A month of learning

It’s been a month since I last sat in a classroom in London and taught. Since then a lot has changed in my life. For one thing, my new home is Rome. Yes, I have swapped Buckingham palace for the Colloseo, and tea and toast for caffè and cornetto.

I’ve been learning Italian for almost three years. It was September 2008 that I arrived in Florence with a phrasebook and a six-month language course booked. Effectively, my teaching experience started as a student, sitting the other side of the desk, watching my teachers, thinking that this job looks quite fun.

My Italian went about as far as ciao and pizza. I remember my first trip to a bakery on my second day in Florence. I did not have a clue what to say… I paid attention to how others were ordering their bread; they were all saying ‘kwesto’. Without any idea of what this meant, I understood it was what I had to say to buy some bread, so I said it. It turns out ‘questo’, as I learned later, is a demonstrative pronoun.

What made me think back to this experience was the fear and taciturnity/reticence I felt. The latter fed off the former. It is a strange feeling, like staying silent despite knowing the words and having the desire to say them. I still feel it today after three years. Today for example, I was in the supermarket, doing the shopping, and I wanted to buy some ham. Instead of giving into the fear and picking up some pre-packed ham I went to the counter and threw myself in the queue, wrestled to the front and ordered some ham. Even if now I could easily hold a conversation about how the ham is made, the thickness of the slices or the merits of one brand over another, I still feel hesitant. The fear is still there, I have just got better at throwing myself into these situations.

Last week I spent a few days by the sea with one of my friends here. Every day, without fail, we all went to the beach and every night, like clockwork, we went out. After five days I was utterly shattered. I have to admit, keeping up with native speakers for that long is more than hard work; it’s mentally draining. What for them is a relaxed conversation with friends is for me intense speaking and listening practice. Following a constantly changing topic, full of references to friends and local culture, with a splash of local dialect thrown in for good measure is far from easy. What’s more, I wanted to make a good impression. I did not want them to think I was the quiet one, or that I was bored and did not like them, so I tried my best to involve myself in the conversation as much as I could.

‘Prendere la parola’ – taking the floor, for me, requires immense concentration, but at the same time, not too much concentration. I am not sure if that makes sense. What I mean by this is I need to keep track of the topic of the conversation to be able to get a word in. Think about it too much, try too hard to make a good contribution and the moment passes and you are stuck thinking about the past. Then, for an Englishman, there’s the added factor that Italians interrupt each other all the time, talk about meaningless topics and rant on and on before getting to what they really want to speak about, quite the opposite of conversational culture in the UK. It’s a long road with many blind corners and side streets, easy to get lost.

The good news is I have started to gain more confidence when speaking to two or more people, feeling more relaxed and like I can shift the topic, take the floor and actually have something to say, like more of an equal. Strange though that I should feel unequal when in the company of a group of native speakers, right?

Two days ago I was sitting with a friend in a park overlooking the whole of Rome. We were seated in the shade underneath the trees in an attempt to escape from the scorching sunshine. While we were chatting, my friend asked if I remembered any of the new words or phrases they had taught me from the weekend before, so I took out my notebook and showed her.  With each phrase, she said, “it’s like going back into a conversation, I remember where we were, what we were doing for each one of these”. It was what I imagined looking through one’s notes after a Dogme lesson would be like. There was a good two pages’ worth of vocabulary and expressions that had come up over the weekend, each born in a personalised context, because it was what we were talking about.

Personally, I find it much easier to grasp the meaning of a phrase and recall it having heard it in the context of a conversation in which I was involved. No higher order thinking skills needed, no elaborate text for it to spring out from. That is how I learn best.

In the past week I have filled the pages in my vocabulary book with new phrases from conversations, overheard while eavesdropping on the bus, from the news, DVDs, books, films, magazines, you name it. I revise it and add more information to it daily. What is driving my motivation? More than anything it is the satisfaction of saying a new phrase or hearing some vocabulary I learned the previous day in conversation. This is my positive feedback and I find it by myself. This is success: my internalised view of the achievement of my goals, it is the driving force behind my motivation.

How does this affect my classroom?

