Tag Archives: Education

Cádiz: A Lecture On Language Learning

Today wasn’t the greatest day in my ongoing efforts to master the basics of the Spanish language. My small class consists of me, a francophone Canadian and a multilingual Dutchman (who is probably reading this so I had better be careful what I say!). Both are very affable company, indeed I spent yesterday evening with the Dutchman and a couple of Americans (who are in a different class) in a local bar indulging in a large number of delicious tapas dishes for a very modest price. It was a good evening. But back to the language learning… My level of comprehension is relatively good for someone who, until last September, never really gave a second thought to the Spanish language. I try to put into practice what I have preached for so many years as a teacher of French, namely (I sense a list about to appear):

  • Don’t stop listening when you don’t understand
  • Ignore the words you don’t understand (they are probably the least important)
  • Use visual clues & context to assist in comprehension
  • Use your knowledge of other languages (in my case English, French and a modicum of Italian) to help you with cognates and near cognates (those are words that are identical or similar in different languages)
  • Make educated guesses where appropriate, and
  • Don’t automatically delve into the dictionary when you see a word that you don’t understand.

Like any teacher I’m not a perfect learner (I do, for example, spend too much time on the iPad writing words with my finger into Google Translate in the search of the word in English), but I do genuinely feel as though I’m trying my best.

In the UK, it is banged into language teachers – both those teaching a modern foreign language in secondary schools as well as those teaching English as a foreign language (I have been both in my time) – that the key thing is to reduce the amount of time that you as a teacher talk and try to maximise the amount of time your students speak. That’s not as easy as it might sound, especially if you are in the business of trying to teach teenagers in Britain who, in the main, don’t see speaking a foreign language as very ‘cool’ or indeed useful (contrary to their continental counterparts who in the main don’t have the cultural hang ups and see the utility in learning English, not through any love of the Anglo-Saxon world but simply as it is now regarded as the world’s lingua franca, a fact that must (and indeed does) annoy the French to the point of distraction). But I’m no longer a teenager growing up in Britain (thank goodness). I do consider speaking foreign languages quite cool, see the use in doing so and am prepared to have a go. I speak fluent French and enjoy piecing the bits of Italian that I know to create functional (if not always correct) sentences.

However, here on the continent, a more ‘academic’ approach to language learning has always been in vogue just like it was in Britain back in the 1950s and probably still is in many grammar schools up and down the British Isles. Many (perhaps most, if not all) continental languages have systems of grammar that relegate English grammar into the remedial class. Native speakers of English don’t tend to understand ‘grammar’ as it was never really required in order for them to use their mother tongue well. Ask someone in your family, for example, how the present tense of the verb ‘to play’ conjugates in the third person singular. Could they answer? Probably not. [You add an ‘s’ or sometimes an ‘es’ for regular verb, for irregular ones such as the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to have’ you simply have to memorise that you say ‘he is’ and ‘she has’.] The point is that grammar isn’t that essential in English; it’s not too complicated. In French or Italian or Spanish, that’s not the case. Or rather, it’s not complicated but you do need to learn the rules and there are many more of them than there are in English. Personally, it’s one of the attractions of French and the other languages in which I have dabbled. I love the fact that there are intricate patterns that need to be followed (and quite often don’t). They give the language, well, a certain ‘je ne sais quoi‘! Grammar learning is part and parcel of a child going through their secondary school experience in continental Europe in a way that in Britain, in most schools, it isn’t. Communication is key when you practice English at school in Britain rather than obsessing over complicated verb conjugations or agreements of adjectives, adverbs, pronouns and the like.

My own preference as a teacher of languages (and I repeat what I said above about not always practising what I preach) is for the standard three-part language lesson where a bit of language is presented by the teacher, it is practised in a controlled way by the learner (through perhaps a written exercise) before being produced in a much freer way. At this final stage, communication really should take precedence over accuracy. When I was teaching, the lessons that followed that simple pattern were not only the most successful but also the most enjoyable from both the teacher’s and learner’s perspective.

However, it is inbred in the continental mindset that a mastery of grammar is key to learning a language. But there is a difference between learning a language and being able to use it. My teachers at the school here in Cádiz, quite rightly from their perspective, want to concentrate on the grammar. So do I, but only to a certain extent. I do also want to be given the space to dive in and practise it. For me, communication over accuracy is, at the moment, the most important thing but alas I’m not been given that opportunity. I shall persist and I will succeed. It might, however, take a few more visits to a local bar just to get speaking. Thinking about it, that’s no bad thing… Señor?

European Adventures With Teenagers, Bears & Avalanches

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt be aware that on the 1st July I set off from Greece in the direction of Portugal on my bike. My mission is two-fold. Firstly because I want to. Secondly because I will write my second book about the trip. “Crossing Europe in a Different Direction on a Bike Called Reggie.” I think the title will need some fine tuning, no? My flight is booked for the 30th June at an ungodly time of 6:30am but I am at least flying British Airways so Reggie The Bike will be in good hands. That said, they probably outsource their baggage handling to companies with far less lofty reputations to maintain. I haven’t yet booked a flight back to the UK from south-west Portugal and won’t do so before I get anywhere close to my destination; it would be tempting fate to do otherwise. My journey will take me through nine countries (ten if I am allowed to include Monaco although I’m not sure whether I will cycle through the tax haven anyway) bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It should be quite an adventure.

