If you’re looking for some guidance on how to get started, you’re in the right place.
When I first started learning Italian (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), there were a lot of things I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to learn words quickly, or that I should pay attention to things like prepositions.
Come to think of it, I probably didn’t know what a preposition was!
Had I known things like this from the get-go, it would have saved me loads of time and effort.
That’s why I’ve put together this complete guide to learning Italian for beginners. It has all the things I wish someone had told me before I started and the exact steps you can take to pick up basic Italian quickly.
You’ll learn things like:
Essential Italian travel phrases
How to roll your Rs
The best way to remember Italian words, phrases and grammar
Action points you can follow to make sure you succeed
Throughout, you’ll find links to audio files and mini lessons you can use to start learning Italian straightaway.
And – we’re opening a programme that will help you speak and understand basic Italian fast. It’s free if you get in there quick, so read till the end if you want to find out how to join us.
A 4-step roadmap to learning Italian
What should I learn first? Which method should I use? How can I stay motivated?
When you learn a new language, there are so many things to think about that it’s easy to get lost. In fact, one of the main things that can slow your progress in Italian is a lack of clear direction.
If you want to get somewhere fast, it helps to have a clear roadmap.
Here, you’ll find a 4 step action plan you can follow to start learning Italian successfully:
Find your motivation (know why you want to learn Italian).
Learn the essential phrases (so you can start talking straight away).
Go into detail (start learning grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation).
Take action (so you can achieve your goal of speaking Italian).
Let’s get started shall we?
1. Find your motivation
Learning a new language takes time and commitment. If you’re not clear on your reasons for wanting to speak Italian, somewhere down the line you may find yourself wondering if it’s really worth it.
On the other hand, if you’re excited about learning Italian, that enthusiasm will pull you to your desk, even on days when you don’t really feel like it.
When you’re motivated, it’s easier to overcome the obstacles that normally get in the way of learning a language, like lack of time or tiredness. As the saying goes:
If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way, if not, you’ll find an excuse.
That’s why motivation is number 1 in our roadmap.
Before you start learning Italian, take some time to get excited about it. Think about all the awesome things that will happen when you speak Italian, and come back to them whenever you need a motivation top-up.
If you need a little inspiration, here are my top 3 reasons for learning Italian:
You’ll experience the real Italy
Italy is one of the most popular destinations in the world, and with good reason! With stunning countryside, mediterranean beach towns, a rich history and arguably the best food and wine in the world, Italy has a lot to offer.
But if you don’t speak the language, it’s difficult to get out of the tourist bubble.
You’ll get so much more out of Italy if you understand and speak a bit of the language. It’s all part of the experience: laughing with the waiter, chatting to a little old lady on the train (with the help of a few gestures!) or playing with Italian kids at the beach. When you have a go at speaking Italian, you’ll come away with better holiday memories.
Even a handful of phrases can help you feel like a local. It’s a great feeling when you can order a meal or ice-cream in Italian and they understand what you’re saying.
You can also get insider recommendations from Italians about the best places to go in their town – no more frozen pizza and reheated pasta at tourist restaurants!
You’ll get to hang out with Italians
There’s an Italian saying: “il dolce far niente”, which means the sweetness of doing nothing.
Italians are masters of the art of living: most have a relaxed pace of life and love meeting new people. This is a huge plus when it comes to making Italian friends and practicing italiano with the locals.
When you have a go at speaking, Italians are usually patient and friendly. And many feel more comfortable speaking Italian compared to English (especially in small towns and villages). This gives you a real reason to use your Italian, which helps you learn faster.
You’ll feel a little bit Italian, too
Romantic, musical, expressive – people often say Italian is the most beautiful sounding language in the world. When you learn Italian, you can have loads of fun getting into the role and trying to adopt the distinctive accent.
2. Learn essential Italian phrases for travellers
Hopefully you’re now feeling excited about learning Italian and ready to get started. Before we dive into the details like grammar and pronunciation, it’s a good idea to get some essential phrases under your belt so you can communicate straight away.
