The Spanish Acquisition

I’m just back at work after a wonderful three week break. The first 9 days of this brief sojourn to pastures greener were in Spain, first Valencia for a couple of days and then a week in Andalucía. I was confronted for the first time with prolonged exposure to Spanish Spanish, in its various forms, (let’s not get into the politics of that here) which, for someone who learned their Spanish primarily in Costa Rica, was a fascinating linguistic adventure (isn’t this why everyone goes on holiday..?). However, it brought to my attention once more something which I’ve pondered before: the difference between learning a language and actually using it (I use myself as an example in this post simply as I have much more evidence about myself than anyone else – skip the next five paragraphs if that interests you not!).

A short anecdote

During my brief trip to Spain, I experienced something I’ve often struggled with in the past: Spanish. Ok, that’s not quite right. Using Spanish would be more accurate. I think I’m pretty good at learning Spanish: I know my subjunctives from my imperfects, notice things people say all the time, pick up on collocations, like the grammar and enjoy reading. My problem comes when I try to use the damn language (the same used to happen to my French too). It doesn’t happen all the time, but often when I try speaking Spanish I can become completely tongue-tied (or brain-tied), despite having passed the DELE C1 exam (which suggests I should be better than I am). I often just can’t think of how to begin to say the simplest thing and can’t quite seem to get over this in the moment.

In Sevilla, I had to buy an adaptor for my phone charger so I could plug it in. More specifically, I had to buy a USB adaptor which would then allow me to connect it to the mains. Having got to the centre of the city, I set of in search of one and within 5 minutes had stumbled across a small electronics shop. In I went and spoke to the man behind the counter, explaining what I needed.  He got an idea of what I wanted and then, when I said “I’ll show you it [the USB cable]”, he simply stared at me blankly. After eventually completing the transaction for a bargain 1.50, I left the shop and wondered why the breakdown in communication occurred.

Now, I hadn’t really spoken Spanish for about 6 months, but still, I should have the necessary lexis or ability to paraphrase my way out of most given situations. The grammar isn’t difficult for this type of description or request.  I was at a bit of a loss. I hadn’t been at my most fluent, but was out of practice with the language and felt a bit nervous due to this. Then it dawned on me, or rather, smacked me in the face so hard I could have been in Monty Python’s fish slapping dance. Instead of saying to the man “te lo muestro” (I’ll show you it), as intended, I actually repeated 3 times “te veo” (I see you), which makes so little sense in this situation as to be absurd.  Oddly enough, he was somewhat confused by my telling him in mid conversation about an adaptor that I could see him. Why did this happen?

Using Spanish?
Using Spanish?

The situation is made all the more frustrating for me by the fact that there are times when I’m really very fluent and have no problems at all speaking. I have puzzled about this a lot, trying to find reasons or spot a pattern and one or two things have suggested themselves. I principally have problems when I’m nervous or unsure, when I think a lot, with certain individuals,  when I’m with people I perceive to speak the language better than me, with L1 Spanish speakers who speak English to a high level. All of this really does point towards some sort of psychological/affective issue, but for the sake of writing something, let’s look at some other ideas.

In the following paragraphs, I’ll outline some potential theoretical accounts of why I might have the problems I do. This is not intended to be exhaustive or authoritative, merely some ideas that might be a useful introduction to such things for DELTA module 1 candidates.

Not So Smooth Operator

One of the aspects of speaking in an L2 which is difficult for learners is that, outside the contrivance that is the language classroom (to paraphrase Ellis), speaking takes place in real-time conditions or real operating conditions; that is to say, that instead of having time to prepare what I’m going to say about a given topic, for example, I’m thrown head first into the cut and thrust world of a real conversation in which, amongst other things, the topic may suddenly change, lexis I do not know may be used/needed, I may have to suddenly respond to something said, the grammar might be quite complex or there may be a group of native speakers having a good chinwag and I get lost. There is also the element of listening to consider, for spoken interaction wouldn’t really work without it (see ‘mansplainer’). In real operating conditions, there’s a lot for your brain to handle and so sometimes it’s just overload and you lose fluency or accuracy or both.

