Will Self’s Deluded, moi? may not give us all the answers

Will Self’s Deluded, moi? in the Guardian is an intriguing experiment and a fascinating read but it is not entirely relevant for those of us who have fewer contacts, less money and less time.  

He rattles through his experiences with an air of bravado and a confidence few pf us have ever experienced. He has already spent some time living in France and has enough French to make himself understood. Unlike many of us, he is not starting from scratch.  

Will’s whirlwind experiences show that certain approaches and attitudes lead to success, but there is more to it than a general feeling that something works. I know this because I studied my learning of Spanish for my PhD thesis over two and a half years. My course was no crash course like Will’s but a host of courses and resources and a slow and thorough study of what a learner really thinks and responds to, given the resources and time available. At the end of my study period, I passed a GCSE in Spanish – not nearly up to Will’s proposed standard but my comments certainly shed some light on what can work for the adult learner.

Will begins by referring to his past history. What he learnt previously undoubtedly has an influence on the language he learns now. He praises one-to-one lessons and believes that learning by speaking is an effective method. Both of these I discovered to be effective, too. However, neither my past history nor my one-to-one lessons proved to be the most important influences on my success.

Before I started learning Spanish, using all the means I could (which was not a £1000 course), I had firm beliefs about language learning. What you needed, I believed, was to live in the country and to be immersed in the language. However, I live in the UK, and my time in Spain is limited, so I had to find other means.

As a teacher of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) I firmly believed that it did not matter what language resources you used, what mattered most was how you used them. All you had to do was to adapt the resources to match the students’ needs. However, as a learner I discovered when I analyzed my diary entries, what I was most concerned with was the language resource material! It had to be at the right level and it had to have the right vocabulary before I believed I could learn from it successfully.

I have always believed that the way you teach i.e. the method. matters considerably. This was confirmed in my diary entries. I tried many different methods and the ones I preferred were the ones that associated new vocabulary with something I already knew, using related images and sounds as triggers to help me recall newly learnt vocabulary and most important of all, trying to speak the language constantly, with feedback from a native speaking teacher.

As an EFL and music teacher, I believed that no matter how you felt, if you concentrated well, you could learn. If students arrived for their lesson with a cold or an aversion to learning anything that day, it was up to me to change their mind. I was there to guide and inspire them. They were there to learn and learn they would, even if they got a headache. Yet, as a learner I found that my attitude was another highly significant influence that could not be ignored. At first, I did not like Spanish, I preferred French but I had to learn Spanish to cope with the plumbers and electricians I needed to maintain my flat in Spain. However, gradually I grew to like Spanish and became more motivated to learn it. I was very fussy about the courses I followed and objected to any hidden attitudes within the texts that I did not like. I would not learn from them if they were too depressing, for example.

The fourth important influence I discovered was memory. This is always an important ingredient to learning, but especially so with language learning. Will suggests that vocabulary may not be important, but for me, it is essential. How can you talk about something if you do not know what it is called? Before I had mastered any of the grammar I could get by with a string of vocabulary I had learnt. Lack of correctly conjugated verbs, missing ends to a number of the nouns and adjectives did not necessarily prevent communication. Memorizing as many words as possible became my goal and using free websites. such as studyspanish.com, I gradually increased my vocabulary. Training my memory to contain these words and training myself to recall them were important aspects of my learning.

While we are individuals and are unique with unique language learning requirements, it is very likely that what suited me would suit other learners. I have tried to describe my whole experience and my ideas as they developed in my book Out of the Learner’s Mouth which I will be presenting at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate this year (2010). I hope it may shed some light on how Spanish can be learnt, no matter how limited your aptitude for language learning may be and that learning is never boring if you make sure the resource material is interesting for you and that you have the courage to change your approach as many times as you need. If you read this book, I also hope that you will be entertained as you share the various characters and situations I encountered while I tried to learn Spanish. All of these were an important part of my language learning experience.

It will be interesting to see if Will Self shares my beliefs as he continues to learn his French.


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