How long does it take to learn a language? Spoiler alert: I have no idea

How long does it take to learn a language?

Before I started teaching, sometime in between college and grad school, I was living abroad and taking language classes. I thought that I would become fluent in the language pretty quickly because I had started learning it as a child and was already pretty confident with the basics. It turned out that language learning was a lot harder than I had anticipated.

My teacher was an older woman in her mid-seventies who had been teaching forever. She was nice but usually really blunt with her opinions. (On the last day of class, for example, she went around the room and gave us all individual, informal critiques in front of the whole class. She told me something like, “You’re an amazing friend, but you’re just an average student.” Um..?)

Anyway, near the end of the course, buried in flashcards and still not fluent, I approached my teacher feeling kinda overwhelmed.
“How long does it take to learn a language?” I asked. “How much longer until I’m completely fluent and don’t have to carry a dictionary around with me everywhere?”

I don’t remember her answer, but I do remember that the next day she brought in a little story for our class to read. It went something like this:

There was once a young man who was walking to the beach through an unfamiliar town. He walked and walked until he saw an old man sitting near a hill. 
“Excuse me,” he asked the old man. “How long does it take to get to the beach.”
“Go on, go on, keep walking!” The old man grumbled.
The young man walked away confused, wondering if he had said anything offensive. When he reached the top of the hill, the old man called after him, “About twenty minutes.”
“Uh…Thanks, but why didn’t you tell me that before?” The young man asked. “I thought you were mad at me.”
“Mad? No!” The old man said. “I just had to see how quickly you walk.”

And the moral of that story, my teacher said, was that she has no idea how long it would take us to learn the language. Everyone learns at a different pace, everyone has a different language-learning background, and everyone puts in a different amount of effort. It’s hard for a teacher to predict how long it will take each individual student to learn.

It was thoughtful of my teacher to bring in a whole story to answer my simple question, and I appreciated that, but at the same time, that wasn’t then answer I wanted. Now that I’m an ESL teacher myself, though, I totally know what she means. Students often ask me how long it will take them to speak perfect English. Sometimes they’re impatient and disappointed in themselves for not jumping from pre-intermediate to super-advanced in two months. All I can really say for sure is that it’ll take a lot longer than two months.

I’ve heard from others that if you start from scratch and live in a country where the language is spoken, it should take about two years. But not many of my students are complete beginners when they arrive, and most don’t live in the U.S. They go home after a few weeks or a few months. Some will continue to take language classes a couple of times a week. Some will watch English movies and listen to English music. Some won’t.

So, unfortunately, it’s hard to give students the concrete answer they’re looking for. I can relate… I know what it’s like to be learning a language and worried that you’ll be learning forever. I can assure you that if you really work at it and you keep on walking, it won’t take forever. But I don’t know how long it will take.

What do you think?

How do you answer, “How long will it take?” And have you succeeded in learning a second language fluently? How long did it take you?

Please leave your comments in the box at the bottom of the page. Thank you!

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Six Memory-Inspired Picture Prompts for Past Tense Storytelling Practice

Memory Picture Prompts for ESL writing classes and beyond

What does this picture remind you of?

I created this series of picture prompts to encourage students to reflect and tell stories about their pasts. I had my adult ESL students in mind when I made them, but I think they could be used in creative writing classes for native English speakers, as well.

Here are the prompts… Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page for ideas on how to use them in class:

Converse memory picture prompt

Coffee Memory - picture prompt for writing

How Pepper picture prompt - What does this picture remind you of-

Crowd Picture Prompt: What does this picture remind you of- (2)

Cow Picture Prompt: What does this picture remind you of- (3)

Bubble Picture Prompt - What does this picture remind you of- (1)

Teaching Ideas:

  • Choose one of the pictures to show to your students. Ask, “What do you see?” List any relevant vocabulary words on the board.
  • Tell your students that you would like them to think about a past experience that the picture helps them remember. You might want to write an example from your own life to show students what you have in mind. For example, in the picture of the peppers at the farmer’s market, I might write:
    This picture reminds me of eating with my family on Saturday mornings when I was a child. My father used to eat these big green jalapeno peppers. I remember him often saying, “I’ll give a dollar to anyone who can eat one of these peppers.” I remember nibbling at the tip cautiously, but I don’t think I could ever bring myself to take a bite.
  • I would recommend giving ESL students a few possible sentence starters to get them started. For example:
    – This reminds me of ______________.
    – This makes me think of the time when _____________________.
    – This picture doesn’t remind me of anything because _________________.
  • Give students a specific amount of time to freewrite. (10 minutes is good.) Tell them that they shouldn’t stop even if they don’t have ideas. (If they don’t have ideas, they might write about why they have no memories about hot peppers, or about why they hate vegetables, about getting lost in a farmer’s market, or about other veggies they’ve tried.)
  • This is a good journaling activity. You could use a different picture every day for a week. At the end of the week, you can ask each student to choose one entry that they liked the best. You can have them turn it into a story, edit it, and then share it with their classmates.

