What do weight loss after Christmas, expired peanut butter and learning Spanish have in common?

Apparently, they all take around 5 months.

Which seems like a long time to hold onto festive pudge and an exceedingly short time to learn a language.

Spanish is considered relatively easy for English speakers: it has 1000s of similar words (fantástico!) and the grammar, pronunciation and spelling is simpler than in many other languages.

That’s why the US Foreign Service Institute – the guys who train diplomats – rank Spanish as one of the fastest languages to learn for English speakers, together with others like French, Italian and Dutch.

The FSI estimate that languages in this group can take 23-24 weeks to reach professional working proficiency. At this level you can:

  • understand almost everything people say when they speak at normal speed
  • communicate comfortably in most situations
  • use a broad vocabulary and rarely stop to search for words

In other words, you can function perfectly well in most situations. Let’s call that fluent.

The easiest languages for English speakers

Languages which have a lot in common with your native language are usually easier than those which are very different. English is a Germanic language, like Dutch and Swedish, but it also has a lot in common with Romance languages like French and Spanish. No surprise then, that the other languages on the Foreign Service Institute list come from one of these two groups.

 

The Germanic Languages: Afrikaans, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish

Why are they easy? These languages come from the same language family as English, so they share loads of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation features. The ones in this list don’t have complicated case systems like in German, making them a little easier to pick up. Here’s an example of how similar languages from this family can be to English:

How to say “hello/hi, welcome”

Afrikaans: Hallo, welkom

Dutch: Hallo, welkom

Danish: Hallo, velkommen

Norwegian: Hei, velkommen

Swedish: Hej, välkommen

How similar Germanic languages can be
No prizes for guessing what this means. Germanic languages come from the same language family as English, so the words and grammar are often very similar.

 

Any drawbacks?

Native speakers of these languages tend to speak fantastic English, so it can be more difficult (but not impossible) to find opportunities to practise.

 

The Romance Languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian

Why are they easy? Romance languages have their roots in Latin. As the majority of English vocabulary (58%) comes from French or Latin, when you start learning a Romance language, you’ll realise that you can already say loads of words by simply putting on a hammy accent. Je suis sérieuse. Did a little pout as I was writing that, to make it more French.

Je suis sérieuse. When you start learning a Romance language, you’ll be thrilled to realise that you can already say lots of words by simply putting on a hammy accent.

Spanish, Italian and Romanian have simpler spelling systems and fewer vowel sounds than English, making pronunciation comparatively straightforward. Here’s an example of how similar the Romance languages can be to English:

How to say “my family”

Spanish: Mi familia

French: Ma famille

Italian: La mia famiglia

Portuguese: Minha família

Romanian: Familia mea

 

Any drawbacks?

While the grammar is easier than languages like German or Russian, you’ll still need to get to grips with verb conjugations, that is, when verbs have different forms depending on who’s doing them: for example, I sleep in Italian is “dormo”, while you sleep is “dormi”. Nouns in Romance languages also have gender, which can feel a bit loco at first. For example in Spanish, the fork “el tenedor” is masculine, while the table “la mesa” is feminine.

 

The easiest language to learn

The above list is not exhaustive. I could have included less widely spoken Romance languages like Catalan and Galician, amongst others. And the easiest language for you depends on other things, which we’ll talk about shortly.

But wait – didn’t the title say 11?

There’s one language which is even closer to English, and arguably the simplest of all for English speakers. Do you know which one? The answer will be revealed at the end of this post.

 

Just how easy are the easiest languages?

If it’s possible to learn fluent Spanish in 5 months, how do you explain all those people (including me) who studied for years at school and learned little more than ¿dónde está la biblioteca?

There’s a catch to the whole 5 month thing.

The diplomats who learn Spanish faster than you can hold onto a jar of peanut butter spend 5 hours in the classroom and do 3-4 hours homework every day. That’s like a full time job: 8 – 9 hours a day, 5 days a week over a 24 week period.

It takes them around 1000 hours to speak fluent Spanish.

Most people don’t have 8 hours a day to study, so you’ll probably need to spread those hours out (peanut butter pun intended). If you study for an hour a day, it could take you 3 years to learn Spanish to such a high level.

