Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Friday, July 21, 2006

Conversation With Steve Kaufman

by AJ

I had a great conversation with Steve (Kaufman) at The Linguist recently. The conversation is too long to transcribe, but I'm including it here as a two part podcast.

At the beginning of the conversation, Steve throws down an even bigger gauntlet for me regarding Spanish!

Then we go on to discuss our ideas about learning and teaching a foreign language.

Listen to This Podcast, Part 1

Listen to This Podcast, Part 2

For English learners using this podcast, I suggest you listen to each part of the conversation many times- especially since there is no text to go with it! For teachers & native speakers, no worries of course :)

San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Bad Business, Good Education

by AJ

Listen To This Podcast

I'm a terrible businessman. I admit it. As I build my freelance teaching business, I'm doing everything wrong.

If I was a good businessman, I would aggressively seek students.

If I was a good businessman, I would claim to have a "secret" curriculum that no one else knows.

If I was a good businessman, I would teach larger classes in order to maximize profits.

If I was a good businessman, I wouldn't tell potential students that they can join a great system at The Linguist, for only $35 a month, or learn from ESLPod for free.

If I was a good businessman, I would radiate all-knowing authority.

If I was a good businessman, I would try to keep students dependent on me so they would need me (and pay me) for a very long time.

But I'm not a good businessman. I love learning, I love teaching, and I want students to succeed as quickly as possible. I do not want them to depend on me. I charge a lot of money, but I don't want them to be stuck paying me for a long time. My number one goal is to push them towards autonomy as quickly as possible.

Despite my constant recommendations for The Linguist, I realize that many students want or need a face to face coach. Others need a very personal relationship, in person or online. They need that direct human contact. They need that guidance. They need the support and encouragement, at least for a while.

New students often come to me with the expectation that I will "teach them English". But that is not my goal. My goal is to teach them how to teach themselves, to teach them enjoyable and effective learning methods, to help them design their own learning plan, and (most importantly) to build their confidence.

Like any coach, I recognize that in the end, they are the one's who must perform. THEY have to put in the hours of listening. THEY have to put in the hours of reading. THEY have to put in the hours of review. THEY have to seek out situations in which they can communicate in English.

I can help them develop a plan. I can recommend a training routine. I can inspire, encourage, and extol them to excel. I can do all the things that good coaches do.

But I can't learn the language for them. Like any good coach, I want them to grow more independent. I want them to take charge and develop their autonomy and their own leadership.

My goal is to be the kind of teacher I would want for myself. That's good education. But its not good business.

San Francisco, CA

Monday, July 17, 2006

Momentum and Engineering

by AJ

Listen To This Podcast

I've reached a very important point in my Spanish studies. I am truly addicted.

Today I had an extremely hectic day. I was running around frantically to classes and meetings. As a result, I didn't have the opportunity to listen to much Spanish-- only 20 minutes.

Though I didn't have time, Spanish was constantly on my mind. I found myself getting frustrated because I was too busy to listen and read. Its the feeling I used to get when I was running regularly-- a gnawing feeling that I was missing something I wanted and needed to do.

The great part about this is that I can remember three months ago, when I started, that I struggled to complete 20 minutes a day. That seemed like a lot of listening and reading to me. It took effort to do it. But today I was severely annoyed because I could "only" do 20 minutes.

Why the change? There are a few reasons. First of all, I'm having fun. I'm reading/listening to content that I find enjoyable and interesting. Though I sometimes use the word, in fact I don't feel like I'm "studying" at all. I'm enjoying the process. Read & Think Spanish is particularly interesting- with its myriad articles about the food, people, history, and culture of Spanish speaking countries.

Second, success is addictive. I can feel myself improving. What was very difficult to understand two months ago now seems fairly easy. That feeling of progress and success is extremely motivating. Its what Kathy Sierra calls the all important "I kick ass" feeling. No, I can't really speak. Yes, I'm still a beginner. But I'm understanding text/audio that just two months ago seemed impossibly difficult. What a feeling.

Third, I believe. As a runner, a key milestone for me was completing my first 5k run. For serious runners, that's nothing. But doing it changed my image of myself. Before that race, I never called myself a "runner". After finishing that race, and from then on, I've always referred to myself as "a runner"... even now, though I haven't run regularly in the last 6 months!

Likewise, something changed for me recently. Suddenly I started to think of myself as a language learner. I could envision myself successfully speaking Spanish. I know it will take a lot more time and effort, but I believe! I know I can do it.

As I analyze my increasing momentum with Spanish, I can't help but notice the stark contrast with traditional language education. Most students who go to "normal" language programs (public schools, language schools) have the exact opposite experience from mine. First, they're bludgeoned with artificial, grammar-heavy, extremely boring content-- usually textbooks. Second, they never experience success. Rather, teachers focus on their mistakes, test them, and grade them... a frustrating and demotivating experiencing for even the most talented. Finally, these students rarely learn to believe in themselves. They are subjected to methods that don't work, and then, when they fail to acquire the language, they blame themselves and not the school.

In short, traditional language education is engineered for demotivation. It is engineered for failure.

