The first time I was contacted by Jennifer, she wrote a long email to me and asked me about having lessons. She had studied entirely on her own for a while, but she had never had any real speaking practice. This was what she wrote:
I have very, very little speaking experience. I write much better than I speak. My only practice has been to read out loud from books, and I know I don’t sound so smooth. I’m also a bit shy, especially when it comes to speaking another language because even though mistakes should be okay, I’m afraid I’m going to make a ton. So speaking is definitely my biggest challenge.
There are two goals I have right now, long term and short term. Short term, I might go visit a friend in Sweden in August, so I would like to be able to communicate well enough to really enjoy the trip and not rely on him translating things for me. If we go out with other people, I’d like to be at least a little part of the conversation, order things for myself, and just feel more comfortable with interacting in Swedish.
For long term goals, I’ve been planning on moving there for a couple of years now, and my biggest obstacle is being able to use the language. My goal is to move next year, but I’m not confident at all that I’ll be fluent enough to work, so my long-term goal is to be able to use Swedish well enough to get a job/visa.
We had our first lesson on Skype, and I got to know more about her. She was in her mid-20’s and lived with her mother in Florida, US. She had a full-time job in a pharmacy, but she also worked as an illustrator on the side.
Interestingly, which I had already guessed from seeing her last name, she did have Swedish heritage in her family, from a couple of generations back. As so often in the States, the family had not passed on their native (Swedish) language to the next generations.
As it turned out, she had also fallen in love. With a Swedish man. Who lived in Sweden. And she was now going to visit him in a fem months’ time. Actually, she didn’t say this at the time, but she blushed every time she talked about him, and a couple of weeks before she travelled to Sweden, she admitted that she was in love.
Jennifer was, as she had already mentioned in her first e-mail, very shy. My main goal with her was to help her to find a bit of ease when conversing in Sweden. Grammatically, she had studied a lot on her own and was really quite good, but she needed both conversational practice and help to overcome situations when she was lost for words in Swedish. So this is what we worked on together for a couple of months.
I helped her to find Swedish phrases and sentences that she could use when her brain went blank and she felt nervous. I mainly structured it according to three main points, which I call the “3 Point Water Treading Technique”:
1. Say that you have gone blank/forgotten the words/don’t know what to say.
2. Express some emotion in relation to that, perhaps frustration or embarrassment (I taught her a couple of mild, funny swearwords that she could use to lighten the atmosphere)
3. Start talking about how learning/remembering words in a different language can be tricky or difficult.
By following these steps, you can loosen up your brain a little and get back into talking. And even if you still don’t remember what to say after that, you have started a new conversation. This will also stop you from automatically reversing back into your first language.
An alternative to this, if you are stuck for a particular word or phrase is to repeat step 1 and 2, but then instead ask the person you are with how to say that word/phrase (and you do all this while staying in your target language).
After I had explained this technique, it didn’t take long until we had an opportunity to practice it! And from that moment on, I encouraged her to follow the 3 Point Water Treading Technique every time it happened. At first, she felt very embarrassed and reverted straight back into English. But I reminded her of the sequence every time, and after a couple of sessions, it started to come to her more naturally.
Her confidence slowly grew, and she remarked that actually, it doesn’t matter so much what you say, as long as you keep talking. And this could mean simply expressing her thoughts in that moment, be it embarrassment, frustration, or just a mild swearword. She had started treading water.
She told me about how she felt that she didn’t belong in the country where she lived and where she had been born. But the first time she visited Sweden, she felt instantly at home. I have had students before who have felt the same, and I call it being "transethnic". Urban dictionary actually defines this as “the state of wanting to belong to a different culture besides your own”.
I asked if she had any plans for her visit beyond seeing her lover, and she smiled and said that she just simply wanted to sit in a Swedish café, have a coffee, read a book and listen to the people around her. She wanted to breathe the Swedish air, hear Swedish sounds, and just surround herself with anything Swedish.
A month later, I received a one-line e-mail in Swedish from her, saying:
“It was totally amazing to be in Sweden. It was the best trip of my life. Thank you.”