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Five Simple Rules for Learning my Language

March 17, 2011 3 comments

The British comedian Tony Hawks in an episode of the BBC’s “Grumpy Old Men” told of his revolutionary new diet plan.  One Day One, you eat less and get more exercise.  On Day Two, you eat less and get more exercise.  One Day Three, you eat less and get more exercise, but on Day Four, you do something really exciting:  You get more exercise and eat less.

The number one question I get asked is “how can I improve my English?” Like a lot of things, it’s not really about getting the right answer, it’s all about asking the right question.  “How can I improve my English?” is one of those questions that is often answered with the simple, and rather uninteresting “speak more”.

It is entirely possible to learn English (or any language for that matter) in a very short space of time; you just need the right tools.  And by “the right tools”, I don’t mean “a good teacher”.  There are a number of roadblocks for Chinese students that must be overcome in order to obtain proficiency in a foreign language – in the vast majority of cases, this means learning English.

The first step is to set a goal.  “Speak English well” is not really a goal, whereas, “I aim to achieve a level 8 on the IELTS exam” is a goal.  When I first started learning to read and write Chinese in 2009, the best advice that anyone gave me was from my Chinese textbook – write the date at the top of every page.  Then, six months down the line, you’ll be able to see how your writing has progressed from the uncertain scratches in the front of the notebook, to the more practiced strokes of someone who is getting somewhere in their studies.

Using an outside system of measuring is essential because, basically, your own perception of learning isn’t a really good way of determining if you have improved or not.  Intermediate English students regularly complain to me that they feel their English isn’t improving, but they are basing their level of learning on their past experiences of learning lots of things three or four months ago when they were at a beginner level or pre-intermediate level.  Even worse, some of them will compare themselves halfway through a course to an advanced student, or even a native speaker, and find themselves demoralized that no matter how much work they put in, they can never quite get to the level that will satisfy their own, ever changing measuring stick on how good their English fluency is.

So the first rule is: Don’t trust yourself to measure your own successes and always set realistic goals.

You can never trust yourself to measure yourself.  Lying on the sofa suffering from a hangover after a New Year’s Eve party can make you feel pretty awful, but you are not seriously sick, and certainly don’t need to visit a doctor.  Your own perceptions of yourself are skewed, depending on the time of day, whether you are hungry or not, or how much sleep you go the previous night.  Don’t trust yourself to guess how good or bad you are at something, because you’ll almost always feel bad.

If you want to learn to swim, go swimming.  If you want to learn to drive, go drive a car.  If you want to learn to speak another language, then you have to go and speak that language.  Western language learning systems, and their respective companies have known this for years.  Rosetta Stone is a system of listening-based matching activities.  The Pimsleur Method is only available on CD and contains no written material at all.  Michel Thomas goes even further and tells students outright that under no circumstances should they ever take notes during a class.  Reading and writing something employs different parts of the brain than speaking a listening.  Writing things down means that your brain tells your fingers which position to hold a pen in, while speaking requires your brain to co-ordinate different sets of muscles in your throat and your mouth to make the right sounds.  Logically, they are completely different parts of the body, and they’re completely different parts of the brain.  Writing everything down (in case you forget) is pointless because, well, you will forget exactly because you wrote it down.  If you’re just going to go to a class and write things down, it’s a waste of your time and money and you may as well give up because reading and writing won’t help your speaking a listening skills.

Rule 2: Don’t write everything down.  If you forget something, listen again (ask your teacher, replay the CD, etc)

Chinese students get too hung up on the teacher.  Students who have never been near a school since they graduated from university years before think that they are good judges of what is a good teacher or not.  This is complete a total rubbish, and allows the student to display an amazing amount of contempt and arrogance towards their teacher.  Students are no better judges of their teacher in the same way that soldiers are not good judges of what makes an effective drill sergeant in the army.   A teacher needs to follow only one – he must speak less than the students.  If your teacher is speaking too much, and isn’t letting you speak, you need to complain, or you need to find another teacher.

