“Before vs. After” – My Personal Language Learning Victories

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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!

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Language learning goals for December 2016

Lately, two language blogs have really inspired me to try new methods and keep up my learning: Lindsay Does Languages and Joy of Languages. They gave me the idea to start using Instagram for practicing my French, and also made me think it is possible to keep learning multiple languages at the same time – something I gave up on earlier this year because I felt like it wasn’t going anywhere.

The most important thing these blogs have given me, though, has been ideas on how to set myself some proper goals. They both do a monthly goal-setting post where they specifically describe what they want to accomplish with each language they are learning.

Based on their example and my own learning methods, I set myself some weekly goals already this month. I managed to stick to them perfectly with French, but I did a bit less than planned with Russian and Swedish.

Next month I want to give it a go and officially join the Clear the list challenge! It’s a goal-setting challenge hosted by Lindsay Does Languages and Eurolinguiste.

Clear The List

 

Learning multiple languages

Katie Harris of Joy of Languages has an approach for learning multiple languages that I really love. She uses the terms sprint language and marathon languages. It’s intuitive: The sprint language is her main focus, she learns it daily and immerses herself in it with activities like TV, reading and radio, to make some serious progress. Marathon languages are the ones with more relaxed goals. They are being kept up so the stuff you already learned doesn’t get forgotten.

I find the division very helpful. The two concepts describe really well the amount of focus you should give to one language and the pace you can expect to keep up with the others, if you want to keep learning several languages AND actually make progress in one of them. Otherwise you will only keep treading water with all of the languages and learning nothing new.

I’m working on applying this in my own language learning right now.

Switching focus

I’ve been mainly learning French for more than half a year now. And I’m happy to say it’s been very fruitful! My understanding has improved and my vocabulary broadened. Just on the course of this month, after writing small things every day on Instagram, I’ve noticed it has gotten easier to form sentences and express my thoughts. The words come more easy to me now. I still haven’t practiced speaking enough, but at least I feel that an ordinary, not-so-simple conversation in French would not be impossible (like it used to be). And confidence is an important factor in speaking, so it is something!

I’ve found a really nice flow with French right now; I really enjoy everything I do with it. In that sense, it feels a bit difficult to take it down to less. But I also feel like I’ve reached a certain level where it is safe to concentrate on something else for a while.

I have a strong reason to dedicate more time for Russian right now. I joined a program at my university called “Each One Teach One”, and found a Russian student who wants to learn Finnish. We have already met a couple of times and practiced a bit, and I feel like it’s going to be great fun. But it is really difficult for me right now. My ability to speak Russian is far from impressive.

In order to make the most of the tandem learning, I have to support it with other things. That’s why I feel like I need to make Russian my main focus (or sprint language) now.

Learning goals for December 2016

The languages I’m learning right now are French, Russian and Swedish.

Russian

Because my Russian learning has been very unorganized so far, it will probably take some time to find the best methods. And the tandem learning thing is totally new for me. Trial and error it may be, but hopefully learning will happen.

My goal is to be able to keep up a very basic conversation (which also includes widening my vocabulary a bit, because I really do suck at surviving with a tiny vocabulary). I also wish to finally get some basic grammar in my head, so the cases wouldn’t be such a nightmare (yes, being said by a native Finnish speaker – the irony, I know…)

Tandem

We’ve made a great plan with Natalia, my tandem partner, and I’m super excited to get going! We’ll meet twice a week to discuss half an hour in both languages, on a chosen topic. We’ll also find for each other some pre-tasks, such as videos to watch, to support learning some words and phrases related to the topic.

Babbel

I checked what Babbel has to offer for Russian and unfortunately it’s rather basic stuff only. However, even my basics of Russian seem very rusty so perhaps it’s exactly what I’ll need to brush it up. I’m sure it’ll help with the grammar at least.

So I’ll try completing the Beginner’s course number three (1 and 2 seem too simple) which has 25 lessons. I’ll also do at least 20 grammar lessons in addition to that.

Translation

Because my tandem project will include both listening and speaking activities, and the Babbel courses will support grammar and speaking, what is left to be covered is reading and writing.

I think I’ll try the translation method: translating short dialogues first from Russian to Finnish, then back to Russian. I’ll use my course book from the courses I took at uni because I feel like I never really properly did my homework on those courses…

My goal is to do two dialogues per week. No idea if it’s too much or too little. Trial and error!

French

In order to make space for Russian, I should take French down a bit. How? I want to keep doing my Goldlist. And no way I’m going to leave out the Harry Potter audiobooks. I had actually wanted to check some French tv series and music, too… My goal next month is to keep up the great feeling of learning French, and enjoy all the things I can do with it – while doing much less.

Goldlist, audiobooks and Babbel

I guess the solution is cutting down how many days of the week I use for learning French. I’m thinking three days. Don’t know if it’s too much, but less feels like too little. So I’ll do three rounds of Goldlist a week, and listen to the audiobooks maximum three times a week.

Also, my current Babbel subscription of French ends around Christmas. I’m almost done with the last In-depth course they have, and lately I’ve noticed the other courses on grammar, vocabulary and words and sentences feel a bit too easy. So I think I will just keep using the review manager and reviewing what I learned so far, until my subscription ends.

TV and music

Because I got some great tips last month for both music and tv series and I really want to try them out, I’ll try to find the time to watch a series or listen to French music at least once a week. My goal is to at least check the recommendations and find out which series and artists I like.

Swedish

My “de-frost” project. Some time early 2017 I think I’ll take it as a sprint language to actually improve (or de-frost) it… Now my goal is to at least keep using my Swedish, and try and stop more frost from forming.

Lately I’ve been doing two things and I think I’ll just attempt to keep those up:

Reading

I still need to finish “Sommarboken” by Tove Jansson, that was my goal for this month. Then I’ll find another book and keep reading, just more regularly than this month.

Watching video blogs

I’ve found vlogs by Clara Henry amusing, and great practice for listening, so I’ll keep watching those every week.

Put myself to test

I’ll test my understanding of Swedish at the end of the month by watching a film without subtitles.

Instagram

I’ll keep using Instagram for practicing, but haven’t quite decided yet what to do with it. I should focus on Russian there, too, but I still want to keep writing some posts/making small videos in French, because it’s so much fun. Perhaps I’ll go for whichever language I feel like every day, but at least three days of the week must be Russian!