Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Archive for the ‘My language learning’ Category

Attitudes to language learning

Think about, for example, how many Japanese speakers of English get looked upon unfavourably for their English, and […] never receive any praise for being speakers of English, whereas think about how many white people who live in Japan and learn Japanese are adored, admired, praised for their ability to speak Japanese.

But if you think about it, English and Japanese, it’s the same pair of languages, the same distance, the same difficulty in learning it, right?

But if a Japanese person speaks English, they will never get any admiration for it, and often will get, actually evaluated negatively: oh yeah, but their English is not so good yet.

But if it’s the person who has learnt Japanese from an English background, they get all kinds of praise and support and self-affirmation out of it.

So that’s a form of oppression going both ways: privilege in one, and oppression in the other.

Lourdes Ortega, interviewed on the TEFLology podcast

This is something I’ve found annoying in the past: it’s lovely to be praised for my own language learning, but when I praise people back: your English is just as good as my Polish or better, they say “But Polish is so hard!”

It’s no harder than English for a Polish learner: all languages are easy and all are difficult. It’s a question of motivation, and while distances between them may help or hinder learning at different stages of the process, if you speak the same pair of languages, you should be equally proud of your ability to speak them, and you should be praised equally.

The things we say to language learners have a real impact!

What different CEFR levels feel like

I have very vivid memories of each stage of my Polish so far, and have noticed fairly clear boundaries between one CEFR level to another. My writing is pretty much non-existent as I haven’t made any effort with it at all. I guess I could probably produce something at about A2 if I spent a lot of time and concentrated on it, but I wouldn’t want to put money on it! The following descriptions are therefore based on speaking, reading and listening, all of which I’m B1 in now.

A0

I already had a grounding in Czech and Russian when I started out with Polish. This meant that I could understand a fair amount of what was happening around me when I first arrived. However, my speaking was definitely A0 at the beginning, and I went through a silent period of about a year. I think it was because when I did try to speak it came out in a weird mix of Czech, Russian and Polish, and nobody could understand me. I ended up avoiding situations where I would have to speak Polish, and always using English unless I couldn’t get around it. I was worried about speaking and felt a real block. This had never happened to me in any other language, so really surprised me as I’d always been pretty confident when it came to using what I knew.

I have a few other languages which I’ve started out with and which are still A0, for example Mandarin, Thai and Greek. In all of these, I am also largely illiterate, though I can pick out a Greek word if I take my time, without necessarily having any idea what it means. Thai script was beautiful, but too much for the short time I spent on it – I think I can remember one or two letters now, but not much more. When I started with Russian, illiteracy was also a problem. There was no Roman script around in my day-to-day life outside school in Sevastopol, so I really felt like a child all the time. I would sometimes spend ages picking out the letters of a word then realise it was basically the same word in English (like ‘toilet’ or ‘lift’), which was both frustrating and motivating! Some letters are similar, which helped, and some are a Roman letter that works differently in Cyrillic – for example see George R. R. Martin’s name on the book below. This took a good couple of months of being surrounded by Cyrillic to really get my head around.

Game of Thrones in Russian

When listening, A0 feels like a wash of sounds flowing past. Periodically I hear a word that I recognise, mostly a number or two, a pronoun (usually ‘I’ or ‘you’), or a form of ‘be’. I grab onto these and am super happy whenever I can pick them out. To feel positive about this, I’ve had to learn to not put pressure on myself and relax, letting the sounds wash over me. This is something I think we can help our learners to do by making them aware that they shouldn’t expect to understand everything, and should feel good when they can pull something out of the stream of speech – they should find motivation and positive feelings wherever they can. s

I haven’t had much exposure to full texts when I’m at A0 level, but again the hunt for a word or two I recognised could feel quite demotivating until I decided to stop letting it bother me.

A1

At the end of my first year in Poland I went for a flamenco weekend in the country. I’d been attending weekly classes for the whole year, which I’d been able to follow through a combination of body parts being fairly similar in Polish, Czech and Russian, and my teacher being excellent at demonstrating and very patient. She can also speak English and Spanish, so could often explain to me in another language if I couldn’t understand. The weekend away was something completely different though: there were about twenty of us, and four or five couldn’t speak English at all. When they tried to speak to me, I had no choice but to use my Polish. The conversations were all fairly similar, giving me lots of repetition in answering questions like ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Why are you in Poland?’ and ‘Do you like it here?’ The fact that I could successfully participate in these conversations and that my interlocutors were patient with me ended my silent period.

Gzin, with a few fellow flamenco learners

Receptively, the weekend helped me to realize I could now understand whole chunks of conversation, though rarely fast enough to chip in. Conversations I participated in were very one-sided, as I couldn’t really formulate questions with any speed or confidence, meaning they tended to resemble the Spanish Inquisition somewhat! The person I was speaking to also needed to be very patient as I formulated what I wanted to say.

A couple of weeks before that weekend I decided it was time to start reading in Polish. I bought the first Harry Potter, and ever since then I’ve read in Polish for ten minutes before bed every night. When I first started, I could probably understand about 10-20% of the words on the page, and it took me the whole ten minutes to read two pages. I decided that I was going to read to read, not to learn vocabulary, so I only look up one or two words if they’ve appeared a lot in what I’ve just read and I feel like they might be important for that point in the story. I don’t write down the words at all. I kept working my way through the book without worrying about how much I understood, just feeling happy whenever I could pick out events successfully. I chose Harry Potter because I was familiar with the stories, but not so familiar that I would be bored. Again, I think this is something we could encourage our students to do, letting the new language wash over them without worrying too much about understand.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Polish cover)

A2

Another year, another flamenco weekend. This time I could instigate conversations, and I started to be able to ask some questions myself. During dinner it was a huge challenge to follow the thread of what was happening when there were lots of competing conversations going on, but if I really concentrated, I could follow a conversation close to me and even chip in occasionally. By this stage in lessons, I was able to understand pretty much everything, and if I couldn’t understand normally nobody could! It was a flamenco thing, not a Polish thing 🙂

Away from flamenco, when I moved into my new flat I was living with the old owners for the first six weeks and they don’t speak any English. We had lots of similar conversations which I felt increasingly confident with, especially as they supplied high frequency words like ‘tired’ and przeziębiona (an adjective meaning you have a cold, which we lack in English!) My household vocabulary increased a lot, and I started to speak a little more fluently and confidently, but still had a lot of trouble with grammatical forms if I tried to produce them accurately. I stuck to basic forms: present, past simple, and future with być + infinitive – Polish has two ways of forming the future depending on if verbs are perfective or imperfective.

