Maybe it’s seeing the mountains of East Sutherland far across the water, near which Nancy Dorian researched the sadly moribund local dialects of Gaelic, that prompts me. Or perhaps it’s just that quintessentially Scottish coastal mix of sea, sky and moorland that gets me in the mood. Whatever it is, I’m more likely to settle down with Gaelic here than in any of my other favourite reading places.
Banff and Macduff Bay, across from which the hills of Sutherland can just be made out
There’s a potential downside to that, according to some educational psychologists. Research into context-dependent memory suggests that material learnt exclusively in one environment may be harder to recall in others.
The choice of book says a lot, too. As if to match the homely nostalgia, on each trip home I’ve been working my way further into Roderick Mackinnon’s original Teach Yourself Gaelic, 1971 (1992 reissue). A treasure of an old language book, if ever there was one.
An unashamedly posed shot of Teach Yourself Gaelic
What languages, books and places go together for you? Do you have a preferred nook or corner of the world to settle down to some study in? Let us know!
Sometimes an old, long-neglected language project will rise up and demand attention again. “Remember me, old friend?” The reasons can be many. But the call can be hard to resist. Over the past few weeks, my former passion for Greek bubbled up from the linguistic Lethe, that river of oblivion where loved ones drift off to be forgotten. And the trigger? Food.This is fast becoming a theme…
Now, this taste for all things Greek is nothing new. I was always a bit of an unabashed Hellenohile. Some of my earliest solo expeditions, learning about the world as a travel-mad youth, were to Greece. In fact, my first trip abroad on my own was island-hopping back in 1997, armed with just a one-way ticket and a rucksack. Admittedly, it wasn’t a complete success – I had money stolen from my debit card and had to come home early and dejected (although a happy ending: everything was reimbursed by the bank on my return, thankfully).
On a Greek adventure in 1997.
But naive rookie tourist mishaps aside, there is no denying the touch of paradise to the region. Cast an eye over a Santorini or Mykonos sunset and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
And yes, Greece and Cyprus have brought some of my all-time favourite entries to the Eurovision Song Contest. You know me by now – Eurovision is always somewhere in the language learning mix. Before I even began to learn in earnest, I knew a host of terms of varying usefulness. These included αγάπη (love), άνοιξη (spring), αστέρι (star), ελπίδα (hope), Φωτιά (fire), θάλασσα (sea), σταφύλι (grape) and all the other lovely things people tended to sing about in Greek at Eurovision.
In fits and starts over the years, I cobbled together what you might call holiday Greek. Although I probably never strayed beyond A1, I have always been pretty proud of that achievement. After all, it was one of my very first self-taught language projects. Very few materials were available besides phrasebooks and basic primers back then, mostly tailored to holidaymakers. But it was enough for me to Get By In Greek, as one of those 90s titles went.
Learning Greek as a purely functional, transactional language for travelling meant that there was rarely much academic rigour to that study. But as a result, when I do come to use it, even today it seems more serviceable and everyday useful than some of my more ‘serious’ languages.
Also – and this is a consequence of the performance pressure we put ourselves under with close, considered study – I think I might even be a little less nervous about speaking a language I openly admit is (very) imperfect but useable. If it works when popping to the φούρνος (bakery), that’s enough for me.
A Taste of Greek
But back to food. And there is honestly nothing quite like Greek food. It is arguably the best comfort cuisine in the world. And a chance TV encounter earlier this year stirred that long-time love of Hellenic language and culture.
And he is ready for it – he has a ton of content online, from his own recipe website to the full gamut of social media feeds, full of foodspiration. But as it stands, much of that is in Greek, tailoring for that faithful home audience.
So if you really want to access his edible world of wonder, you would do well to dig out the Ελληνικά.
As far as social media is concerned, live content streaming is one of the best and most accessible sources of authentic materials for language learners. Watching in real time is a brilliant way to feel connected to your target language right now, in the real world. And throughout lockdown, Akis* has been live-streaming from his kitchen regularly, making – and eating – the tastiest samples of Greek cooking for his fans. Let me tell you, it is hard not to get hooked back into the country and culture when a plateful of πορτοκαλόπιτα (orange pie) is staring you in the face.
