These things can make a difference. But many of the people I know who speak several languages also share certain personality traits that seem to make language learning easier for them.
What are they, and can you cultivate them to learn a language better?
Today’s guest, professor Tim Keeley, is an expert on how personality type and emotions can affect your success in language learning.
In this interview, Tim talks about:
Why certain personality types are better – or worse – at learning foreign languages.
The tiny, almond-shaped part of your brain that makes a big difference to how you learn.
How to develop the character traits that will help you learn a language.
Why it’s ok – and normal – to make beginners’ mistakes, even at advanced levels.
As well as knowing a lot about the psychology behind how people learn languages, Tim speaks a baffling number of languages himself (watch the beginning to find out how many!) – if you’re looking for inspiration and practical ideas to boost your language learning, Tim Keeley’s your man.
How to become emotionally resilient and learn languages more easily
Good news: with practice, you can cultivate more emotional resilience and become better at learning languages. In this section, Tim gives tips on how to feel calmer when speaking a foreign language, so that more learning can happen.
Lots of people say they speak a foreign language better after a drink or two.
It seems logical.
One of the trickiest things about speaking a language is the nerves and alcohol lowers inhibitions.
But does drinking really help you speak a foreign language better? Or just make you think you speak it better? After all, alcohol also makes people think they can dance like Beyonce, they should call their ex and that cheese is a food group.
Interestingly, science suggests that the “Dutch courage” effect is real – alcohol really can help you speak a foreign language.
Which is an interesting finding, if not all that helpful.
For a start, lots of people don’t drink alcohol. And even if you do like a tipple, what happens when you need to speak the language over breakfast, or at the airport?
It’s just not practical to crack out the bubbly every time you want to speak a foreign language.
In this article, we’ll talk about:
The science behind why alcohol helps you speak a foreign language better.
How to get the same confidence boost without touching a drop.
Science says alcohol helps you speak a foreign language (kind of)
Last year, researchers invited 50 Germans who spoke Dutch as a second language into the lab. Half were given a drink with vodka in it, while the others got a drink which was alcohol-free.
Once the Germans had finished their drinks, they were asked to have a conversation in Dutch. Two native Dutch speakers (who didn’t know who had drunk alcohol and who hadn’t) listened to the recordings and rated the Germans on how well they spoke Dutch.
Alcohol might improve your pronunciation, but only in moderation
It’s important to keep in mind that the pronunciation gains were linked to small amounts of alcohol. In the most recent study, the Germans consumed less than a pint of beer. Back in 1972, the sweet spot was 1.5 oz of 90 proof alcohol, which is around one shot of strong whiskey. Participants who drank more than that, or who drank on an empty stomach, performed worse than the sober ones.
This fits in with my experience when I moved to Italy. When I went to the pub with my Italian friends, I found that the first drink helped, but any more than 2 and I struggled to keep up with the conversation.
Which is not all that surprising. Large amounts of alcohol impairs concentration, memory and makes you slur your words – not ideal for speaking a foreign language.
So in answer to our question:
Can alcohol help you speak a foreign language?
Yes, but only pronunciation. And only in small amounts.
Why does this happen?
Why does alcohol improve your pronunciation in a foreign language?
One theory is that alcohol helps you open up to a new cultural identity.
Pronunciation forms a strong part of your identity because it links you to a community. If you have a London accent, this could suggest all kinds of things about you including the type of job you might have, your religious or political views, the kinds of things you eat for dinner and certain personality traits.
Learning the sounds of a new language requires you to leave this behind, which explains why you might feel a bit silly when speaking a new language – it doesn’t feel like you.
In the 1972 study, the researchers suggested that drinking alcohol increases “ego permeability” – the willingness to temporarily give up the separateness of your identity so that you can mimic speakers of the second language.
But what about the confidence-boosting effect we talked about at the beginning of this article? Does alcohol help you feel more confident when you speak a foreign language? If we come back to our Dutch speaking Germans, we find a surprising twist in this cocktail.
Can alcohol help you feel more confident when you speak a foreign language?
When researchers asked the German groups how well they thought they’d spoken, there was no difference between the drinkers and the non-drinkers. This means that although their pronunciation was better, the Germans who had drunk alcohol didn’t feel more confident.
One reason for this could be that the participants didn’t actually know if they’d drunk alcohol or not (they were told that they may have a drink with alcohol in it).
In the comments to a recent question I posted about languages and drinking, Nasrul said:
I can’t drink wine because I’m Muslim. But I speak Arabic and English better after I’ve drunk something like mineral water and coke.
I do drink myself, but I remember going to the pub with friends on occasions when I didn’t. At first, I was worried that I would feel awkward, but after a while, I got into the conversations and forgot that I wasn’t drinking.
Pleasant moments, like sitting around a cozy table with friends, could be enough to help you relax into speaking a foreign language.
So far, we’ve learnt that:
Small doses of alcohol can improve your pronunciation (possibly because it helps you open up to a new cultural identity).
Too much alcohol can impair your ability to speak a foreign language.
The confidence-boosting effect of alcohol might not always be real.
Anything that helps you feel more relaxed could help you speak a foreign language better.
What does this mean for me?
If you drink alcohol, why not take advantage of these findings and combine it with language learning? You could meet a speaking partner at the pub and practise chatting over a drink.
But you don’t need alcohol to feel more confident when speaking a foreign language. There are plenty of other ways to increase your self-esteem.
Here are 4.
4 ways to feel confident when you speak a foreign language (no Dutch courage necessary!)
1. Close the cultural gap
If you’re not used to speaking to people from other countries, it can feel intimidating. While it’s natural to focus on your differences at first, research suggests that this kind of “me and them” thinking could make it harder for you to learn the language.
Breaking down cultural barriers will help you speak the language better. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Most cultural differences are on the surface. When you get closer to people from different cultures, you’ll realise that you have a lot in common. Many values, like kindness, friendship and family, are universal.
Put yourself in their shoes
Imagine you come from the culture of the language you’re learning. What does a typical day look like? What time do you wake up? What do you wear? What do you eat for breakfast? You can even go deeper – What keeps you up at night? What makes you smile? This will help you get closer on a practical and emotional level.
When you spend time hanging around with people you like from that culture, you’ll get an insider view that will help you understand and connect with other native speakers. Get tips on where to find these people in step 4.
Don’t take yourself so seriously
When dealing with a new language and culture, you’ll probably have awkward moments where you make mistakes, or you’re not sure what to say or do. If you shut down from fear of mistakes, this will create distance between you and the native speakers you want to talk to.
Arm yourself with a good sense of humour and learn to laugh at yourself. Most people are forgiving of the mistakes foreigners make when navigating their culture – if you let them laugh with you, you’ll never struggle to make friends.
2. Practise a lot (even if it feels uncomfortable)
You cannot think yourself out of feeling nervous.
In fact, trying to convince yourself not to feel nervous makes everything worse, because you create a new problem:
1. You feel nervous
2. You’re nervous about the fact that you can’t stop feeling nervous.
If you accept that nerves are a normal part of learning to speak a foreign language, you’ll make life easier for yourself. So, if you can’t stop the nerves by thinking, what can you do instead?
Take action. The most reliable way to gain confidence when speaking a foreign language is simple: practise until it feels normal.
And you don’t have to start at the deep end – you can gradually build up to conversations. Find a step-by-step guide in this post:
To make speaking a language more enjoyable (and therefore less nerve-wracking) try practicing the language in fun social situations. For example:
Are there any meetups in your area where you can practice speaking the language with like-minded people?
Can you meet a language exchange partner in a place you love? Like at a café or in the park? Can you go to an art gallery or sightseeing? Or how about cooking together?
You’ll probably still feel nervous at the beginning, but that’s nothing to worry about. Remember, the secret is getting started.
The more you do it, the easier it gets.
4. Practise with people who make you feel comfortable
In your native language, there are probably people you feel relaxed around, and others who make you a bit uncomfortable.
It’s no different for language learning. I’ve been learning Italian for years, but there are still people and situations that make me nervous. For example, I get a bit of social anxiety around friends of friends who are very different from me. Or when ordering in shops and restaurants (I feel awkward talking to people I don’t know in English, so in Italian, it’s worse!)
This doesn’t mean you should avoid people and situations that make you feel awkward (remember, nerves are a normal part of language learning). But it does mean that you’ll probably find it more difficult to speak in these situations, so they’re not ideal for practicing.
The best way to improve your speaking skills in a second language is to find people who make you feel comfortable and practise with them regularly.
Where can you find these people?
Online language tutors
One of the best places to practise speaking a foreign language 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:
Keep in mind that you don’t have to stick with the first person you find. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first tutor, keep looking until you find someone you click with.
Language Exchange Partners
Alternatively, look for people in your area who also want to learn your native language and set up a language exchange:
They help you practise speaking their native language
You help them practise speaking your native language
There are lots of websites and apps that help you find native speakers in your area, so you can meet up and practice speaking over a coffee (or glass of vino if you do drink). Conversation Exchange and Tandem are two examples.
Again, keep in mind that you don’t have to stick with the first person you find. It’s a bit like online dating – you can keep going until you find someone that feels right.
A fab way to feel comfortable and get a lot better at speaking is to join one of our immersion vacations. The vacations are run by myself and a patient native speaker teacher who will put you at ease and encourage you to speak.
To practise speaking a language in beautiful locations, while doing fun and relaxing things like:
Wandering around lavender fields in Provence.
Island hopping across the Italian lakes
Nibbling on tapas and sipping on sangria (or virgin sangria) on the Costa Brava.
By the end, you’ll feel loads more confident because you’ll have spoken the language for a whole week! And you’ll have new friends to practise speaking with.
If you’d like to join us, you can find out more here:
Do you find it easier to speak a foreign language after a drink or two? Do you have any other techniques that help you relax when you’re speaking?
Reading, listening, speaking and writing.
As a language teacher, I’m supposed to tell you that they’re all equally important (a bit like not having a favourite child).
Between you and me, I have a favourite. One that’s more important than the others, at least for most people.
If your main reason for learning a language is to have conversations, the best way to train yourself is by listening to lots of conversations.
Yet it also happens to be one of the most frustrating skills to master.
You might understand quite a bit when you see the words written down or hear them spoken slowly and clearly. But when natives chat at 100mph and mush their words together, it can feel impossible to keep up.
Luckily, with the right strategies, you can train yourself to understand. In this in-depth guide, I’ll show you how to tune your ears into the language you’re learning so you can follow what native speakers are saying.
Why listening helps you speak a foreign language better.
The common problems that stop you from understanding (and how to fix them).
3 techniques to help you keep up with fast and unclear speech: Deliberate, Binge and Passive.
How to find the right listening resources.
Should you use subtitles? A science-based answer.
How to stop panicking and start understanding (+ other useful mindset stuff).
Why should I do more listening in a foreign language?
When you improve your listening skills, you’ll understand native speakers better – a fundamental skill for speaking a foreign language.
But listening has another benefit: It helps you learn how native speakers talk.
Of course, if your aim is to have conversations, you’ll also need to practice speaking. But one of the coolest things about listening is that it helps with your speaking skills. The more you listen, the more you’ll find that the right things “pop into your head” when you need them.
Listening helps you get the grammar right
Time for a little experiment. Let’s say you’re a native English speaker and I ask you which of the following is correct:
Last year I went to London
Last year I have been to London
Which would you choose?
Most native English speakers instinctively feel that the first sentence is right. They can’t tell you why, but they use it correctly even though they don’t know the rule.
When you listen a lot in a foreign language, you’ll pick up grammar without spending so much time memorising the rules. You’ll just know because it “sounds right” – a bit like in your native language.
This happens to me all the time. For example, German has several ways to say “the” (including der, die and das), which can be confusing for learners. But I know that Germans say das Foto. Why? Is it because I memorised it in a list of “das” words?
It’s because I’ve been watching a certain reality TV show (*Cough* Germany’s Next Topmodel) where they talk about photos a lot.
This doesn’t mean you should totally ignore grammar, but it does mean that you can pick up a lot relatively painlessly by listening as much as you can.
