There it was.

That email I’d been waiting for.

Back in summer, I’d set myself a goal: go from intermediate to fluent French in 5 months.

At the end of November, I took an advanced level French exam (DALF) to check my level. The email was from the Institut Français and it had my results inside.

Surprise.

I’d passed the French DALF exam!

Even more surprising: I got 83%, which is pretty good (the pass mark is 50%).

Which got me thinking about this trite-but-true infographic.

When I see people achieve things on the internet, it seems like they just set themselves a goal, sprinkle on some of their innate superhuman discipline then poof, done.

It’s hard to imagine them feeling stressed or having days where they can’t peel themselves off the sofa.

So in this post, I thought it’d be fun to give you a sneak peek into what actually happened (and what was going through my monkey brain) as I went from intermediate to fluent French in 5 months.

First I’ll reveal my very unglamorous journey to reaching my goal in French. Then, I’ll talk you through the details of the DALF exam and how it went on the day.

Preparing for the DALF exam: what really happened

End of June

My French level had been stagnating for a while. What I needed was a kick up the bum to help me push past the intermediate plateau.

So I set myself a challenge: 5 months to get fluent in French.

As fluency is a very slippery concept to define, I decided to take the top level French exam, Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française (DALF), in November as an objective way of confirming my level.

The DALF exam has 2 levels: C1 and C2. While the top level (C2) sounded exciting, I wasn’t sure if I’d manage it in 5 months. I decided to start preparing for the exam and choose the level later.

I knew it’d take a lot of work (I estimated 2-3 hours a day) but I was ready for it. I was feeling motivated and ready to take on the world.

Related: How I’m becoming fluent in French (from my living room)

July

That feeling did not last long.

Trying to squeeze the DALF preparation around all the other stuff I was already doing meant that I started to feel a bit burnt out.

I got a bladder infection (told you this story would be unglamourous) with a high temperature. That, coupled with the 40-degree heat in Milan, left me feeling like merde.

So I made an ass groove on the sofa, ate lots of ice-cream and binge-watched my way through all 3 series of Better Call Saul dubbed in French.

As I slowly pieced myself back together, I decided to streamline my timetable so I could focus on preparing for the DALF exam without feeling overwhelmed.

By the end of July, I was feeling strong and optimistic again, so I set myself the following French goals for August:

Daily (except weekend)

  • 90 minutes focused study: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and writing
  • 90 minutes fun stuff: watching films/tv series, reading magazines/books etc.

Weekly

  • One practice writing exam

Related: This extreme approach can help you learn a language faster by doing less.

August

Holiday time!

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.

🇫🇷 Ce soir j’ai un rencard avec Tintin. 🇬🇧 Tonight I’ve got a date with Tintin.

Un post condiviso da Katie Harris (@joyoflanguages) in data:

 

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).

 

On the way back, I tried Couchsurfing and had a similarly awesome experience with my French host and her friends.

 

September

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.

Mid September

Time to call in a professional.

I contacted a French teacher (via italki) who was an examiner for the DALF exam. 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.

My tutor was still (rightly) a bit dubious as to whether I’d pass 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.

October

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.

Related: DALF C1: how I’m preparing for the scary French exam.

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.

Related: Why you should have audacious language learning goals (even if you don’t reach them)

Now to pass that DALF exam…

Two weeks before the exam

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 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.

Result: 23/25

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.

Result: 22/25

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!

Result: 15/25

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.

Result: 23/25

Your turn!

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!

Imagine a man who does 70 push-ups a day.

What kind of person comes to mind?

An intense overachiever with willpower as strong as his biceps? A tanned guy with an intellect as small as his Speedos?

You might not imagine a soft-spoken behavioural psychologist at Stanford University who used to struggle with his weight.

Back in 2011, after a year of failing to see the number on the scales go down, BJ Fogg decided to apply insights from his research on human behaviour to his own weight loss attempts.

And the results were surprising.

Just one year later, he’d lost the weight and made some impressive changes to his lifestyle, including a 70-a-day push-up habit.

Most impressive of all, he’d done it without relying on motivation or willpower.

The surprisingly simple way to learn a language

Learning a language and weight loss are similar: they’re typical examples of those big, exciting ideas that fill us with enthusiasm on New Year’s Eve. Yet when it comes to actually making those changes in January – eating broccoli instead of cake, or studying instead of watching Netflix – most of us would rather not bother.

You could blame it on a lack of motivation and assume that these kinds of changes require a will of steel that’s not available to everyone (well, at least not to folks like me who stand in the fridge door nibbling on cheese whilst deciding what to cook for dinner).

But Fogg’s experience showed the opposite: his technique worked because he’d found a way to make lasting changes which don’t depend on motivation or willpower.

Read on to find out how Fogg’s tiny habits technique can help you create small but powerful language learning habits so you can achieve more this year. You’ll learn:

  • How to learn a language easily, without making massive changes to your life
  • Why you don’t need to feel motivated all the time
  • The best way to create a language learning routine you can stick to
  • How to keep going for long enough to get amazing results

Why motivation doesn’t work

It sounds logical enough.

To achieve big goals, you should do big things. To lose weight, you should go to the gym 3 times a week and eat celery all day. To learn a language, you should sign up for a language course and study really hard all the time.

We know these things are difficult to stick to in the long term, so we try to increase our motivation to help us keep going when things get gruelling. This explains why the internet’s full of “motivation hacks” to help you achieve this or that goal.

But realistically, who can keep their motivation consistently high enough to keep doing these things when they don’t feel like it?

I’m guessing not many. If you could, you probably wouldn’t be reading this post. If I could, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post.

Approaches that rely on willpower or motivation are flawed because they ask you to “try harder” in the exact moment that you can’t be bothered to do anything. If I’m unmotivated, I don’t want to try harder. I want to eat cheese, and no amount of articles I read on lifehack is going to change that.

So what’s the solution?

Motivation is unreliable: it goes up and down, no matter how hard you try to sustain it. Yet we need it to do difficult things. No wonder so many of us struggle to make big changes like losing weight or learning a language.

Tiny habits, big results

Professor Fogg knew that trying to boost motivation isn’t helpful for long-term changes. But he also knew that people tend to avoid doing difficult things when their motivation is low.

So he looked at the problem from a different angle.

What would happen if, instead of trying to increase motivation, he made changes that were so easy, it was almost impossible to say no?

What if, instead of trying to do a few big things that were difficult, he did lots of teeny-tiny things, that were easy to repeat and make into habits? Say a couple of push-ups here, or a sip of water there?

Over the year, these tiny habits accumulated, leading to the outcome that Fogg had hoped for: long-term weight loss.

Think about the things you do every day, like opening the curtains, brushing your teeth or putting your shoes on. Do you need lots of willpower to do these things? Probably not. You just do them.

The same idea applies to learning a language: if you establish lots of tiny language learning habits, you won’t need to feel highly motivated to do them. And over time, you’ll find it easy to make sustainable progress toward your language goals.

Tiny habits may not sound as sexy as inspirational resolutions, but they work better.

And remember: we’re talking about tiny habits, not tiny results. You’ll still be heading toward an exciting outcome, like being able to converse easily with native speakers. The idea behind tiny habits is that you’ll get there more easily by taking lots of baby steps.

As Fogg points out: when you know how to create tiny habits, you can change your life forever.

So if you want to learn a language this year, forget about big plans you’ll never stick to. Start with a tiny language learning habit.

Here’s how.

How to learn a language with tiny (but powerful) language learning habits

To establish effective language learning habits, there are 3 steps you’ll need to follow:

1. Choose your tiny habits

Think about the outcome you’d like to achieve. Now break it down into a list of teeny-weeny actions you can take to get there.

Here are a few examples:

  • Press play on my audio course
  • Practice pronouncing one sound
  • Learn one word
  • Read a newspaper headline or the title of a book chapter
  • Do one exercise from my textbook
  • Review one verb form
  • Press play on a YouTube tutorial
  • Listen to one song
  • Say/write one sentence

Note that to keep things really tiny, it helps to choose habits like “press play” rather than “listen to a 30-minute podcast”. The outcome might be the same, as you’ll probably listen to the whole thing once you’ve pressed play anyway, but keeping it tiny makes it easier to get started. More on this later.

2. Hook them onto existing habits

Now you have your tiny habits ready, you’ll need something to remind you to do them, as BJ Fogg calls them, triggers.

To make his tiny habit system as effective as possible, Fogg looked for simple triggers which would integrate smoothly into daily life, without having to worry about post-its or alarms.

He found that the best way to do this was by attaching the behaviour onto habits we already have, such as brushing our teeth, getting home, or going for a wee.

The trigger for his push-up habit gives a very clever (if perhaps not hygienic!) example of this:

After I pee, I’ll do two push-ups

The keyword here is “after”. By adding your new tiny habit directly after something you already do several times a day, it’s easy to repeat.

3. Celebrate your victory

The last stage in Fogg’s tiny habit technique consists of doing a little celebration every time you complete your tiny habit. The idea behind this step is that firing up positive emotions makes your brain want to do it again, which makes the habit stick faster.

This mini celebration can be whatever you want it to be, ranging from eccentric little dances or saying “I’m awesome!”, to more sober versions, like smiling, or thinking “well done”.

Many people struggle with this part because it feels a bit silly. But if it’ll help you set up your habit faster, it’s worth a go. To be honest I’m just happy to have an excuse to do the running man in socks on my kitchen floor.

Step 3: Do a mini celebration every time you complete your tiny language learning habit. It might feel a bit cheesy at first, but if it helps you get into the habit faster, it’s worth a go!

Building language learning habits: The virtuous cycle

How do 2 push-ups turn into 70?

The tiny way of course!

Getting started is the hard part. But once a tiny habit has taken root, it will naturally expand over time.

If you’re in the habit of doing two push-ups, it’s easy to build up to 5. Once you’re in the habit of doing 5, it’s not hard to do 8. By doing this several times a day, you’ll suddenly find you can rack up 70 push-ups without much effort.

Now imagine this in terms of language learning. Let’s say every time you get in the shower, you practice rolling your Rs once. By force of inertia, you’ll probably end up practicing for a few minutes anyway, especially once it starts getting easier.

If you say one sentence to yourself whilst washing the dishes, you might still be talking to yourself as you walk around the house (this happened to me after lunch today).

Once you’ve watched one foreign language YouTube video, you’ll probably end up watching a few more.

And so on.

Writer Sonia Simone recommends planning your tiny habits when you’ve got some spare time afterwards so you can take advantage of this forward motion. Just make sure you don’t start secretly planning to do more every time, as that’ll make it harder to get started.

As long as you’ve hit your tiny goal, you’ve won. Sticking to these goals, no matter how small, sets off a positive chain of events, helping you feel good about your efforts and encouraging you to let your language learning habits grow over time.

Once your tiny language learning habit has taken root, it will grow over time and help you achieve sustainable language learning success.

Building language learning habits: Troubleshooting

If you struggle to make your language learning habits stick, there are a few reasons this might be happening:

Your language learning habit is too big

Remember, your language learning habit has to be so small that it’s easy to do, even on days when you don’t feel like it. If you’re still feeling resistance, the habit is probably too big.

Solution

Strip your language learning habits down so that they’re so tiny, you could even do them on duvet days. Things like “press play on a French video” are much better than “write a paragraph in French”. Make the habit so easy, you can do it every single day (or several times a day), no matter what your mood is.

This is the most important step because repetition is the key to lasting change.

Avoid falling into the temptation of setting bigger targets so you can progress faster. It could hold you back in the long run. Just focus on doing your tiny language learning habits and the rest will come.

You’re too busy

What if you have one of those days, weeks or months where you’re so busy you barely have time to take a shower or wash your socks?

Solution

Keep those days in mind when you choose your language learning habits. Choose habits that are so small and easy, you can still do them on your most chaotic days. Then, when those days come around, remind yourself how important it is to keep up your habit during these times – that should help you make the tiny effort to get it done.

Your schedule is unpredictable

Let’s imagine your tiny language habit is to practice counting in your head in Spanish whilst you brush your teeth.

What if you go for a few drinks after work, then wake up the next morning on your friend’s sofa with a fuzzy mouth and a cat on your head, realising that not only did you not brush your teeth, you also forgot to practice counting in Spanish?

Solution

It’s no biggie to miss your habit once in a while. Just make sure you get right back to it. Writer James Clear has a “never miss habits twice” rule, which should help you stay on track.