Chateau_de_Falaise_02_-_8_09_2010_-14700_CalvadosWhat I haven’t yet mentioned on here is that I have another couple of trips planned for earlier in the year; one for ‘business’ and the other for pleasure although both should, I hope be pleasurable. The first is a school trip, an exchange visit to the town of Falaise in Normandy, France. Falaise is the twin town of Henley-on-Thames where I teach and the school exchange has a long history. The teacher who normally runs the trip and escorts the students to France is currently on maternity leave so I have taken up the temporary responsibility of being the lead teacher. Twelve students from my own school are taking part alongside another twelve or so students from a nearby school. I will be living with a French school teacher for a week so it will be a good opportunity to give my linguistic skills a workout; the language that I am called upon to use when teaching doesn’t exactly have me reaching for a dictionary very often. (I sometimes feel that if I have to discuss the likes and dislikes of a particular teenager yet again, I may not be responsible for my actions.) I’m a great believer in school exchanges; it was through my own participation in an exchange programme when I myself was a teenager that first gave me confidence to speak French. I’ve been doing so ever since. Forget language learning guides, CDs, online courses; go and live with the people (and try to do so before Mr. Cameron has whipped us out of Europe in order to appease the ageing Eurosceptics of the Tory party…).

tatras---slovakia_392A few days after my return from Normandy at the end of March, I fly with two friends to Bratislava in Slovakia. One of the friends has family connections via his partner to the Tatra mountains which dominate the area east of the capital (which, when you look at the map of the country is most of Slovakia). I recently bought a guidebook about walking in the Tatra mountains and one of the first things I read in the book was that the least best time to go walking in the area was at the beginning of April. This is due to the risks of avalanches. Oh well, the flight is now booked. I’ve also been told that there are bears in the area so if the avalanches don’t get us, perhaps the bears will. In fact even if the avalanches do get us, it will just turn us into ready-frozen meals for any passing bears. They may need a human-sized microwave oven to defrost us first.

So, with all this travel, expect a few non-cycling stories on here before the serious job of crossing Europe again on a bike called Reggie starts in earnest at the start of July. If, that is, I survive the avalanches, bears and a week living with the French.

End of Term…

…for me, but not the rest of the school. It seemed strange to end the year without the usual fanfare and mass salutations. It was just another Friday afternoon for everyone else; a happier than usual one I imagine for most as they look forward to the real end of term which is next Wednesday. Having emailed my colleagues about my plans a couple of days ago, lots of people were very kind with their comments and emails of support; quite a few have sponsored me or promise to do so (the total now stands at 53% of the target by the way!). But as they drifted off home for the end of the week, I packed my things for the end of the year and cycled back home. Most cyclists can put up with the wet, the heat and the cold; it’s the wind that is generally disliked because is turns a journey into a battle. Tonight, it seemed as though Mother Nature had saved up her breath to make my commute home one such battle!

Now back at the flat, I am looking forward to 36 hours of frenzy as I prepare for setting off on Sunday morning. A mixture of practical issues – packing, cleaning, last-minute shopping… – and minor social events. In a few minutes I’m meeting a friend for a quick good-bye drink and then tomorrow afternoon, with Puglian Basil and a few local friends at the appropriately named Bella Italia in Reading, I toast my departure. If you are near, drop by to say hello! 2pm in The Oracle.

Exams, Jobs & Mark Beaumont… but no Handlebars!

Just spent a few minutes moving things around and changing some of the settings here on Eurovelo5.com . I often change things back after a few days if I don’t like them although I thinks it’s nice to have a home page to the website. Problem may be, will anyone still read the entries on the blog? We’ll see.

It’s been a quiet week on the cycling planning front; this corresponds to a very busy week at school. We spent the week administering the GCSE speaking exams this week which involves, in effect, stopping everything else and just concentrating upon that. The problem is however, that in the world of education being the juggernaut that it is, it is simply impossible to stop the other things that you need to do so you don’t and everything still has to be squeezed in!

A couple of nice things this week however; firstly, I got a new job! Kind of… I will still be working at the same school and teaching the same kids but I fought off the competition (from six other applicants, so it was quite a battle) and have been appointed as an Assistant Head for next academic year. It’s a maternity cover post so will come to the end in July 2011 but it will be an interesting experience and a step up the greasy pole…. And on Sunday – tomorrow – I have an evening in the company of Mark Beaumont to look forward to. Reports from his previous venues (that he often re-Tweets) have been extremely positive. Full report on here after the event of course.

My new handlebars didn’t turn up at work :( . I did get a package and was very excited but it turned out to be 33 underground passes for the Paris Metro system in unfeasibly large packaging; three weeks today I’ll be in the French capital on the annual Year 10 trip.


This is a wonderful sight; my work email box is empty! It is not often like this but I have just eradicated my very last email (from the headteacher of all people). I fear that tomorrow there will be a deluge of messages as I return to school after the half-term break. Resolution for term 4: do things before the end of term so that I can do nothing over Easter apart from plan for the summer :)

“Cycling to school makes you much fitter”

This refers to the children rather than the teachers – see the extract from the CTC weekly email – but after another week of winter commuting to work, I am aching for the Spring to arrive with its lighter mornings and evenings and slightly warmer temperatures. Whether I am still getting fitter is open to question; my daily cycle is more endurance than fitness training for the moment. Another few weeks – the clocks change at the end of March – and training can kick in seriously again.

Autumn 2009

Tomorrow is the 1st September: in my mind that marks the start of Autumn. Met Basil & Liz Ford this afternoon for a beer – they have just returned from Puglia – to catch up about summer: mine in the north of England, theirs in southern Italy.
The 1st September means I am back to work. I spent this morning at school sorting out bits and pieces. It will be nice to see everyone tomorrow. And then the students on Wednesday & Thursday.
It is exciting to have something to look forward to at the end of this (academic) year: cycling from Reading to Brindisi.