Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Mix It Up

by AJ

One key aspect of language learning is to constantly mix things up in order to keep the material fresh and interesting. As I progress with Spanish, I find that I occasionally "hit a wall"- where I get bored and feel like I'm making no progress.

At that time, I find it helps to radically switch the content I'm using. For example, for the last month I've been working through "Read and Think Spanish". I enjoyed the articles and found the topics very interesting. I repeated every story many times, probably at least 25 times each-- some of them more.

Then suddenly, this week, I became bored. I felt that no matter how much I repeated some articles, I simply wasn't getting better at understanding them. Rather than strive and try to force myself- I put the book aside. Today I switched my focus to 1) A fairly easy podcast episode (Spanish as a Second Language For You) and 2) A very difficult article about futbol.

The change totally refreshed me. I enjoyed listening to the easier material. It boosted my confidence and let my brain rest a bit while still getting Spanish input. On the other hand, the futbol article was very tough, but the subject matter was completely different than anything I've read before-- so again I found it refreshing.

This is a big advantage of independent study. You can read your own moods and adapt to them very quickly. While you should follow a system, you can be totally flexible about the content you choose and how you use it.

This is one reason why independent study is so much more efficient than classroom study. In a class, you must follow the teacher. He will often choose material which you find boring. When you are wanting something easy, he may choose something very difficult. When you want something challenging, he may choose something too easy. He may go too fast, or too slow, for you. He will probably give long and complicated explanations of points you already understand. If you're in a typical class, he'll probably make you read lots of grammar explanations and do lots of contrived textbook activities.

And really, its not totally his fault. I'm a classroom teacher and I know its totally impossible for me to please all 17 students in my class. I know I can rarely find an article that they will all be interested in. I know that if I go fast, the slower students will suffer... and if I go slower, the faster students will become bored. Its simply a fact of classroom instruction-- its not efficient.

That's why self-directed study is vitally important. Even if you are enrolled in a class- don't fool yourself-- its not enough. To make rapid progress you MUST learn outside of school. You must take charge of your language learning. You must find content that is interesting to you. You must both read it, and listen to it, many times.

I am a classroom English teacher. I try my best to do an excellent job. But I'm telling you-- no matter how good the teachers are- school is not enough.

San Francisco, CA

Monday, August 28, 2006

Sex and The English Class

by AJ

Last week I started using "Sex & The City" during the last hour of my English class. Not surprisingly, its a huge hit-- both from a language learning and an enjoyment point of view.

Sex & The City is perfect for English class. Its filled with plenty of high-frequency conversational words, plenty of natural idioms, and a decent dose of "higher level" vocabulary. In addition, the show's format is a perfect discussion generator. In every episode, the main character asks a series of questions about love, dating, and relationships. These questions are provocative & interesting class discussion topics.

Thus, last week we discussed:

Are all men bums?
What are your breakup rules?
Is quickly rebounding with another man/woman a good idea?
How long does it take to get over an ex?
Is there a gender double standard for dating?

All this from just one episode.

Another great thing about using Sex & The City is that these discussion questions don't come out of the blue-- created randomly by me. Rather, they come directly from the episode's themes and stories-- thus its easy for students to talk about these topics even if they can't (or don't want to) relate to them personally. They can always frame their opinions and ideas in terms of the show's characters (of course most are more than eager to talk about these topics on a personal level).

Contrast this kind of interesting and provocative discussion with the normal "ESL class"-- in which the teacher distributes some lame vignette from a commercial textbook, along with a set of stiff & contrived "comprehension and discussion questions". Students yawn, skim through the mini-article, and give the briefest possible answer to the canned questions.

No such problem with Sex & The City-- most students can't stop talking about it.

San Francisco, CA

La Liga Language Lessons

by AJ

Listen To This Podcast

What is the number one secret to successful language learning? Of course, many factors contribute. But which is top? Which holds the key?

After observing countless students, I can clearly identify the most important factor: a curious and passionate connection with the target language culture. This is number one. Its more important than study method, raw talent, intelligence, training, education, or any other factor.

My very best students almost always have a passionate interest in American (or UK or Aussie) culture. I've got one student, for example, who loves the Beatles. She's crazy about the Beatles. She's a musician and wants to write and sing songs in English. She's a great student.

The best students engage the culture. They become interested in the country's art, or history, or music, or sports, or food, or dating norms, or geography.

Another example- my friend Wat, who is Thai, taught himself English on the streets of Bangkok-- selling jewelry to foreigners. He never used a textbook and, in fact, can't read English. Of course he listened carefully. Of course he was patient. But what sustained him and drove him was a passionate interest in two aspects of American culture: Native American jewelry- and American motorcycle culture. He loved to talk to tourists about these subjects. He incorporated many elements of Native American art into his jewelry. Of course, he rode a motorcycle and was a member of a motorcycle "gang".

Now he's in America, living in San Francisco. He seems to connect with people very easily because he is naturally curious. He's already made several connections with artists and other jewelers. He's already visited a Harley Davidson souvenir shop-- and is eager to visit a shop that sells bikes. As he walks around the city, he's always checking out parked motorcycles-- and chats with the owners if he gets a chance.

Contrast this with the students who obsess only about exam scores. Their progress is typically slow, and even worse, its painful. They exhibit no joy or passion for the language-- or the cultures/countries where its spoken. For them, English is a chore, an ordeal, a test score. Many of these folks spend YEARS in test prep courses just to boost their TOEFL score a few points. They are chronically frustrated-- and can often be heard to say, "I hate English". I can't help but think, "Then stop torturing yourself and quit."

Which brings me to my own Spanish study. Recently, I've taken an enthusiastic interest in soccer (ie. futbol). It started with the World Cup. Our school showed most of the games, and our students were filled with passion. I got caught up in the spirit and began taking an active interest in the players, teams, and tactics.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I bought the FIFA 2006 videogame for my Sony Playstation. It hooked me. Wat and I have been playing it like crazy. Not only is it fun, but by playing it I've learned even more about futbol-- especially the Spanish teams of La Liga.

This, in turn, led me to read about La Liga on the internet. I started reading articles on ESPN.com, in English. However, since a new season just started... and I'm craving new Spanish language material... I've decided to start reading & listening to articles about soccer-- in Spanish. I copied the first story today-- a recap of the game between Barcelona and Celta Vigo. I used Speechisimo to create an audio file (and used Audio Hijack Pro to convert it to an MP3). As I've become more passionately interested in the Spanish League-- my desire to understand Spanish articles and broadcasts has increased.

Likewise, I'm an avid traveler- which is why the travel, geography, and cultural articles in "Read & Think Spanish" are so interesting to me.