If your schedule is always different – for example, if you travel a lot – hook your language learning habits onto things you do every day, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. A few examples are: getting out of bed, getting dressed, leaving the house, washing your hands, taking your shoes off…

Problem: You want to know everything, yesterday

One problem with the tiny habit technique is that it goes against that initial surge of motivation you get when you first decide to make a big change, like learning a language.

At this stage, it’s tempting to charge ahead because it feels like you’ll make faster progress that way. But without good language learning habits, that rhythm will be difficult to maintain.

Solution

Remember that this technique works because it’s all about baby steps. Be patient. Pour that initial enthusiasm into repeating a few tiny language learning behaviours until they become automatic, then celebrate as you watch them grow.

My tiny language learning habits

This year, I’m going to use the tiny habit technique to start reading more.

Reading in a foreign language awesome: it’s fun, helps you pick up vocabulary naturally and get exposure to typical sentence structures without feeling like “studying”.

Despite the benefits, I’ve always struggled to get into the habit of reading foreign language learning books. I either find more exciting things to do, like eating cake and watching Netflix, or try doing it right before bed and fall asleep on the first page.

In last week’s article, when I talked about my language goals for 2018, I mentioned that I’d like to build up to reading for 45 minutes in the evening. However, since researching this article, I’ve realised that having such a big number in my head probably isn’t the right strategy, as it will make things difficult to get started.

So I’ve decided to keep things simple. I’m just going to focus on two tiny habits each day and hope that by force of inertia, I’ll end up reading a decent amount.

Here are my two tiny language learning habits:

After I make a cup of tea in the morning, 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

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!

Your tiny language learning habits

Just reading this article probably won’t help you improve your language skills much.

If you want to benefit from these ideas, it’s time to take action. Grab a pen and paper and write a list of tiny language learning behaviours that:

  • Hook on easily to your existing habits
  • Are so tiny, they barely require any effort

Remember to follow this structure:

After I (+ existing habit), I will (+ tiny language learning habit)

Examples of language learning habits

In need of a little inspiration? Let’s imagine you’re learning Spanish. Here are some tiny language learning habits you could get into:

  • After I make my morning coffee, I will read one headline in a Spanish newspaper.
  • After I get in the shower, I will practice saying one word with the rolled r sound.
  • After I leave the house, I will put my headphones on and press play on a Spanish podcast.
  • After I reach the bus stop, I will review one word on my flashcard app.
  • After I sit at my desk, I will review one verb form (make it easy by having a list ready on your desk).
  • After I put the kettle on to boil, I will say one sentence to myself in Spanish.
  • After I open my laptop, I will press play on one Spanish tutorial on YouTube.
  • After I open Instagram, I will write or say one sentence in Spanish via the #languagediarychallenge (if you’re a complete beginner, try one word or very short phrase).
  • After I finish the evening dishes, I will read one paragraph from a book of short stories for Spanish learners.
  • After I put my pyjamas on, I will write one Spanish sentence about my day in my diary.
  • After my head hits the pillow, I will think of one Spanish sentence in my head.

Remember: you don’t need to do everything on your list at once! Choose a couple and focus on repeating them until they become automatic. Then you can gradually add more.

Time for some action

Pick 1 – 3 habits from your list and start doing them today.

If you’d like a little extra support, BJ Fogg runs a free online programme for developing tiny habits which you can join here.

Over to you

Which tiny language learning habits are you going to start doing? Let us know in the comments below!

This time last year, I set some language learning goals for 2017.

Some went better than planned.

Others went horribly wrong.

Which made me wonder: why did some goals keep me motivated right up to the finish line, while others got relegated to the bottom of my to-do list, behind more important activities like reading BuzzFeed or staring out the window with my finger up my nose?

Looking back, I found something interesting: the successful goals had 3 basic principles in common.

And, just as importantly, in the goals that bombed, at least 1 of these 3 principles was missing.

In this article, I’ll share these 3 important keys to setting successful language learning goals, so you can use them to achieve more in your own language learning goals this year.

Let’s start by looking at the language learning goals that went well last year, and why.

Language learning goals I smashed in 2017

Have a 15-minute conversation in Mandarin Chinese

At the beginning of 2017, I did the Add1Challenge, an online language programme where you learn as much as you can in 90 days, with the aim of having a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker at the end. In this challenge, I studied Mandarin for around 1 hour a day and managed to stick to it most days.

Here’s my level when I started the challenge.

And here I am having a conversation with my Mandarin tutor 3 months later. I did 45-minutes in the end, and I’m pleased with how the challenge went.

Pass the boss level Italian exam

Another goal was to pass the highest-level Italian language exam (C2 in the Common European Framework). I took it in June and passed.

Become fluent in French

Back in July, I gave myself 5 months to become fluent in French. I already had intermediate-level, so I wanted to break past the intermediate plateau and reach advanced level. As a way of measuring my progress, I decided to take one of the highest level French language exams (DALF) at the end of November.

Great news… I just found out that I passed!

I got 83% overall. The pass mark is 50% so that’s a pretty good result. I’ll write a post with more details in January.

Go on a language adventure

Another goal was to go on a language learning adventure abroad.

Back in August, I caught the bus over to the south of France and tried to speak French the whole time. This was mostly successful, apart from a couple of exceptions, like spending the first week in an antisocial Airbnb where I struggled to find people to chat to, and when my Italian other half Matteo came to visit for a week. Although I still managed to practice French as Matteo’s learning French too so we ended up speaking Fritalian (a mixture of French and Italian).

The last 2 weeks went well because I found an Airbnb with a really sociable French host and met some lovely people via Couchsurfing. I even manage to make a few friends who I communicate with entirely in French and have been back to visit since.

3 easy steps for setting language learning goals

Why were those 4 goals successful? Looking back, I discovered that they shared 3 basic principles.

1. Choose a clear, short-term deadline.

In the case of the #add1challenge, this was the end of the challenge. For Italian and French, it was the exam date.

2. Focus on one goal at a time

When I started my French mission, I was trying to do 5 things at once, but I wasn’t doing any of them well (or enjoying any of them). So I sacked everything else off and decided to focus exclusively on French.

This worked really well: I became more focused and had more time to dedicate to learning French, so I made better progress. I watched and read more stuff in French, and increased the time I spent chatting to native French speakers online via italki. Doing this, I felt more immersed in French culture, which made the whole process more rewarding.

3. Make it a habit

For each of these goals, I made sure that I set up some strategic language learning routines.

This means that I decided when and where I was going to learn a language each day and tried my hardest to actually stick to it. I didn’t always manage, but I frequently did, and that was enough to make progress over time.

Here are some examples of the habits I got into:

  1. Set aside a specific time every day to work towards my language learning goals.
  2. Listen to foreign language podcasts as I go about my day.

In January, I’ll post a tutorial on how to build effective habits for language learning. In the meantime, you can learn more about the routines I set up for each language in these posts:

 

Language learning goals I slacked off on

Looking at these 3 principles, the reasons I failed to meet my other goals are now obvious. Let’s look at the language learning goals that didn’t work and why:

Read loads of Italian books

I’ve got a big pile of Italian books that I’ve been wanting to read for years, so last year I set myself the goal of reading them.

But somehow I just didn’t get around to it.

I kept telling myself I’d start tomorrow until it got to October. But by October I realised it was too late, so I gave up completely.

All the Italian books I didn’t read last year.

Keeping in mind our 3 principles, there are 2 reasons this language learning goal failed:

The deadline wasn’t short enough

My deadline was a year away, which made it very easy to keep telling myself that I’d “start tomorrow”. It would’ve been more effective to break this goal down into smaller steps, say 1 book every 2-3 months.

I didn’t set up an effective routine

While I have gotten into the habit of reading before bed, I only manage to read a page or so before I fall asleep, and I’m often so sleepy I can’t remember what I read, so I have to read it again the next day. Not the best strategy for getting through 1000s of pages in a year!

Reach the next level in Spanish

I aimed to get to an upper-intermediate level in Spanish (B2 in the Common European Framework).

There’s one clear reason this didn’t work:

I was focusing on too many things at once

In July I realised that I had to stop pursuing this goal. If I’d continued with Spanish, I wouldn’t have had as much success with my French mission.

Learn to discuss more complex topics in German

My German goal failed for the same reason my Spanish one did: too many things at once. I started the year studying German for an hour a day but gradually gave it up as I focused more on my other goals.

Last year’s language learning goals: an overview

Overall, I’m pleased with how much I learned in 2017. Even the goals I didn’t meet taught me some valuable lessons that I can put into practice when setting goals for learning a foreign language this year.

To sum up, I’ve learnt to:

  1. Choose clear, short-term deadlines.
  2. Focus on one goal at a time.
  3. Implement effective habits and routines.

My language learning goals for 2018

Here’s how I’m applying these 3 ideas to set effective language learning goals for 2018.

1. Choose a clear, short-term deadline

Become fluent in Spanish

My current mission is to become fluent in Spanish by June. I’m already at intermediate level, so I’m aiming to take my level up to advanced, just like I did with French last year.

Read about how I define fluency and how I plan to get there in this post:

Become fluent in Spanish in 1 year without leaving the house (a step-by-step guide)

2. Focus on one goal at a time

Start becoming fluent in German

Once I’ve reached my Spanish goal, I plan on doing something similar for German. It’ll take longer than my previous French and Spanish missions because German is more difficult, and my current German level is lower.

I predict that it’ll take me around one year to reach fluency in German, studying for 2-3 hours per day. If I was starting from scratch, it could take around 18 months.

A year is a long time, so I’ll need to break this goal down into fewer, short-term deadlines. I’ll think more about this when I’m ready to get started in June/July.

Go on a language adventure

I’d also like to go on another language learning adventure over summer. It’s too far away to think about the details yet, but I’m hoping it’ll involve travelling to a different country and chatting to the locals in their language.

Build effective habits

Read in a foreign language for 45 minutes per day

This year, I’m aiming to get into the habit of reading a foreign language novel for 45 minutes before bed.

I’ve tried this many times before and failed, so this year I’m going to try again, using a special technique for building habits. More on this in next week’s post.

Over to you

What are your language learning goals for 2018? Share them with us in the comments below!

I love travelling.

I love jumping on a plane, hopping out the other side and being surrounded by different people, sights, smells and of course, languages.

I even love that awkward feeling of trying to use the lingo with the locals and being met with a confused stare or nervous laugh, because I know it’s the start of something great: if I persevere, I’ll be fluent one day.

Despite this, I’ve done most of my language learning missions without spending long periods of time abroad. Living in a new country sounds exciting, but it’s not very practical. I’ve got all kinds of good stuff going on here that I don’t want to leave behind, like a relationship, job and friends.

I love travelling in Spain but I’m can’t move there. So I’ve found a way to become fluent in Spanish from home instead.

Maybe you’re in a similar situation. You want to learn Spanish, but for work or family or whatever reason, you can’t move to Spain or Latin America to do it.

If this sounds like you, I have good news: you don’t need to go abroad to become fluent in Spanish. You can do it from the comfort of your own home, in your fluffy socks.

I did something similar back in July, when I decided to become fluent in French from my living room. Now, I’m planning on doing the same thing for Spanish. In this article, I’ll share my step-by-step plan that you can use to become fluent in Spanish without leaving the house.

But first…

Why you don’t need to go to the country to learn a language

It seems like every time people start talking about foreign languages, someone tells the story about how the only way to learn a language is to go to the country. Sometimes they’ll give examples of a friend or a family member who went abroad and picked up the language easily because they needed it to survive.

But the idea that there’s something magical about being in the country that makes language learning effortless is simply not true.

For a start, it’s easy to live in a foreign country without learning the language. Immigrants do it all the time (especially the ones from Western societies who are sometimes referred to as expats).

Secondly, if you don’t have a decent command of the language before you get there, you’ll struggle to make friends in the language you’re learning. And if you’re an English speaker, unless you’re going somewhere remote where no one else speaks English, you may have to battle to find opportunities to speak the language, because everyone will want to practice their English with you.

The reason some people have more success with languages while living in the country is due to a change in approach, rather than anything special about being in the country. I experienced this firsthand when I moved to Italy. Living in the country changed the way I learnt Italian in two important ways:

  • I stopped focusing on trying to memorise grammar rules and vocabulary and started using the language to communicate with human beings.
  • I spent lots of time practicing speaking.
I learnt Italian faster in Italy because I spent less time studying grammar rules and more time chatting to Italians. But you don’t need to be in the country to do that.

The good news is, you don’t need to be in the country to do these things. These are situations you can easily recreate at home: I know because I’ve done it with the other languages I’ve learnt. In the next section, I’ll show you how you can apply these ideas to become fluent in Spanish from home.

