24. The Science Behind Learning English (interview)

[smart_track_player url=”https://d3ctxlq1ktw2nl.cloudfront.net/staging/2019-4-16/15004258-44100-2-6423bcfc96715.m4a” artist=”Wonder in English” title=”The science behind learning English as a second language”]

podcast transcript

Courtney: Today joining me on the podcast is my friend Alba Dogani.


Alba: Thank you so much for having me.


Courtney: Thank you for coming.


Courtney: And I don’t know if you can tell but she’s actually not a native English speaker. So Alba, will you tell us about when you first started learning English and when you really noticed a difference in how you spoke and understood?


Alba: Yeah well I’m from Sweden originally and we all learn Swedish very very like from a young age. So even in second grade that’s when most kids in Sweden start learning English in school. So you speak you have to speak Swedish obviously and then you learn English and you also learn a third and you also learn a third language like French or German or Spanish.


Alba: And-


Courtney: Which third language did you choose?


Alba: I chose French.



Alba: Anyway, so but at as second grade came around I actually ended up moving to Canada with my mom and at the point I did not speak a single word in English. Like not even yes or no or anything like that. And so I went to Canada and literally the second day that I was there my mom enrolled me in school and I couldn’t understand a like anything not a single word. And I just sat there and I was obviously feeling really scared and confused and just like did not know what was going on.


Courtney: So how old were you in second grade?


Alba: I was eight.


Courtney: Eight years old, ok.


Alba: I was in total in Canada for five months and it took me two months where I genuinely, and I talk a lot- Anyone who knows me knows that I talk a lot and I didn’t speak a single word for two months when I was in school just cause I was embarrassed. You know you don’t speak the language perfectly. You’re just embarrassed. But I did manage to get friends even those I was mute. And so this like I can recall really clearly like having friends that would like help me and show me pictures of vegetables after class and like teach me all of those basics. But it wasn’t until after two months that I really spoke to anyone but then in general I didn’t really speak with anyone in school at all during the whole five months I was there. But after two months I started speaking almost fluent English at home.


Courtney: OK. OK. So let’s rewind a little bit. So you started off in Sweden and you were learning English in Sweden?


Alba: Well, the other kids were starting. But I would- I moved away at the exact same time that they started.


Courtney: At exact same timing. They started learning English. You moved to an English-speaking country.


Alba: Yes.


Courtney: And you said that you didn’t speak English well you didn’t speak any English at all.


Alba: I didn’t speak any. Not a single word.


Courtney: So when you were in class, did you understand anything?


Alba: No, I was so confused. For like two months. I was just very very confused.


Courtney: Were you able to pick up on things here and there?


Alba: No definitely. And Swedish and English I think are really similar.


Courtney: Ok.


Alba: So I definitely were- I was able to pick up and those pictures in the second grade. So it wasn’t too difficult of language.


Courtney: Do you remember what that feeling was like when you first showed up that first week and you just sat in class and everyone was talking around you and you couldn’t understand anything anyone saying?


Alba: Ya, you know it was miserable it was horrible. And I would like cry with my mom and everything like that. But you know it was like she knew that I would absorb it like at that age, I really think kids are like sponges.


Courtney: Definitely.


Alba: And so I Yeah after the two months like I spoke pretty much fluent English and after five months when we moved away I spoke perfect English. Like not perfect English but I spoke it fluently at least.


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: To the point where I could have a conversation. But then and then I went back to Sweden and then yeah we- Like I went into school and I went into English and they spoke much better English and everyone else that was a struggle cause then everyone was jealous of my English skills.


Courtney: Really?


Alba: Because I spoke so much better. But then when I moved to America I mean it was a whole different thing. Then I all of a sudden I couldn’t speak very well English. I didn’t have a vocabulary at all. And I had a very very thick accent.


Courtney: So you were in Canada for five months in total.


Alba: Yeah.


Courtney: You learn English there and you move back to Sweden and then you went into just the normal English classes?


Alba: Ya, with everyone else. They didn’t put me like-.


