Learn or Teach English – No more discouragement!

As a language learner myself (Spanish) I know how easy it is to FEEL discouraged about slow progress in acquiring a 2nd language.  But thanks to what I have learned from studies about how the brain learns and how stroke victims regain their ability to speak, I am no longer discouraged.

Hey there! Are you feeling discouraged as an English learner or teacher? You know, I have been studying Spanish and I have felt that way in the past too, but not anymore. Let’s talk about that.

(Intro: English without Fear where you can learn to speak English naturally, through listening to stories)

So, if you’re watching this video, you are either an English language learner or a teacher, or maybe a parent of someone who’s learning English as a second language. And you might have asked yourself or thought: 

“How long is it going to take me to speak with some fluency, to feel comfortable in the language to feel adequate?”

It’s a good question. But we need to be realistic. You know how long it takes babies and small children, how long it takes them to learn to speak their first language well. The first three years that a baby has with mom or dad or brothers and sisters, that’s about 14,000 waking hours to absorb, to watch language in real life. By the time that child turns four, he or she speaks pretty fluently. They go to school later to learn what they need to learn, but they can speak the language.

They can speak their first language after three years. So, the question you might have is what about me? I’m a teenager or I’m an adult. Is it going to take 14,000 hours for me to become fluent or comfortable in the language? I don’t think so. Let’s look at what science and research show. 

First of all, every single person is different. You know that in other areas, for example, when it comes to what foods agree with your body or what exercise agrees with your body. They call that bio-individuality – “bio” for biological or biology. For example, my body works be eating meat. It doesn’t work very well being a vegetarian. That doesn’t suit me. The same happens,uh, to language learning, in language learning.

Each person learns differently and at a different rate, just like babies learning to walk. So, you can’t compare yourself to someone else. You’re going to get discouraged doing that!

So, what can you do to keep from being discouraged if you fall into discouragement. Let me give you some interesting information.

I once read a paper documenting speech therapists who worked with stroke victims. A speech therapist is a person who helps someone learn to speak better or learn to speak at all. A stroke victim is somebody who’s had a brain problem. We call that a stroke. And they have lost their ability to speak. Speech therapists who worked with these people, stroke victims, what they found was that these patients needed to hear and understand a word or word chunk between 70 and 140 times before that word or a word chunk was automatically wired into the brain. That’s a lot of repetition. 

How do we get repetition? We get it from hearing people speak, hearing with understanding, watching with understanding, reading with understanding, listening with understanding. The key is the understanding. So 70 to 140 times before we can say something automatically without thinking. That’s what we’re talking about, when we are talking about fluency, how automatic is your language.

I now have almost 1300 hours of Spanish input. Some words are very clear in my brain.  I’ve heard them enough and I don’t have to think, and I can say them.

Other words are at different points of becoming clear.

At first, a word, word chunk is what I call “mushy”. My brain can’t make out the sounds very well. If something sounds mushy to me, that sounds mushy, it’s going to go into my brain as ‘mush’. And if I try to say it, it’ll come out ‘mushy’ with no sense.

My brain is in charge. If you were trying to teach me Spanish, you would not be in charge. You could give me input, but you couldn’t direct what goes into my brain. That’s why lots and lots of input from different people, different sources, as long as we understand it, the brain will use it at its own pace at its own speed and make sense of it. 

I know this from English, my own language. There are words that I have read and I look up because I don’t know what they mean. And I keep having to look them up, look them up, look them up until they become automatic. I don’t have the problem with pronunciation because it’s English,  it’s my own language. But remembering it, what it means, that’s the first step. And then being able to use it is the second step that takes, I think, 70 to 140 times. I obviously have not reached that.

I’ll give you some examples with Spanish words that now are a little bit clearer. The first pair that, that was very difficult was the difference between ‘consado’ –  tired and ‘casado’ –  married. That took me a long time to get straight. And then there is pahera (should be pareja) partner, a couple. And ‘pájara’, which is bird. I might’ve gotten that mixed up. I need some more input on that before it becomes automatic!

Even something like the difference between a knife and spoon was very hard for me in Spanish. ‘Cuchillo’ – knife, ‘cuchera’ –  spoon. I finally can picture the two LLs in ‘cuchillo’ and think of them as long knives. That’s how I……that’s the hook, that’s the mental image I have formed in order to help me.

So you see it’s different for me than other Spanish learners. It’s going to be different for you learning English. And there’s no point in being discouraged because it’s a long process.

And sure you can learn a few phrases in a few weeks and memorize them like greetings and questions. But that’s not what we’re talking about. If you want to speak, if I want to speak automatically and comfortably, then I need lots and lots of input. Just hours of input.

One other tip I’ll give you is that when your brain is under pressure, if all of a sudden you have to speak English, your brain shuts down. So, teachers who….uh…. stress out their students, who (say): 

“What’s wrong with you, that you can’t remember something?” 

Well, the brain is going to shut down. The other day, I was at the Pregnancy Resource Center in Huntsville and a young Hispanic woman came in at the last moment. So, there wasn’t very much time left in the day to sit down with her. And I was the only Spanish speaker around and I felt I did a very poor job because I was under stress. It was late. There wasn’t much time. She spoke no English. And I stumbled through.

Had I been talking with one of my Mexican friends without any pressure I would have done much better. So, you see, there are lots of reasons why acquiring a language, learning a language takes time.

And I don’t feel discouraged anymore because I know the science. I know the stories from physical therapists and I know my own experience. 

So, reject discouragement! You’re in this, I think, because you care about people learning English, or you want to learn English. You’re in this for the long haul, we say, for a long time. So, just relax, get as much repetition as you can, and you need to understand it, and your brain will do the rest.

So, tell me, what do you have down automatically in your brain or what was the first thing that went automatically in your brain. And what are you struggling with right now that is still mushy, as I would say?

That’s it for this episode of English without Fear. Look forward to talking with you next time.  (outro: Thanks for watching. For questions or comments, here’s my email.)


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