You probably already know what you need to do to learn a foreign language:
1. Study regularly.
2. Learn the grammar and vocabulary.
3. Practice speaking a lot.
The tricky part is putting all that stuff into practice. Why do most people get stuck at this stage, while a select few steam ahead and manage to speak the language?
It’s not because they’re good students. In fact, a lot of the “good” habits you learned in school, like following the rules, trying to learn everything and wanting to get a high score on the test, could be the very things holding you back from learning a foreign language.
There’s a hidden set of skills that you might not have considered before, because they make you seem like a bad student. Yet most successful language learners have them in common.
Give these 7 “bad” habits a try: they’ll help you stick with language learning and speak the language faster.
Ready to become a bad student? ¡Vamos!
The 7 bad habits of really successful language learners
1. They don’t study (for long)
Learning a language is a bit like learning to swim or play the guitar. A bit of theory can help, but the only way to get good at the skill is to jump in the pool, or start playing.
Great language learners spend a lot of time using the language. They probably still study vocabulary and grammar, especially in the beginning, but they see it as a support for everything else, not their main focus.
And they start putting it into practice as quickly as possible.
What might this look like in your life? If your goal is to have conversations, then it’s important to practice speaking. Here are some tips on how to do that:
But it can also be anything where you’re working with the language in context (not just isolated words or grammar rules). Listening, reading and writing are all activities that will give you a big return on investment. The more you practice using the language in real ways, the faster you’ll learn.
So why don’t more people do it?
Because it’s slow and awkward at first! That’s normal, even for very experienced language learners. Which leads me to my next point…
2. They don’t care if they’re terrible
Swimming champion Michael Phelps holds the most olympic medals of all time. But he wasn’t exactly a natural when he started – he hated getting his face wet and would flap around around on his back. (1)
Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello has been named by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. But, as one of his peers said “Tom sucked at guitar when I first met him”. (2)
If you want to learn a new skill, you have to accept that you’re going to be really bad at it for a while. And you’re in good company – everyone, including the greatest athletes and musicians of all time, went through that phase too.
The difference between people who manage to learn a language and the ones who give up is this: successful language learners understand that being terrible is a normal part of learning a new skill. So if the grammar makes your brain hurt and remembering a word feels like pulling out a tooth, know that this is normal. It does NOT mean that you’re not cut out to learn a language.
Just accept that you’re not going to be very good at it for a while and practice as much as you can. After lots and lots and lots of practice, you’ll make it out the other side 🙂
3. They don’t apologise for their mistakes
If you’re too afraid to open your mouth for fear of looking silly, you’ll slow down your language learning.
Successful language learners know that making mistakes is an essential part of the process, that works like this:
Have a go
Make a mistake (even if you risk looking silly)
Get a correction
Tell people you’re learning and bring along a good sense of humour. If you can laugh at your own mistakes, you’ll have fun with native speakers and get them on your side, which will make the conversation run a lot smoother.
Along the same lines, effective language learners aren’t afraid to admit that they don’t know something. Be curious and ask questions. People are normally happy to answer and you’ll learn a lot!
4. They don’t go to school
Successful language learners are independent learners. They prefer to take charge of their own learning and often don’t join group classes.
Why? Here are some disadvantages of learning a language in the classroom:
1. You have to study what the teacher decides, which may not be the same as what you want to learn or talk about.
2. If you have to listen to long explanations of things (sometimes in the second language) it’s easy to switch off and start wondering what you’re going to have for dinner.
3. Once or twice a week isn’t enough to make good progress in the language you’re learning. By the time the next lesson comes along, you’ve already forgotten everything you learned!
4. In groups the teaching often gets a bit diluted – it’s hard to get the personal attention you need to get error corrections and ask questions.
5. You don’t normally get enough speaking practice.
So what’s the alternative? Learning languages via self study, with textbooks, online courses and conversation classes online is a great option.
1. Focus on words and grammar that are most useful for you (you probably don’t need a list of kitchen appliances for casual conversations – more on this soon).
2. Study regularly (a little every day is better than a lot once a week)
4. Find a comfortable space away from distractions so you can really take in what you’re learning.
5. Practice speaking, whenever you have time and an internet connection.
Some successful language learners also go to classes. But in between lessons, they’re self starters, looking for methods they like, prioritising the words and phrases that are the most useful for them and creating opportunities to practice outside of class.
5. They don’t force themselves to do things they dislike
Do you ever feel like you just “can’t be bothered” to study a language? It can be tempting to think that if only you had more willpower, you’d be able to do it.
But successful language learners aren’t necessarily the ones with the most willpower. I’ve learned a few languages, but I’m terrible at most things that require willpower, like waking up early, going to the gym regularly or eating only one biscuit from the packet (if you know how, please share).
6. They don’t care if they don’t understand everything
Have you ever tried listening to or reading in a foreign language and felt frustrated by all the things you didn’t understand?
Sometimes foreign languages are a bit like maths: getting frustrated by the things you can’t figure out puts up a barrier, which makes it very difficult to learn. If you take a calm, “problem solving” approach, it’s a lot easier to take in the information you need to move forward.
You won’t understand everything, and that’s ok. Instead, have fun putting on your detective hat. Focus on the words and phrases you do know, and try to figure things out from there. It won’t always be easy, but if you come to the language with an inquiring mind, you’ll enjoy it more and learn faster.
7. They don’t try to learn everything
Sports, kitchen appliances, stationary, animals…
When was the last time you talked about windsurfing, pencils, elephants or sinks in a casual conversation at the bar? Lots of standard courses waste your time by teaching you a bunch of words that you don’t need yet. By focusing on the words you’re likely to use in casual conversations first, you’ll be able to start speaking sooner.
How do you know if a word is worth learning? Use the tomorrow test. Ask yourself: at my current level, can I imagine myself using this word or phrase in a conversation tomorrow? If the answer is yes, it’s worth learning. If not, let it go for now. I’ll come back around again when you’re ready.
Last but not least…
Successful language learners are also a teeny bit presumptuous. Not in a “I’m great” kind of way, but in a “I know I can do this” kind of way. They trust that if they put in the work, throw in a lot of patience and keep doing what they’re doing, they’ll end up speaking the language.
And if you adopt these 7 “bad” habits, you can too!
What about you?
Do you have any of the habits in the list? Or any other “bad” habits that make you good at learning a language? Let us know in the comment!
No wait, on Monday. Next month. In January. Once I’ve finished this or that.
There are lots of good reasons to fall out of learning a language: You might:
Be overwhelmed with work or home life = not enough time or energy.
Flirt with shiny objects: should I learn Spanish instead? Or take up running?
Prefer watching Nextflix, tidying the house or doing pretty much anything that isn’t sitting down and studying.
Check, check, check.
You don’t need more motivation or discipline
It’s happened to everyone, and will probably happen to us all again. I have a couple of superhuman students (the kind of people who wake up at 5am to train for a marathon or are able to only eat one biscuit from the packet) and even they fall off the language learning wagon at times.
And if the solution were “be more disciplined” or “have more motivation”, we’d all be doomed, because those moments when you fall out of learning a language are precisely those moments when you don’t have a lot.
So in this post, you’ll learn 9 ways to gently coax yourself back into learning a language, for those times when you worry that you might be lacking the time or discipline it takes to learn a language.
But first, a confession…
I fell out of learning Chinese
“I’ll start later” has been my motto for the last 6 months (actually, probably a few more, but who’s counting?) and my mission to learn Chinese has slipped way off track.
I’m stuck at basecamp on the Chinese mountain: the longer I wait, the higher the mountain seems and the less motivation I have to start climbing again.
How your mind can change mountains (even real ones!)
You probably know that your mind can shape your material world – for example, stress often leads to physical symptoms, like headaches or skin conditions.
But did you know that it can change the steepness of mountains?
In a series of studies, psychologist Dennis Proffitt and his collaborators (1) asked runners, varsity athletes and other university students to stand in front of a hill and guess how steep it was. They guessed in normal conditions and in situations that would make the climb more difficult, like after a 30 minute run, or while wearing a heavy backpack.
Can you guess what happened? When people found themselves in states that would make the ascent harder, they assumed that the slope was steeper. In other words, when you start at a disadvantage, your mind can play tricks on you and make you think the climb is more difficult than it actually is.
Change the mountain before you start to climb
Here are a few things that can make your language learning ascent seem really steep:
Forcing yourself to do things you don’t like
Expecting too much of yourself
Being busy, tired, overwhelmed, or generally not in a good brain space to dedicate time and energy to a personal project.
