Synergy Part 2 - Speaking

Discussion in 'The language learning methods of Big_Dog' started by Big_Dog, Feb 13, 2014.

  1. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    In order to provide more detail than I gave in Synergy, I’d like to start threads expanding on the way I learn the 4 basic skills (speaking, reading, listening and writing) and the sub-skills (grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation). This first expansion thread is about speaking.

    I have seen one poll, and have heard it mentioned often in the forums that conversation is the most coveted goal of language learners. Of course there are some learners who rank it lower, and some who don’t learn it at all, but overall it’s number one. It’s easily number one with me, and over the years I’ve been trying different strategies and improving my conversation techniques. Below I will recommend how speaking and conversation fit into Synergy, but first I will give you my background with them so you can see how I arrived at these conclusions.


    My background with speaking and conversation. When I was a child of 11 living in Ecuador, I took Spanish classes at an English medium grade school. We spoke a little bit, but it was mostly grammar. I had some interaction with locals, but I wasn’t anywhere near being immersed in the language. I took Spanish for three years in highschool, but still remained a mediocre speaker. I had a Spanish speaking girlfriend, made several rips to central America, and finally wound up marrying a Panamanian. My Spanish improved a lot in the short two years we were married. I’m sure we talked hundreds if not thousands of hours. I reached about a C1 level. The lesson I take away from this is that it takes many hours to become a good speaker.

    The next language I learned was Swahili. I studied it hard for 3 months, then just relied on conversations with villagers to improve my language. Again, my job was in English, so I wasn’t even close to being immersed. I got some conversation with locals. After my 3 months of training I was probably A2. By the time I left 3 years later, I think I was B1. I’m sure I had several hundred hours of simple conversation. This is where a more systematic approach would have helped me. Relying on passive improvement is very slow.

    I learned Thai for 9 months, went to Thailand and failed at conversation. I took some classes while I was there, and tried to talk for several dozen hours, but wasn’t understood because of my accent. When I got back, I decided to try a conversation tutor. I put an ad in the newspaper, and wound up meeting with a lady 5 hours a week for about 2 months. We only spoke Thai about 15 minutes out of the hour, but it made a big difference because she understood me and we worked on my pronunciation. That was my first long term experience with a conversation tutor, and it’s something that I decided was a very good.

    With Japanese, I decided to hire a conversation tutor after only 4 months. This was a little scary for me, but I plunged ahead. Unfortunately I had a huge problem, and that was almost no listening skills. So the sessions with the tutor were painful for both of us. After about 6 weeks I went from 5 hours a week to 1 or 2 hours a week. I finally started to listen to Japanese on a regular basis, which really helped. I visited Japan for the first time after 18 months of study, with very little conversation practice. I wasn’t great, but much better than my first, and even second visit to Thailand.

    When I got to Mandarin, I had already begun reading the forums, and had a solid learning plan. My friend was going to get married in China in 9 months, so I was going to go to the wedding and hopefully speak some Chinese. I started out with pronunciation, and took it very seriously. It was a tonal language like Thai, so I didn’t want the same pronunciation disaster. After completing Pimsleur, I had about 3 months to go, and hired a Skype tutor. We met 5 days a week for 1 hour. She emailed me a short recording of all the things I found relevant during the lesson. They were sentences containing the new vocabulary. I only listened to them once, because my time was limited. I used a syllabus to cover a wide variety of topics, found in Kick-starting Your Language Learning. When I went to China I could talk, but not very well. Not quite as good as my first trip to Japan. The problem wasn’t the method imo, but the fact I had so few hours of conversation in. I probably had about 50 hours. But I had developed a very systematic way of using a conversation tutor, and I learned how important it was to be organized with them. The recordings were a nice try, but I don’t do this anymore because I’ve found using media and keeping tutors focused on conversation is more efficient.

