Screen time


Screen time is the new term defining the time we spend paying attention to a screen of any kind: phone, tablet, e-reader, computer, game console or TV. Theoretically I have no qualms about using technology, but practically I’m becoming an skeptic of its benefits versus its issues. There are mainly two issues that I’m concerned about:

– When I’m sleepless and I turn to my phone to pass the time, I become more sleepless. Whereas if I picked up a book, the sleepy dust that has gathered on the shelf through the years of vertical abandonment has an immediate effect and I’m traveling dreamland before I turn the second page.

– When I’m bored and I play a phone game, read whatever I encounter in Facebook or Twitter or watch a series of a film in any of our many devices, time goes by like a high speed train but unless the post or film was inspiring, I feel empty.

The reason why I’m using the first person here is because I know there are people that need this downtime of passive indiscriminate consumption regularly, and while I am not trying to criticize that, i am not like that. I wither and crawl under my skin if my day hasn’t been touched, even if just remotely brushed, by creativity, connection and quirkiness.

Now, let me tell you. Breastfeeding an infant in a house you just moved in with your partner and his teenage daughter can kick creativity and quirkiness out of the window. This particular infant sleeps on mum or mum’s arms or lately by mum and dad’s side. She’s four months and a half. [I am prepared at this stage to take all your criticism as I have heard it all already- she should be in a cot, you let her fall asleep at the boob, really?, why don’t you express-. I thank goodness that I did a PhD before this and learned that no matter what the logical course of action seems to be, you can only do what you know how to until you learn otherwise so yes, yes to all your criticism and I am sure that until you tell a new mom useful practical information to overcome those obstacles, neither praise not criticism will help]

In other words my independent time, the time I have to do the things I enjoy doing: open a book and learn Irish, go for long walks, swim, write, play guitar and sing (I still sing), lay still looking at the ceiling in silence, make bread, eat, go for a massage, let my hair down (literally), mountains, spend time hanging out with a friend without a concrete plan or Skype them, make things, knit, decorate our space, plant stuff, play… anyway, all those things that I know of and the many that I hope I will discover in time…that time available for ‘pleisure’ (allow me the neologism) has been significantly reduced, if not vanished completely. Suffice it to say that I’m swipe writing this on a tablet while my daughter is asleep on my arms after a sleepless night of gas and teething, in the darkness of our bedroom.

The way I had carried my life up until now based my identity mostly on these activities so I think that’s the crux of postnatal depression. If we aren’t capable of having a flexible identity that not only becomes something else and doesn’t feel threatened by this change and possibly enjoys it too; if we can’t appreciate the efforts we do to try an incorporate those activities that defined us, even when we don’t succeed or just succeed a little; we won’t be able to overcome becoming mothers. We live in a society that has either reduced self sacrifice to useless or elevated it to sainthood. It’s time to reclaim self sacrifice as a daily activity we all engage into for the wellness of the one significant other of the many. It’s time to be aware of when we practice self sacrifice, not to boast about it or to use it as a weapon, as my own mother used to do; but to notice when and how we neglect ourselves for others and it’s beneficial for us too or we won’t allow us any other option.

And you are thinking that I was going to talk about screen time, so what is all this rant about maternity doing here? Well, my portable devices have kept me sane so many times that screen time has increased to levels I never intended. At the beginning when I was more housebound recovering from the caesarean section, they kept me in touch with friends and family abroad, and I read and reread constantly. Lately the time I spend in Gummy Drop or waiting for someone to post something funny or inspiring on Facebook is shameful. I don’t lift my eyes from the family group on WhatsApp while my daughter sleeps on my lap. I worry about the teenager living with us because her school through an agreement with Microsoft bases all their learning materials on multimedia platforms and yet here I am.

And this morning my brain caught up with me and whispered: don’t let go off her hand to hold the phone. Get bored or sleep. So after breakfast, I promised myself I would write this and make an agreement with myself to cut down my screen time and preach with my practice. Bleep.


Scattered Teachers Scatter Students


Yet another controversial post for these critical times by a language teacher

I have never been a person who claimed to have the total truth about something or other. The same attitude seeps through this post, in spite of how dogmatic it may sound at times. If anything, I hope this reflection engages your thoughts on how you learn and teach languages and your comprehensive approach towards language teaching and learning. They say that we always write with an audience in mind. Who am I thinking of? I’m thinking of some of my colleagues, junior and senior; the language teachers that have taught me; a few secondary school teachers, whose work I am acquainted with and my students, as always.

Every engaged language teacher I know – and I have the privilege of knowing quite a few – worries about this: What makes the best language teachers?

So let me draw for you my own trajectory of worries:

1) When I was growing up… I am one of those few weirdoes who wanted to be a teacher since the age of nine and a language teacher since probably eighteen or nineteen… I started to think that it was all about grammar; grammar gave way to linguistics; and linguistics to sociolinguistics; and sociolinguistics to pragmatics. Through the years of my degree in English Philology, PGDE and first years of my PhD, I became obsessed with understanding all the aspects of the English – and a bit of the Spanish – language. I only realize now, years later, that this obsession was based on my primary school education. In Spain, in the EGB (General Basic Education) system, devised in 1970 (yes, you are right, still under Franco’s supervision – or that of his minions) and partially reformed in 1980-82, the teaching of the Spanish language grammar and morphosyntactic analysis was paramount. I am not that well acquainted with the subsequent reforms of the primary school system there (in the 1990 and currently) but from what I hear, they still do sentence analysis and training on first language grammar and syntax, be it Spanish or the other four official languages – and possibly on the other unofficial languages too.