 

Become fluent in Spanish without leaving the house: A step-by-step guide

Step 1: Define your goal

If your goal is to become fluent in Spanish, you’ll need to decide what that means first. This can be tricky because the word “fluent” is a bit vague. To some people, you’re fluent as soon as you can have a basic conversation. For others, you shouldn’t say you’re fluent until you sound like a native speaker. For me, fluency means being able to function more or less as a native speaker would in everyday situations. This means:

  • I understand almost everything (except strong accents, local slang, or specialist vocabulary).
  • I can talk quickly and native listeners understand me without straining.
  • I rarely have to search for words (unless it’s specialist vocabulary or a momentary slip).
  • I probably still make mistakes and have a light foreign accent, but they don’t impede communication.

If you’re the type of person who needs a bit of pressure to get motivated, you could consider setting yourself the goal of passing an exam. The DELE Spanish exam at B2 level would fit in with the definition of fluency described above.

Step 2: Give yourself a deadline

Your deadline will depend on how much time you can put aside to study each day. If you’re starting from scratch, you could reach this level of fluency in 1 year by studying for around 2 hours per day. If you’re already at an intermediate level, you could get there in about 6 months.

If this sounds intense, don’t worry – this doesn’t mean 2 hours of “school-like” grammar study. The better you get at Spanish, the more you’ll be able to fill this time with stuff you really enjoy doing, like chatting to Spanish speakers, reading books/magazines/newspapers or watching TV and films.

Learning a language doesn’t have to be boring or stressful. To find out how to enjoy the process, you might find these posts useful:

How to learn a language at home (even if you’re really lazy).
The 11 easiest languages (and how to make any language easy).

Also, remember that by the end of the year, you’ll be fluent in Spanish. It’ll take time, but it’ll be so worth it!

Now you’ve got your deadline, break it up into mini goals. This is important because a year feels very far away, which makes it easy to find excuses to keep putting off learning Spanish. Here’s an example of 3 mini goals you could set yourself over the course of the year.

  • After 3 months: I can have conversations about simple things.
  • After 6 months: I can talk comfortably about familiar topics.
  • After 12 months: I can speak fluent Spanish (in line with the definition in step 1)

If you have less time to dedicate each day to learning Spanish, you can increase the deadline accordingly. For example, if you have half the time, you could give yourself twice as long to reach your goal. Alternatively, you could aim for a slightly lower level of fluency (B1 CEFR level) – still a great level where you can chat comfortably in most situations.

Keep in mind that these figures are guidelines: everyone’s different and how long it takes could depend on several factors, such as your experience with languages, whether you are able to stay positive and the amount of speaking practice you do during this time. Don’t worry if it takes a little longer than anticipated: keep going and you’ll get there!

Step 3: Get into a routine

To become fluent in Spanish, decide which actions you’ll need to take each day, then ACTUALLY DO THEM. Forgive me for shouting, but this is the most important bit of the whole guide.

You’ll need to think about:

  • How long you’ll study each day.
  • When and where you’ll do it.
  • What you’ll do in that time.

A typical day might look something like this:

  • Listen to Coffee Break Spanish as you eat your breakfast.
  • Review vocabulary using a flashcard app on your phone whilst stuck in traffic or waiting for the train.
  • Listen to an audiobook for Spanish learners during your commute.
  • After work, you could do a lesson with an online Spanish tutor, study a chapter from a textbook or if you’re feeling tired, chill out in front of some YouTube videos like Spanish Extra or Easy Spanish.
  • If you feel like going out, you could meet a native Spanish speaker in your area and set up a language exchange at the pub (more on this later).

We all have different timetables and tastes, and what works for one person may not work for another. I like to get up an hour early and squeeze my study time in before work because I tend to get distracted later and may not get around to studying. However, some people feel more focused in the evening. Take some time to experiment until you find a language learning routine that works for you.

One thing I recommend to pretty much everyone however, is to get yourself some headphones and listen to podcasts like Coffee Break Spanish and Notes in Spanish as you go about your day: on your commute, walking to work, running in the park, washing the dishes, cleaning the shower etc. It’s amazing how much extra Spanish you can squeeze in by doing this, and it doesn’t take any time out of your day.

Also, remember that you don’t need to start everything at once. Routines that are established slowly are usually the most steadfast. Work towards your ideal routine little by little: for example, if you plan to study Spanish for an hour before work, you could start with 5 minutes, then increase your study time for one minute per day until you’re up to 60.

Importantly, once you’ve sorted out your routine, focus all of your energy on that and forget about everything else.

Why?

If you focus on steps 1 and 2 (setting a goal and deadline), but forget about the things you need to do each day to actually get there, you’ll never become fluent in Spanish. This is the way people normally try to achieve things and the reason lots of people never reach their language learning goals.

Alternatively, if you skip the first two steps and just focus on doing your Spanish routine every day, you’ll become fluent in Spanish sooner or later anyway.

Having a goal and a deadline is handy because it gives you something to aim for. But the real secret to becoming fluent in Spanish is getting into a good routine. If you only follow one step from this guide, make it this one.

Step 4: Find your tools

If you’re going to be spending 1 – 2 hours a day learning Spanish, you’ll need to find some fun and useful things to do during that time. Experiment with different resources like textbooks, podcasts and YouTube channels for Spanish learners until you find things you like that help you make progress.

Not sure where to find tools for learning Spanish? These articles might help.

The 11 best tools for learning Spanish from beginner to advanced
The lazy person’s guide to learning Spanish
32 Fun ways to learn a language (that actually work)

Step 5: Measure your progress

Learning a language is like watching a plant grow. From day to day, the changes are almost imperceptible. But if you can step back and look at it after a few months, you’ll see that it’s grown loads.

Language learning happens so gradually that it can feel like you’re not making progress, which is demotivating. One way to resolve this is to record yourself speaking every now and then so you can look back and notice how far you’ve come. This will show you that your hard work is paying off and give you extra motivation to keep going.

To see what I mean, check out what happened when I recorded my progress in German over 3 months. Day to day, I felt like I was getting nowhere, but when I compared day 1 with day 90, I was quite pleased with how much I’d learnt.

Step 6: Find your people

One reason learning a language in the country seems easier than learning in the classroom is that it transforms a boring school subject into a way to communicate with other human beings. Instead of studying to pass a test, you’re learning Spanish so you can chat to your mate Carlos about a girl he met last weekend.

The more you can see Spanish as means of connecting with people, the more motivated you’ll be and the faster you’ll learn. But how can you do this without living in the country?

You can take advantage of this newfangled technology called the “Internet”, which allows you to connect with Spanish speaking people on the other side of the planet, from the comfort of your living room. This tool, which has revolutionalised language learning, is your most important ally in your quest to become fluent in your Spanish without putting pants on.

I use fab website called italki, where you can find loads of native Spanish tutors waiting to talk to you on Skype for a very reasonable price. Just this week I’ve had lovely chats with María from Venezuela and Carlos from Mexico for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, click on any of the italki links on this page to get a free $10 dollar voucher after your first lesson.

If you prefer a completely free option, you can also use italki to set up a language exchange with Spanish speakers who want to learn your language: this way you can talk for half the time in your native language and the other half in Spanish (just make sure you’re strict about the 50/50 rule right from the beginning, so your partner doesn’t hijack your Spanish speaking time!)

Alternatively, if you’d rather make real flesh and blood friends, you can use the internet to find Spanish speaking people in your area. Conversation exchange is a great website for this.

If the idea of speaking Spanish makes you feel nervous, you might find this article useful:

What’s stopping you from speaking a foreign language (and how to fix it)

Step 7: Talk as much as possible

Grammar exercises and language learning apps might make you feel like you’re doing something useful, but the best (and most enjoyable) way to learn how to speak a language is by talking to people. The more you practice speaking, the more fluent you’ll be. Simple as that.

Whether you pay tutors for online conversation lessons, or set up language exchanges, make it your priority to find people you enjoy spending time with and practice speaking Spanish with them as much as possible. Once you do this, becoming fluent in Spanish is just a matter of time.

My plan to become fluent in Spanish

Next, I’ll explain how I’m going to apply these ideas to help me become fluent in Spanish from my living room.

Set a goal + deadline

I’m already at an intermediate level in Spanish, so I’m going to give myself 6 months to become fluent.

Get into a routine

I’m aiming to learn Spanish for 2 hours a day over the next 6 months. As I’ve just finished my French mission, I already have a routine that sets 2 hours aside for language learning, so I just need to switch the language from French to Spanish. However, if I was building a routine from scratch, I’d start very small, say 5 minutes per day, and increase the time gradually using the technique I discussed in step 3.

Here’s a list of things I’m planning to do integrate into my Spanish learning routine:

  • Watch Spanish CNN while I eat breakfast and drink coffee.
  • Write a daily diary in Spanish.
  • Do at least 3 conversation lessons per week with my Spanish tutors on Skype (via italki).
  • Learn 200 words per month (about 6 per day) on my Flashcard app. To find out how I use flashcards to learn vocabulary, check out this post on how to remember words in a foreign language.
  • Listen to Spanish podcasts while I’m going about my day.
  • Integrate Spanish into my downtime. 2 hours a day is a lot, and if it felt like work all the time I’d never manage to keep it up. For this reason, I’m going to include lots of fun activities I can do in my downtime, like audiobooks, Spanish-language TV series on Netflix, TedTalks in Spanish, dancing around the house like a crazy lady and singing along to Cypress Hill in Spanish…

What about you?

Are you learning (or planning to learn) Spanish from home? Leave a comment and let me know: What’s your goal and deadline? Do you have a Spanish learning routine to help you get there?

I’m a fraud.

I write articles about things like “how to reach your language learning goals”. But half the time, I don’t actually reach my goals for learning a foreign language.

If you’re someone who gets enthusiastic about learning new things, this might sound familiar:

  1. You get excited about a big goal, like learning fluent Spanish in 1 year.
  2. Reality hits and you never do it.

Conventional wisdom says you failed because your goal was too unrealistic. By setting a difficult goal for learning a foreign language, you “set yourself up to fail”. You should have gone for something easier, like “learn how to have a basic conversation about myself and my family”.

But it’s not very inspiring is it?

It’s also not very effective. Research shows that people who set themselves easy goals are less likely to perform well. Which makes sense. When you aim high, the reward is usually more exciting. And it’s much easier to motivate yourself to work towards goals that feel exciting.

The problem with audacious goals is that by their very nature, they’re harder to achieve. You’re more likely to fail, which makes them intimidating to pursue.

But that doesn’t mean you have to settle for uninspiring goals.

You can make big language learning goals work for you by following a few simple principles. In this post, you’ll learn:

  • Why audacious language learning goals help you learn a language faster (and enjoy it more)
  • Why it’s OK not to reach your goals all the time.
  • How to set goals that help you make loads of progress in your target language (whether you reach them or not)

The moonshot factory

“X” is a radical research and development lab at Google, also known as the “moonshot factory”. It’s a place where scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs get together to work on far-out projects, like reducing road accidents with self driving cars, or “project Loon”, an attempt to bring balloon-powered internet to 4 billion people who don’t have access.

Projects they describe as “uncomfortably ambitious”.

But the team at X aren’t worried about the fact that their projects are unrealistic. They know that to drive dramatic change, they have to aim high. Or “shoot for the moon” as it were.

Of course, the audaciousness of these projects means they’re likely to fail. A lot. So how does the team at X motivate themselves to work towards big dreams, when they know that failure is almost inevitable?

By celebrating failure.

Astro Teller, the head of Google X, explains that to make progress, it’s essential to create a company culture where staff feel comfortable taking risks. At the moonshot factory, they make it “safe to fail” by promoting and giving bonuses to people who contributed to projects that didn’t work.

Project Loon at google X, where the team tackles ambitious projects and actively embraces failure.

Why it’s OK not to achieve your language learning goals

There’s an idea in motivational psychology that you should always set achievable goals so you can “set yourself up to win”. Because if you lose, you’ll get disappointed and decide you don’t want to play anymore.

Like a spoilt child losing at a board game.

Give yourself more credit than that. You can handle the slight inconvenience of not reaching your goal for learning a foreign language.

When you go for an audacious language learning goal, there are 2 possible outcomes:

  1. You’ll reach it (which would be amazing)
  2. You won’t reach it, but you’ll have pushed your limits and achieved way more than you would have otherwise.

