Getting off the advanced plateau
April 18, 2011 1:20 PM   Subscribe

Given 4 months of free time, how can an advanced English learner take the biggest step toward full fluency?

My wife is a Japanese native who has been attending college in the U.S. for 3 years. She is doing well in her classes but has to spend a lot of time re-listening to lectures and reviewing material. She has no problem with everyday conversation and most movies and books, but complex subjects give her trouble (e.g. foreign policy, articles in Nature, literary analysis, philosophy). She has also struggled during interviews and other situations where she had to take in many new inputs and synthesize responses under time pressure.

Of course, full fluency simply requires many years of practice and osmosis, but given that she has 4 months to focus exclusively on English, what's the most efficient way to use that time? Specifically, she would like to push her advanced skills and also work on general polish - improving speaking/reading speed, not having to ask people to repeat themselves, getting tenses and articles right, etc.

We're in the SF Bay Area and willing to spend on tutors, classes, or anything else that might help. She already does some volunteering and reads, studies flashcards, and watches documentaries, which have been helpful but just not enough.
posted by mshrike to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't waste money on tutors or classes. Native born English speakers struggle with philosophy and literary analysis, usually because they're written in jibberish, rather than though any lack of reading skills. If she struggles with articles about foreign policy then read more of those articles and discuss whatever she doesn't understand with you. She should avoid reading or watching anything in Japanese over those four months but she's already better than most people whose first language is English. Having trouble thinking straight in an interview is hardly unique and more about the pressure of the interview than a lack of English skills.
posted by joannemullen at 1:28 PM on April 18, 2011

The best things to do are the following:

1. Read only English books in English. Set aside a time everyday for at least one hour of reading. A dictionary is optional. The key is to think in English and you can do that by reading everything that is available.
2. Watch movies in English as well. No subtitles of course.
3. Finally, the rest of your day should be spent talking with people. Anywhere and everywhere is best. Dont' be afraid to sound stupid or undeducated or whatever. Take time to meet different kinds of people so you can catch the variances in speech and vocabulary from person to person.
4. Talk with each other in English as much as possible. Have a debate or a discussion. Make yourselves think in English, putting together ideas and thoughts.

Everything else is just gravy.
posted by lackadaisical at 1:32 PM on April 18, 2011

I just wanna note, that I think most the country has problems understanding foreign policy.

I went to a private college program and over 80% of my classmates were foreign, and of that, a high percentage of asian descent. My experience is that I think there's a misconception that you're going to get better at English by studying and listening. Quite the opposite, a Japanese friend was fearless of getting in front of a room of people and speaking English, and over the program he excelled in English more then anyone else. He literally could hardly order food when he first came to America, and when he went home, his English was almost perfectly, down to his ability to mimic American accents.

So I say go out to places and speak. Have a few drinks and hang out with Americans at a bar. English is typically so rooted in slang and not the proper grammar that is taught in Academics. Talk to as much people as possible. Find a way to give presentations. Book clubs, toast masters, etc.
posted by straight_razor at 1:34 PM on April 18, 2011

Generally speaking, she needs to a) set goals or targets b) evaluate her performance against those targets (maybe once a month) and c) based on that performance, recalibrate and refocus her efforts.

In summary, setting targets and setting some sort of structure is important.

As well, she needs to actually use English - that's the whole purpose, right? She may wish to volunteer with an organization, and use English on a day-to-day basis. This could include speaking as well as writing - maybe blogging or something?

I had a lot of success learning more advanced Japanese by throwing everything I had into it - I had a job that provided me with a lot of free time, including taping TV shows and actually doing "shadow talking".

I also had a part-time job where I was forced to speak only in polite Japanese; I had to do a lot of speaking, always in front of an audience of Japanese folks. So that helped too.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:34 PM on April 18, 2011

It seems clear that your wife already has a solid grasp of English, and now she's running into the same kinds of problems native English speakers will have. Which is probably an occasion for a moment of back-patting IMO.

You've identified specific weaknesses, so you can work with her to drill on those. Pick out some challenging articles on science or foreign policy or whatever. Write your own key points down, then ask her to write some key points down. Compare and contrast.

