Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Math of English Learning

by AJ

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Let's do some math. Let's compare the cost and efficiency of attending a typical English school, with the cost and efficiency of supported self-study.

Most semi-intensive schools in San Francisco charge between 400-1000 dollars a month, for about 16 hours of classes per week. Let's say the average is about 500/month.

For 500 dollars a month, you get a class with 8-20 people in it-- or possibly more. Some of the learners in the class are serious and motivated, some are only a little motivated, and many are not motivated at all.

Also, some students will be above your level, and some will be below your level.

At the typical English school, the teacher will use an eclectic mix of grammar analysis, textbook based explanations, textbook drills, dialogue formulas, and contrived "communication activities". Much time will be spent discussing, debating, explaining, and questioning linguistic jargon such as "transitive vs. intransitive verbs", "countable and uncountable nouns", complex rules for using "definite and indefinite articles", verb tenses such as "the past progressive, the present perfect, and the past perfect progressive".

You'll spend hours disecting incredibly complex explanations for such simple phrases as "listen to the music", or "hear a sound", or "that's a lot of information", etc.

You'll waste a lot of time. You'll waste time while the teacher takes attendance. You'll waste time while students come in late. You'll waste time while the teacher explains something to another student that you already understand. You'll waste time taking exams. And you'll waste tremendous time on super-complicated explanations that you will quickly forget.

For all of this, you pay 500 dollars a month or more.

As an independent learner, you can do VERY well spending only 100 dollars a month, and can succeed paying half that much.

For 48 dollars, you could learn English with The Linguist. With The Linguist, you could chat with native speakers, and learners all over the world, using Skype. You would have access to a huge audio and text library. You would be able to use the Linguist system to find the meaning of new words, save them in a personal database, and review them. You could submit writing samples and have them corrected by a native speaker.

With your remaining 52 dollars, you could buy study guides, audio books, English magazines, English audio magazines, books, tapes, etc. every month. In other words, you could build a library of REAL English materials- not textbooks.

Not only would you have tremendous resources, for only 100 dollars a month, you'd also save a lot of time. Independent study is much more efficient. You choose exactly what YOU want to read and listen to. You choose when you want to study. You waste no time on lengthy and complicated (and, in my opinion, useless) linguistic explanations- instead concentrating on the real, living language itself.

You don't have to wait while other students get explanations. You don't have to feel frustrated by rushing ahead too fast. You set your own pace.

It is my belief- a belief shared by Steve Kaufman (of The Linguist)- that one hour of intensive independent study is equal to four hours of classroom instruction.

You will make the same progress by studying one hour a day on your own, if you use effective methods, as you will sitting in a typical English class for four hours.

Thus, the independent learner pays much less, spends much less time, uses more interesting materials, generally has more fun, and learns more quickly than the student who is stuck in a typical English classroom.

If you are serious about wanting to learn (or improve) English, supported independent study is the best way to do it!

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100 Real English conversations a year, with study guides, for only $9.99/month!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Podcast Problems

by AJ

The podcast host, LibSyn, is currently having problems with their network. So, you may have trouble listening to the Effortless English podcast right now.

They say the problems will be solved soon and everything will be back to normal.

Fingers crossed!

Get Learning Guides For Each Podcast.

100 Real English conversations a year, with study guides, for only $9.99/month!

The Dance of Learning

by AJ

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When learning any difficult skill, there is a dance that goes on.

We do not learn in a regular, linear, methodical way. Learning occurs in spurts. Sudden jumps in skill are interspersed with plateaus in which nothing much seems to happen.

Of course, we generally love the sudden improvements, and become very frustrated during the plateaus. Its easy to understand why. We were working hard. We were making fast progress. Then suddenly, all progress seems to stop.

We keep working. We keep listening and reading. We keep reviewing. We might even increase the time and energy we devote to language learning. Yet nothing much seems to happen.

At such times, its easy to panic. We start having crazy thoughts like, "I'm never going to learn English", "I'm not learning anymore", "this is impossible". If we indulge these feelings, we may start to lose our motivation. We become frustrated and depressed, and convince ourselves that we will never again make good progress.

During such times, its important to realize that this phenomenon is universal. It applies to learning ANY skill-- not just language learning. Athletes experience the same cycles of rapid progress and plateaus. At times, their strength, skill, and endurance improve quickly. At other times, they train intensely yet make only a little bit of progress. Athletes must deal with the same frustrations that language learners face.

What we must realize is that the plateaus are natural and necessary. In fact, many psychologists believe that the plateaus are where the real learning is taking place. While you seem to be making no progress, your brain is in fact processing all the new information, creating new neural networks, linking pieces of information together, and learning how to access and use it.

Your speech may not seem to be improving- but inside your brain, dramatic changes are happening. Once these changes are complete you "suddenly" make rapid progress again. In other words, what you do during the plateaus determines how much and how fast you improve during the learning jumps.

This relates to another common experience that most researchers and language learners recognize-- understanding is usually more advanced than speaking. For example, you may hear and understand a word many times before you are actually able to use it correctly in speech. Many learners complain about this. They are frustrated that they understand words or phrases but struggle to use them.

But native English speakers are no different. Various research shows that with native speakers, listening/understanding ability is usually about one year ahead of speaking/writing ability.

In other words, all the progress you are making right now, by listening and reading and reviewing, won't show up in your speech until next year! With speech, we generally have a long plateau. There is a long delay between learning new English and actually using it in conversation.

There is not much you can do about this. With intense practice, you can shorten the plateaus. But the best attitude is to accept them. Realize that they are useful. Realize that while you may feel you are not improving, in fact your brain is working hard. And most importantly, realize that the work you are doing right now won't actually show results for weeks, months, or even a year.

In this way, we must develop the attitude of professional athletes. We must realize that the benefits of training are delayed. You don't run 10 miles one day and expect to be faster and stronger the next day. It takes time for the body to adapt, change, and grow.

The same is true of the brain.

So..... even when you feel nothing is happening- keep listening, keep reading, and keep up your motivation. Enjoy yourself. Read and listen to interesting content. Focus more on communication and fascinating content than on obsessing about your progress.

If you continue to listen and read repetitively and consistently- your progress is automatically guaranteed.

So relax and enjoy the ride!

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100 Real English conversations a year, with study guides, for only $9.99/month!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Word Learner

by AJ

I just found an interesting web site called Wordlearner. This is a site that allows you to save new words in any target language. The site also offers review functions such as games and flashcards. It will make printable flashcards and you can also download software for your mobile phone- so your phone will help you review new words.

This is very useful software- try it :)

Get Learning Guides For Each Podcast.

100 Real English conversations a year, with study guides, for only $9.99/month!

Pronunciation: AJ and Steve

by AJ

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OK, here's the next part of my conversation with Steve Kaufman at The Linguist (To Learn English with The Linguist, Click Here).

In this conversation we discuss pronunciation, and how to improve it. We both agree that using phonetic alphabets and charts of the mouth & tongue are not very useful. I talk instead about the method I use with my private students in San Francisco- a method that Steve uses as well.

Of course, pronunciation is very important. You don't need perfect pronunciation- like a native speaker. But you must be good enough to be understood. If you aren't understood, than none of your vocabulary or grammar will matter at all!

