August: this month I have…

  • Been recovering from three weeks of fun and teacher training in Kyrgyzstan!
  • Started a new job in Change Management – to be covered on this blog soon.
  • Set up a lunchtime German conversation group with my colleague Rachel, in the hope of putting my language to good use.
  • Eaten some delicious meals at the Chester Arms, the Pickled Walnut, and Manos.
  • Started planning the autumn term at FELLOW.
  • Picked more blackberries than I know how to cook.
  • Met representatives from the University of Oxford to discuss an ESOL project they are planning to support local Syrian and Kurdish communities.
  • Acquired a new housemate!

Making mistakes: it’s OK!

All too often I come across students who are scared of speaking English. A good number of people I’ve tutored over the years have requested lessons with me because they want to focus specifically on speaking. A common complaint? ‘Every time I open my mouth, I make a mistake. I know all the grammar rules, but I still make mistakes!’

There’s no shortcut to fix this: the answer lies in practice, be that practice that focuses on accuracy (those pesky grammar mistakes!), or practice that focuses on fluency. I also think that there’s a lot to be said for increasing a learner’s confidence. It’s OK to make mistakes. In fact, it’s fun! While learning Russian, I embarrassed myself a lot, but failure is really part of the process. Once you’ve made a ridiculous mistake (and had it pointed out to you), you are significantly less likely to make that mistake again. Here are some of my most memorable Russian errors – laugh away!

  1. The time I wrote an advertisement for a honeymoon package (a class assignment) and targeted the whole piece at ‘you and your special grandad’. It turns out that when you’re learning to write cursive, it is quite easy to confuse ‘d’ with ‘v’. Devushka = girl/girlfriend. Dedushka = grandad.
  2. The moment where I had to play the word ‘diarrhoea’ to win a game of Scrabble – and I couldn’t even spell it correctly! The Russian word for diarrhoea is ponos, but the rules of word stress dictate that the first ‘o’ is pronounced more like an ‘a’. Silly stress.
  3. The lesson with some adult learners when I told them that I had wet myself ‘a little bit’. I had meant to reassure them that one of the students had been running late, but I had let her into the building. It turns out that a small mispronunciation transforms ‘I let her in’ into ‘I let a little out’.
  4. The bus journey through the Swiss Alps when I needed to ask a nauseous young Russian boy if he had any travel sickness medication with him. I learned that the Russian word for medicine isn’t narkotiki, and if you ask an eight year-old if he has any narkotiki,  he will get a bit confused.
  5. The chat with a wayward Russian teen whose may have seen another child’s arm being broken: ‘Don’t worry, you can tell me what happened. I promise that there won’t be a vystuplenie.’ Vystuplenie means appearance or performance; I should have said nakazanye, meaning ‘punishment’. And I had been reading Dostoevsky at the time, too.

Finally, an honourable mention for the best German language mistake I’ve made so far: in my first assessed oral presentation, I informed the examiners that Hitler had indeed been the Käse of the Third Reich. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Big Cheese’…

Although most of these mistakes left me red-faced (thanks, Russian speakers), but even more determined to get it right next time. Other than sharing examples of my own embarrassment, I really don’t know how to reassure students that mistakes are not only OK – they’re helpful! Do you have any ideas?

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.

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!