In other words, my motivation to be a language teacher in its infancy worried about content. I felt rather intuitively that to be a good language teacher I had to be a master of the language in question that I wanted to teach. Mastery was understood by that young and naïve teacher-in-the-making in a rather scientific approach, not just bilingualism or nativism; but a rather academic command and scientific understanding of the multifaceted organisms called languages – and their manifestations (literatures, media, institutions, histories…). It turned out I was missing the point.

2a) The PGDE made me realize that I was onto something. Maybe I was not missing out, as much as I had ignored its importance. My career as a teacher probably started at fourteen or fifteen years of age, when I became a Sunday school teacher, or what we call in Spain a ‘catechist’. I was a catholic – I am no longer among their midst – but at that tender age, I had no deep knowledge of the religion in question or the bible and I started working with children for an hour a week back then. Later on, coming from a working class background and being the nerd that I enjoyed being, I needed to start teaching English grinds as soon as I started my degree, and with little communicative competence in this language. To my surprise, both groups of people, children in Sunday school and young adults in primary or secondary school, loved me as a teacher. What was going on? I had to go back down memory lane and listen to their little muffled voices: She makes things fun, she loves me, she knows how to explain things. I realized that the affective side of learning was much more important than I had appreciated before. And with that intuition, I moved to Brazil and then to Canada to start my teaching at university level at the age of twenty-two. My knowledge of psychology or social sciences was inexistent at the time, so my obsession with this aspect of teaching and learning did not become quite academic until a few years later, when I halted the PhD research that I was doing at the time (English Dialectology in Nunavut) in order to veer towards what had become my professional career by then: Teaching and Learning of Spanish. So instead of dwelling in libraries and engaging in article treasure-hunts, I went all experiential and became my students’ friend and learning companion at Trent University. My PhD dissertation stems from these years of student-centeredness. I invented a case study by which these wonderful students would share their views about language teaching and learning at university as a way to contest language acquisition theories and educational theories. My! Didn’t I have fun? Reading their journals, listening to their student-student interviews, being observed by them in my classes was definitely an enriching experience for all of us. This personal engagement with students at university level granted me a nomination for an excellence in teaching and learning award at twenty-seven; but it also led to high levels of stress and overworking. I smile now, contemptuously and affectionately at the same time. It turned out I was missing the point again. However, the case study that I had finalized with them had given me a few pointers in more definite directions.

2b) As I was on contract during those years in Canada as well, and I have always been an eager person to learn anything interesting, I did not only engage with my students in a sympathetic and friendly manner. Apart from the case study project, we did other social things together: several plays, bands, radio, scheduled coffee table chats… Little by little and without realizing we became a community, albeit small but a defined community. In this community, some of the strongest students shared my worry for the weakest students and helped each other. That is probably why I find it difficult to disassociate the affective and the social side of language learning. At the time, little I could foresee that a focus on the social side of learning also has its disadvantages. For example, when a group of students is not interested in socializing at all, or has real social anxiety, or simply does not get on. I was not missing the point, but I was not right on target either.

3) Then I moved. I moved back to Ireland, whose secondary school system has so little to do with the one that had raised the students that had previously taught me how to teach. I said ‘moved back’ because I had been a student at UCG in 1996-97. But didn’t I go through cultural shock? Not directly from the Irish culture, but from the Irish Schooling Culture. I had been instructed as a teacher of students that were curious, engaged (paying high fees for a ‘semiprivate’ university), self-confident, forward and assertive. They were quite verbal about their personal characteristics (sometimes to their detriment). I was well-used to the ‘I’m a visual learner’ statement, there. They were not shy when it came to asking for what they thought they needed, be it a ‘grammar concepts’ course or extra practice. The majority of them had been forced-fed a second language, about which they did not care much (French) or at least not as much as Spanish, based on geographical representation by population. Most of them had been sent to Québec for immersion experiences. So they had experienced different modes of language learning. The majority of them had no problem making mistakes in spoken class. They were comfortable learners and they understood mistakes as part of the learning process. Rest assured I am not idealizing them. These levels of comfort and attitudes towards language learning varied from student to student obviously but the cultures of learning in which they had been raised were on the other side of the spectrum to the ones in Ireland, in many ways. At the beginning of my contractual years as a teacher, and with no clear intention yet to stay in Ireland, I took refuge in the realms of Information and Mobile Technology. It was my shelter while coming to terms with a less active learning culture. I tried the theatre plays and some other things and they worked with a few. So I kept the things that I had learnt and enjoyed going but decided to develop the dormant ability of creating multimedia materials and catering for more learning styles. It was not totally new, I had dabbed into this area creating a CD with my previous employer, but I did not foresee how much it would engage my creative side and that of some of my students. If anything, it reinforced the collaborative and cooperative side of language learning. I still have lots of fun but I am not entirely happy with these technologies either. I can’t help but see lots of loopholes in the way we tend to use them to language learning purposes. Am I still missing the point?

