Islands can be language lifesavers (Freeimages.com)

Land ahoy! Islands, how they can help your language learning, and why you’re probably already using them

Sometimes we get excited about a new big idea in language learning, only to get a pleasant surprise. It’s only something we’ve been doing all along anyway! And so it is with islands, a language technique a polyglot friend introduced to me recently. But why is it so effective? And are you already doing it too, without realising it?

Islands : sink or swim?

The islands technique is developed and elaborated by Boris Shekhtman in How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately, a classic language hacking text now over a decade old. Personally, I have my wonder-tutor Marcel to thank for bringing it to my attention (as with so many other cool language learning ideas). It’s no exaggeration to say that he is a huge fan of the technique.

It builds on the concept of swimming as a metaphor for the beginner’s language proficiency. When navigating free, open conversation, the sheer unpredictability can leave you floundering. However, you can give yourself some dry land by setting up a number of islands as refuges.

These islands are short sections of text about key areas of your life and interests, committed to memory. You use them as ready-to-hand frameworks to plump out your conversation, or steer the conversation towards them to gain some purchase with your partner. They serve as familiar ground when you are on the high seas of target language speaking.

Sounds familiar?

The simplicity of this technique is its strength. But it’s also the reason that it probably sounds a little familiar already. After all, the preparation of short texts is a mainstay of traditional language learning. It is strikingly similar to the scripts technique popularised by more contemporary polyglot pundits. And I soon began to realise that I’ve been doing a form of it for some time already.

With several iTalki teachers, I’ve done some version of a prose-writing homework that mirrors the islands technique. It goes like this: at the end of a lesson, the teacher would give me a topic. I would have to write a paragraph or two on that topic for the next lesson, when we’d look through it, correct it together and talk in the target language about what I wrote.

These topics have centred on aspects of my own life – family, hobbies and so on – or general topics of conversation – social media, current affairs, travel and such like. After each one, I ended up with a ‘potted monologue’ that was corrected by a native speaker and well rehearsed through practice and discussion with the teacher. If future, real-world conversation throws these topics my way, I have raft of relevant things to regurgitate (or, as proficiency grows, adapt).

In short, I had been using islands for ages without realising it. And in your own language learning, I would bet that you can pick out similar elements. The best thing is thus eureka! moment, that realisation that I was already on the right track. Yes – islands can work for me, because the system fits so neatly into my current learning regime!

From habit to general approach

Of course, what I was doing roughly equates to the islands technique, but wasn’t particularly rigid or formalised. Like anyone doing weekly prose exercises like this, we can’t claim to have accidentally invented the islands technique independently. Certainly, lots of elements are there; but with no underpinning philosophy of learning, it’s not quite a language revolution in itself.

By contrast, the author synthesises these elements and more, usefully packaging them as a general approach. This more abstract overview acts as a more systematic scaffold to your learning. Rather than chancing across the magic that the technique can work, you begin to apply it regularly, to much more sustained effect. Not only that, but knowing the metaphor behind the theory – the idea of conversational safety and familiar fallbacks – prepares you for actually using the technique in the wild.

It is well worth reading up on what  Shekhtman has to say on the subject in his book. The rest of the short, sage volume is also packed with other practical advice beyond the islands method. It is no surprise that it continues to resurface amongst successive waves of polyglots.

Do you recognise elements of the technique in your own learning? Let us know in the comments!

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!

Parrots chatting

Conversation fillers

A common frustration when you’re moving from beginner to intermediate level in a language (A1/A2 to B1/B2 using the CEFR scale) is the stilted nature of the language you produce – short, functional, clipped and often isolated sentences that make for pretty boring conversations.

One way round this is to work on ‘conversation fillers’ – common little phrases or language snippets that instantly lend a bit of colour and flow to what you’re saying. Think about how you speak your native language; it’s rarely a sequence of straightforward, affirmative sentences, but peppered with padding like “well”, “I see”, “actually”, “anyway” and such like. They give what we’re saying flow and hue, and make us sound less like automata and more like the interesting, messy and complicated human beings we are.

A lot has been written on the topic already, not least this excellent article by polyglot Benny Lewis. I’ve returned to the topic myself as I’m on a language-improving trip to Norway this weekend, and have been digging all my old vocab lists out to brush up on them.

From my experience learning Norwegian and other languages, these are my top tips for reusable padding / flow phrases in your target language. I’ve deliberately limited them to just a few, as it’s important not to overload yourself, and focus on getting a manageable amount of them under your belt. Look them up / get a native speaker to translate them for you, and try and ease them into future conversations. It’ll be a little parrot-fashion at first, but after a while, they’ll become part of your natural repertoire. A great way to sound a little less stilted and more natural, even if you’re still managing that transition from beginner to intermediate.

  • Well…
  • In fact…
  • I see / understand
  • True / definitely / probably
  • I get the impression that…
  • I can imagine that…
  • It seems that…
  • I agree / you’re right
  • You know?
  • …isn’t it?
  • On the other hand…
  • Interesting!