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 achieved these things thanks to a well organised and executed plan. But it’s not true. Getting into Cambridge and learning to have conversations in 5 languages are 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!

Do you have hopes and dreams of speaking a language fluently, but you’re too lazy to study?

Me too.

But what if I told you that your laziness, far from being a limitation, could actually make you great at learning languages?

Read on (if you can be bothered) to find out why the lazy way is often the best way, and learn 7 ways you can leverage your laziness to learn a language effectively at home.

Lazy people find better ways to do things

If you were a builder at the end of the 19th century, life was hard. Long hours. Crappy pay. Little regard for health and safety. If you were really unlucky, it could even cost you your life: 5 men died during the construction of the Empire State Building and 27 died working on the Brooklyn bridge.

Learning a language at home
Occupational hazard: In the late 19th century, being a builder was a strenuous job with a high mortality rate.

What qualities did builders need to be the best at such a demanding and dangerous job?

Tenacity? Diligence? Stamina?

Nope.

In 1868, a young construction worker named Frank Gilbreth began observing colleagues in order to understand why some bricklayers were more effective than others, when he made a surprising discovery.

The best builders weren’t those who tried the hardest. The men Gilbreth learnt the most from, were the lazy ones.

Laying bricks requires repeating the same movements over and over again: the fewer motions, the better. In an attempt to conserve energy, the “lazy” builders had found ways to lay bricks with a minimum number of motions. In short, they’d found more effective ways to get the job done.

But what do lazy bricklayers have to do with language learning?

Well, inspired by his lazy colleagues, Gilbreth went on to pioneer “motion study”, a technique which streamlines work systems and is still used today in many fields to increase productivity. You know that person in operating theaters who passes scalpels to the surgeon and wipes their brow? Gilbreth came up with that idea.

Hiring someone to pass you things from 20 centimeters away and wipe the sweat off your own forehead? It doesn’t get much lazier than that. Yet it helps surgeons work more efficiently and probably saves lives in the process.

The bottom line? The lazy way is usually the smartest way.

Over the years, Gilbreth’s ideas have been attributed to Bill Gates (which, although factually incorrect, makes a nicer motivational poster to hang in your office).

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

If your school was anything like mine, you may have some experience learning languages with the “try harder” approach. Page after page of grammar exercises, long vocabulary lists, listening exercises about stationary or some other excruciatingly boring topic. And if you still can’t speak the language after all that effort? Well, you should try harder.

But what if there’s a better way to learn a language? A lazier way, that you can use to learn a language at home, with less effort?

A way to learn by doing things you actually enjoy? A way to learn by having a laugh with native speakers? A way to learn without taking your pajamas off?

There is.

Don’t get me wrong, languages take time and effort, there’s no getting around that. This isn’t about being idle.

It’s about finding effective ways to learn, so you can stop wasting time and energy on stuff that doesn’t work. To help you find them, I’ve put together a list of 7 lazy (but highly effective) ways to learn a language at home.

They’ll help you:

⁃ Speak a language better by studying less.
⁃ Go against “traditional” language learning methods to get better results.
⁃ Get fluent in a language while sitting around in your undies and drinking beer

Lazy way to learn a language at home #1: Don’t study (much)

A lot of people try to learn a language by “studying”. They try really hard to memorise grammar rules and vocabulary in the hope that one day, all the pieces will come together and they’ll magically start speaking the language.

Sorry, but languages don’t work that way.

Trying to speak a language by doing grammar exercises is like trying to make bread by reading cookbooks. Sure, you’ll pick up some tips, but you’ll never learn how to bake unless you’re willing to get your hands dirty.

Languages are a learn by doing kind of thing. The best way to learn to speak, understand, read and write a language is by practicing speaking, listening, reading and writing. That doesn’t mean you should never study grammar or vocabulary. It helps to get an idea of how the language works. But if you dedicate a disproportionate amount of time to that stuff, it’ll hold you back.

You’ll learn much faster by using the language.

Now, if you’re a total newbie, you may be wondering how you can start using a language you don’t know yet. If you’re learning completely from scratch, a good textbook can help you pick up the basics. But avoid ones which teach lots of grammar rules without showing you how to use them in real life. The best textbooks are the ones which give you lots of example conversations and introduce grammar in bitesized pieces, like Assimil.

As soon as you can, aim to get lots of exposure to the language being used in a real way. If you’re a lower level, you can start by reading books which have been simplified for your level (called graded readers). Look for ones accompanied with audio so you can work on your listening at the same time.

Another great way is to listen to podcasts with simplified, slowed down speech and transcripts such as Slow German, Slow Chinese, the News in Slow Podcasts or the Coffee Break Series.

Duolingo has also just added a fab new beta feature called stories: fun simple tales for learners with interactive translations and mini comprehension quizzes. For the moment, it’s only in Spanish and Portuguese, but keep an eye out for other languages coming soon.

Lazy way to learn a language at home #2: Sit around in your undies

Next, you’ll need to practice speaking. Luckily, you can now do this on Skype, so you only need to get dressed from the waist up.

MRW people ask me if I’m ready for my job interview on skype.

The best place for online conversation classes is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here: Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off.

If you prefer a free option, you can also use italki to find people who are learning your native language and set up a language exchange. One risk with language exchanges is that English becomes the default language and they end up using your time to practice their English. To make it work, be sure to set a clear boundary for when each language is spoken (e.g. say 30 minutes in English and 30 minutes in Spanish) and be strict about sticking to it.

Or, if you’re feeling brave enough to put some pants on, you can find a flesh-and-blood language exchange partner who lives near you via conversation exchange. You can even arrange to meet up at the pub and combine my two great loves: languages and beer.

Importantly, make it a priority to find conversation tutors and language exchange partners you actually enjoy spending time with (if they’re sexy, even better). It can be real chore to sit down and chat 1-on-1 for 60 minutes with someone you don’t click with. But once you find people you get on well with, it’s easy to motivate yourself to practice speaking.

Learning a language at home
Motivating myself to practice German got a lot easier as soon as I found a handsome conversation tutor.

