Why is it so hard to remember words in a foreign language?

Why is the grammar so confusing?

If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions and wondered how the heck you’ll learn to speak that foreign language, then today’s post is for you.

I used to wonder the same thing, especially after I’d studied German for 5 years at school, then Spanish and Italian for another 2, with nothing to show for it except a few random words popping into my head.

Why couldn’t I speak a language after so many years of classes? I considered two possibilities. Either:

1. I’m a complete idiot.
2. Languages are basically impossible.

If I was an idiot, then so was everyone else. Given that every other English person I knew was in the same position, I assumed that learning a language must be one of those things that only people with steely willpower can do, like running a marathon or not squeezing spots.

But since then, I’ve learnt Italian, French and Spanish, as well as a bit of German and Mandarin and I’ve discovered something exciting:

Learning a second language as an adult isn’t as difficult as I thought. I was just doing it wrong.

Keep reading to find out:

– The big mistake that stops adults from learning a second language (and how to avoid it).
– The simple technique that will help any adult (including YOU) become fluent in a language.
– How to have more fun learning a second language, even as a beginner.

Is it hard to learn a second language as an adult?

Last week, I got a new Italian student.

Let’s call him Bob. Bob had been learning Italian for over 2 years, but he still couldn’t really string a sentence together. He had a vague idea of verb tenses and some vocabulary floating around in his mind, but he couldn’t remember any of them well enough to use them in real-life.

Surprisingly, after just 3 hours together, Bob was already having simple conversations in Italian.

How did Bob achieve that amazing result in such a short time?

Is it because I’m a magic Italian teacher who can teach you to speak Italian in 3 hours?

That’d be nice, but no. Truth is, I didn’t do much.

All I did was encourage him to start speaking. About normal things that he talks about in his native language. And helped him out with a few words and grammar points so he could say what he wanted to say.

As soon as Bob started using Italian in real life, everything fell into place.

The wrong way to learn a second language as an adult

I was in the same situation as Bob after two years of Italian classes. I’d spent most of the time learning grammar and vocabulary, but I struggled to remember it. I found language classes boring, never did my homework and couldn’t have a conversation if my life depended on it.

But then, I did a year abroad in Italy. Suddenly, learning a language wasn’t about memorizing verbs, it was about talking to people.

I didn’t like studying grammar, but I liked people.

So I took my nose out of my grammar book and started trying to have conversations. I also started spending my free time reading and listening to things in Italian. At first, things which were simplified for learners. Then, as my level improved, I started trying to do things I enjoyed in my first language, like reading magazines and watching TV series.

It was really awkward. I spoke excruciatingly slowly and made tons of mistakes. I didn’t understand a lot of what I saw and heard. But I persevered and after a while, I became fluent in Italian.

And even though it was tricky, I enjoyed it. I was interacting with human beings (the reason I wanted to learn a language in the first place) and reading and listening to things that I actually cared about, instead of those dull and cheesy textbooks.

Do you need to go to the country to learn a second language?

You might think that my story confirms the old cliché: you need to go to the country to learn a language. But that’s not true.

After my experience with Italian, I knew I could do it. I was capable of learning a second language, if I abandoned traditional classroom methods and focused on learning by doing instead. So I learnt a 3rd (French) and 4th (Spanish) and dabbled with a 5th and 6th (Mandarin Chinese and German), without living in the countries where these languages are spoken.

Now I know that it’s not impossible to learn a second language in your home country. It just seemed like that because the way most of us are taught in school doesn’t work.

It’s not you, it’s the method

The more languages I learn and the more students I work with, the more I’m convinced of this: you can’t learn a language by memorizing a bunch of grammar rules and vocabulary.

You have to learn languages by doing. By speaking, listening, reading and writing.

This doesn’t mean I’m totally against grammar. Learning the rules might give you a basic structure to follow and help you tidy things up around the edges. But the vast majority (if not all) the learning comes through using the language.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask the polyglots. Although they all have different methods, one thing they have in common is that they practice using the language a lot – they don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time memorizing grammar rules or vocabulary in isolation.

What’s more, although grammar normally has a starring role in the classroom, the scientific evidence that teaching grammar rules helps students speak a language is actually quite weak.

Which raises an interesting question: why do most language courses prioritise grammar, when there’s not much anecdotal or scientific evidence to suggest that this is the best way to learn a language?

The answer lies in the history of language education.

Why most schools make it harder for adults to learn a second language

Let’s hop in a time machine and travel back to the 1800s for a moment.

Back then, there was no Ryan Air. You couldn’t jump on a plane and go somewhere warm for a couple of weeks. There was no European Union. In fact, many European countries were in almost constant warfare.

People didn’t have the same opportunities to go abroad and connect with people from other countries as we do now. Yet languages were still taught at school.


To study ancient texts. Students took Latin and Greek classes so they could learn to read and translate literature in those languages. The teaching focused on rote-learning of verb tables and grammar rules, which worked OK when languages were used as a tool to translate texts. There was no focus on speaking or listening at all because that wasn’t the goal.

The problems started in the 1900s, when people began to learn other languages. Even though the goal was now to communicate with human beings rather than translate texts, teachers continued using the same method they’d always used. This left generations of frustrated students who couldn’t speak a language after years of classes, because they’d never practiced speaking it.

The world’s changed a lot since then and fortunately, so have language teaching methods. There’s a lot more communication in the classroom these days.

But the most dangerous idea has lived on – the belief that you have to memorize lots of grammar rules and vocabulary before you start trying to use the language in real life.

I can’t remember words and grammar

People who’ve only ever tried to learn languages with the traditional school method are often left feeling like they’re bad at languages, because no matter how hard they try, they can’t remember grammar and vocabulary.

If this sounds like you, please don’t give up on learning a second language. You’re not bad at languages, you’ve just been taught them with the wrong techniques.

I see this all the time for myself and my students: it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat a grammar point or word list. Almost everyone struggles to remember grammar and vocabulary until they start using them in real ways. That is, until you come across lots of real examples in reading and listening, and practice using them in speaking and writing.

There are two science-backed reasons why learning grammar and vocabulary in isolation makes them more difficult to remember:

1. Your memory is sharper when you learn by doing.
2. To learn a language, your brain needs to take statistics about words in real-life contexts.

Let’s look at these in more detail.

1. What divers can teach you about learning a second language

Back in 1975, researchers Godden and Baddeley did something a bit weird.

They sent divers underwater and taught them a bunch of words, played through a diving communication device. They also taught them some words on dry land. 24 hours later, they tested the divers both underwater and on dry land to see how many words they could remember.

Turns out, the divers forgot 40% more words when the context was different, that is, if they’d learnt the words on land and tried to recall them underwater and vice-versa.

Decades of research support the very same quirk about human memory: we remember things more easily when we use them in the same situation we learnt them in, and forget them more easily in different situations.

If you learn verbs by rote, you might remember them while you’re going through the list in your head, but you’ll probably struggle to recall them in conversation. Similarly, if you learn words and grammar on apps, they might come to mind easily when you’re fiddling with your phone, but disappear as soon as you need them in real life.

The good news?

If you learn a language through conversations, you’ll remember better when you’re having conversations. If you learn by writing, you’ll remember better when you’re writing. If you learn by listening, you’ll remember more easily when listening. If you learn by reading, you’ll remember more easily when reading.

In other words, if you learn by doing, things will come to you more easily when you need them in real life.

2. How your brain learns languages

Why do we have tall buildings, but high ceilings?

In many languages, the difference between tall and high doesn’t even exist. If you call your boss a high man in Italian, that means he’s tall. If you call him a high man in English, it means he’s been smoking something funny.

Learning a language isn’t about isolated words, it’s about learning how those words fit together.

Neurolinguistics, the study of how our brain processes languages, shows us why this matters.

The neuroscience of learning a second language

Did you know that your brain is constantly giving off electrical signals? These signals change depending on what task your brain is doing, and scientists can read some of these – using a technique called electroencephalography – to study how your brain learns a language.

One of these signals, called the N400, shows us how native speakers process groups of words. The N400 is relatively small with combinations of words that you expect to hear together, like coffee and cream, but larger for unexpected words, like coffee and… crap. If your N400 doesn’t increase significantly for unexpected combinations, like crap, scientists might wonder what on earth you’ve been putting in your coffee.

These signals show that our brain is constantly taking statistics about words that normally appear together. This is good, as it helps us make predictions about what’s coming next so we can communicate faster.

The better someone speaks a foreign language, the closer their N400 pattern is to that of a native speaker. This suggests that learning a language involves building up expectations about words that usually appear together, just like native speakers do.

To speak a foreign language fluently, you’ll need to give your brain the chance to take statistics about how words are combined in the language you’re learning. You can’t do this if you spend all your time trying to memorise grammar rules or word lists.

The best way to get a feeling for word patterns in your target language is through mass input, that is, spending tons of time reading and listening to the language.

The good news is, you can get this mass input without even realizing it – by simply reading and listening to lots of things you enjoy. Not only is learning by doing more in line with what we know about how the brain learns languages, it’s also more fun.

You don’t have to start speaking straight away if you don’t want to

You may think that learning by doing means you have to start speaking straight away. If you want to throw yourself in at the deep end and practice speaking very early on, brilliant – it’s a great way to apply what you’ve learnt and get used to communicating with native speakers.

But you don’t have to.

If the idea of speaking from day 1 fills you with dread, feel free to wait a little while! Many prolific language learners prefer not to speak straight away, most notably Steve Kaufmann who speaks 16 languages.

If you’d rather wait, you can start by doing lots of reading and listening to get a feel for the language. When you decide to have a go at speaking, you’ll need some time to adapt, but the foundation will already be there.

Everyone’s different. It doesn’t matter if you’d rather dive into speaking or spend some time reading and listening first.

All that matters is that you stop dedicating a disproportionate amount of time to memorizing grammar and vocabulary and practice using the language in real ways.

Learning a second language won’t always be easy (but it will be worth it)

When you start learning a language by doing, it’ll probably feel awkward. When you try reading and listening, all that new vocabulary might feel overwhelming. When you try speaking, you might get embarrassed by your mistakes, or the epically long silences as you search for the words.

That’s a normal part of learning new things. Learning to tie your shoelaces probably felt awkward at first, but now you can do it without thinking.

Some people see this uncomfortable feeling as a problem that should be avoided. They want to memorize more grammar and vocabulary because they believe it will help them feel at ease when they start using the language in real life.

But that’s like thinking you can improve your guitar skills by reading more books. A bit of theory might help, but you’ll never learn to play without going through that awkward stage where your fingertips hurt.

The only thing that’ll help you feel at ease when you speak a language is experience. Languages are tricky sometimes. But the more you practice, the easier it gets.

If I can do it, so can you.

How to learn a language by doing when you’re a beginner

So far, we’ve talked about how the most effective (and enjoyable!) way to learn a language is to practice using it in real life. But how can you do that when you’re a complete beginner? To get practical ideas on how to learn a language by doing, even as a beginner, join me for my online workshop this Saturday, 10th March.

As part of the Women in Language event, you’ll get access to my workshop called: The #1 mistake beginners make when learning a language (and how to fix it). In it, you’ll learn:

– Actionable ideas on how to start using the language (even if you’re a beginner).
– The smart way to learn grammar and vocabulary.
– How to sound more natural and confident when you speak.

If that sounds like something you’d like to get involved in, click here to learn more about the Women in Language event.

After you sign up, you’ll get the How to Learn a Language by Doing Starter Pack, a guide with tons of practical ideas on how you can start using your target language straight away.

You’ll also get access to 27 other talks by expert female guest speakers, where you can pick up loads more inspiration and advice to help you start speaking that language.

Hope to see you there!

It was supposed to be easy.

In July 2015, Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, played against 23-year-old Heather Watson, ranked 59th.

Everyone expected a quick and painless win for Serena. Yet in the final set, millions stared at their TV screens in astonishment as Heather looked close to winning the match.

In the end, Serena cinched it, but the tennis world was stunned by how close Heather got.

Do you know what my favourite part of this story is?

When Heather was 8 years old, she watched Serena play at Wimbledon. She even had Serena’s poster on her wall. It was Serena who had inspired Heather to become the great tennis player that came close to beating her.

As for Serena, her childhood hero was Steffi Graf, who she later surpassed with her 23rd Grand Slam title.

In turn, these 3 tennis players have inspired little girls all over the world to smash it on the tennis court.


The success of one woman is the inspiration of every other one: Serena Williams


Women in Languages

Sometimes, seeing other people do remarkable things is exactly the push you need to move ahead with your own projects.

With this in mind, I’ve put together a list of 50 women who are making amazing contributions to the world of language learning.

From smart women who developed new methods to learn languages, to brave women who left everything behind and moved to a new country where they didn’t know a single person.

From benevolent women who are making the world a better place with their language skills, to ambitious women who’ve learnt multiple languages and show you how to do the same.

I hope after reading about these legendary gals, you’ll feel more energized to leap into your own language learning missions.

This post is in honour of the upcoming Women in Language event, a four-day online conference where you’ll have the opportunity to learn from female guest speakers with expertise in language teaching and language learning (including yours truly!). If that sounds like something you’d like to get involved in, click here to learn more about Women in Language.

The post is long (to squeeze all those extraordinary women in) so I’ve organised it as follows. Feel free to click on the links to navigate your way around.

Women who show you how they do it

We’ll start with the women who learn multiple languages and invite you along with them on their language journey. They’ll inspire you with their triumphs, give candid accounts of their struggles and share insider tips so you can learn languages just like they did.

1. Lindsay Williams from Lindsay does Languages

First up is Lindsay Williams, who shares her infectious enthusiasm for languages over on her blog lindsaydoeslanguages. Her articles and YouTube videos are full of creative ideas on how to learn a language on your own. As well as inspiring independent learners, she also gives online language teachers advice on how to kickstart their careers.

Linsday says: For me, a big part of my job is inspiring others to teach themselves languages. 

Lindsay is also one of the lovely hosts of the Women in Language online event.


2. Kerstin Cable from Fluent Language

Kerstin is a native German speaker who’s studied 8 languages so far (her English is better than mine, eek!). She’s a trained translator, host of The Fluent Show Podcast, and author of the guides Language Habit Toolkit, Fluency Made Achievable and The Vocab Cookbook. On her blog fluentlanguage, Kerstin shares her own language learning journey and gives actionable advice on how to build good language learning habits.