Listening was fine on familiar topics, and I could pick out bits and pieces of unfamiliar conversations, usually enough to know what the general topic was but none of the detail. When reading Harry Potter, I could understand about 30-40% of what was on the page, and sometimes had a whole page where I felt like I knew exactly what was going on. Equally, I sometimes had whole pages where I had no idea! Usually that was tiredness though, and if I re-read them the following night a lot more went in, helped by the repetition. In both listening and reading, I could pick out more complicated grammatical forms like conditionals and relative clauses, though this often involved re-reading sentences a couple of times if I really wanted to understand them.

Around this time, I also distinctly remember a conversation with one of our school caretakers about types of cheese and which were good to eat from different countries. This was the first time I remember chatting about a random subject in Polish and being able to keep up with the conversation, even if I couldn’t always express what I wanted to say. That felt pretty good!

B1

I reckon I tipped into this stage about 18 months ago. With speaking, the turning point was being able to participate evenly in a conversation, formulating questions fast enough to keep up with a patient interlocutor. Familiar topics are no problem for me, and over time my fluency has increased so that I think I talk at almost normal speed on familiar areas. Unfamiliar topics are problematic, mostly due to vocabulary rather than grammar, but if I’m with somebody who speaks English I’ll code-switch instead of trying to get my head around the grammatical forms I want to produce, especially conditionals or time shifts like future in the past. I tend to start in Polish, then change to English as soon as I can’t say something that’s more complicated than a missing word or two. I’ve never done this with another language, and I find the process of going backwards and forwards fascinating to be inside 🙂

I can keep up with most things when listening, enough to be able to respond on topic about 80% of the time if I’m in a conversation. I can follow about 60-70% of what happens in kids’ films dubbed into Polish, and sometimes find myself understanding more of a Polish subtitle than a French/German/Spanish spoken line if there are two foreign languages simultaneously. In more unfamiliar situations, such as an impromptu tour of a nunnery that a group of us had when visiting Chełmno a few weeks ago, I can pick out enough key words to attempt to make meaning out of what I’m hearing, but I have no idea how accurate that meaning actually is. It sounds impressive to the uninitiated when I can translate but I know it’s full of holes 😉

Nunnery chapel in Chelmno

My reading is much faster now. In ten minutes I can read four to six pages, depending on how tired I am, and understand around 80% of it. I’ve just finished reading Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, which I either haven’t read in English, or read so long ago that I don’t remember it. That took me quite a lot longer than Harry Potter to find my feet with, but by the time I was used to the writing style I was up to a similar speed and rate of understanding as with Harry Potter (I’ve now finished four of them, and waiting for book 5 to arrive). I read a couple of summaries in English of Death on the Nile at certain points early on to work out what I’d missed – I knew there was something important but felt like I couldn’t get it from the Polish, though was pleasantly surprised at how much I had understood. The main challenge was the number of characters – because I was reading quite slowly, it was hard to keep them all straight. I feel like I fully understood the final two chapters when everything was revealed 🙂 At school I sometimes pick up magazines left in the kitchen and read the cartoons and short articles. I have a 50-50 hit rate with understanding the cartoons, normally depending on how culturally bound they are. With articles, if I’ve chosen something with a headline I can understand, I generally get almost all of the story itself.

B2?

At this point my confidence is fine in most situations, and in the past month I’ve had lots of interactions which lead me to believe I’m at the higher end of B1 now, and possibly on the tipping point to B2. I’m not quite there yet, but I don’t feel like I’m far off.

I’ve started to experiment with producing more complicated forms myself, rather than automatically switching to English. This includes attempting to produce conditionals, trying to use verbs of motion correctly (Slavic languages have lots of them and they have their own grammatical features which don’t apply to any other verbs!), and noticing imperfective and perfective forms in action, occasionally using them in the correct situations myself, normally by imitation within the same conversation. I know that there are lots of case endings which I now use consistently correctly. I learnt them as chunks, but am starting to apply them to new words which I’ve never declined before. I’m using a much wider range of prepositions spontaneously, my descriptive language has widened, and I listen actively, particularly using the word ‘No’ as a response. Chunks play a huge part in my fluency, a lot of them having come from my reading – I’m definitely an advocate for the vocabulary + reading approach to language learning now!

Last week, I spent three and a half days in hospital for routine tests to get the next drug for my colitis, with only a couple of conversations in English with the doctor when I said that I wasn’t sure I understood towards the end of the stay – it turned out I’d actually got of more what she’d said than I thought. Everything else was in Polish, including long conversations with my neighbour on the ward about all kinds of different things, and 5:15a.m. conversations with the nurses when they came in to give us medicine. The third person in the ward was an old lady, and this was probably the first time I’ve heard ‘old person Polish’ (!) for any length of time, so it took me a little while to get used to the different cadences of her speech, but I managed in the end. She’s fairly deaf, which didn’t help smooth communication, but it was an interesting challenge to overcome and hospital gave me time to pursue it!

I’ve just spent a few days in Wroclaw and Lower Silesia, and in quite a few situations I started an interaction in English and changed it to Polish myself because I realised it would be easier, something I wouldn’t have done a couple of months ago.

Ksiaz Castle

Most motivating of all, I’ve just spent over two hours chatting only in Polish with somebody I met on the train, covering a huge range of subjects, including managing to communicate some unfamiliar ones with patience and just three or four words in English throughout the whole interaction. I feel like I was talking at the same speed he was, and there were only a couple of miscommunications, which I was able to identify immediately though needed help to resolve. I could ask for that help in Polish, as my circumlocution skills have started to improve. It felt like a ‘normal’ conversation that I could have had on the train in England, and that feels fantastic 🙂

On fonts

Every morning I use the Memrise app on my iPad to learn a little bit of Mandarin. I’ve been doing it on and off for about seven years now, and almost every day for four years. Since it’s the only way I practise Mandarin, I’m still very much A0, though my progress has been slow, but steady.

Occasionally, I use the browser version of Memrise rather than the app, and it inevitably results in a bit of depression! I always score much, much lower, with only around 10-20% accuracy, compared to my normal 80% or so.

