When there is a break in communication, what is to blame? Is it one’s accent? Or pronunciation? Or even vocabulary or grammar choices?
Although making appropriate vocabulary and grammar choices can definitely aid – or hinder – communication, most learners of English tend to blame their accent for any communication mishaps they come to face.
In today’s world, where we have access to a ton of information at our fingertips, it’s no secret that there are multiple varieties of English spoken by native and non-native speakers alike.
My teacher in Middle School used a British English textbook in class – even though she rarely spoke a word in the Queen’s language herself.
In High School, I suspect the version we studied was the North-American English. Again, I wouldn’t really know, as this teacher also taught us in her native Portuguese.
In both cases we were being taught using some version of the grammar-translation method, where focus was given to grammatical structures and meaning was conveyed through translation. And even though I can appreciate that this method has helped many to learn a foreign language, it did not help me.
However, through movies and TV series with subtitles, I was sort of aware of the melody of Hollywood; not that I would have been able to discern between different regional accents within the USA, but I knew when something sounded American or English.
My seeming ignorance of accents and dialects – allied to my ignorance of the English language itself – was what made it really easy for me to decode the infamous Australian English accent. Needless to say that there’s more to the down-under accent than Crocodile Dundee. Since I didn’t really have any assumptions of what English should sound like, it made perfect sense to say things like ‘mate’ /maɪt/ instead of /meɪt/, or ‘day’ /daɪ/ instead of /deɪ/. It was also only natural to drop the last /r/ of words such as ‘brother’ and ‘chair’.
Australian English was clear as day and soon other variations of English were too: New Zealand’s, South Africa’s, Britain’s, Canadian’s, North-American’s… all very obviously different from one another. And why not add German’s, Dutch’s, French’s, Spanish’s and Brazilian’s to the mix?
The accent I used to have most trouble with was that from Scotland. When I first saw Braveheart I am sure I missed half of the movie because I had no idea what Mel Gibson was saying and – since it was in Australia – there were no subtitles available. It took me a rewatch to begin to understand it.
So while accents do play a part in explaining why people might have issues communicating with others, it is not a phenomenon restricted to learners of English. It is not even restricted to English at all. You can ask anyone: Canandian French and French bear great differences, Spanish from Latin America is different from that of Spain, and even within South America the Spanish spoken varies country by country.
But, for proficient speakers of English, different accents – while they may demand closer attention – do not necessarily impede communication. What most frequently does is pronunciation.
‘Tomato’ may be /təˈmeɪˌtoʊ/ or /təˈmɑːtəʊ/, but it can’t be any different than that. It can’t be TOmato. Nor can it be tomaTO. If one says /təʊmeɪˌtə/ or /təʊmɑːtə/, the result is equally unsuccessful. Yes, it is true that there are variations in pronunciation within isolated sounds, words and even sentences, but there is only so much that can actually vary.
Stressed syllables and stressed words
Though we are not going to delve into each of these categories in this text, let’s examine the examples I’ve provided and “label” them:
Saying TOmato or toMAto or tomaTO is a shift in stress within the word – syllable stress.
Saying /təʊmeɪˌtə/ instead of /təˈmeɪˌtoʊ/ (tomato) is an error in a phoneme, that is, a sound.
In the song “I say tomato and you say tomato”, what we hear is /wənjə/ or /wənʤjə/, not ‘and you’. This is a feature of connected speech.
You might be wondering which of the three is the ‘real issue’ and, truth be told, a little bit of each one of them. In terms of speaking, definitely stress and phoneme. In terms of listening, connected speech.
Maybe next time, before we automatically blame our communication breakdown on our ‘accents’, we should stop and really consider whether we are saying what we think we’re saying. Because the difference between ‘think’ and ‘sink’ could be sink or swim. *wink*
People may try and convince you that pronunciation has a minor place in learning a language, but I can assure you that it’s not the case. I will never forget that hot summer day in the school canteen (in Australia it is canteen, not cafeteria) when a 17-year-old me relentlessly tried to order a Magnum – yes, the ice-cream, with no success.
I kept asking for a /mɑːgi’nun/ instead of a /ˈmægnəm/. A random kid from school – God bless her soul – intervened and helped me place my order. Needless to say I felt ashamed and grateful, and decided to really work towards making myself understood.