Kerstin believes: Language learning is for everyone, not just young, rich, smart, privileged people

Kerstin is hosting the Women in Language event, together with Lindsay and our next inspiring woman language learner…

3. Shannon Kennedy from Eurolinguiste

Shannon is the queen of learning multiple languages: she speaks French, English, and Chinese fluently, has dabbled in German, Italian, and Spanish to various degrees, and is currently working her way towards better learning Russian, Croatian, and Korean. More recently, she’s started focusing on Japanese. Phew!

On her blog, Eurolinguiste, you’ll find articles infused with travel adventures and cultural notes about the languages she’s learning (there’s some food in there too!). As well as documenting her own journey, she inspires language learners through her work on the fluent in 3 months blog and with the add1challenge community.

Shannon says: I believe in working hard towards your goals and being transparent with successes and failures.

4. Agnieszka Murdoch from 5-Minute language

Agnieszka speaks English, French, Spanish, Polish and German, and is currently learning Japanese. On her 5-Minute Language blog and fab YouTube channel, she gives bite-sized articles and videos with practical tips on how to learn a language, even if you’re very busy.

Agnieszka says: I believe there’s always time for language learning – you too can find it with a few simple tweaks to your lifestyle

5. Michele from The Intrepid Guide

Travel writer Michele Frolla combines her two passions to create a unique blend of language and travel advice. On her blog the intrepid guide, you’ll find destinations guides, language learning tools, travel phrase cheat sheets, and more!

I love seeing the stunning photos, fascinating and little-known linguistic and cultural tidbits she shares on social media.

Michele lives by the motto: The more we travel, the more we learn.

You can catch Michele’s talk: La Dolce Vita: How This Australian Moved to Italy at the Women in Language online conference.


6. Jo from Shut Up and Go

Jo Franco is the business head of the phenomenally successful travel blog and YouTube channel Shut Up and Go. Together with her friend Damon Dominque, she encourages people who want to get out and see the world to stop making excuses and go for it.

In her straight-up and relatable style, she presents a blend of travel advice, cultural stuff and language learning tips.

She speaks English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Here, you can see her hanging out with her host family in Sorrento after learning Italian at lightning speed.

Jo says: I’m a believer in taking risks and just going for it

7. Lýdia Machová from Language Mentoring

Polyglot Lýdia Machová learns a new language every two years. She’s currently learning Swahili, her 9th! She’s also one of the main organizers of Polyglot Gathering, one of the biggest world events for polyglots.

She believes you can’t teach a language, you can only help other people do it on their own. On her website, Language Mentoring, you can learn about her unique approach which helps people find their own way of learning a language, persist and achieve the desired results.

Lýdia says: Learning a language doesn’t have to be a complicated, lengthy process, and it definitely doesn’t have to be unpleasant. Quite the opposite, you can learn languages in a very enjoyable and relaxed way.

Catch Lýdia’s talk The Goldlist Method: Learn Vocabulary Without Without Memorizing at the Women in Language online conference.


8. Shahidah Foster from Black Girls Learn Languages

Shahidah Foster is on a mission to encourage more black women to become multilingual and increase coverage in the media. On her blog blackgirlslearnlanguages, she celebrates black linguistas and inspires with bios and language learning resources. You’ll also find articles about Shahidah’s own language experiences with German, Spanish and French, together with tons of practical and intuitive advice that make your target language come alive.

Shahidah says: Mimic the natives… it really helps you improve your vocabulary, it helps you find your voice in the target language.  

Catch Shahidah’s talk Why Immersion Is Key and How To “Immerse” Yourself at the Women in Language online conference.

9. Ellen Jovin from Words & Worlds of New York

In 2009, Ellen Jovin set herself a mission: to learn as much as she could in 12 months, of a bunch of languages spoken around New York. 8 years later, she’s still going strong and has now studied a total of 21 different languages.

On her website Words & Worlds of New York, she posts informative reviews of the resources she uses and often speaks at events to encourage adults to learn languages.

Ellen says: A new language is a hand held out to one’s neighbor, an opener of doors, a new way to see, a mental tickle, a road to unmediated communication with strangers in other lands, access to the world’s news, a gesture of peace — really, language study can be anything you want to make of it.

Catch Ellen’s talk Language Self-Study: Secrets of the Successful Autodidact at the Women in Language conference.

10. Lindie Botes

Incredible polyglot Lindie Botes speaks Afrikaans, English, French, Korean, Japanese, Mandarin and is learning Vietnamese, Indonesian, Arabic and Hindi. She was born in South Africa but has lived all over the world including France, Pakistan and Dubai. On her YouTube channel, Lindi shares her language journey together with language learning tips, Q&As and reviews of resources.

11. Judith Meyer from LearnYu

Polyglot of all trades Judith Meyer is a computational linguist, the head organiser of the Polyglot Gathering and author of several language books and courses. She’s an active member of the language learning community and often gives interviews and talks where she shares her experiences from learning over 14 languages.

You can catch Judith’s talk Fast Track Language Learning at the Women in Language conference.

12. Irina Pravet from IrinaPravet.com

Globetrotting Irina Pravet was born in Romania, grew up in Canada, lived in Germany and now lives in Finland. She speaks 6 languages to various levels of fluency: English & Romanian as native languages + French, Finnish, German, Spanish.

Her online business at IrinaPravet.com helps people create the life they love abroad.

Irina says: When we feel at ease abroad (whether speaking the language, being ourselves, connecting on a deeper level, etc) we make a bigger impact.

Watch Irina’s talk The Power of Compassion & Intuition in Language Learning Abroad at the Women in Language conference.


13. Trisha Dunbar from Language Learners Journal

With a background in psychology, Trisha Dunbar specialises in bringing mindfulness techniques and positive thinking strategies to improve focus and attention span for language learning. She wrote the popular Udemy course: Mindful learning: How to be more focused and productive.

On her website, Language Learner’s Journal, Trisha documents her own language learning experiences and gives tips on how to become more focused and productive. She speaks the following 8 languages to varying levels: English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Icelandic & British Sign Language (BSL).

Trisha says: My mission is to empower people to learn new skills, especially languages!

14. Eve from the Urban Eve

Jet-setter Eve has learned 8 languages. After growing up in Germany, she spent 4 years in Madrid and currently lives in Paris. On her YouTube channel, she gives practical advice and mindset tips on how to learn a language. She’s a big believer in immersing yourself in the culture of the language you’re learning.

Eve says: the more I get to know the culture, the more I love the language. 

15. Lina Vasquez from Busy Linguist

Lina Vasquez speaks over 7 languages. On her YouTube channel Busy Linguist, she talks about her own language learning experience and gives advice to people who are interested in language learning despite their busy schedule and life.

16. Maureen Millward from Language Learning Journey

Maureen Millward is a polyglot from Scotland. As well as English, her native language, she is fluent in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese and also speaks Catalan, Norwegian, French, Gaelic, German, Sicilian and Greek at various levels. She’s currently learning Chinese, Slovak & Arabic. She also dabbles in lots of the lesser known languages, like Azeri and Yoruba.

Over on her blog Language Learning Journey, Maureen documents her language learning journey and sometimes writes articles in the languages she’s learning.

Catch Maureen’s talk Rising Above and Beyond: Overcoming the Language Learning Plateau at the Women in Language conference.


17. Kamila Tekin from Polyglot’s diary

Kamila Tekin is a Turk from the Netherlands who taught herself 5+ languages using social media and apps. She grew up bilingual speaking Dutch and Turkish and taught herself English, Spanish, German, French, and Portuguese. She often gives herself specific deadlines to learn languages and shares what she’s learned on social media.

Her videos are inspiring and refreshingly honest: she challenges herself and isn’t afraid to show her mistakes, so you can see what learning a language is really like.

Kamila says: With my language learning project, I also hope to show people from other countries that I’m interested in their language and that I love their culture.

18. Abigail from Polyglot progress

Abigail runs the popular language learning YouTube channel Polyglot Progress, together with her friend Matt. She documents her own language learning progress and gives friendly and honest advice about how to learn a language, as well as resource reviews and mini tutorials. She’s currently learning German, Spanish, Bulgarian and Japanese.

19. Elena from Hitoritabi

Italian linguaphile Elena describes herself as an introvert and grammar geek. On her blog Hitoritabi, Elena teaches Italian and Japanese. She specialises in giving anxious language learners a safe space to learn in before jumping into the real world and starting to speak.

Elena says: Anxiety doesn’t have to be an obstacle to learning a language, but it can be your motivation for it.

Women who will inspire you to work with languages

20. Khady Ndoye from LaPolyglotte

African languages advocate Khady Ndoye is the founder of LaPolyglotte, a platform which inspires people to discover and learn more about the 3000+ African languages. The LaPolyglotte mission is: “to offer the diaspora, African youth, and africanophiles, dynamic and creative tools to the discovery of the cultural riches of which the cradle of humanity abounds”.

Khady specialises in African languages and digital marketing. On the blog and across her social media channels, you’ll find mini-tutorials together with fascinating linguistic and cultural facts.

21. Madeline Vadkerty

Madeline is an interpreter who worked for Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma in Washington, DC, where she used her skills in French, Spanish and Russian to help asylum seekers living in the US by offering psychological care and social services.

She wants to show you how you can use your language skills to make a better place.

Madeline says: Interpreting for dissidents from all over the world is part of what makes a career in this field so rewarding, but most uplifting of all was being part of a team that helps people heal and seeing people get back up on their feet after surviving torture.

Catch her talk Making the World a Better Place As an Interpreter at the Women in Language conference.

22. Nikki Prša from Speak at Home Tonight

Polish-American polyglot Nikki speaks 7 languages. She’s leveraged her language skills into an international career spanning the translation, education, and entertainment industries in the U.S., Germany, Poland, Egypt, Croatia, and Slovenia.

As well as teaching languages through her unique immersion approach, she shows people how to use their languages and understanding of multiple cultures to get their dream job in any industry.

Nikki says: Being multilingual in 2018 is the most valuable skill you can have.


Catch Therese’s talk not your typical classroom at the Women in Language conference.

26. Rebecca Howie from Irregular Endings

Language lover Rebecca speaks English and French and is learning Italian and German. Based in Melbourne, she talks about overcoming the challenge of learning foreign languages from home, when you’re surrounded by your native language.

Together with her partner Chris, Rebecca runs Irregular Endings, a company which makes paper goods and stationery for language lovers. I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with irregular endings for the #languagediarychallenge – their gorgeous bilingual calendars are always highly sought after prizes!

Rebecca says: One of the best ways I’ve found to learn and remember what I know of another language is making my target language part of my ‘normal’.

See Rebecca’s talk Bringing other Languages into an English-focused Life at the Women in Language conference.

27. Bettina Röhricht

A UK-based native of North Germany, Bettina Roehricht has been working as a freelance translator for nearly 20 years. She also provides coaching for other freelance translators, helping them optimise their client base, improve their work-life balance and simply be happier with their translation business.

You can see her talk Upsides and Downsides of Being a Freelance Translator at the Women in Language conference.

28. Dani Maizner from I Simply Love Languages

As a freelance translator, Dani Maizner has managed to turn her passion for languages into a freelance business that allows her to do her work from wherever she is.

On her blog I simply love languages, she writes in German about all things languages. Dani’s a firm believer in reading as a way to improve your foreign language skills and give you insights into the culture of your target language at the same time.

You can see her talk How to Kill It in Language Learning with Crime Fiction at the Women in Language conference.

Dani says: You will be surprised how much useful information language enthusiasts can find in a good crime story.

Women who will inspire you to learn Italian

29. Elfin from all about Italian

Langauge-lover Elfin was born in the US but grew up in Italy and learned Italian as a kid. She contributes an enormous amount to the language learning community on Instagram, both through her invaluable bite-sized video lessons and the support she gives to other language learners who share their progress.

Her speciality is using social media to squeeze language learning into a busy life.

Elfin says: the process should be just as enjoyable and remarkable as the final goal, that of becoming fluent

You can see her talk Find Time in a Busy Life: Learn with Instagram at the Women in Language conference.

30. Lucrezia Oddone

Rome-based Lucrezia Oddone helps you learn Italian the fun way by taking you with her on a journey around Italy’s capital.

On her YouTube channel, you’ll find vlogs and tutorials with clear grammar explanations and lots of examples. Many of her videos are entirely in Italian (with subtitles) which perfect for the full immersion experience! She interacts daily with her followers and often answers FAQs in Italian.


31. Cher Hale

Cher Hale describes herself as “a relationship counsellor between humans and the Italian language”. Her mission is to help people who’ve fallen in love with the Italian language stick with it, even after the honeymoon period has ended. On her blog the iceberg project, Cher shares her own experience in learning the Italian language, together with tutorials and fun and easy ways to learn grammar.

You’ll also find lots of real-world Italian words and phrases that you won’t get from normal language courses.

Cher says: Like you, I am just a student trying my best to learn this language, so I understand first-hand the hard work it takes, and I want nothing more than to help you learn it too in a way that helps you make meaningful progress, laugh, and enjoy each step of the process.

Watch Cher’s talk: Are You Making The Most of Your Language Lessons? at the Women in Language conference.

32. Jasmine Mah from Questa Dolce Vita

A few years ago, Canadian-born Jasmine met a charming Italian boy in a bar in Alberta, Canada. After a few years’ long distance, she left it all behind and moved to Bergamo to pursue her Italian dream.

On her blog Questa Dolce Vita, Jasmine gives an articulate, honest (and often hilarious) insiders view of what it’s really like to move to Italy and learn Italian on the field.

Jasmine says: Very often, I hear people say that they aren’t capable of learning a second language. They attribute the success of others to a natural gift. You are born with the ability to learn languages. I would like to politely disagree. Someone who learns a second language is successful because they work their ass off every second of every day. 

Jasmine runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Kristie from Mamma Prada and Kelly from Italian at heart.


33. Kristie from Mamma Prada

UK-based Kristie and her Italian husband are parents to two gorgeous little ones. On her blog MammaPrada, Kristie shares her story of raising bilingual children & navigating cross-cultural life.

You’ll find tons of practical tips on bringing up kids in a bilingual home, together with Italy travel tips and little known cultural gems.

Kristie says: We are simply parents hoping to pass on the best of our dual heritage to our children and to give them, in our eyes the benefit of two languages from birth.

Kristie runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Jasmine from Questa Dolce Vita and Kelly from Italian at heart.

34. Kelly from Italian at Heart

Granddaughter of an Italian immigrant living in the US, Kelly had always felt a strong connection to her Italian heritage and was saddened by the fact that his native language didn’t get passed down to her generation. So she decided to take matters into her own hands and start learning Italian! On her blog Italian at Heart, Kelly shares her journey to learn her grandfather’s mother tongue, along with her culinary, travel and cultural adventures.

