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.

Books on a bookshelf

Bilingual books: tips and tricks for free online reading material 📚

Thanks to a recommendation from another polyglot friend, I’ve been exploring bidirectional translation as a new language learning method lately. It involves working with parallel texts in your target and native languages to strengthen vocabulary and grammar. The only snag: it can be difficult to source books with dual language versions of interesting texts.

Now, Penguin offers a good range of bilingual story books available in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish, but an eager linguist will quickly eat through those and be left wanting.

Blockbuster books – in miniature

However, it is possible to get high quality translations of popular texts in many different languages, completely free. The trick is to use Amazon’s ‘free sample’ feature for Kindle books. This allows you to have the first few pages – sometimes a whole chapter or two – sent to your registered device. Simply browse the Kindle bookshop for foreign language titles of interest, then click ‘Send a Free Sample’ on the product page.

To help root out some titles, you can filter Kindle books by language. You can then filter out the fiction books (here are the French ones, for example), or look for non-fiction books that fit your own interests.

What use is a few pages of a story? Isn’t it frustrating to come to a sudden stop after one or two chapters? Well, it doesn’t have to be. If you choose translations of books you are already familiar with – Harry Potter books are a popular choice – then you already know the stories, and are just enjoying parts of them again in your target language. And, of course, if you really like them, you can purchase the full versions from Kindle later.

Pott(er)y for books

I’m like a broken record on the benefits of translated children’s books – particularly the Harry Potter series – for language learners. But they’re great language learning helpers for so many reasons:

  • the stories are familiar, so you can use gist make educated guesses about new vocabulary
  • the language is not particularly complex, as the intended audience was originally youngsters (particularly the early volumes)
  • the stories are broken up into fairly short chapters – an ideal length for the focus of a lesson or learning session

As a starting point, here are links to the first Harry Potter books on Amazon Kindle, in a range of languages. As an extra bonus, most of these titles can be borrowed in full at no cost if you are a Kindle Unlimited member!

And, of course, you can download the matching excerpt from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in English, so you have a perfect bidirectional pair.

Kindle samples are a goldmine for linguists to root around in. That goes particularly for those seeking texts for bidirectional translation, but more generally for anybody looking for quality, interesting reading material. Have you come across any gems? Share them in the comments!

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!

Marker pens - a cheap immersion tool!

Four immersion tips for FILLING your home with language!

One of the keys for success in language learning is putting your languages everywhere. Wherever you turn, put learning opportunities in your way by filling your life with the target language. There are some well-known tips for doing this in your digital life, like switching the language of your phone or computer.

No place like home (for immersion)

But some of the best tricks are old school, and involve a few simple home hacks. The home is one of the easiest places to put immersion tactics into practice. Here are some of the simplest, and most fun!

Magnetic Poetry

No longer just a kitschy gift, magnetic poetry can now help you learn a language. Now you can get that immersion effect every time you get hungry (yum).

The great thing about these is the potential for sentence building practice. As well as the usual concrete nouns, you’ll find all sorts of function and connective words too. Using these, challenge yourself to create five original fridge sentences a day. Or, if you’re sharing the fridge with a fellow learner, use them to leave messages for each other!

The fridge magnet word blocks are available in:

LED Lightbox

These tinseltown throwbacks are the ultimate in snazzy home text features. They generally have two or three rows for letters, so you can add a couple of words as a centrepiece. Maybe there are a couple of words that just won’t stick, however hard you try? Pop them on the lightbox and put them on show in your living room. Right by the TV is a great place if you don’t want to miss them!

An LED Lightbox

The LED Lightbox – make your target language a fancy home feature!

The one drawback is that they’re generally only available with English alphabet text – that means no diacritics or special characters. However, I haven’t been shopping for one outside the UK, so it’s perfectly possible that foreign character set versions exist. And failing that, you can get creative with a black marker, or make your own letter tiles with some perspex and a stanley knife.

