University of Washington Grad Bri Helmick reached out to us a couple of months ago wanting to contribute to our Diary of a Language Teacher series. With credentials in teaching both English and French, she’s going to have a lot to share with our language learners.
In her words, here’s Bri, with our second installment of Diary of a Language Teacher.
Hello Livemocha world! Have you exercised the left side of your brain today? My name is Brianne, though it depends on whom I’m speaking with, since “Bri” tends to sound better in French (yes, like the cheese). Let’s go with Bri, since I’m introducing myself as a French language teacher to the Livemocha blog series I’m excited to contribute to. I’ve been a student of French for over ten years, a teacher of ESL for one year, and a teacher of French for over two years. I’ve worked in bilingual educational institutions in both America and France, and I’m excited to see where my career as an educator takes me next. Along the road to fluency in French, I picked up Italian and ein bißchen of German. On Livemocha, I’ve finally started Spanish – a language I’ve been meaning to get to since high school. I dream of becoming fluent in all four languages.
Where I started my language acquisition.
My passion for foreign language acquisition started in high school with my first French teacher who was from Normandy. In college, I stuck with French mostly because of the camaraderie in the classroom and smaller department size. Studying abroad in Bordeaux was a turning point for me: my speaking skills finally seemed to solidify and experiencing French culture firsthand was revelatory, and not without some classic culture shock! After graduating from college, I returned to teach English at a high school in Normandy and commit myself to perfecting my conversation skills. After living there for an academic year, I felt I had finally reached fluency. In addition, my writing and reading skills have greatly evolved since then due to a rigorous Master’s program I recently finished at the University of Washington. Language learning is a lifelong pursuit that involves discipline and passion; two qualities I am inspired to pass on to others as I seek teaching positions at high schools, colleges, and other language learning institutions.
Who wants to exercise?!
I know some of you may have flinched at the word “exercise” mentioned above, but you’ll have to get over your guilt because it’s an important concept I want to address in language learning techniques. In case you didn’t see it coming, here’s the analogy: deciding to learn a language is a long-term commitment that requires dedication and goal-setting – much like getting in shape. Results do not happen overnight. I am not capable of running a marathon tomorrow because I have not gone through the proper training methods, nor am I capable of having a witty conversation in Spanish at a cafe tomorrow morning for similar reasons. What I can do, however, is chip away at the obstacles against me little by little by setting reachable, specific goals along the way. This is where I think Livemocha and other online language learning tools can be helpful: set aside some time everyday to practice your target language as you would for exercise. Easy to say, right?
The hard part is follow through.
Deciding to start a language is indeed easy, but following through can seem an impossible task. I understand this personally since I teach French at 8:30 in the morning Monday through Friday. Students start off with good intentions, but many end up skipping out on lessons or dropping the class altogether because of the daily demands of in-class participation, homework, and frequent quizzes required by the syllabus. The same happens with fitness regimens, of course. We like to blame our busy schedules, the weather, or use another excuse to make us feel less guilty, but what remains the same is that consistency is one of the most important factors in language learning.
Make room for your language learning.
As a graduate student, language teacher, and bride-to-be, I sympathize with those whose schedules seem perpetually booked, but what I want to emphasize is that staying consistent in your language learning is still possible. Look for ways to integrate it into your schedule so it becomes a habit. Make your morning coffee time your Spanish time too. Use flashcards or an app on your portable device while riding on the bus or waiting in line. If it’s Portuguese you’re into (like Siôn), blast some Caetano Veloso or Jorge Ben as you do tedious household chores to inspire your routine. I personally enjoy a good history lecture in Italian (downloaded via podcast) while doing the dishes. As Kelly mentioned in her Top 10 Tips post, watching movies in the target language (extra points for subtitles!) is a great way to make your brain do backflips. One of the greatest sets of mental gymnastics my brain has performed was in a cinema in Bordeaux, where I watched an Italian film with French subtitles. Exercising that left hemisphere never felt so good!
Not all of these count as serious studying, but they help hold that carrot in front of you to remind you of your goals and why you’re passionate about that particular language in the first place. Another carrot to consider when you’re tired or unmotivated: remember the reward, however big or small. Getting a good score on a quiz instantly motivates me to move on to the next challenge, as does being able to eavesdrop on a couple speaking the target language (and understand even just a few words!). This technique is essentially what gets me to the gym, too: when I feel lazy, I remember how fantastic my body feels after a challenging workout. Will I look like my kickboxing instructor right afterward? Probably not, but I’ve done what I can to be consistent in building endurance and advancing to the next level. I encourage you, reader, to do the same with regards to your language learning endeavors and push yourself mentally (and physically since it helps the studying) everyday. Commit to the language learning process and stay faithful – it’s going to be a beautiful relationship.
Brianne Helmick recently obtained her Master’s in French Studies from the University of Washington, where she taught beginning French language courses, studied French literature and culture, and snuck into Italian and German classes whenever she could. Her goals are to continue teaching French, travel to the many francophone regions of the world, and eventually write a book about the origins and cultural contexts of French pastry. She lives in Seattle with her cat, Bisous, and her fiancé, Robert.