Joy of Languages probably isn’t an ideal platform to talk politics, but this isn’t about politics.

It’s about people. In the United States, the UK and globally.

I’m struggling to find the right words, so I’ll borrow Banksy’s instead:

At first I thought I should just shut up and listen to black people about this issue.

But why would I do that? It’s not their problem, it’s mine.

People of colour are being failed by the system. The white system. Like a broken pipe flooding the apartment of the people living downstairs […] it’s not their job to fix it.

I don’t have answers, but I do know that we all need to take part in the repair work.

It’s not possible to be neutral or “stay out of it” by staying silent.

Silence allowed the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many before them. It endorses the systemic racism and quiet discrimination that black people live with each day. 

I stand with black lives matter.

As a community I hope we can stand together, support each other, learn and most importantly, do something. In this video from elementary chinese, Kwadwo shares his experiences and has suggestions about how to stop getting sucked into the internet loop and contribute to positive change.

If you’re white and want to participate, but you’re not sure what to say or how to act, you might find this post from Mavenelle useful. This online guide to allyship has more advice.

Another thing we can do in this space is share the work of black creators who are doing cool stuff in the online language learning community. Not just now, but always.

One person who immediately springs to mind is Shahidah, founder of Black Girls Learn Languages, who has created an incredible community and shares content to support and inspire black women to learn languages. Here’s a link to her online store.

Check out this motivating chat about learning languages as an adult and bringing up multilingual kids with Tiara from Chocolate Sushi Roll.

Last week, multilingualmarissa, Lindsay does Languages and Fluent Language shared posts to celebrate black teachers, learners and language experts. Here are a few great projects to get you started:

Nicole the linguaphile

iye loves languages

Elementary Chinese


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A bụ m nne. 😍 (The secret is finally out. 🤣). . . Well, things are gonna be a bit different around these IG parts. (Note: Foto a dị ochie. 🤰🏿 A mụrụ m nwa! My son is already here. 👶🏽) . . So not only am I teaching myself Igbo language, aga m akụzịrị nwa m nwoke asụsụ Igbo. 🤱🏾 Now, I will be sharing my Igbo language learning journey of how I balance working full-time, a business, marriage, and motherhood while teaching myself and baby Igbo. So keep following me if this interests you! 💪🏿 . . So let’s start this Mother’s Day off right. I wrote nwa m (my baby) a little love note in Igbo of course. ✍🏿 I can’t wait until he is old enough to read it. Go to ▶️ or CLICK the link in my bio to read it! How did I do? Ị ghọtara ihe m dere? *Corrections are welcomed.* . . Are you an Igbo mother? Any tips for me on teaching this boy Igbo? ✍🏿✍🏿✍🏿 . . I can finally use these hashtags 🤣🤣🤣 #nigerianmommy #nigerianmommyblog #nigerianmother #igbomom #igboymoms #igbobabies #nwaoma #africanmother #africanmommy

A post shared by Ife – Igbo Language Learner (@ezinaulo.igbo) on

Nikki Dennis

Keep sharing in the comments. I’d love for you to add your own too.

Sending you love,


Have you ever thought about using French TV shows to learn French?

It sounds fantastique – pour yourself a glass of rouge and snuggle up on the sofa while everyone else in your French class drives themselves crazy trying to memorise irregular verbs.

But if you’ve ever tried to watch a TV‌ show in French, you might have come across a few problems. The main one…

They talk really, really fast!

Even if you recognise some words, a lot flies over your head and you might find yourself getting frustrated by the bits you missed.

Another problem – how do you know if you’re actually learning?‌

So in this article, we won’t just give you a list of TV‌ shows and send you off on your way. At the end, you’ll find a step by step guide that will help you:

  1. Choose the right series so you can get addicted to French TV – and to learning French!
  2. Know what to do when you don’t understand (a problem that’s easier to solve than you might think).
  3. Feel your French improve with study activities to use alongside the shows.

Can I really learn French by watching TV shows?

There are loooads of advantages to watching French TV shows.

The main one is learning how people actually speak. Textbooks and learner materials tend to spoon feed you a simplified version of the language, so when you get out into the real world and hear French people talking to each other, it can be a bit of a shock.

With French TV shows, you can train yourself to understand how French people talk, in the comfort of your own home. No need to worry about looking awkward and saying pardon 18 times – when you don’t understand, you can just rewind!‌ You can also pause and switch on subtitles.

It’s also a great way to pick up common words and grammar structures in a fun and natural way, by hearing them used in context.

So we’ll start by looking at 30 fantastique French TV shows on Netflix and Youtube. Once you’ve chosen your shows, remember to stick around for the guide below on how to use them to boost your French level.


37 French TV shows to learn French

Call my agent (Dix pour cent)

J’adore this series! It’s a deadpan comedy that follows the lives of movie star agents as they try to keep their famous clients happy. Between fierce competition and unexpected romances, they have to band together to steer the agency through a series of crises.

I especially like the cameos from real French movie stars who play themselves. It’s heartening to see these big stars being good sports and poking fun at themselves in the stories. And a great way to learn a little more about French celebrities and culture.

Where: Netflix


There’s something très relaxing about kicking back and watching cartoons, especially when, like Tintin, they’re loved by adults too.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that they’re simpler than normal series – the characters use advanced vocabulary and speak at a natural speed. In some cases, cartoons are actually trickier to follow because the actors put on voices, which makes the words more difficult to make out. This isn’t meant as a discouragement, but rather to let you know that if you find cartoons difficult, it doesn’t mean that your French isn’t as good as you thought.

At the time of writing this, there are lots of episodes on Youtube. Luckily, many have autogenerated subtitles, which while not perfect, are fairly accurate and can be a big help in understanding.

Pro tips:

1. You can turn the subtitles on by clicking the settings cog, clicking on subtitles, then choosing French.

2. A lot of the episodes are available in English and French. If you need a little extra support, try watching the English one first to help you understand the story. This will lighten the load when you come around to watching it in French.

Episode 1: Tintin in America:

Épisode 1: Tintin en Amérique:

3. To find similar series on Youtube, select an episode of Tintin in French, then look over to the left and you should find suggestions for other cool french language cartoons, like Astérix.

Where: Search Youtube for Tintin épisode complet français.

