From these figures, we can estimate that it takes around 1500 – 2000 hours to get comfortable in Mandarin Chinese.
At the moment, I have a basic conversational level in Mandarin Chinese (turn on the subs to see what we’re saying).
I can chat about simple topics, but it takes me ages to string sentences together and communication isn’t exactly natural – my tutors and I still sweat through each lesson!
It’s taken me a few hundred hours to get here (learning very intermittently – if you studied consistently, you might be able to do it faster). Being as I have a headstart, I’m guessing it could take me up to 1500 hours to become conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
Studying for 2 – 3 hours a day, allowing for the odd day off and holidays, that’s around 2 years.
Everyone’s different of course – it may take me more or less time, but at least now I have a ballpark figure to aim for.
That sounds intense!
Let’s not sugarcoat it: becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese takes a long time.
Of course it does, it’s Mandarin Chinese.
But don’t let that put you off. If you’re worried that learning Mandarin takes too long, you’re probably making one of the following assumptions:
1. Learning a language is painful
It doesn’t have to be. Here are a couple of articles that will help you enjoy learning Chinese:
The better your Chinese gets, the more you’ll be able to improve by doing fun stuff, like reading and watching TV.
2. You have to be fluent before you can enjoy speaking Mandarin Chinese
Don’t wait until you’ve studied for 2000 hours to start enjoying your Mandarin Chinese language skills!
That number is fairly arbitrary – nothing magical will happen when you get there.
For long-term projects like learning Mandarin, it’s important not to focus too much on the endpoint. If you do, you’ll spend the whole time worrying that you’re not good enough yet.
Fluency is an accumulation of many teeny things learnt over a long period of time. Each new thing you learn, no matter how small, will help you connect better with the Chinese culture and people – that’s something you can enjoy right from day 1.
And if you keep it up, you’ll become conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese. It’ll take time, but it’ll be worth it!
Your 6-step plan to becoming conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
Most people who decide to learn a language try to motivate themselves by focusing on how great it’d be to speak it one day.
Most people give up after a few weeks or months.
What most people don’t do, is think about the practical steps they need to take and develop a system that helps them do it daily.
Having a system to learn Mandarin Chinese is key because it helps you study consistently over a long period of time (the only way to get results). It also helps you:
Learn Mandarin faster and to a higher level.
Focus on the right things.
Beat the procrastination beast (or at least tame it).
Learn in a healthy, happy and productive way.
I’ve created a system to help me become fluent in Mandarin Chinese from home, which I’ll share with you shortly.
That said, my system may not work for you because…
We all have different lives:
– Some people can move to China and do full immersion for 9 months.
– Others have 4 kids and struggle to carve out 15 minutes between pulling fingers out of noses and picking up socks.
We also have different goals:
– I’m learning Chinese to chat to people, so I’m not particularly interested in writing Chinese characters by hand.
– My fiancé loves calligraphy and is learning Mandarin precisely because he wants to write Chinese characters by hand.
For this reason, the following 6-step formula for learning Mandarin Chinese is completely customisable: you can adapt it to create your own system that fits in with your life and goals in Mandarin Chinese.
Step 1: Set your priorities
Why do you want to learn Mandarin Chinese? What exactly do you want to do with the language?
I want to learn Chinese so that I can have comfortable conversations with Chinese people. For this reason, it makes sense to spend the bulk of my time doing activities that will boost my conversation skills, such as:
– Listening to realistic conversations
– Increasing my vocabulary
– Working on my pronunciation
Take a moment to define your priorities for Mandarin Chinese: Why do you want to learn Mandarin? What do you want to do in the language? Choose activities that will help you develop these skills.
Step 2. Decide what NOT to do
As my main focus is conversations, I’m going to avoid activities like:
1. Memorising the stroke order of characters.
2. Working through a grammar book from start to finish.
3. Playing on apps like duolingo.
These activities might improve my overall knowledge of Mandarin, but they’re not a very direct route to my goal of having comfortable conversations. If I spend lots of time on these things, I’ll end up feeling like I’m studying hard but not really getting anywhere (a common problem in language learning).
I’ll make faster progress by focusing on the activities I mentioned in step 1.
Your turn: Which activities are NOT useful for developing the skills you defined in step 1? Write a short list.
You now have my permission to NOT do these things.
Step 3. Choose the right learning materials
Now you’ve decided what (and what not) to focus on, it’s time to pick the right learning resources.
Here are some examples of skills you might focus on, together with resources you can use to practise them.
Find an online conversation tutor or language exchange partner on italki
Work through a book specifically designed for the exam as this will help you get used to the exam questions.
Find a tutor on italki who is familiar with the exam and can give you tips.
Practice makes perfect! Do as many practice exam questions as possible.
A good study system will probably use a combination of these resources. To get the best results, mix and match them in a way that fits in with the goals you defined in step 1.
Step 4. Choose your daily learning time
Learning a language is a bit like going to the gym. Most people start off with loads of enthusiasm, but it’s tricky to keep going for long enough to see the fruits of your labour.
The key to learning Mandarin Chinese is to make it a habit. Something you do:
At the same time
In the same place
If you have an unpredictable life and this isn’t possible, 2 out of 3 will work fine too.
I try to study Mandarin Chinese for 30 – 60 mins in the morning. This works well for me because as my day goes on, life has a habit of getting in the way. Later, I do another 30 – 60 mins either between classes or when I get home from work. Finally, I squeeze in an extra 30 – 60 minutes by making the most of my dead-time (more on this in the next step).
Your system may look similar or totally different, depending on your job and family situation.
Think about your day. When and where can you block out some time for Chinese? Is it in the morning or in the evening? If you prefer, you can break it up, for example, 3 x 15 minutes throughout the day.
When you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to go for something small because if it feels too big, you’re more likely to procrastinate. Start by setting yourself something really easy to do (like 2 minutes) and gradually build up to your ideal daily learning time.
Step 5. Use your dead-time for learning Mandarin Chinese
Waiting for the train? Stuck in traffic? Long queue at the supermarket?
If you’re smart about how you use your dead-time, you can carve out loads of extra time for becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
Here are some examples of how to use your dead-time to learn Mandarin:
Use a flashcard app to review vocabulary as you wait for the bus/train.
Read a graded reader on the train/bus.
Chat to native Chinese speakers on HelloTalk instead of going on Instagram or Facebook.
Listen to a podcast/audio course in the car or as you walk to work.
Listen to a podcast/audio course as you do the dishes/clean the bathroom etc.
If you have friends who are always late, play on your flashcard app or read a graded reader while you’re waiting for them to arrive.
When do you have dead-time during the day? Which activities could you do to learn Mandarin Chinese during this time?
6: Make Mandarin Chinese a part of you
After spending lots of time around language learners, I’ve noticed they usually fit into one of two categories.
Those who focus on how “weird” the new language and culture is compared to their own. The idea of speaking the language and adopting a new culture makes them feel a bit silly.
Those who throw themselves into the new language and culture so that learning it becomes a part of their identity.
The learners in group 1 hold themselves back, while those in group 2 usually end up speaking the language very well.
Learning a language requires loads of time and energy. Especially one like Mandarin Chinese. If you’re not willing to make the language and culture a part of your identity, you’ll struggle to stay the course.
Once you start seeing yourself as “the kind of person who’s learning Mandarin”, it’s only natural that you’ll learn it well.
Avoid these common pitfalls
Becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese is a big undertaking and you’re likely to hit a few walls on the way. Here are some of the most common obstacles and how to overcome them.
1. All or nothing mentality
With things we feel we “should” do, like learning a language or going to the gym, it’s easy to get into an all or nothing mentality.
Missed a gym session? Might as well watch Netflix and eat ice-cream.
But slipping up every now and then won’t make a big difference – it’s what you do next that matters.
If you planned to study Mandarin Chinese for an hour and you spent the first 20 on Facebook, just cut your losses and get straight back to it. You can still fit in 40 minutes, which is a whole lot better than nothing.
There are 2 reasons we procrastinate:
1. You don’t like the activity
Solution: Find ways to learn Chinese that you enjoy – that way it’ll be much easier to sit down and do it. Here’s a list of fun resources for learning Mandarin Chinese you might find useful: The Lazy Person’s guide to learning Chinese.
2. It feels overwhelming
Solution: The secret lies in getting started. Make it really easy for yourself by setting tiny targets and building up over time. If you’re having trouble starting, here are a couple of posts that will help:
I have a habit of telling myself that I “don’t have time” to do the things I know I should be doing. But if I look at my day honestly, I see loads of moments I could put to better use, like spending 40 minutes online shopping for a bathmat or doing research for an article and getting lost in a YouTube web for 25 minutes.
It’s human nature to give excuses for why we don’t do things.
The problem comes when you believe the little lies you tell yourself, because they’ll stop you from doing things you want in life, like becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
Train yourself to notice when you’re making excuses so you can stop doing it. Remember: if you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.
4. Obsessing over grammar
Languages are a “learn-by-doing” kind of thing. Spending months working through grammar books and getting lost in fiddly details will slow down your progress.
The best way to learn grammar is to see examples of it being used in real life: read a lot, listen a lot, and pay attention to the sentence patterns. Don’t feel like you have to know all the grammar before you start using Mandarin – you’ll make faster progress if you learn it as you go along.
5. Beating yourself up
Imagine a child is learning a foreign language. What’s the best way to help them?
Deride them every time they make a mistake. Tell them they’re stupid and that they’ll never learn.
Give them lots of praise and encouragement.
It’s obvious that the first approach is not conducive to learning a language, yet it’s what most people do to themselves in their heads! Be kind to yourself and celebrate your efforts in Mandarin Chinese, no matter how small.
6. All work and no play
Learning a language doesn’t have to feel like hard work all the time. The more you enjoy the activities you do in your daily learning time, the easier it will be to get your bum in the seat. Watching Mandarin Chinese TV series instead of doing grammar exercises? It’s allowed!
Become fluent in Mandarin: a step-by-step guide
1. Set your priorities
Why do you want to learn Mandarin? Your answer to this question will help you decide what to focus on and make faster progress.
2. Decide what NOT to do.
Which activities are NOT useful for developing the skills you defined in step 1? You have my permission to NOT do these things.
3. Choose the right learning materials
Find materials that will help you improve: speaking, understanding conversational Chinese, boost vocabulary…. (see step 3 for suggestions).
4. Choose your daily learning time
Build a Chinese habit and make impressive progress over time.
5. Use your dead-time wisely
Learn Chinese in your dead-time: waiting for the bus, doing the dishes etc.
6. Make Mandarin Chinese a part of you
See yourself as the kind of person who’s learning Mandarin.
7. Avoid common pitfalls
All or nothing mentality
Obsessing over grammar
Beating yourself up
All work no play
Listening to native Spanish speakers is a humbling experience.
They blurt their words out so fast, sometimes it’s impossible to keep up. And it can be discouraging – after all that studying, shouldn’t you be able to understand spoken Spanish better by now?
Why you’re still struggling to understand spoken Spanish
If you find listening to native Spanish speakers overwhelming, it could be because you’re used to the “learner friendly” version of Spanish in textbooks and apps: slow and clear with simple grammar and vocabulary.
These tools are great because they make it easy to get started – like learning to ride a bike with training wheels.
But Spanish speakers don’t talk like that in real life. They mush their words together, mix up grammar structures and use words you won’t find in your Spanish course.
If you want to understand natural spoken Spanish, at some point you need to take off the training wheels and practice listening to real conversations.
With the right tools, it’s simple.
Train yourself to understand spoken Spanish with Juan from Easy Spanish
The conversations are fun, spontaneous and 100% authentic Spanish.
Importantly, Juan adds dual subtitles so you can check what you heard against a word-for-word Spanish transcription, and consult the English ones if you get stuck.