I picked up a great lightbox from The Works in the UK for just £10 (see pic above). Amazon .co.uk have a few options too, including one with a rating of over 4/5 stars. It even includes emojis! 

Dry wipe boards

Even more back-to-basics than the LED lightbox is the dry wipe board. These are pretty ubiquitous in stationery shops; I picked up a mini one for a couple of pounds in The Works. Alternatively, you can get a slightly larger and more robust version from Amazon for under £20.

Either way, they’re excellent, reuseable means to put your vocab / learning material of the week on display in the home. Display them somewhere prominent – perhaps even on the back of the front door, so you see it every time you leave. Go crazy with colours and illustrations like a Tony Buzan mind map – make sure you can’t miss / forget those lists!

Stickers

Stickers are like marmite – linguaphiles will love them or hate them. If you’re a stickler for a pristine home, they’re probably not for you. However, if you don’t mind temporarily defacing your furniture and fittings with sticky labels, then they can be a great technique for recycling everyday vocab and increasing immersion.

You can grab a pack of white labels and make your own for next to nothing. However, I’m a great fan of the “in 10 minutes a day” series of books, as they come with a whole section of ready-made stickers to label your life with language. In fact, the whole approach of this series of books is to make language an integral part of your daily life. They’re made for immersion!

The “in 10 minutes a day” books are available in a range of languages, including:

Frictionless immersion

Immersion should, at least in part, be frictionless; that is, it should offer a good degree of exposure to language without a hugely off-putting degree of effort. The techniques above are largely quick and easy, and tick this ‘little effort’ box.

In fact, the hardest part of them is probably making them regular habits. To this end, try using weekly goals or to-do / reminder apps to keep the cycle going. The habit-forming is worth it: you’ll make your living space a dynamic, ever-changing language learning zone!

A clipboard for marking off your routine language learning tasks

Routine-building: productivity tricks to turbocharge your language learning

Good intentions are cheap. A new learning project can fill anyone with enthusiasm and optimism. But without one extra thing, good intentions quickly sink. That thing is routine.

Life has a habit of getting busy, and people get distracted. Days run into weeks, and before you know it, you haven’t done any French / German / Spanish since last month. It happens to the best of us, even those who consider themselves fairly well organised. That’s why creating a scaffold of systematised routine around your learning goals can help keep you on track.

Keeping up momentum

Ideally, you should be setting yourself daily learning goals in order to keep up momentum with your studies. This might sound like a hefty commitment, but needn’t be more than a few minutes a day if you’re fitting learning around a busy life; you’ll benefit from the regularity of it (and not get bored by mammoth learning sessions either).

But it’s sticking to this daily routine that can be problematic. It’s too easy to forget, to get sidetracked, or make promises to catch up that you never honour. Fortunately, there are several great tools for tackling these problems, and none of them need cost a penny.

Never forget: Wunderlist

We’re lucky that today, apps can pick up the slack for our sometimes overtaxed brains. One app that I entrust the job of reminders to is the wonderful Wunderlist.

The magic of to-do apps like Wunderlist is in the facility to set automatically repeating tasks with reminders. For instance, I aim to run through my Anki Flashcard vocabulary every day (it just takes 10 minutes or so). In Wunderlist, I add a to-do for that, setting it to repeat daily, with a reminder in the evening. I set up similar to-dos for my weekly tasks, like listening to a podcast and taking notes, or reading news headlines in the target language.

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Why is Wunderlist better than the plain old to-do app that comes with your phone OS? Well, it can do some very fancy things very well, if you want to stretch your learning. Learning a language with someone else? You can have shared to-do lists, and to-do list folders. Learning several languages? You can have multiple lists, and list folder to help you organise. You can even use it as a basic project manager, assigning subtasks to your more general to-dos (perhaps breaking ‘Learn French Vocabulary’ into ‘5 irregular verbs’, ‘5 phrases from Book X’ and so on).