The hookup plan (Plan Coeur)

This series follows a group of twenty somethings as they try to help a friend get over her ex. It has the same feel-good vibe as the 90s sitcom friends, but without being so annoyingly wholesome: to help their friend, they bring in a male prostitute and things start to get interesting.

Great acting, relatable characters and lots of dry humour. It’s a nice way to pick up some modern French slang too.

Where: Netflix

Family business

This series follows the lives of a French Jewish family as they convert their failing kosher butcher shop into the first marijuana coffee shop in Paris.

It’s refreshing to see Netflix continue to break decades of typecasting with with characters from different cultures being explored in all their depth. Like the previous entry on this list, it’s one of those well done comedies that hits the delicate balance of staying light, while addressing poignant topics.

Where: Netflix

Chef’s table, France

Multi Michelin-starred chefs reveal their secrets. How did they learn to cook and become innovators in their industry?‌ With inspiring food stories, beautiful cinematography and close ups of drool worthy dishes, if you’re a gourmand, you’ll love this series.

Tip: don’t watch while hungry!

Where: Netflix

7 jour sur la planète

If you’re looking for something a little more educational, check out this series on Youtube. Every week they bring in an expert to talk about current social, cultural or political issues. The interviews are interesting and perfect for learners as they:

  • Last around 20 minutes (not too overwhelming).
  • Come with subtitles, so you can look up words you don’t know.

If you’re preparing for an exam, this series is ideal as you’ll find lots of formal vocabulary and expressions that you can use to impressionner the examiners.

Related posts:‌

Dalf C1: How I’m preparing for the scary French exam

I passed the Dalf exam! Intermediate to fluent French in 5 months (what really happened).

Fais pas ci, Fais pas ça

In this mockumentary series, two middle-class families take part in a TV show about how to raise children. One family is straight-laced and conservateur while the other is laidback and hippyish, known as bobo in French.

One of France’s best loved comedies, this series ran for ten years. It’s light and feel good, perfect for vegging-out on the sofa.

I haven’t been able to find a version with subtitles yet, so this series is better for upper-intermediate onwards, when you can pick out enough to get an idea of what’s going on.

Where: At the time of writing, you can find lots of full episodes on the official Youtube channel.

Nailed it, France

In this cookery show with a twist, three contestants compete to recreate complex desserts. The twist?‌ The contestants are all amateurs who have a history of being really bad at baking.

Where: Netflix

Fary Hexagone

This is actually a stand up comedy episode, rather than a series, but it’s well worth getting on the sofa for. Fary has a warm, self-deprecating sense of humour as he gets into race, politics and other issues of modern society in France and around the globe.

Where: Netflix

Plus belle la vie

Every evening over 5 million French people sit down to catch the latest episode of this soap opera, set in the Mediterranean port of Marseille.

With over 4000 episodes, you won’t run out of viewing material with this one!‌

Where: On Youtube, search: Plus belle la vie episodes

Cosita Linda (versión français)

If you’re a soap opera fan, you might also enjoy vegging out to the French version of Cosita Linda. Originally a Spanish-language telenovela, the French dubbed version is available on Youtube.

Warning: this may be the cheesiest thing you’ve ever seen, but it’s actually a pretty good stepping stone to understanding French TV, because the language is simpler compared to grittier, more realistic dramas.

Whatsmore, the hammy acting and over the top dubbing make it a lot easier to follow. For more help following the dialogue, you can also turn on the autogenerated subs which, while not perfect, can be a big help.

Where: On Youtube, search for: Cosita Linda (versión français)

Mythomaniac (Mytho)

Working mum Elvira feels undervalued by her partner, who she suspects is cheating. After a false alarm, she ends up lying about her condition and pretending to be gravely ill.

Where: Netflix

The Chalet (Le Chalet)

A group of friends find themselves stuck in a remote village in the French alps after a landslide destroys the only bridge that connects them with the rest of the world. With no phone or internet connection, they are cut off from the rest of the world, together with the last six members of the village. The series gets spooky as strange things start happening, leading the friends to suspect each other.

Where: Netflix

The Mantis (La Mante)

A number of worrying copycat crimes lead a police department to collaborate with the original killer, The Mantis, who resides in prison decades after her crimes.

Carole Bouquet is great as the icy, cardigan-wearing female serial killer, who agrees to cooperate, as long as she is allowed to work alongside her estranged son and detective, Damien.

My French teacher recommended this one to me – I highly recommend it if you like a good crime drama.

Where: Netflix


What if you could matchmake people by reading their brain data? In this sci fi series a new app called “Osmosis” helps people find partners with 100% match by doing exactly that. But what happens when customers use technology that can see into their minds?

Where: Netflix

The returned (Les revenants)

Based on the 2004 French film of the same name, Les revenants follows the lives of residents in a small French town, where previously dead people begin to return alive and normal, as if they had never been away.

This supernatural drama became a global success, winning an International Emmy for Best Drama Series.

Where: Apple store, google play

Caméra café français

Eavesdrop on the conversations of French office workers as they get their daily coffee. A mockumentary of sorts, filmed from the camera of a coffee machine, the characters talk about everything from who stunk out the toilet to their messy divorces.

The scenes are short (usually around 3 minutes), which makes it easy to practice your listening in bursts without getting overwhelmed. They’re also ideal for working with a tutor or language exchange partner:‌ try to watch one of the scenes, take notes, then ask your tutor to explain the things you missed.

Lots of the episodes have auto-generated subtitles which although not perfect, can help you understand a lot on your own.

Where: Search for the Caméra Café (francais) channel on Youtube.

The break (La Trêve)

In this nerve-wracking Belgian series, police investigator Yoann Peeters begins investigating a murder case in his hometown, after suffering a devastating personal loss. Expect edge-of-your seat moments and sharp dialogues.

Where: Netflix

Criminal: France

Set almost entirely in an interrogation room, this 3-part series shows French investigators as they put psychological pressure on their suspects in an attempt to solve their cases.

Where: Netflix

The bonfire of destiny (Le Bazar de la Charité)

Inspired by real events, this series follows the lives of three women in the aftermath as they try to cope with – and get to the bottom of – what happened in the 1897 Charity Bazaar fire in Paris.

With clear and slow-ish paced speech, this is another great introduction to watching French TV shows, especially if you turn on the French subs.

