Reflections on Language Learning – 3 steps to break the language barrier

Every new year many people make a resolution to learn a foreign language moved by guilt for not succeeding at that in the previous year or just in search for the cure of their hangover (or other more respectable reasons). You, dear reader, may fill in the blanks.

Many go to the language-learning sections at their local bookstore (yes, there are still some of those left around)  in search for the book with a mixture of miraculous and magical strategies to enable them to speak English, French, Spanish or Mandarin overnight.

By the following week many will realize that no matter how many books and language courses they buy on CD, DVD or online they will sit around gathering dust in a darker corner of their homes and offices before the end of the month.

Those failed attempts can be fixed or prevented, though.

How?  Speaking and listening is the keyimg_7544

Surround yourself with LIVING language material:  Listening resources play a major part of learning – be they videos, or radio, or podcasts.

Even without understanding – it’s passive learning – it will help you identify the “music” of your target language. But it will take time.

Let me tell you the example of my “niece-in-law”, Ingrid. As many Brazilians she basically knows the verb to be (present tense) in English. However, after her first child was born 2 months ago she decided that she would help her boy learn English and she would do whatever necessary in the process. I’d advised her to play children’s stories in English for the baby to get familiar with the sounds of the English language and she started listening to them as well. I believe that exclusive audio sources would be better than the TV with so many visual distractions. Conclusion: 2 months later she’s speaking some English with great fluency and her ears have become better trained to identify the sounds and reproduce them. And her 2-month-old baby, João Paulo, is already crying in English – no more “buááá” but “waaaahhhhh” – Just kidding, sort of).

Another strong point is that Ingrid is not afraid of trying to speak and now she is moving towards a pre-intermediate level, without having opened a “language course book”.

So to get your feet wet in your target language remembers:

1. When listening – echo practice – repeat phrases and words you hear, mimic them / parrot them. Be a “fool” on purpose.

2. Establish a regular time to practice – Saturday morning when making coffee and preparing your breakfast, laundry, or whatever. If you have to go shopping make your shopping list in English / play with language / mess around in a creative way. Explore the language. Try to listen to authentic material at least 5 times a week.

Different folks different strokes

3. How would you answer to the questions / interact / comment to what you’re listening whether a podcast, or radio, or YouTube?  Talk to yourself in your target language – create an inner monologue

Other people learn best when they’re reading, but that’s a theme for another blog post. 

Special thanks to Luke’s English Podcast – episode 407 – Reflections on Language Learning http://teacherluke.co.uk/2016/12/07/407-reflections-on-language-learning-working-as-a-translator-interview-with-kristina-from-russia-winner-of-the-lep-anecdote-competition-2016/

Happy New Year and Happy Language Learning in 2017

Cheers,

Mo

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10 Top Tips for Learning English (or any other language)

Every new year comes with many resolutions:

“This year I’ll go on a diet and lose 20 pounds.”

“This year I’ll stop smoking”

“This year I’ll get a boyfriend/girlfriend/ pet”

“This year I’ll learn (…. – fill in the blanks)”.

But the problem with making resolutions is that they don’t tend to stick. They slip away and melt as if under the tropical sun.

But if you follow these steps (not in any necessary order and at least some of them) you will make progress and then you will feel you can continue to learn English (or any other language for that matter)

  1. Watch movies and TV in your target language (the internet makes it accessible) – even if you don’t understand what’s going on  you’ll get familiar to the sounds of that language. (I particularly love commercials)
  2. Read a book you know well. Preferably a book you liked reading in your mother tongue. When my wife was learning French she bought a copy of the Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) so she could enjoy the book and learn in her new language.language
  3. Keep a notebook – scribble down new words you learn – especially creating word collocation and usage sections. Revisit the notebook once a week.
  4. Use mnemonic devices. It won’t work for everyone but it does work. When learning about the coordinating conjunctions, for instance, you can use the word FANBOYS to help remember the list. Can you name them? I’m pretty sure you can, because of FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So). That is a mnemonic device. Creating a funny mental picture that you’ll remember is another way to use a mnemonic device. The sillier the picture is, the better it will stick in your head.
  5. Listen to podcasts – not only about English learning – but podcasts of other subjects of your interest produced in English or target language.
  6. Get a grammar book and do the exercises. Need I say more?
  7. Be mindful. Notice language. How it’s used. How it sounds.Create a routine, Stick to it.
  8. Read aloud – small texts and paragraphs but that will improve your pronunciation, intonation and fluency.
  9. Test yourself – after a month – review the points you’ve learned and test your progress.
  10. Enjoy your learning

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Have fun.

 

Cheers,

Mo

Summer Immersion Courses – a fading memory

This morning, around 4am, my eyes popped open and refused to shut again, so with 2 more hours before the alarm clock went off I started reminiscing about a summer immersion program I was invited to participate nearly 20 years ago. When I calculated how long it had been I couldn’t believe my own synapses.

It was January 1997, and I was a partner director at ICS Intercultura – a language assistance firm struggling to make ends meet. A person in charge of the English language program on the campus of a University in São Paulo contacted me – knowing I was an English teacher and said that their language center would be very happy if I would help them in that year’s English Immersion program. It was a 2-week program from 9am to 5pm five days a week where students would attend language lessons and other activities in English.

I jumped at the idea of getting to know their program and they were also going to pay me for teaching in the program.

