World Snowboarding champion Shaun White falls on his arse a lot.
Most snowboarders do, it’s an occupational hazard.
But Shaun White has a special way of falling on his arse that helped him achieve the highest ever score in the history of the Olympic halfpipe.
Read on to discover the powerful practice technique that helps experts across a variety of fields stay on top of their game. It’s a method you can steal when you practice a language that could help you:
Speak and understand the language better
Feel more confident
Stop worrying about your mistakes (and make fewer)
Deliberate practice: a winning formula to learn just about anything
In the 2010 winter Olympics, White landed a trick called the Front Double Cork 1080. This kind of trick would normally take him years to master, but during his training for the Vancouver Olympics, he nailed it in one day.
Before the Olympics, Red Bull built White his own private half-pipe with a foam pit at the end.
Riders normally build up slowly to tricks like the Front Double Cork 1080, because a fall could be fatal. But the foam pit reduced the impact of the fall, allowing White to practice complex tricks that would have been too dangerous to try directly on the snow.
In his article 3 Rules of High Velocity Learning, author Daniel Coyle describes how the pit gave White the freedom to make mistakes, fix them and try again. Over lots of repetitions, this technique helped him fall on his arse less.
Here’s the winning formula that sped up White’s learning exponentially:
In this article, you’ll learn how deliberate practice works and how it can help you practice a language more effectively. Then, I’ll share 10 practical ways you can apply deliberate practice to your language learning.
At the end, I’ll talk about how I’m integrating these ideas into my own language learning routine this month.
Jill spends her time doing exercises from textbooks and playing on apps like duolingo and memrise. She gets most exercises right and feels at ease while she’s practicing. She’s waiting to accumulate more vocabulary and grammar before having a go at using Spanish in real life.
Jane starts off with a Spanish textbook but quickly moves on to muddling through more realistic materials, like simplified stories and slowly spoken podcasts. She gets herself an online tutor or language exchange partner and tries using the stuff she’s been learning in real conversations. She speaks painfully slowly at first, makes a lot of mistakes and often feels awkward while she’s practicing.
Who will speak better Spanish in Colombia?
Most people instinctively practice like Jill. That’s because many education systems instill the principle that right answers are good and wrong answers are bad. The result: we’d rather practice things we’re likely to get right, because mistakes make us feel like a failure.
But you know that awkward phase where you mess up a lot? That’s where the learning happens.
Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, who studies performance across a wide range of fields from spelling competitions to salespeople, shows that the highest achievers aren’t always the most talented or intelligent.
They’re the snowboarders who fall on their arses and get up again, the kids who focus on spelling the most difficult words, and the language learners who are willing to put up with awkward silences while they try to squeeze a sentence out.
They’re the ones who face the difficult bits head on, make mistakes, learn from them and keep going.
Most polyglots learn languages like Jane. They:
push themselves to read and listen to things slightly above their level.
practice speaking, even when it feels awkward.
spend a lot of time make mistakes and getting corrections.
This kind of practice is very efficient, which explains why they learn to speak languages well in less time.
Why most people practice a language the wrong way
Despite the benefits, most people avoid deliberate practice for a couple of reasons.
1. It feels less efficient (but it’s not)
When you’re getting things right most of the time, it feels like you’re making progress.
But it’s an illusion.
It’s a bit like tidying your room by shoving everything in your cupboard. It feels like you’ve got the job done, but all your shit is still in the cupboard. When you finally get around to sorting it out, it’ll take you twice as long compared to if you’d just done it properly in the first place.
When you mindlessly work through a grammar book or play on apps like duolingo, it feels like you’re making progress because you get ticks or points with every right answer. But those little satisfying dings don’t necessarily help you use the language in real life.
When you face the trickier parts of language learning head on, like speaking or reading texts with words you don’t recognise, it’s a struggle at first, so you feel like you’re not making much progress. But that extra effort will help you use the language much better in real life.
As writer Sonia Simone puts it: “don’t take shortcuts, they take too long.”
2. You have to analyse your mistakes
At work, when your boss says “let’s go through some feedback” it’s often a euphemism for “let’s talk about how you screwed up”.
The “feedback” stage in deliberate practice is no different: it’s a detailed analysis of what you did wrong. And because you’re human, you’ll probably find it quite uncomfortable.
When you write something in a foreign language, you might cringe when you look back and see the mistakes you made. When you practice speaking, it doesn’t feel great when your tutor or speaking partner points out your mistakes. And if you ever manage to pluck up the courage to record yourself speaking, it’s pretty mortifying to listen back to yourself.
But if you want to get the benefits of deliberate practice, it’s time to change the way you think about mistakes. Mistakes aren’t something embarrassing to avoid: they’re a key component of the learning process.
The more you make, the better you get.
10 ways to practice a language like a pro
1. Learn by doing (and making mistakes)
Deliberate practice doesn’t mean you should stop learning from books and apps altogether. It means that you should focus on putting what you learn into practice immediately so you can identify your weaknesses and learn from your mistakes.
Let’s imagine you want to master the past tense in Spanish. Here’s how you can do it with deliberate practice:
Learn grammar point: Learn how to use the past tense in your textbook/website/app.
Practice using it:Write a paragraph about something in the past (e.g. what you did yesterday).
Get feedback: Get corrections from a native speaker. You can post your paragraph to websites like italki or lang8 to get free feedback from native speakers.
Adapt: Look at the mistakes you made and learn the correct way to say it.
Repeat:Write another paragraph using the past tense (make it more interesting by using a new theme, for example, your last holiday) Try to reuse the words/grammar you got wrong so you can practice using them the right way.
You can do this technique with speaking, too. Try recording yourself talking about what you did yesterday and listen back to it – you’ll often notice your own mistakes that you didn’t pick up on while you were concentrating on speaking. Alternatively, if you have a conversation tutor/language exchange partner, you could talk about what you did yesterday, or any other theme that helps you practice what you’ve been studying recently, and ask them to correct you when you make mistakes.
2. Help people correct you
Imagine you’re talking to someone who isn’t a native speaker of your language and they make a mistake. How would you feel about correcting them?
Sometimes non-native speakers don’t like correcting us because they’re worried we might get offended or think they’re rude. Help them feel more comfortable by asking them to correct you and thanking them when they do so.
Another handy phrase to learn in your target language is “do you say it like that?” This helps you get immediate feedback when you’re not sure about what you just said. It also shows the person you’re speaking to that you want to learn, so they’ll feel more comfortable correcting you.
To get the benefits of deliberate practice, it’s important to repeat your corrections until you get them right. There are two ways to do this:
If your speaking partner points out your mistake, don’t just say “gracias/merci/danke…”. Reformulate the sentence aloud and ask them if you said it right this time.
If you notice that you often mistakes with certain grammar points or vocabulary, make a note of them and practice them as much as possible in your writing and speaking.
4. Break it down into components
When experts do deliberate practice, they break the skill down and practice the parts which cause them the most problems. Here are a couple of examples for languages:
Instead of thinking “I want to improve my Spanish pronunciation”, work out which individual sounds you find difficult, track down some tutorials and practice them until you can do it. If you’re not sure where to find tutorials like this, the Mimic Method is a great place to start.
Instead of thinking “I want to improve my Italian grammar”, identify the elements you have the most trouble with and practice making sentences with them until it becomes automatic.
5. Focus on the awkward bits
When you learn a language, it’s tempting to brush the awkward parts under the carpet. Just the phrase “German adjective declension”, makes me want to look in the other direction and start whistling. But if you face these awkward bits head on and practice using them, you’ll look back one day and wonder what all the fuss was about.
