27 January 2011

Why our education system fails for language acquisition

Watch this recording of Ken Robinson on his favourite topic: "Do schools kill creativity?"

I think he makes some good arguments and asks some searching questions including "what is education for?" His suggestion that our education system is designed to produce university professors makes a lot of sense. He suggests that formal learning does not teach creativity, in fact it tends to stifle it.

Applying this idea to language learning helps me to understand why I felt something was missing from my recent Open University courses. The grammar and other "facts" about Spanish was there in bucket loads but the opportunity to get creative and have fun with using the language was almost entirely absent.

I remember at school learning French, the old fashioned way. To me French consisted of lists of verb conjugations that had to be memorised and then regurgitated for exams. I don’t recall ever playing or having fun with the language. At the age of 16 when I first went to France I was tongue-tied, unable to have even a basic conversation. It was only 10 years later, as an adult that I went back to studying French and starting learning how to communicate.

In academic study mistakes are discouraged and punished by poor marks, this discourages the student from taking risks and makes the study a chore instead of a delight. Making mistakes and laughing about them should be part of the fun of learning. My reason for learning a language is to have fun using it, not to write learned essays with every comment carefully referenced and scanned with anti-plagiarism software.

5 January 2011

The menú del día (menu of the day)

One of the benefits of learning a new language day is that you can explore new cuisines. Spanish is particularly good for this and I often order things that I have never tried before either on the waiter’s recommendation or just bravado. A good way to get into this habit is to select the "menú del día". There is an unwritten rule that the lunchtime menú del día, for normal work days should be tasty, nutritious, filling and cost less than 10 euros. Usually it will be 3 courses and include some wine or beer and water. Fantastic value.

Today in Arrecife in Lanzarote I had "marmite", a soup with big lumps of potato and fish in a consommé base. Next was braised lamb, again with potatoes. I could have had dessert but I chose cortado (a small coffee) instead. The cost was 9 euros and that included a glass of house wine and bread. Typically Sunday menú del día is slightly more expensive – this week it was 14 euros and the quality was superb.

The biggest surprise is that a tip is not expected, most people leave 20 – 50 cents but if you leave nothing it’s no big deal. My Spanish friends tip normally around 5-10% in the evening but at lunchtime it is not done, or expected. An excellent reason to choose Spain for your holiday instead of USA.

menú del día
Typical Sunday Menú del día first course – paella
menú del día
Typical Sunday Menú del día – main dish
menú del día
Typical Sunday menú del día – main dish
menú del día - coffee
Choose coffee or dessert with menú del día
16 December 2010

OU Results L140

At last the results have come out for L140. Sadly none of my group of "study buddies" or me, made distinction level (85% or better in each component) but we didn’t disgrace ourselves and we all passed. Here is my long awaited letter from the OU:

OU Result L140
Open University L140 Results letter

Strangely I didn’t feel like celebrating, maybe because the gap between end of course and results was so long. The other reason is perhaps a sense of disappointment that the OU is trundling off in its own direction and making it hard for students like me to stay with them.

Here is my summary of my OU Spanish experience after 2 years

L194 is excellent – it takes you from nothing to better than most ex-pats in a year, it was fun to do and a little bit of work each day kept me up to date. My tutor, Gemma was exemplary, even gave out her personal mobile number.

L140 is a good course, apart from the eluminate online tutorials which were unhappy events. It’s a bit heavy on old fashioned drills and exercises even though they are done in a modern way with CD-ROM. Once again I was lucky to have a good tutor, thanks Laura! so I could get help by email when I needed it.

The biggest problem, that I keep harping on about, is lack of conversation practise. I think it should be an intrinsic part of the course. Talking to other students this was a common criticism and probably part of the reason that hardly anyone intended to continue to the next level with OU. Maybe a tie up with a Spanish institution who teach English would be possible, one-to-one "intercambios" between students on Skype, half an hour a week might do the trick (wish I’d thought of that sooner).

