The Biggest Mistake People Make at Language Social Events

come back when you can put up a fight

I have been going to language exchange events for years now (although I’ve been showing up at them less frequently in 2018 due to reasons I cannot disclose quite yet). In some respects it actually teaches me more about human psychology than it does about languages in general.

(It reminds me of the fact that, when I play Interactive Online / .io games, I actually learn more about human psychology rather than strategy as well. I will also never forget the time that someone named his/her character “press ctrl-w to go faster”.)

I’m sorry to have to say this but it really needs to be said: more often than not, seeing people interact at Language Exchange events makes me understand that most people don’t really know how to learn languages very well, for multiple reasons. I’ll go into why shortly.

If you attend a language exchange social event, the odds are heavily stacked in your favor if you want to learn (1) the local language (e.g. if you’re in Iceland, you’ll have many opportunities to learn Icelandic with natives, given as they’ll be the most commonly represented demographic) and (2) English (even if it isn’t the local language).

But concerning someone who wants to learn Mandarin or French and only speak a little bit of that and nothing else but English? You’re going to need to read this…because otherwise you may leave that event broken and discouraged, not also to mention demotivated from ever returning.

Now, you’ve come here for the biggest mistake, so here it is:

The biggest mistake that people make at Language Social Events is not seeking to make gains with their languages when they interact with native speakers.

And EVEN if there are no native speakers of language you want to speak present, feel free to bring some small books along that you can use to play “show and tell”. I did this most recently at an event aimed primarily at learners of Asian Languages (I turned out, not surprisingly, being the only person representing any learner of Southeast Asian Languages. But hey, maybe a Burmese or Lao enthusiast would show and I needed to account for that chance. Besides, I could easily learn about other people’s cultures or even pick up words from languages I haven’t been actively learning).

I had some books on my person and one of them was a Jamaican Patois book. One of my friends who was a Mandarin native speaker didn’t speak Patois and didn’t have any interest in it, but I told him that Chinese languages influenced Jamaican culture in general, showed him the book, read him a few phrases and showed him pictures of Jamaica. That way, I made gains with a language that NO ONE there spoke. I also met someone at a party who was learning Malagasy and HE did very much the same thing to me (despite having no book). I really appreciated it because I have to say I don’t know much about Madagascar at all!

But if you meet native speakers of a language you are actively learning, let me tell you what I most often see versus what you should be doing:

What you should be doing: even if you’re not fluent, ask them to help you put together sentences or even form sentences in your target language while they “feed you words” (they’ll be happy to do this, I’ve done it with English and even with other languages I’m fluent in like Norwegian with other learners). Also ask them to provide details about their language as well as sentences or cultural tidbits that are likely to impress the NEXT native-speaker you meet.

What a lot of people do instead: ask small talk questions only using English. Use a handful of pre-programmed sentences in their target language(s) and spend most of the time using English instead. Use language exchange events as a means to flirt rather than to actually rehearse languages.

The primary key is that you leave having gained something. That something could be cultural know-how, phrases that will help you put together sentences better, or tips on improving your accent. You can even make gains with languages you aren’t actively learning! (I know because I’ve done this with languages like Japanese that I’m not learning at the moment nor do I have any plans to in the immediate future. I’ve also taught people basic phrases in languages like Burmese and Norwegian that they may never see themselves learning at all).

And now one thing I would consider: even if you intend to focus only on one language, I would recommend learning at least a LITTLE bit of a variety of other languages (feel free to do this even if you have no intention to learn them to fluency). This way, you’ll actually be able to start conversations more easily.

If you’re the only one who knows any Khmer, Oromo or Danish, you’ll have people asking you about it even if they have no intention to learn the language themselves. Even if you speak only a LITTLE bit, you can actually be the “local authority” on that language (as I’ve done WAAAAY too often).

You can even use this as a means to learn how to “teach” through an L2 you’ve been working on (and you may discover vocabulary gaps along the way). Most people who show up to these events are curious people and this is even MORE true if it’s a paid event.

