Many people rely on their mobile phones to learn a language, but one company is helping students pick up Czech and other languages not by swiping through an app, but by actually speaking on the telephone.
TELF was started by Czech language instructor Urszula Kurzyszova in 2011 with the aim of teaching foreign languages to time-crunched people who otherwise couldn’t attend language classes. It offers students a range of languages including Czech for foreigners and business English via a series of daily phone calls.
Kurzyszova tells us: “One main obstacle in learning language regularly is to travel to class, do homework, focus for 40 to 90 minutes in one session, then spend time working in silence on written assignments. That doesn’t work for most people.”
One of those people who found it difficult to learn in such a setting is Josef Platil, a Prague-based IT professional who started the TELF program earlier this year. “I became a TELF advocate since the first phone call as this service is completely different from language classes I attended or mobile apps I have used.”
Lessons are customizable with vocabulary lists derived from the frequency dictionary for a particular language:
“I first call the student and ask about his or her motivation to learn a language. Even though people differ in motivation, the method to teach them how to learn and use language is the same. We then agree on a free trial week and I assign the teacher based on their needs,” says Kurzyszova.
Platil, for instance, started with a predefined list of German words then asked his teacher to add words he needed as an IT Project Manager. He says that he practiced spelling with Memrise and Duolingo where the precision of written language is required to progress but admits that this is the exact reason he stopped using apps and turned to learning over the phone.
In addition to making students speak and listen, the lessons employ repetition and review:
Says Kurzyszova: “We have two words and two sentences for every 5-minute lesson which we ask our students to repeat precisely and then we ask them the next day if they remember it correctly. If they make a mistake then we correct them. But we try to keep people talking, to build confidence and then we correct them.”
The phone calls can last for a duration of 5, 10, or 15 minutes and are ideal for sneaking into a coffee break or handsfree morning commute.
Probably the most important hurtle TELF phone-call lessons help students overcome is the fear of speaking, which Kurzyszova sees as the biggest problem people face when learning a foreign language.
“When you find yourself in a real-life situation where you need to use the language, it’s hard, because you don’t have much time to think about how to form the sentence, which words to use, what to say and how. This skill can only develop with practice that doesn’t come from learning vocabulary, reading, and doing grammar assignments.”
Phone calls have several other advantages for language students: without the help of hand gestures and facial expressions, students are pressed into using verbal communication alone.
So many people who don’t have great difficulties speaking find it hard to talk on the phone at first. And that’s where I see the advantage of learning with TELF. You kind of learn the language the hard way, but when you need it, it’s much easier to use,” Kurzyszova says.
The company’s steady growth speaks to its success rate; in recent years TELF has brought on a number of additional teachers and added new services, making phone calls to Germany, Austria, and Greece, while recently adding new combinations of languages (e.g. Spanish–French, English–Italian, German–Italian, English–German, and vice versa).
Platil has found that not only do the lessons fit into his busy schedule, they’ve given him an edge in his work for a multi-national company.
“I would say that TELF is the most efficient way to learn how to think in a foreign language and not be afraid to talk,” he says.