Surely it’s more satisfying to work towards something exciting and challenging and miss the target slightly, than achieve a goal you knew was going to be easy all along?

The view that big goals are demotivating is linked to the idea that failure is something to be avoided. If we think we might fail, we’d rather not try at all.

But wouldn’t it make more sense to change the way we see failure, rather than changing the goal? What if the solution, instead of settling for uninspiring goals, was to throw all your energy at exciting projects, without worrying if you fail?

Not the trite “aim high and all your dreams will come true” philosophy. More of a “dream big and you’ll probably fall flat on your arse but it doesn’t matter” kind of philosophy.

If you set an audacious goal, there’s a risk you’ll fall flat on your arse. But does it really matter? You’ll still have learnt loads in the process!

The all or nothing trap

The idea that you should only set goals you know you can achieve creates an oversimplified view of success:

Reach goal = good
Don’t reach goal = bad

But this all or nothing view ignores all the good stuff in between.

Imagine you wanted to learn Spanish to an advanced level in 1 year, but you ended up at intermediate level instead. You’ve got 2 options:

  1. Feel disappointed because you didn’t reach your language learning goal.
  2. Crack open the Cava and celebrate the fact that you still learned loads of Spanish in a relatively short time.

Not reaching your language learning goals can be demotivating, but only if you decide to see things like number 1. If you take the second approach, you’ll get the motivation boost that comes from having an exciting language learning goal, and the satisfaction of celebrating your progress. The fact that you fell short of your original objective doesn’t matter that much.

Crack open the Cava, it’s time to celebrate all that stuff you learnt. Who cares if you were a bit off target?

The power of close enough

The importance of setting “realistic” goals is so well accepted that I’d always seen my inability to do it as a shortcoming, something I needed to change if I wanted to be successful.

Lately, I’ve been questioning this idea. Yes, I usually fail to meet the unrealistic goals I set.

But does it really matter?

At University, my study plans were so over ambitious, I can’t remember a single day when I stuck to them. But I followed them as closely as I could, and that was good enough to get into Cambridge and win a prestigious scholarship for graduate research.

When it comes to learning languages, I never manage to do everything I had planned. Yet somehow I end up learning the languages anyway.

It’d be nice to say that I achieved these things thanks to a well organised and executed plan. But it’s not true. Getting into Cambridge and learning to have conversations in 5 languages are the result of loads of messy near (and often far) misses.

I don’t think I’ve ever met any of the silly, over ambitious targets I set myself. But they let me hang around Cambridge and dress up like Harry Potter anyway.

If you always followed goals you knew you could achieve, life would be like a game of tetris, where the pieces fell so slowly you never moved off the bottom row: it would get very boring very quickly.

The key to making audacious goals work for you is to pat yourself on the back for your “close enoughs”. This way, you’ll stay motivated to keep chasing your fun goals and make lots of progress on the way.

Of course, this philosophy does have limits. If you perceive something as so unrealistic you don’t stand a chance, it’s almost impossible to get motivated. Don’t deliberately set out to fail.

Just know that everything will be OK if you do.

Next, let’s learn 9 keys for setting audacious language learning goals which will:

  • give you the best chance at reaching your big language learning goals.
  • help you learn as much as humanly possible (whether you actually reach them or not).

9 keys to setting audacious language learning goals

1. Choose something exciting

The first step is to choose a goal that gets you excited about learning your target language. Some people like to aim for an exam, so they can confirm their level, but if that makes you yawn, there are plenty of other options! If you’re a beginner, how about aiming for a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker? If you’re lucky enough to be able to travel to the country of your target language, how about being able to do everything you need on your trip, without reverting back to English? If you’re a higher level, why not try making a native speaker friend with whom you communicate entirely in your target language?

2. Keep it short

Next, it helps to make the goal relatively short term (6 months or less). Anything longer and it’s tempting to slack off: the lazy part of your brain will always try to convince you that you can do it later.

3. Make it very specific

Research shows that the more specific a goal is, the more likely you are to achieve it. Goals like “be able to speak for 30 minutes without reverting back to English” are better than “learn fluent Spanish”.

4. Break it into concrete actions

Remember at the beginning of this post when we talked about wanting to learn Spanish in 1 year but “never actually doing it”? Usually the problem isn’t the audacious goal, it’s the fact that people forget to think about the concrete actions they need to take to get there.

It’s great to have an ambitious goal, but unless you break it down into little, actionable steps, it will remain a vague idea that you keep putting off to “someday”. Now you’ve got your big goal, take some time to think about how to break it down into concrete actions. For example, if your goal is to learn to speak quickly, you might decide to do 3 online conversation lessons a week with an online tutor on a site like italki.

5. Plan for failure

When I set audacious goals, I always imagine that Super Future Katie, who goes to bed early and always does her homework, will do all the work. Now I’ve never met this woman, so I’m not sure why I keep expecting her to swoop in one day and solve all my problems. It’s just not going to happen is it?

If you know that on Sundays, you’d rather stick a pencil in your eye than do anything productive, make that your day off. If reading the news feels like a chore in your native language, don’t force yourself to do it in the language you’re learning – go for something more enjoyable. The more you can plan for you, the fallible human being and not the superhero version, the easier it is to take action towards your language learning goals.

 

6. Don’t rely on willpower

If you’re excited about your language learning goal, it’ll give you plenty of motivation to get started. But somewhere along the line, that enthusiasm will start to wear off. It’s not a good idea to count on willpower when this happens because it has a habit of failing us when we need it most – that’s why most gyms are half empty in February.

The best way to combat this, is to make language learning a habit. This way, there’s less risk of overthinking things and talking yourself out of it. There are 2 ways to do this and the most successful approaches use a combination of both:

  1. Think of lots of little ways to integrate language learning into your life, like listening to podcasts on your commute, or writing your shopping list in the language you’re learning.
  2. Be as consistent as possible. This normally means setting aside the same time every day to squeeze in a bit of language learning. Choose a time when you’re able to block out distractions – early in the morning is ideal, but if you’re a night owl, evenings can work too!

7. Book it

It helps to have concrete arrangements which force you to take action towards your goal, like booking your exam, or a holiday in a little town where no one speaks English. This is because at some point, a little voice will pop into your head and try to dissuade you. “What if I skipped this exam session and did the one a few months later?” “I’m not ready yet, maybe I should wait until next year to practice my language skills on holiday”

Don’t listen.

Maybe it won’t turn out exactly as you’d hoped: maybe you’ll get a lower mark than you wanted, or even fail your exam. Maybe you won’t get by in Spanish on holiday as easily as you’d hoped. But we’ve already established that it doesn’t really matter. You’ll learn so much more by having a go and falling a bit short, than by putting it off. Once it’s booked, it’s much easier to ignore this voice and keep going anyway.

8. Don’t go it alone

Research shows that teaming up with other people who are going for similar goals makes you more likely to achieve them. There are loads of ways to team up with other language learners online, here are a few to get you started: the language diary challenge, the add1challenge, the fi3m forum, clear the list, the 30 day speaking challenge.

9. Do take it lightly

One thing that puts people off chasing big goals is that it can feel a bit scary. But there’s no need to take it so seriously! When it all gets too much, remind yourself that reaching your goal is just the cherry on top: the important thing is all the progress you make as you work towards it. When it comes to language learning goals, it really is the taking part that counts!

My language plans for November

My exciting language goal for the moment is to reach advanced level French, which I’m hoping to verify by taking the DALF C1 exam at the end of November.

Knowing this deadline is coming up has motivated me like nothing else: I’ve made more progress in the last few months than I had in the 3 years before. I’m still not sure if I’ll pass or not, but whatever happens, I’m thrilled with the progress I’ve made.

Here’s how I’m following the 9 keys for setting audacious language goals

1. Is it exciting?

Ok, so doing an exam isn’t a very thrilling prospect, but being able to certify that I’ve got advanced French is. That’s my moonshot and I’m excited about it.

2. Is it short?

Yep – I started working on the project back in July.

3. Is it specific?

Yes – I’m taking the C1 DALF French exam on the 27th November. It doesn’t get much more specific than that!

4. Did I break it down into actionable steps?

I did – you can read more about them in this post: DALF C1: How I’m preparing for the scary French exam.

5. Did I plan for failure?

Yes. I’ve come up with plenty of strategies to work with (rather than against) my laziness (including watching reality TV in French when I can’t be bothered to study).

6. Did I turn it into a habit?

Yes and no. I’m good at integrating French into my daily life, by listening to podcasts etc. Not so good at studying at the same time in the same place every day. This is what’s holding me back most at the moment. In the morning I think “I’ll study later”, but then life gets in the way and I don’t get around to it. This month, I want to get into the habit of studying in the morning, before I start my day.

7. Did I book it?

Yes! This part was tricky as my terrified brain was doing everything in it’s power to talk me out of it. But I tried not to listen and booked it anyway.

8. Did I find a community?

Yes, I joined clear the list, an online blogging community where language learners share their goals and cheer each other on. In fact, you’re reading one of my clear the list posts right now!

9. Am I taking it lightly?

I’d be lying if I said that the prospect of doing a big scary French exam didn’t stress me out from time to time. But reminding myself that the real aim is to make progress in French, and I’ve already done that, certainly takes the pressure off.

Checklist for setting audacious goals for learning a language

1. Is it exciting? When you’ve got an inspiring language goal, it’s much easier to motivate yourself.
2. Is it short term? Try to keep the deadline under 6 months. Any longer and it’s easy to keep putting  off. 
3. Is it specific? Language learning goals like “be able to speak for 30 minutes without reverting back to English” are better than “learn fluent Spanish”.
4. Did you break it down into actionable steps? Break your language learning goal down into a series of small, actionable steps (and actually do them!)
5. Did you plan for failure? Make your plan around the fallible human being that you are (not the super future you that doesn’t exist!)
6. Did you make it a habit? Don’t rely on willpower, build habits instead.
7. Can you book something? If you can book something related to your deadline like an exam date, or a trip where you only speak your target language, it helps you beat the powerful urge to chicken out at the last minute.
8. Did you find a community? Get some moral support by joining one of the online language learning communities, like the #languagediarychallenge.
9. Did you remember not to take it too seriously? Whenever you feel stressed out, remember: it’s the taking part that counts! Even if you fall a bit short of your language learning goal, you’ll still have made loads of progress.

 

What do you think?

Which language are you learning? What kind of audacious language learning goal could you set to help you make more progress? Share it in the comments!

Want to learn some handy Italian travel phrases to buy food?

Bene!

In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to speak Italian in supermarkets, delis and markets. It includes 3 Italian audio lessons, where you’ll learn the following skills:

  • How to ask for things in supermarkets
  • The right way to order food at the deli counter
  • How to pay for things at the till

And, just as importantly, you’ll be able to understand the kind of phrases shop assistants will say back to you.

With each lesson, you’ll find a transcript, so you can read the Italian dialogue followed by a mini grammar and vocabulary tutorial.

How can I remember Italian words and phrases?

One of the hardest parts about learning a language is remembering all that vocabulary! To make new words and phrases stick, it’s important to review them regularly.

That’s why we’ve made a set of vocabulary flashcards to go with each lesson. These are like digital “cards” with the Italian phrase on one side and the English translation on the other. You can use them to:

You’ll find a link to download these flashcards at the end of each lesson, with instructions on how to use them.

Ready to learn how to speak Italian in shops and supermarkets?

Cominciamo!

Italian travel phrases: How to ask for things in supermarkets

5 Minute Italian Lesson Transcript

Katie: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti a 5 minute Italian, hi everyone and welcome to 5 minute Italian. I’m Katie…

Matteo: And I’m Matteo. Ciao.

K: And in today’s lesson, we’re going to learn how to find our way around an Italian supermarket. We’re going to start with a little dialogue in Italian. Listen and see how much you can make out, then we’ll talk you through the details after.

Imagine you’re in the supermarket, but you don’t know where anything is. So you go up to the poor shop assistant, il commesso, and you start asking loads of questions.

Italian dialogue

Katie: Mi scusi, dove sono i carrelli?
Matteo: Sono lì, all’entrata.
Katie: OK grazie. E… dove sono le banane?
Matteo: Lì, con la frutta.
Katie: Perfetto. E…Dov’è la pasta?
Matteo: è di la signora.
Katie: Grazie, quale corridoio?
Matteo: Corridoio cinque, vicino al pane.

What does it mean? Italian travel phrases explained

Katie: So we started with: Mi scusi

Matteo: Mi scusi

K: Mi scusi, is the formal way of saying “excuse me” with people who you don’t know very well, like shop assistants. You can also use it to say sorry, for example if you get in someone’s way, you can say mi scusi or just scusi.

