A chamber of mirrors - reflective, just like talking to yourself can be!

Talking to yourself: tap your inner voice to be a canny language learner

Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, some say. But it’s actually the hallmark of the very canny linguist, too.

Ask most experienced language learners, and they will tell you that the secret is speaking, speaking, speaking. But it’s easy to overlook how useful speaking can be, even when you don’t have a partner. When it comes to talking to yourself, something is most definitely better than nothing.

So don’t be shy (of yourself!). Here are some strategies and key reasons for talking to yourself in the target language.

Mine for missing vocab

When you are actively learning a language, you should be mining for vocabulary all the time. The problem is knowing which vocabulary will be most useful to you. Where should you spend your mining efforts? Well, talking to yourself is a good way to find out.

Try this exercise to start identifying missing words in your mental dictionary. First, set yourself anywhere between one to five minutes with a timer, depending on your level. Use that time to chatter aloud about your job, your day, or some other common topic in the target language. You will almost certainly stumble across thing you lack the words for, but want to say. Don’t worry – just make a note of that missing vocab in your native language. At the end of the five minutes, you should have a list of a few items to look up and add to your vocab lists.

Record, play back and perfect

Time spent talking to yourself is a resource you can maximise the value of by recording it. Set yourself timed challenges to chat about a particular topic whilst recording on your phone or computer. This topic-o-matic I created as a help for my own speaking may be useful if you are struggling for themes.

The resulting recording can be handy in many ways, including:

  • Checking your accent : Listen out for sounds you could improve. But equally, be proud of yourself by noting when you sound particularly authentic!
  • Revision : Build up a library of recordings on your phone, and play them back regularly in order to revisit and consolidate your topic-based material. (Note that this can be amazingly effective for other subjects too – I successfully revised for my Social Sciences degree by recording notes in my own voice and listening back to them regularly on the bus!)

As you grow more confident, you can go a step beyond simple voice recording, and try video. Practise in front of a mirror first, having a bit of fun with facial expressions, gestures and voice. Language is a performance!

If you are really brave, and feel your videos might help other learners, perhaps even consider sharing them on YouTube. There are many linguists who vlog their progress for all to see – just search YouTube for ‘How I learnt X‘ and you get a whole raft of sharers!

Talking to yourself before talking to others

Talking to yourself is an excellent rehearsal method before real-life language encounters, too. For example, I attend a lot of one-to-one iTalki classes on Skype. They invariably involve some general conversation to warm up the lesson. And that always goes better when I have warmed up a little beforehand by running through, out loud, what I’ve done in my life since the last time I met the teacher.

Make auto-chatting a regular part of your pre-lesson warm-up techniques, and you will notice the difference.

Run through the basics

Speaking alone offers a good opportunity to run through the basics, too. You are unlikely to find a teacher or speaking partner who will relish listening to you recite numbers, days of the week and months, for example.

Instead, you can try working some of this repetitive speaking into your daily routine. Number practice, for example, pairs up brilliantly if you attend a gym and like the cardio machines. Likewise, you can quietly recite sequential vocab to the rhythm of your feet as you walk along the street. And, like working out, getting your mouth around these very common words may help build up a certain muscle memory for speaking your new language.

Inhibition-busting

Successful language learning involves breaking down many inhibitions at lots of points on the way to fluency. Just think of that end goal – communicating with strangers – and you realise that it requires a lot of self-confidence.

Talking to yourself is a good intermediary step on the way. For one thing, it is something that doesn’t come naturally to many of us. It also reminds us that a key outcome of language learning is getting those words out there, into the world, through speech.

The greatest thing is that you can be silly about it. It’s a safe testing ground to try out all sorts of language. Next time you shower, give a thankful awards acceptance speech in French. Reel off a victory speech on becoming German Kanzler. Explain the secrets of your phenomenal success in Spanish. Be larger than life, and have fun with it!

Talking to yourself in mindful moments

Once a week I go for a one-to-one session in the local park with my trainer. I like to go as unencumbered as possible, so I leave my phone at home. That simple act frees my mind up completely, as it would otherwise be occupied by checking texts, emails, doing my Anki cards or – something I hate in others, but still do myself – idly browsing whilst walking.

Instead, I have some mindful moments to walk, connect to the world around me, and talk to myself! OK, so maybe not out loud (all the time) when I’m on the street. But it’s a good ten to fifteen minutes when I can just prattle in the target language, at least in my head.

