Real-life language can be unpredictable, like this tangle of colourful liquorice sweeties!

Preparing for the unpredictable – developing flexible language thinking

We’ve all been there. You’ve learnt the tenses. Have the vocab down pat. You have a head full of model questions and answers. You are totally ready for to be unleashed onto the target language streets. But – agh – what was that answer that came back at you? What was that word again, and why can’t you remember it now? And why is this so much harder than when you were learning it? Conversation so often doesn’t stick to the script, and we can be totally thrown by the responses to your perfectly practised communication attempts. Real life is just so darn unpredictable!

Well, rest assured that it isn’t just you. There is a psychological phenomenon dubbed ‘context reinstatement’ that explains just what on Earth is going on. It’s a fancy name for something many of us intuitively know anyway – that being perfect in a learn-and-drill situation does not prepare you for the unpredictability of real life.

Underwater understanding

Classic memory research by Godden and Baddeley shows how we find retrieval easier when the context is the same as the original learning environment. The psychologist duo split their subjects into two groups. One group learnt a list of 40 words underwater, and the other group learnt them on the beach. Then, they tested each participant’s recall of the words in either the same, or the alternative environment.

The result? On average, subjects remembered 40% more when tested in the same environment that learning took place in.

The lesson from this is not – disappointingly – that we should all buy scuba gear and go and learn languages in the water. Rather, we can assume that vocabulary and structures will be easier to recall in a classroom if they were first learnt in a classroom. The familiar surroundings contain lots of cues, networked to those original memories, that help them bubble up to the surface. This explains why you may perform brilliantly in a vocab test in class, but struggle to find a word in a shop or restaurant in your target language country.

Context – a blessing and a curse

Superficially, the effect of context on recall can sometimes be a useful tool. If you want to improve recall, then you can attempt to recreate the environment where you first learnt the material. Taking a French/German/Spanish exam? Then take in some familiar objects, like your favourite pencil case or pen. Maybe sit in the same desk for class tests, or even wear the same clothes. There really is some psycho-science behind having ‘lucky’ clothes in this case!

The trouble with extending these techniques is the impracticality, or often, sheer impossibility of them in real life. In reality, we have very little control over scenarios where we want to speak a foreign language! Language happens anywhere and everywhere – by its nature, it is unpredictable.

Training for the unpredictable

So, how can you prepare yourself for, literally, anything that could happen in a target language situation? First off, nobody will be able to do that. That is half the fun and excitement of speaking foreign languages – it’s a rollercoaster ride of social surprises. But you can increase your chances of coping well with that. The trick is to promote flexible, rather than fixed thinking in your learning routines.

Vary your study settings

There is a common study tip based on busting the context-dependency of Godden and Baddeley’s experiment. It is, quite simply, to vary the environment that you learn in. In theory, this prevents specific language memories from becoming too attached to elements that won’t be present in the field.

You can extend this idea of  ‘environment’ to the whole ecosystem you use to learn – the apps, websites and materials that you form your learning materials. Find yourself exclusively using Duolingo to practise languages? Then give Anki a try, and build some custom vocabulary lists. Only using fixed listening material from language courses? Then maybe it’s time to try some podcasts. Take the predictability out of your learning, and you may increase your ability to cope with it in the real world.

Fluid notes

It’s also worth addressing how you keep your phrase lists, crib notes and vocab records, too. A rigid, fixed, linear structure to memorising dialogues, for example, leaves little room for digression in actual conversations. A static list of ten words that you learn in order will, likewise, not really promote flexible use in the day-to-day.

Instead, think about creating frameworks for your vocabulary instead. Rather than complete sentences, learn structures that you can fit many different words into, depending on the situation. I should have…I’ve already … and so on – frames you can grab and fill in your head on the go.

Recycling material in different ways is key here, too. Maybe learning discrete lists of ten words is an effective memorisation technique for you. Stick with that if so, but introduce some variety to the way you practise them. Run through the words in a different order – maybe using a flashcard app like Anki – and challenge yourself to make different, even whacky, sentences with them each time you revise. Mix it up – make sure that no learning session is the same.