Kelly says: I feel such a calling to stay connected to my Italian heritage. For me, language is the most beautiful family heirloom that can ever be gifted to future generations.

Kelly runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Jasmine from Questa Dolce Vita and Kristie from MammaPrada.


35. Ishita from Italophilia

Author of India’s most popular Italy blog, Italophilia, Ishita Sood shares her love for the bel paese and the Italian language through travel guides and how-to articles. Across her site and social media channels, she infuses her Italian journey with beautiful photos that make you feel like you’re walking along those little-cobbled streets right next to her.

Ishita says: Italy is my calling. It is my go-to place to think about when I am low. It brings a smile on my face when someone I know connects my name to that country. Or when someone takes my help planning their trip to Italy. 

Women who will inspire you to learn German

36. Cari from Easy German

Cari produces the amazing Easy German channel, together with her husband Janusz. Armed with a wicked sense of humour and infectious enthusiasm, she runs around the streets of Germany (and further afield), posing interesting questions to passers-by in German. Watch Easy German and you’ll learn authentic, real German language, as spoken in the streets and among friends.

37. Kaci from Year of German

When monolingual American Kaci Schack was on maternity leave, she embarked on a journey to teach herself German and pass it on to her son through storybooks and songs. Amazingly, this joint mission helped her overcome postpartum depression! Now Kaci is monolingual no more and her 3-year-old son is growing up to be bilingual in English and German.

Kaci shares her German progress on Instagram and gives language learning advice for normal people over on medium.

Kaci says: Languages are for everyone. Young. Old. Tall. Short. Black. White. From Europe. From Asia. From Mexico. From Wherever. Liberal. Conservative. City Person. Country Person. Millionaire. Less Affluent. Religious or Not. Musical or Not. Athletic or Not. Whatever.

Freitag! Hab ein schönes Wochenende.

Un post condiviso da Kaci Schack (@yearofgerman) in data:

38. Annik from Slow German

Annik Rubens is the producer of Slow German, a fab podcast for beginner-intermediate German learners. Each episode is read in clear, easy to understand German and covers topics about life in Germany and German culture, often from new and interesting angles. On her website, you’ll find loads more goodies like transcripts and interactive translations.


Women who will inspire you to learn French

39. Carrie Anne James from French is beautiful

American-born Carrie Anne James delivers French lessons infused with a chic Parisian feel. Her stunning French is Beautiful Instagram page has quotes that make you fall in love with the French language, as well as making you feel like you’re the star of a Dior advert by taking you on a tour of the capital’s most luxurious spots.

As an American who learnt French as a second language, Carrie knows precisely which aspects of the French language you need to focus on in order to feel fluent and express your full personality in French as quickly as possible.

Carrie says: French is Beautiful is my love letter to those whose heart lives en France.

40. Manon from Learn French with Manon

No list of inspiring women in language would be complete without Manon, the woman who inspired me to learn French!

Manon was my French tutor as I was preparing to take the DALF C1 Exam and I honestly could not have done it without her. She’s organised but flexible, demanding but patient and goes out of her way to help each student make as much progress in French as possible.

She’s taught all over the world and is learning many languages herself, including Spanish, Japanese and Thai.

On her website, French with Manon, you’ll find blog posts with tips on how to learn French, cultural tidbits and reading practice. If you’d like to learn French with Manon, you can book online classes here. 

Manon says: I try to be the kind of teacher I like to have as a language student myself. I’m always prepared, organised, and patient. 

41. Heidi Rivolta from Bonjour Tonton

Heidi has been teaching French to children and their adults alongside her naughty tortoise puppet Tonton since 2009. Her speciality is engaging kids to nurture a love of learning and make them fall in love with languages.

In 2017, she self-published her first French learning picture book under the name Bonjour Tonton. She also offers free weekly lesson plans for teaching French to children at home or in school via her blog Bonjour Tonton.

Watch her talk: Positive Language Learning for Kids and Their Adults at the Women in Language conference.

Women who will inspire you to learn Spanish

42. Marina Diez from Notes in Spanish

Marina Diez presents the Notes in Spanish podcast, together with her English husband Ben. She brings her native speaker knowledge to the show, injecting it with her fun personality and sharing cultural tips on Spain. Marina is also in charge of the design and development of worksheets and supplementary materials.

I’m a big fan of Notes in Spanish and have spent many an afternoon wandering around the streets with my headphones getting a quick Spanish lesson with Marina!

43. Chiqui from Hablaele

Chiqui is my Spanish teacher and the woman who’s inspiring me to learn Spanish right now! Her friendly, bubbly style of teaching puts you at ease immediately and helps you get speaking. She’s organised, experienced and knows how to work with her students to get the best progress possible.

She also creates materials for Spanish learners over on her YouTube channel.

You can book classes with her on her website hablaELE.

44. María Ortega Garcia from Compass Spanish

María is the creator of the line Compass Spanish where she offers online Spanish courses, support and guidance to students of Spanish. She has been running her own online education business since 2011, offering online lessons as well as retreats and immersion courses in Spain.

Watch her talk: Cracking the Language Code Through Art and Self-Expression at the Women in Language conference.

  • Women who will inspire you to learn Mandarin

    45. Fiona Tian from Chinese Pod/Mandrin Made EZ

    Follow the charismatic and adorable Fiona Tian as she teaches you survival Mandarin around Taiwan. Each video has a practical theme like “ordering from a menu”, “riding the subway in Chinese” and “arriving at the airport”. Fiona was brought up in a bilingual English-Mandarin household and her connection to both cultures makes her the perfect person to give you insights into the Chinese language and culture.

    46. Yangyang Cheng from Yo-Yo Chinese

    Yangyang teaches Mandarin in a clear and simple way, from the English speaker’s point of view. On her YouTube channel, you’ll find tutorials, cultural notes and interviews with native speakers.

    Women who will inspire you to learn English

    47. Cara Leopold from Leo Listening

    Cara Leopold is a listening skills specialist. Her work deals with one of the biggest frustrations for intermediate and advanced language learners: after all this time, why can’t I understand TV and films?

    Her method helps people break free from subtitles so they can fall back in love with their favourite films and TV shows.

    Catch her talk Subtitle Freedom at the Women in Language conference.

    48. Gabby Wallace from Go Natural English

    On her hugely successful YouTube channel, the passionate and experienced Gabby Wallace shares her tips on how to learn English, with a unique focus on listening, speaking and conversation. She speaks Portuguese & Spanish too!

    The woman who will inspire you to learn Vietnamese

    49. Elisabeth Jackson from More Vietnamese

    Elisabeth is an English Language (EFL) Teacher from the UK who has lived and taught in Vietnam and Bulgaria, learning the local language both times. She’s dabbled in other languages (namely Korean and Esperanto) and is currently learning Spanish. Vietnamese remains her best language and she blogs about it at More Vietnamese.

    Listen to her talk: Why You’re Struggling with Listening and What to Do about It at the Women in Language conference.

    The woman who will inspire you to learn Japanese

    50. Fran Wrigley from Step Up Japanese

    Last but not least is Fran, a Japanese teacher and kanji obsessive. Fran worked in teaching and translation in Japan before returning to sunny Brighton in 2014, where she set up her school Step Up Japanese. She believes in the power of building a community for language learners where they can support each other and learn from each other’s mistakes.

    Her mission is to show the world that the Japanese language is as logical and simple as it is beautiful … and to eat huge quantities of edamame beans along the way.

    Catch Fran’s talk: Classroom Learning Is Not Dead – How to Build a Community in Your Language School at the Women in Language conference.

  • So there you have it, 50 amazing women who are inspiring the world to learn languages. This list is based on the women who have inspired me, so it’s a bit biased towards the languages I interact with the most. I’m sure there are loads of other fab women out there inspiring people to learn languages – please share the love and add them to the comments!



You start off feeling enthusiastic about eating salads and end up feeling enthusiastic about… well, nothing really.

Apart from maybe hiding under the duvet until April.

At least that’s what happens to me every year. No matter how motivated I am at the beginning of January, by February I haven’t achieved anything or worse, I’ve gone backwards.

So this year I decided to do things differently: instead of attempting something big, I’d start with a couple of itsy-bitsy changes. Something so easy I couldn’t say no to – like reading one paragraph in my Spanish book.

I hoped that once I’d planted the seed, these tiny habits would grow organically and help me on my quest to become fluent in Spanish, without constantly battling (and losing) against my flaky willpower.

This micro experiment turned out to be a big success: I ended up reading 600 pages in Spanish in January – probably more than I read all year in 2017!

But last month wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.

My mission to become fluent in Spanish threw up some challenges too: I struggled with time-wasting habits (I’m looking at you Facebook!) and realized that my listening isn’t as good as I’d like it to be.

Which got me thinking: could I apply this “make-it-so-easy-you-can’t-say-no” philosophy to other areas of Spanish and get similar results? Would this technique help me nix my time-wasting habits and improve my listening in Spanish?

Keep reading to find out:

  • How I managed to read 600 pages by forming good language learning habits.
  • How I plan on breaking time-wasting habits in February (hasta luego social media!).
  • My problems with listening in Spanish + how I plan to fix them.

How I’m becoming fluent in Spanish by forming good language learning habits

Last year, I set myself the mammoth task of reading my way through a pile of foreign-language books. But it didn’t work: I hardly read anything all year.

This year, I set myself the micro-task of reading 2 paragraphs per day (one in the morning and one in the evening), and I ended up reading 600 pages in a month!

Become fluent in Spanish Mission
The pile of foreign-language books I didn’t read last year.

This experience has shown me that when it comes to making big changes, starting small is best.

To get into the habit of reading more in Spanish, I used BJ Fogg’s tiny habits technique, which consists of two main steps:

  1. Make the habit so small you can’t say no.
  2. Do it immediately after a habit you already have.

For me this was:

After I make my morning cup of tea, I’ll read a paragraph of my book.
After I finish washing the dishes in the evening, I’ll read a paragraph of my book.

This technique worked well because it helped me do the hardest bit – get started. By the time I got started, it was easy to keep going. Actually, it was fun, because there was no pressure. Once I’d finished the paragraph, I could stop if I wanted to (and I did sometimes). But most of the time I kept reading out of choice, which made the whole thing more enjoyable.

Riding on the crest of this good habit wave, I added another couple on:

  • After I start boiling the water for my tea, revise one Spanish word on my flashcard app (I usually end up doing 10 or 20)
  • After I brush my teeth, floss one tooth (I usually end up flossing them all). OK, this won’t help me become fluent in Spanish, but it’s interesting to see how the tiny habits have spilt over into other areas!

Of course, there were some down points too. Like last week when I didn’t read as much because I had the winter grumps and was feeling demotivated. But the great thing about my tiny language learning habits is that even if I’m tired, cranky or busy, I can still do them because they’re so easy. Usually, this would be when I’d let everything slide, end up feeling guilty and struggle to get started again.

Become fluent in Spanish Mission
I didn’t read much last week because I had the winter grumps

But doing just a tiny something on these days helps me stay in the habit, which naturally expands again when I feel better or have more time.

Will I keep bookworming through February?

I suspect that once the initial enthusiasm has worn off, the amount I read in Spanish will drop a bit. But I’m hoping that my tiny reading habits will help me stay in the game and still get quite a lot of Spanish reading done.

Time will tell.

Related: Language learning habits: How to achieve more by trying less

What’s stopping me from becoming fluent in Spanish? Time-wasting habits!

In the 70s, the baby boomers had LSD and weed. For Gen X, it was cocaine and ecstasy.

And Millennials? We’ve got coffee and Facebook.

Sometimes I like to think this addiction doesn’t apply to me, especially when the conversation moves on to how obsessed people are with their smartphones these days. But the truth is, I’m just as hooked as everyone else in my generation.

Most of the time I don’t even enjoy using social media (unless I’m using Instagram for language learning). But somehow I find my fingers reaching for my phone and before I know it, I’m staring vacantly at pictures of what a friend of a friend ate for breakfast, I’ve lost 20 minutes of my life and I’m feeling like a small part of me has just died.

If I could stop constantly chasing little dopamine hits on my screen, I’d have a lot more time on my hands.

Time I could put towards my mission to become fluent in Spanish.

How I plan on breaking my time-wasting habits

Of course, I’ve tried to stop procrastinating on social media before. Sometimes it works for a bit, but sooner or later I find myself with the same problem. Just because I decide to do something, doesn’t mean I’ll actually do it.

What I learnt last month is that to make real changes, it helps to start itsy-bitsy.

So this month, I’m going to start unravelling my social media dependence with one tiny habit:

Every time I open my phone to go on social media, I’ll revise one Spanish word on my flashcard app.

This is so small, it should be easy to do. If I really want to go on social media after that I can. But something tells me that once I get started with one Spanish word, I’ll probably do 10. And by the time I’ve done 10, I probably won’t feel like going on social media anymore.

What else is stopping me from becoming fluent in Spanish? Listening skills

I’ve been learning Spanish for a while now, so I’m always surprised by how little I understand when I watch Spanish TV. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching channel 9 from the Fast Show.

As I already speak Italian and French, it didn’t take long for me to start understanding slow, simplified Spanish, like the kind you hear in textbooks, or that native speakers use with foreigners. I could also understand written Spanish quite well, and managed to watch a few Spanish TV series with Spanish subtitles.

This meant I was feeling a little too cocky about my listening skills and got a shock when I turned off the subtitles and realized how little I could understand!

I have to remind myself that understanding TV actually comes much later than people expect. After reaching a quite an advanced level in Italian (C2) and living in Italy for several years, I still don’t understand everything on Italian TV, especially if the characters have strong regional accents. Similarly, I have an Italian friend who’s lived in America for 10 years and speaks English so well he’s often mistaken for a native, but even he doesn’t understand everything he hears in American films.

So the first step is to be realistic and not panic when I understand less than expected.

Another thing that trips me up with Spanish listening is the regional variation: after spending a while getting used to Mexican Spanish, I was shocked to realize I hardly understood anything in the Spanish spoken in Spain. Some people say just pick a variety and stick to it, but I’d like to understand Spanish speaking people from all over the world!

How I plan on boosting my Spanish listening skills

I simply haven’t spent enough time getting used to real, spoken Spanish. So this month, my plan is to binge listen to different varieties of Spanish.

This is a great excuse to re-watch all the Spanish-language TV series and films I’ve already seen, this time without subtitles.

As a rough estimate, I’d say I can understand around 50 – 60% of what’s being said, which means I can usually follow what’s going on, even if I can’t understand all the details yet. By starting with series I’ve already seen, I’ll have an even better chance of following what’s being said.

