Make sure that your writing style is right for your audience

The grammar can be right, the message can be great, but people can still get it wrong sometimes when their writing style is not appropriate for the audience.

In some ways, English is easier than other languages because you don’t have to tie your brain in knots about which form of “you” is appropriate for the situation. However, it’s still important to make sure that the style of your writing is appropriate for your audience. Here are some tips and things to consider.

1. Don’t be too familiar

There’s nothing more annoying than a complete stranger acting as though they’re your best friend. Maybe this is less of a problem in other parts of the English-speaking world, but in the UK, and particularly when we’re talking about business communication, rather than making someone feel at ease, you’re more likely to annoy them. This is particularly true if the other person has no idea who you are!

It’s ok to be friendly, but there are lines that you shouldn’t cross. Otherwise people will think you’re either too familiar, or just that you’re so casual with your communication style that you’re not very professional.

2. Don’t be too formal

As with many things, you need to get the balance right. Some of the phrases in older business English books are outdated, and way too formal for our fast-paced email culture. Using them can make you look pretentious!

“Please can you” is enough. You don’t need to be “ever so grateful if you would be kind enough to…”

If you don’t know, for example, if you’re joining a new company and you don’t know how formal or informal the colleagues are with one another, play it safe and observe for a while. This is better than finding out later that people are uncomfortable about something that you said or did.

3. Don’t use language that the audience won’t understand

It’s easy to start using abbreviations and terms that most people in your company know, but if a new person joins the team, or you’re writing to someone in another department, they may have no idea what your random groups of letters mean. This could lead to them ignoring you, misunderstanding you, or just putting your email on the “I plan to do later but in truth will never get round to this” list. They may even feel too embarrassed to come back and tell you that they didn’t understand your message.

4. Sometimes people want facts and figures

There are different theories about selling products and communicating ideas. Some people say you should totally focus on the emotions and that will get people’s attention. However, there are times when that just makes you look as though there is no substance to what you’re saying.

If I’m going to buy your course, I want details about what it covers, how it will help me and what exactly is included. I don’t just want you to bleat on for ages about how it will make me feel with no reference to any of the details.

On the other hand, some people would be bored by what I want, because they want you to appeal to their emotions.

You can’t guess how people are going to react, which is why, as with most of these tips, the best way to make sure your message is appropriate for your audience is to actually know something about your audience, or to choose your audience carefully!

5. Sometimes people are bored by facts and figures!

Sometimes facts and figures, or even too many unnecessary details, can drive people crazy. They don’t need to know the whole conversation that led to the decision – they are only interested in what has been decided. They don’t need to know each step of the process you’re going to follow. They just need to know that you’ll get the job done.

Reading your email takes time out of someone’s day, so don’t be like the person who stands at your desk, trying to have a chat, even though they can see you have a hundred things to do! Keep the email relevant. Add details of where the other person can find more information if you need to, or say that you can provide further information if needed, but don’t overwhelm people with information that may not be relevant to them.

6. If you’re angry, go for a walk

Love letters and novels are the places for passionate emotions. Generally, business correspondence should be more objective. Ok, you can be really excited about a new venture, or happy that something has been a success, but if you’re furious with a colleague or you want to give someone a piece of your mind in a complaint, try to wait till you’ve calmed down before you start to type. Or at least, type a draft, go for a coffee or a walk, and then decide whether you still want to send it!

7. Think about the structure and length of your text

Think about the reason for your text before you send it off. If you’re asking for something, is it clear what the other person needs to do? If you’re complaining about something, have you set out the facts and the problem in a logical way? If you are talking about a problem, have you explained enough so that the other person can follow what’s happened, even if they haven’t been directly involved? Do all of your sentences add value? Nobody likes repetition!

8. Is writing the best option?

I generally prefer people to write to me. As someone who provides training, it would drive me crazy if my phone kept going off all the time, even if it is on silent, because in most cases the conversations I need to have with people are either in the training session or by email.

However, there are some situations in which a phone call or personal conversation would be better. This is particularly true if it’s bad news, trying to deal with problems between colleagues, or something that is likely to make the other person worried or upset.

9.What would happen if other people read it?