Where: Netflix

Les Anges

Confession time: I’m a big fan of watching reality TV to learn foreign languages. It’s nice not to have to worry about complicated storylines, because my mind is already busy enough trying to understand the language. It’s a guilty pleasure without the guilt – you’re learning French, after all.

Another advantage is that they’re perfect for training yourself to understand natural French: there’s no script so you get to hear how people speak spontaneously. And unlike sci fi or police dramas, the participants tend to use words that are useful for everyday conversations.

Les Anges takes a bunch of French reality TV stars and puts them together in a house in a glamorous location, such as LA. Follow them as they try to make it in their chosen careers: becoming actors, models, sports players, chefs etc.

Where: Youtube

Hollywood girls

While we’re on the subject of trash TV, if you like reality TV shows, you might enjoy this series too. It’s basically a bunch of French reality TV stars acting in a very low budget soap opera in California – so ridiculous that it’s great fun to watch!‌

Where: Youtube

Twice upon a time (Il y était une seconde fois)

In this quirky drama, Vincent tries to drown his deep regret over a break up with parties and short-lived affairs. Until one day, a mysterious parcel appears at his house…

Where: Netflix

Un gars et une fille

This popular French comedy follows the daily lives of couple Alex and Jean (“Loulou” “Chouchou”) as they fight, make up and find themselves in silly situations. You’ll hear everyday language and casual, fast speech so it’s great for training your listening. Also, the episodes are only around 7 minutes long, perfect for learning French in bite-sized pieces.

Where: It’s quite tricky to find online these days, but at the time of writing you can find a few episodes on vimeo.

A very secret service (Au service de la France)

In this surreal comedy, a young trainee officer joins the French secret services at the height of the cold-war in 1960s France. The series is well written, with a dry sense of humour and great actors.

Where: Netflix

Black spot (Zone Blanche)

After a body is found hanging from a strange tree, prosecutor Franck Siriani arrives in a small French mountain town to investigate why the murder-rate is six times higher than the national average, and begins digging up the mysterious past of the local head of police.

Where: Amazon prime, Netflix

La Source

A young student and babysitter is contacted by the French secret services to spy on the family that she works for.

One great thing about this series is that it’s really easy to find – at the time of writing, it’s available on Youtube with autogenerated subs, which can make the dialogues easier to understand.

Where:‌ Youtube. Hint – look over to the right and you should see lots of similar Youtube videos that have been uploaded.

Unit 42 (Unité 42)

In this Belgian series, a police investigator and former hacker team up to chase cyber criminals who are wreaking havoc across the country.

Where: Netflix


Long serving mayor of Marseille finds himself in competition with his young protégé. The story unfolds amongst a backdrop of political corruption, drugs and gang warfare.

It’s a bit over the top, but the beautiful scenes of Marseille make it very watchable. As one viewer said “if you watch it alone, you can wallow in the gorgeousness and shrug at the silliness”.

Where: Netflix


Two teenagers Sofiane and Victor gain superpowers to help them solve the murder of Sofiane’s brother. They join forces with classmate Luisa as the three attempt to untangle themselves from the grip of the supernatural underworld. If you’re a fan of misfits, you might like this one too.

Where: Netflix


In this French horror series, best selling author Emma Larsimon discovers that the terrifying characters from her novels exist in the real world.

Where: Netflix

The Frozen Dead (Glacé)

Adapted from the novel of the same name, police officers in the French Pyrenees discover the DNA of a serial killer on the crime scene of a decapitated horse. But this serial killer is already locked up in high security prison.

Where: Netflix

Hold on a second, there were only 32 shows here – didn’t the title say 37. Oui, you’ll find a few more in the section below: what to do when you don’t understand.

But first some bonus shows…

TV series dubbed in French

As well as French language originals, you can get French listening practice by watching (or rewatching!)‌ your favourite shows dubbed in French.

It’s a good idea to choose a TV series or a film you already know and love, as this way you’ll follow the storyline better while you train your listening skills.

Here are some examples:

  • Friends
  • Orange is the new black
  • Grace and Frankie
  • Stranger things
  • Westwing
  • House of cards
  • Madmen
  • Disney films

Whatever your favourite shows are, you should be able to find a few dubbed in French. Try opening them up on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sky (or any other platform you use), clicking on the language settings and checking to see whether the audio is available in French.

You can also check the covers of old DVDs you have at home and see what languages are available. If French is on there, change the language settings and you’re ready to go!

How to learn French by watching TV shows

So you find a French TV show that looks good, you start watching but then… je ne comprends pas!‌

Don’t feel disappointed if you can’t understand much at first – it’s actually quite normal, even at advanced levels. Why?‌ French TV shows are designed for native speakers, that is, people who’ve spent their whole lives – at least 105120 hours for an 18 year old – listening to spoken French.

This means that, even if your level is pretty good, you’ll probably need lots of practice before you can comfortably understand TV shows. Pas de problème, you can still enjoy French TV‌ shows at all levels, you just need a few extra strategies in place.

In the rest of this article, you’ll learn:

  • How to choose the right TV shows for your level.
  • A plan of action for when you don’t understand.
  • Activities to help you make progress as you watch French TV shows.

Which French TV show should I choose?

To choose the ideal French show, keep two things in mind:‌

  1. How much do I like the show?‌
  2. Is the language useful and appropriate for my level?‌

The first point is important because if you like the show, you’ll have more motivation to put in the work and try to understand it. You’ll won’t mind pressing pause to look up vocabulary because you’ll really want to know what they’re saying! Also, you’ll probably spend more time doing it, which means more French listening practice for you.

Another thing to keep in mind is the difficulty and kind of vocabulary used in the show. For example, even if you love courtroom dramas in your native language, you might struggle to understand all the legal jargon in French. And if your goal is to chat to people in cafès on vacation, you probably don’t really need to know it.

On the other hand, if you speak advanced French and you’re about to start a degree in law at a French University or take an advanced exam, that vocabulary could be quite useful!

Your ideal show will be depend on your level and goals in French. Take some time to think about those and keep them in mind when choosing.

How to choose a French show at the right level

The best way to find out whether a French TV show is the right level for you is to take it for a spin!