Just a quick reminder that you you can find the main vocabulary from today in the show notes below.

M: Then you heard: dove sono i carrelli which means “where are the trolleys”.

K: Dove means “where”, sono means “are” and i carrelli means “the trolleys”

M: Dove sono i carrelli.

K: Then you heard sono lì, all’entrata.

M: Which means “they’re there, at the entrance”. Sono lì, all’entrata.

K: We know that sono means “are”. Italians often omit the word for they. So instead of saying “they are there”, they just say “are there”. means there. So you can imagine him pointing and saying “there” – .

M: Sono lì. You might also hear the word , which means the same thing. To say “there” you can either say or . They’re interchangeable.

K: Then you heard all’entrata which means “at the entrance”. The word all means “at the”. And entrata means entrance

M: All’entrata.

K: And this all is interesting – a means “at” and la means “the” for feminine words, like entrata. In Italian, a and la combine together to give us alla. So to say “at the” for feminine words, you’d get alla.

M: but when alla comes before a word which starts with a vowel, we remove the last a sound. So you get all’entrata.

K: Sometimes it can help to see this visually, so remember you can find this written down in the show notes below the podcast. Next, I said dove sono le banane which I’m sure you can guess means “where are the bananas?”

M: dove sono le banane?

K: Then Matteo replied…

M: Lì, con la frutta.

K: We know that means “there”. Con means “with”. And la frutta means the fruit.

M: Then Katie said: perfetto which of course means “perfect. You should say it with a nice Italian accent: perfetto!

K: Then I asked dov’è la pasta which means “where’s the pasta”.

K: Next, Matteo said…

M: è di la, signora. Which means “it’s over there madam”

K: Di là is quite similar to  which means there. Maybe the only difference is that or gives more of an impression of a specific place, so maybe you’re pointing to a specific point while you’re saying it, while di là is more of a general direction. Over there: di là.

M: And then I called you Signora, which is the word you use for women.

K: It’s like saying “maam” or “madam”, and Italians use it frequently. And I’m very sad about this because in the last few years people have stopped calling me signorina, which is used with girls and young women, and started calling me signora.

M: Then you heard grazie, quale corridoio?.

K: Quale, means “which” and corridoio means aisle. And this word is nice and easy to remember because it sounds like corridor – so you can imagine the aisle as being a bit like a corridor.

M: corridoio.

K: Then Matteo said…

M: Corridoio cinque, vicino al pane.

K: Corridoio cinque of course means corridor 5. Then you heard vicino al pane, which means “close to the bread”.

M: Vicino means close and il pane means “the bread”.

K: then we’ve got this word al, which is interesting, because it’s similar to what we were saying before when we talked about all’entrata at the entrance. A in Italian means at, but it also means to. Then we have il which means “the” for masculine nouns. “The bread”: il pane. So to say “to the”, we say a + il

M: a + il combine together to make al.

K: So how do you say close to the bread?

M: Vicino al pane

K: That’s it for today, thanks for listening to 5 minute Italian. If you’d found today’s lesson useful, please subscribe to us on itunes and leave us a review and some stars 🙂

Grazie, and ciao for now, see you next time, or as we say in Italian,

K + M: alla prossima!

Italian travel phrases: at the supermarket

English Italian
Il commesso shop assistant
Mi scusi excuse me
Dove sono where are
I carrelli the trolleys
Sono they are
Lì/Là there
All’entrata at the entrance
A at (also to)
La the (for feminine nouns)
Alla At the (a + la = alla)
La banana the banana (singular)
Le banane the bananas (plural)
Con with
La frutta the fruit
Dov’è where is
La pasta the pasta
Di là over there
Signora madam/ma’am
Quale corridoio which aisle?
Vicino near
Vicino al pane close to the bread
A to (also at)
Il the (for masculine nouns)
Al to the (A + il = al)
Il pane

the bread

Remember the words and phrases from this lesson

Quiz yourself on the Italian travel phrases you learnt in this lesson with our digital flashcards.

Click here to download the vocabulary flashcards: how to ask for things in the supermarket.

Not sure how it works? Watch this tutorial.

 

2. Italian travel phrases: How to order things at the deli counter

5 Minute Italian Lesson Transcript

Katie: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti a 5 minute Italian, hi everyone and welcome to 5 minute Italian. I’m Katie…

Matteo: And I’m Matteo. Ciao.

K: If you go to Italy, something I would highly recommend doing is going to check out the deli counters, in supermarkets or in little shops because they have lots of delicious meats, cheeses and salads. It’s also a great way to start to learn about different types of Italian food that you might see on menus.

Let’s imagine we’re in an Italian supermarket at the deli counter. Usually they’ve got one of those little machines where you take a number. So we’ve got our little yellow ticket, now listen to this conversation at the deli counter and see how much you can make out:

Italian dialogue

Matteo: Buongiorno, mi dica signora
Katie: Un etto di prosciutto
M: Crudo o cotto?
K: Crudo grazie
M: Qualcos’altro?
K: Che cos’è quello?
M: è la burrata
K: Allora prendo due etti di burrata.
M: Basta così?
K: Si grazie

What does it mean? Italian travel phrases explained

Katie: So the first thing you heard was Matteo, the man behind the counter, who said

Matteo: Mi dica signora

K: Mi dica literally means “tell me”. But when Italians use it in these kinds of situations, it’s translation is similar to “what can I do for you?”.

M: You might also hear prego in this situation, which means more or less the same thing.

K: Yes, one of the many meanings of prego!

M: Then, you heard Katie say: un etto di prosciutto.

K: un etto means 100 grams, which is around 6 or 7 thin slices.

M: you can also say cento grammi, which of course means 100 grams.

K: And remember you can read the vocabulary from today’s episode in the show notes. Then Matteo asked the following question:

M: Crudo o cotto?

K: And this question is about the types of ham. Prosciutto crudo is what we in England would call prosciutto, or parma ham. Crudo means “raw”, and it’s called that because prosciutto crudo isn’t cooked – it’s air dried and salted. Cotto means “cooked”, so prosciutto cotto is similar to the normal ham you find in England and elsewhere.

M: The names of some other common Italian meats are bresaola which is salted Italian beef, and salame, which of course means salami.

M: Next, you heard Katie say crudo, grazie. And this is another example of where Italians sometimes use the word grazie, where in english you would normally say please.

K: Then, Matteo said:

M: Qualcos’altro?

K: Which we’ve heard in previous episodes. it means “anything else?” Then, you heard the most important phrase for curious travellers and language learners everywhere:

M: Che cos’è quello?

K: This means “what’s that?” And it’s a great way to get deeper into conversations with Italians and learn more about the culture and the language. I think I spend my first few months in Italy just pointing and things and saying: che cos’è quello?

M: Then you heard: è la burrata.

K: Which means “it’s burrata”, which is one of my favourite Italian cheeses. Finally something for the vegetarians!

M: Burrata looks a bit like mozzarella, in fact, it’s exactly the same as mozzarella on the outside, but when you cut into it, it’s soft and creamy on the inside.

K: Other examples of nice Italian cheeses are Parmigiano, which means parmesan of course, then Fontina, a soft aged cheese from Aosta Valley in the north, and Pecorino, which literally means “little sheep” – it’s a hard, salty cheese made from sheep’s milk.

M: And don’t forget Mozzarella di bufala, which means buffalo mozzarella, the famous cheese of Naples.

K: Matteo’s biased because he’s from Naples so he prefers Neapolitan food! Then you heard…

M: Allora prendo due etti di burrata

K: Allora is one of those very famous Italian words you hear everywhere. It means “so”, or “well”.

M: And italians often use it to start a sentence. Allloooorrra

K: Prendo literally means “I take”, but Italians use it to say “I’ll have”, when they’re ordering. Then you heard the plural version of etto. Before we heard the singular version: un etto, with an o at the end. The plural of etto is etti. So you get un etto, but due etti, tre etti and so on.

M: Finally, you heard: basta cosi?

K: Basta cosi literally means “enough like this?” but Italians use it to say “is that everything?”

M: Basta cosi? You might also hear: a posto cosi? Which literally means “OK like this?”

K: Let’s listen to the conversation again.

M: Buongiorno, mi dica signora
K: Un etto di prosciutto
M: Crudo o cotto?
K: Crudo grazie
M: Qualcos’altro?
K: Che cos’è quello?
M: è la burrata
K: Allora prendo due etti di burrata.
M: Basta così?
K: Si grazie

K: Right so that’s it for today’s episode – and we’re taking a little break in August, as it’s 36 degrees right now in the city, so we’re doing what all Italians do and we’re going to escape to the seaside for a couple of weeks. We’ll be back in September with some new episodes. In the meantime, if you’d like to get bonus materials for future episodes, including the transcripts of our conversation, you can subscribe to our mailing list. Ciao for now, or as we say in Italian,

K + M: Alla prossima!

Italian travel phrases: At the deli counter

Mi dica What can I do for you? (literally: tell me)
Un etto 100 grams
Prosciutto crudo Parma ham
Prosciutto cotto ham
Bresaola dried salty beef
Salame salami (nice and easy!)
Che cos’è quello What’s that?
La burrata Cheese which is like mozzarella on the outside, but creamy on the inside
La fontina soft aged cheese from Aosta Valley
Pecorino a hard, salty sheep’s cheese
Allora well/so
Prendo I’ll have… (literally – I’ll take)
Due etti 200 grams
Basta così? Is that everything? (literally: enough like this?)
A posto così? Is that everything? (literally: ok like this?)

Remember the words and phrases from this lesson

Quiz yourself on the Italian travel phrases you learnt in this lesson with our digital flashcards.

Click here to download the vocabulary flashcards: how to order things at the deli counter.

Not sure how it works? Watch the tutorial here.

3. Italian travel phrases: How to pay for things at the till

5 Minute Italian Lesson Transcript

Katie: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti a 5 minute Italian, hi everyone and welcome to 5 minute Italian. I’m Katie…

Matteo: And I’m Matteo. Ciao.

K: In the last couple of lessons, we’ve been learning how to order things in shops and supermarkets. This week, we’re going to continue this theme by learning how to pay for things at the till. So let’s practice a typical conversation at the till in Italy.

Italian dialogue

Katie: Buongiorno

Matteo: Buongiorno. Sachetti?
K: Si, due grazie… quant’è?
M: Sono venti e cinquanta.
K: Posso pagare con la carta?
M: Certo. Carta o bancomat?
K: Carta.
M: Grazie, arrivederci!
K: Arrivederci!

What does it mean? Italian travel phrases explained

Katie: We started with buongiorno, which is better than ciao in situations like this where you don’t know the person you’re talking to.

Matteo: then you heard: Sacchetti?

K: Which literally means “bags?” and it’s like asking “would you like a bag?” Shop assistants don’t give bags automatically, they normally ask.

M: Then you heard: Si, due grazie.

K: Yes, two thank you. Remember with polite replies to questions, Italians don’t say please, they say thank you. Si, grazie.

M: To ask for a bag, you can say: posso avere un sacchetto?

K: Here we meet again the very useful phrase posso avere which means “can I have”.

K: And we’ve got the singular form of the word bag. To say “one bag”, we say:

M: Un sacchetto

K: With an o at the end: sacchetto. And to say two bags, we say:

M: Due sacchetti

K: With an i at the end. And you can have tre sacchetti, quattro sacchetti and so on.

M: But the word can change depending on the region. In the south of Italy, we usually say busta.

K: Which can cause confusion, because it also means envelope. Once one of our friends from Naples walked into a shop in Milan with her hands full and asked for a busta, and the shop assistant stared at her blankly and handed her an envelope. In the supermarket they’ll probably know what you mean, but it can be handy to listen out at the till to learn the regional variation for where you are. You may sometimes hear the word sportina too,

M: Then you heard: quant’è?

K: Which means “how much is it?” Quanto means “how much” and è means it is. And Italians smush the words together, so you get: Quant’è?

M: You can also say: Quanto costa?

K: which means: “how much does it cost?”

M: And: Quanto viene?

K: Viene means “come”. So quanto viene literally means “how much come?” It’s a bit like asking “how much does it come to?

M: Next, you heard: Sono venti e cinquanta.

K: Can you guess how much that means? Venti e cinquanta literally means “twenty and fifty”. “20 euros 50”. Italians use the word “and” e between the euro and the cents. To introduce the price, they start with the word sono which literally means “they are”. They are twenty and fifty.

