Time for a new approach

Summer Recording Challenge 2013As you may have gathered, I stopped attending classes and have since left Vietnam. This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop learning, it’s just that I need to adjust my old routine. To be upfront, I’m not sure exactly how this is going to work out. The last time I took a break from classes, I hit a plateau. Plus I’m teaching at an English camp next month and it’s difficult to predict what free time I’ll have. I ummed and ahhed about the next step and then suddenly it hit me…

A Summer Recording Challenge

Do you want to improve your pronunciation? Got 15 minutes to spare every day this summer? Join me on a 40 day challenge to improve your pronunciation by listening to a native speaker, copying them, practising and recording the result. Starting 1st July 2013.

Want to know more? Ready to sign up? Check out the challenge page and keep an eye out for some prepatory guides over the next two weeks, starting tomorrow.

How I pushed myself to learn more Vietnamese before leaving Vietnam

Pushing myself as time was running outAs my time in Vietnam started running out, I felt an urgency to learn as much Vietnamese as I could. I decided simply attending my regular classes wasn’t enough (especially as the pace was too slow) and I’d been letting myself get stuck in a routine that wasn’t helping me learn or practice beyond my comfort zone. It was time to shake things up.

1. Getting a motorbike licence

For quite some time I’d been toying with the idea of taking the full A1 motorbike test in Vietnam. Most expats get their home car licence translated which exempts them from taking the theory test, so only the practical test is needed to get a Vietnamese motorbike licence. However this kind of licence comes with an expiration date.

I saw it as an opportunity to set and achieve a goal: study for and pass the theory test.

I got a copy of the booklet of questions but left it on the shelf for a while. Sensing I needed a date to work towards to push me to study, I registered to take the test and started working through the booklet with a friend, picking out the vocab I needed to understand the questions. As I do in fact have a UK car licence, I found most of the questions quite straightforward once I understood them, then just memorised the rest.

Two days before the test itself, I went along to the second practice session (I missed the first the day before) which involved taking a practice test on paper then another on the computer. I scraped a pass both times. Confidence now high I was left to worry about the tricky “number 8” on the practical test.

To cut a long story short, I not only passed the theory test but I got 15/15. I’m not sure who was more amazed – myself or the guy who printed out my score sheet.

My Vietnamese motorbike licence

My licence which lasts forever

2. Attending a Korean class…in Vietnamese

Not content with one goal that took less than a week to accomplish, I also attended Korean classes for a month. I was the only non-Vietnamese person in the classroom, teacher included. I certainly didn’t understand everything and I took longer to pick up new structures, but with a bit of effort and preparing for class, I made enough progress.

While I didn’t have a SMART goal for this one, aside from learning some basic Korean the aim was mostly just to stretch myself. To put myself in a unfamiliar, challenging environment using Vietnamese and prove I could step up to it. I struggled, but it was an interesting experience.

3. Stop using ‘Vietglish’

This is embarrassing to admit, but with a couple of my closet friends we don’t actually speak proper Vietnamese. Nor could it be called English. We switch between the two, even in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes it is down to efficiency (even my friend will sometimes say ‘she’ as it’s quicker than choosing ‘cô ấy’, ‘bà ấy’). Often there is no real reason for it, it’s just become habit. But a lot of the time, it is because I don’t know (or don’t want to pause to remember) a word. Uh-oh.

Surprisingly, this has not become a problem when I’m talking to anyone else. Still, it’s a bad habit and I decided it was time to start kicking it.

So I armed myself with a notepad and wrote down every English word I used in a Vietnamese sentence. I went through my list with a friend, and got example sentences for each new word. I’ve put these new words in my Anki deck and I’m learning them. I’m trying not to speak Vietglish with my friends, but I’m aware it’s going to take time to totally stop.

Even after these three steps, I’ve still got quite a way to go to improve my Vietnamese but it was nice to leave on a high, with motivation to keep on learning. After all, I’ll have to come back to Vietnam to make use of that licence. 😉

Language links – May 2013

Around the webHere are a selection of links I liked this month in the language blogosphere:

Happy reading!

When should you quit language classes?

when to quit language classesClasses can be a great way of getting good, consistent input in your language learning journey. For many people, myself included, learning stagnates without a push to keep going (and there’s nothing like having paid for classes to make sure you go, and therefore learn). But sometimes the classes are not worth your precious time and hard-earned money.

I’m sure everyone, at some point in their lives, has been in a class that was simply moving too quickly or two slowly. Perhaps you aced biology and didn’t get why the teacher was explaining photosynthesis yet again. Or maybe nothing your biology teacher said made any sense, but when you got home and your mum/brother/cousin explained it to you, it all clicked into place.

Mass education is always going to have a mix like this in a class, even if classes are grouped in levels.

And actually, it’s not always a bad thing. For starters, a good teacher will address this issue when they’re planning their lessons, thinking about ways to help the weak students and push the strong ones. Moreover, being a weak student for that level can be excellent motivation to work hard and catch up with the rest of the class. Stronger students can likewise compete to stay at the top.

However, sometimes the pace is not just a bit out of sync, sometimes it’s so far off that you need to stop attending classes.

