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Learning narratives 1



The first step in successful learning is to know as much as possible about yourself as a learner. This
means asking yourself questions about how you learn best, how you can organise your learning,
and, very importantly, what you have already learned and what you still need to learn. The
following activities will help you reflect about these things.

Answer the following questionnaire by putting a True (T) or a False (F) after each
sentence. (If you are hesitating between T and F, put both).
A. I often study English, at home, in a library, on the train.
B. I need English for my work, to pass an exam, to get a job.
C. I don't like making grammar mistakes when I speak English.
D. I began learning English because my parents felt it was necessary for my future.
E. I love speaking English with other learners of the same level.
F. I started to go to English conversation classes because I wanted to, not because I had to.
G. I think my teachers should force me to speak more in the English class.
H. I would love to go on a year-long world tour, even if I had little money.
I. If I don't speak in the English class, it is because the topic/task is bad.
J. I watch TV and films in English even though I understand nothing!
K. I hate it when one person does all the talking in conversation class.
L. Quite often, I am happy just to listen to the teacher.
M. I often feel a little stupid when I talk in the English class.
N. I think the teacher is what motivates a student most.
O. I prefer learning grammar, vocabulary, etc to speaking English.
P. I wish I could have an English class every day instead of just three times a week.
Q. Basically, I think the class should be for practising the grammar you have just learnt.
R. I regularly ask the other students questions and comment on what they say in class.
A, E, F, H, J, P, R = True. This, basically, indicates a self-motivated, hard-working learner. It also indicates desire to
socialise, to meet other races and cultures.
B, D, G, I, K, N = True. There is a strong sense of being "obliged" to learn, which is not self-motivation. Not a crime, but
you must want to achieve for yourself. Also, this type of learner blames his performance on others/external factors.
C, O = True. This can mean that you are a perfectionist. You pay attention to formal detail. Can be good, but it can also
be an obstacle to communication.
M = True. It happens to everybody at the beginning. But you must try to get over this.
Q = True. This is a big issue. But how can you talk about the world with a few set phrases? You may be a traditional
learner expecting a traditional class, but remember, the ultimate aim of any language is to communicate.
However, as happens with most things in life it is impossible to be categorical, i.e. seemingly negative factors
can end up motivating some learners. Also, some of the above statements may apply to several interpretations.
Remember: nothing is black or white.
2 Learning narratives

Answer the following questionnaire by putting a tick in one of the boxes on the right.
Usually Sometimes Seldom I don’t know
Do you like learning new grammar rules by heart?
Do you get good marks in grammar tests?
Do you have a good memory for new words?
Do you hate making mistakes?
Does it annoy you when mistakes are not corrected
in class?
Is your pronunciation better when you read aloud
than when you have a conversation?
Do you like having time to think before speaking?
Do you like language classes?
Do you find it difficult to remember more than 2 or
3 words in a foreign language when you are on
holidays abroad?
When you don’t know the meaning of all the
words in a text, do you find it risky to determine
the global sense of the text?

Usually 3 points
Sometimes 2 points
Seldom 1 point
I don’t know 0 points
If you got between 0 and 9 points , your learning style is “indecisive and little autonomous”
If you got between 10 and 13 points, your learning style is “relaxed and tolerant of errors”
If you got between 14 and 18 points, your learning style is “mixed with tendency to being reflexive”
If you got more than 18 points, you tend to be analytic-reflexive with a little intolerance of errors & ambiguity (you get
annoyed, nervous, depressed with errors & undervalue yourself or blame your failures on others)

Think about any three things you have learnt successfully in the English courses you have attended in
the previous years, and any three things you feel you have not learnt as successfully as you would have liked. Fill
in the table below with the details:

What did you How did you learn How did you know Why were you How did it make you
learn successfully? it? you were successful? successful? feel?

What did you not How did you try to How did you know Why did you fail? How did it make you
learn successfully? learn it? you failed? feel?

Another important issue for successful study is self-assessment. For this you must think critically
about your own study tactics, that is, the techniques you use for studying (e.g. organise notes,
use memory aids).
Learning narratives 3

Discuss in groups what kind of skills you may need to improve your English. Then, copy the table below
in your learning dossier. Write some of the skills you have discussed with your classmates in it and assess your
own situation critically. Keep this record throughout the course.

