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The Dangers of Translation

​Last week as you might recall, I set about debunking the idea that learning a second language like English for example, or French or German to native-like levels as an adult is not really possible.

There are a number of practices that you might be doing that will prevent you from ever reaching these levels. So, today what I want to do is look at the first of four practices that I believe hold up this myth. These are like four legs of a table. So each week, I'm going to look at one of the legs and chop away one of the legs so, hopefully, by the end of the fourth week the whole myth will come tumbling down.

You will find a  slightly edited version of the video below it - just to improve how it reads. The content stays much the same.

​There are a number of practices that you might be doing that will prevent you from ever reaching these levels. So, today what I want to do is look at the first of four practices that I believe hold up this myth. These are like four legs of a table. So each week, I'm going to look at one of the legs and chop away one of the legs so, hopefully, by the end of the fourth week the whole myth will come tumbling down.

​Translation has benefits

The first one is that many have a belief translation is a necessary part of learning a new language. Everyone can see its benefits. They don't know a word or something and they look it up and bang you have it. You have the word instantly. It's instant gratification. You feel like you can relax a bit. You feel like you know the language a bit more and so it actually is very alluring, a very tempting thing to do is to translate. So, why on Earth would anybody do anything else differently ?

It seems to me that very few in fact do, so what could be so wrong with it. We’ll look at that into that shortly. But before I do, I want to you to consider a number of, what I will call, irrefutable facts and these are not false facts. 🙂 These are irrefutable. They can't be dispelled. Well, that is what I think anyway! 🙂 You can judge for yourself when you listen to them.

The facts of translation

The first one is - that every language you learn occupies a different physical place in your brain. So, for example, English might be in one area, your first language in another and then another language in a different place. I'm not sure exactly where the places are, but I have seen the brain maps and it's incontrovertible that when a person speaks one language, it lights up in that part of the brain.  There's no other lights going up anywhere else. These lights aren't real lights, of course. It is the energy that gets activated when you are speaking a particular language.

The second irrefutable fact is that when you speak in a new language that you're learning, you have no time to translate and if you are translating with your speaking, you must be speaking very very, very slowly indeed. So anybody who gets to any decent level of competency at all, will recognize that there's no time to translate.

So the second thing is to do with that is the same for listening. If you are listening to somebody, translation is possible.  However, all that will do is take you away from whatever else they're saying. So you really can't be taking the trouble to translate, going back to back with and forth in different parts of the brain at the same time as closely following what they are saying, as translation is a very slow process.

There are people who can do that, translators, However, that is their profession. They've been trained to do that but for the likes of you and me, this is not really possible.  

Now, let’s go back and look at the reasons why it is a good idea to avoid translation as much as possible. Before I look into the reasons, I will say one more thing.

Translation can be necessary

There are times when translation is necessary or advisable, even a good idea. Let's say, you go to a doctor or a lawyer or there's some kind of serious kind of situation you are involved where knowing the exact meaning is essential Now using translation here is a tool, not as a way of learning. I will draw a distinction here.

So when you're reading a book you don't need to translate or when you're talking to some of your friends or listening to TV. You don't need to do it, ,necessarily. However in some situations you may well need to. So, don't get me wrong, it is sometimes a good idea to do it. 

Reasons to avoid translation

​Now, for the first main reason why translation should be best avoided as much as possible. I want you to consider young kids learning their first language. Now, you may jump and think "Ah, now that’s different - adult learning is different to kids learning.” Well, yeah, of course, I agree.

​But to actually say the two are completely different and ignore what we did as a child I believe is a big mistake. There are things we should and we need to learn from that experience.  Some things we did as children don’t really relate to the life of adults but there are many things that do.

​One thing of the issues worth looking at ​is that as a child is learning their first language, they develop certain skills.  Particular skills that enable them to learn that language. So they develop really good listening skills, not just listening to sounds but to meanings and to develop really good looking and perceptual skills. They learn to look at things really carefully and try to work out the meaning from what actually is going on, not just the language.

As their their first language, gets better and better their ability to deduce things, to work things out, to infer things to, to guess things gets better and better. These are all skills. They develop these skills.  You will also need to call on these skills if you want to learn any language to high levels.  These skills can be developed from the get-go, from the beginning, or they can be redeveloped later. Whatever stage you're at, you can still work at developing these necessary skills.

I believe it's completely impossible to learn a language to any decent level, short of even a native-like level, if you don't get this skills up and to a really high level. The one way, I believe that can really help you develop these skills is to stop translating. Stop right now. Don't do it anymore. Unless you really need to. That's the one thing that I believe will help you enormously to start to activate this skills.

