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

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

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

So what stops people from learning to speak one?

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

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

What if people think I’m stupid?

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

So when Krisztina got in touch and asked “How can you beat your fear of speaking in a foreign language?”, I jumped at the chance to answer. It’s a great question about a problem that affects every one of us to some degree or another.

And the answer is simple.

Don’t.

It’s normal to feel nervous speaking a second language

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

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

I still get nervous speaking Italian.

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

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

Even chatting to friends can give me the jitters – especially the kind of friends who organise their kitchen cupboards and wear matching socks.

 

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

Be nervous and do it anyway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop waiting until you feel ready

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

They think:

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

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

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

Do it until it feels normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 non-intimidating ways to practise speaking a foreign language

1. Find your training wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This reciprocal deal takes the pressure off because:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Choose the right speaking partners

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

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

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

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

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

4. Speak often

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

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

5. Give yourself mini challenges

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

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

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

6. Always be prepared

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 ways to make friends with your nerves

1. Know that nerves make you a normal human being

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

2. Don’t fight it

Does this sound familiar?

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

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

3. Enjoy your nerves

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

4. Focus on the person you’re talking to

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

5. Adopt a growth mindset

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

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

6. Learn to laugh at yourself

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

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

Polyglot Q&A

Krisztina’s great question about fear of speaking came up in last month’s polyglot Q&A. Here’s the video where you can catch me jibber jabbering about it live:

Why don’t you join us for next polyglot Q&A?

It’s a great chance to:

  • Get help with parts of language learning that you are struggling with.
  • Swap ideas with a fab community of language learners.
  • Get actionable language learning tips you can start using straight away.

If you’d like to get involved, click here to sign up for the next polyglot Q&A

Over to you

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

Where’s the best place to learn French?

France, right?

I tried learning French in Paris once. Before then, I’d been learning French with audio courses, textbooks and a few private lessons with a strict French lady who was all grammar and no chat.

Needless to say, my speaking needed some work.

The idea: Spend a few weeks with my old housemate who lives in Paris. I’d meet his lovely French friends and get my speaking skills up to scratch.

The reality: My conversations went like this…

Parisian: Where you from?

Me: Je suis anglaise.

Parisian: Don’t worry, I speak English.

Me: Mais… Mais… je suis venue ici parce que j’aimerais apprendre le français. (But… I came here because I’d like to learn French).

Parisian: Ah… how long you stay in Paris?

Me: Environ trois semaines. (Around three weeks)

Parisian: And your plans?

Me: Sighs and continues conversation in English.

 The problem with learning a language abroad

This kind of conversation damaged my already fragile confidence in speaking French. If you’re an English speaker and you’ve tried practising with the locals on holiday, this might feel familiar.

You pluck up the courage to speak and you get Englished.

Why?

Maybe they think it’s easier. Or they see an opportunity to practise their English.

My usual trick to avoid getting Englished is to simply explain that I’m learning the language and I’d like to practise. People are usually happy to help by chatting to you in their native language, at least for a few minutes. And I did find a couple of patient Parisians who were happy to chat to me in French.

But for the most part, I struggled to practise my French in Paris. Learning a language abroad is not always as straightforward as it seems.

In Italy, I didn’t have too much trouble finding friends who wanted to speak Italian with me. This was not the case in Paris.

The problem with language classes

Next, I tried joining a French class, but it slowed me down for the following reasons:

  1. When the teacher talks to the class, the learning is passive, so it’s easy to switch off. I wasted a lot of time thinking: when will this woman stop talking so I can go home and have dinner?
  2. The curriculum isn’t relevant to your life. It’s based on what the teacher selects for a group of people, so you end up wasting time learning stuff that’s not important for you and skipping over stuff that is.
  3. You don’t get much speaking practise and hardly any one-on-one time with a native speaker (the best way to learn).

So learning French in Paris was too frustrating and classes were too slow. Luckily, I found a place to learn French that’s juuuust right.

My living room.

Which is great news because that’s also where my coffee and slippers live.

One of the best places for learning French is my living room. Which is great because that’s also where my coffee and slippers live.

Soon, I’ll talk about what I’ve been doing to get fluent in French from my armchair. But first…

What does fluent mean anyway?

Before we get into how to become fluent, we should talk about what that actually means.

Fluency means different things to different people. Some people think you have to sound like a native speaker before you can call yourself fluent. Others believe you can say you’re fluent as soon as you can express yourself without too many hesitations.

I think it’s somewhere in the middle.

Lets see what the Oxford Dictionary says:

Fluent: Able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately.

Easily and accurately. So you don’t need to sound like a native speaker, but you should be able to communicate comfortably without too many mistakes. This sounds like the “professional working proficiency” defined by the Foreign Service Institute as:

  • able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
  • has comprehension which is quite complete for a normal rate of speech
  • has a general vocabulary which is broad enough that he or she rarely has to search for a word
  • has an accent which may be obviously foreign; has a good control of grammar; and whose errors virtually never interfere with understanding and rarely disturb the native speaker

If you’re familiar with the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for language levels), it’s around C1 level.

Announcing my next language mission

My new language mission is to speak fluent French by the end of the year. To certify my level, I’m aiming to pass the DALF, a diploma awarded by the French Ministry of Education. It corresponds to C1/C2 level in the Common European Framework, so it fits in well with the definitions of fluency we talked about earlier.

I’ll decide whether to go for C1 or the higher C2 level nearer the time, when I have a better idea of the level I can get to. I’d like to think I can go the extra mile and get C2, but I don’t want to put myself under too much pressure, so we’ll see.

I’m excited for this mission! I love France and the language – speaking fluent French has always been a dream of mine.

So what’s the plan?

I’ve been learning French for a while and it’s going quite well – I’m enjoying it and making progress. My plan for the next month is to carry on with what I’ve been doing, but more intensively.

Speaking fluent French has always been a dream of mine so Im really excited about this mission!

How I’m becoming fluent in French from my living room

Take Online Conversation Classes

To improve my French speaking skills, I’ve been doing one-to-one conversation classes through a website called italki. I chat to native speaker tutors – called community tutors – on Skype and they help me practise my conversation skills.

They’re not qualified teachers, so the lessons are excellent value (as little as $5 hour). And I prefer it that way as I’d much rather use time with a native speaker to focus on conversation – I can study grammar and vocabulary from books. You can find some brilliant tutors on there – they’re fun, passionate about languages and patient with beginners.

So far, I’ve been doing these conversation lessons sporadically, but if I want to get fluent I’m going to need to rev it up. I’m aiming to do 3 lessons per week until the exam.

Good news – I’ve teamed up with italki to get you a discount. If you fancy giving italki a go yourself, click here to get $10 worth of free lessons.

I do conversations lessons with native speakers on italki. The lessons are good value and you can find some brilliant tutors – they’re fun, passionate about languages and patient with beginners.

