In this audio lesson, I share a way of thinking that can completely change the way you learn languages. You will learn
- How to identify specific problems and weaknesses
- How to think of creative ideas to practice the skills you need
- Three strategies to rapidly improve vocabulary, listening and speaking skills
I highly recommend that you listen to this lesson if you want some great tips to get you to the next level with your English.
When an English teacher with thousands of followers invites me to an interview… I always bring my best advice to share!
All Ears English Interviews Amy Whitney
Lindsay McMahon from All Ears English was kind enough to invite me onto their podcast earlier this year for an interview. I had a learning strategy that was on my mind that I was excited to share: How to Self Analyze Your Weaknesses and Fix Them
This interview really shows what I teach on our website and why.!
I’ve been through the language learning process and I think I’ve encountered every problem and obstacle along the way… Overcoming those obstacles with the type of thinking I share in this interview.
If you want to get more advice like this to get you to the next level faster, don’t forget to check out our membership options here.
Read the Transcription of this Audio
Lindsay: This is an All Ears English podcast, episode 878: How to Evaluate Your Weaknesses Like a Scientist for Rapid Improvement with Amy Whitney. Welcome to the All Ears English podcast, downloaded more than 50 million times. We believe in connection, not perfection. With your American hosts, Lindsay McMahon, the English adventurer, and Michelle Kaplan, the New York radio girl. Coming to you from Boston and New York City, USA. And to get your transcripts delivered by email every week, go to allearsenglish.com/subscribe. Today, our guest Amy will show us how she pushed her Spanish level from pre-intermediate to advanced in just six months, using three core strategies that you can apply, too, and how she approached her skill gaps like a scientist would approach an experiment. Hey Amy, welcome to the show, how are you?
Amy: I am really good. How are you doing today?
Lindsay: Really good, glad to have you here. And you’re here from RealEnglishConversations.com and we are happy to have you here. Now, I heard that you are from Canada but you’re currently living in Mexico, is that right?
Amy: Yeah, that’s right. I decided last year that I was going to take big change in my life, and me and my husband moved to Mexico and we’ve been enjoying it ever since, it’s been great.
Lindsay: Wow, what’s been the biggest change about life in Mexico vs Canada for you that’s been the hardest to get used to or the most dramatic change?
Amy: Oh, aside from the weather, it’s obviously a tropical climate, so I was experiencing some really crazy rains this year, but related to languages, definitely just having to communicate in everyday life. And I go through situations that in English are really, really easy and in Spanish it can be a little bit challenging to make sure that I’m expressing things correctly.
Lindsay: I see, got it. So you’re out there every day at the market and you’re doing what you need to do in town and you are having to speak Spanish and that is so humbling, right? When we have that chance to live abroad. I lived in Tokyo for a while when I was in my 20s, and it’s the most humbling experience we can have as language learners.
Amy: Yeah, definitely. And it really helps us to understand exactly where our own students are coming from and be able to help them.
Lindsay: Yeah, that’s huge, and that’s why I’m excited to have you on the podcast today, Amy, because you have an interesting topic to talk about because you do have that personal experience with this idea that we need to take it on ourselves to evaluate our own weaknesses, right? We don’t always fit into a box or kind of an evaluation sheet from a teacher, so we need to be creative to come up with our own strategies. Can you tell us a little bit more about where that philosophy came from?
Amy: Yeah, definitely. So, for me particularly, I hit several stages with my language learning that were really stopping me from getting to the next level and it seemed like no matter what I was doing I wasn’t making progress. And it was only due to my own thinking outside of the box of how to solve the situation that I was able to come through those major hurdles. So I want to show people that just because you haven’t seen a solution online or your teacher hasn’t given you specific advice, you can do your own problem solving and think deep and probably overcome some major issues yourself.
Lindsay: Yeah, this is huge, and this is a really good topic for now, for January, beginning of the year. You know, plateaus are the toughest thing to handle because what we’ve done before to get us here to this plateau is not going to get us to the next level. So, as you said, we keep doing the same things over and over but once we get some new hints, a whole new world can open up and if we do different things we can move to the next level, but it definitely requires new knowledge, like new strategies.