So definitely work to improve your pronunciation. You can do it! Gambatte Kudasai!! :)


Get Learning Guides For Each Podcast.

100 Real English conversations a year, with study guides, for only $9.99/month!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

AJ and Steve- Confidence (C)

by AJ

In this conversation, Steve Kaufman and I discuss the importance of confidence when learning English. Confidence is absolutely vital. It is essential. You must believe you can do it. You must KNOW that you can and will learn English and learn it will.

Unfortunately, most traditional schools destroy confidence. They make you feel stupid with tests, grades, criticism, and teaching methods that don't work. As a result, most English learners have very low confidence.

But its not your fault. You can forget the past and start again. You can rebuild your confidence and make great progress!

Here is the conversation:

Listen To The Podcast Conversation

Learn English Free Podcast

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Idioms and Slang (C)

by AJ

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Welcome to Effortless English. In today's conversation, I talk to my mother about some of the problems that immigrants, and international students, and visitors to the United States often have when they try to communicate with Americans.

We begin the conversation talking about a co-worker of my mother's. My Mom works in a dental research lab and she works with a lot of doctors and dentists who are from other countries.

Mom: Now he does get a little stumped with,.. I forgot what the English word is,... kind of the slang that we use.

AJ: Uh-huh

Mom: He gets, um, you know, like someone will say "He got cold feet".
AJ: Uhm-uhm

Mom: He doesn't.. ha! He thinks his feet are cold.

AJ: Yeah, those are hard in all languages, you know, its a... cause, you know, they're metaphors basically.... and... you've gotta know what they mean.
Mom: Right, that's the word.

AJ: Spanish has a decent amount of those also. So, ha. So
Mom: Oh they do.

AJ: Yeah. Well there's a guy.. this guy that I work with.. this guy Steve Kaufman, who,.. he speaks nine languages. He's got this internet learning site.
Mom: Uh-huh.

AJ: But he really makes the point and he's totally correct, that, um,.. really in, in a language you have to learn phrases, not so much individual words.
Mom: Uh huh.

AJ: You know individual words will only get you so far.

Mom: Well, well that makes sense.

AJ: Yeah, and, and after that you've gotta learn phrases... that's how you learn the grammar, that's how you learn the slang. So its really,.. the phrases are the, the most important block of language that you've gotta focus on. And, you know, most people focus on just the individual words. And they struggle because of that.

Mom: There's, you know, there's so many of them. There's so many of them, that, uh, its its very confusing.
AJ: Uh-hmmm

Mom: And I think I told you one that, well, this, it wasn't Dr. Soto, it was a Japanese woman, uhm, student, that we had... and and Sharon said that her sister had a lead foot.

AJ: Uh-hmm

Mom: And (s)he said, "I'm so sorry".


Mom: You can tell your class that.

AJ: Ah, that's great.

Mom: She goes... Sharon goes "Ah,". She just,.. Sharon just stood there for a minute, she goes, "Oh no"

AJ: She just drives fast.

Mom: She drives too fast.

AJ: Yes. And you know they never learn that stuff, you know, they... that's the problem, all these English schools in America, in Canada, in Japan..

Mom: Uh huh

AJ: They're teaching them this kind of very formal written style of English.

Mom: That nobody here talks.. speaks.

AJ: Nobody speaks.. and even if they've studies eight years in Japan.. they've, they've.. you know, they majored in English in University.. that was their major... and they've taken it since middle school, and high school, and all through college...

And they come here and they're always shocked that, "Oh my god, I can't even.. I can't have a conversation with any Americans here. What have I been doing for the last, you know, eight years? "

Mom: Right. Right.

AJ: Because they never learned the real, the real language that everybody speaks. Not like, not like teenager slang, not special slang. But just the stuff that everybody knows... You know, if, if, if, you're grandma's age, or my age, or you're a teenager, you know, there are certain idioms and phrases that we all use.

Its kind of this, you know, they learn this kind of very formal dictionary English.
And, you know, just know one speaks like that. I still don't understand why all the textbooks are designed that way, and all the classes are designed that way.

Mom: Uh-huh

AJ: And yet, no one actually talks that way. Its, its just kind of a-- ha!
Actually, I'm, I'm starting a website.... in fact I'm recording your conversation. I forgot to warn you.

Mom: Oh, that's OK.

AJ: Uhm, ah, so I'm going to take little pieces, like our conversation.. maybe what we're... this topic... and maybe about Sigmund.. and I'm gonna transcribe them, I'm gonna write them down. And then I'm gonna define all the... like.. "lead foot". I'll use that one and I'll, I'll describe what that actually means.

And so, my, my hope is that students, you know, anywhere.. they can go to my website, and then they can listen to these conversations and they can learn, you know, the real English that we use. The idiomatic, normal speech.

And I'm recording conversations with Kristin, and I recorded some with Tiffany.. uh, because they, they so desperately need that.

Mom: Uh-huh

AJ: Its Its really sad, its really sad when I see my students come to San Francisco.. and they've, they've had all this English, and they think they're really advanced, uh, and then they're isolated. They don't make friends, they, they, they, they get really frustrated and upset because they, they struggle with just everyday conversations with people.

Its kind of sad because, you know, they come here with these dreams of making all these friends, and getting jobs here, and going to University, and then, and and they think that's gonna happen quickly and they... and that's when they realize, "Wow. All this education I've had.. they weren't teaching me anything useful."

Well, its not totally not, not useful.

Mom: Right

AJ: But there's a lot they missed.

Mom: Uh-hmm

AJ: And then they come here and people say, "Hey, what's up?", and they're, "Huh? What?". You no one... very few people actually say that whole sentence, "Hi. How are you?" You now, uh... maybe in a kind of formal setting, maybe, but... people are like, "What's up?", "Hey", "How's it goin", "Whatcha doin?",...

Mom: Right. Yeah.

AJ: And, and they're just shocked that no one actually uses the sentence they were taught from middle school,.. and no one says it.....

That's the the language learning system in,.. I would say, almost every country, but in Asia it seems, tends to be worse, and its this.. they learn these canned, kind of,...
Mom: Yeah.

AJ:... ways of speaking that are so unnatural. They're, they're, you know, they're studying these textbook dialogues and scripts..

Mom: Uh-huh....

AJ: And, you know, they memorize them by heart. Some classes they literally have to memorize these dialogues, word for word, and repeat them back.

Learn English Free Podcast

Monday, September 18, 2006

Remember Where You Were (A)

by AJ

Listen To This Podcast Recording

I just had an excellent discussion with students at the Linguist. (To Learn English With The Linguist (click here).

In this discussion, we discussed the power of beliefs and motivation. Positive beliefs can be very very powerful. If you believe you are intelligent, if you believe you are an excellent language learner, if you have total faith that you will master English, and if you have a deep interest in some aspect of the language & its culture-- you are sure to succeed.

Of course, it helps to have a good learning method. But even with a great method, you will probably fail if you don't have strong positive beliefs.

