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!


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/

Language Partnership Tricks


The words on every mercenary’s lips.  No longer just for career hitmen in bad movies, those picking up a new language can learn from this ideology as well.  Diving into a completely foreign language requires resources, time, the right contacts and energy.  Students will always benefit by utilizing the resources most beneficial to them, and in this field, finding a language partner can be a priceless resource.

If you’re new to this world:  A language partner is someone who is learning your native language and is fluent in your target language [the one you’re trying to learn].  Together you perform conversation exchanges, which are essentially bartering individual assistance in one language for assistance in another.  This takes advantage of both your skill sets.  They can take the form of formal lessons, casual tea meetings, or somewhere in between.  Culture discussions are also often incorporated into the experience.  Potential language partners can be found through your university, sites online (conversationexchange.com seems to be one of the most reputable), flyers in your town, local clubs, and more.

Here are some fun tricks to find and maintain language partners with a strong foundation for growth, mutual benefit & friendship:

1)  Do your research first.  What type of structure does your potential partner want?  For example, some partners may choose to practice language A exclusively for 30 minutes, and then switch to language B also exclusively for the next 30 minutes; others at a beginner level may prefer to have each person speak in their target language the entire meeting.  How many times do you want to meet, and for how long each session?  

  • Do you want more formal lessons or conversation practice?  
  • What are your partner’s specific language goals—do you feel you can help with that, and vice versa?  
  • Does your partner live nearby, or are they willing to do an online session like over Skype?  
  • Does this person seem genuine, helpful, kind and serious about making progress together [as opposed to only focused on their own growth, or too much of a procrastinator]?  

Some of this stuff can only be determined better after a first meeting, but these are just some questions to get you thinking about your own needs and if you have found a partner that is a good fit.

2)  Informal sessions can be a great way to get to know your partner as a friend; enjoy hanging out at a restaurant or other local haunt.  Some may fear that meeting in a less formal setting may disrupt the dynamics—for example, if you agree to practice 30 minutes Chinese and 30 minutes English, it can get tricky to precisely stick to the timetable when dealing with real-life interruptions [ordering from the menu, figuring out the tip, etc].  

However, it’s important to practice foreign language in these settings, so that you’re prepared to face the challenges once you don’t have the crutch of a translator to help get you through.  My personal development philosophy is that it’s better to be over-prepared and relieved upon an outcome, than under-prepared and in a state of shock.  Case in point: do you buy more toilet paper than you think you’ll need, or less and hope you can make do?

3)  Keep it fair. A way to figure out how to equally distribute the language-practice time during informal sessions such as at restaurants is to play a rapid fire game.  Try Language Switch: Choose a very short amount of time, such as 10 minutes, and switch the language you’re speaking every time this amount passes.  

The trick is that you have to maintain the same topic before and after a particular language switch.  If you were in the middle of a sentence about the colonial war days in English and it’s time to switch to Swahili, you still have to continue the sentence in the new language.  Good luck.

(Bonus points for confusing the waiters.)

4)  Keep accountable to both yourself and your language partner.  Canceling sessions occasionally is fine, though it starts to slip when you go three or more sessions without actually meeting.  Make a promise, albeit an unofficial one, to yourself and your partner to devote this partnership to growth.  Even if you are studying language for fun and don’t have a rushed timeline, it’s beneficial for progress to carve a regular time in your schedule and your mind, so that you can get the most out of your experiences together.

5)  Take notes.  Are you going to remember what your partner said to you over the loud noise of a crowded bar about the Croatian word for “crowbar”?  I don’t think I’d even remember that in a quiet diner: I mean, who studies foreign words for crowbar?  If you’re reading this blog, I suspect you might be the kind of person that just enjoys language learning for the sake of it, and eventually you might get around to some of the weirder words such as toolbox lingo.  Who knows?

6)  Play people-watching games!  Pick a person in the distance, and have your friend pick someone that that person is talking or interacting with.  Roleplay a humorous version of what you imagine their conversation might be, in your target languages simultaneously.  

