Tapping into your interests can reignite the language spark

Tap your interests to reignite your language fire

Some language learning tips are so fundamental, that we come across them again and again. And my own recent experience reminded me of one the most transformative and powerful: personal interests are the greatest motivator.

For the past few months, I’ve been slogging away at Icelandic. For the most part, I’ve used quite traditional textbooks to learn from. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this; in fact, I love formal grammar (I’m weird like that), and I learn a lot that way.

But in terms of speaking, I’d reached something of an impasse. It had all started to feel a bit one-note – solid, but not exciting.

That was, until Söngvakeppnin.

Söngvakeppnin is Iceland’s annual televised contest to select an entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. Now, I loved Eurovision for as long as I can remember, and I’ve often used it in language learning and teaching as a fun source of target language. And it turned out that a bit of it was just what I needed to reignite my Icelandic fire.

Fire and ice

Now, new learning had a focus. Articles started to pop up about the contest on Icelandic broadcaster website ruv.is and news outlet mbl.is. The songs – all in Icelandic – suddenly appeared on Spotify. And, most excitingly, I found out that I could watch the selection programmes live via the Icelandic broadcaster’s official streaming service, Sarpurinn.

Even though the language level was high, I wanted to consume all the information I came across. I’d translate articles carefully to get all the latest contest gossip. I’d listen to interviews and listen more intently than ever to get all the details of what was being said. In learning terms, I was on fire. Much like an Icelandic volcano.

All at once, I had a captivating way into Icelandic language and culture. And specifically, thanks to a very patient (or masochistic?) teacher on iTalki, to talk about. Preparing for a conversational lesson on something you find intensely interesting is no longer homework, or a tedious slog – it’s a huge amount of fun. It’s hard work without the slog!

Gaining from your interests

The results were clear. I could chat endlessly on the topic. It wasn’t passive chat, either – I was asking questions and was eager to hear the answers. I was totally switched on to using the language practically and purposefully.

It wasn’t that I was suddenly an expert at speaking Icelandic – I know that I was still making plenty of errors. But this time, I was stumbling less when I hit them; they held me back just a little less. I was speaking less self-consciously, and I felt like I was flying in the language.

Isn’t that what fluency is about? Communicating in a flowing manner, if not necessarily perfectly in every grammatical respect?

Go beyond your textbooks

People feel compelled to follow formal language courses when starting out. But never forget to seek out what interests you, even if you are just beginning in a language. If it interests you enough, you will find a way to understand it – and you will learn. Find what you love, and give it the target language treatment!

Finally, take heed from the sentiment of this, my favourite song from this year’s Söngvakeppnin, and aldrei gefast upp – never give up!

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.

Coloured Pencils

Five sure-fire ways to warm up for language lessons

To get the most from any lesson, a good warm up always helps. That goes as much for one-to-one iTalki sessions, as it does for classroom learning. Prime your brain correctly, and it will be in just the right place to process new information.

For iTalki students, the stakes are even higher for getting the most from your lessons this month. The language learning site is holding its language challenge throughout February, encouraging students to go the extra mile with tuition hours. The leaderboard is alight with eager students, some boasting a mind-boggling number of lessons taken in these first few days.

If it demonstrates one thing, it’s that there are plenty of linguists that have the language bug even worse than I do. But all those extra lessons mean money invested in learning. And that makes it even more important to get the most from your investment.

So that our learning hours aren’t wasted, here are five very easily overlooked ways to warm up before a lesson.

1. Podcast listening

Even if you don’t understand 100%, filling your sound space with the target language is a good way to prime your subconscious for speaking it. If you’re busy, you don’t even have to focus fully; just have podcasts playing aloud for 30-60 minutes before the lesson, and you can tune in and out.

German has a good word for what this achieves: einhören, or the process of ‘listening into’ a language, or getting used to it. It’s an almost effortless way to get ready for your language lesson.

2. Anki flashcards

Just before your lesson is a great time to recycle and revise previous vocabulary. If Anki is a part of your language learning regime, you will probably have a bank of vocabulary cards at your disposal. If not, you can download it for free from this link. There are also lots of shared decks you can start with if you don’t have your own vocabulary bank ready yet.

