I am once again a volunteer for a conversational club group called FREE (Friendly Relaxed Educational English) that aims to help internationals with learning English. In Bournemouth, where I have been based for university since 2014, there are numerous language school which brings quite a bit of diversity to the town with the influx of people from different nations from all corners of the earth.
I must say I really love it. Teaching has been something I wanted to do for around 10 years, but I doubted myself because of confidence and the feeling that I am not explaining something in a clear way. I told this to some people in my Church when I believe I was asked what is a skill that I would like to obtain. They told me that in fact I am a natural teacher and shouldn't really doubt myself in this area...since then I have been trying to teach without worries and one thing that I like to teach is English!...which is actually surprising for me as I often go on for days about how I don't like the language and how it makes no sense to me so how can it make sense to people who aren't native speakers (in fact I posted about this in 2015: "English is such a terrible language".) I would even consider teaching English or being a language assistant for English in countries such as Spain or South Korea.
So away from my digression there; some of the students that came to the conversation class reassured me of my teaching style and asked advice on how to improve learning English. In all honesty I may not be the best person for this: 10 years into Spanish and I still haven't achieved C2 Spanish, I learn French on again off again, and my level of Korean is...we can say ambiguous! However, all of the following points are ways that helped me learn these languages a bit easier and I recommend to anyone who wants to learn English or any language. In no particular order of importance:
This one is easy to understand but not always easy to do. Make friends with people who speak your target language! It's a bit much just making a friend just because you need something from them, like help to improve your English. However, not everyone views it that way. A lot of people want to make new friends and are at the same time helpful so would be delighted to help someone learning their language. In fact, a lot of my friends and I really love making international friends. It's almost a "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" situation. For example, I'd be happy to have a friend who lives the other side of the planet as I can go and visit them there; plus I love learning about new cultures so it's not only a language exchange but a culture exchange. It opens up the mind, it makes you understand people better, it betters you as a person having friends from all over - which I do! Having these friends that speak your target language helps you learn things like slang, culture, it helps you get better with listening and speaking because with friends you're not really shy and they wouldn't be shy to correct your mistakes. You also find things you have in common along the way. So make sure that you do not go to places having the perception that people would not want to interact with you because your language level is not adquate; many people would be very content to engage in conversation with you and flattered at your attempts. So go out and make friends today!
Kaycey example: I have many Korean friends, probably around 20, who as soon as they heard me say something as simple as "안녕하세요" which means "hello" in Korean, they were shocked and flattered. Many of them always correct my Korean when we are chatting and use Korean terms that I do not know in order for me to learn. Also, when they are talking amongst other Koreans, they tend to ask me a lot if I understand what they are saying (I usually get the gist depending on the topic and sometimes butt in) I do wonder what my Korean would be like without having my friends there to help me.
2. MusicThe US music industry is booming and it is typical for people to know songs in English...even if they don't understand the lyrics. But what about Brazilian funk, Spanish bachata, French Afro-Trap, Korean Pop and countless other genres of music that may or may not be native to these regions but are performed in your target language? The music can be so inviting and fun and the people who tend to avoid them are the people who have no interest in learning another language or about another culture. "Music has no language", so why avoid a song because you do not understand the language - there are various websites available that translate the lyrics for you...but you definitely should be interested in the language of the music if that is the language that you are learning. So onto my main point: listen to the music! It is so fun, if you like the way a song sounds go look at its lyrics and truly understand what the singer is singing about. You may be very surprised finding out a song may not be at all what you thought it was about. Learning languages through music is a good way to dissect the lyrics, the meanings, the words that you do not know and to go on a grammar hunt - plus you can be very impressive to others singing in a foreign language.
Kaycey example: If you know me you know you know that I chose to improve my Spanish so I can understand Shakira - the Colombian talented, philanthropic, beautiful queen of belly dancing. I found the reason why many people complain that her new material is garbage compared to her old songs, which is only true in the sense that she just has more fun pop songs these days because times have changed and please find yourself in the 21st century...the old songs that these people talk about are complete "obra maestas" and very soul-touching and poetic. I was only able to understand that by breaking down the lyrics and their meanings and well it's not completely hard to tell due to the emotion that she would sing with. (Disclaimer - nothing of hers is garbage and she still releases pretty poetic songs if people actually listened to her music properly...#IAmShakiraTrash);
Surprise of understanding a song or a lyric
I believe listening to music in different languages has helped to train my ear. I feel I focus more on the lyrics instead of just mumbling the only sentences I could only make out at first. Nowadays, I am catching onto all the nastiness that appears in reggaeton songs and have learnt that Korean Hip-Hop rappers tend to put many meanings to just one line of their song, showing off their witty thinking and I catch onto that easier these days.