M: Sono venti e cinquanta.

K: If you need some help with numbers, you can go back and check out episodes 14 and 15. Next, you heard:

M: Posso pagare con la carta?

K: Literally: “Can I pay with the card”, which of course means “can I pay by credit card”. Posso means “can I”, pagare means “pay” and la carta means “the card”. Italians use the word la (the) much more than in English.

M: Then you heard: certo

K: …which means “certainly” or “of course”. Next, you heard the question:

M: Carta o bancomat?

K: Which is a bit of a weird one. Bancomat means debit card. And for some reason in Italy, at the till, they need to know if you’re paying with credit or debit card. Bancomat actually has 2 meanings, it also means cash machine, which is handy to know if you need to get cash out in Italy.

M: Let’s listen to the conversation again.

K: Buongiorno
M: Buongiorno. Sachetti?
K: Due grazie.
M: Sono venticinque e cinquanta.
K: Posso pagare con la carta?
M: Certo. Carta o bancomat?
K: Carta.
M: Grazie, arrivederci!
K: Arrivederci!

K: If you’d like to get bonus materials, including conversation transcripts, cultural notes, flashcards and invites to our speaking workshops, you can sign up to our mailing list. And if you’re on the list, make sure you check out your emails from us as you’ll find all the bonus materials inside. Ciao for now, or as we say in Italian,

K + M: Alla prossima!

Italian travel phrases: at the till

Sachetti? Would you like a bag? (lit. bags?)
Sacchetto/busta/sportina plastic bag (the difference is regional)
Due grazie Two please (lit. two thank you)
Quant’è? How much is it?
Quanto costa? How much does it cost?
Quanto viene? How much does it come to?
Sono venti e cinquanta It’s twenty euro fifty (lit. they’re twenty and fifty)
Posso pagare con la carta? can I pay by card?
Certo certainly/of course
Carta o bancomat? Credit card or debit card?
Bancomat Debit card/cash machine (two meanings)

Remember the words and phrases from this lesson

Quiz yourself on the Italian travel phrases you learnt in this lesson with our digital flashcards.

Click here to download the vocabulary flashcards: how to order things at the till.

Not sure how it works? Watch the tutorial here.

 

Learn to speak and understand faster with 5 Minute Italian

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  • Lesson transcripts
  • Quizzes
  • Vocabulary flashcards
  • Lifetime membership to the Facebook group, where you can practise with Italian teachers.
  • Invites to online speaking workshops.

Click here to start learning!

Italian travel phrases: how to buy food in shops and supermarkets

 

World Snowboarding champion Shaun White falls on his arse a lot.

Most snowboarders do, it’s an occupational hazard.

But Shaun White has a special way of falling on his arse that helped him achieve the highest ever score in the history of the Olympic halfpipe.

Read on to discover the powerful practice technique that helps experts across a variety of fields stay on top of their game. It’s a method you can steal when you practice a language that could help you:

  • Speak and understand the language better
  • Feel more confident
  • Stop worrying about your mistakes (and make fewer)

Deliberate practice: a winning formula to learn just about anything

In the 2010 winter Olympics, White landed a trick called the Front Double Cork 1080. This kind of trick would normally take him years to master, but during his training for the Vancouver Olympics, he nailed it in one day.

How?

Before the Olympics, Red Bull built White his own private half-pipe with a foam pit at the end.

Riders normally build up slowly to tricks like the Front Double Cork 1080, because a fall could be fatal. But the foam pit reduced the impact of the fall, allowing White to practice complex tricks that would have been too dangerous to try directly on the snow.

In his article 3 Rules of High Velocity Learning, author Daniel Coyle describes how the pit gave White the freedom to make mistakes, fix them and try again. Over lots of repetitions, this technique helped him fall on his arse less.

Here’s the winning formula that sped up White’s learning exponentially:

  • Try something difficult.
  • Screw it up.
  • Analyse what went wrong.
  • Adapt approach.
  • Repeat.

Whether he knew it or not, White was doing deliberate practice, a technique which psychologist Anders Ericsson identifies as the key to achieving high levels of performance in any field.

In this article, you’ll learn how deliberate practice works and how it can help you practice a language more effectively. Then, I’ll share 10 practical ways you can apply deliberate practice to your language learning.

At the end, I’ll talk about how I’m integrating these ideas into my own language learning routine this month.

How do pros practice a language?

How do experts become the best at what they do?

Most people put it down to natural talent.

But over three decades of research across fields as diverse as sports, music, ballet, chess and computer programming suggest that, apart from physical differences like height and body-size, expertise isn’t linked to innate differences.

Overwhelmingly, the most important factor that separates the high-achievers from the rest is the way they practice.

Imagine two friends are learning Spanish for their trip to Colombia.

Jill spends her time doing exercises from textbooks and playing on apps like duolingo and memrise. She gets most exercises right and feels at ease while she’s practicing. She’s waiting to accumulate more vocabulary and grammar before having a go at using Spanish in real life.

Jane starts off with a Spanish textbook but quickly moves on to muddling through more realistic materials, like simplified stories and slowly spoken podcasts. She gets herself an online tutor or language exchange partner and tries using the stuff she’s been learning in real conversations. She speaks painfully slowly at first, makes a lot of mistakes and often feels awkward while she’s practicing.

Who will speak better Spanish in Colombia?

Most people instinctively practice like Jill. That’s because many education systems instill the principle that right answers are good and wrong answers are bad. The result: we’d rather practice things we’re likely to get right, because mistakes make us feel like a failure.

But you know that awkward phase where you mess up a lot? That’s where the learning happens.

Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, who studies performance across a wide range of fields from spelling competitions to salespeople, shows that the highest achievers aren’t always the most talented or intelligent.

They’re the snowboarders who fall on their arses and get up again, the kids who focus on spelling the most difficult words, and the language learners who are willing to put up with awkward silences while they try to squeeze a sentence out.

They’re the ones who face the difficult bits head on, make mistakes, learn from them and keep going.

Most polyglots learn languages like Jane. They:

  • push themselves to read and listen to things slightly above their level.
  • practice speaking, even when it feels awkward.
  • spend a lot of time make mistakes and getting corrections.

This kind of practice is very efficient, which explains why they learn to speak languages well in less time.

Why most people practice a language the wrong way

Despite the benefits, most people avoid deliberate practice for a couple of reasons.

1. It feels less efficient (but it’s not)

When you’re getting things right most of the time, it feels like you’re making progress.

But it’s an illusion.

It’s a bit like tidying your room by shoving everything in your cupboard. It feels like you’ve got the job done, but all your shit is still in the cupboard. When you finally get around to sorting it out, it’ll take you twice as long compared to if you’d just done it properly in the first place.

When you mindlessly work through a grammar book or play on apps like duolingo, it feels like you’re making progress because you get ticks or points with every right answer. But those little satisfying dings don’t necessarily help you use the language in real life.

When you face the trickier parts of language learning head on, like speaking or reading texts with words you don’t recognise, it’s a struggle at first, so you feel like you’re not making much progress. But that extra effort will help you use the language much better in real life.

As writer Sonia Simone puts it: “don’t take shortcuts, they take too long.”

2. You have to analyse your mistakes

At work, when your boss says “let’s go through some feedback” it’s often a euphemism for “let’s talk about how you screwed up”.

The “feedback” stage in deliberate practice is no different: it’s a detailed analysis of what you did wrong. And because you’re human, you’ll probably find it quite uncomfortable.

When you write something in a foreign language, you might cringe when you look back and see the mistakes you made. When you practice speaking, it doesn’t feel great when your tutor or speaking partner points out your mistakes. And if you ever manage to pluck up the courage to record yourself speaking, it’s pretty mortifying to listen back to yourself.

How to practice a language with deliberate practice
Learning a language with deliberate practice isn’t always easy! Focusing on your mistakes can feel a bit disheartening at times.

But if you want to get the benefits of deliberate practice, it’s time to change the way you think about mistakes. Mistakes aren’t something embarrassing to avoid: they’re a key component of the learning process.

The more you make, the better you get.

10 ways to practice a language like a pro

1. Learn by doing (and making mistakes)

Deliberate practice doesn’t mean you should stop learning from books and apps altogether. It means that you should focus on putting what you learn into practice immediately so you can identify your weaknesses and learn from your mistakes.

Let’s imagine you want to master the past tense in Spanish. Here’s how you can do it with deliberate practice:

  • Learn grammar point: Learn how to use the past tense in your textbook/website/app.
  • Practice using it: Write a paragraph about something in the past (e.g. what you did yesterday).
  • Get feedback: Get corrections from a native speaker. You can post your paragraph to websites like italki or lang8 to get free feedback from native speakers.
  • Adapt: Look at the mistakes you made and learn the correct way to say it.
  • Repeat: Write another paragraph using the past tense (make it more interesting by using a new theme, for example, your last holiday) Try to reuse the words/grammar you got wrong so you can practice using them the right way.

You can do this technique with speaking, too. Try recording yourself talking about what you did yesterday and listen back to it – you’ll often notice your own mistakes that you didn’t pick up on while you were concentrating on speaking. Alternatively, if you have a conversation tutor/language exchange partner, you could talk about what you did yesterday, or any other theme that helps you practice what you’ve been studying recently, and ask them to correct you when you make mistakes.

2. Help people correct you

Imagine you’re talking to someone who isn’t a native speaker of your language and they make a mistake. How would you feel about correcting them?

Sometimes non-native speakers don’t like correcting us because they’re worried we might get offended or think they’re rude. Help them feel more comfortable by asking them to correct you and thanking them when they do so.

Another handy phrase to learn in your target language is “do you say it like that?” This helps you get immediate feedback when you’re not sure about what you just said. It also shows the person you’re speaking to that you want to learn, so they’ll feel more comfortable correcting you.

3. Repeat

To get the benefits of deliberate practice, it’s important to repeat your corrections until you get them right. There are two ways to do this:

Immediate

If your speaking partner points out your mistake, don’t just say “gracias/merci/danke…”. Reformulate the sentence aloud and ask them if you said it right this time.

Long term

If you notice that you often mistakes with certain grammar points or vocabulary, make a note of them and practice them as much as possible in your writing and speaking.

4. Break it down into components

When experts do deliberate practice, they break the skill down and practice the parts which cause them the most problems. Here are a couple of examples for languages:

  • Instead of thinking “I want to improve my Spanish pronunciation”, work out which individual sounds you find difficult, track down some tutorials and practice them until you can do it. If you’re not sure where to find tutorials like this, the Mimic Method is a great place to start.
  • Instead of thinking “I want to improve my Italian grammar”, identify the elements you have the most trouble with and practice making sentences with them until it becomes automatic.

5. Focus on the awkward bits

When you learn a language, it’s tempting to brush the awkward parts under the carpet. Just the phrase “German adjective declension”, makes me want to look in the other direction and start whistling. But if you face these awkward bits head on and practice using them, you’ll look back one day and wonder what all the fuss was about.

6. Stick with it

Sometimes the only thing that differentiates people who master a skill from those who don’t is the amount of time they’re willing to stick with it. When it comes to languages, people often decide they can’t understand a grammar point or pronounce a word even though they’ve only tried a few times.

Some things will probably take longer to learn than you think, but it’s worth sticking with them. You’ll be so glad you did when you can finally say them right.

7. Take responsibility for your own learning

Don’t wait for a teacher or book to tell you what you need to work on. Take some time to review your own learning and to notice gaps in your knowledge. For example, after you practice using the language, ask yourself questions like:

  • which vocabulary was I missing?
  • what did I make mistakes with?

This way, you’ll know what to focus on in future.

8. Accept that you’re going to feel like an idiot

When you go back and focus on your mistakes, you’ll probably feel like an idiot. It’s normal, particularly when it comes to things like speaking and listening to recordings of yourself. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. The secret is to accept the fact that you feel like an idiot and practice the language anyway.

9. Aim to make more mistakes (not fewer)

Remember: each mistake is a little sign that you just learnt something. To make progress, set yourself the goal of making more mistakes, not fewer. Paradoxically, this approach will help you make fewer mistakes in the long run, as the feedback after each mistake will help you get it right next time.

10. Get motivated

Deliberate practice requires a lot of effort, so it can be tricky to get motivated. Here are a couple of tips:

1. Build up the habit gradually

Let’s imagine you want to do 30 minutes of deliberate practice a day. If you try to do it through willpower alone, you might run out of steam after the first few days. The key is to build up the language learning habit gradually. Start with something that’s impossible to say no to, like 1 minute per day, then increase by one minute each day over the course of a month until you get to 30. Habits built up over time are much easier to stick to.