Ideally, look for one which has subtitles in French. These are important, especially in the beginning, because you can read what you’re hearing, which helps you follow the story and learn new vocabulary. Even if you find you need to keep pausing to read the subtitles, that’s not a problem – it’s actually a good learning strategy.

Once you’ve found a show that looks interesting, play an episode.

How did it go? If you managed to get the general gist of what was going on, génial! You can now use this show to learn French. Either relax and watch the series (still great practice!) or if you’re feeling up to it, pause to write down new words or add them to a flashcard app to help you memorise them.

Pro tip: Don’t look up every new word because this will make the show clunky and difficult to watch. Just do it for:‌

1. Words that you need to understand the plot – without this important word, you have no idea what’s happening.

2. Any word or phrase you feel drawn to, that you think might be useful in your own conversations.

Keep it up over a long period of time and you’ll gradually get faster at understanding, to the point where you don’t need to pause much any more. Eventually, you’ll be able to get rid of the subtitles altogether. However, don’t pressure on yourself to do this too soon – TV shows are super advanced listening, and you can still learn a lot with the subs on.

Je ne comprends pas! What to do when you don’t understand

If you found it really difficult to follow, don’t worry, that’s normal at first. In this section, you’ll learn activities that you can do to help yourself understand.

Use the Language Learning with Netflix extension

There are two main reasons you might not understand French TV shows:‌

  1. The words or phrases are new to you.
  2. They speak so fast!

There’s a brilliant Chrome extension that gives you a solution for both of these things. Language Learning with Netflix has interactive subtitles that you can click on to get the definition in your native language and pauses automatically after every line to help you keep up.

There are loads of other settings designed to help you learn too, for example:

  1. Press the back key to hear the same line as many times as you need.
  2. An optional sidebar to quickly compare the sentence with the translation in your native language.

If you only do one thing after reading this article, start using Language Learning with Netflix – if you use it regularly, it will transform your French!

Use French TV shows as a study resource

French shows might be too difficult if you try to watch them on the sofa like normal TV‌, but that doesn’t mean you can’t watch them at all!‌

As long as you have subtitles (almost all the Netflix shows do), there are lots of activities you can do with the shows to help you learn. For a list of ideas, check out this post:

5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films

You may not get to put your feet up with this one, but it’s still more fun than sitting in a classroom memorising words for kitchen appliances.

Use French shows designed for learners

If shows for native speakers are too overwhelming at the moment, you can start with simplified ones aimed at learners. They are normally pretty cheesy, but they’re watchable and a great stepping stone to real series. French Extra is a good place to start:

Voilà a few more you might enjoy:‌

If you prefer something a bit more natural, check out Easy French. On their Youtube channel, you’ll find street interviews with French and English subtitles to help you understand. You can also try their Super Easy Series where they speak more slowly.

Boost your learning with French TV shows

Watching French TV to learn French feels magique. You can cosy up with a glass of vin rouge or some chocolat and learn French at the same time. It’s a win.

But you might start to wonder…

  • Am I doing enough?
  • Wouldn’t I learn more if I was “studying” harder?

Watching TV on its own is already a great activity to boost your listening skills, and get used to the vocabulary and grammar. But if you want something that feels more focused, there are lots of things you can do to boost your learning.

And the best bit – they still involve watching TV!

Check out the post below for some handy study strategies you can use to learn French with TV shows:

5 smart ways to learn French by watching films and TV.
For more ideas on how to use these French TV shows (and to find out how I learned French with reality TV), you can watch my talk at the polyglot gathering in Bratislava:‌

Over to you

Have you tried watching French TV shows to learn French before? Have you got any other good ones to add to the list? Any more tips for learning French from TV? Share them in the comments!‌

You might like these too…

The 17 best tools for learning French:‌ From beginner to advanced

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

Dalf C1: How I’m preparing for the scary French exam

I passed the DALF exam! Intermediate to advanced French in 5 months

Why do you want to learn a foreign language?‌

You might want to enjoy travelling more, connect with people from other cultures or get closer to friends and family members.

Come to think of it, you probably don’t want to learn it at all. You want to speak a foreign language.

This distinction is important, because most people focus too much on learning the theory, then feel disappointed when they can’t speak the language.

Speaking a foreign language is like swimming. Some theory can improve your technique, but if you want to get better at it, you need to get your feet wet.

This article will help you practice speaking a foreign language. You’ll find step-by-step guides on how to:‌

  • Know where to start and what to say.
  • Remember the most useful words and phrases, so you can start speaking sooner.
  • Stop worrying about making mistakes.
  • Deal with mind blanks – and impress natives at the same time.
  • Practice speaking with (and without) native speakers.
  • Find people to practice with.

Speaking a foreign language: getting started

At the very beginning, you’ll need to learn some basics so you know what to say when you start speaking.

Build a foundation

If you’re starting from zero, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel – get yourself a good beginners’ textbook or online course and start working through it.

When choosing your course, be sure to go for one that teaches you words and phrases that you’ll need in simple conversations. For example, I don’t recommend Duolingo, because the phrases can be quite random, like “you are my horse”. Which you probably won’t need in your first conversation (or hopefully not at all!)

When choosing which materials to use, here are some resources that you might find handy:

The 17 best tools for learning French: from beginner to advanced

The 11 best tools for learning Spanish: from beginner to advanced

The 38 best Italian learning tools: from beginner to advanced

The 15 best tools for learning Russian: from beginner to advanced

If your language isn’t there, here’s a general list of courses that focus on language for conversations:

  1. The coffee break languages podcast series (free)
  2. Michel Thomas
  3. Assimil
  4. Pimsleur
  5. Teach yourself
  6. Benny Lewis’s Language hacking series

The key here is not to wait until you know everything perfectly before you try to start speaking.

Theory and practice feed into each other:‌ when you practice speaking, you’ll get a better sense of how to use the things you’ve been learning in conversation – they’ll make more sense to you and you’ll remember them more easily.

Expect lots of moments where you find yourself needing a word or grammar point and thinking “ah I knew this!”

Then either:

1. Remembering it and using it in conversation (yay!)

2. Asking your speaking partner to remind you.

Both are good – forcing yourself to use something in conversation (whether you get it right or not) helps you learn and makes it stick better next time.

