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What’s a Rusty Language?

RustyWe often hear about people being “rusty” in a language. But what does that mean? How do we measure rust? Can we scrape the rust off and make it shiny again?

Rusty? Really?

I totally identify with the issue of have a language that is rusty. Basically all it comes down to is not having access to the words and grammar as readily as you had them previously when you come to use the language. Nothing more to it than that. In your brain, it feels a bit like a wheel that needs oiling. To get it to go round again and work…well…it simply makes squeaky noises and needs more muscle power to push it around. It is no longer a smooth process.

When can a language rust?

When you don’t use it. If you are not using a language for a long time and not thinking about it, it can rust. It can rust in different ways too. You may stay nice and fluent in some circumstances. But when you try to talk about something you’ve not discussed in a while, you simply need time to think about the words. Just like using really specific words at school that you no longer need. You need to access the words more consciously if you don’t use them anymore, right?

Can you scrape the rust off? 

I certainly think so. You simply need to use the words and language patterns again. Like a muscle, it will build up strength again and become strong once more. Sometimes it feels like you’re learning all over again, but usually it is a lot easier than studying a new language. You simply need to mend the connections in your brain and trigger the memories and links that were once active.

How do you know? 

I have been through this several times myself. As someone who has been through the language learning process many times, de-rusting my languages from time to time is just part of my life. After all, how many languages can you keep up at the same time without picking up a bit of rust? There are only so many hours in the day, aren’t there? And the other work you have it not going to do itself!

So how do you do it?

Recently I did an interview with Jimmy Mello, ahead of a trip to Brazil for some Polyglot Workshops. I noticed during the interview that this language I once studied at university, but no longer actively use, had gone rusty. I felt less confident than usual using it. I felt the words were not at my fingertips and the grammar even felt a little weird.

I’m forever studying something new. I simply enjoy the thrill of a new language as much as I love to improve and work on languages I have already studied.

So, folowing the successful italki Challenge with Norwegian for one month in June, I have now made a commitment to myself to scrape the rust off my Portuguese. My goal is to speak it with confidence again when I land in Brazil. I have three weeks until I get there and over one week in Brazil too. To make it more interesting, I am also looking to convert my European Portuguese to Brazilian Portuguese.

So I am making the following promises:

1. Find a tutor on italki

2. Schedule regular lessons until I leave for Brazil – 10 lessons in total

3. Read a news article a day on my Euronews app in Portuguese

4. Speak Portuguese as much as possible in Brazil

At the end of my stay in Brazil, I will do another interview with Jimmy Mello to see what a difference a month of de-rusting makes. I’ll post the results on here for you to see and hear!

Fancy joining me?  What will you be de-rusting from your language collection?

How easy is it to learn similar languages?

IE FamiliesI’ve heard people say that speaking lots of languages from the same language family is not hard.  They seem to think that anyone can do it.  Some even see it as cheating at being a polyglot.

But is that a fair assessment? 

No one can deny that learning Italian after Spanish is easier because a lot of words are the same and much of the grammar works in the same way.  That is simply a fact.  The same goes for a lot of other languages too.

However, that is not the whole story. 

When I was at university, I remember people starting a second or third similar language to the one(s) they already spoke.  They did not always manage to pull it off.  What happened?

  • Shared vocabulary provided false friends
  • A blend of two languages resulted and not separate, additional languages
  • Pronunciation and accent overlap created a jumbled sounding mix

In short, some had to give up one of the languages to save the other one.  Sometimes the first language survived and sometimes the new one overwrote the old one in their heads.  I have seen this happen many times.  I cannot conclude that it is easy for everyone to speak similar languages, especially if the goal is to speak them all to a high level.

How about languages similar to your native tongue? 

I’ve seen more CVs from Scandinavians than I can count, claiming to speak Swedish, Danish and Norwegian.  However, rarely have I ever met a Scandinavian, who can actually speak all three.  What they mean is that they can understand them.  Maybe they can even say a few words or fake-speak them (like putting on another accent and using a few commonly known different words).

I could use that example for many other languages around the world too.

So is it impossible to learn very similar languages? 

