How to organize a successful language study group

What kinds of events are there?
There are only so many kinds of social events that work: conversation event, study group, translation group.  A conversation event is where people only speak their second langague.  In a study group, everyone works from a textbook.  A translation group takes a text and attempts translate it, usually from the second language to their own.

Something I won’t talk about is tutoring and classroom teaching because that is for real teachers who are teaching the language as a full time career.  Likewise, cultural events don’t necessarily involve doing anything in or with a foreign language, although going to a foreign film is close.

Tips for a good conversation event
Be strict about speaking the second language.
Fight the urge to be polite and constantly switch to English.
Bring a dictionary, but try to use it only in extreme  emergencies.
Absolute beginners will benefit, but will often feel awkward and uncomfortable.
Intermediate speakers will benefit the most.
Locations that are quite are best for communication, but people usually like to go to noisy bars and cafes if they go anywhere at all.
Having just over 50% of the poeople at the table who speak only English will often cause the entire table to switch to English.
The event works well for as many people as you can get to attend, unless the hosting restaruant gets mad at you.
Fluent speakers generally are happy to participate because a table full of people talking is entertaining.
You can organize a conversation event without yourself being fluent, but you run the risk of a failed event if no one shows up who is half fluent!

Tips for a good study group
Know that you can effectively organize a study group without yourself being fluent.
More than anything, the group provides the dicipline (via peer pressure) to show up and study each week. This compares to self-study which relies entirely on a learners own willpower.

Fluent speakers can be a blessing or a problem. The fluent speakers are likely to be pressed into service as unpaid tutors.  When they don’t have the leadership role, then often the fluent speaker just watches as the attendees read the texts and do the exercises.  In both cases, this can be rather dull.

Irregular attendance can be distruptive, be creative in encouraging people to attend for several session in a row.  If you don’t, you will likely end up with a new batch of people each week, all who want to do chapter one.  The organizerwill get rather bored doing chapter one over and over.

Consider charging to discourage the uncommited and strenghten the commitment of those who buy in and start. However, keep in mind charging changes the social contract, requires accounting and additional complications.  At a paid event, attendees expect the organizer to be professional. At an unpaid event, attendees tolerate a lack of structure.

Keep a few spare copies of the text book. The textbook should be on the easy side because often there isn’t a person at the table who knows for sure what the answer really is.  And the book should be easy to find.

Put a time limit on study–about an hour is long enough to get through a chapter.

A study group works well for about 6, may 8 people.  More than that and you will need to switch to a classroom format, or the group will just fall apart and not actually study the book.

Intermediate and advanced learners do not benefit as much from a study group, although they often are better helpers to the just beginning than the fluent speakers.

Tips for a good translation group

Pacing is important in translation groups because it can be very boring to  spend an hour on one sentence.  Pick a text that is easy enough to get through a few paragraphs an hour.
Looking up works in advance is good because dictionary lookups distrupt pacing.
If the text is interesting, then fluent attendees are less likely to be bored.  Also, when someone fluent is at the table, take the opportunity to tackle more challenging texts.
Comics are a good choice because attendees are less likely to get bored should they hit a long section of text that can’t parse at all. At least with comics, you can follow part of the story regardless to textual understanding.
Poetry and many songs are not good choices for translation because they are very non-typical exemplars of text from a language.

Picking a language

Every langauge community is different. For example, you’ll get different people showing up at your events depending on how many immigrants there are, how the langauge community feels about bilingualism, if the langauge is famous, if the language is popular with academia (like Latin, Sanskrit or Basque)

It is easier to organize a study group for an obsure language than for a popular one.  French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese all have large communities of paid tutors and teachers.  If you post an ad for a study group for Aramaic, Cherokee, or Pali, you probably will be the only choice in town.

If you  organize for a popular language, expect to get at all events a continuum attendees from those learning their first word to completely fluent, unlike for obscure language where most attendees will be learnign their first words.

Potlucks, Movies and Cultural Events
Language is a social skill, so contriving  a reason and place to use the language is a good idea.  If you are learning a language outside it’s primary community, i.e. if your not learning French in France, then you the relevant language community is those whom you are studying with.  It also is useful that speaking in a second langauge to those who are not fluent but just like you are learning a second langauge is easier.  Language learners tend to user smaller vocabularies, speak slower and user fewer constructs than fluent speakers.

Manage Expectations
Remind attendees it takes 100s of hours to learn a language, 500 at least.  Any social event, even if it is with several fluent   speakers,  or a one-on-one tutor can only cover so many of those hours.  Managing expectations is important for groups with a lot of people who’ve hit a plateau, such as learners that have taken 5 years of French in high school and college and still can’t speak conversatoinally or read a newspaper.  On its own, no one-hour languge event will change that.   Encourage attendees to immerse themselves in media, like radio and comics, for the second language when not at the study group or translation group.

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