Be selective: learn what you want to say

Sometimes language courses tend to focus on lists of words, like sports and animals, that are not useful in the beginning. When was the last time you spoke about volleyball or elephants in a casual conversation with your neighbour?

When it comes to the more practical topics, like nationalities, jobs and family members, you probably still don’t need to learn all of them before you can have a conversation.

For example, it’s useful to know how to talk about your own nationality and job, because they’re normally the first things people ask about. And if you’re married with children, it’ll be handy to know how to say “husband”, “wife”, “son” or “daughter”.

But you probably don’t need words like “Russian” “cousin” and “nurse”, unless you’re from Russia, you’re really close to your cousin or you are a nurse.

You have my full permission to skip over bits of your language course. Take control of your own learning and prioritise words and phrases that you know you’ll need in conversation.

How do you know if a word is worth learning? Use the “tomorrow test” and ask yourself: at my current level, can I imagine myself using this word in conversation?

  • Yes? Go ahead and learn it.
  • No? Leave it for now. It’ll come back around again when you’re ready.

Remember common conversations

Hi, nice to meet you. Where are you from?‌ What do you do for a living?‌

Most conversations, especially with people you first meet, are quite samey. If you can memorise common questions and answers, you’ll be able to have your first simple conversation pretty quickly.

Here are some examples of typical questions that come up in conversations:

  • Where do you live?‌
  • Are you on vacation?‌
  • Do you like it?‌
  • Do you work or are you a student?
  • Why are you learning this language?
  • Are you a … fan? (questions about sports)

But remember, the expert on the kind of conversations that you’re likely to have is you! Personalise your learning to your own situation and focus on the words and phrases that you want to say.

Speaking mission 1: common conversations

Write a list of common conversations questions, and your answers. Then make an effort to memorise them by covering them up and testing yourself regularly (you can also use flashcards)‌.

Pro tip: memorise a short paragraph about yourself, with information such as where you’re from, where you live, your job and anything else important about your life. These things are likely to come up over and over again, and it helps to get them rolling off the tongue.

How can you learn how to say these things?‌ Start with a phrase book, or beginner’s textbook, and a good online dictionary, such as When you get to the point where you need more specific help, there are a few different tools you can use:

  1. On HiNative, you can post questions and get answers from native speakers.
  2. On Italki, you can ask questions in the answer section, or you can post your whole paragraph to the notebook section, and a native speaker should come along and correct it for you.
Not sure how to say something?‌ On HiNative, you can ask questions and get feedback from native speakers.

These tools are really handy, but nothing quite beats meeting a native speaker to help you translate and correct your questions and answers.

At the end of the post, we’ll show you how to find them.

Deal with mind blanks… and impress native speakers

Why is speaking a foreign language so scary?‌ What’s the worst that could happen?‌

There are 4 things that can go wrong:‌

  1. You don’t know (or forget) how to say something. Cue awkward silence.
  2. You say the wrong thing.
  3. You don’t understand what they said.
  4. You get “Englished” – you try and say a sentence and they reply in English.

You’ll need to make peace with these things because they’re a normal part of learning a foreign language. The good news is, the more you practice, the better you’ll get and the less they’ll happen.

More good news – there are concrete steps you can take to step around these problems and make conversations run more smoothly, right from the start.

Learn phrases to keep the conversation going

The best solution to the conversation stoppers we just mentioned is to learn simple phrases like “how do you say this?”, “what does that mean” or “can you repeat please”?

They’re perfect for your speaking practice because they stop you from going back into English when a communication breakdown happens.

Here are some examples in French, Spanish and Italian:

6 French conversation phrases you need to know

13 Spanish phrases to ace your first conversation

The complete guide to having a conversation in Italian

If the language you’re learning isn’t there, you can ask a native speaker to help you translate these phrases into the language you’re learning. More on how to find native speakers at the end of this article.

Learn the “thinking” sounds

Speaking slowly, epicly long silences… it’s normal to be slow at first while your brain gets used to processing the new information. That’s what learning’s all about! Over time, things will become more automatic.

And even native speakers hesitate sometimes. In fact, spoken language is packed with ums, ahs, and little words like “you know”, “so”, “actually”, “I mean”, and “right”.

These little words, called fillers, don’t really change the meaning of the sentence, but they add to the colour and flavour and give the language its characteristic sound.

Consider an answer to the common question: “Where are you from?”

Without filler words, you might say something like this:

“London. A small town close to London. Are you from Paris?”

With filler words, you could say this:

“London… Well, a small town close to London, actually. You’re from Paris, right?”

Fillers are often overlooked by language learners, but they’re a great tool because they make your speech sound more natural and buy you some more thinking time.

Here are some examples:

The complete guide to having a conversation in Italian

French filler words: 9 simple ways to sound more French (with French is Beautiful)‌

Spanish filler words: 19 small but powerful words to sound more native.

If the language you’re learning isn’t here, you can pick some up by asking native speakers to translate them for you. Keep in mind that it’s really important to be aware and listen to how they are used in the language you’re learning, because it might not be exactly the same.

The Easy Languages Youtube channels are great for this – the presenters interview people on the streets, so you get to hear lots of natural speech.

Easy German

Easy Spanish

Easy French

Easy Italian

Easy Polish

Easy Greek

Easy Korean

Easy Arabic

Easy Russian

Easy Turkish

And you can find lots of other languages on the Easy Languages Channel

Speaking mission 2: learn these phrases

Try to memorise as many of the words and phrases from this section as you can, but most importantly, practice using them in conversation, as this will make them more memorable. You can even bring them with you to your conversation practice sessions, so that you can get into the habit of using them when you need them – notes are allowed 😃

Stop worrying about your mistakes

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”

JK Rowling’s words are perfect for those hoping to speak a foreign language:

It’s impossible to speak a foreign language without making mistakes, unless you’re so cautious that you don’t speak at all, in which case you’ve failed at speaking a foreign language by default.

You’ll make mistakes. Lots of them. And that’s ok.

Make friends with your mistakes

Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil to be tolerated. You need them to learn.

They’re part of a feedback loop that works like this:

  1. Try to say something.
  2. Make a mistake.
  3. Get feedback on the right way to say it.
  4. Say it right.

The more mistakes you make, the more this feedback loop happens and the more you learn. Instead of seeing mistakes as something that you need to avoid, put yourself out there and try to make as many as possible – you’ll learn faster.

