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

Social Scaffolding from the Past

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

Social Glue: Fast and Slow

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

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

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

Lessons from the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing New Under The Sun

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

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

A picture of an open book. Image from freeimages.com

No Stress? No Stress! Are languages without accent cues good for the memory?

Some years ago, when I started learning Russian, I had one huge bugbear. Stress marks – or the lack of them.

If you’re a Russian learner, you’ll recognise that initial frustration. Firstly, Russian is an unfixed (or phonemic) stress language. That means there’s no predictable rule to determine where the stressed syllable of a word falls. Stress patterning varies from language to language, even in the same family. Russian’s close cousin Polish, for example, is a fixed-stress language, with stress so regular that you could set your watch by it. In Polish, almost without exception, the penultimate syllable of every word carries the weight.

So, with unfixed stress languages, stress can come anywhere, and that gives you a little bit of extra information to learn with each new word. Granted, some languages do give you a helping hand. Greek, for example, has stress as unguessable as Russian, but (so considerately!) the stressed syllable of a word is always marked with an accent. Thank you, Greek!

Not so in Russian. And it’s crucial to know where the stress is, especially in words with the vowel ‘o’, which is pronounced differently in stressed and unstressed positions.

Nightmare!

An excerpt from a Russian textbook. No stress is marked.

No stress = more stressful?

But perhaps it’s less of a nightmare than it might seem at first glance…

Memory Stress Test

The fact is that unmarked stress does leave you to provide that extra information from your mental lexicon, which is tough at first for non-natives. In the early stages, it will involve a lot of looking up in a dictionary, where stress is usually indicated.

But as I gained confidence in Russian, a bit of magic started to happen. I started to enjoy a big boon of satisfaction when recognising a word ‘in the wild’ straight away, knowing where the stress was from previous learning and exposure.

It’s just a guess, but I wonder whether the extra bit of brain work is actually a helping factor in committing  those vocab items to long-term memory. You have more information to store away with each word, and more mental heavy lifting involved to recognise and retrieve them when reading. In short, that’s more work to master them, and more work means more time for your brain to mull them over. It’s like a constant fill-in-the-gaps challenge to keep the language-learning mind in a constant state of workout.

Extreme ‘Fill-in-the-gaps’

The effect is even stronger in the case of Hebrew. Now Hebrew is quite a different kettle of fish, but the same phenomenon crops up for learners in another guise. On one hand, the stressed syllable is quite regular in Hebrew. Rather, it’s the entire category of vowels that isn’t usually indicated at all in text.

An excerpt from a Modern Hebrew text. No stress - but no vowels either!

The great Hebrew vowel challenge!

That means that the onus of filling in the phonetic shape of the word is completely on memory and experience. As a learner, you have to draw on all sorts of clues to match the word on the page to the item and its pronunciation.  It’s a kind of fuzzy-matching process that really sharpens your recognition of vocab.

I haven’t come across any research into this yet, but it might make a good dissertation topic for some enthusiastic linguist at some point!

Question marks after a mix-up. Image from freeimages.com.

Mix-Up Management – Laughing Off Word Confusion

We all get things wrong when we’re learning a foreign language. Given that we get things wrong in our first languages all the time (just look at Malapropisms and Spoonerisms), there’s absolutely not a drop of shame in that, of course. What’s more, the odd comedy word mix-up can be a rich source of effective educational moments. My go-to personal anecdote (retold so many times I won’t go into detail here) involves the German words Durcheinander (mess) and Durchfall (diarrhoea). Enough said.

Mix-up bloopers are at the fore of my mind lately, as they keep cropping up in Greek. Like German, Greek likes deriving native vocabulary with prefixes, so there is ample scope for someone like me to make repeated comedy slip-ups. The perfect funny word mix-up doesn’t always have to be with near-identical words, either. In fact, the most hilarious of them are usually only similar in a shared prefix or syllable. Here are some of my most frequent howlers of late:

κατάσταση (katástasi) – situation κατάστημα (katástima) – shop
σημαίνει (siméni) – it means συμβαίνει (simvéni) – it happens
απόγευμα (apóyefma) – afternoon αποτέλεσμα (apotélesma) – result
θεός (théos) – god θείος (thíos) – uncle

The greater the difference in meaning, the funnier mistakes can be. Depending on your appreciation of inappropriate humour, they can lighten the heaviest of moods. One of my best recent Greek openers is:

  • How is the coronavirus shop in Greece at the moment?