One problem that many language learners have is that they become so focused on their goal that they forget to celebrate their successes. I have this problem. I'm always comparing myself to better Spanish speakers. If I'm walking around San Francisco and hear Mexican people talking-- I always listen carefully. If I don't understand them, I become depressed. I think, "I'm still terrible at Spanish. I'm not learning fast enough".

This is absolutely crazy. I've only been studying Spanish for 4.5 months.

Of course its good to have goals-- especially measurable goals. But we must not become too focused on them. It is very dangerous to always be comparing ourselves to native speakers, or more advanced learners. Its dangerous because we tend to focus only on the negative-- My pronunciation isn't as good as theirs, my grammar is weak, I don't know enough words, etc.

When we focus only on the negative, we forget how much we have already accomplished. So its important to think about this sometimes. Think back 4 months, 6 months, 1 year. Remember what your English ability was like then. Even better, find some old content that seemed really difficult at that time. Read it and listen to it again. You may be shocked how easy it seems now.

I did this recently with Spanish. I'd been getting discouraged, feeling like my progress was slow. So, I listened to a story called "Patricia Va a California", which I used to listen to four months ago, when I first started. Wow! It seems so slow and easy now.

I realized that I have made a lot of progress. No, I'm not speaking yet. No, I can't understand native speakers on the street. But I'm understanding more of the content I read and listen to. I'm feeling more comfortable with Spanish. I'm enjoying it more.

Set high standards for yourself. Work towards your goals. But in the meantime, don't forget to remember and celebrate all the progress you have made-- and are making right now!

Building confidence is a vital part of language learning. Do it consciously. Do it regularly. Do it systematically. Change your beliefs, strengthen your faith- obsess over your successes!

Learn English Free Podcast

Homeless In Athens, Part 1B (A)

by AJ

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Part 1 B

The bathroom situation was not nearly so sublime. Mostly I managed with public bathrooms... restaurants, stores, and libraries took care of my needs. When necessary, I ducked behind a tree or into an alley. Again, I was more fortunate than many of Athens’ homeless population. Generally, I had a clean cut appearance and never had trouble using public bathrooms. Many homeless people, especially those who have been living in hard conditions for a long time, have become ragged in appearance and suffer a great deal more discrimination than I. They are refused access to bathrooms in restaurants or businesses and must often resort to the outdoors. Using the outdoors carries risk, as it is illegal. So a homeless person faces police harassment and a ticket for satisfying a basic bodily function.

Most homeless people will tell you that sleep, more than food or clothing or elimination, is their most difficult challenge. They are chronically sleep-deprived.... subject to terrible conditions at night--- biting insects, harassment from drunks, police checks, rain, noise, and extremely uncomfortable “beds”. I faired better than most, but rarely got a good nights sleep. My bunk was narrow, only two feet wide, and the plywood was hard (though certainly an improvement over the cement sidewalks that some use).

At night I covered the windows of the Nissan with burlap curtains for privacy. Mosquitoes plagued me relentlessly.... I’d lie awake in the windless heat and listen to them buzzing in my ears. I rolled and turned and swatted at my arms and legs.... unsure if I was feeling bites or imagining them. At times I sealed myself under a blanket to avoid the bugs....but this cut off air circulation... and I was soon sweating and panting and miserable- and still could not sleep. Every night this was my choice, between unbearable heat or biting bugs.

When I finally drifted off to sleep I was often woken up by drunks.... usually around 2:00am when the bars emptied. They never noticed or bothered me directly... but their shouts and fights and broken bottles jarred me from sleep- and I had great difficulty drifting off again. For the first few months, my own paranoia made it worse. I was terrified of being “discovered”....of being harassed or assaulted by violent drunken hordes. Such were my fears- but they never materialized. My threats were far more domestic: sleep deprivation was by far my worst enemy. In six months, I did not have a single good night’s sleep.

Often I’d curse my car, the heat, the bugs, and the drunks.... yet I was grateful too. My cramped home was far better than what many homeless people have. Many lack any sort of roof and must try to survive on benches or sidewalks. The sidewalk is a killer. The cement sucks the heat from your body even on the hottest of nights. You find yourself simultaneously chilled (from below) and heated (from the air above). You awake from the sidewalk aching and sore.... as if you’d suffered a light beating.

In the car I had privacy. I was never directly harassed or disturbed. But on sidewalks and benches there is none. Passing drunks yell at you- or throw things at you. Police wake you and tell you to move on. Store owners insult you. Rarely can you get more than a couple hours of rest..... fitful and wary. More than they are hungry or sad or cold,.... most homeless people are bone-tired.

Despite deep fatigue, everyday I woke up soon after sunrise- the sun turned my car into a solar oven. Groggy and sore, I rolled out of the bunk, took down the curtains, and drove to a park. Athena and I would walk for an hour or so, to stretch our bodies and work out the aches... and then I’d find a soft spot under a tree and take a nap. These naps helped a great deal. They were far more restful than my bug infested nights.

Somewhat rested, I’d feed Athena and cook my breakfast in the parking lot ( a package of instant oats). I’d then make my way to the library to check email and work on my blog (www.effortlessacquisition.blogspot.com). There is, in fact, a large community of homeless bloggers... who use free access to library computers to record their experiences on the streets of America. The most famous of these is “The Homeless Guy”, a man who has been chronically homeless for twenty years. The Homeless Guy suffers from severe clinical depression. He has, at times, had jobs and housing, but loses them when the worst of the depression kicks in. Most of the time he lives in shelters or on the street. He uses his blog to tell his story, and to advocate for dignified treatment of all homeless people (www.thehomelessguy.blogspot.com). The diversity, and the quality, of these “homeless blogs” is astounding and certainly challenges the stereotype of lazy and inarticulate beggars.

After a few hours at the library I would return downtown. For the price of coffee I rented a seat outside Blue Sky Coffee Shop-- where I’d sit for long hours. I watched the businessmen hustle and the students scurry off to class. There I’d sit..... reading, scribbling, sketching. And it was there that I gained a bigger window into Athens’ homeless life.....for I was often joined by others who’d scrounge a cup of coffee and join me. This is how I met Mike....

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Homeless In Athens, Part 1A (A)

by AJ

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Part 1 A

For six months I lived homeless in Athens, Georgia (USA). Actually, “homeless” is not an accurate term, as I did have a home- a 1986 Nissan Sentra, which I shared with my dog Athena. Inside I built a bunk bed- a two foot wide plywood platform that stretched from the rear dash to the front dash. This makeshift bunk allowed me to stretch out fully when I slept, though it was far from comfortable. It gave me only three inches of room between my nose and the roof of the car. I slept directly on the plywood and covered myself with a thin sheet. Athena slept on the back seat, below the bunk on a thick dog bed.

Still, I was reasonably comfortable... and certainly better off than most who are thrust into homelessness involuntarily. I chose to be homeless, and could thus prepare for the experience. The Nissan sheltered me from rain, gave me a small degree of privacy, and provided a secure place to keep my possessions.

I had only a simple and extremely practical wardrobe... chosen for its utility more than its fashion. I had an umbrella and a wind breaker. I had a sheet, a pillow, and a fleece blanket for cold Spring nights. For cooking I used a propane stove, a set of backpackers’ pots, one fork, and one spoon. I had a few books and pencils and pens for sketching. I also had a small bag with basic toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, razor, toilet paper, and biodegradable liquid soap. I had one towel. In a pinch, most of my possession could be stuffed into a large book bag, and yet I had far more than most who live on the street.