The point? To learn a language more quickly, more effectively, and more thoroughly, forget the damn test scores. Connect emotionally with the language-- with some aspect of the people, places, cultures, & countries. Investigate new, strange, and different elements of those cultures. If you are an English learner, become an American Football aficionado, or a maniac about Harley Davidsons, or a fan of some kind of American music, or movies, or writing.

If you do so, you'll truly enjoy learning the language.

And your test scores will get better too.

San Francisco, CA

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Its Unbelievable!

by AJ

I've gotten Humberto's permission to podcast part of a conversation we recently had on Skype. In this conversation, Humberto talks about his experiences with traditional ESL (English language) education. He states- "It doesn't work!"

Humberto then compares the experiences he had at traditional language schools with his experience using the "effortless acquisition" methods used at The Linguist.

Unfortunately, I don't have time to transcribe this conversation-- so listen closely and repeatedly if necessary.

Here is the conversation:

Listen To The Conversation

San Francisco, CA

English Text & Audio Resource

by AJ

Giuliana alerted me to an excellent learning resource for English language students.

Slate.com has interesting articles on a variety of subjects. This is an "authentic English" website, meaning it is written for native speakers.

But the best thing about Slate.com is that they have a daily podcast of one of their articles. Thus, you get both the text article and the audio- ideal for language learning. If you are a Linguist student, you can import the text and use the system to learn and save new words/phrases. Otherwise, use an online dictionary, electronic dictionary, or an "old school" paper dictionary.

Once you understand the written text, listen to the audio version-- at first reading along as you listen. Once that is fairly easy to understand, put away the text and listen to the audio only... as many times as is necessary (or until boredom sets in :)

Here's a link: Slate.com

PS: Does anyone know of Spanish language resources like this? Its easy for me to find text, OR audio... but not so easy to find BOTH for the same content.

San Francisco, CA


by AJ

Since I'm now getting more students than I can handle, I've decided to stop focusing on quantity and shift my focus to quality. In other words, I'm going to fire students who are not motivated. From now on, I'm also going to screen potential clients. I'm going to make sure that they have compelling real life reasons to learn English. In my view, going to an American graduate school is a compelling motivation-- getting an arbitrary score on the TOEFL test is not.

I'm also going to make sure they understand my methods and are willing to exercise a great deal of independence as learners. Those who expect to show up for an hour-a-week textbook lesson, and somehow become fluent, will be referred to traditional schools.

As I build my freelance teaching business I realize that I'm also increasingly focusing on female students. In fact, at the moment all my private students are motivated, professional women. This happened by accident, but its not a fluke.

As I think back on all the classes I have taught- in America, in Thailand, in Korea, in Japan- I realize that in every case (EVERY!) the women in those classes were the best students. Sure there were occasionally excellent male students. And of course, not every woman was great. But there was, and is, a VERY big gender gap. In this case, it is women who are on the right side of that gap.

I'm sure there are socio-economic-political reasons for this, but what it boils down to for me is this: women are my best clients. In general, they work harder, they listen more carefully, they are more persistent, and they are more motivated. Not surprisingly, they progress faster than most male students.

For these reasons, I enjoy teaching female students-- especially motivated professionals (or would-be professionals). After all, I don't teach just for the money. I do it because I love it. I do it because I have a passion for learning, for language, and for other countries and cultures. As a language learner, I am passionate and committed. I expect the same from my students.

Therefore, I've decided to consciously reinforce this accidental trend and, henceforth, direct all of my marketing efforts towards professional, motivated, committed women.

There are plenty of ESL schools serving the "hack the TOEFL" crowd.

I prefer something with more heart and humanity.

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Guinea Pig

by AJ

Listen To This Podcast

I've read the research. I've seen countless students fail with traditional methods. I've seen others succeed wildly with an "effortless acquisition" approach. I can offer stories. I can offer examples. I can quote Krashen, Brown, McQuillan, Tse, Asher, Hastings, Murphy, Long, Kaufman, etc.

Only one things remains. One thing is lacking- direct personal experience.

I want to experience the power of effortless acquisition myself. I want to become fluent in a foreign language. After all, why should my students have all the fun :)

Three months ago, I began studying Spanish. When I started to design my learning plan, I drew on all of my past language learning failures, I drew on language acquisition research, I drew on my experiences as an English teacher, and I drew on the expertise of others who had already mastered one or more foreign languages. I put together a plan that emphasized comprehensible input (reading and listening), absolutely NO conscious grammar study, and the use of authentic materials.

Three months into the plan, things are going well. The most important success has been the change in my attitude. In the past, whenever I studied a language, I quickly became frustrated. I became confused, bored, and discouraged.

But this time, using effortless acquisition methods, I'm doing great. In fact, my motivation and enthusiasm just keep growing. I'm thoroughly enjoying my Spanish study. The only time I get frustrated is when I don't have time to study. I get REALLY annoyed when life gets busy and I have to miss a day or two of Spanish.

I feel no stress. I'm reading and listening to interesting content. Since I'm observing a 6 month "silent period", I feel no pressure to speak. I'm never tested or graded.

Week by week, I'm feeling more comfortable with Spanish. I'm recognizing more and more words. I'm able to understand more content and I can understand it at a faster speed. As a result, my confidence is growing. Of course I know I have a long way to go. And I certainly can't understand native speakers when they chat on the street. Spanish language TV is likewise far too difficult for me. But so what. No one is pressuring me or testing me, so I can be patient and enjoy the progress I'm making-- and can feel confident that progress will continue until I will indeed be able to chat fluently and understand Spanish language TV shows.

Even though I'm still in my "silent period", I've recently felt the urge to start working on pronunciation. I'm not concerned (yet) with rapid recall of vocabulary, or with being able to hold a conversation. But I feel that I'm now hearing the sounds of the language pretty well, and would enjoy trying to imitate them. Therefore, starting next week, I will begin devoting a little time each day to pronunciation practice.

This practice will take up 20% or less of my Spanish study time. The bulk of my time will still be spent listening and reading. In fact, I'll be using the same listening material for pronunciation practice- starting with Las Puertas Retorcidas-- a book/CD I finished about a month ago.

Since I'm just beginning, I thought it would be interesting to keep a record of my progress- in the form of recordings. Therefore, as part of this podcast, I'm including my very first speaking entry. Its a small passage from Las Puertas Retorcidas. In the months that follow, I'll occasionally post more recordings of myself speaking Spanish-- and let ELA listeners track my progress. Eventually, I hope to reach the point where I can record myself having short Skype conversations in Spanish-- at which point I'll switch my Spanish language chronicles to the currently hibernating "Espanol Natural" blog.

Here then is my first spoken Spanish:

You estoy nerviosa. Yo decido ser una nina valiente. Camino hacia la casa grande y misteriosa. Tengo mucho miedo.