Lazy way to learn a language at home #3: Don’t try too hard

Getting out of your comfort zone is brilliant, it’s where the learning happens. But you don’t feel like you have to venture too far.

If you’re frustrated by the speed of the listening, too many new words, or tricky grammar, it’s probably a sign that you’ve gone too far. Pushing yourself too hard isn’t a good way to learn, for a number of reasons:

1. When there’s too much new information, it’s difficult to take any of it in.
2. When you’re stressed, your mind’s less receptive to learning.
3. If you have to constantly stop and look up new words, it gets very boring very quickly.
4. It’s difficult to sustain that kind of effort long term (consistency is essential to language learning).
5. Being frustrated isn’t fun, so you’re more likely to give up.

Aim for the sweet spot just above your current level, where you’re coming across new words, but you can still get the general gist of what’s being said.

For more tips on getting the level right, check out this post: the 11 easiest languages to learn (and how to make any language easy)

Lazy way to learn a language at home #4: Don’t waste time learning pointless stuff

Smart lazy language learners know they can’t learn everything at once, so they prioritise words and phrases they’ll get the most mileage out of. The exact words and phrases will depend on the language you’re learning and the situations you’re likely to find yourself in, but as a general rule, frequent conversation phrases like “I’d like”, “maybe” or “I think so” are more useful than things like “rooms in my house” or “items in my pencil case”.

Lazy way to learn a language at home #5: Don’t rely on willpower.

If you’ve tried to learn a language and failed in the past, you might think it’s because you don’t have enough willpower.

It’s true, you don’t. But neither does anyone else. That’s why most people who try to learn a language (or do anything similar, like losing weight or learning to play an instrument) start out enthusiastically, only to run out of steam a few weeks later.

Look closer at the people who’ve succeeded in learning a language and you’ll see that they’re the ones who’ve managed to build a habit. Once you get into the habit of learning a language, you don’t have to struggle so much to find the time or the energy. You just do it.

What’s the best way to get into the language habit?

The lazy way of course!

We have a natural tendency to resist change, which is why big efforts don’t usually last. The key is to make changes so small, they’re almost imperceptible. Start with teeny goal, like learning a language for 5 minutes, then increase it in small increments, like 1 minute each day. By the end of one month, you’ll be up to 30 minutes per day and well on your way to learning that language.

Lazy way to learn a language at home #6: Do stuff you enjoy

Who are the laziest people alive?

Stoners of course.

At university, I knew a guy who was so lazy he wore the same clothes every day and ate pasta straight out of the pan so he didn’t have to wash a plate. Yet when it came to his favorite occupation, smoking weed, he’d go to extreme lengths to get the right kind at the right price and happily walk all the way to the other side of town to pick it up.

Laziness is relative: most people have plenty of energy for things they enjoy doing. When you actually want to do something, be that getting stoned, eating cheese or watching disney films in a foreign language, it’s not hard to get started.

Learning a language at home
Even stoners can motivate themselves to do things they enjoy.

The key is to find ways to learn a language at home that you like, so you don’t have to fight with yourself so much.

The best way to do this is to get into the habit of reading, watching and listening to things you like in the language you’re learning: audiobooks, YouTube, Netflix, newspapers, soap operas, hiphop, disney films, documentaries, novels, reality tv, cookery programmes, fashion blogs, sports papers, world of warcraft…whatever does it for you. The closer it is to things you enjoy doing in your native language, the better.

Or, it you’re a lower level and those kind of resources are too tricky to follow, start with fun things aimed at language learners like podcasts, YouTube tutorials, graded readers or duolingo stories.

YouTube is a brilliant place for language learners as there are often subtitles. To make the most out of subtitles for language learning, read the ones in the language you’re learning, and only use the English ones to check your understanding. You can also use YouTube to slow down the speed, which helps you focus on the details of what they’re saying (as well as making the speaker sound like they’ve knocked back a few tequilas before going on camera).

Learning a language at home
Go home YouTube, you’re drunk. YouTube is great for language learning as you can slow down the speech in the settings menu to understand what’s being said. It also makes the speaker sound like they’ve had a few too many.

A super tool for reading online is the google translate chrome add on. It turns any website into an interactive dictionary, so you can click on a word you don’t know and get the translation in your native language. This makes it very easy to read websites in the language you’re learning without interrupting your flow to look up new words all the time.

To find some sites you like, do a quick google search with the language you’re learning + the genre you’re after (e.g. Spanish Newspapers or French fashion blogs) and you should find a nice list. Alternatively, if you’re feeling lazy, buzzfeed in your target language is a good place to start.

Learning a language at home
With the google translate chrome add on, you can turn any webpage into an interactive dictionary.

For more inspiration on enjoyable ways to learn a language, check out this list: 32 fun ways to learn a language (that actually work).

Lazy way to learn a language at home #7: Change your surroundings

Lazy language learners know that if they have to rely on their own initiative to learn a language, it probably won’t get done. Smart lazy language learners get round this by making changes to their environment so they’re interacting with the language all day, in a way that doesn’t require a lot of extra effort. Here are a few sneaky ways you can integrate language learning into your surroundings:

• Change the language on Facebook/Twitter/your phone to your target language (but remember how to change it back!)
• Change your homepage to a website in your target language.
• Get some headphones and listen to the language as much as you can: on the way to work, cooking, cleaning the toilet…
• Talk to your yourself (or your pets) in the language you’re learning.

Remember, language learning doesn’t happen through big, sporadic efforts. It’s all in the details. Take some time to think of small ways you could integrate your target language into your daily life. And most importantly, actually do it.

These small actions, when repeated daily, will add up to big results.