The two most common questions I was asked, when someone learned of my living situation, were: “How do you bathe?” and “How do you use the bathroom?”. Bathing was simple.....in the Spring, when the weather was cold, I made due with sponge baths. Typically I’d find a lockable public bathroom and bring my towel and toiletries in a book bag. Once inside, I unpacked and washed one body part at a time... using a small sponge and the bathroom sink. I moved quickly and could clean my entire body in less than five minutes. Once clean, I towelled off- then cleaned the bathroom to leave no evidence of what I’d been doing. I needed these bathrooms-- and did not want to arouse suspicion or resentment from the owners.... I tried to practice a “low impact” form of homelessness.

When the weather warmed in summer, my options became more pleasant: I bathed in the Oconee River... in a secluded cove at sunset. This was a sublime experience: River flowing quietly... sun painting the sky pink and purple..... overhead, trees swaying to a gentle breeze and in the distance- a heron gliding from one rock to the next. The river water was brisk and invigorating and seemed to provide a deeper cleaning than the chlorinated showers most of us use. Birds sang to me, the river whispered, and the trees danced. I left the river each night not only cleaner, but calmer and happier as well. Bathing outdoors under the open sky was my favorite experience of being homeless.

Learn English Free Podcast

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Lessons From Video Games

by AJ

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Educators can learn a lot from video games. Good video games are, in fact, highly addictive learning experiences. The novice player is guided through ever-increasing levels of difficulty and challenge. This process is full of "failures"- ie. death, loss, etc. And yet, most gamers LOVE the experience. A failure in a video game is seen as a learning experience and a challenge.

Contrast this to the typical English class. How many schools treat "failures" as positive (and fun!) learning experiences and challenges? And thus, how many students have this viewpoint? In school, failure is a terrible, humiliating, and shameful thing.

What's more, students are rarely given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. The worst example of this I ever encountered was at Thammasat University. Instructors were not allowed to review the answers to a test after it had been graded. We could not go through the test and help the students understand the correct answers. The test was not a learning tool, it was a weapon for degrading students and boosting the authority of the university & teachers.

Another important aspect of video game learning is that learning occurs in "sub domains". The "domain" is the "real" environment- in this case, the full scale, normal level of the game. Novice game players rarely use an instruction manual-- perhaps they scan a small pamphlet to see how the controls work- but that's usually all.

Rather, most games come with built in learner scenarios that match the full game quite closely. For example, in the American Football Game "Madden 2006", the novice can play scrimmage games, practice plays against a "practice squad", or play full games in "novice mode". The important point is that the training module closely resembles the full game dynamics- only its simpler and easier. The gamer learns by actually doing.

English schools are exactly the opposite. Schools are obsessed with manuals, ie. textbooks. Students spend the bulk of their time reading the manual, studying the manual, memorizing the manual, discussing the manual, and being tested on the manual. This is learning by analysis, not doing. In fact, many students will spend 3, 4, 5, 6, or more years studying English manuals without ever really "playing" with authentic English-- without ever really communicating.

The English school is NOT a subdomain of the real environment (an English language speaking environment). The English school and manual have almost no resemblance to the environment in which the student actually hopes to perform. And so we see the same sad story again and again-- students who have "studied" English for 6 years, but can barely communicate beyond "How are you? I'm fine, and you?"

As teachers, we should be doing a MUCH better job. We should create English learning environments that closely resemble the real English environments that students will perform in.

Most students say that conversation and verbal communication are their most important goals. They want to be able to talk to native speakers (and other foreigners) in a clear and confident manner. They want to understand native speakers, and be understood by them. Writing excellence, TOEFL scores, and special interests (ie. Business English, English for Scientists) usually come after the most important goal- the ability to communicate in everyday spoken English.

So how should we be teaching these students? In English language education, what constitutes a subdomain? In other words, how can we create learning modules that are simpler and easier, but which still closely approximate the real English environment students plan to operate in?

Of course, there are many answers. But I've got one-- Real conversations. No more scripted dialogues. No more idiotic actors reading textbook English. No more grammar analysis, isolated vocabulary wordlists, linguistic terminology, textbooks, exams, grades, humiliation, or mindless drills.

Real conversations. This is why I've decided to launch a website for students-- to provide REAL conversations, by REAL people (not actors), talking about their REAL lives. Unscripted, unplanned, natural conversations from everyday life. Step two is to make these conversations simpler and easier for the student- which I will do by providing full transcripts and a learning guide for each conversation. The guide won't use any linguist terminology- just the simplest explanations or synonyms possible (and for Japanese students- the simplest translation).

This is a much closer approximation of the real life English environment in which students will perform-- but made easier and simpler. Recordings also provide another benefit- for just like a videogame, they can be played over and over again. If the learner "fails" to understand the first time, its no problem. They just play it again.

Week by week, I will build my library of real conversations. I've been recording phone calls with my sister, my mom, and my friends. I carry a small digital recorder everywhere I go now- and likewise record chats with friends and strangers.

As I transcribe these, I've been very surprised. Actually typing out the conversations word for word makes me see just how different these real conversations are from the dialogues you see in textbooks. They are totally different. The truth is, no one talks the way the textbook tapes do. No one. So why are we teaching students this nonsense?

Unfortunately, these ideas are hard to use in schools. I've encountered nothing but resistance and denial at every school I've worked at. The rules are too entrenched. The attitudes too rigid. Schools are the worst possible places to innovate. The administrators are mostly focused on keeping everything and everyone under control, following the rules, doing what has always been done. Teachers are mostly focused on preserving their perceived control, power, and influence. Both groups are utterly enthralled with the textbook industry and can't imagine a class without grammar points, long vocabulary lists, "communication drills", dialogues, tests, and grades.

And so, I feel the internet is the best possible place to both "teach" and learn a language. Nowadays, with the wealth of authentic material available, with online dictionaries and portable software dictionaries, with podcasts, with learning systems like The Linguist, with Skype, with Amazon.com-- there is simply no reason to waste time and money on a traditional language school.

My short advice to students is this: Don't waste your money on a school. Do it yourself!

Learn English Free Podcast

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

11 Cats, 4 Dogs, and a Baby!

by AJ

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I talked to my sister today. She lives in Indiana, in the middle part of the United States.

Today we talked about Tiffany's house and some work her and her husband are doing to it. Tiffany is an avid animal lover and she is married to a vet (animal doctor). Her and her husband Andrew are always rescuing hurt and sick animals. So now they have 11 cats and 4 dogs! Two of the cats are sick with feline leukemia- an incurable disease. These cats must be separated from the other healthy cats.

In addition to all these animals, my sister now has a new baby- Isabella. Isabella is just starting to move around by herself- and she will be crawling soon.

Because of this, my sister and Andrew decided to take out the carpet from their living room and replace it with a wood floor. Carpets are quite dirty and they didn't want the baby crawling on it.

