Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

A linguistic confession

I’d consider myself quite an expert about learning languages. I’ve put in the years in the profession before realising that there are other ways to be involved in EFL than at the coalface itself. I know plenty of tips, tricks and strategies for becoming a competent user of any language and I’m surrounded by people who’ve done just that as a source of continual inspiration. But just as you don’t need to be a brilliant painter to be an art buff, I’m no expert at learning languages.


Actually I’ve got the tools. A very good memory, a solid understanding of grammar and etymology which help map languages onto each other, I excelled at French and German at school and still remember random items of vocabulary that were hardwired in – swamp in French anyone? – I’m creative enough to think of helpful mnemonics and strategies for learning and organised enough to keep those systems going.

But, the truth of my virtually monolingual state is that I just can’t be arsed.

Along with half my dormant French, half forgotten but briefly resurrected German, I’ve learned and forgotten Turkish to a conversationalish level and Spanish is a constant battle of something I should by now speak vs who cares? The trouble is I move around a lot and one of them always comes along and usurps the place of the last one if I pay enough attention, even sometimes when I make a concerted effort not to learn it.

Some of the places I’ve lived, like The Czech Republic and Thailand, I didn’t bother at all. Far too much effort for too little reward. Yes, I could eventually have conversed with everyone I met, read all their literature in its original form, partaken of witty repartee with the great thinkers of the time and watched their awful TV. But, to get beyond anymore than a child’s level I’d have had to have stayed more than a few months, so what was the point?

And that last is the thing that stops me really making an effort with the ones I do know more of. It is just too off-putting spending all that time at a middling level, good enough to understand but only good enough to participate at a capacity way below my personality. I’m funny, knowledgeable, analytical and sarcastic in English. It’s precisely because language is so important to me that I can’t stand not being anything other than native level. And since it took most of my life to get this way in English, I think I’ll stick with it.

English is the language that almost everyone I actually want to speak to has learnt for years already. They’re much better at it than I’m going to be if I spend the next 6 months intensively learning. I travel a lot and and so attract and am attracted to people who do the same which means people who probably speak English. Yes, we could have a scintillating conversation for at least 6 minutes about how many brothers and sisters we all have, the weather, what I like to eat for breakfast and the fact I’ve lost my suitcase but as soon as we get to the real conversation we’re going to have to switch back to the language we can both say something interesting in. English.*

You think I’m going to blather on about the importance of English as a global language. No, I’m not. My lack of interest and that fact coincide happily for me at the moment, that’s all. If I ever really needed a language, if I was living somewhere really remote with no English speakers say, I expect I’d learn like the clappers.

But I think this attitude means I can identify with a huge number of the students I’ve come across. You see, they don’t want to learn English anymore than I want to learn their languages. They are just forced to. And that means I can understand their lack of motivation better than those evangelical, Go Native language learners who move abroad and airily claim how little time they spend with non-locals and who disdainfully ask how long you’ve lived in Country X without learning the lingo (5 months is when you start to be on shaky ground I find).

A lot of students also can’t be arsed learning English. They don’t have anyone they really need to communicate in English with on a daily basis, don’t enjoy not being able to express themselves, often don’t travel much and are quite happy watching dubbed films and TV. Everyone they know speaks their language so, like me, they’re quite happy with that one. They pay for classes – or their company or parents do – and some of them even turn up to most of them. And aside from that, they make about as much effort as I do.

They’ll all tell you how important English is for them but actually it’s at the end of a very long list that starts off with work, family, partners, friends, free time, sleeping, exercising, messing about on the internet, walking the dog. I have, for years, given students little oral homeworks to do for ten minutes every day in the shower – that one piece of time you’re definitely not doing anything else and more than likely alone. To my knowledge no one has ever done it.

Having to do something for an intangible future career is no greater motivation than any other. In fact it makes it even more of a burden. The people I’ve met with incredible English are pretty much always self taught. They’ve picked it up here and there, are people with a keen interest in language learning as a hobby or have lived in an English speaking environment.

The trick to getting students learning English despite themselves is to make up for all the time they don’t spend on it outside of class,  not to give them more tasks to do on their own. Raise their awareness so they might pick up new things or notice patterns that reinforce prior learning. Get them practising what they already know rather than learning much new stuff. Take them out of the language school false promise of moving up the levels and spend more time on consolidating speaking and listening. Spend some time practising techniques that successful language learners employ and see if some of them stick.

In the twenty minutes it took me to write this, I could have memorised ten irregular verbs that would have come out wrong the next time I tried to use them. I hope I stick to blogging for longer than any of the languages I started learning.

*And add to that the off-putting thing that foreigners who’ve mastered English tend to laugh at your attempts, mistakes and bad pronunciation and you see why I can so vigorously defend my apparent laziness.


3 comments on “A linguistic confession

  1. ryuxchunliproject
    October 19, 2013

    Hello, Nicola. Please disregard my earlier post. It was incomplete. My name is Sean Anderson. I’m an ELT teacher in Japan. I teach returnees and non-returnees at a high school, but I’ve spent most of my working life in the eikaiwas, and I can appreciate everything you’re saying here (including, I’m ashamed to say, the language learning laziness on my part). I’m a big believer in maximising the value of class time and not expecting much from students on their own time, especially here in Japan where the chance for my students to communicate with an English speaker save perhaps myself in their daily routines is almost zero. Consequently, I did my best to give the students extrinsic motivation to speak English in my eikaiwa classroom, usually in the form of points for any English spoken in class, especially in a conversation circle we held at the beginning of class. And that worked fine 90% of the time, but every so often there were one or two students that just weren’t interested in speaking English because, like you said, their parents were more motivated for them to learn English than the children were. It was my frustration with these students lacking motivation that led me to invent Question Quest : The Language Card Game. Kids may not be interested in English for their future when their in class, but when it comes to the immediacy of beating the pants off their classmate across the table from them? THAT means something to them! And they’ll call upon all the English skill they have to do it. Anyway, if it wouldn’t be to much trouble, could we chat some time? From what I’ve read, you’re someone I’d like to get to know. If you go here: there is a contact form. If you fill it out, your message will come directly to me, and we can set up a Skype meeting. My apologies for being so forward, but life is short, and I like your style. And, apologies for my rather interesting profile pic and user name. It’s part of a non-profit project I’m involved in. I look forward to your reply and hope you would be up to talking on line soon. Most sincerely, Sean.

  2. Pingback: A review of Duolingo | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

  3. Pingback: Adaptive Learning – It’s US who need to adapt | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

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This entry was posted on December 25, 2012 by in Learning English and tagged , .


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