Notebook for note-taking

Conversation turbo-boosting with speaking bingo sheets

I’ve been having something of an iTalki renaissance lately. iTalki, if you haven’t come across it already, is a website that connects language learners with teachers all over the world for online lessons. There are few easier ways to get some face-to-face tuition from a native speaker. And it is perfect for getting some conversation practice in.

Conversation is king

If you’re working on languages beyond entry / A1 level, general conversation is an important part of any lesson. For me, the best kind of iTalki lesson is one split between general chat in the target language, and structured learning. The latter can be organised through a grammar or textbook agreed with the tutor. But conversation is vital, being a safe space to practise the end goal of language learning: real-world communication. However, it’s daunting, and one of the biggest leaps of faith (in your own ability) to make.

Although lesson prices can be very reasonable on iTalki, they do mount up. But, somehow, I felt wasn’t getting the best value out of my lessons. It was nothing to do with the actual teaching. Rather, it felt like I was lacking a bit of dynamism on my part. And it was all to do with those conversations.

This is getting awkward…

I’d arrive in the Skype chat like a blank slate, ready to be instructed; a passive but eager student. But an hour is a lot of time to fill, one-to-one. Often, gaps would open up. Teacher and student would both be stumped for what to say next.

A bit of panic would sometimes fill these gaps, as I’d mentally grasp about, frantically thinking of something to say. A counter-productive instinct kicks in; the need to say something interesting, along with the realisation that the vocabulary for it is simply not there yet. In my floundering, something pops into my head in the target language, but I realise I already said it two minutes ago. I think of something else, but it won’t come out intelligibly as I lack the vocab or structures for it. Agh!

This kind of thing, if you’ve experienced it, can be really disruptive. It can trigger that spiral of confidence-eroding self-doubt, too. I hope I’m not a boring student… Am I really good enough to be trying to converse in X/Y/Z? The teacher must be reconsidering my actual level right now…

Just wanna be loved

First things first: it doesn’t mean you’re a bad linguist. Wanting to converse interestingly and fluently is a perfectly normal goal as a human being. It is connected to our basic need to be liked – which, when it all gets too much, can tip into neurosis. Psychology Karen Horney, for example, theorises it as one of the ten ‘neurotic needs’ that can be problematic when they get out of control.

We’ve all experienced it in our day-to-day conversations in our native languages – awkward pauses and strange silences with people we want to impress.

But I needed to stop this from making my lessons less effective. I needed a crutch. What I needed was a crib sheet of vocab and phrases to use in my classes.

Speaking bingo sheets

Now, crib sheets on themselves can be rather dull. To spruce up the concept, I decided to add an element of gamification.

First, I sketch out the words and phrases I want to focus on this week in conversation. They could be items that I’ve come across in my reading, or listening to podcasts. They might also consist of vocabulary I’ve looked up to describe things I’ve been up to that week, or topical items from the news.

Then, crucially, I’ll put a tick box next to each of them. 

During the lesson, I have my speaking bingo sheet in front of me. As I converse with the teacher, I make an active effort to use my words and phrases, and tick them off as I do. Obviously, conversation is organic, and I won’t have chance to use them all. But the unused ones can go onto the next lesson’s sheet, and the process continues.

A speaking bingo sheet for supporting conversation lessons

A speaking bingo sheet for supporting conversation lessons

 

Don’t overscript it

Speaking bingo sheets shouldn’t be rigid, like a script. The aim is to support more natural speech through a set of cues. For instance, you might note down a central theme – I used ‘Remembrance Day’ in a recent Polish example (above) – and spider off some related words like ‘war’, ‘army’, ‘parade’ and so on.

In terms of phrases and language patterns, a frame or scaffold approach works best. This kind of technique is very popular for literacy in schools, but it works a treat for speaking lessons too. One example might be to have the phrases ‘I went to…’, or ‘I am going to…’ ready on your sheet to use several times with different vocab slotted in.

I also find it useful in the early stages to have a list of general opinion phrases that you can slot in anywhere. Just simple reactions like ‘great’, ‘terrible’ and so on. Also, ‘I (don’t) agree’ is a good conversation keeper-upper!

