At first glance, when looking back and comparing my language learning years 2016 and 2017, I kind of felt that 2017 became a real pannukakku – a Finnish expression that is used to say that something… More
This post is a bit different to usual – it’s not about the languages I am currently learning. It’s almost a sidetrack to travel blogging, but not quite. I’m going to write about my impressions of the Icelandic language, without having actively learned any of it, but after having experienced it as a part of my trip there.
Sidenote: I was pondering during my trip, whether I should evolve my blog into a language AND travel blog – many bloggers I like do that in their blogs. However, I decided I don’t travel enough to make it balanced in that sense, and also I’m more interested in writing about languages. But this point of view still gives me a great excuse to flood you with my travel photos, ha 😉
Before my trip, I made the decision not to make any efforts to learn Icelandic beforehand. The decision about the trip was quick and quite last minute so I wouldn’t have had time to learn much anyway, and I don’t feel like dabbling into languages right now. I did, however, kind of check the language out as a part of pre-travel hype by watching a few videos of basic phrases and by listening to a couple of Disney songs (that was bizarre! :-D), but my aim wasn’t really to memorise anything. Just to get the feeling of it.
And when in Iceland, of course I didn’t want to close my ears and eyes and mind from the language. I didn’t ignore it. I was very much observing it, every time I had the chance.
The thing is, even if you don’t actively want to learn the language before your trip, travelling is still always an interesting opportunity to explore a new language. It’s a chance learn understand some things about the language even if you don’t learn to understand it.
You’ll learn, that it is possible to appreciate and enjoy a language completely strange to you, one the you don’t speak a word of and perhaps even have no intention of learning (at least at the moment).
All you need to do is keep your ears open and mind tuned to a language learners’ mindset.
That’s what I did in Iceland, and I wanted to share some thoughts about it: four ways I was exposed to Icelandic while traveling, and five things I learned about Icelandic just like that.
4 ways I was exposed to Icelandic while in Iceland
1. Listen to the radio
We rented a car for three days and one of the first things I noticed when we hit the road wasn’t any breathtaking view through the window, but the language that was flooding our ears from the radio.
It was a wonderful combination – listening to the language, the radio host chatting, the advertisements, occasional Icelandic song even, and simultaneously watching the views change as we drove on. Experiencing Iceland with our eyes and our ears.
2. Reading the street signs
One thing I slightly tried to learn beforehand, or at least on the flight to Reykjavik, was how to pronounce Icelandic. They have some letters of their own, and some vowel combinations are pronounced differently. There was a small introduction to these in my guidebook. It felt rather difficult.
However, once we got to Iceland, we kept trying to read the road signs and place names out loud, and kept re-checking from our guidebook for the right pronunciation, and soon I started to remember that “au” is actually “öi” and à is au.
3. Learning about Icelandic nomenclature from a riding tour guide
We had two awesome days riding the Icelandic horses, and the riding guides told us a lot about the area and also explained the meanings of the place names (and the names of the horses, too!). This was a way more interesting guided tour experience than any Hop on-Hop off -bus tour ever!
4. Eavesdropping in a hot tub 🙂
This sounds worse than it is. Of course I could not understand what the people were saying, so I have no reason to feel guilty!
One fun way to explore a language is to listen to the locals, of course. In Iceland, there is one especially great place for this: the public swimming pools and hot tubs. We bathed somewhere almost every day, and while some places were more tourist-filled, we also visited a couple of places where the locals gathered to relax for their day off or after work.
Even though you’d think peace and quiet is what you appreciate in a place like that, the calm and steady chatter of Icelandic was actually a very pleasant background sound. Just relaxing in the hot water while wondering this amazing, special element of the Icelandic culture – again, hearing the language made me feel more connected to the culture; the experience feel more real.
5 things I learned about Icelandic
1. It sounds strangely familiar
While listening to the radio, I soon noticed that if I didn’t pay attention, I could imagine it was Finnish on the background! Amazing. It felt also a bit the same as listening to Estonian, which really is related to Finnish: I don’t understand a word but the melody is similar. Icelandic and Finnish are not related at all, but still, there is something very familiar to the sound of Icelandic.
This is due to the way the words are stressed in both languages: the stress is on the first syllable. Like Finnish, Icelandic rolls on in a steady way, without a sing-song variation to it. Also, I guess there are some similar weird combinations of vowels (which can make a native Romance language speaker quite uncomfortable? :D).
2. The similarity to Swedish is sometimes hard to see, but it is there
Sometimes, I could clearly connect an Icelandic expression I read somewhere, to its Swedish counterpart. Often however, it took a few times of reading or hearing before I could make the connection. Sometimes I couldn’t figure it out at all. Icelandic is too different from Swedish that knowing the other would really help understand the first.
Often for instance the place names seemed incomprehensible when you first saw them, but after getting the pronunciation part right, they suddenly made more sense for a Swedish speaker: for instance, once I realised ‘Rauðá’ is pronounced ‘Röid au’, and it means Red river – which would be Röd å in Swedish.
For me, Swedish has always had “a language of campfires and storytelling days” feeling to it, but in comparison, Icelandic is like the language of heroes and ancient legends version of it. When I tried to look for the connections to the related language I know, I could kind imagine to feel the “Vikingness” of Icelandic.
3. The Icelandic people have a very straightforward approach to naming things
Reykjavik = steamy bay, Reykjadalur = steamy valley. Both are areas with hot springs. Hveragerði = Gardens of the hot springs. There are a lot of hot springs and a lot of greenhouses. You get the idea.
Even the horses where named things like Hvita = white (a white horse), Stjarna = star (a horse with a white star on the head), Eldur = fire (a chestnut red horse).
So things are basically called exactly what they are, and just buy learning Icelandic place names (or horse names!) you can learn a whole lot of vocabulary. Awesome!
