Reflection from a learner’s perspective: my experience learning Spanish

At IATEFL 2015 I went to a workshop entitled ‘Lessons Learned as a Language Learner’ by Jo-Ann Delaney and Madeleine du Vivier (see previous blog post) and was inspired to reflect on my own experiences learning another language, namely Spanish.  I actually wrote most of this post over a year ago but just haven’t got around to finishing it until now.

A bit of background

I’ve been wanting to study another language for years so I could better relate to what my students go through, as well as, of course, learn another language.  I’ve been meaning to study Spanish for various reasons, but being the lazy person that I am, have always managed to find reasons not to.  I often get sent to Spain to do Trinity exams, and every year I think, ‘I really should’ve brushed up on my Spanish before I got here.  Next year, I will for sure…’  So in January 2015 when I found out I was going to Spain the following May, I thought,’ yep this is the year…’ and then preceded to do nothing for months.  Until I went to the session at IATEFL.  I said ‘brush up’ because technically I have studied Spanish before, but 20 years (!) ago when I was in high school, which basically means I have studied numbers and a few present simple verbs, all of which I have forgotten.  This makes me a false beginner, more or less the same level of my beginner/elementary communication skills students.

Reflections

So using Delaney and du Vivier’s trainer beliefs as a framework and adding a few of my own ideas, here is what I learnt as a learner:

1.  Engaging with written and spoken text

Essential!  I really wanted to know about Spanish culture in coursebook readings, understand song lyrics, express my own experiences of Madrid when we watched a video clip, etc.  I really didn’t care about the grammar point.  I got it; grammar is easy to understand–let’s move on to meaning.  I wanted more speaking and more chance to practise using the language.  The pace of the course is such that we learn a new language point in every lesson, but never really get a chance to use it in speaking.  In fact, I’m starting to feel that I am learning a lot about Spanish, and not a lot of Spanish, and this was especially true the higher up I went in level.  Also, I needed more listening.  When I saw something written down, I could understand most of it, but listening tasks were really hard for me to understand.  And I needed to listen many times (not just once or even twice) before I could decode meaning.

2.  Pronunciation

I really, really wanted more pronunciation.  Even if I could say the word ‘correctly’ (or so my teacher said–I’m not convinced), I really needed more practice to feel confident.  And just listening isn’t enough; I needed someone to show me how to move my mouth, how to say it.  More than anything else, I realised the value of pronunciation for learners’ speaking confidence.

3.  Authentic material and tasks

I like authentic material like songs and youtube videos, but I also find them too difficult and thus de-motivating.  As far as tasks go though, I really only want anything that I can instantly perceive as useful, like anything that I will need when I travel in Spain.  I was really frustrated in my first lesson because we had to speak about someone else’s likes (He likes…  She likes…).  I didn’t care.  I wanted to say what I like and ask my partner using ‘you like.’

4.  Learners should work with different pairs

My view didn’t change, but was confirmed.  I like working with different people.   I think it has contributed to the good rapport we have in our class.  I don’t mind getting up and moving to talk to someone new.  I think I’d be disappointed if our teacher didn’t mix up our groups and make us move.

5.  Whole group questions should be asked randomly

I really don’t want to volunteer to speak if I don’t have to.  I don’t feel comfortable shouting out the answers.  But I like it when my teacher nominates me and I’m forced to participate.  I now think nominating students is really important.  Randomly helps too because if I know when it’ll be my turn, I do shut off and only focus on that answer.

6.  It is good for stronger students to peer teach weaker ones

My class is pretty evenly mixed, but if I feel that if I know something one of my classmates doesn’t, I’m not likely to volunteer it so I don’t seem like a know-it-all or make them feel bad.

7.  Praise is important for motivation

Absolutely!  My teacher is very positive and that contributes to my motivation.

8.  The physical environment is important

I work at a very nice school and the school I study at isn’t nearly so nice, but to be honest, I’m not that bothered by the Spanish classrooms.  I guess it’s just me.

9.  It’s important to always use the target language

I really wanted my teacher to only use Spanish or at least use Spanish most of the time.  I wanted the listening practice.  I could understand most things and so I didn’t want translations and I wanted to pick up the expressions I didn’t quite catch.  It was reassuring that she could speak my language and I could ask for help if I needed it, and besides, I’m not sure we could have developed the same good rapport only in Spanish.

10.  There should be a variety of tasks and input

I agreed–I enjoy a variety of tasks.