A lot of people use English (or English + their native language) 5/6th of the time at language exchange events and wonder why they’re not making gains and why other learners are overtaking them. It isn’t about raw intelligence, it’s about the fact that language learners that put more in get more out. And you have to put effort in from EVERYWHERE in EVERY area of your life if you want the coveted prize of “near-native fluency” or even anything close to it.

Don’t enter without a plan as to what you want and how you’ll get it. Yes, I know you can’t control who will show up (maybe that Finnish speaker will be there, or maybe there won’t be anyone with whom to practice! Who knows?) But you should prepare for a wide range of situations based on what you’ve read about the event series and how you’ve experienced it before in the past.

For most language exchange events in New York City, I’ll expect to use the Romance Languages with regularity. Speakers of Chinese languages, especially Mandarin and Cantonese, will be present with consistency, alongside speakers of Russian, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, languages from throughout South Asia and Arabic dialects that will usually lean towards Egypt and the rest of North Africa. Somewhat rarer than that but still frequent are Hebrew, Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Persian Languages. Rarer still but showing up about once every two months or so are speakers of Nordic Languages, Turkic Languages of Central Asia (such as Kazakh and Uyghur) and languages of Southeast Asia. The rarest that I’ve encountered are speakers of African Languages, usually from South Africa and Ethiopia. Only once or twice have I encountered speakers of native languages of the Americas. I have never encountered anyone from Oceania at any language exchange event to date.

So think about who you encounter frequently and develop plans for what languages you KNOW you will practice there, what languages you are LIKELY to, and which languages you will probably NOT practice, but would LIKE TO.

Tl;dr always make gains with your L2 whenever you speak to a native speaker. Even if you’re not fluent, you can make those gains. The key is to get SOME progress on your language-learning, and you can always do that.

Have a good weekend!

My Finnish Language Journey: Things I Wish I Knew Beforehand

Happy 100th Birthday, Finland!

finnish ain't hard

Yesterday and today buildings throughout the world were illuminated with blue lights in honor of the birthday of a country that has developed a stellar reputation well outside its borders in recent decades.

My journey with Finnish has been an interesting one, because it’s one that I learned how to speak well while leaving me in complete mystery in exactly HOW I pulled it off.

I’ve used all of the following:

  • Reading dialogues out loud
  • Reading grammar notes out loud from textbooks
  • Watching Disney film snippets and Pokémon in Finnish (dubbed versions)
  • Clozemaster
  • Transparent Language
  • Writing exercises
  • Later on (once I acquired B2 level) teaching the language to other people.
  • Language Exchange Groups (I’ve had fewer opportunities to use Finnish with real people in comparison to Swedish, Danish and Norwegian [especially the first two])
  • Songs (including passively, with lyrics and actively with karaoke)
  • Radio
  • Let’s Play Videos with Finnish commentary
  • Writing to people who speak the language.
  • Video games

 

Too often I get asked the question “what do you use to learn so many languages?”

The question should not be “what do you use to learn” them but “what DON’T you use to learn them?” I became successful with Finnish (despite the fact that I still feel as though I have a long way to go with it) because I threw EVERYTHING at it.

And that’s what a successful attempt to learn a language LOOKS LIKE! You don’t’ just expect to use “Duolingo” and get fluent (it’s in all likelihood not going to happen). You need to use AS MANY tools as possible to make a language a part of your life. The most successful of my language missions have had that, while those that were / are lacking are those in which I still have yet to use EVERY available means of using the language.

Looking back on the journey, here’s what I wish I told myself in 2012 when the Finnish Language and I seemed like we had a future together (which we DID!)

 

  • Throw Out Limiting Beliefs Immediately

 

Too many people are stuck with ideas that they’ll never be good, or that they won’t even be manageable. Others are stuck with ideas that they’ll just get answered in English all of the time. Yet others enter the world of Finnish and other target languages with a negative mindset, thinking that it is something they intend to lose as soon as they enter it.

I entered at first saying “I’ll see what I can get. I can always learn something and I can always learn more later”. But all the while I never DREAMED that I would be capable of mastering the grammar of the language, both colloquially as well as formally, the way that I did. And I should have thought even more than “I’ll manage”, I should have thought “I’m going to be GREAT!!!”