SKILL I can do this Ok, but I need more I can’t do this I don’t need
well practice this skill

Introduce yourself as a learner in a few sentences using the results of the questionnaires


What is a dossier?
It’s a notebook (different from your other exercise books and notebooks) or a section in one of your
classroom notebooks where you write about the lessons that you have had during the week.
What sort of things do you write in a learning dossier?
Write about your learning experience: about the parts of the English lessons you enjoyed and those that you didn’t
enjoy. Explain which activities were too difficult or too easy and which were OK. You can also reflect about your
experience as it goes on, and about those things you feel are missing in the classes. When doing this, try to write a
balanced report: neither too negative nor too positive and uncritical. Mention any specific problems which you have
with English. Don’t forget to mention any homework assignments. Finally, you can also use your dossier to practise
certain aspects of English on your own (exercises, compositions, etc.).
How often should you write it?
It is best to write the dossier after every lesson when your impressions are fresh in your mind, but some people prefer to
write once a week.
Why keep a learning dossier?
It is often difficult for your teacher to identify problems that you have in English, especially if your class is very large.
Your dossier is then not only a good way to reflect about your experience as a learner, but also a direct form of
communication with your teacher. You will also be able to be aware of your learning improvements along the course by
reading what you wrote at different stages.
In the following units you will find this box reminding you to go to your dossier. This does not mean that you
only need to do so then: work on your learning dossier as much as you can!

Write a short composition about your English learning experience in your learning dossier.
Recall where you first studied it, with whom, what for, and how you felt about studying it.
4 Learning narratives



In this section, you are going to read two texts written by people who left their countries, and went
to live somewhere else – concretely an English speaking country. They, therefore, had to learn
English. The texts tell other students of English – like you – about their experience with this
language. Before reading the texts, answer the following:
If you were to write these texts, what kind of information would you include? Do not write
whole sentences, but one or two words expressing the main idea(s) or point(s) developed in
the texts (e.g. biographical information).
Write ten words that you expect to find in a text about learning English:
Now, read the two texts below. Do not stop to look up new words in the dictionary. Ask
yourself these questions as you read:
ƒ Which paragraph gives the background of the story?
ƒ Which paragraphs give details about the story?

In order to get ready for the activities, go to the section “What the activities are about” in Appendix A



I am a refugee from Somalia, from Mogadishu, the capital city, where I worked in the food markets. Since
the war began in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Somalis have died or left their homes to escape the fighting.
When I arrived in Australia three years ago, I stayed with a friend at first, but I needed to find a place of my
own. I could speak English well but I couldn’t read or write it at all. I didn’t even know the alphabet! I was
really worried about that. How could I study English when I couldn’t read and write? How could I find a
flat? How would I ever get a job in Australia?
But I didn’t have to worry. In my first class at Footscray AMES, most of the students were just like me.
In the first week of class our teacher took us on an excursion to the Migrant Resource Centre or MRC. A
Somali interpreter explained the services of the MRC and made an appointment for me with an MRC worker
who helped me to find a flat.
Learning English was hard at first, but slowly I began to read and understand. We had two hours a week
in the computer room and we used some very good computer programs to learn the alphabet and spelling.
Our teacher also organised a special writing group once a week in the ILC with a volunteer tutor. I also
borrowed books and cassettes from the library so that I could work at home. After two terms and a lot of
hard work, I was ready for a Certificate 3 class. While I was in this class, I did two weeks work experience in
a restaurant as part of the Practical Placement Program. I really enjoyed it. That’s when I decided that I’d
like to become a professional chef.
I am now studying for a Certificate in Commercial Cookery at William Angliss College. I have finished
my 510 hours at AMES. My writing in English is still not perfect but I can manage most of my work. One
day I’ll work in a restaurant again –or maybe even open my own!
Learning narratives 5


It all started in 1995 in Germany. I was living in Berlin and studying Accounting at the university. One of
my friends introduced me to an Australian girl called Kylie who was on holiday there –it was love at first
sight! It was so hard for us when she returned to Australia a few weeks later, but we continued to phone and
write to each other. Finally, we realised that we wanted to spend our lives together –so here I am in
Melbourne, a married man!
My first goal in Australia was to return to university. I had studied English at school in Germany for 6
years, but it was certainly not good enough to study at university here. And I wasn’t used to Aussie English
either! So I enrolled at Springvale AMES in a Certificate 3 English class with other students who also
wanted to return to study.
Our teacher helped us to prepare by developing our study skills as well as our English. She also
encouraged us to use the Individual Learning Centre. I spent many extra hours in the ILC doing my
homework. The teacher in the ILC showed me how I could use different resources –computer programs,
cassettes, and videos– to improve my English. I also learnt to use a computer for word processing. Because I
wanted to complete Certificate 3 as soon as possible, the ILC teacher suggested that I try the Learner Guides.
They were really useful for me because I like working by myself –I passed two of my exams last term with
the Learner Guides.
After two terms at AMES I have returned to study Accounting at a TAFE College. It’s not easy, but the
support I received in my English class has given me the confidence to succeed. I haven’t yet completed my
510 hours, so I’m still studying English at Springvale AMES in an evening class twice a week.


