If you live in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, then you can join Ethan Wanger at the next Real Life English party – but if you aren’t in Brazil, don’t worry, because the online party never stops! Ethan and the team of experienced ESL teachers have set up a network of web resources, Facebook forums, Twitter feeds, and podcasts to connect people around the world who want to improve their English skills. Their approach is to make learning English fun and practical by providing examples of real-life conversations as well as opportunities for people to practice their conversational skills together. We asked Ethan about this thoroughly 21st-century approach to learning English.
US: You’ve really taken advantage of the global community that the internet creates to promote English skills, like the ongoing online conversations people are having on your Facebook page. But you also host monthly “real life” Real Life English parties at your home base in Brazil, and you encourage people to come and meet in person. What’s better, meeting once a month to talk to people face to face, or chatting on line every day?
EW: Honestly, in order to really learn English–that is, for anyone who wants to become fluent–both meeting people face-to-face and talking online are crucial. I recently wrote an article about meeting English speakers in your city face-to-face using Couchsurfing and also an article about how to practice speaking online. Speaking is extremely important for English learners because that’s what language was invented for: communication.
We always promote making English a daily habit. It can’t be learned once a week in class. It must become a part of your life. We recommend to our students using their “convenient moments” to learn English. This means, for example, when you drive or ride the bus to work, while you’re cooking, while you’re walking your dog, while you’re showering, etc. This is time that you aren’t actively doing anything that you could be using to improve your English (largely by listening to something–podcasts, audiobooks, or music–or by reading). Just consider how much time you spend travelling to school or work every day. This is hours of English learning that one could add every week. Most people don’t even realize this!
We’ve also observed that the best English learners are lifelong English learners. English has truly formed a part of their everyday life, without them even thinking about “studying English.” They read the news in English, they listen to podcasts, they read books, they’re hooked on great American and British televisions shows, they watch movies in the original version, etc.
To answer your question more directly: it’s better to have a daily habit of chatting online every day than to just practice your English once a month. BUT, it’s also crucial to practice all areas of the language: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. So, no one should choose to either just chat online or just go to a party once a month (the former often being more popular because it’s easier, and people are often embarrassed to speak face-to-face). If you want to become fluent, make English a daily habit in every way possible.
US: Your weekly podcasts cover vocabulary, grammar, and other English language topics. You also talk about expressions like “oh, yeah” and slang terms like … well, we won’t list any here, but let’s just say they’re definitely part of modern English! These terms probably won’t help people score high on English tests, so why should they be learned?
EW: We recommend learning these terms because we native speakers use them all the time when we speak with each other. If you’re just learning out of a textbook, you might sound like a robot. And most English learners not only want to become fluent, but they also want to speak the language like a native speaker.
I also want to clarify that most of the expressions we teach in our podcasts and our daily English expressions (on Facebook) are formal, non-offensive, and used in everyday English (the question made it sound as if they are all inappropriate in formal situations).
Most students do need to learn English to take some qualifications tests. But learning for these alone won’t prepare you for travelling to an English speaking country or for meeting native speakers (in fact, many of these tests don’t even require students to be good at speaking!). I’m not saying that it’s not important to learn the formal aspects of the language, so that you can get a good job and so you can be polite in the appropriate situations, but the real life aspects of the language–that is, how we native speakers use it everyday–are also important to learn, even if you choose not to use them.
US: You focus a lot on pronunciation and the rhythm of the spoken language, but people need to communicate in writing as well. What resources do you offer for practicing English spelling?
EW: It’s true we haven’t done too many articles focused on writing, and your question does remind me that we need to write more about that aspect of the language. I did however write an article on How to Improve Your Writing Online, which supplies many great resources.
Also, our community is an awesome place for people to practice their writing and spelling. We often see people asking for feedback on something they’ve written and people actually enjoy correcting each others’ writing. We love seeing this kind of interaction–English learners helping English learners!
US: There’s really a focus on working as part of a group and learning about other people and their cultures. Why do you encourage this type of interaction as part of the English learning process?
EW: Well, it’s always better to learn with other people than alone. A lot of this has to do with accountability. If you have someone to remind you to practice your English–for example, with whom you Skype, who is comfortable telling you, “Hey, your English really sucks today! What’s going on? You haven’t been practicing, have you?” you’re much more likely to keep a daily habit of studying!
It’s also the benefit of learning what other people have learned. Of sharing the best resources with each other. Of sharing English for Life–that is, things like videos, music, movies, and books.
Communities are extremely powerful. As a community, we can do more than just learn a language. We can change the world through English. We all motivate and inspire each other, as you can see on a daily basis in our community. It’s an international community, so we all share and learn about different places, people, and cultures. With globalization, intercultural communication is really important. Breaking down the barriers that exist between us. Not being judgmental or stereotyping about someone because of where they come from. And learning that when it comes down to it, no matter where we come from, we’re all human beings.
Having a common language facilitating communication really helps us all learn and unites us. And this is a large part of our big vision.
US: You provide so many online resources, it’s amazing: Skype or Google-based classes, the social media groups, the podcasts, the articles … but people can’t be online all the time. What do you recommend as a good way to get real life English skills – in real life?
EW: Great question! As I said before, it’s crucial to take advantage of convenient moments in our day. Listening to podcasts (and not just ESL podcasts) is one of the best ways to do this because you can do it while you’re doing practically anything else. Plus, with all the great podcasts out there, you can learn about so much more than just English.
It’s also extremely important to meet people and make friends in our own city that speak English. It doesn’t matter if they’re native speakers or not. It’s just important to meet people with whom you can practice speaking and listening, and to use the language for communication.
While living in Brazil, I started learning French. I had read about how CouchSurfing has a function to search members by the languages they speak. So, I used it to meet a French guy who was also living there in Belo Horizonte. He wanted to improve his English, so we agreed to do an exchange. We quickly became friends, and I’m actually planning to go visit him in France this year (as I’ll be living in Spain, starting RLE Parties there).
So, connection is essential for learning any language if fluency is the goal. Get out and meet people who are as passionate about learning as you. Get an exchange partner or a friend who’s learning English, too. Hold each other accountable. And have fun!