Intermediate level.

AKA the brick wall of language learning: if you bang your head against it for long enough, you’ll start to break it down – but it hurts.

As a beginner, if you only know 10 words, learning 10 more feels like a big win. But if you learn 10 new words when you already know 1000… meh.

You notice a dip in your progress as every new word or grammar point feels like a drop in the big language ocean. And as you’re not seeing as much progress as before, your motivation starts to wane.

Most people never make it past this point. But you can, by following this one amazing secret to reaching advanced fluency…

First, you’ll need some expensive software, lots of long vocabulary lists and a one way ticket to the country where the language is spoken.

Now throw all of that away and just keep doing what you’re already doing.

I’m not good with fancy language learning techniques: I don’t know any one-size-fits all shortcuts and I can’t help you memorise 2000 words in 10 days while you sleep.

But I do know that if you stick with it, you’ll get there.

The only way to get past intermediate level, then, is to not quit. And while there are no magic remedies, there are some important steps you can take to speed things up and make the process more enjoyable.

Here are 7 (almost) painless ways to push through the intermediate plateau. At the end, I’ll tell you how I’ll be integrating these ideas into my own language learning in March.

7 simple ways to push past the intermediate plateau

1. Shake it up

One sure-fire way to slow down learning is doing stuff that bores you. Our brains like novelty: we remember things more easily when we experience them in new contexts.

So if the idea of studying gives you the yawns, it’s time to try something new. The beauty of language learning is that there are so many ways to achieve the same result. Try a new book, follow a recipe in your target language, watch a TedTalk, listen to a podcast or meet a native speaker in the pub for a language exchange.

One word of caution: avoid shiny object syndrome, that is, collecting lots of new language resources and not using any of them. The key is to find the right balance between consistency and trying new things. This balance will look different for each person. For me, it means switching up my methods/books/materials every month or so, while keeping other things constant. Which leads me to number 2…

2. Find your rituals

I get bored quickly and I’m always on the lookout for new textbooks, TV series, YouTube videos etc. to keep things interesting. That said, I’ve got a few learning rituals that I try to keep constant because I know they work for me. Depending on the language, this might be my study time, the way I remember vocabulary or my lessons with online tutors.

3. Choose stuff you enjoy doing in your native language

At intermediate level you can (and should) start using materials for native speakers. This makes life a lot more interesting as you can finally move on from “the book is on the table” to real and interesting content. Choose something you enjoy doing in your native language: reading sports news, photography blogs, video games, soap operas – whatever floats your boat – and look for ways to do it in the language you’re learning. It takes time to look up new words and get used to the sentence structures, so if you don’t care about what it says in the first place, you’ll get bored. Quick tip: if you’re using blogs, try the google translate add-on to translate words directly on the webpage.

4. Smaller is better

There might be something that you never feel doing, but you know it will help you get to the next level. For lots of people (including me!), it’s anything that feels like school, such as learning grammar rules. Try starting with a very small goal, like 10 minutes. Once you’ve started, you’ll often find it wasn’t as bad as you thought and you’ll be happy to keep going for a little longer.

5. Measure your progress

At intermediate level, progress is an accumulation of lots of little steps: it’s difficult to notice improvement from one day to the next. But if you look at your language skills over a longer period of time, you’ll realise just how far you’ve come. Recording a video or audio file once every few months is a great way to track your progress over time.

6. Celebrate your achievements

When you were a beginner, you’d have been really excited at the idea of reaching intermediate level. Now you’re here and you’re beating yourself up about not being advanced yet. It’s human nature: as soon as we reach one goal, instead of celebrating, we move the goal post. Stop beating yourself about not being further ahead and start celebrating how far you’ve come.

7. Be like Buddha

Did you know that Buddha was a polyglot? Actually I just made that up. But his dedication to the present moment would have made him an excellent language learner. It takes time to learn a language: if you view the process as something you have to “white-knuckle” until you get to advanced level, you’re going to make yourself miserable in the meantime. Instead of looking at the big gap between where you are now and where you want to be, focus on each step that moves you on a little from your current level. Find things you enjoy, focus on the task in hand and the learning will take care of itself.

Those were my 7 keys to push through the intermediate plateau. Next, I’m going to tell you how I plan to apply these ideas to my own language learning in March.


My Language learning plans: March 2017

I’m learning 5 languages at the moment. To manage them all, I give myself 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.


I’m currently doing the Add1Challenge for Mandarin: I’m trying to learn as much as possible in 3 months so I can have a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker on day 90. Here’s my day 60 update.

Last month

In February, I set myself the following tasks:

– Keep working through the Pimsleur and Assimil courses: I’m almost done with the Pimsleur course, but I need to get a move on with Assimil if I want to get through it before the challenge finishes.

– Read 1 graded reader story per week: I managed 3 weeks out of 4, so I’m happy with that.

Learning Chinese with graded readers

– Translate videos on fluentu: I aimed to translate one video per week from Chinese into English and back again. The videos were short, so I managed this without too much trouble.

– Have 3 conversation lessons per week with a native speaker on italki. I really enjoy chatting to my conversation tutors, so I met this target easily.


As I write this, there are only 10 days left until the end of my challenge – eek! Day 90 is approaching fast and I need to knuckle down, but I’m getting bored of following such a structured routine. For the last 10 days, I’m going to shake it up by creating an immersion environment at home. This means when I’m not working or socialising, I’ll immerse myself in Chinese by listening to podcasts, reading, watching videos or chatting to native speakers online. No structure, no routine, just whatever I feel like doing, whenever I feel like doing it.



I try to study German for an hour a day, most days. It’s one of my little language rituals that’s been working out well for me over the last year.

Recently I’ve been feeling a bit lazy so my daily German practice has turned into 60 minutes of German TV. It’s certainly better than nothing and I feel like my listening’s improving, but I know I could make more progress if I learned bits of grammar here and there. In March I’m going to try and squeeze in 10 minutes of grammar per day.


Other languages

With the exception of German, I’m going to ease off my other languages in the first part of March so I can focus on my Chinese immersion.

Here are my plans for Italian, French and Spanish in the last 2 weeks in March:




I’ve got a big pile of Italian books by my bed that I want to work my way through this year. I’m not doing very well with this so far as I’ve been trying to read in bed and I’m one of those people who conks out as soon as their head hits the pillow. I’m going to try and make some time for reading in the day and see if this helps.

My big pile of (unread) Italian books


In January and February I aimed to work on my Italian pronunciation for 10 minutes per day, but for some reason, I’m finding it hard to sit down and get started. Perhaps I’m not very motivated because the methods feel a little too much like hard work. In the rest of March, I’m going to look for more enjoyable ways to work on my Italian pronunciation.