Somehow also I think this reflects in a beautiful way the straightforward, uncomplicated relationship the Icelanders have with the nature.
It simply means ‘yes’ (it’s pronounced /jauː/), but by the end of the trip, hearing this word really made me smile. I heard it a lot, and I can’t really explain why, but it sounded really heartwarming. Somehow happy and positive. Once I started paying attention to it, I heard it all the time.
These were my scattered, very un-linguistic impressions of the Icelandic language. Even though I didn’t really learn any of it, I gave it a lot of thought during the trip, and together with the interactions with the locals, the beautiful landscapes, the food we tasted and the freshness of the air we breathed – it was an important part of making memories of Iceland for all senses. I really think that even just observing, if not learning, the languages of the countries we travel in, really give an extra dimension to the travel experience.
Have you ever done similar ‘language observing’ while traveling? How do you observe and explore a language while traveling? Or do you always try to learn some basics of the language before you go? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
(Ps. I don’t really know how to make a short post. This was supposed to be one. Oops.)
Ah, September – one of my favourites! The feeling of freshness both out in the nature and in life in general. Right now there is even more anticipation than usual, as I’m turning a whole new leaf in life: I graduated! It’s time to say goodbye to student life and welcome something new. What exactly, I don’t know yet, as I’m currently searching for a job… But I feel positive and excited.
As I wrote last month, August attacked me kind of suddenly – and it didn’t give me an easy time the whole month, really. I caught a cold and was sick for a week, and even without that, I had a lot more eon my plate than I’d expected and it ended up being like a marathon of months. Everything I had to do was really motivating and exciting though! However, it meant that my language plans had been slightly too ambitious, as I’d overestimated the time I could spare for language learning.
So it was the third month in a row of doing less than I planned, but I’m not too disappointed. I’m still sort of experimenting with what kind of routine I could have for Swedish, and each of these three months I’ve still studied more than the previous month, and managed to make it a little more consistent. I’ll have to tune down my goals from last month a bit, but I’ll still try to study a bit more than last month!
Review: August 2017
For Swedish, my goal was to aim for immersion, and read, write, speak or listen a little bit every day except weekends, so I’d do all of them a few time every week. I basically had one week when I can say I did this. The other weeks I did a fair amount of listening, read a little, and that’s it.
Listening – I listened to a lot of music and quite a few podcast episodes.
Reading – I read some 50 pages of Där vi en gong gått, and once I read some articles about circular economy and wrote down useful words.
Writing – I only wrote maybe two entries in my diary. I don’t know why this is so hard to get going.
Speaking – Meh… I had one Skype with my new Tandem partner. I spoke a few times on my own while driving somewhere. And did two short videos on Instagram.
I don’t mind too much doing less than planned for the other parts, but I really want to improve my speaking, and at this rate, much progress isn’t going to happen!
As for Russian, I met with my tandem partner twice and that’s all. This is ok, but the tandem meetings were more enjoyable when I was being more consistent with other Russian practice, too. Using my Russian now feels a bit like I’m taking it out of the fridge each time; it’s all stiff and sticky and needs to be warmed up before it starts to flow like it should. Oh well, I guess it’s good practice anyway!
For French I didn’t even have any specific goals, I only read some more of the book I bought from Paris airport.
Here’s how my monthly tracker looks like his time:
Learning Goals for September 2017
I don’t really know in detail what I’ll be up to this September. For now, it’s job search and hopefully some chill.
All I know for sure is I’m off to Iceland for a week (woop!!), a rather spontaneous trip with a friend of mine. So not too much time for language studies that week. It would have been a chance for a little side track language adventure – Icelandic sure is an interesting one – but well, I’m not really into language dabbling right now, and anyway I only decided to book the trip two weeks ago… I think just góðan daginn and takk fyrir will have to do this time!
After my trip, I guess I’ll also review my goals for the rest of the month a little bit, when I know more about my situation and plans. I’ve teamed up with Elena as language buddies for Swedish – which I’m really glad about! I’m quite sure chatting with her will help me get back on track after my trip.
I’ll still stick to the attempt of some every day Swedish. But whereas last month I was trying to fit an hour of studying to my days, now I’ll settle for just doing something every day, and try to practice each of the four skills once at least once a week.
I’ll keep reading Där vi en gång gått, but as it’s a bit of a heavy read, I also got another book alternative: Omgiven av idioter by Thomas Erikson. It describes a personality analysis system where all people can be sorted to four categories, and how this can help you understand people better, even the ones that are very different than you. I’m not sure if it’s very well based on scientific facts, but it’s a popular book, and should be an interesting read.
I’ll keep listening to music and podcasts, for now I’m happy with the ones I mentioned in last month’s post.
I don’t really lack alternatives for speaking practice, I just didn’t utilize them last month: italki tutors, my new tandem partner, some friends I could Skype with… This month I just need to book these well in advance and stick to them. At least one real speaking practice session per week is my most important goal this month.
I don’t know how I could motivate myself to write more often… but after all, it’s not the most important skill for me for now, so I won’t worry too much about it. I’ll write something if I feel like it.
Russian & French
For Russian, I’ll try to manage having two Tandem meetings, and I’ll try to start listening to audiobooks again.
For French, I’ll keep reading my airport novel.
Blog and Instagram
What actually kind of bothers me is I haven’t managed to find the time to write anything here on the blog except these Clear the list posts! I have a long list of topics I wanted to write about but they just aren’t happening. And last month I didn’t even manage to answer any of the comments I got on my previous post – so sorry about that! I’ll try to do better this month. I wonder if I should book a specific time for blog-writing each week…
Well, maybe it already helps if I hereby promise to write at least one post before the end of this month!
Besides that, I’ll try to get back to the habit of posting on Instagram. The language society there is one of the best things for motivation. (If you want to find loads of language learning friends on Instagram, a good place to start is to look up @joyoflanguages and #languagediarychallenge, and join the challenge!)
