Frustration to success: how he did it

04.25.2010

in Tools & Techniques, True Stories

In Frustration to success, I briefly told the story of Adrian, a professor of law at a prestigious university. Two-and-a-half years ago he was a frustrated beginning English student who had dropped out of the English class he hoped would help him become a fluent English user. If you met Adrian today, you’d find that hard to believe because his English is very good. Let’s dig a little deeper to see exactly what he did to find success.

How it started

If you remember, Adrian began the journey from frustration to success when he read this in a Portuguese/English language blog:

Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding (Stephen Krashen).

We could paraphrase this statement like this:

Picking up a language is the result of using the language for real communication; it happens when users focus on understanding each other, not when they’re focused on the form of the communication.

As Adrian continued to read, he came to two important conclusions: First, if I want to acquire English, I need to find content that is interesting and understandable and spend as much time as I can reading and listening to it. Second, I will acquire more English if I read and listen for my own pleasure.

What did Adrian do?

Soon after Adrian found the language blog, he discovered the ESL Podcast and began to listen to it every day. He subscribed to the Learning Guide and read the transcript (written copy of the podcast) while he listened. A short time later, he found VOA Special English and began to regularly read and listen to their stories. In addition to the ESL Podcast and VOA Special English, Adrian bought and read a number of the Goosebumps books, popular short picture novels written for children by R.L. Stine.

As his English improved, Adrian quit reading the Goosebumps books, but he continued to read and listen to the ESL Podcast. He also bought  A Day in the Life of Jeff and A Day in the Life of Lucy from the ESL Podcast store. He also continued to read and listen to VOA Special English and began reading occasional stories from VOA English News.

When he was ready, Adrian started reading articles that he could understand from People, USA Today, and Time. He also watched videos and read the transcripts from CNN Student News.

Sometime later, Adrian decided to try reading novels. He began with Black Dahlia by James Ellroy but quickly discovered that it was too difficult, so he quit. Adrian has never hesitated to do this. Whenever something is too difficult or doesn’t interest him, he says that he “abandons” it and looks for something new.

After he abandoned Black Dahlia, Adrian decided to try John Grisham’s novels. Adrian is a law professor, and he thought that Grisham’s exciting novels, about attorneys and the law, would be easier to understand. He was right. He says that he quickly began to understand and enjoy them. So far, he has finished four of Grisham’s novels, and he recently told me that he has bought eight more.

What is Adrian doing today?

Today Adrian listens to four or five ESL Podcasts and reads the learning guides every week; occasionally he listens to the podcasts more than once. When he sees something interesting – usually several times a week – he reads and listens to stories from both VOA News Special English and VOA English News.

He continues to read as much as possible, especially popular fiction. He’s reading Grisham’s novels and he’s also read novels by Scott Turow, Phillip Margolin, and Laura Lippman.

He scans the New York Times every day and reads two or three articles. And he usually reads three to five articles from The Economist every week.

I almost forgot: he’s also a big fan of Spiderman comics!

Adrian has developed a strong interest in understanding how language works and how it’s acquired. As a result he’s begun to read academic books and articles about language, and many of our discussions focus on basic linguistics, or the study of language.

Adrian uses every opportunity to read or listen to English. He downloads podcasts and other material to his iPod so he can listen while he walks, runs, or travels. He carries his books wherever he goes so he can read whenever he has an opportunity. He estimates that he spends several hours a day “in” English: reading, listening, discussing. If you ask him, he’ll quickly tell you that the most important time is the time he spends reading and listening.

Adrian has embraced English as “his” language; he’s made it an important part of his life, not simply something extra to be added to an already busy life. He enjoys English, he’s fascinated by it, he loves the experience of reading and listening, and English is quickly becoming the language that he uses first whenever he can.

What can we learn from Adrian’s experience?

There are several important lessons that we can learn from Adrian’s experience:

  • Read and listen to things that are interesting and understandable; this is the key to acquiring language.
  • Read or listen for pleasure: make your enjoyment a top priority.
  • If something is boring or difficult, stop! Abandon it for something interesting and understandable.
  • Don’t hesitate to choose things that are easy, including things that were written for children or young people. It won’t be long before you can move on to more difficult things. For another good example of this, read Better English at Sweet Valley High.
  • Listen and read a transcript at the same time when you can, at least occasionally.
  • Take advantage of what you already know, like Adrian did when he decided to read Grisham’s novels. Another way to do this is to read English novels that you read first (in translation) in your first language.
  • Read or listen narrowly; in other words, read or listen to things by the same author, on the same subject or topic. This is what Adrian is doing by reading so many of Grisham’s novels. Each one helps you more easily understand the next one.
  • If you find something you enjoy, listen to it or read it more than once: you’ll acquire more English each time.
  • Set aside regular time every day to be involved with English. You may not have several hours, like Adrian frequently does, but even 20 or 30 minutes a day will make a significant difference in two or three or more years.
  • Let English become an important part of your life; embrace it; allow it to become “your” language. Think of yourself as an English user, even though your English is still emerging, or developing.

Learn from Adrian’s experience. Make English an important part of your life, make time for it, and enjoy both the experience and the results of reading and listening to interesting, understandable English.

Warren Ediger

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