French and Spanish

In February, I translated a 3 minute dialogue per week into English and back into French/Spanish. I find this technique super useful, but but I’m starting to get a little bored. I’ll probably come back to it at some point in the future but I’m going to take a little break for now. So for the last 2 weeks in March I’ll focus on stuff I really enjoy, like watching TV or listening to audiobooks.

I also aimed to learn 5 words per day, which I didn’t manage. I’m going to take it down to 15 words per week to give myself a more achievable target (I can always do more if I feel like it).

Finally, to keep improving, I feel like I should be doing a little grammar, so I’m going to try and do 10 minutes a day in both languages.

How about you?

Do you hit a language wall sometimes? How do you get over it? Let us know in the comments below!


Last year, I was toying around with the idea of learning German but not doing much about it.

Then one afternoon, after being sucked into a YouTube rabbit hole, I came across a video of this really enthusiastic dude who had set himself a challenge: to have a 15 minute conversation with a native German speaker after 90 days.

He was bounding around, chatting away in German and his enthusiasm was infectious. My initial thoughts were:

  1. What is this guy on – and where can I get some?
  2. I want to learn German like that!

After his German mission, Brian realised that he achieved more when he teamed up with other people who had the same goal, compared to learning alone (science supports this idea too). So he started bringing together other language learners to help them have a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker after 90 days, and the Add1Challenge was born.

I joined the Add1Challenge for German last year and I’m now doing it for Mandarin Chinese. After having met Brian while doing the challenges, I’m happy to confirm that he’s just as enthusiastic about languages in real life!

Brian’s helped tons of people learn a language over the last few years and his advice is really worth listening to.

Today, he’s going to share his 3 keys to:

  • Lasting motivation
  • Effortless study
  • Reaching your language goals

Join in!

If you’d like to join in, you can apply for the Add1Challenge here.

What do you think?

After you’ve watched the video, I’d like to hear from you: which of the 3 keys do you think is the most useful? How can you implement these ideas in your own language learning routine?

Happy learning!

Have you ever been so busy you didn’t have time to wash your socks?

That’s what last month was like for me.

The start of term and some exciting new projects at joy of languages (more on this later) made January an insanely busy month. This meant most of my language learning plans went down the pan – together with my dignity and personal hygiene.

As February looks like it’s going to be another big month, I need to regroup and come up with a plan.

No one is busy

They say no one is too busy, it’s just a matter of priorities. I like this idea, but I’ve never really put it into practice.

If I’m honest, I know I sometimes use busyness as an excuse not to do things.

When I step back and look at my day, it’s easy to see how I could create more space by prioritising better. I often waste a lot of time worrying about details; If I focus my energy on the important things and stop faffing about the small stuff, I should be able to free up some time.

I also tend to run around doing things I think are urgent, but in many cases I could do them later, or another day (or not at all).

This month, I’m going to slow down and make more time for language learning (and washing my socks). When I catch myself using the “I’m too busy” excuse, I’ll know it’s time to move things around and look for opportunities to get some language learning in.

What’s going on this month?

Here are some exciting projects that have been keeping us busy at joy of languages this month:

  1. I wrote a guest post for the lovely folks over at Fluent in 3 Months: the best way to learn a language: what the science says
  2. Our Italian crew is growing fast and we did our first live Italian class on Saturday. To get invites to future classes and find out when courses open, join our Italian club here.
  3. We’ve teamed up with Brian Kwong from the Add1Challenge to create a special Add1Challenge for Italian learners (fantastico!) We’ll let you know more about this soon.
  4. Brian’s helped 1000s of people learn a language over the past few years. He’ll be sharing some of his best advice in a free workshop on Tuesday 3pm GMT. Sign up here: How to stay motivated and reach your language goals.
  5. The #languagediarychallenge is going strong, and we’ve now got over 500 photos and videos of people talking about their day in the language they’re learning. Well done everyone! We’ll be announcing the winner of January’s challenge at the end of Brian’s workshop. Look out for the next challenge in March.

My Language Learning Plans February 2017

I’m learning 5 languages at the moment. To manage them all, I give myself 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.


My sprint language is Chinese as I’m currently doing the add1challenge for Mandarin. Over the 3 month challenge, I’m aiming to learn as much Chinese as possible so I can have a 15 minute conversation in Mandarin Chinese on day 90.

I recently recorded a 30 day update, which went like this:

In January, my plan was to:

  • Keep working through the Pimsleur and Assimil courses. I did bits and pieces last month, but I need to get a move on if I want to finish them by the time the challenge finishes mid march.
  • Read 1 graded reader story per week. I fell behind with this and only managed half a story in the whole of January. I’d like to get back into 1 story per week for February.
  • Finish the elementary series of FluentU. This is my favourite resource, so I managed this without too much trouble! But so far I’ve just been watching the videos, which is starting to feel a bit too passive. This month I’m going to try the translation method where I translate a video from Chinese into English and back again. This will give me more practice in building sentences. I’ll aim for one video a week.
  • Have 3 conversation lessons per week with a native speaker on italki. This is another one of my favourite ways to learn, so it was easy to fit the lessons in. I’m going to keep this up in February.


I’ve been studying German for 1 hour a day (most days) ever since I started back in December 2015. January was a little sporadic, but I’m getting back into the flow.

To make sure I stick to my hour a day, I use the “don’t break the chain” technique, which involves putting a mark on the calendar for each day I study. Once I get a long chain, it motivates me to keep going as it’d be a shame to break the chain. Here you can take a look at my German chain and see how it’s going.

The only way to really know if I’ve made progress this year is to compare myself speaking German at the beginning and at the end of 2017. Here’s where my German’s at now:



I’ve got a big pile of Italian books that I want to work my way through this year. I started in January, but I didn’t read a lot. In February I’m going to try to read for 30 minutes before bed, most days.

My (unread) Italian book collection


In January I wanted to work on my Italian pronunciation for 10 minutes per day. I only managed a few days last month. The main problem was that I hadn’t really decided what I was going to do in the 10 minutes, so I ended up feeling a bit lost and putting it off. So for February, I’ve made a plan:

  1. Warm up (tongue twisters or reading passages aloud)
  2. On alternate days:
    1. Work through my Italian pronunciation book
    2. Annotate Italian sentences, record myself saying them and compare to the original

French and Spanish

My goal is to move up a level in both of these languages by the end of 2017. To know if I’ve made progress, I need some before and after videos! Here’s where I’m at now:

In January I aimed to translate a 5-minute dialogue per week into English and back into French/Spanish. I managed this some weeks, but I struggled to keep up. I’m going to take it down to 3 minutes so it’s more doable (and I can leave more time for fun things like watching French and Spanish TV).