This easy language is suddenly starting to sound like a lot of hard work.

Of course, these figures won’t be the same for everyone. It depends on how motivated you are, how much experience you have and the techniques you use. Benny Lewis from fluent in 3 months says you can learn faster, with the right approach. But even the king of speedy language learning recognises that it takes 400 – 600 hours.

By the most optimistic of estimates, an easy language will still take you a good few hundred hours to learn.

 

What makes a language easy or difficult?

I’m guessing you’re here because you like the idea of learning a language without too much hard work. I’m with you on that one.

Most of the time, I’d rather eat my own shoe than memorise irregular verbs.

 

How I feel about irregular verbs.

But how do you know if a language is going to be hard work or not?

Most people look at how long it takes. From the Foreign Service Institute language categories, you could say that Spanish is easier than Chinese because Spanish takes an estimated 575-600 hours’ classroom time while Mandarin Chinese takes an estimated 2200 hours’ classroom time.

So we know Chinese takes a longer. Almost four times as long. But does that make it more difficult?

Difficult is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as:

  • Needing much skill or effort
  • Characterised by or causing hardships or problems

The word difficult, conjures up images of the fun police. It makes me imagine yawning over school books until my eyes water and forcing myself to do things I don’t like.

It makes me imagine a battle between the ambitious part of my brain that wants to learn a language and the Homer Simpson side that wants to watch TV and drink beer. And feeling guilty when Homer inevitably wins.

Language learning shouldn’t be like that.

Challenging? Yes. Time consuming? Of course.

But difficult?

 

Why the “no pain no gain!” approach doesn’t always work

If it feels so difficult you’d rather chow down on your shoelaces than study, you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, the harder you try, the harder a language is to learn. There are a few reasons for this.

Information overload

You know that feeling when you’re bombarded with so much information that you can’t take anything in?

Working memory is our ability to temporarily hold new information in our minds while we use it to carry out tasks – like keeping numbers in your head as you add them up. A bit like a mental jotter pad.

We use it a lot when learning a language, for example to:

  • Keep in mind the meaning of a word you’ve just looked up when trying to decipher a sentence.
  • Remember what you heard at the beginning of a sentence as you listen to the rest.
  • Remember what you want to say as you paste together grammar and vocabulary to express your ideas.

Our working memory can only process a relatively small amount of information at any given time. Trying to do too much in one go – like calculating 6897 x 5785 or figure out the meaning of a sentence with too many unfamiliar words – can lead to overload, which gets in the way of learning.

Tension gets in the way of learning

If you’re pushing yourself to do something that feels too difficult, you’ll probably end up feeling frustrated or stressed out. This works against you because stress interferes with learning in a big way. Research suggests that we learn languages better when we’re chillaxed.

If it’s too painful, you’ll probably give up

If learning a language always feels like uphill struggle, you’ll end up dreading it. Willpower doesn’t last forever: most people will give up sooner or later if they don’t enjoy what they’re doing.

When “no pain no gain” is bad advice. If language learning is too difficult, it can be counter productive: it’s hard to take in, creates stress and makes it tricky to stay motivated.

How to make any language easy to learn

I’m learning Mandarin Chinese at the moment and it feels easy.

By easy, I do not mean fast. I don’t even mean that I’m good at it. It takes thousands of hours to reach an advanced level in Mandarin Chinese and I’ve still got a long way to go.

But it feels easy because I’m learning at a pace that works for me. I’m challenging myself, but not straining. And I’m motivated because I spend my study time doing things I like.

Easy or difficult doesn’t depend on how many hours it takes, or how complicated the grammar is. It doesn’t even depend on how good or bad you are at it. It depends on how you feel while you’re doing it.

If your idea of learning a language is spending hundreds of hours with your nose to the grindstone, you’re going to make yourself miserable (if you don’t quit first). Every language will feel difficult, from Spanish to Mandarin Chinese and everything in between.

If you can find your learning sweet spot, where you’re challenging yourself but not frustrated or overwhelmed, any language will feel easy, whether it’s Chinese, Japanese, Arabic or Korean.