Comments? Ideas?

Do you have any other suggestions on how teachers could incorporate these prompts into their classes? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave your comments in the box at the bottom of the page.

New Food – A Personal Story Prompt

New food - a personal story prompt, great for past tense practice or essay writing

Here’s a prompt that will help your students tell a past tense story about a personal experience. I would recommend using this toward the end a unit on food. It’s a good way to let students practice some of the food-related vocabulary they have learned.


In case you can’t see the image above, it reads:

Describe a time when you tried a new food. Think about these questions:

  • How did you feel before?

  • Who were you with?

  • Why did you try it?

  • What did it look like?

  • How did it taste?

  • How did you feel after?


Here are a few teaching ideas to get you started on your lesson plan:

  • Warm your students up by asking them to make a list of a few foods that they remember trying for the first time. Tell them that it might be an unusual food (insects, horse meat, etc.), a grown-up food (coffee, beer…), or new cuisine (Thai food, American food…) or just something that they remember trying for the first time (sushi, cupcakes, broccoli, hot peppers…). You might want to list a few of their ideas on the board.
  • Tell your students that they should choose one of their ideas to tell a story about.
  • Display the slide above (or write the questions on the board). Tell your students that they should use these questions as a guideline to help them write their story. Remind them to focus on using correct past tense verbs.
  • If you’d like to focus on speaking instead of writing, you could ask students to prepare index cards and make a presentation rather than writing out the entire story.
  • After they finish, students can present either in small groups, or to the whole class.

Want more?

If you’re looking for more food-related activities, here’s another post you might like: Design a Restaurant Task

Comments

As always, please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas in the comment box at the bottom of the page.

Giving Directions in the Real World – An idea to get your students speaking outside of the classroom

Asking for Directions: A lesson plan idea to get your ESL students out into the real world

Last week one of my Pre-Intermediate adult students asked if I could teach some expressions for asking for directions. Another chimed in, “Yeah, and then can we go outside and practice?” I’d been thinking about doing something like that for a while, and but that student’s idea gave me the push I needed to finally create these worksheets to help take language outside:
Asking for Directions – A real world worksheet <– (Click there to view and print it for yourself).

Here’s how I’m planning to teach this lesson:

  1. Ask students: If you got lost, what question would you ask to get directions? List their ideas on the board.
  2. Distribute handout and read through the questions and responses in the chart at the top of the page. Check that students understand and know how to use them.
  3. Write a simple sample directions dialogue with the whole class.
  4. Ask students to imagine that they are lost in your school’s neighborhood. In pairs, have them write their own little conversations to ask for directions.
  5. Ask each pair to perform one of their dialogues for the class.
  6. Now for the fun part! You can either take your students out for 15 minutes, or assign this part for homework. Tell students that they are going to put their new language into action. Each student should choose three directions questions that they would like to practice. They should then ask three different people for directions to some place in your city. It could be a street, a specific restaurant, a library, the nearest Starbucks, or whatever they like. Ask them to write a simple description of what each person looks like, and then try to write out their entire conversation.
  7. Once you’re back in class, ask each student to report back on what happened. Did the people they ask understand them? Did they understand the responses? What words or expressions were confusing to them? Were the directions accurate?

I have no idea how this will go, but I think it will be a fun way to encourage students to put something that we’ve learned in class into practice.

Again, if you missed it above, here is my worksheet. Feel free to print it out and use it with your classes: Asking for Directions – A real world worksheet

Comments?

Please leave your questions and comments in the box at the bottom of the page. Have you tried this lesson, or anything else like it before? I’d love to hear about it.

Boom! : A story-starting warm-up prompt

I was leaving my house when... BOOM -- Finish the story prompt

Boom!

Today I have a creative prompt that you can use with students of all ages. It’s so simple and colorful that I think both adults and children would respond well to it. If you’re an ESL teacher like me, it’s a good way to practice simple past and past continuous tenses.

