12 April 2005

Diary: Thoughts on a rainy day

We continue to have wet weather. After my early morning workout I went to my favourite cafe for my morning cappuccino and to read two newspapers. ESL learner from Pakistan, you who write so well, learned English so well and share my enthusiasm for languages, one day perhaps we will sit down together there and discuss language learning! The same, hopefully, may happen with other language learners out there who come to Vancouver.

How much can be achieved by enthusiasm and commitment? Lots. There are so many language learners of all origins who have proved it to me. Unfortunately I see many immigrants to Vancouver who do not try very hard to raise their level of English. They are in a vicious circle. Many have university degrees. However, their English is not good enough to work professionally in English. They end up working for those of their compatriots who got here earlier. So their English never improves. Even if they work in English they seem satisfied with a “self-defense” level of English. They stagnate.

Language improvement is possible, but it takes an intense commitment. It only starts to happen when the learner takes charge. Unfortunately there are too many services available here in the language of the immigrant who blends into his or her ethnic community. It is true that the next generation does not have these problems, but it seems a pity that more of the first generation immigrants do not manage to get out of their language trap.

8 April 2005

ESL Learner, I shake your hand

It is heartening to find kindred spirits out there in lingosphere. ESL learner, tell me who you are and where you live. I believe that you and I have the attitude of the linguist. Many more people can achieve it but do not. Tell us more. Anyone with your attitude has a standing invitation to break bread with me and share a carafe of wine should they come this way in their travels.

8 April 2005

Book excerpt: Write like you speak and speak like you write

Obviously writing a business report, writing an essay on philosophy and writing an academic paper all require you to organize your information in different ways. You need to be more formal and structured than when you engage in casual conversation. The preferred structure for such writing will even vary from culture to culture. However, whenever I wrote in a foreign language, and French was my first, I felt that the individual sentences I wrote were the same as my spoken language. In my mind I made no distinction between the written and the spoken language, even though there undoubtedly was one. I always tried to make them both as similar as possible. I recommend this approach to all language learners as a way to improve the accuracy of both your written and spoken language.

I believe that is not helpful to divide a language into categories to be learned as separate skills. Today there are courses offered in business language, academic language, technical language and so forth. To me language is one. To be effective and persuasive in a new language you have to build a solid base of key phrases and words that you can use comfortably in speaking and writing. If you have that base, technical vocabulary is easily acquired. If you can express yourself clearly and logically, you can easily learn to write business reports or academic papers.

7 April 2005

Book excerpt: I take charge

I Take Charge of My Learning

I took charge of my learning, and stopped relying on my teachers. The teacher was only one of many resources available to me in a city like Montreal. All of a sudden, with no tests, no questions from teachers, and no grammar drills, my French skills took a great leap forward! I had achieved my first language breakthrough. I could feel the improvements in fluency, comprehension and pronunciation. This made language learning exciting. I was speaking and listening to French in situations that interested me. I spoke to myself in French, imitating proper pronunciation as much as I could. Even when I did not understand what was said or had trouble expressing myself, it did not frustrate me. I was committed and I was enjoying the experience of communicating. There was no turning back. By taking my language learning out of the classroom, I had made it real.

I have held onto this central principle: learning done in real situations is always far superior to artificial contexts such as exercises, drills, or material specially designed for learners. Time spent in genuine and interesting conversation is a better learning environment than the formal classroom. I also discovered another important principle of language learning: the learner has to be in charge, seeking out the language, the people, the content. As the learner, I have to discover the words and the phrases that I am going to need. All too often it is the teacher or text books who decide which words you should learn. These words have no importance, and as a consequence are quickly forgotten

4 April 2005

Motivation and writing

Writing is a powerful way to improve language accuracy. Unlike when you speak, in writing you control the situation. You can take your time. You can experiment using new words and phrases that you have learned. At The Linguist we encourage learners to take the following approach to their writing.

Write easily. Do not try to compose complicated prose. Use your new phrases. We will correct every error we find. We may miss a few mistakes. We may also over-correct in some cases. There is always room for different interpretations of what is correct usage.

