B is for Bad language learner

25 09 2011

Mayor Bloomberg

As a precaution against the recent hurricane that threatened his city, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, “issued warnings and press statements, often in basic, un-accented [sic] Spanish”.  This prompted a Spanish-speaking New York resident to launch a Twitter feed that  caricatured the Mayor’s “broken Spanish”. “The feed soon went viral and has attracted a large online following” (according to the BBC’s website).

As a second language user myself, and as a language teacher,  teacher trainer and methodology writer, it offends me when anyone who attempts to communicate in a language that is not their own (whether they be mayor, football coach, actor, ex-pat, or student) is mocked in this way. However ‘bad’ his Spanish is, surely the mayor should be congratulated, not caricatured?

I tweeted to this effect – that I didn’t find it particularly funny, and that this seemed to be a case of ‘damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t’. However, a fellow tweeter in Brazil, Higor Cavalcante, went so far as to blog his disagreement, arguing that, as mayor of a city with a large Hispanic population “Mr. Bloomberg has the obligation to speak excellent Spanish”. (Not to mention Chinese, Greek, Yiddish and Korean either, I suppose).

Excellent Spanish.  Not just good, or passable, but excellent.

I suspect Higor is a good language learner.  He certainly writes beautifully in English. But maybe Mayor Bloomberg is not a good language learner. I’m sure he would love to be able to speak excellent Spanish, but maybe for him excellence comes at a cost – a cost that even his billions can’t meet.  Yet  should he be penalised for trying?

Good language learners often find it difficult to understand what it’s like to be a bad language learner.  They think you can just flip a switch and out it flows. As a bad language learner myself, I run up against this constantly.

Ok, I said it. I am a bad language learner. I am a bad language learner for a variety of reasons, biographical, psychological and maybe even physiological (I have terrible ‘phonemic coding ability’ – maybe related to the fact that I can’t sing in tune either!).

It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve been to classes, I’ve done conversation exchanges, I’ve studied the grammar, I’ve memorised lists of words, and I read five to ten thousand words of Spanish daily.  Yet I’m still barely B2-ish, speaking-wise, exacerbated by an uncompromising anglo accent.

But I get by.   I’ll always sound like a guiri (or gringo) but I can live with that, despite the scorn heaped on me by other, more proficient Spanish speakers. (Once a Californian woman, on hearing me speak, held up her arms in the shape of a cross, as if to ward off evil spirits). As I said, good language learners seem to think that anyone can learn a language to C2 level in a matter of months – and that the failure to do so betrays some moral weakness.  But for us drones, it will take years and years, and we may still never  get beyond B2 (or even A2 for that matter).  However, we shouldn’t be discouraged from trying. Mockery doesn’t help. Nor the implication that our lack of success is a moral failing.

I took this photo

Besides, how many hundreds of hours would it take to bring Mayor Bloomberg’s Spanish up to a level that would satisfy his critics?  And doesn’t he have better things to do with his time? He’s the mayor of New York City, for heaven’s sake.  His time is cut out just getting the trash collected and the subway running on time. If New Yorkers want a Spanish-speaking mayor, let them vote for one.

So, a plea on behalf of the bad language learner: never, never, never mock a second language speaker – even if it’s someone (like George Bush or José María  Aznar) whose politics you disagree with. It’s a cheap shot. And, if you are a language teacher, it ill becomes you.  It’s your job to encourage second language use, however non-target-like. What’s more, ridicule is counterproductive.  There is nothing more de-motivating than being laughed at.   As Earl Stevick (1980, p. 130) eloquently put it:

When two people speak with each other in a language that is foreign to one of them, either or both may be laying their lives on the line – at least their lives as speakers of that language. Such an understanding therefore calls for sensitivity on both sides. Sensitivity here means more than just seeing the dangers and shying away from them. It includes sensitivity to what the other person is able to do, and is ready to try.

On the plus side, I think that being a bad language learner has made me a good language teacher. I am very, very sympathetic to the drones.  I know what they’re going through. I am endlessly patient and encouraging. I would never mock them, because I know how de-motivating it can be.

So, Señor Alcalde, all power to you  – I applaud your bad Spanish!  At least you are trying.

Reference:

Stevick, E.W. 1980. Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

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83 responses

25 09 2011
Lao The Younger

Hmm. This post brings out both the radical and the conservative in me. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.

Firstly, I agree with you, Scott. It’s hardly becoming of a teacher to be overly critical of a language learner. There’s critical appraisal and there’s soul-destroying criticism. The mayor had no reason at all to speak Spanish (more of that in “secondly…”) but did in an effort to reach out to a sizeable part of the community. That is to be applauded (and then examined critically…why all of the interest in the Spanish-speaking community?). Unless he made himself hopelessly incomprehensible, surely the only comment should be “Bien hecho”? If he was hopelessly incomprehensible, the comment should have been something like, “Busquese a otro profesor!” You see, I find it hard to believe that there is any such thing as a bad language learner. I struggle with the idea that there are people who are naturally more or less gifted at acquiring another means of communication, given that this seems to be one of the defining features of humanity. I end up concluding that there are bad teachers, but no bad learners. Bad learning experiences, but no bad learners. Bad learning environments, but no bad learners. What I am prepared to concede is that there are learners who give more or less priority to certain aspects of the language than other people. And then, it’s the teacher’s duty to redirect them.

Secondly, I disagree with Higor’s view that the mayor is obligated to learn Spanish. This is the mayor of New York City. In the United States of America. Where the official language is English. That the mayor might WISH to learn Spanish is admirable, but to be obligated to do so just because a sizeable minority speak it? I disagree.

And I know that this means that I have some very unpleasant bedfellows, but so be it. I end up feeling that tolerance and inclusion cuts both ways: if you travel to a country and live there, you should be prepared to use the language to communicate with other people. After all – it is their country. You have no right to demand that (or to “obligate”) the inhabitants of that country [to] learn your language. And we’re not just doing a head count here – language goes beyond just how many people speak it, surely? So, to put it provocatively bluntly: the Spanish speaking citizens of New York should have felt obligated to speak excellent English. In the same way that I would shun the idea of walking into a bar in Mexico City and proclaiming loudly to the bartender, “HE-LLO. I WANT A COOL PITCH-ER OF PIMMS AND LEM-ON-ADE.” Surely it’s better for me to walk in and say, Buenas dios. Yo querer gran vasa di Peemz y lemonato. If the bartender turns to me and says, “Apologize. No have nor idea of what say you. You want beer?”, I would hardly be in a position to turn my nose up and shout to the missus, “C’mon Marjorie, this place is full of savages. They can’t even speak English properly!”

So, to conclude, a summary:
1. Well done Mr Mayor. Keep at it. You’ve learned the need to go beyond bare communication.
2. Spanish speaking community – time to stand up and say to the mayor: whilst we appreciate your gesture, you should feel no compulsion to talk to us in our own language. We accept that we are in your country and there is a moral (not to mention pragmatic) obligation on us to learn your language.
3. People who feel the need to criticise other people’s efforts to engage in dialogue with another community should really be a lot more critical of themselves. It’s in no small part thanks to these people that I have a classroom full of students who daren’t open their mouths for fear of making a mistake. As Mayor Bloomberg would probably have said, “Gilipollos.”

30 09 2011
Lígia

Lao, I mostly agree with you… But I have to point out that there is no official language in the US… English is just the most used one (btw, some predict that in 15 years, there is going to be more people speaking Spanish than English in the US…

25 09 2011
James Taylor (@theteacherjames)

Thanks for this post Scott. I too am a bad language learner and my struggles with the Portuguese language have been a source of great frustration for me. Whenever I’m with my wife’s friends and family and I’m unable to join the conversation even after all these years, I feel annoyed and embarrassed, especially since I know they are judging me as either people who can speak 2 or 3 languages, or as people who have never studied a foreign language and have no idea how difficult it can be.

This is something I just have to deal with, but like you, I have used it to my advantage in my own teaching. I feel great empathy for my students and their struggles and try to be reassuring, encouraging, positive and never critical.

As a professional teacher, I sometimes feel this lack of second language ability has in some way undercut my teaching ability. It feels as though I can’t practice what I preach and this somehow undermines me (not that any of my students have ever said anything to that effect). Reading about your experience with Spanish has reassured me that this feeling isn’t rational or correct, and reminded me that, just as I do with my students, I need to focus on the positive aspects in both my teaching and especially my learning. If only I could get other people to do the same.

25 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for posting, James. I envisage the comments section becoming a sort of AA for failed language learners: My name’s Scott Thornbury, I’m a … etc ;-)

Another bonus, for me, of the struggle to dominate a second (and third, fourth etc) language has been an almost obsessive interest in SLA theory and research – as if, somewhere, amongst all this burgeoning literature, there lies the answer to the puzzle.

25 09 2011
Patricia

Congratulations! Fantasic post!

