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!

Accent - sometimes you can be too good! Image by Betty Miller from FreeImages.com

Great accent, shame about the rest!

How is your accent in the language you’re learning? I’m pretty pleased with mine. In fact, I think it might be a little too good.

Before the eye-rolling starts, let me explain. This isn’t an embarrassing lapse in modesty and perspective. The fact is, accent is one of the things I really strive to perfect very early on in my learning. The trouble is, a very good accent can give a false impression of general overall proficiency, even if you’re not quite there yet.

There’s Norway you’re Norwegian…

It’s something that has cropped up plenty of times in my language adventures. This weekend, I spent a couple of nights in lovely Trondheim, Norway. Now, my Norwegian isn’t bad at all. It’s one of the languages I immerse myself in most, watching Norwegian TV, getting my news from Norwegian sources and reading fiction in Norwegian. I’d say I hover around a B1/2 – an achievement I’m proud of and not bad for someone who doesn’t live in the country.

That said, Norwegian is a patchwork of sometimes vastly different dialects. I don’t always cope with that diversity, especially when I come across a new variety. And Trøndersk, of which Trondheim’s dialect is a prime example, is particularly unique.

The sticking point is this: I have worked on getting a solid Oslo pronunciation under my belt. Because of that, when I rattle off a request in a hotel or shop situation, I sound like I have a pretty solid grasp of a colloquial, spoken variety of the language. When I get the reply in full-on local dialect, I get that gut-turning feeling of the rug being pulled from under my feet.

Yes, who hasn’t felt that when learning a language? But when you make a special effort to sound like a native, it can compound the problem.

Great accent – shame about the listening skills!

Language heptathletes

This is, of course, the nature of language learning. It is a multi-skill discipline. In effect, we are all heptathletes competing across reading, writing, speaking, listening and other combined events at our own linguistic Olympics. Just like a heptathlon, every one of us performs differently across those skills. Accent is one of those areas that some struggle with, but others take to straight away.

Focusing on accent early on – as your special event, so to speak – is no bad thing by any means. For many of us, it is part of the fun of language learning. It’s all about trying to pass, attempting to shed the baggage of your first language background, trying on a different culture for size, the giddy thrill of let’s pretend. A great accent means hearing the sounds of a different place, a different people, a different world leave your lips. For me, it’s one of the most exciting parts of learning a language.

Maybe you are a natural mimic and love to imitate foreign language sounds from the get-go. It could be, like me, that you are fascinated by dialects and accents as a route to the authentic heart and soul of a target language culture. Perhaps you’ve worked hard on accent-improving techniques like shadowing.

But an accent-heavy focus might leave you scrambling to keep up your first, amazing impressions when you speak to locals abroad. The problem is partly one of over-rehearsal. As actors will confirm, you can prepare your character to death. You know your part so rigidly that there is zero room for flexibility. Learning to speak your part too convincingly can leave you little time to focus on being prepared for the unpreparable.

The answer? Keep loving accent and pronunciation work, but introduce some systematic wider focus into your study to redress the imbalance.

Perfect accent – with a side of syntax

The best kind of resources for skill-balancing are those that take a blended approach. They provide plenty of speech modelling to keep our accent ambitions fulfilled. But they also feature content that trains variable syntax alongside accent.

Personally, I find mass sentence methods like Glossika incredibly helpful. Glossika drills native-speed pronunciation through a bank of hundreds of well-formed, colloquial sentences. Crucially, it includes stylistic variants on a theme that might trip you up in natural speech. The Scottish Gaelic version, for example, exposes you to not only “càit a bheil …?” (where is …) but also the shortened, more colloquial form “cà’il …?” amongst other alternatives.

For an even tighter focus on listening skills, it pays to keep your ear to the ground for new techniques. For a start, there is some excellent advice on listening coming from language teachers in schools, so it pays to keep up-to-date with what is going on in the teacher circuit. Many of their confidence-improving techniques for young students are as applicable to us as individual learners.

Let it go…

Finally – and this might be the most drastic and hard-to-swallow piece of advice for all who love working on their accent – is to deliberately try not to be so impressive. Let a little of your true self colour how you speak a foreign language. Cultivate a ‘learner accent’.

