Posts Tagged ‘learning strategies’

Jump in and fake it!

June 5, 2014

IMG_3659As I write this I am in Salvador, Bahia, truly one of my favorite spots in Brazil.  Not only am I here with a group of students, but my wife and daughter are here with me too.  My daughter Tamara has, although she will deny it, a fairly good handle on Portuguese.  She isn’t totally comfortable, and there are many things that she gets stuck on, and of course there are lots of words that she doesn’t know.  Still, she can get by, have a conversation with people on general topics, and in the end she can talk to tons of people.  I totally consider her to be a Portuguese speaker, she isn’t sure if that is accurate.

After a few days in Salvador she hit the “my-Portuguese-is-terrible-and-why-should-I-even-try” phrase.  We all hit it sometimes.  It’s those days when we say to ourselves that all of our language study hasn’t really paid off, and we might as well admit that our foreign language ability is lousy.  There are days when I feel that way about my German, my Chinese, my Italian, and even about my Spanish and Portuguese.  We all have those L2-blues days.

Truth told, any language that we cannot speak with native-like fluency gives us a temporary reminder now and again of all the things that we cannot do and cannot say.  I have often said that speaking a foreign language is like having a continual comprehensive exam, because we have to draw on all of our knowledge about every aspect of the language, all of the time.  It can wear you down.

The day after Tamara’s momentary set-back day, she then had a day where she was talking to taxi drivers, talking to store clerks, meeting new people, getting around town, shopping for food, and leading the way in conversations.  It’s not that her language abilities improved so much overnight.  It is more that she simply jumped back in and pretended to be a Portuguese speaker again.  A large part of learning a foreign language is simply a matter of being willing to put up with the uncertainty that comes from not understanding 100% of what is being said around you.  Basically what happens is at first we understand about 25% of what is being said, and we guess at the other 75%.  The, over time, we understand 50% of what is being said, and we guess at the other 50%.  Eventually we are understanding more than what we are guessing.  But, if I had to be honest with myself, there is a part of the guessing percentage that continues even when we are more advanced speakers.

Jump in and fake it.  You will catch a good part of what you hear, and the rest we can just guess.  It will turn out OK.


Picture: Playing a little berimbau.


Used to speak some Japanese

March 10, 2014

japansumoAlas, language attrition, use it or lose it.  I lost it!

Back in 2006 I had spent about a year studying some Japanese. What a cool language! One of the most rule driven languages I have ever been exposed to: Topic marker – “wa”; object marker “ga”; put the verb at the end of the sentence; learn to pronounce all of those English-loan words; and learn all of the various endings to indicate tense and aspect. Yes, Japanese was super rule driven, with relatively few exceptions. Then I took a brief 2-week trip to Tokyo, and sure enough, my survival Japanese really was enough to survive, get around, eat incredible food, see the sights, and interact with tons of people.
But then phase II hit with brutal reality, “Oh, you are a man, speaking to a woman, you should really say that differently.” “Oh, you are a boss, talking to a subordinate, you should really say that differently.” “Oh, you are an adult, talking to children, you should really say that differently.” Formal vs informal, regional variations, etc. etc. Wow, all of a sudden Japanese got way more intense. It was about that time that I turned my focus to Chinese, left Japanese behind, and here we are a few years later and my survival Japanese is now gone.
This past week, I’m not sure really why, I pulled out the old CDs from my tried and true Yookoso textbook, and I started listening again to the Japanese tapes. There was a mixed sense of sadness about what I had lost, together with an opening of the old memory bank of things that were just under the surface. It gave me hope that if I ever wanted to restore what I had learned, it would actually come back much quicker the second time around. While listening to the tapes, I kept having the experience of thinking to myself, “Ah yes, that is how you say that. Ah yes, that is how you do that in Japanese.”
Language learning, like musical skills, high school geometry, golf swings, basketball free throws, and tennis serves, all suffer when we leave them behind for a while. Still, I believe there is a type of “language memory” that gives me hope that if I were to buckle down and study Japanese again, things would come back much faster the second time around.  In the end, not all if lost!

The photo:  Gotta take in a little sumo while you are in Japan!

Correct me please

January 7, 2014

IMG_3377I’ve been thinking about people’s attitudes when being corrected in our foreign language mistakes.

Here’s my strategy.  There are two parts:  First, I like to have a correction guru, somebody who becomes my go to person who can tell me what I’m saying wrong.  Second part, I like to ask my correction guru to simply listen to my speech, jot a few notes down, and then at a separate time we sit down together to review notes.

