Language learner

Since our teaching is tightly intertwined with our experiences and beliefs as learners, I considered it a useful exercise to describe this side of me. This section displays some of my most significant language learning experiences. This activity has helped me to reach a better understanding of my learner identity.

Learning my first language at school

The earliest memory I can recall as a language learner in a formal setting was when I was six years old. I was learning to write in primary school. We would write the same sentence many times: "María y Pepe pasean.". I had no idea who Maria and Pepe were or where they were heading to, but that was not relevant. I wrote the sentence in my notebook over and over. We would also test our orthography on the blackboard in front of the class. Once, my teacher called my name and asked me to go to the blackboard. I was okay with that, I always felt comfortable being on that side. I was supposed to write "mamá" but instead I wrote "mama", forgetting the tilde and going back to my desk with pride and satisfaction. But my teacher was shocked and expressed her disappointment openly: "how come, Murillo, that you write mamá without tilde?!". Yes, it was the seventies in Venezuela and the mainstream learning theory was behaviorism. Learning resulted after repeating patterns, and mistakes were sanctioned. On the other side, we would get stamped stars on our notebooks to praise a well done assignment as a reinforcement for positive conduct.

Image by Katie Phillips via Pixabay

Learning English at school: between direct method and behaviourism

If I am not wrong, I started learning English as a foreign language at school when I was twelve. My school had made an agreement with an English institute which provided our classrooms with native speaker teachers. Marianne Erickson was appointed to our class. Incredibly blonde and blue-eyed, she seemed to have emerged from a fairy tale. I remember from the lower perspective of my desk that she said: "you need a FOLDER. FOLDER", while pointing at her folder. She did not use a word in Spanish in her lessons because she could not speak our language. I do not know how this affected my classmates, but I was fine with that. I embraced the fact that I had to make an effort to communicate with Marianne, and I enjoyed listening to the sounds of the foreign language. We would also get stamps to reinforce our progress, and we would sing songs and perform role plays to remember language chunks. There was neither room for questions in our language nor for comparison between the languages. The target language ruled as prescribed by the direct method. Was the foreign language an instrument of control? I did not perceive it like that. To me, my school aimed at improving the quality of its English program, and for me this was a new way of learning.

Years later, the agreement between my school and the English institute ceased, and we ended up writing down dialogs like: "Do you have a book? - Yes, I have a book". To many of us, this was boring and useless. The lessons were conducted in Spanish, and we learned about English grammar. This change impacted my motivation negatively because we were not communicating anymore. It was about rights and wrongs to earn the grades. Nonetheless, my interest for the language was outside the school: in every romantic song, in the blockbuster movies and in the excitement of the unknown. Unfortunately, this kind of language practice remained throughout the years. I graduated from school with some knowledge of English grammar, but not confident about my performance.

My school planner & diary | English and Spanish lessons, how boring | 1988

Learning English: becoming an independent user

Before starting my university studies and in order to improve my English, I enrolled in an English course at a private language school. The teachers were mostly native speakers who were learning Spanish at the same time. The language policy was only English in the classroom. The books had plenty of dialogues and grammar exercises, organized by notions and functions. I took several courses and reached the advanced level. At the higher levels we had English manuals that encouraged us to discuss health, employment, environmental or educational issues. We had to verbalize our thoughts and express our views. These courses helped me focus on the language and on its use in communication.

Years later, I had the opportunity to attend a three-week English course in Montreal, Canada. A friend of mine was living there, and I could visit her and attend a course at the YMCA. That was the first time I had to communicate with a group in the target language. The students came from many countries, and we had to use the common language to get to know each other. This experience was very meaningful because I could use and improve my skills. But the most relevant aspect for me was being surrounded by people from different countries and learning from them. For me, learning English was fun and a favorable additional ability for my future. However, for some of my classmates English was about surviving in Canada, their new country after having escaped from a war in Iraq. Our teacher asked us to give presentations about our countries of origin. I was amazed by the diversity, and I felt very proud to have spent those weeks with my international group.

After having volunteered for many years in Venezuela, I decided to apply for a volunteer program in the United States with the organization Habitat for Humanity. Volunteering in the States might sound illogical, but poverty can be found everywhere and help is always welcomed. This was an opportunity to help building houses for people in need while improving my English and embarking on new challenges. This is how I landed in Americus, Georgia, a place where I was capable to arrive before we could dream of Google Maps. Somehow, I made it there.

Habitat for Humanity, Georgia, USA | Cooking dinner together | 1995

There were many misunderstandings on the road. A guy in the Greyhound bus asked me at least in ten occasions what the time was, which I took as an opportunity to practice telling the time. It was difficult, quite late, and I was alone. But soon I would meet my international team of volunteers. I spent two weeks working with people from the USA, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Japan and France. I learned specific vocabulary about construction, and our international dinners were an awesome opportunity to discuss other customs and languages. Language learning would take place anytime, anywhere and doing something purposeful.

Far away were those useless repetitive dialogs. Far away were the grades based on memorizing structures. As a volunteer in Americus and later in Greensboro, North Carolina (1997) -taking care of terminally ill people- I discovered the great pleasure of working with people from diverse backgrounds. It was also interesting to learn about the nature in Georgia. I admired the Kudzu, an invasive plant that makes threes look like cascades, and went to a bar with my friends to learn square dance, listening to live music from the south. I tasted the exponentially sweet S'mores: a combination of cookies, marshmallows and chocolate. We even could greet former USA President Jimmy Carter at the supermarket Piggly Wiggly! This volunteer experience and the one in North Carolina helped me to focus more on communicating effectively with people. I was strongly motivated, had a growth-mindset, and I knew that the next step should be working on the formal aspects of my interlanguage.