Now, the second reason.  It is a little bit related to the first, in fact. Let’s say you are learning English, as an example. You're developing the English muscles in your brain, right? That's what you're doing. And so everything you do has to be developing these muscles. Now, if you're actually linking this language, English, to your first language, by translating what you're doing is also setting up these connections, neural pathways as they are called. They are not developing your English muscle!.

And the more you use the​se pathways, the stronger they become.  And so what happens is that even when you get to a high level, really high level, it still can feel like like you are using your first language.  I hear this time and time again from people and the only reason why that's happening is because they have established these neural pathways. So even though their English is at a really high level, these links are just jumping into use all the time. ​

This basically sets up a feeling in them that they need their first language and it actually creates a lack of confidence in themselves because they know this is not the thing to do, inwardly. And so, these neural pathways that ​are created by translating creates real barriers for evermore.

On a positive note,  I will say is that these pathways can be left to degrade. They can be left to rot away.  And the way you do that is by stopping translating. If you stop translating and stop thinking in your first language and translating into your second, they will gradually disappear. ​ If you don't use it, you lose it. To avoid all this grief in the first place, it’s a really good strategy to not put these pathways into place at all!.

Now again, sometimes you do need them, as I mentioned before. But if you use it once or twice or whenever ,it’s not going to set these pathways up. You are just using the tool. It's just fine.

These are I bellieve really powerful reasons to radically reduce the translation activities that you do. 

Alternatives to translation

Now, you may be asking well, “What can I do, if I don't translate?” Well, one thing you'll find if you've been doing a lot of translation is that when you stop it, you'll feel a bit of discomfort. Discomfort is fine. You know, just as we say in English, “suck it up”. It's fine. It's something that you will soon learn to adjust to and what will happen is that you'll find that other parts of your brain, other other parts of you as a person just swing into action. You will start paying more attention, you'll be listening better and you'll be looking at things more closely. Everything starts to improve because you ​aren't using the easy go-to tool (translation).  So, other learning skills have to come into play.

So, your ability to guess, the ability to infer, your ability to deduce things will all improve. Of course, you can always ask the person you are talking to help.

One thing I will say about asking people, is that obviously you can't keep asking them all the time. But, sometimes you can ask for some critical words or issues that come up. The one thing that will help you with this is to ​resist the temptation to ask people to repeat themselves, if you do that.  

Asking somebody, “Could you please say that again?” is saying you haven't heard what they have said. Well, the reality is you probably have heard most of it and it may be that you understand most of it but there's some word or some phrase that has somehow thrown you. That has somehow stopped you.

​One suggestion is to train yourself to say something like, “I'm sorry. I am not quite sure if I got that. Were you saying blah blah blah”. Now by doing that you're actually showing the person you're listening really attentively. And in fact you had to listen attentively if you're going to say that. This technique forces you to bring into play, to activate what you actually heard. If you get a little bit wrong, they'll straighten you out or maybe you actually worked out exactly what they were saying.

This is a really powerful way of actually getting you to be more active in your listening and more active in getting people to help you. The people will respect you for that. If you keep asking somebody to please repeat that, please repeat that, it's not a good look. But by using an alternative strategy, such as the one I just suggested you are actually showing people that you are really attentive and listening. They will appreciate that.

So I hope with all this, I've completely cut one leg off the table so you are a little bit less assured about believing that myth that learning a new language to native-like levels for an adult is not really possible..  

I hope that's been of use and I'll talk to you next time. It's been Andrew Weiler here.

​.

​Here is the audio file in case you prefer to listen to it.

The Myth about Achieving Native-Like Levels


​The post below is an edited (improved) version of the video clip above.

Hi there.  Today, I want to address the question of why so many people believe that attaining native-like levels in accent or fluency or expressive ability in a second language is not really possible, if you're learning a second language as an adult.

Now there are many reasons for this and I'm only going to talk about the main ones. The reasons I am going to talk about aren't listed in order of importance. The first one I want to talk about is belief.

Beliefs

Because you believe something, it means that the odds of you actually exceeding your belief is very very limited. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you believe you can or whether you believe you can't, you are right”.

Put it another way, if you believe you can't do something, it means that whenever you come across a big problem, you're going to unconsciously be thinking, "Well the reason I can't solve it is because I know I don't really have the ability to do it anyway. So, why even try?" In other words, you're not going to go out of your way to go to find out an alternate solution. Or, you're not going to try to find what you can do to get past the problem. Unconsciously you tend to give up and that's fundamentally the reason why beliefs actually form an important part of the reason why the myth of not being able to attain native-like levels persists.

It is a myth and I can say it's a myth because I've seen enough examples to know that. Having worked with over a thousand language learners, I can, equally confidently, say that this reason, belief, is a powerful one. Time and time again, I have heard some version of this being uttered. " I have no talent, ability" . "I am no good at learning". "I just don't understand things like this". Then I see the results of that. 