Listening helps you learn native-sounding expressions
Languages are full of little expressions that don’t translate logically. Look at the literal translations of the phrase “we’re nearly there” in different languages:
Italian: We are almost arrived (Siamo quasi arrivati).
Spoken French: One is almost arrived (On est presque arrivés).
Spanish: Already, we almost arrived (Ya casi llegamos).
Every language has thousands of little expressions like these and the best way to learn them is by hearing them in natural situations (either in real life, or via TV/films etc.)
Listening is a great way for busy people to learn a language
Just in case you needed another reason to increase the amount of listening you do in a foreign language, it’s the busy learner’s best friend. All you need is a smartphone and some headphones and you can listen as you go about your day without it taking up any extra time.
What if I don’t understand anything?
Have you ever felt a frustrating gap between your listening and reading abilities in a foreign language? When you see something written down (or if someone says it very slowly), you can follow what’s being said, but when they speak at normal speed… woosh!
Straight over your head.
If you understand when you have the words in front of you, it’s not a comprehension problem. The problem must be sound-related – your ears aren’t tuned into the foreign language yet.
There are 2 reasons this can happen.
Problem #1. The words sound different to how you expected
As you grew up, your brain adapted to your native language by zooming in on sounds that were important and filtering out the ones that weren’t. This is good because it helps you understand your first language better, even in unfavourable conditions, like over a crackly phone line or in a noisy pub.
But it means that when you listen to a second language as an adult, your ears play tricks on you. They make you think that the sounds in a foreign language are similar to your native language when actually they’re different.
Problem #2: You haven’t practised enough
At school, I hated Spanish listening exercises.
I remember feeling nervous before the teacher pressed play and the panic that set in as I missed everything that was being said. Then the self-flagellation – if I couldn’t do the class activity, I assumed the problem was me.
In Spanish class, we listened to a 2-minute audio, twice. This means I was listening to Spanish for around 4 minutes a week. It’s not surprising that my listening skills weren’t very good!
When it comes to listening in a foreign language, one of the biggest challenges is the speed – to keep up with native speakers, you have to get faster at understanding.
The best way to get faster at something?
To recap, there are two main reasons why you might find listening difficult in a foreign language:
The words sound different to how you expected.
You need more practice.
In the rest of this blog post, you’ll learn how to adapt to new sounds in the language you’re learning and get more practice (even if you don’t have much time) so you can understand native speakers more easily.
How to improve your listening in a foreign language
To train your listening in a foreign language, we’re going to use three different techniques.
Deliberate listening is all about the details. It’s a process that helps you identify what’s stopping you from understanding native speakers and fix it.
It draws from deliberate practice, a technique pioneered by psychologist Anders Ericsson, whose research suggests that you can become highly skilled in just about anything by following the 3 Fs:
Focus: Break the skill down into parts you can practice repeatedly
Feedback: Analyse your practice attempts and identify your weakness
Fix-it: Come up with ways to address your weaknesses so you can do better next time.
You can apply this technique to improve your listening in a foreign language. Let’s learn how.
Deliberate Listening Method 1: Dictation
In a classic dictation activity, you listen to the audio and write down what you hear. A deliberate listening dictation takes this one step further by analysing your mistakes so that you can fix them.
To get started, you’ll need some audio in the language you’re learning as well as a written version of the audio, such as a transcript or subtitles. If you need help finding these, see the next section: Where to Find Resources.
Step 1: Listen to a sentence and write what you hear. YouTube videos are ideal because you can skip back 5 seconds which makes it easy to listen to the sentence several times.
Quick tips for listening with YouTube videos:
Press the spacebar to play and pause.
Press the back arrow key to skip back 5 seconds.
Step 2: Did you understand everything? If yes, repeat step one with a new sentence. If no, look up the part you didn’t understand on the transcript/subtitles and identify the problem that stopped you from understanding.
Are there words or grammar you’re not familiar with? If yes, take a moment to look up the meaning of the word or investigate the grammar. If you think you’ll come across these words/grammar points a lot in future, make an effort to learn them so that you’ll understand them next time.
Did the words sound different to how you expected? If yes, how? Sounds often change in fast speech. For example, in French, Je ne saispas becomes j’sais pas. Accents can also make things trickier, for example, in Mandarin Chinese, people from Beijing sometimes pronounce the “sh” sound as “r”.
Listen carefully to the part that caused you trouble and repeat a few times. In what way are the sounds different from how you expected? Keep these differences in mind so you’ll be more likely to understand when you hear them next time.
Here’s an example of this technique in action.
Deliberate Listening Method 2: Skipping
The skipping method is similar to the dictation method but requires a bit less effort – for times when you can’t be bothered to go all in! Instead of writing down what you hear, you’re just going to use your ears.
Step 1: Listen to the audio. When you get to a part that you don’t understand, skip back and listen several times.
Step 2: If you still can’t figure out what’s being said, consult the transcript or subtitles. Then follow the rest of step 2 from the dictation method.
If it’s a vocabulary or grammar problem, look it up.
If it’s a sound problem, listen several times and focus on the sounds. In what way are they different to how you expected? Keep this in mind for future listening.
Deliberate Listening Method 3: Shadowing
Shadowing is also like the dictation method, but instead of writing, you say what you hear.
Step 1: Listen to the audio and copy the speaker – try to lay your voice over the speaker’s as closely as possible. Step 2: When you find a bit that trips you up, stop talking. Step 3: Skip back a few times and listen to that part as closely as you can. Step 4: If you still can’t understand, consult the transcript or subtitles.
If it’s a vocabulary or grammar problem, look it up.
If it’s a sound problem, listen several times and focus on the sounds. In what way are they different to how you expected? Keep this in mind for future listening.
Step 5: Go back to the tricky part and talk over it again, trying to mimic the new words/sounds you’ve learnt.
Here’s an example of this technique in action.
#2. Binge listening
While deliberate listening is about listening as carefully as possible, binge listening is all about listening as much as possible.
If you want to understand native speakers in the language you’re learning, it’s important to practise a lot. The more you practise listening, the faster you’ll be able to keep up.
Look for some long-format listening (like podcasts or TV shows) and listen as much as you can. Here are some examples of how you can fit listening into your day.
Listen to a news podcast as you eat breakfast
Listen to an audiobook in your car/on your way to work
Listen to a podcast as you do chores in the house: ironing, cleaning the bathroom, watching the dishes etc.
Watch YouTube videos in the language you’re learning while you’re procrastinating online
Watch a film or TV series in the evening.
The best thing about this kind of listening is that it doesn’t have to take any extra time out of your day – listening to a podcast while you’re walking to work or washing the dishes is easy even during busy times.
To get the most out of binge listening, look for materials that are:
1. At the right level
The ideal materials are ones where you can get the general gist of what’s going on, even if you don’t understand all the details. There should be new words and expressions, but not so many that you have to interrupt your listening every few seconds to look in a dictionary.
For lower levels, start with materials that have been simplified for learners. Here’s a list of listening materials you can use:
Beginner to intermediate:
Audio files from a learner textbook
Podcasts for learners
TV programmes for learners
YouTube channels for learners
Audiobooks for learners
Audiobooks and podcasts for native speakers (start with simple ones, like biographies or nonfiction).
YouTube channels for native speakers.
Films (don’t worry if you find these difficult, that’s normal even at high levels!)
More advice on where to find these in the next section: where to find resources.
2. Relevant to the skills you want to learn
If your aim is to have informal conversations with people, then talk shows, soap operas and reality TV are ideal because they will help you pick up grammar and vocabulary to talk about everyday stuff.
On the other hand, if you want to pass an oral exam, then it’s probably better to listen to news programmes and documentaries because they’ll help you learn how to speak in a more formal register.
3. Something you like
Listening in a foreign language is like cracking a code. It takes effort to decipher the unfamiliar sounds and understand the meaning.
When you don’t like what you’re listening to, you won’t feel motivated to crack the code because you don’t care about the message on the other side.
On the flip side, if you choose materials you like, you’ll be motivated to put in the work because you want to know what they’re saying. Also, as you’re going to be spending a lot of time doing it, you might as well pick something you enjoy!
If you like listening to the news in your native language, look for ways do this in the language you’re learning. If travel or photography is your thing, try and find podcasts about these topics. If you’re a reality TV addict or a Netflix fan, can you find some series in the language you’re learning?
Foreign language films and TV shows are tricky to understand in a foreign language, even at very high levels (so don’t worry if this is still a struggle for you!)
Subtitles can be a really handy tool, as long as they’re in the language you’re learning. Avoid subtitles in your native language – it’s too tempting to read them without making an effort to understand the foreign language.
When it comes to subtitles in the language you’re learning, while most people agree that they can help you learn a language, some worry that they’re not good for listening skills because you end up reading most of the time.
With passive listening, you just let the language wash over you without understanding what’s going on.
If you’re at a beginner to intermediate level, this could happen a lot when you try listening to materials for native speakers. It could also happen when you have the radio on in the background.
For learning to happen in a foreign language, you need to be able to follow the gist of what you’re hearing – it can’t happen through osmosis. For this reason, passive listening is probably the least effective of the 3 techniques, so you should focus most of your energy on the first two: deliberate and binge.
That said, passive listening can be handy sometimes, for the following reasons:
Being surrounded by the language helps you build a personal connection with it, which boosts motivation.
Getting used to not understanding everything is a good skill to have, it means you won’t panic so much when you hear the language in real-life situations.
It can help you get used to the rhythm and intonation of the language.
Improve your Listening in a foreign language: Where to Find Resources
Now you’re ready to start listening more in a foreign language, you’ll need some stuff to listen to! If you’re learning French, Spanish, Italian, Russian or Mandarin, you might find these posts useful:
Here are a few other handy resources which are available in lots of different languages.
One of my favourite resources for training yourself to understand native speakers is the Easy Languages YouTube Channel. The presenters go out into the streets and ask passersby interesting questions like “What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done?”
The answers are usually entertaining and the format gives you an example of natural speech, as well as a sneak peak into the culture of the language you’re learning.
The videos have subtitles in the language of learning and smaller subtitles in English so you can go back and check bits you didn’t understand. I like to cover the English ones up with a bit of folded paper to make sure I don’t cheat and read those ones first!
Here are links to some of the most popular languages:
If the US Sitcom friends and your school textbook had a love child, it would be the Extra Series. This educational sitcom follows the story of four young friends who share an apartment and is available in 4 languages: English, Spanish, German and French.
It’s cheesier than cheese, but if you can get past the hammy acting and over the top dialogues, it’s a really handy listening resource for beginner to intermediate levels.
Nowadays, there are lots of podcasts with slow-read audio to help learners understand better. Their websites often come with transcripts (look for links in the show notes/comments) which are handy for checking bits that you couldn’t make out in the listening. Here are a few I’ve found on iTunes and YouTube.
There is also the News in Slow series, which is available in French, Spanish, Italian and German.
A little word of warning – “slow” materials are a fantastic stepping stone to help you get used to listening in a foreign language, but try not to rely on them too much. The unnatural speed means that they don’t give you much chance to practice keeping up with normal native speech.
Coffee Break Season 2
The Coffee Break Podcasts are fab at any level, but season 2 and upwards are particularly good for improving your listening skills. Over the course of the series, Mark Pentleton and his team tell stories based on conversations, which are read at a clear yet natural pace. Once they’ve read the story, they go into key vocabulary and grammar points to help you understand the dialogues in depth.
If you’re learning an Asian language like Mandarin, Korean or Japanese, check out Viki.
They have a “Learn mode” with interactive, dual-language subtitles where you can click on a word you don’t know and get the definition. As with Easy languages, it’s a good idea to cover up the English subtitles with a bit of paper so you don’t get tempted to cheat and read them first!
In Learn Mode, you’ll also find very user-friendly commands so you can skip back and listen to phrases you didn’t understand several times (a bit like on YouTube).
Skills that will help you listen in a foreign language
Now you’ve got the techniques and the resources, let’s talk quickly about personal skills that will help you deal with the challenges of listening to a foreign language.
