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The Fine Art of Learning English Grammar Online for Free
I was privileged enough as a child that while both my parents worked full time, demanding jobs, they could afford to have a babysitter every day after school for my sister and me. In a nutshell, I could describe her as maybe 30 years old, an immigrant from El Salvador with Spanish being her first strong language and English as a modest second, she loved to dance, eat food with too much lemon, and tell us stories about her parents back home. And even though she was paid for watching us, I swear I treated her like a second mother and strongly felt like she was my second mother.

The weird part is that I don’t even remember the language barrier. We did everything together for four hours a day for almost ten years, and I can’t remember a single memory where her speaking very little English and me speaking very little Spanish ever got in the way. And, even though this language barrier was unavoidable, my babysitter was constantly embarrassed by her accent and broken English. I understood the language struggle for a bit when I was older, all the Spanish I had learned from her and basic classes, I lost to the wrath of blushing cheeks and stutters—I couldn’t pick up the rolling r’s and my accent was unintelligible.

So my babysitter took night classes, she’d come to my sister and me for homework help on English conjugation and vocab practices. Eventually, though, it got to be too much. Trying to manage a household, work every day, and stick to strict class schedule was more than she had bargained for and didn’t seem to be making any progress. Really, if you’re out of school, it’s hard to find the time to enroll and attend a structured class schedule, so online courses are your best option. Below are some of the best resources and tips I’ve found online for English grammar help and that my babysitter found useful while working to improve her English.

TIP #1: Don’t use Google translate (or any translator for that matter).
You are trying to actually learn English. Using a translator isn’t going to help you learn anything, just act as a crutch. Tell yourself it’s cheating yourself every time you open it unless you are using it as a dictionary rather than a translator. Also remember that translators often incorrectly translate phrases so that they’re awkward and/or grammatically incorrect. Make sure to double check anything you’ve learned from a translator with someone who actually speaks the language if you can.

TIP #2: Find the sites that work for you and stick to them.
There are the more common ones, like Quizlet, that teach through repetition of flash cards, and more traditional, textbook-like prose. Know that these will not be enough, reading something and moving on to the next chapter does not mean you know that material. is one of the best grammar sites, it provides grammar lessons, translate (which you shouldn’t use), a dictionary, English verb conjugations, and spell check. The best way to know if you are actually digesting the information that you are reading is to give yourself assignments. The biggest negative to online learning is that there isn’t an instructor who will hold you accountable for wrong answers. Hold yourself accountable to learn all of what you can. Take online quizzes and tests, write papers and give them to your friends to check over.

TIP #3: Make a schedule for yourself.
It’s easy to skip class and even easier to skip a day of studying by yourself. There’s no one who is holding this above your head, no reason to keep pushing forward besides your own motivation. You need to make a reasonable and practical schedule. Don’t expect yourself to learn the first section in an hour, but also don’t give yourself a week. Figure out a pace that works for you and your schedule and hold yourself accountable. Reward yourself with something if you do what you’ve scheduled yourself to complete. Writing down your goals on paper makes them easier to accomplish and more rewarding to complete.

Ultimately, learning a new language may be challenging and frustrating especially when you are motivating yourself with online lessons. You aren’t in this boat alone and there are plenty of people who are going through the same struggle as you. Know that it’s worth it at the end, to be able to speak in English with fewer mistakes, especially through online learning, will be one of the most rewarding accomplishments.

Photo Credit: Trevor

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Most common languages spoken in each Houston zip code other than Spanish.
Language Exchange in Houston
If you take a look at the map of Houston above (click on it to enlarge) which lists the most common languages by zip code excluding Spanish and English, you start to get a picture of just how diverse Houston really is. Picture yourself in zip code 77055. Besides English and Spanish, the most popular language in this zip code is Vietnamese, but take just a small step over to zip code 77008, and suddenly there are German speakers everywhere. Now take a small stroll down to 77007, and Chinese becomes prevalent. It's amazing that so many different language speakers from such diverse backgrounds coexist in the same vicinity.

Houston truly is a melting pot of languages, and it’s no surprise that in a city this large and diverse, there are innumerable opportunities to explore learning and practicing foreign languages. Over 90 languages are spoken in the area and, according to the Houston Chronicle, Houston is even more "ethnically diverse" than New York City.

