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.
                Laozi

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

Vancouver

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

Florence

. 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

Vancouver

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.

26 March 2005

The Linguist book: Excerpt

I am going to post a few random excerpts from my book over the next few days. This book is entitled ” The Linguist, A Personal Guide to Language Learning.” The book is available in print form in English and Chinese and in e-book version in French, Japanese, Korean and Spanish.

Fish traps exist to capture fish.         
Once you’ve got the fish you can forget the trap.         
Rabbit snares exist to capture rabbits.             
Once you’ve got the rabbit you can forget the snare.   
Words exist to capture meaning.       
Once you’ve got the meaning, you can forget the words.            
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words?       
I’d like to have a word with him!       
Zhuangzi, 4th century BC

THE ATTITUDE OF A LINGUIST

Just Communicate

Our ancestors created language in order to communicate. What a glorious invention. The ability to express our thoughts through language is what distinguishes us from animals. These great ancestors of ours did not have grammar or perfection in mind when they developed the first language, just the desire to get their meaning across. It may seem obvious, but to become a successful linguist you have to want to communicate in another language. People who are good at learning another language have a goal in mind, to communicate. That means to get to know people of another culture, not just to learn the rules of a new language as an academic subject .Unfortunately the emphasis on second language education in our school systems has caused many language learners to lose sight of this essential reason for language learning. In my own case, it was only when I became motivated to connect with a new culture and people that I was on my way to becoming a linguist.

Not all people are interested in meeting people of another culture and language. My wife Carmen and I were recently on holiday in California. When swimming in the hotel pool we heard the unmistakable sounds of people speaking Canadian English. There were two couples from Ottawa staying at the same resort. We joined them for a drink that evening. Interestingly both the wives spoke French and Spanish as well as English, but one of the husbands, an apparently successful businessman, was adamant that learning to speak languages was unnecessary. To him the important thing was to have good ideas. “You can always find a translator” he maintained.

I argued with him that human achievement, including business success, depended on communication. No matter how brilliant an idea, it needs to be communicated effectively in order to influence people. Surveys of employers consistently show the ability to communicate to be the most sought after characteristic in new employees. But remembering Zhuangzi I did not try too hard to enlighten this man. Obviously learning languages was not in his nature. 

22 March 2005

More on making mistakes

We now have another comment on making mistakes supporting Pako’s view that we should not make mistakes. I suspect we are not really in disagreement.

The important points are:

1) You should not be afraid to speak for fear of making mistakes. Your main goal has to be to communicate. You should communicate whenever you have the opportunity, without fear. But you have to build up your ability to communicate, and just communicating, by itself, will not do that. You need to practice. You need to train, just like in sports.

2) If you only communicate in the language without training, in other words without putting effort into improving (like ESL Learner’s brother in the comment below), you will not improve. The conversation club approach to language learning does not work.

3) You need to focus on input. You need to deliberately save new words and phrases. You need to be conscious of what words and concepts you were unable to express when you spoke, and go back to your input to acquire them. Input should be 75% of your time spent studying the language, as we say at The Linguist website. Some immigrants to Canada seem to think that if they only get a job in an English speaking environment they will achieve English fluency. This is not true. Those people never achieve their English language potential.

4) You should work on pronunciation, deliberately and consistently. Yet you should avoid being self-conscious about your pronunciation.

5) You should write and have your writing corrected.

6) You should meet with a native speaker coach or tutor around once a week. This and the writing will be enough to identify key errors in structure, use of words, and pronunciation.

The rest you need to do on your own. This is the approach we use at The Linguist and it is efficient and cost effective.

22 March 2005

Why you should make mistakes

Pako writes in his comment here that we should avoid making mistakes in our English learning. He also encourages English learners to spend more effort on input rather than on output, and on that point I do agree. The more you prepare yourself with a lot work on your own, listening, reading, and learning words and phrases, the better you will do when you try to express yourself.

However, you will still make mistakes and should not worry about it. I say that because there are aspects of the new language, structures, phrases, words etc., that you will not get right until “it clicks” in your brain. You can read, you can study the rules, you can practice….. and you will still get them wrong quite often.  Eventually, with enough work, however, the correct way of speaking will become natural, but it will on your brain’s timetable. You can control your effort and how you study. You cannot control how quickly the brain will develop the right kind of neural network to make these new forms of expression natural. If you stay with it, though, it will come.

It does not matter how many times I look at verb conjugations or noun declensions in Spanish or German, or how often I try to remember which nouns are masculine or feminine, or how often I read that a word in Mandarin is third tone or fourth tone, I will continue to make mistakes for a long time and only improve gradually.

It is hard for me to get used to saying these things correctly, even though I understand the concepts. It is like Chinese people always getting “he” and “she” wrong , even after they are quite fluent in English. It is not because they do not understand the difference. In language learning we need to develop the ability to do “naturally” something that is not “natural”. This takes time. It requires us to create new abilities in our brain.Some aspects of the language are learned faster than others. In many ways these things are outside of our control.

In meantime the learner needs to communicate, to use the language, to enjoy communicating and to improve his or her feel. Worrying about making mistakes is not productive. I sense that Pako does not disagree with this and that much of his argumentation amounts to splitting hairs. Yes we need input. But surely we are not to prevent learners from communicating until they are error free and totally fluent!