Motivation in Learning English

A recent study conducted by scientists showed that neither age nor language proficiency predicted how quickly Spanish-speaking immigrants in the U.S. picked up English. Instead, the immigrants who learned the fastest showed both the greatest motivation to learn and a willingness to use English at every opportunity despite being not very good at it at first, according to a report recently published on MSNBC.

To better understand how the brain changes in response to language learning, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Washington in Seattle Lee Osterhout held a lab that used electrodes placed on the scalps of language learners and fluent  speakers to measure the electrical activity created by the signals of brain cells. This allowed researchers to examine differences in brain patterns between the two groups who were tested. Surprising results were reached from their studies.

Repeated studies of French language students showed that their brains responded differently to real French words in comparison to fake words even if the students themselves were not able to tell the words apart. This was determined after just two weeks of classes. After 32 weeks of instructions, the brain patterns of the students were almost indistinguishable from native French speakers, Osterhout said during a panel that was part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 19 and also reported on The report said Osterhout hopes to tease out the importance of motivation in language learning in future research, and he wants to get a better sense of what separates the proficient language speakers from the truly fluent ones.

The article also explained that U.S. government agencies have been forced to learn how to cultivate the most talented second-language speakers among college students with little to no other-language expertise, since there is a lack in students who are fluent in French and/or Spanish when they graduate college.

For more information on the article and the study, visit


ielts or toeflWhen applying to most universities in the United States, proof of knowledge of the English language might have to be presented.  The standard way institutions of higher education check for this is through standardized tests such as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), or the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

The IELTS is an examination established in 1989 and managed by the University of Cambridge, the British Council, and IPD Education.  Although preparing for the exam may be stressful and challenging for those wishing to be admitted to a university with a set minimum score, performing well is far from impossible.

The IELTS is broken down into four main components – Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking.  It’s very important to read and listen to directions carefully, as not closely following them can mean bad marks earned.  Simple mistakes are often made by not conforming to the directions given.

The TOEFL is headed by the Educational Testing Service, and was originally created by faculty at Stanford University in the 1960s.  Like the IELTS, it is also broken down into Reading Speaking, Listening, and Writing sections – though it’s a bit different.

There exists a variety of preparation courses that aid in getting a better grasp of the language and scoring high on these examinations.  A quick search online can lead an inquisitive student in the right direction to a local or online resource.  With proper preparation, exam scores can be raised significantly after completion of a course.  Universities are generally told not to accept neither IELTS nor TOEF scores older than two years, so an up-to-date report is necessary for most applications.

Learning English Vocabulary

There’s a general consensus about the English language: “It’s easy.”

That’s what most of my friends abroad would say. You know, the ones who have English amongst their list of 4-5 languages, while I play a game of charades and repeat “qui, qui!” for no reason to the French lady at the baguette shop — hoping she’d figure out I want the one to the left, not right.

While English is known as a relatively simple language to learn, it shouldn’t be confused for as plain. In fact, it’s a beautifully precise language. There exist thousands of words that are each fit to come as close to expressing a feeling through language as possible.

And guess who also knows this? The makers of the TOEFL. When creating an exam that tests the proficiency of someone’s English skills, vocabulary is crucial. In an academic setting, choosing the right word to express your opinion in a class discussion or coming up with an argument on a research paper all require an understanding of word meaning and connotation. Because universities count on TOEFL exam scores to validate your English skills, the creators of the exam make sure they test you extensively on this.

A friend once told me that learning a language isn’t just about perfecting your accent or ordering breakfast without hand gestures (unless you’re learning Italian, and well, that’s just as important). But this friend said that the day you really know a language is the day you understand its jokes – because that’s

where the heart and soul of a language and cultures lies.

Now, while the TOEFL won’t ask you any knock-knock jokes (who’s there?), you should become familiar with common idioms and saying that make everyday life in an English environment all the more easier (and clearer).

Check out Valen, over at EngvID, as she covers 7 commons idioms you’ll hear often in the States.

And make sure to go over the Vocabulary section description of the TOEFL exam over at The 5 W’s of the TOEFL to know what you’re in for!


Finding a Speaking Partner

Often the most daunting thing about spending an extended amount of time abroad is getting a solid grasp of the native language.  A student’s level of confidence in the way they speak and interact with individuals can have a major impact on academic work, professional progression, and even daily life.

An easy way to learn conversational English and get better footing with the language is to get a conversation partner.  This can be as formal or informal as you decide to make it.  Finding someone who you can regularly talk to without worry or fear of mistake, one who will correct you and help you become more advanced, can really benefit the experience of studying abroad.

In the United States there are many avenues available to students wishing to acquire a conversation partner.  If a student doesn’t have a friend readily available to help them out, there might be a program set up for them such as the University of New Mexico’s Center for English Language and American Culture, which matches international students to locals for the simple purpose of learning better English.  Many universities across the United States have similar programs with the same goals, all one needs to do is look into the school’s International Student Affairs Office (or equivalent) and ask about resources to aid in learning English.  If there aren’t any resources locally, a quick web search can help a student find a conversation partner online.

What to Expect from TOEFL

Many U.S. colleges and universities require their applicants, whether international or not, to take one or more standardized tests, including one in particular called the TOEFL.

TOEFL, which stands for test of English as a foreign language, evaluates the ability of an individual to use and understand English in an academic setting. Nearly one million individuals of all ages take the Interned-based test (iBT) or the Paper-based Test (PBT) TOEFL test each year. International students can expect to complete portions reading, listening, speaking and writing in English, with a 10-minute break after two portions have been completed. Each examination is about 4.5 hours long and is scored using both an automated system and human raters to ensure that an accurate picture of an applicant’s ability is obtained.

Once the test has been complete, scores are usually posted online within two weeks, and scores can be sent out to universities and institutions where the applicant is applying upon the student’s request. Once the test has been taken, a TOEFL score is valid for two years. After two years, the score is considered invalid, since a candidate’s language proficiency could have changed since the date of the test.

International students taking the TOEFL should prepare in advance before they sit down at a computer or travel to a test center to take the test. A number of preparation materials are also available that can help individuals prepare for the test in advance, including books, guides and online practice tests. However, if an undesirable score is obtained, students may retake the TOEFL as many times as they wish. For more information on TOEFL, test dates and locations, visit

Learning English around the World

Learning English around the worldToday more people than ever before are learning English around the world. As the application of English continues to grow making it critically important in the international community, more countries are including English in their school curriculum. More countries are recognizing the importance of English and realizing that students who learn English from a young age will later have a competitive advantage globally. Not only can students speak another language, but many of the top universities are requiring English language skills in order to be accepted into the University – especially in top ranked institutions in the US and UK.

Because of this, many countries have found that beginning English language studies as early as primary or pre-school directly translates into future opportunities to the country as a whole whether it means a more educated population, increased foreign direct investment, international trade, etc.

In fact, half of the employees in international companies use English every day at work due to trends of globalization, technology, and urbanization. These trends are being monitored on a country basis by Education First who monitors the success of learning English around the world.

Here are the top 5 countries that ranked as having very high proficiency:

1 Norway
2 Netherlands
3 Denmark
4 Sweden
5 Finland

Interestingly, Europe has a strong English proficiency most likely due to the European Union’s strong emphasis on learning multiple languages as evident by the Common European Framework. In fact, according to the Education First statistics, 90% of all students in Europe complete their schooling having studied English.