No wait, on Monday. Next month. In January. Once I’ve finished this or that.
There are lots of good reasons to fall out of learning a language: You might:
Be overwhelmed with work or home life = not enough time or energy.
Flirt with shiny objects: should I learn Spanish instead? Or take up running?
Prefer watching Nextflix, tidying the house or doing pretty much anything that isn’t sitting down and studying.
Check, check, check.
You don’t need more motivation or discipline
It’s happened to everyone, and will probably happen to us all again. I have a couple of superhuman students (the kind of people who wake up at 5am to train for a marathon or are able to only eat one biscuit from the packet) and even they fall off the language learning wagon at times.
And if the solution were “be more disciplined” or “have more motivation”, we’d all be doomed, because those moments when you fall out of learning a language are precisely those moments when you don’t have a lot.
So in this post, you’ll learn 9 ways to gently coax yourself back into learning a language, for those times when you worry that you might be lacking the time or discipline it takes to learn a language.
But first, a confession…
I fell out of learning Chinese
“I’ll start later” has been my motto for the last 6 months (actually, probably a few more, but who’s counting?) and my mission to learn Chinese has slipped way off track.
I’m stuck at basecamp on the Chinese mountain: the longer I wait, the higher the mountain seems and the less motivation I have to start climbing again.
How your mind can change mountains (even real ones!)
You probably know that your mind can shape your material world – for example, stress often leads to physical symptoms, like headaches or skin conditions.
But did you know that it can change the steepness of mountains?
In a series of studies, psychologist Dennis Proffitt and his collaborators (1) asked runners, varsity athletes and other university students to stand in front of a hill and guess how steep it was. They guessed in normal conditions and in situations that would make the climb more difficult, like after a 30 minute run, or while wearing a heavy backpack.
Can you guess what happened? When people found themselves in states that would make the ascent harder, they assumed that the slope was steeper. In other words, when you start at a disadvantage, your mind can play tricks on you and make you think the climb is more difficult than it actually is.
Change the mountain before you start to climb
Here are a few things that can make your language learning ascent seem really steep:
Forcing yourself to do things you don’t like
Expecting too much of yourself
Being busy, tired, overwhelmed, or generally not in a good brain space to dedicate time and energy to a personal project.
And let’s not forget the big one – the passing of time. At this point, the mountain feels so steep that the amount of discipline required to get back to learning a language becomes superhuman.
So instead of telling yourself to “try harder”, the real secret to getting started again is to make the ascent appear as gentle as possible, by getting rid of, or reducing some of these obstacles.
Let’s talk about 9 actionable ways to do that:
9 Gentle ways to get back into learning a language
1. Start with a clean slate
Has this ever happened to you?
You put it off, then you feel guilty about putting it off, then you keep putting it off.
You might imagine that feeling guilty would push you into taking action. But research suggests that beating yourself up actually makes you more likely to keep procrastinating (2).
So you had a long break.
It was just a little bump on the long and messy path to becoming fluent in a foreign language. Any big project that’s worth doing – like learning a language – will be full of tumbles. But they won’t stop you, as long as you get back to it and keep climbing.
Don’t dwell. Just dust your knees off and get back to it.
2. Make it really small (or really exciting)
Motivation is a bit like a snowball rolling down a mountain. Sometimes you just need to do something really small to get it going, then you’ll quickly get back into the swing of things.
That said, while this approach works for a lot of people a lot of the time (myself included), there are times when it doesn’t matter how small I make something, I still don’t do it. And I think part of the reason is that these teeny tiny goals aren’t exciting enough to jolt me into action.
After a long break, sometimes the opposite works – big, crazy language goals that light a fire under your behind and pull you into action. Things like:
Waking up early and practicing for a couple of hours before work.
Aiming to have a conversation with a native speaker after a few months.
Passing an advanced exam.
As with most things in life, there’s more than one right approach. It’s all about experimenting and finding the balance that feels right for you in this phase of your life.
3. Make it achievable
While very ambitious goals can be motivating, impossible ones are not.
If your long break means you can no longer hit the goals that you’ve set for yourself, now’s probably a good time to adjust them. For example, my original plan was to become fluent in Chinese by August. That’s just not going to happen, so I’m moving my deadline to the end of the year.
4. Prioritise fun
If there’s one thing that’ll make your language learning mountain seem higher than Everest, it’s trying to force yourself to do something that you don’t like.
There are so many different ways to learn a language these days that there’s absolutely no reason to torture yourself. If you hate studying grammar, or memorising vocabulary makes you sweat, try reading, listening to podcasts, watching TV etc.
You can look for materials for native speakers if you already have a high level, but these are often tricky to understand! If you’re not there yet, look for materials made for learners – short stories, podcasts and YouTube videos designed to help you learn the language. Here are a few posts with some ideas to get you started:
Playing video games in the language you’re learning.
Get a pedicure while you read something.
Go for a nice walk while you listen to a podcast.
Study in your favourite café.
Eat a few cookies while you learn…
Combining language learning with something a bit naughty that you don’t normally let yourself do, for example coffee, chocolate, alcohol or [insert your own vice here] can really help to get your bum in the seat.
The options are endless and what makes something a treat will be personal to you, so before we move on to the next point, pause for a moment and think about how you could make learning the language feel like a treat for you.
6. Shake it up
It’s difficult to get excited about going back to something if it feels old and stale. Come to think of it, could that be the reason you fell out of language learning in the first place?
Don’t feel like you have to finish every book or resource you start, I rarely do! If your old way is feeling a bit stale, try a few new things until you find something that you feel excited about using.
Just a little word of caution – beware of shiny object syndrome, a.k.a. collecting lots of new materials without actually using them. You don’t need to find the perfect course (it doesn’t exist!) you just need to find something you quite like the sound of, then start doing the work.
7. Surround yourself with the language
Imagine your friend just started a diet. Which of the following would you advise them to do?
Fill the fridge with…
Cheese and cake
Fruit, vegetables and other healthy food
Your environment can either work for or against you. It seems obvious when it comes to health, but the same goes for learning a language.
The more you surround yourself with the language, the more it becomes a part of you, to the point where getting back on the wagon feels like a natural progression. Here are a few suggestions:
Put post-its around the house with things you want to remember in the language you’re learning.
Change your internet homepage to a Youtube channel with tutorial videos.
If you use apps or a podcast, put them on the homescreen of your phone.
Change the language on your phone (but remember how to change it back just in case!).
Listen to music, the radio or podcasts in the language you’re learning, even if it’s just in the background.
Leave a book with short stories next to your sofa.
I’m sure you can think of more that would suit your life situation. Take a moment to write a list and if it takes less than two minutes, set up a couple right now. I’ll wait.
8. Be sociable
Research suggests that you’re more likely to reach your goals when you team up with a friend (3, 4).
This makes sense. When you know that you risk letting someone down, you’ll probably try harder to stick to your commitments. Also, it’s easy to believe your own excuses in your head, but when you have to say them outloud to another person, it forces you to think twice.
Not to mention, climbing the mountain is a lot more fun if you’re with people whose company you enjoy.
Here are a suggestions to make your language learning more sociable:
If you have friends who are learning the same language, you could meet in a café or pub to study together or practice speaking. You could also try starting a whatsapp group where you chat together in that language.
Connect with native speakers via an app such as HelloTalk.
Look for a conversation tutor that you get on well with. Regular practice with a person you enjoy talking to is probably one of the best ways to stay motivated, and learn a language in general.
If you’ve been feeling busy and burned out (or maybe you still are), you may need to make other changes before you’re in the right headspace to start learning a language again.
Your first mission is find some time in the day when you’re feeling relaxed and fresh enough to learn. Think about your schedule. Can you carve out 30 minutes? If that’s not possible, how about 3 chunks of 10 minutes? Or 6 chunks of 5 minutes?
Next, practice putting this time aside for you. Do whatever brings you joy – make a coffee, read the paper, phone a friend, listen to a podcast, watch Youtube videos, anything you like (I’d recommend avoiding social media in this time as it’s not particularly restful).
Keep this up for as long as you need. After a few days or weeks, you should find yourself feeling rested and ready to dedicate this time to learning a language.
It’s easy to feel frustrated when you fall off the language learning wagon, but the secret to getting back on is to be gentle with yourself. Choose activities you like, team up with people who make you feel good and make sure you’re well rested. Above all, give it time. It can take a few weeks before things start to feel normal again, but once you’re back in the routine, you’ll feel like you’ve never been away.
Over to you
Have you ever taken a long break from learning a language? How did you motivate yourself to get back to it?
1. Proffitt, D. (2006). Embodied Perception and the Economy of Action. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2. Wohl, M. J. A., Pychyl, T.A., & Bennett, S.H. (2010) I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences 3. Wing, R. R., & Jeffery, R. W. (1999). Benefits of recruiting participants with friends and increasing social support for weight loss and maintenance. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 4. Matthews, G. (2015). Goal Research Summary. 9th Annual International Conference of the Psychology Research Unit of Athens Institute for Education and Research
This is for you.
For all that time and ink you spent on word lists and verb tables.
The one who hears that there’s no point in learning a language “because everyone speaks English”. But you do it anyway, because you hate being that tourist.
To the young and middle aged men and women, doctors, lawyers, teachers, CEOs and pensioners. Well-spoken in your native language, yet willing to sound like a 2 year old in your new one. Because it means that much to connect with someone outside your little corner of the world.
For every time you forget a word or grammar point and think: “I should have known that”.
For the chances you had to speak, but chose not to. And beat yourself up for not being brave enough. Or the times you did speak, but it came out wrong. And beat yourself up for not being clever enough.
The ones who want to get closer to people with different skin colours and religions. Because speaking their language – even if it’s only a few words – is your way of showing them that they matter.
We’re all here with you, forgetting that word 27 times, making awkward mistakes and worrying that we don’t have the time, the motivation, the organisation, or the talent to learn a language either. And we’re still going.
Whether you’re multilingual or learning your first few words. We see you. And we need more people like you in the world.
Thank you. Merci. Grazie. Gracias. Danke. 谢谢。
p.s. If you’d like to thank someone you know who’s learning a language, send this their way or share it with your friends on social ❤️
Talking to native speakers.
Everyone knows it’s the best way to learn a foreign language. But there’s one problem with this method that no one talks about.
In the beginning, those native speakers may not want to talk to you.
When you start speaking a foreign language, it’s all mind blanks, silly mistakes and sounding like a 2-year-old, which makes communication slow and awkward.