Flood my ears

This might sound like something you should go to the doctors for, but it’s actually one of the most important things you can do when learning a language from home.

Whenever I can, I’ve got my headphones on and I’m listening to the language I’m learning. For the next few months, I’ll be listening to French podcasts and music while I’m walking to work, doing the dishes, cleaning the bath etc. Anytime it’s socially appropriate to have my headphones on, I’ll be filling my ears with French.

That reminds me, if you’ve got any good recommendations for French podcasts or music, please let me know in the comments!

Over the next few months, I’ll be listening to French podcasts and music as I go about my day.

Get into a routine

Whenever I start a project, there’s an over excited part of my brain that says things like: “Yeah! I’ll study for 5 hours a day, learn 100 words a week, read a book a week…”.

Of course I don’t manage to do even a third of these things, so I get discouraged and do nothing.

Over time, I’ve realised that this ambitious little voice does me more harm than good. I’ve learned that the key to making progress isn’t ambition, it’s routine. As Aristotle once said:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.

Instead of wasting energy chasing big ideas, I try to reign it in and establish habits that, when repeated every day, will get me towards my goal. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Reviewing vocabulary while I’m waiting for things: my computer to load, friends to arrive etc.
  • Squeezing in an hour of language learning before I start my day.

The last example, an hour a day, might seem like a lot. Here’s where the habit mentality works its magic. If you say “I’m going to study for an hour today”, it’s difficult to get started. Instead, focus on building a habit gradually by choosing something easy, say 10 minutes, and increasing by 1 minute each day. Soon you’ll be up to 60 minutes, and you’ll be more likely to keep it up compared to if you’d tried to do an hour from the get-go.

Set 2 minute goals

There are some parts of language learning that I don’t particularly enjoy, like writing and grammar. Until recently, I couldn’t motivate myself to do them, so I just ignored this part of language learning. And I’ve got a few holes in my skills because of it.

Fortunately, I’ve found a way to start getting on with this stuff.

When there’s something I don’t feel like doing, I set myself a mini goal of doing it for 2 minutes. Once the hard part (starting) is out the way, I’m usually happy to keep going for 20 minutes or more. But even if I put my pen down after 2 minutes, I achieve a lot more over time than if I hadn’t bothered at all.

Focus on sounds

Pronunciation often gets relegated to the bottom of the pile, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me: it’s the first thing people hear when you open your mouth and people make snap judgements about how good your speaking skills are based on your pronunciation (whether they realise it or not).

But when most resources are geared towards grammar and vocabulary, you have to make a conscious effort to focus on sounds. I’ve been doing just that recently and it’s really worthwhile. Here’s the technique I’ve been using:

  • Listen to simple dialogues (from textbooks) and write them down like a dictation.
  • Annotate sounds that are difficult for English speakers, like the “u” in menu, where the tongue is much further forward than in English.
  • Practise saying the words with tricky sounds, focusing on the mouth positions.
  • Listen to the dialogue again and read along, trying to keep my pronunciation as similar to the speakers’ as possible.

Keep it real

One mistake people often make when learning a language is to think they can learn grammar and words in isolation and put them together later. Languages don’t work this way. They’re a “learn by doing” kind of thing.

I find words and grammar only start to stick once I practise using them or see them being used in real life. Dropping them into conversations with native speakers is a great way to do this, but there are things you can do on your own too.

When I learn new words or grammar points, I put them in real life contexts by writing example sentences. Let’s imagine I just learned the phrase “Vas-y mollo” – go easy on something. Next, I try to think of sentences people might say, like

  • “Vas-y mollo sur le gâteau!” Go easy on the cake!
  • “Vas-y mollo sur le sucre” Go easy on the sugar!

Then I write them in my notebook.

Also, as I read and listen to the language, I try to keep an eye out for things I’ve studied being used in real life. If I’m feeling particularly motivated, I’ll write them down so I can come back to them later.

I try to keep an eye out for things I’ve studied being used in real life. If I’m feeling particularly motivated, I’ll write them down so I can come back to them later.

Turn passive activities into active ones

I’m quite a lazy learner: I enjoy passive activities, like listening and reading, but I struggle with active ones that require me to actually do something, like speaking and writing.

Because I spend more time on passive activities, I need a strategy to make them more active. One way of doing this is to write down keywords as I’m listening or reading, then talk aloud for a minute or two about what I heard/read. I’ve been doing this a bit already but I’m going to try and do it more over the next few months.

Learn more vocabulary

I’ll need to expand my vocabulary for the DALF exam. So far I’ve been learning 15 words a week and I’d like to ramp it up a bit. I’ve decided to increase the number slowly so it’s more sustainable. I’m aiming to add 5 extra words per week until I get up to 50.

I use flashcards to review the vocabulary I’ve learnt recently.

Time

Possibly the most important resource in language learning is time. I’ll need to put in a lot of time to reach an advanced level, so I’m hoping to spend 2-3 hours a day learning French (not including weekends). This means I’ll need a good balance of things that feel like work (writing, grammar and pronunciation) vs. things that feel like fun (podcasts, TV, books) so I don’t burn out.

Get into the culture

The closer I feel to a culture, the more motivated I am to learn the language. I’m going to follow French current affairs more closely by watching programmes on France 24 and reading the cheeky spoof news website Le Gorafi.

I’m a bit stuck for other resources to get into French culture – if you have any suggestions, stick them in the comments please!

Have an eff it day

When it all gets too much (or I’m feeling lazy) I’ll abandon all of the above and just watch French TV. It’s a great way of giving myself a break without getting out of the French habit. This will happen a lot.

Exam prep

To pass the DALF exam, I’ll need to improve my French and learn about how the exam works (some might argue that the latter is more important!). So this month I’m going to start practising the hardest part of the paper for me: writing. That said, I don’t want to lose sight of my main goal, which is to feel fluent in French, not learn how to pass an exam. So I’ll leave most of the exam prep until nearer the time.

What does this look like on a normal day?

Here’s my schedule for learning French over the next couple of months:

Daily (2 – 3 hours)

  • Active listening: Write keywords as I watch TV, then speak aloud about what I heard
  • Writing: Either exam practice, a diary entry or example sentences
  • Grammar: Exercises from my grammar book + example sentences
  • Pronunciation: Practise words with difficult sounds + read along with audio
  • Downtime: Watch TV or read
  • Earflooding: Fill my ears with French as I go about my day

Weekly

  • Practise one writing question from the DALF exam
  • Take 3 conversation lessons on italki
  • Learn 20 – 35 new words per week (gradually increase the number)

This plan isn’t set in stone. I might do more or less of certain things depending on my mood and I’m sure I’ll make tweaks as I go along. I’ll let you know how it’s going next month!

What about the other languages?