Here are a few ideas for you:

  • Use this as a do-now or warm-up prompt. Display the image on your Smartboard or projector, and ask students to write silently for 5 minutes. Then ask them to share their mini-stories in small groups.
  • Or have students write in small groups and share their stories with the whole class.
  • If you want to make the exercise more structured, try telling students to write 5-sentence stories (or 7-sentence stories or 10-sentence stories…). Each sentence should have a different verb. Here’s an example: (1)First I saw a bear. (2) Then I slammed the door shut. (3)The bear heard the noise. (4)  He ran in my direction. (5) Finally, I called 911, and waited…
  • If you have a lot of visual learners in your class, you might even ask them to draw their stories into a comic panel organizer. After they finish drawing, they can either tell their stories to a partner, or write captions under each picture.

What do you think?

How would YOU finish the story? And if you’ve tried this activity with your students, how did they answer the question? Please share your favorite ideas in the comment box at the bottom of the page.

And if you have any other ideas on how teachers could use this prompt, please share those, as well.

Throw a party – Create-It #4

Throw a Party - A speaking activity for ESL Class - Great for present continuous tense

Yay! A Party!

I like to use this speaking activity at the end of units on special occasions or holidays around the world. It’s also a good way to practice using present continuous, going to, planning to, and other future grammar structures. It’s one of those simple, fun activities that require very little prep, but really get students engaged.

Here’s what I do:

  1. Display the slide above on the projector, or write the questions on the board. You might also want to use this Party Planning Worksheet to help your students organize their ideas on paper.
  2. Divide the class into groups. Explain that they are going to work together to come up with an idea for a party. After they finish, they will need to present their ideas to the class,and invite their classmates. 
  3. Read through the questions to make sure that everyone understands them.
  4. Let your students get to work. (I suggest giving them a specific amount of time to plan).
  5. Groups make their presentations.
  6. (Optional) Do a class vote: Who had the most creative party idea? Whose party would you most like to attend?

I made you a worksheet! 

Here is a worksheet that you can print out to help your students organize their ideas: Party Planning Worksheet

Like It?

Please take a moment to say hi and leave comments in the box at the bottom of the page.

The Moment Before… – A Picture Prompt

Writing + Speaking Prompt: What happened the moment before the picture was taken?

What happened before?

Here’s a joyful, open-ended prompt to get your students speaking, writing, or practicing whatever grammar point you’ve been working on. Below are some of my ideas on how you might incorporate it into your lesson plan.

  • Start by asking students to describe what they see in the picture. List new vocabulary on the board. (Some words that you might want to introduce: to cheer, to applaud, to clap, to laugh, auditorium, uniform, joyful)
  • If you’re teaching high school you might ask students to make inferences based on what they can see in the photo. (For example, I infer that the students go to a private school because they are wearing uniforms.)
  • Use the question at the top of the picture to practice past tense or present perfect with “just” (What has just happened?) You might have students respond individually and then compile a class list of responses. This can be done as a quick speaking warm-up, or extended into a longer lesson if you want to practice writing… Maybe have students listen to each other and then write all of their classmates’ ideas into a journal.
  • Another idea is to have your students work with partners or small groups and come up with a list of 5-10 possible things that might have happened just before the picture was snapped.
  • If you want to extend the lesson, you can ask students to choose one of their ideas and write a story about it.

What ideas do you have?

The suggestions above are just a handful of my own ideas, but like I said, this prompt is open-ended. Do you have any other suggestions on how to use this prompt in class? Please join the conversation and share your thoughts in the comment box at the bottom of the page.

Flowers on the Ground – a creative picture prompt with a storytelling worksheet

Flowers on the ground

Hi everyone! Lately I’ve been experimenting with new ways to use picture prompts in class and turn them into longer, full-blown lesson plans. Along with the prompt above, I’ve created a worksheet which you can download, print, and hand out to your students. (If you happen to try it out, please let me know how it goes. That would help me figure out whether to make more like it in the future.)

This creative prompt can be used to practice both speaking and writing skills, and it gives students the chance to work both on a team and individually. Your class is going to use a simple picture to build vocabulary, brainstorm ideas, create a character and finally, write a full-blown story.

As usual, my focus is on teaching ESL, but I think that English (ELA) and Creative Writing teachers might be able to use this prompt, as well.

