They can’t be serious, can they?

Talking at 200 mph, mushing words together or leaving them out entirely.

It’s as if those smug native speakers got together one day and decided to garble their words, just to stop us poor language learners from figuring out what they’re saying.

If you could read the same words you might understand, but listening? It’s a whole other level.

If only native speakers came with subtitles in real life!

One thing that makes real-world listening so hard is that textbooks and audio courses spoon-feed us a simplified version of the language. Sure, they make life easier at the beginning, but they don’t do a very good job at preparing us for how people actually talk. Which can lead to two things:

  1. When we hear people speaking in real life, we don’t have a clue what’s going on.
  2. When we talk, we sound stilted and unnatural.

Assuming you want to learn a language so you can talk to human beings – not characters from a textbook – these outcomes aren’t ideal.

What you need, is a way to train yourself to understand and speak the language as it’s used in the real world. The best way to do this is by chatting to native speakers. But it’s not always easy to find native speakers to practice with.

Luckily, there’s another way. It’s simple, fun and it’s already on your computer or TV.

Read on to find out why I’m a big fan of learning a language with TV and films. You’ll also learn 5 smart strategies for using foreign-language TV and films to:

  • Give your listening skills a boost
  • Sound more like a native speaker
  • Stop falling off the language-learning wagon

Why learn a language by watching TV and films?

What I hear = how I talk

When I meet French people, sometimes they’re surprised to learn that I’ve never lived in France. My accent is pretty decent, my speech is littered with native sounding interjections, and on a good day, I can sit amongst a group of French people and follow (most of) their conversation.

How?

I’ll let you in on my secret, but you’ve got to promise not to laugh, OK?

La téléréalité. That is, reality TV in French.

Before you make a dash for the back button, don’t worry. If you like your TV a little more highbrow, I’m not suggesting you do the same. In fact, learning a language with reality TV has its downsides too – namely, that my vocabulary is quite limited (reality TV stars aren’t exactly known for their eloquence).

The important thing to learn from this is that speaking styles reflect the things we listen to.

Reality TV = natural speaking style but with a limited vocabulary.
My French = natural speaking style but with a limited vocabulary.

When I started speaking Spanish, my boyfriend used to laugh because I spoke with really dramatic intonation, thanks to too many telenovelas. More recently, I’ve picked up lots of Mexican slang and football vocabulary because I’ve been watching Mexican football drama Club de Cuervos.

TV and films help you speak naturally and understand more

If you only listen to those slow and stilted dialogues in textbooks, you’ll probably end up speaking in a slow and stilted way. Alternatively, if you listen to lots of realistic conversations in TV series and films, over time, you’ll start speaking in a more natural way.

The same goes for understanding: if you only listen to learner materials, you’ll get used to hearing a version of the language that’s been watered down for gringos. You might get a shock when you hear people using it in real life! On the flip side, if you get used to hearing realistic dialogues in TV series and films (even if it’s tricky at first!), you’ll be much better equipped to follow conversations in the real world.

I’m not suggesting you try to learn a language entirely by watching TV and films. Learner materials like textbooks and audio courses have their place in a language learner’s toolkit. And speaking practice is essential.

Foreign-language TV series and films are like handy supplements that can help you bridge the gap between learner materials and how people actually talk.

What if I don’t understand anything?

When people think of learning a language by watching TV, they sometimes imagine learning through osmosis – the idea that if you listen to a stream of undecipherable syllables for long enough, it will eventually start to make sense.

But it doesn’t work like that.

To learn, you have to understand first. Once you get to a high(ish) level where you can pick out a fair amount of what the characters are saying, you can learn a lot from just sitting back and listening.

What if you’re not there yet?

Before that, if you want to learn a language by watching TV and films, it’s important to do activities that’ll help you understand the dialogues. The 5 activities in this article will help you do just that.

How to learn a language by watching TV and films: what you’ll need

First, you’ll need a film, TV series or YouTube video with two sets of subtitles: one in the language you’re learning, and one your native language. This used to be tricky, but with YouTube and Netflix it’s getting easier and easier to find videos which are subtitled in multiple languages. Aim for videos where people speak in a modern and natural way (i.e. no period dramas).

One of my absolute fave series for this is Easy Languages on YouTube. The presenters interview people on the street, so you get used to hearing natives speak in a natural and spontaneous way. What’s more, the videos are subtitled both in the target language and in English.

Easy German and Easy Spanish are particularly good as they both have their own spin-off channels where they add fun and interesting videos a couple of times a week. If you’re a beginner and you find these kinds of videos overwhelming (too many new words and grammar points), they also have a “super easy” series that you can use to get started.

On the Easy Languages series, the presenters interview people on the street, so you can get used to hearing real, spontaneous speech. There are subtitles in the target language and in English, which makes them perfect for our next activity…

Now you’ve got your videos and subtitles sorted, let’s learn how to use them.

5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films

Write what you hear

One super task to boost your listening skills is to use the videos as a dictation:

  • Listen to very small pieces of the video (a few seconds each) and write down what you hear.
  • Listen several times until you can’t pick out anymore.
  • Compare what you wrote against the subtitles.
  • Look up new words in a dictionary and write them down so you can review them later.

Often, you’ll see words and phrases that you understand on the page but couldn’t pick out in the listening. You can now focus on the difference between how words are written and how people actually say them in real life.

This is your chance to become a boss at listening.

Make it your mission to become aware of these differences. Do listeners squash certain words together? Do they cut out some sounds, or words completely? You may notice some things that native speakers have never realized about their own language, and teachers won’t teach you.

Here are a couple examples:

  • In spoken English, “do you” often sounds like “dew”, and want sounds like “one”. So the phrase “do you want it” is pronounced like “dew one it”
  • In spoken French, “ce que” is pronounced like “ske” and “il y a” is pronounced like “ya”

No wonder listening is trickier than reading!

An awareness of these differences is your new secret weapon for understanding fast speech and developing a natural speaking style: the more you pay attention to these differences, the better you’ll get at speaking and listening to the language as it’s used in real-life.

Translate it

Another invaluable task is to translate small passages into your native language and back into the language you’re learning. After you’ve done this, you can check what you wrote in your target language against the original subtitles.

Ideally, you should translate the passage into your native language one day and back into your target language the day after, so that you have to use your existing knowledge about grammar and vocabulary to recreate the dialogue (rather than just relying on memory).

This technique works because it gives you the chance to practice creating sentences in your target language, then compare them against native speaker sentences. In this way, you’ll be able to see the gap between how you use the language and how the experts (the native speakers) do it. This will help you learn to express ideas and concepts like they do.

Comparing your performance to the experts’ and taking steps to close the gap is a key element of deliberate practice, a powerful way to master new skills which is supported by decades of research.

Get into character

One fun way to learn a language from TV and films is to learn a character’s part from a short scene. Choose a character you like, and pretend to be them. Learn their lines and mimic their pronunciation as closely as possible. You can even try to copy their body language. This is a great method for a couple of reasons:

  • It’s an entertaining way to memorize vocabulary and grammar structures.
  • By pretending to be a native speaker, you start to feel like one – it’s a fun way to immerse yourself in the culture.

For extra points, record yourself and compare it to the original. Once you get over the cringe factor of seeing yourself on video or hearing your own voice, you’ll be able to spot some differences between yourself and the original, which will give you valuable insight on the areas you need to improve. For example: does your “r” sound very different to theirs? Did you forget a word or grammar point?

Now you know what to focus on next.

Talk about it

A great way to improve your speaking skills is the keyword method:

  • As you watch a scene, write down keywords or new vocabulary.
  • Once you’ve finished watching, look at your list of words and use them as prompts to speak aloud for a few minutes about what you just saw.

As well as helping you practice your speaking skills, this method gives you the chance to use the new words you just learned, which will help you remember them more easily in future.

Just chill

If you’re feeling tired or overstretched and the previous 4 steps feel too much like hard work, you can use films and TV as a non-strenuous way to keep up your language learning routine. Make yourself a nice hot drink, carve an ass-groove in the sofa, put on a film or TV series and try to follow what’s going on. Even if most of it washes over you, it’s better than nothing.

While you can’t learn a language entirely by doing this, it’s still handy because it helps you build the following 4 skills:

1. Get used to trying to understand what’s going on, even if there’s lots of ambiguity and you only understand the odd word (a useful skill to develop for real-life conversations!).
2. Get your ears used to the intonation and sounds of the language.
3. Become familiar with words and expressions which are repeated a lot.
4: Stay in your language routine during times when you can’t be bothered to study.

Don’t underestimate the value of this last point: if you skip language learning completely during periods when you’re tired or busy, you’ll get out of the routine and probably end up feeling guilty. As time passes, it’ll get harder and harder to get started again. But it you keep it up on those days, even by just watching a few minutes of something on the sofa, you’ll stay in the routine and find it easy to put in more effort once you get your time and energy back.

Related posts

How to learn a language at home (even if you’re really lazy)

The lazy person’s guide to learning Chinese

The lazy person’s guide to learning French

The lazy person’s guide to learning German

The lazy person’s guide to learning Spanish

What do you think?

Have you ever tried learning a language by watching TV series and films? Are there any other ways of using TV and films that you can add to the list?

Which language should I learn?

Whenever I asked myself this question in the past, I only considered widely-spoken languages like Spanish or Mandarin.

This is because I’d always assumed that widely-spoken languages lead to better travel options and more opportunities to practice with natives.

So when I came across Fran, who’s learning Sicilian, I followed her progress with admiration and curiosity.

Sicilian is a minority language spoken on the island of Sicily and in some areas in the south of Italy. Although a close relative of Italian, linguists consider Sicilian to be language in its own right, because Italian speakers need a translator to understand Sicilian and vice-versa.