I’m learning 5 languages at the moment: French, Italian, Spanish, German and Chinese.

I say “learning” because I don’t believe you can ever really complete a language. I’ve taken the highest level exam in Italian, the boss level, but there was no baddy to fight at the end and my Italian level didn’t magically become perfect as soon as I put my pen down.  So even though I speak Italian to a high level, there’s always room for improvement and I enjoy getting into the lifelong learning spirit.

To manage all 5, I have one sprint language that I learn intensively and 4 marathon languages that I study in a more relaxed fashion. French will be my sprint language until further notice, so here are my plans for the others:

Italian

I took the C2 Italian exam last month – fingers crossed I passed! Next, I want to work on gradually closing the gap between me and a native speaker. I may never close it completely, but it’s nice to keep moving in that direction. The main differences between my Italian and a native speaker’s are:

Grammatical slips: When I’m speaking spontaneously, I still make some grammar slips with things like masculine/feminine endings. I’m going to try to pay more attention to this as I speak. I’m also going to record myself speaking once a week so I can listen back and self-correct my mistakes.

Vocabulary: The best (and most enjoyable) way to learn vocabulary is through reading. I’ve got a pile of books on my bedside table that I’ve been trying (rather unsuccessfully) to get through this year. Perhaps looking at the big pile is too intimidating, so I’m going to make it easier to get started by setting myself the mini goal: read one page in the evening. I’ll probably feel like reading more once I’ve got started anyway.

My pile of unread Italian books which I’m not getting through as quickly as I’d like!

Pronunciation: I’m going to work on my pronunciation using the “focus on sounds” method that I mentioned for French. I’ll aim to do this once a week.

Chinese

I’ve been neglecting Mandarin a bit since my last mission. I had big plans last month, but I didn’t get any of them done! I feel like I blinked and June disappeared, and I forgot about Chinese. My plans for June were:

  • Learn 15 new words per week
  • Continue watching Mandarin TV
  • Take 1 conversation lesson per week with a tutor on italki
  • Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per week
  • Scribble a short page of pinyin when the mood takes me

The only things I managed to tick off the list were: write a couple of pages of pinyin (with example sentences of words I’d learnt recently) and watch 3 tutorials on YouTube.

I’m going to dust myself off and try again in July.

German and Spanish

For Spanish and German, I’m keeping it short and simple:

  • Learn 15 new words a week + write example sentences.
  • Do some leisure activities like watching TV and reading

Over to you

French learners, I need your help! Can you recommend any good resources? Thanks in advance! If you’re not learning French, I’d still love to hear from you: which language are you learning at the moment? What are your goals this month?

Join in!

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

You worked so hard.

You spent ages squeezing those new words and phrases into your brain. Then you try to use them in real life and…

Nada.

You keep searching your brain, but everything you learnt has temporarily left the building.

We all forget things when learning a language. It’s part of the process. But the more you forget, the slower you learn because you waste a lot of time learning and re-learning things before they finally stick.

 

What if you could remember a language faster?

If you could get words, phrases and grammar to stick sooner, you’d rev-up the learning process. You’d struggle less and enjoy it more.

And there’s a simple, research-backed method you can use right now to help you remember a language more easily.

 

What we write by hand, we remember

I never thought I’d write a post about the benefits of writing in a foreign language. Until recently, I hated it: my spelling is bad, I make loads of mistakes and it just doesn’t seem that important – my priority is speaking.

What I didn’t realise is that by neglecting writing, I was missing out on a powerful tool for improving my speaking skills. In fact, writing can help in all areas of language learning because it boosts your memory.

Research suggests that writing helps people recall new vocabulary more easily: in one study, learners who were asked to write example sentences with new words remembered around a third more than people who just read them.

And it turns out that handwriting is better than typing. A number of studies show that people remember words better when they write them by hand, compared to on a keyboard. Researchers think that there’s something about the sensorimotor processes involved in writing letters by hand that helps us commit them to memory.

Similarly, researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer found that college students who take notes by hand recall information better than students who take notes on a laptop. Compared to laptop users, who can quickly type full sentences, students who write by hand have to listen, digest and synthesise the key points. Mueller and Oppenheimer believe that interacting with the information in this way helps students remember it later.

Did you know that writing by hand boosts memory more than typing? After I read about this research, I went out and got myself a new set of notebooks.

 

Why repeating stuff doesn’t work

These studies reveal some important points about memory and learning:

  • Reading something over and over is a terrible way to commit it to memory.  
  • Involving different senses in the learning process can help us remember better.
  • Thinking about information in new ways, rather than just mindlessly repeating it, boosts memory.

These are all linked to the fact that memory is context-dependent: if we learn information the same way over and over, the brain associates it with that specific context. This makes things easy to remember when we find ourselves in the same situation, but easy to forget when we’re in new situations.

Imagine you’ve lost your keys. When you retrace your steps, you make the situation more similar to when you lost them, which jogs your memory.  

If you learn something after a few margaritas, you’ll remember it better the next time you’ve had a few margaritas, compared to when sober (true story – researchers got people drunk and tested it).

If you learn words from apps and textbooks, you’ll remember them better while fiddling with your phone or reading a textbook, compared to when talking to native speakers.

Which explains why those words tend to go poof when you need them in real life.

In the words of Steve Kaufmann:

 

How writing helps you remember

If we want something to stick, we need to play around with it and use it in new contexts while we’re learning.

Writing is perfect for this.

Whether it’s example sentences, stories, diary entries or shopping lists, writing pushes you to apply what you’ve learned to fresh contexts. Just like the college students who took notes by hand, as you write, you organise your thoughts and interact with the information in new ways. This can lead to deeper processing and in turn, better memory.

Another reason writing helps you remember is that it encourages you to build connections between old and new. When you write example sentences or stories with words you’ve just learnt, you combine new vocabulary with things you already know. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that linking new information to prior knowledge boosts memory.

 

Write like no one’s watching

I’d always had a sneaking feeling that I was missing a trick by not writing, but I could never motivate myself to do it.

At first I thought it was laziness. Maybe I was intimidated by all the effort involved. So I set myself teeny-tiny goals of writing one sentence.

But I still didn’t get around to it.

Finally, I realised that my procrastination was actually just perfectionism in disguise: I was scared of writing something and staring down at a page of poop.

So I took the pressure off. Instead of aiming to write something amazing, I set myself the goal of writing one crappy sentence.

This made it easier to get started and ever since then, I’ve been scribbling away. In fact, I’ve got so into writing that I’ve been jotting down a quick page whenever I get chance.

And I’m already seeing results:

  • Words I could never remember are starting to stick.
  • Tricky grammar points are sinking in.
  • I don’t have to rack my brain as much when I speak.