Activity 1
Abdi’s and Karl’s stories tell us about their experiences when learning English. In other words,
learning English is the texts’ topic. This topic is developed in different paragraphs. Spotting the
main idea or topic in paragraphs is one way of helping us discover the skeleton or backbone of a
story. Read each paragraph in the texts, and underline the main idea in them. Summarise each idea
by providing a headline for each paragraph:
Paragraph 1 ___________________________________________________________________
Paragraph 2 ___________________________________________________________________
Paragraph 3 ___________________________________________________________________
Paragraph 4 ___________________________________________________________________
Paragraph 1 ___________________________________________________________________
Paragraph 2 ___________________________________________________________________
Paragraph 3 ___________________________________________________________________
Paragraph 4 ___________________________________________________________________

Do you think the information provided by Abdi and Karl is relevant to the topic? Would
you add other details? Which ones? Why?
6 Learning narratives

Activity 2
Have another look at Abdi’s and Karl’s stories, paying special attention to the vocabulary in them.
Did you expect the words found in the texts? Go back to the 10 words you wrote before reading the
texts. Fill the table below with the words reflecting the texts’ topic(s).


Activity 3
We know that these texts were written by two people called Abdi and Karl. Who do you think they
had in mind when writing the texts (audience or readers)? Justify your answer.
They wrote the texts for ___________________________________ because _________________

Which is the main purpose of Abdi’s and Karl’s stories? Choose among the options below; yet, be
careful: there may be more than one purpose in texts.
A they are written to be read for pleasure (entertaining)
B they explain how something should be done through a series of sequenced steps
C they inform us about some facts concerned with their learning experience, describing what
happened (informing)
D they try to change or influence the way readers think about English learning or their choice
of English course (persuading)

How did you guess the texts’ purpose(s)?

Write your impressions about these texts in your dossier.

Go to the section “Assessment” in Appendix A and evaluate the activities.

Resources If you liked the texts and want to read more about language learning experiences you will find
more texts in the following websites:
Learning narratives 7



All texts illustrate three types of choice:

choice of content: the topic or theme developed in a text, what the text is about
choice of structure: the way the ideas in the text are organised both at the level of
paragraphs and at the level of sentence order
choice of language: the lexico-grammatical patterns (words, phrases) used to express the
ideas in a text

These three aspects are, in turn, related to the purpose and audience of the text: authors write texts
with a purpose in mind and for a particular type of readership. All texts illustrate these factors.
Finally, all the choices above are determined by our – conscious or unconscious – knowledge
of genre. Genres are general ways of doing things when using language for communication, that is,
they provide the general guidelines to produce texts. Thus, our experience with narrative genres
(stories, tales, biographies, etc.) makes us write our own texts in a way that reflects the typical
characteristics of these genres. Likewise, when we describe something, we usually do it in a way
similar to the descriptive genres we are familiar with (e.g. descriptions in encyclopaedias, in
product prospects, or in textbooks).

How are these things related to the learning narratives in this unit?

The information we provide in personal narratives largely depends on their general topic. For
instance, if we write about our life (e.g. biographical narratives) certain information needs to be
present in the text, whereas other details depend on what we want our audience to know about us.
On the other hand, if our narrative is concerned with a partial or concrete aspect of our
experience(s) like, for instance, learning English, the text needs to reflect that particular topic.
After deciding what we want to write about, the second step is to think of the best way to
organise the ideas in our text so that readers can follow them easily. Narrative genres in general
use a chronological sequence structure, whether they are personal-narrative genres (e.g. memoirs,
autobiographies, recounts of personal experience) or imaginative story genres (fairytales, folktales,
etc.). Temporal sequence may be inferred from the way events appear in the text (e.g. living in
Berlin goes before studying in Australia in Karl’s text) and, therefore, in the way verb tenses are
used (see Unit 2.1.). It is also shown by the use of temporal markers and expressions that tell us
8 Learning narratives

when something happened (e.g. in 1990, yesterday) as well as the order in which events occurred in
an explicit way (e.g. at first, then, as will be seen in Unit 2.1. in Block 2, and Unit 5.3. in Block 5).