The Same But Different

But there’s another class of mix-up which has little to do with how similar the words are. Instead, the confusion occurs when the words have been learned together, creating a kind of messed-up context effect. A somewhat embarrassing recent example of mine involves the pair:

  • θαυμάσιο (thafmásio) – wonderful
  • απαίσιο (apésio) – awful

This antithetical pair isn’t particularly similar, save the -σιο (-sio) ending. The problem is, I learnt them together in the same chapter of Teach Yourself Greek about twenty years ago. And because of that, they’re united in unholy matrimony forever more.

You can see where this is headed, friends. They’re obviously both great words for reacting to another person recounting news or a personal story. During a recent Greek conversation class, my teacher was explaining how his elderly grandmother has quite serious diabetes, which is why she is shielding during the coronavirus crisis. My reaction?

Wonderful!

Oops. Good job he has a good sense of humour too. It wasn’t the first time, of course – that was responding to news of an earthquake. And for sure, it won’t be the last.

The Mix-Up Upside

Inappropriately funny outcomes are actually great news, though. No, honestly, they are! After you crawl out of the hole in the ground you fell into, these moments actually create huge extra salience in your memory. Weight is attached to them. You easily remember those laughs you had over comic misunderstandings. Sometimes you even give them names. With my Greek tutor, I’ve dubbed the shop-situation one ‘the Richard error‘, for instance. I will never forget those words now.

That said, if they prove persistent, it can be a good idea to be a bit more active in ironing them out. For me, the best remedy is simply ensuring to drill vocabulary in context rather than as isolated words. Learning the Greek for situation in a full sentence provides further sound cues like prosody and rhythm, which ultimately cements the word in memory along with its active usage.

One method for this is customising Anki vocab cards to include a field for an example sentence. For native-translated source sentences you can turn to a simple Google search, but I particularly like to use the Tatoeba corpus site for its language-specific search features. Corpus engines with mass sentence archives from subtitles, like Glosbe.com, are also extremely handy.

An Anki card in Greek with a sample sentence to help avoid a mix-up with other words.

An Anki card in Greek with a sample sentence to help avoid a mix-up with other words. This is another from the mass of kata- prefixed words that can be so tricky!

Talking of comedy, one of the most fun things about subtitle databases is their out-of-context hilarity. My sample sentence above, for example, means: “Babies are not good at building roads, look.” I haven’t a clue where this comes from (and to be honest, it’s probably best left a mystery). Needless to say, it makes me chuckle every time it pops up. After all, it ticks the be a clown box, and that is no bad thing when learning languages.

In short, if you find yourself confusing shops for situations, laugh it off – that humour is doing your vocab memory a favour.

 

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

Feeding the Pidgins : Perfectly Imperfect Communication

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

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

Perfectly Imperfect

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

How on earth do we manage?

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

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

But still – it works!

Pidgin Fanciers

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, we have a couple of safeguards.

Taming the Pidgins

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

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

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

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

Building Blocks. Image by Jeff Prieb, FreeImages.com.

Building Blocks for Faster Fluency

The highlight of my language learning week was a short, spontaneous dialogue in Swahili. Before I get too big for my boots, I should add that it was about buying bananas, and wasn’t based on fact. Rather, it was invented on the spot in a university conversation class. But the point is, I coped with spontaneous conversation after just two or three weeks of learning a language. You can too – it’s all down to building blocks.

So what is a building blocks approach to language learning? It might be best to define it first by what it is not. Learning via building blocks is the opposite of rote phrase learning. Instead of static, clunky chunks, it focuses on mastering a limited but optimal set of words and phrases to combine in multiple permutations of useful sentences.

It’s not quite the same as learning an exhaustive grammar of a language, which is the longer-term route to manipulating language spontaneously, rather than relying on stock phrases. The difference is that building blocks learning focuses on efficiency, favouring the most useful bits and pieces to get you up and running super quickly.

Ready-Made Building Blocks

Unsurprisingly. whole language learning techniques have been built on the principle of shuffling basic blocks around. One of the most familiar from the bookshops is the Michel Thomas method. These use a chatty student-teacher format to gradually introduce simple building blocks, and invite the student to play around with the cumulative result. As such, the real skill students gain is the art of sentence creation on the fly, rather than plain old parroting. I’ve found them fantastic introductions that get students communicating in full, novel sentences extremely quickly.

Recently – big thanks once again to the lovely folk on the polyglot social media circuit – I found out about a whole bunch of free, enthusiast-authored courses that also follow this magic blocks system. The Language Transfer channel on YouTube hosts a whole set of language courses, from the author’s native Greek to – yes, you guessed it – Swahili. They take a model learner through a whole set of jigsaw pieces to spark immediate, spontaneous communicating.

