Thinking about learning a new language, but not sure which one to choose?
It’s a decision that can have a huge impact on your life: where you go on holiday, the friends you make, maybe even which country you live in and who you marry!
While chatting to Natalie about this guest post on choosing which language to learn, I thought back to how I chose my first language, Italian.
Actually, I didn’t really choose Italian, Italian chose me.
It was 2007 and I was a fresher at university. I was supposed to get up early to sign up for Spanish class, but I’d partied a little too hard the night before. I woke up late, peeled my face off the pillow, threw on some clothes and ran to the languages fair. But by the time I got there, the Spanish class was already full.
I looked around at the other languages:
Fast forward 11 years and I’m living in Milan with my fiancé Matteo, working as an online Italian teacher.
I got lucky. Italian was the perfect choice because:
– I loved learning about the culture: art, history – and food of course!
– The Italian way of life fit in well with my personality
– It was a good first language to learn: challenging but not impossible.
If you’re asking yourself “which language should I learn?” and you have a little more time to think it over than I did on that sweaty, hungover morning, there are several factors that can help you decide.
Natalie will tell you all about them in this week’s guest post.
Read on to get Natalie’s tips on choosing which language to learn, plus a fun quiz that just might point you in the right direction (interestingly enough, when I did the quiz, I got Italian!)
Over to Natalie.
Which language should I learn?
Learning a new language is a joy!
Whether you’re learning a new language for fun or travel, it can be difficult to choose which one to start with, though.
You may love Italian culture and food and therefore want to learn Italian. Paris may be your number one travel destination, making French a reputable choice. On the other hand, you may want a challenge so Japanese or Korean would be a good fit.
How can I decide which language to learn?
With so many choices and so many beautiful languages in this world, how do you choose just one?
To be honest, it is a process – but a fun one!
Choosing a language requires inward reflection. Ask yourself:
What are my goals and interests?
How much time can I commit to studying?
What am I drawn to?
Why am I learning a new language?
Romance tongues such as Spanish, French, and Italian are popular among English speakers because they are Latin based and have similarities to English. In fact, about one-third of English vocabulary comes from French, making it a great choice. That being said, French can be a tad difficult due to complicated word-endings and vowel sounds.
Spanish is a phonetic language, making it simpler to learn since the spelling rules are always the same. It is also the second most spoken language in the world, giving you a plethora of learning resources such as tutors, books, and apps.
Like Spanish, Italian is a phonetic language, meaning a word is pronounced exactly how it is written. It has a sing-song rhythm, making it fun and interesting to speak. It’s not as widely spoken as other languages, but with the beauty and culture of Italy, you don’t need to go anywhere else anyway!
Surprisingly, Korean isn’t as hard as you may think. While it’s true that grammar is sometimes complex, its 24-letter alphabet is entirely phonetic, so if you can read a word you can pronounce it correctly. The alphabet was actually developed with the goal of being easy to learn. Brush up on Korean culture (i.e. politeness/respect) and practice with one of the 80 million people who speak Korean and you’ll be in business.
The Japanese language will give you a challenge, but one that can be met with flying colors. It has three different writing systems, but many consider it easier to speak than Chinese as the sound system is simpler. For practice, check out Manga and Anime programs, which are growing in popularity and availability. If you choose to visit this diverse country, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to use your language skills, unlike other countries where most locals speak English.
Quiz: Which language should I learn?
These are just a few of the many languages awaiting you. Whether you want to learn Japanese for the challenge, Spanish for your career or you fell in love with an Italian, you’re sure to enjoy the language learning journey. If you still can’t decide which language to learn check out the quiz from TakeLessons to help you narrow down your choice. Bonne chance!
What do you think?
Which language did you get on the quiz? Do you think it’s the right language for you?
Or, if you’re already learning a language, how did you choose it?
They can’t be serious, can they?
Talking at 200 mph, mushing words together or leaving them out entirely.
It’s as if those smug native speakers got together one day and decided to garble their words, just to stop us poor language learners from figuring out what they’re saying.
If you could read the same words you might understand, but listening? It’s a whole other level.
If only native speakers came with subtitles in real life!
One thing that makes real-world listening so hard is that textbooks and audio courses spoon-feed us a simplified version of the language. Sure, they make life easier at the beginning, but they don’t do a very good job at preparing us for how people actually talk. Which can lead to two things:
When we hear people speaking in real life, we don’t have a clue what’s going on.
When we talk, we sound stilted and unnatural.
Assuming you want to learn a language so you can talk to human beings – not characters from a textbook – these outcomes aren’t ideal.
Luckily, there’s another way. It’s simple, fun and it’s already on your computer or TV.