Speaking is supreme

Finally, books and static materials will never suffice for training for the unpredictable. Even the immersive, language-in-situ nature of podcasts won’t mimic the two-way dynamic of real-life conversation.

For that end, the old adage always applies: speaking is supreme in language learning. I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of iTalki for face-to-face language practise. I’ve been finding lots of extra time for regular Skype lessons, simply to chat with a real person. It can be hard, and it’s natural to feel an aversion to difficult things and hide from them. But if you stick at it, you’ll reap the confidence rewards of coping better and better with natural language.

Embrace the unpredictable

Human beings are creatures of habit, and love routine. That’s why these techniques might sometimes feel so hard to adopt, even though they seem like common sense. It can be disconcerting to mix up your learning approaches ceaselessly, or throw yourself into environments where you are tested on the spot. But in the long run, you’ll thank yourself for it. Embrace change and variety, and become a more dynamic linguist for it!

A man lying on the grass - a great anxiety buster!

Just chill! Anxiety busting tips for practical language use

French was never my forte.

Still, I recently had the opportunity to use my French again after years of neglect. I’ve long jibed about my French being rubbish, basic and broken. Doing my French down has become a running joke in my life. Despite hitting an A grade in GCSE French at 16, I’ve done little to keep it going since. In fact, some of the only occasions I’ve used it have been to speak what I call ‘comedy French’ in the office. That’s 25 years of francophobia!

Still, a language is a language, and I was happy to dig out the French on a recent trip. I didn’t expect miracles, and was pretty lazy about polishing up my skills before travelling. You could say that I didn’t really care much about being ‘good’; the bit I had was enough. Zero expectations, zero anxiety.

Language magic… When you least expect it

Surprisingly, a bit of magic happened on that little trip. Somehow, despite my insistence that my French was ‘rubbish’, I was communicating. I was asking questions and understanding the answers. And after mulling over some explanations for that, I’ve learnt some important things about practical foreign language use.

The crux of it is this: I went about the everyday speaking French and not caring about being perfect. Not pressuring myself to be grammatically flawless, not demanding native-level, colloquial phrases from myself. I knew what I knew, and I would make it work for me, regardless of the gaps. I was even making up phrases that would turn out to be correct later on, like ‘en ce cas‘ (in this case).

Performance anxiety

Now in my strongest foreign language, German, I never experience that kind of friction-free movement. I have a degree in German; I’m supposed to be great at it, darn it! So, as a result, I place a huge pressure on myself to be perfect. It’s nearly always an impossible challenge at the best of times, and not surprising that it leads to language anxiety. I’ll beat myself up over even the silliest mistakes and trip-ups.

Not only that, but it dawned on me that I’ve been taking my German far too seriously over the years. Just compare: in German, I regularly listen to heavyweight news podcasts. In French, on the other hand, I have fun in the office saying silly things to make my colleagues laugh. Which one seems like a better way to build a positive experience in a foreign language by stealth?

Just chill!

Now the answer here is not to disengage from serious study or stop caring about a language. However, there is something in this French lesson that can benefit our ‘proper’ languages. You can boil it down to two rules:

  1. Don’t worry about mistakes – just communicate.
  2. Have fun with it!

Common sense, perhaps; oft-repeated, definitely. But extremely easy to forget when a language means a lot to you. Let this post be a reminder to me of that – and, I hope, a signpost for others to ward them off that anxious path!

Edinburgh Castle is a stunning backdrop to the Edinburgh Fringe each August

Edinburgh Fringe for Language Lovers: Shows for Linguists!

Edinburgh Fringe has filled the streets of Scotland’s capital for another colourful August. There are literally thousands of shows available to see. The sheer number of them means that there is bound to be something of interest to everyone. And that includes linguists!

After trawling through the masses on offer, here are some promising-sounding events for students / teachers / fans of languages. Inevitably, it’s the ‘mainstream’ languages of French, German and Spanish that crop up most. But amongst them, there are shows that will appeal to non-speakers, too. And that’s a great excuse to take along a friend or two to spread the language love!