25 09 2011
Luke Meddings

I really enjoyed this Scott – I’m genuinely surprised to read that you’re a bad language learner! I’d bet you are a good language learner (experimenting, absorbing, noticing, inquiring, comparing, paying attention to form) – is it that you feel you aren’t a naturally gifted second language acquirer?

We do sometimes forget what a huge achievement it is to acquire and use another language (no matter the level) – for reasons both cognitive and affective. Because the notion of progress – of progress and increase – is so embedded in our culture and economy, we can forget to use (and enjoy) what we have.

And no wonder it’s hard to shake this notion from our behaviour as teachers and learners when the model of linear progress is embedded in our course materials and displayed on our walls. A1 to C2 – what could be easier? Or more demotivating when we hit our personal class ceiling?

In training sessions, I keep stressing the efficacy of conversation-driven teaching, the way it (as you put it) uncovers the syllabus. But teaching unplugged, without language exponents and with a proper scepticism towards level markers and the panoply of assessment and target-driven educational bureaucracy they encode and support, offers something else that is just as important: the opportunity to use our language, that precious and often hard-won language, in a supportive environment. An environment that just possibly casts level markers aside, or at least turns them to the wall and takes the pressure off for a spell. Language ‘progress’ may be incremental, but hey – we’re using it. The experience of using a language counts too, and has it’s own validity in the heart.

25 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Luke – your confidence in my learning ability is touching. ;-)

Regarding the efficacy of conversation-driven learning (and this relates a bit to Diarmuid’s point about there not being bad learners, only bad teachers) the best classroom learning experience I ever had was a 15-week Catalan course with a teacher who (inadvertently) was a pure dogme-tist. I learnt more in that class than in any I’ve been in before or since. (I wrote it up in the IH Journal: Catalan for beginners: A learner’s account. IH Journal, Spring, 2003, 19-23.

25 09 2011
Declan Cooley

Lots of things to talk about – mostly because I partly disagree with points made so far (by Scott, Higor, Lao) about Bloomberg.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Had I as an English native in a non-English speaking country (Poland) been “reached out to” by a politician, I might think, “wow, it seems we (English-speaking community) are becoming a significant part of the country and are being recognized as such officially – great”. (Actually very unlikely in Poland but let’s just imagine). But now consider the context of communciation: as Higor, I think rightly, points out there is a difference between discussing a football match and giving an announcement during a natural disaster situation.

SO let’s contrast two different situations:

Situation 1/message 1: it’s Xmas so a national politician decides to tweet (to the English natives in a non-English speaking country) “Merry Christmas for you” – I might feel reached out to as well as charmed by the tiny error – result ? effective ! (He might get my vote if I ever get that opportunity in law). (No sexism implied by use of “he” !)

Situation 1/message 2: this time he speaks on national television “marry christmas for you all English in country” – now I’m thinking “OK well done good try and charming mistakes” result ? effective !

However, had he tweeted “marry christmas etc” I would think differently (due to written mode) more along the lines of “come on, you’ve decided to tweet and you couldn’t check a dictionary or have it proofread ?”. Still, I’d be also reassured that this hadn’t been ghostwritten and it might carry a stamp of authenticity (although of course a smart PR person may still have been the author). result ? mixed

Situation 1/message 3: he speaks/tweets” marry christmas to you all English ludzie in nasze country” – (here I mix in some code-blending as seen in the Bloombergian “Go to worko” – but perhaps this is Spanglish – I plead ignorance here). Now I’m sorta worried – the politician seems to think that English is some variety of Polish or assumes we know what these words are (which most surely would) but I’m also thinking – come on you are going to the trouble of using English – at least translate all the words ! But OK I’m still fairly ok with it. result ? very mixed and slightly worried

But in a national emergency (Situation 2) on receiving, say, an sms/text with “go the centralna but do not isc tam by autobus but go prosto to walking now don’t go river too big water” I would think (after “great nice he speaks some English”) – I would think “hold on, there is a lack of care here but more importantly if he keeps messaging like this I may misunderstand, which may cost me my life” – result ? I feel this kind of communication borders on the reckless. [if there had been lots of exclamation marks as Bloomberg's did then I might also feel mildly patronised, given the more 'keep calm and carry on' nature of British-style communications - however this level of exclamation mark use might be the norm in Spanish (or Spanglish)].

So to summarise, Bloomberg does not need “excellent” Spanish but if he wants to communicate “effectively” (and get votes) he needs to consider the context, the register,and the mode as well as cultural sensitivity. [a side-note: if this manner of speaking has also been associated with real heavy-handedness in the workplace and real discrimination - maybe awful native English speaking bosses who hire Spanish native speaking workers use language like "No excuso!" - then he may have unwittingly evoked these associations, despite trying to do the opposite].

25 09 2011
Thomas Topham

Well done, Declan, your breakdown of the situation clarifies my own initial misgivings with Bloomberg’s MO very clearly.

25 09 2011
Declan Cooley

…although I now see I made the mistake of quoting the parody rather than what he actually said. :( Oh dear ! It seems his actual use of Spanish was pretty accurate from what I can gather, with a heavy accent. Still, I think the factors for assessing the communicative effectiveness of any message still stand.
Here’s a blog post I found looking at similar cases: http://www.matthewbennett.es/1008/bloombergs-spanish-good-enough-for-new-york-press-conferences/

25 09 2011
25 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Declan for that link – well worth reading in the light of Higor’s and my posts. E.g.

Q: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Bloomberg: My Spanish. I’ve been studying for seven years and I still speak como un novato.

Join the club!

25 09 2011
Carol

This is such an interesting post, Scott, and while I completely agree with you that people’s attempts to speak in another language should not be ridiculed, I’m not so sure about the concept of a ‘bad’ language learner. Like Diarmuid, I have never believed that there are inherently bad language learners so I find your account really intriguing.

You write that ‘ridicule is counterproductive’ and I’m sure that many reading your post would agree, but I wonder whether labelling someone or identifying yourself as a ‘bad language learner’ may also be part of the problem. You’ve already learned enough to ‘get by’ and to be able to read Spanish. If you were really ‘bad’ at it, would you have been able to get this far? I’m not so sure either, though, that if it’s not the learner who’s bad, it’s the teacher. Perhaps it’s the experiences, opportunities and motiviation outside of the formal learning environment that are key.

Most of the things you’ve listed as having tried seem to be language learning activities rather than language using activities and I’d be curious to know what opportunities you have to use Spanish in your day-to-day life where learning is not the main purpose but getting things done in the language is, whether that be socialising, being involved in a Spanish speaking-group, getting information, reading or listening for enjoyment, commenting on Spanish blog posts. How much do you need to use Spanish for work, socialising, relaxing, etc? Rather than you being a ‘bad’ language learner, could it be that other than wanting to be proficient in the language, the need to fit in, to become part of the Spanish-speaking community is not there at the moment and that this is limiting your progress rather than an inability to learn??

This is perhaps prying too much and you don’t need to answer (in fact you don’t even need to publish this comment ;-)) but these are things I often wonder about with my ESOL learners. I feel that while the ESOL provision is all well and good, more is needed. I think we need to find a bridge between the language learners and the wider community and introduce opportunities to use the language more to get them to that next level, particularly for those who live and work with people who speak their language and who read and watch tv in their own language. I’ve had ESOL learners tell me, “The Scottish people are very friendly, but they don’t take us into our groups”. I’ve had Scottish people express feelings of awkwardness talking to speakers of other languages, often because they’re just not used to tuning in to different accents. I run an ESOL reading group to encourage/engender reading for pleasure but I’d also love to find ways to bring these two groups together more and see how this helps with language learning, better understanding etc.

I found your account very interesting and although I’m not yet ready to accept the concept of a ‘bad language learner’, I would like to say… Welcome back to our Sunday mornings :-)

25 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Carol. I agree with you – that there is an element of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ in labelling oneself as a ‘bad language learner’. More than that, it’s easy to use this as an excuse not to make the extra effort needed to break out of the vicious circle of ‘failure-breeds-demotivation-breeds-failure’.

It’s also very perceptive of you to distinguish between ‘learning behaviours’ and ‘using behaviours’: while I always maintain that ‘using is learning’, it’s not always the case that ‘learning is using’, and the negative experiences I have had in classrooms have almost always come down to the fact that learning has been separated from use (except in the case of the Catalan class I mentioned earlier).

Also, there’s a difference, I think, between ‘opportunities’ and ‘affordances’. I have plenty of opportunities to use Spanish, but I don’t turn these opportunities into ‘affordances’ – in the sense that an affordance is an opportunity that is exploited for its ‘evolutionary’ potential. A case in point would be the exchange, yesterday, in the local fish shop, where I really didn’t understand the answer to my question ‘Why is there no mackerel around at the moment?’ so i failed to follow through. To me it was a question of ‘face’ – both hers and mine: acknowledging a miscommunication would have threatened both. I seem to be incapable of getting over this fear of losing – or of threatening – face. And that may have something to do with the wider issue of identity – which I blogged about here.

