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.

We feel enthusiasm for chocolate, but it's not healthy to gorge on it!

Rationing enthusiasm for more effective language learning

Some things can be moreish. Chocolate, for example. You might think you can’t get enough of it. Your enthusiasm for the sweet stuff takes over, you race through your stash of secret supplies, and before you know it, you’re feeling bleugh. Those four Mars Bars and the family size Galaxy have done you no good.

Likewise, if you enjoy learning languages, extreme enthusiasm can be a hindrance. That sounds like a terrible thing to say – enthusiasm for learning is truly wonderful, of course. But, at the sharp end, it can be too much of a good thing.

When I’m on a learning kick, and the enthusiasm bug bites, I speed up. I want to devour words, rules, facts, figures.

And often, that means I rush ahead and skip the basics.

Dangerous enthusiasm

Now, I could pick any number of languages I’ve tried learning in the past to illustrate this. For example, the Icelandic language truly fascinates me. Historically a pretty conservative language, it’s as close to Old Norse as a modern foreign language gets. And as Norwegian learner too, there are tons of common points of interest between the two. It’s just incredibly interesting.

I spent a good year thrashing away at it some time ago. I did reasonably well, too, learning lots of grammar in particular (I am a total grammar boffin). However, I never really gained any colloquial fluency.

The reason for that is the chocolate problem. I found the language enthralling, and developed a real taste for it. But that meant I raced ahead, guzzling up the interesting stuff long before I should have. That’s a great recipe for learning without practical application.

I became the kind of linguist who could explain and conjugate complex verb paradigms in Icelandic, but couldn’t tell the time, count or say hello. Oops. Not so handy in Reykjavík.

DeFEating my nemesis

Because of this, Icelandic was always a bit of a ‘nemesis’ language for me. Every time, it would entice me a little too much, and I’d gorge on it to the point of saturation. Every time, it beat me, leaving me bursting with grammar, but with little practical application.

But I like a challenge, and if anything, Icelandic is the perfect vehicle to exercise a new, restrained enthusiasm. I picture myself down but not out, bellowing “you shall not beat me!” at it from the boxing ring floor. To that end, I’ve returned to the language recently, and thanks to a really good teacher on iTalki, am systematically filling in the gaps in the basics. We’re using a set of beginner’s resources that are available for free: Íslenska fyrir alla (Icelandic for everyone), and, for a change, I’m sticking to the plan.

Pig out – but not too often!

So, to return to chocolate (what a great idea), taking it bite by bite is advised. Little, but often. It doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes pig out – but don’t let it ruin your diet!

Colourful balloons

Children’s books for linguists: creative ways into languages

Being a linguaphile and a bibliophile often go hand in hand. I love languages and I love books. Both of these passions go straight to the heart of what it means to get creative with words. Certainly, tapping into creativity (often to the point of being bizarre and fantastical) has helped me to get ahead in languages. And there are few more creative resources in any language than children’s books!

There are some obvious benefits to using children’s books as language learning resources. The language in them will be accessible as a beginner, for one thing. Structure, vocabulary and topic will generally be very straightforward. What’s more, the subject matter can be familiar and predictable, especially in the case of children’s fiction; this is a gift to the active language learner, who likes to make educated guesses at new words rather than look everything up.

Culturally embedded bedtime reading

Native works can be a great introduction to the cultural background of your target language. For instance, children’s stories and fairytales often proceed from a long history of folk storytelling. In some cases, these date back to an ancient oral tradition. The highly popularised work of the Brothers Grimm, for example, draws together hundreds of tales from the collective consciousness of their time. The morals and aphorisms contained within them are echoed in popular culture to this day, being constantly recycled in modern media.

Their themes will be familiar to many non-native speakers, too, thanks to the ancient pedigree of many of the stories. One of my favourite children’s books in a foreign language is this huge tome of Norwegian eventyr. Many of these fairytales seem very familiar to anyone who was brought up with the Grimm’s traditional brand of fairytale, and it is easy to imagine the Proto-Germanic tribes – probably ancestors amongst them – telling versions of these long before they were written down.

Norwegian Fairytales

Norwegian Fairytales

Non-fiction

The place of children’s books in your language learning goes beyond storytelling, too. Reference material in the target language can be a brain-stretching replacement for easier, less challenging tools like Google Translate or a bilingual dictionary. A favourite of mine is this illustrated Icelandic dictionary for children. It is much more rewarding to look up an unfamiliar word here. It may use a little more brain-power, but it adds some valuable target language exposure to your reading.

