How to keep the fun in language learning!
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  • Do language classes work?

    Posted on January 27th, 2009 Mairo Vergara 13 comments

    classroom-does-it-workSome language learner bloggers have been discussing Tim Ferriss “Why language classes don’t work” article. Street-Smart Language Learning, Aspiring Polyglot and Confessions of a Language Addict gave their opinions on the matter, so I think now it’s my turn.

    I recently started teaching English here in Brazil. The school I work for has an 18 months program which aims atin the method, to be responsible for our students and to give shows instead of simple classes. Excessive grammar and translations are not allowed at all. The students should like you, like the class, like the language, and have fun! If you can do it, you’re in, if you can’t, you’re out. The school and its method (fluency in 18 months) are relatively new here. English courses usually take four or more years and aim at “language proficiency”, which I assume is much more than fluency. Without going too deep into my school‘s methodology and its effectiveness, let me throw out this question: Is it possible to achieve basic fluency inside a classroom? fluency. You’re not allowed to use Portuguese inside the classroom, everything should be taught and explained in English. Sometimes it’s really difficult to explain certain words or expressions, but you just have to find a way to do it. At the initial meeting with other teachers and the school manager, we were told to believe

    I would say, yes, you can achieve basic fluency inside a classroom. By basic fluency, I mean being able to understand native English and communicate at least at a daily conversational level. When students come to my school, they are amazed by the idea that in a year and a half they are going to be understanding and speaking English. “Hey dude, in June 2010 I’ll know English! Awesome!” is what mainly motivates them. I partly disagree with Tim Ferris. Classes tend not to work, because students are lazy and teachers neither know how to teach nor how to learn a language. But it does not mean classes can’t work at all. There are many people that have learned languages inside classrooms, so in some way classes must work.

    In order to work, I think some requirements have to be met inside and outside the classroom…

    A good and motivated teacher

    Perhaps that’s why most classes don’t work. A good teacher isn’t easy to find. Universities don’t prepare students to be good teachers. University teachers themselves usually aren’t good teachers. They are good researchers and thinkers. But teaching is a practical, not a theoretical skill. You don’t learn how to teach by reading books or simulating classes. You learn how to teach by teaching real classes over and over again. If classrooms can work, it absolutely requires very very good teachers, who know their subject and know how to teach it properly. Remember AJATT and Outliersto teaching. 10000 hours thing? The same applies

    Good materials

    Good material really can help. However, I think good materials are those materials that the students can use outside the classroom. Inside the classrooms, the focus should be on the teacher. Even though I just started teaching, I often find myself asking the students to close their books and pay attention to me. I want them to look at me, listen to me. I want them to understand what I am trying to say verbally and non-verbally. The good materials are going to be used at home, for self study. Perhaps a combination of motivating/fun classes with a set of very good materials for self-study could work very well!

    Motivated students

    This depends on students and teachers. Every teacher wants motivated students of course. But what to do with the unmotivated ones? Stimulate them! You can’t motivate someone else, since motivation comes from within yourself, but you can stimulate them so that they get motivated. It is easy to blame students for being unmotivated, but teachers should remember that their role is much more than simply throwing their course material at the students and expecting them to learn it. As I said before, teaching is practical and entails many different abilities.

    In conclusion, I believe classrooms can work in the same way that self-study methods can work. At the same time, classrooms will fail for the same reasons that self-study methods will fail. Every one has his own manner of learning, although certain principles are universal. The hard task is to find and apply these principles, be it inside or outside the classroom.

  • Amazing Article – Picture Stories, ALG Concept in ESL

    Posted on January 23rd, 2009 Mairo Vergara 4 comments

    logo-algPerhaps one of the best articles on language learning that I have read in these last months! Antonio Graceffo is a language teacher, writer and martial artist. In this amazing article he discusses how he uses the ALG Concept (Automatic Language Growth) in his teaching. This article is just awesome, it shows how we can in fact change the way we teach, how we can forget this thing about “make the students talk” and start focusing on what’s really important: comprehensible input (OK, I love Krashen!).

    Some quotes from the article:

    So, in a strict ALG classroom, students would listen for around 800 hours before they are permitted to start speaking.

