A journey in languages

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 …

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17 Responses to A journey in languages

  1. Hi Ceri!
    Welcome back! 🙂
    What a fantastic journey through language and what an incredible insight into picking up languages and how kids learn. I have to remember to use more storytelling in class, especially gory ones – if I’m telling them to kids. These sure seem to catch the kids’ attention!
    Sounds like you guys had a lovely holiday… thanks for sharing it and your perceptions about language that came with it.

  2. Hey Ceri !

    Merci for the mention. Sounds like you all were off on quite the adventure, immersed in portuguese and all ! Just the thought of ia new language environment gets me excited. The amazing likeness of romance languages can be such a fun game. I’ve never studied portuguese, but I’m sure that just like you and your kids, I would love understanding little snippets and feeling a new language and wonder bounce around in the ol’ noggin.

    The attention and patience your kids have for listening is something I think is very undervalued in language learning, and maybe because it’s not something that is so easily “taught”, or learned for that matter. After having lived abroad for awhile and been immersed in a L2 environment, I had a very hard time returning to the limitations of a language classroom so I agree 100% with one of your final thoughts: “Do we 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…”

    Thanks for this food for thought, and bon retour au travail ! cheers, brad

  3. Cat says:

    One thing I do with my young learners (4 and 5 years old) is to read stories to them. I pick a book with a rhythm and ideally rhyming as well as having some nice pictures and I read it to them. The language is way over their heads – theoretically – but they always give it their full attention and then reveal that they’ve understood much more than I thought they could have done. When I let them choose what they’d like to do, they very often ask for a story.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Cat,
      Yes, the younger they are the more tolerance they have I think. Stories in their L1 are often full of words and phrases and expressions they don’t fully understand, but the magic of having a story read aloud (or told) is the same. What I’ve seen in my experience is that as kids get older they get less and less of this kind of exposure in formal language learning contexts, especially where there are large classes and mixed levels. It’s something I dabbled with last year with high school students, I’m hoping to keep dabbling this term as well!
      Thanks for your comment!

  4. David Warr says:

    This is a brilliant story, Ceri. I love it.

  5. Cat says:

    Hi! I really enjoyed reading about your holiday. I did a similar road trip last Easter from Madrid up to the North coast of Galicia, and then following the coast down to Portugal, before returning to Madrid. I also really liked the mosaic compass in A Coruña. Your photo is much better than the one I took, and the sea is much bluer than it was in Spring!

    It really rings true for me what you say about kids being much more comfortable with not understanding everything. My boyfriend is Dutch, and whenever we go to visit his family I get so frustrated when I can’t understand everything. At the beginning I concentrate and get the gist, but after a while my brain switches off and the frustration kicks in.

    I think it’s a really interesting concept to try to take into the classroom. We shouldn’t be afraid to let our students work with longer, more complex texts and listenings. We’ll probably be surprised at how much they pick up! We shouldn’t underestimate their abilities.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Cat,
      When we lived in Madrid we kept saying we were going to do that loop – but just never got round to it – not until we got down here and doubled the journey time! We did do one to the east – minus the kids – taking in Catalan as our new language. That was a fantastic trip too – dipping our toes in French up in the mountains.

      I hear what you’re saying about that language frustration. I think as adults we often have much less tolerance for not being in control. We expect that in our L1 and we sometimes set ourselves ridiculously high expectations in an L2 (or 3 or 4!). I guess maybe the lesson to learn from your experience in Dutch is that we should ease students into it – little and often – be sensitive to when the frustration kicks in – but keep trying anyway. Maybe if we don’t underestimate their abilities, then they’ll stop underestimating them too?

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Pingback: Spanish Colours « language garden

  7. Richard says:

    A belter! First blog I’ve read in ages and I enjoyed it immensely. I’ll have to start writing something soon as well! Funnily enough I was looking at a map the other day and suggesting a trip following pretty much the route that you guys took.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Ah maps … love poring over them … and taking them into class as well – thanks for reminding me about that, it’s a long time since I’ve sat round a table with a physical map (as opposed to maps on Google and Google earth) and a group of students – always a great starting point, whatever the map.

  8. You DO tell a GOOD story!
    I think you might like this post by Anthony Gaughan:
    Glad you had such a great trip. I found it energizing to return to work after our trip!

  9. Yay! Coruña!! Very happy to hear you paid one of my favourite Spanish places a visit. Isn’t la Torre de Hercules pretty spectacular – the oldest functioning lighthouse in the world. I always found its light eerie walking along the seafront at night. The walk from la Torre to el estadio Riazor is pretty cool, saw so many jobbers and cyclists doing that. But the city does merit a little longer than an afternoon, so hope you go back one day!

    Mike =)

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Mike!
      Were you based in Coruña? It’s gorgeous around there, we saw so little, we will most definitely be going back – even if it does take us about 12 hours to drive there!

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