Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

September 29, 2009

Are some people better at learning languages than others?

I’m sure there is a lot of  scientific and linguistic research about this topic and this is not a scholarly post. It is something I have thought about often in the years that I have been teaching and learning languages and I simply wanted to share my thoughts with you. I hope that they strike a chord, tally with your opinion and/or experience and spur you on to improving and developing your own language skills.

Language is a skill

I firmly believe that a language is a skill – a life skill – akin to driving, cooking or managing money. We need it to get by everyday. This is not to deny that there is a scholarly or academic side to languages but I think the key thing is that all but a small minority have learnt a language – their own! I think, (am I naive?) this proves we can do it!

I hate it when people say ‘I’m no good at languages’ – it’s rubbish – the fact that they’re speaking proves that they’re wrong!! I also feel that, certainly in the UK, we often teach languages as a dry academic subject rather than a skill and have the emphasis all wrong. This makes learning languages boring, confusing and seemingly pointless! Learning languages isn’t boring, it’s amazing and it’s one of the most useful, incredible skills you can ever learn! Wake up education systems!!

(I wouldn’t include much of English as a foreign language here as it has largely been taught in more innovative ways – however of late, with emphasis on exams I’m not so sure!!)

This isn’t to say that learning languages is easy. It takes practice and some dedication, but the rewards are so satisfying, who wouldn’t want to do it! See my post on Speaking languages can be Powerful  for some examples of how speaking another language can empower.

How come some people seem to learn languages easily?

It does seem true that some people can pick up languages more easily than others (but it’s also true that some people are better at cooking, driving and managing money). People who have a ‘good ear’, those who already speak other languages, and some who just seem to take to languages well learn more easily. Does that mean that it’s a special talent? I don’t think so – I think with perseverance most of us can learn.

I remember employing a Chinese woman to help out when my children were very young – she cooked (exceptionally well) looked after the house etc. She had had very little education and could write a little Chinese but that was it. She spoke Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien and Tio Chu (another Chinese language) and Indonesian. Within a few months of being with us she was speaking some English! All of her language learning had been done ‘on the hoof’.

Another woman, the aunt of an Indonesian friend had no formal education at all. She was illiterate and lived in a small mountain village. In later life she began to travel, first to various cities in Indonesia visiting children and relatives and later across the world to several differnt countries. She went alone, an intrepid explorer! She managed through her great capacity to engage with people to use a mixture of her own language (fairly obscure) and words she learned along the way to become a true traveller, not hiding in her hotel or keeping herself to herself, but getting out and about meeting people and experiencing many different cultures.

The talent these two women had for language did not come from education but from a desire to connect with people and find out more.

Check out these language stories – where knowing another language really helped

Chinese thief encounters language barrier

Success for Polish student who struggled with English

Knowing how to speak another language helped me to have the most romantic adventure of my life!

So, it may not be the easiest thing, it won’t happen overnight and you’ll need to build your confidence but, as with any skill, the more you practise the better you become and learning a language or improving and developing one you already know a little can have very rich rewards indeed.

So on the subject of practice – have you?

  • checked all the words and phrases in this post you haven’t met before?
  • made sure you know their meaning?
  • made a mental note to use them as soon as possible
  • committed them to memory?

No? Well what are you waiting for?

September 19, 2009

An A to Z of effective language practice

Learning a language well takes time and effort but it can be fun and exciting along the way. Here is my A to Z  list of how to improve and develop your language skills to reach your goal.

An A to Z of improving language skills.

Application: You need to apply yourself to learning a language well. Don’t get disheartened, progress can be up and down – just keep going!

Bite-size: As with any skill the best way to develop and improve is by practising little and often!

Collocation: This aspect of language is a good area to concentrate on for advanced students. (See my post on this June 12th 09)

Determination: You’ll need some of this to achieve your goal

Enjoyment: Make sure this is included in your study or you’ll soon get bored and frustrated – pick what you like – there’s a lot of choice out there!

Future Tense: The future tense is bound to come up. It’s a big and sometimes confusing area of grammar but one that it will pay you to tackle

Gapfillers: A space online for advanced students to hang out in English, practise, collaborate (visit Gapfillers)

Haiku: Why not try something different, be creative! Write a poem (haikus are a good, short, format), a blog – just for fun – find somewhere online to make a contribution (we have a haiku section on our Gapfillers wiki)

Idioms: Try learning one or two of these a week and use them as soon as you can to test and help you remember.

