Learning a language on your own

This week I received the following question from one of our Sabbath School podcast listeners:
“I’d like to know if reading  books in English (reading a lot) will enable me to learn the language?”
“I can’t afford a language school/course. My English level is very good. I can understand about 80% of what I read. But I find it hard to speak and write. Would it be possible for me to reach a higher level by reading and listening only? Your Sabbath School podcast (Believes Unasp Sabbath School Podcast  – https://player.fm/series/2424793) has been a great gateway for me. I’m loving the audio practice! It’s been helping me a lot.” Jefferson F.
Image result for learn a language reading
Hello Jefferson, your question is pretty fair – can anyone learn English (or any other language) just from reading? My first answer: That depends
Of course, there are many people who have learned the classical languages – Greek and Latin or Hebrew and Arabic from just reading texts.
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Can you learn a language by yourself? Yes, depending on your will, time and natural skills.
But the learning process can be more comprehensive (and more fun) if you incorporate all four skills:
Reading and Listening are receptive skills while Writing and Speaking are predominantly productive skills. Of course, if your goal is to understand or translate sacred texts, for instance, that’s where your efforts and focus should be. But…
You can and should (as much as possible) develop your “proactive skills”: speaking and writing.
Most definitely today there are millions of opportunities to practice your listening in your target language (literally). You can listen to many podcasts and documentaries, interviews, etc. Reading opportunities are basically infinite online… or at least they would last you all your mortal life and then some.
Now, in ‘modern languages’ one important challenge is to be able to communicate – either through speaking or writing – and you can practice that by finding people who are also learning or are native speakers of your target language. Email them. WhatsApp them, Facebook them.
Let’s say in the worst case scenario you have no one to practice with – start reading aloud and training your speech, pronunciation, listening to your own voice how you can improve your intonation, linking words, etc. Record yourself (even if you hate the sound of your voice – tough it up!).
Regarding the fact you can’t afford a language course, there are many courses offered in Brazil by public universities (state and federal institutions) which offer some language courses for Specific Purposes at zero or low cost. Google them up. And make YouTube one of your teachers.
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So… Finally, I’m answering your question with a resounding YES! Yes, You can learn English (or any other language all by yourself).
Now if you would like to have a language expert, enabler, facilitator, provider of positive feedback… feel free to contact me. Your investment will be worth your while.
Cheers,
Mo

Improving your Business English

How many times have you felt that your language learning has stagnated or you’re not finding time or ways to stop from sliding back? Yes, language learning is not a precise science and if you love Math or Physics chances are you would hate learning something abstract with tonnes of rules and even more exceptions. But don’t lose heart. There is still hope. First stop considering language learning as one more academic subject. It’s a communication tool. Plain and simple. Here are seven steps to help you move forward in your language learning adventure. It’s no rocket science but it works. Try it.

1. Set specific goals – they can be as simple as learning how to use sentences in the past tense, or using the verb to be in the present (stop saying “you is“) to improving your pronunciation. But small goalposts will help you move ahead.

2. Create linguistic habits – my best time to be learning something is the morning, but you can choose any time you feel more comfortable with reading, listening, writing in your target language. You would like me to say that 15 mins would be enough but actually, until you settle down 5 to 10 minutes will have already passed… so set daily blocks of at least 30 minutes. The longer you practice the faster your progress will be.

3. Believe in yourself – yes, yes, it sounds like an old cliche but it’s true – if you try to learn something already thinking you can’t do it… what will your chances of success actually be?

4. Enjoy the learning experience – choose things you like to focus on… what’s the point in reading an article about something you hate or know nothing about? Do you like songs, for example? Focus on a song you like, try to get the meaning, the key words, pronunciation… of course, there are songs AND SONGS, if you get my gist, some songs are not suitable for language learning… that’ll depend on your common sense. Like movies? Ok, focus on a section to learn the vocabulary, pronunciation, practice telling the story (plot), rehash the dialog, even.

5. Use authentic material – read a book in the original language. Depending on your level you can buy bilingual books (those books with the text in English paralleled by a translation). In Brazil, the Folha publisher launched a whole series of literature classics in a bilingual format.

