Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Learning English on a pillow and other views

By Linell Davis

Asking foreign teachers to give lectures on how to learn English is an excruciatingly common thing to do. If you have been asked to do this, it is a sign that the organizers of the talk are not very familiar with English learning or that they are simply following some conventional formula for choosing topics for a speech.

Frustrated by such conventionality, on one occasion I decided to give the talk but tried to make it as sexy as possible. I started out with an anecdote about a friend who told me that she had learned Spanish "on the pillow," that is she had fallen in love with and married a Spanish speaker. So the best way to learn English is to fall in love with an English speaker. Everything about that person becomes attractive to you and you have a high motivation to learn. No standardized tests, no grammar points, no classroom language, just intense and intimate communication.

My audience was laughing by this point. I went on to say that I do not actually recommend this method but think that English learners can take some inspiration from it. Try to make your English learning enjoyable, attractive. Use the language playfully in your daily life. For instance, make up English nicknames for your friends. Use English expressions for common daily activities. Let's go, you look sharp today, etc. etc. Compete with your friends to come up with clever expressions.

The next advice was to learn English like a baby. Think about how babies learn language. First, they listen a lot even when they do not understand. Are they upset that they do not know what others are saying?

No, they delight in the sound of the language and then they start imitating it. They do not worry about making mistakes. The adults around them do not correct them. They encourage them, finding their first efforts extraordinary. The adults do not insist on perfectly formed sentences; they are more than satisfied with effective communication like "baby eat." So, you should be like a baby. Use the little bits of language as you learn them and be pleased with yourself for it. Again, do it playfully.

Choose materials that you find attractive. If you are a basketball fan, read news articles on your favorite player or team. Don't approach a foreigner to say you want to practice your English. Instead go to the basketball court and shoot some hoops. You will learn vocabularly and experience English in actual use.

Anyway, my lecture went on in this way with more specific advice. It was a challenge to take that tired old topic and have some fun with it.

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