Archive for September, 2009

'Spanish': a pending subject

Monday, September 28th, 2009


Spanish is the second language in the United States. Of 305 million inhabitants, 45 million are Spanish speaking. However, learning Spanish at school or in a public institution is an odyssey. Mostly, Spanish does not reach more significance than extra activities at schools.

In some institutes things change….but not so much. In only 15 in 50 states which compose the U.S., Spanish is required for graduating.

United States Department of Education
Image by Christopher S. Penn via Flickr

Taking the opportunity to study Spanish in the public system is like a lottery and also depending on where you live.

In the city of New York, with some luck, the college in one area is bilingual English – Spanish and children learn it in their early ages. But this is an exception. Living a couple of streets further away, can mean that you are not taking Spanish classes until the ages of twelve. This is the usual situation.

In front of this background, there are many organizations deciding to start changing this situation. One of them is the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages that asks for foreign languages to play a more significant and even basic role in the curriculum of the schools. With its campaign “Discover Languages… Discover the World!” they want to convince Americans of the importance of knowing languages.

The crises, an enemy

The economic crisis does not make this situation easier. In New York, the city with the most public schools of the U.S. has cut the budget for schools of almost 5% per year. The Department of Education of the city makes sure that there will not be any cancellations, but vacant positions will not be offered again.

A Spanish school in New York

The difficulty of learning Spanish at school worries parents of Hispanic origin. They want their children not to unlearn their language. According to a survey, only half of the Spanish-speaking children speak Spanish at home.

Consequently, the “Colegio Español Nueva York” was founded. Here, pupils receive classes according to the Spanish educational system.

Spanish as the engine of advertisement

The Spanish government supports the advertisement of teaching Spanish beyond their frontiers and in the U.S. with high priority. Spain regards itself as an important engine to promote the Spanish language in the whole world.

The Department of Education of the Spanish embassy in the U.S. has 28 people who administrate very different programs in the whole country.

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How To Achieve Language Fluency Easily

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Many people who learn languages nowadays are on the fast lane. With the speed of the development of technology and such, learning languages has become easier for most of us. However, there are some who would want to know how to learn languages fast and there are no barriers as long as there are resources available.

Here are a few easy steps for you to try out in order to pick up language fluency easily:

Know the basics. The basic elements of a language are important so that you will have a great foundation in developing your language skills. Picking up basic vocabulary and grammar is an important first step. Vocabulary lets you become familiar with terms while grammar lets you become aware of sentence structure. In order to become familiar with grammar and vocabulary check out sites online that offer free tutorials and exercises that let you hone your grammar and vocabulary skills. A vocabulary tip: learn new vocabulary at night before you go to bed then write the new words on sticky notes that you can put on your bathroom or dresser mirror as a reminder.

Writing is another language skill that you should work on and one way to improve it is by text chatting with native speakers online. There are many chat rooms and forums for language learners who are interested to communicate with pen pals through language exchange. This is a great way of learning more about the language, meeting new friends, and learning about other cultures. A tip you can explore: Visit online forums to meet language exchange partners or you can check out and sign up at the Abroad Language Pen Pals site!

Reading is one of the four language skills and in order to improve this skill, you can practice reading articles and information on sites that are presented in your target language. The internet is a treasury of websites that can help you improve your reading abilities. If you are in your early stage of learning a language, check out children’s websites, cartoons, and books. A tip you can use: Make a printout of a story or an article in your target language and read it straight through; highlight the terms and phrases you don’t understand and find out what they mean by searching through an online dictionary and/or translator.

Speaking seems to be one of the more difficult language skills to develop since pronunciation plays an important role in conveying a message. Finding partners for practice speaking can be quite difficult yet there are many ways to improve your speaking skills by finding native speakers in your target language in language exchange forums and groups. You can practice speaking by using Skype or other online messaging tools. A speaking tip: watch movies in your target language and observe how words are spoken; then try speaking words in your target language by speaking in front of a mirror!

Listening is a language skill that needs to be developed together with the other skills. Some studies show that listening should be put ahead of the other skills but it all depends on what kind of language learner you are. In order to home this skill, listen to your target language through podcasts or online radios. You can also try listening to audio books, music in your target language or watch videos on YouTube! A tip you might enjoy: watch a movie in your target language with your native language as subtitles; watch the movie again but with the subtitles turned off and see if you could understand the movie and the language better.

Achieving language fluency is easy if you just put your heart into it. Make use of whatever is available and accessible to you and make sure than you enjoy learning the language!

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Idioms and Language Learning

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Idioms are expressions, words, or phrases whose meanings are figurative. The literal definitions of idioms do not mean the same in the figurative sense that is why learning idioms can be challenging. Idioms are very useful when you are learning languages. Having the ability to understand and use idioms helps a language learner become more accustomed to the language and become truly fluent in it.

Idioms are generally colloquial metaphors and they require foundational knowledge, experience, and information to use the idioms within a certain culture. Idioms are not only considered to be part of a language being learned but more on a part of the culture. Like slang and colloquial terms, idioms are typically localized and can be quite useless if used beyond their local context. However, there are some idioms that can be used universally, can be easily translated, and the metaphoric meaning can be realized.

