If you’re looking for some guidance on how to get started, you’re in the right place.
Here, you’ll find a complete guide to learning Italian as a beginner. I’ll tell you what you need to know before you start and talk you through the exact steps to follow to pick up basic Italian quickly.
There’s a lot of information in this article (otherwise what kind of ultimate guide would it be!) so feel free to skip ahead to any of the sections by clicking on the titles above.
Throughout, you’ll find links to audio files and mini lessons you can use to start learning Italian straightaway.
And – we’re opening a programme that will help you speak and understand basic Italian fast. It’s free if you get in there quick, so stay till the end if you want to find out how to join us.
Let’s get started shall we?
Why learn Italian?
Italy is one of the most popular destinations in the world, and with good reason! With stunning countryside, mediterranean beach towns, a rich history and arguably the best food and wine in the world, Italy has a lot to offer.
But if you don’t speak the language, it’s difficult to get out of the tourist bubble.
You’ll get so much more out of Italy if you understand and speak a bit of the language. It’s all part of the experience: laughing with the waiter, chatting to a little old lady on the train (with the help of a few gestures!) or playing with Italian kids at the beach. When you have a go at speaking Italian, you’ll come away with better holiday memories.
Even a handful of phrases can help you feel like a local. It’s a great feeling when you can order a meal or ice-cream in Italian and they understand what you’re saying.
You can also get insider recommendations from Italians about the best places to go in their town – no more frozen pizza and reheated pasta at tourist restaurants!
There’s an Italian saying: “il dolce far niente”, which means the sweetness of doing nothing.
Italians are masters of the art of living: most have a relaxed pace of life and enjoy meeting new people. This is a huge plus when it comes to practicing Italiano with the locals.
When you have a go at speaking, Italians are usually patient and friendly. And many feel more comfortable speaking Italian compared to English. This gives you a real reason to use your Italian, which helps you learn faster.
Romantic, musical, expressive – people often say Italian is the most beautiful sounding language in the world. When you learn Italian, you can have loads of fun getting into the role and trying to adopt the distinctive accent.
Is Italian hard to learn?
Italian is a great choice for native English speakers. It’s a lot simpler than languages like German, Russian or Chinese because:
The grammar is relatively simple (no complicated case systems!)
1000s of words are similar to English
The pronunciation is quite straightforward: there aren’t many new sounds to learn and the spelling system is simple.
Let’s take a closer look at what you need to know about Italian grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.
Italian grammar: How is it different to English?
In this section, you’ll learn about two very important features of Italian grammar which don’t exist in English: verb conjugation and gender.
Verb conjugation is just a fancy way of describing how verbs change depending on who’s doing the action (just in case you need a little reminder, verbs are words which describe actions or states, like jump, speak or be).
We can see this with the verb “be” in English:
But the verb be is actually a bit of an exception in English. Normally we don’t change the verb much, apart from in the third person.
Italian, on the other hand, uses looooads of verb conjugations. Here are a couple of examples (click below to listen to the pronunciation):
Essere = to be
Io sono = I am
Tu sei = you are
Lui/lei è = he/she is
Noi siamo = we are
Voi siete = you all/both are
Loro sono = they are
Parlare = to speak
Io parlo = I speak
Tu parli = you speak
Lui/lei parla = he/she speaks
Noi parliamo = we speak
Voi parlate = you both/all speak
Loro parlano = they all speak
If you’re observant, you may have noticed that there are 6 forms of the verb in Italian, while English only has 5. That’s because Italian has a plural “you” that’s used for when you’re speaking to more than one person. It’s a bit like saying you both/you all/you guys/y’all.
For many learners, verb conjugation is the most intimidating thing about Italian: one look at a list of Italian verbs and you might worry that you’ll never fit it all in your brain.
But you will.
Little by little is key.
And it’s not as complicated as it seems. Most verbs follow one of 4 patterns, which don’t take too long to learn. It’s true that there are quite a few irregular verbs, but many of these are similar to other irregular verbs, so you can learn them together in groups.
Importantly, don’t feel like you have to learn all the verbs at once. Focus on the ones you’ll use the most, then learn the others gradually as you go along.
The Italian word for “female friend” is:
But for a “male friend” it’s:
Italian has gender, which means that nouns can change based on whether they are masculine or feminine (just in case you need a little refresher, nouns are words which describe people, things and places).
Feminine words often end in “a” and masculine words often end in “o”.
Here are some more examples:
Bambina (female child)
Bambino (male child)
The word for “a”, as in “a girl” or “a boy” also changes depending on whether the word is masculine or feminine. To say “a girl” in Italian we say una ragazza,while to say “a boy”, we say un ragazzo.
The funny thing is, languages with gender use the same system for objects, like chairs and books.
In Italian, a chair is feminine: “una sedia”.
While a book is masculine: “un libro”
This can feel a bit strange at first – how can a chair be feminine and a book be masculine?
Gender isn’t based on any logic about whether things have “feminine” or “masculine” qualities.
When it comes to learning the gender of objects, just think of the words as being split into two arbitrary groups: masculine and feminine. When you know which group the word is in, it will help you make decisions about the grammar, like whether to use the word “un” or “una”.
How can you remember which group a word belongs to?
Try using imagery. For example, you could imagine “una sedia” as pink chair with a bow on it and “un libro” as blue book with a moustache on it (of course if you prefer to avoid gender clichés, you can choose different images!)
Italian vocabulary: how to remember Italian words and phrases fast
Learn the words which are similare
One of the best things about learning Italian is that a lot of the words are very similar to English. In fact, when you start learning it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to notice that you can already say loads of Italian words by simply saying English words in a hammy Italian accent. Similare (pronounced sim-ill-ar-ray) is one example – no prizes for guessing what it means!
How do you say fantastic in Italian? Try to say it in your best Italian accent.
Coke for breakfast: Remember Italian words and phrases with memory hooks
What happens when you drink cola for breakfast? The combination of sugar and caffeine gives you an energy boost and you spring into action.
You’ve just learnt the Italian word for breakfast, using a technique called mnemonics: a memorisation strategy inspired by the ancient Greeks and endorsed by memory champions as the most effective way to quickly remember large amounts of information. The trick is to create a little memory hook, by linking the sounds and meaning of the new word to words you already know.
Let’s learn another one. Imagine you’ve planned to go for a walk with your friend Arthur. He knocks on the door and you shout “come in Arthur” = kam-in-ar-ta.
You’ve just learnt the word for “walk” in Italian.
If you want to remember new words quickly in Italian, try creating memory hooks like the ones above. Get creative – the sillier the image, the easier it is to remember!
It might take you a little while to come up with memory hooks at first, but the more you do it, the quicker you’ll get. And it will save you a lot of time and effort in memorising Italian words.
Italian pronunciation: why it’s easier than you think
Say what you see!
Italian pronunciation is relatively straightforward compared to many other languages, especially when you take into account the spelling system.
English has a complex spelling system where different combinations of letters can be pronounced in many ways. To demonstrate this point, George Bernard Shaw once pointed out that the word fish could be spelled “ghoti.”
gh = /f/ as in enough.
o = /i/ as in women
ti= /sh/ as in nation
Luckily for us, Italian has a very phonetic spelling system, which means that most letters can only be pronounced in one way. Once you learn a couple of spelling rules, you’ll be able to pronounce the words you read without difficulty.
The Italian spelling system: C and G
One of the rules you’ll need to learn is the pronunciation of C and G, as it’s not always the same as in English.
Generally, C is pronounced as a hard K sound, like in the word cake. Similarly, G is usually pronounced as a hard G sound, like in game.
Examples you may recognise
The same rule applies when C and G are followed by the letter “h”.
Examples you may recognise
However, when you see C followed by the letter I or E, it’s pronounced as a soft C sound, (like the ch sound in the English word chocolate).
Examples you may recognise
Likewise, when you see G followed by the letter I or E, it’s pronounced as a soft J sound, (like the j in jeans)
Examples you may recognise
If you want to learn more about how to pronounce C and G in Italian, and hear some more examples, listen to 5 Minute Italian episode 11 and episode 12 on how to pronounce an Italian menu.
How to roll your Rs in Italian
You’re probably already familiar with the fact that Italian has a rolled R sound. Some people can do it naturally, but for others it takes a bit of work.
I used to really struggle with the rolled R. In fact, I had just about given up, until one of my Italian teachers insisted that I could learn to do it. She was right! I practised and practised and practised and eventually, I managed it.
So don’t get discouraged if you were born without this skill – most people can learn with the right techniques.