Skill #1: Tolerate ambiguity
When you’re listening in a foreign language, you’re going to spend a lot of time not getting stuff – that’s normal. If you have a tendency to get frustrated when you don’t understand things, you’re going to make life unnecessarily difficult for yourself. Accept ambiguity as a natural part of language learning and you’ll be able to remain calm and keep moving forward.
Skill #2: Have a growth mindset
People with a fixed mindset convince themselves that they can’t do something because they’re not good at it. People with a growth mindset recognise that all skills are hard at the beginning – they know that if they keep practising, they’ll make progress.
Learning to listen in a foreign language is all about perseverance. Stick with it and you’ll get there!
Skill #3: Be an observer
Get into the habit of observing native speakers – which words, phrases and sounds do they use? The more you observe native speakers, the more you’ll be able to make educated guesses about what they’re likely to say in certain situations, which will help you follow conversations more easily.
Listening in a foreign language can be a pain in the ear sometimes, but with the right kind of practice (and perseverance), you can do it!
Think about a typical day and decide:
When can you squeeze in some deliberate and binge listening?
Which resources are you going to use?
Keep chipping away at it and in a few months, you’ll understand native speakers much more easily.
Do you have any other strategies for improving listening that I didn’t mention in this guide? Or can you add any more good resources to the list? Let us know in the comments!
You know that dream where you’re standing in front of lots of people and you suddenly realise you’re naked?
Everyone’s staring at you.
An intense panic squeezes your chest and makes your hands and voice go all wobbly. You want to escape but for some reason, you can’t.
This happened to me last Friday.
Only it wasn’t a dream. Luckily for me (and everyone else in the room) I wasn’t naked. But the rest is true.
It happened while giving a talk at the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana for the Friday Language Learning Event. My brain turned to swiss cheese and I kept forgetting what I wanted to say. At one point, I was shaking so much that I had to grab the mic with both hands.
It reminded me of how I used to feel when speaking a foreign language – that moment when the nerves make your mind go blank and you can feel the listeners’ eyes on you while you scramble around to find the words.
So I’m using the same technique that I used to overcome my fear of speaking a foreign language. It’s a strategy that’s so useful, I’m actually looking forward to my next chance to speak in public.
It’s not fancy. There are no Jedi mindset tricks or motivational quotes with a beach in the background. It’s not a quick fix either – you actually have to put some time and effort in.
But it works. And you can use it to feel more confident when you speak a foreign language.
In this post, you’ll learn:
Why most advice on how to get over your nerves doesn’t work.
The reliable way to deal with your fear of speaking a foreign language.
A practical step-by-step guide to help you build your confidence and start speaking.
The simplest way to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language
I’m not a naturally confident person.
I used to (sometimes still do) get very anxious about things like speaking foreign languages, job interviews and public speaking. I’ve tried all kinds of tricks to get rid of my nerves, such as:
Telling yourself that you’re not nervous, you’re just “excited”
Asking yourself: “what’s the worst that could happen?”
Making the listener(s) less intimidating by imagining them sitting on the toilet.
None of it worked. Why?
Because trying not to feel nervous is a bit like trying not to think of a giant grasshopper crossing the road holding an umbrella. What are you thinking of?
These methods made me feel worse, because they made me focus on my nerves and turned them into a personal problem that I couldn’t get rid of.
How I learnt to feel confident when speaking a foreign language
Despite not being naturally courageous, these days I don’t get particularly nervous when speaking a foreign language. And the reason is simple: I’ve spent an awful lot of time doing it.
There is only one strategy that helps me feel more relaxed when speaking a foreign language, and it’s this:
Do it until it feels normal
There’s a quiet confidence that comes with having done something many times, that you can’t get any other way.
When I gave my talk at the polyglot conference, I was petrified because it was my first time – no amount of preparation or “positive self-talk” could have changed this. But somewhere between my shaky hands and fluttery stomach, there was a glimmer of hope: I survived.
Next time, it will be marginally less terrifying. If I keep doing it, one day it won’t be terrifying at all. I know this because there are many things that used to scare me – like living in a foreign country or teaching – that are now a normal part of my life.
I know this “just do it” advice is easier said than done, and it’s not something that happens overnight. That’s why in the last part of this article, I’ll give you a step by step guide on how to gradually build your confidence in speaking a foreign language.
But first, let’s talk about why action (and not thought) is the simplest and most effective way to deal with your fear of speaking a foreign language. We’ll start by looking at why we get nervous in the first place.
Why do I feel nervous about speaking a foreign language?
Your brain has evolved over millions of years to protect you from danger. That’s why most people are afraid of heights to some degree – as you walk towards the edge of a cliff, your mind starts shouting “danger!” “danger!” to make sure you don’t get too close to the edge and fall off.
But why do we feel afraid in situations which aren’t dangerous, like speaking a foreign language?
Although fear is nature’s handy way of keeping you safe, it’s not very sophisticated. It can’t differentiate between physical threats, like falling off a cliff, and social threats, where the only thing at stake is your ego. Which could explain why more people are afraid of public speaking than death!
Trying to talk yourself out of feeling nervous can be counterproductive because it makes you feel like nerves are something to be avoided, when actually they’re just a normal biological response to the fact that you’re taking on a new challenge.
Doing things that scare you regularly (and surviving), shows your mind that they are no longer a threat, so the nerves eventually start to die down.
You can’t “think yourself” out of being nervous. The only way to become more confident with something is to do it until it feels normal 💃 #speakalanguage
Confidence doesn’t come from changing your thoughts, it comes with experience
This is why you’ll never find lasting confidence in a flashy Instagram quote or self-help book. The path to self-assuredness is a lot less sexy: it comes from doing the same thing over and over until it’s not new anymore.
It’s an intense awkwardness that gradually declines with experience until it almost disappears (a few jitters may remain, but that’s nothing to worry about).
Nerves are necessary if you want to do new and cool things that will help you grow, like speaking a foreign language. The more time you spend doing these things – even if they feel awkward – the faster you’ll feel at ease doing them.
This doesn’t mean you have to run around like an adrenaline junkie doing things that terrify you all day (although if you did, you’d probably get confident in those things pretty quickly).
There’s a gentler way.
Two ways to get out of your comfort zone
Have you ever watched people go swimming in the sea? Some run up and dive in head first. Others wade in inch by inch as they get used to the temperature.
The end result is the same: they’re both swimming in the sea.
If the ”just start speaking” approach feels a little too uncomfortable, you’re not alone. For many people (myself included) striking up a conversation with a stranger is intimidating in their native language – the idea of doing it in a language you’ve just started learning could be enough to put you off for life!
You don’t have to dive head first out of your comfort zone. Dipping your toe out works just as well.
Aim for the right level of nerves – a little speaking challenge that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable, but not so much that you traumatise yourself (more ideas on how to do this in the next section). Once you get used to that, try something else that makes you slightly uncomfortable and so on.
The confidence-boosting effect of these little steps will add up over time and help you feel more relaxed when speaking a foreign language.
How to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language: A step by step guide
Prepare for your conversations
If the idea of speaking a foreign language is scary, not knowing what to say can make it even scarier! Learning words and phrases that are likely to come up in conversation will help you to communicate more confidently.
Here are a few ways to prepare for your first conversation in a foreign language:
Learn basic greetings and pleasantries
Learn how to ask and answer simple conversation questions: Where are you from? What do you do?
Think about the kinds of questions people might ask you and learn the answers (you can ask a native speaker to help you with this – see the next section!)
Learn some small talk phrases: If you can talk about the weather, food and sport, you’ll have a great foundation for conversations.
Learn phrases to keep the conversation going, such as “How do you say that?”, “What does that mean?”, “Could you repeat please?”, “Could you speak slower please?” If you can ask these questions in the language you’re learning, you’ll be able to avoid awkward pauses when you don’t understand someone or when you don’t know a word.
Listen as much as you can: When you listen a lot, you’ll hear common phrases being used over and over. The more you listen, the more these phrases will pop into your head naturally when you are speaking. As a beginner, you can practice listening with textbook dialogues, audiobooks or podcasts designed for language learners.
You don’t have to start with a full-blown conversation. There are lots of ways to ease yourself slowly into speaking a foreign language.
Here are some suggestions.
Start by chatting to people online
Chatting online (via text message) is handy because there’s no time pressure. You can look up words you don’t know and think about the sentences carefully before you type them. Also, the other person can’t see your face which makes things a lot less nerve-wracking at first!
There are lots of different resources you can use to type little messages in the language you’re learning. HelloTalk is a great app where you can connect with native speakers via text message (a bit like WhatsApp for language learners). You can also try looking for Facebook groups where people practise chatting together in the language you’re learning.
Don’t overthink it, just type your first message then see what happens!
Practise speaking before you meet native speakers
It’s a great idea to get used to speaking in the language you’re learning before you try having a conversation with native speakers.
Practising speaking before you meet native speakers will give you the opportunity to practice grabbing all that grammar and vocabulary that’s floating around in your head and organising it into sentences so your conversations will run more smoothly when you try the real thing.
Practise speaking in situations where you have permission to be a beginner
Speaking a foreign language in real life situations – like with a person sitting next to you on the train – can feel scary because there’s pressure to have a normal conversation. You might worry about mistakes, forgetting words, or making the poor person wait for ages while you string a sentence together.
At first, it’s useful to find people where there is a “learning agreement” – that is, people who know you are a beginner and have agreed to help you learn. Usually, this will be a language exchange partner or a tutor.
This takes the pressure off for two reasons:
You’re giving them something in return for their time (teaching them your language in the case of exchange partners, or a little bit of money in the case of tutors)
They know that you’re a beginner, so they expect you to speak slowly, forget words and make mistakes! It’s a safe place to practise speaking a foreign language without the pressure of having to perform well.
Where can you find speaking partners like this?
Find a community tutor on italki
The best place to find people to help you speak a foreign language 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:
It’s great for busy people because you get private conversation lessons and you can squeeze one in whenever you have a spare 30 minutes and an internet connection.
Find a language exchange partner
Alternatively, you can find native speakers who want to learn your native language and set up a language exchange. There are lots of websites and apps that help you can find native speakers in your area, so you can meet up and practice speaking over a coffee or beer. Conversation Exchange and Tandem are two examples.
A little word of caution – when doing language exchanges, be sure to divide the time equally (e.g. 30 minutes in each language) and be strict about sticking to it so that you both get a fair chance to practice.
Don’t take yourself so seriously
Earlier, we talked about how confidence in speaking a foreign language starts with “an intense awkwardness” that declines with experience.
In the beginning, you’ll almost certainly make mistakes and look silly at times. That’s nothing to fear! The sooner you can make friends with that awkward feeling, the more confident you’ll feel speaking a foreign language.
You don’t have to be perfect, and native speakers don’t expect you to be either. If you can learn to laugh at yourself, you’ll give native speakers the chance to laugh with you. This will help you get closer to your speaking partners and make the experience more fun.
Time for some action
If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this: it’s normal to feel nervous when speaking a foreign language. Take the first small step and just keep going. It’ll get easier, I promise.
Get more tips on how to speak a foreign language
Join our free 5-day email course and learn:
– Proven ways to deal with speaking nerves – even if you’re shy
– How to have your first conversation
– Where to find people to practice with
– How to stop fear of mistakes from holding you back (and even enjoy them!)
– Words to help you sound more fluent
– How to have fun with native speakers
What do you think?
Do you ever feel nervous speaking a foreign language? Do you think it gets easier with practice? Let us know in the comments below!
Ever tried reading in a foreign language?
It sounds like a lovely idea.
Fix yourself a hot drink, dive under a blanket and snuggle up with a translation of Harry Potter.
What it actually looks like when I try reading in a foreign language
Find 3 words I don’t know in the first sentence. Get out from under blanket and grab smartphone to use online dictionary. Balance coffee in elbow nook whilst clutching Harry Potter in one hand and smartphone in the other. Spill coffee on blanket.
Decide that Harry Potter was too ambitious.
Buy easier children’s book.