I think the reasons for this are threefold:

  • There is a time limit for typing in the browser – I often need a lot more time than it allows to pull the characters out of the depths of my memory.
  • On the app, I have the option of a kind of multiple choice, where I can select from a limited range of letters that make up the word rather than typing from the whole keyboard. These letters generally appear in a similar pattern each time the same word comes up, and if I think for a while, I can normally get to the right answer. I have it set to automatically accept the answer when it’s correct, so I can keep trying until I get it right. Not necessarily great for my long-term retention though, as I don’t end up repeating the problem words as much.
  • The fonts are different. This is the biggest one for me. Words I’ve been seeing for years in the same font, such as ‘good’ (part of the word ‘hello’, so introduced on day 1!), look completely different and I can’t recognise them at all. I got that one wrong this morning, as well as ‘teacher’.

The browser version

The app version

I feel like this gives me a little bit of empathy with people who have dyslexia, understanding that a word can look completely different in different typefaces, and therefore unrecognisable. These two may not seem that different, but the serifs and line thicknesses add extra detail. I’m used to the more simplified version in the second image.

I knew about how challenging different fonts could be theoretically, but feeling it myself as a learner is different. This is why we should keep learning ourselves! Something to remember when making materials and tests.

Examining the impact of a low-level of teacher proficiency on student learning (IATEFL Liverpool 2019 – my presentation)

This is a write-up of my IATEFL Liverpool 2019 presentation. I decided to present it without slides, which made a pleasant change 🙂 This blogpost follows the same structure as my talk.

Why this talk?

In many countries in the world there is a minimum language level required by the government for state school teachers. An informal facebook survey I did showed this is most commonly B2, for example in Chile, Poland and Italy. B1 is required in Andalucia, while C1 is required in Belgium and Germany. (Thanks to everyone who replied – there were more places but I can’t fit them all in here!) However, these requirements are relatively recent, they are not universal, and they are generally not retroactively applied. It seems that only recently qualified teachers need to have evidence that they have achieved the required level, and there are many, many people teaching English with B1 or lower. I state this as a simple fact, rather than as a judgement.

Despite forming such a large part of our profession, B1-level English teachers are unlikely to present at international conferences like IATEFL due to the language level required to keep up with such a conference. I therefore decided that it could be valuable to reflect on my own status as a B1 learner of Polish who is teaching Polish to English-speaking teachers at our school, and particularly the impact that my relatively low level of proficiency might have on their learning. I don’t expect to offer any ground-breaking insights, but simply to share my story in the hope of prompting others.

My Polish lessons

The lessons I teach are:

  • 60 minutes once a week
  • survival Polish for absolute beginners
  • to a group of fluent English speakers from four different countries over the 18 months since I have been teaching Polish (since November 2017)
  • for anywhere between 4 and 10 students
  • based on topics I choose in conversation with the students
  • using a mix of published and self-produced materials, sometimes based on phrases or short conversations supplied by native Polish friends
  • mainly language-based, particularly vocabulary and functional language, and generally quite tightly controlled (see below for more on this)
  • one way of challenging myself in my teaching (as a DoS and trainer I’m not in the classroom much nowadays!)

My experience

I am CELTA- and Delta-trained, as well as being a CELTA trainer and a Director of Studies. I have 10 years of teaching experience, and have done lots of CPD, including this blog and reading about methodology.

This is also not the first time I have taught languages other than English. Previous experience includes:

  • A2 German via my school to two Czech students with no English – I had recently graduated with C1 in German and this was my first year as a full-time teacher.
  • A0 French and Spanish (separately!) to Czech English-speaking friends as informal exchanges for other languages they spoke within my first three years of teaching – again, I was C1 in both cases.

However, those teaching experiences felt quite different as I could speak only in L2 much more comfortably than I can in Polish. Having said that, I lacked a lot of functional classroom language as my own lessons when I was learning had been primarily conducted through English in the case of French and German, and were few and far between for Spanish!

Despite all of this experience, I still feel I need a lot more training to conduct Polish lessons in the way I want to.

English use in class

This varies a lot depending on the lesson, and has also generally reduced the second time I have taught the same topic this year (it’s my second academic year of doing a fairly similar sequence of lessons).

In vocabulary lessons, there is almost no English use. This is because the lessons primarily consist of drilling new language. As the items are almost all concrete, most of the meaning can be conveyed through pictures or the occasional mime.

In grammar lessons, there is a lot more English for two reasons:

  1. I am not confident with Polish grammatical terminology myself, meaning of necessity I use English terminology.
  2. As I am teaching absolute beginners and a lot of grammatical concepts are new to the students (such as cases), I have made the informed choice to use more English. This is the main type of lesson where English use has increased the second time round, rather than decreased.

In functional language lessons, for example ‘at a restaurant’, meaning can be conveyed through the context, pictures and mime. I include some translation exercises, mostly to check understanding. The main way is to get them to work with a partner and translate the whole dialogue into English once we have worked with it a little in Polish. I tend not to use English in this case, but they do.

Skills lessons are few and far between (see below) and when they do happen, I do a lot of translation for efficiency and ease of checking meaning – I suspect this is partly laziness on my part, partly lack of preparation, and partly lack of confidence.

To sum up, although I believe that a shared fluent language (L1 for most of my students) has an important place in the classroom, I don’t think that my students really need to speak as much English as they do in these lessons. It has improved a little this year as the same phrases consistently pop up and I have now memorised them, such as Twoja kolej / Your turn. Having said that, I am not systematic at introducing classroom or functional language in English lessons I teach either, and this is something I would definitely like to work on in both English and Polish lessons in the next year or so.

Maximising Polish use in lessons

Some of the techniques I use to ensure that Polish can be and is used systematically in lessons include:

  • activity routines which require little instruction, such as a 10-minute section at the beginning of every lesson where students revise from previous handouts and choose what to focus on themselves;
  • choosing language I am both familiar and comfortable with;
  • use of flashcards, particularly created and printed using Quizlet – these allow me to incorporate a wide range of activities with minimal set-up;
  • tables and clear board layout to show how grammar fits together (see example in next section);
  • jazz chants for memorization;
  • PowerPoint presentations which allow me to prepare language in advance;
  • a focus on demonstrations rather than instructions when setting up activities;
  • scripting instructions. However, this has slipped somewhat the second time I have taught lessons as I have become complacent: ‘It worked OK last time, so why wouldn’t it work OK this time.’ Erm, because I haven’t prepared in as much depth and last looked at the plan a year ago?! Really need to get on top of this!

