ESL in the 21st Century: New Media Methods Help English Learners

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by Claudio Muñoz

Have you ever seen Dora, The Explorer, the TV show about a little girl who discovers the world with her friend Boots? It has been described as “one of the most annoying TV shows” for some adults in television focus groups. But for children it’s a party, and a very educative one.

Despite its nickname, the “idiot box”, your television is not only an entertainment device; it can be a great teaching tool. That’s why TV shows like Dora have been on the air for years (Sesame Street’s debut was on October 10th 1969.) Now, the question is; as a newcomer, can you use it to learn English?

Lack of communication skills is one of the most common obstacles for newcomers. “Upon arrival, 18 per cent of newcomers stated that they were unable to converse in either of Canada’s official languages. As well, immigrant women were less likely than men to have knowledge of one of Canada’s official languages,” a Statistic Canada report concluded. The reason is, obviously, the high proportion of immigrants arriving from non-English or non-French-speaking countries.

Of course, the problem not only affects a newcomer’s social life: Stats Canada states that 22 per cent of all the settlers who reported having problems securing a job identified lack of English as their main obstacle to finding employment. Also, 15 per cent of immigrants who identified problems in accessing health care cited language barriers as an issue and 27 per cent of those who experienced problems in the pursuit of further training cited this “difficulty as the most serious hurdle.”

Thanks to several private and government initiatives, is possible for an immigrant to attend LINC and ESL classes for free. But, for a faster, more effective settlement process new Canadians need ‘full immersion’ meaning you must talk, think, and live in English.

Your new best friends

Right now in Canada there are several activities to complement ESL classes, like the Host Program, coffee talks, free talk groups and so on. Despite all these programs, you can improve your skills working by yourself, at home. Or almost by yourself, it’ll be just you, the television and computer.

Television has always been your friend and in Canada it won’t let you down. There are TVshows in Spanish, Russian, Cantonese, Italian… but as a newcomer, avoid them. English language TVshows on public TV(free) allow closed captions for people who are deaf, beginning to read or learning a new language; meaning that almost any show in Canada is presented with a transcription in the screen, like subtitles. Closed captioned is a great tool to improve your reading skills because there is not much time between sentences, as there is with a newspaper or a magazine. Kid’s shows – at TVO or CBC every morning – are a perfect fit for young ESL learners because their simplicity and the special attention they pay to pronunciation and grammar. If you have children, it is a great way to share some time with them. According The National Captioning Institute of USA more than 100 million Americans benefit from captioned programming. These audiences include 28 million people who are deaf or hard of hearing, children and adults learning to read, and those learning English as a second language.

To improve listening skills, radio is a great alternative. There are hundreds of radio stations around the country and more than 30 in Toronto, featuring shows in several languages. But, again, go away from them. Instead, listen to English language talk shows (usually, more clear than musical ones) or news. In the case of news shows, they have an extra benefit of keeping you informed. Before you know it you can be discussing world events with a neighbour in the laundry room – in English of course.

Obviously, new technologies enlarge media resources for students. And for ESL purposes, podcasting can be even better than radio broadcast. A podcast is a digital media file distributed over the Internet for playback on portable media players or personal computers. Some of these podcasts are ESL classes that you can download and listen to as much as you want, most of them free of charge. Some of these “languages freebies” are available at www.eslpod.com/website/index.php or at http://blogs.thelinguist.com. Also, it’s possible to find several radio shows, news programs, comedy shows and even books as podcast, but not all of them are free. Where you can find some of them? Pretty much every Media has podcasts –from radios to newspapers, so you can start looking at your favorite magazines or TVshow website. Only as a suggestion, there’s some great Canadian podscats at www.cbc.ca/podcasting, from CBC.

Podcasting is just one of the numerous tools for ESL students available on the Internet. Dictionaries, English exercises, chats or videos are accessible for newcomers with an eagerness to learn. Oxford University Press has a great site at www.oup.com/elt, where you click on the ‘I’m Learning English’ button and you’ll find grammar quizzes and tests for everyone from the cradle to the grave. Some are fun, others are serious practice for people practicing for academic exams. When you buy an Oxford ESL Dictionary, it comes with a cd that enables you to practice pronunciation.

Some websites contain full ESL kits, like CBC (check www.cbc.ca/ottawa/esl/index.html) or “Learning Center” at BBC’s website www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/index.shtml.)

As a complement, other websites can be good places to improve your vocabulary, writing skills and pronunciation with just one click. For example www.answers.com is an online dictionary with pronunciation examples and context explanations, featuring articles from Wikipedia or different newspapers. The New York Times on-line (www.nytimes.com) offers a good tool to develop your reading comprehension and vocabulary: just pick any story and double click in any word that you don’t understand. A new window will pop up showing the definition and pronunciation of that word.

Despite all these hi-tech tips, you can still improve your English with some “old school” methods. Toronto is packed with free newspapers and magazines; in almost every subway station and convenience store you can find Eye Weekly, Metro or 24 Hours. Of course, a new edition of Canadian Newcomer Magazine is always waiting at your settlement agency free of charge.

Read everything you can get your hands on free of charge. Underline the words that you don’t know and search for their meaning later. Try crosswords. They are going to be difficult but you will gain a very large vocabulary. Pick a book; find out what’s popular at the bookstore then find something by that same author at a garage sale or on discount tables at the mall. Pay $3 for a book that cost as much as $40 six months ago. Read comic books or graphic novels – whatever comes into your hands. Be curious. Watch everything, read everything, listen to everything. Good English is just a matter of time if you are willing to devote that time to learning it.

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