Learning through Conversing

Although many language classes focus on writing, reading comprehension, and memorization of grammar structures, one of the most important things a person can do to better their understanding of a language and reach native fluency is to improve their speaking and conversational skills. When surrounded by students who are at the same speaking level as yourself, it can be difficult to engage in conversations that challenge you and broaden your knowledge of your chosen language of study. And while professors and GSIs are helpful, they only have so much time for casual conversation. As a freshman at U of M and a student of Chinese, I was interested in improving my spoken Mandarin and becoming more comfortable carrying on conversations in the language. To do so, I signed up for the Language Exchange Club, a group that paired U of M language students with individuals who were looking to learn English. I was unsure what to expect at first – I was paired with a complete stranger, and part of me expected the partnership to fizzle out after a few meetings. Our first encounter was definitely awkward; after introducing ourselves (she was named Winnie and was in Ann Arbor for the year from Taipei, Taiwan, accompanying her husband, who was a MBA student at Ross, and I was a freshman learning Chinese) we were unsure what to talk about.

Eventually the meetings became less awkward though, and as meeting up with Winnie became part of my weekly routine, I realized how much I was learning from her. At first, I had been shy about talking in front of her, but this shyness subsided as the weeks went by. Every week we met at a coffee shop downtown and discussed a topic of our choosing, which had been designated the previous week. One hour in English and one hour in Chinese, alternating, and at the end we would choose our next topic and then walk to the bus stop together, chatting the whole way. Becoming friends with Winnie was extremely helpful for my language learning – speaking Chinese for an hour straight was not something I did in my language classes, and it felt great to use Chinese to talk about my personal life instead of the more academic topics we tackled in class.

But knowing Winnie had so many other benefits, too – I learned a lot about Taiwanese culture and what life in Taiwan is like, which is not something we talk about in class as most of our lessons focus on Mainland Chinese culture. I realized that friendships can easily be forged across various borders – I absolutely consider Winnie my friend, even though she is nearly ten years my senior, speaks a different language, and now lives halfway around the world. I was so excited to share the things I love about Michigan with someone who had not experienced them yet, and she was just as excited to tell me about Taiwan, which I had never visited. She invited me over for dinner and I was able to use the Chinese I knew (especially that which I had picked up from her) to talk to her husband about his hobbies, his school life, and even to discuss the news. Rather than the academic and stilted speech that can come as the result of too much time studying books and not enough real-world practice, I found that I was able to converse casually and comfortably.

Having a language partner allowed me to take my learning outside of the classroom and into my own hands, and it made me more confident when speaking Chinese. The most rewarding part, however, was seeing the same effect for Winnie – while it was sometimes hard to gauge how much progress I was making, I could clearly see the difference in her English abilities as she became more confident, more outgoing, and more talkative with each of our meetings. Knowing I had a part in her journey to English mastery, and that she has helped me with Chinese in a that way my teachers (through no fault of their own) could not do is something I am extremely grateful for.

— Maggie M.

Maggie is a current UofM undergrad in the Residential College studying English. To find out more about the Language Exchange Club at Michigan, click here, or find information about the LRC’s own conversation partner program here!

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French Beyond the Classroom

I started learning French during middle school, so I am not sure what kind of vocabulary French 101 at the U-M teaches. If you are just starting to learn French, maybe you will add to your repertoire the travel-guide basics – bonjour (hello), ça va (how are you?/I’m fine), où est la toilette? (where’s the toilet?).

As you advance, you will probably learn more basic, but less touristic words, like singe (monkey) or trottoir (sidewalk). In my personal experience, though, reading French poems and writing French essays can deceive you into thinking that you are proficient, if not advanced, in French.

One of my personal weaknesses is listening. Professors speak slowly and they really enunciate well, so I usually understand everything spoken in the classroom. But, when I went abroad, I realized that the youths have their own turbo speed of chatting, especially in their special lingo. I felt like a fish out of water, but I also felt a large improvement in my aural abilities in a short amount of time.

Another perk of going abroad is that you don’t just learn French equivalents of English words; you also profit from a cultural experience. Some of the words that I learned during my internship at KEDGE Marseille are regional. They are words that will never appear on my French paper, or in my reading assignment. Maybe these words aren’t that important. As a foreign-language student, I kind of accepted the fact that there are words native speakers learn in infancy, yet I will never know.