Sometimes things are better when they’re not in writing. Maybe I just spent too much time working with lawyers, but I’m very careful about what I put in writing, especially if it’s something that wouldn’t look good if it got into the wrong hands. Email accounts get hacked. Papers get left on trains. People share things when they’re not supposed to. Sometimes people can’t be trusted. I’m not talking about criminal activity, but I tend to keep certain more controversial things only for spoken conversations, because I don’t want emails to be used against me by people who might want to take a few sentences out of context. This isn’t so relevant now that I work for myself, but it was something I considered when working for a larger company.

10. How does the message sound when you read it aloud?

It might look ok to you on the page, but how does it sound when you speak the words? Does it sound as though you’re barking orders at someone? Does it sound confused? Make sure that if you got this email, you’d feel ok with it in terms of the tone and wording.

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If you want to read more about effective communication, why not visit my resources for good communication page?

Also, if you want to develop your writing for different situations, this is something that I look at more closely in my writing course.

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Summer weather idioms

We’ve had the wintry weather idioms about wind, rain, and snow. Now it’s time to talk about blue skies and sunshine!

1. A ray of sunshine

If someone is a ray of sunshine, they bring a positive mood with them or make other people happy, in the same way as a real ray of sunshine.
You should come in more often! You’re a ray of sunshine in this dreary office!

2. A fair weather friend

Fair weather is like good weather. A fair weather friend is someone who only wants to be your friend when things are going well. When life gets tough and the storms come, this so-called friend won’t stick around. So this isn’t a true friend, but a superficial one who only stays for the good times.
I don’t need fair weather friends who disappear at the first sign of trouble!

3. Chasing rainbows

A rainbow is in the sky, and however hard you try, you’ll never be able to catch one. Therefore, trying to chase one is a pointless exercise. If people are chasing rainbows, they have completely unrealistic hopes, ambitions or expectations.
You need to stop chasing rainbows and accept that this idea is not going to work. It would be better if you put your energy into something else.

4. Come rain or shine

Unlike the fair weather friend, if someone is around come rain or shine, it means that they’ll always be there. Here, the word shine is referring to the sunshine.
You can rely on the coffee seller outside the station. He’s there every day, come rain or shine.

5. A ray of hope

It may just be one little ray, like a single ray of sunshine, but it is a positive thing that gives you hope that everything will be ok.
Due to all the problems we experienced last week, I thought we might not be able to finish this project on time. But I got some news this morning, which might be the ray of hope we’ve been waiting for!

6. A bolt from the blue

“The blue” here means a blue sky, and you don’t often get a thunder bolt when the weather is good and there are no thunder clouds. A bolt from the blue is therefore something unexpected (it can be good or bad).
I heard from my old boss yesterday. That was a bolt from the blue – I haven’t spoken to him for about 10 years.

7. Clear the air

A thunder storm can blast away all the tension that has been building up in the air. It makes the air feel fresher, cooler and more comfortable. Sometimes people need to do this too – to have a frank and open discussion or argument, to get rid of the bad feelings.
I had a massive row with my brother last night, but at least we got things out into the open and cleared the air.

8. Make hay while the sun shines

Like many old idioms, this refers to farming. You can’t make hay when it’s raining, because if the hay is wet inside, it will go mouldy. So if the sun is shining, it’s best to make the most of it and make your hay. It basically means that you should make the most of your opportunities while you have the chance.
We’ve got a long weekend coming up, so let’s make hay while the sun shines and do some work on the garden!

9. Brighten up someone’s day

This is when a nice or positive thing makes someone’s day happier or better.
Thank you for the flowers. They really brightened up my day, and my office!

10. It never rains, but it pours!

And finally for something that is an integral part of the British summer! The rain.
“It never rains, but it pours” is a way of saying there can’t just be one bad thing at a time. Everything has to go wrong at the same time. That’s just the way things go!
Two colleagues are off with the flu, the printer’s broken, and now the delivery van with the food for this evening has broken down!

Can you think of any more summer idioms to add to this list?

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Small talk for those who don’t like it even in their own language!

We talk about improving vocabulary and learning to talk to people in English, but what do you do if you really don’t like small talk, even in your own language? I share some ideas about this in my guest post on Shanthi’s English with a Twist blog. You can find the post here.