In his autobiography, Gandhi wrote that the best path to wisdom is to experiment with one's own life. I completely agree. I look forward to sharing the results of this experiment with other teachers and learners!

San Francisco, CA

Friday, August 25, 2006

Real Life: The Ideal Textbook

by AJ

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Commercial textbooks suck.

I don't know what else to say about them. As a teacher, I find them random, overly complex, unnatural, and obtuse. As a student (Spanish), I find them confusing, boring, and useless.

Unfortunately, traditional language education is driven by the textbook industry. Most of the problems of traditional education can be traced back to the twin evils of textbooks and tests. Most language programs are textbook-centric. The book determines what will be taught and when it will be taught. Good teachers throw in some extra "communicative activities", but it is the textbook that determines the content of the course.

Despite the fact that these books suck, schools keep following them, teachers keep using them, and students keep buying them. Most students complain that their progress is slow. They complain that they can't actually use the language. Their teachers have the same complaint. Yet, they keep using the textbook. This is a classic case of "doing the same thing, but expecting a different result". In other words, this is insanity.

Is there another way? Of course there is. The best textbook is real life. Authentic materials are far superior to commercially prepared textbooks. Authentic materials are made for native speakers. They thus contain "real language"-- natural words, phrases, and vocabulary used by native speakers.

Its very easy to find authentic English materials, they are everywhere: Magazines, TV shows, movies, audiobooks, children's books, pre-teen adventure books, romance books, websites, blogs, etc...

But what about natural conversations? Students often tell me that they enjoy reading books and listening to audiobooks, but they don't get enough exposure to casual conversations. They point out, correctly, that audiobooks & podcasts use a more deliberate and formal style of English. They ask, "How can we improve our casual conversation skills? Shouldn't we study dialogues in textbooks?"

My answer is a resounding "NO!" I instead suggest that they carry a small tape recorder everywhere they go, and record conversations with waiters, English speaking friends, clerks, and even strangers. Stephen Krashen calls this practice "narrow listening". He suggests asking a native speaker to talk a few minutes about a subject of interest-- perhaps their family, job, or hobbies. You then listen to this recording many times to improve comprehension. This is an excellent idea.

But, to be honest, its still not ideal. If a student records a conversation with a friend, for example, most likely the friend will speak more slowly and simply than they normally do. They will probably choose simpler vocabulary words.

Thus, I've been thinking a lot about recording and transcribing natural, full speed conversations between native speakers only. For example, I might carry a digital voice recorder and record various conversations between me and my friends-- natural, unscripted, unplanned conversations.

The only problem with this plan is the transcription. Transcribing a conversation is very, very time consuming. It took me over an hour and a half to transcribe the short "Silent Period" conversation with Steve. Having text is important, as it makes the audio much more comprehensible. Unfortunately, I simply don't have time to transcribe conversations.

However, I may have stumbled upon a solution. I'm considering a program called iListen. Its voice recognition software for the Mac. Supposedly, its fairly good-- and would allow me to dictate a conversation and have it automatically transcribed as I speak. I doubt it could handle the original audio of a conversation, but I might be able to listen to the original with an earpiece, and then dictate to the computer.

If it worked, such a system would allow me to frequently podcast REAL conversations between native speakers AND provide text for each conversation.

The software is expensive, so it will be some time before I invest in it. But hopefully, in the future, I'll be able to create an audio/print "textbook" of real English conversations.

Hopefully this effort will inspire other teachers to use the same method-- and once and for all abandon commercial textbooks. Hopefully, communities of learners will create and share text/audio of conversations in their own native language with learners who want to learn their language.

In this way, the stranglehold of the commercial textbook industry could easily be broken. We could create our own textbooks, each and every one of us.

Real life, real materials, real conversations and real people are the only "textbooks" we need.

San Francisco, CA

Rapid Progress

by AJ

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Have you ever wondered how to make rapid improvement with your speaking ability? If you are a teacher, have you ever wondered how to coach your students to make such a breakthrough?

At the moment I have a semi-intensive private student. Her name is Eriko and she is from Japan. She just came to the United States two weeks ago and this is her first time to visit an English speaking country.

Like most Japanese students, she struggles with certain sounds, such as "l" and "r". She also struggles with natural English intonation and rhythm.

When we first met, Eriko told me that conversation was her number one goal. She has studied English for many, many years in Japan, but is very frustrated with her ability to speak. She told me that she has studied lots of grammar, lots of writing and reading, but has not been able to make much of an improvement with her speaking.

Of course, Eriko is like many students. So many students who study in traditional programs have the same problem. They study for a year, or two, or six... or even ten! Yet, they still can't communicate effectively with a fluent speaker.

I understand how frustrating this is. When we begin a new language, most of us are very hopeful and excited. We look forward to communicating with native speakers. Perhaps we look forward to using the language when we travel, in our job, or to make new friends.

But then we suffer the trauma of traditional education. We waste YEARS memorizing extremely complex grammar "rules". We study long lists of vocabulary words. We learn about the "passive voice" , "intransitive verbs", the "past perfect progressive tense", "countable and uncountable nouns", etc. We spend hours studying for tests. We work hard for grades or certificates.

And after all this work, all this boredom, all this confusion and suffering... we still can't USE the language!

Thus, when Eriko told me that conversation and REAL communication were her goals-- I understood.

And so, I developed a plan. I told her directly and clearly that I expected her to follow it- and that if she did so, she would certainly make a breakthrough within six months. With Eriko, I decided to be much stronger and more direct than I usually am with my classroom students. I decide to be her guide and coach, as well as her tutor. I decided to outline a clear method, that she could follow on her own, to reach her goal.

I expected her to follow the plan. I expected her to make progress.

What I didn't expect was for her to progress so fast. In just two weeks, she has significantly improved her pronunciation and general speech. She's happy and excited. I'm happy and excited. In fact, I think I might be more excited than she is! For me, there is no greater reward than seeing a learner make rapid progress towards their goal. Its a wonderful feeling to be part of that (even though you know they are doing all the work ;)

For intermediate and above students, who are already in the speaking stage, I recommend following the same plan that Eriko is using. Essentially, it is a version of the approach described by Steve at the Linguist, Dr. Stephen Krashen, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, Dr. J. Marvin Brown, etc.:

1. First Read
Every day, Eriko and I read several pages of Steve's book. I teach her vocabulary words and phrases that she doesn't understand, and we discuss the main ideas of each passage.

I also help her with pronunciation. We usually read each section twice or more. First I read it out loud, so she can hear my pronunciation. After she learns all the new words, I ask her to read the passage again, and I help her pronounce any words that she struggles with.