I also aimed to learn 5 new words per day. I didn’t manage this every day, but I think this is a good pace. I’m going to try to be more consistent with this in February.

How about you?

What are your language plans for February? Let us know in the comments below!


So you want to learn Chinese, but it sounds too much like hard work.

I know the feeling.

I’m currently learning Mandarin Chinese, but I’m too lazy to study. In fact, if Garfield and Homer Simpson had a love child, I’d probably beat it in a lazy competition. If I could be bothered to compete, that is.

My love of languages combined with my love of doing nothing means I’m always on the look out for ways to learn a language that don’t feel like work.

This is easier in some languages than others. For Spanish, I can happily while away an afternoon under a duvet watching Netflix or telenovelas.

For Mandarin, it’s a little tricker. But if there’s one thing I’m willing to work hard at, it’s finding ways to avoid working hard.

So I’ve collected a list of resources for those days when you can’t be bothered to open a textbook.

Here’s a list of YouTube videos, stories and TV series to help you learn Mandarin without lifting your behind off the sofa.


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

FluentU helps you learn Chinese with real-world videos. Their newbie series teaches basic grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation with the added advantage of never having to open a textbook.

YangYang Cheng
YangYang Cheng’s YouTube channel is full of practical and fun videos like “learn Chinese tones the fun way” and “hang out with Yang Yang’s parents”. Her pronunciation videos are a great place to start if your tones need some work.


Graded readers
Science shows that reading is a super effective way to learn a language, but the idea of reading Chinese can be intimidating to say the least! This is where graded readers come in. They are books which are pitched slightly above your current level, so you can read with a good flow whilst picking up a few new words and sentence structures along the way. My favourites are the Chinese Breeze series.

Slow Chinese
I do love a good slow language podcast! One of the hardest things about learning a language is listening to a stream of indecipherable speech: it’s hard to tell where one word ends and the next begins. Slow Chinese takes it down a notch so you can practice listening to real, spoken Chinese at a more manageable pace.


Viki is a video streaming site full of TV series in Chinese, Korean and Japanese. They’ve got a strong community who crowdsource subtitles, which means that episodes are translated into an impressive number of languages. A sort of East Asian Netflix, only with better subtitles, and free.

So there you have it – a few ways to learn Mandarin for those moments when you can’t be bothered to get off the sofa (Chinese takeaway optional).

What do you think?

Have you used these resources before? Which is your favourite? Do you have any more to add to the list?



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What does the future, better version of you look like?

Mine’s fluent in lots of languages, wears matching socks and doesn’t eat nutella straight from the jar.

In January, lots of us chase after that better version of ourselves, whether it be learning a new language or eating healthily. But by February we’ve already gone back to our old ways.

Why is positive change so hard?

One reason is that we usually think of change as something that happens in the future. We get excited about the super-duper future version of ourselves, without stopping to think about what that actually looks like in the present.

The problem with goals

Big, far away goals don’t work because they’re too abstract. We never feel accountable for them now, which is the only time we can ever do anything about anything.

There’s always a later: when we’re less tired, less busy, more motivated. So when I find myself with a teaspoon and a jar of nutella in hand, it’s fine because “future Katie will sort it out”. Future Katie’s got a lot of shiz to do.

Got a spoon anyone?
Got a spoon anyone?

It’s been printed on so many trite motivational posters that it’s lost all meaning, but Confucius was right when he said that a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. If we want to make big things happen, we have to move our attention to the little things we can do right now.

In the words of DJ Casper, we need to…

Break it down now

Whether you prefer to get your motivational quotes from Confucius or DJ Casper, the point is this: humans are notoriously bad at delayed gratification. If I have a big goal like “learn Spanish”, I don’t know when (if ever) I’m going to get the satisfaction of reaching it. It doesn’t mean anything to me.

To learn a language in 2017, stop thinking about big goals like “learn language X” and break it down into small, real activities, like learning 5 words a day. That way, you’ll know exactly what you have to do and you’re much more likely to do it.

Breaking language learning down into mini goals is aligned with the psychology of what motivates us. You get satisfaction from regularly hitting your targets and your brain releases a little hit of dopamine, which strengthens the reward cycle and makes you more likely to repeat the behaviour.

Once you’ve got the routine in place, all you have to do is keep doing what you’re doing. Continue putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually you’ll walk a thousand miles, or know how to speak Spanish.

Smaller is better

Having a big goal isn’t a bad thing: after all, it’s nice to know where you’re headed. But unless you think about what that looks like, realistically, in your day-to-day life, you’ll keep finding excuses to put it off. It’s less glamorous than the imaginary, super-duper future you, but it works.

I’ve got a rough idea of where I’m going this year, but my real focus is on the details: What am I going to do every day? Every week? Every month? If I work on getting these things done, the rest will fall into place.

My language goals for 2017

I’m currently learning 5 languages. To manage them all, I give myself 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.


From January to March, my sprint language is Mandarin Chinese. I’m doing the Add1Challenge at the moment so I’m aiming to learn as much Mandarin as I can over the next 90 days. This is where my Mandarin was at on day 0.


How’s it going so far?

Here’s what I managed (and didn’t manage!) to do in December, and my plans for the next couple of months.

Textbooky stuff

In December I was hoping to finish the Pimsleur audio course and my Assimil textbook.

I didn’t.

I find learning from books and audio courses a bit boring and my plan was to rush through it so I could move onto more exciting things in January. This backfired, as making myself sit and do things I don’t enjoy started to feel a bit masochistic. Most of the time I swapped it for more appealing resources like graded readers and videos.

This might seem a bit hypocritical in a blog post entitled “how to get shiz done”. But an important part of getting stuff done is to realise when shiz isn’t working anymore and come up with a new, better plan.

So I’m going to give myself until the end of the Add1Challenge in March to complete these courses. By giving myself a nice, long deadline, I can leave more space for things I enjoy without feeling guilty.

Authentic-ish materials

In December I aimed to watch one FluentU video per day and read one graded reader story a week. I like learning this way so I managed to surpass these targets. In January, I’m going to continue reading one graded reader story per week and finish the FluentU elementary course.

Learning Chinese with a graded reader
Learning Chinese with graded readers


In December, I set myself the target of 3 conversation lessons per week with native speakers on italki. I managed around 2. I’d like to get more organised with this as it’s an enjoyable way to learn and it’s also the best way to improve my speaking skills.

I’m going to keep the same target of 3 lessons per week and make more of an effort to squeeze them in.


I aimed to learn around 5 new words a day, which I did. Woot woot! I’m going to keep this up in January.


I started learning German back at the end of 2015. Since then I’ve been doing 1 hour a day like a little worker bee (most days) and my German is gradually getting there.

