Plasma ball

How starting over can boost your language confidence

It’s important to recognise the brain’s need for pause now and again. But it might help our guilt-ridden, study-obsessed selves to note how effectively a rest can restart our engines.

I’ve experienced this effect recently, after picking up Modern Hebrew again. Like a few languages, I’ve had an on-off relationship with Hebrew since I was very young. Just like my other ‘side’ projects, though, I’ve never run with it consistently for very long.

Not that it hasn’t been useful; a trip to Israel in 1999 and a random conservation with Israelis in a Paris bar rank amongst the great opportunities I’ve had to use it! At around the A2 level, it was certainly a working, useful knowledge of the language.

That said, I never really had great confidence in my abilities to speak Hebrew well. I drifted off into other languages and other hobbies. Then, something remarkable happened: I picked it up again after a long break.

Starting from scratch – with an advantage

What I did was to reset my Anki decks. In particular, I removed all previous scheduling information from my Hebrew cards, and moved them back into an active deck. In essence, I set up Anki to start all over again with the language.

Note that I hadn’t touched these cards in over a year and a half. Back then, my last Hebrew adventure, I’d had a course of Hebrew lessons through iTalki. During that period, I amassed around 1000 vocabulary cards. But I’d long since ‘rested’ these by moving the whole set into a dormant Anki deck.

zzzRestedLanguages - where my dormant languages go to sleep for a while!

zzzRestedLanguages (bottom) – where my dormant languages go to sleep for a while!

Something wonderful happened in the first few days of reinstated Hebrew. I amazed myself at how much I could remember. Not just words like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, either, but more complex vocabulary nouns like ‘driver’, ‘newspaper’ and phrases like ‘I work in London’. It was still there. I could still speak Hebrew!

Confidence lost – then refound

It might seem crazy that I sounded so amazed. After all, I’d actively learnt Hebrew on and off for a while. But I’d not spoken it in so long, I had written it off. I’d lost my confidence. And that happens so easily with languages you don’t use.

The lesson to take from it, of course, is that our brains are much more robust than we realise. We should have confidence in our abilities; we often underestimate them when we’re in the thick of learning, and it isn’t until much later that we realise how solid our first passes were.

This also serves to remind ourselves of the hard work we spent in the first place. All that work – surely it’s worth revisiting those ‘rested’ tongues now and again? You earned the right to be confident through hard work. Starting over can bring that confidence back.

Where next?

So, where next? As a perennial dabbler, I have a few to choose from. An earnest fresh attack on Greek and Russian would be a good place to start. I’ve not used either properly in a while, and definitely feel that confidence deficit with both.

If you choose to resurrect any of your former language adventures, I’m certain it can also remind you that you have everything to feel proud and confident about as a learner!

Notebook for note-taking

Conversation turbo-boosting with speaking bingo sheets

I’ve been having something of an iTalki renaissance lately. iTalki, if you haven’t come across it already, is a website that connects language learners with teachers all over the world for online lessons. There are few easier ways to get some face-to-face tuition from a native speaker. And it is perfect for getting some conversation practice in.

Conversation is king

If you’re working on languages beyond entry / A1 level, general conversation is an important part of any lesson. For me, the best kind of iTalki lesson is one split between general chat in the target language, and structured learning. The latter can be organised through a grammar or textbook agreed with the tutor. But conversation is vital, being a safe space to practise the end goal of language learning: real-world communication. However, it’s daunting, and one of the biggest leaps of faith (in your own ability) to make.

Although lesson prices can be very reasonable on iTalki, they do mount up. But, somehow, I felt wasn’t getting the best value out of my lessons. It was nothing to do with the actual teaching. Rather, it felt like I was lacking a bit of dynamism on my part. And it was all to do with those conversations.

This is getting awkward…

I’d arrive in the Skype chat like a blank slate, ready to be instructed; a passive but eager student. But an hour is a lot of time to fill, one-to-one. Often, gaps would open up. Teacher and student would both be stumped for what to say next.

A bit of panic would sometimes fill these gaps, as I’d mentally grasp about, frantically thinking of something to say. A counter-productive instinct kicks in; the need to say something interesting, along with the realisation that the vocabulary for it is simply not there yet. In my floundering, something pops into my head in the target language, but I realise I already said it two minutes ago. I think of something else, but it won’t come out intelligibly as I lack the vocab or structures for it. Agh!

