Category Archives: #teachESL

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

What do you live for?

I like to start my English classes with a warm-up exercise that will get my students thinking and speaking in English. Once they are warmed up, I transition into the lesson(s) of the day. Most of the time I warm up the language center in their mind with simple exercises such as, “Give me the name of a country that begins with the letter S … that begins with the letter L” … etc. Or, I might ask each student to spell a different word. Or, we might practice verb tenses that we have learned, for example we might practice the past tenses by telling everyone what we did yesterday.

But one day I decided to get philosophical on my students with the question,“What do you live for?” Several people said similar things such as “family,” “travel,” “God,“ “music,” and even “to learn English.” (I have some devoted students, eh?). As for myself, I had not thought about what I might say until the last person had spoken and everyone was staring at me waiting for my response. I thought for a moment, and then told them that I live for learning about human potential and for discovering how to live life to the fullest.

I’ve heard it said that we use only a small percentage of our potential … I am not sure how you measure that, but it sure seems to me that extraordinary things can manifest through each of us.

I love the entire genre that is variously known as self-development, personal growth, self-help, etc. Here in the Spanish- speaking world this genre is called auto-desarollo, auto-ayuda, etc. I cannot get enough of it, and since I don’t read books that often, I am usually taking this content in by listening to audiobooks, podcasts, and other audio resources on the iPods that I have with me. I even consider my Spanish educational resources to be part of this genre since they are helping me to develop personally, and helping me to live life more fully by enabling me to experience more profoundly the Spanish-speaking world. I don’t believe everything that I hear and read, because this genre is like any other genre in that some of the authors may not have the highest motives or could simply be mistaken, such as a financial advisor and author with a fancy title who is selling a lot of books with questionable if not dangerous financial advice. Each of us has to pick and choose what resonates with us.

I am listening to an audiobook right now that is one of the most extraordinary audiobooks that I have ever heard, it is by Anita Moorjani and is entitled, “Dying to Be Me.” Anita had what is known as a Near Death Experience (NDE), and in her book she shares how it has impacted her perspective and life. If you believe that NDEs are a bunch of bunk and that the thousands of people who claim to have had an NDE are all liars, you obviously would not be interested in this book. As for myself, I open to learning what I can from Anita’s story for a few reasons, one of them being that I too have had spiritual experiences that defy explanation but that have similar elements to what Anita and others have experienced. I’ve already told some people about one such experience, but this is the first time that I will write a little about it. By the way, any number of people throughout human history have experienced the miraculous, the infinite, the eternal, something that is beyond our ability to explain with human language, so while I will share a little about my experience, I will also admit that I cannot explain it like I experienced it.

One day many years ago I was with a friend and saw a vision in front of me. Since it was over 30 years ago, I will do my best to recall and explain what I saw. I was looking into a pathway of light, pure light, bright white light, as if I was looking into a pathway that led to heaven itself. As I gazed into the light I was explaining to my friend what I was seeing, and I was describing both the pathway and the destination. Since it was so surprising and shocking and exciting, unlike anything that I had ever experienced up to that time and even to this present moment, I just kept saying excitedly the same things over and over, such as:

I’m seeing a vision! I’m looking down a path of white light, pure white light … it is love and beauty and truth. I’m telling you! It is a pathway that is white and light and loving and beautiful and true. It leads right to the light!

I don’t recall how long this vision lasted nor how it ended … and who knows, it could have lasted a few minutes or a few hours – they say that at the speed of light, time stands still. In any case, while I was excitedly describing to my friend the vision I was seeing, all he could say to me was, “I don’t understand what you are saying, Keith – you are speaking in a tongue!”

To me a “tongue” is a heavenly language, something that does not apply to any particular religion or spiritual practice. Also, it seems to me that many devotees of various stripes have misused, misunderstood and overused that word “tongue,” so I mention it with some trepidation. For example, one time someone wanted to show me how to pray in a tongue, and they immediately knelt down and on command starting verbalizing a bunch of sounds … perhaps they were in fact practicing a heavenly language because who am I to judge, but my gut tells me that this is not something you can do on command but instead it is something that is given by God at a specific time for a specific purpose. As far as I know, I have not spoken in a heavenly language at any other time in my life.

So after I came out of the vision, I explained to my friend in human language what I had been seeing, similar to how I am explaining it to you now in this blog post. Words will never completely capture it, just like the word “water” can never fully capture the essence that is water, but nonetheless I have done my best to describe my experience. I don’t know why it happened to me at that point in my life, but what I do know is that it gives me a sense of hope and comfort and peace and joy. Moreover, it is similar to the many stories told by those who have had NDEs and by those who have had profound spiritual experiences.

As I understand it, God is Light and Love and Truth and Beauty. It follows that the names we use to refer to God are only glimpses of God, regardless of where those names originated. Names like Infinite Self and Source of All do their best to evoke awe, but again are only glimpses. The Spanish word that is most commonly used for God is Dios, which comes from the Latin word Deus, which they think came from the word Deiwos in a language that linguists call the Proto-Indo-European language, which is probably related to the Sanskrit Deva or Devi, which could have been a sound that someone uttered way back when at the moment they experienced what they believed was … God. Obviously, the word or words that we use to describe the One are inadequate, but we all know Who we are talking about. These words all point to the same Light and Love.

So, what do you live for? I could have said that I live for God, which may have sounded holy and impressive, or it could have sounded self-righteous and repulsive. But to me, to say that we live for God is obvious and does not necessarily need to be said. We all live and move and have our being in God … God is the Source from whom we came, the Source that enlivens us now, and the Source to whom we return.

What I’m asking is … What is it that makes you feel most alive? What is it that is uniquely you? What is your divine purpose for being? Or, in the words of Anita who has attempted to express what she saw on the other side — How do you express your magnificence?

We are all beloved in the eyes of You-Know-Who … so go ahead and be that which God has empowered you to be!

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?