World Snowboarding champion Shaun White falls on his arse a lot.

Most snowboarders do, it’s an occupational hazard.

But Shaun White has a special way of falling on his arse that helped him achieve the highest ever score in the history of the Olympic halfpipe.

Read on to discover the powerful practice technique that helps experts across a variety of fields stay on top of their game. It’s a method you can steal when you practice a language that could help you:

  • Speak and understand the language better
  • Feel more confident
  • Stop worrying about your mistakes (and make fewer)

Deliberate practice: a winning formula to learn just about anything

In the 2010 winter Olympics, White landed a trick called the Front Double Cork 1080. This kind of trick would normally take him years to master, but during his training for the Vancouver Olympics, he nailed it in one day.

How?

Before the Olympics, Red Bull built White his own private half-pipe with a foam pit at the end.

Riders normally build up slowly to tricks like the Front Double Cork 1080, because a fall could be fatal. But the foam pit reduced the impact of the fall, allowing White to practice complex tricks that would have been too dangerous to try directly on the snow.

In his article 3 Rules of High Velocity Learning, author Daniel Coyle describes how the pit gave White the freedom to make mistakes, fix them and try again. Over lots of repetitions, this technique helped him fall on his arse less.

Here’s the winning formula that sped up White’s learning exponentially:

  • Try something difficult.
  • Screw it up.
  • Analyse what went wrong.
  • Adapt approach.
  • Repeat.

Whether he knew it or not, White was doing deliberate practice, a technique which psychologist Anders Ericsson identifies as the key to achieving high levels of performance in any field.

In this article, you’ll learn how deliberate practice works and how it can help you practice a language more effectively. Then, I’ll share 10 practical ways you can apply deliberate practice to your language learning.

At the end, I’ll talk about how I’m integrating these ideas into my own language learning routine this month.

How do pros practice a language?

How do experts become the best at what they do?

Most people put it down to natural talent.

But over three decades of research across fields as diverse as sports, music, ballet, chess and computer programming suggest that, apart from physical differences like height and body-size, expertise isn’t linked to innate differences.

Overwhelmingly, the most important factor that separates the high-achievers from the rest is the way they practice.

Imagine two friends are learning Spanish for their trip to Columbia.

Jill spends her time doing exercises from textbooks and playing on apps like duolingo and memrise. She gets most exercises right and feels at ease while she’s practicing. She’s waiting to accumulate more vocabulary and grammar before having a go at using Spanish in real life.

Jane starts off with a Spanish textbook but quickly moves on to muddling through more realistic materials, like simplified stories and slowly spoken podcasts. She gets herself an online tutor or language exchange partner and tries using the stuff she’s been learning in real conversations. She speaks painfully slowly at first, makes a lot of mistakes and often feels awkward while she’s practicing.

Who will speak better Spanish in Colombia?

Most people instinctively practice like Jill. That’s because many education systems instill the principle that right answers are good and wrong answers are bad. The result: we’d rather practice things we’re likely to get right, because mistakes make us feel like a failure.

But you know that awkward phase where you mess up a lot? That’s where the learning happens.

Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, who studies performance across a wide range of fields from spelling competitions to salespeople, shows that the highest achievers aren’t always the most talented or intelligent.

They’re the snowboarders who fall on their arses and get up again, the kids who focus on spelling the most difficult words, and the language learners who are willing to put up with awkward silences while they try to squeeze a sentence out.

They’re the ones who face the difficult bits head on, make mistakes, learn from them and keep going.

Most polyglots learn languages like Jane. They:

  • push themselves to read and listen to things slightly above their level.
  • practice speaking, even when it feels awkward.
  • spend a lot of time make mistakes and getting corrections.

This kind of practice is very efficient, which explains why they learn to speak languages well in less time.

Why most people practice a language the wrong way

Despite the benefits, most people avoid deliberate practice for a couple of reasons.

1. It feels less efficient (but it’s not)

When you’re getting things right most of the time, it feels like you’re making progress.

But it’s an illusion.

It’s a bit like tidying your room by shoving everything in your cupboard. It feels like you’ve got the job done, but all your shit is still in the cupboard. When you finally get around to sorting it out, it’ll take you twice as long compared to if you’d just done it properly in the first place.

When you mindlessly work through a grammar book or play on apps like duolingo, it feels like you’re making progress because you get ticks or points with every right answer. But those little satisfying dings don’t necessarily help you use the language in real life.

When you face the trickier parts of language learning head on, like speaking or reading texts with words you don’t recognise, it’s a struggle at first, so you feel like you’re not making much progress. But that extra effort will help you use the language much better in real life.

As writer Sonia Simone puts it: “don’t take shortcuts, they take too long.”

2. You have to analyse your mistakes

At work, when your boss says “let’s go through some feedback” it’s often a euphemism for “let’s talk about how you screwed up”.

The “feedback” stage in deliberate practice is no different: it’s a detailed analysis of what you did wrong. And because you’re human, you’ll probably find it quite uncomfortable.

When you write something in a foreign language, you might cringe when you look back and see the mistakes you made. When you practice speaking, it doesn’t feel great when your tutor or speaking partner points out your mistakes. And if you ever manage to pluck up the courage to record yourself speaking, it’s pretty mortifying to listen back to yourself.

How to practice a language with deliberate practice
Learning a language with deliberate practice isn’t always easy! Focusing on your mistakes can feel a bit disheartening at times.

But if you want to get the benefits of deliberate practice, it’s time to change the way you think about mistakes. Mistakes aren’t something embarrassing to avoid: they’re a key component of the learning process.

The more you make, the better you get.

10 ways to practice a language like a pro

1. Learn by doing (and making mistakes)

Deliberate practice doesn’t mean you should stop learning from books and apps altogether. It means that you should focus on putting what you learn into practice immediately so you can identify your weaknesses and learn from your mistakes.

Let’s imagine you want to master the past tense in Spanish. Here’s how you can do it with deliberate practice:

  • Learn grammar point: Learn how to use the past tense in your textbook/website/app.
  • Practice using it: Write a paragraph about something in the past (e.g. what you did yesterday).
  • Get feedback: Get corrections from a native speaker. You can post your paragraph to websites like italki or lang8 to get free feedback from native speakers.
  • Adapt: Look at the mistakes you made and learn the correct way to say it.
  • Repeat: Write another paragraph using the past tense (make it more interesting by using a new theme, for example, your last holiday) Try to reuse the words/grammar you got wrong so you can practice using them the right way.

You can do this technique with speaking, too. Try recording yourself talking about what you did yesterday and listen back to it – you’ll often notice your own mistakes that you didn’t pick up on while you were concentrating on speaking. Alternatively, if you have a conversation tutor/language exchange partner, you could talk about what you did yesterday, or any other theme that helps you practice what you’ve been studying recently, and ask them to correct you when you make mistakes.

2. Help people correct you

Imagine you’re talking to someone who isn’t a native speaker of your language and they make a mistake. How would you feel about correcting them?

Sometimes non-native speakers don’t like correcting us because they’re worried we might get offended or think they’re rude. Help them feel more comfortable by asking them to correct you and thanking them when they do so.

Another handy phrase to learn in your target language is “do you say it like that?” This helps you get immediate feedback when you’re not sure about what you just said. It also shows the person you’re speaking to that you want to learn, so they’ll feel more comfortable correcting you.

3. Repeat

To get the benefits of deliberate practice, it’s important to repeat your corrections until you get them right. There are two ways to do this:

Immediate

If your speaking partner points out your mistake, don’t just say “gracias/merci/danke…”. Reformulate the sentence aloud and ask them if you said it right this time.

Long term

If you notice that you often mistakes with certain grammar points or vocabulary, make a note of them and practice them as much as possible in your writing and speaking.

4. Break it down into components

When experts do deliberate practice, they break the skill down and practice the parts which cause them the most problems. Here are a couple of examples for languages:

  • Instead of thinking “I want to improve my Spanish pronunciation”, work out which individual sounds you find difficult, track down some tutorials and practice them until you can do it. If you’re not sure where to find tutorials like this, the Mimic Method is a great place to start.
  • Instead of thinking “I want to improve my Italian grammar”, identify the elements you have the most trouble with and practice making sentences with them until it becomes automatic.

5. Focus on the awkward bits

When you learn a language, it’s tempting to brush the awkward parts under the carpet. Just the phrase “German adjective declension”, makes me want to look in the other direction and start whistling. But if you face these awkward bits head on and practice using them, you’ll look back one day and wonder what all the fuss was about.

6. Stick with it

Sometimes the only thing that differentiates people who master a skill from those who don’t is the amount of time they’re willing to stick with it. When it comes to languages, people often decide they can’t understand a grammar point or pronounce a word even though they’ve only tried a few times.

Some things will probably take longer to learn than you think, but it’s worth sticking with them. You’ll be so glad you did when you can finally say them right.

7. Take responsibility for your own learning

Don’t wait for a teacher or book to tell you what you need to work on. Take some time to review your own learning and to notice gaps in your knowledge. For example, after you practice using the language, ask yourself questions like:

  • which vocabulary was I missing?
  • what did I make mistakes with?

This way, you’ll know what to focus on in future.

8. Accept that you’re going to feel like an idiot

When you go back and focus on your mistakes, you’ll probably feel like an idiot. It’s normal, particularly when it comes to things like speaking and listening to recordings of yourself. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. The secret is to accept the fact that you feel like an idiot and practice the language anyway.

9. Aim to make more mistakes (not fewer)

Remember: each mistake is a little sign that you just learnt something. To make progress, set yourself the goal of making more mistakes, not fewer. Paradoxically, this approach will help you make fewer mistakes in the long run, as the feedback after each mistake will help you get it right next time.

10. Get motivated

Deliberate practice requires a lot of effort, so it can be tricky to get motivated. Here are a couple of tips:

1. Build up the habit gradually

Let’s imagine you want to do 30 minutes of deliberate practice a day. If you try to do it through willpower alone, you might run out of steam after the first few days. The key is to build up the habit gradually. Start with something that’s impossible to say no to, like 1 minute per day, then increase by one minute each day over the course of a month until you get to 30. Habits built up over time are much easier to stick to.

4. Use the 2 minute rule

Once you’re in the habit, you may still have days when you don’t feel like doing deliberate practice. On these days, try setting yourself the goal of working for 2 minutes. You’ll probably find that after 2 minutes, you’re happy to carry on by force of inertia. Even if you decide to stop after 2 minutes, the fact that you didn’t skip your study session completely will make it easier to get back into the following day.

All work and no play makes language learning really dull

So we’ve established that deliberate practice is good: it will probably help you speak a language better and faster.

My problem is, it doesn’t fit in very well with my life philosophy.

It’s the kind of thing people write about on those blogs that tell you that putting butter in your coffee (?!) will make you richer, thinner and better in bed.

The pressure to be the best at everything doesn’t motivate me, it makes me want to hide under the covers. Sure, I want to speak a language well, but I want to enjoy learning it too. Because of it’s not fun, what’s the point?

How to practice a language with work and play

All deliberate practice and no fun probably wouldn’t be a great way to learn anyway. Firstly, if it makes you feel tense, it could slow you down, because stress gets in the way of learning.

Secondly, there’s a ton of research which shows that reading (and listening) for pleasure is a very effective way to learn a language.

While deliberate practice is about decomposing the skills and practicing the details, play, in the form of reading and listening to, or watching things you enjoy is essential. It helps you put all the pieces together and interact with the language as a whole.

And it keeps you happy and motivated.

If you’ve been learning for a while, your play activities could be things like comic books, magazines, podcasts, films and TV series.

If you’re new to the language, there are still plenty of ways to inject fun into your learning. Here’s a list of 32 fun ways to learn a language – you’ll find activities in there that work for lower levels too.

My language learning plans for September

I’m currently on a French mission: I’m taking the DALF exam in November and I’m aiming to study for around 2-3 hours a day.

Last month, I decided to spend around half that time on deliberate practice, so I set myself the goal of doing the following activities each day (Monday to Friday):

  • 25 mins grammar (learn rules + practice using them in writing/speaking)
  • 25 mins pronunciation (record myself speaking + work on tricky sounds)
  • 25 mins writing (practice writing + get feedback from native speakers on italki)

This turned out to be way too much: the idea of tackling that mammoth task each day was intimidating, so I ended up not bothering most of the time. I did reach my target of 2-3 hours of French most days, but it was almost always play activities like reading Tintin or watching Netflix.

How to practice a language with deliberate practice
Last month I spent most of my study time doing “play” activities like reading Tintin. This month I’m going to focus on getting into the habit of deliberate practice.

So this month I’ve decided to concentrate on gradually building the habit of deliberate practice. On September 1st, I studied the 3 parts (grammar, pronunciation and writing) for 1 minute each. Since then, I’ve been adding on 1 minute per day and hopefully by the end of September I’ll be back up to my goal of around 25 mins.

I’d also like to integrate more deliberate practice into my lessons with my online conversation tutors.

Here’s my plan:

  • Prepare conversation questions with the new words and grammar I’ve learned, so I can practice using them in conversation during the lessons.
  • Note down the things that my tutor often corrects me on and make an effort to practice them after class. For example, I make lots of mistakes with those pesky prepositions so I’m going to push myself to use them more in my speaking and writing tasks.

But I haven’t forgotten about playtime either! I’ve got a couple of audiobooks I’d like to finish and I’m planning on vegging out in front of a few French TV programmes/films.

What do you think?

Can deliberate practice help you learn a language? Which suggestions from this article can you use in your own language learning routine? Let me know in the comments below!

Can you roll your Rs?

Have a go now. Go on, no one’s listening.

If you made a lovely rrrrrr sound, you can stop reading and go back to Facebook.

On the other hand, if you’re anything like me when I started learning Spanish, you may have blown a raspberry, or made a noise that sounds like a cross between Darth Vader and a flushing a toilet.

If this is you, and you’d like to learn how to roll your Rs, keep reading.

In this post, you’ll learn:

  • Why you can probably learn how to roll your Rs, even if you think you can’t.
  • A simple method to train yourself to make the rolling R sound (that actually works).
  • A quick trick you can use right now to make your R sound more Spanish or Italian, even if you can’t roll your Rs yet.

Why can’t I roll my Rs?

The Italians and Spanish make it look easy, but the rolling R sound is actually pretty complex.

Also known as the trilled R, the sound is made by blowing air between the top of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. With the right tongue position, muscle tension and air pressure, this air causes the tip of your tongue to vibrate, creating a lovely rrrrrrrrrrr sound.

To get it right, you need to think about the following things:

  • Position: the tongue should rest on the little ridge behind your teeth (roughly in the same place as when you make the t sound).
  • Tension: the tongue should be relaxed enough that it can move up and down freely in the stream of air, but not so loose that the air passes straight over.
  • Air pressure: if you breathe too softly, your tongue won’t vibrate, but if you breathe too hard, your tongue won’t stay in the right position.

The rolling R sound requires you to coordinate your mouth muscles in a way that’s totally different from English (with the exception of some accents, like Scottish, which use the rolling R in words like grrreat).

If you don’t have this sound in your first language, learning to coordinate your muscles in this way can feel almost impossible.

Is the ability to roll your Rs genetic?