But, if you can find your learning sweet spot, where you’re challenging yourself but not frustrated or overwhelmed, any language will feel easy, whether it’s Chinese, Japanese, Arabic or Korean. Sure, they’ll take a long time, but they won’t feel difficult.

Instead of asking “which language is the easiest to learn?”, a more helpful question is:

how can I approach the language I want to learn so it feels easier?”

With this in mind, here are 5 ways to make any language easy to learn:

1. Concentrate on the bricks, not the wall

When Will Smith was 12, his dad knocked down the brick wall in front of his business and asked him to rebuild it. It took him over a year, but he built it. And it taught him an important lesson about how to approach challenges without getting overwhelmed. He says:

“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.”

Learning a language like Chinese or Arabic probably feels tougher than building the biggest, baddest wall that’s ever been built. But don’t get distracted by the big picture.

Just focus on laying one brick at a time. In each study session, build on what you already know by learning one more thing, then one more. If you keep it up for long enough, you’ll step back and realise that you’ve learned fluent Chinese (or built a nice new wall in your garden).

2. Use the Goldilocks rule to get the level just right.

Imagine trying to talk about politics or read a newspaper in the language you’ve only just started learning. You’d probably get discouraged and give up pretty quickly.

Now imagine spending several lessons learning to count from one to ten. You’d probably get bored and give up pretty quickly.

In his article The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and in Business James Clear talks about the importance of setting goals which are just right: achievable enough that you don’t feel discouraged, but challenging enough that you don’t get bored.

Finding the optimal challenge level, when you’re working hard, but not too hard is key to staying motivated.

Keep this in mind when you’re using textbooks and other resources. If you’re losing interest, could it be that the content is too easy or difficult?

Aim for something that stretches you just beyond your current level, without being overwhelming. 

Another way to make difficult tasks more appropriate for your level is to break them down into smaller chunks. For example, if studying grammar for 30 minutes feels too hard, why not go for 15 minutes instead? Or even 5?

A few minutes can add up to a lot of progress, when you do it every day.

3. Do something you like

Boredom is the first stop on the way to quitsville. The more you enjoy your study sessions, the less difficult the language will feel. If your current study materials don’t do it for you, find something that does. This article on 32 fun ways to learn a language (that actually work) has a few ideas to get you started.

4. Stay in the game

Over the 100s (or 1000s) of hours it takes to learn a language, you’ll probably face a few dips in motivation. It’s a good idea to have some strategies in place to help you stick it out when this happens. Two of my faves are:

  • Don’t break the chain: Put a cross on the calendar for every day you study. Seeing the chain get longer and longer gives you a sense of satisfaction – once you’ve build up a chain, you won’t want to break it by missing a day.
  • Record your progress: Language learning happens little by little and progress can be imperceptible in the short term. This is discouraging because it feels like your hard work isn’t paying off. But if you could look back at yourself a few months ago, you’d notice an improvement and feel more confident about your progress. Try recording yourself speaking, so you can look back and see how far you’ve come.

5. Is it difficult or just new?

This is my favourite question to ask students when they complain that something is hard. Because usually, they consider my question for a second and say “ah, it’s just new”.

Think about tying your shoelaces. It’s easy now, but you probably struggled at the beginning.

It takes time to develop a new skill. That doesn’t mean it’s too hard, you just need practice.

But if you think it’s going to be hard, it probably will be. Research suggests that when we expect tasks to be difficult, we’re more likely to lose motivation. 

Your attitude to learning matters. By adopting the mantra “it’s not difficult, it’s just new” you can get the benefit of what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the growth mindset: instead of thinking “this is too hard”, you can turn your focus to a little, but powerful word: “yet” – “I don’t know how to do this, yet”.

But with perseverance, you will.

Bonus point

Did you guess which language is the closest to English? It’s a language called Frisian, which is mostly spoken in Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. Frisian is actually a group of three, closely related languages, but when people say Frisian, they’re usually referring to West Frisian, as it’s the most commonly spoken. Here’s an example of how similar West Frisian and English can be:

English: Bread, butter and green cheese.

West Frisian: Brea, bûter en griene tsiis

Over to you: Which language are you learning at the moment? How could you apply one of the 5 suggestions above to make it feel easier? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Intermediate level.

