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How (NOT) to learn English – top 5 most common mistakes

16 kwietnia 2018, poniedziałek,

We here at the Brit it! blog have told you all about the most common errors learners of English make.  We have looked at the most typically confused word pairs in the language.  We have even discussed tips for learning vocabulary and internalising grammar.  However in my 20+ years of teaching I have seen some dreadful mistakes in terms of approach to learning and things that need to be avoided at all costs that could cost you time and aggravation on your journey to becoming a master of English.  So here are 5 things to avoid doing when studying English.

© Mat Wright, British Council

1. Needing to know what EVERYTHING means

When I was in university I majored in Linguistics and Applied Language Studies and I used 5 of my free credits (electives in Canada) to study Italian for 4 years.  One day my professor came into class and saw me reading a book called Volevo i Pantoloni by Lara Cardella with a highlighter marker in my right hand.  He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was reading the chapter for next week.  He asked me about the highlighter pen and all of the hundreds and hundreds of underlined words. “What’s with the marker?” , he asked. I told him that I meticulously underline the words I don’t know and immediately look them up in the dictionary. This helps me understand what is going on in the story as well as learn the word itself.   He smiled and took the book out of my hand and flipped back to an earlier chapter full of yellow markings.

“What is a ‘pupazzo’?”  he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s highlighted here.  It’s a puppet or marionette.  Why did he take it from her?” he asked.

“I don’t know” I said again.

The professor simply sighed deeply and walked away.

My professor didn’t outwardly criticise my technique, he simply pointed out that it didn’t really seem to be having the desired effect.  We really learn words by developing intimate relationships with them. Not by making lists and highlighting them. NB – Our conversation was obviously conducted in Italian.

What’s more, many words that we encounter, especially if we read authentic material for pleasure may not be within our range.  Words tend to come to us repeatedly when we are ready for them.  If you are continually bombarded with the phrasal verb ‘find out’ again and again in a language lesson it may be a suggestion that you are ready to know this word.

I consider the word ‘wand’ to be a high level word and impractical to many learners in modern society.  However if you are reading Harry Potter and this word comes to you for the 400th time you may want to look it up.  But will you not have already been able to assume what it is at that point?

2. Needing a literal TRANSLATION

One time a student asked me what a bench was, so I went to Google images and showed a picture of a bench.  The student said “ławka?”  I didn’t know the word in Polish so I just said I don’t know Polish but it is this thing in the picture that you would sit on in a park. The student repeated “So…a ławka?”  I repeated “Look, I don’t know the Polish word for ‘bench’ but if you go to a park and somebody is sleeping on THAT THING they are sleeping on a BENCH! IF you go to the garden centre at IKEA and ask to buy a ‘BENCH’ they will bring you something that looks like THIS! I do not know how to say it in Polish (I do now) but THIS is a BENCH. It probably has many names in many languages which we are not going to discuss because in English THIS is a BENCH!

Students feel very safe and reassured when they have a word in their language to latch onto and that is fine sometimes. Some concepts like ‘jealousy’ or ‘to avoid’ are tricking and maybe sometimes saying ‘zazdrość’ or ‘uniknąć’ saves time but I am talking about low level learners who have grown completely dependent EVEN addicted to translation.  It can discourage monolingual thinking which should be avoided.  Besides,  some words have no equivalent in Polish.

3. Writing down EVERYTHING in class

I have said many times that learning to speak a language is similar to learning to play a piano.  Imagine if you came to a piano lesson and spent 90 minutes watching your teacher play the piano and you did nothing but observe and make notes. How soon would you be able to play the piano? (assuming you did no homework.)

Language is learned by DOING it! You need to be as mentally present during the lesson as possible and that means also being given as much opportunity to “play the piano” as possible.  You cannot be mentally present while frantically writing everything down.  Linguists study languages.  TEFL students do not study languages – they learn to ‘perform’ a language. That is MY original quote.

4. Learning ONLY in the classroom (maybe)

I may be somewhat anti-homework as an English teacher. I feel there is effective homework but also absolutely useless homework.  Homework is NOT what I am talking about.  I am talking about attempting to make the entire world your ‚English lesson’.  Watch TV shows at home without the voice-over, use the ATM in English, set your phone to English settings, read English magazines in your free time.

5. Feeling the need for PERFECTION

Don’t be shy and NEVER avoid speaking for fear of making mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes! It is estimated that 7 in 100 native-speaker sentences contain slips and errors!  This statistic increases as people speak faster! The most important thing is to be understood and English doesn’t have to be perfect to be understood.  Perfection will come later. (maybe)

*I am aware of the concept of varying learner styles and know full well that different techniques work well for different people.  These are helpful tips that if experimented with can bring you success.  However if you are heavily dependent on any particular tactic or feel that something I suggested doesn’t suit your personality type then you are free to do what works for you.


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  1. thank you 🙂 I needed it 🙂