I always envied the kids in my Spanish class at school who could elegantly roll their Rs. Whenever I tried, I ended up with my face ended up covered in slobber. As my Spanish teacher (erroneously) explained that the rolling R is something you’re either born with or you’re not, I accepted the idea that I was not one of the lucky ones and decided to save myself the embarrassment of trying.

But 10 years later, when I was learning Italian in Italy, I found myself struggling with the rolling R again. I wanted a good Italian accent so I could blend in with the locals, but when you can’t roll your Rs, it immediately singles you out as having quite a strong foreign accent.

I’d always assumed that my problem was physiological – maybe something about the shape of my tongue meant I couldn’t do it – so I resigned myself to the fact that I would always have a crappy R in languages like Italian and Spanish.

Can I train myself to roll my Rs?

Luckily, a year or so later I met an Italian teacher at the school where I was working, who insisted that most people can train themselves to make the rolling R sound.

This was something I didn’t want to hear at the time because it felt like she was implying that I hadn’t tried hard enough. Didn’t she know that my problem was physiological?! No amount of practise would change the shape of my tongue!

I decided to practise the rolling R anyway, mostly to prove her wrong, so she’d stop being so smug around poor foreigners like me who couldn’t do it. I watched tutorials on the internet and started practising everywhere: waiting for my computer to load, washing the dishes, in the shower…

I didn’t expect it to work.

But it did. After a few days, I could feel my tongue getting closer to the rolled R. After a few weeks, I could do the Italian R quite well. I went from being irritated at the Italian teacher to wanting to hug her.

I could finally roll my Rs!

Why you can probably roll your Rs too

There was nothing wrong with my tongue, I just needed to retrain my mouth and tongue muscles so they could adapt to a new, complex sound.

You’ve had decades to fine tune your mouth muscles to make sounds in your first language. Training the muscles to make new sounds takes perseverance (probably way more than you think), so it’s easy to assume there must be some physiological reason why you can’t do it.

But in countries where Spanish or Italian is spoken, almost everyone can make the rolling R sound. Only a small percentage of people can’t do it because of physiological problems. The majority of us would’ve learnt just fine if we’d grown up speaking a language with the rolling r.

The good news: this means that with the right techniques and a good dose of perseverance, you can probably learn how to roll your Rs.

This tutorial will show you how.

Are you learning Italian? Learn to speak and understand faster with 5 Minute Italian.

You just watched a tutorial from our 5 Minute Italian course. You can learn to speak and understand basic Italian fast with weekly podcast lessons + bonus materials, by joining our 5 minute Italian crew. You’ll get:

  • The 5 minute Italian podcast delivered to your inbox each week.
  • Bonus materials that only members get access to, including: 
    • Lesson transcripts
    • Quizzes
    • Flashcards
    • Lifetime membership to the Facebook group, where you can practise with Italian teachers.
    • Vlogs
    • Invites to speaking workshops

It’s free to join for a limited time. Click here to start learning!

 

 

The other day, I was listening to a podcast about Leonardo Da Vinci.

He was a productive fella.

His accomplishments across different fields including art, science, maths and geography have earned him a reputation as the ultimate renaissance multitasker.

Which is interesting because he didn’t multitask.

Da Vinci had something in common with other ultra-achievers like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg – a method you can use when learning a language, that just might help you:

  • Learn a language fast
  • Enjoy the process more
  • Feel less stressed

The “one thing” approach that can help you learn a language fast

How much stuff are you trying to do at the moment?

Maybe you’d like to speak a language (or two), change jobs, read more books, learn how to cook, improve your fitness, learn to meditate, start a blog, learn to play a musical instrument…

Whatever goals you have, you probably like the idea of being able to do them sooner rather than later, so it’s tempting to start a few at the same time.

That’s the way most people, present company included, approach the things we’d like to do in life. It’s also the reason most people’s goals end up drifting on a to-do list that never gets done.

Really successful people do it differently

Da Vinci believed that trying to do lots of things at once is counterproductive. He said:

This might sound surprising coming from the renaissance man who had his finger in so many pies.

But when we think of Leonardo as a multi-tasker, we’re missing one important detail: although he achieved an insane amount of stuff in his lifetime, he didn’t do it all at the same time. According to biographer Sherwin Nuland, Da Vinci’s approach was characterised by an “ability to focus all of his intensity on the job immediately in front of him”

And he’s in good company. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett both single out their ability to focus on one thing relentlessly as the most important factor in their success.

Choose one language and say no to everything else (for a little while)

What might that kind of focus look like in your life?

It looks like a lot of no.

Steve Jobs challenged the idea that focus is about saying yes to the thing you want to focus on. In his eyes, deciding what not to do is just as important.

If you want to speak a language well, saying no to your other goals (for a little while) could be just as important as working on the language you want to learn.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a bucket list that looks like this:

  • Learn Spanish
  • Learn French
  • Learn how to cook
  • Learn to play the guitar
  • Run a marathon…

It just means that you’ll be more successful if you tackle these things one at a time.

In the rest of this post, you’ll learn how to avoid the silly mistake I made that led me to the “one thing” philosophy, and science-backed reasons why it pays to go after your goals sequentially, not simultaneously.

At the end, I’ll talk about how I’m applying the “one thing” idea to my own language learning.

How not to learn a language

Focusing on one thing at a time is something I’ve never been very good at.

Case in point: over the last 10 months, I’ve been trying to learn 5 languages on top of a fairly busy schedule.

I was just about holding it together until I took on one more project at work. It was like clumsily throwing the last block on an already shaky jenga tower, and everything came crashing down.

I got ill, which may or may not have been stress related, and my brain melted.

So I did what any rational person would have done in my situation: I gave up on my language learning goals, assumed a starfish position on the sofa, ate ice-cream and watched all 3 seasons of Better Call Saul dubbed in French (just in case you were wondering, it sounds pretty silly in French).

The July heat in Milan didn’t help – my brain tends to go on standby over 30 degrees – but this mini breakdown had been brewing for a while.

Constantly busy but going nowhere

I’ve always had a bad case of shiny object syndrome.

I get enthusiastic about starting something new, then as the novelty starts to wear off, something else catches my eye: I start learning new languages before I’m happy with my level in the ones I’m already learning, or take on new projects at work without thinking about the time and energy it will take away from the things I’m already doing.

The result: I’m constantly busy but I don’t get much done. I get all the stress that comes with a hectic schedule, without the satisfaction of ticking things off my to do list. If you’re someone who likes starting new projects, this might sound familiar.

For the most part, having the impetus to start new things is good. It leads you on fun adventures and means you’ve got a lot of get-up-and-go – a valuable quality that not everyone has.

But if you don’t learn how to rein it in, it will keep you stuck on a hamster wheel – expending a ton of energy and getting nowhere.

Over the last 10 months, I’ve been learning German, Mandarin, French, Italian and Spanish. By spreading my time and energy over 5 languages, I felt busy all the time, but only made 1/5th of the progress I could have if I’d I focused on just one.

How you feel about all this depends on your aim: if you like trying new things for the fun of it, or you want to learn bits and pieces in a few different languages, then go forth and dabble my friend.

But if your end goal is to speak a language well and you’d like to do it sooner rather than later, you’ll be less stressed and achieve more if you make that your sole focus for a while.

Extreme focus: 5 ways doing less can help you learn a language fast

1. You’ll do it better

If you try chasing a few goals at the same time, it’s difficult to find enough hours in the day to do any of them well.

Alternatively, if you make learning a language your only goal, you can give it everything you’ve got: your time, energy and willpower.

Needless to say, this will give you much better results compared to when learning a language is just another thing on your to do list you only get around to sporadically.

2. You’ll increase your chances of learning a language

Motivational psychologists have known for a while that you can dramatically increase your chances of reaching your goal by deciding when and where you’ll do it.

For example: “I’ll study Italian for 30 minutes during my commute” or “I’ll go to the gym before work on Monday, Wednesday and Friday”.

However, research shows that this tactic only works with one goal. As soon as you try to add more, you’re less likely to achieve any of them.

3. You’ll make faster progress

Imagine you have two goals, like learning French and German. Let’s say it takes 1 year to learn each language to the point where you can speak it well. You have two choices:

  1. Learn them both at the same time: Your time will be split between French and German, so it will take you twice as long to learn each language. You’ll have to work hard for two years before you get the satisfaction of being able to speak the languages.
  2. Learn them one by one: In the first year, you’ll be fully focused on one language, so you’ll learn it twice as fast. You’ll feel like you’re making progress, so you’ll be more motivated. After 12 months, you’ll get the satisfaction of speaking one of the languages well, and you’ll be able to apply your experience in language learning to the next one.

Humans are bad at delayed gratification. The longer you delay the results, the harder it is to stay motivated.

In the best case scenario, going after two goals simultaneously will take twice as long. In reality, it may take longer because you won’t benefit from the intense focus and extra motivation you get from choosing one goal at a time.

4. You’ll be less stressed (the Zeigarnik Effect)

Do you feel anxious when there’s lots of things on your to-do list that you never get around to?

There’s a reason for that.

Things that are still in process tend to stay in our minds more than things that are finished – think waiters who have brilliant memories of what people ordered while they’re still at the table, but forget as soon as they’ve paid the bill and walked out the door.

Zeigarnik, the psychologist who identified this effect, hypothesised that unfinished tasks create a kind of mental discomfort which causes us to keep thinking about the job until it’s reached its logical conclusion.

An example of this effect is the cliffhanger: when a TV episode finishes in the middle of something important, it creates a weird kind of tension that makes you want to keep watching.

This tendency to ruminate over unfinished business explains why unmet goals keep popping up and causing you stress.

If you’re working towards one manageable goal, the Zeigarnik effect works in your favour: it spurs you to take action until you reach the finish line.

But if you’ve got several goals on the go and you’re not making much progress, all that unfinished business will keep coming back to haunt you, causing a lot of unnecessary stress and worry.

5. You’ll enjoy it more

The better you get at something, the more enjoyable it is. Nowhere is this more true than in language learning. When you can speak a language well, you can chat to friends, watch films, listen to podcasts, read books… all the same stuff you enjoy in your first language. When you speak a language well, it no longer feels like work, it feels like play.

What about all the other stuff I want to do?

You can still do other productive things while working towards your goal of learning a language, like going to the gym, cooking or meditating.

The key is to have one goal that you actively pursue at a time.

By all means go to the gym, meditate, cook some tasty recipes. Just don’t give yourself any hardcore goals in these areas, like running a marathon, meditating for 30 minutes a day, or starting a cookery class.

If you want to take advantage of extreme focus to help you learn a language faster, just choose one language and give it your all, until you’re satisfied with your level. Once you’re done, you can move onto the next thing on your bucket list.

Language plans for August

My “one thing” for August is to improve my French. I’m aiming to reach advanced level by the end of November, when I’m going to take an exam to certify my level (it’s nice to have something concrete to aim for, otherwise “advanced” can get a bit wishy washy).

To reach it, I’m working on blocking out other distractions and clearing up around 3 hours a day (apart from weekends!) to focus exclusively on French. Here’s my plan for August:

Daily

Weekly

  • 1 practise writing exam

On the move

  • Listening to podcasts
  • Reviewing vocabulary with a flashcard app on my phone

I don’t have online lessons with my conversation tutor this month because I’m going to France for 3 whole weeks! I’m hoping I’ll get lots of opportunities to practise while I’m there. But I may end up booking a few classes if this doesn’t turn out as planned.

For a more detailed breakdown of my French study routine, you can check out last month’s post: how I’m becoming fluent in French from my living room.

What about the other languages?

Before I decided to experiment with laser focus, I scrambled my way to intermediate level in 3 other languages – Spanish, German and Chinese. The next question is, how can I maintain my level in these languages without setting goals?

My plan is to do things that don’t feel like work in these languages, including: watching cheesy soap operas/reality TV shows, reading Harry Potter and chatting to conversation tutors on Skype.

My thoughts are: If it feels like studying, I have to force myself to do it. If I have to force myself to do it, then I need to set a goal. And I don’t want any other goals sapping my time and energy away from French.

What do you think?

Is it better to focus on just one language at a time, or do you have a different take on things? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Join in!

This post was part of #clearthelist, hosted by Lindsay WilliamsKris Broholm, and Angel Pretot, who share their monthly language goals and encourage you to do the same. Head over to Lindsay does languages for more info on how to take part.

Imagine waking up in a remote town in the French countryside, where no one speaks English. Would you be able to get by in French?

If your answer is “non”, you’re in good company.

French is one of the most studied languages at school, yet most people can only remember a few random phrases like “Où est la bibliothèque?”

That’s because at school, you usually learn grammar, vocabulary lists and phrases, but no one teaches how to actually use them in conversation. The result: you end up sounding like these guys.

If, like most people, you studied for a few years and didn’t get very far, you’d be forgiven for thinking it must take decades to speak fluent French.

Luckily for us, that’s simply not true.

Using the wrong tools makes things seem more difficult than they really are. Trying to learn a language the way most of us did at school is like trying to chop wood with a kitchen knife: it’ll take you a lot longer than it should and you’ll get very frustrated along the way.

The right resources for learning French

There is no one size fits all, best way to learn French. Lot’s of different methods work. But from what I’ve seen, they all have two things in common:

  1. They don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time learning grammar and vocabulary for the sake of it.
  2. They help you learn by doing.

It makes sense really. Speaking French is a practical skill, like riding a bike or learning to swim. Just as you can’t learn to swim by reading a book, you’ll never be able to have a conversation in French by memorising a few verbs.

You’ve got to practise using French in realistic situations.

The best resources for learning French are geared towards helping you speak and understand French in real-life contexts. They should:

  • Teach you how to build new sentences so you can express yourself.
  • Show you realistic examples.
  • Give you the chance to practise.
  • Help you understand how French is spoken in the real world.

These 17 resources for French learners will do exactly that, from beginner to advanced level:

Picking up the basics: French resources for beginners

The best French resources for beginners show you how to build sentences right from the start. The tools in this list will help you pick up words and grammar easily through repetition and show you how to apply what you learn in new situations.

1. Michel Thomas French

The Michel Thomas method is probably the best resource I know of for picking up basic French in a flash.

The audio-only course helps you remember grammar painlessly by organising verbs into groups that are easy to remember and most importantly, shows you how to use these verbs to build useful sentences.

The course also shows you how to take advantage of the 30% of English words that have a French equivalent (known as cognates), like information, conversation, animal, original, distance, importance… Of course, the pronunciation is a bit different, but all you have to do is put on a French accent and voilà – you know loads of French words!

I’ve used Michel Thomas to get off the starting block for French, Italian and Spanish and I’m always surprised by how much I can say after only a few hours of listening.

2. Coffee Break French

The Coffee Break French series is a lovely, relaxing way to pick up French. The fun and interactive lessons help you learn the basics at a nice pace and presenter Mark Pentleton throws in lots of cultural anecdotes, which make the lessons a pleasure to listen to.

But don’t let the laid-back tone fool you – the Coffee Break French series is a very efficient way to learn basic French.

And there are enough episodes to take you further along your French journey – the series goes from beginner right up to advanced, and the podcasts are free.

Getting conversational

Now you’ve picked up the basics, you can practise using French in real-life situations. It’s time to jump in and have a go at speaking (even if you don’t feel ready yet!) and gradually start doing stuff in French that you enjoy doing in your native language.

