Building automaticity: a short story

Last January 3rd, my husband and I were driving back home from the beautiful state of Minas Gerais. Days before, during our stay in the effervescent Belo Horizonte, the capital city, we had met a very interesting twenty-something Japanese young man in the hostel. His name is Goro and he’d been living in Brazil for 2 years. He was doing some backpacking since this is his last month in Brazil. As we were all going back to São Paulo, we offered him a ride.

A pause to explain: Goro’s spoken English was very clear and accurate. His Portuguese, however, considering the two-year stay, was not up to par. When I asked about it, he explained that, although he had been living in Brazil for two years, he worked for a Japanese newspaper and was living in a Japanese community in São Paulo. Hence, he would speak Japanese most of his day, and whenever he was among friends, English would do. Fair enough.

He said the backpacking trip was harder than it should be, though, due to his lack of Portuguese skills. He was then trying to acquire as much as he could. He’d ask us questions about every word he did not understand. He’d repeat some words incessantly, in order to memorize them. And he asked us to only speak Portuguese around him, even though English would have been much more comfortable (and that was our first instinct). End of pause.

On the road trip, I rode shotgun and Goro was right behind me. I kept telling him about everything I knew, so he could learn a bit more about my country as we drove back. “Here you can see araucárias”, “and here the eucalyptus”, I’d tell him, always in Portuguese. I explained to him it is very common to have eucalyptus trees in large quantities around coffee plantations, to protect the coffee trees from the wind. To protect the beans.

It was then he asked about the size of the coffee trees, that looked more like bushes. My husband quickly explained that the reason was that those trees were still very young. In informal Portuguese, the word we use for that is “novinho”: O café ainda está muito novinho, he said, and Goro kept repeating the word for the next three hours or so. For every new coffee tree, he’d ask: And this one? Muito novinho? And that one? Novinho?

The pleasure we could feel coming from him and his new acquirement was so genuine that reminded me of… my classroom practices. Isn’t it so with all of us, teachers? I got home and went to Thornbury:

Activities [that promote creative automatization] should be …

  1. genuinely communicative  i.e. require students to make use of utterances as a result of a task-related need, rather than simply for the purpose of saying something.
  2. psychologically authentic i.e. require students to allocate attentional resources to both the encoding and decoding of language, and to the effect of that language on events.
  3. focused i.e. organised around one or a few functions and notions so as to establish particular utterances as characteristic exponents of particular functions/notions.
  4. formulaic i.e. utterances must be short, memorizable, and multi-situational.
  5. inherently repetitive (THORNBURY, Scott. “A is for Automaticity”: 2012)

 

Well, numbers 1 and 2 were there: the activity was genuinely communicative. We were teaching him in loco. One cannot get more genuine than that. It was also clearly authentic: we needed the expression to best describe the age of the coffee bushes. We cannot confirm it was a focused activity, because the BR-381 road has lots more to see than the many miles of coffee plantations (toucan birds, for instance). But it was surely formulaic and definitely repetitive — by his own initiative, no less.

Apart from the indescribable pride I felt for that learner, the whole situation got me thinking: if ALL learners were like Goro, our job would be a lot easier. So how can we help them be so? We must, as teachers, constantly create means by which learners can reach these five goals. Not often do we have miles and miles of coffee beans at hand, waiting to be explored.

We need these coffee beans, these opportunities, to be grown, by ourselves, in our practices, so our learners can weekly ask: E esse? É novinho? And that will make all the difference.

 

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Sources: THORNBURY, Scott. “A is for Automaticity.” Found online in https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/a-is-for-automaticity/ . Last access Jan 13th, 2018.

Gabriela Fróes

Gabriela has been teaching for the past 13 years. She holds a BA in English, an MA in English Literature, a CPE and a CELTA. She is also a EN-BrPT translator. She currently lives in São José dos Campos, SP. You can contact her at gabrielafroes.elt@gmail.com.

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