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Learning Languages Effectively and Joyfully: Q and A with a Polyglot

in Teaching

Language coach Miri Mikeska helps other language enthusiasts become polyglots like himself. Let’s see what he has to say about functional learning habits and why he gave up his career job to become a travelling teacher.

Hi Miri, it’s great to have you here on the ELTABB Journal! Let’s start right away with the first question.

What motivated you to become a polyglot, and when did you start learning languages?

Miri: I’ve always admired people who lived abroad and could speak more than one language. They were heroes to me. However, having luckily passed my A-levels in English and German at high school, I became very busy with my future career plans—studying in the UK, getting an interesting job at BMW in Munich and starting my own business afterward. 

Four years ago I came back to languages while travelling for almost a year. I had no better strategy than learning key phrases when watching films and talking to people. I met many people, and this was just an amazing time I had. My motivation was high, but the learning process was truly spontaneous and simple. 

How many languages do you speak? Are you equally fluent in all of them?

Miri: I do speak 11 languages and I am not equally fluent in all of them. Not at the same time. It is a constant process of learning, forgetting and refreshing. There is a nice quote:

A foreign language is like a frail, delicate muscle. If you do not use it, it weakens. Jhumpa Lahiri

I am usually fluent in the seven languages that I speak regularly. I am at the stage when learning a new language seems easier than maintaining the languages I already know.

Once learnt well and practised, the language is not possible to really forget. Even my grandma remembers some poems in a foreign language from elementary school. What we lose quickly is the ability of so-called ‘active recall’. I am sure you know what I mean. It is when you can understand but cannot talk. It is useful to know some strategies of how to refresh the language just before you need it.

What do you think are the biggest mistakes language learners make when starting to learn a new language?

Miri: We are taught to be perfectionists and as a result, we are afraid to make mistakes so we avoid talking in a new language from the early beginning. We postpone speaking and learn more and more theory without actually practising. Nobody has learnt sports or dancing by only learning the theory. Why do we believe it could work for languages? Furthermore, many of us tend to be highly conservative in terms of learning habits. 

According to a Eurobarometer survey, in many European countries, up to 80-90% of learners have failed to learn languages at school. But still, it is difficult for us to admit it and change some of our old learning habits for new ones, proven by neuroscience as well as both polyglots and memory athletes.

What would you say to someone who wants or needs to learn a new language but may not have a lot of time or energy to invest?

Miri: I would ask a few simple questions: 

  1. What level, skills and vocabulary do you really need and until when? Make it lean. Learn less overall, but focus on what is most important with more repetition and practice. Write down an action plan for 30, 60, 90 days.
  2. Can you find 15-30 min in your schedule to learn (almost) every day in the upcoming 3-6 months? Start with a few minutes daily and make it a durable habit—a part of your life—but in a way that you will not give up, feeling unhappy and overwhelmed.
  3. What makes you happy in your life? Do you love travelling, films, theatre, music, sports or just getting a beer with a couple of fun people after work? Connect all these to your learning experience. You will see the magic!
  4. Can you find people to learn, practise with and keep you motivated in the long term? An active social life, study groups, tandems, meet-ups, couchsurfing, social media…language is all about communication. Learning languages without practising is like learning dancing without dancing. Start with mimicking and repeating out loud, speaking to yourself, then engaging in short conversations online and offline. Prepare phrases in advance. Speak regularly.

Analog or digital learning: which do you think works better and why?

Miri: At the beginning, it is crucial to listen to the sounds of the new language with many repetitions in order to adapt your ears. Any analog tools—texts, textbooks and books—will be almost useless unless one can listen to it at the same time. The technique is called audio-assisted reading and it works great. 

On my way to B1-B2 level, I use YouTube lessons a lot for the same reasons—to hear the pronunciation of native speakers. On YouTube, I can easily search for dialogues and phrases which are exactly relevant to my interests and learning goals. 

I could not learn as fast as I do without digital content, flashcards and dictionaries. At the same time, I handwrite some of my notes or when using another magic—the keyword technique. Handwriting promotes memory recall better than typing. Some drawing helps too.

