You might want to enjoy travelling more, connect with people from other cultures or get closer to friends and family members.
Come to think of it, you probably don’t want to learn it at all. You want to speak a foreign language.
This distinction is important, because most people focus too much on learning the theory, then feel disappointed when they can’t speak the language.
Speaking a foreign language is like swimming. Some theory can improve your technique, but if you want to get better at it, you need to get your feet wet.
This article will help you practice speaking a foreign language. You’ll find step-by-step guides on how to:
Know where to start and what to say.
Remember the most useful words and phrases, so you can start speaking sooner.
Stop worrying about making mistakes.
Deal with mind blanks – and impress natives at the same time.
Practice speaking with (and without) native speakers.
Find people to practice with.
Speaking a foreign language: getting started
At the very beginning, you’ll need to learn some basics so you know what to say when you start speaking.
Build a foundation
If you’re starting from zero, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel – get yourself a good beginners’ textbook or online course and start working through it.
When choosing your course, be sure to go for one that teaches you words and phrases that you’ll need in simple conversations. For example, I don’t recommend Duolingo, because the phrases can be quite random, like “you are my horse”. Which you probably won’t need in your first conversation (or hopefully not at all!)
When choosing which materials to use, here are some resources that you might find handy:
The key here is not to wait until you know everything perfectly before you try to start speaking.
Theory and practice feed into each other: when you practice speaking, you’ll get a better sense of how to use the things you’ve been learning in conversation – they’ll make more sense to you and you’ll remember them more easily.
Expect lots of moments where you find yourself needing a word or grammar point and thinking “ah I knew this!”
1. Remembering it and using it in conversation (yay!)
2. Asking your speaking partner to remind you.
Both are good – forcing yourself to use something in conversation (whether you get it right or not) helps you learn and makes it stick better next time.
Be selective: learn what you want to say
Sometimes language courses tend to focus on lists of words, like sports and animals, that are not useful in the beginning. When was the last time you spoke about volleyball or elephants in a casual conversation with your neighbour?
When it comes to the more practical topics, like nationalities, jobs and family members, you probably still don’t need to learn all of them before you can have a conversation.
For example, it’s useful to know how to talk about your own nationality and job, because they’re normally the first things people ask about. And if you’re married with children, it’ll be handy to know how to say “husband”, “wife”, “son” or “daughter”.
But you probably don’t need words like “Russian” “cousin” and “nurse”, unless you’re from Russia, you’re really close to your cousin or you are a nurse.
You have my full permission to skip over bits of your language course. Take control of your own learning and prioritise words and phrases that you know you’ll need in conversation.
How do you know if a word is worth learning? Use the “tomorrow test” and ask yourself: at my current level, can I imagine myself using this word in conversation?
Yes? Go ahead and learn it.
No? Leave it for now. It’ll come back around again when you’re ready.
Remember common conversations
Hi, nice to meet you. Where are you from? What do you do for a living?
Most conversations, especially with people you first meet, are quite samey. If you can memorise common questions and answers, you’ll be able to have your first simple conversation pretty quickly.
Here are some examples of typical questions that come up in conversations:
Where do you live?
Are you on vacation?
Do you like it?
Do you work or are you a student?
Why are you learning this language?
Are you a … fan? (questions about sports)
But remember, the expert on the kind of conversations that you’re likely to have is you! Personalise your learning to your own situation and focus on the words and phrases that you want to say.
Speaking mission 1: common conversations
Write a list of common conversations questions, and your answers. Then make an effort to memorise them by covering them up and testing yourself regularly (you can also use flashcards).
Pro tip: memorise a short paragraph about yourself, with information such as where you’re from, where you live, your job and anything else important about your life. These things are likely to come up over and over again, and it helps to get them rolling off the tongue.
How can you learn how to say these things? Start with a phrase book, or beginner’s textbook, and a good online dictionary, such as wordreference.com. When you get to the point where you need more specific help, there are a few different tools you can use:
On HiNative, you can post questions and get answers from native speakers.
If the language you’re learning isn’t there, you can ask a native speaker to help you translate these phrases into the language you’re learning. More on how to find native speakers at the end of this article.
Learn the “thinking” sounds
Speaking slowly, epicly long silences… it’s normal to be slow at first while your brain gets used to processing the new information. That’s what learning’s all about! Over time, things will become more automatic.
And even native speakers hesitate sometimes. In fact, spoken language is packed with ums, ahs, and little words like “you know”, “so”, “actually”, “I mean”, and “right”.
These little words, called fillers, don’t really change the meaning of the sentence, but they add to the colour and flavour and give the language its characteristic sound.
Consider an answer to the common question: “Where are you from?”
Without filler words, you might say something like this:
“London. A small town close to London. Are you from Paris?”
With filler words, you could say this:
“London… Well, a small town close to London, actually. You’re from Paris, right?”
Fillers are often overlooked by language learners, but they’re a great tool because they make your speech sound more natural and buy you some more thinking time.
If the language you’re learning isn’t here, you can pick some up by asking native speakers to translate them for you. Keep in mind that it’s really important to be aware and listen to how they are used in the language you’re learning, because it might not be exactly the same.
The Easy Languages Youtube channels are great for this – the presenters interview people on the streets, so you get to hear lots of natural speech.
Try to memorise as many of the words and phrases from this section as you can, but most importantly, practice using them in conversation, as this will make them more memorable. You can even bring them with you to your conversation practice sessions, so that you can get into the habit of using them when you need them – notes are allowed 😃
Stop worrying about your mistakes
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
JK Rowling’s words are perfect for those hoping to speak a foreign language:
It’s impossible to speak a foreign language without making mistakes, unless you’re so cautious that you don’t speak at all, in which case you’ve failed at speaking a foreign language by default.
You’ll make mistakes. Lots of them. And that’s ok.
Make friends with your mistakes
Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil to be tolerated. You need them to learn.
They’re part of a feedback loop that works like this:
Try to say something.
Make a mistake.
Get feedback on the right way to say it.
Say it right.
The more mistakes you make, the more this feedback loop happens and the more you learn. Instead of seeing mistakes as something that you need to avoid, put yourself out there and try to make as many as possible – you’ll learn faster.
But won’t it be embarrassing to make mistakes?
The embarrassment around speaking a foreign language comes from expectations: how you think you “should” talk and what the person listening expects from you. Here’s a good solution to that…
Involve native speakers in your learning
Lots of people view language learning like a performance. You study the grammar and vocabulary first, then once you’ve got it all perfect, you can step out onto the stage and start having fluent conversations.
But languages don’t work like that. You have to practice, which includes making mistakes and looking a bit silly. You’ll never be able to hide the fact that you’re a learner, so there’s no point in trying.
When you get the chance to practice speaking the language, take the pressure off by lowering expectations. Start by saying that you’re learning and you’d like to try – this way the other person will be expecting mistakes.
A conversation isn’t a performance, it’s a team sport. This is especially true if you practice in a situation that’s set up specifically to help you speak the language, for example, in a conversation exchange or online tutoring. Give yourself permission to be a learner and ask for help and corrections as you go along.
Ask for corrections
The following phrases will help you get feedback in the language so you can check that what you’re saying is correct and learn from your mistakes.
1. Did I say it right?
2. Do you say it like that?
3. How would you say it?
4. Did that sound natural?
You can even ask your conversation partner to translate these questions for you, so you can say them in the language you’re learning.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
Do you ever feel like you make mistakes because you forget things too easily in the language you’re learning? Don’t worry, that’s normal!
Most people underestimate how important repetition is for learning a language. Research suggests that kids learning their first language may need to come across a word more than 20 times before it sticks. So if you get a word wrong 19 times, keep going. The 20th could be the winner!
Don’t get disheartened when you forget words and grammar, it’s a natural part of the language learning process. And don’t spend the whole time saying to yourself “I should have known that”. Those kind of self defeating thoughts will impede your progress.
Be patient with yourself, keep going and you’ll get there.
Learn how to laugh at yourself
You’ll probably make some embarrassing mistakes too. That’s all part of it – at least you’ll have a good story to tell.
When you’re learning to speak a foreign language, a good sense of humour is your secret weapon. If you know how to laugh at yourself, you can have some fun with native speakers and get them on your side. If you are laughing, you’re the one in control and those mistakes can’t intimidate you any more.
Write it down, say it aloud, tattoo it on your forehead, whatever you need to do to absorb this idea: mistakes are good. One way to see mistakes as a positive thing is to use them in your practice sessions as a learning tool. Set yourself a goal to make as many mistakes as possible and bring a notebook – write down the corrections and learn them before your next session.
Warm up to speaking a foreign language
The best way to get better at speaking a foreign language is to spend as much time as you can speaking the foreign language.
Simple in theory, but it’s not always easy to find native speakers on your doorstep. And let’s be honest, you’d probably rather keep putting it off, because it’s scary and you don’t feel ready.
The good news is, you don’t have to jump straight into conversations with native speakers. In this section, you’ll learn how to practice speaking in non-intimidating situations first, so that you can warm up for real conversations.
Practice speaking without a native speaker
When you’re making your very first steps in speaking a foreign language, you don’t really need a native speaker. You just need to practice grabbing all that grammar and vocabulary that’s floating around in your head and using it to form sentences. Check out this article for some simple ways to do this.
Chatting online is a great way to ease yourself into speaking a foreign language. It’s similar to talking in real life, but people can’t see your face (unless you want them too) and the writing format gives you time to think about what you want to say. You can even use an online dictionary to find the right words as you chat.
Here are a few resources you might find handy:
A bit like WhatsApp for language learners, you can use HelloTalk to find native speakers and set up a language exchange via text messages. There are some great tools for learners, such as a translation button to help you understand the messages. Once you get comfortable with texting, you can practice speaking by sending audio messages or meeting your language exchange partner for a video call.
2. Facebook groups
You’ll find lots of groups on Facebook where you can practice chatting with other learners and the moderators in the language you’re learning.
All you have to do to find them is do a quick search on Facebook – you’ll probably be spoilt for choice!
There are some brilliant language teachers on Instagram who post things in the language and chat with their communities. Why not follow them and practice chatting in the comments?
To find these teachers, you can do a quick google search for “Spanish teacher Instagram” (insert whatever language you’re learning) or look on Instagram for hashtags like #learnspanish #learnarabic #frenchlessons #chineselessons…
Listen and read a lot
It’s difficult to learn how to have meaningful conversations by memorising phrases alone.
You’ll also need to spend lots of time observing how the language works in real life, through reading and listening. This will help you start to absorb common words, phrases and grammatical structures. When you read and listen to the language regularly, you’ll find that things will often “pop into your head” when you need them, helping you speak in a more fluid way.
Here are some tips for reading and listening in a foreign language:
These things are all good in principle, but to get the benefit you have to make sure that you’re doing them regularly. Take a moment to look back through this section and think of how you can integrate these strategies into your life and routine. For example:
If you normally go on Facebook when you’re on the bus, can you use this time to chat in a Facebook group in the language you’re learning?
If you listen to podcasts on your way to work, can you listen to podcasts or audio for learning the language instead?
If you watch TV in the evenings, can you spend a little time watching Youtube videos in the language you’re learning instead?