Why it works

We reinforce linguistic memories through usage, and through positive and negative associations that give them salience. To capitalise on that, you should fill your bingo sheets with favourite turns of phrase and interesting vocab you really want to ‘stick’. It sounds trivial, but if I feel proud of myself for working in a lovely, colloquial phrase like mér finnst það gott! (I like it!) into an Icelandic lesson, I’ve reinforced that vocab item with a positive emotional association.

Give them a go!

Speaking bingo sheets have really helped me to get the most out of my iTalki lessons. It’s part of being a well-prepared student (and a well-prepared teacher certainly deserves that!). Now, if I don’t use them for whatever reason, I really notice a difference.

Give them a go – and enjoy the flow!

A dictionary won't always help you learn words in their natural habitat: the sentence.

Sentence building: Go beyond words with Tatoeba

Learning and assimilating vocabulary in a foreign language isn’t simply a case of learning lists of words: context matters. Just like a careful zoologist observing animals in the wild, it’s important to study words in their natural habitat: the sentence.

Conversely, a lot of reference material for language learners fails to provide this context. If you’re looking for single words in your foreign language, there are myriad look-up tools available. Unfortunately, only a few take steps to set the word in situ; Google Translate, for example, is surprisingly better than many online dictionaries at providing context. If you type in a single word, many entries come with a list of translations and a useful list of cross-referenced, related terms too. Arguably a lot more useful to language learners than the actual machine translation feature!

Google Translate is great for single word look-ups, too!

Google Translate is great for single word look-ups.

However, there is little else online in terms of whole-sentence reference, Apart from “basic phrases in…” pages. Indexed, systematic lists of example sentences, complete with translation support, are harder to find.

Habeas corpus (linguisticus)

One open-source resource, though, is changing that. Tatoeba – from the Japanese ‘for example’ – is a vast, and rapidly growing, corpus of thousands of sentences in scores of languages. Moreover, it’s expanding continually through user contributions. And you, as a native speaker of your own language (even if it’s English!), can help expand it further.

With many of the entries including native-speaker audio, it is a fantastic (and still quite untapped) resource for language learners. It’s full of colloquialisms, handy turns of phrase, and authentic language use. There are many ways you can work it into your own learning; here are just a few ideas for starters.

Words in context

Learnt a new word, but not sure exactly how native speakers use it? Type that single word into Tatoeba, and if you’re lucky, a whole load of sentences will come up. It’s a fantastic way to put your new vocab into context, something which definitely helps me to commit new words to memory. If sound is provided, it’s an instant way to practise / improve your pronunciation too, much like the brilliantly useful Forvo website for single words.

Putting your vocab in context with Tatoeba.

Putting your vocab in context with Tatoeba.

Build your own sentence lists

With your free Tatoeba account, you can save your own word lists to store favourite sentences. Simply click the list icon next to a sentence – you’ll quickly start to build quite extensive, custom ‘vocab in context’ learning resources.

There are also collaborative lists, which means you can work together with others. This might be with classmates, or perhaps even a teacher you’re working with remotely on iTalki. Conversely, it’s also an excellent way for teachers to collate and share useful phrase lists as teaching resources.

Combine with Anki

Anki Flashcards is a firm favourite of many linguaphiles for drilling vocab. You can combine it with Tatoeba by exporting your lists from that site as CSV files, then importing them directly into the Anki program. For now, the Tatoeba export will only extract the text, and no associated sound files. But if you’re willing to fiddle, here’s a short guide on including available sound files in your Tatoeba-Anki port.

If you’re a polyglottal sucker for punishment, you can even export the lists with a translation other than your native language, in order to practise two languages at once. See the screenshot below for a rather scary Norwegian-Greek export setup – I’m sure you can think up even more testing pairings!

Changing the language pairing in a Tatoeba export.

Changing the language pairing in a Tatoeba export.

Find ready-made Tatoeba Anki decks

If all the to-and-fro of exporting puts you off, then don’t despair – some Tatoeba decks have already been imported to Anki as shared desks. Check here for a list of them (several including sound files).

Contribute

Finally, the best way to grow the resource is to become part of it. You can add, correct, record and otherwise extend Tatoeba as a member. If you’ve found it useful, it’s an excellent way to give back.

Tatoeba is one more tool in the linguaphile’s online arsenal, and can be worked into a learning routine in many ways. Feel free to share your own experiences and tips in the comments below!