Tools for learners

Apprendre par immersion dans un café des langues

Il n’y a pas photo. Si on veut monter d’un niveau dans l’apprentissage d’une langue, rien ne vaut un séjour à l’étranger pour se mettre dans le bain. Mais tout le monde n’a pas cette possibilité, donc comment faire pour créer une expérience d’immersion pour booster ses compétences?

À Nantes, et dans beaucoup de villes de France, il y a un véritable engouement pour le café des langues, ou café polyglotte. Il y a cinq ans quand nous nous sommes lancé dans l’aventure du café des langues (activité que nous avons dû arrêter pour manque de temps, malheureusement), il fallait bien fouiller pour trouver des rencontres pour échanger dans une langue étrangère autour d’un verre. Aujourd’hui il y a presque un embarras de choix.

Quel est le principe? Chaque groupe a son propre fonctionnement, mais on retrouve des points communs partout. On se retrouve avec un petit groupe de personnes, d’origine française où étrangère, le plus souvent dans un lieu neutre tel qu’un café ou un bar, et on cause dans sa deuxième langue (ou troisième, douzième…peu importe). Les séances sont plus ou moins guidées, selon l’approche des animateurs, et il peut y avoir une petite participation financière (en plus de la consommation). Mais il ne s’agit pas de cours de langues. Il n’y a rien de scolaire – on peut laisser les mauvais souvenirs et les blocages à la porte, car au café des langues les nuls, ça n’existe pas. L’atout des cafés des langues est l’ambiance décontractée, qui peut nous décomplexer de nos réticences à ouvrir la bouche. En plus, tout le monde est dans le même panier, et les fautes sont tolérées, voir encouragées, car c’est ainsi qu’on apprend!

L’équilibre apprenant / locuteur natif varient selon le groupe. Si on à tendance à ramer un peu dans la langue cible, il peut être un peu intimidant si on se sent en minorité. Mais il y a tellement de groupes différents maintenant qu’on est sûr de trouver son compte quelque part.

Au début on ne trouvait que l’anglais, mais aujourd’hui il y a des groupes où on peut parler allemand, chinois, espagnol, portugais, russe… Certains groupes proposent différentes langues sur différentes soirées. D’autres séparent les langues avec un animateur à chaque table. Seul bémol: plus il y a du monde, plus il est bruyant – il faut resté bien concentré pour suivre le fil de la conversation.

Mais,  « qui ne tente rien… »

Le café des langues à Nantes

Voici une liste plus ou moins à jour de groupes qui sont installés dans la région de Nantes, mais peu importe la ville, une petite recherche sur Google et on trouvera son bonheur.  Il y a sans doute d’autres cafés des langues dans la région nantaise.  Si vous en connaissez un, merci de rajouter les informations dans les commentaires en bas.

Nom Langues pratiquées Lieu Horaires
« Stammtisch » allemand Café Le Flesselles, Allée Flesselles, Nantes 19h00, 2e et 4e jeudi de chaque mois (hors vacances scolaires)
Café bilingue Nantes toutes (destinée aux familles) Voir programmation Voir programmation
Café franco-chinois chinois Le Lieu Unique, Nantes 20h30, le mardi
Café polyglotte franco-portugais portugais Café Casse Goutte, rue du Beau Soleil, Nantes 21h00, le mardi
Café polyglotte franco-anglais anglais Bar Monsieur Machin, 5 rue St. Léonard, Nantes 20h30, le mardi
Café polyglotte franco-espagnol espagnol Café l’Art Scène, 19 rue du Château, Nantes 21h00, le lundi
Café polyglotte franco-allemand allemand Delhi’s Café, 6 allée d’Orléans, Nantes 20h30, le mercredi

 
photo credit: [phil h] cc

Finding the right words for your writing

Do you write in English?  Do you get tired of using the same old phrases and vocabulary?  Are you looking for a way to spice up your writing style?  Do you agonise over choosing the right word or combinations of words?

JustTheWord is just the tool you need.