French

The festival can’t get enough of Piaf this year. There are at least five cabaret shows featuring chansons from the renowned songstress! They include:

If you prefer your music folksy, then a set from Les Poules à Coulin looks like a good bet. For dance / physical theatre with a French slant, check out “La Maladie de la Mort d’Après Marguerite Duras”. Check the website, though, as some performances may be in English translation.

Something that really captures the imagination is a bilingual puppetry and storytelling event in French. “The Wonderful World of Lapin” looks like a particularly cute way to introduce the little ones to a bit of français. Most likely, quite a few big ‘uns would also find it magical!

German

German is a little under-represented compared to French (keine Überraschung, sadly!). However, there are a couple of interesting listings that might be worth a punt.

Absurdist theatre your bag? Well, there’s a show for you, performed in German with some English explanations. “Leere Zeit – Idle Time” is on at theSpace on the Mile, a venue that promises a global aspect to its line-up.

For some more classical, musical entertainment, you can enjoy Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos in the church setting of Broughton St Mary’s.

Spanish

As ubiquitous as Piaf is for French, you can’t seem to get away from Flamenco at this year’s Fringe. There are three shows that feature the quintessential Spanish musical / dance style:

The poetry of Lorca takes centre stage at “Frost and Lorca”. The event features artwork by Sir Terry Frost, inspired by the Spanish writer; the presentation is in Spanish and English, so should be suitable for non-hispanist friends!

And for a proper melting pot of storytelling, try “Mimi’s Suitcase”, which blends English, Spanish and Persian to explore themes of identity and displacement.

Even the good old Edinburgh Ghost Tour gets the Spanish treatment this year. “Tour de fantasmas en español” sounds like a fun way to get a stock Edinburgh tourist tick and practise español at the same time!

Russian

Although it’s chiefly English-language comedy, Abi Robert’s show Anglichanka (Englishwoman) is worth a mention. Abi spent considerable time in Russia, and weaves her many tall tales into a wonderfully hilarious hour of laughter. I caught her performing a similar show at my very first Edinburgh Fringe (quite) some years ago, and it’s great to see her back at the festival with more of that hugely funny format!

Culture (without the language)

As well as the above shows, there are hundreds more without a specific language hook, but of cultural interest to linguaphiles. Russia is under the spotlight in several satirical / topical shows, for example.

Less controversially, Russian classical music is on the programme at a number of concerts. Scottish Sinfonia’s line-up sounds like quite a treat. Likewise, you can learn about imagined lives in Russia at theatre events like “The Girl Who Loved Stalin”.

If the aim is to steep yourself in the culture of Russia (or many other target language cultures), then there is a wealth of choice.

Edinburgh Fringe: take a punt

I’ve always found that the best way to enjoy the Fringe is to take a risk. With shows priced so reasonably, you can easily try something you wouldn’t normally see. Thought you hated Piaf? Give her a chance at one of the several shows on offer. Irritated by flamenco? Then give the Scottish twist on it a chance! Personally, the German absurdist theatre tempts the risk-taker in me. It could be worth a shot! And if not, then at least it gets me out of the house for an hour or two…

Have you managed to catch any of the shows above? Are there any others that you’d recommend? Please share in the comments below!

Avoiding English can be hard in a very anglocentric world

The English trap: avoiding your native language abroad

It’s too easy to be lazy in an anglocentric world. It happens to the best language learners in the world: you come out with your best Deutsch / français / español on your trip, only to get the reply in English. GRR! – for a moment – before we give in to the easy option.

I’ve found that the trick to beating this is a bit of Bond-style subterfuge. This is one area of life where dishonesty can be the best policy, as you try to obliterate all traces of your original linguistic identity. Specifically, you need to eliminate any native-English intonation from your speech.

Easier said than done, admittedly. There are some quite large targets to hit, though, and here are some of the easiest to de-anglifying yourself on your language trip!

Down with diphthongs

In most varieties of English, vowel sounds clump together and are rarely pure. Just think of the word ‘too’. That ‘oo’ isn’t a straightforward, single sound, but for speakers of most varieties of English, contains at least two stages – the ‘oo’ followed by a glide down to what is almost a ‘w’ sound at the end. These kinds of multisound syllables are called diphthongs, and are very characteristic of English.