But won’t it be embarrassing to make mistakes?‌

The embarrassment around speaking a foreign language comes from expectations: how you think you “should” talk and what the person listening expects from you. Here’s a good solution to that…

Involve native speakers in your learning

Lots of people view language learning like a performance. You study the grammar and vocabulary first, then once you’ve got it all perfect, you can step out onto the stage and start having fluent conversations.

But languages don’t work like that. You have to practice, which includes making mistakes and looking a bit silly. You’ll never be able to hide the fact that you’re a learner, so there’s no point in trying.

When you get the chance to practice speaking the language, take the pressure off by lowering expectations. Start by saying that you’re learning and you’d like to try – this way the other person will be expecting mistakes.

A conversation isn’t a performance, it’s a team sport. This is especially true if you practice in a situation that’s set up specifically to help you speak the language, for example, in a conversation exchange or online tutoring. Give yourself permission to be a learner and ask for help and corrections as you go along.

Ask for corrections

The following phrases will help you get feedback in the language so you can check that what you’re saying is correct and learn from your mistakes.

1. Did I say it right?

2. Do you say it like that?

3. How would you say it?‌

4. Did that sound natural?‌

You can even ask your conversation partner to translate these questions for you, so you can say them in the language you’re learning.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Do you ever feel like you make mistakes because you forget things too easily in the language you’re learning?‌ Don’t worry, that’s normal!‌

Most people underestimate how important repetition is for learning a language. Research suggests that kids learning their first language may need to come across a word more than 20 times before it sticks. So if you get a word wrong 19 times, keep going. The 20th could be the winner!

Don’t get disheartened when you forget words and grammar, it’s a natural part of the language learning process. And don’t spend the whole time saying to yourself “I should have known that”. Those kind of self defeating thoughts will impede your progress.

Be patient with yourself, keep going and you’ll get there.

Learn how to laugh at yourself

You’ll probably make some embarrassing mistakes too. That’s all part of it – at least you’ll have a good story to tell.

When you’re learning to speak a foreign language, a good sense of humour is your secret weapon. If you know how to laugh at yourself, you can have some fun with native speakers and get them on your side. If you are laughing, you’re the one in control and those mistakes can’t intimidate you any more.

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One of the most important skills for learning a language is the ability to laugh at yourself. It’s helped me survive many tricky situations, like that time I told a French man I was naked in London (nue à Londres) when I wanted to say born (née à Londres); Or telling everyone at the dinner table that English people eat penis puré (puré di pisello) instead of mushy peas (puré di piselli); That time I told my future mother in law that something was effing boring (palloso) when I wanted to say obvious (palese). When I have to pause before I say discourage (scoraggiare) so I don’t say fart (scorreggiare) by accident. Or arse (cul) instead of neck (cou). Every time I forget numbers, days of the week, the alphabet, and months of the year in languages I’m supposed to speak well. And the hundreds, maybe thousands of times I’ve tried to say something and been met with an awkward smile because they didn’t know what on earth I was on about. Arm yourself with a good sense of humour and let native speakers laugh with you – you’ll never struggle to make friends! When was the last time you had to laugh at yourself when learning a language? Share in the comments! 👇

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Speaking mission 3: reframe your mistakes

Write it down, say it aloud, tattoo it on your forehead, whatever you need to do to absorb this idea: mistakes are good. One way to see mistakes as a positive thing is to use them in your practice sessions as a learning tool. Set yourself a goal to make as many mistakes as possible and bring a notebook – write down the corrections and learn them before your next session.

Warm up to speaking a foreign language

The best way to get better at speaking a foreign language is to spend as much time as you can speaking the foreign language.

Simple in theory, but it’s not always easy to find native speakers on your doorstep. And let’s be honest, you’d probably rather keep putting it off, because it’s scary and you don’t feel ready.

The good news is, you don’t have to jump straight into conversations with native speakers. In this section, you’ll learn how to practice speaking in non-intimidating situations first, so that you can warm up for real conversations.

Practice speaking without a native speaker

When you’re making your very first steps in speaking a foreign language, you don’t really need a native speaker. You just need to practice grabbing all that grammar and vocabulary that’s floating around in your head and using it to form sentences. Check out this article for some simple ways to do this.

4 unconventional ways to practice speaking without a native speaker

Start chatting in a language online

Chatting online is a great way to ease yourself into speaking a foreign language. It’s similar to talking in real life, but people can’t see your face (unless you want them too) and the writing format gives you time to think about what you want to say. You can even use an online dictionary to find the right words as you chat.

Here are a few resources you might find handy:

1. HelloTalk

A bit like WhatsApp for language learners, you can use HelloTalk to find native speakers and set up a language exchange via text messages. There are some great tools for learners, such as a translation button to help you understand the messages. Once you get comfortable with texting, you can practice speaking by sending audio messages or meeting your language exchange partner for a video call.

2. Facebook groups

You’ll find lots of groups on Facebook where you can practice chatting with other learners and the moderators in the language you’re learning.

All you have to do to find them is do a quick search on Facebook – you’ll probably be spoilt for choice!

3. Instagram

There are some brilliant language teachers on Instagram who post things in the language and chat with their communities. Why not follow them and practice chatting in the comments?

To find these teachers, you can do a quick google search for “Spanish teacher Instagram” (insert whatever language you’re learning) or look on Instagram for hashtags like #learnspanish #learnarabic #frenchlessons #chineselessons…

Listen and read a lot

It’s difficult to learn how to have meaningful conversations by memorising phrases alone.

You’ll also need to spend lots of time observing how the language works in real life, through reading and listening. This will help you start to absorb common words, phrases and grammatical structures. When you read and listen to the language regularly, you’ll find that things will often “pop into your head” when you need them, helping you speak in a more fluid way.