Find 3 words I don’t know in the first sentence…
The benefits of reading in a foreign language
Despite these teething problems, I’ve always had a sneaking feeling that reading is a smart way to learn a foreign language.
But what about all those unfamiliar words? How can you get into reading in a foreign language without feeling frustrated and giving up on the first page?
Keep reading to find out how to:
Learn a language by reading things you enjoy.
Use a free tool which makes reading in a foreign language incredibly easy (it’s been under your nose this whole time!)
Remember the words you read faster.
Why is reading in a foreign language so tricky?
It’d be unreasonable to take a few weeks of Russian classes and expect to breeze through a copy of Anna Karenina. Everyone knows that.
Too many new words and advanced sentence structures which make the sentences almost impossible to decipher.
But what about children’s books? Written for those teeny-tiny human beings who get half their nutritional intake from their nasal cavities. Surely they must be easier to read in a foreign language?
I’m not sure they are.
The problem with reading children’s books in a foreign language
Most children’s books don’t use simple, everyday language. I learnt this hard truth whilst babysitting for my Italian friend’s 2-year-old. I’m fairly fluent in Italian, but when reading lil’ Clara’s bedtime story, I came across more new Italian words than when reading a broadsheet newspaper over my morning caffè.
Children’s books talk about pixies and wildebeests, and if you already know how to talk about pixies and wildebeests in the language you’re learning, you probably don’t need to read this article.
So what’s the solution? How can you start reading in a foreign language, without being overwhelmed by all the new (and sometimes not useful) words?
One way is to use short stories or “easy readers” specifically designed for language learners. With simple grammar and everyday vocabulary, these books are perfect for taking your first steps in reading a foreign language.
That said, I sometimes wish the writers would remember that although I sound like a 3-year-old when I speak a foreign language, I’m not actually a 3 year old. I’m a 31-year-old with a mortgage who drinks Johnnie Walker and enjoys a well-placed C-bomb.
There are only so many “Biff and Chip go to the Zoo”-style stories I can handle before my eyes start watering from boredom yawns.
The ideal way to get into reading in a foreign language
Wouldn’t it be nice to learn a foreign language by reading things that you actually enjoy? Something you care about enough to make it worth the effort it takes to figure out the meaning? A topic you like so much, you’d read about in your native language, just for funsies?
To do that, you’d need a place where you can find lots of interesting things to read in the language you’re learning. Let’s call that the Internet.
You’d also need a way to understand new words, without having to break your flow to look them up in a dictionary all the time.
The Google Translate extension: How to pimp your reading in a foreign language
Did you know that Google Translate has an extension which allows you to turn any foreign-language webpage into an interactive dictionary? That means you can get an instant translation of words you don’t know, just by clicking on them. Here’s how it works:
7 ways to make the most of your reading with the Google Translate extension
1. Start simple
It’s important to choose materials at the right level so you can get into a good flow. Just because you can look up words easily, doesn’t mean you should look up all of them. If normal websites feel too tricky, you could start with websites aimed at language learners, such as Slow German or The Chairman’s Bao.
To find sites like these in the language you’re learning, try doing a search for “websites to read [insert your target language]”, and you should find some lists to get you started.
2. Start small
The Google Translate extension makes reading in a foreign language a lot simpler. But learning to read in a new language is going to take some effort, no matter how you do it. To make it more manageable, start by reading in short bursts and gradually move on to longer passages as your level improves.
The Internet is pretty conducive to this kind of reading. You often hear people complaining that the web has ruined how we read: thanks to the “Buzzfeed effect”, we’re more used to flicking through snippets of information rather than sitting down and concentrating on something for long periods of time. But these kinds of articles are perfect for reading in a foreign language because they give you little bits of text with lots of photos to make it easy on the eye (and the brain).
To see if Buzzfeed exists in the language you’re learning, go to buzzfeed.com, click more, then look for the little box at the bottom right which tells you which version you’re using. Here, you’ll see a list of different versions including Germany, Mexico and Brazil. Now you can get lost in a web of Internet triviality, guilt-free!
3. Read things you care about
It takes effort to decipher a page in a foreign language – if you don’t care about the content, you’ll be less motivated to put in the work.
As your level advances, you can start reading blogs about your interests. To find these, do a google search in your target language for “blogs + your interest”.
For example, if you’re learning Spanish and you’re into travel, search for “blogs viajes” and you’ll find articles like this one with links to lots of lovely Spanish travel blogs.
Or if you’re learning French and you’re into fashion and beauty blogs, try searching “blogs mode beauté” and you’ll be spoilt for choice on the first page.
Alternatively, if you like reading the news online, why not try doing it in the language you’re learning? Just type the language you’re learning + newspapers into Wikipedia (e.g. Spanish Newspapers) and you should see a nice list.
4. Use your judgement
If you’ve been on Google Translate for more than 5 minutes, you may have noticed that it says some weird shit sometimes. The extension has these little quirks too. Just now in French, I was reading a sentence about how wearing tight shoes can give you an ampoule. I assumed it must mean “blister”, but when I clicked on it, Google gave me “lightbulb” (yep, the French use the same word for lightbulb and blister, who knew?!)
The extension isn’t perfect so every now and then, you may need to check the translations in a more reputable online dictionary, such as WordReference or Collins. That said, the extension gets it right most of the time so it’s worth putting up with the occasional glitch.
4. Remember words by hazarding a guess
When you can translate words with a click, it’s tempting to click on every word you don’t know without really thinking about it. But when I catch myself doing this, those words quickly slip through the swiss-cheese holes in my brain.
To build up vocabulary in a foreign language, you need to spend time looking at it and trying to figure out what it means from the context. This creates a curiosity point in your mind: “I wonder if this word means…?”. And being curious is a very good thing for learning.
Think back to school. If you asked the teacher a question, you were invested in the answer, so you’d probably remember it better compared to if a teacher just told you the same information in a lecture.
Creating a question in your mind about the meaning of a word and investigating the answer works the same way. Instead of seeing the Google Translate extension as a tool to translate words you don’t know, think of it more as a way to check your guesses. This way, the words you don’t know will have a better chance of sticking in your mind.
5. Don’t stress about every word you don’t know
When reading in a foreign language, it’s natural to want to look up every single new word. And the Google translate extension makes it very easy to do this.
But when it comes to looking up words you don’t know, it’s important to strike a balance. If you’re constantly stopping to look things up, you can’t into a good flow and enjoy your reading. That said, if you don’t look up any words at all, you might not know what the book is going on.
As a general rule, it helps to only look up the words that stop you from understanding the overall meaning of the sentence. For the others, if they’re common enough you’ll pick them up over time, and if they’re not so common you probably don’t need to worry about learning them yet anyway.
6. Use it or lose it
The more you interact with a word, the easier it will be to remember. You can help yourself remember the new words you come across by storing them somewhere (in a notebook, your phone, word document or excel sheet…) and using them in different ways. Why not try writing a story with your new words? Or thinking about when you might use them in real life, and writing example sentences? Or typing them into google to see how native speakers use them?
Don’t worry about doing this with every new word you see, as that could quickly get overwhelming! Just pick the keywords that you really want to remember.
7. Don’t try too hard
If you’ve got your notebook next to you and you’re feeling motivated to write new words and take notes as you read, great. But don’t feel like you always have to this. If you’re feeling a little lazy and you’d rather just read, that’s fine!
The most important thing is to get into a reading habit that you enjoy enough to keep up in the long term. Do that, and you’ll make some serious progress in the language you’re learning.
What about you?
If you’re planning on using the Google Translate extension to read in a foreign language, I’d love to hear from you! Which language are you learning? Which websites are you going to read? Can you share any good web pages for reading in a foreign language?
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the choice of language learning tools?
Or unsure of where to focus your time?
Maybe, once you’ve finally chosen a resource or activity, a niggling doubt creeps in…
Is this really the best use of my time? Isn’t there another way that could help me learn faster?
I used to struggle a lot with this uncertainty – still do sometimes! That’s why when Azren sent me his guest post on where to focus your attention, I found myself nodding along to his smart (and often overlooked) advice.
If you feel unsure about where to direct your time and energy when learning a language, today’s post is for you. Azren’s tips will help you zoom in on what’s important, so you can feel confident that you’re learning the right things.
The 4 + 1 model of language learning that will help you decide where to focus your time.
How to plan your study sessions so they get you closer to your language goals.
The underrated skill that could make all the difference to your language learning.
Take it away, Azren!
The 4 + 1 of language learning
The most underrated language skill
I was interested to hear what Azren had to say about behavioural tendencies and body language. People don’t normally pay much attention to non-verbal communication, but it can make a big difference to your ability to blend in with the locals.
I’ve been living in Italy for several years now, and while I’ve picked up a lot of these skills naturally from spending time with Italians (I can gesticulate with the best of them), I sometimes feel like something’s missing.
People often greet me in English when I walk into shops and I get handed the English menu before I open my mouth. Sure, a lot of it is probably down to my pale skin and dress sense.
When you’ve been living in Italy for over 6 years but waiters still take one look at you and give you the English menu. Note to self: start dressing smarter and wearing fake tan #languagefail
But I wonder if there’s more to it than that. I probably have some British behavioural tendencies and body language which single me out as a foreigner. Things like:
Being nervous and saying scusi/grazie all the time (bumbling British politeness!)
Avoiding eye contact
There must be loads more that I’ve never even noticed before. I’m looking forward to observing Italian behavioural tendencies and body language more closely and trying to mimic them. Let’s see if this helps me feel a little more Italian!
What about you? How are the behavioural tendencies and body language different in the language you’re learning? Can you have a go at mimicking them?
Azren gave some great advice on how to decide where to focus your time when learning a language. To really benefit from these ideas, it’s time to put them into action.
Ask yourself: What do you want to do in the language?
Your answer to this question will help you decide what to focus on next.
Do you want to chat easily to native speakers? If so, you’ll need to focus on speaking, listening to realistic conversations, pronunciation, idiomatic expressions and slang. You might also want to think about how you can imitate behavioural tendencies and body language so you can blend in.
Do you want to work in the language someday? In that case, you’ll probably need to develop solid writing skills.
Get really specific about what your goals are (writing them down helps!), then let those dictate where you spend your time. Next time you feel unsure about your choice of language resources and activities, just ask yourself: is this going to help me develop the skills I need to achieve my language goals?
If the answer is yes, you know you’re on the right track.
Where can I find more from Azren the language nerd?
If you’d like to hear more from Azren the language nerd, you can connect with him on these channels:
What are your language goals? Which skills do you need to focus on to reach them? Have you ever thought about behavioural tendencies and body language as an important part of language learning? Let us know in the comments!
Why is it so hard to remember words in a foreign language?
Why is the grammar so confusing?
If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions and wondered how the heck you’ll learn to speak that foreign language, then today’s post is for you.
I used to wonder the same thing, especially after I’d studied German for 5 years at school, then Spanish and Italian for another 2, with nothing to show for it except a few random words popping into my head.
Why couldn’t I speak a language after so many years of classes? I considered two possibilities. Either:
1. I’m a complete idiot.
2. Languages are basically impossible.
If I was an idiot, then so was everyone else. Given that every other English person I knew was in the same position, I assumed that learning a language must be one of those things that only people with steely willpower can do, like running a marathon or not squeezing spots.
But since then, I’ve learnt Italian, French and Spanish, as well as a bit of German and Mandarin and I’ve discovered something exciting:
Learning a second language as an adult isn’t as difficult as I thought. I was just doing it wrong.
Keep reading to find out:
– The big mistake that stops adults from learning a second language (and how to avoid it).
– The simple technique that will help any adult (including YOU) become fluent in a language.
– How to have more fun learning a second language, even as a beginner.
Is it hard to learn a second language as an adult?
Last week, I got a new Italian student.
Let’s call him Bob. Bob had been learning Italian for over 2 years, but he still couldn’t really string a sentence together. He had a vague idea of verb tenses and some vocabulary floating around in his mind, but he couldn’t remember any of them well enough to use them in real-life.
Surprisingly, after just 3 hours together, Bob was already having simple conversations in Italian.