Not to mention the fact that Greek, at least to my ear, comes across as one of the most clearly articulated European languages. It has a staccato, precise flow that somehow matches your perception of the word written on the page, without everything mushing together as it comes out of the mouth.
(As an aside – I have no academic backup at all to claim this of Greek. I’d love to hear of research into the clarity of Greek speech patterns if you are aware of any!)
As a perpetual Greek beginner, this makes it easier to pick out familiar words in normal, free-flowing and sometimes very complicated speech. Listening to those feeds, that handful of familiar words just pops out: γάλα (milk), φράουλα (strawberry), ψωμί (bread)… and it is so satisfying to feel like you understand. Even just a little.
So whats does my Greek revival look like? Well, a bit of Duolingo now and again is a good (if predictable) start. Appropriately, food vocab one of the first things you’ll learn in many of these courses. That has been immediately useful!
You probably know what comes next, fellow language enthusiast. With the Greek bug taking hold, out came all the old books, including one of my first ever language learning purchases, Linkword Greek.
But was that enough? Of course not. My copy of Essential Greek Grammar arrived in the post today. Incorrigible, I am.
Aren’t books almost as delicious as food, though?
Has anything inspired you back to your language learning roots lately? Please let us know in the comments below or on Twitter!
This week, I’m blogging from the grand hall of the Union Hotel in Ljubljana, Slovenia, as an excitable, kid-in-a-candy-store, first-time attendee of the annual Polyglot Conference. As expected, it’s been a bit of a language wonderland. I’ve been stuffed full of fresh ideas and inspiration for new projects.
But one concrete lesson it has taught me is this: impostor syndrome, that fear of not being good enough, is pretty much ubiquitous. However, more importantly, community is the antidote for it.
The sumptuous hall at the Grand Union Hotel, Ljubljana, venue for the Polyglot Conference 2018.
Now, I am naturally quite a shy person. A shy polyglot – what a frustrating thing to be. All those languages, and all that extra anxiety speaking to new people! Needless to say, it was quite a leap to book my conference ticket. But it was completely worth it, not least for the “people practice”, as I like to call it. An especially valuable observation has been a tonic for my confidence as a passionate polyglot.
It is that feeling that you are not on the same shelf as all those other impressive people. You’re a pretender to the throne, just blagging, a bit of a fraud. You can’t really speak all those languages. You know just a bit at best, and would crumble under scrutiny. In short, you aren’t really a fully-fledged polyglot – just a wannabe who can say a few words.
But let me tell you two things. Firstly, you are absolutely not alone in feeling this. Secondly, none of those fears are based in truth.
Look yourself in the face
One wonderful thing about the polyglot community is that it acts like a mirror. Be bold enough to look into it, and you see yourself reflected back multiple times. You realise the universality of your experience.
Put a few hundred language enthusiasts in a room, and it leaps out at you. We are all achieving, succeeding, thriving. In different ways, at different levels, yes. But nobody is a fraud. Revelling in a love of language learning is all it takes to be part of this club. There is no such thing as the fully-fledged, perfectly shaped polyglot.
Something quite sweet happened to me at the conference, which confirmed the truth of this.
At the best of times, socialising with hundreds of unknown people is daunting. Very few of us are natural schmoozers. And so it was that I found myself, lunch plate in hand, hovering alone around groups of people that seemed so much better at small talk than I am.
Serendipitously, my forlorn wanderings were noticed. I was rescued by a kindly (and similarly floating) delegate, and naturally, we got chatting about our language journeys. It was an easy point of conversation; all delegates bore self-decorated name badges, including sticky flags representing our languages and proficiency.
A little push…
The thing was, my conference friend started to mention her experience of languages not on my name badge. Each time, I piped up: oh, I know a bit of that! And each time, the reply was the same – so where is your flag? Exasperated by my explanation that I just don’t know enough of it!, she dragged me to the table of flags and insisted that I add them.
Shortly afterwards, we found ourselves in the language room, an area with designated tables for a common ‘big’ languages to encourage speaking. Thanks to the extra flags, I ended up having conversations in old / discontinued / parked languages I never expected to use.
And guess what? I coped!