San Francisco, CA

The Gauntlet

by AJ

I'm throwing down the gauntlet. I've read plenty of research. I've listened and talked to excellent language learners such as David Long, Steve Kaufman, and Jerry Dai. I've taught English as a foreign language for six years, and have carefully observed what seems to work best and what does not.

But in the end, integrity comes down to personal performance. Its not just what you know, or what you believe, its what you actually do.

And so I am committed to making myself an example of natural, grammarless, input-based language acquisition.

I will give myself two years to achieve fluency with Spanish. I will continue to use comprehensible input based methods, and ONLY comprehensible input based methods. No traditional classes or textbooks. I will continue to observe a listen-first silent period for at least another month (bringing the total to 4 or more).

Two years from my start will be May 2008. At that time I'll do a podcast, in Spanish, and let folks judge the results for themselves. I may even do a few podcasts before then, to provide a kind of before & after contrast.

In short, I am putting my money where my mouth is!

Stay tuned........

San Francisco, CA

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Feedback About Podcast Wanted

by AJ

I'm new to podcasting, so I would appreciate comments and advice-- especially from English learners.

In my first two podcasts, I have included two version of the audio. The first is at normal speed, the second is slower (too slow, obviously, in my first podcast :) Is this helpful? Or do you find the repetition, and the slower version, to be annoying and unnecessary?

In my second podcast, I included a brief explanation of a few words & phrases. Again, is this helpful or is it unnecessary, distracting, and/or annoying?

Would it be better to have just one audio speech/reading of the post, at a normal rate of speech? Without explanations and without a slower version? Or should the explanations be included, or maybe expanded?

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Grammar Joke

by AJ

Listen to This Podcast

"Grammar is the biggest joke in language education"
-- Jerry Dai

Wow. I love that quote. Its from a speech by Jerry Dai, that I found on Tony's blog. Jerry is a Chinese immigrant who lives in Toronto. He speaks near perfect English and sounds like a native speaker (though mispronounces the word "pronunciation" ;) Before mastering the language, Jerry, like most foreign language learners, suffered through years of traditional language education. As in most countries, Chinese educators are obsessed with grammar. As a result, so are the students. Jerry arrived in Canada at the age of twenty with years of English study under his belt, but he could not communicate effectively. Frustrated, he embarked on an intense two year period of self study.

What did he do during that time? He did not study grammar or vocabulary word lists. He focused on listening & reading & pronunciation.

David Long, director of AUA's Thai language program, by all accounts speaks excellent Thai. Though I can't judge this directly, I've been told by many Thais that his speech sounds natural, effortless, and fluent. How did he learn Thai? By listening intensely for one year. In fact, David did not speak Thai during this entire "silent period". His Thai language program uses the same approach-- students listen first. There is absolutely no grammar instruction in the program.

And then there's me :) By all accounts, I seem to have mastered English ;) How did I do this? When I was a child, did my parents teach me grammar? Did I learn about the past perfect progressive tense in elementary school? No. In fact, I never knew what the "past perfect" was until I became an English teacher. Walk around SF and ask any native speaker "what is the present progressive tense" and they will give you a confused look. Of course, any native speaker of any language (unless they are a language teacher :( will usually give you just such a response if you ask them grammar questions.

Grammar, especially the obtuse, analytical, incredibly complex mish-mash of "rules" used in English language education, is not only useless-- it is harmful. Grammar, you must understand, is an artificial construct. Grammar is a model. Its a model developed by academics to analyze languages. If your goal is to get a Phd. in Linguistics, and become the next Noam Chomsky, grammar is indeed something you should study intensely.

But if you actually want to master English, or any foreign language, grammar is not very useful. Grammar study ingrains a lot of very bad habits. The worst is a tendency to analyze the language rather than acquire it. I see this all the time with students-- they'd rather analyze and debate minute grammar points than truly understand, acquire, and use the language in a natural and intuitive way. Grammar study causes them to analyze and translate every utterance.... producing stilted, unnatural, painful speech (painful for them and painful to the person they are trying to talk to).

As Steve Kaufman, Jerry Dai, David Long and others have noted, the language education field is filled with teachers and researchers who have never actually mastered a foreign language. They also note that much of what passes for "language education" is counter productive, and serves mostly to prop up the perceived authority of the teacher and school.

I have not mastered a foreign language. But I'm determined to master Spanish. As I reviewed my learning plan, I realized I had a very clear choice. I could follow the advice of traditional educators-- people who sound very authoritative, but who have rarely mastered a foreign language themselves. Or I could follow the advice of people who have actually mastered another language-- who did so as adults, and who speak the language fluently, naturally, intuitively, and without hesitation. Since my goal is to speak Spanish, not obtain a Phd. in Linguistics, I've chosen to follow the advice of the latter group.

We can all judge the end results for ourselves, in a couple of years. But I'm already convinced. Already, I'm experiencing great benefits. I'm thoroughly enjoying the process of learning Spanish. My motivation is growing week by week. I can feel my comprehension improving, even though I'm still not able to communicate much. Perhaps most importantly, I can imagine myself as a fluent speaker.