How did Bob achieve that amazing result in such a short time?
Is it because I’m a magic Italian teacher who can teach you to speak Italian in 3 hours?
That’d be nice, but no. Truth is, I didn’t do much.
All I did was encourage him to start speaking. About normal things that he talks about in his native language. And helped him out with a few words and grammar points so he could say what he wanted to say.
As soon as Bob started using Italian in real life, everything fell into place.
The wrong way to learn a second language as an adult
I was in the same situation as Bob after two years of Italian classes. I’d spent most of the time learning grammar and vocabulary, but I struggled to remember it. I found language classes boring, never did my homework and couldn’t have a conversation if my life depended on it.
But then, I did a year abroad in Italy. Suddenly, learning a language wasn’t about memorizing verbs, it was about talking to people.
I didn’t like studying grammar, but I liked people.
So I took my nose out of my grammar book and started trying to have conversations. I also started spending my free time reading and listening to things in Italian. At first, things which were simplified for learners. Then, as my level improved, I started trying to do things I enjoyed in my first language, like reading magazines and watching TV series.
It was really awkward. I spoke excruciatingly slowly and made tons of mistakes. I didn’t understand a lot of what I saw and heard. But I persevered and after a while, I became fluent in Italian.
And even though it was tricky, I enjoyed it. I was interacting with human beings (the reason I wanted to learn a language in the first place) and reading and listening to things that I actually cared about, instead of those dull and cheesy textbooks.
Do you need to go to the country to learn a second language?
Now I know that it’s not impossible to learn a second language in your home country. It just seemed like that because the way most of us are taught in school doesn’t work.
It’s not you, it’s the method
The more languages I learn and the more students I work with, the more I’m convinced of this: you can’t learn a language by memorizing a bunch of grammar rules and vocabulary.
You have to learn languages by doing. By speaking, listening, reading and writing.
This doesn’t mean I’m totally against grammar. Learning the rules might give you a basic structure to follow and help you tidy things up around the edges. But the vast majority (if not all) the learning comes through using the language.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask the polyglots. Although they all have different methods, one thing they have in common is that they practice using the language a lot – they don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time memorizing grammar rules or vocabulary in isolation.
Which raises an interesting question: why do most language courses prioritise grammar, when there’s not much anecdotal or scientific evidence to suggest that this is the best way to learn a language?
The answer lies in the history of language education.
Why most schools make it harder for adults to learn a second language
Let’s hop in a time machine and travel back to the 1800s for a moment.
Back then, there was no Ryan Air. You couldn’t jump on a plane and go somewhere warm for a couple of weeks. There was no European Union. In fact, many European countries were in almost constant warfare.
People didn’t have the same opportunities to go abroad and connect with people from other countries as we do now. Yet languages were still taught at school.
To study ancient texts. Students took Latin and Greek classes so they could learn to read and translate literature in those languages. The teaching focused on rote-learning of verb tables and grammar rules, which worked OK when languages were used as a tool to translate texts. There was no focus on speaking or listening at all because that wasn’t the goal.
The problems started in the 1900s, when people began to learn other languages. Even though the goal was now to communicate with human beings rather than translate texts, teachers continued using the same method they’d always used. This left generations of frustrated students who couldn’t speak a language after years of classes, because they’d never practiced speaking it.
The world’s changed a lot since then and fortunately, so have language teaching methods. There’s a lot more communication in the classroom these days.
But the most dangerous idea has lived on – the belief that you have to memorize lots of grammar rules and vocabulary before you start trying to use the language in real life.
I can’t remember words and grammar
People who’ve only ever tried to learn languages with the traditional school method are often left feeling like they’re bad at languages, because no matter how hard they try, they can’t remember grammar and vocabulary.
If this sounds like you, please don’t give up on learning a second language. You’re not bad at languages, you’ve just been taught them with the wrong techniques.
I see this all the time for myself and my students: it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat a grammar point or word list. Almost everyone struggles to remember grammar and vocabulary until they start using them in real ways. That is, until you come across lots of real examples in reading and listening, and practice using them in speaking and writing.
There are two science-backed reasons why learning grammar and vocabulary in isolation makes them more difficult to remember:
1. Your memory is sharper when you learn by doing.
2. To learn a language, your brain needs to take statistics about words in real-life contexts.
Let’s look at these in more detail.
1. What divers can teach you about learning a second language
They sent divers underwater and taught them a bunch of words, played through a diving communication device. They also taught them some words on dry land. 24 hours later, they tested the divers both underwater and on dry land to see how many words they could remember.
Turns out, the divers forgot 40% more words when the context was different, that is, if they’d learnt the words on land and tried to recall them underwater and vice-versa.
Decades of research support the very same quirk about human memory: we remember things more easily when we use them in the same situation we learnt them in, and forget them more easily in different situations.
If you learn verbs by rote, you might remember them while you’re going through the list in your head, but you’ll probably struggle to recall them in conversation. Similarly, if you learn words and grammar on apps, they might come to mind easily when you’re fiddling with your phone, but disappear as soon as you need them in real life.
The good news?
If you learn a language through conversations, you’ll remember better when you’re having conversations. If you learn by writing, you’ll remember better when you’re writing. If you learn by listening, you’ll remember more easily when listening. If you learn by reading, you’ll remember more easily when reading.
In other words, if you learn by doing, things will come to you more easily when you need them in real life.
2. How your brain learns languages
Why do we have tall buildings, but high ceilings?
In many languages, the difference between tall and high doesn’t even exist. If you call your boss a high man in Italian, that means he’s tall. If you call him a high man in English, it means he’s been smoking something funny.
Learning a language isn’t about isolated words, it’s about learning how those words fit together.
Neurolinguistics, the study of how our brain processes languages, shows us why this matters.
The neuroscience of learning a second language
Did you know that your brain is constantly giving off electrical signals? These signals change depending on what task your brain is doing, and scientists can read some of these – using a technique called electroencephalography – to study how your brain learns a language.
One of these signals, called the N400, shows us how native speakers process groups of words. The N400 is relatively small with combinations of words that you expect to hear together, like coffee and cream, but larger for unexpected words, like coffee and… crap. If your N400 doesn’t increase significantly for unexpected combinations, like crap, scientists might wonder what on earth you’ve been putting in your coffee.
These signals show that our brain is constantly taking statistics about words that normally appear together. This is good, as it helps us make predictions about what’s coming next so we can communicate faster.
The better someone speaks a foreign language, the closer their N400 pattern is to that of a native speaker. This suggests that learning a language involves building up expectations about words that usually appear together, just like native speakers do.
To speak a foreign language fluently, you’ll need to give your brain the chance to take statistics about how words are combined in the language you’re learning. You can’t do this if you spend all your time trying to memorise grammar rules or word lists.
The best way to get a feeling for word patterns in your target language is through mass input, that is, spending tons of time reading and listening to the language.
The good news is, you can get this mass input without even realizing it – by simply reading and listening to lots of things you enjoy. Not only is learning by doing more in line with what we know about how the brain learns languages, it’s also more fun.
You don’t have to start speaking straight away if you don’t want to
You may think that learning by doing means you have to start speaking straight away. If you want to throw yourself in at the deep end and practice speaking very early on, brilliant – it’s a great way to apply what you’ve learnt and get used to communicating with native speakers.
But you don’t have to.
If the idea of speaking from day 1 fills you with dread, feel free to wait a little while! Many prolific language learners prefer not to speak straight away, most notably Steve Kaufmann who speaks 16 languages.
If you’d rather wait, you can start by doing lots of reading and listening to get a feel for the language. When you decide to have a go at speaking, you’ll need some time to adapt, but the foundation will already be there.
Everyone’s different. It doesn’t matter if you’d rather dive into speaking or spend some time reading and listening first.
All that matters is that you stop dedicating a disproportionate amount of time to memorizing grammar and vocabulary and practice using the language in real ways.
Learning a second language won’t always be easy (but it will be worth it)
When you start learning a language by doing, it’ll probably feel awkward. When you try reading and listening, all that new vocabulary might feel overwhelming. When you try speaking, you might get embarrassed by your mistakes, or the epically long silences as you search for the words.
Some people see this uncomfortable feeling as a problem that should be avoided. They want to memorize more grammar and vocabulary because they believe it will help them feel at ease when they start using the language in real life.
But that’s like thinking you can improve your guitar skills by reading more books. A bit of theory might help, but you’ll never learn to play without going through that awkward stage where your fingertips hurt.
How to learn a language by doing when you’re a beginner
So far, we’ve talked about how the most effective (and enjoyable!) way to learn a language is to practice using it in real life. But how can you do that when you’re a complete beginner? To get practical ideas on how to learn a language by doing, even as a beginner, join me for my online workshop this Saturday, 10th March*
As part of the Women in Language event, you’ll get access to my workshop called: The #1 mistake beginners make when learning a language (and how to fix it). In it, you’ll learn:
– Actionable ideas on how to start using the language (even if you’re a beginner).
– The smart way to learn grammar and vocabulary.
– How to sound more natural and confident when you speak.
In July 2015, Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, played against 23-year-old Heather Watson, ranked 59th.
Everyone expected a quick and painless win for Serena. Yet in the final set, millions stared at their TV screens in astonishment as Heather looked close to winning the match.
In the end, Serena cinched it, but the tennis world was stunned by how close Heather got.
Do you know what my favourite part of this story is?
When Heather was 8 years old, she watched Serena play at Wimbledon. She even had Serena’s poster on her wall. It was Serena who had inspired Heather to become the great tennis player that came close to beating her.
As for Serena, her childhood hero was Steffi Graf, who she later surpassed with her 23rd Grand Slam title.
In turn, these 3 tennis players have inspired little girls all over the world to smash it on the tennis court.
The success of one woman is the inspiration of every other one – Serena Williams
Women in Languages
Sometimes, seeing other people do remarkable things is exactly the push you need to move ahead with your own projects.
With this in mind, I’ve put together a list of 50 women who are making amazing contributions to the world of language learning.
From smart women who developed new methods to learn languages, to brave women who left everything behind and moved to a new country where they didn’t know a single person.
From benevolent women who are making the world a better place with their language skills to ambitious women who’ve learnt multiple languages and show you how to do the same.
I hope after reading about these legendary gals, you’ll feel more energized to leap into your own language learning missions.
I wrote this post in honour of the very first Women in Language, a four-day online conference with a line up of female experts language teaching and language learning. This year there are some equally fab and inspiring women on the bill – I’ve got my ticket!
We’ll start with the women who learn multiple languages and invite you along with them on their language journey. They’ll inspire you with their triumphs, give candid accounts of their struggles and share insider tips so you can learn languages just like they did.
1. Lindsay Williams from Lindsay does Languages
First up is Lindsay Williams, who shares her infectious enthusiasm for languages over on her blog lindsaydoeslanguages. Her articles and YouTube videos are full of creative ideas on how to learn a language on your own. As well as inspiring independent learners, she also gives online language teachers advice on how to kickstart their careers.
Linsday says: For me, a big part of my job is inspiring others to teach themselves languages.
Kerstin is a native German speaker who’s studied 8 languages so far (her English is better than mine, eek!). She’s a trained translator, host of The Fluent Show Podcast, and author of the guides Language Habit Toolkit, Fluency Made Achievable and The Vocab Cookbook. On her blog fluentlanguage, Kerstin shares her own language learning journey and gives actionable advice on how to build good language learning habits.
Kerstin believes: Language learning is for everyone, not just young, rich, smart, privileged people
Kerstin is hosting the Women in Language event, together with Lindsay and our next inspiring female language learner…
3. Shannon Kennedy from Eurolinguiste
Shannon is the queen of learning multiple languages: she speaks French, English, and Chinese fluently, has dabbled in German, Italian, and Spanish to various degrees, and is currently working her way towards better learning Russian, Croatian, and Korean. More recently, she’s started focusing on Japanese. Phew!
On her blog, Eurolinguiste, you’ll find articles infused with travel adventures and cultural notes about the languages she’s learning (there’s some food in there too!). As well as documenting her own journey, she inspires language learners through her work on the fluent in 3 months blog and with the add1challenge community.