6. Join a positive learning community – one of the problems we have when learning a foreign language is finding opportunities to practice it. Today with the internet you can find virtual friends literally anywhere in the world – even language partners. Also every large city will have some places where you can practice your target language. For example, in São Paulo there is a weekly bible study class in English open to anyone interested in practicing the English language for one hour and a half and free (Unasp SP at 10:30 am – every Saturday)

7. Ask for feedback – we are always our worst critics – so it’s important to have someone who’ll provide some tips and even raise our awareness regarding some problem areas. I remember back in the 90’s I partnered up with a Canadian friend and asked him to correct me when he felt it was necessary. Most of the time he didn’t have to correct me, just the fact he hadn’t understood what I was saying would alert me to some mispronunciation or wrong vocabulary use.

Happy growth,

Cheers,

Mo

Teaching in the 21st Century – part 2

This is the second and final part of my summary of the book – Psychology for Language Teachers (A Social Constructivist Approach) by Marion Williams and Robert L. Burden (Cambridge University Press)Image result for psychology for language teachers

“This book examines the field of educational psychology and considers various ways in which a deeper understanding of this discipline can help language teachers. Areas considered in the book include approaches to learning, motivation, the role of the individual, attribution, mediation, the teaching of thinking, the cognitive demands of tasks and the learning environment. The book does not assume previous knowledge of psychology.” (Source: https://www.amazon.com.br/Psychology-Language-Teachers-Constructivist-Approach/dp/0521498805)

One of the axioms presented by the authors is that learners LEARN BETTER if they feel in control of what they’re learning, based on the assumption that learning is closely linked to how people feel about themselves.

The idea is that Teachers must motivate Students and persuade them into learning – first of all, a teacher must learn to listen: Yes, it is absolutely conducive to communication but often forgotten and left in the background. The teacher walks in with their agenda for the day, week, semester and  earth and heaven shall pass away but nothing can change it. Sometimes, a change in voice intonation or a contextual misunderstanding could threaten the whole learning session. That shouldn’t be so especially in the language learning environment.

Starting from the premise that teachers are facilitators and mediators with what they do in the classroom will reflect their own beliefs and attitudes, consequently, teachers must show their own interest in the learning process, share their own foibles and mistakes when they were learning that language or the first language the learner speaks. Here we see a great advantage for nonnative teachers of English who can empathize with their learners. Or in the case of English native speakers who have passed through the experience of learning another language.

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At the end of the day, the teacher must bring forth independent thinkers and learners who after a period of time in class will be able to fly on their own.

Cheers,

Mo

Busting Two Myths about Learning Foreign Languages

Yesterday I was watching a YouTube video by Fingtam Languages (sorry dude, you rarely mention your real name)

Becoming Fluent book
Fingtam Languages on YouTube 

and he was talking about this book he’s been reading. Check his YouTube video channel and subscribe, he’s got tonnes of great information about language learning and linguistics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTefVVnFqyI&t=3s )Becoming Fluent book cover

Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language (The MIT Press) by Richard Roberts (Author), Roger Kreuz (Author). 

I decided to check its kindle version and the first chapter presents some of the fallacies regarding language learning.

I learned English, Spanish and French mostly as an adult – over 18 – yes, as a kid I had been exposed to English classes at school but had been taught mostly in Portuguese – I’d learned the verb to be, some vocabulary and some grammar rules but nothing much. The little Spanish I heard was from my Galician uncle who spoke some curse words at times (and my mom would also say some Spanish expressions such as – “me cago en la madre (I shit on your mother) and other niceties she had probably learned from my uncle (don’t ask me why – some family secrets are better left unturned).  When I was 11 or 12 I came across a French grammar book my older sister or brother had used in primary school (up to the early 70s  in Brazil, French was taught as the default foreign language instead of English). Of course from that exposure to French as a pre-teen I learned – je me lève  and je m’assieds (thank God that book had illustrations)

French conjugation
French conjugation of the verb to sit 

I can comfortably say that I really learned English and Spanish proper in my 20s and French in my 40s. Yes, my spoken French level is lower than my reading but just because I’ve had to use it much less – though I know about the importance of exposing myself to the language I don’t read much in French or listen to podcasts in French – sometimes I read some news stories or watch some TV5. But last year we were in the Côte d’Azur and I could survive and felt comfortable expressing myself in the French I knew.

