Welcome to a summary of three fantastic talks that I attended on the last two days of the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin.
As with my summaries of days one and two, these are notes on the main points from the talks. I’ve written them in the first person, as I think it’s more entertaining that way, but please remember that they are my summaries, so I can’t guarantee that they are always exactly as the speaker intended.
For more on these topics, I encourage you to head over to the blog of each speakers where they all share many more fantastic insights on similar topics.
Improving Reading and Listening Comprehension
Here’s what the course content at Oxford looks like:
- Translation of texts into English
- Translation of texts into German & written essay in German
- German literature
As you can see, it’s virtually all literature-based. Oral and listening examinations are limited to one exam, which constitutes 10% of the
mark for the entire course.
Oxford believes that the way to learn languages is naturally. That is, in the same way that native speakers use the language. The only way
to do this as a student sitting in Oxford… is by reading books.
This might seem restrictive, but there are many benefits to books, beyond what you can get from speaking. Books offer us the chance to be exposed to language that we wouldn't otherwise encounter.
So, how can you use books and literature to help yourself become a fluent speaker of the language?
What should you read?
- Something you will enjoy
- Something other people have enjoyed
- Something important for the culture of the language you are studying
- At first something short (it will take a long time!)
Key pointers for good reading
- You don't need to understand every word to read a text
- You need to look up words, but which ones? You can’t look up everything. Authors tend to use the same words over and over. When you see certain wordsbeing repeated in the text – look them up. When you see them repeated over the course of the book they will stick.
- Forget shortcuts. You need to work hard at it and do the work yourself if your aim is to become fluent.
Improving your listening
To improve my German I would listen to Deutschlandfunk – 30 minute podcasts.
I would listen and write down words and phrases that sounded interesting as I listened. Then I'd stop and look them up. After that I'd go back and listen
again multiple times.
This particular podcast comes with transcriptions. For an alternative approach, apply the same process to the text rather than the audio – highlighting words and phrases which are of interest.
[Tweet “Forget shortcuts. You need to work hard at it and do the work if fluency is your aim.”]
Matching Methods & Goals in Language-Learning
This talk examined how you can adapt your method to meet various goals in a language.
Goal 1: Conversation
Most modern courses are aimed at conversation, so they are good places to start. I would supplement this study with lang-8.com, (Note from Olly: see my ideas here for how to do this), then text chat, then Skype, in person. Finally, I would add phone conversations, as they can be very challenging.
The first stages above are in order to slow down the process and not to be put in a situation where you have to respond instantaneously to the other person.
When picking a language course, I like to look at the translations of lesson dialogues so I can tell right away if the topics are relevant or of interest to me.
If your main initial goal is to be able to understand books, using conversation-based textbooks is counter-productive.
Instead, look out for some reading-based textbooks, e. g. “Spanish for Reading” or a lot of the older, pre-communicative approach textbooks.
Alternatively, I might start by studying a grammar overview for a few hours just to understand the basics and then immediately embark on reading parallel texts.
For Asian languages, be sure to read on the computer at this stage, so you can use a hover dictionary. (Looking up Chinese characters, for example, in paper dictionaries takes too long.)
In terms of what types of texts to read, the following are good at the beginning:
- Simplified texts with limited vocabulary (know as graded readers)
- Naturally simple texts (e.g. The Little Prince)
- Some children’s books (although unusual vocabulary, animal names and so on makes many children's books harder to understand than newspaper articles)
- … or any book you love and have read before! Since your reading speed is quite slow at the beginning, action-packed books (e. g. by Dan Brown) can help you retain interest.
- Slow-to-start classics are better left for when you have already read some other books and your reading speed has improved, unless you are dying to read them. Interest is more important than ease.
Some book types tend to be simpler than others, in terms of vocabulary. For example:
- Books by non-writers (autobiographies, travel stories, popular non-fiction)
- Everyday fiction (thrillers, detective stories, modern romance)
Goal 3: Understand radio or TV news
[Note from Olly: I’ll just link to Judith’s excellent blog post on the topic instead of reproducing it here]
Goal 4: Public speaking
What if you’re preparing to give a speech in the language you’ve just started learning?
Here are the key steps I took to prepare to give a speech in Indonesian…from scratch!
- Figure out the topic of the speech as soon as possible – ideally something you’re familiar with
- Take a few basic lessons in the language, or else learn the 300 most frequent words.
- Start to learn vocabulary from targeted blogs on the topic, or else from conversations with a native speaker
- Write the speech you’re going to give, then have it corrected by a native speaker.
- Rather than memorising the speech in its entirety, or reading it word for word on the day, instead create an abstract of key words and phrases that you can refer to during the talk for guidance. This will help to keep it natural.
How to Reach Native-Like Fluency
[Olly: Luca’s talk was so packed full of valuable insights and useful info that I had a hard time paying attention and making notes at the same time! Hope you can follow the thread!]
What is native-like fluency?
We often think of C2 level on the CEFR as the standard for fluency. In fact, the descriptors for the C2 level show that it is an academic level of language, which many native speakers themselves don't reach themselves.
Here it is:
- Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
- Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
- Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
As a result, I don’t think we should be defining fluency as C2 for learners of a foreign language. We can function perfectly well in society without reaching such a high standard of proficiency.
On the Four Skills
When we look at native speakers, it’s tempting to see their ability in the four skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing) to be related. This is inevitable, as native speakers will spend 80,000 hours living the language as a whole during the first 18 years of their lives.
For language learners, however, these skills are fundamentally separated. It’s perfectly possible to learn a foreign language by speaking, and hardly ever reading or writing, for example.
As you improve, continue developing the four skills. Don't neglect any one of them because fluency is a complex and difficult goal – in order to get there
you need to approach it from as many different angles as possible. Attending to each of the skills reinforces the others.
Develop Outward from a Core
This is the fundamental process or path that I see for the learner of a language:
1. First: develop basic fluency – fundamental words in the target language
2. Second: gain personal fluency – add words and phrases that are personally useful to you
3. Third: literacy – learn and manipulate language associated with higher levels of education
The key to fluency is not to learn endless words, but to learn a small core of key words and phrases and manipulate them well to express yourself in endless situations.
Exposure and interaction
Without this, it is very difficult to become fluent. You need constant exposure to the language you’re learning, and plentiful opportunities to interact with others using the language.
Here’s what I think are necessary:
- Make enough time to get daily passive exposure. You can do this with radio, podcasts, documentaries and so on.
- Create the chances to interact daily in the language. This can be done with anyone available – friends, family, going out, living together.
We all have time to study a little everyday, but it's the amount of interaction we can create in our daily lives which really makes the difference.
The key to reaching fluency is a combination of deliberate passive exposure plus natural interaction over the course of time.
I've learnt all my languages by making a series of conscious decisions to live my life in this way.
[Tweet “The key to fluency is not to learn endless words, but rather a small, flexible core.”]
So there you have it!
Wow… what an amazing couple of days. Bring on next year!
What's your biggest takeaway from these three talks? Here's mine (its a big one!). Leave a comment below to let me know!