Teaching the basics improves English conversational fluency

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Teaching the basics improves English conversational fluency

As a university student, I taught English to many people, ranging from kindergarten children to adults. Teaching each group was very different. Kindergarten classes involved teaching the alphabet, basic words and English songs; I would often have a sore throat from the loud singing and talking.
Teaching middle school and high school students consisted mostly of grammar and reading boring texts. Since the students often had English tests in school, the classes would focus on getting good scores rather than “learning the language.”
The most pleasant and easiest groups to teach were the adults. All of the students were corporate employees who mainly worked from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Despite their busy schedules, they attended early morning or evening classes before or after work.
Their passion for learning English came mostly from their companies’ policies, which required good English skills for promotion. But their busy schedules sometimes seemed overwhelming. I often saw students dozing off in class after a big drinking party with their coworkers the night before. Other than that, things were very easy.
There was one serious problem, though. It was hard to figure out what exactly those students needed from the class. They were mostly college graduates who knew a lot of English vocabulary, and some of them had decent English test scores. Even so, they could not carry on a simple conversation in English, despite already having taken many English classes for more than 10 years. Without any clue about what to teach them, I made them read and memorize typical conversations in those boring textbooks, at first.
As time went by, and as I taught more people, I began to realize what most of those adult students were lacking.
First, their pronunciation was simply awful, although I’m not saying that they should have talked like native English speakers. Given the many sounds that exist in English but not in Korean, they often ignored the sounds or confused them. I realized that their pronunciation was the obstacle that hid their abundant knowledge of their professions, social issues and even difficult English words.
So, I decided to teach these people the very basic things in English ― the difference between the sounds of R and L, B and V, P and F, J and Z, Th and S, and so on. I exaggerated my enunciation and tried to make them see how it worked.
Surprisingly, they said that during the entire time they learned English they never had a chance to learn the right pronunciation. It was hard to believe that they learned the alphabet, but never learned how each letter sounded.
That’s why so many Koreans tend to say “sank you,” instead of “thank you,” ‘biolin,” instead of “violin,” and “prends” instead of “friends.”
Changing their pronunciation could not be done in a day. When they were practicing the “Th” sound, they would stick out their tongue too much. When they were practicing F, their lips would meet, unconsciously. Even after they spent hours practicing, they would forget the pronunciation when they went on to the next chapter.
Those efforts, however, turned out to be worthwhile. Some students who actively participated in these lessons began to say that they could understand more than they had before.
Another thing the students needed to learn was cultural expressions in English. Such expressions as “put yourself in my shoes,” and “you are comparing apples and oranges” were unfamiliar to them. Naturally, they couldn’t understand English films and television shows without subtitles.
So, we threw away the boring textbooks and instead started learning those expressions. The students were surprised to find them everywhere, including newspapers and TV shows.
One day, they learned the meaning of “ballpark figure.” A few days later, one of the students looked very excited. He said that he finally could understand a joke on the American sitcom “Friends.”
He said one of the actors asked a woman how many men she had slept with. The woman said she couldn’t tell him. The man said, “Just give me a ballpark figure.” Her reply was, “Well, less than a ball park figure.” The student was very happy to understand a joke the Korean subtitles couldn’t translate.


by Choi Sun-young
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