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.
Have you ever tried learning a language by watching TV series and films? Are there any other ways of using TV and films that you can add to the list?
¿How do you type that upside-down question mark thingy?
If you’re learning Spanish and you’re planning to write or take notes on a computer, at some point you’ll probably ask yourself this question. You’ll also need to type the other Spanish accents and characters like:
á, é, í, ó, ú, ü, ñ, ¡
But they can seem a bit fiddly. Are they really that important?
Well, Spanish speakers will probably know what you mean without them. But it looks sloppy – a bit like forgetting capital letters, commas and question marks in English:
if i type like this in english you know what im saying but theres something not quite right
The quick and easy guide to typing Spanish accents
Read on to learn how to type Spanish accents and characters on:
How to type Spanish accents on a Mac
How to type accents on Spanish vowels
With newer Mac operating systems, typing accents above vowels is simple: just press and hold the letter you want to accent. Next, a menu pops up with all the possible accents. Select the accent you need or press the corresponding number.
How to type ñ
For ñ, use this keyboard combination:
Press and hold the alt key (sometimes known as option)
Whilst still holding alt/option, press n
Wait for the ˜ symbol to appear (highlighted in yellow)
Now let go of both keys and press n again.
How to type ¿
For the upside down question mark use this combination:
Press and hold alt/option + shift
Whilst holding alt/option + shift, press ?
How to type ¡
The keyboard combination for the ¡ symbol may change depending on which computer you’re using (for mine, it’s alt/option + ?).
Here’s a simple way to find it on your keyboard:
Press and hold the alt/option key
Whilst still holding alt/option, play around pressing a few keys
You’ll see a few random symbols come up, like ∆º¬øæ… Keep going until you find ¡
How to type Spanish accents on an old-school Mac
If you want to type á, é, í, ó and ú, but you don’t see a pop-up menu when you press and hold the vowel, you can type the accents with a simple keyboard combination.
The specific key will depend on the keyboard you have, but you can find it easily by using the following method:
Press and hold alt/option
Whilst holding alt/option, play around by pressing a few keys until you find this symbol: ´ (highlighted in yellow). On my keyboard, it’s the number 8.
Now let go of both keys and type the letter you want to accent.
How to type Spanish accents on windows
If you have the U.S. international keyboard installed, you can type Spanish accents on Windows by simply typing an apostrophe followed by the vowel you want to accent.
á = ‘ + a
é = ‘ + e
í = ‘ + i
ó = ‘ + o
ú = ‘ + u
Here are the keyboard combos for the other accents/characters:
ü = ” + u
n = ˜+ n
¡ = alt + !
¿ = alt + ?
You can install this keyboard by searching language settings > options > add a keyboard > United-States International. Once you’ve installed it, you’ll see a language bar has appeared next to the clock in the start bar. If it’s not already selected, click on the language and select ENG INTL.
How to type Spanish accents on different keyboards
If you have a different keyboard, you can type accents and characters by holding down the alt key and typing a 3-digit number.
Important: for this to work, use the number pad on the right side of your keyboard, not the ones in a row across the top of the letters. If you don’t have one of those pads, you’ll find a solution below.
Here are the codes (character appears when you release the alt button)
á = Alt + 0225
é = Alt + 0233
í = Alt + 0237
ó = Alt + 0243
ú = Alt + 0250
ü = Alt + 0252
ñ = Alt + 0241
¿ = Alt + 0191
¡ = Alt + 0161
It’s probably a good idea to put a little cheat sheet next to your desk for a while to help you remember the codes!
How to type Spanish accents on a keyboard with no number pad
If your keyboard doesn’t have a number pad to the right-hand side, you might be able to change the keys at the top right (e.g: 7,8,9,U,I,O,J,K,L,M) into a number pad. If you have this option, you should see the corresponding numbers under each letter.
To activate this number pad, you’ll need to use the Num Lock key (sometimes known as Num LK or Num). The exact steps to activate the number pad will depend on your keyboard/computer set up, but here are some of the most common:
Press the Num Lock button
Shift + Num Lock
Num Lock + Fn
Num Lock + Alt
Once you’ve found your number pad, you can get the Spanish accents and characters by typing the Alt+ number combinations above.
How to type Spanish accents with the character map
Another way to find Spanish accents and symbols in Windows is by using the character map.
Go to the start button and search for character map.
Scroll down to find the letter/character you want.
Copy and paste it into your document.
Searching for the letters and symbols can get a little cumbersome, so if you’re going to use a character map to type Spanish accents, you could create a new document with all the Spanish accents and characters so you have them to hand.
How to type Spanish accents on Microsoft office
If you’re using Microsoft Office, you can add accents to vowels by pressing and holding the following keys together:
vowel you want to accent
For example, to put an accent over the letter a, press: Ctrl + ‘ + a = á
Bonus: How to type Spanish accents and characters on your phone
What about if you want to chat in Spanish on your smartphone?
With most smartphones, typing accents on keyboards is simple: just hold down the letter you’d like to accent, and a menu will pop up.
To turn question marks and exclamation points upside down, hold these buttons down and you’ll see a menu with the inverted versions.
I got the bus over to the South of France, looking forward to a whole month of French immersion.
As soon as I got there, I realised that the “strong and optimistic” version of me who set those goals in July was an idiot because the current “on holiday” version of me didn’t feel like doing anything that remotely resembled studying.
Instead of 90 minutes “focused study” every day and one writing exam practice per week, I did a bit of focused study occasionally and one very half-arsed practice for the writing exam in the whole month.
I did, however, do lots of fun things in French like:
Chatting to French waiters.
Reading books, magazines and newspapers.
Listening to podcasts about the areas I was visiting.
I tried to orchestrate my trip so that I’d be able to speak as much French as possible, by booking rooms in Airbnbs where the ads were written in French (a good sign that the host would be happy to speak to me in French rather than English).
But the first Airbnb turned out to be an unsociable dorm-type set up where people scuttled in and out of the kitchen to cook and take their food back to their room.
So I spent the first week alone, wandering around museums listening to French podcasts, drinking wine and reading Tintin.
The following week, My Italian partner Matteo came out to visit. He’s also learning French so we spent a week speaking our new language – a mixture of French, Italian and English, or as we like to call it “Fritalianish”.
Luckily, in the last 10 days, I found an Airbnb with a lovely, sociable host, Mireille. We hit it off immediately and I spent an amazing few days with Mireille and her friends, chatting in French the whole time (pausing only to stuff my face with lemon tarts and rosé).
With the deadline looming, it was time to start thinking about the DALF exam more seriously.
While I wasn’t feeling confident about any of it, there was one particular part which scared the crap out of me…
The production orale, otherwise known as the speaking exam.
In this part, you’re asked to read 3 French documents related to humanities/social studies or science then give a 10 to 15-minute speech on the topic.
In short, something I would find difficult in my native language.
I made a decision (which later paid off) to throw myself into the difficult bit first, so I started practicing this as much as I could during Skype lessons with my online French tutors.
My god was it painful!
By now, I could chat reasonably comfortably in French in informal situations, but a formal speech? My poor tutors had to put up with excruciatingly long silences while I dug around my brain and tried to string a sentence together.
I started to regret my decision to take the DALF exam. But it was too late to back out now.
During our first lesson, she said she thought the higher level DALF exam (C2) was too ambitious. Given that I was already halfway past my deadline and wasn’t anywhere near as far along as I’d hoped, I agreed.
We decided to go for the lower level DALF exam (C1).
I felt a bit relieved.
Manon was (rightly) still a bit dubious about whether I’d pass the C1 or not.
End of September
I had a bout of migraines which knocked me out for almost a week.
When I wasn’t being sick and my eyes could handle the light from the TV screen, I curled up on the sofa and watched reality TV in French.
Where did the first week of October go?
Time was whizzing by and I still didn’t feel ready for the exam. Time to get serious and come up with a game plan.
Got a throat infection. Spent another few days curled up on the sofa watching French TV.
Once I’d recovered, I continued following my game plan as best as I could.
End of October
Things started looking up. I realised I could now understand almost everything I heard and read in French.
All that time listening to podcasts, watching TV and reading must have paid off.
I did some practice listening and reading tests and they went pretty well. Sometimes I got close to 100%. But other times I didn’t understand the questions properly or ran out of time and only just scraped the 50% necessary to pass.
I kept doing practice speaking tests with my online conversation tutors (3 x week by this point, sometimes more). After many, many practice sessions, I stopped being so terrible at it.
But with all that focus on the speaking test, I’d forgotten about another difficult bit – the writing section!
I did a couple of practice writing tests which were disastrous. The fact that I had very little experience writing in French combined with the tricky spelling system meant that I kept making babyish spelling mistakes that made my tutor cringe! Certainly not C1 level yet.
Beginning of November
I still wasn’t sure if I’d pass.
But I was starting to feel happy with how far I’d come. Looking back to July, I realised that I’d already made a huge amount of progress in my French. No matter what happened in the exam, I’d already moved past the intermediate plateau.
I began studying French every waking hour I wasn’t working or eating. Probably 4-5 hours per day, sometimes more.
When I had the energy, I was doing practice exams. When I didn’t, I was curled up on the sofa with YouTube videos and French TV series. I also watched lots of news and Tedtalks in French. Aside from being interesting, I thought they’d help me pick up vocabulary that’d be useful for the exam.
My writing skills were still pretty crappy for C1 level. I realised that I probably shouldn’t have waited until a few weeks before the exam to start learning how to write in French.
One week before the exam
Great news! My tutor Manon was impressed with the progress I’d made. Despite her reservations about my writing, she believed I had already reached C1 level.
All I had to do now was make sure nothing went drastically wrong on the day…
How the DALF exam went
Next, I’ll give some detailed information about the DALF exam, talk about how it went on the day and give a break down of my results.
Listening (compréhension orale)
The listening part of the exam takes around 40 minutes. First, you listen to a long recording (around 8 minutes) which is taken from formats such as interviews, lessons or conferences. You can listen twice. You can take notes as you listen and you get a few minutes between each to complete your answers.
Next, you listen to a series of short radio broadcasts, typically newsflashes or adverts. You can only listen once.
For this part, it’s important that you understand spoken French well because they often pick radio samples with fast speech where the audio is a bit distorted.
As I listened to the 8 minute dialogue the first time, I panicked because the first part included a fast advert with quite a lot of sound interference. It whizzed by and I wasn’t able to concentrate on what they were saying. Luckily, the second time around I managed to catch it.
I wasn’t worried about the second part as I often got full marks in the practice tests. But in the real test, my mind wandered for a moment and… that was it. I’d missed the information I needed and I couldn’t listen again. Luckily, that only happened on a couple of questions, so it didn’t really matter.
Reading (compréhension écrite)
In the reading section, you have to answer a series of questions on a long-form article (1500 – 2000 words). It lasts for 50 minutes.