Dealing with problems

Inevitably there are many times during lessons when my low level of Polish causes problems. I deal with these in a variety of ways:

  • Looking up language using Google Translate (selectively!), double-checking things in a Polish corpus and using bab.la, an all-in-one tool which I have recently discovered, containing a bilingual dictionary and corpus-based full sentence translations, great for checking how a word or phrase works in context.
  • Playing pronunciation using Google Translate, Quizlet or Forvo (a pronouncing dictionary, particularly good for names of places and people which aren’t in traditional dictionaries).
  • Facebooking a group of Polish-speaking friends with emergency questions I can’t answer elsewhere, for example when I realized I’d been teaching the word pierś/breast and not klatka piersowa/chest throughout the first lesson I taught on body parts, but the dictionary couldn’t help me! Needless to say, I didn’t make this mistake the second time round and I’ve never forgotten the difference 🙂
  • Admitting my mistakes as soon as I make them, and trying to correct them as quickly as possible. Beyond the Polish lessons, this is important as I’m teaching novice teachers and I think demonstrating that it’s OK when things go wrong is vital as long as I don’t need to do it too often 😉

One particularly proud moment was when I managed to teach an impromptu lesson on plurals. Only two students came to class that day, rather than the 6+ I was expecting. One of them had missed the previous lesson on body parts which I was planning to build on, so the revision stage was extended with the student who had been there teaching the one who was absent. In the meantime I looked up plural rules that I was previously only half confidence with myself, and built up a table on the board based on words we’d covered in class already, mostly body parts and foods. They spotted patterns in the way plurals are formed in different genders, including spelling changes, copied the table, tested each other, tried out a few other words, and memorised the table. There was no freer practice as we’d run out of time in the lesson and my creativity hadn’t stretched that far, but I was still pretty proud of my first impromptu Polish lesson.

Singular and plural table of Polish nouns on whiteboard

As a side note, I recognize that I’m privileged to have a small group of students who want to be there, and therefore don’t really have to deal with classroom management when I do have problems with the language. Loss of face is also minimised as I am the manager of all of my students/teachers and we have a strong relationship outside the lesson, which I think mitigates the effects of when things don’t go as planned in my lessons.

The impact of my B1 level on students’ learning

Summarising the background I have detailed above, I think the following are the main effects that my low level of proficiency have on my students.

I focus largely on language rather than skills as it is easier for me to check and control. These language structures are also often ‘easy’, for example looking at singular adjectives but not plural ones as I’m not really sure of the rules of plural adjectives myself.

Other areas I have noticed avoidance of are the alphabet and spelling-based activities, and minimal grammar input, meaning that my students don’t really have the building blocks to create and understand language independently outside the very controlled structures I have given them, which I think could impede their progress. My lack of confidence with classroom language means that it can be hard to introduce this to the students, and even harder to enforce use of Polish consistently when it could be used.

My pronunciation is sometimes problematic, including passing on my own mistakes. For example I recently spend 50 minutes drilling The sun is shining / Świeci słońce with a final /tsi:/ sound on the first word before realising it should be /tʃi/ just before the end of the lesson. In a survey I did for this presentation, one of my students said it can be confusing when she’s heard one way of pronouncing a word outside the lesson, then when she tries it out I correct it to a form she has only heard from me. Finally, if I don’t check emergent language carefully I can end up teaching it wrong, such as using the spelling Francia instead of Francja in a lesson on countries.

Benefits of me being B1

It’s not all bad!

I’m obviously still learning the language myself, which means that I can empathise very strongly with my students, and they can empathise with me. I provide a realistic model of what they can work towards with their own Polish if they choose too. This is in contrast to a highly proficient speaker/native speaker teacher which it can be hard for beginners to imagine they could ever emulate.

My problems with learning Polish are very recent, and I can normally still remember how I’ve overcome them or how important they are to overcome, passing this on to my students. I also focus on language in class which I’ve found particularly useful when living in Poland, so the lessons genuinely are survival Polish based on real needs rather than guesses.

Because we all share English as a common tongue, I can fall back on it when necessary. One of the students also said it means I can understand easily when they use English grammar with Polish words! Another said that if there was no English at all in the lessons they would be much harder.

A third commented that my low level of Polish means that my language is graded comfortably for them both in terms of speed and level. There is no running commentary on the lesson because I couldn’t produce one if I wanted to, and I use lots of gesture and demonstrations.

Training I still need

Based on all of this reflection, the main areas of training I think I still need as a B1 teacher of Polish are mostly language-based, covering the following areas:

  • useful exponents for classroom language, how to introduce them, and how to reinforce their use in class.
  • typical instructions I need, and how to vary them for talking to one student or a group (verb conjugations).
  • language about language (metalanguage and grammatical terminology) and how to present grammar in Polish to low-level students.

Training I’ve exploited

Methodological training I’ve received in the past has been very useful to me, and could be useful for B1 teachers of English and other languages:

  • how to demonstrate activities rather than give instructions.
  • a range of easy-to-set-up, easy-to-vary activities for a variety of purposes.
  • how to leverage technology like Quizlet and PowerPoint to support my language knowledge and add routine to lessons.
  • recognising and exploiting suitable reference tools for checking language, such as bilingual dictionaries, Google Translate (which can be good for quick and dirty work!), and corpora.
  • how to continue learning a language myself, including finding the time and getting the support I need to do this.
  • Methodology or language training?

So if you’re working with low-proficiency teachers, should you focus more on methodology or language?

I believe that methodology is probably an ‘easier win’ as a strong methodological awareness can carry a lot of the lesson, and is likely to be faster and easier to pick up and incorporate into lessons than overall language. As one of my students said, she would prefer an ‘amazing and inspirational teacher who’s B1 to a mediocre teacher who’s C1’. (Thanks!)

Having said that, both are needed to build confidence in the teacher. A higher level of English would give those teachers access to a lot more professional development too, as a lot of resources still only exist in English.

