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Any language you want?

Knowing the best way to learn English can be a challenge for all our students. However, fellow learner, Fabio Cerpelloni’s ‘language autobiography’ might – or might not! – just have the answers they’re looking for…

What’s the best way to learn another language?

In ‘Any Language You Want: 18 Conflicting Lessons for a New Kind of Language Learner’, I answer this question 18 times. But I don’t do it by discussing teaching or learning methodologies; this isn’t an academic book. No big names in ELT are cited, no Second Language Acquisition research is mentioned. ‘Any Language You Want’ is a collection of my own personal stories and experiences of learning English, my second language.

In each chapter, I talk about the problems, beliefs, thoughts, and frustrations I had as a learner, and share the strategies I adopted to improve my language skills. I then advise that if you want to learn a second language, you should do exactly what I did.

The final sentence of each story is always the same: ‘This is how to learn a language.’ Strong. Assertive. Prescriptive. Each story talks about the best learning method. But there’s a twist: each story disagrees with the next.

For example, in the first chapter, Invest in a New Life and Language Classes, I argue that taking a course is essential. After all, that is what I did when I was learning English in London:

‘I spent £600, as much as I earned in three weeks, and enrolled in a six-month English course. I worked during the day and studied in the evening for three hours twice a week with a group of people from all over the world. I learned grammatical points I had never studied before. I practiced writing for the first time and got useful feedback from my teachers. I had my mistakes corrected and realized that if you say “You can’t” without pronouncing the verb “can’t” with a long vowel sound, you are actually throwing the worst possible insult in the English language. I found out that some other things I had been saying were also incorrect. ‘Invest in a new life. Invest in language classes. This is how to learn a language.’ - p.6

In the next story, however, I argue against taking courses and moving abroad, persuading readers to learn independently in their own country. Walk Alone, No Investment Needed starts like this:

‘In 2013, a few days after I landed in Adelaide, Australia, I inquired about a job vacancy advertised at the reception of the hostel where I was staying. The ad was about a position as a waiter in a resort. When I asked the owner of the hostel for more information, he picked up the phone and called the manager of the resort saying that there was an Italian guy interested in the job.
‘“Can he speak English?” the manager asked.
‘“Yes, he can hold a conversation with me quite well. I’d give him a seven out of 10.”
‘Although I still made mistakes and didn’t have a huge vocabulary, I was pleased to hear that my English was level seven to the ears of a native speaker.
‘Two years later, in 2015, I left Australia and moved to Auckland, New Zealand. I wanted to do an English proficiency course and get the C2 certificate, a piece of paper that would show I had mastered English to an exceptional level: Level 10. I had to take an entry test to enrol in this course. The minimum level required was C1+, or Level 9, if you prefer. I took the test and passed it. In two years, from 2013 to 2015, my English went from Level 7 to Level 9. How did I make such a great improvement?’ - pp.7, 8

It goes on to explain what types of self-studying and practice activities I did, ending conclusively:

‘Walk alone and never leave your country. This is how to learn a language.’

So, which story tells the truth? Which one is right? Neither and both. I didn’t write these stories to prescribe a method. I wrote them to share what worked for me as a language learner, hoping to empower, inspire, and motivate others. I also wrote them to take a stance against popular marketing campaigns that promote ‘the best method’ or ‘the secrets’ to language learning. All the eighteen stories are here to help students understand the messy, no one-size-fits-all nature of language acquisition so they might find clarity on what can work for them.

These days, students are often exposed to a lot of tips, advice, and ‘best methods’. But I don’t think learners need more information and tips; it’s crucial for them to question every piece of advice they hear or read.

For instance, some YouTube teachers often say: ‘Don’t worry about studying grammar. Use the language instead! Have conversations!’ This is good advice; I’ve given it many times to my learners too. But is this good advice for everyone? I don’t think so. For my partner, this would definitely be the worst tip; she’s an advanced speaker of English who has focused on communication her entire English learning life. Yet she complains that she makes grammar mistakes but doesn’t know how to correct them. Should she ‘forget about grammar and have more conversations’? Maybe not. In fact, I argue the opposite of that would be more useful to her.

For learners, every piece of advice is a specific tool to solve a specific problem. ‘Any Language You Want’ acts as a menu, giving options that students can pick and implement. Although it is not a textbook, the book can be used in class as a graded reader as well as a springboard for discussion. My adult A2 learners read it independently and a colleague emailed me to say she’s been using it with her advanced classes; she puts her students in groups to read and discuss the stories, and told me ‘It’s so interesting to hear their ideas and beliefs about language learning’.

‘I have long been a connoisseur of the “stories” of highly successful language learners,’ said renowned linguist, teacher trainer and author, Scott Thornbury. ‘So I was keen to hear Fabio’s own account. Even more so when I discovered how closely we align on the issue of prescriptivism: I have always argued that there is no one “best method” for learning a second language, and Fabio draws the same conclusion from out of the multiple strands of his own very readable and insightful “language autobiography”.’

So, if you find your values align with Scott’s, ‘Any Language You Want’ may be a valuable addition in your classroom, or a book to recommend to your learners.

Image courtesy of Fabio Cerpelloni
Fabio Cerpelloni
Fabio Cerpelloni
Fabio Cerpelloni is an English language teacher, freelance writer, author, and podcaster from Italy. Learning English became such a great passion for him that he ended up teaching it professionally in New Zealand, Spain, Ireland, and Italy, his native country. You can find out more about Fabio and his work on his website – www.fabiocerpelloni.com
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