Women in Language: Day Three (Spring 2021)

Happy Saturday! You know, I thought today was an early start for me (I woke up at around 6:40 and just dragged my laptop onto the bed so I could watch the opening talk) but props to all those viewers from the US, where talks started from, what, 11pm to 2am and then went through the early morning. Despite my (mild) complaints, I’m really lucky that this event has worked so well for my time zone, so yay for that!

Language Learning, Belonging, and Prejudice: My Path to Acceptance and Identity

At 07:00 (for me), we jumped straight in with Emily Harris’ talk about how her time learning languages has often been far less than smooth sailing. Honestly, I didn’t take many notes during this talk; it was much more one to sit back and listen to and reflect upon.

She explained that, as a transracial adoptee, she never felt othered in the US, where she grew up in a white family in the south. But that changed when she first travelled to Italy, and then Germany, where she faced much more racism than she had ever been expecting.

She also talked through her own feelings surrounding her birth family and the fact that she feels entirely American; she said she has little interest in learning Chinese or much about China, and that shouldn’t really be a strange thing. Of course, what’s more important to take away from Emily’s talk is to recognise our own prejudice, especially those of us in Europe – and, I personally feel, especially those of us in the UK.

I’m not gonna get into the whole Brexit thing (I mean, take like a second and you’ll probably work out how I feel about it) but the UK has a loooooooong history of, well, manipulating its history, and that’s very much reflected in how we are today. Arguably we’re more multicultural than many European countries – in cities, at least – but that doesn’t translate to less racist.

Don’t get me wrong: there are things about the UK that I love, and I think there are communities where people of all ethnicities come together and feel undeniably British, while also being aware that they have their differences – but I also come from a very white village that saw an influx of Eastern European workers back when, as Lindsay mentioned in the Q&A, a few new countries joined the EU, and if there’s one thing Brexit showed me, it’s that attitudes towards those workers did not improve in the ensuing years.

Maybe this reads as super depressing, but it’s not. For one thing, there’s a new generation coming up and they’ve generally got a much better understanding of this stuff than the rest of us. The BLM protests in Nottingham, near where I live, were organised by teens. They’re fixing the problems we’ve handed down to them and they’re doing it with absolute grace and skill – even though they shouldn’t have to.

And Emily reflected this attitude in her talk, as well. She so adeptly articulated her experiences as a woman of colour, as a woman experiencing these things for the first time in new countries, on a new continent, and left me, at least, with the thought that I need to keep myself aware. We need to be good allies to other people, which means listening and learning and then doing our best to pass that on to the others who will listen to us – without talking over the people who these issues mainly affect.

A lot of food for thought, but a great opener for today!

Find Emily’s Instagram here (it’s private, but lists her languages – so if you’re a language learner, follow her!).

Learning Languages the Agile Way

Next, we moved onto this talk from Elvina Gatina – which was so much fun for me because she was talking about a planning method that I recently kind of implemented!

Elvina took us through the idea of ‘agile’ planning; the kind of planning that’s used in software development and things like that. Basically, the two principles are:

  • Break down big objectives into actionable short-term goals.
  • Assess progress as you go and change your plan where necessary.

So, say that your big plan is: I want to learn Portuguese to B1 level. Great – except that’s probably going to take a while, especially if you’re starting from the beginning, and so you’re more likely to lose your way and fall off the wagon. Using agile planning, then, you set goals that will take you anywhere from one to three months, as the deadline is close enough to make you work on it regularly.

You also need the flexibility to update your plan when you need to – so assessing how everything’s going is an important part of this method.

Elvina suggested a list of things to do before you start using this method (work out your short-term goals, list activities and habits, plan your average week, etc.) and then how to go along with it. Basically, make sure you follow your schedule – otherwise, how will you know if it’s working? – and have weekly check-ins to do that assessment and make any changes to your plan.

Like I said, what I enjoyed about this talk is that I basically implemented agile planning a few weeks ago. I’m not gonna lie, working from home has been absolutely great for me; I don’t get as distracted by other people and, since I do a lot of creative content marketing, I really need time where I can concentrate, which was proving to be difficult in the office.

However, I do have trouble sometimes keeping track of all the different things I’m supposed to be doing and then making sure I’m making enough progress in order to hit deadlines. There were two things I knew I needed: a paper notebook to write out my day-to-day stuff and take notes, because writing by hand really works for my brain, and some kind of method where I could lay out all the tiny aspects of every task and see how they came together.

I’ve basically been using Trello for this – and once I’d implemented it at work, I implemented it for my personal projects, too. I’ve got this blog, I’ve got all the languages I’m learning, I’ve got stuff on marketing I want to study, I want to learn Python, I want to write a novel… And when I finished work, I was having trouble working out where to start with it all. So, I threw it all into Trello, and although I might not be perfectly hitting my deadlines (it’s been two weeks, y’all), I’m feeling a lot less stressed about it!

