Monthly Archives: April 2013

Teacher Tips- 3 Keys to a More Engaging Class

One of the hardest things for teachers is struggling to grab the attention of your students and keep them interested.  Having disinterested students in a larger classroom also usually leads to behavior problems that can distract the entire class, so having an engaging class is incredibly important. Fortunately, teaching an interesting language class doesn’t have to be difficult.  Follow these 3 keys below and you’ll have your students eager to learn a new language.

Real World Application

Students want to learn things relevant to their daily life.  If you are teaching material that doesn’t relate to your students, they aren’t going to be interested!  Choose content for your students that matches their interests.  Unfortunately, most textbooks are incredibly boring, so consider supplementing with vocabulary or lessons that your students are interested in.  Music, movies, and other forms of entertaining media are great ways to get your students interested in the content.

The Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas


Learning the culture is one of the most fun ways to learn a language and also one of the best ways to get your students interested in the language.  Think about the food, music, dance, sports, and celebrations of the countries that speak the language you are teaching.  Creating lessons based around these ideas are fun for the students and can help them grow a stronger attachment to the language.

 No More Lectures!

Lectures are the absolute worst way to teach a foreign language class.  Here in China, it isn’t uncommon to see Chinese English teachers deliver lectures in Chinese to explain words, phrases, and grammar of the English language.  This may lead to students having an understanding of the structure of the language, but the student will almost certainly be left struggling to speak with native English speakers. At OpenLanguage, our belief is that the most effective way to learn a language is by listening to and studying your lesson at home and then practicing what you’ve learned with a teacher.

Teaching with OpenLanguage makes it easy to teach an engaging class by adhering to these 3 keys with up to date and relevant content, weekly culture shows, and practice exercises to get your students speaking throughout the class.  Check out our Teacher page here for more information.

Top 5- Commonly Used English Idioms

Living in China,I’ve had many Chinese people ask me about English idioms that I’ve never heard of and some that aren’t typically used these days.  Its tough to come up with a list of only 5, but I thought I’d start off with a list of my Top 5 Commonly Used English Idioms.  This is not a scientific list of the most frequently used idioms, but a list of some idioms that I hear and say often.  There are many more idioms out there so feel free to list your favorites in the comments!

You can’t judge a book by its cover – This means that people or things don’t always turn out to be the same as your expectations based on appearance.  I often use this when someone or something turns out to be different from my first impression based on how it looks.  You can say this when food tastes better than it looks or even when it tastes worse than it looks!  If someone looks very friendly and turns out to be mean, or if someone looks mean and turns out to be friendly, this is a common idiom that you can use.

Hit the nail on the head – This is an expression you can use when something is absolutely correct.  “You/He/She hit the nail on the head” is commonly said when a person says something that is exactly right.  When you ask someone a question that they get right, you can say, “You hit the nail on the head!”

Have eyes bigger than one’s stomach- This is something that you can say to someone that thinks they can eat more food than they can.  If you go to dinner and order five dishes for yourself, and can only eat one or two, someone may tell you that “your eyes are bigger than your stomach!”

Jump on the bandwagon- This is something that you say when someone likes something only because it’s popular.  It’s commonly used in sports when someone starts supporting a team or athlete when they start winning.  Another example is if your friend starts listening to Justin Bieber because everyone else does, you can say “He/She jumped on the Justin Bieber bandwagon!”

Once in a blue moon – A blue moon is the name of the second full moon that appears in a month, it happens once every couple years, so it is a rare event.  To say something happens “once in a blue moon” means that it is very uncommon.  For example, if you rarely go to the movie theater, you can say, “Once in a blue moon, I go to the movies.”

Yoyo and Tang: 2 Unlikely Things that Changed how Chinese Saw the Western World

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Yesterday, my 2-year-old son asked me to buy him a yoyo. His request brought me right back to my childhood in the mid 1980’s in China. I was about 5 or 6 then and personally living through the height of the first wave of Reform and Opening Up. Even for a young kid in Shanghai, the social transformation was apparent. I still vividly remember that on the one hand, we were using food rationing tickets to buy rice, eggs and other produce; but on the other, there was a tantalizing drink called Tang whose commercial was playing on TV channel day in and day out. (There must had been only 2 or 3 channels back then and the Tang commercial was the only commercial available  to air). Most importantly for a Chinese, Tang wasn’t rationed. It was available in fancy food shops to those who could afford it. I still remember the premise of the commercial. A happy family of 3 was introduced to Tang by a man in space suit. The commercial proudly claimed that American astronauts drank Tang. There was a split second in the TVC where the family held their glasses of Tang together and the shot moved to slow motion of a perfectly round drop of Tang bouncing in the air. My friends at school discussed this shot again and again. We wondered if Tang could produce perfectly round bits of drops that other drinks couldn’t. It remained a mystery for a while since none of us had actually tasted Tang. I couldn’t really remember when I eventually drank Tang. But the curiosity, desire and envy produced by the commercial was almost universal for people in my generation. We felt as if Tang and its commercial were a window to the Western world. We thought every family in America drank Tang and that’s why they were so happy. And for the first time in a long time, we could have a bit of that too. (Tang is still available in China, but it’s seen as a washed up 80’s and 90’s drink. Not till just now when I did research for this post did I realize that it was a 60’s drink in the US.)