A powerful way to work against such beliefs is to find practices that give real results! More on that another time.

Practice and Use

The second reason, which you might find surprising but I believe it's a critical one, is the issue of practice or use. I have troubles with this word “practice” in English because practice has a certain implication that what you do is artificial and you're repeating what you do. Repetition does have a function, but when it is done without conscious attention and without the view to improve, it can actually be counter productive.

Whereas, in using a skill, a lot of the time what is important is that you use the skill. So, for example, people talk about “I need to practice English.” Well, “practice” English doesn't quite get it right. I believe with some things clearly you need to do some practice, but I believe what's really important in skill development is using it. So, for example, if you're going to be practicing basketball, you are at home playing shots or you are doing other such things, right. But if you are playing games, that's not practicing, you are actually doing it. You actually are playing the game of basketball. That is the same as using English (or any other language) in real life.

You can be at home practicing certain sounds or doing certain exercises. But ultimately until you get out into the court, or out into life and actually using English, it may not amount to much really, as many of you will know. So, anyway, back to the question of this practice / use issue. You need extensive hours of using a skill like English or a language to get to the highest levels. Practice is not enough. You need a lot of use.

I will go back to the example of basketball, it's a really good analogy. Just because you're practicing basketball at home or with your mates, it doesn't mean you can go out the next day or the next week and play like Michael Jordan. You need a lot of games in between. You need extensive use.

Malcolm Gladwell, who did extensive research on this, maintains you need 10,000 hours, he says, of practice.  Practice by itself will not get you there. So, I will come back to “use”, which he includes in practice.. 10,000 hours, to me, sounds like a lot. If you work out the arithmetic of that in terms of how many hours a day, it adds up to a long time. I'm not convinced about that in terms of mastering a language, but you certainly do need a lot.

You need to not just, you know, going out and talking to somebody on the street, but you need a whole array of situations, from talking about family kind of stuff, to arguing, to talking about ideas, to talking about religion, to disagreements, negotiating and so on.

You've got to get yourself involved in all these different kinds of language experiences, Not necessarily all kinds but, you do need to have a really broad array of situations where you can actually use the language to express different kinds of thoughts, emotions, suspicions, biases and so on! That's the way to broaden and deepen your new language.

If you're not exposing yourself to these different kinds of uses, you may well end up feeling you are limited in your ability. That happens because you haven't "stress tested" your English. That can create a feeling of a lack of confidence in your language skills. The wider the variety of people you talk to and the more situations you are involved in over time, you can build belief in your abilities in and feel “I can do all this”. 

However, use or practice is not really sufficient in explaining what can go wrong. I'll give you an example. I live in Australia and here we have migrants who have lived here for many, many years. Most of them have been using English for a long long time, having well more than 10,000 hours. But many don’t sound native-like. Many, actually sound heavily accented and sometimes with severe grammatical issues. They can make themselves understood, don't get me wrong. But in terms of becoming native-life, they are a still a long way from it. They may have satisfied the need for extensive practice or use but many haven't managed to get to the highest levels. Why?

I will suggest that the reason has nothing to do with a lack of ability or some misplaced gene. It is more to do with the fact that they haven't learned how to use the time when they are using a language to actually improve it.

Learning at the Higher Levels 
(Compared to the Lower Levels)

This is a very different kind of learning that you have to get engaged in if you are to approach native-like.  That is the next reason, which is the third I believe. There is a difference between learning English or a language at the lower levels or learning it or improving at the higher levels.

At the lower levels, the distinctions are coarse. It's more a question of:

  • Do you know it or don't you know it?
  • ​Do you know the sound in question or don't you know it.
  • ​Can you say this word or not?
  • Can you ​express that idea?
  • ​Can you speak about the past or can't you speak about the past?

At some point, you start to learn all that and may even become quite good at it. But to get to native-like levels you require more than just a bit of skill. You need to get better and better and better. At the upper levels, you need to become more and more sensitive. You're talking about becoming attentive to finer and finer gradations of meaning, or finer and finer differences in meaning or sounds. To become aware of these distinctions, you have to become more and more sensitive, and more and more perceptive.

Without doing that, it's not really possible to get to the highest of levels. The only way you can do that is to do be "learning" in the midst of talking to people, while using a language. This is a skill or an art that many people don't actually master because no one's really taught this. No one talks about or actually shows you how to keep learning while using the language.  Sometimes this happens ad hoc or accidentally, or as part of what happens to you. It just sort of seems to happen. But this is ad hoc. It means it's just accidental or random. It doesn't mean you have a system for it. Without having a system for it, it just remains a random event, which you can't really rely upon to keep improving.