There is a ton of online dictionaries and thesauruses out there, but sometimes time doesn’t allow an extensive search for the correct word combination.  JustTheWord combines the usefulness of both dictionaries and thesauruses in one place.  Its database is the 80,000,000 words of the British National Corpus, and it has a powerful and simple search function which produces a list of word clusters for you to choose from.

How can JustTheWord improve your writing?

Writing with JustTheWord 1Say you are writing a description of a new product for a catalogue.  You want to say that the product is « very useful », but on the page that combination looks a bit boring.  To find out what other adverbs you can use with « useful », type the word in the search bar and hit combinations.  You will receive a page with a long list of word clusters. To narrow your search, click on « ADV *useful* » at the top right of the screen, which will lead you to a manageable list of about a dozen examples of adverbs that are used to modify the word « useful ».

You like the feel of « extremely useful » and insert it in your writing.  But later as you are rereading your work, you decide that « useful » doesn’t really do the product justice. What alternatives might there be to this word?  Back to JTW for a second look.  Enter your original phrase « very useful » in the search bar, and this time select alternatives.  This will produce two lists: the list of alternatives to « very » that you have already seen, and a list of adjectives with a similar meaning to « useful » that partner with « very ».  The number beside the word combination indicates the number of times it is found in the corpus, which is also represented visually with a green bar.

Writing with JustTheWord 2The blue bar under each alternative indicates the similarity in meaning between your original phrase and the different combinations.

You decide you like the look of « very beneficial » as an alternative, but to make absolutely sure you’d like to check how the expression is used in actual written text.  Simply click on the expression, and you will see a list of excerpts from actual texts in the corpus where « very » is used with « beneficial ».  This also gives you other useful information, such as the fact that « very beneficial » can be followed by FOR or TO.Writing with JustTheWord 4

Writing with JustTheWord 3Another way that JTW helps you is that it indicates word partnerships that are either rare or simply not used in English writing.  For example, keeping with the « useful » example, you may have heard some English speakers talk about something being « real useful ».  Perhaps you are wondering if this is appropriate in written English, so you enter the phrase into the search bar and select « alternatives ».  It will return a short list of word clusters that indicate with a red bar that the combination « real useful » isn’t found anywhere in the corpus, and is therefore a bad word combination in written English (although we know from your list of « useful » combinations that « really useful » is possible).

Other ways that JTW can be used for better writing by both learners and teachers.

As a learner, if you keep a vocabulary notebook (which you should!), rather than just writing lists of words, you will retain new vocabulary better if you also write a definition and an example sentence.  JustTheWord is great for finding authentic example sentences.  Furthermore, we often remember new words better in word partnerships.

An example:

Imagine you have just learnt the word « confidence ».  JTW can show you other nouns that are regularly used in partnership with this word, thanks to the number showing the frequency of use.  If your focus is business English, you can record the following in your vocabulary notebook: « business confidence » and « consumer confidence ». You will see that « no confidence » and « self confidence » are also common.

As a teacher, you may be preparing a lesson on collocations or word partnerships, but don’t have time to dig through a dictionary or thesaurus.  Simply enter your key words into JTW, and you have a ready made list of collocations to choose from.

I’m sure you’ll agree that JTW is a very useful, extremely helpful, really beneficial, particularly valuable and especially practical tool!

Can you think of other ways to use it? Why don’t you share your ideas in the comments?

photo credit: eyesore9 cc

Could live online language learning be right for you?

internet-at-homeThere has been a lot of ‘buzz’ in recent years concerning virtual learning environments (VLEs), and the many forms of online learning have moved from the fringes to the centre of discussions about the advancement of technology in education.  So much has been written about it that one can’t help but wonder whether there are more people writing about VLEs (virtual learning environments) than those who are actually using them.

Even the term is ambiguous: sceptics will ask whether it the environment that is virtual, or the learning.  As a fairly new practitioner in the use of VLEs for language learning, I am cautiously optimistic about the genuine learning potential afforded by online environments.

6 reasons to learn a language live online.