If you want to find out how I learnt to roll my Rs in Italian, listen to the tutorial below.
The smiley L
Another Italian soundwhich may be new to you is the smiley L (known formally as the palatal L). When you see the letters gli together, as in famiglia, it’s pronounced similar to an L sound, but instead of putting the tongue tip behind your teeth (like in the English one) you spread the whole tongue out across the roof of your mouth. If you smile when you say it, it helps to put the tongue in the right position, which is why we christened it the smiley L.
This sound is much easier to learn when you can hear it being pronounced and get some examples. Listen to the tutorial below for tips on how to pronounce the smiley L in Italian.
The smiley N
Italian also has a smiley N sound. When you see the letters gn together, as in lasagne, smile, push the whole tongue flat against your mouth (like in the smiley L) and try to make a N sound. As with the smiley L, it’s much easier to learn with audio instructions and examples. Listen to the tutorial below for tips on how to pronounce the smiley N.
Common mistakes and how to avoid them
There are a few mistakes that most foreigners make when learning Italian. If you focus on correcting them right from the beginning, it will save you a lot of work in the long run.
In Italian, when you see two of the same consonants in a row, you should make that sound longer. For example, the word “sono” (which means I am) has a single consonant: “n”, while the word “sonno” (which means sleep) has a double consonant: “nn”. The “n” sound is held for longer in the latter.
Can you hear the difference?
Don’t worry if these words sound very similar at first, with practise, you’ll be able to differentiate them.
Many foreigners continue to mix up single and double consonants, even when they speak Italian very well. If you pay attention to them right from the beginning, you’ll have a much better chance of getting it right in the long run (in fact, I wish someone had given me this advice when I first started learning Italian!)
Not pronouncing the vowels fully
In English, we don’t always open our mouths fully to pronounce the vowels.
For example, in the word “responsible”, the letter “i” is pronounced as a kind of lazy “e” sound, which is produced with the mouth and tongue in a completely relaxed position. In the phonetic alphabet, it’s represented with the upside down ə sound (called the schwa).
However, Italian vowels are always pronounced fully. Can you hear the full “a” sound in the Italian version?
The lazy “ə” sound doesn’t exist in Italian, so make sure you pronounce every vowel fully.
Prepositions are little words like “in”, “over”, “on”, “off” and “for”.
They’re not always logical: for example, if a light “goes off” it means that the light stops, but when an alarm “goes off”, the sound starts!
Because they’re not always logical, they vary a lot between languages. For example, Italians don’t say welcome to Italy, they say welcome in Italy: benvenuti in Italia.
Italian learners often struggle with prepositions. But if you pay attention to them from the beginning, you’ll have a much better chance at getting them right.
How to learn Italian fast: Start with the basics
The key to learning a language fast is to prioritise. Don’t waste lots of time at the beginning learning complicated grammar rules that you don’t know how to use in conversation yet.
Remember that the primary goal is to communicate: focus on learning useful phrases that will help you start talking, then build up from there.
Italian phrases for travellers
If you’re planning to visit Italy, it’s a good idea to start with simple travel phrases like “where is…”, “how much…?” and “can I have..?”. Here are a few to get you started:
Dov’è…? = where is…?
Dov’è il bagno? = where’s the toilet?
Dov’è la stazione? = where’s the station?
Quanto costa? = how much does it cost?
Quanto costa il caffè? = how much does the coffee cost?
Quanto costa la pizza? = how much does the pizza cost?
Posso avere….? = can I have?
Posso avere il conto?= can I have the bill?
Posso avere il menù? = can I have the menu?
Posso avere un caffè? = Can I have a coffee?
If you want to learn enough Italian to get by in Italy, the 5 Minute Italian podcast is for you. Each week, you’ll learn how to deal with common travel situations, like buying ice-cream or getting from the airport to your hotel. Click here to subscribe to 5 Minute Italian on itunes.
Numbers are usually one of the first things people learn and with good reason – they pop up everywhere! From buying things to asking about public transport, you’ll need to master numbers if you want to get by in Italian.
You can learn how to count to 100 in Italian with the 5 Minute Italian episodes below.
Keep the conversation going with fluency phrases
When you start speaking a language, it’s normal to have communication breakdowns, for example, when you don’t know a word, or when you don’t understand what someone just said.
Without the right strategies, these moments lead to you switching back to English and cut your chance to practice short.
There’s nothing wrong with using English when you get really stuck, but the more you can use Italian to manage communication breakdowns, the longer you can keep the conversation going.
And the longer you can keep the conversation going, the better you get at speaking.
Here are 5 fluency phrases that will help you continue the conversation in Italian when you get stuck:
How do you say X in Italian? = Come si dice X in Italiano?
Sorry, I didn’t understand. = Scusi, non ho capito.
Could you repeat that please? = Potrebbe ripetere per favore?
Could you speak slower please? = Potrebbe parlare più lentamente per favore?
Can we speak in Italian? I’d like to learn. = Possiamo parlare in italiano? Vorrei imparare.
A step by step guide to learning Italian from scratch
Start with a good beginner’s course
Get yourself a good beginner’s textbook or audio course to work through as you build up a foundation in Italian. Michel Thomas and Assimil both have great Italian courses for beginners.
When choosing your course, look for ones which:
Give plenty of examples
Have short, easy to follow grammar explanations
Provide exercises so you can practise using what you learn
Teach you words and phrases that you can imagine yourself using in real life
Repeat what you learn over several lessons so it has the chance to sink in
Use it or lose it!
It’s important to keep in mind that no textbook or audio course will give you everything you need to speak Italian.
Textbooks teach you a lot about the language, but they don’t really help you use it in real life. Think of them like a book on how to play the guitar. It gives you a lot of useful information, but unless you actually put your hands on the guitar, you’ll never be able to play.
If you want to be able to use Italian in real life situations, you need to practise first. Practising helps you turn the Italian words and phrases you learn in books into active knowledge that you can use to communicate with Italians.
If the idea of speaking straightaway makes you feel nervous, don’t worry. You don’t have to walk up to an Italian and start talking after your first lesson. There are other ways to practise using your Italian:
Take the new words and grammar points you learn in your textbook and try using them to write sentences about your life.
Write a diary entry about your day.
Talk to yourself in Italian in your head: What are people around you doing? What objects can you see?
Practise speaking with a language exchange partner or conversation tutor. If you don’t feel comfortable attempting conversation yet, you can tell them about new words or grammar points you’ve learnt and ask them to give you examples of how they are used in real life.
These activities help you connect what you learn to real situations, which makes them easier to remember.
If it feels tricky and you make lots mistakes at the beginning, don’t worry. It’s a normal part of being a beginner. The most important thing is to start – that’s how you get better!
If you join 5 Minute Italian Academy, you’ll find lots of beginner-friendly opportunities to practise your Italian, including:
A “use it or lose it section”, which helps you use the words and phrases to talk about your own life.
Speaking workshops, where we help you get over your nerves and have a go at speaking Italian.
Personal feedback and corrections from Italian teachers.
In January, around 35% of people in Britain go on a diet.
By February, most have given up.
When it comes to goals like losing weight or learning a language, most of us start full of optimism and good intentions, only to run out of steam a few days or weeks later. This happens because willpower is a limited resource: when it runs out, we fall back on old habits, like eating peanut butter out of the jar (just me?).
The best way to learn Italian is to study regularly over a sustained period, but that’s not always easy when your motivation waxes and wanes.
Even if you’re really committed to learning Italian at the beginning, you should prepare for the fact that your motivation might fizzle out somewhere down the line.
The key to solving this problem is to make Italian a habit. Once you’re in the habit, learning Italian feels natural, so you don’t have to rely on willpower all the time.
Here are a couple of things you can do to get into the habit of learning Italian:
Think of little ways you can introduce Italian into your daily routine: e.g. listening to a podcast at breakfast, reviewing your vocabulary while you’re on the train…
Start small: just as bad habits can be difficult to break, good habits can be difficult to make. Start with something so easy you can’t say no to, like 5 minutes a day. Then add an extra minute each day. Built up gradually until you find a length of time that a) slots easily into your daily routine and b) feels like you’re making good progress.
Find a community
Science shows that if you work towards a goal as part of a group, you’re more likely to achieve it, compared to if you try going it alone. Joining a group of people who are learning Italian helps you learn faster for a couple of reasons:
If you study alone, it’s easy to make excuses in your head and slack off. Teaming up with others who are learning Italian makes you accountable to other people, which gives you an extra push.
