Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Archive for the ‘My language learning’ Category

Attitudes to language learning

Think about, for example, how many Japanese speakers of English get looked upon unfavourably for their English, and […] never receive any praise for being speakers of English, whereas think about how many white people who live in Japan and learn Japanese are adored, admired, praised for their ability to speak Japanese.

But if you think about it, English and Japanese, it’s the same pair of languages, the same distance, the same difficulty in learning it, right?

But if a Japanese person speaks English, they will never get any admiration for it, and often will get, actually evaluated negatively: oh yeah, but their English is not so good yet.

But if it’s the person who has learnt Japanese from an English background, they get all kinds of praise and support and self-affirmation out of it.

So that’s a form of oppression going both ways: privilege in one, and oppression in the other.

Lourdes Ortega, interviewed on the TEFLology podcast

This is something I’ve found annoying in the past: it’s lovely to be praised for my own language learning, but when I praise people back: your English is just as good as my Polish or better, they say “But Polish is so hard!”

It’s no harder than English for a Polish learner: all languages are easy and all are difficult. It’s a question of motivation, and while distances between them may help or hinder learning at different stages of the process, if you speak the same pair of languages, you should be equally proud of your ability to speak them, and you should be praised equally.

The things we say to language learners have a real impact!

What different CEFR levels feel like

I have very vivid memories of each stage of my Polish so far, and have noticed fairly clear boundaries between one CEFR level to another. My writing is pretty much non-existent as I haven’t made any effort with it at all. I guess I could probably produce something at about A2 if I spent a lot of time and concentrated on it, but I wouldn’t want to put money on it! The following descriptions are therefore based on speaking, reading and listening, all of which I’m B1 in now.

A0

I already had a grounding in Czech and Russian when I started out with Polish. This meant that I could understand a fair amount of what was happening around me when I first arrived. However, my speaking was definitely A0 at the beginning, and I went through a silent period of about a year. I think it was because when I did try to speak it came out in a weird mix of Czech, Russian and Polish, and nobody could understand me. I ended up avoiding situations where I would have to speak Polish, and always using English unless I couldn’t get around it. I was worried about speaking and felt a real block. This had never happened to me in any other language, so really surprised me as I’d always been pretty confident when it came to using what I knew.

I have a few other languages which I’ve started out with and which are still A0, for example Mandarin, Thai and Greek. In all of these, I am also largely illiterate, though I can pick out a Greek word if I take my time, without necessarily having any idea what it means. Thai script was beautiful, but too much for the short time I spent on it – I think I can remember one or two letters now, but not much more. When I started with Russian, illiteracy was also a problem. There was no Roman script around in my day-to-day life outside school in Sevastopol, so I really felt like a child all the time. I would sometimes spend ages picking out the letters of a word then realise it was basically the same word in English (like ‘toilet’ or ‘lift’), which was both frustrating and motivating! Some letters are similar, which helped, and some are a Roman letter that works differently in Cyrillic – for example see George R. R. Martin’s name on the book below. This took a good couple of months of being surrounded by Cyrillic to really get my head around.

Game of Thrones in Russian

When listening, A0 feels like a wash of sounds flowing past. Periodically I hear a word that I recognise, mostly a number or two, a pronoun (usually ‘I’ or ‘you’), or a form of ‘be’. I grab onto these and am super happy whenever I can pick them out. To feel positive about this, I’ve had to learn to not put pressure on myself and relax, letting the sounds wash over me. This is something I think we can help our learners to do by making them aware that they shouldn’t expect to understand everything, and should feel good when they can pull something out of the stream of speech – they should find motivation and positive feelings wherever they can. s

I haven’t had much exposure to full texts when I’m at A0 level, but again the hunt for a word or two I recognised could feel quite demotivating until I decided to stop letting it bother me.

A1

At the end of my first year in Poland I went for a flamenco weekend in the country. I’d been attending weekly classes for the whole year, which I’d been able to follow through a combination of body parts being fairly similar in Polish, Czech and Russian, and my teacher being excellent at demonstrating and very patient. She can also speak English and Spanish, so could often explain to me in another language if I couldn’t understand. The weekend away was something completely different though: there were about twenty of us, and four or five couldn’t speak English at all. When they tried to speak to me, I had no choice but to use my Polish. The conversations were all fairly similar, giving me lots of repetition in answering questions like ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Why are you in Poland?’ and ‘Do you like it here?’ The fact that I could successfully participate in these conversations and that my interlocutors were patient with me ended my silent period.

Gzin, with a few fellow flamenco learners

Receptively, the weekend helped me to realize I could now understand whole chunks of conversation, though rarely fast enough to chip in. Conversations I participated in were very one-sided, as I couldn’t really formulate questions with any speed or confidence, meaning they tended to resemble the Spanish Inquisition somewhat! The person I was speaking to also needed to be very patient as I formulated what I wanted to say.

A couple of weeks before that weekend I decided it was time to start reading in Polish. I bought the first Harry Potter, and ever since then I’ve read in Polish for ten minutes before bed every night. When I first started, I could probably understand about 10-20% of the words on the page, and it took me the whole ten minutes to read two pages. I decided that I was going to read to read, not to learn vocabulary, so I only look up one or two words if they’ve appeared a lot in what I’ve just read and I feel like they might be important for that point in the story. I don’t write down the words at all. I kept working my way through the book without worrying about how much I understood, just feeling happy whenever I could pick out events successfully. I chose Harry Potter because I was familiar with the stories, but not so familiar that I would be bored. Again, I think this is something we could encourage our students to do, letting the new language wash over them without worrying too much about understand.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Polish cover)

A2

Another year, another flamenco weekend. This time I could instigate conversations, and I started to be able to ask some questions myself. During dinner it was a huge challenge to follow the thread of what was happening when there were lots of competing conversations going on, but if I really concentrated, I could follow a conversation close to me and even chip in occasionally. By this stage in lessons, I was able to understand pretty much everything, and if I couldn’t understand normally nobody could! It was a flamenco thing, not a Polish thing 🙂

Away from flamenco, when I moved into my new flat I was living with the old owners for the first six weeks and they don’t speak any English. We had lots of similar conversations which I felt increasingly confident with, especially as they supplied high frequency words like ‘tired’ and przeziębiona (an adjective meaning you have a cold, which we lack in English!) My household vocabulary increased a lot, and I started to speak a little more fluently and confidently, but still had a lot of trouble with grammatical forms if I tried to produce them accurately. I stuck to basic forms: present, past simple, and future with być + infinitive – Polish has two ways of forming the future depending on if verbs are perfective or imperfective.

Listening was fine on familiar topics, and I could pick out bits and pieces of unfamiliar conversations, usually enough to know what the general topic was but none of the detail. When reading Harry Potter, I could understand about 30-40% of what was on the page, and sometimes had a whole page where I felt like I knew exactly what was going on. Equally, I sometimes had whole pages where I had no idea! Usually that was tiredness though, and if I re-read them the following night a lot more went in, helped by the repetition. In both listening and reading, I could pick out more complicated grammatical forms like conditionals and relative clauses, though this often involved re-reading sentences a couple of times if I really wanted to understand them.

Around this time, I also distinctly remember a conversation with one of our school caretakers about types of cheese and which were good to eat from different countries. This was the first time I remember chatting about a random subject in Polish and being able to keep up with the conversation, even if I couldn’t always express what I wanted to say. That felt pretty good!

B1

I reckon I tipped into this stage about 18 months ago. With speaking, the turning point was being able to participate evenly in a conversation, formulating questions fast enough to keep up with a patient interlocutor. Familiar topics are no problem for me, and over time my fluency has increased so that I think I talk at almost normal speed on familiar areas. Unfamiliar topics are problematic, mostly due to vocabulary rather than grammar, but if I’m with somebody who speaks English I’ll code-switch instead of trying to get my head around the grammatical forms I want to produce, especially conditionals or time shifts like future in the past. I tend to start in Polish, then change to English as soon as I can’t say something that’s more complicated than a missing word or two. I’ve never done this with another language, and I find the process of going backwards and forwards fascinating to be inside 🙂

I can keep up with most things when listening, enough to be able to respond on topic about 80% of the time if I’m in a conversation. I can follow about 60-70% of what happens in kids’ films dubbed into Polish, and sometimes find myself understanding more of a Polish subtitle than a French/German/Spanish spoken line if there are two foreign languages simultaneously. In more unfamiliar situations, such as an impromptu tour of a nunnery that a group of us had when visiting Chełmno a few weeks ago, I can pick out enough key words to attempt to make meaning out of what I’m hearing, but I have no idea how accurate that meaning actually is. It sounds impressive to the uninitiated when I can translate but I know it’s full of holes 😉

Nunnery chapel in Chelmno

My reading is much faster now. In ten minutes I can read four to six pages, depending on how tired I am, and understand around 80% of it. I’ve just finished reading Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, which I either haven’t read in English, or read so long ago that I don’t remember it. That took me quite a lot longer than Harry Potter to find my feet with, but by the time I was used to the writing style I was up to a similar speed and rate of understanding as with Harry Potter (I’ve now finished four of them, and waiting for book 5 to arrive). I read a couple of summaries in English of Death on the Nile at certain points early on to work out what I’d missed – I knew there was something important but felt like I couldn’t get it from the Polish, though was pleasantly surprised at how much I had understood. The main challenge was the number of characters – because I was reading quite slowly, it was hard to keep them all straight. I feel like I fully understood the final two chapters when everything was revealed 🙂 At school I sometimes pick up magazines left in the kitchen and read the cartoons and short articles. I have a 50-50 hit rate with understanding the cartoons, normally depending on how culturally bound they are. With articles, if I’ve chosen something with a headline I can understand, I generally get almost all of the story itself.

B2?

At this point my confidence is fine in most situations, and in the past month I’ve had lots of interactions which lead me to believe I’m at the higher end of B1 now, and possibly on the tipping point to B2. I’m not quite there yet, but I don’t feel like I’m far off.

I’ve started to experiment with producing more complicated forms myself, rather than automatically switching to English. This includes attempting to produce conditionals, trying to use verbs of motion correctly (Slavic languages have lots of them and they have their own grammatical features which don’t apply to any other verbs!), and noticing imperfective and perfective forms in action, occasionally using them in the correct situations myself, normally by imitation within the same conversation. I know that there are lots of case endings which I now use consistently correctly. I learnt them as chunks, but am starting to apply them to new words which I’ve never declined before. I’m using a much wider range of prepositions spontaneously, my descriptive language has widened, and I listen actively, particularly using the word ‘No’ as a response. Chunks play a huge part in my fluency, a lot of them having come from my reading – I’m definitely an advocate for the vocabulary + reading approach to language learning now!

Last week, I spent three and a half days in hospital for routine tests to get the next drug for my colitis, with only a couple of conversations in English with the doctor when I said that I wasn’t sure I understood towards the end of the stay – it turned out I’d actually got of more what she’d said than I thought. Everything else was in Polish, including long conversations with my neighbour on the ward about all kinds of different things, and 5:15a.m. conversations with the nurses when they came in to give us medicine. The third person in the ward was an old lady, and this was probably the first time I’ve heard ‘old person Polish’ (!) for any length of time, so it took me a little while to get used to the different cadences of her speech, but I managed in the end. She’s fairly deaf, which didn’t help smooth communication, but it was an interesting challenge to overcome and hospital gave me time to pursue it!

I’ve just spent a few days in Wroclaw and Lower Silesia, and in quite a few situations I started an interaction in English and changed it to Polish myself because I realised it would be easier, something I wouldn’t have done a couple of months ago.

Ksiaz Castle

Most motivating of all, I’ve just spent over two hours chatting only in Polish with somebody I met on the train, covering a huge range of subjects, including managing to communicate some unfamiliar ones with patience and just three or four words in English throughout the whole interaction. I feel like I was talking at the same speed he was, and there were only a couple of miscommunications, which I was able to identify immediately though needed help to resolve. I could ask for that help in Polish, as my circumlocution skills have started to improve. It felt like a ‘normal’ conversation that I could have had on the train in England, and that feels fantastic 🙂

On fonts

Every morning I use the Memrise app on my iPad to learn a little bit of Mandarin. I’ve been doing it on and off for about seven years now, and almost every day for four years. Since it’s the only way I practise Mandarin, I’m still very much A0, though my progress has been slow, but steady.

Occasionally, I use the browser version of Memrise rather than the app, and it inevitably results in a bit of depression! I always score much, much lower, with only around 10-20% accuracy, compared to my normal 80% or so.

I think the reasons for this are threefold:

  • There is a time limit for typing in the browser – I often need a lot more time than it allows to pull the characters out of the depths of my memory.
  • On the app, I have the option of a kind of multiple choice, where I can select from a limited range of letters that make up the word rather than typing from the whole keyboard. These letters generally appear in a similar pattern each time the same word comes up, and if I think for a while, I can normally get to the right answer. I have it set to automatically accept the answer when it’s correct, so I can keep trying until I get it right. Not necessarily great for my long-term retention though, as I don’t end up repeating the problem words as much.
  • The fonts are different. This is the biggest one for me. Words I’ve been seeing for years in the same font, such as ‘good’ (part of the word ‘hello’, so introduced on day 1!), look completely different and I can’t recognise them at all. I got that one wrong this morning, as well as ‘teacher’.

The browser version

The app version

I feel like this gives me a little bit of empathy with people who have dyslexia, understanding that a word can look completely different in different typefaces, and therefore unrecognisable. These two may not seem that different, but the serifs and line thicknesses add extra detail. I’m used to the more simplified version in the second image.

I knew about how challenging different fonts could be theoretically, but feeling it myself as a learner is different. This is why we should keep learning ourselves! Something to remember when making materials and tests.

Examining the impact of a low-level of teacher proficiency on student learning (IATEFL Liverpool 2019 – my presentation)

This is a write-up of my IATEFL Liverpool 2019 presentation. I decided to present it without slides, which made a pleasant change 🙂 This blogpost follows the same structure as my talk.

Why this talk?

In many countries in the world there is a minimum language level required by the government for state school teachers. An informal facebook survey I did showed this is most commonly B2, for example in Chile, Poland and Italy. B1 is required in Andalucia, while C1 is required in Belgium and Germany. (Thanks to everyone who replied – there were more places but I can’t fit them all in here!) However, these requirements are relatively recent, they are not universal, and they are generally not retroactively applied. It seems that only recently qualified teachers need to have evidence that they have achieved the required level, and there are many, many people teaching English with B1 or lower. I state this as a simple fact, rather than as a judgement.

Despite forming such a large part of our profession, B1-level English teachers are unlikely to present at international conferences like IATEFL due to the language level required to keep up with such a conference. I therefore decided that it could be valuable to reflect on my own status as a B1 learner of Polish who is teaching Polish to English-speaking teachers at our school, and particularly the impact that my relatively low level of proficiency might have on their learning. I don’t expect to offer any ground-breaking insights, but simply to share my story in the hope of prompting others.

My Polish lessons

The lessons I teach are:

  • 60 minutes once a week
  • survival Polish for absolute beginners
  • to a group of fluent English speakers from four different countries over the 18 months since I have been teaching Polish (since November 2017)
  • for anywhere between 4 and 10 students
  • based on topics I choose in conversation with the students
  • using a mix of published and self-produced materials, sometimes based on phrases or short conversations supplied by native Polish friends
  • mainly language-based, particularly vocabulary and functional language, and generally quite tightly controlled (see below for more on this)
  • one way of challenging myself in my teaching (as a DoS and trainer I’m not in the classroom much nowadays!)

My experience

I am CELTA- and Delta-trained, as well as being a CELTA trainer and a Director of Studies. I have 10 years of teaching experience, and have done lots of CPD, including this blog and reading about methodology.

This is also not the first time I have taught languages other than English. Previous experience includes:

  • A2 German via my school to two Czech students with no English – I had recently graduated with C1 in German and this was my first year as a full-time teacher.
  • A0 French and Spanish (separately!) to Czech English-speaking friends as informal exchanges for other languages they spoke within my first three years of teaching – again, I was C1 in both cases.

However, those teaching experiences felt quite different as I could speak only in L2 much more comfortably than I can in Polish. Having said that, I lacked a lot of functional classroom language as my own lessons when I was learning had been primarily conducted through English in the case of French and German, and were few and far between for Spanish!

Despite all of this experience, I still feel I need a lot more training to conduct Polish lessons in the way I want to.

English use in class

This varies a lot depending on the lesson, and has also generally reduced the second time I have taught the same topic this year (it’s my second academic year of doing a fairly similar sequence of lessons).

In vocabulary lessons, there is almost no English use. This is because the lessons primarily consist of drilling new language. As the items are almost all concrete, most of the meaning can be conveyed through pictures or the occasional mime.

In grammar lessons, there is a lot more English for two reasons:

  1. I am not confident with Polish grammatical terminology myself, meaning of necessity I use English terminology.
  2. As I am teaching absolute beginners and a lot of grammatical concepts are new to the students (such as cases), I have made the informed choice to use more English. This is the main type of lesson where English use has increased the second time round, rather than decreased.

In functional language lessons, for example ‘at a restaurant’, meaning can be conveyed through the context, pictures and mime. I include some translation exercises, mostly to check understanding. The main way is to get them to work with a partner and translate the whole dialogue into English once we have worked with it a little in Polish. I tend not to use English in this case, but they do.

Skills lessons are few and far between (see below) and when they do happen, I do a lot of translation for efficiency and ease of checking meaning – I suspect this is partly laziness on my part, partly lack of preparation, and partly lack of confidence.

To sum up, although I believe that a shared fluent language (L1 for most of my students) has an important place in the classroom, I don’t think that my students really need to speak as much English as they do in these lessons. It has improved a little this year as the same phrases consistently pop up and I have now memorised them, such as Twoja kolej / Your turn. Having said that, I am not systematic at introducing classroom or functional language in English lessons I teach either, and this is something I would definitely like to work on in both English and Polish lessons in the next year or so.

Maximising Polish use in lessons

Some of the techniques I use to ensure that Polish can be and is used systematically in lessons include:

  • activity routines which require little instruction, such as a 10-minute section at the beginning of every lesson where students revise from previous handouts and choose what to focus on themselves;
  • choosing language I am both familiar and comfortable with;
  • use of flashcards, particularly created and printed using Quizlet – these allow me to incorporate a wide range of activities with minimal set-up;
  • tables and clear board layout to show how grammar fits together (see example in next section);
  • jazz chants for memorization;
  • PowerPoint presentations which allow me to prepare language in advance;
  • a focus on demonstrations rather than instructions when setting up activities;
  • scripting instructions. However, this has slipped somewhat the second time I have taught lessons as I have become complacent: ‘It worked OK last time, so why wouldn’t it work OK this time.’ Erm, because I haven’t prepared in as much depth and last looked at the plan a year ago?! Really need to get on top of this!

Dealing with problems

Inevitably there are many times during lessons when my low level of Polish causes problems. I deal with these in a variety of ways:

  • Looking up language using Google Translate (selectively!), double-checking things in a Polish corpus and using bab.la, an all-in-one tool which I have recently discovered, containing a bilingual dictionary and corpus-based full sentence translations, great for checking how a word or phrase works in context.
  • Playing pronunciation using Google Translate, Quizlet or Forvo (a pronouncing dictionary, particularly good for names of places and people which aren’t in traditional dictionaries).
  • Facebooking a group of Polish-speaking friends with emergency questions I can’t answer elsewhere, for example when I realized I’d been teaching the word pierś/breast and not klatka piersowa/chest throughout the first lesson I taught on body parts, but the dictionary couldn’t help me! Needless to say, I didn’t make this mistake the second time round and I’ve never forgotten the difference 🙂
  • Admitting my mistakes as soon as I make them, and trying to correct them as quickly as possible. Beyond the Polish lessons, this is important as I’m teaching novice teachers and I think demonstrating that it’s OK when things go wrong is vital as long as I don’t need to do it too often 😉

One particularly proud moment was when I managed to teach an impromptu lesson on plurals. Only two students came to class that day, rather than the 6+ I was expecting. One of them had missed the previous lesson on body parts which I was planning to build on, so the revision stage was extended with the student who had been there teaching the one who was absent. In the meantime I looked up plural rules that I was previously only half confidence with myself, and built up a table on the board based on words we’d covered in class already, mostly body parts and foods. They spotted patterns in the way plurals are formed in different genders, including spelling changes, copied the table, tested each other, tried out a few other words, and memorised the table. There was no freer practice as we’d run out of time in the lesson and my creativity hadn’t stretched that far, but I was still pretty proud of my first impromptu Polish lesson.

