Tag Archives: English learning

The world’s English mania

In just 5 minutes, Jay Walker looks at the world’s latest mania: learning English. He focuses especially on China, showing photos and spine-tingling audio of Chinese students rehearsing English by the thousands. But why make such an effort to learn English?


1 Comment

September 29, 2014 · 7:00 am

How to tell when you are learning

Learning is happening constantly, we just don’t notice it.

Only when look back do we notice how much progress we have made. However, if you don’t notice how much you are learning, you may think that you are not learning anything.

This can lead you into a vicious circle: if you cannot see the progress you are making, you will think that you are not making any progress, then you will get frustrated at yourself, which limits your ability to learn, which impedes your progress even more.

It may seem like it gets worse before it gets better

To get out of that circle and back on the right track, it may help to understand that you go through stages of learning, and it may seem like your language skills get worse before they get better. They do not actually get worse, you only become more aware of what you need to learn.

Maslow’s four stages of competence show how this actually works.

english course utrecht


Diagram by Donna Horn

The Four stages of Competence (De vier stadia van leren)

(partial descriptions from Wikipedia)

  1. Unconscious incompetence (onbewust onbekwaam)
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. 

    You leave this stage when you decide to start learning something; you recognize that something is missing in your knowledge. This is when you decide to sign up for English lessons, for example.

  2. Conscious incompetence (bewust onbekwaam)
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

    This is a vital stage where you might have the tendency to quit. You become aware of all the things you don’t know, which may feel overwhelming. In language, there seems to always be more that we don’t know.

  3. Conscious competence (bewust bekwaam)
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

    You make fewer mistakes, but speaking your new language still requires effort. You may start to wonder if you will ever speak “with ease”.

  4. Unconscious competence (onbewust bekwaam)
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

    You feel that you have arrived. You radiate confidence.

The second stage: the one that hurts, the one where all the learning happens

Many students I see are in the second stage. You realize that you are missing something but may not be quite sure what it is. After a few sessions, you have a better idea what is missing and sometimes it’s a lot.

Confidence can plummet at this point–all you can see is how “bad” you are, and not how much you are changing week by week. But progress comes in many forms.

Here is how to recognize that you are learning something:

  • You can say what you don’t know– you can put a name to it
  • You can correct your mistakes when they are pointed out to you
  • You can identify your mistakes or recognize when something is “wrong” (even if you don’t know what is “right”)
  • You can ask questions about what you don’t know
  • You can say what parts you understand and what parts you don’t


So please don’t get hung up on the fact that you are making mistakes. That’s exactly what you should be doing–making mistakes! You should be struggling with difficult concepts–the more you focus on what’s difficult, the more you’ll learn. No need to be flawless and perfect the first time.



Leave a comment

Filed under Language Learning

Quit wasting time: 5 ways to study English more effectively

You think you’re studying the right way, but you don’t feel like you are getting anywhere? Most likely you just need to change your approach to become more efficient. Fluency in English doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen in school. So take your learning outside of the classroom and make improving your English an active part of your daily life.

5. Be consistent

Invest (a little time every day) in a vocabulary trainer on your smartphone or tablet.

4. Focus on the right things

Groups of words, not individual words. If you read one online article per work day in English, take one expression from the article and add it to your vocabulary list. Take expressions from your (English-speaking) colleagues’ emails and add them to your vocabulary trainer. You probably know many of the words already, but can you use them together with such flair?

3. Write every day

When you talk, you need someone to listen. Writing can happen alone and it is one of the easiest ways to convert your passive knowledge into active knowledge. You can write your emails, your to-do list, your meeting minutes in English, or even start a blog or journal.

2. Use your down time

Change your subtitles from Dutch to English. Dutch subtitles are a crutch that is preventing your brain from processing the English that you hear on the TV all the time.

1. Connect with context

This is for all the high school students out there: no one can memorize lists of random words. Add context to your vocabulary lists: write a short, catchy sentence for every word. You’ll have an easier time remembering the words within a context.

1 Comment

Filed under Language Learning

Why you should be talking to yourself

english language learning utrecht

Have you been trying to learn a new language (or even English–aren’t we always learning?) and can’t seem to get really comfortable speaking? You do your homework, review your notes, try to consume English-language media…but when you have to turn around and talk to a real person, it just doesn’t feel so fluent?

You are missing one thing. You should be talking to yourself.

Out loud.

Crazy, you say? Not so, according to PsychCentral, who asserts that talking to yourself is a sign of sanity and may even make you smarter.

And how else are you going to get in hours of practice conversing in a new language without frustrating the kind native speakers who volunteer to talk to you or picking up other learners’ bad habits?

I spoke to myself a lot, both when I was learning French and when I was learning Dutch. Especially in the Netherlands, I always got comments on how fast I was improving and how fluid my speaking was becoming. It didn’t happen all on its own. I had to talk to myself a lot to get there! I am now no longer actively learning either, and have noticed that the less I practice speaking, the less easy it is the next time I need to do it for real.

