Monthly Archives: July 2015


Today I want to take a break from talking about learning and talk about an unfortunate but inevitable aspect of learning: frustration.

Let me dispel two myths quickly:

  1. Everybody feels frustration sometimes
  2. There is no way to avoid frustration

In fact, I would say the harder you work, the more frustration you will feel.


The good thing is that if you are feeling frustration… it probably means you are improving and growing faster than everyone else!

We often feel like we shouldn’t be feeling frustrated, or that we’re the only one feeling frustration, but this is not true at all.

So let’s talk about frustration.

What is frustration?

Frustration is the feeling of disappointment or annoyance that causes us to lose our sense of fulfillment or motivation.  We feel frustration when there is something we want – whether it’s a goal, a thing or even another person – and something is blocking us from getting it.  Looking at it this way, we can see why it’s such a normal feeling: there is always something we want, and we can’t always get it.  It doesn’t matter how smart, rich, happy, positive or talented you are, everybody wants something, and nobody can always get everything they want right away.

Think about that: the only kind of person who could never feel frustrated is someone who never wanted anything!  What kind of life would that be?  Probably not very interesting or fulfilling.

In your case, it’s probably the ability to do something in English.  Maybe you want to pronounce English better.  Maybe you want to remember what you learned better.  Maybe you want to understand what they are saying in Hollywood movies without using subtitles.  Maybe you just want to be able to make a sentence without having to think so much!  Whatever your goal is, the more important it is, the more irritating it is not to reach it.

Sometimes we don’t get frustrated when we can’t reach a goal.  For example, maybe we believe the goal was unreachable anyway, or maybe it’s not that important.  If I wanted to eat vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate, but the store ran out of vanilla, I’m not going to scream and pound my fists in frustration.  I like chocolate too.  I’m also not frustrated or depressed that I’m not a billionaire.

Why should I care about being frustrated?

This is a fair question.  Besides the fact that it doesn’t feel good, are there any reasons to care about frustration?

Yes.  There are many reasons to care about it.  I’m going to list three that relate directly to learning.

  1. It’s stressful: Feeling frustrated adds unnecessary levels of stress to our lives.  We don’t study languages in order to feel more stressed.  Many of us decided to study in order to relieve stress!
  2. It makes us lose confidence: Getting frustrated leads us to believe all kinds of crazy things, like “I’m not good at English” or, even worse “I’ll never be good at English”.  This makes it harder not only to continue studying English, but to take any joy in anything in our lives.
  3. It makes us give up: Frustration is unpleasant, and when it leads to a loss in self confidence, it can persuade us to quit.  This is bad because it starts a cycle of feeling frustrated at many important things in our lives – our jobs, our marriages, our health – and then giving up on them.

Let me remind you: frustration is normal.  Everyone feels it sometimes.  But when frustration leads to these (and other) problems, it’s something we need to deal with.

How can I deal with frustration?

Step 1: Be realistic about your goals

Can you really achieve them?  Think about this question positively, but be realistic.  You can probably achieve most of your goals, but all of them?  Do you have too many goals?  Do you have any goals that are in conflict with other goals?  Do you have enough time and energy for all of them?  Also very important: are you giving yourself enough time?  One of the biggest frustrations I see is that many people – and some of my own students – have realistic goals, but they want to achieve them RIGHT NOW!  Skills take time to build, and we don’t get to decide how much time.  So be patient with yourself.

Think about what you hope you can achieve, but also what you are willing to be happy with.  If these two things are the same, then you are probably setting yourself up for frustration.

Step 2: Remember that many frustrations are external

Sometimes, there are things beyond your control.  Whether or not you get 900 on the TOEIC is outside of your control.  Whether or not that study abroad program accepts you is beyond your control.  All you can do is give it your best, and if you fail this time, pick yourself up and try one more time.

Step 3: Remember that many frustrations are internal

Sometimes, we believe things or tell ourselves things that cause us to feel frustrated.  Sometimes it’s better to just accept that we didn’t get the result we want, instead of driving ourselves crazy asking “Why, why, why??”  Sometimes we need to stop worrying about the future – will I ever speak English well?? – and focus on the present.  Sometimes we need go even deeper and examine our beliefs about our potential, our expectations, and ourselves.  Is it really fair to expect ourselves to speak English perfectly?  Is it reasonable to think we can have a full time job and study English for an hour every day?  This is an aspect that I will delve into more deeply in the future.