Even in the early days of learning, before the sentences flow, there are things you can do. Try naming the objects you see on a journey (another lovely mindfulness-inspired exercise that helps you to notice the world around you). Did you see something intriguing or beautiful, but didn’t know the word for it? Make a mental note and look it up for your vocab lists later.

Fake it ’til you make it

However, if you do have your phone on you, it can be the ultimate talk-to-yourself prop. Feeling brave? Then why not walk down the street, pretending to have a conversation in the target language with an imaginary interlocutor?

To the naturally shy (like, believe it or not, me), or generally faint-hearted, this may seem like an utterly crazy idea at first. 😅 Pretending to have a conversation on your mobile? In public? Who even does that?!

But, like talking to yourself in general, there is method in the madness. It is a fantastic way to get used to speaking your target language in front of unknown others. If it feels too odd at first, a word of advice: you’ll sound less silly if you really try to sound authentic, rather than speaking in your native accent. Try to be convincing – it’s easier than it sounds, as most passers-by won’t have a clue what you are talking about…

Speaking, speaking, speaking

The ideas above represent just a few of the ways self-talking techniques can boost your learning. Try talking to yourself – it’s free, easy, and could be the perfect halfway house on the way to real-world, person-to-person fluency.

The next time you pass somebody muttering to themselves, try not to think they are insane. Like you, they might be learning a language! 

Non-verbal communication, such as hand gestures, are just as vital as speaking when it comes to real-life language use

Speaking without words: optimising your target language with non-verbal communication

Sticking to your target language isn’t always easy. But it’s a rule worth sticking to. Denying yourself the luxury of speaking your native language is vital in building up mental ingenuity and spontaneous, flexible thinking as a linguist.

However, it is a thing easier said than done. Especially when your vocabulary is limited as a language beginner.

Unpolished Polish

My most recent experience of this has been in Polish. I’ve been learning the language quite casually for a while. I really enjoy it, but maybe haven’t had as much time to spend on it as I’d like. As such, my level isn’t particularly high just yet (maybe an A2), but I can get by.

Just over a year ago, I visited beautiful Gdańsk for my first taste of Poland. I knew my Polish wasn’t brilliant, but I was determined to try and use it. Fairly quickly, I realised that this meant mastering more than just words. It was all about supporting my speaking with purposeful non-verbal cues and pointers.

Thrifty speaking shortcuts

You can pave the way for an efficient speaking-signing hybrid language by careful vocab prep. The trick is to learn words and constructions that have a general, rather than a specific application.

Demonstratives are essential – put this (one) and that (one) at the top of your list. Also, non-specific placeholder words like somethingsomeone and somewhere can be linguistic lifesavers when you are short on vocabulary. Add like …like this / like that, and you have an instant tie-in to hand gestures, pointing and more ways to get your intentions across without being a walking phrasebook.

Likewise, many languages have polite constructions for requesting something. Examples include Polish poproszę, French je voudrais, German ich möchte, Icelandic ég ætla að fá, Norwegian jeg vil gjerne ha and so on. These are transactional workhorses that you can use again and again. They combine perfectly with the general pointer words or gestures above.

If you lack those, even just saying the word/phrase for please, followed by the item you want, should work. If that still doesn’t work, gesticulating wildly will eventually yield the desired results. Just don’t be tempted to lapse into English!

Finally, words of possibility are very useful when combined with hand-talk. Just a simple is it possible? or can I?, combined with some pointing, will make it quite clear that you are asking for permission, for example.

Not just crutches

The fact is that planning for all these non-speech cues and helpers prepares you for real communication. How often is that you have tip-of-your-tongue moments in English, or struggle for the right word for something? And, like me, most people use gestures all the time to supplement everyday native language chat. So much of our regular interaction is non-verbal.

These are not simply crutches for the initial stages of language learning – they are part and parcel of human communication. Language is not simply words. It is an process set in a context of bodies, places and intentions. Working with that fact in your first steps learning a new tongue is no bad thing.

Like climbing a mountain, making the most of your language lesson involves preparation!

Acing preparation for a good one-to-one language lesson

I’ve attempted Icelandic a few times in my life. That sounds ominous, that ‘attempted’, doesn’t it? Well, the truth is that I’ve found the language a real challenge each time. I’ve usually learnt it in the lead-up to a trip, then put it to bed for a while after my return. But last year, I decided to collect together the fragments of multiple start-stops and have a proper go at learning it upp á nýtt (back from scratch). 🇮🇸

Now, Icelandic is still extremely challenging to learn. I’d put it on a par with Russian for grammatical complexity, with the added downside that there is very little commercial material for learning the language. And I am far from the perfect student, squeezing my learning in here and there – and, perhaps ill-advisedly, learning several other languages at the same time.