1.    More role play

At times I have thought it was boring or repetitive, going through the same scenario over and over again. But the only way I have got better at asking for bread and ham is by asking for bread and ham. Even if it is slightly contrived, in the sense that the other person in the role-play is unlikely to ever be a banker or a deli assistant, I think the practice is necessary. Repeating the transaction helps to make it more of a habit rather than something you have to think about, freeing you up to pay attention to finer details in the transaction, maybe even making it interaction?

In my classroom, there will be more role-play for transactional uses of conversation in the situations the people in the room are likely to encounter.

2.    More practice of interactional uses of conversation

I know the words Italians use to manage conversation but throw me I the deep end and they help very little. The people in my classroom will have more practice of rapidly changing topics of conversation, interrupting, taking and leaving the floor, adjusting to it and adding to the flow of topic in the hope that the cognitive demand of following the topic, inputting your opinion and moving on reduces to a point at which the conversation is enjoyable and effortless.

I did this back in London by splitting the class into different groups and asking them to go and speak about the topics attached to wall (at first recycled topics, to make things easier). Each group took a topic and started speaking. In the mean time I took a student from each group and gave them either the task of interrupting and changing the topic, requesting clarification, or simply catching the topic of conversation and joining in. After a few interruptions the group catch on and it loses its novelty a bit, but everyone agreed it was good practice. At first I thought the most challenging part was the actual interruption but actually it is the part before, when listening in and formulating your turn.

Another way of doing this was an activity we used to recycle vocabulary.

  1. I wrote topics on the board, regularly changing while they discussed them, using chunks of language from previous lessons.
  2. After a minute, or thereabouts, I tapped on the board, which meant there needed to be an instant change in topic. Whether the topic was stupid, serious, or had no meaning at all was not important (which is often the case in conversation). What mattered was that it was instantaneous to make the process of changing topic at speed natural like breathing.

3.    Lexical notebooks

I started using them a few months ago after a DELTA assignment. Some students took to them and some did not. From now on, they are compulsory. I understand that people learn in different ways and we should strive to match the individual’s style of learning. However, without an information-rich record of it, no matter how many pictures or frilly gizmos are attached, it is a lot harder to remember.

I also keep everything in chunks in my notebook. I rarely learn a word on its own. For teachers, this does not come as much of a shock. But I wonder how many students know about this? Of course, many materials are designed in that way and teachers try to teach vocabulary in that way. How many of them have sat down and said, “don’t learn the preposition ‘to’ and ‘from’ or the verb ‘get’, learn them as parts of larger chunks, your life will be much easier… It’s the same amount of effort for the brain to memorise this than one singular word.” I had this very conversation with a low-level class just before leaving London and they were shocked. It was like someone was letting them in on a massive secret. Certainly, I had no idea of this in those first few months of learning Italian, my vocab books were full of singular words with translations; nobody had ever told me otherwise.

4.    More memory training

I touched on this in a previous post on memory. I am no expert on linguistics or neurolinguistic programming but from what I have experienced, what I learn during personalised, meaningful interaction is much easier to retrieve from the dusty archives of my memory.

I have also learned that such a large part of language learning lies in memory. I was reading only the other day about this in Marcia Lima’s blogpost on the secret to language learning, which led me to writing this post. Learning a language requires a well-trained and persistent memory.

I want to find out which students use memorisation techniques, how they do it, if it works well for them and how it could work better. Then include more personalised memory training as part of my learning training. At the same time I would like to add more activities for memorisation to my small bag of existing tricks.

5.    Reticence

Maybe I am tired, maybe I just want to listen for a bit, maybe I am feeling a bit nervous today. What it doesn’t mean is I am afraid of making a mistake or I do not know Italian, that I am stupid or trying to be awkward. I just do not fancy speaking right now, OK? In my first language people accept it, so why not here? In my own language, if I do not have anything to say about a topic, I just say nothing, or I change it. Perhaps I just want to listen to you speak for a bit?

