After so many years of teaching writing, I am accustomed to feeling that I am the language expert in the classroom. I’m not saying that my perception is accurate; it’s just my perception.
Imagine my discomfort when I volunteered in my granddaughter’s kindergarten Russian immersion class. Here were 5-year-old American children chattering in Russian and learning to read and write in Russian, and I couldn’t understand a word. I felt completely disoriented, an outsider where I usually feel competent.
However, the disorientation was good for me, making me aware of two truths:
- If I felt linguistically inadequate, perhaps some bilingual or multilingual adult learners might feel likewise in my classes.
- If these little squirts could learn Russian, I needed to think about learning a second language.
Almost immediately, I began to work on #2, and for the last two years I have been learning Spanish. The bad news? I still feel linguistically inadequate, but at least I’m moving in the right direction. The good news? I’m humbled by how long it takes to learn another language as an adult, and I more deeply respect English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) writers.
Perhaps your coworkers or employees are bilingual speakers/writers. You probably notice, as I do, that their most stubborn errors are with English verb forms, articles, and prepositions (I struggle with these issues in Spanish myself). I have found that most ESL learners are very skilled in their own technical disciplines; they recognize that they make errors in English; and they are eager to learn to correct those errors.
Three ways to learn or polish a second language
Here’s what I’ve learned about how adults might learn a second language:
- Attend classes or hire a tutor. Trainers and tutors can be expensive, but they may speed learning.
- Use self-study print materials. These require a lot of discipline, because learning by book alone is inherently passive. (I have a shelf of books like E-Z Spanish and Practice Makes Perfect, but I have not touched them in months.)
- Use online resources. I enjoy two interactive (e-learning) self-study websites with audio and video:
- Powerspeak12 (available free online through my library and maybe yours, too): I’m told that this interactive e-learning replicates Rosetta Stone software. I find Powerspeak very engaging because I can hear a narrator speak and record myself speaking, then compare the two. I also love the drag-and-drop exercises.
- BBC Languages: Free interactive website with classes in Spanish, Italian, and English and other languages: The learning is based on a soap-opera with grammar and vocabulary drills worked into the drama.
Of course, a wise language learner will combine all three resources in a hybrid fashion to maximize learning, minimize costs, and increase your fun.
Targeted language resources
But what if you are a bilingual or multilingual speaker who has a good command of another language but you make only a few glaring grammatical mistakes? You will need specific drill-and-practice in the areas that confuse you, but in the online resources above, it may be hard to find the exact module that you need.
Here are some specific ESL online resources that might help:
1-Language.com: Well-defined lessons and interactive exercises with feedback. I wasn’t overly impressed with the lesson on articles, however.
Dave’s ESL Cafe: Print-based lessons, although there are quizzes that cover several lessons at a time. The feedback on the quizzes is a bit clunky and not all that helpful.
I have found that learning a second language takes a lot of time, especially at my age, but the benefits far outweigh the effort. I feel my brain expanding (and researchers tell us that being bilingual may postpone the effects of dementia). I can look forward to visiting Spain and being able to speak the language, however hesitantly. And I understand the struggles of ESL speakers better.
If you know of other second-language-learning resources that I have not mentioned, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hasta luego! [See you later!]