Despite the fact that I understood written French quite well, there were a couple of things that tripped me up in the practice tests:
I’m a slow reader! For me, it’s tricky to read a 2000 word document in French and answer a series of questions in 50 minutes.
Sometimes I found the questions a bit vague and struggled to pinpoint the kind of answers they were after.
Luckily, these things didn’t hold me back on the day. I felt a bit rushed for time, but I managed to answer most of the questions well.
Writing (production écrite)
The writing exam has two parts. In the first section, you read a few documents (total: 1000 words) and write a summary. In the second section, you write an argumentative essay based on the contents of the documents.
This is where things went wrong!
When I started writing, I was so aware of my weakness in that skill that I overanalysed every word.
Is that right?
Does that sound too babyish?
Needless to say, I got behind schedule. In fact, I was only halfway through the second task when the examiner shouted: 10 minutes!
10 minutes later, the examiner was standing over me saying “Madame, s’il vous plaît” as I scribbled down the last sentence.
Leaving the room, it all felt like a blur. I’d written the last part so fast, I was sure I’d made loads of mistakes. I didn’t know if I’d passed.
In the end, my writing was the result that surprised me the most – the lowest of the 4, but I was expecting much worse!
Speaking (production orale)
Before the speaking exam, the examiners give you a few documents on a topic (you can choose between humanities/social sciences or science). Then, you have one hour to read the documents and prepare a speech on the topic.
The actual exam lasts for 30 minutes: 10 – 15 minutes for the speech, followed by a discussion with the examiners on the same topic.
Interestingly, although this was the part that terrified me the most at the beginning, by the time the exam rolled around I’d practiced it so many times I felt ready – I was even looking forward to it!
When you walk into the exam room, you choose two topics by picking numbers at random. Next, you get a few minutes to sit down with the two topics and pick the one you prefer.
I got lucky.
One of the subjects was about learning and technology and as a language teacher, I have lots to say on the subject.
The actual exam was nowhere near as intimidating as I’d imagined. I gave my speech, then had a lovely chat with the examiners, nerding out about the role of technology in language learning and teaching.
When I left the room, I was elated – I couldn’t believe that the most difficult bit had gone so well! It felt nice to know that I’d just done something that seemed impossible a few months ago.
If all that exam stuff sounds terrifying, don’t worry, it sounded terrifying to me a few months ago too. If you’ve been toying with the idea of taking the DALF exam (or any other language exam) then I say go for it.
It might not be smooth sailing the whole way through, but it’ll be worth it!
My most important tip for exam preparation is to start with the terrifying bits first. That way, once you get to the exam, you’ll feel confident.
Do you have any other tips to add?
Or, do you have any questions about the DALF exam? Let me know in the comments below!
Imagine a man who does 70 push-ups a day.
What kind of person comes to mind?
An intense overachiever with willpower as strong as his biceps? A tanned guy with an intellect as small as his Speedos?
You might not imagine a soft-spoken behavioural psychologist at Stanford University who used to struggle with his weight.
Back in 2011, after a year of failing to see the number on the scales go down, BJ Fogg decided to apply insights from his research on human behaviour to his own weight loss attempts.
And the results were surprising.
Just one year later, he’d lost the weight and made some impressive changes to his lifestyle, including a 70-a-day push-up habit.
Most impressive of all, he’d done it without relying on motivation or willpower.
The surprisingly simple way to learn a language
Learning a language and weight loss are similar: they’re typical examples of those big, exciting ideas that fill us with enthusiasm on New Year’s Eve. Yet when it comes to actually making those changes in January – eating broccoli instead of cake, or studying instead of watching Netflix – most of us would rather not bother.
You could blame it on a lack of motivation and assume that these kinds of changes require a will of steel that’s not available to everyone (well, at least not to folks like me who stand in the fridge door nibbling on cheese whilst deciding what to cook for dinner).
But Fogg’s experience showed the opposite: his technique worked because he’d found a way to make lasting changes which don’t depend on motivation or willpower.
Read on to find out how Fogg’s tiny habits technique can help you create small but powerful language learning habits so you can achieve more this year. You’ll learn:
How to learn a language easily, without making massive changes to your life
Why you don’t need to feel motivated all the time
The best way to create a language learning routine you can stick to
How to keep going for long enough to get amazing results
Why motivation doesn’t work
It sounds logical enough.
To achieve big goals, you should do big things. To lose weight, you should go to the gym 3 times a week and eat celery all day. To learn a language, you should sign up for a language course and study really hard all the time.
We know these things are difficult to stick to in the long term, so we try to increase our motivation to help us keep going when things get gruelling. This explains why the internet’s full of “motivation hacks” to help you achieve this or that goal.
But realistically, who can keep their motivation consistently high enough to keep doing these things when they don’t feel like it?
I’m guessing not many. If you could, you probably wouldn’t be reading this post. If I could, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post.
Approaches that rely on willpower or motivation are flawed because they ask you to “try harder” in the exact moment that you can’t be bothered to do anything. If I’m unmotivated, I don’t want to try harder. I want to eat cheese, and no amount of articles I read on lifehack is going to change that.
So what’s the solution?
Tiny habits, big results
Professor Fogg knew that trying to boost motivation isn’t helpful for long-term changes. But he also knew that people tend to avoid doing difficult things when their motivation is low.
So he looked at the problem from a different angle.
What would happen if, instead of trying to increase motivation, he made changes that were so easy, it was almost impossible to say no?
What if, instead of trying to do a few big things that were difficult, he did lots of teeny-tiny things, that were easy to repeat and make into habits? Say a couple of push-ups here, or a sip of water there?
Over the year, these tiny habits accumulated, leading to the outcome that Fogg had hoped for: long-term weight loss.
Think about the things you do every day, like opening the curtains, brushing your teeth or putting your shoes on. Do you need lots of willpower to do these things? Probably not. You just do them.
The same idea applies to learning a language: if you establish lots of tiny language learning habits, you won’t need to feel highly motivated to do them. And over time, you’ll find it easy to make sustainable progress toward your language goals.
Tiny habits may not sound as sexy as inspirational resolutions, but they work better.
As Fogg points out: when you know how to create tiny habits, you can change your life forever.
So if you want to learn a language this year, forget about big plans you’ll never stick to. Start with a tiny language learning habit.
How to learn a language with tiny (but powerful) language learning habits
To establish effective language learning habits, there are 3 steps you’ll need to follow:
1. Choose your tiny habits
Think about the outcome you’d like to achieve. Now break it down into a list of teeny-weeny actions you can take to get there.
Here are a few examples:
Press play on my audio course
Practice pronouncing one sound
Learn one word
Read a newspaper headline or the title of a book chapter
Do one exercise from my textbook
Review one verb form
Press play on a YouTube tutorial
Listen to one song
Say/write one sentence
Note that to keep things really tiny, it helps to choose habits like “press play” rather than “listen to a 30-minute podcast”. The outcome might be the same, as you’ll probably listen to the whole thing once you’ve pressed play anyway, but keeping it tiny makes it easier to get started. More on this later.
2. Hook them onto existing habits
Now you have your tiny habits ready, you’ll need something to remind you to do them, as BJ Fogg calls them, triggers.
To make his tiny habit system as effective as possible, Fogg looked for simple triggers which would integrate smoothly into daily life, without having to worry about post-its or alarms.
He found that the best way to do this was by attaching the behaviour onto habits we already have, such as brushing our teeth, getting home, or going for a wee.
The trigger for his push-up habit gives a very clever (if perhaps not hygienic!) example of this:
After I pee, I’ll do twopush-ups
The keyword here is “after”. By adding your new tiny habit directly after something you already do several times a day, it’s easy to repeat.
This mini celebration can be whatever you want it to be, ranging from eccentric little dances or saying “I’m awesome!”, to more sober versions, like smiling, or thinking “well done”.
Many people struggle with this part because it feels a bit silly. But if it’ll help you set up your habit faster, it’s worth a go. To be honest I’m just happy to have an excuse to do the running man in socks on my kitchen floor.
Building language learning habits: The virtuous cycle
How do 2 push-ups turn into 70?
The tiny way of course!
Getting started is the hard part. But once a tiny habit has taken root, it will naturally expand over time.
If you’re in the habit of doing two push-ups, it’s easy to build up to 5. Once you’re in the habit of doing 5, it’s not hard to do 8. By doing this several times a day, you’ll suddenly find you can rack up 70 push-ups without much effort.
Now imagine this in terms of language learning. Let’s say every time you get in the shower, you practice rolling your Rs once. By force of inertia, you’ll probably end up practicing for a few minutes anyway, especially once it starts getting easier.
If you say one sentence to yourself whilst washing the dishes, you might still be talking to yourself as you walk around the house (this happened to me after lunch today).
Once you’ve watched one foreign language YouTube video, you’ll probably end up watching a few more.
And so on.
Writer Sonia Simone recommends planning your tiny habits when you’ve got some spare time afterwards so you can take advantage of this forward motion. Just make sure you don’t start secretly planning to do more every time, as that’ll make it harder to get started.
As long as you’ve hit your tiny goal, you’ve won. Sticking to these goals, no matter how small, sets off a positive chain of events, helping you feel good about your efforts and encouraging you to let your language learning habits grow over time.
Building language learning habits: Troubleshooting
If you struggle to make your language learning habits stick, there are a few reasons this might be happening:
Your language learning habit is too big
Remember, your language learning habit has to be so small that it’s easy to do, even on days when you don’t feel like it. If you’re still feeling resistance, the habit is probably too big.
Strip your language learning habits down so that they’re so tiny, you could even do them on duvet days. Things like “press play on a French video” are much better than “write a paragraph in French”. Make the habit so easy, you can do it every single day (or several times a day), no matter what your mood is.
This is the most important step because repetition is the key to lasting change.
Avoid falling into the temptation of setting bigger targets so you can progress faster. It could hold you back in the long run. Just focus on doing your tiny language learning habits and the rest will come.
You’re too busy
What if you have one of those days, weeks or months where you’re so busy you barely have time to take a shower or wash your socks?
Keep those days in mind when you choose your language learning habits. Choose habits that are so small and easy, you can still do them on your most chaotic days. Then, when those days come around, remind yourself how important it is to keep up your habit during these times – that should help you make the tiny effort to get it done.
Your schedule is unpredictable
Let’s imagine your tiny language habit is to practice counting in your head in Spanish whilst you brush your teeth.
What if you go for a few drinks after work, then wake up the next morning on your friend’s sofa with a fuzzy mouth and a cat on your head, realising that not only did you not brush your teeth, you also forgot to practice counting in Spanish?
It’s no biggie to miss your habit once in a while. Just make sure you get right back to it. Writer James Clear has a “never miss habits twice” rule, which should help you stay on track.
If your schedule is always different – for example, if you travel a lot – hook your language learning habits onto things you do every day, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. A few examples are: getting out of bed, getting dressed, leaving the house, washing your hands, taking your shoes off…
Problem: You want to know everything, yesterday
One problem with the tiny habit technique is that it goes against that initial surge of motivation you get when you first decide to make a big change, like learning a language.
