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Julian Northbrook

What My Research Tells You About English Learning Materials

There’s this idea…

A silly one, really, when you think about it, but a pervasive one all the same.

“I learned English at school, so all I’ve got to do now is practise.”

And in a way this makes sense.

You are correct in thinking that after learning—putting the stuff in your head—you’ve got to make it run on autopilot (make it a habit) by actually doing it.

But where you’re wrong…

… in thinking that you learned English.

Newsflash — you almost definitely didn’t learn English at school.

Instead, you learned something that vaguely approximated it, in an odd sort of way, but was actually something quite, quite different. In one of my own research projects I found that Japanese secondary school English textbooks were so different from real English that they were basically teaching a new language using English words and grammar. The language — dialogues, phrases, expressions… the whole lot — were practically useless in the real world.

But wait! There’s more!

When, in another study, I measured secondary school students fluency on the textbook language…

… I found they were highly fluent in it.

Too bad it wasn’t language they could use in the real world.

The materials you use Matter. They are, after all, the samples of English you fill your head with. Build a house with poor materials, and you get a shitty house. Build your English with poor learning materials, and you get shitty English.


P.S. The lessons I make in Extraordinary English Speakers are based on my own research.

The published articles I linked above, and a whole series of projects that are due to be published soon. Years of testing and design have gone into the way we write and create lessons… all so you can speak amazing English with less stress, less hassle and fewer headaches.

You can become an EES Member by clicking here.

Speaking AMAZING English

Okay, here’s the deal.

I’m gonna teach you the three things that you need to speak amazing English

You can get so far without all three of these things.

You can get to the intermediate stage just by learning English, just by focusing on the language itself.

But if you wanna go beyond that, start to speak English that is wow, amazing, extraordinary, you are gonna need to go beyond the mere words and phrases and patterns of English.

Yes, you need three things, and these three things I call the LKC Triangle.

The first part of the LKC Triangle is indeed Language.

In order to speak a language, you need knowledge of the language. I mean, that much is obvious. If you don’t have the words and the phrases that you need to express the things that you want to express and talk about, well, obviously, you’re not gonna be able to talk about those things, are you?

But just knowing English, the language itself is not enough.

That will only take you so far, as I said, up to about the intermediate stage at best.

But if you wanna go beyond that, you need to start expanding your communicative ability as it were. This is where the second point of the LKC Triangle comes in, the K. The K stands for Knowledge.

Knowledge means the content, the stuff that you have in your head, the things that you have got that you can talk about.

It also means your communicative ability, your knowledge of how to use the language that you’ve got, although this comes in to the C to an extent as well. But simply put, if you don’t have interesting things to talk about, then you’re not gonna be able to speak amazingly well in conversation.

People who are fun to talk to, great to talk to, are people who have stories to tell, interesting insights on issues that affect us all. They are interesting people because they’ve got interesting stuff in here, and that feeds into the way that they speak and the way that they use their language.

Finally, you need one more thing to really reach the highest levels of achievement when it comes to speaking English, and that is the C of the LKC Triangle, Culture.

Now, culture is a little tricky to define because culture exists on many, many levels, but simply put, culture can be defined as the way that people behave. And therefore, in this context, we are talking about knowledge of how people act, how people behave.

Now, of course when we talk about culture, we’re often talking about a country’s culture, Japanese culture versus, say, British culture versus, say, Irish culture versus, say, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, or whatever culture. But what you’ve got to understand is that these countries are simply groups of people. And even within countries, we have different parts of a country which will have slightly different cultures.

For example, if you go to Japan, if you go to Tokyo, the culture there is quite different to the culture in Osaka, which is still a Japanese city, but very, very different one. Likewise, in the UK, Manchester is very different to London, which is very different to, say, Plymouth. You get the idea.

Culture can also mean groups of people. It can also mean organisations of people. And it can also mean people on an individual level. But when it comes to speaking, what you need to understand is that the way that we see and understand and interact with the world is all filtered through our knowledge of culture.

This is why I might say something meaning one thing but you may misunderstand me or interpret it in a different way and we end up with these cultural mishaps, miscommunications, because I say one thing believing it meant to me one thing. You understand it as something different.