Shannon says: I believe in working hard towards your goals and being transparent with successes and failures.
4. Agnieszka Murdoch from 5-Minute language
Agnieszka speaks English, French, Spanish, Polish and German, and is currently learning Japanese. On her 5-Minute Language blog and fab YouTube channel, she gives bite-sized articles and videos with practical tips on how to learn a language, even if you’re very busy.
Agnieszka says: I believe there’s always time for language learning – you too can find it with a few simple tweaks to your lifestyle
5. Michele from The Intrepid Guide
Travel writer Michele Frolla combines her two passions to create a unique blend of language and travel advice. On her blog the intrepid guide, you’ll find destinations guides, language learning tools, travel phrase cheat sheets, and more!
I love seeing the stunning photos, fascinating and little-known linguistic and cultural tidbits she shares on social media.
Michele lives by the motto: The more we travel, the more we learn.
Jo Franco is the business head of the phenomenally successful travel blog and YouTube channel Shut Up and Go. Together with her friend Damon Dominque, she encourages people who want to get out and see the world to stop making excuses and go for it.
In her straight-up and relatable style, she presents a blend of travel advice, cultural stuff and language learning tips.
She speaks English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Here, you can see her hanging out with her host family in Sorrento after learning Italian at lightning speed.
Jo says: I’m a believer in taking risks and just going for it
7. Lýdia Machová from Language Mentoring
Polyglot Lýdia Machová learns a new language every two years. She’s currently learning Swahili, her 9th! She’s also one of the main organizers of Polyglot Gathering, one of the biggest world events for polyglots.
She believes you can’t teach a language, you can only help other people do it on their own. On her website, Language Mentoring, you can learn about her unique approach which helps people find their own way of learning a language, persist and achieve the desired results.
Lýdia says: Learning a language doesn’t have to be a complicated, lengthy process, and it definitely doesn’t have to be unpleasant. Quite the opposite, you can learn languages in a very enjoyable and relaxed way.
8. Shahidah Foster from Black Girls Learn Languages
Shahidah Foster is on a mission to encourage more black women to become multilingual and increase coverage in the media. On her blog blackgirlslearnlanguages, she celebrates black linguistas and inspires with bios and language learning resources. You’ll also find articles about Shahidah’s own language experiences with German, Spanish and French, together with tons of practical and intuitive advice that make your target language come alive.
Shahidah says: Mimic the natives… it really helps you improve your vocabulary, it helps you find your voice in the target language.
In 2009, Ellen Jovin set herself a mission: to learn as much as she could in 12 months, of a bunch of languages spoken around New York. 8 years later, she’s still going strong and has now studied a total of 21 different languages.
On her website Words & Worlds of New York, she posts informative reviews of the resources she uses and often speaks at events to encourage adults to learn languages.
Ellen says: A new language is a hand held out to one’s neighbor, an opener of doors, a new way to see, a mental tickle, a road to unmediated communication with strangers in other lands, access to the world’s news, a gesture of peace — really, language study can be anything you want to make of it.
Incredible polyglot Lindie Botes speaks Afrikaans, English, French, Korean, Japanese, Mandarin and is learning Vietnamese, Indonesian, Arabic and Hindi. She was born in South Africa but has lived all over the world including France, Pakistan and Dubai. On her YouTube channel, Lindi shares her language journey together with language learning tips, Q&As and reviews of resources.
11. Judith Meyer from LearnYu
Polyglot of all trades Judith Meyer is a computational linguist, the head organiser of the Polyglot Gathering and author of several language books and courses. She’s an active member of the language learning community and often gives interviews and talks where she shares her experiences from learning over 14 languages.
You can catch Judith’s talk Fast Track Language Learning at the Women in Language conference.
Globetrotting Irina Pravet was born in Romania, grew up in Canada, lived in Germany and now lives in Finland. She speaks 6 languages to various levels of fluency: English & Romanian as native languages + French, Finnish, German, Spanish.
Her online business at IrinaPravet.com helps people create the life they love abroad.
Irina says: When we feel at ease abroad (whether speaking the language, being ourselves, connecting on a deeper level, etc) we make a bigger impact.
On her website, Language Learner’s Journal, Trisha documents her own language learning experiences and gives tips on how to become more focused and productive. She speaks the following 8 languages to varying levels: English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Icelandic & British Sign Language (BSL).
Trisha says: My mission is to empower people to learn new skills, especially languages!
14. Eve from the Urban Eve
Jet-setter Eve has learned 8 languages. After growing up in Germany, she spent 4 years in Madrid and currently lives in Paris. On her YouTube channel, she gives practical advice and mindset tips on how to learn a language. She’s a big believer in immersing yourself in the culture of the language you’re learning.
Eve says: the more I get to know the culture, the more I love the language.
15. Lina Vasquez from Busy Linguist
Lina Vasquez speaks over 7 languages. On her YouTube channel Busy Linguist, she talks about her own language learning experience and gives advice to people who are interested in language learning despite their busy schedule and life.
16. Maureen Millward from Language Learning Journey
Maureen Millward is a polyglot from Scotland. As well as English, her native language, she is fluent in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese and also speaks Catalan, Norwegian, French, Gaelic, German, Sicilian and Greek at various levels. She’s currently learning Chinese, Slovak & Arabic. She also dabbles in lots of the lesser known languages, like Azeri and Yoruba.
Over on her blog Language Learning Journey, Maureen documents her language learning journey and sometimes writes articles in the languages she’s learning.
Kamila Tekin is a Turk from the Netherlands who taught herself 5+ languages using social media and apps. She grew up bilingual speaking Dutch and Turkish and taught herself English, Spanish, German, French, and Portuguese. She often gives herself specific deadlines to learn languages and shares what she’s learned on social media.
Her videos are inspiring and refreshingly honest: she challenges herself and isn’t afraid to show her mistakes, so you can see what learning a language is really like.
Kamila says: With my language learning project, I also hope to show people from other countries that I’m interested in their language and that I love their culture.
18. Abigail from Polyglot progress
Abigail runs the popular language learning YouTube channel Polyglot Progress, together with her friend Matt. She documents her own language learning progress and gives friendly and honest advice about how to learn a language, as well as resource reviews and mini tutorials. She’s currently learning German, Spanish, Bulgarian and Japanese.
19. Elena from Hitoritabi
Italian linguaphile Elena describes herself as an introvert and grammar geek. On her blog Hitoritabi, Elena teaches Italian and Japanese. She specialises in giving anxious language learners a safe space to learn in before jumping into the real world and starting to speak.
Elena says: Anxiety doesn’t have to be an obstacle to learning a language, but it can be your motivation for it.
Women who will inspire you to work with languages
20. Khady Ndoye from LaPolyglotte
African languages advocate Khady Ndoye is the founder of LaPolyglotte, a platform which inspires people to discover and learn more about the 3000+ African languages. The LaPolyglotte mission is: “to offer the diaspora, African youth, and africanophiles, dynamic and creative tools to the discovery of the cultural riches of which the cradle of humanity abounds”.
Khady specialises in African languages and digital marketing. On the blog and across her social media channels, you’ll find mini-tutorials together with fascinating linguistic and cultural facts.
21. Madeline Vadkerty
Madeline is an interpreter who worked for Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma in Washington, DC, where she used her skills in French, Spanish and Russian to help asylum seekers living in the US by offering psychological care and social services.
She wants to show you how you can use your language skills to make a better place.
Madeline says: Interpreting for dissidents from all over the world is part of what makes a career in this field so rewarding, but most uplifting of all was being part of a team that helps people heal and seeing people get back up on their feet after surviving torture.
Catch her talk Making the World a Better Place As an Interpreter at the Women in Language conference.
Polish-American polyglot Nikki speaks 7 languages. She’s leveraged her language skills into an international career spanning the translation, education, and entertainment industries in the U.S., Germany, Poland, Egypt, Croatia, and Slovenia.
As well as teaching languages through her unique immersion approach, she shows people how to use their languages and understanding of multiple cultures to get their dream job in any industry.
Nikki says: Being multilingual in 2018 is the most valuable skill you can have.
23. Elisa Polese from Speak from Day One with Elisa
Multilingual teacher Elisa Polese teaches an impressive number of languages: Italian, German, English, Spanish, Russian, French, Dutch, Catalan, Portuguese, Greek, Hindi, Arabic and Esperanto (at different levels).
She’s specialized in multilingual teaching (up to 10 languages in one course) and is a certified language examiner for English, Italian, Russian, French, German and Spanish.
Elisa says: “You can see great progress in your language learning in just 5 mins per day”
Therese LaFleche is on a mission to help people understand the importance of multilingualism in today’s ever-shrinking world. Earlier this year, she organised an online event with international experts in the field of languages and expats (that I had the honour of speaking at) called The Modern Executive: Learn a new language, Open the global market, Build an international brand.
She’s a strong believer in the role of fun in learning, not only as a way to make the process more enjoyable but also as a powerful memory booster.
Therese says: My goal is to make learning a fun journey just as it was when we were kids.
Language lover Rebecca speaks English and French and is learning Italian and German. Based in Melbourne, she talks about overcoming the challenge of learning foreign languages from home, when you’re surrounded by your native language.
Together with her partner Chris, Rebecca runs Irregular Endings, a company which makes paper goods and stationery for language lovers. I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with irregular endings for the #languagediarychallenge – their gorgeous bilingual calendars are always highly sought after prizes!
Rebecca says: One of the best ways I’ve found to learn and remember what I know of another language is making my target language part of my ‘normal’.
A UK-based native of North Germany, Bettina Roehricht has been working as a freelance translator for nearly 20 years. She also provides coaching for other freelance translators, helping them optimise their client base, improve their work-life balance and simply be happier with their translation business.
Dani says: You will be surprised how much useful information language enthusiasts can find in a good crime story.
Women who will inspire you to learn Italian
29. Elfin from all about Italian
Langauge-lover Elfin was born in the US but grew up in Italy and learned Italian as a kid. She contributes an enormous amount to the language learning community on Instagram, both through her invaluable bite-sized video lessons and the support she gives to other language learners who share their progress.
Her speciality is using social media to squeeze language learning into a busy life.
Elfin says: the process should be just as enjoyable and remarkable as the final goal, that of becoming fluent
Rome-based Lucrezia Oddone helps you learn Italian the fun way by taking you with her on a journey around Italy’s capital.
On her YouTube channel, you’ll find vlogs and tutorials with clear grammar explanations and lots of examples. Many of her videos are entirely in Italian (with subtitles) which perfect for the full immersion experience! She interacts daily with her followers and often answers FAQs in Italian.
31. Cher Hale
Cher Hale describes herself as “a relationship counsellor between humans and the Italian language”. Her mission is to help people who’ve fallen in love with the Italian language stick with it, even after the honeymoon period has ended. On her blog the iceberg project, Cher shares her own experience in learning the Italian language, together with tutorials and fun and easy ways to learn grammar.
You’ll also find lots of real-world Italian words and phrases that you won’t get from normal language courses.
Cher says:Like you, I am just a student trying my best to learn this language, so I understand first-hand the hard work it takes, and I want nothing more than to help you learn it too in a way that helps you make meaningful progress, laugh, and enjoy each step of the process.
A few years ago, Canadian-born Jasmine met a charming Italian boy in a bar in Alberta, Canada. After a few years’ long distance, she left it all behind and moved to Bergamo to pursue her Italian dream.
On her blog Questa Dolce Vita, Jasmine gives an articulate, honest (and often hilarious) insiders view of what it’s really like to move to Italy and learn Italian on the field.
Jasmine says: Very often, I hear people say that they aren’t capable of learning a second language. They attribute the success of others to a natural gift. You are born with the ability to learn languages. I would like to politely disagree. Someone who learns a second language is successful because they work their ass off every second of every day.
Jasmine runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Kristie from Mamma Prada and Kelly from Italian at heart.