For all I know, as I started saying in this post, I may be. After all, as years go by, my methodologies seem more spread out, my interests seem wider. I am still adamant that linguistic knowledge of the language that you are teaching is essential – but not sufficient – to be a good language teacher. In fact, the best language teachers I ever had were not native speakers of the language they were teaching, giving them the advantage of having had experience as learners of the same language as well. I care for my students. It’s in my nature and I firmly believe that we have to develop flexible educational institutions and systems that take into account the affective and social side of learning. I am a level 2 or 3 computer nerd. In other words, I still have a long way to go to be an IT guru, but I’m quite fluent with learning technologies and the obsession that individuals and school systems have developed around them is scary – just like any other obsession can be. They definitely have not helped language learners to become more active or socially-oriented yet. Watch that space! But hey, I try to incorporate all these aspects, which are important to me, and to language learning on what I do as a teacher.

I am not on contract any more. I’m one of those privileged university teachers, which can avail of job continuity, power and a certain amount of freedom. This inclination towards a settled teaching job, instead of the nomadic one I previously had, has obviously led to the exploration of more materials aspects of language learning: curricular, cultural, spatial/temporal… (My new pet area). If I only focused on those aspects, I would still be missing the point. All in all, I guess what I was hoping I’d say is that from where I stand, there is a need more multifaceted language facilitators and less single-approach teachers. Depending on which country and teaching/learning culture you are in, there will be a need to develop more one area rather than the other. In Ireland, I struggle constantly with the lack of linguistic knowledge of English or Irish, in most teachers and students. In the university where I teach, I keep on complaining about the misconstrued focus on affective issues and an overemphasis of the social, instead of a focus on learning. I am slightly apprehensive of the use of mobile technologies as the only means in secondary schools around here too. And don’t start me on issues of space and time…

Bleak picture I am painting. But after all, it is just a picture. Feel free to colour it in if you got any pencils.

Language Levels and Language Mistakes


The end of the semester is near. Students are exhausted and teachers are frustrated, all around. I find myself going to classes thinking about how demands are constantly reduced, how we continuously expect less and less from students; and I refuse to think that my students are not capable of learning the basics of a language within an intensive course framework. I refuse to teach them pub Spanish at university level, because they can learn that outside without paying the registration fees that we ask them to. I do not want to waste their time and money.

So in this way, I am one of those teachers who can stress students a lot because I expect a lot of them. The basis of this expectation is that I know they are capable of much more when their motivation to learn the language is there. And why do I know? Because I was a language learner when I was their age and I’m still a language learner now.

I also know that everybody can learn languages. The differences between people in terms of language ability are not quantifiable, but the differences between the time and type of practice that some people need and the time and type of practice that some other people need are the crux of the question. I demand they spend time interacting with the materials of the course, and practicing the language and I leave it up to them to figure out how much and which materials help them most, because we have hundreds of students in first year and a little below a hundred in second year and third year. Trying to elucidate learning styles and advising about individual time investment needed would be maddening for any curriculum planner or teacher.

The other issue I have is that I am quite old style in the sense that I demand grammar correctedness, not just communication and fluency. It seems this is exactly where my standards as a teacher and their own ones as students differ. I had a conversation with a student yesterday who came to dispute a fail on a presentation. This student’s Spanish, at that particular instance, was filled with errors typical of a beginner level (A2), or at least the A2 level that we teach in Spanish first year at NUI Galway. And that is another issue that I will come back to later: levels.

I don’t teach this specific student regularly so I cannot know what the general performance in Spanish in that particular academic year is, but in this presentation it was substandard for the year in which he is registered, which should be a B2 or thereabouts. The student communicates all right. But I would not particularly perceive such interlanguage as a European Language Level B at all due to these errors. Whereas the student was focusing on communication, no matter how many ungrammatical structures were present; I could not consider the presentation good enough for that college year.

I will spare you the details of our discussion, but suffice it to say that the argument for a pass was the amount of time and effort spent on the presentation, in other words, the process and not the product. I am all for continuous assessment and rewards for process instead of results, however, the nature of the subject I teach needs the products in order to assess the viability and adequacy of the process employed to finalize these products. Unfortunately, the subject I teach also requires time, vertical and horizontal. What do I mean by that? It needs investment in terms of time in a specific moment and improvement along the timeline, so that a language learner moves through different interlanguage stages towards native-like fluency.

So here’s the tragedy. If someone reaches final year level with serious mistakes that should have been assessed and corrected earlier on – by the student or the education system in question -, as it constantly happens, is it really fair to fail them? Have we misled them letting them through and awarding points to the time and effort spent on learning the language, instead of on the actual language produced?

So that is why I want to talk – and hear your thoughts – about teachers’ responsibility and learner’s responsibility. I am still a language learner – and a very self-conscious one at that. Let’s put it this way, Gaeilge and I will have still a long way to become good friends. The teachers in the Acadamh are very generous and they mark higher than some of my colleagues and I would do and it does encourage me, but I cannot help wondering what will happen when I get to the next level; if I will bump into all the mistakes that I haven’t put the time to correct or the many trips into the Gaeltacht that I have avoided to practice my spoken Irish. Our three hour evening diplomas are expensive – I get it covered by the Further Education Programme for university staff – but there are other students in my class that pay the fees every year (currently €970 per year if you are an EU national), so teachers worried about the expense on their students pockets help them through. I am guilty of that petty crime too. Who wouldn’t if you cared a little bit for student welfare?