At this stage, it’s tempting to charge ahead because it feels like you’ll make faster progress that way. But without good language learning habits, that rhythm will be difficult to maintain.
Remember that this technique works because it’s all about baby steps. Be patient. Pour that initial enthusiasm into repeating a few tiny language learning behaviours until they become automatic, then celebrate as you watch them grow.
My tiny language learning habits
This year, I’m going to use the tiny habit technique to start reading more.
Reading in a foreign language awesome: it’s fun, helps you pick up vocabulary naturally and get exposure to typical sentence structures without feeling like “studying”.
Despite the benefits, I’ve always struggled to get into the habit of reading foreign language learning books. I either find more exciting things to do, like eating cake and watching Netflix, or try doing it right before bed and fall asleep on the first page.
In last week’s article, when I talked about my language goals for 2018, I mentioned that I’d like to build up to reading for 45 minutes in the evening. However, since researching this article, I’ve realised that having such a big number in my head probably isn’t the right strategy, as it will make things difficult to get started.
So I’ve decided to keep things simple. I’m just going to focus on two tiny habits each day and hope that by force of inertia, I’ll end up reading a decent amount.
Here are my two tiny language learning habits:
After I make a cup of tea in the morning, I’ll read a paragraph of my book After I finish washing the dishes in the evening, I’ll read a paragraph of my book
I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!
Your tiny language learning habits
Just reading this article probably won’t help you improve your language skills much.
If you want to benefit from these ideas, it’s time to take action. Grab a pen and paper and write a list of tiny language learning behaviours that:
Hook on easily to your existing habits
Are so tiny, they barely require any effort
Remember to follow this structure:
After I (+ existing habit), I will (+ tiny language learning habit)
Examples of language learning habits
In need of a little inspiration? Let’s imagine you’re learning Spanish. Here are some tiny language learning habits you could get into:
After I make my morning coffee, I will read one headline in a Spanish newspaper.
After I get in the shower, I will practice saying one word with the rolled r sound.
After I leave the house, I will put my headphones on and press play on a Spanish podcast.
Which tiny language learning habits are you going to start doing? Let us know in the comments below!
This time last year, I set some language learning goals for 2017.
Some went better than planned.
Others went horribly wrong.
Which made me wonder: why did some goals keep me motivated right up to the finish line, while others got relegated to the bottom of my to-do list, behind more important activities like reading BuzzFeed or staring out the window with my finger up my nose?
Looking back, I found something interesting: the successful goals had 3 basic principles in common.
And, just as importantly, in the goals that bombed, at least 1 of these 3 principles was missing.
In this article, I’ll share these 3 important keys to setting successful language learning goals, so you can use them to achieve more in your own language learning goals this year.
Let’s start by looking at the language learning goals that went well last year, and why.
Language learning goals I smashed in 2017
Have a 15-minute conversation in Mandarin Chinese
At the beginning of 2017, I did the Add1Challenge, an online language programme where you learn as much as you can in 90 days, with the aim of having a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker at the end. In this challenge, I studied Mandarin for around 1 hour a day and managed to stick to it most days.
Here’s my level when I started the challenge.
And here I am having a conversation with my Mandarin tutor 3 months later. I did 45-minutes in the end, and I’m pleased with how the challenge went.
I got 83% overall. The pass mark is 50% so that’s a pretty good result. I’ll write a post with more details in January.
Go on a language adventure
Another goal was to go on a language learning adventure abroad.
Back in August, I caught the bus over to the south of France and tried to speak French the whole time. This was mostly successful, apart from a couple of exceptions, like spending the first week in an antisocial Airbnb where I struggled to find people to chat to, and when my Italian other half Matteo came to visit for a week. Although I still managed to practice French as Matteo’s learning French too so we ended up speaking Fritalian (a mixture of French and Italian).
The last 2 weeks went well because I found an Airbnb with a really sociable French host and met some lovely people via Couchsurfing. I even manage to make a few friends who I communicate with entirely in French and have been back to visit since.
Why were those 4 goals successful? Looking back, I discovered that they shared 3 basic principles.
1. Choose a clear, short-term deadline.
In the case of the #add1challenge, this was the end of the challenge. For Italian and French, it was the exam date.
2. Focus on one goal at a time
When I started my French mission, I was trying to do 5 things at once, but I wasn’t doing any of them well (or enjoying any of them). So I sacked everything else off and decided to focus exclusively on French.
This worked really well: I became more focused and had more time to dedicate to learning French, so I made better progress. I watched and read more stuff in French, and increased the time I spent chatting to native French speakers online via italki. Doing this, I felt more immersed in French culture, which made the whole process more rewarding.
3. Make it a habit
For each of these goals, I made sure that I set up some strategic language learning routines.
This means that I decided when and where I was going to learn a language each day and tried my hardest to actually stick to it. I didn’t always manage, but I frequently did, and that was enough to make progress over time.
Here are some examples of the habits I got into:
Set aside a specific time every day to work towards my language learning goals.
Listen to foreign language podcasts as I go about my day.
Looking at these 3 principles, the reasons I failed to meet my other goals are now obvious. Let’s look at the language learning goals that didn’t work and why:
Read loads of Italian books
I’ve got a big pile of Italian books that I’ve been wanting to read for years, so last year I set myself the goal of reading them.
But somehow I just didn’t get around to it.
I kept telling myself I’d start tomorrow until it got to October. But by October I realised it was too late, so I gave up completely.
Keeping in mind our 3 principles, there are 2 reasons this language learning goal failed:
The deadline wasn’t short enough
My deadline was a year away, which made it very easy to keep telling myself that I’d “start tomorrow”. It would’ve been more effective to break this goal down into smaller steps, say 1 book every 2-3 months.
I didn’t set up an effective routine
While I have gotten into the habit of reading before bed, I only manage to read a page or so before I fall asleep, and I’m often so sleepy I can’t remember what I read, so I have to read it again the next day. Not the best strategy for getting through 1000s of pages in a year!
In July I realised that I had to stop pursuing this goal. If I’d continued with Spanish, I wouldn’t have had as much success with my French mission.
Learn to discuss more complex topics in German
My German goal failed for the same reason my Spanish one did: too many things at once. I started the year studying German for an hour a day but gradually gave it up as I focused more on my other goals.
Last year’s language learning goals: an overview
Overall, I’m pleased with how much I learned in 2017. Even the goals I didn’t meet taught me some valuable lessons that I can put into practice when setting goals for learning a foreign language this year.
Once I’ve reached my Spanish goal, I plan on doing something similar for German. It’ll take longer than my previous French and Spanish missions because German is more difficult, and my current German level is lower.
I predict that it’ll take me around one year to reach fluency in German, studying for 2-3 hours per day. If I was starting from scratch, it could take around 18 months.
A year is a long time, so I’ll need to break this goal down into fewer, short-term deadlines. I’ll think more about this when I’m ready to get started in June/July.
Go on a language adventure
I’d also like to go on another language learning adventure over summer. It’s too far away to think about the details yet, but I’m hoping it’ll involve travelling to a different country and chatting to the locals in their language.
Build effective habits
Read in a foreign language for 45 minutes per day
This year, I’m aiming to get into the habit of reading a foreign language novel for 45 minutes before bed.
What are your language learning goals for 2018? Share them with us in the comments below!
I love travelling.
I love jumping on a plane, hopping out the other side and being surrounded by different people, sights, smells and of course, languages.
I even love that awkward feeling of trying to use the lingo with the locals and being met with a confused stare or nervous laugh, because I know it’s the start of something great: if I persevere, I’ll be fluent one day.
Despite this, I’ve done most of my language learning missions without spending long periods of time abroad. Living in a new country sounds exciting, but it’s not very practical. I’ve got all kinds of good stuff going on here that I don’t want to leave behind, like a relationship, job and friends.
Maybe you’re in a similar situation. You want to learn Spanish, but for work or family or whatever reason, you can’t move to Spain or Latin America to do it.
If this sounds like you, I have good news: you don’t need to go abroad to become fluent in Spanish. You can do it from the comfort of your own home, in your fluffy socks.
I did something similar back in July, when I decided to become fluent in French from my living room. Now, I’m planning on doing the same thing for Spanish. In this article, I’ll share my step-by-step plan that you can use to become fluent in Spanish without leaving the house.
Why you don’t need to go to the country to learn a language
It seems like every time people start talking about foreign languages, someone tells the story about how the only way to learn a language is to go to the country. Sometimes they’ll give examples of a friend or a family member who went abroad and picked up the language easily because they needed it to survive.
But the idea that there’s something magical about being in the country that makes language learning effortless is simply not true.
For a start, it’s easy to live in a foreign country without learning the language. Immigrants do it all the time (especially the ones from Western societies who are sometimes referred to as expats).
Secondly, if you don’t have a decent command of the language before you get there, you’ll struggle to make friends in the language you’re learning. And if you’re an English speaker, unless you’re going somewhere remote where no one else speaks English, you may have to battle to find opportunities to speak the language, because everyone will want to practice their English with you.
The reason some people have more success with languages while living in the country is due to a change in approach, rather than anything special about being in the country. I experienced this firsthand when I moved to Italy. Living in the country changed the way I learnt Italian in two important ways:
I stopped focusing on trying to memorise grammar rules and vocabulary and started using the language to communicate with human beings.
I spent lots of time practicing speaking.
The good news is, you don’t need to be in the country to do these things. These are situations you can easily recreate at home: I know because I’ve done it with the other languages I’ve learnt. In the next section, I’ll show you how you can apply these ideas to become fluent in Spanish from home.
Become fluent in Spanish without leaving the house: A step-by-step guide
Step 1: Define your goal
If your goal is to become fluent in Spanish, you’ll need to decide what that means first. This can be tricky because the word “fluent” is a bit vague. To some people, you’re fluent as soon as you can have a basic conversation. For others, you shouldn’t say you’re fluent until you sound like a native speaker. For me, fluency means being able to function more or less as a native speaker would in everyday situations. This means:
I understand most things I hear (except strong accents, local slang, or specialist vocabulary).
I can talk quickly and native listeners understand me without straining.
I rarely have to search for words (unless it’s specialist vocabulary or a momentary slip).
I probably still make mistakes and have a slight foreign accent, but they don’t impede communication.
If you’re the type of person who needs a bit of pressure to get motivated, you could consider setting yourself the goal of passing an exam. The DELE Spanish exam at B2 level would fit in with the definition of fluency described above.
Step 2: Give yourself a deadline
Your deadline will depend on how much time you can put aside to study each day. If you’re starting from scratch, you could reach this level of fluency in 1 year by studying for 2 – 3 hours per day. If you’re already at an intermediate level, you could get there in about 6 months.
