People who come from a non-Western language background, have a much tougher time learning English. They do not have the Latin and Greek based vocabulary that is common to so many European languages.They have also not been exposed to the Western way of thinking that is behind much of the reading that we all do in school. The origin of the Western way of expressing ideas lies in the classics of ancient Greece and Rome, which have inspired centuries of Western literature and influenced how we express ourselves.
I have found a web site which I would recommend to any person of non-European background as an excellent place to become familiar with the theories of classical rhetoric. Spend some time studying this content and the different techniques of conveying ideas and persuading others. I think it will be quite helpful. It is recommended for advanced learners.
Try it out at
The key to fluency and literacy is better control over vocabulary, both words and phrases. It is not the learning of grammar rules. But how is this best done?
There are many people who have studied English for ten or more years and have very poor control of vocabulary. I am always surprised at the poor level of English of students at our local universities and colleges. This is especially the case with non-native speakers but unfortunately also the case with native speakers.
Recently a third-year university student in Marketing at a local university suddenly discovered that her English was not very good. She was doing a work-term placement with a company and when she went to a customer, the customer complained about her “broken English”. She was not told by her classmates and professors that her English was unsatisfactory. She has decided to join The Linguist. Looking at her writing confirmed that it was far from the level required for professional communication.
When I correct writing, it is poor vocabulary control, including poor knowledge of phrases that is the biggest problem. Yet there seems to be an unlimited number of words and phrases to learn. What is the best strategy?
The answer is to do a lot of listening and reading. But this needs to be done using a systematic way to save, review and notice the key words and phrases. I think it is useful to pursue two separate types of content. To improve fluency requires a good control of phrases. Learning phrases will reinforce the correct use of prepositions, articles and all aspects of agreement for tense and number. When pursuing the fluency goal it is best to work from texts which have few rare or difficult words. If you can find texts with easy words you will often find many idiomatic expressions. You will certainly find many phrases where the prepositions, articles and tenses are used correctly.
The ideal content for this is natural conversation. People use more common words in conversations. Conversations are interesting only if they are real. At The Linguist we have lots of conversation and interviews to listen to.
On the other hand to increase your knowledge of more difficult words, especially words need for academic and professional purposes, or for tests like TOEFL, TOEIC or IELTS, there is nothing better than doing a lot of reading in your areas of interest. If the subjects are familiar or of interest to you it will be easier. It is best to read new and somewhat difficult content on a computer to take advantage of on line dictionaries and other new learning technology, such as is provided by The Linguist for example.
Whatever you do, there is not substitute for learning in context through lots of reading and listening.
Huizi said to Zhuangzi, “This old tree is so crooked and rough that it is useless for lumber. In the same way, your teachings have no practical use.”
Zhuangzi replied, “This tree may be useless as lumber, but you could rest in the gentle shade of its big branches or admire its rustic character. It only seems useless to you because you want to turn it into something else and dont know how to appreciate it for what it is. My teachings are like this.”
Zhuangzi, the Taoist philosopher, lived in
over 2,300 years ago He taught the Tao, or way, an approach to life based on effortlessness and harmony with one’s nature. He was down to earth and had a tongue in cheek sense of humour. He made fun of ritual, dogma, and pretentious moralizing. His epigrams and parables praised those who achieved mastery through constant practice of a skill, following their own inclinations, He scorned complicated explanations and theories.
Zhuangzi’s famous story about the crooked tree appeals to me for many reasons. Being in the forest industry, I know that a crooked tree is not suitable for making standard commodity lumber products, but it can make high quality decorative products which feature its natural beauty and individuality.
Such a tree has grown to a ripe old age by adapting itself to its environment. Whereas the trees in the industrial forest are straight and look alike, the crooked tree grew alone, or with a mixture of other trees of different ages and species. This kind of tree will resist wind and disease better than the more uniform trees of the plantation forest.
People who follow their natures and pursue their own path to language learning will be happier and more successful than learners who try meet goals set for them by others. A true language learner must be like the crooked tree of Zhuangzi, not seeking perfection of form, but prospering by taking advantage of surrounding resources. Think of the crooked tree. Please read this book to learn how to take advantage of the abundant language resources and opportunities for communication that surround you. And most of all just enjoy yourself!
This was in the introduction to my book, The Linguist, A Personal Guide to Language Learning which I wrote a few years ago. I cannot stress enough the importance of being an independent individual in order to achieve success in language learning.
Even though I speak nine languages I am quite opposed to multiculturalism, or at least the ideology of multicultualism. The ideology of multiculturalism in Western countries promotes the position that immigrants should hold on to their ancestral culture rather than integrate or assimilate to the culture of the country to which they have emigrated. I think that promoting separation over integration is wrong.
