Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Start Writing in Your Target Language Right Now

Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, Public Domain

Every language learner knows that feeling: desperate helplessness when trying to produce a sentence in a target language. You may have advanced to the degree where you enjoy sophisticated books and movies in the language you are learning, but when it comes to speaking, you feel like a beginner - lost, panicked, and embarrassed. No worries - this is normal. You are fine; this is just the way we, humans, acquire foreign languages. We learned to speak first when we were babies and picked up with reading and writing later, but that only works with a mother-tongue. When we learn foreign languages, speaking comes last.

If you’ve ever tried taking language proficiency tests, you might have noticed that they are divided into four parts representing four basic language skills - listening, reading, writing, and speaking. Reading and writing are passive language skills, while writing and speaking are active language skills. I took and passed different language proficiency tests a few times, and each time the score for speaking was the lowest, and the score for reading was the highest. That is a very typical situation for language learners who read much more than they speak. You need to start speaking and writing if you want to improve your speaking skills!

Yes, writing may improve your general language proficiency and, specifically, speaking because writing is an active language skill, just like speaking. When you write, you stop consuming a language and start producing speech. In other words, you start acquiring the language; you make it your own. Here are the reasons why you should start writing in your target language right now.
  • Writing helps to develop the same vocabulary in your target language as you have in your mother-tongue.
    My students often say that in their mother-tongue, they are witty, sophisticated talkers, while in Russian, they are limited to very basic vocabulary. I usually ask them to write something on the topics they discuss in their mother-tongue. This simple task helps them realize what words they need most, and what words they actually use in their out-of-the classroom life.
  • When you use a new word in an essay, you memorize it better and faster.
    When you look up a word in a dictionary while working on your essay, you are more likely to memorize the new word. You encounter it when you need it most, and your brain marks it as important. We tend to memorize important things first, and the words that we learned while expressing our thoughts stick for a longer time.
  • Writing helps you learn grammar.
    I think we can agree that learning grammar rules and not practicing them right away is a waste of time. Learning AND practicing is much more efficient. When you try to express your thoughts and figure out how to organize your ideas into grammatically correct sentences, you practice and learn grammar at the same time. And just as with new words, you memorize the grammar rules that you’ve learned on demand better. You acquire them.
  • You get yourself prepared for writing tests.
    Writing boosts your language learning, as I’ve tried to prove above, but it also helps you to get prepared for writing tests. I trained myself to write short essays before taking the IELTS. I posted my texts on Lang-8 (unfortunately, they no longer accept new users), and native English speakers corrected me. When I took the IELTS, the writing part of the test was relatively easy for me - I didn’t get stuck with writer’s block. During the break, many fellow test takers complained that they spent two-thirds of the test time just trying to figure out what to write, so they didn’t have enough time to revise their work. If you develop the good habit of putting your thoughts down on paper (or, more realistically, on a screen), you’ll be well-prepared to write a test essay on a random topic.
  • Writing improves your confidence.
    Your texts check your progress. When, after a few weeks of consistent writing practice, you re-read your first essays, you’ll see how much you have achieved during those weeks and how much more you can say - in written and, surprisingly, oral forms - in your target language. Nothing boosts confidence more than well-documented progress.
  • Writing is the only active skill where you don’t need a partner.
    Well, of course, you’ll need someone who can proofread your writing (we’ll talk about that a bit later). The best thing about writing is that you don’t need to schedule your online meetings with someone else, and you can avoid that awkwardness of the language exchange sessions when two complete strangers are forced to hold a conversation while, in fact, they don’t have much to discuss with each other. You simply post your text on one of those language learning portals and somebody corrects it - when they have the time.
  • Writing leaves you with corrections and notes that you may use for further learning.
    When somebody - a teacher or a language partner - corrects you when you talk, it hurts your ego a bit (or a lot, depending on how nice and tactful your corrector is and how delusional you are about your language skills). Worse, you don’t have anything to look at after the conversation is over. When somebody corrects your writing, it doesn’t hurt because it was not an in-person conversation, and you can work on your mistakes afterward.
I know from both my learning and teaching experiences that writing promotes and speeds up language acquisition. My students who write short essays regularly progress faster than those who don’t. Sometimes I am amazed at how rapidly a student can evolve into a confident speaker (here, I shared a success story - for your inspiration).

How To Get started?

There are a few obstacles that many language learners face when starting to write. Just like all other human activities, writing should make sense. For language students that means that somebody should correct their writing. Preferably, for free. That could be your language exchange partner, because who said that LE sessions are exclusively for talking? That could be a native speaker on iTalki - this website allows you to publish your writing for native speakers to correct and comment. If you work with a language tutor, you might see about making writing a part of your lesson routine. I usually make it a homework assignment for those of my students who have enough time for it.

