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

That’s what last month was like for me.

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

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

No one is busy

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

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

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

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

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

What’s going on this month?

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

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

My Language Learning Plans February 2017

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

Chinese

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

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

In January, my plan was to:

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

German

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

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

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

Italian

Reading

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

My (unread) Italian book collection

Pronunciation

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

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

French and Spanish

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

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

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

How about you?

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

 

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

I know the feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginner

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

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

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

Intermediate

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

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

Advanced

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

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

What do you think?

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

 

 

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

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

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

Why is positive change so hard?

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

The problem with goals

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

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

Got a spoon anyone?
Got a spoon anyone?

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

In the words of DJ Casper, we need to…

Break it down now

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

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

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

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

Smaller is better

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

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

My language goals for 2017

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

Mandarin

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

 

How’s it going so far?

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

Textbooky stuff

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

I didn’t.

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

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

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

Authentic-ish materials

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

Learning Chinese with a graded reader
Learning Chinese with graded readers

Speaking

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

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

Vocabulary

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

German

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

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

Learning German Vocabulary
Learning German with flashcards

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

Italian

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

Reading

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

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

Pronunciation

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

French and Spanish

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

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

Language adventure!

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

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

How about you?

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Picking up the basics

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

1. Michel Thomas Spanish

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

2. Pimsleur

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

3. Coffee Break Spanish

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

Getting conversational

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

4. italki

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

– encourage you to speak

– help you find the right words

– gently correct your mistakes

– teach you new words and phrases when you need them

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

5. News in Slow Spanish

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

6. Easy Spanish

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

7. SpanishDict

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

8. Memrise

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

Honing your skills

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

9. Gritty Spanish

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

10. Your Web Browser

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

11. Netflix

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

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

What do you think?

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

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

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

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

Your brain on stress

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

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

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

Too much stress is bad for your memory

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

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

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

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

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

The science of joyful learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 ways to make language learning joyful

1. Laugh at your mistakes

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

2. Play games

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

3. Accept ambiguity

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

4. Give yourself an eff it day

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

5. Do what makes you tick

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

6. Make it relevant

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

7. Find the right level

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

8. Shake it up

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

9. Know when to call it a day

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

10. Use music

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

11. Find the right people

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

12. Don’t forget to breathe

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

13. Give yourself rewards

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

 

What do you think?

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

 


References

Berk, L., Tan, S., Fry, W., Napier, B., Lee, J., Hubbard, R.,  Lewis, J., Eby, W., Neuroendocrine and Stress Hormone Changes During Mirthful Laughter, The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 298

Burns, M (2012) Dopamine and learning: what the brain’s reward center can teach educators. The Science of learning blog: https://www.scilearn.com/blog/dopamine-learning-brains-reward-center-teach-educators

Chen Y, Dubé C, Rice CJ, Baram TZ (2008) Rapid loss of dendritic spines after stress involves derangement of spine dynamics by corticotropin-releasing hormone. Journal of Neuroscience, 28.

Garner, R. L. (2006). Humor in pedagogy: How ha-ha can lead to aha! College Teaching, 54

Radley, J.,  Sisti, H.M.,  Hao, J., Rocher, A.B., McCall, T., Hof, P.R.,  McEwen, B.S.  Morrison, J.H., (2005) Chronic behavioral stress induces apical dendritic reorganization in pyramidal neurons of the medial prefrontal cortex Neuroscience, 130

One of the best things about working on the joy of languages blog is that our readers are always sharing smart ideas about how to learn a language. This week’s post is inspired by Anne, Ken and Vanessa, who suggested keeping a journal as a way to improve your speaking skills in a foreign language.

I loved this idea and wanted to get as many people involved as possible, so I’ve set up a language diary challenge on Instagram, together with a little giveaway (more on this later).

First, let’s talk a little about how keeping a language diary can boost your speaking skills.

Writing to improve speaking

Writing to improve your speaking may seem counterintuitive at first. But writing helps develop the skills you need to communicate fluently. To speak a language well, you need to:

  • practice organising your thoughts into sentences
  • learn vocabulary to talk about everyday events
  • identify gaps in your knowledge

A language diary helps with all of these things on a daily basis. It’s a powerful way to improve your vocabulary, grammar and ability to express your ideas – all essential for speaking.

Reasons to keep a language diary

1. Learn useful things

By writing about your day, you’ll be practicing using the vocabulary and grammatical structures that you need to talk about day to day stuff. You’ll learn how to communicate about things that are important to you and the people around you, which is much more useful than the random word lists most language courses give you.