When so many different types of people come together in one place, the opportunities to learn and grow from one another are limitless, as long as you have the resources to find each other and utilize them.

One of the most beneficial tools to learning a new language are language exchange partners. There is no ‘right way’ to find one, and Houston offers plentiful means to connect with all types of people, making your search easy. Language exchange partners make great resources as they allow for the benefits of one-on-one teaching without the cost. The key is to find someone whose language skill set matches what you aim to learn, and vice versa. Once you find a partner, you can begin exchanging lessons, and both of you will find yourselves growing in your respective second tongues.

The Houston Language Partners Initiative Meetup group is brought together by people with similar goals of learning a second language. The group meets socially and hosts free speed-friending events to connect members and promote language exchange.

FYI, if you’re looking to cast a wider net, LRNGO offers users both local and global language exchange connections. You can search the languages that you can teach, those you want to know, and your location to show a list of matches whose abilities and goals compliment your own. From there you can send out messages to connect and set up meeting times, either in person or on Skype (or any other choice of video chat).

If you’re interested in meeting a learning exchange partner on your own, try going to many different locations and many different zip codes, and immerse yourself in Houstonian ethnic diversity. Try seeking out someone at a local coffee shop, library, or bookstore. Pay attention to what they’re doing, and if they happen to be studying a language you already know, ask them if they’d be interested in language exchange.

The key to pairing with a language exchange partner is to be friendly, helpful, and not too embarrassed (remember, they’re trying to learn a new language too).

Beyond language exchange partners, if you’re currently a student at a local university, be sure to take advantage of the language resources that your school has to offer. Rice University’s Center for Languages and International Communication offers courses in over ten languages, study abroad opportunities, and community involvement through service learning and ‘language tables’ that help to build speaking skills. University of Houston offers classes in about fifteen languages and the Language Acquisition Center offers students a variety of useful tools to help improve their skills, including an extensive foreign film collection. UH’s Language and Culture Center even provides international students with an intensive ESL program.

Your dream to learn a second language starts with you, so don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. In Houston itself, there are so many people to connect with and so many languages to learn; like Tagalog, Urdu, Gujarti, and Laotian. Fluent speakers in languages that I am not ashamed to say I have never heard of, are all living in the same place. When I stare long enough at this map, I’m struck by the opportunities that language acquisition offers, and I feel lucky that we have the ability to connect with new people and cultures around the world, right in our own backyard.

lrngo users in over 190 countries

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Five Ways to Communicate with Someone Who Doesn't Speak Your Language
Communication: the foundation of building relationships. It is hard to imagine how a society would function without being able to properly express emotions and feelings. However, there are instances where you might be faced with that exact dilemma.

Scenario: You are waiting at the bus stop to go to an all-exclusive paid vacation: room, food, activities; basically anything you can think of, free of charge. While you are waiting for the bus, a seemingly friendly stranger sits next to you. You try to start up a conversation, but there is one problem: They are not responding. They are just smiling and nodding to your complaints about the Oakland Raiders not going to the Super Bowl, yet again. As you look at your phone for the time, the person taps you on your shoulder and seems to ask you a question. Yet another problem arises: you don't understand what they are saying. Then it dawns on you that the person is not brushing you off, they just don't understand the language you speak, and you don't understand their language. Clearly, language barriers can provide some obstacles in communicating. However, these obstacles can be overcome.

1. Use Simple Words in Your Language
Simple is usually the best method. Why? Because there will be a higher percentage of individuals that will be able to understand. For instance, it is a standard practice that most newspapers in the United States use simpler words because the average reading level is around 8th grade. Using simpler words can help you break down minor roadblocks. Common phrases like “hello,” “my name is,” “how are you,” “I'm fine,” and “goodbye” are good, simple phrases to use for overcoming language barriers. Also, it is important to avoid using slang and jargon. Using such phrases as “shoot the breeze,” “chill out,” and “rip off” may lead to confusion, and might even offend someone who doesn’t know not to take the meaning literally.

2. Pictures
Hieroglyphics were once a vital part of how Egyptians communicated and visuals are a major part of communication today. Images may provide a way to communicate without having the artistic skills like Leonardo da Vinci and Claude Monet. A smiley face can express happiness, stick figures can represent people, and a heart can express affection. There may be difficulties examining and figuring out the images; however, it may lead to progression of overcoming the language barrier. Think of it as an entertaining game of Pictionary that you can use to increase each other’s vocabulary in the new language. Also, if one or both of you are carrying a cellphone with internet access to actual pictures, you might not even have to draw.