Don’t worry if you say things a bit wrong, or you can’t understand what people are saying back to you yet – that’s normal at first!
Getting started is the hardest part. If you’re willing to have a go at using basic phrases, everything else will feel easier from there. And Italians will appreciate it if you make a little effort to communicate in their language!
Phrases like “where is…”, “how much…?” and “can I have..?” will take you a long way. Once you learn the basic structure, you can adapt them to say loads of different things in Italian.
For example, when you know how to say “can I have” = “posso avere”, you can use it to ask for anything anywhere: the bill in a restaurant, a pillow in your hotel, a ticket on the train… All you have to do is look up the name of the thing you’re asking for.
Here are a few Italian travel phrases to get you started.
Essential Italian travel phrases
Dov’è…? = where is…?
Dov’è il bagno? = where’s the toilet?
Dov’è la stazione? = where’s the station?
Quanto costa? = how much does it cost?
Quanto costa il caffè? = how much does the coffee cost?
Quanto costa la pizza? = how much does the pizza cost?
Posso avere….? = can I have?
Posso avere il conto?= can I have the bill?
Posso avere il menù? = can I have the menu?
Posso avere un caffè? = Can I have a coffee?
Numbers are usually one of the first things people learn and with good reason – they pop up everywhere! From buying things to asking about public transport, you’ll need to master numbers if you want to get by in Italian.
You can learn how to count to 100 in Italian with the 5 Minute Italian episodes below.
Learn more Italian with fluency phrases
When you start speaking a language, it’s normal to have communication breakdowns, for example, when you don’t know a word, or when you don’t understand what someone just said.
With the right strategies, you can actually turn these moments into opportunities to learn more Italian.
Imagine you go into a bakery and you see a delicious pastry, but you don’t know what it’s called. You have two options:
You can point and say “one of those please”.
You can point to it and ask the barista in Italian “come si dice quello in Italiano?” (how do you say that in Italian?)
Most Italians will respond really well to this kind of curiosity. Once you open the conversation in this way, you’ll probably get the chance to chat to them a little more, and learn new words in the process!
There’s nothing wrong with using English when you get stuck, but the more you can use Italian to manage communication breakdowns, the longer you can keep the conversation going.
And the longer you can keep the conversation going, the better you get at speaking Italian.
Here are 5 fluency phrases that will help you turn communication breakdowns into opportunities to learn more Italian:
How do you say X in Italian? = Come si dice X in Italiano?
Sorry, I didn’t understand. = Scusi, non ho capito.
Could you repeat that please? = Potrebbe ripetere per favore?
Could you speak slower please? = Potrebbe parlare più lentamente per favore?
Can we speak in Italian? I’d like to learn. = Possiamo parlare in italiano? Vorrei imparare.
Want to learn more Italian so that you can get by in in Italy? In the 5 minute Italian podcast, you’ll learn how to deal with a common travel situation each week, like buying ice-cream or getting from the airport to your hotel.
3. Going into detail: Italian grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation
Now you’ve picked up some basic Italian phrases, it’s time to learn about the big 3: grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.
At this point, it’s a good idea to get yourself a beginner’s textbook or audio course and work though it systematically so you can build up a foundation of these 3 aspects. Michel Thomas and Assimil both have great Italian courses for beginners.
This section will give you an overview of the main things you need to know about Italian grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, together with tips on how to learn them effectively.
Italian grammar is simple-ish (no complicated case systems!)
1000s of Italian words are similar to English
Italian pronunciation is quite straightforward: there aren’t many new sounds to learn and the spelling system is simple.
Italian grammar: How is it different to English?
In this section, you’ll learn about two very important features of Italian grammar which don’t exist in English: verb conjugation and the difference between masculine and feminine words.
Verb conjugation is just a fancy way of describing how verbs change depending on who’s doing the action (just in case you need a little reminder, verbs are words which describe actions or states, like jump, speak or be).
We can see this with the verb “be” in English: we say “I am” but “you are“.
