Prague Pavel studies English by regularly going over his coursebook and the grammar classic ‘English Grammar in Use’. Letná Lucka goes out to cafes and bars and speaks with foreigners in Prague. Smíchov Simona prefers to chill out at home and watch films in English and read the lyrics to her favourite Katy Perry songs. Who do you think is the better language learner and who do you believe will make the most progress?
Some language learners only just want to study English grammar and vocabulary, but occasionally it’s worthwhile to stop and ask yourself how you can focus better on what is most important. Of course everyone has their own preferences in how they study a language, but there are some interesting points we can take from looking at Pavel, Lucka and Simona.
I’ve met many students who learnt the traditional grammar-first way. At school this may have meant lots of grammar tests and a strong emphasis on not making mistakes. Quite often there wasn’t much discussion, or if there was, it was concerned with the rules of English grammar. Vocabulary was taught in lists, with one single English word having a single Czech equivalent. Pavel is a good example of this kind of learner.
On the positive side, I’ve found the grammar-first learner to be hard-working and accurate in how they speak and write. However, on the down side, learners such as Pavel miss out on something that Lucka and Simona do as part of their language learning.
Study v. Real Interaction
In cases where you have a coursebook which provides a good example of natural English, on top of your favourite grammar book of exercises, this can be a very good basis for learning. There are a few coursebooks these days which have really natural language, and I think this is partly why the quality of spoken English is improving in the Czech Republic, at least among the people I meet.
However, if you are just going over your coursebook and your favourite grammar book, you’re studying English but missing out on the opportunity for real interaction.
The other thing is that your coursebooks are graded for your level. So if you’re intermediate you’re probably still learning that we use auxiliaries (eg do, have) to make questions. For example:
- Did you have a good day?
- Are you going to the party tonight?
Regarding our example students above, Lucka and Simona interact in English and get exposed to language that Pavel’s English textbook has chosen not to teach him. So at a much earlier time, Lucka and Simona come across English which is more authentic. Lucka might hear her British friend in a cafe drop the auxiliaries when asking her about her day:
- Had a good day?
- Going to the party tonight?
- You’re going to the party tonight?
- You going to the party tonight?
That’s one feature of spoken English which is rarely taught in the coursebooks. In addition, by getting real interactions going, you may also notice the importance of pronunciation in how we tell a story or ask questions like the ones above.
It’s hard to say where study stops and real interaction and communication begins, but if you want to sound natural and communicate better, then at some stage you’ll need to put your grammar books down. In Lucka’s case this means going out and having a real dialogue with people in bars and cafes. Simona chooses to get exposure to real language by blending her interests (eg cinema, music) with English (watching American movies, trying to understand what her favourite songs are about).
I believe Pavel, Lucka and Simona will all make progress, but the students who ‘study’ the language AND then go out and practise it in some way are the ones who make the most progress.
What else? Students like Pavel tend to be annoyed with making mistakes whereas students like Simona don’t really care about this. Who do you think will be more confident in speaking English in two years’ time? Carol Dweck wrote a whole book on this – those who see mistakes as a natural part of the learning process will ultimately make the most progress.
I’ve heard lots of learners say they were ‘advanced’ and yet when they arrived in Britain they didn’t understand what native speakers were saying! What does that say about how English is taught in some schools? I often meet students who are really worried about grammar, but if you want to understand – and be understood – you need to look at vocabulary much more, and also have a stronger awareness of how we say things.
English is a lexically-rich language. The vocabulary goes beyond lists of single words, and in fact includes words that ‘go together’ to form collocations (eg phrasal verbs, idioms), a major feature of the language.
Just today I was speaking with an American friend at a cafe who used these expressions during our chat:
- I got you (= I understand)
- I hear you (= I understand/accept what you’re saying/I agree with what you’re saying)
- Know what I’m saying? (to check that I see his point)
- What did you get up to? (= what did you do?)
- Me – How about a coffee? (making a suggestion)
- Friend – Yeah, I’m up for it. (= that’s a good idea/sounds good)
Again, it all helps to improve your understanding of English, but if you think that you can’t speak with others in the real world until that day you’re ‘advanced’, well how much longer will you be waiting for that day to come?
Prague is full of foreigners who are native speakers of English and there are also lots of professionals from Scandanavia, Germany and other countries who speak English very well. Why not invite them for a coffee and have some real, enjoyable communication?
david [at] GetIntoEnglish [dot] com