This kind of thing, if you’ve experienced it, can be really disruptive. It can trigger that spiral of confidence-eroding self-doubt, too. I hope I’m not a boring student… Am I really good enough to be trying to converse in X/Y/Z? The teacher must be reconsidering my actual level right now…

Just wanna be loved

First things first: it doesn’t mean you’re a bad linguist. Wanting to converse interestingly and fluently is a perfectly normal goal as a human being. It is connected to our basic need to be liked – which, when it all gets too much, can tip into neurosis. Psychology Karen Horney, for example, theorises it as one of the ten ‘neurotic needs’ that can be problematic when they get out of control.

We’ve all experienced it in our day-to-day conversations in our native languages – awkward pauses and strange silences with people we want to impress.

But I needed to stop this from making my lessons less effective. I needed a crutch. What I needed was a crib sheet of vocab and phrases to use in my classes.

Speaking bingo sheets

Now, crib sheets on themselves can be rather dull. To spruce up the concept, I decided to add an element of gamification.

First, I sketch out the words and phrases I want to focus on this week in conversation. They could be items that I’ve come across in my reading, or listening to podcasts. They might also consist of vocabulary I’ve looked up to describe things I’ve been up to that week, or topical items from the news.

Then, crucially, I’ll put a tick box next to each of them. 

During the lesson, I have my speaking bingo sheet in front of me. As I converse with the teacher, I make an active effort to use my words and phrases, and tick them off as I do. Obviously, conversation is organic, and I won’t have chance to use them all. But the unused ones can go onto the next lesson’s sheet, and the process continues.

A speaking bingo sheet for supporting conversation lessons

A speaking bingo sheet for supporting conversation lessons

 

Don’t overscript it

Speaking bingo sheets shouldn’t be rigid, like a script. The aim is to support more natural speech through a set of cues. For instance, you might note down a central theme – I used ‘Remembrance Day’ in a recent Polish example (above) – and spider off some related words like ‘war’, ‘army’, ‘parade’ and so on.

In terms of phrases and language patterns, a frame or scaffold approach works best. This kind of technique is very popular for literacy in schools, but it works a treat for speaking lessons too. One example might be to have the phrases ‘I went to…’, or ‘I am going to…’ ready on your sheet to use several times with different vocab slotted in.

I also find it useful in the early stages to have a list of general opinion phrases that you can slot in anywhere. Just simple reactions like ‘great’, ‘terrible’ and so on. Also, ‘I (don’t) agree’ is a good conversation keeper-upper!

Why it works

We reinforce linguistic memories through usage, and through positive and negative associations that give them salience. To capitalise on that, you should fill your bingo sheets with favourite turns of phrase and interesting vocab you really want to ‘stick’. It sounds trivial, but if I feel proud of myself for working in a lovely, colloquial phrase like mér finnst það gott! (I like it!) into an Icelandic lesson, I’ve reinforced that vocab item with a positive emotional association.

Give them a go!

Speaking bingo sheets have really helped me to get the most out of my iTalki lessons. It’s part of being a well-prepared student (and a well-prepared teacher certainly deserves that!). Now, if I don’t use them for whatever reason, I really notice a difference.

Give them a go – and enjoy the flow!

Poppy Field - it's hard to find the confidence to stand out in a field full of blossoming blooms!

Am I Good Enough? Maintaining confidence in an Internet age 👊🏻

Confidence is key to speaking and using languages. But in an age of Internet superheroes to measure up to, it can be hard to keep it.

The Internet has been a godsend for language learners. Not only are millions of resources within easy reach, but there is community. Suddenly, the countless others who share the passion are visible. If you grew up thinking you wondering if there was anyone like you, then the Internet finally answered that question. The downside: measuring yourself up against your fellow linguists can affect your confidence. We go from being special and unique to just one of many, and that, frankly, can feel rubbish.

How many times have you thought: wow, s/he’s brilliant – no way am I that good!

Everyday experts

We live in an age of everyday experts. People with skills can now share those skills with anyone through a blog or a website. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is a marvellous thing. Everybody can help everybody else, and all you need to have a voice, and reach out, is an Internet connection.

However, it is easy to forget that there’s an element of the marketplace operating on the web: there is competition. In the tussle win clicks, likes, and kudos, individuals feel compelled to go bigger, bolder, brighter. Consequently, writers amplify positive claims and overstate promises of greatness.

The result? We have an online language community fixated on notions of ‘fast fluency’, and language heroes with almost superhuman abilities to absorb new tongues. The issue is not just with language learning; quiet confidence-knocking goes on wherever the Internet brings people together around a set of skills. Online trainer Brad Hussey lays it bare for web creatives in this passionate post.

Fortunately, there has been some honest push-back against the fluency myth recently, such as in this helpful article by Alex Rawlings. (I see the irony of linking to an article by a polyglot hero in an article re-humanising Internet heroes!) But it’s still too easy to feel in the shadow of others in a very noisy online world.