So – nothing too new and exciting for my language plans this month, but I guess is good to have something familiar in this new situation I’m in! 🙂 Maybe when other things in life start to find their course again, I can shake things up a little and think of something new. We’ll see!
August attacked me today. I’m pretty sure the shift from July is usually more smooth and friendly. In August, things that have been on summer break tend to get going slowly throughout the month, gently waking you up to everyday routines. But August this year seems somehow more aggresive. Maybe it got up on the wrong side of the bed?
I’m not sure if our vacation in Paris was too short, if I’m just tired because we returned from there late last night or if it’s because I was avoiding some of the stuff I should have done before our vacation, but today I felt like hiding under a blanket and throwing my phone and calendar out of the window because I got overwhelmed by all the stuff there was suddenly to be done.
Luckily I’d done something before our trip: drafted this post. So now I can publish it and feel like I’ve gotten something started this month already, and maybe other things will seem less stressful tomorrow!
Review: July 2017
I only got back on track and set my goals in mid-July, so there’s less to review, just two weeks, the second of which was largely defined by our trip to Paris. So my main goal was actually to just get going again, re-establish my routines and start developing a new study plan, because I switched my main focus from Russian to Swedish.
With Swedish, I am now aiming for immersion, that is, surrounding myself with as much Swedish as possible every day, in order to brush up my skills. The goals I set myself were not very exact: just to do some writing, reading, speaking or listening – at least one of them, but preferably all of them – every day. I had some ideas of resources for each of the core skills, and my plan was to try them out and see which suit me best so I can be more accurate with my goals next month.
This went quite well. Before Paris, I did something almost every day, I only missed two days. Most days I practiced two or three of the core skills. I also have a better idea of how I want to study Swedish now. I’m not sure if the immersion thing is really happening, though. I still need to look for more opportunities to add Swedish to my everyday life.
For Russian, I had the relaxed goal of having some study time once a week. What I did was have one tandem meeting.
Even though Swedish was my main focus, these two weeks were actually quite intense also for French, because the first week and a half I tried my best to review some phrases and prep myself mentally to make the most of the chance to speak for real, and last week was all about the rare occasion of actually speaking French in France!
I didn’t manage to practice every day or quite even every two days, but I did prepare a little bit, and I do think it helped a little. It was mainly about really deciding to speak as much as possible instead of actual review or learning something new. And during our trip I did speak some French every day, and managed to find several occasions for chatting some extra. I still wish I’d spoken more, I still was caught by the traveler’s speech block, where you find yourself not saying something because you’re unsure of the correct way to say it. Well, C’est a vie! I still spoke a thousand times more French than last time I was in Paris (erm, 7 years ago??).
So July was interesting and all in all quite successful! Here’s how my tracker looks:
Learning Goals for August 2017
In January, when I was thinking about what I want to achieve in my language studies this year, I though I’d just have a “Swedish Summer”, and then perhaps get back to Russian or even start a new language for a change. My goal was to just defrost my Swedish, which felt really rusty.
That goal isn’t very well defined, but I could say I’ve reached it already. I’d say some defrosting has happened since January, just by reading some books in Swedish. Now, after just a few weeks of more active practice, I feel like I’m almost where I left when my Swedish was at it’s best, after upper secondary school. Of course there’s a lot of vocabulary I know I have once learned but is still not in my active memory. Anyway, it seems the frost isn’t as thick as I’d thought.
However, now I find I’ve got mersmak – an excellent Swedish expression which means that after tasting some, you want more. I don’t want to leave it here, I want to take my Swedish to a new level – haven’t yet decided which level. But for now, my main focus will stay on Swedish.
Besides that, in August I think I’ll set French to standby, and try to keep up a little bit of Russian.
The core of my Swedish routine will stay the same as in July: aim for immersion; read, speak, listen and/or write something every day. But I’ve defined my goals a bit more specifically. I’ll try to study 1-2 hours a day, five days a week.
I’ll keep reading Där vi en gång gått. I’ll also try and find some articles related to my professional interests, in order to build even work-related vocabulary. I’ll try to read a bit at least four times a week, with one more active learning session: writing down useful expressions and making up example sentences where I use them.
I’ll try to listen something, even if just Swedish music, every day. I’ve found three podcasts that I enjoy:
- Produktivitetsbloggens podcast: short episodes with talk about productivity and how to improve it.
- Hållbarhetspodden: Interviews about sustainability perspectives with Swedish business people. This is quite challenging, but challenge is good!
- Respodden: A travel podcast. Partially in English, but there’s enough Swedish and I’ve found it very enjoyable to listen while eg. jogging, it let’s me dream of traveling to faraway places like Costa Rica and Cuba…
I’m also considering finding some Swedish TV programs to watch. In July I watched a film, Stockholm Östra, from SVT play. The thing is, I don’t watch a lot of TV in general, so it’s not the best resource for me! Although it would be most useful.
I’ve now joined italki and found a few nice community tutors – and possibly a language exchange partner too. I also have a few friends to practice with, and I’ll try to have a Skype or meet up with them in August. So I think I should manage to have two actual conversations per week.
I’m planning to practice writing at least three times a week. I’ll either write an entry in my diary or just write about whatever is on my mind. I’ve practiced free writing quite a lot while writing my thesis, so I’ve gotten pretty good at just writing what comes in my mind, and now I could try that for practicing Swedish. For more active practice once a week, I’ll write a text and then look up any grammar points or words I’m unsure of.
I decided also to do some grammar exercises once a week, from a grammar book we used in school. I think it’ll be useful to review some word order rules and prepositions…
I’m also thinking of setting up a Swedish Goldlist to ensure I really capture some of the new vocabulary I’ll run into. I bought a pile of new Moleskines from Paris and I can’t wait to use them! ❤
For Russian, I’ll have the same goal as last month: Some study time once a week. Tandem meetings, reviewing my notes, audiobook, writing my diary. Perhaps some YouTube videos and music. I’m not putting too much pressure into this for now.
