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.


About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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5 Responses to The hardships of an advanced L2 learner

  1. venvve says:

    Hi Hana,

    An interesting choice of topic considering your inspiration for the post has come mostly from teachers describing experiences at beginner/pre-intermediate level. I should think it would also be quite a motivating read for any advanced learners who don’t happen to be teachers of English. 🙂
    I was interested to note a couple of points you mention – for instance, you say you’ve noticed a marked improvement in spelling. At the beginning of each semester a number of students in my writing skills course identify spelling as an area in which they claim to be hopeless and most wish to improve. I normally pay very little attention to either these concerns or to addressing spelling as part of the syllabus, believing this to be unnecessary with all the spell checking software available. I agree with you that conscious application is needed to memorize the difference between, for instance, “your” and “you’re”, or “it’s” and “its”, where the spelling affects meaning, but feel there’s no longer a need for spelling quizzes like the ones we used to have in elementary school, where you’d be tested on words like “occasion”. I mean, does it matter if you think it’s “ocasion” or “ocassion” or the correct “occasion”, when the spell check will do the work for you?
    A brief digression – speaking of spelling tests in elementary school, I remember that non-native speakers in our class sometimes did considerably better on these than native speakers, and I wonder why that was. Maybe we were more motivated by the scratch-n-sniff stickers (prizes)? 🙂
    Anyway, back to what you said about spelling. It seems to me that the improvement you noted was quite motivating, which leads me to conclude that I may have been a little rash to dismiss student concerns in this area. I still think there are more important aspects of writing to practice in a writing skills class, but you’ve reminded me of the power of motivation and the fact that we are all motivated by different things. Thanks for this, and for writing the post. I was actually going to comment on more than just spelling (see second paragraph), but I think I’ll leave that for another time.


  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Dear Vedrana,
    First of all, I'm very glad you exclusively focused on spelling in your reply. I must smile that you've chosen the word ‘occasion’ to illustrate the triviality of some spelling tests we used to take in the past but this word was one of the nightmares I forgot to mention in my post 🙂 I still have to stop and think before I type it (somehow double 's' seems more acceptable.
    I have to disagree with one point, though; you say it doesn't matter which alternative you type provided the spell check does do the work for you. I believe that relying on technology with resignation may prove very tricky. As a teacher, I need to be able to spell correctly because I still use the traditional chalk and board method. By neglecting spelling and typos, I’d actually do myself (and my students) a great disservice.
    Yes, quite a few native speakers of English I know personally admitted that they sometimes had problems with spelling in areas which seemed obvious to a non-native speaker. I think it’s quite natural that you are likely to make more mistakes in your native tongue, maybe because you take your knowledge for granted and thus don’t fully concentrate on small things like typos and spelling. I found it very amusing when a native speaker of English, a CELTA and DELTA qualified one, once made a mistake in her presentation: she wrote ‘plane’ instead of ‘plain’, which did affect the meaning of the sentence. I wondered why this had happened to her but then I discovered that this ‘homonym’ type of error is actually likely to happen to a proficient speaker of the language. By the way, it happened to me recently a few time too, ironically after a period of intensive and extensive exposure to the target language. I’d be interested to see some research on this area.
    As for you students’ concerns regarding their hopeless spelling; I totally understand why you tend to dismiss them and try to concentrate on other areas of writing skills instead. On the other hand, if they feel hopeless at spelling, they won’t feel confident enough to write at all. Or, if they are too self-conscious, they may feel restricted by their inability to spell correctly and thus will tent to avoid difficult and complex words, which will, in effect, affect their writing in general.
    Thanks for your comment and keep in touch. I love our exchanges.


  3. Sandy says:

    Hi Hana,
    Thanks for joining in with #langmt and for looking at it from a different perspective. It's great to see that it's inspiring so many people. Your thoughts about being an advanced learner of English make me think about my other languages, and how I never practice them now. I really need to get into some routines to at least keep them up, but I'll have to think about how to do it, since Russian obviously takes priority at the moment.
    As for your fascinating discussion about spelling, I think it's an area which is seriosuly neglected, because it doesn't just make a difference for learners in their writing: it also affects their reading, and even their pronunciation. I often tell my students that spelling is a very difficult area for native speakers too, and the homonym mistake you mentioned is very typical. When I look at my facebook stream, I would estimate that at least 20% of the things my native speaker friends write have some kind of mistake, sometimes due to typos, but often because they may not be aware of the rule. When I was at school we had weekly spelling tests, ten words a week, for at least 6 years, and many students still struggled. As you say, being forced to check things when you're writing makes a real difference. On a slight side note, there are some errors I only started making after I became a teacher, like mixing thing/think when I'm writing quickly!
    Looking forward to seeing how your German goes in the summer, und wenn du ein bißchen üben willst, sag mir Bescheid. (sp?!)


  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Sandy.
    Thanks for stopping by again and leaving a comment.
    You mention that there are some other languages you never practise now. Well, this is a problem; knowing a language without really practising it obviously makes all the knowledge fade away soon. The same happened to my Russian which you seem to be studying so diligently at the moment. Many a times I’ve thought about brushing up my Russian but unfortunately, I have no motivation any more – nether internal, nor external – and this is a serious hindrance, even for an independent, autonomous learner.
    Thanks for encouraging me to continue with my German. I hope I’ll find the motivation because honestly, there’s no (pragmatic) reason to learn the language – I never meet German speakers and I don’t know any. In effect, I would have to go and search German myself: on the internet, in books, on TV, etc. But the question is: will I be interested in German stuff if everything I need is available in English? At this moment, the only motivation is the joy of learning (discovering the similarities and differences, understanding bits of conversation I overhear in the street, etc.).
    Anyway, I believe that all knowledge, though incomplete and partially forgotten, may come in handy some day. By recalling the bits and pieces of once mastered L2, maths or biology, I can help you children or my students, for example. Some say that knowing is obsolete but is it really?


  5. Sandy says:

    The joy of learning is the main reason that I study languages. Also the joy of discovery – finding out bits and pieces of the culture that make me notice why things are different, and what the little things are build up a culture.
    As I said before, good luck with your studies!


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