But the verb be is actually a bit of an exception in English. Normally we don’t change the verb much, apart from in the third person.
Italian, on the other hand, uses looooads of verb conjugations. Here are a couple of examples (click below to listen to the pronunciation):
Essere = to be
Io sono = I am
Tu sei = you are
Lui/lei è = he/she is
Noi siamo = we are
Voi siete = you all/both are
Loro sono = they are
Parlare = to speak
Io parlo = I speak
Tu parli = you speak
Lui/lei parla = he/she speaks
Noi parliamo = we speak
Voi parlate = you both/all speak
Loro parlano = they all speak
If you’re observant, you may have noticed that there are 6 forms of the verb in Italian, while English only has 5. That’s because Italian has a plural “you” that’s used for when you’re speaking to more than one person. It’s a bit like saying you both/you all/you guys/y’all.
For many learners, verb conjugation is the most intimidating thing about Italian: one look at a list of Italian verbs and you might worry that you’ll never fit it all in your brain.
But you will.
Little by little is key.
And it’s not as complicated as it seems. Most verbs follow one of 4 patterns, which don’t take too long to learn. It’s true that there are quite a few irregular verbs, but many of these are similar to other irregular verbs, so you can learn them together in groups.
Importantly, don’t feel like you have to learn all the verbs at once. Focus on the ones you’ll use the most, then learn the others gradually as you go along.
Masculine and feminine words
The Italian word for “female friend” is:
But for a “male friend”, it’s:
Italian has gender, which means that nouns can change based on whether they are masculine or feminine (just in case you need a little refresher, nouns are words which describe people, things and places).
Feminine words often end in “a” and masculine words often end in “o”.
Here are some more examples:
Bambina (female child)
Bambino (male child)
The word for “a”, as in “a girl” or “a boy” also changes depending on whether the word is masculine or feminine. To say “a girl” in Italian we say una ragazza,while to say “a boy”, we say un ragazzo.
The funny thing is, languages with gender use the same system for objects, like chairs and books.
In Italian, a chair is feminine: “una sedia”.
While a book is masculine: “un libro”
This can feel a bit strange at first – how can a chair be feminine and a book be masculine?
Gender isn’t based on any logic about whether things have “feminine” or “masculine” qualities.
When it comes to learning the gender of objects, just think of the words as being split into two arbitrary groups: masculine and feminine. When you know which group the word is in, it will help you make decisions about the grammar, like whether to use the word “un” or “una”.
How can you remember which group a word belongs to?
Try using imagery. For example, you could imagine “una sedia” as pink chair with a bow on it and “un libro” as blue book with a moustache on it (of course if you prefer to avoid gender clichés, you can choose different images!)
Common mistake alert! Prepositions
Prepositions are little words like “in”, “over”, “on”, “off” and “for”.
They’re not always logical: for example, if a light “goes off” it means that the light stops, but when an alarm “goes off”, the sound starts!
Because they’re not always logical, they vary a lot between languages. Here are some differences between Italian and English:
Italians don’t say “welcome to Italy”, they say welcome in Italy: benvenuti in Italia.
Italians don’t say “on the TV”, they say “in the TV”: in TV.
Italians don’t say “in the papers”, they say “on the papers”: sui giornali.
Italian learners often struggle with prepositions. But if you pay attention to them from the beginning, you’ll have a much better chance at getting them right in the long run.
Italian vocabulary: how to remember Italian words and phrases fast
Learn the words which are similare
One of the best things about learning Italian is that a lot of the words are very similar to English. In fact, when you start learning it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to notice that you can already say loads of Italian words by simply saying English words in a hammy Italian accent. Similare (pronounced sim-ill-ar-ray) is one example – no prizes for guessing what it means!
How do you say fantastic in Italian? Try to say it in your best Italian accent.
Coke for breakfast: Remember Italian words and phrases with memory hooks
What happens when you drink cola for breakfast? The combination of sugar and caffeine gives you an energy boost and you spring into action.
You’ve just learnt the Italian word for breakfast, using a technique called 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. The trick is to create a little memory hook, by linking the sounds and meaning of the new word to words you already know.
