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 Add1Challenge, 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 that 12 week program, I ended up being fairly inconsistent, though I recognized the potential benefit of vlogging 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 that the Add1Challenge lasts.
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, but 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 earlier in 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, and 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 learning environment. I own up to my lack of vocabulary and even welcome it because whenever I discover a challenging subject or conversation topic where I run aground, it’s a signal for me to go study a list of vocabulary for that particular topic or if I struggle to express myself clearly with a certain phrasing or structure, it’s an opportunity 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 my primary reasons for learning a foreign language is to try to expand my 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 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 a stick-shift. So basically, I was thrown in at the deep end with a sink or swim driving test. As you can imagine, it was 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 exactly 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 accountant students used to invite 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 clubs 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 speaking by yourself a little more.
Before and After effects
One of my language exchange partners who observed my progress through my daily 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, reviews, and regular practice, my grammar started to improve, I increased my vocabulary, I started making conjugations and declensions a little faster and more accurately, and as a result I could speak faster and with more confidence.
My goal by the end of 90 days in the Add1Challenge was to hold a 15-minute conversationcompletely in Russian and to my great surprise I was able to continue speaking in Russian for 90 minutes with one of my Russian friends, which completely surpassed my expectations. I later went on to become a finalist in the Add1Challenge and came very close to winning a round-trip plane ticket to Moscow, which unfortunately 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 video camera is being able to observe your body language, since that can also contribute to effective communication in a foreign language. Being able to listen to your own voice in a foreign language is great proof of your progress and no matter what level you accomplish, it’s a great timelapse of the work you put in each day.
A little bit each day can pay off in a big way!
One year update – December 2017
These daily vlogging techniques have since been bundled into the 30-Day Speaking Challenge, which I launched 3 months after having written the above blog post. By December 2017, the Speaking Challenge has taken place 9 times in a row and is quickly becoming an active community of serious, motivated language learners who take daily action to work on their speaking practice in their target languages. The challenge is free to join and each day I send out an email to participants with a speaking prompt or activity and then participants are invited to make a short 2-5 minute recording on that topic with SpeakPipe Voice Recorder. Afterwards, they can share a link to their recording with the community of fellow language learners who can mutually encourage each other with feedback and suggestions on their speaking recordings in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, etc.
In terms of my own language speaking practice, I have not only been organizing the challenge, I’ve also been participating by making recordings in Russian. Unfortunately, though, I was often inconsistent at times, but in the December edition, I finally decided to raise the bar and force myself to activate several languages at once by making 5 daily recordings in Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, and French. By December 30, I managed to make 150 recordings! Thanks to this challenge I am making a ton of progress simultaneously in several languages and I’m meeting many, many inspiring language learners.
If you would like to find out more about the 30-Day Speaking Challenge and join the next edition, which starts on the 1st of every month, click here.