The coastline of Banff, Aberdeenshire

Finding a Language Retreat : Peace and Quiet to Reset Your Learning

Do you have a retreat? A place to escape to, just you and your books? Maybe you have a few places that earn that title.

I’ve spent a bit of time at one of mine this week. And it has reminded me of the importance of pace, pause and a change of scenery in learning.

Macduff, viewed from Banff, Aberdeenshire - a special place, and a language learning retreat of mine

Macduff, viewed from Banff, Aberdeenshire – a special place, and a language learning retreat of mine

Sometimes, our special places are not always those we choose for ourselves. Instead, life moves in mysterious directions, and we end up drifting along its currents to surprising destinations. So it is with Banffshire for me.

A born Midlander, family, friends and work have conspired together to move my centre of gravity to Scotland over the years. Specifically, to Edinburgh, a wonderful place to come to rest. But Banff and Macduff, nestling in a far-flung corner of Northeast Scotland, have exerted an ever-stronger draw in recent years.

Thanks in part to family circumstances, and partly to their natural beauty, Banff and Macduff have become important pins on my personal map.

As a Midlander, of course, the sea was always something special. Being landlocked, it was only on long trips to the faraway coastline that we ever managed to see it. Perhaps, then, that is why Banff and Macduff have captured my affection and imagination.

Reset with a Learning retreat

Why, then, are our special places so useful as learners?

Well, if you are anything like me, life tends to pull you in all directions. Work, social life, family commitments are fulfilling, but take an energy hit on the body and soul. Somewhere in between it all, we need to fit our passion for language learning. It can sometimes feel, though, that languages are playing second fiddle.

Sometimes, we just need a reset. And a retreat can do that.

Leaving behind the to-and-fro for a while, travelling light (apart from your trusty books, of course), can be a tonic. For a start, it’s a chance to focus on what you love most – learning languages. Calendar cleared, long journey ahead of you, you can get down to study as soon as your train / bus / plane leaves. It’s time to focus on what you learn, how you learn, cocooned by a peace and quiet that rarely comes in the day-to-day.

Choose your landscapes carefully, and they can really inspire, too. For me, Icelandic is an important, currently active language project. And there is something very Nordic about the sweeping seascapes and weather-battered heath on the journey up north to my selected spot of Scotland. Reading the Icelandic sagas (albeit in simplified form) and glancing through the train window, it is engrossing to imagine the action taking place in settings not unsimilar. It does not hurt that some of the stories actually wind their way through Scottish soil on the way, too.

A language retreat can connect your subject to the whole world around you, as well as free you from distractions in order to refocus on learning. Near or far, find and nurture that special place for you and your books. Your brain / blood pressure will thank you for it.

Shrinking violet? You are not alone as a shy linguist! Image of flowers from freeimages.com

Shy Polyglot : Oxymoron, or the Perfect Blend?

A shy polyglot – that should be an oxymoron, right? All those languages, and too much of a shrinking violet to speak them? Well, the more linguists I meet, the more I realise that it is a hugely common experience.

It’s a topic close to my heart, as a shy lover of languages myself (just in case I haven’t said that enough in the past!). And shyness does give my passion rough edges at times, it’s true. As much as I adore the process of language learning, live, face-to-face speaking can give me the jitters. In such circumstances, it’s easy to fear, and avoid, speaking situations.

But in fact, a love of languages is a gift to a shy person.

Exposure therapy

You see, as a linguist, you can’t hide from speaking forever. The clue is in the name. The word lingua, or tongue, in Latin, inescapably brings you to back to the mouth at some point. Even students of dead tongues (a bit of a mean misnomer, as even languages without speakers have a rich life) will mouth the vocabulary they learn (or even more).

Speaking is the inescapable conclusion of learning a language. It is unavoidable, enticing even. The very shyest amongst us will still wildly imagine themselves conversing dazzlingly and fluently with native speakers.

So, eventually, we have to face our fears. And that, in itself, is therapy. Exposure therapy, to be precise, which has long been a popular treatment for a range of anxieties.

Scared of something? Then throw yourself at it with a vengeance!

Busting your shy side

There are a number of strategies for creating your own exposure therapy in a controlled, safe way. Some cost money, they all cost a little time and effort, but they will leverage your language skills to ease out the socialiser in you.

Microtrips

Of course, the ultimate language exposure is a trip to your target language country. If you can, regular, budget-conscious microtrips can throw you in the deep end and get you practising at being social frequently.

Once there, you can seek out situations where casual conversation is encouraged. Art installations, talks and cultural events are all safe frameworks to chat to strangers and not feel like a mad person. Earlier this year, I ended up putting the whole world of Eurovision to rights sitting next to a couple at Norway’s Melodi Grand Prix in Oslo!

Before a trip, check What’s On listings, and websites of local libraries and universities, to seek out opportunities. For instance, I ended up on a free Norwegian language tour of the parliament building in Oslo a couple of years ago, and ended up having a nice exchange with the tour guide afterwards.