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How to make listening a habit

Today I have a guest post for you from Cara of Leo listening. Cara’s post is packed full of tips on how to make listening to English part of your daily routine. So, if you want to do more to improve your listening skills, keep reading and use the comments section to let us know about your listening goals.

Are you listening to enough English?

The answer is probably not!

Jack Askew of To Fluency asked his audience how much time they spent a week listening to English.

How do you think they answered?

Less than one hour a week. Which isn’t enough to make progress. Especially as just listening and just practising won’t solve all your problems.

But if you’re at zero minutes a week, how do you increase that without feeling overwhelmed and just giving up?

Well-intentioned teachers, including me, give learners tons of advice and resources. But we don’t always tell you how to fit all this learning into your life.

I give my learners tasks to do before their lessons. I’ve always assumed that well-educated adults have their act together and know how to get organised. But it’s not easy if you’re not used to it.

I now take the time in my lessons and programmes to share some tips on how to fit in the work. Otherwise it doesn’t get done and progress suffers! And getting things done is the totally boring secret to success.

The people who make progress and achieve their goals are the ones that are the most consistent. They’re not necessarily the most talented, most intelligent or best-looking people (not that those qualities don’t help!). They focus on getting a little bit better every day.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about building habits, rather than setting goals. James Clear has some fantastic advice about this, which you can apply to every area of your life. For him, success is a question of sticking to routines and building habits. I’ve heard as much from Beth Cooper at Buffer too.

So how can you make listening a habit? So you can understand native speakers. And enjoy your favourite shows and films without reading the subtitles.

Give yourself a ridiculously easy goal

Let’s say you’re listening to almost no English. Or sometimes you try to listen to a podcast. Or you occasionally attempt to watch a film but with subtitles in your language.

You’re not going to go from that situation to listening to an hour of English a day. It’s totally unrealistic. You’ll make yourself miserable and give up.

So if your starting place is zero minutes a week, create a habit that’s easy for you to adopt. Like listening to one five minute, or even a 2 minute (yes, they exist) podcast a day.

The aim here is to build the habit. You need to make it so easy that you can’t fail.

I’m working towards doing a short hike (30 minutes) a day. Right now, I’m building the habit of walking around outside for 5 minutes every day – it’s my goal for the month of May. Pretty far from my end goal of hiking every day right?

But I’m building the habit by making sure I can’t fail. I mean, how can I not manage to go outside for 5 minutes a day? I can walk for longer if I feel like it. I might even do my hiking route. But if I don’t and I only do my 5 minutes I’ve succeeded because I’ve done what I need to do to build my habit.

2. Add a goal to an existing habit

We do lots of things every day that we don’t even think about. A classic one is getting your morning cup of coffee or tea. How long does it take you to drink your beverage? Do you have enough time to listen to a podcast or watch a movie clip while you drink?

Listening during your morning routine makes it more likely to happen. This is the big premise of the Miracle Morning, which I finally got round to reading this year. You take time to work on yourself in the morning by doing exercise, reading, visualizing and meditating.

You do all of these tasks before you start the rest of your morning routine like having a shower or breakfast. I find that a bit tricky sometimes. It’s easier to tack some of these activities onto existing routines.

Have a think about what you regularly do. Where and when could you add listening? It doesn’t have to be in the morning. But that ensures it gets done.

3. Get ready for success

So you’re building a habit you can’t fail to achieve. You know which of your existing habits you’re going to add it to. But are you organised enough to make it happen?

You want to listen to a podcast during your morning commute. So the night before, you download the episode or episodes you want to listen to. That way, you won’t need to worry about wi-fi and trying to stream the podcast while you’re in a tunnel or whatever.

You create a playlist on YouTube of movie clips or short videos in English. When you have a 5-minute break at work, you watch one of them. You subscribe to channels in English about your favourite topics so you never miss a new video.

You add an app to your phone like Soundcloud or Stitcher so you can easily stream a podcast when you want to listen to one.

You sign up to hear from a podcaster or vlogger every week with their latest episode. That way you never miss them.

You have a pile of films or CDs in English next to your computer. So it’s always easy to put one on. You have a folder on your desktop full of films and music in English.

