Learning Paths





Luciano Mariani


Paper given at the TESOL-Italy Convention – Naples, 3-4 November 2006



More languages are being introduced in our schools, both as curricular and as optional subjects. Perhaps the most recent example is the second foreign language at middle school level. But there is also a whole range of native languages in our classes – the result of the raising number of immigrant students, which also means that Italian itself is changing its status as a language of instruction. However, my main point in this paper will be that, because English is in most cases the first foreign language, its role can and should change in a plurilingual curriculum.


Perhaps the first perception of students and parents, but also maybe our own perception as teachers, is that more languages equals more subjects. More languages means, of course, more teaching hours, more slots in the weekly timetable, with these slots often becoming shorter.


At the same time, we perceive that we need to save time and energies – human and materials resources are scarce, and we need to avoid a learning overload, to avoid the risk of breaking up the experience of language learning in the head of our students into several watertight compartments, to make language learning more efficient and ecological.


As we move from the teaching level to the learning level, we can start asking ourselves more basic questions, like

         how does the learning of several languages change language learning? Is learning more foreign languages qualitatively different from learning just one foreign language? Which leads us to ask,

         how can we profit from the presence of several languages in the curriculum?


I think it is very important to start from the mental images of a plurilingual curriculum that people build up in time - in other words, from the implicit theories that we develop as a result of our own personal and professional experiences. Perhaps the most common idea is that languages develop side by side, as if each language were proceeding on parallel tracks – separate tracks which will never meet.


This I would like to call multilingualism: we learn several languages, but each has a different and separate role and status. But if we talk of plurilingualism instead of multilingualism we are not simply playing with words.


If we talk about a plurilingual person we are not just talking about someone who can use more than one language – we are also adopting a different image, one in which several languages and several cultures interact and end up creating a global, complex competence - . a competence, which includes the L1 or the L1s. This competence changes and evolves as the person goes through new linguistic and cultural experiences.


The Common European Framework is very clear about this:


“The learner of a second or foreign language and culture does not cease to be competent in his or her mother tongue and the associated culture. Nor is the new competence kept entirely separate from the old. The learner does not simply acquire two distinct, unrelated ways of acting and communicating. The language learner becomes plurilingual and develops interculturality.”


Although this is in theory all very clear, I have a feeling that in concrete terms, when we think of what is actually going on in actual classrooms, we still rely quite a lot on mental images, on beliefs and attitudes which are not really consistent with this idea of plurilingualism. So I would like to briefly examine some reasons why it is important for all of us, teachers of English, to re-discover what we have in common with our colleagues teaching other languages, what we are all together actually doing when we work with our students on languages and with languages.


I can start from the title of an article which was published many years ago, in 1989, by Francois Grosjean.  The title of this article was, “Neurolinguists, beware! The bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person”. Grosjean meant to challenge the idea that a bilingual person is not simply the sum of two monolinguals. The experience of learning and using a second, third or even fourth language changes the whole language system in our mind. And this, not just in terms of quantity, that is, the amount of new knowledge and skills that we add to out former stock, but in terms of the quality of the whole system.


Many years ago a well-known Canadian linguist, Jim Cummins, had already sketched out two different ideas of bilingual learning. On one hand, he said, we have the idea of separate underlying proficiency. In this case we view the mind as if two languages were housed separately within it, in two separate watertight compartments with a limited storage capacity. The two languages seem to work against one another. When some new language is added to one side, this causes an imbalance on the other side, and therefore loss of some of the other language. If we accept this view, knowledge and skills cannot transfer from one language to the other – it is as if blowing into the L2 balloon will inflate the L2 balloon but not the L1 balloon, and viceversa.


On the other hand, Cummins suggested – and still suggests – the idea of a common underlying proficiency: in this case the two languages are stored in the same tank, so to say, so that they do not work separately, even if they use different channels to produce concrete acts of speech, concrete performance.


This theory is often presented in the form of icebergs. The icebergs are separate above the surface - that is, two languages are visibly different in outward conversation. Underneath the surface, however, they are fused so that the two languages do not function separately. At the bottom of the iceberg there’s a sort of central processing system through which the two languages work.


Perhaps we can make an analogy with the working of a computer: we can use many different programs or applications – for example, for word processing, for recording films, for drawing objects – but these programs need a central processing system, say, Microsoft Windows or Apple’s Mac OS, which is the overall system which allows the applications to work.


