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…