33. Kristie from Mamma Prada
UK-based Kristie and her Italian husband are parents to two gorgeous little ones. On her blog MammaPrada, Kristie shares her story of raising bilingual children & navigating cross-cultural life.
You’ll find tons of practical tips on bringing up kids in a bilingual home, together with Italy travel tips and little known cultural gems.
Kristie says: We are simply parents hoping to pass on the best of our dual heritage to our children and to give them, in our eyes the benefit of two languages from birth.
Kristie runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Jasmine from Questa Dolce Vita and Kelly from Italian at heart.
34. Kelly from Italian at Heart
Granddaughter of an Italian immigrant living in the US, Kelly had always felt a strong connection to her Italian heritage and was saddened by the fact that his native language didn’t get passed down to her generation. So she decided to take matters into her own hands and start learning Italian! On her blog Italian at Heart, Kelly shares her journey to learn her grandfather’s mother tongue, along with her culinary, travel and cultural adventures.
Kelly says: I feel such a calling to stay connected to my Italian heritage. For me, language is the most beautiful family heirloom that can ever be gifted to future generations.
Kelly runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Jasmine from Questa Dolce Vita and Kristie from MammaPrada.
35. Ishita from Italophilia
Author of India’s most popular Italy blog, Italophilia, Ishita Sood shares her love for the bel paese and the Italian language through travel guides and how-to articles. Across her site and social media channels, she infuses her Italian journey with beautiful photos that make you feel like you’re walking along those little-cobbled streets right next to her.
Ishita says: Italy is my calling. It is my go-to place to think about when I am low. It brings a smile on my face when someone I know connects my name to that country. Or when someone takes my help planning their trip to Italy.
Women who will inspire you to learn German
36. Cari from Easy German
Cari produces the amazing Easy German channel, together with her husband Janusz. Armed with a wicked sense of humour and infectious enthusiasm, she runs around the streets of Germany (and further afield), posing interesting questions to passers-by in German. Watch Easy German and you’ll learn authentic, real German language, as spoken in the streets and among friends.
37. Kaci from Year of German
When monolingual American Kaci Schack was on maternity leave, she embarked on a journey to teach herself German and pass it on to her son through storybooks and songs. Amazingly, this joint mission helped her overcome postpartum depression! Now Kaci is monolingual no more and her 3-year-old son is growing up to be bilingual in English and German.
Kaci shares her German progress on Instagram and gives language learning advice for normal people over on medium.
Kaci says: Languages are for everyone. Young. Old. Tall. Short. Black. White. From Europe. From Asia. From Mexico. From Wherever. Liberal. Conservative. City Person. Country Person. Millionaire. Less Affluent. Religious or Not. Musical or Not. Athletic or Not. Whatever.
Annik Rubens is the producer of Slow German, a fab podcast for beginner-intermediate German learners. Each episode is read in clear, easy to understand German and covers topics about life in Germany and German culture, often from new and interesting angles. On her website, you’ll find loads more goodies like transcripts and interactive translations.
Women who will inspire you to learn French
39. Carrie Anne James from French is beautiful
American-born Carrie Anne James delivers French lessons infused with a chic Parisian feel. Her stunning French is Beautiful Instagram page has quotes that make you fall in love with the French language, as well as making you feel like you’re the star of a Dior advert by taking you on a tour of the capital’s most luxurious spots.
As an American who learnt French as a second language, Carrie knows precisely which aspects of the French language you need to focus on in order to feel fluent and express your full personality in French as quickly as possible.
Carrie says: French is Beautiful is my love letter to those whose heart lives en France.
No list of inspiring women in language would be complete without Manon, the woman who inspired me to learn French!
Manon was my French tutor as I was preparing to take the DALF C1 Exam and I honestly could not have done it without her. She’s organised but flexible, demanding but patient and goes out of her way to help each student make as much progress in French as possible.
She’s taught all over the world and is learning many languages herself, including Spanish, Japanese and Thai.
Manon says: I try to be the kind of teacher I like to have as a language student myself. I’m always prepared, organised, and patient.
41. Heidi Rivolta from Bonjour Tonton
Heidi has been teaching French to children and their adults alongside her naughty tortoise puppet Tonton since 2009. Her speciality is engaging kids to nurture a love of learning and make them fall in love with languages.
In 2017, she self-published her first French learning picture book under the name Bonjour Tonton. She also offers free weekly lesson plans for teaching French to children at home or in school via her blog Bonjour Tonton.
Watch her talk: Positive Language Learning for Kids and Their Adults at the Women in Language conference.
Women who will inspire you to learn Spanish
42. Marina Diez from Notes in Spanish
Marina Diez presents the Notes in Spanish podcast, together with her English husband Ben. She brings her native speaker knowledge to the show, injecting it with her fun personality and sharing cultural tips on Spain. Marina is also in charge of the design and development of worksheets and supplementary materials.
I’m a big fan of Notes in Spanish and have spent many an afternoon wandering around the streets with my headphones getting a quick Spanish lesson with Marina!
43. Chiqui from Hablaele
Chiqui is my Spanish teacher and the woman who’s inspiring me to learn Spanish right now! Her friendly, bubbly style of teaching puts you at ease immediately and helps you get speaking. She’s organised, experienced and knows how to work with her students to get the best progress possible.
She also creates materials for Spanish learners over on her YouTube channel.
You can book classes with her on her website hablaELE.
44. María Ortega Garcia from Compass Spanish
María is the creator of the line Compass Spanish where she offers online Spanish courses, support and guidance to students of Spanish. She has been running her own online education business since 2011, offering online lessons as well as retreats and immersion courses in Spain.
Follow the charismatic and adorable Fiona Tian as she teaches you survival Mandarin around Taiwan. Each video has a practical theme like “ordering from a menu”, “riding the subway in Chinese” and “arriving at the airport”. Fiona was brought up in a bilingual English-Mandarin household and her connection to both cultures makes her the perfect person to give you insights into the Chinese language and culture.
46. Yangyang Cheng from Yo-Yo Chinese
Yangyang teaches Mandarin in a clear and simple way, from the English speaker’s point of view. On her YouTube channel, you’ll find tutorials, cultural notes and interviews with native speakers.
Women who will inspire you to learn English
47. Cara Leopold from Leo Listening
Cara Leopold is a listening skills specialist. Her work deals with one of the biggest frustrations for intermediate and advanced language learners: after all this time, why can’t I understand TV and films?
Her method helps people break free from subtitles so they can fall back in love with their favourite films and TV shows.
On her hugely successful YouTube channel, the passionate and experienced Gabby Wallace shares her tips on how to learn English, with a unique focus on listening, speaking and conversation. She speaks Portuguese & Spanish too!
The woman who will inspire you to learn Vietnamese
49. Elisabeth Jackson from More Vietnamese
Elisabeth is an English Language (EFL) Teacher from the UK who has lived and taught in Vietnam and Bulgaria, learning the local language both times. She’s dabbled in other languages (namely Korean and Esperanto) and is currently learning Spanish. Vietnamese remains her best language and she blogs about it at More Vietnamese.
Listen to her talk: Why You’re Struggling with Listening and What to Do about It at the Women in Language conference. Update: the 2018 event is now closed, but you can get your tickets for this year’s women in language here.
The woman who will inspire you to learn Japanese
50. Fran Wrigley from Step Up Japanese
Last but not least is Fran, a Japanese teacher and kanji obsessive. Fran worked in teaching and translation in Japan before returning to sunny Brighton in 2014, where she set up her school Step Up Japanese. She believes in the power of building a community for language learners where they can support each other and learn from each other’s mistakes.
Her mission is to show the world that the Japanese language is as logical and simple as it is beautiful … and to eat huge quantities of edamame beans along the way.
So there you have it, 50 amazing women who are inspiring the world to learn languages. This list is based on the women who have inspired me, so it’s a bit biased towards the languages I interact with the most. I’m sure there are loads of other fab women out there inspiring people to learn languages – please share the love and add them to the comments!
You start off feeling enthusiastic about eating salads and end up feeling enthusiastic about… well, nothing really.
Apart from maybe hiding under the duvet until April.
At least that’s what happens to me every year. No matter how motivated I am at the beginning of January, by February I haven’t achieved anything or worse, I’ve gone backwards.
So this year I decided to do things differently: instead of attempting something big, I’d start with a couple of itsy-bitsy changes. Something so easy I couldn’t say no to – like reading one paragraph in my Spanish book.
I hoped that once I’d planted the seed, these tiny habits would grow organically and help me on my quest to become fluent in Spanish, without constantly battling (and losing) against my flaky willpower.
This micro experiment turned out to be a big success: I ended up reading 600 pages in Spanish in January – probably more than I read all year in 2017!
But last month wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.
My mission to become fluent in Spanish threw up some challenges too: I struggled with time-wasting habits (I’m looking at you Facebook!) and realized that my listening isn’t as good as I’d like it to be.
Which got me thinking: could I apply this “make-it-so-easy-you-can’t-say-no” philosophy to other areas of Spanish and get similar results? Would this technique help me nix my time-wasting habits and improve my listening in Spanish?
Keep reading to find out:
How I managed to read 600 pages by forming good language learning habits.
How I plan on breaking time-wasting habits in February (hasta luego social media!).
My problems with listening in Spanish + how I plan to fix them.
How I’m becoming fluent in Spanish by forming good language learning habits
This year, I set myself the micro-task of reading 2 paragraphs per day (one in the morning and one in the evening), and I ended up reading 600 pages in a month!
This experience has shown me that when it comes to making big changes, starting small is best.
To get into the habit of reading more in Spanish, I used BJ Fogg’s tiny habits technique, which consists of two main steps:
Make the habit so small you can’t say no.
Do it immediately after a habit you already have.
For me this was:
After I make my morning cup of tea, I’ll read a paragraph of my book. After I finish washing the dishes in the evening, I’ll read a paragraph of my book.
This technique worked well because it helped me do the hardest bit – get started. By the time I got started, it was easy to keep going. Actually, it was fun, because there was no pressure. Once I’d finished the paragraph, I could stop if I wanted to (and I did sometimes). But most of the time I kept reading out of choice, which made the whole thing more enjoyable.
Riding on the crest of this good habit wave, I added another couple on:
After I brush my teeth, floss one tooth (I usually end up flossing them all). OK, this won’t help me become fluent in Spanish, but it’s interesting to see how the tiny habits have spilt over into other areas!
Of course, there were some down points too. Like last week when I didn’t read as much because I had the winter grumps and was feeling demotivated. But the great thing about my tiny language learning habits is that even if I’m tired, cranky or busy, I can still do them because they’re so easy. Usually, this would be when I’d let everything slide, end up feeling guilty and struggle to get started again.
But doing just a tiny something on these days helps me stay in the habit, which naturally expands again when I feel better or have more time.
Will I keep bookworming through February?
I suspect that once the initial enthusiasm has worn off, the amount I read in Spanish will drop a bit. But I’m hoping that my tiny reading habits will help me stay in the game and still get quite a lot of Spanish reading done.
What’s stopping me from becoming fluent in Spanish? Time-wasting habits!
In the 70s, the baby boomers had LSD and weed. For Gen X, it was cocaine and ecstasy.
And Millennials? We’ve got coffee and Facebook.
Sometimes I like to think this addiction doesn’t apply to me, especially when the conversation moves on to how obsessed people are with their smartphones these days. But the truth is, I’m just as hooked as everyone else in my generation.
Most of the time I don’t even enjoy using social media (unless I’m using Instagram for language learning). But somehow I find my fingers reaching for my phone and before I know it, I’m staring vacantly at pictures of what a friend of a friend ate for breakfast, I’ve lost 20 minutes of my life and I’m feeling like a small part of me has just died.
If I could stop constantly chasing little dopamine hits on my screen, I’d have a lot more time on my hands.
Of course, I’ve tried to stop procrastinating on social media before. Sometimes it works for a bit, but sooner or later I find myself with the same problem. Just because I decide to do something, doesn’t mean I’ll actually do it.
What I learnt last month is that to make real changes, it helps to start itsy-bitsy.
