With some relief, I have finally come to end of another term of teaching English as a foreign language at Bologna University.

How to end courses on a positive note is always an issue for me. I dislike scheduling an end of course test for the final lesson, preferring to get this out of the way beforehand.

In this way, I can set aside the last class to include a kind of ‘where can you go from here’ pep talk.

My model for this kind of address is David Foster Wallace’s amazing ‘this is water’ talk at South Kenyon college. Brilliant as this speech was, there’s also something reassuring about the fact that the students who heard his talk were not immediately in awe of Wallace’s brilliance.

I am happy if my more humble speech avoids sounding too pompous or obvious.

On the whole, I probably need to include more humour. For better or worse, here’s what I said [my bracketed comments were added afterwards]:

“Nowadays, it’s common to hear people talking about life-long learning.

[I ask who has heard of lifelong learning – nobody has!]

One time, there was the mistaken idea that when you finished school or university, your official period of learning was finished – your next goal was directed solely to working and earning a living.

Learning is not a finite thing.   In one sense it never ends.

[The students look as though they are thinking: ‘Where is all this leading? / Does he think we’re dumb?]

People who remain curious about the world are, in my view, those who are most alive.

Learning a language is a very particular case.

[The students look as though they are thinking: ‘He DOES think we’re dumb’]

Many qualifications will technically be valid for life but, in practice, they are only usually recognized for two-three years. The reason for this is, in part, business orientated – TOEFL and IELTS students have to re-take to test and pay the fee each time to keep these current.

The less money orientated justification for this is that language skills have to be continually updated. If you stop practicing a language you will lose the edge – you will still be able to understand on a fundamental level but not much more.

David Foster Wallace in full flow.

For you, at this stage of your lives you are faced with  a lot of choices and it would easy to set aside English if it is not immediately necessary for your career or study needs.

[I am getting all David Foster Wallace on their asses at this point!]

This is my view would be a pity. You have the opportunity to build on what you know and develop your skills, not simply to pass tests but, to use the wording of the common European framework, to move from being a ‘modest’ user to being  a ‘competent’ and ultimately an ‘expert user’.

There is no magic formula for how you move from one level to the next. One of the aspects of language learning is that you constantly feel you have reached a kind of plateau where you don’t get worse but you don’t feel you are improving either. And, in the words of the U2 song,  some days are better than others.

[I toy with the idea of playing the video to this song to break the heavy didactic tone but thing better of it. A wise move.]

My own experience of this is from learning Italian, which I have never really studied in a methodical way, as I probably should, but have simply picked up as I’ve gone along over the last 17 years of living here. I would like to improve my Italian and I hope you would like to improve your English.

So how can we do this? We can study grammar books and memorize lists of words and rules but this is neither interesting or necessarily a guarantee that you will become an expert.

There must be other ways.

Modern technology has opened up the world so that information is now available in a way it never was before. Can this really help us master a language? What are the most practical (and cheap) options we can deploy?

[At this point, I separate the class into pairs and ask each couple to produce three practical, low-cost ways of continuing the process of language acquisition – what follows are a combination of my tips and student ideas]

  • Read a book you are interested in. Read part every day and note the words you don’t know. Before continuing make sure you understand what you’ve read. Use a translated copy if you can.

  • Watch  ‘how to do’ videos on You Tube– make a cake – build a space ship – write down the instructions and maybe even do the task .

  • Watch a movie without subtitles – watch a movie with subtitles – watch movies.

  • Write a diary in English – 100 words a day.

  • Record yourself reading a text where there is a version online. Compare your pronunciation with the original.

  • Make a virtual pen friend or, even better, a Skype/Facebook buddy you can converse with regularly

[The purpose of this mini-lecture was to try to fire some enthusiasm to continue learning English for its own sake and not simply to view the process in terms of passing exams. I felt it went a bit flat.  My students  are used to taking tests and don’t seem to see anything intrinsically bad in this. It’s just the way it is. What’s the alternative?

It strikes me that all the MOOC-based talk of personal learning environmentss (PLEs) are fine in theory but not something most younger learners have grasped as a practice, at least not those I teach].