The group gives you moral support, opportunities to practise and practical advice that will help you progress quicker.
Community is a powerful thing: if you’re serious about learning Italian, joining a group will help you succeed.
Join 5 Minute Italian Academy (free if you get in there quick!)
If you want to learn basic Italian fast, you’ll get the exact steps and support you need in our 5 Minute Italian Academy.
We’re looking for beta testers to learn Italian with us for 30 days. You’ll get all the features of our 5 Minute Italian Academy free including:
– A weekly podcast, where you’ll learn how to deal with Italian travel situations.
– A workbook with quizzes and interactive tasks, so you can practise using what you learned.
– Simple grammar explanations with plenty of examples.
– A special system to help you review and remember words and phrases.
– A “when in Italy” section with cultural tips.
– Lifetime access to our private Facebook community, where you can team up with your classmates and practise using your Italian.
– Italian teachers who are available toanswer your questions
– Invites to monthly live lessons, where we’ll help you start speaking.
Speaking a foreign language is one of the best feelings in the world. It gives you:
A deeply satisfying connection with a new culture and its people
The chance to travel with ease
A huge sense of personal achievement
New career opportunities
That’s why if you ask a room of people if they’d like to speak a foreign language, almost everyone says yes.
So what stops people from learning to speak one?
Some say time. But there are plenty of ways to squeeze language learning into a busy day. Others say motivation. But that’s not really a problem if you find ways to learn that you enjoy.
These are excuses that can be easily solved, if you want to speak that language badly enough.
What if people think I’m stupid?
The real thing that stops people from speaking a foreign language is the fear of feeling like an idiot. Because learning to speak a language requires everyone to go through that phase of sounding like tarzan and Barney Gumble’s two year old love child.
So when Krisztina got in touch and asked “How can you beat your fear of speaking in a foreign language?”, I jumped at the chance to answer. It’s a great question about a problem that affects every one of us to some degree or another.
And the answer is simple.
It’s normal to feel nervous speaking a second language
I’ve been speaking Italian for longer than I care to remember. It all started back in 2008, when I had more piercings and fewer wrinkles.
Now, I’ve been living in Italy for nearly 6 years – my love life and friendships have been conducted in Italian for most of my 20s. But can I tell you a secret?
I still get nervous speaking Italian.
Don’t get me wrong, the better I get, the more comfortable I feel. Most of the time when I speak Italian, I’m straight chillin.
But I still get nervous when I have to sort out my mortgage or call my accountant in Italian.
Even chatting to friends can give me the jitters – especially the kind of friends who organise their kitchen cupboards and wear matching socks.
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 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?
Krisztina’s great question about fear of speaking came up in last month’s polyglot Q&A. Here’s the video where you can catch me jibber jabbering about it live:
Why don’t you join us for next polyglot Q&A?
It’s a great chance to:
Get help with parts of language learning that you are struggling with.
Swap ideas with a fab community of language learners.
Get actionable language learning tips you can start using straight away.
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?
You spent ages squeezing those new words and phrases into your brain. Then you try to use them in real life and…
You keep searching your brain, but everything you learnt has temporarily left the building.
We all forget things when learning a language. It’s part of the process. But the more you forget, the slower you learn because you waste a lot of time learning and re-learning things before they finally stick.
What if you could remember a language faster?
If you could get words, phrases and grammar to stick sooner, you’d rev-up the learning process. You’d struggle less and enjoy it more.
And there’s a simple, research-backed method you can use right now to help you remember a language more easily.
What we write by hand, we remember
I never thought I’d write a post about the benefits of writing in a foreign language. Until recently, I hated it: my spelling is bad, I make loads of mistakes and it just doesn’t seem that important – my priority is speaking.
What I didn’t realise is that by neglecting writing, I was missing out on a powerful tool for improving my speaking skills. In fact, writing can help in all areas of language learning because it boosts your memory.
Research suggests that writing helps people recall new vocabulary more easily: in one study, learners who were asked to write example sentences with new words remembered around a third more than people who just read them.
And it turns out that handwriting is better than typing. A number of studies show that people remember words better when they write them by hand, compared to on a keyboard. Researchers think that there’s something about the sensorimotor processes involved in writing letters by hand that helps us commit them to memory.
These studies reveal some important points about memory and learning:
Reading something over and over is a terrible way to commit it to memory.
Involving different senses in the learning process can help us remember better.
Thinking about information in new ways, rather than just mindlessly repeating it, boosts memory.
These are all linked to the fact that memory is context-dependent: if we learn information the same way over and over, the brain associates it with that specific context. This makes things easy to remember when we find ourselves in the same situation, but easy to forget when we’re in new situations.
Imagine you’ve lost your keys. When you retrace your steps, you make the situation more similar to when you lost them, which jogs your memory.
If we want something to stick, we need to play around with it and use it in new contexts while we’re learning.
Writing is perfect for this.
Whether it’s example sentences, stories, diary entries or shopping lists, writing pushes you to apply what you’ve learned to fresh contexts. Just like the college students who took notes by hand, as you write, you organise your thoughts and interact with the information in new ways. This can lead to deeper processing and in turn, better memory.
Another reason writing helps you remember is that it encourages you to build connections between old and new. When you write example sentences or stories with words you’ve just learnt, you combine new vocabulary with things you already know. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that linking new information to prior knowledge boosts memory.
Write like no one’s watching
I’d always had a sneaking feeling that I was missing a trick by not writing, but I could never motivate myself to do it.
At first I thought it was laziness. Maybe I was intimidated by all the effort involved. So I set myself teeny-tiny goals of writing one sentence.
Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves to do something well that we’d rather avoid doing it all together, than risk doing a crappy job. Lowering your expectations will help you get past the blank page syndrome.
3. Ask native speakers for feedback (but not always)
You can use websites like italki and lang8 to post your writing and get corrections from native speakers.
This kind of feedback is very useful, but don’t feel you need a native speaker referee every time you write something. Even if there are a few mistakes in your writing (shock horror!), it’s still great practice.
4. Use the internet as a substitute for native speakers
What’s the difference between this word and that word? Is this verb regular or irregular? Good ol’ google can answer a lot of questions that come up when writing. You can also check if you wrote something as a native speaker would by searching groups of words together. Let’s imagine I want to write “it went well” in German, but I’m not sure how to say it.
I type my attempt “es ist gut gegangen” (with quote marks) into google, and see lots of reputable looking websites which use the exact phrase “es ist gut gegangen”. Also, as I’m searching the term, google auto-suggests “es ist gut gegangen englisch”, which means that Germans have been searching how to translate this term into English.
It looks safe to assume that “es ist gut gegangen” is correct.
This method isn’t foolproof (there are mistakes on the web, especially in forums) but reputable websites will give you some useful insights. A good online dictionary with examples will also help you learn how to use new words in a sentence.
5. Write by hand
We remember things we write by hand more easily than things we type, so get yourself a notebook and start scribbling.
6. Keep a diary
Writing a diary involves talking about everyday things that happen to you and the people around you, so you’ll end up practising using words and phrases that’ll come in handy in real life conversations.
Those were 6 simple ways to get into the habit of writing. Next, I’ll talk about how I applied these ideas to my own language learning last month, and my plans for June.
My Language Learning Plans: June 2017
I’m learning 5 languages at the moment: Italian, Mandarin, German, French and Spanish. To make it manageable, I have 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.
Next week, I’m taking my C2 Italian exam – mamma mia!
In May, I’d planned to practise my pronunciation and crack on with my grammar book, but I realised what I really need to focus on now is the exam. So I set that stuff aside for a moment and did the following:
I’ve been listening to news podcasts as I go about my day. I’m hoping this will stand me in good stead for the exam as the listening section is usually taken from radio programmes.
I’d planned to watch an hour of highbrow TV, like political shows, to boost my listening and improve my knowledge of current affairs in Italy. I didn’t manage an hour a day, but I did squeeze in half an hour of 8 e mezzo most days.
I’ve been reading the magazines National Geographic and Internazionale to prepare for the reading section (and because they’re interesting).
I aimed to write one practice essay per week in May. I was really struggling to get around to this, so I made it easy for myself to get started by:
Setting the tiny goal of just reading the question.
Telling myself that it didn’t have to be amazing.
By the time I’d got started, I was happy to go ahead and write the whole thing. Actually, I quite enjoyed it! Overall, I managed 3 weeks out of 4, so that aint bad.
Plans for June
Between now and Thursday (D-Day) I’m going to focus mostly on practice tests.