No!  It can be done (and sometimes simultaneously too, despite what my first paragraphs suggest).  Many people do manage it successfully too.  It simply requires more effort than one first thinks to do it well.  You need to focus hard on the differences to keep them separate in your head.  You then need to consider how well you need to speak both, or all 3/4/5…etc.  I find learning one very well first and then the other works best.  Then the key is to practice both regularly to keep them separate in your head.

How should I go about learning multiple languages at the same time?

People often ask me whether or not they can learn more than one language at the same time.  I think it is definitely possible.  It takes additional time, of course.  But learning more than one language simultaneously can work.

How do I achieve the best results?

Pick languages that are not too similar!

You can start learning (similar) languages together and see how you do.  If you notice that there are interference issues, then you can always drop one and pick it up later when the other one is very strong.  If you notice a lot of confusion or feel frustrated with your progress, take it one at a time and enjoy the journey.  It’s not a race after all.

Be clear in your goals and reasons for learning the language(s)!

It also pays to clearly identify the level to which you want to learn the languages and why.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you really need to speak all of the languages to have sophiscated conversations?
  • Or are you happy with chit chat when you go to the country on holiday?

Sometimes the latter makes most sense.  It makes your goals seem more achieveable.  It keeps you motivated to learn.  It also make the confusion less important as you still usually keep the dominant language pure.

I’ve been through this process a number of times and I am going through it right now too.

Language 1: Latvian

I am studying Latvian for the Add1Challenge over 3 months.  My goal is to get a basic level in it to carry out basic conversations and tasks in the language when I arrive in Riga in July.  I don’t speak any other language in the same family as Latvian, though it does share some similarities to other Indo-European languages I speak.

Here’s my latest update video in Latvian after two weeks (simple introductions):

How am I getting on? 

I find it fun because so much of it is new to me, though strangely familiar at times too.  I get some help from time to time with shared vocabulary from other languages I know.  Some of the grammar seems familiar too.  That said, it does feel like a different language and the pronunciation is quite different (and yet not too alien either).  I’m sure I will end up speaking Latvian to at least the level I am aiming for by the end of the summer.  My teacher on italki is very supportive too!

Language 2: Norwegian

At the same time I have taken on the italki language challenge to learn Norwegian for one month.  I have already studied Swedish, Danish, Icelandic and a little Faroese, so this is very similar.  In fact, when I was in Oslo in the past, I would speak Swedish and they spoke back in Norwegian.  We could understand each other very well indeed.

This is how I am getting on with Norwegian so far (Basic introduction, trying to repress my Swedish):

How am I doing with Norwegian?

I find that I am still heavily influenced by Swedish when I speak Norwegian.  My Swedish is quite strong, so not in danger at the moment.  I am working at it and reducing my accent/pronunciation issues in Norwegian, as well as the grammatical and lexical similarities in the two languages.  I do this with my italki Norwegian teacher.  After two weeks, I feel I have made improvements and I am confident I can do this.  It will take time though.

It is sometimes also a little frustrating to understand so much and be able to say so little without going into Swedish to have a proper conversation instead.  The temptation is strong to do just that when I know Norwegians understand me in Swedish too.  My goal is to use Norwegian in Norway from now on (I’m going there again in July for 10 days).

I’ll update you on my progress as I reach the end of these challenges too.

How have you done with learning similar languages?

What is your experience with studying multiple languages at the same time?

If you are interested in knowing more about learning multiple languages, you would find the Polyglot Workshops useful to answer your specific questions.  Check to see when the next one is near you!

Intensive Language Learning Courses

When people ask me about how I learnt my languages, there is never one answer I can give.  This is one of the reasons why I started the Polyglot Workshops with Alex Rawlings.  Some of the languages I have learnt best have been on intensive courses, where I was completed immersed in the language on a course or in a host family.

Judith Meyer has also had some great experiences on such courses and even runs her own, sharing her knowledge, as well as language tips and tricks for effective learning.  Ahead of the Polyglot Conference in New York City, she will be holding an intensive German course.  Judith has a wealth of experience in teaching languages, especially her own with her long experience on German Pod 101.

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What’s the Best Language School Experience?