2. Remember faster

Humans are hardwired to remember stories better than other types of information. The little snippets in your diary act like mini stories, which make the grammar and vocabulary easier to remember and reuse. You’re also likely to repeat a lot of the same words and structures, which naturally makes them more memorable.

3. Use the language

When we learn a language, most of us focus on “passive activities” like reading and listening. But if we want to use the language to communicate, we should focus more on activities that help us produce the language. A language diary helps you draw from the vocabulary and grammar you’ve been learning to build sentences you can use in real conversations.

4. Learn consistently

Keeping a diary is a great way to add consistency to your language learning and make sure that you practice using the language you’re learning in some way every day.

The #languagediarychallenge community 

I started the language diary challenge on Instagram so that we can work together to help each other learn a foreign language. Research shows that people are more likely to achieve their goals when they work together as a team, so I thought it would be a great way to get a community of language learners together.

And Instagram is the perfect place to write a little something in the language you’re learning each day.

  • It’s based on photos and videos, which makes it visual and fun
  • Pictures facilitate memory
  • You can connect with the language learning community on Instagram, which includes support and corrections from native speakers.

Get involved!

To join in, all you have to do is post a photo or video to Instagram and write/say something in the language you’re learning for 30 days.* Then use the hashtag #languagediarychallenge and tag @joyoflanguages.

What level do I have to be?

You can join in at any level. If you’re a complete beginner, you could use the challenge to learn simple sentences, or individual words. For example, you could post a picture of a beer and write the word “beer” in the language you’re learning. If you’re advanced, you can practice more sophisticated vocabulary and a variety of tenses. The important thing is to write or say a little something in the language you’re learning.

Free stuff!

In each #languagediarychallenge, I team up with a top language-learning company to give away a language themed prize. So far, we’ve given away awesome prizes from italki, add1challenge, FlashSticks, Lindsay Does Languages and irregular.endings.

Join the #languagediarychallenge

I hope you’re feeling inspired to join us for the language diary challenge! To recap, there are 3 steps to join in:

1. Follow joy of languages on Instagram.

2. Post your picture or video on Instagram and write a word or sentence about it in the language you’re learning for 30 days*

3. Use the hashtag #languagediarychallenge and tag @joyoflanguages.

4. Bonus step: Take a look around and leave a comment to support the other learners on the challenge!

Looking forward to seeing your progress on over on Instagram.

*The challenge starts at the beginning of each calendar month. See @joyoflanguages for updates. 

What do you think?

Are you joining the #languagediarychallenge? What are you going to write/speak about? Let us know in the comments below.

A bad memory is one of the top excuses people give for not learning another language.

We see pages of unfamiliar words, or hear streams of sounds we can’t decipher and think “I’ll never be able to cram enough words into my brain to understand that”.

I used to worry that my own crappy memory would make me a bad language learner: I’m the type of person who can’t remember anything I learned at school, the last film I saw or what I ate for breakfast. Thankfully, once I got into language learning I realised that it doesn’t have to stop me from remembering vocabulary.

In fact, lots of language learners with average memories manage to learn thousands of words and make it look easy.

But how?

The spaced repetition technique

Many learners swear by flashcard systems, which involve studying words or sentences in the language you’re learning on one side of a card with a translation or picture on the other.

Nowadays, people use apps like Memrise and Anki which show flashcards at specific intervals to optimise learning. This technique, known as spaced repetition, is based on observations by memory researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus, who noticed that we’re better at remembering information learned a few times over a longer period of time compared to many times within a short space of time. This means that we can learn more vocabulary with less effort, by spreading out our study sessions.

Love them or hate them

Despite their merits, flashcards have caused quite a stir in the language learning community. For each successful language learner who swears by them, there’s another who wouldn’t touch them with a 10 foot pole.

That’s because learning vocabulary is more complex than memorising a bunch of words. When we focus too much on flashcards, there’s a danger we’ll end up recognising lots of words without knowing how to use them in real life. Also, languages are about communication – spending too much time with your head in an app is boring and it sucks the soul out of learning. Finally, if you don’t dedicate enough time to engaging with the language in a real way by listening, reading and talking to native speakers, you’ll never learn how people actually talk.

Importantly, the flashcard haters are a testimony to the fact that it is absolutely possible to learn a language without them.