In May, I planned to:
Finish my graded reader story
Learn 15 new words per week
Start watching Mandarin TV (with Mandarin subtitles)
Take 2 conversation lessons per week with a tutor on italki
Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per day (except weekends)
How it went
I managed the first two things on my list without too much trouble.
Mandarin TV was proving to be quite tricky (having to stop every two seconds to look up words) until I found a fab “learning mode” tool on viki, the streaming service I use to watch Mandarin TV. It has interactive subtitles, so you can click on them to get instant translations of words. It’s my new favourite toy!
I did 7 lessons with my online tutor this month, but I’m starting to feel like I need a bit of a break, and the summer months are going to be busy so I’m going to go down to one lesson a week for a while.
I barely watched any tutorials this month: I think the goal of 1 a day was too high so it put me off starting. In June, I’m going to try and watch one per week instead.
One thing that wasn’t on my list, but that I started doing a lot of, was writing. Sometimes I wrote diary entries, sometimes I wrote example sentences with new vocabulary, or words I struggle to remember. In pinyin. That might make character puritans wince, but learning to write Chinese by hand isn’t a priority of mine at the moment. By using pinyin, I can start writing straight away and it helps me remember words (and their pronunciation) more easily.
Plans for June
Learn 15 new words per week
Continue watching Mandarin TV (with Mandarin subtitles)
Take 1 conversation lesson per week with a tutor on italki
Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per week
Scribble a short page of pinyin when the mood takes me
I’d got into a bit of a funk with my German over the last few months and my “studying” mostly consisted of watching TV. Great for listening, not so good for grammar or speaking.
To make my listening more active, I’ve started writing down keywords as I watch. Once I’ve finished, I use them as prompts to talk for 2 minutes about what I’ve just seen. I don’t always do it (sometimes I just want to chill out in front of the TV!) but I do it quite often and it’s helping me pay more attention and practise my speaking.
This month I’ve started writing more and it’s given me another way to practise producing the language, rather than just absorbing it passively. In June, I’m going to try and write a page a day (but let myself off the hook if I’m feeling lazy).
Spanish and French
Last month, my target was to:
Learn 15 words a week in each language
Watch some Spanish and French TV/films in my downtime
Do active listening (see above)
I managed to learn the words and I watched a fair amount of TV/films, but I forgot about the active listening bit (oops). I’m going to try and do more of this in June.
I started off the month writing bits and bobs in Spanish and French, but I had to stop as I’m worried the different spelling systems might creep in and cause me to make mistakes in Italian (definitely don’t want that right before the exam). I’m planning to get scribbling in my Spanish and French notebooks as soon as the Italian exam’s over.
That’s it for June, I’m looking forward to next month, when I’ll be revealing a new language project that I’m very excited about!
Over to you: Do you think writing in foreign language is useful? Are there any other benefits that I forgot to mention? Can you share any other fun ways to practise writing? Let us know in the comments below!
Which teacher do you remember most from school?
I bet you’re thinking of a brilliant one, or a horrible one. Most people forget about the ones in the middle.
I had lots of mediocre language teachers at school. They didn’t really care about what they were teaching, so neither did I. I remember nothing about their classes.
Well, almost nothing.
I can remember numbers, colours, and a few random words, like calculator and guinea pig. Meerschweinchen and Taschenrechner in German, just in case you ever need to know.
So why did those words stick, while all the other German I learned at school disappeared from my memory without a trace?
Well, we practised that kind of vocabulary by playing word bingo and, like most kids, I loved playing games in class.
Those words stuck with me because I had fun while I was learning them.
Fun activities also boost learning because they motivate you to sit down and do the bloomin’ thing in the first place. And motivation is possibly the most important factor in language learning.
But perhaps the best reason to have fun with languages, put rather nicely by Richard Branson, is this:
If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.
Fun ways to learn a language that actually work
Bingo was fun, but it didn’t help me communicate in German: I can’t think of any situations where walking around saying calculator or guinea pig would come in handy in real life.
Here’s where the “that actually work” bit comes in. Fun isn’t enough: it has to be useful too.
That’s why I’ve put together a list of 32 ways to learn a language that are not only fun, but will also help you immerse yourself in the language as it’s used in the real world.
These activities will develop your speaking, writing, reading and listening so you can achieve the ultimate goal: to communicate better in the language you’re learning.
32 fun ways to learn a language
Fun way #1: Play computer games
When I first met my Italian fiancé Matteo, he understood almost everything he heard in English and had a wide vocabulary, despite never having spoken it before. Where did he pick up those mad English skills?
World of Warcraft, my friends.
Then he got a girlfriend (me) and had to start leaving the house. But all those nights spent gaming in English until silly o’clock in the morning gave him a solid foundation for when he started using it in the real world. Here’s an example of Benny Lewis playing doom in a few different languages to give you an idea of how you can use computer games to boost your language skills.
Fun way #2: Go to the pub with a native speaker
The time I discovered you could learn a language by chatting to native speakers at the pub was around the same time I got really into learning languages. Coincidence?
Use the website conversation exchange to find a native speaker who lives near you and set up a language exchange at your local pub (or café if you prefer hot drinks). To make it work, you’ll need to lay down some ground rules. Olly from Iwillteachyoualanguage.com has written an excellent guide on making language exchanges work for you.
Fun way #3 Listen to a podcast
Podcasts are a brilliant way to boost your listening skills at all levels: if you’re just starting out, you can listen to a podcast aimed at helping beginners pick up the basics (coffee break season 1 is great for this).
Intermediate learners can listen to slow spoken content (like the news in slow French/Italian/German/Spanish series) and dialogues that are broken down and explained (like in coffee break season 2 onwards).
Advanced learners can take their pick of podcasts aimed at native speakers.
Fun way #4 Listen to music
No list of fun ways to learn a language would be complete without music. To find artists who sing in the language you’re learning, check out the playlists on spotify. Type the name of your chosen language + music (e.g. Spanish music) and you should get a whole bunch of playlists worth exploring.
To make the most of it, try to listen actively: after you’ve heard the song a few times, dive into the lyrics and look up the meaning, then keep listening until the words start to sink in.
Fun way #5 Get your karaoke on
If you’re going to learn the words, you might as well sing along. To develop your pronunciation skills, focus on getting your sounds as similar to the singers’ as possible. If you feel a little self conscious, wait until no one’s in the house, or have a go in the shower.
On the other hand, if you’re really into singing, why not step it up and do some karaoke in the language you’re learning? For some free playlists, try typing karaoke + your chosen language into YouTube and see what comes up.
Fun way #6 Play with Lyrics Training
Lyrics training is a fab website that turns foreign language songs into a fun game – my students love it!
Fun way #7 Learn some nursery rhymes
Tap into your inner child and learn some nursery rhymes in your chosen language. A word of caution – try and find ones with vocabulary that you’ll use in real life (think ten green bottles rather than ring of roses).
Fun way #8 Go to a Language Meetup
Somewhere near you, there are probably groups of people learning the same language who meet up to practise and organise fun events. You can find groups like this on the meetup website.
Fun way #9 Watch trashy TV
Hit the snooze button on your brain for a while and veg out in front of some trashy foreign language TV. Soap operas (especially telenovelas) are brilliant because the over-the-top acting makes their speech easier to understand than in films. Reality TV is another good genre because it helps you practise listening to spontaneous speech.
Fun way #10 Have a netflix binge
If you prefer higher quality telly, give Netflix a try. The online streaming service is gradually turning into a language learning goldmine as they continue to build up their selection of foreign language films and TV programmes. Use the audio and subtitles section to search for films and TV in the language you’re learning.
Lots of programmes have subtitles in the original language, so you can read along at the same time or pause it and look up new vocabulary. I recommend avoiding English subtitles where possible as you can end up concentrating on the English and blocking out the foreign language.
Fun way #11 Watch TV by pretending to be somewhere else
Have you ever tried to watch TV online and seen the message “sorry this video is not available in your country”?. Foreign language TV is often blocked because the broadcasters don’t have the license to show programmes outside their own country. You can get around this problem by using a VPN service like hola, which allows you to pretend that you’re browsing from inside the country. Using a VPN is totally legal, but violating broadcasting licensing agreements might not be, so watch at your own risk and don’t tell anyone I told you 😉
Fun way #12 Change your phone settings
Swap the language of your phone to the one you’re learning (but remember how to change it back!)
Fun way #13 Change your Facebook settings
Change the language of Facebook/twitter/whatever other social network you kids hang around on these days.
