A Collection of Thoughts on Studying English

Over the years Angela has periodically written about her thoughts in letters for her English Students. These letters were inspired by events happening in her own life. Some of them have been included below. You may find her experiences are similar to your own, or perhaps you'll get some new insights on how to study English.

I would love to post your thought and stories on how you have been learning English. Please let us know what has been successful for you? 

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January 1998                  

Dear Students and Friends:                                   

Well, 1998 is already under way. We hope you had a wonderful New Year holiday, and are ready to embrace the year ahead with restored energy and enthusiasm. During the holidays my husband and I spent a few days in Malaysia, and I have been wanting to share some of the thoughts I was working through while I was away.  Although I usually donft realize it, I think Ifm very lucky to be a native speaker of English, but because it is a language Ifve always known, I often assume that everyone can speak it. My husband, however, was quite amazed at how everyone we met, Malaysians, South Africans, French, Indians, Chinese, and Germans all spoke English. Now when I say they all spoke English I do not mean they were all fluent, native-like speakers of English. What I mean is that they all had confidence in their ability to make themselves understood. It wasnft always easy to understand their various accents. Sometimes I had to ask 3 or 4 times for repetition to get the point, but even those who werenft very good at English kept trying until I could get what they meant. Why? Because the purpose for speaking was to communicate!! They werenft worried about mistakes. They just wanted to talk .

This brought home for me 2 very important ideas. First is the need to believe in our self, and second is the importance of having a purpose or aim. Ifve been reading a lot of books about human potential and the power of the mind. They all say the same thing; every person who has been successful has had the belief that he could do what it was he was trying. Olympic athletes certainly donft come to the games thinking that they canft win! These books also say that we can control the inner voice we use to tell ourselves things. I so often hear my students at the university say they like English, but canft speak it.

Maybe this is just Japanese modesty, but I tend to feel that many students really believe that they canft. Donft you think that if you go around saying g I canft ....h  you are decreasing the likeliness that you can. I donft mean you should go around bragging about your English ability - nobody likes to listen to that - or for that matter even internally have a false impression about your own level. I mean you need to believe in your ability to learn English, and you need to set goals, and reach them, and then set new goals increasing you confidence each time you do so. These goals should be specific. Not gIfm going to learn to speak English by next summer.h What does it mean gto speak Englishh? We probably all have different ideas. But did you know that when you say something as simple as gHi, Ifm Noriko. Itfs nice to meet you,h believe it or not you are already speaking English. So use your inner voice to tell yourself you can. Then set clear goals. Find something you really like to do and use it as a way to learn. If you like singing plan to learn 1 new song each week. If you like cooking ask me for an English recipe and try making something new.  If you like to travel, go somewhere you can use English. If you canft afford a holiday abroad, go to Tokyo for a few days and pretend youfre Korean. Youfll find people trying to help you in English, and youfll make them happy cause they got to use their English with a foreigner!  If you like watching TV then tape 1 of the American programs that are on every week day at 6:30 p.m. Watch it once in Japanese so youfll know the story line and what vocabulary to expect. Then watch in English and try to pick up a few words. If you hear the word echickenpoxf come up several times, you can check it in the dictionary, or maybe you can guess the meaning because you heard the word݂ڂa lot in the Japanese version.  Make a book with words youfve learned. 

Itfs also important to feel like you are making progress, and it can be very difficult to recognize improvement in yourself. Keeping a journal can help you see how well you are doing, and what you need to work on. (see sample page)  Slowly you will be able to understand more and more.

Anyway, start by setting a goal (a small one at first) and believing you can do it, and youfll be well on your way to success. People from all over the world are using English to communicate. You can too!

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October 2000  

Dear students and friends:

Have you ever had an "aha" moment? A moment when suddenly things click and start to make sense. It's a great feeling, but in order to get it you must go through a period of confusion and nothing making sense.

Now I'm studying Spanish and I feel frustrated when the teacher speaks quickly and uses so many words that I don't know. It's frustrating when I can't follow or seem to get any meaning out of what he says, but then I remember that that is what speaking a language is all about – the negotiating to find the meaning. Inside the classroom teachers sometimes try to make things easy for their students. They use simpler language and speak slower than a person on the street might. Although this may be a very comfortable way to study a language, I can see it causing us as students 2 problems when we encounter a native speaker outside of the classroom. First of all we are probably not use to listening to the sound of natural language. And second if the teacher always does the checking to see when we understand, we may never have to learn how to do that for ourselves. 

Sometimes we just need to let the sound of the language wash over, and flow around us, and get used to hearing the rhythm and sounds without worrying that we didn't catch the meaning. When we can do this without panicking, then we can slowly start to pick up pieces here and there. This isn't comfortable at first, because we want to be able to understand everything. But that isn't how language works. There are lots of times when we need to guess about the meaning, and after we guess then we can check whether we were correct or not.

But what about when we don't have any idea about what is being said? We may feel like we are the only ones who don't know what's going on, and so don't want to hold up the rest of the class. This is a great chance to check with other students, and see what they think. We can negotiate the meaning together. And what if know no one seems to understand? Well, then you need to use some strategies like repeating the words you don't know in order to control the speaker's language, and interrupting the speaker in order to slow the conversation down. Controlling a conversation is very important key to success in communication, and learning how to do it is going to make us into a better language speakers. A foreigner in a real life situation won't speak slowly or use simplified language for us unless we take control of the conversation, and let them know when we don't "get" something.

It's always difficult to adjust when things change. But change can be a good thing because it forces us to grow in ways we might not other wise have a chance to. So take a deep breath, relax, and don't panic about all the stuff you didn't catch. Instead guess, check, and guess again.

I'm hoping we will have lots of "aha" moments in the coming months with Michael and Martin.

Best wishes,

Angela