February: this month I have…

  • Completed my first MOOC! (Oxford Teachers’ Academy Teaching English to Teenagers, if you’re interested)
  • Given my French a workout with the help of myfrenchfilmfestival.com, a fantastic annual online festival. Check it out next year!
  • Enjoyed (and appreciated) this brilliant Vice article on ESOL in the USA.
  • Celebrated a friend’s birthday with a stand-up set by Isy Suttie, and some delicious Indian street food at Bhel Puri.
  • Considered LX in ELT materials design, with the help of Nick Robinson’s blog post and webinar. I’m looking forward to learning more about this in the coming months.
  • Been contemplating ways of improving FELLOW volunteer recruitment.
  • Been getting excited about my Dad’s plans to learn Italian!
  • Wondered whether Spritz could help me improve my own language skills…
  • Bought my plane tickets to Bishkek, as well as this book – which means I am actually going to Kyrgyzstan this summer!

The intermediate plateau

I’m sad to say that, after three years of on-off German study, I’ve arrived at the plateau. The dreaded plateau. I haven’t spent much time here since 2010 (the final year of my Russian degree), but let me tell you that it is not good to be back.

How do you know when you’ve reached the plateau? I know because information suddenly stops going in: I feel as if I’ve learned all the grammar I’ll need to know (ha!), but it’s impossible for me to absorb any more vocabulary. Try as I might, the new words won’t stick in my brain, and I find myself using the same phrases ad nauseam. Bleurgh.

Thankfully my German teacher has recognized the signs. Sign one: I have stopped doing homework. Sign two: I aced my Goethe B1 practice tests, but can’t fathom how to approach the B2 exam. Sign three: I moan about it. All the time.

So what to do? I’m determined to persevere with German because I know that the plateau doesn’t last forever: I made it through my A-levels (French plateau), and managed to pass ТРКИIII (the C1 equivalent of the Russian state exams) before I left Moscow. And I started learning German because I wanted to speak it fluently, and hopefully well enough to work in a German-speaking country one day.

As luck would have it, the internet is full of ideas on how to get off the plateau. According to this article, at language-learning community Lingholic, I haven’t actually reached the mythical plateau: I’m just progressing at a slower, less tangible pace. I might not be retaining as many new words as I was in the early stages of my German journey, but I am still acquiring new vocabulary and I’m getting better at understanding the spoken and written language. Now I ought to concentrate on ‘deliberate practice’: focus on my technique, stay goal-oriented, and request constant feedback.

I also stumbled across an old #ELTchat on the intermediate plateau that happened to include the most flattering definition of this state I’ve seen: @MarisaC’s ‘working hard but not getting anywhere’. I do like to think that I work hard.

The #ELTchat discussion raised some interesting points about authenticity: accessing more authentic texts gives learners more challenge, and reading or doing something interdisciplinary renews enthusiasm for the language by making the topic more engaging. So from now on, I’m going to concentrate on my reading: finishing my first novel in German (and not worrying about understanding every word), and keeping up with the news via Deutsche Welle, rather than the BBC.

And hopefully in a few months you’ll see me coming round the next bend…

‘What’s the best way to learn vocabulary?’

When I was teaching English full-time, this was the second question that new students usually asked (after the eternally frustrating ‘How long until I’m fluent?’).

The optimum way to learn vocabulary has eluded me for as long as I’ve been studying languages – and that’s over two decades now. I choked down Latin nouns with the old ‘look-cover-write’ approach, and halfheartedly kept a trilingual vocabulary book for two months during university when a French lecturer told our group that we needed to stop focusing solely on the relationship between L1-L2. I’ve got stacks and stacks of flashcards, diligently made and never reviewed again. I’ve got apps, and books, and picture dictionaries. At one time everything in my room had its own post-it note label in Russian: ‘this is a cupboard’.

As we become more obsessed with our own levels of productivity and ‘hacking’ (shudder) our lives, there is still one language-learning process left to streamline. And what do the experts recommend?

I was a little disappointed last month to see that the British Council had tied vocabulary learning into learning styles rather than preferences (style are a myth! A myth!), but all the usual techniques were there. Then there’s this. And this. And even this – a hefty collection of tips from language professionals across the globe.

So which of these strategies really works?

The answer? They all do.