But if one decides to achieve C1-C2 level, it will not be possible without extensive reading. To sum up, it is important to know when to choose digital and analog learning. Doing both is a winning combination for me. 

In your workshops, you focus on brain-friendly learning. Can you tell us more about that?

Miri: When I researched the neuroscience behind the learning strategies of the best polyglots and memory athletes, the game for me changed completely. Language learning is a constant process that takes at least a few months even for experienced learners. It can be effective only when it goes hand-in-hand with our predispositions. 

That is why I focus on the best 5+1 proven neuroscience techniques which take advantage of the strengths of the human brain, unlike many traditional ways of learning. By using them, my students become fluent in a language in 3-6 months—similar to what an average polyglot is able to do.

Before becoming a language coach, you worked for big companies like Bosch and BMW. Why did you change careers, and what is your mission?

Miri: My childhood dream came true at BMW; it was nice to be part of a big family. Generally, if I can learn what I love, I am happy. Once I feel it is time to make a change to learn something new, it is important to step out, choose the less comfortable path and make a change to continue my self-development.

I am fascinated by the human brain, and I love to talk to people from all over the world and prove that the impossible is easily possible—that everyone can be fluent in 3-6 months. I also like to be flexible and able to travel a lot.

That is exactly what I combine through language coaching. I can make many people happy and meet my needs.

What do you think are the greatest benefits of speaking multiple languages? Do you think that polyglots make the world a better place?

Miri: The world becomes one. It is a life-changing and enlightening experience: a way to learn deeply the truth about human beings. To understand who we are. 

Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” 🙂 

The interview was conducted by Sandra Roggenkamp.

Hyperpolyglot Miri Mikeska helps Berliners become fluent by using modern learning methods and neuroscientific techniques. He says that everyone can learn languages fast if willing to adapt to the new, brain-friendly habits. His dream is to remove myths about language learning.

 

All at Sea in the Classroom? 5 Ways to Save your Lesson when Things go Wrong

in Teaching

You came away from your ELTABB workshop last Saturday feeling enthused and inspired – it’s given you lots of new ideas to try out in the classroom. You’ve worked hard to prepare some innovative and exciting activities for your students. You even secretly feel that you could be the next Scott Thornbury…

Fast forward to Monday. You begin teaching the lesson but start to have a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you continue. Your students look at you blankly – they’re not responding. You sense some irritation. You suddenly realise that your lesson plan isn’t working. It’s time to press the stop button.

Let’s be honest – we’ve all been there. It’s probably not your fault. You don’t know what your students have been going through prior to your lesson. Have they had a bad morning? A problem with their boss? A stressful meeting? Perhaps they are adults who don’t have a choice to be there or not.

Sometimes you just have to read the room and react accordingly – and that usually means a spontaneous change of plan.

So, what do you do next?

Here are my suggestions for what to do when your lesson goes wrong (all these activities can be used online):

1. Books

Two books I always carry around with me are Five-Minute Activities by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright and Five-Minute Activities for Business English by Paul Emmerson and Nick Hamilton. They’re great to dip into if you’re looking for a warmer or to fill in time at the end of the lesson. You can develop the activities so that they last longer than five minutes.

Sample activity: ‘I would like to be a giraffe’. Write down the following words on the board:

giraffe/dog/cat/lion

Each student decides which of these they would prefer to be and tells their neighbour why.

2. Have a Plan B that contrasts with your Plan A

Sometimes I’ve prepared a speaking lesson and the students don’t want to talk. In this situation I’ve used the Guardian articles and Business Spotlight articles from www.onestopenglish.com (currently free until 30 June 2020).

At other times I’ve prepared a worksheet and the students are not interested in it. As an alternative, I’ve used questions from www.eslconversationquestions.com

I also recommend the books by Larry Pitts.

3. A critical thinking activity

Pick a topic – for example, 30 places to visit in Berlin. Ask the students for ideas for the list. Write them on the board, and then give them a series of questions to discuss: What are the three most important places to visit? What about three places to avoid? How about the three most suitable places for a teenager, a student of architecture, someone interested in history, and so on?