Let me come back to the issue of language levels. I ranted a lot about this in my PhD dissertation. European Language Levels are descriptive and affirmative. In other words, they do not point to the areas of improvement. Most of our assessment methods are based on the quality and quantity of errors that the language learner makes and there are huge disparities within the same language and in the different languages taught even within the same institution in terms of what we understand for A level or B level or even C level. This lack of agreement and transparency makes for a very confusing system of assessment for students and teachers and I do not think it is helping anyone more or less than the loose labels we had before: Beginners, Intermediate, Advanced and all that jazz.

So see? These are all the issues. They feel like a maze or a much entangled yarn of wool now and I can’t see the beginning or the end of it. But that may just have to do with the fact that this is one day before the last day of week 12 and the semester is nearly over. Cheers to that! How did we manage to survive through another one, students and teachers alike? It is times like this when I cannot help but compare the university system for language learning to a huge Titanic boat, and together, teachers and students just keep busying ourselves hoping our heads will never be under water. I know at this stage many of you have probably classified me as a pessimistic human being; but in all fairness, the fact that I am trying to reach out to make you think, to make you contest me, to make you share your thoughts and solutions to these conundrums with me; means I am exactly the opposite.

On High Demands


This is the first moaning post I write. I do not have a solution for the problem that I am highlighting. I do not believe the blame is on the students, on the parents, on their peers, on the education systems at play, on society or on the teachers alone. I am just trying to raise awareness and to put the affective aspects influencing my teaching onto the screen. I want to apologize in advance for the grim post.  

As a teacher, I am constantly struggling between supporting my students and challenging them to go further. My team of first year teachers has reached a commonplace point in the semester: week seven. Our semesters have twelve weeks. Students are used to a secondary system in which school terms are longer and have what it seems like a luxury from my third level perspective: a midterm break.

Fatigue and stress are starting to show in students’ and teachers’ faces alike. In the last week, and I can predict it will get worse in the weeks to come, I have received more medical certificates from students than at any other time during the semester.

Most of my colleagues drag themselves along the corridor to get to class with colds, sniffs and overall tiredness. Our caring minds compel us not to take a sick day off because we believe our students need us and in a system that does not offer teacher substitutes until the seventh week of sick leave, asking another colleague to take your class is simply not an option.

I am departing from my main question for this post. Let me go back on track.

Our Spanish course for beginners, you could argue that also our intermediate course (for people who had some Spanish courses before), is very demanding. Students are told from the beginning that this is so and we give them the reasons behind it. Namely, that during their third year in college, they need to attend a full academic year in a Spanish/Latin American university, attending and passing courses in both subjects that define their Arts degree. I am not sure what the case is in other European countries under the umbrella of the Erasmus programme (Germany, France, Italy…); but in Spain, with a much more curricular-oriented degree structure, and higher expectations from students that register in a third level degree; without the adequate language competence, students are likely to suffer and not to enjoy the above-named Erasmus year at all.

At the university where I work, all our second year students who successfully pass the year with a 40/100 go on this Erasmus programme. I do not have the statistics, but let me be honest with you: many students come back without enough credits in both or one of their subjects. Some of them completely disengage when posed with the challenge of completely different university courses and staff that assume that the responsibility for learning is the onus of the student. Many succumb to the pressure of social and emotional demands, about which I talked in my last post, and simply come back and pay a repeat fee to finish a Bachelor of Arts, without the International addition to it.

I believe one of the problems lies in first year, or even earlier.

On a side note, I found out last week that Trinity College – 50th on the world ranking of modern languages last year – only send their 2.1 grade students on Erasmus.

The Erasmus grant provides the student with a small sum of money, which varies every year, but generally comes to add up to around €1700 euro for the eight or nine months they spend in their host university. In Spain, depending on the city you choose or land in, that may very well pay your accommodation throughout the year. In Ireland, it will cover your accommodation for five months, if you are very lucky and do not fall prey to the greed of some landlords. This grant does not entail any penalties. What do I mean by that? No matter how many credits, courses, or fails you carry back to your home university, you still get the whole amount of money.

This system correlates, as far as I know, and please correct me if I am wrong, with the system of college grants within Ireland. No matter how many fails you carry or if you pass second time, if your economic situation is not buoyant, or rather you manage to make the central government agency dealing with these grants believe it isn’t, you still carry on as a grantee. I am unaware of the current equivalent scheme in Spain, but when I was in university and I was a recipient of these grants, I had to pass everything to secure the grant for the following year. There was also a merit recognition system then. If you got straight honours – I’m talking of 90-100% – in a module, you wouldn’t pay the equivalent fees for that module the following year.

Too much information? It is how it seems sometimes. Because you see? What I struggle with and mull over so much, especially while I walk home from the college and vice versa, is this: If we have lowered our academic demands from students both in secondary and tertiary levels – and I do believe we have, judging by the linguistic and academic competence of some of our graduates-, why can’t current students cope with them?