It’s not you that’s the problem. You have to go through that stage if you want to speak a foreign language.
But you need the right people to practise with. Supportive ones who encourage you to speak and don’t make you feel embarrassed when you get stuck or make mistakes.
The best place to find these people?
Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to a conversational level in quite a few languages by practising with online tutors on a website called italki. In this post, I’ll show you how to do the same.
– Why learning with an online tutor is better than moving to the country.
– Tech guide: a step-by-step guide on how to get set up.
– How to find the right teacher and prepare for your first lesson.
– Conversation ideas: what to talk about at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.
– Lesson tips: how to survive (and enjoy!) your lessons and remember what you learn.
You’ll also find some goofy videos of me trying out these tactics in real life with different languages.
Ready to get fluent in any language without taking off your fluffy socks? Let’s go!
Why online tutors are better than being in the country
A few years ago, something odd happened.
Just as I was thinking about learning French, by complete coincidence, I ended up moving into an apartment with 2 French guys. The perfect opportunity, I thought. By the end of the year, I’ll be fluent!
Apart from a few cute phrases like “bonne nuit”, they didn’t want to talk to me in French. And I couldn’t blame them. I only knew a few words. Waiting for me to get a sentence out was like waiting for a glass of champagne to evaporate.
So I kept learning bits of French on my own. In Paris a couple of years later, I had the same problem. I’d try to say something in French, but everyone replied in English.
Italki: How online tutors solved my problem
At some point, I came across a website called italki, where I could find native French tutors and pay them to talk to me on Skype for a whole hour, which cost around $10.
I had finally found a way to speak French and bypass all the awkwardness. The tutors knew I was a beginner – and I was paying them to help – so the whole thing felt more comfortable. I was free to work through my “sounding like a 2-year-old stage”, without feeling like a burden. As I spoke, my tutors taught me new words and corrected my mistakes.
I stuck with it and ended up being able to speak French.
Not perfectly, but pretty well considering I’ve never lived there. I’ve since passed one of the highest level French exams and now when I go to France, I don’t get Englished anymore because my French is often better than their English. I even got to enjoy a pretty woman moment – the look on my old flatmates’ faces when they heard me speaking French for the first time!
italki was magic for me, so I decided to use it to learn a few other languages too.
With online tutors, learning a language is actually easier from home than it is in the country. When I went to Germany, I had no one to practise with. It felt awkward starting a conversation with a stranger, which I imagined would go something like this:
The fastest (and most enjoyable way) to learn a language is with regular 1-on-1 speaking practice. Online tutors are perfect because it’s so easy – you can do a lesson whenever suits and from wherever you have an internet connection, which makes it simple to stick to regular lessons.
I’ve teamed up with italki and I couldn’t be happier to recommend them because it will be the best thing you ever do to speak a foreign language. If you book your lesson through any of the links on this page, you’ll get $10 off (which could add up to a free lesson) after your first purchase.
Tech guide: a step-by-step guide to set up your first italki lesson
To get set by watching this quick tutorial on how to use the italki platform.
Fill in your details, including which language you’re learning.
Once you get to the main italki screen, you’ll see your profile with your upcoming lessons. At the moment it says 0, so let’s go ahead and set one up!
Click on “find a teacher”
Here, you’ll find filters like “price”, “availability” and “specialities”. Set these to fit in with your budget, schedule and learning goals.
Explore the teacher profiles and watch the introduction videos to find a teacher you’d enjoy working with.
Click on “book now” and you’ll see their lesson offers.
What’s informal tutoring?
When choosing your lessons, you’ll often see “informal tutoring”, which is a pure conversation class. These kinds of lessons are great value because the tutor doesn’t have to prepare anything beforehand. They just join you on Skype and start chatting.
Booking your first italki lesson
Once you’ve chosen the kind of lesson you’d like, choose the time that suits you and voilà, you’ve just booked your first lesson with an online tutor! Well done – I know it can feel a little intimidating at first, but creating opportunities to practise is the absolute most important thing you can do if you want to learn to speak a language.
What’s the difference between professional tutors and community tutors?
When choosing a teacher, you’ll also see a filter called “teacher type” and the option to choose between professional teachers and community tutors. What’s the difference?
Professional Teachers on italki
Professional teachers are qualified teachers vetted by italki – they have to upload their teaching certificate to gain this title. These classes tend to be more like “classic language lessons”. The teacher will take you through a structured course, preparing lessons beforehand and teaching you new grammar and vocabulary during each lesson.
1. If you’re a total beginner.
2. You’re not sure where to start and you’d like guidance from an expert.
Community tutors are native speakers who offer informal tutoring, where the focus is 100% on conversation skills. They’ll give you their undivided attention for an hour while you try to speak and they’ll help by giving you words and corrections you need to get your point across.
1. If you’ve already spent some time learning the theory and you feel like you’re going round in circles. You need to put it into practice!
2. You’re happy to take control of your own learning by suggesting topics and activities you’d like to try.
3. You’re on a budget – these classes are usually super good value – sometimes less than $10 per hour.
If both of those options are out of budget, you can also use italki to find a language partner, which is free – you find a native speaker of the language you’re learning who also wants to learn your native language and you teach each other.
An important tip for finding the right tutor
Feel free to experiment with a few different tutors until you find one you click with. When you find a tutor you get along well with, they end up becoming like friends – you’ll look forward to meeting them and be motivated to keep showing up to your lessons. Here’s an example of me and my Spanish tutor talking about exactly that!
How to prepare for your first lesson
Spending a little time preparing will allow you to focus during the lesson and get as much out of it as possible. In this section, you’ll find some suggestions about how to do just that.
Learn the basic pleasantries
Hello, goodbye, please, sorry and thank you will take you a long way!
Learn basic communication phrases
It’s important to try and speak in the language as much as possible, without switching back into English. Those moments when you’re scrambling for words and it feels like your brain’s exploding – that’s when you learn the most!
To help you do this, learn these phrases to help you keep the conversation going, even when you get stuck.
1. How do you say [+ word you want to say]. e.g. How do you say “book”
2. What does that mean?
3. Sorry, I didn’t understand.
4. Can you repeat please?
5. Can you speak slower please?
In the following posts, you’ll find these phrases in French, Spanish and Italian.
If you’re not sure where to find these phrases in the language you’re learning, you could spend the first lesson asking your online tutor to translate them for you (and write them down), so you have them handy for future lessons.
I once did a whole half hour lesson in Slovak on italki with only these phrases. I didn’t even memorise them beforehand, I just stuck them on a post-it on my computer. Here’s a little snippet (apologies for the dodgy sound).
I couldn’t speak a word of Slovak before the lesson (which is why it was kind of slow and awkward!), but with these phrases, I managed to keep the conversation mostly in Slovak for 30 minutes. I was able to ask for the words I needed, find out what certain words meant, and request the teacher to repeat/speak more slowly. It’s easy to see how persevering with the language in this way can lead to being able to speak the language over time. In fact, this is how I started with all of the languages I speak now!
Start with these basic communication phrases and you’ll be surprised how quickly you’re able to speak the language for a whole half hour.
Learn internet phrases
As you’ll be chatting over the internet, it also helps to learn phrases like:
The connection isn’t good.
Can you hear/see me?
I can’t hear/see you.
Learn checking phrases
Michel Thomas once compared learning a foreign language to tennis. When you attempt to say something, sometimes you’ll get it over the net and the listener will understand. But you won’t get it over the net all the time, and that’s ok. If you did, your tutor would be out of a job!
For this reason, it helps to learn some checking phrases, so you can get feedback about whether you said it right or not. Here are some examples of handy phrases to learn so you can check:
– Did I say it right? – Can you say it like that?
Remember, your tutor is there to help and will be more than happy to answer these kinds of questions.
Handy hint: the best thing about doing lessons on the internet is that you don’t have to worry about mind blanks – you can pin these phrases to your computer and read them when you need them. By force of repetition, you’ll find them rolling off your tongue after the first few lessons.
Conversation ideas: what to talk about at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels
Beginner and beyond
1. Simple questions
Before the class, prepare a list of simple questions, like:
Where do you live?
What job do you do?
What are your hobbies?
What’s your favourite food?
What time is it there?
Prepare your own answers to these questions too, so you’ll be able to use them in conversation (you can keep them with you on a piece of paper next to your computer, just in case you get stuck).
When preparing your questions and answers, you can use phrasebooks/websites and even google translate to help – it comes out with some funky things sometimes, but your teacher will be able to help you correct any mistakes during the lesson.
2. About me
Before the lesson, tell your tutor that you’d like to write a simple paragraph with very basic information about yourself – the kind of things people will ask you over and over. You can work on it together in class and then record your teacher reading it aloud. This way you can listen to it and learn it off by heart so you’ll have those answers ready when you get into conversations.
3. Work on your textbook together
How about working through a beginner’s course/textbook with your online tutor? You can work through the chapter at home before the lesson, then talk about the topics together. For example, if the chapter is about eating out, you can learn some useful phrases to describe food and restaurants and practise using them with your online tutor. This will add some much-needed speaking practise to the course, and help them stick in your mind so you can use them in future conversations.
Lists are easy to write and are great conversation starters! Here are some ideas of lists you could write in the language you’re learning:
5 things you like
5 things you hate
3 places you’ve been to
3 things you’ve eaten recently
3 friends in your life
4 films you love
6 places you’d like to visit
The list is endless! (apologies for the pun)
You can send your list to your online tutor before the lesson, or share it with them at the beginning. The conversation that develops from these lists will help you learn valuable phrases for talking about your everyday life.
Beginner tip: When you’re just starting out, little and often is best. I’d suggest starting with half-hour lessons so you don’t get overwhelmed. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll be able to fill that half hour speaking the language!
Intermediate to advanced
1. Elaborated lists
They may seem simple, but lists are great conversation starters, even at intermediate level and beyond. They help you get past the blank page syndrome and give you fun things to talk about in class. At intermediate level and beyond, you can challenge yourself by choosing more complex lists and writing more details. Try writing a page in your notebook about one of the following things:
5 things I noticed today
2 conversation snippets I overheard yesterday
3 bits of gossip I heard this week
2 mistakes I’ve made (and what I learned from them)
3 things I love and hate about my job
3 things I’d change about myself if I could
4 things that make me happy
I’m sure you can think of more along the same lines! During the lesson, you can ask your online tutor to help you correct your mistakes and then start chatting about your list. Here’s an example of one I sent to my teacher in Spanish:
If you don’t have time to prepare, you can also find lists of conversation starters online, which make for a fun lesson. Try searching “interesting questions” in the language you’re learning on google, and you should find some good ones. In this video, you can see us chatting about this list of Spanish conversation questions I found on the internet.
