Independent Language Learning in High School

Options Exhausted

School schedules are more flexible than one might think. What may seem like a rigid, boring, and oppressive regiment to your day can actually be crafted to fit whatever classes you’d like to take; you just have to know what you want and ask.

Some classes are unavoidable– math, english, science, etc.– but nearly every high school has opportunities to further explore one particular area of study. This could take the form of electives, extra lab/gym periods, and even substituting one core class for another. As a foreign language kid, I’m used to manipulating my schedule to incorporate more language learning time, so that tends to be my area of expertise, however many of the following techniques can be applied to any subject matter, be it STEM, history, or even writing/english.

Tip #1: Academic Electives

This is your prime opportunity to add an extra class to your schedule. My freshman and sophomore years, I took Spanish in place of a typical elective like art, music, or photography. As much as I would have loved to learn more about those sorts of things, substituting an arts class for an extra core academic class was the only way I knew to keep up with both French and Spanish my first year of highschool. I also have friends who take both Mandarin and Spanish. Later down the line, if you’ve exhausted all of the school’s classes in one of these subjects, you can swap in an online class from either a virtual high school or a university that allows you to continue with that area of study.

Tip #2: Online Classes

Most high schools offer dual enrollment programs that allow you to take classes at a local university or online highschool for credit. Sometimes, these credits can be transferred to your future college as well, just like an AP class. When it comes to online foreign language programs, I recommend looking at University of Wisconsin Madison Online, or Middlebury online K-12 learning. Middlebury offers classes through AP for French and Spanish, as well as Chinese, German, and Latin courses. For Spanish learners who have already taken the AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam, I would look into taking AP Spanish Literature online through Johns Hopkins. During the school day, you’ll be given studies to compensate for the time you’ll spend working on your online course.

Tip #3: Independent Studies

Some people believe that in order to apply for an independent study, you need to have some amazing job or internship opportunity, but in reality, anyone can create an independent study. This upcoming year, I’m designing an independent study to prepare myself for the C1 DALF exam and the B2 DELE in June 2018. My teachers and I are creating a curriculum that incorporates small projects and online tutoring sessions that will allow me to keep up with and further develop my listening, reading, and presentational skills in French, Spanish, and Russian. Weekly activities will include everything from reading novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to watching Russian history documentaries. You could also offer to help out in a beginner French or Spanish class and act as an assistant teacher.

Tip #4: Senior Project

Many schools offer the chance to design a senior project, the perfect chance to explore a new language. Whether you want to analyze French literature or test the Duolingo philosophy that with only 30 minutes of practice a day, you can speak fluently within a few months, Senior projects present an opportunity to explore a unique niche within your target language and dedicate the entirety of your day to its study.

Polyglot pursuits are daunting, especially when you’re a high school student. Instead of thinking about the school day as an obstacle, consider these hours an opportunity. If you’re passionate about foreign language learning, you’ll inspire your teachers, parents, and guidance counselors to help you in any way that they can.

The Effects of Brute Memorization: Navigating Around a Mental Block

How to Train Your Dragon : Making sleepy NSLI-Y students confident in how to say “But I don’t want to kill dragons!”

18, 23, 28, 53 –  these are the amounts of Russian vocabulary words I’ve been told to memorize each night over the last few days.  Granted, some words were repeats, some days our dictation quizzes were cancelled, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the last three weeks, I’ve added 308 flashcards to my “New Russian Words” Anki deck and every term was added with the intention of being memorized within 24 hours. I’ve often criticized language courses for their slow pace when it comes to introducing new vocabulary, but having now experienced a class with an opposite  approach, I miss the lazy days of writing out pages worth of sentences and Quizlet Live. 

I’ve never had too many problems with memorization, however, in the last few days, I’ve been struggling to cram even one more word into my brain. I spent an hour on the bus glaring at my phone as my mind completely erased everything I had learned the night before. I could repeat a word six times, turn my gaze to the window, then completely forget what I was saying. Carrot, Cucumber, Beetroot… all of these words are must-know, basic Russian words, but for some reason, they refuse to stick. Being the lazy, easily-frustrated, slacker I am, I gave up that day on the bus and grudgingly accepted that the day’s vocab quiz was going to be more red X’s than smily faces. When we were assigned a poem to memorize that afternoon, I began to panic.

I assumed that if my brain couldn’t even remember the word for tomato, there was no way that she would agree to letting a nine stanza poem into her memory.