If you want to keep the fun stakes high, maybe even try a different foreign accent within your language – German with a French accent, anyone? Have fun being non-native! It’s still an accent, right?

What are your experiences with accent training in language learning? Let us know in the comments!

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!

Fluffy dice in a car. Picture from freeimages.com.

Rolling with It as a Language Learner in a Random World

Ever noticed how life throws opportunities at you as a language learner – just not always the ones you had imagined?

So it transpired again at this year’s Language Show Live. The long-running show is an annual outing for the Linguascope crew, and a chance to catch up with fellow language enthusiasts and educators from around the world.

One of my highlights is chatting to delegates in foreign languages – especially when they don’t expect it. It’s worth it for the surprised smiles alone.

Richard West-Soley at Language Show Live 2019

A vision in yellow! Manning the Linguascope stand at Language Show Live 2019

Of course, at these events we always wish for opportunities to speak our strongest languages, or those we are actively working on at the moment. Wouldn’t it be nice if I got the chance to speak a bit of Norwegian or Icelandic?, I thought. Or exchange a few words in Polish?

But, of course, life rarely seems to oblige in the expected fashion.

Rolling the language dice

The first roll of the language dice turned up a lovely group teachers from Spain. Quite literally, since they wanted to know all about Linguascope’s funky dados hablantes (Talking Dice). They were enthusiastic and positively brimming with product questions, but keen to chat about them in Spanish.

Now, I have a long history with Spanish, as it was one of my degree languages along with German. But I must admit, I’ve woefully neglected it in recent years. I’d feel nervous about speaking it in a professional setting, given advance warning. But here, I was on the spot, with no time to get anxious. Lovely, friendly people in need of information, and me, eager to please.

And you know what? My castellano all rose back to the surface, relatively intact and fully functional. And after years of not doing much with it at all, it was actually fun to be speaking the language again.

There is a reason for everything, of course. Life works in mysterious ways. And so it happened that I had to use my Spanish several times over my show days. Reassurance that, once learnt, a language never really leaves you. And perhaps life’s way of saying oi – don’t forget about your Spanish? You never know. I might even start taking better care of it again!

Pot pourri

Spanish was far from my only surprise at this year’s event. A very multilingual delegate had me guessing which was her native language. We started in Spanish, then tried German, and then… Dutch!

Confession: I don’t speak Dutch. I could never claim Dutch it as one of my languages. But, armed with perhaps fifty words (mainly from Eurovision songs) and making the rest up from German (handy to know how the sounds in close languages relate to one another), I managed to say a couple of things and raise a smile.

Admittedly, my ‘Dutch’ wasn’t operating at any functional level – unless you count the smiles and social lubricant as a function, of course. And maybe that is the whole point – language is a social tool, however little of it we possess.

Plot twist

And, surprise twist ending alert: I did get my chance to speak Norwegian. It was just a quick hello to cam for a show promo video, so it wasn’t exactly a chat. But there’s the proof that the Universe was listening to me all along. It was simply choosing to lead me on its very own path.

Polyglot life prepares us well for the randomness of social life. Any time, any place, any language, seize the opportunity to connect. Life is too serendipitous to expect it to conform to our own whims. Just work with it!

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

Speaking Bingo Sheets for Snappy Active Vocab Recall

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

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

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

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

Speaking bingo sheets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No lessons? No problem!

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

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

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

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

Adapting for the classroom

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

Structure and flexibility

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

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

 

TTS can lend your learning some robotic voice magic. Image by Oliver Brandt on FreeImages.com

Disembodied Voices : Using TTS as a Native Speaker Boost

Native speaker modelling is a prerequisite for learning to speak Modern Foreign Languages. But when listening materials are scarce, or you struggle to find exactly the material you want to learn, then text-to-speech (TTS) can lend a helping hand.

