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Category: Language

Language Hack 6: Uncomfortable Situations

One way that you can really stretch yourself linguistically is to put yourself in situations that are uncomfortable.

In comfortable situations you usually use vocabulary you know well. Only spending time with friends can leave you relying on their familiarity with with your style of speaking, rather than on your accuracy.

It’s also easy to treat speaking your target language as a performance that you’ve prepared in advance: you’ve chosen the subject, memorised the relevant words, and now you’re demonstrating that knowledge to someone who you feel relaxed in front of.

Making yourself understood by strangers, in higher pressure situations, is a whole different ballgame. Your choice of words and style of communication become really important because the listener doesn’t have relational history to lean into as they try to follow what you’re saying.

Go get rattled

Although I’d practiced this while living in Jordan, I hadn’t really reflected on it’s benefits until I read Nathan Field’s blog post, 20 strategies for becoming a fluent Arabic speaker, a really useful post that he’s currently converting into an ebook. In his post Field says:

the key to really getting good at spoken is making sure a huge portion of your 250 hours take place outside of your comfort zone. You want: To be in situations where you are nervous [and] To be in situations where you are “rattled,” if not embarrassed.

He describes two situations in which car trouble (a blowout and a collision) forced him to speak, and where adrenaline and the ‘muscle memory’ of his studies “took over”:

The Arabic words just came out.  I didn’t think.  I reacted and spoke effectively

Taking up the challenge

Yesterday I put this principle to the test using the other language that I’m learning: Swedish. I’ve recently returned to Sweden, and decided to visit Arbetsförmedlingen, the official body that assists job seekers.

I had an appointment, and decided to use only Swedish during it, even though I knew the person I was meeting probably spoke pretty good English.

Beforehand I was much more nervous than I would have been going into an English-language meeting, but the decision payed off. The two staff members I met with were happy to stick to Swedish, and I understood almost everything they said. There were two moments when I reverted to English because I didn’t know the right word, but we returned to Swedish afterwards.

I left the interview excited and invigorated at what I’d just achieved, and exhausted from the amount of focussing I’d had to do!

Tips for getting uncomfortable

Here are a few of the ideas that Field gives for getting out of comfort zone language practice:

  1.  Take 5 minutes to research terms related to vacuum cleaners or some other device that you need to buy. Then Go into a department store and ask for the pros and cons of the vacuum cleaners they have on stock. Only in Arabic. Preferably with a queue behind you.
  2. Intentionally “get lost” in a neighborhood in the Arabic city you are studying.  Then ask for directions in Arabic back to the spot you know and find your way back home.  If anyone tries to help you in English,  say you are from a country where no one would know the language: Mongolia.
  3. Phone calling – so much of communication is conveyed by body language, seeing each other and that is often a crutch for Arabic students: just call a restaurant to order; call the department store to ask about stuff etc.

Read Nathan Field’s blog here.

 

Language Hack 5: Sleep

Sleep is one of the most under appreciated sources of energy and clear thinking.

Because of the multi sensory experience of living outside my comfort zones continuously and trying to wrap my brain around new words and a brand new culture, my early days in Jordan were enveloped in a dull cloud of tiredness. At times I felt like a zombie: there, but not really there.

After a while this deep tiredness began to subside, but I’ve noticed that having enough sleep, even slightly more than I’d need in my home culture is a winning ingredient for absorbing new vocabulary.

If I try and memorise new words at the end of a school day they do not stick. My brain hasn’t had time to absorb everything I’ve been learning during the day, so it’s like pouring water into a glass that’s already full: the extra water just trickles down the sides.

But I found a way to get more out of my afternoons. If I take a 15 minute nap after school, I feel refreshed and ready for an afternoon of studying and visits.

According to a recent study from the University of Chicago, having 6 hours sleep for a prolonged period of time is the same as having no sleep for 2 days.

In the last few days of the experiment, the subjects who were restricted to a maximum of six hours of sleep per night showed cognitive performance that was as bad as the people who weren’t allowed to sleep at all…

One of the most alarming results from the sleep study is that the six-hour sleep group didn’t rate their sleepiness as being all that bad, even as their cognitive performance was going downhill. ( FastCompany)

Unsurprisingly, the group that had 8 hours’ sleep a night performed the best.

As for the connection between sleep and memory, some research has shown that while we sleep our brains replay experiences from the day, which deepens our recall of those events later. If we don’t go through full sleep cycles, we miss out on this memory-consolodation process.

Want to improve your memory? Get yourself a good sleep habit. 

(Image source: Peng Zhang)

Language Hack 4: Use All Your Senses

There are some of us who learn really well directly from books. But most of us are wired to learn experientially: by doing. Although this applies to other spheres, it’s especially true of language learning. Learning a language isn’t just about the words that we’re speaking, but about the whole culture that those words belong to.

For example, an Arabic dessert like Kanafeh.

There’s nothing like it in Britain: a sweet cheese desert with caramelised strings of sugar and pistachio nuts on top.

To learn the word Kanafeh, don’t just look at the word in Arabic.

كنافة

Repeat it out loud.

But don’t just repeat it out loud. Look at a picture of Kanafeh.

Kanafeh

While you’re looking at the picture, with the word written underneath it repeat the word “kanafeh, kanafeh, kanafeh!”

But while I know you’re having a super fun time doing that, even the repetition while looking at a picture, while reading the word isn’t the best you can do.