The first meeting already pulled down my castle of dreams – the director, dr. James – a US born teacher with “light-years” of experience in teaching – thanked me for accepting the invitation and told me I would be working along with another young teacher, Alison (son of another teacher who’d already taught at the language center) in developing extra-class activities and games with the students. imersao

  I explained that I would be more comfortable in teaching grammar or reading, for example, but Dr. James was adamant that HE WOULD TEACH THAT. Another teacher would be in charge of writing. Another one, listening and so on and so forth. And the only spot would be for games: meaning – keep the students entertained and happy and we couldn’t find any other sucker to do that so we found you. I had never worked with those kinds of class activities and without any instruction or training I was thrown into the lion’s den for 2-3 hours a day. There were about 15 students at different levels. The challenge was to come up with games, drama, arts, whatever. Fortunately, the other teacher, Alison, had already taught in the previous year and he (yes, Alison is a man’s name in Brazil) could give me some support. The language center had a few books about class activities and games along with some movies on tape and that was our salvation.

My session went on with  highs and lows, with increasingly longer coffee breaks, but we made it. At the end of the program we went on a day trip to visit the Museum of Brazil’s Independence in São Paulo – when the students would be exposed to the language with information about the museum, the city , etc given in their target language. Needless to say, the language center made no arrangements for an English-speaking guide and for leaflets or any useful info in English – so the students had a day trip in Portuguese alone. imersao-2

Since then, that university campus no longer has had a summer language immersion program but I can tell you that nothing much has changed in other language immersion programs. Improvisation and let’s-make-do-with-whatever-resources-we-have-on-the-shelf prevail.

Oh, do I need to tell you that after the program the school took quite a while to honor my payment? But that’s a theme for another blog.

My advice to people looking for immersion courses is to choose a subject taught in their target language and travel abroad.

Happy studies,

Mo

Education is a process. Not a commodity

Working as a self-employed teacher, I have the freedom that other job positions do not offer, but also lack all sorts of protections and guarantees that a school – even if lame – is required to provide.

Being my own boss means that I always have to negotiate fees and rates, teaching methods, class frequency, class load and homework directly with the student and on some rare occasions with the parent (if a minor) or the HR of a company (this latter case only happens once in a blue moon).

There’s no shame in being up front about the costs and how many classes there will be per month and the need for cancellation or postponement of classes and in the case of the absence for whatever reason of the teacher or student, how those missed classes should be made up for. Yes usually the contract – either verbal or written – is on a month to month basis.

Occasionally you’ll hear the analogy that the worker “prostitutes” himself for his salary, meaning they do things they don’t want to do because of their job. I can’t agree with that assumption for all cases.

The worker is worthy of his wages.

As the self-labelled weblogger Putney Debater wrote:

“In other words, education is not a commodity like a bar of chocolate or a cafe latte, which is physically consumed till there’s nothing left. Nor is it like a motor car or a washing machine, which are durable but eventually break down and have to be replaced, since an education is never replaced but only added to, extended and renovated (‘life-long learning’ anyone?). Perhaps it’s a bit like a book in constituting a store of knowledge, but it isn’t a physical object and doesn’t create a second-hand market, although it seems to be something you can cash in on, because it’s supposed to guarantee you a better income. However, education also goes on domestically and informally, and you can also pass on bits of it for free without depriving yourself of what you’ve passed on. (The early rabbis thought of it as like the flame of a candle.) The teacher is someone who gets paid for doing this, but they’re not selling an object, they are performing what Adam Smith called a service.” https://putneydebater.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/why-education-is-not-a-commodity-2/

However, occasionally, students will think that they are buying a meal, or soap, or any other product when hiring a teacher. They ignore that education IS a process and not just a commodity they may use on and off. In the case of learning a language there is also the need for regular practice. There is one case of a student who wants to have a 1-hour class a month – because he’s still having classes with another teacher (who had missed several classes and owed him the respective hours). Weird but I can understand it for a short-term process and especially in this time of skinny cows.

Let me share with you an anecdote that may illustrate the case. I charge the number of hours a student will have in the month and they pay accordingly. For example, he’ll have 1-hour class a week, a month has 4 weeks, he’ll pay for 4 weeks. I don’t like this system “pay per class”. However, in October student A (not his real name 😜) paid for 2 classes  only because I would be on vacation for 2 weeks – (yes, Virginia, students don’t pay for the teacher’s holidays). But he couldn’t attend one class because he was leaving on vacation. No problem. He could have this class credited to him in November. But he went away on vacation and on his return he decided that he would return to classes only in December. Ok. … Then he decided to return only in January. But as he has that class credit (that he has paid for, mind you) he wants to have that one hour of English sometime in December.

Why? What good will he have in his learning process? What benefit is to be obtained by that stand-alone class, except listening to my melodious voice? Why not have an additional class in January? Well, … he has paid for that class so he WANTS TO have it.

Not to mention that the student is always complaining about financial problems and that the classes aren’t cheap. So I decided to refund him for that class (US$45). Period. Good riddance! (Wait! Did I say that aloud?) The way he is he might even want to ask for a refund adjusted for inflation on that amount. But I think he is not that crazy. 😜

Talking about learning as a process, many students start having classes and then after one or two months go away on vacation, then they can’t have classes because of the yearend holidays, then there’s carnival… cutting a long story short – they suspend classes for 2 to 3 months in a row, and when they return they want to continue from where they stopped. Helloooo… even a car if left unattended for too long can show problems when the owner tries to use it again.  In other words, they are back to where they started… and then after 2, 3, 5 years of classes they start to complain saying they must be too stupid,* because they’re not making progress (*translation: their teacher can’t be any good or he’s just incompetent).

How would you have dealt differently in that situation?
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7 Steps when learning a foreign language

foreign-language

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Happy studies,

Mo

Pronunciation via Siri

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.img_6974

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.

Cheers,

Mo

Connecting with students

img_6967We 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.

Cheers,

Mo