A musical, emotive robot. OpenAI's new model GPT-4o will make digital conversations even more natural.

GPT-4o – OpenAI Creates A Perfect Fit For Language Learners

Just a couple of weeks after the excitement around Hume.ai, OpenAI has joined the emotive conversational bandwagon with a stunning new release of its GPT-4o model.

GPT-4o is a big deal for language learners because it is multimodal in much more powerful ways than previous models. It interacts with the world more naturally across text, audio and vision in ways that mimic our own interactions with language speakers. Demos have included the model reacting to the speaker’s appearance and expression, opening a path to more realistic digital conversation practice than ever.

As with Hume, its voice capabilities have been updated with natural-sounding emotion and intonation, along with a deeper understanding of the speaker’s tone. It even does a better job at sarcasm and irony, long the exclusive domain of human speakers. Heck, it can even sing now. Vocal, emotional nuance – at least simulated – does seem to be the latest big leap forward in AI, transforming the often rather staid conversations into something uncannily humanlike. And as with many of these developments, it almost feels like it was made with us linguists in mind.

Perhaps surprisingly, there’s no wait to try the new model this time, at least in text mode. OpenAI have rolled it out almost immediately, including to free users. That suggests a quite confidence in how impressed users will be with it.

As for the multimodal capabilities, we’ll have to wait a little longer, unfortunately – chat updates are being propagated more gradually, although you may already the next time you open chat mode, you may already get the message that big changes are coming. Definitely a case of watch this space – and I don’t know about you, but I’m already impatiently refreshing my ChatGPT app with increasing frequency!

A picture of a robot heart - conversation with emotion with Hume.ai

Conversation practice with emotion : Meet Hume.ai

If the socials are anything to go by, so many of us language learners are already using AI platforms for conversation practice – whether text-typed, or spoken with speech-enabled platforms like ChatGPT.

Conversational interaction is something that LLMs – large language models – were created for. In fact, language learning and teaching seem like an uncannily good fit for AI. It’s almost like it was made for us.

But there’s one thing that’s been missing up to now – emotional awareness. In everyday conversation with other humans, we use a range of cues to gauge our speaking partner’s attitude, intentions and general mood. AI – even when using speech recognition and text-to-speech – is flat by comparison. It can only simulate true conversational interplay.

A new LLM is set to change all that. Hume.ai has empathy built-in. It uses vocal cues to determine the probable mindset of the speaker for each utterance. For each input, it selects a set of human emotions, and weights them. For instance, it might decide that what you said was 60% curious, 40% anxious and 20% proud. Then, mirroring that, it replies with an appropriate intonation and flex.

The platform already supports over 50 languages. You can try out a demo in English here, and prepare to be impressed – its guesses can be mind-bogglingly spot-on. Although it’s chiefly for developer access right now, the potential usefulness to language learning is so clear that we should hopefully see the engine popping up in language platforms in the near future!

Foreign alphabet soup (image generated by AI)

AI Chat Support for Foreign Language Alphabets

I turn to AI first and foremost for content creation, as it’s so good at creating model foreign language texts. But it’s also a pretty good conversational tool for language learners.

That said, one of the biggest obstacles to using LLMs like ChatGPT for conversational practice can be an unfamiliar script. Ask it to speak Arabic, and you’ll get lots of Arabic script. It’s usually smart enough to work out if you’re typing back using Latin characters, but it’ll likely continue to speak in script.

Now, it’s easy enough to ask your AI platform of choice to transliterate everything into Latin characters, and expect the same from you – simply instruct it to do so in your prompts. But blanket transliteration won’t help your development of native reading and writing skills. There’s a much better best of both worlds way that does.

Best of Both Worlds AI Chat Prompt

This prompt sets up a basic conversation environment. The clincher is that is give you the option to write in script  or not. And if not, you’ll get what script should look like modelled right back at you. It’s a great way to jump into conversation practice even before you’re comfortable switching keyboard layouts.

You are a Modern Greek language teacher, and you are helping me to develop my conversational skills in the language at level A2 (CEFR). Always keep the language short and simple at the given level, and always keep the conversation going with follow-up questions.

I will often type in transliterated Latin script, as I am still learning the target language alphabet. Rewrite all of my responses correctly in the target language script with any necessary grammatical corrections.

Similarly, write all of your own responses both in the target language script and also a transliteration in Latin characters. For instance,

Καλημέρα σου!
Kaliméra sou!