And let’s not forget the big one – the passing of time. At this point, the mountain feels so steep that the amount of discipline required to get back to learning a language becomes superhuman.
So instead of telling yourself to “try harder”, the real secret to getting started again is to make the ascent appear as gentle as possible, by getting rid of, or reducing some of these obstacles.
Let’s talk about 9 actionable ways to do that:
9 Gentle ways to get back into learning a language
1. Start with a clean slate
Has this ever happened to you?
You put it off, then you feel guilty about putting it off, then you keep putting it off.
You might imagine that feeling guilty would push you into taking action. But research suggests that beating yourself up actually makes you more likely to keep procrastinating (2).
So you had a long break.
It was just a little bump on the long and messy path to becoming fluent in a foreign language. Any big project that’s worth doing – like learning a language – will be full of tumbles. But they won’t stop you, as long as you get back to it and keep climbing.
Don’t dwell. Just dust your knees off and get back to it.
2. Make it really small (or really exciting)
Motivation is a bit like a snowball rolling down a mountain. Sometimes you just need to do something really small to get it going, then you’ll quickly get back into the swing of things.
That said, while this approach works for a lot of people a lot of the time (myself included), there are times when it doesn’t matter how small I make something, I still don’t do it. And I think part of the reason is that these teeny tiny goals aren’t exciting enough to jolt me into action.
After a long break, sometimes the opposite works – big, crazy language goals that light a fire under your behind and pull you into action. Things like:
Waking up early and practicing for a couple of hours before work.
Aiming to have a conversation with a native speaker after a few months.
Passing an advanced exam.
As with most things in life, there’s more than one right approach. It’s all about experimenting and finding the balance that feels right for you in this phase of your life.
3. Make it achievable
While very ambitious goals can be motivating, impossible ones are not.
If your long break means you can no longer hit the goals that you’ve set for yourself, now’s probably a good time to adjust them. For example, my original plan was to become fluent in Chinese by August. That’s just not going to happen, so I’m moving my deadline to the end of the year.
4. Prioritise fun
If there’s one thing that’ll make your language learning mountain seem higher than Everest, it’s trying to force yourself to do something that you don’t like.
There are so many different ways to learn a language these days that there’s absolutely no reason to torture yourself. If you hate studying grammar, or memorising vocabulary makes you sweat, try reading, listening to podcasts, watching TV etc.
You can look for materials for native speakers if you already have a high level, but these are often tricky to understand! If you’re not there yet, look for materials made for learners – short stories, podcasts and YouTube videos designed to help you learn the language. Here are a few posts with some ideas to get you started:
Playing video games in the language you’re learning.
Get a pedicure while you read something.
Go for a nice walk while you listen to a podcast.
Study in your favourite café.
Eat a few cookies while you learn…
Combining language learning with something a bit naughty that you don’t normally let yourself do, for example coffee, chocolate, alcohol or [insert your own vice here] can really help to get your bum in the seat.
The options are endless and what makes something a treat will be personal to you, so before we move on to the next point, pause for a moment and think about how you could make learning the language feel like a treat for you.
6. Shake it up
It’s difficult to get excited about going back to something if it feels old and stale. Come to think of it, could that be the reason you fell out of language learning in the first place?
Don’t feel like you have to finish every book or resource you start, I rarely do! If your old way is feeling a bit stale, try a few new things until you find something that you feel excited about using.
Just a little word of caution – beware of shiny object syndrome, a.k.a. collecting lots of new materials without actually using them. You don’t need to find the perfect course (it doesn’t exist!) you just need to find something you quite like the sound of, then start doing the work.
7. Surround yourself with the language
Imagine your friend just started a diet. Which of the following would you advise them to do?
Fill the fridge with…
Cheese and cake
Fruit, vegetables and other healthy food
Your environment can either work for or against you. It seems obvious when it comes to health, but the same goes for learning a language.
The more you surround yourself with the language, the more it becomes a part of you, to the point where getting back on the wagon feels like a natural progression. Here are a few suggestions:
Put post-its around the house with things you want to remember in the language you’re learning.
Change your internet homepage to a Youtube channel with tutorial videos.
If you use apps or a podcast, put them on the homescreen of your phone.
Change the language on your phone (but remember how to change it back just in case!).
Listen to music, the radio or podcasts in the language you’re learning, even if it’s just in the background.
Leave a book with short stories next to your sofa.
I’m sure you can think of more that would suit your life situation. Take a moment to write a list and if it takes less than two minutes, set up a couple right now. I’ll wait.
8. Be sociable
Research suggests that you’re more likely to reach your goals when you team up with a friend (3, 4).
This makes sense. When you know that you risk letting someone down, you’ll probably try harder to stick to your commitments. Also, it’s easy to believe your own excuses in your head, but when you have to say them outloud to another person, it forces you to think twice.
Not to mention, climbing the mountain is a lot more fun if you’re with people whose company you enjoy.
Here are a suggestions to make your language learning more sociable:
If you have friends who are learning the same language, you could meet in a café or pub to study together or practice speaking. You could also try starting a whatsapp group where you chat together in that language.
Connect with native speakers via an app such as HelloTalk.
Look for a conversation tutor that you get on well with. Regular practice with a person you enjoy talking to is probably one of the best ways to stay motivated, and learn a language in general.
If you’ve been feeling busy and burned out (or maybe you still are), you may need to make other changes before you’re in the right headspace to start learning a language again.
Your first mission is find some time in the day when you’re feeling relaxed and fresh enough to learn. Think about your schedule. Can you carve out 30 minutes? If that’s not possible, how about 3 chunks of 10 minutes? Or 6 chunks of 5 minutes?
Next, practice putting this time aside for you. Do whatever brings you joy – make a coffee, read the paper, phone a friend, listen to a podcast, watch Youtube videos, anything you like (I’d recommend avoiding social media in this time as it’s not particularly restful).
Keep this up for as long as you need. After a few days or weeks, you should find yourself feeling rested and ready to dedicate this time to learning a language.
It’s easy to feel frustrated when you fall off the language learning wagon, but the secret to getting back on is to be gentle with yourself. Choose activities you like, team up with people who make you feel good and make sure you’re well rested. Above all, give it time. It can take a few weeks before things start to feel normal again, but once you’re back in the routine, you’ll feel like you’ve never been away.
Over to you
Have you ever taken a long break from learning a language? How did you motivate yourself to get back to it?
1. Proffitt, D. (2006). Embodied Perception and the Economy of Action. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2. Wohl, M. J. A., Pychyl, T.A., & Bennett, S.H. (2010) I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences 3. Wing, R. R., & Jeffery, R. W. (1999). Benefits of recruiting participants with friends and increasing social support for weight loss and maintenance. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 4. Matthews, G. (2015). Goal Research Summary. 9th Annual International Conference of the Psychology Research Unit of Athens Institute for Education and Research
This is for you.
For all that time and ink you spent on word lists and verb tables.
The one who hears that there’s no point in learning a language “because everyone speaks English”. But you do it anyway, because you hate being that tourist.
To the young and middle aged men and women, doctors, lawyers, teachers, CEOs and pensioners. Well-spoken in your native language, yet willing to sound like a 2 year old in your new one. Because it means that much to connect with someone outside your little corner of the world.
For every time you forget a word or grammar point and think: “I should have known that”.
For the chances you had to speak, but chose not to. And beat yourself up for not being brave enough. Or the times you did speak, but it came out wrong. And beat yourself up for not being clever enough.
The ones who want to get closer to people with different skin colours and religions. Because speaking their language – even if it’s only a few words – is your way of showing them that they matter.
We’re all here with you, forgetting that word 27 times, making awkward mistakes and worrying that we don’t have the time, the motivation, the organisation, or the talent to learn a language either. And we’re still going.
Whether you’re multilingual or learning your first few words. We see you. And we need more people like you in the world.
Thank you. Merci. Grazie. Gracias. Danke. 谢谢。
p.s. If you’d like to thank someone you know who’s learning a language, send this their way or share it with your friends on social ❤️
Talking to native speakers.
Everyone knows it’s the best way to learn a foreign language. But there’s one problem with this method that no one talks about.
In the beginning, those native speakers may not want to talk to you.
When you start speaking a foreign language, it’s all mind blanks, silly mistakes and sounding like a 2-year-old, which makes communication slow and awkward.
It’s not you that’s the problem. You have to go through that stage if you want to speak a foreign language.