2. What are you passionate about?
Photography, travel, sport, politics… What do you like to talk about in your native language? The great thing about intermediate level is that you can start to try discussing these topics in the language you’re learning. To get the conversation started, you can either:
1. Prepare a list of questions (and maybe take notes on how you’d like to answer, so you can learn important vocabulary that will help you speak in the lesson).
2. Find simple content about the topic you like – blog posts, news articles, podcasts, YouTube videos etc. Share it with your tutor so you can both read/listen to it before the lesson, and chat about it together in class.
If you’re learning one of the following languages, these posts are a good place to find resources.
Probably my favourite (and most useful!) activity for conversation classes. Take some words you’ve learned recently and use them to write questions that you’ll discuss during your lesson.
This way, as you chat about your answers you’ll end up saying the new words over and over, which will help them stick in your brain.
Here’s the list of the questions I wrote before the lesson. You can see the words I’ve learnt recently underlined at the top and the example question below.
4. Talk about entertainment
Finally, at more advanced levels, you can try reading a book or watching a TV series and discuss each chapter/episode with your tutor. You can also try writing a summary about what you watched/read, so your teacher can help you correct it in class before you start chatting. This will help you learn some useful vocabulary for the conversation.
Handy hint: don’t feel like you have to be super prepared all the time. Often, I forget/don’t have time to do all this stuff – I just rock up unprepared and start trying to chat. Any speaking is always better than no speaking!
During the conversation: how to make the most out of your italki lessons
Here are some things to keep in mind during your lesson:
Chatbox: The Skype chatbox is your friend. If you don’t understand something, or your tutor teaches you a new word, ask them to write it for you in the chat. These will become your notes that you can revise from after the lesson.
Example sentences: When you learn new words, ask your tutor to give you an example sentence. This will allow you to understand how the word is used in sentences and communicate more smoothly.
Prioritise: Don’t try to learn everything. When something new comes up, ask yourself if it’s useful in your life now. If the answer is yes, ask your tutor to type an example sentence in the chatbox so you can remember it later. If not, just let it go for now.
When you say something and you’re not sure if it’s right, check with your tutor. Remember to learn phrases like: Is that right? Do you say it like that? and use them often in class.
Ask your tutor to correct you and thank them when they do. Getting feedback from mistakes is how you learn, so it’s important to make sure that your tutor feels comfortable correcting you, and isn’t worried about offending you.
Don’t take yourself so seriously. You will mess up – a lot at the beginning – so you might as well have fun with it. The sooner you can learn to laugh at yourself, the easier you’ll find it to learn a language. Here’s an example of me making a goofy mistake in Chinese.
Remember, things will be slow and awkward for a while, it’s a normal stage that everyone goes through. Stick with it until words and phrases start to come to you automatically. With enough practice, they will.
How to remember what you learn in your italki lessons
So you’ve finished your lesson and you’ve got your notes in the chatbox. How can you make sure you remember all that stuff?
I use an app called memrise, which makes memorising new words and phrases into a fun game (and drills them into your brain!) Here’s how it works.
If you’re more of a pen and paper person, you can make a similar quiz for yourself in your notebook. Just draw a line down the middle, write the question/definition on the left side, and the word you’re trying to remember on the right. Cover up the right side with your hand, try to remember the word, then move your hand and check to see if the answer was right.
Here are a few more activities to help you remember what you learn in your lessons:
Quiz: Ask your teacher to quiz you on what you learnt last lesson – the words are already there in the chat, so they can just scroll up and quiz you. And if you know you’ve got the quiz coming up, you’ll be more likely to study!
Review: Go over any grammar points/vocabulary that came up. Think about when you might use them in real life and write example sentences. You can ask your tutor to help you check them in the next lesson.
Record: Ask your tutor if you can record your lesson, then turn it into an mp3 and relisten to it as you go about your day.
Ready to start?
I hope you’re feeling inspired to start working with an online tutor. Before you do, I have a little confession to make. I don’t do all of this stuff all the time. I do it sometimes, and it works well enough. While it’s true that taking time to prepare beforehand and review afterwards will help you get more out of your lessons, don’t get overwhelmed. Just start with one idea you like and go from there.
If you’d like to take lessons with any of the tutors I mention in this post, once you’ve signed up to italki, you can find them by going to “find a teacher” and typing their names into the search box.
Over to you
Have you ever done lessons with italki? How did it go? Do you have any other ideas to make the most of your lessons with online tutors?
Why are some people good at learning languages?
Or not so good?
Is it motivation, memory or experience?
These things can make a difference. But many of the people I know who speak several languages also share certain personality traits that seem to make language learning easier for them.
What are they, and can you cultivate them to learn a language better?
Today’s guest, professor Tim Keeley, is an expert on how personality type and emotions can affect your success in language learning.
In this interview, Tim talks about:
Why certain personality types are better – or worse – at learning foreign languages.
The tiny, almond-shaped part of your brain that makes a big difference to how you learn.
How to develop the character traits that will help you learn a language.
Why it’s ok – and normal – to make beginners’ mistakes, even at advanced levels.
As well as knowing a lot about the psychology behind how people learn languages, Tim speaks a baffling number of languages himself (watch the beginning to find out how many!) – if you’re looking for inspiration and practical ideas to boost your language learning, Tim Keeley’s your man.
How to become emotionally resilient and learn languages more easily
Good news: with practice, you can cultivate more emotional resilience and become better at learning languages. In this section, Tim gives tips on how to feel calmer when speaking a foreign language, so that more learning can happen.
Lots of people say they speak a foreign language better after a drink or two.
It seems logical.
One of the trickiest things about speaking a language is the nerves and alcohol lowers inhibitions.
But does drinking really help you speak a foreign language better? Or just make you think you speak it better? After all, alcohol also makes people think they can dance like Beyonce, they should call their ex and that cheese is a food group.
Interestingly, science suggests that the “Dutch courage” effect is real – alcohol really can help you speak a foreign language.
Which is an interesting finding, if not all that helpful.
For a start, lots of people don’t drink alcohol. And even if you do like a tipple, what happens when you need to speak the language over breakfast, or at the airport?
It’s just not practical to crack out the bubbly every time you want to speak a foreign language.
In this article, we’ll talk about:
The science behind why alcohol helps you speak a foreign language better.
How to get the same confidence boost without touching a drop.
Science says alcohol helps you speak a foreign language (kind of)
Last year, researchers invited 50 Germans who spoke Dutch as a second language into the lab. Half were given a drink with vodka in it, while the others got a drink which was alcohol-free.
Once the Germans had finished their drinks, they were asked to have a conversation in Dutch. Two native Dutch speakers (who didn’t know who had drunk alcohol and who hadn’t) listened to the recordings and rated the Germans on how well they spoke Dutch.
Alcohol might improve your pronunciation, but only in moderation
It’s important to keep in mind that the pronunciation gains were linked to small amounts of alcohol. In the most recent study, the Germans consumed less than a pint of beer. Back in 1972, the sweet spot was 1.5 oz of 90 proof alcohol, which is around one shot of strong whiskey. Participants who drank more than that, or who drank on an empty stomach, performed worse than the sober ones.
This fits in with my experience when I moved to Italy. When I went to the pub with my Italian friends, I found that the first drink helped, but any more than 2 and I struggled to keep up with the conversation.
Which is not all that surprising. Large amounts of alcohol impairs concentration, memory and makes you slur your words – not ideal for speaking a foreign language.
So in answer to our question:
Can alcohol help you speak a foreign language?
Yes, but only pronunciation. And only in small amounts.
Why does this happen?
Why does alcohol improve your pronunciation in a foreign language?
One theory is that alcohol helps you open up to a new cultural identity.
Pronunciation forms a strong part of your identity because it links you to a community. If you have a London accent, this could suggest all kinds of things about you including the type of job you might have, your religious or political views, the kinds of things you eat for dinner and certain personality traits.
Learning the sounds of a new language requires you to leave this behind, which explains why you might feel a bit silly when speaking a new language – it doesn’t feel like you.
In the 1972 study, the researchers suggested that drinking alcohol increases “ego permeability” – the willingness to temporarily give up the separateness of your identity so that you can mimic speakers of the second language.
But what about the confidence-boosting effect we talked about at the beginning of this article? Does alcohol help you feel more confident when you speak a foreign language? If we come back to our Dutch speaking Germans, we find a surprising twist in this cocktail.
Can alcohol help you feel more confident when you speak a foreign language?
When researchers asked the German groups how well they thought they’d spoken, there was no difference between the drinkers and the non-drinkers. This means that although their pronunciation was better, the Germans who had drunk alcohol didn’t feel more confident.
One reason for this could be that the participants didn’t actually know if they’d drunk alcohol or not (they were told that they may have a drink with alcohol in it).
In the comments to a recent question I posted about languages and drinking, Nasrul said:
I can’t drink wine because I’m Muslim. But I speak Arabic and English better after I’ve drunk something like mineral water and coke.
I do drink myself, but I remember going to the pub with friends on occasions when I didn’t. At first, I was worried that I would feel awkward, but after a while, I got into the conversations and forgot that I wasn’t drinking.
Pleasant moments, like sitting around a cozy table with friends, could be enough to help you relax into speaking a foreign language.
So far, we’ve learnt that:
Small doses of alcohol can improve your pronunciation (possibly because it helps you open up to a new cultural identity).
Too much alcohol can impair your ability to speak a foreign language.
The confidence-boosting effect of alcohol might not always be real.
Anything that helps you feel more relaxed could help you speak a foreign language better.
What does this mean for me?
If you drink alcohol, why not take advantage of these findings and combine it with language learning? You could meet a speaking partner at the pub and practise chatting over a drink.
But you don’t need alcohol to feel more confident when speaking a foreign language. There are plenty of other ways to increase your self-esteem.
Here are 4.
4 ways to feel confident when you speak a foreign language (no Dutch courage necessary!)
1. Close the cultural gap
If you’re not used to speaking to people from other countries, it can feel intimidating. While it’s natural to focus on your differences at first, research suggests that this kind of “me and them” thinking could make it harder for you to learn the language.
