Everyone speaks their native language effortlessly. Converting thought to speech in your native language is as second-nature to you as blinking, eating, or breathing. You may stutter or stumble from time to time, but for the most part, speaking your mother tongue is really and truly easy.
Speaking a foreign language, on the other hand, is neither easy nor effortless, particularly at the beginning stages. Every language learner, regardless of talent or skill, has to go through a period where attempting to speak means long pauses, blank stares, mispronunciations, and misunderstandings on all sides. It is an inevitable—and completely normal—part of the process.
Boris Shekhtman, author of "How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately", once described the difference in difficulty when using a native versus a foreign language as the difference between walking and swimming. Walking (i.e. using your mother tongue) is accomplished without conscious thought, and the “walker” is always safely on solid ground. Swimming (i.e. using a foreign tongue) requires focus and conscious effort, and if the “swimmer” travels too far from the shore, he or she can risk failure in the form of drowning.
To help language learning “swimmers” avoid drowning when attempting to speak a foreign language, Shekhtman developed a communication tool known as a “language island”. By developing language islands, learners artificially build up fluency in certain topics, and then can use these topics to conserve mental energy in times when speaking is too difficult or stressful.
In this article, I want to explore my own method of creating and using language islands. Over the years, my language islands have helped me have many valuable, interesting, and smoothly-flowing conversations in many languages. Using my strategies, this can happen for you, too.
Let’s get started!
What is a Language Island?
According to Boris Shekhtman, the originator of the term language island:
A language island is a “small, but very well memorized, much practiced, and frequently used monologue” (Shekhtman, 37)
I will add onto this definition by saying that a language island is a topic that you feel extremely comfortable discussing in a foreign language.
If you’re a language learner yourself, you’ve probably already developed a language island or two without even realizing it. Most learners, for example, can talk for a long time about who they are, or where they’re from, since those are topics that come up in nearly every conversation you’ll have with a stranger in a foreign language.
If you want to be a more fluent and more competent foreign language speaker, however, you’ll have to create new language islands that extend beyond common learner topics like personal identification, career, family or travel.
The good news is that you can create a language island around any topic you want, though In general, there are a few criteria for choosing an island to build.
- The “island” should be built upon a topic that is interesting to you.
- You should be comfortable with the topic, and highly knowledgeable about its details.
- Effective islands are usually personal in nature, but they can also be built upon general knowledge.
A topic representing an island should be first and foremost interesting to you. Our brains and memories are driven by personal interest. If you have a strong personal interest in something, that interest can greatly enhance your ability to learn it.
- If a topic is interesting to you, you will be more willing to communicate your thoughts, feelings, and concerns about it to others.
- If a topic is interesting to you, you will be more likely to remember facts, ideas, and concepts that are related to that topic.
This leads into the next point. If you know the topic well, you will already have a mental network of interconnected concepts, thoughts, and ideas relating to it. This network is essential for both strengthening old (previous) memories, and memorizing newly learned information. This heightened ability to absorb new information will come in handy when it comes time to build the island.
Lastly, the topic of a language island can be personal or general in nature. Each type of topic has its own advantages in terms of word choice, style, and smoothness of delivery, and will determine how often you can use those topics in conversation.
The best strategy is to alternate the types of islands you choose to build. Building a variety of both personal and general islands will afford you a large amount of flexibility when it comes time to speak.
How to Build a Language Island
There are three main steps to building each and every language island.
- Collect Elements
- Create Links Using Speech Connectors
- Mix Elements & Links Together
Step 1. Collecting Elements
Just as the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe needed to gather food, shelter, and tools to help him survive on his island, you will need essential linguistic elements to survive and master life on your brand new language island. These linguistic elements are:
- Expressions (Idiomatic and otherwise)
All of these three types of linguistic elements should be related to your chosen topic, and preferably words and expressions you did not already know in your target language. In this way, you can use the building of language islands to help you expand your vocabulary and mastery of your target language.
Now, let’s consider an example in English:
Personally, I love World War II and everything that has to do with it. I know a lot about this historical topic because I have read multiple books on the subject, and continue to do so regularly. Since I am so interested and willing to talk about any and all aspects of World War II, this topic comes up quite regularly in my casual conversations. Needless to say, World War II is a topic that I use as a language island in the majority of the foreign languages I speak.
Whether WWII is something you are interested in or not, let’s take a moment and see if you can come up with the essential linguistic elements needed to create an island on the topic.