6. Stick with it
Sometimes the only thing that differentiates people who master a skill from those who don’t is the amount of time they’re willing to stick with it. When it comes to languages, people often decide they can’t understand a grammar point or pronounce a word even though they’ve only tried a few times.
Some things will probably take longer to learn than you think, but it’s worth sticking with them. You’ll be so glad you did when you can finally say them right.
7. Take responsibility for your own learning
Don’t wait for a teacher or book to tell you what you need to work on. Take some time to review your own learning and to notice gaps in your knowledge. For example, after you practice using the language, ask yourself questions like:
Remember: each mistake is a little sign that you just learnt something. To make progress, set yourself the goal of making more mistakes, not fewer. Paradoxically, this approach will help you make fewer mistakes in the long run, as the feedback after each mistake will help you get it right next time.
10. Get motivated
Deliberate practice requires a lot of effort, so it can be tricky to get motivated. Here are a couple of tips:
1. Build up the habit gradually
Let’s imagine you want to do 30 minutes of deliberate practice a day. If you try to do it through willpower alone, you might run out of steam after the first few days. The key is to build up the habit gradually. Start with something that’s impossible to say no to, like 1 minute per day, then increase by one minute each day over the course of a month until you get to 30. Habits built up over time are much easier to stick to.
4. Use the 2 minute rule
Once you’re in the habit, you may still have days when you don’t feel like doing deliberate practice. On these days, try setting yourself the goal of working for 2 minutes. You’ll probably find that after 2 minutes, you’re happy to carry on by force of inertia. Even if you decide to stop after 2 minutes, the fact that you didn’t skip your study session completely will make it easier to get back into the following day.
All work and no play makes language learning really dull
So we’ve established that deliberate practice is good: it will probably help you speak a language better and faster.
My problem is, it doesn’t fit in very well with my life philosophy.
It’s the kind of thing people write about on those blogs that tell you that putting butter in your coffee (?!) will make you richer, thinner and better in bed.
The pressure to be the best at everything doesn’t motivate me, it makes me want to hide under the covers. Sure, I want to speak a language well, but I want to enjoy learning it too. Because of it’s not fun, what’s the point?
While deliberate practice is about decomposing the skills and practicing the details, play, in the form of reading and listening to, or watching things you enjoy is essential. It helps you put all the pieces together and interact with the language as a whole.
And it keeps you happy and motivated.
If you’ve been learning for a while, your play activities could be things like comic books, magazines, podcasts, films and TV series.
I’m currently on a French mission: I’m taking the DALF exam in November and I’m aiming to study for around 2-3 hours a day.
Last month, I decided to spend around half that time on deliberate practice, so I set myself the goal of doing the following activities each day (Monday to Friday):
25 mins grammar (learn rules + practice using them in writing/speaking)
25 mins pronunciation (record myself speaking + work on tricky sounds)
25 mins writing (practice writing + get feedback from native speakers on italki)
This turned out to be way too much: the idea of tackling that mammoth task each day was intimidating, so I ended up not bothering most of the time. I did reach my target of 2-3 hours of French most days, but it was almost always play activities like reading Tintin or watching Netflix.
So this month I’ve decided to concentrate on gradually building the habit of deliberate practice. On September 1st, I studied the 3 parts (grammar, pronunciation and writing) for 1 minute each. Since then, I’ve been adding on 1 minute per day and hopefully by the end of September I’ll be back up to my goal of around 25 mins.
Prepare conversation questions with the new words and grammar I’ve learned, so I can practice using them in conversation during the lessons.
Note down the things that my tutor often corrects me on and make an effort to practice them after class. For example, I make lots of mistakes with those pesky prepositions so I’m going to push myself to use them more in my speaking and writing tasks.
But I haven’t forgotten about playtime either! I’ve got a couple of audiobooks I’d like to finish and I’m planning on vegging out in front of a few French TV programmes/films.
What do you think?
Can deliberate practice help you learn a language? Which suggestions from this article can you use in your own language learning routine? Let me know in the comments below!
The other day, I was listening to a podcast about Leonardo Da Vinci.
He was a productive fella.
His accomplishments across different fields including art, science, maths and geography have earned him a reputation as the ultimate renaissance multitasker.
Which is interesting because he didn’t multitask.
Da Vinci had something in common with other ultra-achievers like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg – a method you can use when learning a language, that just might help you:
Learn a language fast
Enjoy the process more
Feel less stressed
The “one thing” approach that can help you learn a language fast
How much stuff are you trying to do at the moment?
Maybe you’d like to speak a language (or two), change jobs, read more books, learn how to cook, improve your fitness, learn to meditate, start a blog, learn to play a musical instrument…
Whatever goals you have, you probably like the idea of being able to do them sooner rather than later, so it’s tempting to start a few at the same time.
That’s the way most people, present company included, approach the things we’d like to do in life. It’s also the reason most people’s goals end up drifting on a to-do list that never gets done.
Really successful people do it differently
Da Vinci believed that trying to do lots of things at once is counterproductive. He said:
This might sound surprising coming from the renaissance man who had his finger in so many pies.
But when we think of Leonardo as a multi-tasker, we’re missing one important detail: although he achieved an insane amount of stuff in his lifetime, he didn’t do it all at the same time. According to biographer Sherwin Nuland, Da Vinci’s approach was characterised by an “ability to focus all of his intensity on the job immediately in front of him”
And he’s in good company. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett both single out their ability to focus on one thing relentlessly as the most important factor in their success.
Choose one language and say no to everything else (for a little while)
What might that kind of focus look like in your life?
It looks like a lot of no.
Steve Jobs challenged the idea that focus is about saying yes to the thing you want to focus on. In his eyes, deciding what not to do is just as important.
If you want to speak a language well, saying no to your other goals (for a little while) could be just as important as working on the language you want to learn.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a bucket list that looks like this:
Learn how to cook
Learn to play the guitar
Run a marathon…
It just means that you’ll be more successful if you tackle these things one at a time.
In the rest of this post, you’ll learn how to avoid the silly mistake I made that led me to the “one thing” philosophy, and science-backed reasons why it pays to go after your goals sequentially, not simultaneously.
At the end, I’ll talk about how I’m applying the “one thing” idea to my own language learning.
How not to learn a language
Focusing on one thing at a time is something I’ve never been very good at.
Case in point: over the last 10 months, I’ve been trying to learn 5 languages on top of a fairly busy schedule.
I was just about holding it together until I took on one more project at work. It was like clumsily throwing the last block on an already shaky jenga tower, and everything came crashing down.
I got ill, which may or may not have been stress related, and my brain melted.
So I did what any rational person would have done in my situation: I gave up on my language learning goals, assumed a starfish position on the sofa, ate ice-cream and watched all 3 seasons of Better Call Saul dubbed in French (just in case you were wondering, it sounds pretty silly in French).
The July heat in Milan didn’t help – my brain tends to go on standby over 30 degrees – but this mini breakdown had been brewing for a while.
Constantly busy but going nowhere
I’ve always had a bad case of shiny object syndrome.
I get enthusiastic about starting something new, then as the novelty starts to wear off, something else catches my eye: I start learning new languages before I’m happy with my level in the ones I’m already learning, or take on new projects at work without thinking about the time and energy it will take away from the things I’m already doing.
The result: I’m constantly busy but I don’t get much done. I get all the stress that comes with a hectic schedule, without the satisfaction of ticking things off my to do list. If you’re someone who likes starting new projects, this might sound familiar.
