Shared Joy is a Double Joy – Thoughts on Tandem Learning

My university organizes a program called “Each One Teach One”, which is meant to encourage students to learn and teach languages in tandem. I don’t know why I only found the program last October – how many times before did I wish there was more language exchange culture at my university?

Through the program, I found a tandem buddy, Natalia, and since November, we’ve met regularly (twice a week before Christmas, and once a week this year) to practice Russian and Finnish – first half of the meeting we speak one language, second half the other.

I had mixed expectations about tandem learning. Often people think it is the best solution to learning a language, and language learner communities across the Internet are flooded with messages from people in search of a tandem partner. On the other hand, I’ve heard many bloggers and experienced language learners warn that tandem learning can turn out to be more difficult than you think, and it can even be a frustrating or disappointing experience, if it doesn’t work out.

Above all, there is a problem if one of the partners is more dedicated to teach and the other one mainly expects to learn for free. I thought, however, that even if you both have the best intentions, it probably isn’t the easiest form of teaching and learning.

I thought that surely when you already have a decent knowledge and speaking skills of the language, tandem works as great speaking practice. But is it only suitable for more advanced practice? That’s what I slightly feared before we got started. I wasn’t a total beginner, perhaps level B1, but I had never really had a lot of practice of speaking Russian before.

Right from the first messages we exchanged to agree our first meeting, I got the feeling that Natalia spoke a lot more Finnish than I did Russian, and this was confirmed in the first meetings. I got slight inferiority issues in the beginning, and felt the need to apologize that my Russian wasn’t quite conversational enough. After some of the first conversations, I’d feel exhausted and not too happy, after having just been stammering and stuttering and hardly able to put two words together for half an hour.

However, I was quite determined to make it work. And it has been getting better and better, and has turned out to be not only useful, but also a lot of fun.

Here’s what I think have been the main reasons our tandem has worked:

Patience, patience, patience. Tandem requires bucketloads of this attitude from both of the participants. When I’ve tried to start a sentence five times again to think my way around the missing words, or just gone “erm… erm… erm..” for two minutes, or make a mistake and be embarassed, Natalia would just patiently wait, or keep telling me “it’s ok, it’s all good, don’t worry”, urging me to go on.

It may feel difficult, when you’re not able to even get a complete sentence out of your mouth, to practice with a person who thinks and lives and breathes in the language. And chatting with a complete beginner can be demanding for a native speaker, too. It’s not easy to slow down from your natural speed of speech and think of simpler ways to say things. So you both need to be really patient.

Encouragement. Every time I manage to say something correctly, I would get an impressed “Mолодец! Oтлично!” And we’d both be equally happy about each and every small success.

Sure, it takes some bravery, to just open your mouth and get talking. But more courage and confidence can be created by getting prepared. We agreed on the topic of the meetings beforehand. So if the topic was traveling, I’d spend some time at home thinking of sentences and looking up words, so I had at least something prepared I could say about the topic. Even writing down what you could say in the conversation is not cheating, it’s all part of the learning process. You don’t need to be able to speak spontaneously in the tandem discussions; especially not in the beginning. Little by little, you’ll get there.

What has been the best thing about tandem practice?

I think the main benefit is not even in practicing the language, it’s about speaking with someone who is learning your own language, in your own language (or a language you’re much more advanced in, than them).

I think the main benefit is not even in practicing the language, it’s about speaking with someone who is learning your own language.

How come?

Because speaking another language is so much about courage, overcoming the fear of making mistakes. Speaking with someone who learns Finnish, has a foreign accent and makes mistakes, has given me a lot of courage. It’s proved me, that making mistakes or not pronouncing perfectly is not dangerous at all.

Russian, like Finnish, has several cases, and like probably in Finnish for many, that is one of the most difficult aspects of the language for me. I was unable to say anything at all in the beginning, because every time I had no idea which case to use, I got stuck. But the thing is, when I speak Finnish Natalia, and of course she makes mistakes, for example with the cases (she speaks Finnish really well, but it takes ages to get all the cases right in every situation!) – I hardly pay any attention! I have to make an effort to remember to correct her sometimes (because, of course we want each other to correct some mistakes every now and then in order to learn from them).