25 09 2011
Carol

I enjoyed reading your post on identity in light of your current post. Identity does seem to be a very powerful factor in language use, whether that be a L1 register or a L2, and how identities are constructed is complex. Since how we are talked to and about, as much as how we talk ourselves, can affect how we see ourselves, as teachers it would be great to have a better understanding of it.

There have been some interesting studies done about people’s perception of who they are and how this affects their language learning and use and I would love to read more about your language learning experiences as you start to recognise your progress – what you can do now that you couldn’t do 10 years ago/last year/last month – and as you start to see your potential in a more positive light ;-)

30 09 2011
David

Carol,

I think you hit on the same things I was thinking regarding “bad language learner”. Though not easy to discern the reasons for why some students have trouble learning a second language,

However, I have to disagree somewhat about your point about “language learning”. I think it crucial and maybe Mayor Bloomberg hasn’t really tried to learn “right” (for him).

I’ve always been struck by how well seemingly “bad” students do once they’ve had the experience of learning language through remedial strategies and interventions. These successes alone point not to a bad language learner but ones who haven’t learned language properly. Dinklage’s seminal work as to why a majority of his brilliant Harvard students couldn’t pass the low language course requirements points to the fact that some learners do suffer from language learning deficits and need remedial intervention. Dinklage’s approach was to teach the students as if learning disabled. We’d do well to borrow more from the practices of those teaching Special Ed. Another fascinating point to mention is that men are 10 times more likely to have an underlying language learning disability. We should start with that salient point when thinking about a “bad language learner”. Might seem sexist but I think it could be defined as a male problem.

But I do agree that identity does have a large part in things and as it goes without saying, identity.

David

David

1 10 2011
Carol

Hi David

Thanks for your interesting comment. (I’m not sure if this comment will appear in the correct place. I couldn’t find a ‘reply’ link on your comment.)

I’m not sure what point about ‘language learning’ you mean so I may well be contradicting myself by agreeing with you. When I pointed out to Scott that he had mentioned ‘language learning’ activities, I didn’t mean to imply that these weren’t valuable, but only to suggest that they could be complemented and extended by using the language in other contexts. I do think language learning is important and completely agree that people will have ways of learning that are right for them.

As well as language learners, I work with adult literacy and numeracy learners whose first go at learning wasn’t right for them for a variety of reasons. One I hear frequently is that they were expected to do things in a particular way, rather than being allowed to find an approach that was right for them. Talking with them about how people learn differently, experimenting with different ways of working, observing, highlighting & reflecting on their own processes & strategies, and above all, identifying success seems to work well, showing them, as you suggest, that they’re not bad learners but that they perhaps ‘haven’t learned properly’ yet.

I also work with adults with learning disabilities so was interested to read what you wrote about Dinklage’s work and would like to read it if you could give me more details to find it. I’m not sure what it means to teach someone as if learning disabled but I do believe we should teach everyone as if they have the capacity to learn and find ways to help & encourage them to do more. So perhaps one thing we could borrow from people teaching those with learning disabilities, is that one size doesn’t fit all, that there’s not one right way to teach or learn language, and that we have to be sensitive, ready to adapt to our learners and be able to recognise their successes, even if they don’t match our aims or objectives.

Carol

2 10 2011
David

Carol,

I too couldn’t find a reply button! See the Dinklage reference below, can’t find anything online. He’s been a trailblazer in this area, lots of practical research using Harvard students. Search my own blog for an article I republished on my blog, where I outline how I think a teacher can discern a student with an underlying language learning disability.

What you say, I agree with totally. I think what you wrote should be almost basic training for new or any language teacher. The light came on for me about 7-8 years ago. I was taking a special ed AQ course (additional qualifications course here in Canada) and thinking – wow! this is how all language teaching should be approached. Combined with ideas that indeed, we don’t have access to the LAD as we age – we need these remedial approaches. However, most language teaching, just uses techniques common to regular subject teaching, some more, some less constructivist / progressive. If you ever get the chance, watch the classic workshop video – F.A.T. workshop (frustration, anxiety, tension). It really changed how I look at students.

Dinklage, Kenneth T. “Inability to Learn a Foreign Language” in G. Blaine & C. MacArthur(Eds.) Emotional Problems of the Student. New York, 1971: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

25 09 2011
Sue

For the last month I have been teaching Portuguese beginners living on an English-speaking island. They have each lived here between18-22 years. The motivation to learn has just never been an issue for them; the government has provided all documents in their native language for many years and there are translators, if required, in the medical and judicial systems. Now these men have been hit by the recession and are looking for work. Suddenly the need for English has become paramount, and they have recognised the fact that their lack of language is a major drawback. I agree with Carol that the motivation and opportunity to connect with the wider communityhas to be factored in, and the men are not instrinsically bad language learners, if such a thing actually exists. It is just that todaytheir time has come.

25 09 2011
Wes

The interesting point has come up about whether some people are genuinely ‘bad’ language learners.

Already there seems to be strong opposition to this. But why is it such a hard thing to accept? Surely, it just happens that sometimes certain people can’t do certain things well. There is no shame in that necessarily. We all have different aptitudes. I can’t sing well – never could, never will. Sure, you might say I haven’t had the right teacher, a congenial environment etc. and that I can always improve with continued effort. Be that is at may, the stark fact is that I will never improve to a stage where I sound sweetly melodious! Perhaps I just don’t have the right physiological apparatus to excel, just as I don’t have the brain to be a physicist.

To which you might reply: yes, but there is always virtue in persevering – you will gain so much from just trying. You know what: no there isn’t, not in every case at any rate. The average lifespan is less than 1000 months short (shocking put like that, isn’t it?); precious time spent doing something you will never become good at is time you could have spent doing a million other profitable/enjoyable things.

27 09 2011
Lao The Younger

Because language learning is what we do! It’s what makes us what we are. The fact that people know how to communicate suggests that they can’t be a “bad language learner”. I don’t think it’s the same as singing, although most people who coach singers will tell you that anyone can be a good (enough) singer. Perhaps those parentheses contain the most essential element?

5 10 2011
Language Garden (@DavidWarr)

1000 months!! Any way to slow them down?

25 09 2011
J.J. Sunset

From my first days as a novice EFL teacher, I’ve always frowned at and felt embarrased for those colleagues who caricatured their students. Don’t know why: not much training back in the day, not much of a SLA-principled practice… I guess I held on to an instinctive awareness of classroom culture and felt a certain pride (=thrill?) in trying to make things happen.

It never occurred to me that there could be such thing as a “bad language learner”, and even today I still believe that the magic that language learning is will shine through. It has to.

This

25 09 2011
Jessica Mackay

To what extent is our ability to progress beyond a certain level in a language linked to the issue of stabilization / fossilization? There is the famous case study of ‘Wes’, a Japanese artist resident in Hawaii (Schmidt, 1986) who was wholly integrated into local society with a wide circle of friends and work associates and subsequently had access to high quantity and quality of L2 input, but still remained at an intermediate level even after lengthy residence in the target language community.
And talking of length of residence, isn’t there research that suggests that there is a cut off point, for example a couple of years, after which language learners simply do not make any further progress?

I’ve always (quite smugly) assumed I was a good language learner. It’s what I chose to study at university after all. However, last summer I took part in a study for the University of Maryland on native English-speaking advanced speakers of Spanish which involved a written and aural GJT in Spanish, followed by a series of tests developed by Paul Meara and his team at the University of Swansea to ascertain the level of general language learning ability. While my Spanish proved to be of a reasonable level, the language-learning ability test was a truly humbling experience. I scored the same as a typewriter-punching chimp on three out of the four tests. Maybe I learnt my Spanish before I reached the point of no return. I’m sure I wouldn’t be so successful if I started now.

If anyone’s curious (and wants to put themselves through this!) the Llama test battery can be downloaded free from the Lognostics website at

http://www.lognostics.co.uk/tools/llama/index.htm

25 09 2011
J.J. Sunset

Sorry, I hit the wrong key… “This” is not my AA alias….

This bad language learner AA confessions post left me wondering whether language learning is more of an emotional-cognitive construct rather than a sociocultural one…

25 09 2011
David Wright

Dear (Agony) Aunts,

I wonder whether I am alone here.

It’s like this…

Being a bad language learner is actually not a problem for me. I am in no way a bad language learner.
For the fact of the matter is, that I am a no language learner.

The guilt arises mainly because I continue to work for long periods in non-English speaking countries and, so far, I have never gone past so much as elementary stage of proficiency. More guilt arises as I ponder on the suspicion that I never will (no matter how many more countries I work in).

Why is this?

I have no idea, frankly, but I reckon at heart it could have something to do with identity and also with power. Maybe I am tangled up in some supremely affective spider web.

This is a very uncomfortable position to be in at times. Not least because of inevitable everyday communication failures, but because I constantly feel I have to apologize for it – to students and colleagues especially.

The only up-side I can see here is, as a teacher (to relate to Aunty Scott’s idea) I believe it may well have increased my sympathy and admiration for people who do try to master a new language and my care and sensitivity when teaching.