If we accept this view, things obviously change: experience with either language can promote development of the proficiency underlying both languages – provided, as Cummins stresses, that those basic conditions for learning to take place are met - that is, adequate motivation and exposure to both languages, either at school or in the wider environment.


To give you another image of the same concept, let me quote Vivian Cook: “Learning an L2 is not just the adding of rooms to your house by building an extension at the back - it is the rebuilding of all  internal walls “.


If we view plurilingual learning in this way, then  it makes sense to talk about transfer between languages – but before we go on to talk about what we can plan to transfer, I would like to come back for a minute to the iceberg metaphor and offer some examples of the kind of language patterns which operate above and below the surface of the water.


Let’s start from the level of morphology and consider what is technically called pre- or post-modification, which as we know works in different ways in different languages – towards the left in English or German, towards the right in Italian (train departure times - gli orari di partenza dei treniStraßenverkehrsordnung - il codice della strada). We are also well aware of how confusing this may be (one thing is cheese pizza, another things is pizza cheese – and the use of English words in Italian creates funny matchings, like the sign WASH CAR in a service station, instead of CAR WASH, or the advertisement of a sun lotion called DEFENCE SUN, as if we were to buy some sun with defence properties!). And yet, these language patterns actually provide different solutions to the same deep-level issue, which is the need to mark meanings through word order.


To make another example, let us consider the textual level. Linkers, as we know, take on different forms and different surface syntax in different languages:


Nonostante sia molto anziana, lavora ancoraAlthough she’s very old, she’s still working.

I like rock because it's exciting.

Ich habe kein Geld, deshalb kann ich nicht ins Kino gehen – I have no money, so I can‘t go to the cinema.


Yet linkers serve the same deep-level purpose as discourse markers – as if they were signposts which help us to travel through a text and help us to recognise the logical relationships in a sentence – like, for instance, cause and effect, contrast, purpose, time sequences and so on.


Let me offer one last example, this time at the pragmatic level: even phrases which are on the surface very different, like


E' una specie di sedia, piccola – It’s a kind of low chair.

C'est une personne qui coupe tes cheveux – It’s a person who cuts your hair.

It is used to take photos.


share a deep-level function: for example, they help us to “adjust the message”, that is, to find other ways of expression when our linguistic and communicative competence is not up to the meaning we want to express – in this case, when we do not know the word for “sgabello” - stool, “ coiffeur” - hairdresser – and “camera”.


This leads us to consider what happens below the surface of the water, to explore the changes that take place within the iceberg – to distinguish between the results of using single languages (the products) from the process of language learning itself. As language teachers, we need to recognise these processes so that we can help our students to make the most of them.


So the two main questions that I will try to address in the rest of this paper are,

         what exactly gets integrated, restructured, transferred? and,

         which instructional conditions facilitate these processes?


To start approaching the first question, let’s think of reading. We often encourage students to guess the meaning of unknown words by using all the clues that they can find in the text: for instance, by looking at how words are built, how they are made up of roots and affixes. Note that to do this, one must actually know what roots, prefixes and suffixes are; one must know what their purpose is, how words can be changed. So, for a start, we have some knowledge on language, on how language works, on how language is used to convey meanings. This of course includes both specific knowledge for specific languages (the system of affixation which is used in English or in French) and general knowledge about languages (the concept of root, the concept of prefix, the concept of suffix).


This knowledge might remain quite abstract if we didn’t know what to do with it, if we didn’t know that these prefixes and suffixes can be used to understand words, especially to deduce the meaning of words  by looking at the way they are built. These elements can become strategic, in the sense that they can help us to find and use a strategy to solve the problem of an unknown word. . If we can use this knowledge, if we are able to recognise prefixes and suffixes and to remember their value, then we have a skill, a know-how, the ability to make use of knowledge


But is this enough? Maybe not. If we want to be able to turn knowledge into strategies we also need to be convinced that it is possible to guess the meaning of words – we need to be ready to admit that reading does not mean passively waiting for the text to reveal itself – but rather, that the reader can and must do its part. In other words, we need to be convinced that meanings can be explored through making and testing hypotheses – and we need to be ready to do this. So there is something deeper and hidden underneath the use of knowledge and skills – there are beliefs and attitudes, something which has to do with our motivations, our own readiness to learn, to use strategies, to be active in our own learning.