Quick guide: how to learn a language at home (the lazy way)

#1: Don’t study (much) Grammar is useful, but don’t make it your main focus. Try to get as much exposure as possible to the language being used in real way by reading and listening.
#2: Practice speaking as much as you can Book conversation lessons on Skype, or arrange conversation exchanges. Make a point of finding conversation partners you enjoy spending time with.
#3: Don’t try too hard Aim for the sweet spot just above your level, where you come across new words but you can get the gist of what’s being said.
#4: Don’t waste time on pointless stuff Common conversation phrases like “I don’t know” or “I think so” are more useful than things like “rooms in my house” or “things in my pencil case”
#5: Build habits Don’t rely on willpower. Get into the language learning habit by starting with 5 minutes a day and gradually increasing the time.
#6: Do stuff you enjoy Make a point of finding things to read or listen to that you enjoy. The closer it is to things you like doing in your native language, the better.
#7: Change your surroundings Find sneaky ways to integrate language learning into your daily life, by changing the language of your Facebook, or listening to podcasts on your way to work.

What do you think?

Are you learning a language at home? Do you think the lazy way could work for you? Which one of these 7 tips could you start doing right now to help you learn a language?

What do heights, Ikea on Sundays and language exams have in common?

They all scare the crap out of me.

Right now, I’m stressée because I’m taking an advanced French exam (called the DALF C1) in a few weeks, and I’m not ready yet.

But not to worry.

I’ve done what all good, last-minute students do and come up with a plan aimed at getting the best possible results in the little time I’ve got. In this post, I’ll share the strategies I’m using to get ready for the DALF C1 exam, which draw on the techniques I used to pass a similar Italian exam (C2 CILS).

If you’re thinking about taking the DALF C1 French exam, or any other language exam for that matter, you’ll find 14 strategies that’ll help you get the most out of your study time and give you a better chance of passing.

But before we dive in, let’s talk a bit about how the DALF C1 exam works, including:

  • What is the DALF C1 exam?
  • Why take the DALF C1?
  • What do I have to do in the DALF C1?

What is the DALF C1 French exam?

DALF stands for Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française (Diploma in Advanced French). There are two levels: C1 and C2.

At C1 level, you can:
• express yourself fluently and accurately in French
• use French with ease in social, academic and working contexts
• write clear, detailed texts on complex subjects

In short, the DALF C1 exam is a way of testifying that your French level is good enough to conduct your social, academic and working life comfortably in French.

C2 (mastery) is the next level up and the highest level French exam there is.

Why take the DALF C1?

Some people take the DALF C1 because they need it for work or study (although in many cases, the lower level, B2 will suffice).

Personally, I like the added motivation that comes from working towards an exam like the DALF C1. It’s exactly the kick up the bum I needed to stop floundering and make some real progress in French. In that sense, I’m already satisfied with the results as I’ve seen more improvement in my French in the last 3 months than I had in the last 3 years prior to setting myself this goal.

What’s the DALF C1 exam like?

There are 4 sections in the DALF C1 exam: reading, listening, writing and speaking.

The listening section is divided into two parts. In the first part, you’ll answer a series of questions about a long recording (around 8 minutes) taken from real contexts like interviews, lessons or conferences. You can listen twice. In the second part, you’ll answer 10 questions on short radio broadcasts, which are only played once. The listening section lasts around 40 minutes.

In the reading section, you’ll answer a series of questions on a long text (1500 – 2000 words), which could be journalistic or literary in style. It lasts 50 minutes.

The writing section is divided into two parts. In the first part, you’ll be given 2 – 3 texts to read and asked to write a summary (220 words). In the second task, you’ll be asked to write an essay on the same topic as the texts you just read (250 words). You have 2.5 hours to complete both parts.

In the speaking section, you’re required to give a short speech and discuss a series of questions with the examiners. You get 60 minutes beforehand to read 2 – 3 documents about a topic and prepare your speech. The speech + discussion lasts around 30 minutes, so altogether the speaking section lasts 1.5 hours.

In both speaking and writing sections, you can choose between two fields: humanities and social studies or science.

14 ways to prepare for the C1 DALF French exam

1. Do lots of exam practice

The most effective way to practice for an exam is… you guessed it, by doing exam practice!

However, not all practice is equal. As Vince Lombardi puts it:

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

To get the most out of your study time, it’s important to focus on the right kind of practice. This means not simply doing exam questions over and over, but taking time between each try to analyze what went wrong and think about how you can apply those lessons to your next attempt.

It also means learning how to do the exam, by developing skills that will help you answer the questions better. The following tips will give you some suggestions on how to do this.

2. Get a textbook designed for the DALF C1

It helps to get a textbook specifically designed to prepare students for the language exam you’re taking. I’m using réussir le DALF and it’s full of handy hints for each section.

It’s also a good idea to get your hands on a book with past papers, so you can do as many practice exams as possible.

3. Improve your speaking and writing with the translation technique

Ideally, I want to learn to express myself in a way that’s as close as possible to an educated French speaker. To move towards this target, I need a technique that highlights how my speech and writing differs from that of native French speakers so I can learn from my mistakes and discover how to talk/write more like they do.

How?

With the following translation technique:

  1. Find examples of native French speaker answers to the writing/speaking tasks (like the one below).
  2. Translate the French text/audio into English.
  3. Wait a day or so, until my memory of the French version has faded.
  4. Translate the text/audio back into French.
  5. Compare my French answer with the original native speaker text/audio.

This technique is ideal because it gives you immediate feedback on your choice of words/grammar and shows you how to express ideas like a native French person would. And because you’re engaging with the French phrases in a very focused way, it helps you remember them more easily for future speaking/writing tasks.

4. Train your ear to listen for details

Does this ever happen to you?

When you listen to fast speech in a foreign language it sounds like gobbledygook, but when you see things written down you can understand them quite easily?

This is because in fast speech, strange things happen: sounds (and sometimes whole words) can be cut and others sound different to how you expect. For example, when French people speak fast, they often shorten the word “vous” to “v”.

I want to train my ear to recognize words and phrases in fast speech, so I can pick out details I’ll need in the listening questions.

To achieve this, I’m using a dictation technique, which involves listening to speech, writing what you hear, then checking what you wrote against a transcript. This task trains your ear to tune into the details of speech and highlights why you miss certain words, for example, if they’re pronounced differently in fast speech.