Do NOT give any English translations – the only support for me will be transliterations of the target language.

Let’s start off the conversation by talking about the weather.

This prompt worked pretty reliably in ChatGPT-4, Claude, Copilot, and Gemini. The first two were very strong; the latter two occasionally forget the don’t translate! instruction, but otherwise, script support – the name of the game here – was good throughout.

Try changing the language (top) and topic (bottom) to see what it comes up with!

 

A tray of medals for the IBSA Games 2023 Tennis. Volunteering at international events is a great way to practise your languages!

Volunteering for Team Languages

I almost didn’t make my deadline (albeit self-imposed) for today’s post. I’ve spent a week volunteering with V.I. tennis at the IBSA Games in Birmingham, and I’ve only just packed up my uniform for the last time as the sun is setting on Edgbaston Priory.

It’s been six days of sweaty, hard and sometimes challenging work, but six unforgettable days of incredible experiences too. Not least of those is the great opportunity to use foreign languages – both my stronger, weaker and almost non-existent ones (my three words of Lithuanian, I’m looking at you). The IBSA Games being together athletes from over 70 countries, so it’s not hard to find someone, somewhere, who speaks something you know.

International events are such a perfect match for linguistically-minded volunteers. And that’s not just the social butterflies amongst us. Meeting, speaking and helping is golden experience for anyone fighting (as I do) with a natural shyness. It offers a good level of self-challenge, but with the safety net of structured interaction in short, manageable bursts. I call it people practice, and it’s worked wonders for my own particular flavour of social awkwardness!

It’s also an opportunity to enjoy the serendipity of polyglot opportunities. Nothing ‘in the wild’ is ever predictable, and that can throw language learners off when we throw ourselves deliberately, and often over-expectantly, into a single target language setting. On an international volunteering gig, you simply don’t know what will come your way. It might be your favourite language; it could be one you haven’t touched for years, and never thought you’d use again. It’s a case of let the opportunity come to you – and you’ll be nimbler of conversation for it. Personally, I never expected to speak as much Polish as I did this week.

If you at all curious to try it out, check out the NCVO or equivalent in your country. Also, keep an ear to the ground for big events happening locally. The best leads are often by simple word of mouth.

Volunteering is massively rewarding, in so many ways. It really is the ultimate in giving something of yourself in order to grow, as a linguist – and otherwise.

Social bookending can help glue your foreign language conversations together. Image of paper dolls from FreeImages.com.

Social Scaffolding from the Past

Social bookending is one of my favourite foreign language conversation hacks. In a nutshell, it’s the process of building a bank of starter, fillers and closers that support you in everyday speaking. It’s a topic I return to again and again, as it’s well worth spreading the word. As far as fluency tricks and convo prep tricks go, I find it’s amongst the most effective.

Social Glue: Fast and Slow

That said, you wouldn’t know it from looking at most language learning resources. In pretty much all the books I’ve come across, learning social glue is a purely cumulative affair, gradual and measured. Quite reasonably, of course, textbooks tend to build up that bank of colloquialisms over the course of many lessons. Which is great if you want to stick rigidly to the route the book intends for you.

But not if you need to get up to scratch quickly and hold fluid conversations early on.

For the straight-in-at-the-deep-end language aficionado, It’s beyond handy to have all of those conversation helpers in one place. And it’s even better to have them right in front of you, speaking bingo sheets style, to glance down at during convo practice. I highly recommend starting your own foreign language social script crib sheets!

Lessons from the Past

With a bit of digging, though, you might get a head start. During my recent foray into language book past, I found out that social speaking scaffolding hasn’t always been such a DIY affair. In fact, a couple of now out-of-print books dedicate whole sections to listing everyday idioms and colloquialisms. Not bad for the days before ‘communicative’ approaches became the norm!

For instance, the 1984 edition of Hugo’s Greek in Three Months was a revelation. The author not only devotes several pages to conversational turns of phrase, but a whole chapter on sayings and aphorisms! Granted, the latter are a bit more niche, and requires a bit of picking and choosing. And, casting a glance down both lists, they’re a bit of a random potpourri. But it’s a lot more of a social language reference than we’re used to in many modern guides.

A page from Hugo's Greek in Three Months (1984) listing some useful social fillers.

A page from Hugo’s Greek in Three Months (1984) listing some useful social fillers.