AKA the brick wall of language learning: if you bang your head against it for long enough, you’ll start to break it down – but it hurts.

As a beginner, if you only know 10 words, learning 10 more feels like a big win. But if you learn 10 new words when you already know 1000… meh.

You notice a dip in your progress as every new word or grammar point feels like a drop in the big language ocean. And as you’re not seeing as much progress as before, your motivation starts to wane.

Most people never make it past this point. But you can, by following this one amazing secret to reaching advanced fluency…

First, you’ll need some expensive software, lots of long vocabulary lists and a one way ticket to the country where the language is spoken.

Now throw all of that away and just keep doing what you’re already doing.

I’m not good with fancy language learning techniques: I don’t know any one-size-fits all shortcuts and I can’t help you memorise 2000 words in 10 days while you sleep.

But I do know that if you stick with it, you’ll get there.

The only way to get past intermediate level, then, is to not quit. And while there are no magic remedies, there are some important steps you can take to speed things up and make the process more enjoyable.

Here are 7 (almost) painless ways to push through the intermediate plateau. At the end, I’ll tell you how I’ll be integrating these ideas into my own language learning in March.

1. Shake it up

One sure-fire way to slow down learning is doing stuff that bores you. Our brains like novelty: we remember things more easily when we experience them in new contexts.

So if the idea of studying gives you the yawns, it’s time to try something new. The beauty of language learning is that there are so many ways to achieve the same result. Try a new book, follow a recipe in your target language, watch a TedTalk, listen to a podcast or meet a native speaker in the pub for a language exchange.

One word of caution: avoid shiny object syndrome, that is, collecting lots of new language resources and not using any of them. The key is to find the right balance between consistency and trying new things. This balance will look different for each person. For me, it means switching up my methods/books/materials every month or so, while keeping other things constant. Which leads me to number 2…

 

2. Find your rituals

I get bored quickly and I’m always on the lookout for new textbooks, TV series, YouTube videos etc. to keep things interesting. That said, I’ve got a few learning rituals that I try to keep constant because I know they work for me. Depending on the language, this might be my study time, the way I remember vocabulary or my lessons with online tutors.

 

3. Choose stuff you enjoy doing in your native language

At intermediate level you can (and should) start using materials for native speakers. This makes life a lot more interesting as you can finally move on from “the book is on the table” to real and interesting content. Choose something you enjoy doing in your native language: reading sports news, photography blogs, video games, soap operas – whatever floats your boat – and look for ways to do it in the language you’re learning. It takes time to look up new words and get used to the sentence structures, so if you don’t care about what it says in the first place, you’ll get bored. Quick tip: if you’re using blogs, try the google translate add-on to translate words directly on the webpage.

 

4. Smaller is better

There might be something that you never feel doing, but you know it will help you get to the next level. For lots of people (including me!), it’s anything that feels like school, such as learning grammar rules. Try starting with a very small goal, like 10 minutes. Once you’ve started, you’ll often find it wasn’t as bad as you thought and you’ll be happy to keep going for a little longer.

 

5. Measure your progress

At intermediate level, progress is an accumulation of lots of little steps: it’s difficult to notice improvement from one day to the next. But if you look at your language skills over a longer period of time, you’ll realise just how far you’ve come. Recording a video or audio file once every few months is a great way to track your progress over time.

 

6. Celebrate your achievements

When you were a beginner, you’d have been really excited at the idea of reaching intermediate level. Now you’re here and you’re beating yourself up about not being advanced yet. It’s human nature: as soon as we reach one goal, instead of celebrating, we move the goal post. Stop beating yourself about not being further ahead and start celebrating how far you’ve come.

 

7. Be like Buddha

Did you know that Buddha was a polyglot? Actually I just made that up. But his dedication to the present moment would have made him an excellent language learner. It takes time to learn a language: if you view the process as something you have to “white-knuckle” until you get to advanced level, you’re going to make yourself miserable in the meantime. Instead of looking at the big gap between where you are now and where you want to be, focus on each step that moves you on a little from your current level. Find things you enjoy, focus on the task in hand and the learning will take care of itself.