Why did Fran choose a minority language like Sicilian, instead of Italian? And given that so few people are learning Sicilian, how did she cope without the usual language learning tools like textbooks, audio courses, apps, and websites?

Fran’s story shows how learning an endangered language like Sicilian can enrich your travel experience by giving you a unique way to connect with the community. She also found that learning a minority language can actually increase your opportunities to speak with natives and that having fewer resources is sometimes a good thing!

Keep reading to learn:

  • Why you should consider learning an endangered or minority language.
  • How to learn a language without a textbook.

Over to Fran.

Learning Sicilian: Fran’s story

It’s Thursday morning at the local market in Trapani and there’s a very stern-looking Sicilian lady standing in front of me.

It’s one of those bustling markets where you have to squeeze through the crowds to get to the next stall and you can barely hear a word over the stallholders shouting to attract customers. I’d just bought some tablecloths which had caused some confusion between the vendors, and I was trying to explain the situation in Sicilian.

“C’è l’haiu, grazii” (I have it thanks).

As soon as I opened my mouth, her face changed from a frown to a soft smile:

“Siciliano,” she said.

Why I decided to learn an endangered language

I decided to learn Sicilian recently for family reasons, but I wish I’d thought of it years ago.

I was born in Australia to a Sicilian father and an Australian mother. My mother learned to speak Italian (which was really a mixture of Sicilian, Italian and Calabrese she learned from her sister-in-laws) so they spoke mostly Italian/Sicilian together, but when it came to us kids, they always spoke English.

Dad would say “you liva in tisa country you spreaka da English.” So we didn’t learn Sicilian or Italian.

Just before I turned 50, my husband and I decided to visit the birthplace of my father, Salaparuta, a small town which was devastated by an earthquake back in ’68. So I thought I’d better learn some Italian first. I bought a couple of online programs, hired every teaching program from the library and found an online tutor to practice with. But when we visited my family in Sicily, I was too scared to speak. Luckily, my two cousins spoke a little English.

Over the years, we returned a few times and although my Italian improved, I still couldn’t communicate very well with my Sicilian relatives.

Last year, I went with my sisters who couldn’t speak a word of Italian, so I did all the talking for us. My sisters were impressed with how well I managed to communicate with Italians speakers, which helped them pinpoint my problem with my Sicilian relatives: they understood what I was saying in Italian, but I didn’t understand what they were saying in Sicilian! So they asked me if I’d ever considered learning Sicilian.

It was a light bulb moment. My sisters were right! No amount of Italian would help me to understand my Sicilian speaking family.

So I started learning Sicilian. It’s been challenging (I’ll talk more about this in a moment) but truly worth the effort.

I returned to Sicily several times and although my Italian improved, I still couldn’t communicate very well with my Sicilian relatives. So I decided to learn Sicilian instead!

Recently, my husband and I returned to Sicily and this time I was determined to communicate in Sicilian.

It paid off!

Although I’m learning the Catanese dialect and my family live in the Trapani region on the other side of the island, we communicated well. For the first time, I understood. My relatives were so pleased to hear me speak their language and encouraged me to keep learning Sicilian.

Learning Sicilian: the advantages of learning an endangered language

Encouraged by people’s positive reactions to my attempts to speak Sicilian, wherever I went I’d say something, anything in Sicilian. Sometimes people would try to correct me, thinking that I’d just mispronounced Italian. But when I explained that I was learning Sicilian, they stared in disbelief, then smiled with approval. Most people couldn’t believe that a foreigner would actually want to learn it!

As we visited different towns around the island, my husband let me do the talking: the Sicilian people seemed friendlier, more accommodating and really appreciated me taking the time to learn their beloved language.

If you learn a popular language like Spanish, French or German, it can be difficult to find opportunities to speak with natives. They often speak English better than you speak their language, so they reply in English and don’t give you the chance to practice.

But with minority and endangered languages, your attempts to speak are often met with surprise and delight. Sicilians are proud of their language, and it saddens them that it’s fading away. The people I met were so pleased to find a foreigner learning Sicilian that they went out of their way to help me practice speaking it.

As we visited different towns around the island, my husband let me do the talking: the Sicilian people seemed friendlier, more accommodating and really appreciated me taking the time to learn their beloved language.

The challenges of learning Sicilian

That said, learning an endangered language like Sicilian can pose a few problems.

The main one is a HUGE lack of resources. The Sicilian language is a spoken language, so there aren’t many books or documents to learn from.

There are a couple of online dictionaries and textbooks, but I’ve learned that most teachers do not accept these books. This is because each region of Sicily has its own dialect, and within these regions, family groups can have their own “version” of that dialect. When a family moves, say to an English speaking country, they take their spoken dialect with them and pass it on to the next couple of generations, which is a great way to keep the language alive. Years later a well-meaning family member decides to share his beloved language and publishes a textbook. Unfortunately, the dialect that it teaches is now out of touch with modern Sicilian.

So, no recommended textbooks, no podcasts and at the time, no teaching videos on YouTube. But after ten months of learning, I’m quite happy not to have all the language learning choices that are out there. I don’t get distracted exploring all that’s on offer, and I’ve been able to stay focused, which has helped me progress faster.

How I learn Sicilian: a step-by-step guide to learning an endangered language

1. Find a teacher or tutor

With most minority languages, you can’t just go to your local language school and sign up for a course, so you’ll need to explore other ways to find a teacher.

If you’re lucky enough to be in the area where the language is spoken, you could get in touch with language schools to see if they have members of staff who speak the language and would be willing to teach you. I emailed a language school at Trapani in Sicily and asked if any teacher there would be interested in teaching me Sicilian and the manager himself was more than happy to do this for me. If you can’t go to the country, you could call/email the school and ask if they’d be willing to do the lessons via Skype.

Alternatively, you might be able to find a tutor via the online teaching platform italki, as they are gradually building up a community of teachers who speak minority languages.

If all else fails, try looking for universities who conduct research on your language of choice, as the professors will probably have native speaker contacts who could help you find a teacher or community of speakers (thanks to Donovan Nagel from The Mezzofanti Guild for this tip).

2. Be prepared

With no textbook, you or your teacher will need to prepare for each lesson. I prepared word lists, sentences and dialogues for my lessons each week that we would discuss and correct. But then I found an Italian teacher on italki who is Sicilian and loves to teach the Sicilian language. She prepares her own structured lessons each week and on occasion, I still like to prepare something for us to work on together.

3. Record your lessons

If you do lessons via Skype, record them and make sure your teacher is typing as much information as possible in the message section. Most computers have a record function but I use the memo app on my phone. After the lesson, you can print out the Skype messages/notes (which I usually copy and paste into word).

If you’re doing face-to-face lessons, you could ask your teacher if you can record the lesson on your phone and work together on some detailed written notes that you can take away with you after the lesson.

4. Review what you learned

These notes now become your study sheet. Get colorful. Highlight words and phrases you want to remember. Circle things that you can’t remember or need more clarification on. Can you make a sentence or two from this week’s study? Note down other questions you would like to ask? This prepares you for your next lesson. I also rewrite previous dialogues to help consolidate words and grammar.

5. Make word lists

Make lists of new words. I have a book I like to write them in and then import them into apps such as Quizlet and Memrise.

6. Focus on listening skills

Listen to your study session a few times. Do 10 or 20-minute sessions over a few days. Listen to the grammar and follow along with your notes to hear pronunciation and explanations. If you’re anything like me, you might notice some questions you misunderstood, mistakes and parts where you could have responded better. This is an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. If anything is unclear, make a note to ask your teacher for clarification in the next lesson.

Also, try to find TV series, movies or songs in your target language. For Sicilian, YouTube has folk songs with the lyrics to sing along to (in private of course!) and I like the series Inspector Montalbano, although it’s spoken mainly in Italian, I get quite excited when I hear the extras speaking Sicilian.

7: Make your own materials

Now you’re in contact with the community of speakers, why not take advantage of this to create your own materials? I asked my teacher to help me prepare interview questions and she agreed to be interviewed. Then I contacted another Sicilian friend who also agreed to be interviewed. I put them on YouTube for easy access, originally as a private status but I later published them as I thought others learning Sicilian might benefit from these too. It was a lot of fun and I plan to do more in future.

8. Speak as much as possible

Get creative and find as many opportunities to practice speaking Sicilian as you can. Remember, you don’t always need native speakers to practice speaking! Try reading your written dialogues aloud or talking to yourself when you’re alone in the house.

What do you think?

Are you learning (or considering learning) Sicilian or another minority language? Which tip do you think is the most useful? Can you add any more advice? Leave a comment and let us know!

Do you have hopes and dreams of speaking a language fluently, but you’re too lazy to study?

Me too.

But what if I told you that your laziness, far from being a limitation, could actually make you great at learning languages?

Read on (if you can be bothered) to find out why the lazy way is often the best way, and learn 7 ways you can leverage your laziness to learn a language effectively at home.

Lazy people find better ways to do things

If you were a builder at the end of the 19th century, life was hard. Long hours. Crappy pay. Little regard for health and safety. If you were really unlucky, it could even cost you your life: 5 men died during the construction of the Empire State Building and 27 died working on the Brooklyn bridge.

Learning a language at home
Occupational hazard: In the late 19th century, being a builder was a strenuous job with a high mortality rate.

What qualities did builders need to be the best at such a demanding and dangerous job?

Tenacity? Diligence? Stamina?

Nope.

In 1868, a young construction worker named Frank Gilbreth began observing colleagues in order to understand why some bricklayers were more effective than others, when he made a surprising discovery.

The best builders weren’t those who tried the hardest. The men Gilbreth learnt the most from, were the lazy ones.

Laying bricks requires repeating the same movements over and over again: the fewer motions, the better. In an attempt to conserve energy, the “lazy” builders had found ways to lay bricks with a minimum number of motions. In short, they’d found more effective ways to get the job done.