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Now back to yoyo. Its amazing success was later than Tang’s. It was the early or mind 90’s. A Taiwanese guy was appearing on TV everyday, performing fancy yoyo tricks and introducing the toy that took America by storm to China. Yoyo was a novelty toy that Chinese had not seen before. And the guy called himself ‘the king of yoyo’ and became a household name. The Chinese embraced yoyo as we do iPhones and iPads today. We thought playing with a yoyo was so new, so fun and so cool. Everyone wanted to own a yoyo themselves, kids and adults alike. So very smartly. the king of yoyo started to sell his own branded yoyo’s. I was amongst the many millions of kids who begged their parents for a yoyo and was lucky enough to get a hold of one. (Yoyo wasn’t a cheap toy for most urban Chinese). I remember that during each recess, those of us who had a yoyo were the most popular and cool kids. Everyone else wanted to be your friend so that they could play with your yoyo for a minute or two. And then just like Tang, yoyo faded away. But those of us who grew up in the 80’s and early 90’s fondly remember these 2 things as a window to the Western world during our childhood. They stood for novelty, optimism and now when I come to think of it, entrepreneurial spirit to a young Chinese mind.


Teacher Tips- How to Provide Constructive Feedback for your Students

Depending on your teaching situation and the number of students you have, sometimes it can be tough to know how to provide feedback for all of your students. How do you know when to correct your student and when to let things go? Correcting too much in the moment may cause your students to stop speaking, and not enough correction will lead your student down a path of bad speaking habits.

Keep a Notebook

A general rule is to keep a notebook to jot down mistakes that are made often so that you can give your students a chance to learn without singling out their mistakes, constantly interrupting with corrections, and scaring them from speaking out again. Most students will need plenty of encouragement to speak out in class and less interruptions from the teacher. Let your students speak out, jot down the mistakes that are being made in your notebook, and make those teaching points targeted to the class so that your student can learn without feeling criticized.

Record your Students

Recording your students or asking them to record themselves also provides a great way for you to hear your students individually and provide personal feedback to each one. OpenLanguage has made this simple with the ‘Task’ feature. The Task asks students to answer questions or speak about a topic covered in the lesson, and they can record themselves and upload the Task on their mobile device so that the teacher can send feedback. The Task gives the opportunity for the student to speak and receive feedback for every lesson so that the teacher and student together may uncover weaknesses and make improvements in areas that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Try out the Task feature with your students and start giving more personalized feedback.


OpenLanguage Meetups!


One of the things that we firmly believe in at OpenLanguage is that along with all of the technology that makes learning easier, learning a language takes real practice with other language learners and native speakers.

Today we’d like to introduce one of our solutions to helping you learn a language: the OpenLanguage meetup! Our aim is to bring together other OpenLanguage users from across the world for real guided practice of your target language.  We just held our first one here in Shanghai and it was a lot of fun!


If you’re interested in joining one of our meetups, let us know.   And if you’re in an area that doesn’t currently have OpenLanguage meetups, we can help you create one!  We look forward to seeing you there and helping you achieve your goal of speaking a foreign language.

Electronic Dictionaries: help or harm?

I first came to Shanghai, China in February 2011 without knowing a single word of Mandarin Chinese. Before I got here, my friends told me that Shanghai was a big cosmopolitan metropolis where people were used to speaking at least English and Mandarin Chinese. However, it wasn’t until I got off the airplane that I finally understood that I was in ANOTHER country with a completely different language and culture, thousands of miles away from home. I was terrified.

Wise words can be fuzzyCreative Commons License Kevin Dooley via Compfight

Breaking down the language barrier is definitely the most difficult thing I have had to overcome here in China, because it’s not only about learning and memorizing grammar rules and new words. It’s also about understanding why things are said, as well as when, with whom, and how they are said. I guess it’s the same for every language you learn, right? But, with learning Chinese there is a difference: there are thousands of characters! 