Yours in linguistic limbo,

Mr D

25 09 2011
J.J. Sunset

“Yet I’m still barely B2-ish, speaking-wise, exacerbated by an uncompromising anglo accent”.

I am working on teacher cognition and the nature of the speaking construct. The main research question: what is ‘speaking well’ understood to mean?

Would it be fair to say that your impression of being a bad language learner has to do with the possibility that mastery of an L2 sound system is at the basis of language ownership and increasing levels of L2 proficiency?

Is L2 learning a phonological affair after all?

25 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Is L2 learning a phonological affair after all?

I’m not sure, but certainly accent (and an intrusive L1 one) is a strong and immediate marker of ‘difference’ – perhaps more so than grammar or lexis. I can’t locate the figures but research has shown that listeners register indicators of accent within a matter of seconds.

Interestingly, my ‘pronounced accent’ when speaking Spanish worked in my favour recently (or so I was led to believe), when an electrician agreed to come and repair a problem with the oven, telling me (as he tinkered) ‘I don’t normally accept calls in this part of town, but when I heard your accent I knew you would not be riff-raff” or words to that effect. He then ripped me off something wicked, so maybe he was in fact making altogether different (and less flattering) assumptions about my accent!

25 09 2011
darridge

This is the subject of an interesting paper on intonation and L2 identity, which i will look up when i get home.
As for JJ’s comments on learning being an “emotional-cognitive construct rather than a sociocultural one…[or] a phonological affair”, for me they are all part of the same jigsaw that makes up an L2 identity.
That’s the problem i have with demands the Bloomberg “learn the language better”. For me it’s a demand that Bloomberg become more of a Spanish speaking person – develop more of a Spanish speaking persona. What gives anyone the right to demand that?

26 09 2011
darridge

The paper i mentioned is:

Identity and Intonation: Linking Dynamic Processes in an ESL Classroom
Author(s): Brian Morgan
Source: TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3, Language and Identity (Autumn, 1997), pp. 431-45

25 09 2011
DaveDodgson

The first thing to resonate with me upon hearing about Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts to reach out in Spanish was the criticism of his accent. That immediately took me back to the demotivating experience that was high school French and a day when I read out my error-free penpal letter (in classic language classroom style written to a non-existent penfriend) only to be chastised for my ‘awful accent’. I pointed out that ze French speak Eeenglish while retaining their native accent but was just told to ‘stop being pedantic’ (Pedantic? Moi?) and that was that.

As for the whole ‘bad language learner’ discussion, I remain undecided. I know British and American teachers who have lived in Turkey for much longer than I have but still struggle with basic conversation. By contrast, one of my colleagues who has only been here 18 months has developed his conversational skills very quickly and is often praised by our local colleagues on his rate of progress. I wonder though if this is a matter of aptitude for languages or perception – is the new guy naturally better at learning Turkish or is it the case that people don’t expect much from him whereas they think the others should have learned more by now? I guess we shall only ever know once he has been here for 15 years or more!

As for me, my Turkish is by no means fluent but I find I can hold a conversation with pretty much any Turk with only minimal misunderstandings. However, the road here was a long one. At first, my Turkish was functional – just enough to tell the grocer or a waiter what I wanted. Once I got married, that all changed as my wife encouraged me to use everyday Turkish around the house. Being in that environment really accelerated my learning and got me to where I am now (although my accent and pronunciation still gets criticised from time to time….)

25 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Dave for that interesting comment. While there may not be a demonstrably valid construct of ‘bad language learner’, there does seems to be such a thing as ‘the good language learner’, even if research has still not succeeded in disentangling all the contributing factors – such as motivation, strategy use, aptitude and personality. But we have all encountered language learners who are more than just good – who are quite exceptional, achieving native-like levels of fluency, accuracy and pronunciation that fool even native speakers, and doing so in a relatively short period of time and without any obvious effort. Unfortunately for the rest of us, these linguistic geniuses set a standard that raises false hopes, lending credibility to language courses that offer ‘French in three weeks’ etc, and condemning many learners to a lifetime of disppointment. (Someone defined a Spaniard once as ‘someone who is always learning English’).

25 09 2011
Miguel

Hello everyone!
The bad learner / bad teacher dychotomy reminded me of the studies about FLLD (foreign language learning disability: http://www.ernweb.com/public/905.cfm). I am not attending a foreign language course right now but I am taking aikido lessons and I do feel I am really clumsy and that my classmates seem to pick it up much faster than me. I feel my teacher is great (I actually feel I’m learning more about teaching than about aikido!) so I wouldn’t discard the idea of language learning aptitude / strategic competence or whatever you want to call it. Still, I firmly believe that a teacher *must* be optimistic about his students’ learning abilities (“teaching is the greatest act of optimism” isn’t it?) and that stops me from embracing the idea of FLLD. In short, I think that there are bad teachers and bad learners and that both can improve and learn.
Best,
Miguel.

25 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Miguel – thanks for that – here’s me saying that there’s nothing pathological about the bad language learner, and lo and behold! it seems I have FLLD!

I have to admit I’m somewhat sceptical about labels like these – part of a (mainly American) tradition of ‘de-criminalizing’ what were once considered character flaws (such as hyperactivity or shyness) by re-branding them as pathologies. In this way, no one is to blame: my inability to pronounce the Spanish ‘r’ is simply a congenital condition! I can envisage notes to teachers of the type: “Please excuse Scott from Spanish class today, but he has had an attack of FLLD”. ;-)

25 09 2011
Graham Stanley

Very interesting post, Scott, and one I identify with too. I remember being very frustrated after my first 8 months living in Spain and trying my utmost to learn and speak Spanish. Although I’d started studying spanish at school when I was 14, and even studied it at A level, I found myself struggling to string sentences together coherently while some of my fellow teachers who had started learning the language seemed to have picked up much more and were better speakers than I was, without really trying.

I ended up putting this down to me being older than them (I was 30 when I arrived in Spain) and perhaps this is a factor too, as I have also taught people who have started learning English in earnest when in their forties and fifties here who have had great difficulties, despite the amount of time they spend enthusiastically engaged with the language.

As for my Spanish, it got much better mostly thanks to me living with the woman who is now my wife, who is Spanish. We communicate in Spanish, which helps, but she sometimes gets frustrated at some of my language errors, and if I spend an extended time away from the language (as I used to do when I taught in summer schools in the UK), then I find my comprehension and fluency suffers when I come back. It’s why I keep thinking of using a language being like doing exercise – you need to keep at it or you get out of shape. And each us us have some kind of limit – just as I know I’m not going to be able to be fit enough to run a marathon, so I know I’ll not be able to speak Spanish as well as I thought I would when I first came to Spain. It’s also the reason why I’m happy just to get by with my passive knowledge of Catalan too. Despite telling myself from time to time that I should make more of an effort, I know the amount of time I would have to invest in learning how to speak it well would be greater than the benefit I’d feel from being able to do so.

26 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

“I know the amount of time I would have to invest in learning how to speak it [Catalan] well would be greater than the benefit I’d feel from being able to do so”.

Yes, there’s a theory of motivation (and I can’t for the moment remember who developed it) that argues that learners consciously or unconsciously calculate the ‘bang for buck’ involved in any likely learning enterprise: will the time and effort put into it be worth it? I could spend hours a day learning vocabulary in Catalan from word cards (as my partner does) but what chance is there I’d ever use those words (I hear a little voice in my head say)? Whereas I don’t begrudge the hour or so of newspaper reading I do in Spanish because there are collateral benefits – I actually learn something, even if it’s not a lot of useable vocabulary.

As for the age and relationship factors, yes, this is what I meant by ‘biographical’ factors. I arrived in Spain aged 36, already in a relationship, so there was less compulsion to socialise (and hence use Spanish) than had I arrived aged 21 and single.

26 09 2011
Jessica Mackay

Could the ‘bang-for-buck’ theory of motivation be the Expectancy-Value framework? Basically, as you say, how much effort you put in depends on how much you expect to get out of the activity. The classic example of this was Atkinson’s Achievement Motivation theory (Atkinson & Raynor, 1974). I prefer your theory title :)

There was also a very interesting talk at IATEFL this year ( apologies, I forget by whom) on Attribution theory. One aspect of this could be that if the learner does not expect to succeed, they will make little attempt to learn and thereby ‘attribute’ their failure to lack of effort;
e.g ‘I could have passed if I’d worked harder’
This helps them to save face. They also often ‘attribute’ their failure to the teacher/book/classmates of course, saving even more face!

26 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jessica – I knew I could count on you for the correct terminology! The Expectancy-Value Framewokr – exactly.

As for attribution theory, I guess that my attributing my less than brilliant Spanish to having poor phonemic coding abiltiy (aka a bad ear) sort of ‘lets me off the hook’, psychologically speaking, since – if this is indeed physiological, then I needn’t even try to improve it!

25 09 2011
philb81

This is an interesting debate – another aspect that comes to mind are the worrying steps that some governments (eg. here in the UK) to mandate that people reach a certain level of language within a certain time in order to gain permanent residence.