Finally, I have to say, that with languages, no single type of practice makes you perfect on it’s own. Neither does tandem practice. You need to combine it with other stuff. Some other forms of practice has been included in our tandem: preparing for the topics by writing down some phrases, watching Youtube videos we’ve found each other and then discussed at the meeting, etc. But I’ve also done Babbel lessons, grammar exercises and dialogue translations on my own, watched the news and tv series and made videos on Instagram to practice more speaking.

A couple of weeks ago, at our tandem meeting, we were practicing job interviews – a crazy thing to do in a foreign language your hardly B2 level on, and I dreaded it beforehand. But in the end, Natalia said she’d been surprised at how well it went. She said she can see I’ve made progress from since we started. I agree, I feel like I have.

The progress I’ve made is not only thanks to our tandem practice. It’s made speaking easier, for sure, but the progress is thanks to all the stuff I’ve done, altogether, during the last couple of months. However, it is thanks to the tandem, that I’m able to notice that progress. And thanks to the tandem, I was able to share that great language learning success moment with someone who was equally pleased about it!

 

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The Best Reason to Learn Languages

I just got this moment, when I remembered why I’m actually learning languages. I needed to share it. I wonder if there’s someone else out there, who sometimes gets a feeling like this?

A moment when I was just struck by the breathtaking beauty of a language.

Today, I was watching Бедная Настя and it got me by surprise. It was this song:

 

I think there would be a lot less problems in the world, if everyone could, when hearing a foreign language, just stop, and listen, and hear the beauty of it. In stead of being afraid or suspicious about something we cannot understand, we could be fascinated and awed by it.

I am so overwhelmed that such a variety of languages exist. Different languages that people around the world strive to express their thoughts and feelings in.

It’s universal. It is so beautiful. I cannot even describe it.

I have no idea why, but I needed to share it.

Language learning goals for February 2017

We’re one week into February already, eek!

For some reason, February always seems to pass quicker than other months. It is only a couple of days shorter than the others so that can’t really be true. Perhaps it’s because in February, you’ve already gotten all the new things of the year going so things are just kind of rolling. Also, there’s a lot more light, the days are getting longer up here in the dark winter of Finland. Maybe that also has to do with it.

Although this post is a bit late, I planned my February’s goals really early, two weeks ago. I’m currently writing my Master’s Thesis, so in my free time, sitting down in front of the computer to write has not been the first thing on my mind…But I do want to share my review and goals, so here we go!

This post is inspired by the Clear the list challenge hosted by Lindsy Williams from Lindsay does languages, Shannon of Eurolinguiste, Kris Broholm and Angel Pretot.

Clear The List

Review: January 2017

On January, I was on fire. Well done me.

Remember my tracker I mentioned in the previous post? I got the idea from the Bullet Journal blog. Many BuJo people seem to use that kind of a thing for tracking their habits, especially exercise. The minute I saw it, I thought, “this could work for language learning”.

Turns out, it was the best thing ever.

My main problem with language learning is that my leisure time activities are very irregular. It’s not like yoga on Mondays, tennis on Tueasdays for me, but a different schedule each week. (I don’t play tennis and rarely do yoga but you get the point.) So I can’t just decide I’ll do French on Friday and Swedish on Sunday, either. Sometimes I have a lot of time in the weekend, sometimes more during the week.

I set weekly goals before, but couldn’t really decide which weekdays are for which languages, and especially, I didn’t plan which specific activities to do each day. This lead to a problem that when I had time for language learning, I couldn’t decide which activities to start with, and this got me overwhelmed and I wasted time trying to make up my mind.

So I tried using my tracker to plan ahead one week at a time. I did this usually on Sunday, when I pretty much knew already what the next week was going to be like. I had most of my goals for the month in a  “I’ll do this x times a week” form, so I could just divide the activities throughout the week on the days I thought I’d have time for them. For example, if I knew I had a busy day coming on Tuesday but would spend a lot of time on the public transport, I allocated some sitting-on-a-bus activities, such as listening or Babbel, for those days.

Something I also struggled with last month was that I found it hard to optimize the amount of time spent on each language. My tracker-planner also helped with this – it was easier when I could the variation between different languages visualized. It helped me check that I stick to my priorities throughout the week.

The tracker-planner worked wonders, because even if I didn’t have time when I’d planned, the empty box of the activity reminded me of what I’d not done yet that week, and I usually ended up doing it a day or two later than planned.