The best ways to learn vocabulary are just like the best ways to learn anything else:

  • Set a realistic goal
  • Commit to practising
  • Review often

Then, consider your preferences. How you approach any of these points is up to you: one person’s ‘realistic goal’ might be another person’s Everest and, as we know from the hundreds of vocabulary learning articles out there, not everyone likes to practise in the same way. But if you can follow these three steps (and always review!), then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t succeed.

Memrise, I don’t know what to think

We’re barely a month into our relationship, but I don’t know how I feel about Memrise anymore.

I’ve been using Memrise to learn French and German vocabulary for the last couple of weeks as part of my ‘ten per day’ aim. I chose Advanced French 1, and Advanced German 1 – and as I write now, I have mastered 106 items!

There are some great things about Memrise:

  • The UX is lovely. Both the app and the site are brilliantly designed and the navigation is intuitive. I knew what I was doing as soon as I started using it (and I wish I could say the same about lots of other language-learning apps out there!).
  • You can see your progress. It’s great to revisit items that you’re struggling to remember – or even items that you haven’t seen in a while – thanks to the long-term memory function.
  • The gamification is fun. Well, er… yes. That’s the point. Although I question the popularity of the app when I can study 20min of French in a week and still be in the Top 10 on a leaderboard. Are there really so few people studying French? Has anyone ever not been in the Top 10 of a leaderboard?
  • There is a variety of task types: multiple choice, scrambled phrases, lexical chunks, translations… they really force the user to engage with the content, and also prevent task fatigue.
  • It’s free. Enough said.

But there are some not-so-great things about Memrise, too:

  • In many user-created sets, the language grading is virtually non-existent. I have no idea what makes any word in Advanced French 1 ‘advanced’, but it definitely has nothing to do with the CEFR. Le cauchemar (‘nightmare’) and je suis PACSé (roughly the equivalent of ‘I’m in a civil partnership’) are in the same set, as is les juifs malmenés par l’histoire (‘Jews mistreated by history’). User-created sets are great because it means you can personalize your own content – and of course Memrise gets a load of content for nothing – but with this comes the irritation that what someone else has created may not fit with your requirements. Or it may be wrong (le bac is not ‘a tub’…).
  • The quality of the distractors can be compromised. Multiple choice task distractors are usually taken from the current or directly preceding vocabulary set – which makes sense. However, when a vocabulary set can contain long phrases as well as single items (see above), it’s pretty easy to get everything right by guessing on item length alone. I lent my phone to a non-French-speaking friend and she managed to score just as well as I did, despite not understanding anything she had ‘learnt.’

From my point of view, the ‘not-so-great things’ about Memrise compromise the app. Weak content does not support the learner. And it’s mainly user-created content – so the quality is likely to vary wildly.

But despite all of this (issues that would simply not fly if they were to crop up in an ELT publisher’s materials), I am actually learning these new words – and they’re sticking.

So now what?

Ten per day: testing my commitment

If you work in ELT and haven’t liked the British Council Teaching English page on Facebook yet, I have words for you: like it. Like it now. Rarely a day goes by without an intriguing post – be it a lesson plan, activity template, or professional development tip. I’m hooked!

One of the posts that caught my eye this month was a short video featuring Sandy Millin, Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz. In the clip, Sandy recommends studying English independently for ten minutes every day in order to learn and achieve more.

Ten minutes is a manageable goal. I’ve told many students the same thing – ‘just ten minutes! It will make so much difference!’ – but I’ve never stuck to the plan myself.

Well, the time has come to practise what I preach! My German tutor will be away for most of December and January and, without someone to set me homework and provide a focus for my learning, I know that I’ll struggle to motivate myself to study.

My lack of motivation isn’t just a problem when it comes to German. Although I attend a Russian conversation class once a week, I do nothing else to maintain my Russian language level – or build on it. And don’t get me started on my French…

In December I intend to work on all three languages – studying for ten minutes per day – and hopefully build up a routine that will take me into the New Year and beyond. I’ll start the day with ten minutes of reading in Russian over breakfast, spend ten minutes at lunchtime looking at the French news or playing on Memrise, and go to sleep after a quick burst of German vocabulary study or a few pages of Der Vorleser (current German novel of choice).

And of course, I’ll evaluate my progress here. Stay tuned!