I feel confident talking about basic stuff, but I still get tongue-tied if the conversation moves on to more advanced topics. My goal in 2017 is to keep doing what I’m doing so that by the end of the year I’ll be able to talk about more interesting things.

Learning German Vocabulary
Learning German with flashcards

To make sure I stick to my hour a day, I use the “don’t break the chain” technique, which involves putting a mark on the calendar for each day I study. Once I get a long chain of crosses, it motivates me to keep going as it’d be a shame to break the chain. At the moment my chain is at 49, and I don’t want to lose that streak!


In 2017, I’m going to take the advanced Italian exam (C2 CEFR level). I’ll start studying for this once I’ve finished my Chinese mission in March.


Hi everyone, my name’s Katie and I’m addicted to buying books that don’t have time to read. But this year’s going to be different! In 2017, I’m going to work through the pile of Italian books that have been collecting dust over the past few years (plus a few kindle ones).

My (unread) Italian book collection
My dusty Italian book collection


In December I aimed to do 30 minutes of pronunciation practice per day. I only managed to do this a few times during the month. Looking back on it, 30 minutes was way too long. This year, I’m going to aim for 10 minutes a day so it feels less overwhelming. Everyone can find 10 minutes a day, right?

French and Spanish

I’d love to take my French and Spanish up a notch this year. At the moment, I’m somewhere around intermediate in Spanish (B1) and upper intermediate in French (B2). By the end of the year, I’m aiming to reach upper intermediate in Spanish (B2) and advanced in French (C1).

To do this, I’m going to use the same technique for both languages: each week, I’ll translate a 3-5 minute dialogue, learn around 5 words per day and study grammar as it “pops up” in the dialogues. But I’m not going to push myself too hard. On those days where I can’t be bothered to do anything (which happens a lot!) I’ll just chill out and watch French and Spanish TV.

Language adventure!

I’m planning a language learning adventure for summer 2017. When and where depends on how life pans out: me and my better half Matteo are looking for a house at the moment and we don’t know what stage we’ll be at this summer. If we’re in the middle of moving, it’ll be a mini adventure in Europe. But if we’re free, we’ll venture somewhere further afield like Mexico, Brazil, or China. Can’t wait!

Where will my language learning adventure take me?
Where will my next language learning adventure take me?

How about you?

What are your language goals in 2017? Let us know in the comments below!



You know those great life ideas you always talk about (often after a few drinks) but never actually get round to doing?

Me and my Italian other half, Matteo have always talked about making a podcast to help people learn Italian.

Our conversations would go something like this:

“Yeeah! As a half English, half Italian team, we understand the problems people have when learning Italian, and we can show them Italy through the eyes of an Italian. And it’d be loads of fun to make.”

Me and Matteo, enjoying our favourite part of Italian culture: the food!
Me and Matteo, enjoying our favourite part of Italian culture: the food!

So this month, I’m excited to announce that we actually went and did it!

Introducing our new Italian podcast, 5 minute Italian, which will help you learn Italian in bitesized pieces.

In today’s episode, we’re talking about how you can use words you already know in English to start speaking Italian quickly.

To get access to future episodes + loads of bonus materials like flashcards and speaking workshops, subscribe to our Italian mailing list.

I hope you enjoy listening to 5 minute Italian as much as we enjoy making it.

Now we’d like to hear from you

What would you like us to talk about in future episodes of 5 minute Italian? Let us know in the comments below!

Do you find language learning boring?

Not long ago, my answer to this question would have been a resolute no. I’d always enjoyed learning languages because it never felt like work.

I used to ditch textbooks as soon as I could in favour of more interesting things like reading books, watching TV and films, listening to music and most importantly, finding lovely native speakers to chat to. I’d dive head first into the culture and come out the other side being able to speak the language. It was fun.

But that changed recently.

Language learning got boring

As my language goals got more ambitious, my learning style changed for the worse. I tried to capitalise on my new found motivation to learn a language “the proper way”, by using textbooks, learning grammar rules and memorising words.

And let me tell you, it was dull.

Learning this way choked the life out of the languages I was learning. I love languages, but I don’t give a shiz about grammar and vocabulary unless I can see it being used in real life. The living language that comes up in authentic materials, not those cringey conversations in textbooks.

Don’t get me wrong, textbooks are useful in the beginning to get a basic idea of how the language works. And later, they come in handy as a reference. But there’s nothing more boring than learning grammar and vocabulary out of context.

Learning with authentic materials

I like learning that stuff little by little as it “pops up” in books, films, TV series, music and conversations with native speakers. When I can link grammar and vocabulary to a real conversation, a character in a book, or a scene in a film, it comes alive. I learn better this way because I’m genuinely interested in finding out what people are saying and I want to learn how to talk like them.

Of course, it’s hard to learn from an impenetrable flow of words, so it’s important to choose materials that are the right level. This is where resources like graded readers, the easy language series and slow spoken podcasts come in handy. Materials that use the language in real and engaging ways but in simple and slow speech that learners can understand.

Learning Chinese with a graded reader
Learning Chinese with a graded reader

November language learning review

My November language missions got off to a bad start because I’d planned too much time on the textbooks. I wasn’t interested in the materials I was using and I struggled to get motivated. So halfway through the month, I pulled the plug on my original plans and went back to my old learning style:

  • I swapped my German textbook for the Easy German YouTube videos.
  • I put my Italian grammar book back on the shelf and spent more time working with TV series.
  • I cut my flashcards down to maximum 5 new words a day, so I could spend less time rote memorising words and more time engaging with the language in authentic contexts.
Learning German with videos
I swapped my German Textbook for YouTube videos

These changes worked and I feel like I’ve finally got my language learning mojo back.

Language goals for December

My priority for this month is to keep learning with authentic resources I enjoy, including:
– Books, websites, magazines, TV, films, radio, and music
– Chatting to native speakers on italki

Using the language

One problem with authentic materials is that the learning can be quite passive: you absorb a lot of language through listening and reading, but you don’t practice using it.

I’m going to make my study sessions more active by doing the following:

  • Mini talks: In each session, I’ll speak aloud for a few minutes about what I read or heard. This will give me the chance to practice using any new grammar and vocabulary that comes up.
  • Bilingual translation: I’m going to translate short dialogues into English and back into the language I’m learning. This technique will help me hone my listening skills and practice building sentences.
  • Recycling: I’ll revisit grammar and vocabulary and use it in new contexts, either by writing example sentences or using them in conversation questions for my language tutors on italki.

Pop up grammar

I’m not going to sit down with a textbook and study grammar in a linear way. Instead, I’m going to investigate grammar questions as they “pop up”. For example, if I’m reading something in German and I hear the word “alles” (everything), it might remind me that I sometimes see the word “alle” (everyone) and that I don’t fully understand the difference between the two. When questions like this pop up, I’ll make a note to investigate them further once I’ve finished reading/listening.