The UK goverment has recently been consulting on proposals that immigrants to the UK should reach Entry Level 3 (B1/B2 level) within two years – what the consequences of not reaching this have not been discussed…. Will it lead to people being deported for being ‘bad’ language learners?

26 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Good point, Phil. I often wonder if these government mandates are ever challenged by SLA researchers – or whether there is reliable data on how long the typical immigrant might take to reach B1 from scratch.

25 09 2011
Anthony Gaughan

May I be the first one here to say “my name is Anthony and I am a bad language learner” and mean it. I have been in Germany for over 11 years and have taken precisely 3 classes. I have made no formal effort to learn the language.

When I talk to Germans they are initially very impressed by my level of competence (also accent) but after I say “yes, but after 10 years or so I think I could be expected to be better”), they become more discerning and start to note flaws.

So while I may well in the mean time have reached CEF B2 or so, I applaud Bloomberg and You, Scott, who have made the effort to improve. I basically haven’t – and it is on such users of a language such as I that scorn (if any) should be poured.

26 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Anthony, never let on how long you’ve been there! Tell them you arrived a couple of weeks ago. ;-)

25 09 2011
Marjorie Vai

Bravo!!! Thanks for defending our mayor.

I’ve just sent this to a friend who works at Bloomberg. He will try to get it to him.

26 09 2011
brad5patterson

Thanks Scott for humbly sharing what could be seen as a “weakness”, that of being a bad language learner. It’s funny how the pressure to be “good” at everything we do is so unrealistic, and yet can be so emotionally charged when we launch into a new activity like skiing or learning Spanish for example… oh the sensitive ego! (I humbly remember 4 year-old french children zooming past me on the Alps slope as I sat skis all tangled wondering how to get to the bottom without looking even more like a 17 year-old American “chump”)

The ‘discussion-ender’ point for me is that Bloomberg is the mayor, and the time he has for missions outside of being mayor is extremely limited. The flip side is that many “bad learners” out there in the world don’t have that luxury with English, and so they have to paddle upstream and I applaud that effort. In the end, though, much of “humor” has always been based on the “you slipped on a banana peel” pleasure in others’ pain. Odd isn’t it ? Cheers, Brad

26 09 2011
annforeman

Just raised the same querstion on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check there for comments.

Best,

Ann

26 09 2011
Michael Bunn

Hi Scott – just a few general points about the experience of learning Spanish in Spain, which may or may not shine a light on the situation.
It took me years, but finally I made the transition from Bad to Good Language Learner, and looking back on it, I think that one of my main stumbling blocks was my basic psychological oversensitivity to my (Spanish) environment.

One example situation was where, in my early days in Spain, 20-something years ago, I would be trying to communicate in my beginner’s Spanish to a local, when something weird would happen to their face. Without even knowing they were doing it, the listener would screw up his/her face into a mask of incomprehension. An expression that said “Huh? Don’t understand a word!” This would unnerve me and cause me to start stuttering, stammering and losing recall to even basic vocab, until the self-fulfilling prophecy came to pass. It was as if the very sight of me – a six foot tall fair-haired north European (not a common sight in the late 80s) – sent the message to the local listener’s brains “You are not going to understand anything this guy says”, and thus communication was blocked from the word go. I also noticed that if I was talking over the phone, I did not have this problem, because the stumbling block (my physical appearance) was removed. Of course, it wouldn’t have been such a problem if I simply hadn’t noticed the scrunched-up face of my locutor, but I couldn’t not notice it. Now, years later, locals have become inured to foreign faces, but just to be on the safe side, when I go into a shop/government office etc. I aid the comprehension of the person behind the counter by speaking in a LOUD voice. And they understand me perfectly (because volume is another problem – north Europeans tend to speak quietly, which can be confusing for the Spaniard, who thinks “Why is s/he whispering like that?”, and thus the thread of comprehension is partly broken).

Speaking speed is another difficult area. Mother-tongue Spanish-speakers communicate at a furious pace, and I doubt that I will ever be able to match it. My first few sentences come out fast enough, but after that I tend to slow down (I need to think, dammit!), and the listeners become restless, until inevitably – when you have paused for a micro-second too long, casting around in your memory for the right word – they start finishing your sentences, by throwing in words that are often anything but apposite to what you were trying to say. This really throws me off my stride, conversationally, and I would have to make an effort to get my narrative back on track, or sometimes just lapse into silence, anecdote unfinished. Once again, it’s my over-sensitivity that is the problem here, but I have managed to solve the problem – with friends and partner’s family, at least – of asking them, very politely, if they could restrain themselves from finishing my sentences, as it really puts me off. They respond with looks of shock and horror at how rude they have been, but of course they didn’t even notice they were doing it – they were just keeping the conversational rhythm going at what they (unconsciously) consider to be a suitable speed.

And here I might finally manage to make an important point: speed and the resulting rhythm are imperative when speaking Castellano. Just look at Spanish poetry books up to the mid-20th century – the stress syllables are marked, to help the reciter to achieve the correct rolling, galloping pace. Or listen to a group of Spanish-speakers (especially after a glass or two of wine) – they do speak much faster than north Europeans, and having to listen to a foreigner speaking slowly in Castillian must be very frustrating for them (even though I’m sure that most of them have never come to this realisation – it’s just wrong, as wrong as a mispronounced word, and that is why they “correct” us by finishing our sentences.

I would go so far as to say that speaking speed also has to do with the problems that Spaniards have with learning English – when I was a teacher, I used to get frustrated and even irritated by the way students would often finish speaking exercises as quickly as possible, and would be loath to expound on a subject for longer than absolutely necessary, even though, when speaking in their own language, they would talk the hind leg off a donkey. I believe that it is, partly, their frustration at their slowness in speaking English that brings them to a conversational halt; instead of taking it step by step and building up speed and proficiency, as the theory would have them do, they have an unconscious need to express themselves at the same machine-gun pace as they do in their own language. Just a theory, totally unprovable, I know, but I believe it to be true. It also puts to rest the idea of Spanish students being “lazy” at learning English. They’re not lazy, they’re just being forced to express themselves through a medium which, compared to their own, is cumbersome and frustrating.

Cheers, Michael

26 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Michael, for your insightful comment. It’s nice to know that FLLD (Foreign Language Learning Disability) is not terminal!

Regarding your point about speeech rate, I wonder if it’s not so much the rate of delivery of Spanish as the style of delivery. Since Spanish is (theoretically at least) a syllable-timed language, where each syllable is given more or less the same length, and which accounts for the rat-a-tat-tat effect of fluent Spanish, it contrasts with English, which is stress-timed, meaning that the main stressed words fall at regular intervals and hence the intervening syllables are squeezed or stretched in order to fit the rhythm. Speaking a syllable-timed language using stress-timing (as I imagine I do when i speak Spanish) condemns the speaker not only to sounding foreign, but to considerable loss of fluency.

As for your point about preferring phone conversations, I’m exactly the opposite. My wretchedly bad ear means I have a lot of trouble processing spoken language, and this is exacerbated if I have no visual clues to help. I’m like the dog that only recognises one or two words (like ‘walkies’) and therefore relies on contextual clues to know when it’s dinner time! I’d rather walk ten blocks to get the information I need than pick up the phone.

26 09 2011
Aisha

I thought FLLD did not really exist. Those students who are failing might have trouble learning in school but can certainly learn a in football camp somewhere, etc. So we can rename it to FLLSD.

26 09 2011
Declan Cooley

Scott said: “Speaking a syllable-timed language using stress-timing condemns the speaker not only to sounding foreign, but to considerable loss of fluency.” In relation to this, we can compare the reverse situation with Indian English, where what is usually stress-timed (RP English) is delivered in a syllable-timed manner. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_English] due to L1 transfer (Indian native languages are syllable-timed languages) . I agree that it ‘condemns’ an Indian speaker to sounding ‘foreign’, but is there a concomitant loss of fluency ?

26 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Declan. Even as I wrote that, I wondered if there was a correlation between dysfluency and stress- or syllable-timing transfer. I just find that – in my own case – I can never achieve the rat-a-tat-tat effect of spoken Spanish, and hence this seems like a barrier to fluency.

29 09 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Re. foreignness versus dysfluency: is fluency ever defined as a value judgement by a speech community rather than as an objective measure (e.g. length of utterance/no. c-units in a turn etc)? In other words, is fluency ever defined as what a speech community expects to hear? – so some BrE speakers perceive and judge InE as not fluent because they anticipate more stress timing rather than the InE speaker having failed to meet any objective measure of fluency?Similarly, Scott’s failure to acquire the rat-a-tat of spoken spanish is only a barrier to fluency in – to use the term broadly – a sociolinguistic sense?

BTW: apologies if this has already been discussed – sadly not enough time to read all these great comments right now but still wanted to ask the question.

