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!