Category Archives: #ESL

10 Ways to Learn a New Language Faster

I learned a new language at the age of 50, and here are some strategies from language experts that have helped me speak Spanish with hundreds of native speakers in various countries.

1. Learn a new language the same way you learned your first language:

  • Listen to native speakers often and for long periods of time.
  • Watch how they communicate.
  • Imitate what they say and how they say it, which may require using your face muscles, mouth and tongue in new ways to produce some new sounds so that you can be better understood.

2. Listen to content that is interesting and at your level (beginner, intermediate, or advanced).

3. Be happy, relaxed, and curious while learning, and be comfortable not understanding everything that you hear. Focus on understanding the general meaning of what is said, and not so much on understanding every word.

4. You should spend time every day learning if you want to learn fast, even if it is for only 15 minutes. If you go for days or weeks without contacting the language, your progress will slow to a crawl.

5. Ask native speakers for help, and in particular you should know how to say in your new language:

  • “Excuse me …”
  • “How could I (find/do/go to, etc.) …?”
  • “What is this?”
  • “How do you say …?”
  • “I don’t understand.”

6. Learn the 100 most common words in the language, then the 500 most common words, and by the time you learn the 1000 most common words you’ll understand 75% of daily conversations.

7. Speak from the first day you start learning a new language, and be willing to make many mistakes every day for the rest of your life communicating in your new language. Be creative and say things any way that you can, because having to say things in a roundabout way is both normal and essential.

8. Use all of your senses to learn the language by connecting words with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch. Have fun learning a new language!

9. In order to move from beginner to intermediate and then to an advanced level, you must develop the ability to speak using expressions of time and mood – past, present, future, and conditional verb tenses, and in some languages the subjunctive mood.

  • Beginners speak in the present tense, and learn to speak about the past and the future as they progress.
  • Intermediate speakers are much more comfortable speaking about the past, present, and future. They also learn to speak using conditional phrases that any native speaker uses commonly, for example: “I would keep doing things the way they have always been done, but I have an idea …” Another example: “If I were you, I would learn a new language because …”
  • Advanced speakers use various expressions of time and mood, and when they can do this like a native speaker, they speak like a native speaker speaks. The word “fluent” is hard to define, and I choose to believe that I have been speaking “fluently” since I reached intermediate level (which many people can reach in 3-6 months, but which took me a few years).

10. Find language coaches and teachers who (1) work at understanding you, (2) don’t correct every mistake you make, (3) demonstrate how to say things correctly, and (4) use words you understand or can learn.

It’s never too late to learn a new language, and not only is it good exercise for the mind, but it will enable you to discover and enjoy more places and people.

IMPORTANT! Chris Lonsdale’s insightful TEDx video is the inspiration behind much of this content, together with strategies that I have gleaned from various other sources as well as from my own experience teaching English as a second language. Watch the video of Chris at

English School Director

I came to Colombia intending to establish an English program here, however I was not planning to become an English School Director. My idea was to teach some classes and hopefully find a few volunteers to co-teach with me. However, when about 80 people of various English levels expressed interest in taking English classes, I quickly realized that I had to divide up the students into various groups. I also learned that most of the people around here do shift work in the surrounding factories, and for many people that shift changes every month; as a result, I had to create both morning and late afternoon classes. And though I enjoy teaching English, I did not really want to be teaching 4-5 hours every day, so I was forced to recruit teachers to help.