Step 4: Start taking steps towards being more positive

Keep a list of everything you’ve accomplished, even outside of studying English.  Look at it when you feel frustrated and remind yourself that you are a capable person who has succeeded before, so you can do it again.  Remind yourself that you’ve overcome setbacks before.

Step 5: Allow yourself to take breaks

Do not feel guilty or ashamed for taking a break.  Very, very often, when I feel frustrated I convince myself I need to keep pushing and pushing, and then I just get more frustrated.  Almost every time, I finally break down and take a break – maybe watch some movies or meet some friends – and put aside work for just a little while.  Every time I do this, I start to miss it, and I feel motivated again to give it another try.

This is normal!

So start taking these steps and achieve a feeling of control over your frustration.  As you work on it, you’ll find that not only is your frustration easier to deal with, but also that you start feeling frustrated less and less.

Please be careful though!  While frustration is normal, you should not be feeling it too often.  If you’ve tried improving your situation but nothing seems to change, you may need to take other measures.  For example, you mean need to take a long break, stop doing what is causing you frustration or see a professional to discuss the issue.  Giving up is usually not the best option, but neither is banging your head against a wall.

I hope that was helpful, and I’ll see you again next week!  Have a great Obon!


Learning Part 9: Deep Learning Revisited (3 of 3)

In the final part of improving your deep learning, I’d like to offer this final technique.

Ask why

If you want to take your English from intermediate to advanced, this is the question you need to be asking.  It is a challenging question for teachers, and the answers you receive will be challenging, and it takes a lot of critical thinking.  You will need a certain amount of experience and confidence in your English abilities before asking this question, so if you are not ready, stick to asking “what” and “how” questions first and, little by little, starting making some “why” questions about the English you feel confident about.

That being said, this is probably the most important question for learners trying to break through “pretty good” to “great” English speakers.  I know many English learners who speak very well and can have conversations, but they don’t seem to improve.  This is often because they are stuck on what works, and don’t make the effort to learn the reasons their English works.  When you can figure out why native speakers say what they say, then you’ll understand English even better than a native speaker, and that will give you an amazing command of the language.

There are many why-questions you can ask, but here are some examples to get you started:

“Why do native speakers say ___ (instead of ___)?”

“Why does this sound formal?”

“Why doesn’t this sound natural?”

“Why is this wrong?”

“Why do you use this tense (instead of another tense)?”

There are many, many more questions you can ask.  Basically, the idea is: any time you learn something useful, interesting or confusing, ask questions!  Did your teacher correct you, but you don’t understand why it was a mistake?  Ask why!  Did you use the wrong word, even though you thought it was correct?  Ask why!  Did your teacher say something you thought was strange?  Ask why she used it!

A quick warning though: don’t go too crazy!  LOL

If you learn something that is not very interesting or useful or you already understand quite well, don’t pester your teacher with very hard questions!  You won’t learn very much and your teacher will get exhausted.

The purpose of this is to further your understanding.  If the answer to your question won’t actually help you communicate, then don’t worry about it.

So, for example, asking why native English speakers use articles is not very useful.  Even if you understand the reason, it won’t help you to actually use them (but asking how to use them is a very good idea!).

On the other hand, asking why your sentence was wrong will be very helpful: if you understand why it was wrong, you can prevent the mistake in the future.

Let me show you an example of a very effective way to use why-questions.

Student: Pardon me?

Teacher: Don’t say “pardon me”, say “excuse me”.

Student: Oh… why?

Teacher: Because “pardon me” sounds too formal.  “Excuse me” sounds more natural.

Student: I see.  Is it bad to sound too formal?

Teacher: Sometimes, it depends on the situation.

Student: Why does it sound bad sometimes?

Teacher: Good question!  Because, in English, when someone is too formal, it sounds cold and unfriendly.  A little bit formal is okay, but too much doesn’t sound good.

And that’s just one way!  Don’t just accept what your teachers say; learn more!  If your teacher gets annoyed with you… well, maybe you need a new teacher!  LOL

But seriously, it’s a tough question, and the answers will be tough as well, but why-questions are the key to learning English as deeply as possible.  Give it a shot next time!  I’ll see you all next week.

