General Questions Related to Learning
What is the optimum age to begin learning a foreign language?
The standard answer is ‘somewhere between 5 and 8 years of age’ or ‘the sooner – the better.’ Things, however, are not so simple. There is no denying that a child at this age absorbs information at a much faster rate than an adult. The type of knowledge that the two age groups would gain for the same period of time, however, would be quite different. The young child would probably have learned several nouns a week and would have touched upon some basic verb patterns. The younger student would probably be able to work with simple stories in the form of passages and tell them by heart or translate them by role playing. Apart from vocabulary items, the adult learner would probably have worked through verb conjugations and verb tenses, definite and indefinite articles, etc. It is hard to quantify the progress of either group of learners. Youngsters would generally be more confident in their knowledge, while adult learners would have a deeper and more grammatical understanding of the structure of the studied material. Actually the study process at a different age leads to a different end result, ultimately none really being superior to another. Therefore, the answer to the question about the best time to start learning a foreign language is probably… anytime! Any foreign language is wealth and in this train of thought there is no inappropriate time for a person to enrich themselves.
Anyway, purely logically, an earlier start of foreign language learning would, of course, allow for a longer sequence of instruction, thus increasing the likelihood that a child would achieve true proficiency in a language over the course of time. Most experts maintain that a minimum of six to eight years of proper study is required before even approaching fluency. An intensive study programme designed with the aim of galloping under the pressure of time would not lead to results commensurate with those from well planned studying in timely fashion.
How fast will I learn the language?
A very frequently asked question. Unfortunately, however, it demonstrates, above all, lack of understanding of the heart of the learning process, which is two-way and includes a teacher and learner. People are different: some have a head for figures or are good at sciences; others possess remarkable creativity and excel at arts; still others stand out physically among their peers and establish themselves in sports, fashion, etc. The same applies to languages – some have a natural flair, others struggle more. Everyone has their own talent but for all those daring to study a foreign language it is important that this is done in the right way at the right place. Only time can tell how quickly and how far you will get in the process since it depends on many factors and, above all, on the learner. An experienced teacher could give you a rough estimate of probable duration of study, but be realistic – knowledge cannot be poured into a student! As they say, learning is not a spectator sport. You had better arm yourself with will and ambition, expend a lot of effort and hard work and the result should soon become evident.
How important is the teacher? Can I learn it alone?
You would hardly manage on your own especially in the initial stages. You would get lost in fathomless depths trying to figure out things that a teacher could make much easier to comprehend. Probably at a later stage you could possibly perfect yourself on your own but only provided you have already acquired the necessary techniques for efficient self-study.
A number of different researches have been done through the years in an attempt to quantify the teacher impact on student success but none of them is conclusive enough because this is hardly measurable. Whether the role of the teacher amounts to only one third of the combined efforts or more is hard to say unequivocally, but it is plain that the quality of the teacher, what they know and can do, is a key factor in successful language acquisition. Other factors must also be present, like correct methodology and appropriate learning environment, among many. The right teacher can substantially help the learner in this respect too. The bulk of the work, however, still must be done by learners themselves, much to their regret. They should have motivation, the right approach to and organisation of their work, diligence and consistency. Foreign language learning requires a huge investment of time and is very energy-consuming and nerve-racking. The result, however, is worth it.
What are the essential aspects of successful learning?
There are many factors that contribute to successful learning. Among the most important ones are: motivation, atmosphere during the lesson, the teacher and methods of work.
Motivation lies at the basis and in essence this is a personal understanding of the importance of what is being studied. It can be improved by piquing learners’ interest in the material, by adducing suitable real-life examples demonstrating the practicability and applicability of the knowledge, or by diverse and engaging activities.
Pleasant atmosphere, on the other hand, is important because a happy learner is a working and mindful learner.
Last but not least, teachers must be likeable people, true professionals, specialising and constantly developing, using an effective combination of new and traditional methods. After all, student success is achieved through teacher success.
At MINERVA you will find all these factors present, as much as it is in our power, in the name of mutual success.
How is it better to learn a language – individually or in small groups?
Both forms of studying have their pros and cons. In the case of individual training the learner receives all the attention of the teacher and studies at their own pace, which allows for maximum flexibility in the process of language acquisition. One of the disadvantages of this method, however, is that it lacks competitiveness, the opportunity to ‘see how the land lies’, team work (so important in real life outside the classroom) and potentially it can be a tad more boring.
At MINERVA we offer you the best of both worlds – small groups with a marked individual approach to everyone. In this way learners can always keep abreast of the others, find friends and a drive to study, and it is generally more fun.
Instead of having my child do a course now, why not wait for him/her to grow up and then make up for lost time?
