When Pronunciation Isn’t Enough: Teaching Comprehension

Today we conclude our language learning video series with Voxy’s Chief Education Officer, Dr. Katharine Nielson, who has been answering all your nitty-gritty questions about how people learn languages.

One of the most common language learning exercises is to read a text-based resource, but as instructors we often make the mistake of focusing primarily on pronunciation. While this is a valuable skill for language learners, the most important thing is that students truly understand what they’re reading. In this video, Dr. Nielson offers guidance on what types of questions to ask learners of different proficiency levels, and ways to help learners fully engage with the material that will actually help them improve.

Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy's Chief Education Officer.

Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer.

Task-Based Language Teaching: What Does It Really Mean?

If you Google Task-Based Language Teaching, or TBLT, you’ll find a lot of definitions related to the latest trend in teaching second or foreign languages. But what does it really mean?

TBLT is an approach to language learning that was popularized in the 1980s by N. Prabhu in Bangalore, India. Prabhu discovered that learners were able to learn more effectively when they were focused on a tangible, non-linguistic task like reading a map, than when they were focused on a linguistic task such as using second conditional verb forms.

Similarly, learning a language at its core is simply learning a new skill. And just like any other skill—playing the piano or swimming, for instance—you learn by doing. The sooner you start playing music or jumping into the pool, the sooner you’ll start learning and practicing the skills you need to play an entire song or swim the breaststroke. In contrast, studying music theory or reading a book about swimming techniques may be insightful, but it probably won’t help you achieve your real goal as quickly and efficiently as possible.

TBLT is centered on meaningful tasks using target language (the language being learned) in real-life situations, as opposed to focusing on the target language on its own without any relatable or concrete context. Examples of tasks can range from scheduling a doctor’s appointment and filing a complaint with customer service to answering job interview questions and using small talk with colleagues. TBLT prepares learners for real-world situations, while traditional language teaching that focuses on target language in isolation will not, like a lesson on the past perfect of the verb “to be.” You can easily draw examples of the traditional approach to language learning from your own experience: your high school Spanish teacher may have had you complete irregular verb conjugation exercises instead of role-playing ordering food in a restaurant and applying the target language to a real-life situation. With TBLT, you will never wonder why you’re learning a specific verb tense or set of expressions. The reason will always be related to a real-life situation that is crystal clear to you from the start.

From a language learner’s perspective, a TBLT approach means that your goals and real-life outcomes for learning a new language—whether you want to easily communicate abroad in a country where the language is spoken or work at an international company—should guide your decision when choosing a course, software or tutor. Never lose sight of your goals along the way. For example, if you plan on traveling abroad to Spain and want to learn some Spanish to help you get around, focus on the types of interactions and situations you expect to experience in Spain. Think of common tasks such as asking for directions, ordering food in a restaurant, reading a menu and checking in to a hotel. Don’t spend too much time focusing on language that falls outside of these interactions as it won’t pertain to your experience. And because that language isn’t relevant to your goals, it may discourage you from sticking with it. You don’t need to learn how to describe someone’s eye color (Bob tiene ojos marrones) or learn the comparative in Spanish (El gato corre más rápido que el perro), but you do need to know how to politely ask for information (Disculpe, sabe cómo llegar a la estación de tren?) or how to tell a server that you are a vegetarian (Soy vegetariana. No como carne ni pescado.). This way, you’ll actually be prepared for your trip, you’ll save time and you’ll stay motivated!

More often than not, language learners do not assess their goals when they embark upon the brave journey of learning a new language. They assume that any one-size-fits-all solution will work for their specific needs, but everyone’s goals are different and TBLT acknowledges this as critical to success. If you’re learning English to improve your career versus learning English because you’ll be traveling to New York, the language you’ll need is different. So how could the same exact course help you achieve two very different goals? Instead of choosing a static course designed as a catch-all solution, choose one that is customizable and adaptive based on your unique goals—a task-based and personalized solution.

Mari Nazary is Voxy's VP of Pedagogy and Curriculum.

Mari Nazary is Voxy’s VP of Pedagogy and Curriculum.

Naomi Sveholm: What a Toddler Can Teach Us about Language Acquisition

Naomi with SonWhen my son was born, I was excited to interact with him (after some sleep, that is). We’ve been communicating his whole life, but his speaking didn’t really take off until he was around 16 months, when I noticed a lot of parallels between my son and my English students, some of which matched my own experiences learning other languages.

English learners, take heart! It’s not easy to learn another language, and even native speakers have trouble at first. Here are some tips for communication, inspired by a toddler but helpful for all language learners.

Listening and Pronunciation

Learning vocabulary only by listening is hard
It always helps me to see a word in addition to hearing it. But it does sound awfully cute to hear my son ask to hear “siwik” (music) or eat “granbabies” (cranberries).