But you need the right people to practise with. Supportive ones who encourage you to speak and don’t make you feel embarrassed when you get stuck or make mistakes.
The best place to find these people?
Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to a conversational level in quite a few languages by practising with online tutors on a website called italki. In this post, I’ll show you how to do the same.
– Why learning with an online tutor is better than moving to the country.
– Tech guide: a step-by-step guide on how to get set up.
– How to find the right teacher and prepare for your first lesson.
– Conversation ideas: what to talk about at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.
– Lesson tips: how to survive (and enjoy!) your lessons and remember what you learn.
You’ll also find some goofy videos of me trying out these tactics in real life with different languages.
Ready to get fluent in any language without taking off your fluffy socks? Let’s go!
Why online tutors are better than being in the country
A few years ago, something odd happened.
Just as I was thinking about learning French, by complete coincidence, I ended up moving into an apartment with 2 French guys. The perfect opportunity, I thought. By the end of the year, I’ll be fluent!
Apart from a few cute phrases like “bonne nuit”, they didn’t want to talk to me in French. And I couldn’t blame them. I only knew a few words. Waiting for me to get a sentence out was like waiting for a glass of champagne to evaporate.
So I kept learning bits of French on my own. In Paris a couple of years later, I had the same problem. I’d try to say something in French, but everyone replied in English.
Italki: How online tutors solved my problem
At some point, I came across a website called italki, where I could find native French tutors and pay them to talk to me on Skype for a whole hour, which cost around $10.
I had finally found a way to speak French and bypass all the awkwardness. The tutors knew I was a beginner – and I was paying them to help – so the whole thing felt more comfortable. I was free to work through my “sounding like a 2-year-old stage”, without feeling like a burden. As I spoke, my tutors taught me new words and corrected my mistakes.
I stuck with it and ended up being able to speak French.
Not perfectly, but pretty well considering I’ve never lived there. I’ve since passed one of the highest level French exams and now when I go to France, I don’t get Englished anymore because my French is often better than their English. I even got to enjoy a pretty woman moment – the look on my old flatmates’ faces when they heard me speaking French for the first time!
italki was magic for me, so I decided to use it to learn a few other languages too.
With online tutors, learning a language is actually easier from home than it is in the country. When I went to Germany, I had no one to practise with. It felt awkward starting a conversation with a stranger, which I imagined would go something like this:
The fastest (and most enjoyable way) to learn a language is with regular 1-on-1 speaking practice. Online tutors are perfect because it’s so easy – you can do a lesson whenever suits and from wherever you have an internet connection, which makes it simple to stick to regular lessons.
I’ve teamed up with italki and I couldn’t be happier to recommend them because it will be the best thing you ever do to speak a foreign language. If you book your lesson through any of the links on this page, you’ll get $10 off (which could add up to a free lesson) after your first purchase.
Tech guide: a step-by-step guide to set up your first italki lesson
To get set by watching this quick tutorial on how to use the italki platform.
Fill in your details, including which language you’re learning.
Once you get to the main italki screen, you’ll see your profile with your upcoming lessons. At the moment it says 0, so let’s go ahead and set one up!
Click on “find a teacher”
Here, you’ll find filters like “price”, “availability” and “specialities”. Set these to fit in with your budget, schedule and learning goals.
Explore the teacher profiles and watch the introduction videos to find a teacher you’d enjoy working with.
Click on “book now” and you’ll see their lesson offers.
What’s informal tutoring?
When choosing your lessons, you’ll often see “informal tutoring”, which is a pure conversation class. These kinds of lessons are great value because the tutor doesn’t have to prepare anything beforehand. They just join you on Skype and start chatting.
Booking your first italki lesson
Once you’ve chosen the kind of lesson you’d like, choose the time that suits you and voilà, you’ve just booked your first lesson with an online tutor! Well done – I know it can feel a little intimidating at first, but creating opportunities to practise is the absolute most important thing you can do if you want to learn to speak a language.
What’s the difference between professional tutors and community tutors?
When choosing a teacher, you’ll also see a filter called “teacher type” and the option to choose between professional teachers and community tutors. What’s the difference?
Professional Teachers on italki
Professional teachers are qualified teachers vetted by italki – they have to upload their teaching certificate to gain this title. These classes tend to be more like “classic language lessons”. The teacher will take you through a structured course, preparing lessons beforehand and teaching you new grammar and vocabulary during each lesson.
1. If you’re a total beginner.
2. You’re not sure where to start and you’d like guidance from an expert.
Community tutors are native speakers who offer informal tutoring, where the focus is 100% on conversation skills. They’ll give you their undivided attention for an hour while you try to speak and they’ll help by giving you words and corrections you need to get your point across.
1. If you’ve already spent some time learning the theory and you feel like you’re going round in circles. You need to put it into practice!
2. You’re happy to take control of your own learning by suggesting topics and activities you’d like to try.
3. You’re on a budget – these classes are usually super good value – sometimes less than $10 per hour.
If both of those options are out of budget, you can also use italki to find a language partner, which is free – you find a native speaker of the language you’re learning who also wants to learn your native language and you teach each other.
An important tip for finding the right tutor
Feel free to experiment with a few different tutors until you find one you click with. When you find a tutor you get along well with, they end up becoming like friends – you’ll look forward to meeting them and be motivated to keep showing up to your lessons. Here’s an example of me and my Spanish tutor talking about exactly that!
How to prepare for your first lesson
Spending a little time preparing will allow you to focus during the lesson and get as much out of it as possible. In this section, you’ll find some suggestions about how to do just that.
Learn the basic pleasantries
Hello, goodbye, please, sorry and thank you will take you a long way!
Learn basic communication phrases
It’s important to try and speak in the language as much as possible, without switching back into English. Those moments when you’re scrambling for words and it feels like your brain’s exploding – that’s when you learn the most!
To help you do this, learn these phrases to help you keep the conversation going, even when you get stuck.
1. How do you say [+ word you want to say]. e.g. How do you say “book”
2. What does that mean?
3. Sorry, I didn’t understand.
4. Can you repeat please?
5. Can you speak slower please?
In the following posts, you’ll find these phrases in French, Spanish and Italian.
If you’re not sure where to find these phrases in the language you’re learning, you could spend the first lesson asking your online tutor to translate them for you (and write them down), so you have them handy for future lessons.
I once did a whole half hour lesson in Slovak on italki with only these phrases. I didn’t even memorise them beforehand, I just stuck them on a post-it on my computer. Here’s a little snippet (apologies for the dodgy sound).
I couldn’t speak a word of Slovak before the lesson (which is why it was kind of slow and awkward!), but with these phrases, I managed to keep the conversation mostly in Slovak for 30 minutes. I was able to ask for the words I needed, find out what certain words meant, and request the teacher to repeat/speak more slowly. It’s easy to see how persevering with the language in this way can lead to being able to speak the language over time. In fact, this is how I started with all of the languages I speak now!
Start with these basic communication phrases and you’ll be surprised how quickly you’re able to speak the language for a whole half hour.
Learn internet phrases
As you’ll be chatting over the internet, it also helps to learn phrases like:
The connection isn’t good.
Can you hear/see me?
I can’t hear/see you.
Learn checking phrases
Michel Thomas once compared learning a foreign language to tennis. When you attempt to say something, sometimes you’ll get it over the net and the listener will understand. But you won’t get it over the net all the time, and that’s ok. If you did, your tutor would be out of a job!
For this reason, it helps to learn some checking phrases, so you can get feedback about whether you said it right or not. Here are some examples of handy phrases to learn so you can check:
– Did I say it right? – Can you say it like that?
Remember, your tutor is there to help and will be more than happy to answer these kinds of questions.
Handy hint: the best thing about doing lessons on the internet is that you don’t have to worry about mind blanks – you can pin these phrases to your computer and read them when you need them. By force of repetition, you’ll find them rolling off your tongue after the first few lessons.
Conversation ideas: what to talk about at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels
Beginner and beyond
1. Simple questions
Before the class, prepare a list of simple questions, like:
Where do you live?
What job do you do?
What are your hobbies?
What’s your favourite food?
What time is it there?
Prepare your own answers to these questions too, so you’ll be able to use them in conversation (you can keep them with you on a piece of paper next to your computer, just in case you get stuck).
When preparing your questions and answers, you can use phrasebooks/websites and even google translate to help – it comes out with some funky things sometimes, but your teacher will be able to help you correct any mistakes during the lesson.