I now realize that I have been dealing with what I believe would be solutions to this problem in previous posts in this blog: discipline, enjoyment of learning for the sake of it, real guidance vs. advertising, emotional support from communities, time to spare… But it still troubles me, every day. Are we encouraging students to avoid demanding and challenging experiences? Do we really believe that they are so weak and so incapable that they cannot cope on their own with the ten or fifteen extra hours of study and practice that a language may entail as a beginner? Have we given up on them?

We are facing a high failure rate in our first test, once again. It was a demanding test, supposed to be challenging and to send the right message early enough in the year, so those who need it can come to ask us for advice about how to improve their studying skills and so we can help them organize themselves if they need to. My team of teachers was crestfallen after correcting what we all agreed was a challenging but fair test (and I have two non-native speakers of Spanish, one of them who studied with us from the beginner level in this team not so long ago).

Needless to say, these numbers feed our lack of confidence as teachers too and eventually, our teaching skills can suffer. Three people in my team have received teaching awards of excellence and innovation in different institutions all over the world – and I am pretty sure that the most junior members of this team will earn these kind of awards sooner or later because they excel in teaching and supporting skills already at this early stage in their academic career.

However, it is inevitable to question yourself as a teacher when a good majority of students cannot even string a simple sentence in Spanish after 7 weeks of the so-called Intensive Beginners course.

So this is the crisis, the real crisis, more far reaching than the economic one in this country. High demands on students are not engaging. Engaged students are on high demand.


Do I get to go to Spain for a year?


I was working on the Open Day yesterday. For my foreign readers… I feel quite strange writing this because I write under the expectation that this blog does not have many readers, but anyway… For my foreign readers, an Open Day is a fair in which some of us, students and lecturers, wait behind standardised stands in order to answer questions from the prospective students. Its purpose is to attract students and to help them clarify their choices if they come to our university. So their #1 question this year became the title of this blog post.

I must confess that I am quite impressed by this year cohort. I am regularly asked: ‘Is Spanish difficult?’ – which is a question that has provoked many a joke among my students and colleagues. We cannot help but wonder if astrophysicists or German teachers get the same question, for that matter. Still, I am not utterly convinced that the absence of this question yesterday is a matter for celebration. It could simply be related to the fact that ‘Spanish is easy’ became an unquestionable belief in Ireland. I would love to meet the teacher that originated this assessment and also to congratulate the German teacher that spread the opposite rumour.

So here is the news: Languages are not easy, lads and lasses, at least not for the majority of us, adult learners. I could even argue that languages are not easy for children either. Have you noticed how long it took you to utter your first word? And how about a sentence? Do you realize that the motivation of a child to communicate is probably the strongest urge we, humans, feel when we want to communicate something; almost comparable to the urge to eat or go to the toilet? So here is the thing: Do you feel that urge to learn a foreign language?

And that was the question that I wanted to ask students yesterday at the Open Day stand. It is the question that I never ask because we need students, just like a local company needs its clients. It is the question that I keep to myself and now I share with some of you in this blog because if I ask new students -young, innocent, fresh and happy- I would be considered unfriendly, harsh and unappealing. I would be accused of painting a grim picture, albeit a realistic one.

My intention is not to deter anyone from the task of learning a language, ANY language. I believe it is a beautiful enterprise to take on. I am a non-native speaker of English. It became the obsessive subject matter of my English Philology degree, which guided my choice of country of residence: first Ireland, then England, then Canada and back to Ireland. My daily experience has been filtered through English for the last fifteen years and I still fail at producing native structures sometimes; my pronunciation tends to flag my foreign status; even if it does not flash in flaming colours the origin of my accent.

I have tried to learn French, German, Portuguese, a bit of Polish and my new endeavour is Gaeilge; so I hope to be praying what I practice. I am by no means fluent in French, German and Portuguese. I left the study of those languages in Spain and Brazil and never came back to them. At the time, when I started to learn them, I wanted to read the classics of French and German literature. I know, ambitious, but it was enough of a drive to keep on going for two or three years. Then working life took over. I was sent to teach in a Brazilian university and then the imperious need to learn Portuguese engaged my survival instinct in the shape of language learning. Polish was a different matter. I fell in love with a Polish man and my learning process ended up as soon as the short-lived relationship ended. Irish (called Gaeilge here) is my new target. My motivation is quite different in nature compared to the motivation I had to learn the above mentioned languages. I started to learn Irish out of curiosity. This curiosity was fuelled by a professional realization: the fact that it aids in Spanish teaching and learning in terms of the similarities between some of the structures in the two languages. Now I simply like it and I live in Ireland; and although I am not in a rush to reach a native-like performance and I do not have the urgent need to use it every day, I consider it one of my brain workouts every week or even a way to keep my perfectionism under control.

What do I mean by that? Why does language learning keep my perfectionism on its toes?

