Who Knows English Better?

So, who do you think knows English better – a native English speaker or a person who has learned English as a second language?

Easy question, right? Well, it depends on what you mean by “know”.

If you answered “a native speaker”, you were probably referring to the following things that most native speakers do better than second language learners, such as:

  • Knowing how to speak fluent English properly, with minimal grammar mistakes
  • Knowing which words to use in most contexts
  • Knowing how to read and write in English at a sufficient level (though not all native speakers)
  • Knowing what kind of language is appropriate for any given social circumstance
  • Knowing idiomatic phrases and their proper usage

However, there is another type of “knowing”, which relies on how languages are taught and learned in schools. For example, it may surprise you to know that many second language learners are actually more proficient than most native speakers in such things as:

  • Knowing how to label and manipulate grammatical structures, especially tenses
  • Knowing ‘dictionary-like’ distinctions between words
  • Knowing relationships between words
  • Knowing where words come from
  • Knowing how to translate words into their language (and possibly into other languages as well)

Don’t believe me? Just ask any native speaker to tell you how to say a particular sentence in the “past perfect progressive” and see the blank look that you get in response. Or ask any native speaker to please tell you the difference between “happy” and “glad” and watch him scratch his head. Want to really get a native speaker to feel inadequate? Ask someone to tell you the synonym (word that has the same meaning) or the antonym (word that has the opposite meaning) of a certain word, and watch him squirm.

So, second language learners. You know some things about English better than native speakers! How does that make you feel? What? Still not satisfied? Why? Because in spite of all of this learning you still can’t order a sandwich at a restaurant? You still can’t speak English and get the things you want? You still can’t be understood when you try to talk to others in English?

Not to fear. At least you may have been taught that the word “sandwich” comes from the Earl of Sandwich, who was a notorious gambler. Rather than get up to eat a proper meal, he simply slapped slices of cold meat between two pieces of bread so that eating would not interfere with his marathon sessions at the gambling table. What? Didn’t know that either? Well, now you do!

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BlendEd – Mobile + Traditional Education

Let’s say you are a student. You have a wonderful mobile education app. You’ve used it as a self-learning tool. It’s neat. It’s cool. You wish that all learning could be so fun. You may even show it to your teacher.

You enter your traditional classroom. It’s no longer that traditional.  Everyone has a mobile. Everyone uses it. You pluck up courage and show your teacher the app. What is your teacher’s reaction? How would you like it to be?

Some teachers would feel intimidated. Some would feel that there is no room in the busy classroom, where standardized tests are looming over their heads, curriculum must be covered and the administration is constantly looking for measurable improvements. But some teachers would take another stance. They would look at this as an opportunity. And that teacher could be you. But then, you ask yourself, what should I do with this new-fangled thing called mobile education?

And here is the art. How can a teacher leverage mobile learning apps in the classroom for better education? How can the mobile actually be used in the classroom as a positive facilitator of learning, and not just a pretense for playing?

Traditional education is focused on serious teaching – making your students learn facts, master skills, get better grades. Mobile learning is focused on playing – having a great user experience, seeing neat graphics, feeling the tingle of all the bells and whistles. But there can be a serious side to all of this. The best learning tools are those that can marry the ‘play’ aspect and turn it into a serious learning endeavor. I call it BlendEd.

What is BlendEd? It is the judicious blending of ‘fun’ and ‘serious’ activities in the classroom in order to pave the way for a better learning environment. It is wisely choosing apps that you allow to ‘fit into’ your regular course curriculum. It is the calculated scheduling and balancing of activities in your classroom so that you can keep up with the course syllabus and administration requirements, yet allow some designated time for your students to ‘let their hair down’ and really play with the material. And this is what good mobile learning apps do best. They foster a game-like mentality where learning is ‘by the way’, and not a hard, hated path that your students are forced to slog through.

So why use BlendEd? Simple. To ease your students’ fears of certain subjects, like English or math. To let them feel in control. To let them have fun where they have never had fun before! In short, to help bury your students’ traditional antagonism towards learning, and foster within them a new and positive path of personal development. The real goal? To create a new outlook in your students – one that will enable them to help themselves to learn more. Learn more by themselves? Hey, isn’t that how we started this little piece?