My experience with flashcards

These conflicting viewpoints are the reason why my relationship with flashcards has been more on and off than a Justin Bieber love story.

In the honeymoon period, I’d get excited by all the words that seemed to pop into my head at just the right moment. But after a while, I’d notice that lots of words I was learning didn’t come to me when I needed them in real life. Eventually, I’d get frustrated and delete the app.

But without flashcards, I’d start to get this nagging feeling that my vocabulary learning had slowed down dramatically. So I’d download the app and start the cycle all over again.

The right way to remember words

Over the last few months I’ve been using flashcards consistently for the first time ever and they’ve become my trusty secret for speedy word learning.

What changed?

I realised that there is a right way (and a wrong way!) to learn vocabulary. So I’ve been integrating wisdom from memory research, together with advice from renowned polyglots, to find ways to make flashcards more effective and minimise their shortcomings.

I’ve broken it down into 8 strategies that will help you get the most out of flashcards. When you put these ideas into practice, you’ll be able to remember lots of words without taking up too much time or turning study sessions into a yawn fest.

How to remember words in a foreign language

1. Make your own

This one’s first on the list because it’s by far the most important. Flashcard apps usually give you two options: use your own, or the sets other people have made. Making your own takes a little more effort in the beginning, but it’s infinitely better to use words you have met in real contexts through listening, reading or conversations. This is because memory is highly context dependent – decades of research show that we remember information more easily when we associate it with the context we first learned it in. When you make your own sets with words you’ve already met, you can link them back to the original context and remember them much faster.

2.Use Mnemonics

A man named Harry walks into a café. Eliza Doolittle, who is working in the restaurant as a waitress, greets him with her dodgy cockney accent, “Ari”. He orders a slice of cake with layers of sponge, cream and forest fruit: a “gateaux”. When Elisa brings over his order, Ari looks at the gateaux, and says “thank you”.

Ari-gatou – you’ve just learned how to say thank you in Japanese through mnemonics, a memorisation strategy inspired by the ancient Greeks and endorsed by memory champions as the most effective way to quickly remember large amounts of information. Linking new words to things you already know such as images or rhymes makes them instantly easier to remember. The more detailed and unusual the imagery, the better – think Eliza Doolittle with a black forest gateaux in hand.

3. Be ruthless

It’s really tempting to record every new word you come across. Don’t do it. I know it sometimes feels like you need to learn the word for bunsen burner in Spanish, but you don’t. The impulse to learn everything is an asset, but if you don’t keep it in check you’ll soon find yourself with unmanageably longs lists of words you’ll never actually learn. Our mental and time resources are precious and we need to spend them on stuff that’s going to be useful. Choose words that are important for you, add those to your flashcard sets and forget the rest for now.

4. Make flashcards Robin, not Batman

Flashcards should be your trusty sidekick, not the star of the show. When you spend too much time using flashcards, you have less time to engage with language in a real way and meet words in authentic and varied contexts, aka the most important stuff. Also, turning a language into nothing more than a list of words makes it more boring than eating rice cakes.

5. Learn little and often

Flashcards work best when we study in short 5-10 minute bursts. Longer periods of time lead to inefficient learning as our brains get tired and can’t absorb new information as easily.

6. Learn whole sentences

There’s no point in learning lots of isolated words without knowing how to use them. Recording the whole sentence (or a short snippet if it’s too long) gives you information about the sentence structure so that you can build new sentences with your word. Learning sentences also helps you associate the word with the original context, giving you an extra memory boost.

7. See it in your mind’s eye

Associate new words with images you already have in your mind. For instance, if you review the word “el río” in Spanish, try conjuring up a mental image of a river. This technique helps you link new words to your existing mental representations, making them more relevant and memorable.

8. Use it or lose it

The more you use your new words, the faster you’ll remember them. There are lots of different ways to put this into practice: you can build new sentences in your mind, write a few examples, or try throwing the words into a conversation when opportunity arises. Always be on the look out for opportunities to bring your new words out of books and apps and into real life contexts.

Et voilà, 8 different ways to make the most out of flashcards. Everyone has different learning styles so I recommend giving them a go to see if they work for you.

If you choose not to go the flashcard route, the above tips can be integrated into almost any vocabulary learning strategy to help you remember words faster.

What do you think?

How do you like to study vocabulary? Let us know in the comments below!

 

 

You know that feeling when you meet a native speaker and all those words and sentences you thought you knew suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke?