I also learnt that there are other – different from North American – ways to say the letters O, A, R in different words. Fast/fæst/ became /fɑːst/, last/læst/ became /lɑːst/, and past/pæst/ became /pɑːst/. A simple hello/həˈloʊ/ started to sound more like /həˈləʊ/. Oh, and, of course, all the Rs that came after vowels were not pronounced.
And one more thing: pronunciation does not mean accent. There are many different accents in English: Londoner, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Australian, New Zealander, Canadian, all variations within the USA, South African… and the list goes on. Everyone has an accent.
Lesson two – vocabulary is regional
By now we should know that languages are alive and, therefore, constantly changing and evolving. Words used in Australia are different from those used in the UK, which are different from those in Canada.
Jumper is a sweater in Australia and England. Not quite the same thing in Canada. Beanie describes a knitted hat in Australia and in England; however, in Canada, it’s called tuque (or toque).
Mobile phones – in Canada and England – are cell phones in the USA. The pronunciation of mobile, by the way, is different, too. And wireless, in Canada, refers to the mobile phone service, while in the UK it’s simply mobile.
Soda – you know, Coke, Sprite, Canada Dry – is pop in Canada and fizzy drink in the UK. Takeout food becomes takeaway in England. The question “for here or to go?”, so popular in Canada, is replaced with “dine in or takeaway?” in England. If memory serves me well, in Australia it is also called takeaway.
Lesson three – what’s standard?
Standard English, or the English we learn (or used to learn) at school, doesn’t really exist. Real people use language as their own and, therefore, change it to suit their personalities, moods, places of origin and so forth.
I had always been told that there is no plural word for you. You is you, be it singular or plural. Then, at school, in Australia, one of the kids asked me, “What did ‘yous’ do last night?” and I had the hardest time to understand it for two reasons: first, it sounded like “use” and made no sense. Second, I knew “yous” to be wrong and could not conceive of a native speaker making such a “beginner’s” mistake.
Turns out people actually say “yous” in some places to differentiate singular from plural. In some areas of the US, people say “y’all” instead. Of course both forms are informal and – what a surprise – not standard.
In much the same way, the quite famous BBC English – that is, received pronunciation (RP) – isn’t quite the norm in the streets of England.
Lesson four – everyone makes mistakes
As learners of a second language, we tend to think that native speakers never make any mistakes because they are fluent in their mother tongue. The truth is that we all make mistakes – even in our native language.
Just because someone was born speaking a language, it doesn’t mean they won’t make mistakes. And it doesn’t make them less fluent. So why should we believe that mistakes equal lack of fluency?
Some of the most common mistakes among speakers of English are:
Using affect for effect and vice-versa.
Confusing your and you’re.
Confusing principle and principal.
Saying (and writing) should of instead of should’ve.
Using past simple after have instead of using past participle – should have went instead of should have gone.
In no way am I advocating for an end in seeking accuracy in English – or any other language. All I am saying is that we should expect natives to make mistakes. And we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we make mistakes. Mistakes are part of the process.
Lesson five – bottomless coffee
I’ve come to appreciate a good Sunday brunch – totally a Canadian thing – with bottomless coffee: who doesn’t love endless refills of the dark brew?
Unfortunately, here in London, Sunday brunch is not as popular as the Sunday roast – which I also love, don’t get me wrong. But I do miss a good brunch. If you happen to know any good place (and affordable) here in London, please let me know.
But the analogy I was hoping to make – before I got all carried away thinking about food (lol) – is that learning a language is like bottomless coffee: it has no end. There won’t be a point where you think to yourself, “Yep, I’m done. Learning is over”.
So keep a curious mind. Keep your eyes open. See the fun in discovering new things. Expand your horizon.
Lesson for life – stay humble
Finally, stay humble. It doesn’t matter how much English you know or how well you speak; just stay humble. Nobody knows everything. We are all learners.
My first experience ever in a language school was as a novice teacher. Actually, it was more as a Journalism student who needed a part-time job and happened to speak good English than as a teacher per se. This was over 20 years ago.
I went through a knowledge test, interview and training without ever having attended an EFL/ESL class. I literally had no idea what a teacher was supposed to do in a language school. Sure I had had English in school as part of my Middle and High School programs, but the teachers barely spoke any English in class and my performance had always been subpar.
The tables turned when I was sent to a year-long exchange program in a town a couple of hundred kilometres off the outback in Australia. Survival mode plus the plasticity of the teenage brain – and, arguably, a knack for languages – ensured I became a competent user of English.