29 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

I guess, in the end, fluency is what you’re used to. I have friends here who think I’m quite fluent, possibly because they have had more opportunities to interact with non-native speakers of Spanish. Or they’re just of a more tolerant disposition. Or maybe even they’re vaguely interested in what I have to say!

And because they think that I’m fluent I probably AM fluent – or more fluent than I am with interlocutors who look at me like I had just got off the last boat. You’re right, I think, to imply that ‘fluency is in the ear of the beholder’ – which means that perhaps we need to teach our students tricks whereby they ‘fool’ their interlocutors into thinking they’re fluent. Having a few well rehearsed conversational openers might be a start….

26 09 2011
Aisha

The title of this post immediately caught my eye because it’s not the usual thing you see around and I am very passionate about the topic. It has loads to do with how effective a teacher you are. Not only what you stated but also because you are more effective in helping ALL your students progress swiftly in the A-Z of their learning. You know exactly what they need and you know if you keep at it they will learn beautifully so you don’t give up and yes, you are patient, very patient and empathetic, and positive. How can a teacher empathize when they learned a language easily through memorizing the rules? While discussing a student this morning I just had a teacher ask me, “Isn’t 7th grade too late to learn this?”

I’m a multimodal learner. I am terrible at memorization, thank God, and I need a hell of a lot of practice in different ways, but once I’ve got it I’m awesome.

26 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for you comment, Aisha. I tend to agree – that the language teacher who has had to struggle a bit with the language – or with any language – is in a better position than the teacher for whom second language learning is effortless – unless, of course, they can somehow communicate the secret of that effortlessness!

26 09 2011
Aisha

And as a native New Yorker, I’m even more proud he thought it important enough to speak in his basic Spanish. Perhaps the message for any potential mayors will be to start learning Spanish now.

Unfortunately, we still live in an age where people immediately rally around the negative than the positive.

26 09 2011
Cecilia Lemos

I am glad you wrote this post and it’s a relief to learn that someone like you, Scott, a reference in the world of ELT, admits to struggling as a language learner.

I’d like to think I am what you describe as a good language learner. Reproducing the different sounds is relatively easy for me, I make connections between the different languages and infer a lot. I have to admit to being a bit anxious as a learner of French, but just because I wanted to be as fluent in French as I am in English, quickly. And that’s not going to happen any time soon :-)

I think it’s very hypocritical to ask our students to take risks and speak despite making mistakes, to communicate at all costs if we expect them to do it perfectly. What is perfectly anyway? Do all people who have English as their mother tongue speak “perfectly”? I don’t think so…

Mocking a language learner’s attempt at communicating in another language should never happen – neither inside nor outside the classroom. It should be praised, for it takes courage to do it.

And I agree with you nobody should be expected to have perfect fluency, no matter where the person lives or what position the person holds (and to that effect I agree with Diarmuid’s points as well). As long as the person communicates effectively, it’s good. Actually, it’s better than good, it’s great. It’s an accomplishment.

I know I feel very self-conscious when speaking any foreign language other than English – though I feel more comfortable when speaking Spanish, even if just for the resemblance to Portuguese. But that doesn’t make me stop trying.

Cheers.

26 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Cecilia. I guess that one of the things that really attracted me to the communicative approach (and I was around when it arrived!) was the way it shifted the goalposts – from accuracy to communicative effectiveness (let’s not call it fluency because I think that’s something else entirely). That’s why I have never lost my committment to communicative language teaching. It’s the method that I wish I could have been taught by!

27 09 2011
Cecilia Lemos

Preaching to the converted!!! But audiolingualism can’t have been that bad! I learned ;-) And so did many of us teachers around here! And I will adopt “communicative effectiveness” – much more fitting, that’s for sure! Thanks Scott!

27 09 2011
Rob

Scott, after reading your engaging post along with everyone’s thought-provoking comments, it seems to me you’re a good language learner who sometimes feels bad(ly) about his language (read ‘communicative effectiveness’).
You’ve certainly got a mind for language even if you don’t believe you have an ear for it. Are you like the talented musician who says, “I can’t dance.” If so, remember Woodstock! Although I’ve heard many of the people grooving there don’t remember much of it…
As for teachers and learners, are any bad? As with lovers (and we’ve mentioned the erotic element in education – at least someone has http://www.nea.org/assets/img/PubThoughtAndAction/TAA_02_03.pdf ), is it technique, skill, experience or just chemistry (don’t necessarily mean mind-altering substances), timing, and mood/atmosphere? A teacher we find bad might bring out the best in us, and the reverse can be true, too.
I was hoping the Bad Language Learner would turn out to be like The Bad Lieutenant http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bad_Lieutenant, but it’s turned out to be less of a character study and more of a self- reflection, or has it? :-)
Rob

27 09 2011
Cherry M Philipose (@cherrymp)

Thanks Scott for this post. I thought it’d be nice to share my experience with learning Burmese and other languages here.

I’d been teaching English in Burma for about two years now and my proficiency in the Burmese language is very limited. Sometimes I seriously feel bad about it because not being able to pick up this language in an immersion situation is something that I couldn’t understand! But looking back I can point out couple of reasons for my limited picking up of this language.

The foremost thing that comes to my mind is I never had to learn Burmese especially since the immediate community with which I work can all at least understand English. The very basic reason of language learning – communication – is thereby met. The moments which seriously made me ‘want’ to learn Burmese were when I or people who don’t know English literally struggled to communicate in Burmese and failed.

Then the opportunities to learn, practise and expand were quite limited. My own teaching responsibilities sort of kept me occupied most of the times.

In my school days I’d to study three languages – Malayalam, my L1; Hindi, the national language; and English, the official language and L2. My score cards would tell that I’ve a gift of learning languages; but certain languages including Hindi somehow won’t come my way the way I want it to. The story is same later too when I moved to Hyderabad where Telugu, another of many Indian languages, is spoken – I just couldn’t turn myself into a confident user of it. However I noticed that if I give myself incubation periods between learning, rather than learning in one go, I sort of remember and can use the language in a better way.

Whenever I speak a little in Burmese people here are quite happy and are excited. But I know how much I know and can do with this language. I remember reading similar sentiments expressed somewhere else where the writer suggests a simple litmus test for checking one’s proficiency in a language one is studying/learning by suggesting that if s/he can sit in a tea shop and can make out the conversation that’s happening around then can be happy.

I don’t know how far you or anybody else would agree to it.

Any way thanks once again for the interesting read Scott and thanks to the changed internet censorship rules in Burma that I’m able to access, read, and comment on your blog. :)))

27 09 2011
David Wright

I never had to learn Burmese especially since the immediate community with which I work can all at least understand English. The very basic reason of language learning – communication – is thereby met. The moments which seriously made me ‘want’ to learn Burmese were when I or people who don’t know English literally struggled to communicate in Burmese and failed.

I guess this relates very much to my earlier post.

I have been able to find many people to speak English to wherever I’ve been
But really I am wondering how much not wanting to learn the language of a particular community might relate to ones sense of identity.

When working in Italy for example I learned a lot of words and expressions, could receptively work out what was happening in a (very) basic conversation much of the time, but I just couldn’t visual myself as an Italian speaker. I had every opportunity to learn, but I didn’t want to take it.

Looking through the (great) comments on the blog today, it seems very few people can relate to this – either most have made a good effort to learn the local tongue or will not admit to being in a country for a long period and not wanting to learn the local language!

So, I have two questions, if any one would be kind enough to give their opinion:

01. Has anyone else here, worked, studied or traveled in a particular country for a while, but not felt like learning the language?

02. How much could this lack of will be related to keeping one’s identity?

Thanks!

27 09 2011
Rob

01. Has anyone else here, worked, studied or traveled in a particular country for a while, but not felt like learning the language?

02. How much could this lack of will be related to keeping one’s identity?

David, every country I have visited has interested me, and I’ve always wanted to learn as much of the local language and culture as I can. It’s fair to say I have a knack for learning languages. If you’ve ever seen the movie Zelig (Woody Allen) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zelig, you’ll know how I feel about foreign languages; like Woody Allen’s character in Zelig, I sort of slip into the local culture and language, trying to fit in as best I can (not always easy). In countries where my skin tone, eye shape, and hair texture (the typical identifiers of race) don’t give me away, I have often been mistaken for a local (eg, Russia, Finland, Germany, Estonia) even if I’ve only had time to learn a few phrases that I can mimic well. It would leave me feeling empty and dry to not at least attempt to learn the local parlance. In Germany, I had enough time to learn high German (with a South German accent) and enough Bavarian to understand the dialect and pas the Bavarian language ‘exam’, which is to say ‘squirrel’ in Bavarian. By the way, there are of course different varieties of Bavarian depending on the region. I learned how to say a few words in many of the different varieties.

