Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Saturday, October 28, 2006


by AJ

One thing I do like about the traditional school system is the school year calendar. Its one of the few things that actually works in education, and it works well.

The American school year has several breaks built in, including a "long" (2 month) summer break.

As I complete my first full year teaching at IIC, I'm realizing how important those breaks are. They provide time for teachers (and learners) to rejuvenate. They provide time to get away from the subject matter, do other things, and let your brain work unconsciously for a while.

Without this, we grow stale. Doing the same thing over and over again without a break is a recipe for burnout.

And that's what's happened to me. For a year, most of my waking hours have been focused on English teaching. I teach my classes. Then I come home and think about the classes. I brainstorm ways to improve them.

I added tutoring hours at The Linguist. I started teaching a few private students.

Then, last month, I started teaching a night class at IIC and at the same time launched my new student website, Effortless English.

Throughout this time, I've never had much of a break-- mainly because I get no paid vacation at my job- so when I do try to take a break, I end up going in debt and more stressed out than if I'd skipped the vacation.

All this has taken its toll and last week, something snapped. I'd simply had enough. Enough of teaching English, tutoring English, writing about English, and thinking about English every moment I'm awake. My energy level is extremely low- I have no enthusiasm in my classes anymore. In fact, the quality of my teaching has dropped dramatically and suddenly. I finally realized that something had to be done.

While I still can't afford to take a nice long trip somewhere, which is what I really need- I have decided to scale back considerably.

I've told my school that I'm finished with the night class. I've cut way back on The Linguist.

Most importantly of all- I'm drawing a stricter line between "work" time and "play" time. In other words, I'm trying to avoid thinking about English when I'm not working. I used to go to coffee shops and brainstorm ways to make improvements-- now I have a strict "no English" policy for my free time.

Long term, I realize that the traditional school year- with its many breaks, is the most productive. We need significant periods of time to relax and recharge. We need significant periods of time away from our subject of teaching or study.

Education is not factory work.

Sometimes the most effective way to work is to not work at all.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Effortless English Vision

by AJ

As the new Effortless English Club slowly gets started, I have been thinking a lot about my vision for its future. Just what do I hope the club will accomplish?

I've been contemplating this question over and over. At first, I had the usual education answers- make a podcast and study guides to help people learn English. But that answer never satisfied me.

Of course, that's part of the answer. I do hope to make better and better podcasts and better and better learning guides. But in truth, I have a much bigger vision for the club. What I really want is to create an international community of learners- founded on the principles of lifelong learning, autonomy, independence, hospitality, mutual encouragement, equality, and respect.

I envision a community in which every member is both a learner and a teacher. I envision a community in which members help each other, encourage each other, support each other. I envision a community that offers mutual respect and hospitality to one another. I envision a community that encourages independent learning. I envision a community that supports curiosity, engagement, and a passion for communication.

In many ways, this vision is born from my frustrations with traditional schools and education. Schools, in many cases, are actively opposed to these principles. Most schools are bastions of authority, isolation, humiliation, and boredom. Schools tend to kill passion, kill curiosity, and kill the love of learning. Schools foster an authoritarian social model, in which the teacher and administrator are believed to have more power and influence than the students.

My vision for the Effortless English Club was born from the many negative stories I hear from students. Many students talk about the trauma of their English classes. They tell tales of being corrected and embarrassed in front of their class. They tell stories of feeling foolish and stupid because they struggled with tests and grades. Many have deeply negative feelings about the English language as a result of their terrible school experiences.

I want to change that. More than providing audio and learning guides, I hope the Effortless English Club will grow into a positive, enthusiastic, supportive community of learners. I hope members will help and encourage each other. I hope they will chat, trade emails, and start Skype discussion groups.

I even hope they'll visit each other and offer hospitality to one another- so when one member travels to a new country, he or she will have a place to stay with other members.

I envision the Effortless English Club as a positive force-- a community of motivated, independent, passionate learners- dedicated to lifelong independent learning, hospitality, mutual respect, and mutual support.

In short, I hope to undo the trauma (and boredom) caused by wretched school systems- and help adults rediscover the amazing thrill of learning, connecting, and communicating.