Those were my 7 keys to push through the intermediate plateau. Next, I’m going to tell you how I plan to apply these ideas to my own language learning in March.

My Language learning plans: March 2017

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

Chinese

I’m currently doing the Add1Challenge for Mandarin: I’m trying to learn as much as possible in 3 months so I can have a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker on day 90. Here’s my day 60 update.

Last month

In February, I set myself the following tasks:

– Keep working through the Pimsleur and Assimil courses: I’m almost done with the Pimsleur course, but I need to get a move on with Assimil if I want to get through it before the challenge finishes.

– Read 1 graded reader story per week: I managed 3 weeks out of 4, so I’m happy with that.

Learning Chinese with graded readers

– Translate videos on fluentu: I aimed to translate one video per week from Chinese into English and back again. The videos were short, so I managed this without too much trouble.

– Have 3 conversation lessons per week with a native speaker on italki. I really enjoy chatting to my conversation tutors, so I met this target easily.

March

As I write this, there are only 10 days left until the end of my challenge – eek! Day 90 is approaching fast and I need to knuckle down, but I’m getting bored of following such a structured routine. For the last 10 days, I’m going to shake it up by creating an immersion environment at home. This means when I’m not working or socialising, I’ll immerse myself in Chinese by listening to podcasts, reading, watching videos or chatting to native speakers online. No structure, no routine, just whatever I feel like doing, whenever I feel like doing it.

 

German

I try to study German for an hour a day, most days. It’s one of my little language rituals that’s been working out well for me over the last year.

Recently I’ve been feeling a bit lazy so my daily German practice has turned into 60 minutes of German TV. It’s certainly better than nothing and I feel like my listening’s improving, but I know I could make more progress if I learned bits of grammar here and there. In March I’m going to try and squeeze in 10 minutes of grammar per day.

 

Other languages

With the exception of German, I’m going to ease off my other languages in the first part of March so I can focus on my Chinese immersion.

Here are my plans for Italian, French and Spanish in the last 2 weeks in March:

 

Italian

Reading

I’ve got a big pile of Italian books by my bed that I want to work my way through this year. I’m not doing very well with this so far as I’ve been trying to read in bed and I’m one of those people who conks out as soon as their head hits the pillow. I’m going to try and make some time for reading in the day and see if this helps.

My big pile of (unread) Italian books

Pronunciation

In January and February I aimed to work on my Italian pronunciation for 10 minutes per day, but for some reason I’m finding it hard to sit down and get started. Perhaps I’m not very motivated because the methods feel a little too much like hard work. In the rest of March, I’m going to look for more enjoyable ways to work on my Italian pronunciation.

French and Spanish

In February, I translated a 3 minute dialogue per week into English and back into French/Spanish. I find this technique super useful, but but I’m starting to get a little bored. I’ll probably come back to it at some point in the future but I’m going to take a little break for now. So for the last 2 weeks in March I’ll focus on stuff I really enjoy, like watching TV or listening to audiobooks.

I also aimed to learn 5 words per day, which I didn’t manage. I’m going to take it down to 15 words per week to give myself a more achieveable target (I can always do more if I feel like it).

Finally, to keep improving, I feel like I should be doing a little grammar, so I’m going to try and do 10 minutes a day in both languages.

Now I’d like to hear from you: Do you hit a language wall sometimes? How do you get over it? Let us know in the comments below!

Happy learning,

You know those great life ideas you always talk about (often after a few drinks) but never actually get round to doing?

Me and my Italian other half, Matteo have always talked about making a podcast to help people learn Italian.

Our conversations would go something like this:

“Yeeah! As a half English, half Italian team, we understand the problems people have when learning Italian, and we can show them Italy through the eyes of an Italian. And it’d be loads of fun to make.”

Me and Matteo, enjoying our favourite part of Italian culture: the food!
Me and Matteo, enjoying our favourite part of Italian culture: the food!

So this month, I’m excited to announce that we actually went and did it!

Introducing our new Italian podcast, 5 minute Italian, which will help you learn Italian in bitesized pieces.

In today’s episode, we’re talking about how you can use words you already know in English to start speaking Italian quickly.

For free access to future episodes, you can subscribe to our Italian mailing list.

