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How to Improve Your Foreign Language…

How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately: Foreign Language… (2012)

by Boris Shekhtman

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Toward the end of How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately, author Boris Shekhtman tells a story that perfectly captures what this small gem of a book is all about. A woman desperate to pass a proficiency test in Russian in order to secure an overseas assignment contacted Shekhtman at his language school and asked if it was even possible to improve her skills sufficiently in just four days. He told her that it was impossible to improve her language knowledge in that amount of time, but it was absolutely possible to organize the knowledge she already had to make her presentations far more effective.

Of course, the distinction made here is between traditional methods of foreign language learning, which emphasize committing grammar rules and vocabulary to memory in a very patterned way, and an approach that focuses on communication skills. In what amounts to the gist of the book, the author presents seven communicative “tools” designed to help the foreign speaker achieve three goals: fluency (i.e., expansion and simplification of speech), speech readiness, and communication control. These tools, which include techniques such as creating “islands” of prepared material to fall back on and learning to ask questions to either redirect or clarify the conversation, are straightforward, sensible and quite well explained.

Learning a new language is not easy under the best of circumstances and Shekhtman is quick to point out that the communication skills he espouses in no way replace the need to develop a solid grammatical foundation and vocabulary. However, by stressing the importance of thinking about how you communicate in addition to the content of the message itself, he has done the language learner a tremendous favor in helping to break down the walls—both real and perceived—that impede effective exchanges in someone else’s native tongue. I only wish I had come across the ideas in this guide 20 years ago! ( )
  browner56 | Jun 10, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This 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! ( )
1 vote AndrewBlackman | Apr 15, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As an offering of the Early Reviewer books, I was looking forward to reading this when I was selected to get an early copy. My French is lacking and I was hoping this would help push my skills to the next level.

The author of the book taught at the US State Department. Though this book of strategies for using a foreign language is about 20 years old, the information is still relevant today.

This book has many tips and techniques that are easy to understand and just as easy to apply in the foreign language. The author begins by identifying the 2 groups students of a foreign language fall in to. The ones who struggle, are apprehensive in their listening and speaking. This describes me to a T. I knew by reading this description, he knew what he was talking about. The other group are the ones who are much more efficient with their conversation skills in the foreign language. The one's whose skills I envy.

The tools in the book help the student learn to speak better and are clearly explained with examples of how to apply those tools. In one section the author explains that a foreign speaker is like a person thrown in the water and tires after trying to keep up with a native speaker. I get this as during class I would start out understanding my professor and the longer she spoke in French, I was so busy trying to keep up, I ended up tiring and getting lost and my brain felt overloaded. However the author says the foreign speaker needs an "island" to help him/her regain some control of the conversation. These "island" as he explains are like memorized monologues or texts that can be used to help return to the conversation. I think of it as getting a home field advantage.

Other tools are "shifting gears," "breaking away," and "simplifying." These are all ways to maneuver around the language. These are things we do in our native language without even thinking about them, but having them pointed out was extremely helpful.

After reading the book, I am surprised my college French professors don't require or at least recommend it for students, especially ones that need a little extra help. In my opinion these tips would help any person wanting to improve their foreign language skills. ( )
  sindeew | Mar 9, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately was a book I received through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer's program. I am immensely glad I was chosen to receive this books, as I've been looking for ways to improve my Russian speaking skills. Russian is my original language, but after spending time in the United States, I've noticed that my Russian has been slipping due to me speaking English 90% of the time. Boris Shekhtman's book proposes practical solutions to honing your language skills in ways that are comfortable and produce results immediately. I saw significant change in the way I speak Russian and in the way I regard my foreign language skills. Definitely a book I would recommend. ( )
  BillyShakes | Feb 23, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book bridges the gap between book-based language study and that terrifying first verbal encounter with a native speaker. The author understands how tough it is... to quote section 3: “The foreigner resembles a beached fish that suddenly finds itself cast up onto dry land, out of its natural habitat. The foreigner’s mouth opens and closes, without making any sound, or produces sounds that do not resemble language.” A perfect description of my own recent pizza-ordering fail in a Munich restaurant.

What the book does not do is teach you any foreign vocabulary. Instead it concentrates on a series of techniques by which the non-native speaker can steer conversations in favourable directions and sidestep situations in which their vocabulary is lacking. They are termed “communication tools” and this motif is carried through onto the front cover which is niftily done out like a toolbox. Though the book’s main source of examples is the Russian language, the techniques can be applied to any language, and it struck me that some of the earlier tools could even be applied in social situations in one’s own language if one is lacking in the small-talk department.

Overall I liked the accessibility of the text. Having read the preface I feared it might be full of linguistic jargon, particularly when I encountered the sentence “They subordinate linguistic performance to social performance and sociolinguistic knowledge to psycholinguistic legerdemain” which might itself have been written in a foreign language for all I understood of it. But in fact the main body of the book is easy to follow, set out in manageable chunks with illustrative examples and exercises to try. For the business traveller who is expected to socialise with overseas contacts this is likely to provide valuable and highly practical advice. ( )
1 vote jayne_charles | Feb 21, 2013 |
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In learning and teaching second and foreign languages, teachers and students have a number of resources at their fingertips to work with both the "topdown" and "bottom-up" aspects of language acquisition.
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Very small book, only 104 pages, 18 of which are blank chapter dividers and another 12 of which merely state Preface, To the Reader from the Author, Chapter number and title, Epilogue or Chapter Notes.
Pages are only 5 inches wide and have 3/4 inch margins on either side. Margins increase to 1 1/2 inches for emphasis, thus creating a column of text just 2 inches wide.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0967990750, Paperback)

This book provides a unique set of tools designed to enhance an individual's success in communicati0n in a foreign language environment. The devices presented allow the speaker of a foreign language to demonstrate the level of his/her language more impressively. These techniques were developed and tested by the author with adult professionals in such varied fields as journalism, diplomacy, government, and international business.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:18 -0400)

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