Speaking without foundations (and putting it right)

Speaking is like a skyscraper. Aim high, but watch your foundations too! Image by createsima on freeimages.com.

As I sit at the station tapping away at Anki, I’m impressed at the level of the vocabulary I’ve reached: interactive, futurism, equality… All those lovely advanced words! I enjoy a moment of language learner pride, before I remember that when it comes to everyday speaking, I’ve still got a bit of work to do.

It’s a problem you might recognise yourself, if you’ve tried any of a number of accelerated learning techniques with your languages. For me, it was all about grappling with Icelandic in all its glory immediately. I leapt straight into the language a few years back, working with iTalki tutors in a conversational format and lapping up that wonderful vocab.

The pattern was this: prepare a topic to talk on, and chat about it in the lesson. Some of the themes were challenging even by first language measures: politics, social media, technology. But using an “islands” approach, it seemed to be working out really well. I absorbed and consolidated a huge amount of vocabulary and grammar structures.

Speaking high and dry

For sure, it is a learning strategy that builds a solid level of competency, and fast. It has made me quite adept at prepared chat, a wonderfully useful and transferable skill for other areas of life such as public speaking and work presentations. It’s a technique I still use, too. I recently completed the #30DaySpeakingChallenge in Icelandic, and created a short speech on often quite complex topics for every one of those days.

But it is a very particular type of competency, or fluency, that this technique builds.

The crunch comes when you come to speaking a language in the wild. For me, it became painfully clear on trips to Iceland than I almost completely lacked the basic, practical, and social foundations needed to operate on a day-to-day level in the foreign language. Navigating social situations – even producing the most basic of niceties and stock repsonses – felt like pulling teeth.

Yes, I could rattle on about materialism, propaganda and language learning techniques in wonderful Icelandic. But when it came to ordering a sandwich on Reykjavík’s Laugavegur, I was lost.

That’s great – but can you just order a coffee, please?

Swallow that pride!

The warning signs were there well in advance, of course. For instance, I would haplessly flounder after the social glue at the end of lessons. Phrases such as “have a nice week, see you soon!” got stuck in my mouth like treacle toffee. I could clumsily construct them based on grammatical rules and vocabulary. But they never sounded natural.

Now, there is no shame in recognising these lacks, however late. And this is certainly not to bash accelerated learning techniques – I still use and love them. We all learn in different ways, for different reasons. It was always a source of huge motivation to prepare speaking topics on the things I found most interesting.

But here’s the crucial lesson to take: it’s easy to assume that by learning the high-brow stuff, the everyday stuff follows automatically, almost like a side-effect. Sadly, it doesn’t quite work that way!

Two tiers

Instead, it helps to view language learning as a two-tier process. You can leap straight in with advanced topic-based speaking challenges for speed learning. But, at least alongside that, there needs to be a nod to the social reality (if, that is, you are learning the language to use in a social setting some day – not the case for everyone!).

Some of the best resources for this are perhaps those that budding hyperglots might tend to dismiss as too basic. In fact, foundational primers like Teach Yourself – especially those aimed at more casual learners, like the TY “Get Started” series – are gold for training in social speaking. Yes, they can be light on grammar and more obscure vocabulary. But you do that elsewhere because you love it and seek it out! For the stuff at ground level you are liable to skip, you could do a lot worse than go back to one of these courses.

Their strength is in building social muscle memory for the language. This is the more automatic level of trigger-response in language, operating generally below the level of full consciousness. It’s also how a lot of the social interaction in our first language occurs. Just consider how unthinkingly you fire off “no problem” or “you’re welcome” when somebody thanks you. There is close to zero cogitation going on around how to form a grammatically well-formed sentence!

To this end, I’ve returned to what you might call the ‘baby chapters’ of Teach Yourself Icelandic and Colloquial Icelandic. And it constantly surprises me how much of the little stuff I had missed.

The best thing? It’s never too late to go back and learn it.

Many routes to the same destination – walk them all

Admittedly, speaking without foundations is a human flaw baked into the informal, conversational lesson approach, since it is only natural to seek meaningful chat with tutors. But perhaps we can also find time to squeeze in some ‘real world’ modelled dialogues too, like ordering a coffee or checking in at a hotel.

The crux of it all is that there are many routes to that same destination of fluent speaking, none of them mutually exclusive. Treading several different paths gives you a much more rounded feel for the language than a single one.

Diving right into a language and speaking without foundations is an exhilarating and exciting way to learn. But check out your foundations now and again, too!

Richard West-Soley

One Comment

  1. Great post yet again. Love reading your insights, thoughts and recommendations to help me in my language journey.

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