Breaking down cultural barriers will help you speak the language better. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Most cultural differences are on the surface. When you get closer to people from different cultures, you’ll realise that you have a lot in common. Many values, like kindness, friendship and family, are universal.
Put yourself in their shoes
Imagine you come from the culture of the language you’re learning. What does a typical day look like? What time do you wake up? What do you wear? What do you eat for breakfast? You can even go deeper – What keeps you up at night? What makes you smile? This will help you get closer on a practical and emotional level.
When you spend time hanging around with people you like from that culture, you’ll get an insider view that will help you understand and connect with other native speakers. Get tips on where to find these people in step 4.
Don’t take yourself so seriously
When dealing with a new language and culture, you’ll probably have awkward moments where you make mistakes, or you’re not sure what to say or do. If you shut down from fear of mistakes, this will create distance between you and the native speakers you want to talk to.
Arm yourself with a good sense of humour and learn to laugh at yourself. Most people are forgiving of the mistakes foreigners make when navigating their culture – if you let them laugh with you, you’ll never struggle to make friends.
2. Practise a lot (even if it feels uncomfortable)
You cannot think yourself out of feeling nervous.
In fact, trying to convince yourself not to feel nervous makes everything worse, because you create a new problem:
1. You feel nervous
2. You’re nervous about the fact that you can’t stop feeling nervous.
If you accept that nerves are a normal part of learning to speak a foreign language, you’ll make life easier for yourself. So, if you can’t stop the nerves by thinking, what can you do instead?
Take action. The most reliable way to gain confidence when speaking a foreign language is simple: practise until it feels normal.
And you don’t have to start at the deep end – you can gradually build up to conversations. Find a step-by-step guide in this post:
To make speaking a language more enjoyable (and therefore less nerve-wracking) try practicing the language in fun social situations. For example:
Are there any meetups in your area where you can practice speaking the language with like-minded people?
Can you meet a language exchange partner in a place you love? Like at a café or in the park? Can you go to an art gallery or sightseeing? Or how about cooking together?
You’ll probably still feel nervous at the beginning, but that’s nothing to worry about. Remember, the secret is getting started.
The more you do it, the easier it gets.
4. Practise with people who make you feel comfortable
In your native language, there are probably people you feel relaxed around, and others who make you a bit uncomfortable.
It’s no different for language learning. I’ve been learning Italian for years, but there are still people and situations that make me nervous. For example, I get a bit of social anxiety around friends of friends who are very different from me. Or when ordering in shops and restaurants (I feel awkward talking to people I don’t know in English, so in Italian, it’s worse!)
This doesn’t mean you should avoid people and situations that make you feel awkward (remember, nerves are a normal part of language learning). But it does mean that you’ll probably find it more difficult to speak in these situations, so they’re not ideal for practicing.
The best way to improve your speaking skills in a second language is to find people who make you feel comfortable and practise with them regularly.
Where can you find these people?
Online language tutors
One of the best places to practise speaking a foreign language is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here:
Keep in mind that you don’t have to stick with the first person you find. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first tutor, keep looking until you find someone you click with.
Language Exchange Partners
Alternatively, look for people in your area who also want to learn your native language and set up a language exchange:
They help you practise speaking their native language
You help them practise speaking your native language
There are lots of websites and apps that help you find native speakers in your area, so you can meet up and practice speaking over a coffee (or glass of vino if you do drink). Conversation Exchange and Tandem are two examples.
Again, keep in mind that you don’t have to stick with the first person you find. It’s a bit like online dating – you can keep going until you find someone that feels right.
A fab way to feel comfortable and get a lot better at speaking is to join one of our immersion vacations. The vacations are run by myself and a patient native speaker teacher who will put you at ease and encourage you to speak.
To practise speaking a language in beautiful locations, while doing fun and relaxing things like:
Wandering around lavender fields in Provence.
Island hopping across the Italian lakes
Nibbling on tapas and sipping on sangria (or virgin sangria) on the Costa Brava.
By the end, you’ll feel loads more confident because you’ll have spoken the language for a whole week! And you’ll have new friends to practise speaking with.
If you’d like to join us, you can find out more here:
Do you find it easier to speak a foreign language after a drink or two? Do you have any other techniques that help you relax when you’re speaking?
Reading, listening, speaking and writing.
As a language teacher, I’m supposed to tell you that they’re all equally important (a bit like not having a favourite child).
Between you and me, I have a favourite. One that’s more important than the others, at least for most people.
If your main reason for learning a language is to have conversations, the best way to train yourself is by listening to lots of conversations.
Yet it also happens to be one of the most frustrating skills to master.
You might understand quite a bit when you see the words written down or hear them spoken slowly and clearly. But when natives chat at 100mph and mush their words together, it can feel impossible to keep up.
Luckily, with the right strategies, you can train yourself to understand. In this in-depth guide, I’ll show you how to tune your ears into the language you’re learning so you can follow what native speakers are saying.
Why listening helps you speak a foreign language better.
The common problems that stop you from understanding (and how to fix them).
3 techniques to help you keep up with fast and unclear speech: Deliberate, Binge and Passive.
How to find the right listening resources.
Should you use subtitles? A science-based answer.
How to stop panicking and start understanding (+ other useful mindset stuff).
Why should I do more listening in a foreign language?
When you improve your listening skills, you’ll understand native speakers better – a fundamental skill for speaking a foreign language.
But listening has another benefit: It helps you learn how native speakers talk.
Of course, if your aim is to have conversations, you’ll also need to practice speaking. But one of the coolest things about listening is that it helps with your speaking skills. The more you listen, the more you’ll find that the right things “pop into your head” when you need them.
Listening helps you get the grammar right
Time for a little experiment. Let’s say you’re a native English speaker and I ask you which of the following is correct:
Last year I went to London
Last year I have been to London
Which would you choose?
Most native English speakers instinctively feel that the first sentence is right. They can’t tell you why, but they use it correctly even though they don’t know the rule.
When you listen a lot in a foreign language, you’ll pick up grammar without spending so much time memorising the rules. You’ll just know because it “sounds right” – a bit like in your native language.
This happens to me all the time. For example, German has several ways to say “the” (including der, die and das), which can be confusing for learners. But I know that Germans say das Foto. Why? Is it because I memorised it in a list of “das” words?
It’s because I’ve been watching a certain reality TV show (*Cough* Germany’s Next Topmodel) where they talk about photos a lot.
This doesn’t mean you should totally ignore grammar, but it does mean that you can pick up a lot relatively painlessly by listening as much as you can.
Listening helps you learn native-sounding expressions
Languages are full of little expressions that don’t translate logically. Look at the literal translations of the phrase “we’re nearly there” in different languages:
Italian: We are almost arrived (Siamo quasi arrivati).
Spoken French: One is almost arrived (On est presque arrivés).
Spanish: Already, we almost arrived (Ya casi llegamos).
Every language has thousands of little expressions like these and the best way to learn them is by hearing them in natural situations (either in real life, or via TV/films etc.)
Listening is a great way for busy people to learn a language
Just in case you needed another reason to increase the amount of listening you do in a foreign language, it’s the busy learner’s best friend. All you need is a smartphone and some headphones and you can listen as you go about your day without it taking up any extra time.
What if I don’t understand anything?
Have you ever felt a frustrating gap between your listening and reading abilities in a foreign language? When you see something written down (or if someone says it very slowly), you can follow what’s being said, but when they speak at normal speed… woosh!
Straight over your head.
If you understand when you have the words in front of you, it’s not a comprehension problem. The problem must be sound-related – your ears aren’t tuned into the foreign language yet.
There are 2 reasons this can happen.
Problem #1. The words sound different to how you expected
As you grew up, your brain adapted to your native language by zooming in on sounds that were important and filtering out the ones that weren’t. This is good because it helps you understand your first language better, even in unfavourable conditions, like over a crackly phone line or in a noisy pub.
But it means that when you listen to a second language as an adult, your ears play tricks on you. They make you think that the sounds in a foreign language are similar to your native language when actually they’re different.
Problem #2: You haven’t practised enough
At school, I hated Spanish listening exercises.
I remember feeling nervous before the teacher pressed play and the panic that set in as I missed everything that was being said. Then the self-flagellation – if I couldn’t do the class activity, I assumed the problem was me.
In Spanish class, we listened to a 2-minute audio, twice. This means I was listening to Spanish for around 4 minutes a week. It’s not surprising that my listening skills weren’t very good!
When it comes to listening in a foreign language, one of the biggest challenges is the speed – to keep up with native speakers, you have to get faster at understanding.
The best way to get faster at something?
To recap, there are two main reasons why you might find listening difficult in a foreign language:
The words sound different to how you expected.
You need more practice.
In the rest of this blog post, you’ll learn how to adapt to new sounds in the language you’re learning and get more practice (even if you don’t have much time) so you can understand native speakers more easily.
How to improve your listening in a foreign language
To train your listening in a foreign language, we’re going to use three different techniques.
Deliberate listening is all about the details. It’s a process that helps you identify what’s stopping you from understanding native speakers and fix it.
It draws from deliberate practice, a technique pioneered by psychologist Anders Ericsson, whose research suggests that you can become highly skilled in just about anything by following the 3 Fs:
Focus: Break the skill down into parts you can practice repeatedly
Feedback: Analyse your practice attempts and identify your weakness
Fix-it: Come up with ways to address your weaknesses so you can do better next time.
You can apply this technique to improve your listening in a foreign language. Let’s learn how.
Deliberate Listening Method 1: Dictation
In a classic dictation activity, you listen to the audio and write down what you hear. A deliberate listening dictation takes this one step further by analysing your mistakes so that you can fix them.
To get started, you’ll need some audio in the language you’re learning as well as a written version of the audio, such as a transcript or subtitles. If you need help finding these, see the next section: Where to Find Resources.
Step 1: Listen to a sentence and write what you hear. YouTube videos are ideal because you can skip back 5 seconds which makes it easy to listen to the sentence several times.
Quick tips for listening with YouTube videos:
Press the spacebar to play and pause.
Press the back arrow key to skip back 5 seconds.
Step 2: Did you understand everything? If yes, repeat step one with a new sentence. If no, look up the part you didn’t understand on the transcript/subtitles and identify the problem that stopped you from understanding.
Are there words or grammar you’re not familiar with? If yes, take a moment to look up the meaning of the word or investigate the grammar. If you think you’ll come across these words/grammar points a lot in future, make an effort to learn them so that you’ll understand them next time.
