How to Improve your Foreign Language Immediately 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, How to Improve your Foreign Language Immediately 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.
If it is important that you get the meaning across, use the simplest grammatical 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.
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 How to Improve your Foreign Language Immediately 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!