Let’s say you are a student. You have a wonderful mobile education app. You’ve used it as a self-learning tool. It’s neat. It’s cool. You wish that all learning could be so fun. You may even show it to your teacher.

 

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How Can a Mobile App Help Me Learn?

Apps have invaded the world. As the famous quote goes, “They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere!” They’re in the marketplace. They’re in the entertainment world. And they are certainly in the educational space. So, the question is: How can a mobile app actually help me learn? In other words, how can I progress in my studies by using an app and how will it help me improve my capabilities and build my skills?

Educational app developers need to constantly think of the end-user and how the finished product will affect each learner. To do so, we must think in terms of these two important questions:

  1. What does the learner really want?
  2. How does the app answer this need?

In many cases, the student wishes for something that is broad. For example, if you ask English learners what they want, they often answer in generalities, like ‘I want to improve my English.’ or ‘I need to get better scores on a test.’ But how does this translate into real needs? What do they mean? And how do you build an app for that?

Do they want to have a larger vocabulary? Then build a fun vocabulary builder game. Maybe they want to have a better knowledge of English grammar? If that is the case, make a mobile grammar book. Or perhaps they just want to be able to read a passage and answer questions, simulating what they are required to do in reading comprehension exercises provided by a teacher in the classroom. If so, find progressively longer reading texts with lots of multiple choice questions and build an easy app for that.

But is this what they are really saying? Is this what their real needs are? When they say ‘I want to speak better English.’ what if this really means that they want to get a job that requires good English speaking skills?  Or what if their real needs are to be able to comprehend a business presentation given in English and then ask the presenter intelligent questions? Or to be able to negotiate an international deal? Or to ace that scholarship interview? What should go into these kinds of apps? What if the translation of their need to ‘improve my English scores on a test’ is really ‘How can I build up and integrate my language skills so that I can do better in a section of a test that combines reading, listening  and speaking skills? What would this kind of app look like?

The point is this. You can build an educational app because it is easy to do so. Or, you can take the path more rarely taken, and try to offer solutions that answer burning real world needs. In other words, it is necessary to think of how your app user answers this question: “How will this mobile app help me learn so that I can succeed in life?” If you have a clear cut answer to this, you have a great app!

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Getting Ahead in the Race

The tortoise and the hare got it all wrong. The tortoise thought that you could win a race just by progressing at your usually slow pace. The hare thought that nobody could beat him. Well, in the real world, nothing goes like that. The ‘usual’ just won’t cut it. If you aren’t up to scratch, you can’t win – sorry tortoise. And if you are so overconfident that you lose your fear of being usurped by newcomers, then guess what? You will be overcome, right dear hare?

Competition is fierce – no mere running race and not even a marathon. This is a race that reaches above all ‘normal’ proportions. According to Global Mobile Statistics 2013, there are over 1.2 billion app users, and growing. It is estimated to reach 4.4 billion users by 2017. Estimates of the numbers of apps on Google Play and iTunes, the two largest app stores, are around 800K each. That means that there are over 1.6 billion apps out there to download! Get it? There are 1 billion smartphones, 1.2 billion app users, and 1.6 billion apps!

Now, as an app developer, this poses an interesting situation. The potential is huge, but then, so is the competition. No ordinary race now, is it? Even the tortoise and the hare would think so. In this space, everybody can run and everybody has the potential to win. So who gets ahead? The ones that get discovered. And who gets discovered? Those that market well and are able to make others notice them, or those that are so unique that they get noticed in the crowd naturally and are passed on by word of mouth, are written about, or even go viral. So, next time you are trying to get discovered, pity the poor tortoise and hare – they’re running an old race where there is only one winner and one loser. Today’s challenge is that there can be many winners, many runners, and, alas, many losers. The real race is to get noticed. And you can’t do that by laying down on the job, like Mr. Hare, or by simply plodding on, like Mr. Tortoise. Be creative, be different, be noticed. And get ahead.  Or you may end up out of the race all together, just like a passing fable.