If you’re going abroad and you signed up for intensive classes at a language school, your mileage will vary a lot. If you’re lucky, the classroom will be well-equipped, cool, conducive to learning and the teachers will use modern teaching methods. If you’re really unlucky, the classroom will be poor, overheated and the teachers will make you forget that you ever loved the language. Sitting in their lessons will seriously feel like you could learn more from any beggar on the street.

What if you’re really, really lucky? Then you may just have a language school experience like I had this past October with French star instructor Sylvain Lelarge. He is one of Europe’s best language teachers, having gotten two awards for his innovative teaching methods. I found that my fluency in French, while already high, improved by a degree of magnitude after just one week.

The biggest differences to regular in-country language courses were that this 7-day course had no classroom and yet featured 12-14 hours of learning every day. If someone had told me beforehand that I would study 12-14 hours a day and enjoy it, I would have called them insane! Even 4 hours a day in Beijing was a recipe for regular headaches. But read on.

We were 8 students, plus teacher Sylvain with his wife and son, and we lived in this gorgeous 17th century farm in the middle of a forest in Southern France:

farm outsideSince there was no classroom, we’d sit on those couches you see or on the patio outside in the mild October sun. Sylvain’s materials were fun, involving songs, stories, funny sayings and the like. We also never sat anywhere for long, often switching between lighter and harder activities in the perfect rhythm to make study seem effortless. Taking part in any of the activities was completely optional and yet I didn’t want to miss a single part of it!

The food was amazing as well, leisurely 3-course meals of fine French cuisine (during which we’d speak French of course). We lived “like God in France”, as we say in German. The beautiful environment and amazing French food contributed to our relaxation and enthusiasm for “living in French”.

We took at least one walk every day, which works wonders to restore energy. We’d talk about everything and anything in French during those walks, then stop somewhere to do a grammar exercise or learn a song… songs featured a lot in the course, and we learned a lot of vocabulary that way.

There were also presentations, every participant got to talk about one of his passions and Sylvain would plan an entire day around the same general theme. For example, one of the participants was an avid cyclist, so he gave a presentation about this hobby and the races he had participated in, and the day was dubbed the “Day of Sports”, involving some sports-related vocabulary, conversations about sports we like to do, songs somehow mentioning sports, and a group game of Boule. On other days we had French guests, went to the market to practice conversing with strangers, or toured Castle Monbazillac (famous for wine), complete with a picknick with a nice view across the valley.

Since this course was laid out for a small group of only 8 students, Sylvain was also able to take note of what each person found difficult and often came up with helpful exercises on the spot or by the next day.
castle view
So what are the features of a really good immersion language course? Look at everything I highlighted in bold…

If you’re longing to take a French course with Sylvain now, contact him. If your interests tend more towards Esperanto, I shall do my best to offer a similar experience for learning Esperanto this October: Intensive Esperanto in PA . This will be a one-off course for intermediate/advanced Esperanto students, based in a beautiful chalet in the historic Quakertown. You’ll feel as if you were in Esperanto-land!

chalet

Wherever your language studies take you, do not feel that you have to be stuck in boring language classes that make you hate the language, even if you booked them. Look for those amazing immersion opportunities that you’ll love. In case of doubt, see if you might be able to hire a tutor to show you around the city and teach you the language as you explore. Get out and have fun!

See the event on Facebook for this unique opportunity to join Judith in the U.S.A. before joining us all in New York for the Polyglot Conference, where you can practice your newly polished Esperanto language skills!

Polish your Polish

Can you get your tongue around the weird and wonderful consonant sounds in Polish?  Watch this video I put together and see how you do too!  Post a reply to the video with you saying “chrząszcz”!  :)

Each group of languages I have studied has a special place in my heart.  The Romance and Germanic languages were my focus earlier on in my studies – from French and Spanish at school to a stint in a German family.  Nowadays it’s the Slavic languages that have had a huge impact on my life as an adult learner.

Giant insects in Poznan

Giant insects in Poznan

Slavic languages? 

Yes, you’ve got it, I’m talking about languages like Polish, Czech and Russian!

But wait a minute…

Aren’t those Slavic languages meant to be way too hard to learn?  No, not at all!  You simply need to work at them.  All those consonants become strangely familiar with time and practice.