Find out more

If low levels of teacher proficiency in English is an area you’d like to continue to research, the following four sources could be useful:

  • Gerhard Erasmus presented an IATEFL webinar called ‘Managing and developing teachers with lower English proficiency’ in August 2018. You need to be an IATEFL member to watch the webinar recording in the member’s area (how to join).
  • Donald Freeman’s IATEFL 2015 plenary ‘Frozen in thought’ touched on the subject briefly in the ‘myth of proficiency as a goal’, and I believe he has written about it elsewhere. Lizzie Pinard summarised it on her blog. It is also included in that year’s Conference Selections, again available to members.
  • Damian Williams talked about Language development for teachers and an LDT Toolkit at IATEFL Birmingham 2016, a talk summarized on my blog (the second talk covered in the post) and (much more fully!) on Lizzie Pinard’s.
  • Cambridge Assessment English have a Language for Teaching course available at A2, B1, and B2, which covers both classroom and general English.

If you know of any other related resources, please do share them in the comments section.

After the fact

Since doing the talk eight days ago, I have taken a few hours to create a syllabus for next year’s Polish course. Following on from my reflections for IATEFL, I have based it more around a good quality Polish coursebook, making sure that I balance vocabulary, grammar and skills work much more. I’ve also tried to incorporate more homework to make sure that what we do in class will be as focused on using the language (not just remembering it/talking about it) as possible. I also plan to research more classroom language and return to scripting more of my instructions as part of my planning, if time permits. Watch this space to find out whether the new-look course increases the proficiency of my students any faster!

How to learn a language

It’s New Year’s Eve, a time when a lot of us make resolutions for the coming year. One of them may be to finally learn that language you’ve been meaning to work on for years. But where do you start?

I often describe myself as a language addict. These are the languages that I’ve had a go at learning so far and the levels I’ve reached (based on the CEFR):

  • C1/Advanced: French, German, Spanish
  • B1/Intermediate: Polish
  • A2+/Pre-intermediate: Czech, Russian
  • A1/High beginner: Italian, Mandarin
  • A0/Beginner: Greek, Thai, Bahasa Malay, Japanese, Maltese, Vietnamese, Lithuanian

It’s definitely true that learning one language helps you to learn another, but I wouldn’t say that I have any particular talent for language learning – just lots of tried and tested techniques, and many many hours of practice at it. Over time, this practice has become more focussed and more efficient. Here’s how…

(By the way, if you don’t want to work your way through this quite long blog post, you can download this one-page pdf summary instead.)

ŸMake it a habit

As with anything you want to add to your life, habit formation is the most important thing you can do.

5 minutes a day

Even if you’re super busy, you can definitely find 5 minutes each day (see below for how!) It adds up really quickly – in one week that’s 35 minutes. In a year, it’s 1825 minutes, or over 30 hours. That’s the equivalent of twenty 90-minute classes, or 10 weeks of lessons if you’re having them at our school 🙂

Record what you do

I have a calendar where I make a note of whether I’ve completed my daily habits. Since I started using it, I’m much more likely to do them, as I hate seeing a ‘X’. In this example, the ‘P’ in the top left corner means Polish:

Record achievements

Sneak it into your day

I’ve tried lots of different ways to do this. With Polish, I currently use a few apps in the mornings and read in the evenings before bed (see ‘surround yourself with it’). Again, this is all about habit formation – making it ‘normal’ makes it easier.

Memrise at breakfast

It takes me about 10 minutes to eat my breakfast. While I’m doing that, I work my way through four Memrise sets of Polish, one of Lithuanian and one of Mandarin. I always revise old vocabulary first, aiming for a minimum of 1500 points in each set to maintain my streak. If I haven’t hit 1500, I’ll learn a few new words. I love memrise because it uses the principles of spaced repetition to keep reminding me of vocabulary and testing my memory of it. Since I started using it about 8 years ago, the site reckons I’ve learnt 8836 words as of today – I won’t pretend I’ve remembered them all, but even if it’s only half of them, it’s still a lot of vocabulary!

Carry a few flashcards with you

Sentence cardsWhen I was learning Russian, I cut up bits of yellow paper to create flashcards – yellow because it makes me happy. One side had a sentence in Russian, and the other had some kind of prompt. This was generally a picture or series of pictures if I could think of one, but occasionally an English translation of one or two words from the sentence if I couldn’t.

Sandy's sentence card holder TM

Sandy’s sentence card holder TM

I kept 10-15 of these cards with me all the time, in a little pouch with two pockets. When I was on the bus or waiting somewhere I’d flick through them to test myself. When I thought I knew one, I’d put it in the second pocket. Back at home, I’d take out anything that was in the second pocket and add an equivalent number of cards from the pile that was waiting for me.

i know the ones on the left

Left = ‘known’, right = unknown

After a year, the pile of sentences I’d learnt was about 3cm tall. I would periodically test myself on the whole pile and see if I’d forgotten any of them – generally I’d still remember about 80-90% of them.

Use apps/websites when you’re waiting

If, unlike me, you have a smartphone, then building your vocabulary using language apps is probably a much more productive way to spend your waiting time than looking at social media (again) and pretty easy to fit into your day. Here are four I’ve tried:

  • Memrise (the one I’ve used almost every day for years)
    + Spaced repetition managed automatically
    + Some curated sites created by the company (look for XXX 1, 2, 3 e.g. Polish 1, Polish 2…)
    + Can create your own content
    + Can choose to ignore words if you don’t want/need to learn them (only via the website)
    + Unlimited range of languages/content, with more company-curated sets added all the time
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Not all sets have audio
    – Can be challenging to find the sets that work for you
  • Quizlet (the one I use as a teacher)
    + Quick and easy to create your own content
    + Unlimited range of languages/content
    + Can take other people’s content and edit it to suit you
    + ‘Star’ words to choose what’s most challenging/important for you
    + Fairly easy to find what you need (here’s some help if you’re learning English)
    + Audio automatically added
    + You can choose the games you play, including matching games, spelling, etc.
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can use it again offline on the app
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Although there is now a spaced repetition option, it’s pretty clunky
  • Duolingo (the one everyone else seems to use – I’m not a huge fan)
    + All content created by the company, so shouldn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can suggest alternative answers
    + Mostly sentence level
    + All content has audio
    +/- Limited languages available
    – No teaching before testing – you need to not give up easily
    – Not that helpful for beginners, as there are no language explanations
    – On Apple devices, (I think) you can test out of level 1, but have to earn gems to test out of other levels, so not ideal for higher-level learners either. On Android, I believe you can test out of any level
    – Multiple choice options often nonsensical, so don’t really test you
    – No ability to tailor what you’re learning
  • Lingodeer (my current favourite!)
    + All content created by the company, so generally doesn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can correct any mistakes which are there
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can study it again offline (great for flights!)
    + Very clear language explanations, available at the start of each category and by clicking on any word while in ‘test’ modes
    + Wide range of activity types
    + Can choose what to revise
    + Can ‘test out’ of whole sections at a time
    + All four skills tested, including chances to record yourself speaking and to write characters from Kanji and Mandarin
    + For Japanese, there’s a great ‘story’ function where you can listen to somebody and record yourself
    + Multiple choice options are logical and really make you think
    + Everything has audio, and the pictures are very cute 🙂
    + No annoying advertising or Freemium prompts!
    +/- Limited languages/content available, with about 8 languages at the moment (more than are listed on the site!), though more being added
    – Only available via the app, not on browsers
Repeat what you hear

