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Are English speakers changing the way they speak for you?

Have you ever noticed that it's a lot easier to understand someone who's speaking directly to you in English than a conversation between two other people?

I have this problem when I visit my in-laws in Japan. If I'm riding in the car with my wife and her mother and they're speaking Japanese to each other, it's hard to understand their conversation. Sometimes I have to ask my wife to repeat what they're talking about. When my wife summarizes the conversation for me in Japanese, I'm usually able to understand it.

The reason that this happens is that we all naturally adjust our way of speaking to match the audience. When you speak to a colleague, you naturally use terminology that's specific to your field. When you speak to a child, you use smaller and more gentle-sounding words. When you...

How far should you go to avoid mistakes?

This week, I wrote about the concept of fossilization. This is the term for when your language ability "freezes" and stops improving. You keep making the same mistakes over and over.

I got the idea to write the article from a blog post on the interesting site Keith's Voice on Extreme Language Learning: "Making mistakes is bad or good?" Keith practices an extreme "input-first" method of language learning, where he listens to the language for many hours before trying to use it. (For example, he's spent over 2,000 hours watching TV in Mandarin Chinese.)

According to the article, 

Mistakes by themselves are not bad, but when you keep repeating the same mistakes, it develops a pattern in your head which, to you, starts to sound OK. 

Keith's solution is to avoid speaking as much...

Learning through explanations and learning through examples

When some aspect of English confuses you, what should you do about it? Should you ask a teacher or consult a book? Or try to figure it out for yourself?

If you've been reading PhraseMix for a while, you probably already know what my answer is going to be. In the past, I've written about why you need to practice English, not just learn it. But this answer may be helpful anyway.

Think of a question like one of these:

  • When should you use "did" and when should you use "have done"?
  • When do English speakers use passive sentences ("be __ed")?
  • What's the difference between "just" and "only"?

The reason that these are interesting questions about English is that the answers are complicated. If the answer were easy, you wouldn't need to ask about it. (No one asks "What's the difference between...

How do you feel about calling yourself "fluent"?

Do you feel comfortable calling yourself "fluent" in English?

I started thinking about this topic recently when I was telling someone about my experiences living in Japan. She asked whether I'm fluent in Japanese, and I started to give my usual complicated answer.

I'm never sure what to say. On one hand, I have no problem getting by completely in Japanese. I can ask for the things I need, share my opinions, enjoy TV shows, and read signs. On the other hand, there are a lot of ideas that I can't express. There are a lot of topics of conversation that I can't follow along with well. And I can't put a sentence together nearly as well as I used to when I was using it every day.

When people ask me "Are you fluent in Japanese?" I usually explain a lot of what I've just described. I don't...

Study and use

When have you made the fastest improvements in your language learning? I was thinking about this recently. I remembered that I've improved the fastest when I was:

  1. Studying the language every day by looking up new words, drilling with lists, and reading explanations of grammatical structures
  2. Using the language in my everyday life: talking with people, watching TV, reading street signs, and running errands.

Times when I've done only one or the other haven't been nearly as productive. When I only study, I learn a lot of words or phrases that I end up forgetting later. When I only use the language, my improvement is a lot slower.

I recommend spending about 30% of your time on study and 70% on using the language. What's your ratio? Do you think it works for you?

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