Courtney: Which was not the right level.


Alba: No, they didn’t put me in advanced level at all. They just put me in the same level.


Courtney: And did you notice if your English got worse over time being there?


Alba: I don’t think it got worse but just didn’t progress at all. Obviously cause I wasn’t learning anything new.


Courtney: And then how long were you in Sweden before you moved to the United States?


Alba: Um, like between the two? I was 15 when I moved to the United States. OK it’s like seven years later.


Courtney: Yeah. OK. And then what. What was that feeling when you got here in the U.S. did you feel like you could understand everything but you couldn’t communicate or both were missing?


Alba: Yes definitely and you know it’s kinda like the same. Actually when I moved back to Sweden after living in America out I felt like I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling very well. And I couldn’t be funny in English. The same thing happened later on but in Swedish. And yeah it was really annoying that I couldn’t have any jokes with people because you know I couldn’t really pick up on that language..


Courtney: That I think it’s the most frustrating part when you get to a certain level you’re really advanced and you can articulate everything that you want to say maybe in a convoluted, weird way but you can get your point across. But you don’t have your personality. You know you don’t have your sense of humor.


Alba: Exactly.


Courtney: And you’re stripped of that and it feels it feels really frustrating. I think that’s how my students feel that they’re really advanced and they can- everyone thinks that they’re totally fluent in English and they are to a certain extent but they’re missing that that thing that they have in their first language.


Alba: Exactly.


Courtney: Which is that comfort level and that ability to make jokes. Jokes are- I think once you’ve achieved the level of making jokes, you’ve gotten to the point where you’re native almost, basically. So how long did you live in the United States for before you moved back to Sweden?


Alba: And then I lived. I think it was fa- and let’s see 15 to 21- 6 years. But I would spend all my summers and all my Christmas breaks either in Sweden or in Canada.


Courtney: Yeah. So you brought up an interesting point. You said, “At first I felt like I couldn’t make jokes and have a personality in English. And then when you moved back to Sweden, it switched”.


Alba: Yeah.


Courtney: So tell us a little bit about that.


Alba: Yeah I mean I think by that time after living here for like five years and studying at a higher level you know never as a university high school and university like I just learned so much more. You do develop a lot in language those years still. So, I learned like all the vocabulary basically and I learned to write at a university level, like college essays and stuff. And so, that I didn’t have any from Sweden. I could speak like I speak fluent Swedish, [Swedish]  But I don’t like my it’s scary to think that my vocabulary is at like a 15 year olds, technically. Because I haven’t been reading Swedish books and stuff since I left.


Courtney: And I mean 15 is a high level. It’s not like you’re not a child. I mean you’re a child but you’re not-. I mean 15-year-olds can fully articulate everything they’re trying to say.


Alba: Yeah there’s never I never have an issue of where I can’t understand someone or anything like that.


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: It’s more of a fact that I can’t sound like an adult in this.


Courtney: Professional.


Alba: Professional university setting, academy level.


Courtney: Yeah yeah.


Alba: So when I came back. But I have taken a year of Swedish now since I came back at university level so it’s a little bit better now but


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: When I came back it didn’t- I couldn’t convey what I wanted to speak. Thankfully in Sweden, they speak a lot of. Swenglish they speak Swedish and English.


Courtney: Really?.


Alba: A lot. In fact actually my friends speak more Swenglish than I do. They’ll use English phrases and every day, constantly.


Courtney: Why is that? Is it to be cool?


Alba: No it’s just-.


Courtney: Or is it cause those phrases only exist in English?


Alba: They only exist in English and America has such a huge impact on Sweden like all of our, you know movies and music, everything is from America.


Courtney: Yes.


Alba: So it’s just really heavily impacted by them. So they just use those same phrases and everyone speaks English in Sweden. Yeah. At least-.


Courtney: They speak really really well.


Alba: Yeah and it’s funny-


Courtney: They speak English really well.


Alba: None of them think they speak English well. Like all my roommates.