It’s easy to practice reading and listening–you don’t need anyone’s help. But usually people shy away from practicing speaking because they worry about what others will think when they make mistakes. When the only audience is you, you don’t have to worry. Just put it out there and listen to how it sounds. Correct yourself. Say the same sentence five times until it feels right.

Does the idea of talking to yourself still feel a little funny? Here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Read out loud to yourself.

2. Ask yourself questions, then answer them.

3. Tell the story of your day as you’re brushing your teeth at night.

4. Practice giving your opinion on a topic that interests you or a topic that came up in conversation last week that you weren’t prepared for.

5. Practice planning a get-together with friends or talking about what you do for a living.

6. If you’re a more advanced speaker, then you have to do the same things native speakers do: practice that sales pitch out loud. Practice your presentation out loud.

Remember this: you can’t improve your speaking unless you speak. Speaking out loud is different from imagining a conversation in your head. Your vocal chords and mouth have to get used to new forms and vibrations.

Plus, if you talk to yourself, then the next time you speak to the native speakers they are that much more impressed because they don’t know about the time you put in practicing when they weren’t there. Good luck!

1 Comment

Filed under Language Learning

Best free online dictionaries

learn english dictionaryToo many people depend on google translate to help them with their language learning.

I hate to break it to you, but Google Translate isn’t intended to provide the depth of meaning and nuance typically necessary in an academic or professional environment.

Try these options instead:

1. Wordreference.com

especially useful for the forums

2. thefreedictionary.com

offers a medical and financial dictionary as well as acronyms and idioms

3. thesaurus.com

a dictionary of synonyms–use with care and preferably in combination with number 4

4. Oxford Collocations Dictionary online

This is not the most comprehensive dictionary ever, but helpful with putting appropriate words together

5. Google search

Not technically a dictionary, but will help you find the meaning of lots of idioms and phrases. If people are using the construction you are looking for, it will come up in google search. Use + or ” ” and don’t underestimate the auto complete feature!

6. Linguee.com

This dictionary uses a language corpus to show you examples of the phrase you are looking for and its translation in another language, so you can easily see the different translations of a word or phrase depending on the context. A delightful discovery!

1 Comment

Filed under Business English, Language Learning, Writing in English

Improve your English vocabulary | 21st century tools

Continually improving your vocabulary is a constant struggle when living and working in a foreign language. At one point, you reach a plateau and then you feel you aren’t improving anymore. You have enough language to feel comfortable, but you also know that you could be more precise, more nuanced, or more stylish.

Luckily, we have more resources to help us today than ever before. Gone are the days of hand-made flashcards and endless repetition that only got us somewhere very slowly. Vocabulary-learning software and helpful websites keep popping up to help you use your study time more efficiently than ever.

Check out these online resources to help you build your vocabulary in English.

English course Utrecht

1. lingro.com

makes any webpage clickable with definitions using either uni lingual or bilingual dictionaries.

Advantages: nothing to download, just go to lingro.com and paste the url of the website you are reading into the box. Now you can just click on any word to get the definition! You can read more easily because you don’t have to go back and forth to a dictionary.

Disadvantages: Unfortunately, there is no way to study new vocabulary, and some of the dictionaries are better than others (English-English is the most comprehensive)

2. anki

download the open-source software onto your computer, phone, or tablet and study word lists more efficiently

Advantages: download word lists or add your own to use these advanced flashcards. You have the option to say how well you know a word when it comes up–then anki will show you that word again at an appropriate interval to maximize your memorization potential. Good for on-the-go studying in short intervals.

Disadvantages: You have to download the software (or mobile app), some downloaded word lists are not correct (but easily editable), creating your own word list can be time-consuming.

3. lingua.ly

Plug-in for chrome to define any word you are reading anywhere on the internet and add it to a word list with picture, definition, and sentence. The program makes automatic quizzes and reminds you to study. It also suggests reading for you elsewhere on the web that incorporates your new words. Cool!

Advantages: Saves words with sentences, definitions, picture (context!) and reminds you to study. Plays a nice sound when you get the right answer (good for motivation!)

Disadvantages: Sometimes you will need to change the definition or picture as they may not be relevant.

4. iknow.jp

Used to be smart.fm, this site is no longer free, but the software is still pretty good. Study “SAT vocabulary” (don’t study “erudite vocabulary”) or add your own word lists.

Advantages: Good software for memorizing words and sentences, plays a nice sound when you get the answer right and gradually asks harder questions (multiple choice among 5, then 10, then fill in the blank)

Disadvantages: This site is not free and you will have to manually insert your words and sentences.

**Do you use any interesting sites to help you remember or activate new vocabulary? Add them to the comments!


Filed under Language Learning