That's a key reason why people get stuck because they don't really master what they have to do to become better and better and better at the upper levels. It remains an art form out of the reach of most people. It, of course, does not have to be like that.

People don't really talk about how to improve after you leave formal instruction or learning. You don't really hear it mentioned. Just something your teachers assume you will do after you have left their classes… to keep improving. Well, sorry it doesn't just happen naturally to most people.

​Passion

A part of this kind of learning at the high levels of becoming more and more sensitive and becoming aware of the finer and finer gradations of meaning requires you to have some sort of passion or interest in what you're doing

Without having that kind of passion, that kind of drive inside you that has you want to keep paying attention, that has you want to keep finding the differences and has you want to keep doing this, it's not going to happen because nothing is driving you forward. 

This passion is evident for anybody who's at the highest level of skill in any area. Whether it's a sport or whether it's business or whether it's in the arts or in fact anything in life. The people at the highest levels display this kind of passion, this kind of urgency, or this kind of feeling about what they do. It's something of a kind you can't even drag them away from it. They don't want to leave it and this comes back to that they feel inside, in their heart.  It's not in their head.

It's in their heart so they want to keep doing what they are because it's part of who they are. They enjoy it, revel in it, extract satisfaction from it. They get better and better at it. It is not just that they want to get better and better. It is deeper than that. They want to keep doing what they are, as they feel fulfilled in what they are doing,  so they can fulfill their own potential so they can feel alive. It's something deeper than just wanting to get there. The passion aspect is critical for the learning to be sustainable.

So, if you don't feel this passion, if you don't start to do something that enables his passion to show itself, to become evident so you can actually feel it, I would say it again, it's nearly impossible to get to the native-like levels because there's nothing driving you forward. So this passion is what we're talking about.

It is not just passion but it has to be also in the way you are actually learning. So, for example, if you're learning in ways that don't lend themselves to passion appearing, you are going to struggle. An example would be studying from a book. I mean, I don't know if you can get really passionate about studying in the book. I don't. Maybe you can.

​Your practices and what you do have to in fact support or ​create a passion. So​, passion and what you do have to be in sync, work together. In other words you have to develop practices and ways of learning that support your passion and that basically keep feeding you. The practices can't be divorced from the passion.

So you have to have practices that actually not just support but become a part of or generate the passion. They have to serve your passion in what you're doing, and what you're doing supports your passion as it were so it's like a loop to support each other. 

So, that's another reason that can have people give up. They may have a passion but the practice they use doesn't really support their passion. So the practices they use act to reduce their passion and then they start to give up on their learning practices. There's a whole art to finding the kind of practices that will feed your passion and having a passion that drives your practices.

The Result

From this discussion you may come to see that there are real reasons why having this idea that second language can't be fully mastered as an adult is really a myth. It's nothing more than that. It is a myth because most people just don't understand what they have to do to get to native-like levels. As a result their belief becomes perpetuating. It's supported by their practices because they're doing the wrong kinds of things.

Then they start thinking, "Of course, I can't get to the highest levels." And so the only way you can break this myth is one start believing you can and then start changing your practices and changing what you're doing. That ​may then start helping you to create this passion that you need that in turn will create your more practices that will support the passion and so forth. So it becomes like a loop. 

Anyway, I hope this little talk has been of help to you. I will talk to you more about this later on when I will start to unpack some of the elements I have been talking about.

Bye for now.

Is There a Natural Way

What's after language classes?

One seldom discussed question for language learners is how are they going to keep learning once they leave classes. This is really a critical question. The answer to this can help you decide on what is the best course of action in your language learning, now and in the future. Do you continue with the same kind of studying/learning you were doing in classes, or do you change something? If so, what? 

This issue is not something that many people, including teachers, concern themselves with. That is why I have said before that language classes can be "dangerous" for you. Even if we accept that classes are of great value, the inescapable conclusion reached by anyone who cares to look closely enough is that a great deal of language is learned outside of the class. In fact, it needs to be learned out of the class if you are going to keep improving to the highest levels. So preparing yourself for that would seem to make some sense.

There are endless aspects of language which can only be gained through extensive use and by continuing to learn from all the experiences one has. Full natural fluency, accent reduction, casual forms of language use, subtleties in meaning as expressed by tones, understanding and expressing innuendo, to mention only a few areas can really only be picked up while you are using the language. Native speakers are capable of expressing dozen of meanings in a phrase, such as "I love you," or even a word such as "Yes", just by varying tone and inflexion. Learning all this in formal classes or from texts is just not possible. 

However this way of learning, learning as you speak, is not what is encouraged, called upon or exercised in regular language classes. Typically in classes the primary emphasis is on instruction, making sure the learners pick up what they are taught. I have seen many language learners flummoxed and not really sure how to keep learning outside of a formal language learning environment. Hence so many language learners get stuck at a level well below what they were aiming for.