I like to think I have always had patience with people who do not speak in class. I have never complained outside of class about them or pressured them to speak more. I have chatted to them about it and gone through the different reasons it could be, attempted to provide stimuli for them to speak about. At the end of the day, it is hard being mute. What I mean by this is that when you are living in a foreign country, your voice is much quieter, every transaction is much more difficult. No wonder people walk into the classroom and find it hard to speak. Fear can manifest itself in a number of ways and does not always owe itself to making a mistake. I make mistakes regularly in Italian, it does not bother me in the slightest, but sometimes I am silent, sometimes I am afraid of something. That something is hard to locate but it is there. On the other hand, sometimes I have just need to get warmed up and then away I go…

I know that these issues are going to be at the forefront of my mind from now on. The reasons for silence depend on the person and can vary from one day to the next, I know for sure that mine do.

So this brings my post to an end. My first month in Rome has been an absolute pleasure, not only for the weather, the food and the company but also what I have learned and discovered about myself. Now I ought to start searching for a job again…

27 thoughts on “A month of learning

  1. Scott Thornbury says:

    Great post, dale. First-hand accounts of language acquisition, along with their implications and applications, are in surprsingly short supply.

    Two points I’d want to underscore:

    1. “the only way I have got better at asking for bread and ham is by asking for bread and ham” – this is well supported in the research into task-based learning and task repetition, but is often mistakenly used as an argument for repetition per se. It seems to me that what you are saying is that you need to repeat the whole exchange, in all its permutations again and again, rather than simply repeating individual, de-contextualised utterances (aka drilling). Likewise, the best repetition in classroom terms is not repetition of sentences but of tasks. And repetition, ideally, in ‘real operating conditions’, i.e. with all the unpredictability and urgency of real-life exchanges. hence the need for role plays.

    2. Memory- yes! I’ve always argued that language learning is 10% rule learning but 90% memorising. For ideas, and without wishing to blow a trumpet or two, you could look no futher than Nick Bilbrough’s excellent collection, called Memory Activities for Language Learning (Cambridge University Press).

    • dalecoulter says:

      Thanks for dropping by Scott,

      My initial skepticism lay in the idea of repetition for the sake of repetition. Then I was not sure how to make the ‘operating conditions’ resemble real life. What changed my mind was a lesson in which we practised the sequences in transactions in various shops students go to. We practised roughly the same sequence but for a variety of different scenarios. After, I thought “that would have helped me so much in language school”. Come to think of it, even now it would help. Nothing can fully prepare you for the real conditions, but a good simulation, and here is where I’d add repetition of that simulation, reduces the burden on your mind when it comes the performance. I’d even say that repeating the task in subsequent lessons is essential, given the role that memory plays in language learning.

      Then, as for drilling, it’s all about context. I know that repeating “can I have 200 grams of raw ham” helps me, but only for the deli counter and only making a request. To stay in line with the repetition for reducing the burden on your mind in the real thing argument, surely one would have to drill the whole simulation, including the unpredictable parts?

      I personally benefit a lot from drilling especially with some of the longer Italian words with triphthongs or difficult consonant sounds. In the absence of a teacher, I ask my friends to drill new phrases when they come up… much to their amusement.

      Thanks for the book recommendation, It’ll be in my first amazon order as soon as I have a permanent address in Italy.

      • Chris Ożóg says:

        Hi Dale. Very enjoyable post and your musings on the deli counter brought back some memories of my time in France a few years ago: I did eventually learn how to say, “no, I don’t want the bread sliced, thanks”, but that took a lot of slightly strange hanging around in bakeries to get that far…

        Anyway, I digress. The part of your post that interested me the most was the part on repetition. I am a huge fan of repetition. That said, I mean it more in terms of what Scott says above about the TBL task cycle. The results of repeating tasks can be spectacular, in my opinion. I think this is particularly true when the initial cycle is complete, and we move on to some language analysis of the learners’ own output, which is then worked with in some way, expanded, re-used, and then finally used as a basis for a repeat task. I have never done any research into this, these are just my own findings from my classes.