Let’s learn another one. Imagine you’ve planned to go for a walk with your friend Arthur. He knocks on the door and you shout “come in Arthur” = kam-in-ar-ta.
You’ve just learnt the word for “walk” in Italian.
If you want to remember new words quickly in Italian, try creating memory hooks like the ones above. Get creative – the sillier the image, the easier it is to remember!
It might take you a little while to come up with memory hooks at first, but the more you do it, the quicker you’ll get. And it will save you a lot of time and effort in memorising Italian words.
Italian pronunciation: why it’s easier than you think
Say what you see!
Italian pronunciation is relatively straightforward compared to many other languages, especially when you take into account the spelling system.
English has a complex spelling system where different combinations of letters can be pronounced in many ways. To demonstrate this point, George Bernard Shaw once pointed out that the word fish could be spelled “ghoti.”
gh = /f/ as in enough.
o = /i/ as in women
ti= /sh/ as in nation
Luckily for us, Italian has a very phonetic spelling system, which means that most letters can only be pronounced in one way. Once you learn a couple of spelling rules, you’ll be able to pronounce the words you read without difficulty.
The Italian spelling system: C and G
One of the rules you’ll need to learn is the pronunciation of C and G, as it’s not always the same as in English.
Generally, C is pronounced as a hard K sound, like in the word cake. Similarly, G is usually pronounced as a hard G sound, like in game.
Examples you may recognise
The same rule applies when C and G are followed by the letter “h”.
Examples you may recognise
However, when you see C followed by the letter I or E, it’s pronounced as a soft C sound, (like the ch sound in the English word chocolate).
Examples you may recognise
Likewise, when you see G followed by the letter I or E, it’s pronounced as a soft J sound, (like the j in jeans)
Examples you may recognise
If you want to learn more about how to pronounce C and G in Italian, and hear some more examples, listen to 5 Minute Italian episode 11 and episode 12 on how to pronounce an Italian menu.
How to roll your Rs in Italian
You’re probably already familiar with the fact that Italian has a rolled R sound. Some people can do it naturally, but for others it takes a bit of work.
I used to really struggle with the rolled R. In fact, I had just about given up, until one of my Italian teachers insisted that I could learn to do it. She was right! I practised and practised and practised until eventually, I managed it.
So don’t get discouraged if you were born without this skill – most people can learn with the right techniques.
If you want to find out how I learnt to roll my Rs in Italian (and a quick trick to make your R sound more Italian even if you can’t roll it), listen to the tutorial below.
The smiley L
Another Italian soundwhich may be new to you is the smiley L (known formally as the palatal L). When you see the letters gli together, as in famiglia, it’s pronounced similar to an L sound, but instead of putting the tongue tip behind your teeth (like in the English one) you spread the whole tongue out across the roof of your mouth. If you smile when you say it, it helps to put the tongue in the right position, which is why we christened it the smiley L.
This sound is much easier to learn when you can hear it being pronounced and get some examples. Listen to the tutorial below for tips on how to pronounce the smiley L in Italian.
The smiley N
Italian also has a smiley N sound. When you see the letters gn together, as in lasagne, smile, push the whole tongue flat against your mouth (like in the smiley L) and try to make a N sound. As with the smiley L, it’s much easier to learn with audio instructions and examples. Listen to the tutorial below for tips on how to pronounce the smiley N.
Common mistake alert! Double consonants
In Italian, when you see two of the same consonants in a row, you should make that sound longer. For example, the word “sono” (which means I am) has a single consonant: “n”, while the word “sonno” (which means sleep) has a double consonant: “nn”. The “n” sound is held for longer in the latter.
Can you hear the difference?
Don’t worry if these words sound very similar at first, with practise, you’ll be able to differentiate them.
Many foreigners continue to mix up single and double consonants, even when they speak Italian very well. If you pay attention to them right from the beginning, you’ll have a much better chance of getting it right in the long run (in fact, I wish someone had given me this advice when I first started learning Italian!)