2. Listen
At the end of "class", I record myself reading the day's passage. This recording serves as Eriko's homework-- I ask her to listen (and read) two or more hours every day. Eriko keeps track of her listening time, and so do I. At the beginning of each class I ask her how much she listened the day before, and I write it down. Her goal is to accumulate 60 hours of attentive, repeated listening in one month.

Eriko's listening has three stages:

A. Listen For Understanding
First, she listens and focuses solely on the meaning of the passage. She listens to the same passage repeatedly, over and over again. She also reviews previous passages, conversations I have recorded (with my friends), snippets of movies I've recorded, etc.

Her goal is to listen repeatedly until she quickly and effortlessly understands ALL of the passage, read by me at a normal, native rate of speech. This may require 5, 50, or 500 repetitions.

B Listen For Pronunciation
Once she thoroughly understands a passage, she shifts her focus to the sounds, phrasing, ups & downs, stresses, and rhythm of the native speaker. Her goal is to clearly hear when my voice rises, and when it falls. She also tries to hear which words are clumped together in phrases (pronounced almost as one word), and where the pauses naturally occur. Of course, she also listens for individual sounds that she has trouble pronouncing, such as "r" & "l"

C. Listen & Imitate
Once Eriko can HEAR the sounds, tone shifts, phrasing, and rhythm, she tries to imitate them. I tell her to imagine that she is an actress, preparing for a part. Her job is to copy, EXACTLY, the speech of the person on the tape. I even encourage her to use hand gestures and exaggerated facial expressions in order to "get in character".

At the moment, I'm encouraging her to pay particular attention to English phrasing-- as many Japanese speakers struggle with this.

3. Review
The final piece of the plan is review. Every day, Eriko reviews the articles (reads them) and reviews the notes she took about the new vocabulary and phrases. This is done in a relaxed way, with no striving to memorize. Rather, she merely reads over her notes... each and every day.

As a result of following this plan, Eriko is making rapid progress-- far more rapid progress than I expected. Of course, she not only has a good plan, she is working intensely at it and is spending a lot of time each day doing it. She is motivated. She is enthusiastic. She has taken responsibility for her learning.

Eriko has identified her goal, she has a plan to reach it, and she's working that plan every day.

Thus, she is improving faster than any student I've ever taught.

San Francisco, CA

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Killers of Hope

by AJ

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ESL schools are the killers of hope. They kill the hopes of new immigrants.
--Humberto Soto

That damning quote is from a Venezuelan immigrant to Canada. Humberto and I talked last week. I hope to post a segment of the conversation as a podcast, as I recorded it.. but I need to get his permission first. During the discussion Humberto described his ESL (English as a Second Language) educational experiences. Humberto talked about how he spent 14 months taking classes and at the end of it all "couldn't speak a sentence of English".

Then he summarized his experience with the initial quote- referring to the ESL industry in general as "killers of hope".

The line stuck with me. Teaching in foreign (non-English speaking) countries such as Japan or Thailand, its easy to be flippant about the horrid state of English education. Most English schools and programs in Asia are, in fact, terrible. Most are designed to teach students how to "hack" a test. In the Japanese public school system, English education seems mostly to be a test of enduring boredom and misery.

But that doesn't really matter. Truthfully, most Japanese people don't need English. They can, and do, live successful, happy, enjoyable lives without English (just as most Americans live successful lives without knowing a foreign language). Most Japanese people do not NEED English. The same is true for most Thais and most Asians in general.

But the situation for immigrants is totally different. People who immigrate to Canada, Australia, America, or the UK desperately NEED English skills. Many highly educated immigrants, with great skills, get stuck in crappy jobs simply because they have poor English skills. Many immigrants become isolated in their small communities, simply because they lack English. Many are shut out of the country's political and cultural society, simply because they have not mastered English.

For immigrants, English is VERY important.

Most immigrants come to their new country full of hope. They hope for greater opportunities than they had in their home countries. They hope to build a new life. Most that I've known are willing to work extremely hard to better their lives. They are very motivated.

For example, my current school in San Francisco mostly caters to international students-- not immigrants. Many come late and most absolutely refuse to do any kind of homework or self study. Many do not have jobs, or work only part time.

On the other hand, I used to teach immigrants in Georgia, several years ago. These people all worked full time jobs. And they usually worked very difficult jobs. Yet they came to class and eagerly participated. At the end of class, they would REQUEST homework. They were full of motivation. They were full of determination. They were full of hope.

Which is what makes the failure of the ESL industry so damning. What is considered absurd comedy in foreign countries becomes brutal tragedy when applied to immigrants. When ESL programs fail immigrants, much more is lost than the chance to learn English. Dreams are lost. Hopes are crushed.

When I look back on my experience in Georgia, I feel a sense of deep regret. I failed those students. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing. So I followed the standard industry approach. I dutifully worked through a textbook. I taught grammar point after grammar point. When students asked me how to study at home, I suggested more of the same. Not surprisingly, their progress was slow.... or non-existent.

Today, my teaching is driven by that memory, and by the memory of my own foreign language failures. I refuse to fail my students today, the way I failed those enthusiastic immigrants in Georgia. I refuse to follow the accepted way of doing things, simply because thats what the students and administration expect.... or because it will help them pass some test. The only test I care about is the acquisition of authentic English.

Teachers in foreign teaching environments (EFL) may safely continue the farce with no terrible consequences. But I suggest that those in ESL environments, working with hopeful immigrants, have a deep responsibility. Their responsibility to these students trumps the expectations of their boss, or the government, or the bureaucracy. People's futures are at stake.

When the shit hits the fan, you must choose: will you be a giver, or a killer, of hope.

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Silent Period: A Conversation With Steve

by AJ

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I have transcribed part of the conversation I had with Steve last month, and reposted that section of the audio for my podcast. In this conversation, Steve and I discuss the idea of an initial "silent period" when learning a language. The "silent period" is the phase in which the learner focuses solely on input (listening and reading) and makes no effort to speak. This period imitates the natural process that all babies and small children follow when learning their own native languages.

The Conversation:

Steve: You had a post, on your blog,... which I think you called something like- laying down the gauntlet

AJ: (laughs) yes...

S: And you said that within two years you were gonna,... first of all you said you were gonna follow a... you know... I mean you talk... your blog is entitled "Effortless Acquisition".... or "effortless learning".. what's the name of your blog?

AJ: Yeah, "Effortless Language Acquisition".

S: Acquisition. And we are both, more or less, sort of influenced by the Krashen approach.. I think.

AJ: Sure

S: I think that's fair to say. And so we both feel that, uh, meaningful, interesting content... and the pursuit of content and the, sort of, desire to learn what's in the language... what's being said there ... if we then listen and read and, and, so forth.... that we will learn faster than if we, if we get tied up in rules of grammar.