While we’re on the subject of learning Italian, I’m excited to announce that we’re launching our Survival Italian course in January. And we’re giving one place away for free!

One of our 5 minute Italian listeners will win a place on Survival Italian, a unique four week online course designed to get you speaking Italian right from the first class. In this course, we’ve created small live group classes (via Skype), video tutorials and mini assignments to help you pick up the basics, rapido.

To enter, all you have to do is sign up to the 5 minute Italian mailing list.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy listening to 5 minute Italian as much as we enjoyed making it.

Now I’d like to hear from you: what would you like us to talk about in future episodes of 5 minute Italian? Let us know in the comments below!

Happy learning,

kh -01

Do you find language learning boring?

Not long ago, my answer to this question would have been a resolute no. I’d always enjoyed learning languages because it never felt like work.

I used to ditch textbooks as soon as I could in favour of more interesting things like reading books, watching TV and films, listening to music and most importantly, finding lovely native speakers to chat to. I’d dive head first into the culture and come out the other side being able to speak the language. It was fun.

But that changed recently.

Language learning got boring

As my language goals got more ambitious, my learning style changed for the worse. I tried to capitalise on my new found motivation to learn a language “the proper way”, by using textbooks, learning grammar rules and memorising words.

And let me tell you, it was dull.

Learning this way choked the life out of the languages I was learning. I love languages, but I don’t give a shiz about grammar and vocabulary unless I can see it being used in real life. The living language that comes up in authentic materials, not those cringey conversations in textbooks.

Don’t get me wrong, textbooks are useful in the beginning to get a basic idea of how the language works. And later, they come in handy as a reference. But there’s nothing more boring than learning grammar and vocabulary out of context.

Learning with authentic materials

I like learning that stuff little by little as it “pops up” in books, films, TV series, music and conversations with native speakers. When I can link grammar and vocabulary to a real conversation, a character in a book, or a scene in a film, it comes alive. I learn better this way because I’m genuinely interested in finding out what people are saying and I want to learn how to talk like them.

Of course, it’s hard to learn from an impenetrable flow of words, so it’s important to choose materials that are the right level. This is where resources like graded readers, the easy language series and slow spoken podcasts come in handy. Materials that use the language in real and engaging ways but in simple and slow speech that learners can understand.

Learning Chinese with a graded reader
Learning Chinese with a graded reader

November language learning review

My November language missions got off to a bad start because I’d planned too much time on the textbooks. I wasn’t interested in the materials I was using and I struggled to get motivated. So halfway through the month, I pulled the plug on my original plans and went back to my old learning style:

  • I swapped my German textbook for the Easy German YouTube videos.
  • I put my Italian grammar book back on the shelf and spent more time working with TV series.
  • I cut my flashcards down to maximum 5 new words a day, so I could spend less time rote memorising words and more time engaging with the language in authentic contexts.
Learning German with videos
Learning German with videos

These changes worked and I feel like I’ve finally got my language learning mojo back.

Language goals for December

My priority for this month is to keep learning with authentic resources I enjoy, including:
– Books, websites, magazines, TV, films, radio, and music
– Chatting to native speakers on italki

Using the language

One problem with authentic materials is that the learning can be quite passive: you absorb a lot of language through listening and reading, but you don’t practice using it.

I’m going to make my study sessions more active by doing the following:

  • Mini talks: In each session, I’ll speak aloud for a few minutes about what I read or heard. This will give me the chance to practice using any new grammar and vocabulary that comes up.
  • Bilingual translation: I’m going to translate short dialogues into English and back into the language I’m learning. This technique will help me hone my listening skills and practice building sentences.
  • Recycling: I’ll revisit grammar and vocabulary and use it in new contexts, either by writing example sentences or using them in conversation questions for my language tutors on italki.

Pop up grammar
I’m not going to sit down with a textbook and study grammar in a linear way. Instead, I’m going to investigate grammar questions as they “pop up”. For example, if I’m reading something in German and I hear the word “alles” (everything), it might remind me that I sometimes see the word “alle” (everyone) and that I don’t fully understand the difference between the two. When questions like this pop up, I’ll make a note to investigate them further once I’ve finished reading/listening.