Specialist conferences

You can also attend a number of special events organised by the emerging polyglot community. My recent trip to the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana was a real tonic for taking me out of my shell. The Polyglot Gathering is one I’ve set my eye on next, and looks like a similar safe, structured space for facing down your shy side.

Volunteering

You needn’t spend lots of money beating your shy nature. Volunteering at national and international events is one way to surround yourself with speaking opportunities in a structured way, for example. Look out for forthcoming events like the Commonwealth Games, where knowledgeable local volunteers are highly sought after.

Education fairs

Free conferences and shows are another way in to look out for. Education shows, for example, are quite frequent in big cities. This week I was at the Language Show Live in London, which was a medium-sized, friendly event for linguists of all levels. It attracted speakers of languages from French to Georgian, all open to chatting about learning and making new contacts.

The stands themselves are worked by an international mix of exhibitors who will be happy to talk about products in their language. In my experience, it is always a little French/Spanish-heavy, although that is perfect if those are your picks!

Whichever path you choose, remember this: your love of languages is no less legitimate for being shy. In fact, your linguistic skills can be an effective route to combatting social anxiety. Being shy and being a polyglot are, in many ways, perfect partners.

Poppy Field - it's hard to find the confidence to stand out in a field full of blossoming blooms!

Am I Good Enough? Maintaining confidence in an Internet age 👊🏻

Confidence is key to speaking and using languages. But in an age of Internet superheroes to measure up to, it can be hard to keep it.

The Internet has been a godsend for language learners. Not only are millions of resources within easy reach, but there is community. Suddenly, the countless others who share the passion are visible. If you grew up thinking you wondering if there was anyone like you, then the Internet finally answered that question. The downside: measuring yourself up against your fellow linguists can affect your confidence. We go from being special and unique to just one of many, and that, frankly, can feel rubbish.

How many times have you thought: wow, s/he’s brilliant – no way am I that good!

Everyday experts

We live in an age of everyday experts. People with skills can now share those skills with anyone through a blog or a website. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is a marvellous thing. Everybody can help everybody else, and all you need to have a voice, and reach out, is an Internet connection.

However, it is easy to forget that there’s an element of the marketplace operating on the web: there is competition. In the tussle win clicks, likes, and kudos, individuals feel compelled to go bigger, bolder, brighter. Consequently, writers amplify positive claims and overstate promises of greatness.

The result? We have an online language community fixated on notions of ‘fast fluency’, and language heroes with almost superhuman abilities to absorb new tongues. The issue is not just with language learning; quiet confidence-knocking goes on wherever the Internet brings people together around a set of skills. Online trainer Brad Hussey lays it bare for web creatives in this passionate post.

Fortunately, there has been some honest push-back against the fluency myth recently, such as in this helpful article by Alex Rawlings. (I see the irony of linking to an article by a polyglot hero in an article re-humanising Internet heroes!) But it’s still too easy to feel in the shadow of others in a very noisy online world.

Our idealised selves

To understand how this positive feedback loop comes about, step back and think of online personalities not as actual people, but as constructs of people. The Facebook or Twitter profile is not a true and faithful copy of the person in cyberspace. Instead, it is a construct of an identity in the 2D space of the Internet.

Naturally, those identities are overwhelmingly positive ones; we build them from what we like best about ourselves. Twitter and Facebook profiles are showcases for selves, idealised projections. As such, the Internet is one vast exercise in impression management. Erving Goffman – the sociologist who originally conceptualised this notion – would, no doubt, have had a field day with social media.

But the crux of this is simple: take everything you read online with a little pinch of salt.

Am I good enough? Finding confidence

Behind these idealised profiles are ordinary, everyday people – just like you. They share the same basic needs, desires and anxieties. You are as capable of their feats as they are of your perceived failures – only you cannot see the failures, as these rarely make it onto social media.

That’s why it’s important to start talking about the frustrations and failures in language learning just as much as the wild successes. Discussion needs to paint a realistic, rather than a fantastical, picture of what the linguaphile journey is like. It’s hugely rewarding, amazing fun and exhilarating – but it’s not perfect. What journey is? And would a perfect journey be as much fun?

So, care for your confidence. Learn to chill with your languages. But believe it: you are good enough.

A man lying on the grass - a great anxiety buster!

Just chill! Anxiety busting tips for practical language use

French was never my forte.

Still, I recently had the opportunity to use my French again after years of neglect. I’ve long jibed about my French being rubbish, basic and broken. Doing my French down has become a running joke in my life. Despite hitting an A grade in GCSE French at 16, I’ve done little to keep it going since. In fact, some of the only occasions I’ve used it have been to speak what I call ‘comedy French’ in the office. That’s 25 years of francophobia!

Still, a language is a language, and I was happy to dig out the French on a recent trip. I didn’t expect miracles, and was pretty lazy about polishing up my skills before travelling. You could say that I didn’t really care much about being ‘good’; the bit I had was enough. Zero expectations, zero anxiety.