I’m working on much shorter sprints – three weeks – because I’ve done enough month-or-more long challenges to know what kind of time limit works for me. But then, that’s the beauty of this method, and what I’d recommend is that, as well as your weekly check-ins, make sure to check in four-weekly, or six-weekly, and see how far you’ve come.

You can follow Elvina on Instagram for more awesome language tips – and she said she’s planning on some kind of 30-day challenge in April, so look out for that!

Three Language Learning Methods That Have Worked for Me

I actually took a break today and went on a walk to Costa for breakfast before this talk from Ambie Gonzalez. This was a bilingual English/Spanish talk – the first of any of the Women in Language conferences! – about language learning methods Ambie’s used to develop her skills. She’s worked as both a medical interpreter and legal translator and now works part-time as a flight assistant, so she’s clearly someone who uses her languages often.

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this talk, just because there are so many language learning methods going around all the time, but I came out of it with some new plans and new perspectives on old advice.

The first thing Ambie suggested was journaling. Obviously, this is one that comes up pretty often, but the reason it does is because it’s evergreen advice. Writing is an active skill, meaning you’re engaging all that stuff you’ve been absorbing – and writing about things you’ve done means activating those words and phrases and grammar structures that you need most often.

I’ve actually started a daily writing habit recently (over on r/WriteStreakGerman), which I’ve found super useful. I don’t write about myself – they have a rule about no personally identifiable information – but my German is fairly advanced, so I’m fairly good with the personal stuff; I’m having fun here trying out grammar points I still don’t quite get right all the time and having it checked by native speakers.

However, the interesting thing Ambie brought up is that she doesn’t necessarily get those early texts corrected. Instead, she uses Google Translate to back translate and see how accurately it comes out in English. As she pointed out, this isn’t a method that works for all languages, but it’s a really good tip!

Ambie’s second method was one that blew my mind and is one I’ll absolutely be implementing into my own language learning routine: interpreting to learn.

I’ve always practised translation – I did a translation MA, after all! – but never interpreting. We did one module in it at uni and I decided I wasn’t good at it and I’d basically never try again.

But, why?

Ambie records herself saying things in English and then practises interpreting them in her other languages. And it’s such a genius idea; it’ll get you strengthening those connections between languages and will improve your comprehension so quickly!

I think I’m going to try it for German and see how it goes. I’ll let you all know!

Ambie’s final point was the one that I’m still thinking about hours later. Obviously, we’ve all seen videos of people out and about, using their languages with native speakers. These are cool videos and can be really inspiring, though I do think there’s like a weird sub-genre of these where native speakers are disturbed in their jobs and kind of used for likes and views, so it’s definitely a murky area.

But as Ambie pointed out, when we’re looking to talk to native speakers who are going about their day-to-day lives, the purpose of practising is… to practise.

By which, of course, she’s saying that you should be practising things you’ve already learnt. Native speakers doing their jobs aren’t there to be your teacher. But, if you’re respectful about it and you’re clearly being genuine, they might help you practise, in that they’ll engage in conversation with you when you prompt it. Obviously, if someone isn’t interested, let it go. The golden rule applies!

Definitely COVID is putting a damper on that for us – and if you’re not in a city, then it might be more difficult to find people speaking your target language, depending on what it is – but it leaves me with a much clearer idea of how to go about these interactions, so thank you to Ambie for helping me out!

Check out Ambie’s YouTube channel here!

How to Become a Language Teacher Rebel: A 5-Step Manifesto

So, I was kind of on the fence about joining this talk live. I still don’t necessarily want to be a language teacher and, besides, today was a long day, so I was considering another break (lol), but I thought I’d sit and listen – especially when I found out that Anneli Haake teaches Swedish, which was a fun language to come up.

It was totally worth it!

Anneli took us through how she built up her online language teaching; she started before Skype did, and then evolved as the online education landscape changed rapidly alongside her. She describe a language teacher rebel as someone who:

  • wants the freedom to run their own business their way
  • wants to use technology to help someone learn a new language and integrate
  • wants to make a difference

And this was really interesting – taking a look at how language teachers help people to take part in society and integrate, or even to access basic information, because of course they do, and that’s how necessary that job is.

She also talked us through how to decide what you want your business to do for you, as well as niching (even microniching) to attract the clients you want to teach.

What was most interesting for me – as someone who is unlikely to start a language business any time soon, but is still interesting in creating language-related content – was the section where she talked about fears and how to bust them.