No matter how well you can conjugate irregular imperfect subjunctives, when someone grunts and mumbles something to you in a noisy bar it is a good idea to have a phrase or two ready in response. I feel poorly equipped with "Spanish sounding phrases " for daily use "on the street". I intend to work on this on my next trip to Spain, I want to take all the podcasts from Notes in Spanish with me, and try out some of the phrases that Ben suggests will make me sound "like a local".

To finish this post, here is a link to a catchy piece of Spanish music that I like.

7 December 2010

December update

Resumé: its now 2 years and a week since I started learning Spanish and it isn’t getting easier or harder. It feels like swimming in the sea, if you try to go too fast it’s dangerous because you get tired and out of breath, plodding along is safest, and I can’t risk stopping because there isn’t anything solid to hold on to yet.

I have some new resources to share:

Notes in Spanish is very good www.notesinspanish.com , they offer three levels; beginner, intermediate and advanced. If you are a complete beginner the intro level is probably a bit advanced although it would augment any other course that you might be doing, there are some lovely colloquial phrases that will raise eyebrows from your Spanish friends. Intermediate is just about possible for me to follow and I haven’t yet dipped into Advanced.

The podcasts are about 20-25 minutes long and are free to download. If you want the transcripts and grammar exercises you have to pay a small amount. There are also some YouTube clips (which is where I originally found Ben and Marina, the presenters), just search for "Notes in Spanish".

Next resource is www.meetup.com ; I got in touch with a local group (25 miles away) who meet monthly and I intend to be a regular attendee next year. Here is the link to the group if you are near Kent, UK www.meetup.com/Kent-Spanish-Language-and-Latin-American-culture. This group meet socially to speak in Spanish and share resources. The local organiser Viviana told me about a movie on YouTube, called "Ilona llega con la lluvia" and it even has subtitles, I liked it but didn’t expect the ending …

Here is my Spanish "diet", I choose a little from each group every day. Watch some TV, online or satellite. Read some El Pais, online and free. Read some Spanish literature on the Kindle. Self test on vocabulary. Listen to some Spanish music, YouTube has huge selection. If I hear a good phrase or a new word I write it down and look for it later in the dictionary – today’s word was "acudir". I am not talking about hours of study. Five minutes on each is painless and it keeps the stuff dripping in to the brain.

My Adult Ed course is going well, this week it was cancelled because of bad weather. Full marks to Juliette Negri who made sure I was called early enough to tell me the centre was closed. I missed one when I was in Barcelona but otherwise I’ve been to every class. The teacher is great; she makes us work for the full 90 minutes and English is forbidden in the classroom. I am still suffering from what I see as the major weakness of OU – lack of conversational practice. I can do the written work and the reading comfortably but when it comes to speaking without prompt or preparation I struggle. If only I could have Michel Thomas in my ear saying "how do you say – ‘is it ready for me because I need it tomorrow?’"

I feel that French has really slipped although I can still read and understand it without too much trouble, in conversation I lapse into some sort of hybrid language that only makes sense to me. I have a notion to try the 80/20 principle so that my "language time" divides into 80% Spanish and 20% French – probably a project for 2011.

I’m still waiting for my OU results, L140 seems like a long time ago. They are so slow at getting results back. How long does it take to mark an essay and an oral exam?

7 October 2010

Reading Spanish novels with Kindle 3

I read recently that a school in Kansas had given all of the students Kindle readers instead of the usual course books. There were several advantages for the students: they didn’t have to drag heavy textbooks around with them, all the course books had been downloaded onto a device weighing a few ounces. Just like a real book they could highlight sections and make notes in the margins. I thought "how interesting" but didn’t feel inclined to invest £150 in an electronic reader. Until I found this… Dave Slusher has created a free Spanish to English dictionary for the Kindle, you can get it here

I ordered a Kindle 3 from Amazon the same day. This looked like the answer to my prayer. When I try to read Spanish novels I frequently come across words that I don’t know, I could read on and ignore the mystery word, or guess it sometimes. Or I could stop reading and look it up in the dictionary. Now if I am reading on the Kindle 3 I just move the cursor to the left of the word and the translation appears instantly at the top or bottom of the screen.