1.  Study in the comfort of your own home.

There is no question that environment influences learning.  An environment that you’re familiar with, that has positive connotations, and that has a relaxed feel will be more conducive to productive learning than a sterile, windowless classroom – it’s a no brainer.  It’s great to be able to turn up to « class » in your pyjamas if you so desire.

2. Enjoy the flexibility of being able to select hours that suit you.

Live online language learning can take place early in the morning, during work hours, late at night, even in the middle of the night if you’re one of those fortunate people who don’t need much sleep.  You can find language trainers in virtually any time zone so there are no restrictions, and there are free online tools available to help you « arrive » on time for your class no matter where in the world your trainer may be working from.

3. Benefit from a huge variety of language learning tools and opportunities on the Internet with a trainer who is able to help you navigate through them.

I just googled « learn english online » and turned up 186,000,000 results.  One of the big problems is knowing where to start.  Out of the top ten ranking sites, most are either directories, or sites with a multitude of links for self-study activities that you can access online.  How do you know which activites are adapted to your level and to your specific learning style and language needs?  Too much choice can be demotivating.  Part of the role of a live online trainer is to point you in the direction of resources that are uniquely suited to you.

4. Enjoy personal contact with a personal language trainer or coach who can help you practice using your language in a variety of contexts.

Live online cannot replace real face to face communication, but can be surprisingly close to the real thing.    Back to my « learning english online » search, only two of the top 10 are offering live online learning, but in pre-packaged units that may or may not correspond to your needs.  Some of the courses on offer have the feel of talking to a machine.   This is where personalised live online training can fill in the gaps in classroom language learning as it makes individual tuition or micro-group learning accessible to anyone with a broadband Internet connection.

5. Practice your language in simulated ‘real life’ situations in virtual worlds.

second-lifeThis is the topic for another article, but the realism of virtual worlds like Second Life affords a level of simulation that is far beyond what you could experience in a traditional classroom role play situation.  Language teaching in virtual worlds is still a very new and experimental field, and technically quite complex.  But for those hardy teachers and learners willing to give it a go, the sky really is the limit.

6. Take control of your learning.

The best language-learners are self-motivated, and know how to leverage their particular passions and interests to help them make progress.  I was reminded of this during a brief end-of-semester chat with a student whose mastery of English is quite remarkable compared with many of his peers.  My assumption that he had lived in an English-speaking country was unfounded.  Instead, he told me of his passion for rap and American movies: he has been able to achieve an exceptional level of English just doing what he enjoys.  This is applicable to any kind of learning, not just live online.  But the application to live online is the potential for the ‘teacher’ to become more of a ‘personal trainer’ – helping you source materials on subjects you are passionate about and exploiting them for improving your language skills.  This is a good recipe for keeping motivation levels high.

4 possible disadvantages of live online

1.  Not everyone finds it easy to learn the technology.

Live online learning does require a certain level of digital literacy, and it is not necessarily the best option for people who are easily frustrated by technology.  A good trainer will patiently spend the necessary time to ensure the learner is up to speed technically, and will give support throughout the training sessions.

2.  The inevitable bugs and crashes, and the time lag which can hinder natural communication when the quality of the Internet connection varies.

Although the technology is improving all the time, these are common problems which need to be faced.  But a good live online trainer will always have a contingency plan to fall back on, and technical hiccups can even be turned into good learning opportunities if handled correctly.

3. Absence of body language and other visual cues.

All right, this is where I have to agree with the sceptics.  There is no question that this is a drawback in live online learning.  In natural communication, and particularly when speaking a foreign language, interpreting visual cues and even lip-reading are important communication aids.   Communication via webcam is obviously a great improvement on audio-only telephone communication, but perfect resolution and lagless video are still a way off.

But is this enough of a drawback to discourage learning live online?  No, for the simple reason that face to face communication is only one of many mediums where we need to use our second, third or fourth language.  These days in the course of our daily work we are just as likely to communicate over the telephone, voice or text chat or video conference.  This means that learning to communicate well without relying on the usual visual cues is vital.