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Learning Without a Real Teacher – From Correspondence to Tablet

It has always been a real problem. So many people in so many places want to get an education. They want to better themselves. They want to get a better job. They want to have access to opportunities once only afforded to the privileged. They want to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and be proactive about life. These people have ambition and drive. They dream about a better future for themselves and do something about it.

But there is a problem. It has always been there and doesn’t look like it will suddenly disappear. What’s the problem? Not everyone has access to a school, a college, or a university. Not everyone can get educated by a real, human teacher, in a real, physical classroom. So, what’s the solution? What have enterprising people been doing about this?

As far back as the 1800’s, people were learning from a distance, without a teacher. How? They were called ‘correspondence courses’ and one learned by ‘correspondence’ – by mail. The “tried and true” postal service delivered coursebooks to those who had the energy, drive and determination to plough through the material on their own, with no other guidance – and no teacher. Then came radio, and then came TV. As each media type developed and flourished, it was utilized for providing educational content – without learning in the presence of a real teacher in a real classroom. Distance courses grew. Computers and internet came along, and voila – a plethora of online courses and colleges sprung up. Distance learning was here to stay.

Now it is the turn of mobile devices. What can’t be taught face-to-face for everyone who wants an education is now being deployed on mobile phones and especially tablets. Distance learning has gone from mail to radio to TV to computers to phones and tablets. So, learning without a real teacher isn’t so new. It’s just the media and the way we learn that keeps on changing!

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Tongue Tied

You passed a grammar exam that tested your knowledge of past perfect progressive and other tenses, real and unreal conditionals, passive forms, and various complex clause structures – with flying colors. You aced a vocabulary quiz that contained words like “velocity”, “voracious” and “volatility”.  You know that ‘to hit the nail on the head’ means to be ‘exactly right’, and not simply a phrase that refers to something a carpenter does on a daily basis.  You can read English at a fairly high level. You may even like English literature.  Your friends and colleagues tell you that you have ‘excellent English’, and commonly ask you to help them phrase a sentence correctly, or inquire how a word should be properly spelled.

But, alas. You enter a steakhouse and want to order a steak. The waiter brings you meat that is ‘well-done’, instead of ‘rare’. That’s because you pronounce ‘rare’ with such a strong accent that even Mr. Higgins from My Fair Lady would have trouble deciphering what you have said. You try to complain, but even though you know all of the vocabulary and grammar, somehow it just doesn’t come out right. Tongue tied. Not because you are not trying, but because you have all of the other language skills except for the speaking skill! Tongue tied. Not because you don’t know what it is that you want to say, but because your mouth and tongue and lips simply don’t know what they should be doing. Tongue tied. Not because you don’t ‘know’ what is a correct sentence, but because you can’t produce it ‘on demand’, ‘in performance’, ‘in real time’ – because there is a real lack of practice with effective pronunciation feedback for you to actually learn the speaking skill.

Don’t you wish you could untie your tongue? And eat the steak you want?

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Rethinking Design

Ok, so you have a great product. But certainly there are things about it that you think can be improved, right? After all, you can’t get everything right the first time you design something. The best part about mobile design is that you are free, even encouraged, to come up with improvements and release new versions on the app stores asap!

So, how do you go about improving your product? Here are some guidelines from our experience:

  1. Analyze, Analyze, Analyze: Do a completely objective and thorough analysis. What works? Don’t fix it! What doesn’t work? Does it work somewhat? Does it not work at all? What are the real problems that need to be attended to quickly?
  2. Be Creative, Be Realistic: Don’t get locked into what is already in place. On the other hand, don’t start from scratch. You want to find the right balance between a complete overhaul, which would be too long and costly, and being able to tweak elements within the flow and design to overcome specific problems in a realistic timeframe and with the resources that you have at hand.
  3. Don’t Kid Yourself – Just Try It Out: There are always going to be things you would like to change, add, improve. Don’t think that this is the ultimate design. Think that it is a great design that you will try in the marketplace – and see what happens. Nothing speaks better than the market. If people like it and buy the new version more than the old one, it was a change for the better. If not, it was a change for the worse, and you’d better go back to the drawing board.