As a bonus, writing down the words helps me practice spelling, which is one of my weaknesses in French.

I’m using the C1 listening tasks from TV5Monde for this task because the listenings come with transcripts and cover topics which are similar to the DALF C1 exam (shout out to Elena from the hitoritabi blog for the recommendation!)

 

5. Listen to newsreaders on speed

Another way to get used to listening to fast speech is to speed it up even more.

On YouTube, you can make the videos faster by knocking the speed up to 1.25 (under settings). Once you get used to listening to everything 1/4 faster, normal speed French suddenly feels a lot easier! I’m using the videos on the France24 YouTube channel for this activity.

One way to get better at listening to fast French speech is to speed up videos on YouTube. Once you get used to the very fast speech, normal paced speech will feel a lot easier!

 

6. Listen everywhere

Download some podcasts and listen to them wherever you go: on the way to work, whilst doing the dishes or cleaning the shower. French radio interviews and news programs are great as they’re often similar to the listenings in the exam.

 

7. Improve your pronunciation

Pronunciation is important because it helps the examiners understand you more easily, which can positively influence their judgements on your speaking ability. Check and practice the pronunciation of tricky words by looking them up in an online dictionary with audio files (like wordreference). Listen to the sound file and practice saying the word aloud several times until your pronunciation sounds similar to the example. It helps to keep a list of the French words you struggle to pronounce so you can come back to them and practice them regularly.

 

8. Remember important words with flashcards

I store the new words and phrases I come across in my flashcard app, so I can review them later. Over the next few weeks, I’ll concentrate on making flashcards with formal French phrases that’ll be useful for the exam, like cependent (nevertheless) and en outre (furthermore).

Importantly, I won’t just review the words, I’ll practice using them too, as this helps them stick in my head better. One way of doing this is to make up new sentences in my head with each word as I review the flashcard. Another way is by writing example sentences.

 

9. Grammar: learn by doing

I need to dust off a bit of French grammar, so I’m working my way through a grammar textbook. But like vocabulary, I believe the best way to remember grammar is to practice using it.

To do this, I write conversation questions with the grammar points I’ve just learnt and discuss them with my online tutor. If I can make the topics similar to the ones in the exam, so much the better.

Let’s see this in action.

I’ve recently reviewed conditionals (used to talk about imaginary situations – if I were a cat, I’d sleep all day). For my next lesson with my online tutor, I’ve prepared some conversation questions with conditionals, using themes that often appear in the exam (environment, politics…). For example:

Si tu étais président, que ferais-tu pour protéger la planète?
If you were president, what would you do to protect the planet?

This helps me practice writing and speaking using the grammar points I’ve just studied and get lots of relevant feedback from my online tutor.

10. Do focused speaking lessons

My online French lessons used to be an opportunity for a nice relaxing chat, but over the next few weeks I’ll need to get focused. I’m going to use the sessions to practice debating and do a feedback session at the end so I can focus on areas I need to improve. I’ll ask my online tutor for honest feedback about my mistakes, what I could have done better, and new expressions to help me express my ideas more effectively next time.

11. Get feedback by recording your speaking practice

Another way you can improve your speaking is by making short videos and showing them to native speakers to get corrections. I’ll be posing mine on Instagram, as there’s a lovely language learning community who give each other friendly feedback and correct each other’s mistakes. If you’re not brave enough to post your video in public yet, you can record it and watch it back yourself (you’ll often notice your own mistakes when you’re not concentrating on speaking at the same time).

https://www.instagram.com/p/BZyiEQqA5un/?hl=en&taken-by=joyoflanguages

12. Get a teacher who knows the DALF C1

Most of the time, I don’t work with qualified teachers to learn a language: a native speaker who can give me corrections is all I need, as I can study the grammar and vocabulary on my own from textbooks. But for exam prep, it’s important to work with a teacher who understands the exam so they can explain how the exam works, spot your weaknesses and give you exercises to work on them. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing some lessons with an experienced teacher (online via italki) who knows the DALF C1 exam well and can give me pointers.

13. Do Deliberate practice

Lots of the ideas in this post aren’t about working harder, they’re about working smarter. These tips fit in with an approach called deliberate practice, which is an effective way to develop skills in just about anything. In his book Peak, the pioneer of deliberate practice, Anders Ericsson suggests that the best way to get good at something is to follow three Fs:

• Focus: Break the skill down into parts you can practice repeatedly.
• Feedback: Analyze your practice attempts and identify your weaknesses.
• Fix-it: Come up with ways to address your weaknesses so you can do it better next time.

If this kind of preparation sounds intense, that’s because it is. But if you can figure out ways to apply the three Fs to your exam preparation, it’ll save you time in the long run because it’ll help you get better faster.

14. Rest

Getting out of your comfort zone is a wonderful thing. It’s where all the good stuff happens. But while my mind has fully embraced this idea, my body is wondering what the heck is going on. I’ve been getting ill a lot lately, which is a sign I need to slow down and take care not to burn out.

I plan to look after myself more by making a few simple changes:

  • Get a good night’s sleep. This means getting to bed at a decent time and no screens before bedtime (start reading at 10.30 and fall asleep between 11 and 11.30). Apart from weekends, bien sur.
  • Eat healthily (more of the good stuff, like fruit and veg, whilst still enjoying treats)
  • Take frequent breaks, with relaxing activities, like listening to music or going for a walk (au revoir Facebook!)
  • Check emails/social media no more than once a day.
  • Say no to new projects.
  • If I’m feeling really tired, replace exam prep with more fun stuff, like watching French TV or reading a French book (so I can chill without getting out of the French zone).

What do you think?

Have you ever done a language exam before? How did you prepare for it? What other tips can you add to the list? Or, if you’re thinking about taking a language exam, which of the above tips will help you the most?

Want to learn some handy Italian travel phrases to buy food?

Bene!

In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to speak Italian in supermarkets, delis and markets. It includes 3 Italian audio lessons, where you’ll learn the following skills:

  • How to ask for things in supermarkets
  • The right way to order food at the deli counter
  • How to pay for things at the till

And, just as importantly, you’ll be able to understand the kind of phrases shop assistants will say back to you.