That night, however, as I sat down at my desk, tea and cookies in hand, I found myself reciting lines by heart after only a few minutes. Confused but pleased, I considered myself cured– maybe my brain just works better between midnight and 2:00 AM. Naturally, I took another look at my vocab list from the day before, but once again, not a single word could get past the double-locked doors to wherever Russian food vocabulary gets stored. That magical memorization of the poem I’d done moments earlier seemed to be nothing but a fluke.

This time though, instead of giving up, I thought about why it was that I could learn poetry but not name the ingredients in borsht. I reminded myself that:

A. Nobody is meant to learn 30 foreign vocab words a night,

B. I’d been using the same method of memorization for the last three weeks, and

C. Flipping through a virtual flashcard deck is one of the most un-interesting and mindless things that a person can do.

And so, with these three things in mind, I grabbed my computer and headed off to Youtube Land where I searched “Learn Russian!” (Yes, exclamation mark included). I started watching videos that tested my listening skills and listened to various explanations of the prepositional case. When I logged onto Fluent-U, I considered myself advanced enough for the “Elementary” category, and watched a Russian Nespresso commercial staring George Clooney, where I finally figured out the meaning of “правда” and for the first time that week, felt myself improve.

There’s nothing wrong with learning new words, it’s necessary to speak in another language,  but the way you learn new words is important. My teacher here in Russia says “quantity grows into quality’, but I think I may need a new motto for my personal learning style.

I need a stimulus more active than a virtual flashcard to improve my Russian.

I need to generate my own language and focus on identifying familiar words in a dialogue or video before I sit down and flip through Anki. For me, I’ve found that recapping my day in Russian– what I wore, what I did, how I’m feeling– and watching videos online with Fluent-U to be the most useful learning methods.

Every few days or so, I switch it up. If I’m feeling like a blob, I’ll watch a movie I’m familiar with in Russian with English subtitles, or listen to a language learning podcast (Actual Fluency is my favorite) to gather inspiration. 

Sure, my grades on Dictation have taken a bit of a blow, but I’m able to stumble my way through a paragraph or two describing my daily routine in front of my teacher, so I think she knows that I’m doing okay.

Why I Strive to Become Mr. American Flag Guy

That Dumb American Tourist

He struts off the plane with his head held high. His jacket swings open as he swaggers over to customs so you can see the T-shirt he has beneath with that obnoxious eagle wearing a red white and blue hat. If you were to open his backpack, you would see a travel sized American flag rolled up in the side pocket because, as he often reminds us, “A good American never leaves home without one.” The backgrounds on his laptop range from George Washington to Reagan, and if you ask his why, his answer is always “because I’m an American”.  

He wears his sunglasses indoors and refuses to use any voice level below eight. He pronounces Je voudrais as Jenny Craig- and unlike me, he’s having the time of his life.

When I went on a school trip to Europe with 42 other members of my class, I knew that no matter where I went, I would instantly be labeled as a dumb tourist- one of those annoying ones whose group takes up all the tables in a restaurant and refuses to speak anything but English. I hate being perceived like this when abroad, so, I did what any reasonable person would do and tried to blend in.

I brought all my European-esque clothes, hid under my scarf, and tried to stay towards the back of the pack where it wouldn’t be obvious that I was with the group. When in France and Belgium, I tried to only speak French. In Amsterdam, I downloaded an app to learn some Dutch so could at least say Hello, and ask for coffee. On the metro in Paris, when my group hogged an entire car and kept yelling about whales, I drifted to the back, put in my headphones, and kept my head down. I’m not going to lie, I was not only embarrassed, but miserable.

For six months while I studied abroad in France, I made it my primary objective every day to fit in. I wanted people to forget that I was just another exchange kid- I wanted to be seen as French. Obviously I still wasn’t able to completely shake that mindset, as I was very, very uncomfortable on that metro months later. But that night, I made it a point to observe and emulate Mr. American Flag Guy.

Mr. American Flag Guy is shamelessly American; patriotic, confident, aggressive, and has no problem relating everything back to big business. He was having a great time making a fool of himself on the metro, yelling on the streets, and taking tacky tourist photos at every turn. Meanwhile, I was trying my hardest to become a speck of dust on the bottom of some Parisian woman’s shoe. At that moment, I realized just how pathetic I was and reminded myself that I have years upon years to blend in and feel like a true Parisian. I would never be back in Paris with my high school friends; this opportunity to whip out the selfie stick and laugh at the top of my lungs would be gone forever in a matter of days. So, I got my ass out of the corner and joined in the ruckus.

Sometimes, it’s good to be “that” American tourist.

Sure, I was still that kind-of-obnoxious friend/mom that told all my friends to hush if they were causing too much of a ruckus on the train and I still winced when Mr. American Flag Guy expressed the cultural sensitivity of a toddler, but I was definitely enjoying myself far more than the Mandy from a few hours ago. She still uses her headphones to block out the noise.