Idiomatic expressions in a language can be learned through native speakers that you meet in your locality or by being fully immersed in the language and the natural environment where it is spoken. Learning a language abroad can be a great experience for you to experience the culture of the people and thus know more about the language and learn more idioms and idiomatic expressions.

Is learning idioms important when you learn a language? There would be some language learners who think that idioms are not necessary as long as they know grammar and vocabulary. Some language enthusiasts would believe that idioms are essential in becoming fully engaged with the language that you are learning so that you can communicate in the language like a native speaker, you can use terms that can be understood only by native speakers too!

Learning languages is already challenging enough and learning idioms makes language learning more challenging. There are some language learners who easily give up on the language that they are learning once they encounter difficulty with idioms. Not understanding an idiom due to literal translation could lead to miscommunication that is why while learning a language, it is better to learn more about the culture where the language originated from.

Idioms are creative means for people to express themselves in a language, and not knowing enough idioms may lead to a bland and too formal conversation. Communicating too formally in not too formal situations may leave left out of a conversation, there is also a tendency that if you don’t understand idioms, you will not be able to catch up with what people are talking about.

So why are idioms important? Every language learner will come up with his or her own reasons why idioms are important and here are just some of them:
• idioms allow you to understand terms that mostly natives only understand;
• idioms allow you to communicate with natives and if your work involves communicating with people in the language you are learning, you will become more effective with your work;
• idioms are fun and creative, you can inject fun and creativity in your conversations if you use them.

Idioms, like colloquialisms and slang terms give language learners the real deal about a language and open more windows for communication. In the real setting of the language that you are learning, aside from the basic elements of the language, figurative terms are really important that is why you need to learn idioms as you learn a language!

What are you waiting for? Learn a language where it is spoken and learn idioms along the way!

Innovative Teaching at Beaufort County, South Carolina

Friday, September 18th, 2009

In many parts of the world, bringing iPods and other music players in school may be banned due to the premise that they may disturb school activities. However, in Beaufort County, South Carolina, there are students who can use them within the school premises.

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

There are many ways in learning languages yet it seems that language teachers need more tools to help students who have limited knowledge of the language around them to become more familiar with the language. English language lessons may not be enough for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students that is why technology was tapped in order to help them bridge the communication gap.

According to the ESOL coordinator of the district, Sarah Owen, Hilton Head Island Middle School purchased a set of iPods last year and the school district paid about $200 for each iPod Touch using the federal money allocated for ESOL students. Bluffton High, H.E. McCracken Middle School, Red Cedar Elementary School, and Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts elementary school will receive their iPod sets this year.

The district has a contract with iPod manufacturer Apple Computer Inc. that includes training for teachers and a device that can charge and sync about twenty iPods to one computer at the same time. ESOL teacher at Hilton Head Middle, Nancy Davis, has said that “It’s a popular form of technology, so students are excited about them.”

The students use the iPods as language learning devices to listen to stories as part of a fluency program designed to develop vocabulary, improve pronunciation, and emphasize important words and concepts taught in core subjects. For reading and grammar exercises, the students use the iPod’s video playback feature. Later this year, Ms Davis plans to help her ESOL students take a video of themselves using the iPods so that they can analyze their own speech and the speech of their peers.

The ESOL students at Hilton head Middle School said that they typically read a story before using the iPod and mark the words that they don’t recognize. They then re-read the story while listening to an audio version. Students who don’t understand the story can listen to the audio version repeatedly until they can understand it. They also have the option of rewinding to the parts of the audio book that confuse them.

At the moment the iPods are used only in ESOL classes but Davis has said that the school’s program to use the said device might be expanded to include students learning foreign languages such as French and Spanish.

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Mandarin 101

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Hi everyone. In this post, I would like to start with a series of discussions and tutorials on How To Learn Mandarin. The Mandarin language was introduced to me when I was just a toddler. Being able to speak Mandarin fluently, naturally and with proper intonation must come with lots of practice and understanding of the Mandarin tones.

Let’s start with the tones. There are 4 main tones and a fifth silent tone in Mandarin. Each tone is assigned a name according to the numerical hierarchy. So we have the first, second, third, fourth and fifth (silent) tone. To represent this intonation we use the simple lines and all you have to do is follow how the line goes to produce a sound.


How does it sound like?

Mandarin is pictorial language. However how each Mandarin character sounds like cannot be taught simply by teach and listen technique because there is nothing in our visual memory to help us remember how to produce the sound it is supposed to make. For comparison, when we are taught what ‘a’ sounds like, we not only see the letter ‘a’, we also learn the sound. So the next time we see ‘a’, we can recall the memory to say the ‘a’ sound correctly. Mandarin characters however is not made up of a string of alphabets but strokes.

Henceforth in order for us to remember how to say the sound of Mandarin characters: to speak and read, they also use alpabets to represent them. I hope you understand this part before we move on.