It’s my absolute favourite resource and I’ve recommended it in practically every post I’ve ever written about learning Spanish (see below for a step-by-step guide on how I used Easy Spanish to train my listening skills).
That’s why I’m excited to bring you today’s interview with Juan from Easy Spanish. In line with Juan’s mission of giving you inside access to authentic language and culture, our chat will transport you to a little plaza in Mexico, where you can see Mexican life unfold in the background with builders, policemen, and friends laughing together.
Why learning Spanish with classes, books and apps is not enough.
How to train yourself to understand real spoken Spanish, without leaving the house.
A special technique Juan has used to learn 3 languages.
Some naughty Mexican slang (caution: don’t use these words with your friends’ parents!)
For extra listening practice, the interview’s almost entirely in Spanish – if you need a little help figuring out what we’re saying, turn on the English subs.
SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: Once you’ve had the chance to watch, check below for details about Juan’s exciting new project, and how you can help him get it going.
Help Easy Spanish go to Spain!
Easy Spanish is an independent project – to keep it going, Juan relies on donations from Spanish learners like you.
His next mission is to record episodes in Spain so he can keep giving you inside access to language and culture from all over the Spanish speaking world.
Fix yourself a hot drink, dive under a blanket and snuggle up with a translation of Harry Potter.
What it actually looks like when I try reading in a foreign language
Find 3 words I don’t know in the first sentence. Get out from under blanket and grab smartphone to use online dictionary. Balance coffee in elbow nook whilst clutching Harry Potter in one hand and smartphone in the other. Spill coffee on blanket.
Decide that Harry Potter was too ambitious.
Buy easier children’s book.
Find 3 words I don’t know in the first sentence…
The benefits of reading in a foreign language
Despite these teething problems, I’ve always had a sneaking feeling that reading is a smart way to learn a foreign language.
But what about all those unfamiliar words? How can you get into reading in a foreign language without feeling frustrated and giving up on the first page?
Keep reading to find out how to:
Learn a language by reading things you enjoy.
Use a free tool which makes reading in a foreign language incredibly easy (it’s been under your nose this whole time!)
Remember the words you read faster.
Why is reading in a foreign language so tricky?
It’d be unreasonable to take a few weeks of Russian classes and expect to breeze through a copy of Anna Karenina. Everyone knows that.
Too many new words and advanced sentence structures which make the sentences almost impossible to decipher.
But what about children’s books? Written for those teeny-tiny human beings who get half their nutritional intake from their nasal cavities. Surely they must be easier to read in a foreign language?
I’m not sure they are.
The problem with reading children’s books in a foreign language
Most children’s books don’t use simple, everyday language. I learnt this hard truth whilst babysitting for my Italian friend’s 2-year-old. I’m fairly fluent in Italian, but when reading lil’ Clara’s bedtime story, I came across more new Italian words than when reading a broadsheet newspaper over my morning caffè.
Children’s books talk about pixies and wildebeests, and if you already know how to talk about pixies and wildebeests in the language you’re learning, you probably don’t need to read this article.
So what’s the solution? How can you start reading in a foreign language, without being overwhelmed by all the new (and sometimes not useful) words?
One way is to use short stories or “easy readers” specifically designed for language learners. With simple grammar and everyday vocabulary, these books are perfect for taking your first steps in reading a foreign language.
That said, I sometimes wish the writers would remember that although I sound like a 3-year-old when I speak a foreign language, I’m not actually a 3 year old. I’m a 31-year-old with a mortgage who drinks Johnnie Walker and enjoys a well-placed C-bomb.
There are only so many “Biff and Chip go to the Zoo”-style stories I can handle before my eyes start watering from boredom yawns.
The ideal way to get into reading in a foreign language
Wouldn’t it be nice to learn a foreign language by reading things that you actually enjoy? Something you care about enough to make it worth the effort it takes to figure out the meaning? A topic you like so much, you’d read about in your native language, just for funsies?
To do that, you’d need a place where you can find lots of interesting things to read in the language you’re learning. Let’s call that the Internet.
You’d also need a way to understand new words, without having to break your flow to look them up in a dictionary all the time.
The Google Translate extension: How to pimp your reading in a foreign language
Did you know that Google Translate has an extension which allows you to turn any foreign-language webpage into an interactive dictionary? That means you can get an instant translation of words you don’t know, just by clicking on them. Here’s how it works:
7 ways to make the most of your reading with the Google Translate extension
1. Start simple
It’s important to choose materials at the right level so you can get into a good flow. Just because you can look up words easily, doesn’t mean you should look up all of them. If normal websites feel too tricky, you could start with websites aimed at language learners, such as Slow German or The Chairman’s Bao.
To find sites like these in the language you’re learning, try doing a search for “websites to read [insert your target language]”, and you should find some lists to get you started.
2. Start small
The Google Translate extension makes reading in a foreign language a lot simpler. But learning to read in a new language is going to take some effort, no matter how you do it. To make it more manageable, start by reading in short bursts and gradually move on to longer passages as your level improves.
The Internet is pretty conducive to this kind of reading. You often hear people complaining that the web has ruined how we read: thanks to the “Buzzfeed effect”, we’re more used to flicking through snippets of information rather than sitting down and concentrating on something for long periods of time. But these kinds of articles are perfect for reading in a foreign language because they give you little bits of text with lots of photos to make it easy on the eye (and the brain).
To see if Buzzfeed exists in the language you’re learning, go to buzzfeed.com, click more, then look for the little box at the bottom right which tells you which version you’re using. Here, you’ll see a list of different versions including Germany, Mexico and Brazil. Now you can get lost in a web of Internet triviality, guilt-free!
3. Read things you care about
It takes effort to decipher a page in a foreign language – if you don’t care about the content, you’ll be less motivated to put in the work.
As your level advances, you can start reading blogs about your interests. To find these, do a google search in your target language for “blogs + your interest”.
For example, if you’re learning Spanish and you’re into travel, search for “blogs viajes” and you’ll find articles like this one with links to lots of lovely Spanish travel blogs.
Or if you’re learning French and you’re into fashion and beauty blogs, try searching “blogs mode beauté” and you’ll be spoilt for choice on the first page.
Alternatively, if you like reading the news online, why not try doing it in the language you’re learning? Just type the language you’re learning + newspapers into Wikipedia (e.g. Spanish Newspapers) and you should see a nice list.
4. Use your judgement
If you’ve been on Google Translate for more than 5 minutes, you may have noticed that it says some weird shit sometimes. The extension has these little quirks too. Just now in French, I was reading a sentence about how wearing tight shoes can give you an ampoule. I assumed it must mean “blister”, but when I clicked on it, Google gave me “lightbulb” (yep, the French use the same word for lightbulb and blister, who knew?!)
The extension isn’t perfect so every now and then, you may need to check the translations in a more reputable online dictionary, such as WordReference or Collins. That said, the extension gets it right most of the time so it’s worth putting up with the occasional glitch.
4. Remember words by hazarding a guess
When you can translate words with a click, it’s tempting to click on every word you don’t know without really thinking about it. But when I catch myself doing this, those words quickly slip through the swiss-cheese holes in my brain.
To build up vocabulary in a foreign language, you need to spend time looking at it and trying to figure out what it means from the context. This creates a curiosity point in your mind: “I wonder if this word means…?”. And being curious is a very good thing for learning.
Think back to school. If you asked the teacher a question, you were invested in the answer, so you’d probably remember it better compared to if a teacher just told you the same information in a lecture.
Creating a question in your mind about the meaning of a word and investigating the answer works the same way. Instead of seeing the Google Translate extension as a tool to translate words you don’t know, think of it more as a way to check your guesses. This way, the words you don’t know will have a better chance of sticking in your mind.
5. Don’t stress about every word you don’t know
When reading in a foreign language, it’s natural to want to look up every single new word. And the Google translate extension makes it very easy to do this.
But when it comes to looking up words you don’t know, it’s important to strike a balance. If you’re constantly stopping to look things up, you can’t into a good flow and enjoy your reading. That said, if you don’t look up any words at all, you might not know what the book is going on.
As a general rule, it helps to only look up the words that stop you from understanding the overall meaning of the sentence. For the others, if they’re common enough you’ll pick them up over time, and if they’re not so common you probably don’t need to worry about learning them yet anyway.
6. Use it or lose it
The more you interact with a word, the easier it will be to remember. You can help yourself remember the new words you come across by storing them somewhere (in a notebook, your phone, word document or excel sheet…) and using them in different ways. Why not try writing a story with your new words? Or thinking about when you might use them in real life, and writing example sentences? Or typing them into google to see how native speakers use them?
Don’t worry about doing this with every new word you see, as that could quickly get overwhelming! Just pick the keywords that you really want to remember.
7. Don’t try too hard
If you’ve got your notebook next to you and you’re feeling motivated to write new words and take notes as you read, great. But don’t feel like you always have to this. If you’re feeling a little lazy and you’d rather just read, that’s fine!
The most important thing is to get into a reading habit that you enjoy enough to keep up in the long term. Do that, and you’ll make some serious progress in the language you’re learning.
What about you?
If you’re planning on using the Google Translate extension to read in a foreign language, I’d love to hear from you! Which language are you learning? Which websites are you going to read? Can you share any good web pages for reading in a foreign language?
There are lots of things you probably should be doing.
Exercising more. Eating less junk. Learning that language faster.
You know who laughs in the face of should?
French people don’t do gyms. They wash croissants down with full-fat cafés au lait and eat baguettes dipped in baked Camembert.
They’re not exactly hustlers either. France has one of the shortest working weeks in Europe. If you worked in France, you’d have the legal right to ignore emails outside of office hours. And you could forget about popping out to the shops to pick up an onion on Sundays. They’re closed.
I grew up in an Anglo-Saxon culture where if you wanted to lose weight, you had to stick to salads (without the dressing) and make friends with the treadmill. And if you wanted success, you had to grind away until you got there.
By my culture’s no-pain-no-gain logic, French people should be flabby good-for-nothings.
But they’re not. The women are amongst the skinniest in Europe. And France boasts one of the highest productivity rates in the world.
This ability to flout all the “shoulds” and still get good results is sometimes known as The French Paradox.
What if we stopped should-ing ourselves?
If you’re anything like me, you probably “should” yourself a lot when it comes to learning a language.
I should be able to say more than this by now.
I should be more motivated.
I should understand that person/newspaper article/TV series/film.
I should sound more like a native speaker.
And let’s not forget the shouldn’ts:
I shouldn’t be making that mistake.
I shouldn’t keep forgetting that word.
I shouldn’t get so nervous when I speak.
Where do all these “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” leave us?
And often not much closer to our goal.
But the worst thing about constantly should-ing yourself is this: it takes the plaisir out of learning a language.
What if, instead of punishing yourself for not being fluent yet, you just let yourself enjoy the learning process? If, instead of stressing about not remembering fast enough, you went at your own pace and savoured every minute, like a glass of champagne?
You’d probably find yourself wanting to spend more time with the language.
And it figures that you’d get better results. Maybe the French paradox isn’t so paradoxical after all.
How to fall in love with learning a language with Carrie from French is Beautiful
Earlier this week, I caught up with Carrie Anne James from French is Beautiful, who blew me away with her compassionate, yet no BS approach to learning French (or any other language for that matter).
If you have a tendency to put too much pressure on yourself when you learn a language, today’s post can help. We talk about how to put the joy back into language learning and much more, including:
Why you’ll never be completely ”fluent” (and why that’s a good thing).
The power of treating a language like a close friend or lover.
The ways you might be holding yourself back from learning a language + how to stop.
When asking for strawberry jam in Paris can get you into trouble (and make you go all rouge!)
We spoke in French too! (turn on the subs to get the English translation).
Get a free gift from Carrie!
