Why is it so hard to remember words in a foreign language?
Why is the grammar so confusing?
If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions and wondered how the heck you’ll learn to speak that foreign language, then today’s post is for you.
I used to wonder the same thing, especially after I’d studied German for 5 years at school, then Spanish and Italian for another 2, with nothing to show for it except a few random words popping into my head.
Why couldn’t I speak a language after so many years of classes? I considered two possibilities. Either:
1. I’m a complete idiot.
2. Languages are basically impossible.
If I was an idiot, then so was everyone else. Given that every other English person I knew was in the same position, I assumed that learning a language must be one of those things that only people with steely willpower can do, like running a marathon or not squeezing spots.
But since then, I’ve learnt Italian, French and Spanish, as well as a bit of German and Mandarin and I’ve discovered something exciting:
Learning a second language as an adult isn’t as difficult as I thought. I was just doing it wrong.
Keep reading to find out:
– The big mistake that stops adults from learning a second language (and how to avoid it).
– The simple technique that will help any adult (including YOU) become fluent in a language.
– How to have more fun learning a second language, even as a beginner.
Is it hard to learn a second language as an adult?
Last week, I got a new Italian student.
Let’s call him Bob. Bob had been learning Italian for over 2 years, but he still couldn’t really string a sentence together. He had a vague idea of verb tenses and some vocabulary floating around in his mind, but he couldn’t remember any of them well enough to use them in real-life.
Surprisingly, after just 3 hours together, Bob was already having simple conversations in Italian.
How did Bob achieve that amazing result in such a short time?
Is it because I’m a magic Italian teacher who can teach you to speak Italian in 3 hours?
That’d be nice, but no. Truth is, I didn’t do much.
All I did was encourage him to start speaking. About normal things that he talks about in his native language. And helped him out with a few words and grammar points so he could say what he wanted to say.
As soon as Bob started using Italian in real life, everything fell into place.
The wrong way to learn a second language as an adult
I was in the same situation as Bob after two years of Italian classes. I’d spent most of the time learning grammar and vocabulary, but I struggled to remember it. I found language classes boring, never did my homework and couldn’t have a conversation if my life depended on it.
But then, I did a year abroad in Italy. Suddenly, learning a language wasn’t about memorizing verbs, it was about talking to people.
I didn’t like studying grammar, but I liked people.
So I took my nose out of my grammar book and started trying to have conversations. I also started spending my free time reading and listening to things in Italian. At first, things which were simplified for learners. Then, as my level improved, I started trying to do things I enjoyed in my first language, like reading magazines and watching TV series.
It was really awkward. I spoke excruciatingly slowly and made tons of mistakes. I didn’t understand a lot of what I saw and heard. But I persevered and after a while, I became fluent in Italian.
And even though it was tricky, I enjoyed it. I was interacting with human beings (the reason I wanted to learn a language in the first place) and reading and listening to things that I actually cared about, instead of those dull and cheesy textbooks.
Do you need to go to the country to learn a second language?
Now I know that it’s not impossible to learn a second language in your home country. It just seemed like that because the way most of us are taught in school doesn’t work.
It’s not you, it’s the method
The more languages I learn and the more students I work with, the more I’m convinced of this: you can’t learn a language by memorizing a bunch of grammar rules and vocabulary.
You have to learn languages by doing. By speaking, listening, reading and writing.
This doesn’t mean I’m totally against grammar. Learning the rules might give you a basic structure to follow and help you tidy things up around the edges. But the vast majority (if not all) the learning comes through using the language.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask the polyglots. Although they all have different methods, one thing they have in common is that they practice using the language a lot – they don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time memorizing grammar rules or vocabulary in isolation.
Which raises an interesting question: why do most language courses prioritise grammar, when there’s not much anecdotal or scientific evidence to suggest that this is the best way to learn a language?
The answer lies in the history of language education.
Why most schools make it harder for adults to learn a second language
Let’s hop in a time machine and travel back to the 1800s for a moment.
Back then, there was no Ryan Air. You couldn’t jump on a plane and go somewhere warm for a couple of weeks. There was no European Union. In fact, many European countries were in almost constant warfare.
People didn’t have the same opportunities to go abroad and connect with people from other countries as we do now. Yet languages were still taught at school.