Amy: Yes, exactly. 100%.
Lindsay: Okay, perfect. So, Amy, can we dive into it then? Can you let us know, like, what your first core tip would be around how to kind of evaluate our own weaknesses and find new and creative strategies to break through?
Amy: Yeah, definitely. So, for me personally, I have found that thinking about a specific situation that has been uncomfortable or difficult for you or when you reflect on it, you walk away feeling, oh you know, I’m not really happy with my performance in that situation, or I didn’t feel that my communication was as good as I would like it to have been. Those situations are full of clues about what you’re missing and what you need to work on. So, I want to give you a few examples, if I can.
Lindsay: Please do, yeah.
Amy: So, the first one is related to my very first experience talking with a native speaker.
Lindsay: Uh-uh, oh boy.
Amy: [laughter] And I felt, okay, this is time, it’s time, I’ve been studying Spanish for years, I’m going to have this conversation with this person. And, I’ve got to say, it was a complete disaster. It wasn’t a happy story, but what happened was I realized I wasn’t ready at that point to have a conversation, and I reverted back to text chatting with this individual. And during that text communication, I realized that a lot of the messages that were coming back to me I couldn’t understand what they were saying.
Lindsay: Wow, interesting.
Amy: Yeah, there was a lot of words, different words that they were using that I had never seen before, despite the fact I had what I considered a fairly significant vocabulary from all the textbooks and lessons that I had studied over the years. So this is the prime example of identifying a problem and then thinking about what’s missing here and what do I need to do?
Lindsay: Yeah. But this is great, you needed to be in this situation to see the gap, right? I think that, in some ways, these moments in our lives whenever we see a gap in our skills or abilities are kind of like, they’re hard gifts, right? It’s like tough love gifts. When we see that we don’t have what we need and then we only there we can identify how to move forward.
Amy: Exactly. And sometimes it takes a big one to put you into the place that you need to be, and for me, this was critical. Believe it or not, I was at a point of being a beginner, pre-intermediate for about 14 years at this time, so I needed something big to really shock me out of it.
Amy: So what I started to do was I thought, okay, let’s think about what’s happening here in this situation. My goal is to have a conversation. I’ve already identified that I’m lacking the most common vocabulary and I probably need that in order to have a conversation easily. Where can I find what I’m looking for? And clearly, it was everyday unscripted conversations. So I started to study those, I found a ton of words and phrases that I needed and they were more of the everyday communication that people were using. And in less than 6 months, I was able to rocket launch myself up to a lower advanced level.
Lindsay: Wow, lower advanced level? That’s awesome.
Amy: It was a huge progress leap, huge, and it was thanks to looking at that situation, looking at the not so obvious, how can I do this? And, yeah, I don’t know, I just — it was really important to get that basic vocabulary, and the next time that I had a conversation with the person, about a month later, although it was difficult, it was possible. So it was quick progress.
Lindsay: Wow. I love that, that’s huge. I mean, for our listeners, if you guys are listening in here, I mean, 14 years at the low intermediate, pre-intermediate level, and it was just a matter of realizing, having that hard experience, realizing something was wrong and specifically about the material that you were using. And then, within 6 months you did that lane change, you made that small shift, right? Well, not a small shift, kind of a big shift, but an important shift, and all of a sudden, six months later you moved to a kind of an advanced, sort of conversational level, that’s amazing.
Amy: Yeah, it was life-changing, and I am very, very thankful. And it was actually the start of realizing, oh hey, wait a minute, maybe the conventional way of learning languages that I’ve been doing isn’t good for me.
Lindsay: I bet that builds some real confidence, too. Awesome. So, is that kind of your first example then of how we can kind of make the shift and change our mindsets here? Is there anything else that we can share that we can speak about for our listeners here on this topic?
Amy: Yeah, definitely. So, the second major barrier that I had to deal with was my listening skills. I had horrendous listening skills despite my advanced level, I say. In every other area except listening, let’s say.
Lindsay: Okay, got it.
