Islands can be language lifesavers (Freeimages.com)

Land ahoy! Islands, how they can help your language learning, and why you’re probably already using them

Sometimes we get excited about a new big idea in language learning, only to get a pleasant surprise. It’s only something we’ve been doing all along anyway! And so it is with islands, a language technique a polyglot friend introduced to me recently. But why is it so effective? And are you already doing it too, without realising it?

Islands : sink or swim?

The islands technique is developed and elaborated by Boris Shekhtman in How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately, a classic language hacking text now over a decade old. Personally, I have my wonder-tutor Marcel to thank for bringing it to my attention (as with so many other cool language learning ideas). It’s no exaggeration to say that he is a huge fan of the technique.

It builds on the concept of swimming as a metaphor for the beginner’s language proficiency. When navigating free, open conversation, the sheer unpredictability can leave you floundering. However, you can give yourself some dry land by setting up a number of islands as refuges.

These islands are short sections of text about key areas of your life and interests, committed to memory. You use them as ready-to-hand frameworks to plump out your conversation, or steer the conversation towards them to gain some purchase with your partner. They serve as familiar ground when you are on the high seas of target language speaking.

Sounds familiar?

The simplicity of this technique is its strength. But it’s also the reason that it probably sounds a little familiar already. After all, the preparation of short texts is a mainstay of traditional language learning. It is strikingly similar to the scripts technique popularised by more contemporary polyglot pundits. And I soon began to realise that I’ve been doing a form of it for some time already.

With several iTalki teachers, I’ve done some version of a prose-writing homework that mirrors the islands technique. It goes like this: at the end of a lesson, the teacher would give me a topic. I would have to write a paragraph or two on that topic for the next lesson, when we’d look through it, correct it together and talk in the target language about what I wrote.

These topics have centred on aspects of my own life – family, hobbies and so on – or general topics of conversation – social media, current affairs, travel and such like. After each one, I ended up with a ‘potted monologue’ that was corrected by a native speaker and well rehearsed through practice and discussion with the teacher. If future, real-world conversation throws these topics my way, I have raft of relevant things to regurgitate (or, as proficiency grows, adapt).

In short, I had been using islands for ages without realising it. And in your own language learning, I would bet that you can pick out similar elements. The best thing is thus eureka! moment, that realisation that I was already on the right track. Yes – islands can work for me, because the system fits so neatly into my current learning regime!

From habit to general approach

Of course, what I was doing roughly equates to the islands technique, but wasn’t particularly rigid or formalised. Like anyone doing weekly prose exercises like this, we can’t claim to have accidentally invented the islands technique independently. Certainly, lots of elements are there; but with no underpinning philosophy of learning, it’s not quite a language revolution in itself.

By contrast, the author synthesises these elements and more, usefully packaging them as a general approach. This more abstract overview acts as a more systematic scaffold to your learning. Rather than chancing across the magic that the technique can work, you begin to apply it regularly, to much more sustained effect. Not only that, but knowing the metaphor behind the theory – the idea of conversational safety and familiar fallbacks – prepares you for actually using the technique in the wild.

It is well worth reading up on what  Shekhtman has to say on the subject in his book. The rest of the short, sage volume is also packed with other practical advice beyond the islands method. It is no surprise that it continues to resurface amongst successive waves of polyglots.

Do you recognise elements of the technique in your own learning? Let us know in the comments!

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