A key distinction between most language classes and a "natural" way of language learning

In classes, the teacher takes responsibility for organising the learning and finding the errors learners make, correcting them and providing answers where needed. So students are trained to look to the teacher for help in nearly all aspects of their learning. 

This emphasis lies at the heart of why language classes are notoriously unsuccessful for most people. Learners are taught to be dependent upon the teacher. This unintended outcome follows the learner long after they have left classes.

The reality is that until the learner starts to take responsibility for their own learning, learning that leads to enhanced skills and confidence comes slowly or not at all for most.

Out of classes, learners can only rely on themselves to adjust what they know and correct themselves. No one else will do that. If you have not been trained in class to do that, a whole new way of learning awaits you once you leave classes. There is a difference between learning something quite new and improving on what you already know. So many students I have seen don't get this distinction so they continue to study grammar, phrases and so on. Rather than focus on improving what they already know.

So they don't concentrate on what they need to, driven by what they see needs their attention. There seems to be in many a lack of understanding that they need to learn from what they are doing, finding instances where they need to improve. Instead, they turn to resources that may or may not address the very issues they need to work on.

Inevitably improvements will happen, but mainly in an ad hoc way. Ad hoc because there is no real appreciation of how they are learning and what they can do to take charge of it. Rather than let circumstance dictate the improvements. 

Should not classes, from day 1, be preparing language learners for the inevitable...namely that they will have to take responsibility for their own learning? Surely, there is just no other way to learn once you have left the narrow "nurturing" confines of a class than to rely upon yourself and learn as you go along. That is the way we learn and improve all skills.

People DO successfully learn languages out of classes

For some people this may be obvious, however such has been my experience teaching and learning languages that I believe it needs to be stated that we can all successfully learn languages without needing classes. Don't get me wrong, language classes can certainly add real value, of the kind that would be hard to produce outside of them. I am just making the point that there is not enough attention given to the kind of learning that happens outside of classes! People do talk about "doing" things - talking, reading and watching movies but how to learn from that experience is not really explored.

Let's consider the following observations which I believe are not contentious:

  • many people learn languages later in life without ever attending a class (this was certainly the case before there were classes  or even formal grammars/dictionaries etc), 
  • once people leave language classes they have no choice but to keep improving on it by themselves, 
  • some people keep learning after leaving classes..and in fact flourish... whilst others don't learn much after leaving classes - many of these become despondent and end up giving up on their learning thinking they don't have what it takes,
  • not many people go on to native like proficiency.

From these observations we can see that some people learn languages more effectively than others. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Here are a few of them. They typically:

  • utilise effective strategies so they stay engaged in the learning and the language,
  • don't have disempowering attitudes and beliefs that sabotage them, or at least work to minimise their impact,
  • ensure they make the time to use the language,
  • create opportunities where they can use the language,
  • have a real commitment to improvement and don't give up on their goals

There are those people who keep learning languages in much the same way as they learned in class. Namely, they keep doing exercises from texts, practicing phrases, drilling themselves, and creating and memorising word lists, etc. They do this as they don't really know what else to do. This is a sad indictment on the classes they attended, which did nothing to prepare for the time outside of classes.

Alternatively, there are people who spend the bulk of their time using the language by any means possible, talking, reading , listening to the radio, eavesdropping in cafes, watching movies, writing a diary, etc. The latter way is what I would call for our purposes here, organic learning. With this way of learning, when needed you may consult the internet, a dictionary, and whatever resource you could find to help you with the learning you needed as you are progressing. This way, the more formal learning is driven by the needs you have as you use the language. You don't let the formal learning dominate your learning.

So, if you were struggling with vocabulary to describe your feelings, you may want to look up vocabulary that describes feelings. Better still watch some movies, or read some books about people going through lots of ups and downs! Of if you were struggling to express levels of certainty, you may do some research on that.  A part of that is remaining attentive to others doing the same in the new language.

Key ways that natural language learning happens and can be encouraged

If we are to employ this way of learning we need to approach it in ways that cultivate it and allow it to blossom. To aid that we need to bring or develop an attitude towards our learning so we approach it with curiosity, wonder, expectation and interest. Approaching learning this way can transform the most difficult of situations into one approaching something like a game, rather than one typified by regarding language learning as "difficult" or as something that has to be done.

Even in games we can be sometimes a bit overwhelmed. People become successful at games when they master a beginning skill to a level of confidence. In basketball for example, throwing a ball is maybe where it starts. Once we can do that to a certain level of skill, we may move on to throwing it straight or throwing it far or throwing it so it flies fast. 