2. About me
Before the lesson, tell your tutor that you’d like to write a simple paragraph with very basic information about yourself – the kind of things people will ask you over and over. You can work on it together in class and then record your teacher reading it aloud. This way you can listen to it and learn it off by heart so you’ll have those answers ready when you get into conversations.
3. Work on your textbook together
How about working through a beginner’s course/textbook with your online tutor? You can work through the chapter at home before the lesson, then talk about the topics together. For example, if the chapter is about eating out, you can learn some useful phrases to describe food and restaurants and practise using them with your online tutor. This will add some much-needed speaking practise to the course, and help them stick in your mind so you can use them in future conversations.
Lists are easy to write and are great conversation starters! Here are some ideas of lists you could write in the language you’re learning:
5 things you like
5 things you hate
3 places you’ve been to
3 things you’ve eaten recently
3 friends in your life
4 films you love
6 places you’d like to visit
The list is endless! (apologies for the pun)
You can send your list to your online tutor before the lesson, or share it with them at the beginning. The conversation that develops from these lists will help you learn valuable phrases for talking about your everyday life.
Beginner tip: When you’re just starting out, little and often is best. I’d suggest starting with half-hour lessons so you don’t get overwhelmed. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll be able to fill that half hour speaking the language!
Intermediate to advanced
1. Elaborated lists
They may seem simple, but lists are great conversation starters, even at intermediate level and beyond. They help you get past the blank page syndrome and give you fun things to talk about in class. At intermediate level and beyond, you can challenge yourself by choosing more complex lists and writing more details. Try writing a page in your notebook about one of the following things:
5 things I noticed today
2 conversation snippets I overheard yesterday
3 bits of gossip I heard this week
2 mistakes I’ve made (and what I learned from them)
3 things I love and hate about my job
3 things I’d change about myself if I could
4 things that make me happy
I’m sure you can think of more along the same lines! During the lesson, you can ask your online tutor to help you correct your mistakes and then start chatting about your list. Here’s an example of one I sent to my teacher in Spanish:
If you don’t have time to prepare, you can also find lists of conversation starters online, which make for a fun lesson. Try searching “interesting questions” in the language you’re learning on google, and you should find some good ones. In this video, you can see us chatting about this list of Spanish conversation questions I found on the internet.
2. What are you passionate about?
Photography, travel, sport, politics… What do you like to talk about in your native language? The great thing about intermediate level is that you can start to try discussing these topics in the language you’re learning. To get the conversation started, you can either:
1. Prepare a list of questions (and maybe take notes on how you’d like to answer, so you can learn important vocabulary that will help you speak in the lesson).
2. Find simple content about the topic you like – blog posts, news articles, podcasts, YouTube videos etc. Share it with your tutor so you can both read/listen to it before the lesson, and chat about it together in class.
If you’re learning one of the following languages, these posts are a good place to find resources.
Probably my favourite (and most useful!) activity for conversation classes. Take some words you’ve learned recently and use them to write questions that you’ll discuss during your lesson.
This way, as you chat about your answers you’ll end up saying the new words over and over, which will help them stick in your brain.
Here’s the list of the questions I wrote before the lesson. You can see the words I’ve learnt recently underlined at the top and the example question below.
4. Talk about entertainment
Finally, at more advanced levels, you can try reading a book or watching a TV series and discuss each chapter/episode with your tutor. You can also try writing a summary about what you watched/read, so your teacher can help you correct it in class before you start chatting. This will help you learn some useful vocabulary for the conversation.
Handy hint: don’t feel like you have to be super prepared all the time. Often, I forget/don’t have time to do all this stuff – I just rock up unprepared and start trying to chat. Any speaking is always better than no speaking!
During the conversation: how to make the most out of your italki lessons
Here are some things to keep in mind during your lesson:
Chatbox: The Skype chatbox is your friend. If you don’t understand something, or your tutor teaches you a new word, ask them to write it for you in the chat. These will become your notes that you can revise from after the lesson.
Example sentences: When you learn new words, ask your tutor to give you an example sentence. This will allow you to understand how the word is used in sentences and communicate more smoothly.
Prioritise: Don’t try to learn everything. When something new comes up, ask yourself if it’s useful in your life now. If the answer is yes, ask your tutor to type an example sentence in the chatbox so you can remember it later. If not, just let it go for now.
When you say something and you’re not sure if it’s right, check with your tutor. Remember to learn phrases like: Is that right? Do you say it like that? and use them often in class.
Ask your tutor to correct you and thank them when they do. Getting feedback from mistakes is how you learn, so it’s important to make sure that your tutor feels comfortable correcting you, and isn’t worried about offending you.
Don’t take yourself so seriously. You will mess up – a lot at the beginning – so you might as well have fun with it. The sooner you can learn to laugh at yourself, the easier you’ll find it to learn a language. Here’s an example of me making a goofy mistake in Chinese.
Remember, things will be slow and awkward for a while, it’s a normal stage that everyone goes through. Stick with it until words and phrases start to come to you automatically. With enough practice, they will.
How to remember what you learn in your italki lessons
So you’ve finished your lesson and you’ve got your notes in the chatbox. How can you make sure you remember all that stuff?
I use an app called memrise, which makes memorising new words and phrases into a fun game (and drills them into your brain!) Here’s how it works.
If you’re more of a pen and paper person, you can make a similar quiz for yourself in your notebook. Just draw a line down the middle, write the question/definition on the left side, and the word you’re trying to remember on the right. Cover up the right side with your hand, try to remember the word, then move your hand and check to see if the answer was right.
Here are a few more activities to help you remember what you learn in your lessons:
Quiz: Ask your teacher to quiz you on what you learnt last lesson – the words are already there in the chat, so they can just scroll up and quiz you. And if you know you’ve got the quiz coming up, you’ll be more likely to study!
Review: Go over any grammar points/vocabulary that came up. Think about when you might use them in real life and write example sentences. You can ask your tutor to help you check them in the next lesson.
Record: Ask your tutor if you can record your lesson, then turn it into an mp3 and relisten to it as you go about your day.
Ready to start?
I hope you’re feeling inspired to start working with an online tutor. Before you do, I have a little confession to make. I don’t do all of this stuff all the time. I do it sometimes, and it works well enough. While it’s true that taking time to prepare beforehand and review afterwards will help you get more out of your lessons, don’t get overwhelmed. Just start with one idea you like and go from there.
If you’d like to take lessons with any of the tutors I mention in this post, once you’ve signed up to italki, you can find them by going to “find a teacher” and typing their names into the search box.
Over to you
Have you ever done lessons with italki? How did it go? Do you have any other ideas to make the most of your lessons with online tutors?
Why are some people good at learning languages?
Or not so good?
Is it motivation, memory or experience?
These things can make a difference. But many of the people I know who speak several languages also share certain personality traits that seem to make language learning easier for them.
What are they, and can you cultivate them to learn a language better?
Today’s guest, professor Tim Keeley, is an expert on how personality type and emotions can affect your success in language learning.
In this interview, Tim talks about:
Why certain personality types are better – or worse – at learning foreign languages.
The tiny, almond-shaped part of your brain that makes a big difference to how you learn.
How to develop the character traits that will help you learn a language.
Why it’s ok – and normal – to make beginners’ mistakes, even at advanced levels.
As well as knowing a lot about the psychology behind how people learn languages, Tim speaks a baffling number of languages himself (watch the beginning to find out how many!) – if you’re looking for inspiration and practical ideas to boost your language learning, Tim Keeley’s your man.
How to become emotionally resilient and learn languages more easily
Good news: with practice, you can cultivate more emotional resilience and become better at learning languages. In this section, Tim gives tips on how to feel calmer when speaking a foreign language, so that more learning can happen.
Having a conversation in Spanish can feel scary at first.
There are so many things that could go wrong!
You forget a word or some grammar mid-sentence.
You don’t understand what they said to you.
They reply in English!
You’re not sure what to say.
When you start speaking Spanish, these little communication breakdowns are a normal part of the learning process.
But if you’re smart, you can turn these seemingly tricky moments into opportunities to learn more, by using a few strategic Spanish phrases.
In this post, you’ll learn 13 Spanish phrases to help you:
Keep the conversation going in Spanish, even if you forget a word or don’t understand.
Learn more Spanish words.
Stop people from replying in English.
Strike up a conversation with native Spanish speakers.
You’ll also pick up tips on where to find Spanish speakers to practise with.
