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 – you’ll to get a free $10 dollar voucher after your first lesson.
Alternatively 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.
Alternatively, 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.
World Snowboarding champion Shaun White falls on his arse a lot.
Most snowboarders do, it’s an occupational hazard.
But Shaun White has a special way of falling on his arse that helped him achieve the highest ever score in the history of the Olympic halfpipe.
Read on to discover the powerful practice technique that helps experts across a variety of fields stay on top of their game. It’s a method you can steal when you practice a language that could help you:
Speak and understand the language better
Feel more confident
Stop worrying about your mistakes (and make fewer)
Deliberate practice: a winning formula to learn just about anything
In the 2010 winter Olympics, White landed a trick called the Front Double Cork 1080. This kind of trick would normally take him years to master, but during his training for the Vancouver Olympics, he nailed it in one day.
Before the Olympics, Red Bull built White his own private half-pipe with a foam pit at the end.
Riders normally build up slowly to tricks like the Front Double Cork 1080, because a fall could be fatal. But the foam pit reduced the impact of the fall, allowing White to practice complex tricks that would have been too dangerous to try directly on the snow.
In his article 3 Rules of High Velocity Learning, author Daniel Coyle describes how the pit gave White the freedom to make mistakes, fix them and try again. Over lots of repetitions, this technique helped him fall on his arse less.
Here’s the winning formula that sped up White’s learning exponentially:
In this article, you’ll learn how deliberate practice works and how it can help you practice a language more effectively. Then, I’ll share 10 practical ways you can apply deliberate practice to your language learning.
At the end, I’ll talk about how I’m integrating these ideas into my own language learning routine this month.
Jill spends her time doing exercises from textbooks and playing on apps like duolingo and memrise. She gets most exercises right and feels at ease while she’s practicing. She’s waiting to accumulate more vocabulary and grammar before having a go at using Spanish in real life.
Jane starts off with a Spanish textbook but quickly moves on to muddling through more realistic materials, like simplified stories and slowly spoken podcasts. She gets herself an online tutor or language exchange partner and tries using the stuff she’s been learning in real conversations. She speaks painfully slowly at first, makes a lot of mistakes and often feels awkward while she’s practicing.
Who will speak better Spanish in Colombia?
Most people instinctively practice like Jill. That’s because many education systems instill the principle that right answers are good and wrong answers are bad. The result: we’d rather practice things we’re likely to get right, because mistakes make us feel like a failure.
But you know that awkward phase where you mess up a lot? That’s where the learning happens.
Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, who studies performance across a wide range of fields from spelling competitions to salespeople, shows that the highest achievers aren’t always the most talented or intelligent.
They’re the snowboarders who fall on their arses and get up again, the kids who focus on spelling the most difficult words, and the language learners who are willing to put up with awkward silences while they try to squeeze a sentence out.
They’re the ones who face the difficult bits head on, make mistakes, learn from them and keep going.
Most polyglots learn languages like Jane. They:
push themselves to read and listen to things slightly above their level.
practice speaking, even when it feels awkward.
spend a lot of time make mistakes and getting corrections.
This kind of practice is very efficient, which explains why they learn to speak languages well in less time.
Why most people practice a language the wrong way
Despite the benefits, most people avoid deliberate practice for a couple of reasons.
1. It feels less efficient (but it’s not)
When you’re getting things right most of the time, it feels like you’re making progress.
But it’s an illusion.
It’s a bit like tidying your room by shoving everything in your cupboard. It feels like you’ve got the job done, but all your shit is still in the cupboard. When you finally get around to sorting it out, it’ll take you twice as long compared to if you’d just done it properly in the first place.
When you mindlessly work through a grammar book or play on apps like duolingo, it feels like you’re making progress because you get ticks or points with every right answer. But those little satisfying dings don’t necessarily help you use the language in real life.
When you face the trickier parts of language learning head on, like speaking or reading texts with words you don’t recognise, it’s a struggle at first, so you feel like you’re not making much progress. But that extra effort will help you use the language much better in real life.
As writer Sonia Simone puts it: “don’t take shortcuts, they take too long.”