        Other repetition activities that work are things like ‘the onion’, where you basically have the learners repeat what they’re saying with different people, though I do this with time limits 4 mins, 3-2-1, etc, for example. I love this activity, and similar ones, as I can’t tell you how much it helped me trying to explain in Spanish that I had fallen off my bike because I didn’t realise it had brakes… etc… The first time wad hell and I felt like a food – narratives tenses, subjunctives, how do you say “handlebar”? – but by the 8th time, I was pretty good and more or less reeling that story off.

        And one final thing, I read somewhere (perhaps on Scott’s blog) some interesting ideas about memory, particularly about associations for vocab learning (I think Jill Hadfield posted that). I now use association games in my teaching, something I didn’t use to, and it’s proved popular. I also get the learners to recall the contexts in which vocab came up, which has also proved popular and useful – if they remember the context, they’ve generally got the lexis down too.

        Well, back to the Spanish vocab…


      • dalecoulter says:

        Hi Chris, great to see you here, thanks for dropping in…

        Good luck with the vocab… I don’t think I’d know how to say handlebars in Italian! I need to learn some bike lexis obviously!

        Thanks for some good ideas for repetition. I don’t think I ever avoided repetition, more that I did not appreciate just how valuable it can be, like in the case of the breaks on your bike story. At the moment I have a number of phone calls to make to landlords of various apartments in Rome to organise viewings. I have no idea how it’s going to go, what lexis I might need midway through the conversation or unexpected circumstances that may appear during. My plan is to leave the apartments I like the look of the most until last, that way, by the 5th or 6th call I’ll be more used to the transaction… now, if this was a situation in a classroom, with language input based on my output, expanding my vocabulary and working this back into the 3rd, 4th and 5th tries then by the 6th I’d feel 100% confident. Case for task repetition, pushing the student that much further in each repetition?

        Vocabulary acquisition has become a bit of a fascination of mine recently and recalling context has made up a lot of that. Although, that said, some of my vocabulary book is made up of decontextualised phrases I’ve learned with some examples I found on google (like a make-shift corpus) and I’ve noticed that I use them and remember them just as well as those that came from a context. Interesting, no?


  2. Laura Patsko (@lauraahaha) says:

    Hi Dale,

    That was good reading! I totally hear you on this comment – “keeping up with native speakers for [five days] is more than hard work; it’s mentally draining.” I’m off to France soon to spend a good 10 days with only French-speaking friends and relatives and I’m feeling the fear. It’s so tiring trying to keep up with them all and also contribute something myself. But I’m also feeling the excitement that spending so much time immersed in the target language can bring – and I’ll be taking my vocab notebook with me, as I can’t resist recording all the new things I’m bound to hear!

    I also know what you mean when you say it’s “much easier to grasp the meaning of a phrase and recall it having heard it in the context of a conversation in which I was involved”. But I’d be interested to know more about your ‘lexical’ notebook and how you record new vocab in it. I think I’ve got an idea of what you mean but I also know I certainly don’t keep notes in the best way – often laziness (or the speed of the lesson/conversation in which I was trying to note down/remember the new vocab) gets the better of me. You should post a pic of a page from yours for the rest of us to learn from!

    Anyway, bon courage, as they say in French, for your next visit to the deli counter!


    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi Laura. Great to see you here. Your comments are always appreciated. I hope you have a nice time in France… will there be much cheese, ham and baguette in stall for you as well as a good bit of chat over the dinner table? Good luck keeping up with the natives.

      You know something, I think my next post will be about notebooks. I’ve tried to apply everything I learned about vocabulary acquisition and lexis to my notebook, unravelling some of it might be a good revision. The idea came from exactly the sentiments you expressed: laziness. For so long I never kept a well-organised vocab book and I paid for it, I forgot a lot.

      Buone vacanze as they say here


  3. Gordon Scruton says:

    “it’s like going back into a conversation, I remember where we were, what we were doing for each one of these”

    How brilliant! Translating that to the classroom, and in concert with your point about memory training, a small activity asking students to look back at recent words/phrases in their notebooks and then asking them to remember and explain when and why those phrases got into their notebooks would be great for exercising their memory, their storytelling language and a lot of other things. Well worth 10 or 15 minutes every now and then.

    A great post Dale and thank you for sharing. I know I have certainly shied away from role plays in my classroom but I completely agree – the repetition for habit forming couldn’t be more important.