The important thing is for you the learner to focus on what we call CLEAN English. Clear, Logical, Effective, Accurate and Natural English. When you finish writing, before submitting the text, check your prose against the CLEAN criteria.

Is it clear? Are the sentences short and to the point? Are there run on sentences separated by commas? Have you used pronouns like “it” or “which” in such a way that it is not clear what the reference is?

Is it logical? Do your verbs agree with their subjects? Have you got the verb tenses right? Have you left steps out in your arguments? Are you comparing like to like? If you use words like “however’ or “therefore” are they used correctly?

Is it effective? Have you used too many words? Can you eliminate some? Do you have a lot of meaningless words like “by the way” or “frankly speaking”? Have you made dramatic statements that you have not proven or substantiated?

Is it accurate? Have you used the noun form instead of the adjective form or vice versa? Are you sure the words you have used really mean what you think they do? Which words are you unsure of ?

Is it natural? Which prepositions are you unsure of? Are there constructions that you have tried but which you doubt really work in English? Are there translations from your own language?

Go through and check you writing. Note the things that you are unsure of. Now send it in and see what The Linguist corrector does. When you get it back look at your original and the corrected version again. Note the full list of correct phrases provided by The Linguist. Check out what category of mistakes was most common. Now read the corrected version out loud five times.

This process is much more severe than what we do in our conversations. In conversations we just let the learners speak and make only a few comments on phrases or pronunciation. In correcting writing we do not want to let too much go. This is the chance to work on accuracy and CLEAN English. The question is does this strict approach discourage or demotivate the learner?  That is what we will find out.

Any comments or opinions form learners or teachers out there?

4 April 2005

Motivation and interesting content.

The comments below certainly confirmed the importance of motivation in language learning. It was also pointed out that we need to communicate in the real world. Of course, in an ideal situation we have the opportunity to speak with native speakers regularly. Unfortunately that is not always possible. The alternative is to pay a native speaker to talk to us. That also is not without drawbacks. It can be very expensive. Furthermore, we may not share interests with the native speaker and therefore the conversations can become artificial and uninteresting.

At The Linguist we have loaded up over 70 hours of natural content including a lot of real conversations on a variety of subjects. This allows you to immerse yourself in real meaningful content on subjects of interest.This is still not ideal. You need to talk to people after all. However, once you downloaded something you like listening to, you can take it with and listen over and over again. It is like having a portable immersion class with you. It is surprisingly effective in preparing you for real conversation with native speakers.

Relevant content can be a big motivator. If you are interested in listening and reading, you acquire the language almost as a byproduct of your pursuit of subjects that interest you.

2 April 2005

Motivation in language learning

You would think that people living in places where English is not spoken, like Japan or Taiwan or Finland, for example, would not be motivated to learn. You would think that new immigrants to Canada would be very motivated to learn.

In fact that is not always the case. I have found very motivated people in foreign countries and some very unmotivated people among immigrants. Yet you would think it is the latter who really need to improve. So there is no rule. It all really depends on the individual.

I can imagine that in some countries, despite the pressure on people to learn English for their careers, in fact it can seem a rather futile thing to do if one does not have a chance to speak English. The ideal circumstance is a motivated learner in an ideal learning environment. Yet I am always impressed with how how well motivated learners can do even when they are living in an environment where the language is not used.

Any comments on this subject?

2 April 2005

The Linguist Newsletter

First of all I want to express thanks to Tony for his words of encouragement in his comment. Of course in hockey you can only have 5 skaters on the ice at one time. However, our team having a short bench with only 10 skaters in all, put us at a disadvantage. Then one of our key guys pulled a hamstring with 5 minutes to go. No excuses, however, and we enjoyed ourselves greatly.

How many of you have subscribed to our newsletter for all that free audio and text content. Do you find it interesting and useful? Please let me know. If you have not tried it go and have a look.

2 April 2005

Diary: We lost the final

Wednesday night I attended a dinner of 20 people with the British Columbia Minister of Finance, Colin Hansen. I got my comments in regarding the state of ESL instruction in BC. He probably does not remember too much, or maybe he does.