Don’t just read or listen to it, say it. Having a go at pronouncing the language you hear makes your brain process it a little bit more, meaning you’re more likely to remember it. Listen and repeat improves your confidence with pronunciation over time. Read and repeat gets you experimenting with sound-spelling relationships. Try a few words or phrases each day while you’re doing other things, and again you’ll notice it building over time.

ŸŸSurround yourself with it

Even if you’re not living in a country where the language you want to learn is around you all the time, you can still add it to your life in lots of different ways.

Label your home

A classic 🙂 Here are some of my Russian labels:

Russian has taken over my fridge!

and a Polish man doing the same:

Make little posters or index cards

The process of categorising and copying information over to another piece of paper goes part way to helping you to remember it. By then sticking them up, you see it lots more times and remember it for longer. Here are some I made for Russian:

Index cards everywhere!Surrounded with postcards to be more interesting!

Read to read

Extensive reading is one of the best ways to improve your knowledge of a foreign language. I’ve been reading in Polish for about ten minutes every night before bed for 2.5 years now, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for learning. I started with the first Harry Potter book when I was a low A2 level, choosing it because I was familiar with the story and knew that would help me to understand more.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Polish cover)

Originally I could read 2 pages in about 10 minutes, and now I can read up to 6, depending on how tired I am. I estimate that I could understand about 10-20% of any double-page spread when I started, and now it’s about 70-80%.

Importantly, I read to read, not to learn vocabulary. My aim is to finish the book, not to understand everything. It takes a bit of a mindshift to do this, as you have to stop worrying about what you don’t understand and concentrate on what you do.

When I first tried to read a John Grisham book in German, I wrote down every word I didn’t know and translated it into English. After three pages or so of the book, I had around 150 words and felt pretty depressed – oddly enough, I stopped reading it! In Paraguay, I went to a weekly Spanish meeting. We took an article from the Economist and translated it word for word. This was the result, from which I don’t remember anything!

When I started reading Harry Potter, I only looked up words if they appeared repeatedly and felt important for the story, limiting it to 2-3 per double page. Now, if there aren’t any words in that category, I’ll pick one word to look up at random. I’ve now nearly finished book 4 and really look forward to it every night.

Writing a journal

Writing is the easiest of the four skills to neglect. Writing a journal worked really well for me in Russian as my teacher looked at it and replied each week.

Russian journal

Russian journal

With Polish, I wrote a couple of sentences a day for a few weeks, then gave up because nobody else was reading it. I almost never write in Polish, and this is something I need to change in 2019 if I want to pass the B1 exam I’m thinking about taking!

Podcasts and radio

Apparently there are now over 600,000 podcasts available, so there really is something for everyone. I experimented with listening to the news in other languages when I was at uni, but got bored with listening to the same things over and over again, especially considering I didn’t listen to the news in English. If you’re learning English, here’s an introduction to podcasts for language learning, including some of my favourites.

Alternatively, choose a radio station playing the kind of music or presenting the kind of programmes you like. This is particularly easy if you have a smart speaker – “Alexa, play radio station Antenne Bayern“. I’m now really good at traffic updates in Bavarian German 😉

As with reading, listen to listen, not to understand everything. You’ll understand more and more as you become familiar with the rhythms of the language and build up your vocabulary from other places (like the apps above).

Make it aesthetically pleasing

Do you prefer to look at a plain black folder or a multi-coloured one? What about a page of text or a page of pictures? By carefully choosing the things you use to learn a language, you’re more likely to want to look at them again.

Stationery that makes you smile
Two notebooks, both alike in dignity

Which one to buy? Both of course!

All of my language-learning notebooks have pictures on them, sometimes themed (like the Polski język ones I have here), sometimes just fun, like the ones I used for Russian above. At various times I have also bought a Kung Fu Panda and a Pirates of the Caribbean folder. Because I enjoy looking at them, I’m more likely to pick them up and use them.

Pictures – colour in printed ones or draw rubbish ones!

Whenever possible, use pictures to help you remember things – your brain responds to these much better than words. You can colour in ones you have printed, like these ones I used to help me learn daily routines in Czech:

Coloured in pictures to help me learn Czech daily routine

or draw your own ones, regardless of how rubbish you might think your own drawing is!

Sentence cards with pictures

Think about colours and layout

Laying out what you are learning in a consistent way does some of the work for your brain. Colours also attract the eye, and again can be used to help you to process information.

Show patterns

I often use layout to help me to remember grammar. With gendered words, I always have masculine on the left, feminine in the middle and neutral on the right. If I can remember the position, I can remember the gender.

Colour-coding mistakes can help you to focus on them without needing long explanations:

Deciphering the rewrite code

And you can combine both layout and colour, which is particularly good for grammar:

Index cards everywhere! Time time time...And here are stress patterns in Greek numbers:

Categorise languagef

As I said above, the process of categorising language helps your brain to process it, and therefore remember it for longer. Vocabulary is the easiest thing to categorise, but you can do it with phrases too. Here’s a page one of the two vocabulary notebooks I filled in a year of studying Russian:

My vocabulary notebook - English

Every page of the notebook had a fold down the middle so I could test myself.

I planned to do this with Polish, managed a couple of pages, then got bored and decided Memrise would be enough.

Highlight exceptions

Judicious highlighting helps your brain work out what to focus on. Highlighting letters or words (like in the picture above) helps you to notice what is different, and the extra attention you therefore pay to these exceptions or unusual things means you’ll remember them for longer. I find this works particularly well for spellings.

Make your brain work, but not too hard

Learning a language means you need to do some processing. The more processing you do with a single item, the more likely you are to remember it. However, it’s easy to get frustrated if you have to do too much processing – that’s when you end up giving up.