For the most part, having the impetus to start new things is good. It leads you on fun adventures and means you’ve got a lot of get-up-and-go – a valuable quality that not everyone has.
But if you don’t learn how to rein it in, it will keep you stuck on a hamster wheel – expending a ton of energy and getting nowhere.
How you feel about all this depends on your aim: if you like trying new things for the fun of it, or you want to learn bits and pieces in a few different languages, then go forth and dabble my friend.
But if your end goal is to speak a language well and you’d like to do it sooner rather than later, you’ll be less stressed and achieve more if you make that your sole focus for a while.
Extreme focus: 5 ways doing less can help you learn a language fast
1. You’ll do it better
If you try chasing a few goals at the same time, it’s difficult to find enough hours in the day to do any of them well.
Alternatively, if you make learning a language your only goal, you can give it everything you’ve got: your time, energy and willpower.
Needless to say, this will give you much better results compared to when learning a language is just another thing on your to do list you only get around to sporadically.
2. You’ll increase your chances of learning a language
Motivational psychologists have known for a while that you can dramatically increase your chances of reaching your goal by deciding when and where you’ll do it.
For example: “I’ll study Italian for 30 minutes during my commute” or “I’ll go to the gym before work on Monday, Wednesday and Friday”.
However, research shows that this tactic only works with one goal. As soon as you try to add more, you’re less likely to achieve any of them.
3. You’ll make faster progress
Imagine you have two goals, like learning French and German. Let’s say it takes 1 year to learn each language to the point where you can speak it well. You have two choices:
Learn them both at the same time: Your time will be split between French and German, so it will take you twice as long to learn each language. You’ll have to work hard for two years before you get the satisfaction of being able to speak the languages.
Learn them one by one:In the first year, you’ll be fully focused on one language, so you’ll learn it twice as fast. You’ll feel like you’re making progress, so you’ll be more motivated. After 12 months, you’ll get the satisfaction of speaking one of the languages well, and you’ll be able to apply your experience in language learning to the next one.
Humans are bad at delayed gratification. The longer you delay the results, the harder it is to stay motivated.
In the best case scenario, going after two goals simultaneously will take twice as long. In reality, it may take longer because you won’t benefit from the intense focus and extra motivation you get from choosing one goal at a time.
4. You’ll be less stressed (the Zeigarnik Effect)
Do you feel anxious when there’s lots of things on your to-do list that you never get around to?
There’s a reason for that.
Things that are still in process tend to stay in our minds more than things that are finished – think waiters who have brilliant memories of what people ordered while they’re still at the table, but forget as soon as they’ve paid the bill and walked out the door.
Zeigarnik, the psychologist who identified this effect, hypothesised that unfinished tasks create a kind of mental discomfort which causes us to keep thinking about the job until it’s reached its logical conclusion.
An example of this effect is the cliffhanger: when a TV episode finishes in the middle of something important, it creates a weird kind of tension that makes you want to keep watching.
This tendency to ruminate over unfinished business explains why unmet goals keep popping up and causing you stress.
If you’re working towards one manageable goal, the Zeigarnik effect works in your favour: it spurs you to take action until you reach the finish line.
But if you’ve got several goals on the go and you’re not making much progress, all that unfinished business will keep coming back to haunt you, causing a lot of unnecessary stress and worry.
5. You’ll enjoy it more
The better you get at something, the more enjoyable it is. Nowhere is this more true than in language learning. When you can speak a language well, you can chat to friends, watch films, listen to podcasts, read books… all the same stuff you enjoy in your first language. When you speak a language well, it no longer feels like work, it feels like play.
What about all the other stuff I want to do?
You can still do other productive things while working towards your goal of learning a language, like going to the gym, cooking or meditating.
The key is to have one goal that you actively pursue at a time.
By all means go to the gym, meditate, cook some tasty recipes. Just don’t give yourself any hardcore goals in these areas, like running a marathon, meditating for 30 minutes a day, or starting a cookery class.
If you want to take advantage of extreme focus to help you learn a language faster, just choose one language and give it your all, until you’re satisfied with your level. Once you’re done, you can move onto the next thing on your bucket list.
Language plans for August
My “one thing” for August is to improve my French. I’m aiming to reach advanced level by the end of November, when I’m going to take an exam to certify my level (it’s nice to have something concrete to aim for, otherwise “advanced” can get a bit wishy washy).
To reach it, I’m working on blocking out other distractions and clearing up around 3 hours a day (apart from weekends!) to focus exclusively on French. Here’s my plan for August:
Reviewing vocabulary with a flashcard app on my phone
I don’t have online lessons with my conversation tutor this month because I’m going to France for 3 whole weeks! I’m hoping I’ll get lots of opportunities to practise while I’m there. But I may end up booking a few classes if this doesn’t turn out as planned.
Before I decided to experiment with laser focus, I scrambled my way to intermediate level in 3 other languages – Spanish, German and Chinese. The next question is, how can I maintain my level in these languages without setting goals?
My plan is to do things that don’t feel like work in these languages, including: watching cheesy soap operas/reality TV shows, reading Harry Potter and chatting to conversation tutors on Skype.
My thoughts are: If it feels like studying, I have to force myself to do it. If I have to force myself to do it, then I need to set a goal. And I don’t want any other goals sapping my time and energy away from French.
What do you think?
Is it better to focus on just one language at a time, or do you have a different take on things? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
Imagine waking up in a remote town in the French countryside, where no one speaks English. Would you be able to get by in French?
If your answer is “non”, you’re in good company.
French is one of the most studied languages at school, yet most people can only remember a few random phrases like “Où est la bibliothèque?”
That’s because at school, you usually learn grammar, vocabulary lists and phrases, but no one teaches how to actually use them in conversation. The result: you end up sounding like these guys.
If, like most people, you studied for a few years and didn’t get very far, you’d be forgiven for thinking it must take decades to speak fluent French.
Luckily for us, that’s simply not true.
Using the wrong tools makes things seem more difficult than they really are. Trying to learn a language the way most of us did at school is like trying to chop wood with a kitchen knife: it’ll take you a lot longer than it should and you’ll get very frustrated along the way.
The right resources for learning French
There is no one size fits all, best way to learn French. Lot’s of different methods work. But from what I’ve seen, they all have two things in common:
They don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time learning grammar and vocabulary for the sake of it.
They help you learn by doing.
It makes sense really. Speaking French is a practical skill, like riding a bike or learning to swim. Just as you can’t learn to swim by reading a book, you’ll never be able to have a conversation in French by memorising a few verbs.
You’ve got to practise using French in realistic situations.
The best resources for learning French are geared towards helping you speak and understand French in real-life contexts. They should:
Teach you how to build new sentences so you can express yourself.
Show you realistic examples.
Give you the chance to practise.
Help you understand how French is spoken in the real world.
These 17 resources for French learners will do exactly that, from beginner to advanced level:
Picking up the basics: French resources for beginners
The best French resources for beginners show you how to build sentences right from the start. The tools in this list will help you pick up words and grammar easily through repetition and show you how to apply what you learn in new situations.
The audio-only course helps you remember grammar painlessly by organising verbs into groups that are easy to remember and most importantly, shows you how to use these verbs to build useful sentences.
The course also shows you how to take advantage of the 30% of English words that have a French equivalent (known as cognates), like information, conversation, animal, original, distance,importance… Of course, the pronunciation is a bit different, but all you have to do is put on a French accent and voilà – you know loads of French words!
I’ve used Michel Thomas to get off the starting block for French, Italian and Spanish and I’m always surprised by how much I can say after only a few hours of listening.
