I teach plain language workshops, and I was recently approached by a non-native English speaker. His language skills were excellent. He said he learned English mostly through standardized exams, and he felt there was a gap between the mode of English he was taught and the plain language approach I was preaching. His question was this: Did I know of any resources that would help people who learned English in a professional context to transition into more natural speaking patterns?
Not being an expert in the ESL field myself, I put out the call through mailing lists and social media. Most of the tips I received apply to learning any language, not just English.
Pretty much everyone agreed that the No. 1 thing to do is “active listening.” This is different from just watching TV and having the radio playing. I have a degree in music, for example, and I would never dream of studying a piece without having the score in front of me. Simply listening to a recording isn’t enough. In the context of language learning, here’s how people suggest applying the term “active listening”:
- Set time aside for the activity and minimize distractions.
- Choose content that both interests you and uses the type of language you hope to absorb.
- Actively listen for the things you want to learn, such as expressions you’ve never heard or pronunciations that surprise you. Focus more on how people say things than what they’re saying.
- Pay attention to moments of comedy. The delivery will usually be fast and casual. You may have to rewind and listen multiple times. Dissect why it was funny. Is there a play on words you can learn from? An idiom you haven’t heard before? A cultural implication you’re unfamiliar with?
- If you watch something, turn on subtitles. You’ll be amazed how bringing your reading skills into the picture helps solidify what you’re hearing.
- If you’re listening to audio on a computer or phone, use apps that let you slow down the playback. I listen to lots of podcasts. In English I listen at 1.5x speed, in my second language I listen at 1x, and in my third language I slow down to 0.75x. Most apps can change the speed without distorting the voices.
- Explore regional content. People talk differently in different areas of the country. CBC is a great resource for this.
- Listen to younger voices. Adolescents and young adults drive language change. The true test of even a native speaker’s language skills is whether they can follow a casual conversation among a younger generation.
At some point you need to put what you’re learning into practice:
- Read out loud. Find materials that use informal language and practise saying the words and expressions out loud.
- Spend more time using conversational English. You may need to find somewhere you can participate in less formal conversations.
- If you have a hobby, find a local Meetup or community group to join.
- Seek out existing social opportunities at work. There may be organized get-togethers or co-workers who’d like to eat lunch together.
- Create social opportunities at work. Organize a lunchtime club. For example, I run a monthly board game lunch and a weekly Bridge game. Other groups run book and film clubs (the discussion part, anyway) at lunch.
- The U.S. government website on plain language
- The Government of Canada’s language portal
- Podcasts for non-native speakers (not endorsements):
Do you have other tips or resources to add?
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