What’s more, nobody else was the perfect, native-fluency wizard I built them up to be. We simply shared the joy of language. I spoke to people who shared my fears, felt too shy to speak, but once prompted, just couldn’t stop communicating. Understanding each other’s common experiences, polyglot friends were patient, kind and encouraging. All it takes is a bit of self-belief to get going (and sometimes, a little push from someone who can spark that it in you).
Language learners are used to working with others. These tend to be language specialists: teachers, conversation exchange partners or fellow students. But support in learning languages does not have to be in the target language. Not convinced? Well recently, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a coach on achieving my self-set language goals. Through coaching, I’ve been able to focus on improving how I learn, rather than just cramming content. And I’m completely sold on the usefulness of it to your learning toolkit.
You can take this a step further, though, and seek out a real-life, human coach to work with. This can be face-to-face, or, more likely these days, online via Skype or similar. For the past month, I’ve been scheduling weekly slots with a coach online. The experience has been nothing but positive, and I’m excited to share how the process can unstick even the stickiest, most disorganised linguist!
Search for the hero inside yourself
Coaching builds on the principle that, in many cases, the answers are already inside ourselves. They just need coaxing out. Avril, my coach, puts this succinctly: she is my tour guide. She shows me around and points things out that I might miss. But the landscape is one of my own making.
How can we not know ourselves, and how can a coach help bridge the gap? The problem is that we are all embedded in busy, often chaotic lives of overlapping priorities.
Coaching in the eyes of a coach
Maybe it’s best to let a coaching expert do the talking here. Cameron Murdoch, experienced coach and mentor at Coaching Studio, puts it like this:
Coaching is often about being challenged by the coach by them using powerful questions. Quite often you have the answer yourself, but it needs another person to draw it out.
The coach also acts as an accountability partner type figure so you set targets but they make sure you achieve them. They help you also if you hit a brick wall and help you tackle issues that develop that could stop you. They also help celebrate achievement as well as walk through problems.
It’s a way of opening up the mind to push you out of your comfort zone and into the learning zone – but making sure you don’t step into the panic zone. They push you just enough to learn, but not to panic.
Quite simply, a coaching partner can push you where you won’t push yourself, and help you see things when you are too close to the issues to see them yourself.
Talking with Avril recently, we likened this to a pile of tangled wool of difference colours. A coach can help you to pick out strands of the same colour, and place them neatly on their own to analyse and optimise. Instantly, you then see what needs doing. In this way, a coach lifts your goal-oriented activity out of the chaos and makes it visible; and that makes it so much more manageable.
Plan of action
For me, a key ‘obvious’ was simply organising my time better.
I instinctively knew that one key to making my learning more systematic would be to use calendar blocking. In fact, it was so ‘obvious’, that I’d even written an article about it. But, somehow, your own advice can be the hardest to put into practice.
Instead of learning bits and pieces here and there, I agreed with my coach to allocate half- or full-hour slots of time where I could sit down and focus entirely on a chapter of a course book, or active reading of a news article.
What helps keep you on the straight and narrow is a sense of accountability. These are not empty promises I’ve made myself. Rather, every week, I have to report how I’m getting on to someone who is following me along the road. The effect is surprisingly motivating!
Finding a coaching partner
Apps like Coach.me include an option to contract with a human coach through the app. You can do a simple Google search for coaches too, although be aware that the kind of coaching I’m talking about here is not life coaching, and it seems that Google tends to favour those results above other goal-oriented coaching services.
On a personal level, I can recommend checking out Cameron Murdoch as a coach or source of pointers and other coach recommendations. He’s quite an inspirational guy for many reasons; you’ll see some of these on his LinkedIn profile.
Be a guinea pig
However, you might well know somebody working towards a coaching qualification. If you’re lucky enough to be offered a set of sessions as their guinea pig, that’s a superb opportunity.
Even if that’s not an option, I believe that the standard hourly rate (anything from £75 upwards depending on the coach’s experience) is well worth it if it unlocks a higher tier of learning.
Typically, you will also specify a finite block of coaching time – say, ten sessions – so, unlike fitness training, for example, there is an end point in sight. This helps in budgeting, especially if you’re not keen on the idea of another outgoing bill / subscription ad infinitum. Of course, you might choose to carry on a coaching relationship if you think you need the helping hand!