On May 12th, Carrie will send you a French surprise. Here’s what to do to claim your gift:
As a fluent non-native French speaker who spent years in the classroom learning grammar and later studying French literature at U.C. Berkeley and La Sorbonne, as well as classical piano at L’École Normale de la Musique in Paris before obtaining real-world fluency, Carrie knows precisely which aspects of the French language are perceived to be the most difficult and focuses on those aspects in order to coach Francophiles to speak French naturally.
She doesn’t believe that our dreams are located in an intangible future somewhere, for us to chase after. She believes that we live each day with our dreams inside of us, ready to be lived.
I’m excited about the idea of speaking Chinese, but I know it won’t be easy to motivate myself to do the work: compared to the other languages I’ve studied, progress is slower and it’s harder to find fun ways to learn.
When I did the Add1Challenge in Mandarin Chinese last year, I made loads more progress than if I’d tried going it alone. Teaming up with a community of language learners gave me structure and made me more accountable (and it was a lot more fun!)
To make sure I make as much progress in Mandarin Chinese as humanly possible over the next 3 months, I’m joining the Add1challenge again.
Full disclosure: This is an affiliate link. I only ever recommend programmes that I use myself and believe will help you make real progress in your target language. If you join the Add1challenge through the links on this page, you’ll learn to speak a language and support joy of languages at the same time – gracias!
You love the country, the culture, the food and the people.
Maybe you’ve already been to Italy on holiday and are planning to go back, and this time you’d like to converse with the locals. Maybe you even dream of living there one day.
Or perhaps your family is Italian, and you’d like to learn it so you can reconnect with your heritage.
Whatever the reason, you know you want to learn Italian. The question is, how?
In this article, you’ll find 38 tools that will help you learn Italian, from beginner to advanced level. Some of them I used when I was learning Italian (some I still do!). Others I wish existed back when I first started.
The best Italian learning tools will help you:
– Use Italian in conversation, so you can start chatting asap.
– Practice speaking, reading, listening and writing in Italian.
– Get hooked, so that you feel motivated to keep learning.
Read on to find a list of fab Italian resources that do exactly that.
Italian learning tools that will help you pick up the basics
So you’re thinking about learning Italian, but all you can say is ciao.
There’s a lot to like about the Assimil Italian course. First, it has a system where you do one chapter per day (around 30 minutes), which is ideal for getting you into a productive language-learning routine. Next, it introduces new vocabulary and grammar points little and often and keeps coming back to them so you don’t forget.
Importantly, each lesson is based on a conversation so you can get used to reading and listening to Italian in realistic contexts. Finally, the CDs are entirely in Italian, which means you get tons of Italian audio that you can download and listen to on your headphones as you go about your day.
2. Coffee break Italian
The Coffee Break Italian podcast is a delightfully relaxed (and very effective) way to pick up Italian. The lively and interactive lessons introduce new things at a nice pace, building on what you already know so you don’t forget anything. As well as teaching you the language, Mark Pentleton and his team throw in lots of cultural notes and anecdotes, which make the lessons a pleasure to listen to.
3. Michel Thomas
When you start learning Italian, it won’t be long before you meet the big bad world of Italian verbs. These can cause headaches for beginners because they change depending on who’s doing the action. To see what I mean, take a look at the difference between the English and Italian verbs for mangiare (to eat).
But worry not. If you learn Italian verbs the right way, they suddenly get a lot easier to remember. The Michel Thomas Italian course organises verbs into logical groups which helps you pick them up fast. And perhaps more importantly, it shows you how to use this grammar to build useful sentences.
The course also shows you how to take advantage of the many English words that have an Italian equivalent (known as cognates), such as informazione, azione, conversazione, animale, originale, distanza… All you have to do is put on an Italian accent and you can already say loads of Italian 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.
Another challenge of learning Italian at the beginning is remembering all those new words and phrases. The Pimsleur course drills Italian into your brain by repeating things you’ve learned in new contexts and building gradually on what you’ve already learnt.
It can be a little old-fashioned in places (the plot follows someone on a business trip), but when used in combination with other resources, it’s a great way to fix the basics in your mind.
5. Italy made easy
On Manu’s Italian Made Easy YouTube channel, you’ll find oodles of easy-to-follow tutorials, travel and cultural tips, Q&As and live lessons. His videos start from beginner and go all the way up to advanced.
Well, when you get the Italian sound system, you’ll be able to pronounce Italian better so you can make yourself understood more easily. You’ll also be able to hear Italian sounds more accurately, which will help you understand what Italians are saying to you.
And when you can understand and be understood in Italian, you’ll have better conversations with Italians (the reason you want to learn Italian in the first place, right?)
Lots of people make the mistake of thinking that pronunciation isn’t important at the beginning, but if you neglect it, you could find yourself with lots of fossilized mistakes that are difficult to correct later on. On the flip side, if you start focusing on Italian sounds from the get-go, every time you speak and listen to Italian, you’ll be reinforcing what you’ve learnt so your pronunciation will keep getting better and better.
Luca-based Italian teacher Silvia posts Italian words, phrases and study tips on her Instagram page. There’s also an italearn website with free materials like video tutorials and lovely grammar infographics.
8. 5 Minute Italian
No article about Italian learning tools would be complete without our own 5 Minute Italian podcast! Hosted by myself and my partner Matteo from our home in Milan, 5 Minute Italian is a fun podcast which helps you pick up the basics in bite-sized pieces.
Check out our 5 Minute Italian podcast library, where you’ll find tons of mini-tutorials on grammar, vocabulary, cultural tips and pronunciation. And if you join our Italian club, you’ll also get weekly emails with bonus materials like quizzes, flashcards and invites to free speaking workshops.
Italian learning tools that will help you get conversational
Once you’ve got some basics under your belt, it’s time to practise using Italian in real-life situations.
As you bridge the gap between learner materials and real spoken Italian, you’ll need support from subtitles and slow, clear speech. You’ll also need a great dictionary and smart ways to remember all those new words!
If you like the idea of improving your speaking skills quickly and cheaply without taking your slippers off, you should give italki a try.
It’s a website where you can find one-to-one Skype lessons with Italian conversation tutors (called community tutors) often 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 give italki a try, you can get a free lesson by clicking any of the italki links on this page: once you’ve signed up and booked your first lesson, you’ll get a $10 voucher to spend on the next one.
I don’t get any commission if you sign up through this link, but I do get a free lesson with my Italian conversation tutor on italki. This helps me improve my Italian, save money and spend more time writing articles like the one you’re reading now – Grazie!
Italki is also a handy tool for working on your writing skills: post your writing on the notebook section and a native speaker should come along and give you feedback.
If you’d like a little practice before trying spontaneous conversations, try warming up with HelloTalk, an app where you can do language exchanges via text and vocal messages (a bit like Whatsapp for language learners). It’s the perfect way to get used to chatting with native speakers before having a go at face-to-face conversations.
11. News in slow Italian
Often the topics covered in language learning materials are either too boring or babyish. News in Slow Italian gives you something interesting to listen to by covering the week’s news in slow and clear speech (hence the name!). A great way to bridge the gap between beginner materials and real spoken Italian.
12. Easy Italian
On the Easy Languages YouTube channel, presenters interview people on the street, with questions close to Italians’ hearts like “what’s your favourite food”. It’s a great way to get up close to Italian culture and get used to hearing natives speak in a natural and spontaneous way.
The interview format is brilliant as you hear the same phrases repeated over and over and the answers are usually entertaining. To help you follow, there are big subtitles in Italian and smaller ones in English (quick tip: try covering the English subtitles while you listen the first few times, so you can get used to figuring out the meaning from the Italian).
Sadly there aren’t as many Easy Italian episodes as there are for the other Easy language channels like German and Spanish, but there are still quite a few to keep you busy!
13. Word reference
Once you start reading and listening to real Italian, you’ll need a good dictionary so you can look up the new words you find. Word Reference is my go-to Italian-English dictionary because it gives nice example sentences which help me see how the word is used in real life and remember it better.
The following video uses Spanish examples, but it has plenty of useful tips that you can apply to your Italian studies.
There’s also a brilliant forum where you’ll find answers to FAQs and a space to pose questions to Italian native speakers. Finally, there’s a verb conjugator, where you can check how to use Italian verbs in different tenses.
Next, you’ll need to remember all those new words you learnt. One popular way is to use a flashcard app like Memrise, which quizzes you on words at specific intervals to help you remember better. It’s based on scientific studies which show that we remember information better when we space out the reviews, compared cramming them over a short space of time.
Memrise is huge in the language learning community and you’ll find lots of Italian 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:
Learning words in sentences (rather than in isolation) helps you understand how to use them later.
Words are much more memorable when you associate them with real experiences, as opposed to a bunch of letters floating around on a list.
15. Use the google translate chrome extension to translate Italian words with a click
With the Google Translate Chrome extension, you can turn any Italian website into an interactive Italian dictionary. When you click on a word you don’t know, the English translation pops up on the same page, so you can read websites without constantly stopping to look up words. There’s even a little speaker symbol next to the translation so that you can check the pronunciation.
16. All about Italian
Italian teacher Elfin posts mini Italian tutorials and videos online. Her lessons are full of native-sounding phrases and tips on how to use them so you can sound more natural when you speak. The best thing? It’s all on Instagram, so instead of looking at pictures of what your old school friends made for dinner, you can boost your Italian skills!
Speaking of learning a language on Instagram, why not improve your Italian speaking and writing skills by joining the #languagediarychallenge? Every month, a community of lovely language learners get together to practice using the language they’re learning. To join, all you have to do is post a photo or video to Instagram and write/say something in the language you’re learning for 30 days. Then use the hashtag #languagediarychallenge and tag @joyoflanguages. There’s also a cool language-related prize at the end!
Alberto from Italiano Automatico creates videos for Italian learners who already have some knowledge of the grammar and vocabulary, but can’t speak very well yet. The videos are entirely in Italian and he speaks slowly and clearly, making them a great tool for transitioning from learner materials to natural Italian speech. If you need a little help, after you’ve listened you can try switching on the auto generated subtitles, which are usually pretty accurate. On Italiano Automatico, you’ll find lots of ways to improve your Italian including explanations of common words and expressions, interviews with Italians and tips on how to learn a language. You’ll also find fun videos with Alberto’s co-host, his lovely nonna!
19. Learn Italian with Lucrezia
On Lucrezia Oddone’s YouTube channel, you’ll find tutorials, vlogs, Q&As and tips on learning Italian. You’ll also find handy recommendations for fun Italian resources like music, books, films and TV shows. I especially like her vlogs, where Lucrezia takes you on little trips around Italy, sharing her enthusiasm for all things Italian. Many of Lucrezia’s videos are entirely in Italian (with subtitles), which are perfect for the full immersion experience. She also has a podcast and an Instagram account where you can follow her adventures and learn Italian at the same time!
On her Instagram page, Italian teacher Elena posts handy Italian words and phrases with example sentences, as well as photos with bilingual Italian-English captions. You can also practice your writing by answering her questions in Italian!
Practice chatting in Italian and connect with other learners by joining the 5 Minute Italian Facebook Group. If you have questions about the Italian language, you can post them to the group and we’ll answer them as soon as possible. You’ll also find handy resources like songs and YouTube videos to help you learn the fun way. And we often share photos and videos (in Italian of course) so you can see what we’ve been getting up to in Milan!
Evviva! Now you can have basic conversations and understand simple spoken Italian, it’s time to hone your skills by reading and listening to materials intended for native Italians, like books, newspapers, TV series and films. Moving onto native speaker materials is the most exciting part of learning a language. Now you can:
Learn how Italians really communicate with each other.
Immerse yourself in Italian culture.
Improve your Italian by doing things you enjoy, like watching films or reading the newspaper.