In this conversation, Tiffany and I talk about Isabella, the animals, and the house. Tiffany and Andrew just got back from a vacation- and they left the baby with my Mom. They felt insulted because Isabella was very happy with her grandmother and didn't seem to miss Tiffany and Andrew at all!

Here is the conversation.

(I am busily working on my new website for students and hope to have a test version ready soon. I'll put the full text transcript for this conversation on the site, as well as a word list to explain difficult words, phrases, or idioms). Coming soon!

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Learn English Free Podcast


by AJ

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"Do as I say, not as I do."
--My Dad

"Learning English should be fun! If it isn't you'’re learning the wrong way. Half the fun of traveling, they say, is the journey. Well, that'’s how we feel about learning languages. "
--Steve Kaufman

When training for my first marathon, I sometimes became stressed. My life would get very busy. Perhaps I had a lot to do at my job. Or maybe my social life became busy. Whatever the reason, there were times in which my time and energy were committed to other things and I couldn't train the way I wanted to. I would miss training days. Other days, I'd go running, but I'd feel tired and would run quite slowly. The worst weeks were when I missed a long run- the most important run of the week.

At such times, I'd get stressed and worried. I'd think, "I'm not gonna make my goal. I'm missing training days- this isn't good. I've got to run more. I've got to train harder." The busier I got, the more I worried.

At a certain level, this sort of worry was helpful. It showed that I was very motivated. It showed I was serious about my goal of finishing my first marathon in under 4 hours. The worry gave me a kick and made sure I didn't slip too much.

But all things in moderation! Past a certain point, this kind of worry is counter-productive. It began to erode my enjoyment of running. When I worried too much, running became stressful. It became a chore and a duty instead of a fun, healthy, and engaging activity. This worry also effected my job and social life. I began to feel guilty about working late, or joining my friends for a weekend camping trip.

Finally, I realized that my 4 hour goal was good-- but that I had to remember the larger goals-- to enjoy running, to complete a marathon (with any time), and to enjoy the process of training- not just the end result. I forced myself to relax! When life became busy, I missed some runs. When I felt tired, I ran slowly and was happy to just be running- instead of obsessing about speed and time. This was an important change. This change in attitude allowed me to balance running with other aspects of my life and encouraged me to focus more on the experience of running rather than a time or finish line.

I'm reminded of this experience because I've experienced the same problem with Spanish lately. During the past 4 weeks, my life has become extremely hectic. My hours increased at my school, I've been teaching a lot of private hours, I'm still tutoring with The Linguist, and I'm working on my website. Plus, I have friends and I like to spend time with them.

And so, Spanish study has suffered. I missed some days. Other days, I studied but my energy and focus were low. I just wasn't learning as well or as fast as I had been. I got stressed. I got worried. I began to resent my jobs and even my social life. They were interfering with my Spanish goal- Dammit!

Well, finally I realized that this attitude is crazy. I forgot my biggest goals-- to reach fluency with Spanish and to enjoy the process. In the end, it doesn't matter if I become fluent in one year, two years, or three years. However long it takes, I won't get there if the process is stressful and unpleasant.

So, I've given myself a new rule: Relax.

What's funny is that this is my Number One rule for my students. Literally. When I begin a class with new students, I write my rules on the board. Rule 1 is always: Relax! I tell my students that relaxing and enjoying the language is the single most important factor for success.

But I was asking them to "do as I say, not as I do".

Not anymore. I will keep learning Spanish. I'll still read and listen about one hour a day- sometimes more, sometimes less. But I will miss some days. And I'll be tired some days. And that's fine.

Learning a language is much like training for a marathon. Any particular day is not very important. What's important is overall consistency over a long period of time. You can miss a few days so long as you enjoy the process and keep going-- week after week, month after month.

And so my best advice to frustrated students is-- "Do as I say, not as I did-- Relax!!"

And by the way, I still reached my four hour goal for that first marathon-- 3:48:00 in fact.

Learn English Free Podcast

Friday, September 08, 2006

Wat Struggles With Pronunciation

by AJ

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This is a conversation between my best friend Kristin, a Japanese student, and I.

In this conversation, we discuss the problems Kristin's boyfriend is having with pronunciation. Her boyfriend is named Wat. He is Thai. Wat taught himself to speak English-- all by himself. He learned by listening, and by trying to communicate with foreign tourists in Bangkok. Wat sold jewelry on the sidewalk. His story is amazing.

Wat moved to San Francisco one month ago. Although his spoken English is great- he does have one problem-- pronunciation. Wat has a strong Thai accent. This didn't cause him problems in Thailand, but it has caused some problems in America.

In this conversation, We discusses Wat's pronunciation challenges. Kristin mentions some of the frustrations she is having trying to convince Wat that pronunciation is important. We then discuss the reason why it is important to have good pronunciation.

Here is the conversation:

Kristin: Last night he was trying to say "tools".

Student: Tools?

Kristin: Like hammer, and screwdriver... you know. Like if you're making something. So.... putting together....

AJ: Yeah, all those things are tools. Hammer, screwdriver, anything you use to make something.

Kristin: So he's trying,.. last night he's trying to say "tools" but he's saying "two"... "two". So I think he's saying "two".
So for five minutes I'm saying, "I don't understand-- two?"

And he kept saying "two, two" and I was like "two.... two what?"
Yeah, sometimes it can be very difficult.
Trying to get him to say that.. the "s" sound is almost impossible.

AJ: The final "s"

Kristin: Yes. That's what happens when...

AJ: Thai people, they chop the ends off

Kristin: They chop the ends off of words. That's why its,... like, if he just finished-- "tools", I could understand. But he's cut, cut it... "two, two"

AJ: "Two, two" yeah. They make everything kind of shorter. Yeah. That's why I was telling her about enunciation, right, and I was... because she was practicing her pronunciation-- like if she focuses on "r" and "l" she doesn't... not like a Thai person... but other sounds become weak, so I was trying to tell her, you know, try to pronounce every sound in the word.

And, even... even if it sounds a little unnatural, you know, more like an actor. Still, you know, that pronunciation will be very clear. Its tough.

Kristin: I try... I try to do that with Wat. I haven't said that to him, but I try to encourage that and he's... I think he feels weird doing it.

AJ: Um, hmm.

Kristin: So he doesn't. Uh, like last night finally he's, like, "Oh whatever".
Uh, when I finally realized what he was saying, I was, like, "tools" and he's like "Whatever".

And I was, like, "Don't say whatever. You're here now and people aren't gonna understand you. You need to work on that"

AJ: I think that, you know, that obviously he needs to learn to read, but I think he also needs to work on pronunciation.

Kristin: He does.

AJ: Because a lot of people don't understand. And that makes his life more difficult here. I mean, he's trying to talk to Americans and they don't understand him. That will be frustrating to him... cause problems.

If his pronunciation is good, even if he can't read he can ask someone- "Hey where's this? " And if they understand him quickly.. its no problem.

I was trying to tell her that, you know, I think her pronunciation is quite good... and...

Kristin: It is. Yeah.

AJ: And I said that's good. That helps a lot. So, you know, like, Wat... or someone else with more of a strong accent,... many times Americans get frustrated.

They don't understand you the first time, they, they become frustrated and they stop listening. They're, like, "What, what"... and they just.... you know.