Speaking a foreign language: how to find native speakers
Time to get started with the (not-so-secret) strategy for learning how to speak a foreign language: hours and hours of awkward conversation practice.
There’s nothing quite like regular conversations, with native speakers, or someone who speaks the language better than you, to help you get better at speaking the language.
Where can you find these people? Let’s chat about that now:
How to find people to practice with
My favourite way to practice speaking a language is with an online conversation tutor. There are lots of advantages to learning a language in this way:
Great value: sometimes for less than $10 an hour
One-on-one: you get individual attention and lots more practice.
Low stress: you’re paying them to help you speak and they know you’re a learner, so mind blanks and mistakes are totally ok.
Perfect for busy people: You can do the lesson whenever you want, from wherever you have an internet connection.
I use the platform Italki for conversation lessons, you can learn more about how to do that here:
If classes are out of budget, you can also use Italki to set up language exchanges. The Italki platform is a bit of a one-stop language learning shop, because you can also use the notebook section to get corrections on your writing and ask questions on the answers page.
Finally, if you prefer real-life contact, you can use websites like conversation exchange to find native speakers in your area and invite them out for a coffee or a beer – you might find you speak the language better after a glass or two!
What to talk about
Remember, it’s all about practice: no one expects you to be perfect already, or even good… yet! When you set up your conversations, you can even take along your notes – actually I’d recommend doing it.
Keep a notebook with your useful phrases and things you’ve learned recently and refer to them during the conversations. You can use the same notebook to write down feedback from your speaking partner or conversation tutor.
As for conversation topics and things to talk about, you’ll find lots of ideas in this post.
Look for the section conversation ideas: what to talk about at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.
Do something now
Enough theory, time for some action – that’s what learning practical skills are all about! What’s one small thing you could do right now to help you start speaking in a foreign language? Scroll back through this article quickly if you need some ideas. Book a lesson, grab a notebook and write some essential phrases, sign up to hellotalk, join a facebook group… pick one small, simple thing and start now. When you’re chatting away in the language you’re learning, you’ll be glad you did!
Anything to add?
Have you tried any of the tips in this article? Do you have any more tips for speaking a foreign language that you think other learners might find useful? Share them in the comments.
Let’s be honest.
You probably already know what you need to do to learn a foreign language:
1. Study regularly.
2. Learn the grammar and vocabulary.
3. Practice speaking a lot.
The tricky part is putting all that stuff into practice. Why do most people get stuck at this stage, while a select few steam ahead and manage to speak the language?
It’s not because they’re good students. In fact, a lot of the “good” habits you learned in school, like following the rules, trying to learn everything and wanting to get a high score on the test, could be the very things holding you back from learning a foreign language.
There’s a hidden set of skills that you might not have considered before, because they make you seem like a bad student. Yet most successful language learners have them in common.
Give these 7 “bad” habits a try: they’ll help you stick with language learning and speak the language faster.
Ready to become a bad student? ¡Vamos!
The 7 bad habits of really successful language learners
1. They don’t study (for long)
Learning a language is a bit like learning to swim or play the guitar. A bit of theory can help, but the only way to get good at the skill is to jump in the pool, or start playing.
Great language learners spend a lot of time using the language. They probably still study vocabulary and grammar, especially in the beginning, but they see it as a support for everything else, not their main focus.
And they start putting it into practice as quickly as possible.
What might this look like in your life? If your goal is to have conversations, then it’s important to practice speaking. Here are some tips on how to do that:
But it can also be anything where you’re working with the language in context (not just isolated words or grammar rules). Listening, reading and writing are all activities that will give you a big return on investment. The more you practice using the language in real ways, the faster you’ll learn.
So why don’t more people do it?
Because it’s slow and awkward at first! That’s normal, even for very experienced language learners. Which leads me to my next point…
2. They don’t care if they’re terrible
Swimming champion Michael Phelps holds the most olympic medals of all time. But he wasn’t exactly a natural when he started – he hated getting his face wet and would flap around around on his back. (1)
Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello has been named by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. But, as one of his peers said “Tom sucked at guitar when I first met him”. (2)
If you want to learn a new skill, you have to accept that you’re going to be really bad at it for a while. And you’re in good company – everyone, including the greatest athletes and musicians of all time, went through that phase too.
The difference between people who manage to learn a language and the ones who give up is this: successful language learners understand that being terrible is a normal part of learning a new skill. So if the grammar makes your brain hurt and remembering a word feels like pulling out a tooth, know that this is normal. It does NOT mean that you’re not cut out to learn a language.
Just accept that you’re not going to be very good at it for a while and practice as much as you can. After lots and lots and lots of practice, you’ll make it out the other side 🙂
3. They don’t apologise for their mistakes
If you’re too afraid to open your mouth for fear of looking silly, you’ll slow down your language learning.
Successful language learners know that making mistakes is an essential part of the process, that works like this:
Have a go
Make a mistake (even if you risk looking silly)
Get a correction
Tell people you’re learning and bring along a good sense of humour. If you can laugh at your own mistakes, you’ll have fun with native speakers and get them on your side, which will make the conversation run a lot smoother.
Along the same lines, effective language learners aren’t afraid to admit that they don’t know something. Be curious and ask questions. People are normally happy to answer and you’ll learn a lot!
4. They don’t go to school
Successful language learners are independent learners. They prefer to take charge of their own learning and often don’t join group classes.
Why? Here are some disadvantages of learning a language in the classroom:
1. You have to study what the teacher decides, which may not be the same as what you want to learn or talk about.
2. If you have to listen to long explanations of things (sometimes in the second language) it’s easy to switch off and start wondering what you’re going to have for dinner.
3. Once or twice a week isn’t enough to make good progress in the language you’re learning. By the time the next lesson comes along, you’ve already forgotten everything you learned!
4. In groups the teaching often gets a bit diluted – it’s hard to get the personal attention you need to get error corrections and ask questions.
5. You don’t normally get enough speaking practice.
So what’s the alternative? Learning languages via self study, with textbooks, online courses and conversation classes online is a great option.
1. Focus on words and grammar that are most useful for you (you probably don’t need a list of kitchen appliances for casual conversations – more on this soon).
2. Study regularly (a little every day is better than a lot once a week)
4. Find a comfortable space away from distractions so you can really take in what you’re learning.
5. Practice speaking, whenever you have time and an internet connection.
Some successful language learners also go to classes. But in between lessons, they’re self starters, looking for methods they like, prioritising the words and phrases that are the most useful for them and creating opportunities to practice outside of class.
5. They don’t force themselves to do things they dislike
Do you ever feel like you just “can’t be bothered” to study a language? It can be tempting to think that if only you had more willpower, you’d be able to do it.
But successful language learners aren’t necessarily the ones with the most willpower. I’ve learned a few languages, but I’m terrible at most things that require willpower, like waking up early, going to the gym regularly or eating only one biscuit from the packet (if you know how, please share).
6. They don’t care if they don’t understand everything
Have you ever tried listening to or reading in a foreign language and felt frustrated by all the things you didn’t understand?
Sometimes foreign languages are a bit like maths: getting frustrated by the things you can’t figure out puts up a barrier, which makes it very difficult to learn. If you take a calm, “problem solving” approach, it’s a lot easier to take in the information you need to move forward.
You won’t understand everything, and that’s ok. Instead, have fun putting on your detective hat. Focus on the words and phrases you do know, and try to figure things out from there. It won’t always be easy, but if you come to the language with an inquiring mind, you’ll enjoy it more and learn faster.
7. They don’t try to learn everything
Sports, kitchen appliances, stationary, animals…
When was the last time you talked about windsurfing, pencils, elephants or sinks in a casual conversation at the bar? Lots of standard courses waste your time by teaching you a bunch of words that you don’t need yet. By focusing on the words you’re likely to use in casual conversations first, you’ll be able to start speaking sooner.
How do you know if a word is worth learning? Use the tomorrow test. Ask yourself: at my current level, can I imagine myself using this word or phrase in a conversation tomorrow? If the answer is yes, it’s worth learning. If not, let it go for now. I’ll come back around again when you’re ready.
Last but not least…
Successful language learners are also a teeny bit presumptuous. Not in a “I’m great” kind of way, but in a “I know I can do this” kind of way. They trust that if they put in the work, throw in a lot of patience and keep doing what they’re doing, they’ll end up speaking the language.
And if you adopt these 7 “bad” habits, you can too!
What about you?
Do you have any of the habits in the list? Or any other “bad” habits that make you good at learning a language? Let us know in the comment!
I have so often told new people that I work with languages and I teach German, just to hear them say “God, I was terrible at languages in school. My German teacher was boring, and all that grammar made me fall asleep. Never again!”
Never again. Really?
Now I admit that languages did not throw me in school. Loved them. But I was so bad at sports. I would huff and sweat under duress, throw a tantrum over running, miserably sit on the bench until there was no one else left to pick for a team.
My school experience was awful and knocked my confidence a lot. But something changed when I became an adult. I slowly realised that a life lived with sports is a better life for me. Starting with a tentative jog, via aerobics and step classes and dance, I learnt what it’s like to exercise outside school. And guess what? I enjoyed it! These days I’m no Olympic athlete, but I can do a decent 5k run most weeks.
I believe that it’s never too late to start learning something cool, and there’s no law that says your school experience should influence what you do or who you are.
Maybe you dream of visiting Berlin or living in a French country house, or you want to travel to Austria to ski in the Alps, or Italy to spend a week with sun and gelato. And you know that these experiences get richer and better if you can speak the local language.
I guarantee you right now that you never need to go back to school to study up for the German grammar exam again. Not if you don’t want to.
So maybe…you can imagine giving languages another chance?
Here are a few ideas to help you overcome bad school memories and learn a language as an adult.
What’s YOUR Point In Learning This Language?
Back in school, you probably ended up in your language classes because someone else decided that it was a good idea. They also decided what you would be learning in which order, and how the tests would look.
But now that you’re coming back to languages as an adult learner, the tables have turned. It’s down to you to make the rules. You’ve got the power!
In practice, this means that you’ll have to learn a few new skills about staying organised and keeping your motivation up. The first step is to make a note of your big goal. Remember: Back in school, you might have wondered “what’s the point of learning a language?”. But now you know, and you can use that to help you get started.
Here are a few questions to help you work out your personal “why”:
What do you love about the country or culture of the language you’re studying?
Who inspires you to want to try and learn languages?
Where will you practice your language?
What do you most want to talk about in your new language?
How will you feel when you’ve achieved this goal?
The great thing about answering a few of these questions is that it gives you a big hint towards the next step, which is this:
Make The World’s Greatest Curriculum
You’re in charge now, so you get to decide what it is that you learn.
Don’t know anyone who cares that you have 2 sisters and a cousin named Barry? Great, skip that for now.
Wanna cut straight to your obsession with microbreweries in Hamburg? Perfect, you can study the vocabulary for that first.
One of the most important rules of learning a language you hated in school is to focus on finding things that are enjoyable. I know people who have learnt lots of vocabulary and grammar playing video games, reading short stories, going out for dance classes.
In fact, my course German Uncovered totally flips the traditional model on its head and teaches you the German language through the power of story. So first you read and understand something cool, and then the other parts fall into place.