If your class is totally above your level, you’re going to spend a lot of time feeling lost or confused. You’ll feel like the language is too hard. It’s not. Anyone can learn a language, but we all progress at different rates. You’ve been thrown in at the deep end of the swimming pool before you’re ready. You need a little more practice at the shallow end and before you know it you’ll be able to move up. That’s it. Just like learning to swim, dropping down a level will make you feel more comfortable, as well as broaden your knowledge on details you felt like you whizzed through before, and ultimately increase your confidence learning and using Vietnamese.

On the flip side, if your class is moving too slowly this is also when you should stop attending. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that these classes are still better than nothing, but if you leave every class frustrated and fed up because classes are moving as slow as the slowest student or you’re staring at the clock waiting for class to finish, it’s time to quit.

A different class, a private class one-on-one with a teacher or taking a new approach like a language exchange could be just what you need to spice things up again and keep moving forward.

4 ways to make the most of class time

Making the most of class timeI like attending classes. Some people prefer the structure it provides while others like self-study or learning by listening. For me a combination of these methods, using a mixture of focus and chaos, works best.

So, what can you do to ensure you’re making the best use of your time with a teacher?

1. Only speak Vietnamese

It’s scary at first, but it pushes you to learn because you have to think how to explain a word you’re missing rather than flipping back to English all the time. Sometimes you’re going to speak to someone who can’t speak English so you might as well get used to thinking around the problem.

While sticking to only speaking your target language, by all means use gestures and actions to help describe something. I certainly do.

Moreover, don’t be afraid of making mistakes when you speak in classes but rather welcome them as they’re a chance to learn. Once you’ve slipped up once you’ll remember never to make that particular mistake again. I like practicing new vocab and structures in the classroom because I get this feedback. My friends often don’t tell me when I’m wrong which means I’ll keep repeating the mistake until I am corrected.

2. Prepare for class

At first I didn’t do much with the course material before or after class. Then I had a classmate who spoke a little Vietnamese and even less English and so couldn’t easily understand the teacher’s explanations in class. He had to look up all the words he didn’t know before coming to class. I tried this myself and found the benefits worth the effort. Here’s my reasoning:

Advantages

  • You feel more confident. There’s nothing worse than going to class and feeling bombarded by too much new material. You’ve already got a head start on the new vocabulary.
  • Fewer words are totally new to you, so you can focus more on how to say and use them correctly.
  • By looking words up in the dictionary, you’re involved in learning so you’re more likely to remember them than if you just listen to your teacher’s explanation.

Disadvantages

  • It’s boring and takes a lot of time (read below for a way to streamline your approach).
  • The meanings of words aren’t always clear, especially when word has more than one meaning or there are compound words (when you need two words together for it to actually have meaning, eg. đại học). It can be difficult to know what to look up in the dictionary when you have 3-4 words you don’t know in a row. However, even if you don’t find all of the new words, you’ve still found more than you knew before and you’ve got the rest marked out to ask your teacher about.

As it’s not particularly interesting, I timebox my approach. First I take 5 minutes to read through the next part of the book and simply underline all the words I don’t know. Later in the day, or even the next, I take 10-15 minutes go back and look up the words I’ve underlined. Following this method, I’d say I have the general idea of 60-70% of new vocabulary before I go to class, for just 15-20 minutes work two or three times a week.

3. Learn vocab after class

Once you’re clear on your vocabulary’s meaning and how to use it, make flashcards and learn it. Practice using it in conversations and your writing. It’s important to do this after class, not before, as to ensure you don’t a word incorrectly and then have to undo that and relearn it later. (You really want to avoid this!)

How does learning new vocabulary after class help you to make the most of class time? Simple, it reduces the need for repetition of material you’ve already covered. Next time the word comes up you will know it, the teacher won’t need to explain it again and everyone can move on.

The final, and most important thing, you can do to ensure you’re getting your money’s worth from your classes is to ask the teacher questions.

4. Ask questions

If you’re like me, it might sometimes feel awkward or embarrassing to raise your hand in class and ask a question. You might prefer to wait until the teacher pauses or invites questions, or ask privately in the break time. All of these are fine – just make sure if you want to know something, that you do ask your teacher!

By preparing for class as above, you should have already have some things you want the teacher to clarify. If they don’t cover your question in their explanation or examples, ask while the topic is still relevant. Your question, and the teacher’s answer, can help other students too.

You don’t have to limit it just to what you’re studying, keep a list and ask your teacher any question about the language or even questions about the culture of Vietnam.

A teacher’s secret: I like it when my students ask questions. It shows they’re smart and serious about learning, and that I’m doing my job well because they feel comfortable asking me lots of questions.

Access to a teacher, an expert in what you’re learning, is the whole point of taking classes. Any native speaker can (usually) correct you, help make your speech more natural and many other things, but they don’t know the ins and outs of their own language. A good teacher does.

In summary: Ways of making the most of class time

My four top tips are: only speak Vietnamese (or whatever language you’re learning) in the classroom, prepare for class, learn vocab after class and ask your teacher questions.