To study ancient texts. Students took Latin and Greek classes so they could learn to read and translate literature in those languages. The teaching focused on rote-learning of verb tables and grammar rules, which worked OK when languages were used as a tool to translate texts. There was no focus on speaking or listening at all because that wasn’t the goal.
The problems started in the 1900s, when people began to learn other languages. Even though the goal was now to communicate with human beings rather than translate texts, teachers continued using the same method they’d always used. This left generations of frustrated students who couldn’t speak a language after years of classes, because they’d never practiced speaking it.
The world’s changed a lot since then and fortunately, so have language teaching methods. There’s a lot more communication in the classroom these days.
But the most dangerous idea has lived on – the belief that you have to memorize lots of grammar rules and vocabulary before you start trying to use the language in real life.
I can’t remember words and grammar
People who’ve only ever tried to learn languages with the traditional school method are often left feeling like they’re bad at languages, because no matter how hard they try, they can’t remember grammar and vocabulary.
If this sounds like you, please don’t give up on learning a second language. You’re not bad at languages, you’ve just been taught them with the wrong techniques.
I see this all the time for myself and my students: it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat a grammar point or word list. Almost everyone struggles to remember grammar and vocabulary until they start using them in real ways. That is, until you come across lots of real examples in reading and listening, and practice using them in speaking and writing.
There are two science-backed reasons why learning grammar and vocabulary in isolation makes them more difficult to remember:
1. Your memory is sharper when you learn by doing.
2. To learn a language, your brain needs to take statistics about words in real-life contexts.
Let’s look at these in more detail.
1. What divers can teach you about learning a second language
They sent divers underwater and taught them a bunch of words, played through a diving communication device. They also taught them some words on dry land. 24 hours later, they tested the divers both underwater and on dry land to see how many words they could remember.
Turns out, the divers forgot 40% more words when the context was different, that is, if they’d learnt the words on land and tried to recall them underwater and vice-versa.
Decades of research support the very same quirk about human memory: we remember things more easily when we use them in the same situation we learnt them in, and forget them more easily in different situations.
If you learn verbs by rote, you might remember them while you’re going through the list in your head, but you’ll probably struggle to recall them in conversation. Similarly, if you learn words and grammar on apps, they might come to mind easily when you’re fiddling with your phone, but disappear as soon as you need them in real life.
The good news?
If you learn a language through conversations, you’ll remember better when you’re having conversations. If you learn by writing, you’ll remember better when you’re writing. If you learn by listening, you’ll remember more easily when listening. If you learn by reading, you’ll remember more easily when reading.
In other words, if you learn by doing, things will come to you more easily when you need them in real life.
2. How your brain learns languages
Why do we have tall buildings, but high ceilings?
In many languages, the difference between tall and high doesn’t even exist. If you call your boss a high man in Italian, that means he’s tall. If you call him a high man in English, it means he’s been smoking something funny.
Learning a language isn’t about isolated words, it’s about learning how those words fit together.
Neurolinguistics, the study of how our brain processes languages, shows us why this matters.
The neuroscience of learning a second language
Did you know that your brain is constantly giving off electrical signals? These signals change depending on what task your brain is doing, and scientists can read some of these – using a technique called electroencephalography – to study how your brain learns a language.
One of these signals, called the N400, shows us how native speakers process groups of words. The N400 is relatively small with combinations of words that you expect to hear together, like coffee and cream, but larger for unexpected words, like coffee and… crap. If your N400 doesn’t increase significantly for unexpected combinations, like crap, scientists might wonder what on earth you’ve been putting in your coffee.
These signals show that our brain is constantly taking statistics about words that normally appear together. This is good, as it helps us make predictions about what’s coming next so we can communicate faster.
The better someone speaks a foreign language, the closer their N400 pattern is to that of a native speaker. This suggests that learning a language involves building up expectations about words that usually appear together, just like native speakers do.
To speak a foreign language fluently, you’ll need to give your brain the chance to take statistics about how words are combined in the language you’re learning. You can’t do this if you spend all your time trying to memorise grammar rules or word lists.
The best way to get a feeling for word patterns in your target language is through mass input, that is, spending tons of time reading and listening to the language.
The good news is, you can get this mass input without even realizing it – by simply reading and listening to lots of things you enjoy. Not only is learning by doing more in line with what we know about how the brain learns languages, it’s also more fun.
