The hardships of an advanced L2 learner

These days, a bunch of ELF teachers = bloggers are sharing their experience with learning foreign languages. You can find them on Twitter under the #langmt hashtag. Coming from experienced EFL teachers, their advice and tips are of great value; they are looking at L2 learning from two different perspectives - professional and experiential. The posts are highly motivating and they've inspired my resolution for the upcoming summer holidays: to brush up my German. What makes the reading about their experience even more interesting is the fact that the bloggers are dealing with various, mainly 'exotic' languages, such as Japanese, Malay, Italian, Russian, or Korean. Although I've attempted to learn several L2s in my life, ironically, I'd like to share my experience with learning English.

As a fairly advanced learner of English, I'd always kind of believed that the more I read and listen (or hear) in English, the more words I will automatically remember. I believed that passive knowledge will automatically become active at some point. And that was the conviction I would share with my students. It was until I noticed that despite having devoured piles of English books and watched tonnes of English movies, I only improved my reading and listening skills (to a certain extent, I should stress). Unfortunately, my vocabulary never expanded dramatically, i.e. beyond my long-desired level. I did remember (= acquired) certain recurrent phrases and bits, but unless I took the less frequent words down in ink, I didn't really recall many of them later on.

The most valuable experience I've had so far as an L2 learner is the extensive practice through writing this blog. First of all, my spelling has improved noticeably since I started. I can confidently claim so because a few weeks ago I, as a participant of a workshop on dealing with errors, was asked to complete a spelling quiz and my result was 100%. This truly surprised me because I'd never thought spelling is one of my strengths. The test was actually a warm-up and a lead-in to follow-up activities aimed at improving students' spelling. I was fully absorbed in the activities but while listening to the presenter, I caught myself wanting to shout out: "These games are great fun but you can primarily improve your spelling by practising writing and by wanting to write correctly!!!" In other words, only conscious effort, concentration and plenty of practice will help you spell and write better. There's no other way, unless you are a genius, which I'm not.

I'm still struggling with writing, though. Oftentimes I find my writing plain and I hate my habit of repeating the same words again and again. I sometimes feel like a prisoner in a small cage or a child writing her homework; I can't find the words to express my feeling properly. This brings me to another subject - vocabulary. I hope it won't be over-generalization to say that the more vocabulary one knows, the easier it is to learn new items. But still, every learner has their own specialities, i.e. things that they find problematic. For example, it took me ages to learn the word 'duly'. Although I knew its frequent collocates (duly noted, duly executed), I couldn't remember its direct translation and its accurate meaning. Other nightmares were the words 'conspicuous' and 'prolific'. There's a lot to hold on to and draw on when learning some English words; in the case of prolific, the pro- prefix is the same as in the word pro-ductive, which comes in handy provided your attention is drawn to the similarity. Nevertheless, this word kept troubling me until I learnt about sketches - simple drawings or doodles I can attach to new vocabulary items to make my learning easier. Sketches are fantastic for initial phases of learning an L2. However, the more abstract terms one encounters, the more one has to rack their brains to come up with a suitable sketch..

The most intensive learning experience I've had so far regarding learning vocabulary happened a couple of years ago, when I was preparing for my CPE exam - a door I had to open to be accepted to my MA studies programme. It was a worrying situation; I had been a (respected) EFL teacher for the past 15 years and suddenly I had to start learning what I'd actually been teaching for what seemed ages. You can imagine how worried I was about the possibility of not passing the entrance exam. I wasn't afraid of speaking, though (I'd had plenty of practice as a teacher after all). But I knew the written part of the test might be tricky, which proved to be true. I remember that my favourite website at that time was Flo-Joe. I took a few mock tests there and to my disappointment, I discovered that I needed to start working hard. I must smile now when I look at my notebook in which I used to record unknown vocabulary, useful collocations and chunks. What a diligent student I was! By the way, I didn't know they were called chunks at that time yet. I discovered the beauty of ELT terms later on, in the MA programme I had been accepted to.

The most surprising discovery for me is the fact that when I came back to that website two years later, I remembered all the exercises. I also remembered where I had made mistakes back then and which words I had recorded. I can also recall where I'd been sitting and what I'd been feeling when practising. The learning context clearly left deep traces in my neural network. I believe that the importance and seriousness of the situation and the circumstances under which I learnt helped me remember things better. Looking back at what I had achieved back then makes me believe that learners can achieve almost anything. Motivation (no matter whether intrinsic or extrinsic) is a powerful drive in learning.

The last thing I want to touch on is learning versus acquiring. I spend hours a day acquiring English, i.e. reading and listening to what interests me without really thinking about the language itself. This is great but unless I jot things down and thus zoom in on the language, I don't feel I'm making progress. The good thing about delving into stuff that I'm interested in is the fact that later on I have some memorable context to rely on. Referring back to context helps me recall words. To illustrate what I mean, here's an example: I remember this very rare verb I once came across on Scott Thornbury's blog. In one of his comments he used the expression: a yammering idiot (mind you, he talked about himself).... I'd never heard the word before but the context in which I saw it was rather amusing and thus I remembered it very quickly. I've never used it until now and I've never seen it in a different context. To conclude, with rare words I sometimes find it useful to note down where and when I saw them. This helps me remember and recall them better.

Before I say goodbye to the reader and finally hit the publish button, I'll have to run a spell check on my post. I can be sure to detect several typos. So no matter how great of a speller I may think I am, I'll always rely on technology in this respect. But even my spell checker is very useful for my learning. It's not just a tool that does everything for me; by allowing myself to manually correct the typos, I make myself notice them and consciously process them instead of leaving them in the vast plains of subconsciousness....

Update: There's a follow-up post called More Hardships (and joys) of an advanced L2 learner, which, I believe, is reflective as well as practical.