How to speak about niche topics without good materials to learn from

In order to progress at the intermediate stages we need to branch out into topics that are interesting to us. The normal recommendations is to read a lot or find podcasts/shows with transcripts (or at least subtitles in your target language) about specific topics in order to learn new words and vocabulary in that area. But what can you do if you are studying a language that is short for resources, or you can't find anything in your particular interest to learn with?

This is a serious problem, because although the solution for progressing past the intermediate stage is simple enough, finding solid material to work with is not. Especially if you aren't learning one of the more common languages. This is incredibly frustrating knowing exactly what to do in order to progress, but not being able to find substantial material to make it happen.

I know what it's like to look and look for hours for good material and not find a single thing!

Because of this problem I have developed my own strategy that I used with Cantonese, to learn targeted vocabulary relevant to my areas of interest.

Here I will lay it out in four simple steps of how to branch out and improve your vocabulary on niche areas without having any material to work with.


Step 1 - Keep a diary

The first step is to write out a diary in your target language. Output is a useful way to pick up and learn words relevant to you, but unlike speaking, when we write we have as much time as we want. We can take our time, arm ourselves with a dictionary and look up as many words as we need.

I have tried this before with an italki teacher, but on some topics there are just too many new words, and the process is just too painful and stressful to get through. This way, we take our time looking up the words, and then writing them out in context from the get go helps up to remember and retain the information. Especially if it is in a context of interest to us.

When writing a diary it is worth pointing out that we should re-frame from using a dictionary as much as we possible can. If we think we know a word, but we aren't sure, just go ahead and give it your best shot. At this stage it doesn't matter if what we write is 100% accurate or not.

Of course the whole point of this exercise is to branch out into new areas so inevitably you will end up using a dictionary a lot, which is completely fine.

Another point, is that personally I think it is much better to practice writing out entirely from hand, instead of typing it up from a computer. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, the act of writing words out has been proven to help us remember information. And secondly, we get so used to digital aids, such as spell check and even helping with the grammar, that we can end up relying on it too much. When we come to the later steps and transfer it to a PC, it will help identify some of the gaps that we thought we knew but didn't.

What's more, is that with languages with a different script, like me with Cantonese, this is an excellent chance to practice recalling the new characters/letters from memory, which proves much harder than just recognizing them in reading.


Step 2 - Post online for corrections


I said in step 1 it doesn't matter at this stage if it is 100% right, and this is why. The next step is to get the text on your computer and post your entry on a website such as lang-8, italki or hellotalk for corrections. Also, you could send it to your language partner or italki tutor if you prefer. Make sure to post with a copy of the text in your original language, in case of any errors on your part that could lead to misunderstanding in meaning.

Once we have the corrections back, if it's on a website like lang-8, then all of the corrections and changes will be highlighted. Compare these corrections with what you originally wrote. Did they use a different form of word, did they use a slightly different construction, or did they have to change the sentence all together. On top of learning new words, this process of writing things down, and comparing it to the corrections from a native is also an incredibly fun way to learn grammar.


Step 3 - Transfer sentences to flashcards


As you might already know I am a big advocate for SRS flashcards. I think they are an incredibly efficient and convenient way to learn, and store new words and phrases wherever you go.

When we are looking at what to add there are two things we should look for. Firstly, are there any sentences where you have received major corrections in terms of the grammar and terminology used. And secondly, make sure to add the sentences with the new words you want to learn, as the whole sentence in context.

Firstly, adding the corrections from our mistakes into our flashcards is a good way to identify and learn from our gaps and keep on improving our grammar. And making sure to add sentences with new words allows us to learn new vocabulary in our specific field of interest, which is the whole reason we are doing this in the first place.


Step 4 - Speak with your partner

Once you have your corrected entry, put it into a google document, or whatever format you prefer, alongside the English and send it to your italki tutor or language partner.

Then simply try your best to talk about your topic of choice using your written text for support and help when you need. Also if there are additional words you think you may need, but didn't cover in your diary entry then it can be a good idea to search them before the lesson and make a "cheat sheet" to refer to as well.

I actually have three different partners right now and cover the same topic three times with different people. This works out well for repetition purposes but also for another reason. Speaking to different people, they are bound to ask different questions, meaning that your conversation will branch off into different directions depending on who you talk to. Either you can push through and continue to look up new words with the help of your tutor, or you will detour into a new niche area all together and end up needing a whole new set of words you don't know yet.

An example for this, was a few weeks ago I was chatting to my italki tutor about the different type of sites at my work. We got through the conversation pretty well talking about several technical things without much issue, until I mentioned that we have an air separation unit (distillation column) on one of our sites and she asked me to explain how it worked. Now, it has been a while since I covered this in uni, so frankly I was trying to scramble my brain to remember it clearly in English first before I tried to explain it. Needless to say there was a ton of new vocabulary I needed to learn in order to speak about this.

So what do you do in a situation like this? Well what happened is I explained it on an extremely basic level with the words I already know and said I would speak about it in more detail in the future.

Then, next time I go to write a diary entry I can use this as the topic for my piece, follow through these steps and take it into my next lesson on italki.



Notice how this is a cyclic process of continual improvement and you won't learn all of the words you need to talk about specific areas on the first day. The process of writing out an entry before works as a gateway to let you speak about interesting topics with your tutor.

Then when it comes time to speak, this helps you identify your gaps, as well as other potential interesting topics for discussion. You can then this as your point of reference going back to step 1 on this list and start over.

Have you learned a language with finite resources to a high level? How have you dealt with the task of learning to speak and understand specific topics without having appropriate material to use? If you are learning a language with a plethora of materials to work with, then how do you approach learning about specific topics? I am interested to hear your thoughts, so let me know in the comments below!