Here are a couple of pictures to demonstrate. The book is by Isabel Allende, called La casa de los espiritus:

Kindle 3
Kindle 3

look at the tenth line down, suppose I didn’t know the word "gitana", I move the cursor to the left of the word using the five way toggle switch

Kindle 3 - 5-way toggle switch
Kindle 3 – 5-way toggle switch

and the translation appears at the bottom of the screen:

Kindle 3 - display - Spanish translation
Kindle 3 – translation at bottom of page

So now I can lie in bed and read my novel without having to grab a dictionary every few seconds. Delightful.

4 October 2010

After Open University, Adult ed and Kindle 3

There is a space of less than a week between finishing L140 with Open University and starting a level 7 Spanish course with Kent Adult Education. This is going to be interesting: the prospectus suggests that I am going to struggle at this level but 2 years ago I was attending French at level 7 and we had quite a spread of ability in the class, so I hope that the range of proficiency in the new class will be broad enough for me to slip in somewhere above worst. Vamos a ver (we will see).

Kindle 3

As always I am looking out for helpful technology. I had noticed the Amazon Kindle making the news from time to time and it had never seemed anything more than an irrelevant techie gadget. Until a few days ago. I came across a blog post from someone who had designed a Spanish dictionary for Kindle, he says that if you highlight a Spanish word it will translate it instantly and that stopped me in my tracks. I have been slowly and painfully wading through books written in Spanish. Not as real books but as electronic versions on my PDA and PC. The possibility of having a reader with an interface that is kind to the eyes and the chance to instantly translate the words I didn’t know was seductive.

Then I read how the next generation of Kindles had been streamlined to pocket size and lighter weight. I checked out a couple reviews on You Tube and decided to risk it. I pre-ordered as Amazon were out of stock and reckoned on a month or two to wait. Today I had an email from Amazon telling me it has been dispatched – watch this space for a review. Spanish books I have been reading: Stieg Larson "Los hombres que no amaban a las mujeres", Harry Potter, Stephanie Meyer "Crepusculo", Isabel Allende "La casa de los espiritus". I’ve got them all as text files or PDF’s so theoretically I can get them onto the Kindle. I also have a dozen or so books that I haven’t even started yet.

28 September 2010

The end of L140

I haven’t posted for 6 weeks and the reason was Open University, in particular L140. This course has taken over my free time. The final exams (OU call them "end of course assessments") consisted of an essay; not too bad I thought, and a speaking assessment. That was stressful. The speaking assessment, 2 days ago, was done by telephone. It involved phoning in to a conference centre where four students at a time had to role play, in Spanish, while being recorded for later dissection and analysis by the examiners.

I think we did ok, the four of us. We each presented our allocated topics in the 2 minutes allowed. And we spoke together for the 8 minutes allowed, without any pregnant pauses or anyone dominating or being left out. It will be December before the results are released. The OU still rely on the Post Office and pigeon post for communication at the ends of courses.

Looking back to when I started studying Spanish in November 2008 I am pleased with my progress. I wish I could have gone further with OU but the next level is double the workload and I know I couldn’t do it justice while I still have to work for a living. My ambition is to eventually be trilingual and the next stage of the journey is going to be challenging: I will gradually reintroduce French while continuing to study Spanish.

Now that I have shed the weight of OU, at least for now, my next job is to sort out this blog and make it easier to use for any readers new to the obsessive compulsion of learning not one, but two new languages, as adults, from scratch.

Open University Course Material L140
Open University Course Material L140
22 July 2010

Google Translate

Google Translate is a free Google service that translates between dozens of languages. It is quick and occasionally excellent. I use it sometimes like a dictionary – type in a word choose your source and target language and up comes the translation just like a real dictionary.

Mostly I use it to check that what I have written in French or Spanish is understandable by translating it to English. I do this routinely with email replies. Recently a French friend sent me a video clip showing celebrities with and without make up. In my reply I wanted to say that my wife never goes out without her lipstick. The mistake I made was to assume the Spanish verb to go out, "salir" was the same in French. Luckily, the translator reminded me that the French verb to go out, is "sortir". In French salir means "to dirty".