As you venture into the world of real French, you’ll need plenty of support from subtitles, and slow, clear speech. You’ll also need a good dictionary and a way to remember all those new words!

3. Language exchanges

When you first start practising your speaking skills, it can feel a bit awkward to strike up a conversation with a French person – what if they reply too fast and you don’t understand what they’re saying? What if you forget a word mid-sentence?

Language exchanges are the perfect training ground for speaking French because your partner knows you’re a beginner (be sure to tell them!) and they’re there to help. This takes the pressure off as they don’t expect you to be able hold a full conversation yet: it’s OK if you don’t understand what they’re saying or forget a word mid-sentence!

However, there are a few pitfalls to watch out for. For example, if you’re a native English speaker and you team up with a French person who speaks brilliant English, it might feel easier to speak in English most of the time. To get around this, you should set a specific time, say ½ hour French, then ½ hour English. If you find a partner who keeps speaking English when they should be helping you with French, it’s time to look for a new one.

I’ve had some brilliant experiences with language exchanges: as well as helping you practise your French, they’re a great way to get to know French people and learn more about French culture.

If you go to France, I highly recommend setting up a language exchange at your destination. I did this in Paris and I met some lovely Parisiens who took me to their favourite hangouts – a fab way to learn the language and get off the beaten tourist track!

To find language exchange partners at home or abroad, try www.conversationexchange.com.

4. Italki

If you like the idea of improving your speaking skills quickly and cheaply without leaving your living room, you should give italki a try.

It’s a website where you can get one-to-one, online conversation lessons with French conversation tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour.

And you don’t need to worry about speaking slowly, making mistakes or sounding silly – tutors are there to help you learn and most are friendly, patient and used to working with beginners.

If you’d like to try italki, you can get a free lesson by clicking any of the italki links on this page. All you have to do is sign up, book your first lesson and you’ll get the next lesson free (up to $10).

I don’t get any commission if you buy through this link, but I do get a free lesson with my French conversation tutor on italki, which helps me save money and spend more time writing articles like the one you’re reading now – merci!

Italki is also handy if you want to work on your writing skills: you can post your writing on the “notebook” section and a native speaker will correct it for you.

I usually practise my speaking skills on italki, a website where you can book conversation lessons with native speakers.

5. News in Slow French

News in Slow French makes a refreshing change to the boring and overly simplistic topics usually on offer for learners. The presenters cover the week’s news in a light and entertaining way, in French that’s slow (hence the name!) and easy to follow.

6. Journal en Français Facile

Although the name translates literally as “The News in Easy French”, this news show by Radio France Internationale is a lot more challenging than News in Slow French. Often, the pace doesn’t seem that different to the normal French news, but that makes it great way to challenge your listening. On the Journal en Français Facile website they have the transcripts so you can check your understanding and read along as you listen.

7. Easy French

Follow the presenters of Easy French “on the streets”, as they pose interesting questions to French passers-by such as “What would you do to make the world a better place?” The interview format is perfect as you hear the same question over and over, and the answers are usually entertaining. To help you follow along, there are big subtitles in French and smaller subtitles in English. It’s the perfect way to ease yourself into listening to real, spoken French.

8. Wordreference

Once you start engaging with real French, you’ll need a good dictionary to look up the new words you come across. Wordreference is one of the best: it gives you examples of how the word is used in real sentences, which helps you understand how to use the word yourself later on. There’s also a “verb conjugator”, which shows you how to use French verbs in different tenses.

9. Memrise

As well as a good dictionary, you’ll need a way to remember the new words you learn. The Memrise app helps you learn French words faster, using a method known as spaced repetition.

It’s based on scientific studies which show that we remember information better when we learn it a few times over a longer period of time, compared to many times within a short space of time. The app quizzes you on words you’ve learnt at specific intervals which optimise learning.

Memrise is huge in the language learning community and you’ll find lots of French courses with ready made vocabulary lists already on there. However, it’s better to make your own course with example sentences that you’ve already seen or heard being used in real life, for the following reasons:

  1. Learning words in sentences (rather than in isolation) helps you understand how to use them later.
  2. Learning words that you’ve already come across in real life helps you form stronger memory associations.

Advanced

Now you can hold a conversation and understand simple spoken French, it’s time to hone your skills by listening and reading things intended for native speakers. Moving onto native speaker materials is a great feeling – you can:

  1. Really start to understand how French speakers communicate with each other.
  2. Learn a lot about French culture.
  3. Improve your French while doing things you enjoy, like watching films or reading the newspaper.

Here are a few of my favourites.

10. France 24

The France 24 website is packed with French videos. It’s a news channel, so they have lots of programmes about current affairs, but they also cover other topics including art, science, culture and travel. The presenters usually speak quite slowly and clearly, so it’s a great resource to bridge the gap between intermediate and native speaker materials.

11. Your web browser

With the Google Translate Chrome add-on, you can turn any French website into an interactive French dictionary. When you click on a word you don’t know, the English translation pops up on the same page, so you you can read websites without constantly stopping to look up words.

12. Le monde

Le Monde is one of the most famous newspapers in France. On the website, you can catch up on current affairs with articles, videos and blogs. The YouTube channel is particularly good because they have 3 minute videos that explain important issues in current affairs or little snippets of French culture. And they have French subtitles, so you can turn them on and read anything you missed in the listening.

13. Le Gorafi

If you prefer something a little lighter, try reading le Gorafi. It’s a parody newspaper with fake news articles, like the French version of The Daily Mash. If you enjoy this kind of humor, it’s a brilliant resource for stretching your French reading skills. Riina, a member of the joy of languages Facebook group, recently said that you can say you’re fluent in a language “when you can understand jokes”. If you get this kind of satire, you can be confident that your level of French is pretty good.

 

Le Gorafi also gives you loads of cultural insights about France, from small details, like how people in the South often drink pastis, to more serious things, like the decline in popularity of the Socialist Party.

14. Buzzfeed

If you’re after something even lighter, have a go at reading French BuzzFeed. The “listicle” style articles with pictures are a great way to practise reading real French, without having to get your head around large amounts of text.

YouTube

Now you’re advanced, the whole world of French YouTube is open to you. Here are a few channels to get you started:

15. Un gars et une fille

This Quebec sitcom shows short scenes in the life of a couple who are often getting into funny squabbles. They speak very fast but the videos are only a few minutes long, so it’s a great way to train your listening in short but intense bursts. And as the subject is very light, it leaves your brain free to concentrate on the French.

16. Cyprien

Cyprien is one of the most popular YouTubers in France. He’s a comedian who likes to point out the silly in everyday situations. Here’s his take on “people on the internet”.

His channel is fab for advanced level French listening. Like most YouTubers, he speaks inhumanely fast, but that’s actually quite good for pushing your listening skills: once you can understand Cyprien, French conversations at normal speed will be a breeze! He has subtitles in French and in English, which means you can read along in French if the audio alone is too tricky, and use the English ones from time to time to check your understanding.

If you enjoyed that Cyprien video, you might like Norman and Squeezie’s channels too.

Thanks to Christine for recommending these French YouTubers in the comments section of my last post: how I’m becoming fluent in French from my living room.

17. Simplissime

The simplissime cookery channel, with the tag line “the easiest recipes in the world” is another great resource to ease you into listening to native speaker materials. The narrator speaks slowly and the words often appear on screen, which makes things a lot easier to follow for us non-native speakers. To see what I mean, watch this quick video on how to make a chocolate mousse.

And as a bonus, you’ll come away with some cooking tips too!

E voilà! Those were my 17 best resources for learning French from beginner to advanced, I hope you found them useful.

Over to you

  1. Which of these resources do you think is the most useful for learning French? Why?
  2. Can you add any more to the list? I’m on a French mission at the moment so I’m always looking out for new resources – recommendations in the comments please!

So you’re thinking about learning Italian?

Molto bene!

If you’re looking for some guidance on how to get started, you’re in the right place.

When I first started learning Italian (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), there were a lot of things I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to learn words quickly, or that I should pay attention to things like prepositions.

Come to think of it, I probably didn’t know what a preposition was!

Had I known things like this from the get-go, it would have saved me loads of time and effort.

That’s why I’ve put together this complete guide to learning Italian for beginners. It has all the things I wish someone had told me before I started and the exact steps you can take to pick up basic Italian quickly.

You’ll learn things like:

  • Essential Italian travel phrases
  • How to roll your Rs
  • The best way to remember Italian words, phrases and grammar
  • Action points you can follow to make sure you succeed

Throughout, you’ll find links to audio files and mini lessons you can use to start learning Italian straightaway.

And – we’re opening a programme that will help you speak and understand basic Italian fast. It’s free if you get in there quick, so read till the end if you want to find out how to join us.

A 4-step roadmap to learning Italian

What should I learn first? Which method should I use? How can I stay motivated?

When you learn a new language, there are so many things to think about that it’s easy to get lost. In fact, one of the main things that can slow your progress in Italian is a lack of clear direction.

If you want to get somewhere fast, it helps to have a clear roadmap.

Here, you’ll find a 4 step action plan you can follow to start learning Italian successfully:

  1. Find your motivation (know why you want to learn Italian).
  2. Learn the essential phrases (so you can start talking straight away).
  3. Go into detail (start learning grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation).
  4. Take action (so you can achieve your goal of speaking Italian).

Let’s get started shall we?

Cominciamo!

1. Find your motivation

Learning a new language takes time and commitment. If you’re not clear on your reasons for wanting to speak Italian, somewhere down the line you may find yourself wondering if it’s really worth it.

On the other hand, if you’re excited about learning Italian, that enthusiasm will pull you to your desk, even on days when you don’t really feel like it.

When you’re motivated, it’s easier to overcome the obstacles that normally get in the way of learning a language, like lack of time or tiredness. As the saying goes:

If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way, if not, you’ll find an excuse.

That’s why motivation is number 1 in our roadmap.

Before you start learning Italian, take some time to get excited about it. Think about all the awesome things that will happen when you speak Italian, and come back to them whenever you need a motivation top-up.

If you need a little inspiration, here are my top 3 reasons for learning Italian:

You’ll experience the real Italy

Italy is one of the most popular destinations in the world, and with good reason! With stunning countryside, mediterranean beach towns, a rich history and arguably the best food and wine in the world, Italy has a lot to offer.

But if you don’t speak the language, it’s difficult to get out of the tourist bubble.

You’ll get so much more out of Italy if you understand and speak a bit of the language. It’s all part of the experience: laughing with the waiter, chatting to a little old lady on the train (with the help of a few gestures!) or playing with Italian kids at the beach. When you have a go at speaking Italian, you’ll come away with better holiday memories.

Even a handful of phrases can help you feel like a local. It’s a great feeling when you can order a meal or ice-cream in Italian and they understand what you’re saying.

You can also get insider recommendations from Italians about the best places to go in their town – no more frozen pizza and reheated pasta at tourist restaurants!

When you have a go at speaking Italian, you’ll come away with much better holiday memories. You can get to know some of the locals and you’ll feel more confident wandering away from tourist areas.

You’ll get to hang out with Italians

There’s an Italian saying: “il dolce far niente”, which means the sweetness of doing nothing.

Italians are masters of the art of living: most have a relaxed pace of life and love meeting new people. This is a huge plus when it comes to making Italian friends and practicing italiano with the locals.

When you have a go at speaking, Italians are usually patient and friendly. And many feel more comfortable speaking Italian compared to English (especially in small towns and villages). This gives you a real reason to use your Italian, which helps you learn faster.

Italian people know what’s important in life: they’re not constantly running from one thing to the next and they always have time for you. This is a huge plus when it comes to practising italiano with the locals!

You’ll feel a little bit Italian, too

Romantic, musical, expressive – people often say Italian is the most beautiful sounding language in the world. When you learn Italian, you can have loads of fun getting into the role and trying to adopt the distinctive accent.

 

2. Learn essential Italian phrases for travellers

Hopefully you’re now feeling excited about learning Italian and ready to get started. Before we dive into the details like grammar and pronunciation, it’s a good idea to get some essential phrases under your belt so you can communicate straight away.

Don’t worry if you say things a bit wrong, or you can’t understand what people are saying back to you yet – that’s normal at first!

Getting started is the hardest part. If you’re willing to have a go at using basic phrases, everything else will feel easier from there. And Italians will appreciate it if you make a little effort to communicate in their language! 

Phrases like “where is…”, “how much…?” and “can I have..?” will take you a long way. Once you learn the basic structure, you can adapt them to say loads of different things in Italian. 

For example, when you know how to say “can I have” = “posso avere”, you can use it to ask for anything anywhere: the bill in a restaurant, a pillow in your hotel, a ticket on the train… All you have to do is look up the name of the thing you’re asking for. 

Here are a few Italian travel phrases to get you started.

Essential Italian travel phrases

Dov’è…? = where is…?

Dov’è il bagno? = where’s the toilet?

Dov’è la stazione? = where’s the station?

Quanto costa? = how much does it cost?

Quanto costa il caffè? = how much does the coffee cost?

Quanto costa la pizza? = how much does the pizza cost?

Posso avere….? = can I have?

Posso avere il conto?=  can I have the bill?

Posso avere il menù? = can I have the menu?

Posso avere un caffè? = Can I have a coffee?

 

Numbers

Numbers are usually one of the first things people learn and with good reason – they pop up everywhere! From buying things to asking about public transport, you’ll need to master numbers if you want to get by in Italian.

You can learn how to count to 100 in Italian with the 5 Minute Italian episodes below.

 

Learn more Italian with fluency phrases

When you start speaking a language, it’s normal to have communication breakdowns, for example, when you don’t know a word, or when you don’t understand what someone just said.

With the right strategies, you can actually turn these moments into opportunities to learn more Italian.

Imagine you go into a bakery and you see a delicious pastry, but you don’t know what it’s called. You have two options:

  1. You can point and say “one of those please”.
  2. You can point to it and ask the barista in Italian “come si dice quello in Italiano?” (how do you say that in Italian?)

Most Italians will respond really well to this kind of curiosity. Once you open the conversation in this way, you’ll probably get the chance to chat to them a little more, and learn new words in the process!

There’s nothing wrong with using English when you get stuck, but the more you can use Italian to manage communication breakdowns, the longer you can keep the conversation going.

And the longer you can keep the conversation going, the better you get at speaking Italian.

Here are 5 fluency phrases that will help you turn communication breakdowns into opportunities to learn more Italian:

  1. How do you say X in Italian? = Come si dice X in Italiano? 
  2. Sorry, I didn’t understand. = Scusi, non ho capito.
  3. Could you repeat that please? = Potrebbe ripetere per favore?
  4. Could you speak slower please? = Potrebbe parlare più lentamente per favore?
  5. Can we speak in Italian? I’d like to learn. = Possiamo parlare in italiano? Vorrei imparare.

 

Want to learn more Italian so that you can get by in in Italy? In the 5 minute Italian podcast, you’ll learn how to deal with a common travel situation each week, like buying ice-cream or getting from the airport to your hotel.

Click here to subscribe to 5 Minute Italian on itunes.

 

Speak and understand Italian faster by joining 5 Minute Italian

If you become a 5 minute Italian member, we’ll send you bonus materials like quizzes, flashcards and cultural tips, as well as invites to online speaking workshops. It’s free to join.