Once we master some of these basic skills, we start to feel confidence in "playing" basketball. With that our attitude towards it gets transformed. Maybe then we start throwing at hoops or learn to bounce the ball (slowly first then at speed, whilst we are moving, etc ) Each skill is measured by how we feel about what we can achieve.

This comes from achieving an improvement in our skills in doing what we set out to do. Others of course will make their comment or reaction about our skills development. Ultimately though, it is our decision, built on our confidence, that will determine whether we feel good about what we doing and go on with it.

A key aspect to all this is not to place unrealistic expectations upon ourselves but to accept that improvement happens by steps. Feeling despondent because we cannot play grade basketball after playing for a few hours would be totally unrealistic.

Learning languages is the same. As we master parts of the language and can gain confidence in the use of it, our impetus to continue grows. Problems can happen when our "learning" exceeds our confidence levels. Namely we come to "know" a lot, but we can't use and have little or no confidence in what we can do with what we have learned. This happens typically when we learn language as knowledge, not as a skill. or possibly when we don't give sufficient time to using what we have learned. 

So the way we approach language learning and what we do with it IS critical. With an approach that builds skills and confidence, we can become unstoppable. With approaches that don't provide us opportunities to grow our skills AND confidence we soon become disenchanted.

So my advice is to look for ways of learning that inspire you, that motivate you and that give you heart. Together with that you need to see a growth in your confidence (confidence in your skills is the necessary outcome that tells you you are on the right path.)  I have seen language learners develop confidence in their abilities even at the low levels of the new language. I am not talking here of misplaced confidence ... but of confidence based on real skills in using the language.

Misplaced confidence can happen when there is a low level of self-awareness and you believe all is well. A remedy for this is to cultivate more self awareness and be more watchful of yourself and others. Do not think because you are being understood that all is well! 🙂 That is an important step, but it remains just that if your aim is to get to the highest levels.

Confidence can be achieved at any level of language we are talking about. Even if you are at a beginner stage of proficiency, there is no reason why you couldn't have confidence in the skills you are working on. Realising of course that outside of these limited parameters you will not and to expect otherwise is not realistic. For confidence to develop there is a:

  • need for authentic language experiences (language is being used naturally - natural conversation, movies, novels etc ) is a prerequisite. 
  • need to be attentive to everything in that experience. Worrying about what people might be thinking about us, thinking about what else we might be doing or about tonight takes valuable energy away from our attention. We need to be fully attentive, absorbing, taking in, processing whatever is there.
  • need to move our awareness to the various aspects of the experience. Letting it stay with one area and not exploring the others is a recipe for getting stuck. By this I mean, as well as seeking meaning, we need to also focus for example, on:
    • the words that were used
      • "Are these words similar to what I would use?"
      • "Are they in the same order as I would use them"
    • the tones that were used
      • "Was there some tone used to add to the meaning of the words?"
      • "How were the tones used to add to the meaning?"
      • "Would I use the same tones to convey the meanings that were intended?"
    • the non verbal aspects of communication (face/body/gestures), all of which conveys meaning
      • "Was there something new for me here?"
      • "Is this common or just particular to this person?"
    • the environment
      • "How does the situation effect the language?" Formal situation? At home? Age of people? Do they know each other? Gender of people? etc
    • what happened before 
      • "How does the situation leading up to the language used affect what was said? Emotion? History of people? Difficulties?
    • what happened after, as a result
      • How does the language affect the result?
    • what language forms were used
      • What exact forms or structures were used?

I went to a bit of detail here to highlight just some of the factors that you can pay attention to at different times to fully appreciate the meanings, the uses and subtleties of language. Clearly a language learner can't focus on all this at the same time. However great language learners learn to pay attention and become aware of all these factors, and more, at different times so they can gain finer and finer distinctions about the language they are learning. By doing this they can then learn to improve on their skills in the use of the new language.

Some language learners come to these realisations by themselves. Others need to be actively led towards these by a teacher or possibly a coach. Finding those who can do this is not that easy, as most have not been trained in this and have not reached these understandings for themselves. They are out there, you just may need to keep looking until you find them.

Key English pronunciation problems for different languages

Every language is different in sound to every other. Some are very different and some not so. Each person from any language can completely master the pronunciation of English, as long as become aware of the differences and work to eliminate them. Becoming aware of them is the first step.

Once you do that, you then need to learn what it is you have to do and keep doing to eliminate a difference. You can read more about that here.....

In this post I will bring to your attention one key difference from the following languages. As well as that, I will talk a little about what you need to do in your mouth to start to approximate to the English version. Sometimes you have to do the thing before you can actually hear it!

If you cast your eyes down the list, you will see that sometimes you may have the same problem as a speaker of another language.