2. Coffee Break French
The Coffee Break French series is a lovely, relaxing way to pick up French. The fun and interactive lessons help you learn the basics at a nice pace and presenter Mark Pentleton throws in lots of cultural anecdotes, which make the lessons a pleasure to listen to.
But don’t let the laid-back tone fool you – the Coffee Break French series is a very efficient way to learn basic French.
And there are enough episodes to take you further along your French journey – the series goes from beginner right up to advanced, and the podcasts are free.
Now you’ve picked up the basics, you can practise using French in real-life situations. It’s time to jump in and have a go at speaking (even if you don’t feel ready yet!) and gradually start doing stuff in French that you enjoy doing in your native language.
As you venture into the world of real French, you’ll need plenty of support from subtitles, and slow, clear speech. You’ll also need a good dictionary and a way to remember all those new words!
3. Language exchanges
When you first start practising your speaking skills, it can feel a bit awkward to strike up a conversation with a French person – what if they reply too fast and you don’t understand what they’re saying? What if you forget a word mid-sentence?
Language exchanges are the perfect training ground for speaking French because your partner knows you’re a beginner (be sure to tell them!) and they’re there to help. This takes the pressure off as they don’t expect you to be able hold a full conversation yet: it’s OK if you don’t understand what they’re saying or forget a word mid-sentence!
However, there are a few pitfalls to watch out for. For example, if you’re a native English speaker and you team up with a French person who speaks brilliant English, it might feel easier to speak in English most of the time. To get around this, you should set a specific time, say ½ hour French, then ½ hour English. If you find a partner who keeps speaking English when they should be helping you with French, it’s time to look for a new one.
I’ve had some brilliant experiences with language exchanges: as well as helping you practise your French, they’re a great way to get to know French people and learn more about French culture.
If you go to France, I highly recommend setting up a language exchange at your destination. I did this in Paris and I met some lovely Parisiens who took me to their favourite hangouts – a fab way to learn the language and get off the beaten tourist track!
If you like the idea of improving your speaking skills quickly and cheaply without leaving your living room, you should give italki a try.
It’s a website where you can get one-to-one, online conversation lessons with French conversation tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour.
And you don’t need to worry about speaking slowly, making mistakes or sounding silly – tutors are there to help you learn and most are friendly, patient and used to working with beginners.
If you’d like to try italki, you can get a free lesson by clicking any of the italki links on this page. All you have to do is sign up, book your first lesson and you’ll get the next lesson free (up to $10).
I don’t get any commission if you buy through this link, but I do get a free lesson with my French conversation tutor on italki, which helps me save money and spend more time writing articles like the one you’re reading now – merci!
Italki is also handy if you want to work on your writing skills: you can post your writing on the “notebook” section and a native speaker will correct it for you.
5. News in Slow French
News in Slow French makes a refreshing change to the boring and overly simplistic topics usually on offer for learners. The presenters cover the week’s news in a light and entertaining way, in French that’s slow (hence the name!) and easy to follow.
6. Journal en Français Facile
Although the name translates literally as “The News in Easy French”, this news show by Radio France Internationale is a lot more challenging than News in Slow French. Often, the pace doesn’t seem that different to the normal French news, but that makes it great way to challenge your listening. On the Journal en Français Facile website they have the transcripts so you can check your understanding and read along as you listen.
7. Easy French
Follow the presenters of Easy French “on the streets”, as they pose interesting questions to French passers-by such as “What would you do to make the world a better place?” The interview format is perfect as you hear the same question over and over, and the answers are usually entertaining. To help you follow along, there are big subtitles in French and smaller subtitles in English. It’s the perfect way to ease yourself into listening to real, spoken French.
Once you start engaging with real French, you’ll need a good dictionary to look up the new words you come across. Wordreference is one of the best: it gives you examples of how the word is used in real sentences, which helps you understand how to use the word yourself later on. There’s also a “verb conjugator”, which shows you how to use French verbs in different tenses.
It’s based on scientific studies which show that we remember information better when we learn it a few times over a longer period of time, compared to many times within a short space of time. The app quizzes you on words you’ve learnt at specific intervals which optimise learning.
Memrise is huge in the language learning community and you’ll find lots of French courses with ready made vocabulary lists already on there. However, it’s better to make your own course with example sentences that you’ve already seen or heard being used in real life, for the following reasons:
Learning words in sentences (rather than in isolation) helps you understand how to use them later.
Learning words that you’ve already come across in real life helps you form stronger memory associations.
Now you can hold a conversation and understand simple spoken French, it’s time to hone your skills by listening and reading things intended for native speakers. Moving onto native speaker materials is a great feeling – you can:
Really start to understand how French speakers communicate with each other.
Learn a lot about French culture.
Improve your French while doing things you enjoy, like watching films or reading the newspaper.
Here are a few of my favourites.
10. France 24
The France 24 website is packed with French videos. It’s a news channel, so they have lots of programmes about current affairs, but they also cover other topics including art, science, culture and travel. The presenters usually speak quite slowly and clearly, so it’s a great resource to bridge the gap between intermediate and native speaker materials.
11. Your web browser
With the Google Translate Chrome add-on, you can turn any French website into an interactive French dictionary. When you click on a word you don’t know, the English translation pops up on the same page, so you you can read websites without constantly stopping to look up words.
12. Le monde
Le Monde is one of the most famous newspapers in France. On the website, you can catch up on current affairs with articles, videos and blogs. The YouTube channel is particularly good because they have 3 minute videos that explain important issues in current affairs or little snippets of French culture. And they have French subtitles, so you can turn them on and read anything you missed in the listening.
13. Le Gorafi
If you prefer something a little lighter, try reading le Gorafi. It’s a parody newspaper with fake news articles, like the French version of The Daily Mash. If you enjoy this kind of humor, it’s a brilliant resource for stretching your French reading skills. Riina, a member of the joy of languages Facebook group, recently said that you can say you’re fluent in a language “when you can understand jokes”. If you get this kind of satire, you can be confident that your level of French is pretty good.
If you’re after something even lighter, have a go at reading French BuzzFeed. The “listicle” style articles with pictures are a great way to practise reading real French, without having to get your head around large amounts of text.
Now you’re advanced, the whole world of French YouTube is open to you. Here are a few channels to get you started:
15. Un gars et une fille
This Quebec sitcom shows short scenes in the life of a couple who are often getting into funny squabbles. They speak very fast but the videos are only a few minutes long, so it’s a great way to train your listening in short but intense bursts. And as the subject is very light, it leaves your brain free to concentrate on the French.
Cyprien is one of the most popular YouTubers in France. He’s a comedian who likes to point out the silly in everyday situations. Here’s his take on “people on the internet”.
His channel is fab for advanced level French listening. Like most YouTubers, he speaks inhumanely fast, but that’s actually quite good for pushing your listening skills: once you can understand Cyprien, French conversations at normal speed will be a breeze! He has subtitles in French and in English, which means you can read along in French if the audio alone is too tricky, and use the English ones from time to time to check your understanding.
If you enjoyed that Cyprien video, you might like Norman and Squeezie’s channels too.
The simplissime cookery channel, with the tag line “the easiest recipes in the world” is another great resource to ease you into listening to native speaker materials. The narrator speaks slowly and the words often appear on screen, which makes things a lot easier to follow for us non-native speakers. To see what I mean, watch this quick video on how to make a chocolate mousse.
And as a bonus, you’ll come away with some cooking tips too!
E voilà! Those were my 17 best resources for learning French from beginner to advanced, I hope you found them useful.
Over to you
Which of these resources do you think is the most useful for learning French? Why?
