Guestpost #68: Josef Addleman – Ten things I’ve learned from teaching English as a foreign language

Bio: For the past five years, Josef Addleman has been a Toronto-based improviser, musician, and teacher. Before that, he spent two years living in rural Japan. As a day job, he teaches an accent-reduction course to classes of mostly Japanese and Korean students. He improvises with Impatient Theatre Company and Opening Night Theatre, and performs with the Japanese drumming ensemble Arashido Taiko (

  1. English is bloody complicated. I’ve never studied it from a linguistics perspective, and I understand that living languages tend to evolve and get messed up over time, but English seems to take so much cake as far as variety of different etymological sources and haphazard combinations thereof.
  2. You know what’s crazy? We can’t even agree on how many vowel sounds there are in English. A bunch of languages only have five. I heard somewhere that Arabic only has three? I’m pretty sure that can’t be right, but it sure would make rhyming easier.
  3. English speakers, depending on regional dialects and such, also use a wide variety of complex tonal patterns or inflections to express subtext and emotions. This is true of most languages, I expect, but it’s totally unintuitive to many English language learners. It’s also something that’s very difficult to teach or learn, precisely because it is so intuitive to native speakers. It’s something most of us do without thinking about it.
  4. This isn’t true for actors, who spend a lot of time learning how to manipulate text and express deeper levels of meaning. It’s still done much on an intuitive level, but practice makes proficiency. For this reason, I’ve found that script-work, and sometimes improvised drama, can be excellent teaching tools.
  5. Rhythm is also an incredibly important (and beautiful) part of spoken English, and it’s quite hard for speakers of many other languages to grasp. I think this is particularly true for students who have already spent time trying to learn and perfect the various English sounds, since when we speak with natural rhythm, we generally don’t pronounce most the majority of our syllables properly anyway.
  6. Learning a language is, maybe more than any other skill, subject to huge ups and downs in confidence and perceived achievement. One day it feels like you’re practically fluent, and the next day you hit a major wall and never want to speak again.
  7. As a native of the English language, it’s weird for me to think of all those other languages in which you can just look at a word and know, 100% for sure, how it is pronounced. We are used to making informed guesses about pronunciation and I expect that this influences our psychology in some deep and interesting ways.
  8. North American schools don’t really teach grammar anymore in any structured way. As a result, I will occasionally learn a grammatical term for the first time from one of my students.
  9. We learn languages as babies by listening a lot and trying to reproduce sounds, which then get connected to meanings. We gradually learn grammatical structures gradually, which help add clarity to our communication. Eventually, we learn to map words onto written symbols. Learning a foreign language is usually approached almost the opposite way, starting with written words and grammar, and later focusing on how the words sound.
  10. I think it’s impossible to actually learn effective foreign language communication in a classroom alone. Context is everything, so the best thing you can do is put yourself in a situation where you have to speak. My best lesson in this was a week I spent hitch-hiking around Southern Japan. Of all of the many amazing people who picked us up and gave us rides, only one person spoke more than a few words of English (and she was a high school student). Only then, after eight months of living and working surrounded by Japanese speakers, did I feel like I could really communicate.


Filed under tenthingsivelearned, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Guestpost #68: Josef Addleman – Ten things I’ve learned from teaching English as a foreign language

  1. Pingback: Guestpost #68: Josef Addleman – Ten things I've learned from … | TEFL Japan

  2. Heaven knows how many times I’ve said #9…

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