These things never happened when I followed the grammar-analysis approach.

The tragic part about this is that so many students blame themselves. They think there is something wrong with them. They think, as I used to, that they don't have a talent for languages. They think that mastering English (or another language) is impossible. They think the teachers and schools are right, and therefore they must simply be bad students.

In the end, I agree with Jerry: Grammar is the biggest joke in language education.

Its a cruel joke.

San Francisco, CA

Friday, July 14, 2006

Visualization Instead of Translation

by AJ

Listen To This Podcast

As I listen to Spanish audio, I'm trying a new approach. In the beginning of my studies (starting 3 months ago), I usually translated what I heard into English. This was not a conscious decision, its just what seemed to happen. As I heard the Spanish, I would try to translate it instantly to English.

This was a bad idea. It was impossible for me to do this at a normal speaking speed. As such, I ended up missing lots of words. Also, I realized that I will never train myself to think in Spanish if I continue to translate back and forth in my head.

So recently I've taken a different approach. As I hear the Spanish, I imagine pictures in my head. When I hear "puerta", I picture a door. I do this deliberately and consciously, trying to avoid English altogether. It doesn't work perfectly. But since starting to do this, I've found that my listening comprehension has improved. I'm able to understand more Spanish at a faster rate.

To further enhance direct comprehension (without translation), I sometimes try a little "personal TPR". As I hear the Spanish, I not only make images.. I also move my hands around to imitate the action. For example, if I hear "controlar el ganado" (control the livestock), I make a gripping gesture with my hands (control) then make horns on my head using my fingers (livestock). Yes, it makes me look like a crazy person.

But this is San Francisco, city of freaks! So I can actually get away with doing this in public and no one even looks at me!

I find that these gestures and images help the vocabulary sink in and help me move more quickly to direct (without translation) understanding of the words.

San Francisco, CA

Beauty, Vibe, and Other Touchy-Feely Things

by AJ

Listen To This Podcast

"Aesthetics matter.
Beautiful things WORK better."
--From Kathy Sierra's most recent post.

One of the best things about freelance teaching is that I'm able to choose aesthetically pleasing environments in which to do it. I typically meet my private (face to face) students in local coffee shops. These shops get the "beautiful things work better" thing. They have a warm, inviting, cozy environment. The air is saturated with the smell of roasted coffee. Pleasant music (classical, opera, "world"..) resonates. There are large windows, ideal for people watching.

Likewise, I have a comfortable environment when teaching online-- my apartment. I open a big window to let in the light and air, kick back, and enjoy myself.

The most frustrating thing about the educational "culture of ugliness" is that its so unnecessary. Beautiful things don't cost more. In fact, funky fabulous furniture can be bought from thrift stores for a fraction of the cost of the sterile stuff favored by most schools.

Most cities have an art/design school or two-- why not hire a couple of students to beautify the school?

I keep asking these questions but I think I already know the answer. The "culture of ugly", after all, is not an isolated problem. Its just a small component of the "school as factory" mentality. This mentality goes very deep into the core of traditional educational. Its a mentality that values control, standardization, numbers, detailed syllabi, tests, grades, authority, and obedience. However nice the individual teachers and administrators are, they all become infected with the "factory virus". Students, too, become infected.

This virus is very difficult to cure.

The safest and most effective cure is quarantine-- that is, removal from the school environment. Though it takes time, learners who leave school and embark on self-directed study do recover. They recover their curiosity. They recover their enthusiasm. They recover their motivation, energy, and passion.

Teachers who leave often recover as well. They recover their humanity. They recover their joy. They recover their passion and enthusiasm. They recover a sense of purpose and a love of learning.

The power of environment and aesthetics goes well beyond a few touchy-feely vibes. The environment has a massive impact on our expectations, our beliefs, and our attitude. A learner in a school environment behaves much differently than a learner in a coffee shop.

Perhaps the simplest solution to the myriad evils of traditional education is simply this: leave.

San Francisco, CA

Skype Recording for Mac

by AJ

Most of the learners and tutors at The Linguist use Powergramo to record their Skype conversations. This is a very useful capability. Learners can record their discussions and review them later as often as they like. Tutors can record conversations and use them for podcasts.

Up until now, I've been out of the loop because Powergramo does not support Mac/Apple.

But I just came across software that allows Mac users to record their Skype conversations. Its called Call Recorder from Ecamm. This software costs only $12.95. I recommend this software to Mac users who'd like to record Skype conversations & interviews (for podcasting or learning). It is very simple to use (hardly surprising for a Mac application ;)

San Francisco, CA

Thursday, July 13, 2006

ELA Now Podcasting

by AJ

I've decided to take the easiest approach to podcasting (at least for the moment), by creating podcasts of posts on this blog. Not all posts will be podcast (though all will still have the computer generated audio from Talkr). I will be adding an RSS Podcast feed link to the sidebar (and also a link to iTunes), for learners who would like to subscribe.

For now the podcasts will be very simple. I'll read the post at normal speed. Then I will use software to create a second, much slower version. The last post (Sleepy Resistance) was my first podcast for this blog!