Can you add any more to the list? I’m on a French mission at the moment so I’m always looking out for new resources – recommendations in the comments please!
What do weight loss after Christmas, expired peanut butter and learning Spanish have in common?
Apparently, they all take around 5 months.
Which seems like a long time to hold onto festive pudge and an exceedingly short time to learn a language.
Spanish is considered relatively easy for English speakers: it has 1000s of similar words (fantástico!) and the grammar, pronunciation and spelling is simpler than in many other languages.
That’s why the US Foreign Service Institute – the guys who train diplomats – rank Spanish as one of the fastest languages to learn for English speakers, together with others like French, Italian and Dutch.
The FSI estimate that languages in this group can take 23-24 weeks to reach professional working proficiency. At this level you can:
understand almost everything people say when they speak at normal speed
communicate comfortably in most situations
use a broad vocabulary and rarely stop to search for words
In other words, you can function perfectly well in most situations. Let’s call that fluent.
The easiest languages for English speakers
Languages which have a lot in common with your native language are usually easier than those which are very different. English is a Germanic language, like Dutch and Swedish, but it also has a lot in common with Romance languages like French and Spanish. No surprise then, that the other languages on the Foreign Service Institute list come from one of these two groups.
The Germanic Languages: Afrikaans, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish
Why are they easy? These languages come from the same language family as English, so they share loads of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation features. The ones in this list don’t have complicated case systems like in German, making them a little easier to pick up. Here’s an example of how similar languages from this family can be to English:
How to say “hello/hi, welcome”
Afrikaans: Hallo, welkom
Dutch: Hallo, welkom
Danish: Hallo, velkommen
Norwegian: Hei, velkommen
Swedish: Hej, välkommen
Native speakers of these languages tend to speak fantastic English, so it can be more difficult (but not impossible) to find opportunities to practise.
The Romance Languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian
Why are they easy? Romance languages have their roots in Latin. As the majority of English vocabulary (58%) comes from French or Latin, when you start learning a Romance language, you’ll realise that you can already say loads of words by simply putting on a hammy accent. Je suis sérieuse. Did a little pout as I was writing that,to make it more French.
Spanish, Italian and Romanian have simpler spelling systems and fewer vowel sounds than English, making pronunciation comparatively straightforward. Here’s an example of how similar the Romance languages can be to English:
How to say “my family”
Spanish: Mi familia
French: Ma famille
Italian: La mia famiglia
Portuguese: Minha família
Romanian: Familia mea
While the grammar is easier than languages like German or Russian, you’ll still need to get to grips with verb conjugations, that is, when verbs have different forms depending on who’s doing them: for example, I sleep in Italian is “dormo”,while you sleep is “dormi”. Nouns in Romance languages also have gender, which can feel a bit loco at first. For example in Spanish, the fork “el tenedor” is masculine, while the table “la mesa” is feminine.
The easiest language to learn
The above list is not exhaustive. I could have included less widely spoken Romance languages like Catalan and Galician, amongst others. And the easiest language for you depends on other things, which we’ll talk about shortly.
But wait – didn’t the title say 11?
There’s one language which is even closer to English, and arguably the simplest of all for English speakers. Do you know which one? The answer will be revealed at the end of this post.
Just how easy are the easiest languages?
If it’s possible to learn fluent Spanish in 5 months, how do you explain all those people (including me) who studied for years at school and learned little more than ¿dónde está la biblioteca?
It takes them around 1000 hours to speak fluent Spanish.
Most people don’t have 8 hours a day to study, so you’ll probably need to spread those hours out (peanut butter pun intended). If you study for an hour a day, it could take you 3 years to learn Spanish to such a high level.
This easy language is suddenly starting to sound like a lot of hard work.
Of course, these figures won’t be the same for everyone. It depends on how motivated you are, how much experience you have and the techniques you use. Benny Lewis from fluent in 3 months says you can learn faster, with the right approach. But even the king of speedy language learning recognises that it takes 400 – 600 hours.
By the most optimistic of estimates, an easy language will still take you a good few hundred hours to learn.
What makes a language easy or difficult?
I’m guessing you’re here because you like the idea of learning a language without too much hard work. I’m with you on that one.
Most of the time, I’d rather eat my own shoe than memorise irregular verbs.
But how do you know if a language is going to be hard work or not?
Most people look at how long it takes. From the Foreign Service Institute language categories, you could say that Spanish is easier than Chinese because Spanish takes an estimated 575-600 hours’ classroom time while Mandarin Chinese takes an estimated 2200 hours’ classroom time.
So we know Chinese takes a longer. Almost four times as long. But does that make it more difficult?
Difficult is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as:
Needing much skill or effort
Characterised by or causing hardships or problems
The word difficult, conjures up images of the fun police. It makes me imagine yawning over school books until my eyes water and forcing myself to do things I don’t like.
It makes me imagine a battle between the ambitious part of my brain that wants to learn a language and the Homer Simpson side that wants to watch TV and drink beer. And feeling guilty when Homer inevitably wins.
Language learning shouldn’t be like that.
Challenging? Yes. Time consuming? Of course.
Why the “no pain no gain!” approach doesn’t always work
If it feels so difficult you’d rather chow down on your shoelaces than study, you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, the harder you try, the harder a language is to learn. There are a few reasons for this.
You know that feeling when you’re bombarded with so much information that you can’t take anything in?
Working memory is our ability to temporarily hold new information in our minds while we use it to carry out tasks – like keeping numbers in your head as you add them up. A bit like a mental jotter pad.
We use it a lot when learning a language, for example to:
Keep in mind the meaning of a word you’ve just looked up when trying to decipher a sentence.
Remember what you heard at the beginning of a sentence as you listen to the rest.
Remember what you want to say as you paste together grammar and vocabulary to express your ideas.
Our working memory can only process a relatively small amount of information at any given time. Trying to do too much in one go – like calculating 6897 x 5785 or figure out the meaning of a sentence with too many unfamiliar words – can lead to overload, which gets in the way of learning.
Tension gets in the way of learning
If you’re pushing yourself to do something that feels too difficult, you’ll probably end up feeling frustrated or stressed out. This works against you because stress interferes with learning in a big way. Research suggests that we learn languages better when we’re chillaxed.
If it’s too painful, you’ll probably give up
If learning a language always feels like uphill struggle, you’ll end up dreading it. Willpower doesn’t last forever: most people will give up sooner or later if they don’t enjoy what they’re doing.
By easy, I do not mean fast. I don’t even mean that I’m good at it. It takes thousands of hours to reach an advanced level in Mandarin Chinese and I’ve still got a long way to go.
But it feels easy because I’m learning at a pace that works for me. I’m challenging myself, but not straining. And I’m motivated because I spend my study time doing things I like.
Easy or difficult doesn’t depend on how many hours it takes, or how complicated the grammar is. It doesn’t even depend on how good or bad you are at it. It depends on how you feel while you’re doing it.
If your idea of learning a language is spending hundreds of hours with your nose to the grindstone, you’re going to make yourself miserable (if you don’t quit first). Every language will feel difficult, from Spanish to Mandarin Chinese and everything in between.
But, if you can find your learning sweet spot, where you’re challenging yourself but not frustrated or overwhelmed, any language will feel easy, whether it’s Chinese, Japanese, Arabic or Korean. Sure, they’ll take a long time, but they won’t feel difficult.
Instead of asking “which language is the easiest to learn?”, a more helpful question is:
“how can I approach the language I want to learn so it feels easier?”