Did the words sound different to how you expected? If yes, how? Sounds often change in fast speech. For example, in French, Je ne saispas becomes j’sais pas. Accents can also make things trickier, for example, in Mandarin Chinese, people from Beijing sometimes pronounce the “sh” sound as “r”.
Listen carefully to the part that caused you trouble and repeat a few times. In what way are the sounds different from how you expected? Keep these differences in mind so you’ll be more likely to understand when you hear them next time.
Here’s an example of this technique in action.
Deliberate Listening Method 2: Skipping
The skipping method is similar to the dictation method but requires a bit less effort – for times when you can’t be bothered to go all in! Instead of writing down what you hear, you’re just going to use your ears.
Step 1: Listen to the audio. When you get to a part that you don’t understand, skip back and listen several times.
Step 2: If you still can’t figure out what’s being said, consult the transcript or subtitles. Then follow the rest of step 2 from the dictation method.
If it’s a vocabulary or grammar problem, look it up.
If it’s a sound problem, listen several times and focus on the sounds. In what way are they different to how you expected? Keep this in mind for future listening.
Deliberate Listening Method 3: Shadowing
This is a variation on the technique developed by polyglot professor Alexander Argüelles. It’s a little like the dictation method, but instead of writing, you say what you hear.
Step 1: Listen to the audio and copy the speaker – try to lay your voice over the speaker’s as closely as possible. Step 2: When you find a bit that trips you up, stop talking. Step 3: Skip back a few times and listen to that part as closely as you can. Step 4: If you still can’t understand, consult the transcript or subtitles.
If it’s a vocabulary or grammar problem, look it up.
If it’s a sound problem, listen several times and focus on the sounds. In what way are they different to how you expected? Keep this in mind for future listening.
Step 5: Go back to the tricky part and talk over it again, trying to mimic the new words/sounds you’ve learnt.
Here’s an example of this technique in action.
#2. Binge listening
While deliberate listening is about listening as carefully as possible, binge listening is all about listening as much as possible.
If you want to understand native speakers in the language you’re learning, it’s important to practise a lot. The more you practise listening, the faster you’ll be able to keep up.
Look for some long-format listening (like podcasts or TV shows) and listen as much as you can. Here are some examples of how you can fit listening into your day.
Listen to a news podcast as you eat breakfast
Listen to an audiobook in your car/on your way to work
Listen to a podcast as you do chores in the house: ironing, cleaning the bathroom, washing the dishes etc.
Watch YouTube videos in the language you’re learning while you’re procrastinating online
Watch a film or TV series in the evening.
The best thing about this kind of listening is that it doesn’t have to take any extra time out of your day – listening to a podcast while you’re walking to work or washing the dishes is easy even during busy times.
To get the most out of binge listening, look for materials that are:
1. At the right level
The ideal materials are ones where you can get the general gist of what’s going on, even if you don’t understand all the details. There should be new words and expressions, but not so many that you have to interrupt your listening every few seconds to look in a dictionary.
For lower levels, start with materials that have been simplified for learners. Here’s a list of listening materials you can use:
Beginner to intermediate:
Audio files from a learner textbook
Podcasts for learners
TV programmes for learners
YouTube channels for learners
Audiobooks for learners
Audiobooks and podcasts for native speakers (start with simple ones, like biographies or nonfiction).
YouTube channels for native speakers.
Films (don’t worry if you find these difficult, that’s normal even at high levels!)
More advice on where to find these in the next section: where to find resources.
2. Relevant to the skills you want to learn
If your aim is to have informal conversations with people, then talk shows, soap operas and reality TV are ideal because they will help you pick up grammar and vocabulary to talk about everyday stuff.
On the other hand, if you want to pass an oral exam, then it’s probably better to listen to news programmes and documentaries because they’ll help you learn how to speak in a more formal register.
3. Something you like
Listening in a foreign language is like cracking a code. It takes effort to decipher the unfamiliar sounds and understand the meaning.
When you don’t like what you’re listening to, you won’t feel motivated to crack the code because you don’t care about the message on the other side.
On the flip side, if you choose materials you like, you’ll be motivated to put in the work because you want to know what they’re saying. Also, as you’re going to be spending a lot of time doing it, you might as well pick something you enjoy!
If you like listening to the news in your native language, look for ways do this in the language you’re learning. If travel or photography is your thing, try and find podcasts about these topics. If you’re a reality TV addict or a Netflix fan, can you find some series in the language you’re learning?
Foreign language films and TV shows are tricky to understand in a foreign language, even at very high levels (so don’t worry if this is still a struggle for you!)
Subtitles can be a really handy tool, as long as they’re in the language you’re learning. Avoid subtitles in your native language – it’s too tempting to read them without making an effort to understand the foreign language.
When it comes to subtitles in the language you’re learning, while most people agree that they can help you learn a language, some worry that they’re not good for listening skills because you end up reading most of the time.
With passive listening, you just let the language wash over you without understanding what’s going on.
If you’re at a beginner to intermediate level, this could happen a lot when you try listening to materials for native speakers. It could also happen when you have the radio on in the background.
For learning to happen in a foreign language, you need to be able to follow the gist of what you’re hearing – it can’t happen through osmosis. For this reason, passive listening is probably the least effective of the 3 techniques, so you should focus most of your energy on the first two: deliberate and binge.
That said, passive listening can be handy sometimes, for the following reasons:
Being surrounded by the language helps you build a personal connection with it, which boosts motivation.
Getting used to not understanding everything is a good skill to have, it means you won’t panic so much when you hear the language in real-life situations.
It can help you get used to the rhythm and intonation of the language.
Improve your Listening in a foreign language: Where to Find Resources
Now you’re ready to start listening more in a foreign language, you’ll need some stuff to listen to! If you’re learning French, Spanish, Italian, Russian or Mandarin, you might find these posts useful:
Here are a few other handy resources which are available in lots of different languages.
One of my favourite resources for training yourself to understand native speakers is the Easy Languages YouTube Channel. The presenters go out into the streets and ask passersby interesting questions like “What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done?”
The answers are usually entertaining and the format gives you an example of natural speech, as well as a sneak peak into the culture of the language you’re learning.
The videos have subtitles in the language of learning and smaller subtitles in English so you can go back and check bits you didn’t understand. I like to cover the English ones up with a bit of folded paper to make sure I don’t cheat and read those ones first!
Here are links to some of the most popular languages:
If the US Sitcom friends and your school textbook had a love child, it would be the Extra Series. This educational sitcom follows the story of four young friends who share an apartment and is available in 4 languages: English, Spanish, German and French.
It’s cheesier than cheese, but if you can get past the hammy acting and over the top dialogues, it’s a really handy listening resource for beginner to intermediate levels.
Nowadays, there are lots of podcasts with slow-read audio to help learners understand better. Their websites often come with transcripts (look for links in the show notes/comments) which are handy for checking bits that you couldn’t make out in the listening. Here are a few I’ve found on iTunes and YouTube.
There is also the News in Slow series, which is available in French, Spanish, Italian and German.
A little word of warning – “slow” materials are a fantastic stepping stone to help you get used to listening in a foreign language, but try not to rely on them too much. The unnatural speed means that they don’t give you much chance to practice keeping up with normal native speech.
Coffee Break Season 2
The Coffee Break Podcasts are fab at any level, but season 2 and upwards are particularly good for improving your listening skills. Over the course of the series, Mark Pentleton and his team tell stories based on conversations, which are read at a clear yet natural pace. Once they’ve read the story, they go into key vocabulary and grammar points to help you understand the dialogues in depth.
If you’re learning an Asian language like Mandarin, Korean or Japanese, check out Viki.
They have a “Learn mode” with interactive, dual-language subtitles where you can click on a word you don’t know and get the definition. As with Easy languages, it’s a good idea to cover up the English subtitles with a bit of paper so you don’t get tempted to cheat and read them first!
In Learn Mode, you’ll also find very user-friendly commands so you can skip back and listen to phrases you didn’t understand several times (a bit like on YouTube).
Skills that will help you listen in a foreign language
Now you’ve got the techniques and the resources, let’s talk quickly about personal skills that will help you deal with the challenges of listening to a foreign language.
Skill #1: Tolerate ambiguity
When you’re listening in a foreign language, you’re going to spend a lot of time not getting stuff – that’s normal. If you have a tendency to get frustrated when you don’t understand things, you’re going to make life unnecessarily difficult for yourself. Accept ambiguity as a natural part of language learning and you’ll be able to remain calm and keep moving forward.
Skill #2: Have a growth mindset
People with a fixed mindset convince themselves that they can’t do something because they’re not good at it. People with a growth mindset recognise that all skills are hard at the beginning – they know that if they keep practising, they’ll make progress.
Learning to listen in a foreign language is all about perseverance. Stick with it and you’ll get there!
Skill #3: Be an observer
Get into the habit of observing native speakers – which words, phrases and sounds do they use? The more you observe native speakers, the more you’ll be able to make educated guesses about what they’re likely to say in certain situations, which will help you follow conversations more easily.
Listening in a foreign language can be a pain in the ear sometimes, but with the right kind of practice (and perseverance), you can do it!
Think about a typical day and decide:
When can you squeeze in some deliberate and binge listening?
Which resources are you going to use?
Keep chipping away at it and in a few months, you’ll understand native speakers much more easily.
Do you have any other strategies for improving listening that I didn’t mention in this guide? Or can you add any more good resources to the list? Let us know in the comments!
You know that dream where you’re standing in front of lots of people and you suddenly realise you’re naked?
Everyone’s staring at you.
Panic squeezes your chest and makes your hands and voice go all wobbly. You want to escape but for some reason, you can’t.
This happened to me last Friday.
Only it wasn’t a dream. Luckily for me (and everyone else in the room) I wasn’t naked. But the rest is true.
It happened while giving a talk at the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana for the Friday Language Learning Event. My brain turned to swiss cheese and I kept forgetting what I wanted to say. At one point, I was shaking so much that I had to grab the mic with both hands.
It reminded me of how I used to feel when speaking a foreign language – that moment when the nerves make your mind go blank and you can feel people waiting while you scramble to find the words.
So I’m using the same technique that I used to overcome my fear of speaking a foreign language. It’s a strategy that’s so useful, I’m actually looking forward to my next chance to speak in public.
It’s not fancy. There are no Jedi mindset tricks or motivational quotes with a beach in the background. It’s not a quick fix either – you actually have to put some time and effort in.