Back home, with an abundance of time in my hands, I decided to give teaching English a go as a means of occupying my time and starting a tiny savings. And this was my very first experience in a language school.
I must have done relatively well as I got the job. Perhaps it was an innate ability. Perhaps I was just good at reading people. Or perhaps nobody knew much about what a teacher should know and do.
Between then and now there is a world of difference. I gave up on Journalism and embraced education, worked at a number of different schools, went from teaching to coordinating to developing textbooks and back to teaching, learnt from my peers, from mentors and from courses. I took an IELTS and a CPE and a CELTA – which, by the way, was a life changing experience.
There you have it: 13 years of experience in a monolingual, culturally homogeneous environment. And then I moved to Canada, one of the most multicultural countries in the world.
Not only did I move to a culturally diverse country, I found a job in the most diverse school in its most diverse city, Toronto. And it was then when I understood the importance of CULTURAL AWARENESS in classroom management.
The importance of cultural awareness in classroom management
At a first glance, it is easy to find that a lot has been written with focus on the role of the North-American and British culture in learning English. It is almost as if there was a target culture as well as a target language.
While it is undoubtedly important to understand that a language is part of a culture and that it affects and is affected by it, it is also important to acknowledge the fact that English is widely spoken around the world by people whose first language is not English.
Again, cultural awareness may not be a novel idea to those who teach abroad – in non-English-speaking countries – as they need to take the local culture into consideration. However, in most cases, it is still a monolingual, culturally homogeneous classroom, even though the teacher may belong to a different cultural background altogether.
When you take a language classroom in a country such as Canada into consideration, where immigration is championed by the government and largely embraced by society, the situation is a completely different one. Oftentimes the ESL classroom consists of students from several different countries and a teacher who may or may not have a different background themselves.
According to the definition found in the Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Advanced English, cultural awareness is “Someone’s (…) understanding of the differences between themselves and people from other countries or other backgrounds, especially differences in attitudes and values.”
While teachers may be – or should be – prepared to deal with cultural diversity, students usually are not. And a successful class depends on expertly managing cultural micro-clashes so that a broader understanding and comradery – rather than disagreement – is achieved.
Therefore, cultural differences must be taken into consideration every step of the way: from needs’ analysis to lesson planning to classroom management to building rapport.
“Cross-cultural misunderstandings result when speakers assume that members of another culture share the same frames of reference and norms of social and communicative interaction. To be effective cross-cultural communicators, speakers must be aware of the relationship between culture and language.” Crossing Cultures in the Language Classroom Andrea DeCapua and Ann C. Wintergerst – University of Michigan Press 2019
“Classroom management can be explained as the actions and directions that teachers use to create a successful learning environment; indeed, having a positive impact on students achieving given learning requirements and goals (Soheili, Alizadeh, Murphy, Bajestani, Ferguson and Dreikurs).”
Scrivener, in his book Learning Teaching, says, “The skills of creating and managing a successful class may be the key to the whole success of a course”. (p79)
Classroom management encompasses everything from seating arrangement to stages of a lesson to types of correction and feedback. Every choice you make in the classroom is part of your management.
On my personal and professional journey as a newcomer, ESL teacher and, later on, Director of Studies (DOS), I quickly learnt that I had a lot of work to do on myself and on the way I managed my classes, my students and my teams.
Lesson 1 – The sounds of (the many) English(es)
Generally, Canadians are quite polite, open to conversation and patient, which definitely make things a lot easier for a newcomer or international student. In the larger cities, dwellers are used to a variety of accents and make an effort to understand and be understood.
I, as a newcomer, however, was not as prepared to hear so many different “Englishes” both in the city and in the classroom itself. More than once I caught myself nodding along to sentences I couldn’t make out simply because I was too embarrassed to ask my interlocutor to repeat it a third or fourth time.
Now, if I, an experienced competent speaker, had a hard time at first, what about the students? As teachers, it is our role to help students understand one another and communicate competently.
With that in mind, when planning pair and group work, for example, it is important to make sure students of different backgrounds have the opportunity to interact and learn from their differences and similarities.
Speakers of certain languages may exchange P for B, for instance, while others switch F for P or even R for L. The book Learner English, by Michael Swan and Bernard Smith, CUP, is a good step towards helping teachers to anticipate the characteristic difficulties speakers of other languages might face while learning English.