But what do lazy bricklayers have to do with language learning?

Well, inspired by his lazy colleagues, Gilbreth went on to pioneer “motion study”, a technique which streamlines work systems and is still used today in many fields to increase productivity. You know that person in operating theaters who passes scalpels to the surgeon and wipes their brow? Gilbreth came up with that idea.

Hiring someone to pass you things from 20 centimeters away and wipe the sweat off your own forehead? It doesn’t get much lazier than that. Yet it helps surgeons work more efficiently and probably saves lives in the process.

The bottom line? The lazy way is usually the smartest way.

Over the years, Gilbreth’s ideas have been attributed to Bill Gates (which, although factually incorrect, makes a nicer motivational poster to hang in your office).

How to learn a language at home (even if you’re really lazy)

If your school was anything like mine, you may have some experience learning languages with the “try harder” approach. Page after page of grammar exercises, long vocabulary lists, listening exercises about stationary or some other excruciatingly boring topic. And if you still can’t speak the language after all that effort? Well, you should try harder.

But what if there’s a better way to learn a language? A lazier way, that you can use to learn a language at home, with less effort?

A way to learn by doing things you actually enjoy? A way to learn by having a laugh with native speakers? A way to learn without taking your pajamas off?

There is.

Don’t get me wrong, languages take time and effort, there’s no getting around that. This isn’t about being idle.

It’s about finding effective ways to learn, so you can stop wasting time and energy on stuff that doesn’t work. To help you find them, I’ve put together a list of 7 lazy (but highly effective) ways to learn a language at home.

They’ll help you:

⁃ Speak a language better by studying less.
⁃ Go against “traditional” language learning methods to get better results.
⁃ Get fluent in a language while sitting around in your undies and drinking beer

Lazy way to learn a language at home #1: Don’t study (much)

A lot of people try to learn a language by “studying”. They try really hard to memorise grammar rules and vocabulary in the hope that one day, all the pieces will come together and they’ll magically start speaking the language.

Sorry, but languages don’t work that way.

Trying to speak a language by doing grammar exercises is like trying to make bread by reading cookbooks. Sure, you’ll pick up some tips, but you’ll never learn how to bake unless you’re willing to get your hands dirty.

Languages are a learn by doing kind of thing. The best way to learn to speak, understand, read and write a language is by practicing speaking, listening, reading and writing. That doesn’t mean you should never study grammar or vocabulary. It helps to get an idea of how the language works. But if you dedicate a disproportionate amount of time to that stuff, it’ll hold you back.

You’ll learn much faster by using the language.

Now, if you’re a total newbie, you may be wondering how you can start using a language you don’t know yet. If you’re learning completely from scratch, a good textbook can help you pick up the basics. But avoid ones which teach lots of grammar rules without showing you how to use them in real life. The best textbooks are the ones which give you lots of example conversations and introduce grammar in bitesized pieces, like Assimil.

As soon as you can, aim to get lots of exposure to the language being used in a real way. If you’re a lower level, you can start by reading books which have been simplified for your level (called graded readers). Look for ones accompanied with audio so you can work on your listening at the same time.

Another great way is to listen to podcasts with simplified, slowed down speech and transcripts such as Slow German, Slow Chinese, the News in Slow Podcasts or the Coffee Break Series.

Duolingo has also just added a fab new beta feature called stories: fun simple tales for learners with interactive translations and mini comprehension quizzes. For the moment, it’s only in Spanish and Portuguese, but keep an eye out for other languages coming soon.

Lazy way to learn a language at home #2: Sit around in your undies

Next, you’ll need to practice speaking. Luckily, you can now do this on Skype, so you only need to get dressed from the waist up.

MRW people ask me if I’m ready for my job interview on skype.

The best place for online conversation classes is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here: Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off.

If you prefer a free option, you can also use italki to find people who are learning your native language and set up a language exchange. One risk with language exchanges is that English becomes the default language and they end up using your time to practice their English. To make it work, be sure to set a clear boundary for when each language is spoken (e.g. say 30 minutes in English and 30 minutes in Spanish) and be strict about sticking to it.

Or, if you’re feeling brave enough to put some pants on, you can find a flesh-and-blood language exchange partner who lives near you via conversation exchange. You can even arrange to meet up at the pub and combine my two great loves: languages and beer.

Importantly, make it a priority to find conversation tutors and language exchange partners you actually enjoy spending time with (if they’re sexy, even better). It can be real chore to sit down and chat 1-on-1 for 60 minutes with someone you don’t click with. But once you find people you get on well with, it’s easy to motivate yourself to practice speaking.

Learning a language at home
Motivating myself to practice German got a lot easier as soon as I found a handsome conversation tutor.

Lazy way to learn a language at home #3: Don’t try too hard

Getting out of your comfort zone is brilliant, it’s where the learning happens. But you don’t feel like you have to venture too far.

If you’re frustrated by the speed of the listening, too many new words, or tricky grammar, it’s probably a sign that you’ve gone too far. Pushing yourself too hard isn’t a good way to learn, for a number of reasons:

1. When there’s too much new information, it’s difficult to take any of it in.
2. When you’re stressed, your mind’s less receptive to learning.
3. If you have to constantly stop and look up new words, it gets very boring very quickly.
4. It’s difficult to sustain that kind of effort long term (consistency is essential to language learning).
5. Being frustrated isn’t fun, so you’re more likely to give up.

Aim for the sweet spot just above your current level, where you’re coming across new words, but you can still get the general gist of what’s being said.

For more tips on getting the level right, check out this post: the 11 easiest languages to learn (and how to make any language easy)

Lazy way to learn a language at home #4: Don’t waste time learning pointless stuff

Smart lazy language learners know they can’t learn everything at once, so they prioritise words and phrases they’ll get the most mileage out of. The exact words and phrases will depend on the language you’re learning and the situations you’re likely to find yourself in, but as a general rule, frequent conversation phrases like “I’d like”, “maybe” or “I think so” are more useful than things like “rooms in my house” or “items in my pencil case”.

Lazy way to learn a language at home #5: Don’t rely on willpower.

If you’ve tried to learn a language and failed in the past, you might think it’s because you don’t have enough willpower.

It’s true, you don’t. But neither does anyone else. That’s why most people who try to learn a language (or do anything similar, like losing weight or learning to play an instrument) start out enthusiastically, only to run out of steam a few weeks later.

Look closer at the people who’ve succeeded in learning a language and you’ll see that they’re the ones who’ve managed to build a habit. Once you get into the habit of learning a language, you don’t have to struggle so much to find the time or the energy. You just do it.

What’s the best way to get into the language habit?

The lazy way of course!

We have a natural tendency to resist change, which is why big efforts don’t usually last. The key is to make changes so small, they’re almost imperceptible. Start with teeny goal, like learning a language for 5 minutes, then increase it in small increments, like 1 minute each day. By the end of one month, you’ll be up to 30 minutes per day and well on your way to learning that language.

Lazy way to learn a language at home #6: Do stuff you enjoy

Who are the laziest people alive?

Stoners of course.

At university, I knew a guy who was so lazy he wore the same clothes every day and ate pasta straight out of the pan so he didn’t have to wash a plate. Yet when it came to his favorite occupation, smoking weed, he’d go to extreme lengths to get the right kind at the right price and happily walk all the way to the other side of town to pick it up.

Laziness is relative: most people have plenty of energy for things they enjoy doing. When you actually want to do something, be that getting stoned, eating cheese or watching disney films in a foreign language, it’s not hard to get started.

Learning a language at home
Even stoners can motivate themselves to do things they enjoy.

The key is to find ways to learn a language at home that you like, so you don’t have to fight with yourself so much.

The best way to do this is to get into the habit of reading, watching and listening to things you like in the language you’re learning: audiobooks, YouTube, Netflix, newspapers, soap operas, hiphop, disney films, documentaries, novels, reality tv, cookery programmes, fashion blogs, sports papers, world of warcraft…whatever does it for you. The closer it is to things you enjoy doing in your native language, the better.

Or, it you’re a lower level and those kind of resources are too tricky to follow, start with fun things aimed at language learners like podcasts, YouTube tutorials, graded readers or duolingo stories.

YouTube is a brilliant place for language learners as there are often subtitles. To make the most out of subtitles for language learning, read the ones in the language you’re learning, and only use the English ones to check your understanding. You can also use YouTube to slow down the speed, which helps you focus on the details of what they’re saying (as well as making the speaker sound like they’ve knocked back a few tequilas before going on camera).

Learning a language at home
Go home YouTube, you’re drunk. YouTube is great for language learning as you can slow down the speech in the settings menu to understand what’s being said. It also makes the speaker sound like they’ve had a few too many.

A super tool for reading online is the google translate chrome add on. It turns any website into an interactive dictionary, so you can click on a word you don’t know and get the translation in your native language. This makes it very easy to read websites in the language you’re learning without interrupting your flow to look up new words all the time.

To find some sites you like, do a quick google search with the language you’re learning + the genre you’re after (e.g. Spanish Newspapers or French fashion blogs) and you should find a nice list. Alternatively, if you’re feeling lazy, buzzfeed in your target language is a good place to start.

Learning a language at home
With the google translate chrome add on, you can turn any webpage into an interactive dictionary.

For more inspiration on enjoyable ways to learn a language, check out this list: 32 fun ways to learn a language (that actually work).

Lazy way to learn a language at home #7: Change your surroundings

Lazy language learners know that if they have to rely on their own initiative to learn a language, it probably won’t get done. Smart lazy language learners get round this by making changes to their environment so they’re interacting with the language all day, in a way that doesn’t require a lot of extra effort. Here are a few sneaky ways you can integrate language learning into your surroundings:

• Change the language on Facebook/Twitter/your phone to your target language (but remember how to change it back!)
• Change your homepage to a website in your target language.
• Get some headphones and listen to the language as much as you can: on the way to work, cooking, cleaning the toilet…
• Talk to your yourself (or your pets) in the language you’re learning.