With some tiny tweaks, you’ll have no excuses for not listening to English.

4. Productivity is a question of priorities

I love listening to Darius Foroux’s podcast. He talks a lot on his blog about beating procrastination and improving productivity. He did a podcast episode recently where he said that productivity is a question of priorities.

If you don’t know your priorities, you can’t be productive.

So let me ask you this: is understanding spoken English a priority for you? Do you know why you want to focus on this skill?

For some people, it’s a question of understanding what they watch without subtitles. It’s the enjoyment factor.

Others realise they’ve missed out on opportunities. Even though they can speak English, they avoid situations where they risk not understanding.

For others, the stakes are even higher because they’re living in an English-speaking country. They feel isolated because they can’t understand what people are saying to them. They can’t go to the cinema or the theatre because there are no subtitles. They’re thinking about giving up on their dream of living abroad.

Once I admitted a few years ago that I wanted to live in France long-term, my priorities changed. I went from doing 6 random teaching jobs and working in a theatre at night to getting a master’s degree in International Business, doing 2 internships in French-speaking environments, getting a job, and now setting up my business.

My priority in my life is making my business work so I can finance my life in France and maintain a connection with my friends and family in the UK. I try not to worry about other things. Or where other people are putting their time and money. You could do a million different things with your life. But you have to choose according to your priorities.

So is understanding spoken English a priority for you? Maybe there’s another area of English you need to concentrate on first, and then later listening can take a more important role. That’s okay. Your priorities evolve as your life does.

Habit building for listening: your next steps

1. Start with the final step. Why is understanding spoken English a priority for you? What do you want to do? This will help you choose the right materials and set the right goals.
2. Build the habit by setting a ridiculously easy goal. You don’t start with the end goal, like watching a whole 2-hour film without subtitles. You start small and work towards your aims.
3. Add listening to existing habits in your daily routine. Listen while drinking your morning coffee. Listen on your commute. Listen during your afternoon break at work. This way you don’t need to think about when you’re going to listen. You just add it to what you’re doing anyway.
4. Get organised so that listening to English is unavoidable. Everywhere you go: your phone, your computer, your house – make sure it’s so easy to listen to English that you can’t fail.

Tell us in the comments what daily listening goal you’re going to set for yourself to make listening a habit.

About Cara

Hi, I’m Cara Leopold, the online English listening teacher at Leo Listening. I help bookworms and vocab nerds who prefer reading to listening get conversation-ready by teaching them how to understand fast, informal spoken English without translating in their heads.

Find free resources to get your listening conversation ready in the Leo Listening Library.
Check out Cara’s website here: Leo Listening
You can follow Cara on social media: Facebook
Cara’s fast, natural English podcast on Soundcloud
Instagram
You can subscribe to Cara’s podcast: iTunes or Stitcher.

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Conversation – the forgotten listening activity

I enjoy doing language learning activities on my own. I’m happy to listen to a podcast or curl up on the sofa with an audio book. However, if you’re the kind of learner that likes to be with other people, and who gets energy and motivation through interacting with others, these traditional listening activities often won’t seem very appealing.

Don’t forget that conversations are not only about speaking practice. You can really improve your listening skills too.

In this guest post on the Leo Listening blog, I explain 10 ways in which conversations can help with your listening skills.

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Announcement – my book is now available in print!

When I published my ebook last year, a few people asked me whether it would be available as a hard copy as well.

I’ve now published it as an a4 paperback on Amazon in the UK, Germany, US, France, Spain, Italy, and Japan.

Here are the links for Germany, and the UK.

You can find links for the other countries, as well as links to the ebook on other sites, such as Itunes, by visiting the book page.

What’s the book about?

Do you spend hours agonising over presentations that you have to give in English?
Do you dread the telephone ringing, because it could mean that you’ll have to speak to an English-speaking colleague or customer?
Do you wish that you could speak or write effortlessly, without having to think about every single word and how it sounds?

People have all kinds of problems when it comes to learning English. In this book, I share some of the solutions that have worked for me as a language learner or that have helped my customers to develop and use what they know, and reach their potential.