You don’t have to start speaking straight away if you don’t want to
You may think that learning by doing means you have to start speaking straight away. If you want to throw yourself in at the deep end and practice speaking very early on, brilliant – it’s a great way to apply what you’ve learnt and get used to communicating with native speakers.
But you don’t have to.
If the idea of speaking from day 1 fills you with dread, feel free to wait a little while! Many prolific language learners prefer not to speak straight away, most notably Steve Kaufmann who speaks 16 languages.
If you’d rather wait, you can start by doing lots of reading and listening to get a feel for the language. When you decide to have a go at speaking, you’ll need some time to adapt, but the foundation will already be there.
Everyone’s different. It doesn’t matter if you’d rather dive into speaking or spend some time reading and listening first.
All that matters is that you stop dedicating a disproportionate amount of time to memorizing grammar and vocabulary and practice using the language in real ways.
Learning a second language won’t always be easy (but it will be worth it)
When you start learning a language by doing, it’ll probably feel awkward. When you try reading and listening, all that new vocabulary might feel overwhelming. When you try speaking, you might get embarrassed by your mistakes, or the epically long silences as you search for the words.
Some people see this uncomfortable feeling as a problem that should be avoided. They want to memorize more grammar and vocabulary because they believe it will help them feel at ease when they start using the language in real life.
But that’s like thinking you can improve your guitar skills by reading more books. A bit of theory might help, but you’ll never learn to play without going through that awkward stage where your fingertips hurt.
How to learn a language by doing when you’re a beginner
So far, we’ve talked about how the most effective (and enjoyable!) way to learn a language is to practice using it in real life. But how can you do that when you’re a complete beginner? To get practical ideas on how to learn a language by doing, even as a beginner, join me for my online workshop this Saturday, 10th March*
As part of the Women in Language event, you’ll get access to my workshop called: The #1 mistake beginners make when learning a language (and how to fix it). In it, you’ll learn:
– Actionable ideas on how to start using the language (even if you’re a beginner).
– The smart way to learn grammar and vocabulary.
– How to sound more natural and confident when you speak.
In July 2015, Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, played against 23-year-old Heather Watson, ranked 59th.
Everyone expected a quick and painless win for Serena. Yet in the final set, millions stared at their TV screens in astonishment as Heather looked close to winning the match.
In the end, Serena cinched it, but the tennis world was stunned by how close Heather got.
Do you know what my favourite part of this story is?
When Heather was 8 years old, she watched Serena play at Wimbledon. She even had Serena’s poster on her wall. It was Serena who had inspired Heather to become the great tennis player that came close to beating her.
As for Serena, her childhood hero was Steffi Graf, who she later surpassed with her 23rd Grand Slam title.
In turn, these 3 tennis players have inspired little girls all over the world to smash it on the tennis court.
The success of one woman is the inspiration of every other one – Serena Williams
Women in Languages
Sometimes, seeing other people do remarkable things is exactly the push you need to move ahead with your own projects.
With this in mind, I’ve put together a list of 50 women who are making amazing contributions to the world of language learning.
From smart women who developed new methods to learn languages, to brave women who left everything behind and moved to a new country where they didn’t know a single person.
From benevolent women who are making the world a better place with their language skills to ambitious women who’ve learnt multiple languages and show you how to do the same.
I hope after reading about these legendary gals, you’ll feel more energized to leap into your own language learning missions.
I wrote this post in honour of the very first Women in Language, a four-day online conference with a line up of female experts language teaching and language learning. This year there are some equally fab and inspiring women on the bill – I’ve got my ticket!
We’ll start with the women who learn multiple languages and invite you along with them on their language journey. They’ll inspire you with their triumphs, give candid accounts of their struggles and share insider tips so you can learn languages just like they did.
1. Lindsay Williams from Lindsay does Languages
First up is Lindsay Williams, who shares her infectious enthusiasm for languages over on her blog lindsaydoeslanguages. Her articles and YouTube videos are full of creative ideas on how to learn a language on your own. As well as inspiring independent learners, she also gives online language teachers advice on how to kickstart their careers.
Linsday says: For me, a big part of my job is inspiring others to teach themselves languages.
Kerstin is a native German speaker who’s studied 8 languages so far (her English is better than mine, eek!). She’s a trained translator, host of The Fluent Show Podcast, and author of the guides Language Habit Toolkit, Fluency Made Achievable and The Vocab Cookbook. On her blog fluentlanguage, Kerstin shares her own language learning journey and gives actionable advice on how to build good language learning habits.