For standby mode, I’ll first do some reading. I bought a novel from the airport in Paris, something very light and silly, but the story is catchy enough and the book is surprisingly easy to read. I actually haven’t read a single novel in French before.
After finishing that, I figured I could find an audiobook to listen. Any tips on audiobooks for lower intermediate level?
I have a feeling that despite the rough start today, August will be great. Even though it caught me by surprise, in terms of language learning I’m actually quite well prepared, and very motivated.
Really looking forward to read about the goals of others on #clearthelist, too!
Oh my. Mid July.
Half of the summer is still left, but it’s not too early to say that, like all the summers, this one is too short. I haven’t even been to a terrace on a hot day for a cold beer yet. I’ve hardly had time to sit on the balcony and enjoy a warm summer evening. I haven’t even bought any flowers to put on the balcony yet. I only spent two weekends on a summer cottage. And I hardly even started my Swedish summer!
Well, half of the summer is still left. And at least the last problem is going to be fixed right now.
Review: June and May 2017
In June, I knew I was going to have so much work to do, I shouldn’t even try to fit too much language learning in. I had to finish my thesis, and even though in the end I guess I didn’t work any more hours on it than the months before, just the thought of finishing it was so huge that I had to empty my head of anything else.
So I’d decided not to even do Clear the list and language goal setting in June. But actually, when I started to get all the email notifications from the blogs I follow and see the Instagram posts about CTL posts made by my fellow language learners, I nearly changed my mind — I determined some goals, I made a monthly tracker and I started to draft a CTL post. I got so inspired by everyone else setting their goals. That is what Clear the list truly is about!
In the end, I didn’t write the post, but I think that having set my (non-ambitious) goals resulted in that I didn’t stop all language learning completely in June. Here’s how my tracker in June looks like:
Haha, it’s so empty. But it is better than nothing! Even though my goals for Swedish were more about trying out different things and finding the best resources for when I could get back on track in July, it did help me to do at least some listening and either reading or writing in Swedish each week. Besides that, I had one tandem meeting in Russian and two occasions of speaking French (the second of which was a totally unplanned one — I’ll share some thoughts on it another time!).
Since I skipped June’s Clear the List I didn’t review May’s goals, either. Here’s a quick look to how I did:
Did almost everything I’d planned: especially worth mentioning are loads of reviewing my old notes in Russian, my most active Instagram Language Challenge month so far, and finally finishing Vägen till Jerusalem.
I’m not going into more detail about what I did in May or June for now. I’m more eager to get to the goals part, and back on the language learning track!
Learning Goals for July 2017
I decided already in January, that in June and July it would be time for Svensk sommar — Swedish summer. So after six months of focus on Russian, I’m switching Swedish as my main learning project for a while! (I’ve written in this post about how I’ve come to study Swedish and what is my history with it)
This means switching from my weakest foreign language to my second strongest one, making the study routines I need to develop very different from what my Russian routines have been. And actually, to a great extent, my Swedish Summer is at first going to be about defrosting more than making progress.
Besides that, I’ll just try and keep up my current level of French and Russian.
I guess you could say that under the frost somewhere, Swedish is my “stuck in the intermediate plateau” language. (If you’re not familiar with the concept, google that phrase and you’ll find TONS of polyglots writing about it). I’m pretty good but not fluent. I estimate my reading is definitely C1, my listening almost there as well, and my writing and speaking somewhere on the long way from B to C. (In terms of CEFR)
With this background, I’ve been wondering for a few months already, what could be the best approach for me to take on Swedish learning. I’ve decided I need to try and create an immersion environment for myself. That means surrounding myself with the language as much as possible. That forms the backbone of my goal for July: listen, read, speak or write something every day.
Like I said, this is very different from what I’ve been doing for the last half a year, and I’m actually quite inexperienced about immersion learning. I’m not sure how to structure my goals in terms of different activities, either. And I’m slightly lost about which resources I even want to use… But I decided to write this post even if I can’t really formulate my goals that well this time, because just writing my ideas down might clarify them a bit. Of course, any tips and suggestions are very welcome!
One thing about immersion is, I should aim to switch to Swedish in not just some of the stuff I normally do in Finnish but especially the stuff I do in English. Normally, I read news, listen to music, google things etc. a lot in English without even thinking about it. During my toughest thesis writing stress weeks, I occasionally felt the need for some relaxing meditation, and automatically searched for a podcast in English — until I realised I could find one in Swedish. This is something I need to pay attention to, to find opportunities to practice Swedish every day.
Here are some thought on the resources I’m planning to use:
I’ve found some really nice podcasts – something I haven’t utilised in language learning so far – and SVT, the Swedish National Television has a lot of programs online. I’ll start with those. I also made a Swedish playlist on Spotify. It’d be fun to find some Swedish vloggers on YouTube but so far I haven’t found ones that would really interest me.
Because I started to get a bit bored with Vägen till Jerusalem — not because it wasn’t interesting, but because it took me ages to finish it — I decided not to read the sequel at least right away.
I stumbled upon another book when visiting a friend of mine, who was moving home. She was getting rid of some books, and told me I could take anything if I wanted.
So I decided to read Där vi en gång gått by Kjell Westö. The author is from Finland and the book is about Helsinki in the early 20th century. It has received the Finlandia price, the most appreciated literary award in Finland, in 2006. Reading the first few chapters of the book have already made me rethink my relationship to the Swedish language… I think I’ll write another post about that.
I’ve been kind of lacking ideas for what and where to write in Swedish. I usually write quite a lot of stuff by hand, I make notes and lists and everything, in Finnish of course, and last month, I made a few of my to do -lists in Swedish. This is something I could do more of, but I’m not sure if it’s very efficient, since it’s not about writing complete sentences. I could also write my diary in Swedish.