Interviews are high pressure for anyone, and again, that seems like the kind of thing that would benefit from some role-playing drills.

Verb tense, correct use of articles, and stuff like that is tricky. On the one hand, those mistakes can make you look less fluent than you really are. On the other, if you get hung up trying produce a grammatically perfect sentence, you waste a lot of time and get distracted. That's the kind of thing that comes with a lot of time. I'm not entirely confident recommending this, but I'll recommend it anyhow: tell her not to worry about the little stuff, and to focus on the big stuff. If she makes an insightful point but drops a "the" somewhere, people will forgive that.
posted by adamrice at 1:43 PM on April 18, 2011

Maybe she would enjoy acting or improv classes, or even an am dram group. It's a good way to practice the language in various contexts which she doesn't necessarily meet every day, in front of people, and there is a bit of pressure but no serious consequences for messing up.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:54 PM on April 18, 2011

Goals are a good idea--something specific and measurable. She might also look into joining a friendly Toastmasters group or a similar speaking group on to help with on-the-spot speaking. Even in 4 months, something could get going.

If she *can* read books, that's great, but DOES she? How much and how often? Does she realize that novels can help with the academic vocabulary that it sounds like she may be struggling with? I also suggest that extensive reading would be a good idea--at least 20 minutes a day, and contrary to what her natural impulses are, material that feels comfortable to read and is interesting. For example, she could try Miyuki Miyabe's mysteries translated into English, or Harry Potter (but ONLY if her level is really very high--it's actually really difficult). Spend a couple hours in the library with stacks of books and then bring a few home--aim for no more than about 5 important unknown words per page. At that level, it should still be comprehensible, but there are probably still enough words that she doesn't quite know well to help. Above that level, the effort of understanding it will probably interrupt the flow of reading so much that it won't be worth it and nothing much will be gained. Struggling through Jane Austen or Dante is usually a mistake. Reading several books by one author may be more effective than reading a bunch of articles, because authors tend to reuse vocabulary (giving the reader a better chance to acquire the vocabulary). So even if she refuses to try fiction (some learners are really resistant to the idea of enjoying themselves), it might be worth trying John McPhee or something instead of magazine articles. I also find magazine and newspaper articles needlessly confusing for this kind of practice because of the way they haphazardly mix formal and informal registers, slang, use special "newspaperese" (even weird grammar) and so on.

TED talks might be good too (you can turn on captions on many talks), and NPR (it has podcasts and an online version). Some of my Japanese students like to use TED and NPR for shadowing (repeating after it), which they feel increases their listening skills.

Another thing that can help with academic vocabulary is spending some time studying common word roots and stems. Even if she only memorizes a few, raising her awareness of them and starting to pay attention to the connections between Greek- and Latin-derived vocabulary can help.

Finally, vocabulary cards CAN help, but only when they're done correctly--otherwise they're a colossal waste of time (not to mention boring and off-putting). Look up instructions for "spaced repetition," which is one way of doing it.

Good luck to her!
posted by wintersweet at 1:56 PM on April 18, 2011

Following a soap opera on TV would be a good way for her to get a better handle on idiomatic expressions, which are a tough part of learning a language. I would also suggest reading a well written newspaper. My choice would be the NYT, but there are plenty.
posted by PaulBGoode at 3:40 PM on April 18, 2011

I learned a surprising amount of Japanese by gaming with Japanese people on Xbox live. And I taught them plenty of English as well. It's a fun way to learn.
posted by Leisure_Muffin at 4:27 PM on April 18, 2011

Don't worry about the philosophy and literary analysis for now. As someone else has mentioned earlier, most of that stuff is written in gobbledegook anyway. Focus more on what people consider literary "classics" of fiction (Watership Down, Grapes of Wrath, Lolita, etc)

Also, look into Toastmasters as a way to not only for her to practice her own speaking skills but to learn from the other members there, especially those who are the most eloquent in speaking and writing.
posted by astapasta24 at 9:51 PM on April 18, 2011

Thank you everyone for all the encouragement and thoughtful responses. This is all very helpful advice!
posted by mshrike at 11:10 PM on April 18, 2011

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