Unfortunately, the slow version of that post is TOO slow. I sound like I'm on serious drugs! In the future I'll still do a slow version, but not quite THAT slow :)

For English learners, here are my suggestions for using the podcast:

1. First read the post. Use an online dictionary to find the meaning of unknown words. Save these in a notebook (or computer). (In the future I may add an explanation section, as Drs. Tse & McQuillan do at ESLPod, but for now I won't be doing that).

2. Listen to the audio, both the normal and the slow versions, and read along with them. Do this several times. You can download the audio file to iTunes or an MP3 player.

3. Just listen, without reading. Again, I recommend repeated listening in order to thoroughly absorb any new vocabulary or phrasing.

If you have questions, feel free to email me!

Happy Listening!!

San Francisco, CA

Sleepy Resistance

by AJ

Listen To This Podcast

This week I've encountered a new obstacle to Spanish study-- sleepiness. Every afternoon after work, I come home and pop in the iPod headphones. For the last couple of weeks, I've had great concentration and focus. But this week, something happened. After about 15 minutes of listening/reading/studying, I find myself getting sleepy. My mind gets sluggish. I've tried downing coffee, but it hasn't worked.

I've been getting enough sleep, so what's happening?

Turns out I have encountered this problem before-- when meditating. During a 10 day Vipassana meditation course I took, I hit a period where I was constantly sleepy. I'd sit down to meditate feeling energetic, but 5 minutes after starting I'd feel tired. I would have to struggle to keep my eyes open.

The meditation instructor (Goenka) explained this phenomenon. He said it was a common problem and was a form of ego-resistance to the meditation. Basically, your conscious/social mind, for whatever reason, starts to sabotage your efforts. Goenka suggested that we work through the challenge-- and try hard to keep our focus. He predicted that if we did so, we'd eventually develop greater mental concentration and endurance and the sleepiness would go away. As he predicted, after three days of struggle this problem went away.

So perhaps this is a good sign- a sign that I've reached a mental limit and am now trying to push past it. I know that there is nothing to do but keep trying. I know that if I refuse to surrender to this kind of lazy-sleepiness, I will eventually develop greater concentration and endurance.

In the meantime, I'm trying to do more walking while I listen.. to keep my mind and body awake. I also take more frequent breaks, but I always try to return again to studying.

In time I hope for a breakthrough-- and an end to the sleepiness.

San Francisco, CA

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Community, not a "class"

by AJ

I LOVE tutoring (or "coaching") with the Linguist. Simply LOVE it.

Its not because of the pay... I get paid far more at my school, and from my freelance clients.

Its not because the system is excellent... although it certainly is.

Its because of the students. They are the most enthusiastic and self-directed students I've ever met. These guys are excited about English... and about learning in general. They take initiative. They don't sit back passively waiting for the teacher/tutor/coach to tell them what to do. They seek out interesting content on their own. They enthusiastically listen to audio, read, and watch TV. Some have their own blogs in English.

The Linguist does not have "classes"... they have an online community. The students often chat with each other. They visit each other's blogs. They encourage one another.

In this community, there is still a role for a tutor. But its very different than what you find in a traditional classroom. In a class, the teacher is the boss, the director, the judge, the initiator. Students, not surprisingly, are relegated to a passive role.

But in a community like The Linguist, my role is totally different. I'm a resource. I'm an advisor. I'm someone with valuable skills (native English fluency) that other community members hope to acquire. None of the community members depend on me. Our interactions contain none of the "master-student" dynamics so common in traditional classrooms.

This has benefits for me as well as them. I learn a great deal from these community members-- approaches, strategies, and suggestions I can apply to my own language learning (Spanish). I also benefit from the energy and enthusiasm. I don't feel tired after a discussion on The Linguist. Quite the opposite-- I'm energized.

The Linguist presents a learning model that is more enjoyable, more effective, and more efficient than the classroom model. While their particular community is an online one, there is no reason such a model couldn't be replicated in an actual physical space. This might be a community of learners in a city who help, support, encourage, and share with one another. Such a community would be made up of a mix of nationalities. It might even involve learners of different languages. Who says we must segregate language learning?

For example, why not a group of native Spanish speakers and a group of native English speakers together in a learning community... helping each other learn their respective languages.... Holding discussions in both languages... Organizing social events in both languages... Finding tutors/coaches/mentors in both languages.... Creating a library of audio, text, & video in both languages....

In such a scenario, the tutor becomes a facilitator & organizer & resource, rather than an authority figure. His/her job is to schedule discussions, organize a great content library, bring in interesting guest speakers/tutors, answer questions, MOTIVATE & ENCOURAGE (perhaps job #1), bring people together, and guide learners to self-sufficiency.

Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like what Steve Kaufman is doing at The Linguist :) I'm thinking I need to try to do this with a face to face community here in San Francisco.

Stay tuned.......

San Francisco, CA

Pleasant Environment

by AJ

Part of making the learning process enjoyable is doing it in a pleasant environment.