Good pronunciation is probably the most important language skill you can develop. It’s the first thing people hear when you open your mouth and it has a strong influence on your perceived mastery of a language. Clear pronunciation helps you manage conversations smoothly, blend in more easily and allows you to feel closer to a culture and its people. This month, I’m going to give pronunciation the attention it deserves.

Eff it days

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a little lazy voice in your brain won’t stop shouting “eff it, let’s just sit around in pjs all day eating cheese” (or is that just me?!). When this happens, I’m going to give in to temptation and do “lazy” activities in my target language like watching TV and films. And probably eat too much brie.

I might look up the odd word or grammar point that comes up, but I won’t force myself to do anything if I don’t feel like it. This way I can recharge my batteries whilst still getting exposure to the languages I’m learning.

You d
You can even learn in your pyjamas!

The languages I’m learning

At the moment I’m learning 5 languages. Each month I have a sprint language, which I focus on intensively, and 4 marathon languages, which I study in a more relaxed fashion. In the sprint language, I immerse myself in the language as much as possible through daily activities like watching TV, reading and listening to the radio. My sprint language for December is Chinese.


I’m planning to join the add1challenge in Chinese which starts on the 12th Dec, so this month’s all about Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is one of my newest (and weakest) languages and I’m still using beginners material to get a basic idea of how it all works. In December I’m aiming to whizz through these and get onto authentic materials as quickly as possible. Here’s the plan:

  • The textbooky stuff
    – Assimil: I’ve got around 30 chapters left and I’m hoping to finish this before the month’s up.
    – Pimsleur: I’m going to listen to the Pimsleur level 3 Chinese course on my walk to work. I’m aiming to do one 30 minute lesson per day.
  • Authentic(-ish) materials
    I’m going to read one graded reader story per week and watch one video on FluentU per day. On lazy days, I’ll switch off my brain and veg out in front of some Chinese TV on
  • Speaking
    I’m aiming to do around 3 lessons per week with native speaker tutors on italki
  • Pronunciation
    I’m going to learn about Chinese pronunciation by working my way through these videos from the lovely Yangyang at yoyo Chinese.
  • Vocabulary
    I’m aiming to learn around 5 new words per day. I’ll do this by choosing the most useful words I come across in my reading and listening and adding them to my Chinese flashcard set.


This month’s Italian goal is all about pronunciation.

My Italian accent certainly isn’t bad: I’ve even managed to fool people into thinking I was a native speaker for short amounts of time. But it’d be really cool if I could manage to do this for longer periods of time, and more often.

Sounding exactly like a native may not be a realistic goal, but it’d be nice to get as close as I can.

To do this, I’m going to work on two areas:

1. Sound training

To improve your pronunciation you need to train your mouth muscles to adopt the right mouth positions, and your ears to hear the differences between sounds which seem similar to non-native ears. I’m going to focus on the pronunciation of one sound per week by using my Italian pronunciation book, watching YouTube videos and practicing tongue twisters.

2. Sentence training

As well as individual sounds, it’s important to pay attention to whole sentences and paragraphs in order to imitate the speed, rhythm and intonation of native speakers. To do this, I’m going to pick a short dialogue, listen several times and analyse how the Italian sounds differ from the English ones. Then I’ll record myself reciting the scene and try to make my pronunciation as close as possible to that of the native speaker.

I’ll also going try the shadowing method, developed by polyglot Alexander Arguelles, which involves talking over a track and trying to match your speech as closely as possible to the native speaker voice underneath.

Lastly, I’m going to play around with the audio editing software audacity which will help me compare my pronunciation to that of the native speakers.

I’m aiming to do this for around 30 mins per day (apart from weekends!) with sound and sentence training on alternate days.

As well as pronunciation, I’m going to keep working on my listening and learning about Italian culture by watching 30 minutes of TV per day and watching 1 Italian film per week.

Spanish, German and French

In November I developed a language learning routine which has been working really well for me, so I’m going to continue using it for Spanish, German and French this month.

Each week, I pick a 5 minute dialogue (with original language subtitles) and do the following:

  • Pronunciation warm up: tongue twisters, songs etc.
  • Speaking practice: a 3 minute mini talk – what can I remember about the dialogue?
  • Listening: watch the dialogue and check, did I miss anything out?
  • Bilingual translation: listen to 1-2 minutes of the dialogue and take notes in English. Then translate the English text back into the original language. Note down any new grammar and vocabulary.
  • Listening: listen to the original dialogue and check against my version. Correct any mistakes.
  • Pop up grammar: investigate any grammar questions that come up during the translations.
  • Shadowing: listen to the dialogue again and read along, trying to match my speech as closely as possible to the native speakers’.
  • Vocabulary: add a few new words to my flashcards and review vocabulary from the last few days.
  • Recycling: once the dialogue’s finished, reuse the new words and grammar to write example sentences and questions for my language tutors on italki.

This technique is motivating because I can use it with resources I enjoy, like TV shows and films. And it’s effective because it squeezes all of the important language skills in over a relatively short amount of time including speaking, listening, reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

It looks like December’s going to be full of language learning fun, I can’t wait!

What do you think?

Do you sometimes find language learning boring? What do you do to make it more exciting? Let us know in the comments below!


Are you one of those people who did Spanish in school but barely learned how to say ¿Dónde está el baño? (my hand’s up).

If so, you’ll know that the way we learn languages at school doesn’t work for most people.

At school, they teach you lots about Spanish, like irregular verbs and word lists, but they don’t teach you how to talk to people. It’s a bit like trying to learn to play the guitar by reading sheet music. And just as you’ll never learn to play the guitar without picking one up, you’ll never learn to speak Spanish without practicing how to use it in real life situations.

The top tools for learning Spanish are ones that teach you how to say stuff you actually want to say, and help you understand Spanish the way it’s spoken in the real world.

Here are 11 resources for Spanish learners which will do exactly that, from beginner to advanced:

Picking up the basics

A good beginners’ course will give you the tools you need to build Spanish sentences right from the beginning. They’ll help you pick up words and grammar naturally through repetition and show you how to apply what you learn in new situations.

1. Michel Thomas Spanish

The Michel Thomas method has to be one of the top resources for picking up the basics at lightening speed. It helps you learn grammar painlessly by organising verbs into groups that are super easy to remember, and takes advantage of the 30-40% of English words that have a Spanish equivalent (known as cognates) like family/familia, centre/centro. You’ll be surprised at just how much you can say after only a few hours of listening!