Thursday morning I attended a conference on what to do with the BC Coastal Forest Industry. It seemed very gloomy. Most of the talk was about cost cutting and the elimination of jobs. I do not know if our firm, KP Wood Ltd. has a chance to do something there. I attended the conference with our Vice-President of Marketing, Richard Robertson. We will be following up opportunities with some of the participants. The wood on the coast is truly unique, there have to be some opportunities for us.

Thursday night was the final of the North Shore Old Timers over 55 hockey league. Our team finished 4th out of 6 teams during the regular season. However, we won all three games in the play-offs against teams that finished ahead of us during the season. So we got into the final.

We played the top team. We are the Old Goats and the opposition was the North Van Pats. They were the top team in the league all season. They scored on the first shift. We scored again in that period. It was a 1-1 game until 5 minutes from the end. We had had injuries so we had only 10 skaters, compared to 14 on the other team. And then one of our key players pulled a hamstring. So we were really short of players. The game ended up 4-2, with us on the losing end.

Old-timers hockey is all about the camaraderie and the beer(s) in the dressing room after the game. As someone said, the good thing is that at our age, we can never remember whether we won or lost anyway.

30 March 2005

Book excerpt: Creating your own language world

Exploring Languages at Home

Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window,
you may see the ways of heaven.

It is always easiest to learn a language when you are living in a society that speaks that language if you take advantage of the opportunities that surround you. However, a new language in the real world can be difficult to understand. People may talk too quickly or use words that even the intermediate non-native speaker does not understand. You may feel hesitant in certain situations because you are not fluent. This can be stressful.

In these cases I have always found it useful to create my own world of language, a world of meaningful language content for me to listen to or read without pressure. Until I mastered Japanese, and even as I was living and working in Japanese, I still sought out advanced Japanese readers with meaningful content and vocabulary lists to read. I also listened repetitively to interesting tapes to gain greater confidence in using certain phrases and words.

I still listen to interesting material in languages that I speak fluently. I take advantage of time that is available while driving or exercising or doing chores around the house. There is an increasing availability of high quality audio books which can be easily enjoyed using the latest in portable listening technology.

In situations where you are studying a new language away from the native speaking environment, it becomes essential to create this personal language world. This is what I have done in


over the last twenty years as I sought to improve my knowledge of languages that I had been exposed to earlier but could not speak.

A World Apart

When I lived in

Hong Kong

I was not in a Mandarin speaking environment, but I listened to and read a limited number of texts: history and cultural books, modern literature, and tapes of comic dialogues. These became like old friends and provided the core of the vocabulary and phrasing that I needed to use in my communication.

Communicating with this imaginary world was easier than communicating with the real world, since it was readily available and under my control. This friendly world of my own exploration was a great source of strength in preparation for the real test of communicating with native speakers.

In 1512, Niccolo Machiavelli was briefly imprisoned and tortured by the Medici family, then withdrew to a simple country house outside


. During the day he talked and played cards with the local people, but at night he changed into formal clothes and withdrew into his study. There he communicated with the ancient historians through books, and wrote one of the classics of Western literature, The Prince. Machiavelli is an example of how we can communicate with a culture through reading or listening, even if we do not have daily personal contact with the people.

While living in


well past the age of forty, I was able to make great advances on the learning I had begun in German, Swedish and Italian. I had some previous exposure, but certainly did not have fluency or confidence. For each language I had to commit myself to a concentrated period of listening to comprehensible audio material and reading texts with vocabulary lists.

At my home, I have at least fifty readers for German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish. I purchased these readers because they all have vocabulary lists so that I could avoid using dictionaries. Unfortunately much of the content of these readers was uninteresting to me, but it was the only content that I could find.

What I was only able to do through great effort is made easier and more effective today. Using modern technology, vast amounts of content can be turned into accessible learning material. You can seek out content that is of interest to you, and learn the language from it. The independent learner is more independent than ever before.