But it works. And you can use it to feel more confident when you speak a foreign language.
In this post, you’ll learn:
Why most advice on how to get over your nerves doesn’t work.
The reliable way to deal with your fear of speaking a foreign language.
A practical step-by-step guide to help you build your confidence and start speaking.
The simplest way to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language
I’m not a naturally confident person.
I used to (sometimes still do) get very anxious about things like speaking foreign languages, job interviews and public speaking. I’ve tried all kinds of tricks to get rid of my nerves, such as:
Telling yourself that you’re not nervous, you’re just “excited”
Asking yourself: “what’s the worst that could happen?”
Making the listener(s) less intimidating by imagining them sitting on the toilet.
None of it worked. Why?
Because trying not to feel nervous is a bit like trying not to think of a giant grasshopper crossing the road holding an umbrella. What are you thinking of?
These methods made me feel worse, because they made me focus on my nerves and turned them into a personal problem that I couldn’t get rid of.
How I learnt to feel confident when speaking a foreign language
Despite not being naturally courageous, these days I don’t get particularly nervous when speaking a foreign language. And the reason is simple: I’ve spent an awful lot of time doing it.
There is only one strategy that helps me feel more relaxed when speaking a foreign language, and it’s this:
Do it until it feels normal
There’s a quiet confidence that comes with having done something many times, that you can’t get any other way.
When I gave my talk at the polyglot conference, I was petrified because it was my first time – no amount of preparation or “positive self-talk” could have changed this. But somewhere between my shaky hands and fluttery stomach, there was a glimmer of hope: I survived.
Next time, it will be marginally less terrifying. If I keep doing it, one day it won’t be terrifying at all. I know this because there are many things that used to scare me – like living in a foreign country or teaching – that are now a normal part of my life.
I know this “just do it” advice is easier said than done, and it’s not something that happens overnight. That’s why in the last part of this article, I’ll give you a step by step guide on how to gradually build your confidence in speaking a foreign language.
But first, let’s talk about why action (and not thought) is the simplest and most effective way to deal with your fear of speaking a foreign language. We’ll start by looking at why we get nervous in the first place.
Why do I feel nervous about speaking a foreign language?
Your brain has evolved over millions of years to protect you from danger. That’s why most people are afraid of heights to some degree – as you walk towards the edge of a cliff, your mind starts shouting “danger!” “danger!” to make sure you don’t get too close to the edge and fall off.
But why do we feel afraid in situations which aren’t dangerous, like speaking a foreign language?
Although fear is nature’s handy way of keeping you safe, it’s not very sophisticated. It can’t differentiate between physical threats, like falling off a cliff, and social threats, where the only thing at stake is your ego. Which could explain why more people are afraid of public speaking than death!
Trying to talk yourself out of feeling nervous can be counterproductive because it makes you feel like nerves are something to be avoided, when actually they’re just a normal biological response to the fact that you’re taking on a new challenge.
Doing things that scare you regularly (and surviving), shows your mind that they are no longer a threat, so the nerves eventually start to die down.
You can’t “think yourself” out of being nervous. The only way to become more confident with something is to do it until it feels normal 💃 #speakalanguage
Confidence doesn’t come from changing your thoughts, it comes with experience
This is why you’ll never find lasting confidence in a flashy Instagram quote or self-help book. The path to self-assuredness is a lot less sexy: it comes from doing the same thing over and over until it’s not new anymore.
It’s an intense awkwardness that gradually declines with experience until it almost disappears (a few jitters may remain, but that’s nothing to worry about).
Nerves are necessary if you want to do new and cool things that will help you grow, like speaking a foreign language. The more time you spend doing these things – even if they feel awkward – the faster you’ll feel at ease doing them.
This doesn’t mean you have to run around like an adrenaline junkie doing things that terrify you all day (although if you did, you’d probably get confident in those things pretty quickly).
There’s a gentler way.
Two ways to get out of your comfort zone
Have you ever watched people go swimming in the sea? Some run up and dive in head first. Others wade in inch by inch as they get used to the temperature.
The end result is the same: they’re both swimming in the sea.
If the ”just start speaking” approach feels a little too uncomfortable, you’re not alone. For many people (myself included) striking up a conversation with a stranger is intimidating in their native language – the idea of doing it in a language you’ve just started learning could be enough to put you off for life!
You don’t have to dive head first out of your comfort zone. Dipping your toe out works just as well.
Aim for the right level of nerves – a little speaking challenge that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable, but not so much that you traumatise yourself (more ideas on how to do this in the next section). Once you get used to that, try something else that makes you slightly uncomfortable and so on.
The confidence-boosting effect of these little steps will add up over time and help you feel more relaxed when speaking a foreign language.
How to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language: A step by step guide
Prepare for your conversations
If the idea of speaking a foreign language is scary, not knowing what to say can make it even scarier! Learning words and phrases that are likely to come up in conversation will help you to communicate more confidently.
Here are a few ways to prepare for your first conversation in a foreign language:
Learn basic greetings and pleasantries
Learn how to ask and answer simple conversation questions: Where are you from? What do you do?
Think about the kinds of questions people might ask you and learn the answers (you can ask a native speaker to help you with this – see the next section!)
Learn some small talk phrases: If you can talk about the weather, food and sport, you’ll have a great foundation for conversations.
Learn phrases to keep the conversation going, such as “How do you say that?”, “What does that mean?”, “Could you repeat please?”, “Could you speak slower please?” If you can ask these questions in the language you’re learning, you’ll be able to avoid awkward pauses when you don’t understand someone or when you don’t know a word.
Listen as much as you can: When you listen a lot, you’ll hear common phrases being used over and over. The more you listen, the more these phrases will pop into your head naturally when you are speaking. As a beginner, you can practice listening with textbook dialogues, audiobooks or podcasts designed for language learners.
You don’t have to start with a full-blown conversation. There are lots of ways to ease yourself slowly into speaking a foreign language.
Here are some suggestions.
Start by chatting to people online
Chatting online (via text message) is handy because there’s no time pressure. You can look up words you don’t know and think about the sentences carefully before you type them. Also, the other person can’t see your face which makes things a lot less nerve-wracking at first!
There are lots of different resources you can use to type little messages in the language you’re learning. HelloTalk is a great app where you can connect with native speakers via text message (a bit like WhatsApp for language learners). You can also try looking for Facebook groups where people practise chatting together in the language you’re learning.
Don’t overthink it, just type your first message then see what happens!
Practise speaking before you meet native speakers
It’s a great idea to get used to speaking in the language you’re learning before you try having a conversation with native speakers.
Practising speaking before you meet native speakers will give you the opportunity to practice grabbing all that grammar and vocabulary that’s floating around in your head and organising it into sentences so your conversations will run more smoothly when you try the real thing.
Practise speaking in situations where you have permission to be a beginner
Speaking a foreign language in real life situations – like with a person sitting next to you on the train – can feel scary because there’s pressure to have a normal conversation. You might worry about mistakes, forgetting words, or making the poor person wait for ages while you string a sentence together.
At first, it’s useful to find people where there is a “learning agreement” – that is, people who know you are a beginner and have agreed to help you learn. Usually, this will be a language exchange partner or a tutor.
This takes the pressure off for two reasons:
You’re giving them something in return for their time (teaching them your language in the case of exchange partners, or a little bit of money in the case of tutors)
They know that you’re a beginner, so they expect you to speak slowly, forget words and make mistakes! It’s a safe place to practise speaking a foreign language without the pressure of having to perform well.
Where can you find speaking partners like this?
Find a community tutor on italki
The best place to find people to help you speak a foreign language is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here:
It’s great for busy people because you get private conversation lessons and you can squeeze one in whenever you have a spare 30 minutes and an internet connection.
Find a language exchange partner
Alternatively, you can find native speakers who want to learn your native language and set up a language exchange. There are lots of websites and apps that help you can find native speakers in your area, so you can meet up and practice speaking over a coffee or beer. Conversation Exchange and Tandem are two examples.
A little word of caution – when doing language exchanges, be sure to divide the time equally (e.g. 30 minutes in each language) and be strict about sticking to it so that you both get a fair chance to practice.
Don’t take yourself so seriously
Earlier, we talked about how confidence in speaking a foreign language starts with “an intense awkwardness” that declines with experience.
In the beginning, you’ll almost certainly make mistakes and look silly at times. That’s nothing to fear! The sooner you can make friends with that awkward feeling, the more confident you’ll feel speaking a foreign language.
You don’t have to be perfect, and native speakers don’t expect you to be either. If you can learn to laugh at yourself, you’ll give native speakers the chance to laugh with you. This will help you get closer to your speaking partners and make the experience more fun.
Time for some action
If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this: it’s normal to feel nervous when speaking a foreign language. Take the first small step and just keep going. It’ll get easier, I promise.
Get more tips on how to speak a foreign language
Join our free 5-day email course and learn:
– Proven ways to deal with speaking nerves – even if you’re shy
– How to have your first conversation
– Where to find people to practice with
– How to stop fear of mistakes from holding you back (and even enjoy them!)
– Words to help you sound more fluent
– How to have fun with native speakers
What do you think?
Do you ever feel nervous speaking a foreign language? Do you think it gets easier with practice? Let us know in the comments below!
Ever tried reading in a foreign language?
It sounds like a lovely idea.
Fix yourself a hot drink, dive under a blanket and snuggle up with a translation of Harry Potter.
What it actually looks like when I try reading in a foreign language
Find 3 words I don’t know in the first sentence. Get out from under blanket and grab smartphone to use online dictionary. Balance coffee in elbow nook whilst clutching Harry Potter in one hand and smartphone in the other. Spill coffee on blanket.
Decide that Harry Potter was too ambitious.
Buy easier children’s book.
Find 3 words I don’t know in the first sentence…
The benefits of reading in a foreign language
Despite these teething problems, I’ve always had a sneaking feeling that reading is a smart way to learn a foreign language.
But what about all those unfamiliar words? How can you get into reading in a foreign language without feeling frustrated and giving up on the first page?
Keep reading to find out how to:
Learn a language by reading things you enjoy.
Use a free tool which makes reading in a foreign language incredibly easy (it’s been under your nose this whole time!)
Remember the words you read faster.
Why is reading in a foreign language so tricky?
It’d be unreasonable to take a few weeks of Russian classes and expect to breeze through a copy of Anna Karenina. Everyone knows that.