Here’s a selection of some of my fave resources for Italian native speakers.
22. Corriere della Sera
Corriere della Sera is one of Italy’s biggest newspapers. On their website, you’ll find articles and mini videos so you can keep up-to-date with current affairs in Italy and world news from an Italian point of view.
For a helping hand in understanding the articles, try using the google translate extension (see number 15) to translate the vocabulary by clicking on the word so you don’t have to interrupt your flow every time you need to look up a word.
La Corriere della Sera website is also famous for their gossip stories on the right-hand column that drag you into a web of trivial news (like what the latest Italian celebrities are up to) rather than reading about real current affairs. A time-waster for Italians, but great for learners because getting lost in a web of addictive reading material is good for your Italian!
23. Italian podcasts
With apps like podcast player, you can find a huge variety of Italian podcasts for native speakers. Just set the country to Italy and start browsing different shows until you find one you like. A few of my favorites are:
Scientificast (a podcast that explains science to the general public)
Sgrammaticando is a YouTube channel about Italian grammar with a twist: it’s aimed at native speakers (yep, even Italians need help with their own grammar sometimes!) as well as Italian learners. In her fun and friendly style, Fiorella answers FAQs and gives tutorials to help both Italians and Italian learners avoid common mistakes and “defend themselves” from the common traps of the Italian language.
I’m thrilled to see the growing selection of foreign-language TV programs and films on Netflix, it’s becoming an invaluable resource in any lazy language learners toolbox! The offerings will depend on where you are in the world, but you if you search for “Italian TV series” or “Italian films”, you should find some good stuff to watch. Make yourself a cuppa and put on your PJs, it’s time for an Italian TV binge…
26. The Jackal
The Jackal team is famous throughout Italy for their hilarious spoofs of Italian culture and other silly stuff. They have Neapolitan accents and throw in lots of local slang, so it’s a great way to train yourself to understand regional varieties of Italian.
Don’t worry if you find regional variations like this tricky to understand at first, that’s normal! For a little help, you can use the subtitles which are often available in both Italian and English. I’d recommend listening without subtitles first, then working with the Italian subtitles to pick out words you missed (only use the English ones for translations if you get really stuck).
FanPage describe themselves as independent news reporters, but they offer so much more than you’d expect from a standard news channel. Here you’ll find social commentaries, interviews, investigative journalism, pranks and fascinating insights into Italian culture.
28. La 7
La 7 is an Italian TV channel that posts many of its programs online so you can catch the replay. Have a gander around the site, choose a TV show you like the sound of, then click the “RIVEDILA7” tab to find past episodes. There’s something for everyone, from politics to cooking shows.
At the time of writing, you can access these shows freely from abroad (no need for a special license or VPN). You can also find some full episodes of La 7 TV shows on their YouTube channel.
Rai is the national public broadcasting channel in Italy. Like La 7, they post replays of their TV shows online, which at the time of writing are available to watch from abroad. On the Rai website, you’ll find a world of Italian TV at your fingertips including documentaries, dramas, reality TV, films and quiz shows. You can also catch up with episodes of the popular soap opera un posto al sole.
Tools that will inspire you to learn Italian
Now you’ve got the resources, but what about the motivation? To stay inspired throughout your Italian journey, it helps to have some encouragement and advice from other people who’ve already done it. The following are blogs and websites from italophiles who are teaching themselves Italian and are happy to share what they learn along the way.
30. Cher Hale
Cher Hale turned her passion for the Italian language into the delightful blog the Iceberg Project. In her articles and podcast, you’ll find fun grammar tutorials (that’s right, she actually makes grammar fun!) together with fascinating cultural and travel tips. On a mission to teach you how Italians actually talk, Cher’s also teaches you key words and expressions that Italians use all the time (and you won’t find in phrase books).
31. Studentessa Matta
Melissa, also known as the Studentessa Matta (crazy student), started her blog as a way of improving her Italian skills and connecting with other Italian learners. As well as writing bilingual blog posts, Melissa promotes the Italian language and culture through her podcast and YouTube channel, which are often recorded entirely in Italian. On her YouTube channel, you’ll find stories about her Italian adventures, grammar and idiomatic expressions explained as well as cultural tidbits.
While studying in Italy, Brian uploaded a couple of videos of himself speaking Italian to document his language learning journey. Since then, he’s been making videos in Italian to help Italians pick up English and learn more about cultural differences between Italy and America.
Although his videos are aimed at Italians learning English, his comparisons and tips are useful for anyone who finds themselves navigating between Italian and English-speaking cultures, just like Brian did. If you’ve ever been in that situation, you’ll probably find yourself nodding along and laughing at his funny observations about the differences between Italy and the US.
34. Tia Taylor
4 years ago, American-born YouTuber Tia Taylor moved to Milan to study at the prestigious Bocconi University. On her bilingual channel, Tia explores American and Italian cultural differences, covering a range of topics, from beauty to politics. Her Italian is top-notch and her videos have Italian and English subtitles so you can go back and catch any words you might have missed.
35. Questa Dolce Vita
A few years ago, Canadian-born Jasmine left everything behind and moved to Bergamo to pursue her Italian dream. On her blog Questa Dolce Vita, she gives an articulate, honest (and often hilarious) insiders view of what it’s really like to learn Italian.
Jasmine is co-host of the DolceVitaBloggers link up, a place where Italy bloggers get together every month to write and read about their Italian experiences.
36. Mamma Prada
UK-based Kristie and her Italian husband are raising their kids to be bilingual in English and Italian. On MammaPrada, Kristie shares her story of learning Italian alongside her little ones. Across her blog and social media channels, you’ll find Italian articles, handy words and phrases, language learning tips, travel advice and cultural gems.
Kristie runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Jasmine from Questa Dolce Vita and Kelly from Italian at heart.
37. Italian at heart
On her blog Italian at Heart, Kelly shares her journey to learn her grandfather’s mother tongue, along with her culinary, travel and cultural adventures. You can also follow her on Instagram, where she posts bilingual photo captions in English and Italian.
So those were my 38 favourite Italian learning tools. I’m sure there are loads of other good ones I’ve missed so if you have any more, please share the love and add them to the comments.
Have you used any of these Italian tools before? Which is your favourite? Which one would you like to try next? Let us know in the comments below!
Why is it so hard to remember words in a foreign language?
Why is the grammar so confusing?
If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions and wondered how the heck you’ll learn to speak that foreign language, then today’s post is for you.
I used to wonder the same thing, especially after I’d studied German for 5 years at school, then Spanish and Italian for another 2, with nothing to show for it except a few random words popping into my head.
Why couldn’t I speak a language after so many years of classes? I considered two possibilities. Either:
1. I’m a complete idiot.
2. Languages are basically impossible.
If I was an idiot, then so was everyone else. Given that every other English person I knew was in the same position, I assumed that learning a language must be one of those things that only people with steely willpower can do, like running a marathon or not squeezing spots.
But since then, I’ve learnt Italian, French and Spanish, as well as a bit of German and Mandarin and I’ve discovered something exciting:
Learning a second language as an adult isn’t as difficult as I thought. I was just doing it wrong.
Keep reading to find out:
– The big mistake that stops adults from learning a second language (and how to avoid it).
– The simple technique that will help any adult (including YOU) become fluent in a language.
– How to have more fun learning a second language, even as a beginner.
Is it hard to learn a second language as an adult?
Last week, I got a new Italian student.
Let’s call him Bob. Bob had been learning Italian for over 2 years, but he still couldn’t really string a sentence together. He had a vague idea of verb tenses and some vocabulary floating around in his mind, but he couldn’t remember any of them well enough to use them in real-life.
Surprisingly, after just 3 hours together, Bob was already having simple conversations in Italian.
How did Bob achieve that amazing result in such a short time?
Is it because I’m a magic Italian teacher who can teach you to speak Italian in 3 hours?
That’d be nice, but no. Truth is, I didn’t do much.
All I did was encourage him to start speaking. About normal things that he talks about in his native language. And helped him out with a few words and grammar points so he could say what he wanted to say.
As soon as Bob started using Italian in real life, everything fell into place.
The wrong way to learn a second language as an adult
I was in the same situation as Bob after two years of Italian classes. I’d spent most of the time learning grammar and vocabulary, but I struggled to remember it. I found language classes boring, never did my homework and couldn’t have a conversation if my life depended on it.
But then, I did a year abroad in Italy. Suddenly, learning a language wasn’t about memorizing verbs, it was about talking to people.
I didn’t like studying grammar, but I liked people.
So I took my nose out of my grammar book and started trying to have conversations. I also started spending my free time reading and listening to things in Italian. At first, things which were simplified for learners. Then, as my level improved, I started trying to do things I enjoyed in my first language, like reading magazines and watching TV series.
It was really awkward. I spoke excruciatingly slowly and made tons of mistakes. I didn’t understand a lot of what I saw and heard. But I persevered and after a while, I became fluent in Italian.
And even though it was tricky, I enjoyed it. I was interacting with human beings (the reason I wanted to learn a language in the first place) and reading and listening to things that I actually cared about, instead of those dull and cheesy textbooks.
Do you need to go to the country to learn a second language?
Now I know that it’s not impossible to learn a second language in your home country. It just seemed like that because the way most of us are taught in school doesn’t work.
It’s not you, it’s the method
The more languages I learn and the more students I work with, the more I’m convinced of this: you can’t learn a language by memorizing a bunch of grammar rules and vocabulary.
You have to learn languages by doing. By speaking, listening, reading and writing.
This doesn’t mean I’m totally against grammar. Learning the rules might give you a basic structure to follow and help you tidy things up around the edges. But the vast majority (if not all) the learning comes through using the language.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask the polyglots. Although they all have different methods, one thing they have in common is that they practice using the language a lot – they don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time memorizing grammar rules or vocabulary in isolation.
Which raises an interesting question: why do most language courses prioritise grammar, when there’s not much anecdotal or scientific evidence to suggest that this is the best way to learn a language?
The answer lies in the history of language education.
Why most schools make it harder for adults to learn a second language
Let’s hop in a time machine and travel back to the 1800s for a moment.
Back then, there was no Ryan Air. You couldn’t jump on a plane and go somewhere warm for a couple of weeks. There was no European Union. In fact, many European countries were in almost constant warfare.
People didn’t have the same opportunities to go abroad and connect with people from other countries as we do now. Yet languages were still taught at school.
To study ancient texts. Students took Latin and Greek classes so they could learn to read and translate literature in those languages. The teaching focused on rote-learning of verb tables and grammar rules, which worked OK when languages were used as a tool to translate texts. There was no focus on speaking or listening at all because that wasn’t the goal.
The problems started in the 1900s, when people began to learn other languages. Even though the goal was now to communicate with human beings rather than translate texts, teachers continued using the same method they’d always used. This left generations of frustrated students who couldn’t speak a language after years of classes, because they’d never practiced speaking it.
The world’s changed a lot since then and fortunately, so have language teaching methods. There’s a lot more communication in the classroom these days.
But the most dangerous idea has lived on – the belief that you have to memorize lots of grammar rules and vocabulary before you start trying to use the language in real life.
I can’t remember words and grammar
People who’ve only ever tried to learn languages with the traditional school method are often left feeling like they’re bad at languages, because no matter how hard they try, they can’t remember grammar and vocabulary.
If this sounds like you, please don’t give up on learning a second language. You’re not bad at languages, you’ve just been taught them with the wrong techniques.
I see this all the time for myself and my students: it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat a grammar point or word list. Almost everyone struggles to remember grammar and vocabulary until they start using them in real ways. That is, until you come across lots of real examples in reading and listening, and practice using them in speaking and writing.
There are two science-backed reasons why learning grammar and vocabulary in isolation makes them more difficult to remember:
1. Your memory is sharper when you learn by doing.
2. To learn a language, your brain needs to take statistics about words in real-life contexts.
Let’s look at these in more detail.