Greek in Three Months isn’t alone in throwing in these nice colloquial surprises. A much older book in terms of first editions, Teach Yourself Icelandic, includes pages and pages of useful colloquial phrases. Similarly, they seem a bit haphazardly thrown together at first sight. But as a collection of everyday language, they’re a brilliant starting point for creating your own crib sheet of favourites.

A page from Teach Yourself Icelandic (1986) listing idioms and colloquial phrases - great social glue for your conversations.

A page from Teach Yourself Icelandic (1986) listing idioms and colloquial phrases – great social glue for your conversations.

Nothing New Under The Sun

If anything, these social bookending reference lists from the past show that that there’s really nothing new under the sun in language learning. We stand on the shoulders of the giants who went before us, rediscovering their linguistic adventures through our own eyes, and fashions – in learning as much as in clothes – come, go, and come again. Those past learners and educators continue to provide us with a rich source of discovery.

And maybe there’s some inspiration there for present-day course writers and book publishers, too. Teach Yourself, Routledge: how about a few ‘social filler crib sheet’ pages in your next editions?

Pidgins - or pigeons? Picture by Lozba Paul, freeimages.com

Feeding the Pidgins : Perfectly Imperfect Communication

One of the language learning lifelines that has kept me going during lockdown is our little Gaelic chat circle that meets weekly on Zoom. We started off as an in-person pub chat group back in January, but as normal life started to shut down in March, our ever-enthusiastic organiser decided to keep us going in cyberspace. Thank heavens for organised folk.

Our the months, the pendulum has swung back and forth with numbers, as is always the case with these things. Some weeks we manage a proper little group chat, and occasionally there are just two of us. But there is always someone there, and the determination never fades: nothing but Gaelic for half an hour!

Perfectly Imperfect

The remarkable thing is that none of us are remotely fluent. In fact, most of us are hovering around A1/2, with our main point of commonality being the Duolingo Gaelic course.

How on earth do we manage?

Not badly, all things considered. We communicate enthusiastically and fluidly amongst ourselves, gossiping on all kinds of topics from home life to politics. To do that, we do supplement, where we have to, with the odd English word or two. Feumaidh mi a dheanamh an washing up a-nis! (I have to do the washing up now!). A bheil lockdown ann a-rithist? (Is it lockdown again?) But we have a good online Gaelic dictionary loaded up in the background to share any pertinent new vocab.

We might sometimes use our own loan translations too, like “coimhead sgìth” (literally “looking tired” using the verb ‘look’ instead of something more idiomatic – probably with coltach!). Imagine our happy surprise then, when it turns out that some of these made-up-on-the-spot forms are attested and used in first language speech too (no doubt due to the influence of English, mind). I do sometimes shudder to think what a pedant or purist might think, listening in.

But still – it works!

Pidgin Fanciers

What we’re doing feels, in some ways, like the creation of a pidgin. Just like our peppered-with-English Gaelic, pidgins arise from the need to communicate using limited knowledge of a base language. Just like grander-scale pidgins, more than two languages can end up in the mix too – a couple of us have some Irish, so that gets thrown into the pot as well.

In essence, we use what we have to say what we want.

The upside? We have become really good at that handful of colloquial structures we all share. An toil leat…? (Do you like…?), an robh thu…? (were you…?), nach eil e…? (isn’t it…?) They are all pretty much ingrained now!

But I know what you’re thinking: but what about all the errors and mispronunciations being reinforced without any correction? As real-life pidgins progress, the divergences from “standard” grammar may crystallise into something new and more ordered: a creole. As creative as it sounds, that isn’t quite our goal.

Fortunately, we have a couple of safeguards.

Taming the Pidgins

Firstly, we do have a very competent speaker who attends quite often, who has been a brilliant source of guidance and advice. Secondly, a couple of us still attend formal Gaelic classes as well, so there is always an external guiding hand to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Finally – and anyone can do this, even without access to more knowledgeable speakers or learners – we note down anything we are unsure about during conversation and pledge to read up on it after the chat. Whether in textbooks or via a Google search, the info you need is never really find.

In short, don’t let a lack of vocabulary and grammar knowledge stop you from trying to speak a language. Have a go at feeding the Pidgins. As for us, we’ll certainly keep on throwing them crumbs – it’s got us through two lockdowns, and it’ll get it through the next!

