Workshop for Alumni of Exchange Student Program

March 14, 2017

Yesterday I held a workshop for FLEX program alumni in Tbilisi, Georgia. I talked to them in several different languages at the beginning to engage them, and shared a bit of my exchange student experience in Slovakia. I could relate to their experiences, and they clearly felt this.

Before the workshop, I had them fill out a questionnaire which showed me that most of them were now getting less than 5 hours a week of English speaking practice after a year of speaking English every day in the U.S. Many of them noticed their English getting worse and were distressed by it.
The focus of my workshop was:

– how to use the shadowing technique as a temporary substitute for speaking practice (more about how I use shadowing here)
– the Circles of Familiarity and Command (I find this to be one of the most powerful principles of my method)
– how to pick out the "right" kind of notes to take using my approach (focusing on moving material from Familiarity to Command rather than from Unfamiliarity to Familiarity)


I set up my electronics so that people would hear a podcast interview through headphones while the rest of the class heard it through a speaker. I introduced shadowing by doing it in Russian, then German. OK, so Russian was a bit unfair... But they could see my difficulties with German, which is at a B2 level.

I was a bit disappointed to see how difficult shadowing was for almost everyone. At half-speed they couldn't understand well (the speech sounded slurred), and at full-speed they almost universally had great difficulty speaking and listening at the same time. One out of 7 people did a reasonably good job.

At the same time, they loved the activity at first and were eager to try. Two girls made a video of the guy who was doing a pretty good job.

I told people that the initial hurdle was to learn to speak and listen at the same time, and after a few times this would become a lot easier. But I was still surprised at how difficult it was for them. I need to think about how to help ease people into shadowing. On the other hand, this is just an auxiliary method to supplant conversation practice.

For the notetaking exercise we first used the podcast we had been shadowing to. Many of the participants were not able to get the point of "taking notes on things that you would have said differently" or "things you understand, but wouldn't have been able to say yourself." I could see that the podcast conversation was going by too fast for them to catch anything. The kids were getting frustrated.

So I took a page of text from the introductory Greek coursebook I took with me and read it aloud slowly and distinctly. This time everyone got the point and took appropriate notes, i.e. they understood what was meant, but wouldn't have used that particular choice of words. This part was really productive, I think.

However, taking notes from books or podcasts is not actually something I recommend in my method, because you lack a direct personal experience with the vocabulary. Much better to take notes during and after live conversations with natives. I had had enough difficulty getting participants this far that I chose not to try to drive that additional point home.

I heard some sentiments such as "is it really important whether you say X or Y?" as if adding or removing an article or misplacing stress were not significant in language learning. I should probably get used to responding to this objection. I gave the participants an example of a similar-sized mistake in spoken Georgian.

The bar for Command is higher than many people would like to think. I found that a certain number of participants thought they knew English better than they actually did. I was the same, after my year abroad in Slovakia.

After all was said and done, I realized this late-teenage audience needs more action and direct involvement (even more than I offered!) and has not yet reached the age (at least most of them have not) where they are prone to start making generalizations and formulating principles. That means that my approach as it is currently framed may not be interesting to them.

This realization was disappointing, as I consider young people going abroad to be my core target audience. And yet, with my tendency to generalize and establish principles and models, I was alienating myself from late teens and young adults and actually appealing to mature language learners with a rich history of language learning and a high propensity for abstraction (generalization).

At the end of the workshop I found little interest in:

– having me escort them then and there to the English Club that could be their best local source of informal language language practice
– purchasing my pocketbook, which I offered them at a 50% discount (most of them are students), though two people leafed through it quickly

I wouldn't say I'm disappointed with the workshop overall because I purposely keep my expectations low and treat everything as a learning experience. Some parts worked, some didn't. But the results certainly give me something to think about.

Please comment if you have anything to say about all of this :)


  1. It sounds like you're encountering a gap or difference due to age and life experience that may not be easily traversed.

    As you noted, these students are a learner audience you think could benefit from your principles and tools, but to me, they seem to be very far from independent learners, which your method is clearly formulated for.
    I believe, you may be suffering from a knowledge bias that is often invisible to independent learners especially language enthusiasts. You have forgot what it is like to be such a student. Many of us have been independently fashioning, directing, reflecting and experimenting with our learning for so long that we forget that this is very uncommon and not developed in most education environments. To those who have not started to think in all these metacognitive ways taking ones one responses, processes, and learning as a 'object' separate from your learned subject is bizarre and incomprehensible. Gaining the ability to do so, is I suspect not something that people can be convinced of through a demonstration but more akin to a shift in one's cognitive development and self that happens quite slowly.

    It’s possible that they may be able to use some of your principles quick quickly if you presented them much more as a system of procedures, trick and techniques that does not require any independent reflection or judgement of process or principles.

    If the suggestion that they may be at a different level of cognitive development sounds interesting to you, one great book you could check out is Robert Kegan’s “In over our Heads”.

    1. Acutia, great comments. Very well said. My experience made me think about how to present the approach in a way that teenagers could use. It would have to be extremely action-oriented and visual. I think it's definitely doable. Something to work on down the line perhaps?


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