Note taking, particularly in the form of crib sheets, is a powerful way to summarise your knowledge.

Support your speaking skills with custom crib sheets

If you have ever revised for exams, you are probably already familiar with the crib sheet. A condensed, one-page summary of all the major facts to remember, they have saved the academic life of many a student over the years.

Originally, the idea of the crib sheet was to cheat in an exam. Nowadays, they have more of a sense of ‘cheat sheet’ in the sense of a handy cramming list of facts and figures. And it’s this aspect that can be incredibly useful to you as a language learner.

Ready-made crib sheets

There are already a few ready-made fact crammers on the market. QuickStudy produces some very nice laminated ones, tailor-made for ringbinders.

No doubt, these are excellent quick references to have by you. But you can improve on them in a couple of ways. For one thing, they are a little too comprehensive. They’re more like reference works than on-the-spot speaking support. Also, by creating your own custom crib sheets, you have a more personal connection with the material. And claiming ownership over your learning is a good step towards making it stick.

Preparing your own

When creating your own crib sheets, the aim is not to list every single factoid. Rather, they should be a sensibly ordered skeleton of knowledge to support recall. As such, what it shouldn’t be is an attempt to write down all the words you know, in tiny script. For one thing, there is just too much of it – most estimates suggest 1000 words as a guideline for basic fluency. Your brain is a memorising machine, so leave the dictionary work to that.

What crib sheets can do is give you a place to collect the ‘glue’ that holds all your vocabulary together. Instead of individual words, think model phrases and structures, fillers and helper words. These conversational building blocks are often the items we umm and aah for most when starting a foreign language. Think of the sheet as a key to opening up your speaking – a tree to hang your vocabulary on.

Drawn and quartered

Bearing that in mind, a sheet of A4 is the ideal crib sheet size. You can fit in a fair bit, but it also encourages economical summarising. This makes your sheet a lot easier to reference and pull info from later on.

To keep things in order, quarter your sheet into four sections. Each of these will contain related types of words or structures. Dividing into four corners works a treat for visual learners – if you are mentally chasing a particular phrase, you can try to picture the relevant part of the page.

What these sections represent is completely up to you, and will vary from learner to learner. I’ve found the following most useful when starting out:

  • Likes / dislikes phrases
  • Little function words like question words (what, who, why etc.), connectors and similar, and indeterminate helper words (“something”, “somewhere”)
  • Fillers / brief reactions (“I agree!”, “exactly!”)
  • Sentence patterns / frameworks that you can slot words into as needed (“I’ve recently …”, “I should have …”, “I’d rather …” etc.)

Using your course book / Google Translate (be careful, though!) or working with your tutor, you can build this up into a little framework for speaking. Most importantly, it will be tailored to you – to the things you find most interesting or important to talk about. Use your native language as a guide – I often find myself talking about what I should do / should have done when chatting, so these are framework phrases I definitely wanted to add to my crib sheet.

Crib sheets evolve with you

Most importantly of all, your crib sheet is not static. It should evolve with you as your skill in the language grows. The more you use it and tweak it, the more it will reflect your characteristic speech repertoire.

Think of your native language; we all have favourite turns of phrase that pepper our talk. And as you learn, over time, certain sentences will drop out of your regular use, while others become your go-to conversational helpers. Having a target language crib sheet that reflects this is a nice way to record how your own style is developing.

Once you’re happy with your crib sheets, laminating them is a great idea – like writing up your notes in ‘best’, it’s another helpful way to take a bit of pride in your learning.

Happy learning!

Finally, if you find crib sheet creation a handy helper, you could also consider making speaking bingo sheets for on a lesson-by-lesson basis. It’s all about the preparation!

Have fun creating your crib sheets. And if you found this idea useful, please share.
Thanks, and happy learning!

Describe It! Speaking drill game for fun practice prompts

I’m always looking new ways to make speaking practice fun. It was BBC’s Just A Minute that inspired me to put this basic drill activity together. From a bank of many random concepts – TV shows, celebrities, countries, landmarks – the program draws one each turn. You then have sixty seconds to describe and discuss it without pausing.

Describe It! Speaking dill game

Describe It! Speaking dill game

It’s perfect for adding into your pre-lesson warm-up routine. And you can tailor it to your own level and needs – simply make your descriptions / spontaneous monologues as simple or complex as you can handle. Try answering these questions about the topics that pop up if you’re stuck for words:

  • What is it?
  • What do you think about it? Do you like it?
  • Who does it involve?
  • What else is it connected to? And is it controversial in any way?

Click here to open the prompt applet in a new window. As an HTML5 widget, it should run across all sorts of platforms.

Help it grow!

I put this together originally for my own use, so some of the concepts might seem a bit UK-centric. However, if you have some good ideas for items to add to the data bank, please share them in the comments or tweet me! I’ll add good ones to the activity on an ongoing basis. I hope others find it useful (and appreciate the silly humour that drives it! 😄).

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.

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!

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’.


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!