Google Translate

A good combination is to use Google translate to check your meaning and Word spellcheck for the grammar and punctuation.

22 July 2010

Open University - an update

It’s late July and suddenly the end of L140 is in sight. The 4th TMA is due in 4 weeks time then soon after is the end of course assessment – an essay and a telephone interview. And that’s it. I think I’ve reached the end of the line with OU for now. The next course is more demanding, 15 hours a week! In my experience when OU says 15 hours/week, it means 15 hours to read and do the material if you already know it, or are blessed with a photographic memory, otherwise you can safely double that estimate.

So I need to fall back on my original principles:

  • study stuff that is interesting
  • do something each day
  • make it fun
12 July 2010

Mnemosyne Software and Salamanca a monolingual dictionary

Two tips to share with my fellow students:

The first is mnemosyne, the second is get a monolingual dictionary.

Thanks to Tim Ferris for the link that introduced me to mnemosyne. It’s a piece of free software that acts like a study companion – every day it throws questions at you and you get to grade your replies so that the stuff you know well doesn’t come up too often and the stuff you hardly know hits you over and over until you remember it. Here is the link

Here is a screenshot:

Screenshot - Mnemosyne Software
Screenshot – Mnemosyne Software

When you answer the prompt you are invited to click a number from 0 to 5 depending on how easy it was. Click 0 if you didn’t have a clue, 5 if you know it intimately. It’s a painless way of drilling vocabulary. You make your own lists or import other people’s, and you can modify to your heart’s content.

The second tip is linked to the first. You don’t want to spend precious time learning phrases and words that might be wrong. Buy a monolingual dictionary (I bought Salamanca, about £40 from Amazon) and use it to find good sample phrases that you can type into mnemosyne. A useful tip is to search words that you already know and see what examples it gives.

Someone asked me how I knew which phrases to save into mnemosyne. I think you just know instinctively if a phrase or word is going to be useful. Choose examples that you can easily imagine yourself saying to someone. And choose examples that make good templates where you can easily change one word 50 times to make 50 new sentences, for example in Spanish: ¿Qué tipo de XYZ tiene? or in French Qu’est-ce que vous avez comme XYZ? are well worth learning; just swap XYZ for whatever interests you.


Bill Ferguson
Bill Ferguson

Spanish Teaching Resources

Getting good quality teaching and resources

The information I am going to share is an honest account of what I have tried over the past year and my opinions are just that, opinions. I will share my likes and dislikes, what works for me and what doesn't. This is a personal experience, I am not an expert but if you share my ambition of learning to communicate in a third, foreign language, then maybe we can help each other along the way.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche: "One who speaks a foreign language just a little takes more pleasure in it than one who speaks it well. Enjoyment belongs to those who know things halfway."

I think he is right. Its hard to define halfway but I think the fun starts when you know enough of a language to be able to make yourself understood, given sufficient time to think. At this stage you are not merely tolerated but treated as an honoured guest in a foreign country. People see you bravely struggling to speak and understand, and give you credit for trying. They are nearly always kind and supportive.

Go beyond this to fluency and its like a toddler growing up, you are no longer cute and vulnerable. You are competing for resources, in the adolescence of language acquisition unless you have a definite role you are treated with suspicion. Maybe that is the stage to consider moving on to another new language ...

Getting good quality teaching and resources is vital to success: encouraged by an influential book by Harry Ferber I now view language acquisition as a military campaign, I need to use my resources efficiently to overcome all resistance, I need to capture vocabulary and not let it escape. I need to wear down the opposition by attacking daily and not allowing it time to regroup. I need to learn the predictable tricks that the new language will play on me and be ready for them (this means learning grammar). Like any military campaign good quality intelligence is vital.

Learning a Third Language

My current ambition is to be able to communicate comfortably in English, French and Spanish. I began to study Spanish in 2008. I have been a student of French, on and off, for about 30 years and up to last year ....read more

Strategic Planning

When I started to think about taking on a third language I realised I had two main worries: firstly I didn't want to lose my second language ...read more

Fear of Losing French

As I see it there is a simple choice ....read more