Purge Those Bad Memories
For most adult language learners, it’s hard to imagine that learning a language like German could ever be fun.
Sit down with a piece of paper, think back to those horrible school classes for 10 seconds, then start writing down everything you remember hating about that class and that language.
So now you know what you hated, you can change things.
If there was too much grammar in play, then select a course that doesn’t test you on grammar and instead focuses on understanding. For example, a reading system like Lingq or a story-based course like German Uncovered can give you a new way of experiencing languages.
If you thought the lessons weren’t relevant, make sure you take charge of your own curriculum and take the freedom to study what you’re interested in.
If you hated the sound of a language, see if you can find romantic poems or your favourite style of music sung in it.
If you hated the classroom environment, then there is no need to go back. Look for an online tutor, join a language learning trip, or see if you can buy someone local a coffee in exchange for chatting to you in their language.
Often, what you remember is something that you can change now that you’re learning solo. There’s no exam panic, and Mr Tudmore won’t set you 12 pages of dull homework.
Choose Your Teacher
Now that you’re a solo language learner, you’re able to select the best teachers you can find. Look around to see who delivers online lessons, who might teach in a nice café, or who might be using fun methods like stories, puppets, or music.
Independent language teachers adore the freedom to put creativity into their lessons, and they want to hear what you are looking for. For example, I regularly host language retreats and those are all about creating a relaxed study environment – with snacks!
Recycle Your School Memories
Having dealt with all of the bad memories, it’s worth asking yourself whether there is anything useful that you do remember from your school days.
In my German courses, I often come across “false beginners”. These are people who are in the early stages of learning German in terms of a skill scale, but it’s not their first rodeo. As a false beginner, you’ve got a headstart already: For example, you know how to pronounce the words you see or you can remember the basics of grammar.
Do you see a theme here? You’ve got the power! As a solo language learner, you can finally immerse yourself in a world of interesting materials at your level.
When I teach German now, my methods are focused on the goal of making the experience great for my students through courses like German Uncovered or language retreats where relaxation comes first, way before correcting anyone’s grammar.
I hope you’re feeling inspired to open up the door to another language once again. Perhaps you’re a “language person” after all?
Looking at people who’d already done it, I worked out that it’d probably take me around 1500 hours. If I wanted to do it in 2 years, I’d need to study for around 2 hours a day.
156 days later, I should have done around 312 hours.
So far, I’m on 147.
I’m already way behind schedule, and it’s all because of one little word.
It’s the busiest day of the week. And the reason I’m publishing this New Year’s post on the 12th of January.
And it could be the reason you’re not as far ahead with your language learning as you’d like to be.
If you’re one of those people who keeps telling yourself you’ll start tomorrow (and never getting around to it), keep reading. If you don’t cure your tomorrow-itus now, in December you’ll look back and realise that another year has passed. And you still don’t speak that language as well as you could.
We don’t want that for you!
In this post, you’ll learn a 2-step plan to stop tomorrowing yourself and make 2019 the year you learn a language.
Why “tomorrow” is toxic for language learning
Busy projects, problems at work, vacations, guests. Over the last few months, I’ve had some great excuses to put off learning Chinese until tomorrow.
One little day – it seemed innocent enough. Until I looked back over the last few months and realised that all those tomorrows had added up and I was way off schedule.
Progress (or deterioration) is usually an accumulation of small actions taken over time. Take smoking for example. One little cigarette won’t kill you, but the cumulative effect over a lifetime could.
Missing one study session won’t stop you from learning a language, but putting it off every day will.
Most people focus on today and underestimate the cumulative consequences of their actions (or lack of actions) over time. But if you tomorrow yourself enough, one day you’ll look back over your life and realise you never did any of the cool stuff you planned.
The tried-and-tested plan to stop putting off learning a language
Although I’m definitely one of those people who tends to put things off, there are a few times when I haven’t done this. Like last year, when I managed to go from intermediate to advanced French in a few months. Or recently, when I finished a presentation a whole week before the deadline.
These goals had two things in common, that were missing from my Chinese plan.
They were short-term
Other people knew about them
For my French mission, I booked myself in for the DALF exam a few months away. I could feel the exam date approaching so I knew I couldn’t get away with putting it off. And, as I’d already talked about it on the blog, it would have been embarrassing not to go through with it!
For my presentation, I had a meeting with the reviewer a week before the conference. He was relying on me, so I made sure it got done.
When I made my Chinese plan, I forgot to include short-term goals. And being as I didn’t have a short-term goal, no one was watching to make sure I did it. It was easy to keep lying to myself and tell myself I’d do it tomorrow.
Recently, I’ve adjusted my plan to account for these two steps and I’m getting loads more done.
1. Set short-term goals
I’ve broken my plan down. I’m now aiming to do 65 hours a month, which translates to around 16 hours a week.
This includes downtime activities, like listening to podcasts and watching Chinese TV (even though I don’t understand a lot yet!) and stuff I do on the go, such as revising vocabulary on my flashcard app on the subway or in line at the supermarket.
I know 16 hours a week is loads, so please don’t let that put you off! You can start with any number that fits in well with your life. 15 focused minutes a day is enough to see tangible progress over the year.
2. Check in with a friend
I’ve teamed up with a friend, who I check in with every day. The system is simple: for every hour of Chinese I do, I send him an emoji on WhatsApp. If I stop sending emojis, he knows I’m slacking off and after a while, it gets embarrassing. I’m peer-pressuring myself to stay on track – and it’s working!
The 2-step plan to make sure you learn a language this year
1. Set yourself some short term goals
Choose a short-term goal that you like the sound of. This could be a language exam, a trip to the country or simply the number of hours per month/week that you’re going to spend learning the language. Actually, even if you choose a goal like an exam or trip, you should probably decide on the number of hours you’re going to study each month/week anyway, as this will help you stay on track (see next step).
And when I say “learning” this doesn’t have to be boring stuff like studying from a grammar book or memorising vocabulary. If you’re going to be spending so much time learning a language, you might as well enjoy it! Here are a few posts that will help you find fun ways to learn a language.
Find a friend to check in with each day/week to make sure you’re staying on track. The simpler the system, the better. Sending a thumbs up emoji or a “done” message works well.
If you can’t think of anyone to do this with in real life, there are people online who can help! Try joining the Language Diary Challenge Facebook Group – they’re a friendly bunch so you should easily find like-minded language learners to team up with.
Before you go…
It’s possible that these ideas aren’t new to you. But there’s a big difference between knowing about this stuff and actually doing it. Although I knew about these ideas, I wasn’t applying them, which is why I fell behind with my Chinese mission. If you think these ideas could help you, think about practical ways you can apply them to your life and start doing them asap.
How about you?
Do you have a habit of tomorrowing yourself? Do you have any other strategies to stop yourself from putting things off? Share them in the comments!
They can’t be serious, can they?
Talking at 200 mph, mushing words together or leaving them out entirely.
It’s as if those smug native speakers got together one day and decided to garble their words, just to stop us poor language learners from figuring out what they’re saying.
If you could read the same words you might understand, but listening? It’s a whole other level.
If only native speakers came with subtitles in real life!
One thing that makes real-world listening so hard is that textbooks and audio courses spoon-feed us a simplified version of the language. Sure, they make life easier at the beginning, but they don’t do a very good job at preparing us for how people actually talk. Which can lead to two things:
When we hear people speaking in real life, we don’t have a clue what’s going on.
When we talk, we sound stilted and unnatural.
Assuming you want to learn a language so you can talk to human beings – not characters from a textbook – these outcomes aren’t ideal.
Luckily, there’s another way. It’s simple, fun and it’s already on your computer or TV.
Read on to find out why I’m a big fan of learning a language with TV and films. You’ll also learn 5 smart strategies for using foreign-language TV and films to:
Give your listening skills a boost
Sound more like a native speaker
Stop falling off the language-learning wagon
Why learn a language by watching TV and films?
What I hear = how I talk
When I meet French people, sometimes they’re surprised to learn that I’ve never lived in France. My accent is pretty decent, my speech is littered with native sounding interjections, and on a good day, I can sit amongst a group of French people and follow (most of) their conversation.
I’ll let you in on my secret, but you’ve got to promise not to laugh, OK?
La téléréalité. That is, reality TV in French.
Before you make a dash for the back button, don’t worry. If you like your TV a little more highbrow, I’m not suggesting you do the same. In fact, learning a language with reality TV has its downsides too – namely, that my vocabulary is quite limited (reality TV stars aren’t exactly known for their eloquence).
The important thing to learn from this is that speaking styles reflect the things we listen to.
Reality TV = natural speaking style but with a limited vocabulary.
My French = natural speaking style but with a limited vocabulary.
When I started speaking Spanish, my boyfriend used to laugh because I spoke with really dramatic intonation, thanks to too many telenovelas. More recently, I’ve picked up lots of Mexican slang and football vocabulary because I’ve been watching Mexican football drama Club de Cuervos.
TV and films help you speak naturally and understand more
If you only listen to those slow and stilted dialogues in textbooks, you’ll probably end up speaking in a slow and stilted way. Alternatively, if you listen to lots of realistic conversations in TV series and films, over time, you’ll start speaking in a more natural way.
The same goes for understanding: if you only listen to learner materials, you’ll get used to hearing a version of the language that’s been watered down for gringos. You might get a shock when you hear people using it in real life! On the flip side, if you get used to hearing realistic dialogues in TV series and films (even if it’s tricky at first!), you’ll be much better equipped to follow conversations in the real world.
I’m not suggesting you try to learn a language entirely by watching TV and films. Learner materials like textbooks and audio courses have their place in a language learner’s toolkit. And speaking practice is essential.
Foreign-language TV series and films are like handy supplements that can help you bridge the gap between learner materials and how people actually talk.
What if I don’t understand anything?
When people think of learning a language by watching TV, they sometimes imagine learning through osmosis – the idea that if you listen to a stream of undecipherable syllables for long enough, it will eventually start to make sense.
But it doesn’t work like that.
To learn, you have to understand first. Once you get to a high(ish) level where you can pick out a fair amount of what the characters are saying, you can learn a lot from just sitting back and listening.
What if you’re not there yet?
Before that, if you want to learn a language by watching TV and films, it’s important to do activities that’ll help you understand the dialogues. The 5 activities in this article will help you do just that.
How to learn a language by watching TV and films: what you’ll need
First, you’ll need a film, TV series or YouTube video with two sets of subtitles: one in the language you’re learning, and one your native language. This used to be tricky, but with YouTube and Netflix it’s getting easier and easier to find videos which are subtitled in multiple languages. Aim for videos where people speak in a modern and natural way (i.e. no period dramas).
One of my absolute fave series for this is Easy Languages on YouTube. The presenters interview people on the street, so you get used to hearing natives speak in a natural and spontaneous way. What’s more, the videos are subtitled both in the target language and in English.
Easy German and Easy Spanish are particularly good as they both have their own spin-off channels where they add fun and interesting videos a couple of times a week. If you’re a beginner and you find these kinds of videos overwhelming (too many new words and grammar points), they also have a “super easy” series that you can use to get started.
Now you’ve got your videos and subtitles sorted, let’s learn how to use them.