Nevertheless, I still think that it is really cool to have a chat with a native speaker in a setting far away from the classroom. Just by being in Marseilles, I learned that calanques are these rocky cliffs surrounding an inlet, uniquely found in the region. Navettes typically mean shuttles, but they are also delicious biscuits in Marseilles.

Of course, I also learned some non-regional words. They are fairly popular, but in the gastronomic domain, so you will probably have to stumble upon them in a recipe, or during a dinner with a French friend, as I did.

An example illustrated in my internship blog (pardon any grammatical mistakes!):

Pendant la semaine, j’ai rencontré Emmanuelle (Manu), une ambassadrice de KEDGE Bordeaux. Je l’adore ! Nous avons passé beaucoup de temps ensemble et puis je l’ai invité chez moi pour le dîner. C’était une expérience merveilleuse car on ne parle pas de la cuisine à l’école alors j’ai appris ce soir-là des mots comme « cassis », « orge », « pourrir », « décortiquer » (on a mangé des crevettes dans le riz cantonais), et elle m’a enseigné la différence entre « brûler » et « griller » (j’ai trop cuit une crêpe mais c’était seulement marronne et pas noire !), et entre « espionne » et « agent secret » (je n’ai pas su avant le dîner qu’elle est étudiante de KEDGE Bordeaux alors quand elle l’a révélé, j’ai plaisanté qu’elle est espionne).

The approximate translation:

During the week, I met Emmanuelle (Manu), a female ambassador from KEDGE Bordeaux. I really like her! We spent a lot of time together, and I invited her to my place for dinner. It was a marvelous experience because we don’t talk about cooking in school, so I learned that very night some words like cassis (blackcurrant), orge (barley), pourrir (to rot), décortiquer (to de-shell) (we ate some shrimp in fried rice), and she taught me the difference between brûler (to burn) and griller (to grill, so to brown instead of blacken) (I overcooked a crepe but it was only brown and not black!), and between espionne (female spy, with a negative connotation) and agent secret (secret agent) (I didn’t know that she was a KEDGE Bordeaux student, so when she revealed that fact, I joked that she’s a spy).

I feel that I have just begun scratching the surface of “French in the everyday life.” Sure, I can run to WordReference.com if I ever encounter a word, regardless of how basic it is, that I do not know. Yet, when will I be able to fill the gaps that will make my lexicon on par with French kindergarteners’? How many years of schooling will I need, in order to attain the ultimate goal: fluency? This is probably one of the most disheartening worries that language students have.

Maybe an answer is, once you are proficient, go abroad and immerse yourself. Or, the easy way out: you don’t have to be fluent. Learn enough to make small conversations, because you will not need to be completely dependent on the foreign language.

What about a compromise? Incorporate language of the daily life into our courses. Make contact with native speakers via Skype, or other video-chatting applications. Even encouraging students to spend time together, maybe over lunch, speaking the foreign language with a fluent facilitator present, will increase opportunities to learn words like cassis.

— Sheila, University of Michigan student

The LRC: A Student Testimonial

It is often said that language is the most powerful connector between people. The thought of random sounds strung together having the infinite power to elate, infuriate or illuminate people is truly fascinating. However, questions arise about what the power of language is centered around; is language solely sound based? Must people understand each others languages to understand each other? How much do the way the sounds are made tell you about the situation you are in?

The Language Resource Center at the University of Michigan has understood the importance of these questions, and has begun to help me, and countless other students, realize the power of language in their own lives.

Being fluent in Greek, French and English from a young age I have always been intrigued by the power of my voice in different scenarios. This has led me to yearn for, at minimum, a rudimentary understanding of all languages and how they connect to their cultural home. The Language Resource Center has provided me with culturally applicable resources in different languages that show the languages used in their home culture. For example, I have been able to watch Russian TV and listen to the intonations of the actors. This has helped me appreciate that the speed of the Russian language can be connected to the speed of Russian culture and society. Furthermore, I have been able to explore how differing speaking volumes hint at specific countries cultural preferences. For example, Greeks tend to speak very loud and passionately, often you will see two people yelling at each other, and yet they truly are having what they consider a casual conversation. Yet in American cultural quiet speaking is much more the norm. Conversations in public seem to become private by the whispering and shushing that occurs. While it may be a stretch, there is an argument that connects these cultural differences to the differing senses of community in each country.