Binge listening to Spanish-Language TV and podcasts

To learn from films and TV, it’s important to be able to follow the dialogue. For this reason, I’m going to use videos and TV series with Spanish subtitles that I can turn on and off. This way, when I come across big chunks of dialogues that I don’t understand, I can go back and listen again a couple of times, and if I really don’t get it, I can watch it again with the subtitles.

That said, in times when I can’t be bothered to go into so much detail, I’m just going to put my feet up and watch. Now I can understand at least 50%, I can learn a lot by just listening to hours and hours of dialogues. I did this a while ago with French (with TV shows that had no subtitles) and after lots of binge-watching, my French listening got pretty good. My speaking improved too.

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

I’ll also be listening to as many Spanish podcasts as I can when I’m walking somewhere or cleaning the house. At the moment I’m listening to news podcasts, which is nice because it makes me feel like I’m in Spain (apart from when they read the weather in Granada). Speaking of which, I’m on the lookout for some good podcasts for Spanish speakers, let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions!

As I love watching foreign-language TV shows and listening to podcasts, this part won’t require much motivation, which allows me to add another so-easy-you-can’t-say-no habit to my language learning routine.

Language learning goals for February

To recap, I’ve set myself 3 very simple goals to move forward in my mission to become fluent in Spanish:

1. Reading in Spanish: Read a paragraph in the morning and one in the evening.
2. Break my time-wasting habit: review one Spanish word on my flashcard app every time I get tempted to go on social media.
3. Binge listening in Spanish: watch lots of Spanish-language TV and listen to podcasts.

Sounds doable right?

I’ll let you know how it goes next month!

Related posts

Become fluent in Spanish in 1 year without leaving the house: A step-by-step guide

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

Set winning language learning goals: the easy 3-step process

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

What about you?

Which language are you learning at the moment? How did it go in January? What are your plans for February? Let me know in the comments!

They can’t be serious, can they?

Talking at 200 mph, mushing words together or leaving them out entirely.

It’s as if those smug native speakers got together one day and decided to garble their words, just to stop us poor language learners from figuring out what they’re saying.

If you could read the same words you might understand, but listening? It’s a whole other level.

If only native speakers came with subtitles in real life!

One thing that makes real-world listening so hard is that textbooks and audio courses spoon-feed us a simplified version of the language. Sure, they make life easier at the beginning, but they don’t do a very good job at preparing us for how people actually talk. Which can lead to two things:

  1. When we hear people speaking in real life, we don’t have a clue what’s going on.
  2. When we talk, we sound stilted and unnatural.

Assuming you want to learn a language so you can talk to human beings – not characters from a textbook – these outcomes aren’t ideal.

What you need, is a way to train yourself to understand and speak the language as it’s used in the real world. The best way to do this is by chatting to native speakers. But it’s not always easy to find native speakers to practice with.

Luckily, there’s another way. It’s simple, fun and it’s already on your computer or TV.

Read on to find out why I’m a big fan of learning a language with TV and films. You’ll also learn 5 smart strategies for using foreign-language TV and films to:

  • Give your listening skills a boost
  • Sound more like a native speaker
  • Stop falling off the language-learning wagon

Why learn a language by watching TV and films?

What I hear = how I talk

When I meet French people, sometimes they’re surprised to learn that I’ve never lived in France. My accent is pretty decent, my speech is littered with native sounding interjections, and on a good day, I can sit amongst a group of French people and follow (most of) their conversation.


I’ll let you in on my secret, but you’ve got to promise not to laugh, OK?

La téléréalité. That is, reality TV in French.

Before you make a dash for the back button, don’t worry. If you like your TV a little more highbrow, I’m not suggesting you do the same. In fact, learning a language with reality TV has its downsides too – namely, that my vocabulary is quite limited (reality TV stars aren’t exactly known for their eloquence).

The important thing to learn from this is that speaking styles reflect the things we listen to.

Reality TV = natural speaking style but with a limited vocabulary.
My French = natural speaking style but with a limited vocabulary.

When I started speaking Spanish, my boyfriend used to laugh because I spoke with really dramatic intonation, thanks to too many telenovelas. More recently, I’ve picked up lots of Mexican slang and football vocabulary because I’ve been watching Mexican football drama Club de Cuervos.

TV and films help you speak naturally and understand more

If you only listen to those slow and stilted dialogues in textbooks, you’ll probably end up speaking in a slow and stilted way. Alternatively, if you listen to lots of realistic conversations in TV series and films, over time, you’ll start speaking in a more natural way.

The same goes for understanding: if you only listen to learner materials, you’ll get used to hearing a version of the language that’s been watered down for gringos. You might get a shock when you hear people using it in real life! On the flip side, if you get used to hearing realistic dialogues in TV series and films (even if it’s tricky at first!), you’ll be much better equipped to follow conversations in the real world.

I’m not suggesting you try to learn a language entirely by watching TV and films. Learner materials like textbooks and audio courses have their place in a language learner’s toolkit. And speaking practice is essential.

Foreign-language TV series and films are like handy supplements that can help you bridge the gap between learner materials and how people actually talk.

What if I don’t understand anything?

When people think of learning a language by watching TV, they sometimes imagine learning through osmosis – the idea that if you listen to a stream of undecipherable syllables for long enough, it will eventually start to make sense.

But it doesn’t work like that.

To learn, you have to understand first. Once you get to a high(ish) level where you can pick out a fair amount of what the characters are saying, you can learn a lot from just sitting back and listening.

What if you’re not there yet?

Before that, if you want to learn a language by watching TV and films, it’s important to do activities that’ll help you understand the dialogues. The 5 activities in this article will help you do just that.

How to learn a language by watching TV and films: what you’ll need

First, you’ll need a film, TV series or YouTube video with two sets of subtitles: one in the language you’re learning, and one your native language. This used to be tricky, but with YouTube and Netflix it’s getting easier and easier to find videos which are subtitled in multiple languages. Aim for videos where people speak in a modern and natural way (i.e. no period dramas).

One of my absolute fave series for this is Easy Languages on YouTube. The presenters interview people on the street, so you get used to hearing natives speak in a natural and spontaneous way. What’s more, the videos are subtitled both in the target language and in English.

Easy German and Easy Spanish are particularly good as they both have their own spin-off channels where they add fun and interesting videos a couple of times a week. If you’re a beginner and you find these kinds of videos overwhelming (too many new words and grammar points), they also have a “super easy” series that you can use to get started.

On the Easy Languages series, the presenters interview people on the street, so you can get used to hearing real, spontaneous speech. There are subtitles in the target language and in English, which makes them perfect for our next activity…

Now you’ve got your videos and subtitles sorted, let’s learn how to use them.

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

Write what you hear

One super task to boost your listening skills is to use the videos as a dictation:

  • Listen to very small pieces of the video (a few seconds each) and write down what you hear.
  • Listen several times until you can’t pick out anymore.
  • Compare what you wrote against the subtitles.
  • Look up new words in a dictionary and write them down so you can review them later.

Often, you’ll see words and phrases that you understand on the page but couldn’t pick out in the listening. You can now focus on the difference between how words are written and how people actually say them in real life.

This is your chance to become a boss at listening.

Make it your mission to become aware of these differences. Do listeners squash certain words together? Do they cut out some sounds, or words completely? You may notice some things that native speakers have never realized about their own language, and teachers won’t teach you.

Here are a couple examples:

  • In spoken English, “do you” often sounds like “dew”, and want sounds like “one”. So the phrase “do you want it” is pronounced like “dew one it”
  • In spoken French, “ce que” is pronounced like “ske” and “il y a” is pronounced like “ya”

No wonder listening is trickier than reading!

An awareness of these differences is your new secret weapon for understanding fast speech and developing a natural speaking style: the more you pay attention to these differences, the better you’ll get at speaking and listening to the language as it’s used in real-life.

Translate it

Another invaluable task is to translate small passages into your native language and back into the language you’re learning. After you’ve done this, you can check what you wrote in your target language against the original subtitles.

Ideally, you should translate the passage into your native language one day and back into your target language the day after, so that you have to use your existing knowledge about grammar and vocabulary to recreate the dialogue (rather than just relying on memory).

This technique works because it gives you the chance to practice creating sentences in your target language, then compare them against native speaker sentences. In this way, you’ll be able to see the gap between how you use the language and how the experts (the native speakers) do it. This will help you learn to express ideas and concepts like they do.

Comparing your performance to the experts’ and taking steps to close the gap is a key element of deliberate practice, a powerful way to master new skills which is supported by decades of research.

Get into character

One fun way to learn a language from TV and films is to learn a character’s part from a short scene. Choose a character you like, and pretend to be them. Learn their lines and mimic their pronunciation as closely as possible. You can even try to copy their body language. This is a great method for a couple of reasons:

  • It’s an entertaining way to memorize vocabulary and grammar structures.
  • By pretending to be a native speaker, you start to feel like one – it’s a fun way to immerse yourself in the culture.

For extra points, record yourself and compare it to the original. Once you get over the cringe factor of seeing yourself on video or hearing your own voice, you’ll be able to spot some differences between yourself and the original, which will give you valuable insight on the areas you need to improve. For example: does your “r” sound very different to theirs? Did you forget a word or grammar point?

Now you know what to focus on next.

Talk about it

A great way to improve your speaking skills is the keyword method:

  • As you watch a scene, write down keywords or new vocabulary.
  • Once you’ve finished watching, look at your list of words and use them as prompts to speak aloud for a few minutes about what you just saw.

As well as helping you practice your speaking skills, this method gives you the chance to use the new words you just learned, which will help you remember them more easily in future.

Just chill

If you’re feeling tired or overstretched and the previous 4 steps feel too much like hard work, you can use films and TV as a non-strenuous way to keep up your language learning routine. Make yourself a nice hot drink, carve an ass-groove in the sofa, put on a film or TV series and try to follow what’s going on. Even if most of it washes over you, it’s better than nothing.

While you can’t learn a language entirely by doing this, it’s still handy because it helps you build the following 4 skills:

1. Get used to trying to understand what’s going on, even if there’s lots of ambiguity and you only understand the odd word (a useful skill to develop for real-life conversations!).
2. Get your ears used to the intonation and sounds of the language.
3. Become familiar with words and expressions which are repeated a lot.
4: Stay in your language routine during times when you can’t be bothered to study.

Don’t underestimate the value of this last point: if you skip language learning completely during periods when you’re tired or busy, you’ll get out of the routine and probably end up feeling guilty. As time passes, it’ll get harder and harder to get started again. But it you keep it up on those days, even by just watching a few minutes of something on the sofa, you’ll stay in the routine and find it easy to put in more effort once you get your time and energy back.

Related posts

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

The lazy person’s guide to learning Chinese

The lazy person’s guide to learning French

The lazy person’s guide to learning German

The lazy person’s guide to learning Spanish

What do you think?

Have you ever tried learning a language by watching TV series and films? Are there any other ways of using TV and films that you can add to the list?

¿How do you type that upside-down question mark thingy?

If you’re learning Spanish and you’re planning to write or take notes on a computer, at some point you’ll probably ask yourself this question. You’ll also need to type the other Spanish accents and characters like:

á, é, í, ó, ú, ü, ñ, ¡

But they can seem a bit fiddly. Are they really that important?

Well, Spanish speakers will probably know what you mean without them. But it looks sloppy – a bit like forgetting capital letters, commas and question marks in English:

if i type like this in english you know what im saying but theres something not quite right

The quick and easy guide to typing Spanish accents

If you want to wow people with your slick Spanish, you’ll need to get those accents and characters right.

Luckily, it’s easy when you know how!

Read on to learn how to type Spanish accents and characters on:

  • A Mac
  • A PC
  • Your smartphone

How to type Spanish accents on a Mac

How to type accents on Spanish vowels

With newer Mac operating systems, typing accents above vowels is simple: just press and hold the letter you want to accent. Next, a menu pops up with all the possible accents. Select the accent you need or press the corresponding number.

To type á, é, í, ó, ú and ü on a mac, just press and hold the vowel you want to accent.

How to type ñ

For ñ, use this keyboard combination:

  • Press and hold the alt key (sometimes known as option)
  • Whilst still holding alt/option, press n
  • Wait for the ˜ symbol to appear (highlighted in yellow)
  • Now let go of both keys and press n again.
To type Spanish characters like ñ, ¡ and ¿, you’ll need to use a keyboard combination with the alt key (sometimes known as option).

How to type ¿

For the upside down question mark use this combination:

  • Press and hold alt/option + shift
  • Whilst holding alt/option + shift, press ?

How to type ¡

The keyboard combination for the ¡ symbol may change depending on which computer you’re using (for mine, it’s alt/option + ?).

Here’s a simple way to find it on your keyboard:

  • Press and hold the alt/option key
  • Whilst still holding alt/option, play around pressing a few keys
  • You’ll see a few random symbols come up, like ∆º¬øæ… Keep going until you find ¡

How to type Spanish accents on an old-school Mac

If you want to type á, é, í, ó and ú, but you don’t see a pop-up menu when you press and hold the vowel, you can type the accents with a simple keyboard combination.

The specific key will depend on the keyboard you have, but you can find it easily by using the following method:

  • Press and hold alt/option
  • Whilst holding alt/option, play around by pressing a few keys until you find this symbol: ´ (highlighted in yellow). On my keyboard, it’s the number 8.
  • Now let go of both keys and type the letter you want to accent.

How to type Spanish accents on windows

If you have the U.S. international keyboard installed, you can type Spanish accents on Windows by simply typing an apostrophe followed by the vowel you want to accent.

á = ‘ + a

é = ‘ + e

í = ‘ + i

ó = ‘ + o

ú = ‘ + u

Here are the keyboard combos for the other accents/characters:

ü = ” + u

n = ˜+ n

¡ = alt + !

¿ = alt + ?

You can install this keyboard by searching language settings > options > add a keyboard > United-States International. Once you’ve installed it, you’ll see a language bar has appeared next to the clock in the start bar. If it’s not already selected, click on the language and select ENG INTL.

How to type Spanish accents on different keyboards

If you have a different keyboard, you can type accents and characters by holding down the alt key and typing a 3-digit number.

Important: for this to work, use the number pad on the right side of your keyboard, not the ones in a row across the top of the letters. If you don’t have one of those pads, you’ll find a solution below.

Here are the codes (character appears when you release the alt button)
á = Alt + 0225
é = Alt + 0233
í = Alt + 0237
ó = Alt + 0243
ú = Alt + 0250

ü = Alt + 0252
ñ = Alt + 0241

¿ = Alt + 0191
¡ = Alt + 0161

It’s probably a good idea to put a little cheat sheet next to your desk for a while to help you remember the codes!