AJ: Right.

S: I think that's one element of the Krashen thing. Uh, I think... the other element which I... and I... and here I go to... there's a fellow called Paul Nation out of New Zealand. And he's done a lot of work on vocabulary learning.

And uh,.. there's also a fellow called Tom Cobb, in Montreal. And uh,.. they believe, and I've spoken to Tom Cobb, and, and he agrees.. and I feel, and I think you feel that vocabulary trumps grammar.

AJ: Right.

S: You, You've gotta build up a lot of words. Uh, uh, particularly in the beginning. If you get too tied up with grammar.. you'll... its easier to get discouraged. If you have a lot of words, you know, if you know the names of a lot of things, you'll be able to say things... even if you make a mistake here and there.

AJ: Sure. Yeah. Absolutely.

S: So, uh... And that, that.. in time if you are learning words and if you are exposed to a lot of the language through listening and reading... at some point you can read the grammar rules, and it may provide you explanation for.. for things which by that time you have become familiar with so, therefore, the explanations make sense.

But until you have had that exposure and you've accumulated a certain number of words, the grammar explanations simply conjure up this,.. this idea of "this language is very complicated".

AJ: Right

S: And uh.. so I think we're both kind of "on the same wavelength". But I want to challenge one thing in your challenge, where you "laid down the gauntlet"..
I don't think it should take you two years to be fluent in Spanish.

AJ: Ahhhhh, really?

S: Oh yeah. No, no. It need not take two years.

AJ: Well that's good... that's encouraging.

S: Uh,.. How much time do you intend to spend...

AJ: Uhhh, I've.. you know... I've, I've been steadily getting more and more. I would say, if I average it out over the three months, since I started three months ago.. maybe an hour a day so far, but right now I'm probably hitting.. hour and a half to two hours a day.

S: Um, Hmm. And, and is it largely listening and reading?

AJ: Yeah, yeah... um.. 90 percent I would say.

S: Right. See I believe... and you, of course you live in Los Angeles..

AJ: San Francisco actually

S: San Francisco, Ok, but you have.....
AJ: Same thing

S: Spanish.. Spanish language radio stations, Spanish on TV,..
AJ: Yes.

S: Uh, and if you wanted to find some Spanish speaking friends you could.

AJ: Yes, absolutely.

S: So... I mean, if you spend an initial six months.. you've already spent three. Another three.. building up your passive knowledge, in a way... you know, becoming more and more familiar with words... becoming more and more familiar with words and phrases...
enjoying content.. listening to different kinds of content.. occasionally treating yourself to a movie, er... We've had this discussion whether movies are effective or not-- they're fun, so, I, I personally don't think they're very intensive language learning opportunities, but they're fun and they're stimulating..

If you do all of those things within six months you'll be able to comfortably talk to people about simple subjects.

AJ: Wow. Well that's good news.. you know, cause right now... I'm, I'm kind of at a point where its starting to gel... come together. The, uh, the.. the material, um, I'm understanding it better. It doesn't seem so alien and, and, and impossible... but, but actually producing it still... you know I mean I could put some words out there but its still,... eh, very hesitant,.. very kind of, eh...

Well , cause of course I'm not really focusing on that at all right now.

S: Right. And it is a little stressful. Like if you had to sit down for an hour and speak to someone in Spanish, and, and, I'm at that stage say in my Russian... its a little stressful, almost to the point of being a little bit annoying.

AJ: Yeah

S: Because you're forced to try to do something which you fundamentally know you can't do.

AJ: Right

S: I, I,... at least that's the way I look at it. I mean I can come up with a few sentences, but I'm looking for words and I'm getting it all wrong. And, so I'm in, in my Russian... eh... I'm not sure that I'm at the same level,.. place.. but we've spent about the same amount of time at it..

I want to get to where I've read a lot of Russian, and listened to a lot of Russian.. and then,.. and I've, and I've told this to this lady that I speak to half an hour a week.... that, you know, three months from now, yeah, we'll be speaking Russian. Right now its, its an exchange, I speak half an hour of English, she speaks half an hour of Russian.... but to me, within my Russian language learning,.. I consider the importance of the half hour conversation I have with her every week is..like.. very very low.

AJ: Ahh, right.

S: Very low. I, its not to me a priority at all. I've gotta increase my familiarity with words which,.. which I will do because I will have seen them in so many different contexts. And then I have a better chance of remembering them when I want to use them.

But I think the passive phase can be six months, without feeling badly that you can't express too much in the language.

San Francisco, CA

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


by AJ

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The number one advantage of individual learning is that its more intense.

I now have an individual private student named "Emiko". She is Japanese and we meet for 15 hours every week. Usually we meet 3 hours a day.

At my school, I teach an "intensive" class 4 hours a day. We meet four days for a total of 16 hours per week.

The weekly hours for each are thus about the same. But what a contrast! My private student and I waste very little time. In my school class, however, we waste tons of it.

Today, for example, Emiko and I chatted about her friends and family, worked through an article (a section of Steve Kaufman's book), learned new vocabulary, discussed the article's main ideas, practiced pronunciation intensely, and recorded a conversation with a waitress at a cafe. We also discussed Emiko's past English learning experiences, her goals, and her learning plan. Most of her time was spent directly with the language- reading, discussing, listening, writing. In other words, she spent most of that time focused on genuine communication.

By contrast, much time was wasted in my school class today. The first 30 minutes are always a waste, because almost none of the students come on time. They slowly file in and most arrive 30 minutes late, or later. Once we do get started, I inevitably get bogged down by one or more students who demand hyper-detailed explanations of vocabulary or grammar. I usually try to give a concise explanation, but often this is not enough and the student demands more detail, or debates my explanation, or ask more and more and more questions. These questions are usually about the form and structure of the language and relate only tangentially to meaningful communication.

Another classroom problem is that some students are easily distracted, or don't want to concentrate, or are bored by the material or topics I choose. When I put them in groups to discuss a topic, some will speak their native language. Others will chit-chat about small talk and avoid the discussion topic. Some play with their cell phones.

Finally, because the class is getting bigger and bigger, its more difficult for me to pay attention to individual students and their needs. When my class had only 6 students, it was easy to do. Now I average 17-24 and its nearly impossible.

Thus, a huge amount of time is wasted in the classroom. I therefore believe that even an "intense" school program is far less intense than a well executed individual learning plan. Two hours of intensive, repeated, comprehensible input is more effective than five hours of classroom instruction.

I'm trying to convince my classroom students of this. I've seen it over and over- students who follow a self-study plan focused on massive comprehensible input (repeated listening & reading) progress MUCH faster than students who only come to class.