Take a moment and think about words, collocations and idiomatic expressions that you can think of in your native language on the subject of WWII. Make a list of as many as you can, particularly ones that you don’t know how to say or use in your target language.
How many words, collocations and expressions have you found?
Here are just a few in English:
Words: Camouflage, campaign, flank, grenade
Expressions: bloody, full-scale, total war, to be at war, the theater of war
Collocations: initiate a war, a war breaks out, win/lose, avert war
These of course, are just a few examples. The true range of words, expressions, and collocations one can find on the subject of war is quite huge. If you’re interested in learning more, visit the following links for words related to war, collocations related to war, and expressions related to war.
When gathering linguistic elements for language islands, the Internet is an incredible resource. In the large majority of cases, a simple google search for the topic of your language island, plus “words”, “idiomatic expressions” or “collocations” will generally lead you to what you’re looking for.
Step 2. Creating Links Using Speech Connectors
Collecting linguistic elements for your language island or monologue is an essential part of the process of building an island, but it is not enough. In fact, collecting elements is about building knowledge, but speaking is a skill which requires combining knowledge (i.e. the amount of words, expressions and collocations you know) and practice (i.e. the skill of connecting these elements together and creating a flowing and natural target language speech.)
In order to organize your linguistic elements into a natural-sounding speech, you must learn how to deal and use expressions and parts of speech which help you introduce, develop, connect, contrast and conclude ideas which make up your speech.
Let’s continue using English as our example language:
If I say “speech connectors”, what comes to your mind?
If you’re thinking of words and phrases that link ideas and help sentences flow more naturally, then you’re exactly right!
Do you know any speech connectors in English? Take a moment to write down as many as possible.
Great, let’s look at a few that I’ve come up with:
When you want to start a new idea or topic, you can use connectors such as:
To begin with, first of all, without further ado.
To discuss additional ideas in a sequence:
Secondly, thirdly, moreover.
To conclude an idea or topic:
Finally, in conclusion
To contrast two concepts or ideas:
However, on the other hand, nevertheless
The above are just a few examples of the many, many connectors that are available to you as a speaker of English.
These connectors are essential and learning how to use them properly to link ideas together makes an enormous difference between a static, boring speech and dynamic, smooth one. To continue with the island analogy, speeches are like bridges, lanes, and small rafts—anything which helps you swiftly move from one point of the island to the other.
Every language has connectors like these. At this stage in creating your language islands, its your job to find these connectors so that you can use them to link the ideas within your language island to one another. Again, a simple Google search for your target language, plus “connectors” should lead you in the right direction.
Note: If you’re an English learner, and looking to expand your English skills through better use of connectors, check out my course at LinguaCore.com Improve Your Spoken English. In the course, I provide lists of English sentence connectors, as well as strategies for using them in a variety of spoken contexts.
Step 3. Mix Elements & Links Together
Now that you have collected your linguistic elements and the links (connectors) needed to hold them together, you are ready to create a functioning language island.
Let’s continue with our earlier example — my island about World War II
I’ll start with an abbreviated list of the words, expressions, and collocations I’ve come up with for this topic:
Expressions: full-scale, total war, the theater of war
Collocations: initiate a war, a war breaks out, avert war
Combining that list with my knowledge of speech connectors, I am now able to come up with complete language island on the subject of World War II.
Now that I have this language island completed, I can memorize it and use it as a talking point whenever I discuss my personal interests with native speakers. When I get tired, or forced to talk about a subject in English I know nothing about, I can also change the subject to World War II, and use this island to help me rest and recharge my “conversational batteries”.
When attempting to speak a foreign language, many people assume that you must memorize as little as possible, and instead learn to speak well through organically combining your knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, and other linguistic elements.
This, however, is not always true. While fluent, natural, and spontaneous speech is a wonderful goal, it takes a lot of mental energy to achieve. At the beginner levels, speaking at all takes so much mental energy that speaking freely or fluidly is extremely rare, if it happens at all.
Building language islands is a great way to help you bridge the gap between the more limited speech of a beginner or intermediate learner to the fine-tuned speech of the advanced learner.
By using words, expressions, and collocations, linking them with speech connectors, and creating a well-organized short monologue on a topic of your choice, you are creating a tool that you can turn to whenever speaking in a foreign language becomes too difficult or stressful. If you create an entire network of these monologues (or “islands”) you will be able to successfully “swim” in nearly any interaction with native speakers.