A very good introduction as to how to structure a critical thinking task can be found here:

Ensure that your students explain why they’ve made their choices. I’m sure you can think of many more questions to ask.

4. Grammar Auction

Students are given a list of grammar sentences and then bid for the correct ones. Tip: use grammar mistakes made by students in recent classes.

This article explains how to prepare a grammar auction:

https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/grammar-auction

I have a notebook where I keep a record of mistakes made by my students in recent classes. This gives me the opportunity to tailor the auction so that it can also be used as a means of revision.

5. Noughts and Crosses

An extension of ‘taboo’ – students get a nought or a cross when they correctly guess a word. Tip: ask the students to write the words down on cards before the game starts. A full description of the game can be found here:

Tic Tac Toe

I would suggest that you use it to revise vocabulary. Again, use your notebook to refer to new words learned in recent lessons – or you can ask the students to write down the words you’ve taught them on cards. You can then place the cards face down on a table – students can choose a card from the middle, top right, etc.

If you are reading this and have any more ideas, then please feel free to write the next post about five more activities you can do. I look forward to reading it!

Workshop Review: “Be a Flamingo in a Flock of Pigeons” – Creative Teaching with Antonia Clare

in Teaching

Today has been a day of Cs – from the ‘Mini C’ of personal creativity to the ‘Big C’ of creative genius and beyond to a greater, shadowy C that had been lurking just out of sight but that today had its first tangible impact on our lives – the Corona Virus.

It was the day of the ELTABB AGM in the afternoon, following a morning workshop by Antonia Clare – writer, trainer and co-author of Total English and Speakout.

It was also this workshop that had been affected by the virus. Every introduction was punctuated by a peculiar half-dance, as participants wondered at the appropriateness of shaking hands. Having recently returned from a trip to northern Italy (to where the virus has spread), Antonia found herself in self-imposed quarantine in the UK, unable to join us in person.

Doubtless, there was much hair-pulling and screaming behind-the-scenes. But the ELTABB organisers and Antonia had arranged a video-conferencing solution. This was accomplished with calm panache and totally devoid of technical difficulties. (I will leave it to the reader to insert a computer-virus pun).

The solution provided us with our first lesson in creativity: It is not all about art and poetry – it is also about adapting to the unforeseen and being able to think on one’s feet.

Inspiration and the ‘internal syllabus’

Entitled “Be a Flamingo in a Flock of Pigeons” the aim of the workshop was to help English-language teachers understand the benefits of creativity. Not only for making lessons that are memorable but as a crucial aspect of language acquisition itself.

Starting with the maxim that ‘inspiration is everywhere’, we quickly grasped the advantges of allowing such inspiration into our lessons. Learners acquire language best when confronted with the unusual presented on a scaffolding of what they already know.

(This is something I can attest to. A number of my friends complained about Duolingo making them learn “Der Bär trägt seinen Hut”. In doing so they used the tricky masculine accusative possessive perfectly).

Each learner also has their own ‘internal syllabus’ – whatever they want to learn for their personal lives. When creativity is encouraged, they are able to tailor their learning to this syllabus, and lessons become more worthwhile.

Activity time: combining language with physical and visual elements

By enhancing her talk with numerous creative activities, Antonia showed herself to be quite the flamingo. She was able to keep a Saturday-morning audience engaged and ensured that the lessons we learned would be remembered for a long time to come.

For ‘stress statues’ we had to stand in lines, either crouched or upright depending on the stress patterns of particular words.

Language arising from the all-to-common “How was your week?” question (notorious for eliciting nothing but silence from shy teenagers) can be better produced by showing stock photos of hands or feet and asking questions such as “How does this person feel?”, “What have they done today?”, “Do they have any regrets?”

Such activities reminded us that stories are easier to remember than facts – a narrative will be clearer in a learner’s memory than a series of dry facts.