Text-to-speech : native speakers out of thin air

TTS, or speech synthesis, has come on in leaps and bounds since the early days of tinny Speak ‘n’ Spell voices. At first mimicking chiefly (American) English, many projects have since diversified to conjure native speaker voices in many languages out of thin air. Polyglot TTS technologies such as Google Cloud’s offering are at the edge of machine learning developments, and sounding more and more human all the time.

Using these disembodied tongues for language learning is nothing new, of course. Switching the language of your digital voice assistant has become a pretty well-known polyglot trick for some robotic speaking practice. Siri has been speaking fluent Bokmål on my phone for a while now. As a result, I’ve become a dab hand at asking what the weather will be like in Norwegian!

TTS Toolkit

But as handy as voice assistants are, you can leverage the power of TTS much more directly than tapping into Siri or Alexa. At its most basic level, plain old TTS is brilliantly useful for hearing a spoken representation of a word or phrase you are unsure of.

For example, if you are tired of guessing how to reel off “das wäre sehr schön” in German (that would be very nice), never fear. Simply paste it into Google Translate and hit the speaker icon. The platform already offers and impressive number of languages with speech support.

Google Translate offers TTS features.

Google Translate offers TTS features – simply type / paste in your target language and click the speaker icon.

But it gets even better. Several other resources allow you to do more than just listen; they offer a download function too. This way, you can keep your most useful speech synthesis files and incorporate them into your own materials. Combined with vocabulary mining tools such as mass-sentence site Tatoeba, you can begin to curate large, offline collections of target language material with text and audio.

One notable and powerful multilingual voice synthesis site is TTSMP3.com. For a start, it offers plenty of language options. On top of that, several languages include a choice of voices, too.  More than enough to sate your curiosity when you wonder “How do you say that?”.

With a little Google digging, you may also find specialist TTS projects devoted to your particular language of study. For instance, Irish learners are spoilt by the Abair website (Abair means ‘say’ in Irish). Not only does it provide downloadable Irish narration, but it does this in a choice of three different regional accents. If you learn Irish too, you will well know what a godsend this is!

Irish TTS in a range of regional dialects on the Abair website.

Irish TTS in a range of regional dialects on the Abair website.

Incorporating TTS MP3s

With your MP3s downloaded, you can now incorporate them into your own resources. Easiest of all is simply to insert them as media in PowerPoint presentations or Word documents. I personally like to add them manually to Anki cards to add audio support when I revise vocabulary.

The quick and easy way to reach Anki’s media folder on the desktop program is to open up the Preferences panel, then the Backups tab, and finally to tap the “Open backup folder” link that appears. In the same location as that backup directory, you should see another folder with the name collection.media. Anything you put in here will be synced along with the rest of your Anki data.

Note: always back up your Anki decks before tinkering in the program folders!

Anki's media folder

Anki’s media folder

Drop your saved TTS files into this folder. Note that subfolders still don’t seem to work reliably, so keep everything in that single folder. Logical file naming will definitely help!

Finally, when you create / edit a vocabulary note, use the following format to add your sound as a playable item, replacing filename as appropriate:

[sound:filename.mp3]

When viewed on your device, you should see a play button on flashcards with embedded sounds. Magic!

Anki card with embedded sound

An Anki card with embedded sound

If you prefer an even easier route, then there is an Anki plugin specially created for automatically including TTS into notes. I prefer the manual method, as it satisfies the the tech control freak in me.

A human touch

Of course, TTS is not a perfect substitute for a native speaker recording. For those times when only a human voice will do, Forvo is a goldmine. The site is replete with native sounds across a dizzying array of languages, all recorded by native speaker volunteers. Just as with the TTS examples above, the sounds can be downloaded for use in your own resources, too.

To round off our trek through native speaker sites – real and synthesised – just a final note on copyright. If you intend to share the resources you create, always check the usage notes of the website of origin. Sites commonly have fair use policies for non-commercial projects, so making resources for personal use is usually not a problem at all. If you plan to sell your resources, though, you may well need to opt for a commercial plan with the respective platform.

Robotic resources can plug a real gap in native speaker support, especially for niche languages, or niche subjects in more mainstream ones. Do you use TTS in innovative ways in your own learning? Have you come across other specialist or language-specific TTS projects? If so, please share in the comments!

