important but who want to use it to speak to people face to face (or on the phone!), technology is better off in a more ancillary role.

For me, the future of language learning still involves groups of people coming together to use and explore language. And the delicate in some ways, robust in others, ecosystem of the classroom, that “small culture” (Holliday, 1999), is part of this. The language school is another small culture, within which that classroom culture operates and by which it is influenced, as is the university language teaching centre, or the primary or secondary school and the languages department within it.

Does this make me a technophobe? Insecure about my future as a teacher? I hope not. I just think there is room for all. And perhaps technology, as used in David’s case study, will make language learning accessible to *additional* learners and become an additional option, rather than becoming a replacement. I think that as far as technology is concerned, as with language teaching and learning methodology, there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as Michael Swan would say. I think we should build on what we have rather than lopping off entire aspects of it.

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater! Image taken from google advanced image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification (source: www.wikipedia.org)

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Image taken from google advanced image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification (source: http://www.wikipedia.org)

What do you think?

References:

Holliday, A. (1999) Small Cultures in Applied Linguistics vol. 20/2 pp. 237-264. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Coursebooks in the language classroom: friend or foe?

I have written a second blog post for the British Council Teaching English website, as one of their  TeachingEnglish associates – a name that has been given to us since I wrote my initial post! I feel rather out of place on a list amongst such experienced, knowledgeable teachers but honoured to have the opportunity to be there and happy to be able to share my ideas.

My post, which was published today, can be found here and looks at ideas for making the course book a friend rather than a sworn enemy, through:

  • evaluation
  • adaptation
  • personalisation
  • looking for opportunities to use the content as a springboard to fostering learner autonomy

You could also have a look at Rachael Roberts’s post on the same topic, here – it turns out we both tend to look on course books as cookery books rather than strait-jackets! 

Thank you, British Council Teaching English!

 

In response to “Observations of an elementary language user”

As many of you know, I’ve been back in the “Elementary Language Learner” shoes since late September, which was when I moved to Palermo. Since then, Chia Suan  (who blogs for ET Professional) has written a couple of posts which deconstruct the teaching and learning mantras that many subscribe to, which I have read with great interest. You can find part one here and part two here. (Both well worth a read!)

I’ve also blogged about my experiences of language learning, including the difficulties I had with the language lessons I was lucky enough to attend for free, but subsequently gave up due to excess time commitments, and thoughts in relation to reading extensively. I found that being a language learner again has made me see what I do (teaching) in a whole new light. In view of this, Chia’s posts have made very timely reading matter! Having read the second one this morning and it being the end of the year (hurrah for holidays!), it seemed like a good time for some reflection on learning and teaching, in response to Chia’s posts.

Firstly, I would like to say thank you to Chia for deconstructing “eliciting is good”! I can remember all too clearly sitting in the class and wondering when the teacher would stop trying to extract language that we just didn’t have or wishing we knew what it was that was wanted. Getting blood out of a stone would surely have been easier. And it got worse when we’d be asked to repeat something that the teacher had elicited, so we thought ok, it must be correct, cool. *Then*, having repeated it, we’d finally learn that it was in fact wrong and be back to elicitation square one again. Reading Chia’s post made me breathe a sigh of relief – it’s not just me!

The other point in Chia’s post that jumped out at me is the final mantra she deconstructed: “Learners should commit themselves wholeheartedly to their language learning process and take responsibility for their learning. They should come to class everyday on time, do their homework, and seek out opportunities to actively use the language everyday.”  As Chia says, just because we teach language for a living, doesn’t mean our learners learn language for a living. Something I feel to be very important is to avoid trying to force anything on learners. Not only because learners are not just learners but people with lots of things vying for attention in their every day lives, but also because language learning is SO personal: one man’s meat really is another man’s poison. Rather than forcing anything on learners, we should be helping them discover what works for them. And sometimes that may be putting language learning on the back-burner for a spell as other things in life take over.

My school is closed for two weeks over Christmas now. I haven’t given my (adult) learners any homework, but in the last lesson I gave them some time to discuss with each other what they could do over Christmas to try and keep using English. They have some sheets with various activity ideas (that I gave them about a month ago, part of an on-going project) and these were used within the discussion. But even this was optional: the activity wasn’t framed as “You must choose x number of things to do and do them” but, having discussed why it might be a good idea to try and use English during the holiday (end-of-course test is not long after we start back again), “what do you think you’d like to try and do?” They all chose some things. They will all do varying amounts of whatever it is they have chosen to do. Some may not be able to do much of anything at all. And that’s fine. But what about those who don’t do anything? I hear you say. Well, they aren’t stupid. They understand how and why it would be helpful to use English during the break, just as outside of class during term-time. If they’re not able to use English over the Christmas break (family commitments, going away etc.) then that’s how it is – in Chia’s words, “that’s ok”. I think the majority of them will do something, some will do more than others, and every little will help. And for those that don’t, I don’t think forcing something on them would be helpful anyway.