The teacher is never a good as the materials, and before you sign any contract or hand over any money, you should ask to see all the materials that you will be learning from.  Demand to sit in on a class, or arrange a demo class.  The best type of school is the type of school that will allow successful students to continue on to the higher level classes, and keep back failing students – essentially they fire underperforming students from the class.  The class can only go as fast as the worst student, and one beginner in an advanced class can ruin the whole learning experience for everyone.

Rule Number Three is: Be critical of your teacher and materials, expect failing students to repeat classes, and make sure to see any and all materials that you’ll be learning from.

When I started working at Wall Street Institute a few years ago, a large American man called Charlie who had moved from Dubai with his wife to relocate to China told me a rather incredulous story that a rich Arab had wandered into the center of which he was the manager, and after sitting through the sales pitch, quite politely asked, “so you just download English into my brain?”  Four years, later, I still can’t decide if I’m stunned at his ignorance that a language can be learned this way, or that he was willing to have the surgery to have a USB socket implanted in his brain.  The point is that language learned cannot simply be a passive process.  If you look at children in the playground, they don’t speak because they have to, they speak because they can.

I can still remember when I reached what I call “The Playground Milestone” because I could finally tell people in China what they looked like and what they sounded like.  I took great pleasure in telling people they looked like a whale, or that they smelled like a monkey.  Hugely offensive, of course, but it gave me important practice in what is an essential part of language.   The point wasn’t that people really did sound like frogs but that I was taking the language apart in my mouth and my brain and placing it in that “sweet spot” that enables me to quickly and fluently withdraw and deposit words from and to my long term language memory and produce the sound accurately.  An active learning process means that you are able to guess what a word or phrase means based on the context and any other cues (sounds, wild gesturing by the teacher, bizarre graffiti on the whiteboard).

Rule 4: Get involved, engage your brain and start thinking, try to make your own grammar rules based on observation and repetition.

Over the weekend and Advanced student took a pre-intermediate class.  She didn’t really need to be in the class, and she could effectively communicate in English with me on a variety of different topics.  Her English was a little ropey, but for someone who had almost exclusively learned from books her entire life, she had pretty good speaking and listening skills.  In the class, she asked quite possibly the most pointless and idiotic question that I’ve ever heard from a student of her ability: “Is, ‘do you married?’ ok?”  The poor teacher tasked with leading the class had to stand around and patiently explain exactly why it was wrong.  Which is where we come to Rule 5: Don’t use the classroom as a crutch.

Chinese students essentially want to be told that their English is great.  Having said, everyone wants to be told that their second language ability is great.  It’s only when you get out of the classroom and start talking to people that you realize one important thing: You don’t know shit.  Suddenly, you are grasping for words, trying to keep up with what they are saying, you don’t understand much and you fall silent as your pathetically small vocabulary fails you in almost every respect.  Back in the classroom, you get all the answers right and you feel great.  One of the reasons that Rosetta Stone is such a great success is that once you mechanically learn all the right responses, you get 96% on almost every level.  You have great grammar, wonderful pronunciation and you can recall each and every word perfectly.

Your brain needs to be strained and tested and put through a trial by fire to truly get to the level where you can converse naturally with a high level of fluency with native speakers in another language.  It’s only when you start having to donate a lot of energy to decoding and recoding foreign words that you really get to the point where you’re not talking to someone, but talking with someone.

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Failure Is An Option

January 2, 2010 Leave a comment

If the reports are to be believed, there’s nothing quite like a Chinese student.

The attitude that I have towards China and its administration is that it’s better for them to make mistakes that cost them economically, because I would rather have British companies making money from the Chinese than have Chinese companies making money from British people. Thomas Friedman pointed this out in one of his columns for the New York Times, recounting how he addressed a Chinese motor show audience and he told everyone that he wanted everyone in China to continue to use fossil fuels, and ignore renewable energy.  The point was that while fossil fuel consumption was going up, there was little in the way of development of renewable energy – and this was important because not only would it do the environment some good, it would also give the fastest developer a greater advantage in what would be the next global market.

The money is better in your pocket than in theirs.