5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films
Write what you hear
One super task to boost your listening skills is to use the videos as a dictation:
Listen to very small pieces of the video (a few seconds each) and write down what you hear.
Listen several times until you can’t pick out anymore.
Compare what you wrote against the subtitles.
Look up new words in a dictionary and write them down so you can review them later.
Often, you’ll see words and phrases that you understand on the page but couldn’t pick out in the listening. You can now focus on the difference between how words are written and how people actually say them in real life.
This is your chance to become a boss at listening.
Make it your mission to become aware of these differences. Do listeners squash certain words together? Do they cut out some sounds, or words completely? You may notice some things that native speakers have never realized about their own language, and teachers won’t teach you.
Here are a couple examples:
In spoken English, “do you” often sounds like “dew”, and want sounds like “one”. So the phrase “do you want it” is pronounced like “dew one it”
In spoken French, “ce que” is pronounced like “ske” and “il y a” is pronounced like “ya”
No wonder listening is trickier than reading!
An awareness of these differences is your new secret weapon for understanding fast speech and developing a natural speaking style: the more you pay attention to these differences, the better you’ll get at speaking and listening to the language as it’s used in real-life.
Another invaluable task is to translate small passages into your native language and back into the language you’re learning. After you’ve done this, you can check what you wrote in your target language against the original subtitles.
Ideally, you should translate the passage into your native language one day and back into your target language the day after, so that you have to use your existing knowledge about grammar and vocabulary to recreate the dialogue (rather than just relying on memory).
This technique works because it gives you the chance to practice creating sentences in your target language, then compare them against native speaker sentences. In this way, you’ll be able to see the gap between how you use the language and how the experts (the native speakers) do it. This will help you learn to express ideas and concepts like they do.
Comparing your performance to the experts’ and taking steps to close the gap is a key element of deliberate practice, a powerful way to master new skills which is supported by decades of research.
Get into character
One fun way to learn a language from TV and films is to learn a character’s part from a short scene. Choose a character you like, and pretend to be them. Learn their lines and mimic their pronunciation as closely as possible. You can even try to copy their body language. This is a great method for a couple of reasons:
It’s an entertaining way to memorize vocabulary and grammar structures.
By pretending to be a native speaker, you start to feel like one – it’s a fun way to immerse yourself in the culture.
For extra points, record yourself and compare it to the original. Once you get over the cringe factor of seeing yourself on video or hearing your own voice, you’ll be able to spot some differences between yourself and the original, which will give you valuable insight on the areas you need to improve. For example: does your “r” sound very different to theirs? Did you forget a word or grammar point?
Now you know what to focus on next.
Talk about it
A great way to improve your speaking skills is the keyword method:
As you watch a scene, write down keywords or new vocabulary.
Once you’ve finished watching, look at your list of words and use them as prompts to speak aloud for a few minutes about what you just saw.
As well as helping you practice your speaking skills, this method gives you the chance to use the new words you just learned, which will help you remember them more easily in future.
If you’re feeling tired or overstretched and the previous 4 steps feel too much like hard work, you can use films and TV as a non-strenuous way to keep up your language learning routine. Make yourself a nice hot drink, carve an ass-groove in the sofa, put on a film or TV series and try to follow what’s going on. Even if most of it washes over you, it’s better than nothing.
While you can’t learn a language entirely by doing this, it’s still handy because it helps you build the following 4 skills:
1. Get used to trying to understand what’s going on, even if there’s lots of ambiguity and you only understand the odd word (a useful skill to develop for real-life conversations!).
2. Get your ears used to the intonation and sounds of the language.
3. Become familiar with words and expressions which are repeated a lot.
4: Stay in your language routine during times when you can’t be bothered to study.
Don’t underestimate the value of this last point: if you skip language learning completely during periods when you’re tired or busy, you’ll get out of the routine and probably end up feeling guilty. As time passes, it’ll get harder and harder to get started again. But it you keep it up on those days, even by just watching a few minutes of something on the sofa, you’ll stay in the routine and find it easy to put in more effort once you get your time and energy back.
Have you ever tried learning a language by watching TV series and films? Are there any other ways of using TV and films that you can add to the list?
Which language should I learn?
Whenever I asked myself this question in the past, I only considered widely-spoken languages like Spanish or Mandarin.
This is because I’d always assumed that widely-spoken languages lead to better travel options and more opportunities to practice with natives.
So when I came across Fran, who’s learning Sicilian, I followed her progress with admiration and curiosity.
Sicilian is a minority language spoken on the island of Sicily and in some areas in the south of Italy. Although a close relative of Italian, linguists consider Sicilian to be language in its own right, because Italian speakers need a translator to understand Sicilian and vice-versa.
Why did Fran choose a minority language like Sicilian, instead of Italian? And given that so few people are learning Sicilian, how did she cope without the usual language learning tools like textbooks, audio courses, apps, and websites?
Fran’s story shows how learning an endangered language like Sicilian can enrich your travel experience by giving you a unique way to connect with the community. She also found that learning a minority language can actually increase your opportunities to speak with natives and that having fewer resources is sometimes a good thing!
Keep reading to learn:
Why you should consider learning an endangered or minority language.
How to learn a language without a textbook.
Over to Fran.
Learning Sicilian: Fran’s story
It’s Thursday morning at the local market in Trapani and there’s a very stern-looking Sicilian lady standing in front of me.
It’s one of those bustling markets where you have to squeeze through the crowds to get to the next stall and you can barely hear a word over the stallholders shouting to attract customers. I’d just bought some tablecloths which had caused some confusion between the vendors, and I was trying to explain the situation in Sicilian.
“C’è l’haiu, grazii” (I have it thanks).
As soon as I opened my mouth, her face changed from a frown to a soft smile:
“Siciliano,” she said.
Why I decided to learn an endangered language
I decided to learn Sicilian recently for family reasons, but I wish I’d thought of it years ago.
I was born in Australia to a Sicilian father and an Australian mother. My mother learned to speak Italian (which was really a mixture of Sicilian, Italian and Calabrese she learned from her sister-in-laws) so they spoke mostly Italian/Sicilian together, but when it came to us kids, they always spoke English.
Dad would say “you liva in tisa country you spreaka da English.” So we didn’t learn Sicilian or Italian.
Just before I turned 50, my husband and I decided to visit the birthplace of my father, Salaparuta, a small town which was devastated by an earthquake back in ’68. So I thought I’d better learn some Italian first. I bought a couple of online programs, hired every teaching program from the library and found an online tutor to practice with. But when we visited my family in Sicily, I was too scared to speak. Luckily, my two cousins spoke a little English.
Over the years, we returned a few times and although my Italian improved, I still couldn’t communicate very well with my Sicilian relatives.
Last year, I went with my sisters who couldn’t speak a word of Italian, so I did all the talking for us. My sisters were impressed with how well I managed to communicate with Italians speakers, which helped them pinpoint my problem with my Sicilian relatives: they understood what I was saying in Italian, but I didn’t understand what they were saying in Sicilian! So they asked me if I’d ever considered learning Sicilian.
It was a light bulb moment. My sisters were right! No amount of Italian would help me to understand my Sicilian speaking family.
So I started learning Sicilian. It’s been challenging (I’ll talk more about this in a moment) but truly worth the effort.
Recently, my husband and I returned to Sicily and this time I was determined to communicate in Sicilian.
It paid off!
Although I’m learning the Catanese dialect and my family live in the Trapani region on the other side of the island, we communicated well. For the first time, I understood. My relatives were so pleased to hear me speak their language and encouraged me to keep learning Sicilian.
Learning Sicilian: the advantages of learning an endangered language
Encouraged by people’s positive reactions to my attempts to speak Sicilian, wherever I went I’d say something, anything in Sicilian. Sometimes people would try to correct me, thinking that I’d just mispronounced Italian. But when I explained that I was learning Sicilian, they stared in disbelief, then smiled with approval. Most people couldn’t believe that a foreigner would actually want to learn it!
As we visited different towns around the island, my husband let me do the talking: the Sicilian people seemed friendlier, more accommodating and really appreciated me taking the time to learn their beloved language.
But with minority and endangered languages, your attempts to speak are often met with surprise and delight. Sicilians are proud of their language, and it saddens them that it’s fading away. The people I met were so pleased to find a foreigner learning Sicilian that they went out of their way to help me practice speaking it.
The challenges of learning Sicilian
That said, learning an endangered language like Sicilian can pose a few problems.
The main one is a HUGE lack of resources. The Sicilian language is a spoken language, so there aren’t many books or documents to learn from.
There are a couple of online dictionaries and textbooks, but I’ve learned that most teachers do not accept these books. This is because each region of Sicily has its own dialect, and within these regions, family groups can have their own “version” of that dialect. When a family moves, say to an English speaking country, they take their spoken dialect with them and pass it on to the next couple of generations, which is a great way to keep the language alive. Years later a well-meaning family member decides to share his beloved language and publishes a textbook. Unfortunately, the dialect that it teaches is now out of touch with modern Sicilian.
So, no recommended textbooks, no podcasts and at the time, no teaching videos on YouTube. But after ten months of learning, I’m quite happy not to have all the language learning choices that are out there. I don’t get distracted exploring all that’s on offer, and I’ve been able to stay focused, which has helped me progress faster.
How I learn Sicilian: a step-by-step guide to learning an endangered language
1. Find a teacher or tutor
With most minority languages, you can’t just go to your local language school and sign up for a course, so you’ll need to explore other ways to find a teacher.
If you’re lucky enough to be in the area where the language is spoken, you could get in touch with language schools to see if they have members of staff who speak the language and would be willing to teach you. I emailed a language school at Trapani in Sicily and asked if any teacher there would be interested in teaching me Sicilian and the manager himself was more than happy to do this for me. If you can’t go to the country, you could call/email the school and ask if they’d be willing to do the lessons via Skype.
Alternatively, you might be able to find a tutor via the online teaching platform italki, as they are gradually building up a community of teachers who speak minority languages.
If all else fails, try looking for universities who conduct research on your language of choice, as the professors will probably have native speaker contacts who could help you find a teacher or community of speakers (thanks to Donovan Nagel from The Mezzofanti Guild for this tip).
2. Be prepared
With no textbook, you or your teacher will need to prepare for each lesson. I prepared word lists, sentences and dialogues for my lessons each week that we would discuss and correct. But then I found an Italian teacher on italki who is Sicilian and loves to teach the Sicilian language. She prepares her own structured lessons each week and on occasion, I still like to prepare something for us to work on together.
3. Record your lessons
If you do lessons via Skype, record them and make sure your teacher is typing as much information as possible in the message section. Most computers have a record function but I use the memo app on my phone. After the lesson, you can print out the Skype messages/notes (which I usually copy and paste into word).
If you’re doing face-to-face lessons, you could ask your teacher if you can record the lesson on your phone and work together on some detailed written notes that you can take away with you after the lesson.
4. Review what you learned
These notes now become your study sheet. Get colorful. Highlight words and phrases you want to remember. Circle things that you can’t remember or need more clarification on. Can you make a sentence or two from this week’s study? Note down other questions you would like to ask? This prepares you for your next lesson. I also rewrite previous dialogues to help consolidate words and grammar.
5. Make word lists
Make lists of new words. I have a book I like to write them in and then import them into apps such as Quizlet and Memrise.