With each lesson, you’ll find a transcript, so you can read the Italian dialogue followed by a mini grammar and vocabulary tutorial.

How can I remember Italian words and phrases?

One of the hardest parts about learning a language is remembering all that vocabulary! To make new words and phrases stick, it’s important to review them regularly.

That’s why we’ve made a set of vocabulary flashcards to go with each lesson. These are like digital “cards” with the Italian phrase on one side and the English translation on the other. You can use them to:

You’ll find a link to download these flashcards at the end of each lesson, with instructions on how to use them.

Ready to learn how to speak Italian in shops and supermarkets?

Cominciamo!

Italian travel phrases: How to ask for things in supermarkets

5 Minute Italian Lesson Transcript

Katie: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti a 5 minute Italian, hi everyone and welcome to 5 minute Italian. I’m Katie…

Matteo: And I’m Matteo. Ciao.

K: And in today’s lesson, we’re going to learn how to find our way around an Italian supermarket. We’re going to start with a little dialogue in Italian. Listen and see how much you can make out, then we’ll talk you through the details after.

Imagine you’re in the supermarket, but you don’t know where anything is. So you go up to the poor shop assistant, il commesso, and you start asking loads of questions.

Italian dialogue

Katie: Mi scusi, dove sono i carrelli?
Matteo: Sono lì, all’entrata.
Katie: OK grazie. E… dove sono le banane?
Matteo: Lì, con la frutta.
Katie: Perfetto. E…Dov’è la pasta?
Matteo: è di la signora.
Katie: Grazie, quale corridoio?
Matteo: Corridoio cinque, vicino al pane.

What does it mean? Italian travel phrases explained

Katie: So we started with: Mi scusi

Matteo: Mi scusi

K: Mi scusi, is the formal way of saying “excuse me” with people who you don’t know very well, like shop assistants. You can also use it to say sorry, for example if you get in someone’s way, you can say mi scusi or just scusi.

Just a quick reminder that you you can find the main vocabulary from today in the show notes below.

M: Then you heard: dove sono i carrelli which means “where are the trolleys”.

K: Dove means “where”, sono means “are” and i carrelli means “the trolleys”

M: Dove sono i carrelli.

K: Then you heard sono lì, all’entrata.

M: Which means “they’re there, at the entrance”. Sono lì, all’entrata.

K: We know that sono means “are”. Italians often omit the word for they. So instead of saying “they are there”, they just say “are there”. means there. So you can imagine him pointing and saying “there” – .

M: Sono lì. You might also hear the word , which means the same thing. To say “there” you can either say or . They’re interchangeable.

K: Then you heard all’entrata which means “at the entrance”. The word all means “at the”. And entrata means entrance

M: All’entrata.

K: And this all is interesting – a means “at” and la means “the” for feminine words, like entrata. In Italian, a and la combine together to give us alla. So to say “at the” for feminine words, you’d get alla.

M: but when alla comes before a word which starts with a vowel, we remove the last a sound. So you get all’entrata.

K: Sometimes it can help to see this visually, so remember you can find this written down in the show notes below the podcast. Next, I said dove sono le banane which I’m sure you can guess means “where are the bananas?”

M: dove sono le banane?

K: Then Matteo replied…

M: Lì, con la frutta.

K: We know that means “there”. Con means “with”. And la frutta means the fruit.

M: Then Katie said: perfetto which of course means “perfect. You should say it with a nice Italian accent: perfetto!

K: Then I asked dov’è la pasta which means “where’s the pasta”.

K: Next, Matteo said…

M: è di la, signora. Which means “it’s over there madam”

K: Di là is quite similar to  which means there. Maybe the only difference is that or gives more of an impression of a specific place, so maybe you’re pointing to a specific point while you’re saying it, while di là is more of a general direction. Over there: di là.

M: And then I called you Signora, which is the word you use for women.

K: It’s like saying “maam” or “madam”, and Italians use it frequently. And I’m very sad about this because in the last few years people have stopped calling me signorina, which is used with girls and young women, and started calling me signora.

M: Then you heard grazie, quale corridoio?.

K: Quale, means “which” and corridoio means aisle. And this word is nice and easy to remember because it sounds like corridor – so you can imagine the aisle as being a bit like a corridor.

M: corridoio.

K: Then Matteo said…

M: Corridoio cinque, vicino al pane.

K: Corridoio cinque of course means corridor 5. Then you heard vicino al pane, which means “close to the bread”.

M: Vicino means close and il pane means “the bread”.

K: then we’ve got this word al, which is interesting, because it’s similar to what we were saying before when we talked about all’entrata at the entrance. A in Italian means at, but it also means to. Then we have il which means “the” for masculine nouns. “The bread”: il pane. So to say “to the”, we say a + il

M: a + il combine together to make al.

K: So how do you say close to the bread?

M: Vicino al pane

K: That’s it for today, thanks for listening to 5 minute Italian. If you’d found today’s lesson useful, please subscribe to us on itunes and leave us a review and some stars 🙂

Grazie, and ciao for now, see you next time, or as we say in Italian,

K + M: alla prossima!

Italian travel phrases: at the supermarket

English Italian
Il commesso shop assistant
Mi scusi excuse me
Dove sono where are
I carrelli the trolleys
Sono they are
Lì/Là there
All’entrata at the entrance
A at (also to)
La the (for feminine nouns)
Alla At the (a + la = alla)
La banana the banana (singular)
Le banane the bananas (plural)
Con with
La frutta the fruit
Dov’è where is
La pasta the pasta
Di là over there
Signora madam/ma’am
Quale corridoio which aisle?
Vicino near
Vicino al pane close to the bread
A to (also at)
Il the (for masculine nouns)
Al to the (A + il = al)
Il pane

the bread

Remember the words and phrases from this lesson

Quiz yourself on the Italian travel phrases you learnt in this lesson with our digital flashcards.

Click here to download the vocabulary flashcards: how to ask for things in the supermarket.