Pronunciation
Good pronunciation is probably the most important language skill you can develop. It’s the first thing people hear when you open your mouth and it has a strong influence on your perceived mastery of a language. Clear pronunciation helps you manage conversations smoothly, blend in more easily and allows you to feel closer to a culture and its people. This month, I’m going to give pronunciation the attention it deserves.

eff it days
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a little lazy voice in your brain won’t stop shouting “eff it, let’s just sit around in pjs all day eating cheese” (or is that just me?!). When this happens, I’m going to give in to temptation and do “lazy” activities in my target language like watching TV and films. And probably eat too much brie.

I might look up the odd word or grammar point that comes up, but I won’t force myself to do anything if I don’t feel like it. This way I can recharge my batteries whilst still getting exposure to the languages I’m learning.

You d
You can even learn in your pyjamas!

Languages

At the moment I’m learning 5 languages. Each month I have a sprint language, which I focus on intensively, and 4 marathon languages, which I study in a more relaxed fashion. In the sprint language, I immerse myself in the language as much as possible through daily activities like watching TV, reading and listening to the radio. My sprint language for December is Chinese.

Chinese

I’m planning to join the add1challenge in Chinese which starts on the 12th Dec, so this month’s all about Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is one of my newest (and weakest) languages and I’m still using beginners material to get a basic idea of how it all works. In December I’m aiming to whizz through these and get onto authentic materials as quickly as possible. Here’s the plan:

  • The textbooky stuff
    – Assimil: I’ve got around 30 chapters left and I’m hoping to finish this before the month’s up.
    – Pimsleur: I’m going to listen to the Pimsleur level 3 Chinese course on my walk to work. I’m aiming to do one 30 minute lesson per day.
  • Authentic(-ish) materials
    I’m going to read one graded reader story per week and watch one video on FluentU per day. On lazy days, I’ll switch off my brain and veg out in front of some Chinese TV on viki.com
  • Speaking
    I’m aiming to do around 3 lessons per week with native speaker tutors on italki
  • Pronunciation
    I’m going to learn about Chinese pronunciation by working my way through these videos from the lovely Yangyang at yoyo Chinese.
  • Vocabulary
    I’m aiming to learn around 5 new words per day. I’ll do this by choosing the most useful words I come across in my reading and listening and adding them to my Chinese flashcard set.

Italian

This month’s Italian goal is all about pronunciation.

My Italian accent certainly isn’t bad: I’ve even managed to fool people into thinking I was a native speaker for short amounts of time. But it’d be really cool if I could manage to do this for longer periods of time, and more often.

Sounding exactly like a native may not be a realistic goal, but it’d be nice to get as close as I can.

To do this, I’m going to work on two areas:

1. Sound training
To improve your pronunciation you need to train your mouth muscles to adopt the right mouth positions, and your ears to hear the differences between sounds which seem similar to non-native ears. I’m going to focus on the pronunciation of one sound per week by using my Italian pronunciation book, watching YouTube videos and practicing tongue twisters.

2. Sentence training
As well as individual sounds, it’s important to pay attention to whole sentences and paragraphs in order to imitate the speed, rhythm and intonation of native speakers. To do this, I’m going to pick a short dialogue, listen several times and analyse how the Italian sounds differ from the English ones. Then I’ll record myself reciting the scene and try to make my pronunciation as close as possible to that of the native speaker.

I’ll also going try the shadowing method, developed by polyglot Alexander Arguelles, which involves talking over a track and trying to match your speech as closely as possible to the native speaker voice underneath.

Lastly, I’m going to play around with the audio editing software audacity which will help me compare my pronunciation to that of the native speakers.

I’m aiming to do this for around 30 mins per day (apart from weekends!) with sound and sentence training on alternate days.

As well as pronunciation, I’m going to keep working on my listening and learning about Italian culture by watching 30 minutes of TV per day and watching 1 Italian film per week.

Spanish, German and French

In November I developed a language learning routine which has been working really well for me, so I’m going to continue using it for Spanish, German and French this month.