If you’d like to get the memory benefits of writing, here are a few suggestions that will help you get into the habit:

6 ways to get into the writing habit

1. Start with tiny goals

Often the hardest thing about writing is getting started. Actually, the hardest thing is the idea of getting started: the mere thought of doing a difficult task has been shown to activate a part of the brain associated with pain. But the good news is, once you get started, these signals go away. Make it easier to start by setting yourself a tiny goal, like one sentence a day.

2. Be happy with crappy

Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves to do something well that we’d rather avoid doing it all together, than risk doing a crappy job. Lowering your expectations will help you get past the blank page syndrome.

3. Ask native speakers for feedback (but not always)

You can use websites like italki and lang8 to post your writing and get corrections from native speakers.

This kind of feedback is very useful, but don’t feel you need a native speaker referee every time you write something. Even if there are a few mistakes in your writing (shock horror!), it’s still great practice.

4. Use the internet as a substitute for native speakers

What’s the difference between this word and that word? Is this verb regular or irregular? Good ol’ google can answer a lot of questions that come up when writing. You can also check if you wrote something as a native speaker would by searching groups of words together. Let’s imagine I want to write “it went well” in German, but I’m not sure how to say it.

I type my attempt “es ist gut gegangen” (with quote marks) into google, and see lots of reputable looking websites which use the exact phrase “es ist gut gegangen”. Also, as I’m searching the term, google auto-suggests “es ist gut gegangen englisch”, which means that Germans have been searching how to translate this term into English.

It looks safe to assume that “es ist gut gegangen” is correct.

You can use google to get insight on how native speakers write. Here, google is giving me information on the type of phrases native German speakers search for.

This method isn’t foolproof (there are mistakes on the web, especially in forums) but reputable websites will give you some useful insights. A good online dictionary with examples will also help you learn how to use new words in a sentence.

5. Write by hand

We remember things we write by hand more easily than things we type, so get yourself a notebook and start scribbling.

6. Keep a diary

Writing a diary involves talking about everyday things that happen to you and the people around you, so you’ll end up practising using words and phrases that’ll come in handy in real life conversations.

Those were 6 simple ways to get into the habit of writing. Next, I’ll talk about how I applied these ideas to my own language learning last month, and my plans for June.

 

My Language Learning Plans: June 2017

I’m learning 5 languages at the moment: Italian, Mandarin, German, French and Spanish. To make it manageable, I have 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.

 

Italian

Next week, I’m taking my C2 Italian exam – mamma mia!

In May, I’d planned to practise my pronunciation and crack on with my grammar book, but I realised what I really need to focus on now is the exam. So I set that stuff aside for a moment and did the following:

Listening

I’ve been listening to news podcasts as I go about my day. I’m hoping this will stand me in good stead for the exam as the listening section is usually taken from radio programmes.

I’d planned to watch an hour of highbrow TV, like political shows, to boost my listening and improve my knowledge of current affairs in Italy. I didn’t manage an hour a day, but I did squeeze in half an hour of 8 e mezzo most days.

Reading

I’ve been reading the magazines National Geographic and Internazionale to prepare for the reading section (and because they’re interesting).

National Geographic is one of my favourite things to read in Italian. I’ve been using it to prepare for the reading part of the C2 exam.

Writing

I aimed to write one practice essay per week in May. I was really struggling to get around to this, so I made it easy for myself to get started by:

  • Setting the tiny goal of just reading the question.
  • Telling myself that it didn’t have to be amazing.

By the time I’d got started, I was happy to go ahead and write the whole thing. Actually, I quite enjoyed it! Overall, I managed 3 weeks out of 4, so that aint bad.

Plans for June

Between now and Thursday (D-Day) I’m going to focus mostly on practice tests.

 

Chinese

In May, I planned to:

  • Finish my graded reader story
  • Learn 15 new words per week
  • Start watching Mandarin TV (with Mandarin subtitles)
  • Take 2 conversation lessons per week with a tutor on italki
  • Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per day (except weekends)

How it went

I managed the first two things on my list without too much trouble.

Mandarin TV was proving to be quite tricky (having to stop every two seconds to look up words) until I found a fab “learning mode” tool on viki, the streaming service I use to watch Mandarin TV. It has interactive subtitles, so you can click on them to get instant translations of words. It’s my new favourite toy!

My new favourite toy: Viki is a streaming service with loads of foreign language TV programmes. They’ve just introduced a new “learning mode” with interactive subtitles where you can click on a word and get the translation.

I did 7 lessons with my online tutor this month, but I’m starting to feel like I need a bit of a break, and the summer months are going to be busy so I’m going to go down to one lesson a week for a while.

I barely watched any tutorials this month: I think the goal of 1 a day was too high so it put me off starting. In June, I’m going to try and watch one per week instead.

One thing that wasn’t on my list, but that I started doing a lot of, was writing. Sometimes I wrote diary entries, sometimes I wrote example sentences with new vocabulary, or words I struggle to remember. In pinyin. That might make character puritans wince, but learning to write Chinese by hand isn’t a priority of mine at the moment. By using pinyin, I can start writing straight away and it helps me remember words (and their pronunciation) more easily.

Plans for June

  • Learn 15 new words per week
  • Continue watching Mandarin TV (with Mandarin subtitles)
  • Take 1 conversation lesson per week with a tutor on italki
  • Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per week 
  • Scribble a short page of pinyin when the mood takes me

German

I’d got into a bit of a funk with my German over the last few months and my “studying” mostly consisted of watching TV. Great for listening, not so good for grammar or speaking.

Active listening

To make my listening more active, I’ve started writing down keywords as I watch. Once I’ve finished, I use them as prompts to talk for 2 minutes about what I’ve just seen. I don’t always do it (sometimes I just want to chill out in front of the TV!) but I do it quite often and it’s helping me pay more attention and practise my speaking.

Writing

This month I’ve started writing more and it’s given me another way to practise producing the language, rather than just absorbing it passively. In June, I’m going to try and write a page a day (but let myself off the hook if I’m feeling lazy).

Spanish and French

Last month, my target was to:

  • Learn 15 words a week in each language
  • Watch some Spanish and French TV/films in my downtime
  • Do active listening (see above)

I managed to learn the words and I watched a fair amount of TV/films, but I forgot about the active listening bit (oops). I’m going to try and do more of this in June.

This month I mostly kept up my French and Spanish by watching TV in my downtime. I really enjoyed this French stand up comedy show with Gad Elmaleh.

Writing

I started off the month writing bits and bobs in Spanish and French, but I had to stop as I’m worried the different spelling systems might creep in and cause me to make mistakes in Italian (definitely don’t want that right before the exam). I’m planning to get scribbling in my Spanish and French notebooks as soon as the Italian exam’s over.

That’s it for June, I’m looking forward to next month, when I’ll be revealing a new language project that I’m very excited about!