Not sure how it works? Watch this tutorial.

 

2. Italian travel phrases: How to order things at the deli counter

5 Minute Italian Lesson Transcript

Katie: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti a 5 minute Italian, hi everyone and welcome to 5 minute Italian. I’m Katie…

Matteo: And I’m Matteo. Ciao.

K: If you go to Italy, something I would highly recommend doing is going to check out the deli counters, in supermarkets or in little shops because they have lots of delicious meats, cheeses and salads. It’s also a great way to start to learn about different types of Italian food that you might see on menus.

Let’s imagine we’re in an Italian supermarket at the deli counter. Usually they’ve got one of those little machines where you take a number. So we’ve got our little yellow ticket, now listen to this conversation at the deli counter and see how much you can make out:

Italian dialogue

Matteo: Buongiorno, mi dica signora
Katie: Un etto di prosciutto
M: Crudo o cotto?
K: Crudo grazie
M: Qualcos’altro?
K: Che cos’è quello?
M: è la burrata
K: Allora prendo due etti di burrata.
M: Basta così?
K: Si grazie

What does it mean? Italian travel phrases explained

Katie: So the first thing you heard was Matteo, the man behind the counter, who said

Matteo: Mi dica signora

K: Mi dica literally means “tell me”. But when Italians use it in these kinds of situations, it’s translation is similar to “what can I do for you?”.

M: You might also hear prego in this situation, which means more or less the same thing.

K: Yes, one of the many meanings of prego!

M: Then, you heard Katie say: un etto di prosciutto.

K: un etto means 100 grams, which is around 6 or 7 thin slices.

M: you can also say cento grammi, which of course means 100 grams.

K: And remember you can read the vocabulary from today’s episode in the show notes. Then Matteo asked the following question:

M: Crudo o cotto?

K: And this question is about the types of ham. Prosciutto crudo is what we in England would call prosciutto, or parma ham. Crudo means “raw”, and it’s called that because prosciutto crudo isn’t cooked – it’s air dried and salted. Cotto means “cooked”, so prosciutto cotto is similar to the normal ham you find in England and elsewhere.

M: The names of some other common Italian meats are bresaola which is salted Italian beef, and salame, which of course means salami.

M: Next, you heard Katie say crudo, grazie. And this is another example of where Italians sometimes use the word grazie, where in english you would normally say please.

K: Then, Matteo said:

M: Qualcos’altro?

K: Which we’ve heard in previous episodes. it means “anything else?” Then, you heard the most important phrase for curious travellers and language learners everywhere:

M: Che cos’è quello?

K: This means “what’s that?” And it’s a great way to get deeper into conversations with Italians and learn more about the culture and the language. I think I spend my first few months in Italy just pointing and things and saying: che cos’è quello?

M: Then you heard: è la burrata.

K: Which means “it’s burrata”, which is one of my favourite Italian cheeses. Finally something for the vegetarians!

M: Burrata looks a bit like mozzarella, in fact, it’s exactly the same as mozzarella on the outside, but when you cut into it, it’s soft and creamy on the inside.

K: Other examples of nice Italian cheeses are Parmigiano, which means parmesan of course, then Fontina, a soft aged cheese from Aosta Valley in the north, and Pecorino, which literally means “little sheep” – it’s a hard, salty cheese made from sheep’s milk.

M: And don’t forget Mozzarella di bufala, which means buffalo mozzarella, the famous cheese of Naples.

K: Matteo’s biased because he’s from Naples so he prefers Neapolitan food! Then you heard…

M: Allora prendo due etti di burrata

K: Allora is one of those very famous Italian words you hear everywhere. It means “so”, or “well”.

M: And italians often use it to start a sentence. Allloooorrra

K: Prendo literally means “I take”, but Italians use it to say “I’ll have”, when they’re ordering. Then you heard the plural version of etto. Before we heard the singular version: un etto, with an o at the end. The plural of etto is etti. So you get un etto, but due etti, tre etti and so on.

M: Finally, you heard: basta cosi?

K: Basta cosi literally means “enough like this?” but Italians use it to say “is that everything?”

M: Basta cosi? You might also hear: a posto cosi? Which literally means “OK like this?”

K: Let’s listen to the conversation again.

M: Buongiorno, mi dica signora
K: Un etto di prosciutto
M: Crudo o cotto?
K: Crudo grazie
M: Qualcos’altro?
K: Che cos’è quello?
M: è la burrata
K: Allora prendo due etti di burrata.
M: Basta così?
K: Si grazie

K: Right so that’s it for today’s episode – and we’re taking a little break in August, as it’s 36 degrees right now in the city, so we’re doing what all Italians do and we’re going to escape to the seaside for a couple of weeks. We’ll be back in September with some new episodes. In the meantime, if you’d like to get bonus materials for future episodes, including the transcripts of our conversation, you can subscribe to our mailing list. Ciao for now, or as we say in Italian,

K + M: Alla prossima!

Italian travel phrases: At the deli counter

Mi dica What can I do for you? (literally: tell me)
Un etto 100 grams
Prosciutto crudo Parma ham
Prosciutto cotto ham
Bresaola dried salty beef
Salame salami (nice and easy!)
Che cos’è quello What’s that?
La burrata Cheese which is like mozzarella on the outside, but creamy on the inside
La fontina soft aged cheese from Aosta Valley
Pecorino a hard, salty sheep’s cheese
Allora well/so
Prendo I’ll have… (literally – I’ll take)
Due etti 200 grams
Basta così? Is that everything? (literally: enough like this?)
A posto così? Is that everything? (literally: ok like this?)

Remember the words and phrases from this lesson

Quiz yourself on the Italian travel phrases you learnt in this lesson with our digital flashcards.

Click here to download the vocabulary flashcards: how to order things at the deli counter.

Not sure how it works? Watch the tutorial here.

3. Italian travel phrases: How to pay for things at the till

5 Minute Italian Lesson Transcript

Katie: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti a 5 minute Italian, hi everyone and welcome to 5 minute Italian. I’m Katie…

Matteo: And I’m Matteo. Ciao.

