The title of Emma Goldsmith’s presentation piqued my interest from the very start. After more than three decades living in Spain, Emma had given herself nine months to improve her written and spoken Spanish, and her talk aimed to share this experience with other attendees.
I have been a freelance translator for 30 and learning French for 52 of my 58 years. Deep in rural France, I try to maintain a linguistic balance between French and English in my own haphazard fashion. I consume my news on the BBC in the mornings and French television in the evenings, the books stacked next to my bed alternate between French and English and, my partner aside, I socialise largely with French speakers. Emma had a far more structured story to tell…
Prompted in part by the teasing of her Spanish-speaking, Spanish-educated children, but also by the basic Spanish exam (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) level A2) she was required to sit in order to apply for Spanish citizenship, she set out with enviable rigour to assess and improve her language skills.
She took her language test in February 2019 and, though pleased with the result (98.6%), felt that there were still gaps to be plugged in her written and spoken Spanish. With what I imagine is characteristic efficacy, she set to work.
Adopting an impressively scientific approach no doubt borrowed from the medical texts she translates, Emma found various evaluation tools, set herself a target – to sit the most advanced CEFR level test (C2) later in the year – and developed a range of learning strategies to help achieve her goal.
First, she established the need to look at her language proficiency in terms of lexis, then grammar, punctuation and spelling, and finally spoken language. She used a number of online tests (Testyourvocab.com, Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain and Language) to assess her baseline vocabulary in English and Spanish and drew on research (Hartshorne, Tenenbaum and Pinker) to identify other areas – grammar, accent, etc. – for improvement. In the process, she was no doubt encouraged by the finding that after 10 years’ study the top quartile of those who start learning a second language after the age of 20 (as in her case) score as well as many native speakers in grammar tests.
Next, Emma made her choice of learning techniques. Casting her net wide, she combined traditional study activities (reading fiction and non-fiction, watching current affairs and games shows on Spanish television, grammar and spelling manuals) with more modern tools such as flash card apps (Anki and CRAM) and the use of online language teachers (YouTube, blogs, Twitter), even calling on corpora software to help with context and “make her language learning more meaningful”.
Alongside this, she involved her family and wider social circle, keeping an ear out for the ways in which grammar is routinely modified in everyday Spanish, creating word clouds on the door of her fridge and recording herself reading out loud.
As she progressed, Emma used a spreadsheet to list the new words she was learning and keep track of others she found hard to pronounce; she recorded false friends, grammatical errors and the books on her reading list. She then used this data to analyse the results of her language learning. She concluded that reading was her most time-effective and successful learning technique, that she had corrected a number of personal misunderstandings and mispronunciations and that most of the 900 new words she had learnt were nouns and almost exclusively near synonyms for other words – with the notable exception of carámbano, the Spanish for icicle, a word she had apparently never come across in 30 years in Madrid!
The acid test, however, comes later this month when she sits her C2 language proficiency exam. Whatever the outcome, her self-imposed learning challenge was clearly a great success. Her presentation provided other “immersed” foreign language speakers like myself with both food for thought and plenty of practical suggestions for beating complacency and continuing to hone our language skills!
For MET members: If you would like more information about the research Emma consulted, log on to the MET website and read the details in her PDF file in the METM19 archive.
This METM19 presentation was chronicled by Terri White.