By contrast, languages like Spanish and Italian have much purer vowel sounds. Spanish  (you), for example, sounds much more clipped and singular than the homophone too.

So, when trying to disguise your English accent, be aware of your natural tendency to diphthongise. Keep your pronunciation clipped and terse, if that helps.

Have a back story

Sometimes, out-and-out fibbing is the only way. Be ready with a “sorry, I don’t speak English” to force the speaker to use the target language. Have a back story, if that helps – why don’t you speak English? Where are you actually from, if not from the UK / USA / Australia etc.? (Make sure it’s unlikely the speaker won’t also know the language of that country, else it could get pretty embarrassing.)

It’s an untruth, but see it as a little white lie that  might grab you some more language practice opportunity. And it might also prompt the speaker to switch back to a more careful, clear form of the target language to use with you (you poor non-English-speaker!).

English penalties

Can’t beat the temptation to switch? Then turn target language speaking into a game. Keep a tally of the times you give in and lapse into English each day. Go a step further and devise a list of penalties for hitting X/Y/Z digressions. Nothing too self-punishing, please – maybe buying dinner for your travel buddies or relinquishing control of the travel itinerary for a day. Keep it positive!

If all else fails – be honest

We’re not all cut out (or bothered) to be masters of disguise. You can always take the heart-on-your-sleeve option: simply explain why you don’t want to use English. You can prepare this in advance of your trip – just a few phrases will suffice, such as:

  • I’m learning X
  • I need to practise my X
  • Can we speak X?

Most of the time, you’ll also elicit some sympathy and a smile or two from the speaker, too. And who knows? You might even make friends.

You’ve paid a lot of hard-earnt cash for your chance to go abroad and speak. Protect that investment, by hook or by crook!

 

Travel with the bare essentials

Travel and the ‘Stuff Monster’ : Lessons from the road

Travel has always gone hand-in-hand with a love of languages for me. As a kid, I realised how languages were a key to opening up huge swathes of a fascinating world, a world I wanted to explore. And, sure enough, I grew up into something of a travel addict and extreme commuter.

But travel isn’t just about wonderful life experiences, but also a huge learning opportunity. The lessons at hand touch on a couple of fundamental aspects of humanity: freedom and footprint. Here, I look at some of my favourite lessons learnt from travel.

The less, the merrier

Modern, Western lives are stuff-heavy. Our lives are full of things. And we’re often not content with just one of something – we like choice. Multiple pairs of shoes, the same shirt in three different colours, a rack of coats to suit every mood. It sounds great, until you realise how closely a surfeit of stuff – clutter – and depression are interlinked.

As soon as you start to travel, though, it becomes apparent how unburdening it is to break that link. I’ve long abandoned taking a suitcase on a journey – that just encourages you to cram a load of unnecessary choices – and weight – that you won’t end up using anyway. Lugging your life about like that only creates stress.

Instead, it’s become a bit of a game to see how lightly I can pack. I challenge myself to take ever-smaller backpacks with me on trips. I work out the minimum I can get away with. The challenge is not only fun, but it leaves you incredibly streamlined – how ace is it to simply jump off the plane / train / coach with your lightweight bag and nothing to slow you down?

Neat ‘n’ tidy

Stuff eats space. If we feed the stuff monster, it hogs more and more of life’s real estate. And it’s true what they say: a messy place more often than not leads to a messy mind.

It’s the same with travel, especially if you’re moving between multiple destinations. With too much stuff, there’s a lot to think about when you pack up to move on. Did I pack this? Have I picked up everything from the room?  Keeping your stuff to a compact minimum helps enormously with stuff-stress. Keep yourself tidy and be ready to move on at the drop of a hat!

Waste not, want not

The world doesn’t want your stuff, either, or at least the detritus from it. So use up what you have before throwing it away. And if possible, stick to refillable containers.  These squidgies from GoToob are brilliant for minimising packaging waste, and saving money on those rather poor value mini-sized toiletries! Frugality can save the world and spare your pocket.

Travel, Respect and learn

Wherever we go, we’re guests. And the very least you can do to be a thankful guest is to learn a few words of the language. Whether you’re a linguist or not, some local vocab invariably wins smiles and opens doors if you’re in a foreign country.