Fun way #14 Shake your booty
Following a keep fit video in your chosen language is a good way to stay in shape and learn a language at the same time. It’s doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything because you can follow along by watching. And it’s great for learning body parts as you’ll hear the same ones repeated over and over again.
What if there are lots of words you don’t understand?
Google to the rescue. The google translate extension allows you to turn webpages into an interactive dictionary so you can translate words by clicking on them.
Fun way #16 Chat to a native speaker online (for a steal)
If you want to practise speaking, italki is the place to be. It’s a fab website that has 1000s of friendly native speakers who give conversation lessons to help nice people like you learn a language. They’re called community tutors and you can book private conversation lessons with them for as little as $5-10 dollars.
Try following a recipe in the language you’re learning. Cooking websites/blogs are especially handy as you can translate new words with by clicking on them if you have the google translate extension. Or you can use YouTube to see the finished product and hone your listening skills.
Fun way #19 Get lost in a YouTube rabbit hole
If you’re anything like me, you probably enjoy faffing about on YouTube from time to time. If you’re going to be on there anyway, why not make it a little more productive by watching videos in the language you’re learning? If videos for native speakers are too difficult, try ones aimed at language learners. My absolute favourite YouTube channel for this is Easy Languages.
Fun way #20 Learn with social media
What if instead of looking at pictures of other people’s cats/babies/lunch you could use your time spent on Facebook to learn a language? Lindsay from Lindsay does languages has all kinds of good stuff on how to use social media for language learning. You should check it out.
Fun way #21 Duolingo
If you haven’t been living underwater for the last few years you may have already heard of this handy little app that turns learning grammar and vocabulary into a fun game. Recently they introduced a feature where you can practise your chatting skills with foreign language bots. Download it and fiddle with it on your commute. It’s free.
Fun way #22 Keep a diary
Not the “Dear diary, why won’t my crush notice me?” kind (although you can if you like!) but a simple paragraph or two about your day. Not only will it improve your writing, but it’ll also help you learn how to talk about yourself and your life, which is great practise for conversations.
One of my friends used to set up language exchanges as a clever ruse to meet young ladies while practising his language skills. If you’re looking for love, why not do it the other way around and use a dating app like tinder to find native speakers of the language you’re learning?
Fun way #25 Text native speakers while your boss isn’t looking
The hellotalk app connects you with native speakers so you can do language exchanges via text messages. It’s specifically designed for language learners so there are all kinds of cool features, like the ability to click on a word and translate it or hear the pronunciation.
Fun way #26 Learn some tongue twisters
Tongue twisters are great for focusing on tricky pronunciation points. Choose one that has lots of examples of a sound you struggle with and practise it while you’re going about your daily business, like doing the dishes or waiting for your computer to load.
Here’s a fun Spanish one to help you with the rolled R: Treinta y tres tramos de troncos trozaron tres tristes trozadores de troncos y triplicaron su trabajo, triplicando su trabajo de trozar troncos y troncos.
Fun way #27 Watch a Disney Film
A rainy afternoon in front of a foreign language disney film is a lovely way to boost your listening skills. Choose one where you already know the story, so it’s easier to follow along.
Fun way #28 Learn some sayings
Reading quotes and sayings in your chosen language is a great way to pick up some new vocabulary. One of my favourites is the Italian version of “you can’t have your cake and eat it”:
Non si può avere la bottiglia piena e la moglie ubriaca
It translates literally to “you can’t have a barrel full of wine and a drunk wife”.
Whenever I’m hanging out with people who have different native languages, we inevitably end up teaching each other swear words and sniggering. I’m not sure why learning to swear in a foreign language, or hearing foreigners do it in your language is so fun, but there’s something about it that really gives us the giggles. Even if you’re not one to swear in your own language, they’re handy to know so you can recognise them if you hear them (hopefully not aimed at you!)
Fun way #32 Talk to your cat
Or dog, or hamster, or fish… Chatting to your animal is a great way to boost your speaking skills as it gives you a safe environment to practise building sentences with the grammar and vocabulary you’ve been learning. If you don’t have an animal, try talking to yourself or an imaginary friend. Have a look at this post for more unconventional ways to practise speaking without a native speaker.
Those were my 32 fun ways to learn a language.
Now I’d love to hear from you:Which fun way do you like the most? Give it a try and come back and tell us how it went. Do you have any more fun ways to add to the list? Let us know in the comments below!
What comes to mind when you hear the word procrastination?
Sitting on the sofa in your underpants? Staring at GIFs on buzzfeed? Watching a 106 year old Indian lady give cooking lessons on YouTube? (a few of the things I did while I should have been writing this article).
If you procrastinate, it’s easy to feel guilty because people associate it with laziness – doing brain dead stuff, like checking Facebook, when you should be getting on with something more important, like learning that language you’ve always wanted to speak.
Feeling work-shy is one reason you might struggle to get started. Most people procrastinate a bit when faced with something that takes a lot of effort: it’s just easier to watch an Indian grandma rustle up a nice biryani.
But there’s something else that could be stopping you from learning a language.
Learning a language: why can’t I just get on with it?
I realised there was more to my procrastination when I looked at the tasks I never get done. These tasks are:
Recording myself speaking
Writing sentences to practise new vocabulary/grammar points
I knew I’d struggle to start if these tasks felt too much like hard work, so I made it really easy by setting tiny goals: speak for 2 minutes, write one sentence.
But I still didn’t do it.
I found it easier to get around to more effortful tasks, like reading for half an hour, reviewing grammar or learning vocabulary.
If laziness wasn’t the problem, what was it?
Well, one thing these tasks have in common is that they require me to produce something, rather than just passively reading or listening to it. And I have to look at the results, which certainly won’t be as good as I’d like them to be.
Then I had an interesting thought: was I avoiding speaking and writing because I was afraid of being a bit shit at them?
To test my theory, I tried lowering my expectations. Instead of setting myself the goal of speaking well for 2 minutes, I asked myself to speak for two crappy minutes. A couple of crappy minutes didn’t seem that hard, so I started.
And once I got started, I wasn’t even that crappy.
Procrastination: perfectionism in disguise?
Many of us feel guilty when we put stuff off because we think we’re being lazy.
But sometimes it’s the fear of being shit – or to put it more delicately, perfectionism – that makes it so hard to get started. Maybe you’re putting so much pressure on yourself to be good at something that you’d rather avoid doing it all together, than risk doing it badly.
I get this feeling a lot in speaking and writing. But it could pop up at any point during your language learning. Do you ever feel disappointed when you think about your language skills, because you’re not as good as you’d like to be?
Why do you put off language learning?
If this sounds like you, there are two things that could be getting in the way of you getting down to language learning business.
High perceived effort: If you think learning a language will take a lot of effort, you’re more likely to put it off.
Perfectionism: If you’re worried you won’t live up to the standards you’ve set in your head, you’re more likely to put it off.
If you think learning a language will take lot of effort and you’re worried you won’t live up to the standards you’ve set in your head, it’s going to be really, really hard to get started.
The cause of your procrastination probably lies somewhere on the perceived effort vs. fear of being shit scale.
To beat procrastination (or keep it to a minimum) aim for the sweet spot in the bottom left corner: reduce the amount of effort it takes to start learning a language and your fear of being rubbish at it.
Let’s find out how.
3 research-backed ways to stop procrastinating and get on with learning a language
1. Reduce perceived effort with the 2 minute rule
Scientists have found that the mere thought of doing something we don’t want to do can activate the insular cortex, the area of the brain that experiences pain. This is probably why so many of us procrastinate: we’d rather avoid this discomfort by turning our attention to something more enjoyable, like looking at pictures of baby otters holding hands.
But research suggests that we only experience this discomfort at the thought of the task, not while we’re actually doing it. In other words, it’s the anticipation of the task that’s painful, not the task itself. The secret lies in getting started. But how?
Writer James Clear suggests making it easy for yourself by using the 2 minute rule. Break the task into something super small that you can complete in 2 minutes. Instead of writing for an hour, ask yourself to write one sentence. Instead of reading a whole chapter, set yourself the goal of reading half a page. Once you’ve started, you’ll probably end up writing for an hour or reading the whole chapter anyway.
2. Forgive yourself
Does this sound familiar?
Feel worried or anxious about a task that requires effort.
Go on Facebook/YouTube/Buzzfeed to avoid said task.
Feel worried, anxious… and guilty
Procrastinate even more.
Negative emotions like guilt, anxiety and worry can throw you into a vicious circle of procrastination. The more you procrastinate, the more effort it takes to get started. The more effort it takes to get started, the more you procrastinate.
