Teacher's Corner Header Image

Rebecca Wagoner: Learning English Through Pop Culture

The most common question I’m asked by ESL learners when we first meet is, “How can I become fluent in English?” The answer to this is tricky, because it truly depends on the individual and a number of factors, such as agreeing on what fluency even means. It’s my job to help people become fluent, so I like to give them some real advice that I’ve learned from observing people who speak English as a second language. The learners I’ve met who emit the most confidence with their abilities in English are those who also happen to be well-versed in pop culture.

A learner’s ultimate goal in achieving fluency should be to feel comfortable speaking and writing in a foreign language. Part of that fluency means easily understanding other people, and eventually laughing at jokes and understanding sarcasm. The challenge in achieving this is that the material available in a typical foreign language class tends to cover more formal language skills and grammar, which might fall short when it comes to making friends or developing an identity within a second language. Spoken language is much more nuanced than a textbook can explain.

So how can students learn the depths of real, “natural” English without being fully immersed in it? In short, by watching TV series, movies and online videos. It seems that the next best thing to living abroad is watching people abroad. The type of language in pop culture has a raw edge that is chock-full of different accents, dialects, slang and even mistakes or deliberately incorrect words like “ain’t.” The students I meet who talk with me about the latest episodes of “House of Cards” and “Stranger Things,” for example, are the students who are speaking much more naturally and comfortably about their daily lives.

It has been my experience that being able to grasp the idiosyncrasies in conversations on the big screen translates to a better understanding of the dialogues and quirks of real life. When people watch movies in another language, they absorb phrases they’re more likely to use themselves and they learn a certain level of social expectations within that culture. This familiarity and repetition pulled from pop-culture references helps establish an internal system of acquired language that is especially helpful when it comes to speaking fluently.

So all those reruns of “Friends” might not actually be a waste of time after all. The movies and shows you watch could be helping you form the very language you use to speak.

I suggest finding a show that resonates with your interests and watching it with English subtitles. Choose a show that’s well-paced for your level of understanding—you should be able to tell if it’s a good fit within the first episode. As a basic rule of thumb, if you’re able to follow the storyline of the first episode and you enjoy it, then it’s a good fit. If watching the show frustrates you and you miss half of the dialogue, try watching something with simpler subject material that you can understand with less effort.

For those who don’t have enough free time to start a new series or watch an entire movie, YouTube and Vimeo have a lot of short films that may work better for you. Simply type in “short films” in the search box of the site you prefer, and you’ll find a long list of shorts that range from one to 45 minutes long. I recommend these for someone who’s looking for entertainment without committing to a schedule. Remember to choose a category you’re interested in, whether it’s comedy, horror, drama, animation, or whatever you’re in the mood for.

If you prefer to watch more practical content, I recommend checking out TED.com. TED talks are relatively short speeches designed to share an idea, and the topics cover a wide range: science, education, technology, health, diversity, art, music, humor, business—and the list goes on. These are great for a quick, informative and inspirational listening session. When you go to TED.com, click “Watch” on the top panel, then “TED talks.” Next, you can browse through interesting topics, select English as the language and choose a duration. There are plenty of talks under 15 minutes that are perfect for English learners. These are especially helpful for people studying English for professional reasons or who plan to attend college in English, because they help prepare learners for lectures and presentations.

Ultimately, the goal in watching TV, movies and videos in English is to help learners feel more comfortable understanding their second language. This comfort and familiarity will build a base on which learners gain confidence in speaking with native speakers. Consider this listening practice a form of entertainment while your brain is working hard undercover to achieve the fluency you’re aiming for.

Let us know what you’re watching in the comments below!

Rebecca Wagoner is a Voxy tutor.

Rebecca Wagoner is a Voxy tutor.

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.

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.

Voxy News

Voxy Launches Popular Digital Marketing Course from General Assembly

Voxy is proud to be working with General Assembly (GA), a global education company specializing in 21st-century skills, to deliver its Digital Marketing course on the Voxy platform.

This collaboration will bring GA’s popular Digital Marketing course to the Voxy platform for English language learners around the world. The professional-level foundation course has been taken by more than 10,000 employees at large companies and uses exclusive content from GA’s online curriculum. The online course covers functional and relevant topics including: social media, UX (user experience), mobile strategy and content marketing.

GA addresses the skills gap in today’s tech- and data-focused workforce and provides professional development and training in areas like marketing, data science and visual design. This new offering will allow Voxy’s learners to access applicable skills to further   their comprehension of the English language.

“Voxy’s partnership with GA is 100 percent aligned with our unique task-based approach to language learning, which takes authentic materials and converts them into language lessons that address real-life goals,” said Mari Nazary, Voxy’s VP of Pedagogy & Curriculum. “Thanks to GA’s rich and effective Digital Marketing course, we’re continuing to address our learners’ needs for improving their professional development skills while also practicing the English they need to advance their careers.”

Want to check it out? Visit the Voxy Unit Catalog and choose Courses from the dropdown menu at the top of the page.