FeelconfidentusingyourbusinessEnglishv4 Resized

In many ways, my role as an English teacher is to help my customers to find those solutions. I don’t just mean the answers to my grammar questions, but ways to solve the individual problems that they have when it comes to learning English, or putting the English that they have already learned to use in everyday situations. In many cases, people already have much of the knowledge that they need, but other issues, such as a lack of confidence, or not knowing how to get complicated ideas into manageable language, hold them back from achieving their goals. Through my work with individuals from a range of backgrounds, I’ve been able to help people to overcome some of these problems and I’d now like to share my tips and ideas with you.

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How can we help the quiet students?

Whether you’re teaching one-to-one classes as I do, or a big group, it’s natural that some students will be more talkative than others. Particularly in larger classes, the quieter students are sometimes overlooked because they don’t volunteer information or readily participate in discussions. As a language learner who found speaking the least exciting of all the language skills, I’d like to take a closer look at some of the reasons why students may be quiet in class, and what we can do to help them.

1. The naturally quiet student

I used to work with a student who always tried hard in lessons, but who genuinely didn’t talk a lot, even in his own language. I know this because we had some general conversations in his native language after the lesson. Where some people would use 100 words to answer a question, he would answer it succinctly in 20. That’s just how he spoke.

I think sometimes teachers believe that the larger the vocabulary, the more students will talk. However I don’t believe that you will make a naturally quiet member of the class into the life and soul of the party just by increasing their vocabulary.

I don’t believe this is an excuse for not speaking, and a quieter student definitely needs to be encouraged to expand upon their answers, give more detail, give reasons and justifications etc, but I equally don’t believe we can make someone into something their not already in their native language. So whilst it’s good to encourage such students to keep pushing their boundaries, I think teachers’ expectations should be realistic.

Clearly it’s different if each student has to give a presentation for 10 minutes in order to pass an exam. Every student’s presentation must be 10 minutes long. However I’m thinking more from the perspective of someone who works with adult learners on a one-to-one basis in order to improve their communication skills. If the student can get across their messages clearly and they choose to do so with less words, then I believe that’s just part of their communication style. After all, adding more words doesn’t necessarily equate to adding extra value!

2. The perfectionist

I know all about this problem, because I was that student! When I was 16, my German teacher told me that what I said was usually right, but I would never be able to improve my mark unless I took some language risks. I have also worked with a student who did exactly the same thing. She produced good, structurally sound sentences, but I knew that really she wanted to say more. However doing so would mean that she might make some mistakes, so she chose not to do it. Now she is a lot more relaxed and gives much fuller answers. Sometimes she makes mistakes, but she can learn from those.

When working in a business environment, it’s really important to encourage students who lean towards perfectionism to take some risks, if initially only with the teacher, as otherwise these students or their potential contributions may be overlooked in meetings.

I remember being in a meeting of German speakers and really wishing that I could contribute more. My perfectionism was keeping my mouth firmly shut and I was so annoyed with myself afterwards, that I sat down and wrote a long email detailing my thoughts. I made sure that the opportunity wasn’t wasted, but I don’t know whether everyone there read the email!

It can be hard if you would usually give your ideas, expertise or suggestions, and you suddenly don’t do it when the conversation is in English.

Often, I find that students who struggle in this way need to work on their confidence as much as their language skills, and I believe the classroom should be a good and safe place in order to do this. A place where students can try out new ideas and learn from their mistakes.

3. The frustrated chatterbox

Actually I can relate to this one as well. I remember being at a gathering of German friends and someone asked whether I was always so quiet. This just added to my sense of dejection and frustration at not being able to say all the things I wanted to say. Now I don’t have this problem in German, but when I started learning Turkish, I was back to square one.

When I communicate in English, a lot of my confidence stems from the fact that I don’t usually struggle to express my thoughts in words. When your vocabulary is suddenly reduced to that of a small child because you are learning a new language, it’s so frustrating! It’s even more of an issue in a business context because you want to be seen as competent, a source of knowledge or a leader in your field, and suddenly you have to simplify your message so that you can get it across, even though there is so much more that you would say in your native language. This makes some people feel as though they want to give up.

Part of the problem is that many people have a general working knowledge of English, but they haven’t been exposed to situations like formal meetings or presentations before, and they realise that their general English isn’t enough. This is where personalised, more specific training can come in useful.