    This is so cool! Listen to almost 1000 hours, after that start speaking. Katz and Steve Kaufmann would go crazy!

    Sadly, EFL, ESL, TESOL and whatever other acronyms you want to use for English language teaching, is a business. If parents knew that their kids weren’t speaking in class, they would pull their students out and send them to another school.

    That’s a reality we have to change. Unfortunately too many TEACHERS still believe it is necessary to speak in order to speak. Listening and reading, and how it can improve your output skills still misunderstood by many people.

    “Just keep them talking!” is a mantra I have often heard from employers. But how can students talk if they have nothing to say? Perhaps the correct mantra should be “Keep them listening.”

    100% agreed. Keep listening and you’re going kick a…

    Check out the following video, and after that read the article! You have to!

  • Language Learning Quotations

    Posted on January 23rd, 2009 Mairo Vergara 2 comments

    quotesOn the right sidebar of this blog there is a quotation by Stu Jay Raj, which says “When I get really stuck into a language though, I eat, drink, sleep, breathe the language“. Lately, I have been saving these cool quotations in a txt file,  now I think it’s time to share it with you guys. Hope like it!

    “Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drill.” Stephen Krashen

    And the thing, as I have said once or twice before, about a language ? in fact, any advanced skill ? the real key is that you don’t need to get “good” at it; you just need to get “used” to it. It needs to just become a habit, a reflex for you. Let it get inside the muscles of your hands, face and mouth. And it’s the biggest no-brainer ever, because all you have to do is expose yourself. Expose yourself to “language radiation” until you not only get temporary radiation sickness, but actually develop the “cancer” of fluency in a language. Katz

    “Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.” Stephen Krashen
    My dictionary became an extension of my skin, just as my headphones were of my ears. Katz

    “The best methods are therefore those that supply ‘comprehensible input’ in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are ‘ready’, recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production.” Stephen Krashen

    “In the real world, conversations with sympathetic native speakers who are willing to help the acquirer understand are very helpful.” Stephen Krashen

    My goal for this blog is to apart from infect some people out there with my enthusiasm for language, take a peek behind the curtain of language, communication, learning, history and political thought to see what’s really going on there behind the scenes when we speak – and even more importantly, when we’re not speaking! Stu Jay Raj

    My grandfather used to tell me “When you’re learning a language, you want to try your best to avoid having speakers of that language complimenting you. If people are complimenting you on how well you’re speaking ‘their’ language, it means that you still haven’t arrived”. Stu Jay Raj

    Perhaps it’s thanks to my grandfather’s advice that I’ve mentioned in other posts of never allowing “words to limit my thoughts ? always think LOUD”. That ‘LOUD’ for me wasn’t just loud colours, but it was anything that would stand out in my mind and have an emotional effect on me.  Stu Jay Raj

    I am interested in what enables a lot of people to learn languages, not in linguistic pedantry. Steve Kaufmann

    If discipline is what it takes to turn dreams into goals into realities, and discipline is remembering what you want, then pretty much all you have to do to get from here to there, is remember what you want. Not remember where you are [this’ll just make you sad], not remember where you’re not [another recipe for sadness], but remember what you want. Katz

    Congratulations, You just graduated the lesson. You are on your way to being a typing legend! My typing program (perhaps this isn’t direct related to language learning, but it’s still so cool)

    Want to get good at reading and writing in any language? Then read more. A lot more. A lot.  Katz

    See you all guys,
    Mairo Vergara

  • The 90-day rule – How to learn a language in 90 days

    Posted on January 6th, 2009 Mairo Vergara 9 comments

    90daysHave your ever heard about the 90-Day Rule? Basically it means whatever you are doing right now, today, will affect your life in 90 days. Start working on it today and the results will come 90 days from now. Are you wondering why you still can understand German newspapers or Japanese Anime? If so, ask yourself what were you doing 90 day ago. Were you practicing you German, Japanese, or whatever language you’re learning? Did you practice it from 90 day ago until today, every day? Probably if you did it you must have improved a lot, didn’t you? If you didn’t,  you will most likely realize that you simply don’t understand the German newspaper or the Japanese Anime because you were not working on it, you were doing other “important” things.