One of my favorite subjects to rant about is the butt-ugly atmosphere of most schools. Bland colors, office style furniture, and a general vibe of sterility and ugliness are the norm. Who in their right mind wants to spend time in such places?

One of the best things about independent learning is that you can choose the setting where you study. You aren't stuck in a bland classroom, confined to an uncomfortable desk, sitting under fluorescent lights. You can choose to study in places that stimulate and nourish you.

My favorite location is Cafe Puccini-- an Italian cafe in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Most afternoons I can be found there with my iPod and a couple of Spanish books. Cafe Puccini is everything that a classroom is not-- its lively, its interesting, its human. Its a great place to spend the afternoon hours.. whether studying, chatting with friends, or people watching.

At times, the Italian owner cranks up his favorite opera music. Neighborhood regulars mix with tourists. Sometimes I even overhear Spanish conversations... for while the owners are Italian, many of the workers are native Spanish speakers.

Cafe Puccini has soul. I attribute much of my studying consistency to the fact that I mostly study there. If I were in a school every afternoon, I would have quit by now.

But since I'm an independent learner, I'm able to choose a place that makes me feel happy and alive. Not surprisingly, this has benefited my language learning tremendously.

San Francisco, CA

Monday, July 10, 2006

Small Is Oh So Beautiful

by AJ

Subtract out all issues of methodology, approach, theory, and materials... and I still find that traditional classes ( a bunch of students sitting in a room, focused on a teacher) are a poor way to learn a language (or, indeed, most anything). The simplest, the easiest, the first way to make a learning breakthrough is to adhere to the maxim "small is beautiful".

The more people you add to a class, the less attention each will get. That means that with each new student, it becomes even more difficult to customize the class to each person's needs. In practice, beyond 3 or 4 students, its almost impossible. The law of averages, the practice of teaching to the lowest common denominator, takes over. Its very difficult to avoid. And its not only the teacher's fault. Students too fall into a kind of hypnosis when they enter a class. Its like they walk through the door and automatically surrender their autonomy and responsibility to the authority figure.

In short, BIG SUCKS!

Small is beautiful. And the smallest possible learning unit is ONE. That's you- the learner. No one else. No teacher. No school. No authority figures to surrender to. No one else responsible for learning but YOU.

That is the most effective approach. In the beginning, it seems like more work. We are so used to being passive and lazy learners-- sit back, take notes, and depend on the authority (teacher and textbook) to tell us what to do.

But the traditional way really isn't easier, because you waste huge amounts of time and get very little benefit from it. Also, what you save in initiative you pay for with boredom.

The initial stage of becoming a self-responsible learner does feel like more effort. Like any good habit, it takes a few weeks to keep yourself on a consistent self-learning schedule. You've got to do the research, find the content, and put in that time listening to audio. No one is going to check up on you. No one is going to berate you about not studying, or fail you if you don't do anything. So at first it seems like you need strong willpower to study on your own.

But that's only for a few weeks. If you use methods that are enjoyable-- mainly reading and listening to content you enjoy (repeatedly... especially in the beginning) the process gets easier and easier. Before long, it becomes enjoyable. Then it becomes fun. Finally, it becomes addictive.

Its much like starting a physical exercise program. When you are lazy, flabby, and out of shape... it does indeed take effort to get your ass moving each day. But after a month or two, you've developed a strong habit. You feel healthier. You have more energy and endurance. And you've started to crave those good feelings. After a while, you become irritable and frustrated if you CAN'T exercise.

So it goes with mental exercise. My Spanish self-learning has followed exactly this progression. In the beginning, it seemed like a big chore to study 30 minutes every day (by "study" I mean read & listen). I needed great effort to do it. I needed pep talks and support (such as reading Steve Kaufman's book, talking to others who'd learned a language, etc...).

After a month, the habit was formed. It no longer felt tiring to listen or read for 30 minutes everyday. Soon after, I began to understand a bit more. And then a bit more. I slowly increased the reading/listening time to 40 minutes a day... then 50... then 60.

After a couple of months, I was really enjoying it. I looked forward to my Spanish time each day.

And now, three months later, I'm addicted. I not only look forward to Spanish-- I crave it. I turn on iTunes when I wake up. After work, I get my iPod, walk to North Beach, sit at Cafe Puccini, and read/listen to Spanish for 90 minutes.. or more if I have time.

If work or other obligations prevent me from studying Spanish, I now become very irritated! I've come to enjoy the pleasant experience of learning on my own.

At this point, I can't imagine returning to a traditional classroom-- stuck in a desk listening to somebody give obtuse explanations about textbook grammar points. Ugh! Such a brain-antagonistic way to learn! So damn boring!

No, much as I became a running/walking addict... I'm now a Spanish learning addict. It's an addiction I'm happy to indulge!

In learning, small is indeed beautiful.

(This experience, by the way, is profoundly changing my thoughts about my role as a "teacher". I now think the best service I can perform for "my students" is to wean them off me until they are autonomous leaners. In other words, my job is to teach my student-customers how to fire me :)

San Francisco, CA

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Tony's Blog

by AJ

Time for another plug. Tony, an English language learner in Taiwan (and Linguist student), has an excellent blog. Tony is extremely dedicated. In fact, I'd say he's a language learning maniac. I've had a few Skype conversations with him, and am always inspired by his enthusiasm and passion for learning.