In the end, it is all trial and error with a large sprinkling of intuition, wit, and most of all, experience. And don’t worry – you know that you’ll eventually “get it right”!

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THE or A/An or Nothing? It Just Makes You Want to Scream!

When do you use the word “the”? When do you use the word “a” or ”an”? When is it not correct to use any article? This is a problem for many English learners all over the world, and especially for those whose native language does not have any articles, like Chinese, Korean, or Russian.

English may seem like it is fickle. What do I mean by that? I mean that sometimes it looks like there is no reason for things to be the way they are – not predictable, not according to any rule that you can easily see. So, are these things that you just have to hear, absorb and try to imitate? Or are there some guiding principles?

Countable”. You may have heard of this word before. It means that you are talking about something that can be counted. For example, we can say “three eggs”, but we can’t say *“three waters”, because we can’t count ‘water’. But hey! Maybe you’ve heard someone say to the waiter in a restaurant “Bring three waters, please.” What they really mean is “Bring three GLASSES of water.” It is the noun “glass” that is countable, not the word “water”!

Getting more complicated, right? Well, how about this? If it is a unit of measure or time, which is considered countable (“three hours”, “four gallons”, etc.), we generally use “a” or “an”, and not “the”. For example, we say “My car needs a gallon of gas.”, and not *“My car needs the gallon of gas.” On the other hand, body parts, which are also countable, usually take “the”. Take a look at this example – we say “A bee stung her on the arm.”, and not *“A bee stung her on an arm.”

Want more? When we want to say something is the ‘best’ or the ‘first’, we generally use “the” and not “a” – “She was the best singer”, not *“She was a best singer”, or “He was the first astronaut.”, and not *“He was a first astronaut.”

Sometimes there should be NO article in English. This is the case for non-countable nouns, like the word “knowledge.” For example, we say “Knowledge is power.”, and not *“The knowledge is power.”, or *“A knowledge is power.” But as I said before, English seems fickle. It is perfectly OK to say, “He has a good knowledge of English.” Don’t you just want to scream?

And remember that we said units of measure or time usually take “a” or “an”. Well, not always. If they are in a ‘by phrase’, use “the” – “He was paid by the hour.” (not *“He was paid by an hour.”), or “Milk is sold by the gallon.” (not *“Milk is sold by a gallon.”)

My advice to you? Go with the flow. See and hear how English is used, and just try your best to get it right. The more examples you hear, the better your English will be. And yes, go ahead and scream. It’s OK. We understand!

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Oh, Barcelona, Barcelona – 2013 Mobile World Congress

I’ve heard so much about Barcelona. The architecture. Gaudi. The art. Dali, Picasso, Miro. The sports. FC Barcelona, Messi. The beautiful gardens and wonderful tourist spots. But here we are, at the Mobile World Congress 2013. Our multi-screen version of SpeakingPal English Tutor is in two booths – one at the Qualcomm sponsored “Connected City”, and one at the Sony make.believe space.

Why two booths? Well, SpeakingPal won first place for Best Multi-Screen Experience in the Qualcomm sponsored AllJoyn Peer-to-Peer App Challenge, and also won a free MWC booth in the Sony Multi-Screen UX Competition.  It was all very exciting. Ok, very little sleep, hardly eating, standing on our feet all day. Did I mention that there were loads of people, with a constant stream of visitors? The latest trends. The coolest gadgets. And we were in the thick of all this delightful technology! So, in the end, it was all worth it.

Now we’re back home. Well, someday I’ll see Barcelona, someday…

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SpeakingPal is a LaunchEdu Finalist

It is not every day that you are considered a finalist in a competition, so we are especially pleased to be considered as one in the upcoming LaunchEdu showcase of innovative educational products and services. SpeakingPal is shortlisted in the Higher Education section of LaunchEdu, which is part of the 2013 SXSWedu Conference and Festival.

I’m sure you have all heard of SXSW in conjunction with music, film and entertainment showcases. SXSWedu is a particularly interesting happening that is solely committed to presenting education-related content that highlights the leading trends in education today.

SpeakingPal is delighted to be among this elite group of innovative educational providers.

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