Set Goals!

Okay guys, time to take a break from all that learning stuff and talk about something else different, but related:

Setting Goals!


Setting goals is a major part of learning anything, as I talk about in one of my YouTube videos (which will be coming out soon, I hope!).  I cannot tell you how many people have come to me to talk about English and had no idea what their goals were!

Often when I ask people – whether they are new students, friends or just people I meet at social events – why they are studying a language, a good number of them look at me confused, like they don’t understand the question.  Sometimes they say “Because I want to” or “Because I like languages” or “Because it’s fun.”  Some of them even say “I don’t know.”

Now, don’t get me wrong: if you’re studying a language as a hobby, these reasons are fine.  It’s important to have things that we enjoy.  It makes life more fun.

On the other hand, if you are serious about improving your English skills, these kinds of reasons aren’t going to cut it.

There are two major problems with these types of reasons

  1. Learning English is not always going to be fun
  2. These reasons are not motivating
  3. These reasons do not lead to any actions

Allow me to elaborate (remember this word from the last post?  Go check it out!).

Learning English is not always going to be fun

I’ve been teaching English for a very long time, and I’ve studied Japanese and Spanish, and I’m going to be honest: it isn’t always fun.  In fact, especially between being a beginner and an intermediate learner, it can be frustrating very often.  There were times I wanted to quit and I’ve seen many of my students get so frustrated they want to give up.  If you have been studying a language long enough, you probably know what I mean.  If you have ever studied a language intensely, you probably know what I mean.  Learning a language is usually fun, and it can be very rewarding, but it can also be tough.

So think about that: if your only reason for studying English is “it’s fun”, what is going to happen when it stops being fun?  That’s right, you’ll probably quit.  Why wouldn’t you?

On the other hand, if you have more reasons, you’re more likely to stick with it and keep studying.

“It’s fun” is not motivating enough

You can probably already guess why I said this now, but just in case: not only is English sometimes frustrating, but sometimes you’re just tired, or not feeling well, or down or just… not in the mood to study.  In all these cases, studying will not be fun (even if it was last time you did it).  The problem is, if you want to get better, it’s important to study, and it’s important to study consistently.  Even if it’s not fun, it’s important to keep doing it and develop the habit.

If the only reason you study is because it’s fun, what are you going to do when you “don’t feel like” studying?  That’s right, slack off.  The more you slack off, the easier it becomes to slack off.  It’s a downward spiral.

On the other hand, if you have other, bigger reasons to study, like “I want to communicate with foreigners” or “I want to take the TOEIC” or “I want to travel to America next year”, these reasons will move you to action.  If you can study when it’s not fun, imagine how much easier it will be to study English when it is fun!  Imagine how much better you’ll be in two years if you studied even when it wasn’t fun!  Now, wouldn’t THAT result be fun?

“It’s fun” doesn’t lead to any action

Now we come to the final point, and it’s probably the most important.

“Okay, so just studying English for fun isn’t enough for motivation, I need more reasons,” you might be thinking.  “But as long as I have another big reasons, that’s enough, right?”  No, I’m afraid not.  It will get you motivated, sure, but…

To do what?


That’s right, one of the biggest issues that learners face is not that they’re not motivated to study.  It’s that they’re very motivated to study but don’t know what to do!

There are too many choices when it comes to learning.  You could buy textbooks, or get a private teacher, or study abroad, or read books, or watch movies, or listen to the radio, or take classes, or use websites or… the list goes on.  But what should you do?

This is why having goals is so important.  Through the process of figuring your goals out and setting them, you can work backwards to seeing what you should be doing now.

  • Are you going to take the TOEIC?  Then it’s simple: buy lots of practice test books and practice!  You could also take classes that specialize in test preparation.
  • Are you going to take a trip to an English speaking country?  You could buy travel guides!  You could buy travel English textbooks.  You could get a teacher who will help you deal with situations you will face in the country.  You could also learn about the culture!
  • Do you want to be able to watch movies without subtitles?  Then don’t waste time building your speaking abilities!  Watch videos on improving your listening.  Or you could buy audio CDs.  You could also get a teacher who will help you build your listening skills.