Read on to find out why I’m a big fan of learning a language with TV and films. You’ll also learn 5 smart strategies for using foreign-language TV and films to:
Give your listening skills a boost
Sound more like a native speaker
Stop falling off the language-learning wagon
Why learn a language by watching TV and films?
What I hear = how I talk
When I meet French people, sometimes they’re surprised to learn that I’ve never lived in France. My accent is pretty decent, my speech is littered with native sounding interjections, and on a good day, I can sit amongst a group of French people and follow (most of) their conversation.
I’ll let you in on my secret, but you’ve got to promise not to laugh, OK?
La téléréalité. That is, reality TV in French.
Before you make a dash for the back button, don’t worry. If you like your TV a little more highbrow, I’m not suggesting you do the same. In fact, learning a language with reality TV has its downsides too – namely, that my vocabulary is quite limited (reality TV stars aren’t exactly known for their eloquence).
The important thing to learn from this is that speaking styles reflect the things we listen to.
Reality TV = natural speaking style but with a limited vocabulary.
My French = natural speaking style but with a limited vocabulary.
When I started speaking Spanish, my boyfriend used to laugh because I spoke with really dramatic intonation, thanks to too many telenovelas. More recently, I’ve picked up lots of Mexican slang and football vocabulary because I’ve been watching Mexican football drama Club de Cuervos.
TV and films help you speak naturally and understand more
If you only listen to those slow and stilted dialogues in textbooks, you’ll probably end up speaking in a slow and stilted way. Alternatively, if you listen to lots of realistic conversations in TV series and films, over time, you’ll start speaking in a more natural way.
The same goes for understanding: if you only listen to learner materials, you’ll get used to hearing a version of the language that’s been watered down for gringos. You might get a shock when you hear people using it in real life! On the flip side, if you get used to hearing realistic dialogues in TV series and films (even if it’s tricky at first!), you’ll be much better equipped to follow conversations in the real world.
I’m not suggesting you try to learn a language entirely by watching TV and films. Learner materials like textbooks and audio courses have their place in a language learner’s toolkit. And speaking practice is essential.
Foreign-language TV series and films are like handy supplements that can help you bridge the gap between learner materials and how people actually talk.
What if I don’t understand anything?
When people think of learning a language by watching TV, they sometimes imagine learning through osmosis – the idea that if you listen to a stream of undecipherable syllables for long enough, it will eventually start to make sense.
But it doesn’t work like that.
To learn, you have to understand first. Once you get to a high(ish) level where you can pick out a fair amount of what the characters are saying, you can learn a lot from just sitting back and listening.
What if you’re not there yet?
Before that, if you want to learn a language by watching TV and films, it’s important to do activities that’ll help you understand the dialogues. The 5 activities in this article will help you do just that.
How to learn a language by watching TV and films: what you’ll need
First, you’ll need a film, TV series or YouTube video with two sets of subtitles: one in the language you’re learning, and one your native language. This used to be tricky, but with YouTube and Netflix it’s getting easier and easier to find videos which are subtitled in multiple languages. Aim for videos where people speak in a modern and natural way (i.e. no period dramas).
One of my absolute fave series for this is Easy Languages on YouTube. The presenters interview people on the street, so you get used to hearing natives speak in a natural and spontaneous way. What’s more, the videos are subtitled both in the target language and in English.
Easy German and Easy Spanish are particularly good as they both have their own spin-off channels where they add fun and interesting videos a couple of times a week. If you’re a beginner and you find these kinds of videos overwhelming (too many new words and grammar points), they also have a “super easy” series that you can use to get started.
Now you’ve got your videos and subtitles sorted, let’s learn how to use them.
5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films
Write what you hear
One super task to boost your listening skills is to use the videos as a dictation:
Listen to very small pieces of the video (a few seconds each) and write down what you hear.
Listen several times until you can’t pick out anymore.
Compare what you wrote against the subtitles.
Look up new words in a dictionary and write them down so you can review them later.
Often, you’ll see words and phrases that you understand on the page but couldn’t pick out in the listening. You can now focus on the difference between how words are written and how people actually say them in real life.
This is your chance to become a boss at listening.
Make it your mission to become aware of these differences. Do listeners squash certain words together? Do they cut out some sounds, or words completely? You may notice some things that native speakers have never realized about their own language, and teachers won’t teach you.
Here are a couple examples:
In spoken English, “do you” often sounds like “dew”, and want sounds like “one”. So the phrase “do you want it” is pronounced like “dew one it”
In spoken French, “ce que” is pronounced like “ske” and “il y a” is pronounced like “ya”
No wonder listening is trickier than reading!
An awareness of these differences is your new secret weapon for understanding fast speech and developing a natural speaking style: the more you pay attention to these differences, the better you’ll get at speaking and listening to the language as it’s used in real-life.