Tony's blog provides insights that most teaching blogs (like this one :) simply can't. He shares his experiences. He shares his approach, attitude, and learning methods. He provides a very practical perspective- that of one who is actually DOING it (mastering English). Not just teaching it. Not just researching it. Not just thinking about it and discussing it.

Tony is a living example-in-progress of how to master a foreign language. Check his blog regularly at:
Tony's Blog!

San Francisco, CA

Friday, July 07, 2006

MJ, Tiger, Ronaldhino

by AJ

In general, I'm having a great time studying Spanish on my own. I'm consistently studying everyday, at least an hour. I feel I am making progress.

Clearly, its possible to learn a language on your own. As I've noted in past posts, I also feel that traditional classroom instruction is extremely wasteful. Often, in fact, its worse than that-- its counter-productive.

Dependence on a teacher is not a good thing. A teacher can't learn for you. A teacher can't force the language into your brain.

However, I do realize that there are many benefits to having a COACH. Michael Jordan had a coach. Tiger Woods has a coach. Ronaldhino has a coach.

Let's face it, learning a language is a long process. Sometimes its frustrating, whatever methods you use. Sometimes it helps to have someone to encourage you, to pat you on the back, to give you a bit of advice. In fact, its amazing how helpful just this little bit of help is.

My current burst of consistent Spanish effort grew out of a conversation with Steve Kaufman (at The Linguist). At the time, about two months ago, I had just started to study. I was making an effort, but was constantly frustrated. I felt my progress was too difficult and slow. I couldn't understand most of the audio in "Las Puertas Retorcidas". I doubted if I really had the ability and persistence to learn a language. I remembered all of my past failures.

Steve gave me a pep talk. In fact, he gave me a couple. He didn't have any magic words or shortcuts. But he convinced me that I could indeed do it, that I was using good methods, and that I would be successful if I stuck with it. Coming from him, a guy who has been VERY successful learning languages, it meant a lot. He gave me a tremendous boost of confidence which has fueled my efforts ever since.

This is the most important thing a teacher/coach/tutor does. They help you to keep going. They address the emotional ("affective") issues that cause students to become anxious & frustrated. They help you develop an effective learning plan and they help you to stick to it. When you need it, they compliment you and point out your strengths. At other times (especially for accomplished/advanced learners) they give you a kick in the butt and a "get back to work" nudge. They remind you that you can, and WILL, succeed.

Students & teachers underestimate the value of this role. (And they grossly OVERestimate the role of explaining the language).

San Francisco, CA

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Transforming Classes

by AJ

In a recent comment, Anna wrote:

"I would be quite interested in the process you apply in your classroom while trying to persuade your pupils to use this system with you. Is that even possible? I, as an English teacher myself, though not professionally or anything, have always had trouble slowing down my pupils and making them repeat the same texts again cause they think it's useless. Can you give me some tips?"

Ahh, very very good questions. Unfortunately, I don't have many good answers as I've been wrestling with these same issues lately.

It started as a result of my own efforts with Spanish. Suddenly it hit me, my private efforts were much more efficient (and enjoyable) than taking a class. I thought back to previous experiences (all failures) with language classes. Then I examined my own English classes with a critical eye.

I found both to be lacking. The truth is, my traditional English classes at my school are not amazing. I've tried to make them better than average. But the group/school system is tough to overcome. Large classes, I'm afraid, just aren't terribly effective compared to one on one tutoring coupled with self-study (or self-study alone, if you are motivated).

As I've gotten my own private students, I've realized how much more I enjoy them. I enjoy private coaching because it is so much more effective. The students understand that they must take responsibility for their learning, while I will act as their helper and coach. Working one on one, I can focus on their specific needs. I can help them develop an individual study plan that will work for them.

I have the time and ability to focus on their emotional needs too. I quickly realize if they are discouraged, or anxious, or frustrated and I can help them with these problems. I do a much better job of motivating my individual private students than I do of motivating my class.

Still, I haven't given up on my class. But I realize that just tweaking the traditional approach isn't enough. Somehow I've got to find a way to destroy the underlying assumptions of traditional school: that the teacher is responsible, that textbooks and formal lessons are the best way to learn, that talking ABOUT the language is better than direct immersion IN the language.

These are tough beliefs to crack! I'll certainly let you know if I find a way to transform my group classes, but right now, I am at a loss.

San Francisco, CA

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Long Slow Runs and Language Learning

by AJ

The cornerstone of my first marathon training program was the "long slow run". As I've mentioned before, slowing down was the key change that transformed me from someone who hated to run, to an avid runner and marathoner.

Slow running is especially important for beginners. Most people run too fast and too far when they begin a program. They think they must pour sweat and pant like a dog, or else they aren't accomplishing anything. New wanna-be runners are often obsessed with distance too. "Farther and faster"... that's their motto.