We're teachers so we'll be patient. But, but many Americans will not be patient. They'll just, like, "OK, whatever".
You know, they just stop listening to you... and.. so its, it is important.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Conversation About Sigmund: Study Guide & Podcast

by AJ

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This podcast presents a real, unscripted conversation I had with my best friend Kristin. I recorded the conversation in her apartment.

Kristin has a cat named named Sigmund (nicknamed Siggy). Unfortunately, Sigmund was diagnosed with an incurable form of sinus cancer. My brother-in-law is a vet, and he said that there is no cure for this cancer. Neither surgery nor drugs nor chemotherapy can cure it. He said that most cats only live about three months once this particular kind of cancer is diagnosed.

Kristin has a very close connection with Sigmund. She's had him for over 13 years, since he was a kitten. She was very upset about Sigmund's diagnosis. But she has decided not to give up. Since traditional medical science has no cure, Kristin has decided to try to treat Sigmund with natural herbs, supplements, and remedies. She researched cat sinus cancer on the internet and found a few suggestions for natural treatments.

Here is Sigmund's standard treatment plan:

Transfer Factors: These are immune boosting components taken from cow colostrum (in the milk) and chicken egg yolks. This supplement is supposed to boost the immune system.

Flax Seed Oil: Many natural vets recommended flax seed oil as an overall health booster. Some claim that flax oil has anti-cancer and immune boosting properties.

Blessed Thistle: This is an herb. It increases appetite and boosts general health. Kristin got a liquid tincture and adds it to Sigmund's water.

Licorice Root: This herb (also a liquid concentrate) thins mucus and thus helps Siggy breath (since the tumor partially blocks his nose).

Digestive Enzymes: Cooking food destroys natural enzymes in it that aid digestion. So Kristin gives Sigmund a digestive enzyme capsule after every meal.

Fulvic Minerals: This is a multi-mineral and trace mineral liquid supplement that Kristin adds to his water-- which is supposed to boost his general health and immune system.

Raw Food: Kristin adds a bit of raw cat food (not cooked, bought at a pet store) to Sigmund's canned food. The raw food is supposed to contain a lot of healthy enzymes, vitamins, minerals, etc.

Other supplements she sometimes uses:

Q10: This is an anti-oxidant that boosts the immune system.

Shitake Mushroom capsules: Shitake mushrooms have anti-cancer properties.

Cat's Claw: This is an herb that boosts the immune system.

Essiac: This is an herbal blend that is rumored to have immune boosting and anti-cancer properties.

Terramin Clay: This clay is rich in minerals and is also supposed to have de-tox properties. It is added to the water.

Kristin has been following the "standard plan" for about a month. It seems to have helped Sigmund. His general health seems good and he seems generally happy and comfortable. The swelling around his eye and nose, caused by the tumor, has not increased.

However, it has not decreased either. So Kristin bought the additional supplements (Q10, Shitake, Cats Claw, Clay, & Essiac). This Monday, she gave him all these new supplements on the same day. It was too much. Sigmund vomited (threw up) shortly after getting all these pills.

So, when I went to Kristin's apartment, we discussed this problem and what to do about it.

Here is the discussion:

AJ: Yeah, so anyway I think that.... I think that, you know, we've established a pretty good routine with his, uh, you know, the raw food....

just the Blessed Thistle in the water, the licorice stuff in the water. The Transfer factors I think are pretty good. Flax seed oil is supposed to be really good, and...

what else do you give him everyday?

Kristin: The minerals.

AJ: Oh yeah, the minerals in his water. You still... you got those in his water again?

Kristin: Not right now, I have the,.. only the clay.

AJ: Ahhh.

Kristin: That's why yesterday I gave him a syringe-full of, ahh, minerals, the Blessed Thistle, and the Licorice Root.

AJ: And he barfed.... I think that.....
[barfed= vomited]

Kristin: It wasn't just that it was everything.

AJ: Yeah, I think that the minerals are also supposed to be diluted in water maybe.

Kristin: Oh.

Kristin: They usually are, that's the first time I've done that cause
(AJ: Cause he was....)
Kristin: I hadn't given him any in a few days.

AJ: And he was drinking it all down fine before right? When it was in his water...

Kristin: Yeah

AJ: So, you know, maybe go back to all that routine.. and then just the other stuff is just kind of maybe a little extra supplement. You know, one extra thing a day-- either the Cat's Claw or the mushrooms or the Q10 is probably plenty.

Kristin: After a few days?

AJ: Yeah, like maybe, maybe tomorrow just do the standard thing. I mean, go... maybe when the clay is... when you're done with that, go ahead and put that..... the minerals back in his water. And then, uh...

Kristin: Yeah

AJ: Yeah, just do the basic stuff, for tomorrow and... then maybe after that you can test him with one thing, one of the pills... of the pills..., with food.

Does he ever eat the catnip?

Kristin: He has been.

AJ: Oh really.

Kristin: So all this time he's been throwing up in the past several days...

AJ: Yeah.

Kristin: He's started eating it a little bit.

AJ: Does he get crazy?

Kristin: No, I don't.... I think he kind of just pulls it off and...
AJ: Chews on it?
Kristin: Chews at it but doesn't really take it in... ingest it.

(Sigmund comes out from under the bed, AJ talks to him)

AJ (to Sigmund): Hey Mr. Sigmund. Whatcha doin boy? Hello boy. Ooohp, he's gonna eat some Catnip.


1. Catnip is a plant that many cats like to eat. It has a calming effect on many cats. Many cats also love to roll around and play after eating it. Some people call Catnip "Kitty Marijuana"!!

2. As always, I recommend a specific study method for using this podcast- especially if you are below the advanced level.
First, read the text, which is located on my blog at: www.effortlessacquisition.blogspot.com
Use an online dictionary to find words you don't understand.

Second, Listen to the audio podcast while reading at the same time. Do this many times-- the more the better!

Third, Listen only, without reading. Do this once you can understand all the vocabulary quickly. Listen many times. Download this file and put it in your iPod or other MP3 player.

Finally, fourth- Listen, pause, and then imitate the pronunciation (including individual sounds, words, phrasing, and rhythm) of the speakers. Try to sound exactly like them.

Good luck!

The adventures of Sigmund will continue in later podcast episodes.

Learn English San Francisco
One on one english instruction
Authentic real english, no textbooks

Identity: Podcast

by AJ

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Identity is a powerful thing. What we believe about ourselves- and how we define ourselves- will determine our speed of progress, our enjoyment of a language, and our ultimate success or failure with a language. A negative identity can destroy our motivation and thus our ability to learn a language quickly and easily. A positive identity can do exactly the opposite- it can be rocket fuel for our language acquisition engine.

Tony Robbins, an inspirational speaker, talks a lot about the power of identity. In a CD of his called "Lessons In Mastery" he makes the following point:

"See, to get to where we wanna be we gotta take on a new level of thinking. We gotta know that what we've done up until now has been great- there's nothing wrong with it, its fantastic.

But to get to the next level we've gotta look at life in a new way, and one of those new looks is we gotta perceive ourselves in a different way. Not just our capability, but who we are right now. Not someday. Today.