You can learn Slavic languages too!

All you need is…

  • Determination & clear goals (e.g. talking about the weather by the end of next week)
  • A course book you like (spend some time looking over them)
  • Regular study (even if it’s just revision of old chapters)
  • Podcasts, YouTube videos (like Real Polish), films & music for the days you feel like relaxing with the language instead (ask a native or advanced learner for recommendations)

All set?  So what do you get out of it? 

The rewards of breaking into this exciting and challenging group of languages are numerous.  You feel a great sense of achievement and you get the key to an entirely new world.  You could also improve you career prospects and make new friends.

The Slavic languages cause a shift in your thought processes and give you a glimpse into all the other Slavic languages in the group too.  You actually start understanding other languages in the group too…for FREE!!!  The new shared vocabulary and grammatical features give you a unique insight into how these languages really work.

How do you know?

My first Slavic language was Czech.  I studied it at Charles University in Prague and completed the Advanced Diploma in Czech Studies (required to then go on and study university courses in Czech).  Well, that’s what it meant at the time.  Nowadays I imagine it has a CEFR level attached to it!

But it didPolish2n’t stop there.  Czech helped me dive into other languages in the group and start talking almost right away.  From Czech I went on to study some Russian and then Macedonian (which is now my home language).  From that base I could explore Bulgarian, Slovene, Serbian, Croatian and, most recently, Polish!

How did you learn Polish?  

I used the “Polish in 4 Weeks” and “Polski bez problemu!” courses that I found in Poland.  I also stayed in a flat with Poles to practice the language every day.  After a month of studies and my background in other Slavic languages, this was the result:

There is no time like the present.  You can also pick up Polish.  Even if you are not in Poland, you could look at Polish courses by Teach Yourself, Colloquial or Assimil to get cracking with your Polish studies from home.

Finally and most importantly…

Get to grips with pronunciation and communicating.  Find a native speaker in person or online on italki and start speaking Polish!*

Need some additional motivation?

If you want a personalised experience of how to learn another language from me, you can sign up for one of the Polyglot Workshops where I will answer your questions in person.  If you can’t find a date or place convenient for you, no problem!  Let me know and we’ll see what can be done to bring the Polyglot Workshops to you!

 

 

*Note:  I used Polish as an example here.  You could equally choose another Slavic language to learn, if you prefer.

Chinese without China

My Chinese & Japanese BooksChinese and I had a very strange relationship for a long time. I’d played with it and revisited some basic courses over and over again, but it never happened for me. People talk about third chapter syndrome, you know, when you are excited in the beginning and never get passed the third chapter in the book.  Know that feeling?  Well, that was my life with Chinese for years!

Everyone I met said, “you really should learn Chinese”. Their reasons for me learning Chinese went from “it’s the language of the future” and “it’ll be good for business opportunities” to “you need something interesting and challenging”. These voices rang in my head and felt it was definitely a language and culture worth exploring. So I picked up the challenge once again in 2012, but this time it was different.

Why?  Because I realised that learning a language so different like Chinese is different. I’d studied many languages before, but Chinese was another story and I could tell that I would need to employ quite different strategies to be successful in my learning.

I had to take a very different look at ways to learn the language to get it to stick and move past the very basic words I never seemed to get past previously.  I turned to people who had been through the process, survived, succeed and lived to tell the tale.  People like Mike Campbell (Glossika) and Vladimir Skultety became voices of reason and motivation to break through the new and quite different language pain barriers you see with Chinese.

These are 10 simple points that stuck with me from that time that I want to share with you now:

  1. Don’t get too hung up on the characters right away. It takes time, practice and patience for the characters to really get into your brain. They are interest and can be a stumbling block for learning in the early stages.  You need to concentrate on the language too in order to feel that you are moving forwards and remain motivated.  So give yourself a break and work on the points below in the beginning.
  2. Find books that appeal to you. Take some time to go through books in a bookshop or library, as well as online courses too. See which courses (and combinations of courses) appeal most to you. Ask other learners, who have broken through the beginning stages what worked for them too.  My recommendation from my own experience is the “Integrated Chinese” course.
  3. Master Pinyin! You need to get to grips with the sounds of Chinese. The way to do this is by learning Pinyin well. It’s the way Chinese is written in Latin script to represent the sounds (and tones) of the language. Your course will have an introduction to it, so do use it. You can also use the Foreign Service Institute material also for additional drills (free and Google-able), or you can use sites like pinyinpractice.com to help.
  4. Learn sentences! Unlike many other languages, Chinese needs to be learnt with certain sentence patterns to convey meaning. Simply learning words and putting them together does not always work well in Chinese. You will get used to learning chunks of Chinese and how they are understood by natives to reproduce them later. As you build up these patterns, you build up your confidence and ability to join them up as you move forwards in your studies.
  5. Variety is the spice of life. Allow yourself chance to keep the motivation and momentum going in your studies by adding in fun things in your studies too, like singing (singchinesesongs.com) or by watching videos with subtitles. Fluentu.com is a great website for this and I can really recommend signing up to access their wide range of videos; full of great examples of the language. Even if you don’t understand everything, you are hearing the way people speak and use the language and getting used to its prosody, whilst having fun. This counts as study too!
  6. Expand your vocabulary. Vocabulary is the meat of a language. Without it, we cannot understand or say very much. You can use various online resources to make flashcards, like Vocapp.com, Anki.com and Memrise.com (many have apps for your phone too, to do whilst your are on the move).
  7. Study a little every day. It is way better to do a little every day than a lot once a week. Your brain needs the repetition to keep the language alive in your head. Use your course book (revise if you don’t feel ready to move forward), use the videos and songs you’ve found and practice your pinyin and expand your vocabulary by testing yourself regularly too.
  8. Find a community of learners. Online there are many groups of people, who are studying Chinese. You can use them to get support, feedback and help with your learning. Some of these communities are combined with podcasts, like ChinesePod.com and they can help to bring out these chunks of language for you to learn, master and reproduce to build your fluency.
  9. It takes time. Set yourself realistic goals. You need to sleep, eat, work as well as spend time with friends and family. Learning Chinese should be an integrated part of your life too. You can do that by studying on the move for quick revision, incorporating it into breaks at work, telling friends interesting facts about your study. Teaching and talking about something you’re learning helps you remember too!
  10. Make it sociable. Make it accountable. Learning languages is a social thing. If you like that contact and want to meet people and be made accountable for study by a teacher to move forward in your language, then a formal course could be for you. Confucius Institutes are to be found all over the world (as well as online chinesecio.com), offering courses for learners. You may also look at other university courses too, as I did. In Sweden these courses are even free and full accredited for EU citizens (universityadmissions.se for more information).

For me the courses at the University of Dalarna really helped me to push through some of the obstacles in the way of my learning.  Having the teacher and other students around, as well as assignments, homework and constant feedback were all a real blessing for my study of the language.

Judith Meyer has written a book “Fluent Chinese” on learning Chinese at different stages, giving you additional hints, tips and tricks from her experience learning the language.

At any stage of your learning, it’s good to talk and get feedback from a fluent or native speaker.  I recommend that you sign up for italki, look for a teacher or language partner.  Use your coursebook with the teacher to practice dialogues, if you cannot yet speak freely.  The key here is to practice, practice, practice!

Good luck with your Chinese!  :)

Easy Peasy Japanesey

Happy International Women’s Day to everyone out there!  Women make up a huge part of our language learning community and there are a number of very prominent women out there, talking about languages.  Given it is 8th March, it made sense to highlight another woman out there, showing us how language learning is done and motivating us to learn more.

Siskia Lagomarsino lives in Mexico. She is a language tutor and blogger. If you’d like to know more about her and her languages, you can reach her at thepolyglotist.com

Ever said, or heard people say this about learning Japanese: “But it’s so… foreign!”?  Enjoy what Siskia has to say about how much easier it is to learn Japanese than you might think!

Siskia at Tsutenkaku Tower, Osaka

Siskia at Tsutenkaku Tower, Osaka

Five reasons why Japanese is actually not that hard to learn

Out of the last nine years I’ve spent studying Japanese, I’ve spent three years and a quarter teaching it, and eight and a half trying to convince people it’s not the monstrously difficult language they’re sure it is. I’m living proof that just about anybody can learn it: I was a terrible learner and student before I started learning Japanese.