Even though these connections and questions are daunting, the Language Resource Center at the University of Michigan is a place in which I am able to attempt to learn more about these subjects. And begin to understand the power of the languages I speak, not only through their sound but also through their cultural importance. I am so excited to delve deeper into the issues of the importance of language and its power.

— Patrick M., University of Michigan student

 

Finding Time for Language Practice

Some people say that you need to practice something for 10,000 hours before becoming a master in that field.  I don’t particularly subscribe to this, as I believe in quality over quantity– but I do feel that while you can become good at something with practice over time, there are limits to becoming great without following a premeditated, strategic regimen of training.  Languages can be trained just like any other skill in terms of practice–consider developing a custom schedule for learning your favorite foreign language.  Dealing with the logistics of language practice can be placed into two categories, finding time itself and finding a type of schedule you enjoy that also pushes you to new ability levels.  

Finding extra time itself:

Anticipate any potential obstacles to practicing language each week and figure out how you can get around them.  Can you reschedule a meeting that makes for a really long day?  When do the last-minute parties tend to happen?  What other things are on your to-do list and how long do you think they’ll take?  

If you can’t find time, make time by turning existing time into language time:

  • Wake up early or stay up late and have the peaceful, quiet time to yourself to practice.
  • Listen to a podcast or playlist of songs during a workout or on your regular walks.
  • Do your math homework by saying the numbers and mechanisms aloud in your target language as you go.

Have a language learning party–either by yourself or with classmates.  Get out chips and salsa, order pizza delivery, and have a blast.  Blare some music and converse only in your target language, get out several contemporary books and movies, etc.  Go out to a party and only speak in your target language with your classmates.  Bonus points for making people think you’re foreign exchange students.

Take a serious look at your schedule, as if you were someone else objectively analyzing it.  What do you spend a lot of your free time on?  Is there time being wasted on unimportant things?  Document a few days or a week of your daily activities and what you do–can stuff be cut out?  Don’t be afraid to switch up the practice schedule each week depending on what’s going on then.  

How frequently do you want to practice language? For how long?  What kind of focus is most important to you?  Why are you doing this?  Take a piece of paper and write all of this down in short bullet points or whatever format you’re most comfortable with.  Place this paper wherever you’ll see it often to remind yourself that this is important to you.

Approach this like a sports practice or a job.  You basically are expected to show up to sessions unless in the case of illness or other unavoidable circumstances.  Why should your language practice be any different?  Your skills, and more importantly, you, deserve the same accountability that you afford to others.

Finding a type of practice schedule you enjoy:

Try not to see this as “studying” language, but “practicing” language.  Even if you are delving into a language for an academic class, placing the emphasis on language being a fun part of your lifestyle and a long-term skill you’re developing, rather than just another contributor of homework and sleepless nights, can help turn your motivation around.  

Create goals for yourself.  What are your short and long term goals?  Some example goals:  Practice 30 minutes per session, twice a week outside of your classes.  Meet with a language partner once a week.  Consider creating goals for longer periods of time, such as weekly, biweekly, etc if you find yourself feeling stressed over more frequently occurring goal-periods.  Provide yourself some leniency–if you schedule a practice for Monday and it just doesn’t happen, let yourself be okay with it and don’t waste any time getting upset over it.  Give yourself a week to make up the missed time and consider it over.  Then move on.  Just move on.

Have some form of timeline for at least some of your goals, i.e. “be able to talk confidently about various types of appetizers by March.”  Productivity is a numbers game–progress can be measured in many ways, including the feeling that you’re getting better.  But when you’re looking at hard numbers [“did I meet my two goals this month?], this can help further validate your progress objectively and is a great way to chart progress over long amounts of time.  Having these records enables you to replicate the magnitude of these results for future language goals, and to avoid past mistakes you see in patterns.

Here are some ideas for fun activities to make consistent language practice easier:

A popup calendar:  Create a calendar where you can peel back little flaps each day–each day you choose to practice has its own area of focus or activity related to language practice.  For example, try pronunciation, spelling, grammar, vocab, and activities like watching video clips and listening to music, writing text messages, speaking over Skype to an overseas language partner, reading from a foreign newspaper, etc.  Mix it up and have fun with this.  Add “fun” surprises on certain days, like a freestyle practice day, a culture day involving cooking authentic cuisine, etc.