That shift begins the minute you begin to consciously define yourself, instead of letting the environment do it for you. Cause think about it- how do most of us define ourselves? Where do we come up with our identity anyway? Well it comes from a variety of environments but maybe the best way to answer the question is to ask a different one: How do you define the people around you? How do you know if they're a friend- if they're a good person or not?

The way we define other people. The way we discover their identity is we watch them. We listen to them. We judge people's identity usually by their behavior. Isn't that true?

I mean think about it, somebody treats you real harshly several times, each time you're around them-- pretty soon you go, "I know that person. That person's a jerk."

You know what the challenge is? Once you decide that they're a jerk, and if that becomes a belief- or worse, if that becomes a conviction where you KNOW they're a jerk-- nothing's gonna change your opinion about it. Then even if they're a really nice person later on, they were just having a horrible day, maybe they were being a jerk that day, but that's not who they are.

Once you define them that way, guess what, nothing they can do can change it.

So you gotta know that sometimes we do the same thing to ourselves. That's the danger. "

Tony makes a good point. Defining ourselves can be very very dangerous. For example, for many years I defined myself as "a terrible language learner". I had failed to learn a language in High School. In college I took two semesters of Mandarin and I didn't learn anything. I failed to learn Japanese while living in Japan. And I failed to learn Thai while in Thailand.

These experiences built upon one another. Each time I started a language, I already had the belief that I was a bad language learner. When I failed again, this identity was strengthened. In Thailand, I began telling people that I was a good language teacher, but a horrible language learner.

As long as I had that identity, I was sure to fail at any language I tried. But luckily, I chose to change that belief. I began to realize that I was not "bad at languages". Rather, I had had bad teachers in the past, and had used ineffective (and horribly boring) learning methods when studying on my own. I began to read research about language acquisition in order to become a better teacher- but this information also helped me change my learning identity.

Then I began to talk to successful language learners like David Long and Steve Kaufman. The methods they used were totally different than those I had tried. After one conversation with Steve in particular, I had an epiphany. I was not a bad language learner. With the right approach, I could learn a language just as effectively as Steve, or David, or anyone else.

I changed my identity. Suddenly, Spanish became exciting and fun. I've been learning it for four months now, and I'm more motivated and more excited than when I first started. I'm making steady progress. I don't know if I will be fluent in one year, or two years, or when-- but I do know that within the foreseeable future- I will be fluent. I have no doubt that I will be successful. I have a new, chosen identity-- I am an enthusiastic and successful language learner!

Another self-defeating identity we can create is a nationalistic one. If we identify too much with our native country and culture, we will be closed to other cultures-- and thus other languages. For example, if an American goes to Thailand and avoids Thai food, makes no Thai friends, lives near Sukhumvit Road with other Westerners, and constantly complains that "America is better"-- what chance does he have to learn the Thai language.

Likewise, if a Japanese student comes to America-- but lives with other Japanese people, has only Japanese friends, eats only Japanese food, and constantly wishes they were back in Japan-- what chance do they have of mastering English? Very little. And even if they do, it will require a herculean effort of willpower.

To my mind, the whole point of learning a language is to connect with other people and other cultures. Why would I learn Spanish if I didn't want to travel in Latin America, meet Spanish speakers, learn about Spanish football, read about Latin American history, etc. I mean, I'm dying to take a trip to Mexico, or Ecuador, or Venezuela. I've already got a long list of places I want to visit. That's what makes the language interesting and alive.

But to do this, I must let go of my "I'm an American" identity a little. Of course I was born here and I'll always be an American. But its only a small part of my identity. I like many things about America, and dislike many things too. Likewise, there are many things I love about Thailand, and Japan, and India.

I've changed my identity, from "American" to "World citizen".

These beliefs may not seem to be directly related to language learning- but they are. By redefining our identity- as language learners and citizens-- we can radically improve our ability to learn another language.

So forget your past beliefs. Forget past English "trauma". Forget all those boring classes and terrible teachers and tests and grades and criticism. None of that matters. Its not you. You are not bad at English. You are not bad at languages.

You are an enthusiastic, engaged, successful language learner-- if you choose to be.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Three Jobs


I essentially have three jobs.

First, I work for a school called IIC in San Francisco, CA. Its a good school, with very nice students and teachers, and a great director. While I am often highly critical of schools, I feel that IIC is an excellent English language school and I'm very happy to be teaching there.

My second job is tutoring with The Linguist. I don't do this for money- I do it because I believe The Linguist is the most powerful and effective language learning resource available. With The Linguist, a student can access a large library of material that comes in both text and audio form. The learner can use the system to acquire and save new words and phrases. Linguist students can also submit writing samples for correction by tutors. Finally, the Linguist offers one one one and group discussions with native speaker coaches, via Skype. I can't say enough good things about The Linguist- and am excited to contribute to their success- if only a little bit.

Finally, my third job is teaching private students on my own. I work with a few students here in San Francisco. My job is to coach them towards English mastery AND independence. I don't just teach them English. Rather, I work to teach them a language learning system. When I first meet them, I always tell my private students- "I will teach you a very effective system, but you are going to do all the work!" I'm very honest with my students. I tell them that one hour a week, or three hours a week, is not enough. I tell them that they need to devote at least an hour a day to focused, repeated, systematic listening, reading, and (if ready) speaking practice- every single day. I tell them that if they follow the plan, they WILL make a breakthrough within 6 months. And finally, I tell them that I expect them to fire me once they make the breakthrough. I'm direct about this- I don't want them to become dependent on me. I don't want them to still be coming to me one year, two years, or five years later. I want them to learn an effective self-learning method, master it, make it a daily habit, and then- eventually, be free of me.

As a private coach/tutor, I do not consider language explanation to be a very important job. I do explain things now and then. But the most important part of my job is to:
1) help students develop their own powerful learning plan
2) motivate, encourage, coach, and cajole them to boost their motivation, increase their focus, build their confidence, and assure their success.

Of the three jobs, I must admit that the third one- private English coaching- is the most rewarding. I enjoy it the most because I see the best results. Its so exciting to see a learner make fast progress. Its wonderful to see their confidence grow. Its simply amazing to see what can be accomplished by an energized learner with an effective plan. Truly amazing.

I love being a part of that!

Learn English San Francisco

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sample Learning Guide: Podcast

by AJ

Listen To This English Podcast

This weekend I've been doing a lot of thinking about learners. I realize that while I do love teaching, I really want to start providing more help and resources for students.

In my opinion, learners are the most important people in education. Not teachers. Not schools. Not administrators and bureaucrats. Not textbook publishing companies. Learners.

I've also come to realize that language learners are the people I really want to reach- not teachers. Unfortunately, the education industry is broken, and I don't think it can be fixed by teachers. Learners are the one's who will fix education. They will fix it by abandoning traditional language education in favor of independent learning methods that work. They will fix it by creating their own learning communities.

Learners are the most open to these ideas because they have no power to preserve, no job to justify, no bureaucracy to maintain. The learner cares only about one thing-- actually learning the language.

And so, over the next few months I will be shifting my focus from teaching to helping learners (unfortunately, these are not the same thing :( I will be working on a new website/blog/podcast that will be focused on learners and their needs.