Meanwhile, this elementary learner is in England for two weeks and needs (wants) to keep up her Italian. I haven’t got a course book with me. I’ve finished the first course book I was using, and plan to start another one in the new year, but for now I’m on holiday. So my Italian maintenance will mostly take the shape of reading extensively in Italian, blogging in Italian (I have a little private blog that so far has a grand total of 3 entries – only started it recently) occasionally, speaking a bit of Italian with my sister (she speaks a bit) and probably that will be about it. My main goal for these next two weeks is to relax. It’s my first holiday since August 2012! If were still attending classes and my teacher had loaded me with holiday homework and said I had to do it, I think I’d ignore it until the day before the lesson and then spend a few minutes rattling out as much as I could half-heartedly. I don’t think it would help much!

Long live being critical of teaching mantras, I say! I don’t know if there will be a part 3 to Chia’s ‘observations of an elementary language user‘ series of posts but I hope so! It’s so important for teachers to be able to empathise with what their learners are going through and put ourselves in learners’ shoes but so easy to forget and ask learners to do things or do things with learners that we, ourselves, would hate if we were them! E.g. bad elicitation. Or forcing them to learn in ways that just don’t work for them. Or teaching them useless vocabulary. As teachers, we (hopefully) know something about different ways of teaching and learning that may (or may not) work, but we shouldn’t assume we know best or that learners who don’t learn the way we think they should are deficient. I think there’s no such thing as an ideal language learner. It might be easy to say “the ideal language learner does x, y and z” but x, y and z may be hopeless for some learners, who may be much better off doing a, b and c. In which case, forcing x, y and z would be rather like square pegs and round holes… Rather than ideal, or less ideal, there are just differences. Many differences. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, as the human race is not a bunch of clones!

Vive la difference! 🙂

square peg

Square pegs and round holes? (Taken from google search “licensed for commercial reuse with modification”)

Language barriers, helplessness and the “new identity”

Yesterday, I arrived in Palermo to start my new job at the International House here. I’ve never worked for an International House before but so far I am hugely impressed with how organised, helpful and supportive they have been (since I had the interview and was offered the job, up until now). Our induction timetable is truly a thing of beauty!!

Help is always good, but never more so than when you are in a foreign country whose language you don’t speak. My Italian is virtually non-existent so I am back to being a language learner – of the less than elementary variety! Back to being reminded just how difficult it can be to do something as basic as go into a cafe/bar and ask for some food/drink. Nothing is straight-forward, nothing is easy, everything is very tiring and daunting. I’ve done it before so I know the feeling but it’s easy to forget once you are over the language barrier and can function relatively normally.

I went into a food bar today, thinking I would pick up a slice of pizza. I went in and stood by the counter. A few minutes later, when nothing had happened and I didn’t have the guts to try and marshall the very simple language necessary to make something happen, I walked out again, feeling quite frustrated with myself. I shouldn’t be this helpless! But it’s daunting to open your mouth when you aren’t quite sure what will come out of it and what will be the result…  However, I also learnt a bit of Italian from an Italian and really enjoyed trying to say it and sound as Italian as possible! I think I was able to do that because it was a non-threatening situation and someone was telling me the words to say. And in those moments, I could imagine an Italian identity for myself – being this confident person able to speak Italian rather than helplessly clam up. Reflecting on that, I thought it would be quite fun to have Italian lessons, which included being given an Italian name to use during those lessons. To cultivate this Italian identity. Not that this identity would be a ‘not me’, but more a space to play with the language in, to experiment freely with sounds and words and gestures.

The funny thing is, I’ve always been quite anti- the idea of giving learners (of English) English names. But maybe instead of ‘giving learners different (English) names’, one could ask them if they’d like different (English) names and let them choose the names. I imagine it’s one of those horses for courses/marmite things – some would love it, some would hate it. I’m playing with the idea of experimenting, creating my own little Italian persona and using it as I try and learn. I’ve got a ‘survival Italian’ class on Friday, so maybe I will do it then – even if only *I* know about it! Maybe it’s something like creating a mental space for myself to get acquainted with the language, to develop some confidence in opening my mouth and asking for something instead of beetling off with my tail between my legs…

Anyway, now I’m very interested to know:

  • Have you given or encouraged your learners to choose different names/cultivate a second language identity before?
  • How did you do it?
  • How did it work out?
  • Also, what was your context? (Were you in the target language country or in the learners’ own country?)
  • Alternatively, have you ever tried adopting a ‘new identity’ of any description before, in learning a foreign language?
  • Ever taken on a different name for your language lessons?
  • Have you ever used any materials (as teacher or learner) that exploit the whole ‘second language identity’ thing? If so, which ones and how did you find them?

And what are your thoughts on this whole issue generally? Answers on a postcard, please!! (aka the comment box below) 🙂