Singular and plural table of Polish nouns on whiteboard

As a side note, I recognize that I’m privileged to have a small group of students who want to be there, and therefore don’t really have to deal with classroom management when I do have problems with the language. Loss of face is also minimised as I am the manager of all of my students/teachers and we have a strong relationship outside the lesson, which I think mitigates the effects of when things don’t go as planned in my lessons.

The impact of my B1 level on students’ learning

Summarising the background I have detailed above, I think the following are the main effects that my low level of proficiency have on my students.

I focus largely on language rather than skills as it is easier for me to check and control. These language structures are also often ‘easy’, for example looking at singular adjectives but not plural ones as I’m not really sure of the rules of plural adjectives myself.

Other areas I have noticed avoidance of are the alphabet and spelling-based activities, and minimal grammar input, meaning that my students don’t really have the building blocks to create and understand language independently outside the very controlled structures I have given them, which I think could impede their progress. My lack of confidence with classroom language means that it can be hard to introduce this to the students, and even harder to enforce use of Polish consistently when it could be used.

My pronunciation is sometimes problematic, including passing on my own mistakes. For example I recently spend 50 minutes drilling The sun is shining / Świeci słońce with a final /tsi:/ sound on the first word before realising it should be /tʃi/ just before the end of the lesson. In a survey I did for this presentation, one of my students said it can be confusing when she’s heard one way of pronouncing a word outside the lesson, then when she tries it out I correct it to a form she has only heard from me. Finally, if I don’t check emergent language carefully I can end up teaching it wrong, such as using the spelling Francia instead of Francja in a lesson on countries.

Benefits of me being B1

It’s not all bad!

I’m obviously still learning the language myself, which means that I can empathise very strongly with my students, and they can empathise with me. I provide a realistic model of what they can work towards with their own Polish if they choose too. This is in contrast to a highly proficient speaker/native speaker teacher which it can be hard for beginners to imagine they could ever emulate.

My problems with learning Polish are very recent, and I can normally still remember how I’ve overcome them or how important they are to overcome, passing this on to my students. I also focus on language in class which I’ve found particularly useful when living in Poland, so the lessons genuinely are survival Polish based on real needs rather than guesses.

Because we all share English as a common tongue, I can fall back on it when necessary. One of the students also said it means I can understand easily when they use English grammar with Polish words! Another said that if there was no English at all in the lessons they would be much harder.

A third commented that my low level of Polish means that my language is graded comfortably for them both in terms of speed and level. There is no running commentary on the lesson because I couldn’t produce one if I wanted to, and I use lots of gesture and demonstrations.

Training I still need

Based on all of this reflection, the main areas of training I think I still need as a B1 teacher of Polish are mostly language-based, covering the following areas:

  • useful exponents for classroom language, how to introduce them, and how to reinforce their use in class.
  • typical instructions I need, and how to vary them for talking to one student or a group (verb conjugations).
  • language about language (metalanguage and grammatical terminology) and how to present grammar in Polish to low-level students.

Training I’ve exploited

Methodological training I’ve received in the past has been very useful to me, and could be useful for B1 teachers of English and other languages:

  • how to demonstrate activities rather than give instructions.
  • a range of easy-to-set-up, easy-to-vary activities for a variety of purposes.
  • how to leverage technology like Quizlet and PowerPoint to support my language knowledge and add routine to lessons.
  • recognising and exploiting suitable reference tools for checking language, such as bilingual dictionaries, Google Translate (which can be good for quick and dirty work!), and corpora.
  • how to continue learning a language myself, including finding the time and getting the support I need to do this.
  • Methodology or language training?

So if you’re working with low-proficiency teachers, should you focus more on methodology or language?

I believe that methodology is probably an ‘easier win’ as a strong methodological awareness can carry a lot of the lesson, and is likely to be faster and easier to pick up and incorporate into lessons than overall language. As one of my students said, she would prefer an ‘amazing and inspirational teacher who’s B1 to a mediocre teacher who’s C1’. (Thanks!)

Having said that, both are needed to build confidence in the teacher. A higher level of English would give those teachers access to a lot more professional development too, as a lot of resources still only exist in English.

Find out more

If low levels of teacher proficiency in English is an area you’d like to continue to research, the following four sources could be useful:

  • Gerhard Erasmus presented an IATEFL webinar called ‘Managing and developing teachers with lower English proficiency’ in August 2018. You need to be an IATEFL member to watch the webinar recording in the member’s area (how to join).
  • Donald Freeman’s IATEFL 2015 plenary ‘Frozen in thought’ touched on the subject briefly in the ‘myth of proficiency as a goal’, and I believe he has written about it elsewhere. Lizzie Pinard summarised it on her blog. It is also included in that year’s Conference Selections, again available to members.
  • Damian Williams talked about Language development for teachers and an LDT Toolkit at IATEFL Birmingham 2016, a talk summarized on my blog (the second talk covered in the post) and (much more fully!) on Lizzie Pinard’s.
  • Cambridge Assessment English have a Language for Teaching course available at A2, B1, and B2, which covers both classroom and general English.

If you know of any other related resources, please do share them in the comments section.

After the fact

Since doing the talk eight days ago, I have taken a few hours to create a syllabus for next year’s Polish course. Following on from my reflections for IATEFL, I have based it more around a good quality Polish coursebook, making sure that I balance vocabulary, grammar and skills work much more. I’ve also tried to incorporate more homework to make sure that what we do in class will be as focused on using the language (not just remembering it/talking about it) as possible. I also plan to research more classroom language and return to scripting more of my instructions as part of my planning, if time permits. Watch this space to find out whether the new-look course increases the proficiency of my students any faster!

How to learn a language

It’s New Year’s Eve, a time when a lot of us make resolutions for the coming year. One of them may be to finally learn that language you’ve been meaning to work on for years. But where do you start?

I often describe myself as a language addict. These are the languages that I’ve had a go at learning so far and the levels I’ve reached (based on the CEFR):

  • C1/Advanced: French, German, Spanish
  • B1/Intermediate: Polish
  • A2+/Pre-intermediate: Czech, Russian
  • A1/High beginner: Italian, Mandarin
  • A0/Beginner: Greek, Thai, Bahasa Malay, Japanese, Maltese, Vietnamese, Lithuanian

It’s definitely true that learning one language helps you to learn another, but I wouldn’t say that I have any particular talent for language learning – just lots of tried and tested techniques, and many many hours of practice at it. Over time, this practice has become more focussed and more efficient. Here’s how…

(By the way, if you don’t want to work your way through this quite long blog post, you can download this one-page pdf summary instead.)

Make it a habit

As with anything you want to add to your life, habit formation is the most important thing you can do.

5 minutes a day

Even if you’re super busy, you can definitely find 5 minutes each day (see below for how!) It adds up really quickly – in one week that’s 35 minutes. In a year, it’s 1825 minutes, or over 30 hours. That’s the equivalent of twenty 90-minute classes, or 10 weeks of lessons if you’re having them at our school 🙂

Record what you do

I have a calendar where I make a note of whether I’ve completed my daily habits. Since I started using it, I’m much more likely to do them, as I hate seeing a ‘X’. In this example, the ‘P’ in the top left corner means Polish:

Record achievements

Sneak it into your day

I’ve tried lots of different ways to do this. With Polish, I currently use a few apps in the mornings and read in the evenings before bed (see ‘surround yourself with it’). Again, this is all about habit formation – making it ‘normal’ makes it easier.

Memrise at breakfast

It takes me about 10 minutes to eat my breakfast. While I’m doing that, I work my way through four Memrise sets of Polish, one of Lithuanian and one of Mandarin. I always revise old vocabulary first, aiming for a minimum of 1500 points in each set to maintain my streak. If I haven’t hit 1500, I’ll learn a few new words. I love memrise because it uses the principles of spaced repetition to keep reminding me of vocabulary and testing my memory of it. Since I started using it about 8 years ago, the site reckons I’ve learnt 8836 words as of today – I won’t pretend I’ve remembered them all, but even if it’s only half of them, it’s still a lot of vocabulary!

Carry a few flashcards with you

Sentence cardsWhen I was learning Russian, I cut up bits of yellow paper to create flashcards – yellow because it makes me happy. One side had a sentence in Russian, and the other had some kind of prompt. This was generally a picture or series of pictures if I could think of one, but occasionally an English translation of one or two words from the sentence if I couldn’t.

Sandy's sentence card holder TM

Sandy’s sentence card holder TM

I kept 10-15 of these cards with me all the time, in a little pouch with two pockets. When I was on the bus or waiting somewhere I’d flick through them to test myself. When I thought I knew one, I’d put it in the second pocket. Back at home, I’d take out anything that was in the second pocket and add an equivalent number of cards from the pile that was waiting for me.

i know the ones on the left

Left = ‘known’, right = unknown

After a year, the pile of sentences I’d learnt was about 3cm tall. I would periodically test myself on the whole pile and see if I’d forgotten any of them – generally I’d still remember about 80-90% of them.

Use apps/websites when you’re waiting

If, unlike me, you have a smartphone, then building your vocabulary using language apps is probably a much more productive way to spend your waiting time than looking at social media (again) and pretty easy to fit into your day. Here are four I’ve tried:

  • Memrise (the one I’ve used almost every day for years)
    + Spaced repetition managed automatically
    + Some curated sites created by the company (look for XXX 1, 2, 3 e.g. Polish 1, Polish 2…)
    + Can create your own content
    + Can choose to ignore words if you don’t want/need to learn them (only via the website)
    + Unlimited range of languages/content, with more company-curated sets added all the time
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Not all sets have audio
    – Can be challenging to find the sets that work for you
  • Quizlet (the one I use as a teacher)
    + Quick and easy to create your own content
    + Unlimited range of languages/content
    + Can take other people’s content and edit it to suit you
    + ‘Star’ words to choose what’s most challenging/important for you
    + Fairly easy to find what you need (here’s some help if you’re learning English)
    + Audio automatically added
    + You can choose the games you play, including matching games, spelling, etc.
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can use it again offline on the app
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Although there is now a spaced repetition option, it’s pretty clunky
  • Duolingo (the one everyone else seems to use – I’m not a huge fan)
    + All content created by the company, so shouldn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can suggest alternative answers
    + Mostly sentence level
    + All content has audio
    +/- Limited languages available
    – No teaching before testing – you need to not give up easily
    – Not that helpful for beginners, as there are no language explanations
    – On Apple devices, (I think) you can test out of level 1, but have to earn gems to test out of other levels, so not ideal for higher-level learners either. On Android, I believe you can test out of any level
    – Multiple choice options often nonsensical, so don’t really test you
    – No ability to tailor what you’re learning
  • Lingodeer (my current favourite!)
    + All content created by the company, so generally doesn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can correct any mistakes which are there
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can study it again offline (great for flights!)
    + Very clear language explanations, available at the start of each category and by clicking on any word while in ‘test’ modes
    + Wide range of activity types
    + Can choose what to revise
    + Can ‘test out’ of whole sections at a time
    + All four skills tested, including chances to record yourself speaking and to write characters from Kanji and Mandarin
    + For Japanese, there’s a great ‘story’ function where you can listen to somebody and record yourself
    + Multiple choice options are logical and really make you think
    + Everything has audio, and the pictures are very cute 🙂
    + No annoying advertising or Freemium prompts!
    +/- Limited languages/content available, with about 8 languages at the moment (more than are listed on the site!), though more being added
    – Only available via the app, not on browsers
Repeat what you hear

Don’t just read or listen to it, say it. Having a go at pronouncing the language you hear makes your brain process it a little bit more, meaning you’re more likely to remember it. Listen and repeat improves your confidence with pronunciation over time. Read and repeat gets you experimenting with sound-spelling relationships. Try a few words or phrases each day while you’re doing other things, and again you’ll notice it building over time.

Surround yourself with it

Even if you’re not living in a country where the language you want to learn is around you all the time, you can still add it to your life in lots of different ways.

Label your home

A classic 🙂 Here are some of my Russian labels:

Russian has taken over my fridge!

and a Polish man doing the same:

 

Make little posters or index cards

The process of categorising and copying information over to another piece of paper goes part way to helping you to remember it. By then sticking them up, you see it lots more times and remember it for longer. Here are some I made for Russian:

Index cards everywhere!Surrounded with postcards to be more interesting!

Read to read

Extensive reading is one of the best ways to improve your knowledge of a foreign language. I’ve been reading in Polish for about ten minutes every night before bed for 2.5 years now, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for learning. I started with the first Harry Potter book when I was a low A2 level, choosing it because I was familiar with the story and knew that would help me to understand more.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Polish cover)

Originally I could read 2 pages in about 10 minutes, and now I can read up to 6, depending on how tired I am. I estimate that I could understand about 10-20% of any double-page spread when I started, and now it’s about 70-80%.

Importantly, I read to read, not to learn vocabulary. My aim is to finish the book, not to understand everything. It takes a bit of a mindshift to do this, as you have to stop worrying about what you don’t understand and concentrate on what you do.

When I first tried to read a John Grisham book in German, I wrote down every word I didn’t know and translated it into English. After three pages or so of the book, I had around 150 words and felt pretty depressed – oddly enough, I stopped reading it! In Paraguay, I went to a weekly Spanish meeting. We took an article from the Economist and translated it word for word. This was the result, from which I don’t remember anything!

When I started reading Harry Potter, I only looked up words if they appeared repeatedly and felt important for the story, limiting it to 2-3 per double page. Now, if there aren’t any words in that category, I’ll pick one word to look up at random. I’ve now nearly finished book 4 and really look forward to it every night.

Writing a journal

Writing is the easiest of the four skills to neglect. Writing a journal worked really well for me in Russian as my teacher looked at it and replied each week.

Russian journal

Russian journal

With Polish, I wrote a couple of sentences a day for a few weeks, then gave up because nobody else was reading it. I almost never write in Polish, and this is something I need to change in 2019 if I want to pass the B1 exam I’m thinking about taking!

Podcasts and radio

Apparently there are now over 600,000 podcasts available, so there really is something for everyone. I experimented with listening to the news in other languages when I was at uni, but got bored with listening to the same things over and over again, especially considering I didn’t listen to the news in English. If you’re learning English, here’s an introduction to podcasts for language learning, including some of my favourites.

Alternatively, choose a radio station playing the kind of music or presenting the kind of programmes you like. This is particularly easy if you have a smart speaker – “Alexa, play radio station Antenne Bayern“. I’m now really good at traffic updates in Bavarian German 😉

As with reading, listen to listen, not to understand everything. You’ll understand more and more as you become familiar with the rhythms of the language and build up your vocabulary from other places (like the apps above).

Make it aesthetically pleasing

Do you prefer to look at a plain black folder or a multi-coloured one? What about a page of text or a page of pictures? By carefully choosing the things you use to learn a language, you’re more likely to want to look at them again.

Stationery that makes you smile
Two notebooks, both alike in dignity

Which one to buy? Both of course!

All of my language-learning notebooks have pictures on them, sometimes themed (like the Polski język ones I have here), sometimes just fun, like the ones I used for Russian above. At various times I have also bought a Kung Fu Panda and a Pirates of the Caribbean folder. Because I enjoy looking at them, I’m more likely to pick them up and use them.

Pictures – colour in printed ones or draw rubbish ones!

Whenever possible, use pictures to help you remember things – your brain responds to these much better than words. You can colour in ones you have printed, like these ones I used to help me learn daily routines in Czech:

Coloured in pictures to help me learn Czech daily routine

or draw your own ones, regardless of how rubbish you might think your own drawing is!

Sentence cards with pictures

Think about colours and layout

Laying out what you are learning in a consistent way does some of the work for your brain. Colours also attract the eye, and again can be used to help you to process information.

Show patterns

I often use layout to help me to remember grammar. With gendered words, I always have masculine on the left, feminine in the middle and neutral on the right. If I can remember the position, I can remember the gender.

Colour-coding mistakes can help you to focus on them without needing long explanations:

Deciphering the rewrite code

And you can combine both layout and colour, which is particularly good for grammar:

Index cards everywhere! Time time time...And here are stress patterns in Greek numbers:

Categorise language

As I said above, the process of categorising language helps your brain to process it, and therefore remember it for longer. Vocabulary is the easiest thing to categorise, but you can do it with phrases too. Here’s a page one of the two vocabulary notebooks I filled in a year of studying Russian:

My vocabulary notebook - English

Every page of the notebook had a fold down the middle so I could test myself.

I planned to do this with Polish, managed a couple of pages, then got bored and decided Memrise would be enough.

Highlight exceptions

Judicious highlighting helps your brain work out what to focus on. Highlighting letters or words (like in the picture above) helps you to notice what is different, and the extra attention you therefore pay to these exceptions or unusual things means you’ll remember them for longer. I find this works particularly well for spellings.

Make your brain work, but not too hard

Learning a language means you need to do some processing. The more processing you do with a single item, the more likely you are to remember it. However, it’s easy to get frustrated if you have to do too much processing – that’s when you end up giving up.

Give yourself as many ‘hooks’ as possible

Imagine a large, heavy picture you want to put on the wall. You use a single picture hook, and pretty quickly it falls down. Now use three or four – it stays up for a little while longer, but eventually it still falls down. Now use twenty hooks – it’s likely to stay there for much, much longer. And the bigger the hooks, the better.

The same is true of new language items, whether vocabulary or grammar. Here are some possible ‘hooks’:

  • Meaning
  • A situation/context
  • An image
  • Something that makes you laugh/surprises you
  • (Odd) connections to other things you already know
  • Translation – preferably at sentence level/within a larger context (this could be to other foreign languages you know, not just your native language(s))
  • Collocations for vocabulary/common verbs used with the structure for grammar
  • Examples in use – if you create them yourself and get them checked, the hooks will be bigger and stronger
  • Encounters – each time you see/hear the word, you’re adding a little hook
  • Using it yourself – saying/writing it adds a pretty big hook or makes the hooks that are already there bigger

Each ‘hook’ you give yourself keeps that bit of language anchored in your brain for longer and more securely.

Hide translations

Humans are lazy. We always take the easiest route. That means that if we see a word in a language we’re comfortable with, we’ll read that before we make the effort to process something more difficult, like the language we’re learning.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid translation entirely, as that can just make you feel frustrated. Instead, make your brain work harder to see the translations so that processing the foreign language becomes the easier route. Two ways I’ve done this are by writing the English in yellow pen:

English is on the right – look carefully!

and by writing it in tiny letters in a different part of the page, or on the other side if possible:

English is in tiny letters

Avoid arrows

When you get two answers the wrong way round in an exercise or copy two words next to the wrong definitions, it’s tempting to draw arrows to correct them instead of crossing them out. Don’t! This adds an extra step of processing, where your brain has to ‘undo’ what it first saw. It might not look as pretty (unless you use Tippex/whiteout) but it makes life easier for your brain! Number 5 in this picture is an example – I don’t remember what it means though!

Use monolingual dictionaries as soon as you can

Again, humans are lazy. I use Google Translate all the time, as do many of my students. But, and this is important, NOT for learning. For that I use a monolingual dictionary as soon as I can, preferably a learner’s dictionary if they exist.For Polish, I’ve been using PWN. For English I tend to recommend:

My university teachers would be pleased to hear this, as they used to tell us all the time to go monolingual, but it took me ages to listen to them. Now I prefer the information that I can find there, including collocations, example sentences, alternative uses, phrases, and (especially online) pronunciation and conjugations. It also provides extra reading practice, and the fact you have to process the language more means you are more likely to remember it more, or be more picky about which words you look up. If you’re a teacher, persevere with persuading your students – it’s worth the effort!

Be proud of your mistakes

Mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they show that you are learning. As with reading to read, this can require a shift in your mindset, as far too many of us have been brought up thinking that mistakes are bad.

Collect them, highlight them

Try creating a ‘My favourite mistakes’ page. Once a week/after a lesson/when you’ve done some writing, choose one mistake you made which you know you make a lot. Add it to the page, along with the correction. In the correct version, highlight the bit that you had problems with. This will draw your attention to it. This photo shows problems I was having with Czech accents on words:

Rewrite them

With the journal writing I mentioned above, I was motivated enough and had enough time on my hands to rewrite my entries and colour-code the mistakes, which made a huge difference to the accuracy of my writing.