And this leads into another point…

 

  • Finnish (or any other grammatically rich language) is a giant feast. Savor each ingredient separately and don’t expect to gulf down EVERYTHING at once.

 

Many of the cases are straight-up prepositions (as is the case with the other Finno-Ugric Languages), but some other elements are more idiomatic. One that trips up my students regularly is the –ksi ending, which indicates that you are talking about a noun, and more specifically “given that it is that noun” or “into that noun” (e.g. transformation).

 

englanniksi sanoja – English(ksi) words(partitive)

 

English words, or, more accurately “given-that-they-are-English” “words-some-of-them”.

Okay now you have ONE concept, now see if you can manage personal endings for nouns (Kaveri [friend] + ni [my] -> “Kaverini” – “friend(s) of mine”) or the fantastic conjugating “no” (en -> I … not, not I. et – you (sing.) … not, not you, ei -> he/she/it …. Not, not he/she/it, etc.) usage of nuanced suffixes, verb conjugation, AND variant forms of verb conjugation and other grammatical features in colloquial speech! (These might not be in your textbook!)

Oh, and manage all of these concepts at once spoken by a native speaker at quick speed. Sure, the fact that Finnish words are always accented on the first syllable is going to help you, to some degree, as is the fact that some Finns speak very slowly in comparison to Romance Language speakers, but the grammatical buffet of Finnish is going to OVERWHELM YOU.

Unless, you take it in, bit by bit, and count every single one of the small victories.

This is true with other languages, but this is even MORE true with languages in which you might struggle with forming a simple sentence for weeks!

 

 

  • Use Flashcards and Other Similar Apps WITH Immersion for Progress

 

Memrise helped me reach my goals with Finnish but I couldn’t have done it with only them. I also had to use YouTube Finnish in order to bring words that I “vaguely” memorized in the app into a genuine context where they made sense.

Often when I was watching any amount of fun things in Finnish I would remember a word that I had seen in Memrise matching the context EXACTLY.

Unless a language is VERY closely related to one you know, or one that you’ve had experience being exposed to but have gaps in it (as is the case with Polish for me, for example), the flash cards by yourself are not going to be ideal.

But pair with other methods, everything builds off each other.

 

  • Being disappointed with your language progress means that you’re either studying too much or using the language without studying too much.

For all of my languages regardless of level, I noticed that there are some languages that I’ve STUDIED too  much to the exclusion of using them for fun (Irish) and others that I’ve USED too much without studying too much of them anymore (Greenlandic). To correct this imbalance, apply one or the other, depending on what you HAVEN’T been doing.

For much of my Finnish studies, I managed that balance PERFECTLY, more than with any other language I’ve studied. And I’m glad I did.

  • Small words mean a lot in making you sound like a fluent speaker.

 

Thanks to me having watched a lot of Pokémon in the Finnish dub (more than I care to admit) as well as a lot of gaming channels in Finnish, I’ve really learned how to use simple one-word expressions that make me sound believable when I put them in my speech (some of these qualify as “filler words” but not always).

 

Think about it: how often have you heard non-native English speakers say “very good” as opposed to “cool beans!” or “that’s great to hear!” (the latter of which are very American indeed, I think).

 

I got a lot of simple expressions like these thanks to me using Finnish in these “controlled environments”. They didn’t make me fluent, but they made me confident and believable with great regularity.

 

  • No language is too hard.

 

I don’t necessarily say “no language is too unlearnable” because I’ve tried to find some languages to learn in which I can almost seldom find ANY materials for them.

But even though a language like Greenlandic (and Burmese, later on) got me to almost doubt this, you need to keep in mind that, especially with more politically powerful languages, your L2 is learnable, even to near-native fluency. You just need to find methods that work, and utilize EVERYTHING you have in order to make it work.

The apps themselves are great, but they won’t make you fluent alone. Same for the books, videos and TV shows. Bring them altogether, and you’ll become someone who impressed almost EVERY native speaker you’ll meet.

 

That day can be yours! Go ahead and take it!

 

Let’s conclude with this, now, shall we?