Are you looking for some more Gaelic resources after exhausting Duolingo’s course? Check these out!

A row of old books. Image from freeimages.com

Social Bookending : Scripting conversation start and end points for better flow

Tim Burton tells us that every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or was it Jean-Luc Godard – or even Aristotle? Anyway, whoever – and whenever – it was, they had a pretty solid, if obvious, point.

Language enthusiasts face a very particular struggle, and one very close to my heart. It’s that compulsion to run before we can walk. This is not necessarily a completely negative trait. For one thing, it demonstrates our high ambitions and commitment to the subject. But in a one-to-one session when you just want to focus on your favourite topics, it can leave you being middle-heavy – all filling and no bread, in sandwich terms.

For instance, my brain is usually so focused on the material I wanted to cover in conversation (music, language, politics) that I am regularly caught on the hop when switching into intro and outro – or social niceties – mode. The winding up and the winding down of conversation are things I just assume will happen of their own accord. But they rarely do.

First confession: that’s chiefly because I spend so little time on them as a learner.

For me, at least, the reason is simple: learning chitchat is just not as interesting as the meaty, topical stuff. It’s the reason I’m always so tempted to leap three or four chapters in when I start a new language book. We all want to be rootin’, tootin’, high-falutin’ fluent speakers, and so we grab at the highest branches.

That’s totally understandable.

Social bookends: real-life framing

That said, it’s impossible to ignore that social dimension. Sudden starts and full-stops just don’t happen very often in real-life conversation. We don’t meet friends for coffee and immediately launch into a diatribe on the state of things, before disappearing to our next appointment.

Just as we bookend our coffee shop gossip with social glue, our language lessons should also reflect this real-life framing. After all, we hope eventually to communicate with other humans using the foreign language. Part of everyday communication is all that built-in, rote-learnt social interaction – the script of interaction. Effective language lessons must teach us to operate fully within these social scripts, as well as equip us with the vocab and grammar knowhow to decline verbs and rattle off sophisticated arguments. In other words, to operate as living, breathing, social entities within the language environment.

Now, it sometimes feels like talking openly about difficulties and failings is anathema in our online learning communities. It tends so often to be about the biggest, the brightest, the best. So another confession:

I really struggle with the language of social interaction.

Motivating myself to spend time learning various ways of saying hello, how are you doing, goodbye, is not my favourite thing. Smalltalk, even in English, does not happen for me without a lot of coaxing. But after countless lessons fumbling and floundering at the start and the finish, I realised how inescapable it all is.

Curating social scripts

I needed a way in to fix this. A means to make it more appealing. So, as a remedy, I appealed to my inner collector. This is the side of my personality that revels in curating lists of vocabulary and learning arcane grammatical exceptions from two-inch thick tomes. Obsessive, geekish list-writer Rich to the rescue!

I scoured dialogues in textbook dialogues. I mind-mapped the phrases I use in my native language and sought translations of them using resources like Tatoeba. I used subtitles to mine intro and outro phrases from TV and film (although it’s shocking how often phone conversations end abruptly on screen, as opposed to real life!).

There are myriad places to find social glue. When you do, note them all down in one place. (I probably don’t need to add that I use Evernote to store mine.)

A list of social niceties in Icelandic

Learning to ‘do’ social language (my working document for Icelandic)

It’s not just about ‘bye’ and ‘see you’. It’s about the extra stuff like ‘take care!’, ‘keep well’, ‘have a nice weekend’, ‘say hello to X’, ‘enjoy your evening’. It’s all the padding that makes start and end transitions a bit friendlier, a bit less abrupt, a bit more natural.

You may well ask why I still need to work from a list. Well, this stuff just doesn’t happen naturally for me at all. Some people are natural social butterflies. I just get lost in the detail sometimes – even in my own language!

When the time comes, I pop my list up, and have before me lots of ready-made one-liners I can use to ease in or wind things down nicely. And, eventually (hopefully!), these interjections become second nature.

Right under your nose

Yes, this might seem like pretty obvious advice. But aren’t the most obvious things the easiest to overlook? Having a bank of starters and finishers at your fingertips can make lessons so much brighter and less uncomfortable, particularly if you use 100% target language with your teacher.

Students, start your own crib notes to start and finish your lessons smoothly. And teachers, help your students to level up in these skills. Banish that social awkwardness by learning your lines like the linguistic actor you are training to become.

