Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How to Get Most Out of Language Exchange

Photo by Adam J White

It has never been easier to learn languages. The internet has made many language resources accessible for everyone. Language exchange platforms went even further: they facilitated the hardest part of the learning languages online. I’m talking about finding a language partner for speaking practice. Many websites and mobile applications dedicated to language exchange have been launched recently. You register on one of those websites/ applications, indicate what language you speak and what language you’re learning, tell a bit about yourself, and the system makes an automatic match for you, suggesting dozens of potential language partners willing to talk to you. It no longer matters where you live; you can always find someone who speaks your target language. Some language exchange (LE) websites are more popular and populated than others. Some applications offers more features, others have better user interface - we all have plenty of options to choose from.

The growing popularity of LE platforms is easy to explain: LE websites and applications meet the increasing demand for language learning (in the global world monolingualism equals illiteracy). They correspond to the needs to communicate in a language rather than to consume artifacts created in a language, and resonate with the money-less digital economy models. Yet, as good and exciting as it seems, language exchange is only a tool, and, like with any other tool, one should learn how to use it efficiently and develop some specific skills.

As a language teacher and learner, I heard the following complaints about language exchange:
  • We arranged a meeting on Skype, but we both felt too shy to talk, so most of the time it was mumbling, not a conversation;
  • The person who invited me to an LE session confused it with a dating website;
  • We met online, but neither I nor my partner knew what to talk about;
  • We set up an appointment, but my partner never showed up or was late;
  • My language level didn’t match the language level of my partner, so we both were bored;
  • I can’t make any progress; probably LE is not for me.

There are many objective reasons why talking to a stranger (online or offline) may frustrate you. Yet, it doesn’t mean that language exchange sessions are doomed to failure. Here are a few tips how you can arrange your LE sessions and get the positive experience from learning languages through talking with native speakers:

Be picky and discriminating when choosing a LE partner.
Success or failure of your LE sessions depends on how well you pick a partner. Choose somebody with similar or close interests. The mere fact that a person speaks the language you are learning doesn’t make him or her a good fit for LE. Read user profiles carefully before inviting a potential partner to chat; filter out everybody who doesn’t seem a perfect match and never feel bad about it.

My best LE sessions were with people who share my beliefs, who like the same things I like and are into the same things I am into. Because we matched so well, we never had awkward pauses in our conversation, never had problems with bringing new topics and always knew what to talk about. Well, sometimes I had LE sessions that were hard to end in time, because there were so much we wanted to say to each other…

Schedule your sessions like you would do with regular lessons.
Spontaneous chat with native speakers can be a part of your language practice, but it is more convenient and practical to schedule your online sessions the way you would schedule a regular appointment. Create an event in your digital calendar, add an alarm (I prefer to set all my alarms 10 minutes prior an event), ask your partner if he or she wants you to send them an alarm as well. Think about how long your sessions should be. I personally prefer one hour sessions - 30 minutes for each language. If a session lasts longer, both participants may get tired, while sessions shorter than one hour may give not enough time for both of you to practice.

If you language partner didn’t show up or was late for more than 15 minutes and failed to provide reasonable explanations, look for another partner. It doesn’t make sense to spend your time on someone who doesn’t respect it.

Plan your conversation in advance.
Take your LE sessions as an opportunity to learn more about life and culture of the country where your partner lives. You started learning a new language for some reasons, so why not to satisfy your curiosity and ask your language partner as many questions as possible about things that are interesting/relevant for you? For example, if you are learning a new language because of new employment opportunities, ask your partner how job interviews are arranged in his or her country, what HR managers usually ask about and so on. In different countries, employment procedures look different, and you can learn about it during your language exchange sessions. If you are mostly interested in tourism and learn a new language because you want to travel independently and explore the world on your own, ask your partner where locals go for shopping and where he or she would suggest to go (beside the usual tourist sights).

Not all sessions should be divided into two equal parts.
Though the whole language exchange idea is based on mutuality, it doesn’t mean that you should dedicate equal amount of time to each language every session. Sometimes (honestly, pretty often) it is more natural to speak one language for the whole 60 minute and dedicate the next session entirely to another language. Switching back and forth is harder for our brains that putting it into one mode and stay in it for an hour. If you realize that in order to switch to another language you have to interrupt the natural flow of your conversation, just don’t do it - keep talking! You’ll have your turn next time.

The list of LE platforms:
- Wespeke
- Tandem
- GoSpeaky
- HelloTalk
- iTalki

Friday, March 18, 2016

Q&A: When To Put Comma?

Forgive me if you've been asked this already, but how do commas work in Russian? I instinctively pause whenever I see one, but I understand this isn't the case?
That’s a good question!

Yes, in most cases, you can pause when you see a comma, but Russian punctuation is not about intonations and pauses. It is about predication. Generally, whenever you have a predicative core (Subject + Verb/predicate in any other forms), you have to separate it from another predicative core with a comma.