The staffing part of this project has been the biggest challenge. I have been posting almost every week on various online sites, such as,, facebook expat groups, etc., seeking volunteer teachers. I have also sent messages to the universities and private English schools nearby and in Medellin seeking teachers. There are very few native English speakers here in Marinilla or nearby Rionegro, so Medellin is where I have been able to find help … however, Medellin is 1.5 hours away by bus, so to entice people to come here I have offered to pay their round-trip bus transportation. I have had teachers come for a few weeks only to leave on vacation or go back to their home country for a spell. Some people have told me that they are coming to teach on a specific night, but when they don’t show up it forces me to scramble to cover the classes. I have resorted to recruiting Spanish speakers who have something of an intermediate level of English, and then I try to persuade them to give teaching English a try since it is a good way to strengthen their own understanding of English. (Which is actually true, so don’t you go thinking that I am feeding people a bunch of BS down here). And when I do convince someone to give teaching a shot, they generally have no clue how to teach nor do they have any materials, so I have to both coach them and provide materials for them to use. There are no adult English resources in the library facility where we are teaching English (only children’s books), so I have been going to the local public high school and using their library to copy chapters out of books and workbooks. Most of these materials are very youth-oriented, so I have to hunt for sections that don’t talk about teen dating, video games, and the best flavored popsicles. The papelería across the street (stationery store/copy center/gift shop) knows me so well that they drop what they are doing when they see me coming because they know I’ll have a mound of documents to copy, and they often give me a piece of chocolate with my copies. Everyone who is taking classes knows who I am, and when they get concerned about their teacher, or about whether they will have a teacher for a given class, they come to me and ask me what am I going to do about it. Many times someone has been outside my class waiting for the class to end, and sometimes before I have time to erase the board they approach me to ask whether they can join the class … and even though there was an official registration process at the beginning of the term that was organized by the office of Tourism and Culture and that is supposedly closed to new registrants, I take a few minutes to discern the English level of everyone who approaches me before I assign them to an English class (which also requires making more copies so that the new student can participate).

On top of that, I have my own intermediate level classes to teach. I should probably put “intermediate” in quotes, because the reality is that my students range from a few who are true intermediate to those who are not absolute beginners. Those with very little or no English are put into our morning or afternoon beginner English class, and occasionally some will find that class too basic and ask to join my class. Also, several of my students decided that they were overwhelmed in my class, and with a pitiful and defeated look on their face have told me that they need or want to drop back to the beginner class. I have worked very hard to motivate and encourage my students, and to set high expectations for them. I have told them on several occasions about the time and effort required to get to the next level in their English, but the reality is that only about 20% of them are putting in the effort required to learn as quickly as I think they can learn. (Pareto’s famous 80/20 rule at work again). But even if the majority of my students are in class just to have something fun or different to do while hoping to learn a little English, almost without exception I have had no behavioral problems with any of my students, which is why I made clear at the very beginning that I only teach adults and that no teenagers or children are permitted in the classes. (If some “youngins” do sneak in, they either come with their parents or behave themselves knowing that they’ll get the boot if they don’t behave). I had one student about 3 weeks ago that was a bit obnoxious and thought that the class was designed solely for him, but fortunately he got offended when I started to ignore him and he did not return. One other challenging student is a 30-something woman that I let join the class in the last few weeks, but almost immediately she started looking for fault in my handouts or in what I said to the class; evidently, she is a fanatical guardian of the Latino culture, and I think that she assumes that I am a self-righteous American who has come to impose American culture and language on Latinos … but fortunately, my students have come to my defense, and she has not been back in the last few days. (I think I warmed her heart and assuaged her concerns when I told her that the demand for illegal drugs in America is the real problem, not the supply). All in all, our students are learning English, they are very appreciative of these free English classes, and they are a joy to teach.

4 Requirements for Learning English as an Adult

On Monday, February 8th, we started the English program here in Marinilla, Colombia. About 70 people gathered in the local theater to hear my presentation of the program.

I started by telling the audience that after 4 years of high school French and 1 year of college French, I could speak very little French. Moreover, within a year I forgot everything that I had learned because I never used the language. As a result, I spent the next 30 years believing that I couldn’t learn a second language, although I always wished that I could … meanwhile, I continued to envy and admire people who could speak more than one language.

Then I told my audience of adults that everything changed when I started learning Spanish at the age of 48, and this caught their attention because almost everyone appeared to be younger than 48. I explained that since I learned a second language later in life, that they could too. Moreover, I told them that I have been teaching English for several years, and that I specialize in teaching English to adult native speakers of Spanish. Everyone seemed excited.