1. What divers can teach you about learning a second language
They sent divers underwater and taught them a bunch of words, played through a diving communication device. They also taught them some words on dry land. 24 hours later, they tested the divers both underwater and on dry land to see how many words they could remember.
Turns out, the divers forgot 40% more words when the context was different, that is, if they’d learnt the words on land and tried to recall them underwater and vice-versa.
Decades of research support the very same quirk about human memory: we remember things more easily when we use them in the same situation we learnt them in, and forget them more easily in different situations.
If you learn verbs by rote, you might remember them while you’re going through the list in your head, but you’ll probably struggle to recall them in conversation. Similarly, if you learn words and grammar on apps, they might come to mind easily when you’re fiddling with your phone, but disappear as soon as you need them in real life.
The good news?
If you learn a language through conversations, you’ll remember better when you’re having conversations. If you learn by writing, you’ll remember better when you’re writing. If you learn by listening, you’ll remember more easily when listening. If you learn by reading, you’ll remember more easily when reading.
In other words, if you learn by doing, things will come to you more easily when you need them in real life.
2. How your brain learns languages
Why do we have tall buildings, but high ceilings?
In many languages, the difference between tall and high doesn’t even exist. If you call your boss a high man in Italian, that means he’s tall. If you call him a high man in English, it means he’s been smoking something funny.
Learning a language isn’t about isolated words, it’s about learning how those words fit together.
Neurolinguistics, the study of how our brain processes languages, shows us why this matters.
The neuroscience of learning a second language
Did you know that your brain is constantly giving off electrical signals? These signals change depending on what task your brain is doing, and scientists can read some of these – using a technique called electroencephalography – to study how your brain learns a language.
One of these signals, called the N400, shows us how native speakers process groups of words. The N400 is relatively small with combinations of words that you expect to hear together, like coffee and cream, but larger for unexpected words, like coffee and… crap. If your N400 doesn’t increase significantly for unexpected combinations, like crap, scientists might wonder what on earth you’ve been putting in your coffee.
These signals show that our brain is constantly taking statistics about words that normally appear together. This is good, as it helps us make predictions about what’s coming next so we can communicate faster.
The better someone speaks a foreign language, the closer their N400 pattern is to that of a native speaker. This suggests that learning a language involves building up expectations about words that usually appear together, just like native speakers do.
To speak a foreign language fluently, you’ll need to give your brain the chance to take statistics about how words are combined in the language you’re learning. You can’t do this if you spend all your time trying to memorise grammar rules or word lists.
The best way to get a feeling for word patterns in your target language is through mass input, that is, spending tons of time reading and listening to the language.
The good news is, you can get this mass input without even realizing it – by simply reading and listening to lots of things you enjoy. Not only is learning by doing more in line with what we know about how the brain learns languages, it’s also more fun.
You don’t have to start speaking straight away if you don’t want to
You may think that learning by doing means you have to start speaking straight away. If you want to throw yourself in at the deep end and practice speaking very early on, brilliant – it’s a great way to apply what you’ve learnt and get used to communicating with native speakers.
But you don’t have to.
If the idea of speaking from day 1 fills you with dread, feel free to wait a little while! Many prolific language learners prefer not to speak straight away, most notably Steve Kaufmann who speaks 16 languages.
If you’d rather wait, you can start by doing lots of reading and listening to get a feel for the language. When you decide to have a go at speaking, you’ll need some time to adapt, but the foundation will already be there.
Everyone’s different. It doesn’t matter if you’d rather dive into speaking or spend some time reading and listening first.
All that matters is that you stop dedicating a disproportionate amount of time to memorizing grammar and vocabulary and practice using the language in real ways.
Learning a second language won’t always be easy (but it will be worth it)
When you start learning a language by doing, it’ll probably feel awkward. When you try reading and listening, all that new vocabulary might feel overwhelming. When you try speaking, you might get embarrassed by your mistakes, or the epically long silences as you search for the words.
Some people see this uncomfortable feeling as a problem that should be avoided. They want to memorize more grammar and vocabulary because they believe it will help them feel at ease when they start using the language in real life.
But that’s like thinking you can improve your guitar skills by reading more books. A bit of theory might help, but you’ll never learn to play without going through that awkward stage where your fingertips hurt.
How to learn a language by doing when you’re a beginner
So far, we’ve talked about how the most effective (and enjoyable!) way to learn a language is to practice using it in real life. But how can you do that when you’re a complete beginner? To get practical ideas on how to learn a language by doing, even as a beginner, join me for my online workshop this Saturday, 10th March*
As part of the Women in Language event, you’ll get access to my workshop called: The #1 mistake beginners make when learning a language (and how to fix it). In it, you’ll learn:
– Actionable ideas on how to start using the language (even if you’re a beginner).
– The smart way to learn grammar and vocabulary.
– How to sound more natural and confident when you speak.
In July 2015, Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, played against 23-year-old Heather Watson, ranked 59th.
Everyone expected a quick and painless win for Serena. Yet in the final set, millions stared at their TV screens in astonishment as Heather looked close to winning the match.
In the end, Serena cinched it, but the tennis world was stunned by how close Heather got.
Do you know what my favourite part of this story is?
When Heather was 8 years old, she watched Serena play at Wimbledon. She even had Serena’s poster on her wall. It was Serena who had inspired Heather to become the great tennis player that came close to beating her.
As for Serena, her childhood hero was Steffi Graf, who she later surpassed with her 23rd Grand Slam title.
In turn, these 3 tennis players have inspired little girls all over the world to smash it on the tennis court.
The success of one woman is the inspiration of every other one – Serena Williams
Women in Languages
Sometimes, seeing other people do remarkable things is exactly the push you need to move ahead with your own projects.
With this in mind, I’ve put together a list of 50 women who are making amazing contributions to the world of language learning.
From smart women who developed new methods to learn languages, to brave women who left everything behind and moved to a new country where they didn’t know a single person.
From benevolent women who are making the world a better place with their language skills to ambitious women who’ve learnt multiple languages and show you how to do the same.
I hope after reading about these legendary gals, you’ll feel more energized to leap into your own language learning missions.
This post is in honour of the upcoming Women in Language event, a four-day online conference where you’ll have the opportunity to learn from female guest speakers with expertise in language teaching and language learning (including yours truly!). If that sounds like something you’d like to get involved in, click here to learn more about Women in Language.
The post is long (to squeeze all those extraordinary women in) so I’ve organised it as follows. Feel free to click on the links to navigate your way around.
We’ll start with the women who learn multiple languages and invite you along with them on their language journey. They’ll inspire you with their triumphs, give candid accounts of their struggles and share insider tips so you can learn languages just like they did.
1. Lindsay Williams from Lindsay does Languages
First up is Lindsay Williams, who shares her infectious enthusiasm for languages over on her blog lindsaydoeslanguages. Her articles and YouTube videos are full of creative ideas on how to learn a language on your own. As well as inspiring independent learners, she also gives online language teachers advice on how to kickstart their careers.
Linsday says: For me, a big part of my job is inspiring others to teach themselves languages.
Kerstin is a native German speaker who’s studied 8 languages so far (her English is better than mine, eek!). She’s a trained translator, host of The Fluent Show Podcast, and author of the guides Language Habit Toolkit, Fluency Made Achievable and The Vocab Cookbook. On her blog fluentlanguage, Kerstin shares her own language learning journey and gives actionable advice on how to build good language learning habits.
Kerstin believes: Language learning is for everyone, not just young, rich, smart, privileged people
Kerstin is hosting the Women in Language event, together with Lindsay and our next inspiring woman language learner…
3. Shannon Kennedy from Eurolinguiste
Shannon is the queen of learning multiple languages: she speaks French, English, and Chinese fluently, has dabbled in German, Italian, and Spanish to various degrees, and is currently working her way towards better learning Russian, Croatian, and Korean. More recently, she’s started focusing on Japanese. Phew!
On her blog, Eurolinguiste, you’ll find articles infused with travel adventures and cultural notes about the languages she’s learning (there’s some food in there too!). As well as documenting her own journey, she inspires language learners through her work on the fluent in 3 months blog and with the add1challenge community.
Shannon says: I believe in working hard towards your goals and being transparent with successes and failures.
4. Agnieszka Murdoch from 5-Minute language
Agnieszka speaks English, French, Spanish, Polish and German, and is currently learning Japanese. On her 5-Minute Language blog and fab YouTube channel, she gives bite-sized articles and videos with practical tips on how to learn a language, even if you’re very busy.
Agnieszka says: I believe there’s always time for language learning – you too can find it with a few simple tweaks to your lifestyle
5. Michele from The Intrepid Guide
Travel writer Michele Frolla combines her two passions to create a unique blend of language and travel advice. On her blog the intrepid guide, you’ll find destinations guides, language learning tools, travel phrase cheat sheets, and more!
I love seeing the stunning photos, fascinating and little-known linguistic and cultural tidbits she shares on social media.
Michele lives by the motto: The more we travel, the more we learn.
You can catch Michele’s talk: La Dolce Vita: How This Australian Moved to Italy at the Women in Language online conference.
6. Jo from Shut Up and Go
Jo Franco is the business head of the phenomenally successful travel blog and YouTube channel Shut Up and Go. Together with her friend Damon Dominque, she encourages people who want to get out and see the world to stop making excuses and go for it.
In her straight-up and relatable style, she presents a blend of travel advice, cultural stuff and language learning tips.
She speaks English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Here, you can see her hanging out with her host family in Sorrento after learning Italian at lightning speed.
Jo says: I’m a believer in taking risks and just going for it
7. Lýdia Machová from Language Mentoring
Polyglot Lýdia Machová learns a new language every two years. She’s currently learning Swahili, her 9th! She’s also one of the main organizers of Polyglot Gathering, one of the biggest world events for polyglots.
She believes you can’t teach a language, you can only help other people do it on their own. On her website, Language Mentoring, you can learn about her unique approach which helps people find their own way of learning a language, persist and achieve the desired results.
Lýdia says: Learning a language doesn’t have to be a complicated, lengthy process, and it definitely doesn’t have to be unpleasant. Quite the opposite, you can learn languages in a very enjoyable and relaxed way.
Catch Lýdia’s talk The Goldlist Method: Learn Vocabulary Without Without Memorizing at the Women in Language online conference.
8. Shahidah Foster from Black Girls Learn Languages
Shahidah Foster is on a mission to encourage more black women to become multilingual and increase coverage in the media. On her blog blackgirlslearnlanguages, she celebrates black linguistas and inspires with bios and language learning resources. You’ll also find articles about Shahidah’s own language experiences with German, Spanish and French, together with tons of practical and intuitive advice that make your target language come alive.
Shahidah says: Mimic the natives… it really helps you improve your vocabulary, it helps you find your voice in the target language.
Catch Shahidah’s talk Why Immersion Is Key and How To “Immerse” Yourself at the Women in Language online conference.
9. Ellen Jovin from Words & Worlds of New York
In 2009, Ellen Jovin set herself a mission: to learn as much as she could in 12 months, of a bunch of languages spoken around New York. 8 years later, she’s still going strong and has now studied a total of 21 different languages.
On her website Words & Worlds of New York, she posts informative reviews of the resources she uses and often speaks at events to encourage adults to learn languages.
Ellen says: A new language is a hand held out to one’s neighbor, an opener of doors, a new way to see, a mental tickle, a road to unmediated communication with strangers in other lands, access to the world’s news, a gesture of peace — really, language study can be anything you want to make of it.
Catch Ellen’s talk Language Self-Study: Secrets of the Successful Autodidact at theWomen in Language conference.