Hey, people-watching is not a spectator sport.  These people move fast once they realize you’re watching them, which makes it perfect for speaking a foreign language and thinking on your feet.

7)  Food-eating contest.  Clarity will be a challenge when you speak a foreign language.  Going off of the principle that it’s better to over-train, why not have an eating contest with your favorite foods while maintaining conversation practice?  If you can talk about your new job or the details of a house rebuilding while scarfing massive piles of lasagna, you’ll be certain to impress at the business presentation where all you’re expected to choke down is water.  If an eating contest is too much food for you, going out to a buffet, downing some extra-thick smoothies or cooking lunch together are also great options.

Overall, a language partnership can have many rocks in its progress, and these tricks and games certainly aren’t all-inclusive, or one-size-fits-all.  I encourage you to explore what works for your potential language partners, and what your needs are as an individual seeking growth.  Maybe it’ll be extreme sports or cleaning house that bond your foreign vocabularies together, rather than any of these things that I’ve listed here.  Whatever you do & wherever you go, the spirit of mutual discovery and spontaneity is something that can be vastly beneficial in your global communications–even if you only perform trades because you’re up to no good.

— 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/

Tips and Tricks for Host-Family Living

You survive the eight (plus) hour plane ride, you give the customs officer your best smile and get your passport stamped, then you somehow find your way to your group/professor/team in a foreign airport; the logistics alone of a study abroad can be daunting to say the least. Add a host-family set-up to the mix and it’s downright terrifying. Not only are you practicing a language that you know very little of, but you’re trying to personalize and adapt to your new living conditions respectfully with your limited vocabulary. Factor in the aspect of actually getting along with your family and you can see that it’s a fragile set-up.

In spite of these challenges, the benefits have been proven time and time again; students of a foreign language learn best when immersed in conversation with native speakers. Thus, living with a host family (for any amount of time) is a huge advantage in learning a new language. As a student of both German and Swahili, I have had the privilege of living with two families – one in a suburban town in northern Bavaria (a region of Germany) called Bad Neustadt an der Saale, the other in a modest village in the Tanga region of Tanzania called Lushoto – to practice my language skills.

Considering how similar my German home was to my American home in suburban Michigan, I am going to focus on my home-stay in Lushoto, Tanzania. Living with my host-family there in East Africa was an experience which I think provided me the greatest linguistic improvement for such a short span of time, especially considering that I had only taken two years of Swahili prior to my visit, in comparison to five years of German before my home-stay in Bad Neustadt.

On the day I arrived at my host-home in Lushoto, I wrote the following: “We pulled into a narrow road, lined with street-vendors and small shops and then turned into a court-like opening where a gaggle of neighborhood children were playing soccer. As soon as the bus pulled up, the children noticed it was stuffed with “wazungu” (white people in Swahili), they came rushing to the bus in a frenzy… I cannot recall a time when I was so nervous or so out of my comfort zone as that moment, standing on the porch and saying goodbye to Mama (our professor), Alfred (our tour guide), and Esther (our Swahili teacher)…”

I consider myself an exceptionally outgoing person. Seldom do I hesitate to approach someone with a question, concern, or even a compliment, and I have often been described as “too talkative” and thus “distracting” throughout my schooling career. Even with these tendencies, stepping into my host-home in Lushoto for the first time rendered me speechless. That’s simply the effect of living in a host-home: you are automatically the guest, the “other” – the cultural specimen. Now you represent yourself, your university – and in your host-family’s eyes – your country. Everything is new from the toilets to the kitchen to the electricity (or lack thereof) and even the chickens clucking around in the backyard. It’s all new and you must navigate this new space with grace and gratitude. It’s a tall-order for the student, who is probably only 19 or 20 years old. So in order to make this experience just that much smoother, here are my tips, tricks and insights into how best to navigate a foreign host-home.

