2016 is almost over and it’s time for a year-end review of what strategy got me the best results in terms of language learning and progress.
At the end of March I took Brian Kwong up on his invitation to join the Add1 Challenge, and what I initially liked was the importance of doing periodic progress videos on Day 0, Day 30, Day 60, and Day 90. Prior to joining Add1, I had taken part in the Language Heroes community on VK, and though I had tried to do some regular videos during the 12 weeks, I ended up being fairly inconsistent, though I recognized the potential benefit of doing it regularly. So, when I joined Add1, I decided by the end of the 1st week that I would start vlogging on a daily basis, which I actually ended up doing for a streak of 100 days, even beyond the end of the initial 90 days.
What did I vlog about?
I decided to keep things simple and talk about anything I could describe in Russian. I started with things that I had done during the day, things I did the day before, and plans for the following day. I kept the videos short, around 10 to 15 minutes, and unfortunately, many of them were recorded at the end of the day just before going to bed. Ideally, I would recommend to anybody else interested in this method to record themselves closer to the beginning of the day when they are more alert and refreshed. Another thing I realized about studying early in the morning is that it can be more stimulating than coffee. Seriously, being able to conjugate Russian verbs and properly decline nouns and adjectives in 6 different cases before 7am is quite a mental task, but done regularly it can force you to connect a lot of neurons. When I used to go to the office, I scheduled several language exchange sessions at 5:30am and though it was a challenge, it paid off little by little.
How to handle lack of vocabulary and limited grammar?
The point of vlogging isn’t to show off to the camera and try to sound perfect, rather it’s an opportunity to test the limits of your vocabulary and grammatical structures in a safe environment. I own up to my lack of vocabulary and even invite it because whenever I discover a subject or conversation topic where I run aground, it’s signal for me to go study a list of vocabulary for that topic or if I struggle to express myself with a certain phrasing or structure, it’s an invitation to review and learn how to formulate a thought or ask for help from a teacher or native speaker. Living in fear of mistakes or trying to avoid them would only confine me within my comfort zone and one of the primary reasons for learning a foreign language is to try to expand one’s comfort zone.
Why speak to the camera instead of with native speakers?
Let me tell you a little story about when I first moved to Mexico City. When I first arrived here, I was terrified to cross the street because of all the crazy, unpredictable drivers who ran red lights, jumped green lights, and had little to no respect for pedestrians. 6 months later, the H1N1 flu broke out and using public transportation was to be avoided. So my in-laws encouraged me to start using a spare car that they weren’t using. Small catch, though, in the U.S. I had only learned to drive an automatic car, and the one I was given in Mexico was manual. So basically, I was thrown in at the deep end with a sink or swim driving test. As you can imagine, it was a highly stressful dealing with unpredictable taxi drivers, bus drivers, delivery vans, aggressive drivers approaching from all angles, and even pedestrians who jay-walked anywhere they felt appropriate. When I had the opportunity to find a quiet, empty neighborhood on a Saturday morning, I used to practice switching gears, and operating the car without the stress of traffic and dealing with other drivers.
In terms of practicing a language, speaking in front of a camera is like learning how to operate a car when nobody is around to cause you stress, and speaking in a conversation or with a group of people is like driving on a busy street with traffic. When it’s just you and the camera, you can take your time, get things right, and really reflect, which you can’t really do when there is constant pressure to “perform” and avoid making fatal mistakes that can affect other people.
Another parallel example is the difference between going to a driving range to practice hitting long-range golf balls compared to actually playing a round of golf. I’ve done both as well, and some of my Mexico City lawyer and account students used to invited me to play golf once a year and it’s actually quite stressful when you only play golf once a year. At least I had great caddies who knew which club to use and where to aim the ball, though, quite often I missed the ball 3 or 4 times in a row. Those are the moments when you’d like to give up and head back to the driving range, or in terms of learning a language, go back to the camera and practice by yourself a little more.
Before and After effects
One of my language exchange partners who saw my progress through my vlogging and conversations mentioned that before I started doing this on a daily basis, my Russian grammar was shaky and full of mistakes, my vocabulary was limited, my pronunciation was bad, my speech was slow, and my confidence level was quite low, but little by little through feedback and review and regular practice my grammar started to improve, I gain more vocabulary words, I started making conjugations and declensions a little faster, and as a result I could speak faster and feel more confident.
My goal by the end of 90 days in the Add1Challenge was to hold a 15-minute conversation all in Russian and to my great surprise I was able to speak for 90 minutes with one of my Russian friends, which completely surpassed my expectations. I later went on to become a finalist of the Add1Challenge and came very close to winning a round-trip plane ticket to Moscow, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Nevertheless, daily vlogging has been a key method that I plan to continue implimenting in the future.
For my students who may be a little camera-shy, I still recommend recording their voice on a daily basis with programs like SpeakPipe or some audio program on their computer or mobile device. The benefit though of a webcam or camera video is being able to observe your body language, since that can also contribute to effective communication in a foreign language. Still being able to listen to your own voice in a foreign language is great proof of your progress and nobody what level you accomplish it’s a great timeplace of the work you put in on a daily basis.
A little bit each day can pay off in a big way!