Even if you manage to give it a go and throw some words together, you end up feeling ridiculous, like a two year old with a sock in your mouth.

It happens to us all and it’s one of the main reasons people give up learning languages. We think: “if I still can’t string a good sentence together after all this time, I must be really terrible at languages” or “it must take years of hard work to speak a language well, who can be bothered with all that?!”

The good news: you’re not bad at languages and it’s not as hard as you think it is.

Not enough practice

The reason we get stuck for words is that we simply haven’t had enough opportunities to practise using the language. Most language learning approaches focus on reading and listening, aka passive learning, rather than on actually producing the language. This means that we don’t get the chance to use the words and grammar we’ve learned to make novel sentences and express our ideas.

To get better at speaking a language, we need to practise getting the stuff we’ve been learning passively out of our brains and into the world.

The best way to practise this is by chatting to people who speak the language. But that’s not always easy.

Maybe you’re mad busy at work, maybe it’s the holidays, or perhaps you just want a little practice before you dive in. Even if you already meet native speakers regularly, nearly everyone wants more speaking practice. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges in learning a language is finding enough opportunities to actually speak it.

How to practise speaking without native speakers

With a little creativity, it’s easy to get more speaking practice, even when there are no native speakers around to help.

Here are four simple strategies already at your fingertips that will give your speaking skills a real boost.

While these activities are no substitute for the real thing, they all help you develop one of the most essential skills for speaking: organising what you already know into sentences so that you can express yourself more fluently.

1. Find a language buddy

When I first moved to Italy, I knew I wanted the full immersion experience. But I also knew my Italian wasn’t good enough to make friends with Italians without falling into the trap of using English all the time. Luckily, I met an English girl and two German girls in the same boat, so we decided to communicate with each other in Italian instead of English. We stuttered our way through coffees, lunches and nights out and after a few months we all spoke Italian well enough to build friendships with Italians, in Italian. Teaming up with other learners is a great way to get started: you don’t get expert corrections, but you do get plenty of opportunities to try stringing sentences together with empathetic listeners, which is often just what we need.

2. Talk about it

One simple way to add a bit of speaking practice to your study sessions is to record yourself giving a quick 3 minute summary of what you’ve just listened to or read. This works well for 3 reasons: First, it gives you the chance to practise applying what you’ve just learned in real speech, which makes it easier to use in future conversations; Second, you can re-listen and correct your mistakes; Finally, it’s a great way to see your progress, which is really motivating. It can feel a little strange at first, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. Still, if you’re the type of person that would rather stick a fork in your eye than record yourself, you can use this technique without the tech: simply set your phone timer to 3 minutes and start talking.

3. Use your head

You know that little voice inside your head that starts wondering what you’re going to make for dinner tonight while you’re in an important meeting? It’s one of the best tools you have for improving your speaking skills. Try setting some time aside a day, for example on your commute or in the shower, to switch your internal monologue to the language you’re learning. Don’t worry if you struggle to express your ideas and get stuck for words at times. This will help you identify gaps in your knowledge and give you a good idea about what to learn next. More importantly, the simple act of practising putting words together into sentences will allow you to organise your thoughts more fluently, which will really boost your speaking skills.

4. Talk to yourself

If you’ve got the house to yourself (or the people you live with already know you’re nuts), embrace your inner loon and start talking to yourself. The benefits of this are similar to tip 3, with the added bonus of pronunciation practice. Alternatively, if you’ve got a dog or cat at home, why not try speaking to your fur baby in the language you’re learning?

Et voilà! I hope these 4 strategies have left you feeling inspired and ready to get chatting away in your chosen language.

What do you think?

Have you tried any of the 4 techniques before? How do you work on your speaking skills when there are no native speakers around? Let us know in the comments below!

I’m a lazy language learner.

Not in a “I’ll do it tomorrow” kind of way, but in a “I don’t feel like reading a textbook so I’m going to sit on the sofa and watch French TV and not even think about getting dressed” kind of way.

That’s because I learn more this way.

When we’re relaxed, we’re free of tension and our brains are more open and receptive to learning. And it’s pretty difficult not to be relaxed when you’re curled up in a ball in front of the TV.

The “lazy” activities we do in our first language become strategic tools when learning a language: watching TV, messing around on YouTube and listening to the radio are excellent ways to get your ears used to the sound of real spoken French – it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything.