The logic behind my strategy is based on the fact that I totally believe that language learners need to have the freedom to make lots of mistakes.  Let’s keep on talking and talking, get our meaning across, and keep the conversation flow going.  Since I believe in allowing for lots of mistakes, nothing is more frustrating than to be constantly reminded of those mistakes–in the moment.  In other words, let me make my mistakes, but if the purpose of my communication, for example, is to buy flowers at the flower shop, then let me buy my flowers and don’t bother me about my adjective endings.

However, focused correction sessions from my correction guru seem to help things stick in my brain better.  I enjoy the interval of time between production and correction.  It almost creates a feeling of “OK, got that.  Check it off. I won’t make that mistake again.”  If I didn’t have a correction session, the lack of feedback would mean that I’d probably get stuck at the same level forever, making the same mistakes.

On the opposite end, I remember in college a professor who corrected every mistake we would make, while we were discussing other topics.  It was extremely frustrating to be trying to give an opinion about a reading, and to simultaneously be corrected with grammar hints at every turn.  It got to the point where I would have a knot in my stomach, knowing that I was going to be corrected every time I spoke.  No doubt this professor thought that she was helping us to improve.  For me it was simply an experience in frustration.

So the bottom line, give me a correction guru,  have this person jot down a few notes about my mistakes, and a some point we’ll sit down and have a little focused chat. There is a time for correction, but it is not in the middle of my conversations.   To all of my correction guru, thanks for your help.

And the picture, when did Coca Cola get so smart that they started making bottles with common family names?  That’s genius!  I recently took this picture in Lima, Peru.


But I don’t speak Korean!

July 19, 2013

ImageAs I write this post, I am returning from a brief trip to South Korea.  This was my first time to be in Korea.  What a cool country, with delightful people, awesome food, and beautiful scenery.

Language wise, this trip was a new opportunity because I don’t speak Korean at all.  Usually when I travel, I go to places where I at least speak a little of the local language, even if I do so poorly.  This time however, I was pretty limited to the “hello”, “thank you”, “nice to meet you” type of social niceties.

It seems that wanting to speak a local language is just part of who I am.  Although I was only in Korea for 5 days, I spent 5 days trying to learn new phrases and maximizing the limited phrases and words that I was catching on to.  I don’t really plan on learning Korean in the foreseeable future, but I certainly crunched a lot during my 5 days in country. What I observed along the way is how much people react to a person’s efforts to learn the local language.  Once people found out that I liked learning words and phrases in Korea, I suddenly had millions of language tutors, cheerleaders, and a supporting cast.  It was kind of fun to see how supportive everyone was at my efforts.  People just bond together better when someone is making an effort to use a local language.  (Although I must admit that people also react similarly when you make an effort to try local cuisine.)  Everyone was so gracious in helping me learn a little more Korean.  They got excited at my efforts, and their support and positive feedback were motivating for me too.

So, the lesson learned: Don’t sit on the sideline.  When you are in a new country and surrounded by a new language, jump right in. I felt no negative vibe associated with my limited language, only tons of support, bonding, tutoring, insights, interactions, and fun with a whole new group of friends and friendly people.

Picture:  We took in a Korean baseball game.  Wow, the cheerleaders, the noise makers, the chanting, and the singing of the fans, it all created a whole new atmosphere for the sport.  It was hard to even watch the game, because the entertainment in the stands was super fun.

Hang in there language learner, don’t get discouraged

June 8, 2013

manfriedAs I write this post, I have spent the last two weeks in Europe.  First I attended a Business Communication conference in Antwerp, Belgium, and then I spent a week in Berlin with my brother Warren.  This has been Warren’s first trip to Germany, and it was great fun hanging out with him, showing him the sites around town, and especially the locations where our father used to live.

As to language learning, this trip was different for me in that I had to work through the feelings of discouragement that we often get as language learners.  If you have been a language learner, you know what I’m referring to.  It starts with the feeling that all of our efforts to learn a foreign language have not really paid off. First, there is the problem that after all our study and effort, we still don’t understand most of what people are saying around us.  When we read billboards and advertisements in the subway station we barely understand what they are saying.  Second, there is the realization that there are thousands of words that we still don’t understand.  There seems to be too many of them that just don’t stick on our brain.  And third, for us native speakers of English, there is a sense that everyone seems to speak English anyway, so why even bother with the foreign language.  And finally, in this instance, my brother doesn’t speak any German and he was having the same positive experience in Germany that I was.  It all left me with a sense of “my German sucks, and what does it matter?”

