A robust workforce with solid English fluency is a core requirement of all non-native English speaking destinations. Companies and governments in the region know this and have spent years scrambling to upskill local populations in that direction. The results, unfortunately, have yet to prove satisfactory.
At NSAM, we’ve for long documented the mixed results of English-proficiency programs and tests implemented in Latin America. The facts illustrate a plethora of campaigns which, in spite of the urgency that drives them, have been unable to achieve their goals. Graduates of such programs are seldom industry ready, hampering their possibilities in a truly globalized job market and eroding the luster of their countries’ in the eyes of potential international investors.
With that landscape in mind, NSAM seeked the opinion of an expert in languages: Steve Kauffman, a former diplomat, multilinguist, Youtuber and Co-Founder of online learning platform LingQ.
Kaufman is a guru of sorts in the language-learning space. An “Internet polyglot”, he has made a name for himself in the web as a provider of tips and best practices to learn and teach languages.
The following interview covers topics well known by Kaufman and of interest to anyone trying to develop an English-speaking workforce: common pitfalls in the teaching of languages; the use of media to expand vocabulary and absorb a culture through language; the relevance of culture and slang; and which metrics work best to measure advances in proficiency.
NSAM: When it comes to teaching English or improving English skills, which are the most common mistakes people make?
Steve Kauffman: The fundamental role of a teacher is to try to motivate the student, to help the student find content of interest at an appropriate level of difficulty. This is more important than teaching or drilling the finer points of grammar. If students can find things of interest to listen to and read, they will improve more quickly than if they just deliberately study English.
NSAM: What would you recommend to someone learning English for use in a business environment or in a specific industry?
Steve Kauffman: Find as much content relevant to your business sector as you can. Articles, podcasts, TV or radio programs are easy to find online. Try to read online so you can more easily look words and phrases up in a dictionary. Learn the phrases that are used. Learn the structures of presentations in your field. You can find these on Youtube and elsewhere online.
But don’t neglect broader aspects of social and cultural interaction with the language. Build up your base of comprehension with a variety of content. The better you read, the better you understand, the better you will speak.
NSAM: Proper communication requires more than the accurate use of grammar, syntax and vocabulary. What role do media, popular culture and slang play in the process of learning languages?
Steve Kauffman: If we want to communicate effectively with people, whether for social reasons or business reasons, we need to understand their cultural environment. It helps make the language more familiar to us and helps us learn.
On the other hand, I would be careful of deliberately trying to learn slang and rough language. It is difficult to know when to use these terms until we are so good at the language that they just come out naturally.
“If we want to communicate effectively with people, whether for social reasons or business reasons, we need to understand their cultural environment […] On the other hand, I would be careful of deliberately trying to learn slang and rough language”
NSAM: Learning a language takes time, but several companies and governments are in a hurry to churn out English-proficient workers. What’s your recommendation for them?
Steve Kauffman: Don’t be in a hurry. Let the learner find enjoyment in what he or she is learning. They will learn faster that way. Any pressure or efforts at pushing deliberate learning activities will be counterproductive.
Put the focus on monitoring the learners’ level of activity. How much are they listening and reading or speaking? If they are active they will improve. Maintaining a high level of activity is more important than worrying about tests or other measures of language proficiency. At LingQ we mostly measure activity. The rest takes care of itself.
NSAM: You’ve spoken about motivation as a major factor in language learning. What was your motivation to learn so many languages? In general, which are the strongest motivators for someone to learn a new language?
Steve Kauffman: For me, as a hobby learner these days, it is the culture, the history, the people behind the language I am learning. I enjoy exploring the different ways we are all human beings. There was a time, as a young student in France, or a diplomatic language study learning Mandarin Chinese, when I had to be more serious. The learning process, my attitude and strategy, however, were the same.
Without enjoying the language and at least some aspects of the culture, it is very hard to learn.
NSAM: Trying to have a conversation in a language that isn’t your own can be stressful. Any tips on how to reduce or handle stress in those situations?
Steve Kauffman: The better our level of comprehension, the greater our passive vocabulary, the less stressful it becomes. Focus on input, build up your confidence and then just communicate. People are not interested in judging you, but just in communicating.
“Put the focus on monitoring the learners’ level of activity. How much are they listening and reading or speaking?[…] Maintaining a high level of activity is more important than worrying about tests or other measures of language proficiency”
NSAM: Everything seems to be marching towards automation nowadays. How do fully (or mostly) automated language teaching platforms compare with a traditional, human-to-human approach?
Steve Kauffman: Modern technology is making it easier to learn languages and will not replace the need to learn languages in order to interact personally with people of different cultures. Language is about people, not machines. But machines are helping us learn. I use a lot of what could be termed AI in my learning.
NSAM: Got any book recommendations for Spanish speakers attempting to learn business English?
Steve Kauffman: Spanish speakers wanting to improve their business English should read a lot in English. Non-fiction is usually easier; things like self-help books, history books, biography, books on marketing or other areas of interest. However, learners should also read novels, literature. Language improvement is an all encompassing, holistic activity.