Curiouser and curiouser … fostering autonomy through language awareness (by Gillian Mansfield)



When I think of learner autonomy, a particular Erasmus student always comes to mind. It was quite a few years ago now, but I always use him as an example of how he took his learning of Italian into his own hands. He had been seconded to the University Language Centre in Parma to get some inside experience on language teaching with a view to taking it up as a career. I was curious to see a little notebook he brought in one morning and proudly showed me the number of new words he had learnt just by looking out of the window on the bus as he came to the university campus. He had decided that day to jot down some shop names that either he wasn’t very familiar with or that he realised had been coined to attract potential customers. So on this particular occasion, he had come up with words like “spaghetteria”, “paninoteca”  “birreria” that have now practically become part of everyday Italian. He noted the suffixes –eria and –teca and realised how they had been used in combination with typical food terms. We then discussed other tasks he could carry out when walking round the town – how many English words could he see in shop fronts, how many spelling mistakes could he find and then account for them (e.g. “Snek” bar written as it would be pronounced in Italian). I suggested using his camera too (it was before the era of the smartphone!) to build up a corpus of real life examples.

Encouraging learners to notice the language and culture around them whether they are at home or abroad, takes them outside the traditional confines of the language classroom and helps foster the critical reflection needed to develop language skills. I now suggest my students use their smartphones and snap photos of language examples they find interesting and can share with their peers in the class online forum. The important thing is to plant the seed in their minds that they must be curious about language, not only the language they are learning but also their mother tongue. It’s amazing what they can come up with that will prompt others to look for themselves. One of my classic “stimulants” in my translation class that has sent students “viral” is the following snapshot that some English Erasmus students took when I asked them to develop their powers of observation as they walked round the town, not only noting new words as their colleague above, but also bad or inappropriate translations:



This was just one instance, but also a collection of restaurant menus, clearly a result of machine translation, are another source of hilarity and occasion to use language skills. I further developed the idea of critical reflection with my Italian students learning English and also translation skills. The above photo sent them off to surf the net and find examples of their own to post on the class forum, adding a comment too on what they found. Further to this kind of identifying and correcting errors, another fruitful activity is to launch the idea of studying similar but not identical messages, as in adverts, easily retrievable in magazines or online, or any other area of particular interest (sport, cinema,…) to the individual.

Activities that combine critical reflection and enjoyment of a learning task is for me a positive step forward in sustaining motivation and helping students to think for themselves about the language and culture that surround them. Curiosity may have, alas, killed the cat, but it certainly won’t the language learner! Rather his/her lifelong learning skills can only benefit from being observant.



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Gillian Mansfield is Associate Professor at the Department of Modern Languages, University of Parma where she teaches English Language and Linguistics. Among her areas of research, she has focused on critical reflection and awareness-raising activities for her students with which they can bridge the gap between language competence and lifelong learning skills that incorporate intercultural competence.


Contribute to the post

In thanking Gillian for contributing the first post of this blog, we’d also like to encourage you, the reader, to share your own experience of some of the areas Gillian covers.

Here are a couple of questions that may get the process rolling, but nothing stops you from expanding beyond:

  • What role does curiosity have in your students’ learning?
  • Do you have any examples of misappropriation of English through misaligned translation in your own cultural context?