Remember, language learning doesn’t happen through big, sporadic efforts. It’s all in the details. Take some time to think of small ways you could integrate your target language into your daily life. And most importantly, actually do it.

These small actions, when repeated daily, will add up to big results.

Quick guide: how to learn a language at home (the lazy way)

#1: Don’t study (much) Grammar is useful, but don’t make it your main focus. Try to get as much exposure as possible to the language being used in real way by reading and listening.
#2: Practice speaking as much as you can Book conversation lessons on Skype, or arrange conversation exchanges. Make a point of finding conversation partners you enjoy spending time with.
#3: Don’t try too hard Aim for the sweet spot just above your level, where you come across new words but you can get the gist of what’s being said.
#4: Don’t waste time on pointless stuff Common conversation phrases like “I don’t know” or “I think so” are more useful than things like “rooms in my house” or “things in my pencil case”
#5: Build habits Don’t rely on willpower. Get into the language learning habit by starting with 5 minutes a day and gradually increasing the time.
#6: Do stuff you enjoy Make a point of finding things to read or listen to that you enjoy. The closer it is to things you like doing in your native language, the better.
#7: Change your surroundings Find sneaky ways to integrate language learning into your daily life, by changing the language of your Facebook, or listening to podcasts on your way to work.

What do you think?

Are you learning a language at home? Do you think the lazy way could work for you? Which one of these 7 tips could you start doing right now to help you learn a language?

What do heights, Ikea on Sundays and language exams have in common?

They all scare the crap out of me.

Right now, I’m stressée because I’m taking an advanced French exam (called the DALF C1) in a few weeks, and I’m not ready yet.

But not to worry.

I’ve done what all good, last-minute students do and come up with a plan aimed at getting the best possible results in the little time I’ve got. In this post, I’ll share the strategies I’m using to get ready for the DALF C1 exam, which draw on the techniques I used to pass a similar Italian exam (C2 CILS).

Update: I passed! You can read about how the exam went here: I passed the DALF exam! Intermediate to fluent French in 5 months (what really happened) 

If you’re thinking about taking the DALF C1 French exam, or any other language exam for that matter, you’ll find 14 strategies that’ll help you get the most out of your study time and give you a better chance of passing.

Before we dive in, let’s talk a bit about how the DALF C1 exam works, including:

  • What is the DALF C1 exam?
  • Why take the DALF C1?
  • What do I have to do in the DALF C1?

What is the DALF C1 French exam?

DALF stands for Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française (Diploma in Advanced French). There are two levels: C1 and C2.

At C1 level, you can:
• express yourself fluently and accurately in French
• use French with ease in social, academic and working contexts
• write clear, detailed texts on complex subjects

In short, the DALF C1 exam is a way of testifying that your French level is good enough to conduct your social, academic and working life comfortably in French.

C2 (mastery) is the next level up and the highest level French exam there is.

Why take the DALF C1?

Some people take the DALF C1 because they need it for work or study (although in many cases, the lower level, B2 will suffice).

Personally, I like the added motivation that comes from working towards an exam like the DALF C1. It’s exactly the kick up the bum I needed to stop floundering and make some real progress in French. In that sense, I’m already satisfied with the results as I’ve seen more improvement in my French in the last 3 months than I had in the last 3 years prior to setting myself this goal.

What’s the DALF C1 exam like?

There are 4 sections in the DALF C1 exam: reading, listening, writing and speaking.

The listening section is divided into two parts. In the first part, you’ll answer a series of questions about a long recording (around 8 minutes) taken from real contexts like interviews, lessons or conferences. You can listen twice. In the second part, you’ll answer 10 questions on short radio broadcasts, which are only played once. The listening section lasts around 40 minutes.

In the reading section, you’ll answer a series of questions on a long text (1500 – 2000 words), which could be journalistic or literary in style. It lasts 50 minutes.

The writing section is divided into two parts. In the first part, you’ll be given 2 – 3 texts to read and asked to write a summary (220 words). In the second task, you’ll be asked to write an essay on the same topic as the texts you just read (250 words). You have 2.5 hours to complete both parts.

In the speaking section, you’re required to give a short speech and discuss a series of questions with the examiners. You get 60 minutes beforehand to read 2 – 3 documents about a topic and prepare your speech. The speech + discussion lasts around 30 minutes, so altogether the speaking section lasts 1.5 hours.

In both speaking and writing sections, you can choose between two fields: humanities and social studies or science.

14 ways to prepare for the C1 DALF French exam

1. Do lots of exam practice

The most effective way to practice for an exam is… you guessed it, by doing exam practice!

However, not all practice is equal. As Vince Lombardi puts it:

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

To get the most out of your study time, it’s important to focus on the right kind of practice. This means not simply doing exam questions over and over, but taking time between each try to analyze what went wrong and think about how you can apply those lessons to your next attempt.

It also means learning how to do the exam, by developing skills that will help you answer the questions better. The following tips will give you some suggestions on how to do this.

2. Get a textbook designed for the DALF C1

It helps to get a textbook specifically designed to prepare students for the language exam you’re taking. I’m using réussir le DALF and it’s full of handy hints for each section.

It’s also a good idea to get your hands on a book with past papers, so you can do as many practice exams as possible.

3. Improve your speaking and writing with the translation technique

Ideally, I want to learn to express myself in a way that’s as close as possible to an educated French speaker. To move towards this target, I need a technique that highlights how my speech and writing differs from that of native French speakers so I can learn from my mistakes and discover how to talk/write more like they do.

How?

With the following translation technique:

  1. Find examples of native French speaker answers to the writing/speaking tasks (like the one below).
  2. Translate the French text/audio into English.
  3. Wait a day or so, until my memory of the French version has faded.
  4. Translate the text/audio back into French.
  5. Compare my French answer with the original native speaker text/audio.

This technique is ideal because it gives you immediate feedback on your choice of words/grammar and shows you how to express ideas like a native French person would. And because you’re engaging with the French phrases in a very focused way, it helps you remember them more easily for future speaking/writing tasks.

4. Train your ear to listen for details

Does this ever happen to you?

When you listen to fast speech in a foreign language it sounds like gobbledygook, but when you see things written down you can understand them quite easily?

This is because in fast speech, strange things happen: sounds (and sometimes whole words) can be cut and others sound different to how you expect. For example, when French people speak fast, they often shorten the word “vous” to “v”.

I want to train my ear to recognize words and phrases in fast speech, so I can pick out details I’ll need in the listening questions.

To achieve this, I’m using a dictation technique, which involves listening to speech, writing what you hear, then checking what you wrote against a transcript. This task trains your ear to tune into the details of speech and highlights why you miss certain words, for example, if they’re pronounced differently in fast speech.

As a bonus, writing down the words helps me practice spelling, which is one of my weaknesses in French.

I’m using the C1 listening tasks from TV5Monde for this task because the listenings come with transcripts and cover topics which are similar to the DALF C1 exam (shout out to Elena from the hitoritabi blog for the recommendation!)

5. Listen to newsreaders on speed

Another way to get used to listening to fast speech is to speed it up even more.

On YouTube, you can make the videos faster by knocking the speed up to 1.25 (under settings). Once you get used to listening to everything 1/4 faster, normal speed French suddenly feels a lot easier! I’m using the videos on the France24 YouTube channel for this activity.

One way to get better at listening to fast French speech is to speed up videos on YouTube. Once you get used to the very fast speech, normal paced speech will feel a lot easier!

 

6. Listen everywhere

Download some podcasts and listen to them wherever you go: on the way to work, whilst doing the dishes or cleaning the shower. French radio interviews and news programs are great as they’re often similar to the listenings in the exam.

7. Improve your pronunciation

Pronunciation is important because it helps the examiners understand you more easily, which can positively influence their judgements on your speaking ability. Check and practice the pronunciation of tricky words by looking them up in an online dictionary with audio files (like wordreference). Listen to the sound file and practice saying the word aloud several times until your pronunciation sounds similar to the example. It helps to keep a list of the French words you struggle to pronounce so you can come back to them and practice them regularly.

8. Remember important words with flashcards

I store the new words and phrases I come across in my flashcard app, so I can review them later. Over the next few weeks, I’ll concentrate on making flashcards with formal French phrases that’ll be useful for the exam, like cependent (nevertheless) and en outre (furthermore).

Importantly, I won’t just review the words, I’ll practice using them too, as this helps them stick in my head better. One way of doing this is to make up new sentences in my head with each word as I review the flashcard. Another way is by writing example sentences.

9. Grammar: learn by doing

I need to dust off a bit of French grammar, so I’m working my way through a grammar textbook. But like vocabulary, I believe the best way to remember grammar is to practice using it.

To do this, I write conversation questions with the grammar points I’ve just learnt and discuss them with my online tutor. If I can make the topics similar to the ones in the exam, so much the better.

Let’s see this in action.

I’ve recently reviewed conditionals (used to talk about imaginary situations – if I were a cat, I’d sleep all day). For my next lesson with my online tutor, I’ve prepared some conversation questions with conditionals, using themes that often appear in the exam (environment, politics…). For example:

Si tu étais président, que ferais-tu pour protéger la planète?
If you were president, what would you do to protect the planet?

This helps me practice writing and speaking using the grammar points I’ve just studied and get lots of relevant feedback from my online tutor.

10. Do focused speaking lessons

My online French lessons used to be an opportunity for a nice relaxing chat, but over the next few weeks, I’ll need to get focused. I’m going to use the sessions to practice the speaking section of the exam and do a feedback session at the end so I can focus on areas I need to improve. I’ll ask my online tutor to point out mistakes, tell me what I could have done better, and give me new expressions to help me express my ideas more effectively next time.