As always, this is the trickiest part… I’ve been thinking about booking a few lessons on italki just to get started. Maybe I should also find a language buddy or ask if any of my Swedish friends from would like to have a Skype or something. I’m a bit nervous about that though, as I’m used to speaking English with them, and I haven’t been in touch with them for a while, anyway.
Today I actually spontaneously started speaking to myself in Swedish when driving the car. I’m not good at speaking to myself even though it would be a great way to practice… but I managed to go on for quite a few minutes. This spontaneous moment of talkativeness was triggered by Google Maps navigator which I had set into giving me instructions in Swedish! 😀
I’ll keep it relaxed, I think some study time once a week is enough this month. Depending on what I feel like doing, I’ll continue reviewing my notes, listening to an audiobook, or writing my diary. I’ll also try to arrange one meeting with my tandem partner, we’ve had too long of a break.
Actually, this month will be exciting in terms of French, since we’re traveling to Paris in the end of July! We’ll stay five days. I know it’s the classic situation where you build a lot of expectations on a short stay in the country of your target language, and then often get disappointed by how little you managed to speak. I’m travelling with my boyfriend who only speaks a few basic phrases so I don’t even want to spend the whole holiday finding people to get into lengthy conversations with. BUT I will definitely speak some French. Every day. That’s decided. That’s my main goal in French for this month.
So in this two weeks (wait, what!?) time that remains before our trip, I’ll try and prepare for speaking in Paris. That means I need to refresh my traveler’s phrases and prepare for some small talk… How do you prepare for trips to where your target language is spoken? I’d love to hear some ideas!
So yes, in general, my goals are slightly less organised and concrete than usually. It’s partially because of losing my routine during last months break, which I’ll try and get back this month. But some of it is just about summer, I’m sure. Overwhelming, green and warm and light and beautiful summer. I don’t want to stress.
May this be a relaxed and happy month of languages!
PS. I added some categories for all my posts so you can find more easily what the kind of articles you are interested to read. You can see the categories on the right hand side of the front page, below the “Recent posts”.
Language learning can be divided to four core skills you need to develop to make progress in language learning: speaking, writing, listening, and reading. These skills are of course not separate, practicing one always develops the others, but they are quite different in nature and each needs deliberate practice. Perfecting all four of them will give you a comprehensive ability to deal with any kind of situation with the language.
Except. Lately I’ve been thinking that there is a fifth skill that needs to be practiced separately: daring to open your mouth. Yes, it is related to speaking. We might argue it is just a part of the core skill of speaking, because without daring to open your mouth, you can’t really make progress in speaking. However, I kind of like to think that it is a separate skill. I’ll tell you why.
First, I’ll share with you an experience that made me really thoroughly think about this.
A while ago, I was at a graduation party of a friend. She’s a so called Swedish Finn, Swedish is her first language. I’ve always spoken Finnish with her, though. But at the party, basically all the other guests were Swedish speakers. Knowing that my Swedish is pretty good – supposedly – and that I like learning languages, my friend introduced me to everyone in Swedish, and told them I like to practice, so no need to switch language.
There I was, sitting at the party, everyone around me speaking Swedish, which I could totally understand. But my brain was just a bit too slow to really take part in the conversation. I would start t think of a comment on something someone said, and while I was forming the sentence in my head, the conversation had moved on.
I suppose you might be familiar with the situation, if you’re an intermediate learner of a language. It is always harder to participate in a conversation of native speakers, compared to speaking one on one with someone. I think that is when the skill of daring to open your mouth is more necessary than ever.
The difference between “I know how to speak” and “I can speak”
I think you could say that the “daring skill” is what makes the difference between “I know how to speak” and “I can speak”.
The thing is, I really KNOW HOW TO speak Swedish. So well that I actually believed for some years that I am nearly fluent. By the end of upper secondary school, I could read fluently and write excellent essays, and survived effortlessly the classroom speaking situations.
I think the truth was only revealed to me last spring, during my exchange semester in Gothenburg. I was very quickly shocked by my own insecurity to speak. I really tried to keep to Swedish with the locals but I always ended up being a quiet listener, because I just felt so clumsy and inadequate when speaking. Clearly it had been many years since I last used my Swedish, and I thought that after a while it would get easier. But I never dared to open my mouth often enough to really start to defrost my Swedish.
This is why I view daring to speak as a skill of its own, even if it truly is a part of the speaking skill. Because you can first learn to dare, and then learn to speak – as has been the case for me with Russian. I think I dare quite well already, but there’s still a long way to learn to speak really well. And then again, you actually can first learn quite a lot of the language, and then learn to dare to speak, as has been the case with French for me. I only recently started to practice speaking, and once I got past the inability to open my mouth, I’ve been surprised at how well I’m able to speak already.
Basically, you can learn how to speak by reading, writing and listening. But you can only learn to speak by speaking. And for that, you need to dare to speak. So perhaps we could say, that Speaking skill = Knowing-how-to skill + Daring skill!
Speaking skill = Knowing-how-to skill + Daring skill.
Is daring just a matter of personality?
I’ve noticed that some people are much better at daring than me. I’m quite an articulate person and careful speaker even in Finnish, meaning that I often tend to pause a lot, look for the right words and accurate expressions all the time while speaking. This seems to reflect to my language learning – I find myself less able to speak than someone else at my general level in a language. For example in Sweden I had a friend who had also learned French and I don’t think she was much more advanced than me – but she really didn’t hesitate speaking and could just chat happily, make mistakes and find ways around things she couldn’t say – while I struggled to find the right words and form correct sentences with them.
Is it a question of personality then? Someone I spoke with about language learning, a Finnish guy, told me that during their exchange studies in Germany, he had felt that the Spanish and Italian exchange students struggled much less to speak even though many of them seemed to know less German than he did. Is it a question of culture?