Studying a language that uses characters is extremely confusing at first. When many of us grow up, we learn that “a” is “a”, “b” is “b”, etc. We give each and every single letter a phonetic value that stays the same even if we study other languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, even German or Norwegian (although their alphabets include a few different letters).

In my first Chinese class, my head almost blew up when I was told that “你” is pronounced “nǐ”. After a lifetime using an alphabet, I was now going to learn to read what I thought were “drawings”. That was when I was introduced to the world of the electronic dictionaries. When I started my Chinese class, I felt like an outcast because most of my classmates had at least a dictionary app on their mobile devices and were using it to follow the class. Meanwhile, I was still carrying around a cumbersome Chinese – English dictionary.

Slowly but surely, I decided to put aside my “chubby” friend and explore these amazing tools until, finally, I got used to them. What I came to realize as time passed by is that most students rely completely on these devices or apps for everything when they are learning a new language, Chinese in this case. I remember most of my classmates were scared of speaking Chinese without consulting with their Electronic Dictionaries first.

So my question is: Are Electronic Dictionaries harmful or helpful to a language learner? 

Personally I believe that it all depends on the user. It is true that these devices are programmed to support many languages, many words, and many sentences; but, what they are missing is the “human” factor which is nothing more than the real situations of daily life and the interaction with other people.

Electronic Dictionaries make literal translations, therefore they will translate “¿qué onda?” (Spanish) as “what wave?”, because that is the direct translation.

  • qué = what
  • onda = wave 

However, “¿qué onda?” is a very common phrase we use in Spanish to say “what’s up?”.

Dependency on these machines is inversely proportional to the confidence the language learner has with their own language skills. In other words, if the fear of mispronouncing a word or phrase or writing them incorrectly is never overcome, the fluency with the language will depend on the usage of the device.

Electronic Dictionaries are helpful if they are used as a studying tool, but become harmful once our communication skills depend on them.

universal thank you noteCreative Commons License woodleywonderworks via Compfight

Don’t get me wrong, I still use my dictionary app when I don’t know a word I hear or see on a sign and will probably use it forever because, the truth is that we will never stop learning new things about a language. That’s the beauty of it!



The Importance of Personal & Parasocial Relationships in Language Learning

7 years after teaching languages through lesson podcasts, a once in decline medium seems to be on the rise again thanks to smartphones and tablets. I’ve always been medium agnostic whether it was during the iPod/podcast hype, the awkward years following or the current revival. It’s much more about the intimate personal connection one builds with the message rather than the medium.

Making a Human Connection

In an age where digital learning has become part of the essential learning mix, I strongly believe that the role of the message and the messenger should be celebrated even more, because language learning is social. Personal and parasocial relationships are even more important in digital learning when it’s often done in a self-study fashion without the human dynamics to engage, motivate and encourage the learner. Students want to feel the same kind of human touch as they would in a classroom but with the convenience of it delivered to their location and in their own pace.

Injecting Personality in Learning 

I still remember the first time when a ChinesePod user showed up in his suit and tie and carry on luggage when he came by our office. He was from the States, learning Chinese using our product for a while. He spotted me from the office and called out ‘Jenny’ before went on saying that we ‘go back a long way’. But it was the first time we’d ever met. However, my Chinese lessons had been playing in his car everyday for the past 6 months. ‘Your voice and those long drives’, he said. I, a teacher in Shanghai was made massively available to students everywhere in the world by podcast. I still have many lovely moments like this when learners visit us to put a face to the voice and personality that they’ve developed a bond with. Learning on their own, on a computer, smartphone or tablet was made less mechanical and more alive by the personality that delivered the message.

Creating High-Touch Offline Activities 

This is something that I wish I had done earlier. People need to meet, mingle and speak the language. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of a traditional class. Grassroots local meetups could be an option. The meetups have a distinct language learning purpose where learners gather together with the help of a native speaker facilitator to practice the language and meet fellow learners. Technology makes these small dispersed events more purposeful. The meetup could happen around a centralized lecture delivered in the form of a video or audio lesson. The students get together not to listen to a lecture (which they do before hand), but to practice the language taught in that specific lecture. OpenLanguage recently did out first meetup of such kind in Shanghai with a group of English learners using our product. Everyone came prepared. They got to speak a ton of English with native speaker facilitators and each other. It also gave us the opportunity to hear customer feedback firsthand, face to face and helped them with issues on the spot. This is so important for digital products as you don’t usually meet students, see and hear problems firsthand.

Many would agree that a blended model is the way to go for language learning and learning in general. The challenge now is how do we blend so that we preserve and elevate the human aspect of learning, but making it more efficient and productive for both the learner and teacher.