I’m still travelling my coaching journey, and have a number of sessions to go. But already, I can see its huge value as a language learner. Whether through an app service, or with a real-life human being, give coaching a try: it might just set you right back on track with your languages.
Sometimes there are people who happen upon a language learning system that just works. Sometimes it’s planned, sometimes it’s accidental. But those people are great sources of inspiration and ideas for people like us.
As an example, I’ve always been particularly awed and encouraged by the linguistic adventures of two friends – let’s call them Aaron and Bob, to spare their blushes. And in this post, I’ll introduce you to them, and hopefully pass on some of that inspiration. I promise, their story has a lot to motivate other language lovers!
The full whammy
Aaron and Bob embody possibly the noblest motivation for language learning: cultural fascination. They’ve been learning Japanese together for some years now, driven by a mutual love of all things Nippon. And they are shining examples of the wonderful technique of ‘going the full whammy’ with language learning.
The crux is that they don’t simply learn words and phrases. They positively soak their lives in all things Japanese. Art, cuisine, music – when you visit their home, it’s in every corner. Once a month, for example, they receive a subscription box of Japanese sweet treats from Tokyo Treat. (It turns out there are loads of these – Japan Crate and DokiDokiBoxie, for example.) There are always some lying around, and they’re particularly generous with guests!
This love of Nippon had the kind of humble beginning a lot of us are familiar with: musing over dream holidays. As Bob explains:
The very start of it was not long after we first moved in together (about 10 years ago!), we were daydreaming about places we’d like to go on holiday one day, and we both agreed that Japan was a dream destination. But we thought we wouldn’t be able to get much out of it without knowing some of the language. Several years later, we had better jobs, so bigger holidays became a possibility. We were looking for something new to learn together and thought Japanese would be a good option because we were both complete beginners and had friends who had studied it at uni. Aaron found beginners’ classes and we signed up together in early 2011.
The passion and inspiration seems to have snowballed since then, turning into a huge, loveable oni (Japanese monster / ogre) that has somehow captured everyone who surrounds the lads! 👹
Bringing friends along for the ride
Perhaps one of Aaron and Bob’s biggest triumphs is in socialising their learning. Through their generosity of spirit, they have managed to bring all of their friends along for the ride in a celebration of Japan.
Although we may not be learning Japanese with them, our hosts regularly bathe us in their cultural finds, be they unusual sweeties, or home-cooked, Tokyo-inspired treats. They make us laugh with stories of the Japanese monster scene, and teach us how those strange emoticons are really meant to be used. They share favourite pieces of art on social media, and introduce us to their cache of Japanese furries at home. Every step of their language learning journey really is a celebration. 🎉
For them, this creates a constant positive feedback loop around the language learning experience. It’s fun to share for both the lads and us friends; they create a cloud of good vibes around Japanese, which becomes a huge motivator for continuing the journey.
Two heads are better than one
I think what helps the pair, too, is the sense of joint enterprise. Learning together throws up myriad opportunities for fun, as well as solidarity in the more staid, but still essential components, like mutual testing and exam practice. It’s wonderful if you have a partner ready to learn with you like this, but if not, you can still source a language buddy online. For example, sites like iTalki can help you locate fellow-minded learners across the globe if there’s nobody nearby who shares the passion.
Going to the target language country together offers a great opportunity to egg each other on, too. They’ve recently returned from a trip to Japan full of stories. I’m particularly impressed at how they’ve made the most of curious, talkative eldery Japanese citizens in bars – cultural exchange, barroom style! Moreover, when abroad, we often seem different and conspicuous – so why not make a point of it, and chat about those differences with locals? They have that skill down to a tee.
Language is everywhere
There are some caveats, of course. You could say that Aaron and Bob chose their language very well in terms of immersion and availability. Japanese culture seems to enjoy a good deal of cool factor in the West, and is quite accessible for lovers of the alternative. Target-language-ising their lives might have been a bit harder if they’d been learning, say, Albanian.
But nonetheless, with a bit of research, you can fill your playlists with music from anywhere, these days. Spotify and YouTube include representatives from the whole world over. Put some music together, look up some recipes, and hold a celebration night for your target language culture. Or simply insert a few of these things into your usual gatherings. Make culture your inspiration.