Another big obstacle is: “I don’t know what to write about.” An aspiring language learner that I talked to said, “I usually write about my daily activities and books I have been reading! I just write one or two paragraphs.” It’s as simple as that. Nobody expects you to write a new War and Peace. Quite the contrary, short, but frequent stories would work much better than one exhaustingly long essay per month. Write about something that amuses you, something that you would like to talk about in your mother-tongue. Sometimes, it is easier to write about certain sensitive things in a non-native language - you may use the writing exercises to vent out everything you wouldn’t dare articulate in your mother-tongue.

A small technical trick that usually helps me to overcome my procrastination is to write an outline of the future essay first. That helps me to mentally focus on writing and keep social networks and messengers closed for some time. An outline is also needed to organize ideas into a coherent text. Sometimes stream of thought works better, but I leave it for rare moments of inspiration. For a routine work, an outline is a must have.

Here is the plan: open a new document in your favorite word processor, and switch to your target language. Draft an outline. Write down all of the thoughts and ideas that are relevant to the topic that you are going to talk about. Do not filter out the ideas yet - this is your brainstorming. Then re-work the outline and start writing. When the text is ready, publish it on iTalki or send it to your LE partner or tutor. When you receive corrections, make sure you understand exactly what was wrong. If you don’t understand anything, do not hesitate to ask your correctors for explanations. Repeat.

Best of luck with your language studies!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

How To Keep Learning In Summer

Photo by Carol Blyberg

Summer is probably the best and the worst time for language learners. Summer breaks and vacations give you a lot of spare time. Nobody tells you what to do—no busy office schedule, no boring one-size-fits-all (or rather, one-size-fits-none) curriculum. You are finally free to do what you want, for example, start to read books in the language you are studying or watch movies or listen to podcasts that you had downloaded months ago. On the other hand, there are too many distractions in the summer time—everybody tries to catch sunny days on the beach, and there are travel plans that have been put off for so long and that grass in the backyard to mow and all those house renovation projects... It seems that people tend to postpone everything until summer, and when it finally comes, everybody gets even busier than ever.

Language learning, however, can't be seasonal. It takes consistency and persistence. However important your other summer projects are, it is necessary to dedicate sufficient time to languages—frequently and regularly—or else, you'll forget everything that you've learned before. Think about your language studies like an intellectual gym. You need to keep training your language muscles. Otherwise, you'll lose your shape. And just like with a gym, it is better to have short language sessions every day than one long and exhausting lesson a week.

Here are a few ideas on how to keep your language studies on track during summer.

Use language applications that offer language courses, flash cards, and language exchange chats.
Though applications alone are not sufficient for achieving language fluency, they are extremely convenient: they are always with you as long as you carry your smartphone, they remind you when it is time to spend another 15 minutes on languages, and they track your progress. Here is a list of popular language apps:

Language courses
LE and chats
Start a meaningful language project. Nothing motivates better than a pragmatic reason to carry on. Being passionate about languages helps in the beginning, but then the time for tedious, routine practice comes. When you have something useful to do, it is easy to convince yourself why you have to spend your time on that instead of having the usual summer fun. Your meaningful project could be a resume and cover letter in your target language, a few articles or a book about something that is in the field of your professional or personal interests, translating and learning your favorite songs in your target language, and so on. The rule of thumb is: do what you usually do, but in your target language.

Finally, you can find a personal tutor and take online lessons. As a language teacher, I hate to think about my work as enforcement, but, objectively speaking, it partially is (learn more about my lessons here). When you have booked an appointment with a teacher, it is more likely that you will arrange your chores in a way that will allow you to find an extra hour for a language lesson than when you learn on your own. Language exchange sessions with a native speaker help, too, but my experience tells me that the cancellation rate for lessons with a tutor is much lower than for language exchange sessions, where both partners don't take it seriously enough.

August is just a few days away. Make it the most productive month of the year, and the coming fall will reward you with the most pleasant feeling ever: a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

How Do We Memorize Words?

When I was working on my master thesis in the university, I found a very interesting book that cardinally changed my perception of speech and language. The book, written by language philosopher and linguist Boris Gasparov was titled rather vaguely: Language, Memory, Image. Behind those three words was the whole new concept of human speech. I can speak about that book for hours, but in this article, I would like to focus on one particular idea - the one about how we memorize new words. It works both for mother-tongue and foreign languages.

Theory: How Language Lives

We as human beings are surrounded by other people’s speech. We talk and are talked to, we hear what other people say, and all this happens in the social context. When we encounter a new word, it never goes alone. The new word is a part of a speech, of a conversation, and of a social interaction. We often are capable of getting a clue from the context - this is an important part of our language and social competency. We memorize the new word as a part of the situation when we first encountered it.