Smart Spanish Phrases Help you Keep the Conversation Going
You walk into a panadería (bakery) and see a tasty pastry, but you’re not sure what it’s called. You have two options. You can:
Point and say: “one of those please”.
Point and say: “Cómo se dice eso en español? (how do you say that in Spanish?)
The first phrase will keep you stuck in touristville.
Option 2 will help you strike up a conversation with a Spanish speaker and learn a new Spanish word at the same time. Most Spanish speakers will welcome this kind of curiosity – once you start a conversation like this, you’ll probably end up chatting for a little longer, giving you a friendly way to keep practising your Spanish.
The more you use Spanish phrases like this, the longer you can keep the conversation going. And the longer you can keep the conversation going, the better you’ll get at speaking Spanish.
That’s why I’ve teamed up with Juan from Easy Spanish (a fab YouTube channel for Spanish learners) to bring you 13 essential Spanish phrases.
In the next section, you’ll find a video tutorial with 6 Spanish phrases to help you get unstuck and communicate better in Spanish.
Then, you’ll find 7 basic Spanish phrases for everyday conversations. For this part, Juan went out onto the streets of Mexico and posed simple questions to passers-by. In this video, you’ll hear Spanish small talk questions being used in a natural way and learn to understand the replies you might get from native speakers.
Of course, you’ll also need Spanish speakers to practise with – the last section will help you find them.
How do you say… in Spanish? (Literally: How does one say … in Spanish)
To be used when you’re speaking Spanish, but you get stuck because you don’t know – or forget – a word.
In the video, Juan used the example of “tree” (¿Cómo se dice “tree” en español?) – you can just replace “tree” with any word you need to know.
You can also point and say: ¿Cómo se dice eso en español? (how do you say that in Spanish?)
Spanish Phrase 2: ¿Qué significa eso?
What does that mean?
To be used when you hear or see a word you don’t understand. It’s especially useful in restaurants – just point to the word on the menu and ask the waiter!
When you ask this question in Spanish, you’ll be more likely to get an answer in Spanish, which will help you keep the conversation going. But even if they use English to give you the definition, it’s still a good way to show your conversation partner that you’re making an effort to speak Spanish. This makes it easier to go back to Spanish once you get unstuck.
Spanish Phrase 3: Lo siento, no entendí
Sorry, I didn’t understand.
A word of warning: try not to use this phrase in isolation because Spanish people may interpret it as a cry for help and switch back to English. Be sure you follow it up with another Spanish phrase, like:
¿Puedes repetirlo, por favor? Can you repeat please?
¿Puedes hablar más lento, por favor? Can you speak slower please?
When you use these phrases, the person you’re talking will know exactly how to help you, so they’ll be less likely to jump in and use English.
You can also say: “Disculpa, no entiendo” – sorry, I don’t understand. In situations where the formal version would be more appropriate (such as a hotel reception) say “Disculpe, no entiendo.”
Spanish Phrase 4: ¿Puedes repetirlo, por favor?
Can you repeat, please? (Literally: can you repeat it, please?)
When you just need to hear the phrase again. In formal situations, you can ask: “Podría repetirlo, por favor?” Could you repeat please?
If they repeat and you’re still having trouble understanding, try to identify the problem and ask another question:
Speaking too fast? Ask: “¿Puedes hablar más lento, por favor?” –Can you speak slower, please?
A word you don’t recognise? Ask: ¿Qué significa eso? – What does that mean?
Spanish Phrase 5: ¿Puedes hablar más lento, por favor?
Can you speak slower, please?
For those times when the Spanish speaker is going at 100mph and you’re struggling to keep up!
A more formal version of this phrase is: ¿Podría hablar más despacio, por favor? – Could you speak more slowly please?
Spanish Phrase 6: ¿Podemos hablar en español, por favor?
Can we speak in Spanish, please?
This phrase is perfect for those frustrating moments when you manage to say something in Spanish, but they reply in English!
If the person seems friendly (and not too busy), simply explain that you’re learning and ask if they would speak Spanish with you. With this phrase, you’ll find that many people are happy to chat to you for a little while in Spanish.
A more formal version of this phrase is: ¿Podríamos hablar en español, por favor? – Could we speak in Spanish please?
7 Basic Spanish Phrases for Everyday Conversations
Now you’ve learnt a few key phrases to help you communicate, time for some Spanish phrases to get the conversations started! In this video, Juan went out onto the streets of Mexico and asked some simple small talk questions.
In the meantime, let’s look at some of the phrases Juan used to start everyday conversations in Spanish. You can download a PDF with these phrases here: 13 Essential Spanish Phrases PDF.
Spanish Phrase 7: Hola ¿cómo estás?
Hello, how are you?
Spanish Phrase 8: ¿Cuál es tu nombre?
What’s your name?
Alternatively, you can ask: “¿Cómo te llamas?” – What are you called?
Spanish Phrase 9: Mucho gusto
Pleased to meet you
You can also say: “Encantado” or “Un placer”
Spanish Phrase 10: ¿Qué hiciste hoy?
What did you do today?
Alternatively, if you want to ask someone what they’re going to do in the future, you can say: “¿Qué vas a hacer?”.
Spanish Phrase 11: ¿Qué me recomiendas…?
What do you recommend….
Great for getting recommendations from the locals for places to eat and visit etc. You can ask: ¿Qué me recomiendas comer por aquí? What do you recommend to eat around here?
If you’re speaking to a group (2 or more people) say: “¿Qué me recomiendan…?”
Spanish Phrase 12: ¿Qué se te antoja hacer…?
What do you feel like doing?
Spanish Phrase 13: Hasta luego
See you later! Other Spanish phrases you can use when you’re leaving include: “Ten una linda noche” – have a nice night and “Cuídate” – take care.
13 Spanish Phrases to ace your first conversation
Let’s quickly review our 13 Spanish phrases.
¿Cómo se dice… en español? How do you say … in Spanish?
¿Qué significa eso? What does that mean?
Lo siento, no entendí. Sorry, I didn’t understand.
¿Puedes repetirlo, por favor? Can you repeat please?
¿Puedes hablar más lento, por favor? Can you speak slower, please?
¿Podemos hablar en español, por favor? Can we speak in Spanish, please?
Hola ¿cómo estás? Hello, how are you?
¿Cuál es tu nombre? What’s your name?
Mucho gusto. Pleased to meet you
¿Qué hiciste hoy? What did you do today?
¿Qué me recomiendas…? What do you recommend…?
¿Qué se te antoja hacer…? What do you feel like doing?
Hasta luego. See you later.
Next, it’s time to practise using them!
Where can I find Spanish people to talk to?
If you’re one of those people who feels confident enough to walk up to Spanish speakers and start talking, ¡muy bien!
But this approach doesn’t work for lots of people.
It can be tricky to speak Spanish with people you meet randomly (in shops, restaurants or on the train) because these people are just going about their day – they’re not there to help you learn Spanish. This puts unnecessary pressure on you to be able to have a normal conversation.
A great (non scary) way to practise speaking Spanish is to set up a “learning agreement” with Spanish speakers. These are situations where the Spanish speaker knows you’re learning and has agreed to help you. This could be:
A language exchange partner: Find a Spanish person who’s learning your native language – they can help you practice speaking Spanish while you help them speak your native language.
A conversation tutor: Meet a native Spanish speaker (online or in person) for conversation practice and pay them in exchange for their time.
These options take the pressure off because you’re giving the Spanish speaker something in return for their time so you don’t need to feel embarrassed if the conversation is a bit stilted (totally normal at first!)
Also, they know you’re learning, so they’re expecting you to speak slowly and make mistakes. You can even take some tools with you to make the conversation easier, such as a notebook, a dictionary app on your phone and this Spanish phrases cheatsheet.
So where can you find some lovely Spanish speakers to chat with?
The best place to find native Spanish speakers online is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors. They are usually pretty good value (often less than $10 an hour).
If you fancy giving it a go, here’s a $10 voucher to use after you book your first lesson here:
If you find it hard to practice Spanish because you’re busy, this is a great option – you can squeeze a lesson in whenever you have a spare 30 minutes, from wherever you are (all you need is an Internet connection).
Alternatively, if lessons are too expensive for you at the moment, you can also use italki to set up an online language exchange with a Spanish speaker.
Face to Face
If you’d prefer to connect with Spanish speakers face to face, you can set up an in-person language exchange, at a café or pub near you. Here are a couple of tools that will help you find Spanish speakers in your area.