    I did just about everything right with French, including my usage of tutors. Halfway through Pimsleur, 2 or 3 months into my French studies, I started to converse with a conversation tutor. I started out speaking relatively well, since my Spanish helped. In fact, about 50% of my French was Spanish at first. It took me about a month to get the Spanish out of my conversation. When I went to France about a year later, I was conversing at about B1, and understood just about everything important. The biggest mistake I made with French was to stop studying it so early. I haven’t studied it since then; just maintained it. I learned a lot more about how to use tutors effectively though.

    With Russian, I had a very good learning plan, including the way I handled conversation. This is essentially the plan that’s detailed out in Synergy. I started to converse about 3 months into Russian. My results weren’t as impressive as with French, but Russian is a much harder language, and should be compared with Japanese and Mandarin. I had a much better beginning in Russian than either of those two.

    I converse regularly in 5 foreign languages these days. I mostly use language partners rather than tutors, because it’s free, it’s usually more fun and less stressful, and I have the time to converse in English 50% of the time since I’m not working. I use Skype, and usually get my partners from Shared talk. I have been working with tutors and language partners for a long time now, and will give you some recommendations about them below.

    Now let’s summarize and see how this fits into the big picture.

    In steps 1 and 2 of Synergy, it’s required to learn correct pronunciation. So right from the very beginning, you are practicing speech. I’ve found it’s not practical to start with conversation when you know absolutely nothing. When you do this, you are basically forcing your tutor to speak a lot of L1 and teach you grammar, which I think is very inefficient. There are many really good, simple beginner programs that will do this much better than any tutor I’ve ever had, so you should take advantage of them.

    Anyway, continuing on with what Synergy describes, first you practice isolated sounds until you can make them correctly. Then you move onto words, and finally sentences. It is crucial that you nail down the pronunciation first for the following reason - when you start to read, whether out loud or not, if you have incorrect pronunciation you will reinforce and fossilize it, making it time consuming and possibly even impossible to completely correct down the road.


    In step 3 of Synergy, you are ready to converse. This is when you are roughly halfway through Pimsleur, and have some listening, reading and vocabulary under your belt. Imo, this is the earliest practical level to have a regular conversation component in your learning plan. Step 3 is a very big step, with a lot of things going on, but keep in mind that conversation is your number one goal.

    Learning vocabulary and sentences from conversation is the best way to improve your conversational vocabulary and sentences. It probably sounds obvious, but very few methods take advantage of this. More traditional methods are less direct and less effective, imo. For example using textbooks and other sources to learn grammar and vocabulary, hoping that you will think of them when you converse. Since your main goal is conversation, you’re going to use conversation to learn vocabulary and sentences. Conversation isn’t the only way you’ll learn them, but it is the most important and effective way at this point.

    Choose a language partner carefully. You’ll want partners who are native speakers, patient, have a sense of humor and are actually interested in conversing with you, rather than just correcting you. In the beginning, it helps if they have some L1 skills. Find a partner who is willing to speak with you for 30 minutes in L2. During this period, don’t switch to L1, or allow the partner to speak L1, other than to give the occasional brief translation. They should try to get you to talk at least 50% of the time, rather than hogging all the time to themselves. You can meet language partners at many sites. My favorite is Shared Talk, because there are people online that you can talk to immediately.

    Every time you want to say something but can’t, write it down. If your partner says something you don’t understand, write it down. This is the way your going to improve your vocabulary and sentences through conversation – write things down, memorize them before the next conversation, and try to use them at that time. The things you write down can be sentences, phrases or single words. I like using Google Translate and occasionally my partner to translate when I get stuck, although I try to keep translation to a minimum. I also like to use Skype, and I type the L1 text and the L2 translation in the Skype window. After the session, I load these items into my SRS for memorization.