2. Pimsleur

One of the biggest challenges of learning a language at the beginning is remembering all of those words and phrases. Pimsleur drills Spanish into your brain by repeating things you’ve learned in new contexts and building gradually on what you already know. It can be a little old fashioned in places (the plot follows someone on a business trip), but when used in combination with other resources, it’s an good way to fix the basics in your mind.

3. Coffee Break Spanish

The Coffee Break series is a delightfully relaxed way to pick up Spanish in bite sized pieces. The lively and interactive lessons help you remember key phrases and introduce new stuff at a nice pace. Presenter Mark Pentleton throws in lots of cultural notes and anecdotes, which make the lessons a pleasure to listen to. The series goes from beginner right up to advanced, and the podcasts are free.

Getting conversational

Now you’ve picked up the basics, you can start using Spanish in your daily life. It’s time to dive in and practice speaking (even if you don’t feel ready yet!) and gradually start doing stuff in Spanish that you enjoy doing in your native language. As you start venturing into the world of real Spanish, you’ll need plenty of support from subtitles and slow, clear speech.

4. italki

If you want to get good at speaking, you’ll need to start talking to native speakers. italki is a fab website where you can get one-to-one conversation lessons with native Spanish tutors for as little as $5 an hour. The Spanish tutors on italki can:

– encourage you to speak

– help you find the right words

– gently correct your mistakes

– teach you new words and phrases when you need them

All the necessary conditions for learning to speak a language! And you don’t need to worry about speaking slowly, making mistakes or sounding silly – most tutors are friendly, patient and used to working with beginners.

5. News in Slow Spanish

News in Slow Spanish makes a refreshing change to the boring or overly simplistic topics a lot of learner resources cover. The presenters talk about the week’s news in an interesting and entertaining way, in Spanish that’s clear and easy to follow.

6. Easy Spanish

Easy Spanish is a series which helps you learn Spanish “on the streets”. Presenters visit locations across the Spanish speaking world and pose interesting questions to passers-by such as “What would you do if you had superpowers?”. The interview format is perfect as you hear the same question over and over, and the answers are usually pretty entertaining. To help you follow along, there are big subtitles in Spanish and smaller subtitles in English. The bilingual subtitles make these videos especially handy for using the translation method, which involves translating the conversation into English then back into Spanish, to practice building Spanish sentences.

7. SpanishDict

Once you start engaging with real Spanish, you’ll need a good dictionary to look up the new words you come across. My favourite is SpanishDict because it gives you lots of examples of how the word is used in different sentences, which gives me a better idea of how to use the word myself later on. There’s also a really handy grammar reference for learning when to use the different verb forms.

8. Memrise

As well as a good dictionary, you’ll need a way to remember all the new words you learn. Memrise helps you learn words more efficiently by showing them to you at specific intervals which optimise learning. The method, known as spaced repetition, is based on observations by memory researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus, who noticed that we remember information better when we learn it a few times over a longer period of time, compared to many times within a short space of time. You’ll find lots of ready made Spanish courses already on there, but the best way to use memrise is to upload words that you’ve already seen in context. This makes them much easier to remember and use in future.

Honing your skills

Now you can hold a conversation and understand simple spoken Spanish, it’s time to hone your skills by learning how native Spanish speakers communicate with each other.

9. Gritty Spanish

Gritty Spanish is a series of funny Spanish dialogues where the characters fight, gossip, get drunk, go to strip clubs and break the law. It’s full of naughty Spanish words, so you can start to fill in those all-important gaps in your vocabulary, and there are side-by-side transcripts in English and Spanish which make it easy to look up new words and phrases. The dialogues have voice actors from all over the Spanish speaking world, so you can start to get an idea of how Spanish differs depending on where it’s spoken.

10. Your Web Browser

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

11. Netflix

Netflix is full of Spanish language TV shows and films, and the selection keeps growing. Many of the shows are available with closed caption subtitles so you can read along in Spanish if you struggle to follow the audio alone. You can leverage the English-Spanish subtitles to do learn with the translation method, or just kick back with some snacks and enjoy a relaxing Spanish TV binge.

Those were my 11 favourite resources for learning Spanish, if you have any more to add, please share them in the comments!

What do you think?

Which of the above resources do you think will be the most useful in your Spanish mission? Why?

The longest I’ve ever stayed awake is 52 hours.

It was 2010 and I was writing my university dissertation at the very last minute. I sat in the 24 hour library for 2 and a half days, fuelling myself with Red Bull and chocolate raisins. When I got home and looked in the mirror, my face had turned a weird yellow colour.

Just last year, I stayed up for 30 hours before handing in my Masters dissertation.

Let’s just say time management is not my forte.

Fortunately, procrastination has never caused me any major problems (I always manage to pull things off at the last minute) but it makes everything more difficult than it needs to be.

And that’s exactly what happened with my language learning projects in October. Overall, I pulled it off. I hit most of my targets and I’m pleased with how much I learned.

But my procrastination really got in the way. I knew I should be doing something, but I ended up fiddling with my phone, going on Facebook, getting lost in a wikipedia web, staring out the window with my finger up my nose etc. etc. You know how it is.

To hit my targets I had to cram lots in over the weekend. I felt like I was constantly “catching up” which was stressful. And stress makes things more difficult to learn and remember. 

If I can just break my procrastination habits, I’ll have more time, feel more relaxed and things will start falling into place.

War on procrastination

In November I’m declaring war on procrastination. I’ve got three weapons:

1. Tomato time

I’m going to use the pomodoro technique, which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, working intensively, then taking a 5 minute break. Pomodoro means tomato in Italian, named after the kitchen timer that the inventor used to time his work intervals. It’s based on the idea that everyone can study for 25 minutes. It doesn’t feel overwhelming so it’s easy to get started.

2. Make a schedule

In October I knew what I was supposed to be doing, but I didn’t plan when I was going to do it. In hindsight, this was probably the main problem as it gave me too much freedom to faff about. This month I’m going to make a daily study timetable and… actually stick to it!

3. Remove distractions

I broke the cardinal rule of studying as I often had my phone next to me while I was working. This month, I’m going to make a point of removing all distractions so I can really focus during my 25-minute stints.

As well as nixing procrastination, there’s one more way I’d like to improve my learning this month:

Use it or lose it!

In October I spent lots of time absorbing the language through listening and reading, and not enough time using it in speaking and writing. I’m a big believer in learning by doing, but my schedule isn’t reflecting this at the moment. In November, I’m going to focus more on using what I learn. I’ll do this in 3 ways:

1. Mini talks

I’m going to make listening and reading more productive by adding mini 2 minute talking sessions. When I’m listening or reading something, I’ll write down key words. Then I’ll use these keywords to speak aloud for a couple of minutes about what I just read/heard.