And I will start creating conversations, audio essays, and audio stories-- with transcripts and wordlists.

As practice, I just created a study guide for the conversation I had with Steve Kaufman a few weeks ago. I've included it below- as four jpeg images.

English learners- I'd love to hear your comments and suggestions on how to improve these guides. In the future (starting in October), the guides will also include Japanese translatioins of the key vocabulary & phrases.

Listen To This Podcast Conversation

Learn English San Francisco
One on one english instruction
Authentic real english, no textbooks

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Split Coming

by AJ

In the near future, I'm planning to split this site. Originally, Effortless Language Acquisition was created as a blog for language teachers. Most of my posts were about teaching.

Over time, however, I've become increasingly interested in language LEARNING. Many of my posts are now targeted towards independent learners.

I find that I want to provide more resources for learners and move beyond the narrow subjects related to language teaching. To do this, I think it makes sense to create a new site specifically for learners. Such a site could include text and audio on a wide range of topics of interest to English learners.

That, in turn, would allow me to refocus this site more specifically on issues related to teaching, coaching, helping, and motivating students.

More to come......

San Francisco


by AJ

Listen To This English Podcast

My first experiment with podcasting has been fairly successful.

However, I've been having a lot of problems with my podcast host, "Solidcasts", lately. Turns out they are anything but solid. At the moment, I'm unable to upload audio and thus unable to publish more podcast episodes.

So I've decided to change my podcast and feed. I've signed up with "Liberated Syndication", which seems to be more reliable. I'll be changing my podcast feed soon- and will hopefully then be up and running.

In addition to changing the host, I'll be making other changes:

1. I will have a separate webpage/blog for the podcast. I'll continue to post them on this blog as well, of course. But I'll also have another page which will only have the podcasts-- nothing else. Hopefully this will be more convenient for students who are interested in the podcasts, but don't care to wade through and read all my teaching-oriented posts.

2. I'll be gradually mixing the content of the podcasts to make them more useful to English language learners. Primarily, this means adding natural, unscripted conversations between native speakers. I just ordered a small digital voice recorder and will start carrying it with me everywhere. I plan to record conversations with my friends, with waiters, with co-workers, with strangers.

3. In the more distant future, I plan to offer full transcripts and study guides for all podcast audio-- especially the natural unscripted conversations. The study guide will have word for word text of the audio, and also explanations of difficult idioms, phrases, and slang.

Unfortunately, I will have to charge a token monthly subscription fee for these guides. It takes me a VERY long time to transcribe conversations. To have the time to do this, I must reduce my teaching hours (and thus my pay)-- so I must be able to recoup that somehow. I'll probably charge about $5 a month for this.

4. In a few months time, each study guide will also include Japanese translations of key vocabulary, idioms, slang, and phrases. I (we) may also add Japanese audio explanations of more difficult material as additional study guides (available for subscribers).

In general, I hope to provide the kind of resource I have been craving for my own Spanish language study: Real, unplanned, unscripted conversations between native speakers- with a full text transcript, convenient word & phrase lists (with translations in my native language), and easy to understand explanations of difficult slang/idioms/phrases.

This kind of resource is important. Textbook dialogues are scripted, unnatural, and slow. They do not include any of the common idioms (phrases) used by native speakers in everyday conversation.

Audiobooks and articles are excellent resources. I highly recommend using them. However, they do have a weakness- they are essentially written English- recorded in audio form. Thus, the style of most audiobooks and audio articles is much more formal than true, natural conversations. Classroom English is also much different than conversational English as used by native speakers.

I suddenly realized this at the end of a lesson with one of my students. We had just finished and my phone rang. I answered it and had a short talk with a (native speaker) friend while my student collected her notebooks. When I hung up the phone, my student seemed surprised.

She said, "I think you are very easy to understand. I always understand when you talk to me. But when you talked to your friend now, I couldn't understand anything!"

I thought about it and realized she is right- I speak very differently when chatting with native speakers. I talk faster, I use common idioms and slang, and I don't use complete sentences all the time. I'm not using a lot of slang, or unusual slang, but I do use a very different kind of English than what I use with students. In other words, I use everyday conversational English-- the one thing that is never taught in language schools!

This is a very serious weakness. We need more materials to help English learners understand English as it is actually used. Not as the textbooks tell us it should be-- but as it actually is.

In the future, I hope my podcast can be one such learning resource.

San Francisco, CA

Friday, September 01, 2006


by AJ

Listen To This English Podcast

During a recent conversation with Humberto and Tony, we discussed the potential of learner-created content. Each of us expressed our frustrations with the difficulty of finding authentic and interesting conversational materials that include BOTH audio and text.

As we chatted, I mentioned my desire to record unscripted conversations between my friends, and then transcribe them. Such unplanned conversations are always much different then the carefully scripted "interactions" presented in textbooks. Natural conversations are also quite different from audiobooks or audio articles.

Next, Humberto mentioned recording short, unscripted conversations between he and his wife- in Spanish- and then posting them to his blog. As members of a language learning community, we would then support each other's learning efforts. I'd supply English content in audio and text form, for use by community members who want to learn English. And Humberto would do the same for members who want to learn Spanish.

The Linguist community also has a large number of Japanese speakers. Tony is currently learning Japanese- so he wants to encourage these students to add Japanese podcasts (with text) to their blogs-- which would then serve as learning resources for him. Since Tony is a native Chinese speaker, he could return the favor with Mandarin content.

With a large enough and active enough community, there would be absolutely no need for commercial materials of any kind. Learners could find all the authentic content they needed- easily and conveniently -- from their language learning community. They could also find plenty of conversation partners (via Skype) in their new language, while acting as a partner in their own native language.

In such a community, everyone is indeed both a learner and a teacher. The hierarchical, power-preserving dynamics of traditional education disappear- as do the failed methods such systems produce.

The exciting thing about this is that its happening right now- at The Linguist.

To be honest, I can't imagine why any language learner would choose another system. I don't understand why someone would pay outrageous amounts of money to go to a typical language school- where they will sit in little rows of desks, work through banal textbooks, practice contrived & scripted dialogues, take tests, analyze rules, and, in the end, acquire very little of the language itself.

Actually, I do understand. Schools attract students who are not truly motivated. The bulk of traditional students are being coerced to study English. Their government, or job, or parents are pushing them. Or they are motivated solely by extrinsic factors like test scores. Many of these students have very little desire to actually use the language fluently. Many have little desire to connect with English language cultures or people. For these kinds of students, perhaps school is the right place-- though honestly, I see no reason why such people should be coerced at all. Most, in fact, don't need English.

Others in such schools are highly motivated and do have a genuine desire to learn the language. But they don't know of another way. They have been brainwashed by years of traditional education and don't know what else to do. Many of these students started as enthusiastic learners, but school quickly crushed their joy for learning the language.

But for the others-- the learners who DO want to reach fluency and know that schools don't work-- there is no better choice than self-study within a community of motivated language learners. This is the fastest way. This is the most effective way. This is the most enjoyable way.

School is a toxic environment for genuine learners. School is deadly for the curious, the interested, and the passionate.

Motivated learners don't need school.

They only need a community.

San Francisco, CA