But research suggests you can break the cycle by letting yourself off the hook. One study found that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating before their last exam were less likely to procrastinate on studying for the next one.
Let’s face it, you’re probably not going to reduce your procrastination to 0% immediately after reading this article. But you can do yourself a favour by remembering that guilt and anxiety perpetuate the procrastination cycle. As soon as you realise you’re putting something off, forgive yourself and get back to business.
3. Embrace crappy
Lowering your standards doesn’t mean settling for subpar.
The opposite is true. Research suggests that students who consider less-than-perfect results a natural part of learning are more likely to become high achievers in the long run.
Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck calls this the growth mindset.
People with fixed mindsets see setbacks and failure as a sign that they’re not cut out for language learning. They avoid situations where they might get things wrong and miss out on important learning opportunities. The problems of this mentality seem obvious, but most people fall victim to this way of thinking at some point or another.
The growth mindset, or as I like to think of it, giving yourself permission to be a bit shit at first, makes it easier to learn a language. Once you realise that crappy is just the first stop on the road to fluentville, you don’t worry so much about forgetting words, speaking slowly and making mistakes.
By lowering your standards, it’s easier to get started so you’ll give yourself more opportunities to practise. And when you practise more, you’ll get better faster.
Embrace crappy and you might just do your best language learning yet.
Those were 3 simple ways to reduce procrastination and get on with learning a language. Next, I’ll talk about how I plan to integrate these ideas into my own language learning this month.
My language learning plans: May 2017
I’m learning 5 languages at the moment: Italian, Mandarin, German, French and Spanish. To make it manageable, I have 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.
My sprint language for the moment is Italian as I’m preparing for the C2 (boss level) exam in June. Last month, I set myself the following goals:
Watch 1 hour of TV a day
Earflooding (aka filling my ears with as much Italian as possible by listening to podcasts on the tube, while doing the dishes etc.)
I didn’t always manage squeeze in 1 hour of TV every day (it’s not always easy to find an extra hour on busy days) but I did watch at least 30 minutes most days. I also listened to lots of Italian podcasts as I went about my daily business. Now if only I could get myself to concentrate on what they are saying rather than thinking about what I’m going to cook for dinner…
I’m going to keep this up in May, with a small adjustment. I’ll try and watch more highbrow programmes about politics and such (there was a lot of dubbed Family Guy going on last month). This way, I’ll get more practice with the kind of things I’ll need to listen to – and talk about – in the exam.
I aimed to write 4 practice exam essays last month, but I only managed 1! The anticipation of doing these is definitely painful – I can almost feel my insular cortex going wild at the thought of it.
I’m going to make it easier to get started by setting myself a 2 minute goal: just read the question. This should help me overcome the urge to look at baby otters and get on with some work instead. Hopefully, once I’ve done that it’ll be easier to go ahead and do the whole thing.
I had also planned to write a few example sentences with the new grammar/vocabulary points I learned, which I ended up avoiding because I was putting too much pressure on myself for it to be good. This month, I’ve set myself the goal of writing one crappy sentence. Then we’ll see what happens from there.
In April, I aimed to review a few grammar points by doing 2 exercises a day. Over all I managed about 20 (out of 40), which means I skipped a lot of days. This is another one of those tasks which feels a bit painful, so I’m going to make it easier for myself by setting the 2 minute goal of one question per day.
Last month I planned to practise 1 sound a day from my nerdy pronunciation book. Then my computer broke and I couldn’t access the sound files. Finding a way around this seemed like way too much effort, so I decided to wait until my computer was fixed before starting. I’ve done 4 sounds since I got my computer back from the shop last week and I’m hoping to keep this up in May.
Last month, I continued (slowly) reading my way through a pile of unread books by my bedside table. In May, I’m going to focus on reading news and science magazine articles as these are more similar to the reading tasks that will come up in the exam.
In April, I planned to:
Read at least 1 graded reader story
Take 2-3 conversation lessons per week with a tutor on italki
Learn 15 new words per week
Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per day (except weekends)
What went well
I met my vocabulary and speaking targets: I learned 60 new words in total and I did 8 conversation lessons on italki.
What didn’t go so well
I didn’t watch as many YouTube tutorials as planned because it started to feel a bit counterproductive: I was learning new things when I hadn’t had time to assimilate the old stuff yet. So I abandoned this plan after the first week and spent some time reviewing instead. I didn’t quite reach the end of my graded reader so I’m hoping to finish off the last couple of chapters in the first week of May.
Plans for May
I’m starting to get a bit bored of using materials for learners, so for the rest of the month I’m going to try and watch Mandarin TV. Wish me luck!
Here are my plans for May:
Finish my graded reader story
Learn 15 new words per week
Start watching Mandarin TV (with Mandarin subtitles)
Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per day (except weekends)
At the moment I’m watching 1 hour of German TV a day, which suits me as I can improve my listening skills and chillax at the same time. I’ve also been doing little bits of grammar by pulling the odd sentence from the subtitles and trying to understand the grammar they used.
Just one problem: when I’m watching TV in a foreign language my mind tends to drift and I don’t learn as much as I could. I’m going to address this by writing down keywords as I listen. Once I’ve finished watching, I’ll use these keywords as prompts to talk for 2 minutes about what I just watched. 2 crappy minutes.
French and Spanish
Last month, I aimed to learn 15 words per week in each language, which I managed without too much trouble. 15 words is a great number for me: big enough to make progress over time, but small enough for me to reach my target each week. I’m planning on keeping this up in May. I’ve also been doing some listening in my downtime, by watching films and TV in both languages.
I’m going to apply the same ideas I had for German to make my listening more productive:
Take the odd sentence from the subtitles and try to understand the grammar used
Write down keywords as I’m listening
Use these keywords as prompts to talk for 2 minutes about what I just watched
Get involved in the conversation: What are your language learning plans for May? Share them with us in the comments below!
Spring is here.
How do I know?
Because the cherry blossoms are blooming, the nights are getting lighter, and my bedroom wall has its first mosquito splatters of the season.
It’s not all gelato and vino living in Italy.
It gets too hot, my legs are the same colour as mozzarella (as a stranger once kindly shouted over to me on the beach) and I still don’t how to eat prawns with heads. La bella stagione is full of things that remind me I’m not made in Italy.
Despite this, I like to try and blend in – as much as my Persil white legs will let me.
Speaking the language
One thing that helps me blend in is speaking Italian. Learning the language builds an awesome bond with natives that you can’t get any other way.
Any attempt to speak the language – even if it’s just a few travel phrases – gives you an instant connection to people and their culture.
Of course, the more you speak, the stronger the connection. That’s why – even though I’ve been living here for years and can communicate comfortably – I’m always looking for ways to improve. I know that the better my Italian is, the more I can connect with Italians, and the more I’ll enjoy my life here.
So this spring, it’s out with the new and in with the old as I go back to focusing on the first language I ever learned: Italian.
Language Learning: April 2017
I’m currently learning 5 languages. To manage them all, I have 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages that I study in a more relaxed fashion. Until June, my sprint language will be Italian.
I thought it’d be nice to have a piece of paper to certify my level in Italian, so I’ve decided to take the boss level exam in June. To help me prepare, I’ll do the following:
I’ll aim to watch an hour of Italian TV a day. I did something similar last year, but I specified which TV programmes I was going to watch beforehand. This turned out to be a schoolgirl error as I made something which should be fun into a chore. So this time, I’ll decide what to watch on a day by day basis, depending on my mood. Sometimes it’ll be highbrow stuff, like the news or political programmes, and sometimes it’ll be comedy. Or films on Netflix. By choosing my materials based on my mood, I’ll be more engaged and learn better.
I’m going to try and flood my ears with as much Italian as much as possible. While I’m walking to work, cooking or cleaning the bath, I’ll be listening to Italian podcasts. This is especially useful because I know in the listening part of the exam they often use radio interviews.
I’ve been working my way (slowly) through this pile of books on my bedside table. I’m going to try and crank up the amount of reading I get done in Italian between now and June.
I keep setting myself goals to work on my pronunciation but for some reason I’ve been struggling to get around to it. One reason could be because there are so many different things I want to try – I find it difficult to focus. I’m also a bit unsure about the best way to move forward. This month, I’m going keep it simple and do one thing at a time: I’ll focus on one sound a day from my nerdy pronunciation book (except weekends of course!)
I need to refine a few grammar points, so I’m going to do 2 exercises per day (except weekends). I don’t believe in studying grammar for grammar’s sake, so after each session I’m going to use the grammar to write some example sentences about my life – this will help me practice using what I’ve been learning in real contexts.
