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Interview with Ray Desouza

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Today we are talking with Ray DeSouza, a New Yorker who has been working in Europe since December 2007. Let''s learn why Ray decided to leave the US and what he likes about life in Germany and Austria.

Ray, please tell us a little more about yourself.

Hello Torsten, and thank you for having me. As you have mentioned above, I came to Germany during the last days of 2007. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and have lived all my life in New York City, it is my home and she will always have my love. I enjoy traveling very much, and it was during one of my travels in January of 2007 to Vienna, Austria, that I decided to consider emigration to Europe. 12 months later I had quit my job at a publishing company, packed my bags and was ready to come to Europe.

I had never lived anywhere other than New York for an extended period of time. Making the preparations to come over was very exciting and a little bit intimidating. I still find every day to be an adventure, though I am not really all too intimidated about diving into a new culture. I enjoyed myself immensely thus far. I live in Dresden, a city in the Saxon region of Germany, former DDR territory. I am in the Neustadt neighborhood, arguably the heart and soul of the city. It is filled with trendy stores and restaurants, young people and plenty of action. I must say that it is a good transition from New York.

What about your language skills? I know that in addition to your mother tongue English you also speak Spanish and you obviously started to learn German when you moved here. How did you get started and how much progress have you made so far?

Well, to tell you the truth, Spanish is the weaker of the languages I know (outside of German). I have studied Spanish on and off since elementary school. I studied for a few years in high school as well. Growing up in a city as diverse as New York gave me many opportunities to encounter Spanish. I have a basic understanding of it, but never studied or practiced it as rigorously as I did French. I am very comfortable speaking French, and believe that after a few weeks in a French speaking environment, I would be fluent again.

German has been my newest endeavor. I have never studied German before, but because of my previous language experience, as well as a couple years of Latin, it has been easier to pick up a feel for the language. I have not as yet had opportunity to take any classes, but I''ve picked up a lot just through listening, and running errands around the city. I find that I can understand a decent amount of most conversations, I need only to take the initiative and risk opening my mouth to speak more. I find that it is through speaking, practicing and making mistakes, that I really learn.

Many of our users want to know how they can learn English as fast as possible. Based on your own experience, what would you say is the most effective method to learn English?

I believe that the best way to learn English is to immerse oneself in the language. In a "sink or swim" situation, where one has no choice but to hear the language and speak it, it will come more quickly. Most people that I have spoken with about gaining fluency in another language have told me that they picked it up from hearing it and being around it. Some formal instruction in grammar and basic sentence structure of course can be extremely helpful, but it is most effective to listen. Active listening, trying to discern familiar words and attempting to memorize key phrases. Many people think that total immersion is not possible, especially since it may not appear to be possible to surround yourself in English, but this is not true.

Torsten, I am a firm believer in your concept of building an audio library. By creating a space in your life that is purely dedicated to listening to, speaking, and comprehending a foreign language, one is able to experience virtual immersion. My French and Spanish courses were both held completely in their respective tongues. Listening was a key component. Two semesters of Spanish in high school involved watching a soap opera (created for teaching the language) completely in Spanish. Hearing the phrases and having fun repeating them helped solidify my knowledge and encouraged me to learn more.

Many English learners say they would love to learn English if only they had more time. Let''s say you have a demanding job and a family. How can you find time to learn English then?

Well there are always opportunities during any giving day to maximize one''s efficiency. I know some people who have commutes that last 30, 45 or even 95 minutes... one way! That is a lot of valuable time. During a commute, one can listen to a story in English, or to a news radio station that is offered in English, the BBC World Report for example. At my previous job, I would listen to German news radio, just to get familiar with sounds, and to pick up a few words. I tried to find movies in German, so I could listen to the German and read the English subtitles. This is a good introduction, although as the comprehension level increases, it is better for me to listen in German and read the text in German. If one''s goal is to truly gain a strong understanding of English,then it must be made a priority, and time must be allotted to it. The time is there, it is just a matter of making it a priority, part of a routine, and also fun. It should not be a chore, if it is something that you truly want, then you will enjoy finding more opportunities to learn.

Another big obstacle for many learners of English is the fact that when they try to listen to authentic (native speaker) audio recordings they don''t understand everything. And because they don''t understand every word, they think it doesn''t make sense to continue listening. You obviously have a different approach. Could you please tell us how you deal with this situation. I mean, how exactly do you pick up new words during the listening process?

Repetition is key. The old saying, "practice makes perfect" is entirely true, in all aspects of life, including learning English. When a situation like the one you mentioned comes up, I think the first thing to do is not to blame yourself. If I am with a class and this comes up, I will sometimes tell the participants that I did not understand every word either. And this is true. I think it is very rare that when one listens to an audio track, where the speaker is speaking at a regular clip, not too slow, that the listener will understand ever single word. This is true for any language, whether it is your native tongue or not. Our attention tends to dip from time to time, this is where repetition comes in handy. Good speeches from the great orators of history often repeat the main theme of the speach. Before recordings, one could not go home and listen to the speech again. If you are lucky enough to have a recording, then listen to it, again and again and again. Focus on the words that you do know, and use the context to try to learn the meanings of those that you do not know. Have a dictionary nearby, and use it. Just as in grammar school, I was taught to learn vocabulary when reading by using the context of the sentence, then by using a dictionary. You can also ask someone, anyone. The person next to you may not be a native speaker, but most certainly that person knows something that you do not, and can be a resource to you. There is no room for shyness or embarrassment in the learning process, one must be willing to ask questions, and realize that their personal knowledge is imperfect, and that there is nothing wrong with that.