I’d like to share four reasons why learning Japanese is no different in difficulty from learning French, Icelandic or English, and it’s actually a wonderful language to start with if you’re only just dipping your toes into language learning. Here we go!

  1. It has an incredibly regular grammar.

If you’ve learned a romance language, English, Russian, or almost any American language, you’ll notice there are almost as many exceptions as there are rules. This doesn’t happen in Japanese. Rules don’t have counter-rules per every situation: grammar is used as it is taught, and that’s it!

  1. No genders, no plurals, no articles, absolute conjugations, and limited verbal tenses.

This is part of its regular grammar, but I figure it merits explaining.

  • Japanese has no articles (“the”, “le”, “il”, “los”, etc), and nouns have no genders, which makes learning vocabulary a breeze.
  • Plurals are made by adding suffixes, and these never change, so they’re easy to remember.
  • Verbs have ONLY one conjugation per every tense. You don’t need to remember different conjugations for every grammatical person!
  • What’s more, there’s only nine different verbal tenses, which limits the amount of verbal conjugations you have to learn per verb to these nine. Ever heard of a language in which remembering verbal conjugation is easy?!
  1. Language interference? What’s that?

Japanese is considered a language isolate—it shares some grammatical features with Korean and part of its writing system with Chinese, but in reality nothing else quite sounds like it. This means that it’s actually a pretty hard language to mix up with others.

  1. Once you have a steady study method, it’s quick learning all the way.

Being so regular, there’s a point in studying Japanese when you will notice a dramatic acceleration in your learning. This is because once you learn the basic grammar (positive, negative, past and present conjugations, etc.), everything else is a slight modification of what you already know.

  1. There are so many learning resources that you’ll never go through all of them.

I won’t go into detail of what resources you should use to learn if you want to learn Japanese on your own, but it should suffice to say that there are more than enough wonderful sites to learn from. The education of Japanese as a second language is actually a somewhat recent field, so new resources, courses and ideas are coming up all the time.

Now… since it wouldn’t be fair to present this language as a piece of cake, I’d like explain (and debunk) two things that make it seem difficult.

  1. The reading system is complex.
Dotonbori, Osaka

Dotonbori, Osaka

Japanese has a reading/writing system based on the harmonious cooperation of THREE different scripts: hiragana and katakana, two syllabic scripts (symbols without meaning, only meant for sound), and kanji, an ideographic system (symbols that represent ideas) borrowed from Chinese hanzi.

At first, to many people this feels like utter nonsense, because to occidentals this concept sounds like needing Cyrillic and Georgian in addition to the Roman alphabet, in order to make sense of sentences. However, the reason why this system exists is based on the Japanese philosophy that everything has a mission or reason to exist. Therefore, you can’t write a sentence using the scripts at random—there’s a logic to how and where to use them.

There are two things that make Japanese reading/writing hard to learn.

  • The first is that there are 46 sounds in each syllabic script, meaning you have to learn to write 46 sounds TWICE (in two different “hands”). With occidental languages having relatively small alphabets, this would make anybody feel lazy.
  • The second is the amount of kanji to be learned. Now, people get the mistaken impression that since there are tens of thousands of CHINESE characters, then one MUST learn them all, but this is untrue. For example, to achieve a relatively high level in China one must learn upwards of 5,000 characters. Thankfully, for Japanese one needs to learn much less: there is a list (the Jōyō Kanji) that list the 2,136 characters of most common usage. However, as a long time learner I can attest that even this number is way too high—I know somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 kanji and have never had much trouble understanding texts.
  1. It’s a hierarchical language.

Almost everybody knows that Japan has a culture that truly values. The problem this poses for learning the Japanese language is that one has to learn to manipulate the language through several layers of politeness (or lack of it), some of which are inexistent in occidental languages. What this means is that to learn fluent Japanese, it’s required that one, in essence, “learns to play by Japanese rules” in all sorts of interactions. This sounds easy, but in practice it’s much harder!

I hope I’ve managed to change at least a few minds about Japanese. I’ve been learning it for almost nine years now, and I’ve met so many people who really want to learn it but feel intimidated by the task. I want people to know that it isn’t the easiest language you’ll learn, but it isn’t so hard either.