Lesson 2 – personal space
Certain cultures favour closer contact, including hugging and touching. Others don’t. In some cultures it is common for women to lock arms and keep in close proximity while in others, this behaviour will be seen among men instead. Whether to greet others with a kiss, a hug, a handshake or a nod also depends on factors such as culture, age and gender.
In order to avoid creating uncomfortable situations, it is important that the teacher know where to draw the line. It may be wise to ask students if it is OK for them to shake hands or high five their classmates before starting an activity that might involve any sort of physical contact.
Body language and gestures might also cause awkwardness and misunderstandings as, much like words themselves, they are decoded based on cultural cues. The universal OK sign is offensive to Brazilians while ‘thumbs up’ is insulting to Middle Easterns.
Since talking with my hands seems to be stronger than me, I made it a habit to always check with students that none of my gestures was offensive. For me, personally, there is no way of knowing every aspect of every culture that there is in the world, that’s why establishing good communication channels with the students is always vital.
Lesson 3 – peacekeeping
Opinions, beliefs and social behaviour are largely influenced by one’s cultural background, therefore, disagreements are bound to happen in any classroom, let alone a multicultural one.
What is clearly chauvinism in the views of one culture, is the norm in another’s. What men and women can and cannot do vary greatly from one country to another and this can lead to heated disagreements in class – I know it did in mine. As a teacher, how do you ensure conflict resolution? Or even, how do you prevent conflict from arising?
There are other instances as well: students mocking others for chewing with their mouths open, students asking others about their marital status, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. Curiosity regarding what is different from ourselves is inherent to human nature and questions will pop up; it’s up to the teacher to mediate communication and handle conflict in class.
Lesson 4 – cheating and plagiarism
Who knew plagiarism was not a universally accepted concept? As Director of Studies I had to support teachers in explaining what plagiarism is and its consequences to students. It wasn’t rare for students to claim not to understand why copying another person’s work without citing them was not fair game in academic writing.
Most issues can and should be prevented rather than remedied and plagiarism is no different. What has always worked best is to set the rules of the game at the beginning. Oh, and there is a huge difference between mentioning and explaining something.
In many teens classes, teachers and students come up with classroom rules. It turns out every class can benefit from having clear rules laid out at the very beginning of the term, EAP inclusive.
There will always be another lesson to learn.
We’ll continue to discuss cultural awareness in classroom management in the weeks to come. Meanwhile we would really like to encourage you to share with us your experience with culturally homogeneous or diverse groups and how you get around to managing it all.
If you find listening one of the hardest skills, know that you are not alone. The quest to improve listening is almost as intense as the one for the Holy Grail.
Here is the situation:
You know the words. You know how to pronounce them. Yet, whenever watching TV, listening to music or talking to someone it seems like they are speaking a completely different, incomprehensible language.
Have you ever thought about why that is? If you have, you might have come across the following:
People speak fast
People don’t finish words
People don’t say all the words
People have accents
While some of those statements might seem true, there is one underlying factor that impacts how well we are able to understand other people speaking: connected speech.
What is connected speech?
It is the way sounds interfere in the pronunciation of one another as we speak naturally. Or, to be precise, it is the “ flow of sounds which are modified by a system of simplifications through which phonemes are connected, grouped and modified.” (Underhill, A. p.58)
But what does it mean to us? For starters, it means that pretty much every word – the way we pronounce it – may be modified by neighbouring sounds. Words, in discourse, don’t exist in isolation. Understanding this is the first step to improving listening comprehension – and communication as a whole.
In a nutshell, here is how it works
Each word has its own pronunciation, that is, the pronunciation that we can find in the dictionary. So this is /ðɪs/, Saturday is /ˈsatədeɪ/ and night is /nʌɪt/. But when we put all these words together in a sentence, ‘This Saturday night’, this is what happens: /ðɪ satədeɪ nʌɪt/. In essence, instead of saying two ‘s’ we’ll pretty much just say one ‘s’.
Let’s take a look at these words: I /ʌɪ/, will /wɪl/, see /si:/, you /ju:/, next /nekst/, Tuesday /ˈtjuːzdeɪ/, at /at/ and two /tu:/. When we put them in a sentence, look what happens:
‘I will see you next Tuesday at two’ becomes /ʌɪl sɪ jʊ nɛks ˈtjuːzdeɪ j ət tuː/.
And this doesn’t happen just in English. If you examine your own mother tongue closely, you will notice that sounds often change or disappear when you speak naturally. Being aware that this happens will help you reach new grounds in terms of listening and speaking.