But the principle goes for all your other vocabulary, too. If you keep written vocab records, leaf through them and test yourself before you start. The same goes for any other language app you regularly use; doing a little Duolingo or Memrise right before your lesson can work wonders. It’s an excellent way to give your memory a gentle shake, and bring to the top relevant material for your lesson.

3. What have you done today…

…to make you feel proud? And the rest. Beyond the most basic level of language learning (ie., A1 in the European Framework), it’s likely you’ll have some general conversation at the start of a session. Don’t let questions about your day / week catch you out – be prepared to have something to say.

It need only take a few minutes. Start by writing some brief bullet points on the main events of the week, in the target language if possible. Briefly look up key words you don’t know. It will save you a lot of umms and aahs in the lesson.

4. Warm up to Music

Songs – particularly pop songs – are great warm up tools for a number of reasons. Firstly, they have repeated refrains, which means that you can quickly pick them up and sing along. And that warms up not only the brain, but your mouth muscles. Different languages have distinctive patterns of physical speech production, and singing along will literally get your mouth in gear.

Also, like podcasts, they surround you in a blanket of target language. You can enjoy them in the background in a few minutes before your lesson, while they quietly prime the mind for listening.

Not only that, but they’re usually very short – the three-minute pop song is an industry benchmark – so you can listen to as few or as many as you have time for.

5. Relax

One of the easiest things to forget is simply to chill. It’s normal to feel a little nervous before one-to-one lessons, especially if you’re Skyping with a stranger for a first lesson.

Sit down comfortably, have a glass of water ready and enjoy a few deep breaths before starting. Let go of the tension and be open to learning – a stressed brain is not an efficient one.

Warm up to language lesson success

Some of these are common sense tips to warm up the language learner’s brain. But all of them fall into the category of ‘easily overlooked’. It’s far too easy to say that you haven’t enough time to do them before a lesson on a busy day. But they mostly take just minutes, or can even occur in the background while you do other things.

Work some of these into your routine, and go into your lesson with a primed, ready brain.

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!

Notebook for note-taking

Note-taking: boost your language learning with old-school style

Technology has transformed the day-to-day business of the language learner. Note-taking is now a matter of a few clicks and taps. Always on, vast storage, and the ability to index and edit – modern devices, apps and browser widgets take the hassle out of collating and reviewing vocabulary .

But there’s almost something too easy about turning to electronics every time. Try as I might, I can’t quite shake off my old-school habits of pen and paper. There’s something about physically writing down notes that helps my brain to process them. It gives them salience, lifting them from the mundaneness of tapping some lines into a phone or computer. Here are a few tips for boosting your own language learning process with a bit of old-fashioned writing.

The workhorse: Pukka Pads

You have to start somewhere, and usually, that’s with the roughest sketches and scribbles. I find it helpful, for instance, to make pre-lesson notes on things I want to talk about with my teachers.

For rough drafts and ideas, you can’t beat an A4 Pukka Pad. The 3-pack is particularly good value on Amazon.co.uk at the moment, and with 200 pages each, they should last a fair while.

When I’m preparing for a lesson or session, I’ll take a whole page of A4 to sketch out ideas and new vocab I want to practise. A4 is the perfect size to create speaking bingo sheets, too.

Embracing Pukka for note-taking doesn’t have to mean turning against technology, either. After my notes are done, I like to use a document scanner app to store them electronically. Scanner Pro for iOS is my favourite, and Adobe Scan is a good alternative for Android. This way, I also have access to my written notes any time, any place.

Old-school pride in your work

After the initial work, there is an important extra step: transferring to ‘best’. Admittedly, this is a hangover from my school days. Several of my teachers would give us kids a rough and a best exercise book for the school year. We’d do our note-taking and practice work in the former, then neatly write up our final work in the latter.

It might seem like meaningless escritorial vanity at first, but there’s a logic to this finickity madness. Writing up to best adds an element of selection and organisation that mimics the brain’s indexing of memories according to salience, or importance. It adds an extra stage of processing, giving weight to the bits we really value and want to keep.