Aaron and Bob’s approach is to take one language and culture, and do it in style. This might get tricky if you’re learning multiple languages, but there is a bit of that approach that any learner can adopt, polyglossic or otherwise. In short, we could all benefit from being a bit more like Aaron and Bob!
I’ve written recently about learning a language through your interests. By binding your life’s passions with your learning goals, something special ignites. Living the dream as a language learner is all about throwing everything into it, about living life to the max, but through the language. And this weekend, I got the chance to do just that in Oslo.
I’ve always loved music, big arena events and the excitement of live TV. Add languages to that, and it’s no surprise that Eurovision has been a fascination of mine from an early age. Some countries are closer than other when it comes to sharing this love. Fortunately, for me, one of them is Norway – pretty handy for a Norwegian learner! So, what better reason to come to Norway than a couple of tickets for Norway’s Eurovision preselection show, Melodi Grand Prix?
Slice of life
It’s no longer just about the songs, of course – nine out of ten of the entries this year were in English, not Norwegian. But being part of such a big event of national interest drags you straight into the centre of the Norwegian microcosm. You see a real slice of life, being a popular family event; surrounded by cheering, proud citizens of all ages and backgrounds gives you a lovely feel of what it’s like to be a part of Norway.
More importantly, there’s the chance to chat. There’s something about a concert that breaks down barriers, and it was easy to swap opinions and discuss favourites with people sitting nearby. In fact, it was pretty unavoidable, once your cover is blown as an utlending (foreigner)… Everybody wants to know what you think of their national songs!
Melodi Grand Prix 2018
Dip in, dip out
Unless you are moving to a country to live, it is hard to embed yourself fully in social and cultural life. But this kind of intense dip-in, dip-out relationship can be a real shot in the arm for language learners. With Norway, of course, high costs dictate that visits (for now) are generally short weekend trips like this. But it’s enough to feel part of something, to keep passion alight, and to make friends that will slowly fasten you to your target language lands.
Choose your dream – and live it
This is what living my language learning dream looks like. Now, seek out what you love about your chosen cultures, and throw yourself headfirst into it. You will construct deep and rewarding connections that will last well beyond you have reached proficiency in a language.
The weekend inspired me to reflect on my experiences as a shy learner of Norwegian. Hear my thoughts below!
Our love of languages is so much more than words on a page. It is about the journey language facilitates for us, and the people that join us on that journey. The most special of these people become our language heroes, for one reason or another. And with this post, I mark the memory of a very, very special language hero of mine: my Nan, Phyllis Soley.
Nan was a sharp and witty lady. Although she didn’t learn languages herself, she was a dab hand at general knowledge rounds on TV quizzes. But she saw something in my love of languages that she appreciated and wanted to nurture.
Books, books and more books
She spotted early on that my fascination for language was tightly bound with a love of books. My very first language book – Teach Yourself French (the lovely old 80’s blue cover version!) – was bought with my couple of pounds of pocket money on one of our many family trips to Burnham-on-Sea. Barely even 10 years old, those early days rummaging around the tiny language section set off a journey of exploration that had no end.
When I was a bit older, I graduated from the little seaside bookshop to “the big Waterstones” in Birmingham. After the half-hour train journey from our home town, Nan would wisely ask the staff for a chair. She knew I’d need lots of time looking at the language books. Nan never complained, but sat there patiently, watching me pick out countless courses and grammars. It was a passion she was happy to indulge.
Years later, when her legs failed her, she’d still sate my hunger for books, insisting that I buy a new tome from her to me on birthdays and at Christmas. My shelves are still full of books she gifted me.
In 1995, when I won a place to study languages at the University of Oxford, she was my chief cheerleader. My whole time there, she would send care parcels and pocket money to ease the bumps. To my student shame, she would even take in my laundry with Mum on my home visits. In a hundred ways, Nan typified my family’s love and encouragement for the path I’d chosen to follow in languages.
One certain language-based memory I have is particularly special. A fervent fan of the Eurovision Song Contest in the 1990s, I tended to travel back home from uni to watch it each year. Naturally, I would insist on all members of my family watching it too. Back then, of course, the songs were in the national language of each country – a bit of a linguist’s dream-come-true in those pre-Internet days, when foreign-language TV was something you needed a special satellite dish for.