Then I explained the following 4 requirements for learning English as an adult:

  • MAKE MISTAKES – You have to be willing to make mistakes. This is very important to the process, and you cannot learn how to speak English without making many mistakes.
  • BELIEVE – You have to believe that you can speak English. But even more than believing that you “can” speak English, you have to believe that you already speak English. Tell everyone, “I speak English.” Visualize yourself speaking English … at some point you’ll stop translating everything in your head and start thinking in English.
  • INVEST TIME – For the next 3 months, you have to spend 2-3 hours every day studying and practicing English. If you don’t have that much time, you have to make time … and to do that, you may have to sacrifice something else in your life (e.g. television, sleep, etc.).
  • WORK – During your 2-3 hours of daily English studies, you have to work. If your mind is not tired after three hours of studies, you are not working.

The first two requirements were well received … the second two requirements, not so much. So I explained to them that I am not a magician that can magically teach them English, and I also told them that there is no magic pill for learning any language. If there were a magic pill, I would take it. As a result, if you want to learn a second language you must be willing to put in the time and effort it takes … coupled of course with belief in yourself and the willingness to make a lot of mistakes.

Fellow volunteer teachers who I have recruited to help me include sixty-something Bob from the U.S. who has been travelling the world for 10 years … Cameron from Holland, and fresh out of high school … Colombian native Emilson, a young guy who is eager to show his fellow Colombians that they can do it … and new recruit, Santiago, another young Colombian who can show the way. Currently we have 4 classes every day Monday through Friday, consisting of both a beginner and intermediate class from 8:00 to 9:00 AM and from 6:00 to 7:00 PM. I am teaching all the “intermediate” students, and the other teachers are teaming up to teach the beginners. Currently we are averaging about 80 students a day, evenly spit between the morning and evening classes. Often several students will linger long after class talking with each other and wanting to learn more, which means that we have to ask them to leave because other groups want to use the rooms and/or the facility is closing.

By the way, since I assumed that most of the people who were at the municipal theater on opening night knew little or no English, I decided to speak in Spanish and without using notes for virtually the entire 40-minute presentation. You, too, can learn to speak another language.

Is immersion the best way to teach a new language to adults?

Many language schools focus on 100% immersion, and even require their teachers to use the target language exclusively. For example, not long ago I interviewed for a position teaching English to business professionals in Colombia, and I was told that I must not use any Spanish in the classroom … that I must teach the entire time in English. Is this the best way to teach adults?

No it is not, and especially not for beginner students.

So, why do language schools focus on immersion? I suspect that many use full immersion out of necessity and not by design because they simply don’t have teachers that can speak both languages effectively, such as the many Spanish language schools in Latin America that sell their programs to native English speakers; their Spanish teachers cannot speak English, so they sell the benefits of 100% immersion in Spanish. Or, it could be that some language schools who do corporate training are required by their corporate clients to provide 100% immersion in the target language. Finally, it is possible that the majority of language learners insist on full immersion. Whatever the reason(s), full 100% immersion for all students regardless of language level is not the most effective approach to teaching a new language to adults.

I am not a linguist that has studied language acquisition, however I have done a fair amount of research on language learning methods. Also, I began learning Spanish at the age of 48 … and having spent 7 years on this process, I know firsthand at least what works best for me. Moreover, I have been teaching English as a second/foreign language (ESL/EFL) for several years to adults, and it is clear to me that complete immersion can at times be very ineffective and discouraging to students. So, I would like to offer a better and more nuanced approach to teaching a new language to adults.