So, when are you starting?

 

(Get in touch with me via my Speaking Fluently Facebook Page, if you would like to be a guest blogger on this site too).

How to Create and Run Your Own Language Meetup

Rachel Meyer is an avid language learner, language school owner (abclang.com), Chinese textbook author and blogger (speakalanguagenow.com).

Rachel sent in her ideas for this blog post to me via the Speaking Fluently Facebook Page.  She writes about how she keeps all her language current while living in San Francisco.   There is some good, practical information in this post on how to be more proactive in using your languages as part of your life, whilst having fun.  Enjoy!

Imagine practicing the language you are learning with native speakers every week; imagine making friends with native speakers and suddenly you are using the language naturally at dinner parties and events; imagine heading steadily down the path to fluency (or maintaining your fluency) while not living in the country. If you like the sound of this scenario, I have one word for you: Meetup

Chatting in Mandarin over guacamole

Chatting in Mandarin over guacamole

Meetup.com is an online platform that brings real life people together in the real world. And the truth is the platform does most of the work for you. IF you do it right. If you don’t, you will burnout.

Why start your own group?

  • You control language level and rules
  • You get to pick a location and schedule perfect for you
  • Your central role means an easier way to connect with members

One of the main ways I maintain languages I speak well, and improve languages I don’t, is to run Meetup groups in San Francisco. I run the largest Spanish, French, Mandarin, Turkish and Multi-Language (Language Lovers) groups in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reaching a near cult-like status of 10,000+ followers in my groups, you would think I would be incredibly busy managing them. Not at all. I have it down to a science, and put in probably less effort than the average member, since all my Meetups happen on a day, and at a time and location all convenient for me. In fact, most are held right across the block from my work, or in a park near my home.

First, let’s get to how to actually start a group: all you have to do is click here and follow the steps.

After you have chosen your name, topic(s), and created your home page, Meetup will give you a week or two to pull yourself together before sending out an announcement. They do all the work in promoting your site, and it is surprisingly effective. Just make sure you are ready: have you home page set up and make sure you have at least one event on your calendar. This is important because Meetup sends out just one huge email blast. You want to look appealing at first glance.

Potluck Turkish picnic

Potluck Turkish picnic

Now that you are all set up, here is some valuable information on how to make your language Meetup group successful. I have seen so many groups come and go trying to create a successful language Meetup, but they mostly fail for one reason: ORGANIZER BURNOUT.

Tip #1: KEEP IT SIMPLE

  • Pick one location and stick to it. It seems like lot of fun in the beginning to switch things around and keep it interesting, but you will burnout trying to keep all your venue relationships up and your members will vary since some locations work for some, while others don’t. You can mix things up instead by inviting assistant organizers to help out (more on that later).
  • Pick one schedule and stick to it. Decide what your regular schedule will be (e.g. every Friday, first Monday of the month, every other Sunday, etc.). If you and your members have a standing schedule it is easier to keep and harder to forget.

Tip #2: ASK FOR HELP

  • I don’t recommend an option you will see that allows any and all members to suggest and post a Meetup. In my experience that leads to mayhem, and lots of disappointed members writing to you to complain.
  • I do recommend making designated “Assistant Organizers” or “Event Organizers”, who will take the role more seriously and are easier to keep an eye on. I am fairly lax in this department. I have made some members an assistant organizer without even having met them. So far it has only been added value. If they turn out to be remiss, they could easily be removed.
  • Ask members to donate to help you cover the $70 biannual fees. In my groups I don’t make this obligatory since there are then expectations that they are paying me a fee and I should be providing a service (I steer clear of those expectations since I have a full time job, and this is not it). Either way, I see the $140 a year as the cheapest language classes in the world. I don’t concern myself too much if I get it all covered.
Sipping wine and chatting in French