Unfortunately, I haven’t told many Chinese people this, and for some reason, they don’t want to cooperate with my vision of seeing thousands upon thousands of Chinese people buying products that were designed, invented and manufactured in Europe.  The scary thing is that, as you might well expect from the fastest growing economy in the world, the people that are going to make the difference in China aren’t even a generation away from us.  They’re about 10 years behind us.

As anyone who’s taught English in China will know, Chinese people place a premium on education.  The English training sector is booming to the point of saturation, and the rise of China’s middle class means that more people than ever are going to universities across the middle kingdom.  It seems that in one respect, like Communism, Confucianism is working.  All this from a country whose founding father shut down most of the learning centers in China to fuel his own cultural revolution.

30 years ago, Chinese writer Jung Chang was taken on a tour of her native Sichuan.  The idea was that young students would see all how beautiful China was, and would never forget to return once they had completed their studies.  30 years ago, all of the students that had their “backgrounds” approved for overseas study fitted on one bus; last year 57,451 graduate students along with 26,275 undergraduate students were sent to the US alone.  The language problems are already showing that there are large rifts between the US students and the Chinese students.

Writing for the Boston Globe, Kara Miller noted that “My “C,’’ “D,’’ and “F’’ students this semester are almost exclusively American, while my students from India, China, and Latin America have – despite language barriers – generally written solid papers, excelled on exams, and become valuable class participants.”.  Of her American students, she said “too many 18-year-old Americans, meanwhile, text one another under their desks (certain they are sly enough to go unnoticed), check e-mail, decline to take notes, and appear tired and disengaged.”.  It seems that where the Chinese students lack comprehension skills, they make up for with their work ethic, eagerness and contributions to their classes.

Of course, anyone who has had to explain to a Chinese student that British people don’t actually celebrate Thanksgiving, and that “going shopping” is not the proper way to celebrate Christmas would call into question Millers numbers that all is lost for the Americans.  She writes that “a National Geographic-Roper survey found that most 18- to 24-year-olds could not find Afghanistan, Iraq, or Japan on a map, ranking them behind counterparts in Sweden, Great Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan, France, and Germany. And in 2007 the American Institutes for Research reported that eighth graders in even our best-performing states – like Massachusetts – scored below peers in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, while students in our worst-performing states – like Mississippi – were on par with eighth graders in Slovakia, Romania, and Russia.”.  The reason for all this is, of course, that no one bothered asking the Chinese or the Japanese any of the basic, general knowledge questions that were on this survey.   Most pig farmers in Wuhan would have problems pointing out where Australia was on the map, as would too many of the unemployed, fluent English speaking Japanese housewives that keep all the English school owners nests feathered inTokyo.  In Japan, a white man who speaks English is obviously an American, and a black man in China is obviously a drug dealer.

My first impressions of Japanese students were not good.  For a developed country, and one that had a rising economic behemoth on it’s doorstep, the level of spoken English in Japan was much, much poorer than the level that I had come to expect from my Chinese students.  Usually in China, I couldn’t get on the bus without someone coming up to me and practicing their English with me.  In Japan, the same thing happened twice in 15 months.  The width, and indeed depth of the gulf between the two old rivals was put into perspective when I was engaged in a conversation about British and Chinese history with the guy who was making my coffee in a Dongzhimen coffeeshop.  To have this type conversation with a barista in Japan would almost be unthinkable.

So, the Chinese are going to be ruling the world in the future?  Not really.  What’s interesting is that for every Chinese person who goes to American to study now, there are probably the same number of American students who have arrived in China with the firm intention of learning Chinese.  In December 2009, I ran into at least six Americans who were studying up on their HSK exam.  Most of them were 22 or 23 years old, and all of them spoke, read and wrote pretty decent Chinese.  Education is one of those things that everyone can get involved in.  While there are always slackers – and I met more than my fair share of them while I was teaching English in Beijing – the slackers are almost always outnumbered by the nerds and the geeks.  And it’ll be the geeks that inherit the earth.  Or at least, a decent apartment in Ya Yun Cun.