4. A lot of educators are excited about live online learning, but the quality of training varies considerably.

One common failing of live online training is the tendency to try and simply recreate the old familiar classroom situation in a virtual environment.  Unfortunately this results in having to put up with all the disadvantages of both worlds, while missing out on the advantages.   Some excellent teacher training for virtual environments now exists, and things are only going to improve.  But in the meantime it can be difficult to know whether you are getting value for money.

When all is said and done, live online language learning is here and happening.  It is too early to consider it ‘mainstream’ but it is being adopted in all kinds of learning contexts.

Find out more about live online language learning opportunities with englishonthe.net.

photo credit: rosipaw via photopin cc

To learn a language, listen to it first.

The headline « New study may revolutionize language learning » caught my eye the other day.

Blue pill red pillIf I was hoping for a kind of miracle pill, or some means of downloading a language to my brain the way Neo learns Kung Fu in The Matrix, I would have been disappointed – the title of the article is a little optimistic.  It don’t think this « discovery » is exactly revolutionary.

Nevertheless, it brings to the fore some « old knowledge » (as one of the commentators on the article puts it) that is worth revisiting for the language classroom.

The report suggests that the best way to learn a language is through frequent exposure to its sound patterns, even if you haven’t a clue what it all means.  Nothing new, perhaps, but how has this knowledge influenced teaching methodology, particularly when it comes to teaching beginners?  Not much, it would appear.  Beginner-level language courses still tend to launch into grammar from day one, and introduce vocabulary first in written form, before the learner ever has the chance to hear the language.

Without going into all the findings of the research, it rings true in the sense that this is surely the natural progression in first language acquisition: toddlers learn to speak by first listening, then imitating the sounds, and only then beginning gradually to formulate words in isolation.  Not long after we moved to France I observed my 5-year old daughter begin to learn French from her school friends.  I was fascinated one day to come across her babbling to herself unintelligibly much as you would expect a 2-year old to do.  I realised that the sounds and intonation were not at all English-sounding, and it dawned on me that this « franco-babble » was an essential milestone for her in learning French.

Some feedback from a very brief Twitter conversation on the topic stipulated that that adults and children do not learn languages in the same way.  This is undoubtedly true – it took my then-5 year-old  only 7 months to reach the same level of French as her classmates – there are not many adults who could do that.  As adults the way we learn a second (third, fourth etc.) language may differ significantly from the way we learnt our native language.

Nevertheless I wonder if the differences haven’t been overstated.  This « new » research suggests that simply listening to a new language sets up the necessary structures in the brain required to learn the vocabulary.

One interesting line of enquiry which motivated the research was what makes it so difficult to learn foreign words when we are constantly learning new ones in our native language.  It was found that even as adults each time we hear new combinations of sounds our brain develops new corresponding neural structures.  The more exposure to the sounds, the better prepared we are to learn and retain  the language.

The practical application of all this relates to how we can better harness the power of the Internet so that every hour in the language classroom is matched as much as possible with an hour of aural exposure to the language outside.  In years gone by this kind of immersion was impossible – today we can surround ourselves with the sounds of a language through songs, movies, mp3s…  according to this study language-learning is more about exercising brain tissue than learning facts, and an iPod may just be one of the best tools available for making those necessary neural connections when preparing to learn a language.

So what does that all mean for language teachers – should we not adopt the model of « trainer » or « coach » rather than « teacher », if our role is to help learners exercise their linguistic neurons, rather than simply offload language facts.  How should beginners’ classes look different?  What if teaching « hello, good-bye, my name is , please and thank you » was replaced by a programme of listening to language spoken at a natural speed with activities designed to help learners identify and begin to practice the sounds of the language.  How then should we help learners keep motivation levels high when swimming in long passages of spoken language before they have any « hooks » to hang recogniseable vocabulary on?

If you have any thoughts on this I would love to hear about it in the comments.

New study may revolutionize language learning, PhysOrg.com

For more discussion on these findings, E/FL 2.0 has an interesting post.

photo credit: B Rosen cc

The best multilingual online dictionary


Who doesn’t know WordReference.com? It has become so widely used that I risk repetition by featuring it here. But I still remember back to the BWR period of my life (« before Word Reference »), so for any readers who find themselves in that situation, let me introduce to you a multi-lingual dictionary that is simply the best.