And yet, most of my students don't believe me. Most still seem to think that school is enough- and that the teacher is the one who is responsible for their learning.

Tragically, this is a belief that severely inhibits their progress.

San Francisco, CA

Monday, August 14, 2006

Leadership 101

by AJ

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To be a better teacher, or coach, or tutor I must develop better leadership skills. This, now, is my quest.

I will begin simply. The first step I'm going to take is to follow the basic principles of "situational management" as outlined by Ken Blanchard. The beauty of Blanchard's approach is its simplicity.

Of course, leadership is a complex skill. However, at the moment I am at a very low level of competency. Right now, I need to develop a few basic skills that I can use in almost any situation with almost any client.

I will begin by observing the three basic principles of Blanchard's "One Minute Manager".

Principle One: One Minute Goal Setting
The first step, and perhaps the most crucial step, is to have agreed upon goals and a plan for reaching them. This has been a big weakness of my teaching thus far. I have not created measurable goals with my students. Of course we share vague goals such as "improve English ability", but such a goal is much too vague to be helpful.

Goals, ideally, should be measurable in some way. They could be "process goals". Such goals describe the ideal behavior and process the learner hopes to follow. For example, "I will listen to comprehensible English, repeatedly, for one hour every day". I like process goals because they create good habits. Process goals are the key to reaching "outcome goals".

An outcome goal is an end result. Its what you hope to accomplish at the end of a specific time. For example, "I will have a 2000 word Spanish vocabulary by may 2007". Outcome goals can be very motivating, but ONLY if the outcome is very meaningful and important to you, the learner. Otherwise, these kinds of goals can be very demotivating. For example, "I will get a very high TOEFL score" could be a very motivating goal if you have a strong, positive feeling about your TOEFL score and if this score has important real-life meaning to you (ie. you want to go to graduate school in America). However, if the TOEFL does not have a very important real-life meaning for you, you will simply see the test as something unpleasant and stressful. In such a situation, its better to avoid creating a goal about getting a certain score, and instead focus on process goals.

Another important factor regarding goals is that they should be measurable in some way. For example, when learning English with The Linguist you can use the system to track how many words/phrases you know. But if you don't have such a system, its very difficult to measure the size of your vocabulary and thus you should probably choose a more easily measured goal.

The final step in "one minute goal setting" is to agree upon a few goals (1 or 2 is best... don't choose too many) and write them down. These written goals should have a deadline. Both the coach/teacher and the learner should have a copy of the goals and both should sign them, thus creating a learning contract.

Step Two: One Minute Praisings
Once the goals are clear, the most important job of the teacher-coach is to encourage the learner. After all, the learner must do most of the work. Sometimes its easy to become tired or frustrated. The teacher's job is to notice what the learner is doing well and point it out. The teacher should praise the learner as often as possible.

But praise must be specific. Its nice to say, "you are a good student", but its better to say, "you are doing a great job of listening to interesting content more than one time. I like how you are repeating the content often and thus absorbing the new phrases. Keep doing this!"

In other words, the teachers NUMBER ONE JOB is to catch the learner doing something right.

Step Three: One Minute Reprimands
For students who are new, or who lack confidence, the teacher should follow only steps one and two-- clear measurable goals plus lots of praise. If a student is not confident, the teacher should not correct them. They should not criticize them. Constant, specific praise is enough.

Learners who are confident, well known, and motivated, however, can sometimes benefit from a short reprimand. For example, some high performers like to be pushed. If they are lazy one week, they want the teacher-coach to reprimand them and remind them of their goals. They want to be held to high standards.

According to Blanchard, reprimands should be done in a certain way. You do not simply criticize the person. Rather, you point out what they did incorrectly, then you remind them of their goals and how it should be done. Finally, and very importantly, you end with praise. You remind them of the positive qualities they have and of your respect for them. For example, "You didn't listen at all this week. That's not good. You need to listen more. Your goal is to increase your usable vocabulary by 500 words, but you will not do that if you don't listen. So this week, get back on track and stick to your plan. You are a motivated student and you are making progress. You are usually excellent and I'm sure you will continue to be".

That, in a nutshell, is the "One Minute Manager" approach. In my previous career as a social worker, I used this approach with my clients and it was quite successful. I'm hopeful I can find equal or greater success using it to help students learn English.

San Francisco, CA

Script On iPod?

by AJ

A listener/reader recently posted the following question:

"I'm a french people who try to improve her English by listening your podcast. I just discover this technology and I find it very interesting but when I get the podcast by I-tunes, the script don't appear....why?
So, I put it on the area "Paroles" (in french;-) in I-tunes but with my Ipod the script don't appear I only see your "description".

For example:¨
Podcast "Bad Business, Good Education"

Description "My thoughts on being a good teacher and a bad businessman. "
It's the only thing I see by my Ipod and would like to see
"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.

So, is it possible to you to put the script in the description or to explain how to see the script on the Ipod (because it's OK by Itunes)."


I'll try this with the next podcast. I will paste the entire script into the "description" section of iTunes. Please tell me if this works and if this is helpful. If this causes problems, please leave a comment and let me know.

Thanks for the suggestion!!

San Francisco, CA

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Belichik, Parcells, Saban, and EFL

by AJ

As I contemplate the lessons of "Good to Great" I realize that my classroom teaching skills are getting there. I need to increase the intensity & efficiency of my classes. I need to waste less time. I need to provide more comprehensible input. I need to provide more concise explanations. I need to review vocabulary more intensely, by having students encounter and use the words/phrases in a variety of contexts.

Those are very doable improvements. But they aren't enough to catapult my teaching from good to great.

What, then, do I need in order to make a huge breakthrough? What dramatic distinction am I missing? Where do I truly need to kick ass?

I believe the answer to those questions can be found by examining the very best NFL (National Football League) coaches. Every coach in the NFL is good. They have the basic knowledge and skills. They know how to drill the players. They know how to develop a good playbook. They know how to train the players and they know how to prepare for a game. That's what all the good coaches do.

But the great ones have something more. Great coaches go beyond the nuts and bolts of the game. Great coaches motivate and inspire.

These coaches know how to get the most out of their players. They have great leadership skills. They know how to articulate an inspiring vision in a powerful way.

Players on their teams routinely do more than is required. They voluntarily put in extra hours at the gym. They practice harder. They study harder. In the off-season, they don't slack off. They stay in great shape and improve themselves. Great coaches inspire their players to be the best they can be, even when the coach isn't around.

That's what I'm missing. To be blunt, I have no leadership skills. I don't inspire. I have passion, but its rarely contagious. I have a vision, but don't articulate it in a powerful and motivating way. I don't bring out the best in my students.

