Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Monday, February 20, 2006

Advice From The Linguist

by AJ

"Listen over and over. Listen many times to the same things. Listen often during the day. Make sure you always have your MP3 player or CD player with you. You can start with this very article, if you are interested in it.

Listen to get used to the sounds. Imitate the sounds. Imitate the words and the intonation. This will help your pronunciation. Then listen for the meaning. If you do not understand it all, read it. If you read on a computer you can access instant on line dictionaries which is much faster than referring to traditional dictionaries. Use The Linguist system to save new words and phrases for later review and to connect new words to familiar contexts. If you are a member of The Linguist you can even ask your tutor for explanations and help.

Now listen again and read again. Stay relaxed and do not worry if there are always parts that you seem unable to understand. When you listen and read you are training your brain to get used to English. Just keep doing it. This is essentially how I learned nine languages, including my most recent ones, Cantonese and Korean.

Both listening and reading are important learning activities. When they are combined they are even more powerful. Repetitive listening and reading and a system like The Linguist will free you from your dependence on "learner English" and text books. Fascinating authentic content that you thought was too difficult, on subjects from business to history to literature, will become available for you to learn from."

--From The Linguist

Im a lazy bastard and dont speak a foreign language. So for first person experiences, I defer to Steve & Mark Kaufman at the linguist... speakers of 9 languages each.

Theyve got an excellent system. Their system is consistent with language acquisition research.

At The Linguist, they dont use textbooks. Thats right... none! They use ONLY authentic materials. At The Linguist, they stress comprehensible input... in the form of listening and reading. While speaking and writing are also practiced, INPUT is by far the focus.

Another fabulous quality of The Linguist approach is their embracement of ambiguity. As you can tell from the above quote, Linguist teachers do not obsess about "perfection". From the start, they teach their students to improvise. They teach them to grow comfortable with real language... to relax and not worry if they dont understand EVERYTHING. Communication is their focus... and it clearly works for lots of students (not to mention the Kaufmans).

The ambiguity/improv hurdle is the most difficult for me. Many of my students "get" the research. They are frustrated with the traditional approach. Theyve studied English with textbooks for, perhaps, 8 years... but still feel they cannot communicate effectively.

But they struggle to let go of old conditioning. They cling to the textbook like a life preserver. They are terrified of ambiguity. They believe they must understand everything at a conscious/analytical level. Though they may use a particular grammar construct correctly, if they cant analyze it, explain it, and reduce it to a "rule"... they feel they dont "know" it... and thus feel they "cant speak English".

When a student says this to me, I usually laugh and say, "Well, you are speaking English to me right now... and I understand you".

Which is to say, its not really a linguistic issue-- its a "non-linguistic" issue. That is, its an emotional issue. However good their skill, however much they have acquired.. They dont FEEL skillful. They FEEL incompetent. They FEEL stupid. They FEEL foolish.

And no surprise. Im constantly horrified and surprised by their English learning stories. They tell me about teachers who yelled at them for making a grammar mistake. They tell me of being ridiculed in English class. They tell me about bad grades and failed tests. They tell me of pressure from parents... Teachers... Administrators. No wonder they are terrified of making a mistake. No wonder they cling to the textbook and its unambiguous scripts.

Which brings me to the role of the teacher... A role I find increasingly resembles that of a social worker. All the research, all the "great techniques", all the passion in the world are meaningless if you cant get students to relax and take the plunge.

To do that, you've got to address their emotional trauma (a word more than one student has used to describe past English classes). Its not just about materials and lesson plans. Its about building confidence. Its about healing those traumas. Its about slowly encouraging risks. Its about creating an emotional atmosphere that is safe, energetic, fun,... and which encourages improvisation.

Clearly, this takes time with some students. But dont give up. Keep having those process discussions. Keep explaining your methods and the research behind them. Keep telling those "hero stories"... about students who won through and achieved fluency.

Hold award shows. At TU, I did this and it was a big hit. The class secretly voted for the following awards: Best Listener, Best Reader, Best Speaker, Best Blogger, Most Improved Student, Most Enthusiastic, Most Supportive, Best Team Member. We gave awards not only to the top vote getter.. but to the top three in each category. I gave small greeting cards as "awards". The winners came to the front of the class, I presented the card, and everyone cheered as they received it (These were college students).

After leaving TU, I got an email from a student telling me it was one of the best educational experiences she'd had in her life. So simple. So easy to do.

Another idea: Hold regular student conferences-- one to one meetings with students. If time is a problem, do this during class (have the class read while you do this). I did this at TU and am planning to start these at my current job. During the conference I talk to them about their individual learning goals. We discuss their past English experiences.. including negative or traumatic ones. We discuss their doubts and worries... and also their hopes and goals. And, can you believe it, we talk about their lives in general... I try to get to know them as real people.. not just as language students (damn, how radical)!

Through these methods.. and others.. I slowly build emotional rapport with the students. I slowly help them relax. I help them grow more comfortable with risk. And hopefully, I help them learn that education (language or otherwise) can be a confidence building process.. full of fun, encouragement, great successes, and regular compliments.

So called "non-linguistic factors" are vitally important. In education, "soft" is hard. Soft is realistic. Soft is effective.