I often go out for "Latin night" at a local club and have started noticing a lot of dances are actually lyrical (the dances go with the lyrics) and are not just a routine people have chose to learn.
I recently saw Shakira live in concert and the guy next to me wasn't visibly a "hispanohablante" but would sing those key lines as if understanding the depth of their meanings which made me think "oh, if you know that, you must surely understand Spanish".
Last point, I became more attentive and nosy to Portuguese music as it is similar to Spanish, I like to see what I can detect.
There is nothing like immersion! Being surrounded by the language you want to learn is obviously a good way to learn that language and is of course a tip I can't give to these international students who have already come to the UK to learn English better. You're forced into an environment where you are living and want to live comfortably being able to communicate with everyone around you. You may be at work and you have to understand the commands that your boss gives to you or communicate with your colleagues. You have to know what to say at a shop when shopping and do not want that anyone takes advantage of you because they believe your language capabilities to be lacking so you're easy a target to con. You would learn new language just by walking down the road, going to a local cafe and interacting with those around you. This is really a key way to learn a language but it can fail if you do not aim to immerse yourself in the community around you.
3. Live in a country where your target language is the official language
Kaycey example: I moved to Barcelona! It was a bit different from what I call "Spain-Spain" as Catalan was quite (very) prevalent there; but it wasn't too hard to understand as Catalan is basically, I've been told, "a drunk Spanish man trying to speak French". I plan to one day move back to Spain for maybe a year again, we shall see! To some of my colleagues I told "por favor, no quiero que me hables en ingles. Estoy aqui para aprender español" [please, I don't want you to speak to me in English. I'm here to learn Spanish] and some others that I would usually speak to in English would tell me something along the lines of "Kaycey te voy a hablar en español para que aprendas" [Kaycey, I'm gonna speak to you in Spanish so you learn]; the latter I usually met with a fake grin as I was dreading either their strong accent or the fast pace at which they spoke.
I improved my Spanish abilities a lot, yet I still was't so confident whilst living there and kind of went into hermit mode and often avoided speaking Spanish a lot until my final months there because of a long story that I'll tell one day...but I stick by the statement that there is nothing like immersion and I am at a stage where I am determined to speak to any Spanish speaker and understand them. Incluso la gente de Argentina que me cuesta demasiado entender!!
As I was working a role where I needed a certain level of Spanish proficiency, I needed to improve to communicate with the customers and my co-workers and of course you come into contact with more people when living anywhere. There were many people I met that couldn't speak hardly any English if at all which forced me to put extra effort into trying to improve speaking and listening.
4. Films / TV shows
This is quite a typical example and also a fun one! I have many friends who have learnt English through movies and shows and it has proven effective. If you watch films / shows without subtitles you're testing your hearing a whole lot - of course you need to understand the plot which may cause you to rewind a few times if watching at home. If you watch them with subtitles in the target language, you can at least see the words that you do not know and are able to note them down or learn the spelling. This is very helpful when the dialogue goes by very quickly and it is also better when the audio is in the target language to help your understanding and how things are pronounced compared with how they are spelt.
Kaycey example: All I watch is Korean shows. I find them fun and my language definitely would not have improved if it wasn't for these shows. I've been able to learn day to day language and phrases and colloquial terms, things not so easy to find in a textbook; I've discovered different accents and it helps me understand the culture more by seeing how people act and learning what is socially right and wrong in their eyes. I usually watch 'variety shows' - a form of energetic and funny shows usually there to make people laugh and explore a subject or culture. From these shows I have learnt Korean humour and phrases.
I also have watched a Spanish season, which is one of the best most intense shows I have ever watched, called 'La casa de papel'. From that I realised that although I've watched Spanish films with Spanish subtitles, I prefer watching this series with English subtitles to 100% get the gist of it (especially since the show was so intense, I did not want to be rewinding because of every word I didn't understand as that would have killed the moment).