Language immersion should be tailored to the language level of the adult students. For instance, in a class of beginners with little or no exposure to the English language, it would be counter-productive to speak English the entire time while trying to teach them the alphabet, basic words and verb tenses, etc. If I were to speak English the entire time, most of what I said would not be understood. Some will say that my speaking the entire time in English is a good way to tune the ears of the students to hear English, but I would argue that students can get their ears much more effectively tuned outside of class by listening to English language audio, by watching video on TV and the internet, or by having conversations with native English speakers. Advanced language students, however, would obviously benefit from complete immersion in the classroom, and intermediate students are somewhere in-between. Below is my proposal for the relative level of immersion that should be applied to students at different levels of language acquisition.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a widely used guideline for assessing the aptitude of foreign language students all over the world, and it lists the following 6 levels:

Level A1 – Beginner
Level A2 – Elementary
Level B1 – Intermediate
Level B2 – Upper Intermediate
Level C1 – Advanced
Level C2 – Mastery

Based on my research and personal experience (both teaching English and learning Spanish), I recommend that at each higher level more immersion can be applied in a classroom of adults. The level of immersion that I recommend for adult English language learners at each level is as follows:

Level A1 – Beginner – no more than 60% immersion
Level A2 – Elementary – no more than 70% immersion
Level B1 – Intermediate – no more than 80% immersion
Level B2 – Upper Intermediate – no more than 90% immersion
Level C1 – Advanced – 100% immersion
Level C2 – Mastery – 100% immersion

I have taught English to adult native Spanish speakers for many years, and I have also taught English at universities in the USA to international students to prepare them to pass the TOEFL and IELTS exams and to enter university studies. Based on my experience with these (and other) internationally recognized aptitude tests, adults do not reach the B2 upper intermediate level until they can comfortably use about 50% of the verb tenses effectively (including past, present, future and conditional verb tenses). In English there are 16 verb tenses, and the average native English speaker uses most, if not all of them, on a regular basis. However, in my experience, many adult English language learners plateau at the B1 intermediate level, and stick to using no more than about 4-5 verb tenses on a regular basis … and even then, a B1 level student does not use those 4-5 most common verb tenses accurately and comfortably all the time. So, when I am teaching English to intermediate level native Spanish speakers, I have found it very helpful to clarify grammar points and in particular verb tenses by speaking to them in Spanish when necessary in order to enhance the learning experience. For example, once I show them how a specific English verb tense compares to the same basic tense in Spanish, they understand the lesson much quicker (or perhaps for the first time) and we can move on to practicing the language and to deepening their language aptitude.

The English language school in Colombia that interviewed me has corporate clients that want to improve the English skills of their employees. However, if their employees are anything like most of the adults that I have taught through the years, it would be counter-productive for me to use only English in the classroom (unless, of course, I am given all advanced students). Instead, after I have measured the overall level of the students, I should apply the appropriate level of immersion according to the scale that I have detailed above. If 100% immersion in English is required, it would likely lessen the effectiveness of the language learning environment and reduce a client’s return on investment.

Any thoughts?

English Teacher hits the pavement in Medellin

Perhaps “madness” is too strong a word to describe my first 10 days in Medellin, but it sure has been action-packed. I was getting nowhere via email and the internet in my search for a position teaching English, and so I decided to just show up. (In Latin America, business is done face-to-face). As a result, I had some pretty cool experiences but still no job offers.

I first went to a nearby smaller university, and the security guard escorted me right to the head of the English department. I was asked to email copies of my passport both to HR and to him, but days later I have heard nothing. Nonetheless, at the time I was thinking, “That first connection was easy – today is going to be my day.” Then I went to a prestigious and very large Catholic university in the center of Medellin, and Security would not let me on the grounds without my passport (the copy I usually carry would not do here as in other countries). Not even Mary Mother Anselm could have got me through that iron gate. So, I went all the way back home to get my passport, and when I returned they did a thorough passport review, took my photo, and entered all this information into their computer. After I passed through the iron gate, I was on this large campus for only a few minutes before asking directions to the language department from a man who was wearing a university shirt (perhaps housekeeping staff), and he looked up and called to another man who was walking by to see if that man knew, and that passerby just happened to be an English teacher in the language department. Then while we were walking, the English teacher told me that he got his degree at Northern Arizona University, and he promptly escorted me through the locked door at the language department directly to the Head of the language department. Wow! After a good interview, I was told that the soonest they could use me is in March, but that I would need a work visa to teach there. I sent a follow-up email to thank him for his time, but I have heard nothing since.