Habitat for Humanity, USA | Powernail! was my favorite appeal | 1995

Learning English at the university: developing proficiency

In 1997, I stayed three months in Germany. Then I went to the United States to volunteer with Human Service Alliance. After that, I finally made it to Vancouver, where I would attend English courses for academic purposes at the University of British Columbia. This immersion experience posed real challenges for me as a language user: looking for accommodation for the next months and lots of administrative issues. I took courses on academic writing, reading and oral presentations.

Vancouver, Canada | First impressions and looking for a room | 1997

I had a group of friends from Switzerland, Mexico, Taiwan and Germany. Apart from having fun together, I liked the fact that we always interacted in English, even with my Mexican friends. The course I enjoyed the most was Oral Presentations, with my great teacher, Ken Maneker. From the very beginning, Ken would video record our speeches, from a short introduction of ourselves until a well-prepared 20-minute talk. Looking at the videos and giving constructive feedback, Ken managed to lower our anxiety in front of the camera. He focused on our body language and our performance as speakers interacting with our audience. He made a deep impact both on my learner and teacher sides. This experience abroad was key to develop further skills and confidence as an English language user. In my work and in my free time, I use this language frequently.

Learning German in Venezuela and in Germany

My history as a learner of German in formal settings began in Venezuela. I attended several courses at the Goethe Institut and all my teachers were Venezuelans. Being in Venezuela and having a limited exposure to German outside the institute, the language policy in the classroom was German only. However, it was interesting to observe how my teachers used both the first and the target language. While my first teacher only spoke Spanish at the end of the course to reveal that he actually could speak it, another teacher used our first language to share classroom anecdotes. Spanish was also useful to show contrastive examples of grammar aspects and to explain specific vocabulary. I found these language detours useful, but I found it equally important to use German as the vehicular language. In Venezuela, I learned the basics of German and its pronunciation.

In Germany, I have attended German courses at universities and adult education institutions. The course objectives and the learner groups were pretty different. In my first course, I had to listen and repeat too many times: "Wie heißen Sie? -Ich heiße..." (Eng. What is your name? My name is...), which brought some unpleasant learner school memories. Another course prepared us to take a certification exam in order to be able to enroll at a German university. Grammar and specific vocabulary was always in focus. Another course I took was an intensive one that included a cultural program in the afternoon. From my learner perspective, the teacher I enjoyed the most was Claudia. She had lots of energy and contagious enthusiasm. She introduced us to Herbert Grönemeyer and German movies. Claudia was approachable and very concerned about her teaching. I can say now that she has been one of the persons that have influenced my teaching style.

Back in 1998, when I moved to Germany, before attending formal courses I just had a little notebook where I would write any expression that I found interesting. I would go to the supermarket and If I heard a word that caught my attention, I asked spontaneously how to use it. Looking at one of my notebooks 20 years later, I find these examples particularly funny and quite embarrassing from my German perspective: "er sieht wie ein Ausländer aus". I do not remember if this example was given to me or if I created it. What I know is that after almost 10 years of the Berlin Wall fall, Erfurt was not used to welcome people from other countries yet. Still, I liked combining learning opportunities offered in language courses with actively sought occasions to inquire about the language. In this way, I could develop my listening and speaking skills while engaging native speakers in conversations about their language. I see in my development as a language learner that not only learning/teaching methods and teachers themselves play a key role in learning. It is learner agency what makes available opportunities significant and tangible to benefit the acquisition of the target language.

Erfurt, Germany | Random notes and German | 1998

Since I live in Germany, I have plenty of opportunities to improve my German, but I have to exploit them consciously. In informal settings people do not correct my pronunciation or grammar, which is normal but makes it difficult to make progress in this context. For that reason, I often observe exchanges among native speakers and pay attention to the meaning and the form. Besides, when I talk with friends I ask openly when I feel insecure about something I am saying. Recently I had to approach a group of four women who were having a calm chat while drinking coffee. I asked them for help with a sentence I was not sure about. They were happy to assist me and, in exchange, I left them having a vivid discussion about German grammar. "Deutsch ist schwer!" I heard them say.

Contact with other languages

I have taken other language courses: Flemish and Japanese.

Hiroshima, Japan | Documenting city and language | 2008

I learned some Flemish when I lived in Belgium. The language was not very difficult, but finding opportunities for practice was a tough challenge because people would always respond in English to my questions in Flemish. Regarding Japanese, I registered for a course before traveling to Japan in 2008. My objective was to get to know the rhythm and pronunciation of the language, to be able to greet people, to ask for food or to thank people for something. My teacher was Japanese, and I assumed that she would speak mostly her language. Unfortunately that was not the case and the only occasions when she used the target language was to give examples for repetition: "Kore wa nan desu ka - Kore wa hon desu" (What is this? -This is a book). The trip to Japan was in my dreams a long time ago, and I definitely want to go back! Before traveling there again, I would take another Japanese course and learn more about its ancient and modern cultures.

My parents always motivated me to learn an additional language. My mother would say that learning another language is like developing another identity. I find this completely true! For me as a language learner and user, Spanish means warmth, tenderness, and outburst. English gives me other vibes. It is simultaneously the language of coolness and the language I prefer reading when I look for books or research papers. English is an open door and the language that made possible to communicate with classmates and volunteers from different parts of the world. German is another story! While I like listening to it and incorporating new expressions into my personal thesaurus, I am very careful when I write in German, and sometimes it takes me longer than I expect. Nevertheless, I feel affection for this language that is partly in my genes. Wilstermann is my great-grandfather's last name.