Amy: And let’s just pretend I was watching a movie and I’m realizing, okay, with subtitles I’m understanding everything perfectly, without subtitles I’m not. Maybe 60%, but a lot of that was probably due to what I was seeing in the movie and interpreting what I was seeing for context. So, thinking about this sort of situation, what’s the problem? Well, the problem is I can understand what I read, but I can’t understand what I hear. So, rather than trying to take on an entire movie, I decided to focus on just one minute of audio, and my goal was to try to understand 100% without needing the subtitles. So I studied the transcription of the audio and after I listened again, I maybe had an 80% level. So the question was, that really made me think about how to fix this problem, is what do I need to do to try to understand the other 20%? What’s stopping me from understanding this 20%? So, I listened to the audio again and isolated every single part that I had an issue with, and usually it was something, a word that I knew or a combination of words that were said really quickly. And I listened to it again and again and again. And I’m not kidding, sometimes it took 30, 40, 50 times before the words started to come through. And it seems tedious, but when I did the listening training in this way, I started to see major improvement after about five hours. And after 10 hours, I was able to understand a lot more.
Amy: So, it was sort of the thing of, wow, nothing else I was doing was working, but for this particular area, it was a combination of my ears completely ignoring certain sounds in the language and not being able to connect to words, and I was able to solve it.
Lindsay: Wow. Okay, and so once you were able to finally connect to those series of sounds where words are probably linked together, you then moving forward could always recognize those sounds, I’m guessing, right?
Amy: Yeah, it was kind of crazy, because it transfers throughout the entire language. It might be one area where you can’t hear or isolate that sound, but it will spread throughout the language and make other things click together in your mind, so that’s very cool.
Lindsay: Yeah, I like this approach — sorry, go ahead, Amy. Go ahead.
Amy: I was just going to say, this is another technique that you can use if you have a particular accent that you struggle with.This is absolute gold for accent training.
Lindsay: Yeah, I like your approach because it seems like you’re approaching it a bit more like a scientist, right? You are kind of trying to isolate the issues, you’re diagnosing the problem, you’re noticing it, diagnosing it and then you’re getting specifically what you need and you’re doing, like, one core action over and over and over again and you’re seeing results. It’s like drilling deep we get the answer. If we drill a bunch of short holes, right, narrow holes, we’ll never get our answer. But if we drill deep into one thing and really go — you said five hours of listening practice. That’s quite intense, that’s a real job.
Amy: It is.
Lindsay: It’s great, though. Maybe that’s sometimes required.
Amy: Yeah, sometimes you have to be really, really detailed about what could happen. Don’t look at the surface. Hmm, my listening is bad — that’s not going to get you anywhere.
Amy: You have to look at a specific situation and try to come to the answer of how you can do what you want to do.
Lindsay: Yeah, I mean, this is really what it takes, guys. It’s hard work to become fluent but there are so many benefits, right, to be able to connect with someone in a language, but this is really what it takes. This is really good for our listeners to hear this today, to see what’s actually involved in going to this next level to motivate us. Okay, so that listening is a great example. Do you have a third example or a concrete tip for our listeners then on how to do this?
Amy: Yes, definitely. Of course, speaking. Speaking is something that we all — oh, how can I can be better at speaking, how can I communicate the way I want to, the detail that I want? So, I’m going to talk about this as more of an upper-advanced level situation and it’s when you find yourself in a social situation. The topics are changing really quickly and there are several people that are all jumping into the conversation about different things.
Lindsay: Oh yeah.
Amy: So this is a really challenging situation, and for me, I did not feel comfortable in this particular situation to participate, and I really just focused on what everybody was talking about. And recognizing, number one, that people don’t generally speak about pressing matters that are very heavy or important [laughter].
Amy: We talk about experiences, stories, funny things that have happened to us, what’s happening in our lives. And it made me walk away from the situation and think, can I talk in that way if I had the opportunity? And it was more of a situation of thinking, what do I talk about with my friends? What do I talk about when I speak to my family members? What are the topics that we discuss? Can I do that in the language that I’m learning? And I found it very difficult because it actually involves a lot of detail, really specific situational detail.
Amy: But with a little bit of practice, it was easier. I developed the words and the verbs that I needed, and I felt more comfortable with my tone and delivery to sound interesting while I was speaking. And that is really a thing that is core, to be able to have the art of conversation at the upper levels.