6. Focus on listening skills
Listen to your study session a few times. Do 10 or 20-minute sessions over a few days. Listen to the grammar and follow along with your notes to hear pronunciation and explanations. If you’re anything like me, you might notice some questions you misunderstood, mistakes and parts where you could have responded better. This is an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. If anything is unclear, make a note to ask your teacher for clarification in the next lesson.
Also, try to find TV series, movies or songs in your target language. For Sicilian, YouTube has folk songs with the lyrics to sing along to (in private of course!) and I like the series Inspector Montalbano, although it’s spoken mainly in Italian, I get quite excited when I hear the extras speaking Sicilian.
7: Make your own materials
Now you’re in contact with the community of speakers, why not take advantage of this to create your own materials? I asked my teacher to help me prepare interview questions and she agreed to be interviewed. Then I contacted another Sicilian friend who also agreed to be interviewed. I put them on YouTube for easy access, originally as a private status but I later published them as I thought others learning Sicilian might benefit from these too. It was a lot of fun and I plan to do more in future.
Are you learning (or considering learning) Sicilian or another minority language? Which tip do you think is the most useful? Can you add any more advice? Leave a comment and let us know!
Do you have hopes and dreams of speaking a language fluently, but you’re too lazy to study?
But what if I told you that your laziness, far from being a limitation, could actually make you great at learning languages?
Read on (if you can be bothered) to find out why the lazy way is often the best way, and learn 7 ways you can leverage your laziness to learn a language effectively at home.
Lazy people find better ways to do things
If you were a builder at the end of the 19th century, life was hard. Long hours. Crappy pay. Little regard for health and safety. If you were really unlucky, it could even cost you your life: 5 men died during the construction of the Empire State Building and 27 died working on the Brooklyn bridge.
What qualities did builders need to be the best at such a demanding and dangerous job?
Tenacity? Diligence? Stamina?
In 1868, a young construction worker named Frank Gilbreth began observing colleagues in order to understand why some bricklayers were more effective than others, when he made a surprising discovery.
The best builders weren’t those who tried the hardest. The men Gilbreth learnt the most from, were the lazy ones.
Laying bricks requires repeating the same movements over and over again: the fewer motions, the better. In an attempt to conserve energy, the “lazy” builders had found ways to lay bricks with a minimum number of motions. In short, they’d found more effective ways to get the job done.
But what do lazy bricklayers have to do with language learning?
Well, inspired by his lazy colleagues, Gilbreth went on to pioneer “motion study”, a technique which streamlines work systems and is still used today in many fields to increase productivity. You know that person in operating theaters who passes scalpels to the surgeon and wipes their brow? Gilbreth came up with that idea.
Hiring someone to pass you things from 20 centimeters away and wipe the sweat off your own forehead? It doesn’t get much lazier than that. Yet it helps surgeons work more efficiently and probably saves lives in the process.
The bottom line? The lazy way is usually the smartest way.
How to learn a language at home (even if you’re really lazy)
It’s about finding effective ways to learn, so you can stop wasting time and energy on stuff that doesn’t work. To help you find them, I’ve put together a list of 7 lazy (but highly effective) ways to learn a language at home.
They’ll help you:
⁃ Speak a language better by studying less.
⁃ Go against “traditional” language learning methods to get better results.
⁃ Get fluent in a language while sitting around in your undies and drinking beer
Lazy way to learn a language at home #1: Don’t study (much)
A lot of people try to learn a language by “studying”. They try really hard to memorise grammar rules and vocabulary in the hope that one day, all the pieces will come together and they’ll magically start speaking the language.
Sorry, but languages don’t work that way.
Trying to speak a language by doing grammar exercises is like trying to make bread by reading cookbooks. Sure, you’ll pick up some tips, but you’ll never learn how to bake unless you’re willing to get your hands dirty.
Languages are a learn by doing kind of thing. The best way to learn to speak, understand, read and write a language is by practicing speaking, listening, reading and writing. That doesn’t mean you should never study grammar or vocabulary. It helps to get an idea of how the language works. But if you dedicate a disproportionate amount of time to that stuff, it’ll hold you back.
You’ll learn much faster by using the language.
Now, if you’re a total newbie, you may be wondering how you can start using a language you don’t know yet. If you’re learning completely from scratch, a good textbook can help you pick up the basics. But avoid ones which teach lots of grammar rules without showing you how to use them in real life. The best textbooks are the ones which give you lots of example conversations and introduce grammar in bitesized pieces, like Assimil.
As soon as you can, aim to get lots of exposure to the language being used in a real way. If you’re a lower level, you can start by reading books which have been simplified for your level (called graded readers). Look for ones accompanied with audio so you can work on your listening at the same time.
Duolingo has also just added a fab new beta feature called stories: fun simple tales for learners with interactive translations and mini comprehension quizzes. For the moment, it’s only in Spanish and Portuguese, but keep an eye out for other languages coming soon.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #2: Sit around in your undies
Next, you’ll need to practice speaking. Luckily, you can now do this on Skype, so you only need to get dressed from the waist up.
The best place for online conversation classes is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here: Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off.
Alternatively, if you prefer a free option, you can also use italki to find people who are learning your native language and set up a language exchange. One risk with language exchanges is that English becomes the default language and they end up using your time to practice their English. To make it work, be sure to set a clear boundary for when each language is spoken (e.g. say 30 minutes in English and 30 minutes in Spanish) and be strict about sticking to it.
Or, if you’re feeling brave enough to put some pants on, you can find a flesh-and-blood language exchange partner who lives near you via conversation exchange or Tandem. You can even arrange to meet up at the pub and combine my two great loves: languages and beer.
Importantly, make it a priority to find conversation tutors and language exchange partners you actually enjoy spending time with (if they’re sexy, even better). It can be real chore to sit down and chat 1-on-1 for 60 minutes with someone you don’t click with. But once you find people you get on well with, it’s easy to motivate yourself to practice speaking.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #3: Don’t try too hard
Getting out of your comfort zone is brilliant, it’s where the learning happens. But you don’t feel like you have to venture too far.
If you’re frustrated by the speed of the listening, too many new words, or tricky grammar, it’s probably a sign that you’ve gone too far. Pushing yourself too hard isn’t a good way to learn, for a number of reasons:
1. When there’s too much new information, it’s difficult to take any of it in.
2. When you’re stressed, your mind’s less receptive to learning.
3. If you have to constantly stop and look up new words, it gets very boring very quickly.
4. It’s difficult to sustain that kind of effort long term (consistency is essential to language learning).
5. Being frustrated isn’t fun, so you’re more likely to give up.
Aim for the sweet spot just above your current level, where you’re coming across new words, but you can still get the general gist of what’s being said.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #4: Don’t waste time learning pointless stuff
Smart lazy language learners know they can’t learn everything at once, so they prioritise words and phrases they’ll get the most mileage out of. The exact words and phrases will depend on the language you’re learning and the situations you’re likely to find yourself in, but as a general rule, frequent conversation phrases like “I’d like”, “maybe” or “I think so” are more useful than things like “rooms in my house” or “items in my pencil case”.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #5: Don’t rely on willpower.
If you’ve tried to learn a language and failed in the past, you might think it’s because you don’t have enough willpower.
It’s true, you don’t. But neither does anyone else. That’s why most people who try to learn a language (or do anything similar, like losing weight or learning to play an instrument) start out enthusiastically, only to run out of steam a few weeks later.
Look closer at the people who’ve succeeded in learning a language and you’ll see that they’re the ones who’ve managed to build a habit. Once you get into the habit of learning a language, you don’t have to struggle so much to find the time or the energy. You just do it.
What’s the best way to get into the language habit?
The lazy way of course!
We have a natural tendency to resist change, which is why big efforts don’t usually last. The key is to make changes so small, they’re almost imperceptible. Start with teeny goal, like learning a language for 5 minutes, then increase it in small increments, like 1 minute each day. By the end of one month, you’ll be up to 30 minutes per day and well on your way to learning that language.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #6: Do stuff you enjoy
Who are the laziest people alive?
Stoners of course.
At university, I knew a guy who was so lazy he wore the same clothes every day and ate pasta straight out of the pan so he didn’t have to wash a plate. Yet when it came to his favorite occupation, smoking weed, he’d go to extreme lengths to get the right kind at the right price and happily walk all the way to the other side of town to pick it up.
Laziness is relative: most people have plenty of energy for things they enjoy doing. When you actually want to do something, be that getting stoned, eating cheese or watching disney films in a foreign language, it’s not hard to get started.
The key is to find ways to learn a language at home that you like, so you don’t have to fight with yourself so much.
The best way to do this is to get into the habit of reading, watching and listening to things you like in the language you’re learning: audiobooks, YouTube, Netflix, newspapers, soap operas, hiphop, disney films, documentaries, novels, reality tv, cookery programmes, fashion blogs, sports papers, world of warcraft…whatever does it for you. The closer it is to things you enjoy doing in your native language, the better.
Or, it you’re a lower level and those kind of resources are too tricky to follow, start with fun things aimed at language learners like podcasts, YouTube tutorials, graded readers or duolingo stories.
YouTube is a brilliant place for language learners as there are often subtitles. To make the most out of subtitles for language learning, read the ones in the language you’re learning, and only use the English ones to check your understanding. You can also use YouTube to slow down the speed, which helps you focus on the details of what they’re saying (as well as making the speaker sound like they’ve knocked back a few tequilas before going on camera).
A super tool for reading online is the google translate chrome add on. It turns any website into an interactive dictionary, so you can click on a word you don’t know and get the translation in your native language. This makes it very easy to read websites in the language you’re learning without interrupting your flow to look up new words all the time.
To find some sites you like, do a quick google search with the language you’re learning + the genre you’re after (e.g. Spanish Newspapers or French fashion blogs) and you should find a nice list. Alternatively, if you’re feeling lazy, buzzfeed in your target language is a good place to start.
Lazy way to learn a language at home #7: Change your surroundings
Lazy language learners know that if they have to rely on their own initiative to learn a language, it probably won’t get done. Smart lazy language learners get round this by making changes to their environment so they’re interacting with the language all day, in a way that doesn’t require a lot of extra effort. Here are a few sneaky ways you can integrate language learning into your surroundings:
• Change the language on Facebook/Twitter/your phone to your target language (but remember how to change it back!)
• Change your homepage to a website in your target language.
• Get some headphones and listen to the language as much as you can: on the way to work, cooking, cleaning the toilet…
• Talk to your yourself (or your pets) in the language you’re learning.
Remember, language learning doesn’t happen through big, sporadic efforts. It’s all in the details. Take some time to think of small ways you could integrate your target language into your daily life. And most importantly, actually do it.
These small actions, when repeated daily, will add up to big results.
Quick guide: how to learn a language at home (the lazy way)
#1: Don’t study (much)
Grammar is useful, but don’t make it your main focus. Try to get as much exposure as possible to the language being used in real way by reading and listening.
#2: Practice speaking as much as you can
Book conversation lessons on Skype, or arrange conversation exchanges. Make a point of finding conversation partners you enjoy spending time with.
#3: Don’t try too hard
Aim for the sweet spot just above your level, where you come across new words but you can get the gist of what’s being said.