Every time we encounter that word, it pops up along with its context, be it a person who introduced that word for us, a particular conversation, or even scents and odors that we smelled back then. Language reality exists in our heads, but it actually is a part of a physical and social world. Every single word you know and use is a fragment of previous communications - oral or written, a remnant of other people’s speech.

This beautiful philosophical concept has a practical implementation for language learners. Probably, we could memorize new vocabulary faster and better if we would start fragmenting a new language not to words, but to communicative elements - be it a phrase (for example, what to respond to informal greetings), a word (along with its context), a part of a word (a suffix -ish meaning 'not quite’, kinda-sorta’) or maybe even an intonation used in a specific situation. The very least we can do is helping our memory by paying attention to the situation and circumstances when we encounter a new word.

Practice: Gesundheit!

And now about how the theory works in practice. A few months ago, a dear friend of mine sneezed when we were talking on Skype. The only response I knew was “Bless you,” but I always feel a bit awkward saying that. I'm not religious. When I say, “bless you” I feel as if I’m cheating or lying.

My friend told me that there is another way to respond to sneezing - Gesundheit, which is originally a German word, but is pretty common in the English-speaking world as well. I was thankful to her for saving me from my ignorance and from constantly saying something that I don't mean. The word was not totally strange to me - I studied German at school for a couple years, and could somehow “feel” its structure. Yet, I forgot it after a few weeks.

I could never recall that word again, but my linguistic luck was kind to me. My husband and I were watching an old TV show called Remington Steele (young Pierce Brosnan and fabulous Stephanie Zimbalist) recently, and in one of the episodes, Pierce Brosnan said Gesundheit about thirty times during an hour. Guess what? I will never forget this word again. Gesundheit is now engraved into my brain.

Now, when I learned this word, I started noticing it more frequently. Every time I hear it, I remember my friend, and our talk, and Pierce Brosnan with his distinctive accent, saying ‘Gesundheit’ to his associate who suffered from a hay fever. This is exactly what I mean when suggesting for my students “to put each word into its context.”

Tips and Tricks from Other Language Learners

Here are a few tips and tricks form my readers:
  • Repeat words/phrases with weird accents on different syllables to make it easier to remember individual letters, or try to make it sound like an unrelated English word;
  • Use images for new words and use resources for kids who are learning how to read;
  • "I try to use new words immediately. Usually I work it into a conversation while using HelloTalk on mobile";
  • Write new words over and over again until they are on my mind;
  • Use applications such as Anki, Memrise, and Cram.

How do you memorize new words? Share your tips and tricks!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Another Success Story: Preparing For Russian Certification Exams

The best news a teacher can hear from her student is that the student has successfully passed important exams. That is exactly what happened to me last Friday: I woke up, grabbed my smartphone and found an email from one of my students with the good news inside. My student worked hard and received a well-deserved certificate, and I'm extremely proud of her. I realize that my contribution to her success was quite modest - the student was truly committed to passing those exams. However, I decided to shed some light on the methods and techniques I practiced to help her to get prepared for the exams. These are my language learning and teaching tips.

Shift the focus from learning to using the language

Most language students are extremely shy to speak their target language. The very first challenge any teacher faces is helping students to gain more confidence. The fear to sound stupid verbally chokes students - they seem to be unable to produce an intelligible sentence, even if they know quite a lot of words and remember all the necessary grammar rules.

What I usually do - and the case I discuss in this article is no exception - is shifting the focus from learning a language to using it. I virtually take a student out of the classroom and involve him or her in a conversation. Once a student forgets about speaking correctly and focuses on delivering his or her thoughts, ideas and emotions in a new language, the fear disappears. Or, at the very least, the panic shrinks to a manageable stress.

Make it personal

In the case I'm describing in this article, we already had a list of topics provided by the educational institution for the exams, so we were not free to choose what to talk about. To make those way too common, boring topics more engaging and lively, I suggested that my student bring her personality into the text, and to build her stories on what resonates with her in this or that topic.

I learned from my experience that it is nearly impossible to demonstrate good language skills by talking about something dull and unengaging. I took IELTS exams twice, and when the topics for essays and short speech were interesting, I performed much better than when I had to desperately figure out what to say about things I would never discuss in my mother-tongue. "Make it more personal!" proved to be the right strategy for language exams.

Surrounding yourself with language

Because there are often too many students in a classroom, and a teacher is preoccupied with the curriculum, language learners don't access enough relevant authentic materials. In other words, while learning a language and going through all those endless grammar drills, students may forget why they started learning a new language in the first place.

During our one-on-one sessions, I tried to think of something written or said in Russian that would pick my student's curiosity. High-quality content is what keeps students learning a language outside of the classroom, and this is the most important part of the language acquisition. Books, blogs, movies, radio stations - all a teacher needs to do is to help students to find relevant content. My student said that she surrounded herself with movies and books in Russian during the few last days before the exams. I believe that worked much better for her than just reviewing grammar lessons.