I’ll need to write a mini essay for the writing part, so I’m going to write 1 mini practice essay per week.
I was getting a little bored of studying, so for the first 2 weeks in March I decided to create an immersion environment at home. I gave myself free reign: no structure, no routine, just whatever I felt like whenever I felt like it, as long as it was in Chinese. Obviously this meant I spent most of the time messing around on YouTube. But this worked out well: I had fun and I discovered lots of great channels and videos for learning Chinese, like Fiona Tian’s channel.
I aimed to finish my Pimsleur and Assimil courses by mid-March. I finished a little behind schedule – it actually took me to the end of March – but I got there in the end so I’m happy.
I found Chinese tough at first, but the more I learn, the more I love it! I want to keep learning at a fairly decent pace so in April, I’m going to:
Read at least 1 graded reader story
Take 2-3 conversation lessons per week with a tutor on italki
Learn 15 new words per week
Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per day (except weekends)
I’ve been “studying” German for an hour a day. I say this with quote marks because lately my study hour has consisted of watching German TV. But I’m feeling good about it: I’m still getting my hour of German in, my listening is improving and I’m picking up new words.
In March, I aimed to do 10 minutes of grammar a day, which I managed most days. I don’t like studying grammar out of context so I’ve been taking example sentences from TV programmes and trying to understand the grammar they used. This technique is working well for me at the moment so I’m going to keep this up in April.
French and Spanish
In March, I aimed to learn 15 words a week in both French and Spanish. This is a great number as it’s small enough to catch up with the following week if I’m too busy or I forget (which happened last week).
I’ve got loads of language stuff going on this month, so I’ve decided to take it easy with French and Spanish. I’m going to give myself carte blanche and do whatever I feel like – reading books, watching TV series, listening to podcasts – whenever I get time.
What about you? Which language are you learning at the moment? What are your plans for April?
The best way to learn a language is to go to the country.
How many times have you heard that?
There are lots of smart reasons to think this. When you try learning a language in your hometown, lots of things work against you:
Going to classes after work is expensive and a pain in the behind.
You can try working without a teacher, but you don’t know if you’re focusing on the right things.
It’s hard to motivate yourself because you don’t need it in your everyday life.
If you lived in the country, you’d need the language to survive, so you’d pick it up naturally. You’d hear it all day long and those words would finally stick. And you’d meet tons of people to practise with.
It seems logical.
But when I decided to learn Chinese, I couldn’t use any of these excuses.
Moving to China wasn’t an option: I had a great job, friends and family that I didn’t want to leave behind. And, I’d already spent a few months in China, without speaking Chinese.
A few bits of chicken in hot water
Summer 2013. My boyfriend Matteo and I are sipping Tsingtao beer by Houhai lake, waiting for our food to arrive. Pointing at pictures on the menu, we’d ordered some noodles with fresh vegetables, chillies and one little adjustment – chicken instead of beef. It was only when the waiter brought over two bowls of water with floating chicken pieces that we realised something had gotten seriously lost in translation.
In China, I survived by pointing at stuff. I’d get on a bus, shove my Lonely Planet under the driver’s nose and pray he’d take me where I needed to go.
During my travels, I met lots of expats who’d been living like this for years.
You can learn a language in your pjs
A couple of years later, I still really wanted to learn Mandarin.
I also knew that language classes didn’t work for me. I’d tried before: if I wasn’t falling asleep or doodling, I was wondering what to buy for dinner on the way home.
So I started learning Mandarin from my living room. Mostly in my pyjamas.
I squeezed study time in here and there between work, friends and family. Day by day, almost imperceptibly, I learned a little more and a little more, until I could have conversation in Chinese. Here I’m chatting to my tutor Jane (turn subs on to see what we’re talking about).
My Chinese still needs a lot of work, but I’m thrilled that I can now chat to native speakers. And I know if I keep going, it’ll get easier and easier.
Through trial and error, I’ve learned a lot about what to do (and what not to do) when learning a language at home. Here are 11 steps that really helped me in my quest to learn Mandarin on my sofa. I hope you find them useful!
1. Practise with native speakers
If you want to be able to chat to native speakers, you have to practise chatting to native speakers.
This sounds obvious, but most of us don’t do it and it slows us down. We put it off because we feel nervous about speaking and we want to prepare as much as possible before taking the plunge.
But in my experience, the stuff you learn from textbooks and audio doesn’t truly stick until you start trying to use it in conversation. There’s the catch 22: you want to learn more stuff before you start speaking, but you can’t learn it properly until you start speaking.
My suggestion: start before you feel ready. As soon as you’ve learned some essential phrases, get out there and start practising with native speakers. Especially if you feel like you’re not ready yet.
My favourite way to find native speakers is via italki. For $5 – $10, you can book one-on-one conversation lessons with native speakers, known as community tutors. They’re friendly, supportive and used to working with beginners.
Yes, even you.
Lots of people worry about being slower, or worse than other beginners, but I promise you you’re not! Everyone is slow at the beginning, it’s called being a beginner 🙂
If you’re really strapped for cash, you can use the language partner page to find a language partner who is learning your language and set up a language exchange on Skype.
Practising with native speakers was the important thing I did by a mile: I never would have learned to chat in Mandarin if it wasn’t for my online tutors. If you only do one thing on this list, find yourself some native speakers to practise with. I know it feels scary, but you’ll be so glad you did.
2. Ear flooding
This one may sound like a weird sinus problem, but it’s actually a powerful technique to improve language skills at home (or anywhere for that matter). Flood your ears with as much of your target language as possible, wherever you are. Download audio tracks to your smartphone and listen in the car, on the train, while washing the dishes or cleaning the bath.
Extensive listening boosts your speaking skills as the more you hear common words, phrases and sentence structures, the more they sink in, and the more naturally they come to you when speaking.
3. Find the right level
Listening to an indecipherable stream of words isn’t helpful: it’s frustrating and you don’t learn much as you can’t follow what they’re saying. Similarly, with reading, if you have to stop every two minutes to look up a word or grammar point, you’re going to get fed up very quickly.
Research shows that a great way to learn a language is by reading and listening to things which are slightly above your current level, so you can get the overall meaning, but you meet some new words and phrases. Start with materials aimed at language learners like textbook conversations, simplified audiobooks and slow-read materials, then gradually increase the complexity as your level improves.
For Chinese, I started listening to conversations in my assimil textbook, then moved onto the Chinese Breeze series and intermediate level videos on FluentU. I still struggle to understand things made for native speakers, but I know if I keep gradually increasing the difficulty of my listening materials, I’ll get there.
4. Don’t obsess over grammar
Tons of people learn to speak a second language without ever studying grammar rules – maybe not perfectly, but enough to have good conversations with native speakers.
No one has ever learned to speak a language by studying just grammar.
I’ve got nothing against grammar per se (unless you’re memorising lists of irregular verbs in alphabetical order, then maybe I do) but the standard approach of learning grammar rules first and using the language later is flawed. That’s why most people leave school with no language skills.
As soon as you’ve got a few basics down, start learning by doing: speaking, reading, listening and writing. Then learn bits of grammar as you go along.
5. Stop comparing yourself with native speakers
The phrase “like a native” pops up everywhere in the language learning industry. The result: we spend most of the time comparing ourselves to native speakers and feeling like poop every time we see the big gap.
This is an insane way of looking at things, and here’s why: native speakers are surrounded by their language for an average of 16 hours a day. That means a 25 year old native speaker has been exposed to his or her language for around 146000 hours.
It’s estimated that language learners can get to an advanced level in around 1000 hours. Advanced learners can do amazing things in their second language like debating politics, working in specialist jobs and chatting to close friends without noticing a language barrier. But most still sound quite different to native speakers, and that’s OK.
Instead of comparing yourself to natives, compare yourself to the level you were at when you started. When you stop focusing on the difference between yourself and native speakers, you enjoy the ride. You spend less time worrying about your shortcomings and more time feeling good about the progress you’ve made.
6. Learn the right things
Without a teacher, it’s difficult to know if you’re focusing on the right stuff.
But here’s the thing: teachers don’t know what’s best for you.
The only person who knows what you really need to study is you. Only you know what you talk about on a daily basis: your job, your family, your hobbies, the questions you like to ask people, whether you like using lots of slang and swearwords, or whether you prefer to be a bit more formal.
Think about what you normally talk about and the kinds of things you need/would like to say in your target language, and focus on learning that stuff. This way, you’ll learn words and phrases that will help you speak quicker, rather than wasting time learning “what’s in your suitcase” and other not-so-useful classroom topics.