11. Get feedback by recording your speaking practice

Another way you can improve your speaking is by making short videos and showing them to native speakers to get corrections. I’ll be posing mine on Instagram, as there’s a lovely language learning community who give each other friendly feedback and correct each other’s mistakes. If posting your video in public feels too scary, you can simply record it and watch it back (you’ll often notice your own mistakes when you’re not concentrating on speaking at the same time).

 

12. Get a teacher who knows the DALF C1

Most of the time, I don’t work with qualified teachers to learn a language: a native speaker who can give me corrections is all I need, as I can study the grammar and vocabulary on my own from textbooks. But for exam prep, it’s important to work with a teacher who understands the exam so they can explain how the exam works, spot your weaknesses and give you exercises to work on them. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing some lessons with an experienced teacher (online via italki) who knows the DALF C1 exam well and can give me pointers.

Update: I found the BEST French teacher! She’s called Manon and used to be a DALF examiner, so she understands the exam inside out.  You can book lessons with her here: French with Manon.

13. Do Deliberate practice

Lots of the ideas in this post aren’t about working harder, they’re about working smarter. These tips fit in with an approach called deliberate practice, which is an effective way to develop skills in just about anything. In his book Peak, the pioneer of deliberate practice, Anders Ericsson suggests that the best way to get good at something is to follow three Fs:

• Focus: Break the skill down into parts you can practice repeatedly.
• Feedback: Analyze your practice attempts and identify your weaknesses.
• Fix-it: Come up with ways to address your weaknesses so you can do it better next time.

If this kind of preparation sounds intense, that’s because it is. But if you can figure out ways to apply the three Fs to your exam preparation, it’ll save you time in the long run because it’ll help you get better faster.

14. Rest

Getting out of your comfort zone is a wonderful thing. It’s where all the good stuff happens. But while my mind has fully embraced this idea, my body is wondering what the heck is going on. I’ve been getting ill a lot lately, which is a sign I need to slow down and take care not to burn out.

I plan to look after myself more by making a few simple changes:

  • Get a good night’s sleep. This means getting to bed at a decent time and no screens before bedtime (start reading at 10.30 and fall asleep between 11 and 11.30). Apart from weekends, bien sur.
  • Eat healthily (more of the good stuff, like fruit and veg, whilst still enjoying treats)
  • Take frequent breaks, with relaxing activities, like listening to music or going for a walk (au revoir Facebook!)
  • Check emails/social media no more than once a day.
  • Say no to new projects.
  • If I’m feeling really tired, replace exam prep with more fun stuff, like watching French TV or reading a French book (so I can chill without getting out of the French zone).

What do you think?

Have you ever done a language exam before? How did you prepare for it? What other tips can you add to the list? Or, if you’re thinking about taking a language exam, which of the above tips will help you the most?

Can you roll your Rs?

Have a go now. Go on, no one’s listening.

If you made a lovely rrrrrr sound, you can stop reading and go back to Facebook.

On the other hand, if you’re anything like me when I started learning Spanish, you may have blown a raspberry, or made a noise that sounds like a cross between Darth Vader and a flushing a toilet.

If this is you, and you’d like to learn how to roll your Rs, keep reading.

In this post, you’ll learn:

  • Why you can probably learn how to roll your Rs, even if you think you can’t.
  • A simple method to train yourself to make the rolling R sound (that actually works).
  • A quick trick you can use right now to make your R sound more Spanish or Italian, even if you can’t roll your Rs yet.

Why can’t I roll my Rs?

The Italians and Spanish make it look easy, but the rolling R sound is actually pretty complex.

Also known as the trilled R, the sound is made by blowing air between the top of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. With the right tongue position, muscle tension and air pressure, this air causes the tip of your tongue to vibrate, creating a lovely rrrrrrrrrrr sound.

To get it right, you need to think about the following things:

  • Position: the tongue should rest on the little ridge behind your teeth (roughly in the same place as when you make the t sound).
  • Tension: the tongue should be relaxed enough that it can move up and down freely in the stream of air, but not so loose that the air passes straight over.
  • Air pressure: if you breathe too softly, your tongue won’t vibrate, but if you breathe too hard, your tongue won’t stay in the right position.

The rolling R sound requires you to coordinate your mouth muscles in a way that’s totally different from English (with the exception of some accents, like Scottish, which use the rolling R in words like grrreat).

If you don’t have this sound in your first language, learning to coordinate your muscles in this way can feel almost impossible.

Is the ability to roll your Rs genetic?

I always envied the kids in my Spanish class at school who could elegantly roll their Rs. Whenever I tried, I ended up with my face ended up covered in slobber. As my Spanish teacher (erroneously) explained that the rolling R is something you’re either born with or you’re not, I accepted the idea that I was not one of the lucky ones and decided to save myself the embarrassment of trying.

But 10 years later, when I was learning Italian in Italy, I found myself struggling with the rolling R again. I wanted a good Italian accent so I could blend in with the locals, but when you can’t roll your Rs, it immediately singles you out as having quite a strong foreign accent.

I’d always assumed that my problem was physiological – maybe something about the shape of my tongue meant I couldn’t do it – so I resigned myself to the fact that I would always have a crappy R in languages like Italian and Spanish.

Can I train myself to roll my Rs?

Luckily, a year or so later I met an Italian teacher at the school where I was working, who insisted that most people can train themselves to make the rolling R sound.

This was something I didn’t want to hear at the time because it felt like she was implying that I hadn’t tried hard enough. Didn’t she know that my problem was physiological?! No amount of practise would change the shape of my tongue!

I decided to practise the rolling R anyway, mostly to prove her wrong, so she’d stop being so smug around poor foreigners like me who couldn’t do it. I watched tutorials on the internet and started practising everywhere: waiting for my computer to load, washing the dishes, in the shower…

I didn’t expect it to work.

But it did. After a few days, I could feel my tongue getting closer to the rolled R. After a few weeks, I could do the Italian R quite well. I went from being irritated at the Italian teacher to wanting to hug her.

I could finally roll my Rs!

Why you can probably roll your Rs too

There was nothing wrong with my tongue, I just needed to retrain my mouth and tongue muscles so they could adapt to a new, complex sound.

You’ve had decades to fine tune your mouth muscles to make sounds in your first language. Training the muscles to make new sounds takes perseverance (probably way more than you think), so it’s easy to assume there must be some physiological reason why you can’t do it.

But in countries where Spanish or Italian is spoken, almost everyone can make the rolling R sound. Only a small percentage of people can’t do it because of physiological problems. The majority of us would’ve learnt just fine if we’d grown up speaking a language with the rolling r.

The good news: this means that with the right techniques and a good dose of perseverance, you can probably learn how to roll your Rs.

This tutorial will show you how.

Are you learning Italian? Learn to speak and understand faster with 5 Minute Italian.

You just watched a tutorial from our 5 Minute Italian course. You can learn to speak and understand basic Italian fast with weekly podcast lessons + bonus materials, by joining our 5 minute Italian crew. You’ll get:

  • The 5 minute Italian podcast delivered to your inbox each week.
  • Bonus materials that only members get access to, including: 
    • Lesson transcripts
    • Quizzes
    • Flashcards
    • Lifetime membership to the Facebook group, where you can practise with Italian teachers.
    • Vlogs
    • Invites to speaking workshops

It’s free to join for a limited time. Click here to start learning!

 

 

So you’re thinking about learning Italian?

Molto bene!

If you’re looking for some guidance on how to get started, you’re in the right place.

When I first started learning Italian (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), there were a lot of things I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to learn words quickly, or that I should pay attention to things like prepositions.

Come to think of it, I probably didn’t know what a preposition was!

Had I known things like this from the get-go, it would have saved me loads of time and effort.

That’s why I’ve put together this complete guide to learning Italian for beginners. It has all the things I wish someone had told me before I started and the exact steps you can take to pick up basic Italian quickly.

You’ll learn things like:

  • Essential Italian travel phrases
  • How to roll your Rs
  • The best way to remember Italian words, phrases and grammar
  • Action points you can follow to make sure you succeed

Throughout, you’ll find links to audio files and mini-lessons you can use to start learning Italian straightaway.

A 4-step roadmap to learning Italian

What should I learn first? Which method should I use? How can I stay motivated?

When you learn a new language, there are so many things to think about that it’s easy to get lost. In fact, one of the main things that can slow your progress in Italian is a lack of clear direction.

If you want to get somewhere fast, it helps to have a clear roadmap.

Here, you’ll find a 4 step action plan you can follow to start learning Italian successfully:

  1. Find your motivation (know why you want to learn Italian).
  2. Learn the essential phrases (so you can start talking straight away).
  3. Go into detail (start learning grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation).
  4. Take action (so you can achieve your goal of speaking Italian).

Let’s get started shall we?

Cominciamo!

1. Find your motivation

Learning a new language takes time and commitment. If you’re not clear on your reasons for wanting to speak Italian, somewhere down the line you may find yourself wondering if it’s really worth it.

On the other hand, if you’re excited about learning Italian, that enthusiasm will pull you to your desk, even on days when you don’t really feel like it.

When you’re motivated, it’s easier to overcome the obstacles that normally get in the way of learning a language, like lack of time or tiredness. As the saying goes:

If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way, if not, you’ll find an excuse.

That’s why motivation is number 1 on our roadmap.

Before you start learning Italian, take some time to get excited about it. Think about all the awesome things that will happen when you speak Italian, and come back to them whenever you need a motivation top-up.

If you need a little inspiration, here are my top 3 reasons for learning Italian:

You’ll experience the real Italy

Italy is one of the most popular destinations in the world, and with good reason! With stunning countryside, Mediterranean beach towns, a rich history and arguably the best food and wine in the world, Italy has a lot to offer.