If vocabulary is an issue, reading and listening exercises that focus on the missing vocabulary can also help the student to become more familiar with the terminology. Ultimately, I urge my students to practise in situations where it isn’t critical to their success – with me, in front of a mirror, a family pet or exchange partner.

In addition, you can’t expect a student to give their opinions on a new topic with specialist vocabulary if you don’t know whether the student is already familiar with these words. A vocabulary list or an introductory text can sometimes make the speaking part of the lesson more productive because you’ve given the student the tools they need by empowering them to use the new words in context.

Reducing what you actually want to say into what you can say is a skill that needs to be developed. It takes practise to become good at it, and the better your language skills become, the less you need to do it. Still, in the beginner and intermediate stages, it’s a good skill to have. After all, it’s better to say a simplified version of something than to say nothing at all.

4. The image conscious student

Sometimes there are a range of factors that hinder participation in group discussions. A student may feel worried about making mistakes, but they may also be worried about looking stupid in front of their colleagues – particularly if members of staff of different grades are learning together, or there is already some kind of friction or competition between the members of staff. A group learning session may not be the best place for these students to thrive, and if they have to attend the group training, some other activities in which they can develop their confidence and speaking skills away from the other colleagues (whether individual training or general speaking activities in a general interest group) may be just what they need to get over their fear of speaking in front of the other colleagues. Being proactive and setting up other learning activities will probably be more productive than only focussing on learning in an environment in which they already feel uncomfortable.

5. The student with fantastic writing skills

Whether the student chose to focus on writing because they didn’t enjoy speaking (I’ve done that as well), or their English education so far has not given them opportunities to speak, it can be hard for students whose speaking skills are at a much lower level than their reading, writing or listening skills. We’ll cover reading and listening skills in the next point, but in terms of writing, some students love the sense of security that they have when they can reread their work, look up words in the dictionary, and spend more time thinking about what they want to write. Spontaneous conversations don’t offer the same degree of security and they can feel scary, particularly for those who are not used to speaking.

I used to think that allowing a student to prepare some notes before speaking on a topic was a good idea, but invariably they just read their presentation. Now I believe it’s more useful to focus entirely on the speaking aspect because in conversations, you need to practice the skill of spontaneity without having the opportunity to prepare everything in writing first. After you’ve done all the preparation, learned the vocabulary, understood the grammar rules, the only way to become good at speaking is to actually speak!

6. The student who loves reading and listening

I can relate to these students too. They are usually the ones who enjoy language learning activities that can be done without other people, or people who genuinely enjoy reading and do it as a hobby, not just a language acquisition activity.

I’ve been in meetings in which I understood everything that was going on around me, but I didn’t contribute anything. This was as a result of a number of factors, but one of them was that I had focussed too much on the language skills that I enjoyed, and neglected the one that I found most difficult. If a student is doing one-to-one training, doing a range of activities, but focussing on the weakest area is a good way to bring all of the competencies to a similar level.

7. The student who hates pointless conversations

I’m not a fan of pointless conversations either, but I know how to engage in them! I know what’s expected of me and how to get people to talk. However, some people really struggle with this, particularly if you want them to have general, in their eyes pointless, conversations with colleagues over dinner. I will go into more depth about this in a separate article, but I try to keep it real with my students. I don’t promise them that they’ll enjoy small talk in English if they don’t enjoy it in their native language, but I encourage them to see it as a useful skill to have, and to see the bigger picture in terms of it helping to develop relationships and build trust.

8. The student who doesn’t really want to be there

I think this is the hardest problem to resolve, which is why I’ve left it until last. As a private teacher working with adults, it doesn’t come up for me too often. People are paying me for my time, and even if they are learning English because they have to, and not because they want to, they want to get the best out of the sessions.

I think the problem of people not engaging because they don’t want to be there occurs more when companies put on classes for people who would rather be elsewhere, or when parents decide their children need help with English, but the children aren’t motivated to learn.

There are certainly things that a teacher can do in terms of making the lessons more interesting, relevant, or better suited to an individual’s learning style, but I believe ultimately the motivation has to come from the learner, and the learner has to be willing to put in the effort if they want to succeed or see an improvement in their language skills.

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