 

A Free Afternoon in the Life of Jared Gimbel

jippi-mundolingo

This is a diary of my planned activity on April 4th, 2017, after having eaten lunch, before Mundo Lingo, which is an international language exchange event. (I actually carried through with the plan, it took me three hours, and was VERY intense!)

This also isn’t technically speaking a “free afternoon”, because I have one class in Biblical Hebrew to teach at 4 PM.

I’m doing this for the purpose of helping other people discover my routine and how it can help them. I vary it often and it isn’t perfect, but too many people have been asking for it and so here it is!

 

Time Budget:

 

I’m going to aim for 12:30 in the afternoon as the part to begin budgeting my time. So now let’s ask some questions:

  • What languages am I likely (or certain) to be speaking that evening?
  • What languages need work?

Knowing Mundo Lingo and its Spanish name, Romance Languages are a must, so let’s draw up my collection thereof, sadly nothing out-of-the-ordinary:

 

Castilian Spanish

French

Italian

Portuguese (with a focus on Brazil but practicing with European Portuguese would be cool,too)

 

I should study these earlier in the day, because I’ve noticed that after studying for a while I tend to burn out.

Sunday I was told (by a Catalan native speaker, no less) that I spoke Castellano “perfectly” (first time I’ve been told that EVER), so I’ll be budgeting less time for that.

Now for my weaknesses with French:

  • Knowing nouns isn’t a problem thanks to me playing Nintendo 3DS games in French, the issue lies in verbs which have proven an issue.
  • Comprehension of native speakers also proves a problem. Interestingly I seldom have problems understanding learners.

 

Italian:

  • I have significant weaknesses across the board, but verbs especially. However, I have a lot of passive understanding.
  • Tried to improve active understanding by watching gaming videos (mostly of “Super Mario Maker”, my favorite video game to watch “Let’s Play”’s of) but I’m just not that good yet, so I think I’ll stick to cartoons instead. Pokémon seems like a good choice for me to see where I am and also to learn vocabulary through context

 

Portuguese:

  • Worried that I lapse into Portuñol at times.
  • I can understand a lot, even from native speakers.
  • I don’t know a lot about the culture of Brazil.
  • I don’t know a lot of profanities (not that I intend to use them).

 

So let’s budget up the first hour, from 12:30 until 1:30.

 

  • 1 short Spanish video.
  • 1 Italian Pokemon Episode (watch all the way through!)
  • Look at French verb tables
  • Actively listen to Brazilian Music for the remainder of the hour.

 

Now I have two more hours until I have to prepare for my class to teach at 4:00 PM.

 

I should spend this time with my languages that I am likely to use and that need a lot of work. My energy is likely to peak at the time between 1:30 and 2:30.

Looking at my list, this would mean Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Hungarian.

 

Polish:

  • Good grammar when it comes to verbs
  • Just general vocabulary gaps
  • Need to review cases.

 

15 minutes, one fun video (I’ll make sure that it’s one of somebody playing a video game with a lot of English and in which he or she translates a lot of it into Polish, ad-libbing), and then declension review, esp. with numbers.

Russian:

  • Good grammar.
  • Need to improve idiomatic usage.

 

15 Minutes with Transparent Language and/or Phrasebooks, focusing on interacting with other people rather than individual words.

Ukrainian

  • The exact same situation, except for slightly better (because of its similarity to polish) and slightly worse (Because I haven’t practiced it as much.

Do the same thing as with Russian.

Hungarian:

  • I’m a beginner.

 

Do the same thing as with Russian and Ukrainian.

 

Okay, now for the final hour:

 

  • 3 minutes of exposure to each of the Melanesian Creole Languages (on Radio)
  • 3 minutes of exposure to Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish
  • 10 Minutes of German
  • 5 minutes of Dutch
  • 5 Minutes of Danish

 

(I leave one minute free in the first two bits to account for opening and closing windows, etc.

