- Automatic vs. Conscious Effort
- Language “Islands” are Natural
- Examples of Language “Islands”
- Getting Started with Language Islands
- Step-by-Step Guide to Using Islands
- Why Islands? The Benefits
Stumbling over words, entangled in a web of sentences.
Speaking a foreign language you’re not used to can be like that.
While you’re looking for the right word or form, the sun sets and rises twice. Even if you know the language, producing it is a struggle. This is a common feeling for language learners.
What to do?
In this article, you’ll learn about islands, a language learning technique made popular by Boris Shektman, formerly of the Foreign Service Institute.
In language learning, “islands” are mini monologues or answers on frequently recurring subjects of conversation. The learner writes the monologues in idiomatic language, verified by a teacher or advanced learner. The learner then memorizes them. In conversation, these monologues allow for confident, easy speech requiring little cognitive overhead. Memorizing many of these islands can lead to quite fluent speech, but this technique must be combined with ample reading of level-appropriate material to lead to true fluency.
This technique helps create confidence and drastically increases spoken fluency, and, most importantly, it indirectly improves reading comprehension.
Automatic vs. Conscious Effort
Speaking a familiar language is like scrolling on your phone: you don’t think about it; it’s automatic. Or, to quote Boris Shektman,
Speaking a familiar language is like walking, speaking a foreign language is like swimming.Boris Shektman
When you speak a foreign language, you put down the phone and jump into an ocean of new language.
There’s no scrolling, no strolling. Only swimming.
With conscious effort.
Tired from swimming, you see an island where you can rest. You crawl up on it, pull out your phone, and start scrolling. It’s automatic.
In language learning, islands are mini-monologues or mini speeches of well-rehearsed and repeated bits of language that you can use in conversation automatically and effortlessly. You can swim to them and rest.
This may seem strange but you probably use them already.
Language “Islands” are Natural
Islands in Everyday Life
Think about this: How do you introduce yourself? How do you describe your interests in life, in your native language or Latin? How do you describe your job? Your family? Your Ph.D. project?
Chances are you respond in more or less the same way very often. While it’s true that varietas delectat, people tend towards energy conservation.
Having dealt with certain common topics hundreds or thousands of times, we tend to respond reflexively in these situations; we default to automatic, well-repeated, and “rehearsed” mini-speeches or monologues.
We see this in politicians and teachers: Some veterans of the trade give identical lectures with automatic mini-speeches in response to recurring student questions, e.g., “Is the word order free in Latin?” “—Yes and no. The order is freer than in English, but word order in Latin greatly influences meaning and can in some instances….”
This is not a bad thing.
These are not consciously learned but have grown into efficient and (hopefully) eloquent statements or responses, shaped over months or years of answering similar questions in similar situations. They’ve grown into islands.
I have talked to people working in museums, and when I mentioned this technique, they all said that they have ready-made monologues which have developed over the years from answering the same questions every day. This means they might seem very fluent and eloquent regarding the history of a period or an object, but outside of that, repeated monologue be far less fluent.
But what about proficient users of foreign languages?
Unconscious Islands in Language Learning
Like native speakers, proficient speakers of a second language have repeated the same things so often that the responses have turned into grooves in a record.
Then they just get into the groove. (classic song, btw.)
Students often learn to use chunks of language at beginner levels, e.g., quomodo res se habent? (i.e., “how are things?”), without necessarily being able to understand the constituent parts.
Islands are nothing but larger chunks. And we can create them consciously.
Examples of Language “Islands”
Developing islands in the ten most frequent topics of conversation will go a long way towards laying the foundation of fluency, or at least giving you a place to rest in conversation.
So what could some basic islands look like?
Let’s say you often talk with people about your teaching job.
To the question “why are you learning Latin?” you could have a short answer with high-frequency vocabulary and collocations learned by heart.
“Why I’m learning Latin? I’m learning this language because I enjoy reading Latin literature very much. For, when I read it, I seem to get to know ancient authors. I’ve been learning Latin for two years now and I learn new things every day. But, to be honest, sometimes it is difficult.”
“Cur lingam Latinam discam? Hanc linguam disco quia litteras Latinas legere mihi valde placet. Nam cum eas lego, videor scriptores antiquos cognoscere. Iam duos annos linguam Latinam disco et cottidie nova disco. Sed, ut vere dicam, interdum difficile est.”