Jaw: You’ll need this to get to grips with pronunciation. Get out your mirror and start articulating!

Karaoke: Learn some songs – a fun way to study. Choose your style of music and sing along!

Listening skills: This is so important and is often a weakness in students. Surround yourself with different types of listening examples try out some local radio phone-in programmes they’re fast and furious with lots of different voices and accents and can be fun too! Look at my posting on improving listening skills (August 10th 09) for more ideas.

Modal verbs: Another important area of grammar to master – you can send your language performance up another notch if you use these skillfully!

Non-defining relative clauses:  This always sounds impressive – check it out!

Onomatopoeia:  Why not try some poetry, it’s good for vocabulary, read it aloud for pronunciation, it makes you think and best of all it’s often quite short! (onomatopoeia)

Phrasal verbs: The ‘must have’ accessory of every English language student! There are so many – learn bit by bit.

Quirky: Learning languages should be fun (and a little bit serious) – choose a fun group activity where you can use your language and practise your skills – or start one in your area.

Repetition: This is part of the training – drilling and memorising – make it more interesting by turning your verb list into a rap or funny song

Spelling: This is a problem for everyone – even native speakers! I have my dictionary next to me all the time, I have to check too!

Tenses:  Do you know them, can you use them?

Understanding: Language learning is all about understanding and communicating. Take time to listen and assimilate the information. Fluency does not equal speed! Don’t forget the cultural side of language learning – this needs understanding too!

Verbs:  They come in all shapes and sizes and exhibit lots of different behaviours – make sure that you spend time sorting these out. Remember that advanced students often make elementary mistakes so take care! (see my posting on doing a language audit –  June 16 2009)

Words:  The protons and neutrons of language! What can I say – the more you know the better your performance.

Xerox:  Don’t be a photocopy collector! Your language knowledge doesn’t equate to the size of your study file. Read and copy out the most important rules or examples. The copying process is part of the learning – old fashioned perhaps but it works!

Your/You’re:  Don’t do this – one of the most common grammar /spelling crimes today! Or try yoga for concentration or speak to a local yokel for practice!

Zzzzzzzzzz: Sleep refreshes!

September 14, 2009

Advanced Students – A Case Study

It’s often a good idea to find out about the experiences of other students so I thought I’d post a few case studies selected from my own advanced students. Here is the first.

These are real stories of success but they also illustrate the trials and tribulations of the journey the student and I took to reach their goal. The experience in each case was as rich and rewarding for me as it was for them.

Student 1 – Mehmet

The first lesson

Mehmet was a civil engineer with a large UK construction company. The company approached RLI for English training to help Mehmet with his spoken English.

At the first lesson I was surprised to discover that Mehmet had been living and working in the UK for almost 25 years. He was Turkish and had come to the UK as a  graduate. I also discovered at that meeting that he was not happy about having been sent for English training. He spoke fluently with a high level of English and the only discernable problem was a strong accent. He had a very successful career which had not hitherto been affected by his English.  He had recently been promoted and was now required to lead meetings and give presentations he found this challenging but was not convinced that his English was at fault.

The course

I sensed some hostility and realised that my first task was to prove to Mehmet that I could actually be of use to him. I decided that we should work on his pronunciation. I identified areas for development and we began. It became clear when we tried some mini presentations and pronunciation drills that the real problem was one of confidence and being out of the comfort zone.

Out came the tape recorder:  I recorded me, I recorded him. I made tapes of stress pattern drills and samples of sentence stress, model sentences and mini presentations. He took the tapes and played them in the car listening and  repeating. It was ‘old-fashioned’, ‘no-frills’  drilling exercises but it worked. Gradually I gained Mehmet’s trust and gradually he gained confidence.

A series of breakthrough incidents then began to happen!

Breakthrough 1

While waiting outside a College to collect his daughter, Mehmet was listening to one of the tapes and practising some of the sounds – articulating them clearly. He was concentrating hard and didn’t notice a small crowd of students gathering around his windscreen. Once he spotted them he laughed and explained he was practising his pronunciation! Real confidence!

Breakthrough 2

Mehmet was a member of a Turkish cultural organisation and he was helping to organise an event. He was asked to step in and open the proceedings (in English) as the chairman was delayed. Hesitant at first , he finally agreed and his colleagues in the organisation were very impressed! He made a big impact that evening.