If this sounds intense, don’t worry – this doesn’t mean hours of “school-like” studying from grammar books. The better you get at Spanish, the more you’ll be able to fill this time with stuff you really enjoy doing, like chatting to Spanish speakers, reading books/magazines/newspapers or watching TV and films.
Learning a language doesn’t have to be boring or stressful. To find out how to enjoy the process, you might find these posts useful:
Also, remember that by the end of the year, you’ll be fluent in Spanish. It’ll take time and effort, but it’ll be so worth it.
Once you’ve got your deadline, break it up into mini goals. This is important because a year feels very far away, which makes it easy to find excuses to keep putting off learning Spanish. Here’s an example of 3 mini goals you could set yourself over the course of the year.
After 3 months: I can have conversations about simple things.
After 6 months: I can talk comfortably about familiar topics.
After 12 months: I can speak fluent Spanish (in line with the definition in step 1)
What if you don’t have that much time to dedicate to learning Spanish each day?
No worries! There’s no rush – just decide on the amount of time you can dedicate to learning Spanish and adjust your deadlines accordingly.
Alternatively, you could aim for a slightly lower target (B1 CEFR level) – still a great level where you can chat quite comfortably in everyday situations.
Keep in mind that these figures are guidelines: everyone’s different and how long it takes could depend on several factors, such as your experience with languages, whether you are able to stay positive and the amount of speaking practice you do during this time. Don’t worry if it takes you a little longer than anticipated: keep going and you’ll get there!
Step 3: Get into a routine
To become fluent in Spanish, decide which actions you’ll need to take each day, then ACTUALLY DO THEM. Forgive me for shouting, but this is the most important bit of the whole guide.
Review vocabulary using a flashcard app on your phone whilst stuck in traffic or waiting for the train.
Listen to an audiobook for Spanish learners during your commute.
After work, you could do a lesson with an online Spanish tutor, study a chapter from a textbook or if you’re feeling tired, chill out in front of some YouTube videos like Spanish Extra or Easy Spanish.
If you feel like going out, you could meet a native Spanish speaker in your area and set up a language exchange at the pub (more on this later).
We all have different timetables and tastes, and what works for one person may not work for another. I like to get up an hour early and squeeze my study time in before work because I tend to get distracted later and may not get around to studying. However, some people feel more focused in the evening. Take some time to experiment until you find a language learning routine that works for you.
One thing I recommend to pretty much everyone however, is to get yourself some headphones and listen to podcasts like Coffee Break Spanish and Notes in Spanish as you go about your day: on your commute, walking to work, running in the park, washing the dishes, cleaning the shower etc. It’s amazing how much extra Spanish you can squeeze in by doing this, and it doesn’t take any time out of your day.
Also, remember that you don’t need to start everything at once. Routines that are established slowly are usually the most steadfast. Work towards your ideal routine little by little: for example, if you plan to study Spanish for an hour before work, you could start with 5 minutes, then increase your study time for one minute per day until you’re up to 60.
Importantly, once you’ve sorted out your routine, focus all of your energy on that and forget about everything else.
If you focus on steps 1 and 2 (setting a goal and deadline) but forget about the things you need to do each day to actually get there, you’ll never become fluent in Spanish. This is the way people normally try to achieve things and the reason lots of people never reach their language learning goals.
Alternatively, if you skip the first two steps and just focus on doing your Spanish routine every day, you’ll become fluent in Spanish sooner or later anyway.
Having a goal and a deadline is handy because it gives you something to aim for. But the real secret to becoming fluent in Spanish is getting into a good routine. If you only follow one step from this guide, make it this one.
Step 4: Find your tools
If you’re going to be spending a couple of hours a day learning Spanish, you’ll need to find some fun and useful things to do during that time. Experiment with different resources like textbooks, podcasts and YouTube channels for Spanish learners until you find things you like that help you make progress.
Not sure where to find tools for learning Spanish? These articles might help.
Learning a language is like watching a plant grow. From day to day, the changes are almost imperceptible. But if you can step back and look at it after a few months, you’ll see that it’s grown loads.
Language learning happens so gradually that it can feel like you’re not making progress, which is demotivating. One way to resolve this is to record yourself speaking every now and then so you can look back and notice how far you’ve come. This will show you that your hard work is paying off and give you extra motivation to keep going.
One reason learning a language in the country seems easier than learning in the classroom is that it transforms a boring school subject into a way to communicate with other human beings. Instead of studying to pass a test, you’re learning Spanish so you can chat to your mate Carlos about a girl he met last weekend.
The more you can see Spanish as means of connecting with people, the more motivated you’ll be and the faster you’ll learn. But how can you do this without living in the country?
You can take advantage of this newfangled technology called the “Internet”, which allows you to connect with Spanish speaking people on the other side of the planet, from the comfort of your living room. This tool, which has revolutionalised language learning, is your most important ally in your quest to become fluent in your Spanish without putting pants on.
I use fab website called italki, where you can find loads of native Spanish tutors waiting to talk to you on Skype for a very reasonable price. Just this week I’ve had lovely chats with María from Venezuela and Carlos from Mexico for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, click on any of the italki links on this page to get a free $10 dollar voucher after your first lesson.
If you prefer a completely free option, you can also use italki to set up a language exchange with Spanish speakers who want to learn your language: this way you can talk for half the time in your native language and the other half in Spanish (just make sure you’re strict about the 50/50 rule right from the beginning, so your partner doesn’t hijack your Spanish speaking time!)
Alternatively, if you’d rather make real flesh and blood friends, you can use the internet to find Spanish speaking people in your area. Conversation exchange is a great website for this.
If the idea of speaking Spanish makes you feel nervous, you might find this article useful:
Grammar exercises and language learning apps might make you feel like you’re doing something useful, but the best (and most enjoyable) way to learn how to speak a language is by talking to people. The more you practice speaking, the more fluent you’ll be. Simple as that.
Whether you pay tutors for online conversation lessons, or set up language exchanges, make it your priority to find people you enjoy spending time with and practice speaking Spanish with them as much as possible. Once you do this, becoming fluent in Spanish is just a matter of time.
My plan to become fluent in Spanish
Next, I’ll explain how I’m going to apply these ideas to help me become fluent in Spanish from my living room.
Set a goal + deadline
I’m already at an intermediate level in Spanish, so I’m going to give myself 6 months to become fluent.
Get into a routine
I’m aiming to learn Spanish for 2 hours a day over the next 6 months. As I’ve just finished my French mission, I already have a routine that sets 2 hours aside for language learning, so I just need to switch the language from French to Spanish. However, if I was building a routine from scratch, I’d start very small, say 5 minutes per day, and increase the time gradually using the technique I discussed in step 3.
Here’s a list of things I’m planning to do integrate into my Spanish learning routine:
Watch Spanish CNN while I eat breakfast and drink coffee.
Integrate Spanish into my downtime. 2 hours a day is a lot, and if it felt like work all the time I’d never manage to keep it up. For this reason, I’m going to include lots of fun activities I can do in my downtime, like audiobooks, Spanish-language TV series on Netflix, TedTalks in Spanish, dancing around the house like a crazy lady and singing along to Cypress Hill in Spanish…
What about you?
Are you learning (or planning to learn) Spanish from home? Leave a comment and let me know: What’s your goal and deadline? Do you have a Spanish learning routine to help you get there?
I’m a fraud.
I write articles about things like “how to reach your language learning goals”. But half the time, I don’t actually reach my goals for learning a foreign language.
If you’re someone who gets enthusiastic about learning new things, this might sound familiar:
You get excited about a big goal, like learning fluent Spanish in 1 year.
Reality hits and you never do it.
Conventional wisdom says you failed because your goal was too unrealistic. By setting a difficult goal for learning a foreign language, you “set yourself up to fail”. You should have gone for something easier, like “learn how to have a basic conversation about myself and my family”.
The problem with audacious goals is that by their very nature, they’re harder to achieve. You’re more likely to fail, which makes them intimidating to pursue.
But that doesn’t mean you have to settle for uninspiring goals.
You can make big language learning goals work for you by following a few simple principles. In this post, you’ll learn:
Why audacious language learning goals help you learn a language faster (and enjoy it more)
Why it’s OK not to reach your goals all the time.
How to set goals that help you make loads of progress in your target language (whether you reach them or not)
The moonshot factory
“X” is a radical research and development lab at Google, also known as the “moonshot factory”. It’s a place where scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs get together to work on far-out projects, like reducing road accidents with self driving cars, or “project Loon”, an attempt to bring balloon-powered internet to 4 billion people who don’t have access.
Projects they describe as “uncomfortably ambitious”.
But the team at X aren’t worried about the fact that their projects are unrealistic. They know that to drive dramatic change, they have to aim high. Or “shoot for the moon” as it were.
Of course, the audaciousness of these projects means they’re likely to fail. A lot. So how does the team at X motivate themselves to work towards big dreams, when they know that failure is almost inevitable?
Why it’s OK not to achieve your language learning goals
There’s an idea in motivational psychology that you should always set achievable goals so you can “set yourself up to win”. Because if you lose, you’ll get disappointed and decide you don’t want to play anymore.
Like a spoilt child losing at a board game.
Give yourself more credit than that. You can handle the slight inconvenience of not reaching your goal for learning a foreign language.
When you go for an audacious language learning goal, there are 2 possible outcomes:
You’ll reach it (which would be amazing)
You won’t reach it, but you’ll have pushed your limits and achieved way more than you would have otherwise.
Surely it’s more satisfying to work towards something exciting and challenging and miss the target slightly, than achieve a goal you knew was going to be easy all along?
The view that big goals are demotivating is linked to the idea that failure is something to be avoided. If we think we might fail, we’d rather not try at all.
But wouldn’t it make more sense to change the way we see failure, rather than changing the goal? What if the solution, instead of settling for uninspiring goals, was to throw all your energy at exciting projects, without worrying if you fail?
Not the trite “aim high and all your dreams will come true” philosophy. More of a “dream big and you’ll probably fall flat on your arse but it doesn’t matter” kind of philosophy.
The all or nothing trap
The idea that you should only set goals you know you can achieve creates an oversimplified view of success:
Reach goal = good
Don’t reach goal = bad
But this all or nothing view ignores all the good stuff in between.
Imagine you wanted to learn Spanish to an advanced level in 1 year, but you ended up at intermediate level instead. You’ve got 2 options:
Feel disappointed because you didn’t reach your language learning goal.
Crack open the Cava and celebrate the fact that you still learned loads of Spanish in a relatively short time.
Not reaching your language learning goals can be demotivating, but only if you decide to see things like number 1. If you take the second approach, you’ll get the motivation boost that comes from having an exciting language learning goal, and the satisfaction of celebrating your progress. The fact that you fell short of your original objective doesn’t matter that much.
The power of close enough
The importance of setting “realistic” goals is so well accepted that I’d always seen my inability to do it as a shortcoming, something I needed to change if I wanted to be successful.
Lately, I’ve been questioning this idea. Yes, I usually fail to meet the unrealistic goals I set.