Once you have worked at a sound and got a measure of success, scroll to the bottom and read what I suggest you do next.

Mandarin Chinese

What is typically said
- nam 

What needs to be said
- name

Comments & Suggestions


  • the letter "a" in this word sounds like "ay" as the first letter in Alphabet
  • find difference between /nam/ and "A" ( important first step) as you say them. It starts here.
  • then work to retain that difference in this word.

Vietnamese

What is typically said
- pa

What needs to be said
- pat

Comments & Suggestions


  • the letter "t" in this word sounds similar to "t" in "to"
  • listen AND watch yourself say "to". Watch your tongue, feel where it goes and what it does as you say "to".  Stick at it till you can feel/hear difference. 
  • then go back to "pat", say it see if you can do the same thing with your tongue AND hear the it as well.

Russian

What is typically said
- vet

What needs to be said
- wet

Comments & Suggestions


  • the sound "w" does not occur in Russian
  • see if you can hear difference
  • listen AND watch yourself say "wet". You will notice that your bottom lip curls over your bottom teeth and your top teeth rest on them as you say it
  • When we say it in English, our lips come forward, as if to kiss someone. That's where you need to start that word.
  • you need to listen for the different sound not just watch your lips

Spanish

What is typically said
- lob

What needs to be said
- love

Comments & Suggestions


  • the letter "v" in this word is said using top teeth so we get a different kind of sound
  • listen and see if you can hear difference here
  • Feel AND watch yourself say "love" as you normally say it. Feel your top teeth, see where they go and what they do as you say it.
  • Have a go now and force your teeth to rest on your lips before you finish the sound
  • there is one other key difference between the 2 sounds. With English speakers you will feel a soft vibration when you rest your hands on the sides of their throat, as they say it. 

Arabic

What is typically said
- pit

What needs to be said
- pet

Comments & Suggestions


  • the letter "e" in this word is quite different to "i"
  • listen, can you hear the difference in this sound file?
  • Hearing the difference is critical (in others and yourself)
  • Say "i" and feel in your mouth where the sound comes from. Up? Back? Front? Mid?
  • Now work the sound up in your mouth. Now down at the same time as relaxing the back of your throat where the sound comes from - might feel like its more open. Listen now. Different sound?

As in mastering any skill, there are further steps that need to be taken to ensure mastery. Once you can master the problem in one area, you need to then see if you can do same thing with the same sound in different words, longer words, words having that sound in phrases, in sentences and then in natural speech. 

Once you can do all that, all the time remaining sensitive to falling back into old ways, you maximise the chances of making permanent improvements to your speech.

Read this free ebook to gain a deeper understanding of what needs to be done to master pronunciation. The Four Steps to Master Pronunciation in Any Language is an easy read, one that can help you gain a better understanding of exactly what you need to do.

How to choose your language coach

Have you ever wondered what would be that one question you could ask a prospective language coach that would show you that this person is exactly who you are looking for? Well if you have, or you think such a question would be useful, I am going to tell you it here.

The reality is that at more advanced levels of English, what you need from your English language coach is not just more English. If that is all you are getting, expect your learning to take a LONG time. You, in fact, I suggest need someone who can do far more than that. So let's quickly look at what else you need and why. Once you understand that, then I believe the question you need to ask will become more clear.

I would like to make a few key observations here about what you need understand about learning English.

We have to learn by ourselves
The first key one is that there is a big difference between formal learning, of the kind we do in most classes, with text books or in online courses and what we do when we learn as we are using the language. Let's call that informal learning.

With formal learning, we are being led towards something that someone else decides we need to learn. With informal learning, we decide what we learn and we do it usually without the help of anyone else.

You may be surprised to know that once we are close to native like, most of the language we learned through informal means. Of course there are many things that can be learned formally. However, there are literally millions of things in a language we have to learn by ourselves before we can master it. These things can relate to, for example, finer uses of the language, like conveying subtleties of meaning. These are conveyed by tone, by inflexions, by pauses, by facial expressions, by turn of phrase and so on.  A native speaker can say the same thing in MANY ways. To get to that level, we have to master the language. Mastery requires us to learn much about the nature and character of the English language.  Not really possible to do that in a formal way.

Continue reading

Why Your Memory is Not the Problem

Your memory is not the problem. Your memory is appearing to fail you because the way you are using it is not suitable for learning languages. There are some of you who have trouble with memorising words (etc). Then there are some of you who might have a real good "memory" and can remember the words ( etc ) you are learning but then, you don't use them when you need them. Sound familiar?

I will give you a number of scenarios here for you to consider. Read them and see what you think.

1. What infant ever memorises new words in the way we may be use to?

2. Would you ever have to memorise something that a close friend or family member told you about another close friend or family member?

