12 May 2005

What interests people?

First of all thanks to the blog reader who pointed out an error in one of my posts. Running a blog is a new experience for me. In a way it is a lonely experience. There is very little interaction with the readers. I do not know what kind of posts are of interest.

I have some posts of life here in Vancouver. A day like today is a marvel. Sunny all afternoon and now a lovely sunset. Just over the mountains that I see as I look out over the ocean, I see a faint red or purple colour which suggests that tomorrow will be another glorious day.

But do people want to read about Vancouver, or language learning, or are excerpts from my book of interest. I do appreciate any and all feedback from the world of language enthusiasts, my kindred spirits in the blogosphere.

7 May 2005

Linking and language learning

I have been thinking about what constitutes the essence of achieving a breakthrough in language learning. I think that the key lies in the word “linking”.

First of all learners must connect with the language they are learning. They must be interested the language, in the people and in some aspects of the culture. Learners need to be interested in the content being studied. This is an essential motivational link.

Second, the study must be constant and ongoing, linked from day to day. There should be no lengthy breaks in the chain, at leasts for periods of committed and intensive study of several months at a time. This is most easily achieved by daily listening to selected content of interest that is at the appropriate level of difficulty.

At The Linguist we recommend one hour a day, every day, of intensive listening to meaningful content. Intensive listening means repetitive listening and a deliberate effort to increase vocabulary from that content. It is essential to read the content being listened to and to save or “link” key new words and phrases. This is not the same as casual listening to radio or watching TV.

Words and phrases need to be learned in a way that is linked to relevant  (emotionally linked) content chosen by the learners. What is more, new words  need to be learned in a way that links them to other words around them. This creates a natural sense for how they are normally used.

New words and phrases need to be linked to spoken and written output by learners. Learners must be encouraged to list their newly acquired words and phrases and then use them.

The correction of words used incorrectly, and this most easily done when correcting writing, needs to be linked to helping learners observe these words in use in their daily reading and listening. Corrected words need also be linked to the words that normally occur around them, their natural phrase environment.

Corrected writing can be linked to pronuncation and speaking by having learners read their corrected writing out loud 5-10 times on their own.

Learners need to be linked to each other, to share experiences and to work on common projects. The stimulus and feedback from a native speaker instructor is another form of interactive link.

The Linguist system uses modern technology to create these modern linkages for the learner. Learning based on theory, or isolated word lists, or the techniques of passing tests like TOEFL, will not bring about a breakthrough in language skills.

To achieve a drive to breakthrough learners should commit to listening one hour per day and creating 10- 15 new word links every day in our system. For a lower level learner this will mean frequent repetitive intensive study of the same content (mostly listening  and some reading). For the advanced learner it will mean more extensive study of constantly changing content in order to achive the same level of new word links.

If this daily commitment is fulfilled, a breakthrough is guaranteed. This has been our experience.

3 May 2005

Spring, joy and language learning

We have been enjoying some warm spring weather in Vancouver and it sure picks up everyone’s spirits.

The temperature does not vary dramatically from season to season in Vancouver . Winter temperatures rarely go below zero centigrade. Sometimes, even in winter, it is warm enough to play tennis or golf outside. However, we do have a lot of rain during the winter. The good thing is that this rain becomes snow in the higher elevations. It is quite possible to sail or play tennis in the morning and then just 20 minutes away, at Cypress Mountain , or Grouse Mountain , enjoy skiing in excellent Alpine conditions. Skiing at Cypress , with a panoramic view of the city of Vancouver or Howe Sound below you, is an exhilarating experience.

Our summers are never hot here. Even if the temperature climbs to 26 or 27 during the day, it will fall to 15 or 16 at night so you always can sleep comfortably. Humidity is low so that the hot weather never feels uncomfortable. We also have few mosquitoes or other annoying insects. This is in contrast to where I grew up, in Montreal , where the summers can be hot and humid.

On the other hand we miss the dramatic changes of season that other places experience. I remember as a child in Montreal that incredible feeling of lightness and joy when warm spring weather would finally come to melt the snow. We could run around without heavy coats or jackets on. We felt free and happy.

Changes in the weather and the seasons affect our moods. So do success and failure in our activities. There are times when we think we are not making progress in our language studies. But I know from experience that we always are as long as we keep exposing ourselves to the language, and enjoy the language. Even if at times you do not realize that you are improving, you probably are. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. It will encourage you and you will do better.

30 April 2005

Donald Trump

I saw Donald Trump interviewed on TV and he was asked the secret of his success. He said that there are two secrets to success.

“Whatever you do, you have to enjoy it.”

“When you have decide where you want to go, you have to go through walls to get there.”

These are also the secrets to success in language learning.

So the challenge for the teacher is the following. How do you get the student to enjoy learning? How do you get the student to put in the effort?