But does it really matter?
At University, my study plans were so over ambitious, I can’t remember a single day when I stuck to them. But I followed them as closely as I could, and that was good enough to get into Cambridge and win a prestigious scholarship for graduate research.
When it comes to learning languages, I never manage to do everything I had planned. Yet somehow I end up learning the languages anyway.
It’d be nice to say that I did these things thanks to a well organised and executed plan. But it’s not true. Everything I’ve ever achieved is the result of loads of messy near (and often far) misses.
If you always followed goals you knew you could achieve, life would be like a game of tetris, where the pieces fell so slowly you never moved off the bottom row: it would get very boring very quickly.
The key to making audacious goals work for you is to pat yourself on the back for your “close enoughs”. This way, you’ll stay motivated to keep chasing your fun goals and make lots of progress on the way.
Of course, this philosophy does have limits. If you perceive something as so unrealistic you don’t stand a chance, it’s almost impossible to get motivated. Don’t deliberately set out to fail.
Just know that everything will be OK if you do.
Next, let’s learn 9 keys for setting audacious language learning goals which will:
give you the best chance at reaching your big language learning goals.
help you learn as much as humanly possible (whether you actually reach them or not).
9 keys to setting audacious language learning goals
1. Choose something exciting
The first step is to choose a goal that gets you excited about learning your target language. Some people like to aim for an exam, so they can confirm their level, but if that makes you yawn, there are plenty of other options! If you’re a beginner, how about aiming for a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker? If you’re lucky enough to be able to travel to the country of your target language, how about being able to do everything you need on your trip, without reverting back to English? If you’re a higher level, why not try making a native speaker friend with whom you communicate entirely in your target language?
2. Keep it short
Next, it helps to make the goal relatively short term (6 months or less). Anything longer and it’s tempting to slack off: the lazy part of your brain will always try to convince you that you can do it later.
3. Make it very specific
Research shows that the more specific a goal is, the more likely you are to achieve it. Goals like “be able to speak for 30 minutes without reverting back to English” are better than “learn fluent Spanish”.
It’s great to have an ambitious goal, but unless you break it down into little, actionable steps, it will remain a vague idea that you keep putting off to “someday”. Now you’ve got your big goal, take some time to think about how to break it down into concrete actions. For example, if your goal is to learn to speak quickly, you might decide to do 3 online conversation lessons a week with an online tutor on a site like italki.
5. Plan for failure
When I set audacious goals, I always imagine that Super Future Katie, who goes to bed early and always does her homework, will do all the work. Now I’ve never met this woman, so I’m not sure why I keep expecting her to swoop in one day and solve all my problems. It’s just not going to happen is it?
If you know that on Sundays, you’d rather stick a pencil in your eye than do anything productive, make that your day off. If reading the news feels like a chore in your native language, don’t force yourself to do it in the language you’re learning – go for something more enjoyable. The more you can plan for you, the fallible human being and not the superhero version, the easier it is to take action towards your language learning goals.
6. Don’t rely on willpower
If you’re excited about your language learning goal, it’ll give you plenty of motivation to get started. But somewhere along the line, that enthusiasm will start to wear off. It’s not a good idea to count on willpower when this happens because it has a habit of failing us when we need it most – that’s why most gyms are half empty in February.
The best way to combat this, is to make language learning a habit. This way, there’s less risk of overthinking things and talking yourself out of it. There are 2 ways to do this and the most successful approaches use a combination of both:
Think of lots of little ways to integrate language learning into your life, like listening to podcasts on your commute, or writing your shopping list in the language you’re learning.
Be as consistent as possible. This normally means setting aside the same time every day to squeeze in a bit of language learning. Choose a time when you’re able to block out distractions – early in the morning is ideal, but if you’re a night owl, evenings can work too!
7. Book it
It helps to have concrete arrangements which force you to take action towards your goal, like booking your exam, or a holiday in a little town where no one speaks English. This is because at some point, a little voice will pop into your head and try to dissuade you. “What if I skipped this exam session and did the one a few months later?” “I’m not ready yet, maybe I should wait until next year to practice my language skills on holiday”
Maybe it won’t turn out exactly as you’d hoped: maybe you’ll get a lower mark than you wanted, or even fail your exam. Maybe you won’t get by in Spanish on holiday as easily as you’d hoped. But we’ve already established that it doesn’t really matter. You’ll learn so much more by having a go and falling a bit short, than by putting it off. Once it’s booked, it’s much easier to ignore this voice and keep going anyway.
One thing that puts people off chasing big goals is that it can feel a bit scary. But there’s no need to take it so seriously! When it all gets too much, remind yourself that reaching your goal is just the cherry on top: the important thing is all the progress you make as you work towards it. When it comes to language learning goals, it really is the taking part that counts!
My language plans for November
My exciting language goal for the moment is to reach advanced level French, which I’m hoping to verify by taking the DALF C1 exam at the end of November.
Knowing this deadline is coming up has motivated me like nothing else: I’ve made more progress in the last few months than I had in the 3 years before. I’m still not sure if I’ll pass or not, but whatever happens, I’m thrilled with the progress I’ve made.
Here’s how I’m following the 9 keys for setting audacious language goals
1. Is it exciting?
Ok, so doing an exam isn’t a very thrilling prospect, but being able to certify that I’ve got advanced French is. That’s my moonshot and I’m excited about it.
2. Is it short?
Yep – I started working on the project back in July.
3. Is it specific?
Yes – I’m taking the C1 DALF French exam on the 27th November. It doesn’t get much more specific than that!
Yes and no. I’m good at integrating French into my daily life, by listening to podcasts etc. Not so good at studying at the same time in the same place every day. This is what’s holding me back most at the moment. In the morning I think “I’ll study later”, but then life gets in the way and I don’t get around to it. This month, I want to get into the habit of studying in the morning, before I start my day.
7. Did I book it?
Yes! This part was tricky as my terrified brain was doing everything in it’s power to talk me out of it. But I tried not to listen and booked it anyway.
8. Did I find a community?
Yes, I joined clear the list, an online blogging community where language learners share their goals and cheer each other on. In fact, you’re reading one of my clear the list posts right now!
9. Am I taking it lightly?
I’d be lying if I said that the prospect of doing a big scary French exam didn’t stress me out from time to time. But reminding myself that the real aim is to make progress in French, and I’ve already done that, certainly takes the pressure off.
Checklist for setting audacious goals for learning a language
1. Is it exciting?
When you’ve got an inspiring language goal, it’s much easier to motivate yourself.
2. Is it short term?
Try to keep the deadline under 6 months. Any longer and it’s easy to keep putting off.
3. Is it specific?
Language learning goals like “be able to speak for 30 minutes without reverting back to English” are better than “learn fluent Spanish”.
4. Did you break it down into actionable steps?
Break your language learning goal down into a series of small, actionable steps (and actually do them!)
5. Did you plan for failure?
Make your plan around the fallible human being that you are (not the super future you that doesn’t exist!)
6. Did you make it a habit?
Don’t rely on willpower, build habits instead.
7. Can you book something?
If you can book something related to your deadline like an exam date, or a trip where you only speak your target language, it helps you beat the powerful urge to chicken out at the last minute.
Whenever you feel stressed out, remember: it’s the taking part that counts! Even if you fall a bit short of your language learning goal, you’ll still have made loads of progress.
What do you think?
Which language are you learning? What kind of audacious language learning goal could you set to help you make more progress? Share it in the comments!
Do you have hopes and dreams of speaking a language fluently, but you’re too lazy to study?
But what if I told you that your laziness, far from being a limitation, could actually make you great at learning languages?
Read on (if you can be bothered) to find out why the lazy way is often the best way, and learn 7 ways you can leverage your laziness to learn a language effectively at home.
Lazy people find better ways to do things
If you were a builder at the end of the 19th century, life was hard. Long hours. Crappy pay. Little regard for health and safety. If you were really unlucky, it could even cost you your life: 5 men died during the construction of the Empire State Building and 27 died working on the Brooklyn bridge.
What qualities did builders need to be the best at such a demanding and dangerous job?
Tenacity? Diligence? Stamina?
In 1868, a young construction worker named Frank Gilbreth began observing colleagues in order to understand why some bricklayers were more effective than others, when he made a surprising discovery.
The best builders weren’t those who tried the hardest. The men Gilbreth learnt the most from, were the lazy ones.
Laying bricks requires repeating the same movements over and over again: the fewer motions, the better. In an attempt to conserve energy, the “lazy” builders had found ways to lay bricks with a minimum number of motions. In short, they’d found more effective ways to get the job done.
But what do lazy bricklayers have to do with language learning?
Well, inspired by his lazy colleagues, Gilbreth went on to pioneer “motion study”, a technique which streamlines work systems and is still used today in many fields to increase productivity. You know that person in operating theaters who passes scalpels to the surgeon and wipes their brow? Gilbreth came up with that idea.
Hiring someone to pass you things from 20 centimeters away and wipe the sweat off your own forehead? It doesn’t get much lazier than that. Yet it helps surgeons work more efficiently and probably saves lives in the process.
The bottom line? The lazy way is usually the smartest way.
How to learn a language at home (even if you’re really lazy)
It’s about finding effective ways to learn, so you can stop wasting time and energy on stuff that doesn’t work. To help you find them, I’ve put together a list of 7 lazy (but highly effective) ways to learn a language at home.
They’ll help you:
⁃ Speak a language better by studying less.
⁃ Go against “traditional” language learning methods to get better results.
⁃ Get fluent in a language while sitting around in your undies and drinking beer
Lazy way to learn a language at home #1: Don’t study (much)
A lot of people try to learn a language by “studying”. They try really hard to memorise grammar rules and vocabulary in the hope that one day, all the pieces will come together and they’ll magically start speaking the language.
Sorry, but languages don’t work that way.
Trying to speak a language by doing grammar exercises is like trying to make bread by reading cookbooks. Sure, you’ll pick up some tips, but you’ll never learn how to bake unless you’re willing to get your hands dirty.
Languages are a learn by doing kind of thing. The best way to learn to speak, understand, read and write a language is by practicing speaking, listening, reading and writing. That doesn’t mean you should never study grammar or vocabulary. It helps to get an idea of how the language works. But if you dedicate a disproportionate amount of time to that stuff, it’ll hold you back.
You’ll learn much faster by using the language.
Now, if you’re a total newbie, you may be wondering how you can start using a language you don’t know yet. If you’re learning completely from scratch, a good textbook can help you pick up the basics. But avoid ones which teach lots of grammar rules without showing you how to use them in real life. The best textbooks are the ones which give you lots of example conversations and introduce grammar in bitesized pieces, like Assimil.
As soon as you can, aim to get lots of exposure to the language being used in a real way. If you’re a lower level, you can start by reading books which have been simplified for your level (called graded readers). Look for ones accompanied with audio so you can work on your listening at the same time.
