On (in)tangible results of my learning

Every day I immerse myself in loads of English. I do so because I want to and also because I have to. I simply need to keep up. Judging by the hundreds of hours I’ve spent doing something in English (reading, writing, listening, speaking, singing, teaching), one might think that I should be a highly proficient and a native-like user of English. Why do I feel I’m not? Why do I feel there are areas in which I still grope in the dark?
For me, a person having been out of school for quite some time, it’s really difficult to see some progress – some tangible results of my learning. Yes, I feel I have improved, I have a hunch that my English is getting better and I have an inkling that I know more vocabulary than some time before. However, I can’t anchor my feelings, hunches and inklings to something firm and concrete. In other words, I can’t say in comparison to what and when my English has improved. I can’t say that my English has improved, say, by 12% since 2012. 
I’m not someone who believes all things are measurable. But I’m someone who, from time to time, desperately wants to measure, count and compare. Sometimes I’d really like to know how much I’ve improved. I’d like to know how many new vocabulary items I’ve learnt since 2000, for example. However, not being a student anymore, there’s no point in taking progress or proficiency tests. I’m not convinced they’d say much about my improvement, anyway. 

I remember that three years ago, before I started studying at university again, I struggled with lots of areas of the English language. I remember having serious problems when reading longer stretches of texts. The most plausible explanation is that I simply hadn’t read very much in English before. Since then I’ve done a lot of reading – online, offline, fiction, specialized literature, etc. But again, I can’t say how much my reading skills have improved. The improvement must have been gradual and almost imperceptible – no big, noticeable leaps as one might imagine. But that’s just another inkling. Since the dark period I’ve also written lots of text in English – back between 2011 and 2013 as part of my MA studies, and later on here on my blog. I can’t see whether my writing has improved because there’s nobody to tell me. It’s just me and my hunches again. I do get feedback from my readers but not the type which you expect from a language teacher. Mind you, this is not a way of asking for language feedback!! Yes, writing doesn’t seem such a toil now. Yet, I can’t say it’s easy to produce a text, even after so many hours of practice. Am I more demanding? Is it why I can never be satisfied with the current level of my writing proficiency? 
To reduce my feelings of vagueness I decided to take some concrete steps. I started recording new vocabulary and consciously learn them. I describe some of my learning experiences here and here. However, recently I’ve come to realize that what I need is to work on advanced collocations, rather than separate vocabulary items. Let me show you what I do. At the moment I’m reading a crime novel. The suspense makes me stay awake when I’m exhausted after a long day at work, and from a language point of view, the fact that it’s set in modern times is a bonus for me as an L2 learner (there are more useful, everyday expressions, slang, lots of grammatical elision, no literary embellishments, etc.). I read a chapter or two before I go to sleep and I just enjoy what I read without looking up any expression whatsoever. The following day, when I’m alert and fully conscious, I scan through the same chapter again and concentrate on interesting collocations I encountered the previous night. Here’s an example. A little warning in advance; it’s pretty graphic. 
lurched to his feet
stooped to find his centre of gravity
staggered forwards
used his head as a navigation aid and battering ram
the fountain of vomit gushed from his mouth
with legs akimbo
a low croak coming from the far end
groped between his feet
put the phone to his ear
All the chunks are taken from the same section of the chapter. I deliberately chose this one because I believe it’s rich in useful language and the scene is described vividly. Each of the chunks somehow connects to the previous or the subsequent expression, which helps me remember the context and thus the collocations. If I’m forced to visualize the scene, it helps me remember more than if it was just a boring bit. It sometimes helps to Google pictures to visualize the meaning of a word. If you look up lurch, for example, you get lots of images of zombies. I conclude that this is what zombies (and drunkards) do – they lurch when walking. I do the same with other words if necessary. 
This technique has proved to be pretty handy for me as an L2 learner. I learn new words but more importantly, I learn the whole chunks – chunks which I know I would never choose to produce in my own writing, for example. Not that I don’t know the separate words but some of the combinations are unique to me – I’ve heard them for the first time so they’re not part of my active collocations inventory. Although I may be able to say legs wide apart or fumble for something, I may not have other synonymous expressions at my disposal, which is crucial for me as an occasional writer or for someone who constantly wants to work on their language. I should stress that, obviously, without practice and repetition this technique wouldn’t work at all. I need to go back to what I’ve written and visualize the scene again and again while, at the same time, adding new items into my notebook. Once I’m able to reproduce some of the expressions naturally, in a different context, I know this is a real sign of progress in a particular area of my language learning.

