Silence is not golden

Picture this (and I’m sure you are all familiar with what I am going to say):

There is an upcoming language carousel, a polyglot event, a meeting with people speaking several languages or just an occasion for you to practice your target language. You are all excited and pumped. Adrenaline’s flowing. In your head you have it all figured out. You know exactly what you are going to say. You anticipated the many questions they may ask you or you may ask them. You looked up some words you may need (better be prepared, right?). You did a mental warm-up. To make a long story short, you are ready to have a fluent conversation in one of your target languages. You can already see yourself nailing it! Yeah! Tsjaka (as we say in Dutch, including the arm movement)!

And then … Euhm … Blank … Nothing comes … You stutter like a toddler. You can’t even remember the simplest words and you end up hiding from the other guests the rest of the evening. And when you get home, you feel like a loser. Your worst nightmare, right? Ever happened to you? I am not afraid to raise my hand, yes, I have been in this situation and I hated every minute of it.

And that is why this year I have decided to take action and focus on the active command of my target languages. My goal is to master 10 languages five years from now (follow the hashtag #mastering10languages if you want to follow my progress). Mastering is of course a concept that is difficult to measure and that differs from one person to another. What I mean by mastering, is being able to have a conversation off the cuff, at a random moment, with a random native speaker, unprepared, about a random topic. If you want to formalise this, I aim for a good B2 speaking level.

Time for some numbers first. What languages do I speak and at what level? I won’t count my native language Dutch as one of the ten.

French, English: I think I am confident enough to say I have a C1.

German, Danish: this would be around an upper B2.

Spanish, Italian, Afrikaans: somewhere in the upper regions of a B1, knocking on the B2 door.

Bulgarian: not 100% sure, but I would say a shaky A2.

Korean, Faroese: A1 would be a fair assessment.

In comes #italki! I heard a lot about this platform and in December 2019 I decided to give it a try. I am not taking any language classes anymore since last summer, so I have no more opportunities to actually use the languages I am studying, not even French, although I use this at a daily basis to translate from (I am a freelance translator, a quick google search will bring you to my website). 

The last week of 2019 I booked 3 trial lessons, for Afrikaans, Spanish and Danish. I took some time to find the right teacher for me and off we went. Baby steps … Fair to say that the little story I started with, repeated itself here, not once, not twice, but three times. But … this was the little push I needed to convince myself that I do need this speaking practice.

So I put my money where my mouth is (yes, pun intended) and booked lessons for all languages, except English, German, Korean (because I don’t feel comfortable enough to have a basic conversation yet) and Faroese (because there are not teachers, the one that did offer languages, decided to stop this year). I had a busy schedule, as you can see below.

 How did it go? Well, I am very happy to say that even after just a few lessons, I feel much more confident in all the languages I am studying. I am far from perfect, but after a month, I am not hesitant anymore to speak. Let’s have a closer look:

French: 2 lessons of half an hour. Great teacher! She says I am ‘fluide’ and I hardly have an accent, so me happy! We decide on a topic to discuss, but end up talking about just anything. Our last conversation was about the political situation in Belgium (amongst other things). In all honesty, I know that I am good at French, but it is always nice to hear a native say that I have almost no accent and I speak fluently.

English, German: no lessons yet. The first German lesson is for early February. Curious to see how that will go. I was best student of the year and got a special mention for German, because I was so good at it, but I’m afraid there is not much left of that.

Danish: 2 lessons. I was nervous, because since my stay in Denmark (I lived there for almost a year and picked up the language there) I have not used Danish actively anymore. I do read books fluently and watch series in Danish, but I never speak, not even with my Danish friend (we always speak English). The lessons went well and I feel more at ease now. We discuss a newspaper article of my choice.

Italian, Spanish: 3 lessons each. Again, I have such great teachers. They both make me feel at ease. We talk about random things, a book I read, a movie I saw, the weather, work, whatever comes to mind. They both correct me while I am speaking and I like that best, so I can rethink my sentences right away. My Italian teacher said last week that she already hears I am making progress, I speak much more fluently than during my first lesson and I noticed it too. For Italian I use a text book, she has a look at the grammar and then guides the conversation so that I naturally use the grammar points (without thinking I would like to say, but we’re not that far yet).

Afrikaans: I’ve had lots of lessons already and I love it, it is such a wonderful language! I have enrolled in an online course at the university of Free State in South Africa, 20 weeks, self-paced, with a teacher at the other end correcting the exercises and voice recordings. Level after this course is B1. I will be studying at home (the course hasn’t started yet) and my tutor will be there to explain anything that might be unclear. We are going to focus on my pronunciation. So hopefully by the summer, I will have that precious piece of paper saying B1.

Bulgarian: 3 lessons so far, but I did speak some Bulgarian and, most importantly, I understood what my tutor was saying. She gave me homework and was pleasantly surprised by what I had written. These classes are proper classes, with my tutor teaching and me taking notes, speaking every now and then and doing homework. I am sure I will make a lot of progress with her help.

My conclusion? I am a big fan of italki and I will definitely invest in conversation classes until this summer. February is already planned. I promise to give you an update of how I did and maybe record a video of me speaking all these languages! 

What about you guys? Are you taking any conversation classes? Do you use italki? Or what method do you use for studying and practicing?

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