Now it’s your turn
Say each of the words below slowly:
Now say them all together: ‘How are you?’ /ˌhaʊ ə ju/?
Say each of the words below slowly:
Now say them all together: ‘Sue always wants to eat’ /Suː wɔːlweɪz wɒnts tʊ wiːt/.
Three great ways to practice listening
now that you are aware of connected speech
Movies and series
Nowadays, most streaming services offer a range of options so that we watch our favourite movies and series as we wish. Opt for original English audio and English subtitles. Sometimes these will be available as CC (closed caption).
You will benefit from this practice because, first, it will help you connect the pronunciation to the spelling of a great number of words. Second, you will be able to make out the individual words in the dialogues. Third, you will become each day more and more aware of how sounds change in a sentence. Finally, it may also help you become acquainted with the many varieties of English.
There was a time you would have to go to a bookshop and look for the English section and then scavenge for audio books: the physical book + a CD with the audio version. Now there are several platforms that offer soft copies of both books and audio books.
You could try and listen to the book as you read it. Again, the goal is to match pronunciation to spelling, make out individual words and increase awareness of connected speech and how it affects discourse.
Last but not least, a great way to improve listening – among other skills – is through music. The internet, always the internet, is an open door to a countless number of songs for all tastes.
I tend to remember songs very vividly and it has helped me to work through grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation questions.
Naturally, it is important to bear in mind that artists will lend the words their own style, personal impressions, interpretation and emotions. Sometimes grammar won’t be 100% by the book and the same may happen to the pronunciation of some words.
A good ‘sing-along’ is, nevertheless, a great fun way to get those Rs and Ls rolling.
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How do you read? Do you read word by word or do you skim through? Do you skip pages or even chapters only to go back to them later? Do you read the ending before the end? Do you write things down on your books? Do you turn down the corners of a page to bookmark it?
When you are reading for fun, it doesn’t really matter what you do or how you do it. You have all the time in the world – potentially. But when you take an exam, what and how you read will impact your score.
Here are FIVE tips to help you gain time and increase your reading score on IELTS, CELPIP or Cambridge.
Remember, we always read for a purpose. When talking about tests, we read to find the answers. So start by reading the questions before you dive into the text itself. You will, then, know what you are looking for.
In order to improve your chances of success, underline, circle, write down keywords and brainstorm a couple of synonyms or phrases that might have the same meaning. This is because you are also being tested on your vocabulary range.
Scan and skim
Now that you know what you are looking for, scan the text in search of those keywords from the questions. Once you find the word, read the surrounding phrases to understand the context and answer the question.
If you decide to read the whole text, prefer to skim through it rather than read it in detail. The only parts you really need to focus on are the ones that contain keywords.
Chances are you will come across unknown words or expressions in the text and it is perfectly fine. How you handle unknown vocabulary, however, will determine how successful you will be.
Look at the bigger picture and try to infer meaning through context. What is the general idea of the passage? Can you replace the word you don’t know with other possible words that you do know? Keep in mind that there will be more words that you do know than that you don’t. Rely on that.
The order of questions
The questions are usually in the same order as the answers appear in the text. This means, the first answer will come before the second and the third and so forth.
With that in mind, start scanning the text from the beginning and read on looking for the keywords of the first question. If the first clue you find relates to any other question that comes after, it means that you have missed something.
After you answer the corresponding question, go back to the beginning and try to find the first clue but try not to dwell on it for too long. Remember, the clock is ticking.
Being able to complete the tasks within the timeframe is part of the test. You should allocate a portion of the allotted time to each section of your test. If you have 60 minutes to read three passages, allow yourself to spend up to 20 minutes on each.
Try not to get stuck. Some texts might be harder than others, some tasks might be more complex than others. If you are taking a paper-based test, like IELTS or Cambridge, you can go back and forth. Take advantage of it and tackle the easier sections first.
These five tips can be applied to pretty much any reading test out there. Stay tuned for test-specific strategy tips for IELTS, CELPIP and Cambridge.
If you are preparing for a proficiency test, you might have encountered a number of gap-fill exercises along the way. Here you’ll see how to tackle the Cambridge English Reading and Use of English task.
For questions 1-6, read the text below and decide which answer (A, B, C or D) best fits each gap.