Join in

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

Over to you: Do you think writing in foreign language is useful? Are there any other benefits that I forgot to mention? Can you share any other fun ways to practise writing? Let us know in the comments below!

What comes to mind when you hear the word procrastination?

Sitting on the sofa in your underpants? Staring at GIFs on buzzfeed? Watching a 106 year old Indian lady give cooking lessons on YouTube?  (a few of the things I did while I should have been writing this article).

If you procrastinate, it’s easy to feel guilty because people associate it with laziness – doing brain dead stuff, like checking Facebook, when you should be getting on with something more important, like learning that language you’ve always wanted to speak.

Feeling work-shy is one reason you might struggle to get started. Most people procrastinate a bit when faced with something that takes a lot of effort: it’s just easier to watch an Indian grandma rustle up a nice biryani.

But there’s something else that could be stopping you from learning a language.

Learning a language: why can’t I just get on with it?

I realised there was more to my procrastination when I looked at the tasks I never get done. These tasks are:

  • Recording myself speaking
  • Writing sentences to practise new vocabulary/grammar points

I knew I’d struggle to start if these tasks felt too much like hard work, so I made it really easy by setting tiny goals: speak for 2 minutes, write one sentence.

But I still didn’t do it.

I found it easier to get around to more effortful tasks, like reading for half an hour, reviewing grammar or learning vocabulary.

If laziness wasn’t the problem, what was it?

Well, one thing these tasks have in common is that they require me to produce something, rather than just passively reading or listening to it. And I have to look at the results, which certainly won’t be as good as I’d like them to be.

Then I had an interesting thought: was I avoiding speaking and writing because I was afraid of being a bit shit at them?

To test my theory, I tried lowering my expectations. Instead of setting myself the goal of speaking well for 2 minutes, I asked myself to speak for two crappy minutes. A couple of crappy minutes didn’t seem that hard, so I started.

And once I got started, I wasn’t even that crappy.

Procrastination: perfectionism in disguise?

Many of us feel guilty when we put stuff off because we think we’re being lazy.

But sometimes it’s the fear of being shit – or to put it more delicately, perfectionism – that makes it so hard to get started. Maybe you’re putting so much pressure on yourself to be good at something that you’d rather avoid doing it all together, than risk doing it badly.

I get this feeling a lot in speaking and writing. But it could pop up at any point during your language learning. Do you ever feel disappointed when you think about your language skills, because you’re not as good as you’d like to be?

Why do you put off language learning?

If this sounds like you, there are two things that could be getting in the way of you getting down to language learning business.

  1. High perceived effort: If you think learning a language will take a lot of effort, you’re more likely to put it off.
  2. Perfectionism: If you’re worried you won’t live up to the standards you’ve set in your head, you’re more likely to put it off.

If you think learning a language will take lot of effort and you’re worried you won’t live up to the standards you’ve set in your head, it’s going to be really, really hard to get started.

The cause of your procrastination probably lies somewhere on the perceived effort vs. fear of being shit scale.

 

To beat procrastination (or keep it to a minimum) aim for the sweet spot in the bottom left corner: reduce the amount of effort it takes to start learning a language and your fear of being rubbish at it.

Let’s find out how.

 

3 research-backed ways to stop procrastinating and get on with learning a language

 

1. Reduce perceived effort with the 2 minute rule

Scientists have found that the mere thought of doing something we don’t want to do can activate the insular cortex, the area of the brain that experiences pain. This is probably why so many of us procrastinate: we’d rather avoid this discomfort by turning our attention to something more enjoyable, like looking at pictures of baby otters holding hands.

Why do people prefer looking at pictures of baby otters than doing something productive? Science has the answer.

But research suggests that we only experience this discomfort at the thought of the task, not while we’re actually doing it. In other words, it’s the anticipation of the task that’s painful, not the task itself. The secret lies in getting started. But how?

Writer James Clear suggests making it easy for yourself by using the 2 minute rule. Break the task into something super small that you can complete in 2 minutes. Instead of writing for an hour, ask yourself to write one sentence. Instead of reading a whole chapter, set yourself the goal of reading half a page. Once you’ve started, you’ll probably end up writing for an hour or reading the whole chapter anyway.

 

2. Forgive yourself

Does this sound familiar?

  1. Feel worried or anxious about a task that requires effort.
  2. Go on Facebook/YouTube/Buzzfeed to avoid said task.
  3. Feel worried, anxious… and guilty
  4. Procrastinate even more.
  5. Feel worse…

Negative emotions like guilt, anxiety and worry can throw you into a vicious circle of procrastination. The more you procrastinate, the more effort it takes to get started. The more effort it takes to get started, the more you procrastinate.

But research suggests you can break the cycle by letting yourself off the hook. One study found that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating before their last exam were less likely to procrastinate on studying for the next one.

Let’s face it, you’re probably not going to reduce your procrastination to 0% immediately after reading this article. But you can do yourself a favour by remembering that guilt and anxiety perpetuate the procrastination cycle. As soon as you realise you’re putting something off, forgive yourself and get back to business.

 

3. Embrace crappy

Lowering your standards doesn’t mean settling for subpar.

The opposite is true. Research suggests that students who consider less-than-perfect results a natural part of learning are more likely to become high achievers in the long run.

Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck calls this the growth mindset.

People with fixed mindsets see setbacks and failure as a sign that they’re not cut out for language learning. They avoid situations where they might get things wrong and miss out on important learning opportunities. The problems of this mentality seem obvious, but most people fall victim to this way of thinking at some point or another.

The growth mindset, or as I like to think of it, giving yourself permission to be a bit shit at first, makes it easier to learn a language. Once you realise that crappy is just the first stop on the road to fluentville, you don’t worry so much about forgetting words, speaking slowly and making mistakes.

By lowering your standards, it’s easier to get started so you’ll give yourself more opportunities to practise. And when you practise more, you’ll get better faster.  

Embrace crappy and you might just do your best language learning yet.

Those were 3 simple ways to reduce procrastination and get on with learning a language. Next, I’ll talk about how I plan to integrate these ideas into my own language learning this month.

 

My language learning plans: May 2017

I’m learning 5 languages at the moment: Italian, Mandarin, German, French and Spanish. To make it manageable, I have 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.

Italian

My sprint language for the moment is Italian as I’m preparing for the C2 (boss level) exam in June. Last month, I set myself the following goals:

Listening

  • Watch 1 hour of TV a day
  • Earflooding (aka filling my ears with as much Italian as possible by listening to podcasts on the tube, while doing the dishes etc.)

I didn’t always manage squeeze in 1 hour of TV every day (it’s not always easy to find an extra hour on busy days) but I did watch at least 30 minutes most days.  I also listened to lots of Italian podcasts as I went about my daily business. Now if only I could get myself to concentrate on what they are saying rather than thinking about what I’m going to cook for dinner…

I’m going to keep this up in May, with a small adjustment. I’ll try and watch more highbrow programmes about politics and such (there was a lot of dubbed Family Guy going on last month). This way, I’ll get more practice with the kind of things I’ll need to listen to – and talk about – in the exam.