#4: Don’t waste time on pointless stuff
Common conversation phrases like “I don’t know” or “I think so” are more useful than things like “rooms in my house” or “things in my pencil case”
#5: Build habits
Don’t rely on willpower. Get into the language learning habit by starting with 5 minutes a day and gradually increasing the time.
#6: Do stuff you enjoy
Make a point of finding things to read or listen to that you enjoy. The closer it is to things you like doing in your native language, the better.
#7: Change your surroundings
Find sneaky ways to integrate language learning into your daily life, by changing the language of your Facebook, or listening to podcasts on your way to work.
What do you think?
Are you learning a language at home? Do you think the lazy way could work for you? Which one of these 7 tips could you start doing right now to help you learn a language?
What do heights, Ikea on Sundays and language exams have in common?
They all scare the crap out of me.
Right now, I’m stressée because I’m taking an advanced French exam (called the DALF C1) in a few weeks, and I’m not ready yet.
But not to worry.
I’ve done what all good, last-minute students do and come up with a plan aimed at getting the best possible results in the little time I’ve got. In this post, I’ll share the strategies I’m using to get ready for the DALF C1 exam, which draw on the techniques I used to pass a similar Italian exam (C2 CILS).
If you’re thinking about taking the DALF C1 French exam, or any other language exam for that matter, you’ll find 14 strategies that’ll help you get the most out of your study time and give you a better chance of passing.
Before we dive in, let’s talk a bit about how the DALF C1 exam works, including:
At C1 level, you can:
• express yourself fluently and accurately in French
• use French with ease in social, academic and working contexts
• write clear, detailed texts on complex subjects
In short, the DALF C1 exam is a way of testifying that your French level is good enough to conduct your social, academic and working life comfortably in French.
C2 (mastery) is the next level up and the highest level French exam there is.
Why take the DALF C1?
Some people take the DALF C1 because they need it for work or study (although in many cases, the lower level, B2 will suffice).
Personally, I like the added motivation that comes from working towards an exam like the DALF C1. It’s exactly the kick up the bum I needed to stop floundering and make some real progress in French. In that sense, I’m already satisfied with the results as I’ve seen more improvement in my French in the last 3 months than I had in the last 3 years prior to setting myself this goal.
What’s the DALF C1 exam like?
There are 4 sections in the DALF C1 exam: reading, listening, writing and speaking.
The listening section is divided into two parts. In the first part, you’ll answer a series of questions about a long recording (around 8 minutes) taken from real contexts like interviews, lessons or conferences. You can listen twice. In the second part, you’ll answer 10 questions on short radio broadcasts, which are only played once. The listening section lasts around 40 minutes.
In the reading section, you’ll answer a series of questions on a long text (1500 – 2000 words), which could be journalistic or literary in style. It lasts 50 minutes.
The writing section is divided into two parts. In the first part, you’ll be given 2 – 3 texts to read and asked to write a summary (220 words). In the second task, you’ll be asked to write an essay on the same topic as the texts you just read (250 words). You have 2.5 hours to complete both parts.
In the speaking section, you’re required to give a short speech and discuss a series of questions with the examiners. You get 60 minutes beforehand to read 2 – 3 documents about a topic and prepare your speech. The speech + discussion lasts around 30 minutes, so altogether the speaking section lasts 1.5 hours.
In both speaking and writing sections, you can choose between two fields: humanities and social studies or science.
14 ways to prepare for the C1 DALF French exam
1. Do lots of exam practice
The most effective way to practice for an exam is… you guessed it, by doing exam practice!
However, not all practice is equal. As Vince Lombardi puts it:
Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
To get the most out of your study time, it’s important to focus on the right kind of practice. This means not simply doing exam questions over and over, but taking time between each try to analyze what went wrong and think about how you can apply those lessons to your next attempt.
It also means learning how to do the exam, by developing skills that will help you answer the questions better. The following tips will give you some suggestions on how to do this.
2. Get a textbook designed for the DALF C1
It helps to get a textbook specifically designed to prepare students for the language exam you’re taking. I’m using réussir le DALF and it’s full of handy hints for each section.
It’s also a good idea to get your hands on a book with past papers, so you can do as many practice exams as possible.
3. Improve your speaking and writing with the translation technique
Ideally, I want to learn to express myself in a way that’s as close as possible to an educated French speaker. To move towards this target, I need a technique that highlights how my speech and writing differs from that of native French speakers so I can learn from my mistakes and discover how to talk/write more like they do.
With the following translation technique:
Find examples of native French speaker answers to the writing/speaking tasks (like the one below).
Translate the French text/audio into English.
Wait a day or so, until my memory of the French version has faded.
Translate the text/audio back into French.
Compare my French answer with the original native speaker text/audio.
This technique is ideal because it gives you immediate feedback on your choice of words/grammar and shows you how to express ideas like a native French person would. And because you’re engaging with the French phrases in a very focused way, it helps you remember them more easily for future speaking/writing tasks.
4. Train your ear to listen for details
Does this ever happen to you?
When you listen to fast speech in a foreign language it sounds like gobbledygook, but when you see things written down you can understand them quite easily?
This is because in fast speech, strange things happen: sounds (and sometimes whole words) can be cut and others sound different to how you expect. For example, when French people speak fast, they often shorten the word “vous” to “v”.
I want to train my ear to recognize words and phrases in fast speech, so I can pick out details I’ll need in the listening questions.
To achieve this, I’m using a dictation technique, which involves listening to speech, writing what you hear, then checking what you wrote against a transcript. This task trains your ear to tune into the details of speech and highlights why you miss certain words, for example, if they’re pronounced differently in fast speech.
As a bonus, writing down the words helps me practice spelling, which is one of my weaknesses in French.
Another way to get used to listening to fast speech is to speed it up even more.
On YouTube, you can make the videos faster by knocking the speed up to 1.25 (under settings). Once you get used to listening to everything 1/4 faster, normal speed French suddenly feels a lot easier! I’m using the videos on the France24 YouTube channel for this activity.
6. Listen everywhere
Download some podcasts and listen to them wherever you go: on the way to work, whilst doing the dishes or cleaning the shower. French radio interviews and news programs are great as they’re often similar to the listenings in the exam.
7. Improve your pronunciation
Pronunciation is important because it helps the examiners understand you more easily, which can positively influence their judgements on your speaking ability. Check and practice the pronunciation of tricky words by looking them up in an online dictionary with audio files (like wordreference). Listen to the sound file and practice saying the word aloud several times until your pronunciation sounds similar to the example. It helps to keep a list of the French words you struggle to pronounce so you can come back to them and practice them regularly.
8. Remember important words with flashcards
I store the new words and phrases I come across in my flashcard app, so I can review them later. Over the next few weeks, I’ll concentrate on making flashcards with formal French phrases that’ll be useful for the exam, like cependent (nevertheless) and en outre (furthermore).
Importantly, I won’t just review the words, I’ll practice using them too, as this helps them stick in my head better. One way of doing this is to make up new sentences in my head with each word as I review the flashcard. Another way is by writing example sentences.
9. Grammar: learn by doing
I need to dust off a bit of French grammar, so I’m working my way through a grammar textbook. But like vocabulary, I believe the best way to remember grammar is to practice using it.
To do this, I write conversation questions with the grammar points I’ve just learnt and discuss them with my online tutor. If I can make the topics similar to the ones in the exam, so much the better.
Let’s see this in action.
I’ve recently reviewed conditionals (used to talk about imaginary situations – if I were a cat, I’d sleep all day). For my next lesson with my online tutor, I’ve prepared some conversation questions with conditionals, using themes that often appear in the exam (environment, politics…). For example:
Si tu étais président, que ferais-tu pour protéger la planète? If you were president, what would you do to protect the planet?
This helps me practice writing and speaking using the grammar points I’ve just studied and get lots of relevant feedback from my online tutor.
10. Do focused speaking lessons
My online French lessons used to be an opportunity for a nice relaxing chat, but over the next few weeks, I’ll need to get focused. I’m going to use the sessions to practice the speaking section of the exam and do a feedback session at the end so I can focus on areas I need to improve. I’ll ask my online tutor to point out mistakes, tell me what I could have done better, and give me new expressions to help me express my ideas more effectively next time.
11. Get feedback by recording your speaking practice
Another way you can improve your speaking is by making short videos and showing them to native speakers to get corrections. I’ll be posing mine on Instagram, as there’s a lovely language learning community who give each other friendly feedback and correct each other’s mistakes. If posting your video in public feels too scary, you can simply record it and watch it back (you’ll often notice your own mistakes when you’re not concentrating on speaking at the same time).
Most of the time, I don’t work with qualified teachers to learn a language: a native speaker who can give me corrections is all I need, as I can study the grammar and vocabulary on my own from textbooks. But for exam prep, it’s important to work with a teacher who understands the exam so they can explain how the exam works, spot your weaknesses and give you exercises to work on them. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing some lessons with an experienced teacher (online via italki) who knows the DALF C1 exam well and can give me pointers.
Update: I found the BEST French teacher! She’s called Manon and used to be a DALF examiner, so she understands the exam inside out. You can book lessons with her here:French with Manon.
13. Do Deliberate practice
Lots of the ideas in this post aren’t about working harder, they’re about working smarter. These tips fit in with an approach called deliberate practice, which is an effective way to develop skills in just about anything. In his book Peak, the pioneer of deliberate practice, Anders Ericsson suggests that the best way to get good at something is to follow three Fs:
• Focus: Break the skill down into parts you can practice repeatedly.
• Feedback: Analyze your practice attempts and identify your weaknesses.
• Fix-it: Come up with ways to address your weaknesses so you can do it better next time.
If this kind of preparation sounds intense, that’s because it is. But if you can figure out ways to apply the three Fs to your exam preparation, it’ll save you time in the long run because it’ll help you get better faster.
Getting out of your comfort zone is a wonderful thing. It’s where all the good stuff happens. But while my mind has fully embraced this idea, my body is wondering what the heck is going on. I’ve been getting ill a lot lately, which is a sign I need to slow down and take care not to burn out.
I plan to look after myself more by making a few simple changes:
Get a good night’s sleep. This means getting to bed at a decent time and no screens before bedtime (start reading at 10.30 and fall asleep between 11 and 11.30). Apart from weekends, bien sur.
Eat healthily (more of the good stuff, like fruit and veg, whilst still enjoying treats)
Take frequent breaks, with relaxing activities, like listening to music or going for a walk (au revoir Facebook!)
Check emails/social media no more than once a day.
Have you ever done a language exam before? How did you prepare for it? What other tips can you add to the list? Or, if you’re thinking about taking a language exam, which of the above tips will help you the most?
Speaking a foreign language is one of the best feelings in the world. It gives you:
A deeply satisfying connection with a new culture and its people
The chance to travel with ease
A huge sense of personal achievement
New career opportunities
That’s why if you ask a room of people if they’d like to speak a foreign language, almost everyone says yes.
So what stops people from learning to speak one?
Some say time. But there are plenty of ways to squeeze language learning into a busy day. Others say motivation. But that’s not a problem if you find ways to learn that you enjoy.
These are excuses that can be easily solved, if you want to speak that language badly enough.
What if people think I’m stupid?