I think yes, partially both – but it is also something you can learn. To some extent, you can learn it in general, and being better at daring to speak one language means you’ll be better at daring to speak any language you are learning. But in some ways, you need to learn it for each language separately.
Why is it sometimes more difficult to dare?
There are a few things that make daring to open your mouth more difficult.
1. If you try to participate in a conversation of a group of native speakers
Well, clearly. Like the situation I experienced at the party. Even if the people are very patient and know you are still a learner, it takes a lot of effort to keep the conversation slower and simpler than how they would naturally speak. So if you don’t dare to open your mouth before having thought through what you want to say, you can’t keep up. And you might be more nervous anyway to open your mouth in front of more listeners.
2. If there is another language you both speak much better than the one you want to practice.
When learning Swedish, this is pretty much always the case, because Swedes are in general so fluent in English. So it can feel a bit silly to try and blunder on in Swedish when the conversation could be much more intelligent in English.
With the Swedish speakers in Finland, it feels even more awkward for me to speak Swedish, because most of them are practically bilingual, their Finnish as strong as their Swedish, and they are extremely used to speaking Finnish all the time in their studies, at work, and while shopping or running any errands – they are supposed to have the right to get service everywhere in Swedish if they want to, but the sad truth is, many Finnish speakers are so bad at speaking Swedish, they often find it less of a trouble to just speak Finnish (the areas where Swedish speakers are a majority, are an exception).
At the party I mentioned, I also wasn’t able to start a conversation with anyone, because I got stuck at trying to decide, should I dare to speak Swedish, or should I just go for Finnish. With Finnish as my native language and as good as their native language, speaking Swedish would just feel stupid and awkward. It really shouldn’t, but it does. And this is because I haven’t learned to DARE to speak Swedish!
3. If you learned the language for quite a long time before really starting to practice speaking.
Language learning gurus often say you should practice speaking from the beginning. I always thought it is important, but never really thought about why. Sometimes people like to think they want to first learn a bit more than the basics and only then get out there and speak with people. But at least for me, this seems to actually be a counterproductive approach.
The thing is, learned Swedish in school for six years without really practicing to speak. Sure, we did speak in the classes, but small dialogues from textbooks are just not the same as really producing speech and having a natural conversation.
So, like I said, I was pretty good at Swedish when I finished school, and I thought I was nearly as fluent as with English (which I could already speak quite effortlessly back then). But now that I think about it, before last spring in Gothenburg, I never really even tried to have a longer discussion in Swedish. So now that I try to speak, I know how to speak correctly. I can think through a conversation in Swedish. But when I really should speak, I realise all the grammar points I’m unsure of and get stuck with trying to figure them out, and I get anxious about each mistake. I get frustrated that my speech doesn’t match my perceived level.
Another example I can give you is my experience with speaking French and German. I learned both in upper secondary school – French for three years, eight courses, and German for half a year, two courses. I should have been around CEFR B1 at French and A1 at German. At level B1, you should be able to survive most traveling situations. After our final exams I did an Interrail trip around Europe with a friend. I found myself quite unable to speak any French at all but could comfortably get by at cafes and buying train tickets with my few sentences of German.
I’ve thought this was because French was just harder for me. But now I’ve started to realise it must have been A) because my German teacher made us practice speaking a bit more, and B) because I was more advanced in French but had practiced speaking as little, so I expected to speak better than I was able to, and my expectations and the experiences of unsuccessful speaking situations made me unable to DARE to speak.
How can I learn to dare?
Now, all of this leads down to the question: is it possible to learn to dare? Like I said in the beginning, I like to think that daring to open your mouth and speak is a skill among other skills. I like to think about it this way, because if it is a skill, it can be practised.
I described things that make daring more difficult, and based on that, I also recognise some ways to make it easier at first, how to start practising. Here are my ideas:
- Practice one-on-one first. Don’t be discouraged if participating a group conversation is more difficult. It might take a lot of practice before you can rock that.
- Practice with someone you know. Especially if you are shy, it may be easier to first practise with a friend.
- Practise with someone you don’t know at all. Sometimes it can be even better this way. It is really difficult to switch languages, if you are used to speaking a certain language with someone. I think our personalities change a bit when speaking a different language, which can feel weird with people you know well. And of course, if you are used to having very deep conversations with someone, in a language your fluent in, switching to simpler things can feel silly.
- Practise with someone who is also learning the language. They’ll certainly understand why you want to speak this language and not a language you both are more fluent at. You can overcome the fear of mistakes together.
- Practise with someone native, who is learning your language (tandem). It really helps to hear someone speak your own language imperfectly, like I’ve written earlier. You’ll realise mistakes aren’t dangerous, and that getting your message through is more important than correct grammar.
I’ll put these ideas to test next month, when I’m planning to try and finally defrost my Swedish and learn to dare to speak it!
What do you think? What are the best ways to overcome nervousness to speak? Is there a way to move from one-on-one practice to being able to participate in a quick-paced conversation of a group of native speakers? I’d be really happy to hear your thoughts!
Talking about the weather is probably one of the most widespread small talk topic across different cultures, right? It may be an old stereotype that Finns don’t do small talk, but I’d say it is mainly false and it certainly doesn’t apply when it comes to chatting about the weather. Although, I don’t know if it always fits in the criteria of light small talk; you could also say we like to obsess about the weather, especially around holidays. Will there be snow on Christmas? Will it be cold and rainy on Midsummer? When will it finally get warmer? Will it snow on May Day? Having our four very distinct seasons and often rather passionate feelings about each of them, we can get very worked up over whether, for instance, the progress of spring is as fast as we would like to expect (usually it isn’t).