How to type Spanish accents on a keyboard with no number pad

If your keyboard doesn’t have a number pad to the right-hand side, you might be able to change the keys at the top right (e.g: 7,8,9,U,I,O,J,K,L,M) into a number pad. If you have this option, you should see the corresponding numbers under each letter.

To activate this number pad, you’ll need to use the Num Lock key (sometimes known as Num LK or Num). The exact steps to activate the number pad will depend on your keyboard/computer set up, but here are some of the most common:

  • Press the Num Lock button
  • Shift + Num Lock
  • Num Lock + Fn
  • Num Lock + Alt

Once you’ve found your number pad, you can get the Spanish accents and characters by typing the Alt+ number combinations above.

How to type Spanish accents with the character map

Another way to find Spanish accents and symbols in Windows is by using the character map.

  • Go to the start button and search for character map.
  • Scroll down to find the letter/character you want.
  • Copy and paste it into your document.
You can use the character map to type Spanish accents and characters on Windows.

Searching for the letters and symbols can get a little cumbersome, so if you’re going to use a character map to type Spanish accents, you could create a new document with all the Spanish accents and characters so you have them to hand.

How to type Spanish accents on Microsoft office

If you’re using Microsoft Office, you can add accents to vowels by pressing and holding the following keys together:

  • Ctrl
  • vowel you want to accent

For example, to put an accent over the letter a, press: Ctrl + ‘ + a =  á


Bonus: How to type Spanish accents and characters on your phone

What about if you want to chat in Spanish on your smartphone?

With most smartphones, typing accents on keyboards is simple: just hold down the letter you’d like to accent, and a menu will pop up.

To type Spanish accents and characters on your smartphone, just press and hold the letters or symbols and a menu will pop up.

To turn question marks and exclamation points upside down, hold these buttons down and you’ll see a menu with the inverted versions.

Related posts:

The lazy person’s guide to learning Spanish

The 11 best tools for learning Spanish (from beginner to advanced)

Become fluent in Spanish in 1 year without leaving the house: a step-by-step guide

Over to you!

Do you know how to type Spanish symbols on your keyboard now? Write a Spanish sentence below, using some Spanish accents and characters!

There it was.

That email I’d been waiting for.

Back in summer, I’d set myself a goal: go from intermediate to fluent French in 5 months.

At the end of November, I took an advanced level French exam (DALF) to check my level. The email was from the Institut Français and it had my results inside.


I’d passed the French DALF exam!

Even more surprising: I got 83%, which is pretty good (the pass mark is 50%).

Which got me thinking about this trite-but-true infographic.

When I see people achieve things on the internet, it seems like they just set themselves a goal, sprinkle on some of their innate superhuman discipline then poof, done.

It’s hard to imagine them feeling stressed or having days where they can’t peel themselves off the sofa.

So in this post, I thought it’d be fun to give you a sneak peek into what actually happened (and what was going through my monkey brain) as I went from intermediate to fluent French in 5 months.

First I’ll reveal my very unglamorous journey to reaching my goal in French. Then, I’ll talk you through the details of the DALF exam and how it went on the day.

Preparing for the DALF exam: what really happened

End of June

My French level had been stagnating for a while. What I needed was a kick up the bum to help me push past the intermediate plateau.

So I set myself a challenge: 5 months to get fluent in French.

As fluency is a very slippery concept to define, I decided to take the top level French exam, Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française (DALF), in November as an objective way of confirming my level.

The DALF exam has 2 levels: C1 and C2. While the top level (C2) sounded exciting, I wasn’t sure if I’d manage it in 5 months. I decided to start preparing for the exam and choose the level later.

I knew it’d take a lot of work (I estimated 2-3 hours a day) but I was ready for it. I was feeling motivated and ready to take on the world.

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


That feeling did not last long.

Trying to squeeze the DALF preparation around all the other stuff I was already doing meant that I started to feel a bit burnt out.

I got a bladder infection (told you this story would be unglamourous) with a high temperature. That, coupled with the 40-degree heat in Milan, left me feeling like merde.

So I made an ass groove on the sofa, ate lots of ice-cream and binge-watched my way through all 3 series of Better Call Saul dubbed in French.

As I slowly pieced myself back together, I decided to streamline my timetable so I could focus on preparing for the DALF exam without feeling overwhelmed.

By the end of July, I was feeling strong and optimistic again, so I set myself the following French goals for August:

Daily (except weekend)

  • 90 minutes focused study: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and writing
  • 90 minutes fun stuff: watching films/tv series, reading magazines/books etc.


  • One practice writing exam

Related: This extreme approach can help you learn a language faster by doing less.


Holiday time!

I got the bus over to the South of France, looking forward to a whole month of French immersion.

As soon as I got there, I realised that the “strong and optimistic” version of me who set those goals in July was an idiot because the current “on holiday” version of me didn’t feel like doing anything that remotely resembled studying.

Instead of 90 minutes “focused study” every day and one writing exam practice per week, I did a bit of focused study occasionally and one very half-arsed practice for the writing exam in the whole month.

I did, however, do lots of fun things in French like:

  • Chatting to French waiters.
  • Reading books, magazines and newspapers.
  • Listening to podcasts about the areas I was visiting.

I tried to orchestrate my trip so that I’d be able to speak as much French as possible, by booking rooms in Airbnbs where the ads were written in French (a good sign that the host would be happy to speak to me in French rather than English).

But the first Airbnb turned out to be an unsociable dorm-type set up where people scuttled in and out of the kitchen to cook and take their food back to their room.

So I spent the first week alone, wandering around museums listening to French podcasts, drinking wine and reading Tintin.

🇫🇷 Ce soir j’ai un rencard avec Tintin. 🇬🇧 Tonight I’ve got a date with Tintin.

Un post condiviso da Katie Harris (@joyoflanguages) in data:


The following week, My Italian partner Matteo came out to visit. He’s also learning French so we spent a week speaking our new language – a mixture of French, Italian and English, or as we like to call it “Fritalianish”.

Luckily, in the last 10 days, I found an Airbnb with a lovely, sociable host, Mireille. We hit it off immediately and I spent an amazing few days with Mireille and her friends, chatting in French the whole time (pausing only to stuff my face with lemon tarts and rosé).


On the way back, I tried Couchsurfing and had a similarly awesome experience with my French host and her friends.



With the deadline looming, it was time to start thinking about the DALF exam more seriously.

While I wasn’t feeling confident about any of it, there was one particular part which scared the crap out of me…

The production orale, otherwise known as the speaking exam.

In this part, you’re asked to read 3 French documents related to humanities/social studies or science then give a 10 to 15-minute speech on the topic.

In short, something I would find difficult in my native language.

I made a decision (which later paid off) to throw myself into the difficult bit first, so I started practicing this as much as I could during Skype lessons with my online French tutors.

My god was it painful!

By now, I could chat reasonably comfortably in French in informal situations, but a formal speech? My poor tutors had to put up with excruciatingly long silences while I dug around my brain and tried to string a sentence together.

I started to regret my decision to take the DALF exam. But it was too late to back out now.

Mid September

Time to call in a professional.

I contacted a French teacher called Manon who used to be an examiner for the DALF exam. Booking lessons with Manon turned out to be the most useful thing I did during the whole 5 months – I don’t know what I would have done without her! If you’re looking for a French teacher to help with DALF, you can book lessons with her here.

During our first lesson, she said she thought the higher level DALF exam (C2) was too ambitious. Given that I was already halfway past my deadline and wasn’t anywhere near as far along as I’d hoped, I agreed.

We decided to go for the lower level DALF exam (C1).

I felt a bit relieved.

Manon was (rightly) still a bit dubious about whether I’d pass the C1 or not.

End of September

I had a bout of migraines which knocked me out for almost a week.

When I wasn’t being sick and my eyes could handle the light from the TV screen, I curled up on the sofa and watched reality TV in French.


Where did the first week of October go?

Time was whizzing by and I still didn’t feel ready for the exam. Time to get serious and come up with a game plan.

Related: DALF C1: how I’m preparing for the scary French exam.

Got a throat infection. Spent another few days curled up on the sofa watching French TV.

Once I’d recovered, I continued following my game plan as best as I could.

End of October

Things started looking up. I realised I could now understand almost everything I heard and read in French.

All that time listening to podcasts, watching TV and reading must have paid off.

I did some practice listening and reading tests and they went pretty well. Sometimes I got close to 100%. But other times I didn’t understand the questions properly or ran out of time and only just scraped the 50% necessary to pass.

I kept doing practice speaking tests with my online conversation tutors (3 x week by this point, sometimes more). After many, many practice sessions, I stopped being so terrible at it.

But with all that focus on the speaking test, I’d forgotten about another difficult bit – the writing section!

I did a couple of practice writing tests which were disastrous. The fact that I had very little experience writing in French combined with the tricky spelling system meant that I kept making babyish spelling mistakes that made my tutor cringe! Certainly not C1 level yet.

Beginning of November

I still wasn’t sure if I’d pass.

But I was starting to feel happy with how far I’d come. Looking back to July, I realised that I’d already made a huge amount of progress in my French. No matter what happened in the exam, I’d already moved past the intermediate plateau.

Related: Why you should have audacious language learning goals (even if you don’t reach them)

Now to pass that DALF exam…

Two weeks before the exam

I began studying French every waking hour I wasn’t working or eating. Probably 4-5 hours per day, sometimes more.

When I had the energy, I was doing practice exams. When I didn’t, I was curled up on the sofa with YouTube videos and French TV series. I also watched lots of news and Tedtalks in French. Aside from being interesting, I thought they’d help me pick up vocabulary that’d be useful for the exam.

My writing skills were still pretty crappy for C1 level. I realised that I probably shouldn’t have waited until a few weeks before the exam to start learning how to write in French.

One week before the exam

Great news! My tutor Manon was impressed with the progress I’d made. Despite her reservations about my writing, she believed I had already reached C1 level.

All I had to do now was make sure nothing went drastically wrong on the day…

How the DALF exam went

Next, I’ll give some detailed information about the DALF exam, talk about how it went on the day and give a break down of my results.

Listening (compréhension orale)

The listening part of the exam takes around 40 minutes. First, you listen to a long recording (around 8 minutes) which is taken from formats such as interviews, lessons or conferences. You can listen twice. You can take notes as you listen and you get a few minutes between each to complete your answers.

Next, you listen to a series of short radio broadcasts, typically newsflashes or adverts. You can only listen once.

For this part, it’s important that you understand spoken French well because they often pick radio samples with fast speech where the audio is a bit distorted.

As I listened to the 8 minute dialogue the first time, I panicked because the first part included a fast advert with quite a lot of sound interference. It whizzed by and I wasn’t able to concentrate on what they were saying. Luckily, the second time around I managed to catch it.

I wasn’t worried about the second part as I often got full marks in the practice tests. But in the real test, my mind wandered for a moment and… that was it. I’d missed the information I needed and I couldn’t listen again. Luckily, that only happened on a couple of questions, so it didn’t really matter.

Result: 23/25

Reading (compréhension écrite)

In the reading section, you have to answer a series of questions on a long-form article (1500 – 2000 words). It lasts for 50 minutes.

Despite the fact that I understood written French quite well, there were a couple of things that tripped me up in the practice tests:

  • I’m a slow reader! For me, it’s tricky to read a 2000 word document in French and answer a series of questions in 50 minutes.
  • Sometimes I found the questions a bit vague and struggled to pinpoint the kind of answers they were after.

Luckily, these things didn’t hold me back on the day. I felt a bit rushed for time, but I managed to answer most of the questions well.

Result: 22/25

Writing (production écrite)

The writing exam has two parts. In the first section, you read a few documents (total: 1000 words) and write a summary. In the second section, you write an argumentative essay based on the contents of the documents.

This is where things went wrong!

When I started writing, I was so aware of my weakness in that skill that I overanalysed every word.

Is that right?

Does that sound too babyish?

Needless to say, I got behind schedule. In fact, I was only halfway through the second task when the examiner shouted: 10 minutes!

10 minutes later, the examiner was standing over me saying “Madame, s’il vous plaît” as I scribbled down the last sentence.

Leaving the room, it all felt like a blur. I’d written the last part so fast, I was sure I’d made loads of mistakes. I didn’t know if I’d passed.

In the end, my writing was the result that surprised me the most – the lowest of the 4, but I was expecting much worse!

Result: 15/25

Speaking (production orale)

Before the speaking exam, the examiners give you a few documents on a topic (you can choose between humanities/social sciences or science). Then, you have one hour to read the documents and prepare a speech on the topic.

The actual exam lasts for 30 minutes: 10 – 15 minutes for the speech, followed by a discussion with the examiners on the same topic.

Interestingly, although this was the part that terrified me the most at the beginning, by the time the exam rolled around I’d practiced it so many times I felt ready – I was even looking forward to it!

When you walk into the exam room, you choose two topics by picking numbers at random. Next, you get a few minutes to sit down with the two topics and pick the one you prefer.

I got lucky.

One of the subjects was about learning and technology and as a language teacher, I have lots to say on the subject.

The actual exam was nowhere near as intimidating as I’d imagined. I gave my speech, then had a lovely chat with the examiners, nerding out about the role of technology in language learning and teaching.

When I left the room, I was elated – I couldn’t believe that the most difficult bit had gone so well! It felt nice to know that I’d just done something that seemed impossible a few months ago.

Result: 23/25

Your turn!

If all that exam stuff sounds terrifying, don’t worry, it sounded terrifying to me a few months ago too. If you’ve been toying with the idea of taking the DALF exam (or any other language exam) then I say go for it.

It might not be smooth sailing the whole way through, but it’ll be worth it!

My most important tip for exam preparation is to start with the terrifying bits first. That way, once you get to the exam, you’ll feel confident.

Do you have any other tips to add?

Or, do you have any questions about the DALF exam? Let me know in the comments below!

Imagine a man who does 70 push-ups a day.

What kind of person comes to mind?

An intense overachiever with willpower as strong as his biceps? A tanned guy with an intellect as small as his Speedos?

You might not imagine a soft-spoken behavioural psychologist at Stanford University who used to struggle with his weight.

Back in 2011, after a year of failing to see the number on the scales go down, BJ Fogg decided to apply insights from his research on human behaviour to his own weight loss attempts.

And the results were surprising.

Just one year later, he’d lost the weight and made some impressive changes to his lifestyle, including a 70-a-day push-up habit.

Most impressive of all, he’d done it without relying on motivation or willpower.