The lessons continued and Mehmet’s confidence grew. Colleagues at work were noticing his new found confidence. He was making presentations and leading meetings. He also assumed a more visible role in his cultural organisation.

Breakthrough 3

Shortly before our training sessions were completed Mehmet came to one lesson very excited. His organisation had been invited to send delegates to an International conference in Strasbourg and he had been asked to make a presentation to the delegates. He was beside himself with excitement and had absolutely no qualms about accepting the invitation!

We completed our lessons soon after this and I did not hear how the conference went. I know, however, that with a few pronunciation drills and his own meticulous practice, Mehmet went far beyond the goal set for him and it opened up a whole new world.

September 8, 2009

Thinking in English – how to make it happen

I remember when I was at school learning French, one of the best pieces of advice my teacher gave us was, “If you don’t know it don’t use it!”

At first it was a little daunting as the amount of French anchored in my brain was very little.  How could an essay be written or a conversation be had without reference to English?  In reality, however, adherence to this ‘rule’ developed an agility with language that has helped me ever since.

If you don’t know the word for a ‘frying pan’ (this happened to me while an au-pairing in France) describe it!  You get there in the end (using more of the language to boot!) and learn a new word, but these linguistic gymnastics help you to hone that all-important skill in language learning – thinking in the target language!!

 I’d like, if you’ll permit me, to indulge in my own personal experience and  throw a few anecdotes around which, I hope, will help to illustrate not only the importance of thinking in the target language but also the joy of discovering that you can do this.

Losing your own language

One alarming, at first, consequence of using a language other than your native tongue for a long period is that you forget words!   You don’t really lose them but sometimes you will come across a phrase or word and realise that you haven’t used it for a long time. Two things – it means that you are possibly expressing these things comfortably in your new language and secondly it is lovely to rediscover these ‘old friends’.

‘Creating your own language’

No language is perfect. If you begin to learn another you will find that there are certain things it expresses much better than your own language.

As your proficiency in your new language approaches that of your mother tongue you may find yourself adopting words from both languages and making a  hybrid language – a sort of  idiolect. Sometimes these phrases are shared among a group (very common within expat communities).

In Indonesia we all said ‘Go and mandi (bath)’ and ‘Where shall we go makan’ (eat). I remember on my first trip back to the UK from Indonesia speaking like this automatically and getting some very strange looks!

Not realising which language you’re using

As you use your new language more and more you may get to the stage where you don’t realise which language you are using!

On one occasion I was reading a newspaper and was surprised to find that there was a lot of local news in it instead of the more international news I usually found there. Imagine my surprise when I at last discovered that instead of the Jakarta Post, an English language paper, I had picked up the local Medan, Indonesian-language, newspaper and hadn’t even realised it!

Another time I brought an Indonesian cookery book back as a present for my mother – you’ve guessed it – it was written in Indonesian and I hadn’t even thought about it until she pointed it out!

Being taken for a ‘native’

My final story is a pearl!

I was standing at a bus-stop in Jakarta during a power-cut. It was very dark. I began speaking to a woman who told me that she knew that I wasn’t from Jakarta from my accent and thought I must be from Medan! It turned out that her family were also from there and she claimed that it was a purer form of Indonesian that we both spoke!! Imagine her surprise when the electricity came back on and she was confronted by a Westerner! It was precious!!

How  did these things happen?

The main reason for all these incidents is the ability to absorb a new language alongside your own so that it becomes second nature. To do this you need to think in the new language when you are using it.

To get there try to:

  • get as much exposure as possible – (read, listen, watch TV etc.)
  • try to ‘get in the zone’ –  remember the teacher’s advice – if you don’t know it don’t use it
  • listen to local people – not just teachers  (we are trained to manipulate language in a certain way within the classroom)
  • imaginary conversations – rehearse these in your head – when learning French I used to talk to my dog, it was good practice of accent, phrases and just getting into the language
  • sing songs – this is a really fun way of practising and learning

Above all don’t translate it generally doesn’t work and you have to move away from the comfort of your own language and wear the new language like a new skin!!

September 1, 2009

Small talk – what to say and how to say it.

One of the most common questions I get from my Advanced students, especially those who are working in an English language environment, is; “how do we begin a conversation?”