3. Body Language
Speaking of Pictionary, charades can be a fun way to communicate. Body language or non-verbal communication is another way to express feelings and emotions. In the United States, frowning usually means you are displeased with something, waving can be a form of a friendly greeting, and a thumbs up could mean approval or congratulations. Remember though, the meaning of body language and gestures vary from country to country. For example, crossing your legs is viewed as disrespectful in Asia or the Middle East, and nodding your head up and down means something negative in Bulgaria and Greece. One more thing, let’s not forget the most effective way most children learn new words and increase vocabulary: just point! When it comes to communicating and learning new words in a completely different language, your index finger will rarely let you down.

4. Write it down
Going back to the basics. If all else fails, try writing down what you want to say, then have the other person write it down. Even though, you may not be able to understand the language, you may be able to help each other understand what the meaning is phonetically. Of course, this technique varies, and knowing some of the sounds and pronunciation of the alphabet will help.

5. Repeat and Learn
Let language barriers be a thing of the past. The best way to overcome the language barrier is through repetition and practice. There are premium language programs like Rosetta Stone and free services like Duolingo and Memrise that can teach you some basics, then it’s all about practicing. Depending on your native language and the language you are learning, you may find out there are common words between the languages. I am currently learning Dutch, and have found that some words are exactly the same or very similar in English.

Remember, overcoming language barriers can be possible!

Photo Credit: Jurgen Appelo

lrngo users in over 190 countries

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US Ivy League Schools VS Colleges for International Students
Around my own campus, I’ve heard a lot of international students talk about the purpose of an Ivy League school versus a smaller college in the states. All students, not just international students, seem to harbor some sort of inherent interest in Ivy League schools. Their name makes them sparkle and seems to guarantee a job at the end of the tunnel. They are known for cranking out almost ridiculously successful graduates, for handing out the results to the great American dream after you graduate, for having the best corporate network of supporters and most available student resources. There’s some sort of superstition that says if you go to an Ivy League School, you’ll be better person, a better employee—you’ll be able to get a job after school and open the door to maybe being able to live in the US as compared to somebody going to a smaller or less well-known liberal arts college. From what I’ve read, both past students and admissions officers seem to lean in the other direction.

As a student at one of these aforementioned liberal arts colleges, I might be a bit biased when I argue that students shouldn’t overlook or underestimate the educational value of a smaller college. But is it worth leaving your country to attend a school like mine? Or are the benefits not worth the money and lackluster label? There is definitely a lot to consider.

Class size differs. As far as class size goes, I think that a smaller college will you give you a bigger bang for your buck. In general, smaller colleges provide smaller class sizes—even intro courses have a manageable class size. Larger universities like some of the Ivy League’s often have large lecture style courses that require more independent and personal motivation than smaller discussion based courses that are more common at smaller colleges.

Personal attention differs. When you call my school’s admissions office, a human answers the phone immediately as opposed to most larger universities whose phones direct you to different departments by keypad number. There’s also less of a formula when it comes to the treatment of each student.

Making the right connections. It’s easier to make important connections at a smaller school, addressing a professor by first name is more commonplace and there are quantitatively less people to know. Even though it’s easier to make these connections, the downside is that there are fewer you can make, and many of the people (who are great connections) whose parents are included among the famous Ivy League graduates will likely be attending those universities rather than a smaller, less famous, liberal arts college or university.

Organizations and institutional memory. Larger student bodies tend to have more developed organizations and subsequent recognition. This might be a stereotype, but I think larger organizations are better at withholding some form of institutional memory especially when it comes to the reputation of certain organizations or clubs.

The name make a difference. Although I hate to admit it, the name of the school might make a difference. Going to an Ivy shows that you tried hard in high school to get into a school with a label that will hopefully get you a job afterwards. As unfortunate as it may be, the name is actually pretty important.