Click here to become a 5 Minute Italian member.

 

3. Going into detail: Italian grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation

Now you’ve picked up some basic Italian phrases, it’s time to learn about the big 3: grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. 

At this point, it’s a good idea to get yourself a beginner’s textbook or audio course and work though it systematically so you can build up a foundation of these 3 aspects. Michel Thomas and Assimil both have great Italian courses for beginners.

This section will give you an overview of the main things you need to know about Italian grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, together with tips on how to learn them effectively.

You’ll be pleased to know that these aspects of Italian are relatively easy for English speakers compared to languages like German, Russian or Chinese because:

      • Italian grammar is simple-ish (no complicated case systems!)
      • 1000s of Italian words are similar to English
      • Italian pronunciation is quite straightforward: there aren’t many new sounds to learn and the spelling system is simple.

Italian grammar: How is it different to English?

In this section, you’ll learn about two very important features of Italian grammar which don’t exist in English:  verb conjugation and the difference between masculine and feminine words. 

 

Verb conjugation

Verb conjugation is just a fancy way of describing how verbs change depending on who’s doing the action (just in case you need a little reminder, verbs are words which describe actions or states, like jump, speak or be).

We can see this with the verb “be” in English: we say “I am” but “you are“.

But the verb be is actually a bit of an exception in English. Normally we don’t change the verb much, apart from in the third person.

To speak

I speak

You speak

He/she speaks

We speak

They speak

Italian verbs

Italian, on the other hand, uses looooads of verb conjugations. Here are a couple of examples (click below to listen to the pronunciation):

Essere = to be

Io sono = I am

Tu sei = you are

Lui/lei è = he/she is

Noi siamo = we are

Voi siete = you all/both are

Loro sono = they are

Parlare = to speak

Io parlo = I speak

Tu parli = you speak

Lui/lei parla = he/she speaks

Noi parliamo = we speak

Voi parlate = you both/all speak

Loro parlano = they all speak

If you’re observant, you may have noticed that there are 6 forms of the verb in Italian, while English only has 5. That’s because Italian has a plural “you” that’s used for when you’re speaking to more than one person. It’s a bit like saying you both/you all/you guys/y’all.

If you want to learn more about the Italian plural “you”, you can listen to 5 minute Italian episode 4: excuse me, do you speak English? and episode 24: how to order food in Italian.

 

Little by little

For many learners, verb conjugation is the most intimidating thing about Italian: one look at a list of Italian verbs and you might worry that you’ll never fit it all in your brain.

But you will.

Little by little is key.

And it’s not as complicated as it seems. Most verbs follow one of 4 patterns, which don’t take too long to learn. It’s true that there are quite a few irregular verbs, but many of these are similar to other irregular verbs, so you can learn them together in groups.

Importantly, don’t feel like you have to learn all the verbs at once. Focus on the ones you’ll use the most, then learn the others gradually as you go along.

 

Masculine and feminine words

The Italian word for “female friend” is:

“Amica

But for a “male friend”, it’s:

“Amico

Italian has gender, which means that nouns can change based on whether they are masculine or feminine (just in case you need a little refresher, nouns are words which describe people, things and places).

Feminine words often end in “a” and masculine words often end in “o”.

Here are some more examples:

Female Male
Ragazza (girl) Ragazzo (boy)
Bambina (female child) Bambino (male child)
Fidanzata (girlfriend)

Fidanzato (boyfriend)


The word for “a”, as in “
a girl” or “a boy” also changes depending on whether the word is masculine or feminine. To say “a girl” in Italian we say una ragazza, while to say “a boy”, we say un ragazzo.

The funny thing is, languages with gender use the same system for objects, like chairs and books.

In Italian, a chair is feminine: “una sedia”.

While a book is masculine: “un libro”

This can feel a bit strange at first – how can a chair be feminine and a book be masculine? 

Gender isn’t based on any logic about whether things have “feminine” or “masculine” qualities.

When it comes to learning the gender of objects,  just think of the words as being split into two arbitrary groups: masculine and feminine. When you know which group the word is in, it will help you make decisions about the grammar, like whether to use the word “un” or “una”.

How can you remember which group a word belongs to?

Try using imagery. For example, you could imagine “una sedia” as pink chair with a bow on it and “un libro” as blue book with a moustache on it (of course if you prefer to avoid gender clichés, you can choose different images!)

 

Common mistake alert! Prepositions

Prepositions are little words like “in”, “over”, “on”, “off” and “for”.

They’re not always logical: for example, if a light “goes off” it means that the light stops, but when an alarm “goes off”, the sound starts!

Because they’re not always logical, they vary a lot between languages. Here are some differences between Italian and English:

  • Italians don’t say “welcome to Italy”, they say welcome in Italy: benvenuti in Italia.
  • Italians don’t say “on the TV”, they say “in the TV”: in TV.
  • Italians don’t say “in the papers”, they say “on the papers”: sui giornali.

Italian learners often struggle with prepositions. But if you pay attention to them from the beginning, you’ll have a much better chance at getting them right in the long run.

Italian vocabulary: how to remember Italian words and phrases fast

Learn the words which are similare

One of the best things about learning Italian is that a lot of the words are very similar to EnglishIn fact, when you start learning it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to notice that you can already say loads of Italian words by simply saying English words in a hammy Italian accent. Similare (pronounced sim-ill-ar-ray) is one example – no prizes for guessing what it means!

How do you say fantastic in Italian? Try to say it in your best Italian accent.

If you guessed fantastico, you were right!

There are 1000s of words like this, and they’re handy because you can start using them almost straight away when you learn Italian. To learn some simple rules about how to convert English words into Italian, listen to 5 Minute Italian episode 1: Why Italian is easier than you think 

 

Coke for breakfast: Remember Italian words and phrases with memory hooks

What happens when you drink cola for breakfast? The combination of sugar and caffeine gives you an energy boost and you spring into action.

Colazione

You’ve just learnt the Italian word for breakfast, using a technique called mnemonics: a memorisation strategy inspired by the ancient Greeks and endorsed by memory champions as the most effective way to quickly remember large amounts of information.  The trick is to create a little memory hook, by linking the sounds and meaning of the new word to words you already know. 

Let’s learn another one. Imagine you’ve planned to go for a walk with your friend Arthur. He knocks on the door and you shout “come in Arthur” = kam-in-ar-ta.

Camminata

You’ve just learnt the word for “walk” in Italian.

If you want to remember new words quickly in Italian, try creating memory hooks like the ones above. Get creative – the sillier the image, the easier it is to remember!

It might take you a little while to come up with memory hooks at first, but the more you do it, the quicker you’ll get. And it will save you a lot of time and effort in memorising Italian words.

Italian pronunciation: why it’s easier than you think

Say what you see!

Italian pronunciation is relatively straightforward compared to many other languages, especially when you take into account the spelling system.

English has a complex spelling system where different combinations of letters can be pronounced in many ways. To demonstrate this point, George Bernard Shaw once pointed out that the word fish could be spelled “ghoti.”

gh = /f/ as in enough.

o = /i/ as in women

ti= /sh/ as in nation

Luckily for us, Italian has a very phonetic spelling system, which means that most letters can only be pronounced in one way. Once you learn a couple of spelling rules, you’ll be able to pronounce the words you read without difficulty.

 

The Italian spelling system: C and G

One of the rules you’ll need to learn is the pronunciation of C and G, as it’s not always the same as in English.

Generally, C is pronounced as a hard K sound, like in the word cake. Similarly, G is usually pronounced as a hard G sound, like in game.

Examples you may recognise

Carbonara

Origano

The same rule applies when C and G are followed by the letter “h”.

Examples you may recognise

Spaghetti

Gnocchi

However, when you see C followed by the letter I or E, it’s pronounced as a soft C sound, (like the ch sound in the English word chocolate).

Examples you may recognise

Cappuccino

Pancetta

Likewise, when you see G followed by the letter I or E, it’s pronounced as a soft J sound, (like the j in jeans)

Examples you may recognise

formaggio (cheese)

gelato

If you want to learn more about how to pronounce C and G in Italian, and hear some more examples, listen to 5 Minute Italian episode 11 and episode 12 on how to pronounce an Italian menu.

 

How to roll your Rs in Italian

You’re probably already familiar with the fact that Italian has a rolled R sound. Some people can do it naturally, but for others it takes a bit of work.

I used to really struggle with the rolled R. In fact, I had just about given up, until one of my Italian teachers insisted that I could learn to do it. She was right! I practised and practised and practised until eventually, I managed it. 

So don’t get discouraged if you were born without this skill – most people can learn with the right techniques.

If you want to find out how I learnt to roll my Rs in Italian (and a quick trick to make your R sound more Italian even if you can’t roll it), listen to the tutorial below.

 

The smiley L

Another Italian sound which may be new to you is the smiley L (known formally as the palatal L). When you see the letters gli together, as in famiglia, it’s pronounced similar to an L sound, but instead of putting the tongue tip behind your teeth (like in the English one) you spread the whole tongue out across the roof of your mouth. If you smile when you say it, it helps to put the tongue in the right position, which is why we christened it the smiley L.

This sound is much easier to learn when you can hear it being pronounced and get some examples. Listen to the tutorial below for tips on how to pronounce the smiley L in Italian.

 

The smiley N

Italian also has a smiley N sound. When you see the letters gn together, as in lasagne, smile, push the whole tongue flat against your mouth (like in the smiley L) and try to make a N sound.

As with the smiley L, it’s much easier to learn with audio instructions and examples. Listen to the tutorial below for tips on how to pronounce the smiley N.

 

Common mistake alert! Double consonants

In Italian, when you see two of the same consonants in a row, you should make that sound longer. For example, the word “sono” (which means I am) has a single consonant: “n”, while the word “sonno” (which means sleep) has a double consonant: “nn”. The “n” sound is held for longer in the latter.  

Can you hear the difference?

Don’t worry if these words sound very similar at first, with practise, you’ll be able to differentiate them. 

Many foreigners continue to mix up single and double consonants, even when they speak Italian very well. If you pay attention to them right from the beginning, you’ll have a much better chance of getting it right in the long run (in fact, I wish someone had given me this advice when I first started learning Italian!) 

 

Common Mistake Alert! Not pronouncing the vowels properly

In English, we don’t always open our mouths fully to pronounce the vowels.

For example, in the word “responsible”, the letter “i” is pronounced as a kind of lazy “e” sound, which is produced with the mouth and tongue in a completely relaxed position. In the phonetic alphabet, it’s represented with the upside down ə sound (called the schwa).  

responsəble

However, Italian vowels are always pronounced fully. Can you hear the full “a” sound in the Italian version?

responsabile

The lazy “ə” sound doesn’t exist in Italian, so be sure to pronounce each vowel fully.

 

Time for some action: how to achieve your goal of speaking Italian

So far so good. You’re excited about learning Italian, you’ve got some essential phrases and you’ve started learning about the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. You even know which common mistakes to look out for.

But there’s one last step.

If you want to make real progress in Italian, it’s important to turn your good intentions into actions.

As Leonardo da Vinci says:

Being willing is not enough; we must do.

In this section, you’ll learn 4 strategies that will help you take action and get you closer to your goal of speaking Italian.

 

Use it or lose it

Bear in mind that no textbook or audio course will give you everything you need to speak Italian.  

Textbooks teach you a lot about the language, but they don’t really help you use it in real life. Think of them like a book on how to play the guitar. It gives you a lot of useful information, but unless you actually put your hands on the guitar, you’ll never be able to play.

If you want to be able to use Italian in real life situations, you need to practise first. Practising helps you turn the Italian words and phrases you learn in books into active knowledge that you can use to communicate with Italians.

If the idea of speaking straightaway makes you feel nervous, don’t worry. You don’t have to walk up to an Italian and start talking after your first lesson. There are other ways to practise using your Italian:

  • Take the new words and grammar points you learn in your textbook and try using them to write sentences about your life.
  • Write a diary entry about your day.
  • Talk to yourself in Italian in your head: What are people around you doing? What objects can you see?
  • Practise speaking with a language exchange partner or conversation tutor. If you don’t feel comfortable attempting conversation yet, you can tell them about new words or grammar points you’ve learnt and ask them to give you examples of how they’re used in real life.

These activities help you connect what you learn to real life, which makes them easier to remember.

If this feels tricky and you make lots mistakes at the beginning, don’t worry. It’s a normal part of being a beginner. The most important thing is to start – that’s how you get better!

As a 5 Minute Italian member, you’ll get lots of beginner-friendly opportunities to practise your Italian, including:

  • A “use it or lose it section”, which helps you use new Italian words and phrases to talk about your own life.
  • Speaking workshops, where we help you get over your nerves and have a go at speaking Italian.
  • Personal feedback and corrections from Italian teachers.

If you’re ready to take your Italian to the next level, click here to join 5 Minute Italian. It’s free. 

 

Get into the habit of learning Italian

In January, around 35% of people in Britain go on a diet. 

By February, most have given up.

When it comes to goals like losing weight or learning a language, most of us start full of optimism, only to run out of steam a few days or weeks later. This happens because willpower is a limited resource: when it runs out, we fall back on old habits, like eating peanut butter out of the jar (just me?). 

Even if you’re really committed to learning Italian at the beginning, your determination might fizzle out somewhere down the line.

You probably know that the best way to learn Italian is to study regularly over a sustained period, but that’s not always easy when your willpower waxes and wanes. The key to solving this problem is to make Italian a habit. Once you’re in the habit, learning Italian feels natural, so you don’t have to rely on self-discipline all the time. 

Here are a couple of things you can do to get into the habit of learning Italian:

  • Find little ways to introduce Italian into your daily routine. For example, you could listen to a podcast at breakfast, read a book on your commute, or review vocabulary while you’re waiting for your computer to load. 
  • Start small: just as bad habits can be difficult to break, good habits can be difficult to make. Start with something so easy you can’t say no to, like 5 minutes a day. Then add an extra minute each day. Built up gradually until you find a length of time that a) slots easily into your daily routine and b) feels like you’re making good progress.

Find a community

Science shows that if you work towards a goal as part of a group, you’re more likely to achieve it, compared to if you try going it alone. Joining a group of people who are learning Italian helps you learn faster for a couple of reasons:

  1. If you study alone, it’s easy to make excuses in your head and slack off. Teaming up with others who are learning Italian makes you accountable to other people, which gives you an extra push.
  2. The group gives you moral support, opportunities to practise and practical advice that will help you progress quicker.

Community is a powerful thing: if you’re serious about learning Italian, joining a group will help you succeed.

 

Join 5 Minute Italian (it’s free if you get in there quick!)

If you want to learn basic Italian fast, you’ll get the exact steps and support you need by becoming a 5 Minute Italian member

Sign up to get all the bonus materials for free including:

– A weekly podcast, where you’ll learn how to deal with Italian travel situations.

– Quizzes and interactive tasks, so you can practise using what you learned.

– Flashcards to help you review and remember words and phrases.

– A “when in Italy” section with cultural tips.

– Lifetime access to our private Facebook community, where you can team up with your classmates and practise using your Italian.

– Italian teachers who are available to answer your questions 

– Invites to monthly live lessons, where we’ll help you start speaking.