Lesson Plan Ideas:

  1. Divide your class into small groups (3 0r 4 students per group works well).
  2. Display the picture on the projector, and/or hand out copies of this worksheet:
    flowers on the ground worksheet
  3. Discuss the task with the students. Explain that students need to brainstorm a list of possible reasons why the flowers ended up on the ground. I would recommend giving a couple of reasons of your own as examples (A girl got angry at her boyfriend and threw his gift on the floor. / A clumsy man accidentally dropped them as he was opening a door…)
  4. Give groups time to come up with a list. While students are working, you can help students with difficult vocabulary and list new words on the board.
  5. Ask groups to share back two of their favorite reasons with the rest of the class.
  6. Ask students to choose one of the ideas on their lists and turn it into a story. This can be done independently if you want your students to practice writing, or as a team, if you’d like to put more emphasis on speaking and teamwork. Again, you can use the worksheet to give your students some guidelines. If you don’t have access to a printer, you can write the following questions on the board:
    a- Who dropped the flowers?
    b- What happened in his/her life before he dropped the flowers?
    c- How was he/she feeling?
    d- What caused the flowers to drop?
    e- What happened after? How did his/her feelings change?
  7. Students share their work. I would recommend sharing in small groups if students wrote their stories independently, and sharing as a whole class if they wrote their stories in groups. It’s fun for students to see how many possible crazy stories came out of the same simple picture.

Comments

If you liked this activity, or if you have any questions about it, please take a moment to leave your comments in the box at the bottom of the page! I’m still new to blogging, so your feedback is super-helpful to me!

Night Walk – A descriptive writing lesson about sounds in your city

Night Walk - A lesson on descriptive writing with focus on sounds

I thought up the idea for this lesson plan one evening after my IPod battery died in the middle of my walk. In case you’re having trouble seeing the image above, it reads:


Night Walk

On summer nights, my neighborhood is mostly quiet. Crickets buzz, air conditioners whir, and my feet pat, pat, pat against the pavement. There is a low hum of traffic in the distance, and glass dishes clink against tabletops. It smells like dinnertime. Muffled chatter floats from inside of kitchens. A scruffy stray cat on a lawn meows softly, and a kid on a porch shrieks:
“A cockroach!”
“Kill it!”
“YOU kill it!”
“Eeee!”
But mostly it’s dark and quiet, just me and my shoes on the pavement: Pat, pat, pat, pat, pat.


When I was in middle school, my teacher gave us a descriptive writing exercise once a week. She would announce a one-word topic, and we would have a certain amount of time to write a paragraph with as many specific sensory details as possible. Then we would all read them aloud, and “ooh” and “ahh” over each other’s use of descriptive adjectives. That’s kinda what I have in mind for this lesson, although I have some ideas on how to scaffold it for English language leaners. I haven’t tried it with my own students just yet, but here’s what I plan to do:

Step 1:

Display the passage above on the projector, and/or print out a copy of the text for students to look at. I would recommend using the PDF Worksheet which I created to go along with this lesson. Read the passage aloud to the class, and have them underline any words that are used to describe specific sounds.

Step 2:

Make a class chart of sound words from the paragraph, and sources of each sound. For example: Sound – buzz / Source – crickets.

Step 3:

Brainstorm a list of things in your current neighborhood that make sounds. You might give students a few minutes to come up with their own lists of sources in groups. After they finish, you can help them think of descriptive verbs for each source.

Step 4:

Ask students to write their own descriptive paragraph about the sounds that they hear when they walk through their neighborhood. You could either ask them to write about their current neighborhood or about their native countries. I would give them some time to begin writing independently, and then ask them to finish and self-edit it for homework.

Step 5:

Allow students to share their work with classmates. You can deicide how you’d like to do this. You might have everyone read their passages aloud to the class, or just ask a few students whose passages are the most descriptive. Sharing could also be done in small groups. Another idea is to have a writing gallery walk. Everyone can tape their passages to the wall, and then students can walk around, read each other’s writing, and leave comments on post-it notes for their peers to read.

In case you missed it above, click here to view and download my PDF worksheet for this lesson: Worksheet

Comments:

What do you think about the activity above? Do you have any ideas on how it could be improved? I may add a worksheet to this post if anyone is interested, so please let me know if that would be helpful to you.

Have you tried this, or a similar descriptive writing activity with your class? I’d really like to hear about it!

Please feel free to chime in and post your comments in the box at the bottom of the page.

2sday

2sday

A student who was about to go back to his country once told me that he loved my class because I taught him something that he’d been confused about for his whole life. I expected him to say present perfect or past continuous or some big, important thing like that, but nope.

His life-changing epiphany was when I taught a mnemonic to tell the difference between the words Tuesday and Thursday:
Tuesday sounds like the number two, and it’s the second day of the week,
so Tuesday = 2-sday. So easy!

I’m sure that wasn’t a planned part of my lesson. I probably mentioned it casually when a student stumbled over one of those words in conversation. But he was really excited about it. He said that throughout all of his years of school, he’d always had trouble with the days of the week, but not anymore! Isn’t it funny when you realize that things that seem little and insignificant to you are the things that your students end up remembering the most?