Involving emotions through such stories is just one reason to be creative; creativity also introduces higher-order thinking to the classroom. It helps students to use their language in a practical sense to create meaning and helps us as teachers stand out – to be the iconic flamingos.

However, there can be barriers to such creativity in the classroom: from a lack of time to environmental obstacles (such as a lack of equipment) or cultural mores.

The workshop finished with team brainstorming and sharing of methods to overcome such problems, and a reminder of how we can nurture creativity – such as by focussing our syllabuses on skills and capabilities rather than technical content.

Activities from the workshop – suitable for classroom use

All the activities come from the forthcoming book The Creative Teacher’s Compendium: An A-Z of creative activities for the language classroom by Antonia Clare and Alan Marsh (Pavilion ELT).

Stress statues

Groups of up to five people line up. They each represent a syllable in a word and must then crouch or stand up depending on whether their syllable is stressed or unstressed. Example: de-CI-sive = crouch, stand, crouch. This can help learners with phonetics, and also gets them moving, breaking up their desk-time and introducing variation to the lesson.

A favourite possession

Students each draw their favourite possession, then show their picture to others. The others must guess what the possession is and what makes it a treasure. This gets learners ‘thinking around’ a topic, starts conversations, and elicits more language than a simple description.

Hands and feet

A collection of photographs of hands and feet are shown on the board. The learners must consider a series of questions about this person, from the simple – “How old are they?”, “How was their day?” – to the more complex or personal – “What do they regret?”.

This uses language similar to that learners would use when talking about themselves. Students are more likely to feel comfortable talking about a ‘character’ than about themselves. As a consequence, more personal topics that might otherwise be unsuitable can be broached.

The game can continue with students having to introduce their chosen person to each other as though at a party. Their partner then has to guess which pair of hands and feet they are referring to. This places the language into conversation, giving the exercise a practical element.

Strangers on a train

Similar to the hands and feet activity, students must roleplay being strangers who meet on a train and start talking after one spills coffee over the other.

Again, this uses characters, allowing the students to feel more comfortable talking about topics that they may not normally want to talk about, or which they find more interesting (“I just got out of prison for killing somebody.” / “I work for NASA”).

If the teacher wishes to practise select vocabulary or encourage competition, then an alternative variant can be used – giving each student a card with a word or phrase that they must work into their conversation.

Yes or No game

Learners have to answer a series of questions without using the words ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Example questions included “Do you like ice cream?”, “Have you ever lost your temper in public?” and, of course, “Are you ready to start the game?”.

This is both surprisingly easy to do, and surprisingly easy to fail if you don’t pay attention. It also encourages students to use longer sentences and use a variety of affirmations and denials.

(The Irish language has no words for yes and no, and I once heard an Irish speaker responding to a series of questions in English. It felt frustratingly like they were playing this game very well!)

Five things in my kitchen

Each learner writes down five things that somebody would find in their kitchen. They must then choose one and think about how it is similar to themselves, explaining the reasons to their partner.

This turns a fairly dry vocab exercise into an imaginative (and tricky) story-telling game.

Have fun being the flamingo in a flock of pigeons! (Standing on one leg from time to time is highly recommended but entirely optional.)

Task-Based Learning: What it can Do for ESL Students and why Repetition Makes it Even Better

in Teaching

The idea of task-based learning (TBL) is to create a ‘realistic’ learning environment in order to help language students prepare for real-life situations. While this in itself motivates learners to speak, studies suggest that immediate repetition of ‘real-world’ tasks may have further beneficial effects.

TBL: learning through meaning

Since its rise in popularity, task-based learning has become prominent in recent language teaching pedagogy. Unlike form-focused approaches, TBL places the communicative focus on meaning. Through language production, learners may notice ‘gaps’ between what they want to say and what is produced.

By detecting those disparities, students learn to give attention to the repair and replacement of the language for improvement on subsequent occasions.
The effect of this shows in language complexity, accuracy, and fluency (CAF).

Why speaking matters

Swain (1995) states that:

The activity of producing the target language may prompt second language learners to consciously recognize some of their linguistic problems.

