Monday, November 30, 2015

Your English World

By Paul Ponce, PLS Teacher

From time to time, my brain and I have great conversations. Today we decided to talk about natural language learning, although he prefers to call it language acquisition.

So I asked the questions, and my brain provided the answers.What follows is a transcript of our talk. Hope it helps you improve on your English language journey.

So, Brain. Seriously, what’s this crazy idea about creating Your English World?

First of all, let me clarify. I'm not planning on taking over the world. At least not today. Haha! Seriously, the idea has to do with learners increasing the volume of English input in their daily lives.

I see. So it does sound like you have some kind of plan. What's it all about?

Indeed, it is a plan.

Your English World (YEW) is a set of strategies for busy adult English learners who are not getting enough authentic English input regularly. It's based on decades of research in linguistics and neuroscience. The idea is that massive and meaningful second language input is the most natural way of acquiring a second language.

What exactly do you mean by input?

Input refers - in this case - to getting authentic English language content. Mostly short and free digital content. Articles, talks, movie clips and songs, to name a few. Reading is also big plus.

Why massive and meaningful?

Massive means the plan is to get a lot of English input. Meaningful means you get English input related to topics you care about.

What about authentic?

It means you get input from content that was created for native English speakers, not from instructional material.

So Your English World is all about input, yet I must tell you, most students want to speak. Shouldn't there be some output?

Your English World is just one of the components of GET REAL English for Grow-Ups, a brain-friendly approach to second language. The other two are English Story Talk, which is all about speaking; and English Upgrade which is all about correcting mistakes and applying what you've learned.

Where did the original idea come from?

Really, it's a mix of things. But I would say that the idea for Your English World and the other parts comes from the frustration of many adult learners. Especially intermediate learners who feel they are not moving forward with their English. Many of them have been taking lessons for years and yet, they still feel insecure about how they speak. They complain about not having enough vocabulary and about getting the grammar wrong.

So shouldn't they be practicing more conversation, studying more vocabulary and reviewing more grammar?

Not  really. The problem is that there is a misunderstanding about how people acquire language. Traditional foreign language education puts the emphasis on grammar and vocabulary as the means to start speaking and writing basic ideas. In this model, listening comprehension is focused on getting students to acquire correct pronunciation. All that is consolidated in short little controlled conversations. In the initial stages, that might work, but it leads learners to a big misunderstanding.

Why is that?

Because beyond intermediate, many learners reach a plateau. They now understand enough to realize there are dozens of ways to express an idea. But ironically, this is where many feel they will never master all of them. That creates a feeling of frustration. So many become anxious for more vocabulary and grammar. Some even believe they should study it like they study a manual at work.

And that's just not how language acquisition works. This is why we say to them, "get more input!". Human beings need input to improve the output.

What about practicing more conversation?

If a learner practices conversation with someone who is proficient in English, that's always a plus. The question is whether or not the learner will be in an ideal situation to absorb what the proficient speakers says as input. Usually, what will happen is that - in that situation - the learner will be more focused on getting her language right. On top of that, she may feel anxiety or low-self esteem for not knowing as much vocabulary or getting the grammar structures wrong. Before we go further, let's clarify. Learners should relax in conversation and not worry about mistakes. This will help them get more input and they might actually enjoy the experience. There are smarter ways to deal with mistakes.

So wait... conversation is input?

In conversation with a proficient English speaker, his or her words can serve as a source of input, but there really need to be sources of pure and straight input. That means listening and reading and it's got to be done with the right mindset.

But why is input such a big deal?

Because our brain is designed to naturally acquire language from input. And it is based on this input that we are able to produce output. Ideally, we acquire language best when input is relevant to our interests and when it is focused. Of course, no adult learner has all day to focus on English, but many can set aside 5 to 10 minutes to read, listen or view something interesting. Your English World is that time you set aside for yourself, away from distractions to enter a world of English that is meaningful to you.

Is there any research on this?

Absolutely. Dr. Stephen Krashen, a renowned linguist and educational researcher, has dedicated most of his career to researching how the brain acquires language. In short, he's stated that, “we do not acquire language by producing it; only by understanding it”, so our “ability to produce (language) is the result of language acquisition, not the cause.” In other words, we get input, lots of input, acquire it and then we're ready to produce output. And not the other way around.

Where’s the proof of this?

It’s in our own life experience. It's in our personal history. You've done this. Everybody has. You may not remember. The human brain is wired to first receive the language, then process it by decoding the message and its parts. Our brain does all this this quietly, behind the scenes, while we're thinking about other stuff. And then one day … BOOM! ... we can speak what we have acquired.