    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi Gordon thanks for your thoughts. It was an amazing comment… I’m indebted to her for it!

      I like vocabulary show and tell like you explained. Have you ever tried it by putting the context in which the words/phrases appeared and working from that way inwards? I wrote a post on it a few months ago. It produced some interesting results.


  4. brad5patterson says:

    Nice reflection and I was nodding throughout as it reminded me of many of my learner and teacher experiences.

    I’ve always been big on role-playing in the classroom, and that “contrived” part of it can be hard to overcome with some groups, but still worth the push. My most successful classes often had a RP element— the possibility of “hiding” behind a role can also help learners move beyond a bit of self-consciousness.

    It took me a long time to get over that “fear” of making a mistake, or of sounding stupid in a foreign language. I finally did and I think it was partly becoming more comfortable with myself as a person, partly realizing that we all have to make mistakes if we’re ever going to get better. In any case, it’s an important hump to get over, and one that spreads into any new field we jump into.

    Cheers, b

    • dalecoulter says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Brad.

      Hiding behind a role is a greatly empowering: your mistakes are not your own, your thoughts and what you want isn’t important because, in the end, who cares, right? You’re just playing a role. I realise this too, and play with my Italian friends and start roleplays with them using polite forms or scenarios I don’t feel comfortable with, it’s good practice and I don’t feel scared of making mistakes. I have a hat that I sometimes give out in class to the shier students, when they wear the hat they have a special role to play: to be polite, be rude, inquisitive, disagreeable…

      For a while I considered whether my fear of making a mistake was underpinned by my fear of seeming different from the others, in this case sounding different by being wrong. I realised, or at least, was told right from the start that you must make mistakes in order to improve. In the end acceptance came, but it came in my own time, and after I’d finished language school. There must be some sort of link between learning a new language and discovering a part of your personality or completing an important part of the journey to accepting yourself for how you are.

      Cheers again,


  5. bamarcia says:

    Hi Dale, what a great post! I feel really honoured to have somehow inspired you to write it. Many thanks for having shared your “secrets to language learning” with us! ;))))))


    • dalecoulter says:

      Márcia thank you for having shared yours with us too. I wonder sometimes if language teachers ever put into practice what they preach when learning a foreign language. I’ve seen that the process is cyclical: the practice effects the preaching. In which case, I’d say that it’s not only developmental, but it also provides a solid rationale for current classroom practices… another advantage NNESTs have over natives?

      I’d be interested to know your favourite techniques for memorising and language learning in general. I’m a big fan of making mental imagines, which works especially well for memorising idioms.

      Thanks for dropping by,


  6. phil says:

    Another classic post Dale! This will give me food for thought for a while.

    I like your idea of finding out about how the students are learning/memorising and incorporating this into your class. From reading through yours and other Dogme enthusiasts it seems that we are all on the same track of ‘helping students learn for themselves’ rather than just preaching to them. This really is student-centered and you have to know what they are doing, what they want and how they are doing it so that the class isn’t just in a bubble. I don’t like what some people call their ‘XYZ lesson’ they always churn out which is completely breft of any personality or link to the learners (not students). We should be helping learners learn and the only way we can be sure of that is to find out what they’re doing/learning.

    On a grander scale this affects the course planning and any book would have to be utilised when it is useful and not plodded through. The relationship between the learners and teacher is very important and I definitely am guilty of undervaluing it as I’ve turned up for 6 pm class after a full days work and just ‘taught’.

    This leaves me with a couple of questions:

    How many schools/universities are willing to let teachers build courses around their learners and possibly dismiss set work?

    Would regularly delving into memorisation and language learner strategies in class, be acceptable to those students who just want lots of grammar/lexis?

    How can we be learner-centred with 1 week classes or classes with inconsistence attendance?

    How about with learners who don’t want to learn English and are just there to get an attendance mark (the majority of my ‘learners’)?

    How about in big (20+) classes?


