Transcripción Keynote Response 1

Hi everyone. Welcome to what I expect and hope will be the first of many Keynote Responses to listeners’ comments and inquiries.

Precisely in response to some of the comments Salvi & Javi made in Programme 74 regarding fluency and accuracy, I’d just like to point out to you all that this is one of the typical discussions among language teachers and the jury is still out on that one. I also pointed out that most students don’t actually have much choice in the matter, because the emphasis on learning a language from coursebooks, and less on actually speaking, will tend to limit fluency.

The point I was making is that accuracy is what you need, initially, for passing tests. Which, I’m afraid, is the main aim of most language students. Fluency, on the other hand is, normally, what you need to use the language in the real world.

A preference for fluency over accuracy or vice versa doesn’t mean that you have to ignore one and just concentrate on the other. As I commented, ideally you develop both, striking the right balance between them. And improving both. It is, however, important that you bear them in mind as an active part of your language learning process. And of course, your preference may change over time, depending on needs and circumstances.

However, the fact that you’ve got a good memory and have learnt lots of grammar rules, and, of course, all the exceptions to those rules, doesn’t necessarily make you more fluent. Nor does the fact that you’ve learnt all the past participles of that long list of irregular verbs everyone seems to have. At least not until you accept the fact that you’ll necessarily make mistakes as part of your language learning process. Many of those mistakes you make speaking actually correct themselves simply by using the language fluently and by listening to how native speakers speak. This is especially true, of course, when we refer to pronunciation, because however much you like the idea of, la eme con la a… in English, that a is not always a. So fluency does not mean speaking badly as opposed to accurately. It means, as I commented, feeling relatively comfortable using another language.

A different matter entirely is the mistake or error, depending on the case, of saying “It me has forgotten”, which is like saying “Me se ha olvidado”. That’s not substandard use of English or Spanish. That is clearly an incorrect use of the grammar rules. By the way, I’ll be talking about the differences between errors and mistakes in a future Keynote Speech. Oh, and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that Se me ha olvidado translates as I’ve forgotten.

As for grammar, native speakers of any language first learn to listen and then speak, learning and adopting for themselves patterns that conform, more or less, to the formal grammar, and then later they study those grammar rules formally at school. But they’ve already learnt to use them, naturally and more or less accurately, before they get to school.

And everyday expressions, like How are you? and the answer Fine, thanks, are not really something you need to study the grammar for. You learn them, just as you learn the word cat or the word book. You need to be able to say it correctly and know how and when to use it, but there’s no actual grammar involved.

In fact, in the early 1970s, the Council of Europe proposed a whole language teaching methodology, the Notional-Functional Approach, based around the idea that adult students must have a real purpose for speaking, based on personal needs. Adults learn in terms of two main aspects: on the one hand, notions, that is ideas and topics they want to talk about, such as health, or education; and on the other hand, functions, that is, the purpose, for instance, for socialising, for arguing, etc. These two aspects were then practised in formal or informal situations. So, for informal situations you learn to say Hi!,; in neutral situations you learn to say Pleased to meet you and in formal situations you learn to say How do you do?.

Grammar input was intentionally reduced to a minimum, and students simply applied the patterns of the everyday, real-world language. The language that they were already using. Outside of Spain, whole generations of students, those we now consider fluent foreign-language speakers in Europe, were taught using this methodology.

So the question is, and I can almost feel the tension in the air of Salvi & Javi getting ready to ask me this is: if this method is so good, why isn’t it still being used today. Well, the simple answer is that it is. It’s been incorporated as part of general teaching methods for language rather than as a separate methodology. And it is, in fact, the underlying philosophy that led to the Common European Framework of Reference, which is what you all know for those B1, B2, C1, etc. levels. Another important factor is that it required a lot of teacher training and a lot of class preparation, which, with teachers being generally over-worked, meant that only the very dedicated ones were willing to use it, while many preferred simply using coursebooks. Another problem, but this now is my personal opinion, is that its importance was only appreciated by the language teachers themselves. Which of course is a problem when only a minority of those who teach languages are actually trained language teachers. Sad, but true. That great marketing slogan of profesores nativos titulados so often used by language schools helps to perpetuate their business but is only really an excuse for not employing trained language teachers. But as I say, that is only my own, personal opinion.

Returning to the issue of how and when to teach grammar, I’ll simplify by saying that human language can be divided into three basic aspects: phonology: that is, the system of sounds we use to construct words or transmit ideas; semantics, which is the system of meanings that are expressed by those words and, finally, grammar, which is the system of formal rules that organise how those words and phrases are arranged. As I’ve commented before, I’m not a linguist, but learning a language in that specific order (that is, sounds, meanings and then formal rules) makes a lot of sense to me.

And don’t forget that those formal rules are simply the preferences of one specific sector of society at one specific moment in history. Which is why we have BBC English, a term that obviously didn’t exist before the BBC came into being in the 1920s. Language changes constantly and so do the rules. Which is why the Spanish word solo can be spelt with or without the accent, although the Real Academia first recommended eliminating the accent in that particular word in 1959. Or the word guion, which officially lost its accent quite recently, in 2010. Going back to the case of solo, not using the accent is still only a recommendation, because they take into account the fact that many people, like Javi, still insist on using the accent in that word. As we say in English: old habits die hard. Which in Spanish is genio y figura hasta la sepultura. As for the word guion, the use of the accent is now officially considered a mistake.

All grammars have exceptions. Who decided that ponido is not correct? Or escribido? And what do you usually say: impreso or imprimido, freído or frito?

And then there are false rules that whole generations of students were taught, incorrectly at school. This is the case of the supposed rule, which was taught in Spain, to many people who are now over sixty, the one that states that it’s not necessary to put the accent on capital letters. This false rule was so widely accepted that the Real Academia finally had to state, formally, in its Ortografía published in 1999, that never, in the whole history of that institution, had they indicated anything to the contrary. And even today, the Real Academia says it still receives inquiries about the correct use of the accent with capital letters.

But as usual, I digress, and this response to Salvi & Javi’s doubts is now rapidly becoming a blog within a blog. For which I apologise, as nothing could be further from my mind.

So, back on topic, the best way of improving fluency is obviously interacting with people, actually speaking and listening to people talking in English. Not just doing mechanical exercises in books. As I‘ve commented before, they don’t even have to be native speakers with perfect accents. What’s important is the process of speaking and listening and practising until you feel comfortable using English. In other words, communicating, which is, after all, the whole point of language. It doesn’t matter if the other person has a higher or lower level than you or if they have a strong French or Spanish or Italian accent. The more you actually practise speaking naturally, in real-life situations, outside the classroom, the more fluent you will become.

By the way, going back off-topic, regarding the use of almóndiga, I’d just like to point out that that word, and its relative, almondiguilla have been included in the Real Academia’s Dictionary since 1726 and were in fact used by several writers, including Quevedo, before then. But even then, the dictionary indicated that they were incorrect forms and, even then, recommended against their use.

As for croqueta versus cocreta, both forms appeared, more or less simultaneously, in the 19th century, the second one as an adaptation of the original following the same linguistic logic that transformed the Latin for crocodile into Spanish. As I commented earlier, who decided that ponido is not correct?

OK, so I hope that all that answers some of the doubts Salvi & Javi expressed the other day and that some of our listeners out there may also have. Don’t forget to listen to Part 3 of this series which is when I get Javi & Salvi to practise their English live. It promises not only to be useful but also fun. Well, fun, at least for all you listeners!

Bye for now!


Un micrófono con una flecha hacia un archivo de word indica una transcripción de un trabajo oral a su equivalencia escrita.