Another invaluable task is to translate small passages into your native language and back into the language you’re learning. After you’ve done this, you can check what you wrote in your target language against the original subtitles.
Ideally, you should translate the passage into your native language one day and back into your target language the day after, so that you have to use your existing knowledge about grammar and vocabulary to recreate the dialogue (rather than just relying on memory).
This technique works because it gives you the chance to practice creating sentences in your target language, then compare them against native speaker sentences. In this way, you’ll be able to see the gap between how you use the language and how the experts (the native speakers) do it. This will help you learn to express ideas and concepts like they do.
Comparing your performance to the experts’ and taking steps to close the gap is a key element of deliberate practice, a powerful way to master new skills which is supported by decades of research.
Get into character
One fun way to learn a language from TV and films is to learn a character’s part from a short scene. Choose a character you like, and pretend to be them. Learn their lines and mimic their pronunciation as closely as possible. You can even try to copy their body language. This is a great method for a couple of reasons:
It’s an entertaining way to memorize vocabulary and grammar structures.
By pretending to be a native speaker, you start to feel like one – it’s a fun way to immerse yourself in the culture.
For extra points, record yourself and compare it to the original. Once you get over the cringe factor of seeing yourself on video or hearing your own voice, you’ll be able to spot some differences between yourself and the original, which will give you valuable insight on the areas you need to improve. For example: does your “r” sound very different to theirs? Did you forget a word or grammar point?
Now you know what to focus on next.
Talk about it
A great way to improve your speaking skills is the keyword method:
As you watch a scene, write down keywords or new vocabulary.
Once you’ve finished watching, look at your list of words and use them as prompts to speak aloud for a few minutes about what you just saw.
As well as helping you practice your speaking skills, this method gives you the chance to use the new words you just learned, which will help you remember them more easily in future.
If you’re feeling tired or overstretched and the previous 4 steps feel too much like hard work, you can use films and TV as a non-strenuous way to keep up your language learning routine. Make yourself a nice hot drink, carve an ass-groove in the sofa, put on a film or TV series and try to follow what’s going on. Even if most of it washes over you, it’s better than nothing.
While you can’t learn a language entirely by doing this, it’s still handy because it helps you build the following 4 skills:
1. Get used to trying to understand what’s going on, even if there’s lots of ambiguity and you only understand the odd word (a useful skill to develop for real-life conversations!).
2. Get your ears used to the intonation and sounds of the language.
3. Become familiar with words and expressions which are repeated a lot.
4: Stay in your language routine during times when you can’t be bothered to study.
Don’t underestimate the value of this last point: if you skip language learning completely during periods when you’re tired or busy, you’ll get out of the routine and probably end up feeling guilty. As time passes, it’ll get harder and harder to get started again. But it you keep it up on those days, even by just watching a few minutes of something on the sofa, you’ll stay in the routine and find it easy to put in more effort once you get your time and energy back.
Have you ever tried learning a language by watching TV series and films? Are there any other ways of using TV and films that you can add to the list?
Do you have hopes and dreams of speaking a language fluently, but you’re too lazy to study?
But what if I told you that your laziness, far from being a limitation, could actually make you great at learning languages?
Read on (if you can be bothered) to find out why the lazy way is often the best way, and learn 7 ways you can leverage your laziness to learn a language effectively at home.
Lazy people find better ways to do things
If you were a builder at the end of the 19th century, life was hard. Long hours. Crappy pay. Little regard for health and safety. If you were really unlucky, it could even cost you your life: 5 men died during the construction of the Empire State Building and 27 died working on the Brooklyn bridge.
What qualities did builders need to be the best at such a demanding and dangerous job?
Tenacity? Diligence? Stamina?
In 1868, a young construction worker named Frank Gilbreth began observing colleagues in order to understand why some bricklayers were more effective than others, when he made a surprising discovery.
The best builders weren’t those who tried the hardest. The men Gilbreth learnt the most from, were the lazy ones.
Laying bricks requires repeating the same movements over and over again: the fewer motions, the better. In an attempt to conserve energy, the “lazy” builders had found ways to lay bricks with a minimum number of motions. In short, they’d found more effective ways to get the job done.
But what do lazy bricklayers have to do with language learning?
Well, inspired by his lazy colleagues, Gilbreth went on to pioneer “motion study”, a technique which streamlines work systems and is still used today in many fields to increase productivity. You know that person in operating theaters who passes scalpels to the surgeon and wipes their brow? Gilbreth came up with that idea.
Hiring someone to pass you things from 20 centimeters away and wipe the sweat off your own forehead? It doesn’t get much lazier than that. Yet it helps surgeons work more efficiently and probably saves lives in the process.
The bottom line? The lazy way is usually the smartest way.