We all understand and use language through our own cultural filters. When I speak, I’m speaking through my cultural filter. When you listen, you’re listening through yours.

So, if our understanding of the way that people should behave, the social norms of our conversation are completely different, then of course we will have different styles of communication. We will speak in different ways.

A very obvious example being something like the very dry, sarcastic sense of humour that we’re very fond of in the UK, but which often does not translate into other languages and into other cultures. Japanese people have a hard time with it, for example, because it isn’t a part of their culture. And whenever I’ve tried to use the typical British sense of humour in Japanese, it’s falling flat on its face. It’s never ever worked.

That, in a nutshell, is the LKC Triangle. You need the language. Of course, that much is obvious. But you also need knowledge.

That is, interesting things to say, interesting stories to tell. And you also need knowledge of culture, the way that we behave and understand and interact with the world. Until you’ve got all three of these things nailed, you are not gonna be amazing when it comes to speaking.

So, ask yourself, are you struggling to break past the intermediate barrier because you’re focusing too much on simply memorising new words or learning more phrases when what you should actually be doing is trying to build an understanding of the culture of the people that you are using English with?

Or is it that you simply have jack shit to talk about and that you’re a boring person because you never do anything?

These things are all important when it comes to having conversations.

And incidentally, when I design lessons in Extraordinary English Speakers, my English learning group, which among other things includes a weekly lesson to study, I design all the lessons with these three things in mine so that we’re not just focusing on the language but we’re also going deep into the culture, understanding the way that people behave, the dynamics, the social norms of conversation, as well as trying to build up your bank of interesting things to talk about, etc.

Anyway, that, again, in a nutshell, is the LKC Triangle.

Check out Extraordinary English Speakers if you’re not already a member, DoingEnglish.com/EES to apply.


The Gordon Ramsay Guide to English Learning Materials

Imagine this ー

Gordon Ramsay comes to your house and offers to cook dinner.

He’ll cook anything you want, he says. Just give me the recipe and I’ll do it. There he is, waiting, top-notch cooking utensils in one hand, a cocky attitude in the other.

And you’re thinking….

What to ask the one-and-only, the great Ramsay G to cook?

Then you’ve got it!

You give him the recipe your crazy aunt made up.

“I’d like a cabbage and fish-paste pizza, topped with banana, please, boiled, not oven-baked.”

Gordon tells you to fuck off and goes home. And rightly so. You’ve set him up for failure. Even a culinary genius like Gordon Ramsay can’t make a nice meal with a recipe like that. You’ve asked for something utterly, utterly disgusting. He could spend the next month working on that pizza and it’d still be horrible.

Now, imagine I come to your house and offer to cook. You might not be quite so excited. I am, after all, a shit cook. But if you asked me for, say, a classic bangers ‘n’ mash in onion gravy, or bacon and cabbage (my favourite at the moment) or even a chicken curry? Yeah, I’d be able to do you something pretty decent. Not because I’m a master chef like Ramsay but because the RECIPE is good.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

In order to improve in English, two things have to happen.

Learning, and doing.

When it comes to cooking, the recipe is the base ー what the food is supposed to look and taste like.

And if your recipe is a boiled cabbage, fish and banana pizza?

You’re doomed.

In terms of English learning materials, this means putting the right English in your head.

Because if you’re learning the wrong thing?

No amount of practise is going to help you to speak fluently and naturally.

This email is getting long, so I’ll return to this topic tomorrow.

But in the meantime, the next book in my “Advanced English” series is up for pre-order.

Materials Matter: How to choose the right English learning materials to improve fast and avoid filling your head with garbage.

It’ll be out on January 2nd, and if you pre-order you’re getting a whole £1 off the full price (if you pre-order five copies you’ll save enough for a pint of Guinness!).

Here’s the place to pre-order.


P.S. You need to get three things to improve rapidly…

  1. Method (there are good methods and shit methods)
  2. Materials (learn the wrong thing, and it’s all a waste of time).
  3. Mindset (what you don’t do will never help you).

See if you can guess what the NEXT book after Materials Matter will be about…

In the meantime.

P.P.S. Big day today —

Kids started their new school… what what an experience that was…

… a story for tomorrow, though, I think.

In the meantime.