Volume VII - 2002-03

L 2 Learning: Restructuring the Inner World
    by Ana Robles

          Ana Robles is a teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught children, adults and, in the last 17 years, teenagers in a secondary state school in Galicia, Spain. As a trainer she has worked in Spain , England and Italy. She has written articles for many international journals , SEAL Newsletter, ETP, Modern English Teacher and Pilgrim 's E-zine.

Language is a condition sine qua non for the experience of what we call mind. Maturana and Varella, The Tree of Knowledge , (1998)

     If thought is everything that goes through our minds, it encompasses much more than language; but it is through language that we become conscious of ourselves and it is through language that we express our thinking. Language and thought are inextricably, systemically, linked. We talk to ourselves about our experiences and by talking, we make sense of our experiences. But also, as Maturana and Varela show, every structure is compelling, and, therefore, the language we use shapes our thinking. The way in which we talk changes our very experience.

Language Organizes Thinking

     It is not the same to speak in Spanish or in Chinese, or in any other language. Each language organizes thinking in its own way, which means that, when we learn a second language (or a third, or a fourth), we also learn a new way of thinking, a new way of experiencing what we call “mind ” and, , unavoidably, as we learn to express our thinking in a new way, we change it. A language is, then, much more than a code to describe the reality out there, it is a tool for creating one of the many possible realities, a tool for change, to the point that speakers in foreign languages often report that they have a different “persona ” in each language (Zukowski/Faust, 1997). That learning of a new way of thinking, and its subsequent re-creation and re-structuring of the learner 's inner world is a gradual development which starts right at the beginning of the language learning process and has to be taken in consideration by the teacher from the very first moment.

      Every year I see my beginners ' surprise when they discover that the relationship between words and ideas is not closed and set in stone but open to discussion, and that each language creates its own set of relationships. That usually happens as they graduate from total beginners to beginners, and start taking risks and attempting to use what they have learnt to create their own sentences. As total beginners, they learn words and how they match their Spanish counterpart. It is a world of black-and-whites, where leg=pierna and book=libro, with the words in the two languages correlating clearly to the same idea. And then one day they want to say something like simpatico and they discover that that idea, so clear for a Spaniard, doesn 't have an equivalent word in English. An idea without a word, how can that be? And I explain that that concept does not exist in English. Or, after learning leg (of a person) they come across with leg of a table and leg of a trip , and they find that the word leg is linked to three different words in Spanish (pierna, pata and etapa ). The English word is linking ideas some of which, in Spanish, have no relationship whatsoever. This is the stage of wonderful sentences like “She put her shelter on ” (shelter=abrigo=coat, but shelter is not equal to coat )or “she is a blonde of boat ” a word by word translation of a Spanish idiom meaning “she dyes her hair.

No Fixed Links between Languages

     For many of my students, the realization that the links between words and ideas are not fixed, and that concepts and ideas, and even emotions, change from one language to the other sometimes bring a sense of wonder, but it is also very often that they express their discomfort and uneasiness and even anger (Those people are mad!). Although they may (and usually are)completely unaware of it, my beginners have just discovered that, in Maturana and Varela 's words, '“the world everyone sees is not the world, but a world. ”What seemed firm suddenly becomes shifty and learning a language becomes a process, however subtle, of challenging their existing way of thinking and expanding it in new directions. Which means that learning a language in school requires, even for beginners, threefold learning: first, learning the language; second, learning the thinking processes that support that language and, third, developing the attitudes that allow for the expansion of the students ' present mindset.

     And naturally this has consequences in the learning process, consequences that, as a teacher, I cannot ignore. It is not enough to present my students with grammar and vocabulary and to set up activities to foster communication, although naturally all those things have to be done and maybe most of the time. To help my students learn the outer shell of the new language, I must aim to develop the inner thinking processes that go with that outer shell, I must also aim to develop the attitudes which support the developing of that new way of thinking. Such activities help the students to create the link between the foreign language and their inner world by promoting reflection on how they think and how they structure their minds in each language. Also, activities that increase their awareness that behind all those words and grammar rules there are images, sounds and feelings.

     This can be as simple as asking the students to listen to a list of words in the foreign language and to pay attention to what comes to their mind as they listen. They usually report two different processes. For words they know well, like, for instance, window , when they hear the word in the foreign language they “see ” the image of a window in their mind. . With words they know, but are not really familiar with, let 's say courageous, it 's different when they hear this word in the foreign language, what they “see ” in their minds is the written translation in their mother tongue. This word in their mother tongue in turn often triggers familiar images (Figure 1).

Fig. 1
Native Language Word Second Language Word
Native Language Word

     The words in the foreign language only trigger images in the students ' minds after they have been used and practised for a time and in several contexts. But we can help the students to link the new words to the image behind by asking them to create those links on purpose. For instance, by asking the students to read a text and then take time to visualize that text and describe the image in their mind to a fellow student. Or asking them to draw new words, or to link words to feelings and sounds (Figure 2).