Arriving at the office, having coffee or lunch together, even in the few minutes before a meeting begins, there are moments which require conversation outside of the job. This is called small talk or phatic language. It has a social English rather than a linguistic purpose. We use it all the time.

“How are you?” do we really want a real response to this question? It is simply an extension to the greeting and a polite way of connecting. We would be very surprised if the person responded with a catalogue of ailments, we usually expect the answer to be  “fine, how are you?” or something along those lines.

Let’s look at 3 possible scenarios and suggest a few techniques for small talk.

1. You arrive early for a departmental meeting. A colleague you know, but not well, is already sitting at the table.

  • Greet first, hello/hi, I think we’re a bit early! or (if you are sure of the person) I hope this won’t be a long meeting..
  • Can I/is it OK if I sit here/I’ll just sit here
  • Did you get to the presentation on…(related to the meeting)? What did you think?
  • How are things working out with Fred? (new boss/new colleague)
  • Are/Have you been involved in .. (some project, initiative in the company – it may be related to the meeting) if the answer is yes, talk about the project if no then you could ask what they are working on and how it’s going. At this point the feedback should help you to continue the conversation until other people arrive.

If the meeting is external and the person you sit next to is a stranger you can use the following;

  • Hi, I’m …. from ….
  • Have you travelled far?
  • How do you find  Manchester etc…
  • Have you been to this ….. before?
  • If this is a networking session then you will probably move on to your respective jobs/businesses at this point, or others will join you. If not then the event will begin.

2. You are at a social event. Your friend/colleague introduces you to another friend/colleague and immediately leaves you to go and do something. You are left with a complete stranger.

  • How do you know X?/Have you known X long?
  • What do you do?
  • Where do you work/which department do you work in?
  • Have you been here before?
  • What do/did you think of the band?/venue/presentation etc..

In this vein you should be able to keep the conversation going until your friend returns.

3. You go to the office canteen for lunch and sit with some members of your department. You know them quite well.

  • Hi, can I join you?
  • What do you make of this weather?/Isn’t it stifling/freezing?/What amazing weather?
  • Did you see the football/rugby/cricket last night? I think we were robbed/I think we deserved to loose/what did you think of the penalty decision? etc…..
  • Did you watch The Apprentice (some popular TV programme) last night? Who do you think will win? Can you believe what they did? etc…
  • Are you going to the meeting this afternoon/conference next week/away day on Friday etc….
  • How was your holiday?/Are you going away this year?/How did you like Malta? etc…
  • Did you hear the announcement from Steve today? What do you think?/Have you heard the latest about ……

These are people you will know something about or perhaps share a common interest. Depending on who is in the group (don’t talk about a topic in detail if this only includes one of the group). Work talk is fine if it’s newsworthy but often people want to discuss other things during these breaks.

Some useful topics for small talk – colleagues

  • Sport – this is always a safe bet especially when an important match has been on the television. Keep it general and be sensitive to people who may not share your enthusiasm – move on to something else. 
  •  TV and films – again these are good safe topics for small talk within your work environment. Keep comments general and be sensitive to the group dynamic (in a mixed group you might not want to discuss anything overtly sexual or perhaps too violent)
  •  Recent news headlines –these are also good topics for small talk. Adhere to the rule of keeping conversation general and try to get other people’s opinions before you voice your own ( you don’t want to put your foot in it!)
  •  Important or recent work-related news – a safe topic but keep discussion to a minimum as small talk is usually non work-related
  •  Personal information –  if you know that someone has been on holiday, got married, had a baby etc.. it is ok to ask about this. The same rules apply; keep it general and short and be sensitive to the others in the group.
  • The weather– we’re English and this is our favourite topic! Yes, we do talk about the weather a lot. It is a safe common subject especially when it has been significant – very hot, cold wet etc.. A good opener.

Some useful topics for small talk – strangers

  •  Details of their journey
  • Job/Role
  • Experience vis-à-vis the event
  • Opinion vis-à-vis the event
  • Mutual colleagues/friends (in a purely social context)
  • The weather – a useful fallback

With strangers it is important not to be personal and keep all the talk fairly objective. We are making contact and need distance.

 Small talk can greatly enhance your English performance and creates good English style. However to be competent at social English it is important to have something to contribute and this means watching TV, reading the papers and being generally aware about what is culturally important to the people you are meeting and with whom you are working!

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