Click here to join 5 Minute Italian for free

 

Speaking a foreign language is one of the best feelings in the world. It gives you:

  • A deeply satisfying connection with a new culture and its people
  • The chance to travel with ease
  • A huge sense of personal achievement
  • New career opportunities

That’s why if you ask a room of people if they’d like to speak a foreign language, almost everyone says yes.

So what stops people from learning to speak one?

Some say time. But there are plenty of ways to squeeze language learning into a busy day. Others say motivation. But that’s not really a problem if you find ways to learn that you enjoy.

These are excuses that can be easily solved, if you want to speak that language badly enough.

What if people think I’m stupid?

The real thing that stops people from speaking a foreign language is the fear of feeling like an idiot. Because learning to speak a language requires everyone to go through that phase of sounding like tarzan and Barney Gumble’s two year old love child.

So when Krisztina got in touch and asked “How can you beat your fear of speaking in a foreign language?”, I jumped at the chance to answer. It’s a great question about a problem that affects every one of us to some degree or another.

And the answer is simple.

Don’t.

It’s normal to feel nervous speaking a second language

I’ve been speaking Italian for longer than I care to remember. It all started back in 2008, when I had more piercings and fewer wrinkles.

Now, I’ve been living in Italy for nearly 6 years – my love life and friendships have been conducted in Italian for most of my 20s. But can I tell you a secret?

I still get nervous speaking Italian.

Don’t get me wrong, the better I get, the more comfortable I feel. Most of the time when I speak Italian, I’m straight chillin.

But I still get nervous when I have to sort out my mortgage or call my accountant in Italian.

Even chatting to friends can give me the jitters – especially the kind of friends who organise their kitchen cupboards and wear matching socks.

 

I started speaking Italian in 2008, when I had more piercings and less wrinkles. Even though my social life has been in Italian for most of my 20s, I still get nervous speaking it sometimes.

Be nervous and do it anyway

The idea that speaking nerves never go away might seem like bad news. But nerves in themselves are nothing to worry about. As Michael Jordan points out:

Being nervous isn’t bad. It just means something important is happening.

It’s trying not to feel nervous that causes problems.

Resisting your feelings makes them worse. It’s like trying not to feel hungry, or trying to fall asleep: the more you focus on it, the harder it gets.

Successful language learners aren’t the ones who’ve gotten rid of their nerves (if you’ve ever tried, you’ll know it’s pretty much impossible). They’re the ones who’ve learned to live with their jitters and speak anyway.

Once you realise it’s OK to feel uncomfortable, it’s liberating. Nerves will come and go, but they won’t stop you from learning to speak the language.

If you can embrace nerves as a normal part of language learning, the whole process becomes more enjoyable. You spend less time worrying about how you feel and more time focusing on important things, like doing your best to communicate with the awesome human being in front of you.

Stop waiting until you feel ready

Lots of people make the mistake of waiting for nerves to go away before they try to speak.

They think:

I’ll keep learning until I feel more confident, then I’ll practise speaking.

It sounds logical, but this mindset is one of the biggest obstacles to learning a language, because that magical day never comes.

If you wait until you stop feeling nervous, you’ll never start speaking a foreign language.

Do it until it feels normal

That said, learning to speak a language doesn’t have to be a constant white-knuckle ride.

Think about learning to drive, or your first day at work or school. Most people find these experiences intimidating at first, but they quickly become a normal part of life (sometimes to the point of creating the opposite problem – boredom).

The more often you do something that scares you, the less scary it becomes.

If I spent more time with my accountant or friends who think my mismatching socks are weird, I’d probably feel more comfortable speaking Italian in these situations. In fact, I already feel less nervous doing these things compared to when I started.

The key to feeling less nervous when speaking a foreign language is to do it more.

But it’s not always easy to practise speaking when it feels new and scary. Luckily, you can ease yourself in gently by creating opportunities to speak which feel less intimidating. The following tips will show you how.

How to speak a foreign language (even though you feel nervous)

Here, you won’t find advice on how to “beat the fear” of speaking, because I don’t believe it’s possible (or necessary).

Instead, you’ll learn 12 simple strategies to start speaking in spite of your nerves.

The first 6 tips will help you create opportunities to practise speaking that don’t feel so intimidating.

The last 6 tips show you how to develop a more positive approach to your fear of speaking a foreign language. These points will help you make friends with your nerves so you can get on with what’s important: learning to speak the language.

6 non-intimidating ways to practise speaking a foreign language

1. Find your training wheels

When you learn to ride a bike, you don’t just get on and whizz down a busy road. You need to build up your skills in a safe place, like in the park with training wheels.

The same goes for speaking a language. You don’t need to waltz up to people you don’t know and start talking – that puts a lot of pressure on you and you might feel silly if you make mistakes or have really long pauses.

Instead, look for people who can be your “training wheels” as you learn to speak. These are people you feel comfortable with as you make the jump from study books to speaking the language. They should be people who don’t mind waiting while you grab the grammar and vocabulary that’s floating around in your head and combine it to make real sentences (which can take a long time at the beginning!)

They could be friends, conversation tutors or language exchange partners. If you don’t have anyone in mind yet, the next section has some suggestions about where to find these people.

2. Set up a win-win situation with your speaking partner

Sometimes it feels like you’re putting people out by asking them to talk to you while you struggle to spit out a sentence. One solution is to set up a situation where you give your speaking partner something in return for their help.

For example, you can practise speaking with a tutor or language exchange partner. In return, you pay them (in the case of tutors) or help them learn your native language (in the case of exchange partners).

This reciprocal deal takes the pressure off because:

  • Your speaking partner gets something in return for their time, so you don’t feel like a burden if you’re struggling to speak.
  • You both know you’re there to learn, so you feel more comfortable about speaking slowly or making mistakes.
  • You partner knows you’re new to speaking, so they don’t have unrealistic expectations.

Don’t know where to find these people? Start here:

Conversation exchange: On conversation exchange, you’ll find native speakers who live in your area, so you can set up a face-to-face language exchange. Or if you’re in the country where your target language is spoken, you can use it to meet locals who will help you practise speaking and show you around at the same time!

Italki: Italki is your one stop shop for finding people to help you practise speaking. Here, you’ll find native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for online conversation lessons from as little as $5 an hour.

If you fancy giving it a go, I’ve teamed up with the lovely people at italki to give you $10 of free lessons after you book your first lesson. Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off.

Or you prefer a free option, you can use italki to find partners for online language exchanges.

This is my online Chinese tutor, Jane. She’s one of the community tutors on italki. These lessons are a great way to practise speaking Mandarin. It doesn’t matter if I have really long pauses and make mistakes – that’s why I’m doing the lessons!

3. Choose the right speaking partners

When you start speaking, you’ll probably have to think very carefully about each word. You’ll stutter, have epically long pauses and make lots of mistakes.

That’s OK, we all go through that stage. It’s a normal part of language learning.

As a beginner, you have the right to speak slowly and make mistakes. It’s called being a beginner. Make sure you choose speaking partners who understand this.

They should be friendly, patient and encourage you to speak.

If anyone makes you feel silly for being a beginner, they’re not the right match for you. Move on and choose a speaking partner who supports your learning efforts.

4. Speak often

When you chat regularly to your speaking partners, you’ll repeat things over and over. After a while, you won’t need to think about every word and your sentences will start to flow naturally.

Practise speaking as often as you can and you’ll be amazed how quickly everything starts to come together.

5. Give yourself mini challenges

Don’t feel like you have to throw yourself in at the deep end all the time. Get braver by setting yourself a series of mini challenges that gradually nudge you out of your comfort zone.

Let’s imagine you go to the country where the language you’re learning is spoken. You could start by ordering your food in the language. Then, once you’re used to that, you could try asking the waiter where he’s from, or if he can recommend a dish.

Choose something you’d like to learn that feels slightly outside of your comfort zone (but not too much) then go from there. Over time, these mini challenges will add up, helping you feel braver without the overwhelm of doing lots of scary things at once.

6. Always be prepared

When you first start speaking, you’ll have communication breakdowns. A lot of them.

It helps to learn key phrases so you can manage these breakdowns and keep the conversation going in the language you’re learning. Here are some examples.

How do you say that in French/Spanish/Italian?
What’s this?
Could you repeat that please?
Could you speak more slowly please?
Can we speak in French/Spanish/Italian please? I’m learning.

If you’re learning with an online tutor, these phrases will come in handy:

Sorry, I can’t hear/see you.
The line’s bad.
I’ll call you back.

A good way of learning these phrases is to have your language partner/tutor write them down or record them for you.

6 ways to make friends with your nerves

1. Know that nerves make you a normal human being

I’ve worked with hundreds of language learners and I am yet to meet one who doesn’t get nervous about speaking sometimes. The funny thing is, everyone feels like they’re the only one. Reminding yourself that nerves are a normal human emotion makes them easier to deal with.

2. Don’t fight it

Does this sound familiar?

1. Feel nervous
2. Try to stop feeling nervous
3. Think about feeling nervous
4. Feel more nervous than before…

When we feel nervous, most of us jump to the conclusion that it’s bad, so we try to fight it. By fighting it, we give our nerves too much importance, which makes the situation worse. If we accept that it’s OK to feel nervous, we break the cycle at number 1, which stops the situation from getting out of hand.

3. Enjoy your nerves

You can even start to enjoy feeling nervous: after all, it’s a sign that you’re challenging yourself and learning new things. And if you think about it, the feeling isn’t all that different from the positive emotion, excitement.

4. Focus on the person you’re talking to

When we’re feeling nervous, we’re usually quite self absorbed. Instead of thinking about your feelings, try directing your attention outwards to the person you’re talking to. This changes your attitude from “I’m trying my best not to sound stupid” to “I’m trying my best to communicate with this person”. This approach helps helps you relax and have more rewarding conversations.

5. Adopt a growth mindset

A fixed mindset is when you think “I’m bad at speaking languages”. A growth mindset is when you say “I’m not good at speaking… yet”. I’ve talked about this a lot in previous posts (like how to make any language easy and 3 research-backed ways to stop procrastination from ruining your language learning) because it’s an essential attitude for language learners.

With a growth mindset, you know you’ll get better with practice, so you give yourself permission to be a beginner. This makes speaking easier because you don’t put so much pressure on yourself.

6. Learn to laugh at yourself

It’s normal to feel nervous about speaking another language because of the risk of making mistakes and sounding silly. But if you didn’t mind so much about making mistakes, you could relax more when speaking a foreign language.

The best way to stop worrying about mistakes is to laugh at yourself. We all know language learners sometimes make funny mistakes, and the person listening to you will understand. Who cares if you accidentally say a swear word, or pronounce something wrong? It’s all part of the fun. And if you can laugh together, if helps strengthen your bond with native speakers – the reason we’re learning a language in the first place, right?

Polyglot Q&A

Krisztina’s great question about fear of speaking came up in last month’s polyglot Q&A. Here’s the video where you can catch me jibber jabbering about it live:

Why don’t you join us for next polyglot Q&A?

It’s a great chance to:

  • Get help with parts of language learning that you are struggling with.
  • Swap ideas with a fab community of language learners.
  • Get actionable language learning tips you can start using straight away.

If you’d like to get involved, click here to sign up for the next polyglot Q&A

Over to you

Do you get nervous when speaking a foreign language? Which of the tips are the most helpful in taking the plunge to start speaking? Let us know in the comments below!

Where’s the best place to learn French?

France, right?

I tried learning French in Paris once. Before then, I’d been learning French with audio courses, textbooks and a few private lessons with a strict French lady who was all grammar and no chat.

Needless to say, my speaking needed some work.

The idea: Spend a few weeks with my old housemate who lives in Paris. I’d meet his lovely French friends and get my speaking skills up to scratch.

The reality: My conversations went like this…

Parisian: Where you from?

Me: Je suis anglaise.

Parisian: Don’t worry, I speak English.

Me: Mais… Mais… je suis venue ici parce que j’aimerais apprendre le français. (But… I came here because I’d like to learn French).

Parisian: Ah… how long you stay in Paris?

Me: Environ trois semaines. (Around three weeks)

Parisian: And your plans?

Me: Sighs and continues conversation in English.

 The problem with learning a language abroad

This kind of conversation damaged my already fragile confidence in speaking French. If you’re an English speaker and you’ve tried practising with the locals on holiday, this might feel familiar.

You pluck up the courage to speak and you get Englished.

Why?

Maybe they think it’s easier. Or they see an opportunity to practise their English.

My usual trick to avoid getting Englished is to simply explain that I’m learning the language and I’d like to practise. People are usually happy to help by chatting to you in their native language, at least for a few minutes. And I did find a couple of patient Parisians who were happy to chat to me in French.

But for the most part, I struggled to practise my French in Paris. Learning a language abroad is not always as straightforward as it seems.

In Italy, I didn’t have too much trouble finding friends who wanted to speak Italian with me. This was not the case in Paris.

The problem with language classes

Next, I tried joining a French class, but it slowed me down for the following reasons:

  1. When the teacher talks to the class, the learning is passive, so it’s easy to switch off. I wasted a lot of time thinking: when will this woman stop talking so I can go home and have dinner?
  2. The curriculum isn’t relevant to your life. It’s based on what the teacher selects for a group of people, so you end up wasting time learning stuff that’s not important for you and skipping over stuff that is.
  3. You don’t get much speaking practise and hardly any one-on-one time with a native speaker (the best way to learn).

So learning French in Paris was too frustrating and classes were too slow. Luckily, I found a place to learn French that’s juuuust right.

My living room.

Which is great news because that’s also where my coffee and slippers live.

One of the best places for learning French is my living room. Which is great because that’s also where my coffee and slippers live.

Soon, I’ll talk about what I’ve been doing to get fluent in French from my armchair. But first…

What does fluent mean anyway?

Before we get into how to become fluent, we should talk about what that actually means.

Fluency means different things to different people. Some people think you have to sound like a native speaker before you can call yourself fluent. Others believe you can say you’re fluent as soon as you can express yourself without too many hesitations.

I think it’s somewhere in the middle.

Lets see what the Oxford Dictionary says:

Fluent: Able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately.

Easily and accurately. So you don’t need to sound like a native speaker, but you should be able to communicate comfortably without too many mistakes. This sounds like the “professional working proficiency” defined by the Foreign Service Institute as:

  • able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
  • has comprehension which is quite complete for a normal rate of speech
  • has a general vocabulary which is broad enough that he or she rarely has to search for a word
  • has an accent which may be obviously foreign; has a good control of grammar; and whose errors virtually never interfere with understanding and rarely disturb the native speaker

If you’re familiar with the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for language levels), it’s around C1 level.

Announcing my next language mission

My new language mission is to speak fluent French by the end of the year. To certify my level, I’m aiming to pass the DALF, a diploma awarded by the French Ministry of Education. It corresponds to C1/C2 level in the Common European Framework, so it fits in well with the definitions of fluency we talked about earlier.

I’ll decide whether to go for C1 or the higher C2 level nearer the time, when I have a better idea of the level I can get to. I’d like to think I can go the extra mile and get C2, but I don’t want to put myself under too much pressure, so we’ll see.

I’m excited for this mission! I love France and the language – speaking fluent French has always been a dream of mine.

So what’s the plan?

I’ve been learning French for a while and it’s going quite well – I’m enjoying it and making progress. My plan for the next month is to carry on with what I’ve been doing, but more intensively.