Mostly because Anneli introduced me to the term ‘procrasti-planning’ and I think my brain exploded.

This is something I do allllllll the time. And trust me when I say this: I know I’m doing it! I know! I’m fully aware I’ve written out the same plan like three times in three weeks and added all the pretty colours and detailed it down to the second and yet I will still. Do it. All again.

Hopefully, some of that agile planning I’ve implemented will help with this – but it’s nice to have a term for the feeling.

I do enjoy planning, though…

Anyway, definitely procrasti-planning and impostor syndrome were the two things in Anneli’s talk I most identified with; and while I might have a handle on the planning issue, impostor syndrome isn’t something I can solve overnight.

I’ll get there, I’m sure.

Anneli finished with the underlying theme of (I assume) every Women in Language conference: build your community. Offer a community to your students and find your own as a language teacher and business owner. As ever, I think that’s great advice.

Check out Anneli’s website, or her Twitter here.

International Humanitarian Organisations & Languages

This talk, from Judy Um, was a little shorter than the others, but still as interesting. Judy, whose native language is Korean, speaks a whole bunch of different languages – including English, French, and Spanish – and walked us through different types of jobs at the UN, how she got a job there, and why language skills need to go hand-in-hand with non-language skills.

She explained that even in the non-language-related jobs, language skills are still important because they (clearly) help you to communicate. But interestingly, having non-language skills will help you get jobs in the UN, as you need to be qualified for whichever post you’re applying for.

Judy also gave us tips about training for jobs like these, where your language skills are really going to be put to the test.

  • Intense language training – again, you need to be skilled in these languages, which means training hard and really learning all the intricacies you can master.
  • Practise interpreting and translation by doing simultaneous interpreting and sight translation. Interpreting came up in Ambie’s talk, of course, but sight translation is a great one I hadn’t thought of! It’s basically just translating something aloud as you read it – a good place to start could be any signs you see a lot, or posters, things like that.
  • Your language skills need to be good for your A and B languages. So, your B language(s) are the ones you use for working; your A language(s) are your native languages. Even if you’re working in your B language, your native language needs to be up to par. Make sure you actively work on this, too.

One of the other things Judy talked about a lot was how she believes that because of the privileges she’s experienced (travel, a good education, job opportunities), she should give back to society. And I think that’s a very timely thing, as many people have come together over the last year or so, and she gave us some tips to do that.

Translators without Borders was one organisation she mentioned, which I’d checked out years ago but – for some reason – didn’t sign up. (I don’t know if they needed a certain amount of experience back then, but I do think there was a reason I never registered.) So, after her talk, that’s where I went. I’m all signed up there, though I still need to add my translation qualification, and with any luck, that’ll be one way I can do something that helps people.

You can find out more about Judy’s company, Bellingual, here; or go check out her Instagram!

Passion-Driven Language Learning: Spark Joy by Learning Through Your Hobbies

Ahhh, this talk was so much fun! Yes, it’s another one on language learning methods, but Caitlin’s goal here was to help us work out how we could learn languages in a way that really works for us and serves us in whatever our goals are.

By learning languages through your hobbies or the things that interest you, Caitlin says, we shift our mindset from studying a language to enjoying a language. It also means you basically have infinite resources, since any of your interests can be used to help you learn more.

This also ties into the idea of community, as hobbies are how you tend to make friends, especially as an adult, so of course they’re going to do the same thing in your other language(s). Not being able to talk about your passions is really demotivating, so developing these ‘language islands’ of vocabulary and grammar you need can also keep you on track with your learning.

There were two things I really liked about Caitlin’s talk and they kind of tie in together.

The truth is, there are a lot of language learners who are very dismissive of classroom learning, especially when it comes to what you learn in school or university. And I think, for the most part, this can be justified! I know that, with hindsight, what I learnt in school was a decent foundation, but I was still lacking huge amounts of knowledge simply about how to learn a language, never mind what I was missing in the language itself.

However, the issues I’ve had with my other languages is that learning on your own can really be difficult, especially when you consider the balance of skills you learn in the classroom. I definitely neglect my active skills now, far more than I ever would have been able to in a class.

I don’t think this negates any of the criticisms about how languages are taught in various educational systems around the world, but what I liked about Caitlin’s talk is that she also didn’t hate her classes. She enjoyed them, even! It was a nice change to hear that, while she also pointed out that, yeah, there were plenty of downsides to learning this way, and yeah, here’s a method that might help you all out.

This leads into my second point from her, which was like a lightining-strike of an idea that really should have occurred to me earlier.

I’ve been having a lot of trouble recently with Mandarin. I’ve literally considered giving it up, toyed with the idea that I might be in deep with the sunk-cost fallacy and maybe I should cut my losses, but I remember how I feel when I speak it and I know I just need to find a way to refresh and learn.