So it’s time to bust some myths: 

Myth 1 – adults cannot acquire a foreign language as easily as children 

Adults can and will learn, but differently from how children learn. First, ok… the child will acquire a better accent – thanks to their facial elasticity and also their lack of  fear/shame/anxiety of making mistakes in the other language. But… the adult has already gone through the process of learning their own language so they can use that experience in the new language learning process.  Ok, … as an adult you will have an accent, but hey, I’ve got news for you: everybody HAS ONE!. Also, unless you plan to be an undercover secret agent, why would you want to hide the fact that you’re from another country? Actually, that’s a bonus, at least you can speak  one more language.

Myth 2 – when learning a foreign language, try not to use your first language.

For years I subscribed to that school of thought that L1 would smother L2, therefore the former should be eliminated from the language class environment. Yes, it’s true that some students, if allowed to, will only use the L1 and talk to each other in that language. So the teacher must control its use in class but be mindful not to throw the baby away with the bath water.  Roberts and Kreuz say that the banning of L1 in the classroom “deprives adult  language learners of one of their most important accomplishments – fluency in their native language. Although it is true that one language is not merely a direct translation of another, many aspects of one language are directly transferable to a second language.” (1)

They add “… looking for places where concepts, categories, or patterns are transferable is of great benefit, and also points out another area where adult foreign language learners have an advantage over children. ” (1)

So if your’re trying to teach someone or learn yourself a new language, don’t lose heart. It can be done. Just adjust the methods and tools and be realistic on your goals.

Happy learning,

Cheers,

Mo

 

(1) Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language (The MIT Press) by Richard Roberts (Author), Roger Kreuz (Author). The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass./ London, England.

Shakespeare in ELT

This post came about after I saw a tweet by Nathan Hall questioning whether Shakespeare should be used in the ELT environment/context. Nathan tweeted the following:

Unpopular opinion: I think using Shakespeare (original text) to teach English is an unproductive use of time in a general classroom. I am open to hearing counter arguments

The premise – original text – would require the student to have a high English level (C1 or higher) and the energy spent in trying to understand the text would not be “well spent”.

Early on as a learning EFL teacher, I wasn’t able, or didn’t know how to prepare independent lessons – I would use coursebooks – and in the early 90s the best coursebook I came across was the Headway series – honestly, I learned a lot about the English language and culture using Headway Advanced and Unit 2 under the theme of Literature and Literary Genres contained a little bit of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Could it get any better? I had to carefully prepare my lessons in advance otherwise I wouldn’t be ready to deal with the grammar and vocabulary points presented in the unit.

Back in 1991, I was teaching for a language school in São Paulo and they sent me to teach a group of three ladies at a sports club where they would have their gym, tennis practice, swimming activities and, of course, English lessons. They were nice, intelligent mature women who had already traveled the world, were advanced English learners and had already read and seen a few Shakespeare plays translated and performed in Portuguese. They did not hesitate to read an excerpt of the “7 ages of man” in modern English (not Elizabethan English as some highbrow pedantic educators would like to say) despite the nebulous vocabulary (some of it) for the advanced language learner there was a ton of conversation to be obtained from that short and brief text.

Image result for headway advanced 1996Headway Advanced published in 1991

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A page from the New Headway Advanced 4th Edition 2014

Yes, I totally get the fact that for many students (no matter their linguistic background and location) Shakespeare would be a drag: representing another time and another place far removed from their contemporary world. Well, … tell them to see The Lion King and they’ll be seeing Shakespeare’s ghost there. Yes, the language evolves but today some of Shakespeare’s quotes are still as relevant as back then even within a different context.

Can’t any B1/B2 English learner understand some of these quotes?

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts.”