What does this have to do with my Clear the list -post? Well, I was trying to think of the first sentence of this post, and found myself writing “Wow, it’s May already”, and then something about the weather. I love each of the four seasons (although my love for summer doesn’t run out, like the love for winter does around March) and I definitely like to obsess about the weather and the progress of spring. So you’ll probably find me starting each of these monthly reviews with a weather report and some happy or less happy expectations about what the weather will be like by the end of the month.
So Tuesday this week started in Helsinki with a blizzard. Yes, a blizzard. No exaggeration there. Today we got a hail shower. Only a few until May Day, a holiday we like to celebrate by going out on picnics. It’s usually really cold anyway, though. Sometimes it snows.
Last time I wrote that I know April will bring spring with it. Well, even though the spring is still kind of cold and snow-showery, it is here: birds are chirping like crazy, tiny green things are pushing out of the ground everywhere if you look closely, and on sunny days, you cab go out in a lighter jacket (if you are brave, because sleet storm may appear when you least expect it).
And May is a month that will bring summer!
The seasons move so fast, and that just seems to highlight the how fast the time flies. It feels like I just wrote the previous learning goal post, and now it’s that time again.
Review: April 2017
April was good. Rather busy and I worked hard to turn in a first draft of my Thesis before Easter, but I found that when I needed a break from working or wanted to do something relaxing after a long week, I was drawn to my language activities and didn’t suffer from language laziness at all.
I was using my tracker actively to plan activities for each week beforehand, here’s how it looks now (many of this week’s activities are still waiting to be done):
Tandem: Meeting once a week – Done three weeks, one we had to skip because we were both so busy. But that week I managed to find a bit of time to review some of the early Tandem meetings. Watching the videos my partner had found me to watch for the very first meetings, I was happy to notice I could understand them a lot better than I remember I could back then! I also prepared better for the meetings this month. But still didn’t review enough afterwards…
Babbel Review once a week – Done! I have a feeling I’ve pretty much learned all the vocab there is in my Babbel Review manager (it’s only around 300 phrases).
Translate two dialogues from my textbook – Almost done, I think I’ll finish the second one this weekend.
Reading Ася – Класс!ное чтение -reading practice book one chapter per week – Done, finished reading it!
Audiobook 2-3 times a week – Done!
Write one entry per week in my diary in Russian – Done, except this week, but I still have time. This was fun! I’ll never know if what I write is correct, but it gives me confidence to notice I can actually describe my day in Russian and manage to find an alternative way to express something I first felt like I can’t write.
One set of verb grammar exercises from the textbook each week – Done! And still enjoyed it 😀
Listening to an audiobook 2 times a week – Sometimes just once a week, but basically done.
Writing and reading something each week – I actually ended up just writing OR reading each week, taking turns on which skill I focused on. I read some science article on Le Monde and another time I read some travel site and looked for ideas of what to do in Paris, and I picked a random education video about sustainability, transcribed it and then tried to write my own sentences using some expressions from the video. This was quite fun!
Speaking French with a friend – Done, we met once. I’m so happy I’ve got this opportunity to practice speaking and especially that I’ve gotten to know her, she’s great! I also keep getting amazed by what kind of topics I manage to keep up a conversation about with my French. This month I was explaning about the Finnish Defence Forces and voluntary military service – not exactly my everyday topic in any language…
Reading Vägen till Jerusalem – I managed to read a bit more this month because I took the book with me and read on the bus sometimes. Bedtime reading is not my thing, it seems. Now I’m about halfway through the book…
So still going strong all in all, and still quite happy with my routines!
Learning Goals for May 2017
Last month I wrote I need to decide after April, if I’ll continue with Russian as my main learning project or if I’m ready to give it a rest. Well – definitely not ready! I feel like I’m only now getting the hang of it! So another month of Russian sprint, French and Swedish marathon (these two terms I’ve borrowed from Katie at Joy of Languages).
As for goals in each language, they haven’t changed much from last month. I want to push my Russian learning a bit further from the comfort zone, try to challenge myself and study slightly more deliberately. I’ll try to review what I learned a bit more often and try to apply what I learn to something new in my everyday life, and I’ll try to read and write more, to get more comfortable with it. This month I’m also adding a goal to acquire a lot more vocabulary!
Speaking: Tandem and Review
Tandem meetings once a week, prepare well and review afterwards. In addition to that, I’ll start doing review of my Russian notebook three times a week. The notebook is full and I’ll start a new one, and it seems like a great idea to go through the old notebook and pick the words and phrases I still haven’t learned and maybe move it to the new notebook. I’ll review by reading and writing but I’ll also add some speaking to the review sessions, for instance by doing Instagram videos.
Listening: Audiobook and Review
I’ll keep listening to audiobooks twice a week, and also review more of the old tandem practice videos.
I got a bit carried away in the library and borrowed a pile of Russian learning materials and children’s picture books (the library had a great many alternatives to choose from). I’ll try to read some of the “Болшой Атлас для самых маленьких” once a week and go through a few chapters of Book2 Russian-Finnish phrasebook twice a week.
I’ll keep on writing my diary in Russian once a week and writing grammar exercises from my textbook once a week.
French and Swedish
Same goals as before: In French, I’ll try to practice each of the core skills, so write, read, listen and speak something every week or every other week. I’ll use the same techniques and activities as last month.
In Swedish, I really want to finish Vägen till Jerusalem, but that would mean reading about three times more than last month. We’ll see.
There we go! I hope by the end of May, it will be sunny and warm and you and I will be happy language learners with a lot of goals reached!
A beautiful day in Paris. I sit in a brasserie très chaleureux and order une assiette de charcuterie from the waiter, compliment the charming atmosphere and appearance of the place and throw in a small-talkey comment about the weather. They politely ask me something about my stay and if I like it here, I assure I do and ask for tips for something interesting to see in the neighbourhood. Everything in French, bien sûr.