    Start working on something, be it language or whatever, and keep working on it for 90 days. I guarantee you the results will come up and you will be amazed of how “easy” it was. In fact, becoming good at something doesn’t require a tremendous amount of effort, it requires regularity, patience and discipline. One can sit down and study Chinese for 4 hours, but can you do these same 4 hours in 15 minutes a day for 16 days? Even though you’re going to spend only 15 minutes a day, it will still take 16 days, which is a lot a time. If you sit down and study for 4 hours straight, it will be just one day and you’re done, it’s over. Unfortunately, we tend to learn more through regularity than through intensity.

    Getting into languages, you can easily learn a good amount of any language (or improve a language you already know) by working on it during 90 days. 90 days isn’t a long amount of time, but also isn’t a short amount time. Devote one hour of your day to learn a language, do it for 90 days and see what comes out of it. Let’s say for example you want to learn Spanish from scratch in 90 days, what you can do?

    You can use Michel Thomas and Pimsleur. Curiously, Pimsleur is divided in 90 lesson, so you can do one lesson a day. Or you can use methods like Assimil and set up a plan to finish it in 90 days. Or you can even just read and listen to content on the Internet. Whatever you do, do it regularly for these 90 days. The results will come for certain. Maybe if you take a difficult language they will not be big results, but they still will be good results. If you take an easy language for you (like Spanish for me) you could end up learning a good amount of the language in just 3 months. One thing I can guarantee, you are going to learn much more than those guys at the language school. Just make sure you are doing it every day, at least one hour a day.

    Take for instance this blog. I set up this blog for two main reasons: 1) to improve my English, 2) to blog (because I like blogging). The first post published dates December 15th, which means I have been working on the blog for less than a month. Let’s see what it will look like and March 15th, 90 days after the first post. Surely it will be better than now, as long as I keep working on it everyday.

    And you, what language do you want to learn? Start working on it today and stick with it for 90 days. After that come here again and tell me the results!

    See you all later!

  • Language Learning Grand Masters – Stephen Krashen

    Posted on December 23rd, 2008 Mairo Vergara 3 comments

    stephen-krashenToday we start our Language Learning Grand Masters series with Dr. Stephen Krashen. At the university I learned about Krashen, but it was in a very brief way, so that when I started reading Krashen by myself I suddenly realized “oh, some time ago some teacher in some class talked about this guy”. In fact, most language students at university don’t know about Krashen. But why should you know about him? First, because his ideas about language learning are, in my humble opinion, amazing! Second, because every serious language learner will greatly benefit from reading and knowing Krashen. Let’s take a quick look at what Wikipedia says about him:

    Stephen Krashen is professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, moving from the linguistics department to the faculty of the School of Education in 1994. He is a linguist, educational researcher, and activist. Dr. Krashen has published more than 350 papers and books, contributing to the fields of second language acquisition (SLA), bilingual education, and reading. He is credited with introducing various influential concepts and terms in the study of second language acquisition, including the Acquisition-learning hypothesis, the Input Hypothesis, Monitor Theory, the Affective Filter, and the Natural Order Hypothesis. Most recently, Krashen promotes the use of free voluntary reading during second language acquisition, of which he says “I believe that it is the most powerful tool we have in language education, first and second.” From Wikipedia.

    As you can see, Krashen has formulated a series of hypotheses on language learning: The Natural Order Hypothesis, The Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis, The Monitor Hypothesis, and The Affective Filter Hypothesis. Let’s take a look at each of them:

    The Natural Order Hypothesis
    “we acquire the rules of language in a predictable order”

    The Acquisition/ Learning Hypothesis
    “adults have two distinctive ways of developing competences in second languages […] acquisition, that is by using language for real communication […] learning, ‘knowing about’ language” (Krashen & Terrell 1983)

    The Monitor Hypothesis
    ‘conscious learning […] can only be used as a Monitor or an editor’ (Krashen & Terrell 1983)

    The Input Hypothesis

    “humans acquire language in only one way – by understanding messages or by receiving ‘comprehensible input'”

    The Affective Filter Hypothesis
    “a mental block, caused by affective factors […] that prevents input from reaching the language acquisition device”(Krashen, 1985, p.100)