Lindsay: So your learning there was adding detail, is that right? So, realizing that you can’t just keep it simple, you have to go deeper when you’re telling your personal stories and talking about what’s going on in your life?
Amy: Yeah, exactly. You need to think about it from a perspective of, if you say, I have a cat, too. Okay, that’s nice. [laughter] My cat is awesome, he does this, and it’s really funny and blah blah blah. You know, that’s the type of thing that you would want to say to really contribute to the conversation where a simple statement can sometimes feel a little bit awkward.
Lindsay: So, when you realized that, you went ahead and worked on building up — kind of worked on sort of building out a topic, right? With details verbally, adding who, what, when, where, why, going deeper and deeper, is that correct?
Amy: Yeah, exactly. Or, something else that you can do is literally think of the last story that you told somebody or what you talked about in that particular conversation and try to do it in English. And it’s — again, it’s the same thing. It’s just a very specific situation that you’re trying to describe and you’ll be surprised when you talk about, oh yeah, yesterday I was walking to the store and then this van drove past me and… Some of that stuff can be difficult to say in a language that you’re learning, even though it seems simple. It’s putting it together and delivering it in an interesting way.
Lindsay: Okay, interesting. So, I know guys, if you guys are taking notes today, and I hope you are, these are some of the steps that you really, really want to take them in. This is really cool today, we have a native speaker of English here that is gone out and learned other languages, specifically Spanish, and has struggled through it and was at a similar place where you guys might be now with English. So take notes and take — follow these tips and bring it to the next level. I love it. So, Amy, any kind of closing tips or overall kind of advice on these tips today, and this philosophy of the importance of evaluating our own weaknesses, and I think kind of using a bit of a scientific method to go after them?
Amy: I’ve never thought of myself like a language scientist, but maybe I should re-brand. [laughter]
Lindsay: Yeah, maybe you should. [laughter]
Amy: Yeah, I think that it’s, in general, just — you need to look at the biggest obstacles that are getting in the way right now with your learning, and constantly trying to look at the weakest skill that you have and trying to build it out. Don’t ignore it, try to have an equal skill set and focus on that area to kind of balance everything out so that you have a general level of — if you’re intermediate, be intermediate on all sides, right? Speaking, listening, reading, writing, instead of having these wonky, you know, ‘I hate speaking, it’s really hard, so I’m not going to practice.’ You need to deal with it and figure out what you can do and be creative with your approach and activities.
Lindsay: Exactly, I love that. A balanced approach, balancing out the skills. It’s not necessarily good when it comes to professional skills or talent. In those cases, we want to improve our strengths, get better at our strengths, but I think when it comes to language learning, it makes sense. We have to be able to speak and listen to the advanced speaker, not just speak and then close our ears and not be able to understand anything.
Amy: That’s definitely awkward. [laughter]
Lindsay: That is super awkward. Okay, Amy, I think that this episode is going to be really inspiring for some of our listeners and it’s going to provide a nice framework for our listeners for 2018. So, where can our listeners here find you online if they want to learn more about what you’re up to?
Amy: Sure, I’d love if you came to our website RealEnglishConversations.com, and we have all sorts of resources on there, we also have a podcast, a blog, everything. But on the homepage, I have a free mini course that I’m offering right now, and if you like these tips that I shared on the podcast today, you’re probably going to love the tips that I share in the mini course. And it would just be great to have some new people learning with us.
Lindsay: Okay, cool. So can you give us your URL one more time and where to find you exactly?
Amy: Yeah, sure. It’s RealEnglishConversations.com.
Lindsay: Okay, very cool, awesome. So I want to encourage you guys to go over there and check it out. And Amy, thanks so much for coming on the show and sharing with us how you were able to push your level up so quickly really within those six months. You were able to go from low intermediate to advanced, I think that’s inspiring.
Amy: Oh, thank you so much for having me on here. I hope that I have inspired some people and re-motivated the learning process and just go for it. You can do it, even after years of getting nowhere, just start looking into new areas, you can do it.
Lindsay: You got it, exactly. Alright, thanks Amy, talk to you soon.
Amy: Okay, talk to you later.
Lindsay: Bye, bye.