How to learn a language at home (even if you’re really lazy)
It’s about finding effective ways to learn, so you can stop wasting time and energy on stuff that doesn’t work. To help you find them, I’ve put together a list of 7 lazy (but highly effective) ways to learn a language at home.
They’ll help you:
⁃ Speak a language better by studying less.
⁃ Go against “traditional” language learning methods to get better results.
⁃ Get fluent in a language while sitting around in your undies and drinking beer
Lazy way to learn a language at home #1: Don’t study (much)
A lot of people try to learn a language by “studying”. They try really hard to memorise grammar rules and vocabulary in the hope that one day, all the pieces will come together and they’ll magically start speaking the language.
Sorry, but languages don’t work that way.
Trying to speak a language by doing grammar exercises is like trying to make bread by reading cookbooks. Sure, you’ll pick up some tips, but you’ll never learn how to bake unless you’re willing to get your hands dirty.
Languages are a learn by doing kind of thing. The best way to learn to speak, understand, read and write a language is by practicing speaking, listening, reading and writing. That doesn’t mean you should never study grammar or vocabulary. It helps to get an idea of how the language works. But if you dedicate a disproportionate amount of time to that stuff, it’ll hold you back.
You’ll learn much faster by using the language.
Now, if you’re a total newbie, you may be wondering how you can start using a language you don’t know yet. If you’re learning completely from scratch, a good textbook can help you pick up the basics. But avoid ones which teach lots of grammar rules without showing you how to use them in real life. The best textbooks are the ones which give you lots of example conversations and introduce grammar in bitesized pieces, like Assimil.
As soon as you can, aim to get lots of exposure to the language being used in a real way. If you’re a lower level, you can start by reading books which have been simplified for your level (called graded readers). Look for ones accompanied with audio so you can work on your listening at the same time.
Duolingo has also just added a fab new beta feature called stories: fun simple tales for learners with interactive translations and mini comprehension quizzes. For the moment, it’s only in Spanish and Portuguese, but keep an eye out for other languages coming soon.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #2: Sit around in your undies
Next, you’ll need to practice speaking. Luckily, you can now do this on Skype, so you only need to get dressed from the waist up.
The best place for online conversation classes is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here: Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off.
If you prefer a free option, you can also use italki to find people who are learning your native language and set up a language exchange. One risk with language exchanges is that English becomes the default language and they end up using your time to practice their English. To make it work, be sure to set a clear boundary for when each language is spoken (e.g. say 30 minutes in English and 30 minutes in Spanish) and be strict about sticking to it.
Or, if you’re feeling brave enough to put some pants on, you can find a flesh-and-blood language exchange partner who lives near you via conversation exchange. You can even arrange to meet up at the pub and combine my two great loves: languages and beer.
Importantly, make it a priority to find conversation tutors and language exchange partners you actually enjoy spending time with (if they’re sexy, even better). It can be real chore to sit down and chat 1-on-1 for 60 minutes with someone you don’t click with. But once you find people you get on well with, it’s easy to motivate yourself to practice speaking.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #3: Don’t try too hard
Getting out of your comfort zone is brilliant, it’s where the learning happens. But you don’t feel like you have to venture too far.
If you’re frustrated by the speed of the listening, too many new words, or tricky grammar, it’s probably a sign that you’ve gone too far. Pushing yourself too hard isn’t a good way to learn, for a number of reasons:
1. When there’s too much new information, it’s difficult to take any of it in.
2. When you’re stressed, your mind’s less receptive to learning.
3. If you have to constantly stop and look up new words, it gets very boring very quickly.
4. It’s difficult to sustain that kind of effort long term (consistency is essential to language learning).
5. Being frustrated isn’t fun, so you’re more likely to give up.
Aim for the sweet spot just above your current level, where you’re coming across new words, but you can still get the general gist of what’s being said.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #4: Don’t waste time learning pointless stuff
Smart lazy language learners know they can’t learn everything at once, so they prioritise words and phrases they’ll get the most mileage out of. The exact words and phrases will depend on the language you’re learning and the situations you’re likely to find yourself in, but as a general rule, frequent conversation phrases like “I’d like”, “maybe” or “I think so” are more useful than things like “rooms in my house” or “items in my pencil case”.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #5: Don’t rely on willpower.
If you’ve tried to learn a language and failed in the past, you might think it’s because you don’t have enough willpower.
It’s true, you don’t. But neither does anyone else. That’s why most people who try to learn a language (or do anything similar, like losing weight or learning to play an instrument) start out enthusiastically, only to run out of steam a few weeks later.
Look closer at the people who’ve succeeded in learning a language and you’ll see that they’re the ones who’ve managed to build a habit. Once you get into the habit of learning a language, you don’t have to struggle so much to find the time or the energy. You just do it.