Those are overly simple answers, and goal setting can be more complex than that, but that’s the basic idea.  If you know what your goal (or goals) is, then you can work backwards and see what kinds of materials and resources you will need (and you won’t need!) to reach those goals.  This will save you a lot of stress and time.

Some of my new students are quite puzzled by my question, and they often say they don’t know what their goals are, or they haven’t thought about it.  This is very easy to solve.  Just think about this:

Imagine yourself in the future, after studying English for three years.

What do you want to be able to do?

That’s it.  Your answer (or answers) is your goal.  People learn things because they can’t do them now.  If you are taking lessons or studying English, it means there’s something you want to do in the future that you can’t do now.

Here is a short YouTube video that gives some good reasons for studying English:

So how about you?  What are your goals?  Share them with me here in the comment section or hit me up on twitter!  See you all next week!

Learning Part 8: Deep Learning Revisited (2 of 3)

I’m at it again!  Another post on learning.  Sorry everybody, I hope you don’t mind!

But I’m not quite finished with deep learning!  I’d like to give you another group of practical questions you can ask to deepen your learning, improve your memory and get even more out of your studies.

This time, the question word is


Ask how!

You can get by with just asking what for many things you learn – like, “What is a screwdriver?” for example – but for many of the more challenging ones, you’ll need to know how.  How-questions are for English learners who want to take their learning to the next level and really get deep inside the language.  How-questions are for English learners who want to understand a question the way a native speaker does.

How questions are important because, unlike native speakers, most English learners do not learn English in context.  They might know what a word means, or what part of speech it is, but not how to use naturally and appropriately.

I can think of many examples of my own students or Japanese friends of mine who used an unusual word, expression or idiom and didn’t realize how rude or strange they sounded.  I remember this very short exchange I had not too long ago with one student:

Me: Sorry for rescheduling our lesson so suddenly.

Student: It’s no skin off my back.

My student seemed so happy he finally had a chance to use an interesting idiom, and I’m glad he did, but at the time I was just stunned.  I had no idea what he meant.  It took us awhile to figure out he meant “No problem” or “It’s okay” or “I don’t mind.”

In addition, how-questions are great for learning more about grammar, especially with verbs!  Verbs conjugate, so they are even more difficult to use.

Here is a list of How-questions (or similar questions) you can ask your teacher or any native speaker next time you learn something new:

“How do you use that?”

“How do I collocate this word?” or “How do I use this word in a sentence?”

“How do I conjugate this verb?” or “How do I say this in the past/present/perfect tense?”

“How does this word/expression sound to native speakers?”

“How do I say this as a verb/noun/adjective?”

“How do I say this more politely/formally/kindly/positively?”

Similar questions might be:

“In what situations can I use this?”

“When can I use this?”

“When is this appropriate?”

As you can see, asking these types of questions will help you understand new words and expressions much more deeply so that not only can you understand them when they are used, but you can understand their nuance and you can use them naturally as well.

Let’s see how we can use those in context:

Student: Teacher, I found this word ‘elaborate’ in a book I am reading.

Teacher: Oh, elaborate!  That’s a useful word!

S: Really?  What does it mean?

T: Basically it means ‘explain in more detail’.

S: I see.  So it’s a verb?

T: Yes.

S: How can I conjugate it?

T: It’s a regular verb, so the past tense is ‘elaborated’ and the past participle is ‘elaborated’, too. [writes it down]

S: I see.  How can I use it as a noun or an adjective?

T: The noun form is ‘elaboration’ and the adjective is also ‘elaborate’, but we don’t use that very much.

S: How can I use the noun?

T: Well, let’s see.  For example, you could say “Your elaboration was very helpful, thank you” or “I need some elaboration”.

S: How do you use it as a verb?

T: We usually use it after someone explains something, but we don’t understand it very well or we want to hear more.  We say “Please elaborate on that” or “Could you elaborate on that?”

S: So it’s an intransitive verb?  You have to say “elaborate on” something?

T: Yes, that’s right!

S: When do you use it?

T: We often use it in a business situation, but you can use it any time.  It’s a little bit formal, but not too much.

S: How does it sound in an informal situation?