There’s no excuse not to learn the absolute bare minimum, which would be:

  • Hello
  • Thank you
  • Goodbye

Head to Google Translate and find them out before you go!

Put your phone away

Technology is wonderful. But like stuff, it’s also a monster, and needs taming. Dogged by notifications, I find that Airplane Mode can be my very best travel buddy. Disconnecting from the ‘net can relieve some of the ‘always on’ stress, and get you focussed on what’s around you in the physical world. But at the same time, it’s the perfect strategy for making your battery last longer between fizzle-outs.

Granted, phones are often our cameras these days. But even then, do you need scores of photos from each location? After finding how infrequently I look at them afterwards, I set myself a max limit of just a couple of photos per sight / special location when I travel. It means you’re messing less often with your phone, taking in more of the experience with your own eyes and brain, and thinking a bit more carefully about the very best shot to get when you do reach for the camera. Hopefully, the shots that come out of that will be really special.

At the crux of all these lessons is materialism and freedom. Humans love stuff, physical or digital. But travel teaches you that masses and masses of it bog you down. Downsize, minimalise and economise – and travel through life that bit more aerodynamically!

Study material for a course

Course books for linguists: save cash with revision guides

When you commit to learning a foreign language, it’s not unusual for a first step to be seeking out good course material. There are plenty of very well established courses, the best including audio material. The staple Teach Yourself series, for example, was always my favourite place to start when starting out on a new language project.

Unfortunately, it can be an expensive business. Course books, audio CDs, dictionaries, grammar reference guides – it all adds up. Fortunately, there’s a cheaper alternative if you’re after simple beginner materials. And they come with some unique advantages over traditional courses, too!

The wallet-saving secret:
Revision guides intended for first-level language exams at high schools.

It was through writing reviews for several revision guides in recent years that I realised how useful the could be beyond their target audience. For a start, they’re comprehensive; the best guides from publishers like CGP include:

  • Thematically organised vocabulary lists and phrases
  • Grammar reference broken into bite-sized chunks
  • Audio material for listening practice
  • Word glossaries at the back, which double up as handy simple dictionaries

Moreover, they’re cheap. Aimed at schoolkids, they’re meant to be an affordable route to getting the best grades. CGP’s GCSE French (Edexcel) revision guide is just £12.99. For comparison, the full Colloquial French course is £19.99 for the book, and £10 for the CD on Amazon.

Horses for courses

OK, it’s not a completely fair comparison, like for like. A revision guide, by definition, is concise and snappy. It’s meant to remind, not to teach. Conversely, a full course will give you lengthier explanations and more extensive examples.

But sometimes, less can be more. If you want an at-a-glance list of useful words or grammar points, then maybe you don’t want all the extra fluff. Revision guides give you all the content, with very little padding and hand-holding.

What’s more, the CGP guides come with useful extras like online library versions. You might prefer not to lug the physical book everywhere. No problem: just access it via an internet-connected device. You’ll find it much harder, generally, to get the electronic version of a full-blown course as a free addition to the hard copy.

Weighing it up

Here are some key advantages and disadvantages to bear in mind when choosing cheap and cheerful course materials over more ‘grown-up’ stuff:

Revision guides Full courses
Cheaper
Concise but comprehensive
Can include audio material
At-a-glance learning material, no ‘fluff’
Many include online versions at no extra cost these days
Great quick reference
Often fun, colourful publications rather than boring old black-and-white
More extensive examples and explanations
Audio material usually more comprehensive and varied
May include more ‘grown-up’ topics and more relevant examples for mature learners

Going off-course

One final point for consideration is language availability. As schools are the target market, you’ll only find guides for languages commonly taught in schools. As an example, the CGP GCSE guides are available only in French, German and Spanish. Not much luck if you’re after cheap materials in Basque, Finnish or Norwegian.

If you can find a good fit for your language, though, consider revision guides.
Made for kids, great for all beginner linguaphiles!

