quarta-feira, 13 de julho de 2011
How to improve your english skills
Fluency vs Accuracy
Fluency is basically the ability to communicate (understand and be understood), whereas accuracy is whether or not you make mistakes. Which one you feel is most important depends on your purpose. If you are traveling in a foreign country or trying to do business with a foreigner, fluency is probably more important. If you are taking a test or writing an essay or important business e-mail, then accuracy becomes very important. For most English learners, though, fluency is generally more useful than accuracy.
As I'd written before in the post "What is the Purpose of Language?", schools in Taiwan teach English grammar rules day-after-day, generally in Chinese, so students have little chance to actually pratice listening to and speaking English even though they have English class 5 days a week. Grammar rules are taught like mathematical formulas, which students are expected to memorize. Students have no chance to communicate in English and therefore their fluency is very low. What good is learning a language if not to communicate?
A few years ago, the mom of one of my high school students asked me to tutor her son, his sister and their cousin at their home once a week. The goal, as I understood it, was to improve their speaking ability, therefore I took them activities we could use for speaking practice. I didn't plan to teach them grammar much since they had been taught grammar in their schools for years and years, and really needed more opportunities to speak. The mom, who was herself an English teacher, challenged me once about why I didn't correct their mistakes more often. I explained that part of their reluctance to speak was because they were afraid of looking foolish or being punished for making mistakes. They could benefit more from speaking practice even if they made a few mistakes. Being a very traditional Taiwanese teacher, she seemed shocked at my answer and I could tell she strongly disagreed with my approach. Sorry, but that is why your kids can't speak English.
The reason I thought about this story is because one of my business students recently asked for advice on how to improve his English. He said that his English test scores in school were very bad. I told him not to worry because I know many people who get very good test scores in English but can hardly speak a word (accurate but not fluent), while others I know got very low test scores but can communicate very effectively (fluent but not accurate). Surely in most situations, communicating (fluency) is more important than a test score (accuracy).
So my answer to his question was to get more fluency practice, not study more rules. Listen and read as much material as possible that is at, or slightly above, his level then use it as much as possible.
Input (reading & listening) you can understand, or at least figure out, should be the foundation of your language learning. I wrote a little about this subject in my post "Grammar or Content". If you can not understand what you hear on the radio, TV or at the movies, there are many free web sites that provide listening practice such as Voice of America and ESLPod. Reading practice is easy, with many magazines, text books and websites with articles at any level.
Getting practice using what you've learned might be more difficult, but not impossible. You could enroll in a conversation class, hire a private tutor or arrange a language exchange with someone who is trying to learn your language. You could also join a church, social club or sports club where there are foreigners with whom you could chat.
The bottom line is that your language ability will improve faster and you will be able to communicate better this way than by studying grammar rules. Don't worry so much about making mistakes, just talk!!