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Meditation for Language Learning

by AJ

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We have a strong tendency, as both language teachers and language learners, to focus on quantity. We stress about test score numbers. We stress about the number of words we know. We stress about the number of hours we study each day.

There's no doubt that quantity is important. To learn a language well, you have to put in a lot of hours. You need hundreds (thousands) of hours of listening. You need hundreds and thousands of hours of reading. You've got to listen to and read a lot of different material.

But quantity is only half the story. For all study hours are not equal.

I see this a lot in my class. Many students dutifully come to class each day. They attend four hours a day, four days a week.. for a total of 16 hours.

But some learn a lot faster than others. I've found that the speed of their learning has less to do with natural talent and more to do with the quality of their class time. In other words, some students concentrate and participate during the entire four hours... while others barely pay attention. The latter group text message on their cell phones, stare out the window, chat with each other in their native language, daydream,.. and do anything else but focus on the English material we are working on.

All the students in my class are getting the same quantity of English hours, but some are getting much higher quality...in other words, much more efficiency... because they have the ability to focus and concentrate.

While many of the "bad" students are not motivated, some are. What they lack is not so much the desire to learn English as the ability to focus for an extended period of time.

Perhaps this is a result of the TV age. But for whatever reason, many people just can't seem to concentrate on one thing longer than 15 minutes.

This is a problem- as concentration is essential for mastering any skill, not just language learning.

The good news is that if you don't have much power of concentration, you can develop it. The best way I know is through meditation. There are many forms of meditation, but all demand increasing powers of concentration. Daily meditation practice, therefore, will strengthen and lengthen your mental concentration. Little by little, day by day, your mind will grow stronger.

Do a google search on "meditation", or get a book by Thich Nhat Hahn, S.N. Goenka, or another meditation master. Start slow.. just a few minutes a day.. and then build up gradually.

As your meditaion time increases, you'll be able to focus longer, and will thus get much more out of your study time.

This is vital, because in language learning, all hours are not created equal.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Change Your Goal

by AJ

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Its so easy to get impatient. We are conditioned, by school and society, to demand instant results. Our attention spans get shorter and shorter.

School, in particular, teaches us a lie. The lie is that in one semester, or four years, we can take all the required courses, pass all the required tests, and then receive our degree as proof of our "mastery" of a subject or subjects.

But this is a farce. Its a farce in most subjects, not just language education. In fact, formal school is a very poor place to master any subject or skill.

I got my undergraduate degree in journalism. I graduated with honors. I took all the required journalism courses and was near the top of my class. I thought I knew this subject well.

But upon graduation, I realized that I knew almost nothing about writing or journalism. I was told by many reporters and editors that journalism school was almost useless- and that the only thing that mattered was developing one's skills independently, through experience.

Several years later (still clueless), I went back to school to get a Masters degree in Social Work. I took classes, passed tests, and endlessly analyzed obtuse theories of social work. At the end of my program I had an internship. I was placed in an agency that helped abused and neglected teenagers. After just one week there, I realized that I had no idea what to do. My Masters degree program had not given me any practical knowledge- nor usable theories.

Everything I learned as a social worker, I learned on the job. I learned by trying things, examining the results, formulating new ideas, and then trying more things. Relentlessly, over several years, I improved as a social worker. The Masters degree was a ticket to higher paying jobs- but it provided nothing useful beyond that.

The truth is- school is not a good place to learn. Life is where you learn and that learning is a lifelong process. There is no end. There is no graduation. There are no "permanent grades" or records.

True learning, true skill, true mastery, come from the process that Anthony Robbins calls CANI- Constant And Neverending Improvement. The Japanese call this "kaizen".

The truth is- learning never ends. Most language learners, including me, are still stuck with a school mentality. They think that if they take enough courses, they'll get a certificate that will prove that they speak the language. Then they try to talk to a native speaker and discover that their certificate is, in fact, useless. Many language learners also have a "graduation" mentality. They think that if they study hard enough, in one year, two years, five years, etc. they will finally "graduate" from English and be finished.

But there is no graduation. I am a 38 year old native speaker and I'm still trying to improve my English speaking ability. I'm trying to work on the rhythm of my speech. I'm also trying to reduce the number of fillers that I use (for example, "Uhm", "you know", "like"). As a writer, I still have a lot of improvement to make. I need to develop the clarity and power of my writing. And I'm still learning new words.