On to EAFIT, not only the largest university in Medellin, but the most prestigious and best paying English teaching position to be had in this town. I had contacted them several times since last June, sent several application materials to them, and sent a direct message via LinkedIn to the department Head. (I know that he viewed my LinkedIn profile because LinkedIn tells you who views your profile). As has happened to me many times in this city, people standing at bus stops helped me find the correct busses, and on the bus that would take me to EAFIT, the person who was sitting beside me made sure that I got off at the right stop. With passport in hand, I was able to get through Security, and the language center just happened to be 10 steps past Security. (We’re talking a campus the size of The Ohio State University). I tugged at the locked door that leads to Administration, and immediately someone buzzed me into the offices without asking who I was. Within 5 minutes I was sitting in front of the Administrator who I had corresponded with several times over the last 6 months. She told me that the soonest they would need me is one year from now.

Since that experience I have heard back from other universities in town who all tell me the same thing – without a work visa, I have little or no chance of teaching English at a university here. A work visa would cost around $500 (including attorney fees), would take about 6 weeks to obtain (provided that the mountain of required documents were all submitted exactly as required the first time), and the process should be started at a consulate office outside the country. The woman in whose house I am staying is an attorney, and one day she offered to give me a ride to various locales because she had business to do … and while she was doing her lawyer thing, I was able to visit different neighborhoods. We started in the morning and finished late at night, and we traipsed all over the metropolitan area and beyond as she followed up on cases that needed this jot fixed or that tittle signed, and she told me that this is the norm in Colombia … if documents are not exactly correct, you have to return to stand in line to wait to fix them, and then you might have to go the next office, and the next office, and perhaps pay fees at each office along the way, and of course everything has to be done face-to-face, and by the time you get your approval weeks or months later you are a little bit numb, surprised, and relieved. (She told me that her new law cases are scheduled to be first heard over a year from now). Of course, I don’t have to believe that all processes are difficult and take a long time here, but that is what almost everyone says.

Believe it or not, there is one local university that does not seem scared by my tourist visa, and a friend of my landlord hooked me up with an interview with the Director of the English program. Once again, my passport got me through Security, and my interview with La Directora went very well. She told me that in the off-chance that they get a surge in enrollment (made less likely by the fact that for the first time in history they are requiring each student to pay a full year of tuition before starting classes this term), they could possibly offer me a few classes to teach in February. Since I am the eternal optimist, I am believing that this will come through.

So I turned my attention to the many private language schools in town, and the reputable ones have told me a similar story – they won’t even look at me without an existing work visa and long-term commitment (and of course a work visa requires a sponsoring organization). Moreover, I have read in expat forums about the many disreputable language schools in town that send you all over town for appointments with people who don’t show up, and that even if they do give you clients, somehow they forget to pay their instructors. Again, I choose what I will believe.

As I write this article, I am sitting in the main local office of SENA, the Colombian Government’s Social Service Agency that (among many other programs) operates the much ballyhooed bilingual country-wide initiative that is supposed to make all Colombian students bilingual in the not too distant future, quite a task since the rate of English language proficiency in Colombia is one of the lowest in all of Central and South America. I’ve been sitting for over an hour together with several others who all seem to be waiting to see people who don’t show up, and so I thought that this would be a good time to turn a lemon into lemonade and write this blog article. But now that I am about to finish this post, I don’t know how much longer that I want to wait in this hot and humid office sweating with all the others waiting to see someone who doesn’t show up. In all honesty, I did not have an appointment here today, but rather than try to move this process along via email and internet, I thought that I might just show up in order to expedite the process … and so I wait.

After waiting over 1.5 hours, someone did show up to tell me to search the Spanish language SENA government website on a nearby computer to get a job code, and that once I submitted a job code and my passport information, someone might show up to meet with me. Instead of spending the rest of the afternoon in that office waiting for someone to show up, I thanked them for the information and walked out.

I never say never … but while plan A and plan B (and C, and D, and ???) are in process, I am already strategizing on next steps. Stay tuned.