    From Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis Model of L2 learning

    At first it may seem too complicated, but, in fact, the hypotheses are very simple. Acquisition and learning are different. We acquire language in natural contexts, reading, listening, talking to people. It’s using the language in the real world for real communication. On the other hand, learning is what usually takes place inside the classroom, it relates to every conscious study on and about the language. Nomenclatures, explicit grammar rules, drills, and so forth. We acquire language through input, i.e., listening and reading real content. We learn the language deliberately studying, be it in a classroom or by self-study. Although one can learn a foreign language through only input/natural learning or through only conscious learning, the best learner would be one able to balance natural acquisition and explicit learning. In other words, we need lots of input in order to acquire language, and by studying, we consciously learn the language in order to polish the few errors that the input by itself couldn’t correct.

    This article is just a short introduction to Krashen. His theories about language learning goes much further. You can read his papers for free at http://www.sdkrashen.com/. Great language learners like Stu Jay Raj, Steve Kaufmann and Khatzumoto were highly influenced by Krashen, so I strongly recommend reading Krashen papers and books.

  • Language Learning Grand Masters

    Posted on December 17th, 2008 Mairo Vergara 3 comments

    guru_nanaYou probably know Michael Jordan, Bruce Lee and Bill Gates, don’t you? Have you ever heard of Tiger Woods, Nadia Comaneci or The Beatles? All those people have something in common: they succeeded in their field/area. They not only succeeded, they succeeded extremely well, so that nowadays they are considered geniuses. What many language learners don’t know is that there are many language learning geniuses out there. Those guys have learned so many languages, they have done so well in theirs studies, they went so hardcore that ended up understand exactly how language and language learning works. It’s almost you duty as a serious language learner to know those guys, at the very least to have heard of them.

    At the university I had taken so many literature classes. In these classes we had to read classical literature, we have to read the works from the masters, the big guys (the unique problem is that there are so many big guys in literature…). In the same way, you have to read/know the big language learning guys. Hopefully they are in minor number than the literature folks. It’s weird why we don’t study those guys at the university. For instance, at least here in Brazil, language students usually have no clue about who is Stephen Krashen. Notice that Krashen should be known since he is in the academic field! But people like Steve Kaufmann or Stu Jay Raj are totally unknown between most of language students. University language teachers should start studying more languages and language learning (and less linguistics) and set up programs that make students aware of all those language masters.

    This is an introduction to a series of articles about the people I call language learning grand masters. We gonna start with Stephen Krashen, since he is quoted by all others grand masters I know. I hope you like it! Stay tuned!

  • Key principles in language learning

    Posted on December 15th, 2008 Mairo Vergara 1 comment

    language-keyOn a previous post I talked about how there isn’t a single method for language learning and how you have to find out your own method. Although the method varies depending on you, some key principles for language learning are universal. I can tell you these principles, or you can find them by yourself just by studying and trying different languages and methods.

    In this text I’m going to talk about some of the principles, but it’s very important that you study, notice, and understand these principles by yourself. Once you have understood how language learning works, you certainly will succeed in your studies. Also notice that there are many principles, so I’m going to talk just about some of them (actually three).

    Exposure is key!


    Principle number one is really simple: the more time you spend with the language, the more time you learn. Exposure is key. However, you need good exposure. Classrooms often offers bad exposure, because you have to read texts made for language learners and listen to your classmates bad accent and intonation. The unique good exposure is probably the teacher (although sometimes even the teacher has a bad accent). Good exposure means to listen to real content, read real texts, books, and magazines. Speaking can also be a good way of expose yourself to the language, but only if you can speak to a native or someone with very good skills. Remember you learn more when listening to the other guy than when speaking to him. Listen to music, play games, watch movies, chat on MSN, etc. All these things counts as exposure. Again, the more time you spend with the language the more you learn.

    Input over output!