Writing

I aimed to write 4 practice exam essays last month, but I only managed 1! The anticipation of doing these is definitely painful – I can almost feel my insular cortex going wild at the thought of it.

I’m going to make it easier to get started by setting myself a 2 minute goal: just read the question. This should help me overcome the urge to look at baby otters and get on with some work instead. Hopefully, once I’ve done that it’ll be easier to go ahead and do the whole thing. 

I had also planned to write a few example sentences with the new grammar/vocabulary points I learned, which I ended up avoiding because I was putting too much pressure on myself for it to be good. This month, I’ve set myself the goal of writing one crappy sentence. Then we’ll see what happens from there.

Grammar

In April, I aimed to review a few grammar points by doing 2 exercises a day. Over all I managed about 20 (out of 40), which means I skipped a lot of days. This is another one of those tasks which feels a bit painful, so I’m going to make it easier for myself by setting the 2 minute goal of one question per day.

Pronunciation

Last month I planned to practise 1 sound a day from my nerdy pronunciation book. Then my computer broke and I couldn’t access the sound files. Finding a way around this seemed like way too much effort, so I decided to wait until my computer was fixed before starting. I’ve done 4 sounds since I got my computer back from the shop last week and I’m hoping to keep this up in May.

Reading

Last month, I continued (slowly) reading my way through a pile of unread books by my bedside table. In May, I’m going to focus on reading news and science magazine articles as these are more similar to the reading tasks that will come up in the exam. 

This month I’m going to read Internazionale – a magazine that brings together Italian translations of some of the most important news stories from around the world

Chinese

In April, I planned to:

  • Read at least 1 graded reader story
  • Take 2-3 conversation lessons per week with a tutor on italki
  • Learn 15 new words per week
  • Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per day (except weekends)

What went well

I met my vocabulary and speaking targets: I learned 60 new words in total and I did 8 conversation lessons on italki.

Having a chat to Jane, my online Mandarin tutor. Online lessons are one the most useful (and my favourite) ways to learn Chinese.

What didn’t go so well

I didn’t watch as many YouTube tutorials as planned because it started to feel a bit counterproductive: I was learning new things when I hadn’t had time to assimilate the old stuff yet. So I abandoned this plan after the first week and spent some time reviewing instead. I didn’t quite reach the end of my graded reader so I’m hoping to finish off the last couple of chapters in the first week of May.

 

I’ve been using these graded readers to improve my Chinese reading and listening. They’ve been incredibly useful, but I’m feeling ready to move onto something new…

Plans for May

I’m starting to get a bit bored of using materials for learners, so for the rest of the month I’m going to try and watch Mandarin TV. Wish me luck!

Here are my plans for May:

  • Finish my graded reader story
  • Learn 15 new words per week
  • Start watching Mandarin TV (with Mandarin subtitles)
  • Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per day (except weekends)

German

At the moment I’m watching 1 hour of German TV a day, which suits me as I can improve my listening skills and chillax at the same time. I’ve also been doing little bits of grammar by pulling the odd sentence from the subtitles and trying to understand the grammar they used.

Active listening

Just one problem: when I’m watching TV in a foreign language my mind tends to drift and I don’t learn as much as I could. I’m going to address this by writing down keywords as I listen. Once I’ve finished watching, I’ll use these keywords as prompts to talk for 2 minutes about what I just watched. 2 crappy minutes.

French and Spanish

Last month, I aimed to learn 15 words per week in each language, which I managed without too much trouble. 15 words is a great number for me: big enough to make progress over time, but small enough for me to reach my target each week. I’m planning on keeping this up in May. I’ve also been doing some listening in my downtime, by watching films and TV in both languages.

Active Listening

I’m going to apply the same ideas I had for German to make my listening more productive:

  1. Take the odd sentence from the subtitles and try to understand the grammar used
  2. Write down keywords as I’m listening
  3. Use these keywords as prompts to talk for 2 minutes about what I just watched

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

Get involved in the conversation: What are your language learning plans for May? Share them with us in the comments below!

 

Spring is here.  

How do I know?

Because the cherry blossoms are blooming, the nights are getting lighter, and my bedroom wall has its first mosquito splatters of the season.

It’s not all gelato and vino living in Italy.

It gets too hot, my legs are the same colour as mozzarella (as a stranger once kindly shouted over to me on the beach) and I still don’t how to eat prawns with heads. La bella stagione is full of things that remind me I’m not made in Italy.

Despite this, I like to try and blend in – as much as my Persil white legs will let me.

Speaking the language

One thing that helps me blend in is speaking Italian. Learning the language builds an awesome bond with natives that you can’t get any other way.

Any attempt to speak the language – even if it’s just a few travel phrases – gives you an instant connection to people and their culture.

Of course, the more you speak, the stronger the connection. That’s why – even though I’ve been living here for years and can communicate comfortably – I’m always looking for ways to improve. I know that the better my Italian is, the more I can connect with Italians, and the more I’ll enjoy my life here.

So this spring, it’s out with the new and in with the old as I go back to focusing on the first language I ever learned: Italian.

Language Learning: April 2017

I’m currently learning 5 languages. To manage them all, I have 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages that I study in a more relaxed fashion.  Until June, my sprint language will be Italian.

Italian

I thought it’d be nice to have a piece of paper to certify my level in Italian, so I’ve decided to take the boss level exam in June. To help me prepare, I’ll do the following:

Listening

I’ll aim to watch an hour of Italian TV a day. I did something similar last year, but I specified which TV programmes I was going to watch beforehand. This turned out to be a schoolgirl error as I made something which should be fun into a chore. So this time, I’ll decide what to watch on a day by day basis, depending on my mood. Sometimes it’ll be highbrow stuff, like the news or political programmes, and sometimes it’ll be comedy. Or films on Netflix. By choosing my materials based on my mood, I’ll be more engaged and learn better.

Ear flooding

I’m going to try and flood my ears with as much Italian as much as possible. While I’m walking to work, cooking or cleaning the bath, I’ll be listening to Italian podcasts. This is especially useful because I know in the listening part of the exam they often use radio interviews.

Reading

I’ve been working my way (slowly) through this pile of books on my bedside table. I’m going to try and crank up the amount of reading I get done in Italian between now and June.

My (unread) Italian book collection

Pronunciation

I keep setting myself goals to work on my pronunciation but for some reason I’ve been struggling to get around to it. One reason could be because there are so many different things I want to try – I find it difficult to focus. I’m also a bit unsure about the best way to move forward. This month, I’m going keep it simple and do one thing at a time: I’ll focus on one sound a day from my nerdy pronunciation book (except weekends of course!)