A clipboard for marking off your routine language learning tasks

Routine-building: productivity tricks to turbocharge your language learning

Good intentions are cheap. A new learning project can fill anyone with enthusiasm and optimism. But without one extra thing, good intentions quickly sink. That thing is routine.

Life has a habit of getting busy, and people get distracted. Days run into weeks, and before you know it, you haven’t done any French / German / Spanish since last month. It happens to the best of us, even those who consider themselves fairly well organised. That’s why creating a scaffold of systematised routine around your learning goals can help keep you on track.

Keeping up momentum

Ideally, you should be setting yourself daily learning goals in order to keep up momentum with your studies. This might sound like a hefty commitment, but needn’t be more than a few minutes a day if you’re fitting learning around a busy life; you’ll benefit from the regularity of it (and not get bored by mammoth learning sessions either).

But it’s sticking to this daily routine that can be problematic. It’s too easy to forget, to get sidetracked, or make promises to catch up that you never honour. Fortunately, there are several great tools for tackling these problems, and none of them need cost a penny.

Never forget: Wunderlist

We’re lucky that today, apps can pick up the slack for our sometimes overtaxed brains. One app that I entrust the job of reminders to is the wonderful Wunderlist.

The magic of to-do apps like Wunderlist is in the facility to set automatically repeating tasks with reminders. For instance, I aim to run through my Anki Flashcard vocabulary every day (it just takes 10 minutes or so). In Wunderlist, I add a to-do for that, setting it to repeat daily, with a reminder in the evening. I set up similar to-dos for my weekly tasks, like listening to a podcast and taking notes, or reading news headlines in the target language.

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Why is Wunderlist better than the plain old to-do app that comes with your phone OS? Well, it can do some very fancy things very well, if you want to stretch your learning. Learning a language with someone else? You can have shared to-do lists, and to-do list folders. Learning several languages? You can have multiple lists, and list folder to help you organise. You can even use it as a basic project manager, assigning subtasks to your more general to-dos (perhaps breaking ‘Learn French Vocabulary’ into ‘5 irregular verbs’, ‘5 phrases from Book X’ and so on).

It’s also cross-device, so you can manage your tasks on any device with an Internet connection. Perfect for when I’ve just done my words on the bus, and want the satisfaction of marking it as ‘done’ immediately!

Moreover, as a sweetener, you can add emoticons like flags to your to-dos quite easily on a device (see my screenshot above). It’s the little things! 😉

Tick-box challenge: Evernote

I’ve mentioned the excellent 12 Week Year plan in a previous post. This productivity method, rooted in the business world, outlines short-term goal-planning techniques as a means to boost efficiency. However, it can work brilliantly for language learners.

The approach uses a weekly list of ‘tactics’ that you need to complete in order to stay on track. Ticking off your daily / weekly tactics as you complete them can give you a real sense of achievement, and you find yourself motivated to keep your completion rate high, and beat your previous form. It turns to-do lists into a kind of personal challenge – learning, instantly gamified!

I find Evernote – available in its basic version for free – is perfect for making these weekly plans. You can add dynamic tick boxes next to your list items in the app, which makes tracking your progress really easy. Like Wunderlist, it’s available on many devices and platforms, too.

To give your learning an Evernote boost, first decide on the things you want to do each week in order to progress. Then add them to a note in the app, including a tick box next to each one. At the end of each week, tot up the percentage of boxes you ticked, and make a note of your score before writing a planning note for the following week. Brian Moran, writer of The 12 Week Year, suggests 85% as a good completion rate to aim for.

Ideas for entries might include:

  1. Add 20 words to Anki Flashcards every week (one tick box)
  2. Drill with Anki Flashcards every day (seven tick boxes)
  3. Read 3 full-length articles in the target language each week (three tick boxes)
  4. Have two half-hour language exchange conversations with a partner (see iTalki for more about finding language exchange partners)
Example of an Evernote productivity list to help create a routine for your language learning

Creating language routines with Evernote

Routine browser links: Chrome

Setting yourself a reading goal is a great challenge for language learners. There is a ton of material published across all sorts of subjects online, and the trick is to find stories that spark your interest.

But how can you keep your list of regular reading organised and accessible? Well, browser bookmarks are a start. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll enthusiastically bookmark a page, never to dig into your bookmark list again (let alone every day, which is my goal).