2. You have to analyse your mistakes
At work, when your boss says “let’s go through some feedback” it’s often a euphemism for “let’s talk about how you screwed up”.
The “feedback” stage in deliberate practice is no different: it’s a detailed analysis of what you did wrong. And because you’re human, you’ll probably find it quite uncomfortable.
When you write something in a foreign language, you might cringe when you look back and see the mistakes you made. When you practice speaking, it doesn’t feel great when your tutor or speaking partner points out your mistakes. And if you ever manage to pluck up the courage to record yourself speaking, it’s pretty mortifying to listen back to yourself.
But if you want to get the benefits of deliberate practice, it’s time to change the way you think about mistakes. Mistakes aren’t something embarrassing to avoid: they’re a key component of the learning process.
The more you make, the better you get.
10 ways to practice a language like a pro
1. Learn by doing (and making mistakes)
Deliberate practice doesn’t mean you should stop learning from books and apps altogether. It means that you should focus on putting what you learn into practice immediately so you can identify your weaknesses and learn from your mistakes.
Let’s imagine you want to master the past tense in Spanish. Here’s how you can do it with deliberate practice:
Learn grammar point: Learn how to use the past tense in your textbook/website/app.
Practice using it:Write a paragraph about something in the past (e.g. what you did yesterday).
Get feedback: Get corrections from a native speaker. You can post your paragraph to websites like italki or lang8 to get free feedback from native speakers.
Adapt: Look at the mistakes you made and learn the correct way to say it.
Repeat:Write another paragraph using the past tense (make it more interesting by using a new theme, for example, your last holiday) Try to reuse the words/grammar you got wrong so you can practice using them the right way.
You can do this technique with speaking, too. Try recording yourself talking about what you did yesterday and listen back to it – you’ll often notice your own mistakes that you didn’t pick up on while you were concentrating on speaking. Alternatively, if you have a conversation tutor/language exchange partner, you could talk about what you did yesterday, or any other theme that helps you practice what you’ve been studying recently, and ask them to correct you when you make mistakes.
2. Help people correct you
Imagine you’re talking to someone who isn’t a native speaker of your language and they make a mistake. How would you feel about correcting them?
Sometimes non-native speakers don’t like correcting us because they’re worried we might get offended or think they’re rude. Help them feel more comfortable by asking them to correct you and thanking them when they do so.
Another handy phrase to learn in your target language is “do you say it like that?” This helps you get immediate feedback when you’re not sure about what you just said. It also shows the person you’re speaking to that you want to learn, so they’ll feel more comfortable correcting you.
To get the benefits of deliberate practice, it’s important to repeat your corrections until you get them right. There are two ways to do this:
If your speaking partner points out your mistake, don’t just say “gracias/merci/danke…”. Reformulate the sentence aloud and ask them if you said it right this time.
If you notice that you often mistakes with certain grammar points or vocabulary, make a note of them and practice them as much as possible in your writing and speaking.
4. Break it down into components
When experts do deliberate practice, they break the skill down and practice the parts which cause them the most problems. Here are a couple of examples for languages:
Instead of thinking “I want to improve my Spanish pronunciation”, work out which individual sounds you find difficult, track down some tutorials and practice them until you can do it. If you’re not sure where to find tutorials like this, the Mimic Method is a great place to start.
Instead of thinking “I want to improve my Italian grammar”, identify the elements you have the most trouble with and practice making sentences with them until it becomes automatic.
5. Focus on the awkward bits
When you learn a language, it’s tempting to brush the awkward parts under the carpet. Just the phrase “German adjective declension”, makes me want to look in the other direction and start whistling. But if you face these awkward bits head on and practice using them, you’ll look back one day and wonder what all the fuss was about.
6. Stick with it
Sometimes the only thing that differentiates people who master a skill from those who don’t is the amount of time they’re willing to stick with it. When it comes to languages, people often decide they can’t understand a grammar point or pronounce a word even though they’ve only tried a few times.
Some things will probably take longer to learn than you think, but it’s worth sticking with them. You’ll be so glad you did when you can finally say them right.