This is a simplistic example, but it shows the idea; the “island” or mini monologue allows for communication to continue, takes a load of the speaker, and reinforces useful structures (e.g., Iam duos annos [present verb], ut vere dicam, mihi placet, etc.).
These can later easily be reused in other contexts, e.g., Iam tres annos in Germania habito (“I’ve been living in Germany for three years.”) hic cibus mihi placet (“I like this food”).
Is This Real Language?
These “islands” allow us to produce fast, efficient speech without too much cognitive effort, leaving more energy for when we need it and build confidence.
But there may be a reticence to learn these mini monologues, a sense that it’s not real language. (Would it matter?)
But it is: it’s your thoughts, but polished and rehearsed. Which speaking about it for ten years would do anyway. We just condense the process.
As you internalize these islands or monologues, the language they contain becomes part of you, and you won’t need to use them actively. You’re using and varying the islands spontaneously to fit the situation.
They are only steppingstones in the process of learning the Latin language.
Getting Started with Language Islands
Before we go through the steps, here are two examples of islands in practice:
“Mihi nomen est Daniel Pettersson. In Suetia natus sum et Holmiae habito. In universitate Stockholmiensi in litteras Latinas inquiro et linguam Latinam doceo.”
“Hodie mane hora sexta horologium expergeficum sonuit. Horologio per fenestram proiecto de lecto surrexi. Vestimenta indui et ientaculum cito sumpsi.”
These islands allow us to learn vocabulary in contexts that are relevant to us. Even when we’re not using the islands, the actions they describe, or the topic, will remind us of the Latin, and as such, reenforce the vocabulary and the syntax used therein.
Step-by-Step Guide to Using Islands
Step 1: Select a Topic
This can be anything that you want to speak fluently about, e.g.presentation, family, work, hobbies.
- Personal presentation.
- Presentation of family.
- What are your interests?
- What did I do this morning/evening?
- In defense of active Latin.
- What I wish I had known when I was younger.
Step 2: Write
Write out the “mini-speech” in a language you know well. Make it as short or as long as you want. People use everything from two sentences to entire pages.
Step 3: Turn it into Latin
Translate it into good idiomatic Latin, using dictionaries, dictionaries of Latin synonyms, grammars, and/or teachers and friends.
Suggested reading: Latin prose composition: Books and Method
Step 4: Edit
Edit the text to make it flow naturally, no Ciceronian periods here, keep it short and fairly simple. Read it aloud. Ask yourself if it sounds natural? It’s imperative that the Latin be grammatical and idiomatic–as you will be memorizing this. Spend time asking different skilled Latinists what they think, pay for a coaching session for someone to help you.
Step 5: Memorize it
We now have the islands and it’s time to learn them by heart.
How to memorise
In ancient times up to quite recently, memorizing vast amounts of material was part and parcel of any education; these days, however, the practice has, sadly, fallen into disuse and disrepute.
There are two principle methods of memorising: by rote and mnemonics.
Rote learning, or learning by repetition, oral or written, requires little preparation but is less effective. These days it’s somewhat easier than before since we can record a text and listen to it repeatedly. I’ve listened to many French dialogues on repeat for hours on end sometimes.
Mnemonics, or memory techniques, much espoused by the ancients (for a summary, read this article), mostly consists of using the so-called memory palace or method of loci.
The method is effective, but it takes some practice and preparation. It is, however, well worth the effort since you move from hoping that the material will stick through review to knowing that it will stick.
Now you know how to do it, let’s review the overall advantages of using islands.
Why Islands? The Benefits
Using islands is a fun and interesting way of discovering language and quickly developing the ability to speak. It takes a bit of work, but the payoff is enormous. Start small, with short speeches, and you’ll succeed.
- They give the speaker rest without having communication break down (great Led Zeppelin song).
- They boost confidence since they provide fast, articulate speech.
- They provide vocabulary and grammatical patterns to recycle for other contexts and situations.
- The composition of them illuminates lacunae in your knowledge of the language.
- You can gain conversational proficiency, even if you have no conversation partners.
- It’s a fun way of discovering and conquering a new semantic field.
- In order to learn a language well, other activities, such as speaking, writing, reading and listening, are required as well.
I believe everyone can teach themselves Latin, given a well-rounded and varied approach that keeps the learning process enjoyable and interesting. Islands can be a part of it.
For more suggestions on how to learn Latin, see this post “How to improve your Latin in 10 minutes a day”)