Your second question is prescient: I’m an observer, and I’ve noted as a language teacher ad as a learner that many people don’t want to give themselves up to another culture, either because they don’t care for the culture, or because they cling to their own for fear of becoming someone other than themselves. It was strange to become more German, more Estonian, but, like the Tony Judt piece that Scott referenced, if one accepts living on the edge, that’s not a hindrance. I’m sure you know people, as do I, who speak a second or third language with fluency but retain their L1 accent. Sometimes, I believe, it’s to do with identity, ie the speaker doesn’t want to sound too foreign. Other times, however, people don’t have an ear for language. It seems like this is the case with Scott. And some people don’t get turned on by grammar and lexis – I do! I love to analyze and experiment with language, and words and phrases just seem to stick if I encounter them in a memorable situation or have enough exposure.

And to top it all off, David, I’m more of an introvert! I’ve met people with winning smiles and gregarious personalities who win more approval with their few mangled phrases and poorly pronounced words that I can ever hope to do.

Anyway, I’m still working on my English ideolect. :-) Reading everyone’s posts makes me realize how much practice I need. :-)

Hope I’ve answered your questions, David.

Best,
Rob

27 09 2011
Rob

PS: Apropos my need for English practice, spelling ‘idiolect’ correctly, for example.

27 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Cherry, for your comment – there’s a lot I can identify with here, not least an early (scholastic) history of relative success in languages – at highschool I was getting good grades in French and German (although less so in Latin) and even did Japanese for a semester. Significantly, though, there were never any speaking tests, and the instruction was almost entirely grammar-translation. Moreover, there was absolutely zero exposure outside the classroom (we’re talking New Zealand in the 1960s here). The first time I heard French spoken by native speakers was when I crossed the path of two tourists at a national park when I was 19.

Significantly, perhaps, I was also precociousy literate in my L1 (English), and research suggests that there is a relation between L1 literacy and L2 aptitude. In the latest Modern Language Journal, in fact, Sparks et al. report a study which shows that ‘early L1 skills are linked to later L2 aptitude’, and cite earlier studies that “found that early L1 skills, such as word decoding, spelling, vocabulary, reading, and listening comprehension measured in elementary school are strongly related to L2 aptitude and L2 proficiency a number of years later in high school”. I guess the question is – does this carry over into actual contact? It seems in my case it didn’t.

Sparks, R., Patton, J., Ganschow, L., & Humbach, N. 2011. Subcomponents of second language aptitude and second language proficiency. Modern Language Journal, 95/2, pp274-290.

27 09 2011
Mirian

I couldn’t agree more. Being an English teacher, I’m often painfully aware of the shame and frustration learners experience when trying to express themselves in a foreign language. But I trully believe it’s my job to try and help them improve whatever they can and feel better, even if for tiny, baby steps improvement.
I commented on Higor’s post and repeat what I wrote here:
“…nobody should be mocked for trying, let alone for an EFL professional. It’s like having a psychologist mock people for being depressed or paranoid.”

Sometimes I have the feeling that people who are proficient users of English take up a job as an English teacher and deep inside feel superior than others. But knowing the language isn’t enough. Sympathy must come right after in the list.

Tks for a great post! I may sound a bit naive now but I guess being a bad learner is what makes you such an outstanding teacher!

28 09 2011
Gloria M. (@little_miss_glo)

Many thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

“it offends me when anyone who attempts to communicate in a language that is not their own is mocked in this way. However ‘bad’ his Spanish is, surely the mayor should be congratulated, not caricatured?”

Here in Mexico we had a situation earlier this year, upon the release of Anthony Hopkins’s latest movie.

Here the situation was different. The news anchor was relying on the interpreter’s help to carry out the interview and was clearly thrown off when the earpiece malfunctioned – resulting in a high stress situation, hardly conducive to effective language production. Many people argued was that someone of Mr. Lopez Doriga’s stature should have a better command of the English language, presumably something a bit of a job requirement on TV.

For me what was rather curious was that not for one second did anyone stop to consider that Mr. Hopkins (an actor who must have been in Spanish speaking countries many times before) was really making matters more difficult by not even TRYING to help the interviewer … after all, the questions were fairly predictable and the pronunciation issues did not render the language production inintelligible.

Perhaps it’s not a matter of good language learners ridiculing others’ efforts, but rather the very human tendency to hold others (especially public figures) to a higher standard than we hold ourselves to?

28 09 2011
Chris

A difficult situation for all involved. The interviewer switches between Spanish and English. Mr Hopkins has to recognize which language is being used first before trying to understand it. The interviewer is also switching topics, switching from Hopkin’s movie to the technical problems. With each utterance Hopkins has to first switch to the right context. English? Spanish? Movie? Studio problems? Add in delays due to people waiting for a translation that doesn’t arrive, and the chance of communication lies near zero.

I think they handled the situation really well. It seems Mr. Hopkins is clearly trying to help the interviewer by repeating what he thinks he heard. The interviewer tries to help by confirming. Two native speakers of any language will do this if they think they haven’t understood something. The amazing thing about this interchange is that it was successful. They did exchange information. Perfect example of communication strategies at work. Thanks for the clip!

BTW I think the subtitles provided for the interviewer’s English are meant to be funny. (FAIL) I don’t think they’re funny. His pronunciation isn’t incomprehensible, and the ‘transcription’ is just wrong.

29 09 2011
David Wright

The amazing thing about this interchange is that it was successful. They did exchange information.

If we’re talking purely about communication here, sure, you’re right they did exchange some information. The only problem is, it was so very little!
Could we really call this a successful interchange? Personally, I don’t see it. I mean, if you just think about what the interview was meant accomplish – that is, all the questions the interviewee was supposed to answer and elucidate on, one would have to say we are being supremely over-generous to call this conversation ‘successful’.

I mean, in a slightly different sense, would we think out students communicatively successful if they did something like this at, say, a job interview? I mean, certainly we could praise them for understanding something, but it would hardly be a task well done.

29 09 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Sorry but I’m with Chris on this one – let’s not forget that the exchange has clearly been edited to focus on the failure but even there it seems clear to me that there was success (and we don’t know how much successful exchange was edited out but some can be inferred from faded out speech from Hopkins).
This was evidently live (or else it would never have been broadcast) and so the technical failure was an unexpected and therefore highly stressful situation: I think they both handled it as well as could be expected (leaving aside the argument about whether a more fluent English speaking interlocutor should have been selected in the first place…)

28 09 2011
Higor Cavalcante

Dear Scott,

First of all, two things: I’m sorry it took me a couple of days to comment here, but I wanted to do it properly =). Second, reading you say I write beautifully in English makes me self-conscious to comment here now, and might just become more important to me from now on than my CPE.

Now, in parts:

1) I do NOT agree with the mockery. You said I went so far as to blog my disagreement, but if you read my post carefully, you’ll see I have never condoned the mockery, and never would I. I’ll explain my views on Mr. Bloomberg’s use of Spanish below, but I do NOT agree with, and have NEVER condoned the mockery, not of the mayor, not of any student of any foreign language ever. (If I may be so bold, nevertheless, Mr. Bloomberg, being the mayor of New York City and a media tycoon, should take it in his stride, shouldn’t he?)

2) “(Not to mention Chinese, Greek, Yiddish and Korean either, I suppose)”. I have never said that, and I don’t think so. Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the United States throughout the country (which, by the way, has no official language), and it seems to me a leader in New York City has the obligation to speak excellent Spanish, yes. Mr Bloomberg should, Mr Obama (obviously) should, they all should. I have never seen Mr Obama speak Spanish, though, not out of populism anyway. He doesn’t speak Spanish, so he doesn’t address the nation in Spanish. Period. If he needs to get a serious message across, he’ll do so in English, the language he speaks. He’ll leave Spanish to the interpreters, to CNN en Español.

When Barack Obama visited Brazil last year, he made a point of learning a few sentences in Portuguese to use while speaking to a million Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro. He didn’t make his speech in Portuguese, mind you, or summarized his speech in the end in Portuguese. He, in our jargon, established rapport in Portuguese, and we were flattered. My point is: when you are in a position of authority advising people on what to do on the days and in the hours leading up to a hurricane, do so in a language – whatever it is – you are comfortable with. Don’t use a moment like that to get the ‘latino’ vote (and this is an extremely prejudiced term, not to mention inaccurate.); when you’re trying to be charming, during an empty populist speech, for example, then knock yourself out in any language you see fit. My problem was never with Mr Bloomberg’s nonexistent Spanish (he was reading Spanish, not speaking Spanish. He doesn’t speak any Spanish), it was with his trying to sweep the Spanish-speaking community off their feet at a time of national crisis. Bad timing;

3) By excellent Spanish I never meant at C2 level; I meant communicative, fluent Spanish (if Bloomberg spoke Spanish like you do, Scott, then I’d be the first to tell him, “go, Mr. Mayor, Spanish it is!”);

4) I don’t think he should be penalized for trying, either, and I don’t think whoever it was that created a blog to mock him out of sheer lack of what to do should’ve done that either. I just think that, if Mr Bloomberg wants to address his Spanish-speaking constituents in their language, he should learn it, however many hours it takes him. That not being the case, he should take his cue from Barack Obama and stick to English;

5) I mentioned in my post a Brazilian soccer coach (who used to coach the South African national team) that gave an interview after a match in English beyond comprehension. He became a national joke (no, I don’t think that’s right). His interview was turned into a song, subtitled, mocked all over the country (the world) and Joel never gave an interview in English again (I suspect he never ever tried English again anywhere – here’s the interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5RWMxEALSA). I believe, Scott, this interview proves both my point and yours. It proves yours when it shows beyond a doubt that mockery is profoundly detrimental even for the most hard-working, courageous of students. It proves mine when I say students should, regardless of their levels, try out language in bars, restaurants, passport controls and international trips in general the world over. However, for the very few who have the chance, I’d say giving interviews and adressing nations are much more advanced functions of a foreign language, which demand a grasp of the language neither Mr. Bloomberg nor Mr. Santana are any close to attaining.