  1. They don’t expect you to be a genius – Especially as Americans who “typically” spend little time learning foreign languages, your host-family will not expect you to be giving a dissertation in their native language. In my experience, my family was thrilled when I could string together even the most basic of sentences, boiling down complex situations into generalizations such as: “Most people…”; “Typically…”; “I like…” etc. Even just throwing out vocabulary like “table,” “education” or “sibling” (or asking about such words) will impress your host family and give them hope that Americans do, in fact, take the time to learn foreign languages.
  2. Hook onto the essentials – There will be words and phrases that are crucial that you nail down. For example, knowing how to ask for directions, telling time, and asking where the bathroom is. After a few days living with my host family, I still hadn’t showered. One aspect of this issue was that I didn’t think I needed one yet; the other was that I didn’t know what the word for shower was. When my host mom asked if I wanted to shower later that day, I gave an enthusiastic “ndiyo” (yes) and made a mental note of the verb “to shower”: kuoga. As an added benefit, I have not since forgotten that word, as it was so crucial to my life in Tanzania.
  3. Charades go a long way – In the episode of communicating my need for a shower, my host mom illustrated the otherwise unknown verb, “kuoga,” with vigorous scrubbing and imaginary water streaming from the space above her. Her movements made the question clear – “Do you want to shower?” Taking a cue from my host mom, don’t be afraid to add a little jig or some hand-motions to your conversation – you might feel silly, but you’ll be better understood and maybe even become closer to your host-family on account of your tom-foolery.

All in all, living with a host family during your time abroad is a sure-fire way to get the most linguistic improvement out of your study abroad. 10/10 would recommend. “Asante, kwa herini!” Thank you, goodbye all!

— Britt Boyle

Starting a new language? Use it from day one!

Don’t be afraid to sound silly! Trying to speak a language is one of the most important hurdles to overcome!

Lost for Words

Fear is the main point that slows down the early stages of language learning for many a learner; a fear of actually using the language…

Lets talk about getting over this fear, and turning it into amazing progress! The secret? Speak from day one. It takes a little preparation, and isn’t easy, but overcoming that early fear will pay dividends in even a pretty short time.

When we start a language, most will be dreaming of confidently chatting with native speakers, weaving beautiful sentences with ease, without stopping to think in our first language. Yet despite the usual (and completely understandable!) main goal of using the language, nearly everyone tends to spend a good while flicking through a textbook instead.

That drag through the textbook  also tends to go on a bit longer than originally intended. Why? People are generally concerned of ‘reaching a certain level’ before they can talk.


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Tones: checking it’s right

Sounding like a native speaker can be one of the toughest but most rewarding hurdles to overcome. Here are some tips on using tonal inflections to get your point across!


Tones are a frustrating thing the first time round, and for most foreign language learners these days that frustration seems to come from learning Mandarin Chinese (until such a day as we see a huge boom in Yoruba, Thai, Vietnamese and Panjabi study).

Mandarin has, comparatively, a simple and regular tone system in which each syllable pronounced carries one of four tones or, in rare cases, carries no tone and is unstressed. The tones are well known to educated Chinese speakers too, who before entering university take an exam in which tone marks must be added to a text.

When imagining these tone contours, we say that our highest tone in speech is 5 and our lowest is 1. The first tone, flat and high, sees the tone stay at 5. The second tone, ascending, goes from 3 to 5. The third tone descends slightly then rises; we can see…

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Hebrew learning app reviews

Anyone learning Hebrew out there?

Mr Multilingual

I’ve been trying to refresh my Hebrew. I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten quite a bit.

So, I thought why not try some apps? They’re free/cheap enough, most of the time. So, I searched and found two that I like. Here’s a quick review of each.

Hebrew Letters Numbers Free


No matter what language, numbers are always my weak point; so, I needed something to help me revise the Hebrew numbers. This app, made specifically for children, helps with learning and practising numbers 1 – 10. It also has a section each for the aleph-bet (Hebrew alphabet) and for colours.

Screenshot_2015-05-07-09-04-35 Screenshot_2015-05-07-09-09-05
The user hears the letter/number/colour pronounced and tries to click the right one.

Because it was made for (apparently young) children, though, there the corresponding written word for the vocabulary is left out. That would benefit me. But, at the same time, the encouraging exclamations of כל הכבוד…

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