10. Lindie Botes
Incredible polyglot Lindie Botes speaks Afrikaans, English, French, Korean, Japanese, Mandarin and is learning Vietnamese, Indonesian, Arabic and Hindi. She was born in South Africa but has lived all over the world including France, Pakistan and Dubai. On her YouTube channel, Lindi shares her language journey together with language learning tips, Q&As and reviews of resources.
11. Judith Meyer from LearnYu
Polyglot of all trades Judith Meyer is a computational linguist, the head organiser of the Polyglot Gathering and author of several language books and courses. She’s an active member of the language learning community and often gives interviews and talks where she shares her experiences from learning over 14 languages.
You can catch Judith’s talk Fast Track Language Learning at the Women in Language conference.
12. Irina Pravet from IrinaPravet.com
Globetrotting Irina Pravet was born in Romania, grew up in Canada, lived in Germany and now lives in Finland. She speaks 6 languages to various levels of fluency: English & Romanian as native languages + French, Finnish, German, Spanish.
Her online business at IrinaPravet.com helps people create the life they love abroad.
Irina says: When we feel at ease abroad (whether speaking the language, being ourselves, connecting on a deeper level, etc) we make a bigger impact.
Watch Irina’s talk The Power of Compassion & Intuition in Language Learning Abroad at the Women in Language conference.
On her website, Language Learner’s Journal, Trisha documents her own language learning experiences and gives tips on how to become more focused and productive. She speaks the following 8 languages to varying levels: English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Icelandic & British Sign Language (BSL).
Trisha says: My mission is to empower people to learn new skills, especially languages!
14. Eve from the Urban Eve
Jet-setter Eve has learned 8 languages. After growing up in Germany, she spent 4 years in Madrid and currently lives in Paris. On her YouTube channel, she gives practical advice and mindset tips on how to learn a language. She’s a big believer in immersing yourself in the culture of the language you’re learning.
Eve says: the more I get to know the culture, the more I love the language.
15. Lina Vasquez from Busy Linguist
Lina Vasquez speaks over 7 languages. On her YouTube channel Busy Linguist, she talks about her own language learning experience and gives advice to people who are interested in language learning despite their busy schedule and life.
16. Maureen Millward from Language Learning Journey
Maureen Millward is a polyglot from Scotland. As well as English, her native language, she is fluent in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese and also speaks Catalan, Norwegian, French, Gaelic, German, Sicilian and Greek at various levels. She’s currently learning Chinese, Slovak & Arabic. She also dabbles in lots of the lesser known languages, like Azeri and Yoruba.
Over on her blog Language Learning Journey, Maureen documents her language learning journey and sometimes writes articles in the languages she’s learning.
Catch Maureen’s talk Rising Above and Beyond: Overcoming the Language Learning Plateau at the Women in Language conference.
17. Kamila Tekin from Polyglot’s diary
Kamila Tekin is a Turk from the Netherlands who taught herself 5+ languages using social media and apps. She grew up bilingual speaking Dutch and Turkish and taught herself English, Spanish, German, French, and Portuguese. She often gives herself specific deadlines to learn languages and shares what she’s learned on social media.
Her videos are inspiring and refreshingly honest: she challenges herself and isn’t afraid to show her mistakes, so you can see what learning a language is really like.
Kamila says: With my language learning project, I also hope to show people from other countries that I’m interested in their language and that I love their culture.
18. Abigail from Polyglot progress
Abigail runs the popular language learning YouTube channel Polyglot Progress, together with her friend Matt. She documents her own language learning progress and gives friendly and honest advice about how to learn a language, as well as resource reviews and mini tutorials. She’s currently learning German, Spanish, Bulgarian and Japanese.
19. Elena from Hitoritabi
Italian linguaphile Elena describes herself as an introvert and grammar geek. On her blog Hitoritabi, Elena teaches Italian and Japanese. She specialises in giving anxious language learners a safe space to learn in before jumping into the real world and starting to speak.
Elena says: Anxiety doesn’t have to be an obstacle to learning a language, but it can be your motivation for it.
Women who will inspire you to work with languages
20. Khady Ndoye from LaPolyglotte
African languages advocate Khady Ndoye is the founder of LaPolyglotte, a platform which inspires people to discover and learn more about the 3000+ African languages. The LaPolyglotte mission is: “to offer the diaspora, African youth, and africanophiles, dynamic and creative tools to the discovery of the cultural riches of which the cradle of humanity abounds”.
Khady specialises in African languages and digital marketing. On the blog and across her social media channels, you’ll find mini-tutorials together with fascinating linguistic and cultural facts.
21. Madeline Vadkerty
Madeline is an interpreter who worked for Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma in Washington, DC, where she used her skills in French, Spanish and Russian to help asylum seekers living in the US by offering psychological care and social services.
She wants to show you how you can use your language skills to make a better place.
Madeline says: Interpreting for dissidents from all over the world is part of what makes a career in this field so rewarding, but most uplifting of all was being part of a team that helps people heal and seeing people get back up on their feet after surviving torture.
Catch her talk Making the World a Better Place As an Interpreter at the Women in Language conference.
22. Nikki Prša from Speak at Home Tonight
Polish-American polyglot Nikki speaks 7 languages. She’s leveraged her language skills into an international career spanning the translation, education, and entertainment industries in the U.S., Germany, Poland, Egypt, Croatia, and Slovenia.
As well as teaching languages through her unique immersion approach, she shows people how to use their languages and understanding of multiple cultures to get their dream job in any industry.
Nikki says: Being multilingual in 2018 is the most valuable skill you can have.
Catch Nikki’s talk How to Get Any Job by Selling Your Language Skills at the Women in Language conference.
23. Elisa Polese from Speak from Day One with Elisa
Multilingual teacher Elisa Polese teaches an impressive number of languages: Italian, German, English, Spanish, Russian, French, Dutch, Catalan, Portuguese, Greek, Hindi, Arabic and Esperanto (at different levels).
She’s specialized in multilingual teaching (up to 10 languages in one course) and is a certified language examiner for English, Italian, Russian, French, German and Spanish.
Elisa says: “You can see great progress in your language learning in just 5 mins per day”
Catch Elisa’s talk Learning and Teaching Two to Ten Languages in One Course at the Women in Language conference.
24. Anja Spilker from ZALOA Languages
Anja is the founder and CEO of ZALOA Languages, an online language school that works with native speakers from all over the world who teach languages online in a virtual classroom.
Through her social media blog Anja from Alemania, Anja gives less experienced learners advice on how to start or continue learning foreign languages.
Catch Anja’s talk Can You Love Me Again? at the Women in Language conference, where she’ll show you how to rebuild the relationship with that language that you’ve let slide.
25. Therese LaFleche from LaFlecheLingo
Therese LaFleche is on a mission to help people understand the importance of multilingualism in today’s ever-shrinking world. Earlier this year, she organised an online event with international experts in the field of languages and expats (that I had the honour of speaking at) called The Modern Executive: Learn a new language, Open the global market, Build an international brand.
She’s a strong believer in the role of fun in learning, not only as a way to make the process more enjoyable but also as a powerful memory booster.
Therese says: My goal is to make learning a fun journey just as it was when we were kids.
Language lover Rebecca speaks English and French and is learning Italian and German. Based in Melbourne, she talks about overcoming the challenge of learning foreign languages from home, when you’re surrounded by your native language.
Together with her partner Chris, Rebecca runs Irregular Endings, a company which makes paper goods and stationery for language lovers. I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with irregular endings for the #languagediarychallenge – their gorgeous bilingual calendars are always highly sought after prizes!
Rebecca says: One of the best ways I’ve found to learn and remember what I know of another language is making my target language part of my ‘normal’.
See Rebecca’s talk Bringing other Languages into an English-focused Life at theWomen in Language conference.
27. Bettina Röhricht
A UK-based native of North Germany, Bettina Roehricht has been working as a freelance translator for nearly 20 years. She also provides coaching for other freelance translators, helping them optimise their client base, improve their work-life balance and simply be happier with their translation business.
You can see her talk Upsides and Downsides of Being a Freelance Translator at the Women in Language conference.
28. Dani Maizner from I Simply Love Languages
As a freelance translator, Dani Maizner has managed to turn her passion for languages into a freelance business that allows her to do her work from wherever she is.
On her blog I simply love languages, she writes in German about all things languages. Dani’s a firm believer in reading as a way to improve your foreign language skills and give you insights into the culture of your target language at the same time.
You can see her talk How to Kill It in Language Learning with Crime Fiction at the Women in Language conference.
Dani says: You will be surprised how much useful information language enthusiasts can find in a good crime story.
Women who will inspire you to learn Italian
29. Elfin from all about Italian
Langauge-lover Elfin was born in the US but grew up in Italy and learned Italian as a kid. She contributes an enormous amount to the language learning community on Instagram, both through her invaluable bite-sized video lessons and the support she gives to other language learners who share their progress.
Her speciality is using social media to squeeze language learning into a busy life.
Elfin says: the process should be just as enjoyable and remarkable as the final goal, that of becoming fluent
You can see her talk Find Time in a Busy Life: Learn with Instagram at the Women in Language conference.
30. Lucrezia Oddone
Rome-based Lucrezia Oddone helps you learn Italian the fun way by taking you with her on a journey around Italy’s capital.
On her YouTube channel, you’ll find vlogs and tutorials with clear grammar explanations and lots of examples. Many of her videos are entirely in Italian (with subtitles) which perfect for the full immersion experience! She interacts daily with her followers and often answers FAQs in Italian.
31. Cher Hale
Cher Hale describes herself as “a relationship counsellor between humans and the Italian language”. Her mission is to help people who’ve fallen in love with the Italian language stick with it, even after the honeymoon period has ended. On her blog the iceberg project, Cher shares her own experience in learning the Italian language, together with tutorials and fun and easy ways to learn grammar.
You’ll also find lots of real-world Italian words and phrases that you won’t get from normal language courses.
Cher says:Like you, I am just a student trying my best to learn this language, so I understand first-hand the hard work it takes, and I want nothing more than to help you learn it too in a way that helps you make meaningful progress, laugh, and enjoy each step of the process.
Watch Cher’s talk: Are You Making The Most of Your Language Lessons? at the Women in Language conference.
32. Jasmine Mah from Questa Dolce Vita
A few years ago, Canadian-born Jasmine met a charming Italian boy in a bar in Alberta, Canada. After a few years’ long distance, she left it all behind and moved to Bergamo to pursue her Italian dream.
On her blog Questa Dolce Vita, Jasmine gives an articulate, honest (and often hilarious) insiders view of what it’s really like to move to Italy and learn Italian on the field.
Jasmine says: Very often, I hear people say that they aren’t capable of learning a second language. They attribute the success of others to a natural gift. You are born with the ability to learn languages. I would like to politely disagree. Someone who learns a second language is successful because they work their ass off every second of every day.
Jasmine runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Kristie from Mamma Prada and Kelly from Italian at heart.
33. Kristie from Mamma Prada
UK-based Kristie and her Italian husband are parents to two gorgeous little ones. On her blog MammaPrada, Kristie shares her story of raising bilingual children & navigating cross-cultural life.
You’ll find tons of practical tips on bringing up kids in a bilingual home, together with Italy travel tips and little known cultural gems.
Kristie says: We are simply parents hoping to pass on the best of our dual heritage to our children and to give them, in our eyes the benefit of two languages from birth.
Kristie runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Jasmine from Questa Dolce Vita and Kelly from Italian at heart.
34. Kelly from Italian at Heart
Granddaughter of an Italian immigrant living in the US, Kelly had always felt a strong connection to her Italian heritage and was saddened by the fact that his native language didn’t get passed down to her generation. So she decided to take matters into her own hands and start learning Italian! On her blog Italian at Heart, Kelly shares her journey to learn her grandfather’s mother tongue, along with her culinary, travel and cultural adventures.