Certain sounds are hard to produce, but they don’t have to be perfect
TH, L/R and consonant clusters, particularly those with L/R—think GReen, BLue, TRain and ice CReam—are especially difficult. My son says the word “bathroom” like “bahfum,” but it’s pretty close and easy to understand. He also says “uncle” like “unco,” which is a great substitute for an L at the end of a word. W in place of an R at the beginning of a word is also an okay substitute if you’re having trouble (“wooster” instead of “rooster”).

Your pronunciation improves with practice
This is probably a given, but you will improve as you practice. For my son, “boo” has become “boobewy” (which will someday become “blueberry”), and “suss” has become “horse.” It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you keep listening and practice speaking, your sounds will improve.

Helpful Cues to Help Others Understand You

Gestures and sound effects help
I never would have known that my son was asking for help unless he had used the ASL (American Sign Language) gesture, because when he said the word “help” it sounded just like “up.” He also made an elephant “brrr” noise well before he could say “elephant,” and he regularly points or otherwise indicates objects. Use what you have, even if you feel silly.

Context is everything
“Bunny,” “banana” and “button” sound almost identical when my son says them, but it’s often clear which one he means based on the context—if he’s playing, eating (or if he’s hungry) or touching someone’s shirt, for example. Similarly, don’t expect your teacher to know what word you want to say unless you share more information or the rest of the sentence.

Be creative
If you don’t know a word, substitute something as close in meaning as possible. I was tickled when my son, at about 10 months old, called the wind “fan.” And because he loves vehicles, he called everything “car” for a long time.

A little “please” goes a long way
People (including tired parents) are much more patient when you’re polite. In fact, people will often go out of their way to help. With a few polite words in your arsenal, you can feel much more confident simply because people will be more receptive.

General Tips for Studying

Read…a lot!
At 19 months, my son called a penny “shiny” and his diaper changing pad “squashy.” To the best of my knowledge, he has only encountered those two words in books. He has learned many words for vehicles as well as many sound words, and I often see him reading books on his own, pointing to pictures and saying words. Reading is one of the best ways to learn vocabulary and grammar.

Pay attention
Anything is an opportunity to practice, including hearing an airplane fly overhead or a radio story about big cats. It’s best to read or listen to things that are at or just above your level, because the more you understand, the more energy you have to pay attention, but even something well above your level can help.

Learning a language takes a lot of energy, but confidence comes as much from feeling competent as it does from actual language ability. By using all of your resources, you’ll have the confidence to interact with others. And that’s when it really gets fun!

Naomi Sveholm is a Voxy tutor.

Naomi Sveholm is a Voxy tutor.

Clothes Idioms of the week

Idioms of the week: clothes

In this blog series, we’re breaking down common English expressions that are used in everyday conversation, so you’ll be able to expand your language skills and have fun with new English phrases. This week, we’re keeping to the theme of clothes.

1. old-fashioned (noun phrase): of or relating to the past
Ex: Vintage clothes are making a come-back: I saw a young girl wearing a white, old-fashioned dress in the street this morning.

2. dressed to the nines (verb phrase): to be dressed elegantly, to be dressed very well
Ex: It was a beautiful wedding, everybody was dressed to the nines.

3. put oneself in somebody else’s shoes (verb phrase): imagine what it would be like to be in someone else’s situation
Ex: Stop complaining and try to put yourself in my shoes for once!

4. hit someone below the belt (verb phrase): to do something in an unfair or cowardly way
Ex: Mike is usually a nice guy, but his last comment on John’s questionable work ethics really hit below the belt.

5. do (something) like it is going out of fashion (verb phrase): enthusiastically, to an extensive degree
Ex: Tom is eating his burger like it’s going out of fashion—he is going to get sick!

6. fit like a glove (verb phrase): fit perfectly
Ex: This dress fits you like a glove, you should buy it!

7. fall apart at the seams (verb phrase): in a very bad condition, likely to fail
Ex: I quit my old company because it was falling apart at the seams.

8. hot under the collar (noun phrase): very angry
Ex: He got very hot under the collar when the waiter spilled a drink on him.

9. roll up one’s sleeves (verb phrase): prepare for hard work
Ex: Everyone had to roll up their sleeves to meet the client’s demanding request.

10. cut from the same cloth (verb phrase): of the same nature, similar
Ex: She and her mother are cut from the same cloth, their personalities are so similar.

Try using these idioms the next time you practice your English skills. You’ll find yourself using them more naturally in conversation in no time!

The Best and Worst Ways to Provide Feedback to Learners

Today we bring you the latest segment in a video series by Voxy’s Chief Education Officer, Dr. Katharine Nielson, who’s answering all your nitty-gritty questions about how people learn languages.

As a language instructor, when and how should you be offering your learners corrective feedback? And what’s the worst thing you can do when a learner is in the middle of completing a task, answering a question or telling a story? In this video, Dr. Nielson explains the difference between implicit and explicit instruction and feedback,  talks about the most effective kind of corrective feedback (and when to use it) and some common pitfalls to avoid.


Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy's Chief Education Officer.

Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer.