Learning / teaching English (and other languages)

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Just recently, a friend of mine asked for some pointers in regards to her new job teaching English. I obliged and quickly realised that I had a lot to say. I decided to outline my process for teaching English and give some of the resources that I use. My method is based on the writings of some of the world’s best polyglots, my experience learning French and Spanish, and my experience teaching English.

My method of teaching can be applied to any language with a few little tweaks, and it can be applied to teaching yourself. If you can find a teacher who is willing to follow instructions, you can direct your own classes. Before I get into the steps of the learning process, there are a few key principles that will make the difference between having a conversation with a native speaker in 2 months, and throwing in the towel. In my first session with a new student, I always explain my principles of language learning which you will find below.

The first thing I ask my students on our first lesson is, “why do you want to learn English?”. Some people just want to order food in a restaurant, some need it for work, others just want to watch films in their original language. By asking this question, you can tailor the classes to suit their needs and have them reach their goals without wasting time. Here are the keys to success. Some apply to the student, some to the teacher.

Define success. Don’t aim to “learn a language”. Aim to attain a B2 level, or to have a 5 minute conversation with a native speaker, or to read a short story without needing to look up any words. Whatever you choose, be specific in your goals.

Be self-correcting. Whenever I correct a mistake that a student makes while speaking, I make sure that they repeat the sentence correctly. If they don’t do this then they keep making the same mistakes again, and again, and again. This is frustrating for everyone. I’ve had to explain this several tedious times to some students. If the student can develop a self-correcting habit their progress will accelerate.

What you study is more important than how you study. A perfect learning method that bores you to tears and leads you to quit after just one week is useless. A flawed learning method that is interesting, fun, and keeps you coming back for more is preferable. This is where most text books fail and why students need to take some responsibility on themselves to find their own reading content. In the first few classes I am trying to get to know my student. I find out what interests them and what kind of things they would like to read about. In subsequent lessons I find reading homework that they might be interested in.

10 minutes of practice each day beats any amount of sporadic practice. This is why several short homework exercises are better than one large exercise. Large homework tasks are daunting and lead to procrastination.

Always set homework. Unless you are giving classes every day, you absolutely need to set homework. This is for the benefit of the student but mostly just for your own sanity. There’s nothing more unfulfilling than spending countless hours teaching someone and seeing no improvement whatsoever.

When I teach myself a language, I follow the approach that is outlined below. There are times when I need access to a native speaker who can follow instructions. To find one, put up an ad online with particular requirements for the application process. For example, ‘to apply, email me with “BEST SPANISH TEACHER” in the subject line and be sure to tell me your favourite Spanish city somewhere in the body of your email.’

My approach to language learning:

  1. Make a commitment. This is very important if you are serious about learning. The following actions will help to keep you going when you feel like quitting most.
    • Tell as many people as you can. No one likes to fail publicly and this will motivate you when things get tough.
    • Pay for a bunch of classes up front.
    • Book a holiday to an appropriate country (but not too far in the future). Holidays are good motivators.
    • Use your calendar or futureme.org to remind yourself that sometimes you will get worse before you get better as you start to incorporate new and more complex information.
    • Use http://www.stickk.com and put between 1 week and 1 month’s pay on the line to commit to studying your language for 10 minutes each day for 1 month for example. All of these actions will work together but if you only do one of them, make it Stickk.com.
  2. Learn the correct pronunciation.
    • For English teachers, use http://www.antimoon.com/how/pronunc-soundsipa.htm and go over every possible sound in the English language.
    • For solo learners, get a native speaker to check your pronunciation of all possible sounds.
    • This youtube channel has some very good explanations of how to pronounce some of the difficult sounds in English.
  3. Learn the 300 most common words. This will make up the bulk of the language and along with the next step, give you a good base. Continue with steps 5-8 as you learn the words in steps 3 and 4.
  4. Learn the infinitive form of the first few hundred most common verbs.
  5. Learn the simple present and past participle conjugations of regular verbs.
  6. Learn how to use present perfect conjugation.
  7. Learn how to conjugate the most common irregular verbs.
  8. Learn how to speak in the future tense: I am going to ____, voy a ____, je vais ___ etc.
  9. Celebrate. You can now express basic ideas in your new language. If you are dedicated, you should be able to reach this step in under a month.
  10. Start reading. Start listening. Start speaking. Start writing. Learn new words as they arise. Keep a list of these words and review it often. You may need to ask a native speaker to help you find reading and listening material.
  11. Start learning simple past, and alternate ways of expressing the future tense, eg the verb will.
  12. Set writing assignments where you try to use as many irregular verbs as possible in all different kinds of tenses.
    • http://www.englishirregularverbs.com/
    • Assignment example, write a fictional diary entry using as many irregular verbs as you can.
    • Assignment example, write a fictional diary entry detailing your plans for tomorrow using as many irregular verbs as you can.
  13. Surround yourself with people who speak the language.
    • Find a language exchange meetup in your local area.
    • Even when speaking to native speakers in your own native language, notice the mistakes they make. This will give you clues to the correct way of constructing sentences in their language.
    • Organise language speaking exchanges on Skype using services like http://www.tusclasesparticulares.com/
  14. Set writing assignments for yourself focusing on your weaknesses. Have them checked by a native speaker.
  15. Continue exposing yourself to new content and learn vocabulary, grammar, and idioms as they arise. When reading and listening, take note of phrases or conjugations that you don’t understand. Ask native speakers about them and then try to use them yourself.