But if you don’t speak the language, it’s difficult to get out of the tourist bubble.

You’ll get so much more out of Italy if you understand and speak a bit of the language. It’s all part of the experience: laughing with the waiter, chatting to a little old lady on the train (with the help of a few gestures!) or playing with Italian kids at the beach. When you have a go at speaking Italian, you’ll come away with better holiday memories.

Even a handful of phrases can help you feel like a local. It’s a great feeling when you can order a meal or ice-cream in Italian and they understand what you’re saying.

You can also get insider recommendations from Italians about the best places to go in their town – no more frozen pizza and reheated pasta at tourist restaurants!

When you have a go at speaking Italian, you’ll come away with much better holiday memories. You can get to know some of the locals and you’ll feel more confident wandering away from tourist areas.

You’ll get to hang out with Italians

There’s an Italian saying: “il dolce far niente”, which means the sweetness of doing nothing.

Italians are masters of the art of living: most have a relaxed pace of life and love meeting new people. This is a huge plus when it comes to making Italian friends and practicing italiano with the locals.

When you have a go at speaking, Italians are usually patient and friendly. And many feel more comfortable speaking Italian compared to English (especially in small towns and villages). This gives you a real reason to use your Italian, which helps you learn faster.

Italian people know what’s important in life: they’re not constantly running from one thing to the next and they always have time for you. This is a huge plus when it comes to practising italiano with the locals!

You’ll feel a little bit Italian, too

Romantic, musical, expressive – people often say Italian is the most beautiful sounding language in the world. When you learn Italian, you can have loads of fun getting into the role and trying to adopt the distinctive accent.

 

2. Learn essential Italian phrases for travellers

Hopefully you’re now feeling excited about learning Italian and ready to get started. Before we dive into the details like grammar and pronunciation, it’s a good idea to get some essential phrases under your belt so you can communicate straight away.

Don’t worry if you say things a bit wrong, or you can’t understand what people are saying back to you yet – that’s normal at first!

Getting started is the hardest part. If you’re willing to have a go at using basic phrases, everything else will feel easier from there. And Italians will appreciate it if you make a little effort to communicate in their language! 

Phrases like “where is…”, “how much…?” and “can I have..?” will take you a long way. Once you learn the basic structure, you can adapt them to say loads of different things in Italian. 

For example, when you know how to say “can I have” = “posso avere”, you can use it to ask for anything anywhere: the bill in a restaurant, a pillow in your hotel, a ticket on the train… All you have to do is look up the name of the thing you’re asking for. 

Here are a few Italian travel phrases to get you started.

Essential Italian travel phrases

Dov’è…? = where is…?

Dov’è il bagno? = where’s the toilet?

Dov’è la stazione? = where’s the station?

Quanto costa? = how much does it cost?

Quanto costa il caffè? = how much does the coffee cost?

Quanto costa la pizza? = how much does the pizza cost?

Posso avere….? = can I have?

Posso avere il conto?=  can I have the bill?

Posso avere il menù? = can I have the menu?

Posso avere un caffè? = Can I have a coffee?

 

Numbers

Numbers are usually one of the first things people learn and with good reason – they pop up everywhere! From buying things to asking about public transport, you’ll need to master numbers if you want to get by in Italian.

You can learn how to count to 100 in Italian with the 5 Minute Italian episodes below.

 

Learn more Italian with fluency phrases

When you start speaking a language, it’s normal to have communication breakdowns, for example, when you don’t know a word, or when you don’t understand what someone just said.

With the right strategies, you can actually turn these moments into opportunities to learn more Italian.

Imagine you go into a bakery and you see a delicious pastry, but you don’t know what it’s called. You have two options:

  1. You can point and say “one of those please”.
  2. You can point to it and ask the barista in Italian “come si dice quello in Italiano?” (how do you say that in Italian?)

Most Italians will respond really well to this kind of curiosity. Once you open the conversation in this way, you’ll probably get the chance to chat to them a little more, and learn new words in the process!

There’s nothing wrong with using English when you get stuck, but the more you can use Italian to manage communication breakdowns, the longer you can keep the conversation going.

And the longer you can keep the conversation going, the better you get at speaking Italian.

Here are 5 fluency phrases that will help you turn communication breakdowns into opportunities to learn more Italian:

  1. How do you say X in Italian? = Come si dice X in Italiano? 
  2. Sorry, I didn’t understand. = Scusi, non ho capito.
  3. Could you repeat that please? = Potrebbe ripetere per favore?
  4. Could you speak slower please? = Potrebbe parlare più lentamente per favore?
  5. Can we speak in Italian? I’d like to learn. = Possiamo parlare in italiano? Vorrei imparare.

 

Want to learn more Italian so that you can get by in in Italy? In the 5 minute Italian podcast, you’ll learn how to deal with a common travel situation each week, like buying ice-cream or getting from the airport to your hotel.

Click here to subscribe to 5 Minute Italian on itunes.

 

Speak and understand Italian faster by joining 5 Minute Italian

Become a 5 minute Italian member to get bonus materials including quizzes, flashcards and cultural tips, as well as invites to online speaking workshops. It’s free to join.

Click here to become a 5 Minute Italian member.

 

3. Going into detail: Italian grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation

Now you’ve picked up some basic Italian phrases, it’s time to learn about the big 3: grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. 

At this point, it’s a good idea to get yourself a beginner’s textbook or audio course and work though it systematically so you can build up a foundation of these 3 aspects. Michel Thomas and Assimil both have great Italian courses for beginners.

This section will give you an overview of the main things you need to know about Italian grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, together with tips on how to learn them effectively.

You’ll be pleased to know that these aspects of Italian are relatively easy for English speakers compared to languages like German, Russian or Chinese because:

      • Italian grammar is simple-ish (no complicated case systems!)
      • 1000s of Italian words are similar to English
      • Italian pronunciation is quite straightforward: there aren’t many new sounds to learn and the spelling system is simple.

Italian grammar: How is it different to English?

In this section, you’ll learn about two very important features of Italian grammar which don’t exist in English:  verb conjugation and the difference between masculine and feminine words. 

 

Verb conjugation

Verb conjugation is just a fancy way of describing how verbs change depending on who’s doing the action (just in case you need a little reminder, verbs are words which describe actions or states, like jump, speak or be).

We can see this with the verb “be” in English: we say “I am” but “you are“.

But the verb be is actually a bit of an exception in English. Normally we don’t change the verb much, apart from in the third person.

To speak

I speak

You speak

He/she speaks

We speak

They speak

Italian verbs

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.

If you want to learn more about the Italian plural “you”, you can listen to 5 minute Italian episode 4: excuse me, do you speak English? and episode 24: how to order food in Italian.

 

Little by little

For many learners, verb conjugation is the most intimidating thing about Italian: one look at a list of Italian verbs and you might worry that you’ll never fit it all in your brain.

But you will.

Little by little is key.

And it’s not as complicated as it seems. Most verbs follow one of 4 patterns, which don’t take too long to learn. It’s true that there are quite a few irregular verbs, but many of these are similar to other irregular verbs, so you can learn them together in groups.

Importantly, don’t feel like you have to learn all the verbs at once. Focus on the ones you’ll use the most, then learn the others gradually as you go along.

 

Masculine and feminine words

The Italian word for “female friend” is:

“Amica

But for a “male friend”, it’s:

“Amico

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:

Female Male
Ragazza (girl) Ragazzo (boy)
Bambina (female child) Bambino (male child)
Fidanzata (girlfriend)

Fidanzato (boyfriend)


The word for “a”, as in “
a girl” or “a boy” also changes depending on whether the word is masculine or feminine. To say “a girl” in Italian we say una ragazza, while to say “a boy”, we say un ragazzo.

The funny thing is, languages with gender use the same system for objects, like chairs and books.

In Italian, a chair is feminine: “una sedia”.

While a book is masculine: “un libro”

This can feel a bit strange at first – how can a chair be feminine and a book be masculine? 

Gender isn’t based on any logic about whether things have “feminine” or “masculine” qualities.

When it comes to learning the gender of objects,  just think of the words as being split into two arbitrary groups: masculine and feminine. When you know which group the word is in, it will help you make decisions about the grammar, like whether to use the word “un” or “una”.

How can you remember which group a word belongs to?

Try using imagery. For example, you could imagine “una sedia” as pink chair with a bow on it and “un libro” as blue book with a moustache on it (of course if you prefer to avoid gender clichés, you can choose different images!)

 

Common mistake alert! Prepositions

Prepositions are little words like “in”, “over”, “on”, “off” and “for”.

They’re not always logical: for example, if a light “goes off” it means that the light stops, but when an alarm “goes off”, the sound starts!

Because they’re not always logical, they vary a lot between languages. Here are some differences between Italian and English:

  • Italians don’t say “welcome to Italy”, they say welcome in Italy: benvenuti in Italia.
  • Italians don’t say “on the TV”, they say “in the TV”: in TV.
  • Italians don’t say “in the papers”, they say “on the papers”: sui giornali.

Italian learners often struggle with prepositions. But if you pay attention to them from the beginning, you’ll have a much better chance at getting them right in the long run.

Italian vocabulary: how to remember Italian words and phrases fast

Learn the words which are similare

One of the best things about learning Italian is that a lot of the words are very similar to EnglishIn 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.

If you guessed fantastico, you were right!

There are 1000s of words like this, and they’re handy because you can start using them almost straight away when you learn Italian. To learn some simple rules about how to convert English words into Italian, listen to 5 Minute Italian episode 1: Why Italian is easier than you think 

 

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.

Colazione

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.

Camminata

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

Carbonara

Origano

The same rule applies when C and G are followed by the letter “h”.