My nerdy Italian pronunciation book
My nerdy Italian pronunciation book

Grammar

I need to refine a few grammar points, so I’m going to do 2 exercises per day (except weekends). I don’t believe in studying grammar for grammar’s sake, so after each session I’m going to use the grammar to write some example sentences about my life – this will help me practice using what I’ve been learning in real contexts.

My Italian grammar book
My Italian grammar book

Writing

I’ll need to write a mini essay for the writing part, so I’m going to write 1 mini practice essay per week. 

Chinese

In March I completed the Add1Challenge for Chinese – an online language challenge in which I tried to improve my Chinese as much as possible in 3 months. Here’s a little snippet of me chatting to my tutor Jane after day 90. 

What I did in March

I was getting a little bored of studying, so for the first 2 weeks in March I decided to create an immersion environment at home. I gave myself free reign: no structure, no routine, just whatever I felt like whenever I felt like it, as long as it was in Chinese. Obviously this meant I spent most of the time messing around on YouTube. But this worked out well: I had fun and I discovered lots of great channels and videos for learning Chinese, like Fiona Tian’s channel.

Textbooks/audio courses

I aimed to finish my Pimsleur and Assimil courses by mid-March. I finished a little behind schedule – it actually took me to the end of March – but I got there in the end so I’m happy.

What’s next

I found Chinese tough at first, but the more I learn, the more I love it! I want to keep learning at a fairly decent pace so in April, I’m going to:

  • Read at least 1 graded reader story
  • Take 2-3 conversation lessons per week with a tutor on italki
  • Learn 15 new words per week
  • Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per day (except weekends)
My Chinese reading materials

German

I’ve been “studying” German for an hour a day. I say this with quote marks because lately my study hour has consisted of watching German TV.  But I’m feeling good about it: I’m still getting my hour of German in, my listening is improving and I’m picking up new words.

In March, I aimed to do 10 minutes of grammar a day, which I managed most days. I don’t like studying grammar out of context so I’ve been taking example sentences from TV programmes and trying to understand the grammar they used. This technique is working well for me at the moment so I’m going to keep this up in April.

French and Spanish

In March, I aimed to learn 15 words a week in both French and Spanish. This is a great number as it’s small enough to catch up with the following week if I’m too busy or I forget (which happened last week).

Learning Vocabulary with flashcards

I’ve got loads of language stuff going on this month, so I’ve decided to take it easy with French and Spanish. I’m going to give myself carte blanche and do whatever I feel like – reading books, watching TV series, listening to podcasts – whenever I get time.

What about you? Which language are you learning at the moment? What are your plans for April?

Happy Learning,

The best way to learn a language is to go to the country.

How many times have you heard that?

There are lots of smart reasons to think this. When you try learning a language in your hometown, lots of things work against you:

  • Going to classes after work is expensive and a pain in the behind.
  • You can try working without a teacher, but you don’t know if you’re focusing on the right things.
  • It’s hard to motivate yourself because you don’t need it in your everyday life.

If you lived in the country, you’d need the language to survive, so you’d pick it up naturally. You’d hear it all day long and those words would finally stick. And you’d meet tons of people to practise with.

It seems logical.

But when I decided to learn Chinese, I couldn’t use any of these excuses.

Moving to China wasn’t an option: I had a great job, friends and family that I didn’t want to leave behind. And, I’d already spent a few months in China, without speaking Chinese.

A few bits of chicken in hot water

Summer 2013. My boyfriend Matteo and I are sipping Tsingtao beer by Houhai lake, waiting for our food to arrive. Pointing at pictures on the menu, we’d ordered some noodles with fresh vegetables, chillies and one little adjustment – chicken instead of beef. It was only when the waiter brought over two bowls of water with floating chicken pieces that we realised something had gotten seriously lost in translation.

In China, I survived by pointing at stuff. I’d get on a bus, shove my Lonely Planet under the driver’s nose and pray he’d take me where I needed to go.

During my travels, I met lots of expats who’d been living like this for years.

You can learn a language in your pjs

A couple of years later, I still really wanted to learn Mandarin.

I decided not to let the fact I was living in London stop me – I already knew that being in China wouldn’t necessarily make learning Mandarin any easier.

I also knew that language classes didn’t work for me. I’d tried before: if I wasn’t falling asleep or doodling, I was wondering what to buy for dinner on the way home.

So I started learning Mandarin from my living room. Mostly in my pyjamas.

I squeezed study time in here and there between work, friends and family. Day by day, almost imperceptibly, I learned a little more and a little more, until I could have conversation in Chinese. Here I’m chatting to my tutor Jane (turn subs on to see what we’re talking about). 

My Chinese still needs a lot of work, but I’m thrilled that I can now chat to native speakers. And I know if I keep going, it’ll get easier and easier.

Through trial and error, I’ve learned a lot about what to do (and what not to do) when learning a language at home. Here are 11 steps that really helped me in my quest to learn Mandarin on my sofa. I hope you find them useful!

 

1. Practise with native speakers

If you want to be able to chat to native speakers, you have to practise chatting to native speakers.

This sounds obvious, but most of us don’t do it and it slows us down. We put it off because we feel nervous about speaking and we want to prepare as much as possible before taking the plunge.

But in my experience, the stuff you learn from textbooks and audio doesn’t truly stick until you start trying to use it in conversation. There’s the catch 22: you want to learn more stuff before you start speaking, but you can’t learn it properly until you start speaking.

My suggestion: start before you feel ready. As soon as you’ve learned some essential phrases, get out there and start practising with native speakers. Especially if you feel like you’re not ready yet.

My favourite way to find native speakers is via italki. For $5 – $10, you can book one-on-one conversation lessons with native speakers, known as community tutors. They’re friendly, supportive and used to working with beginners.

Yes, even you.

Lots of people worry about being slower, or worse than other beginners, but I promise you you’re not! Everyone is slow at the beginning, it’s called being a beginner 🙂

If you’re really strapped for cash, you can use the language partner page to find a language partner who is learning your language and set up a language exchange on Skype. 

Practising with native speakers was the important thing I did by a mile: I never would have learned to chat in Mandarin if it wasn’t for my online tutors. If you only do one thing on this list, find yourself some native speakers to practise with. I know it feels scary, but you’ll be so glad you did. 

 

2. Ear flooding

This one may sound like a weird sinus problem, but it’s actually a powerful technique to improve language skills at home (or anywhere for that matter). Flood your ears with as much of your target language as possible, wherever you are. Download audio tracks to your smartphone and listen in the car, on the train, while washing the dishes or cleaning the bath.

Extensive listening boosts your speaking skills as the more you hear common words, phrases and sentence structures, the more they sink in, and the more naturally they come to you when speaking.