7. Take responsibility for your own learning
Don’t wait for a teacher or book to tell you what you need to work on. Take some time to review your own learning and to notice gaps in your knowledge. For example, after you practice using the language, ask yourself questions like:
Remember: each mistake is a little sign that you just learnt something. To make progress, set yourself the goal of making more mistakes, not fewer. Paradoxically, this approach will help you make fewer mistakes in the long run, as the feedback after each mistake will help you get it right next time.
10. Get motivated
Deliberate practice requires a lot of effort, so it can be tricky to get motivated. Here are a couple of tips:
1. Build up the habit gradually
Let’s imagine you want to do 30 minutes of deliberate practice a day. If you try to do it through willpower alone, you might run out of steam after the first few days. The key is to build up the language learning habit gradually. Start with something that’s impossible to say no to, like 1 minute per day, then increase by one minute each day over the course of a month until you get to 30. Habits built up over time are much easier to stick to.
4. Use the 2 minute rule
Once you’re in the habit, you may still have days when you don’t feel like doing deliberate practice. On these days, try setting yourself the goal of working for 2 minutes. You’ll probably find that after 2 minutes, you’re happy to carry on by force of inertia. Even if you decide to stop after 2 minutes, the fact that you didn’t skip your study session completely will make it easier to get back into it the following day.
All work and no play makes language learning really dull
So we’ve established that deliberate practice is good: it will probably help you speak a language better and faster.
My problem is, it doesn’t fit in very well with my life philosophy.
It’s the kind of thing people write about on those blogs that tell you that putting butter in your coffee (?!) will make you richer, thinner and better in bed.
The pressure to be the best at everything doesn’t motivate me, it makes me want to hide under the covers. Sure, I want to speak a language well, but I want to enjoy learning it too. Because of it’s not fun, what’s the point?
While deliberate practice is about decomposing the skills and practicing the details, play, in the form of reading and listening to, or watching things you enjoy is essential. It helps you put all the pieces together and interact with the language as a whole.
And it keeps you happy and motivated.
If you’ve been learning for a while, your play activities could be things like comic books, magazines, podcasts, films and TV series.
I’m currently on a French mission: I’m taking the DALF exam in November and I’m aiming to study for around 2-3 hours a day.
Last month, I decided to spend around half that time on deliberate practice, so I set myself the goal of doing the following activities each day (Monday to Friday):
25 mins grammar (learn rules + practice using them in writing/speaking)
25 mins pronunciation (record myself speaking + work on tricky sounds)
25 mins writing (practice writing + get feedback from native speakers on italki)
This turned out to be way too much: the idea of tackling that mammoth task each day was intimidating, so I ended up not bothering most of the time. I did reach my target of 2-3 hours of French most days, but it was almost always play activities like reading Tintin or watching Netflix.
So this month I’ve decided to concentrate on gradually building the habit of deliberate practice. On September 1st, I studied the 3 parts (grammar, pronunciation and writing) for 1 minute each. Since then, I’ve been adding on 1 minute per day and hopefully by the end of September I’ll be back up to my goal of around 25 mins.
Prepare conversation questions with the new words and grammar I’ve learned, so I can practice using them in conversation during the lessons.
Note down the things that my tutor often corrects me on and make an effort to practice them after class. For example, I make lots of mistakes with those pesky prepositions so I’m going to push myself to use them more in my speaking and writing tasks.
But I haven’t forgotten about playtime either! I’ve got a couple of audiobooks I’d like to finish and I’m planning on vegging out in front of a few French TV programmes/films.
What do you think?
Can deliberate practice help you learn a language? Which suggestions from this article can you use in your own language learning routine? Let me know in the comments below!
Can you roll your Rs?
Have a go now. Go on, no one’s listening.
If you made a lovely rrrrrr sound, you can stop reading and go back to Facebook.
On the other hand, if you’re anything like me when I started learning Spanish, you may have blown a raspberry, or made a noise that sounds like a cross between Darth Vader and a flushing a toilet.
If this is you, and you’d like to learn how to roll your Rs, keep reading.
In this post, you’ll learn:
Why you can probably learn how to roll your Rs, even if you think you can’t.
A simple method to train yourself to make the rolling R sound (that actually works).