Resources for watching:

Resources for reading:

  • Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss (uses only 50 words).
  • The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss (uses only 225 words).
  • Any of Dr Seuss’ other books.
  • http://www.curiousgeorge.com/kids-stories-books/
  • Reading childrens books can be boring so try to find translations of your favourite books you used to read as a child. For example, as a child my mother used to read me Fantastic Mr Fox before bed. While learning Spanish, I would use the Spanish translation – El Superzorro – as my reading practice.
  • Follow interesting English speakers on Twitter and turn on phone notifications for their tweets. Eg, @sobadsogood.
  • Read very specific blogs of topics that are interesting to you (a narrow range of vocabulary is helpful).
  • Read the scripts of your favorite movies. http://www.imsdb.com/

TV shows and films:
TV shows and films are a great way to practice reading and listening. Beginners should watch with English audio and subtitles in their native language. Intermediate learners should watch with English audio and English subtitles. Advanced learners with English audio and no subtitles. Jumping from beginner to intermediate or intermediate to advanced can be a large step. You need to be outside your comfort zone to grow, but not so far out that you get disheartened and quit. When transitioning between levels, make it easier by chunking your learning time. When watching a film for example, watch 10-20 minutes with English subtitles, then 10-20 minutes without, etc.

Novels are great to build language skills but can be overwhelming at times. When you are a beginner, the best approach to a novel is to read an online chapter summary before you tackle each chapter. In the chapter summary, you should look up every word that you are not familiar with and take a moment to memorise them. Once you’ve completed the chapter summary, read the corresponding chapter of the book, but do not stop to look up the definitions of any words.

Audiobooks are typically quite difficult and I wouldn’t suggest them for beginners unless they also have the physical book and are able to read along at the same time. Audiobooks should be read with chapter summaries just like novels (explained above).  A favourite of mine is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho which can be found on youtube. You can find the chapter summaries here.

Sticking points:
Sometimes students will find some difficulty in a certain area, like using present perfect vs simple past for example. In this case, set homework that focuses on this area. If you see no improvement, try an adaptation of this game where you give them a $1 discount on a class, but add 20c to their lesson fee every time they make that particular mistake.

http://www.memrise.com/ – my favourite resource for learning vocabulary. Choose your courses wisely.
http://fourhourworkweek.com/category/language/ – There are a few really good articles here covering some of the key principles of learning languages.
https://www.reddit.com/r/languagelearning/ – A great resource if you want to ask questions.
http://www.languagelinksdatabase.com/free-language-resources/ – A compilation of hundreds of free language learning resources for many languages.
https://www.reddit.com/r/tefl – Teaching English as a Foreign Language subreddit. English teachers can find help here.
http://www.reddit.com/r/EnglishLearning/ – English Learning subreddit. English students can find help here.

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One Comment

  1. wa we wi WOOOOOOW wu…
    Great post teacher!!!! 🙂

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