Colour-coded rewrites

Colour-coded rewrites

It was great to see how the things I was making mistakes with changed over time, even in the few weeks that I did this for.

Personalise language

Making the language you are learning feel like yours can be hugely motivating, and adds some of the ‘hooks’ mentioned above.

Use your own experiences and opinions

Personalise example sentences so they mean something to you. For example, only learn ‘I like chocolate’ if you actually do. If you don’t, change it to ‘I like cats’, ‘I like computer games’ or whatever is most relevant to your experience. You’ll remember it faster, and it adds another ‘hook’.

Learn what you need first

When learning a foreign language, I try to start with numbers and food, as these are normally the things I need first on arrival in a new country. If I can eat in a restaurant and understand prices, then I can get a long way. Phrases like ‘How are you?’ and ‘I’m ____ years old.’ are much less immediately relevant.

If you’re not sure what you might need first, consider working your way through a course (maybe online or using a book) and feel free to skip bits that don’t appeal.

Be selective

It’s easy to feel like you need to remember every new word or phrase you come across, but this is impossible. Choose the language which most appeals to you and/or which is most relevant. Start with ‘easy wins’ – the more you build up your vocabulary, the easier it is to understand things you read and listen to, and the more you’ll be able to learn new vocabulary and grammar from all the extensive reading and listening you’re doing (by surrounding yourself with the language as above).

Record phrases you like

When you’re listening to or reading something, write down words and phrases you like and want to use again. If you’re talking to somebody, ask them to repeat it so you can make a note of it. Again, by picking out what you’re interested in and things that appeal to you, you’re giving yourself more hooks.

Rise above the word

If you’re self-studying, it’s very easy to just learn lists and lists of vocabulary. While this is useful, in the long run, you need to do more to truly learn the language.

Look at chunks

When you’re reading, look at the words that appear around that new word you’ve just written down. Is there a preposition (in, on, from…) after the word? Is there an adjective before it? Are there other words a bit further away in the sentence that might be connected? These are all hook that can help you to better use new language.

Write out conversations

Take grammar structures you’ve learnt and have a go at using them in conversations. Would the other person in the conversation use the same grammar to reply? For example, in English a present perfect question can be followed by a past simple reply. Can you make the structure shorter or add to it in any way? For example, English relative clauses can often be reduced, or added into other sentences. If you can, ask somebody to check the conversation for you, or have a go at recording it with somebody else you know who’s learning the language.

Mini dictations

Take one sentence of something you’ve listened to and use it as a dictation. If there’s a transcript for the audio, or lyrics for a song, check how correct you were. This is a great way to spot little grammar mistakes you’re making, and to better understand the rhythms of the spoken language.

Try out a corpus

A corpus is a collection of language as it is really used. For learners, this can help you to expand your understanding of particular items of vocabulary or grammar structures. My favourite English (and Spanish/Portuguese) corpus tool is the collection at BYU, particularly the new ‘word’ function. This is a snippet – there’s far more information as you scroll down the page:

BYU corpus word feature screenshot

Lizzie Pinard has an introduction to using www.wordandphrase.info/academic which shows you a lot of the features.

I use NKJP for Polish, for example to check whether I’ve chosen the right verb to go with a particular noun.

Be patient

Nobody learns anything overnight. But with language learning people seem to find that particularly frustrating – ‘I already speak my language. Why can’t I learn this one?’ Patience is key to getting to the level you want to achieve.

Grammar will come – don’t agonise over it

If you’ve read this whole post, you’ll notice that mentions of grammar are few and far between. Although I do have a grammar book, I only glance at it occasionally, and I’ve never done a grammar exercise in Polish. My grammar has improved though, through exposure, reading snippets of grammar explanations, and trying to notice patterns. Reading and listening to as much of the language as possible will help you to develop an instinct for correct grammar. Exercises might help you get there a bit faster, but they’re not essential.

Think about the process of children learning

Think about how children learn their first language. They start with essential everyday words, like ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then add vocabulary they need all the time, then add grammar later. It takes them a couple of years before they say anything, years when they have 24/7 exposure to the language they’re learning. When we learn a foreign language, we generally expect to speak from day one, and don’t give ourselves a ‘silent period’ to absorb what we’ve been exposed to before we have to produce it.

Children also make lots of mistakes, but they persevere, and eventually they speak the language they need to the level they need to in their everyday levels, providing the conditions are right for them.

It’s a long process, and it’s not easy, but it’s worth it in the end.

Be kind to yourself

Languages are big, complicated beasts from the outside. It can feel pretty daunting when you’re starting out. But if you’re kind to yourself, if you allow yourself to experiment, to make mistakes, and to try out the new language you’ve learnt without fearing failure, you’ll make it. As with everything in life, there’s no point beating yourself up if you find something challenging – all that does is makes you feel depressed. It doesn’t actually make you learn any more effectively.

Don’t listen to me!

If you were patient enough to read the whole post, you’ll see that although I’ve tried everything I’ve described, I don’t do all of it now. Not everything works for everybody, and not everything works all the time. Be flexible with your learning, experiment, and work out what works for you. That way, you’ll enjoy the process a whole lot more.

Good luck!

P.S.

These tips are all based on my own experience. I know there’s science behind at least some of them, but I’m feeling too lazy to find the links! If you feel like sharing them, please do…

Questions

As an experienced language learner, I know that it’s important for me to speak as much as possible in order to improve my language. That can be easier said than done though (no pun intended).

Since I came back to Poland after a few weeks away this summer, I’ve noticed I’m much more confident when speaking Polish. There’s been a real difference in my interactions, which I think marks a step change in my progress. Reading Scott Thornbury’s recent post W is for (language learning in) the Wild, I finally realised what this difference is: questions.

Let me explain.

In my first year in Poland, I went through somewhat of a silent period. Having previously learnt Czech and Russian really helped my understanding of Polish, since they are all Slavic languages. However, it meant that whenever I spoke, it was some kind of weird mix of all three languages, and people often struggled to understand me. Without realising what was happening, I mostly stopped trying to interact, and would switch to English whenever I knew it was possible.

Last summer, I went for a weekend away with organised by my flamenco teacher in Bydgoszcz. At least half of the people on the trip couldn’t speak English, but they were curious about why I was there, and wanted to share their own experiences of English and/or the UK – many of them have family who live there. They were also very patient with me, and supported my efforts to communicate.

A few fellow flamenco learners in the beautiful surroundings of Gzin

A couple of weeks after that I moved into my new flat, and shared it for six weeks with the previous owners, who didn’t speak English. I’ve written previously about that experience of immersion and how much it helped my confidence.

Despite these positive experiences, I still felt like I could only make statements, or follow where my conversation partner led.

Now I’ve realised that I’ve started to be able to instigate conversations too, because I’ve begun to experiment with asking questions. I’m still not hugely confident with the grammar of questions, and mostly stick to question words and rising intonation, but I now feel like I can steer what’s happening or fill lulls in the conversation when my conversation partner has run out of things to ask. It also now feels rather less like the Spanish inquisition.

What particularly made me think in Scott’s post was the fact that the Japanese hitchhiker he describes had been prompted to use a particular list of questions by his English teacher. Maybe I should come up with a list of Polish questions that I can use in a variety of situations, to help improve my confidence and make it easier to start conversations.

Have you ever done anything like that with your students? What kind of questions would you include on the list?

Minor tweaks, major changes

For the last couple of weeks one of my Ukrainian friends was staying with me. I love spending long periods of time chatting with non-native speakers of English, because it helps me to notice all kinds of things about my language which would probably never occur to me otherwise.

One of our discussions ended up being centred around ‘go’, and how adding or subtracting a single word to certain collocations could completely change the meaning, at least as far as I could tell without checking it in any reference materials.

Look at the photos below. Imagine you are talking to your friends the day after the photo was taken, telling them about it. Write one sentence that you would use to tell your friends about what you were doing. (There are 9 of them, so it’ll be easier to remember if you write them!) Start each sentence with ‘I went…’

1. You’re one of the girls in the photo.

Ballet class

Image from Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

2. You’re in the audience watching this.

Ballet performance

Image from Pixabay

3. You’re one of the people in the club.

Club in Mexico

Image from Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

4. You’re one of the people in the couple.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

5. You’re one of the people on the rink.

Ice Skating

Image from Wikimedia Commons

6. You’re one of the children.

Ice skating lessons

Image from Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

7. You’re in the audience.

Ice Skating show

Image from Wikimedia commons

8. You’re one of the people in the picture.

Football training

Image from Pixabay

9. You’re in the crowd.

Football friendly

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Hopefully you now have a list that looks a bit like this:

  1. I went to ballet.
  2. I went to the ballet.
  3. I went dancing.
  4. I went to dancing.
  5. I went ice skating.
  6. I went to ice skating.
  7. I went to the ice skating.
  8. I went to football.
  9. I went to the football.

I realised a few things when we were having this discussion:

  • I don’t think I would use the words ‘classes’ or ‘lessons’ in any of these examples, just the preposition ‘to’.
  • One little word, like ‘to’, can completely change the meaning of the sentence. (I knew that already, but hadn’t come across such a clear example outside the realm of articles before.)
  • I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a discussion like this with my students.
  • I really should do more work with contrastive forms whenever I can.

What sentences did you come up with? What things have you realised about English or your own language recently?

How to learn a language every day (IH Journal Issue 42)

Issues 42 of the IH Journal has just been published.

IH Journal Issue 42 cover

My article is about various ways to make language learning part of your daily life, without expending too much effort. Hopefully it will be useful both for students and for teachers wanting to explore new languages.

As always, I’d recommend taking a look at the whole issue,  which you can access through the links on the right-hand side of the main IH Journal page. Some of my highlights from this issue are Katy Simpson describing three reasons why we should all be (ELT) feminists, lots of ideas from Kylie Malinowska to make the most of YL coursebooks, and Maria Badia’s ideas for using the Oxford Owls e-readers, a resource I had no idea existed, but will certainly be recommending to parents in the next academic year. Emily Hird pulls together some of these threads by showing us how to be more aware of everyday sexism in materials we use, and suggests some ways of dealing with it.

On immersion

For the past six weeks or so I have been sharing a flat with a couple who only speak a few words of English and German. When I moved in my Polish was probably hovering around A2, having received a boost over the summer from my reading, writing and use of a grammar book. I was still quite hesitant about speaking, and had only really started to build my confidence during a weekend away organised by my flamenco teacher, again with a few people who didn’t speak any English but who still wanted to communicate with me. Both the people on the flamenco weekend and the couple I was living with were great interlocutors for me, patient, happy to rephrase and repeat themselves as much as necessary, and supporting me in trying to communicate my ideas. The woman I lived with was also very good at correcting me consistently which had a massive impact on my grammar.

One of two kittens entertaining us when we weren't dancing flamenco :)

One of two kittens entertaining us when we weren’t dancing flamenco 🙂

Six weeks on, it’s like I’m a different person. I feel like my Polish is probably now into B1. I can speak about most everyday things, my accuracy has improved in quite a few areas, and my confidence is at similar levels to my much stronger languages. I’m not normally shy about pushing myself to speak, which is why the last year has been so strange for me as I was very reluctant to speak Polish if I didn’t have to. I felt like I didn’t really know what language I was speaking in, and it was a real mix of Polish, Czech and Russian. I’m very glad to be past that point, and feel like I’m now in a very good place to continue improving.

On reflection, I’m also wondering whether having such a long (almost) silent period has also helped me to speak more fluently and more confidently at this point than at the same point with other languages. A year of building my vocabulary and listening to and reading whatever I could has certainly helped me improve my understanding, and I feel it’s also made me more accurate when I finally did speak, although I’m sure Czech and Russian probably also had something to do with it.

This is the most conscious I’ve ever been of my speaking progress, as I’ve either already been at least B2 when I’ve been immersed in a language, or I haven’t been in a complete immersion situation for more than a couple of hours at a time. Six weeks of having to speak Polish most mornings and evenings for at least a few minutes meant I had no choice but to communicate. Talking about things which were relevant to me and trying to explain things which had happened during a very eventful few weeks, sometimes with Mr. Google’s help, extended my language and provided a huge amount of motivation.

I know that it’s theoretically possible to create similar situations through the use of Skype conversation partners for example, but I’ve never had the motivation to do it before, confident that I’d eventually learn as much as I needed to through constantly plugging away at the language. After this experience of immersion, I think I might try harder to recreate it with the next language I want to study (not sure what yet!)

I’ve only had two or three Polish lessons, and I’m wondering just how much and how accurately I can learn without having any, even though I know I definitely want some at some point as I need correction. Watch this space…

How I’m learning Polish

Slowly. Without lessons. Mostly by myself. These things will hopefully all change as we move into the next academic year, but until then I’m…

Using Memrise

I started doing this as soon as I found out I’d got the job in Poland. I’ve been using a range of different sets, and spend 5-10 minutes on there every day.

Leeds University beginners’ Polish
The best Polish course I’ve found on memrise, though I didn’t find it until much later than the other sets linked here. It has a range of useful vocabulary sets, with words and phrases I’m highly likely to need. Unfortunately though, quite a few of the words don’t have any audio.

Beginner Polish
This was the first set I used, and I finished it a few months ago. It has a lot of useful vocabulary, but not so many complete phrases.

Beginner to Intermediate (no typing)
There is a lot of incredibly random vocabulary here, and I’m not sure I would describe it as beginner, though some of the words scattered through the sets are. The first 19 or so levels are quite useful, dealing with verb conjugations, but then set 20 is clause linkers, most of which I ignored. I’m about halfway through, and find that the lack of typing means words sometimes take a while to stick in my head. There are also some words which are a bit confusing because they are presented completely out of context, so it’s not always clear which meaning of the English translation they correspond to. Most of the words have audio though, which is helpful. There are times when I think ‘When am I ever going to need that?’ often shortly followed by said word being key in an article I’m skimming in the magazines left in the school kitchen, or appearing in film subtitles 🙂

Days and Months
Colours
I found these two sets when I was trying to find something more useful than the Beginner to Intermediate set. They are short and quick to finish, which was motivating.

For a long time I got a bit too lazy, and memrise was the only thing I was doing for Polish. It felt like once I’d reached my daily goal, there was no need to find the time to do anything else. Some extra practice came to me, like buying things from the counters in the supermarket or reading subtitles when I went to the cinema, but it wasn’t much. About a month ago, I decided it was time to change this, and have now added a few other things, starting with:

Harry Potter

Inspired by Lizzie Pinard, I downloaded the Polish version of the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone audiobook way back in September. I enjoyed the books the first time round, as well as the films, but haven’t read/seen them for a long time, so this is a great opportunity to revisit them and learn at the same time.

Until about a month ago, I’d only listened to the first two chapters once or twice each, but then I decided that if I was really serious about learning Polish just doing memrise wasn’t going to cut it. I put the audiobook on my iPod, and before I listened to any podcasts each day, I had to listen to some Harry Potter. I’m about 2/3 of the way through the book now, and try to listen to each chapter at least twice, and often four or five times, before moving on to the next. Every time I listen I notice more of the vocabulary, and some of that ‘When I am ever going to need this?’ vocab from the Beginner to Intermediate memrise set has actually come in quite useful here! It’s also a great way to help me pick up on the pronunciation of words I had only seen and not heard before, and to notice the case endings which are used throughout Polish.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Polish cover)

Having enjoyed puzzling through Game of Thrones in Russian previously, I decided to buy the book of Harry Potter a couple of weeks ago. I tend to read one or two pages every night before bed. I finished chapter one last night, and want to go back and listen to the audiobook chapter again as I now understand so much more of the text. This is the last thing I do each night, and I read until I can’t keep my eyes open. Before that I…

Write in my journal

Writing is often the skill which is most neglected when learning a language. My receptive skills are pretty good in Polish, around pre-intermediate level I’d guess, because of the Czech and Russian I have learnt before. Unfortunately, my productive skills are lagging far behind this. I’m reluctant to speak because I end up producing a mix of Czech, Russian and Polish, though this is getting easier as time passes. A lack of practice doesn’t help.

I’ve had previous success with journal writing in Russian, and I try to do it with my students, so on the same day I started reading Harry Potter, I also decided it was high time I started writing a journal in Polish. By writing, I’m forcing myself to produce the language, but I have none of the time pressure of being in a conversation. I tend to only write the date and two or three sentences about what I did that day or some general fact about me if the day was quite boring. I’m trying to push myself to pick out something different to write about each day, even when the days are very same-y. This is also because nobody has read or corrected my Polish writing yet, so I don’t want to compound a particular mistake too much until they do! The whole process takes a while because I’m also…

Reading a grammar book

[The image is an affiliate link…I’ll get a few pennies if you buy through it]

Of course, saying it like that makes it sound really dull, but two things make it much more interesting. The first is that Discovering Polish is very accessible, with a limited amount of metalanguage and lots of examples to support rules. The second is that every time I pick it up it’s because I’m looking for a particular bit of grammar which I need for my journal but have no idea how to use. Whenever I start reading about it, I normally end up finishing a whole section or even a whole chapter. There are a couple of bits I’ve read more than once, and I’ve already noticed that these rules are starting to sink in. By reading more about the grammar, it’s also helping me to notice grammatical features when they appear in other places, like the Harry Potter book or…

At the cinema

I’m currently living right next door to the cinema, and have an unlimited card, so have been making full use of the combination of this and my summer holidays to go to the cinema as much as possible. However, the only dubbed film I’ve made it to is The BFG, which while it looked beautiful, was way too linguistically complicated for me to understand much of what was said. This wasn’t helped by me not doing any preparation before I went, like watching trailers or clips of the film in English first to know some of the language. It’s also a very long time since I read the book so I didn’t really remember the story, though I did manage to pick the main events up well enough from the images. It’s temporarily put me off watching dubbed films, though I know it shouldn’t because I got a lot out of watching Zootropolis a few months ago.

The subtitles are quite good for picking up bits and pieces of language, but I do have a tendency to ignore them completely after a while, especially if it’s a particularly gripping film. I should definitely go and see more dubbed films, and maybe even venture to a Polish film or two.

In the future

I really want to be able to communicate confidently in Polish and understand much more so that I can:

  • go to the cinema to see any film I like without needing to prepare first
  • understand everything at my flamenco classes
  • volunteer at Guides or Scouts
  • speak to parents and low-level students without an interpreter at school
  • deal with life admin without needing an interpreter
  • socialise more easily with monolingual Poles
  • and generally have as independent a life as possible here.

To do this, I’m planning to continue with everything I’ve described above, time permitting. I have CDs of the next two Harry Potter audiobooks which I found very cheaply in a second-hand DVD store, so that’ll keep me going for a while.

I’m also hoping that we’ll have higher-level Polish classes at school from October, which I should be able to join in with. This should give me more opportunities to speak. I have a few Polish friends here, but we almost always speak English, and it’s very hard to change the language of a relationship if you’ve started in a different one. I’m hoping to get a few more friends and to start the relationship in Polish if I can 🙂

I will inevitably come back to the blog at a later date to reflect on my further Polish learning, so watch this space to find out how it goes.

Future Learn Italian course – week 3

This is a continuation of my reflection notes made while doing the Future Learn Beginner’s Italian course. You can also read about weeks 1 and 2.

One of the benefits of doing the Future Learn course in the correct weeks is that you benefit from the moderators being online. It’s possible to sign up for a course and complete it whenever you like, but during the set period of the course (in this case six weeks), various moderators are available to respond to questions in the discussion thread, normally within 24 hours. Last week I posted a comment to ask about online dictionaries, and was referred to a list by one of the moderators which included both translation and monolingual online dictionaries. I was impressed at how quickly I got a response. This was useful, though in future it might be more beneficial to have a page on the course where you can go to for extra resources like this, as I would never had found it without the moderator. Moderators would then be able to refer participants to it if they can’t find it themselves.

Another advantage of studying the course in the specified time is the ability to use the tips sent out in the summary email at the end of each week. These are pulled together based on comments and questions from the discussion threads. At the end of week 2, this included a response to user requests which I was very pleased to see:

To help you to practise listening comprehension, a downloadable audio version the dialogues will available from next week.

Perhaps the dictionary links could also have been included here?

