I’m feeling a bit shy … maybe even a bit sheepish … as I come back to blogging after such a long time away, and a bit unsure about where to start. This is a post that’s been playing in the back of mind ever since we got back from a two week road trip in July and although a lot of time has passed since then, I still want to share some thoughts that were inspired by our experiences on that trip. (I’d like to say thanks to Brad Patterson and his great blog for the inspiration behind the title and to Ian James, aka the TEFLtecher, for introducing me to Tripline, more of which below.)
Our road trip took us on a short exploration of our little corner of the globe. It started off in Cádiz – very near one of the southernmost tips of Europe – and took us to A Coruña – not far from one of the northernmost tips of Spain – and back again, via a variety of landscapes and a range of accents, dialects and languages.
Here’s a Tripline summary of our mini adventure. Just over 1700 kilometres (1000 miles) in just under two weeks. Hopefully just the first of many road trips we’ll take with the kids. (Click on the map to see an animated summary of our holiday.)
a footnote: I was first introduced to Tripline by Ian James in this great post. It’s a great little tool, simple to use and lots of potential for the classroom (many suggested by Ian in his post).
We started off in Cádiz, where the sea breezes and Atlantic winds soften the heat of summer, and where the aspirated j’s and the missing s’s soften the Spanish of Castilla. We headed due North into the sun baked plains of Extremadura. Summer is harder here, the heat is more difficult to escape, the shade even more sought after – and “they speak differently here”, the kids said. Here the “j” is hard, like the land and the heat, and “full of s’s” my youngest noted. (She learnt Spanish in Andalucia. Her Spanish dances and sings flamenco). “It’s like Madrid” my eldest said. (He learnt his Spanish in Madrid. He chops and changes, using a more Castilian variant for formal occasions, using his sister’s Spanish on the schoolyard.) It’s a strong, muscular sound, a language that seems to have grown out of making a hard living from a hard land.
After a few wonderful days with friends in Extremadura where the shade cast by the cork oaks cuts the sun like a knife, we travelled slowly but surely North. The landscape grew greener and softer. As we crossed the mountains into Galicia we were welcomed by a curtain of “choiva”, low, grey clouds and sheets of rain washing down onto the green, green trees. It felt like coming home.
And with the rain comes the soft green landscape, cooler temperatures and the singsong lilt and softer sounds that bring Castilian Spanish closer to Gallego. We noticed the change first of all in the place names on the road signs, Olveiro, Ourense, Touro and Portodemouros, with vowel sounds that build a bridge between Spanish and Portuguese.
When we went to visit the Roman Tower of Hercules in A Coruña we read it on the monolingual information boards, written in Gallego. We read them with the kids and enjoyed the challenge of decoding a new language. Basic, simple decoding without ever really hearing it, but noticing patterns and differences, the articles changing from el to o, from la to a, the “ll” replaced by “ch”.
On the clifftop was another hint of home, a beautiful compass made of mosaic, uniting the Celtic nations, from Galiza to Breizh, from Kernow to Cymru.
From Galicia we travelled south, through the stunningly beautiful Rias Baixas to the border with Portugal. We’ve been on holiday in Portugal before. The kids know a smattering of social greetings, bom dia, boa noite, obrigado/a as well as important words like gelado and praia (ice-cream and beaches figuring quite large on most holidays) but this time they seemed more interested, were picking up a lot more. “Fechado means closed, mum,” said my eldest, reading the signs on the shop doors. “It’s PESSego, not pessEgo,” said my daughter, correcting my pronunciation at the bar. I think the fact that we’d successfully decoded the Galician signs helped the kids take a step closer to Portuguese. Rather than a completely foreign language that they couldn’t understand, it became a language that had some familiarities, it seemed somehow more attainable.
I think it’s something we need to try and do in class, make English seem more familiar somehow, help students feel it’s attainable by highlighting links with their worlds and lives and interests and languages.
At the local river pool, where the local lads were jumping off the bridge into the water, my eldest was so pleased when he understood the older boys saying “you jump well” to him in Portuguese . He was so pleased he asked a friend we met the next day how to say “cool” in Portuguese in order to be able to repay the compliment. And so, so chuffed with the smiles he got in return when he used it down on the bridge. (Thank you Anna!)
It reminded me of the importance of relevance and personal investment. We all remember fixe after just one encounter. It was exactly the word we needed at exactly the right time.
But the most interesting experience for me was at a restaurant one night. An experience that made me think about how kids learn, about how we may sometimes short change them, about how maybe we underestimate them, both in the classroom and outside.
We were being served by a young waiter who spoke no English and no Spanish. We were getting by, more or less, with very halting Portuguese. The restaurant was very quiet, the waiter was bored, and curious. He came over to our table and we started talking about river swimming and the waiter proceeded to tell us a gory story about a terrible accident a friend of his had had diving head first into the river. The kids listened spellbound. The story was told in rapid fire Portuguese. None of us caught all of it – or very much of it even! – but what surprised me was the level of attention paid by the kids. They were rapt.
When the waiter had finished his story we shared what we’d understood. I was amazed by how much the kids had picked up, the youngest in particular. I was impressed by how she had pieced together the story in her mind from words here, phrases there, body language and gestures. And then it occurred to me that of course it shouldn’t surprise me so much. Kids get so much practice of listening to adult conversation flowing, supposedly, over their heads, of trying to interpret snippets of information and filter out words they don’t understand to get at the core of what’s going on. They’re very good at it, and they’re generally less thrown by not understanding, more tolerant of having to guess than we adults are. Which lead me to ask whether we don’t actually overprotect kids when they’re learning a foreign language, select and limit and simplify input far too much, short change them when it comes to offering opportunities of simply and purely experiencing the language as a flood of sound that they can pick out what they can, piece together their own versions of a story or conversation. This is what kids do in their first languages, in languages they learn in immersion settings. I think it’s something we need to give them more experience of in formal learning contexts too, along with the feedback stage, the chance to pool what they’ve understood, to recall and repeat and mimick and mime the words and movements and gestures that make up meaning.
It reminded me too of the power – and importance – of story-telling and of a good story. And it reminded me of one of the challenges I set myself last year and which I hope to continue with this year – encouraging and supporting and developing extensive reading with my teenage classes. But that, as they say, is another blog post …