Find examples of time sequences in the texts read previously.


Texts also contain words that indicate the relationships between ideas as these are expressed in
clauses and sentences. These words and phrases are known as discourse markers, and fall into two
broad types. On the one hand, we have words that tell our readers how the ideas are organised and
expressed in our text, helping them to read the texts. The two main types include
enumerators (e.g. in the first place, in the second place, firstly, first, second, secondly, on
the one hand …. on the other hand)
summarizers (e.g. in sum, in short, finally, last but not least)
These discourse markers guide our readers and help them anticipate what might follow in texts.
However, you need to be aware of the fact that not all markers are appropriate for all genres.
The second broad type includes words that link ideas in a number of ways
Contrast indicators (e.g. however, on the other hand, but, although, yet). These emphasise
the fact that the second point contrasts with the first. They are also used to highlight
surprising facts. Examples:
We stayed up late, although we were tired
We looked everywhere. However, we could not find the keys
Although we looked everywhere, we could not find the keys
We looked everywhere, but (we) could not find the keys

Notice that although contrast markers may express the same meaning, they function
differently within the clause. Thus, although and but can occur within sentences (joining two
clauses) or at the beginning of sentences. In both cases they are not followed by a comma. In
contrast, however is usually placed at the beginning of sentences and is always followed by a
comma. Examples:
I suppose that I was lucky in the way that I learned Spanish, although it made me completely
incapable of taking advantage of classes at school or university.
But although I heard it, saw it and felt its presence, it was hard for me to understand it and express
myself in that language.
However, I was stubborn and swore that I was going to succeed.
By doing this, my Spanish progressed rapidly, but it was in spite of the teaching system.
By doing this, my Spanish progressed rapidly. However, it was in spite of the teaching system.
Learning narratives 9

Result or consequence markers (e.g. so, therefore, as a result). These draw attention to the
fact that something is caused by, or is the result of something else. Examples:
He didn’t study for his final exams. As a result/Therefore, his marks were rather low.
It was very hot, so we decided to go swimming
Cause markers (e.g. because, because of, since). These draw attention to the fact that
something is the cause of something else. Examples:
The price of oranges is high because of frost damage.
I went to see the play because it had good reviews.

Finally, take into account that some markers require a specific place within the clause or sentence.
The main ‘types’ are summarised in the table below:

Link clauses, and usually Link clauses, and can come between Link sentences, usually at the
come between clauses/in the clauses or at the beginning of a beginning of a sentence.
middle of a sentence sentence.

Find examples of these markers in the texts read previously, and determine the relationship between the
clauses or sentences they link.


When we start writing, we may initially write in an unstructured manner: we are basically concerned
with getting some ideas on the page rather than with creating a finished document. These ideas can be in
the form of lists, circles or bubbles linking ideas among themselves, or any other way you find useful.
After this brainstorming session, it is time to start writing, and of revising and editing the initial draft(s).
The revision and editing phases focus on two things:
ensuring a coherent flow of ideas
correcting spelling, grammar, and punctuation
To ensure a coherent flow of ideas, we must focus on the three areas of choice:
Have I told everything I wanted?
Have I chosen terms that are appropriate to this content/topic?
Have I made the transitions from one thought to another clear? Is the overall logic of the
presentation clear? Does the text read well?
We revise and edit to ensure the content, language, and structure. An increased awareness of the impact of
choices of content, language, and structure can help you develop habits of rewriting and revision. They will
also ensure the readability of your text (will help your readers understand your text and react to it).
10 Learning narratives


Activity 1. The following sentences summarise Hariz’s experience when learning

English. Put them in the correct order.
(1) In this class Hariz learnt how to write essays and reports, and give oral presentations.
(2) The Educational Counsellor advised Hariz about his future study options.
(3) After he finished Certificate 2 at Dandenong AMES, Hariz started a Certificate 3 Further Study
(4) Now he is studying for his Diploma in Building Design and Construction at a TAFE college.
(5) He also learnt how to use a computer for word processing.
(6) He thought he would never be able to work or study in Australia.
(7) In Bosnia, Hariz was a Drafting student.
(8) Hariz enjoyed his two week Practical Placement program at an architect’s office.