Well, have we ever told you that language learning requires hours of vocabulary memorization? Have we explained to you how to research for rules and grammatical explanations that you may or may not find in a teacher or a native speaker? Have we pointed out that you will need to practice these rules and do endless and needless to say, boring drills to master the grammatical aspects of the language and its exceptions? Have we showed you where to find extensive reading materials at your level so you can deduce these rules by yourself? Have we mentioned that you need to try and compose sentences, paragraphs and even just thoughts using these rules by yourself? Have we recommended to you to spend some time talking to yourself in the mirror to get used to sounding like a babbling idiot? Have we ever mentioned the frustration of turning on a radio or a T.V. and understanding only one word every hour? Have we told you about how much you are going to need to expose yourself in order to practice this new language? Have we talked about how difficult it can be to get native speakers to talk to you in their language, regardless of the level you are at? And most importantly, have we ever mentioned that you will fail at speaking many times? Have we alerted you to the fact that you will make mistakes constantly?

We tend to leave out that the main abilities that you need to learn a language have nothing to do with your cognitive profile and much more to do with your emotional intelligence. There are three main things that you will need: You are going to need self-discipline, resilience and courage.

So, I want to come back to the issue of failing. Language learning is a lifelong process. Very few teachers tell you about interlanguage. Interlanguage was a term coined in 1972 by Selinker in order to describe every imperfect linguistic system that the language learner produces throughout his or her life. Every level of interlanguage has its own mistakes and that is okay. We all know by our experience in a foreign country of whose language we know nothing about that you do not need to be fluent in any language in order to communicate, you do not need mistake-free sentences in real life, only in exams and assessments. And because I am not writing about passing a language course but about language learning, I am reminding you of the need to be all right with making mistakes if you ever want to learn a language. In fact, I encourage you to involve others in noticing your mistakes and asking them to point them out to you; and if you feel generous enough, you may do the same with them.

But let’s come back to the title of this blog post. The eyes of the lovely people that came up to me and asked this question were glimmering in the imagined sunshine and relaxed life style that they were anticipating. Their taste buds were already savouring tortilla, paella and sangria in the sun. But here is the grim witch again ready to drop a grey cloud over this dreamlike experience.

Erasmus schemes or year abroad placements are programs that FOCUS on academic or professional experience, most likely away from the South-East coast or insular locations that these students had in mind when asking this question. I recently saw a documentary on the myths and realities of Erasmus experiences produced by Laura Cabello & Sara Cerrada as a requirement for their course (see Erasmus is a unique experience based not only on the differences between the Host University and university of origin, but also based on individual differences.

When I came as an Erasmus student to the university in which I teach now in 1996, the ECTs system had not been implemented in Ireland or Spain and my classmate and I had to find courses that were equivalent in terms of content to our subjects in Spain. Spanish universities have a very curricular approach to degrees, making sure that all the basics are covered and that your progress within the degree is incremental, unlike Irish universities. The validation nightmare turned out in a special provision for us to be able to register for fourteen UCG (University College Galway, it was called then) courses in a year and an exam for English grammar when we came back to Spain in June in order to pass that course that we were unable to find in this university. I was on a government grant and if I failed anything, I would not get it and I would have been unable to finish my degree the following year, because my parents could not fund the relatively low tuition fees (compared to what Spanish or Irish students pay now). We spent most of our time in the library or writing and I still enjoyed the year immensely but we did not have a lot of time or resources to gain access to the local people or culture.

Some of our Spanish Erasmus peers had more time and easier class schedules and still found it very difficult to engage with Irish people. We used to complain about how unfriendly people here were, until we realized that we are exactly the same when we are at home. Newcomers to a place tend to forget that people living there are already busy in their lives without their presence. So as a language learner, you need to make yourself attractive enough, interesting enough, helpful enough, and so on, especially at the beginning of your relationship with local people; and that requires time and courage… and a certain kind of insistent personality too. Am I saying that language learning is just for extroverts? No. Although a lot of research on language learner abilities points in that direction. I am saying that immersion experiences, like the Erasmus programs, need students to go out of their comfort zone and walk the extra mile to establish meaningful relationships with local people.

The Erasmus year in Spanish universities is a reward for Spanish students. In other words, there are limited places and people compete for it and get a placement according to their grades. Not everybody goes. First of all, it would not be feasible to make it compulsory because the cost of life in some of the countries of offer doubles and triples the cost of life in Spain. Still, students that stay back and students that go abroad are expected to have the same level of language (B2/C1) in their final year in college. How do they manage? Am I saying that Spanish students are more responsible than Irish students? That would be a blind generalization; but what I am saying is that Spanish students have normally more at stake in terms of their achievements while abroad. And I don’t know why. It may be the economic situation or the stricter university system. It may simply be our outward kind of culture or our common national vice: ‘envy’.

Most Spanish students understand that there will be parties and kissing foreign boys and girls while on Erasmus, but they also acknowledge that they will be lost in class, experience inclement weather, awful food and will have to develop strategies to cope with different teaching methods and a language that they thought they knew until they landed in Dublin. Many Irish students are not ready for that challenge. In fact, I think that many of them do not envisage any challenge – albeit an economic one for some of them- in the life that they imagine they will have in their third year in Spain.

I blame all of us for not being clear enough about what is going to be expected from students in their university degrees and their university experiences. After all, Spanish is easy, Spanish people are friendly and life is very relaxed there, ain’t it?

This Cipline


I do not feel especially eloquent this morning but I hope I am intelligible enough, because I have something important to tell you:

It is not easy to find the concept needed, the practice lacking. “Discipline” won’t do. Not unlike most of my students, I also rebelled against that word when I was younger, but it does not bother me that much now that I am almost 39.