I think we are now better equipped to explore the areas where we, as teachers of English, can try to promote this transfer between languages. To sum up, I think we can try to promote the transfer of

         knowledge, both specific, that is, relevant to the individual languages, and general, that is, relevant to language in general terms: what we need to do is work in the area of language awareness;

         skills, in the sense of the ability to turn knowledge into strategies to solve problems: what we need to do is work in the area of learning awareness;

         and finally, beliefs and attitudes, what we might call readiness to learn, which is both a cognitive and an affective issue: what we need to do is work in the area of learner awareness – in this case, raising our students’ consciousness of their own strengths and weaknesses, of their own personal profile as language learners.


We are well aware that if we do this we are trying to achieve something more that the simple sum of individual parts – knowledge, skills and beliefs and attitudes, when woven together, create a new competence – learning to learn – perhaps the most ambitious aim at school today, but also one I think we cannot afford to ignore.


We can now turn to our second main question, which is, how can we as English teachers promote the integration of language learning in a plurilingual curriculum? How can we make the best of a syllabus which offers more languages, including Italian and other L1s? In most cases, we know that English is the first foreign language learnt at school, and will be more and more so in the future. So English has a special role and status as a sort of bridge language towards the learning of further languages. How can we teach English in a way that promotes, for example, French, German or Spanish as our students’ second or even third foreign language?


The basic question here is, how can we promote transfer across the language curriculum? We might say that transfer is basically the application of previously acquired knowledge and skills to new situations. For transfer to take place in reading, for example, it is essential for us to be able to clearly see that the reading task we’re doing today shares similar features with a previous task which we successfully carried out in the past, so that we can proceed by analogy. Of course it is also essential that we clearly see the elements of difference between tasks. So, for transfer to take place, we should be in a position to answer questions like, How is this task similar to others I’ve already done? How is it different?


What we can do to help learners ask themselves these basic questions can be summarised in three instructional steps: EXPERIENCE – REFLECTION - REACTIVATION.


First, experience. Learners need to be faced with a problem and go through the process of problem-setting and problem-solving. For example, let’s assume we have four different magazine articles in four different languages – they cover the same event (for instance, an important football match) or at least the same topic area (for instance, sports). For the sake of clarity, let’s call these articles TOTTI, BECKHAM, ZIDANE and SCHUMACHER. These four texts may be at different levels of complexity.


Let’s assume we start work in class with the English article, the BECKHAM one, and let’s imagine we engage in some sort of interaction with our students, something like,

         we have a magazine article here, and we want to find out some basic information, things like, where and when the match took place, who won it, who scored the goals, and why this victory is important

         there will probably be a lot of words we don’t know

         do we need to understand everything, given our purpose in reading this article? What are the words that we definitely need to understand?

         how can we deal with “new” or “difficult” words? Let’s try and see, for instance,

         how these words are made, maybe if they are made with pieces of words that we already know …

         which position they hold in the sentence: perhaps we’ll find out that one must be a verb, another one must be an adjective …

         let’s see if we can get some help by looking at the words that come before and after …

         let’s make a hypothesis, and then let’s go on reading and check if we were right or if we need to go back and try something else …


So we go through the task in this way, or a similar way, and once we get to the end, when we check the results of our job, we move to our second step in transfer, that is, we add a moment of reflection. This is a crucial time, because its is here that we and our students can go beyond this particular task, and begin to ask ourselves if what we’ve just done, our concrete experience, can be useful tomorrow, on another task, in another situation. So, once again, let’s imagine we engage in this sort of interaction with our students,

         which words in the text were harder to understand? What helped us to cope with problems?

         maybe the way words are made? Maybe certain parts of words, the beginnings and the endings? Shall we call these prefixes and suffixes?

         maybe we were helped by taking a look at a whole sentence, and perhaps at the sentences that came before and after? Shall we call this the context?

         again, perhaps we were helped by what we already knew about the topic … this we can call our own encyclopedia

         did we make and check hypotheses by using clues? Shall we call this the “Sherlock Holmes strategy”?

         what else helped us? Did we ask the teacher? Did we talk to our classmates? Did we use a dictionary?

         and how did we feel? Anxious? Relaxed? Just OK?