It’s nothing much to look at, but don’t let appearances deceive you. It’s a powerful and very reliable online dictionary full of useful features for translation:

  • 14 English to another language pairs (Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian, Portuguese, Polish, Romanian, Czech, Greek, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and soon Arabic)
  • 5 « to English » pairs (Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian)
  • other combinations including Spanish to French and Portuguese, French and Portuguese to Spanish.
  • monolingual dictionaries (English, Spanish),  synonym dictionaries and conjugation tables.
  • plugins for Firefox and widgets for your blog.
  • accessible for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

But the feature that keeps me coming back is the forums. When you search for a word, not only do you get a detailed list of usages, audio pronunciation and compound forms, but you also get links to questions that have been posted in the forums relating to how to translate the term. Every translator knows the frustration of looking up a word and not finding a translation that fits. The WordReference community has become so huge that there is a very good chance that someone has already come across the same problem, and may have posted a question about it. Translation dictionaries are valuable tools but can never replace native speaker instinct, which is why the human contact available in the forums of WordReference is so valuable.

There are many online dictionaries available, but I haven’t felt the need to look further than WordReference. What about you – do you have a favourite free online translation tool? Tell us about it in the comments.

photo credit: jovike cc

Building vocabulary through spaced repetition

When it comes to vocabulary learning there’s a lot to be said for learning by rote.

At this point a lot of language teachers will probably close this page and never come back.  « Traditional » methods of memorising vocabulary have become very unfashionable.  New words must be learnt in context or not at all!

I really like the theory of learning vocabulary naturally in context, as this mimics the way we acquire our first language as children.  But I wonder if we are not being a little optimistic when we seek to recreate the environment of first language acquisition in the methods we use to teach adults (or adolescents) a second language.

For one thing, children learn very differently to adults.  They are not conscious of learning the way that adults are; learning happens as if by accident.  Adults learn « on purpose », using methods that they have consciously chosen.  We lose a lot of the natural learning capacity of children as we grow older, and need tools to assist us in learning.  Some of these tools can seem quite « artificial » in comparison.  This is why rote memorisation of vocabulary has been so criticised.

Perhaps it is time to rehabilitate vocabulary memorisation.  OK, it’s not very exciting, but a couple of questions might be in order: is vocabulary building in a foreign language worth it?  If we see it as valuable, is it worth some discipline and effort?  Does all learning really have to be « fun »?  Or are we willing to sweat a little bit in order to reach the goal of communicating more effectively in our foreign language?

I am not an expert in second language acquisition theory, but a language learner and teacher.  These observations are based on experience, not research, so it is quite possible that I have drawn some faulty conclusions.  That said I have noticed as an adult learner that although reading in a foreign language is my preferred context for learning new vocabulary, if I don’t note the new vocabulary and have some method for revising it, I don’t learn it.  My considerations from the teaching point of view are much more pragmatic: I find that intentionally teaching vocabulary in context requires a lot of work and preparation that I don’t always have time for.  It’s one thing to organise a reading or listening activity where you just highlight the vocabulary that happens to occur in the material, but this is very  haphazard.  Teaching vocabulary that is « useful » on the other hand (whether from the point of view of word frequency or  the specific purposes for which the learner requires the language) necessitates hours of searching for materials that  contain the target vocabulary.

So I come back again to word lists.  I’ve made it one of my goals this year to increase my repertoire of activities and tools for memorising vocabulary effectively.  In terms of technology, we have already reviewed the online flashcard system Popling.  Today I came across another tool which seems to fit the way my brain works better, so I took it for a test drive.

AnkiThe app. is appropriately named Anki, the verb for « memorise » in Japanese.  It has some similarities to Popling, although its designer seems to have given more thought to how the memory actually works.  It is marketed as a « Spaced Repetition System », and recognises that memorisation is actually work,  not the « learning without studying » that Popling advertises.  The idea behind spaced repetition is that memory loss slows down considerably when a memorised item is reviewed at appropriate intervals.