Little does she know, however, that it’s not the sound of dumb Americans that she’s tuning out- it’s comforting melody of friends from home.


Starting from Scratch

6 Weeks in Russia with no Russian experience… Why Not? 

When you’re a self-proclaimed language enthousiaste and aspiring polyglot, nothing is more exciting that starting a new language, but narrowing down your choices can be quite challenging. Should I take the easy route and pick Italian or Portuguese, or do I challenge myself and tackle Japanese or Korean? There’s a South African regional language that uses three different clicks when they speak- that sounds fun- should I try it? Then of course there’s that part of your mind that yells at you for being too ambitious and recommends that you review French grammar or read a book in Spanish instead. According to your AP Lang teacher, your English may need some work too. It’s always nice when the decision is made for you, and you are able to forge a decisive path onwards. When I received my acceptance letter from NSLI-Y, a government scholarship program to study critical languages abroad, my choice was clear (after I stopped screaming and hitch-kicking around my kitchen of course). My next language endeavor would be Russian.

I’ve dabbled in this language before. I tried to learn the alphabet last year, and my friend Vicky has taught me a few words over the course of a few car rides, but I’ve never fully committed to developing any sort of proficiency until now. I knew that Russian would be a challenge- it’s a category four language on the Foreign Service Institute system- but I felt prepared to immerse myself and felt completely up for the challenge.

In the past, I’ve only studied French and Spanish, two category one romance languages that share 30% or their vocabulary with English and are so closely related that I could already understand quite a bit of Spanish after only two years of France. Basically, I don’t know why it was a surprise that I was very unprepared for Russian.

Nevertheless, I have explored enough websites, books, and grammar guides throughout my time as a language learner to know what sort of resources I would need to start learning a language from scratch. With a language like Russian which uses the cyrillic alphabet, I knew step one would be to learn to read and write. I didn’t need to understand what I was reading, but I had to be able to pronounce any word I saw.

To do this, I downloaded the Foreign Service Institute’s FAST Russian Course, a program used to give Foreign Service Officer’s a basic grasp on the language before they go abroad. These resources are free and are available in nearly all of the world’s national languages. The opening chapter is all about phonetics, and after a few hours or dull, grueling, guided repetition, I could read any word I came across, if not slowly and with a touch of hesitation. I picked up on cognates and wrote down all of my new vocabulary and pronunciation tips in a notebook deemed “Pre-Russia Russian.”

Once I could read, I knew I needed to begin to acquire a vocabulary. Through a combination of Duolingo and FluentU, I had short lessons that presented me with vocabulary and phrases that slowly revealed secrets of grammar and word order. I also ordered some go-to books on Amazon to enrich my understanding of the language’s mechanics; a verb-conjugation guide, grammar book, short story collection, and a picture dictionary. This way, if I ever stumble across a concept I don’t understand, I’ll be able to find a clear explanation without mindlessly searching the internet for hours.

My next step will be what I call the “Labeling Phase”, during which every object of practical use in my house will receive a tag including the object’s name in nominative form, a photo, and a verb that would be commonly associated with that object. For example, the Russian word for bed is кровать, and with it I would couple the phrase  Иди́ в крова́ть; “go to bed”. This way, every time I see that object, I associate it with the Russian word and am able to put it into an everyday context.  

In a month or so, once I’ve leveled up a few more times on Duolingo and moved past the novice phase on FluentU, I’ll pick up that anthology of short stories for beginners and find a language partner with whom I can converse a few times a week. By the time I board the plane in June, three months from now, I hope to have a functional vocabulary of phrases, and fundamental understanding of basic grammar, and the ability of understand both written and spoken Russian at about an A1 level.

Starting a language from a blank slate is a daunting task, so I find that I need to set small, attainable goals so as to not feel entirely overwhelmed. Knowing that in a matter of months I will be in a foreign country where my only means of communication will be Russian serves as plenty of motivation, but it can be hard to carve out time in my schedule to practice. If it were up to me, I would quit chemistry right now and dedicate that hour to Russian, but unfortunately I can’t do that. To anyone hoping to start a new language journey, I say, don’t wait. Even if your schedule is crazy, know that there is no perfect time to begin learning. As long as you can learn a word or two a day, you’ll be making progress, and that’s all that matters!

Not-so Americana

See! I Told You I Speak French!