So this month, I’m going to start unravelling my social media dependence with one tiny habit:
Every time I open my phone to go on social media, I’ll revise one Spanish word on my flashcard app.
This is so small, it should be easy to do. If I really want to go on social media after that I can. But something tells me that once I get started with one Spanish word, I’ll probably do 10. And by the time I’ve done 10, I probably won’t feel like going on social media anymore.
What else is stopping me from becoming fluent in Spanish? Listening skills
I’ve been learning Spanish for a while now, so I’m always surprised by how little I understand when I watch Spanish TV. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching channel 9 from the Fast Show.
As I already speak Italian and French, it didn’t take long for me to start understanding slow, simplified Spanish, like the kind you hear in textbooks, or that native speakers use with foreigners. I could also understand written Spanish quite well, and managed to watch a few Spanish TV series with Spanish subtitles.
This meant I was feeling a little too cocky about my listening skills and got a shock when I turned off the subtitles and realized how little I could understand!
I have to remind myself that understanding TV actually comes much later than people expect. After reaching a quite an advanced level in Italian (C2) and living in Italy for several years, I still don’t understand everything on Italian TV, especially if the characters have strong regional accents. Similarly, I have an Italian friend who’s lived in America for 10 years and speaks English so well he’s often mistaken for a native, but even he doesn’t understand everything he hears in American films.
So the first step is to be realistic and not panic when I understand less than expected.
Another thing that trips me up with Spanish listening is the regional variation: after spending a while getting used to Mexican Spanish, I was shocked to realize I hardly understood anything in the Spanish spoken in Spain. Some people say just pick a variety and stick to it, but I’d like to understand Spanish speaking people from all over the world!
How I plan on boosting my Spanish listening skills
I simply haven’t spent enough time getting used to real, spoken Spanish. So this month, my plan is to binge listen to different varieties of Spanish.
This is a great excuse to re-watch all the Spanish-language TV series and films I’ve already seen, this time without subtitles.
As a rough estimate, I’d say I can understand around 50 – 60% of what’s being said, which means I can usually follow what’s going on, even if I can’t understand all the details yet. By starting with series I’ve already seen, I’ll have an even better chance of following what’s being said.
Binge listening to Spanish-Language TV and podcasts
To learn from films and TV, it’s important to be able to follow the dialogue. For this reason, I’m going to use videos and TV series with Spanish subtitles that I can turn on and off. This way, when I come across big chunks of dialogues that I don’t understand, I can go back and listen again a couple of times, and if I really don’t get it, I can watch it again with the subtitles.
That said, in times when I can’t be bothered to go into so much detail, I’m just going to put my feet up and watch. Now I can understand at least 50%, I can learn a lot by just listening to hours and hours of dialogues. I did this a while ago with French (with TV shows that had no subtitles) and after lots of binge-watching, my French listening got pretty good. My speaking improved too.
I’ll also be listening to as many Spanish podcasts as I can when I’m walking somewhere or cleaning the house. At the moment I’m listening to news podcasts, which is nice because it makes me feel like I’m in Spain (apart from when they read the weather in Granada). Speaking of which, I’m on the lookout for some good podcasts for Spanish speakers, let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions!
As I love watching foreign-language TV shows and listening to podcasts, this part won’t require much motivation, which allows me to add another so-easy-you-can’t-say-no habit to my language learning routine.
Language learning goals for February
To recap, I’ve set myself 3 very simple goals to move forward in my mission to become fluent in Spanish:
1. Reading in Spanish: Read a paragraph in the morning and one in the evening.
2. Break my time-wasting habit: review one Spanish word on my flashcard app every time I get tempted to go on social media.
3. Binge listening in Spanish: watch lots of Spanish-language TV and listen to podcasts.
I got the bus over to the South of France, looking forward to a whole month of French immersion.
As soon as I got there, I realised that the “strong and optimistic” version of me who set those goals in July was an idiot because the current “on holiday” version of me didn’t feel like doing anything that remotely resembled studying.
Instead of 90 minutes “focused study” every day and one writing exam practice per week, I did a bit of focused study occasionally and one very half-arsed practice for the writing exam in the whole month.
I did, however, do lots of fun things in French like:
Chatting to French waiters.
Reading books, magazines and newspapers.
Listening to podcasts about the areas I was visiting.
I tried to orchestrate my trip so that I’d be able to speak as much French as possible, by booking rooms in Airbnbs where the ads were written in French (a good sign that the host would be happy to speak to me in French rather than English).
But the first Airbnb turned out to be an unsociable dorm-type set up where people scuttled in and out of the kitchen to cook and take their food back to their room.
So I spent the first week alone, wandering around museums listening to French podcasts, drinking wine and reading Tintin.
The following week, My Italian partner Matteo came out to visit. He’s also learning French so we spent a week speaking our new language – a mixture of French, Italian and English, or as we like to call it “Fritalianish”.
Luckily, in the last 10 days, I found an Airbnb with a lovely, sociable host, Mireille. We hit it off immediately and I spent an amazing few days with Mireille and her friends, chatting in French the whole time (pausing only to stuff my face with lemon tarts and rosé).
With the deadline looming, it was time to start thinking about the DALF exam more seriously.
While I wasn’t feeling confident about any of it, there was one particular part which scared the crap out of me…
The production orale, otherwise known as the speaking exam.
In this part, you’re asked to read 3 French documents related to humanities/social studies or science then give a 10 to 15-minute speech on the topic.
In short, something I would find difficult in my native language.
I made a decision (which later paid off) to throw myself into the difficult bit first, so I started practicing this as much as I could during Skype lessons with my online French tutors.
My god was it painful!
By now, I could chat reasonably comfortably in French in informal situations, but a formal speech? My poor tutors had to put up with excruciatingly long silences while I dug around my brain and tried to string a sentence together.
I started to regret my decision to take the DALF exam. But it was too late to back out now.
During our first lesson, she said she thought the higher level DALF exam (C2) was too ambitious. Given that I was already halfway past my deadline and wasn’t anywhere near as far along as I’d hoped, I agreed.
We decided to go for the lower level DALF exam (C1).
I felt a bit relieved.
Manon was (rightly) still a bit dubious about whether I’d pass the C1 or not.
End of September
I had a bout of migraines which knocked me out for almost a week.
When I wasn’t being sick and my eyes could handle the light from the TV screen, I curled up on the sofa and watched reality TV in French.
Where did the first week of October go?
Time was whizzing by and I still didn’t feel ready for the exam. Time to get serious and come up with a game plan.
Got a throat infection. Spent another few days curled up on the sofa watching French TV.
Once I’d recovered, I continued following my game plan as best as I could.
End of October
Things started looking up. I realised I could now understand almost everything I heard and read in French.
All that time listening to podcasts, watching TV and reading must have paid off.
I did some practice listening and reading tests and they went pretty well. Sometimes I got close to 100%. But other times I didn’t understand the questions properly or ran out of time and only just scraped the 50% necessary to pass.
I kept doing practice speaking tests with my online conversation tutors (3 x week by this point, sometimes more). After many, many practice sessions, I stopped being so terrible at it.
But with all that focus on the speaking test, I’d forgotten about another difficult bit – the writing section!
I did a couple of practice writing tests which were disastrous. The fact that I had very little experience writing in French combined with the tricky spelling system meant that I kept making babyish spelling mistakes that made my tutor cringe! Certainly not C1 level yet.
Beginning of November
I still wasn’t sure if I’d pass.
But I was starting to feel happy with how far I’d come. Looking back to July, I realised that I’d already made a huge amount of progress in my French. No matter what happened in the exam, I’d already moved past the intermediate plateau.
I began studying French every waking hour I wasn’t working or eating. Probably 4-5 hours per day, sometimes more.
When I had the energy, I was doing practice exams. When I didn’t, I was curled up on the sofa with YouTube videos and French TV series. I also watched lots of news and Tedtalks in French. Aside from being interesting, I thought they’d help me pick up vocabulary that’d be useful for the exam.
My writing skills were still pretty crappy for C1 level. I realised that I probably shouldn’t have waited until a few weeks before the exam to start learning how to write in French.
One week before the exam
Great news! My tutor Manon was impressed with the progress I’d made. Despite her reservations about my writing, she believed I had already reached C1 level.
All I had to do now was make sure nothing went drastically wrong on the day…
How the DALF exam went
Next, I’ll give some detailed information about the DALF exam, talk about how it went on the day and give a break down of my results.
Listening (compréhension orale)
The listening part of the exam takes around 40 minutes. First, you listen to a long recording (around 8 minutes) which is taken from formats such as interviews, lessons or conferences. You can listen twice. You can take notes as you listen and you get a few minutes between each to complete your answers.
Next, you listen to a series of short radio broadcasts, typically newsflashes or adverts. You can only listen once.
For this part, it’s important that you understand spoken French well because they often pick radio samples with fast speech where the audio is a bit distorted.
As I listened to the 8 minute dialogue the first time, I panicked because the first part included a fast advert with quite a lot of sound interference. It whizzed by and I wasn’t able to concentrate on what they were saying. Luckily, the second time around I managed to catch it.
I wasn’t worried about the second part as I often got full marks in the practice tests. But in the real test, my mind wandered for a moment and… that was it. I’d missed the information I needed and I couldn’t listen again. Luckily, that only happened on a couple of questions, so it didn’t really matter.
Reading (compréhension écrite)
In the reading section, you have to answer a series of questions on a long-form article (1500 – 2000 words). It lasts for 50 minutes.
Despite the fact that I understood written French quite well, there were a couple of things that tripped me up in the practice tests:
I’m a slow reader! For me, it’s tricky to read a 2000 word document in French and answer a series of questions in 50 minutes.
Sometimes I found the questions a bit vague and struggled to pinpoint the kind of answers they were after.
Luckily, these things didn’t hold me back on the day. I felt a bit rushed for time, but I managed to answer most of the questions well.
Writing (production écrite)
The writing exam has two parts. In the first section, you read a few documents (total: 1000 words) and write a summary. In the second section, you write an argumentative essay based on the contents of the documents.
This is where things went wrong!
When I started writing, I was so aware of my weakness in that skill that I overanalysed every word.
Is that right?
Does that sound too babyish?
Needless to say, I got behind schedule. In fact, I was only halfway through the second task when the examiner shouted: 10 minutes!
10 minutes later, the examiner was standing over me saying “Madame, s’il vous plaît” as I scribbled down the last sentence.
Leaving the room, it all felt like a blur. I’d written the last part so fast, I was sure I’d made loads of mistakes. I didn’t know if I’d passed.
In the end, my writing was the result that surprised me the most – the lowest of the 4, but I was expecting much worse!
Speaking (production orale)
Before the speaking exam, the examiners give you a few documents on a topic (you can choose between humanities/social sciences or science). Then, you have one hour to read the documents and prepare a speech on the topic.
The actual exam lasts for 30 minutes: 10 – 15 minutes for the speech, followed by a discussion with the examiners on the same topic.
Interestingly, although this was the part that terrified me the most at the beginning, by the time the exam rolled around I’d practiced it so many times I felt ready – I was even looking forward to it!
When you walk into the exam room, you choose two topics by picking numbers at random. Next, you get a few minutes to sit down with the two topics and pick the one you prefer.
I got lucky.
One of the subjects was about learning and technology and as a language teacher, I have lots to say on the subject.
The actual exam was nowhere near as intimidating as I’d imagined. I gave my speech, then had a lovely chat with the examiners, nerding out about the role of technology in language learning and teaching.
When I left the room, I was elated – I couldn’t believe that the most difficult bit had gone so well! It felt nice to know that I’d just done something that seemed impossible a few months ago.
If all that exam stuff sounds terrifying, don’t worry, it sounded terrifying to me a few months ago too. If you’ve been toying with the idea of taking the DALF exam (or any other language exam) then I say go for it.
It might not be smooth sailing the whole way through, but it’ll be worth it!
My most important tip for exam preparation is to start with the terrifying bits first. That way, once you get to the exam, you’ll feel confident.
Do you have any other tips to add?
Or, do you have any questions about the DALF exam? Let me know in the comments below!
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