Improving your language

Terry Thatcher Waltz wrote this a couple years ago about how to get better at speaking the language you teach. I’ve sporadically followed the advice whenever I remember. I think that creating embedded stories (because I have to read so much and think about what constitutes the most basic meaning) and correcting my writing and translations with native speakers has been a lot of what has helped me improve. I’m going to think about doing more translation too.

Subject: [moretprs] Re: OT/ Teacher fluency maintenance

“Number one answer — the Internet. Full of listening opportunities and great reading stuff (i.e., more input!).

Also a great source for finding native or fluent speaking partners for meaningful interactions, via Skype or videoconferencing. You can often post a notice on local Internet groups or bulletin boards and find people willing to help you for free or very little cost (depending on whether you want to ‘exchange’ or not).

You might also consider learning some oral interpretation skills.

Practicing consecutive interpreting (with a partner is best but you can do it alone as well) really gives all your skills a workout. Also, taking notes while listening puts an added handicap on your processing (sort of like swinging two bats in baseball) so that listening seems so much easier when you’re “only” listening afterwards.

[Boring but very helpful:] You could consider some of the traditional interpreter- training exercises, like complete listening and complete reading (which involve having a text or audio source which you read/listen to, then write down precisely what you read/heard sentence by sentence. After you’ve done a paragraph or more, go back and compare precisely. You’ll be able to see the little points that you’re not picking up on when you’re listening. It can also be done using a tape recorder: listen to a sentence, stop that tape, record your repetition on the second recorder, then listen to another sentence…and compare to the transcript at the end. Like gym exercises, it’s extremely boring but really good for you if you’re at a high level already but need to make that final jump up to a professional level. You could probably get some takers if you could hook up with a graduate program in interpretation with a lot of French-A speakers who want to improve their English. Working via the Internet you could have a really high-level exchange with them, while helping them prepare for their professional exams.

Just some thoughts off the top of my head, but I spent a long time trying to get people from a “good” level to a professional level while I trained interpreters in Asia, and these were things that worked pretty well. The easiest, and most effective, thing to do is simply to read more and listen more — as actively as possible, not just as background music. I found that my interpreting performance improved after taking a year off from interpreting and only translating full time — which meant reading a lot of Chinese. Just the written input boosted my oral performance and listening skills.”

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5 responses to “Improving your language

  1. You know, the interpreter exercise sounds an awful lot like the Dictado/Dictee/Diktat exercises that Ben talks about. I do these every week with even my German I students; there’s always a bit of groaning involved, but they do get quite a bit out of it, and this would tend to back that up. Next time I do one I think I’ll mention that this is a professional level exercise.

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    • Except that I believe Terry is talking about translating/interpreting as you listen or read–not same language dictation (if I understand correctly). Dictation just improves your spelling and word juncture knowledge. Won’t help your fluency.

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  2. I talked with Terry about this, and it seems as though it can be both, so that it’s both like the dictant exercises, except in bigger chunks because of the fluency level, or as translation. The idea with the first is that you find out how much you can remember in the exact form (total comprehension being required first) at a chunk, and the second is more an exercise for interpreters.

    Remembering the exact form and figuring out how much you can remember at a go are two different pieces for the brain, but they do require you to have processed the language.

    She had a sort of interpreter-training game too, in which one person reads from a word list and the other repeats the words first immediately, then with a one-word delay, then a two-word delay and a three-word delay. I think that three is the most that people can manage for more than a word or two. It’s an interesting game to practice with kids, and can go from one language to another, or stay in the target language. My advanced kids like that game, but we haven’t played it in a while. They say their brains hurt when they do it too long.

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  3. So, something that would be helpful at more advanced levels. The reason I say that is that I was one of those students in traditional classes who could listen to and repeat things in the target language without comprehension, who could listen to and write things perfectly in Spanish without comprehension, and who could read aloud with perfect pronunciation and no comprehension. I realize all students don’t do this, but I am wary of activities (especially at lower levels) where we can’t measure their comprehension–as no acquisition will happen without it.

    I use dictation for limited purposes (I teach lower levels), but not for fluency. I can see how it could improve memory at advanced levels–training the listener/reader to hold more language in the brain at once.

    When I was a pretty advanced Spanish listener/comprehender, but not a super-fluent speaker, I got a job working as a translator for a college history professor. I knew the material, so that helped. I had never thought of myself as a particularly strong auditory learner, so it almost killed me at first. He would speak in Spanish (phrases, sentences, paragraphs) and I would translate to the students in English–sometimes taking questions from them and translating from English to Spanish. It was a difficult and extremely helpful experience in my fluency journey. It is as Terry says: not listening as if it were background music–but really listening for the content and paying extreme attention to exact meaning of words. I was responsible for getting the information correct. It was clear on their exams, which I had to translate to him in Spanish, if I had done an adequate job or not.

    I am certain that it would have been a very different experience to parrot him in Spanish–a skill which can certainly loosen the tongue, but I don’t quite get the relationship to acquisition. The processing seems very different in the two processes. Thanks for trying to explain it to me in written word. That’s not easy. 🙂

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  4. These are definitely exercises for advanced learners, but it is always fun to be able to suggest to students that they are taking steps that, when expanded upon, might become tools for higher levels. I actually tried some of Terry’s tools with kids a little too early, but they liked them because they made them feel they were working hard, and once in a while my kids mention that my class is too easy.

    I think that must have been a really interesting job, a very demanding one at that! You must have known that information really well by the time you translated both the lectures and the exams! It does seem like it would be a real-life application of those exercises–but I would think your brain would have been fried on a regular basis.

    In case I messed up in my explanation, which is always possible, I asked Terry to look in on this discussion. She’s one of the best writers that I know on the subject of TPRS and language acquisition, so tracking down what she says is becoming one of my hobbies. Hope she’ll have time and that she can find this.

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