 

  • 3 minutes of exposure to Irish, Cornish and Breton apiece
  • 5 minutes of Welsh
  • 5 Minutes of Icelandic
  • 5 Minutes of Tajiki
  • 5 Minutes of Burmese

 

I’ll be using a combination of videos for the languages I know well (like Danish) and learning materials for those I don’t know well (like Tajiki or Burmese)

 

That leaves me at 3:40

 

  • Prepare my Hebrew class for 4:00 PM
  • Watch some silly YouTube video in English until my class begins.
  • Take off to public transport.
  • Use learning apps on the way there.

 

Okay, so putting the entire recipe together, a total of three hours:

 

12:30

 

–              1 short Spanish video. (12:30-12:40

–              1 Italian Pokemon Episode (watch all the way through!) (12:40-1:00)

–              Look at French verb tables (1:00-1:15)

–              Actively listen to Brazilian Music for the remainder of the hour. (1:15-1:30)

 

1:30

 

  • Polish YouTubing (1:30-1:40)
  • Polish Grammar Review (1:40-1:45)
  • Russian Transparent Language Session (1:45-2:00)
  • Hungarian Transparent Language Session (2:00-2:15)
  • Ukrainian Transparent Language Session (2:15-2:30)

 

2:30

 

–              3 minutes of exposure to each of the Melanesian Creole Languages (on Radio) (2:30-2:40)

–              3 minutes of exposure to Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish (2:40 – 2:50)

–              10 Minutes of German (2:50 – 3:00)

–              5 minutes of Dutch (3:00 – 3:05)

–              5 Minutes of Danish (3:05 – 3:10)

–              3 minutes of exposure to Irish, Cornish and Breton apiece (3:10 – 3:20)

–              5 minutes of Welsh (3:20 – 3:25)

–              5 Minutes of Icelandic (3:25 – 3:30)

–              5 Minutes of Tajiki (3:30 – 3:35)

–              5 Minutes of Burmese (3:35 – 3:40)

 

3:40

 

Prepare for my Biblical Hebrew Class I’m teaching (review those words I don’t know, look at several translations of the text we’ll be going over just in case “funny” issues concerning rare words come up)

 

4:00 –  5:00 PM

Class

 

5:00 PM

On my way / early dinner at place next to event.

 

6:00 PM – I don’t know

Mundo Lingo

 

Enjoy!

 

 

How I deviated from it in practice:

 

I changed the French bit in going through the routine. I looked at the verb tables, went to French Duolingo to rehearse them (I felt that I could recognize all the basic forms afterwards), then I started watching…you guessed it…gaming videos in French until the 1:15 mark. Yes, it was Super Mario Maker.

I listened to the Brazilian music but there were some songs that made me wish that I had chosen a different path. Any recommendations for Brazilian Music are highly wanted, keep in mind that I really like music from the Nordic Countries in particular.

I used videos instead of radio for the Melanesian parts. (Hey! I know I’m asking for a lot of recommendations, but if you know of any good Creole / Pidgin radio stations from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, or Papua New Guinea, let me know in the comments!)

Gave 8 Minutes to German and 7 to Danish (instead of 10 / 5) for no other reason than I liked a recommended video on the side.

Due to problems (Radio Kerne was playing English music instead of Breton programming, and loading issues), I actually got two minutes of Breton instead of three.

Due to similar problems I did Welsh on Duolingo instead of using assorted videos and radio.

How to Prepare a Particular Language for a Language Exchange Event: A Step-By-Step Guide

I would like to thank my friends at MundoLingo. Several recommended that I write a post about this, and here it is! Hope it helps! – Jared

Question 1: Can you understand a lot of the language passively?

Find a video or audio in your target language related to something you like to do, or general entertainment in that language of any sort.

If you can get the general point of almost anything that is said, or can understand a good 70% or more of what is said or written, proceed with the “Rehearse a Language I know Passively Step”.

Otherwise, go to question 2

Question 2: Have I mastered all of the following in my target language?

  1. The phrases from Omniglot.com?
  2. The present, future, and past forms? (Obviously some languages lack explicit tenses like this, but if you can say “I am”, “I will be” and “I was”, and do it with some regular and/or common verbs, you are in good shape!)
  3. Can you give a mini-stump-speech about who you are and what you do?

