How to Improve your Foreign Language Immediately

How to Improve Your Foreign Language ImmediatelyThis is a very slim book – just 95 pages – and yet it comes with a big promise in the title and big endorsements from Shekhtman’s former students in places like The New York Times and The Pentagon.

Surprisingly, the book does deliver on its promise. Shekhtman’s technique is not to improve your language level, but to give you specific ‘communication tools’ that help you express yourself better using the language you already know. Without knowing any extra vocabulary or grammar structures, you can speak more fluently and have longer, more fruitful conversations.

It sounds strange, but actually it makes perfect sense. Genie and I went to the French-speaking islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique last summer and discovered that, although my level of French is slightly higher than hers, she communicates more effectively. She’s happy to “butcher the language” as she puts it, chattering away in a random selection of tenses but getting her point across, whereas I tend to speak slowly and falteringly, searching for the correct subjunctive form before I dare to open my mouth. Shekhtman would say that Genie makes better use of communication tools than I do.

He gives seven tools in the book, clearly laid out and explained, designed to help you hold a conversation in a foreign language when the person is a native speaker. Here’s a quick summary (the actual points are much fuller and illustrated with examples):

1. Show Your Stuff

The instinct in a foreign language is often to keep things short due to lack of confidence, but actually verbosity is your best defence. Full answers give the native speaker confidence in your language level and make it a relaxed conversation rather than an awkward interrogation.

2. Build up ‘Islands’

Islands are pre-defined speeches on common topics that you can swim to when you feel as if you’re drowning in a difficult conversation. Reciting one of these speeches gives confidence both to you and the native speaker, and allows you to rest mentally before plunging back into less familiar waters.

3. Shift Gears

If you’re uncomfortable and lack the vocabulary to answer a question, change the subject onto something you’re more comfortable with. You can also use this to extract the necessary vocabulary from the native speaker

4. Simplify

If it is important that you get the meaning across, use the simplest simple grammar structures possible.

5. Break Away

Avoid translating grammar structures from your own language, and instead only use those of the foreign language. Shekhtman gives examples of exercises you can do to help with this.

6. Embellish

The kind of ‘wordiness’ that we often try to eradicate in our own language can be our friend in a foreign language. It makes our speech sound more natural by using idioms and slang, or exclamations and expressions like “You bet!” or “You know” or “I’d say that…”

7. Say what?

Understand what the other person is saying by scanning for key words, and then deciding when you need to clarify and get every detail. Know when to switch between the two modes.

A minor quibble is that the book contains a few small errors of language, or awkward uses of English. They don’t impede your understanding or undermine the arguments Shekhtman makes, but they are quite jarring sometimes.

Overall I’d recommend this book either to a language student looking for help communicating more effectively, or to a teacher looking for quick ways to help students make better use of the language they know. Shekhtman presents the tools clearly and suggests exercises at each stage to help master them. I might start using some of them in English too!

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14 thoughts on “How to Improve your Foreign Language Immediately

  1. It made me laugh to hear about you and Genie – my husband and I were exactly the same. He’d dive into conversation, unbothered about conjugating his verbs and making agreements, whereas I’d wait until I had the perfect sentence (or near enough!) to come out with. He happily said he had the level of French of a 4-year-old, knowing that 4-year-olds pretty much always get what they want in the end! (Not that I could do a thing about my perfectionist tendencies, alas.)

  2. How interesting and certainly true. But how do you shift gears when you’re in a work situation?

    That’s why I can’t speak German, like Litlove, I spend too much time thinking about conjugating and making agreements. (They don’t even have the decency to have names with the same gender than in French. 🙂 ) Anyway, the Germans speak English, problem solved.

    1. Ah yes, and the word order you always get right make sure must. Too much.

      Yes, the ‘Shift gears’ thing is more for a social situation – wouldn’t be good when you’re at work and need to get the point across. He makes that point in the book, about different situations, but I simplified here!

  3. This book sounds marvellous, confidence is key as my old Spanish teacher would say as she forced me to try and speak what I was learning – I’ve forgotten half that Spanish now.

    I would consider buying this, but as my knowledge in any language other than English is basic at best, I’m not sure it would help me develop any skill. This sounds like the perfect accompaniment to a language class.

    1. Hi Alice

      Yes, you do need a certain level of actual language skills before these techniques will help. So as you say, it would be the perfect accompaniment to a language class, but probably not for you right now. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Very interesting review, Andrew.

    I have been studying for three hours a week, once a week, for three years with Boris Shekhtman. It is a one-on-one session to teach me to communicate in Russian and I thoroughly enjoy and look forward to it every week.

    Boris is the best language teacher I know of. He really works very hard to make everything easy for me.

    I wrote a small piece on my experiences learning Russian with him.

    http://www.learnetarium.com/2011/06/following-129-hours-with-boris.html

    This blog also contains at least two other entries regarding his work.

    Best wishes,

    Harold

    1. Hi Harold

      Thanks for stopping by, and for referring me to your article. It was very interesting! Certainly to be able to speak in front of an audience of native speakers and to answer questions is very impressive. I can see how the techniques in the book would work, and imagine that in face-to-face lessons you can learn even faster. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  5. This looks like a fascinating book, Andrew! I will keep an eye for it. I like the main theme of the book – using what we know to communicate well in a foreign language, without worrying about speaking perfectly. I also enjoyed reading about your and Genie’s French-speaking experiences in Martinique. When I learnt Chinese, we were struggling to speak in social situations, when our teacher taught us some basic sentences like ‘Can you please repeat that again’, ‘Can you speak more slowly’, ‘What does this word in your sentence mean’. Once we knew these basic sentences, we could pick apart any sentence (atleast most of the time) that anyone spoke and could find its meaning. I practised it with taxi drivers, shop assistants, bookstore assistants and it worked quite well for me. After a while, I could even have moderate level social conversations – not complex intellectual or literary conversations, but simple social ones. And people who were having a conversation with me were indulgent towards me because they knew it was a foreign language for me. Overall, it was fun.

    1. That does sound like fun, Vishy! I didn’t know you could speak Chinese. It’s amazing in a foreign language, isn’t it, when you go from struggling with everything to suddenly understanding how things fit together.

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