The Icelandic Children's Dictionary - children's books for reference can be excellent resources

The Icelandic Children’s Dictionary

Children’s books in translation

Children’s books translated from another language might put the cultural purist right off. After all, what is authentic about that? But there are huge benefits for the learner of a foreign language here, especially if you know the original work well.

The Harry Potter books have been my guilty pleasure for some years. I know the stories so well, that tackling them in any new language is a lot easier than facing completely unknown territory. It was actually in German that I read them first, having stubbornly held back from the popular wave of Pottermania. I picked up the third installment, Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, from a station bookshop near Cologne. I was one of the teachers on a school trip, and the excitable chattering of the kids about heroic Harry finally piqued my curiosity.

Years later, and I’ve read Harry Potter books in several languages now, including Norwegian, Russian and Spanish. Each time, they have been an amazing boost to my overall language competence. It is also quite a fancy party piece to recite spells in a number of tongues. Thanks for that, J.K.Rowling!

You can start with much simpler stories than Harry Potter. For example, here are a couple of Icelandic primary readers that I picked up in Keflavík Airport. They are, in fact, translations of anglophone children’s books, so the stories may well be familiar to many learners. (They are also brilliant for learning the names of animals!)

Icelandic Primary Readers

Icelandic Primary Readers

So there is a peek into some of the – perhaps – more surprising items on my otherwise very grown-up language learning bookshelf. There is no shame in reverting to your childhood reading habits when learning a language. And, being generally quite affordable, books for little ‘uns will spare your pennies, too. Here’s to reliving our childhoods through languages!

A duck on a riverbank

Papping your horn at Greek ducks

I’m sitting here imagining a duck in the middle of a big Greek road, as we drive ever closer towards it in our hire car. “It’s not moving!” I shout, panicked. “Quick! Pap ya horn and scare it out of the way!”

No, I haven’t gone mad, and it isn’t some strange nightmare. It’s an example of keyword vocabulary learning, popularised from the 1980s onwards by Michael Gruneberg and his Linkword system. It’s the reason I haven’t forgotten the Greek word for duck – πάπια (papya) – since I learnt it from one of his books in the late 90s.

The idea is simple. You find a word or phrase in your native language, which sounds similar to the foreign vocabulary item you’re learning. You then build a vivid mental scenario, including both the native and the target language word, like my duck example above, and spend some moments visualising it to create a strong association. If you use it for several languages, you might like to add a ‘cultural marker’ too, like setting the scene on a Greek road in my example – it helps to avoid polyglot confusion!

Do be daft

A good rule of thumb is the sillier the better, and this is for quite sound psychological reasons; memory researchers refer to salience as the degree to which certain information stands out in the mind, facilitating learning, and daft yarns like “pap ya horn at the duck in the road” fit the bill (pun intended) quite nicely. For a bit of added razzmatazz, you could try sketching out some of your funnier scenes, too, either digitally or the old-fashioned way. Anything goes to make them more memorable!

I’ve personally had a lot of personal success at vocab learning using this method (maybe because I have a slightly madcap imagination – it helps). What’s more, I’ve recommended it to family and friend, many of whom place themselves in the “but I’m no good at languages!” camp, and they’ve been impressed at how well it helps them remember, too.

Nonetheless, the technique hasn’t gained universal acceptance, and is certainly not particularly visible in formalised language teaching, such as the modern foreign language classroom. This is despite some promising results in studies such as this one from a UK school in 2002, which found that student progressed more quickly than expected when using Linkword courses as part of their language studies. In fact, Gruneberg and others have sometimes felt it necessary to defend the approach, for example, in this article from the Language Learning Journal (Aug 2007). From being quite common sights on bookshop shelves some years ago, you won’t find the original books on sale any more (although a range of apps is available on the website), making the approach a bit of a forgotten gem.

One tool amongst many

The issue is, as with all language learning techniques, that it’s not a complete system, but rather another useful tool in the array that you’ll need to learn a language. Brilliant at building stuck-fast vocabulary memories, there are a couple of obvious drawbacks:

  • It doesn’t lend itself well to grammar learning (although you can use it to learn some sentence-building items, such as conjugated verbs like ‘is’, for example)
  • It depends on finding good sound analogues in the native language to work – for instance, can you think of a good English keyword to build into a story for the Polish word zwycięstwo (victory)?