In the last ten years or so, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world have 1 ______ up residence in Vancouver, in western Canada. To relax in the evening, residents 2 ______ down the city streets and, if you join them, you are likely to overhear a different language at almost every other step. People come to Vancouver for its mild climate, its wonderful setting between the ocean and the mountains, its clean and safe environment and its educational and job opportunities. And 3 ______ some may grumble about the speed at which new buildings have 4 ______, there’s no doubt that the new arrivals and 5 _____ tourism industry have helped fuel an urban renaissance. Locals once referred to Vancouver as ‘Terminal City’ because of the city’s role as a terminus or gateway to all other places. Though the name has fallen slightly out of 6 _____, Vancouver is more a gateway than ever.
(Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English 1, 2002)
How to tackle this exercise
Gap-fill exercises, in general, rely not only on the information before and after the gap (coherence), but also on how the words connect grammatically (cohesion).
Let’s identify the ‘clues’ in the text:
For # 1, the clues are: the particle ‘up’, which indicates it’s a phrasal verb, and the word ‘residence’, which suggests the idea of ‘living, inhabiting’.
The same rationale works for the other gaps. Looking at #2, we know it might be a phrasal verb as well, as indicated by the particle ‘down’. The idea is something that residents do in the streets, perhaps ‘walking’, as the phrase ‘every other step’ indicates. Therefore, the phrasal verb we are looking for is likely a synonym of ‘walk’.
Finding the right answers
After having identified the ‘clues’ in the text, the next step is to identify the wrong or impossible answers. This might happen in two ways: first, cross out obviously wrong answers based on meaning or form. Second, cross out answers that are exactly the same. Remember, there is ONLY ONE correct option, thus, if two answers seem equally good, both are equally wrong.
Let’s check our alternatives:
Looking back at #1, we know the idea is connected to ‘inhabiting’. Let’s check out our options:
A ‘take up’ = occupy time, space, attention → occupy space ≈ inhabit
B ‘put up’ = stay temporarily in accommodation other than home ≠ inhabit
C ‘make up’ = invent, create, prepare → no connection with ‘inhabiting’
D ‘ build up’ = make or become stronger, establish or develop → could be connected to housing but not necessarily to ‘inhabiting’
Based on this analysis, the correct answer is A.
Now, as we analyse #2, we should keep in mind the idea of ‘walking in the city to relax’:
A ‘prowl down’ = ‘prowl’ means to move in search of prey (animal being hunted) → surely not what residents of Vancouver do to relax in the city
B ‘stumble down’ = ‘Stumble’ means to trip, almost fall. Again, it is not something most people would do to relax in the city
C ‘trudge down’ = ‘trudge’ means to walk slowly and with heavy steps, almost like it is hard or a burden. Therefore, it is not a relaxing activity
D ‘stroll down’ = by elimination, this is likely the correct answer, but let’s take a closer look anyway. ‘Stroll down’ means to walk in a leisurely way. If ‘leisure’ means to use free time with enjoyment, it seems like the perfect match to ‘walking in the city to relax’
Based on this analysis, the correct answer is D.
Now it is your turn
Click on the button below, ‘Vancouver’, to access the complete exercise and the answer key.
Over the years, I have noticed that, in spite of how badly everyone seems to want to speak English (or any other language, for that matter), very few people are actually willing to put in the work. That’s why there are so many schools, courses, and approaches selling a ‘magical solution’ to language learning.
Please don’t get me wrong, I do believe it is possible to learn a language relatively fast; I spent the first years of my professional life working for a chain that sold English in 18 months. I’ve also worked for other schools that expected students to invest 4 to 5 years of their lives in learning English.
I, myself, have never been to a language school – as a student. I pretty much taught myself English but not because I was this curious genius; I simply needed to survive in a foreign country in the pre-internet era. So I guess what I am saying is that, although there is no magical formula to learning English, there are many ways to learn.
I have encountered successful learners in the 18-month course, in the 4-to-5-year course, and who taught themselves how to speak English. I have also seen people struggle in all three categories.
What really determines how successful someone will be in their language learning journey is their attitude towards learning.
It may sound a bit corny but, as the saying goes, “where there is a will, there is a way”. Naturally, there is more to it than just willpower. Some call it ‘growth mindset’, others call it ‘agency’. All it means is that, in order to learn, one must make the decision to do so, put in the work AND be open to a whole new set of beliefs about what it is to learn something.