My answer is simple. Let learners choose content of interest to them. Give them a learning method where they can see and feel themselves succeed. Do not complicate their lives with unnecessary explanation, correction, testing and other distractions. Let them have the language in a way that makes sense and is meaningful to them.

That is what I have tried to build into The Linguist. Over 97% of Linguist members surveyed worldwide found it enjoyable to study using our methods. 78% found it more enjoyable and more effective than previous methods they had tried. These learners had studied English for an average of 8 years before trying The Linguist.

29 April 2005

Simplicity

I think a key concept in language learning efficiency is simplicity. The greatest damage has been done to language learning by the complicated theories of the academic linguists. Once we get into terms like interlanguage, sociolinguists, phonemes, allophones, discourse analysis, speech acts, morphemes, and I do not know what else, we are getting far away from anything that will help the learner. Similarly I am not a fan of games and role playing. The introduction of the computer creates new opportunities to find new gimmicky approaches that distract the learner from the task.

What you need first of all is lots of real authentic language on subjects of interest to the learners. Then you let the learners listen to it and read it over and over, and help them systematically learn the words and phrases that they want to learn from these texts. You encourage them to write. You explain and provide feedback as they learn from the language. You talk to them on subjects of interest. You encourage them to go and meet the language wherever and whenever they can. Those who become autonomous motivated learners learn the language. The others never really do, wherever they study.

23 April 2005

My community has changed

My wife is away in Toronto visiting her 89 year old mother. Next month I will go to Europe.One main purpose is to visit my 93 year old uncle in Sweden with whom I am very close. I guess we are all getting older.

Tonight I went to dinner in a small fish restaurant in one of the two main villages of West Vancouver, called Dundarave. Our little community has become so sophisticated it seems. I had a scallop and arugula salad with thin slices of pear. I followed that with a lobster tail with a wasabi avocado sauce and salmon roe all on top of thin slices of cucumber. I ate that with a delicious glass of California Cabernet. Just a little snack. The place was lively and full of people. There are three separate raised bars to eat from as well as tables. There is an outdoor patio. It has atmosphere. They started as a fish store one year ago and then expanded.

All of this would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. Next door to the fish store is a British style pub where people in their 30s and 40s were gathering to have dinner and drink beer after their mixed slo-pitch softball game. On the other side is an espresso cafe. Across the street is a little restaurant run by a fellow from Switzerland and beside it a sushi restaurant. In our little area there more sushi restaurants, French restaurants, Italian restaurants, West Coast restaurants, Thai restaurants  etc. A new Adriatic Patio just opened up where I had lunch today. A delicious soup and home made spinach pastry that was just awesome.Reminded me of an improved version of Cong You Bing (Chinese fried onion tart).

Next week my wife comes home and I will be eating at home again. I am looking forward but still enjoying the nights out. Cooking for one is no fun.

It seems that the community has become more lively than it was when my wife and I were parents of school age children. There is more variety today. Despite the unimaginable garbage on TV, the plague of computer games etc. many things are better now. Oh to be young again!

22 April 2005

Enjoying Vancouver

The last few days have been splendid. I sit in my house and look out at the ocean, the sun dancing off the dark blue peaceful waters of our inland sea, as the sun prepares to set behind the mountains. The colour of the water is deep, and I am reminded of the “wine-red sea” of Homer. During the day there are eagles, herons, kayakers and sailboats. Now, in the evening, off in the distance in front of the islands that I look out at, there is a tug boat slowly pulling barges full of wood chips to the pulp mill up deep at the end of the fjord (Howe Sound).

Recently I have been reading about 20th century Chinese history, but tonight I am going to read some German history.

17 April 2005

Intonation and pronunciation

There have been two comments on the subject of pronunciation and intonation. These both came from Hong Kong from Cantonese speakers who have a high level of fluency in English but who want to achieve as close as possible to native speaker pronunciation.

My advice is as follows.

Do not worry about whether you pronounce like a native speaker or not. By all means try to imitate native speaker pronunciation as closely as you can. It can be fun to try to do so. I will provide some hints on how to do so below. But do not worry if you do not achieve this goal. This may sound like contradictory advice. What I mean is that you can aim to sound like a native speaker but should be satisfied with yourself if you can communicate clearly and effectively. You should not have the slightest sense of being inadequate if you do not achieve this 100% native speaker like pronunciation. I wonder if that is clear.

It is better to use words and phrases like a native speaker and prounounce with an accent than to pronounce like a native speaker but have phrasing that is not natural. So work hardest on your choice of words and phrases.

Having said that I offer the following advice on pronunciation. First of all choose someone whose voice and pronunciation you like. Listent repetitively to that same person. Imitate that person as much as you can. Overload your brain with that person’s voice and intonation.