It’s also cross-device, so you can manage your tasks on any device with an Internet connection. Perfect for when I’ve just done my words on the bus, and want the satisfaction of marking it as ‘done’ immediately!

Moreover, as a sweetener, you can add emoticons like flags to your to-dos quite easily on a device (see my screenshot above). It’s the little things! 😉

Tick-box challenge: Evernote

I’ve mentioned the excellent 12 Week Year plan in a previous post. This productivity method, rooted in the business world, outlines short-term goal-planning techniques as a means to boost efficiency. However, it can work brilliantly for language learners.

The approach uses a weekly list of ‘tactics’ that you need to complete in order to stay on track. Ticking off your daily / weekly tactics as you complete them can give you a real sense of achievement, and you find yourself motivated to keep your completion rate high, and beat your previous form. It turns to-do lists into a kind of personal challenge – learning, instantly gamified!

I find Evernote – available in its basic version for free – is perfect for making these weekly plans. You can add dynamic tick boxes next to your list items in the app, which makes tracking your progress really easy. Like Wunderlist, it’s available on many devices and platforms, too.

To give your learning an Evernote boost, first decide on the things you want to do each week in order to progress. Then add them to a note in the app, including a tick box next to each one. At the end of each week, tot up the percentage of boxes you ticked, and make a note of your score before writing a planning note for the following week. Brian Moran, writer of The 12 Week Year, suggests 85% as a good completion rate to aim for.

Ideas for entries might include:

  1. Add 20 words to Anki Flashcards every week (one tick box)
  2. Drill with Anki Flashcards every day (seven tick boxes)
  3. Read 3 full-length articles in the target language each week (three tick boxes)
  4. Have two half-hour language exchange conversations with a partner (see iTalki for more about finding language exchange partners)
Example of an Evernote productivity list to help create a routine for your language learning

Creating language routines with Evernote

Routine browser links: Chrome

Setting yourself a reading goal is a great challenge for language learners. There is a ton of material published across all sorts of subjects online, and the trick is to find stories that spark your interest.

But how can you keep your list of regular reading organised and accessible? Well, browser bookmarks are a start. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll enthusiastically bookmark a page, never to dig into your bookmark list again (let alone every day, which is my goal).

There is another way to bookmark, though. It’s called the bookmarks bar in Chrome, and many other browsers have a similar feature. Instead of tucking your most visited links away in a menu or folder, it puts them right at the top of the browser window, always visible. If you find a really useful site, you can drag the address from the URL field to the bookmark bar to pin it there.

So how to take advantage of this? I have a couple of news sites that I try to check every day to practise target language reading. All of them are my first bookmarks bar links, so the moment I open the browser, they’re there, reminding me that I need to check them. No forgetting, no hiding, and a bit of guilt if I ignore them. It becomes almost second nature to click them as soon as you fire up the browser – the ultimate habit-former. Magic! You can only fit a few in your bar, so reserve it for those sites you feel you’ll get a daily benefit from.

The Chrome bookmarks bar can be an excellent way to build routine into your language learning

The Chrome bookmarks bar

 

Cross-pollination

Learning a language is a commitment, and commitment takes routine. I’ve come across these routine-building techniques through my work in a business environment, rather than the classroom. But I’ve become a huge fan of cross-pollinating these kinds of productivity hacks with language learning.

The greatest lesson I’ve learnt in this is not to box off your language learning, but let it be informed by, and inform in return, the rest of your life. Creating routine is a great place to start that melding process!

An ambulance attending an emergency; driver speaking in the window

Speaking tips from the emergency room

There’s no doubt about it: speaking can be hard, especially when you’re beginning in a foreign language.

You have all the usual mental juggling of remembering vocabulary and grammar. But on top of that, there’s the social pressure of performing live. In the heat of the moment, it’s too easy to panic and gibber. Neither of those will help you make yourself understood!