Activity 2. Reorganise these jumbled sentences about Carmen’s learning experience

into a readable text. Take into account the information-structuring principle in the previous
two stories. You also have to finish Carmen’s story by completing one of the sentences.
1. Although she was a widow, Carmen had a busy life: she played the violin in an orchestra, and gave
music lessons to ten pupils each week.
2. She had no friends to visit and, although she could read English quite well, she couldn’t speak it at all!
3. Then she enrolled in an English course in the evenings for four hours a week.
4. But two months after Carmen arrived, her daughter returned to her job and Carmen began to feel
5. When she was 63, she got a part-time job as a music teacher in Leeds.
6. She started to study English at home, but this didn’t help her speaking.
7. She also found a Distance Learning course in Internet, and this helped her learn English more quickly.
8. Carmen had lived alone in Sevilla since her daughter married an English engineer and left for Leeds
ten years ago.
9. Then, Carmen’s daughter had a baby, and persuaded Carmen to go England and live with her.
10. Now Carmen ________________________________________________

Activity 3. Fill in the blanks in the sentences below with one of the words in the boxes:

although, so, when, if, but, because

1. There are a lot of Albanians in Shepparton, ______ Enisa and her husband decided to live there.
2. She wanted to study English, ______ she couldn’t attend classes.
3. She can’t study at Goulburn Ovens TAFE ______ she is working full time at a factory. ______ she is
working full time, she can still study English with the Distance Learning program.
4. The Distance Learning program is for people who want to study English ______ can’t go to classes.
5. ______ she has finished her exercises, Enisa sends them back to her teacher to correct.
6. She wants to change to part-time work ______ she can go to a class.
7. ______ Enisa can work part time next year, she will study Certificate 3 at Goulburn Ovens TAFE.
Learning narratives 11

so, after, until, but, because, although

Silvana knew it would be difficult to learn English ______ she would soon have a small child. ______ she
had a small baby, she still wanted to continue learning English. When she arrived in Australia she couldn’t
speak any English, ______ she enrolled in a beginner’s class. ______ her daughter was born, Silvana started
to learn English with the Volunteer Tutor program. She wanted to continue her English class, ______ she
had a baby to look after. Helen will help Silvana ______ she goes back to class at St. Albans AMES. Silvana
joined the mothers' group ______ she could make friends and practise her English.

Activity 4. The following texts tell us two learning experiences. Read them
carefully, and do the activities below.
I used to come to the United States very often for shopping or vacations but being an exchange student and
living with an American family for a year was a great opportunity for me to know about American culture.
My name is Eugenio Garcia-Falcon, and I am from Mexico. I was an exchange student from 1992 to 1993
and lived in a very exciting city near one of the Great Lakes. Bay City is about two and a half hours north of
Detroit, the “Capital of Automobiles.”
I lived with a very nice American family, the Littles. They are a wonderful family; they used to give me
advice all the time and tried their best to make me feel comfortable and happy. I had an American brother
whose name is Troy. We used to go to school together and play sports such as basketball and football.
I went to “Bay City Central H.S.”, and I liked it a lot. I made lots of friends because most of the students
in school were very nice and tried to help me with to improve my English. When someone is an exchange
student, he learns about other cultures, and this makes this person bicultural. Bicultural is different than
bilingual. Someone could be bilingual but not know about the culture, yet I think that being bicultural is
more exciting because it makes you an open-minded person. Of course, I also think it is very important to
learn formal English by studying the grammar, knowing all the rules, and combine the grammar with
listening and speaking. Before I went to Michigan I learned some grammar and important rules of English,
and I think that helped me a lot because it was easier for me to get by.
I was a sophomore in high school at Bay City, and I took regular classes with native speakers. At first, it
was hard for me to understand, but after three months my English was very fluent. I remember one day I had
to give an oral presentation for a Human Physiology class. My English was so bad that I was afraid that my
class mates were going to laugh at me, but one very important thing I learned is that if you want to improve
your English, you need to get rid of the fear and try your best. The oral presentation came out pretty good
and my class mates liked it very much.
Give each paragraph a title that clearly captures the topic developed in it
Underline the explicit discourse markers and explain their meaning/use.
On arriving in the United States, I felt everything was different. There were many new things I had to adapt
to. One thing that really took me a long time to adapt to was speaking the language.
I remember clearly that I had to struggle to learn English because I couldn't even write a short paragraph
to introduce myself the first day of my English class. The teacher asked me whether it was difficult for me. If
it was, I could change to level one! However, I was stubborn and swore that I was going to succeed.
I started to spend many hours per day, even though it was stressful, because I wanted to take advantage of
this special chance to study English in the U.S.A. I felt depressed because I couldn't understand what people
were saying even though I studied hard. Nonetheless, I still kept trying and never gave up. Now, I can tell
you that I have improved a lot, but sometimes it is still easy for me to get lost if I don't know what topic
people are talking about. To adapt to this new language, I had to tell myself I could do it. I really believe I
12 Learning narratives