Kelly says: I feel such a calling to stay connected to my Italian heritage. For me, language is the most beautiful family heirloom that can ever be gifted to future generations.
Kelly runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Jasmine from Questa Dolce Vita and Kristie from MammaPrada.
35. Ishita from Italophilia
Author of India’s most popular Italy blog, Italophilia, Ishita Sood shares her love for the bel paese and the Italian language through travel guides and how-to articles. Across her site and social media channels, she infuses her Italian journey with beautiful photos that make you feel like you’re walking along those little-cobbled streets right next to her.
Ishita says: Italy is my calling. It is my go-to place to think about when I am low. It brings a smile on my face when someone I know connects my name to that country. Or when someone takes my help planning their trip to Italy.
Women who will inspire you to learn German
36. Cari from Easy German
Cari produces the amazing Easy German channel, together with her husband Janusz. Armed with a wicked sense of humour and infectious enthusiasm, she runs around the streets of Germany (and further afield), posing interesting questions to passers-by in German. Watch Easy German and you’ll learn authentic, real German language, as spoken in the streets and among friends.
37. Kaci from Year of German
When monolingual American Kaci Schack was on maternity leave, she embarked on a journey to teach herself German and pass it on to her son through storybooks and songs. Amazingly, this joint mission helped her overcome postpartum depression! Now Kaci is monolingual no more and her 3-year-old son is growing up to be bilingual in English and German.
Kaci shares her German progress on Instagram and gives language learning advice for normal people over on medium.
Kaci says: Languages are for everyone. Young. Old. Tall. Short. Black. White. From Europe. From Asia. From Mexico. From Wherever. Liberal. Conservative. City Person. Country Person. Millionaire. Less Affluent. Religious or Not. Musical or Not. Athletic or Not. Whatever.
Annik Rubens is the producer of Slow German, a fab podcast for beginner-intermediate German learners. Each episode is read in clear, easy to understand German and covers topics about life in Germany and German culture, often from new and interesting angles. On her website, you’ll find loads more goodies like transcripts and interactive translations.
Women who will inspire you to learn French
39. Carrie Anne James from French is beautiful
American-born Carrie Anne James delivers French lessons infused with a chic Parisian feel. Her stunning French is Beautiful Instagram page has quotes that make you fall in love with the French language, as well as making you feel like you’re the star of a Dior advert by taking you on a tour of the capital’s most luxurious spots.
As an American who learnt French as a second language, Carrie knows precisely which aspects of the French language you need to focus on in order to feel fluent and express your full personality in French as quickly as possible.
Carrie says: French is Beautiful is my love letter to those whose heart lives en France.
No list of inspiring women in language would be complete without Manon, the woman who inspired me to learn French!
Manon was my French tutor as I was preparing to take the DALF C1 Exam and I honestly could not have done it without her. She’s organised but flexible, demanding but patient and goes out of her way to help each student make as much progress in French as possible.
She’s taught all over the world and is learning many languages herself, including Spanish, Japanese and Thai.
Manon says: I try to be the kind of teacher I like to have as a language student myself. I’m always prepared, organised, and patient.
41. Heidi Rivolta from Bonjour Tonton
Heidi has been teaching French to children and their adults alongside her naughty tortoise puppet Tonton since 2009. Her speciality is engaging kids to nurture a love of learning and make them fall in love with languages.
In 2017, she self-published her first French learning picture book under the name Bonjour Tonton. She also offers free weekly lesson plans for teaching French to children at home or in school via her blog Bonjour Tonton.
Watch her talk: Positive Language Learning for Kids and Their Adults at the Women in Language conference.
Women who will inspire you to learn Spanish
42. Marina Diez from Notes in Spanish
Marina Diez presents the Notes in Spanish podcast, together with her English husband Ben. She brings her native speaker knowledge to the show, injecting it with her fun personality and sharing cultural tips on Spain. Marina is also in charge of the design and development of worksheets and supplementary materials.
I’m a big fan of Notes in Spanish and have spent many an afternoon wandering around the streets with my headphones getting a quick Spanish lesson with Marina!
43. Chiqui from Hablaele
Chiqui is my Spanish teacher and the woman who’s inspiring me to learn Spanish right now! Her friendly, bubbly style of teaching puts you at ease immediately and helps you get speaking. She’s organised, experienced and knows how to work with her students to get the best progress possible.
She also creates materials for Spanish learners over on her YouTube channel.
You can book classes with her on her website hablaELE.
44. María Ortega Garcia from Compass Spanish
María is the creator of the line Compass Spanish where she offers online Spanish courses, support and guidance to students of Spanish. She has been running her own online education business since 2011, offering online lessons as well as retreats and immersion courses in Spain.
Watch her talk: Cracking the Language Code Through Art and Self-Expression at the Women in Language conference.
Women who will inspire you to learn Mandarin
45. Fiona Tian from Chinese Pod/Mandrin Made EZ
Follow the charismatic and adorable Fiona Tian as she teaches you survival Mandarin around Taiwan. Each video has a practical theme like “ordering from a menu”, “riding the subway in Chinese” and “arriving at the airport”. Fiona was brought up in a bilingual English-Mandarin household and her connection to both cultures makes her the perfect person to give you insights into the Chinese language and culture.
46. Yangyang Cheng from Yo-Yo Chinese
Yangyang teaches Mandarin in a clear and simple way, from the English speaker’s point of view. On her YouTube channel, you’ll find tutorials, cultural notes and interviews with native speakers.
Women who will inspire you to learn English
47. Cara Leopold from Leo Listening
Cara Leopold is a listening skills specialist. Her work deals with one of the biggest frustrations for intermediate and advanced language learners: after all this time, why can’t I understand TV and films?
Her method helps people break free from subtitles so they can fall back in love with their favourite films and TV shows.
On her hugely successful YouTube channel, the passionate and experienced Gabby Wallace shares her tips on how to learn English, with a unique focus on listening, speaking and conversation. She speaks Portuguese & Spanish too!
The woman who will inspire you to learn Vietnamese
49. Elisabeth Jackson from More Vietnamese
Elisabeth is an English Language (EFL) Teacher from the UK who has lived and taught in Vietnam and Bulgaria, learning the local language both times. She’s dabbled in other languages (namely Korean and Esperanto) and is currently learning Spanish. Vietnamese remains her best language and she blogs about it at More Vietnamese.
Listen to her talk: Why You’re Struggling with Listening and What to Do about It at the Women in Language conference.
The woman who will inspire you to learn Japanese
50. Fran Wrigley from Step Up Japanese
Last but not least is Fran, a Japanese teacher and kanji obsessive. Fran worked in teaching and translation in Japan before returning to sunny Brighton in 2014, where she set up her school Step Up Japanese. She believes in the power of building a community for language learners where they can support each other and learn from each other’s mistakes.
Her mission is to show the world that the Japanese language is as logical and simple as it is beautiful … and to eat huge quantities of edamame beans along the way.
Catch Fran’s talk: Classroom Learning Is Not Dead – How to Build a Community in Your Language School at the Women in Language conference.
So there you have it, 50 amazing women who are inspiring the world to learn languages. This list is based on the women who have inspired me, so it’s a bit biased towards the languages I interact with the most. I’m sure there are loads of other fab women out there inspiring people to learn languages – please share the love and add them to the comments!
You start off feeling enthusiastic about eating salads and end up feeling enthusiastic about… well, nothing really.
Apart from maybe hiding under the duvet until April.
At least that’s what happens to me every year. No matter how motivated I am at the beginning of January, by February I haven’t achieved anything or worse, I’ve gone backwards.
So this year I decided to do things differently: instead of attempting something big, I’d start with a couple of itsy-bitsy changes. Something so easy I couldn’t say no to – like reading one paragraph in my Spanish book.
I hoped that once I’d planted the seed, these tiny habits would grow organically and help me on my quest to become fluent in Spanish, without constantly battling (and losing) against my flaky willpower.
This micro experiment turned out to be a big success: I ended up reading 600 pages in Spanish in January – probably more than I read all year in 2017!
But last month wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.
My mission to become fluent in Spanish threw up some challenges too: I struggled with time-wasting habits (I’m looking at you Facebook!) and realized that my listening isn’t as good as I’d like it to be.
Which got me thinking: could I apply this “make-it-so-easy-you-can’t-say-no” philosophy to other areas of Spanish and get similar results? Would this technique help me nix my time-wasting habits and improve my listening in Spanish?
Keep reading to find out:
How I managed to read 600 pages by forming good language learning habits.
How I plan on breaking time-wasting habits in February (hasta luego social media!).
My problems with listening in Spanish + how I plan to fix them.
How I’m becoming fluent in Spanish by forming good language learning habits
This year, I set myself the micro-task of reading 2 paragraphs per day (one in the morning and one in the evening), and I ended up reading 600 pages in a month!
This experience has shown me that when it comes to making big changes, starting small is best.
To get into the habit of reading more in Spanish, I used BJ Fogg’s tiny habits technique, which consists of two main steps:
Make the habit so small you can’t say no.
Do it immediately after a habit you already have.
For me this was:
After I make my morning cup of tea, I’ll read a paragraph of my book. After I finish washing the dishes in the evening, I’ll read a paragraph of my book.
This technique worked well because it helped me do the hardest bit – get started. By the time I got started, it was easy to keep going. Actually, it was fun, because there was no pressure. Once I’d finished the paragraph, I could stop if I wanted to (and I did sometimes). But most of the time I kept reading out of choice, which made the whole thing more enjoyable.
Riding on the crest of this good habit wave, I added another couple on:
After I brush my teeth, floss one tooth (I usually end up flossing them all). OK, this won’t help me become fluent in Spanish, but it’s interesting to see how the tiny habits have spilt over into other areas!
Of course, there were some down points too. Like last week when I didn’t read as much because I had the winter grumps and was feeling demotivated. But the great thing about my tiny language learning habits is that even if I’m tired, cranky or busy, I can still do them because they’re so easy. Usually, this would be when I’d let everything slide, end up feeling guilty and struggle to get started again.
But doing just a tiny something on these days helps me stay in the habit, which naturally expands again when I feel better or have more time.
Will I keep bookworming through February?
I suspect that once the initial enthusiasm has worn off, the amount I read in Spanish will drop a bit. But I’m hoping that my tiny reading habits will help me stay in the game and still get quite a lot of Spanish reading done.
What’s stopping me from becoming fluent in Spanish? Time-wasting habits!
In the 70s, the baby boomers had LSD and weed. For Gen X, it was cocaine and ecstasy.
And Millennials? We’ve got coffee and Facebook.
Sometimes I like to think this addiction doesn’t apply to me, especially when the conversation moves on to how obsessed people are with their smartphones these days. But the truth is, I’m just as hooked as everyone else in my generation.
Most of the time I don’t even enjoy using social media (unless I’m using Instagram for language learning). But somehow I find my fingers reaching for my phone and before I know it, I’m staring vacantly at pictures of what a friend of a friend ate for breakfast, I’ve lost 20 minutes of my life and I’m feeling like a small part of me has just died.
If I could stop constantly chasing little dopamine hits on my screen, I’d have a lot more time on my hands.
Of course, I’ve tried to stop procrastinating on social media before. Sometimes it works for a bit, but sooner or later I find myself with the same problem. Just because I decide to do something, doesn’t mean I’ll actually do it.
What I learnt last month is that to make real changes, it helps to start itsy-bitsy.
So this month, I’m going to start unravelling my social media dependence with one tiny habit:
Every time I open my phone to go on social media, I’ll revise one Spanish word on my flashcard app.
This is so small, it should be easy to do. If I really want to go on social media after that I can. But something tells me that once I get started with one Spanish word, I’ll probably do 10. And by the time I’ve done 10, I probably won’t feel like going on social media anymore.