However, over these past few weeks, I feel I’ve turned a corner. This week in particular, I had a one-to-one conversational Icelandic lesson on iTalki. And guess what? It actually went quite well! I’m not fluent by a huge stretch. But I stumbled, faltered and ummed and aahed just a little bit less. For the first time in forever, I feel I can actually speak Icelandic (after a fashion!), and not just rattle off phrases, parrot-style.

In this post I’ll look at how good preparation helped me to get the most from that lesson. I’ll also consider how that preparation could have been better, to squeeze even more out of my hour of speaking time.

Getting started

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I like to sketch out a few broad topic areas with rough vocabulary notes before a lesson. These topics are generally things I’ve been up to since the last session: travel, work, family / friends news and so on. For this lesson, I chose three: commuting to London, booking a trip to Iceland, and how I’d been practising Icelandic in the meantime (finding interesting articles online to translate).

I try to stick to a few rules in these pre-lesson notes. For example, complete sentences are out. Instead, I’ll write out vocab items and partial phrases, avoiding the temptation to create a script to read from. The aim is spontaneous(-ish!) conversation and flexibility as a speaker, rather than rote production of phrases. (Sidenote: there is definitely a place for the latter, especially in the very first stages of learning – Benny Lewis in particular has produced some brilliant guidelines on using scripts as a complete beginner.)

Sample preparation sheet

Here’s my prep sheet for this week’s lesson (complete with notes I scribbled during the lesson itself!). I typed it up in Evernote, then printed it to scribble on during the lesson. (Fellow Icelandic learners, please don’t use this as a learning resource yourself, as there are bound to be errors in it! It is really just my personal, rough scaffold for chatting, warts and all.)

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Because I already have a basic level in the language, the notes are slightly more complex or specific words and phrases to fit around that. In some cases it is brand new material, like “eins mikið og hægt er” (‘as much as possible’). I try extra hard to fit these in, as I’m more likely to memorise them through active usage. Other items include conversation cues, or main points of a story I want to tell. These simply keep me speaking and prevent the conversation from drying up.

This approach works a treat for me. It gives the start of the lesson a focus, so we can get right into it. It also provides the teacher with a lot of student-produced language – perfect for getting your grammar tweaked and vocab suggestions thrown your way.

Room for improvement

Of course, nothing is perfect. One shortfall was my lack of subject material. I’d managed to prepare three general “things I’ve been up to” sections, but started to struggle for novelty after 20-25 minutes, repeating myself a little. That wasn’t a problem, as there are always alternative activities to do in a lesson. But perhaps five or six rough prepared subjects to chat about would have bridged the gap.

Also, what you can probably tell from my notes is that I don’t always follow my own advice about brevity. Some of my lines are almost sentences. Not only that, but they tend to read in a slightly linear way. Like a script, an order is implied: I did A, then I did B, then C happened, then D will happen. I didn’t leave myself much room for improvisation.

Now, I wasn’t robotically reeling of those sentences in that exact order. But in future, I could make them even more efficient. As they are, they’re a little more fixed and restrictive than I’d like them to be. As a Social Sciences student, I found Tony Buzan’s mind-mapping techniques a fantastic support in note-taking; I think they’d work a treat in this scenario, too.

More than just the lesson

Lastly, what I haven’t mentioned above is all the other prep you do between lessons. The one-to-one hours are just single, brief points in your language learning schedule. Between lessons, you have to make a success of self-directed, wider learning, too. As I mentioned above (and in my chat notes!), I’d been a good student that week. I’d actively vocab-mined and exposed myself to lots of Icelandic in use by seeking out and translating online articles. (Nothing high-brow, mind – most of them were about the twists and turns in Iceland’s journey to pick a Eurovision song!)

No lesson is perfect (since no student is!), but I enjoyed this one and got a lot from it. Not every lesson goes so well, of course. Time is the biggest constraint on prep, and I’ve lost count of the occasions I wish I’d spent more of it on getting ready. Without exception, the better prepared you are to use language actively in a one-to-one, the more rewarding it is.

The Commonwealth Games offer local linguists some amazing opportunities.

Commonwealth Games 2022 : Birmingham’s Local Language Boost

In December, you might have noticed the fanfare around my hometown, Birmingham, winning the chance to host the Commonwealth Games in 2022. The decision has generated a lot of local pride. No wonder, as all four corners of the world will grace Brum for the two-week event. But as well as a wonderful opportunity for local commerce, the event represents concrete opportunities for linguists.