Speaking fluent French has always been a dream of mine so Im really excited about this mission!

How I’m becoming fluent in French from my living room

Take Online Conversation Classes

To improve my French speaking skills, I’ve been doing one-to-one conversation classes through a website called italki. I chat to native speaker tutors – called community tutors – on Skype and they help me practise my conversation skills.

They’re not qualified teachers, so the lessons are excellent value (as little as $5 hour). And I prefer it that way as I’d much rather use time with a native speaker to focus on conversation – I can study grammar and vocabulary from books. You can find some brilliant tutors on there – they’re fun, passionate about languages and patient with beginners.

So far, I’ve been doing these conversation lessons sporadically, but if I want to get fluent I’m going to need to rev it up. I’m aiming to do 3 lessons per week until the exam.

Good news – I’ve teamed up with italki to get you a discount. If you fancy giving italki a go yourself, click here to get $10 worth of free lessons.

I do conversations lessons with native speakers on italki. The lessons are good value and you can find some brilliant tutors – they’re fun, passionate about languages and patient with beginners.

Flood my ears

This might sound like something you should go to the doctors for, but it’s actually one of the most important things you can do when learning a language from home.

Whenever I can, I’ve got my headphones on and I’m listening to the language I’m learning. For the next few months, I’ll be listening to French podcasts and music while I’m walking to work, doing the dishes, cleaning the bath etc. Anytime it’s socially appropriate to have my headphones on, I’ll be filling my ears with French.

That reminds me, if you’ve got any good recommendations for French podcasts or music, please let me know in the comments!

Over the next few months, I’ll be listening to French podcasts and music as I go about my day.

Get into a routine

Whenever I start a project, there’s an over excited part of my brain that says things like: “Yeah! I’ll study for 5 hours a day, learn 100 words a week, read a book a week…”.

Of course I don’t manage to do even a third of these things, so I get discouraged and do nothing.

Over time, I’ve realised that this ambitious little voice does me more harm than good. I’ve learned that the key to making progress isn’t ambition, it’s routine. As Aristotle once said:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.

Instead of wasting energy chasing big ideas, I try to reign it in and establish habits that, when repeated every day, will get me towards my goal. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Reviewing vocabulary while I’m waiting for things: my computer to load, friends to arrive etc.
  • Squeezing in an hour of language learning before I start my day.

The last example, an hour a day, might seem like a lot. Here’s where the habit mentality works its magic. If you say “I’m going to study for an hour today”, it’s difficult to get started. Instead, focus on building a habit gradually by choosing something easy, say 10 minutes, and increasing by 1 minute each day. Soon you’ll be up to 60 minutes, and you’ll be more likely to keep it up compared to if you’d tried to do an hour from the get-go.

Set 2 minute goals

There are some parts of language learning that I don’t particularly enjoy, like writing and grammar. Until recently, I couldn’t motivate myself to do them, so I just ignored this part of language learning. And I’ve got a few holes in my skills because of it.

Fortunately, I’ve found a way to start getting on with this stuff.

When there’s something I don’t feel like doing, I set myself a mini goal of doing it for 2 minutes. Once the hard part (starting) is out the way, I’m usually happy to keep going for 20 minutes or more. But even if I put my pen down after 2 minutes, I achieve a lot more over time than if I hadn’t bothered at all.

Focus on sounds

Pronunciation often gets relegated to the bottom of the pile, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me: it’s the first thing people hear when you open your mouth and people make snap judgements about how good your speaking skills are based on your pronunciation (whether they realise it or not).

But when most resources are geared towards grammar and vocabulary, you have to make a conscious effort to focus on sounds. I’ve been doing just that recently and it’s really worthwhile. Here’s the technique I’ve been using:

  • Listen to simple dialogues (from textbooks) and write them down like a dictation.
  • Annotate sounds that are difficult for English speakers, like the “u” in menu, where the tongue is much further forward than in English.
  • Practise saying the words with tricky sounds, focusing on the mouth positions.
  • Listen to the dialogue again and read along, trying to keep my pronunciation as similar to the speakers’ as possible.

Keep it real

One mistake people often make when learning a language is to think they can learn grammar and words in isolation and put them together later. Languages don’t work this way. They’re a “learn by doing” kind of thing.

I find words and grammar only start to stick once I practise using them or see them being used in real life. Dropping them into conversations with native speakers is a great way to do this, but there are things you can do on your own too.

When I learn new words or grammar points, I put them in real life contexts by writing example sentences. Let’s imagine I just learned the phrase “Vas-y mollo” – go easy on something. Next, I try to think of sentences people might say, like

  • “Vas-y mollo sur le gâteau!” Go easy on the cake!
  • “Vas-y mollo sur le sucre” Go easy on the sugar!

Then I write them in my notebook.

Also, as I read and listen to the language, I try to keep an eye out for things I’ve studied being used in real life. If I’m feeling particularly motivated, I’ll write them down so I can come back to them later.

I try to keep an eye out for things I’ve studied being used in real life. If I’m feeling particularly motivated, I’ll write them down so I can come back to them later.

Turn passive activities into active ones

I’m quite a lazy learner: I enjoy passive activities, like listening and reading, but I struggle with active ones that require me to actually do something, like speaking and writing.

Because I spend more time on passive activities, I need a strategy to make them more active. One way of doing this is to write down keywords as I’m listening or reading, then talk aloud for a minute or two about what I heard/read. I’ve been doing this a bit already but I’m going to try and do it more over the next few months.

Learn more vocabulary

I’ll need to expand my vocabulary for the DALF exam. So far I’ve been learning 15 words a week and I’d like to ramp it up a bit. I’ve decided to increase the number slowly so it’s more sustainable. I’m aiming to add 5 extra words per week until I get up to 50.

I use flashcards to review the vocabulary I’ve learnt recently.

Time

Possibly the most important resource in language learning is time. I’ll need to put in a lot of time to reach an advanced level, so I’m hoping to spend 2-3 hours a day learning French (not including weekends). This means I’ll need a good balance of things that feel like work (writing, grammar and pronunciation) vs. things that feel like fun (podcasts, TV, books) so I don’t burn out.

Get into the culture

The closer I feel to a culture, the more motivated I am to learn the language. I’m going to follow French current affairs more closely by watching programmes on France 24 and reading the cheeky spoof news website Le Gorafi.

I’m a bit stuck for other resources to get into French culture – if you have any suggestions, stick them in the comments please!

Have an eff it day

When it all gets too much (or I’m feeling lazy) I’ll abandon all of the above and just watch French TV. It’s a great way of giving myself a break without getting out of the French habit. This will happen a lot.

Exam prep

To pass the DALF exam, I’ll need to improve my French and learn about how the exam works (some might argue that the latter is more important!). So this month I’m going to start practising the hardest part of the paper for me: writing. That said, I don’t want to lose sight of my main goal, which is to feel fluent in French, not learn how to pass an exam. So I’ll leave most of the exam prep until nearer the time.

What does this look like on a normal day?

Here’s my schedule for learning French over the next couple of months:

Daily (2 – 3 hours)

  • Active listening: Write keywords as I watch TV, then speak aloud about what I heard
  • Writing: Either exam practice, a diary entry or example sentences
  • Grammar: Exercises from my grammar book + example sentences
  • Pronunciation: Practise words with difficult sounds + read along with audio
  • Downtime: Watch TV or read
  • Earflooding: Fill my ears with French as I go about my day

Weekly

  • Practise one writing question from the DALF exam
  • Take 3 conversation lessons on italki
  • Learn 20 – 35 new words per week (gradually increase the number)

This plan isn’t set in stone. I might do more or less of certain things depending on my mood and I’m sure I’ll make tweaks as I go along. I’ll let you know how it’s going next month!

What about the other languages?

I’m learning 5 languages at the moment: French, Italian, Spanish, German and Chinese.

I say “learning” because I don’t believe you can ever really complete a language. I’ve taken the highest level exam in Italian, the boss level, but there was no baddy to fight at the end and my Italian level didn’t magically become perfect as soon as I put my pen down.  So even though I speak Italian to a high level, there’s always room for improvement and I enjoy getting into the lifelong learning spirit.

To manage all 5, I have one sprint language that I learn intensively and 4 marathon languages that I study in a more relaxed fashion. French will be my sprint language until further notice, so here are my plans for the others:

Italian

I took the C2 Italian exam last month – fingers crossed I passed! Next, I want to work on gradually closing the gap between me and a native speaker. I may never close it completely, but it’s nice to keep moving in that direction. The main differences between my Italian and a native speaker’s are:

Grammatical slips: When I’m speaking spontaneously, I still make some grammar slips with things like masculine/feminine endings. I’m going to try to pay more attention to this as I speak. I’m also going to record myself speaking once a week so I can listen back and self-correct my mistakes.

Vocabulary: The best (and most enjoyable) way to learn vocabulary is through reading. I’ve got a pile of books on my bedside table that I’ve been trying (rather unsuccessfully) to get through this year. Perhaps looking at the big pile is too intimidating, so I’m going to make it easier to get started by setting myself the mini goal: read one page in the evening. I’ll probably feel like reading more once I’ve got started anyway.

My pile of unread Italian books which I’m not getting through as quickly as I’d like!

Pronunciation: I’m going to work on my pronunciation using the “focus on sounds” method that I mentioned for French. I’ll aim to do this once a week.

Chinese

I’ve been neglecting Mandarin a bit since my last mission. I had big plans last month, but I didn’t get any of them done! I feel like I blinked and June disappeared, and I forgot about Chinese. My plans for June were:

  • Learn 15 new words per week
  • Continue watching Mandarin TV
  • Take 1 conversation lesson per week with a tutor on italki
  • Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per week
  • Scribble a short page of pinyin when the mood takes me

The only things I managed to tick off the list were: write a couple of pages of pinyin (with example sentences of words I’d learnt recently) and watch 3 tutorials on YouTube.

I’m going to dust myself off and try again in July.

German and Spanish

For Spanish and German, I’m keeping it short and simple:

  • Learn 15 new words a week + write example sentences.
  • Do some leisure activities like watching TV and reading

Over to you

French learners, I need your help! Can you recommend any good resources? Thanks in advance! If you’re not learning French, I’d still love to hear from you: which language are you learning at the moment? What are your goals this month?

Join in!

This post was part of #clearthelist, hosted by Lindsay Williams, Kris Broholm, and Angel Pretot, who share their monthly language goals and encourage you to do the same. Head over to Lindsay does languages for more info on how to take part.

What do weight loss after Christmas, expired peanut butter and learning Spanish have in common?

Apparently, they all take around 5 months.

Which seems like a long time to hold onto festive pudge and an exceedingly short time to learn a language.

Spanish is considered relatively easy for English speakers: it has 1000s of similar words (fantástico!) and the grammar, pronunciation and spelling is simpler than in many other languages.

That’s why the US Foreign Service Institute – the guys who train diplomats – rank Spanish as one of the fastest languages to learn for English speakers, together with others like French, Italian and Dutch.

The FSI estimate that languages in this group can take 23-24 weeks to reach professional working proficiency. At this level you can:

  • understand almost everything people say when they speak at normal speed
  • communicate comfortably in most situations
  • use a broad vocabulary and rarely stop to search for words

In other words, you can function perfectly well in most situations. Let’s call that fluent.

The easiest languages for English speakers

Languages which have a lot in common with your native language are usually easier than those which are very different. English is a Germanic language, like Dutch and Swedish, but it also has a lot in common with Romance languages like French and Spanish. No surprise then, that the other languages on the Foreign Service Institute list come from one of these two groups.

 

The Germanic Languages: Afrikaans, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish

Why are they easy? These languages come from the same language family as English, so they share loads of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation features. The ones in this list don’t have complicated case systems like in German, making them a little easier to pick up. Here’s an example of how similar languages from this family can be to English:

How to say “hello/hi, welcome”

Afrikaans: Hallo, welkom

Dutch: Hallo, welkom

Danish: Hallo, velkommen

Norwegian: Hei, velkommen

Swedish: Hej, välkommen

How similar Germanic languages can be
No prizes for guessing what this means. Germanic languages come from the same language family as English, so the words and grammar are often very similar.

 

Any drawbacks?

Native speakers of these languages tend to speak fantastic English, so it can be more difficult (but not impossible) to find opportunities to practise.

 

The Romance Languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian

Why are they easy? Romance languages have their roots in Latin. As the majority of English vocabulary (58%) comes from French or Latin, when you start learning a Romance language, you’ll realise that you can already say loads of words by simply putting on a hammy accent. Je suis sérieuse. Did a little pout as I was writing that, to make it more French.

Je suis sérieuse. When you start learning a Romance language, you’ll be thrilled to realise that you can already say lots of words by simply putting on a hammy accent.

Spanish, Italian and Romanian have simpler spelling systems and fewer vowel sounds than English, making pronunciation comparatively straightforward. Here’s an example of how similar the Romance languages can be to English:

How to say “my family”

Spanish: Mi familia

French: Ma famille

Italian: La mia famiglia

Portuguese: Minha família

Romanian: Familia mea

 

Any drawbacks?

While the grammar is easier than languages like German or Russian, you’ll still need to get to grips with verb conjugations, that is, when verbs have different forms depending on who’s doing them: for example, I sleep in Italian is “dormo”, while you sleep is “dormi”. Nouns in Romance languages also have gender, which can feel a bit loco at first. For example in Spanish, the fork “el tenedor” is masculine, while the table “la mesa” is feminine.

 

The easiest language to learn

The above list is not exhaustive. I could have included less widely spoken Romance languages like Catalan and Galician, amongst others. And the easiest language for you depends on other things, which we’ll talk about shortly.

But wait – didn’t the title say 11?

There’s one language which is even closer to English, and arguably the simplest of all for English speakers. Do you know which one? The answer will be revealed at the end of this post.

 

Just how easy are the easiest languages?

If it’s possible to learn fluent Spanish in 5 months, how do you explain all those people (including me) who studied for years at school and learned little more than ¿dónde está la biblioteca?

There’s a catch to the whole 5 month thing.

The diplomats who learn Spanish faster than you can hold onto a jar of peanut butter spend 5 hours in the classroom and do 3-4 hours homework every day. That’s like a full time job: 8 – 9 hours a day, 5 days a week over a 24 week period.

It takes them around 1000 hours to speak fluent Spanish.

Most people don’t have 8 hours a day to study, so you’ll probably need to spread those hours out (peanut butter pun intended). If you study for an hour a day, it could take you 3 years to learn Spanish to such a high level.

This easy language is suddenly starting to sound like a lot of hard work.

Of course, these figures won’t be the same for everyone. It depends on how motivated you are, how much experience you have and the techniques you use. Benny Lewis from fluent in 3 months says you can learn faster, with the right approach. But even the king of speedy language learning recognises that it takes 400 – 600 hours.

By the most optimistic of estimates, an easy language will still take you a good few hundred hours to learn.

 

What makes a language easy or difficult?

I’m guessing you’re here because you like the idea of learning a language without too much hard work. I’m with you on that one.

Most of the time, I’d rather eat my own shoe than memorise irregular verbs.

 

How I feel about irregular verbs.

But how do you know if a language is going to be hard work or not?