Courtney: They’re very humble. Unnecessarily so, because other European countries are not that- not that advanced.


Alba: Not at that level.


Courtney: And the other European countries think that they speak well.


Alba: Yeah, exactly Like all my Swedish friends are like, “Oh I speak horrible English. And I’m like- What do you mean? You speak it –


Courtney: I talk to them like I talk to you.


Alba: Exactly. You get to understand everything; you’re fine. They understand you, but-.


Courtney: But I do understand because there’s so many intricacies and I think in each language and I think it has a lot to do with self-confidence. If you don’t feel like you can navigate those intricacies and you don’t know exactly how to handle every kind of situation in that language then maybe you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying you know I’m really good at English. It’s just like with my Spanish I never feel like I’m at that place or I say “Oh I’m so good Spanish, I’m fluent.”.


Alba: I feel like you’re the only person I know that doesn’t say that they’re fluent in the language that I think you’re fluent.


Courtney: Yeah, because I think, well, what even is fluent? That’s such a subjective thing. I mean how do we determine when someone is fluent versus not? I mean can I hold a conversation? Absolutely. Can I talk about someone’s parents dying and go about it in a really nice gentle way? I don’t know if I could or maybe I could but I’m scared that I wouldn’t convey that. Yeah I just wouldn’t have the same effect as a native speaker would. And you know that because you’re not a native speaker and but I think it’s absolutely possible to reach that point like you are now where you can communicate like a native speaker. I think the only thing maybe that you’re missing, coming from a teacher’s perspective, is maybe some of the idioms which are kind of the last things to develop and you have to learn them one by one. So it makes sense. Like for example Alba and I were talking about the other day. “We’ll play it by ear.” And I don’t think. Did you know that one?


Alba: Yeah.


Courtney: OK. You knew it.


Alba: No what. You taught me it like years ago.


Courtney: OK. OK.


Alba: But you said when we went on a first trip and I always thought it was take it by year like year year.


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: Which made a lot more sense to me. Yeah that makes sense. But then you told me it was by ear and then I’ve used it ever since then.


Courtney: Yeah. That’s one of the most common ones in English when you’re making a plan. You’d typically say oh we’ll just play things by ear we’ll play it by ear because you don’t want to set everything in stone. You just want to make the plans as the day unfolds and decide based off of how you’re feeling at the moment. And actually it originated from jazz players who instead of reading music like sheet music they would play it by ear and just to a live audience right there. So now that’s how we’ve incorporated that into our everyday lives. So switching gears just a little bit, your mom has two young daughters and your mom is Swedish and her fiancée is American. Yes. So, is she trying to incorporate Swedish into their into their lives? Do they speak Swedish? Can you tell me more about that situation?


Alba: Yeah definitely. It’s really interesting. When she first was pregnant we were like, “This is gonna be a Swedish kid. We’re gonna- we named her a Swedish name we’re only going to speak Swedish to her; she’s only going to Swedish stuff at home. And we did do that. And when she was young, younger she definitely spoke a lot more Swedish and my mom does pretty much only speak Swedish to them actually. She does that she’s really good at separating. So I don’t know how she does it. She speaks Swedish but my mom is also an immigrant, so my mom doesn’t speak perfect Swedish. So and she hasn’t lived in Sweden in over 10 years. So it’s still you know they’re learning just like words but they’re not learning.


Courtney: So she’s not only speaking Swedish to them?


Alba: No. I think I mean she mainly speaks Swedish to them like 90 percent but then-.


Courtney: And then Daniel speaks English.


Alba: English, yeah. And obviously every time their dad is involved, then we all speak English.


Courtney: Yes. So he understands.


Alba: Yes, so he understands. But she- Linnea who is four years old now and four and a half. She doesn’t really speak any. She doesn’t speak any Swedish. If you speak Swedish to her she understands most of it. But what I noticed when I got there first I was only speaking Swedish to her. And then after a while I noticed she wasn’t really doing the things I was asking her to do.


Courtney: Yeah, they don’t respond. Yeah.