Two weeks ago, I began writing a blog post that was to be entitled “Dude, I Speak French!” and included many an anecdote about my various encounters with shopkeepers, baristas, and waiters here in France that had me red-faced and sweaty by the time I left the counter. When you begin learning a language, you’re eager to practice with somebody, and if you’re fortunate enough to practice in the country where said language is actually spoken, your heart starts fluttering before the girl at the register in Starbucks even asks for your order.

Just as we all know the excitement to finally practice our foreign language, we all know the nervous pit that eats all of our carefully memorized vocabulary and the following disappointment that arises when the waiter switches back to English or immediately recognizes that you’re American.  In these sorts of situations, I used to turn bright red and repeat my order in English, but as I’ve progressed in my French abilities, I’ve started simply repeating myself in French until the lady or man finally stops responding in English. I still encounter this problem sometimes, normally when I don’t quite hear what people say over the sound of coffee machines, or if there was just one word I didn’t quite get, and it can be frustrating to lose that perfect practice opportunity just because you listen to your music too loud and may have damaged a bit of your eardrum.

Anywho, this blog post was going to be a three page rant about that, but after spending a weekend in Paris with my American parents (which was absolutely amazing by the way!) I’ve decided to spin the second half of this article into something new. Maybe it was my new black boots, or the way I folded my heaping scarf, but I found myself walking into restaurants and being met constantly by French, even after I talked! You might be thinking, it’s Paris Dumbo, of course the French are going to speak French, but when the woman handing out pastries at a tourist trap café automatically speaks in English to the couple in front of you after a single glance but keeps up a conversation with you in French right after, you feel pretty proud of yourself. I even once got to a register where the girl did speak to me in English, but then apologized and told me that she was so used to Anglophones that English had become a reflex.

Now, I’m not cocky enough to believe that I have a perfect French accent, or am now fluent in French, but I can tell you straight up that living around native speakers for months on end really does affect the way you speak, even if you don’t think you’re improving.

I’ve picked up so much of my host family’s speech patterns and colloquial expressions that even if my American accent does poke through, the French know that I can understand them, and that I have more that a few expressions from a phrasebook in my pocket. That sort of ease of expression can’t be taught from a textbook or another Anglophone classmate or teacher; because no matter how hard we try, we’ll never speak perfect French, at least not like the French can.

It’s frustrating when conversations get flipped back to English, and it’s hard when the words seem lost when you need them most (It happened to me today!) but it’s important to recognize that we live in a world where English is a default language, and as Americans, our seemingly inescapable accents often give us away.  I can’t stress enough how stubborn you must be to get over it and give up the comfort of your mother tongue. You can do it though, it just takes time- and possibly a twelve year old host sister who speaks through a slur of abbreviations and trending hashtags on twitter-

How Words Find Their Meaning

A Tissue is not Despair

Have you ever seen something or felt something and said to yourself “Dang, I wish there was a word for that?” The truth is that the word to describe whatever it is you want to name does exist, just not in your language.

A few months ago I purchased the most precious book that a foreign language nerd could ever find, “Lost In Translation” by Ella Francis Sanders. The concept behind this book is genius; a collection of words from around the world that don’t exist in English. This book contains everything from szimpatikus which is a hungarian adjective used to describe the feeling you get when you first meet someone and you can just feel that they are a good person, to a Malay word, pisanzapra, which gives a name to the amount of time it takes to eat a banana.

Flipping through the pages of this illustrated work of art, I realized that there are so many things that I see or feel everyday that I’ve never been able to name. This got me wondering, how does a word find its meaning?

We’ve all wondered who got to decide that a dog was a dog and a cat was a cat, but there are some words that couldn’t have been named by simply pointing at an animal and saying “I hereby declare you, animal that goes woof, a dog.” Take, for example, a word like happiness. This is such a common word that we use all the time, however the word has thousands of different meanings for different people. Sure, has defined happiness as “the state of being happy,” but who defined “happy,” or better yet, who decided that the happiness was a positive feeling?

From what I can tell, a word goes through several stages before it becomes integrated in our daily speech. First, someone has to identify a specific object, feeling, or concept and give it a title. Next, they give the word an definition; an outline for what can be classified as this word. Then the word is send out into the world where society puts it into context, thereby developing the word’s connotation through a cultural lens. At this point, the word may have been translated to another language or been spread across continents where more and more cultures decide their own meaning for that particular thing that guy over in some other country wanted to define.

I think the most fascinating thing about this entire process is that it’s really like one continuous game of intercontinental telephone: each time the word is used, the meaning is warped just a little bit.

Sometimes I wonder how we would feel about certain things if the telephone wire had been wound a little bit differently. What if the first person to define sadness didn’t think that it was such a bad thing? What if that person thought that sadness was something to celebrate, or that tears made eyes more beautiful? Or what if nobody ever gave sadness a name? Just because a feeling doesn’t have a name, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but without a name, we couldn’t develop connotation. If sadness wasn’t classified as a negative emotion, or laughter was thought of to be painful or annoying, how would our lives be changed?