Nonetheless, I’m still convinced that this is a great way to build a modest vocabulary when you begin a new foreign language, supplementing the rest of your learning. Those memories I formed back in the late 90s are still holding fast!

Combine moves to power up!

What I like to do is combine it with our firm favourite flashcard software, Anki, for a double whammy. You can add a custom field to your language note types – I like to add a ‘Hint’ field, which will contain a brief ‘silly story’ to help me remember the word. You can then make this field visible in your test cards, so you get a reminder of the association every time it pops up:

Anki screenshot showing custom fields in a user-defined note type

Anki screenshot showing custom fields in a user-defined note type

Anki screenshot showing a test card with a custom field added

Anki screenshot showing a test card with a custom field added

There’s a decent YouTube tutorial on doing the above at this link. You can also see more about how and why I style my Anki cards in this earlier post.

So, if you’ve not come across keyword vocab learning techniques before, give them a go; they may just be the hook that you need to remember your first few hundred words in a new language. And a bit of silliness is always welcome!

The Globe

Tips from a language junkie

I admit it – I’m a language junkie. I’m perennially curious, always looking for something new to learn. New languages are pretty, shiny objects and I’m a restless polyglot magpie.

Not surprisingly, a question I’m asked a lot is “Don’t you get mixed up learning all those languages?”. It’s an understandable question, to which I’d reply, first off: have faith in your brain! It’s more adept than you realise at keeping things separated. Children brought up bilingually manage it neatly, so why shouldn’t your mature, adult brain?

There are a number of things you can do to help keep things compartmentalised, though. For instance, users of Anki might want to take advantage of custom cards, so you can colour-code those belonging to your different languages. There’s a good beginners’ guide on doing this on YouTube at this link. Here are a couple of mine; the key is to make your different language cards as distinctive as possible (I like to use flags):

A customised Icelandic card in Anki

A customised Norwegian card in Anki

If you prefer to keep your lists the offline way, you might think about colour-coding your vocab notes by language, too.

Secondly, there are several reasons why learning more than one language can be more effective and beneficial than just learning one.

I try to pick just one language within a major group to focus on (for instance, Norwegian from North Germanic, and Spanish from the Italic languages). That’s not to preclude others from that group completely – it’s just that the main focus language will become the ‘anchor’ for that group. Instead of learning Icelandic (another North Germanic language) from scratch, for example, I’ll relate it to Norwegian as my base language.

Take the Norwegian word dør (door), for example – in Icelandic, this is dyr. Contrasting and comparing cognates like this gives you a real feel for the language group as a whole. This way, you can build up an instinct for the regular patterns of change and difference between languages, which deepens your understanding of each one.

Be a bluffer!

What’s more, learning patterns like this can give you some productive rules for ‘guessing’ or ‘bluffing’ in other languages. To take Spanish as an example, with a little learning you can learn how to ‘Portuguesify’ your Castilian, and fake enough Portuguese to get by in simple situations. You’ll spot that Spanish initial ll-, for instance, is often ch- in Portuguese, so you can guess that llegar (to arrive) in Spanish is chegar in Portuguese. You might also see that Spanish diphthongises a vowel (sticks two or more vowel sounds together) where Portuguese doesn’t, so huevo (egg) in Spanish is ovo in Portuguese. It doesn’t always work, but pattern-spotting is definitely a good way to get a working version of a new language up and running, based on something you already know.

Cross-reference your vocab

I also like to use my stronger languages to check for gaps in my nascent ones. If I learn a new word in, say, Norwegian, I’ll check whether I know that word in my other languages too. My OCD streak dictates that I hate gaps and imbalances in my knowledge, but it’s not hard to look up the missing words and make a note of them (in Anki, in my case). At the simplest level, you could do this in a vocab notebook or Excel spreadsheet:

English German Spanish Norwegian Polish
dog der Hund el perro en hund pies
cat die Katze el gato en katt kot

It’s also a great way to start spotting similarities and relationships between the languages you’re learning.

The underlying message of this post is: you don’t have to settle for just one foreign language if you have the time and motivation! Have faith that your mind is more than equipped to deal with multiple tracks, and enjoy the extra benefits that learning more than one can give you.