Alba: And I realized she didn’t understand and when I was reading a story to her which looks very simple bedtime story in Swedish, she didn’t- I would stop and be like, “So what just happened?” And she didn’t know, she’s like I don’t know. And so so then I was like teaching her you know little by little.


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: And Natalia who’s two and a half-.


Courtney: Was she receptive to learning Swedish?


Alba: Yeah. But she’s not that interested in learning Swedish.


Courtney: And she’s five and a half right?


Alba: Four and a half.


Courtney: OK.


Alba: She loves Sweden though. She like wants- she asked me all the time if she can go to Sweden. And she is obsessed with Sweden. If it has like Swedish flags because my mom has really instilled that in them. Yeah. Sweden’s where we’re from. That’s what you love. Yeah. She’s never even been there. Yeah. So she loves Sweden and the plan is, the reason we’re not giving completely up on it. So I kind of felt like it was pointless when I came back. She doesn’t understand it very well. There’s no Swedish influence on her besides me who’s not there a hundred percent of time and my mom is not 100% Swedish. So it’s not like they’re gonna get it from anyone else.


Alba: because she only has the influence from that from this side, there’s nothing else in the US that’s like Swedish really. I was thinking like we should just give up. What’s the point? Like they’re not going to ever learn fluent Swedish because there’s just not enough focus on it. But then my mom made a good point which is like she really wants to take them every summer to Sweden to like a cottage and have summers there and it would be great if they could understand just a little bit because it just makes things easier. They don’t have to be fluent, you know just understand it. So you’re not starting out like a base of nothing.


Courtney: You have a limit.


Alba: And the two and a half old, she understands all the Swedish that we speak to her.


Courtney: So did Linnea, did she used to understand and now she she’s losing it?.


Alba: Yeah.


Courtney: And then Natalia understands everything. Do you think that she’ll follow that same trajectory and eventually start to lose-


Alba: But what’s interesting. The Swedish is actually causing problems for Linnea in English.


Courtney: Ok. That’s what I wanted to talk about. So tell me a little bit more about that. And then-


Alba: So we don’t know too much but it’s just that


Alba: In school they said that she doesn’t pronounce everything correctly and Daniel thinks that it’s because she’s bilingual and so that it’s going to take her brain longer time to perfect the language. But I really feel like it’s not a worry at all to have since she’s going to spend her entire life in Sweden. I’m sorry. In America.


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: So it’s not really a worry I think we should have.


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: I think we should just push the Swedish even more up but-.


Courtney: You’re intuitive feeling right now is totally correct. I think a lot of people a lot of parents worry when they move to another country that their child is. They either have to, they have two worries either that their child is not going to fit in and they’re not going to speak that language perfectly. They’re not gonna speak English perfectly. So they don’t speak their first language to them. So for example if two parents came over from Mexico and they were concerned that their child wouldn’t fit in and wouldn’t do as well they would only speak to them in English. And then the other concern is that they would speak to them in Spanish and that their kids wouldn’t do well in school because they’re starting off with a lower level of English they have less input. So input is basically everything that you’re hearing. And if you just have if you’re having that by the parents and she’s getting half of her English input that she normally would have gotten and then half Swedish. Of course, that’s going to make her development behind. And the thing is parents see that and they see that for years and then they freak out about it. They pull them out of that environment and then they stop speaking Swedish to them.


Courtney: And they’re just concerned about the short term. Yeah. But your intuition is right. Because actually research has shown again and again that when you continue to give kids both languages, for maybe their elementary school years they won’t do well in school; they’ll actually do probably poorly in all of the subjects. So it’s normal, it’s normal that she’s not doing well. She’s pronouncing things strange. But then something happens in the brain that, by the time they hit high school, they’ve actually developed both languages to such an extent that their that their brain strengthens like the neural pathways and then they’re suddenly even able to do better and excel in every subject that’s not even related to language. So they not only do they surpass the native speakers, the monolingual English native speakers, in English on testing but they do it in their language and they also do better in other subjects like math and everything. Someone who is bilingual surpasses a monolingual by the time they hit high school. So don’t pull your kids out of bilingual schools, don’t stop teaching them the second language because it actually makes their brain smarter in every respect.


