Quite often when people ask me “what is the fastest way to learn English or Spanish or any other foreign language?” I tell them that the best way would be to date and marry a speaker of that language.
Jokes apart, there are actually no shortcuts to learning a new language, but it helps to have clear objectives and discipline.
- Motivation – why do you want to learn English, or French or Spanish or Russian? Is it because you want to get better job opportunities? To travel on vacation? Because you want to read Tolstoy in the original? Whatever your motivation, it doesn’t need to be monolithic. It can expand and include other factors.
- Language Level – determine your language level – and be aware that the higher it is the slower your progress will be (or at least feel like that). It takes time and effort to break that “intermediate plateau”
- Goal – language learning can be infinite – you’ll always be learning something new but it does not necessarily mean you’ll have to hire a teacher for life. Take charge of your learning.
- Routine – develop language contact habits – no rush, but regularity. Remember the old proverb: “Slow and steady wins the race”. You can’t win a marathon race by sprinting all the time. You don’t need to be practicing the language for hours at a time: 10 minutes a day will work wonders.
- Diversity – Diversify your study methods and your exposure to the language – read books, magazines, newspapers online, watch YouTube videos, listen to podcasts, change the language of your cellphone, listen to online radio in the language you’re studying. Sometimes I change my students’ cellphone language without them knowing it.
- Overcome your fears and shyness – beat that fear of playing the fool. Do you think your accent or vocabulary are still limited? So what? At least you’re trying. Usually the only ones who will look down on you are other learners who are not paradigms of language skills, either.
- Find people to practice – even if you don’t live near people who speak your L2 you’ll certainly have the opportunity to meet people online – via Facebook for example. Also large cities usually have communities – big or small who use that language. Visit their restaurants, or shops. If there are places of worship in English or Spanish, for example, near where you live, contact them and they will be mostly welcome.
Fluency in another language is challenging but it is not limited to a chosen few. The key is in following the steps above over and over again.
A difficult task is to help students improve their pronunciation not only of words but sentences as well. I’m not talking about accents but how intelligible the student is when speaking. Considering that all my students have smartphones and quite a few use iPhones, a simple activity that they could do by themselves over and over again is asking Siri questions.
Example: Can you tell me where the nearest bank is?
where can I find an Italian restaurant around here/ in this neighbourhood?
What English course do you recommend? ( many students will pronounce it as “curse”) getting hilarious results.
Eat / it – they’ll say: “I love skating – where can I do it?” They’ll say “eat” – and get tips on restaurants.
Chances are Siri won’t understand them at first and it will give crazy results or simply say I don’t understand.
So students will have to learn to enunciate well the words, intonation and not just isolated sounds. Some students resist this idea and won’t do it but those who are willing to give it a try will develop a much better speech, after the initial challenges and frustrations.
We were in class last week and my student, Rodrigo, a very keen elementary level student started yawning. Aware that his action could be misinterpreted by his teacher – ME – he quickly interjected – “sorry teacher, I’m yawning not because the class is boring. Just because I’m relaxed. In the beginning of the curse (COURSE – I corrected his pronunciation, chuckles) I was very anxious every time I came to class”.
So after a few months, we had turned a corner in our relationship. I was no longer the big, bad teacher ready to correct his every mistake and to taunt him if he made repetitive mistakes. He realized I was there to help him. To facilitate his connection with the language.
How to connect with your students:
1. Acknowledge them
2. Establish boundaries
3. Develop a healthy but professional relationship with them
Nowadays when we think of connections we always think of going online, which is good in its proper time and place. But teachers must be willing to connect with their students on a more personal level. I’m not saying that you must be best friends with all your students or any of them for that matter. But you must be willing to lend an ear and be sensitive to their difficulties when learning a foreign language.
The challenge is to walk that fine line between being empathetic or apathetic and “going the whole 10 yards” – I’m saying 10 yards because I can’t emphasize enough how wrong it is to hear that a teacher has been making out with a student – (regardless of their age or gender). The same can happen with one’s doctor or therapist. Or with the supermarket checkout clerk, but does it make it right and professional?
I know some cases of teachers who have even married their former students (one at a time, mind you; wink, wink) but they developed their relationship (to the best of my knowledge) after they had terminated their teacher-student relationship. And that still is a grey area.
So by all my means, do connect with your students but always remember where you’re coming from and where you’re going. And never think you’re above all that and it would never happen to you. Keep yourself accountable and grow.
Is there such a thing as a wrong reason to learn a language? Why do people decide to learn a second language?
