Fireworks at New Year - a great time for Language Learning resolutions!

Resolutions and reasons to be cheerful : a language learning retrospective

There is something motivationally magical about the turn of the New Year. That arbitrary line in the sand humans draw to mark the start of a new round-the-sun tour seems a better time than any to wipe the slate clean. Out with the bad habits, in with the new – and that goes as much for language learning as anything else.

However, when making resolutions, it is just as important to look back and acknowledge our successes over the past twelve months. It is too easy to say I will do better and to downplay what you already did so well.

Bearing that in mind, here are my reasons to be cheerful, which shape my language learning hopes for the next circuit round the solar system.

A place to call home

We all have places where we feel comfortable. That counts as much for our online learning spaces as hearth and home.

In 2018, I’ve continue to feather my nest on Anki. Few tools are as versatile as this behemoth of the language learning arsenal.

But this year, I started to extend my Anki home. I have made increasing use of the mass sentences site tatoeba.org, mining it for useful sentences to fill my decks. Finding a source of sentence-level material to supplement my single-item vocab approach has been one of the most effective changes to my learning routine in 2018.

2018 was also the year that I cosied up to the fireplace of Duolingo, like I owned the place. Its random practice feature alone has provided valuable structure and variety to my daily routine, and kept me coming back for more. The foundation of my Polish is much stronger for it, and continues to solidify.

There is a reason Duolingo regularly tops educational app charts across platforms; its gamification of learning really draws you in, if you let it.

Finally, offering a language home at home has remained the healthy domain of Netflix this year. The entertainment outfit continually churns out a wealth of compelling viewing in multiple languages. That is pure gold to the language learner looking to achieve that unifying spark between learning goals and personal interest.

Recent personal gems have been the gripping alternative history series 1983 from Poland, and, unexpectedly, French film Je ne suis pas un homme facile (recommended to me by a non-linguist, and serving as some brilliant French revision). I even unearthed some subtitled Polish comedy, which has been a fun way to experience some really earthy language!

Which platforms have you felt at home with over the past year?

Filling the shelves

You can’t beat a good book. And so it can be with language learning too, especially if you hit upon a structure course or guide that really works.

I must admit to becoming a bit of a fanboy to the Teach Yourself Tutor series over the past few months. They provide a much-needed update to the traditional grammar workbook format. Even more exciting: they are available in a range of languages that will delight polyglots.

The Polish version has been a great helping hand this year. But as someone perennially fascinated by how any language works, I have even acquired a couple for languages I don’t (yet!) study, like Turkish. Here’s hoping to more of the same – in new languages – from Teach Yourself in 2019.

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Planning to learn

Using Evernote to plan my language learning is second nature after a couple of years with the note-taking app. I preach the simplicity and utility of it to a fault, as it has been a massively valuable organisational tool.

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record: Evernote can be transformative as a habit-building framework for learners. I expect it to continue as one of my most diligent electronic workhorses in 2019!

Language learning on the move

As with many linguists, language learning and travel have always been inextricably linked for me. That pairing took me on some enriching, educational adventures this year, a trend I hope to carry over well beyond the next January 1st.

A highlight of 2018 was, of course, the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana this October. In so many ways, it was a serious shot in the arm for my language learning. Above all, that raw feeling of community works wonders for your confidence, and is an amazing antidote to impostor syndrome. The 2019 meet takes place in Fukuoka, Japan; I hope very much to attend.

Otherwise, I continue to support my language learning (and thirst for adventure) with mini breaks abroad. As lavish as that sounds, it is quite possible to do short trips on a small budget. Germany has hosted me several times over the year, as I work on maintaining my strongest foreign language. I trust that the adventures will continue into 2019 (as I keep a cautious eye on the end of March, hoping that travel remains as friction-free as possible, given my very British circumstances!).

Blogging

Last, but not least, we come to this very blog. I started Polyglossic.com over two years ago, intending it to be a place to explore ideas and share experience around language learning. Writing my weekly Polyglossic posts has been a wonderful way to crystallise nascent thoughts, and develop a more unified philosophy to underpin my own learning. If others have found these ideas useful, that is hugely rewarding.

Regular posting has also drawn me into online dialogue through social platforms, and I continue to learn heaps from fellow language nuts. Over the past year, the online community has continued to show me the positive power of social media. That’s a great lesson in an age when we hear more often about the negative impact of the online world. There are some truly lovely people out there.

On that note, colossal thanks to everyone who has joined me on my Polyglossic journey again this year. I hope we’ll keep walking that road together in 2019.

What were your language learning highs of 2018? What are your hopes for the new year?

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!