Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Learning English

Oxford Dictionaries estimates there are about 750,000 English words in the English language. Other resources figure the total number is over a million words, but no source claims their estimate is accurate. Well, whatever the number, that’s a lot of words and frankly you can communicate quite well with a lot less. For example,

I’m a native English speaker and although I have some favorite esoteric or unusual words I enjoy using, the fact is, I can communicate effectively with a limited vocabulary of about 1500 - 2000 words in most of the non-English speaking countries I visit. Of course not just any English words, but words that have been intelligently selected and assembled into a language pool that is easy to learn, easy to use, and travels well. So, I’ve been investigating English language resources and although I’m not a trained linguist I’ve discovered some aspects of English Language study that I going to talk to you about.

First, let’s take a look at the very general concept of “English Conversation”. The term “Conversation” sounds casual, friendly, and easy to learn. In actuality it may be the most difficult aspect of English for a student to learn to use. Nevertheless, “English Conversation” is regularly marketed and delivered by virtually every Language school in Japan and throughout Asia. It’s delivered in company classes, coffee shops, night school, weekend classes, and cram schools by tutors, teachers, instructors, professors, and electronically by Skype, cellphone, interactive apps, and DVD programs. That’s a lot of English Conversation...but,

Despite the massive amount of “English Conversation” marketing & delivery taking place, many adult students of English that I meet here in Japan, report frustrating results when they travel outside Japan for business or pleasure. Curiously the difficulty they experience is not with the content of a business Speech, Presentation, or Seminar. Typically, the difficulty is with the casual English Conversation that follows the main program. It may be called table-talk, small group conversations, “off-the-cuff” remarks and so-on. So the casual, friendly, low-key, “English Conversation” that is regularly sold, delivered, and devoured in mega-doses at home is, for some reason, lost in translation on location. Why is that a typical result, the most common English language comment I hear?

Business Presentations, Seminars, Keynote Speeches and the like, are structured. They have a central point to present. They’re designed to be delivered in a somewhat logical progression. The information generally builds on previous information. There is frequently a beginning, middle, and end. There is a point to the event, a goal to be reached, and satisfying or not, it’s typically accomplished with a slide show. These events are rarely high-budget Productions, but they succeed in communicating ideas. On the contrary,

Typical “English Conversation” has little strategy or logical progression of information from the beginning to an unforeseen end. Frankly, typical “English Conversation” rambles around. It often follows no logic, has no goal or endpoint, no satisfying moral or punch-line. Often it exists to fill time between other events. Sometimes it’s controlled by the loudest person, sometimes control is passed around the group. A Conversation can wander over many subjects, with the topic under discussion abruptly changing... usually without notice. Now,

How can an English teacher, trainer, or coach prepare a student for that unstructured communication experience? Not easily and that’s simply a fact of life not a criticism of English instructors worldwide.

You see, “English Conversation” is not simply English spoken with a smile. It’s an unstructured style of conversation without rules, no end other then available time, frequently containing the hurdles of metaphor, analogy, and figures of speech. It’s often taken hostage by one individual, and that’s open to interruption at any time. It has the potential of building relationships but frequently fails especially if language skills and comprehension are weak. In this instance, English Conversation becomes a ‘spectator sport’ and the ‘Spectator’ doesn’t win.

So, here’s some suggestions for you students of “English Conversation”.

First, adopt a new attitude regarding your “English Conversation”. Rather than seeing it as your immediate goal, think of it as an evolutionary goal, an evolutionary result. Because that’s how Conversational skills are developed by Native English speakers… should it be any different for you?

Second, take more control of your English lessons. Most students happily follow the path designed for them by their English school or teacher. I think that you should decide the focus of your English Education. What ‘core’ vocabulary do you
need to function at school or work? It’s time for you to get more involved in designing your study of English. Focus on your English needs and be specific,

Begin by asking yourself: What’s important to me? My Job? Profession? A Sport? Technical skills? Social communication? You decide! Then communicate that information to your Teacher. You may not “need” all the English that you’re now being taught. Maybe it’s too general, so refocus your English education for better personal results. Build a core of words and phrases that are important to you. The confidence that comes from learning & using those words will encourage you to reach out for more words and that’s how to grow your English ability. Your language will expand enthusiastically and naturally.

Your “English Conversation” ability is partly a result of the choices you make about the English you study. Make your choices specific and personal to allow you to talk about the things you’re interested in talking about. Then talk about them, frequently.

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