There is another way to bookmark, though. It’s called the bookmarks bar in Chrome, and many other browsers have a similar feature. Instead of tucking your most visited links away in a menu or folder, it puts them right at the top of the browser window, always visible. If you find a really useful site, you can drag the address from the URL field to the bookmark bar to pin it there.

So how to take advantage of this? I have a couple of news sites that I try to check every day to practise target language reading. All of them are my first bookmarks bar links, so the moment I open the browser, they’re there, reminding me that I need to check them. No forgetting, no hiding, and a bit of guilt if I ignore them. It becomes almost second nature to click them as soon as you fire up the browser – the ultimate habit-former. Magic! You can only fit a few in your bar, so reserve it for those sites you feel you’ll get a daily benefit from.

The Chrome bookmarks bar can be an excellent way to build routine into your language learning

The Chrome bookmarks bar

 

Cross-pollination

Learning a language is a commitment, and commitment takes routine. I’ve come across these routine-building techniques through my work in a business environment, rather than the classroom. But I’ve become a huge fan of cross-pollinating these kinds of productivity hacks with language learning.

The greatest lesson I’ve learnt in this is not to box off your language learning, but let it be informed by, and inform in return, the rest of your life. Creating routine is a great place to start that melding process!

Learn tricks with verbs to get your conversation flying high above the clouds

Verbs made simple: make your conversation fly

English speakers have it easy with verbs. Aside from those pesky irregular ones, you’ve only got -s and -ed to worry about.

That’s why verbs can be the first brick wall anglophones hit when they begin a foreign language. Look at Spanish – every tense has six forms, one for each person (I, you, he/she/it etc.), and all of them are different from the word you’ll find in the dictionary. Look up hablar (to speak) as a total beginner, and it won’t tell you about hablo – hablas – habla – hablamos – habláis – hablan. And that’s just the present tense!

Now, I don’t mean to scare anyone off learning verbs. There’s actually a logical beauty to conjugation systems, especially for dyed-in-the-wool language geeks like me. The patterns might be unfamiliar, but they will come with time and patience.

However, there are a couple of tricks you can use as a total beginner to get your conversation flying, and not struggling to take off in a pea-souper of verb endings.

Cut-price verbs

Tables of verbs will easily overwhelm a beginner. It’s just a massive wall of words if you don’t know the language very well. But ask yourself: how much of that detail do you actually need as a beginner?

Chances are that as a newcomer to a language, your conversations will mainly be talking about yourself (I), or the person you’re speaking to (you). You’ll probably be doing most of that in the present tense (making general statements) or the past (talking about what happened). So why not cut the padding, and just focus on the four combinations of those things? In English, that would look like:

Present Past
I speak spoke
you speak spoke

In many languages, you can ask a question by simply changing the intonation of your voice. So you won’t even have to learn any special question forms. Pick out your simplified verb parts, and add them to your favourite vocab drilling program like Anki like you would with any other word or phrase. Paper flashcards are great for learning these verb parts, too.

But wait…

Ah, you might be thinking. My foreign language has several different past tenses according to what you’re talking about! Spanish, for example, has the preterite for single, completed actions, and the imperfect, for repeated or habitual actions in the past.

Well, just take one of them. If you’re talking about stuff that happened in Spanish, then the preterite (the ‘story-telling’ past) is probably the best. In German, the perfect tense might be best, as it’s used as a ‘conversational past’. Whichever tense you choose, if you use it incorrectly, most native speakers will be forgiving and still understand. And comprehension is the name of the game, right?

So, here’s our ‘essential conjugation’ for the Spanish verb hablar (to speak):

Present Past (Preterite)
yo hablo hablé
hablas hablaste

The same goes for languages with different familiar and polite words for you. Pick just one, for now. Make it the one that makes most sense for you – I used the familiar in the Spanish above. If you’ll be speaking with peers and other students, then probably the familiar one is best. If you’ll be in lots of formal situations, learn the polite one.