I opened a Latin dictionary to see where the word comes from: discipulus, disciple. So I guess it is relevant in the context of education about which I am talking, with which I am trying to establish a conversation here. But then the etymological dictionary goes on to elude to really nasty procedures that were related to this word and hence, my ancient dislike for it resurfaces.

This morning, as I drove with the breeze on my face through the Claregalway clot of traffic, another word came into my head, thanks to a new uppity beat song in the radio station that seems to be the delight of most people in college, and that now sponsors also the Open Days in the university that I work for: ‘Perfect’. The song said something along the lines that the human body is perfect. Forgive me but I’d rather agree with Dylan Moran, who in his show ‘Monsters’ mentions our lack of imagination. If you think our bodies are perfect, you have little imagination. Most days I’d prefer to have four or five arms and a couple more legs for when I get tired and a pair of eyes at the back of my head also would come in handy most days.

Anyway, I was talking about the word perfect. The dictionary unravelled the mystery. Perfect refers to a process into which we engage: “to bring to full development”. That’s why perfectionists are doomed. How can you ever be able to bring something to full development when most everything changes and evolves, or at least most everything that matters to me, be it a person, a relationship, a language, creativity, welfare, nature…?

What is full development anyway? Has anyone or anything got there yet? I guess I quit the urgent need to reach Perfection about a year and a bit ago. Instead, I have broken up that goal in manageable quasi perfections – sometimes carefully organized, sometimes serendipitously arranged – towards quasi perfect goalposts. And then, after a bit of a break to get a reward and the well-deserved rest for having achieved those imperfect goals; I move on towards the next one.

I doubt it is THE right way of doing it but it has made me a less stressed, less self-obsessed and self-righteous person (even when sometimes in class, I still disguise myself as the inflexible coach who pushes her students to the limit – sorry about that!); so it kind of works. All right, all right, I am getting a little bit too Zen for this time in the morning.

Why did I, then, decide to share these mind meanderings with you, teachers and students? The issue of student resistance to independent continuous work and practice still bothers me and this is week three of our semester. I am currently reading about mobile technologies and how they assist learning and the authors insist on the use of pockets… I am going to call them scraps here… scraps of time for learning – waiting on the bus stop, at the doctor’s waiting room, idling in someone’s car when they give you a lift. And it is true. The more you use your idle time, wherever you can find it, for learning; the more you will learn. But I worry. What kind of learning and being are we encouraging with this lifestyle? Fast-food learning?

We associate waiting with wasting. And lately, we do not even look – let alone, talk – to strangers that happen to be beside us. I used to be embarrassed by my mother’s need to unveil my medical record to the next person she was sitting beside at the park or at the doctor’s, but now I am pretty sure it served a purpose, if only the purpose of feeling less lonely, more connected. Isn’t it as plausible a purpose as learning is?

Why is barely no one praising the pleasure of an hour dedicated to self-study and practice? A spacious hour where you can relax and reflect on what you want to learn and what you need to learn? I am not necessarily talking about an hour in the stinking mouldy library – for those that do not like that smell (I am well aware that some of us do) -, I sometimes prefer to study my Gaeilge while walking by the Corrib and lifted by the fresh air. Sometimes I walk with a severe friend that corrects me constantly – thank goodness. Sometimes I just talk to myself in my head in this language. And it does not matter if I am wrong. I do not always aspire to be almost perfect, as I told you before.

So discipline for me is making time for things to happen. I know time already exists, but our life style has invaded most of our time-spaces for boredom. Boredom used to be my compass as a child to know where to go, what to learn, what to explore. Boredom happened naturally, especially in the summer, but also in the weekends when I was a child. But now I have to make sure I organize my activities and dedicate time to them, not just scraps and pockets of time here and there; but hours that sometimes I do not use fully, sometimes I do. And then I can have a bit of boredom in the evening or sometimes in the morning, like today.

Thank you for sharing your boredom with me today and if these words ring a bell or two with you, maybe I will also manage to feel less lonely, much more connected.

For The Love of Learning

This reflection is for teachers, parents and everybody that is interested in the education system in Ireland. Possibly elsewhere too.

Knitting helps to organise my ideas. While my fingers are occupied, my brain idles and goes to the young people in uniforms that I passed this morning. I am a language teacher at university level. I am also the first year coordinator of the language I teach. That is probably why these young people in uniforms matter so much to me.
First year in college is a challenge, for most everybody. It was for me, when I started my English Philology degree, back in Spain in 1994. Things are done differently in college. No one monitors what you are actually learning – or if they do, the onus is on you to keep track of your progress and improve your weaknesses. You need to be independently driven to study and to improve. There are new people all around you and most of them seem to be more intelligent, more mature or know more than you do. You need to be confident in your own abilities to overcome fears and challenges. There are many things to do that seem to be more appealing than locking yourself away in a library or in your bedroom and tackling the difficulties of the challenging courses. You need to be disciplined and capable of managing your time by putting an efficient study plan in place. Moreover, if you have moved out away from your parents and old friends, there is the cleaning, the cooking, the washing and the homesickness. You need to be self-sufficient in the basics of life. All in all, I am not painting a pretty picture. So, why do you put yourself or your child through so much hassle? Why do people want to come to college?