What’s the best way to get into the language habit?
The lazy way of course!
We have a natural tendency to resist change, which is why big efforts don’t usually last. The key is to make changes so small, they’re almost imperceptible. Start with teeny goal, like learning a language for 5 minutes, then increase it in small increments, like 1 minute each day. By the end of one month, you’ll be up to 30 minutes per day and well on your way to learning that language.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #6: Do stuff you enjoy
Who are the laziest people alive?
Stoners of course.
At university, I knew a guy who was so lazy he wore the same clothes every day and ate pasta straight out of the pan so he didn’t have to wash a plate. Yet when it came to his favorite occupation, smoking weed, he’d go to extreme lengths to get the right kind at the right price and happily walk all the way to the other side of town to pick it up.
Laziness is relative: most people have plenty of energy for things they enjoy doing. When you actually want to do something, be that getting stoned, eating cheese or watching disney films in a foreign language, it’s not hard to get started.
The key is to find ways to learn a language at home that you like, so you don’t have to fight with yourself so much.
The best way to do this is to get into the habit of reading, watching and listening to things you like in the language you’re learning: audiobooks, YouTube, Netflix, newspapers, soap operas, hiphop, disney films, documentaries, novels, reality tv, cookery programmes, fashion blogs, sports papers, world of warcraft…whatever does it for you. The closer it is to things you enjoy doing in your native language, the better.
Or, it you’re a lower level and those kind of resources are too tricky to follow, start with fun things aimed at language learners like podcasts, YouTube tutorials, graded readers or duolingo stories.
YouTube is a brilliant place for language learners as there are often subtitles. To make the most out of subtitles for language learning, read the ones in the language you’re learning, and only use the English ones to check your understanding. You can also use YouTube to slow down the speed, which helps you focus on the details of what they’re saying (as well as making the speaker sound like they’ve knocked back a few tequilas before going on camera).
A super tool for reading online is the google translate chrome add on. It turns any website into an interactive dictionary, so you can click on a word you don’t know and get the translation in your native language. This makes it very easy to read websites in the language you’re learning without interrupting your flow to look up new words all the time.
To find some sites you like, do a quick google search with the language you’re learning + the genre you’re after (e.g. Spanish Newspapers or French fashion blogs) and you should find a nice list. Alternatively, if you’re feeling lazy, buzzfeed in your target language is a good place to start.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #7: Change your surroundings
Lazy language learners know that if they have to rely on their own initiative to learn a language, it probably won’t get done. Smart lazy language learners get round this by making changes to their environment so they’re interacting with the language all day, in a way that doesn’t require a lot of extra effort. Here are a few sneaky ways you can integrate language learning into your surroundings:
• Change the language on Facebook/Twitter/your phone to your target language (but remember how to change it back!)
• Change your homepage to a website in your target language.
• Get some headphones and listen to the language as much as you can: on the way to work, cooking, cleaning the toilet…
• Talk to your yourself (or your pets) in the language you’re learning.
Remember, language learning doesn’t happen through big, sporadic efforts. It’s all in the details. Take some time to think of small ways you could integrate your target language into your daily life. And most importantly, actually do it.
These small actions, when repeated daily, will add up to big results.
Quick guide: how to learn a language at home (the lazy way)
#1: Don’t study (much)
Grammar is useful, but don’t make it your main focus. Try to get as much exposure as possible to the language being used in real way by reading and listening.
#2: Practice speaking as much as you can
Book conversation lessons on Skype, or arrange conversation exchanges. Make a point of finding conversation partners you enjoy spending time with.
#3: Don’t try too hard
Aim for the sweet spot just above your level, where you come across new words but you can get the gist of what’s being said.
#4: Don’t waste time on pointless stuff
Common conversation phrases like “I don’t know” or “I think so” are more useful than things like “rooms in my house” or “things in my pencil case”
#5: Build habits
Don’t rely on willpower. Get into the language learning habit by starting with 5 minutes a day and gradually increasing the time.
#6: Do stuff you enjoy
Make a point of finding things to read or listen to that you enjoy. The closer it is to things you like doing in your native language, the better.
#7: Change your surroundings
Find sneaky ways to integrate language learning into your daily life, by changing the language of your Facebook, or listening to podcasts on your way to work.
What do you think?
Are you learning a language at home? Do you think the lazy way could work for you? Which one of these 7 tips could you start doing right now to help you learn a language?
Can you roll your Rs?
Have a go now. Go on, no one’s listening.
If you made a lovely rrrrrr sound, you can stop reading and go back to Facebook.
On the other hand, if you’re anything like me when I started learning Spanish, you may have blown a raspberry, or made a noise that sounds like a cross between Darth Vader and a flushing a toilet.