Week 3

The video story is working well for me. I’m enjoying learning more about the characters, and am quite pleased that they don’t seem to be going down the line I’ve seen before in this kind of video of boy meets girl, lots of slightly strained sexual tension, then they fall in love at the end of the story. Instead, Mike and Anna both have partners (Sarah and Leonardo) who they tell each other about in the first video for this week, introducing descriptive language. As mentioned previously, I also like the fact that the videos are at normal speed, but you have lots of options to help you: no, English or Italian subtitles; watching at half speed, downloading the transcript, and from this week, downloading the audio.

Generally, the videos are very well produced, both for the story and the language introductions.

As in previous weeks, the ‘Try it yourself communication’ activity again relies on you being able to use the four or five phrases they’ve introduced so far, or going off and finding your own phrases/using what you know already. These are examples of what has been introduced: https://quizlet.com/132508088/focus-on-communication-7-flash-cards/ If they don’t have long, black hair or aren’t tall or thin, there aren’t many people you can describe 🙂 I know they’re trying to separate the functional language and the vocabulary sections, but I don’t really feel like commenting because I don’t know what to say. I feel like a more specific prompt would be useful. This is the task at the moment:

Do you have any questions about how to describe people and things? Are you unsure about something? Share your comments and questions in the discussion below. Don’t hesitate to help other learners if you know the answer, or to share links to helpful resources.

I clicked ‘mark as complete’ without adding anything.

The vocabulary introduction is the next stage. To me, it would make sense to flip these two steps in the course. There is an extra practice activity though you have to do a bit of guesswork – are her eyes green or light? Is her hair short and black, curly and black, short and curly?

Noun and adjective agreement video: refers back to previous grammar units very clearly, so it’d be easy to find them again if you wanted to. Slight confused by this random question at the end of the grammar quiz, which doesn’t appear to practise noun and adjective agreement, and must have slipped past whoever was checking the course!

Mike e Leonardo sono _____. gentile/studenti

The ‘Exploring Italian’ section throws out a whole load of new language again, and does nothing with it apart from showing us a couple of example sentences. The phrases include: “stare insieme con (to date someone)” and “essere fidanzat-o/a/i con (to be engaged to)” Questions in the comments section reflect this: can we have the audio or hear the pronunciation? Speculation on the grammatical forms… On the plus side, the examples mostly use the characters from the video, so at least the context is maintained. [In the end of week email, the moderators said that audio files will be available for these sections from next week. Great to see how they respond to the comments.]

Italian sounds: vowels. Aha, it turns out they can easily put in sound files, as there is one to accompany each of the words used to introduce the vowel sounds. I feel like this would be a more useful way of introducing the vocabulary, or at least they could have a vocabulary list with the audio to accompany the videos so you can listen repeatedly to particular words you want to practise with ease. Lots of comments in this case to show that the differences between /e/, /ε/ and /o/, /ɔ/ haven’t been made clear. It’s OK for me because I understand the phonetics, have lots of practise differentiating sounds, and the example words they’re using to equate the sounds are from English, my mother tongue, but a lot of the course participants will have trouble distinguishing these pairs as they are so similar. A little more explanation would be useful, or indeed, a video showing you the physical differences between the sounds, rather than just an audio file!

The directions video goes nicely with where I’m up to on the Memrise Learn Basic Italian course: level 5 is called ‘Here, there and everywhere‘ and covers directions too (and, randomly, numbers and times!) The first question in the comprehension quiz asks you where Mike wants directions to. The answer was given in the introduction to this video, when the phrase ‘post office’ is pre-taught. This is an example of the importance of choosing which language to pre-teach carefully and/or ensuring that comprehension questions actually require you to comprehend the materials! The use of a map in the video with Mike and a stranger is also reflective of my experience as a tourist. I’m enjoying seeing clips of Sienna, and like the fact that it’s not just in the sunshine! Mike feels like a real person in a real city with (fairly) real reasons for needing to speak Italian.

I like the fact that the ‘focus on communication’ video begins by the teacher acknowledging that although we often use GPS nowadays, it’s still useful to be able to ask for directions. The communication quizzes generally test passive recognition of collocations, which I think is fairly useful. There was another quiz on Learning Apps to help us, this time matching the two halves of sentences. It’s good to explore this app, which I learnt about last week. Lots of people have been motivated to post in the comments, mostly writing short conversations with directions in them. These add extra reading practice. There is also peer support when people have questions about the language, for example what ‘vicino’ means, which was mentioned in the video, but never explicitly taught. I learnt it from memrise yesterday! (They teach it in the next video)

More vocab for directions in a video (the previous video was focussed on communication, or what I would class as functional language). It’s noticeable that the previous three or four stages have had about 200-300 comments, but this stage has nearly 1000. This is the difference when there is a clear task to complete. I’m not sure if this would be possible, but perhaps the interface could be adapted so that you can post your comment, then read the others. At the moment, you have to view all of the comments to see the box to post your own, so often it’s difficult not to look at other people’s answers before you write yours. There are so many different ways that people have chosen to give directions to Mike to help him find Anna – a genuinely engaging and motivating productive task, probably the first one on the course so far!

It’s now two days into week 4 and I haven’t finished week 3 yet, and didn’t have time to do any over the last three days since the last things I wrote…

Because I know I won’t have time to catch up next weekend either, and want to finish the whole thing before I get to Milan, I’m tempted to rush (though not enough to stop writing this!) Instead of watching the full video for the conjugations of ‘andare’ and ‘venire’ I listened to enough to hear the pronunciation of the verb forms, then looked at the transcript. This was probably more useful than watching the video more times as I spent time thinking about and trying to memorise the verb forms, instead of just listening to the next thing the teacher said. I’d like to be able to see the forms and listen to them individually, as I’ve said before about the vocab. Managed to get most of the quiz right, but have trouble with tu/lui/lei endings because of Spanish – I feel like there should be an -s for tu!

Introduction to consonants – good that there are Italian example words which you can listen to as many times as you like. However, I don’t really like the fact that there are English example words because these can be misleading. For example /p/is aspirated in the British English ‘pit’, but not in the Italian ‘papà’, at least that I can hear.

Discussion point task at this point:

Write a description of you or someone that you know in the comments. You may include:

  • Hair colour
  • Eye colour
  • Height
  • Etc.

For example: Mia moglie è bionda, ha gli occhi marroni, non è molto alta, ma è molto carina e simpatica!

I have no idea! I can’t really remember any of these words and initially thought we hadn’t even studied them, then looked back up this post and realised they were at the beginning of this section. Directions in the middle confused me – seems like a very random order! Having looked back, this was my contribution, which required quite a lot of effort to produce:

Mia mama ha capelli longhi. Non ha capelli neri. Lei non è alta, non è piccola.

The final section for the week promises to introduce these things:

You will learn to ask for the time and the related vocabulary. Moreover you’ll also learn the names of public places and the present tense of the verbs ending in –ere and –ire.

This feels like a lot, though it may be the fact that it’s 21:30 as I write this. Not sure I’m mentally in the right place to manage all of this, but I want to try and finish the week!

The video has a few lines of dialogue, then some text messages. I think that’s the first real reading practice we’ve had so far on the course, and it’s an interesting and different way to introduce it, again well-produced too. The subtitles have the times in numbers and in words, which is great. In the comprehension quiz, I have no idea what some of the words in the final question mean ‘Anna incontra Mike oggi pomeriggio:’ but have managed to guess the answer. ‘incontra’ is like ‘encontra’ in Spanish, so I know that means ‘meet’, but I have no idea about the last two words.

How to tell the time: “You have already learned the numbers.” Hmm…not really. I’d recognise them at a push, but I wouldn’t say I’ve learnt them yet. Just started doing them on memrise, which will probably be what helps me to remember them.

There’s a Quizlet quiz to help you practise some of the questions. This is good for recognition, especially the scatter mode, which is the only one I can be bothered to play at this time of night. One of my bugbears in general (not just on this course, but in many online materials) is the disregard for punctuation, especially capital letters. Learners need to see how and where capitals are used correctly, as rules for capitalisation vary and some languages don’t have them at all. There are no capital letters at all in the set at the moment 😦

The second video about time has lots of examples of times, in sentences too. Very clear. It was also good that they clarified that in informal spoken Italian you normal use 1/2/3, but when talking about official things e.g. opening hours or train times, you use the 24-hour clock. The ‘try it yourself’ quiz tests whether you recognise if times are formal or informal, rather than your understanding of the numbers themselves.

The extra practice quiz involves writing out a time in words, but only accepts one possible answer in each case, which is a bit frustrating when you have something like 20.45 and there were three possible ways to say it in the video. I couldn’t be bothered with this after one question (again, time of day/tiredness).

The next grammar video introduces new conjugations for verbs ending in -ere and -ire, comparing them to -are. It’s all in a clear table on the slide, so you can see that many of the forms are the same across all three conjugations, reducing the processing load needed to retain the information. “Don’t worry if it seems difficult. It will become familiar very quickly.” – I like these supportive messages 🙂

The grammar test always puts the options in the ‘correct’ order (I, you, he/she/it etc), so if you can understand the question, you don’t necessarily need to remember the verb form very confidently, just the order. Having said that, it’s helping me to remember that -i is a second person ending, not third person (Spanish again), because I keep seeing it in the same position in the list.

The last set of consonants are introduced to round of the unit. These ones are different to English, or have no equivalent. If they have no equivalent, there is an example from Spanish, though I’m not sure these match up, at least to my South American experience. I guess many people may know those sounds, but otherwise it seems odd. I’ve just noticed that all of the phonetic symbols are there too – my eyes had completely skipped over that column with the consonants! Two new symbols in my IPA arsenal now: /ɲ/ for ‘gn’ in ‘gnocchi’, /λ/ for ‘gl+i’ in ‘figli’ and ‘gli+a/e/o/u’ in ‘familia’ etc. The latter sound is equated to ‘ll’ in Spanish ‘llave’ or ‘llamar’ which I don’t think is the same sound.

OK, it’s 22:11 now, and I’m not sure how much of this I’ll actually retain, but I’ve at least seen it. Numbers continue to be a challenge, and I clearly can’t remember the description vocabulary, so should probably revise both of them. I know it’s not going to happen though, because I’m busy and unless it comes up on the course I won’t make the time to do it.

I haven’t downloaded any of the slides or extra resources yet, and just go back to the page I need using the ‘to do’ list if I’m not sure about something. Still feel like I’m learning, but pretty passively. This is mostly my own fault, but I also don’t feel like the course is making me be particularly active at points when I should be able to produce target language. It tests you at various points, but normally before rather than after the fact.

Roll on week four…

FutureLearn Italian course – weeks 1 and 2

I’m in the process of completing the FutureLearn beginner’s Italian course, which is free to participate in, although you need to pay if you want to get a certificate of completion.

While I’m doing the course, I’m hoping to write notes on my responses to the activities from a teaching perspective. Week 1’s are a few general thoughts on the course, and from week 2 onwards they’re quite in-depth reflections on how each activity is set up, my responses to them and what I feel I have learnt/could learn from them. Not sure how useful they are to anyone other than the course creators (or even to them?!) but since I’ve written it, I thought I’d share… 🙂

Very happy that due to a couple of weekends with no other plans and a national holiday, I’m on track with the course (it’s halfway through week 2 on the timeline at the moment). I’m mostly watching the videos in between doing other things, like my physio in the morning or the washing up in the evening, so it fits nicely around life. Not sure if that will continue, but I hope so, since week six is timed perfectly to end on the day that I fly to Milan for my first ever trip to Italy 🙂

Week 1

Videos at normal speed – options for half-speed, subtitles in English/Italian, can watch as much as you like. Pre-teaching some vocab and set up context beforehand – all positive points and help the learner get supported exposure to ‘normal’ Italian. Comprehension task is more of a memory test – can you remember which city she said?

Multiple-choice questions can sometimes be guessed without having looked at the content, but better on this course than on the dyslexia one, where you really didn’t need to read the content to answer them! (By the way, I’m half-way through the dyslexia course and will write about that when I’ve finished it…currently looking like that will be at some point in August)

Jobs – spelling test. Useful! Interesting activity design.

Spelling Italian vocabulary

Scaffolded nicely through the week. Could be useful to have the vocabulary in some kind of clickable form so you can just listen to the words you want to, not all of them (they’ve done this a little with some Quizlet grammar quizzes, but not with the vocab) All slides are downloadable for review, but would be more useful with the sound too

Grammar videos, e.g. intro to regular -are verbs and fare is clear, and he says that it’s normal to make mistakes at the beginning – supportive message. Would be useful to have more time to repeat the phrases after each one, and perhaps a ‘can you remember’ type activity within the video to aid memorisation, though I know it makes videos longer than current 4 minutes.

Week 2

Clear task before you watch video: “Watch the conversation between Mike, Anna and Lisa. Who is oldest? Who is youngest?” Advice to switch off subtitles, or use Italian only – little bits of learner training are useful.

Focus on communcation (ages) – one brief question and answer, then a little test – good way to introduce functional language.

Numbers and age (vocab) – all of the numbers, plus six phrases connected to stages of life (e.g. baby, teen, middle aged) in about 5 minutes. Woah! First time I’ve struggled to keep up (thanks to French/Spanish) – information overload. Receptively (the numbers he asked at the end and the multiple choice – can guess from three options), not too difficult because of other languages. Productively, no time to repeat, though you can watch the video again as many times as you want to and download the slides – lack of opportunity to drill yourself repeatedly on one word. Perhaps better to break into separate videos (0-10, 11-20, 21-100, ages), with some practice between each. A Quizlet set would also be very useful at this point (there have been a few scattered through the course so far, mostly for conjugations)

Grammar – conjugation of ‘avere’ (to have) – practise it alone, then combining it with ‘essere’ (to be) – good to see some revision. Comments on the quiz remind you of which forms you’re using once you’ve answered, though that only helps if you know grammar terms like ‘second person singular’ All quizzes have short sentences – good that it’s not just matching person to conjugation, but giving you a tiny bit of context.

Exploring Italian gives you some useful extra phrases for conversations from the original dialogues, e.g. ‘Veramente?’ ‘Really?’ – not accompanied by audio or any practice at all though. For example, maybe you could watch the original video again at this point to hear them being used in context. Or a little gapfill? Feels like this is extremely useful language that isn’t really being taught

Personal details comprehension questions are pretty impossible – the address one is OK, but you need to memorise an entire phone number, then answer a question using the word ‘indirizzo’, which hasn’t been introduced previously. ‘Mike ha un indirizzo di posta elettronica.’ – I interpreted this as ‘Mike doesn’t like email.’ (!), not Mike has an email address. Again, comprehension questions should be at same time as video, not a memory test.

Introducing formal/informal in a clear, easy way – the clips from the videos are great because they put all of the functional language into clear contexts and add a bit more language around them.

Culturally the difference between via/viale/strada is interesting, and sets you up for the quiz afterwards where you have to decide whether a word is connected to an address, email or telephone number, but that’s a minute that would perhaps be better spent elsewhere.

Lots of grammar terminology being thrown at you in the grammar videos at this point, without necessarily checking/glossing e.g. singular/plural, definite article. Should become clear as you work through the video, but a brief definition/comparison to English the first time it’s introduced might help e.g. ‘singular, when you have one, or plural, when you have many’ (see later…)

Discussion point 2/3 of the way through week two asks you to describe your family. There’s an example, but it’s before you’ve been introduced to any of the family vocab (which is the last third of this week’s course), so it relies on you understanding the example, making guesses, and using what other people have written. I guess it’s test-teach-test, but could be off-putting. Why not get us to do this after we’ve been introduced to the vocab? On the plus side – lots of reading practice in the comments. 859 things for me to read if I so choose 🙂 Comments demonstrate that a lot of the people doing the course have some level of Italian already, as they’re adding lots of things which haven’t been introduced. Fairly normal for a beginner’s course in any of the big languages, but could be off-putting for someone who is genuinely a complete beginner.

Good to see a Quizlet set after the communication video to help you practise some of the family vocab (family, sister, father, mother), along with some of the other things which have come up – extra jobs, one or two numbers. Would be good to have other key family words in there (brother, child, son, daughter, husband, wife) rather than using ‘sister’ so many times, though all sentences seem to be taken from the video – good for context. There’s one English mistake in there ‘How is your family?’ rather than ‘What is your family like?’

Family vocabulary video is good because finally the words are introduced twice over with time for you to repeat them, once in the context of Marco’s family tree, then repeated again. At the end, they ask you to find some words yourself (cousin, grandchild, uncle) ‘using the family tree and a dictionary’. It would be useful if they recommended an online dictionary to use, as for learners with no experience, they will probably just go to Google Translate. Actually, that’s what I did too. From that, I don’t know if ‘cugino’ is the same for masculine and feminine – there’s no information to support the learner as there might be in a learner’s dictionary.

For practice, there’s a link to a crossword. Would be useful to see more of this kind of thing throughout the course as an option to go further. This really tested whether I’d taken it in, and made me go back and look at the words again, something I haven’t really been motivated to do at any other point in the course so far. The only other repetition I’ve done is to watch each video in Italian twice, and to watch the numbers one twice. I didn’t bother to do any more practice with them, as I know I can recognise them, but I’m also very aware that I can’t produce many of them at all. I learnt about a new app in the process which looks brilliant – lots of options for creating interactive activities.

Definite article video is much more scaffolded than previous grammar videos, with an explanation of what that terminology means and when you use the definite article. Grammar quizzes separate the singular and plural articles, and as with all the grammar quizzes, if you get it wrong, there’s a comment underneath to help you self-correct. Might be useful to add one more quiz pulling them together and making you choose between singular or plural. I know that adds time to the week, but the two 10-question quizzes could be reduced slightly to balance it.

Summary of the week video seems a bit pointless to me (but then I’ve never been a fan of that kind of thing!) I just clicked on the transcript as it’s faster to skim. To me it would make much more sense to have the discussion task where you share family info at this point in the week, after you’ve studied it, so you can actually put it into practice.

General feelings about week 2: useful language has been introduced, but there’s a lot of it, and not much opportunity to practise. Receptively, I feel like I know more; productively, I’m not so sure, especially the numbers, and the family words which are more different to English.

Thai Day 5

I’ve almost collected the set of teachers at Baan Aksorn 🙂 with a third new one today. It was a completely different lesson, and much more like how I approached learning Russian. This was mostly because I knew I only had three hours left, and therefore wanted to collect as much knowledge and language as possible to help me with my own self-study later.

We started with a list of things I thought it would be useful for me to understand/say which hadn’t come up in previous lessons, such as:

  • What’s your name? My name is…
  • Where are you from? I’m from…
  • What do you do? I’m an English teacher. I’m a teacher trainer.
  • How old are you?
  • I don’t know.
  • I don’t understand.
  • I can’t remember.
  • And you?
  • Can I sit here?
  • How to respond when somebody says ‘thank you’

I also asked about how to talk about the past and future because I know it only needs a couple of words in Thai. I’m not sure how many conversations I’ll end up having where I have to describe actions, but at least this gives me the option to do so.

When I asked about morning/afternoon/evening, I discovered that Thai divides the day into a lot more parts than English. We also looked at days of the week and how to say ‘last/next week/month/year’.

We talked a bit about family and showed each other some pictures. At this and various other points in the lesson the conversation was a mix of English and Thai, with my teacher sharing bits of information about herself and her family in Thai that I could understand, glossing any new words she used. This was great as it felt very personal, and gave me a good reason to concentrate because I was learning more about the person sitting in front of me, rather than thinking in the abstract. I could also try to edit and repeat some of the phrases to talk about my life.

When we’d run out of my questions, there were 40 minutes left. I decided the best thing to do would be to flick through the speaking textbook I had, with my teacher giving me a lightning quick guide to any new language that came up on the page which wasn’t immediately obvious. Thankfully my teacher was happy to do this. Because I have the CD I can go back and listen to the pronunciation myself later, learn the vocabulary, and do some of the controlled practice exercises, so we focussed on grammar and structures. In this way we covered:

  • Where is…? Which one…? Where do you…?
  • What is he/she like?
  • Who? Whose? With who?
  • and, with, also, but
  • Possessives
  • Suggestions
  • How long have you been here?
  • Comparatives
  • Happy birthday! It’s my birthday.
  • What’s this? What’s that? How do you say _____ in Thai?
  • Why…? Because…
  • Tag questions of the ‘…, right?’ variety
  • Basic conditionals for facts and advice. (If this, then this./If this, you should…)

There was no practice, and I remember hardly any of it, but that was exactly what I needed from my teacher. I’ve got plenty of time to practice it myself later, and I wanted to make the most of the short amount of time I had with an expert.