Duolingo has also just added a fab new beta feature called stories: fun simple tales for learners with interactive translations and mini comprehension quizzes. For the moment, it’s only in Spanish and Portuguese, but keep an eye out for other languages coming soon.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #2: Sit around in your undies
Next, you’ll need to practice speaking. Luckily, you can now do this on Skype, so you only need to get dressed from the waist up.
The best place for online conversation classes is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here: Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off.
If you prefer a free option, you can also use italki to find people who are learning your native language and set up a language exchange. One risk with language exchanges is that English becomes the default language and they end up using your time to practice their English. To make it work, be sure to set a clear boundary for when each language is spoken (e.g. say 30 minutes in English and 30 minutes in Spanish) and be strict about sticking to it.
Or, if you’re feeling brave enough to put some pants on, you can find a flesh-and-blood language exchange partner who lives near you via conversation exchange or Tandem. You can even arrange to meet up at the pub and combine my two great loves: languages and beer.
Importantly, make it a priority to find conversation tutors and language exchange partners you actually enjoy spending time with (if they’re sexy, even better). It can be real chore to sit down and chat 1-on-1 for 60 minutes with someone you don’t click with. But once you find people you get on well with, it’s easy to motivate yourself to practice speaking.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #3: Don’t try too hard
Getting out of your comfort zone is brilliant, it’s where the learning happens. But you don’t feel like you have to venture too far.
If you’re frustrated by the speed of the listening, too many new words, or tricky grammar, it’s probably a sign that you’ve gone too far. Pushing yourself too hard isn’t a good way to learn, for a number of reasons:
1. When there’s too much new information, it’s difficult to take any of it in.
2. When you’re stressed, your mind’s less receptive to learning.
3. If you have to constantly stop and look up new words, it gets very boring very quickly.
4. It’s difficult to sustain that kind of effort long term (consistency is essential to language learning).
5. Being frustrated isn’t fun, so you’re more likely to give up.
Aim for the sweet spot just above your current level, where you’re coming across new words, but you can still get the general gist of what’s being said.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #4: Don’t waste time learning pointless stuff
Smart lazy language learners know they can’t learn everything at once, so they prioritise words and phrases they’ll get the most mileage out of. The exact words and phrases will depend on the language you’re learning and the situations you’re likely to find yourself in, but as a general rule, frequent conversation phrases like “I’d like”, “maybe” or “I think so” are more useful than things like “rooms in my house” or “items in my pencil case”.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #5: Don’t rely on willpower.
If you’ve tried to learn a language and failed in the past, you might think it’s because you don’t have enough willpower.
It’s true, you don’t. But neither does anyone else. That’s why most people who try to learn a language (or do anything similar, like losing weight or learning to play an instrument) start out enthusiastically, only to run out of steam a few weeks later.
Look closer at the people who’ve succeeded in learning a language and you’ll see that they’re the ones who’ve managed to build a habit. Once you get into the habit of learning a language, you don’t have to struggle so much to find the time or the energy. You just do it.
What’s the best way to get into the language habit?
The lazy way of course!
We have a natural tendency to resist change, which is why big efforts don’t usually last. The key is to make changes so small, they’re almost imperceptible. Start with teeny goal, like learning a language for 5 minutes, then increase it in small increments, like 1 minute each day. By the end of one month, you’ll be up to 30 minutes per day and well on your way to learning that language.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #6: Do stuff you enjoy
Who are the laziest people alive?
Stoners of course.
At university, I knew a guy who was so lazy he wore the same clothes every day and ate pasta straight out of the pan so he didn’t have to wash a plate. Yet when it came to his favorite occupation, smoking weed, he’d go to extreme lengths to get the right kind at the right price and happily walk all the way to the other side of town to pick it up.
Laziness is relative: most people have plenty of energy for things they enjoy doing. When you actually want to do something, be that getting stoned, eating cheese or watching disney films in a foreign language, it’s not hard to get started.
The key is to find ways to learn a language at home that you like, so you don’t have to fight with yourself so much.
The best way to do this is to get into the habit of reading, watching and listening to things you like in the language you’re learning: audiobooks, YouTube, Netflix, newspapers, soap operas, hiphop, disney films, documentaries, novels, reality tv, cookery programmes, fashion blogs, sports papers, world of warcraft…whatever does it for you. The closer it is to things you enjoy doing in your native language, the better.
Or, it you’re a lower level and those kind of resources are too tricky to follow, start with fun things aimed at language learners like podcasts, YouTube tutorials, graded readers or duolingo stories.
YouTube is a brilliant place for language learners as there are often subtitles. To make the most out of subtitles for language learning, read the ones in the language you’re learning, and only use the English ones to check your understanding. You can also use YouTube to slow down the speed, which helps you focus on the details of what they’re saying (as well as making the speaker sound like they’ve knocked back a few tequilas before going on camera).
A super tool for reading online is the google translate chrome add on. It turns any website into an interactive dictionary, so you can click on a word you don’t know and get the translation in your native language. This makes it very easy to read websites in the language you’re learning without interrupting your flow to look up new words all the time.
To find some sites you like, do a quick google search with the language you’re learning + the genre you’re after (e.g. Spanish Newspapers or French fashion blogs) and you should find a nice list. Alternatively, if you’re feeling lazy, buzzfeed in your target language is a good place to start.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #7: Change your surroundings
Lazy language learners know that if they have to rely on their own initiative to learn a language, it probably won’t get done. Smart lazy language learners get round this by making changes to their environment so they’re interacting with the language all day, in a way that doesn’t require a lot of extra effort. Here are a few sneaky ways you can integrate language learning into your surroundings:
• Change the language on Facebook/Twitter/your phone to your target language (but remember how to change it back!)
• Change your homepage to a website in your target language.
• Get some headphones and listen to the language as much as you can: on the way to work, cooking, cleaning the toilet…
• Talk to your yourself (or your pets) in the language you’re learning.
Remember, language learning doesn’t happen through big, sporadic efforts. It’s all in the details. Take some time to think of small ways you could integrate your target language into your daily life. And most importantly, actually do it.
These small actions, when repeated daily, will add up to big results.
Quick guide: how to learn a language at home (the lazy way)
#1: Don’t study (much)
Grammar is useful, but don’t make it your main focus. Try to get as much exposure as possible to the language being used in real way by reading and listening.
#2: Practice speaking as much as you can
Book conversation lessons on Skype, or arrange conversation exchanges. Make a point of finding conversation partners you enjoy spending time with.
#3: Don’t try too hard
Aim for the sweet spot just above your level, where you come across new words but you can get the gist of what’s being said.
#4: Don’t waste time on pointless stuff
Common conversation phrases like “I don’t know” or “I think so” are more useful than things like “rooms in my house” or “things in my pencil case”
#5: Build habits
Don’t rely on willpower. Get into the language learning habit by starting with 5 minutes a day and gradually increasing the time.
#6: Do stuff you enjoy
Make a point of finding things to read or listen to that you enjoy. The closer it is to things you like doing in your native language, the better.
#7: Change your surroundings
Find sneaky ways to integrate language learning into your daily life, by changing the language of your Facebook, or listening to podcasts on your way to work.
What do you think?
Are you learning a language at home? Do you think the lazy way could work for you? Which one of these 7 tips could you start doing right now to help you learn a language?
What do heights, Ikea on Sundays and language exams have in common?
They all scare the crap out of me.
Right now, I’m stressée because I’m taking an advanced French exam (called the DALF C1) in a few weeks, and I’m not ready yet.
But not to worry.
I’ve done what all good, last-minute students do and come up with a plan aimed at getting the best possible results in the little time I’ve got. In this post, I’ll share the strategies I’m using to get ready for the DALF C1 exam, which draw on the techniques I used to pass a similar Italian exam (C2 CILS).
If you’re thinking about taking the DALF C1 French exam, or any other language exam for that matter, you’ll find 14 strategies that’ll help you get the most out of your study time and give you a better chance of passing.
Before we dive in, let’s talk a bit about how the DALF C1 exam works, including:
At C1 level, you can:
• express yourself fluently and accurately in French
• use French with ease in social, academic and working contexts
• write clear, detailed texts on complex subjects
In short, the DALF C1 exam is a way of testifying that your French level is good enough to conduct your social, academic and working life comfortably in French.
C2 (mastery) is the next level up and the highest level French exam there is.
Why take the DALF C1?
Some people take the DALF C1 because they need it for work or study (although in many cases, the lower level, B2 will suffice).
Personally, I like the added motivation that comes from working towards an exam like the DALF C1. It’s exactly the kick up the bum I needed to stop floundering and make some real progress in French. In that sense, I’m already satisfied with the results as I’ve seen more improvement in my French in the last 3 months than I had in the last 3 years prior to setting myself this goal.
What’s the DALF C1 exam like?
There are 4 sections in the DALF C1 exam: reading, listening, writing and speaking.
The listening section is divided into two parts. In the first part, you’ll answer a series of questions about a long recording (around 8 minutes) taken from real contexts like interviews, lessons or conferences. You can listen twice. In the second part, you’ll answer 10 questions on short radio broadcasts, which are only played once. The listening section lasts around 40 minutes.
In the reading section, you’ll answer a series of questions on a long text (1500 – 2000 words), which could be journalistic or literary in style. It lasts 50 minutes.
The writing section is divided into two parts. In the first part, you’ll be given 2 – 3 texts to read and asked to write a summary (220 words). In the second task, you’ll be asked to write an essay on the same topic as the texts you just read (250 words). You have 2.5 hours to complete both parts.
In the speaking section, you’re required to give a short speech and discuss a series of questions with the examiners. You get 60 minutes beforehand to read 2 – 3 documents about a topic and prepare your speech. The speech + discussion lasts around 30 minutes, so altogether the speaking section lasts 1.5 hours.
In both speaking and writing sections, you can choose between two fields: humanities and social studies or science.
14 ways to prepare for the C1 DALF French exam
1. Do lots of exam practice
The most effective way to practice for an exam is… you guessed it, by doing exam practice!
However, not all practice is equal. As Vince Lombardi puts it:
Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
To get the most out of your study time, it’s important to focus on the right kind of practice. This means not simply doing exam questions over and over, but taking time between each try to analyze what went wrong and think about how you can apply those lessons to your next attempt.
It also means learning how to do the exam, by developing skills that will help you answer the questions better. The following tips will give you some suggestions on how to do this.
2. Get a textbook designed for the DALF C1
It helps to get a textbook specifically designed to prepare students for the language exam you’re taking. I’m using réussir le DALF and it’s full of handy hints for each section.
It’s also a good idea to get your hands on a book with past papers, so you can do as many practice exams as possible.
3. Improve your speaking and writing with the translation technique
Ideally, I want to learn to express myself in a way that’s as close as possible to an educated French speaker. To move towards this target, I need a technique that highlights how my speech and writing differs from that of native French speakers so I can learn from my mistakes and discover how to talk/write more like they do.