Kerstin believes: Language learning is for everyone, not just young, rich, smart, privileged people
Kerstin is hosting the Women in Language event, together with Lindsay and our next inspiring female language learner…
3. Shannon Kennedy from Eurolinguiste
Shannon is the queen of learning multiple languages: she speaks French, English, and Chinese fluently, has dabbled in German, Italian, and Spanish to various degrees, and is currently working her way towards better learning Russian, Croatian, and Korean. More recently, she’s started focusing on Japanese. Phew!
On her blog, Eurolinguiste, you’ll find articles infused with travel adventures and cultural notes about the languages she’s learning (there’s some food in there too!). As well as documenting her own journey, she inspires language learners through her work on the fluent in 3 months blog and with the add1challenge community.
Shannon says: I believe in working hard towards your goals and being transparent with successes and failures.
4. Agnieszka Murdoch from 5-Minute language
Agnieszka speaks English, French, Spanish, Polish and German, and is currently learning Japanese. On her 5-Minute Language blog and fab YouTube channel, she gives bite-sized articles and videos with practical tips on how to learn a language, even if you’re very busy.
Agnieszka says: I believe there’s always time for language learning – you too can find it with a few simple tweaks to your lifestyle
5. Michele from The Intrepid Guide
Travel writer Michele Frolla combines her two passions to create a unique blend of language and travel advice. On her blog the intrepid guide, you’ll find destinations guides, language learning tools, travel phrase cheat sheets, and more!
I love seeing the stunning photos, fascinating and little-known linguistic and cultural tidbits she shares on social media.
Michele lives by the motto: The more we travel, the more we learn.
Jo Franco is the business head of the phenomenally successful travel blog and YouTube channel Shut Up and Go. Together with her friend Damon Dominque, she encourages people who want to get out and see the world to stop making excuses and go for it.
In her straight-up and relatable style, she presents a blend of travel advice, cultural stuff and language learning tips.
She speaks English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Here, you can see her hanging out with her host family in Sorrento after learning Italian at lightning speed.
Jo says: I’m a believer in taking risks and just going for it
7. Lýdia Machová from Language Mentoring
Polyglot Lýdia Machová learns a new language every two years. She’s currently learning Swahili, her 9th! She’s also one of the main organizers of Polyglot Gathering, one of the biggest world events for polyglots.
She believes you can’t teach a language, you can only help other people do it on their own. On her website, Language Mentoring, you can learn about her unique approach which helps people find their own way of learning a language, persist and achieve the desired results.
Lýdia says: Learning a language doesn’t have to be a complicated, lengthy process, and it definitely doesn’t have to be unpleasant. Quite the opposite, you can learn languages in a very enjoyable and relaxed way.
8. Shahidah Foster from Black Girls Learn Languages
Shahidah Foster is on a mission to encourage more black women to become multilingual and increase coverage in the media. On her blog blackgirlslearnlanguages, she celebrates black linguistas and inspires with bios and language learning resources. You’ll also find articles about Shahidah’s own language experiences with German, Spanish and French, together with tons of practical and intuitive advice that make your target language come alive.
Shahidah says: Mimic the natives… it really helps you improve your vocabulary, it helps you find your voice in the target language.
In 2009, Ellen Jovin set herself a mission: to learn as much as she could in 12 months, of a bunch of languages spoken around New York. 8 years later, she’s still going strong and has now studied a total of 21 different languages.
On her website Words & Worlds of New York, she posts informative reviews of the resources she uses and often speaks at events to encourage adults to learn languages.
Ellen says: A new language is a hand held out to one’s neighbor, an opener of doors, a new way to see, a mental tickle, a road to unmediated communication with strangers in other lands, access to the world’s news, a gesture of peace — really, language study can be anything you want to make of it.
Incredible polyglot Lindie Botes speaks Afrikaans, English, French, Korean, Japanese, Mandarin and is learning Vietnamese, Indonesian, Arabic and Hindi. She was born in South Africa but has lived all over the world including France, Pakistan and Dubai. On her YouTube channel, Lindi shares her language journey together with language learning tips, Q&As and reviews of resources.
11. Judith Meyer from LearnYu
Polyglot of all trades Judith Meyer is a computational linguist, the head organiser of the Polyglot Gathering and author of several language books and courses. She’s an active member of the language learning community and often gives interviews and talks where she shares her experiences from learning over 14 languages.