Common Mistake Alert! Not pronouncing the vowels properly
In English, we don’t always open our mouths fully to pronounce the vowels.
For example, in the word “responsible”, the letter “i” is pronounced as a kind of lazy “e” sound, which is produced with the mouth and tongue in a completely relaxed position. In the phonetic alphabet, it’s represented with the upside down ə sound (called the schwa).
However, Italian vowels are always pronounced fully. Can you hear the full “a” sound in the Italian version?
The lazy “ə” sound doesn’t exist in Italian, so be sure to pronounce each vowel fully.
Time for some action: how to achieve your goal of speaking Italian
So far so good. You’re excited about learning Italian, you’ve got some essential phrases and you’ve started learning about the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. You even know which common mistakes to look out for.
But there’s one last step.
If you want to make real progress in Italian, it’s importantto turn your good intentions into actions.
As Leonardo da Vinci says:
Being willing is not enough; we must do.
In this section, you’ll learn 4 strategies that will help you take action and get you closer to your goal of speaking Italian.
Use it or lose it
Bear in mind that no textbook or audio course will give you everything you need to speak Italian.
Textbooks teach you a lot about the language, but they don’t really help you use it in real life. Think of them like a book on how to play the guitar. It gives you a lot of useful information, but unless you actually put your hands on the guitar, you’ll never be able to play.
If you want to be able to use Italian in real life situations, you need to practise first. Practising helps you turn the Italian words and phrases you learn in books into active knowledge that you can use to communicate with Italians.
If the idea of speaking straightaway makes you feel nervous, don’t worry. You don’t have to walk up to an Italian and start talking after your first lesson. There are other ways to practise using your Italian:
Take the new words and grammar points you learn in your textbook and try using them to write sentences about your life.
Write a diary entry about your day.
Talk to yourself in Italian in your head: What are people around you doing? What objects can you see?
Practise speaking with a language exchange partner or conversation tutor. If you don’t feel comfortable attempting conversation yet, you can tell them about new words or grammar points you’ve learnt and ask them to give you examples of how they’re used in real life.
These activities help you connect what you learn to real life, which makes them easier to remember.
If this feels tricky and you make lots mistakes at the beginning, don’t worry. It’s a normal part of being a beginner. The most important thing is to start – that’s how you get better!
As a 5 Minute Italian member, you’ll get lots of beginner-friendly opportunities to practise your Italian, including:
A “use it or lose it section”, which helps you use new Italian words and phrases to talk about your own life.
Speaking workshops, where we help you get over your nerves and have a go at speaking Italian.
Personal feedback and corrections from Italian teachers.
In January, around 35% of people in Britain go on a diet.
By February, most have given up.
When it comes to goals like losing weight or learning a language, most of us start full of optimism, only to run out of steam a few days or weeks later. This happens because willpower is a limited resource: when it runs out, we fall back on old habits, like eating peanut butter out of the jar (just me?).
Even if you’re really committed to learning Italian at the beginning, your determination might fizzle out somewhere down the line.
You probably know that the best way to learn Italian is to study regularly over a sustained period, but that’s not always easy when your willpower waxes and wanes. The key to solving this problem is to make Italian a habit. Once you’re in the habit, learning Italian feels natural, so you don’t have to rely on self-discipline all the time.
Here are a couple of things you can do to get into the habit of learning Italian:
Find little ways to introduce Italian into your daily routine. For example, you could listen to a podcast at breakfast, read a book on your commute, or review vocabulary while you’re waiting for your computer to load.
Start small: just as bad habits can be difficult to break, good habits can be difficult to make. Start with something so easy you can’t say no to, like 5 minutes a day. Then add an extra minute each day. Built up gradually until you find a length of time that a) slots easily into your daily routine and b) feels like you’re making good progress.
Find a community
Science shows that if you work towards a goal as part of a group, you’re more likely to achieve it, compared to if you try going it alone. Joining a group of people who are learning Italian helps you learn faster for a couple of reasons:
If you study alone, it’s easy to make excuses in your head and slack off. Teaming up with others who are learning Italian makes you accountable to other people, which gives you an extra push.