With the following translation technique:
Find examples of native French speaker answers to the writing/speaking tasks (like the one below).
Translate the French text/audio into English.
Wait a day or so, until my memory of the French version has faded.
Translate the text/audio back into French.
Compare my French answer with the original native speaker text/audio.
This technique is ideal because it gives you immediate feedback on your choice of words/grammar and shows you how to express ideas like a native French person would. And because you’re engaging with the French phrases in a very focused way, it helps you remember them more easily for future speaking/writing tasks.
4. Train your ear to listen for details
Does this ever happen to you?
When you listen to fast speech in a foreign language it sounds like gobbledygook, but when you see things written down you can understand them quite easily?
This is because in fast speech, strange things happen: sounds (and sometimes whole words) can be cut and others sound different to how you expect. For example, when French people speak fast, they often shorten the word “vous” to “v”.
I want to train my ear to recognize words and phrases in fast speech, so I can pick out details I’ll need in the listening questions.
To achieve this, I’m using a dictation technique, which involves listening to speech, writing what you hear, then checking what you wrote against a transcript. This task trains your ear to tune into the details of speech and highlights why you miss certain words, for example, if they’re pronounced differently in fast speech.
As a bonus, writing down the words helps me practice spelling, which is one of my weaknesses in French.
Another way to get used to listening to fast speech is to speed it up even more.
On YouTube, you can make the videos faster by knocking the speed up to 1.25 (under settings). Once you get used to listening to everything 1/4 faster, normal speed French suddenly feels a lot easier! I’m using the videos on the France24 YouTube channel for this activity.
6. Listen everywhere
Download some podcasts and listen to them wherever you go: on the way to work, whilst doing the dishes or cleaning the shower. French radio interviews and news programs are great as they’re often similar to the listenings in the exam.
7. Improve your pronunciation
Pronunciation is important because it helps the examiners understand you more easily, which can positively influence their judgements on your speaking ability. Check and practice the pronunciation of tricky words by looking them up in an online dictionary with audio files (like wordreference). Listen to the sound file and practice saying the word aloud several times until your pronunciation sounds similar to the example. It helps to keep a list of the French words you struggle to pronounce so you can come back to them and practice them regularly.
8. Remember important words with flashcards
I store the new words and phrases I come across in my flashcard app, so I can review them later. Over the next few weeks, I’ll concentrate on making flashcards with formal French phrases that’ll be useful for the exam, like cependent (nevertheless) and en outre (furthermore).
Importantly, I won’t just review the words, I’ll practice using them too, as this helps them stick in my head better. One way of doing this is to make up new sentences in my head with each word as I review the flashcard. Another way is by writing example sentences.
9. Grammar: learn by doing
I need to dust off a bit of French grammar, so I’m working my way through a grammar textbook. But like vocabulary, I believe the best way to remember grammar is to practice using it.
To do this, I write conversation questions with the grammar points I’ve just learnt and discuss them with my online tutor. If I can make the topics similar to the ones in the exam, so much the better.
Let’s see this in action.
I’ve recently reviewed conditionals (used to talk about imaginary situations – if I were a cat, I’d sleep all day). For my next lesson with my online tutor, I’ve prepared some conversation questions with conditionals, using themes that often appear in the exam (environment, politics…). For example:
Si tu étais président, que ferais-tu pour protéger la planète? If you were president, what would you do to protect the planet?
This helps me practice writing and speaking using the grammar points I’ve just studied and get lots of relevant feedback from my online tutor.
10. Do focused speaking lessons
My online French lessons used to be an opportunity for a nice relaxing chat, but over the next few weeks, I’ll need to get focused. I’m going to use the sessions to practice the speaking section of the exam and do a feedback session at the end so I can focus on areas I need to improve. I’ll ask my online tutor to point out mistakes, tell me what I could have done better, and give me new expressions to help me express my ideas more effectively next time.
11. Get feedback by recording your speaking practice
Another way you can improve your speaking is by making short videos and showing them to native speakers to get corrections. I’ll be posing mine on Instagram, as there’s a lovely language learning community who give each other friendly feedback and correct each other’s mistakes. If posting your video in public feels too scary, you can simply record it and watch it back (you’ll often notice your own mistakes when you’re not concentrating on speaking at the same time).
Most of the time, I don’t work with qualified teachers to learn a language: a native speaker who can give me corrections is all I need, as I can study the grammar and vocabulary on my own from textbooks. But for exam prep, it’s important to work with a teacher who understands the exam so they can explain how the exam works, spot your weaknesses and give you exercises to work on them. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing some lessons with an experienced teacher (online via italki) who knows the DALF C1 exam well and can give me pointers.
Update: I found the BEST French teacher! She’s called Manon and used to be a DALF examiner, so she understands the exam inside out. You can book lessons with her here:French with Manon.
13. Do Deliberate practice
Lots of the ideas in this post aren’t about working harder, they’re about working smarter. These tips fit in with an approach called deliberate practice, which is an effective way to develop skills in just about anything. In his book Peak, the pioneer of deliberate practice, Anders Ericsson suggests that the best way to get good at something is to follow three Fs:
• Focus: Break the skill down into parts you can practice repeatedly.
• Feedback: Analyze your practice attempts and identify your weaknesses.
• Fix-it: Come up with ways to address your weaknesses so you can do it better next time.
If this kind of preparation sounds intense, that’s because it is. But if you can figure out ways to apply the three Fs to your exam preparation, it’ll save you time in the long run because it’ll help you get better faster.
Getting out of your comfort zone is a wonderful thing. It’s where all the good stuff happens. But while my mind has fully embraced this idea, my body is wondering what the heck is going on. I’ve been getting ill a lot lately, which is a sign I need to slow down and take care not to burn out.
I plan to look after myself more by making a few simple changes:
Get a good night’s sleep. This means getting to bed at a decent time and no screens before bedtime (start reading at 10.30 and fall asleep between 11 and 11.30). Apart from weekends, bien sur.
Eat healthily (more of the good stuff, like fruit and veg, whilst still enjoying treats)
Take frequent breaks, with relaxing activities, like listening to music or going for a walk (au revoir Facebook!)
Check emails/social media no more than once a day.
Have you ever done a language exam before? How did you prepare for it? What other tips can you add to the list? Or, if you’re thinking about taking a language exam, which of the above tips will help you the most?
Want to learn some handy Italian travel phrases to buy food?
In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to speak Italian in supermarkets, delis and markets. It includes 3 Italian audio lessons, where you’ll learn the following skills:
How to ask for things in supermarkets
The right way to order food at the deli counter
How to pay for things at the till
And, just as importantly, you’ll be able to understand the kind of phrases shop assistants will say back to you.
With each lesson, you’ll find a transcript, so you can read the Italian dialogue followed by a mini grammar and vocabulary tutorial.
How can I remember Italian words and phrases?
One of the hardest parts about learning a language is remembering all that vocabulary! To make new words and phrases stick, it’s important to review them regularly.
That’s why we’ve made a set of vocabulary flashcards to go with each lesson. These are like digital “cards” with the Italian phrase on one side and the English translation on the other. You can use them to:
You’ll find a link to download these flashcards at the end of each lesson, with instructions on how to use them.
Ready to learn how to speak Italian in shops and supermarkets?
Italian travel phrases: How to ask for things in supermarkets
5 Minute Italian Lesson Transcript
Katie: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti a 5 minute Italian, hi everyone and welcome to 5 minute Italian. I’m Katie…
Matteo: And I’m Matteo. Ciao.
K: And in today’s lesson, we’re going to learn how to find our way around an Italian supermarket. We’re going to start with a little dialogue in Italian. Listen and see how much you can make out, then we’ll talk you through the details after.
Imagine you’re in the supermarket, but you don’t know where anything is. So you go up to the poor shop assistant, il commesso, and you start asking loads of questions.
Katie: Mi scusi, dove sono i carrelli?
Matteo: Sono lì, all’entrata.
Katie: OK grazie. E… dove sono le banane?
Matteo: Lì, con la frutta.
Katie: Perfetto. E…Dov’è la pasta?
Matteo: è di la signora.
Katie: Grazie, quale corridoio?
Matteo: Corridoio cinque, vicino al pane.
What does it mean? Italian travel phrases explained
Katie: So we started with: Mi scusi
Matteo: Mi scusi
K: Mi scusi, is the formal way of saying “excuse me” with people who you don’t know very well, like shop assistants. You can also use it to say sorry, for example if you get in someone’s way, you can say mi scusi or just scusi.
Just a quick reminder that you you can find the main vocabulary from today in the show notes below.
M: Then you heard: dove sono i carrelli which means “where are the trolleys”.
K: Dove means “where”, sono means “are” and i carrelli means “the trolleys”
M: Dove sono i carrelli.
K: Then you heard sono lì, all’entrata.
M: Which means “they’re there, at the entrance”. Sono lì, all’entrata.
K: We know that sono means “are”. Italians often omit the word for they. So instead of saying “they are there”, they just say “are there”. Lì means there. So you can imagine him pointing and saying “there” – lì.
M: Sono lì. You might also hear the word là, which means the same thing. To say “there” you can either say lì or là. They’re interchangeable.
K: Then you heard all’entrata which means “at the entrance”. The word all means “at the”. And entrata means entrance
K: And this all is interesting – a means “at” and la means “the” for feminine words, like entrata. In Italian, a and la combine together to give us alla. So to say “at the” for feminine words, you’d get alla.
M: but when alla comes before a word which starts with a vowel, we remove the last a sound. So you get all’entrata.
K: Sometimes it can help to see this visually, so remember you can find this written down in the show notes below the podcast. Next, I said dove sono le banane which I’m sure you can guess means “where are the bananas?”
M: dove sono le banane?
K: Then Matteo replied…
M: Lì, con la frutta.
K: We know that lì means “there”. Con means “with”. And la frutta means the fruit.
M: Then Katie said: perfetto which of course means “perfect. You should say it with a nice Italian accent: perfetto!
K: Then I asked dov’è la pasta which means “where’s the pasta”.
K: Next, Matteo said…
M: è di la, signora. Which means “it’s over there madam”
K: Di là is quite similar to là which means there. Maybe the only difference is that lì or là gives more of an impression of a specific place, so maybe you’re pointing to a specific point while you’re saying it, while di là is more of a general direction. Over there: di là.
M: And then I called you Signora, which is the word you use for women.
K: It’s like saying “maam” or “madam”, and Italians use it frequently. And I’m very sad about this because in the last few years people have stopped calling me signorina, which is used with girls and young women, and started calling me signora.
M: Then you heard grazie, quale corridoio?.
K: Quale, means “which” and corridoio means aisle. And this word is nice and easy to remember because it sounds like corridor – so you can imagine the aisle as being a bit like a corridor.
K: Then Matteo said…
M: Corridoio cinque, vicino al pane.
K: Corridoio cinque of course means corridor 5. Then you heard vicino al pane, which means “close to the bread”.