One of the things I did realise in this journey was that I don’t particularly enjoy the textbooks I used at university. They’re kind of limited without a teacher anyway (I don’t have answer books for the exercises), but I don’t like the drills without audio, I don’t like how they teach grammar, particularly… and honestly, I think I’m bored of them.

But what Caitlin pointed out was that the further along you get with a language, especially East Asian languages like Mandarin, Japanese or Korean, the more formal textbooks tend to become. It’s an underlying assumption from the companies that publish the textbooks – based on the market, naturally – that most people learning these languages and using these books are learning for work; therefore, they need to know about business and formal social mores, and things like that.

Only, I’m not learning for business! I want to be able to watch TV! I want to be able to read a book! (I will do that before I die, God help me.) And when Caitlin said it, I suddenly realised that maybe it wasn’t just the methods I disliked in these textbooks; it was the content, too. Not all of it, and I probably don’t dislike all of the exercises, either – but moving into this passion-driven learning instead of trying to work through textbooks I don’t enjoy seems like a much better idea.

So thanks for that, Caitlin!

Caitlin has a podcast – 5 Minute Japanese – here; or you can chat to her on Twitter here.

Native Tongues: Language as a Tool of Sustainable Travel

Onto the final talk of the day! Acacia WoodsChan’s first question to us was: what do you think of when you hear ‘sustainable travel’?

Well, it made me think of environmentally-friendly travel (insomuch as that’s doable) – but Acacia’s talk actually explained that we not only have to be aware of the environment when we travel, but we have to be very aware of the social impact of what we’re doing. The human side of sustainability addresses community impact – both social and economic, and it’s something we should keep in mind.

As she points out, although the ability to travel freely should be human right, it often isn’t for many people, for a multitude of reasons. Many people have seen travel as a privileged experience for leisure and luxury, which is a viewpoint that has likely only been intensified by the gentrification that occurs once a place is marked as a tourist destination.

People are, in essence, displaced from their homes because of this. Not immediately, not in all cases, but as more and more expats buy up property to rent on Airbnb, as more and more businesses move in to cater to tourists, people who’ve lived in a place their whole lives find themselves priced out of there. I’m sure people whose families are from places like New York or London have experienced this – although of course both these cities have more than simply tourism to blame for that.

This is a language conference, of course, so Acacia also talked about language colonisation and how that leads to language extinction and death – as well as the impact of globalisation and global economies, which can have massive impacts on these communities.

So, what do we do?

We need to, at the very least, be conscious of these histories and the impact of our own travel. Acacia talked of her decisions to travel, and in the Q&A section, of others’ feelings of guilt over this, with such compassion, and the reminder that you should still be kind to yourself and travel if you want to. Just, be aware. Do the least amount of harm. Level the playing field: learn the national language of the country you’re travelling to. If you can, learn an indigenous language. Research how to be a sustainable traveller before you arrive. Again, if you can, connect with people from the place you’re planning to go to before you get there. That’s helpful for you too, of course!

Again, this is another talk that I’m going to revisit in the next few months as we slowly move toward an opening of borders and lifting of travel restrictions. I have nothing planned – and I absolutely intend to plan nothing until I’ve had my vaccinations and things seem safer – but when I do organise my next trip, I’m going to do my best to be as sustainable as possible. If the Polyglot Conference goes ahead in October, then it’s likely I’ll go to Mexico. So, I’ll make sure to do my research and probably join some of the other participants who’ve already spoken about learning Nahuatl.

And, ultimately, as well as Acacia’s tips making you a more conscious, sustainable traveller, they’re also useful for you! Travelling, like language, is about more than the thing of it, about more than what you see. It’s about connecting – one of the best days I had in Philadelphia, when I visited my friends, was a day on my own, I went into a coffee shop and started chatting to the woman who owned it with her husband, and she sat with me for the afternoon as we got to know each other. That’s going to be one of the strongest memories I carry from that trip because I made a real connection with another person, which is kind of really what it’s all about.

Anyway, make sure to follow Acacia on Instagram, where you can also sign up for her soon-to-come newsletter!

To sum up…

If you’ve made it this far, well done! It’s been a long, interesting day and a long, hopefully interesting post. I’ve been to a decent number of language conferences now – and a number of non-language related exhibitions – but three days in, I have to say that Women in Language has given me more to think about than any of the others.

I’ll probably go into that more tomorrow – though I think it’s evident from what I’ve been saying in all these posts – but I’m so happy to have come into this space, to feel so welcome, and to learn from all these wonderful speakers, who’ve clearly injected their heart into their work.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow! See you all there!

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