As a rule, it is easier to learn a language at an early school age. The brain of an adult is more burdened, especially if the adult goes to work, has a family and children. In comparison, the ability of children to remember the material is better and it happens quicker. Why lose time? Even if you plan to cover as much information later, there are some other not insignificant benefits of an earlier start of foreign language studying. It is proven that children who actively studied a foreign language when they were younger find it a lot easier to learn other languages in the future, because their minds have been properly trained linguistically for a long time. Besides, they learn to work methodically, to communicate and work in a group; they have greater mental flexibility, creativity, listening skills and memory. If they have fun at the same time, what else can we ask for? If you are unsure whether the investment will be worth it, bear in mind that the direct potential return might be multifold (in case of finding a good job or in case of admission to a prestigious university), while even indirect benefits would be gross (regarding mere worldly-wise experience or acquisition of a range of additional skills).
Isn’t the tuition at the state/municipal schools enough?
We have respect for all our colleagues, including those at the state and municipal schools. For one reason or another, however, practice shows that what has been learned at school without using specialised outside help rarely makes a student especially competitive when applying for university admission or when sitting an international exam. Things are simply hard to compare. The setting is different, the conditions are different. At MINERVA learners get a stimulating environment, the right answers and the proper conditions.
We used to study Russian, French and German at school. Now everyone studies English. What is better for my children and grandchildren?
All languages are wealth. In a contemporary society it is necessary to speak two, three or even more languages. This opens doors and provides opportunities. Do not regret having learned languages other than English but you can be sorry if you have not kept up and developed this knowledge through the years. In any case, nowadays English is a must and every other language is a huge plus. Different sources give different data about the most spoken languages in the world but still the picture is more or less the following. According to the number of native speakers, English is third after, naturally, Mandarin (Chinese) and Hindi (in the totality of their dialects). The distribution of the last two, however, is limited mostly to the respective two most populated countries in the world. Therefore, English appears to be the most important language in the modern world simply because a whopping 1,5 billion people on the earth speak some English (one in five or even four people) and it is an official language in about 55 countries (about 87 states and territories). Apart from that, though it is not an official language in countries like the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, for example, over 80% of the population there speak English. What is more, this is the language of the United Nations, the International Olympic Committee and a huge number of other international organisations, the most-used language on the Internet, etc. Therefore, learn English but do not overlook other languages either.
The son of an acquaintance finished school with a language profile some years ago. How about me asking him to help my child improve?
There is no harm in that – after all that will be better than nothing. If you want serious results though, you would better trust the professionals. Well, that’s us! We believe we have inside-out knowledge in our field of expertise and we can be much more of a help. Do not forget the old saying, ‘You get what you pay for.’ While this is definitely true, at MINERVA you get even more.
The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.
Questions Related to Exams and Certificates
Why do I need an internationally recognised certificate?
In the contemporary context of constantly growing competition in all spheres of activity, especially in business and on the labour market, the need of valid proof of one’s language competence has also increased. For that purpose a person can take a variety of exams and demonstrate knowledge of a number of different languages. Possession of an internationally recognised certificate increases mobility, makes the person more competitive when applying for a foreign university or when looking for professional realisation in Bulgaria or abroad. Last but not least, such a certificate brings prestige and sense of achievement.
Do I need to receive specialised training before I take such an exam?
In our opinion this is highly recommended. Every exam has its own characteristics and even if you are good at a particular language, the very unawareness of the format of an exam and its specifics will prevent you from doing well. You would also be ill-advised to use books for preparation that are not in accord with the latest exam changes because, for one reason or another, exams are revised every few years by the respective organisation that administers them. The specialised courses which we run at MINERVA are always up to date with the latest changes in the format like duration, task types, etc. Apart from language skills, our learners also receive tips on useful techniques and tried and tested strategies for tackling the different parts of the exam; your progress is continually tested with exam-like tasks and activities, etc. A tutor with experience as a Cambridge examiner can be an invaluable adviser. Many other small details also contribute to the high quality of preparation.
How do I know what certificate exactly I need for admission to a university abroad?
In principle, foreign language knowledge at levels В2, С1 and С2 is considered adequate for university admission. However, since universities are autonomous institutions, they have the right to have different requirements towards the language preparation of candidates. Therefore, it is necessary to check the specific requirements of each educational institution in advance. Whatever official international certificate you have which validates your knowledge of a foreign language is a plus to your CV. But from a practical viewpoint, it is a good idea to be clear about where you are heading for and what documents they expect you to submit, so that you can start the whole application and exam preparation process in time.
Do I need to have taken the FCE before I take the CAE?
No. You can take any level you like without having taken the lower level. Before you sit a Cambridge exam, you will usually be asked to complete a form in which you provide information about any preparation courses taken, number of years you have studied the language, etc. One of the questions on the form asks you if you have already taken any other exams. This, however, is done for purely statistical reasons and for the needs of analysis by the examining institution and does not affect your final grade in the exam in any way.