Give each paragraph a title
Underline the explicit discourse markers and explain their meaning/use.

Is the basic outline in each narrative the same? Why/why not?

Activity 5. Divide the following passage into paragraphs to help the reader(s) follow it
One of my hobbies is photography. I took it up only a few years ago, when my uncle (who is a professional
photographer) gave me one of his old cameras to try. I took three reels of film straight off and I have been
practising most weekends ever since, despite the cost of the developing! One of the best days I have had was
when I went with him to photograph a wedding. I stood alongside him to take a few shots of the bride and
groom when they came out of church and then I just went round taking casual, informal pictures of the
guests. Everyone says that they capture the spirit of the day better than the 'official' photos! It's not all easy,
though. Once I got up especially early when I was on holiday, to photograph a sunrise over a hill, only to
find it was cloudy when I got up there. With a lot of practise, I hope to follow in my uncle's footsteps and
become a professional one day. I'd really love to photograph the stars of my favourite films and see my
pictures in glossy magazines!

Activity 6. Read the following compositions and correct any mistakes you may
find regarding (a) structure, and (b) grammar.
My name is XXX. I am from XXX. I am eightteen years old. I am studing Clasic Filology. My first
experience with the English was in 1990 in the school when the teachers tell my something stories. Also I
know the number and the colours. This was funny. Each year I had a lot of interes in the English. But since
1999 I don’t like the English because the teachers weren’t good. In the two years after, English is fenomenal
because she give the oportunity for to travel a other countries and to know a lot of people. In fac, thank you
to English I was a London.
My name is XXX, and I’m nineteen years old. I’m from XXX a village of Cáceres. This year is the first in
the university and I’m going to study filología clásica. I’ve always studied in my village in the I.E.S.
“Jaranda”. My first experience with English was when I was five years old, because my mother, who loves
english, think that English is very important in the life, then she takes me to a particular teacher. In the
school I started with English lessons when I’m nine years old. And finally I add that I like English.

Read the Resources You can practise discourse markers with the exercises in Appendix
narrative you wrote B at the end of this unit. If you want to learn more about discourse markers, or do
in your dossier at the more activities, you will find more information in the following:
beginning of the block Azar, B. (1993). Understanding and Using English Grammar. Englewood Hills,
and try to make it NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.
better. Byrd, P. & Benson, B. (1992). Applied English Grammar. Boston: Heinle &
Pay close attention to Heinle.
how info is organised Greenbaum, S. & Quirk, R. (1990). A Student's Grammar of the English
in paragraphs, the Language. Essex, England: Longman.
discourse markers The following web sites may also be useful (they contain both explanations and
linking sentences and exercises):
paragraphs, the verb
tenses used, word
order, spelling, etc.
Learning narratives 13


In order to get ready for the activities, go to the section “What the activities are about” in Appendix A


Activity 1. Underline a suitable answer for the questions below:


An adult An adult
This person started learning
A teenager A teenager
Spanish when she was
A child A child
At home At home
At high school At high school
She learned Spanish
At university At university
At a private language centre At a private language centre
Shocking Shocking
The first experience of learning Successful Successful
Spanish was A disaster A disaster
Doesn’t remember Doesn’t remember
A friend A friend
A relative A relative
Spanish was first taught by
A housemaid A housemaid
A teacher A teacher
A waste of time A waste of time
Spanish classes at university Very informative Very informative
(formal education) were Communicative Communicative
Mostly focused on grammar Mostly focused on grammar

Activity 2. Fill in the table below with the information requested:

QUESTIONS Writer 1 Writer 2

Write 10 words related

to learning heard in the
texts (nouns, verbs or

Any other detail you

may need for the
14 Learning narratives

Activity 3. Write a short summary of each learning experience. Compare your summary
with those of your class mates.