One word of advice – when doing language exchanges, be sure to divide the time equally (e.g. 30 minutes in each language) and be strict about sticking to it so that you both get a fair chance to practice. Remember to ask:
Podemos hablar en español, por favor? (Can we speak in Spanish please?)
If you’re planning on travelling to a country where Spanish is spoken, you can use these tools to meet the locals. By setting up language exchanges in the places you visit, you’ll get to practise speaking Spanish with natives who can show you their favourite spots – a Spanish teacher and local tour guide rolled into one!
What about you?
Can you add any other handy Spanish phrases to the list? Let us know in the comments!
You know those “Giovanni checks into a hotel” style dialogues you find in most Italian textbooks?
They’re ok if you want to pick up a few polite phrases for travelling. But not so great if you want to actually have conversations with Italians.
Firstly, they’re not very exciting, so it takes a lot of willpower to use them consistently. And perhaps more importantly, because Italians don’t talk like that in real life.
If you want to understand Italians – and talk like them – the best way is to practise listening to Italians talking in real situations.
Luckily, in 2019 you don’t need to go to Italy to do it. You can create your own little immersion by watching Italian YouTube channels (and go down the YouTube rabbit hole guilt-free because you’re learning Italian at the same time!)
Why you should watch Italian YouTube channels to learn Italian
Also, as they’re real human beings, they’re interesting to watch – they can get quite addictive which is great for your Italian!
Finally, many of them come with Italian subtitles, an invaluable resource for going deeper into your Italian study. Native speakers don’t come with subtitles in real life but YouTube is the next best thing – once you’ve listened, you can go back and read the Italian subtitles to look up new words and grammar points.
Some channels also have subtitles in both Italian and English so you can switch between the two and check that you’ve understood. If you need a little help finding the subtitles, there’s a mini-tutorial on how to use YouTube subtitles in different languages at the end of this post.
Once you’ve got subtitles on YouTube, there are tons of different activities you can do to get the most out of the video and learn loads of Italian. For some ideas about how to use these videos to improve your Italian skills, check out in this post with 5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films:
But first, let’s get into the best Italian YouTube channels to help you learn Italian.
Italian YouTube Channels for Beginners
Italy Made Easy
Manu is a native Italian based in Australia. In his videos, he explains concepts clearly and has a great understanding of the kinds of problems you’re likely to come up against when you start learning Italian. He’s also a polyglot (he speaks several foreign languages himself) and gives tips on how to learn Italian.
Although he’s in our beginner section, Manu has videos that go right up to advanced level, so you can keep learning with him as your Italian gets better.
Italian Pod101 is great for picking up some basics. Importantly, they give lots of natural examples so you can see how to use the words and phrases in real life.
One World Italiano
Veronica is the bubbly Italian teacher behind One World Italiano. Her videos are entirely in Italian so they’re towards the more difficult end of our beginner section, but she speaks in a slow and clear style. If you struggle to understand the audio, you can use the Italian subtitles to read along and look up any words you don’t know. The One World Italiano channel has a variety of levels, so you can start with the beginner videos and work your way up.
On the LearnAmo channel, you’ll find mini-tutorials on Italian grammar, culture, expressions and commonly confused words. LearnAmo’s videos are 100% in Italian, so they’re not for complete beginners, however, they talk clearly, which makes them perfect for making your first steps into listening to natural Italian. Some videos have subtitles in both English and Italian, so you can listen in Italian first then switch to English to check your understanding.
Italian YouTube Channels for Intermediate Learners
On the Easy Languages YouTube channel, we go out onto the streets of Italy and pose questions to passers-by. It’s a great way to get up close to Italian culture and get used to hearing natives speak in a natural and spontaneous way.
To help you follow along, there are big subtitles in Italian and smaller ones in English. Quick tip: try covering the English subtitles with a piece of paper while you listen the first few times, so you can get used to figuring out the meaning from the Italian.
With her calm and clear teaching style, Valeria of Your Italian Teacher makes mini-tutorial videos on Italian grammar, vocabulary, and phrases. She speaks Italian at a natural pace, which is great for training your listening. The majority of her videos focus on native-sounding phrases and details that foreign students often get wrong, so they’re perfect for refining your Italian once you can already speak it at a basic level.
Rome-based Lucrezia Oddone’s love for her native language is contagious! On her YouTube channel, you’ll find grammar tips, handy phrases, Q&As and language learning tips. Her vlogs are especially lovely to watch because she brings you out onto the streets of Italy – it’s almost like being there yourself!
Most of Lucrezia’s videos are entirely in Italian so it’s great for getting the immersion experience. She usually adds manual subtitles to her videos so you can be sure that you’re reading correct Italian, without having to have to worry about the confusing mistakes that can sometimes pop up in the autogenerated ones.
Alberto from Italian Automatico set up his YouTube channel for “people who already have some knowledge about grammar and vocabulary but they can’t speak well, or they can’t speak at all…” He creates super interesting videos in Italian with the help of a special guest, his lovely nonna! His unique approach to learning Italian is focused on listening and speaking without obsessing over the grammar, which is something I can totally get on board with.
Now you’re at an advanced level, you can kick back and watch videos for native speakers. You’ll probably still come across bits and pieces that are tricky to understand (still happens to me and I’ve been living in Italy for over 6 years!). For this reason, here you’ll find 6 Italian YouTube channels with subtitles, so you can go back and read any bits you miss.
Fiorella from Sgrammaticando started her YouTube channel to clarify grammar points for Italians (yep, even Italians need help with their own grammar sometimes!), but as her channel grew, she realised that she also had lots of Italian learners in her audience. In her fun and friendly style, she answers FAQs and gives tutorials to help both Italians and Italian learners avoid common mistakes and “defend themselves” from the common traps of the Italian language.
With over 1 million subscribers, Fan Page is one of the most popular YouTube channels in Italy. Here you’ll find social commentaries, interviews, investigative journalism, and pranks. One of the things that makes Fan Page so popular is their ability to show current affairs and Italian culture with a personal touch – like this “letter from Neapolitans to migrants in difficulty.”
Or this reportage on the meeting between vice-president Salvini and Gino Sorbillo, a famous pizza chef who has spoken out against Salvini’s right wing policies.
Wild at Earth
In her fun travel channel, Italian globetrotter Mery takes you around the world and documents her experiences in her native language. In addition to classic travel guides, she talks about interesting challenges she faces while travelling, such as living in a 14 square meter apartment.
Luca Lampariello is an Italian polyglot who gives advice on how to learn a language on his popular YouTube channel. A few of his videos are in his native language, so you can pick up tips on how to learn a language and practise your Italian listening at the same time!
People often say that if you can understand humor in the language you’re learning, you know the language well. In that case, you can put your Italian to the test by watching the Jackal – probably the most popular alternative comedy YouTube channel in Italy.
Some of their videos have subtitles in both Italian and English, which means you can start with Italian and switch to English every now and then, just to make sure you’ve understood everything. And they have lovely Neapolitan accents – perfect for getting some exposure to regional varieties of Italian.
Get started with this video: 10 things you didn’t know about Italians (maybe you didn’t want to know but we’ll tell you anyway)
If you’re hoping to speak Italian like a native speaker, why not learn to cook like one too? There are lots of Italian cooking channels on YouTube where you can get recipes and tips from Italian chefs – ecco an example of an original carbonara recipe from the Cook Around YouTube channel with subtitles in Italian.
How to use subtitles with Italian YouTube videos
How to turn them on
To turn on YouTube subtitles, click the little white box in the bottom right-hand corner.
I’d recommend listening without subtitles first so you can train your listening (native speakers don’t come with subtitles in real-life, sadly!), then watch again with subtitles so you can catch what you missed and look up new words.
If you’re lucky, you might find a video with Italian AND English subtitles. This is handy for when you understand the words in Italian, but you’re still not quite sure what the whole sentence means – you can switch over to English and see how the pros translated it.
To switch languages, click on the little cog button at the bottom right-hand corner.
Then click on Subtitles/CC and you’ll see all the available languages.
What about you?
Which of these Italian YouTube channels do you like the most? Do you know any other good Italian YouTube channels that we missed? Let us know in the comments!
Looking at people who’d already done it, I worked out that it’d probably take me around 1500 hours. If I wanted to do it in 2 years, I’d need to study for around 2 hours a day.
156 days later, I should have done around 312 hours.
So far, I’m on 147.
I’m already way behind schedule, and it’s all because of one little word.
It’s the busiest day of the week. And the reason I’m publishing this New Year’s post on the 12th of January.