Each week, I pick a 5 minute dialogue (with original language subtitles) and do the following:

  • Pronunciation warm up: tongue twisters, songs etc.
  • Speaking practice: a 3 minute mini talk – what can I remember about the dialogue?
  • Listening: watch the dialogue and check, did I miss anything out?
  • Bilingual translation: listen to 1-2 minutes of the dialogue and take notes in English. Then translate the English text back into the original language. Note down any new grammar and vocabulary.
  • Listening: listen to the original dialogue and check against my version. Correct any mistakes.
  • Pop up grammar: investigate any grammar questions that come up during the translations.
  • Shadowing: listen to the dialogue again and read along, trying to match my speech as closely as possible to the native speakers’.
  • Vocabulary: add a few new words to my flashcards and review vocabulary from the last few days.
  • Recycling: once the dialogue’s finished, reuse the new words and grammar to write example sentences and questions for my language tutors on italki.

This technique is motivating because I can use it with resources I enjoy, like TV shows and films. And it’s effective because it squeezes all of the important language skills in over a relatively short amount of time including speaking, listening, reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

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It looks like December’s going to be full of language learning fun, I can’t wait!

As always, I’d love to hear your ideas on the topic. Do you sometimes find language learning boring? What do you do to make it more exciting? Let us know in the comments below!

Happy learning,

kh -01

Every year, I’m surprised by how quickly the warm weather comes around in Milan. Just two weeks ago everyone was wrapped up in scarves and gloves, but yesterday we reached a whopping 21°C (69.8°F).

This is the time of year when Italy really starts to feel like Italy. Social lives fill up with long, lazy lunches, wine with friends on the terrace after work and weekend trips to explore the countryside, lakes and beaches.

Italian is the very first language I learned, back in 2008. To this day, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.

Why? Because being able to speak Italian has led to opportunities and changes that have made my life better in countless ways: some big, like moving to Milan and falling in love with an Italian, and some small, like learning how to pronounce gelato like Italians do.

Learning a new language always brings new opportunities and exciting changes. If you’re thinking about learning one but you’re struggling to decide which, here are a few great reasons to choose Italian:

1. The people: There’s something about warm climates that seems to make people more sociable. Italian culture, more than any other culture I’ve experienced, is all about people. Not just da family as the stereotype would have it, but everyone. Italians love meeting new people: they’re curious, friendly and take a genuine interest in you. Needless to say, this is a huge plus when it comes to trying out your Italian skills on the locals. When you give Italian a go – even if you can only string a few words together (that’s how I started) – most Italians are warm, patient and want to help. Also, from a purely linguistic point of view, many Italians feel more comfortable speaking their own language than English. This gives you a real world reason to use your Italian, which helps you learn quicker.

2. The food: OK, so I promised not to mention pizza, ice-cream, limoncello and nutella. But I couldn’t write a whole article about Italy without mentioning food. One of the cool things about learning Italian is that you suddenly start learning more about the Italian words that made it into our culture. For example, did you know that the word panini isn’t the name of a long, flat sandwich? It’s actually the word for sandwiches in general. One sandwich is called a panino, while two or more take the plural form panini. Or did you know that the word bruschetta is actually pronounced brusketa, with a hard “k” sound in the middle? There are loads of examples like this and finding out more about the original words as you learn gives you a great sense of satisfaction.

3. The lifestyle: I’m sure I don’t have to sell Italy to you as a holiday destination. It makes it onto almost every list of the most desirable places to visit in the world. But when you visit as a tourist, you only scratch the surface of Italy. Speaking the language gives you the chance to get up close and personal to the culture and its people so you can get your own little slice of la dolce vita.

4. You already know Italian: I’ll let you in on a little secret. Learning Italian is not as hard as you think it is. I’ll give you an example: how do you say the word option in Italian? Go on, guess. Wave your hands around like Italians do and pronounce the English word with your very best Italian accent. That’s right – it’s opzione pronounced optzi-owny. Now try again with the word fantastic. That’s right, fantastico! There are 1000s of words like this and many are in everyday use, so you can start using them straight away.

Ready to get started? Learn Italian with me

Now I’d like to hear from you. What language are you learning at the moment? Why did you choose it? Join the conversation in the comments below!

p.s. If you know someone who’ll find this post useful, pass it on. Grazie!