Do you think that there is a difference in the way Germans and American learn languages?

Well, If I had to generalize, I would say that most Americans learn a language as a hobby, something extra. While Germans and other non native speakers learn it out of necessity. For Americans it is something that could be useful when traveling on vacation. Some people may have to learn it for business. I would say however, that most people I know that have become fluent in another language have done learned out of passion, not necessity. I know people who have learned a language because their families originally came from the country of that language. As I mentioned earlier, I studied French and Spanish at School. Spanish because it is practical in the United States, and French, because the language is connected with high culture.

English is the Lingua Franca of world business, science, technology and diplomacy. When gathering people from different areas of the world, English is the most commonly accepted language to serve as a common ground for communicating ideas.

For non native speakers, there are two automatic reactions to this reality.
1) Embrace the way things are and learn English as well as possible, with enthusiasm, in order to communicate with the broader world or 2) See English as not necessary in one''s day-to-day affairs, and learn the basics with books and classes.

I think that the passionate and enthusiastic approach is best. It pushes someone to go beyond books and the cookie cutter vacation phrases. It pushes them into the culture, into learning the nitty gritty of the language. All of the best foreign language speakers I have met, (English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chineese) have all reached fluency through immersion, through hearing and speaking the language daily. Over the winter I traveled to Oberstdorf, Bavaria and I met an Englishman working at an Irish pub. (I do try to immerse myself in German culture and language, but it was St. Patrick''s Day).
He was completely fluent in German. We spoke for a while, and I asked him how he learned German, if he knew it before. He told me no, he had come to the town 3 years before, fell in love with the place, and decided to stay. After spending time with people, hanging out and listening and talking, he just picked up the language. I was amazed. Of course, he may be a genius, but odds are he was just really passionate and determined about learning the language.

What I have encountered in Germany is that there is a lot of self inflicted pressure to learn the language, some feel it must be learned "correctly". But how you learn how to speak in a book, or in a class is in no way the same as how people really speak. In the US there is no pressure. There is an unfortunate general sentiment that Americans do not need to learn other languages, because the whole world speaks English.
This leads to people learning some language at school, and perhaps casually learning some Spanish or Korean or Mandarin from friends and co-workers.

Ray, you have also started your own business. Please tell us more about it. What kind of services do you provide?

Yes, I''ve started an web based company named Tidy English. Its primary purpose is to help companies to communicate their online messages clearly. I have noticed that many company websites, and even some government run websites, contain poor English translations of their original text. The translations can be confusing, and can often turn a potential customer away from using that company''s services. I''ve noticed that even minuscule errors can be problematic for a company wishing to portray itself as international and professional.

What Tidy English offers is a free analysis of the translation followed up by professional proofreading. I enjoy the written word and I appreciate the subtleties of language. I will not be so bold as to say that I am a great writer, but I will say that I enjoy it profusely, and take it very seriously.

Another service offered by Tidy English is assistance for non-native English speakers who are applying to jobs where English is needed. Tidy English will review resumes / CVs and cover letters and will work with the applicant to communicate a message to the potential employer. The goal is to draft a message that is unique, genuine and professional. Also available are coaching sessions via Skype or any other VoIP platform, either walking through a mock interview, or just a question / answer session - offering a more personable atmosphere to discuss any questions regarding cultural expressions or differences. By the way, Tidy English can be found online at

I think there is a huge demand for the services TidyEnglish has to offer because more and more companies start operating on an international scale and that''s why they require resumes and CV''s in English. Can you please tell us what a good resume or CV should look like?

There are many different approaches that one could take to creating an appealing resume. It should be a brief summary of your work experience... very brief. It is an opportunity to give your prospective employer a glimpse into your capabilities and experience, grabbing their interest in order for you to expand upon your skills during an interview.
There are different CV styles that are unique to the various professions, and someone who has worked for 2 or more decades cannot keep his or her resume unreasonably brief. I learned that a resume should only be one page, especially if you are recently out of college. As you get older and work different jobs, it will increase in size. All of the work experience on your resume should hi-lite tasks you have performed, that your potential employer will find useful. If you are applying to a position that requires plenty of writing, it would then make sense to emphasize your writing skills rather than your ability to listen well.

You must understand your audience and market yourself to that audience. A resume should be an honest reflection of your skills, presented in a clear and logical manner. I think its useful to use the Internet to locate an agreeable resume format, but the words and skill sets you use to should be unique to yourself, while at the same time attractive and understandable to the employer.

If you have any English grammar or vocabulary questions,
please post them on this English Grammar Forum.

Next:ESL Cafe: Interview with Greg Ragland

Author: Ray Desouza

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