What else is stopping me from becoming fluent in Spanish? Listening skills
I’ve been learning Spanish for a while now, so I’m always surprised by how little I understand when I watch Spanish TV. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching channel 9 from the Fast Show.
As I already speak Italian and French, it didn’t take long for me to start understanding slow, simplified Spanish, like the kind you hear in textbooks, or that native speakers use with foreigners. I could also understand written Spanish quite well, and managed to watch a few Spanish TV series with Spanish subtitles.
This meant I was feeling a little too cocky about my listening skills and got a shock when I turned off the subtitles and realized how little I could understand!
I have to remind myself that understanding TV actually comes much later than people expect. After reaching a quite an advanced level in Italian (C2) and living in Italy for several years, I still don’t understand everything on Italian TV, especially if the characters have strong regional accents. Similarly, I have an Italian friend who’s lived in America for 10 years and speaks English so well he’s often mistaken for a native, but even he doesn’t understand everything he hears in American films.
So the first step is to be realistic and not panic when I understand less than expected.
Another thing that trips me up with Spanish listening is the regional variation: after spending a while getting used to Mexican Spanish, I was shocked to realize I hardly understood anything in the Spanish spoken in Spain. Some people say just pick a variety and stick to it, but I’d like to understand Spanish speaking people from all over the world!
How I plan on boosting my Spanish listening skills
I simply haven’t spent enough time getting used to real, spoken Spanish. So this month, my plan is to binge listen to different varieties of Spanish.
This is a great excuse to re-watch all the Spanish-language TV series and films I’ve already seen, this time without subtitles.
As a rough estimate, I’d say I can understand around 50 – 60% of what’s being said, which means I can usually follow what’s going on, even if I can’t understand all the details yet. By starting with series I’ve already seen, I’ll have an even better chance of following what’s being said.
Binge listening to Spanish-Language TV and podcasts
To learn from films and TV, it’s important to be able to follow the dialogue. For this reason, I’m going to use videos and TV series with Spanish subtitles that I can turn on and off. This way, when I come across big chunks of dialogues that I don’t understand, I can go back and listen again a couple of times, and if I really don’t get it, I can watch it again with the subtitles.
That said, in times when I can’t be bothered to go into so much detail, I’m just going to put my feet up and watch. Now I can understand at least 50%, I can learn a lot by just listening to hours and hours of dialogues. I did this a while ago with French (with TV shows that had no subtitles) and after lots of binge-watching, my French listening got pretty good. My speaking improved too.
I’ll also be listening to as many Spanish podcasts as I can when I’m walking somewhere or cleaning the house. At the moment I’m listening to news podcasts, which is nice because it makes me feel like I’m in Spain (apart from when they read the weather in Granada). Speaking of which, I’m on the lookout for some good podcasts for Spanish speakers, let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions!
As I love watching foreign-language TV shows and listening to podcasts, this part won’t require much motivation, which allows me to add another so-easy-you-can’t-say-no habit to my language learning routine.
Language learning goals for February
To recap, I’ve set myself 3 very simple goals to move forward in my mission to become fluent in Spanish:
1. Reading in Spanish: Read a paragraph in the morning and one in the evening.
2. Break my time-wasting habit: review one Spanish word on my flashcard app every time I get tempted to go on social media.
3. Binge listening in Spanish: watch lots of Spanish-language TV and listen to podcasts.
Which language are you learning at the moment? How did it go in January? What are your plans for February? Let me know in the comments!
They can’t be serious, can they?
Talking at 200 mph, mushing words together or leaving them out entirely.
It’s as if those smug native speakers got together one day and decided to garble their words, just to stop us poor language learners from figuring out what they’re saying.
If you could read the same words you might understand, but listening? It’s a whole other level.
If only native speakers came with subtitles in real life!
One thing that makes real-world listening so hard is that textbooks and audio courses spoon-feed us a simplified version of the language. Sure, they make life easier at the beginning, but they don’t do a very good job at preparing us for how people actually talk. Which can lead to two things:
When we hear people speaking in real life, we don’t have a clue what’s going on.
When we talk, we sound stilted and unnatural.
Assuming you want to learn a language so you can talk to human beings – not characters from a textbook – these outcomes aren’t ideal.
Luckily, there’s another way. It’s simple, fun and it’s already on your computer or TV.
Read on to find out why I’m a big fan of learning a language with TV and films. You’ll also learn 5 smart strategies for using foreign-language TV and films to:
Give your listening skills a boost
Sound more like a native speaker
Stop falling off the language-learning wagon
Why learn a language by watching TV and films?
What I hear = how I talk
When I meet French people, sometimes they’re surprised to learn that I’ve never lived in France. My accent is pretty decent, my speech is littered with native sounding interjections, and on a good day, I can sit amongst a group of French people and follow (most of) their conversation.
I’ll let you in on my secret, but you’ve got to promise not to laugh, OK?
La téléréalité. That is, reality TV in French.
Before you make a dash for the back button, don’t worry. If you like your TV a little more highbrow, I’m not suggesting you do the same. In fact, learning a language with reality TV has its downsides too – namely, that my vocabulary is quite limited (reality TV stars aren’t exactly known for their eloquence).
The important thing to learn from this is that speaking styles reflect the things we listen to.
Reality TV = natural speaking style but with a limited vocabulary.
My French = natural speaking style but with a limited vocabulary.
When I started speaking Spanish, my boyfriend used to laugh because I spoke with really dramatic intonation, thanks to too many telenovelas. More recently, I’ve picked up lots of Mexican slang and football vocabulary because I’ve been watching Mexican football drama Club de Cuervos.
TV and films help you speak naturally and understand more
If you only listen to those slow and stilted dialogues in textbooks, you’ll probably end up speaking in a slow and stilted way. Alternatively, if you listen to lots of realistic conversations in TV series and films, over time, you’ll start speaking in a more natural way.
The same goes for understanding: if you only listen to learner materials, you’ll get used to hearing a version of the language that’s been watered down for gringos. You might get a shock when you hear people using it in real life! On the flip side, if you get used to hearing realistic dialogues in TV series and films (even if it’s tricky at first!), you’ll be much better equipped to follow conversations in the real world.
I’m not suggesting you try to learn a language entirely by watching TV and films. Learner materials like textbooks and audio courses have their place in a language learner’s toolkit. And speaking practice is essential.
Foreign-language TV series and films are like handy supplements that can help you bridge the gap between learner materials and how people actually talk.
What if I don’t understand anything?
When people think of learning a language by watching TV, they sometimes imagine learning through osmosis – the idea that if you listen to a stream of undecipherable syllables for long enough, it will eventually start to make sense.
But it doesn’t work like that.
To learn, you have to understand first. Once you get to a high(ish) level where you can pick out a fair amount of what the characters are saying, you can learn a lot from just sitting back and listening.
What if you’re not there yet?
Before that, if you want to learn a language by watching TV and films, it’s important to do activities that’ll help you understand the dialogues. The 5 activities in this article will help you do just that.
How to learn a language by watching TV and films: what you’ll need
First, you’ll need a film, TV series or YouTube video with two sets of subtitles: one in the language you’re learning, and one your native language. This used to be tricky, but with YouTube and Netflix it’s getting easier and easier to find videos which are subtitled in multiple languages. Aim for videos where people speak in a modern and natural way (i.e. no period dramas).
One of my absolute fave series for this is Easy Languages on YouTube. The presenters interview people on the street, so you get used to hearing natives speak in a natural and spontaneous way. What’s more, the videos are subtitled both in the target language and in English.
Easy German and Easy Spanish are particularly good as they both have their own spin-off channels where they add fun and interesting videos a couple of times a week. If you’re a beginner and you find these kinds of videos overwhelming (too many new words and grammar points), they also have a “super easy” series that you can use to get started.
Now you’ve got your videos and subtitles sorted, let’s learn how to use them.
5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films
Write what you hear
One super task to boost your listening skills is to use the videos as a dictation:
Listen to very small pieces of the video (a few seconds each) and write down what you hear.
Listen several times until you can’t pick out anymore.
Compare what you wrote against the subtitles.
Look up new words in a dictionary and write them down so you can review them later.
Often, you’ll see words and phrases that you understand on the page but couldn’t pick out in the listening. You can now focus on the difference between how words are written and how people actually say them in real life.
This is your chance to become a boss at listening.
Make it your mission to become aware of these differences. Do listeners squash certain words together? Do they cut out some sounds, or words completely? You may notice some things that native speakers have never realized about their own language, and teachers won’t teach you.
Here are a couple examples:
In spoken English, “do you” often sounds like “dew”, and want sounds like “one”. So the phrase “do you want it” is pronounced like “dew one it”
In spoken French, “ce que” is pronounced like “ske” and “il y a” is pronounced like “ya”
No wonder listening is trickier than reading!
An awareness of these differences is your new secret weapon for understanding fast speech and developing a natural speaking style: the more you pay attention to these differences, the better you’ll get at speaking and listening to the language as it’s used in real-life.
Another invaluable task is to translate small passages into your native language and back into the language you’re learning. After you’ve done this, you can check what you wrote in your target language against the original subtitles.
Ideally, you should translate the passage into your native language one day and back into your target language the day after, so that you have to use your existing knowledge about grammar and vocabulary to recreate the dialogue (rather than just relying on memory).
This technique works because it gives you the chance to practice creating sentences in your target language, then compare them against native speaker sentences. In this way, you’ll be able to see the gap between how you use the language and how the experts (the native speakers) do it. This will help you learn to express ideas and concepts like they do.
Comparing your performance to the experts’ and taking steps to close the gap is a key element of deliberate practice, a powerful way to master new skills which is supported by decades of research.
Get into character
One fun way to learn a language from TV and films is to learn a character’s part from a short scene. Choose a character you like, and pretend to be them. Learn their lines and mimic their pronunciation as closely as possible. You can even try to copy their body language. This is a great method for a couple of reasons:
It’s an entertaining way to memorize vocabulary and grammar structures.
By pretending to be a native speaker, you start to feel like one – it’s a fun way to immerse yourself in the culture.
For extra points, record yourself and compare it to the original. Once you get over the cringe factor of seeing yourself on video or hearing your own voice, you’ll be able to spot some differences between yourself and the original, which will give you valuable insight on the areas you need to improve. For example: does your “r” sound very different to theirs? Did you forget a word or grammar point?
Now you know what to focus on next.
Talk about it
A great way to improve your speaking skills is the keyword method:
As you watch a scene, write down keywords or new vocabulary.
Once you’ve finished watching, look at your list of words and use them as prompts to speak aloud for a few minutes about what you just saw.
As well as helping you practice your speaking skills, this method gives you the chance to use the new words you just learned, which will help you remember them more easily in future.
If you’re feeling tired or overstretched and the previous 4 steps feel too much like hard work, you can use films and TV as a non-strenuous way to keep up your language learning routine. Make yourself a nice hot drink, carve an ass-groove in the sofa, put on a film or TV series and try to follow what’s going on. Even if most of it washes over you, it’s better than nothing.
While you can’t learn a language entirely by doing this, it’s still handy because it helps you build the following 4 skills:
1. Get used to trying to understand what’s going on, even if there’s lots of ambiguity and you only understand the odd word (a useful skill to develop for real-life conversations!).
2. Get your ears used to the intonation and sounds of the language.
3. Become familiar with words and expressions which are repeated a lot.
4: Stay in your language routine during times when you can’t be bothered to study.
Don’t underestimate the value of this last point: if you skip language learning completely during periods when you’re tired or busy, you’ll get out of the routine and probably end up feeling guilty. As time passes, it’ll get harder and harder to get started again. But it you keep it up on those days, even by just watching a few minutes of something on the sofa, you’ll stay in the routine and find it easy to put in more effort once you get your time and energy back.
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