That attitude may work for veteran runners, but it is extremely harmful for beginners. Beginners who start this way quickly learn to associate running with pain. For them, running is a struggle. Every run requires great willpower. Progress is never fast enough. These folks are constantly frustrated. Most quit after one or two months (or weeks!).

Runners who run slowly do much better. They learn to enjoy the act itself. They don't worry about speed and they don't worry about distance. They just get out there and listen to their bodies. They take it easy. And yet, with each run, they build their muscles, lungs, heart, and mind to handle more. Without pushing, they begin to run faster and run farther.

The more I examine my own foreign language experiences and those of my students, the more similarities I see between runners and language learners.

Most students & teachers are likewise obsessed with speed and quantity. They race through textbooks as fast as possible. They try to study as many grammar points and as much vocabulary as they can fit into a semester. Underlying these behaviors is an attitude that says, "more is better".

But that is not necessarily the case. For beginning and intermediate students, quality is often more important than amount. In other words, its better to go slower and truly acquire the language. This means shorter passages. This means MUCH more repetition. This means thoroughly absorbing authentic content.

Just as importantly, it means relaxing and enjoying the process. By following a slower, more repetitive, deeper, and more relaxed approach, you will build your English ability without pushing. You'll truly acquire the language and be able to use it without translating back and forth between English and your native language.


Rather than cover 50 pages in a month, cover only 5... and learn them thoroughly. Read them every day. Listen to the audio repeatedly, every day. Practice imitating the phrases. Thoroughly and totally absorb the content.

Eventually, of course, you will be able to do more. Once I finished my first marathon, I was strong, I was used to running, and I was ready to focus on more speed. But I needed a good base first.

So too with language learning. Build a good base first-- a solid foundation of listening & reading comprehension.

San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Writing Instruction & The Internet

by AJ

As I've begun to explore the (relatively) new phenomenon of teaching English on the internet, I've discovered that writing instruction, in particular, is ideally suited to the medium.

Speaking & listening are certainly possible on the web... utilizing Skype or other internet communication software. And, of course, there is plenty of reading material on the net... some with corresponding audio as well (see previous post re: ESL Pod).

But for my purposes, writing instruction is the simplest and most effective internet subject. Email makes written communication quick and easy. Students send me writing samples at their convenience. A high speed connection is not required. Nor is a headset or web camera.

Since writing correction and instruction usually does not need to occur in "real time", time zone differences are no problem. Scheduling Skype calls with students in Europe, Japan, Thailand, and South America, while Im living in San Francisco, can be quite a challenge. However, its no problem at all to receive writing from students anywhere in the world.

Usually I use two techniques to teach writing over the net (as I've mentioned in a previous post).

First I do rewrites. Rather than simply point out errors, I rewrite the piece using standard (and concise) written English (which is certainly more strict and formal than the loose writing used on this blog ;) Rewrites, in my opinion, are much better than simple corrections because they provide correct, comprehensible input. In other words, they not only show what is wrong, they also show what is right.

The second thing I do is record myself reading my version of the written piece. I use Audacity and convert the recording to an MP3. I then email the student, attaching the original piece, my rewrite, and the MP3 of the rewrite. I encourage students to compare the two text versions often. I also encourage them to listen to the audio of the rewrite as much as possible, to help them absorb the phrasing, vocab, and grammar of standard written English.

Overall, my goal when teaching writing is to go beyond finding errors and focus instead on providing clear (and comprehensible) examples of standard written English.

San Francisco, CA

Another Plug for ESL Pod

by AJ

Gotta put in another plug for ESL Pod. I dont know how they do it, but they put out an amazing variety and number of English podcasts. Each podcast starts with a conversation at slower-than-normal speed (aids comprehension), followed by an explanation of phrases, idioms, etc....., followed by the same conversation at normal native speed. For a tiny fee ($10/month I think) you can also access learning guides for each podcast.

Another nice improvement... they have now organized/tagged their podcasts by topic. Thus, you can focus your reading/listening on relationships, or daily life, or business, or travel.....

If you are an English learner, do check out ESL Pod!

San Francisco, CA

Monday, July 03, 2006

Taking Control

by AJ

The greatest challenge I now face as a teacher is encouraging my students to take control of their own learning.

Frankly, the school and classroom setting works against this. Put a group of students in a room, sitting at desks, with a whiteboard on the wall... and a sort of auto-pilot takes over. Teacher and students sink into automatic roles. Breaking those roles, and the assumptions that go with them, is very very difficult.

The thing that I can't get out of my mind is how incredibly wasteful classroom instruction is. Despite hours in a language class, students get a remarkably small amount of comprehensible input. They waste countless hours on explanations, pointless textbook activities, time killers, nit-picky analysis. At times, I wonder if the last thing they want to do is actually read, listen to, and use comprehensible language.

Studying (Spanish) on my own, I can work through a couple of short articles in an hour. I can learn the new vocabulary, figure out the basic grammar, and also listen to the audio multiple times. I am a beginner.

By contrast, it often takes my advanced class two hours to work through an article. Why? Because we will analyze, discuss, and explain it to death. We'll spend 20 minutes actually reading the thing... then 60+ minutes on detailed explanations (not counting discussion of the actual issues/meaning of the overall article). In this time, they will hear me read the article only one time.

