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A letter to a learner

Click here for the podcast of this article.
One of our learners asked for advice on what content to study and how to improve fluency. At first he chose difficult content which he could not understand very well, despite saving many words and phrases and reviewing them. He just found the natural pace of the recordings too fast. This learner practiced imitating the reading speed of the native speaker but it was too difficult. He could not follow the meaning of the recording.
He then chose The Linguist book. Again, it was difficult at first but as a result of listening many times the learner was able to understand most of the content. He wrote about his efforts in a Writing submission and then wrote me an email outlining his problems. I answered as follows.

Dear Learner
I have read your letter and your writing submission.
First let me say that I respect and appreciate your commitment to the task of improving your English. I think we are about the same age. I am also interested in improving my foreign language skills. I hope to continue to do so for many years to come. I salute your spirit. A positive attitude is the most important quality of a successful language learner. I am confident that you will succeed.
You have raised a few questions. You mention that you sometimes have difficulty understanding the audio of content that you can read. You ask me how to practice speaking. You mention that in my book I said that I used to speak to myself in French when learning French. You also agree with some of the comments in my book about the need to keep written sentences short and similar to the spoken language. I really appreciate your understanding of the points raised in my book. I look forward to hearing how things go for you.
I believe you are on the right track. I would like to make the following suggestions.
1) Continue listening a lot.
Make sure that you listen a lot without reading. Listening while reading is one skill. However, you need to develop the ability to listen and understand without reading the text. Do so often. Have your MP3 player with you wherever you go
2) Vary the difficulty of what you listen to.
The Linguist book is at an intermediate level. Try listening to “Easy Starter” content from time to time. Listening to material that you find easy to understand is good training for your brain. It gives you confidence.
Occasionally listen to something even harder than my book, especially if you are interested in the subject. By varying the difficulty of what you listen to, you will challenge yourself when you listen to difficult content, and then reinforce your skills when you listen to easy content.
“The Linguist Manifesto”, “Pronunciation Read Slowly” and “Pronunciation Read at Normal Speed”and some of our other easy content is good to listen to as a relief from the more demanding content.
Listen to this kind of content often and then practice reading it and saying it yourself from memory.
3) Try to write a little bit every few days.
Send your writing in to The Linguist for correction. Once the text is corrected, you should read the corrected text out loud at least 5 times. When you read, make sure you exaggerate the pronunciation.
4) You can speak to yourself when you have a free moment, while walking somewhere or even around your home.
Practice repeating some of your favourite phrases, or phrases that you just
finished hearing on your MP3 player.
5) Above all, enjoy yourself.
Do things that interest you. At times you will feel that you are not making
progress when in fact you are. Have confidence and give yourself credit for
every little bit of progress you make. We at The Linguist want to work with you
to help you achieve your goals, including doing well on TOEFL.
Best of luck,
Steve Kaufmann

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