T: Pretty normal, not too strange, but we usually say something like “tell me more about that” or “explain that more” or something like that.

Now this student knows a lot about the word “elaborate”!  Can you imagine how much she would have missed if she just asked “What does this mean?”

So next time you have the opportunity, ask “How?”  Try just asking the first question – “How do you use this?” – at first, and then ask you get comfortable, try adding more questions, little by little.  Good luck, and I’ll see you next week!

Learning Part 7: Active vs. Passive Learning

I don’t know if you can tell, but I’ve doing a lot of reading and thinking about learning lately, so I’m going to share another important aspect of learning with you today: active vs. passive learning.

So what is active and passive learning?


Passive Learning

Most people learn kind of like this, especially in school.  Originally, classes and lessons were “teacher-centered”, meaning that the teacher was the leader and the students were supposed to center their attention on her.  According to this model, students are supposed to be quiet and listen and do their best to memorize whatever the teacher says, and it was the teacher’s job to talk and talk and talk and…. talk.  A lot of student work was just drilling the information over and over again.

The idea behind passive learning is quite an old one.  According to older psychological ideas, and even modern folk psychology, our brains are basically “empty vessels” that need to be “filled up” with information.  Unfortunately, this model is mostly wrong and it has been shown that it mostly doesn’t work.  Despite that, a lot of teachers still believe it, and so do many learners.

Why doesn’t it work?  Well, for one thing, studies have shown that students remember as little as 5% of what they are told in lectures!  Even when it comes to reading or images, it’s still only about 20%.  On the other hand, when students are expected to demonstrate their knowledge by answering questions, practicing, or even explaining to others, they can remember anywhere from 50 to 80% of what they learn.  That’s a pretty big difference.

Unfortunately, lots of language learners carry these old habits into the home where they passively study English.  What does passive learning mean at home?  It means watching movies or listening to the radio.

Now, don’t get me wrong: watching English movies or listening to English radio is a fantastic way to learn English.  It’s not the material that is the problem, it’s the way it’s done.

Many learners think that just by having a movie or radio program on in the background will help them, but remember that percentage: if you are just watching passively, with your mind turned off or (worse) while doing something else, you’ll be lucky if you can even remember 10% of what you heard!  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation with a student:

Teacher: So did you study any English this week?

Student: Yes!  I listened to NHK radio show.

Teacher: Great!  So what did you learn?

Student: Umm… I don’t remember.


So how about active learning?


Active Learning

Active learning is a much less common but more useful way to learn.  Instead of just listening, make sure you are doing something that requires effort.  Let me give you some examples of what passive learners do vs. what active learners do.

Passive Learners

Active Learners

Write down everything the teacher says, no matter what it is. Write down what they think is important.  Ask the teacher about anything that still isn’t clear.
Read books, only sometimes writing down any new words they find. Read books with a notepad and a pen.  Mark words or expressions that are new or useful.  Write down any questions they have to ask the teacher the next time they have a chance.  Consider why the author choose certain words or expressions instead of others.  Consider how to use these words or expressions in conversation.
Listen to the radio, often while doing something else. Listen to the radio with a notepad and a pen.  Practice dictation or Ben Franklin listening.  Note any difficult parts to ask a native speaker for help next time.
Watch TV, often while doing something else or with Japanese subtitles Watch TV with the remote handy.  Use no subtitles or English subtitles.  Have a notepad and a pen.  Take any notes on difficult, new or interesting words or expressions they pick up from the movie.
Don’t take any notes and don’t ask any questions about what they read or heard. Take lots of notes and consider many questions when learning.  Writes the questions down to ask the teacher next time.
Only read or listen Read, listen but also practice and use

 As you can probably see, active learning is harder, takes more work and takes more time, but in the long run, it’s worth it.  If you really want to have long-lasting improvements as an English learner, try learning more actively next time.  Not only will it help you with your English skills, but it will help you with anything you want to learn in the future.

Also, to get the most out of your active learning experiences, make sure you have a really good teacher who supports active learning.  Many teachers are so used to the “teacher-centered” approach that they might not be able to accommodate your new way of learning.  They may even dislike it!  If this is the case, you may want to consider getting a new teacher (if you can), or finding someone else who can help you with your questions.