Custom Blocks

So how did the building blocks approach play out in my Swahili class, and why was it so effective?

Swahili verbs lend themselves to a ‘slot machine’, or ‘lego’ type approach, as our tutor likes to put it. You can easily swap in and out a very regular set of morphemes for person and tense. Knowing just ni- (I), u- (you), a- (he/she), and -li-/-na-/-ta- (past, present and future tense markers), plus a handful of verb stems, a learner can express a huge amount in Swahili. This is the ‘permutation strategy’ that makes knowing just a little bit of language very productive. And every language has hooks like this.

The Swahili example shows building blocks at the tiny end of the scale, working with little bits of words. At the other end, larger chunks like ‘opinion blocks’ can be a great boost. In Greek, for example, I like to chat with my tutors about what’s going on in the world. A hefty topic, you might think. But in reality, it’s enough to have a stock ‘building set’ of a few phrases such as “I like …“, “I don’t agree…“, “… annoys me” and so on. Like those Swahili lego bricks, you can build whole conversations out of those spare parts.

Banana Split

The proof of the pudding – or the bananas, in my case – is in the eating. I’m really pleased at how much I managed to say in Swahili after a couple of weeks of this process. And it’s all down to those building blocks, and an effective teacher who makes great use of the technique.

If you’re about to start a new language, consider giving one of those courses a try. And if you’re struggling to improve your conversation in an existing skill, try chunking it up a bit into home-made building blocks. You will simply go bananas at your progress.

A picture of a mouth articulating. Accurate phonetics gets us close to sound native. Image from freeimages.com

Phonetics Mismatch – Why We Mispronounce Foreign Languages (And Why It Doesn’t Really Matter)

This week, I had the great news of an offer to study towards an MSc in Linguistics. And, keen on preparing well for a good start, I started working through a couple of the set texts. First up: phonetics and phonology.

As language learners, all of us have probably touched this strange world of symbols and tables. Many materials will use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or an adapted version of it to describe how to make the sounds of a foreign language. Some grammars for intermediate learners, like the Routledge Comprensive series, often include whole sections on the phonology (sound rules) of the language.

Phonologists use precise scientific methods to map out all of these sounds and their interactions, a process that can take years. The thing is, as learners, we rarely approach the ‘everyday phonology’ of a foreign language scientifically. Most beginners will not see /a/, and think open front unrounded vowel. Instead, we listen to a model, and make an approximation towards the sound through mimicry.

It really is just an approximation, though. And diving into some phonological descriptions of languages I know (like this technical summary of Norwegian), I got a sinking feeling. I realised just how approximate some of my pronunciation was. How was I getting it wrong for so long? And why did nobody tell me?

The lesson in this is how often even very proficient speakers of a foreign language articulate words differently from native speakers. But how do we get so close – close enough to operate fully and comfortably in the language – without quite hitting the mark?

Best-match phonetics

It is all to do with what articulation tricks are most readily available to us – chiefly the sounds we learnt as children in our first language. They give us a shortcut to make a comparable sound via a slightly different route. And they are so ingrained, that we are often swimming against muscle memory when we attempt to learn a brand new means of producing similar sounds.

The trouble is, our native languages often lack an exact equivalent in the target language, so we draft in the nearest match, often without conscious awareness of it. For example, speakers of English learning Spanish (and vice versa), are a case in point when it comes to the phonemes /d/ and /t/. Most varieties of English realise these as alveolar stops – that is, with the tongue touching the ridge just behind the teeth. In Spanish, on the other hand they are usually dental, with the tongue further forward, touching the teeth.

Try and make both of the alternative /t/ sounds yourself with the word tin. Difficult to tell, isn’t it? So much so, that we barely do tell the difference when we first encounter the foreign language. Instead, we produce the sound using our native inventory, substituting the sound from our first language knowledge without even realising it.

Subtle things like this, of course, are what give us our foreign accent when speaking other languages. And of course, although we can strive to minimise a non-native accent, it is nothing to be ashamed of (quite the opposite, in fact!).

Native issues

Take comfort from the fact that the same substitutions happen in our native languages too. For much of my childhood, I struggled to say the /θ/ in words like thimble and think. In the end, I decided that /f/ sounded close enough (and nobody seemed to mind at first). I stuck with that approximation a lot longer than my peers, until it was finally picked up by a teacher at primary school and normatively squeezed out of me.