If this is you, and you’d like to learn how to roll your Rs, keep reading.
In this post, you’ll learn:
Why you can probably learn how to roll your Rs, even if you think you can’t.
A simple method to train yourself to make the rolling R sound (that actually works).
A quick trick you can use right now to make your R sound more Spanish or Italian, even if you can’t roll your Rs yet.
Why can’t I roll my Rs?
The Italians and Spanish make it look easy, but the rolling R sound is actually pretty complex.
Also known as the trilled R, the sound is made by blowing air between the top of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. With the right tongue position, muscle tension and air pressure, this air causes the tip of your tongue to vibrate, creating a lovely rrrrrrrrrrr sound.
To get it right, you need to think about the following things:
Position: the tongue should rest on the little ridge behind your teeth (roughly in the same place as when you make the t sound).
Tension: the tongue should be relaxed enough that it can move up and down freely in the stream of air, but not so loose that the air passes straight over.
Air pressure: if you breathe too softly, your tongue won’t vibrate, but if you breathe too hard, your tongue won’t stay in the right position.
The rolling R sound requires you to coordinate your mouth muscles in a way that’s totally different from English (with the exception of some accents, like Scottish, which use the rolling R in words like grrreat).
If you don’t have this sound in your first language, learning to coordinate your muscles in this way can feel almost impossible.
Is the ability to roll your Rs genetic?
I always envied the kids in my Spanish class at school who could elegantly roll their Rs. Whenever I tried, I ended up with my face ended up covered in slobber. As my Spanish teacher (erroneously) explained that the rolling R is something you’re either born with or you’re not, I accepted the idea that I was not one of the lucky ones and decided to save myself the embarrassment of trying.
But 10 years later, when I was learning Italian in Italy, I found myself struggling with the rolling R again. I wanted a good Italian accent so I could blend in with the locals, but when you can’t roll your Rs, it immediately singles you out as having quite a strong foreign accent.
I’d always assumed that my problem was physiological – maybe something about the shape of my tongue meant I couldn’t do it – so I resigned myself to the fact that I would always have a crappy R in languages like Italian and Spanish.
Can I train myself to roll my Rs?
Luckily, a year or so later I met an Italian teacher at the school where I was working, who insisted that most people can train themselves to make the rolling R sound.
This was something I didn’t want to hear at the time because it felt like she was implying that I hadn’t tried hard enough. Didn’t she know that my problem was physiological?! No amount of practise would change the shape of my tongue!
I decided to practise the rolling R anyway, mostly to prove her wrong, so she’d stop being so smug around poor foreigners like me who couldn’t do it. I watched tutorials on the internet and started practising everywhere: waiting for my computer to load, washing the dishes, in the shower…
I didn’t expect it to work.
But it did. After a few days, I could feel my tongue getting closer to the rolled R. After a few weeks, I could do the Italian R quite well. I went from being irritated at the Italian teacher to wanting to hug her.
I could finally roll my Rs!
Why you can probably roll your Rs too
There was nothing wrong with my tongue, I just needed to retrain my mouth and tongue muscles so they could adapt to a new, complex sound.
You’ve had decades to fine tune your mouth muscles to make sounds in your first language. Training the muscles to make new sounds takes perseverance (probably way more than you think), so it’s easy to assume there must be some physiological reason why you can’t do it.
But in countries where Spanish or Italian is spoken, almost everyone can make the rolling R sound. Only a small percentage of people can’t do it because of physiological problems. The majority of us would’ve learnt just fine if we’d grown up speaking a language with the rolling r.
The good news: this means that with the right techniques and a good dose of perseverance, you can probably learn how to roll your Rs.
This tutorial will show you how.
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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.
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.
Next, I tried joining a French class, but it slowed me down for the following reasons:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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?
You spent ages squeezing those new words and phrases into your brain. Then you try to use them in real life and…
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
I’ve been reading the magazines National Geographic and Internazionale to prepare for the reading section (and because they’re interesting).
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
Fun activities also boost learning because they motivate you to sit down and do the bloomin’ thing in the first place. And motivation is possibly the most important factor in language learning.
But perhaps the best reason to have fun with languages, put rather nicely by Richard Branson, is this:
If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.
Fun ways to learn a language that actually work
Bingo was fun, but it didn’t help me communicate in German: I can’t think of any situations where walking around saying calculator or guinea pig would come in handy in real life.
Here’s where the “that actually work” bit comes in. Fun isn’t enough: it has to be useful too.
That’s why I’ve put together a list of 32 ways to learn a language that are not only fun, but will also help you immerse yourself in the language as it’s used in the real world.
These activities will develop your speaking, writing, reading and listening so you can achieve the ultimate goal: to communicate better in the language you’re learning.
