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

Speaking without foundations (and putting it right)

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

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

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

Speaking high and dry

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

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

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

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

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

Swallow that pride!

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

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

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

Two tiers

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

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

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

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

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

Many routes to the same destination – walk them all

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

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

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

A bunch of Norwegian banknotes - what opportunity can you imagine springing from these? Image from freeimages.com

Polyglot Superpowers : Turning Calamity into Opportunity

Foreign languages are superpowers. A bold claim? Well, just think about it: they allow you to perform impressive feats that others cannot. Polyglot people can leverage their skills to open doors, get things done, create opportunities and build bridges, amongst many other things.

Still not convinced by the superpower label? Think of it this way. Just like superpowers, those without foreign language skills actually wish for it as a skill. “Learning Spanish”, for example, featured recently in a top ten ‘most desired’ skill list according to Skillup.

Powerful, elusive and desired: language skills are definitely super.

So what feats can we achieve with foreign languages? Mulling this over brought to mind a personal holiday headache where languages saved the day (and a fair bit of cash)…

Funny money

Being a lover of norsk, I try to travel to Norway as often as possible to practise. As a result, I tend to have a few Norwegian coins and notes lying around the house. No great fortunes, of course – I should be so lucky! Usually, it’s just a few NOK here and a couple of NOK there. But just before I left on this particular trip, I made a lucky find: three crisp, forgotten 200 NOK notes in a drawer. Nearly £60 I’d forgotten about. What a stroke of luck!

That is, until I got to Norway and tried use one to pay for my calzone in Deli de Luca. (Please don’t judge me – it’s one of the cheapest ways to eat as a visitor to Norway on a non-Norwegian wage!) Expecting a smooth, easy transaction – level A1 stuff at best – I was met with a stern look and a “det gjelder ikke lenger” (that’s no longer valid). Yes, unbeknownst to me, Norges Bank had withdrawn billions of NOK’s worth of money since I exchanged those forgotten notes at the Post Office. Oops.

Treasure hunt

Miffed at the thought of wasted money, the usual reservedness fell away. I had to find out what was going on.

Now, when you really want to know something, it’s astonishing how quickly and easily the words flow. And, through a bit of agitated questioning, I learnt from my Deli de Luca operative that all was not lost. There was still just one single bank in Oslo where I could exchange the old notes for new.

When you really want to know something, it’s astonishing how quickly and easily the words flow.

The treasure hunt was on, and it was an Odyssey of words. Using my best Bokmål on the staff at my hotel, I first figured out how to get to the bank. Being on the opposite side of town (typical!), I had to crack out my very best phrasebook language in order to navigate across the breadth of the city. Then, at the austere-looking bank offices, I explained my way past the security guard, and then on to the elderly teller, bemused by the story of the money I almost left past its sell-by date.

Finally – mission accomplished! I walked away with three brand new, reissued 200 kroner notes. Only as the determination gave way to relief did I realise how much Norwegian I’d spoken along the adventure.

And to think that I’d started this journey feeling nervous about asking for a calzone!

Polyglot power-up opportunities

Hey presto. A bit of language magic turned a handful of worthless paper into enough cash for a (rather small) Norwegian meal. Now, could I have navigated this calamity using English? Most likely, since there is wide knowledge of English in Norway.

But would I have learnt anything? Not a fraction. As it was, I felt the polyglot superpower grow just a little bit stronger for it. And I am certain that the whole process was smoother for the smiles and nods at a foreign visitor making the effort to speak the language. It can really bring out the best in people, disarming them and eliciting warmth and kindness. Speak, gesture, explain, but above all, communicate to get the help you need.

You can apply your foreign language magic to most holiday headache situations, and watch the shoots grow. And, as I found, there is little greater motivation to speak than the need to sort out personal issues. (Money, food and drink are all very effective, in my experience!)

In the path of danger?

Obviously nobody wants to go out actively seeking disaster. But there are ways to put yourself in the path of danger, so to speak, in safe and controlled ways.

Set up situations where you need to speak the language to get along

For one thing, you can actively set up situations where you need to speak the language to get along. Try booking self-catering accommodation, for example.  The basic need for food will force you out to practise those supermarket conversations. Or even better: make a point of going to smaller, local grocery shops for your ingredients. That’s a polyglot treasure hunt with a tasty reward at the end of it!

If you are something of a shy polyglot like me, then these motivational scenarios are excellent for bringing you out of your shell.

The magic of the everyday

That polyglot problem-solving power is a tool on your belt to handle any situation you might find yourself in on your travels. Of course, on the face of it, you might say that there is no magic here. This is just plain old resourcefulness, right?

Well, it cannot hurt to lend a little magical realism to an appraisal of your skills. Superpowers, like all skills and abilities, are means to an end, ways to get things done. Keep busting calamities in your billowing cape. And think of your language skills as superpowers with a bit of open sesame! magic. It’s a great way to create a sense of pride in them.

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!