M: Vicino means close and il pane means “the bread”.
K: then we’ve got this word al, which is interesting, because it’s similar to what we were saying before when we talked about all’entrata at the entrance. A in Italian means at, but it also means to. Then we have il which means “the” for masculine nouns. “The bread”: il pane. So to say “to the”, we say a + il
M: a + il combine together to make al.
K: So how do you say close to the bread?
M: Vicino al pane
K: That’s it for today, thanks for listening to 5 minute Italian. If you’d found today’s lesson useful, please subscribe to us on itunes and leave us a review and some stars 🙂
Grazie, and ciao for now, see you next time, or as we say in Italian,
K + M: alla prossima!
Italian travel phrases: at the supermarket
at the entrance
at (also to)
the (for feminine nouns)
At the (a + la = alla)
the banana (singular)
the bananas (plural)
Vicino al pane
close to the bread
to (also at)
the (for masculine nouns)
to the (A + il = al)
Remember the words and phrases from this lesson
Quiz yourself on the Italian travel phrases you learnt in this lesson with our digital flashcards.
2. Italian travel phrases: How to order things at the deli counter
5 Minute Italian Lesson Transcript
Katie: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti a 5 minute Italian, hi everyone and welcome to 5 minute Italian. I’m Katie…
Matteo: And I’m Matteo. Ciao.
K: If you go to Italy, something I would highly recommend doing is going to check out the deli counters, in supermarkets or in little shops because they have lots of delicious meats, cheeses and salads. It’s also a great way to start to learn about different types of Italian food that you might see on menus.
Let’s imagine we’re in an Italian supermarket at the deli counter. Usually they’ve got one of those little machines where you take a number. So we’ve got our little yellow ticket, now listen to this conversation at the deli counter and see how much you can make out:
Matteo: Buongiorno, mi dica signora
Katie: Un etto di prosciutto
M: Crudo o cotto?
K: Crudo grazie
K: Che cos’è quello?
M: è la burrata
K: Allora prendo due etti di burrata.
M: Basta così?
K: Si grazie
What does it mean? Italian travel phrases explained
Katie: So the first thing you heard was Matteo, the man behind the counter, who said
Matteo: Mi dica signora
K: Mi dica literally means “tell me”. But when Italians use it in these kinds of situations, it’s translation is similar to “what can I do for you?”.
M: You might also hear prego in this situation, which means more or less the same thing.
K: Yes, one of the many meanings of prego!
M: Then, you heard Katie say: un etto di prosciutto.
K: un etto means 100 grams, which is around 6 or 7 thin slices.
M: you can also say cento grammi, which of course means 100 grams.
K: And remember you can read the vocabulary from today’s episode in the show notes. Then Matteo asked the following question:
M: Crudo o cotto?
K: And this question is about the types of ham. Prosciutto crudo is what we in England would call prosciutto, or parma ham. Crudo means “raw”, and it’s called that because prosciutto crudo isn’t cooked – it’s air dried and salted. Cotto means “cooked”, so prosciutto cotto is similar to the normal ham you find in England and elsewhere.
M: The names of some other common Italian meats are bresaola which is salted Italian beef, and salame, which of course means salami.
M: Next, you heard Katie say crudo, grazie. And this is another example of where Italians sometimes use the word grazie, where in english you would normally say please.
K: Then, Matteo said:
K: Which we’ve heard in previous episodes. it means “anything else?” Then, you heard the most important phrase for curious travellers and language learners everywhere:
M: Che cos’è quello?
K: This means “what’s that?” And it’s a great way to get deeper into conversations with Italians and learn more about the culture and the language. I think I spend my first few months in Italy just pointing and things and saying: che cos’è quello?
M: Then you heard: è la burrata.
K: Which means “it’s burrata”, which is one of my favourite Italian cheeses. Finally something for the vegetarians!
M: Burrata looks a bit like mozzarella, in fact, it’s exactly the same as mozzarella on the outside, but when you cut into it, it’s soft and creamy on the inside.
K: Other examples of nice Italian cheeses are Parmigiano, which means parmesan of course, then Fontina, a soft aged cheese from Aosta Valley in the north, and Pecorino, which literally means “little sheep” – it’s a hard, salty cheese made from sheep’s milk.
M: And don’t forget Mozzarella di bufala, which means buffalo mozzarella, the famous cheese of Naples.
K: Matteo’s biased because he’s from Naples so he prefers Neapolitan food! Then you heard…
M: Allora prendo due etti di burrata
K: Allora is one of those very famous Italian words you hear everywhere. It means “so”, or “well”.
K: Prendo literally means “I take”, but Italians use it to say “I’ll have”, when they’re ordering. Then you heard the plural version of etto. Before we heard the singular version: un etto, with an o at the end. The plural of etto is etti. So you get un etto, but due etti, tre etti and so on.
M: Finally, you heard: basta cosi?
K: Basta cosi literally means “enough like this?” but Italians use it to say “is that everything?”
M: Basta cosi? You might also hear: a posto cosi? Which literally means “OK like this?”
K: Let’s listen to the conversation again.
M: Buongiorno, mi dica signora
K: Un etto di prosciutto
M: Crudo o cotto?
K: Crudo grazie
K: Che cos’è quello?
M: è la burrata
K: Allora prendo due etti di burrata.
M: Basta così?
K: Si grazie
K: Right so that’s it for today’s episode – and we’re taking a little break in August, as it’s 36 degrees right now in the city, so we’re doing what all Italians do and we’re going to escape to the seaside for a couple of weeks. We’ll be back in September with some new episodes. In the meantime, if you’d like to get bonus materials for future episodes, including the transcripts of our conversation, you can subscribe to our mailing list. Ciao for now, or as we say in Italian,
K + M: Alla prossima!
Italian travel phrases: At the deli counter
What can I do for you? (literally: tell me)
dried salty beef
salami (nice and easy!)
Che cos’è quello
Cheese which is like mozzarella on the outside, but creamy on the inside
soft aged cheese from Aosta Valley
a hard, salty sheep’s cheese
I’ll have… (literally – I’ll take)
Is that everything? (literally: enough like this?)
A posto così?
Is that everything? (literally: ok like this?)
Remember the words and phrases from this lesson
Quiz yourself on the Italian travel phrases you learnt in this lesson with our digital flashcards.
3. Italian travel phrases: How to pay for things at the till
5 Minute Italian Lesson Transcript
Katie: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti a 5 minute Italian, hi everyone and welcome to 5 minute Italian. I’m Katie…
Matteo: And I’m Matteo. Ciao.
K: In the last couple of lessons, we’ve been learning how to order things in shops and supermarkets. This week, we’re going to continue this theme by learning how to pay for things at the till. So let’s practice a typical conversation at the till in Italy.
Matteo: Buongiorno. Sachetti?
K: Si, due grazie… quant’è?
M: Sono venti e cinquanta.
K: Posso pagare con la carta?
M: Certo. Carta o bancomat?
M: Grazie, arrivederci!
What does it mean? Italian travel phrases explained
Katie: We started with buongiorno, which is better than ciao in situations like this where you don’t know the person you’re talking to.
Matteo: then you heard: Sacchetti?
K: Which literally means “bags?” and it’s like asking “would you like a bag?” Shop assistants don’t give bags automatically, they normally ask.
M: Then you heard: Si, due grazie.
K: Yes, two thank you. Remember with polite replies to questions, Italians don’t say please, they say thank you. Si, grazie.
M: To ask for a bag, you can say: posso avere un sacchetto?
K: Here we meet again the very useful phrase posso avere which means “can I have”.
K: And we’ve got the singular form of the word bag. To say “one bag”, we say:
M: Un sacchetto
K: With an o at the end: sacchetto. And to say two bags, we say:
M: Due sacchetti
K: With an i at the end. And you can have tre sacchetti, quattro sacchetti and so on.
M: But the word can change depending on the region. In the south of Italy, we usually say busta.
K: Which can cause confusion, because it also means envelope. Once one of our friends from Naples walked into a shop in Milan with her hands full and asked for a busta, and the shop assistant stared at her blankly and handed her an envelope. In the supermarket they’ll probably know what you mean, but it can be handy to listen out at the till to learn the regional variation for where you are. You may sometimes hear the word sportina too,
M: Then you heard: quant’è?
K: Which means “how much is it?” Quanto means “how much” and è means it is. And Italians smush the words together, so you get: Quant’è?
M: You can also say: Quanto costa?
K: which means: “how much does it cost?”
M: And: Quanto viene?
K: Viene means “come”. So quanto viene literally means “how much come?” It’s a bit like asking “how much does it come to?
M: Next, you heard: Sono venti e cinquanta.
K: Can you guess how much that means? Venti e cinquanta literally means “twenty and fifty”. “20 euros 50”. Italians use the word “and” e between the euro and the cents. To introduce the price, they start with the word sono which literally means “they are”. They are twenty and fifty.
M: Sono venti e cinquanta.
K: If you need some help with numbers, you can go back and check out episodes 14 and 15. Next, you heard:
M: Posso pagare con la carta?
K: Literally: “Can I pay with the card”, which of course means “can I pay by credit card”. Posso means “can I”, pagare means “pay” and la carta means “the card”. Italians use the word la (the) much more than in English.
M: Then you heard: certo
K: …which means “certainly” or “of course”. Next, you heard the question:
M: Carta o bancomat?
K: Which is a bit of a weird one. Bancomat means debit card. And for some reason in Italy, at the till, they need to know if you’re paying with credit or debit card. Bancomat actually has 2 meanings, it also means cash machine, which is handy to know if you need to get cash out in Italy.
M: Let’s listen to the conversation again.
M: Buongiorno. Sachetti?
K: Due grazie.
M: Sono venticinque e cinquanta.
K: Posso pagare con la carta?
M: Certo. Carta o bancomat?
M: Grazie, arrivederci!
K: If you’d like to get bonus materials, including conversation transcripts, cultural notes, flashcards and invites to our speaking workshops, you can sign up to our mailing list. And if you’re on the list, make sure you check out your emails from us as you’ll find all the bonus materials inside. Ciao for now, or as we say in Italian,
K + M: Alla prossima!
Italian travel phrases: at the till
Would you like a bag? (lit. bags?)
plastic bag (the difference is regional)
Two please (lit. two thank you)
How much is it?
How much does it cost?
How much does it come to?
Sono venti e cinquanta
It’s twenty euro fifty (lit. they’re twenty and fifty)
Posso pagare con la carta?
can I pay by card?
Carta o bancomat?
Credit card or debit card?
Debit card/cash machine (two meanings)
Remember the words and phrases from this lesson
Quiz yourself on the Italian travel phrases you learnt in this lesson with our digital flashcards.
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Want to learn some handy Italian travel phrases to buy food? Bene! In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to speak Italian in supermarkets, delis and markets. It includes 3 Italian audio lessons, where you’ll learn the following skills: How to ask for things in supermarkets The