The Monarch of note-taking: Moleskine

To boost that sense of salience, it’s a good idea to go all-out on your best notes. And there are few more appropriate vessels for these than a beautiful, classic Moleskine. They come in all shapes and sizes, but the slightly-larger-than-A5, standard Moleskine is my favourite. If, like me, you love your stationery, Moleskines are a real treat.

Premium-bound with an elasticated bookmark, the Moleskine notebook is a rewarding place to record your work. I like to organise mine by topic / language function pages. These range from individual language topics like ‘health’, ‘animals’ and so on, to pages for structures like ‘conversation fillers’ and ‘discussion / debate phrases’. If you want it to make it extra special, get yourself a nice fountain pen to fill it up.

Perfecting your process

So, in summary, this is our old-school, optimised note-taking process, with a bit of new-school thrown in:

  1. Pre-lesson and prep notes on a page of an A4 Pukka Pad
  2. Scan notes using a document scanner app like Scanner Pro
  3. Transferring notes and vocabulary to best in a beautiful Moleskine

It’s a simple approach, but it adds another useful level of cogitation and brain-processing to your language work. Keep that vocab churning – and enjoy that lovely, premium stationery while you’re at it!

Poppy Field - it's hard to find the confidence to stand out in a field full of blossoming blooms!

Am I Good Enough? Maintaining confidence in an Internet age 👊🏻

Confidence is key to speaking and using languages. But in an age of Internet superheroes to measure up to, it can be hard to keep it.

The Internet has been a godsend for language learners. Not only are millions of resources within easy reach, but there is community. Suddenly, the countless others who share the passion are visible. If you grew up thinking you wondering if there was anyone like you, then the Internet finally answered that question. The downside: measuring yourself up against your fellow linguists can affect your confidence. We go from being special and unique to just one of many, and that, frankly, can feel rubbish.

How many times have you thought: wow, s/he’s brilliant – no way am I that good!

Everyday experts

We live in an age of everyday experts. People with skills can now share those skills with anyone through a blog or a website. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is a marvellous thing. Everybody can help everybody else, and all you need to have a voice, and reach out, is an Internet connection.

However, it is easy to forget that there’s an element of the marketplace operating on the web: there is competition. In the tussle win clicks, likes, and kudos, individuals feel compelled to go bigger, bolder, brighter. Consequently, writers amplify positive claims and overstate promises of greatness.

The result? We have an online language community fixated on notions of ‘fast fluency’, and language heroes with almost superhuman abilities to absorb new tongues. The issue is not just with language learning; quiet confidence-knocking goes on wherever the Internet brings people together around a set of skills. Online trainer Brad Hussey lays it bare for web creatives in this passionate post.

Fortunately, there has been some honest push-back against the fluency myth recently, such as in this helpful article by Alex Rawlings. (I see the irony of linking to an article by a polyglot hero in an article re-humanising Internet heroes!) But it’s still too easy to feel in the shadow of others in a very noisy online world.

Our idealised selves

To understand how this positive feedback loop comes about, step back and think of online personalities not as actual people, but as constructs of people. The Facebook or Twitter profile is not a true and faithful copy of the person in cyberspace. Instead, it is a construct of an identity in the 2D space of the Internet.

Naturally, those identities are overwhelmingly positive ones; we build them from what we like best about ourselves. Twitter and Facebook profiles are showcases for selves, idealised projections. As such, the Internet is one vast exercise in impression management. Erving Goffman – the sociologist who originally conceptualised this notion – would, no doubt, have had a field day with social media.

But the crux of this is simple: take everything you read online with a little pinch of salt.

Am I good enough? Finding confidence

Behind these idealised profiles are ordinary, everyday people – just like you. They share the same basic needs, desires and anxieties. You are as capable of their feats as they are of your perceived failures – only you cannot see the failures, as these rarely make it onto social media.

That’s why it’s important to start talking about the frustrations and failures in language learning just as much as the wild successes. Discussion needs to paint a realistic, rather than a fantastical, picture of what the linguaphile journey is like. It’s hugely rewarding, amazing fun and exhilarating – but it’s not perfect. What journey is? And would a perfect journey be as much fun?