I’ve been learning French for a while now and I’ve found some awesome ways to keep honing my skills when I don’t feel like opening a grammar book (which is most days to be honest). Here are four of my favourite resources:

1. NRJ

I hate to admit this in public but for the purposes of this post I have to fess up – I’m addicted to reality TV. Well, foreign language reality TV, to be precise. That’s because reality TV shows are a fab way to boost your language skills. Think about it. The way people talk in films, books and TV series isn’t representative of how people really talk. Dialogues are scripted to make conversations more exciting, with witty quips and eloquent vocabulary. Reality TV shows are full of spontaneous speech which is much closer to a natural communication style with repetitions, everyday expressions and fillers like “eh” and “um”. Also, you follow the characters as they go about their daily lives so you can pick up lots of vocabulary for common situations and objects. Finally, you get to spend hours and hours watching trash TV, completely guilt free because you’re learning a language at the same time. My favourite is “Les Anges” The Angels, which you can watch for free on the NRJ YouTube channel.

2. RFI

If you’re looking for something a little more highbrow, head over to the RFI website for French learners. It has loads of great resources, including a news programme accompanied by transcripts, so you can listen and read at together. This helps with vocabulary as you can follow the script and look up new words. With your feet up of course.

3. Easy French

The Easy French YouTube channel follows presenters as they head out onto the streets of France and ask people really juicy questions like “Qu’est-ce-qui vous rend heureux?” What makes you happy?. Each episode poses the same question to several people so you get plenty of repetition, helping you memorise new expressions effortlessly. They also have double subtitles in French and English to help with comprehension. They’re short and dangerously addictive so you’ll find yourself watching one after the other.

4. Music

French learners are lucky enough to have their pick when it comes to finding music to learn with. The French music scene has great artists across a wide variety of genres so it’s not too difficult to find something you can get into. Some of my faves are La Rue Ketanou (folk), Mockless (hip hop) and Zaz (pop). You can find the lyrics to most French songs over at paroles.net so you can read lyrics, learn some new words and sing along.

Et voilà, a few quick tips for keeping your French fresh when you’re not in the mood to study. Amusez-vous bien!

What do you think?

What language are you learning at the moment? Do you have any favourite lazy ways to learn? Share them with us in the comments below.

 

 

If there’s one thing I love more than learning languages, it’s sitting on the sofa in my pants. Fortunately, these activities aren’t mutually exclusive, so I’m always on the lookout for ways to combine my two favourite pastimes.

I’ve had a lot of questions about Spanish recently so this sleepy Sunday seemed like the perfect time to share some of my favourite resources for learning Spanish the lazy way.

Coffee break Spanish

This laid-back podcast does exactly what it says on the tin. The lively presenters give you short ten minute snippets designed to feel “like going for a coffee with your friend who happens to speak Spanish”. The podcasts go through the basics at beginner level right through to advanced conversations and are perfect to listen to whilst snuggled up on the sofa with a cup of something delicious. The basic podcast version is free for all levels.

Telenovelas

If you’ve seen me on instagram, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Spanish soap operas, otherwise known as telenovelas. I love having a guilt-free pass to binge watch bad TV, safe in the knowledge that I’m buffing up on some Spanish.

They might seem inane, but telenovelas are actually a deceptively savvy learning tool for several reasons. Firstly, the actors tend to speak slowly with exaggerated intonation, making their speech easier to follow compared to other types of TV programmes and films. Also, the acting is usually so hammy that it’s possible to follow the plot without understanding every word. This provides plenty of context from which to deduce the meaning of words, a strategy which is often thought to boost vocabulary learning. Finally, telenovelas are based around the day-to-day lives of the characters, so you get exposure to lots of relevant vocabulary that you might not come across in standard text books. Of course, not all of the words in Spanish soap operas are applicable to every day life. Still, it’s good to know I can cry “how dare you betray me Alejandro!!” in Spanish, should the need ever arise.

Netflix

I’m so happy to see the growing body of Spanish language shows on Netflix. From comedies like club cuervos to documentaries about Pablo Escobar, now you can watch Netflix and brush up on your Spanish at the same time. Many of the shows are available with closed caption subtitles which allow you to read while you listen, a big plus if you struggle to follow the audio alone.

Learn Spanish the lazy way

So there you have it. Three fenomenal excuses to get into your PJs, make yourself a tasty snack and plant your behind firmly on the sofa for a few hours. Happy learning!

What do you think?

Are you learning Spanish at the moment? Do you have any lazy learning strategies? Let us know in the comments below.

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