My teacher today was a big contrast to the other two teachers, although I’m not sure how much of this was because of the way I wanted the lesson to go. Very early, she told me not to worry too much about tones. I think it’s important to get the right pronunciation from the beginning though, so I’m glad that my first teacher was strict about this, even though it was frustrating at times. All three of my teachers were happy to answer my questions, but this one actually said to me it’s good that I was asking so many questions, and she thinks Thai students should ask more questions too. She checked at one point whether she was speaking too much English because of the explanations, which I was really pleased about, and she tried to tell me things in Thai whenever she thought I could understand. This was great because I sometimes have to fight to get my teacher to avoid English, especially because I can be lazy about it if I’m not forced to speak the language I’m learning. If I’d had lessons for longer, I’d definitely have wanted to rely a lot less on English, but the information cramming I wanted from my last three hours wouldn’t have been possible just in Thai.

Things I know about Thai that I didn’t know this morning

  • When you talk about siblings, whether they’re older or younger is more important than whether they are male or female. In fact, the word for sibling translates literally as ‘older younger’ rather than ‘brother sister’.
  • The word for cat is แมว. Go to Google translate and listen to it 🙂
  • There is a different word for ‘year’ if you are aged 1-12: ‘khuap’, not ‘pii’
  • The Thai day is divided into 8 different sections, varying in length from 1-6 hours.
  • In passing: all of the things listed above!

Reflections on learning languages as a beginner/121

It’s good to have a mix of teachers because each one will prioritise different things for you, although you have to be prepared to be adaptable too.

Having clearly laid out notes from the teacher is incredibly useful as a reference.

The world's neatest notes

The world’s neatest notes, and yes, they are handwritten, not typed!

Flexible teachers are key – being able to respond to your student’s needs and moods is important for their motivation.

Having the teacher share bits of their life with you puts you on an equal footing and relaxes the atmosphere a lot. If they do this in the language you’re learning and you understand, it’s another high! If not, it motivates you to try to understand. This also helps to build rapport.

For every structure, you need an example. Otherwise it’s going to be very difficult to know how to actually use the language once you’ve left the classroom.

The end, for now

I’ve really enjoyed my experience of studying intensively, and of trying to put bits of my Thai into practice in the afternoons. I think I’ve got everything I set out to get at the beginning of the week. While it’s nowhere near the immersion that my students had in Newcastle, it was still valuable to reflect on the difficulties of learning a new, completely different language, which has few connections with any language I speak already. At the same time, it’s interesting to see how some bits of language are fairly universal, and that no matter how distant they may seem, you can still find some common hooks to hang things on (for example Thai and French). It’s made me think a lot about the role of the teacher in the beginner classroom, and having three teachers in such a short space of time has taught me something about how personality can affect the lessons too (in a good way!) The plan now is to take away what I’ve learnt this week and the resources I’ve been given, and continue to develop my Thai over the next three months.

I hope you’ve enjoyed following my journey this week – I’ve certainly got a lot out of it. In case you missed any, here are all of the posts:

Apologies for the bombardment of posts! 😉 Normal service should be resumed next week as I return to Chiang Mai for the next CELTA.

(If you’d like to read about another teacher’s reflections on learning Thai, try these from Peter Clements.)

Thai Day 4

Things feel like they might be clicking, at least a little. Every time I woke up last night I had bits of Thai in my head, and there was some internal monologuing when I was having my breakfast this morning.

I asked to do numbers today as this is the set of vocabulary which I think is most useful on a daily basis. I was familiar with 1-10, but didn’t know the tones, I was getting very frustrated with myself because I was having trouble with falling and rising tones again. My teacher was also frustrated at times from the tone of her voice and the way she said ‘no’ to me. She would tell me which tone it should be, which I normally knew, but I just couldn’t work out where to start the sound or how to get it out of my mouth. I couldn’t ‘hear’ what I was meant to be producing confidently enough for it to come out. As before, copying them is normally fine, but plucking them out of thin air is really difficult. We spent over an hour on the numbers, including a little bit of controlled practice with me saying numbers based on digits in the book. This was a real challenge because of the different way Thai approaches large numbers (see below), plus remembering the word, plus remembering the tones. A lot of processing had to happen here!

We spent 70 minutes on numbers, then moved on to time. This was only 20 minutes, but felt like a whole lot longer! At this stage I discovered that I can produce the falling tone with very little problem when saying เที่ยง /thiang’/ (noon), probably because it has a diphthong (a vowel sound made up of a slide from one vowel sound to another) in the middle of it. Changing tones in a diphthong feels much simpler and more natural than doing it in a monophthong (single vowel sound). Using that as a reference point I was able to produce falling tones in other words much more consistently because I got the sound in my head and could play off it. Now I just need to find a word I can use as a reference for a rising tone. Using the numbers to tell the time also helped me to feel more confident with them, and it felt more useful doing this than producing random numbers large and small (that context thing again).

The last hour was with my second teacher again. We did adjectives, with a break in the middle for some diet-related phrases. I also asked for a sentence structure to go with the vehicles I’d learnt, so now I can say how I travel(led).

I’ve spent the afternoon in Ayutthaya, a town full of temples just north of Bangkok. During the day I’ve had a few opportunities to use my Thai, both actively and passively. I understood numbers I heard over the station tannoy and on an advertising truck that was blasting out over loudspeakers as I walked around Ayutthaya. On the train, I told the people opposite me where I was going and understood some of the vendors as they walked past. I ordered food at a restaurant using my new phrases and was understood, and I understood when the woman passed on my order to the cook, although it then turned out she spoke English anyway! I also said a couple of phrases in Thai to the people at the restaurant as they were trying to get me to book a room – I managed to tell them I’m studying Thai in Bangkok and I go back today. I did a boat trip, and heard the woman organising say the time it would leave to her friend. All of these bits of speaking and understanding were little highs, exactly why I keep studying languages 🙂

Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Ayutthaya

Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Ayutthaya

Things I know about Thai that I didn’t know this morning

  • 1 is หนึ่ง /nung/, but every other time 1 appears in a number (11, 21, 31 etc) it’s อ็ด /et/
  • There are distinct words for 10,000 and 100,000, rather than being multiples of 1,000 as in many European languages. I think this is a feature of many Asian languages.
  • Thai time works in six hour blocks. The most confusing section for me is 7pm-11pm, where the hours are counted 1-5 again.
  • (I think) Conditionals just involve the use of ‘if’ plus a basic sentence structure, which can be as short as a single verb.

Reflections on learning languages as a beginner/121

Numbers take a lot of thought, and we don’t practise them actively anywhere near enough in class.

I’ve thought this for a long time, since even at very high levels of proficiency in some of my languages, I still have to think hard to process numbers. For a beginner, it’s a real struggle.

Having reference words that you’re confident with the pronunciation of can make you feel much more sure about transferring that sound to other words.

Frustration is cyclical. Just because you’ve got it right once, doesn’t mean you’ll get it right the next time you say it. Repetition, repetition, repetition, as long as it’s improving your confidence. If it’s not, drop it, move on, and come back to it, or both the teacher and student will get depressed and frustrated. Something later in the lesson might just be the necessary trigger to solve the problem.

Sometimes my teacher was doing other things in the lesson, like filling in the register or making notes about non-lesson-related things. I know she was listening to me because she could correct me, but it was a bit demotivating, as I felt like I was boring her. I also know I’ve been guilty of doing exactly the same thing as a teacher in the past. I’m not sure how to keep the teacher engaged in the lesson more, since they/I have probably done this hundreds of times before and will again. It’s hardly the most cognitively engaging part of being a teacher to listen to somebody maul very basic bits of your language repeatedly, even though you know that sometimes, just sometimes, they’re capable of producing it correctly.

When I was producing sentences which I was 100% sure I would need to use in real life, I was much more motivated and engaged.

Being able to use some of the language today has made me feel like all the effort this week is worth it.

Update

Here are all of the posts:

Thai Day 3

I was tired today, and it made a huge difference. It took me a while to get into the lesson, and I asked if we could do some writing at some point as I thought it would be more useful for me to consolidate what I know that try to cram in anything new, since I don’t really feel like I know a lot of what we’ve done so far, unless I already had a vague idea of it before starting the lessons. Because of my tiredness, I also noticed the slight impatience in the teacher’s voice at times, making me quieter when I was unsure, and more likely to use a high (questioning) tone than I probably would have been if I’d been more awake – I was very unsure of my pronunciation and was trying to check everything.

My teacher decided reading practice would be more useful for me, so we looked at one group of consonants, called ‘middle class consonants’. First I read them as their letter names – every consonant in Thai comes with an associated word, since some of them have the same pronunciation but different characters. For example, the /s/ sound can be accompanied by the word ‘pavilion’, ‘hermit/saint’ or ‘tiger’ depending on which character is used:

Three 's' sounds

Three ‘s’ sounds

Three of the consonants were then combined with the vowels, which was good revision from Tuesday, especially as it turned out I’d forgotten most of the vowel characters. Finally, they were combined with random vowels, meaning I had to remember tones at that stage too – a middle consonant plus a short vowel uses a low tone, whereas a middle consonant plus a long vowel uses a mid tone. That whole process took an hour.

In the next hour we moved on to the ‘high consonants’, repeating a similar process but with both middle and high consonants appearing in the final reading practice, adding further to the tonal complexity: high consonant + short vowel = low tone; high consonant + long vowel = rising tone. I got particularly frustrated with myself at various points during this process as I found it hard to get the rising tone right. I could repeat it again and again with no problem, but as soon as I had to produce another tone before it, I lost it completely. I also found it unnatural to have two consecutive rising tones, and tended to use a rising tone followed by a falling one. I need to remember to split it up more, and over-emphasise the initial fall to make the rise more dramatic.

I also found it difficult pluck the sounds out of the air when trying to remember vowels and how to combine them with consonants, added to the challenge of trying to remember which character represents which vowel. I kept having to return to the vowels page in my book to remind myself how to produce them. One thing that did help was thinking about the vowels in relation to each other. For example, อ is a more open version of โ. It was also helpful trying to link things back to the phonology of English, particularly when producing some of the ‘words’ during the reading practice. For example: แกะ sounds like ‘get’ without the /t/ sound at the end.

I’d had enough of reading at this point, and the lack of context for the words, many of which probably don’t have any meaning, was getting me down a bit. It was useful for familiarisation with the script though, and I definitely feel more confident with some of the characters than I did before.

I changed teacher at this point as my Tuesday/first half teacher had another class to teach, so I was back to my teacher from yesterday after a break. I asked to revise some of the vocabulary we’d studied, going back over the nouns from yesterday, then experimenting with making more sentences with the words from Monday. That took 30 minutes, and for the last 15 minutes I finally felt up to looking at something new.

One more vocabulary page added 11 more words, mostly extending my transport vocabulary, and then a brief grammar page introduced personal pronouns and possessive adjectives. With about 7 minutes left, there wasn’t time to add the adjectives from the next page, and I thought activation was more important. I tried to make some sentences using the pronouns and possessives, but was feeling uninspired, so asked my teacher to make questions I could answer. Because you use full sentences to answer a question in Thai, this was a good exercise in sentence manipulation, without me having to come up with the ideas myself.

Things I know about Thai that I didn’t know this morning

  • There are different types of consonant: middle class, high class and low class.
  • The types of consonant and whether it is combined with a long or short vowel determines the tone of the vowel.
  • The words for ‘today’, ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’, so I can already discuss the past, present and future, rather than being restricted to the present.
  • The words for ‘tiger’ and ‘top’ (as in clothes) are the same but with different tones, as are the words for ‘sit’ and ‘film’.
  • There are only five/six pronouns in Thai. I knew that ‘I’ is different for males and females (there is a longer and shorter one for females, hence 5/6), but I didn’t realise that the third person pronoun is the same for ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ and ‘they’.
  • The pronouns don’t change when used as possessive adjectives (unlike English with, e.g. ‘she’ and ‘her’).

Reflections on learning languages as a beginner/121

Reading aloud is good for familiarisation with sound-spelling relationships. It’s also a lot of work, and I think it’s of very limited use in classes with more than 2-3 students.

Giving students thinking time when they’re reading aloud is very important, particularly in a different script – they need time to process decipher the characters, process the word, formulate the sounds in their head and mouth, then try to produce it.

Separating out ideas and language during productive stages is vital. It’s hard to marshall ideas while simultaneously trying to work out how to express them. This is the stage when I feel I translate the most – I work out what I want to/can say in English within the bounds of my language ability, then translate it to Thai slowly and laboriously.

It’s far easier to recognise new language than it is to produce it yourself. Answering questions is much easier (and more motivating?) than producing sentences.

When I decided to make a question rather than a sentence, but the teacher answered ‘good’ instead of answering my question, it depressed me a little.

The exercise of producing lots of self-selected sentences is motivating, as I can choose what words I want to add to my vocabulary and control the speed at which I do this.

You need to know your teacher’s name so that it’s easier to ask for help.

Playing with the language makes you feel more relaxed – I enjoyed the last 45 minutes of the lesson more than the first two hours, even though both were useful.

As I said yesterday, I’d still like more opportunities to play, not just with the words but with the way the materials are exploited. Reading things again and again is useful, but is a bit depressing after a while. Some variety in the way it’s taken off the page would be interesting. Maybe the teacher could point at random words for me to repeat, or have flashcards, or write things on the board for me to experiment with. Three hours of looking either at the paper or at my eyelids (I close my eyes a lot when I’m trying to remember things) gets quite same-y.

Update

Here are all of the posts:

Thai Day 2

It’s a national holiday today so I had a different teacher, and she and I were the only people in the school. I didn’t feel too bad as she had another student before me, but I was very grateful for her for giving up some of her free time.

The lesson started with me briefly going over my needs again. I wasn’t able to practise the tones last night as the CD was mislabelled and I ended up with the wrong audio. Early in the lesson, the teacher drew a helpful picture showing how to produce each of the tones.

Thai tones

Thai tones

The teacher started by greeting me in Thai and asking how I was, but although I completely understood I had no idea what to say in return. She taught me the basic conversation, so I just (!) need to learn it and I’ll have no excuses for not replying in Thai now!

We then revised the words from day 1, with me trying to put them into sentences wherever possible. I added more vocabulary to be able to increase my range of sentences at this stage. Every sentence was painfully dragged kicking and screaming from my brain, with much consultation of my notes, questioning glances at the teacher, and overuse of the rising tone again. The teacher also covered the Thai words and tried to get me to remember them – I got about 75%, but that’s an unfair representation of how many I can remember from yesterday since I was already familiar with about half of them. Putting them into sentences helped a lot.

Yesterday the lesson finished before we had time to do the last set of words, all of which demonstrate the rising tone. The first of these, ขอ, will be very useful as it means ‘May I have…?/Give me….’ This gave me the first chance to make a sentence to help with my diet: ‘Give me steamed rice with boiled chicken.’

I was then taught how to make basic yes/no questions, with me dragging more of them from my head to ask the teacher. When I’d run out of vocabulary, I answered her questions and learnt the very useful phrase ‘Say that again.’

We moved onto a basic dialogue, mirroring the one we’d done at the beginning of the lesson, just covering ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’ I was also shown the three levels of ‘wai‘ (pronounced ‘why’), the traditional Thai greeting.

Today's classroom

Today’s classroom

The last part of the lesson was two pages of vocabulary grouped into loose lexical sets and accompanied by pictures. There were 39 words between the two pages, and although I’d been exposed to some of them before, it’s a lot for a single lesson. Again, I was encouraged to put them into sentences and to ask questions using the words. The only writing practice I had was writing any sentences I asked for out in phonetics, the most ambitious of which is another diet one: ‘Give me a little pineapple juice with plain water’. I pretty much never looked at the Thai words and relied almost completely on the phonetics. I’m wondering whether I should have chosen the Thai only book yesterday, but it’s too late now.

At this stage, I kept going back and repeating the words myself, and also repeated my two diet phrases ad nauseum – I think I might have remembered both of them now, but I’m planning on reading and re-reading them multiple times this afternoon, and perhaps even trying them out at a restaurant if my mealtimes work out.

We had long gaps in the lesson when I spoke in English for 5-10 minutes at a time, for my needs analysis, describing what I’m doing in Thailand, talking about my diet, and about why I’m on it. The teacher also gave me some tips for getting around the city this afternoon, and told me more about the national holiday, Makha Bucha day.

Things I know about Thai that I didn’t know this morning

  • Yes/no questions are formed by adding a question particle to the end of a normal sentence.
  • ‘Can’ goes at the end of the sentence, away from the verb it modifies (which is in normal 2nd position in a subject-verb-object sentence). ‘Can’ is negated, rather than the other verb.
  • Adverbs like ‘a little’ and ‘a lot’ are put at the end of the sentence, after ‘can’ if it’s there.
  • How to write ร (r)
  • Many words are compounds of others. For example ‘face mask’ literally translates as ‘cloth close mouth’ – 4 words for the price of one!
  • Bangkok’s name is different in Thai (well, I knew this, but I didn’t know what it was!): Krung Thep (กรุงเทพ)
  • The polite particle added to the end of sentences has a falling tone after statements, and a rising tone after questions.
  • I need to be very careful to pronounce ‘steamed rice’ correctly, otherwise I’ll get spicy Chiang Mai noodles!

Reflections on learning languages as a beginner/121

It’s incredibly tiring, and regular breaks are important.

A variety of activity types is important to increase motivation – I feel like there could be a wider range of things done with the vocabulary in these lessons. For example, there could be flashcards so that we can play games instead of just reading them from the paper and trying to make questions and sentences.

In a 121 class, it would be nice to move around a bit – sitting down for such a long time put my leg to sleep!

Making your own questions and sentences is motivating because you can choose how to use the words and test the limits of what they are used for. It’s also very very very hard work!

Colours and diagrams can help make things clear.

It’s much easier to write things out in your own version of pronunciation, equating it to sounds/words you already know, than it is to try and use the official phonetics. Times that by about 100 and that’s how much easier it is to write it out in your own pronunciation than to attempt to use the still quite alien script.

‘Say that again’ should be taught immediately in a new class – it’s so incredibly useful.

As with yesterday, (about 50% self-directed) repetition and the use of English made a real difference to the lesson.

The teacher needs to be patient when listening to the same sentence repeated for the 20th…30th…50th time, and continue to pay attention because mistakes can still creep in. In fact, as you get tired they’re more, rather than less, likely to happen.

It’s important to move away from the written form and try to memorise things as quickly as possible, just using the written form to check/provide support, rather than constantly reading it.

I wonder whether more drilling would increase my confidence – most of the drilling I’ve had in the lessons has been self-directed. I’ve asked the teacher to repeat it. I wonder if they’d push that if I was more passive as a learner?

Update

Here are all of the posts:

Thai Day 1

I got to Baan Aksorn school a few minutes late this morning, having not had time to find the school last night because I had to change hostels at the last minute. I was hot, sweaty, and not in the best mood because of the stress of the previous evening, even though it was only just after 8am. Thankfully that feeling disappeared very quickly.

My classroom

My classroom

I was welcomed immediately, and my teacher put me completely at my ease. She was welcoming and very patient with me. After I’d filled in the registration form, we chatted about what I wanted from the classes and decided which materials to use. The school has developed various workbooks. For beginners you can study reading or speaking. The speaking book can be with Thai characters, a kind of phonemic script or both. I chose the book with both, and we spent most of the first hour going through the consonant and vowel sounds, tidying up my pronunciation and clarifying some of the sounds I had trouble with.

ป and ต are still very challenging for me, and we got into something of a cycle of me attempting to repeat the sound with a 50/50 chance of getting it right. My teacher tried to tell me how to make the sounds, but it wasn’t always clear. Neither of those sounds appear in English as separate sounds, but they’re kind of like sounds which follow ‘s’ in the words ‘spot’ and ‘stop’. I’ve tried isolating them but can’t work out exactly how to do that, so if anyone has any thoughts on how to do that, they’d be much appreciated.