Sipping wine and chatting in French

Tip #3`: BE CLEAR

  • Be clear in your home page description exactly what you are and are not. For my Spanish, French and Mandarin groups I make it clear we are target language only Meetups (no English). For my Turkish group (since my Turkish isn’t so swell) I say “Turkish encouraged” (again catering the group to one’s own skills/interest/location) so if I need to switch to English during a Turkish event to make an announcement, I can.
  • Make it clear what you as organizer do and don’t provide. I declare my groups as “member lead”, stating that all members are expected to help integrate everyone into the social mix. This takes me out of the burdensome role of greeting each member, giving every member a name tag, etc. which would take away from my time to do what I want, which is chat with members in the language. My groups are also large (50-90 participants each time); if you end up running a smaller group, you might not find greeting each member troublesome.
Typical Spanish Meetup

Typical Spanish Meetup

Tip #4: DON’T TRY TO PLEASE EVERYONE

  • Be honest with yourself about what you want to get out of the Meetups and orient them 100% towards that. Keeping it focused on your interests and skills means you won’t burnout and quit. Everyone benefits from you sticking around.
  • Once you are clear what your group is and isn’t, some people might find that disappointing. “French only? But my French isn’t good enough. That’s not fair.” There is a solution to this: offer members who want a different focus to become assistant organizers and start their own chapter, for example ‘French practice for Beginners”. That can add variety to your Meetups and take the onus off of you to please everyone.

Tup #5: STREAMLINE COMMUNICATION

  • Be as specific as possible on your home page. My home page for my Spanish Meetup was originally pretty sparse, but as the questions kept coming in I added more and more information.  I then even added a FAQ’s page to help clarify further questions: between these two pages, I now get very few questions.
  • Once you have weeded out the typical questions by updating your home page and creating a FAQ’s page, you will only occasionally get email inquiries. If you see a pattern, I recommend either adding the question(s) to your home/FAQ page or creating a template to answer these inquiries quickly (again, avoiding ye ole burnout factor).
Language Lover’s Meetup on an outing

Language Lover’s Meetup on an outing

Tip #6: PICK THE RIGHT LOCATION

  • Picking the right location is key. How many people do you see participating? Make sure you limit your RSVP to exactly that (you can always change that for future Meetups as it grows) and make sure your venue is the right fit.
  • For small Meetup groups places like cafes, restaurants and public spaces can work out. Either way you want to make sure you have a reservation in place or you (or a member) is showing up early to save your spot.
  • If you end up with a larger group of more than 20 members showing up DO NOT pick a popular place. You should look for the opposite: a quiet lonely place everyone is ignoring. You can fill it up with your members, the venue will be happy and you will have your own event space at no rental cost.
  • Remember for groups of 20+ people showing up, quiet empty places are best. The goal is to be speaking and if there is loud music or loads of other guests filling up the space, you will all get drowned out. Even quiet places get pretty loud when you have a group of 20+ people speaking in a foreign language.
  • Communicate with the venue. Make sure the manager knows you are showing up and is expecting each individual member to have his/her own bill (Don’t try to share a bill; this will lead to stress and conflict, and as organizer the buck stops with you).
  • Once you find that sweet spot, don’t change it. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.
  • Make sure members know what the venue and event rules are. Examples from my own large Meetups are “this is a stand on your feet and mingle Meetup”; “there is a one-drink or one-appetizer minimum to keep our venue happy”; “don’t forget to tip”, etc.
  • Expect 20-30% of the RSVPs to not show up. Don’t stress about it, just put your RSVP limit 25% higher than you want, and the correct number will show up.

Generally speaking, Meetup groups take very little time to run. They are a wonderful way to meet native speakers of the language you speak or are learning and lead to (in my case) some life-long friendships, weekly language practice, and are a great way to welcome some foreign nationals into your community. Here are the groups I run:

Spanish-Language Meetup

Mandarin Mixer Meetup

Les Ami(e)s Francophones de San Francisco

Language Lover’s Meetup

Turkish Language Meetup

By the way, I am also a member of other language Meetups. When I am not running my own, I love to pop in and check out other groups. If you aren’t sure yet about starting your own group, join another one to see how it works. You could even offer to be an Event Organizer to get your feet wet.

Are you thinking of organizing a group?

Do already organize a language group?

Any other questions on how to run one?

 

 

 

(Get in touch with me via my Speaking Fluently Facebook Page, if you would like to be a guest blogger on this site too).

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