Aren't you referring to how a child learns to speak?


That’s the first language. Why would we learn our second language the same way?

Why wouldn’t we? Same species, same brain, same process. Would it make more sense if the process for second language acquisition happened in our left knee?

Actually… no.

The problem is later we go through formal education, which makes very little use of our brain's potential. Instead, they teach us that grammar and vocabulary are the foundations of language. They make us memorize rules and tons of words. Curiously, this happens way after we’ve pretty much mastered most verb tenses, structures and irregular cases, without a single grammar lesson.

So you’re saying grammar is pointless in language learning?

Not at all. I'm saying we need to rethink how grammar can best help us to acquire language better. We already know grammar is convenient for the educational bureaucracy and for their need to organize and standardize things. Let's make it serve us better as learners.

So how could grammar best serve language learning?

Dr. Krashen believes that grammar is great as an analytical tool. It's useful to understand how language works on the inside after you have acquired the language naturally. It helps us monitor what we say and what we write. Our output. I get that for a lot of people grammar is cool, especially for those in the language teaching profession. In the same way, differential equations are cool for engineers. But you don't need to master them to get from one side of the bridge to another.

Grammar is the blueprint of what our brain has already acquired from input. We just need to be brain-friendly about it.

Can we also acquire knowledge of grammar naturally by increasing our input?

Of course, if you continually get authentic English input in focused sessions with interesting material that is a little above what you know, over time, you will acquire vocabulary and structures that will become active. In other words, you will use them in output. The key is to vary the types of material, and at the same time, to repeat the content. So, you'll do a story, a scene and a talk. But you'll read the story again, watch the scene again and listen to the talk again. And you'll do it in short focused sessions that are workable with your schedule.

Still, vocabulary and grammar is not all you get from input. Some learners acquire the pulse of the language, its rhythm. And this is very important for output.

Whoa... the pulse?

Think for a minute about actors and comedians. They often recreate the speaking style of those they imitate, even if they speak another language. What they really do is recreate the patterns of speech, the intonation, the pauses and the quirks. This is what we mean by the pulse. Actors or comedians are sensitive to this because they are very good listeners.

So should learners of English develop the skills of comedians?

Well, they should definitely aspire to become very good listeners. The other part is optional. This means - when they listen to spoken English, they should listen to the sum of things. Not just the words, but the way speakers say those words. This is the pulse and our brain understands how to process it. And this includes adult brains. In fact, brains love to acquire knowledge and are great at it when give the proper conditions as neuroscientist Dr. Manfred Spitzer proposes.

The problem is that adult learners are often impatient with listening. But they underestimate its value because they'd much rather speak. Adult learners are also not keen on repeating and imitating what they hear when it comes time for output.

Why is that?

Too many filters are in place. Fear is a big part of it. We're afraid to experiment. Afraid to play with sounds, and have fun along the way. We take ourselves too seriously. Our ego gets in the way. If we could just leave it at the door, we would acquire language so much faster.

Is there any example of the pulse of the English language, just to get an idea?

Actually, there is. I don't know if you've seen that short film about a couple that speaks like two Americans, but in fact they are not really saying anything. It's all just a bunch of gibberish. What these actors have recreated is the pulse of American English as spoken by modern-day Americans in an informal setting. Their words make no sense and half of them don't really exist, but if someone who doesn't speak English heard them, they would say - Ah, this is an American couple. That's pulse.

So what can we do as English learners to acquire this pulse?

First, stop trying to identify the words like a scanner when we listen and instead, focus on two things:

  1. Getting the main idea.
  2. Getting the pulse of the language. 

If we really do this, something surprising will eventually happen. We will actually start to get the words, the phrases, and most importantly, the intention of the speaker. In the short film I mentioned you can understand intentions of the characters, even though the words make no sense. That's because those intentions are present in the pulse. Obviously, it's just an experiment to show that there is more to language then words. If we can embrace this reality and increase our input of authentic English as learners, we can also get the full experience: the intention, the pulse, the words, and most importantly, the message.

So then,  is conventional listening comprehension pointless?

No, it's fine and serves its purpose in a controlled learning environment. But it shouldn't be the only listening we ever do.

So recapping. Get as much input as possible. Don't get hung up on words when you listen. Get the pulseGo for the message. And in time, you'll find your English has greatly improved.

It's easier said than done, but that's about right.

Ok, Brain. But when do you start creating Your English World?