Now let’s understand the symbols you are looking at now.

These symbols are pictorial reminders of how to say the tones. For instance, for the second tone you move the sound from low to high.
- : First intonation: direct your voice upwards with a high tone.

ˊ : Second intonation: move your voice from low to high as if you saying inquisitions like “eh?”, “huh?”
ˇ : Third intonation is a 2-part one when done slowly. (It’s still one syllable.) “ah-uh?”. Dip your head for the “ah”, raise it for the shorter “uh?”, say it fast, and you’re dead on.
ˋ : Fourth intonation: a downward low tone and the easiest one to master.
If you wish you may wish to download to listen to how this actually works. A series of videos on how to make the initial sounds (sometimes referred to as consonants) have also been created for you to learn. I hope you have enjoyed this post. Practice these sounds and we’ll see you again next time.

Resource: Annie Cook is author and eteacher on Success With Languages. She’s been speaking Mandarin for more than 4 decades and is now teaching others language learning skills on her blog.

Literacy: A Human Right.

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

The following post will be a bit different from what we usually write about. Today is the International Literacy Day and we decided to join this cause as many others have in order to create awareness of this issue that still exists in this modern world. The objective of this day is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies.

Despite the efforts and varied efforts of different organizations, literacy still exists up to this day. One of the organizations that has been working on this issue, and trying to make a difference in the illiterate world is UNESCO. Here are some facts about this problem that we found on the UNESCO website.

- 776 million adults lack minimum literacy skills
- 1 out of 5 adults is still not literate and 2/3 are women.
- 75 million children are out of school and many more attend irregularly or drop out.

Literacy is considered to be a human right, vital to everyone because it allows social and human development, it is essential in fighting poverty, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality, peace, among other things.

Even though it seems that this article is not directly about learning languages, it is related with our sites purpose. For a person to fully learn his or her language, it is important that they know how to read and write. Communication is not only verbal, also there is non-verbal communication and written communication. People that are illiterate are at a disadvantage because they don’t have all of the information available that you and I have, just by knowing how to read, they can’t fully communicate. Literacy is part of life, and everyone deserves to have the opportunity to enjoy this human right.

The current challenges of the problem as described by UNESCO are the following:

- Too many literacy programmes have taught literacy for its own sake – learners become discourages and wonder why they should go on. It is important to link literacy with other development action, such as health, education running businesses, cultural development. The purpose of learning literacy should be clear.
- Programs should be flexible and designed with lots of local inputs. Standardized programmes will not do the job.
- People learn to read and write best in their own language, before learning to do so in other languages. For many minority languages, the challenge is to produce a usable alphabet and interesting literature, but there are ways to do this that are affordable.
- There is a need for research to find innovative and appropriate literacy methods. We also need to investigate what works and find out where these lessons can be applied.
- The figures on adult literacy are unreliable and often represent estimates and guesses. We need better ways of measuring progress in literacy.

If you want to know more about this problem, and want to help in some way you can visit the webpage or contact UNESCO, which has been working on this issue for several decades.

Expand Your Vocabulary Skills and Support the UN World Food Program

Friday, September 4th, 2009

There are many ways to improve your vocabulary skills if you are learning languages; you can always carry a dictionary of your target language with you or you can try out games you can find online. While searching for online games that can help language learners inculcate more words into their vocabulary, I came across this FreeRice online vocabulary game.

The FreeRice vocabulary game allows language learners to give free rice to hungry people by playing their vocabulary games. The United Nations Food Program gives rice to hungry people across the planet that is why by playing this game, you will be able to help generate food for hungry people.

The United Nations has stated that about twenty-five thousand people die every day from hunger or hunger-related causes and that most of them are children. Since the beginning of FreeRice in October 2007, millions have already been fed by supporters and players of the vocabulary game.

The FreeRice vocabulary game helps you expand your vocabulary knowledge, formulate ideas better, understand more of what you read, learn to read faster since you understand better, have better grades in school, score higher on tests, perform better at job interviews, become more effective and successful at your job, and many more.

FreeRice has language learning vocabulary games in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. The items allow you to choose what the words mean and for every correct answer, ten grains of rice will be put into your rice bowl; and if you will answer incorrectly, you will be given another chance to answer the question later on. English grammar games will test your skills in English and challenge you and help you learn what you still need to learn with English grammar.

FreeRice also has games in the fields of Art, Chemistry, Geography, and Math. They are currently working to add more subjects and more material within each subject in order to provide interesting and useful knowledge for those who are interested to learn new things while helping feed hungry children from different parts of the planet.

While playing the game you might wonder who pays for the free rice. The rice is paid for by the sponsors of the site whose names appear at the bottom of the page whenever a correct answer is entered. The sponsors of the program support both learning (free education for everyone playing the games), and reducing hunger (donating free rice to the hungry). If you would want to know more about the program, visit the site

Improving your vocabulary and grammar in your target language while donating rice will surely be something you will enjoy; you will be benefiting a lot from the games, and other people will also benefit from your correct answers! Learn languages and feed people now!