“I can’t control the way I’m movin my lips… it’s automatic, it’s automatic”

In order to cope with the above, learners have to develop a degree of automaticity. This lovely combination of six syllables basically means that, when speaking, the learner does not need to focus their attention on putting the language together, but rather can devote a greater degree of brain power to getting their point across i.e. they are what is perceived to be fluent. There are numerous aspects to this, such as relying on chunks, fillers and other discourse features, as well as having had enough practice at actually speaking to make it more automatic (like riding a bike, say).  If you think about recounting an anecdote in an L2, for example, you probably don’t do it so fluently the first time you find yourself doing it; however, by the fifth time, you’re probably regaling everyone as if you were a native. Why? You’ve thought about it, practised it and started to make the things you had to think about before more automatic; in other words, you’ve developed that degree of automaticity.

Performance Anxiety

Most teachers (and many learners) will be familiar with the problem I outlined above: the learner knows the language quite well in class and on paper, but when it comes to using it, it just doesn’t work out for some reason.  This seems to me to mirror what Ellis in SLA Research and Language Teaching, following Chomsky and Sharwood Smith, describes as the difference between “linguistic competence” (knowledge of the formal properties of the language) and “performance 2” (actually using the language receptively and productively). Thus, a learner may have a reasonable degree of linguistic competence i.e. I know the ‘rules’, lexis, quite well, but a low performance ability i.e. I can’t always turn that knowledge into successful language use to communicate, and hence comes across as not fluent to some degree.

Krashen Burn

Krashen proposed five hypotheses for SLA (Second Language Acquisition). I’m only going to discuss three here, as I feel these are the most germane to the topic of this post, but the other two are but a Google search away.

The first of these hypotheses is that there is a distinction between “acquisition” (all quotations from The Natural Approach pp26-27) and “learning”; that is, the former is “natural”, “unconscious” and achieved through “using language for real communication”, while the latter is “conscious, “formal knowledge of a language” aided by formal instruction (or ‘teaching’, to you and I). Krashen uses this distinction to suggest that fluency would be directly linked to acquisition, not learning, and so only that which has already been acquired would be used fluently in a given situation. How this is measured is anyone’s guess, but that’s more or less what he says.

The Medium is not the Monitor

Another hypothesis, the third, was that of the Monitor. This proposes that what we have learned in the L2 is only really useful in terms of monitoring what we have acquired and is thus not particularly useful for fluency, which relies on the acquired system. In other words, this implies that our fluency is directly related to what we’ve acquired and that our learning only comes in to check this (for Krashen, this can happen before, during or after an utterance – make of that what you will). So, if I over-use the Monitor, I will be thinking too much about being ‘correct’, this disrupting my fluency and, possibly, communicative success; if I under use the Monitor, I won’t be focussed on accuracy at all, but distinctly on the message. Furthermore, I have to be aware of any rule to monitor before I even use it i.e. I haven’t studied or been exposed to the present continuous at all, so I ain’t going to be using the Monitor to check my accuracy with it. However, for the purposes of this post, the thing to take away is that Monitor over-use can have a very negative effect of fluency.

Personal Affects

An affective filter?

The fifth hypothesis was the Affective Filter. Here, Krashen describes how affective factors i.e. factors linked to feelings or emotions, can affect language acquisition. His basic point is that if the learner is motivated, has a positive self-image and is relaxed, there will be “deeper” language acquisition if there is sufficient input as the Affective Filter will be low to allow the language in; conversely, if the learner is incredibly nervous, in no way open to learning or lacking in self-esteem (these can of course all be linked), then the Affective Filter will be high and the chances of acquisition severely dented.

Krashen is talking about SLA, but I see no reason why the same should not apply to performance (and indeed often see the term low Affective Filter used to describe having a good classroom rapport so that learners aren’t afraid to speak). You could then extrapolate that if a learner is nervous in any given situation, than their chances of being able to speak fluently will be severely dented due to a high ‘Affective Filter’. So, a learner may be very well aware of the language they need to communicate their message, but unable to access it and perform due to affective factors such as self-esteem, nervousness or pressure.

In Conclusion

So, there’s some ideas to think about next time you have a learner who’s having problems with their fluency. There are others and so why not mention one in the comments below. My own idea about my problems is that it is something affective and thus very much out of my language learning control. Perhaps NLP is the answer… or perhaps not.


One thought on “The Spanish Acquisition

  1. Sarah Clow

    Reminds me of when I arrived here and needed an adaptor. Went to fnac, couldn’t find one but didn’t know the word. Found a dictionary in fnac, looked it up and it said some ridiculous word which I thought would make me look stupid, so rather than explain what I wanted, I walked out and remained adaptorless for days before I found one in the Chinese shop. On the plus side, in the Basque country, Spanish is most people’s second language too so they don’t have a very thick accent.

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