Finding your language gaps

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The trick that I want to share with you today is a way I have developed to ensure I am learning RELEVANT and USEFUL words and phrases that I will actually use in the language I am learning. It is all too easy when you are using a prescribed course to fall in to the trap of just following blinding and wasting a lot of time learning words and phrases that you will never actually use. I am sure somebody will find it helpful to learn “The citizen has a duck in the garden” but I think it would be a lot more useful to learn “Here is my passport” if I am planning on going to an airport. This is what I like to call finding the language gaps.

The general idea is to use the words and phrases you know as a foundation and to slowly build on them with new pieces of information in small manageable chunks. I like to think about it like lego and each new word you learn is a piece you can add to your skyscraper. This will work for anyone at any level as the amount of complexity that you cover is entirely down to you. With this method I also try to just push outside my comfort zone to slowly increase what I know rather than diving in headfirst and having to memorising mountains of new information; which can be a little overwhelming and disheartening.

I have also found that this technique has been a massive help for me when trying to break through the Intermediate plateau in Italian to the Advanced stage. At this level it is quite hard to see what information you are missing and which topics you are missing the most phrases from. It is also an essential task when you are learning an obscure language, like I did last year with Icelandic, as there won’t be as many readily available courses and you will need to do a lot more self directed study.

Below are the simple steps you need to follow to give your learning a boost.

Step 1 – Pick a topic & be specific

It may sound obvious but the first thing you have to do is decide on what you want to talk about. Think about why you are learning the language and where you want to use it next. Are you planning on trying to watch your favourite series? Want to have a chat with a new language partner? Or simply to be able to understand what the border security are saying in the airport?

For me, I am learning German for a holiday and so I decided I wanted to focus on having a short conversation with my language partner about the trip.

Once you have the topic you need to get very specific. If you pick a topic that is too large or complex you will feel overwhelmed and it will be more like reading a document redacted by the government than spotting a few gaps in the sentences. Think of a single simple question that someone could ask. An example question would be “Do you have any hobbies?” and not “What is the meaning of life?”. The first question has a small set of possible answers that you can focus on, the second is a very complex question with a massive number of possible answers and complicated vocabulary required to answer it properly.

Keeping it simple will help you later on to not be overloaded with mounds of new information, instead getting a handful of new phrases that you can learn and build on.
Step 2 – Talk to yourself

Once you have chosen your question you need to have a little talk with yourself. Have a pretend conversation and write down everything you are saying in your mother tongue. The aim is to get a dozen or so sentences written down that you would say naturally if discussing this topic.

When starting out focus on short simple sentences. Keeping it simple will allow you to move just outside your comfort zone without getting overwhelmed by too much information. If you get stuck start with one sentence question and answers like; “Where do you live?” and “I live in England.”.

Step 3 – Swap to your target language

Now is the time to start trying this conversation in your target language without any outside assistance. Put away your language books, dictionaries and google translate and give it your best shot. The idea here is to find things you don’t know so just give it try and don’t worry about making mistakes. Every unknown word or phrase is a language gap you are going to fill.

Ideally you are looking for around 2-3 words per sentence. If you see a lot more than this it might be best to go back to Step 3 and simplify your conversation. You will find it a lot more difficult to learn the new information if over half of the sentence is unknown. Remember you want to slowly add on new words and phrases to what you already know, rather than learn full sentences with completely new concepts.
Here is an example sentence I have used:

In the morning we are driving to the airport.

[Am Morgen] fahren wir zum [Flughafen]

In this sentence there are two phrases I don’t know. The first is “Am Morgen” which means “In the morning”. I already know the word Morgen but I didn’t know how to speak about something I was doing at that time of day. The second is “Flughafen” or “Airport”.

Step 4 – Fill in the gaps

Now you have identified the gaps it is time to fill them. Time to get your dictionaries back out and search for the words you are looking for. If you don’t have a decent bilingual dictionary (native to target) there will be one at your fingertips with a simple google search. It will help you hear to do your best to try and construct the missing information but then you need to make sure that what you have done is correct. Take your text and head over to lang-8 and put in the sample conversation there. Once submitted, native speakers will correct it for you.

I find that you get more regular corrections if you correct other people’s posts and add some friends who are native speakers of that language as they will see your posts first on their stream (kind of like Facebook). So share the language love and help some learners with you native language too.

Step 5 – Use it or lose it

This step is probably the most important of all. There is no point doing all this work if you just write them in a book and close it to get dusty on your shelf. The only way that you will fix it strongly in your mind is to use it. There are two ways that I use to help fix it in my memory.

The first is to actively use it in conversation with your language partner. This way you get used to actively using it and will remember having a conversation with these new words in. If you haven’t found a language partner or tutor yet then look at italki. I have personally used this many times to find a good partner and heard very good things about the tutors on there too (not personally used them).

As preparation for a conversation it is always a good idea to hear what the words sound like from native speakers. Forvo is the perfect place to find this and even lets you download the audio file on your computer for later.

Lastly, I would suggest that you put these new words and phrases in to your SRS flashcards app and review them regularly to memorise them fully. Don’t have a flashcards app? Well go get one now, as it will be a massive help for you in the future for memorising new vocabulary. My suggestions would be Anki or Flashcards Deluxe. I switch between both and they are slightly different. Anki is highly customisable but the app is very expensive and you need to use a computer to properly create cards with images and audio. Flashcards deluxe has a cheap app and you can use google drive or drop box with a spreadsheet to generate cards on mass. The built in text to speech is also nice if you don’t want to have to manually download all your audio (although the quality isn’t as good).

I find having a flashcard app on my phone is an easy way to practice these phrases everyday to make sure I remember them. Every time I get some spare time on my lunch break, waiting for the kettle to boil or laying in bed, I can practice the new words until I have them memorised.

Now give it a try and give your language learning a speed boost. If you find it helpful or have any questions please put in the comments below.

Ciao for now!



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