Anki is obviously a real labour of love.  It is a work in development though. the interface is not quite as sharp, the help a bit limited and I didn’t find it as intuitive to use.

You can create your own flashcard piles or « decks », or import one of a large number of existing decks (contributed by users so of varying quality).  Anki is very definitely oriented toward language-learning, although it could also be put to good use in other disciplines requiring memorisation.  There is a bent toward Asian languages in the list of available decks.

Some of the features:

  • screencasts for a quick introduction to how it works
  • desktop and online synchronisation so you can study anywhere
  • possibility of sharing decks, and for teachers to « push » materials to a number of students at once.
  • intelligent scheduler which allows you to very easily categorise a flashcard according to difficulty.  Anki will calculate the interval between revisions according to whether you remembered the item easily, with difficulty or not at all.
  • flashcards are quite configurable, and Anki can handle very large decks, even up to 100,000 +.
  • a growing directory of plugins
  • Anki it is completely free, although a donation is in order for a truly useful application.

Popling has the advantage of flashing cards up while you are doing other things which is the idea behind « learning without studying ».  Not everyone enjoys such interruptions, however.  Anki requires you to be a lot more intentional, setting aside specific learning times, although you have a lot of freedom to determine how much time you spend and the number of items you want to revise for memorisation each day.

More on Spaced Repetition Systems.

For general information on building vocabulary, I recommend the following resources:

photo credit: susivinh cc

Listening and reading comprehension with online books

Most of the information I think I might need or want to keep either gets thrown in my Evernote « drawer », or subscribed to in Google Reader, but the reality is that there are few sites that I read in detail.  I said in a recent post that I don’t save bookmarks to my browser any more because there are too many to manage, but that’s not quite true.  The few sites that I know I will want to refer to regularly and read in detail have the honour of being saved to my Firefox bookmarks.

Openculture is one of them.

Open Culture explores cultural and educational media (podcasts, videos, online courses, online books etc.) that’s freely available on the web, and that makes learning dynamic, productive, and fun.

This site is all about learning.  It is a labour of love that provides links to audio, video and text resources in English for no cost other than the time you invest to study them.  Rather than having to Google these resources separately, Openculture conveniently groups them together in one place.  Most of the material is appropriate for listening and reading comprehension practice for higher level (B2 +)  students of English.  Here are just a few of the possibilities.

In the free audio books section you can download great online books from a variety of sources (Librivox, iTunes…),  and in different formats (mp3, m4p…)  Although some of the works are downloaded whole, many are formatted into chapters for easier handling.  The books are categorised into fiction and literature (Jane Austen’s Emma, The Wizard of Oz, Canterbury Tales, Great Expectations …) non fiction (Aristotle, Descartes, Roosevelt …), poetry (Blake, Coleridge, Tennyson…) plus links to a number of specialist audio-book sites.

There are free online university courses and lectures in fields as diverse as archaeology, economics, geography, history and literature.

Language-learning has its own section, with courses in 34 different languages, including English and French.  There is also general material on language learning skills.

If you have spent any time on YouTube, you have discovered that there is a lot of junk in online video land.  However, Openculture provides links to a variety of « intelligent video collections« , touching on a large range of general subjects, as well as university collections.

Podcast collections include ideas, books and writing, film, music and museums, news and current affairs, science, travel, technology.

If you prefer reading to listening, the « life-changing books »  section will give you some ideas, although these online books are for purchase, not free download.  If you were hoping for a free book, you can click through to a number of free fiction and non-fiction e-books,  which, while not life-changing, will no doubt give you food for thought.

There are also links to a huge number of culture-related blogs.

Most days the Openculture blog has articles featuring new content which is a must for the feedreader.

You could spend hours just looking through it all.  As for me I’m working my way through a list of 15 free Spanish courses on the foreign languages page.

What are you going to start with?  So much free learning to be had!  For some specific ideas on using Open Culture resources for language learning, try the following:

Newspapers aren’t dead – yet – how to use a pdf version of front page news for tried and true newspaper activities for language learners.

photo credit: Stella Dauer cc