Most people look at how long it takes. From the Foreign Service Institute language categories, you could say that Spanish is easier than Chinese because Spanish takes an estimated 575-600 hours’ classroom time while Mandarin Chinese takes an estimated 2200 hours’ classroom time.

So we know Chinese takes a longer. Almost four times as long. But does that make it more difficult?

Difficult is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as:

  • Needing much skill or effort
  • Characterised by or causing hardships or problems

The word difficult, conjures up images of the fun police. It makes me imagine yawning over school books until my eyes water and forcing myself to do things I don’t like.

It makes me imagine a battle between the ambitious part of my brain that wants to learn a language and the Homer Simpson side that wants to watch TV and drink beer. And feeling guilty when Homer inevitably wins.

Language learning shouldn’t be like that.

Challenging? Yes. Time consuming? Of course.

But difficult?

 

Why the “no pain no gain!” approach doesn’t always work

If it feels so difficult you’d rather chow down on your shoelaces than study, you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, the harder you try, the harder a language is to learn. There are a few reasons for this.

Information overload

You know that feeling when you’re bombarded with so much information that you can’t take anything in?

Working memory is our ability to temporarily hold new information in our minds while we use it to carry out tasks – like keeping numbers in your head as you add them up. A bit like a mental jotter pad.

We use it a lot when learning a language, for example to:

  • Keep in mind the meaning of a word you’ve just looked up when trying to decipher a sentence.
  • Remember what you heard at the beginning of a sentence as you listen to the rest.
  • Remember what you want to say as you paste together grammar and vocabulary to express your ideas.

Our working memory can only process a relatively small amount of information at any given time. Trying to do too much in one go – like calculating 6897 x 5785 or figure out the meaning of a sentence with too many unfamiliar words – can lead to overload, which gets in the way of learning.

Tension gets in the way of learning

If you’re pushing yourself to do something that feels too difficult, you’ll probably end up feeling frustrated or stressed out. This works against you because stress interferes with learning in a big way. Research suggests that we learn languages better when we’re chillaxed.

If it’s too painful, you’ll probably give up

If learning a language always feels like uphill struggle, you’ll end up dreading it. Willpower doesn’t last forever: most people will give up sooner or later if they don’t enjoy what they’re doing.

When “no pain no gain” is bad advice. If language learning is too difficult, it can be counter productive: it’s hard to take in, creates stress and makes it tricky to stay motivated.

How to make any language easy to learn

I’m learning Mandarin Chinese at the moment and it feels easy.

By easy, I do not mean fast. I don’t even mean that I’m good at it. It takes thousands of hours to reach an advanced level in Mandarin Chinese and I’ve still got a long way to go.

But it feels easy because I’m learning at a pace that works for me. I’m challenging myself, but not straining. And I’m motivated because I spend my study time doing things I like.

Easy or difficult doesn’t depend on how many hours it takes, or how complicated the grammar is. It doesn’t even depend on how good or bad you are at it. It depends on how you feel while you’re doing it.

If your idea of learning a language is spending hundreds of hours with your nose to the grindstone, you’re going to make yourself miserable (if you don’t quit first). Every language will feel difficult, from Spanish to Mandarin Chinese and everything in between.

If you can find your learning sweet spot, where you’re challenging yourself but not frustrated or overwhelmed, any language will feel easy, whether it’s Chinese, Japanese, Arabic or Korean.

But, if you can find your learning sweet spot, where you’re challenging yourself but not frustrated or overwhelmed, any language will feel easy, whether it’s Chinese, Japanese, Arabic or Korean. Sure, they’ll take a long time, but they won’t feel difficult.

Instead of asking “which language is the easiest to learn?”, a more helpful question is:

how can I approach the language I want to learn so it feels easier?”

With this in mind, here are 5 ways to make any language easy to learn:

1. Concentrate on the bricks, not the wall

When Will Smith was 12, his dad knocked down the brick wall in front of his business and asked him to rebuild it. It took him over a year, but he built it. And it taught him an important lesson about how to approach challenges without getting overwhelmed. He says:

“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.”

Learning a language like Chinese or Arabic probably feels tougher than building the biggest, baddest wall that’s ever been built. But don’t get distracted by the big picture.

Just focus on laying one brick at a time. In each study session, build on what you already know by learning one more thing, then one more. If you keep it up for long enough, you’ll step back and realise that you’ve learned fluent Chinese (or built a nice new wall in your garden).

2. Use the Goldilocks rule to get the level just right.

Imagine trying to talk about politics or read a newspaper in the language you’ve only just started learning. You’d probably get discouraged and give up pretty quickly.

Now imagine spending several lessons learning to count from one to ten. You’d probably get bored and give up pretty quickly.

In his article The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and in Business James Clear talks about the importance of setting goals which are just right: achievable enough that you don’t feel discouraged, but challenging enough that you don’t get bored.

Finding the optimal challenge level, when you’re working hard, but not too hard is key to staying motivated.

Keep this in mind when you’re using textbooks and other resources. If you’re losing interest, could it be that the content is too easy or difficult?

Aim for something that stretches you just beyond your current level, without being overwhelming. 

Another way to make difficult tasks more appropriate for your level is to break them down into smaller chunks. For example, if studying grammar for 30 minutes feels too hard, why not go for 15 minutes instead? Or even 5?

A few minutes can add up to a lot of progress, when you do it every day.

3. Do something you like

Boredom is the first stop on the way to quitsville. The more you enjoy your study sessions, the less difficult the language will feel. If your current study materials don’t do it for you, find something that does. This article on 32 fun ways to learn a language (that actually work) has a few ideas to get you started.

4. Stay in the game

Over the 100s (or 1000s) of hours it takes to learn a language, you’ll probably face a few dips in motivation. It’s a good idea to have some strategies in place to help you stick it out when this happens. Two of my faves are:

  • Don’t break the chain: Put a cross on the calendar for every day you study. Seeing the chain get longer and longer gives you a sense of satisfaction – once you’ve build up a chain, you won’t want to break it by missing a day.
  • Record your progress: Language learning happens little by little and progress can be imperceptible in the short term. This is discouraging because it feels like your hard work isn’t paying off. But if you could look back at yourself a few months ago, you’d notice an improvement and feel more confident about your progress. Try recording yourself speaking, so you can look back and see how far you’ve come.

5. Is it difficult or just new?

This is my favourite question to ask students when they complain that something is hard. Because usually, they consider my question for a second and say “ah, it’s just new”.

Think about tying your shoelaces. It’s easy now, but you probably struggled at the beginning.

It takes time to develop a new skill. That doesn’t mean it’s too hard, you just need practice.

But if you think it’s going to be hard, it probably will be. Research suggests that when we expect tasks to be difficult, we’re more likely to lose motivation. 

Your attitude to learning matters. By adopting the mantra “it’s not difficult, it’s just new” you can get the benefit of what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the growth mindset: instead of thinking “this is too hard”, you can turn your focus to a little, but powerful word: “yet” – “I don’t know how to do this, yet”.

But with perseverance, you will.

Bonus point

Did you guess which language is the closest to English? It’s a language called Frisian, which is mostly spoken in Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. Frisian is actually a group of three, closely related languages, but when people say Frisian, they’re usually referring to West Frisian, as it’s the most commonly spoken. Here’s an example of how similar West Frisian and English can be:

English: Bread, butter and green cheese.

West Frisian: Brea, bûter en griene tsiis

Over to you: Which language are you learning at the moment? How could you apply one of the 5 suggestions above to make it feel easier? Let us know in the comments below!

 

You worked so hard.

You spent ages squeezing those new words and phrases into your brain. Then you try to use them in real life and…

Nada.

You keep searching your brain, but everything you learnt has temporarily left the building.

We all forget things when learning a language. It’s part of the process. But the more you forget, the slower you learn because you waste a lot of time learning and re-learning things before they finally stick.

 

What if you could remember a language faster?

If you could get words, phrases and grammar to stick sooner, you’d rev-up the learning process. You’d struggle less and enjoy it more.

And there’s a simple, research-backed method you can use right now to help you remember a language more easily.

 

What we write by hand, we remember

I never thought I’d write a post about the benefits of writing in a foreign language. Until recently, I hated it: my spelling is bad, I make loads of mistakes and it just doesn’t seem that important – my priority is speaking.

What I didn’t realise is that by neglecting writing, I was missing out on a powerful tool for improving my speaking skills. In fact, writing can help in all areas of language learning because it boosts your memory.

Research suggests that writing helps people recall new vocabulary more easily: in one study, learners who were asked to write example sentences with new words remembered around a third more than people who just read them.

And it turns out that handwriting is better than typing. A number of studies show that people remember words better when they write them by hand, compared to on a keyboard. Researchers think that there’s something about the sensorimotor processes involved in writing letters by hand that helps us commit them to memory.

Similarly, researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer found that college students who take notes by hand recall information better than students who take notes on a laptop. Compared to laptop users, who can quickly type full sentences, students who write by hand have to listen, digest and synthesise the key points. Mueller and Oppenheimer believe that interacting with the information in this way helps students remember it later.

Did you know that writing by hand boosts memory more than typing? After I read about this research, I went out and got myself a new set of notebooks.

 

Why repeating stuff doesn’t work

These studies reveal some important points about memory and learning:

  • Reading something over and over is a terrible way to commit it to memory.  
  • Involving different senses in the learning process can help us remember better.
  • Thinking about information in new ways, rather than just mindlessly repeating it, boosts memory.

These are all linked to the fact that memory is context-dependent: if we learn information the same way over and over, the brain associates it with that specific context. This makes things easy to remember when we find ourselves in the same situation, but easy to forget when we’re in new situations.

Imagine you’ve lost your keys. When you retrace your steps, you make the situation more similar to when you lost them, which jogs your memory.  

If you learn something after a few margaritas, you’ll remember it better the next time you’ve had a few margaritas, compared to when sober (true story – researchers got people drunk and tested it).

If you learn words from apps and textbooks, you’ll remember them better while fiddling with your phone or reading a textbook, compared to when talking to native speakers.

Which explains why those words tend to go poof when you need them in real life.

In the words of Steve Kaufmann:

 

How writing helps you remember

If we want something to stick, we need to play around with it and use it in new contexts while we’re learning.

Writing is perfect for this.

Whether it’s example sentences, stories, diary entries or shopping lists, writing pushes you to apply what you’ve learned to fresh contexts. Just like the college students who took notes by hand, as you write, you organise your thoughts and interact with the information in new ways. This can lead to deeper processing and in turn, better memory.

Another reason writing helps you remember is that it encourages you to build connections between old and new. When you write example sentences or stories with words you’ve just learnt, you combine new vocabulary with things you already know. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that linking new information to prior knowledge boosts memory.

 

Write like no one’s watching

I’d always had a sneaking feeling that I was missing a trick by not writing, but I could never motivate myself to do it.

At first I thought it was laziness. Maybe I was intimidated by all the effort involved. So I set myself teeny-tiny goals of writing one sentence.

But I still didn’t get around to it.

Finally, I realised that my procrastination was actually just perfectionism in disguise: I was scared of writing something and staring down at a page of poop.

So I took the pressure off. Instead of aiming to write something amazing, I set myself the goal of writing one crappy sentence.

This made it easier to get started and ever since then, I’ve been scribbling away. In fact, I’ve got so into writing that I’ve been jotting down a quick page whenever I get chance.

And I’m already seeing results:

  • Words I could never remember are starting to stick.
  • Tricky grammar points are sinking in.
  • I don’t have to rack my brain as much when I speak.

If you’d like to get the memory benefits of writing, here are a few suggestions that will help you get into the habit:

6 ways to get into the writing habit

1. Start with tiny goals

Often the hardest thing about writing is getting started. Actually, the hardest thing is the idea of getting started: the mere thought of doing a difficult task has been shown to activate a part of the brain associated with pain. But the good news is, once you get started, these signals go away. Make it easier to start by setting yourself a tiny goal, like one sentence a day.

2. Be happy with crappy

Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves to do something well that we’d rather avoid doing it all together, than risk doing a crappy job. Lowering your expectations will help you get past the blank page syndrome.

3. Ask native speakers for feedback (but not always)

You can use websites like italki and lang8 to post your writing and get corrections from native speakers.

This kind of feedback is very useful, but don’t feel you need a native speaker referee every time you write something. Even if there are a few mistakes in your writing (shock horror!), it’s still great practice.

4. Use the internet as a substitute for native speakers

What’s the difference between this word and that word? Is this verb regular or irregular? Good ol’ google can answer a lot of questions that come up when writing. You can also check if you wrote something as a native speaker would by searching groups of words together. Let’s imagine I want to write “it went well” in German, but I’m not sure how to say it.

I type my attempt “es ist gut gegangen” (with quote marks) into google, and see lots of reputable looking websites which use the exact phrase “es ist gut gegangen”. Also, as I’m searching the term, google auto-suggests “es ist gut gegangen englisch”, which means that Germans have been searching how to translate this term into English.

It looks safe to assume that “es ist gut gegangen” is correct.

You can use google to get insight on how native speakers write. Here, google is giving me information on the type of phrases native German speakers search for.

This method isn’t foolproof (there are mistakes on the web, especially in forums) but reputable websites will give you some useful insights. A good online dictionary with examples will also help you learn how to use new words in a sentence.

5. Write by hand

We remember things we write by hand more easily than things we type, so get yourself a notebook and start scribbling.

6. Keep a diary

Writing a diary involves talking about everyday things that happen to you and the people around you, so you’ll end up practising using words and phrases that’ll come in handy in real life conversations.

Those were 6 simple ways to get into the habit of writing. Next, I’ll talk about how I applied these ideas to my own language learning last month, and my plans for June.

 

My Language Learning Plans: June 2017

I’m learning 5 languages at the moment: Italian, Mandarin, German, French and Spanish. To make it manageable, I have 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.

 

Italian

Next week, I’m taking my C2 Italian exam – mamma mia!

In May, I’d planned to practise my pronunciation and crack on with my grammar book, but I realised what I really need to focus on now is the exam. So I set that stuff aside for a moment and did the following:

Listening

I’ve been listening to news podcasts as I go about my day. I’m hoping this will stand me in good stead for the exam as the listening section is usually taken from radio programmes.

I’d planned to watch an hour of highbrow TV, like political shows, to boost my listening and improve my knowledge of current affairs in Italy. I didn’t manage an hour a day, but I did squeeze in half an hour of 8 e mezzo most days.

Reading

I’ve been reading the magazines National Geographic and Internazionale to prepare for the reading section (and because they’re interesting).

National Geographic is one of my favourite things to read in Italian. I’ve been using it to prepare for the reading part of the C2 exam.

Writing

I aimed to write one practice essay per week in May. I was really struggling to get around to this, so I made it easy for myself to get started by:

  • Setting the tiny goal of just reading the question.
  • Telling myself that it didn’t have to be amazing.

By the time I’d got started, I was happy to go ahead and write the whole thing. Actually, I quite enjoyed it! Overall, I managed 3 weeks out of 4, so that aint bad.

Plans for June

Between now and Thursday (D-Day) I’m going to focus mostly on practice tests.

 

Chinese

In May, I planned to:

  • Finish my graded reader story
  • Learn 15 new words per week
  • Start watching Mandarin TV (with Mandarin subtitles)
  • Take 2 conversation lessons per week with a tutor on italki
  • Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per day (except weekends)

How it went

I managed the first two things on my list without too much trouble.