Language Bingo: Make this yourself, out of construction paper or anything else you can find.  Award yourself points for each portion of the board, by achieving certain specific accomplishments like learning 5 new words, being able to order basic food and drink, having a conversation with a native for 2 minutes without getting confused, etc.  Leave the board up in your room, office or wherever you frequent so that you can see your progress.  Reward yourself once you hit Bingo, and again once you fill the entire board.  

Reward ideas:  membership to a new language software/website, a foreign DVD or magazine, a trip overseas, a board game, cuisine of a country that speaks your target language, etc.  Have fun, unique incentives that aren’t in your life otherwise.  I recommend keeping the reward language-related, to remind yourself of the intrinsic value of learning a foreign language, which can be a great source of motivation.

Above all, have fun with this!  The core of picking up a new language is being able to communicate better with those around us–whether it be for business, pleasure or other reasons.  I encourage you to use my ideas as a springboard for inspiration of your own; in your language practice I also encourage you to use the same organizational skills that you use in scheduling classes, part-time jobs, student organization meetings, etc.  One of Michigan’s challenges is time management, but if you are able to hack your time and make the most of what you have in a way that’s meaningful & enjoyable to you, you can find remarkably fast improvement in your skills–no matter how many hours you’re working with.

— Alaska Lam

Want more time saving tips and tricks? Follow Alaska on Twitter at@thebusypinata and check out her amazing new productivity website! http://www.thebusypinata.com/

So How Was It? Explaining a Life-changing Trip

Upon my return to campus this fall, I received all the typical post-study abroad questions, the majority of which were: How was Africa?

My first reaction was that I didn’t actually go to Africa – I went to Tanzania. But finding someone who could identify the Tanzanian coast along the Indian Ocean was evidently a tall order. I chalked this unawareness up to a gross lack of education about African culture and realized that in telling about my study abroad experience, I had a chance to give authentic, first-hand information about east Africa.

But, in spite of this fantastic opportunity to educate and inform, I found myself conflicted as I searched for the words:

How could I condense an entire month of life-changing experiences into mere sentences?

How could I summarize an entire culture, an entire lifestyle, climate and language?

And even then, how could I articulate what I saw and learned in terms to which my peers could connect?

I thought back to the stifling heat, the beautiful and malnourished children we worked with, the joy and frustration of trying to express myself in Swahili, the easy walks to and from my village and the market… I thought of missing home, of getting sick when I was a continent away from my mom, the moments when I felt infinite and the moments when I wished I could melt away into my simple and effortless life in the States.

My friends stood there as I contemplated a tsunami of thought and feeling, lost in nostalgia and reflection as they waited for my stock answer, the one I always gave:

“It was great! I spoke a lot of Swahili and worked with adorable kids. I had so much fun,” I said as they asked me in the middle of the Diag, the first week of school upon us now.

With each false telling, the words left an unsavory and guilty taste in my mouth, the feelings and truths I glossed over burning brighter and brighter in my memory – the things that truly mattered… the ways that my world-view became more holistic and compassionate and selfless and how my life goals were forever altered.

The truth begged to be told, but I had no idea how even to begin. My friends – the ones who fantasize about dating the handsome stranger in chemistry class, and spend weekends tailgating for football games and writing English essays; how could they possibly understand? My friends, the beautiful and sweet people that they are, asked me with all the best intentions: How was Africa?

And in my head, I screamed: I cried for the infants I fed whose mothers had died in labor and the way their malnourished bellies made my stomach sick with guilt and anger, and I wept for the fact that men in traditional cultures still think it’s okay to harass women and that my white skin made me somehow more important than locals because whiteness equates to goodness for so many in this world. I wept, I wept, I wept; but truly, I lived.

And as those words clamored in my head, all that I said was: “It was such a great experience. Tough, but amazing.”

Telling of my trip is hard. There is no way to comprehend it, and, as I attempt to piece it all together 4 months later, I share less and less of my actual experience. For now, I have settled on this: Wherever you go, you will not come back the same as when you left.

— Britt Boyle