Give yourself as many ‘hooks’ as possible

Imagine a large, heavy picture you want to put on the wall. You use a single picture hook, and pretty quickly it falls down. Now use three or four – it stays up for a little while longer, but eventually it still falls down. Now use twenty hooks – it’s likely to stay there for much, much longer. And the bigger the hooks, the better.

The same is true of new language items, whether vocabulary or grammar. Here are some possible ‘hooks’:

  • Meaning
  • A situation/context
  • An image
  • Something that makes you laugh/surprises you
  • (Odd) connections to other things you already know
  • Translation – preferably at sentence level/within a larger context (this could be to other foreign languages you know, not just your native language(s))
  • Collocations for vocabulary/common verbs used with the structure for grammar
  • Examples in use – if you create them yourself and get them checked, the hooks will be bigger and stronger
  • Encounters – each time you see/hear the word, you’re adding a little hook
  • Using it yourself – saying/writing it adds a pretty big hook or makes the hooks that are already there bigger

Each ‘hook’ you give yourself keeps that bit of language anchored in your brain for longer and more securely.

Hide translations

Humans are lazy. We always take the easiest route. That means that if we see a word in a language we’re comfortable with, we’ll read that before we make the effort to process something more difficult, like the language we’re learning.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid translation entirely, as that can just make you feel frustrated. Instead, make your brain work harder to see the translations so that processing the foreign language becomes the easier route. Two ways I’ve done this are by writing the English in yellow pen:

English is on the right – look carefully!

and by writing it in tiny letters in a different part of the page, or on the other side if possible:

English is in tiny letters

Avoid arrows

When you get two answers the wrong way round in an exercise or copy two words next to the wrong definitions, it’s tempting to draw arrows to correct them instead of crossing them out. Don’t! This adds an extra step of processing, where your brain has to ‘undo’ what it first saw. It might not look as pretty (unless you use Tippex/whiteout) but it makes life easier for your brain! Number 5 in this picture is an example – I don’t remember what it means though!

Use monolingual dictionaries as soon as you can

Again, humans are lazy. I use Google Translate all the time, as do many of my students. But, and this is important, NOT for learning. For that I use a monolingual dictionary as soon as I can, preferably a learner’s dictionary if they exist.For Polish, I’ve been using PWN. For English I tend to recommend:

My university teachers would be pleased to hear this, as they used to tell us all the time to go monolingual, but it took me ages to listen to them. Now I prefer the information that I can find there, including collocations, example sentences, alternative uses, phrases, and (especially online) pronunciation and conjugations. It also provides extra reading practice, and the fact you have to process the language more means you are more likely to remember it more, or be more picky about which words you look up. If you’re a teacher, persevere with persuading your students – it’s worth the effort!

ŸBe proud of your mistakes

Mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they show that you are learning. As with reading to read, this can require a shift in your mindset, as far too many of us have been brought up thinking that mistakes are bad.

Collect them, highlight them

Try creating a ‘My favourite mistakes’ page. Once a week/after a lesson/when you’ve done some writing, choose one mistake you made which you know you make a lot. Add it to the page, along with the correction. In the correct version, highlight the bit that you had problems with. This will draw your attention to it. This photo shows problems I was having with Czech accents on words:

Rewrite them

With the journal writing I mentioned above, I was motivated enough and had enough time on my hands to rewrite my entries and colour-code the mistakes, which made a huge difference to the accuracy of my writing.

Colour-coded rewrites

Colour-coded rewrites

It was great to see how the things I was making mistakes with changed over time, even in the few weeks that I did this for.

ŸPersonalise language

Making the language you are learning feel like yours can be hugely motivating, and adds some of the ‘hooks’ mentioned above.

Use your own experiences and opinions

Personalise example sentences so they mean something to you. For example, only learn ‘I like chocolate’ if you actually do. If you don’t, change it to ‘I like cats’, ‘I like computer games’ or whatever is most relevant to your experience. You’ll remember it faster, and it adds another ‘hook’.

Learn what you need first

When learning a foreign language, I try to start with numbers and food, as these are normally the things I need first on arrival in a new country. If I can eat in a restaurant and understand prices, then I can get a long way. Phrases like ‘How are you?’ and ‘I’m ____ years old.’ are much less immediately relevant.

If you’re not sure what you might need first, consider working your way through a course (maybe online or using a book) and feel free to skip bits that don’t appeal.

Be selective

It’s easy to feel like you need to remember every new word or phrase you come across, but this is impossible. Choose the language which most appeals to you and/or which is most relevant. Start with ‘easy wins’ – the more you build up your vocabulary, the easier it is to understand things you read and listen to, and the more you’ll be able to learn new vocabulary and grammar from all the extensive reading and listening you’re doing (by surrounding yourself with the language as above).

Record phrases you like

When you’re listening to or reading something, write down words and phrases you like and want to use again. If you’re talking to somebody, ask them to repeat it so you can make a note of it. Again, by picking out what you’re interested in and things that appeal to you, you’re giving yourself more hooks.

ŸRise above the word

If you’re self-studying, it’s very easy to just learn lists and lists of vocabulary. While this is useful, in the long run, you need to do more to truly learn the language.

Look at chunks

When you’re reading, look at the words that appear around that new word you’ve just written down. Is there a preposition (in, on, from…) after the word? Is there an adjective before it? Are there other words a bit further away in the sentence that might be connected? These are all hook that can help you to better use new language.

Write out conversations

Take grammar structures you’ve learnt and have a go at using them in conversations. Would the other person in the conversation use the same grammar to reply? For example, in English a present perfect question can be followed by a past simple reply. Can you make the structure shorter or add to it in any way? For example, English relative clauses can often be reduced, or added into other sentences. If you can, ask somebody to check the conversation for you, or have a go at recording it with somebody else you know who’s learning the language.

Mini dictations

Take one sentence of something you’ve listened to and use it as a dictation. If there’s a transcript for the audio, or lyrics for a song, check how correct you were. This is a great way to spot little grammar mistakes you’re making, and to better understand the rhythms of the spoken language.

Try out a corpus

A corpus is a collection of language as it is really used. For learners, this can help you to expand your understanding of particular items of vocabulary or grammar structures. My favourite English (and Spanish/Portuguese) corpus tool is the collection at BYU, particularly the new ‘word’ function. This is a snippet – there’s far more information as you scroll down the page:

BYU corpus word feature screenshot

Lizzie Pinard has an introduction to using www.wordandphrase.info/academic which shows you a lot of the features.