I therefore second your plea, Scott. Let’s never, ever mock our students for their well-meant attempts (and though I don’t think Mr. Bloomberg’s was well-meant, I’m not for mocking him either.). However, as teacher – and because not everybody is – let’s try and, as much as possible, protect our students from ridicule. If any of them had been my students, I would have strongly recommended they refrain from public speaking for the time being.

Let me finish by saying it still feels a bit fantastic to be discussing something with you. =) “A-Z of ELT” (“Beyond the Sentence”, “Uncovering Grammar”…) is one of the most important books in ELT for me ever.

Best wishes,
Higor.

PS: You think I’m a good language learner because you’ve never seen me ina French class!

29 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for coming on board, Higor. It’s admirable that you should rise to the challenge of defending – and clarifying – your original comments. The basic point you are making – that Mayor Bloomberg should learn Spanish – is well made and, I think, fairly uncontroversial. In fact, it seems that he is the first to admit this, and has been taking Spanish classes for the last seven years (see Declan Cooley’s earlier comment, in which he posted this link: http://www.matthewbennett.es/1008/bloombergs-spanish-good-enough-for-new-york-press-conferences/

Your related point – that he shouldn’t use it until he has learnt it – seems to me a little unrealistic (and maybe using it is part of the learning of it?), as does your point that his use of Spanish is opportunistic (that he is currying favour with the Hispanic community), and, furthermore, that it was inappropriate, given the severity of the occasion. I’m not sure if it’s wise to impute motives for a person’s choice of language without knowing more of the facts, but I tend to give a speaker the benefit of the doubt, and assume his/her language choices reflect his/her best understanding of the context variables currently in operation. Like most speech events, the mayor’s pronouncements in advance of the hurricane probably had a double function: to warn, and, at the same time, to build what one writer (Aston, 1988) has called ‘comity’, i.e. kindly and considerate behaviour towards others. (Aston argues that comity is a major factor in public discourse, and this would explain Obama’s use of Portuguese in his speech in Brazil). Bloomberg was doing what everyone does when they open their mouth – he was simultaneously transacting and interacting – and he was doing this in the context of a strongly multilingual and multicultural society, hence his use of Spanish.

¡Digo yo!

29 09 2011
Rob

“Don’t use a moment like that to get the ‘latino’ vote (and this is an extremely prejudiced term, not to mention inaccurate.”

Here’s Obama, running for president, using Spanish to get the Puerto Rican vote.

http://blog.washingtonpost.com/channel-08/2008/05/obama_en_espanol.html

As for the term ‘latino’, in my experience, it is commonly used by people from the Americas to refer to their culture and heritage. Which term would you use?

Rob

29 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for posting that, Rob. I’d love to know how much coaching he had. To my (maladroit) ear, he sounds pretty good!

30 09 2011
Luz Begoña

I totally agree with you, Scott. I’d rather have a bad language learner in an efficient politician than a good speaker of other languages whose work as a politician brings chaos and poverty to my community.

I tend to hear a lot of inaccuracies (to say the least) when it comes to the way Spanish people of a certain age-range (+30sth) manage to speak a language like English. Those who don’t have the ear, or the time, or whatever other reasons, to succeed in communicating in English have started to feel that the only one to be blamed for this failure is themselves. They internalized the belief that something must be wrong with them, that they are actually stupid and that’s why English ¨is not for them¨. Some even end up feeling ¨stigmatized¨ because of their failure to speak English. To which I must add that our present situation when it comes to job search in Spain doesn’t help at all as the candidate’s competence in English is being used not as an asset for the potential job but a filter to discard very skillful people, and it maddens me.

Actually, two weeks ago I wrote a post on my blog titled ¨When learning English becomes an ordeal¨

http://luzbego-englishspanishblog.blogspot.com/2011/09/when-learning-english-becomes-ordeal.html

I, myself, have started to learn Swedish and my admiration to all those adults that are trying to learn English has increased even more if possible. There’s nothing better for a language teacher than to feel themselves in their students’ shoes. I think we become more humble, then. Learning Swedish grammar is a an easy road but when it comes to me trying to say something in Swedish I need to bring the best of myself so as to overcome the feeling that I’m simply making a fool of myself. When in Sweden I can communicate with anybody in English, this is not an issue at all, but I feel sheer pleasure when I manage to say ¨Tack så mycket¨ instead of ¨Thank you very much¨.

I still think people don’t get it; speaking a second language means that one can communicate with people that do not share your own language and this in itself is so rich and powerful. Your listener will not care whether your pronunciation is poor or excellent if you get the message across and it serves its purpose.

Sorry for the length of my comment, and thanks a lot for your blog.

2 10 2011
Wolfgang Butzkamm

Dear Scott,

I couldn’t agree more. I’m an equally bad language learner (when it comes to speaking the language), but in a perhaps slightly different way. I once went on a three months lecture tour to Finland. I studied and practised the language before the trip, then tried to use it during the trip, to order meals etc. That was fine, but a month or so after nothing was left. That sort of thing happened again and again, for instance when I went on holidays in the Netherlands or in Montenegro. It never sticks. I’m amazed when people keep up 5 or 6 languages, or even more. Sometimes I derive comfort from the idea that there are polyglots who are also fools.

4 10 2011
Alex

Dear Scott and all,
This is a bit off topic, but reading the post and comments (in a very tangental manner) reminded me of the novel ‘Budapest’ by Chico Buarque. A beautiful, odd novel that captures language learning, language, migration and identity. ‘It should be against the law to mock someone who tries his luck in a foreign language’ is the phrase from the novel that made me connect with the comments and ideas here. If you haven’t read it, I can only enthusiastically encourage you to do so… A suitably richer and more surreal account of identity and language learning than you would normally find in most academic accounts of the same.
Alex

5 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Extremely apt, Alex! Thanks for the reference and clip. “It should be against the law to mock someone who tries his luck in a foreign language” sums up the theme of this conversation better than anything else! I’d never heard of this book but will definitely try and get a copy – it joins the growing literary genre that deals with language and identity, including ‘French Lessons’ by Alice Kaplan, and ‘Lost in Translation’ by Eva Hoffman.

4 10 2011
Alex

I forgot to add… If you’d like to watch Buarque reading a lovely section from this novel have a look at:

Apologies if you already know this novel (after all he’s hugely well known in Brazil) to me it was quite a find…
Alex

23 10 2011
Natasha

Hello, Scott and all , only now do I read this post on the Mayor struggling to speak Spanish. It reminds me of some people over here who frown whenever the members of Serbian Royal family, who have btw lived in exile in UK and further afield after the World War 1 and 2 and all through b***** Communism , struggle to speak their ‘mother tongue’ Serbian . Loads of eyebrows are raised and they are frowned at and a lot of mockery and disdain follows. Not many find our Royal family to their liking for that reason. Mind you, the members of the Royal Family do speak a very decent, educated, refined Serbian but with an English accent. It is a shame why the broader population cannot appreciate their huge effort and do not consider how difficult it is to learn let alone master another language.
Why does it have to be excellent? I wonder.

Best,
Natasha

24 11 2011
Marijana

Love the post, you have said it all. I couldn’t agree more.

25 09 2012
Andres

I totally agree with you Scott, since there are a lot of people traying to learn a foreign language, but they feel kind of frustrated when they find out someone that is really native speaker from X language. And they start having a conversation, so the native speaker can not underestand what the other person is saying; as matter of that, the second person who is speaking his L2 can feel ashamed due to the reaction of the native speaker. And what about if they exchange the role. Learning a second Language is not something easy, since it requires many things like: being pointed out that you are not a good L2 speaker, or still worse that you are no able to speak very well a L2.

5 05 2013
Daniel

This is a very interesting topic. I’m a good language learner myself, and I actually disagree with the last bit about laughter. The times that people have laughed at my Spanish have burned whatever my error was into my memory and I find I never make the same mistake again. Also, I find that it really motivates me to be better. That could just be my personality, though…

10 05 2013
BrandeX

Can this guy actually speak Spanish though, or is he just reading the words off a teleprompter? Anyone can “speak” Spanish crappily, or any other language that uses a basic Latin alphabet, by sounding out words that are written. Clearly it would sound awful, but would be semi-intelligible. That is what the example of this mayor suggests to me.

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