Over a decade ago, when The Secret was ubiquitous and there was no hiding from it, I came across this tale about this chief who kept staring into the ocean day in and day out. Although he couldn’t see anything in the water, he spotted a change in the wave pattern: it was caused by the caravels approaching the pre-European American continent. The bottom line is that it is hard to see what you don’t know that exists.
Based on this same principle, one can only begin to learn something once they become aware of its existence. Students will only be able to spot the different uses of specific words or grammar points if they are aware that they exist. Have you ever thought about how many words just fly off the radar daily simply because we don’t know they are there?
I, myself, have experienced this ‘phenomenon’ many times in my life – both in my first and second languages. I always recall this one time a dear friend of mine – who is a fluent English speaker – in a conversation at work, noticed, for the first time, the expression ‘run errands’. Even though it is a common expression, they had never really been aware of it. So I clarified its meaning, told them it is used quite frequently in English, and asked them to try and notice it being used within the following week. When we talked about it again, my friend told me how surprised they were to notice how many times they had seen it since they had been made aware of it.
The same goes for anything in life, really. Have you ever noticed that every now and then it seems as though there is an abundance of information about one certain thing that you had never noticed before? For example, you decide to travel to Canada and do some research and find out that the capital of the country is Ottawa. Soon after, you begin to hear about it quite frequently: it’s in the news, you have a friend whose friend’s daughter lives there, a new movie is set there, your favourite actor was born there, and so on.
The skeptic in you might be thinking it is Siri listening in. Well, nowadays it might be the case, too, but it goes beyond that. I propose a little experiment: try and notice how many times this week you will encounter the expression ‘run errands’, or how many times you will come across some piece of information involving Ottawa.
In language learning, it is not enough to start a course, or to commit to reading a number of pages, or doing homework, or watching movies. None of it will be of any use unless you start purposefully noticing the language – and how it is used – around you. If you are learning Past Perfect, for example, make a point of underlining it whenever you see it written, make a point of actively listening for it while watching a movie or the news.
This is how I learnt English, this is how I picked up Spanish and this is how I pick up some of my very scarce Polish vocabulary. Well, this and the fact that I am a perfectionist, but this is another story.
It is a well-documented fact that each and every one of us learns in different ways. However it is that you do your best learning, one thing remains the same: you must deliberately notice the language used around you.
If you need help in your journey, email me. I will happily share some practical ways to make language awareness an everyday thing.
So you have been stuck at home for the past couple of weeks – or months – and everyone seems to be either thriving or struggling. There have been countless Instagram lives on how to stretch, cook, homeschool, meditate, change careers, make millions, gain lean muscle, write the next great Canadian novel and whatnot.
You think to yourself, ‘I guess I must have fallen off the wagon at some point’ and feel you must really be doing something wrong. On the other hand, you feel kind of guilty for actually showering everyday – perhaps you are not struggling?
And caught in between the two sides of this same coin lies the realization that the world has changed and you might need to change too.
Interpersonal relations seem to soar in spite of the fact that life is happening much more indoors than outdoors. It is as if we had realized that we don’t have to share a physical space to be together, to work together, to grow together.
Nobody knows how long we’ll have to avoid physical proximity to others or when our borders will reopen. And when they do, well, what will it all mean? Specialists indicate the future of work and learning will rely on a stronger virtual connection. Remote is the new black – I mean, the buzzword of the moment.
In this climate, it has become evident that certain skills will be the rock upon which we build our new normal. Digital literacy is now a bare minimum; the ability to connect, troubleshoot, create and navigate the digital world is what is keeping many of us with our heads above water.
In a (digital) world without borders, English is the language that brings us all together. It enables cross-country collaboration, the sharing of unfiltered information, a first-hand view of the world’s issues.
Perhaps because we now clearly stand on the edge of change, we find ourselves pressured to thrive: improve ourselves, learn something new, get in shape, become better people. And the alternative seems to be letting it all go and giving in to absolute procrastination and denial.
Well, I am sure many of us drift between these extremes quite regularly: between the urge to learn something new and the need to shut down. There is no right or wrong, there is no recipe.
And to the question of whether now is the time to invest in learning anything, well, only you have the answer. When the time is right for you, consider this new reality, consider all the changes that the pandemic has brought about and then make your move.
Just keep in mind that tomorrow will be another day.
At some point in your learning journey, there will be a moment where you will believe you have reached a good level of English; a moment you will feel you are ready to face whatever comes your way. Kudos for reaching that point. However, this is not the end of your journey.