You can catch Judith’s talk Fast Track Language Learning at the Women in Language conference.
Globetrotting Irina Pravet was born in Romania, grew up in Canada, lived in Germany and now lives in Finland. She speaks 6 languages to various levels of fluency: English & Romanian as native languages + French, Finnish, German, Spanish.
Her online business at IrinaPravet.com helps people create the life they love abroad.
Irina says: When we feel at ease abroad (whether speaking the language, being ourselves, connecting on a deeper level, etc) we make a bigger impact.
On her website, Language Learner’s Journal, Trisha documents her own language learning experiences and gives tips on how to become more focused and productive. She speaks the following 8 languages to varying levels: English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Icelandic & British Sign Language (BSL).
Trisha says: My mission is to empower people to learn new skills, especially languages!
14. Eve from the Urban Eve
Jet-setter Eve has learned 8 languages. After growing up in Germany, she spent 4 years in Madrid and currently lives in Paris. On her YouTube channel, she gives practical advice and mindset tips on how to learn a language. She’s a big believer in immersing yourself in the culture of the language you’re learning.
Eve says: the more I get to know the culture, the more I love the language.
15. Lina Vasquez from Busy Linguist
Lina Vasquez speaks over 7 languages. On her YouTube channel Busy Linguist, she talks about her own language learning experience and gives advice to people who are interested in language learning despite their busy schedule and life.
16. Maureen Millward from Language Learning Journey
Maureen Millward is a polyglot from Scotland. As well as English, her native language, she is fluent in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese and also speaks Catalan, Norwegian, French, Gaelic, German, Sicilian and Greek at various levels. She’s currently learning Chinese, Slovak & Arabic. She also dabbles in lots of the lesser known languages, like Azeri and Yoruba.
Over on her blog Language Learning Journey, Maureen documents her language learning journey and sometimes writes articles in the languages she’s learning.
Kamila Tekin is a Turk from the Netherlands who taught herself 5+ languages using social media and apps. She grew up bilingual speaking Dutch and Turkish and taught herself English, Spanish, German, French, and Portuguese. She often gives herself specific deadlines to learn languages and shares what she’s learned on social media.
Her videos are inspiring and refreshingly honest: she challenges herself and isn’t afraid to show her mistakes, so you can see what learning a language is really like.
Kamila says: With my language learning project, I also hope to show people from other countries that I’m interested in their language and that I love their culture.
18. Abigail from Polyglot progress
Abigail runs the popular language learning YouTube channel Polyglot Progress, together with her friend Matt. She documents her own language learning progress and gives friendly and honest advice about how to learn a language, as well as resource reviews and mini tutorials. She’s currently learning German, Spanish, Bulgarian and Japanese.
19. Elena from Hitoritabi
Italian linguaphile Elena describes herself as an introvert and grammar geek. On her blog Hitoritabi, Elena teaches Italian and Japanese. She specialises in giving anxious language learners a safe space to learn in before jumping into the real world and starting to speak.
Elena says: Anxiety doesn’t have to be an obstacle to learning a language, but it can be your motivation for it.
Women who will inspire you to work with languages
20. Khady Ndoye from LaPolyglotte
African languages advocate Khady Ndoye is the founder of LaPolyglotte, a platform which inspires people to discover and learn more about the 3000+ African languages. The LaPolyglotte mission is: “to offer the diaspora, African youth, and africanophiles, dynamic and creative tools to the discovery of the cultural riches of which the cradle of humanity abounds”.
Khady specialises in African languages and digital marketing. On the blog and across her social media channels, you’ll find mini-tutorials together with fascinating linguistic and cultural facts.
21. Madeline Vadkerty
Madeline is an interpreter who worked for Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma in Washington, DC, where she used her skills in French, Spanish and Russian to help asylum seekers living in the US by offering psychological care and social services.
She wants to show you how you can use your language skills to make a better place.
Madeline says: Interpreting for dissidents from all over the world is part of what makes a career in this field so rewarding, but most uplifting of all was being part of a team that helps people heal and seeing people get back up on their feet after surviving torture.
Catch her talk Making the World a Better Place As an Interpreter at the Women in Language conference.
Polish-American polyglot Nikki speaks 7 languages. She’s leveraged her language skills into an international career spanning the translation, education, and entertainment industries in the U.S., Germany, Poland, Egypt, Croatia, and Slovenia.