Exams always put a lot of stress onto students. Changing the student's mindset from a classroom type of activities to real life actions helps to overcome the stress and switch them from learning to acquiring the language. As you might have noticed, my strategy is basically to turn Russian from being a school subject to something meaningful and relevant. That worked for me in the past and proved to work for my student.

If you need help in getting prepared for your tests and exams, book your lessons here - together we'll develop the best strategy that will work for you.

Monday, March 27, 2017

18 Meanings Of the Nominative Case. Really?

Photo by David Kessler

What can be easier than the Nominative case? It is the basic, the original form of a noun, and its major role in a sentence is to be a subject.

This is what I thought until I opened a Russian as Foreign language test guide (Требования по русскому языку как иностранному). Surprisingly, the authors of the guide come up with 18 (eighteen) different meanings of the Nominative case. Wow.

The guide is in Russian, so I’ve translated those eighteen points into English, and, for some of the points, I have to cite the original examples, because otherwise they would be too confusing. So here is what the Nominative case is for (nouns in the Nominative are bold):
  1. The subject in active voice clause; the example was somewhat questionable: Нина смотрит телевизор. Nina is watching TV. Okay, watching TV could be active.
  2. The subject of condition; another questionable example: Мальчик спит. The boy is sleeping; How watching TV is more active than sleeping?
  3. A person/ an object identified by some characteristics: День тёплый. The day is warm.
  4. General identification of a person or a thing: Это Нина. This is Nina. Это торт. This is a cake.
  5. Specific identification of a person or a thing: Её зовут Нина. Her name is Nina.
  6. Addressing somebody by one’s name: Нина, смотри! Nina, look!
  7. Characteristics of a person or a thing (somewhat overlapping with number 3, but slightly different type of constructions in Russian): Пётр - скрипач, Peter is a violinist.
  8. Characteristics of an event: Сегодня концерт. The concert is today.
  9. The presence or availability of something in a place, an equivalent of ‘there is/ are’: В доме есть подвал. There is a basement in the house.
  10. Having something: У меня есть кот. I have a cat.
  11. Dates; the example in the guide is a question: Какое сегодня число? What date is it today?
  12. The object one needs/ desires: Нине нужен торт. Nina needs a cake.
  13. The object of comparison: Кот умнее собаки. The cat is smarter than the dog.
  14. Events, actions in some specific phase: Концерт начинается в шесть часов. The concert starts at six.
  15. Day of the week, month, season etc. (I think, it overlaps with numbers 8 and 11): Сегодня понедельник. Today is Monday.
  16. A thing or a person in a passive voice: Концерт сыгран в главном зале страны. The concert was played in the country’s main concert hall.
  17. Physical or emotional conditions: У Нины ветрянка. Nina has chickenpox.
  18. The object of one’s evaluation: Нине нравится торт. Nina likes the cake.
After reading this list I thought, if I were studying Russian, I would panic and quit. If you are about to panic - please don’t, not yet! The good news is that you don’t have to memorize all these “meanings”. Instead, you can simply understand what the Nominative case does.

As usual, etymology helps a lot. The word “Nominative” is from Latin nominativus ‘relating to naming”. And the Russian name for this case is Именительный, from имя, name. This case names or, if you wish, labels things (people, events, conditions, abstract ideas etc). Nominative is for naming. That’s it. If you look through the list one more time, you’ll see that in most examples above the Nominative case simply names something or someone. The list is unnecessary long and confusing.

There are, however, some tricky expressions, that are completely different in English, and so English speakers often make mistakes there. You have to learn those constructions one by one, but there are not so many. I’ve come up with only five of them, and here they are:
  • Stating that a place has something (the equivalent of ‘there is’/ ‘there are’ in English):
    В + N in Prepositional + есть + N in Nominative.
    В нашем доме есть гараж. There is a garage in our house.
  • Having something:
    У + PRO/N in Genitive + есть + N in Nominative.
    У Нины есть торт. Nina has a cake.
  • Speaking about physical and emotional conditions:
    У + PRO/N in Genitive+ N in Nominative.
    У брата - счастье. My brother is happy.
  • Expressing needs:
    PRO/N in Dative + нужен (m)/ нужна (f)/ нужно (n) + N in Nominative
    Мне нужна твоя поддержка. I need your support.
  • Expressing likes and dislikes:
    PRO/N in Dative + нравится + N in Nominative
    Всем нравится торт. Everybody likes the cake.
And the last thing for today. You can understand cases, but memorizing their endings is a real pain. These Grammar Table Bookmarks may help you to learn Russian cases a bit faster and easier. Good luck!