English as a foreign language.
June 25, 2008 2:07 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to teach conversational English to a Polish person with currently only very minimal English skills?

My girlfriend is taking art classes with a Polish artist in exchange for conversational English lessons, although she doesn't speak Polish herself. What is the best way to teach conversational English to someone with only minimal vocabulary? Has anyone else had any similar experiences? Thanks in advance!
posted by stackhaus23 to Education (3 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've had the experience of learning conversational English, also from a Slavic language background. What worked for me was being guided through experiences and learning phrases as I went along, such as going to a restaurant and learning how to order, being coached on restaurant and food vocabulary and thus the experience becomes the lesson.

Slavic languages frequently have many sorts of declensions and adjustable forms of nouns and verbs and adjectives. English is much easier in some ways, as aside from a few pronouns (he/him/his), there aren't a lot different forms of words - even verb conjugations have few forms. So that's a lot of complicated grammar that isn't necessary to learn for English. What was especially hard was learning all these sorts of extended idiomatic expressions that make (confounding) use of "little" words . . . as when you say, ". . . so I got up all into his face and told him . . ." The more conversation forms of things, not the "literary" kind of English.

Got up all into his face? Why "up?" Why "all?" Why "into?" I had a hard time with that sort of thing. So one thing that helped was learning something basic, like greetings, and then immediately being thrown into "follow-up" situations. So, "hello," "how are you?" and that sort of thing - which is easy to learn - being combined with random secondary questions: "How is your sister?" or "Where did you get that lovely hat?" or "You look tired, didn't you get any sleep last night?" By having some sense of these sorts of questions, that aren't predictable in any one conversation, I found I stressed a lot less about them and could more easily pick up on little clues, and this helped my English a lot. So I guess my advice is, don't just stick to one topic of conversation in a lesson, mix it up.

But the experience thing is the best - go to an art museum, look at the pictures and just talk about them. Sometimes a specialized field (like art) is great for teaching English, because the person can work on the basics, while the more scholarly words (expressionism, dada) tend to be pretty universal. So the learner can express "big" concepts while learning basic grammar.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:35 PM on June 25, 2008

I teach English as a foreign language, but most of the teaching I've done has been in a school-based, grammar-centered environment, so YMMV.

Without going way, way into detail here, I'd say think about the things one would talk about in basic conversations, and go from there function and vocabulary-wise. The contents page for the Wikibook for learning basic Spanish has a list of essential areas to cover that would be good for any introductory course in pretty much any language: places, jobs, asking questions, making sentences negative, talking about your family, food, that kind of thing. As an artist, I'd say knowing some specialist terms for his work and materials would be really awesome too.

I would also highly recommend the following cheap/easy tricks to reinforce what's been done in each lesson:

- giving your girlfriend's student instruction in using a deck of flash cards to practice new vocabulary, adding cards to the deck in class, and reviewing these words at the beginning of each lesson: new language needs to be reviewed to be remembered
- bringing in either real or imagined "texts" for the student to try to decipher: a movie ticket, a boarding pass, an electric bill, a menu (on preview, doing this in real life is even better!)
- sending actual postcards to each other when not meeting: this is a super-easy way to practice new language and work on things like word choice and word order, which can get tricky: why do we say "Do you have/Have you got a sister?" instead of "Have you a sister?," when the non-question form is "I have/I've got a sister."?

E-mail in the profile if you're interested in books or other materials. Good luck!
posted by mdonley at 2:48 PM on June 25, 2008

If the Polish artist has access to a PC then Anki is an indespensable (and free) spaced learning tool, which can be used in place of, or alongside, the more traditional flash cards as suggested above.
posted by fire&wings at 3:29 PM on June 25, 2008

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