The definition of education. Even though Ivy League schools might give you the name, in my opinion they do not provide the quality of education they seem to promise. Opening your brain to subjects you never imagined you would study because of graduation requirement, or opening your mind in a class discussion that isn’t ruled by the dominant class (rich, upper-class, white men generally) is much easier at a small liberal arts school than at an Ivy. Personally, this was the reason I decided to go to the school I attend. I didn’t just want the name with a GPA slapped on to it. I wanted my education to be as fulfilling to my soul as it was to my mind, so I found the institution that would make that growth the easiest.

A large endowment always helps. Even though I hate to mention money as a factor, the Ivy’s do have significant endowments. Proportionately their endowments are still higher than average – enough to replace things that probably don’t need replacing and to pay an ungodly amount for trips taken by organizations.

Deciding where you want to go is an important question and one that is often answer with a rushed reply. Consider what you haven’t before you cross different colleges off the lists of potential schools. In my opinion, it is definitely worth coming to the states for a liberal arts education. It’s also worth noting that if you are unhappy with where you attend, transferring schools is an option. You want to be more than educated when you go to school—you want to feel happy and comfortable.

Photo Credit: text

lrngo users in over 190 countries

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Cursos Gratis de Inglés Online
En la era en la que vivimos, es difícil sobrevivir sin saber por lo menos un poco de inglés. Parece que de un segundo al otro cada esquina de cada ciudad se repleta más y más de negocios Americanos o hablantes de inglés y la gente que no se apresuró en aprenderlo se queda un paso atrás de todos los demás. Seamos realistas, si no sabes hablar inglés, no estas con los tiempos. Los tiempos de ahora requieren habitantes conectados por un idioma global, habitantes capaces y listos para conversar e intercambiar ideas con virtualmente cualquier persona de cualquier nacionalidad- el inglés es la clave para ese presente y futuro. Por eso es importante reconocer que, si todavía no eres un experto en la lengua, es necesario invertir el sacrificio que tomaría aprenderla. Lo bueno es que el sacrificio no tiene que viajar hasta la billetera; claro, tomar lecciones privadas con un tutor fluyente seria la situación soñada, pero no todos poseen el tiempo y dinero para hacerla realidad. Una alternativa menos costosa y más conveniente que ofrece la web son cursos gratis de inglés organizados por lecciones y niveles de conocimiento. ¿Ya mencione que son gratis?

Existe una gran variedad de sitios web que se enfocan específicamente en proveer lecciones gratis al público general. Para explicarles cómo funcionan estos detalladamente decidí someterme a ciertas lecciones y ejercicios ofrecidos por, uno de los muchos sitios disponibles. Después de examinar ciertas lecciones y pruebas, pude determinar que la forma en la que funcionan la mayoría de cursos gratis online es con el uso de explicaciones en inglés y mucho uso de tablas de traducción. Cuando se trataba de enseñanzas básicas como los pronombres o conjugaciones simples, la información se daba de manera muy clara con ayuda de diagramas, ejemplos, y en ocasiones ilustraciones. Esto es muy útil al principio del camino de aprendizaje, ya que el individuo tomando las clases tiene virtualmente cero conocimiento del lenguaje, y aunque muchos profesores procuran que comenzar hablándoles a los estudiantes en inglés es la manera más rápida que lo aprendan, muchos piensan que puede ser intimidante. De esta manera, con explicaciones en español, el pupilo podrá entender conceptos más completamente y se sentirá seguro de sí mismo cuando llegue a utilizar sus conocimientos.

Otros sitios web son un poco más informales y divertidos, como Este sitio es más popularmente conocido como un ‘app’ que ofrecen los smartphones de hoy en día y funciona de manera muy simple. El primer paso es escoger el lenguaje que deseas aprender e inmediatamente comienzan las lecciones. Hay varios niveles, pero los primeros siempre se enfocan en cosas muy básicas como sustantivos, adjetivos y pronombres. Lo divertido de este sitio en particular es que es como tu propio entrenador personal; todos los días tienes un objetivo de cuantas lecciones pasaras y si no las terminas el día siguiente tendrás el doble de trabajo! Esta página es particularmente útil para gente que no tiene tanto tiempo en el día para lecciones ya que estas se pueden hacer desde el teléfono móvil.

Lo mejor de todo es que estos solo son dos sitios de muchos que están disponibles online, y puedes escoger el que más te parezca adecuado para ti o buscar mas! Hay muchísimos, todo lo que falta es que te metas al web para buscar algo que funcione para ti.

Photo Credit: Geralt

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