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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?

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7 replies »

  1. I also started to learn Spanish in Cadiz, great place to do it and with your educational background I sense you will not get too distracted from the task.

    As a Brit I too grew up with no desire or perceived need to learn another language, school boy French only. Moving to Denmark in 1997 forced a new mindset on to me and I was daunted by the prospect of going back to ‘school’ to learn a language, at the time I tried 2 or 3 different methods. I eventual found a small school that was teaching ‘Aktiv Dansk’, and I found that this strange, pedagogical approach which involved role-play as well as, memorisation of themed conversations (which weirdly enough, I was skeptical, gave this beginner a huge helping hand in handling conversation in real life), and almost no formal tuition of grammar.

    Coming back to your point about grammar rules in Spanish, I found this form of tuition so slow and frustrating yet it forms the mainstay of language education, would it not be possible to teach it more ‘actively’?

What do you think?