So this is how I did with my goals:

Russian

Tandem: One meeting per week – Done, starting from week two, so three meetings in total. In the beginning, the effects of a Christmas break could be seen, and speaking didn’t come easy… but we got going again!
Translate one dialogue per week
– I translated three in total.
Case exercises from two textbook chapters each week – Done!
Six lessons per week on Babbel – Done!
One episode of Бедная Настя per week – Done! And actually it was impossible to just watch one episode at a time, so I watched ten episodes in total. 😀
Watching news at least once a week – Done, sometimes even three times a week.

French

Goldlist: three sets per week – Done!
Listen to an audiobook for half an hour or so – Done!
I listened through “Le Petit Prince”. I’ve tried it before and couldn’t really follow back then, but now I almost understood everything, yay!
(Can’t find Harry Potter 5-7 as French audiobooks anywhere. That’s a shame!

Swedish

Watch weekly vlog from Clara Henry – Done!
Vägen till Jerusalem: Read 30 pages (or so) each week – I read a hundred pages in total.

Extra: My university has an ‘Each One Teach One” Facebook group, where I found (or actually was found by) a French girl who studies in Helsinki and is learning Swedish! We had a coffee and spent an hour speaking French and Swedish. That was awesome. I got proof that I’m actually quite able to have a discussion in French.

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My language tracker by the end of January!

Language learning goals for February 2017

I feel really good about what I was doing in January, and will therefore stick to pretty similar activities, but I dare to add a few new ones, because I think my schedule should be slightly less occupied with everything else in February.

Russian

Russian is still my main learning project and after February, it will have been so for three months. For some reason, this feels important. Somehow less time than that feels like just dabbling, but when you get past that, it’s kind of serious. This isn’t based on any statistics, just my gut feeling. But for me, three months with a language is a special occasion. I need to think of something – a special challenge, and a special treat, I think – for myself for the end of this month!

But first I need to get there and keep learning. My plans for February:

Tandem

I’ll keep meeting with my tandem partner. We’re almost through with our list of planned topics, probably we’ll complete them this month. I think we’ll try to find the time for three meetings.

Textbooks

I still felt a bit bored by the dialogue translations in the beginning of January, but started to get the hang of it towards the end of the month, so I’ll keep it up another month.

I’ve refined my method a bit: The basic thing is, I write the dialogue from my textbook in Russian and translate it to Finnish. Then I read the text through it a few times during the week, and finally translate it back to Russian and review my mistakes. This is what I added: with the first read-through, I pick the words that feel difficult and write them down as a list. The second time I underline all the difficult parts in the Russian version AND the parts where the word order or transcript is very different in the Finnish version. This helps me to pay attention to the differences.

Babbel

My subscription expires in February and I know now I won’t continue it because the level of the courses is two elementary for me. But I’ll keep doing some vocabulary lessons until the subscription expires; six lessons a week or so.

Series and news

I’ll keep watching at least 5 episodes of Nastya and the news at least once a week.

Vocabulary

Be it speaking in the tandem meetings and or understanding when I watch Youtube videos, I really feel that my biggest obstacle right now is the lack of vocabulary. The situation calls for a vocab boost method.

Like I’ve said, I love Goldlist method, and when I was taking my Russian courses at uni I was doing a Russian Goldlist. But it didn’t work as well as with French. For French I have an excellent vocabulary book that has a selection of most central words, and I’ve been Goldlisting that. In Russian, I used the vocabulary of my textbook chapters, but that wasn’t too motivating, because it’s a very random selection of words, not always the most relevant, I feel, and every now and then, the words reappear on the vocabulary.

So I’ll need something else. I’ll try something new. The sister of my boyfriend recently borrowed me a Russian dictionary, and since then, I’ve had a strange urge to carry it around everywhere I go and just skim through it all the time. I’ll try to utilize the strange appeal of the dictionary, and try to evolve some kind of a modification of the Goldlist method. We’ll see what it turns out to be like.

French and Swedish

Same goals as last month:
Goldlist three sets a week and half an hour of an audiobook (I need to pick a new one). Reading Vägen till Jerusalem and watching Clara Henry vlogs.
In addition, I hope to find the time for at least two more French-Swedish meetings with my new friend.

Not much new, only small changes this month, but why change something that works?

However, next month I’ll probably have to think of ways to add some new challenge, in order not to get bored, or stop making progress. I’m thinking I should perhaps try to write a bit more. Also, I could find something to read in Russian. But that can wait until March!

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