32 fun ways to learn a language
Fun way #1: Play computer games
When I first met my Italian fiancé Matteo, he understood almost everything he heard in English and had a wide vocabulary, despite never having spoken it before. Where did he pick up those mad English skills?
World of Warcraft, my friends.
Then he got a girlfriend (me) and had to start leaving the house. But all those nights spent gaming in English until silly o’clock in the morning gave him a solid foundation for when he started using it in the real world. Here’s an example of Benny Lewis playing doom in a few different languages to give you an idea of how you can use computer games to boost your language skills.
Fun way #2: Go to the pub with a native speaker
The time I discovered you could learn a language by chatting to native speakers at the pub was around the same time I got really into learning languages. Coincidence?
Use the website conversation exchange to find a native speaker who lives near you and set up a language exchange at your local pub (or café if you prefer hot drinks). To make it work, you’ll need to lay down some ground rules. Olly from Iwillteachyoualanguage.com has written an excellent guide on making language exchanges work for you.
Fun way #3 Listen to a podcast
Podcasts are a brilliant way to boost your listening skills at all levels: if you’re just starting out, you can listen to a podcast aimed at helping beginners pick up the basics (coffee break season 1 is great for this).
Intermediate learners can listen to slow spoken content (like the news in slow French/Italian/German/Spanish series) and dialogues that are broken down and explained (like in coffee break season 2 onwards).
Advanced learners can take their pick of podcasts aimed at native speakers.
Fun way #4 Listen to music
No list of fun ways to learn a language would be complete without music. To find artists who sing in the language you’re learning, check out the playlists on spotify. Type the name of your chosen language + music (e.g. Spanish music) and you should get a whole bunch of playlists worth exploring.
To make the most of it, try to listen actively: after you’ve heard the song a few times, dive into the lyrics and look up the meaning, then keep listening until the words start to sink in.
Fun way #5 Get your karaoke on
If you’re going to learn the words, you might as well sing along. To develop your pronunciation skills, focus on getting your sounds as similar to the singers’ as possible. If you feel a little self conscious, wait until no one’s in the house, or have a go in the shower.
On the other hand, if you’re really into singing, why not step it up and do some karaoke in the language you’re learning? For some free playlists, try typing karaoke + your chosen language into YouTube and see what comes up.
Fun way #6 Play with Lyrics Training
Lyrics training is a fab website that turns foreign language songs into a fun game – my students love it!
Fun way #7 Learn some nursery rhymes
Tap into your inner child and learn some nursery rhymes in your chosen language. A word of caution – try and find ones with vocabulary that you’ll use in real life (think ten green bottles rather than ring of roses).
Fun way #8 Go to a Language Meetup
Somewhere near you, there are probably groups of people learning the same language who meet up to practise and organise fun events. You can find groups like this on the meetup website.
Fun way #9 Watch trashy TV
Hit the snooze button on your brain for a while and veg out in front of some trashy foreign language TV. Soap operas (especially telenovelas) are brilliant because the over-the-top acting makes their speech easier to understand than in films. Reality TV is another good genre because it helps you practise listening to spontaneous speech.
Fun way #10 Have a netflix binge
If you prefer higher quality telly, give Netflix a try. The online streaming service is gradually turning into a language learning goldmine as they continue to build up their selection of foreign language films and TV programmes. Use the audio and subtitles section to search for films and TV in the language you’re learning.
Lots of programmes have subtitles in the original language, so you can read along at the same time or pause it and look up new vocabulary. I recommend avoiding English subtitles where possible as you can end up concentrating on the English and blocking out the foreign language.
Fun way #11 Watch TV by pretending to be somewhere else
Have you ever tried to watch TV online and seen the message “sorry this video is not available in your country”?. Foreign language TV is often blocked because the broadcasters don’t have the license to show programmes outside their own country. You can get around this problem by using a VPN service which allows you to pretend that you’re browsing from inside the country. Using a VPN is totally legal, but violating broadcasting licensing agreements might not be, so watch at your own risk and don’t tell anyone I told you 😉
Fun way #12 Change your phone settings
Swap the language of your phone to the one you’re learning (but remember how to change it back!)
Fun way #13 Change your Facebook settings
Change the language of Facebook/twitter/whatever other social network you kids hang around on these days.
Fun way #14 Shake your booty
Following a keep fit video in your chosen language is a good way to stay in shape and learn a language at the same time. It’s doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything because you can follow along by watching. And it’s great for learning body parts as you’ll hear the same ones repeated over and over again.
What if there are lots of words you don’t understand?
Google to the rescue. The google translate extension allows you to turn webpages into an interactive dictionary so you can translate words by clicking on them.