Soon you’ll be running like a well-oiled social machine!

Three plush monkeys in the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil poses. Image by freeimages.com

iTalki Isolation Blitz? Here’s how to make the most!

Armed with a bunch of loose ends and a clutch of free evenings, I have been spending quite a bit of time on iTalki over the past few weeks.

In order to avoid bankruptcy, I tend to go for community tutors rather than professional listings. They are usually not only a bit more affordable (so you can book loads without worry of financial ruin), but have an added benefit: they can often be more chatty, informal sessions.

Now, we all need a bit of structure in our learning, especially in the early levels. But when you get beyond the basics, you can dive into those conversational, free-form lessons. You get to set the agenda, talk about what you like, and use the target language in ways that connect to youJust like talking in your native language. Fun!

Only it is never quite like that at first…

The thing is, even after we achieve lift-off from A1, there are always plenty of gaps. And without preempting them, you may complete your lessons feeling you could have made a bit more of them. Stalling, umming and aahing, grasping desperately for words…

Never fear. Arm yourself with these simple techniques for making the most out of informal lessons on iTalki, VerbLing and whatever other platforms you might find target language chat on.

Have fresh material close at hand

I see each iTalki community lesson as an end link in a chain that begins with private study. You spend a week or two working through language resources in your own time. Then, the end of that study cycle is buffered by a face-to-face session to practise and consolidate the new material.

For that reason, it makes sense to have the most salient points of study in front of you to crib from during conversation. Convo crib notes can consist of single vocabulary items or longer phrases to work into the chat. But they should be in note or list form, rather than fully scripted out. The aim is to become adept at dropping lexical nuggets anywhere within dynamic chat, not simply parroting them.

Use Speaking Bingo Sheets

Cribbing leads us neatly on to Speaking Bingo Sheets. I know, I must seem obsessed by these. I like to mention them at every opportunity. But they really help turn vocab-shoehorning into something like a game.

It takes no time to get started with these. Instead of a static reference list, organise some of the most key new items and structures into a grid. Then. tick them off as you use them, aiming for a full house, but awarding points for full lines, too.

Instant entertainment and practice rolled into one!

A speaking bingo sheet for Icelandic displayed in Notability for iPad.

A Speaking Bingo Sheets on the iPad ready for iTalki conversation

Pre iTalki Quiz Blitzing

A theme is emerging here: have that key vocab primed and have it ready to work, work, work for you in conversation. Priming, incidentally, is a well-documented psychological process, and we are really milking it in all of these warm-up techniques.

Another great way to prime to the max is to toss your vocab, paella-style, into one of the many free platforms for creating learning quiz games. These spit out any number of drill practice exercises that you can blitz before your lesson, in order to lodge the items firmly in short-term memory. Then, during their conversational outing, they can begin to settle down in long-term mental storage.

There is no shortage of these platforms at all. I recommend Educandy, but perhaps mainly because I am one of the co-authors of that tool! For the sake of neutrality, I should also mention Cram, Quizlet and StudyBlue as well worth checking out.

Here’s an online quiz I created to drill conversational vocab for an Icelandic lesson way back in 2018.

Educandy's green mascot

Educandy‘s friendly blob is here to help

Do some Focused listening

So far, each method has sought to recycle and prime your own materials. But passive reception is just an important in conversation, and using authentic material like talk radio or podcasts can significantly boost your lesson performance.

A bit of focused listening can tune the brain in to the sound and shape of the target language ahead of your lesson. Note that the key word here is focused. Simply having the radio or Spotify on in the background will probably not cut the mustard.

Instead, aim to sit down with a pad for ten minutes, listening out for key words and noting them down. These kinds of active listening stints are a great way to prepare your auditory circuits for comprehension.

Read aloud in the target language

So listening is great for understanding others’ voices. But what about your own?

When it comes to activating your language circuits, reading aloud packs a double whammy. Like stretching before exercise, it gives your speaking apparatus a nice warm-up. But as with listening activities, reading out loud also feeds plenty of comprehensible input to the brain right before you have to produce the language actively. That should trigger all sorts of mental pathways to vocabulary, structure and intonation, ready to fire off to your teacher.

It is arguably even easier to find material for this, too. Just choose a news article, blog post or book in the target language, and read away. Read carefully, mindfully, taking in the meaning and not just producing the sounds. Try reading with a different voice, with a different intonation, varying your pitch and your volume. Play with the sounds. There is no shame in being silly with it, either. Let go of all of your inhibitions! This can be a brilliant way to defuse pre-conversation nerves, too.