With this in mind, here are 5 ways to make any language easy to learn:
1. Concentrate on the bricks, not the wall
When Will Smith was 12, his dad knocked down the brick wall in front of his business and asked him to rebuild it. It took him over a year, but he built it. And it taught him an important lesson about how to approach challenges without getting overwhelmed. He says:
“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.”
Learning a language like Chinese or Arabic probably feels tougher than building the biggest, baddest wall that’s ever been built. But don’t get distracted by the big picture.
Just focus on laying one brick at a time. In each study session, build on what you already know by learning one more thing, then one more. If you keep it up for long enough, you’ll step back and realise that you’ve learned fluent Chinese (or built a nice new wall in your garden).
2. Use the Goldilocks rule to get the level just right.
Imagine trying to talk about politics or read a newspaper in the language you’ve only just started learning. You’d probably get discouraged and give up pretty quickly.
Now imagine spending several lessons learning to count from one to ten. You’d probably get bored and give up pretty quickly.
Finding the optimal challenge level, when you’re working hard, but not too hard is key to staying motivated.
Keep this in mind when you’re using textbooks and other resources. If you’re losing interest, could it be that the content is too easy or difficult?
Aim for something that stretches you just beyond your current level, without being overwhelming.
Another way to make difficult tasks more appropriate for your level is to break them down into smaller chunks. For example, if studying grammar for 30 minutes feels too hard, why not go for 15 minutes instead? Or even 5?
A few minutes can add up to a lot of progress, when you do it every day.
3. Do something you like
Boredom is the first stop on the way to quitsville. The more you enjoy your study sessions, the less difficult the language will feel. If your current study materials don’t do it for you, find something that does. This article on 32 fun ways to learn a language (that actually work) has a few ideas to get you started.
4. Stay in the game
Over the 100s (or 1000s) of hours it takes to learn a language, you’ll probably face a few dips in motivation. It’s a good idea to have some strategies in place to help you stick it out when this happens. Two of my faves are:
Don’t break the chain: Put a cross on the calendar for every day you study. Seeing the chain get longer and longer gives you a sense of satisfaction – once you’ve build up a chain, you won’t want to break it by missing a day.
Record your progress: Language learning happens little by little and progress can be imperceptible in the short term. This is discouraging because it feels like your hard work isn’t paying off. But if you could look back at yourself a few months ago, you’d notice an improvement and feel more confident about your progress. Try recording yourself speaking, so you can look back and see how far you’ve come.
5. Is it difficult or just new?
This is my favourite question to ask students when they complain that something is hard. Because usually, they consider my question for a second and say “ah, it’s just new”.
Think about tying your shoelaces. It’s easy now, but you probably struggled at the beginning.
It takes time to develop a new skill. That doesn’t mean it’s too hard, you just need practice.
But if you think it’s going to be hard, it probably will be. Research suggests that when we expect tasks to be difficult, we’re more likely to lose motivation.
Your attitude to learning matters. By adopting the mantra “it’s not difficult, it’s just new” you can get the benefit of what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the growth mindset: instead of thinking “this is too hard”, you can turn your focus to a little, but powerful word: “yet” – “I don’t know how to do this, yet”.
But with perseverance, you will.
Did you guess which language is the closest to English? It’s a language called Frisian, which is mostly spoken in Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. Frisian is actually a group of three, closely related languages, but when people say Frisian, they’re usually referring to West Frisian, as it’s the most commonly spoken. Here’s an example of how similar West Frisian and English can be:
English: Bread, butter and green cheese.
West Frisian: Brea, bûter en griene tsiis
Over to you: Which language are you learning at the moment? How could you apply one of the 5 suggestions above to make it feel easier? Let us know in the comments below!
AKA the brick wall of language learning: if you bang your head against it for long enough, you’ll start to break it down – but it hurts.
As a beginner, if you only know 10 words, learning 10 more feels like a big win. But if you learn 10 new words when you already know 1000… meh.
You notice a dip in your progress as every new word or grammar point feels like a drop in the big language ocean. And as you’re not seeing as much progress as before, your motivation starts to wane.
Most people never make it past this point. But you can, by following this one amazing secret to reaching advanced fluency…
First, you’ll need some expensive software, lots of long vocabulary lists and a one way ticket to the country where the language is spoken.
Now throw all of that away and just keep doing what you’re already doing.
I’m not good with fancy language learning techniques: I don’t know any one-size-fits all shortcuts and I can’t help you memorise 2000 words in 10 days while you sleep.
But I do know that if you stick with it, you’ll get there.
The only way to get past intermediate level, then, is to not quit. And while there are no magic remedies, there are some important steps you can take to speed things up and make the process more enjoyable.
Here are 7 (almost) painless ways to push through the intermediate plateau. At the end, I’ll tell you how I’ll be integrating these ideas into my own language learning in March.
So if the idea of studying gives you the yawns, it’s time to try something new. The beauty of language learning is that there are so many ways to achieve the same result. Try a new book, follow a recipe in your target language, watch a TedTalk, listen to a podcast or meet a native speaker in the pub for a language exchange.
One word of caution: avoid shiny object syndrome, that is, collecting lots of new language resources and not using any of them. The key is to find the right balance between consistency and trying new things. This balance will look different for each person. For me, it means switching up my methods/books/materials every month or so, while keeping other things constant. Which leads me to number 2…
2. Find your rituals
I get bored quickly and I’m always on the lookout for new textbooks, TV series, YouTube videos etc. to keep things interesting. That said, I’ve got a few learning rituals that I try to keep constant because I know they work for me. Depending on the language, this might be my study time, the way I remember vocabulary or my lessons with online tutors.
3. Choose stuff you enjoy doing in your native language
At intermediate level you can (and should) start using materials for native speakers. This makes life a lot more interesting as you can finally move on from “the book is on the table” to real and interesting content. Choose something you enjoy doing in your native language: reading sports news, photography blogs, video games, soap operas – whatever floats your boat – and look for ways to do it in the language you’re learning. It takes time to look up new words and get used to the sentence structures, so if you don’t care about what it says in the first place, you’ll get bored. Quick tip: if you’re using blogs, try the google translate add-on to translate words directly on the webpage.
4. Smaller is better
There might be something that you never feel doing, but you know it will help you get to the next level. For lots of people (including me!), it’s anything that feels like school, such as learning grammar rules. Try starting with a very small goal, like 10 minutes. Once you’ve started, you’ll often find it wasn’t as bad as you thought and you’ll be happy to keep going for a little longer.
5. Measure your progress
At intermediate level, progress is an accumulation of lots of little steps: it’s difficult to notice improvement from one day to the next. But if you look at your language skills over a longer period of time, you’ll realise just how far you’ve come. Recording a video or audio file once every few months is a great way to track your progress over time.
6. Celebrate your achievements
When you were a beginner, you’d have been really excited at the idea of reaching intermediate level. Now you’re here and you’re beating yourself up about not being advanced yet. It’s human nature: as soon as we reach one goal, instead of celebrating, we move the goal post. Stop beating yourself about not being further ahead and start celebrating how far you’ve come.
7. Be like Buddha
Did you know that Buddha was a polyglot? Actually I just made that up. But his dedication to the present moment would have made him an excellent language learner. It takes time to learn a language: if you view the process as something you have to “white-knuckle” until you get to advanced level, you’re going to make yourself miserable in the meantime. Instead of looking at the big gap between where you are now and where you want to be, focus on each step that moves you on a little from your current level. Find things you enjoy, focus on the task in hand and the learning will take care of itself.
Those were my 7 keys to push through the intermediate plateau. Next, I’m going to tell you how I plan to apply these ideas to my own language learning in March.
