Pidgins - or pigeons? Picture by Lozba Paul,

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

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

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

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.

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!

Real-life language can be unpredictable, like this tangle of colourful liquorice sweeties!

Preparing for the unpredictable – developing flexible language thinking

We’ve all been there. You’ve learnt the tenses. Have the vocab down pat. You have a head full of model questions and answers. You are totally ready for to be unleashed onto the target language streets. But – agh – what was that answer that came back at you? What was that word again, and why can’t you remember it now? And why is this so much harder than when you were learning it? Conversation so often doesn’t stick to the script, and we can be totally thrown by the responses to your perfectly practised communication attempts. Real life is just so darn unpredictable!

Well, rest assured that it isn’t just you. There is a psychological phenomenon dubbed ‘context reinstatement’ that explains just what on Earth is going on. It’s a fancy name for something many of us intuitively know anyway – that being perfect in a learn-and-drill situation does not prepare you for the unpredictability of real life.

Underwater understanding

Classic memory research by Godden and Baddeley shows how we find retrieval easier when the context is the same as the original learning environment. The psychologist duo split their subjects into two groups. One group learnt a list of 40 words underwater, and the other group learnt them on the beach. Then, they tested each participant’s recall of the words in either the same, or the alternative environment.

The result? On average, subjects remembered 40% more when tested in the same environment that learning took place in.

The lesson from this is not – disappointingly – that we should all buy scuba gear and go and learn languages in the water. Rather, we can assume that vocabulary and structures will be easier to recall in a classroom if they were first learnt in a classroom. The familiar surroundings contain lots of cues, networked to those original memories, that help them bubble up to the surface. This explains why you may perform brilliantly in a vocab test in class, but struggle to find a word in a shop or restaurant in your target language country.

Context – a blessing and a curse

Superficially, the effect of context on recall can sometimes be a useful tool. If you want to improve recall, then you can attempt to recreate the environment where you first learnt the material. Taking a French/German/Spanish exam? Then take in some familiar objects, like your favourite pencil case or pen. Maybe sit in the same desk for class tests, or even wear the same clothes. There really is some psycho-science behind having ‘lucky’ clothes in this case!

The trouble with extending these techniques is the impracticality, or often, sheer impossibility of them in real life. In reality, we have very little control over scenarios where we want to speak a foreign language! Language happens anywhere and everywhere – by its nature, it is unpredictable.

Training for the unpredictable

So, how can you prepare yourself for, literally, anything that could happen in a target language situation? First off, nobody will be able to do that. That is half the fun and excitement of speaking foreign languages – it’s a rollercoaster ride of social surprises. But you can increase your chances of coping well with that. The trick is to promote flexible, rather than fixed thinking in your learning routines.

Vary your study settings

There is a common study tip based on busting the context-dependency of Godden and Baddeley’s experiment. It is, quite simply, to vary the environment that you learn in. In theory, this prevents specific language memories from becoming too attached to elements that won’t be present in the field.

You can extend this idea of  ‘environment’ to the whole ecosystem you use to learn – the apps, websites and materials that you form your learning materials. Find yourself exclusively using Duolingo to practise languages? Then give Anki a try, and build some custom vocabulary lists. Only using fixed listening material from language courses? Then maybe it’s time to try some podcasts. Take the predictability out of your learning, and you may increase your ability to cope with it in the real world.

Fluid notes

It’s also worth addressing how you keep your phrase lists, crib notes and vocab records, too. A rigid, fixed, linear structure to memorising dialogues, for example, leaves little room for digression in actual conversations. A static list of ten words that you learn in order will, likewise, not really promote flexible use in the day-to-day.

Instead, think about creating frameworks for your vocabulary instead. Rather than complete sentences, learn structures that you can fit many different words into, depending on the situation. I should have…I’ve already … and so on – frames you can grab and fill in your head on the go.

Recycling material in different ways is key here, too. Maybe learning discrete lists of ten words is an effective memorisation technique for you. Stick with that if so, but introduce some variety to the way you practise them. Run through the words in a different order – maybe using a flashcard app like Anki – and challenge yourself to make different, even whacky, sentences with them each time you revise. Mix it up – make sure that no learning session is the same.