By doing this, by asking our students to think and talk like this with us and their classmates, we are building one essential condition for transfer, that is, going beyond the single task and generalize its process. In this way we are also going beyond English and into the deep structure, we are gaining insights into the working of language in general, we are developing knowledge, skills and attitudes in language learning.


To make this link between languages even clearer, we can of course focus our students’ attention on some specific features of the text we’ve just read, and relate them to Italian, for example


         we can introduce the concept of “international” words – which can also have an Italian equivalent – and the concept of cognates or “true friends”:



         we can also highlight the concept of word families, based on the use of prefixes and suffixes, both in English and in Italian:


         and we could also focus on compound words and word order, and reflect on the fact that English qualifies meanings by adding elements to the left while Italian usually add elements to the right:



So this was our second step, reflection on experience. Let’s move on to our third and final step in transfer – reactivation. Now of course this can be done once again in English, but … here we get to the main idea of this paper - it could just as well be done in French, German or Spanish. Our French, German or Spanish colleague could now start work where we left it, she or he could build on the database of knowledge, skills and attitudes that we have already tried to develop in our students – the same students, the class we share.


Our German colleague could take over our work and start working on the German article. So let’s imagine once again the sort of interaction that she/he might develop with our students, more or less like this,

         we’ve got an article here, and we want to find out some basic information

         do you remember the kind of problems you had when you read BECKHAM? How did you cope? For example, what did you do with “new” or “difficult” words? What else did you do? What helped you? Prefixes, suffixes  the context … your own encyclopedia

         how did you call the reading strategy based on clues? Sherlock Holmes? Shall we try and see if Sherlock Holmes can help us in the same way this time too?


Again, when she/he checks the outcome of the task she/he can discuss if the problems with SCHUMACHER were the same as with BECKHAM, if the same strategies worked or if students had to look for different ones … What worked well with both English and German? What worked with English but perhaps not, or not in the same way or not so well, with German?


She/He could also highlight the links between languages in much the same way as we did with English and Italian – but this time our students can use their knowledge of more than one language:


·        she/he could focus on true friends:

·        she/he could take up again the issue of word families, highlight the system of prefixes and suffixes in German and compare it with the English and the Italian ones:


·        and she/he could also consider word order in compound words – is it the same in German and English? Towards the left or towards the right?

So this is what we might call the transfer cycle – experiencing problems and solutions in one language, reflecting on them, and then reactivating our knowledge, skills and attitudes with a different task – but not necessarily in the same language. The grading and sequencing of tasks and languages, that is, where to start and how to proceed, is of course a matter of local conditions. We might start with TOTTI, capitalise on our students’ knowledge of Italian and then proceed to BECKHAM. Or we might start with ZIDANE and then move over to BECKHAM …


What I have just said implies that language teachers working with the same class, including the teacher of Italian, decide to work together. Am I talking about an ideal world? I don’t know. But perhaps it’s worth ending this paper with what I think are three essential conditions for this to happen:

         the first condition is, recognising the fact that the function of a plurilingual curriculum is not only to teach several languages, but also, and most importantly, to teach students how to learn languages, at school and throughout their lives, and to learn how to use language across the curriculum – in other words, this means relaunching the idea of language education – educazione linguistica;

         the second condition is, making this an explicit aim of our school policy, a priority to be officially recognized and developed throughout the school community – not just among teachers and students, but also among parents and administrators;

         the third condition is to build a school and classroom culture based on teacher collaboration. This is of course crucial. Our students cannot perceive the learning of several languages as a global experience unless we, their teachers, share a common background. This means much more that agreeing on a list of grammar points or lexical areas or communicative functions to teach in the same class. It can mean that, but above all it means a need for us to share our own knowledge, skills and attitudes.


With a vision in our minds …


“Let’s learn more languages – to speak a common tongue”





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Il progetto Janua Linguarum del Centro Europeo delle Lingue Moderne di Graz ha sviluppato modelli di language awareness/éveil au langage.

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Il progetto Language Educator Awareness si propone di sviluppare la consapevolezza plurilingue e pluriculturale nella formazione degli insegnanti di lingue.

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Il progetto Languages of School Education intende esaminare finalità, risultati, contenuti, metodi e approcci per le lingue di istruzione nei curricoli europei, e le loro relazioni con le lingue straniere.

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