You can still be accountable even as a lone ranger. Photo by Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo on FreeImages.com.

Staying Accountable as a Lone Language Learner

How do you stay accountable in your solo language learning?

I know I sometimes find it difficult as an individual learner. It’s an important consideration for anyone studying on their own. But there’s a clue: one answer is to aim for less of the on your own and instead, build elements of community into the approach to study. And that’s something that was thrown into sharp relief for me recently, as I took part in the 30-Day Speaking Challenge for the very first time.

Accountable together

The challenge has been around for a while now, but I’d managed to find one reason after another to put it off. I finally bit the bullet this month, and discovered a cheery, well-oiled machine well into its paces as a regular event. Run by online teacher and fellow polyglot Jonathan Huggins, the challenge brings together daily speaking tasks with straightforward, big-hearted peer support through shared Google Docs. Simple, but motivating. I’m not sure what kept me away for so long!

The particularly wonderful thing about the challenge is the way every participant helps keep everybody else on track. You not only record, but you listen to the recordings of others learning your native language, and chip in your native knowledge where you can. It creates a huge positive vibe of mutual support, and it seems like the completion rate for daily recordings is very high. That’s undoubtedly almost entirely due to the warm buzz from peer feedback and encouragement.

Learners maintain their daily recordings in order to remain an active part of this mutual motivation club.

I’m currently two thirds of the way through October’s challenge, which I’m tackling in Polish. Some of the daily topics can be tough, but I keep coming back for more every day. It has me convinced – so much so that I’ve already signed up to do the November challenge in Icelandic!

So why has the challenge been so effective for me and others?

Social checkboxes

With language learning, I’ve long been a fan of regularity and routine. Creating a regime to follow gives scaffolding to your overarching goals, and brilliant productivity tools like Evernote help manage these daily tactics precisely with checklists and plans.

Adding a social layer to this self-management brings something a bit special to these regimes. In essence, your checklists receive a potent, people-powered turbo-boost. Suddenly, it’s not just you. It’s a whole bunch of other people you want to run with and not let down.

Staying accountable means making sure that there is someone – besides you – to give reason to your checkboxes.

Keeping it fresh

It goes beyond that a simple motivational boost, too. Letting other human beings into your learning opens you up to a whole other realm of ideas and techniques. This aspect of socialised learning ticks a crucial box: part of staying accountable to yourself as a learner includes keeping up-to-date with new or different resources.

For instance, during this current challenge I found out about the very useful SpeakPipe site. SpeakPipe offers a web-based voice recording app, which saves recordings for a month and provides a URL for you to share them with others. It’s instant, works on pretty much any device, and takes the fuss out of making a quick recording.

But what is even handier is the function to download those files to keep offline forever. Using it on the challenge has resulted in a little bank of MP3 files I can use as both a record of my progress in Polish, and as revision materials for the topics I speak about.

Staying accountable by downloading your daily recordings on Speakpipe.

Speakpipe allows you to download your recordings as MP3s to keep forever.

There is also a sneaky side-benefit to these short daily recordings. They play perfectly into the language islands technique beloved of famed linguistic impresario Luca Lampariello. In this approach, islands are rehearsed snippets of target language that you have available for instant insertion into conversation. It’s a quick fluency tip that works well, and by the end of October, I’ll have ended up with thirty little Polish islands of my own!

Accountability everywhere

I’ve discussed staying accountable in the context of the 30-Day Speaking Challenge here. But social accountability is on tap in plenty of other places besides this excellent cheerleader for peer encouragement. You can satiate your need for positive feedback by keeping up regular iTalki lessons, for example, or attending a language café.

Additionally, there are myriad other community-based mini-challenges that run regularly and are worth checking out. Some are language-based, like LanguageJam, whereas others are not specific to language learners, but can be adapted to foreign language practice, like NaNoWriMo.

And of course, there is no warmer home for polyglots than the thriving polyglot Twitter community. Share, encourage others and thrive – even as a lone ranger!

Where there are fellow learners, there are friends to keep you on track. Seek them out.