    • dalecoulter says:

      Phil, great to hear from you as always

      It makes sense that so many dogmeticians help students think for themselves and take power of their own learning… after all Dogme is an empowering way to teach, both for the student and the teacher. Although I wouldn’t say it’s restricted to Dogme, I know countless great teachers who really empower students with their learner-training activities. Of course, knowledge of what learners do in their lives outside of class heightens a teacher’s awareness of what is more appropriate for the people in the room.

      Something I read on Brad’s http://blog.edulang.com/ blog earlier in one of the comments. It depends on how you integrate it and the words you use to do so. A student interested in learning as much grammar and lexis as possible might be interested in memorisation and learning strategies if they are sold in the right way, i.e. that these will help on their quest to learn everything. To use Brad’s words, framing the ‘why’ of something you do in class.

      “How about with learners who don’t want to learn English and are just there to get an attendance mark (the majority of my ‘learners’)?” – how have you tried it so far? Have you had success? I have to say it’s not a context I’ve ever found myself in.


  7. phil says:

    Hi Dale,

    This is building up to be a great discussion.

    Yes, sadly a lot of previous students in various jobs have had compulsory English classes so they are usually not as motivated as language school students BUT saying that I’ve been surprised about the number of after class English activities there have been. Debate clubs, subtitling societies, English corners, English radio and magazines.

    I think it’s my job as the teacher to get people interested in English and learning it but it can be tough. This is part of the reason I had to ditch the very NON student-focussed approach I had been trying. Linking student lives through English really got my students interested as they were able to talk about themselves in another language but what made it more effective was that the language side was not the focus. These students had probably never been allowed to talk about themselves in a classroom environment so doing it in the L2 was just incidental but this ENGLISH addition brought in a lot of natural focus on English and American culture which students were actually interested in. Talking about Hollywood films in English was actually more comfortable than doing it in the L2 as they didn’t need to keep switching to include imported words and names.

    I was asked only last week though if I could teach English in the L1 as the head of dept said “this is how we do it”. I know this is still a debated topic in EFL but if we want to get more students interested in English learning and English itself shouldn’t we only be using English? The argument of ‘we can’t use the L2 with beginners’ doesn’t stick as we’ve seen in the ‘foreign language class’ on the CELTA.


    • dalecoulter says:

      One thing stood out the most about your comment Phil, that is L1. Does ‘how we do it’ involve exclusive use of L1, i.e instruction, explanation, questioning, checking understanding? What I can’t help asking myself is what the learners miss out with this sort of method?

      On the other hand I don’t think that if there is the possibility of using L1 in the classroom that it should be ignored completely on the principle of L1 = BAD, English = GOOD, encounters with monolingual classes have taught me to appreciate it for its facilitating nature. Furthermore, beginners well out of their comfort zone, the knowledge that L1 is there if everything else fails could be comforting, like a life jacket. That’s not to say it’s not possible all in L2, or even beneficial for that matter either!

      Chia Suan wrote a great post on the foreign language class on the CELTA here, well worth a read http://chiasuanchong.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/why-i-brought-back-the-foreign-language-lesson-to-the-celta/

  8. thomasway says:

    Hi Dale
    I hope you don’t mind me joining in – I’ve been dabbling in Dogme for 5 or 6 years now after finding Scott’s ‘Dogma for ELT’ article, but have only recently started following the online community. I love reading your posts as I fully relate to your realisations; I’ve either just had or am going through similar discoveries. Thanks!

    On memorisation… I’ve noticed an increasing amount of chat about the importance of memorisation techniques. I’m a little confused: what ARE memorisation techniques? Surely the whole idea of communication – and communicative approaches to language learning in general – is that communication IS the best way to memorise chunks of new language?

    I think my question relates somewhat to the concept of language ’emergence’ which is somehow distinct from ‘acquisition’ – I find this distinction confusing sometimes too, but that’s for another time. I don’t see how ‘memorising’ new input fits with the idea of working with emerging language.

    I think I find the whole idea of memory frightening because my own is so terrible – and yet I’ve managed to pick up two or three additional languages with some fluency in conversation driven environments (taxis, bars, restaurants etc.) seemingly without trying. I never used any particular ‘memorisation’ technique other than (repeatedly) using the words as part of authentic dialogue.