To be, or not to be

Of course, you can go one step further, and not learn any endings at all. The trick is to find phrases that you can just slot that dictionary form – the infinitive – into. Then, just look up your word, pop it into your sentence, and voilà! Neatly-formed sentences without any effort.

Taking Spanish and French as an example, here are just a few stock phrases you can use with an infinitive:

Spanish French English
Hay que … Il faut … I/you/we must …
Me gusta … J’aime … I like …
Voy a … Je vais … I’m going to …

Just look up a verb in the dictionary, and wodge it on the end. Simples!

It’s all about making your job as a learner easier. Simplify – you’ll be communicating all the sooner for it!

A calendar page, which you might use to beat procrastination!

Procrastination, begone! The 12 Week Year [Review]

Confession time: I get hopelessly lost in optimistic procrastination. I always think I have time for everything.

That goes for language learning, too. I start with great intentions of doing a bit every day, yet quickly fall behind when everyday life demands my attention too. I’ll forget to do my daily dose of Anki, letting the cards pile up. I won’t read the daily news in my chosen language, like I promised myself. I’ll put off listening to that podcast until I’m already two or three episodes behind. Then I’ll beat myself up for getting so lazy!

Time for some discipline!

Enter The 12 Week Year by Brian Moran. It’s a productivity guide that I took a punt on when I spotted it on Amazon Kindle Deal of the Day, admittedly with some initial scepticism. I love the idea of productivity frameworks for organising my language learning, but most books are a poor fit. They’re generally either too business-oriented, or too complicated to apply to everyday learning.

This one takes quite a fresh approach. You start with your ultimate vision, the end goal you see yourself at in a number of years. For linguists, that might be ‘complete fluency / zero accent in the foreign language’. It could also be something more concrete, like ‘managing without any difficulties in any situation when I’m in Country X etc.’, or ‘passing my Spanish exam with top marks’.

Then, you break it down to an achievable, shorter-term goal. What would a major step towards that end point be? Again, for linguists, it could be ‘going shopping in Country X and using only my target language’. The book then encourages you to break that down into the even shorter term goal windows, namely 12 weeks.

Zap procrastination!

Why 12 weeks? Well, as the book explains, when setting ourselves goals, we often go with the calendar year as our window of action. We will set ourselves resolutions on January 1st, and aim to achieve X, Y or Z by the end of the year. This regularly fails due to vast amount of time we perceive before we need to act. We put off action at the beginning of the year, meaning to catch up towards the end. 12 week windows are much tighter, creating a greater sense of immediacy between ‘now’ and ‘achievement’, and providing an extremely effective vaccine to procrastination.

With that 12 week goal set, you can then start planning your weekly ‘tactics’ to achieve them. These might be one-time, set goals like “Read chapter 2 of Textbook X”. But they can also be general, regular tasks, like “Listen to a podcast in the target language at least once a week”, or “Do your Anki flashcards every day” – the kind of things you should be doing frequently in order to keep your new language blooming.

Keeping score

Now here’s the bit that really works for me: you score yourself weekly! Take all of those tactics, and you turn them into a weekly score. This can simply consist of crossing off list items on a paper plan each week. However, I like to use Evernote for making my lists, as you easily can add tick boxes to keep track. Here’s a sample weekly list from one of my plans:

Evernote tick list

Evernote tick list

At the end of the week, you tot up your score as a percentage, aiming to hit over 85%. This turns execution into a fun thing, a challenge to yourself. You’ll find yourself positively buzzing to tick boxes off early in the week in order to hit the threshold. Executing tasks for score-boosting ticks is surprisingly addictive!

It’s as simple as that. And it works!

The book is full of extra tips and tools for fine-tuning your plan, but the general idea is amazingly simple to implement and work into your life. It turns each day into a bit of a game for me, and I’ve cut my language procrastination right down.

Teachers could adapt these techniques for their students, too. Devise a weekly check-list of all the tasks they should be doing to improve steadily. There’s lots of scope there for adding competitive elements here, and comparing productivity rates at the end of every week. Who knows – they might find it so useful that they apply it elsewhere in their lives.

If you’re in a vocabulary rut, or find yourself falling behind and running out of time with your language goals, The 12 Week Year is worth a shot.