The next questions is: where can you learn to talk about things that are personal to you? There are two ways:
Ask native speakers. As you try to communicate, you’ll naturally start speaking about your life, so you’ll learn how to talk about things which are important to you.
Listen to and read about subjects you like – photography, football, dance, politics – in your target language. You’ll naturally pick up some useful vocabulary that you can use to talk about your interests.
7. Revive dead time
One of the biggest challenges when learning a language at home is finding the time to fit it all in.
To get more study time in, I use language learning apps on my phone to fill dead time, like waiting in line at the supermarket or if my train gets delayed.
You’d be surprised how much it all adds up!
My favourite is my flashcard app, which I use to review vocabulary. Another great app for these times is duolingo.
8. Be consistent
You can do all the right things, but if you don’t do them consistently, you’ll never learn that language. That said, knowing that you have to be consistent and actually being consistent are two very different things!
Though I’ve struggled with this a lot in the past (and still do today!) I’ve found a method that works pretty well for me. The “don’t break the chain” method involves deciding how long you want to study each day (make sure it’s realistic!) and putting a cross on the calendar for each day you achieve it.
Once you get a streak of crosses, you’re more motivated to keep going because you don’t want to break that chain!
9. Chill out for a bit (but stay in the game)
We all have those days where we don’t feel like doing anything. I often can’t be bothered to study for days, sometimes weeks in a row. This is dangerous because if you stop completely, it’s really hard to get back into the habit.
For these times, I have a few relaxing activities that may not be the most productive use of my time, but that keep me in my routine. For example, I know watching TV is not an ideal way to learn if the level is too high and I can’t make out what they’re saying (especially if I use English subtitles) but sometimes I do this during my study time so that I can have a rest and stay in the game at the same time.
10. Fall in love with the culture
When I feel my motivation dipping, it’s often because I’m getting so bogged down with studying that I start to forget the reason I want to learn in the first place: to connect with Chinese people and their culture.
When this happens, I spend a little time browsing articles or watching videos about China. This is enough to bring my motivation back and get me all excited about speaking Chinese again.
11. Join a community
Another tricky part of learning a language by yourself is staying motivated when you’ve got no one to answer to and share your struggles with. You make excuses to yourself and slack off one day… then the next day… then the next until you’ve completely forgotten about your language learning plans (together with that gym membership).
Community is a powerful thing: tons of studies show that teaming up with others helps you achieve your goals. Two language communities that made a huge difference for me were:
The #Add1Challenge: The #Add1Challenge is a 3 month language challenge for people who are serious about learning a language from home. Everyone starts together on day 0, with the same goal of having a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker on day 90. I joined in December and made tons more progress than when I was studying alone. If you want quick results, this one’s for you.
Clear the list:Studies show that writing your goals down, sharing them with others and giving updates is one of the best ways to get things done. Clear the List, run by Lindsay from Lindsay does languages and co. helps you do exactly that. Language bloggers come together once a month to share their language goals and report back on how they got on in the previous month. Since I joined this challenge, my language learning has become a lot more structured, and I’ve (digitally) met loads of fab, like minded people to share my struggles and wins with.
Now I’d love to hear from you:Are you learning a language from home? Which step do you think is most useful? Can you add any more tips that will help other readers who are studying from home?
Last year, I was toying around with the idea of learning German but not doing much about it.
Then one afternoon, after being sucked into a YouTube rabbit hole, I came across a video of this really enthusiastic dude who had set himself a challenge: to have a 15 minute conversation with a native German speaker after 90 days.
He was bounding around, chatting away in German and his enthusiasm was infectious. My initial thoughts were:
What is this guy on – and where can I get some?
I want to learn German like that!
After his German mission, Brian realised that he achieved more when he teamed up with other people who had the same goal, compared to learning alone (science supports this idea too). So he started bringing together other language learners to help them have a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker after 90 days, and the Add1Challenge was born.
I joined the Add1Challenge for German last year and I’m now doing it for Mandarin Chinese. After having met Brian while doing the challenges, I’m happy to confirm that he’s just as enthusiastic about languages in real life!
Brian’s helped tons of people learn a language over the last few years and his advice is really worth listening to.
After you’ve watched the video, I’d like to hear from you: which of the 3 keys do you think is the most useful? How can you implement these ideas in your own language learning routine?
Have you ever been so busy you didn’t have time to wash your socks?
That’s what last month was like for me.
The start of term and some exciting new projects at joy of languages (more on this later) made January an insanely busy month. This meant most of my language learning plans went down the pan – together with my dignity and personal hygiene.
As February looks like it’s going to be another big month, I need to regroup and come up with a plan.
No one is busy
They say no one is too busy, it’s just a matter of priorities. I like this idea, but I’ve never really put it into practice.
If I’m honest, I know I sometimes use busyness as an excuse not to do things.
When I step back and look at my day, it’s easy to see how I could create more space by prioritising better. I often waste a lot of time worrying about details; If I focus my energy on the important things and stop faffing about the small stuff, I should be able to free up some time.
I also tend to run around doing things I think are urgent, but in many cases I could do them later, or another day (or not at all).
This month, I’m going to slow down and make more time for language learning (and washing my socks). When I catch myself using the “I’m too busy” excuse, I’ll know it’s time to move things around and look for opportunities to get some language learning in.
What’s going on this month?
Here are some exciting projects that have been keeping us busy at joy of languages this month:
The #languagediarychallenge is going strong, and we’ve now got over 500 photos and videos of people talking about their day in the language they’re learning. Well done everyone! We’ll be announcing the winner of January’s challenge at the end of Brian’s workshop. Look out for the next challenge in March.
My Language Learning Plans February 2017
I’m learning 5 languages at the moment. To manage them all, I give myself 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.
My sprint language is Chinese as I’m currently doing the add1challenge for Mandarin. Over the 3 month challenge, I’m aiming to learn as much Chinese as possible so I can have a 15 minute conversation in Mandarin Chinese on day 90.
I recently recorded a 30 day update, which went like this:
In January, my plan was to:
Keep working through the Pimsleur and Assimil courses. I did bits and pieces last month, but I need to get a move on if I want to finish them by the time the challenge finishes mid march.
Read 1 graded reader story per week. I fell behind with this and only managed half a story in the whole of January. I’d like to get back into 1 story per week for February.
Finish the elementary series of FluentU. This is my favourite resource, so I managed this without too much trouble! But so far I’ve just been watching the videos, which is starting to feel a bit too passive. This month I’m going to try the translation method where I translate a video from Chinese into English and back again. This will give me more practice in building sentences. I’ll aim for one video a week.
Have 3 conversation lessons per week with a native speaker on italki. This is another one of my favourite ways to learn, so it was easy to fit the lessons in. I’m going to keep this up in February.
I’ve been studying German for 1 hour a day (most days) ever since I started back in December 2015. January was a little sporadic, but I’m getting back into the flow.
To make sure I stick to my hour a day, I use the “don’t break the chain” technique, which involves putting a mark on the calendar for each day I study. Once I get a long chain, it motivates me to keep going as it’d be a shame to break the chain. Here you can take a look at my German chain and see how it’s going.
The only way to really know if I’ve made progress this year is to compare myself speaking German at the beginning and at the end of 2017. Here’s where my German’s at now:
I’ve got a big pile of Italian books that I want to work my way through this year. I started in January, but I didn’t read a lot. In February I’m going to try to read for 30 minutes before bed, most days.
In January I wanted to work on my Italian pronunciation for 10 minutes per day. I only managed a few days last month. The main problem was that I hadn’t really decided what I was going to do in the 10 minutes, so I ended up feeling a bit lost and putting it off. So for February, I’ve made a plan:
Warm up (tongue twisters or reading passages aloud)
On alternate days:
Work through my Italian pronunciation book
Annotate Italian sentences, record myself saying them and compare to the original
French and Spanish
My goal is to move up a level in both of these languages by the end of 2017. To know if I’ve made progress, I need some before and after videos! Here’s where I’m at now:
In January I aimed to translate a 5 minute dialogue per week into English and back into French/Spanish. I managed this some weeks, but I struggled to keep up. I’m going to take it down down to 3 minutes so it’s more doable (and I can leave more time for fun things like watching French and Spanish TV).
I also aimed to learn 5 new words per day. I didn’t manage this every day, but I think this is a good pace. I’m going to try to be more consistent with this in February.
Now I’d like to hear from you: What are your language plans for February? Let us know in the comments below!
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