Go to the section “Assessment” in Appendix A and evaluate the activities.

Study the texts of the narratives you have listened to and copy any new words,
expressions, and constructions in your dossier. Write a sentence or paragraph with each
one in order to remember them.


I suppose that I was lucky in the way that I learned Spanish, although it made me completely incapable of taking
advantage of classes at school or university. I was exposed to Spanish in natural settings from a very early age, and used
the language to communicate about everyday topics at home. We had a lady from Asturias working at home from the
time I was three until I was sixteen, and as she seemed incapable of learning English, we all talked to her in Spanish. So
of course I was very fluent when I had to talk about everyday things in Spanish, and I could read simple texts without
any problem.
It was quite a shock, then, to go into a formal Spanish language classroom at the age of sixteen and find
linguistic forms such as the subjunctive or the difference between ser and estar being explained. I used all these forms
automatically, without any problem, and I simply found it confusing to have to think about choosing to use one form or
another. So I was a complete disaster when it came to doing grammar exercises, and would make far more mistakes
than other people in class, although I’d never confuse the forms when expressing myself in real communicative
situations. The whole system was biased to this kind of learning, and it wasn’t until I got to university to do Hispanic
Studies that I found a way to beat the system and get the marks I thought really reflected my mastery of the language.
This was to simply ignore the teacher’s explanations, and to continue my learning in the way that had always worked
for me: by reading and listening and using the forms. By doing this, my Spanish progressed rapidly, but it was in spite
of the teaching system –not because of it. And I sometimes wonder what use it was to me to have spent so much time in
the Spanish language classroom.
My first experience learning Spanish was truly exciting! I started learning Spanish relatively late -the summer before
my first year at university. I went to the local city college in California and signed up for an intensive Spanish class in
preparation for Spanish at university in the fall, hoping to get a little background knowledge before the academic year
The class was taught by a Mexican professor who seemed very knowledgeable. I had already studied French and
German in high school, so I thought I was prepared for the typical introduction and run-through of the most common
phrases like ‘what’s your name’ and ‘how old are you’ in Spanish. It would be easy enough because I had grown up
hearing those phrases all around me, especially on the hundreds of Mexican radio stations we have in southern
California. But the class we were given was not what I had been expecting.
It was so very different because the teacher spent the majority of the first two class sessions talking about accents
in Spanish –mind you, we didn’t know any Spanish at all but there he was, telling us all the rules about how to accent
words that end in ‘r’ or ‘s’ or a vowel, how to decide which syllable got the accent, etc. I remember feeling totally
confused and overwhelmed –how was I going to remember all that information about words I didn’t know the meanings
of? The spelling was going to be hard enough, but then the accents? Who cared? Why was this so important? When
were we going to start doing the easy questions?
Strangely enough, I don’t remember much of anything else about that class, except for the first day. I do
remember going on to learn Spanish basically through the audio-lingual method and with a tremendous amount of
emphasis on grammar. Proof of this was that when I came to Spain, I didn’t understand a word anyone said and had to
struggle for a good two months before I could say I understood the most basic conversations.
Learning narratives 15


GROUP WORK The following are two extracts from the Spanish learning experiences. Read them
carefully, and discuss the following questions with your classmates:

Are these experiences similar to yours? In which ways?

The impression of the first person is that attending Spanish classes at university was a
complete waste of time and didn’t help her speak better Spanish. Did/do you have the same
impression about your English classes?
I suppose that I was lucky in the way that I learned Spanish, although it made me completely incapable of
taking advantage of classes at school or university. […] it wasn’t until I got to university to do Hispanic
Studies that I found a way to beat the system and get the marks I thought really reflected my mastery of the
language. This was to simply ignore the teacher’s explanations, and to continue my learning in the way that
had always worked for me: by reading and listening and using the forms. By doing this, my Spanish
progressed rapidly, but it was in spite of the teaching system –not because of it. And I sometimes wonder what
use it was to me to have spent so much time in the Spanish language classroom.
Strangely enough, I don’t remember much of anything else about that class, except for the first day. I do
remember going on to learn Spanish basically through the audio-lingual method and with a tremendous
amount of emphasis on grammar. Proof of this was that when I came to Spain, I didn’t understand a word
anyone said and had to struggle for a good two months before I could say I understood the most basic

TOPIC OF DISCUSSION: Can foreign languages be learned in formal settings (classroom) or

should they be learned in the country where they are spoken?