Other points I noticed:

11.  Personality goes a long way in a teacher especially for motivation

I didn’t realise how important my teacher’s personality would be in motivating me and making me feel good about my learning.  It’s really hard to keep up motivation after the initial excitement of starting to learn a language wears off, so having a teacher who cares goes a long way.  Even if I didn’t agree with all of her teaching methods, or the overall grammar McNugget (Thornbury) syllabus of the courses, I wanted to learn and come to class because I liked her.  She was positive and enthusiastic about teaching and that made me positive and enthusiastic about learning.  One day I had a different teacher and even though she was ticking all the ‘good TEFL-y teacher’ boxes, I just didn’t like her and so didn’t want to learn.

12.  Error correction

My teacher didn’t do very much error correction, but actually I really liked that.  I knew I was making mistakes, but just speaking was so difficult.  If I was speaking, I didn’t want to be interrupted.  More often I needed help finding the right words.  When I had the other teacher, she did whole class correction and I just felt like I was wrong.  We didn’t have a good enough rapport built up that I could accept her corrections.   Another teacher I had pointed out ‘potential errors’ rather than specific ones we had made, and I found that far more useful.  He also helped correct our pron, which I found far more useful than correcting grammar, maybe because I knew the grammar and just couldn’t use it fast enough in speaking but didn’t know how to say the words correctly.

13.  The importance of collocation for fluency and speaking

It’s very useful to hold languages as chunks in order to use them, and the larger the chunk, the faster it will come out in speaking.  I knew this, but it is a different thing to know and another to experience.

14.  Homework and testing

Homework checking is so time-consuming and tedious.  I felt like we wasted so much of our lesson going over grammar answers, most of which I was able to get right when sitting at home thinking about them, and yet none of them I was able to use in speaking.  I wish we had spent more time on speaking activities and less time correcting homework and talking about grammar.   Also, I really wished we could check homework in pairs before going over the answers as a whole class.  I feel like that would have given me more speaking time and built up my confidence a little more.  It made me realise how important pair work was and reinforced why I do it.

I was able to do grammar exercises quite well and so got very good marks on our end-of-course tests.  I stopped taking Spanish lessons after I got to B1, and although I passed that test, my speaking and listening could barely be described as A1.  There is very little connection between how well you can do grammar exercises and how well you can communicate.   Class time and even homework is better spent doing something communicative.  I really found listening homework the most useful, even if having CDs often made it difficult to do.  It was always best when were assigned something on youtube.  I wish I had a wider bank of resources to give my own students specific links for homework.  It also makes me see the value in a flipped class.

15.  Reading and processing time

When we got to B1 level, we were reading longer texts in class.  My teacher had us each read a paragraph aloud.  I hated this activity so much that it practically had me in tears every time we had to do it.  I really emphasize with how much time my learners need to process things, and also how a seemingly benign activity could set someone off.  I hated having to read aloud because then I wasn’t taking in any of the text.  I was only trying to pronounce the words, but it wasn’t helpful for pron as it was so unnatural.  I couldn’t concentrate when others were reading either because then I was distracted by the speaking.  So either way, I wasn’t taking in any meaning and needed to go back and read the text to understand.  The texts were actually really easy for me to understand, but when we were reading orally as a class, I got so completely blocked I felt like I couldn’t do anything.  It was a bit more helpful when my teacher was reading and I could start to map sounds and words a bit better, but still I felt like I needed to read silently to really understand.

Which means, maybe not only with reading, but with other activities as well, students need more time to process.  Quiet time doesn’t mean students aren’t learning.

Summary

So the thing I’ve learnt most is just to have more empathy with my students.  It’s hard to learn a language as a false beginner.  It’s hard to keep up motivation.  It takes time and effort, so what can I do to help my learners?  More speaking.  More pronunciation.  More listening, many times if needed to decode.  More pair work.  More fun.  More caring.  Do things to build good rapport.  Spend less time checking homework and talking about grammar, and give more time for processing, like in a reading text.  Be positive and don’t give up on my learners, even if it feels like they are lacking motivation.  It hasn’t changed my teaching as much as just made me more aware–aware of what I do and why I do it, aware of my learners.  It’s helped me try to put myself in my learners’ shoes and think about their perspective.  It has confirmed a few of my own teacher beliefs.  It has also helped me in doing observations of other teachers and thinking more about what the learners are taking away from the lesson.