After a break (when I got to practise my Spanish and Czech on a Venezuelan who had worked in Brno!) we started to work on tones using lists of ‘words’, some of which don’t carry meaning, to demonstrate the five tones of Thai. Because I’m unsure of my pronunciation I have a tendency to use a questioning tone for many of the words, which is fine if it’s a rising tone, but not if it’s anything else! I could produce some of the sounds/words without a model, but I found it considerably easier when I could mimic my teacher. I tried to watch her mouth to see the changes, but this doesn’t help with tones or tongue position. She was good at using gestures and exaggeration to make it easier for me, but there’s definitely a lot of work for me to do in this area.

The final section of my lesson was based on real words grouped by tone. As we worked through them my teacher helped me to make simple sentences and gave me some grammatical information about patterns that accompany some of the words. This was great as it meant I could attempt to personalise the language a bit, and contextualise some of the words I’d already learnt on memrise.

The view from the classroom window

The view from the classroom window

The lesson was conducted in a mix of Thai and English, with all of the praise and some of the incidental language in Thai (like asking if I was cold when I put a scarf on), but all of the explanations in English. I can’t remember/imagine what it’s like to have a beginner lesson entirely in the foreign language – being able to check things in English really helped, and my teacher could compare sounds and lexical patterns for me, providing very useful scaffolding.

Things I know about Thai that I didn’t know this morning

  • It has a subject-verb-object word order.
  • There are two prepositions for ‘towards’ depending on if you are in the place the thing is going towards (maa) or not (pai) – hope that’s the right way round!
  • Every vowel exists in long and short form.
  • Adjectives follow nouns.

Reflections on learning languages as a beginner

Pronunciation is incredibly important.

Going through sounds at the beginning is an interesting way to start learning, and this is the second time I’ve done it (Russian was the first). I wonder whether it would work in English, or if it’s only good for languages with a strong sound-spelling relationship? We only have a limited range of phonemes, but perhaps you’d need to know the L1 of your student to do this, or they’d have to be willing to take the plunge with phonetics. You can use them as building blocks for words later, and pronunciation will be central right from the start. I definitely felt more confident with Russian pronunciation right from the start because of this.

Being able to mimic a natural model is hugely important – it’s hard to hold a sound in your head, and even harder to pluck it from thin air when you’ve had other sounds to think about in between.

Repetition, repetition, repetition…

…but it gets pretty frustrating if you can’t work out why what you’re saying is wrong.

Context helps so much – you need meaning to hook things on to in your memory.

It’s important to learn the patterns that go with words. For example, เป็น is one equivalent for ‘be’ in Thai, but it can only be used with nationality, character (e.g. kind), status (i.e. social position – mother, employee, student) and jobs. This could help to reduce mistranslations and/or over-generalisations.

Having a teacher who speaks your language is an incredible safety blanket. I have no idea how people in our English classes do it. Yet one more reason to value non-native teachers, since so few of us natives are competent in other languages!

When you’re writing a new script, it feels like drawing. It’s hard to keep the letter in your head, and even to think of it as a letter (I just nearly wrote ‘symbol’). Copying them takes time and thought, and often scribbling out and rewriting. When I was first learning Thai characters, I had to describe most of them as pictures to differentiate them. For example ด (d) is ‘up elephant’, ค (kh) is ‘down elephant’ and ต (t) is ‘tooth’.

It’s useful to record a few sentences that you can repeat at home.

In a 121 class, having a teacher who can write upside-down is very useful 🙂

I need to do some homework, including listening to the CD that was part of the materials the school gave me. See you tomorrow!

Update

Here are all of the posts:

Thai Day 0

Ever since I first found out that it was possible to study a language intensively, I’ve wanted to try it out.

48 hours ago I put two and two together and realised that my week off between CELTAs 1 and 2 in Chiang Mai is the perfect opportunity to finally do it. A few hasty emails letter, a quick-off-the-draw reply from a language school, flights booked at the last minute (less than 24 hours ago) and a hostel with a kitchen located, and I now find myself sitting at Chiang Mai airport waiting for a flight to Bangkok.

The plan is 3 hours a day of private Thai lessons every morning from tomorrow (Tuesday) until Saturday, making a total of 15 hours.

Because of my limited time frame, language learning experience, and the fact that I can be very picky about what I want from my classes, private lessons are the only way to go. I’m just hoping I get a responsive teacher, and one who’s willing to adapt to what I’m looking for.

The story so far…

Before I came to Thailand, I had a quick look at memrise, discovered that the alphabet was huge, and decided that since I’d only be here for a few months there wasn’t much point studying the language.

I changed my mind within a couple of days of arriving, and have since been studying using memrise. I’ve found three courses which have differing levels of usefulness:

Basic Thai

The first level is particularly useful, but I got very frustrated to start with because I kept having to type the words and got really stuck. It’s much easier doing this on an iPad than a computer.
I ended up giving quite a lot of the letters funny names to help me remember them. For example: สวัสดี (hello/goodbye) was ‘worm under a tree, flower in the wind, worm under a tree, up elephant with a feathered hat’ until I could remember it! There are some words which I’m much more able to write than say because that is where the onus of memorisation lies in order to continue with the level. However, I definitely know the words I know because I’ve had to repeat them so many times.
Another frustrating thing with this set is the complete lack of context – I now know a set of decontextualised words, but no full phrases.
I’ve nearly finished the set. Memrise says I’ve learned 53/79 words and have 41 in my long-term memory, although the last few to learn are random school words like ‘electric light’ and ‘blackboard’. A couple of days ago I didn’t see the point of these, but now they might actually be quite helpful!

Mrs Yanisa’s Thai for Foreigners

This is based on a set of books written to teach Thai to native speaking children in the 70s. The main character is called Mannii/Manee. It’s given me the basics of the alphabet, and quite a lot of reading practice. Unfortunately, there’s no audio to accompany the written form, which is a particular issue for me because of the tonal nature of Thai.

It’s been good for putting some of the verbs from ‘Basic Thai’ into slightly longer sentences, given me a basic idea of syntax, and I definitely feel more comfortable with the alphabet because of it. There’s a little more context, but the sentences are very random:

มานี พา โต ดู ปู
maa-nii paa dtoo duu bpuu (Maanii bring Dtoh look for crab.)

Fundamental Thai

This is the last of the three courses I found. It has much more useful vocabulary sets, like numbers and colours. For some reason numbers is level 6 – I never understand why this is left so late when it’s generally the first thing people need when they go to a new country. Unfortunately it suffers from the same issue as Basic Thai, in that you have to type the words to progress. Again, I’ve found it quite frustrating, and have been annoyed with myself when I miss one tiny part of the character.

With both Basic and Fundamental Thai some of the audio is missing, but what’s there is generally useful. Sometimes people have tagged the words with a Romanized transcription of the pronunciation too, although that can be more of a hindrance than a help at times.

The daily targets you can set on memrise have been quite useful, although I’ve only kept that up with Basic Thai and the Polish course I’m also doing, Polish being considerably easier!

Progress on memrise

Progress on memrise

Sitting at the airport I can now pick out some of the flight numbers from announcements, the first time I’ve really had the chance to try out the Thai I’ve learnt beyond the occasional hello or thank you. Yesterday I saw a sign outside a computer shop and recognised the word ‘and’: และ Such things make me happy 🙂 It also shows that despite the problems with the sets above, they’re definitely teaching me something.

What I’d like to learn

Having a teacher will hopefully help me to get to grips with the following:

  • the rest of the alphabet;
  • how vowels work (they can be before/after/above/below consonants, and I’m still pretty confused by this!);
  • the basics of the tone system, mostly within my own pronunciation (I know it’s not there at all yet);
  • being able to have a basic conversation in certain situations, like getting to know someone, coping with shop transactions, finding out about touristy things for excursions and stays;
  • dealing with my diet.

I know that it’s going to be very tiring to study to intensively, but at the same time I’m really looking forward to the experience. I’ve even bought a nice new notebook to fill with all of my Thai notes. 🙂

And as you’ve probably guessed, I’m hoping to blog about the experience too, so watch this space…

Update

Here are all of the posts:

My new favourite podcast

About a month ago (when I first started writing this, nearly 8 months ago now!) I was browsing iTunes podcasts and came across The History of English podcast. It’s presented by Kevin Stroud, a lawyer from the United States. It’s designed to be a complete history of the English language, going right back to the Indo-European roots of the language.

History of English podcast

Kevin has a very clear presenting style and is always well prepared, with clear links running through the whole series. The episodes are 30-60 minutes, and vary in length depending on what the presenter decides to include, from linguistics to historical detail. I like the fact that he doesn’t have a fixed length for each episode, as with other podcasts that can mean missing things out or cramming things in. They’re just as long as they need to be, although some people might find them a bit repetitive at times. I think the repetition helps though because Kevin doesn’t assume you remember past episodes, or that you’ve listened to them all.

I’ve learnt a lot of European history from the podcast, including things I vaguely knew about before but didn’t really know what they were, for example the Punic Wars.

I find the etymology Kevin discusses particularly interesting, including the history of the names of various countries which I’d often wondered about. The episode that I thought was most fascinating was about the history of the letter ‘C”, which has helped me with my Russian too as it explained the ‘funny’ order of the alphabet. I regularly have ‘aha’ moments while listening.

I would highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in history or linguistics, which I imagine includes a lot of readers of this blog!

[I’m not sure why it took me 7 months to publish this, since it’s been ready all this time…but better late than never!]

Making the most of student journals

Two teaching organisations, TESL Toronto and BELTA (Belgium) joined together for a free online conference on the topics of reading and writing on 8th-9th August 2014.

TOBELTA conference logo

I was very happy to present on an area I’ve been experimenting with for a while, both as a teacher and a Russian learner, that of writing journals.

Here are my slides. Please let me know if any of the links don’t work.

All of the slides and recordings from the whole conference are available via the conference programme.

How I’m learning Russian (part two)

At the start of May I wrote about my Russian lessons and what I was and wasn’t doing at home to further my learning. To finish the post, I made a commitment to study Russian for ten minutes every day and gave a list of activities I would try. So what happened?

Planning and recording

About two months ago I moved to a system of having a daily to-do list for everything. At the beginning of each week, it looks like this:

To-do list

To-do list

Each day I have a series of codes: ‘Ph’ = physio, F = feedly (blog reading to try and keep up!), R = Russian, FJ = flo-joe (FCE word bank) and, new last week because of the success of the others, W = walk. By having them on the list, I’m much more likely to make time for them every day. Other things to do are then added around them, as you can see from Monday. (On a side note, I’ve discovered this daily to-do list makes me much more efficient, as long as I’m realistic about what I put on each day based on the time I have available. Everything else is in another list at the side, and when I’ve finish the things for the day I can start on the less urgent things.)

Since I started doing this, I have very rarely missed a day of Russian. I record what I’ve done on an old calendar, along with my physio/exercise. I started using a similar system when I was trying to walk more last year, and I found that the gaping holes when  nothing was written made me feel bad, and I wanted to minimise them! This is the final result for May:

May 2014 Russian

May 2014 Russian

…and the work in progress for June:

June 2014 Russian

June 2014 Russian

As you can see, in the seven weeks since I wrote that post, I’ve only missed four days, all in May. You can also see that very often I spent considerably more than ten minutes on my Russian. It seems that once you get started, it’s easy to get sucked in and do more 😉

Towards the end of May I experimented with a trial version of Lizzie Pinard’s language learning flower, where she suggested colouring in the flower depending on what you’ve done. I didn’t realise that it should be divided into squares, and was already using the calendar, so only used it once, but it did make me realise that I was doing almost no writing.

Language learning flower

Language learning flower for May 2014

Writing

I took my own advice, and started to write a journal in Russian, which I asked my teacher to correct and reply to. Thankfully, she was happy to do that!

Russian journal

Russian journal

The mistakes I’ve made have taught me a lot, and because I’m a good language learner/very sad person/have way too much time on my hands, I rewrite every piece of writing I do into another notebook…

Colour-coded rewrites

Colour-coded rewrites

…using a colour-code to show the kind of mistakes I’ve made. I put the code into the front of my notebook so I can refer to it, and add to it if another category of mistake starts appearing.

Deciphering the rewrite code

Deciphering the rewrite code

From only three journal entries I’ve already noticed an improvement in my spelling of a few common words, and I’ve learnt new phrases from my teacher’s rewording of my sometimes clumsy production, as well as having a new page in my vocabulary notebook entirely devoted to stealing phrases from what she’s written. I’ve also put some of my favourite phrases onto the sentence cards I mentioned in my last post (more on them below).

Of course, the real reason I started to do this was nothing to do with improving my Russian. When I bought my journal, I couldn’t decide which notebook to buy, and being a stationery lover, I decided to buy both. You can’t have a notebook and not use it! 😉

Two notebooks, both alike in dignity

Which to buy? Both of course!

This may be another sign of how sad/geeky/pathetic I am, but I really feel that it’s important to have notebooks and folders you want to open, and pens/pencils/etc you want to use when you’re studying. It might seem like a minor thing, but anything that makes you smile will help.

Reading

Inspired by Lizzie Pinard (again), I bought myself a Russian book. I’d been trying to find something for a while, but everything was too expensive or seemed like it might be too difficult for a beginner/elementary student. Then I found this:

Game of Thrones in Russian

Hello Mr Bean 😉

That’s right, Game of Thrones, in Russian, with Sean Bean on the cover. What was that about having something you wanted to pick up? I already had the e-book in English, and we have a paper copy of it at school, making it the perfect choice as I wouldn’t have to buy another book to be able to compare the Russian and English versions.

Without Lizzie talking about how she’d been reading Harry Potter in Italian from the beginning, I would never have been brave enough to try GoT. Now I’ve finished the first chapter. It’s taken me about two hours in total, broken down into 10-20 minute stints, but it never felt like a chore. Instead it was a puzzle, as I compared what I could see on the page, what I could guess, and what I could remember from the story. Each page took about ten minutes, and I reread the whole thing many times, firstly in Russian more than once, then reading the English, then going back and reading the Russian, then reading both side-by-side. Each time I reread it I noticed more patterns and more words I recognised, and I really want to continue with this. I’ve also started a ‘Game of Thrones’ page in my vocabulary notebook, including such words as меч and книжал (sword and dagger), and useful phrases like Здесь что-то не так (‘Something’s wrong here’). In her post about 12 things she’s learnt about language learning, Lizzie mentioned that learning a new word is like making a new friend, and that’s exactly how it feels.

In general, I’ve always tried to read everything around me (signs, posters, packets…) Now I feel very comfortable with the Cyrillic script. My writing of it has changed over time, developing to become more natural, and requiring less conscious processing. The more I read, the faster I can pick out the words, although I still find I have to stop and go back quite a lot, especially with some of the really long words.

Listening

Back in January, I wrote about the downsides of beginning again in a new place:

I can’t do some of the things I enjoy, like going to the cinema and switching off. I can still go, but I have to think, not least because a lot of the films here are in Ukrainian, which I don’t speak at all. Watching a film at home is good, but it’s not the same.

Going to the cinema has always been one of the motivations for me to study more Russian, helped by the political changes here which mean that all films are now in Russian, not Ukrainian. This month I’ve finally taken the plunge and started going. I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past on June 1st, and Maleficent on June 9th. I’m planning to see the second How to train your dragon film next week. Before seeing each film, I watched all the trailers I could find in English to give me an idea of the story and so I would know some of the lines. For Maleficent I watched one in Russian too and looked up the words ‘curse’, ‘evil’ and ‘witch’, all of which I promptly forgot, but recognised when I heard them in the film. This afternoon I’m going to see How to Train Your Dragon 2, and through the Dreamworks YouTube channel I’ve seen the first five minutes of the film, plus about 8 other clips, so I feel like I know the story! Having said that, I don’t want to read too much, as I still want to enjoy the story as it unrolls.

It’s amazing how good it felt to sit in the cinema again, to let the language wash over me and enjoy the experience. I probably understood about 30-40% of each film, helped by my preparation, but that was enough, and every time I go I’ll understand more. In both films I heard words and phrases which I’d picked up in the process of journal writing and reading GoT, as well as through the more ‘conventional’ language learning. I even got one or two of the language-dependent jokes, giving me a high each time.

I bought and watched Up on DVD, which I also really enjoyed. When you’re starting off, I think it’s a much better idea to revisit familiar stories in books and films, rather than try to decode something completely new. You get a lot of motivation from it, but because you already know the story/world/characters, you have more processing capacity to deal with the language.

I’ve also listened to the song ‘Happy End’ with lyrics (thanks to my Russian teacher’s excellent website, which she didn’t tell me about until recently!), a short YouTube video (my first example of Russian comedy) and the first ten minutes of the dubbed version of episode 1 of How I Met Your Mother. I didn’t get on with that at all because I couldn’t deal with being able to hear the English underneath. I’d love to find it with only the Russian as it’s one of my favourite series, and it would be a great excuse to watch it all again!

Grammar and speaking

Most of the grammar we’ve studied in my lessons has come from my questions, based on things I’ve written/read/heard. It’s often said that Russian grammar is really complicated, and there’s certainly a lot of it for a beginner to get their head around. It’s true that I have an advantage because of my other languages, but I think it could be good for a learner to at least see lots of different grammar, but without worrying too much about trying to use it. For me, knowing that the grammar exists means that I’m primed to notice it, and am even starting to use some of it in the right place at the right time.

The best example of noticing was when I asked my teacher how to express comparatives (e.g. bigger/smaller/faster than), then came home, looked out my window at a banner I’ve been ‘reading’ all year, and noticed that it’s a comparative structure!

Better prices than those of others

‘Better prices than those of others’

This week I’ve also finished the memrise Learn Basic Russian course, which I started studying again about two weeks ago after a six-month break. It was interesting to go back to as I can see some of the grammar patterns I’ve studied in the sentences that are included in the higher levels.

The fact that I don’t really care if what I say is grammatically correct or not, as long as I’m communicating, does cause the occasional problem. However, I can mostly get my message across through set phrases, vocabulary, and the basic grammar I do know, along with mime, gestures, and the patience and goodwill of the person I’m speaking to. I’ve managed to buy a bikini by myself, as well as a pair of trainers which are suitable for the warm weather (no easy feat as I have inserts in my shoes which make buying shoes very challenging!) Both processes took 20-30 minutes, and I was really tired afterwards, but I persevered and got what I wanted.

(I think) I feel like lower-level learners should be made aware of how bits of grammar work, but then should be encouraged to read and listen to see how it’s used in context. They should also rote learn set phrases which they can ‘edit’ by slotting in other key vocabulary items as needed. I’ve done very few grammar exercises as part of my Russian studies, and these were mostly connected to cases. They helped me to memorise the form a little, but I really needed to be exposed to them a LOT to actually be able to use them.

Vocabulary, set phrases and pronunciation

In my last post I said:

In some classes, I give my teacher English sentence after sentence I’ve tried to say in Russian during that week, but didn’t know, ask her to translate them, then fail to learn them. This week we have a week off school and I’ve finally had time to dedicate to Russian. I’ve copied out the sentences onto cards (made from A4 pieces of paper cut into 16 rectangles, yellow because it’s a happy colour!), with pictures on the other side as prompts. There’s a huge backlog, and I have no idea how long it’ll take to actually learn them.

Every time I get a seat on the bus, I go through a few of the cards. I have about ten with me at any one time, in a handy mobile phone case my friend gave me, which has a pocket on the front. The ones I don’t know are in the main pocket, and when I think I know them, I put them in the front.

Sandy's sentence card holder TM

Sandy’s sentence card holder TM

During my lesson, I check them with my teacher, who tells me whether my pronunciation is correct or not. My very first Russian lesson was a fairly comprehensive guide to Russian pronunciation, which was a lot of information to take in, but gave me an excellent grounding for everything since. We’ve returned to it many times since, and have added one or two of the more obscure pronunciation rules. Having sound-spelling relationships clear in my head has made a huge difference, but stress placement is still very difficult for me. Like English, Russian has fairly unpredictable stress patterns, and the stress should be marked on every new word.

In a week, I can generally learn about 10-15 of these sentences, and it’s getting easier to memorise them as I start to make connections between the sentences, as well as to the language I’ve been exposed to through reading and listening. It’s incredibly motivating to see the pile of sentences I know get bigger and bigger, and I’ve cleared most of the backlog. This is the situation as it stands now:

i know the ones on the left

Left = ‘known’, right = unknown

…although I should probably go through the ‘known’ cards and see whether I still remember them! By memorising sentences, I have phrases I can deploy in the situations I most commonly encounter, and I can ‘edit’ them as and when I need them. I haven’t always been able to drag them up at the appropriate time, but at least knowing that I’ve been able to memorise them once has made me more confident. As my stock of phrases builds, I’ll be more and more likely to retain them, or at least, I hope so!