    Thanks again for your blogging, my rss reader is tuned in 😉


    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi Tom, thanks for commenting. Nice to hear that I am no alone in the world. One of the best parts of the online ELT world, discovering that there are people out there going through or having gone through the same things as you.

      You posed a very good question, the term ‘memorisation techniques’ is appearing everywhere and it has been assumed that we are all on the same page as to what it means. It sounds quite cryptic come to think of it. I will offer an explanation based on how I understand memory and language learning:

      You are 100% right, a communicative approach would mean that communicative is the medium through which language is learned; meaning is created through it, context is created in it. Is that enough to ensure that chunks of language, emerging or inputted, are available for instant recall when the student needs them in his/her daily life? What’s more, if you consider the sheer enormity of learning enough vocabulary to get by well in English, communication in the classroom alone is perhaps not enough to acquire and maintain such a substantial vocabulary. In which case, for my learners, I feel it is necessary to create good habits in the classroom of revising and expanding vocabulary, and equip them with the necessary skills to record it and commit it to memory when they study independently. In effect, what I am saying is memorisation techniques for me represent ways of revising and recycling, consolidating learning and safeguarding against lexical leakage (coined at 16:15 01/09/2011). I think I am only touching the tip of the iceberg here and more discussion on the topic is obviously needed from much more knowledgeable people.

      Something really got me thinking while responding to your comment however…

      Is communication the best way to remember language?


      • thomasway says:

        Thanks for the response Dale.

        I think this is the crux of my concern: ‘…is it (communication) enough to ensure that chunks of language, emerging or inputted, are available for instant recall when the student needs them’

        As a fellow dip person I’m sure you explored Krashen’s ideas on learning/acquisition. If this distinction is to be accepted and ‘memorising’ is akin to learning, then spontaneous recall would be something closer to ‘acquisition’. I know the jury is still out on how language is actually acquired – personally I’m not convinced by any of the existing explanations. I think a variety of learning strategies are required.

        However I do think that there is some merit to the idea that communicative practice is what may convert learnt language into something more useful and readily accessible for on the fly recall. (Apologies, I can’t remember where I read this theory – as I said, my memory is lacking!) That being said, memorised vocab may be particularly prone to ‘lexical leakage ‘ (nice expression!) unless it is used in communication fairly soon afterwards. I think my own experiences as a teacher/learner probably reflect that there is some truth in this.

        Then again, memorising lexical chunks may facilitate ‘noticing’ which could in turn prompt the learner to use that language in communication, or to allow that language to ’emerge’ in more natural contexts at a later date.

        As part of teaching vocab memorising skills and strategies, perhaps we need to provide practical methods to get the same vocab in to productive use as quickly as possible outside of the classroom (as we try to do in it). Food for thought, cheers!

      • dalecoulter says:

        That comment sure got me thinking

        Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Communication vs memory?

        Communicative practice is without a shadow of a doubt what cements newly learned vocabulary in my mind. In my memory it’s a case of survival of the fittest – what’s most useful and most immediate retains its place and emerges in the right situation, while the lexis I haven’t yet found a use for remains in my passive collection of vocab or is flushed out completely (lexical leakage).

        Which makes me wonder how my brain works. Words, chunks, lexical frames, whatever name they have, serve to verbalise a concept. The image of the idea is there and is realised by the words you can find, “but teacher, I can never express myself in English how I can in my own language”… well, quite rightly, that person has thousands and thousands of bridges, reinforced through years of communication, which connect the concepts they regularly need to express with the necessary words to realise them. The right words in English exist and the person may know them but the bridges connecting concepts and words in English do not exist yet or are still not strong enough.

        Certainly, words learned at random will be committed to some type of memory, but don’t serve the same bridge function between concept and realisation. Then again, if these same words are encountered in context during communication, does that mean that the concept and bridge to realising it have been created? And what if during a conversation, suddenly (having noticed the word in use perhaps), the bridge is formed and the pre-memorised word is converted? All of this leads me to question the communication… (as opposed to communication)

        Great to hear your thoughts Tom, be sure to drop by again soon.