2. Recycling days

Every 3 days, I’ll do a session dedicated to recycling the language I’ve been learning over the previous 2 days. In these sessions I’ll use the language I’ve been studying by making videos, writing stories and giving example sentences. I’m also going to use them to write conversation questions, so I can re-use new words and grammar points in conversations with my language tutors.

3. Translate

I’m going to try the translation method which involves taking a short dialogue and translating it into your native language, then back again into the language you’re learning. This method helps you zoom in on the differences between your native language and the language you’re learning. It also helps you build sentences and gives you instant feedback so you can spot common mistakes and iron them out.

Language goals for November

At the moment I’m learning 5 languages. Each month, I have a sprint language which I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages, which I study in a more relaxed fashion. In the sprint language, I immerse myself in the language as much as possible through daily activities like watching TV, reading and listening to the radio. My sprint language for November is Italian.


I spent October studying for my advanced (C2) Italian exam, but I’ve just run into a big problema! The only exam session is on a Thursday, which I can’t do as I’m a teacher and I can’t take holidays during term time. The next one isn’t until June 2017, so I’ve decided to lay off the exam preparation stuff for a while and come back to it in April/May time.

On the plus side, I’ll have more time to focus on things I’ve been meaning to do for ages in Italian.

There are 2 main areas I’d like to work on:
1. Culture
2. Grammar

Culture goals

I live in Milan, and many of my friends are Italian, so I’m already immersed in Italian culture to some extent. But I know I can do more. The more I learn about Italian culture, the more I can integrate into the country I live in. And feeling close to a culture does wonders for your language skills. So this month, I want to dive even further into Italian culture. Here’s the plan:


I’ll watch one classic Italian film per week. This month’s films are Gomorrah, Il Divo, La Grande Bellezza and Amici Miei.


In my downtime, I’m going to get through the first two series of the Italian sitcom, Boris.

News and current affairs

In October I set myself the goal of watching 8 e mezzo, a current affairs programme which discusses the political situation in Italy. I used to love this programme, but forcing myself to watch it everyday has turned it into a bit of a yawn fest. So this month, I’m going to take it down to 2 episodes per week. I’m also going to start watching Report, an investigative journalism series which features interviews with people from all over Italy. This will be particularly good for finding out about different regions and hearing a variety of accents. Finally, I’m going to carry on watching the news every day.


I’ve just finished my book Gomorrah, so in November I’m aiming to read my next one, Cairo Calling by Claudia Galal.

My next Italian book
My next Italian book


My playlists this month are going to be filled with classic Italian artists like Fabrizio de André, Rino Gaetano, Paolo Conte and some newer ones like il triangolo, dente and i Cani.

Grammar goals

I’d like to revisit some bits and pieces of Italian grammar, so I’m going to work through 1 chapter a day of my grammar book. I’ll also have a recycling day every 3 days so I can apply what I’ve learned in new contexts.

On days when I manage to fit 2 hours in (which certainly won’t be everyday!) my timetable will look something like this:

Culture (1hr): TV: news/8 e mezzo/Report/Boris + mini talk
Grammar (1hr): 25 minutes translation method + 25 minutes from grammar book

I’ll read and watch films during my downtime in the evenings and at weekends.

German and Chinese

These two languages are my newest so I’m still building up grammar and vocabulary. In October I set myself the goal to do 1 chapter per day of my textbook (except weekends) and learn 40 new words per week. I also planned to do 2 lessons per week on italki to practice my speaking. I didn’t always stick to the plan perfectly, but I did manage it most of the time. I feel like I’m making good, steady progress, so I’m going to keep riding this wave. By Christmas I want to:

1. Finish my textbooks
2. Learn at least 1000 words in German (currently 878)
3. Learn at least 800 words in Chinese (currently on 550)

Learning Chinese
My Chinese textbook

I’ll be starting a new job in November, which means I’ll no longer have time to do 2 lessons each week. I’m going to try to squeeze one per week in so I don’t get out of the habit of speaking.

Learning German with italki
Online German classes

Finally, I’m going to include mini talks and recycling days to practice using what I learn.


In October, I set myself the delightfully lazy goal of watching 20 minutes of French reality TV per day. This is going well as hearing spontaneous speech is really helping my listening skills. I’m going to keep this up in November.

Learning French with reality TV
Learning French with reality TV

Although I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my lazy French approach, I’m starting to feel like I should revisit a little French grammar. So I was pleased last week when I came across a fantastic idea from Alex over at laptop and flipflops who gives himself a mini language goal each week. I’m going to steal this idea and learn one little grammar point per week. On Friday I’ll have a recycling day where I practice using what I’ve learned so far.


In October I listened to the delightfully funny Gritty Spanish, a set of mini dialogues for adults where the characters do naughty things like go to strip clubs and rob ice-cream trucks.

Gritty Spanish
Gritty Spanish

This month I’d like to use the dialogues in a more active way. Each day I’m going to one of the following:
1. Dictation: listen to the dialogue in slow mode and write down what I hear in Spanish.
2. Translation method: translate the dialogue into English then back into Spanish.
3. Mini talk: give a quick spoken summary about the dialogue.

I’m also going to take the new words and add them to my Spanish flashcards.

My Spanish flashcards
My Spanish flashcards

Finally, I’ll keep uploading one Spanish video per week on our Spanish-English Facebook group, vidiomas.

It looks like November is going to be a very busy language learning month, I’m excited! I’ll be back next month to let you know how it went.

How about you?

What are your language goals? How are they going? Share them in the comments below!

Fear. Stress. Boredom. Language learning can stir up a host of negative emotions.

One minute you’re yawning over a grammar book and the next you’re cowering under the table for fear of sounding like a cross between a 2 year old and Tarzan.

These bad feelings are bad news for language learners, because negative emotions like stress and boredom can wreak havoc in your brain and make it more difficult to learn and remember new things.

Your brain on stress

When our brains detect a stressful situation, the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (that’s a system of glands that release hormones, not an 80s hair metal band) pumps out stress hormones, like cortisol.

These stress hormones stimulate the fight or flight response, which came in very handy when we were living in caves as they helped us react quickly to threats, like saber-toothed tigers. Even today, small amounts are good as they keep us alert and focused on the task at hand.

But large amounts of these hormones suppress systems that aren’t deemed important for survival, like the ability to learn new information. And when you think about it, learning to conjugate a French verb probably isn’t all that important when you’re being chased by a tiger.

Too much stress is bad for your memory

Our problem is that we’re learning a language, not running away from big cats, and too much stress gets in the way of this learning process.