So how did I pull myself out of this mode of thinking?  I’d like to thank a man named Manfred who lives in Köln, and like us, was a tourist in Berlin. Warren and I were resting on a park bench on Peacock Island (SW of Berlin near Potsdam) when this elderly man walked by.  I said hello to him, and so he stopped to talk with us for a while.  It ended up being a delightful long chat, all in German. We talked about the island, the birds, nature, his family, our travels, our backgrounds, etc.  And since Peacock Island is pretty small, we then ran across him a few more times as we walked around the island.  The chat with Manfred was exactly what I needed, linguistically, to be reminded that I really can carry on a German conversation with non-English speakers.  It also reminded me, in terms of language learning, of the value of dialog, exchanging ideas, the give and take of conversations. And it also reminded me that we can work around vocabulary words that we don’t know.  (BTW, thanks to Manfred I now know that der specht is the German word for woodpecker.) And this conversation also reminded me of the type of experiences that we can have when we speak another language, even when proficiency is limited.

I’ll probably never see Manfred again, but I thank him for a great pick-me-up.  And while I’m at it, I thank the lady in the bakery in Lichtenberg, the family on the U-bahn, the church members in the Dahlem ward, and waiter at the sports bar during the Bayern Munich win over Stuttgart.  Thanks to all for keeping me motivated in my attempts to learn a new language.

The picture:  Warren and Manfred on Peacock Island.

Not all languages are created equal

December 10, 2012

juldasThis picture was taken at a recent wedding of some friends of mine, Juldas and Pajo Makanga.  They are from Gabon and the Congo, which means that the wedding party included about 200 French-speaking Africans.  I had a great time at the wedding. I am sad to say that among all the languages that I have studied, I still don’t speak French, I know, it is sad to confess.

So, their wedding, and the evening with all of these French-speaking friends, got me in the mood to look into learning a little French.  My usual strategy in learning a language has been to find a good textbook that can serve as a resource, listen to podcast lessons to get me started, and then find a tutor to practice with.  That has worked in the past with other languages.  The problem is that French is the first language that I have ever studied where the “textbook” phase brought on a new challenge, namely, French spelling.  How can a word that is spelled with so many letters be pronounced without 90% of the letters!  It has totally changed my strategy.  The textbook just hasn’t helped as my starting point. I have never studied a language where it was absolutely essential for me to hear the words, much more than simply reading them to get me started.

All of this got me to thinking about how each language that I have studied, has some unique aspect or twist.  Bottom line, we just cannot suppose that the way that we study one language will work for another language.  I cannot use the same strategy and procedures.  Here’s a short list of what I mean:

Portuguese – Since I learned Portuguese in Brazil, as a missionary, the learning experience was totally focused on “language for specific purposes.”  My learning was very task based.  When you learn a language to teach someone to believe in the atonement of Christ you are taking a very different path from the average language learning experience. I have had no other language learning experience similar to that of Portuguese.

Spanish – Basically my starting point for Spanish was to  learn to conjugate verbs, and then conjugate them again and again!  Next I had to learn how to throw in “se” all over the place.  Man they use “se” constructions a lot in Spanish (compared to Portuguese where these drop out a lot).  My experience in learning Spanish is one continual comparison with Portuguese.

Catalan – Here I learned that it is not enough to study grammar, but I need vocabulary too.  When I started Catalan, I assumed that I would know lots of words, because many look like Spanish.  However, when I got to Barcelona, I found myself being able to conjugate a bunch of verbs, but I was continually searching for vocabulary that I didn’t have.  I learned that I needed to give  both attention.  My Spanish verb conjugation strategy wasn’t working as well for Catalan.

German – In high school I took a couple of years of German.  Adjective endings killed me, and as a result I kind of gave up on German.  Later, when I went back to German again as an adult, I basically ignored the adjective ending agreement problem.  OK, so my adjective ending agreement is not stellar, but now I enjoy German a lot more, and who knows, maybe someday if my German gets to be more advanced, the adjective endings will get better too.  In the meantime, I learned that grammar shouldn’t be a total progress stopper. Some grammar concepts need to wait for general proficiency, and I’m happy to wait for my general proficiency to get better before I worry about advanced grammatical issues.