And it could be the reason you’re not as far ahead with your language learning as you’d like to be.
If you’re one of those people who keeps telling yourself you’ll start tomorrow (and never getting around to it), keep reading. If you don’t cure your tomorrow-itus now, in December you’ll look back and realise that another year has passed. And you still don’t speak that language as well as you could.
We don’t want that for you!
In this post, you’ll learn a 2-step plan to stop tomorrowing yourself and make 2019 the year you learn a language.
Why “tomorrow” is toxic for language learning
Busy projects, problems at work, vacations, guests. Over the last few months, I’ve had some great excuses to put off learning Chinese until tomorrow.
One little day – it seemed innocent enough. Until I looked back over the last few months and realised that all those tomorrows had added up and I was way off schedule.
Progress (or deterioration) is usually an accumulation of small actions taken over time. Take smoking for example. One little cigarette won’t kill you, but the cumulative effect over a lifetime could.
Missing one study session won’t stop you from learning a language, but putting it off every day will.
Most people focus on today and underestimate the cumulative consequences of their actions (or lack of actions) over time. But if you tomorrow yourself enough, one day you’ll look back over your life and realise you never did any of the cool stuff you planned.
The tried-and-tested plan to stop putting off learning a language
Although I’m definitely one of those people who tends to put things off, there are a few times when I haven’t done this. Like last year, when I managed to go from intermediate to advanced French in a few months. Or recently, when I finished a presentation a whole week before the deadline.
These goals had two things in common, that were missing from my Chinese plan.
They were short-term
Other people knew about them
For my French mission, I booked myself in for the DALF exam a few months away. I could feel the exam date approaching so I knew I couldn’t get away with putting it off. And, as I’d already talked about it on the blog, it would have been embarrassing not to go through with it!
For my presentation, I had a meeting with the reviewer a week before the conference. He was relying on me, so I made sure it got done.
When I made my Chinese plan, I forgot to include short-term goals. And being as I didn’t have a short-term goal, no one was watching to make sure I did it. It was easy to keep lying to myself and tell myself I’d do it tomorrow.
Recently, I’ve adjusted my plan to account for these two steps and I’m getting loads more done.
1. Set short-term goals
I’ve broken my plan down. I’m now aiming to do 65 hours a month, which translates to around 16 hours a week.
This includes downtime activities, like listening to podcasts and watching Chinese TV (even though I don’t understand a lot yet!) and stuff I do on the go, such as revising vocabulary on my flashcard app on the subway or in line at the supermarket.
I know 16 hours a week is loads, so please don’t let that put you off! You can start with any number that fits in well with your life. 15 focused minutes a day is enough to see tangible progress over the year.
2. Check in with a friend
I’ve teamed up with a friend, who I check in with every day. The system is simple: for every hour of Chinese I do, I send him an emoji on WhatsApp. If I stop sending emojis, he knows I’m slacking off and after a while, it gets embarrassing. I’m peer-pressuring myself to stay on track – and it’s working!
The 2-step plan to make sure you learn a language this year
1. Set yourself some short term goals
Choose a short-term goal that you like the sound of. This could be a language exam, a trip to the country or simply the number of hours per month/week that you’re going to spend learning the language. Actually, even if you choose a goal like an exam or trip, you should probably decide on the number of hours you’re going to study each month/week anyway, as this will help you stay on track (see next step).
And when I say “learning” this doesn’t have to be boring stuff like studying from a grammar book or memorising vocabulary. If you’re going to be spending so much time learning a language, you might as well enjoy it! Here are a few posts that will help you find fun ways to learn a language.
Find a friend to check in with each day/week to make sure you’re staying on track. The simpler the system, the better. Sending a thumbs up emoji or a “done” message works well.
If you can’t think of anyone to do this with in real life, there are people online who can help! Try joining the Language Diary Challenge Facebook Group – they’re a friendly bunch so you should easily find like-minded language learners to team up with.
Before you go…
It’s possible that these ideas aren’t new to you. But there’s a big difference between knowing about this stuff and actually doing it. Although I knew about these ideas, I wasn’t applying them, which is why I fell behind with my Chinese mission. If you think these ideas could help you, think about practical ways you can apply them to your life and start doing them asap.
How about you?
Do you have a habit of tomorrowing yourself? Do you have any other strategies to stop yourself from putting things off? Share them in the comments!
Have you ever noticed how cheesy the dialogues in French textbooks sound?
They use the same words and grammar as French people do in real life, but something doesn’t sound quite right.
One of the reasons is that textbook dialogues forget to include a few important little words that French people use all the time, like “bon”, “ben” and “euh”. These are called French filler words – they don’t add meaning but they give French its characteristic sound.
The good news is, they’re very easy to learn and you can use them to instantly sound more French.
In this post, you’ll learn:
9 French filler words that will help you sound more fluent.
An easy trick to stay in “French mode” even when you’re stuck for words.
The little word you should avoid using.
Bonus: How French people greet each other – which cheek should you kiss first?
What are French Filler Words?
Filler words are little words like “er”, “kind of”, “so” and “well”. They’re called “filler words” because we use them to “fill” the time while we gather our thoughts and decide what to say.
Every language has their own filler words. A few examples in French are:
Why should I use French Filler Words?
French filler words are great for a few reasons:
They buy you thinking time
When you start speaking French, you might feel worried about long silences while you try to find the words.
But even natives hesitate sometimes, that’s why they have filler words! If you can use the same words French people do when they’re thinking, this will help you stay in “French mode” while you decide what to say next. You’ll sound more French, even when you’re stuck for words!
They help you sound (and feel) more French
Filler words give your speech a French flavor – it’s like sprinkling your sentences with French condiments.
They improve your listening comprehension
French people use filler words all the time. If you can recognize them, this will help you understand spoken French better.
9 French Filler words (and how to use them)
I can’t think of anyone better to teach you how to sound natural in French than Carrie from French is beautiful, my favorite American in Paris who brings French to life by using real materials (like films and quotes) in her lessons.
So I invited her to give you a little lesson on French filler words, and luckily she said “oui!”.
Below the interview, you’ll find:
An explanation of each word with example sentences.
A bonus lesson about “la bise” (the French kiss on the cheek).
Used together, they signal the end of a story, a bit like “so anyway” or “long story short”.
Imagine you were telling a story about how you lost your keys, at the end, you could say:
Bon, fin, bref… elles était dans mon sac.
Long story short… they were in my purse.
4 – 5: Bon, ben
Bon = good
Ben = uhm
Used together, these filler words mean: “OK, well…” or “so, then…”. They’re often used just before you’re about to wrap up a conversation. For example:
Bon, ben… on s’appelle ce week-end?
OK, well… shall we call each other this weekend?
6 – 7: Donc, Alors
Donc = Then, therefore, so
Alors = Then, so
“Donc” and “alors” are often interchangeable. They have a similar meaning to “bon, ben” (OK then, so then…) but they’re a little more sophisticated.
Donc… on s’appelle ce week-end?
Alors… on s’appelle ce week-end?
So then… shall we call each other this weekend?
This is the sound French people make when they’re thinking. It’s like the English “er” or “uhm”.
As Carrie mentioned, our ears like to stay in the same “sound universe”. If you’re speaking French and you suddenly pronounce “err” the English way, it breaks the flow of the conversation.
Learning to pronounce French sounds, like “euh” when you’re thinking keeps you in French mode – it’s an easy way to instantly sound more French.
You can also use “ben”, which has the same meaning, but sounds a little more sophisticated.
“Hein” is the French equivalent of “huh?”. This little word is great to understand, but best avoided in the beginning stages as it can be perceived as impolite in some contexts (just like “huh?” in English).
More polite versions are:
Bonus: “La bise”
In this lesson, Carrie talked about “la bise”, which is the French word for that kiss on the cheek that French people do when they meet each other. A couple of tips:
French people don’t literally kiss the cheek, they just touch cheeks and make a kissing sound.
If you both wear glasses, it can be a good idea to quickly take yours off so you don’t get tangled!
Et voilà, 9 little words that will instantly help you sound très French. Have you used French filler words before? Do you know any that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments, s’il te plaît!
More from French is Beautiful
If you’d like to keep learning French with Carrie, you can find her here:
Lots of people say they speak a foreign language better after a drink or two.
It seems logical.
One of the trickiest things about speaking a language is the nerves and alcohol lowers inhibitions.
But does drinking really help you speak a foreign language better? Or just make you think you speak it better? After all, alcohol also makes people think they can dance like Beyonce, they should call their ex and that cheese is a food group.