Go out for a walk. Find a shop that sells Kanafeh (if you’re in Amman, head for Habiba). Stand in the queue and breathe in the sweet smell of kanafeh. While you’re doing this, repeat to yourself “kanafeh, kanafeh, kanafeh”. As you get to the counter, use your words to order yourself a slice.

Walk into the room and hand over your receipt for your order. Look at the trays of sweet, syrupy kanafe just waiting to be eaten. Think “kanafeh”. Say “kanafeh”.

As you put the kanafeh in your mouth, remind yourself what you’re eating. Savour it: think about the flavour, the smell, the feeling against your tongue. You aren’t just imagining Kanafeh, YOU’RE LIVING KANAFEH!

(Image source: hjl and stu_spivack)

Language Hack 3: Telling Stories

Words get caught up in our memory much more easily when they have hooks to hang them on. Stories act as great hooks for these words.

I find this particularly true of stories that I know well in my mother tongue. Movies are great for this. Or if you know a lot of Bible stories or fairytales. Anything that won’t take effort to reconstruct the basic narrative.

Using stories like this means that we can focus on our target language and not on some complicated and unfamiliar narrative.

Once you’ve chosen your story, work through it in your head in your target language, identifying any words that you need to look up or learn.

Make a list of these words and find out what they are in the language you’re learning.

Then tell the story as best you can in your target language.

Write out the story in your target language. Read through it.

Then put away the text and tell it back to yourself without referring to your notes.

Then go back to your notes and re-read the story to see if there’s anything you missed out.

Once you’re confident that you’ve memorised your story, go and tell it to someone else. The pressure of an audience will help you to assess how well you really know the story.

(Image source: Celeste RC)

Language Hack 2: Make It Default

This is where emersion can come in handy, but it’s not essential. The key is to do the ordinary, habitual things that you do, in your target language.

If you watch movies to unwind, switch to movies in your target language.

If you use Twitter, start an account in your target language and follow people in that language.

Like music? Find some artists in your target language. It doesn’t have a lot of words, but I’ve been enjoying this recently:

On Facebook? Add some people who only speak your target language as friends and start messaging them (it turns out this is way more normal and not at all as stalkerish here in Jordan than it is in the UK).

My wife and I have recently started using Arabic when we’re together at home for ordinary conversations. It’s been a challenge, and often frustrating, but the practice has paid off when we’re with our Arabic speaking friends.

For a while one of the things I found hardest to get was Arabic numbers. I just couldn’t seem to convince my brain to recognise a ٥ as a number 5 (not a 0), or a ٦ as a number 6 (and not a 7).

So one day I switched the time on my phone over to Arabic numbers. That way, if I was going to get to appointments on time, I was going to have to master Arabic numbers.

The first week was super frustrating, and I regularly mistook ٦:٥٥ for 7:00 (6:55) but after that, I became faster. With heavy exposure, my brain finally absorbed these new shaped numbers.

(Image source: GotCredit)

Language Hack 1: Carry A Notebook

This might seem super obvious on paper, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget to carry around some kind of recording device for the new words you’ll discover in your target language.

I take a belt-and-braces approach with my word collection and carry a paper notebook and have the Anki app on my phone for creating electronic flashcards.

Why the two? Several reasons:

  1. Not everyone is good at spelling. In fact some people I come across can’t read and write. That doesn’t mean that I can’t learn new Arabic words from them, I just need to be cautious about creating a long-term record based on what they tell me. If I put the words straight into my phone, I’ll end up learning an incorrect spelling (and pronunciation) of the word.
  2. There are local variations of how you say everything in Arabic. Even simple things like what people call their parents can be different between towns. I like to record what I’m told while on visits and double check with another person, sometimes a teacher, sometimes a friend, who help me filter what I’m learning.
  3. Repetition. It’s actually really helpful to write the word down, as well as to type it. With Arabic, I’m learning a whole new alphabet, and writing right-to-left, which means that I can use all the practice I can get.

So I usually scribble down my best attempt at a spelling for the word, check it with someone else, add it to my electronic dictionary and regularly revisit my new words until they’re committed to memory.

(Image source: Kevin O’Mara)

My Language Learning Hacks

I write this blog to document and explore change. 

At the moment the biggest change I’ve been going through is the transition from being a mono-and-a-half-lingual to bilingual.

I’ve spent the last year and eight months learning Arabic. Before this point I was a mediocre Swedish speaker. I’d picked up most of my Swedish by osmosis, living in the country, hanging out with my in-laws, watching Scandinavian crime dramas.

Learning Arabic was different. I’ve given it my all and was even able to press pause on my web business to throw everything into it.

Now that I’m approaching the end of my formal schooling in spoken Levantine Arabic (with some Modern Standard thrown in for good measure), I thought it might be nice to blog about things I’ve learned along the way.

Some of my tips will be best-case-scenarios: things I managed to do on the good weeks and might not have been so hot on in the weeks that involved juggling extreme amounts of homework, homesickness, culture shock, guests and more than 15 hours of home visits. 

But they are sure fire ways that I’ve found to learn more.

Before I sign off on this brief intro to the next couple of posts I want you to know something: I’m no language learning whiz. Language learning doesn’t come as second nature to me, and I didn’t grow up in an environment that made it seem normal.

These tips are things that have helped me keep placing one foot consistently in front of the other. They are small, achievable activities that can be integrated into everyday life.

My Language Learning Hacks:

  1. Carry A Notebook
  2. Make it Default
  3. Telling Stories
  4. Use All Your Senses

(Image source: carol and co

© 2014-2017 Jonathan Morgan