3. When you read a newspaper article or book, watch a movie, read an interesting post on social media, do you set about memorising it so you can tell someone else about it?

If you answered 2 & 3 in the way that 99.9% of people would answer it, you will recognise that your memory is just fine. Put together with question 1, you may understand ( maybe relunctantly! 🙂 ) that our memory can work fine without memorisation. Let's call this way, for now, natural learning (A).

The vast majority of people who have learned languages formally would have been taught in ways that emphasise memorisation (B) not the other way, A. When people learn languages, informally, that is "on the street" then they are learning the natural way. Seldom do these people spend time on memorisation.

In fact unless a person moves from A to B at some stage, they are destined to only get to a certain level. Without learning to improve as you are using the language, your level will hit a plateau from which it will struggle to improve. This happens because the learner keeps looking for help ( in the past from the teacher or a book), rather than recognising that improvement can happen through better noticing how s/he and others use English.

It is possible to "formally" learn languages in ways that emphasise what I would call "natural learning" 

Trust Yourself to Learn Languages Effectively

One of the least recognised qualities that effective language learners need to develop if they are to ever to get to the more advanced levels is trust. I am here talking about learning to trust ourselves, our perceptions and our abilities. Without developing this, I am afraid that continued development will just not happen.

Trust is not something you can turn on or off at will. If we don't trust our perceptions, etc there are reasons for that. One way of checking whether you are one of these people is to answer the following questions truthfully:

  • Do you look for approval in your speech before you "know" you have improved?
  • Do you have trouble recognising improvements in your speech?

If you answered yes for either of these questions, there is a good likelihood that your perceptions are not guiding you. That is a recipe for very slow progress, one that will come to a premature end.

For such people, my suggestion would be to work just as hard on learning to trust yourself as you are learning English. I say this because I have seen people like this have difficulty bringing what they learn into their speech.

Value of Coaching

Any English learner who wants to get to a native speaker level can in theory do it by themselves. However as most people don't, it means that something else is needed. Elite performers in every area turn to coaches to ensure they are doing everything possible AND stop doing things that hold them back.

There is no reason why English language learners are any different. Turning to a skilled coach who understands not just English but the learning process is the surest way to learn a language to the highest level. The secret is to find someone who does that, not only gets you to work on your English but also works with you on the way you are learning.

The vast majority of teachers and coaches work on your English. There is a BIG difference between this and what I talked about in the previous paragraph. When they work on your English, this means your English may improve in the areas they work with you.

Whereas when a coach gets you to work on your English and works on the way you are learning, this means you are learning to improve your English and the way you learn. This is what needs to happen if you are to get to the highest levels. To get to these levels there are so many tiny changes and refinements that have to be made at every level that the only way you can do this is in your own time, as as you are using the language.

Over the years, I’ve met many people who desperately want to be successful but who are ultimately unwilling to invest in themselves. They think, "I can do this by myself. I can learn this on my own."  Maybe they can, but in reality very few do.

Importance of Feedback

Feedback IS understood by most people to be important but it remains one of the least understood areas in learning a language. Without feedback, how can we improve? The answer is we can't. Feedback is like water; without it, learning cannot survive for too long.

If you want to learn more effectively, then you need to learn to better recognise it and to value more what you see, hear and understand. When we learn to drive, we use our experiences to improve our skills. We learn that if we move the steering wheel too far, we turn more than we need to. We learn that the speed we drive affects how fast and how far we need to turn the steering wheel. And so on. No one can teach us all the variations. We have to learn them by ourselves through watching and feeling. All that we see and feel is feedback.

Learning a language is similar, in that no one can teach us all there is to know in a language. We have to learn it ourselves by becoming more and more observant. In every area of language, we are talking about different kinds of feedback. In the area of pronunciation, our awareness at different times has to stretch to many areas, including:

  • how we say each each sound in a word
  • how we link the sounds together within a word
  • how we link words together
  • what rhythm do we use to tie a stream of words together 
  • how we express meaning in the tones we use

When we come to an awareness about how we speak, we then have to relate that to how others speak. If we discern differences, we then have to change how we speak in some way and then see if the changes have brought us closer or further away.

Each and every aspect of what I just talked about requires that we recognise the information that comes to us. The information we get is feedback.

Others can also consciously give us feedback, like a teacher. Sometimes our friends and family give us feedback, some of which we welcome and some of which we may not! 🙂 Sometimes they give us feedback without even noticing they do...like with a smile, a raised eyebrow or a grimace.

If you are having difficulty in improving, it can be because you are either not looking for OR  recognising the feedback you are getting. Getting some professional feedback can sometimes act to change that and put you on a quite different road, a road where you start to open your eyes and ears more. That can make all the difference.