How to Shamelessly Steal Language Skills from our Friends and Colleagues

January is the month of the year when most of us want to start fresh with a clean slate. I recently learned that some people, especially in Europe, call the third Monday in January Blue Monday because it’s supposedly the most depressing day of the year.

While that may be a bit extreme, it’s true that this January still feels like an interminable slog through an international crisis whose end we can only barely dream of. But I’ve still taken the opportunity to create some New Year’s resolutions, because, well…I’m me. I thought I’d share my process with you, and then together we can all inject some positivity into 2021.

Being me, I have several resolutions, but I’d like to talk to you about one in particular today: improving my language skills. In my case, the language is French, but these shameless tips should apply to whichever languages are in your combination as well.

I thought long and hard about what I should do to Hermione my way to a professionally fluent French. I know I need to speak French, listen to French, and read French. I also know that having native speakers to help you in the journey is priceless. So I considered daily individual practice sessions with weekly meetups, and it all seemed so…daunting. And too scheduled.

Instead, I decided to channel my inner six-year-old, and I created a sticker chart! I have authorized a variety of tasks that can earn me a sticker, each one something that will help me with my French. This way, my resolution is less of a chore and more of a “pick your own adventure.” (My prize, by the way, is no child thing at all—it is a 10-day vacation! In order for your prizes to be motivating, they should be…motivating.)

The sticker chart includes some things I can do on my own, like reading, listening to, or watching French. (I’ve decided that any increment over half an hour can earn me a butterfly. If I spend lots of time on it, maybe a dolphin. The dolphins are bigger.) However, my French is already very good, and that’s part of the problem. At this point, I can really only improve by doing things such as talking to a native speaker who will correct me. So there are a few ways to improve my skills that I can only obtain by stealing from my friends. That’s what I’d like to share with you here.

How to shamelessly steal language skills from our friends and colleagues:

1.  Trick your friends: Call up a friend or acquaintance who speaks your language. Say “hello” in that language. Continue speaking in your desired language, whether or not (and this is important) your friend responds in that language. Eventually, they will probably decide to humor you, because they love you and you are persistent. Try to trust in your ability to speak, even if you feel self-conscious knowing you are making mistakes. Remember to thank your friend for their contribution to your fluency. (Bonus points if your friend will correct your language skills.)

2.  Bribe the children: I’ve decided that since I have friends who have fluent French-speakers for kids, there’s no reason I shouldn’t take advantage of this! Also, kids are cuties and they usually want to help as long as they’re not told they have to. So it’s win-win: They’ll learn without even realizing it, and I will benefit more from reading out loud than in my head. My friend’s 11-year-old has been more than willing to have a no-pressure “Help Athena” session. There, he listens casually to me reading to myself so that he can “correct me.” (Which he does! His pronunciation is definitely stellar, and mine is definitely…not.) Reading aloud with an audience forces me to work on my pronunciation and double-check my own comprehension. Meanwhile, my audience of one always picks out the dolphins instead of the butterflies. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to have a prize for him, too, by the time this is all over.

3.  Linguist parties: Languages are more fun to refine while you’re chatting with intellectuals over wine or your favorite snack of choice. Of course, the pandemic has cancelled parties, and I know that Zoom social gatherings are tedious. However, it turns out that Zoom social gatherings with linguists are a blast. Last weekend, I called up all the French speakers from my Master’s Degree cohort (including us Spanish cohort members) and our conversation lasted…four hours. Four! I didn’t actually tell them they had to speak in French…I just strongly hinted at it. (This is where I tell my colleagues I love them, for letting me leech off their language skills.)

Side note: The group doesn’t really have to be a bunch of intellectual language geeks. It could just as easily be a group of friends who all watch the same TV show. You just want to genuinely enjoy engaging with them.

So that’s it, ladies and gentlemen. Your friends, children and colleagues are a valuable resource. You may as well earn stickers from them!

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