The group gives you moral support, opportunities to practise and practical advice that will help you progress quicker.
Community is a powerful thing: if you’re serious about learning Italian, joining a group will help you succeed.
Join 5 Minute Italian (it’s free if you get in there quick!)
If you want to learn basic Italian fast, you’ll get the exact steps and support you need by becoming a 5 Minute Italian member.
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. Over all I managed about 20 (out of 40), which means I skipped a lot of days. This is another one of those tasks which feels a bit painful, so I’m going to make it easier for myself by setting the 2 minute goal of one question per day.
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
Get involved in the conversation: What are your language learning plans for May? Share them with us in the comments below!
What does the future, better version of you look like?
Mine’s fluent in lots of languages, wears matching socks and doesn’t eat nutella straight from the jar.
In January, lots of us chase after that better version of ourselves, whether it be learning a new language or eating healthily. But by February we’ve already gone back to our old ways.
So why is positive change so hard?
One reason is that we usually think of change as something that happens in the future. We get excited about the super-duper future version of ourselves, without stopping to think about what that actually looks like in the present.
The problem with goals
Big, far away goals don’t work because they’re too abstract. We never feel accountable for them now, which is the only time we can ever do anything about anything.
There’s always a later: when we’re less tired, less busy, more motivated. So when I find myself with a teaspoon and a jar of nutella in hand, it’s fine because “future Katie will sort it out”. Future Katie’s got a lot of shiz to do.
It’s been printed on so many trite motivational posters that it’s lost all meaning, but Confucius was right when he said that a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. If we want to make big things happen, we have to move our attention to the little things we can do right now.
In the words of DJ Casper, we need to…
Break it down now
Whether you prefer to get your motivational quotes from Confucius or DJ Casper, the point is this: humans are notoriously bad at delayed gratification. If I have a big goal like “learn Spanish”, I don’t know when (if ever) I’m going to get the satisfaction of reaching it. It doesn’t mean anything to me.
To learn a language in 2017, stop thinking about big goals like “learn language X” and break it down into small, real activities, like learning 5 words a day. That way, you’ll know exactly what you have to do and you’re much more likely to do it.
Breaking language learning down into mini goals is aligned with the psychology of what motivates us. You get satisfaction from regularly hitting your targets and your brain releases a little hit of dopamine, which strengthens the reward cycle and makes you more likely to repeat the behaviour.
Once you’ve got the routine in place, all you have to do is keep doing what you’re doing. Continue putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually you’ll walk a thousand miles, or know how to speak Spanish.
Smaller is better
Having a big goal isn’t a bad thing: after all, it’s nice to know where you’re headed. But unless you think about what that looks like, realistically, in your day-to-day life, you’ll keep finding excuses to put it off. It’s less glamorous than the imaginary, super-duper future you, but it works.
I’ve got a rough idea of where I’m going this year, but my real focus is on the details: What am I going to do every day? Every week? Every month? If I work on getting these things done, the rest will fall into place.
My language goals 2017
I’m currently learning 5 languages. To manage them all, I give myself 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.
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.
In December I was hoping to finish the Pimsleur audio course and my Assimil textbook.
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.
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.
In December, I set myself the target of 3 conversation lessons per week with native speakers on italki. I managed around 2. I’d like to get more organised with this as it’s an enjoyable way to learn and it’s also the best way to improve my speaking skills.
I’m going to keep the same target of 3 lessons per week and make more of an effort to squeeze them in.
I aimed to learn around 5 new words a day, which I did. Woot woot! I’m going to keep this up in January.
I started learning German back at the end of 2015. Since then I’ve been doing 1 hour a day like a little worker bee (most days) and my German is gradually getting there.
I feel confident talking about basic stuff, but I still get tongue tied if the conversation moves on to more advanced topics. My goal in 2017 is to keep doing what I’m doing so that by the end of year I’ll be able to talk about more interesting things.