K: In the last couple of lessons, we’ve been learning how to order things in shops and supermarkets. This week, we’re going to continue this theme by learning how to pay for things at the till. So let’s practice a typical conversation at the till in Italy.

Italian dialogue

Katie: Buongiorno

Matteo: Buongiorno. Sachetti?
K: Si, due grazie… quant’è?
M: Sono venti e cinquanta.
K: Posso pagare con la carta?
M: Certo. Carta o bancomat?
K: Carta.
M: Grazie, arrivederci!
K: Arrivederci!

What does it mean? Italian travel phrases explained

Katie: We started with buongiorno, which is better than ciao in situations like this where you don’t know the person you’re talking to.

Matteo: then you heard: Sacchetti?

K: Which literally means “bags?” and it’s like asking “would you like a bag?” Shop assistants don’t give bags automatically, they normally ask.

M: Then you heard: Si, due grazie.

K: Yes, two thank you. Remember with polite replies to questions, Italians don’t say please, they say thank you. Si, grazie.

M: To ask for a bag, you can say: posso avere un sacchetto?

K: Here we meet again the very useful phrase posso avere which means “can I have”.

K: And we’ve got the singular form of the word bag. To say “one bag”, we say:

M: Un sacchetto

K: With an o at the end: sacchetto. And to say two bags, we say:

M: Due sacchetti

K: With an i at the end. And you can have tre sacchetti, quattro sacchetti and so on.

M: But the word can change depending on the region. In the south of Italy, we usually say busta.

K: Which can cause confusion, because it also means envelope. Once one of our friends from Naples walked into a shop in Milan with her hands full and asked for a busta, and the shop assistant stared at her blankly and handed her an envelope. In the supermarket they’ll probably know what you mean, but it can be handy to listen out at the till to learn the regional variation for where you are. You may sometimes hear the word sportina too,

M: Then you heard: quant’è?

K: Which means “how much is it?” Quanto means “how much” and è means it is. And Italians smush the words together, so you get: Quant’è?

M: You can also say: Quanto costa?

K: which means: “how much does it cost?”

M: And: Quanto viene?

K: Viene means “come”. So quanto viene literally means “how much come?” It’s a bit like asking “how much does it come to?

M: Next, you heard: Sono venti e cinquanta.

K: Can you guess how much that means? Venti e cinquanta literally means “twenty and fifty”. “20 euros 50”. Italians use the word “and” e between the euro and the cents. To introduce the price, they start with the word sono which literally means “they are”. They are twenty and fifty.

M: Sono venti e cinquanta.

K: If you need some help with numbers, you can go back and check out episodes 14 and 15. Next, you heard:

M: Posso pagare con la carta?

K: Literally: “Can I pay with the card”, which of course means “can I pay by credit card”. Posso means “can I”, pagare means “pay” and la carta means “the card”. Italians use the word la (the) much more than in English.

M: Then you heard: certo

K: …which means “certainly” or “of course”. Next, you heard the question:

M: Carta o bancomat?

K: Which is a bit of a weird one. Bancomat means debit card. And for some reason in Italy, at the till, they need to know if you’re paying with credit or debit card. Bancomat actually has 2 meanings, it also means cash machine, which is handy to know if you need to get cash out in Italy.

M: Let’s listen to the conversation again.

K: Buongiorno
M: Buongiorno. Sachetti?
K: Due grazie.
M: Sono venticinque e cinquanta.
K: Posso pagare con la carta?
M: Certo. Carta o bancomat?
K: Carta.
M: Grazie, arrivederci!
K: Arrivederci!

K: If you’d like to get bonus materials, including conversation transcripts, cultural notes, flashcards and invites to our speaking workshops, you can sign up to our mailing list. And if you’re on the list, make sure you check out your emails from us as you’ll find all the bonus materials inside. Ciao for now, or as we say in Italian,

K + M: Alla prossima!

Italian travel phrases: at the till

Sachetti? Would you like a bag? (lit. bags?)
Sacchetto/busta/sportina plastic bag (the difference is regional)
Due grazie Two please (lit. two thank you)
Quant’è? How much is it?
Quanto costa? How much does it cost?
Quanto viene? How much does it come to?
Sono venti e cinquanta It’s twenty euro fifty (lit. they’re twenty and fifty)
Posso pagare con la carta? can I pay by card?
Certo certainly/of course
Carta o bancomat? Credit card or debit card?
Bancomat Debit card/cash machine (two meanings)

Remember the words and phrases from this lesson

Quiz yourself on the Italian travel phrases you learnt in this lesson with our digital flashcards.

Click here to download the vocabulary flashcards: how to order things at the till.

Not sure how it works? Watch the tutorial here.

 

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  • Vocabulary flashcards
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Italian travel phrases: how to buy food in shops and supermarkets

 

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

Most snowboarders do, it’s an occupational hazard.

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

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

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

Deliberate practice: a winning formula to learn just about anything

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do pros practice a language?

How do experts become the best at what they do?

Most people put it down to natural talent.

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

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

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

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

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

Who will speak better Spanish in Colombia?

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

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

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

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

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

Most polyglots learn languages like Jane. They:

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

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

Why most people practice a language the wrong way

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

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

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

But it’s an illusion.

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

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

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

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

2. You have to analyse your mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

The more you make, the better you get.

10 ways to practice a language like a pro

1. Learn by doing (and making mistakes)

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

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

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

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

2. Help people correct you

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

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

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

3. Repeat

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

Immediate

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

Long term

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

4. Break it down into components

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

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

5. Focus on the awkward bits

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

6. Stick with it

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

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

7. Take responsibility for your own learning

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

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

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

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

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

9. Aim to make more mistakes (not fewer)

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

10. Get motivated

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

1. Build up the habit gradually

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

4. Use the 2 minute rule

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

All work and no play makes language learning really dull

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

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

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

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

How to practice a language with work and play

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

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

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

And it keeps you happy and motivated.

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

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

My language learning plans for September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my plan:

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

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

What do you think?