A quick trick you can use right now to make your R sound more Spanish or Italian, even if you can’t roll your Rs yet.
Why can’t I roll my Rs?
The Italians and Spanish make it look easy, but the rolling R sound is actually pretty complex.
Also known as the trilled R, the sound is made by blowing air between the top of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. With the right tongue position, muscle tension and air pressure, this air causes the tip of your tongue to vibrate, creating a lovely rrrrrrrrrrr sound.
To get it right, you need to think about the following things:
Position: the tongue should rest on the little ridge behind your teeth (roughly in the same place as when you make the t sound).
Tension: the tongue should be relaxed enough that it can move up and down freely in the stream of air, but not so loose that the air passes straight over.
Air pressure: if you breathe too softly, your tongue won’t vibrate, but if you breathe too hard, your tongue won’t stay in the right position.
The rolling R sound requires you to coordinate your mouth muscles in a way that’s totally different from English (with the exception of some accents, like Scottish, which use the rolling R in words like grrreat).
If you don’t have this sound in your first language, learning to coordinate your muscles in this way can feel almost impossible.
Is the ability to roll your Rs genetic?
I always envied the kids in my Spanish class at school who could elegantly roll their Rs. Whenever I tried, I ended up with my face ended up covered in slobber. As my Spanish teacher (erroneously) explained that the rolling R is something you’re either born with or you’re not, I accepted the idea that I was not one of the lucky ones and decided to save myself the embarrassment of trying.
But 10 years later, when I was learning Italian in Italy, I found myself struggling with the rolling R again. I wanted a good Italian accent so I could blend in with the locals, but when you can’t roll your Rs, it immediately singles you out as having quite a strong foreign accent.
I’d always assumed that my problem was physiological – maybe something about the shape of my tongue meant I couldn’t do it – so I resigned myself to the fact that I would always have a crappy R in languages like Italian and Spanish.
Can I train myself to roll my Rs?
Luckily, a year or so later I met an Italian teacher at the school where I was working, who insisted that most people can train themselves to make the rolling R sound.
This was something I didn’t want to hear at the time because it felt like she was implying that I hadn’t tried hard enough. Didn’t she know that my problem was physiological?! No amount of practise would change the shape of my tongue!
I decided to practise the rolling R anyway, mostly to prove her wrong, so she’d stop being so smug around poor foreigners like me who couldn’t do it. I watched tutorials on the internet and started practising everywhere: waiting for my computer to load, washing the dishes, in the shower…
I didn’t expect it to work.
But it did. After a few days, I could feel my tongue getting closer to the rolled R. After a few weeks, I could do the Italian R quite well. I went from being irritated at the Italian teacher to wanting to hug her.
I could finally roll my Rs!
Why you can probably roll your Rs too
There was nothing wrong with my tongue, I just needed to retrain my mouth and tongue muscles so they could adapt to a new, complex sound.
You’ve had decades to fine tune your mouth muscles to make sounds in your first language. Training the muscles to make new sounds takes perseverance (probably way more than you think), so it’s easy to assume there must be some physiological reason why you can’t do it.
But in countries where Spanish or Italian is spoken, almost everyone can make the rolling R sound. Only a small percentage of people can’t do it because of physiological problems. The majority of us would’ve learnt just fine if we’d grown up speaking a language with the rolling r.
The good news: this means that with the right techniques and a good dose of perseverance, you can probably learn how to roll your Rs.
This tutorial will show you how.
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The other day, I was listening to a podcast about Leonardo Da Vinci.
He was a productive fella.
His accomplishments across different fields including art, science, maths and geography have earned him a reputation as the ultimate renaissance multitasker.
Which is interesting because he didn’t multitask.
Da Vinci had something in common with other ultra-achievers like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg – a method you can use when learning a language, that just might help you:
Learn a language fast
Enjoy the process more
Feel less stressed
The “one thing” approach that can help you learn a language fast
How much stuff are you trying to do at the moment?
Maybe you’d like to speak a language (or two), change jobs, read more books, learn how to cook, improve your fitness, learn to meditate, start a blog, learn to play a musical instrument…
Whatever goals you have, you probably like the idea of being able to do them sooner rather than later, so it’s tempting to start a few at the same time.