The surprisingly simple way to learn a language

Learning a language and weight loss are similar: they’re typical examples of those big, exciting ideas that fill us with enthusiasm on New Year’s Eve. Yet when it comes to actually making those changes in January – eating broccoli instead of cake, or studying instead of watching Netflix – most of us would rather not bother.

You could blame it on a lack of motivation and assume that these kinds of changes require a will of steel that’s not available to everyone (well, at least not to folks like me who stand in the fridge door nibbling on cheese whilst deciding what to cook for dinner).

But Fogg’s experience showed the opposite: his technique worked because he’d found a way to make lasting changes which don’t depend on motivation or willpower.

Read on to find out how Fogg’s tiny habits technique can help you create small but powerful language learning habits so you can achieve more this year. You’ll learn:

  • How to learn a language easily, without making massive changes to your life
  • Why you don’t need to feel motivated all the time
  • The best way to create a language learning routine you can stick to
  • How to keep going for long enough to get amazing results

Why motivation doesn’t work

It sounds logical enough.

To achieve big goals, you should do big things. To lose weight, you should go to the gym 3 times a week and eat celery all day. To learn a language, you should sign up for a language course and study really hard all the time.

We know these things are difficult to stick to in the long term, so we try to increase our motivation to help us keep going when things get gruelling. This explains why the internet’s full of “motivation hacks” to help you achieve this or that goal.

But realistically, who can keep their motivation consistently high enough to keep doing these things when they don’t feel like it?

I’m guessing not many. If you could, you probably wouldn’t be reading this post. If I could, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post.

Approaches that rely on willpower or motivation are flawed because they ask you to “try harder” in the exact moment that you can’t be bothered to do anything. If I’m unmotivated, I don’t want to try harder. I want to eat cheese, and no amount of articles I read on lifehack is going to change that.

So what’s the solution?

Motivation is unreliable: it goes up and down, no matter how hard you try to sustain it. Yet we need it to do difficult things. No wonder so many of us struggle to make big changes like losing weight or learning a language.

Tiny habits, big results

Professor Fogg knew that trying to boost motivation isn’t helpful for long-term changes. But he also knew that people tend to avoid doing difficult things when their motivation is low.

So he looked at the problem from a different angle.

What would happen if, instead of trying to increase motivation, he made changes that were so easy, it was almost impossible to say no?

What if, instead of trying to do a few big things that were difficult, he did lots of teeny-tiny things, that were easy to repeat and make into habits? Say a couple of push-ups here, or a sip of water there?

Over the year, these tiny habits accumulated, leading to the outcome that Fogg had hoped for: long-term weight loss.

Think about the things you do every day, like opening the curtains, brushing your teeth or putting your shoes on. Do you need lots of willpower to do these things? Probably not. You just do them.

The same idea applies to learning a language: if you establish lots of tiny language learning habits, you won’t need to feel highly motivated to do them. And over time, you’ll find it easy to make sustainable progress toward your language goals.

Tiny habits may not sound as sexy as inspirational resolutions, but they work better.

And remember: we’re talking about tiny habits, not tiny results. You’ll still be heading toward an exciting outcome, like being able to converse easily with native speakers. The idea behind tiny habits is that you’ll get there more easily by taking lots of baby steps.

As Fogg points out: when you know how to create tiny habits, you can change your life forever.

So if you want to learn a language this year, forget about big plans you’ll never stick to. Start with a tiny language learning habit.

Here’s how.

How to learn a language with tiny (but powerful) language learning habits

To establish effective language learning habits, there are 3 steps you’ll need to follow:

1. Choose your tiny habits

Think about the outcome you’d like to achieve. Now break it down into a list of teeny-weeny actions you can take to get there.

Here are a few examples:

  • Press play on my audio course
  • Practice pronouncing one sound
  • Learn one word
  • Read a newspaper headline or the title of a book chapter
  • Do one exercise from my textbook
  • Review one verb form
  • Press play on a YouTube tutorial
  • Listen to one song
  • Say/write one sentence

Note that to keep things really tiny, it helps to choose habits like “press play” rather than “listen to a 30-minute podcast”. The outcome might be the same, as you’ll probably listen to the whole thing once you’ve pressed play anyway, but keeping it tiny makes it easier to get started. More on this later.

2. Hook them onto existing habits

Now you have your tiny habits ready, you’ll need something to remind you to do them, as BJ Fogg calls them, triggers.

To make his tiny habit system as effective as possible, Fogg looked for simple triggers which would integrate smoothly into daily life, without having to worry about post-its or alarms.

He found that the best way to do this was by attaching the behaviour onto habits we already have, such as brushing our teeth, getting home, or going for a wee.

The trigger for his push-up habit gives a very clever (if perhaps not hygienic!) example of this:

After I pee, I’ll do two push-ups

The keyword here is “after”. By adding your new tiny habit directly after something you already do several times a day, it’s easy to repeat.

3. Celebrate your victory

The last stage in Fogg’s tiny habit technique consists of doing a little celebration every time you complete your tiny habit. The idea behind this step is that firing up positive emotions makes your brain want to do it again, which makes the habit stick faster.

This mini celebration can be whatever you want it to be, ranging from eccentric little dances or saying “I’m awesome!”, to more sober versions, like smiling, or thinking “well done”.

Many people struggle with this part because it feels a bit silly. But if it’ll help you set up your habit faster, it’s worth a go. To be honest I’m just happy to have an excuse to do the running man in socks on my kitchen floor.

Step 3: Do a mini celebration every time you complete your tiny language learning habit. It might feel a bit cheesy at first, but if it helps you get into the habit faster, it’s worth a go!

Building language learning habits: The virtuous cycle

How do 2 push-ups turn into 70?

The tiny way of course!

Getting started is the hard part. But once a tiny habit has taken root, it will naturally expand over time.

If you’re in the habit of doing two push-ups, it’s easy to build up to 5. Once you’re in the habit of doing 5, it’s not hard to do 8. By doing this several times a day, you’ll suddenly find you can rack up 70 push-ups without much effort.

Now imagine this in terms of language learning. Let’s say every time you get in the shower, you practice rolling your Rs once. By force of inertia, you’ll probably end up practicing for a few minutes anyway, especially once it starts getting easier.

If you say one sentence to yourself whilst washing the dishes, you might still be talking to yourself as you walk around the house (this happened to me after lunch today).

Once you’ve watched one foreign language YouTube video, you’ll probably end up watching a few more.

And so on.

Writer Sonia Simone recommends planning your tiny habits when you’ve got some spare time afterwards so you can take advantage of this forward motion. Just make sure you don’t start secretly planning to do more every time, as that’ll make it harder to get started.

As long as you’ve hit your tiny goal, you’ve won. Sticking to these goals, no matter how small, sets off a positive chain of events, helping you feel good about your efforts and encouraging you to let your language learning habits grow over time.

Once your tiny language learning habit has taken root, it will grow over time and help you achieve sustainable language learning success.

Building language learning habits: Troubleshooting

If you struggle to make your language learning habits stick, there are a few reasons this might be happening:

Your language learning habit is too big

Remember, your language learning habit has to be so small that it’s easy to do, even on days when you don’t feel like it. If you’re still feeling resistance, the habit is probably too big.


Strip your language learning habits down so that they’re so tiny, you could even do them on duvet days. Things like “press play on a French video” are much better than “write a paragraph in French”. Make the habit so easy, you can do it every single day (or several times a day), no matter what your mood is.

This is the most important step because repetition is the key to lasting change.

Avoid falling into the temptation of setting bigger targets so you can progress faster. It could hold you back in the long run. Just focus on doing your tiny language learning habits and the rest will come.

You’re too busy

What if you have one of those days, weeks or months where you’re so busy you barely have time to take a shower or wash your socks?


Keep those days in mind when you choose your language learning habits. Choose habits that are so small and easy, you can still do them on your most chaotic days. Then, when those days come around, remind yourself how important it is to keep up your habit during these times – that should help you make the tiny effort to get it done.

Your schedule is unpredictable

Let’s imagine your tiny language habit is to practice counting in your head in Spanish whilst you brush your teeth.

What if you go for a few drinks after work, then wake up the next morning on your friend’s sofa with a fuzzy mouth and a cat on your head, realising that not only did you not brush your teeth, you also forgot to practice counting in Spanish?


It’s no biggie to miss your habit once in a while. Just make sure you get right back to it. Writer James Clear has a “never miss habits twice” rule, which should help you stay on track.

If your schedule is always different – for example, if you travel a lot – hook your language learning habits onto things you do every day, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. A few examples are: getting out of bed, getting dressed, leaving the house, washing your hands, taking your shoes off…

Problem: You want to know everything, yesterday

One problem with the tiny habit technique is that it goes against that initial surge of motivation you get when you first decide to make a big change, like learning a language.

At this stage, it’s tempting to charge ahead because it feels like you’ll make faster progress that way. But without good language learning habits, that rhythm will be difficult to maintain.


Remember that this technique works because it’s all about baby steps. Be patient. Pour that initial enthusiasm into repeating a few tiny language learning behaviours until they become automatic, then celebrate as you watch them grow.

My tiny language learning habits

This year, I’m going to use the tiny habit technique to start reading more.

Reading in a foreign language awesome: it’s fun, helps you pick up vocabulary naturally and get exposure to typical sentence structures without feeling like “studying”.

Despite the benefits, I’ve always struggled to get into the habit of reading foreign language learning books. I either find more exciting things to do, like eating cake and watching Netflix, or try doing it right before bed and fall asleep on the first page.

In last week’s article, when I talked about my language goals for 2018, I mentioned that I’d like to build up to reading for 45 minutes in the evening. However, since researching this article, I’ve realised that having such a big number in my head probably isn’t the right strategy, as it will make things difficult to get started.

So I’ve decided to keep things simple. I’m just going to focus on two tiny habits each day and hope that by force of inertia, I’ll end up reading a decent amount.

Here are my two tiny language learning habits:

After I make a cup of tea in the morning, I’ll read a paragraph of my book
After I finish washing the dishes in the evening, I’ll read a paragraph of my book

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!

Your tiny language learning habits

Just reading this article probably won’t help you improve your language skills much.

If you want to benefit from these ideas, it’s time to take action. Grab a pen and paper and write a list of tiny language learning behaviours that:

  • Hook on easily to your existing habits
  • Are so tiny, they barely require any effort

Remember to follow this structure:

After I (+ existing habit), I will (+ tiny language learning habit)

Examples of language learning habits

In need of a little inspiration? Let’s imagine you’re learning Spanish. Here are some tiny language learning habits you could get into:

  • After I make my morning coffee, I will read one headline in a Spanish newspaper.
  • After I get in the shower, I will practice saying one word with the rolled r sound.
  • After I leave the house, I will put my headphones on and press play on a Spanish podcast.
  • After I reach the bus stop, I will review one word on my flashcard app.
  • After I sit at my desk, I will review one verb form (make it easy by having a list ready on your desk).
  • After I put the kettle on to boil, I will say one sentence to myself in Spanish.
  • After I open my laptop, I will press play on one Spanish tutorial on YouTube.
  • After I open Instagram, I will write or say one sentence in Spanish via the #languagediarychallenge (if you’re a complete beginner, try one word or very short phrase).
  • After I finish the evening dishes, I will read one paragraph from a book of short stories for Spanish learners.
  • After I put my pyjamas on, I will write one Spanish sentence about my day in my diary.
  • After my head hits the pillow, I will think of one Spanish sentence in my head.

Remember: you don’t need to do everything on your list at once! Choose a couple and focus on repeating them until they become automatic. Then you can gradually add more.

Time for some action

Pick 1 – 3 habits from your list and start doing them today.

If you’d like a little extra support, BJ Fogg runs a free online programme for developing tiny habits which you can join here.

Over to you

Which tiny language learning habits are you going to start doing? Let us know in the comments below!

This time last year, I set some language learning goals for 2017.

Some went better than planned.

Others went horribly wrong.

Which made me wonder: why did some goals keep me motivated right up to the finish line, while others got relegated to the bottom of my to-do list, behind more important activities like reading BuzzFeed or staring out the window with my finger up my nose?

Looking back, I found something interesting: the successful goals had 3 basic principles in common.

And, just as importantly, in the goals that bombed, at least 1 of these 3 principles was missing.

In this article, I’ll share these 3 important keys to setting successful language learning goals, so you can use them to achieve more in your own language learning goals this year.

Let’s start by looking at the language learning goals that went well last year, and why.

Language learning goals I smashed in 2017

Have a 15-minute conversation in Mandarin Chinese

At the beginning of 2017, I did the Add1Challenge, an online language programme where you learn as much as you can in 90 days, with the aim of having a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker at the end. In this challenge, I studied Mandarin for around 1 hour a day and managed to stick to it most days.

Here’s my level when I started the challenge.

And here I am having a conversation with my Mandarin tutor 3 months later. I did 45-minutes in the end, and I’m pleased with how the challenge went.

Pass the boss level Italian exam

Another goal was to pass the highest-level Italian language exam (C2 in the Common European Framework). I took it in June and passed.

Become fluent in French

Back in July, I gave myself 5 months to become fluent in French. I already had intermediate-level, so I wanted to break past the intermediate plateau and reach advanced level. As a way of measuring my progress, I decided to take one of the highest level French language exams (DALF) at the end of November.

Great news… I just found out that I passed!

I got 83% overall. The pass mark is 50% so that’s a pretty good result. I’ll write a post with more details in January.

Go on a language adventure

Another goal was to go on a language learning adventure abroad.

Back in August, I caught the bus over to the south of France and tried to speak French the whole time. This was mostly successful, apart from a couple of exceptions, like spending the first week in an antisocial Airbnb where I struggled to find people to chat to, and when my Italian other half Matteo came to visit for a week. Although I still managed to practice French as Matteo’s learning French too so we ended up speaking Fritalian (a mixture of French and Italian).

The last 2 weeks went well because I found an Airbnb with a really sociable French host and met some lovely people via Couchsurfing. I even manage to make a few friends who I communicate with entirely in French and have been back to visit since.

3 easy steps for setting language learning goals

Why were those 4 goals successful? Looking back, I discovered that they shared 3 basic principles.

1. Choose a clear, short-term deadline.

In the case of the #add1challenge, this was the end of the challenge. For Italian and French, it was the exam date.

2. Focus on one goal at a time

When I started my French mission, I was trying to do 5 things at once, but I wasn’t doing any of them well (or enjoying any of them). So I sacked everything else off and decided to focus exclusively on French.