4. Use the 2 minute rule

Once you’re in the habit, you may still have days when you don’t feel like doing deliberate practice. On these days, try setting yourself the goal of working for 2 minutes. You’ll probably find that after 2 minutes, you’re happy to carry on by force of inertia. Even if you decide to stop after 2 minutes, the fact that you didn’t skip your study session completely will make it easier to get back into it the following day.

All work and no play makes language learning really dull

So we’ve established that deliberate practice is good: it will probably help you speak a language better and faster.

My problem is, it doesn’t fit in very well with my life philosophy.

It’s the kind of thing people write about on those blogs that tell you that putting butter in your coffee (?!) will make you richer, thinner and better in bed.

The pressure to be the best at everything doesn’t motivate me, it makes me want to hide under the covers. Sure, I want to speak a language well, but I want to enjoy learning it too. Because of it’s not fun, what’s the point?

How to practice a language with work and play

All deliberate practice and no fun probably wouldn’t be a great way to learn anyway. Firstly, if it makes you feel tense, it could slow you down, because stress gets in the way of learning.

Secondly, there’s a ton of research which shows that reading (and listening) for pleasure is a very effective way to learn a language.

While deliberate practice is about decomposing the skills and practicing the details, play, in the form of reading and listening to, or watching things you enjoy is essential. It helps you put all the pieces together and interact with the language as a whole.

And it keeps you happy and motivated.

If you’ve been learning for a while, your play activities could be things like comic books, magazines, podcasts, films and TV series.

If you’re new to the language, there are still plenty of ways to inject fun into your learning. Here’s a list of 32 fun ways to learn a language – you’ll find activities in there that work for lower levels too.

My language learning plans for September

I’m currently on a French mission: I’m taking the DALF exam in November and I’m aiming to study for around 2-3 hours a day.

Last month, I decided to spend around half that time on deliberate practice, so I set myself the goal of doing the following activities each day (Monday to Friday):

  • 25 mins grammar (learn rules + practice using them in writing/speaking)
  • 25 mins pronunciation (record myself speaking + work on tricky sounds)
  • 25 mins writing (practice writing + get feedback from native speakers on italki)

This turned out to be way too much: the idea of tackling that mammoth task each day was intimidating, so I ended up not bothering most of the time. I did reach my target of 2-3 hours of French most days, but it was almost always play activities like reading Tintin or watching Netflix.

How to practice a language with deliberate practice
Last month I spent most of my study time doing “play” activities like reading Tintin. This month I’m going to focus on getting into the habit of deliberate practice.

So this month I’ve decided to concentrate on gradually building the habit of deliberate practice. On September 1st, I studied the 3 parts (grammar, pronunciation and writing) for 1 minute each. Since then, I’ve been adding on 1 minute per day and hopefully by the end of September I’ll be back up to my goal of around 25 mins.

I’d also like to integrate more deliberate practice into my lessons with my online conversation tutors.

Here’s my plan:

  • Prepare conversation questions with the new words and grammar I’ve learned, so I can practice using them in conversation during the lessons.
  • Note down the things that my tutor often corrects me on and make an effort to practice them after class. For example, I make lots of mistakes with those pesky prepositions so I’m going to push myself to use them more in my speaking and writing tasks.

But I haven’t forgotten about playtime either! I’ve got a couple of audiobooks I’d like to finish and I’m planning on vegging out in front of a few French TV programmes/films.

What do you think?

Can deliberate practice help you learn a language? Which suggestions from this article can you use in your own language learning routine? Let me know in the comments below!

The other day, I was listening to a podcast about Leonardo Da Vinci.

He was a productive fella.

His accomplishments across different fields including art, science, maths and geography have earned him a reputation as the ultimate renaissance multitasker.

Which is interesting because he didn’t multitask.

Da Vinci had something in common with other ultra-achievers like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg – a method you can use when learning a language, that just might help you:

  • Learn a language fast
  • Enjoy the process more
  • Feel less stressed

The “one thing” approach that can help you learn a language fast

How much stuff are you trying to do at the moment?

Maybe you’d like to speak a language (or two), change jobs, read more books, learn how to cook, improve your fitness, learn to meditate, start a blog, learn to play a musical instrument…

Whatever goals you have, you probably like the idea of being able to do them sooner rather than later, so it’s tempting to start a few at the same time.

That’s the way most people, present company included, approach the things we’d like to do in life. It’s also the reason most people’s goals end up drifting on a to-do list that never gets done.

Really successful people do it differently

Da Vinci believed that trying to do lots of things at once is counterproductive. He said:

This might sound surprising coming from the renaissance man who had his finger in so many pies.

But when we think of Leonardo as a multi-tasker, we’re missing one important detail: although he achieved an insane amount of stuff in his lifetime, he didn’t do it all at the same time. According to biographer Sherwin Nuland, Da Vinci’s approach was characterised by an “ability to focus all of his intensity on the job immediately in front of him”

And he’s in good company. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett both single out their ability to focus on one thing relentlessly as the most important factor in their success.

Choose one language and say no to everything else (for a little while)

What might that kind of focus look like in your life?

It looks like a lot of no.

Steve Jobs challenged the idea that focus is about saying yes to the thing you want to focus on. In his eyes, deciding what not to do is just as important.

If you want to speak a language well, saying no to your other goals (for a little while) could be just as important as working on the language you want to learn.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a bucket list that looks like this:

  • Learn Spanish
  • Learn French
  • Learn how to cook
  • Learn to play the guitar
  • Run a marathon…

It just means that you’ll be more successful if you tackle these things one at a time.

In the rest of this post, you’ll learn how to avoid the silly mistake I made that led me to the “one thing” philosophy, and science-backed reasons why it pays to go after your goals sequentially, not simultaneously.

At the end, I’ll talk about how I’m applying the “one thing” idea to my own language learning.

How not to learn a language

Focusing on one thing at a time is something I’ve never been very good at.

Case in point: over the last 10 months, I’ve been trying to learn 5 languages on top of a fairly busy schedule.

I was just about holding it together until I took on one more project at work. It was like clumsily throwing the last block on an already shaky jenga tower, and everything came crashing down.

I got ill, which may or may not have been stress related, and my brain melted.

So I did what any rational person would have done in my situation: I gave up on my language learning goals, assumed a starfish position on the sofa, ate ice-cream and watched all 3 seasons of Better Call Saul dubbed in French (just in case you were wondering, it sounds pretty silly in French).

The July heat in Milan didn’t help – my brain tends to go on standby over 30 degrees – but this mini breakdown had been brewing for a while.

Constantly busy but going nowhere

I’ve always had a bad case of shiny object syndrome.

I get enthusiastic about starting something new, then as the novelty starts to wear off, something else catches my eye: I start learning new languages before I’m happy with my level in the ones I’m already learning, or take on new projects at work without thinking about the time and energy it will take away from the things I’m already doing.

The result: I’m constantly busy but I don’t get much done. I get all the stress that comes with a hectic schedule, without the satisfaction of ticking things off my to do list. If you’re someone who likes starting new projects, this might sound familiar.

For the most part, having the impetus to start new things is good. It leads you on fun adventures and means you’ve got a lot of get-up-and-go – a valuable quality that not everyone has.

But if you don’t learn how to rein it in, it will keep you stuck on a hamster wheel – expending a ton of energy and getting nowhere.

Over the last 10 months, I’ve been learning German, Mandarin, French, Italian and Spanish. By spreading my time and energy over 5 languages, I felt busy all the time, but only made 1/5th of the progress I could have if I’d I focused on just one.

How you feel about all this depends on your aim: if you like trying new things for the fun of it, or you want to learn bits and pieces in a few different languages, then go forth and dabble my friend.

But if your end goal is to speak a language well and you’d like to do it sooner rather than later, you’ll be less stressed and achieve more if you make that your sole focus for a while.

Extreme focus: 5 ways doing less can help you learn a language fast

1. You’ll do it better

If you try chasing a few goals at the same time, it’s difficult to find enough hours in the day to do any of them well.

Alternatively, if you make learning a language your only goal, you can give it everything you’ve got: your time, energy and willpower.

Needless to say, this will give you much better results compared to when learning a language is just another thing on your to do list you only get around to sporadically.

2. You’ll increase your chances of learning a language

Motivational psychologists have known for a while that you can dramatically increase your chances of reaching your goal by deciding when and where you’ll do it.

For example: “I’ll study Italian for 30 minutes during my commute” or “I’ll go to the gym before work on Monday, Wednesday and Friday”.

However, research shows that this tactic only works with one goal. As soon as you try to add more, you’re less likely to achieve any of them.

3. You’ll make faster progress

Imagine you have two goals, like learning French and German. Let’s say it takes 1 year to learn each language to the point where you can speak it well. You have two choices:

  1. Learn them both at the same time: Your time will be split between French and German, so it will take you twice as long to learn each language. You’ll have to work hard for two years before you get the satisfaction of being able to speak the languages.
  2. Learn them one by one: In the first year, you’ll be fully focused on one language, so you’ll learn it twice as fast. You’ll feel like you’re making progress, so you’ll be more motivated. After 12 months, you’ll get the satisfaction of speaking one of the languages well, and you’ll be able to apply your experience in language learning to the next one.

Humans are bad at delayed gratification. The longer you delay the results, the harder it is to stay motivated.

In the best case scenario, going after two goals simultaneously will take twice as long. In reality, it may take longer because you won’t benefit from the intense focus and extra motivation you get from choosing one goal at a time.

4. You’ll be less stressed (the Zeigarnik Effect)

Do you feel anxious when there’s lots of things on your to-do list that you never get around to?

There’s a reason for that.

Things that are still in process tend to stay in our minds more than things that are finished – think waiters who have brilliant memories of what people ordered while they’re still at the table, but forget as soon as they’ve paid the bill and walked out the door.

Zeigarnik, the psychologist who identified this effect, hypothesised that unfinished tasks create a kind of mental discomfort which causes us to keep thinking about the job until it’s reached its logical conclusion.

An example of this effect is the cliffhanger: when a TV episode finishes in the middle of something important, it creates a weird kind of tension that makes you want to keep watching.

This tendency to ruminate over unfinished business explains why unmet goals keep popping up and causing you stress.

If you’re working towards one manageable goal, the Zeigarnik effect works in your favour: it spurs you to take action until you reach the finish line.

But if you’ve got several goals on the go and you’re not making much progress, all that unfinished business will keep coming back to haunt you, causing a lot of unnecessary stress and worry.

5. You’ll enjoy it more

The better you get at something, the more enjoyable it is. Nowhere is this more true than in language learning. When you can speak a language well, you can chat to friends, watch films, listen to podcasts, read books… all the same stuff you enjoy in your first language. When you speak a language well, it no longer feels like work, it feels like play.

What about all the other stuff I want to do?

You can still do other productive things while working towards your goal of learning a language, like going to the gym, cooking or meditating.

The key is to have one goal that you actively pursue at a time.

By all means go to the gym, meditate, cook some tasty recipes. Just don’t give yourself any hardcore goals in these areas, like running a marathon, meditating for 30 minutes a day, or starting a cookery class.

If you want to take advantage of extreme focus to help you learn a language faster, just choose one language and give it your all, until you’re satisfied with your level. Once you’re done, you can move onto the next thing on your bucket list.

Language plans for August

My “one thing” for August is to improve my French. I’m aiming to reach advanced level by the end of November, when I’m going to take an exam to certify my level (it’s nice to have something concrete to aim for, otherwise “advanced” can get a bit wishy washy).

To reach it, I’m working on blocking out other distractions and clearing up around 3 hours a day (apart from weekends!) to focus exclusively on French. Here’s my plan for August:

Daily

Weekly

  • 1 practise writing exam

On the move

  • Listening to podcasts
  • Reviewing vocabulary with a flashcard app on my phone

I don’t have online lessons with my conversation tutor this month because I’m going to France for 3 whole weeks! I’m hoping I’ll get lots of opportunities to practise while I’m there. But I may end up booking a few classes if this doesn’t turn out as planned.

For a more detailed breakdown of my French study routine, you can check out last month’s post: how I’m becoming fluent in French from my living room.

What about the other languages?

Before I decided to experiment with laser focus, I scrambled my way to intermediate level in 3 other languages – Spanish, German and Chinese. The next question is, how can I maintain my level in these languages without setting goals?

My plan is to do things that don’t feel like work in these languages, including: watching cheesy soap operas/reality TV shows, reading Harry Potter and chatting to conversation tutors on Skype.