 

3. Find the right level

Listening to an indecipherable stream of words isn’t helpful: it’s frustrating and you don’t learn much as you can’t follow what they’re saying. Similarly, with reading, if you have to stop every two minutes to look up a word or grammar point, you’re going to get fed up very quickly. 

Research shows that a great way to learn a language is by reading and listening to things which are slightly above your current level, so you can get the overall meaning, but you meet some new words and phrases. Start with materials aimed at language learners like textbook conversations, simplified audiobooks and slow-read materials, then gradually increase the complexity as your level improves.

For Chinese, I started listening to conversations in my assimil textbook, then moved onto the Chinese Breeze series and intermediate level videos on FluentU. I still struggle to understand things made for native speakers, but I know if I keep gradually increasing the difficulty of my listening materials, I’ll get there.

 

4. Don’t obsess over grammar

Tons of people learn to speak a second language without ever studying grammar rules – maybe not perfectly, but enough to have good conversations with native speakers.

No one has ever learned to speak a language by studying just grammar.

I’ve got nothing against grammar per se (unless you’re memorising lists of irregular verbs in alphabetical order, then maybe I do) but the standard approach of learning grammar rules first and using the language later is flawed. That’s why most people leave school with no language skills.

As soon as you’ve got a few basics down, start learning by doing: speaking, reading, listening and writing. Then learn bits of grammar as you go along.

 

5. Stop comparing yourself with native speakers

The phrase “like a native” pops up everywhere in the language learning industry. The result: we spend most of the time comparing ourselves to native speakers and feeling like poop every time we see the big gap.

This is an insane way of looking at things, and here’s why: native speakers are surrounded by their language for an average of 16 hours a day. That means a 25 year old native speaker has been exposed to his or her language for around 146000 hours.

It’s estimated that language learners can get to an advanced level in around 1000 hours. Advanced learners can do amazing things in their second language like debating politics, working in specialist jobs and chatting to close friends without noticing a language barrier. But most still sound quite different to native speakers, and that’s OK.

Instead of comparing yourself to natives, compare yourself to the level you were at when you started. When you stop focusing on the difference between yourself and native speakers, you enjoy the ride. You spend less time worrying about your shortcomings and more time feeling good about the progress you’ve made.

 

6. Learn the right things

Without a teacher, it’s difficult to know if you’re focusing on the right stuff.

But here’s the thing: teachers don’t know what’s best for you.

The only person who knows what you really need to study is you. Only you know what you talk about on a daily basis: your job, your family, your hobbies, the questions you like to ask people, whether you like using lots of slang and swearwords, or whether you prefer to be a bit more formal.

Think about what you normally talk about and the kinds of things you need/would like to say in your target language, and focus on learning that stuff. This way, you’ll learn words and phrases that will help you speak quicker, rather than wasting time learning “what’s in your suitcase” and other not-so-useful classroom topics.

The next questions is: where can you learn to talk about things that are personal to you? There are two ways:

  1. Ask native speakers. As you try to communicate, you’ll naturally start speaking about your life, so you’ll learn how to talk about things which are important to you.
  2. Listen to and read about subjects you like – photography, football, dance, politics – in your target language. You’ll naturally pick up some useful vocabulary that you can use to talk about your interests.

 

7. Revive dead time 

One of the biggest challenges when learning a language at home is finding the time to fit it all in.

To get more study time in, I use language learning apps on my phone to fill dead time, like waiting in line at the supermarket or if my train gets delayed.

You’d be surprised how much it all adds up!

My favourite is my flashcard app, which I use to review vocabulary. Another great app for these times is duolingo.

 

8. Be consistent

You can do all the right things, but if you don’t do them consistently, you’ll never learn that language. That said, knowing that you have to be consistent and actually being consistent are two very different things!

Though I’ve struggled with this a lot in the past (and still do today!) I’ve found a method that works pretty well for me. The “don’t break the chain” method involves deciding how long you want to study each day (make sure it’s realistic!) and putting a cross on the calendar for each day you achieve it.

Once you get a streak of crosses, you’re more motivated to keep going because you don’t want to break that chain!

 

9. Chill out for a bit (but stay in the game)

We all have those days where we don’t feel like doing anything. I often can’t be bothered to study for days, sometimes weeks in a row. This is dangerous because if you stop completely, it’s really hard to get back into the habit.

For these times, I have a few relaxing activities that may not be the most productive use of my time, but that keep me in my routine. For example, I know watching TV is not an ideal way to learn if the level is too high and I can’t make out what they’re saying (especially if I use English subtitles) but sometimes I do this during my study time so that I can have a rest and stay in the game at the same time.

 

10. Fall in love with the culture

When I feel my motivation dipping, it’s often because I’m getting so bogged down with studying that I start to forget the reason I want to learn in the first place: to connect with Chinese people and their culture.

When this happens, I spend a little time browsing articles or watching videos about China. This is enough to bring my motivation back and get me all excited about speaking Chinese again.

 

11. Join a community

Another tricky part of learning a language by yourself is staying motivated when you’ve got no one to answer to and share your struggles with. You make excuses to yourself and slack off one day… then the next day… then the next until you’ve completely forgotten about your language learning plans (together with that gym membership).

Community is a powerful thing: tons of studies show that teaming up with others helps you achieve your goals. Two language communities that made a huge difference for me were:

    1. The #Add1Challenge: The #Add1Challenge is a 3 month language challenge for people who are serious about learning a language from home. Everyone starts together on day 0, with the same goal of having a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker on day 90. I joined in December and made tons more progress than when I was studying alone. If you want quick results, this one’s for you.
    2. Clear the list: Studies show that writing your goals down, sharing them with others and giving updates is one of the best ways to get things done. Clear the List, run by Lindsay from Lindsay does languages and co. helps you do exactly that. Language bloggers come together once a month to share their language goals and report back on how they got on in the previous month. Since I joined this challenge, my language learning has become a lot more structured, and I’ve (digitally) met loads of fab, like minded people to share my struggles and wins with. 

Now I’d love to hear from you: Are you learning a language from home? Which step do you think is most useful? Can you add any more tips that will help other readers who are studying from home?

Happy learning,

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.

Application closes on the 17th February. 

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.

Chinese

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.

German

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:

Italian

Reading
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

Pronunciation
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 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.

Now I’d like to hear from you: What are your language plans for February? Let us know in the comments below!

Happy learning,

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.

So 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 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.

Mandarin

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

Speaking

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.

Vocabulary

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

German

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 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!

Italian

In 2016, 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.

Reading

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

Pronunciation

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?

Now I’d like to hear from you: What are your language goals in 2017? Let us know in the comments below!

Happy learning,

kh -01

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 of 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.

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:

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

Music
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 probably 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.

French

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.

Spanish

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.

Now I’d like to hear from you: What are your language goals? How are they going? Share them in the comments below!

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