However many extra years of give and take, though, the process of initial language acquisition is a fantastic feat of the mind. Children rapidly discover phonetics inventories and the phonological rules that can take academics years to map out – and foreign language learners years to assimilate.

With that in mind, cherish your approximations. They draw upon all the cumulated skills of those early miracle years of language acquisition. And even if the fit isn’t quite perfect, the act of repurposing them in second language learning is still a wonder of brain gymnastics.

A row of old books. Image from freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s totally understandable.

Social bookends: real-life framing

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

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

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

I really struggle with the language of social interaction.

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

Curating social scripts

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

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

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

A list of social niceties in Icelandic

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

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

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

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

Right under your nose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only it is never quite like that at first…

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

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

Have fresh material close at hand

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

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

Use Speaking Bingo Sheets

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

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

Instant entertainment and practice rolled into one!

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

A Speaking Bingo Sheets on the iPad ready for iTalki conversation

Pre iTalki Quiz Blitzing

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

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

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

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

Educandy's green mascot

Educandy‘s friendly blob is here to help

Do some Focused listening

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

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

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

Read aloud in the target language

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

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

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

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

Above all, enjoy!

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

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

Above all, enjoy.

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

A picture of a window taken from inside. Two houseplants sit in pots on the windowsill. Isolation needn't be limiting. Picture from freeimages.com

Learner Isolation : Rethinking Language Strategies in Difficult Times

What a week. It is no longer a distant item on the evening news. Everybody is starting to feel the impact of Covid-19 containment and delay measures. And as language learning can be such a social activity, the isolation blues are beginning to bite.

Wherever you are in the world, you are probably feeling the repercussions, too. For me, it has been a week of setbacks to meet with a resigned, accepting and understanding shrug. Isolation measures to deal with the pandemic have deflated my little social learning bubble, and there is little to do but sit tight.

Isolation nation

The crunch came on Friday. After a fair bit of deliberation, I cancelled a long-anticipated language practice mini-mission to Norway, as the country started to close its borders. For one thing, it seemed wrong to fly in the middle of such uncertainty. For another, the last thing I wanted was to burden another country’s system as the demand on resources was hotting up.

It was a close call. I was due to fly the very day the army was later deployed to assist in turning back – or quarantining – foreign national arrivals at Gardermoen airport. Thank heavens for small mercies – that would not have been a pleasant situation to get caught up in.

That evening, news – not completely unexpected by now – arrived to confirm that our beloved Gaelic classes at Edinburgh Uni, for this and the next term, are off. Our informal Gaelic chat pub group will go the same way, too. Given the pattern, I am bracing myself for a series of language conference cancellations over the next couple of weeks. Sad, but necessary.

Bit by bit, these extraordinary circumstances are dismantling the familiar and the normal.

Perspective – but continued self-care

Now we face an indeterminate period of isolation, and a radically different world – at least for the time being. It is now getting harder and harder to plan to visit our target language countries in a world we had grown used to being so easy to navigate. Even the cultural institutions we study as language learners and budding travellers, like the Norwegian hytte tradition, are facing suspension of uncertain length.

Our worlds suddenly feel a lot smaller.

But a bit of perspective here: these are, in the grand scheme, minor inconveniences. All these small sacrifices are for the greater good, since there are much more important things at stake than learning timetables. They are infinitesimally insignificant in the face of a serious global health crisis. 

But in frightening times, we all reach for what gives us comfort. When global events threaten these comforts, it leaves us feeling helpless and stressed. And there is no shame in missing the things that make us feel better, or even feeling angry that they are taken away.

Don’t feel guilty. In difficult times, we need to exercise the self-care to look after our emotional and intellectual needs, as well as the physical.

The time is right

Fortunately, there has really never been a better prepared age for the learning community to overcome these challenges of isolation. Namely, for the first time in human history, social meet-ups are not bound to a single space, thanks to social media.

For a start, we have the fantastic online polyglot community. Much of the interaction here takes place over Twitter, and it has been a particularly replenishing waterhole of solace and comfort these past weeks. I am part of a fantastic circle of friends and fellow aficionados there, and now that network is proving invaluable.

We will see online learning communities and tuition exchanges really come into their own now, too. Sites like iTalki are a perfect fit for these times. Social interaction with a native speaker has never been easier.

And the forced, slower pace of life, without the hectic to-and-fro, has an added benefit. Now, I have more evenings freed from the mega-commute, ready to Skype teachers without the time pressures of cramming them in here and there. Who knows – I might even finally get round to giving remote EFL teaching a go.