To make sure I stick to my hour a day, I use the “don’t break the chain” technique, which involves putting a mark on the calendar for each day I study. Once I get a long chain of crosses, it motivates me to keep going as it’d be a shame to break the chain. At the moment my chain is at 49, and I don’t want to lose that streak!
In 2016, I’m going to take the advanced Italian exam (C2 CEFR level). I’ll start studying for this once I’ve finished my Chinese mission in March.
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).
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.
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!
Now I’d like to hear from 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! I’d also like to know: which of the above resources do you think will be the most useful in your Spanish mission? Why?
The longest I’ve ever stayed awake is 52 hours.
It was 2010 and I was writing my university dissertation at the very last minute. I sat in the 24 hour library for 2 and a half days, fuelling myself with Red Bull and chocolate raisins. When I got home and looked in the mirror, my face had turned a weird yellow colour.
Just last year, I stayed up for 30 hours before handing in my Masters dissertation.
Let’s just say time management is not my forte.
Fortunately, procrastination has never caused me any major problems (I always manage to pull things off at the last minute) but it makes everything more difficult than it needs to be.
But my procrastination really got in the way. I knew I should be doing something, but I ended up fiddling with my phone, going on Facebook, getting lost in a wikipedia web, staring out the window with my finger up my nose etc. etc. You know how it is.
If I can just break my procrastination habits, I’ll have more time, feel more relaxed and things will start falling into place.
War on procrastination
In November I’m declaring war on procrastination. I’ve got three weapons:
1. Tomato time
I’m going to use the pomodoro technique, which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, working intensively, then taking a 5 minute break. Pomodoro means tomato in Italian, named after the kitchen timer that the inventor used to time his work intervals. It’s based on the idea that everyone can study for 25 minutes. It doesn’t feel overwhelming so it’s easy to get started. 2. Make a schedule
In October I knew what I was supposed to be doing, but I didn’t plan when I was going to do it. In hindsight this was probably the main problem as it gave me too much freedom to faff about. This month I’m going to make a daily study timetable and… actually stick to it! 3. Remove distractions
I broke the cardinal rule of studying as I often had my phone next to me while I was working. This month, I’m going to make a point of removing all distractions so I can really focus during my 25 minute stints.
As well as nixing procrastination, there’s one more way I’d like to improve my learning this month:
Use it or lose it!
In October I spent lots of time absorbing the language through listening and reading, and not enough time using it in speaking and writing. I’m a big believer of learning by doing, but my schedule isn’t reflecting this at the moment. In November, I’m going to focus more on using what I learn. I’ll do this in 3 ways:
1. Mini talks
I’m going to make listening and reading more productive by adding mini 2 minute talking sessions. When I’m listening or reading something, I’ll write down key words. Then I’ll use these keywords to speak aloud for a couple of minutes about what I just read/heard. 2. Recycling days
Every 3 days, I’ll do a session dedicated to recycling the language I’ve been learning over the previous 2 days. In these sessions I’ll use the language I’ve been studying by making videos, writing stories and giving example sentences. I’m also going to use them to write conversation questions, so I can re-use new words and grammar points in conversations with my language tutors. 3. Translate
I’m going to try the translation method which involves taking a short dialogue and translating it into your native language, then back again into the language you’re learning. This method helps you zoom in on the differences between your native language and the language you’re learning. It also helps you build sentences and gives you instant feedback so you can spot common mistakes and iron them out.
Language goals for November
At the moment I’m learning 5 languages. Each month, I have a sprint language which I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages, which I study in a more relaxed fashion. In the sprint language, I immerse myself in the language as much as possible through daily activities like watching TV, reading and listening to the radio. My sprint language for November is Italian.
I spent October studying for my advanced (C2) Italian exam, but I’ve just run into a big problema! The only exam session is on a Thursday, which I can’t do as I’m a teacher and I can’t take holidays during term time. The next one isn’t until June 2017, so I’ve decided to lay off the exam preparation stuff for a while and come back to it in April/May time.