Alba: And I actually spoke four languages by the time I was 15 because my first language my mother tongue is Albanian. So I spoke Albanian my whole childhood.


Courtney: Wow. Do you still speak Albanian?


Alba: I still understand everything like that’s said to me. Obviously, not like any academic conversation or like a really deep conversation but anything like conversational. I understand completely. I can speak very little. But that’s just because I have not have not spoken it in over five years. I speak it to my grandparents and then our conversation is very light. So but I think once. Now I don’t know if this is me being crazy but I had forgotten a lot of Albanian when I was I forget how old I was maybe 10 and I went to Albania during the summer to visit my grandparents. And I swear to God I’d forgotten like almost all of it. And I went to bed that night and I had a dream. And in this dream.


Courtney: No way.


Alba: They like people were speaking Albanian to me and I literally remember like these like words that were thrown at me and I woke up speaking perfectly as I had before.


Courtney: Wow.


Alba: Spoke in really, really well.


Courtney: It’s there you know.


Alba: Yeah it is in your subconscious.


Courtney: Yeah it’s there in your mind- yeah. The studies even show that you still have the language but it just becomes so much harder to access. And access is everything. So the more you practice the more those pathways strengthen and the easier it is to access. So it’s not like you have to reacquire the language, it’s still there, but it’s about making it easier to grab those thoughts that are sort of stored away in file cabinets. And that’s really interesting.


Alba: And I definitely think if I were to go to Albania now if I spent like three months I definitely would get it back.


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: French I’m not so sure. Because French, I never lived in France and I really think that’s the only way to learn a language is to just go in there and just submerge yourself into the culture.


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: Because French I was only taught in school and I took six years of it and I was fluent one after I was finished like as fluent as you can be but I don’t remember like I remember very little now.


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: And I can understand a lot of it but I think that’s because of my knowledge from Albanian.


Courtney: So you really think that people have to live in the country to learn a language? Or do you think that’s specific to you?


Alba: Maybe that’s just specific to me.


Courtney: But why is that?


Alba: I think it’s much easier and much faster.


Courtney: OK. But why can you tell us a little bit-?


Alba: Because you’re just constantly subjected to the language especially if it’s kind of like a survival skill like you have to survive. Like when I was eight years old and I was in the school and was trying to make friends. I had to I had to learn English fast so that I could be a part of them. Versus when you’re like at home and you’re learning french, you don’t need it for anything. You’re not going to speak it, you’re never gonna use it. Really. That was my reason why I lost French too because I never used it.


Courtney: Yeah yeah. If you don’t use it, you lose it. And also the same goes for input if you go to class for one hour every day a week, it’s just not gonna be the same as if you’re hearing French around you 24/7 living somewhere. So I think the input makes a huge difference in the amount that you can retain and your ability to use the language that makes a huge huge difference. And.


Alba: I think had I gone to France like right after a six year mark where I spoke a little it would have solidified it. I think I would have still had it.


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: But I never went so I.


Courtney: It it it goes quickly right now I’m learning French and I stopped for three weeks and I felt like I lost it all but I immediately was able to gain it back. And like one or two classes if I had waited two months I wouldn’t have been able to. So actually when you’re learning the language, studies show that you should have at least an intermediate level before you go to that country because you’ll be playing so much catch up trying to understand really basic things that it’s not actually worth going to country because you people think oh you’re just gonna go there and you’re just going to learn.


Alba: No, exactly.


Courtney: If you’re not eight year, old eight year old Alba, like you’re not going to just pick up the language by being there. Some people do have high aptitudes for picking up incidental language, meaning picking up language that they just hear all around them. Some people do have brains that are specifically good at that but most people don’t. So when you go abroad it’s actually better to have at least an intermediate level. And then you can improve vastly.


Alba: Yeah.