    Converse about a wide range of topics with a variety of partners. Try to talk about all the things that are really important to you; the things that you’ll need vocabulary for the most. If you get stuck and you want a list of topics, you might try Kick-starting Your Language Learning. Another thing I find useful is talking about pictures. If you have time and motivation, you can prepare for conversations by learning some key words ahead of time. I prefer not to do that because I like the native to introduce the vocabulary, but it can be useful if done carefully. Because voices and conversation styles vary greatly, it’s best to speak with several partners to improve your flexibility.

    Go with the flow. It’s good to be studious, but you don’t want to get too anal about memorizing every single word and phrase you don’t know. Be aggressive about writing things down, especially in the beginning, but make sure to just let the conversation flow at times. I sometimes limit myself to 20 new entries per session. Other times, I refuse to write anything down for a half session, or even a full session. After a few dozen hours of conversation, the number of new entries per session is greatly reduced. After 100 hours or so I rarely need to memorize a new entry.

    Use tips in How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately. Most of these are common sense. Especially beneficial is the use of “islands” – short memorized scripts which are very useful in topics you find yourself repeating a lot.


    Step 4 of Synergy has you continuing conversing, but now without any memorizing. Really let the conversation flow smoothly and fluidly. Do your best to use all the grammar correctly that you have learned from your other studies. Continue conversing until you can talk about anything you need to with correct grammar, quickly and fluidly. That is your final goal.
  2. BAnna

    BAnna Active Member VIP member

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    To begin step 3, do you recommend starting with a conversation tutor, and then as your speaking skills become stronger to switch to a conversation partner? Or try to start with a conversation partner?
    I currently have two conversation partners in German, but I started talking with them when I was at a B1 level.
  3. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    You could do either, but I usually hire someone in the beginning. I find partners often try to escape when I'm at this stage, since my conversation is so bad. :D If I pay them, they have to stick around. BAnna, have you ever tried italki for tutors? Russian tutors start as low as $4/hr, if you decide to go that route.
  4. BAnna

    BAnna Active Member VIP member

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    Thanks, italki is a great idea. I don't have time currently, but my schedule should open up a bit later in the Summer. By then, I hope my Russian level will be a bit better. I'm enjoying reading about your Synergy method. It reminds me of the quote from Kato Lomb, "A foreign language is a castle. It is advisable to besiege it from all directions."
  5. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Nice Kato Lomb quote. Barry Farber had his "multi-tiered" approach, and Alexander Arguelles is a very balanced learner too. Even though I may never be in their league, I feel like I'm in good company.
  6. Bob

    Bob Active Member VIP member

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    On this line of thought how would you improve listening skills? Conversational seems the hardest because of less than clear accents and the fact that the conversation can go anywhere. Right now whenever I don't understand something, I repeat what I heard, and then my language partner will correct what I heard. Maybe if I could find achievable goals? It's hard for me to come up with something like that. It's either I understood or I didn't.
  7. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Hi Bob - somehow I missed your post; sorry about that. It used to be when I started conversing, my biggest problem was listening, and that sounds like what you're experiencing. Now when I start conversing, my biggest problem is speaking. That's because I make listening a solid component of my study plan from the beginning. Have you had a chance to read my listening post? That's what I recommend, and it usually sufficient for me, but sometimes I do the following if I want quickly achievable goals:

    I get articles that have audio, or podcast that have scripts, (ones that are just a little above my level) listen to them then read them. Finally, listen one more time and see if I can thoroughly understand them. If just reading isn't enough, I sometimes go further and look up and/or memorize words.