As well as teaching languages through her unique immersion approach, she shows people how to use their languages and understanding of multiple cultures to get their dream job in any industry.
Nikki says: Being multilingual in 2018 is the most valuable skill you can have.
23. Elisa Polese from Speak from Day One with Elisa
Multilingual teacher Elisa Polese teaches an impressive number of languages: Italian, German, English, Spanish, Russian, French, Dutch, Catalan, Portuguese, Greek, Hindi, Arabic and Esperanto (at different levels).
She’s specialized in multilingual teaching (up to 10 languages in one course) and is a certified language examiner for English, Italian, Russian, French, German and Spanish.
Elisa says: “You can see great progress in your language learning in just 5 mins per day”
Therese LaFleche is on a mission to help people understand the importance of multilingualism in today’s ever-shrinking world. Earlier this year, she organised an online event with international experts in the field of languages and expats (that I had the honour of speaking at) called The Modern Executive: Learn a new language, Open the global market, Build an international brand.
She’s a strong believer in the role of fun in learning, not only as a way to make the process more enjoyable but also as a powerful memory booster.
Therese says: My goal is to make learning a fun journey just as it was when we were kids.
Language lover Rebecca speaks English and French and is learning Italian and German. Based in Melbourne, she talks about overcoming the challenge of learning foreign languages from home, when you’re surrounded by your native language.
Together with her partner Chris, Rebecca runs Irregular Endings, a company which makes paper goods and stationery for language lovers. I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with irregular endings for the #languagediarychallenge – their gorgeous bilingual calendars are always highly sought after prizes!
Rebecca says: One of the best ways I’ve found to learn and remember what I know of another language is making my target language part of my ‘normal’.
A UK-based native of North Germany, Bettina Roehricht has been working as a freelance translator for nearly 20 years. She also provides coaching for other freelance translators, helping them optimise their client base, improve their work-life balance and simply be happier with their translation business.
Dani says: You will be surprised how much useful information language enthusiasts can find in a good crime story.
Women who will inspire you to learn Italian
29. Elfin from all about Italian
Langauge-lover Elfin was born in the US but grew up in Italy and learned Italian as a kid. She contributes an enormous amount to the language learning community on Instagram, both through her invaluable bite-sized video lessons and the support she gives to other language learners who share their progress.
Her speciality is using social media to squeeze language learning into a busy life.
Elfin says: the process should be just as enjoyable and remarkable as the final goal, that of becoming fluent
Rome-based Lucrezia Oddone helps you learn Italian the fun way by taking you with her on a journey around Italy’s capital.
On her YouTube channel, you’ll find vlogs and tutorials with clear grammar explanations and lots of examples. Many of her videos are entirely in Italian (with subtitles) which perfect for the full immersion experience! She interacts daily with her followers and often answers FAQs in Italian.
31. Cher Hale
Cher Hale describes herself as “a relationship counsellor between humans and the Italian language”. Her mission is to help people who’ve fallen in love with the Italian language stick with it, even after the honeymoon period has ended. On her blog the iceberg project, Cher shares her own experience in learning the Italian language, together with tutorials and fun and easy ways to learn grammar.
You’ll also find lots of real-world Italian words and phrases that you won’t get from normal language courses.
Cher says:Like you, I am just a student trying my best to learn this language, so I understand first-hand the hard work it takes, and I want nothing more than to help you learn it too in a way that helps you make meaningful progress, laugh, and enjoy each step of the process.
A few years ago, Canadian-born Jasmine met a charming Italian boy in a bar in Alberta, Canada. After a few years’ long distance, she left it all behind and moved to Bergamo to pursue her Italian dream.
On her blog Questa Dolce Vita, Jasmine gives an articulate, honest (and often hilarious) insiders view of what it’s really like to move to Italy and learn Italian on the field.
Jasmine says: Very often, I hear people say that they aren’t capable of learning a second language. They attribute the success of others to a natural gift. You are born with the ability to learn languages. I would like to politely disagree. Someone who learns a second language is successful because they work their ass off every second of every day.
Jasmine runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Kristie from Mamma Prada and Kelly from Italian at heart.
33. Kristie from Mamma Prada
UK-based Kristie and her Italian husband are parents to two gorgeous little ones. On her blog MammaPrada, Kristie shares her story of raising bilingual children & navigating cross-cultural life.