Too many new words and advanced sentence structures which make the sentences almost impossible to decipher.
But what about children’s books? Written for those teeny-tiny human beings who get half their nutritional intake from their nasal cavities. Surely they must be easier to read in a foreign language?
I’m not sure they are.
The problem with reading children’s books in a foreign language
Most children’s books don’t use simple, everyday language. I learnt this hard truth whilst babysitting for my Italian friend’s 2-year-old. I’m fairly fluent in Italian, but when reading lil’ Clara’s bedtime story, I came across more new Italian words than when reading a broadsheet newspaper over my morning caffè.
Children’s books talk about pixies and wildebeests, and if you already know how to talk about pixies and wildebeests in the language you’re learning, you probably don’t need to read this article.
So what’s the solution? How can you start reading in a foreign language, without being overwhelmed by all the new (and sometimes not useful) words?
One way is to use short stories or “easy readers” specifically designed for language learners. With simple grammar and everyday vocabulary, these books are perfect for taking your first steps in reading a foreign language.
That said, I sometimes wish the writers would remember that although I sound like a 3-year-old when I speak a foreign language, I’m not actually a 3 year old. I’m a 31-year-old with a mortgage who drinks Johnnie Walker and enjoys a well-placed C-bomb.
There are only so many “Biff and Chip go to the Zoo”-style stories I can handle before my eyes start watering from boredom yawns.
The ideal way to get into reading in a foreign language
Wouldn’t it be nice to learn a foreign language by reading things that you actually enjoy? Something you care about enough to make it worth the effort it takes to figure out the meaning? A topic you like so much, you’d read about in your native language, just for funsies?
To do that, you’d need a place where you can find lots of interesting things to read in the language you’re learning. Let’s call that the Internet.
You’d also need a way to understand new words, without having to break your flow to look them up in a dictionary all the time.
The Google Translate extension: How to pimp your reading in a foreign language
Did you know that Google Translate has an extension which allows you to turn any foreign-language webpage into an interactive dictionary? That means you can get an instant translation of words you don’t know, just by clicking on them. Here’s how it works:
7 ways to make the most of your reading with the Google Translate extension
1. Start simple
It’s important to choose materials at the right level so you can get into a good flow. Just because you can look up words easily, doesn’t mean you should look up all of them. If normal websites feel too tricky, you could start with websites aimed at language learners, such as Slow German or The Chairman’s Bao.
To find sites like these in the language you’re learning, try doing a search for “websites to read [insert your target language]”, and you should find some lists to get you started.
2. Start small
The Google Translate extension makes reading in a foreign language a lot simpler. But learning to read in a new language is going to take some effort, no matter how you do it. To make it more manageable, start by reading in short bursts and gradually move on to longer passages as your level improves.
The Internet is pretty conducive to this kind of reading. You often hear people complaining that the web has ruined how we read: thanks to the “Buzzfeed effect”, we’re more used to flicking through snippets of information rather than sitting down and concentrating on something for long periods of time. But these kinds of articles are perfect for reading in a foreign language because they give you little bits of text with lots of photos to make it easy on the eye (and the brain).
To see if Buzzfeed exists in the language you’re learning, go to buzzfeed.com, click more, then look for the little box at the bottom right which tells you which version you’re using. Here, you’ll see a list of different versions including Germany, Mexico and Brazil. Now you can get lost in a web of Internet triviality, guilt-free!
3. Read things you care about
It takes effort to decipher a page in a foreign language – if you don’t care about the content, you’ll be less motivated to put in the work.
As your level advances, you can start reading blogs about your interests. To find these, do a google search in your target language for “blogs + your interest”.
For example, if you’re learning Spanish and you’re into travel, search for “blogs viajes” and you’ll find articles like this one with links to lots of lovely Spanish travel blogs.
Or if you’re learning French and you’re into fashion and beauty blogs, try searching “blogs mode beauté” and you’ll be spoilt for choice on the first page.
Alternatively, if you like reading the news online, why not try doing it in the language you’re learning? Just type the language you’re learning + newspapers into Wikipedia (e.g. Spanish Newspapers) and you should see a nice list.
4. Use your judgement
If you’ve been on Google Translate for more than 5 minutes, you may have noticed that it says some weird shit sometimes. The extension has these little quirks too. Just now in French, I was reading a sentence about how wearing tight shoes can give you an ampoule. I assumed it must mean “blister”, but when I clicked on it, Google gave me “lightbulb” (yep, the French use the same word for lightbulb and blister, who knew?!)
The extension isn’t perfect so every now and then, you may need to check the translations in a more reputable online dictionary, such as WordReference or Collins. That said, the extension gets it right most of the time so it’s worth putting up with the occasional glitch.
4. Remember words by hazarding a guess
When you can translate words with a click, it’s tempting to click on every word you don’t know without really thinking about it. But when I catch myself doing this, those words quickly slip through the swiss-cheese holes in my brain.
To build up vocabulary in a foreign language, you need to spend time looking at it and trying to figure out what it means from the context. This creates a curiosity point in your mind: “I wonder if this word means…?”. And being curious is a very good thing for learning.
Think back to school. If you asked the teacher a question, you were invested in the answer, so you’d probably remember it better compared to if a teacher just told you the same information in a lecture.
Creating a question in your mind about the meaning of a word and investigating the answer works the same way. Instead of seeing the Google Translate extension as a tool to translate words you don’t know, think of it more as a way to check your guesses. This way, the words you don’t know will have a better chance of sticking in your mind.
5. Don’t stress about every word you don’t know
When reading in a foreign language, it’s natural to want to look up every single new word. And the Google translate extension makes it very easy to do this.
But when it comes to looking up words you don’t know, it’s important to strike a balance. If you’re constantly stopping to look things up, you can’t into a good flow and enjoy your reading. That said, if you don’t look up any words at all, you might not know what the book is going on.
As a general rule, it helps to only look up the words that stop you from understanding the overall meaning of the sentence. For the others, if they’re common enough you’ll pick them up over time, and if they’re not so common you probably don’t need to worry about learning them yet anyway.
6. Use it or lose it
The more you interact with a word, the easier it will be to remember. You can help yourself remember the new words you come across by storing them somewhere (in a notebook, your phone, word document or excel sheet…) and using them in different ways. Why not try writing a story with your new words? Or thinking about when you might use them in real life, and writing example sentences? Or typing them into google to see how native speakers use them?
Don’t worry about doing this with every new word you see, as that could quickly get overwhelming! Just pick the keywords that you really want to remember.
7. Don’t try too hard
If you’ve got your notebook next to you and you’re feeling motivated to write new words and take notes as you read, great. But don’t feel like you always have to this. If you’re feeling a little lazy and you’d rather just read, that’s fine!
The most important thing is to get into a reading habit that you enjoy enough to keep up in the long term. Do that, and you’ll make some serious progress in the language you’re learning.
What about you?
If you’re planning on using the Google Translate extension to read in a foreign language, I’d love to hear from you! Which language are you learning? Which websites are you going to read? Can you share any good web pages for reading in a foreign language?
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the choice of language learning tools?
Or unsure of where to focus your time?
Maybe, once you’ve finally chosen a resource or activity, a niggling doubt creeps in…
Is this really the best use of my time? Isn’t there another way that could help me learn faster?
I used to struggle a lot with this uncertainty – still do sometimes! That’s why when Azren sent me his guest post on where to focus your attention, I found myself nodding along to his smart (and often overlooked) advice.
If you feel unsure about where to direct your time and energy when learning a language, today’s post is for you. Azren’s tips will help you zoom in on what’s important, so you can feel confident that you’re learning the right things.
The 4 + 1 model of language learning that will help you decide where to focus your time.
How to plan your study sessions so they get you closer to your language goals.
The underrated skill that could make all the difference to your language learning.
Take it away, Azren!
The 4 + 1 of language learning
The most underrated language skill
I was interested to hear what Azren had to say about behavioural tendencies and body language. People don’t normally pay much attention to non-verbal communication, but it can make a big difference to your ability to blend in with the locals.
I’ve been living in Italy for several years now, and while I’ve picked up a lot of these skills naturally from spending time with Italians (I can gesticulate with the best of them), I sometimes feel like something’s missing.
People often greet me in English when I walk into shops and I get handed the English menu before I open my mouth. Sure, a lot of it is probably down to my pale skin and dress sense.
When you’ve been living in Italy for over 6 years but waiters still take one look at you and give you the English menu. Note to self: start dressing smarter and wearing fake tan #languagefail
But I wonder if there’s more to it than that. I probably have some British behavioural tendencies and body language which single me out as a foreigner. Things like:
Being nervous and saying scusi/grazie all the time (bumbling British politeness!)
Avoiding eye contact
There must be loads more that I’ve never even noticed before. I’m looking forward to observing Italian behavioural tendencies and body language more closely and trying to mimic them. Let’s see if this helps me feel a little more Italian!
What about you? How are the behavioural tendencies and body language different in the language you’re learning? Can you have a go at mimicking them?
Azren gave some great advice on how to decide where to focus your time when learning a language. To really benefit from these ideas, it’s time to put them into action.
Ask yourself: What do you want to do in the language?
Your answer to this question will help you decide what to focus on next.
Do you want to chat easily to native speakers? If so, you’ll need to focus on speaking, listening to realistic conversations, pronunciation, idiomatic expressions and slang. You might also want to think about how you can imitate behavioural tendencies and body language so you can blend in.
Do you want to work in the language someday? In that case, you’ll probably need to develop solid writing skills.
Get really specific about what your goals are (writing them down helps!), then let those dictate where you spend your time. Next time you feel unsure about your choice of language resources and activities, just ask yourself: is this going to help me develop the skills I need to achieve my language goals?
If the answer is yes, you know you’re on the right track.
Where can I find more from Azren the language nerd?
If you’d like to hear more from Azren the language nerd, you can connect with him on these channels:
What are your language goals? Which skills do you need to focus on to reach them? Have you ever thought about behavioural tendencies and body language as an important part of language learning? Let us know in the comments!
Why is it so hard to remember words in a foreign language?
Why is the grammar so confusing?
If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions and wondered how the heck you’ll learn to speak that foreign language, then today’s post is for you.
I used to wonder the same thing, especially after I’d studied German for 5 years at school, then Spanish and Italian for another 2, with nothing to show for it except a few random words popping into my head.