People should be allowed to choose what they want to do. There should be no forced integration but there should also be no official encouragement to stay separate based on ancestry. The premise of multiculturalism is that ancestry, or assumed ancestry, should dictate your culture. This idea has many serious disadvantages.
First of all it works against the development of an inclusive sense of community within the host country. It encourages people to only see their original ethnic community as “their community”. This weakens solidarity in the host society.
Second, multiculturalism suggests that someone of a particular ethnic origin has an obligation to learn his/her ancestral language and culture, even in the second generation. There should be no such obligation. If I want to learn a language not related to my ancestry in preference to the language of my ancestors, that should be a matter of free choice.
There is an inherent contradiction in multiculturalism since the cultures that are promoted as being worthy of preserving are usually themselves the result of cultural blending. If French or Chinese or Moroccan culture is already the results of various cultures blending together, why should this blending process or assimilation in a new country be considered undesirable.
As a linguist I consider that I am free to learn any language and to enjoy any culture. I oppose the bureaucratic imposition of the parents cultural identity on a new generation of citizens. What is the connection to language learning? I will cover that in another post where I will point out that tying ancestry to language is a major obstacle to language learning.
Some people learn faster than others. Some people pronounce better than others. Why is this?I am more and more convinced that it is a matter of attitude rather than talent. There is something that good language learners have in common. They can let themselves go. They are not afraid. They achieve that independence from their mother tongue. They do not ask questions about why the new language is this way or that way.Now the question is, can you teach this attitude. I do not know. I think that if you can just turn on the switch in the learner’s brain, everything else becomes easier. Of course it is still important to learn in an efficient way. It is important to learn from context and not from rules and vocabulary lists. But the key is the attitude.I am trying to find the way to turn people on, to loosen them up, to make them more flexible. Next time I meet with learners I will be looking to see how to best do that. My book The Linguist, A Personal Guide to Language Learning was written for that purpose. It seems, however, that only natural language learners really understand it. How do I reach the others?
We had a conversation class tonight with about 20 English learners, in Blenz cafe on the corner of Richards and Hastings in Vancouver. It has been raining hard the last few days and I am concerned about the snow conditions in the nearby mountains, especially Whistler.
People like to get together and talk in a foreign language. Really I should run a bistro where people can just meet and talk in English or other languages they are learning. I also like meeting people and talking, in whatever language. Yet just getting together to talk, as important as it is, is not enough. People still need to work at their language. You cannot get away from listening and reading and deliberately adding to your vocabulary of words and phrases.
I had been listening to a Chinese CD of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the famous Chinese epic novel. Now I am listening to a history of Sweden in Swedish. I also have the book which is word for word the same as the CDs. It is very interesting to learn about the history of Sweden and I have the impression that I am learning better than if I just read the book. After listening to a chapter I read the book. This is really a very effective way to learn anything, even in your own language. It is even more effective for learning a foreign language.
I think that the combination of CDs and books could replace much of what is taught in lectures at universities. With an Internet chatroom, voice and text, with other learners and the professor, who needs to attend classes. The rest of the learning should take place in a cafe or bar or discussion place.
A key to understanding anything in a second language is being familiar with the context. There are many ways to become more familiar with context. Actually living the experience is the best but is not always possible. That is why extensive reading and listening is the best alternative to actually living the experience.
When I lived in Hong Kong and studied Mandarin I built up a vast library of content on different subjects of interest that I would read and listen to often. Each time I listened I would seem to focus on different words and phrases until they became natural to me. The local environment did not give me the opportunity to “experience” Mandarin.
Even when I lived in Japan I still had my own language world of reading and listening because it was too difficult to get it all from real life, either because my Japanese was still not good enough or simply because reading can cover more ground than I could experience myself.
Experiments have shown that if you give language learners a glossary or vocabulary list of new words for a text they have not seen it will not help them understand the new text. They simply will not remember these words which they have tried to learn out of context. If they are already familiar with the subject they will understand better, but the vocabulary list will not help.
So the lesson is that all attempts to memorize isolated vocabulary lists, TOEFL vocabulary lists, technical vocabulary lists, antonyms and synonyms, or memorizing the dictionary which Chinese learners sometimes try to do, are very ineffective ways to learn.
That is why in The Linguist we make sure that all words and phrases are learned in the context of authentic content chosen by the learner. Usually the learner will choose a subject that he/she is already familiar with and that makes comprehension and the learning of new vocabulary easier. All occurrences of these words and phrases are collected in the learners’ database for regular review.
You have to experience the language. You have to communicate with people, and to read and to listen a great deal. There are no short cuts. The more efficiently you learn new words and phrases the faster you will grow your language power.