Often I bring out the worst. I'm basically a pushover in class and this seems to encourage a rather lazy attitude in my students. I rarely inspire students to go the extra mile or put in extra time outside of class. I'm a shit motivator and that's just the ugly truth.

But I have faith that this can change. I may not have the talent to be a Belichik, Parcells, or Saban... but I can certainly acquire better leadership skills. I can learn how to be more persuasive. I can learn how to better articulate a compelling vision of success for learners in my class. This I can do.

In fact, this is something that all teachers can do... and most should do. I'm not alone in my shortcomings, after all. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen the words "leadership", "compelling vision of success", or "inspire" used in an EFL publication. The EFL teaching resources I've seen seem to have had all passion and soul sucked out of them. They are filled with dead phrases like "best practices" , but devoid of phrases that carry even a hint of fire. Many publications go out of their way to subtract "the human factor". Administrators are even worse- for this is mostly a profession for the undead. There are no goosebumps in the literature, no flashes of brilliance in the bureaucracy, and nothing to stir the soul from its slumber.

Is it any wonder our students seem half asleep?

San Francisco, CA

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Flywheel

by AJ

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Today I went to Borders Bookstore at Union Square and scanned a booklet called (something like) "Good To Great for Social Organizations". Basically, this book takes the principles of "Good to Great", which is a business book, and applies them to schools, non-profits, etc.

Its a nice little book with great ideas.

The main thrust of the book revolves around the distinction between"bad", "mediocre" and "good" organizations on one hand, and the truly great ones, on the other. The book outlines what the author thinks are the most important factors that help an organization (or person) become great.

Since GREAT teaching is my goal, I read the booklet with interest.

The first factor identified by the author was passion. Great organizations have a passionate mission. They are driven to be more than ordinary. No problem. I've definitely got passion.

The second factor is what he called "Great People First". This means that great organizations (companies, schools, whatever) make talent recruitment and retention their number one mission. Stocking the organization with enthusiastic, excellent, passionate, amazing people is the first and most important secret to eventual greatness. Systems, policies, rules, budget issues, and all other concerns come way behind this principle.

Unfortunately, very few schools follow this principle. Most consider policies, rules, and procedures to be far more important than teachers. Most will readily sacrifice great teachers to preserve a bureaucratic rule, or a bosses ego. Most consider "policy" to be the driving force of the school, not people.

But since I'm an organization of one, I don't need to worry about such problems!

The next factor mentioned struck me as very important. Great organizations (or individual performers) have what Tom Peters calls a "dramatic difference". They don't try to be everything to everyone. They don't do what everyone else does. They identify what they can do with total excellence (Wow!) and that's what they focus on.

This is a principle that most schools (and teachers) neglect. They try to please everyone. If a student complains that they aren't reading enough in class, the administration will send out a memo to teachers to "do more reading". Then another student or two complains that they aren't getting enough speaking time, so admin extols the teachers to "get the students talking". Some students want traditional textbook grammar-based instruction and complain that there is too much talking & reading and the textbook isn't used enough. So teachers are told to "use the textbook more". But this makes many other students, who hate the textbook and consider it useless, unhappy. So they complain.

In the end, the school does a little of everything and a whole lot of nothing. The results are the same in almost every language school in America, Japan, Thailand, Korea, etc: Confusing grammar study, heavy reliance on commercial textbooks, and a dash of contrived "communicative activities". Boring. Ineffective. Mediocre. Useless.

Far better for a teacher, or school, to do what they strongly believe to be most effective-- regardless of what student's expect or are used to. If a school is truly convinced, due to research and practical experience, that comprehensible input is the engine that drives language acquisition- they shouldn't waste time doing other useless activities just to seem more conventional. Rather, to be truly great, they should focus on providing the most comprehensible input possible in the most interesting and effective way possible.

This is my mission as an individual teacher. I've made some progress. But now I'm working on the last principle mentioned in the book: The flywheel.

A flywheel is a metaphor for momentum. Imagine a large, heavy wheel... such as a gigantic Tibetan prayer wheel. To get it to move requires great effort. At first, it takes tremendous energy to turn it only one time. It happens very slowly. But you can't stop, you've got to keep pushing very hard to get it to turn a second time... and a third. Initially, and for quite a while, it seems you are making a lot of effort but not doing very much.

But very gradually, the wheel begins to turn faster. And faster. As it speeds up, it becomes easier to push. The wheel gains momentum. Eventually it gathers tremendous energy and moves at great speed. At this point, it only takes a little bit of effort to keep it going.

This analogy applies to any person or group striving for excellence. For example, as I push to improve my teaching, its seems that I'm getting better at a very slow rate. I try many things, and most fail. I get tired and frustrated and feel I'm making a big effort but not much is happening. Progress seems to be quite slow.

But I have made improvements. When I compare my teaching now to my teaching two years ago, I realize I have improved a lot.

The challenge is to keep pushing, keep improving, keep gathering energy, keep innovating & trying things-- until these efforts gather momentum on their own. The trick is to push for excellence even when nothing much seems to be happening.

This, in truth, requires faith-- faith in yourself-- faith that you will eventually build momentum and make a breakthrough-- to greatness.

In short, stay focused on what you do best, maintain your passion, and persevere until you make a dramatic breakthrough.

Don't settle for mediocrity.

San Francisco, CA

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Intensity & Efficiency

by AJ

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My worst criticism of traditional education is that it is incredibly wasteful. Vast amounts of time are wasted in the classroom. We waste time taking attendance. We waste time as students straggle in late. We waste time on long winded explanations and complicated grammar questions. We waste time on idle chat. At times, it seems that the last thing in the world the students and teachers want is to actually read, listen to, and use comprehensible language.

By contrast, individual study is far more intense and efficient. When I study Spanish for an hour, I'm getting a full hour of comprehensible input. I read. I listen. I read and listen again.

Another advantage of individual study is that it allows for repetition. In class, students whine about repetition. They get bored easily because they have a passive mindset from the start. But when studying as an individual, I can repeat the same content as often as I want or need to. At this point in my Spanish learning, I repeat everything at least 30 times. This would never happen in a traditional classroom.

My 1 hour a day of individual study is incredibly more effective than the four hours a day students get at my school. I get much more comprehensible input, much more repetition, much more vocabulary, and even more practical grammar.

When I study for an hour, I'm usually focused and motivated. But in the classroom, its common for students to be sleepy, to lose concentration, to become bored. They are not in charge. They are not choosing the content. They don't see themselves as totally responsible for their own learning. And so its easy for them to become distracted, bored, and unfocused.