    This is probably only suitable for people at B1+: In order to more quickly improve my listening abilities in Russian, I'm creating subtitles for a TV show now, and it seems to help. I suspect I would be better off doing it 3 times a week instead of one time a week, but it's very time consuming so I will have to wait until I'm less busy with other studies. I listen for a few seconds, type out what I hear, then listen again, type out more, etc. I find I need to listen very intensely, many times, to some parts of the show. I think this is a good thing. When I finish (I usually only do 1 min per sitting), I feed it into google translate and fix spelling errors, etc. I usually wind up with several unrecognizable words. I then translate into english. At that point, I have my tutor correct the Russian and send it back to me. You could use lang-8 for this too. I correct my english translation. All through the process, and especially at the end, I re-watch that minute, and make sure I'm hearing what's in the transcript.
  8. Fasulye

    Fasulye Member VIP member

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    In real life (outside of the internet) I can only speak German, Dutch, Italian and English. So in all the other languages I have to practise speaking via Skype. I cannot hire tutors, because I wouldn't have any money to pay for them. So I use Skype intensively where I exchange 3 of my languages (German, Dutch and Esperanto) for practise in English, Spanish, Italian, French, Norwegian and Danish. The tandem idea "I speak with you language A, if you speak with me language B" creates a win-win situation and produces no extra costs. I am still looking for a Danish speaking Skypie, but all the other languages of my collection I have covered via Skype. My Skypies don't have to be native speakers. If they have C1 or C2-levels in some languages, they are welcome to be my conversation partners.

    Fasulye
    Last edited: May 10, 2014
  9. Cainntear

    Cainntear Active Member VIP member

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    This is generally quite effective, but it doesn't have to be so compartmentalised. If you get a rough overview of the sound system, then you can come back and start dealing with the individual sounds when you start encountering them.

    I read about one course that avoided early teaching of numbers due to the wide variety of phonemes used in them. It pointed out that by teaching Spanish diez then cien, you're only teaching one new phoneme ([d]) and only one phoneme from the first word isn't reused. But if you compare with the usual order of one-two-three, notice how these English words have almost no phonemes in common. Building up your active phoneme palette progressively isn't necessarily a bad thing. (Actually, it bugs me a bit that Assimil haven't caught onto this and started introducing pronunciation notes chapter-by-chapter instead of in a block at the start.)

    While I try to pronounce things as well as possible from the very beginning, my first priority isn't about the sound per se, but about getting the appropriate distinctions between related sounds. I always say it's perfectly easy to change your accent later on if you have a correct "phoneme map", but not the other way round. So it doesn't matter too much if you can't pronounce an English TH properly if your pronunciation is at least different from your pronunciation of T or D, because you will at least have taught your brain that it's two different phonemes. However, if you say tooth identically to toot and this as diss, you're teaching your brain that they're a single phoneme, and storing up problems, because when you later try to learn the correct pronunciation, you then have a huge collection of words that are down as one phoneme, and you have to relearn the entire set to start making the distinction. I used to know a French guy who had learned to pronounce both TH sounds very well, but he could only do it when he actively tried. He knew he could learn to do it in conversation if he wanted to, but he also knew that to do so would take him a lot of work, and that it wasn't worth it at that point. He's a teacher himself, and this made him always focus heavily on proper pronunciation with his students.
    Big_Dog, luke and Bob like this.
  10. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    You bring up something that I hadn't really though about, and I really like your post.

    As an example, I'll repeat some things I've said before. When I learned Thai, I basically ignored tones. People didn't understand me, so I then started using the 3 tones that were easy to distinguish, rising, high and falling. I paid attention to those three tones, but lumped the remaining 2 tones, mid and low, together. Basically, I pronounced them both as mid tones. Years later, I finally figured out that not having a low tone was causing me to be misunderstood occasionally. It took a long and consistent effort to fix this. It involved having to go back to think of how the words were spelled, since tone rules depend on spelling. So writing from the beginning would have helped too. I mostly fixed the problem by slow, careful reading out loud, writing, and paying a lot more attention to pronunciation when I conversed.

    Getting back to your point. If I had pronounced the tones differently, even if they were pronounced incorrectly, they would have been easier to fix when I finally got around to it. I agree with that. And regarding fixing pronunciation at a later date, it might just be more important that the sounds are distinct than correct. But I still believe that it's important to pronounce things correctly in the beginning, in the compartmentalized way and for the reasons I've described. Sorting things out in the beginning the way I describe accomplishes both.

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