Interestingly, science suggests that the “Dutch courage” effect is real – alcohol really can help you speak a foreign language.
Which is an interesting finding, if not all that helpful.
For a start, lots of people don’t drink alcohol. And even if you do like a tipple, what happens when you need to speak the language over breakfast, or at the airport?
It’s just not practical to crack out the bubbly every time you want to speak a foreign language.
In this article, we’ll talk about:
The science behind why alcohol helps you speak a foreign language better.
How to get the same confidence boost without touching a drop.
Science says alcohol helps you speak a foreign language (kind of)
Last year, researchers invited 50 Germans who spoke Dutch as a second language into the lab. Half were given a drink with vodka in it, while the others got a drink which was alcohol-free.
Once the Germans had finished their drinks, they were asked to have a conversation in Dutch. Two native Dutch speakers (who didn’t know who had drunk alcohol and who hadn’t) listened to the recordings and rated the Germans on how well they spoke Dutch.
Alcohol might improve your pronunciation, but only in moderation
It’s important to keep in mind that the pronunciation gains were linked to small amounts of alcohol. In the most recent study, the Germans consumed less than a pint of beer. Back in 1972, the sweet spot was 1.5 oz of 90 proof alcohol, which is around one shot of strong whiskey. Participants who drank more than that, or who drank on an empty stomach, performed worse than the sober ones.
This fits in with my experience when I moved to Italy. When I went to the pub with my Italian friends, I found that the first drink helped, but any more than 2 and I struggled to keep up with the conversation.
Which is not all that surprising. Large amounts of alcohol impairs concentration, memory and makes you slur your words – not ideal for speaking a foreign language.
So in answer to our question:
Can alcohol help you speak a foreign language?
Yes, but only pronunciation. And only in small amounts.
Why does this happen?
Why does alcohol improve your pronunciation in a foreign language?
One theory is that alcohol helps you open up to a new cultural identity.
Pronunciation forms a strong part of your identity because it links you to a community. If you have a London accent, this could suggest all kinds of things about you including the type of job you might have, your religious or political views, the kinds of things you eat for dinner and certain personality traits.
Learning the sounds of a new language requires you to leave this behind, which explains why you might feel a bit silly when speaking a new language – it doesn’t feel like you.
In the 1972 study, the researchers suggested that drinking alcohol increases “ego permeability” – the willingness to temporarily give up the separateness of your identity so that you can mimic speakers of the second language.
But what about the confidence-boosting effect we talked about at the beginning of this article? Does alcohol help you feel more confident when you speak a foreign language? If we come back to our Dutch speaking Germans, we find a surprising twist in this cocktail.
Can alcohol help you feel more confident when you speak a foreign language?
When researchers asked the German groups how well they thought they’d spoken, there was no difference between the drinkers and the non-drinkers. This means that although their pronunciation was better, the Germans who had drunk alcohol didn’t feel more confident.
One reason for this could be that the participants didn’t actually know if they’d drunk alcohol or not (they were told that they may have a drink with alcohol in it).
In the comments to a recent question I posted about languages and drinking, Nasrul said:
I can’t drink wine because I’m Muslim. But I speak Arabic and English better after I’ve drunk something like mineral water and coke.
I do drink myself, but I remember going to the pub with friends on occasions when I didn’t. At first, I was worried that I would feel awkward, but after a while, I got into the conversations and forgot that I wasn’t drinking.
Pleasant moments, like sitting around a cozy table with friends, could be enough to help you relax into speaking a foreign language.
So far, we’ve learnt that:
Small doses of alcohol can improve your pronunciation (possibly because it helps you open up to a new cultural identity).
Too much alcohol can impair your ability to speak a foreign language.
The confidence-boosting effect of alcohol might not always be real.
Anything that helps you feel more relaxed could help you speak a foreign language better.
What does this mean for me?
If you drink alcohol, why not take advantage of these findings and combine it with language learning? You could meet a speaking partner at the pub and practise chatting over a drink.
But you don’t need alcohol to feel more confident when speaking a foreign language. There are plenty of other ways to increase your self-esteem.
Here are 4.
4 ways to feel confident when you speak a foreign language (no Dutch courage necessary!)
1. Close the cultural gap
If you’re not used to speaking to people from other countries, it can feel intimidating. While it’s natural to focus on your differences at first, research suggests that this kind of “me and them” thinking could make it harder for you to learn the language.
Breaking down cultural barriers will help you speak the language better. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Most cultural differences are on the surface. When you get closer to people from different cultures, you’ll realise that you have a lot in common. Many values, like kindness, friendship and family, are universal.
Put yourself in their shoes
Imagine you come from the culture of the language you’re learning. What does a typical day look like? What time do you wake up? What do you wear? What do you eat for breakfast? You can even go deeper – What keeps you up at night? What makes you smile? This will help you get closer on a practical and emotional level.
When you spend time hanging around with people you like from that culture, you’ll get an insider view that will help you understand and connect with other native speakers. Get tips on where to find these people in step 4.
Don’t take yourself so seriously
When dealing with a new language and culture, you’ll probably have awkward moments where you make mistakes, or you’re not sure what to say or do. If you shut down from fear of mistakes, this will create distance between you and the native speakers you want to talk to.
Arm yourself with a good sense of humour and learn to laugh at yourself. Most people are forgiving of the mistakes foreigners make when navigating their culture – if you let them laugh with you, you’ll never struggle to make friends.
2. Practise a lot (even if it feels uncomfortable)
You cannot think yourself out of feeling nervous.
In fact, trying to convince yourself not to feel nervous makes everything worse, because you create a new problem:
1. You feel nervous
2. You’re nervous about the fact that you can’t stop feeling nervous.
If you accept that nerves are a normal part of learning to speak a foreign language, you’ll make life easier for yourself. So, if you can’t stop the nerves by thinking, what can you do instead?
Take action. The most reliable way to gain confidence when speaking a foreign language is simple: practise until it feels normal.
And you don’t have to start at the deep end – you can gradually build up to conversations. Find a step-by-step guide in this post:
To make speaking a language more enjoyable (and therefore less nerve-wracking) try practicing the language in fun social situations. For example:
Are there any meetups in your area where you can practice speaking the language with like-minded people?
Can you meet a language exchange partner in a place you love? Like at a café or in the park? Can you go to an art gallery or sightseeing? Or how about cooking together?
You’ll probably still feel nervous at the beginning, but that’s nothing to worry about. Remember, the secret is getting started.
The more you do it, the easier it gets.
4. Practise with people who make you feel comfortable
In your native language, there are probably people you feel relaxed around, and others who make you a bit uncomfortable.
It’s no different for language learning. I’ve been learning Italian for years, but there are still people and situations that make me nervous. For example, I get a bit of social anxiety around friends of friends who are very different from me. Or when ordering in shops and restaurants (I feel awkward talking to people I don’t know in English, so in Italian, it’s worse!)
This doesn’t mean you should avoid people and situations that make you feel awkward (remember, nerves are a normal part of language learning). But it does mean that you’ll probably find it more difficult to speak in these situations, so they’re not ideal for practicing.
The best way to improve your speaking skills in a second language is to find people who make you feel comfortable and practise with them regularly.
Where can you find these people?
Online language tutors
One of the best places to practise speaking a foreign language is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here:
Keep in mind that you don’t have to stick with the first person you find. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first tutor, keep looking until you find someone you click with.
Language Exchange Partners
Alternatively, look for people in your area who also want to learn your native language and set up a language exchange:
They help you practise speaking their native language
You help them practise speaking your native language
There are lots of websites and apps that help you find native speakers in your area, so you can meet up and practice speaking over a coffee (or glass of vino if you do drink). Conversation Exchange and Tandem are two examples.
Again, keep in mind that you don’t have to stick with the first person you find. It’s a bit like online dating – you can keep going until you find someone that feels right.
A fab way to feel comfortable and get a lot better at speaking is to join one of our immersion vacations. The vacations are run by myself and a patient native speaker teacher who will put you at ease and encourage you to speak.
To practise speaking a language in beautiful locations, while doing fun and relaxing things like:
Wandering around lavender fields in Provence.
Island hopping across the Italian lakes
Nibbling on tapas and sipping on sangria (or virgin sangria) on the Costa Brava.
By the end, you’ll feel loads more confident because you’ll have spoken the language for a whole week! And you’ll have new friends to practise speaking with.
If you’d like to join us, you can find out more here:
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