A new journey awaits and it goes beyond textbooks; it’s real life.
Textbook English versus real-life English
Grammar does not equal communication
Having perfect grammar doesn’t guarantee you will be understood. Yes, it is important to properly use grammar, but grammar alone can’t ensure communication: there is pronunciation and vocabulary to factor in.
Besides, native speakers don’t necessarily know the grammar themselves and may make mistakes, too. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a grammar expert in your native language to be fluent, so why would English speakers have to?
Vocabulary is deceiving
Regional differences in vocabulary usage mean people from different places use words differently. The most popular example of such is the comparison between British and American English.
Everyone knows that the Brits take the lift while Americans take the elevator. A lorry (UK) is a truck (USA) and underground (UK) is subway (USA). But it goes far beyond that. In Canada, people drink double-doubles (coffee with two creams and two sugars), in Australia, people get Maccas (McDonalds) and in the UK, people love salt and vinegar flavoured crisps (chips).
Pronunciation and accent may vary
English speakers have different accents. New Zealanders don’t sound like Australians, who speak differently from South Africans, who pronounce words differently from the Brits, who don’t sound like the Irish, who have a different accent from Canadians, who, believe it or not, don’t speak like Americans.
Beside the accent, there are words that are pronounced differently depending on the country. Americans say missile /ˈmɪsəl/ and fragile /ˈfræʤəl/ while the British say /ˈmɪsaɪl/ and /ˈfræʤaɪl/. And the differences don’t end there:
International Phonetic Alphabet symbols
And we could go on and on and on… but I guess you get my drift, eh?
How to land on your feet
Now you might be wondering what you can do to improve your chances to communicate well and effectively. A good way to start is to take your English out of the textbook: watch movies and series in English. Listen to music in English. Read – and this is crucial – books, magazines, blogs in English.
Notice that it is not enough, however, to simply do those things. You must be an active reader, and you must listen and watch with purpose. Take notes of words you don’t know or that are used in different ways. Check the pronunciation of words you had a hard time to understand or that you were sure should be said in another way.
If you need help in this process, drop me a line. I will be more than happy to share with you what I did when I was learning English and what I still do these days that works for me.
Imagine having to prepare for an exam during a pandemic. This is exactly what several international students and immigration applicants are going through at the moment.
Covid-19 has changed the shape and form of our world and how we carry on with our lives, our tasks, our plans and dreams. Many workers have had to work from home and schools quickly transferred their curriculum to online delivery.
For my students, the way we work together has not really changed. At least this part of their routine remains unchanged. But, for most, it is a completely new way to study. Here are five tips to help you get yourself organized and make the most out of this difficult situation:
One: find yourself a quiet space
A corner of the dining table, the centre table in the living room, lying in bed, on the couch with legs criss-crossed, whichever way you prefer. Remember, you do you. However, it is important that this place be quiet enough to allow you to focus on reading, writing, doing grammar exercises, listening to audios and so on.
Two:set a time to study
Just because you are at home all day, it doesn’t mean you have all day at your disposal. To fend off procrastination, create some sort of routine and try to stick to it.
Depending on what your goals and timeline are, you may need to put in more hours or to study more times a week.
Three:map out your process
Easier said than done, I know. When you have the guidance of an instructor, they will (hopefully) do that for you. But if you decided to venture on your own, well, you are on your own.
Establish what you will be studying each day and why. The official websites for the exams are usually pretty good at offering some tips on how to prepare for the test.
Four:map out your progress
This part might be trickier. Marking reading and listening is as simple as counting up to 10 as these are multiple choice – or gap-fill – tests. It is, undoubtedly, harder to measure one’s own achievement in writing and speaking.
If you do not have a teacher to help you out in this part of the process, the next best thing is to try and compare your production to the sample answers made available by the testing institutions.
Five:don’t limit yourself
It is true that you are preparing for a specific test which is comprised of specific skills, but that’s not all. It is important to keep your learning process varied and interesting.
Reading books in English is a great way to improve reading speed, comprehension and inference. Listening to songs in English and singing along is an effective way to beef up listening comprehension, pronunciation and vocabulary.
Movies and series are an excellent option to practice both reading and listening as well as providing you with invaluable non-verbal cues.
Here are a few websites to help you get yourself organized and on track:
Learn more about the IELTS test and check out sample questions
Learn more about the CELPIP and get ready for the test