Я уверена, что мы поедем в Мексику. I’m certain that we’ll go to Mexico.
Я уверена - the first predicative core, we will go - the second predicative core.

Also, participles and adverbial participles may count as predicates under some certain conditions, so they are separated from the main sentence:

Он подумал и, взвесив все за и против, решил, останется дома. He thought a while and, after considering all pros and cons, decided that he’d stay home.

And, of course, we use commas for listing. Though we do not have the “Oxford comma”, and after the final “and” we do not put commas:

У меня есть кот, собака, пони и единорог. I have a cat, a dog, a pony, and a unicorn.

Do you have a question for me? Shoot it!

Photo by Steven Mueller

Q&A: Overcoming Awkwardness

Okay, I have a weird question for you and your followers. I am a language freak. I'm fluent in Dutch, English, Spanish, Italian, and am learning German, Russian and French. (Don't ask how many times I've tried to say something in one and corrected it in another) My problem is, for Russian, French and German you have to use the accents to properly pronounce some of the words. Now it's a bit silly, but I get embarrassed when I try to mimic the accent. Do you have any tips on getting over it?
Hi! I think I can understand you. I feel deeply embarrassed when I have to pronounce English sounds [θ] and [ð]. Russian doesn’t have these sounds. Moreover, it is considered a speech impediment (sigmatism) if one produces these sounds. Listening practice helped me to get rid of these awkward feelings.

If by the accent you mean a stress, in Russian absolutely every word should be stressed properly: one vowel in each word should be articulated clearly, and all the rest reduced to some degree.

Interestingly, Karen Van Hook who is patiently working on reducing my funny Russian accent always says “That’s it!” exactly when I’m mocking (or I think that I’m mocking) typical American speech. You can’t over-do it. Never. Exaggerate - and you’ll get exactly where you want to be.

So my general suggestion would be: listen to native speakers, Russian songs and watch movies in Russian. Listening is extremely important. Even if you don’t understand 80% of what you hear, let your ear to get accustomed to the Russian sounds. You’ll get the rhythm and general sounding of the Russian speech, and will start doing the accent without feeling embarrassed. It only comes with practice. Good luck!

Do you have a question for me? Shoot it!

Photo by Steven Mueller

Friday, March 4, 2016

What Language Learning Is Like

Since languages are often a part of a school curriculum, many people believe that learning a new language is like learning algebra or physics. It is not. Algebra and physics take understanding. Learning a new language takes development of new skills, and it has more similarities with playing music, dancing, driving a car, and other practical skills.

Why is learning a language similar to learning how to drive a car?
When you learn how to drive a car, you should first learn all the traffic rules, but that doesn’t make you a driver yet. You need hours and hours of practice to learn how to apply all those rules on road. With a new language, you learn the rules first, but rules alone won’t make you a speaker - you need a real life practice. The shock a new driver may experience is similar to the shock a language learner gets when he or she tries to speak the target language for the first time.

Why is language learning easier than driving a car?
Because the cost of making mistakes is much lower for language learning. What is the worst thing that may happen if you pronounce a word incorrectly or mess up a word order? Some misunderstanding that is relatively easy to fix. You can not kill anyone with a wrong word or poor grammar.

Why is learning a language similar to playing music?
Music and languages both take a lot of boring, routine practice. In order to excel in music, an aspiring musician should practice every day, and most of the time it is just polishing technique and memorizing the material. You have to be really passionate about music to overcome this boredom. Only then can a musician enjoy the freedom and happiness of expressing oneself. Freedom and flexibility come with persistent hard work. This is also true for language learners.

Why is language learning easier than playing music?
Because musicians have to be perfect. The audience never forgives imperfections. Luckily, we are more forgiving to non-native speakers.

Why is learning a language similar to dancing?
Like in dancing, you need a partner to practice. Of course, you can dance alone, but it is more fun and makes more sense if you do it with with a partner or in a group. Like in dancing, you have to learn how to coordinate your mind and your body, and train yourself to perform a dance not a series of separate gestures and moves (words and combinations of words, in the case of languages), but like a whole and self-sufficient expression. Should I add that, like in music, freedom comes with hard work?

Why is learning languages easier than dancing?
Because when you dance you have no time and no chance to correct yourself. You can always stop and correct yourself when speaking - no one would even notice.

Why is learning a new language like fitness?
Athletes, much like language learners, have to spend a lot of time training, and quite often there’s not much fun in it. Like athletes, language learners should practice every day to stay in a good shape. Otherwise, all your previous efforts will vanish in a few days. All the words that you’ve learned - you’ll forget them if you don’t practice. A little bit of fitness everyday is better than a hardcore workout once a week. Similarly, a little bit of language practice every day is better than three hours of exhausting language lessons once a week.

Why language learning is easier than fitness?
Well, because you can not injure yourself practicing language. You can hurt your ego, of course, but it heals quickly.

Happy language learning!