The point is- I will always be improving my English ability. I'll never be "finished". I'll never graduate. English learning is a life long learning process.

And though I'm starting 38 years later than I did with English, I'm beginning to realize that Spanish is also a life long learning process. I'm trying to shift my attitude from a "graduation" mentality to a CANI mentality. There is no finish line- there is only constant and neverending improvement- for as long as I live.

A CANI attitude can help your motivation because it takes off the pressure. So many language learners view learning as a race. They are desperately trying to get to the finish line as fast as possible. Instead, try adopting a mindset of Constant And Neverending Improvement. Don't worry about finish lines. Instead, be sure that every week, you improve just a little bit. You might learn a few new phrases. You might make a tiny improvement in listening comprehension, or pronunciation.

The next week, be sure to make a few more improvements. They don't need to be big. They don't need to be dramatic. Small, even tiny improvements are enough- as long as they are constant and neverending.

I'll end this article with a challenge. For the next few months I challenge you to forget all your "finish line" goals. Forget TOEIC and TOEFL scores. Forget certificates or degrees. Forget any idea of "finishing" English. Instead, for the next few months, make Constant And Neverending Improvement your only goal. Decide that every week you will make a very small improvement with your English ability. And you will do this every week.

Constantly. Consistently. Neverending.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Mom and I Discuss Sigmund

by AJ

Listen To This Podcast Conversation

In this conversation, my Mom and I discuss Sigmund. You'll remember that Sigmund is my best friend's (Kristin's) cat. When Kristin was living in Thailand, my mother watched Sigmund. When Kristin returned to the United States, she got Sigmund from my Mom.

Unfortunately, Sigmund had just been diagnosed with sinus (nose) cancer. The vet said that he only had 3 months to live. Luckily, he is doing allright still (after 1.5 months).

In this conversation, my Mom asks me about Sigmund.

For transcripts to this conversation, join Effortless English (100 conversations a year for only $9.99/month)

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Great Blog

by AJ

Here's a plug ("plug" is slang for "recommendation") for a great language acquisition site called Phrase Base.

Here's a quote from the blog:

We at Phrasebase have been advocating language learning through the relentless memorization of phrases. We feel that traditional language learning material’s approach of focusing on word memorization is simply too granular to be effective.

We feel that focusing on word vocabulary memorization in your language learning efforts is just too detailed and granular to be effective. It’s analogous to the ingredient salt in a cookbook recipe as Sodium Chloride NaCL.

For academics, it’s ok to get into this much detail. But for those who just want to converse in the language, to hear and be heard, the key is to lighten up and NOT to dig too deep into the details, your time is better spent focusing on communicating thoughts and ideas one phrase at a time.

By focusing on Phrases instead of individual words, you reap the following advantages:

1) Words can be ambiguous, a Phrase can not. The word blue can refer to the color or the mood, and if heard instead of written, blew has yet another meaning. The phrase “the sky is blue” has one single meaning that can’t be misinterpreted. Ambiguity creates confusion and the need for clarification, which just wastes time.

2) You can’t ever use just a word. You can’t go to the bar with a buddy and step up to the counter and say “have”. Words don’t get you anywhere in the real world. On the other hand, you say, “I’ll have a beer” and whola…. now you are in business.

3) Individual words get learned over time as a byproduct of focusing on phrases. If for example, I learn the phrase “the sky is blue”. I may not know at first which word refers to the sky and which one refers to the color blue, all I know is what this phrase communicates. Later, perhaps I learn a phrase “there is not a cloud in the sky”. Well, again, I may not know which word means cloud and which one means sky, but I know the meaning of what it communicates. But if remember the earlier phrase, “the sky is blue”, well now I make a connection and can decipher which word now refers to the “sky”. When you learn this way, an amazing thing happens, it hits you profoundly… nobody ever told you what the word “sky” means… you didn’t read it in a book that you know you can always go back and refer too, you didn’t have to learn it by a teacher who likes giving pop quizzes, it was learned the natural way, it was learned in the most powerful way possible to learn something, your brain makes a discovery… Ah HA! You’ve figured it out. This is the most impacting form of learning possible, and more so, it now strengthens your memorization of both phrases.

Fantastic! I'll be checking back to this site often.

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