First of all, if you've done all that, you've already started. What we need to figure out is how to organize ourselves so it's sustainable in time.

How is it sustainable?

So far we've been talking about input. About how important it is. About how our brain is designed to process input and eventually turn it into output. Not right away, not all of it. The key is to keep the flow coming.  To do that we need to allocate a time and place where that will happen. Like a ritual. That's why I gave it a name. You can change it to whatever you want. The point is to get your brain in the right mode to acquire new language.

Alright, so Your English World is a learner's personal ritual for English input. Output and correction are covered in other sessions, right? Any conclusive words for those who are impatient and want to focus on output?

It’s not really about establishing a competition between input and output. The less you worry about the final destination and the more you start enjoying the journey, the shorter the transition between input and output. And that holds true beyond the realm of language learning.

Ok, so now you're going to provide a quick overview of Your English World for learners. Is that right?

That's absolutely right!

Ok, everybody. This magic carpet ride has a master switch called Having the Right Mindset. Here is the pre-flight checklist to plan Your English World sessions.
  • Relax, this is not a test.
  • Motivation. Choose content that truly interests you
  • 5 - 10 minutes. Each Your English World session should be short and uninterrupted. 
  • Low Anxiety. Don't worry if you don't understand something, your brain is busy at work.
  • Enjoy the ride. Eliminate negative self-talk. Go with the flow.
  • Trust your brain. It is acquiring language. Don't get in the way!

Could you provide an example of this kind of mindset in action? 

I'll give you more than an example. I'll provide you with a planning strategy. It doesn't have to be the only strategy. Maybe you can come up with a better one.

So here are some fundamentals for creating Your English World sessions:
  • WORLD: This is your time with the language. This is your power input. This is your English World. On this journey, technology will be your vehicle. You will travel to destinations based on content you have chosen.
  • MOTIVATION: It cannot be stressed enough. Make sure you choose content that is motivating for you. If it isn't, find something else.
  • LEVEL: Try not to choose something that is too easy or way too difficult. Choose something that is a little challenging. If after reading or listening, you have an idea of what's going on, but you don't understand every single word, then you've chosen the right level.
  • JOURNAL: Get something to write on. You will need a journal or notebook to write stuff down.
Welcome aboard, Your English World. Before we depart, let's get familiar with the language features of our spaceship.
  • TECHNOLOGY: That is how we travel through the galaxy. The point is: you will use technology to reach your content destinations, so please set all your technology language to English. No exceptions. And don't change it back. This means that beyond Your English World sessions, from now on, you will be constantly exposed to time, calendars, apps and social media features in English. So yes, your phone, your Facebook, your Instagram, your YouTube language, and when you open Google, it will all be in English.
Destinations. This is how you design your content sessions. Select from the following, ideally a different one each day, 4 days a week. You decide which 4 days.
  • READING: This means that in addition to whatever you read, choose something short to read each week in English related to a topic you are truly interested in. Read it at least twice at different times during that day. Don’t take notes and try to keep the dictionary to a minimum.
  • LISTENING: In addition to whatever you listen to, choose a radio program or podcast to listen to each week about a topic that interests you. Listen to it at least twice at different times during that day.
  • MOVIES / TV / TALK: In addition to whatever you watch, choose a 2-3 min. scene from a movie or TV show you like each week. Alternatively, you may choose a fragment from an interview or talk (5 min max). Watch it at least twice at different times during that day.
  • MUSIC: In addition to whatever you listen to, choose a song each week. Listen to it at least twice at different times during that day.
After the second reading, listening or viewing, write a short summary on your journal.

Easy Planning. Repetition helps acquisition.
  • For WEEK 1, choose a set of content for your sessions, let’s call it: Content A
  • For WEEK 2, choose a new set content for your sessions, let’s call it: Content B
  • For WEEK 3, repeat Content A
  • For WEEK 4, repeat Content B
  • New Month, start with new Content, following the same A / B scheme
  • Journal every time. Review your journal at the end of the week.
If you need to acquire language related to special topics, choose that as your Content. Look for short articles, podcasts or videos. If they are long, break them up into parts.

Keep going. This is Your English World. Enjoy it. Modify it to your needs, but follow through on your plans. This could run parallel to your taking lessons with a tutor or reviewing grammar if you like. With time, if you keep the right mindset, and enjoy the ride, you will acquire new language from Your English World and use it in your speaking and writing output.

Wow, Brain! That was pretty intense. I think I'll need to review this a few times.

Good idea. By all means.

Thanks so much! See you next time.

Take care!