Why couldn’t I speak a language after so many years of classes? I considered two possibilities. Either:
1. I’m a complete idiot.
2. Languages are basically impossible.
If I was an idiot, then so was everyone else. Given that every other English person I knew was in the same position, I assumed that learning a language must be one of those things that only people with steely willpower can do, like running a marathon or not squeezing spots.
But since then, I’ve learnt Italian, French and Spanish, as well as a bit of German and Mandarin and I’ve discovered something exciting:
Learning a second language as an adult isn’t as difficult as I thought. I was just doing it wrong.
Keep reading to find out:
– The big mistake that stops adults from learning a second language (and how to avoid it).
– The simple technique that will help any adult (including YOU) become fluent in a language.
– How to have more fun learning a second language, even as a beginner.
Is it hard to learn a second language as an adult?
Last week, I got a new Italian student.
Let’s call him Bob. Bob had been learning Italian for over 2 years, but he still couldn’t really string a sentence together. He had a vague idea of verb tenses and some vocabulary floating around in his mind, but he couldn’t remember any of them well enough to use them in real-life.
Surprisingly, after just 3 hours together, Bob was already having simple conversations in Italian.
How did Bob achieve that amazing result in such a short time?
Is it because I’m a magic Italian teacher who can teach you to speak Italian in 3 hours?
That’d be nice, but no. Truth is, I didn’t do much.
All I did was encourage him to start speaking. About normal things that he talks about in his native language. And helped him out with a few words and grammar points so he could say what he wanted to say.
As soon as Bob started using Italian in real life, everything fell into place.
The wrong way to learn a second language as an adult
I was in the same situation as Bob after two years of Italian classes. I’d spent most of the time learning grammar and vocabulary, but I struggled to remember it. I found language classes boring, never did my homework and couldn’t have a conversation if my life depended on it.
But then, I did a year abroad in Italy. Suddenly, learning a language wasn’t about memorizing verbs, it was about talking to people.
I didn’t like studying grammar, but I liked people.
So I took my nose out of my grammar book and started trying to have conversations. I also started spending my free time reading and listening to things in Italian. At first, things which were simplified for learners. Then, as my level improved, I started trying to do things I enjoyed in my first language, like reading magazines and watching TV series.
It was really awkward. I spoke excruciatingly slowly and made tons of mistakes. I didn’t understand a lot of what I saw and heard. But I persevered and after a while, I became fluent in Italian.
And even though it was tricky, I enjoyed it. I was interacting with human beings (the reason I wanted to learn a language in the first place) and reading and listening to things that I actually cared about, instead of those dull and cheesy textbooks.
Do you need to go to the country to learn a second language?
Now I know that it’s not impossible to learn a second language in your home country. It just seemed like that because the way most of us are taught in school doesn’t work.
It’s not you, it’s the method
The more languages I learn and the more students I work with, the more I’m convinced of this: you can’t learn a language by memorizing a bunch of grammar rules and vocabulary.
You have to learn languages by doing. By speaking, listening, reading and writing.
This doesn’t mean I’m totally against grammar. Learning the rules might give you a basic structure to follow and help you tidy things up around the edges. But the vast majority (if not all) the learning comes through using the language.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask the polyglots. Although they all have different methods, one thing they have in common is that they practice using the language a lot – they don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time memorizing grammar rules or vocabulary in isolation.
Which raises an interesting question: why do most language courses prioritise grammar, when there’s not much anecdotal or scientific evidence to suggest that this is the best way to learn a language?
The answer lies in the history of language education.
Why most schools make it harder for adults to learn a second language
Let’s hop in a time machine and travel back to the 1800s for a moment.
Back then, there was no Ryan Air. You couldn’t jump on a plane and go somewhere warm for a couple of weeks. There was no European Union. In fact, many European countries were in almost constant warfare.
People didn’t have the same opportunities to go abroad and connect with people from other countries as we do now. Yet languages were still taught at school.
To study ancient texts. Students took Latin and Greek classes so they could learn to read and translate literature in those languages. The teaching focused on rote-learning of verb tables and grammar rules, which worked OK when languages were used as a tool to translate texts. There was no focus on speaking or listening at all because that wasn’t the goal.
The problems started in the 1900s, when people began to learn other languages. Even though the goal was now to communicate with human beings rather than translate texts, teachers continued using the same method they’d always used. This left generations of frustrated students who couldn’t speak a language after years of classes, because they’d never practiced speaking it.
The world’s changed a lot since then and fortunately, so have language teaching methods. There’s a lot more communication in the classroom these days.
But the most dangerous idea has lived on – the belief that you have to memorize lots of grammar rules and vocabulary before you start trying to use the language in real life.
I can’t remember words and grammar
People who’ve only ever tried to learn languages with the traditional school method are often left feeling like they’re bad at languages, because no matter how hard they try, they can’t remember grammar and vocabulary.
If this sounds like you, please don’t give up on learning a second language. You’re not bad at languages, you’ve just been taught them with the wrong techniques.
I see this all the time for myself and my students: it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat a grammar point or word list. Almost everyone struggles to remember grammar and vocabulary until they start using them in real ways. That is, until you come across lots of real examples in reading and listening, and practice using them in speaking and writing.
There are two science-backed reasons why learning grammar and vocabulary in isolation makes them more difficult to remember:
1. Your memory is sharper when you learn by doing.
2. To learn a language, your brain needs to take statistics about words in real-life contexts.
Let’s look at these in more detail.
1. What divers can teach you about learning a second language
They sent divers underwater and taught them a bunch of words, played through a diving communication device. They also taught them some words on dry land. 24 hours later, they tested the divers both underwater and on dry land to see how many words they could remember.
Turns out, the divers forgot 40% more words when the context was different, that is, if they’d learnt the words on land and tried to recall them underwater and vice-versa.
Decades of research support the very same quirk about human memory: we remember things more easily when we use them in the same situation we learnt them in, and forget them more easily in different situations.
If you learn verbs by rote, you might remember them while you’re going through the list in your head, but you’ll probably struggle to recall them in conversation. Similarly, if you learn words and grammar on apps, they might come to mind easily when you’re fiddling with your phone, but disappear as soon as you need them in real life.
The good news?
If you learn a language through conversations, you’ll remember better when you’re having conversations. If you learn by writing, you’ll remember better when you’re writing. If you learn by listening, you’ll remember more easily when listening. If you learn by reading, you’ll remember more easily when reading.
In other words, if you learn by doing, things will come to you more easily when you need them in real life.
2. How your brain learns languages
Why do we have tall buildings, but high ceilings?
In many languages, the difference between tall and high doesn’t even exist. If you call your boss a high man in Italian, that means he’s tall. If you call him a high man in English, it means he’s been smoking something funny.
Learning a language isn’t about isolated words, it’s about learning how those words fit together.
Neurolinguistics, the study of how our brain processes languages, shows us why this matters.
The neuroscience of learning a second language
Did you know that your brain is constantly giving off electrical signals? These signals change depending on what task your brain is doing, and scientists can read some of these – using a technique called electroencephalography – to study how your brain learns a language.
One of these signals, called the N400, shows us how native speakers process groups of words. The N400 is relatively small with combinations of words that you expect to hear together, like coffee and cream, but larger for unexpected words, like coffee and… crap. If your N400 doesn’t increase significantly for unexpected combinations, like crap, scientists might wonder what on earth you’ve been putting in your coffee.
These signals show that our brain is constantly taking statistics about words that normally appear together. This is good, as it helps us make predictions about what’s coming next so we can communicate faster.
The better someone speaks a foreign language, the closer their N400 pattern is to that of a native speaker. This suggests that learning a language involves building up expectations about words that usually appear together, just like native speakers do.
To speak a foreign language fluently, you’ll need to give your brain the chance to take statistics about how words are combined in the language you’re learning. You can’t do this if you spend all your time trying to memorise grammar rules or word lists.
The best way to get a feeling for word patterns in your target language is through mass input, that is, spending tons of time reading and listening to the language.
The good news is, you can get this mass input without even realizing it – by simply reading and listening to lots of things you enjoy. Not only is learning by doing more in line with what we know about how the brain learns languages, it’s also more fun.
You don’t have to start speaking straight away if you don’t want to
You may think that learning by doing means you have to start speaking straight away. If you want to throw yourself in at the deep end and practice speaking very early on, brilliant – it’s a great way to apply what you’ve learnt and get used to communicating with native speakers.
But you don’t have to.
If the idea of speaking from day 1 fills you with dread, feel free to wait a little while! Many prolific language learners prefer not to speak straight away, most notably Steve Kaufmann who speaks 16 languages.
If you’d rather wait, you can start by doing lots of reading and listening to get a feel for the language. When you decide to have a go at speaking, you’ll need some time to adapt, but the foundation will already be there.
Everyone’s different. It doesn’t matter if you’d rather dive into speaking or spend some time reading and listening first.
All that matters is that you stop dedicating a disproportionate amount of time to memorizing grammar and vocabulary and practice using the language in real ways.
Learning a second language won’t always be easy (but it will be worth it)
When you start learning a language by doing, it’ll probably feel awkward. When you try reading and listening, all that new vocabulary might feel overwhelming. When you try speaking, you might get embarrassed by your mistakes, or the epically long silences as you search for the words.
Some people see this uncomfortable feeling as a problem that should be avoided. They want to memorize more grammar and vocabulary because they believe it will help them feel at ease when they start using the language in real life.
But that’s like thinking you can improve your guitar skills by reading more books. A bit of theory might help, but you’ll never learn to play without going through that awkward stage where your fingertips hurt.
How to learn a language by doing when you’re a beginner
So far, we’ve talked about how the most effective (and enjoyable!) way to learn a language is to practice using it in real life. But how can you do that when you’re a complete beginner? To get practical ideas on how to learn a language by doing, even as a beginner, join me for my online workshop this Saturday, 10th March*
As part of the Women in Language event, you’ll get access to my workshop called: The #1 mistake beginners make when learning a language (and how to fix it). In it, you’ll learn:
– Actionable ideas on how to start using the language (even if you’re a beginner).
– The smart way to learn grammar and vocabulary.
– How to sound more natural and confident when you speak.
I’ll start tomorrow. No wait, on Monday. Next month. In January. Once I’ve finished this or that. There are lots of good reasons to fall out of learning a language: You might: Be overwhelmed with work or home life = not enough time or energy.
This is for you. For all that time and ink you spent on word lists and verb tables. The one who hears that there’s no point in learning a language “because everyone speaks English”. But you do it anyway, because you hate being that tourist.
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