Another example: On my own, I can review a great deal of vocabulary quickly. I do so almost everyday. I try to do this with my class too... but it wastes tremendous time. Why? Because we get bogged down on almost every word. Quick & rough explanations never seem to be enough.... and I end up giving long treatises on the shades of meaning of each phrase or word. This wastes a tremendous amount of time.

Boiled down, I find two essential problems with traditional classroom instruction. One, students surrender responsibility for learning to the teacher. Two, students and teachers alike are frightened of ambiguity. Both of these tendencies are fatal to actual learning and mastery.

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, July 01, 2006

More on Anxiety, Pain, & Enjoyment

by AJ

After completing my first marathon, friends and acquaintances would often ask me for advice about running. Typically, they started something like this: "I really want to run and get in shape. I've tried it before, but its horrible. What should I do? How can I run farther and faster?"

My first, knee-jerk bit of advice was always, "Run slower". Most beginning runners simply run too fast. They have a "no pain, no gain" mentality. So they charge out the door and complete a punishing run. They huff and puff. They pour sweat. The next day, their legs are in pain.

A few stalwart souls manage to do this for a few weeks, or even months. They are propelled by sheer mental determination. Every run is a battle.

But few people indeed can sustain this kind of approach for long. Most quit running.. Convinced that running is a horribly unpleasant activity.

I understand, because I used to take the same approach. As a teenager, I thought I wanted to join the cross country team at my High School. During the summer, I decided to train to get in shape. I followed the approach outlined above. After a couple weeks of pain, I decided that I hated running.

Later, at the age of 27, I came across a book by a professional marathoner. His central piece of advice was "run slower". I followed his advice and suddenly, running was enjoyable. I took it easy. I paid attention to my breathing as I ran, and any time it became labored, I slowed down.

The ironic thing is-- because I was enjoying the process, I ran more. Each week, I added distance. As the weeks passed, my legs, heart, lungs all got stronger.

And something else magical happened- without making any attempt to run fast.. I naturally got faster.

Eventually I started to join 5k and 10k races. And eventually my body became strong enough to handle a bit of "speed training".. where I did indeed try to run fast. But by then, I was strong, I loved running, and I could handle the intensity.

I think there's a lesson for language learning here... :)

San Francisco, CA


by AJ

As Krashen notes, anxiety is a big obstacle to language acquisition. Ive experienced the negative effects of anxiety as both a teacher and as a student.

As a teacher, I find that many students continually fret and worry about their English ability. They worry about making mistakes. They obsess over grammar. They bemoan their own weaknesses.

Ive also noticed that the more dependent they are on teachers and schools, the more likely they are to be stressed. This is not surprising. Traditional classrooms are not a very efficient way to learn. So much time and effort is wasted. Worse, the teaching methods used are often confusing.... or downright counter-productive. The textbooks are often boring, fragmented, and artificial. Even worse, schools pour on the stress by adding tests, public humiliation (corrections in front of others, criticism, etc.), and grades.

A student dependent on such a system has a very long and unpleasant road to language proficiency. Given enough time and effort and willpower... a few students actually do make it to fluency. But not many. Most come away with little more than a very bad feeling about the language.

As a student, Ive experienced this. Ive found traditional language classes to be utterly useless to me.

But even as an independent student, I have become stressed and anxious. When I started to study Spanish, I was often frustrated or anxious. I was always fretting about the speed of my progress. I fretted about the amount of material I couldnt understand. I knew I couldnt speak, and let myself be frustrated by that too.

Finally, I realized I needed to relax and enjoy the ride. Learning a language takes time and patience... whatever methods you use. So I stopped obsessing about my "level". I stopped worrying about flawless speaking. I shifted focus to enjoying understandable content in Spanish... preferably content that came in both text & audio form.

This shift in attitude has helped tremendously. I'm now enjoying the content... especially since I got the "Read & Think" book, which contains a wealth of interesting articles about the culture, food, etc.. of various Spanish speaking countries. While I do review new words & phrases, and occasionally check a grammar reference,.. the bulk of my focus is on the meaning of the content itself. I find it very interesting and because of this, Im excited to understand more and more of it.

I now enjoy repeated listening. I listen to the same articles many times. Should I get bored with an article, I move on to a new one (but still review my favorite old ones at times).

I no longer worry about my "level"... and have no idea if Im a low-beginner, high-beginner, or low-intermediate. Nor does it matter, because Im not bound to prescribed textbooks or classes.

Will I learn Spanish faster with this approach, compared to taking traditional classes, using textbooks, etc.? I don't know. My instincts tell me YES. Research suggests YES.

But whether I learn 30% faster, at the same speed, or 30% slower is less important to me than the fact that Im now enjoying the language... I feel more motivated everyday... I, for the first time in my life, feel a sense of surety.. that I will indeed learn this language. My chances of seeing the process through to communication proficiency, and to fluency, is thus greatly increased.

Most importantly, Im having a great time doing it.

San Francisco, CA