That’s the dream. I don’t know any statistics, but I would guess it is the typical dream of an average language learner: being able to travel and speak the language. The great moment of language success we aim for may be successfully making an order in a restaurant, or managing to hold up a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker, or even surviving the whole trip speaking the target language only.
At least I admit I have always been a travelling-oriented language learner (besides just being passionate about the languages). In upper secondary school, I was learning French and German, and had really high expectations about testing my skills in practice on an after-graduation interrail trip I was planning with a friend.
But language learning is a long process, and personally, I really don’t travel that often (wish I could, though). So when I do get to travel somewhere a target language of mine is spoken, I put a lot of expectations on the trip and on the upcoming language-speaking glory. Then I get disappointed, if I miss any chances to speak or if it just doesn’t go as smoothly as I’d imagined. On the interrail trip, after three years of studying French, I didn’t even manage to buy stamps at a post office without switching to English.
That was, of course, many years ago. I like to think I have matured as a language learner. I now realise I need other goals and milestones, too, and that language learning success comes in many forms. It is important for motivation to find moments when I can look back and say: “I’ve learned a lot. I’m better at this than before.”
But in everyday language learning, the moments of success are hard to catch, because the progress is often so subtle. For example, with my Russian tandem practice, it took three months before I could even notice I am getting better. And still I sometimes feel like I’m getting nowhere and I’m getting there too slowly. That is when I might start losing motivation if I wasn’t able to tell myself I can do it.
I’ve already learned a few languages, and they say you get more confident as a learner with each new language. The thing is, until last year, I’d basically only learned languages in school and at uni, and I hadn’t really thought that much about how I know if I’ve made progress. The courses I passed and the grades I got were my metrics for that. I was quite confident as a language learner, but after starting to learn on my own, I have struggled a little with being unable to measure my progress.
My personal language learning victories
I’ve been here before. “Here” is at the beginning of trying something new in a language, and finding it really difficult, but not impossible.
A while ago I had an experience, that made me think of how many personal victories I can actually find in my history of language learning.
This happened over a month ago, when I was sick for a few days and got really bored and totally ran out of stuff to do. Then I got the idea to try listening to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone in Russian, just to see how it would feel. (In case you didn’t read this post, I’ve previously listened to Harry Potter audiobooks in French). I didn’t expect to understand enough to be able to actually keep listening and enjoy it. I really didn’t consider my Russian to be on a level where I could listen to an audiobook, even a familiar one.
But when I started to listen, I instantly got a funny feeling. Like I’ve been here before.
“Here” is at the beginning of trying something new in a language, and finding it really difficult, but not impossible.
It felt exactly the same as when I first started to listen to the French version: At first, I could only pick a word here, another there, but could still follow the story. And I was only able to listen for a few minutes before getting overwhelmed and tired.
It was of course great that, unlike I had expected. I was able to listen and pick a few words here and there and follow the story. But what was really brilliant, was that with French, it only took me a couple of months that my ability to listen had improved what felt like ten-fold, so I got the feeling I’m not that far from my goals with Russian, either.
Inspired by this, I wanted to make a list of things that prove me I’ve made progress and improved in other languages before. So in the future, if I ever lose courage, feeling like I’ll never get anywhere, I can look at the list and see, that I’ve been there before and I’ve gotten far. It might also help me recognise new milestones I’ve reached.
This is my list of reference points of where I was before and where I am now:
- BEFORE: I can recall when I was around 16, and stayed in England with my aunt’s family for month in the summer and I really struggled to get a whole sentence of English out of my mouth trying to talk to my British uncle, even though in theory I was supposed to know a lot already. AFTER: I’ve spoken English quite confidently for at least seven years.
- BEFORE: I also remember the first times I tried reading a novel in English. It was so slow, I couldn’t concentrate, I had to stop and check words in a vocabulary frustratingly often. And I got tired after a few pages. AFTER: Now I read scientific articles for my thesis and wouldn’t think twice about should I read a book in its original English version or not.
- BEFORE: In 2009 I was on a week-long language scholarship trip in Sweden, and we went to the movies to see “Män som hatar kvinnor”. I felt like I didn’t understand a word. AFTER: Last year I watched a couple of Swedish films without subtitles, and struggled a bit, but not too much.
- BEFORE: Two years ago at my summer job I tried speaking French with a Brazilian guy who’d studied in France, but the conversation practically stopped before it started. And a year ago in Sweden I participated some language cafes to try and speak French, and I was able to say something, but probably sounded like a two-year-old. AFTER: this month, I was able to explain the topic of my Master’s thesis in French (it is rather complicated).
- BEFORE: In October I was in St. Petersburg in October, and I actually didn’t even dare to properly try speaking, unless you count reading out loud the Russian name of the food I ordered at a restaurant. AFTER? I’m not sure yet how much my speaking has improved during our tandem practice, but at least I most certainly do dare to open my mouth and try to say something!
Quite an amazing feeling, to realise all this. May the list get longer as I keep going!
Before and after… but after what?
Besides reminding me about the fact that I have succeeded before and I can do it again, there is another important purpose for the list above.
You know those “Before vs. After” pictures of people who lost half of their weight in no time with a super diet or training program? This Before and After list, I assure you, is not like that. What happened between Before and After here, was not a magical intense language course or program I paid a lot of money for. None of these happened overnight.
How did I make it? At least for numbers 1 and 2, it took years of practice and being forced to use English in my studies and immersing in it in my free time via films and music etc. For number 4, it took a lot of defrosting of what I’d learned in school, with a 1000 Goldlisted words, maybe 200 lessons (and reviewing them continuously) on Babbel and at least 60 hours of audiobooks.
So the list should remind me of not only where I’ve gotten so far, but also what it takes to get there: hard work, time, patience and persistence.
What is on your list? How do you know you’ve made progress? I recommend giving that some thought! Even if you are learning your first foreign language, pay attention to the small things that tell you you are moving forward. Start building your list of language victories. It will get longer and longer!