My Language learning plans: March 2017
I’m learning 5 languages at the moment. To manage them all, I give myself 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.
I’m currently doing the Add1Challenge for Mandarin: I’m trying to learn as much as possible in 3 months so I can have a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker on day 90. Here’s my day 60 update.
In February, I set myself the following tasks:
– Keep working through the Pimsleur and Assimil courses: I’m almost done with the Pimsleur course, but I need to get a move on with Assimil if I want to get through it before the challenge finishes.
– Read 1 graded reader story per week: I managed 3 weeks out of 4, so I’m happy with that.
– Translate videos on fluentu: I aimed to translate one video per week from Chinese into English and back again. The videos were short, so I managed this without too much trouble.
– Have 3 conversation lessons per week with a native speaker on italki. I really enjoy chatting to my conversation tutors, so I met this target easily.
As I write this, there are only 10 days left until the end of my challenge – eek! Day 90 is approaching fast and I need to knuckle down, but I’m getting bored of following such a structured routine. For the last 10 days, I’m going to shake it up by creating an immersion environment at home. This means when I’m not working or socialising, I’ll immerse myself in Chinese by listening to podcasts, reading, watching videos or chatting to native speakers online. No structure, no routine, just whatever I feel like doing, whenever I feel like doing it.
I try to study German for an hour a day, most days. It’s one of my little language rituals that’s been working out well for me over the last year.
Recently I’ve been feeling a bit lazy so my daily German practice has turned into 60 minutes of German TV. It’s certainly better than nothing and I feel like my listening’s improving, but I know I could make more progress if I learned bits of grammar here and there. In March I’m going to try and squeeze in 10 minutes of grammar per day.
With the exception of German, I’m going to ease off my other languages in the first part of March so I can focus on my Chinese immersion.
Here are my plans for Italian, French and Spanish in the last 2 weeks in March:
I’ve got a big pile of Italian books by my bed that I want to work my way through this year. I’m not doing very well with this so far as I’ve been trying to read in bed and I’m one of those people who conks out as soon as their head hits the pillow. I’m going to try and make some time for reading in the day and see if this helps.
In January and February I aimed to work on my Italian pronunciation for 10 minutes per day, but for some reason I’m finding it hard to sit down and get started. Perhaps I’m not very motivated because the methods feel a little too much like hard work. In the rest of March, I’m going to look for more enjoyable ways to work on my Italian pronunciation.
French and Spanish
In February, I translated a 3 minute dialogue per week into English and back into French/Spanish. I find this technique super useful, but but I’m starting to get a little bored. I’ll probably come back to it at some point in the future but I’m going to take a little break for now. So for the last 2 weeks in March I’ll focus on stuff I really enjoy, like watching TV or listening to audiobooks.
I also aimed to learn 5 words per day, which I didn’t manage. I’m going to take it down to 15 words per week to give myself a more achieveable target (I can always do more if I feel like it).
Finally, to keep improving, I feel like I should be doing a little grammar, so I’m going to try and do 10 minutes a day in both languages.
Now I’d like to hear from you: Do you hit a language wall sometimes? How do you get over it? Let us know in the comments below!
You know those great life ideas you always talk about (often after a few drinks) but never actually get round to doing?
Me and my Italian other half, Matteo have always talked about making a podcast to help people learn Italian.
Our conversations would go something like this:
“Yeeah! As a half English, half Italian team, we understand the problems people have when learning Italian, and we can show them Italy through the eyes of an Italian. And it’d be loads of fun to make.”
So this month, I’m excited to announce that we actually went and did it!
Introducing our new Italian podcast, 5 minute Italian, which will help you learn Italian in bitesized pieces.
In today’s episode, we’re talking about how you can use words you already know in English to start speaking Italian quickly.
While we’re on the subject of learning Italian, I’m excited to announce that we’re launching our Survival Italian course in January. And we’re giving one place away for free!
One of our 5 minute Italian listeners will win a place on Survival Italian, a unique four week online course designed to get you speaking Italian right from the first class. In this course, we’ve created small live group classes (via Skype), video tutorials and mini assignments to help you pick up the basics, rapido.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy listening to 5 minute Italian as much as we enjoyed making it.
Now I’d like to hear from you: what would you like us to talk about in future episodes of 5 minute Italian? Let us know in the comments below!
Do you find language learning boring?
Not long ago, my answer to this question would have been a resolute no. I’d always enjoyed learning languages because it never felt like work.
I used to ditch textbooks as soon as I could in favour of more interesting things like reading books, watching TV and films, listening to music and most importantly, finding lovely native speakers to chat to. I’d dive head first into the culture and come out the other side being able to speak the language. It was fun.
But that changed recently.
Language learning got boring
As my language goals got more ambitious, my learning style changed for the worse. I tried to capitalise on my new found motivation to learn a language “the proper way”, by using textbooks, learning grammar rules and memorising words.
And let me tell you, it was dull.
Learning this way choked the life out of the languages I was learning. I love languages, but I don’t give a shiz about grammar and vocabulary unless I can see it being used in real life. The living language that comes up in authentic materials, not those cringey conversations in textbooks.
Don’t get me wrong, textbooks are useful in the beginning to get a basic idea of how the language works. And later, they come in handy as a reference. But there’s nothing more boring than learning grammar and vocabulary out of context.
Learning with authentic materials
I like learning that stuff little by little as it “pops up” in books, films, TV series, music and conversations with native speakers. When I can link grammar and vocabulary to a real conversation, a character in a book, or a scene in a film, it comes alive. I learn better this way because I’m genuinely interested in finding out what people are saying and I want to learn how to talk like them.
Of course, it’s hard to learn from an impenetrable flow of words, so it’s important to choose materials that are the right level. This is where resources like graded readers, the easy language series and slow spoken podcasts come in handy. Materials that use the language in real and engaging ways but in simple and slow speech that learners can understand.
November language learning review
My November language missions got off to a bad start because I’d planned too much time on the textbooks. I wasn’t interested in the materials I was using and I struggled to get motivated. So halfway through the month, I pulled the plug on my original plans and went back to my old learning style:
I put my Italian grammar book back on the shelf and spent more time working with TV series.
I cut my flashcards down to maximum 5 new words a day, so I could spend less time rote memorising words and more time engaging with the language in authentic contexts.
These changes worked and I feel like I’ve finally got my language learning mojo back.
Language goals for December
My priority for this month is to keep learning with authentic resources I enjoy, including:
– Books, websites, magazines, TV, films, radio, and music
– Chatting to native speakers on italki
Using the language
One problem with authentic materials is that the learning can be quite passive: you absorb a lot of language through listening and reading, but you don’t practice using it.
I’m going to make my study sessions more active by doing the following:
Mini talks:In each session, I’ll speak aloud for a few minutes about what I read or heard. This will give me the chance to practice using any new grammar and vocabulary that comes up.
Bilingual translation:I’m going to translate short dialogues into English and back into the language I’m learning. This technique will help me hone my listening skills and practice building sentences.
Recycling:I’ll revisit grammar and vocabulary and use it in new contexts, either by writing example sentences or using them in conversation questions for my language tutors on italki.
Pop up grammar
I’m not going to sit down with a textbook and study grammar in a linear way. Instead, I’m going to investigate grammar questions as they “pop up”. For example, if I’m reading something in German and I hear the word “alles” (everything), it might remind me that I sometimes see the word “alle” (everyone) and that I don’t fully understand the difference between the two. When questions like this pop up, I’ll make a note to investigate them further once I’ve finished reading/listening.