Studies show that people under stress have difficulties learning new words, which is linked to an excess of cortisol (Kuhlmann et al. 2005). Cortisol interferes with an important learning and memory centre in the brain, the hippocampus (which, alas, does not look like a hippo, but more like an upside down seahorse). It also stimulates the amygdala, the part of our brain which deals with emotions like fear. Psychologist Daniel Goleman (2006) explains that too much cortisol focuses our attention on the emotions we feel and limits our ability to take in new information.

Excessive stress can cause a whole of host of problems for learners like the shrinking of the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that regulates concentration, amongst other things – and fewer new brain cells being generated (Radley et al. 2004; Chen et al. 2008).

At this point you’d be forgiven for wondering why you chose such a strenuous hobby, instead of a lovely relaxing pastime like crochet or baking cupcakes.

The good news is that language learning also lends itself very well to positive learning experiences like fun and laughter. And research shows us that by capitalising on these positive emotions, we can enhance our ability to learn new information.

The science of joyful learning

French teacher Alfred Mercier once said what we learn with pleasure, we remember. Positive emotions boost our performance in a variety of areas including problem solving, learning, memory and verbal fluency. Scientists believe that this positivity advantage comes in part from increased levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter sometimes described as “the feel-good chemical”.

Dopamine plays a major role in several types of memory which are essential for language learning:

– working memory (when you repeat a word or sentence you’ve just heard)
– implicit memory (when you “pick things up” automatically)
– explicit memory (when you memorise new words or grammar rules).

Neuroscientist Martha Burns describes dopamine as “the save button” of the brain. When we learn something, the brain encodes the new information through neuronal connections, known as synapses. Burns says that the presence of dopamine strengthens the connections between synapses, making the new information easier to remember at a later date. This means that when we learn in a way that’s fun and rewarding, not only do we feel better, we learn better too.

One of the best ways to keep our brains receptive to learning is laughter. Studies of university professors reveal that using comedy in lectures helps students understand and remember the material better (Garner 2006). Laughter reduces hormones that inhibit learning, like cortisol, and activates regions of the brain associated with dopamine release (Berk et al 1989, Mobbs et al. 2003). Injecting humour into language learning reduces anxiety, increases motivation and helps things stick.

It’s time we started taking fun more seriously. To turn our brains into learning powerhouses, we need to develop strategies that help us manage negative emotions and learn with more enthusiasm and laughter. With this in mind, here are 13 ideas to make language learning less stressful and inject some fun into the process.

13 ways to make language learning joyful

1. Laugh at your mistakes

We language learners take ourselves far to seriously. Sometimes, we’re so worried about making mistakes that the idea of speaking causes lots of anxiety. But with the right attitude, mistakes are a perfect opportunity to lighten up and have some fun with native speakers. Many of my friendships with French and Italian speakers have been solidified by us laughing tears over something ridiculous I said by accident.

2. Play games

Over the last few years there’s been an explosion of online games which help you learn a language and have fun at the same time. Two of the most popular, duolingo and memrise, are available as apps, so you can download them and learn a language instead of playing candy crush.

3. Accept ambiguity

Languages don’t always follow logical rules. And even when they do, the rules sometimes feel out of reach as our brain isn’t ready to pick them up yet. Trying to grasp everything at once creates tension and gets in the way of learning. Accept that some things are still a mystery and they’ll be revealed little by little as you continue learning. When you approach languages with patience and curiosity (and don’t stress about what you don’t know yet) you’ll learn much faster.

4. Give yourself an eff it day

You know those days. When your brain just says eff it and sabotages all of your good intentions to study. These days are risky, because once you miss one session, it’s easier to skip the next one, then you start to feel guilty and it’s hard to get back on the study train. My secret weapon for these days (which happen pretty often) is to let my brain chill out by doing “lazy” activities in my target language, like watching TV, films or listening to music. If I’m feeling inspired, I might look up the odd word or grammar point that comes up, but I don’t force myself to do anything strenuous. This way I can stay on the study train without stressing myself out.

5. Do what makes you tick

What do you enjoy doing in your native language? Whatever it is, try doing it in the language you’re learning. If you like going to the pub, set up a language exchange at the pub. If you like reading news websites, find one in your target language and use the google translate add-on to quickly translate new words. If you like watching TV, look for similar programmes in your target language. If music’s your thing, try finding a group you like and translating the lyrics. Finding resources you enjoy is essential for bringing a spirit of fun to your learning.

6. Make it relevant

Learning grammar and vocabulary in an abstract way can be frustrating because it’s difficult to see how they will be useful to us in the real world. Whenever you learn a new word or grammar point, make it more concrete by linking it to real things and situations in your own life.

7. Find the right level

Too high and it’s frustrating, too low and it’s boring. When choosing resources, try and find that sweet spot where the learning flows easily: materials should reinforce what you already know and throw in a few new things without being overwhelming. Graded readers are great for this purpose as they’re specially designed to introduce a little new vocabulary and grammar at each level.

8. Shake it up

Routines are good as they help us work consistently. But ruts are bad, as they mean our minds aren’t stimulated enough. Shake things up every now and then by using the language in new ways. Visiting the country is a great way to do this, but there are plenty of ways to get new stimuli at home too. A few examples are language exchanges, joining a meet up group, writing a diary or recording yourself speaking.

9. Know when to call it a day

If you’re using a textbook or course that stresses you out or bores you to tears, change it! Often it’s the resources that are causing tension, rather than the language learning itself. There’s a right way for everyone to learn, and sometimes you have to experiment with a few different methods before you find yours. That said, be careful to avoid shiny object syndrome, where you keep collecting resources and not using any of them! Aim to find the right balance between trying new things and getting stuff done.

10. Use music

Music is a well-known dopamine booster and is great for learning a language in a fun and stress-free way. Learn the words to some songs in your target language and listen to them whenever you can. You can even sing along while you’re in the car or cleaning the shower!

11. Find the right people

When you’re practicing speaking, some people will stress you out more than others. It’s normal. Try and spend as much time as possible with people who make you feel relaxed and comfortable. Italki is a great place to find like-minded language partners and patient teachers.

12. Don’t forget to breathe

I tend to speak in a slightly higher pitch when I’m speaking another language, which is probably because I feel a bit tense. I find it helps to breathe steadily and focus on bringing my tone closer to my native one. I don’t always remember, but when I do it makes a huge difference as I feel much calmer and my speech flows better.

13. Give yourself rewards

Levels of dopamine increase in response to things that we know lead to rewards. For example, smelling cookies boosts dopamine because we know that the smell is usually followed by eating cookies. Neurologist Judy Willis says that giving yourself little treats at the end of study sessions helps your brain associate studying with rewards, boosting dopamine and motivating you to study more.


What do you think?

Do you find language learning stressful sometimes? What do you do to relax? Which of the above tips do you think would be the most useful in your own language learning?



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