Language magic… When you least expect it

Surprisingly, a bit of magic happened on that little trip. Somehow, despite my insistence that my French was ‘rubbish’, I was communicating. I was asking questions and understanding the answers. And after mulling over some explanations for that, I’ve learnt some important things about practical foreign language use.

The crux of it is this: I went about the everyday speaking French and not caring about being perfect. Not pressuring myself to be grammatically flawless, not demanding native-level, colloquial phrases from myself. I knew what I knew, and I would make it work for me, regardless of the gaps. I was even making up phrases that would turn out to be correct later on, like ‘en ce cas‘ (in this case).

Performance anxiety

Now in my strongest foreign language, German, I never experience that kind of friction-free movement. I have a degree in German; I’m supposed to be great at it, darn it! So, as a result, I place a huge pressure on myself to be perfect. It’s nearly always an impossible challenge at the best of times, and not surprising that it leads to language anxiety. I’ll beat myself up over even the silliest mistakes and trip-ups.

Not only that, but it dawned on me that I’ve been taking my German far too seriously over the years. Just compare: in German, I regularly listen to heavyweight news podcasts. In French, on the other hand, I have fun in the office saying silly things to make my colleagues laugh. Which one seems like a better way to build a positive experience in a foreign language by stealth?

Just chill!

Now the answer here is not to disengage from serious study or stop caring about a language. However, there is something in this French lesson that can benefit our ‘proper’ languages. You can boil it down to two rules:

  1. Don’t worry about mistakes – just communicate.
  2. Have fun with it!

Common sense, perhaps; oft-repeated, definitely. But extremely easy to forget when a language means a lot to you. Let this post be a reminder to me of that – and, I hope, a signpost for others to ward them off that anxious path!

Context can help language learners in familiar situations abroad, like the coffee shop

Context has your back: Why it’s OK not to understand everything

I have a confession to make. I failed miserably in my foreign language last weekend. But it was still fine. Context had my back!

Before you feel sorry for me, it’s not as bad as it sounds. We fail in our native languages all the time, for lots of reasons. We don’t catch things, we mishear words, we don’t hear above the noise. It’s a normal part of comprehension not to comprehend everything at first.

Imagine the scene…

Here’s how it went down. I’ve just spent a quick, cheapie getaway weekend in Oslo to practise my norsk and enjoy one of my favourite countries. It was a real budget immersion weekend, with low-cost flights from Norwegian.com and a free hotel stay thanks to air miles.

I threw myself into every social situation, ordering food and drink, going to a concert and even sorting out a free tour of parliament using my Norwegian. On the whole it went well, but there was one conversation that stands out from a coffee shop:

Rich: Er melkekaffe som en latte?
Servitør: Ja, ********.
R: Ah, jeg ville gjerne ha to melkekaffeer. Takk.
S: **** ******* spise **** ?
R: Nei, takk. Kanskje senere.
S: Åtti kroner.
R: Is milky coffee like a latte?
S: Yes,********.
R: Ah, I’d like two milky coffees. Thanks.
S: **** ******* eat **** ?
R: No, thanks. Maybe later.
S: Eighty kroner.

Yes, those asterisks are bits where I hadn’t a clue what the other person was saying.

It might have been nerves. It might have been background noise. The server might have had an unusual accent. But I found myself struggling to understand what I thought must be the most basic Norwegian.

Measuring language success as social transaction

So, success or failure? Well, I could beat myself up about not understanding every single word that was said to me. In fact, I felt like I barely caught anything.

But on the other hand – I got my coffee! There was no serious breakdown in communication. I guessed what was said to me, and didn’t get any funny looks when I made up an answer. As a social transaction, it was as successful as one I’d have in my native language. I’d filled in the uncertain bits by guessing from experience what was meant. In short: I’d winged it.

Winging it is normal!

This got me thinking about how I operate in English, and I realised that I rely on context in English just as much as I do on 100% comprehension! In a noisy café in Edinburgh, I’d be making the same assumptions and filling in the same gaps with context. I made myself understood, and I understood what was required of me in that interaction. No self-flagellation required!

Maybe the biggest failure was that I unquestioningly paid £8 for two lattes in Oslo. *ouch*

Context is king

Context works when two speakers share the same common values or experiences. In my example above, it’s how a coffee shop works. Thanks to globalisation, that’s a pretty standardised environment these days. Whatever you think about globalisation and cultural imperialism, they definitely help when trying to speak a foreign language!

When contexts differ, then you can prepare yourself for speaking by observing how things work in the target language country. Just hanging back and watching / listening to people interacting naturally before you works wonders. You can also pre-arm yourself by researching attitudes and cultural traits before a trip; this article contains some very interesting points about context differences across several cultures.

Be kind to yourself

It’s important not to be too hard on yourself when you manage these ‘by the skin of your teeth’ situations. Remember that you’re probably doing it regularly in your native language, too. If you read a transcript of your conversation on paper, you’d no doubt understand it in almost all its detail. But you didn’t need to in order to get your coffee!

Having a conversation in a foreign language can be quite a feat. Never beat yourself up for not getting every word – context always has your back.