Second Language Word

The Inner Representation of Time

     The same happens when it comes to structures like verbal tenses. Verbal tenses express time and its usage is linked to how we experience time in our mind. If you think of something you have done today (for instance, having breakfast)and then think of something similar you did five years ago (for instance, having breakfast five years ago)the mental images you create are usually quite different in aspect even when the content is similar. Although there are all sorts of individual differences, for most of us mental images about past events are darker, smaller and farther away from us than images about present events. We don 't have
to make a verbal utterance to know whether the image in our mind is about the present or about the past, the image itself tells us. When we talk, we associate verbal tenses and time markers to our inner representation of time. When I say yesterday that word is linked to a mental representation of yesterday which is much deeper than just the letters. The same happens when I say I go or I went. A sentence like I go yesterday is seen and felt as incorrect immediately.

     But that is not the case for my beginners, because for them the words in the foreign language aren 't linked to that mental representation of time. Until they build that link, the result will be a long stream of I go yesterday and I live in this flat for 20 years sentences. And to help them link the tenses in the new language to their inner representation of time, it is not enough to give them the grammar rules about the formation and usage of the tenses in the foreign language. We need to give them activities which develop this link, and this help is especially important with those tenses and structures which do not have a clear counterpart in their mother tongue.

Walk with Me

     “Walk with Me ” is an example of what I use with high--beginners to help them with the present perfect, which is the most difficult tense for my students.


    Walk with Me
Working with a partner, read the sentences below and make sure you understand them. Decide which ones refer to a point in time and which ones refer to a stretch of time. Read them aloud, as you read stand up and walk with your partner, marking the appropriate space (a single point or a stretch) on the class floor using coloured chalk. Then compare with the other pairs marking.
1-A. I am here and now.
1-B. I have been having lessons in this classroom since September.
2-A. On Sunday, I played football.
2-B. I have played football since I was 9 years old.
3-A. Last Christmas, I got a computer.
3-B. I have had a computer since Christmas.
4-A. I started school at five.
4-B. I have been a student since I was five.
5-A. Last summer, I went to the beach with my friends.
5-B. I haven 't been to the beach since then.

Now look at those three sentences

We met more than a year ago.
We have been friends since last year.
We have been friends for some months now.

What is the difference between the since sentence and the for sentence? Add a for sentence to all the pairs above and walk the trios again.

     I would like to stress the fact that an activity like “walk with me ” doesn 't substitute any of the usual activities, like grammar exercises. Each activity I use in class will foster some sort of mental process: the questions are, first, which sort of mental process and, second, is it enough? If I am introducing the present perfect, for instance, I can explain its usage and formation rules to my students, and as they listen they will need to think about my words in order to understand what I am saying. The thinking my
students need to do in order to understand my explanation is very different from the thinking they need to do when, instead of an explanation, I hand them a text and then ask them to elicit the present perfect usage and formation rules from the sentences underlined in the text.

     In the same way, the thinking my students need to do to solve a fill-in-the-gap-with-the-correct-tense exercise is very different from the thinking they need to do to complete an activity like “Walk with me, ” in which they have to physically represent the stretch of time covered by the verbal tenses. And all those different ways of learning complement each other and help the students to go beyond the words to the world behind. When it comes to something as tricky as introducing students to a new way of thinking, the wider the array of mental processes we elicit the better.

     Also, in the lessons assessment questionnaires students complete at the end of each term many of them report as most useful the activities like “walk with me ” which aim to help them create an inner representation of the language we have studied. But there is always a small group, which declares that sort of activity meaningless and useless. It is true that whatever the activity I use with my groups, there will always be someone who finds it useful and someone who declares it a waste of time. The point is that each student learns in a different way, and what works with one doesn 't work with the student sitting by his side. And naturally that is another good reason to use activities as varied as possible, including, whenever appropriate, activities aimed to develop the attitudes which support the learning process itself.

      Because the difference between a student who, when confronted with the new language peculiarities, reacts with wonder and one who reacts with anger lies not with the language but with the students ' attitudes and opinions about life, about the language, about themselves and on the student 's perception of how learning that language affects him/her. If students ' attitudes have an influence on the learning process, then they cannot be ignored or taken for granted by the teacher. That doesn 't mean our role as teachers is to change them, but we cannot ignore them either. One of the things I have learnt to do is to pay
attention to the those people are mad!comments and use then as starting points for a discussion about the students ' feelings towards the language they are learning and about their attitudes towards the changes this learning involves.

      I regularly hand out self-assessment questionnaires to my students. The questions vary all the time, but the aim of those questionnaires is always to foster reflection and students ' awareness of themselves as learners (see the questionnaire at the end). In any case, much more important than any formal activity like the self-assessment questionnaires, are the numerous occasions in which we talk, however briefly about the students reactions, attitudes and feelings towards a learning which is the beginning of, in Bernard Dufoe 's words, a “new form of self-expression. ”


Zukowski/Faust, J. (1997). “Who Am I in English? Developing a Language ”The Journal of the Imagination in Language      Learning. Vol. IV.

Maturana, H. , Varela, F. (1998). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Translated by      Paolucci, R. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

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