    Input means listening and reading. Output means speaking and writing. Keep in mind that Input is much more important than Output. Don’t let teachers bother you with the “you need to practice what you’ve learned”. Listening and reading are real practice! I’ll give an example: I started writing on Lang-8, because I wanted to improve my writing skills (and I’m still doing it). After a while I notice my mistakes and writing patterns were always the same. I could polish my writing and correct some errors, but it was just a little improvement on my writing skills. So how I can really improve? Reading, my friend! I have to read more, to read books, to read well written English. If I read a lot, and after that write again, I will probably come up with something new, with new words and expressions. It’s the same for your native language. If you want to be good at writing, or want to became a writer, you have to read like a crazy. You have to devour books! Speaking works in the exactly same way. You can practice and improve your speaking skills. But in order to go further, to talk and impress other with your super cool accent, you have to listen a lot. You need thousands of hours of listening. You need to put that language inside your head so that you listen to the sounds and the rhythm of the language even when you’re not listening. You need to know by heart the books, the phrases and patterns. That’s input! It’s like a big box inside our head. If you need words or phrases, you go to the the box and get it. But you’re not going to get it if the box is empty! So fill up the box! Once you have enough input, output will just be a consequence, it will come naturally.

    Regularity: keep going, just keep going!


    Don’t study seven hours on weekends. Don’t go to the super intensive two weeks English course for only $3000. Instead, study one hour everyday. Regularity is what will make you succeed. You can go hardcore and study 8 hours everyday, but assure to to it every fricking day! And don’t compare yourself with others. Just do it every day and keep going! Katz said “I’m going to act Japanese and I’m going to keep acting Japanese until it’s not acting any more“.In other words; you do it until you don’t feel your actually doing it anymore. Until it becomes part of you. But do it right, OK? Combine good exposure, tons of input, a little bit (just a bit) of output, and keep going, keep doing it every day. If you do it, you will succeed.

  • What’s the best method to learn a foreign language?

    Posted on December 15th, 2008 Mairo Vergara 1 comment

    languageDuring these last years I have been learning a lot about language learning. Although at the university they seem to care more about language teaching, if you check out the Internet or ask language learners out there you will find out that what really matters is learning. It’s all about learning and how to do it, how to learn a language. Once you know how, you just do it, without further questions. There are many methods, many ways in which one can learn a language. We are, naturally, always looking for the best method, the fastest way, the easiest path to mastering English, Japanese, Spanish, whateverish…

    In fact, there are good and bad methods. Take language schools for instance; Language schools, when combined with poor teachers, can be amazingly awful. I’m not saying all schools are bad, but you probably know that guy who spent years and years learning English (or any other language) at that school and ended up not being able to maintain a basic conversation or read the newspaper in English. On the other hand, good methods when used wrong can produce poor results. Some methods can be too hardcore for our simple minds, although we know the method itself really works, we just can’t follow/do it.

    In the end, what you should know, what you should (at least you should…) notice by yourself is that there isn’t A SINGLE METHOD for language learning. Each student has to find his own method, his own way of learning. Of course, this isn’t an easy thing to do. I have been studying languages on and off for about 7 years, and still don’t know what kind of study suits me better. I know some things work and some don’t, but to find out exactly what does work isn’t that easy.

    All methods have good and bad points, so what you have to do is notice the good points and use them in your own way. As I said, each one has his own method of learning, so maybe what works for you isn’t going to work for me, but you still have to check it out, try it out. Take a look at AJATT, learning about exposure, RSS and 10000 hours of hard-work. Check out Steve Kaufmann’s ideas on language learning, and try his system “LingQ“. Watch YouTubes from professor Arguelles and Stu Jay. Go to a language school near your house. Write something on Lang-8. Try out Pimsleur, Michel Thomas, Assimil, etc. There are many, MANY, methods for language learning. None of them will ever be THE METHOD. Lisa can learn 10 languages using only Assimil, Thania can learn the same using AJATT method, and Claudia can learn just going to classes. Of course I’m being a bit theatrical, but I just want to show that there isn’t one method that rules over all others. Your method will probably be a combination of many methods. That’s why you have to try out different approaches, and once you find out your way, stick to it and keep going!

    If you work hard on it, you probably will not only find out which learning methods and strategies suit you better, but you also will start to notice some universal principles about language learning. The average language learner, who usually follows just one methods (like many English teachers here in Brazil who have taught English using the same method for more than 20 years), will probably not learn these principles and, therefore, become kind of limited when it comes to how to learn a language. The union of knowing the principles of language learning and what study methods and strategies suit you better is certainly the best method (your best method!). You just have to find it out!