My teacher self PS.: I notice that students usually find recording collocations, especially those consisting of words they already know, a waste of time. It needs a lot of convincing and persuasion to make them believe that this is a terribly useful technique. Whenever I tell my students: Well, let’s go through what you have highlighted in this text? They shrug their shoulders and say: Not much, really. We know all the words. And then comes the testing which shows how little they actually knew. I can’t blame them though; if I hadn’t gone through all the hardships of an L2 learner myself, I might find this technique useless as well ...

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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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4 Responses to On (in)tangible results of my learning

  1. Hi Hana!
    I really enjoyed reading this post. I, too, often feel that my vocabulary isn't rich enough or my writing could be better. I always feel like I need to learn more. I have a notebook as well and I record the new words I come accross, I just think that if I am not using them there is no way I am actually going to learn them (which is what I tell my students as well). I ,then, think that I am always using the same words over and over so I get frustrated. The thing that has helped me a lot is teaching different types of English ( BE, EAP and GE) so I often learn sth new and then come accross it again. Am I able to measure my progress? Nope, but I do feel good when I do not need to look something up : ). Excellent post 😀

    Like

  2. Baiba says:

    Great post as usual Hana!
    I guess we who are not native speakers will never ever know everything about the English language, and I mostly mean vocabulary. If I look at the tests Americans take at GRE exams, for instance, I am shocked how little I know. But should we despair? I think, no. However, for me it is a pleasure to learn rarely used words and be able to use them myself. Only how often am I going to do it? Not at a normal secondary school, for sure.
    I have a brilliant student in my grade 10. I regularly ask him to prepare a totally new and unfamiliar word for the class (and me) and teach us the word in the classroom. He has already “taught” us 5 words this year, among which are 'irritainment', 'bouncebackability', 'earworm'. It is fun, everybody loves it and believe me this is also a way to learn new words!

    Like

  3. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Joanna,

    Thanks for reading and dropping a line 🙂 I think sometimes we all suffer a lack of richness of expression. Some days are better some are worse. I've been looking for simple recipes to pass on to my students (and to use myself) but I'm afraid there aren't any. It's just hard work, concentration and practice. The matter is complicated by the fact that we all learn in slightly different ways. Plus the more I know the more minuscule my knowledge seems relative to what’s left out there. I’m not surprised that Ss who’ve barely reached the intermediate plateau are the most satisfied people in the world. They can communicate quite well and they think there’s not much left to learn. At this stage they claim how easy English is in comparison with other languages. I don’t want to discourage or de-motivate them but I can’t help thinking (and I sometimes even say it out loud), well, wait and you’ll see for yourself. Anyway, I love all the exploring and discovering and I suspect you are the same 🙂

    Hana

    Like

  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Baiba,
    Thanks for your comment. No, we’ll definitely never know everything about the English language but I’m afraid there’s a lot I still don’t know about my mother tongue. What’s worse, I actually neglect it by concentrating on English so much. I agree there’s no point in sulking about our incompetency. Now that I think about it, it’s actually the love for learning a foreign language which makes me want to improve, not the lack of knowledge. And this is a much more powerful driving force, I believe. Thanks for teaching me some new words – needless to say, I’ve never heard them before. Send my greetings to your brilliant student 🙂
    Hana

    Like

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