Examples you may recognise

Spaghetti

Gnocchi

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

Cappuccino

Pancetta

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

formaggio (cheese)

gelato

If you want to learn more about how to pronounce C and G in Italian, and hear some more examples, listen to 5 Minute Italian episode 11 and episode 12 on how to pronounce an Italian menu.

 

How to roll your Rs in Italian

You’re probably already familiar with the fact that Italian has a rolled R sound. Some people can do it naturally, but for others, it takes a bit of work.

I used to really struggle with the rolled R. In fact, I had just about given up, until one of my Italian teachers insisted that I could learn to do it. She was right! I practised and practised and practised until eventually, I managed it. 

So don’t get discouraged if you were born without this skill – most people can learn with the right techniques.

If you want to find out how I learnt to roll my Rs in Italian (and a quick trick to make your R sound more Italian even if you can’t roll it), listen to the tutorial below.

 

The smiley L

Another Italian sound which may be new to you is the smiley L (known formally as the palatal L). When you see the letters gli together, as in famiglia, it’s pronounced similar to an L sound, but instead of putting the tongue tip behind your teeth (like in the English one) you spread the whole tongue out across the roof of your mouth. If you smile when you say it, it helps to put the tongue in the right position, which is why we christened it the smiley L.

This sound is much easier to learn when you can hear it being pronounced and get some examples. Listen to the tutorial below for tips on how to pronounce the smiley L in Italian.

 

The smiley N

Italian also has a smiley N sound. When you see the letters gn together, as in lasagne, smile, push the whole tongue flat against your mouth (like in the smiley L) and try to make a N sound.

As with the smiley L, it’s much easier to learn with audio instructions and examples. Listen to the tutorial below for tips on how to pronounce the smiley N.

 

Common mistake alert! Double consonants

In Italian, when you see two of the same consonants in a row, you should make that sound longer. For example, the word “sono” (which means I am) has a single consonant: “n”, while the word “sonno” (which means sleep) has a double consonant: “nn”. The “n” sound is held for longer in the latter.  

Can you hear the difference?

Don’t worry if these words sound very similar at first, with practise, you’ll be able to differentiate them. 

Many foreigners continue to mix up single and double consonants, even when they speak Italian very well. If you pay attention to them right from the beginning, you’ll have a much better chance of getting it right in the long run (in fact, I wish someone had given me this advice when I first started learning Italian!) 

 

Common Mistake Alert! Not pronouncing the vowels properly

In English, we don’t always open our mouths fully to pronounce the vowels.

For example, in the word “responsible”, the letter “i” is pronounced as a kind of lazy “e” sound, which is produced with the mouth and tongue in a completely relaxed position. In the phonetic alphabet, it’s represented with the upside down ə sound (called the schwa).  

responsəble

However, Italian vowels are always pronounced fully. Can you hear the full “a” sound in the Italian version?

responsabile

The lazy “ə” sound doesn’t exist in Italian, so be sure to pronounce each vowel fully.

 

Time for some action: how to achieve your goal of speaking Italian

So far so good. You’re excited about learning Italian, you’ve got some essential phrases and you’ve started learning about the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. You even know which common mistakes to look out for.

But there’s one last step.

If you want to make real progress in Italian, it’s important to turn your good intentions into actions.

As Leonardo da Vinci says:

Being willing is not enough; we must do.

In this section, you’ll learn 4 strategies that will help you take action and get you closer to your goal of speaking Italian.

 

Use it or lose it

Bear in mind that no textbook or audio course will give you everything you need to speak Italian.  

Textbooks teach you a lot about the language, but they don’t really help you use it in real life. Think of them like a book on how to play the guitar. It gives you a lot of useful information, but unless you actually put your hands on the guitar, you’ll never be able to play.

If you want to be able to use Italian in real life situations, you need to practise first. Practising helps you turn the Italian words and phrases you learn in books into active knowledge that you can use to communicate with Italians.

If the idea of speaking straightaway makes you feel nervous, don’t worry. You don’t have to walk up to an Italian and start talking after your first lesson. There are other ways to practise using your Italian:

  • Take the new words and grammar points you learn in your textbook and try using them to write sentences about your life.
  • Write a diary entry about your day.
  • Talk to yourself in Italian in your head: What are people around you doing? What objects can you see?
  • Practise speaking with a language exchange partner or conversation tutor. If you don’t feel comfortable attempting conversation yet, you can tell them about new words or grammar points you’ve learnt and ask them to give you examples of how they’re used in real life.

These activities help you connect what you learn to real life, which makes them easier to remember.

If this feels tricky and you make lots mistakes at the beginning, don’t worry. It’s a normal part of being a beginner. The most important thing is to start – that’s how you get better!

Join 5 Minute Italian to get lots of beginner-friendly opportunities to practise, including:

  • Speaking workshops, where we’ll help you get over nerves and have a go at speaking Italian.
  • Access to our private Facebook community where you can practice chatting to other learners in Italian and get personal feedback and corrections from Italian teachers.

If you’re ready to take your Italian to the next level, click here to join 5 Minute Italian. It’s free. 

 

Get into the habit of learning Italian

In January, around 35% of people in Britain go on a diet. 

By February, most have given up.

When it comes to goals like losing weight or learning a language, most of us start full of optimism, only to run out of steam a few days or weeks later. This happens because willpower is a limited resource: when it runs out, we fall back on old habits, like eating peanut butter out of the jar (just me?). 

Even if you’re really committed to learning Italian at the beginning, your determination might fizzle out somewhere down the line.

You probably know that the best way to learn Italian is to study regularly over a sustained period, but that’s not always easy when your willpower waxes and wanes. The key to solving this problem is to make Italian a habit. Once you’re in the habit, learning Italian feels natural, so you don’t have to rely on self-discipline all the time. 

Here are a couple of things you can do to get into the habit of learning Italian:

  • Find little ways to introduce Italian into your daily routine. For example, you could listen to a podcast at breakfast, read a book on your commute, or review vocabulary while you’re waiting for your computer to load. 
  • Start small: just as bad habits can be difficult to break, good habits take time 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.

Related: Language Learning Habits: How to Learn a Language Better by Doing Less

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:

  1. 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.
  2. The group gives you moral support, opportunities to practise and practical advice that will help you progress quicker.

Community is a powerful thing: if you’re serious about learning Italian, joining a group will help you succeed.

 

Join 5 Minute Italian (it’s free!)

If you want to learn basic Italian fast, you’ll get the exact steps and support you need by becoming a 5 Minute Italian member

Sign up to get all the bonus materials for free including:

– A weekly podcast, where you’ll learn how to deal with Italian travel situations.

– Quizzes and interactive tasks, so you can practise using what you learned.

– Flashcards 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 to answer your questions 

– Invites to live workshops, where we’ll help you start speaking.

Click here to join 5 Minute Italian for free

 

Speaking a foreign language is one of the best feelings in the world. It gives you:

  • A deeply satisfying connection with a new culture and its people
  • The chance to travel with ease
  • A huge sense of personal achievement
  • New career opportunities

That’s why if you ask a room of people if they’d like to speak a foreign language, almost everyone says yes.

So what stops people from learning to speak one?

Some say time. But there are plenty of ways to squeeze language learning into a busy day. Others say motivation. But that’s not a problem if you find ways to learn that you enjoy.

These are excuses that can be easily solved, if you want to speak that language badly enough.

What if people think I’m stupid?

The thing that stops most people from speaking a foreign language is the fear of feeling like an idiot. Because learning to speak a language requires everyone to go through that phase of sounding like tarzan and Barney Gumble’s two year old love child.

So when a reader Krisztina got in touch and asked: “How can I beat my fear of speaking in a foreign language?”, I jumped at the chance to answer, because it’s a problem that affects almost all of us to some degree or another.

And the answer is simple.

Don’t.

It’s normal to feel nervous speaking a second language

I’ve been speaking Italian for longer than I care to remember. It all started back in 2008, when I had more piercings and fewer wrinkles.

Now, I’ve been living in Italy for nearly 6 years – my love life and friendships have been conducted in Italian for most of my 20s. But can I tell you a secret?

I still get nervous speaking Italian.

Don’t get me wrong, the better I get, the more comfortable I feel. Most of the time when I speak Italian, I’m straight chillin.

But I still get nervous when I have to sort out my mortgage or call my accountant in Italian.

Even chatting to friends can give me the jitters – especially those kind of friends who have perfectly organised kitchen cupboards and wear matching socks.

 

I started speaking Italian in 2008, when I had more piercings and fewer wrinkles. Even though my social life has been in Italian for most of my 20s, I still get nervous speaking it sometimes.

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.

They think:

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.

If you fancy giving it a go, I’ve teamed up with the lovely people at italki to give you $10 of free lessons after you book your first lesson. Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off.

Or you prefer a free option, you can use italki to find partners for online language exchanges.

This is my online Chinese tutor, Jane. She’s one of the community tutors on italki. These lessons are a great way to practise speaking Mandarin. It doesn’t matter if I have really long pauses and make mistakes – that’s why I’m doing the lessons!

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.

5. Adopt a growth mindset

A fixed mindset is when you think “I’m bad at speaking languages”. A growth mindset is when you say “I’m not good at speaking… yet”. I’ve talked about this a lot in previous posts (like how to make any language easy and 3 research-backed ways to stop procrastination from ruining your language learning) because it’s an essential attitude for language learners.

With a growth mindset, you know you’ll get better with practice, so you give yourself permission to be a beginner. This makes speaking easier because you don’t put so much pressure on yourself.

6. Learn to laugh at yourself

It’s normal to feel nervous about speaking another language because of the risk of making mistakes and sounding silly. But if you didn’t mind so much about making mistakes, you could relax more when speaking a foreign language.

The best way to stop worrying about mistakes is to laugh at yourself. We all know language learners sometimes make funny mistakes, and the person listening to you will understand. Who cares if you accidentally say a swear word, or pronounce something wrong? It’s all part of the fun. And if you can laugh together, if helps strengthen your bond with native speakers – the reason we’re learning a language in the first place, right?