Get a hold of the text of what that person is saying or transcribe it. Now read it out loud many times imitating the person you are listening to. Record yourself. Identify the differences in pronunciation and intonation between yourself and the native speaker. You will gradually get better and better at doing this.

Isolate the vowel sounds and consonant sounds that you are not sataisfied with. Work very hard on saying those sounds. Record yourself and compare yourself to a native speaker. Do the same with intonation.

It is possible that books explaining the intonation of English can help. By all means buy such books, including the one recommended in the comment below. But even without this book, if you train yourself to listen for intonation and imitate it, you can develop the ability to pronunce with the correct intonation.

I also recommend doing a lot of reading out loud. Do this in a loud voice and exaggerate.

Here is what I said in my book a few years ago.

Pronunciation

We are all capable of correctly pronouncing the sounds of any foreign language. All humans have the same physiological ability to make sounds, regardless of ethnic origin. However, mastering the pronunciation of a new language does require dedication and hard work. Chinese at first represented quite a challenge.

When I wanted to master pronunciation I would spend hours every day listening to the same content over and over. I worked especially hard on mastering Chinese sounds with the appropriate tone. I tried to imitate while listening. I taped my own voice and compared it to the native speaker. I practiced reading in a loud voice. Eventually my ability to hear the differences between my pronunciation and that of the native speaker improved. I would force my mouth to conform to the needs of Chinese pronunciation. I would also work on the rhythm of the new language, always exaggerating and even accompanying my pronunciation with the appropriate facial expressions and gestures. Eventually I was able to achieve a near native quality of pronunciation.

Once I was able to pronounce individual words and phrases satisfactorily, I would find it easier to understand content not designed for the learner: in other words, authentic material. I would record radio broadcasts to listen to over and over. Much later when I had reached a certain level of fluency, I particularly enjoyed listening to the famous Beijing Xiang Sheng comic dialogue performer Hou Bao Lin, with his colourful

Beijing

rhythm of speech. In recent years, to maintain my Mandarin, I sometimes listen to CDs of 

famous Chinese storytellers, like Yuan Kuo Cheng, narrating classic novels such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The storytelling art in

China

is highly developed and when I listen to one of these CDs I thoroughly enjoy being transported back to a bygone era.

……………………………………………………………………………………………


Pronunciation

Pronunciation should be a major area of emphasis from the beginning, and throughout the first period of studying a new language. You should commit to spend a certain number of hours per week working on pronunciation, especially during the early stages of your studies. Many learners do not put enough deliberate effort into pronunciation and resign themselves to speaking as if they were pronouncing their native language.

Any person can learn to pronounce any language, regardless of nationality. Some people may achieve better results than others, but we can all get pretty close if we work at it. The objective should be to be easily understood. It is not necessary, nor possible for everyone, to achieve near native speaker  pronunciation.

Mandarin Chinese, with its four tones, is very different from English. Nevertheless, I was determined to master Mandarin pronunciation, and to learn to speak like a native. I believe I have come pretty close, perhaps because I did not consider the possibility that I could not do so. In fact, I made pronunciation the major focus of my early effort, and I recommend this to you as well. It takes longer to get a feel for speaking in a grammatically correct manner, but you can work on pronunciation from the beginning.

In order to learn to pronounce correctly you need to develop the ability to hear the sounds of the new language. This takes time. There are four key steps to developing pronunciation accuracy.

First, LISTEN repeatedly to individual sounds and to material within your basic range of comprehension, concentrating on pronunciation. Listen

carefully to the intonation. Try to become conscious of the rhythm and breathing pattern. Try to identify separate words and phrases. With repetition, this gradually becomes easier. The language sounds strange at first but will become more familiar with repetitive listening.

Second, REPEAT individual words and phrases out loud, both during and after listening. You will remember certain phrases. Try to say them over and over again to yourself while doing other tasks. You will have trouble with certain sounds. Work especially hard to master them. Then practice repeating phrases and sentences with the proper emphasis and intonation.

Third, READ sentences and paragraphs out loud, first very slowly and then more quickly, and always in a loud voice. Imagine you are a native speaker. Exaggerate – pretend you are an actor. Have fun with it! You should alternate between reading unfamiliar material, and reading something that you have written and had corrected.

Fourth, RECORD your own pronunciation and compare it to a native speaker. This will train you to hear the differences in pronunciation between yourself and a native speaker. You have to hear it to be able to pronounce it! Recording your own pronunciation also serves as a record of your progress as your pronunciation improves.

The sounds, the intonation and even the writing system of your native language can influence your pronunciation of the second language. The more you are able to establish freedom from the influence of your native language, including the influence on pronunciation, the better you will learn the second language. The writing and sound system of the native language can be a significant obstacles for a learner since  there is a naturally tendency to pronounce the words of a new language is if it were a word in your own language.