Here are some tips for reading and listening in a foreign language:

Improve your listening in a foreign language: the ultimate guide

This tool makes reading in a foreign language dead simple

And here’s another link to the resources so that, if we have your language, you can find some good things to read and listen to:

The 17 best tools for learning French: from beginner to advanced

The 11 best tools for learning Spanish: from beginner to advanced

The 38 best Italian learning tools: from beginner to advanced

The 15 best tools for learning Russian: from beginner to advanced

Speaking mission 4: make it your routine

These things are all good in principle, but to get the benefit you have to make sure that you’re doing them regularly. Take a moment to look back through this section and think of how you can integrate these strategies into your life and routine. For example:

  • If you normally go on Facebook when you’re on the bus, can you use this time to chat in a Facebook group in the language you’re learning?‌
  • If you listen to podcasts on your way to work, can you listen to podcasts or audio for learning the language instead?
  • If you watch TV in the evenings, can you spend a little time watching Youtube videos in the language you’re learning instead?

Speaking a foreign language: how to find native speakers

Time to get started with the (not-so-secret) strategy for learning how to speak a foreign language: hours and hours of awkward conversation practice.

There’s nothing quite like regular conversations, with native speakers, or someone who speaks the language better than you, to help you get better at speaking the language.

Where can you find these people? Let’s chat about that now:

How to find people to practice with

My favourite way to practice speaking a language is with an online conversation tutor. There are lots of advantages to learning a language in this way:

  • Great value: sometimes for less than $10 an hour
  • One-on-one: you get individual attention and lots more practice.
  • Low stress: you’re paying them to help you speak and they know you’re a learner, so mind blanks and mistakes are totally ok.
  • Perfect for busy people:‌ You can do the lesson whenever you want, from wherever you have an internet connection.

I use the platform Italki for conversation lessons, you can learn more about how to do that here:

Italki: the ultimate guide to learning a language with online tutors

If classes are out of budget, you can also use Italki to set up language exchanges. The Italki platform is a bit of a one-stop language learning shop, because you can also use the notebook section to get corrections on your writing and ask questions on the answers page.

Finally, if you prefer real-life contact, you can use websites like conversation exchange to find native speakers in your area and invite them out for a coffee or a beer – you might find you speak the language better after a glass or two!

What to talk about

Remember, it’s all about practice: no one expects you to be perfect already, or even good… yet! When you set up your conversations, you can even take along your notes – actually I’d recommend doing it.

Keep a notebook with your useful phrases and things you’ve learned recently and refer to them during the conversations. You can use the same notebook to write down feedback from your speaking partner or conversation tutor.

As for conversation topics and things to talk about, you’ll find lots of ideas in this post.

Italki: the ultimate guide to learning a language with online tutors

Look for the section conversation ideas: what to talk about at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.

Do something now

Enough theory, time for some action – that’s what learning practical skills are all about! What’s one small thing you could do right now to help you start speaking in a foreign language? Scroll back through this article quickly if you need some ideas. Book a lesson, grab a notebook and write some essential phrases, sign up to hellotalk, join a facebook group… pick one small, simple thing and start now. When you’re chatting away in the language you’re learning, you’ll be glad you did!

Anything to add?

Have you tried any of the tips in this article? Do you have any more tips for speaking a foreign language that you think other learners might find useful? Share them in the comments.

Let’s be honest.

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:‌

Italki: the ultimate guide to learning a language with online tutors

4 unconventional ways to practice speaking without a native speaker

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:

  1. Have a go
  2. Make a mistake (even if you risk looking silly)
  3. Get a correction
  4. Learn

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.

You can:‌


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)

3. Choose activities you enjoy, so you’re more likely to stick with it

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).

The reason that I’ve been able to keep it up long enough to end up speaking the languages is that I’m constantly looking for ways to learn that I enjoy. I learn vocabulary by playing games, practice speaking with tutors I like talking to and spend a lot of time using videos, films and TV.


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!

  1. Michael Phelps Relishes his Golden Exit from the Olympic Stage
  2. Tool’s Adam Jones:‌ Tom Morello sucked at guitar when I first met him – and now no-one can touch him

I’ll start tomorrow.

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:

  1. Be overwhelmed with work or home life = not enough time or energy.
  2. Flirt with shiny objects: should I learn Spanish instead? Or take up running?
  3. 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:

  1. Forcing yourself to do things you don’t like
  2. Expecting too much of yourself
  3. 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.

For this reason, a lot of sound advice will tell you that the secret to getting started is to focus on really small, easy habits that grow over time. For example

  1. Learn one word
  2. Do one grammar exercise
  3. Write one sentence…

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:

  1. Waking up early and practicing for a couple of hours before work.
  2. Aiming to have a conversation with a native speaker after a few months.
  3. 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:

Listening in a foreign language: the ultimate guide

How to learn a language by watching TV and films

32 fun ways to learn a language (that actually work)


5. Treat yourself

Try to make your language learning feel like a treat – this way it becomes your “me time” and it’ll feel easier to get back into it. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Read a short story for learners over a coffee in the morning (or a glass of wine in the evening!)
  2. Watch YouTube videos.
  3. Learn on the sofa, while you watch TV
  4. Playing video games in the language you’re learning.
  5. Get a pedicure while you read something.
  6. Go for a nice walk while you listen to a podcast.
  7. Study in your favourite café.
  8. 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…

  1. Cheese and cake
  2. 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:

  1. Put post-its around the house with things you want to remember in the language you’re learning.
  2. Change your internet homepage to a Youtube channel with tutorial videos.
  3. If you use apps or a podcast, put them on the homescreen of your phone.
  4. Change the language on your phone (but remember how to change it back just in case!).
  5. Listen to music, the radio or podcasts in the language you’re learning, even if it’s just in the background.
  6. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Connect with native speakers via an app such as HelloTalk.
  3. If you prefer face to face, try conversation exchange, where you can find native speakers in your area.
  4. 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.

9. Rest

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?

Related posts

Ode to the language learner: this is for you

Italki: the ultimate guide to learning a language with an online tutor

How to learn a language you hated in school


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?

The internet.

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.

You’ll learn:

– 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!

Au contraire

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:

Me: Hallo, I’m learning German.
Them: OK…. (looks awkward and runs away).

From home, with the focused speaking practice I got with my italki tutors, I learned to have a basic conversation in German in around 3 months.

How to learn a foreign language on italki

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.

  1. Go to and sign up.
  2. Fill in your details, including which language you’re learning.
  3. 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!
  4. Click on “find a teacher”
  5. Here, you’ll find filters like “price”, “availability” and “specialities”. Set these to fit in with your budget, schedule and learning goals.  
  6. Explore the teacher profiles and watch the introduction videos to find a teacher you’d enjoy working with.
  7. 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.