Though there are countless language learning apps, HelloTalk is my favourite that I have used so far. It is good for making friends, for speaking with natives of your target language and even other languages if you want. You teach people by conversing and correcting them with in-app correction kits and they do the same for you. Maybe you're being solely a teacher by helping the other person speak your language, or perhaps only a learner as you speak the language of the native which is your target language; however, I believe most of the time it is an equal and enjoyable exchange of both languages. You can even send audio to each other to converse and help out with pronunciations and also you can post on community boards to reach out to more people and start discussions there.
Kaycey example: First of all shout-out to Gerard my lovely pen-pal that I met on HelloTalk and was also able to meet whilst I was living in Barcelona! I am thankful that he helped me a lot and encouraged me too. I'm not always confident speaking Spanish with everyone but I could tell he understood my level and knew where to meet me and correct me...and explain Spanish politics and grammar. I really think this app is essential for you, even if you are not learning a language actively - but it's really fun and nice to make friends and be called out on even the smallest of mistakes which will in effect help you improve your abilities
6. Challenge yourself in conversation
This point is really important. It is more to do with self-confidence, resilience and having no fear of the mistakes you may make when conversing. So many people tell me that their weakest skill is speaking - it's the one they want to improve the most. It's the skill that school didn't teach properly. It's the skill that the students at FREE club tell me they yearn to improve. It's the skill I myself also really need to improve. Challenging yourself in conversation is being not afraid to speak to natives, it's being not scared to speak because they might laugh at you, it's being confident in yourself that you will improve and the only way to improve is practice because practice makes perfect. It is asking the person to repeat the question that you did not understand instead of brushing over it or ignoring it. It is asking them to speak slower because you can't understand them when they are speaking 100 words per 10 seconds. It is speaking your full opinion instead of giving small dull replies. It is trying to become more fluent verbally and adding more flavour to your language. On the note of fluency, remember that fluency is speaking or writing in an articulate and natural manner; using language easily and accurately. I learnt that through Polyglot Benny Lewis - you are most likely fluent in your target language, fluent isn't being indistinguishable from native speakers or having arguments about politics or philosophy in your target language. If you just recognised that you are fluent in that target language, give yourself a pat on the back and be proud - learning languages isn't easy (for everyone); and if you are still not fluent yet, don't worry because if you follow these tips I am sure that you will get there!
In short, challenging yourself in conversation is speaking to people and not giving up because you don't understand. It is finding other ways to understand on those occasions where you are not understanding.
Kaycey example: Korean is my confident language verbally. I am very confident in my speaking level as I learnt a lot of Korean through my friends and through constantly speaking. It was fun when I started learning Korean - with my Korean friends I won't shut up - if we're speaking English I will always try to throw Korean words in the mix. If we're speaking Korean I'm being hyper and excited to be speaking. I'm not afraid to mess up things when speaking Korean; like I said before, my friends understand my level and appreciate me being interested in their language that isn't a typical French, Spanish, Chinese or Japanese.
For me, Spanish is the opposite which I'm sure you have been able to tell by now. I have improved in forcing myself to speak Spanish as I was working in Spain with Spanish people and with Spanish customers however, as I started learning Spanish 10 years ago in school (those first 4 years were very easy and learning things like family members and where you live etc.) I became very sensitive about my speaking abilities. I still have friends who I hate speaking Spanish with and thus refuse to as I'm not comfortable or embarrassed or am whatever negative nonsense that the head creates itself...or that it's just not natural for us to speak that language as we didn't become friends in that language something I call banter language*. But it has been step by step which is why I want to go out to Spain again to not lose my ability and to push myself to indulge and immerse in the language more. Challenging myself in conversation sheds light upon my weak points - whether it be grammar, verb tenses or range of vocabulary.
7. A little bit of liquid courage / confidence
It is true. It has been found that drinking can help with foreign language skills. Check out this article from The Independent! I'm not saying to go out and get 'hammered' but a little bit of alcohol gives confidence - and not just confidence, the study that is featured in the The Independent article says it helps with pronunciation. So maybe the next time you want to have better conversation with someone who speaks your target language, have half a pint first.
Kaycey example: I remember being nervous during the day but a chatty patty at night whilst I was in Valladolid in 2014 doing my work experience. I would be speaking to everyone and fearless with my speech after a one beer. It is what it is - alcohol gives confidence which you may need in order to find another way to speak your target language.