I use NKJP for Polish, for example to check whether I’ve chosen the right verb to go with a particular noun.

Be patient

Nobody learns anything overnight. But with language learning people seem to find that particularly frustrating – ‘I already speak my language. Why can’t I learn this one?’ Patience is key to getting to the level you want to achieve.

Grammar will come – don’t agonise over it

If you’ve read this whole post, you’ll notice that mentions of grammar are few and far between. Although I do have a grammar book, I only glance at it occasionally, and I’ve never done a grammar exercise in Polish. My grammar has improved though, through exposure, reading snippets of grammar explanations, and trying to notice patterns. Reading and listening to as much of the language as possible will help you to develop an instinct for correct grammar. Exercises might help you get there a bit faster, but they’re not essential.

Think about the process of children learning

Think about how children learn their first language. They start with essential everyday words, like ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then add vocabulary they need all the time, then add grammar later. It takes them a couple of years before they say anything, years when they have 24/7 exposure to the language they’re learning. When we learn a foreign language, we generally expect to speak from day one, and don’t give ourselves a ‘silent period’ to absorb what we’ve been exposed to before we have to produce it.

Children also make lots of mistakes, but they persevere, and eventually they speak the language they need to the level they need to in their everyday levels, providing the conditions are right for them.

It’s a long process, and it’s not easy, but it’s worth it in the end.

Be kind to yourself

Languages are big, complicated beasts from the outside. It can feel pretty daunting when you’re starting out. But if you’re kind to yourself, if you allow yourself to experiment, to make mistakes, and to try out the new language you’ve learnt without fearing failure, you’ll make it. As with everything in life, there’s no point beating yourself up if you find something challenging – all that does is makes you feel depressed. It doesn’t actually make you learn any more effectively.

ŸDon’t listen to me!

If you were patient enough to read the whole post, you’ll see that although I’ve tried everything I’ve described, I don’t do all of it now. Not everything works for everybody, and not everything works all the time. Be flexible with your learning, experiment, and work out what works for you. That way, you’ll enjoy the process a whole lot more.

Good luck!

P.S.

These tips are all based on my own experience. I know there’s science behind at least some of them, but I’m feeling too lazy to find the links! If you feel like sharing them, please do…

Questions

As an experienced language learner, I know that it’s important for me to speak as much as possible in order to improve my language. That can be easier said than done though (no pun intended).

Since I came back to Poland after a few weeks away this summer, I’ve noticed I’m much more confident when speaking Polish. There’s been a real difference in my interactions, which I think marks a step change in my progress. Reading Scott Thornbury’s recent post W is for (language learning in) the Wild, I finally realised what this difference is: questions.

Let me explain.

In my first year in Poland, I went through somewhat of a silent period. Having previously learnt Czech and Russian really helped my understanding of Polish, since they are all Slavic languages. However, it meant that whenever I spoke, it was some kind of weird mix of all three languages, and people often struggled to understand me. Without realising what was happening, I mostly stopped trying to interact, and would switch to English whenever I knew it was possible.

Last summer, I went for a weekend away with organised by my flamenco teacher in Bydgoszcz. At least half of the people on the trip couldn’t speak English, but they were curious about why I was there, and wanted to share their own experiences of English and/or the UK – many of them have family who live there. They were also very patient with me, and supported my efforts to communicate.

A few fellow flamenco learners in the beautiful surroundings of Gzin

A couple of weeks after that I moved into my new flat, and shared it for six weeks with the previous owners, who didn’t speak English. I’ve written previously about that experience of immersion and how much it helped my confidence.

Despite these positive experiences, I still felt like I could only make statements, or follow where my conversation partner led.

Now I’ve realised that I’ve started to be able to instigate conversations too, because I’ve begun to experiment with asking questions. I’m still not hugely confident with the grammar of questions, and mostly stick to question words and rising intonation, but I now feel like I can steer what’s happening or fill lulls in the conversation when my conversation partner has run out of things to ask. It also now feels rather less like the Spanish inquisition.

What particularly made me think in Scott’s post was the fact that the Japanese hitchhiker he describes had been prompted to use a particular list of questions by his English teacher. Maybe I should come up with a list of Polish questions that I can use in a variety of situations, to help improve my confidence and make it easier to start conversations.

Have you ever done anything like that with your students? What kind of questions would you include on the list?

Minor tweaks, major changes

For the last couple of weeks one of my Ukrainian friends was staying with me. I love spending long periods of time chatting with non-native speakers of English, because it helps me to notice all kinds of things about my language which would probably never occur to me otherwise.

One of our discussions ended up being centred around ‘go’, and how adding or subtracting a single word to certain collocations could completely change the meaning, at least as far as I could tell without checking it in any reference materials.

Look at the photos below. Imagine you are talking to your friends the day after the photo was taken, telling them about it. Write one sentence that you would use to tell your friends about what you were doing. (There are 9 of them, so it’ll be easier to remember if you write them!) Start each sentence with ‘I went…’

1. You’re one of the girls in the photo.

Ballet class

Image from Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

2. You’re in the audience watching this.

Ballet performance

Image from Pixabay

3. You’re one of the people in the club.

Club in Mexico

Image from Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

4. You’re one of the people in the couple.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

5. You’re one of the people on the rink.

Ice Skating

Image from Wikimedia Commons

6. You’re one of the children.

Ice skating lessons

Image from Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

7. You’re in the audience.

Ice Skating show

Image from Wikimedia commons

8. You’re one of the people in the picture.

Football training

Image from Pixabay

9. You’re in the crowd.

Football friendly

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Hopefully you now have a list that looks a bit like this:

  1. I went to ballet.
  2. I went to the ballet.
  3. I went dancing.
  4. I went to dancing.
  5. I went ice skating.
  6. I went to ice skating.
  7. I went to the ice skating.
  8. I went to football.
  9. I went to the football.

I realised a few things when we were having this discussion:

  • I don’t think I would use the words ‘classes’ or ‘lessons’ in any of these examples, just the preposition ‘to’.
  • One little word, like ‘to’, can completely change the meaning of the sentence. (I knew that already, but hadn’t come across such a clear example outside the realm of articles before.)
  • I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a discussion like this with my students.
  • I really should do more work with contrastive forms whenever I can.

What sentences did you come up with? What things have you realised about English or your own language recently?

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