Japanese – Japanese is the most “rule” based language that I have studied.  There are very few exceptions, but there are tons of rules.  It’s also one of the easiest languages to get started, but then it gets deceptively difficult after the survival phase.  In the end, I fossilized at survival level, mainly because I realized that advanced levels were going to take way more energy that I was willing to put into it. I honestly believe that beginning Japanese is easier in some ways than beginning Spanish, but then there is a gigantic flip where intermediate and advanced levels become much more demanding.  My strategy was to learn the rules.

Chinese – Chinese is the language that I have studied that has the fewest number of cognates.  If I don’t know the word, I just don’t know the word.  It’s not like Italian, for example, where it is easy to understand phrases like “museo nazionale di architettura.” With romance languages, we are able to understand much more than we can speak.  What happens in a foreign language when there is vocabulary that we do not understand, however, is that sounds turn into a quick garbled stream of unintelligible noise.  That happens to me a lot in Chinese, even in simple conversations that I should be able to handle by now.  It is just important to be more patient with Chinese, because the cognate crutch is not available.

Italian – Before studying Italian, I had supposed that it was going to be more similar to Spanish. To my surprise, however, what I know of Portuguese helped me much more than what I know of Spanish.   My textbook resource was an easy starting point for Italian.

All this is to say that languages are not created equal, and we shouldn’t assume that the same methods will work exactly the same for all of them.  Now, let’s see if I can get back to learning a little French.

Repeat the same conversation, over and over again

May 28, 2012

As I post this blog, I have been in Brazil for the past two weeks with another group of UT MBA students.  It also so happens that the Libertadores Cup is also going on in South America.  My two favorite Brazilian soccer teams have played each other in the tournament (Corinthians from São Paulo and Vasco from Rio de Janeiro).  Corinthians won and will now play Santos (another São Paulo team) in the semi-finals, most likely to take on Boca Junior from Argentina later on.

When it comes to language practice, I often find myself having the same conversation, over and over again, simply repeating the same topic with new people.  It’s one of my strategies to gain fluency and to practice vocabulary.  My usual strategy is to start the conversation, notice new words, topics, opinions, and insights from the person that I am talking to.  Then, I bring up those same items with another person, using all that I learned from the first conversation.  Little by little I get better at adding more to the conversation.

This past week I have talked to dozens of people about the libertadores cup.  When I started I didn’t really know much about the structure of the tournament, the teams involved, the players involved, who is favored, who is injured, or the issues going on.   Granted, I love “futebol” and I enjoy talking to Brazilians about their national passion.  However, the linguistic point here is that every time I engage in the conversation, I am reinforcing foreign language skills, including vocabulary, pronunciation, fluency, and grammar.  Nobody has to know that I’ve had the same basic conversation with a dozen people.  Last night was my last night in São Paulo and I had a 30-minute taxi ride to the airport.  The whole time we talked about the tournament.  If I do say so myself, I held my own, that taxi driver was the recipient of all of my previous conversations!

PS  The photo was taken at the construction site of the new Corinthians stadium in São Paulo, where the opening game of the world cup will be played in 2014.

Eavesdropping and language learning

April 30, 2012

As I write this blog comment I am in São Paulo, Brazil, accompanying a group of our Texas MBA students on a “global connections trip”, (check out the picture at ESPN Brazil studios).

As related to language learning, returning to São Paulo is like returning home.  This is where I first learned to speak Portuguese.  It’s great to hear Paulistano Portuguese again.  I find myself continually catching little pieces of people’s conversations.  On the street, in stores, at restaurants, on the subway, everywhere I go.  And it’s kind of on purpose, but it’s kind of not.  Yesterday the thought hit me…., I’m basically eavesdropping on others!  Weird, I’m not sure how I feel about it!  Part of me thinks that as a language learner, it is informative to hear people’s accents, intonation, it’s like some kind of academic study.  However there is also a part of me that thinks that I it’s kind of creepy my listening in on people’s conversations in those terms!  What kind of strange person goes around listening to other’s conversations, any way?

So where do I draw the line?

In Portuguese there is a great phrase, and concept called, ‘matar saudades’ – something like ‘killing your homesickness.’  That is totally how I feel about being in São Paulo again.  I am getting over my São Paulo home sickness, reliving places, sounds, smells, foods, etc.