This tip comes from my 3rd ever Spanish teacher who had to deal with me for A2 level Spanish. Reading news articles. This helps you understand what is going on with the world...but in a different language. You will definitely learn new vocabulary and a formal way of using language. You see and you copy by example as you see how a native would write these things. Plus, you're reading so you are becoming able to get used to reading, you start to pick up the pace and improve your reading skills.
8. Reading news articles
Kaycey example: My old Spanish teacher told me to start reading 'el país' and 'BBC Mundo' to get better for my reading comprehension exam. At first I was quite lazy with it as I am a lazy person however, I began to find its use and it became a habit and just natural for me to to BBC Mundo to read the news. I maybe read BBC Mundo more than English language news and have notifications of headlines sent to my phone. It's useful to do a bit of reading every now and then to train the brain and also to find out about subjects I'm interested in or those that I hardly know anything about. It's killing two birds with one stone.
9. Do not speak your mother tongue with friends that also are trying to learn your target language
Having your friends around you in the classroom can be a distraction, right? You're trying to learn but they keep getting in the way and poking fun at things. It's all fun and games until you realise that you aren't getting anywhere with your learning and things are proving difficult. Everyone, you have to know and live by that 'teamwork makes the dream work!' I live by that, I love being a team player - so if you and your friend are trying to learn the same language - help each other. Point out where your friend is making mistakes; if one of you understands a grammar rule and the other one does not, then explain it to your friend; encourage each other and for the love of God, avoid speaking your mother tongue where possible. I think this is most important for intermediate level language learners. You're above the basics so you can actually form sentences that make sense. You're fluent in this language but you want to be better - it's not completely comfortable to you. It may be a big demand saying to not speak your mother tongue but that's not what I'm saying. Don't cut it completely...that's a bit weird. But help each other out - say to your friend "does this sound normal in English? Would you phrase it that way?" and practice with each other - sentences, oral exams, pronunciations etc.
Maybe if you are competitive see it as a competition (but not too seriously...you don't want to lose your friend) but a little bit of I want to speak better than them might help push you both that way. But remember teamwork makes the dream work so it can't be a harsh competition where you put each other down.
I think this is a hard task but then I remember a lot of staff at work would only speak Spanish with each other though they might have French, Portuguese or Italian in common (this was especially to help all us interns who had to improve our Spanish level); also, one of my university lecturers, who is Bulgarian, told the Bulgarian students that she will not speak Bulgarian with them (though I think this was more to professionalism than to help with English...as they are all I presume C1 / C2).
Kaycey example: I believe I thought of this whole post because of the students from FREE club that I spoke to the other day. They made me laugh a lot. Two guys from Saudi Arabia learning English but finding it hard being with each other all the time so, of course, naturally speaking Arabic to each other. One said "I'm never going to speak better English because of him...how do I lose him?" My advice was "you gotta get into a fight with him, then you'll not speak with him anymore!"
I too also had a similar scenario - I was in Spain and of course wanting to improve my Spanish but most of my housemates, the people I spent the most time with, knew English better than Spanish, was a native speaker or just wanted to improved their English with a native. There were two of my French housemates that I spoke to in Spanish with 90% of the time - it was odd, I spoke Spanish with people who didn't have Spanish as a first language more than I spoke Spanish with actual Spaniards or other Latinos. This was really helpful for me as we were at a similar level so empathised with each other the struggle of sometimes not knowing the right thing to say and were patient with each other - though I think at that point in time we were actually more confident than not with speaking Spanish to each other at least. I realised I was actually good at explaining things in Spanish (a good skill for a future teacher 😉) and commended myself more for improving.
10. Date someone who speaks your target language
This my friends, is an extreme version of immersion! How better to learn a language than learning it from the person you love (or might love one day lol). Why not learn the 'language of lurveee' and your target language at the same time! I know plenty of people who do this method, especially if they want to move to a country where their target language is the primary language. I think this is a good method because with love there should be no miscommunication, therefore you would want to understand each other 100%...so...language.
Kaycey example: No comment 😶
Banter language - with people who share the same two languages or more and are most likely at different levels (e.g. person 1 - a native in Spanish and advanced English, person 2 - a native in English and upper intermediate Spanish) there will be a predominant language that you banter with in this multilingual friendship. You may have become friends in one of those languages and speak using both of those languages, but there is only one language that you banter in. For some reasons jokes make sense in that language and things are funnier in that language.