(p. 126)

As Swain suggests, without output, speakers are unable to ‘practise’ the language and, in turn, notice discrepancies within their interlanguage system.

Furthermore, when gaps between what is said and what a learner wants to say are noticed, psycholinguistic processes are likely to be prompted to merge that newly acquired knowledge into the speaker’s interlanguage system.

This means that students who self-monitor their progress through speaking should improve automatically with practice.

But before we move on, what actually makes a valuable speaking ‘task’ in TBL?

Different types of ‘tasks’

Skehan (1998, p. 95) combines several definitions and takes the most prominent features to create an overarching definition:

a task is an activity in which:

  • meaning is primary
  • there is some sort of communication problem to solve
  • there is some sort of relationship to comparable real-world activities
  • task completion has some priority
  • the assessment of the task is in terms of outcome.”

Besides that, there is another type of ‘task’ claiming to replicate the meaning-oriented language of everyday situations. These tasks are called ‘pedagogical’ tasks.

Ellis (2003, p. 347) describes them as “designed to elicit communicative language use in the classroom, e.g. Spot-the-difference. They do not bear any resemblance to real-world tasks although they are intended to lead to patterns of language use similar to those found in the real world.”

Despite the meaningfulness of communication present in pedagogical tasks, the language that arises through them cannot be directly compared to the language a learner needs to complete tasks in the real world, as these are semantically and pragmatically different in nature.

TBL and repetition in language learning

So far, it is apparent that through interaction in meaning-focused, communicative tasks, learners engage in cognitive processes which seem to help monitor their language (Levelt, 1989, p. 460). Also, they help them notice language discrepancies in their interlanguage (Swain, 1995, p. 126).

Moreover, it seems that, through the repetition of a task, the cognitive work through prior conceptual processing is more accessible on subsequent occasions. This, in turn, most likely promotes language production and deeper acquisition.

If these assumptions are valid, repeated TBL could prove to be a useful tool to facilitate language learning. So how about some academic research to explore the effects of TBL and repetition on CAF (complexity / accuracy / fluency)?

The research methodology

In my study, I examined five non-native speaker (NNS) students enrolled in an English Language Teaching (ELT) programme. Each participant was to attempt one oral, monological task twice, with a ten-minute break between the two tasks. The task was identical on both occasions.

The task question was: “Can you tell me about your last holiday? Where you went, what you did, how you travelled there, and how you felt on the holiday.”

Results

This section provides a series of bar charts that analyse the mean difference between the first and second task attempt and for each measure within each CAF construct.
In order to designate speakers’ individual utterances, the term AS-unit is used (analysis of speech-unit).

Complexity

Accuracy

Fluency

Self-evaluation

The results showed a marginal increase in accuracy and two measures of fluency, but these were found to be statistically insignificant when scrutinized again later.

However, the analysis does report an overall increase in accuracy and an overall decrease in complexity. This may support the validity of the data found in this study as it conforms to the notion of the trade-off effect between CAF constructs.

In contrast with the inferential data, the learners’ perception of task repetition turned out to be positive, insofar as gains in all CAF constructs and overall performance were reported.

This supports the idea that task repetition has a considerable effect on learners, although this study did not investigate into how or why this occurs.

Pedagogical implications and conclusion

Despite the data not showing significant differences between the attempts, improvements were recorded in the self-evaluation feedback. This could be because repeating a real-world task in the classroom, as opposed to a pedagogical task, may seem more worthwhile to students in terms of using time more effectively in class.

More importantly, the subjective increase in ability to complete a linguistic task in a second language could well lead to an increase in motivation and thus better learning of the target language.

As a conclusion, repeated TBL can indeed help promote learner motivation and confidence and make learners better students of a language, even if the objective data related to their performance do not support the subjective improvements immediately.

References

  • Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: From intention to articulation. Massachusetts: MIT
  • Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In G. Cook, & B. Seidlhofer (Eds.), Principle and practice in applied linguistics (pp. 125-145). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Image: Gordon Johnson

The Importance of not Being Earnest: Why Play is Essential for Young Learners’ Brains

in Teaching

All of us were young learners once, and most will agree that it was an emotional experience. The joy when we first managed to keep our balance on a bike. The proud first laps we swam without water wings…but also the frustration about the math exercise that just wouldn’t add up and all the other things we couldn’t seem to get right. But what happens in the young learner’s brain, and how does it learn best?

