Are There “Secrets” to Make Learning Another Language Easier?

By Jody Hanson  |  

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Expert Author Jody Hanson

Since English has become the global language, literally everyone who wants to advance above lower middle-management has to learn to read, speak, and understand it. Writing is the most difficult of the four skills and many students never do manage to master it. Fortunately, there are online editing services.

Clarify my experience

Teaching English just sort of seeped into my blood. To date, I have lived and worked in Nigeria, China, Morocco, Chile, Cambodia and, most recently, online.

I started to see patterns with the students, even if there were from different countries, languages, and cultures.

Over the course of the years, I have also developed a lot of ESL materials, including an Executive Business English course when I lived in Morocco.

The flip side of teaching English is that I am living in South America and studying Spanish. I have reached the point that I can babble away en Espanol and people will eventually understand what I want – even if I have to say the same things in four different ways.

Establish goals

The obvious one is to “think in English.” Although it may sound logical, many ESL teachers forget to stress it with their students. When I worked in Casablanca, I had a lovely student named Laila. I kept encouraging her to think in English. One day I just looked at her and said: “Laila, you are thinking in English.” She stopped and said “Yes, but how did you know.”

“I could see it in your eyes.”

Makes mistakes

Many language learners are embarrassed about making mistakes. In Casablanca, I had an older student who had been raised in the French school system. There students don’t open their mouths unless they know the answer is perfect.

“Hajjia,” I used to coax. “Just talk. Then I will be able to correct your mistakes. If you don’t speak there is nothing for me to work with.” I never did win that one.

When I am working with Spanish-speaking students, I rattle off a few sentences en Espanol. They inevitably laugh and then go on to say that my Spanish is very clear and that even if I made a lot of mistakes they could still understand me.

Speak like a leader

Many language students will prattle away at a rapid pace. It is sometimes an assumption that they will sound more like native speakers. I try to stop them in their tracks early on.

Slow down. Leaders speak clearly. There is no shortage of examples available on the internet to stress the point.

Once they hear the difference between exceptional leaders and rabble they generally speak more clearly.

I also try to model the idea of slow, clear, and concise when I speak. Many people have told me that they understand my English, but not that of other native speakers.

Talk out loud

When I tell students to sit in front of a mirror and talk to themselves out loud, they often protest that people will think they are crazy. My response? “Then tell them your teacher told you to do it so perhaps she is the crazy one.”

This exercise allows students to watch how their mouths move, and to hear their own words. While it might sound up close and personal, it really does work. And I know as I regularly do it.

Try and keep going

Learning another language isn’t easy. When I see the advertisements claiming that people can learn English in three weeks if they enroll in an often-expensive course, my reaction is to snort. Anyone who believes this claim likely thinks the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny are real as well.

One approach I use is to encourage students to build in rewards for themselves. If they pass the test they get to go out for lunch. If I study Spanish verbs for half an hour, I get a glass of wine to drink in front of the mirror.

Learning to speak English isn’t easy. But then, neither is learning to speak Spanish. Work may be a four-letter word, but it is the only way to get things done.

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