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

Can you roll your Rs?

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

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

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

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

In this post, you’ll learn:

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

Why can’t I roll my Rs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the ability to roll your Rs genetic?

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

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

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

Can I train myself to roll my Rs?

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

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

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

I didn’t expect it to work.

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

I could finally roll my Rs!

Why you can probably roll your Rs too

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

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

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

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

This tutorial will show you how.

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

He was a productive fella.

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

Which is interesting because he didn’t multitask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really successful people do it differently

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

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

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

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

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

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

It looks like a lot of no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How not to learn a language

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constantly busy but going nowhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. You’ll do it better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. You’ll make faster progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a reason for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. You’ll enjoy it more

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

What about all the other stuff I want to do?

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

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

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

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

Language plans for August

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

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

Daily

Weekly

  • 1 practise writing exam

On the move

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

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

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

What about the other languages?

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

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

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

What do you think?

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

Join in!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luckily for us, that’s simply not true.

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

The right resources for learning French

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking up the basics: French resources for beginners

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

1. Michel Thomas French

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

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

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

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

2. Coffee Break French

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

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

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

Getting conversational

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

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

3. Language exchanges

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Italki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. News in Slow French

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

6. Journal en Français Facile

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

7. Easy French

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

8. Wordreference

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

9. Memrise

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

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

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

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

Advanced

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

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

Here are a few of my favourites.

10. France 24

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

11. Your web browser

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

12. Le monde

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

13. Le Gorafi

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

 

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

14. Buzzfeed

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

YouTube

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

15. Un gars et une fille

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

16. Cyprien

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

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

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

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

17. Simplissime

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

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

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

Over to you

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

So you’re thinking about learning Italian?

Molto bene!

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll learn things like:

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

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

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

A 4-step roadmap to learning Italian

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get started shall we?

Cominciamo!

1. Find your motivation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll experience the real Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll get to hang out with Italians

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

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

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

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

You’ll feel a little bit Italian, too

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

 

2. Learn essential Italian phrases for travellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential Italian travel phrases

Dov’è…? = where is…?

Dov’è il bagno? = where’s the toilet?

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

Quanto costa? = how much does it cost?

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

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

Posso avere….? = can I have?

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

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

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

 

Numbers

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

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

 

Learn more Italian with fluency phrases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Click here to subscribe to 5 Minute Italian on itunes.

 

Speak and understand Italian faster by joining 5 Minute Italian

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

Click here to become a 5 Minute Italian member.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian grammar: How is it different to English?

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

 

Verb conjugation

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

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

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

To speak

I speak

You speak

He/she speaks

We speak

They speak

Italian verbs

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

Essere = to be

Io sono = I am

Tu sei = you are

Lui/lei è = he/she is

Noi siamo = we are

Voi siete = you all/both are

Loro sono = they are

Parlare = to speak

Io parlo = I speak

Tu parli = you speak

Lui/lei parla = he/she speaks

Noi parliamo = we speak

Voi parlate = you both/all speak

Loro parlano = they all speak

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

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

 

Little by little

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

But you will.

Little by little is key.

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

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

 

Masculine and feminine words

The Italian word for “female friend” is:

“Amica

But for a “male friend”, it’s:

“Amico

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

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

Here are some more examples:

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

Fidanzato (boyfriend)


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

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

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

While a book is masculine: “un libro”

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

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

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

How can you remember which group a word belongs to?

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

 

Common mistake alert! Prepositions

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

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

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

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

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

Italian vocabulary: how to remember Italian words and phrases fast

Learn the words which are similare

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

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

If you guessed fantastico, you were right!

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

 

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

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

Colazione

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

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

Camminata

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

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

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

Italian pronunciation: why it’s easier than you think

Say what you see!

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

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

gh = /f/ as in enough.

o = /i/ as in women

ti= /sh/ as in nation

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

 

The Italian spelling system: C and G

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

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

Examples you may recognise

Carbonara

Origano

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

Examples you may recognise

Spaghetti

Gnocchi

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

Examples you may recognise

Cappuccino

Pancetta

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

Examples you may recognise

formaggio (cheese)

gelato

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

 

How to roll your Rs in Italian

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

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

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

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

 

The smiley L

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

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

 

The smiley N

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

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

 

Common mistake alert! Double consonants

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

Can you hear the difference?

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

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

 

Common Mistake Alert! Not pronouncing the vowels properly

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

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

responsəble

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

responsabile

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

 

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

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

But there’s one last step.

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

As Leonardo da Vinci says:

Being willing is not enough; we must do.

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

 

Use it or lose it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Get into the habit of learning Italian

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

By February, most have given up.

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

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

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

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

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

Find a community

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Italian teachers who are available to answer your questions 

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

Click here to join 5 Minute Italian for free

 

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

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

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

So what stops people from learning to speak one?

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

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

What if people think I’m stupid?

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

So when a reader Krisztina got in touch and asked: “How can I beat my fear of speaking in a foreign language?”, I jumped at the chance to answer, because it’s a problem that affects almost all of us to some degree or another.

And the answer is simple.

Don’t.

It’s normal to feel nervous speaking a second language

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

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

I still get nervous speaking Italian.

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

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

Even chatting to friends can give me the jitters – especially those kind of friends who have perfectly organised kitchen cupboards and wear matching socks.

 

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

Be nervous and do it anyway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop waiting until you feel ready

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

They think:

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

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

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

Do it until it feels normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 non-intimidating ways to practise speaking a foreign language

1. Find your training wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This reciprocal deal takes the pressure off because:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Choose the right speaking partners

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

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

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

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

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

4. Speak often

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

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

5. Give yourself mini challenges

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

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

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

6. Always be prepared

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 ways to make friends with your nerves

1. Know that nerves make you a normal human being

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

2. Don’t fight it

Does this sound familiar?

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

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

3. Enjoy your nerves

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

4. Focus on the person you’re talking to

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

5. Adopt a growth mindset

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

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

6. Learn to laugh at yourself

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

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

 

Over to you

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

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