Some of the reasons I’ve heard are listed below (please feel free to add any other reasons not mentioned):
- to travel abroad on holiday / business
- to get a better job or improve job opportunities
- to study abroad
- they like the sound and /or the looks of that language
- they love the country /culture / food where that language is spoken
- religious reasons (biblical Greek/Hebrew/ Latin)
- to find a boyfriend/girlfriend
- to get in touch with their roots
- because it’s an academic requirement
- to ward off memory loss
- to show off / impress others
I heard on the podcast Eye on Italy episode 17 (here’s the link – http://www.eyeonitaly.com/podcast/episode-17-italian-i-still-love-you/ ) an interview with Dianne Hales who wrote the book – La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language (http://www.becomingitalian.com/labella.php) and one of the negative criticisms she heard came from her friends who questioned her choice to study Italian as “why choose such a useless language to learn?” The argument being if you’re going through all this trouble to speak another language, at least learn a more useful language such as French, or Spanish, or German, or Mandarin. Please define usefulness in love.
So…, my answer to the question – is there a wrong reason to learn a language? YES AND NO.
There can be weak (or lame) reasons. What do I mean? To learn another language you will have to work up the following ingredients:
PROGRESS (NO MATTER AT WHAT PACE)
Now, if your reasons don’t live up to the ingredients above you will be bound to fail. Therefore, wrong reasons.
But, if you’re willing to keep on following those four ingredients – the reason or reasons will be right.
So, roll up your sleeves and dig in whatever language you want and for whatever reasons that make you tick.
No matter what others say, another language will give you a new vision of the world.
A couple of weeks ago, a nearly advanced (upper-intermediate) student of mine was all excited because he had bought a book in English at the bookstore at the Santos Dumont airport in Rio. He paid more than US$ 40 for the paperback, which costs about US$ 11 at bookstores outside the airport – but the rip-off schemes at airports will be left to another blog. What his purchase showed was his commitment to developing his language skills such as vocabulary and writing through reading. The book he chose was The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Now he wasn’t sure it had been a wise choice since he had already tripped over the vocabulary in the introduction page:
“She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn. …”
And down under the stones goes my student’s confidence. His natural reaction was: “gee! if I can’t understand the first sentence of the introduction, imagine what trying to read this book will be like”. The following class he came to me with the book showing me the ungrateful text and saying: “I don’t know what a birch tree is! What is a cairn? I think I made a mistake buying this book. It’s too difficult for me.”
After telling him I didn’t know (or remember) what a cairn was, we looked that up together on google using the entry “cairn meaning” and then Google images to visualize it. As regarding the birch tree it was enough to know (at least, at that point) that it was a tree [period].
I encouraged him by saying “it’s not a textbook or a study book he should underline or research different ideas or terms. As a novel, the first approach should be to enjoy it. Start getting used to the flow of the language, the plot, the characters and not to feel guilty if he decided to stop reading it”.
Together we reviewed a generally accepted how-to reading checklist:
- Previewing – what’s the story about? what do you think happened/ will happen?
- Contextualizing – where? when? who?
- Visualizing – picture the scene
- Asking and answering questions
- Summarizing – can you tell what has happened so far?
- Skimming – getting the main ideas
- Scanning – looking for some specific idea or piece of information
Of course, each student will have different needs and reading habits. Graded books can be an excellent source of pleasure and information, but he rightly tried to dip into deeper waters.
There are those days when you feel a little bit unsure of what to do, where to go… . And I’m not even talking about going to the doctor and undergoing medical tests, things that I dread just based on the fear that some bad diagnosis will happen. Well, traditionally men don’t like going to the doctor because they feel they can’t get sick as they’re the breadwinners of the family, the strong sex, etc. in this day and age? Come on! Men don’t like going to the doctor, at least in my case, because we’re afraid they’ll find out something horrible and you start feeling all the symptoms before you even have the diagnosis. Talk about reasoning with your unreasonable mind. But I digress…
Uncertainty comes to teaching as well, more so when you’re self-employed. You know the drill: no student, no pay. And it’s not like when you’re working for a company / school and they will provide you with the students and if they’re generous enough they’ll give you some training and teaching material such as textbooks. They’re also required by law (at least in Brazil) to give you paid holidays and a 13th annual salary (a sort of Christmas bonus) in addition to contributions to your government’s social security pension fund.
My wife and friends quite often remind me of how lucky I am because I don’t have a boss, which is true (although in some ways my students ARE my bosses). But the solo teaching career requires some constant care such as:
1. Attention to trends in teaching, textbooks
2. Attendance to teachers’ conferences and seminars
3. Prospecting for new students while at the same time keeping the back door shut in order to keep your current students.
4. Self-motivation – you can’t slack off and stop preparing lessons, or stop showing up on time.
5. Billing is never the most pleasurable of activities but necessary. On the other hand, there are always a few smart asses who “always forget” to pay their teacher in the time agreed and you must kindly ask them if there was any problem with their payment because you couldn’t locate their deposit in your bank statement.
Hey, life is uncertain by nature, so what I must do is to continue doing what I enjoy and enjoy what I have to do.