In May of 1997, I travelled home for the weekend, and watched it at her house. It was just Nan and me, that night – and the UK won. She sat patiently with me through all of those songs in Norwegian, Estonian, Polish and more – and was rewarded with a win.
Nan didn’t mind watching at all – or at least, never admitted to it. She knew I loved music and knew I loved languages, and joined in the fun with me. (I’m sure it could get annoying, years later, when I’d call after the show and request the lowdown on all her favourites, in detail!)
Celebrate your everyday heroes
Language heroes don’t need to be amazing linguists themselves. They are more often than not the loving people around us, who encourage and nurture. As much as the teachers and inspirational figures that guide us, they help us to achieve our goals. Maybe it’s that person who bought your first language book, or took you on your first holiday abroad where you spoke a foreign language. It might even just be someone who kept you going with kind words. Whatever they did, we are lucky to have them in our lives, and perhaps, one day, we can do the same for others.
As a linguist, it feels fitting that I created a tribute to her through language – in fact, in her own words. Some years ago, I gave Nan a dictaphone and said she could record whatever she liked, in order to relieve some of the boredom of being wheelchair-bound. The result was a collection of recordings of Nan retelling her early life story. It’s a wonderful, precious thing that we’ll cherish forever. (And, incidentally, it permanently preserves her lovely Stourbridge accent – something of interest if you like exploring British dialects!)
We said goodbye to my wonderful Nan only very recently, which is my reason for celebrating her in this post. It’s important to find a hero like Nan for your journey. Someone who will always believe in you; someone who will be your greatest fan. She will always be with me, by my side, proud of me and egging me on. She will always be my hero.
Some things can be moreish. Chocolate, for example. You might think you can’t get enough of it. Your enthusiasm for the sweet stuff takes over, you race through your stash of secret supplies, and before you know it, you’re feeling bleugh. Those four Mars Bars and the family size Galaxy have done you no good.
Likewise, if you enjoy learning languages, extreme enthusiasm can be a hindrance. That sounds like a terrible thing to say – enthusiasm for learning is truly wonderful, of course. But, at the sharp end, it can be too much of a good thing.
When I’m on a learning kick, and the enthusiasm bug bites, I speed up. I want to devour words, rules, facts, figures.
And often, that means I rush ahead and skip the basics.
Now, I could pick any number of languages I’ve tried learning in the past to illustrate this. For example, the Icelandic language truly fascinates me. Historically a pretty conservative language, it’s as close to Old Norse as a modern foreign language gets. And as Norwegian learner too, there are tons of common points of interest between the two. It’s just incredibly interesting.
I spent a good year thrashing away at it some time ago. I did reasonably well, too, learning lots of grammar in particular (I am a total grammar boffin). However, I never really gained any colloquial fluency.
The reason for that is the chocolate problem. I found the language enthralling, and developed a real taste for it. But that meant I raced ahead, guzzling up the interesting stuff long before I should have. That’s a great recipe for learning without practical application.
I became the kind of linguist who could explain and conjugate complex verb paradigms in Icelandic, but couldn’t tell the time, count or say hello. Oops. Not so handy in Reykjavík.
DeFEating my nemesis
Because of this, Icelandic was always a bit of a ‘nemesis’ language for me. Every time, it would entice me a little too much, and I’d gorge on it to the point of saturation. Every time, it beat me, leaving me bursting with grammar, but with little practical application.
But I like a challenge, and if anything, Icelandic is the perfect vehicle to exercise a new, restrained enthusiasm. I picture myself down but not out, bellowing “you shall not beat me!” at it from the boxing ring floor. To that end, I’ve returned to the language recently, and thanks to a really good teacher on iTalki, am systematically filling in the gaps in the basics. We’re using a set of beginner’s resources that are available for free: Íslenska fyrir alla (Icelandic for everyone), and, for a change, I’m sticking to the plan.
Pig out – but not too often!
So, to return to chocolate (what a great idea), taking it bite by bite is advised. Little, but often. It doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes pig out – but don’t let it ruin your diet!
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…
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
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.