Courtney: But if you try to start from beginner going it’s kind of dumb. You actually learn, they did studies, you actually learn just as much as somebody who is in the United States in a French class as living there and trying to learn from them.


Alba: That, yeah. I completely can believe that because I mean I’ve definitely I’ve traveled a lot now to countries where I don’t speak the language and the first time I went there I didn’t understand anything and I didn’t pick up on anything like Spain for example or Bali. And the first time I didn’t pick up on any Bahasa. But the second time that I went back and I had already the base conversation stuff, I was able to pick up so much more to the point where I could speak like I could have a conversation at the end.


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: Just because I knew the base and it’s a very simple language. They only add a couple extra things.


Courtney: And also you’ve already learned so many languages. So I do feel like it makes a difference. Once you’ve learned a couple, I think it gets easier to know for your brain to know how to learn another language, to build that other structure in your brain.



Courtney: OK. So we were just talking about we just took a pause there and we were just talking about using Duolingo for learning another language. I was using that for a little bit for French and the good thing about Duolingo actually is that they have this thing where they bring back the words after a certain amount of time has passed. So it’s based off of how your brain retains information and how quickly it forgets it. So if you learn a group of ten words on Monday then you aced that quiz and you show that you know all of that vocabulary. Maybe those words will come back a week or two later and you take that test again. And if you get seven of them right. And three of them wrong then those three words will appear at maybe three days later. So it’s on this different time schedule for where they keep reappearing and in those 10 initial words will appear maybe three months later and it solidifies it so that you definitely remember those words. Even if they’re weird phrases like, the horse drinks milk.


Alba: Yeah.


Courtney: Something like that.


Alba: But then again, they only teach you phrases so, which I don’t like.


Alba: They only teach you like words, singular words. I learned very little from Duolingo just because yeah. You only like you can memorize a bunch of terms but you’re not going to have to use it in a real-life situation.


Courtney: I think that’s the most frustrating part about learning from these apps from the beginning. If you’re not listening to a teacher speak in that language, learning bits and pieces doesn’t help because you need huge chunks like whole sentences or large phrases or even chunks of three to four words at a time in order to build the language. And. It’s too hard to piecemeal it together when it’s horse, milk, apple. Like, ok, thank you.


Courtney: What am I going to say with that now?


Alba: That’s why I learned “el caballo bebe leche” so often.


Courtney: And I guess probably that’s why you’re also able to learn really quickly when you moved to that country because everything becomes so applicable. Every scenario, you think, OK if I go to the grocery store- what is- how do you say the aisle and how you say what is on this aisle or asking for something specific asking for certain food. You get to see the signs next to the food and you learn all in the context and everything is so important to survival like you said. So I think I think it does really help after learning a language to a certain point to go to that place and live it and and be exposed like you were when you’re eight years old. Okay. So for somebody who really nervous who maybe just moved to United States or is or is planning on moving somewhere like here where they’re speaking English and incorporating that into their everyday life. What advice would you give as someone who’s learned a bunch of languages by now?


Alba: I don’t know just to not stress it. To not worry too much; just like try when they can.



Alba: Yeah to just like try when they can and to make the effort obviously and like try to you know I used to like was able when I moved to Spain, I would speak always only Spanish to the guy that that at the at the bocadillo shop, a sandwich shop. Like I would only speak Spanish to him because he would only speak Spanish to me back. So like that that really helped my Spanish in that I know perfectly how to order a sandwich now.


Courtney: There you go.


Alba: And so to try as often as you can but also not to just stress it and not to like put yourself down if you don’t understand something and to ask questions.


Alba: People love love to like help- sometimes a little bit too much and so like especially in America. People are really really friendly here. So if you ask like, “What is this called?” People will always help you. So just, yeah. That’s what I’ve always done, like I’ve always I always ask for help when it comes to learning languages.