The thing that stops most people from speaking a foreign language is the fear of feeling like an idiot. Because learning to speak a language requires everyone to go through that phase of sounding like tarzan and Barney Gumble’s two year old love child.
So when a reader Krisztina got in touch and asked: “How can I beat my fear of speaking in a foreign language?”, I jumped at the chance to answer, because it’s a problem that affects almost all of us to some degree or another.
And the answer is simple.
It’s normal to feel nervous speaking a second language
I’ve been speaking Italian for longer than I care to remember. It all started back in 2008, when I had more piercings and fewer wrinkles.
Now, I’ve been living in Italy for nearly 6 years – my love life and friendships have been conducted in Italian for most of my 20s. But can I tell you a secret?
I still get nervous speaking Italian.
Don’t get me wrong, the better I get, the more comfortable I feel. Most of the time when I speak Italian, I’m straight chillin.
But I still get nervous when I have to sort out my mortgage or call my accountant in Italian.
Even chatting to friends can give me the jitters – especially those kind of friends who have perfectly organised kitchen cupboards and wear matching socks.
Be nervous and do it anyway
The idea that speaking nerves never go away might seem like bad news. But nerves in themselves are nothing to worry about. As Michael Jordan points out:
Being nervous isn’t bad. It just means something important is happening.
It’s trying not to feel nervous that causes problems.
Resisting your feelings makes them worse. It’s like trying not to feel hungry, or trying to fall asleep: the more you focus on it, the harder it gets.
Successful language learners aren’t the ones who’ve gotten rid of their nerves (if you’ve ever tried, you’ll know it’s pretty much impossible). They’re the ones who’ve learned to live with their jitters and speak anyway.
Once you realise it’s OK to feel uncomfortable, it’s liberating. Nerves will come and go, but they won’t stop you from learning to speak the language.
If you can embrace nerves as a normal part of language learning, the whole process becomes more enjoyable. You spend less time worrying about how you feel and more time focusing on important things, like doing your best to communicate with the awesome human being in front of you.
Stop waiting until you feel ready
Lots of people make the mistake of waiting for nerves to go away before they try to speak.
I’ll keep learning until I feel more confident, then I’ll practise speaking.
It sounds logical, but this mindset is one of the biggest obstacles to learning a language, because that magical day never comes.
If you wait until you stop feeling nervous, you’ll never start speaking a foreign language.
Do it until it feels normal
That said, learning to speak a language doesn’t have to be a constant white-knuckle ride.
Think about learning to drive, or your first day at work or school. Most people find these experiences intimidating at first, but they quickly become a normal part of life (sometimes to the point of creating the opposite problem – boredom).
The more often you do something that scares you, the less scary it becomes.
If I spent more time with my accountant or friends who think my mismatching socks are weird, I’d probably feel more comfortable speaking Italian in these situations. In fact, I already feel less nervous doing these things compared to when I started.
The key to feeling less nervous when speaking a foreign language is to do it more.
But it’s not always easy to practise speaking when it feels new and scary. Luckily, you can ease yourself in gently by creating opportunities to speak which feel less intimidating. The following tips will show you how.
How to speak a foreign language (even though you feel nervous)
Here, you won’t find advice on how to “beat the fear” of speaking, because I don’t believe it’s possible (or necessary).
Instead, you’ll learn 12 simple strategies to start speaking in spite of your nerves.
The first 6 tips will help you create opportunities to practise speaking that don’t feel so intimidating.
The last 6 tips show you how to develop a more positive approach to your fear of speaking a foreign language. These points will help you make friends with your nerves so you can get on with what’s important: learning to speak the language.
6 non-intimidating ways to practise speaking a foreign language
1. Find your training wheels
When you learn to ride a bike, you don’t just get on and whizz down a busy road. You need to build up your skills in a safe place, like in the park with training wheels.
The same goes for speaking a language. You don’t need to waltz up to people you don’t know and start talking – that puts a lot of pressure on you and you might feel silly if you make mistakes or have really long pauses.
Instead, look for people who can be your “training wheels” as you learn to speak. These are people you feel comfortable with as you make the jump from study books to speaking the language. They should be people who don’t mind waiting while you grab the grammar and vocabulary that’s floating around in your head and combine it to make real sentences (which can take a long time at the beginning!)
They could be friends, conversation tutors or language exchange partners. If you don’t have anyone in mind yet, the next section has some suggestions about where to find these people.
2. Set up a win-win situation with your speaking partner
Sometimes it feels like you’re putting people out by asking them to talk to you while you struggle to spit out a sentence. One solution is to set up a situation where you give your speaking partner something in return for their help.
For example, you can practise speaking with a tutor or language exchange partner. In return, you pay them (in the case of tutors) or help them learn your native language (in the case of exchange partners).
This reciprocal deal takes the pressure off because:
Your speaking partner gets something in return for their time, so you don’t feel like a burden if you’re struggling to speak.
You both know you’re there to learn, so you feel more comfortable about speaking slowly or making mistakes.
You partner knows you’re new to speaking, so they don’t have unrealistic expectations.
Don’t know where to find these people? Start here:
Conversation exchange: On conversation exchange, you’ll find native speakers who live in your area, so you can set up a face-to-face language exchange. Or if you’re in the country where your target language is spoken, you can use it to meet locals who will help you practise speaking and show you around at the same time!
Italki: Italki is your one stop shop for finding people to help you practise speaking. Here, you’ll find native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for online conversation lessons from as little as $5 an hour.
Or you prefer a free option, you can use italki to find partners for online language exchanges.
3. Choose the right speaking partners
When you start speaking, you’ll probably have to think very carefully about each word. You’ll stutter, have epically long pauses and make lots of mistakes.
That’s OK, we all go through that stage. It’s a normal part of language learning.
As a beginner, you have the right to speak slowly and make mistakes. It’s called being a beginner. Make sure you choose speaking partners who understand this.
They should be friendly, patient and encourage you to speak.
If anyone makes you feel silly for being a beginner, they’re not the right match for you. Move on and choose a speaking partner who supports your learning efforts.
4. Speak often
When you chat regularly to your speaking partners, you’ll repeat things over and over. After a while, you won’t need to think about every word and your sentences will start to flow naturally.
Practise speaking as often as you can and you’ll be amazed how quickly everything starts to come together.
5. Give yourself mini challenges
Don’t feel like you have to throw yourself in at the deep end all the time. Get braver by setting yourself a series of mini challenges that gradually nudge you out of your comfort zone.
Let’s imagine you go to the country where the language you’re learning is spoken. You could start by ordering your food in the language. Then, once you’re used to that, you could try asking the waiter where he’s from, or if he can recommend a dish.
Choose something you’d like to learn that feels slightly outside of your comfort zone (but not too much) then go from there. Over time, these mini challenges will add up, helping you feel braver without the overwhelm of doing lots of scary things at once.
6. Always be prepared
When you first start speaking, you’ll have communication breakdowns. A lot of them.
It helps to learn key phrases so you can manage these breakdowns and keep the conversation going in the language you’re learning. Here are some examples.
How do you say that in French/Spanish/Italian? What’s this? Could you repeat that please? Could you speak more slowly please? Can we speak in French/Spanish/Italian please? I’m learning.
If you’re learning with an online tutor, these phrases will come in handy:
Sorry, I can’t hear/see you. The line’s bad. I’ll call you back.
A good way of learning these phrases is to have your language partner/tutor write them down or record them for you.
6 ways to make friends with your nerves
1. Know that nerves make you a normal human being
I’ve worked with hundreds of language learners and I am yet to meet one who doesn’t get nervous about speaking sometimes. The funny thing is, everyone feels like they’re the only one. Reminding yourself that nerves are a normal human emotion makes them easier to deal with.
2. Don’t fight it
Does this sound familiar?
1. Feel nervous
2. Try to stop feeling nervous
3. Think about feeling nervous
4. Feel more nervous than before…
When we feel nervous, most of us jump to the conclusion that it’s bad, so we try to fight it. By fighting it, we give our nerves too much importance, which makes the situation worse. If we accept that it’s OK to feel nervous, we break the cycle at number 1, which stops the situation from getting out of hand.
3. Enjoy your nerves
You can even start to enjoy feeling nervous: after all, it’s a sign that you’re challenging yourself and learning new things. And if you think about it, the feeling isn’t all that different from the positive emotion, excitement.
4. Focus on the person you’re talking to
When we’re feeling nervous, we’re usually quite self absorbed. Instead of thinking about your feelings, try directing your attention outwards to the person you’re talking to. This changes your attitude from “I’m trying my best not to sound stupid” to “I’m trying my best to communicate with this person”. This approach helps you relax and have more rewarding conversations.
With a growth mindset, you know you’ll get better with practice, so you give yourself permission to be a beginner. This makes speaking easier because you don’t put so much pressure on yourself.
6. Learn to laugh at yourself
It’s normal to feel nervous about speaking another language because of the risk of making mistakes and sounding silly. But if you didn’t mind so much about making mistakes, you could relax more when speaking a foreign language.
The best way to stop worrying about mistakes is to laugh at yourself. We all know language learners sometimes make funny mistakes, and the person listening to you will understand. Who cares if you accidentally say a swear word, or pronounce something wrong? It’s all part of the fun. And if you can laugh together, if helps strengthen your bond with native speakers – the reason we’re learning a language in the first place, right?
Over to you
Do you get nervous when speaking a foreign language? Which of the tips are the most helpful in taking the plunge to start speaking? Let us know in the comments below!
Where’s the best place to learn French?
I tried learning French in Paris once. Before then, I’d been learning French with audio courses, textbooks and a few private lessons with a strict French lady who was all grammar and no chat.
Needless to say, my speaking needed some work.
The idea: Spend a few weeks with my old housemate who lives in Paris. I’d meet his lovely French friends and get my speaking skills up to scratch.
The reality: My conversations went like this…
Parisian: Where you from?
Me: Je suis anglaise.
Parisian: Don’t worry, I speak English.
Me: Mais… Mais… je suis venue ici parce que j’aimerais apprendre le français. (But… I came here because I’d like to learn French).
Parisian: Ah… how long you stay in Paris?
Me: Environ trois semaines. (Around three weeks)
Parisian: And your plans?
Me: Sighs and continues conversation in English.
The problem with learning a language abroad
This kind of conversation damaged my already fragile confidence in speaking French. If you’re an English speaker and you’ve tried practising with the locals on holiday, this might feel familiar.
You pluck up the courage to speak and you get Englished.
Maybe they think it’s easier. Or they see an opportunity to practise their English.
My usual trick to avoid getting Englished is to simply explain that I’m learning the language and I’d like to practise. People are usually happy to help by chatting to you in their native language, at least for a few minutes. And I did find a couple of patient Parisians who were happy to chat to me in French.
Next, I tried joining a French class, but it slowed me down for the following reasons:
When the teacher talks to the class, the learning is passive, so it’s easy to switch off. I wasted a lot of time thinking: when will this woman stop talking so I can go home and have dinner?
The curriculum isn’t relevant to your life. It’s based on what the teacher selects for a group of people, so you end up wasting time learning stuff that’s not important for you and skipping over stuff that is.
You don’t get much speaking practise and hardly any one-on-one time with a native speaker (the best way to learn).