My thoughts are: If it feels like studying, I have to force myself to do it. If I have to force myself to do it, then I need to set a goal. And I don’t want any other goals sapping my time and energy away from French.

What do you think?

Is it better to focus on just one language at a time, or do you have a different take on things? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Join in!

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

Imagine waking up in a remote town in the French countryside, where no one speaks English. Would you be able to get by in French?

If your answer is “non”, you’re in good company.

French is one of the most studied languages at school, yet most people can only remember a few random phrases like “Où est la bibliothèque?”

That’s because at school, you usually learn grammar, vocabulary lists and phrases, but no one teaches how to actually use them in conversation. The result: you end up sounding like these guys.

If, like most people, you studied for a few years and didn’t get very far, you’d be forgiven for thinking it must take decades to speak fluent French.

Luckily for us, that’s simply not true.

Using the wrong tools makes things seem more difficult than they really are. Trying to learn a language the way most of us did at school is like trying to chop wood with a kitchen knife: it’ll take you a lot longer than it should and you’ll get very frustrated along the way.

The right resources for learning French

There is no one size fits all, best way to learn French. Lot’s of different methods work. But from what I’ve seen, they all have two things in common:

  1. They don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time learning grammar and vocabulary for the sake of it.
  2. They help you learn by doing.

It makes sense really. Speaking French is a practical skill, like riding a bike or learning to swim. Just as you can’t learn to swim by reading a book, you’ll never be able to have a conversation in French by memorising a few verbs.

You’ve got to practise using French in realistic situations.

The best resources for learning French are geared towards helping you speak and understand French in real-life contexts. They should:

  • Teach you how to build new sentences so you can express yourself.
  • Show you realistic examples.
  • Give you the chance to practise.
  • Help you understand how French is spoken in the real world.

These 17 resources for French learners will do exactly that, from beginner to advanced level:

Picking up the basics: French resources for beginners

The best French resources for beginners show you how to build sentences right from the start. The tools in this list will help you pick up words and grammar easily through repetition and show you how to apply what you learn in new situations.

1. Michel Thomas French

The Michel Thomas method is probably the best resource I know of for picking up basic French in a flash.

The audio-only course helps you remember grammar painlessly by organising verbs into groups that are easy to remember and most importantly, shows you how to use these verbs to build useful sentences.

The course also shows you how to take advantage of the 30% of English words that have a French equivalent (known as cognates), like information, conversation, animal, original, distance, importance… Of course, the pronunciation is a bit different, but all you have to do is put on a French accent and voilà – you know loads of French words!

I’ve used Michel Thomas to get off the starting block for French, Italian and Spanish and I’m always surprised by how much I can say after only a few hours of listening.

2. Coffee Break French

The Coffee Break French series is a lovely, relaxing way to pick up French. The fun and interactive lessons help you learn the basics at a nice pace and presenter Mark Pentleton throws in lots of cultural anecdotes, which make the lessons a pleasure to listen to.

But don’t let the laid-back tone fool you – the Coffee Break French series is a very efficient way to learn basic French.

And there are enough episodes to take you further along your French journey – the series goes from beginner right up to advanced, and the podcasts are free.

Getting conversational

Now you’ve picked up the basics, you can practise using French in real-life situations. It’s time to jump in and have a go at speaking (even if you don’t feel ready yet!) and gradually start doing stuff in French that you enjoy doing in your native language.

As you venture into the world of real French, you’ll need plenty of support from subtitles, and slow, clear speech. You’ll also need a good dictionary and a way to remember all those new words!

3. Language exchanges

When you first start practising your speaking skills, it can feel a bit awkward to strike up a conversation with a French person – what if they reply too fast and you don’t understand what they’re saying? What if you forget a word mid-sentence?

Language exchanges are the perfect training ground for speaking French because your partner knows you’re a beginner (be sure to tell them!) and they’re there to help. This takes the pressure off as they don’t expect you to be able hold a full conversation yet: it’s OK if you don’t understand what they’re saying or forget a word mid-sentence!

However, there are a few pitfalls to watch out for. For example, if you’re a native English speaker and you team up with a French person who speaks brilliant English, it might feel easier to speak in English most of the time. To get around this, you should set a specific time, say ½ hour French, then ½ hour English. If you find a partner who keeps speaking English when they should be helping you with French, it’s time to look for a new one.

I’ve had some brilliant experiences with language exchanges: as well as helping you practise your French, they’re a great way to get to know French people and learn more about French culture.

If you go to France, I highly recommend setting up a language exchange at your destination. I did this in Paris and I met some lovely Parisiens who took me to their favourite hangouts – a fab way to learn the language and get off the beaten tourist track!

To find language exchange partners at home or abroad, try www.conversationexchange.com.

4. Italki

If you like the idea of improving your speaking skills quickly and cheaply without leaving your living room, you should give italki a try.

It’s a website where you can get one-to-one, online conversation lessons with French conversation tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour.

And you don’t need to worry about speaking slowly, making mistakes or sounding silly – tutors are there to help you learn and most are friendly, patient and used to working with beginners.

If you’d like to try italki, you can get a free lesson by clicking any of the italki links on this page. All you have to do is sign up, book your first lesson and you’ll get the next lesson free (up to $10).

I don’t get any commission if you buy through this link, but I do get a free lesson with my French conversation tutor on italki, which helps me save money and spend more time writing articles like the one you’re reading now – merci!

Italki is also handy if you want to work on your writing skills: you can post your writing on the “notebook” section and a native speaker will correct it for you.

I usually practise my speaking skills on italki, a website where you can book conversation lessons with native speakers.

5. News in Slow French

News in Slow French makes a refreshing change to the boring and overly simplistic topics usually on offer for learners. The presenters cover the week’s news in a light and entertaining way, in French that’s slow (hence the name!) and easy to follow.

6. Journal en Français Facile

Although the name translates literally as “The News in Easy French”, this news show by Radio France Internationale is a lot more challenging than News in Slow French. Often, the pace doesn’t seem that different to the normal French news, but that makes it great way to challenge your listening. On the Journal en Français Facile website they have the transcripts so you can check your understanding and read along as you listen.

7. Easy French

Follow the presenters of Easy French “on the streets”, as they pose interesting questions to French passers-by such as “What would you do to make the world a better place?” The interview format is perfect as you hear the same question over and over, and the answers are usually entertaining. To help you follow along, there are big subtitles in French and smaller subtitles in English. It’s the perfect way to ease yourself into listening to real, spoken French.

8. Wordreference

Once you start engaging with real French, you’ll need a good dictionary to look up the new words you come across. Wordreference is one of the best: it gives you examples of how the word is used in real sentences, which helps you understand how to use the word yourself later on. There’s also a “verb conjugator”, which shows you how to use French verbs in different tenses.

9. Memrise

As well as a good dictionary, you’ll need a way to remember the new words you learn. The Memrise app helps you learn French words faster, using a method known as spaced repetition.

It’s based on scientific studies which show that we remember information better when we learn it a few times over a longer period of time, compared to many times within a short space of time. The app quizzes you on words you’ve learnt at specific intervals which optimise learning.

Memrise is huge in the language learning community and you’ll find lots of French courses with ready made vocabulary lists already on there. However, it’s better to make your own course with example sentences that you’ve already seen or heard being used in real life, for the following reasons:

  1. Learning words in sentences (rather than in isolation) helps you understand how to use them later.
  2. Learning words that you’ve already come across in real life helps you form stronger memory associations.

Advanced

Now you can hold a conversation and understand simple spoken French, it’s time to hone your skills by listening and reading things intended for native speakers. Moving onto native speaker materials is a great feeling – you can:

  1. Really start to understand how French speakers communicate with each other.
  2. Learn a lot about French culture.
  3. Improve your French while doing things you enjoy, like watching films or reading the newspaper.

Here are a few of my favourites.

10. France 24

The France 24 website is packed with French videos. It’s a news channel, so they have lots of programmes about current affairs, but they also cover other topics including art, science, culture and travel. The presenters usually speak quite slowly and clearly, so it’s a great resource to bridge the gap between intermediate and native speaker materials.

11. Your web browser

With the Google Translate Chrome add-on, you can turn any French website into an interactive French dictionary. When you click on a word you don’t know, the English translation pops up on the same page, so you you can read websites without constantly stopping to look up words.

12. Le monde

Le Monde is one of the most famous newspapers in France. On the website, you can catch up on current affairs with articles, videos and blogs. The YouTube channel is particularly good because they have 3 minute videos that explain important issues in current affairs or little snippets of French culture. And they have French subtitles, so you can turn them on and read anything you missed in the listening.

13. Le Gorafi

If you prefer something a little lighter, try reading le Gorafi. It’s a parody newspaper with fake news articles, like the French version of The Daily Mash. If you enjoy this kind of humor, it’s a brilliant resource for stretching your French reading skills. Riina, a member of the joy of languages Facebook group, recently said that you can say you’re fluent in a language “when you can understand jokes”. If you get this kind of satire, you can be confident that your level of French is pretty good.

 

Le Gorafi also gives you loads of cultural insights about France, from small details, like how people in the South often drink pastis, to more serious things, like the decline in popularity of the Socialist Party.

14. Buzzfeed

If you’re after something even lighter, have a go at reading French BuzzFeed. The “listicle” style articles with pictures are a great way to practise reading real French, without having to get your head around large amounts of text.

YouTube

Now you’re advanced, the whole world of French YouTube is open to you. Here are a few channels to get you started:

15. Un gars et une fille

This Quebec sitcom shows short scenes in the life of a couple who are often getting into funny squabbles. They speak very fast but the videos are only a few minutes long, so it’s a great way to train your listening in short but intense bursts. And as the subject is very light, it leaves your brain free to concentrate on the French.

16. Cyprien

Cyprien is one of the most popular YouTubers in France. He’s a comedian who likes to point out the silly in everyday situations. Here’s his take on “people on the internet”.

His channel is fab for advanced level French listening. Like most YouTubers, he speaks inhumanely fast, but that’s actually quite good for pushing your listening skills: once you can understand Cyprien, French conversations at normal speed will be a breeze! He has subtitles in French and in English, which means you can read along in French if the audio alone is too tricky, and use the English ones from time to time to check your understanding.

If you enjoyed that Cyprien video, you might like Norman and Squeezie’s channels too.

Thanks to Christine for recommending these French YouTubers in the comments section of my last post: how I’m becoming fluent in French from my living room.

17. Simplissime

The simplissime cookery channel, with the tag line “the easiest recipes in the world” is another great resource to ease you into listening to native speaker materials. The narrator speaks slowly and the words often appear on screen, which makes things a lot easier to follow for us non-native speakers. To see what I mean, watch this quick video on how to make a chocolate mousse.

And as a bonus, you’ll come away with some cooking tips too!

E voilà! Those were my 17 best resources for learning French from beginner to advanced, I hope you found them useful.

Over to you

  1. Which of these resources do you think is the most useful for learning French? Why?
  2. Can you add any more to the list? I’m on a French mission at the moment so I’m always looking out for new resources – recommendations in the comments please!

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

Apparently, they all take around 5 months.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The easiest languages for English speakers

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

 

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

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

How to say “hello/hi, welcome”

Afrikaans: Hallo, welkom

Dutch: Hallo, welkom

Danish: Hallo, velkommen

Norwegian: Hei, velkommen

Swedish: Hej, välkommen

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

 

Any drawbacks?

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

 

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

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

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

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

How to say “my family”

Spanish: Mi familia

French: Ma famille

Italian: La mia famiglia

Portuguese: Minha família

Romanian: Familia mea

 

Any drawbacks?

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

 

The easiest language to learn

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

But wait – didn’t the title say 11?

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

 

Just how easy are the easiest languages?

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

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

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

It takes them around 1000 hours to speak fluent Spanish.

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

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

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

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

 

What makes a language easy or difficult?

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

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

 

How I feel about irregular verbs.

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

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

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

Difficult is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as:

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

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

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

Language learning shouldn’t be like that.

Challenging? Yes. Time consuming? Of course.

But difficult?

 

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

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

Information overload

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

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

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

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

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

Tension gets in the way of learning

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

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

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

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

How to make any language easy to learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Concentrate on the bricks, not the wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Do something you like

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

4. Stay in the game

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

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

5. Is it difficult or just new?

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

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

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

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

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

But with perseverance, you will.

Bonus point

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

English: Bread, butter and green cheese.

West Frisian: Brea, bûter en griene tsiis

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

 

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