Once you’ve finished and confirmed your first lesson, if you signed up though the links on this page, italki will give you $10 for your next lesson.

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.

Good for:

1. If you’re a total beginner.
2. You’re not sure where to start and you’d like guidance from an expert.

Click here to find a professional teacher to help you speak a language

Community tutors on italki

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.

Good for:

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.

Click here to find a community tutor to help you speak a language.

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.

13 Spanish Phrases to Ace Your First Spanish Conversation

6 French Conversation Phrases You Need to Know

6 Essential Conversation Phrases in 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.

4. Lists

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:

An example of conversation-starter lists I sent to my Spanish teacher: 2 things I saw yesterday and 2 bits of gossip I can tell you (sorry I cut the gossip bit out for privacy reasons!)

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.

The 38 best Italian learning tools: from beginner to advanced

The 17 best tools for learning French: from beginner to advanced

The 11 best tools for learning Spanish: from beginner to advanced

The 15 best tools for learning Russian: from beginner to advanced

3. Recycling questions

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

A peek inside my scrappy notebook. I write the question/translation on the left, and the answer (the word I want to learn) on the right. Then I cover the right side and quiz myself.

Here are a few more activities to help you remember what you learn in your lessons:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The main thing is to meet with your tutor regularly and speak as much as you can. You’ll be speaking that language in no time!

Tutors in this post

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.


italki online language tutor

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.

To listen to the interview while you’re out and about, you can download the podcast version here.

1. Are you good at bouncing back from tough situations?

How far do you agree with these statements?

  1. It takes me a long time to recover from stressful experiences.
  2. I find that little things often bother me.
  3. I have never been good at coping with negative emotions.

In the first part of the interview, Tim introduces a trait called emotional resilience and how it can help you learn a foreign language.

Click here to learn more about emotional resilience

The science bit: Your brain on stress

Tim gets into the neurobiology of how stress can impact your language learning. What happens in the brains of people who are good (and not so good) at coping with stress?

In this section, you’ll learn about:

  • The amygdala: a little part of your brain that can get you into big trouble!
  • The left prefrontal cortex: the “thinking” part of your brain which keeps the amygdala in check.
  • How the connections between these two parts of the brain can dictate how you respond to stress.

Learn more about how your brain reacts to stress here.

Related post: The Secret Science of Joyful Language Learning

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.

Click here to hear to learn how to manage stress when speaking a foreign language

2. Can you put yourself in other people’s shoes?

How far do you agree with these statements?

  1. I’m sensitive to the slightest change in a person’s facial expressions.
  2. Before acting, I think things through carefully.
  3. People come to me because I’m understanding of their problems.

In this part of the interview, Tim explains how your ability to identify with people from different cultures can help (or hinder) your attempts to learn a foreign language.

Learn more about emotional sensitivity and its effect on language learning

What happens when we can’t empathise with other people?

Tim introduces a concept called “joint attention” and explains why your ability to connect with others is crucial when it comes to language development.

Click here to learn about why empathy is important for language learning

Find out more about Tim’s work

Here are the links Tim mentioned in the interview

What do you think?

Have you experienced any of the things Tim talked about in this episode? Tell us in the comments!

Related posts

Why so hard? How to learn a second language as an adult

What’s stopping you from speaking a foreign language – and how to fix it

How to learn a language at home (even if you’re really lazy)

How to Learn a Language You Hated In School

32 fun ways to learn a language (that actually work)

Having a conversation in Spanish can feel scary at first.

There are so many things that could go wrong!

  1. You forget a word or some grammar mid-sentence.
  2. You don’t understand what they said to you.
  3. They reply in English!
  4. 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

Imagine this.

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:

  1. Point and say: “one of those please”.
  2. 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.

To make sure you remember the 13 Spanish phrases, you’ll also find a PDF cheatsheet that you can print off and take with you.

6 Spanish phrases to keep the conversation going

Learn these phrases by heart so you can drop them into the conversation when you need them. Get the PDF here: 13 Essential Spanish Phrases PDF.

Spanish Phrase 1: ¿Cómo se dice… en español? 

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.

To make the most out of Juan’s video for learning Spanish, check out this post: 5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films.

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.

  1. ¿Cómo se dice… en español? How do you say … in Spanish?
  2. ¿Qué significa eso? What does that mean?
  3. Lo siento, no entendí. Sorry, I didn’t understand.
  4. ¿Puedes repetirlo, por favor? Can you repeat please?
  5. ¿Puedes hablar más lento, por favor? Can you speak slower, please?
  6. ¿Podemos hablar en español, por favor? Can we speak in Spanish, please?
  7. Hola ¿cómo estás? Hello, how are you?
  8. ¿Cuál es tu nombre? What’s your name?
  9. Mucho gusto. Pleased to meet you
  10. ¿Qué hiciste hoy? What did you do today?
  11. ¿Qué me recomiendas…? What do you recommend…?
  12. ¿Qué se te antoja hacer…? What do you feel like doing?
  13. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Related Post: The simplest way to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language

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:

Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off

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.

Conversation Exchange

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 might like these too…

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

With Italian YouTube channels, you can listen to people speaking natural Italian, which is perfect for training yourself to understand Italian conversations.

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:

Italian YouTube Channels

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.

He also has a great series of slow videos (with subtitles in Italian) so you can ease yourself into to listening to real spoken Italian.


Italian Pod101

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

Easy Languages

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.

There are loads more activities you can do with these dual-language subtitles to help you learn Italian faster. Check out this post for ideas on how to use YouTube videos to learn Italian.

Your Italian Teacher

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.


Lucrezia Oddone

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.

Italiano Automatico

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.

Related post: Why so hard? How to learn a second language as an adult

At the time of writing, he already has a library of 503 videos, including a playlist of videos with Italian subtitles. Time for an Italiano Automatico YouTube binge!

Italian YouTube Channels for Advanced Learners

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.

She’s also written a book on the same topic, so if you want to refine your Italian by correcting common grammar mistakes, Fiorella’s your girl!

Fan Page

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

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!

The Jackal

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)

Cook Around

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.

Related post: Improve your Listening in a Foreign Language: The Ultimate Guide

How to switch languages

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!

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