So learning French in Paris was too frustrating and classes were too slow. Luckily, I found a place to learn French that’s juuuust right.
My living room.
Which is great news because that’s also where my coffee and slippers live.
Before we get into how to become fluent, we should talk about what that actually means.
Fluency means different things to different people. Some people think you have to sound like a native speaker before you can call yourself fluent. Others believe you can say you’re fluent as soon as you can express yourself without too many hesitations.
I think it’s somewhere in the middle.
Lets see what the Oxford Dictionary says:
Fluent: Able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately.
Easily and accurately. So you don’t need to sound like a native speaker, but you should be able to communicate comfortably without too many mistakes. This sounds like the “professional working proficiency” defined by the Foreign Service Institute as:
able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
has comprehension which is quite complete for a normal rate of speech
has a general vocabulary which is broad enough that he or she rarely has to search for a word
has an accent which may be obviously foreign; has a good control of grammar; and whose errors virtually never interfere with understanding and rarely disturb the native speaker
If you’re familiar with the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for language levels), it’s around C1 level.
Announcing my next language mission
My new language mission is to speak fluent French by the end of the year. To certify my level, I’m aiming to pass the DALF, a diploma awarded by the French Ministry of Education. It corresponds to C1/C2 level in the Common European Framework, so it fits in well with the definitions of fluency we talked about earlier.
I’ll decide whether to go for C1 or the higher C2 level nearer the time, when I have a better idea of the level I can get to. I’d like to think I can go the extra mile and get C2, but I don’t want to put myself under too much pressure, so we’ll see.
I’m excited for this mission! I love France and the language – speaking fluent French has always been a dream of mine.
So what’s the plan?
I’ve been learning French for a while and it’s going quite well – I’m enjoying it and making progress. My plan for the next month is to carry on with what I’ve been doing, but more intensively.
How I’m becoming fluent in French from my living room
Take Online Conversation Classes
To improve my French speaking skills, I’ve been doing one-to-one conversation classes through a website called italki. I chat to native speaker tutors – called community tutors – on Skype and they help me practise my conversation skills.
They’re not qualified teachers, so the lessons are excellent value (as little as $5 hour). And I prefer it that way as I’d much rather use time with a native speaker to focus on conversation – I can study grammar and vocabulary from books. You can find some brilliant tutors on there – they’re fun, passionate about languages and patient with beginners.
So far, I’ve been doing these conversation lessons sporadically, but if I want to get fluent I’m going to need to rev it up. I’m aiming to do 3 lessons per week until the exam.
This might sound like something you should go to the doctors for, but it’s actually one of the most important things you can do when learning a language from home.
Whenever I can, I’ve got my headphones on and I’m listening to the language I’m learning. For the next few months, I’ll be listening to French podcasts and music while I’m walking to work, doing the dishes, cleaning the bath etc. Anytime it’s socially appropriate to have my headphones on, I’ll be filling my ears with French.
That reminds me, if you’ve got any good recommendations for French podcasts or music, please let me know in the comments!
Get into a routine
Whenever I start a project, there’s an over excited part of my brain that says things like: “Yeah! I’ll study for 5 hours a day, learn 100 words a week, read a book a week…”.
Of course I don’t manage to do even a third of these things, so I get discouraged and do nothing.
Over time, I’ve realised that this ambitious little voice does me more harm than good. I’ve learned that the key to making progress isn’t ambition, it’s routine. As Aristotle once said:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.
Instead of wasting energy chasing big ideas, I try to reign it in and establish habits that, when repeated every day, will get me towards my goal. Here are a couple of examples:
Reviewing vocabulary while I’m waiting for things: my computer to load, friends to arrive etc.
Squeezing in an hour of language learning before I start my day.
The last example, an hour a day, might seem like a lot. Here’s where the habit mentality works its magic. If you say “I’m going to study for an hour today”, it’s difficult to get started. Instead, focus on building a habit gradually by choosing something easy, say 10 minutes, and increasing by 1 minute each day. Soon you’ll be up to 60 minutes, and you’ll be more likely to keep it up compared to if you’d tried to do an hour from the get-go.
Set 2 minute goals
There are some parts of language learning that I don’t particularly enjoy, like writing and grammar. Until recently, I couldn’t motivate myself to do them, so I just ignored this part of language learning. And I’ve got a few holes in my skills because of it.
Fortunately, I’ve found a way to start getting on with this stuff.
When there’s something I don’t feel like doing, I set myself a mini goal of doing it for 2 minutes. Once the hard part (starting) is out the way, I’m usually happy to keep going for 20 minutes or more. But even if I put my pen down after 2 minutes, I achieve a lot more over time than if I hadn’t bothered at all.
Focus on sounds
Pronunciation often gets relegated to the bottom of the pile, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me: it’s the first thing people hear when you open your mouth and people make snap judgements about how good your speaking skills are based on your pronunciation (whether they realise it or not).
But when most resources are geared towards grammar and vocabulary, you have to make a conscious effort to focus on sounds. I’ve been doing just that recently and it’s really worthwhile. Here’s the technique I’ve been using:
Listen to simple dialogues (from textbooks) and write them down like a dictation.
Annotate sounds that are difficult for English speakers, like the “u” in menu, where the tongue is much further forward than in English.
Practise saying the words with tricky sounds, focusing on the mouth positions.
Listen to the dialogue again and read along, trying to keep my pronunciation as similar to the speakers’ as possible.
Keep it real
One mistake people often make when learning a language is to think they can learn grammar and words in isolation and put them together later. Languages don’t work this way. They’re a “learn by doing” kind of thing.
I find words and grammar only start to stick once I practise using them or see them being used in real life. Dropping them into conversations with native speakers is a great way to do this, but there are things you can do on your own too.
When I learn new words or grammar points, I put them in real life contexts by writing example sentences. Let’s imagine I just learned the phrase “Vas-y mollo” – go easy on something. Next, I try to think of sentences people might say, like
“Vas-y mollo sur le gâteau!” Go easy on the cake!
“Vas-y mollo sur le sucre” Go easy on the sugar!
Then I write them in my notebook.
Also, as I read and listen to the language, I try to keep an eye out for things I’ve studied being used in real life. If I’m feeling particularly motivated, I’ll write them down so I can come back to them later.
Turn passive activities into active ones
I’m quite a lazy learner: I enjoy passive activities, like listening and reading, but I struggle with active ones that require me to actually do something, like speaking and writing.
Because I spend more time on passive activities, I need a strategy to make them more active. One way of doing this is to write down keywords as I’m listening or reading, then talk aloud for a minute or two about what I heard/read. I’ve been doing this a bit already but I’m going to try and do it more over the next few months.
Learn more vocabulary
I’ll need to expand my vocabulary for the DALF exam. So far I’ve been learning 15 words a week and I’d like to ramp it up a bit. I’ve decided to increase the number slowly so it’s more sustainable. I’m aiming to add 5 extra words per week until I get up to 50.
Possibly the most important resource in language learning is time. I’ll need to put in a lot of time to reach an advanced level, so I’m hoping to spend 2-3 hours a day learning French (not including weekends). This means I’ll need a good balance of things that feel like work (writing, grammar and pronunciation) vs. things that feel like fun (podcasts, TV, books) so I don’t burn out.
Get into the culture
The closer I feel to a culture, the more motivated I am to learn the language. I’m going to follow French current affairs more closely by watching programmes on France 24 and reading the cheeky spoof news website Le Gorafi.
I’m a bit stuck for other resources to get into French culture – if you have any suggestions, stick them in the comments please!
Have an eff it day
When it all gets too much (or I’m feeling lazy) I’ll abandon all of the above and just watch French TV. It’s a great way of giving myself a break without getting out of the French habit. This will happen a lot.
To pass the DALF exam, I’ll need to improve my French and learn about how the exam works (some might argue that the latter is more important!). So this month I’m going to start practising the hardest part of the paper for me: writing. That said, I don’t want to lose sight of my main goal, which is to feel fluent in French, not learn how to pass an exam. So I’ll leave most of the exam prep until nearer the time.
What does this look like on a normal day?
Here’s my schedule for learning French over the next couple of months:
Daily (2 – 3 hours)
Active listening: Write keywords as I watch TV, then speak aloud about what I heard
Writing: Either exam practice, a diary entry or example sentences
Grammar: Exercises from my grammar book + example sentences
Pronunciation: Practise words with difficult sounds + read along with audio
Downtime: Watch TV or read
Earflooding: Fill my ears with French as I go about my day
Practise one writing question from the DALF exam
Take 3 conversation lessons on italki
Learn 20 – 35 new words per week (gradually increase the number)
This plan isn’t set in stone. I might do more or less of certain things depending on my mood and I’m sure I’ll make tweaks as I go along. I’ll let you know how it’s going next month!
What about the other languages?
I’m learning 5 languages at the moment: French, Italian, Spanish, German and Chinese.
I say “learning” because I don’t believe you can ever really complete a language. I’ve taken the highest level exam in Italian, the boss level, but there was no baddy to fight at the end and my Italian level didn’t magically become perfect as soon as I put my pen down. So even though I speak Italian to a high level, there’s always room for improvement and I enjoy getting into the lifelong learning spirit.
To manage all 5, I have one sprint language that I learn intensively and 4 marathon languages that I study in a more relaxed fashion. French will be my sprint language until further notice, so here are my plans for the others:
I took the C2 Italian exam last month – fingers crossed I passed! Next, I want to work on gradually closing the gap between me and a native speaker. I may never close it completely, but it’s nice to keep moving in that direction. The main differences between my Italian and a native speaker’s are:
Grammatical slips: When I’m speaking spontaneously, I still make some grammar slips with things like masculine/feminine endings. I’m going to try to pay more attention to this as I speak. I’m also going to record myself speaking once a week so I can listen back and self-correct my mistakes.
Vocabulary: The best (and most enjoyable) way to learn vocabulary is through reading. I’ve got a pile of books on my bedside table that I’ve been trying (rather unsuccessfully) to get through this year. Perhaps looking at the big pile is too intimidating, so I’m going to make it easier to get started by setting myself the mini goal: read one page in the evening. I’ll probably feel like reading more once I’ve got started anyway.
Pronunciation: I’m going to work on my pronunciation using the “focus on sounds” method that I mentioned for French. I’ll aim to do this once a week.
I’ve been neglecting Mandarin a bit since my last mission. I had big plans last month, but I didn’t get any of them done! I feel like I blinked and June disappeared, and I forgot about Chinese. My plans for June were:
Learn 15 new words per week
Continue watching Mandarin TV
Take 1 conversation lesson per week with a tutor on italki
Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per week
Scribble a short page of pinyin when the mood takes me
The only things I managed to tick off the list were: write a couple of pages of pinyin (with example sentences of words I’d learnt recently) and watch 3 tutorials on YouTube.
I’m going to dust myself off and try again in July.
German and Spanish
For Spanish and German, I’m keeping it short and simple:
Learn 15 new words a week + write example sentences.
Do some leisure activities like watching TV and reading
Over to you
French learners, I need your help! Can you recommend any good resources? Thanks in advance! If you’re not learning French, I’d still love to hear from you: which language are you learning at the moment? What are your goals this month?
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