—Jaques in As You Like It

“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

—Escalus in Measure for Measure

 “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

—Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Yes, Shakespeare’s texts are old but the truths those works convey can be adapted to contemporary English by publishers’ Readers, plays can be re-enacted and adapted etc.

Shakespeare map
This map shows all the different locations and countries described in Shakespeare’s plays. He truly belongs to the world. 

My point is: don’t throw the baby with the bathwater. In this day and age, language teaching is still seen as a form of colonialism so the condescending “native teacher” desires the learner to see himself and his values first and only use the language as a literal tool for a very specific purpose. Why shut down the learner from the rest of the world in time and space?

If the learners are Asian should then all the material be Asian related? The same for African or Latino learners? In Brazil why bother teaching them the word “snow” just teach them to say “it’s a scorcher”? That’s the oppression of multiculturalism gone awry when it’s only good if you’re different from me and we have nothing in common and don’t even try to understand me “for I’m marvelous”.

Let the learners dream a Midsummer night’s dream… as teachers we’re supposed to expose them to the world not shelter them from it.

And don’t get me started on the beauty and usefulness of the second person singular – thou/thee. 😜

Is it unproductive to read any Shakespeare in the original text? As a sign of our times: Yes and no. That depends! Who said you can only use the original text? Yes, you may use it, but also adapt it in a myriad of different ways. Dost thou get me?

Mo and Shakespeare.jpg
Mo and his friend, Billy S.

Cheers,

Mo

Motivating and empowering students

For many years  I’ve been volunteering at an English Bible class in Brazil. Our goal is simple: use English to encourage people to study the Bible.

Every Saturday morning we meet for some 70-80 minutes and sing some gospel songs, pray together, and study the bible. The challenge is that they have a little bible study guide – with daily questions and texts, and the following Saturday we meet to discuss what we learned during the week.  You can check out the lessons here for free: https://absg.adventist.org/archives

But this past weekend I was observing the study guide of one of our class members, he is a quite shy young man – it had been thoroughly studied, underlined and the questions had been read and duly answered. Wow.

I was so happy to see Leandro’s dedication to look up the vocabulary of the texts he was studying not for English’s sake alone, but  because he was enjoying to be studying the Bible while using English as a tool. I do encourage them to do that, but they won’t have their notebooks inspected or not even get a shiny sticker on the page if they do so. They do it because they are excited about the learning process. That’s their own reward.

Happy Growing,

Cheers,

Mo

Corpus Linguistics for Language Teachers

This summer, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Prof. Simone Vieira  Resende at the 19th Summer Vacations Conference in São Paulo. The general theme of the 2-day conference was: The Teaching of Languages in today’s world: contexts and goals.

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After some technical problems with the video recording session, Professor Resende welcomed the attendees and teased us by offering to sell a language immediacy pill. Image result for language pillWhat students want for their New Year’s Resolution regarding language learning is to take a pill and after the first session, be fluent in whatever language they want to study.

So… here’s a sort of a pill:

What is Corpus Linguistics?Image result for corpus linguistics

Corpus linguistics – takes off from the language – actual languages – and concentrates the ingredients (formula) into a palatable series of examples within contexts.

Corpus Linguistics allows for:

Choice of words you want to use 

Collecting and analysis of corpus 

 

Corpora – authentic data as they are – without manipulation to adapt the language Image result for language register

Standardising of language / padronização linguística

Contextualization  x register – where ? who ? when ?

Occurrence x Co-occurrence x Recurrence  – how often does it appear in the text ?

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Prescriptivist x descriptivist ? The corpus may be descriptivist – by just revealing how words are used – but also it can be prescripvist by defining which words are best used in what context.

“I’m interested … in…”  – also the corpus shows that the best preposition in this case is “IN” not WITH or ON or AT, for instance. Image result for interested dictionary

 

Use of concordance –  leading to a conclusion

You should go. – inferring from examples

 

“When the economy improves all the boats start rising up…

all rise in court movie scenes “

 

Developing corpora in song lyrics

Webster’s the making of dictionaries prof.john Whitlam

BYU list of corpora developer corpus.byu.edu/corpora.asp

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