In Japanese the writing system is based on syllables. So a word like “brother” becomes “bu-ra-za”.In Korean there is no “f” sound. Many North Americans seem unable to pronounce the Japanese Kato or Sato to rhyme with “sat” and “cat” even though those words exist in English. They may hear these names pronounced correctly many times but still insist on pronouncing their names to rhyme with ‘‘say’’ or “gay”.  Cantonese pronounce from the throat, Mandarin speakers speak more with the tip of their tongue, and people from central

China

do not distinguish between “l” and “n”. The Spanish pronounce “w” as “gu” and the Germans pronounce “w” as “v” , the Swedes say “yust” instead of “just” , the French cannot pronounce “h” and on it goes.

It is important to practice pronunciation while reading the new language to get used to seeing these words as words in that language. You have to force yourself to train the muscles of your mouth to make the new sounds accurately. You may have to breathe differently to pronounce the new language correctly. You must try to imitate the rhythm of the new language. Pronunciation practice is best done on your own, and is a form of play acting. It can be fun.

Learn to be your own toughest pronunciation critic when you are working on it alone, and then forget about it and be relaxed when speaking to others. People are unlikely to comment on your pronunciation, as long as you are easily understood. Remember that perfection is not the goal, just comfortable communication. If you cannot completely imitate native pronunciation do not worry, as long as you can comfortably make yourself understood. I know many people who express themselves very elegantly in English, probably better than most native speakers, and yet still have an accent. This is not a problem.

Often learning proper “body language” can be as important as pronunciation in effective communication. Easily understanding what is said is essential to good body language. Furthermore, an appreciation for the culture of

the language you are speaking is more important than good pronunciation. If you are genuinely interested in communication, and not just in the vanity of perfection, your pronunciation will quickly cease to be a problem. I know non-native speakers who have almost native-like pronunciation but do not understand the language as well as others who speak with strong accents. As with all aspects of language learning, it is the ability to communicate effectively that has to be the most important goal.

14 April 2005

Book excerpt: Phrases

The Importance of Phrases

The principles of Chinese grammar are different from English. I deliberately ignored explanations of the theory of Chinese grammar because these theoretical explanations made no sense to me. Instead, I just accepted the various structural patterns of sentences in Chinese as normal. I knew that with enough exposure they would start to seem natural to me. I found it easier to learn the structure of a new language from frequent exposure to phrase patterns rather than trying to understand abstract grammatical explanations of that structure. I realized in studying Chinese, a language so different from my own, that the fundamental component I had to learn was not the word, but the phrase. Language skill consists of spontaneously being able to use prefabricated phrases and phrase patterns that are natural to the native speaker and need to become natural to the learner.

Phrases are the best models of correct practice in a language. Certain words naturally belong together in a way that the learner cannot anticipate but can only try to get used to. When words are combined in the natural phrases of the language they achieve force and clarity. It is not grammar and words that need to be learned, so much as phrases. New vocabulary is more easily learned together with the phrases where it is found, and even pronunciation should be learned in the form of phrases. Phrases, however, cannot be easily learned from lists. Rather it is when the same phrases are  frequently encountered in  audio and written contexts and then systematically studied and used that you are able to retain them.

12 April 2005

Book excerpt: interesting content

Once you reach the intermediate stage you face the longest and most demanding part of your task. You now want to achieve breakthrough to fluency. You need to move from being able to say a few things in a limited social setting to being able to use the language as a practical means of communication in a variety of situations that you do not control. To do this requires a commitment to reading and listening to a great deal of language content. If the content is interesting you will enjoy the learning process and do well. Artificial dialogues and uninteresting “learner” content soon outlive their usefulness. Fortunately I was able to move to meaningful content quite soon in my study of Chinese.

The first novel I attempted to read without the help of a word list was Lao She’s novel  “Rickshaw Boy”, a human and sympathetic description of life in Beiping, without the bitterness that I found in the writings of Lu Xun and others. It took a long time to finish the book but I felt very satisfied when I completed it. There were many words that I did not know. Mostly I avoided looking them up in a dictionary so that I could enjoy the book.

There comes a point in language learning when you have to read a full length book in the new language. In most language learning programs the learner is conditioned to deal only with short excerpts. Completing a full length book is like climbing a mountain. Nowadays, with electronic texts, it has become much easier to struggle through authentic material, look up the meaning using dictionary software, and save words and phrases for systematic learning

Reading

and Vocabulary Growth

Intermediate readers can be useful as long as you are interested in the content. Unfortunately most learners are not given much choice….

After about four months, I read only authentic Chinese content, mostly using readers which had specially prepared vocabulary lists. The subjects varied, from history to politics to literature. Suddenly a fascinating world opened up to me in the original language. The wonderful Yale-in-China series, “Readings in Contemporary Chinese Literature” offered a wide range of essays, plays, political commentary, and short stories by leading writers, thinkers and political figures of early 20th century China.