Speaking is supreme

Finally, books and static materials will never suffice for training for the unpredictable. Even the immersive, language-in-situ nature of podcasts won’t mimic the two-way dynamic of real-life conversation.

For that end, the old adage always applies: speaking is supreme in language learning. I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of iTalki for face-to-face language practise. I’ve been finding lots of extra time for regular Skype lessons, simply to chat with a real person. It can be hard, and it’s natural to feel an aversion to difficult things and hide from them. But if you stick at it, you’ll reap the confidence rewards of coping better and better with natural language.

Embrace the unpredictable

Human beings are creatures of habit, and love routine. That’s why these techniques might sometimes feel so hard to adopt, even though they seem like common sense. It can be disconcerting to mix up your learning approaches ceaselessly, or throw yourself into environments where you are tested on the spot. But in the long run, you’ll thank yourself for it. Embrace change and variety, and become a more dynamic linguist for it!

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 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.

Learn tricks with verbs to get your conversation flying high above the clouds

Verbs made simple: make your conversation fly

English speakers have it easy with verbs. Aside from those pesky irregular ones, you’ve only got -s and -ed to worry about.

That’s why verbs can be the first brick wall anglophones hit when they begin a foreign language. Look at Spanish – every tense has six forms, one for each person (I, you, he/she/it etc.), and all of them are different from the word you’ll find in the dictionary. Look up hablar (to speak) as a total beginner, and it won’t tell you about hablo – hablas – habla – hablamos – habláis – hablan. And that’s just the present tense!

Now, I don’t mean to scare anyone off learning verbs. There’s actually a logical beauty to conjugation systems, especially for dyed-in-the-wool language geeks like me. The patterns might be unfamiliar, but they will come with time and patience.

However, there are a couple of tricks you can use as a total beginner to get your conversation flying, and not struggling to take off in a pea-souper of verb endings.

Cut-price verbs

Tables of verbs will easily overwhelm a beginner. It’s just a massive wall of words if you don’t know the language very well. But ask yourself: how much of that detail do you actually need as a beginner?

Chances are that as a newcomer to a language, your conversations will mainly be talking about yourself (I), or the person you’re speaking to (you). You’ll probably be doing most of that in the present tense (making general statements) or the past (talking about what happened). So why not cut the padding, and just focus on the four combinations of those things? In English, that would look like:

Present Past
I speak spoke
you speak spoke

In many languages, you can ask a question by simply changing the intonation of your voice. So you won’t even have to learn any special question forms. Pick out your simplified verb parts, and add them to your favourite vocab drilling program like Anki like you would with any other word or phrase. Paper flashcards are great for learning these verb parts, too.

But wait…

Ah, you might be thinking. My foreign language has several different past tenses according to what you’re talking about! Spanish, for example, has the preterite for single, completed actions, and the imperfect, for repeated or habitual actions in the past.

Well, just take one of them. If you’re talking about stuff that happened in Spanish, then the preterite (the ‘story-telling’ past) is probably the best. In German, the perfect tense might be best, as it’s used as a ‘conversational past’. Whichever tense you choose, if you use it incorrectly, most native speakers will be forgiving and still understand. And comprehension is the name of the game, right?

So, here’s our ‘essential conjugation’ for the Spanish verb hablar (to speak):

Present Past (Preterite)
yo hablo hablé
hablas hablaste

The same goes for languages with different familiar and polite words for you. Pick just one, for now. Make it the one that makes most sense for you – I used the familiar in the Spanish above. If you’ll be speaking with peers and other students, then probably the familiar one is best. If you’ll be in lots of formal situations, learn the polite one.

To be, or not to be

Of course, you can go one step further, and not learn any endings at all. The trick is to find phrases that you can just slot that dictionary form – the infinitive – into. Then, just look up your word, pop it into your sentence, and voilà! Neatly-formed sentences without any effort.

Taking Spanish and French as an example, here are just a few stock phrases you can use with an infinitive:

Spanish French English
Hay que … Il faut … I/you/we must …
Me gusta … J’aime … I like …
Voy a … Je vais … I’m going to …

Just look up a verb in the dictionary, and wodge it on the end. Simples!

It’s all about making your job as a learner easier. Simplify – you’ll be communicating all the sooner for it!

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!