Words are capable of doing damage and creating beauty because we’ve decided that they can. Language was built by humans to express ourselves and our thoughts to others through oral communication, grammar gave that communication guidelines, while cultural context built connotations to further develop the meanings behind each phrase we spoke. Language is fluid and alive and we have the ability to manipulate it; to mold it whichever way we choose. We can never go back in time and change the path of the telephone, but we can push it it a new direction by changing the meanings we associate with certain words.

Beauty doesn’t have to mean size 2 Victoria’s Secret models with flawless skin and perfect hair. A decade or so from now our generation will be in charge of passing on our language to our children, and when we do, we can teach them that beauty is a universal term used to describe a positive feeling one receives when looking at themselves or another person. If that’s the case, we all become beautiful simply by feeling happy when we look in the mirror. Next time somebody asks what equality means, we can express the term as mutual acceptance and shared opportunity for all people.

Let’s not further clarify words with exceptions and categorizations. Treat language as a tool and build whatever you want and make it mean whatever you wish; build yourself a new reality out of letters bound with feeling.

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Fluency: An Unobtainable Goal

Fluency: An Unobtainable Goal

You would think that after living in the United States for 16 years and growing up in a monolingual English speaking family, I would be fluent in English. But if I really sit down and think about it, I’m not so sure that I am.

There is this sort of opinion in the world, or at least in the educational community, that the ultimate goal of language learning is fluency. But fluency is a vague idea, and it is very difficult to define. Some people say that to be truly fluent in a language, you need to be able to speak, write, read, and understand what is being said in that target language with a level of security and comfort that what you are saying is clear and comprehensible.

If this is the case, then I suppose I am fluent in English and probably French as well, but when I think about myself communicating day to day, I doubt whether or not I would be able to express all of my ideas in both languages. Obviously, as I am a native English speaker, there is little that I cannot discuss in English, however certain topics in French would be nearly impossible for me to talk about. Then again, those incomprehensible topics exist in English as well.

Say, for example, that you are talking to me about astrophysics. I know that you’re speaking a language that I understand, I recognize the sounds of the words and the inflection in your voice, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. God forbid I try to contribute to the conversation. Astrophysics is a language in itself, and I am certainly not fluent.

If I don’t recognize half of the words in a sentence and the topic of the conversation is completely foreign to me, then I am not an effective communicator. If I am not an effective communicator, than I cannot truly define myself as fluent. Language is the broad umbrella under which we group the words that we use to speak a language and to understand the thoughts of others. Language is a tool we use to communicate effectively, a tool that we wield so that we can understand subjects like astrophysics, l’astrophysique, or астрофи́зика. Astrophysics is a language all on its own, and it can be expressed in many different tongues.

Most avid language learners will all agree that fluency is not a concrete objective, and it is certainly difficult to determine when exactly you qualify as fluent. There is no official fluency test that you need to pass to declare yourself a fluent speaker, and since language is constantly advancing and evolving, it isn’t possible to know every word or phrase. Understanding a language grammatically is completely different than knowing a language culturally, as many words have different connotations depending on the region where they are spoken.

Some of my personal role models in the polyglot/language learning community have great ideas about what it means to really speak a language, and constantly ask the question; “At what point can we truly consider ourselves masters of a second language?” Nearly all of them are tagged with labels like “Teenage Genius speaks 20 languages!” and “Twin brothers speak 10 languages a piece!” however, most of these people only consider themselves truly fluent in a few of those dozens they have studied.

I find it extremely curious and fascinating that it is the people who have not actually learned any languages that categorize these levels of fluency, and they tend to always over exaggerate the abilities of others. Many monolingual people tend to give very simple definitions when it comes to fluency, normally citing “speaking another language” as the main criteria for bilingualism. Anyone who has studied numerous languages at a relatively high level will be able to tell you anyone can speak another language, but it is their ability to understand what they are saying in that second language that makes them bilingual.

Overall, I would define fluency as the ability to effectively communicate with others about a wide variety of topics, and to understand the cultural context of the language in which you are speaking. I think that as language learners, effective communication is our true, obtainable goal. Fluency, on the other hand, is more of the asymptote for our ability equation. We will forever inch closer and closer to the illusive idea, but we will never quite reach it. Try as we might, there will always be more words to learn, more dialects to explore, and more people to enlighten us.

Here are a view video’s of some of my favorite polyglots describing fluency in their own terms.

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