This worked really well: I became more focused and had more time to dedicate to learning French, so I made better progress. I watched and read more stuff in French, and increased the time I spent chatting to native French speakers online via italki. Doing this, I felt more immersed in French culture, which made the whole process more rewarding.

3. Make it a habit

For each of these goals, I made sure that I set up some strategic language learning routines.

This means that I decided when and where I was going to learn a language each day and tried my hardest to actually stick to it. I didn’t always manage, but I frequently did, and that was enough to make progress over time.

Here are some examples of the habits I got into:

  1. Set aside a specific time every day to work towards my language learning goals.
  2. Listen to foreign language podcasts as I go about my day.

In January, I’ll post a tutorial on how to build effective habits for language learning. In the meantime, you can learn more about the routines I set up for each language in these posts:


Language learning goals I slacked off on

Looking at these 3 principles, the reasons I failed to meet my other goals are now obvious. Let’s look at the language learning goals that didn’t work and why:

Read loads of Italian books

I’ve got a big pile of Italian books that I’ve been wanting to read for years, so last year I set myself the goal of reading them.

But somehow I just didn’t get around to it.

I kept telling myself I’d start tomorrow until it got to October. But by October I realised it was too late, so I gave up completely.

All the Italian books I didn’t read last year.

Keeping in mind our 3 principles, there are 2 reasons this language learning goal failed:

The deadline wasn’t short enough

My deadline was a year away, which made it very easy to keep telling myself that I’d “start tomorrow”. It would’ve been more effective to break this goal down into smaller steps, say 1 book every 2-3 months.

I didn’t set up an effective routine

While I have gotten into the habit of reading before bed, I only manage to read a page or so before I fall asleep, and I’m often so sleepy I can’t remember what I read, so I have to read it again the next day. Not the best strategy for getting through 1000s of pages in a year!

Reach the next level in Spanish

I aimed to get to an upper-intermediate level in Spanish (B2 in the Common European Framework).

There’s one clear reason this didn’t work:

I was focusing on too many things at once

In July I realised that I had to stop pursuing this goal. If I’d continued with Spanish, I wouldn’t have had as much success with my French mission.

Learn to discuss more complex topics in German

My German goal failed for the same reason my Spanish one did: too many things at once. I started the year studying German for an hour a day but gradually gave it up as I focused more on my other goals.

Last year’s language learning goals: an overview

Overall, I’m pleased with how much I learned in 2017. Even the goals I didn’t meet taught me some valuable lessons that I can put into practice when setting goals for learning a foreign language this year.

To sum up, I’ve learnt to:

  1. Choose clear, short-term deadlines.
  2. Focus on one goal at a time.
  3. Implement effective habits and routines.

My language learning goals for 2018

Here’s how I’m applying these 3 ideas to set effective language learning goals for 2018.

1. Choose a clear, short-term deadline

Become fluent in Spanish

My current mission is to become fluent in Spanish by June. I’m already at intermediate level, so I’m aiming to take my level up to advanced, just like I did with French last year.

Read about how I define fluency and how I plan to get there in this post:

Become fluent in Spanish in 1 year without leaving the house (a step-by-step guide)

2. Focus on one goal at a time

Start becoming fluent in German

Once I’ve reached my Spanish goal, I plan on doing something similar for German. It’ll take longer than my previous French and Spanish missions because German is more difficult, and my current German level is lower.

I predict that it’ll take me around one year to reach fluency in German, studying for 2-3 hours per day. If I was starting from scratch, it could take around 18 months.

A year is a long time, so I’ll need to break this goal down into fewer, short-term deadlines. I’ll think more about this when I’m ready to get started in June/July.

Go on a language adventure

I’d also like to go on another language learning adventure over summer. It’s too far away to think about the details yet, but I’m hoping it’ll involve travelling to a different country and chatting to the locals in their language.

Build effective habits

Read in a foreign language for 45 minutes per day

This year, I’m aiming to get into the habit of reading a foreign language novel for 45 minutes before bed.

I’ve tried this many times before and failed, so this year I’m going to try again, using a special technique for building habits. More on this in next week’s post.

Over to you

What are your language learning goals for 2018? Share them with us in the comments below!

I love travelling.

I love jumping on a plane, hopping out the other side and being surrounded by different people, sights, smells and of course, languages.

I even love that awkward feeling of trying to use the lingo with the locals and being met with a confused stare or nervous laugh, because I know it’s the start of something great: if I persevere, I’ll be fluent one day.

Despite this, I’ve done most of my language learning missions without spending long periods of time abroad. Living in a new country sounds exciting, but it’s not very practical. I’ve got all kinds of good stuff going on here that I don’t want to leave behind, like a relationship, job and friends.

I love travelling in Spain but I’m can’t move there. So I’ve found a way to become fluent in Spanish from home instead.

Maybe you’re in a similar situation. You want to learn Spanish, but for work or family or whatever reason, you can’t move to Spain or Latin America to do it.

If this sounds like you, I have good news: you don’t need to go abroad to become fluent in Spanish. You can do it from the comfort of your own home, in your fluffy socks.

I did something similar back in July, when I decided to become fluent in French from my living room. Now, I’m planning on doing the same thing for Spanish. In this article, I’ll share my step-by-step plan that you can use to become fluent in Spanish without leaving the house.

But first…

Why you don’t need to go to the country to learn a language

It seems like every time people start talking about foreign languages, someone tells the story about how the only way to learn a language is to go to the country. Sometimes they’ll give examples of a friend or a family member who went abroad and picked up the language easily because they needed it to survive.

But the idea that there’s something magical about being in the country that makes language learning effortless is simply not true.

For a start, it’s easy to live in a foreign country without learning the language. Immigrants do it all the time (especially the ones from Western societies who are sometimes referred to as expats).

Secondly, if you don’t have a decent command of the language before you get there, you’ll struggle to make friends in the language you’re learning. And if you’re an English speaker, unless you’re going somewhere remote where no one else speaks English, you may have to battle to find opportunities to speak the language, because everyone will want to practice their English with you.

The reason some people have more success with languages while living in the country is due to a change in approach, rather than anything special about being in the country. I experienced this firsthand when I moved to Italy. Living in the country changed the way I learnt Italian in two important ways:

  • I stopped focusing on trying to memorise grammar rules and vocabulary and started using the language to communicate with human beings.
  • I spent lots of time practicing speaking.
I learnt Italian faster in Italy because I spent less time studying grammar rules and more time chatting to Italians. But you don’t need to be in the country to do that.

The good news is, you don’t need to be in the country to do these things. These are situations you can easily recreate at home: I know because I’ve done it with the other languages I’ve learnt. In the next section, I’ll show you how you can apply these ideas to become fluent in Spanish from home.


Become fluent in Spanish without leaving the house: A step-by-step guide

Step 1: Define your goal

If your goal is to become fluent in Spanish, you’ll need to decide what that means first. This can be tricky because the word “fluent” is a bit vague. To some people, you’re fluent as soon as you can have a basic conversation. For others, you shouldn’t say you’re fluent until you sound like a native speaker. For me, fluency means being able to function more or less as a native speaker would in everyday situations. This means:

  • I understand almost everything (except strong accents, local slang, or specialist vocabulary).
  • I can talk quickly and native listeners understand me without straining.
  • I rarely have to search for words (unless it’s specialist vocabulary or a momentary slip).
  • I probably still make mistakes and have a light foreign accent, but they don’t impede communication.

If you’re the type of person who needs a bit of pressure to get motivated, you could consider setting yourself the goal of passing an exam. The DELE Spanish exam at B2 level would fit in with the definition of fluency described above.

Step 2: Give yourself a deadline

Your deadline will depend on how much time you can put aside to study each day. If you’re starting from scratch, you could reach this level of fluency in 1 year by studying for around 2 hours per day. If you’re already at an intermediate level, you could get there in about 6 months.

If this sounds intense, don’t worry – this doesn’t mean 2 hours of “school-like” grammar study. The better you get at Spanish, the more you’ll be able to fill this time with stuff you really enjoy doing, like chatting to Spanish speakers, reading books/magazines/newspapers or watching TV and films.

Learning a language doesn’t have to be boring or stressful. To find out how to enjoy the process, you might find these posts useful:

How to learn a language at home (even if you’re really lazy).
The 11 easiest languages (and how to make any language easy).

Also, remember that by the end of the year, you’ll be fluent in Spanish. It’ll take time, but it’ll be so worth it!

Now you’ve got your deadline, break it up into mini goals. This is important because a year feels very far away, which makes it easy to find excuses to keep putting off learning Spanish. Here’s an example of 3 mini goals you could set yourself over the course of the year.

  • After 3 months: I can have conversations about simple things.
  • After 6 months: I can talk comfortably about familiar topics.
  • After 12 months: I can speak fluent Spanish (in line with the definition in step 1)

If you have less time to dedicate each day to learning Spanish, you can increase the deadline accordingly. For example, if you have half the time, you could give yourself twice as long to reach your goal. Alternatively, you could aim for a slightly lower level of fluency (B1 CEFR level) – still a great level where you can chat comfortably in most situations.

Keep in mind that these figures are guidelines: everyone’s different and how long it takes could depend on several factors, such as your experience with languages, whether you are able to stay positive and the amount of speaking practice you do during this time. Don’t worry if it takes a little longer than anticipated: keep going and you’ll get there!

Step 3: Get into a routine

To become fluent in Spanish, decide which actions you’ll need to take each day, then ACTUALLY DO THEM. Forgive me for shouting, but this is the most important bit of the whole guide.

You’ll need to think about:

  • How long you’ll study each day.
  • When and where you’ll do it.
  • What you’ll do in that time.

A typical day might look something like this:

  • Listen to Coffee Break Spanish as you eat your breakfast.
  • Review vocabulary using a flashcard app on your phone whilst stuck in traffic or waiting for the train.
  • Listen to an audiobook for Spanish learners during your commute.
  • After work, you could do a lesson with an online Spanish tutor, study a chapter from a textbook or if you’re feeling tired, chill out in front of some YouTube videos like Spanish Extra or Easy Spanish.
  • If you feel like going out, you could meet a native Spanish speaker in your area and set up a language exchange at the pub (more on this later).

We all have different timetables and tastes, and what works for one person may not work for another. I like to get up an hour early and squeeze my study time in before work because I tend to get distracted later and may not get around to studying. However, some people feel more focused in the evening. Take some time to experiment until you find a language learning routine that works for you.

One thing I recommend to pretty much everyone however, is to get yourself some headphones and listen to podcasts like Coffee Break Spanish and Notes in Spanish as you go about your day: on your commute, walking to work, running in the park, washing the dishes, cleaning the shower etc. It’s amazing how much extra Spanish you can squeeze in by doing this, and it doesn’t take any time out of your day.

Also, remember that you don’t need to start everything at once. Routines that are established slowly are usually the most steadfast. Work towards your ideal routine little by little: for example, if you plan to study Spanish for an hour before work, you could start with 5 minutes, then increase your study time for one minute per day until you’re up to 60.

Importantly, once you’ve sorted out your routine, focus all of your energy on that and forget about everything else.


If you focus on steps 1 and 2 (setting a goal and deadline), but forget about the things you need to do each day to actually get there, you’ll never become fluent in Spanish. This is the way people normally try to achieve things and the reason lots of people never reach their language learning goals.

Alternatively, if you skip the first two steps and just focus on doing your Spanish routine every day, you’ll become fluent in Spanish sooner or later anyway.

Having a goal and a deadline is handy because it gives you something to aim for. But the real secret to becoming fluent in Spanish is getting into a good routine. If you only follow one step from this guide, make it this one.

Step 4: Find your tools

If you’re going to be spending 1 – 2 hours a day learning Spanish, you’ll need to find some fun and useful things to do during that time. Experiment with different resources like textbooks, podcasts and YouTube channels for Spanish learners until you find things you like that help you make progress.

Not sure where to find tools for learning Spanish? These articles might help.

The 11 best tools for learning Spanish from beginner to advanced
The lazy person’s guide to learning Spanish
32 Fun ways to learn a language (that actually work)

Step 5: Measure your progress

Learning a language is like watching a plant grow. From day to day, the changes are almost imperceptible. But if you can step back and look at it after a few months, you’ll see that it’s grown loads.

Language learning happens so gradually that it can feel like you’re not making progress, which is demotivating. One way to resolve this is to record yourself speaking every now and then so you can look back and notice how far you’ve come. This will show you that your hard work is paying off and give you extra motivation to keep going.

To see what I mean, check out what happened when I recorded my progress in German over 3 months. Day to day, I felt like I was getting nowhere, but when I compared day 1 with day 90, I was quite pleased with how much I’d learnt.

Step 6: Find your people

One reason learning a language in the country seems easier than learning in the classroom is that it transforms a boring school subject into a way to communicate with other human beings. Instead of studying to pass a test, you’re learning Spanish so you can chat to your mate Carlos about a girl he met last weekend.

The more you can see Spanish as means of connecting with people, the more motivated you’ll be and the faster you’ll learn. But how can you do this without living in the country?

You can take advantage of this newfangled technology called the “Internet”, which allows you to connect with Spanish speaking people on the other side of the planet, from the comfort of your living room. This tool, which has revolutionalised language learning, is your most important ally in your quest to become fluent in your Spanish without putting pants on.

I use fab website called italki, where you can find loads of native Spanish tutors waiting to talk to you on Skype for a very reasonable price. Just this week I’ve had lovely chats with María from Venezuela and Carlos from Mexico for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, click on any of the italki links on this page to get a free $10 dollar voucher after your first lesson.

If you prefer a completely free option, you can also use italki to set up a language exchange with Spanish speakers who want to learn your language: this way you can talk for half the time in your native language and the other half in Spanish (just make sure you’re strict about the 50/50 rule right from the beginning, so your partner doesn’t hijack your Spanish speaking time!)

Alternatively, if you’d rather make real flesh and blood friends, you can use the internet to find Spanish speaking people in your area. Conversation exchange is a great website for this.

If the idea of speaking Spanish makes you feel nervous, you might find this article useful:

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

Step 7: Talk as much as possible

Grammar exercises and language learning apps might make you feel like you’re doing something useful, but the best (and most enjoyable) way to learn how to speak a language is by talking to people. The more you practice speaking, the more fluent you’ll be. Simple as that.

Whether you pay tutors for online conversation lessons, or set up language exchanges, make it your priority to find people you enjoy spending time with and practice speaking Spanish with them as much as possible. Once you do this, becoming fluent in Spanish is just a matter of time.

My plan to become fluent in Spanish

Next, I’ll explain how I’m going to apply these ideas to help me become fluent in Spanish from my living room.