This reflects something Ann Loseva wrote in her post about grammar on itdi:

  • These linguistic discoveries need to go through cycles of repetition, to be re-discovered many times before I might hope for them to sink in.
  • The more I learn, the more confirmed I become in that we desperately need vocabulary if we want to actually produce sentences. It’s the first thing to escape memory, too.

When it all went wrong

Considering the amount of times I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to speak or understand Russian, I’m lucky that I’ve only had two situations where communication has completely broken down and I haven’t been able to patch it up.

The first was at the hairdresser’s. She’d cut my hair twice previously, so i though it would be easy: I’d just go and she’d do it. At most, I’d have to say ‘Cut it like before’. Except I forgot to find out how to say that… When I sat down, she held up my hair and said something, but I only understood the word ‘short’. I took that word, added the context of the weather suddenly being a lot hotter, and thought she’d asked me ‘Do you want it shorter than before?’, so I said ‘No’. The conversation descended into complete incomprehension, as neither of us could work out what the other was saying. In the end, my Russian teacher translated for us over the phone. Later in the appointment, we continued talking, and she told me she was surprised by my response to her first question, as she couldn’t cut my hair longer! In fact, we’d she’d said was something along the lines of ‘Do you want it short here?’

The other example was on the bus. I had my headphones on, and called out the name of the next stop, where I wanted to get off. Three men were standing in the aisle, and one of them laughed and started talking to me. I took off my headphones, but couldn’t understand what he was saying, even though he rephrased it and said it many times. Just as we stepped off the bus, I realised that he’d been telling me he’d called out the name of the stop at the exact same time as me. In English, that would have prompted a quick laugh and the end of the dialogue. In Russian, we were talking for a couple of minutes and I got quite frustrated! Context, and continuing to try to make meaning from what I’d heard after the conversation was over meant I finally understood. During X-Men there was also a line which I didn’t understand when I first heard it, but there was no dialogue for a minute or so afterwards, giving me time to process it again and work out what the character said (the line about JFK) 🙂 This is why it’s important to give students processing time after they listen, and sometimes pauses while listening.

In summary

  • Make study a ten-minute habit, rather than an hour-long chore.
  • Find ways to visualise what you’ve learnt (on a calendar, a language flower, a pile of cards).
  • Give yourself processing time. You don’t have to understand things immediately, especially when you’re starting out.
  • Study and learn from your mistakes, but don’t let them stop you from trying again.
  • Do the things that interest you – ignore people if they say it’s ‘above your level’, and try new things regularly.
    (On that note, I’ve only done three, maybe four, of the ten minute activities I suggested at the end of my previous post.)
  • Build up a bank of successful experience, whether it’s reading, writing, listening, speaking, or remembering words and grammar. Focus on all of the things you’ve been able to do (not what you haven’t), and notice how much more you can do the next time round.
  • Buy pretty notebooks and comfortable pens 😉

In a happy coincidence, that list is pretty similar to an infographic showing the ‘perfect language learner’ which I saw for the first time yesterday, courtesy of St. George International school in London:

The perfect language learner (infographic)

A final word

I’ve come a long way with my Russian over the last few weeks. I feel so much more confident, and I’ve (mostly) lost the helpless feeling I have when I’m out on my own. I still can’t communicate in many situations, but I can at least try. Writing my first post was the catalyst I need to build Russian into my life properly (one of the reasons I love blogging). I’ve found a whole range of things I like using my Russian for and I feel like it’ll be much easier to continue now. Thanks to everyone who offered me ideas the first time round, and I hope that you find something you can take away from this post.

Rethinking the visual: fifth lesson

This is part of a series of blogposts about my lessons with M, a very enthusiastic nine-year-old girl. She is a pleasure to speak to, and knows a lot of English. She’s also almost completely blind. Each lesson is one hour, one-to-one, at her house.

Today we didn’t even make it into the house before the lesson started! I opened the garden gate to be greeted by M’s 3-year-old sister running towards me and M shouting “She’s found a caterpillar!” For the next 10 minutes or so, we picked up the caterpillar so M could feel it, then tried to rescue it (they were clearing the garden ready for planting), but it kept falling off the leaf. I eventually managed to put it on a bush outside, and we went in to start the lesson proper, with M telling me “I don’t afraid it” [the caterpillar] on the way.

We chatted about brothers and sisters, and I told M my brother is much taller than me. She hugged me and held up her hands to feel how tall I am, then asked me how much I weighed! I mentioned that it’s not normal to ask a woman this, but I didn’t mind telling her this time 🙂 We also discussed the difference between brothers/sisters and cousins, because the Russian words for ‘cousin’ contain ‘brother/sister’, meaning students often say they have siblings when they mean cousins. She asked about names too, and why some people have middle names.

M remembered both of the chants from the previous lesson and told me two more which she learnt at school, one of which, ‘The Spaghetti Song’, she sang in a lovely voice. At the end of the lesson, we listened to the complete first chapter of Alice in Wonderland, and she’ll be able to listen to it again for homework.

Literacy

I found out that M can read and write braille in Russian, and a little in English. She said it’s very difficult to write English braille, and reading is slow. I asked her to show me how she writes, and learnt about the slate and stylus for the first time.

Slate and stylus

Slate and stylus

I didn’t realise that braille is written on the reverse of the paper, from right to left, so that when the paper is the right way up, the reader can move from left to right and feel the raised dots. M demonstrated by taking a piece of my scrap paper and writing the first part of the English alphabet for me. I’d downloaded an html file of the Braille Bug: Deciphering the Code page from the American Foundation for the Blind, so I was able to help M with some of the letters she’d forgotten (e, i, m). It turns out it’s fairly easy (I hope!) to learn the basics of the English braille code (as the symbols are called), and I’ve started using ‘Learn Basic English Braille‘ on memrise this evening so that I can at least recognise the letters. Another ‘language’ to add to the collection 😉

As a result of this conversation, I suggested to M that she have a notebook for our next lesson, and we’ll start writing down the new words and phrases that I teach her. I found a pdf of the English braille code, including many contractions, which I’ll take with me for the next lesson. I’m also going to look into touch-typing, as I think this could be really useful for M.

Good news

I was particularly happy at the end of the lesson, as M (and her dad) asked if we can schedule an extra hour of classes from next week, taking us from two to three hours, and M said “I very like our lessons” 🙂 I must be doing something right then!

It’s hard to believe it’s only been two weeks since our first lesson – I’ve already learnt so much, and I’ve got a lot more to read, thanks to the Kaizen Program in the USA, who have sent me a lot of useful information. From next week, I’ll just publish one post a week about all of our lessons, so as not to overwhelm people too much (!), but I’ll continue the reflective process.

Teaching M has made me really appreciate how I interact with the world, and just how much I rely on the visual, and how many things I’ve learnt or reinforced my knowledge of through my sight. It’s fascinating stuff!

How I’m learning Russian

I’d hate to have me as a student.

I very rarely do homework, so much so that my teacher has given up setting it for me.

I cancel about one lesson in four, normally the one on a Saturday. I’ve recently moved it to a Thursday in the hope that I’ll be more likely to have time then. I have two 90-minute lessons a week, the other being on Monday. We’ve never managed to make up a missed lesson, and since I pay on a lesson-by-lesson basis, this must create quite a lot of financial uncertainty, which I feel bad about.

At times, I hijack the lesson and tell my teacher exactly what activities I want to do. The last example of this was after she used a bilingual Quizlet set to introduce clothes words to me at the end of our Monday lesson. In a very rare spurt of motivation, I had twenty minutes on Wednesday night, and ten minutes on Thursday morning during which I managed to play with the words and kind of learn about 70% of them. I started the lesson by drawing pictures of clothes all over the board and writing the words next to them.

Russian clothes on the board

This took about 20 minutes. I then asked my teacher to define words for me, which meant she had to teach me verbs like ‘wear’, ‘get dressed’ and ‘put on’, and prepositional phrases like ‘on your head’, ‘on your feet’. She then turned the tables and made me define words for her. This whole process took 90 minutes, and meant we had no time to do anything she had prepared. I wrote notes throughout, and listened to and spoke more Russian than I had in any other lesson throughout the year. She told me: “You’re ready for it now.”

I constantly make demands about what I want from my lessons. My main demand is to have my lessons entirely in Russian (or as entirely as possible for a beginner/elementary student), but this is difficult because of the above statement/belief, that you have to have a certain amount of language to be ‘ready’ to speak/listen to more. This is not a choice I have in the real world, where I have to deal with whatever is thrown at me, and the person who’s speaking to me often doesn’t know how to change their language to help me understand.

We’ve also got into the habit of speaking English in class. In an average 90-minute lesson my teacher probably speaks about 10 sentences of spontaneous Russian which are not read from a piece of paper and/or accompanied by an English translation. I speak less than this, and occasionally read new vocabulary/sentences from the page, although this is not consistent – I probably only say about 50% of the new language that is introduced to me during any one class. Both of us have spoken a bit more Russian in the last couple of lessons because I’ve made more of an effort, but it hasn’t lasted long. The rest of the lesson is in English, including chats and all grammar explanations. I rarely have to produce any Russian that isn’t part of a drill based on an exercise from a worksheet. I’m trying to speak a bit more Russian in class now, but I don’t have a lot of the classroom language I need unless I ask for it to be translated, because I’ve never heard it or been made to use it.

Most of the published materials my teacher uses are taken from a text-only coursebook, with lists of vocabulary and dialogues, or a slightly more ‘designed’ coursebook with some pictures and tables. Both of them are through the medium of English. I have no idea how you find published materials to learn Russian if you don’t already speak English (this is true of a lot of none-EFL materials). We have occasionally used a website with some very entertaining short videos telling the story of John, a Canadian visiting Russia, which is available in various languages. The videos are very short – less than a minute each – and accompanied by subtitles in Russian or other languages if you want to read them.

We have never listened to any ‘real’ Russian in class, like music or videos, or any audio designed for the classroom. All of my listening practice comes from life outside the classroom, very rarely with support from an English-speaker to help me, but English speakers normally do the work if they’re there, rather than me! That means that most of the time I’m trying to piece things together myself, using what skills I’ve picked up from learning other languages, and the pre-intermediate Czech that I know. This has, of course, got easier as the year has progressed.

I demand context, trying to move away from isolated vocabulary. I constantly ask for the prepositions and cases that go with the verbs/nouns, even though I know I won’t remember them at the moment. I try to get as much new language in sentences as possible. Having said that, I find the Quizlet sets useful for building up sets of vocabulary in topics like the body or clothes. I’m trying to get exposure to as much language as possible while I have access to somebody who can mediate it for me. During a lesson which isn’t based on materials, we fill a notebook with random notes. There’s a lot of Russian here, but it’s almost all written – there’s very little speaking, very little controlled practice, and almost no free(r) practice at all, unless I instigate it. The bit of text you can see in the top-left corner of the page is the second half of twenty minutes worth of writing I did at home to force myself to produce an extended stretch of Russian.

My Russian notebook

In some classes, I give my teacher English sentence after sentence I’ve tried to say in Russian during that week, but didn’t know, ask her to translate them, then fail to learn them. This week we have a week off school and I’ve finally had time to dedicate to Russian. I’ve copied out the sentences onto cards (made from A4 pieces of paper cut into 16 rectangles, yellow because it’s a happy colour!), with pictures on the other side as prompts. There’s a huge backlog, and I have no idea how long it’ll take to actually learn them.

Sentence cards

Sentence cards with pictures

My teacher has a degree in teaching Russian. She is a native speaker of the language, who also speaks very good English and knows bits of other languages, so can occasionally tell me when grammar is similar to other languages I speak. She is a lovely person to put up with me. She puts a lot of time and effort into preparing lessons and materials. Here’s an example of a summary of tenses she made:

Russian tense summary

She’s also started making Quizlet sets for me after I showed her the site and she realised that it motivated me! I copy the sets she’s made and get rid of the English if I can, trying to make things Russian only. When I got ill and was given a special diet, she translated the sheet I was given by the doctor and made me a list of all of the food in Russian and English, with pictures for things I might not know. When I found out just before a lesson that my grandad had been taken into hospital, she took me for a walk in the park and we chatted, then wouldn’t let me pay for the lesson.

The last lesson we had was at my flat, and she decided to try something different. We labelled everything in my kitchen that I didn’t know the names of already. I’d been meaning to do this for ages but hadn’t got round to it. We did this entirely in English, with me asking ‘How do you say…?’ in English. I was never forced to use Russian, and I forgot to try. I could have practised using the words in sentences and spelling them – although I can read Russian confidently now, I still have no idea how to say a lot of the letters. We could also have played a describing game again, but I didn’t think about that until I was writing this.

Russian has taken over my kitchen!

Russian has taken over my fridge!

When I have time, normally in three- to four-hour blocks about every six weeks, I transfer the language in my class notebook to a vocabulary notebook, organised by topic. This is the first time I’ve tried this approach, and I mostly use it as a dictionary. Copying the words/phrases helps me to recognise them, but I haven’t really used the notebook to learn.

My vocabulary notebook - pictures

With pictures and colours where possible…

My vocabulary notebook - English

…with English where it’s not. (or when I run out of motivation)

My vocabulary notebook - mix of pictures and English

With colour-coding to show grammar patterns

I also use index cards to write out grammar and some vocabulary sets, particularly those connected to time. I try to have as little English as possible on the cards, and use regular layout and colour-coding to help me reduce the need for English. If there is English, I often write it in tiny letters that are difficult to see – I want Russian to be the first thing I see when I look at the cards.

Russian index cards

Verb conjugation, time and reflexives

Index cards everywhere! Time time time...

Time index cards, showing colour-coding

I then blu-tack them all over my flat. (Blu-tack is the one thing that I always take with me when I move to a new place!)

Index cards everywhere!

Cards start on the cupboard I look at when I’m getting ready in the morning/doing my physio exercises

On the front door

They graduate to the inside of my front door when I think I know them. (Loosely arranged by grammar point, e.g. verbs at the top, and with the really easy stuff at the bottom)

Surrounded with postcards to be more interesting!

Surrounding them with postcards makes me more likely to look at them (maybe…)

This is what my desk looks like in the process:

My desk when I'm studying Russian

 

Some conclusions

  • Both the teacher and the student(s) need to have a lot of willpower to conduct the lesson entirely in the target language.
  • The student also needs to be given the classroom language they need to be able to operate in the target language.
  • The teacher needs to be flexible, to respond to the language that the student needs, the time they have available, and the mood they are in.
  • The student needs to make an effort to study what has been learnt in class.
  • Language should be introduced in context, rather than as isolated items. It should be learnt as chunks to start with, then pulled apart for grammar later.
  • Seeing language once is not enough. Students need to manipulate it, play with it, say it, use it, in class to help them remember it.
  • The student needs exposure to real language in the classroom environment to prepare them for what they will encounter outside the classroom.

Some methodological terms which I can hear you shouting at me

Comprehensible input

Lexical approach

Repetition

Dogme

What did I forget?

What’s next?

March and April have been pretty busy, both personally and professionally. They came not long after I’d finished Delta, and this week off has been a great opportunity to catch up and get a handle on a lot of things. Most of the things you can see in the photos in this post were written out in a one-day marathon study session. Three days later I had another whole day of study, which meant I finally finished copying everything out and caught up. This is something I want to avoid in the future!

I have therefore decided that in May I am going to try something (new) for thirty days and study Russian for 10 minutes every day. This could include any of the following activities:

  • Using my sentence cards, where I try to remember them/write them out
  • Reading my index cards out loud
  • Testing myself using my vocabulary notebook
  • Playing on Quizlet
  • Reading one of the free magazines/newspapers I’ve collected – highlighting the words I can understand
  • Watching a YouTube video in Russian, like Cheburashka or Russian Winnie the Pooh
  • Listening to a song and reading the lyrics (I need suggestions for this)
  • Writing a short text in Russian, including to Ann (who I wrote one short email to last time she suggested this!)
  • Recording myself speaking, then listening back and correcting it

Any other ten-minute activities I could try? I’ll let you know how it goes at the end of the month!

Update: here’s part two of the post, showing what I did over the following few weeks.

How I’m learning Chinese* (and why I should be learning Russian instead)

I’m a bit of a language addict. When I’m not trying to learn a new language I always feel a bit like there’s something missing from my life.

In April last year my school offered a short beginner’s course in Mandarin which lasted for 10 weeks. I joined it, and decided that Mandarin would be my next language – it’s different to anything I’ve learnt before and is a real challenge, but at the same time, it has a logic to it that appeals a lot. It will also open the door to whole culture that has always interested me: I’ve always wanted to visit China, although I’ve never really wanted to live there. Unfortunately, as the course finished my life became full of other things, namely London 2012 and then Delta.

So it was that I forgot pretty much everything I studied last year. However, I always planned to pick up Mandarin again as soon as my Distance Delta course was finished. I even got two Chinese books for my birthday: Teach Yourself Mandarin Chinese*, and the Chinese Visual Dictionary. Last week I finally got started, with the support of my friend Catherine, who studied languages with me at uni and is joining me in my quest.

Catherine and I in Bavaria, where we hatched our Mandarin plan...

Catherine and I in Bavaria, where we hatched our Mandarin plan…

We’re using the 15-Minute Chinese book to get us started, and create some form of (almost) daily study habit, with the plan of moving on to the other books later. We’re going to Skype every Thursday and try out what we’ve learnt that week. I’ve created Quizlet sets for each page we’ve studied so far, which have been a very useful step in my learning, especially in terms of recognising characters. I’ve also been using two courses on memrise: Learn Basic Chinese: read a menu and HSK level 1 – introductory Mandarin. Memrise is one of my new favourite websites, and I’ve become a bit of an addict. They have just (a month ago) released an app, which I have on my phone and tablet, and I also use it online at least twice a day. So far I can introduce myself, count to 99 (although I’m still mixing up 6, 7 and 9 a lot) and talk a little about my family. I can also read a Chinese menu (I’ve pretty much finished that memrise course) and recognise some other basic characters. This is the first time I’ve tried to learn a language without classes or a teacher, and I’m hoping Catherine and I can motivate each other, as I find studying alone to be very easy to back out of!

So why should I be learning Russian then? Well, in September, visa-permitting, I will be moving to Sevastopol in Ukraine to join the team at IH Sevastopol as a DoS (Director of Studies)**.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Despite being in Ukraine, the city is mostly Russian-speaking, as it is the base for the Russian Black Sea fleet. To that end, I’ve been using memrise to learn the Russian alphabet, and have started to pick up a few basic phrases. It helps that I already speak some Czech, as some of the basic words are pretty similar once I’ve deciphered the letters. I plan on learning more before leaving the UK, but for now I want to focus on Mandarin as I’ve been planning to study it for so long!

I’m really enjoying the challenge of deciphering another (two) language(s), and I’m looking forward to my new adventures in Ukraine. It looks like a beautiful country and a very exciting job, in a school which is growing fast. It will be my first experience at management level too, although I’ll still be doing a lot of teaching. If you’d like to join me, the school is also looking for a teacher who enjoys teaching young learners. Let me know if you’re interested and I can put you in touch with the director of the school.

So for now, 再见 and до свидания. I’ve got some studying to do… 🙂

*All book links are to Amazon, and I will get 10% if you buy after clicking these links. Thank you!

A beautiful symmetry

Two weeks ago I started studying Mandarin for the first time.

