Re-motivation: Sharpening the axe

Axe (Photo credit: coconinoco)

I read an interesting post at the Mezzo Guild that talked about figuring out the methods that work in language-learning and the methods that don’t.  The post insightfully illustrates lack of progress using a biblical metaphor of a dull axe (Eccl 10:10).  I like this metaphor because it brings out a couple important questions about the tools one uses.  First, are you using the best tool?  For learning languages, one can find a lot of tools out there.  The intelligent language-learner must choose which works the best.  The metaphor presents a second facet, as well, as one asks: Is the tool sharp and ready to work, or is it dull and not doing the work it could?

This week, I’ve been trying to examine my language-learning tools and the condition they’re in.  I want to sharpen my axe, but how?  (To spoil the ending of my post: I enjoyed trying out and talking to native speakers, thanks to readers’ suggestions and the model of Benny, the Irish Polyglot.)

Farsi has been dragging, but I want to figure out how to move forward.  I expressed my frustrations and the fears that are blocking me in a previous post.  I’m grateful for several readers of my blog who offered good suggestions, ranging from giving myself a break to trying out new tools.  Here are the tools I’ve used over the past year.

  • Collecting words and memorizing them off of cards.  I enjoy this a lot because they are portable and convenient.
  • Listening to Pimsleur exercises.  I finished those off a while ago.
  • Listening to podcasts and collect words.  I have not done that for a while.
  • Going through Livemocha exercises.  I have not been on that site since last spring.
  • Reading news articles and collecting words.  Not so common these days.
  • Working through a grammar book.  Not for a long time.

From this list I see multiple tools that engage me in several ways: listening, repeating, reading, writing, memorizing.  They are all tools that help learn a language, and at one time or another, I have benefited from each.  Based on my recent track-record, though, I see that I’m still hacking away without moving forward.  With all of these methods at my disposal, what is the problem?

I see a hole: engaging native speakers in conversation.  I have gone over to my Iranian neighbors’ house a few times, but it’s difficult.  It takes an unknown amount of time, since I don’t know how long I’ll stay, plus the time is taken away from everything else I could do (family, work, writing, etc.).  I don’t understand very much of what they say, though I can explain much of what I want to say.  While I get frustrated, they seem frustrated, too, though I am likely projecting my own frustration onto them.

So I went onto italki and found exactly what I was looking for, that is, some encouragement and some native-speaker engagement.  Within 15 minutes–I didn’t even have time to put up a photo on my profile–I found 3 Iranians who were interested in working with me.  We exchanged Skype info.  One of them didn’t have a headset ready, so I went onto Skype with another.  He was a college student in Esfahan studying to become an English teacher.  We spent 30 min or so chatting, about 50/50 English and Farsi time.  I’m very grateful for this site and my new friend!

Getting the native speaker time was awesome, and helped my attitude.  Just talking to a human encouraged me.  On a more technical level, I realized that I have been learning more and more vocabulary, but because I’m not speaking, nothing is “cementing” the vocabulary in place.  I need the repetition of vocabulary and grammar, as well as serendipity, that come from talking to a native.  While theoretically I know how to conjugate verbs, actual conversation forces me to do so.  I felt like I got better at speaking after one time.  Learning vocabulary on its own does not help if speaking does not engage the vocabulary.

(On a side note, I also went to  a Somali restaurant in Minneapolis this weekend.  I got some native Somali conversation there, in addition to my Farsi conversation on-line.)

This engagement clarified how I use different tools.  The tools I use are not bad or inappropriate; they’ve been overused.  I’ve been hacking at vocabulary with a dull axe.  My language-learning lacks native-speaker engagement–this became clear.  Speaking to natives sharpens my axe.  While my axe still needs some work, I still have opportunities to use italki and Skype.  Eventually, my comprehension will get better and I’ll be eager to start learning words again, but this time with a sharpened axe.

I need some help from my readers, though.  How would you recommend using italki and Skype best for learning languages?  What do you talk about?  How do you deal with uneven language levels, for example, people who have studied English a long time compared to your lower level in their language?


15 thoughts on “Re-motivation: Sharpening the axe

  1. Great follow-up post! I’m really glad you found italki to be useful : ) As for how to deal with uneven language levels, that’s a really good question and I’m curious to see what answers other readers will suggest. Some possibilities- you could stick with a theme instead of free talk (ie food, family) and make sure your partner knows that you want to talk about the theme(s) only. You could read texts to them to practice pronunciation. You could do roleplays more than once (for example, visiting a restaurant or applying for a job. If you were practicing for 15 minutes, you could do the same roleplay 3 times- 5 min each- and just let the natural variations develop while keeping the same overall topic). Also, during the last couple of minutes of the English chat, you could ask the native speaker for their ideas on how to approach this situation. Good luck!


    1. You make some great points. I think I need to lay out what I want to work on so that the conversation isn’t a free-for-all. I have a tough time with that, not just with Farsi over Skype, but even at the Somali table at work with my friends.


  2. Nice to hear you’ve had such a positive experience on italki/skype. Having a real conversation with real people is the most rewarding aspect of language learning for me, and it makes the effort invested in boring book learning worthwhile. Language learning requires a multi-pronged approach, which is what you’re doing.

    I do a lot of intercambios, and I find that if my partner’s level of English is low, it’s best to split the session into two, half English, half Spanish. If we’re equal, we can just switch languages mid-conversation without changing the topic. I prefer it this way, but not everybody’s English is up to that level. When practicing with a low level, it’s probably best to prepare the topics beforehand, because you won’t have the benefit of a fluid conversation, in which new topics spring up quite effortlessly, especially once a rapport has been built between the partners.

    Sounds like you’re doing well. Now you just have to keep it up!!
    BTW, I love Benny and his site – I think he’s totally crazy, but in a good way 🙂 I’m baffled, though, by the disparaging comments he sometimes gets… people can be so mean!


    1. I just wonder how Benny funds his language habit–I know how hard it is to fund mine!

      The problem I’m running into is that my Farsi is always worse that the other’s English. I have a tough time understanding over Skype sometime. Also, I need to lay out how much time I have to formally declare how much time is Farsi and how much is English. Otherwise, I’ve found it’s awkward.

      Thanks for the tips!


      1. Yes, I think it’s definitely best to split the time formally if there’s a major disparity in language ability. You’ll still get plenty out of it. And when Skype’s not playing ball, it’s a total bitch, lol.
        Benny is a freelance technical translator, I think, so he can work from anywhere. I’m in the same position, and it has definite advantages. Not sure I’d like to be moving to Iran, though!


      2. So I learned that Tajik and Dari are very closely related to Iran. Why not move to Tajikistan or Afghanistan then? LOL

        Technical translator, eh? That sounds good–anything you can work on from anywhere.


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