That’s a lot of extra time not spent on trains for me, by the way. At least some of that will be dedicated to discovering more nifty Excel tricks too!

Becoming better people

And what about all those other goals and aspirations beyond language learning? As for me, it means doing something I have intended to do for an age: cooking more from scratch. A former meal deal addict, I am now reaching for the cupboard a lot more. That beats nipping out to Boots or Tesco for a pack of sandwiches every lunchtime.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – the pandemic is a reminder that each of us is one amongst many. This is a chance to reach out to the people around us, ask how they are doing, see if they need our help. In so many ways beyond language learning, this difficult experience can make us better people.

We have the tools and the enthusiasm to succeed in the face of challenge. However your everyday may change, you can flourish in the new normal. 

A pocket watch with the time showing as quarter past three. Image from freeimages.com.

Time for some adverbs – fluency hacks for fast-paced chat

I’m a big fan of the speaking bingo sheet for conversation prep. I try to make use of them whenever I have an iTalki lesson, for example (as well as the time to prep one beforehand!).

One of the most useful phrase categories in convo lessons is without a doubt adverbials of time. Adverbs, the words of how, are incredibly useful for moving on your fluency at the best of times. Adverbials of time in particular describe when things took place. Now, then, last week, soon, suddenly… Sequence, frequency, calendar, you name it. Unsurprisingly, they’re often those little words we grasp desperately at when trying to talk about our daily lives in a new foreign language.

These little helpers are valuable power-ups towards fluency in the early stages of learning a language. They can even help you to communicate without knowing the full selection of verb tenses. For instance, “I go tomorrow” is as valid as “I will go tomorrow” in English. And even when the sentence is less grammatical, the sense is still there. “I go yesterday” is still understandable, even if it sounds a bit pidgin. In short, adverbials of time can help you make yourself understood even in the absence of an advanced knowledge of grammar.

Social glue

Another reason they’re so fundamental is their use as social glue. When you start interacting in the target language, you can find yourself planning and organising with others. Lesson times, study group meet-ups and such like all require time negotiations. Adverbs and adverbial phrases of time are the flesh and blood of the language of organising.

This hit home recently when I joined an informal local pub meet-up for beginners’ Gaelic chat in Edinburgh. It’s a lovely, super-keen group, and everyone wants to try and communicate in the language all the time. This includes the group WhatsApp, where it very quickly became apparent that we’d need to look up phrases like ‘next week’, ‘tonight’ and so on. Time phrases to the rescue again!

Time for some vocab…

So we’re agreed, these words are super handy. So handy, in fact, that I’ve taken to keeping a crib document in each of my languages just for them. And since Scottish Gaelic is everywhere right now (thanks, Duolingo!) here is my list sa Ghàidhlig, one of my most active personal projects at the moment. I hope you find it useful!

Feel free to use the English column to start your own in other languages, or download this template with gaps to fill in yourself.

Narrating in time

English Gaelic
today an-diugh
tomorrow a-màitheach
yesterday an-dè
quickly gu luath
slowly gu slaodach
early tràth
late fadalach

Sequence

English Gaelic
now a-nis
just now an-dràsta
then (at that time) an uair sin
suddenly gu h-obann
already mu thràth / mar thà
yet, still fhathast
soon a dh’aithghearr
immediately, at once anns a’ bhad
firstly, at first an toiseach
at (long) last, eventually mu dheireadh (thall)

Frequency

English Gaelic
never / ever a-riamh
rarely, seldom ainneamh
sometimes, occasionally uaireannan
usually, normally mar as/bu trice *
often gu tric
every day gach latha / a h-uile latha
every week gach seachdain
every month gach mìos
every year gach bliadhna
always an còmhnaidh
all the time fad na h-ùine

Likelihood

Not strictly speaking adverbials of time, but they are quite a good fit with this group of words, too.

English Gaelic
probably, maybe is dòcha / ‘s dòcha
definitely gu cinnteach

Calendar organising

English Gaelic
this week an t-seachdain seo
next week an-ath-sheachdain
last week an t-seachdain sa chaidh
this month air a ‘mhìos seo
next month an-ath-mhìos
last month air a ‘mhìos a chaidh
this year am bliadhna
next year an-ath-bhliadhna
last year an-uiridh

*as with present/future tenses and bu with past/conditional tenses

How many do you know in your target language(s) already? Are there any essential time phrases you would add to the list? Let us know in the comments!