Although any new website will do really, I particularly like Olly Richard’s Short Stories series for this. Each chapter is short enough to go over completely ten or so minutes before a lesson.

Above all, enjoy!

Lastly, remember why you do this. If it starts to feel stressful, give yourself a break. Nobody expects perfection.

Take some extra time to prepare. Chat to your teacher beforehand about your misgivings and agree a framework to take the fear out of completely free speaking. Share some of these techniques with your teacher – especially the Bingo Sheets – so they can also partake in the fun!

Above all, enjoy.

I hope these tips and tricks help your lessons go swimmingly. How else do you like to prepare for practice conversations? Let us know in the comments!

Bingo could be good for your speaking, too! Image by Michiel Meulemans on FreeImages.com

Speaking Bingo Sheets for Snappy Active Vocab Recall

When it comes to making vocabulary stick in memory, there are few more effective methods than actively working new material in your speaking practice.

Regularly engaging with new words and phrases in a foreign language is constructive recycling. They gain a salience in the brain beyond words on a page, helping to cement solid neural pathways. Practical use is a sure-fire way to move new material from passive to active knowledge, which is one reason that the Active Recall memory method works so well.

But sometimes, it is not enough to simply hope they come up in conversation. We need a systematic approach to target new vocab.

Polyglot pals, I present to you: speaking bingo sheets!

Speaking bingo sheets

In essence, speaking bingo sheets are simply preparation notes for conversation lessons – with a twist. Instead of a static list of items, they are a dynamic grid of entries that you tick off as you use them. And, like real bingo, you can add in an element of reward (and punishment, if you like!).

To get started, take a 3×3 grid. In each box, add a word or phrase from your recent language learning work. A three-square grid for nine items in total is ample, as more can get unwieldy. My own use of them has evolved from longer checklists to these snappier grilles, and the tighter focus feels much more amenable.

Ideally, all the items should be in a related topic (as it’s easier to fit them into a single conversation then!). As you use them while speaking with your tutor, you tick them off. Simple!

A speaking bingo sheet for Icelandic displayed in Notability for iPad.

Speaking Bingo Sheets needn’t be on paper – here’s one of mine in Icelandic on Notability for iPad.

If you need a bit of extra motivation, you can add a checklist of achievements and rewards below the grid. Your prizes can be as simple or elaborate as you want. A single line? A choccie bar with your coffee. A full house? Allow yourself to buy  that language learning book you’ve been eyeing up for months. You can add punishments too, but just enough to engender a bit of self-discipline. Be kind to yourself – the last thing you need is extra stress in something that should be a joy!

Your teacher can be in on the plan, if you like. But equally, bingo can be for your eyes only. And they’ll be left wondering just why you are so focused in your speaking today!

No lessons? No problem!

I use speaking bingo as part of my regular one-to-one conversation lessons with iTalki tutors. However, they lend themselves to all sorts of other learning situations, too.

If you are practising in situ on holiday, for example, you can set yourself a daily ‘speak sheet’ – nine things that you must try to say to native speakers. They can be as prosaic (“can I have a serviette, please?”) or as whacky (“do you know where I can buy a llama?”) as you like (or are brave enough to say). Unleashing your speaking game in the wild can not only be a bit of silly fun, but also great for building social confidence.

Even if you are nowhere special, with no native speakers within harassing distance, all is not lost. We learn a lot by teaching – or simply explaining – to others. In this case, simply make it your goal to explain each one of those grid items (meaning, pronunciation, etymology etc.) to nine different friends and family members.

However you do it, there is always a way to recycle, recycle, recycle, and move those words from passive to active memory.

Adapting for the classroom

Finally, there are also numerous variations of this you could try with a class of students. At an introductory level, each student could prepare a grid of questions like “what’s your name?“, “how old are you?” and so on. Then, with five minutes to mingle, their objective would be to ask – and record the answer – of every item on their grid. Prizes for a full house!

Structure and flexibility

Speaking bingo sheets are a great framework for using vocabulary and making it stick. They are flexible, in that you can create them from whatever material you choose. But they are also structured, lending some scaffolding to the otherwise very free realm of conversation.

Experiment, adapt and give them a go. And let us know how you get on in the comments!

 

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.