That’s the way most people, present company included, approach the things we’d like to do in life. It’s also the reason most people’s goals end up drifting on a to-do list that never gets done.
Really successful people do it differently
Da Vinci believed that trying to do lots of things at once is counterproductive. He said:
This might sound surprising coming from the renaissance man who had his finger in so many pies.
But when we think of Leonardo as a multi-tasker, we’re missing one important detail: although he achieved an insane amount of stuff in his lifetime, he didn’t do it all at the same time. According to biographer Sherwin Nuland, Da Vinci’s approach was characterised by an “ability to focus all of his intensity on the job immediately in front of him”
And he’s in good company. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett both single out their ability to focus on one thing relentlessly as the most important factor in their success.
Choose one language and say no to everything else (for a little while)
What might that kind of focus look like in your life?
It looks like a lot of no.
Steve Jobs challenged the idea that focus is about saying yes to the thing you want to focus on. In his eyes, deciding what not to do is just as important.
If you want to speak a language well, saying no to your other goals (for a little while) could be just as important as working on the language you want to learn.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a bucket list that looks like this:
Learn how to cook
Learn to play the guitar
Run a marathon…
It just means that you’ll be more successful if you tackle these things one at a time.
In the rest of this post, you’ll learn how to avoid the silly mistake I made that led me to the “one thing” philosophy, and science-backed reasons why it pays to go after your goals sequentially, not simultaneously.
At the end, I’ll talk about how I’m applying the “one thing” idea to my own language learning.
How not to learn a language
Focusing on one thing at a time is something I’ve never been very good at.
Case in point: over the last 10 months, I’ve been trying to learn 5 languages on top of a fairly busy schedule.
I was just about holding it together until I took on one more project at work. It was like clumsily throwing the last block on an already shaky jenga tower, and everything came crashing down.
I got ill, which may or may not have been stress related, and my brain melted.
So I did what any rational person would have done in my situation: I gave up on my language learning goals, assumed a starfish position on the sofa, ate ice-cream and watched all 3 seasons of Better Call Saul dubbed in French (just in case you were wondering, it sounds pretty silly in French).
The July heat in Milan didn’t help – my brain tends to go on standby over 30 degrees – but this mini breakdown had been brewing for a while.
Constantly busy but going nowhere
I’ve always had a bad case of shiny object syndrome.
I get enthusiastic about starting something new, then as the novelty starts to wear off, something else catches my eye: I start learning new languages before I’m happy with my level in the ones I’m already learning, or take on new projects at work without thinking about the time and energy it will take away from the things I’m already doing.
The result: I’m constantly busy but I don’t get much done. I get all the stress that comes with a hectic schedule, without the satisfaction of ticking things off my to do list. If you’re someone who likes starting new projects, this might sound familiar.
For the most part, having the impetus to start new things is good. It leads you on fun adventures and means you’ve got a lot of get-up-and-go – a valuable quality that not everyone has.
But if you don’t learn how to rein it in, it will keep you stuck on a hamster wheel – expending a ton of energy and getting nowhere.
How you feel about all this depends on your aim: if you like trying new things for the fun of it, or you want to learn bits and pieces in a few different languages, then go forth and dabble my friend.
But if your end goal is to speak a language well and you’d like to do it sooner rather than later, you’ll be less stressed and achieve more if you make that your sole focus for a while.
Extreme focus: 5 ways doing less can help you learn a language fast
1. You’ll do it better
If you try chasing a few goals at the same time, it’s difficult to find enough hours in the day to do any of them well.
Alternatively, if you make learning a language your only goal, you can give it everything you’ve got: your time, energy and willpower.
Needless to say, this will give you much better results compared to when learning a language is just another thing on your to do list you only get around to sporadically.
2. You’ll increase your chances of learning a language
Motivational psychologists have known for a while that you can dramatically increase your chances of reaching your goal by deciding when and where you’ll do it.
For example: “I’ll study Italian for 30 minutes during my commute” or “I’ll go to the gym before work on Monday, Wednesday and Friday”.