Here are the reasons that I have ascertained from the 15 years I have taught at university level in Ireland and elsewhere:

Some people are not sure about what they want to do, so they come to college to see if it will help them decide. University is a very stressful experience, most of the time. You have a very defined timetable with quite a few tasks and tests to do throughout the academic year. It costs a lot of money. There are not just tuition fees, but living in college, books, technology and everything that makes your learning experience more enjoyable, in general, is costly. I know some people need stress to make decisions, but for me stress is the worst aid for decision-making. It clouds my head. In other words, when people ask me for advice, I normally say that if they are not sure about coming to college, they should figure it out first. There is no reason why you should not attend lectures or ask a teacher if you can sit in in a class or two to see what the subjects are about. Drop in to introductory lectures in the first weeks and have a think about college for the following year, maybe. You can even ask some teachers if they can send you a course outline or class materials and start looking at them in your own time to help you make up your mind. If you have just finished your Leaving Certificate and you are as lost as I felt then, I would highly recommend this: The European Voluntary Service is not something widely advertised but is a great opportunity for 18-30 year-old people to learn a new language and get some fully-funded work experience.

Some people want a degree or they are very career-oriented. This group of students is mixed. The career-oriented people are very good at finding out what they have to do in order to pass courses and they will be the experts spotting loopholes in the marking system. They are in college because they want a degree and they are going to pay for it. Most of them believe that once they have a degree, they will get THE job that goes with it or will have a chance of getting a better job. A degree definitely helps you widen the range of jobs to which you have access, but unfortunately in most cases, it does not guarantee that you will succeed in finding a job related to your degree or a better job than what you had before. Do you want examples? Have a look at Spain, Italy and Greece. Millions of well-educated lawyers, architects, translators, etc. are au-pairing all over Britain, Germany and Ireland; or cleaning toilets, making beds and serving food or drink in Sweden, Norway or Denmark. If you really want a well-paid job, with a defined short career, take my advice and go into politics!

I should say here that I have nothing against au-pairs or waiters. I come from a family of construction and hospitality workers and their jobs have been essential to improving the lives of other people; it is just that they tend to be poorly-paid, have few benefits and no job security. As the job market does not seem to be veering towards an improvement of the conditions of these skilled jobs, people tend to avoid them in favour of other careers, whose entry is restricted by the possession of a degree. This is definitely the major reason why our parents send us to college. Mine wanted me to have a ‘better’ job than they did. But I would not credit my primary degree for the privileged job I have. Other more serendipitous circumstances or fortunate choices I made after finishing my degree led me to where I am now. I guess that what I am saying is this: The desire for a degree or a career may not be enough to carry you through the challenges listed above.

Some people want the social life in college and the Erasmus year. This is the reason I find least acceptable. This kind of social life is part and parcel of the college experience, but my problem is that we have focused so much on it that sometimes we tend to clog the young students’ minds and they start thinking that a social life is what college is all about. Do not mistake me. I believe students need to be social with one another if they want to learn something; especially in the subject I teach: languages. We are social beings and we learn socially and many times we learn best in groups; so yes, social activities should be part of college life, but to what degree?

I am extremely tired of Ireland’s drinking culture, deeply embedded in social life, because I have seen too many students drinking themselves silly; some of them with terrible consequences. I come from a drinking culture too, but in Spain you do not drink to get drunk. You may get drunk, by accident, and it is normally embarrassing and annoying to be drunk so you tend to manage your alcohol intake without going over what we call ‘the point’. I am not trying to give anyone lessons on how to drink. I am just asking you to think twice about the role of alcohol in your life, as a parent, as a teacher, as a student; and the way you talk about it. At least, in the city where I live, it is costing way too many lives for us to continue avoiding this conversation.

Finally, my favourite group: the people who are passionate about learning and about what they choose to learn. I know you have heard it many times. Do not study what you do not enjoy. Here is the issue. It is important to learn things you do not enjoy too. Even in a subject you enjoy a lot, there will be things that you enjoy less. Let me give you an example: I love playing guitar, but I do not enjoy spending long hours on finger picking patterns. Once I give in and put in the hours, though, I am so happy that the song sounds so good. We live in a very fast-moving society and we tend to appreciate things that take little of our time so we can do things that we enjoy more or give us more pleasure. But is it not more rewarding to learn how to enjoy most things? I enjoyed my time in college because I love learning. I did Honours Science subjects in the Leaving Cert and I studied an Arts Degree. Now, I am picking up piano and knitting and Irish. In other words, it does not matter what I do. I am happy when I am learning. And this learning is guided by my desire to be more who I am, to be happier, to live better in my own bones. In all these years teaching, I have seen students that struggle a lot with a language. Language learning is one of the most time-consuming activities and as adults, not everybody is willing to go out of their way to practice and draw attention to their mistakes in order to improve. It requires long hours of self-study and the confidence to go out and practice, either in the region that the language is spoken, or through Skype, or other devices. The students that always persevere and continue improving are irremediably the students that love the language and love learning in general. Without either passion, they would have succumbed sooner rather than later.

So, this is how this whole spiel came about. I saw their young, uniformed faces going to school and I could not help thinking this: teachers, parents, please, if you cannot teach them anything else, just teach them the love of learning. They will do the rest. I am sure of that.