Courtney: I’m glad that you said that that was actually the last point that I want to make as well, was I think a lot of the language learning process is about feeling comfortable and enjoying yourself. If you’re not enjoying the process, if you’re scared, if you’re nervous, if you shut down or feel reserved, then I think the language learning process becomes a hundred times more difficult because you can’t your brain actually shuts down. You can’t absorb the information or retain the information when you’re under stress. And if you’re under some emotional stress you’re going to learn that much slower. And so I do feel like the people who are open to meeting people and talking and socializing and who are comfortable being uncomfortable who are ok with being uncomfortable. I think those are the people that do learn languages pretty quickly.


Alba: And no one’s like no one’s judging. You always think in your head that someone is judging you but they’re not judging you. Most people especially in America will be really impressed that you speak another language besides English.


Courtney: Yeah.


Alba: That’s the number one thing I always get. It’s like, “Oh my God, you speak more than one language”. And so no one’s judging you. Everyone will just applaud the fact that you’re trying to learn a second language.


Courtney: Yeah. So just don’t forget that the people here are definitely on your side. And good luck on your language learning journey. So thank you, Alba, so much for joining me here today. Hopefully I can have you on another podcast.


Alba: I’d love to.


Courtney: All right. Thanks.


Courtney: Bye bye.


MuteWhen someone is unable to speak we call them mute.
RewindTo go back. We say it in scenarios like: rewind a movie or rewind time.
AbsorbTake in or soak up.
ArticulateTo express yourself fluently and coherently.
Convoluted Complex and difficult to follow- often used for stories or explanations.
Stripped of When you strip something of something, you remove something from it. For example, I was stripped of my freedom and rights after going to jail.
Impacted by Affected by
Intricacies Complexities
Navigate Navigation refers to driving or directing yourself through something. For example, you can quite literally navigate a boat or car using a map, or you can navigate a difficult situation in life.
Subjective Based on one’s opinion. The opposite is objective, which is based on fact.
Receptive Open and willing to consider or accept new suggestions and ideas.
CottageA small, simple house. When I think of a cottage, I often imagine an older house in the farmlands made of stones.
SurpassExceed or be greater than.
TrajectoryThe path followed by something flying. In this instance, it is the path of your life.
SubmergeTo go under water. In this case, Alba meant immerse which is to completely involve yourself in something.
Subjected toThis has various meanings, but in this instance, it means forced to endure. For example, countries that are taken over by other countries are often subjected to new laws and harsh treatment.
RetainKeep; continue to have something.
SolidifiedMade harder or stronger. For example, liquid can solidify and become solid.
VastlyTo a great extent; immensely.
AptitudesA natural ability to do something.
Aced (that quiz)When you ace it, you get a good grade on it, like an A+.
AisleA corridor or long, narrow space you use to get somewhere in a store or a house. For example, there are many different aisles full of food in a grocery store.

Idioms and Collocations

Play it by earMake plans as you go along and not decide in advance what you will do.
Pick up onTo notice or observe naturally or without trying.
Thick accentThis is collocation. We describe accents as “thick” to say that they have a strong accent.
Set everything in stoneTo make permanent or decided.
Switching gears This is used in a non-literal way here. It means to change subjects or topic of discussion.
Instilled that in them When you instill something in someone, you teach them a value or idea gradually over time. For example, parents instill the importance of hard work in their kids from a young age.
Stored away in file cabinets “Stored away” means saved in a place. “File cabinets” are drawers where you store files for work and personal records.
Playing catch up To play catch up means that you are behind trying to regain the place where everyone else is or where you should be. For example, if you leave work for two weeks on vacation, you’ll have to play catch up when you get back.
Piecemeal something together To combine pieces together that don’t really belong to try and make a whole. For example, if someone doesn’t tell you the full story, but you hear bits and pieces about a story from various people, you might try to piecemeal those facts together to get the whole story.
Applaud the fact (that) To applaud is to clap your hands. We like to use this phrase to show we support a certain behavior. For example, I applaud the fact that you always show up on time; I wish I was able to do that.


1. What have been your struggles learning English?

2. Do you speak multiple languages? If so, what are they and when did you begin to learn them?

3. Do you like to plan in advance or “play things by ear”?

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