Set a goal + deadline

I’m already at an intermediate level in Spanish, so I’m going to give myself 6 months to become fluent.

Get into a routine

I’m aiming to learn Spanish for 2 hours a day over the next 6 months. As I’ve just finished my French mission, I already have a routine that sets 2 hours aside for language learning, so I just need to switch the language from French to Spanish. However, if I was building a routine from scratch, I’d start very small, say 5 minutes per day, and increase the time gradually using the technique I discussed in step 3.

Here’s a list of things I’m planning to do integrate into my Spanish learning routine:

  • Watch Spanish CNN while I eat breakfast and drink coffee.
  • Write a daily diary in Spanish.
  • Do at least 3 conversation lessons per week with my Spanish tutors on Skype (via italki).
  • Learn 200 words per month (about 6 per day) on my Flashcard app. To find out how I use flashcards to learn vocabulary, check out this post on how to remember words in a foreign language.
  • Listen to Spanish podcasts while I’m going about my day.
  • Integrate Spanish into my downtime. 2 hours a day is a lot, and if it felt like work all the time I’d never manage to keep it up. For this reason, I’m going to include lots of fun activities I can do in my downtime, like audiobooks, Spanish-language TV series on Netflix, TedTalks in Spanish, dancing around the house like a crazy lady and singing along to Cypress Hill in Spanish…

What about you?

Are you learning (or planning to learn) Spanish from home? Leave a comment and let me know: What’s your goal and deadline? Do you have a Spanish learning routine to help you get there?

I’m a fraud.

I write articles about things like “how to reach your language learning goals”. But half the time, I don’t actually reach my goals for learning a foreign language.

If you’re someone who gets enthusiastic about learning new things, this might sound familiar:

  1. You get excited about a big goal, like learning fluent Spanish in 1 year.
  2. Reality hits and you never do it.

Conventional wisdom says you failed because your goal was too unrealistic. By setting a difficult goal for learning a foreign language, you “set yourself up to fail”. You should have gone for something easier, like “learn how to have a basic conversation about myself and my family”.

But it’s not very inspiring is it?

It’s also not very effective. Research shows that people who set themselves easy goals are less likely to perform well. Which makes sense. When you aim high, the reward is usually more exciting. And it’s much easier to motivate yourself to work towards goals that feel exciting.

The problem with audacious goals is that by their very nature, they’re harder to achieve. You’re more likely to fail, which makes them intimidating to pursue.

But that doesn’t mean you have to settle for uninspiring goals.

You can make big language learning goals work for you by following a few simple principles. In this post, you’ll learn:

  • Why audacious language learning goals help you learn a language faster (and enjoy it more)
  • Why it’s OK not to reach your goals all the time.
  • How to set goals that help you make loads of progress in your target language (whether you reach them or not)

The moonshot factory

“X” is a radical research and development lab at Google, also known as the “moonshot factory”. It’s a place where scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs get together to work on far-out projects, like reducing road accidents with self driving cars, or “project Loon”, an attempt to bring balloon-powered internet to 4 billion people who don’t have access.

Projects they describe as “uncomfortably ambitious”.

But the team at X aren’t worried about the fact that their projects are unrealistic. They know that to drive dramatic change, they have to aim high. Or “shoot for the moon” as it were.

Of course, the audaciousness of these projects means they’re likely to fail. A lot. So how does the team at X motivate themselves to work towards big dreams, when they know that failure is almost inevitable?

By celebrating failure.

Astro Teller, the head of Google X, explains that to make progress, it’s essential to create a company culture where staff feel comfortable taking risks. At the moonshot factory, they make it “safe to fail” by promoting and giving bonuses to people who contributed to projects that didn’t work.

Project Loon at google X, where the team tackles ambitious projects and actively embraces failure.

Why it’s OK not to achieve your language learning goals

There’s an idea in motivational psychology that you should always set achievable goals so you can “set yourself up to win”. Because if you lose, you’ll get disappointed and decide you don’t want to play anymore.

Like a spoilt child losing at a board game.

Give yourself more credit than that. You can handle the slight inconvenience of not reaching your goal for learning a foreign language.

When you go for an audacious language learning goal, there are 2 possible outcomes:

  1. You’ll reach it (which would be amazing)
  2. You won’t reach it, but you’ll have pushed your limits and achieved way more than you would have otherwise.

Surely it’s more satisfying to work towards something exciting and challenging and miss the target slightly, than achieve a goal you knew was going to be easy all along?

The view that big goals are demotivating is linked to the idea that failure is something to be avoided. If we think we might fail, we’d rather not try at all.

But wouldn’t it make more sense to change the way we see failure, rather than changing the goal? What if the solution, instead of settling for uninspiring goals, was to throw all your energy at exciting projects, without worrying if you fail?

Not the trite “aim high and all your dreams will come true” philosophy. More of a “dream big and you’ll probably fall flat on your arse but it doesn’t matter” kind of philosophy.

If you set an audacious goal, there’s a risk you’ll fall flat on your arse. But does it really matter? You’ll still have learnt loads in the process!

The all or nothing trap

The idea that you should only set goals you know you can achieve creates an oversimplified view of success:

Reach goal = good
Don’t reach goal = bad

But this all or nothing view ignores all the good stuff in between.

Imagine you wanted to learn Spanish to an advanced level in 1 year, but you ended up at intermediate level instead. You’ve got 2 options:

  1. Feel disappointed because you didn’t reach your language learning goal.
  2. Crack open the Cava and celebrate the fact that you still learned loads of Spanish in a relatively short time.

Not reaching your language learning goals can be demotivating, but only if you decide to see things like number 1. If you take the second approach, you’ll get the motivation boost that comes from having an exciting language learning goal, and the satisfaction of celebrating your progress. The fact that you fell short of your original objective doesn’t matter that much.

Crack open the Cava, it’s time to celebrate all that stuff you learnt. Who cares if you were a bit off target?

The power of close enough

The importance of setting “realistic” goals is so well accepted that I’d always seen my inability to do it as a shortcoming, something I needed to change if I wanted to be successful.

Lately, I’ve been questioning this idea. Yes, I usually fail to meet the unrealistic goals I set.

But does it really matter?

At University, my study plans were so over ambitious, I can’t remember a single day when I stuck to them. But I followed them as closely as I could, and that was good enough to get into Cambridge and win a prestigious scholarship for graduate research.

When it comes to learning languages, I never manage to do everything I had planned. Yet somehow I end up learning the languages anyway.

It’d be nice to say that I did these things thanks to a well organised and executed plan. But it’s not true. Everything I’ve ever achieved is the result of loads of messy near (and often far) misses.

I don’t think I’ve ever met any of the silly, over ambitious targets I set myself. But they let me hang around Cambridge and dress up like Harry Potter anyway.

If you always followed goals you knew you could achieve, life would be like a game of tetris, where the pieces fell so slowly you never moved off the bottom row: it would get very boring very quickly.

The key to making audacious goals work for you is to pat yourself on the back for your “close enoughs”. This way, you’ll stay motivated to keep chasing your fun goals and make lots of progress on the way.

Of course, this philosophy does have limits. If you perceive something as so unrealistic you don’t stand a chance, it’s almost impossible to get motivated. Don’t deliberately set out to fail.

Just know that everything will be OK if you do.

Next, let’s learn 9 keys for setting audacious language learning goals which will:

  • give you the best chance at reaching your big language learning goals.
  • help you learn as much as humanly possible (whether you actually reach them or not).

9 keys to setting audacious language learning goals

1. Choose something exciting

The first step is to choose a goal that gets you excited about learning your target language. Some people like to aim for an exam, so they can confirm their level, but if that makes you yawn, there are plenty of other options! If you’re a beginner, how about aiming for a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker? If you’re lucky enough to be able to travel to the country of your target language, how about being able to do everything you need on your trip, without reverting back to English? If you’re a higher level, why not try making a native speaker friend with whom you communicate entirely in your target language?

2. Keep it short

Next, it helps to make the goal relatively short term (6 months or less). Anything longer and it’s tempting to slack off: the lazy part of your brain will always try to convince you that you can do it later.

3. Make it very specific

Research shows that the more specific a goal is, the more likely you are to achieve it. Goals like “be able to speak for 30 minutes without reverting back to English” are better than “learn fluent Spanish”.

4. Break it into concrete actions

Remember at the beginning of this post when we talked about wanting to learn Spanish in 1 year but “never actually doing it”? Usually the problem isn’t the audacious goal, it’s the fact that people forget to think about the concrete actions they need to take to get there.

It’s great to have an ambitious goal, but unless you break it down into little, actionable steps, it will remain a vague idea that you keep putting off to “someday”. Now you’ve got your big goal, take some time to think about how to break it down into concrete actions. For example, if your goal is to learn to speak quickly, you might decide to do 3 online conversation lessons a week with an online tutor on a site like italki.

5. Plan for failure

When I set audacious goals, I always imagine that Super Future Katie, who goes to bed early and always does her homework, will do all the work. Now I’ve never met this woman, so I’m not sure why I keep expecting her to swoop in one day and solve all my problems. It’s just not going to happen is it?

If you know that on Sundays, you’d rather stick a pencil in your eye than do anything productive, make that your day off. If reading the news feels like a chore in your native language, don’t force yourself to do it in the language you’re learning – go for something more enjoyable. The more you can plan for you, the fallible human being and not the superhero version, the easier it is to take action towards your language learning goals.


6. Don’t rely on willpower

If you’re excited about your language learning goal, it’ll give you plenty of motivation to get started. But somewhere along the line, that enthusiasm will start to wear off. It’s not a good idea to count on willpower when this happens because it has a habit of failing us when we need it most – that’s why most gyms are half empty in February.

The best way to combat this, is to make language learning a habit. This way, there’s less risk of overthinking things and talking yourself out of it. There are 2 ways to do this and the most successful approaches use a combination of both:

  1. Think of lots of little ways to integrate language learning into your life, like listening to podcasts on your commute, or writing your shopping list in the language you’re learning.
  2. Be as consistent as possible. This normally means setting aside the same time every day to squeeze in a bit of language learning. Choose a time when you’re able to block out distractions – early in the morning is ideal, but if you’re a night owl, evenings can work too!

7. Book it

It helps to have concrete arrangements which force you to take action towards your goal, like booking your exam, or a holiday in a little town where no one speaks English. This is because at some point, a little voice will pop into your head and try to dissuade you. “What if I skipped this exam session and did the one a few months later?” “I’m not ready yet, maybe I should wait until next year to practice my language skills on holiday”

Don’t listen.

Maybe it won’t turn out exactly as you’d hoped: maybe you’ll get a lower mark than you wanted, or even fail your exam. Maybe you won’t get by in Spanish on holiday as easily as you’d hoped. But we’ve already established that it doesn’t really matter. You’ll learn so much more by having a go and falling a bit short, than by putting it off. Once it’s booked, it’s much easier to ignore this voice and keep going anyway.

8. Don’t go it alone

Research shows that teaming up with other people who are going for similar goals makes you more likely to achieve them. There are loads of ways to team up with other language learners online, here are a few to get you started: the language diary challenge, the add1challenge, the fi3m forum, clear the list, the 30 day speaking challenge.

9. Do take it lightly

One thing that puts people off chasing big goals is that it can feel a bit scary. But there’s no need to take it so seriously! When it all gets too much, remind yourself that reaching your goal is just the cherry on top: the important thing is all the progress you make as you work towards it. When it comes to language learning goals, it really is the taking part that counts!

My language plans for November

My exciting language goal for the moment is to reach advanced level French, which I’m hoping to verify by taking the DALF C1 exam at the end of November.

Knowing this deadline is coming up has motivated me like nothing else: I’ve made more progress in the last few months than I had in the 3 years before. I’m still not sure if I’ll pass or not, but whatever happens, I’m thrilled with the progress I’ve made.

Here’s how I’m following the 9 keys for setting audacious language goals

1. Is it exciting?

Ok, so doing an exam isn’t a very thrilling prospect, but being able to certify that I’ve got advanced French is. That’s my moonshot and I’m excited about it.

2. Is it short?

Yep – I started working on the project back in July.

3. Is it specific?

Yes – I’m taking the C1 DALF French exam on the 27th November. It doesn’t get much more specific than that!

4. Did I break it down into actionable steps?

I did – you can read more about them in this post: DALF C1: How I’m preparing for the scary French exam.

5. Did I plan for failure?

Yes. I’ve come up with plenty of strategies to work with (rather than against) my laziness (including watching reality TV in French when I can’t be bothered to study).

6. Did I turn it into a habit?

Yes and no. I’m good at integrating French into my daily life, by listening to podcasts etc. Not so good at studying at the same time in the same place every day. This is what’s holding me back most at the moment. In the morning I think “I’ll study later”, but then life gets in the way and I don’t get around to it. This month, I want to get into the habit of studying in the morning, before I start my day.

7. Did I book it?

Yes! This part was tricky as my terrified brain was doing everything in it’s power to talk me out of it. But I tried not to listen and booked it anyway.

8. Did I find a community?

Yes, I joined clear the list, an online blogging community where language learners share their goals and cheer each other on. In fact, you’re reading one of my clear the list posts right now!

9. Am I taking it lightly?

I’d be lying if I said that the prospect of doing a big scary French exam didn’t stress me out from time to time. But reminding myself that the real aim is to make progress in French, and I’ve already done that, certainly takes the pressure off.

Checklist for setting audacious goals for learning a language

1. Is it exciting? When you’ve got an inspiring language goal, it’s much easier to motivate yourself.
2. Is it short term? Try to keep the deadline under 6 months. Any longer and it’s easy to keep putting  off. 
3. Is it specific? Language learning goals like “be able to speak for 30 minutes without reverting back to English” are better than “learn fluent Spanish”.
4. Did you break it down into actionable steps? Break your language learning goal down into a series of small, actionable steps (and actually do them!)
5. Did you plan for failure? Make your plan around the fallible human being that you are (not the super future you that doesn’t exist!)
6. Did you make it a habit? Don’t rely on willpower, build habits instead.
7. Can you book something? If you can book something related to your deadline like an exam date, or a trip where you only speak your target language, it helps you beat the powerful urge to chicken out at the last minute.
8. Did you find a community? Get some moral support by joining one of the online language learning communities, like the #languagediarychallenge.
9. Did you remember not to take it too seriously? Whenever you feel stressed out, remember: it’s the taking part that counts! Even if you fall a bit short of your language learning goal, you’ll still have made loads of progress.


What do you think?

Which language are you learning? What kind of audacious language learning goal could you set to help you make more progress? Share it in the comments!

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