On the plus side, I’ll have more time to focus on things I’ve been meaning to do for ages in Italian.
There are 2 main areas I’d like to work on: 1. Culture 2. Grammar
I live in Milan, and many of my friends are Italian, so I’m already immersed in Italian culture to some extent. But I know I can do more. The more I learn about Italian culture, the more I can integrate into the country I live in. And feeling close to a culture does wonders for your language skills. So this month, I want to dive even further into Italian culture. Here’s the plan:
I’ll watch one classic Italian film per week. This month’s films are Gomorrah, Il Divo, La Grande Bellezza and Amici Miei. TV
In my downtime, I’m going to get through the first two series of the Italian sitcom, Boris. News and current affairs
In October I set myself the goal of watching 8 e mezzo, a current affairs programme which discusses the political situation in Italy. I used to love this programme, but forcing myself to watch it everyday has turned it into a bit of a yawn fest. So this month, I’m going to take it down to 2 episodes per week. I’m also going to start watching Report, an investigative journalism series which features interviews with people from all over Italy. This will be particularly good for finding out about different regions and hearing a variety of accents. Finally, I’m going to carry on watching the news every day. Reading
I’ve just finished my book Gomorrah, so in November I’m aiming to read my next one, Cairo Calling by Claudia Galal.
I’d like to revisit some bits and pieces of Italian grammar, so I’m going to work through 1 chapter a day of my grammar book. I’ll also have a recycling day every 3 days so I can apply what I’ve learned in new contexts.
On days when I manage to fit 2 hours in (which probably won’t be everyday!) my timetable will look something like this:
TV: news/8 e mezzo/Report/Boris + mini talk Grammar (1hr)
25 minutes translation method
25 minutes from grammar book
I’ll read and watch films during my downtime in the evenings and at weekends.
German and Chinese
These two languages are my newest so I’m still building up grammar and vocabulary. In October I set myself the goal to do 1 chapter per day of my textbook (except weekends) and learn 40 new words per week. I also planned to do 2 lessons per week on italki to practice my speaking. I didn’t always stick to the plan perfectly, but I did manage it most of the time. I feel like I’m making good, steady progress, so I’m going to keep riding this wave. By Christmas I want to:
1. Finish my textbooks 2. Learn at least 1000 words in German (currently 878) 3. Learn at least 800 words in Chinese (currently on 550)
I’ll be starting a new job in November, which means I’ll no longer have time to do 2 lessons each week. I’m going to try to squeeze one per week in so I don’t get out of the habit of speaking.
Finally, I’m going to include mini talks and recycling days to practice using what I learn.
In October, I set myself the delightfully lazy goal of watching 20 minutes of French reality TV per day. This is going well as hearing spontaneous speech is really helping my listening skills. I’m going to keep this up in November.
Although I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my lazy French approach, I’m starting to feel like I should revisit a little French grammar. So I was pleased last week when I came across a fantastic idea from Alex over at laptop and flipflops who gives himself a mini language goal each week. I’m going to steal this idea and learn one little grammar point per week. On Friday I’ll have a recycling day where I practice using what I’ve learned so far.
In October I listened to the delightfully funny Gritty Spanish, a set of mini dialogues for adults where the characters do naughty things like go to strip clubs and rob ice-cream trucks.
This month I’d like to use the dialogues in a more active way. Each day I’m going to one of the following:
1. Dictation: listen to the dialogue in slow mode and write down what I hear in Spanish.
2. Translation method: translate the dialogue into English then back into Spanish.
3. Mini talk: give a quick spoken summary about the dialogue.
I’m also going to take the new words and add them to my Spanish flashcards.
Finally, I’ll keep uploading one Spanish video per week on our Spanish-English Facebook group, vidiomas.
It looks like November is going to be a very busy language learning month, I’m excited! I’ll be back next month to let you know how it went.
Now I’d like to hear from you: What are your language goals? How are they going? Share them in the comments below!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 highly 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.
Now I’d love to hear from you. How do you like to study vocabulary? Let us know in the comments below!
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