Now imagine that performance pressure, but in a matter of life or death. How would you, as a beginner in a foreign language, cope with making an emergency services call abroad?

This is exactly the kind of situation that research linguists Jennifer Gerwing and Jan Svennevig have aimed to unpick in their research. Much of their work has involved exploring real-life exchanges between native and second-language speakers in healthcare settings. But it is a piece of experimental research, recently presented at a conference exploring second language use, which really stirs the linguistic imagination.

Playing dummy

The experiment paired seventeen native English speakers with seventeen speakers of English as a foreign language. The first-language English speakers played the part of operators; their counterparts played callers. Those callers were to imagine that a friend (actually a resuscitation dummy!) had fallen unconscious. As a result, they would be making a call to emergency services. The operators were to instruct the callers in placing the dummy in the recovery position. The catch? They would be speaking entirely in English. What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, outcomes varied greatly, from great success to darkly comic dummy disaster. But the experimental scenario allowed the researchers to identify, compare and evaluate speakers’ strategies for making themselves understood. Specifically, Svennevig mentions three speaking strategies for helping to get your point across. The emergency call scenario may be specific, but all language learners can gain some insights from these three approaches.

simply speaking

Operators got their point across more clearly when they avoided complicated, technical or low-frequency vocabulary. They’re also the kind of words you’re less likely to know as a learner – the ones that frustrate you so much when you search for them and they’re simply not there. Don’t get frustrated – look for a simpler word instead.

Generalising what you mean to say can help: don’t know the word for ‘bungalow’? Say ‘small house’ instead. Forgotten the word for ‘fork’? What about ‘thing for eating’? Language hacker extraordinaire, Benny Lewis, takes this to the ultimate level with his ‘Tarzan speak’ method for making yourself understood as a beginner!

Break it down

We tend to speak in long, meandering sentences in our own language. We use connecting words, relative clauses, and all manner of other complex means to make our speaking fancy. This is counter-productive when ease of communication is the name of the game. Subsequently, operators found that breaking complicated instructions down into chunks helped callers no end.

You can harness the power of this as a learner, too. Resist that urge to try and translate word-for-word what is in your head. Instead, break it down! Don’t try to construct ‘I need the key to room 224 so I can go and fetch my bag’. It’s much easier to slow down and make that ‘I need the key. Number 224. My bag is in the room’.

Reformulate

This is the linguistic equivalent of covering your bases. If it doesn’t work the first time, say it in another way. Each time, you’re increasing the likelihood that you’ll be understood.

Saying things in a different way can add context and reduce misunderstandings. Why stop at “I’d like a glass of water?” Try “I’d like a glass of water. I’m thirsty. I need to drink”. That way, if you mispronounce or mangle one of those sentences, there are two others that the listener can use to grab your meaning. This is much better than the hopeless tourist technique of saying it once, then saying it louder!

Combo points

All three of these rules will aid communication on their own. In combination, though, the effects are cumulative. The magic of Svennelig and Gerwing’s experiment is that the researchers could actually measure these effects. For instance, operators using none of these strategies failed to get their instructions across at all. Those using just one had a 20% success rate. With two, comprehension levels reached 40% or so. But with all three, operators reached up to 60% efficiency in making themselves understood, despite quite basic language skills from the caller.

As a learner, you will find yourself in the role of caller, rather than the operator. But these three simple techniques still make a handy set of rules for not tying yourself in knots as a beginner speaker, whatever the scenario.

Statin’ the bleedin’ obvious?

Reading these three strategies, many will say that it’s just common sense. Isn’t it obvious that you’ll be better understood if you speak more simply? However, these techniques might not come as naturally as you think. After all, a whole experimental study showed that not everybody employs them automatically all the time.

As a language learner myself, I know how that performance pressure can overwhelm you. Situations take us over; we get swept away on a tide of speaking anxiety. Our beginner brains need some training in the subtle art of simplification.