Fun way #16 Chat to a native speaker online (for a steal)
If you want to practise speaking, italki is the place to be. It’s a fab website that has 1000s of friendly native speakers who give conversation lessons to help nice people like you learn a language. They’re called community tutors and you can book private conversation lessons with them for as little as $5-10 dollars.
Try following a recipe in the language you’re learning. Cooking websites/blogs are especially handy as you can translate new words with by clicking on them if you have the google translate extension. Or you can use YouTube to see the finished product and hone your listening skills.
Fun way #19 Get lost in a YouTube rabbit hole
If you’re anything like me, you probably enjoy faffing about on YouTube from time to time. If you’re going to be on there anyway, why not make it a little more productive by watching videos in the language you’re learning? If videos for native speakers are too difficult, try ones aimed at language learners. My absolute favourite YouTube channel for this is Easy Languages.
Fun way #20 Learn with social media
What if instead of looking at pictures of other people’s cats/babies/lunch you could use your time spent on Facebook to learn a language? Lindsay from Lindsay does languages has all kinds of good stuff on how you can use social media for language learning.
Fun way #21 Duolingo
If you haven’t been living underwater for the last few years you may have already heard of this handy little app that turns learning grammar and vocabulary into a fun game. Recently they introduced a feature where you can practise your chatting skills with foreign language bots. Download it and fiddle with it on your commute. It’s free.
Fun way #22 Keep a diary
Not the “Dear diary, why won’t my crush notice me?” kind (although you can if you like!) but a simple paragraph or two about your day. Not only will it improve your writing, but it’ll also help you learn how to talk about yourself and your life, which is great practise for conversations.
One of my friends used to set up language exchanges as a clever ruse to meet young ladies while practising his language skills. If you’re looking for love, why not do it the other way around and use a dating app like tinder to find native speakers of the language you’re learning?
Fun way #25 Text native speakers while your boss isn’t looking
The hellotalk app connects you with native speakers so you can do language exchanges via text messages. It’s specifically designed for language learners so there are all kinds of cool features, like the ability to click on a word and translate it or hear the pronunciation.
Fun way #26 Learn some tongue twisters
Tongue twisters are great for focusing on tricky pronunciation points. Choose one that has lots of examples of a sound you struggle with and practise it while you’re going about your daily business, like doing the dishes or waiting for your computer to load.
Here’s a fun Spanish one to help you with the rolled R: Treinta y tres tramos de troncos trozaron tres tristes trozadores de troncos y triplicaron su trabajo, triplicando su trabajo de trozar troncos y troncos.
Fun way #27 Watch a Disney Film
A rainy afternoon in front of a foreign language disney film is a lovely way to boost your listening skills. Choose one where you already know the story, so it’s easier to follow along.
Fun way #28 Learn some sayings
Reading quotes and sayings in your chosen language is a great way to pick up some new vocabulary. One of my favourites is the Italian version of “you can’t have your cake and eat it”:
Non si può avere la bottiglia piena e la moglie ubriaca
It translates literally to “you can’t have a barrel full of wine and a drunk wife”.
Whenever I’m hanging out with people who have different native languages, we inevitably end up teaching each other swear words and sniggering. I’m not sure why learning to swear in a foreign language, or hearing foreigners do it in your language is so fun, but there’s something about it that really gives us the giggles. Even if you’re not one to swear in your own language, they’re handy to know so you can recognise them if you hear them (hopefully not aimed at you!)
Fun way #32 Talk to your cat
Or dog, or hamster, or fish… Chatting to your animal is a great way to boost your speaking skills as it gives you a safe environment to practise building sentences with the grammar and vocabulary you’ve been learning. If you don’t have an animal, try talking to yourself or an imaginary friend. Have a look at this post for more unconventional ways to practise speaking without a native speaker.
What do you think?
Which fun way do you like the most? Do you have any more fun ways to add to the list? 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.
High perceived effort: If you think learning a language will take a lot of effort, you’re more likely to put it off.
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.
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?
Feel worried or anxious about a task that requires effort.
Go on Facebook/YouTube/Buzzfeed to avoid said task.
Feel worried, anxious… and guilty
Procrastinate even more.
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.
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:
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.
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.
In April, I aimed to review a few grammar points by doing 2 exercises a day. Overall, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
I’m going to apply the same ideas I had for German to make my listening more productive:
Take the odd sentence from the subtitles and try to understand the grammar used
Write down keywords as I’m listening
Use these keywords as prompts to talk for 2 minutes about what I just watched
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
I’ll need to write a mini essay for the writing part, so I’m going to write 1 mini practice essay per week.
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.
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.
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)
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).
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.
How about you?
Which language are you learning at the moment? What are your plans for April?
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 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!
11 ways to learn Chinese without leaving the house
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 can enjoy the ride more. 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 swear words, 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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
What do you think?
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?
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