Our idealised selves

To understand how this positive feedback loop comes about, step back and think of online personalities not as actual people, but as constructs of people. The Facebook or Twitter profile is not a true and faithful copy of the person in cyberspace. Instead, it is a construct of an identity in the 2D space of the Internet.

Naturally, those identities are overwhelmingly positive ones; we build them from what we like best about ourselves. Twitter and Facebook profiles are showcases for selves, idealised projections. As such, the Internet is one vast exercise in impression management. Erving Goffman – the sociologist who originally conceptualised this notion – would, no doubt, have had a field day with social media.

But the crux of this is simple: take everything you read online with a little pinch of salt.

Am I good enough? Finding confidence

Behind these idealised profiles are ordinary, everyday people – just like you. They share the same basic needs, desires and anxieties. You are as capable of their feats as they are of your perceived failures – only you cannot see the failures, as these rarely make it onto social media.

That’s why it’s important to start talking about the frustrations and failures in language learning just as much as the wild successes. Discussion needs to paint a realistic, rather than a fantastical, picture of what the linguaphile journey is like. It’s hugely rewarding, amazing fun and exhilarating – but it’s not perfect. What journey is? And would a perfect journey be as much fun?

So, care for your confidence. Learn to chill with your languages. But believe it: you are good enough.

Context can help language learners in familiar situations abroad, like the coffee shop

Context has your back: Why it’s OK not to understand everything

I have a confession to make. I failed miserably in my foreign language last weekend. But it was still fine. Context had my back!

Before you feel sorry for me, it’s not as bad as it sounds. We fail in our native languages all the time, for lots of reasons. We don’t catch things, we mishear words, we don’t hear above the noise. It’s a normal part of comprehension not to comprehend everything at first.

Imagine the scene…

Here’s how it went down. I’ve just spent a quick, cheapie getaway weekend in Oslo to practise my norsk and enjoy one of my favourite countries. It was a real budget immersion weekend, with low-cost flights from Norwegian.com and a free hotel stay thanks to air miles.

I threw myself into every social situation, ordering food and drink, going to a concert and even sorting out a free tour of parliament using my Norwegian. On the whole it went well, but there was one conversation that stands out from a coffee shop:

Rich: Er melkekaffe som en latte?
Servitør: Ja, ********.
R: Ah, jeg ville gjerne ha to melkekaffeer. Takk.
S: **** ******* spise **** ?
R: Nei, takk. Kanskje senere.
S: Åtti kroner.
R: Is milky coffee like a latte?
S: Yes,********.
R: Ah, I’d like two milky coffees. Thanks.
S: **** ******* eat **** ?
R: No, thanks. Maybe later.
S: Eighty kroner.

Yes, those asterisks are bits where I hadn’t a clue what the other person was saying.

It might have been nerves. It might have been background noise. The server might have had an unusual accent. But I found myself struggling to understand what I thought must be the most basic Norwegian.

Measuring language success as social transaction

So, success or failure? Well, I could beat myself up about not understanding every single word that was said to me. In fact, I felt like I barely caught anything.

But on the other hand – I got my coffee! There was no serious breakdown in communication. I guessed what was said to me, and didn’t get any funny looks when I made up an answer. As a social transaction, it was as successful as one I’d have in my native language. I’d filled in the uncertain bits by guessing from experience what was meant. In short: I’d winged it.

Winging it is normal!

This got me thinking about how I operate in English, and I realised that I rely on context in English just as much as I do on 100% comprehension! In a noisy café in Edinburgh, I’d be making the same assumptions and filling in the same gaps with context. I made myself understood, and I understood what was required of me in that interaction. No self-flagellation required!

Maybe the biggest failure was that I unquestioningly paid £8 for two lattes in Oslo. *ouch*

Context is king

Context works when two speakers share the same common values or experiences. In my example above, it’s how a coffee shop works. Thanks to globalisation, that’s a pretty standardised environment these days. Whatever you think about globalisation and cultural imperialism, they definitely help when trying to speak a foreign language!

When contexts differ, then you can prepare yourself for speaking by observing how things work in the target language country. Just hanging back and watching / listening to people interacting naturally before you works wonders. You can also pre-arm yourself by researching attitudes and cultural traits before a trip; this article contains some very interesting points about context differences across several cultures.

Be kind to yourself

It’s important not to be too hard on yourself when you manage these ‘by the skin of your teeth’ situations. Remember that you’re probably doing it regularly in your native language, too. If you read a transcript of your conversation on paper, you’d no doubt understand it in almost all its detail. But you didn’t need to in order to get your coffee!

Having a conversation in a foreign language can be quite a feat. Never beat yourself up for not getting every word – context always has your back.