So next time you feel at a loss for words, remember the emergency room – it may just save your (language) life.

This study was recently the subject of the excellent Norwegian radio programme Språkteigen, which deals with all things language-related. Thanks to Språkteigen for bringing the study, and the linguists behind it, onto my radar. The programme and podcast are highly recommended if you understand Norwegian!

An open dictionary.

Vocabulary building: frequency hacks for faster fluency

It’s not surprising that foreign languages can seem overwhelming to new learners. Vocabulary is the memory monster of language learning, scaring beginners away. Foreign language dictionaries are beasts of books. Even beginners’ word lists and glossaries in textbooks can top 1000 words!

There are ways to tackle vocabulary systematically. Books like the excellent Mot à mot (French), Wort für Wort (German) and Palabra por palabra (Spanish) can be great road maps to a language. They present a broad range of words and phrases for more advanced learners, arranged by topics like family and education. Even humble phrase books, like the Lonely Planet range, can prove a handy (and cheap) tool for basic, thematic vocabulary.

Generally speaking…

Guides like these bring some order to the chaos of words in the dictionary. However, they are predominantly situation-specific. They equip you to talk quite narrowly within set parameters, like ‘at the doctor’, or ‘ordering in a restaurant’. Surely, the goal of true fluency should be the ability to communicate generally and more freely. You might learn how to ask for headache tablets in a Japanese pharmacy, for example. Or you could request a shirt in a different colour in a Swedish department store. But is this limiting your ability to communicate?

Vocabulary with vigour

Fortunately, there’s a completely different approach to learning vocabulary. It’s an efficient hack, cutting out slack, and It’s also totally free. It involves applying the principle of word frequency to your vocab drilling. Did you know, for example, that the 100 most frequent words in English account for around 50% of the language you’re likely to come across in the language?

In that top hundred most common words, you’ll find lots of function words like the articles ‘the’ and ‘a’, but also content words such as ‘thing’, ‘look’ and ‘day’. The same goes for other languages, and you can leverage this fact to ensure that the stuff you’re learning is the stuff you’ll come across more often than anything else. Stretch the limit to the 1000 most common words, and you’ll cover 75% of what you hear and read.

Finding your frequency

The first step is to find a frequency list for words in your foreign language. There are some superb commercial lists available, like this Spanish frequency dictionary from Routledge. But thanks to online collaborative and Open Source projects, a lot of material is available for free too.

The first place to look is Wiktionary’s catalogue of links to frequency lists. It’s quite exhaustive; you’ll find links to the big, mainstream languages, as well as smaller ones like Estonian and Lithuanian. There aren’t many commercial resources for learners of these less common language choices; frequency lists like these can be a real boost to your learning material.

It’s also worth checking out the blog site of Neri Rook. This prolific linguist has published a series of eBooks for free, including several extensive frequency lists. Some of these are accompanied by example sentences, putting the vocabulary into context. It’s a remarkable set of resources to make freely available, and worth making the most of!

Ready, set, go!

When you have your list, there are plenty of ways to start learning it. At the simplest level, paper flashcards are easily made from index / revision cards. Simply write the target language on one side, and the translation on the other, and test away. In the classroom, you could extend this to wall art featuring the most common words in the target language. Alternatively, you could use one of many online quiz tools, like Quizlet, to create interactive games with them.

However, I’m a big fan of the desktop and mobile software Anki for creating electronic flashcards for self-testing. You could take the top hundred and key them all into Anki yourself. But one of the joys of the software is the treasure of publicly shared card decks available. Many of them even have native speaker sound files included. Chances are, someone has already created that electronic card deck for you! Just search on the word frequency and see what comes up (screenshot below).

Shared frequency vocabulary lists on Anki

Shared frequency vocabulary list decks on Anki

Take advantage of the word frequency trick. You’ll become familiar with half of the language you’ll read and hear by learning around just a hundred words. And we all like a shortcut, right?

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!