Traditional education is not about learning. Its about societal programming. In school, you learn your country's official propaganda (called "history"). You learn various "facts" that turn out not to be facts at all. Eventually, you earn a diploma or degree that gives you the stamp of approval for work. You get a transcript showing that you had all "A's" in English or Spanish. But you can't understand or speak the language.

Don't confuse education with learning. Education has its practical uses for getting a job. But you won't learn a language well simply by going to school. In fact, school is probably the worst possible place to learn a language.

True learning, for the most part, happens outside of the classroom. Learning is what you do on your own. Learning takes place in the apartment, in a cafe, in the library, on the bus. You get no grades or transcripts for true learning.

San Francisco, CA

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Exceptions to the Mediocre Rule

by AJ

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The most common word my Japanese friends use to describe their English education experience is "trauma". They speak often of the "trauma" of English classes. They cite this "trauma" as the cause of their hatred of English and their low confidence.

Its a good word. Though "trauma" is too powerful a word for me, I realize that I too have many negative experiences with traditional language education. These bad experiences relate to both my language teaching (English) and language learning attempts (Japanese, Thai, Spanish).

In general, my encounters with the language education industry have been overwhelmingly negative. Most schools and most classes, quite simply, are overpriced, ineffective, boring, wasteful, and demotivating. At worst, they are "traumatic" for the learner, and for the enthusiastic teacher as well.

But I have found a couple of exceptions. One is my current school in San Francisco. While it is certainly constrained by some of the challenges that face all schools/classrooms, on the whole it is an excellent place that I have loved working at.

Due to prior negative experiences, I admit that I have constantly been waiting for the other shoe to drop. I've had a nagging feeling that things were too good to last, and eventually my school would turn a corner and become just like every other ESL/EFL factory.

In my last post, I bemoaned the hiring of a new teacher supervisor and predicted that this was the feared moment-- when the school's energy, enthusiasm, freedom, and innovation would die. Time will tell, of course, but I'm happy to say that my dread appears to be unfounded. Today I talked with the new "head teacher" for the first time and she turned out to be a delightful person with interesting and creative teaching ideas. She in no way struck me as a typical grammar-analysis textbook slave. Quite the contrary.

Which just goes to prove that however bad our past experiences with learning or teaching, we should not let them destroy our present attitude. We've got to let go of those experiences and start anew. We've got to have faith in our own abilities. We've got to find renewed enthusiasm for the language, and for learning & teaching.

After today's meeting, I am cautiously optimistic that my school will continue to be a great place to teach. And while school is never enough by itself, I'm optimistic that it will also continue to be a great place for English learners.

I base this optimism not so much on the new coordinator's linguistic background, or teaching methodology, or experience... but rather on the far more important attitudes that she seems to radiate: enthusiasm, flexibility, curiosity, energy, and creativity. For teachers and learners alike, these traits are FAR more important than so called "linguistic factors".

The second exception to traditional schools that I've found is the AUA Thai program in Bangkok. This program is as close to an "ideal language school" as I can imagine. To my mind, the program is exactly what a school should be-- a fun and interesting source of comprehensible input. In my observation journal for AUA, I criticized some of the weak points of the program.

However, I've rethought many of those criticisms. I now believe that most of those weak points were my own, and not the school's. My problem was that I relied solely on the school. I showed up with a passive attitude. I sat there and expected the AUA teachers to "teach me Thai".

But a school program, however good, is never enough. You must take control of your own learning. I should have been reading and listening to Thai outside of class. I should have been listening to interesting content repeatedly. I should have taught myself to read Thai, starting with baby books. I should have had Thai friends create audio versions for those books. Instead, I went to AUA and became frustrated at the slow progress. If I'd taken responsibility, the AUA program would have been much more powerful for me. It would have been a more effective learning resource.

Someday, I plan to return to Bangkok to finish what I started-- and do it right. Until then, I'm applying the lessons I've learned to my current Spanish learning plan. This time, I'm taking full responsibility for learning the language. I understand that I and I alone am in charge. I understand that no one can learn this language for me.

I am the one who must put in the listening hours and reading time. I am the one who must find content that interests me. I am the one who will make the process interesting and fun.

I, and I alone, am responsible.

San Francisco, CA


by AJ

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After a nice break from blogging, I took a peek at Steve's Linguist Blog and whoa... its jam packed with fantastic and interesting posts.

One general theme I picked out was his frustration with the established ESL "Industry"... including most academics.

I share his frustration. In fact, I'm almost to the breaking point. Though I generally enjoy teaching at the school where I work, I increasingly question the efficacy of the traditional school environment.

Also, as seems inevitable, small, innovative, interesting places grow-- and without fail begin to take on more bureaucracy and regulation. My school just hired a "teacher supervisor" who will begin regular observations of our classes. Usually these sorts of administrative bureaucrats favor the typical "industry" approach-- ie. plenty of tests, grammar-analysis, contrived exercises, and artificial textbooks. I'm trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, but my gut tells me it will soon be time to move on.

Luckily, my private teaching opportunities are suddenly taking off. I'm having an amazing time working with The Linguist, and am getting private students here in San Francisco and on the internet as well. What I love most about these opportunities is that they allow me to use and encourage learning methods that are more fun, more interesting, and more effective. No matter how much money I'm paid, I simply can't enjoy a job unless I feel good about what I'm doing and believe its the best possible approach.

The ESL/EFL industry approach is not the best. Not even close. Its a massively expensive and inefficient system. This industry has a horrible success rate. Learner (ie customer) satisfaction rates are abysmal. Students are made ever more dependent on the industry. A massive number of textbooks are sold at outrageous prices. Countless tests are created, taken, graded, and passed. Students learn a dizzying array of complex grammatical terms.

And after all is said and done, their progress with English is much poorer than Linguist students who pay a fraction of the price, ignore complex grammatical terms, have no teacher-bosses, use no textbooks, and are extremely independent & autonomous.

For the price of an ipod, a $35/month Linguist membership, and access to a computer lab, a learner can learn more quickly and effectively than one who spends $600+/month on school fees, $50 for a textbook, and endures a tremendous amount of boredom and nonsense in the process.

In the ESL/EFL industry, folks like me, Steve, David Long, etc. are considered heretics. So be it. I long ago tired of wrestling with entrenched teachers and bureaucrats. I'm not very interested in their dogma, to be honest. My concern and enjoyment lies with enthusiastic learners-- those who are actively learning a language... whatever their level. These folks are where the energy, innovation, and enjoyment lie. The school industry is peopled by the undead. Don't become one of them.

Abandon industry dogma. Abandon expensive schools. Abandon irrelevant and boring textbooks. Abandon large classes. Abandon teacher/administrator as boss.

In order to learn a language effectively and enjoyably, become a heretic.

San Francisco, CA