Languages of the Commonwealth Games

The last UK hosting was the hugely successful Glasgow games of 2014. For that event, Capita Translation and Interpreting produced a really useful infographic to illustrate the languages spoken in competing Commonwealth lands. Due to the origins of the Commonwealth, English dominates.

However, quite a few ‘mainstream’ foreign languages make the list, too. In 2022, locals have the chance to hear French, Portuguese and Spanish on the streets of Birmingham. And with both volunteering and commercial job boosts going hand-in-hand with hosting the games, speaking one of them might well be a route to opportunities for local learners.

Ready-made motivation for the classroom

For local language teachers, the chance for games tie-ins are unmissable. What better motivator can there be for languages than the chance to use them practically on the street?

What’s more, international games also offer rich pickings for fun lesson topics. Much like the Eurovision Song Contest, they are great for topics like countries, numbers, like/dislike phrases, descriptions and more.

I’ve used an Excel spreadsheet to create sweepstake-style cards to play classroom games with country names, for example. You can easily spool cards from Excel in a mail merge. Here is a sample list I have used (in CSV format). Although this one is based on the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest final, it is useful for other events, and – of course – extendable!

Beyond Birmingham

There are plenty of events to work into your learning or teaching beyond Birmingham, of course. While local pride make Brum a special highlight for me, forthcoming extravaganzas include:

  • 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang (the official site is available in Chinese, French, Korean and Japanese)
  • 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia (the official site is a bit of a goldmine for linguists, with French, German, Spanish, Arabic and Russian versions!)
  • UEFA Euro 2020
  • 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (the official site is also in French as well as English and Japanese)

Plenty of resources for languages-sport crossovers there – have fun mining them!

Exploring language family tree connections can be one of the most useful polyglot learning tools

Polyglot perfect recall: connecting your languages with Wiktionary

One of the nicest things about the polyglot journey is the interconnectedness you see along the way. And finding connections is a brilliant way to make words stick. Sometimes, those connections are staring you right in the face, like the German Flasche (bottle), a relative of the English word flask. But more often than not, it’s the less obvious connections that can be the most rewarding (and memorable).

Polyglot pants

Sometimes, you see connections in the most unlikely of places. Take Lowland Scots and Romanian, for example. Both Indo-European, but pretty far removed from each other. I happen to hear a lot of Scottish English, being based in Edinburgh. So when I came across the Romanian verb îmbrăca (to dress), I thought I spotted something familiar.

That -brăc- part of the word is, in fact, from an old Latin word for ‘trousers’, braca. So in Romanian, you literally ‘trouser yourself’ when you get dressed. Now, with these clues, some will instantly spot the connection. The Scots for ‘trousers’ is breeks, also related to the slightly more archaic breeches in Standard English or britches in Yosemite Sam country. That’s a handy hook between two unlikely language pairs to help remember a word!

Mining for connections

Unless you are a walking etymology dictionary, it can be hard to spot these connections. To this end, it’s much handier to look up new words on the open source dictionary site, Wiktionary. For a community-driven site, it’s absolutely packed with detail, including word origin.

Take the German word Zaun (fence), for example. At first glance, it looks pretty removed from anything familiar in English. However, check out the Wiktionary listing; it turns out that the word is a relative of the English town. With a bit of historical imagination, you can think up reasons why the meanings have slightly diverged. The town, or settlement, is an enclosed living space; the fence is a means for enclosing a space.

Word hangover

Languages derived from the same proto-family, like Indo-European, are bound to display these similarities. But often, you can find them in neighbouring languages from totally different trees, too.

If you’re learning Finnish and Russian, for example, you’ll find a few crossover words to help you. One of my favourites is the word kohmelo, meaning ‘hangover’. Check Wiktionary, and you’ll see that it’s a borrowing from the Russian похме́лье, meaning the very same. However, as a bonus, Wiktionary informs you that the Finnish word was further changed by ‘contamination’ with the word kohme, meaning numbness. So that’s three words you’ve learnt for the price of one, thanks to some canny connection-spotting!

Cultivate a bird’s eye view of language

If you travel back far enough, you’ll find all sorts of links between your languages. It’s one more reason why studying several languages at once can be a help, and not a burden. The polyglot approach is a fantastic way to get a bird’s eye view of language relationships and development; in my experience that has provided a great scaffold for making those words stick.

Which are your favourite word connections between languages?
Share them in the comments!