If you said no to any of these, I would recommend the following:

 

  • Write out all phrases you don’t know by hand.

 

  • Recite them out loud (to the best of your ability)

 

  • For each phrase you don’t know, develop a memory device for each. For example, I’m learning Welsh right now, and take the phrase “Bore da” = good morning. Mornings are boring, duh! So you get the idea. It gets harder (although it is possible) with languages with longer words. And just thinking about what I did for Greenlandic makes me cringe already!

 

If you don’t get it all done in time, that’s okay. The key is to be closer than where you were before.

If you said yes to all of these, then proceed to “Rehearse a Language that I know the basics of, but I can’t use actively quite yet …”

 

Rehearse a Language I Know Passively

 

Think about:

  • Where do I want to use this language?
  • How do I want to use this language?
  • What do I want to talk about?
  • What do I genuinely enjoy doing?

Remember you HAVE to engage with a spoken form of this language somehow, either with you speaking out loud (if reading) or, if you feel that maybe your accent can use improvement, a piece of media involving native/fluent speakers of your target language. (I use “fluent” in the case of languages that are used by a majority of non-natives, such as Indonesian or Cornish).

  • Keep a translator thing open at all times.
  • If you encounter a word that you do not recognize, put it into the translator thing. If you don’t know how to spell the word, take a guess. If you can’t guess, just say it out loud just in case you encounter it again. If you do guess in Google Translate, you may get autocorrected, so that’s helpful.
  • If possible, make a story about the word you learned.
  • Even if you don’t, you are likely to encounter that word in similar works by that same creator (author, YouTuber, TV show director, etc).
  • If you hear a phrase used that you RECOGNIZE but that you don’t think you use often, say it out loud. If you recognized it, chances are it is likely to be useful and have you sound like a local.
  • Continue until you either run out of time or feel that you’ve made a genuine improvement and get a “warm feeling” inside.

Then go to “conclusion”

 

Rehearse a Language that I Know the Basics of, but I Can’t Use Actively Quite yet

 

There are a lot of ways to learn words, here are some I would recommend.

  • Feel like reading? Paste a document about a topic in your target language that you would like to read.
  • Make each sentence its own paragraph
  • Highlight all words you don’t know what mean.
  • Look them up, put them in the glosses after each sentence.
  • Then read the entire article out loud, sentence by sentence. Don’t forget to read the glosses out loud as well, and develop stories for them, if you can.
  • But don’t feel too pressure to make stories for all of them if you think it is too time-intensive. For two reasons: (a) they may be related to words or roots in simpler words in your target language you already know and (b) there is the gift of context already.

 

You can also do this with song lyrics or dialogues.

Would you rather watch TV?

  • Make sure to “shadow”, so pause every now and then and repeat what the characters are saying. Even if you get it very wrong. Even if you KNOW you are getting it very wrong.
  • IF the show you are watching exists in a dubbed or an original version that is in your native language or in another language you know well, feel free to go through both shot-by-shot. Pay attention to the words! (This is one thing that really helped me with Finnish, which has a very large dubbing market for animated cartoons, usually for children but no less entertaining for older folks).
  • Would you like to watch something in subtitles? Pause after each bit and say the words out loud. Pay attention to what the word-by-word translation would be.
  • Again, context will help you remember that.

 

Go to “conclusion”

 

Conclusion

 

The biggest language learning struggle of 2016 was this: I could study all I wanted, but no matter how much I did it, I wouldn’t get anywhere unless (1) I genuinely was at ease with myself (2) I was willing to forgive myself for mistakes (which include accidentally mispronouncing something as a swearword to a minor phoneme off that doesn’t change any meaning) and (3) appreciating how far I’ve come.

While on the way to your language exchange event, keep yourself with positive thinking. There may be those who only want to talk to you in English if you attempt to speak their language (especially if you are a polyglot novice), but keep in mind that one day, if you truly wish it and with enough progress, you will speak enough of the language so that they will switch from English to their language with you.

And then all of the bad memories you may have had of your failures and slip-ups and embarrassments will be something to laugh at.

That day will come. Sooner than you think, actually…

jippi-mundolingo