So, care for your confidence. Learn to chill with your languages. But believe it: you are good enough.

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!

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!

Digital scrapbooking can be a wonderful way to link your language learning to real-world memories

Scrapbooking, linguaphile style

As a linguist, I love travel. I love that act of putting myself out in the world. I love immersing myself in the unfamiliar. And I love interacting with everyday objects from other cultures and systems, the ephemera that are mundane to their native users but exotic and exciting to me. Tram tickets, event flyers, receipts from wonderful restaurant experiences – they are all physical objects soaked in language and tethered to the culture they belong to. As cultural symbols, they appeal to the collector in us. But there’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding clutter. That’s where digital scrapbooking can be a great strategy for the travelling linguist.

Digital scrapbooking

Maybe it’s something I notice more as I get older, but the drag of stuff on my life seems more and more noticeable these days. Perhaps it’s because we live in a system where stuff is getting cheaper and easier to amass. But over the past few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to declutter and cut away the dead wood.

Sadly, that includes the boxes and files of bits and pieces gathered over years of travel. Museum entrance cards, train reservations, old magazines in German, Spanish and so on… Somehow I’d held on to all this clutter, considered it precious, yet never glanced at it once since bringing it back. Aside from the nostalgia stirred by dredging it out of the cupboard to chuck, it was almost entirely unnecessary.

Ticket for the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Ticket for the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

There’s another way modern life can help us, though. In an age of high-quality camera phones and vast (often free) cloud storage, it’s no problem to digitise these physical language links and discard the original. We can also organise them using myriad free tools, too. (Of course, we now face the brand new problem of digital clutter – but that’s a topic for another post, another day!)

Scrapbooking tools

Note-taking applications seem ideally suited to digital language scrapbooking. All of them allow the creation of documents / notes, to which you can add text and multiple images. Simply snap your tickets / leaflets / receipts instead of keeping them. Many of them also have more advanced formatting features for laying out your memory pages.

As well as keeping your memorabilia together, you can use them as travel diaries and learning logs, too. I like to record notes of conversations I’ve had, or new vocabulary I’ve come across. Juxtaposed with visual material, they become more meaningful and vivid as language memories.

All of the tools below are cross-platform, so you can enjoy them whatever the make of your phone / tablet / computer.

Evernote

Evernote is the justified king of note-taking apps. Notes have rich text formatting, and you can add not only pictures, but sound to your pages! Imagine using that to record clips of your conversations with native speakers…

However, there are some caveats. The basic version of Evernote is free. Unfortunately, this limits use to a maximum of two devices – not handy if you want it on a phone, tablet and computer.

Additionally, the basic tier allows only very limited upload traffic a month Evernote – just 60mb. If you’re adding lots of pictures to your notes, then that will run out extremely quickly. To work within the limits, make sure your pictures are tiny / compressed first – but even then, you’ll probably want to upgrade sooner or later.

Microsoft OneNote

OneNote is a completely free offering from Microsoft, with great integration into its Office services. One of the nicest things about this app is its reflection of real-world notebooks; you can create separate ‘books’ with multiple sections and pages. Ideal for repeat trips, or a trip with multiple destinations. You can also choose authentic-looking paper backgrounds for your pages, too. Great if you want the look and feel of physical scrapbooking!

Scrapbooking a trip with Microsoft OneNote

Scrapbooking a trip with Microsoft OneNote

Google Keep

Google Keep is a minimalist’s dream. Totally free, its simplicity stands in stark contrast to the two apps above. There are fewer formatting and organising options, but that makes for a click-and-go process that is hard to beat on ease of use.

As well as apps, Google Keep is available via the browser at https://keep.google.com/.

Trip scrapbooking with Google Keep

Trip scrapbooking with Google Keep

Language travel scrapbooking is a great way to stem the build-up of holiday detritus; it’s also a superb way to track memories and keep a learning journal all in one. And the best thing: it’s free to give it a go, thanks to the apps above!

Are there other apps you can recommend? Feel free to share you own tips in the comments!