From the academic environments of Princeton University (Chinese,
Japanese, Korean, Italian) and the Middlebury Language Schools
(Japanese), to the disappointing results observed as a curriculum
designer at Berlitz International (Japanese, English), I have sought
for more than 10 years to answer a simple question: why do most language classes simply not work?
After testing the waters with more than 20 languages and achieving
conversational and written fluency in 6, I have identified several
cardinal sins that, when fixed, can easily cut the time to fluency by
1. Teachers are viewed as saviors when materials are actually the determining factor.
Teachers are merely conduits for the material and sequencing.
By analogy, it is better to have a decent cook with excellent
easy-to-follow recipe than a great cook with terrible recipe. It is the
material that will restrict or elevate the teacher, and a good teacher
forced to follow bad material will hinder, not hasten, learning
progress. I don’t sit in on classes or otherwise consider a school
until I’ve reviewed both hand-out materials and text books.
Judge materials before you judge teachers, and no matter what, do
not begin with classes or texts that solely use the target language
(e.g., Spanish textbooks in Spanish). This approach reflects a school’s
laziness and willingness to hire monolingual teachers, not the result
of their search for the ideal method.
2. Classes move as slowly as the slowest student.
Seek a school with daily homework assignments that eliminate—effectively fire—students from the class who don’t perform.
The school should have a strict curriculum that doesn’t bend for a
minority of the class who can’t cope. Downgrading students is only
possible in larger schools with at least five proficiency levels for
separate classes—beginner, intermediate, and advanced is woefully
inadequate. Students can only be moved if the jumps between classes are
relatively small and there are a sufficient number of students at each
level for the school to justify paying separate teachers.
Somewhat like riding a bike, though unfortunately not as permanent, language fluency is more dependent on practicing the right things than learning the right things.
The rules (grammar) can be learned through materials and classes, but
the necessary tools (vocabulary and idiomatic usage) will come from
independent study and practice in a native environment.
I achieved fluency in German in 10 weeks using a combination of
grammatical practice at the Hartnackschule (four hours daily for the
first month, two hours daily for the second) and daily two-person
language exchanges with students of English.
Grammar can be learned with writing exercises in a class of 20,
whereas "conversation” cannot be learned in anything but a realistic
one-on-one environment where your brain is forced to adapt to normal
speed and adopt coping mechanisms such as delaying tactics ("in other
words,” "let me think for a second,” etc.).
Separate grammar from conversation practice. I recommend choosing
one school for grammar and several native books or comics to identify
sticking points, which are then discussed in one-one-one language
exchanges, where your partner provides examples of usage and does not
4. Teachers are often prescriptive instead of descriptive.
Many teachers take it upon themselves to be arbiters of taste and
linguistic conservationists, refusing to explain slang and insisting on
correct but essentially unused grammatical constructions (e.g., "with
whom were you speaking?” versus "who were you speaking to?”).
Progress will be faster when you find a teacher who describes rather
than prescribes usage. They should be able and willing to explain, for
example, how Konjunktiv II is generally used in place of Konjunktiv I
in German, even though it is technically incorrect. They should also be
able to save you time by explaining what to practice based on actual
frequency of use, not inclusion in a grammar text. For example, the
simple past is almost always used in place of the perfect tense in
Argentina, but some teachers still spend equal time on both.
To avoid those who act as defenders of language purity, it is often
easier to target 20-30-year old teachers and those who are good at
teaching inductively (providing examples to explain principles). Ask
them to explain a few common colloquial grammatical constructions
before signing up.
In conclusion—the learner is the problem (what?)
The above sins certainly inhibit the speed of learning, but the
principal problem is the learner his or herself, who—more often than
not—uses classes as a substitute for, and not supplement to, real
Classes are easily used to infinitely postpone making the thousands
of mistakes necessary to achieve fluency. In boxing, they say "everyone
has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Well, in language
learning, we could just as easily say that "everyone has the perfect
conversation in mind until they speak to a real native.”
Don’t waste time on more than learning more than a handful of
conjugations for primarily first-person singular (I) and second-person
singular (you) in the past, present, and future tenses, along with
common phrases that illustrate them. Throw in a few auxilaries (to want
to V, to need to V, to like to V, etc.) and jump on a plane before
learning any more of what you’ll just need to relearn anyway. Even
after you land, you do not need more than two months of classes
in-country, and remember that, like training wheels, the goal is get
off of them as quickly as possible.
Don’t go to classes because you have no social network outside of
class, or because you want the illusion of progress with a coddling
teacher who understands your Tarzan attempts at her language. If you
are taking classes because they are enjoyable, fine, but understand
that you are better off spending time elsewhere.
Make it your goal to screw up as often as possible in uncontrolled
environments. Explicitly ask friends to correct you and reward them
with thanks and praise when they catch you spouting nonsense,
particularly the small understandable mistakes. I was able to pass the
Certificado de Espanol Avanzado, the most diffucult Spanish
certification test in South America, in eight weeks, which is said to
require near-native fluency and years of immersion. How? By following
the above fixes and making more mistakes in eight weeks than most make
in eight years.
"An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be
made in a very narrow field,” or so said Physicist Niels Bohr. Luckily,
you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to use his advice. Choose
schools carefully and then, once they’ve served their purpose, abandon
The real world is where mistakes are made, weaknesses are found, and fluency is achieved.
Some random videos:
A promo for bookstores in Spain. It’s not easy to suppress my Argentine accent. For German Amazon.com – some of you have seen this before.
Odds and Ends: Update on Madrid party location this Thursday!
For all you readers and friends in Europe, come have a glass or
bottle with me! The space will be on a first come first served basis,
so register early. So far, there are 132 people coming — it’s going to
Play hard with us 6-9pm on Thurs., Sept. 25th in Madrid. Location:
RESTAURANTE LATERAL Centro Comercial Arturo Soria Plaza Calle Arturo Soria 126 28043 Madrid, Spain Tel. 91 300 36 01
Вы верите, что всего за несколько часов можно понять, как поставить правильное произношение, не изучая долго и нудно теоретическую фонетику, а всего-лишь поймав "фокус" языка?
Вы верите, что за несколько часов можно понять всю систему английских времен, которую безуспешно учат годами в школе, институте или на курсах?
Вы верите, что вместо скучных учебников можно заниматься по Вашим любимым фильмам и сериалам, испытывая при этом восторг и наслаждение от занятий английским?
Мы не только верим, а и твердо убеждены, так как уже сотни людей прошли по этому пути и поделились с нами своми успехами и достижениями!
И мы верим в Вас, потому что Вы легко научились говорить на языке, который на порядок сложнее английского!
Поэтому более простым и логичным английским Вы овладеете гораздо быстрее и легче! Конечно,если будете делать это правильно, естественным путем - моделируя носителей языка. Руководствуясь при этом не громоздкими правилами, а простыми и понятными визуальными моделями!
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