So for all of you language learners out there, I go ahead, try a little “eavesdropping.”  No need to be creepy and follow people around, but at the same time, take time to listen to people around you.  Pick out the new words, the emotion that accompanies the way people say things, the intonation,  the gestures that fit with phrases, and learn new ways to say something.

We’ll just keep the little “eavesdropping secret” between us language learners.



Plugging along with limited language skills

December 16, 2011

Similar to my previous post, I’m still thinking a lot about how we use our “limited” foreign language skills.  Recently I was in Vienna, Austria, where I had a chance to practice my German.  My German skills are basic, enough to get around and do some daily tasks, but not good enough to really be comfortable.  Add to that, since this was my first trip to Austria, there were tons of things that I didn’t know how to do in town.

Whenever you go to a city for the first time, there is an adjustment period when you have to figure out how to get to places, how to figure out the public transportation, where to buy necessities, what kind of food to try, check out what’s happening in town, etc.  Even in your native language, this adjustment period is difficult.  There is a part of me that loves to experience the newness of being in a place for the first time.  But there is also a part of me that finds it all stressful, although an enjoyable stress to be sure.

The main point of the post today is to remind ourselves that when talking in another language, we are going to have to GUESS a lot.  People will say things faster than we expect, they will use phrases that we don’t know, and we’ll hear vocabulary that we have not learned.  There are going to be tons of times when we have to go with the flow of the moment, infer things from the context, and simply GUESS at what they are saying.  We then react, and work through it.  For example, if something costs 13 and we heard 30, we give them 30, and then they tell us that it was really only 13.  Little by little we figure it out.  The point is, if we don’t guess at 30, we never get to the exchange.  Linguistics call this “negotiation of meaning”.  We actually have to go through the give and take, the exchange of information, and the narrowing down of the meaning.

What we probably don’t realize is that we actually do the same thing in our native language.  Much of our communication is based on reacting to what we think we heard, and then we make adjustments along the way.  For example, at dinner somebody might ask that you pass them the salt.  Even if you didn’t hear them correctly, you start passing things there way.  If you hand them the pepper, they will reaffirm that they really wanted the salt.  It happens all the time.  Bottom line:  It is OK to guess, in fact, it is required.

BTW, as an aside note,  I was amazed at how often during my 5 days in Vienna that as I opened my mouth to speak, I actually had to control myself to not say Chinese words.  There is something about the fact that since neither my German or my Chinese are strong enough to hold themselves on their own, and since I have been focusing so much on Chinese, it was actually hard to control. I can’t believe how many times I answered people with “dui, dui, dui.”  I mean, how hard can it be to say “ja” in German!  I’m sure that it didn’t help that there are a million Chinese tourists in Vienna.  I talked to a lot of Chinese tourists in Vienna too.

Note about the photo:  I enjoyed the street performers in Vienna.  A couple of times I was called out of the audience to participate in the performance.  This, btw, is nerve-wracking because I never knew what I was getting into and the whole time praying that I could understand what they were saying to me!



Practice Speaking a Foreign Language

July 15, 2011

As I write this post I have been in Argentina for the past week. Prior to that I was Rio de Janeiro for a few days too.  In both cases I have been surrounded by North American students who are studying a foreign language.   In Rio I was observing students who are enrolled in a summer program that is sponsored by the University of Florida.  Both graduate and undergraduate students from a number of US universities take classes at IBEU in Copacabana.   What impressed me most was their dedicated focus to try to speak the language.  It is one thing to try to speak Portuguese with the Brazilians, but these students were also speaking Portuguese to each other.  It takes impressive self-control to artificially use Portuguese when surrounded by others who are also native speakers of English.  Then I arrived here in Córdoba, Argentina to accompany our students from the University of Texas.  Once again I have seen how hard the students buckle down and try to speak Spanish, even among themselves.  Way to go gente!

Often we hear of the disadvantages that are associated with learning a foreign language as an adult.  But in these two instances I have also seen one of the advantages, that is to have the ability to artificially “pretend” and speak the foreign language with your peers.  Granted, most of these students are intermediate to advanced level learners and so they are able to get their messages across.  Still, their desire to get better is matched by their self-control.  A second observation I have made is that it has been much easier for these students to speak with each other in Portuguese and Spanish because that is how they first started.  From the moment they arrived, they started speaking to each other in their new language.  Once started, they have been able to keep it going. So, adult learners, it’s a matter of self-control.  This is something that the students in Brazil and Argentina have been able to show me over these past two weeks.  Thanks for the demo, it has inspired me to try and do the same.