Yet our experience shows that CAE is a rather difficult exam and sitting the FCE exam, for example a year earlier, has some big side benefits in addition to the purely linguistic advantages of longer preparation. Simply put, if a candidate has already taken an exam of this kind, he or she has gained the necessary experience, has overcome much of the nervousness, knows how to tackle the various exam situations – in short, knows fairly well what lies ahead because of recent similar experience. Naturally, this is a huge plus and, potentially, is a prerequisite for at least somewhat better performance than if sitting the upper level directly.
How can I know if I am ready to sit an exam?
For that purpose our students take mock exams which maximally resemble real exam environment and conditions which a candidate faces during the exam. To us it is also important that you take the exam prepared and do it properly. We have been preparing candidates for the different international exams for many years now and we possess substantial experience, statistics, we use the right programmes and methodology. The teachers that lead the courses have followed the same route themselves, possess the highest Cambridge certificate besides their university degrees in philology, or even have experience as Cambridge examiners. All this is an outstanding advantage and the results of our candidates through the years are yet another proof of that.
On the one hand, an upper main suite exam is hard purely linguistically, and, on the other hand, it requires a certain level of intellect and experience of life. The latter is especially visible in productive papers like Speaking and Writing, where, though no specific knowledge of any subject or science is necessary, the candidate still has to produce some spoken or written text on topics like ecology, city transport and so on, or argue over allocating funds to a youth centre or club, for example.
How can I improve my reading skills?
In brief – by reading a lot. All kinds of texts would enrich you not only with information but also linguistically. If you also choose texts with a better quality of the language, then so much the better.
If we consider improving skills for reading on a computer screen – something you would have to do if you take the TOEFL exam, for example, – you have to bear in mind several peculiarities and differences of reading on screen in comparison with reading on paper. First, on the whole, there is much less text visible. Second, instead of turning pages, you have to scroll the text horizontally or vertically. Finally, there might be icons or other distracting visuals around the text. In order to get used to reading on a computer screen, you have to use every opportunity to practise.
Generally, if you are preparing for TOEFL, try to find textbooks and encyclopaedias in English and read articles on natural sciences, social sciences, the humanities and arts. A wealth of reading material is also available online.
How can I improve my listening skills?
Here are some suggestions for activities that can help in improving your listening skills:
Listen to news broadcasts in English. Choose TV or radio programmes with reporters from different English-speaking countries, especially from Great Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia. This would face you with different accents – listen hard and try to understand as much as possible.
Watch educational television programmes. The different Discovery Channels, Explorer, History and many others offer interesting stories and accounts. You can even take notes while watching or listening and during the commercial breaks you can turn down the volume and try to summarise the most important things from what you heard using your notes.
Listening to songs and watching films can also be useful if you choose ones with better language. If you sing along with a favourite song (have the lyrics in front of you and follow them so that you do not sing nonsense), your tongue “bends” and you learn to pronounce quick recitatives. As for films, it is better if they are not dubbed but with subtitles or even better – without subtitles at all. Thus you will focus on listening. Otherwise, if there are subtitles, you concentrate on reading rather than on the original English text. It does not matter that the picture facilitates understanding – if it is fun, ‘learning’ is more useful.
How can I improve my speaking skills?
Here are some suggestions on how to improve your speaking skills:
Listen to good examples of speeches. One of the best ways to learn to speak well is by listening to good orators. Pay attention to the way in which they answer questions, how they express their opinion, give or summarise information, etc. and you will learn a lot.
Practise talking by using the phone, computer programs with speech recognition, or online instant messaging services. You can also record your voice on a computer or other device while talking on a subject and listen to it later. In this way you can find out if you speak audibly and clearly enough and if you sound confident, or it is just the opposite – you mumble and make long pauses.
For the purpose of practising you could even try writing down what you intend to say before you actually deliver your speech. In an actual exam you will not have the time to prepare so carefully your oral responses. Yet, like writing, speaking is also a productive skill which involves creating your own text so if in the initial stages of preparation pre-writing your speeches works well for you and gives you confidence, then so much the better. With time and practice this process will become more or less automatic and you will start organising your thoughts much faster and easier.
How can I improve my writing skills?
Here are some suggestions on how to improve your writing skills:
Studies show that reading is especially important in developing your writing skills. This means that one of the best ways to learn how to write well is to read a lot. While reading, pay attention to the text structure, the nice expressions that the author has used, etc. By acquainting yourself with good written models, you will acquire good techniques for writing.
Practise. It is a good idea after you write something to leave it aside for some hours or days, if possible, and read it after that. In this way you will have distanced yourself somewhat from this text and you will read it more critically and will be able to analyse it as if it were someone else’s. Or you could upload it to a suitable online forum and ask other users (you can even chance upon active teachers) to read it and comment on it.
In order to write well you need to possess rich vocabulary and be able to handle various patterns and techniques well. Study words and phrases and while practising use them in sentences of your own. For example, you could find an interesting picture in a magazine and try to write about it for several minutes: describe the atmosphere, the details; if there are people, speculate on their feelings, etc.
In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.