 

Over to you

Do you get nervous when speaking a foreign language? Which of the tips are the most helpful in taking the plunge to start speaking? Let us know in the comments below!

Where’s the best place to learn French?

France, right?

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.

Why?

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.

But for the most part, I struggled to practise my French in Paris. Learning a language abroad is not always as straightforward as it seems.

In Italy, I didn’t have too much trouble finding friends who wanted to speak Italian with me. This was not the case in Paris.

The problem with language classes

Next, I tried joining a French class, but it slowed me down for the following reasons:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

One of the best places for learning French is my living room. Which is great because that’s also where my coffee and slippers live.

Soon, I’ll talk about what I’ve been doing to get fluent in French from my armchair. But first…

What does fluent mean anyway?

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.

Speaking fluent French has always been a dream of mine so Im really excited about this mission!

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.

Good news – I’ve teamed up with italki to get you a discount. If you fancy giving italki a go yourself, click here to get $10 worth of free lessons.

I do conversations lessons with native speakers on italki. The lessons are good value and you can find some brilliant tutors – they’re fun, passionate about languages and patient with beginners.

Flood my ears

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!

Over the next few months, I’ll be listening to French podcasts and music as I go about my day.

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.

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.

I use flashcards to review the vocabulary I’ve learnt recently.

Time

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.

Exam prep

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

Weekly

  • 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:

Italian

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.

My pile of unread Italian books which I’m not getting through as quickly as I’d like!

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.

Chinese

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?

Join in!

This post was part of #clearthelist, hosted by Lindsay Williams, Kris Broholm, and Angel Pretot, who share their monthly language goals and encourage you to do the same. Head over to Lindsay does languages for more info on how to take part.

You worked so hard.

You spent ages squeezing those new words and phrases into your brain. Then you try to use them in real life and…

Nada.

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.

Similarly, researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer found that college students who take notes by hand recall information better than students who take notes on a laptop. Compared to laptop users, who can quickly type full sentences, students who write by hand have to listen, digest and synthesise the key points. Mueller and Oppenheimer believe that interacting with the information in this way helps students remember it later.

Did you know that writing by hand boosts memory more than typing? After I read about this research, I went out and got myself a new set of notebooks.

 

Why repeating stuff doesn’t work

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 you learn something after a few margaritas, you’ll remember it better the next time you’ve had a few margaritas, compared to when sober (true story – researchers got people drunk and tested it).

If you learn words from apps and textbooks, you’ll remember them better while fiddling with your phone or reading a textbook, compared to when talking to native speakers.

Which explains why those words tend to go poof when you need them in real life.

In the words of Steve Kaufmann:

How writing helps you remember

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.

But I still didn’t get around to it.

Finally, I realised that my procrastination was actually just perfectionism in disguise: I was scared of writing something and staring down at a page of poop.

So I took the pressure off. Instead of aiming to write something amazing, I set myself the goal of writing one crappy sentence.

This made it easier to get started and ever since then, I’ve been scribbling away. In fact, I’ve got so into writing that I’ve been jotting down a quick page whenever I get chance.

And I’m already seeing results:

  • Words I could never remember are starting to stick.
  • Tricky grammar points are sinking in.
  • I don’t have to rack my brain as much when I speak.

If you’d like to get the memory benefits of writing, here are a few suggestions that will help you get into the habit:

6 ways to get into the writing habit

1. Start with tiny goals

Often the hardest thing about writing is getting started. Actually, the hardest thing is the idea of getting started: the mere thought of doing a difficult task has been shown to activate a part of the brain associated with pain. But the good news is, once you get started, these signals go away. Make it easier to start by setting yourself a tiny goal, like one sentence a day.

2. Be happy with crappy

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.

You can use google to get insight on how native speakers write. Here, google is giving me information on the type of phrases native German speakers search for.

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.

Italian

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:

Listening

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.

Reading

I’ve been reading the magazines National Geographic and Internazionale to prepare for the reading section (and because they’re interesting).

National Geographic is one of my favourite things to read in Italian. I’ve been using it to prepare for the reading part of the C2 exam.

Writing

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.

Chinese

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!

My new favourite toy: Viki is a streaming service with loads of foreign language TV programmes. They’ve just introduced a new “learning mode” with interactive subtitles where you can click on a word and get the translation.

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

German

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.

Active listening

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.

Writing

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.

This month I mostly kept up my French and Spanish by watching TV in my downtime. I really enjoyed this French stand up comedy show with Gad Elmaleh.

Writing

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!

Join in

This post was part of #clearthelist, hosted by Lindsay Williams, Kris Broholm, and Angel Pretot, who share their monthly language goals and encourage you to do the same. Head over to Lindsay does languages for more info on how to take part.

What do you think?

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.  

Why you should start taking fun more seriously

Injecting fun into your language studies, far from being a distraction, is a powerful learning strategy. By doing things you enjoy, you can relax and engage more with the learning process. Studies show that a relaxed and happy mind helps us learn more effectively.

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.

Podcasts are a really enjoyable way to learn a language while you’re on the move. If you fancy learning a bit of Italian, join us for five minute Italian, where you can learn basic Italian in bite-sized pieces.

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.

Sometimes I like to watch so-bad-it’s-good reality TV in foreign languages. You get to be a fly on the wall of real conversations so it’s a great way to practise listening to spontaneous speech.

 

Fun way #10 Have a netflix binge

If you prefer higher quality telly, give Netflix a try. The online streaming service is gradually turning into a language learning goldmine as they continue to build up their selection of foreign language films and TV programmes. Use the audio and subtitles section to search for films and TV in the language you’re learning.

Lots of programmes have subtitles in the original language, so you can read along at the same time or pause it and look up new vocabulary. I recommend avoiding English subtitles where possible as you can end up concentrating on the English and blocking out the foreign language.

Fun way #11 Watch TV by pretending to be somewhere else

Have you ever tried to watch TV online and seen the message “sorry this video is not available in your country”?. Foreign language TV is often blocked because the broadcasters don’t have the license to show programmes outside their own country. You can get around this problem by using a VPN service which allows you to pretend that you’re browsing from inside the country. Using a VPN is totally legal, but violating broadcasting licensing agreements might not be, so watch at your own risk and don’t tell anyone I told you 😉

Fun way #12 Change your phone settings

Swap the language of your phone to the one you’re learning (but remember how to change it back!)

Fun way #13 Change your Facebook settings

Change the language of Facebook/twitter/whatever other social network you kids hang around on these days.

Fun way #14 Shake your booty

Following a keep fit video in your chosen language is a good way to stay in shape and learn a language at the same time. It’s doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything because you can follow along by watching. And it’s great for learning body parts as you’ll hear the same ones repeated over and over again.

Fun way #15 Read online

Read online articles about photography, politics, beauty, sport, cats dressed up as sushi rolls or whatever it is that you normally enjoy reading.

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.

Practising German by chatting to my conversation tutor on italki – my favourite place for conversation lessons.

 

Fun way #17 Get a running buddy

Why not team up with a friend and learn a language together? Research shows that  working towards goals with other people helps to keep you motivated for longer. If you can’t find a running buddy amongst your nearest and dearest, you can join an online community of language learners, like the add1challenge.

Fun way #18 Get cooking

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.

Learning German with videos
On the Easy German YouTube channel, presenters head out onto the streets and interview people so you can hear real spoken German.

 

Fun way #20 Learn with social media

What if instead of looking at pictures of other people’s cats/babies/lunch you could use your time spent on Facebook to learn a language? Lindsay from Lindsay does languages has all kinds of good stuff on how you can use social media for language learning

Fun way #21 Duolingo

If you haven’t been living underwater for the last few years you may have already heard of this handy little app that turns learning grammar and vocabulary into a fun game. Recently they introduced a feature where you can practise your chatting skills with foreign language bots. Download it and fiddle with it on your commute. It’s free.

Fun way #22 Keep a diary

Not the “Dear diary, why won’t my crush notice me?” kind (although you can if you like!) but a simple paragraph or two about your day. Not only will it improve your writing, but it’ll also help you learn how to talk about yourself and your life, which is great practise for conversations. 

Fun way #23 Read for pleasure

Research shows that reading for pleasure is one of the best ways to learn foreign language vocabulary. If books written for native speakers are too tricky, try starting with graded readers (stories adapted for language learners) or comic books.

One of my graded readers in Chinese. They use simple words and phrases for learners so you can read without stopping to look up new words all the time.

Fun way #24 Go on a date with a native speaker

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”.

Fun way #29 Learn some jokes

Lighten things up by learning some good dad jokes. Here are a few Spanish language jokes to get you started.

Fun way #30 Write a story

Try writing a story with some of the words you’ve learned recently. Research shows that writing with words you’ve just learned helps you remember them better. You can get native speakers to correct your story for you over on the notebook section of italki or on lang8.

Fun way #31 Learn some good swears

Whenever I’m hanging out with people who have different native languages, we inevitably end up teaching each other swear words and sniggering. I’m not sure why learning to swear in a foreign language, or hearing foreigners do it in your language is so fun, but there’s something about it that really gives us the giggles. Even if you’re not one to swear in your own language, they’re handy to know so you can recognise them if you hear them (hopefully not aimed at you!)

Fun way #32 Talk to your cat

Or dog, or hamster, or fish… Chatting to your animal is a great way to boost your speaking skills as it gives you a safe environment to practise building sentences with the grammar and vocabulary you’ve been learning. If you don’t have an animal, try talking to yourself or an imaginary friend. Have a look at this post for more unconventional ways to practise speaking without a native speaker.


What do you think?

Which fun way do you like the most? Do you have any more fun ways to add to the list? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Page 1 of 3