      • thomasway says:

        I just watched Scott’s presentation at the New School on different perspectives of grammar (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lp8QSGcS0QI) This was 1) excellent and 2) made me realise I had some misuderstandings about what emergent language actually is.

        Beside that I picked up on this line which made me think of the ‘chicken or the egg’ conundrum you illustrated wrt memory and communication, and couldn’t resist adding:
        ‘According to the emerginists (sp?) …grammar is not a pre-requisite of communication… it’s not something you have to have before you can communicate… it is a biproduct of communication.’

        More ‘bridges’ than my tired brain can handle at the moment…

      • dalecoulter says:

        Hi, thanks for the link. Emerging language – what comes up, I think is how it was put? Not sure, but that’s how I’ve come to understand it in my short time teaching.

        Last November I had a super communicative int class, many of them spending their first or second month in the UK. Half the class was new and the other half I had taught the month before. Thus, the classroom ‘ecology’ had already been established for many of them the month before and it wasn’t long before the new half had found their feet. We immediately started looking at grammar (as requested) as an instantaneous byproduct of the communicative environments in the classroom, drawing attention to meaning and form based on the context from which it came and opening the topic for discussion with learners. Of course, at that level, everybody had a previous learning experience, mostly of the prescriptive style, in any case, a pre-existing knowledge of grammar; it’s not like they were blank slates or anything.

        One piece of feedback really hit home at the end of the month, and it’s taken me until now to really understand it: one student said to me “before, of course I studied lots of grammar, but now I have these things I write in class and I go home and I understand, then I speak and it’s instinctive”… Instinctive. Which leads me to think that use in a social context, and from that use looking at what comes up, drawing attention to the function/meaning of grammar and its form, in that context, leads to more instinctive use of grammar.

        Then, take it home, revise it, reuse it, strengthen those bridges.

        Thanks again for your contributions, got me thinking on a sweaty afternoon in Rome,


  9. phil says:

    Good point.But in a multilingual class should we let pairs or small groups speak their L1 even if it is to translate or explain something? Also in a monolingual class how can we stop the snowball effect that seems to happen when you allow or encourage L1 usage? I’ve seen many English native teachers use the L1 in EFL classes more than the local teachers and their justification is that they are helping or showing empathy but then more and more of the class could become L1-based.

    How about in Italy, do you use Italian in your class? If so, how and why?

  10. phil says:

    Good observation Thomas. I’ve always been a grammarphobe as it is just part of communication. My baby daughter get communicate quite well with just words or baby babble in context. In fact, she communicates quicker than I can.

    I still love Scott’s ideas of ‘Degrammaring’ and if you go to certain areas of England you’ll hear lots of it.


    Perhaps in an expensive wine bar there would be a lot more grammar and politeness.

    • thomasway says:


      …must be an ozzie in an English pub!

      I love the burbling stage. My little boy is going through the same thing. It’s fascinating hearing the long stretches of gurglingling shorten to sentence length utterances, and then some ‘sentence’ stress starting to creep in before individual words become recognisable. There’s a great TED talk by Deb Roy with some fascinating… wait, this is relevant as I think he talks about emergent language in 1st language learner kids, though using other terms. Hang on… http://www.ted.com/talks/deb_roy_the_birth_of_a_word.html

      Awesome talk if you haven’t seen it. He makes a poignant note about how parents, anticipating that their child is about to produce a new word, reduce their input to retrieve, recast, recycle the new word to aid the learning process. Sorry if I got this link from a #dogme post. Can’t remember!

  11. phil says:

    I’ve never been a fan of ‘baby talking’ to kids as if they are absorbing and copying sounds and language then giving them baby language will just produce more. But then again, pitching language and repeating it does help but why do kids always remember the bad things they hear only once when I can spend all night trying to teach them carrot?

    I do find all the kid research about language acq interesting, especially things on nature vs nature and bi/trilingualism.

    The Dogme link seems to show very well that Dogme ideas are not just a ‘dogme method’ but more a collection of ‘good teaching techniques and ideas’ that have been round for a long time and work. The revolutionary part is that many of us (me included) somehow got sidetracked into procedures and methods and tricks.

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