However, research shows that this tactic only works with one goal. As soon as you try to add more, you’re less likely to achieve any of them.
3. You’ll make faster progress
Imagine you have two goals, like learning French and German. Let’s say it takes 1 year to learn each language to the point where you can speak it well. You have two choices:
Learn them both at the same time: Your time will be split between French and German, so it will take you twice as long to learn each language. You’ll have to work hard for two years before you get the satisfaction of being able to speak the languages.
Learn them one by one:In the first year, you’ll be fully focused on one language, so you’ll learn it twice as fast. You’ll feel like you’re making progress, so you’ll be more motivated. After 12 months, you’ll get the satisfaction of speaking one of the languages well, and you’ll be able to apply your experience in language learning to the next one.
Humans are bad at delayed gratification. The longer you delay the results, the harder it is to stay motivated.
In the best case scenario, going after two goals simultaneously will take twice as long. In reality, it may take longer because you won’t benefit from the intense focus and extra motivation you get from choosing one goal at a time.
4. You’ll be less stressed (the Zeigarnik Effect)
Do you feel anxious when there’s lots of things on your to-do list that you never get around to?
There’s a reason for that.
Things that are still in process tend to stay in our minds more than things that are finished – think waiters who have brilliant memories of what people ordered while they’re still at the table, but forget as soon as they’ve paid the bill and walked out the door.
Zeigarnik, the psychologist who identified this effect, hypothesised that unfinished tasks create a kind of mental discomfort which causes us to keep thinking about the job until it’s reached its logical conclusion.
An example of this effect is the cliffhanger: when a TV episode finishes in the middle of something important, it creates a weird kind of tension that makes you want to keep watching.
This tendency to ruminate over unfinished business explains why unmet goals keep popping up and causing you stress.
If you’re working towards one manageable goal, the Zeigarnik effect works in your favour: it spurs you to take action until you reach the finish line.
But if you’ve got several goals on the go and you’re not making much progress, all that unfinished business will keep coming back to haunt you, causing a lot of unnecessary stress and worry.
5. You’ll enjoy it more
The better you get at something, the more enjoyable it is. Nowhere is this more true than in language learning. When you can speak a language well, you can chat to friends, watch films, listen to podcasts, read books… all the same stuff you enjoy in your first language. When you speak a language well, it no longer feels like work, it feels like play.
What about all the other stuff I want to do?
You can still do other productive things while working towards your goal of learning a language, like going to the gym, cooking or meditating.
The key is to have one goal that you actively pursue at a time.
By all means go to the gym, meditate, cook some tasty recipes. Just don’t give yourself any hardcore goals in these areas, like running a marathon, meditating for 30 minutes a day, or starting a cookery class.
If you want to take advantage of extreme focus to help you learn a language faster, just choose one language and give it your all, until you’re satisfied with your level. Once you’re done, you can move onto the next thing on your bucket list.
Language plans for August
My “one thing” for August is to improve my French. I’m aiming to reach advanced level by the end of November, when I’m going to take an exam to certify my level (it’s nice to have something concrete to aim for, otherwise “advanced” can get a bit wishy washy).
To reach it, I’m working on blocking out other distractions and clearing up around 3 hours a day (apart from weekends!) to focus exclusively on French. Here’s my plan for August:
Reviewing vocabulary with a flashcard app on my phone
I don’t have online lessons with my conversation tutor this month because I’m going to France for 3 whole weeks! I’m hoping I’ll get lots of opportunities to practise while I’m there. But I may end up booking a few classes if this doesn’t turn out as planned.
Before I decided to experiment with laser focus, I scrambled my way to intermediate level in 3 other languages – Spanish, German and Chinese. The next question is, how can I maintain my level in these languages without setting goals?
My plan is to do things that don’t feel like work in these languages, including: watching cheesy soap operas/reality TV shows, reading Harry Potter and chatting to conversation tutors on Skype.
My thoughts are: If it feels like studying, I have to force myself to do it. If I have to force myself to do it, then I need to set a goal. And I don’t want any other goals sapping my time and energy away from French.
What do you think?
Is it better to focus on just one language at a time, or do you have a different take on things? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
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