My school offers weekly two-hour evening classes, and in the two classes so far we have covered the basics of ‘What’s your name?’ ‘What’s your surname?’ ‘I’m English. And you?’ ‘I’m a teacher/student.’ I am one of two students, and we have a native speaker teacher, who also speaks English. Outside class, I thought I should practice what I preach and find some extra things to help me study, in addition to the materials our teacher gives us. I have started compiling a list of the resources I’ve found, and if anyone has any others to recommend, please let me know. My three favourites are currently:

During the first lesson, I was reminded how alien a new foreign language can sound, especially when it is as different as Mandarin is from English. It was also a timely reminder about how scary it can be for students to be confronted by a wall of sound, with no distinguishable features or similarities to your own language, and how easy it is to cling to your L1 in such a situation – my classmate and I discuss most things we have to do in English before attempting them in Mandarin. Being used to the teaching method and having studied various languages before, I have a slight advantage as I can guess what some of the language is or what we are expected to do in tasks, but even this is not enough at times. This is not to say that our teacher is in any way lacking; in fact, she provides us with clear tasks and models all of the language needed. She is also very patient, which is necessary because what we produce must have sounded horrible to her! I’ve really enjoyed the lessons so far, despite leaving with a headache both times (!) and I’m looking forward to continuing with them for the rest of my time in Newcastle. The bug has definitely bitten!

One day, this will all be perfectly clear!

One day, this will all be perfectly clear! (from http://flickr.com/eltpics by me)

So, what does that have to do with a ‘beautiful symmetry’ then?

Well, four days ago I started teaching two Chinese men English. They are both in their early twenties, and probably had about fifty words of English between them when they arrived (separately) in Newcastle a week ago. I didn’t know I would be teaching them until after they had their placement tests on Monday, so this was a happy coincidence.

Their first class with me probably felt a lot like my first Chinese class, although at least they can write Roman letters as they are used in Pinyin 🙂 But apart from that, we were starting with an almost completely blank slate. There are two students for two hours every morning, and one of them has an hour of personal study programme time and another two hour lesson in the afternoon, which we mostly use to consolidate what I introduce in the mornings, and to try it out on students around the school. In eight hours, the total time of the morning lessons, we have so far looked at:

  • What is your/his/her name? My/His/Her name is…
  • How are you? I’m fine. And you?
  • Where are you from? Where is he/she from? I’m from… He/She is from…
  • Where do you come from? I come from… (introduced by the students)
  • 1-20
  • A-Z; How do you spell…?
  • colours

This has included a small focus on I/my, you/your, he/his and she/her differences, which don’t exist in Mandarin – one pronoun is used for both functions in each case.

So far, all of the lessons have been based on flashcards, cut out letters, a set of felt-tip pens, a box of pictures from old magazines, board pens and the whiteboard. I have also invited in almost every person who has walked past the classroom so that my students could practise introducing themselves! Taking advantage of the wifi, I showed them how to play the scatter mode on Quizlet (guide) and they have already become quite competitive. We have also recorded some conversations on Audioboo for them to use as examples when they are at home. I am using Edmodo to record what we have done and give the students exercises to practise more at home.  If you would like to see what we have been doing on Edmodo, please let me know via Twitter or by leaving a comment here with a way to contact you.

I’m really enjoying the challenge of teaching beginners, especially the look of happiness on their faces whenever they manage to have a successful conversation or complete a challenge I have set them, like putting all of the number flashcards in order as quickly as possible, and beating the fastest time from the previous day. It has reminded me how important it is to be patient as a teacher: students at all levels need space to take in what you are teaching them, and this is particularly important at low levels. Patience also includes an ability to stay interested as a teacher: if you get bored with recycling ‘What is his name?’ ‘What is her name?’ again and again, then teaching beginners probably isn’t the right place for you! Creativity is important here too, to keep up both your own and the students’ interest in what you are doing.

I’m looking forward to seeing how much they remember after a three-day weekend, and to my third Chinese lesson, which happens on Tuesday too!

On a language high

My name is Sandy and I’m a linguist.

I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t take drugs.

But I do learn languages.

For me, one of the best feelings in the world is walking into a shop and having a 1-minute conversation entirely in a foreign language. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering:

“A bottle of water, please”

“Still or sparkling”

“Still, please”

“That’ll be 25 crowns”

“Here you go. Thank you.”

“Goodbye”

“Goodbye”

My first complete Czech conversation, three weeks after I arrived in the Czech Republic, was enough to give me a high for at least a couple of hours.

After a while though, the highs become less and less frequent. After a few years, I stop feeling it, and knowing that I can communicate is automatic.

Not for me the desire to be perfect, to reach native-speaker like pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.

I still love the languages; I still want to use them; I still feel frustrated when I can’t quite express myself.

But I crave the highs.

So I learn a new language…

A translation hypocrite?

Would these learners have benefitted from a translation class? (Sandy Millin, creative commons sharing allowed)

It’s been a very stimulating afternoon. First I took part in #eltchat, which today had the topic “Can translation (and translation tools) facilitate language learning and how can it be used to best effect?” (the transcript is here). I then watched Guy Cook’s talk “Coming in from the cold: translation in language teaching” from this year’s International House DOS Conference (watch it here). With both of these offering fascinating explorations of translation, I couldn’t help but consider my own experiences as both a learner and a teacher, and what role translation has had in them.

As a learner

So far, I have studied five languages, achieving a greater or lesser degree of proficiency in each of them. I am a native-English-from-England speaker. I think it would be useful (for me at least) to think about how I learnt each language, and how much translation was used by myself and the teacher (bear with me on this, it’s long-winded!). Taking them in chronological order:

French

I first tried to teach myself French at the age of 8 or 9 from a book called “Essential French” which I had been given as a birthday present. My first memory of trying to produce any word in a foreign language is sitting on my parents’ bed reading numbers from the page and failing miserably – my attempt at 8 was ‘who-it’. The book is essentially a phrase book with pictures showing phrases being used in context. On every page there are lists of words with translations into English.

I was given my next French book at Christmas. It was called “First French”, although the closest I can now found being sold is “First French at Home“. This was a revelation for me, as together with the French and English, there were also ‘phonetic’ translations, so that I could try to pronounce the French possibly. I also saw my first French joke, which relies on translation to be funny. Unfortunately I can’t remember the first line, but the punchline relied on the fact that “Un deux trois quatre cinq” sounds similar to “Un deux trois cats sank” (if anyone can suggest the joke, please do!). I loved this joke, and I think it’s one of the reasons I was fascinated with the book – so it could be said that translation was one of the sparks that made me want to learn languages.

At the age of 11, I had the choice between two different secondary schools. One was a traditional girls’ school with a long history and the other was a mixed school which was technologically advanced and had only been opened 6 years previously. One of the main reasons I chose the latter was that on the Open Day we were told that all French and German lessons would be taught only in L2. Even at that age, this greatly appealed to me and you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that this was not, in fact, the case. However, the language teachers I had there were excellent (how lucky I was!) and my motivation was not unduly affected in the long term. As is the case in most state schools, I expect, our lessons were taught through L1, with all grammar presented in English. We were encouraged to speak L2, but only really did so to the teacher or when doing activities. All conversation which was not related to the lesson was done in English. Translation was not an explicit part of my secondary school study, but was used implicitly in comparing grammatical structures between L1 and L2, as well as learning vocabulary with translations.

In my first two years at university the method in grammar classes was similar, although there was more French. Being with a group of motivated learners helped, as we had all chosen to be there. We were slightly more likely to speak L2 in class, but it was still far from an L2-only environment. In both years we were expected to take French-English translation as part of our core language module. They differed slightly, as the first year was only French>English and the second was in both directions. This was the first time I had ever translated officially, and it was always thought-provoking. The texts we used were almost always newspaper articles. I noticed patterns which existed in one language, but not the other. I learnt many false friends, because I needed to avoid them in my exam. I also learnt a lot about French cultural mores and the idea that translation is not just about language, but also about culture.

During this 10-year period I did two one-week French exchanges, a school trip to Paris (don’t think I spoke any French except to waiters that week), three months working on a campsite for English holidaymakers in Brittany (I was the only French speaker, so was required to translate for guests in many situations including at a hospital, at the police station and at a garage) and two months working as a receptionist at a youth hostel (I think I translated almost every day in various combinations: English-French, Spanish-French and German-French). Experiencing the culture first hand really improved my acquisition, but the experience was never completely isolated from translation.

Back at university in my final year, we were expected to speak only French in the classroom. This was extremely difficult, as I had never had any pressure to do this from previous teachers. Now, I wish I had as I really believe that the extra practice would have improved my French. This time, there was no translation and everything was done purely in L2. Although my French was up to it, I lost a lot of the feeling of security I had had previously. I still chatted to friends in English, but this time it was whispered and immediately changed to French when the teacher was within earshot.

Since leaving university my French usage has been very limited. I taught a beginner’s French class to two English-speaking Czech colleagues last year which was almost entirely in French, although I had to use English occasionally when I didn’t have the language to explain a concept to them, or when my explanation would have been too difficult. We occasionally had discussions about how all three languages expressed the same concept, which was fascinating for all of us, as it showed the differing attitudes each language conveys. Unfortunately I can’t remember any specific examples. Apart from that, I have had the occasional conversation in French and been asked to translate emails / messages into English a few times.

Overall, translation has been an integral part of both my French studies and my real-life usage of the language. Of all of my languages, it is the one in which I feel I have the most solid grammatical foundation and although I don’t attribute this entirely to translation, I do think it has had a role in my confidence in the language. However, it has also had a few drawbacks, as in a classroom situation I never feel able to communicate entirely in French, even though I’m sure it should be possible, and I always fall back on English when things become too difficult.

German

(don’t worry – this won’t be quite as long!)

Much of my experience of learning German mirrors that of French. I started German at seconday school and continued on to university, in much the same manner as described above. The main difference between my experience of the two languages lies in my exposure to German in natural contexts and the modules I had to study at university.

Translation was not an integral part of my first year university studies. Instead we had grammar lessons and an ‘Oral and Essay’ strand in which we discussed topics in class and then wrote essays on them at home. Each class was one hour per week and was taught entirely in German, although again, we had whispered conversations in English when we thought the teacher couldn’t hear us.

In second year we all got a shock. 25% of our core module was based on interpreting. All of it was done into English, but it was still a very difficult skill to master. We had to interpret simultaneously (listening and speaking at the same time) and consecutively (taking notes while listening, then speaking in English based on what we had written). To help us, the texts we interpreted were based on topics we were studying in the grammar and oral/essay components of the module, so we had vocabulary from those lessons, but I still remember desperately trying to learn as much vocabulary as humanly possible. How did I do this? Largely with German-English lists of words. It was stressful at times, but I enjoyed the feeling of achievement I got when I could interpret something successfully “I know this word and I can do it!”

I enjoyed interpreting so much, I continued it into the fourth year where it was a module in it’s own right – although this may have had something to do with the fact that all of the other modules I could choose from were literature-based, and while I love reading, I hate ‘pulling books apart’. This time we were interpreting debates from the European Parliament. We had the transcripts of the discussions in both German and English, which we ‘prepared’ at home. Cue more long lists of vocabulary, this time learnt with the help of my technological discovery of the year, a dictaphone. I recorded lists of 20 or so words every few days and listened to them while walking to and from the university. Each entry was the German word, a sentence using it in context and an English translation of the word. To this day, I still see certain words and remember what I said in my own ear about them!

In second year I also did a translation module, with the same benefits as those described above for French.

In terms of real experiences of speaking the language, my exposure to German has been much more limited than that of French. I did a one-week exchange two years after my first one in French; I went on a trip to Berlin corresponding to my Paris trip (in fact it was the weekend before) :); I spent six weeks working at a factory where I listened to music in English all day, then watched German TV all evening as I had nothing else to do; I lived with a third-generation German-speaking family in Paraguay (we spoke a mixture of both German and Spanish as I quite often forgot the German words I needed); I’ve taken various day / overnight trips there while living in France and the Czech Republic.

Again, I’ve taught classes in German since I left university, but this time the learners did not speak English. I always felt uncomfortable, as if I didn’t really know how to express myself properly, and missed the fact that I couldn’t translate from English at times. I also never liked the textbooks / material I was working from, and as a new teacher didn’t really feel comfortable presenting the lessons differently. However, this probably says more about my confidence in German and my early teaching ability (hopefully that’s changed now!), than anything explicit about translation.

Overall, I’ve always felt that my German is on much shakier ground than my French. This is probably due to a lack of real exposure to the language, but the one area which always made me feel that I had achieved was interpreting. It never mattered if my cases were not completely accurate (my main German bugbear), as long as my speaking style was confident and the language I was producing was a good reflection of the original. Thankfully, I didn’t pursue it as a career though, as I’m sure this feeling wouldn’t have lasted!

Spanish

I started Spanish as a complete beginner at university. My lessons were almost exclusively in L2 only, and I really felt like I’d been thrown in at the deep end. The textbook we used (Claro que si) had English rubrics in the first few chapters, then changed to being exclusively in Spanish. I didn’t study translation or interpreting at any point. However, when discussing anything with my fellow students outside class, we always spoke English. We regularly compared grammar we had learnt in Spanish with that of other languages we spoke (to study as a beginner at university, you generally have to have proven ability in another language) and we often translated as a ‘fun’ activity, because we felt it had benefitted us in our other languages. We also learnt some words through translation: I will never forget that ’embarazado’ means pregnant and not embarrassed! (This refers to Guy Cook’s point about ‘faux amis’ in his talk).

Despite formally studying for three years at university, I actually attribute almost all of my Spanish learning to the year I spent in Paraguay (July 2006-June 2007, the third year of my degree), including two months of travelling (Jan / Feb). During my travels I sprained and fractured my ankle, which was the point at which my Spanish really took off, as every taxi driver I met asked me the same three questions: “What did you do to your leg?” “Why did you go to Paraguay and not Chile / Argentina?” (where I was travelling) “Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” (!) This repetition really improved my confidence when speaking Spanish and meant that when I returned to university my fluency was great, although my accuracy left a lot to be desired. While in Paraguay I went to a translation study group run by the owner of the langauge school I was working at. It often frustrated me, as he insisted on translating everything word for word. We did all of the translations orally and they never really made much sense, but I always felt too guilty to stop going to the class.

As with French and German, my exposure to Spanish since leaving university has been limited. I have done some informal translation between Spanish and English / German. I meet a Spanish woman once a week for a language exchange, often involving one or the other of us asking for translations of words which we can’t remember. I taught Spanish to an English-speaking Czech colleague for a year. Again, although I tried to use only L2 in the classroom, we often ended up discussing both the language and the culture in English, as well as comparing it to Greek, which she was teaching me.

I sometimes feel that a formal translation course would have benefitted my Spanish, as although I can speak fluently I feel my accuracy really needs to be improved. I often find myself thinking “How would I say that in Spanish?” when there are holes in my language, although I then try to get around it. This reflects Guy Cook’s point about “avoidance avoidance”. With only a few hours of lessons in Spanish each week and a large class to teach, I don’t think my university teachers ever noticed or had time to deal with these holes in my language, but as a teacher myself I am acutely conscious of them whenever I speak Spanish. Of course, a teacher who picks apart my grammar could also have them same effect – being a very confident person and unafraid to speak I don’t think this would stop me!

Czech

This is the first language I have learnt ‘in-country’. I’m now in my third year of living in the Czech Republic, and I’ve been informed my language is at approximately A2 level on the CEF framework (compared to C1 in French / German / Spanish). I tried to teach myself from a coursebook which is written largely in Czech, with the occasional list of words in both Czech and English, and only got through two chapters before giving up, mainly because I didn’t understand the instructions for any of the activities. I had lessons in my second year, when the foundations of my Czech were really laid. They were entirely in Czech, despite me occasionally attempting to get a translation from the teacher.

Apart from those few lessons, all of my Czech has come from necessity and exposure: I listen to Czech radio, I try to communicate in shops, I attempt to join in with conversations around me, I watch films with Czech subtitles.

The only really active way I have studied on my own has been to take articles in the free newspaper and translate them into English. Until writing this, I had never thought about that! I then get them checked informally by native Czech speakers at school. Again, I have noticed that through translation I have been forced to notice many structures in Czech and to think about their equivalents in English. This has been quite a useful skill when I then attempt to speak Czech – although I can say simple things, there are still huge holes in my language when I want to communicate anything more complicated than “I want to buy that, please.”

Greek

For just over a year I had one one-hour Greek lesson approximately every two weeks. As you might expect, my Greek hasn’t come on much, and I’ve forgotten most of it since the lessons stopped six months ago. However, I can read the alphabet and say a (very small) handful of basic sentences.

My lessons were in a mixture of Greek and English. I understood instructions, but could very rarely express myself or understand written instructions in Greek. I relied on my teacher to translate a lot of what was going on in the textbook, as the alphabet was (and still is) a huge barrier to understanding. I still try to read everything I see now though, and am excited every time there is a word I understand, almost always an English cognate.

Conclusions as a learner

Analysing my own learning, it turns out that most of it has been supplemented by translation. This does not, however, mean that when speaking the languages, especially the three stronger ones, I think in English. This only really happens when there is a ‘hole’, and if I’m speaking to a native speaker of the language, and especially one who I know does not speak English, I tend to have the motivation to get around this. So what has this meant for my teaching?

As a teacher

In my English classes I seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time saying “Speak English”, so much so that some of my students joke about it with me when we are outside class – at a school party it was the first thing my FCE class said when I sat down at their table! I encourage my students to speak English and try to discourage them as much as possible from speaking Czech. I do, however, allow quick translations of words if a learner is really struggling with a concept and have even been known to allow an explanation of a grammar point if one student in the class really doesn’t get it. I feel slightly more confident about this now than I did when I arrived in the Czech Republic, since I now have a level of Czech which enables me to at least roughly understand most of what is said in my class, but I still worry about things not being translated ‘correctly’.

This year, all of my classes are intermediate level or above, and most of them are advanced. In every class I have at least who relies on Czech for their English. In feedback which I recently did on an experimental (for me) lesson, one student wrote “Lesson reminded me, when writing review in English, that I have to start think in English, not just translate Czech sentences, even though it’s hard for me.” [sic.] This was from an advanced student who has been studying English for years.

In a 1-2-1 class, I have a student who always tries to understand an explanation in English, but has a tendency to give up quite quickly and go to his computer dictionary to check meanings. I always look over his shoulder and try to help him to choose the correct meaning for the English word he is trying to translate. This has become a regular feature of our lessons, and I have learnt a lot of Czech from him!

I have done one or two activities involving translation during the past couple of months, again because my own confidence in Czech has increased. In my Intermediate-level teen class, the students spoke almost no English during 45 minutes of a lesson. I became so frustrated that I wrote a few of the classroom phrases they were saying on the board and asked them to translate them, for example “What do you have?” “How do you spell…?” Through this exercise I discovered that they didn’t have the basic classroom language needed to interact with each other. In combination with introducing one or two of these phrases each week since that lesson, I have also begun to put on a 5-minute timer. Every time they manage to speak English for five minutes without a break I put a mark on the board. For each mark they can go home 30-seconds earlier. Since doing this, they have really started to try to speak English in class (generally they can leave a 90-minute lesson 5 minutes early) – in most lessons they speak at least 60 minutes of English. What is particularly telling though is that the Czech they do speak is almost always asking for a translation of a word or grammar point to confirm that they have understood.

With two advanced classes I did an exercise prompted by a text in the coursebook about literary translations. They had to bring in a book written in Czech and translate the first or last paragraph into English. All but one of the books they brought in were translations from another language into Czech. Their translations prompted a lot of discussion about comparisons between English and Czech, as well as the original language of the book (German / Japanese). We also looked at a couple of grammar issues which came up.

One very common Czech mistake is the substitution of ‘it’ for ‘that’ in short phrases such as “That’s all” and “That’s a shame”. Every time students make this mistake, I now tell them that the equivalent of “To je…” in Czech almost always translates as “That is…” and not “It is…” in English, even though “To” is normally translated as “It”. Since I noticed this a few months ago, my students have become much more aware of this.

Outside class, a lot of the writing my students do contains elements of Czenglish. Maybe if we did more translation with them, this might go down? They also occasionally ask me to check English versions of texts they have translated, for example, abstracts for their degrees which must be submitted in both Czech and English.

Conclusions

(at last – well done if you’ve made it this far!)

  • Translation has been an integral part of my own language learning, and yet it is a very isolated part of my teaching.
  • I only introduced translation into my own classes once I felt confident that my level of Czech was high enough to understand what the students were saying.
  • My own and my students’ real life uses of foreign languages often involve translation.
  • My students have benefitted from the translation activities we have done in class.

So, bearing that in mind, does that make me a translation hypocrite? Should I be more relaxed about the use of L1 in my classroom and not pounce on Czech every time I hear it? After the discussions today and my own reflections in that post, I’m inclined to answer “Yes” to both questions.

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