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!

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!