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!