Sponge vs. elaborate tool

Contrary to popular conceptions, childrens’ brains are not sponges merely waiting to absorb knowledge. In fact, the newborn’s brain is equipped with nearly all the neurons (nerve cells passing on information) that it needs within a lifetime.

In our early years, the brain creates a network of connections and pathways (aka synapses) between those neurons, enabling it to convey information to all the different areas. This helps us understand the world around us and interact with it in a meaningful way.

Surprisingly, once a large amount of connections has been built, the brain starts weeding out many of them again. It just keeps the ones that are actively being strengthened by practice and experience while dismissing the rest (see Meghan Fitz: “synapse formation” and “synapse pruning”).

One example for this is learning to ride a bicycle:

As children, we “fed” the neuronal pathways involved in the activity with physical experience (falling off, trying again) until the connections were strong enough for us to manage the task. Had we not constantly nurtured the synapses for riding a bike, they would have dissolved without us learning the skill.

Thus, brain function is more about practical application than memory storage (or rather, doing vs. passively taking in knowledge).

Healthy connections and the school system

As we see, the infant brain is not keen on information overload –  it wants to be able to work things out and connect the dots…quite literally! But how exactly does it do that?

Basically, there are three key factors which help young learners learn. These are:

  • Repetition
  • Sensory experience (movement and interaction)
  • Positive emotions related to the experience

In fact, science has shown that the different parts of the brain connect best through free play, because it combines all of the factors mentioned. Far from being a mere luxury, playing is an actual necessity for young learners’ mental, social and emotional development and wellbeing. In other words:

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.

Diane Ackerman

Sadly, what happens in many classrooms is the opposite: sitting still instead of moving around, receiving knowledge instead of exploration, and being “right” or “wrong” instead of a joyful, non-judgemental discovery of what works and what doesn’t.

Apart from causing frustration and disappointment, this also means that a large amount of brain connections are lost because they are not properly nourished in school.

So what’s a teacher to do?

With all of the above in mind, is there a way for teachers to tend to their young learners’ needs while still delivering what is expected from them?

Here are some ideas for little tweaks that can make a difference without causing mayhem in the classroom.

  1. Promoting task-based learning that gives students something practical to do. This can be combined with physical activity and games which include standing up, walking around and other physical elements.
  2. Asking questions gets students involved and builds on their existing knowledge, thus increasing confidence and interest.
  3. A positive error culture in which students feel valued, even if they don’t get it right all the time. Teachers can gently point out mistakes and let other students help. Group work also enhances young learners’ social skills and team spirit.

When you’re really serious about having a fun class

Depending on the teacher’s interests and personality, it is possible to create an engaging, learner-friendly environment completely off the beaten track, as this example shows:

Allen had never prepared a lesson in his life. Every class of his was improvised theatre. He regarded grammar books as part of the teacher’s room decoration, useful only to prevent a hot cup of coffee from marking the polished desk. His students loved him and seemed to make amazingly good progress.

ELTABBer Paul about his colleague Allen, one of his biggest influences

Allen’s approach was to provide as much practical experience as possible. He’d take his students to supermarkets, where he would place random items (e.g. oranges) in their hands. Then, he’d ask them to name the objects or the price. His students got a lot out of his lessons, including some great stories to tell.

If you feel inspired to try some playful and educational activities with your students, you can find them at tinkergarten. You can filter your search by age group, length of activity and skill to be practised.

Are you a parent who wants to foster early literacy in a playful way? If yes, check out this article on why and how to teach your child how to read.

Finally, there is an inspiringly beautiful relation between a class of young learners and their teacher in the film “To be and to have” by Nicolas Philibert (please click on the image below to watch the trailer).

Oh, and by the way: Adult learners love to have fun, too!

References

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