Mandarin TV was proving to be quite tricky (having to stop every two seconds to look up words) until I found a fab “learning mode” tool on viki, the streaming service I use to watch Mandarin TV. It has interactive subtitles, so you can click on them to get instant translations of words. It’s my new favourite toy!

My new favourite toy: Viki is a streaming service with loads of foreign language TV programmes. They’ve just introduced a new “learning mode” with interactive subtitles where you can click on a word and get the translation.

I did 7 lessons with my online tutor this month, but I’m starting to feel like I need a bit of a break, and the summer months are going to be busy so I’m going to go down to one lesson a week for a while.

I barely watched any tutorials this month: I think the goal of 1 a day was too high so it put me off starting. In June, I’m going to try and watch one per week instead.

One thing that wasn’t on my list, but that I started doing a lot of, was writing. Sometimes I wrote diary entries, sometimes I wrote example sentences with new vocabulary, or words I struggle to remember. In pinyin. That might make character puritans wince, but learning to write Chinese by hand isn’t a priority of mine at the moment. By using pinyin, I can start writing straight away and it helps me remember words (and their pronunciation) more easily.

Plans for June

  • Learn 15 new words per week
  • Continue watching Mandarin TV (with Mandarin subtitles)
  • Take 1 conversation lesson per week with a tutor on italki
  • Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per week 
  • Scribble a short page of pinyin when the mood takes me

German

I’d got into a bit of a funk with my German over the last few months and my “studying” mostly consisted of watching TV. Great for listening, not so good for grammar or speaking.

Active listening

To make my listening more active, I’ve started writing down keywords as I watch. Once I’ve finished, I use them as prompts to talk for 2 minutes about what I’ve just seen. I don’t always do it (sometimes I just want to chill out in front of the TV!) but I do it quite often and it’s helping me pay more attention and practise my speaking.

Writing

This month I’ve started writing more and it’s given me another way to practise producing the language, rather than just absorbing it passively. In June, I’m going to try and write a page a day (but let myself off the hook if I’m feeling lazy).

Spanish and French

Last month, my target was to:

  • Learn 15 words a week in each language
  • Watch some Spanish and French TV/films in my downtime
  • Do active listening (see above)

I managed to learn the words and I watched a fair amount of TV/films, but I forgot about the active listening bit (oops). I’m going to try and do more of this in June.

This month I mostly kept up my French and Spanish by watching TV in my downtime. I really enjoyed this French stand up comedy show with Gad Elmaleh.

Writing

I started off the month writing bits and bobs in Spanish and French, but I had to stop as I’m worried the different spelling systems might creep in and cause me to make mistakes in Italian (definitely don’t want that right before the exam). I’m planning to get scribbling in my Spanish and French notebooks as soon as the Italian exam’s over.

That’s it for June, I’m looking forward to next month, when I’ll be revealing a new language project that I’m very excited about!

Join in

This post was part of #clearthelist, hosted by Lindsay Williams, Kris Broholm, and Angel Pretot, who share their monthly language goals and encourage you to do the same. Head over to Lindsay does languages for more info on how to take part.

Over to you: Do you think writing in foreign language is useful? Are there any other benefits that I forgot to mention? Can you share any other fun ways to practise writing? Let us know in the comments below!

Which teacher do you remember most from school?

I bet you’re thinking of a brilliant one, or a horrible one. Most people forget about the ones in the middle.

I had lots of mediocre language teachers at school. They didn’t really care about what they were teaching, so neither did I. I remember nothing about their classes.

Well, almost nothing.

I can remember numbers, colours, and a few random words, like calculator and guinea pig. Meerschweinchen and Taschenrechner in German, just in case you ever need to know.

So why did those words stick, while all the other German I learned at school disappeared from my memory without a trace?

Well, we practised that kind of vocabulary by playing word bingo and, like most kids, I loved playing games in class.

Those words stuck with me because I had fun while I was learning them.  

 

Why you should start taking fun more seriously

Injecting fun into your language studies, far from being a distraction, is a powerful learning strategy. By doing things you enjoy, you can relax and engage more with the learning process. Studies show that a relaxed and happy mind helps us learn more effectively.

Fun activities also boost learning because they motivate you to sit down and do the bloomin’ thing in the first place. And motivation is possibly the most important factor in language learning.

But perhaps the best reason to have fun with languages, put rather nicely by Richard Branson, is this:

 

If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.

 

Fun ways to learn a language that actually work

Bingo was fun, but it didn’t help me communicate in German: I can’t think of any situations where walking around saying calculator or guinea pig would come in handy in real life.

Here’s where the “that actually work” bit comes in. Fun isn’t enough: it has to be useful too.

That’s why I’ve put together a list of 32 ways to learn a language that are not only fun, but will also help you immerse yourself in the language as it’s used in the real world.

These activities will develop your speaking, writing, reading and listening so you can achieve the ultimate goal: to communicate better in the language you’re learning.

 

32 fun ways to learn a language

Fun way #1: Play computer games

When I first met my Italian fiancé Matteo, he understood almost everything he heard in English and had a wide vocabulary, despite never having spoken it before. Where did he pick up those mad English skills?

World of Warcraft, my friends.

Then he got a girlfriend (me) and had to start leaving the house. But all those nights spent gaming in English until silly o’clock in the morning gave him a solid foundation for when he started using it in the real world. Here’s an example of Benny Lewis playing doom in a few different languages to give you an idea of how you can use computer games to boost your language skills.

 

Fun way #2: Go to the pub with a native speaker

The time I discovered you could learn a language by chatting to native speakers at the pub was around the same time I got really into learning languages. Coincidence?

Use the website conversation exchange to find a native speaker who lives near you and set up a language exchange at your local pub (or café if you prefer hot drinks). To make it work, you’ll need to lay down some ground rules. Olly from Iwillteachyoualanguage.com has written an excellent guide on making language exchanges work for you.

 

Fun way #3 Listen to a podcast

Podcasts are a brilliant way to boost your listening skills at all levels: if you’re just starting out, you can listen to a podcast aimed at helping beginners pick up the basics (coffee break season 1 is great for this).

Intermediate learners can listen to slow spoken content (like the news in slow French/Italian/German/Spanish series) and dialogues that are broken down and explained (like in coffee break season 2 onwards).

Advanced learners can take their pick of podcasts aimed at native speakers.

Podcasts are a really enjoyable way to learn a language while you’re on the move. If you fancy learning a bit of Italian, join us for five minute Italian, where you can learn basic Italian in bite-sized pieces.

 

Fun way #4 Listen to music

No list of fun ways to learn a language would be complete without music. To find artists who sing in the language you’re learning, check out the playlists on spotify. Type the name of your chosen language + music (e.g. Spanish music) and you should get a whole bunch of playlists worth exploring.

To make the most of it, try to listen actively: after you’ve heard the song a few times, dive into the lyrics and look up the meaning, then keep listening until the words start to sink in.

 

Fun way #5 Get your karaoke on

If you’re going to learn the words, you might as well sing along. To develop your pronunciation skills, focus on getting your sounds as similar to the singers’ as possible. If you feel a little self conscious, wait until no one’s in the house, or have a go in the shower.

On the other hand, if you’re really into singing, why not step it up and do some karaoke in the language you’re learning? For some free playlists, try typing karaoke + your chosen language into YouTube and see what comes up.

 

Fun way #6 Play with Lyrics Training

Lyrics training is a fab website that turns foreign language songs into a fun game – my students love it!

 

Fun way #7 Learn some nursery rhymes

Tap into your inner child and learn some nursery rhymes in your chosen language. A word of caution – try and find ones with vocabulary that you’ll use in real life (think ten green bottles rather than ring of roses).

 

Fun way #8 Go to a Language Meetup

Somewhere near you, there are probably groups of people learning the same language who meet up to practise and organise fun events. You can find groups like this on the meetup website.  

 

Fun way #9 Watch trashy TV

Hit the snooze button on your brain for a while and veg out in front of some trashy foreign language TV. Soap operas (especially telenovelas) are brilliant because the over-the-top acting makes their speech easier to understand than in films. Reality TV is another good genre because it helps you practise listening to spontaneous speech.

Sometimes I like to watch so-bad-it’s-good reality TV in foreign languages. You get to be a fly on the wall of real conversations so it’s a great way to practise listening to spontaneous speech.

 

Fun way #10 Have a netflix binge

If you prefer higher quality telly, give Netflix a try. The online streaming service is gradually turning into a language learning goldmine as they continue to build up their selection of foreign language films and TV programmes. Use the audio and subtitles section to search for films and TV in the language you’re learning.

Lots of programmes have subtitles in the original language, so you can read along at the same time or pause it and look up new vocabulary. I recommend avoiding English subtitles where possible as you can end up concentrating on the English and blocking out the foreign language.

 

Fun way #11 Watch TV by pretending to be somewhere else

Have you ever tried to watch TV online and seen the message “sorry this video is not available in your country”?. Foreign language TV is often blocked because the broadcasters don’t have the license to show programmes outside their own country. You can get around this problem by using a VPN service like hola, which allows you to pretend that you’re browsing from inside the country. Using a VPN is totally legal, but violating broadcasting licensing agreements might not be, so watch at your own risk and don’t tell anyone I told you 😉

 

Fun way #12 Change your phone settings

Swap the language of your phone to the one you’re learning (but remember how to change it back!)

 

Fun way #13 Change your Facebook settings

Change the language of Facebook/twitter/whatever other social network you kids hang around on these days.

 

Fun way #14 Shake your booty

Following a keep fit video in your chosen language is a good way to stay in shape and learn a language at the same time. It’s doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything because you can follow along by watching. And it’s great for learning body parts as you’ll hear the same ones repeated over and over again.

 

Fun way #15 Read online

Read online articles about photography, politics, beauty, sport, cats dressed up as sushi rolls or whatever it is that you normally enjoy reading.

What if there are lots of words you don’t understand?

Google to the rescue. The google translate extension allows you to turn webpages into an interactive dictionary so you can translate words by clicking on them.

 

Fun way #16 Chat to a native speaker online (for a steal)

If you want to practise speaking, italki is the place to be. It’s a fab website that has 1000s of friendly native speakers who give conversation lessons to help nice people like you learn a language. They’re called community tutors and you can book private conversation lessons with them for as little as $5-10 dollars.

Practising German by chatting to my conversation tutor on italki – my favourite place for conversation lessons.

 

Fun way #17 Get a running buddy

Why not team up with a friend and learn a language together? Research shows that  working towards goals with other people helps to keep you motivated for longer. If you can’t find a running buddy amongst your nearest and dearest, you can join an online community of language learners, like the add1challenge.

 

Fun way #18 Get cooking

Try following a recipe in the language you’re learning. Cooking websites/blogs are especially handy as you can translate new words with by clicking on them if you have the google translate extension. Or you can use YouTube to see the finished product and hone your listening skills.

 

Fun way #19 Get lost in a YouTube rabbit hole

If you’re anything like me, you probably enjoy faffing about on YouTube from time to time. If you’re going to be on there anyway, why not make it a little more productive by watching videos in the language you’re learning? If videos for native speakers are too difficult, try ones aimed at language learners. My absolute favourite YouTube channel for this is Easy Languages.

Learning German with videos
On the Easy German YouTube channel, presenters head out onto the streets and interview people so you can hear real spoken German.

 

Fun way #20 Learn with social media

What if instead of looking at pictures of other people’s cats/babies/lunch you could use your time spent on Facebook to learn a language? Lindsay from Lindsay does languages has all kinds of good stuff on how to use social media for language learning. You should check it out.

 

Fun way #21 Duolingo

If you haven’t been living underwater for the last few years you may have already heard of this handy little app that turns learning grammar and vocabulary into a fun game. Recently they introduced a feature where you can practise your chatting skills with foreign language bots. Download it and fiddle with it on your commute. It’s free.

 

Fun way #22 Keep a diary

Not the “Dear diary, why won’t my crush notice me?” kind (although you can if you like!) but a simple paragraph or two about your day. Not only will it improve your writing, but it’ll also help you learn how to talk about yourself and your life, which is great practise for conversations.

 

Fun way #23 Read for pleasure

Research shows that reading for pleasure is one of the best ways to learn foreign language vocabulary. If books written for native speakers are too tricky, try starting with graded readers (stories adapted for language learners) or comic books.

One of my graded readers in Chinese. They use simple words and phrases for learners so you can read without stopping to look up new words all the time.

 

Fun way #24 Go on a date with a native speaker

One of my friends used to set up language exchanges as a clever ruse to meet young ladies while practising his language skills. If you’re looking for love, why not do it the other way around and use a dating app like tinder to find native speakers of the language you’re learning?

 

Fun way #25 Text native speakers while your boss isn’t looking

The hellotalk app connects you with native speakers so you can do language exchanges via text messages. It’s specifically designed for language learners so there are all kinds of cool features, like the ability to click on a word and translate it or hear the pronunciation.

 

Fun way #26 Learn some tongue twisters

Tongue twisters are great for focusing on tricky pronunciation points. Choose one that has lots of examples of a sound you struggle with and practise it while you’re going about your daily business, like doing the dishes or waiting for your computer to load.

Here’s a fun Spanish one to help you with the rolled R: Treinta y tres tramos de troncos trozaron tres tristes trozadores de troncos y triplicaron su trabajo, triplicando su trabajo de trozar troncos y troncos.

 

Fun way #27 Watch a Disney Film

A rainy afternoon in front of a foreign language disney film is a lovely way to boost your listening skills. Choose one where you already know the story, so it’s easier to follow along.

 

Fun way #28 Learn some sayings

Reading quotes and sayings in your chosen language is a great way to pick up some new vocabulary. One of my favourites is the Italian version of “you can’t have your cake and eat it”: 

Non si può avere la bottiglia piena e la moglie ubriaca  

It translates literally to “you can’t have a barrel full of wine and a drunk wife”.

 

Fun way #29 Learn some jokes

Lighten things up by learning some good dad jokes. Here are a few Spanish language jokes to get you started.

 

Fun way #30 Write a story

Try writing a story with some of the words you’ve learned recently. Research shows that writing with words you’ve just learned helps you remember them better. You can get native speakers to correct your story for you over on the notebook section of italki or on lang8.

 

Fun way #31 Learn some good swears

Whenever I’m hanging out with people who have different native languages, we inevitably end up teaching each other swear words and sniggering. I’m not sure why learning to swear in a foreign language, or hearing foreigners do it in your language is so fun, but there’s something about it that really gives us the giggles. Even if you’re not one to swear in your own language, they’re handy to know so you can recognise them if you hear them (hopefully not aimed at you!)

 

Fun way #32 Talk to your cat

Or dog, or hamster, or fish… Chatting to your animal is a great way to boost your speaking skills as it gives you a safe environment to practise building sentences with the grammar and vocabulary you’ve been learning. If you don’t have an animal, try talking to yourself or an imaginary friend. Have a look at this post for more unconventional ways to practise speaking without a native speaker.

 

Your turn

Those were my 32 fun ways to learn a language.

Now I’d love to hear from you: Which fun way do you like the most? Give it a try and come back and tell us how it went. Do you have any more fun ways to add to the list? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Page 1 of 4