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!

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