Good pronunciation is probably the most important language skill you can develop. It’s the first thing people hear when you open your mouth and it has a strong influence on your perceived mastery of a language. Clear pronunciation helps you manage conversations smoothly, blend in more easily and allows you to feel closer to a culture and its people. This month, I’m going to give pronunciation the attention it deserves.
eff it days
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a little lazy voice in your brain won’t stop shouting “eff it, let’s just sit around in pjs all day eating cheese” (or is that just me?!). When this happens, I’m going to give in to temptation and do “lazy” activities in my target language like watching TV and films. And probably eat too much brie.
I might look up the odd word or grammar point that comes up, but I won’t force myself to do anything if I don’t feel like it. This way I can recharge my batteries whilst still getting exposure to the languages I’m learning.
At the moment I’m learning 5 languages. Each month I have a sprint language, which I focus on intensively, and 4 marathon languages, which I study in a more relaxed fashion. In the sprint language, I immerse myself in the language as much as possible through daily activities like watching TV, reading and listening to the radio. My sprint language for December is Chinese.
I’m planning to join the add1challenge in Chinese which starts on the 12th Dec, so this month’s all about Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is one of my newest (and weakest) languages and I’m still using beginners material to get a basic idea of how it all works. In December I’m aiming to whizz through these and get onto authentic materials as quickly as possible. Here’s the plan:
The textbooky stuff
– Assimil: I’ve got around 30 chapters left and I’m hoping to finish this before the month’s up.
– Pimsleur: I’m going to listen to the Pimsleur level 3 Chinese course on my walk to work. I’m aiming to do one 30 minute lesson per day.
I’m going to read one graded reader story per week and watch one video on FluentU per day. On lazy days, I’ll switch off my brain and veg out in front of some Chinese TV on viki.com
I’m aiming to do around 3 lessons per week with native speaker tutors on italki
I’m aiming to learn around 5 new words per day. I’ll do this by choosing the most useful words I come across in my reading and listening and adding them to my Chinese flashcard set.
This month’s Italian goal is all about pronunciation.
My Italian accent certainly isn’t bad: I’ve even managed to fool people into thinking I was a native speaker for short amounts of time. But it’d be really cool if I could manage to do this for longer periods of time, and more often.
Sounding exactly like a native may not be a realistic goal, but it’d be nice to get as close as I can.
To do this, I’m going to work on two areas:
1. Sound training
To improve your pronunciation you need to train your mouth muscles to adopt the right mouth positions, and your ears to hear the differences between sounds which seem similar to non-native ears. I’m going to focus on the pronunciation of one sound per week by using my Italian pronunciation book, watching YouTube videos and practicing tongue twisters.
2. Sentence training
As well as individual sounds, it’s important to pay attention to whole sentences and paragraphs in order to imitate the speed, rhythm and intonation of native speakers. To do this, I’m going to pick a short dialogue, listen several times and analyse how the Italian sounds differ from the English ones. Then I’ll record myself reciting the scene and try to make my pronunciation as close as possible to that of the native speaker.
I’ll also going try the shadowing method, developed by polyglot Alexander Arguelles, which involves talking over a track and trying to match your speech as closely as possible to the native speaker voice underneath.
Lastly, I’m going to play around with the audio editing software audacity which will help me compare my pronunciation to that of the native speakers.
I’m aiming to do this for around 30 mins per day (apart from weekends!) with sound and sentence training on alternate days.
As well as pronunciation, I’m going to keep working on my listening and learning about Italian culture by watching 30 minutes of TV per day and watching 1 Italian film per week.
Spanish, German and French
In November I developed a language learning routine which has been working really well for me, so I’m going to continue using it for Spanish, German and French this month.
Each week, I pick a 5 minute dialogue (with original language subtitles) and do the following:
Pronunciation warm up:tongue twisters, songs etc.
Speaking practice: a 3 minute mini talk – what can I remember about the dialogue?
Listening: watch the dialogue and check, did I miss anything out?
Bilingual translation: listen to 1-2 minutes of the dialogue and take notes in English. Then translate the English text back into the original language. Note down any new grammar and vocabulary.
Listening: listen to the original dialogue and check against my version. Correct any mistakes.
Pop up grammar:investigate any grammar questions that come up during the translations.
Shadowing:listen to the dialogue again and read along, trying to match my speech as closely as possible to the native speakers’.
Vocabulary:add a few new words to my flashcards and review vocabulary from the last few days.
Recycling: once the dialogue’s finished, reuse the new words and grammar to write example sentences and questions for my language tutors on italki.
This technique is motivating because I can use it with resources I enjoy, like TV shows and films. And it’s effective because it squeezes all of the important language skills in over a relatively short amount of time including speaking, listening, reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.
It looks like December’s going to be full of language learning fun, I can’t wait!
As always, I’d love to hear your ideas on the topic. Do you sometimes find language learning boring? What do you do to make it more exciting? Let us know in the comments below!
Every year, I’m surprised by how quickly the warm weather comes around in Milan. Just two weeks ago everyone was wrapped up in scarves and gloves, but yesterday we reached a whopping 21°C (69.8°F).
This is the time of year when Italy really starts to feel like Italy. Social lives fill up with long, lazy lunches, wine with friends on the terrace after work and weekend trips to explore the countryside, lakes and beaches.
Italian is the very first language I learned, back in 2008. To this day, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
Why? Because being able to speak Italian has led to opportunities and changes that have made my life better in countless ways: some big, like moving to Milan and falling in love with an Italian, and some small, like learning how to pronounce gelato like Italians do.
Learning a new language always brings new opportunities and exciting changes. If you’re thinking about learning one but you’re struggling to decide which, here are a few great reasons to choose Italian:
1. The people:There’s something about warm climates that seems to make people more sociable. Italian culture, more than any other culture I’ve experienced, is all about people. Not just da family as the stereotype would have it, but everyone. Italians love meeting new people: they’re curious, friendly and take a genuine interest in you. Needless to say, this is a huge plus when it comes to trying out your Italian skills on the locals. When you give Italian a go – even if you can only string a few words together (that’s how I started) – most Italians are warm, patient and want to help. Also, from a purely linguistic point of view, many Italians feel more comfortable speaking their own language than English. This gives you a real world reason to use your Italian, which helps you learn quicker.
2. The food: OK, so I promised not to mention pizza, ice-cream, limoncello and nutella. But I couldn’t write a whole article about Italy without mentioning food. One of the cool things about learning Italian is that you suddenly start learning more about the Italian words that made it into our culture. For example, did you know that the word panini isn’t the name of a long, flat sandwich? It’s actually the word for sandwiches in general. One sandwich is called a panino, while two or more take the plural form panini. Or did you know that the word bruschetta is actually pronounced brusketa, with a hard “k” sound in the middle? There are loads of examples like this and finding out more about the original words as you learn gives you a great sense of satisfaction.
3. The lifestyle: I’m sure I don’t have to sell Italy to you as a holiday destination. It makes it onto almost every list of the most desirable places to visit in the world. But when you visit as a tourist, you only scratch the surface of Italy. Speaking the language gives you the chance to get up close and personal to the culture and its people so you can get your own little slice of la dolce vita.
4. You already know Italian:I’ll let you in on a little secret. Learning Italian is not as hard as you think it is. I’ll give you an example: how do you say the word option in Italian? Go on, guess. Wave your hands around like Italians do and pronounce the English word with your very best Italian accent. That’s right – it’s opzione pronounced optzi-owny. Now try again with the word fantastic. That’s right, fantastico! There are 1000s of words like this and many are in everyday use, so you can start using them straight away.
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