An ambulance attending an emergency; driver speaking in the window

Speaking tips from the emergency room

There’s no doubt about it: speaking can be hard, especially when you’re beginning in a foreign language.

You have all the usual mental juggling of remembering vocabulary and grammar. But on top of that, there’s the social pressure of performing live. In the heat of the moment, it’s too easy to panic and gibber. Neither of those will help you make yourself understood!

Now imagine that performance pressure, but in a matter of life or death. How would you, as a beginner in a foreign language, cope with making an emergency services call abroad?

This is exactly the kind of situation that research linguists Jennifer Gerwing and Jan Svennevig have aimed to unpick in their research. Much of their work has involved exploring real-life exchanges between native and second-language speakers in healthcare settings. But it is a piece of experimental research, recently presented at a conference exploring second language use, which really stirs the linguistic imagination.

Playing dummy

The experiment paired seventeen native English speakers with seventeen speakers of English as a foreign language. The first-language English speakers played the part of operators; their counterparts played callers. Those callers were to imagine that a friend (actually a resuscitation dummy!) had fallen unconscious. As a result, they would be making a call to emergency services. The operators were to instruct the callers in placing the dummy in the recovery position. The catch? They would be speaking entirely in English. What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, outcomes varied greatly, from great success to darkly comic dummy disaster. But the experimental scenario allowed the researchers to identify, compare and evaluate speakers’ strategies for making themselves understood. Specifically, Svennevig mentions three speaking strategies for helping to get your point across. The emergency call scenario may be specific, but all language learners can gain some insights from these three approaches.

simply speaking

Operators got their point across more clearly when they avoided complicated, technical or low-frequency vocabulary. They’re also the kind of words you’re less likely to know as a learner – the ones that frustrate you so much when you search for them and they’re simply not there. Don’t get frustrated – look for a simpler word instead.

Generalising what you mean to say can help: don’t know the word for ‘bungalow’? Say ‘small house’ instead. Forgotten the word for ‘fork’? What about ‘thing for eating’? Language hacker extraordinaire, Benny Lewis, takes this to the ultimate level with his ‘Tarzan speak’ method for making yourself understood as a beginner!

Break it down

We tend to speak in long, meandering sentences in our own language. We use connecting words, relative clauses, and all manner of other complex means to make our speaking fancy. This is counter-productive when ease of communication is the name of the game. Subsequently, operators found that breaking complicated instructions down into chunks helped callers no end.

You can harness the power of this as a learner, too. Resist that urge to try and translate word-for-word what is in your head. Instead, break it down! Don’t try to construct ‘I need the key to room 224 so I can go and fetch my bag’. It’s much easier to slow down and make that ‘I need the key. Number 224. My bag is in the room’.

Reformulate

This is the linguistic equivalent of covering your bases. If it doesn’t work the first time, say it in another way. Each time, you’re increasing the likelihood that you’ll be understood.

Saying things in a different way can add context and reduce misunderstandings. Why stop at “I’d like a glass of water?” Try “I’d like a glass of water. I’m thirsty. I need to drink”. That way, if you mispronounce or mangle one of those sentences, there are two others that the listener can use to grab your meaning. This is much better than the hopeless tourist technique of saying it once, then saying it louder!

Combo points

All three of these rules will aid communication on their own. In combination, though, the effects are cumulative. The magic of Svennelig and Gerwing’s experiment is that the researchers could actually measure these effects. For instance, operators using none of these strategies failed to get their instructions across at all. Those using just one had a 20% success rate. With two, comprehension levels reached 40% or so. But with all three, operators reached up to 60% efficiency in making themselves understood, despite quite basic language skills from the caller.

As a learner, you will find yourself in the role of caller, rather than the operator. But these three simple techniques still make a handy set of rules for not tying yourself in knots as a beginner speaker, whatever the scenario.

Statin’ the bleedin’ obvious?

Reading these three strategies, many will say that it’s just common sense. Isn’t it obvious that you’ll be better understood if you speak more simply? However, these techniques might not come as naturally as you think. After all, a whole experimental study showed that not everybody employs them automatically all the time.

As a language learner myself, I know how that performance pressure can overwhelm you. Situations take us over; we get swept away on a tide of speaking anxiety. Our beginner brains need some training in the subtle art of simplification.

So next time you feel at a loss for words, remember the emergency room – it may just save your (language) life.

This study was recently the subject of the excellent Norwegian radio programme Språkteigen, which deals with all things language-related. Thanks to Språkteigen for bringing the study, and the linguists behind it, onto my radar. The programme and podcast are highly recommended if you understand Norwegian!