You’ll find tons of practical tips on bringing up kids in a bilingual home, together with Italy travel tips and little known cultural gems.
Kristie says: We are simply parents hoping to pass on the best of our dual heritage to our children and to give them, in our eyes the benefit of two languages from birth.
Kristie runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Jasmine from Questa Dolce Vita and Kelly from Italian at heart.
34. Kelly from Italian at Heart
Granddaughter of an Italian immigrant living in the US, Kelly had always felt a strong connection to her Italian heritage and was saddened by the fact that his native language didn’t get passed down to her generation. So she decided to take matters into her own hands and start learning Italian! On her blog Italian at Heart, Kelly shares her journey to learn her grandfather’s mother tongue, along with her culinary, travel and cultural adventures.
Kelly says: I feel such a calling to stay connected to my Italian heritage. For me, language is the most beautiful family heirloom that can ever be gifted to future generations.
Kelly runs the DolceVitaBloggers link up, together with Jasmine from Questa Dolce Vita and Kristie from MammaPrada.
35. Ishita from Italophilia
Author of India’s most popular Italy blog, Italophilia, Ishita Sood shares her love for the bel paese and the Italian language through travel guides and how-to articles. Across her site and social media channels, she infuses her Italian journey with beautiful photos that make you feel like you’re walking along those little-cobbled streets right next to her.
Ishita says: Italy is my calling. It is my go-to place to think about when I am low. It brings a smile on my face when someone I know connects my name to that country. Or when someone takes my help planning their trip to Italy.
Women who will inspire you to learn German
36. Cari from Easy German
Cari produces the amazing Easy German channel, together with her husband Janusz. Armed with a wicked sense of humour and infectious enthusiasm, she runs around the streets of Germany (and further afield), posing interesting questions to passers-by in German. Watch Easy German and you’ll learn authentic, real German language, as spoken in the streets and among friends.
37. Kaci from Year of German
When monolingual American Kaci Schack was on maternity leave, she embarked on a journey to teach herself German and pass it on to her son through storybooks and songs. Amazingly, this joint mission helped her overcome postpartum depression! Now Kaci is monolingual no more and her 3-year-old son is growing up to be bilingual in English and German.
Kaci shares her German progress on Instagram and gives language learning advice for normal people over on medium.
Kaci says: Languages are for everyone. Young. Old. Tall. Short. Black. White. From Europe. From Asia. From Mexico. From Wherever. Liberal. Conservative. City Person. Country Person. Millionaire. Less Affluent. Religious or Not. Musical or Not. Athletic or Not. Whatever.
Annik Rubens is the producer of Slow German, a fab podcast for beginner-intermediate German learners. Each episode is read in clear, easy to understand German and covers topics about life in Germany and German culture, often from new and interesting angles. On her website, you’ll find loads more goodies like transcripts and interactive translations.
Women who will inspire you to learn French
39. Carrie Anne James from French is beautiful
American-born Carrie Anne James delivers French lessons infused with a chic Parisian feel. Her stunning French is Beautiful Instagram page has quotes that make you fall in love with the French language, as well as making you feel like you’re the star of a Dior advert by taking you on a tour of the capital’s most luxurious spots.
As an American who learnt French as a second language, Carrie knows precisely which aspects of the French language you need to focus on in order to feel fluent and express your full personality in French as quickly as possible.
Carrie says: French is Beautiful is my love letter to those whose heart lives en France.
No list of inspiring women in language would be complete without Manon, the woman who inspired me to learn French!
Manon was my French tutor as I was preparing to take the DALF C1 Exam and I honestly could not have done it without her. She’s organised but flexible, demanding but patient and goes out of her way to help each student make as much progress in French as possible.
She’s taught all over the world and is learning many languages herself, including Spanish, Japanese and Thai.
Manon says: I try to be the kind of teacher I like to have as a language student myself. I’m always prepared, organised, and patient.
41. Heidi Rivolta from Bonjour Tonton
Heidi has been teaching French to children and their adults alongside her naughty tortoise puppet Tonton since 2009. Her speciality is engaging kids to nurture a love of learning and make them fall in love with languages.
In 2017, she self-published her first French learning picture book under the name Bonjour Tonton. She also offers free weekly lesson plans for teaching French to children at home or in school via her blog Bonjour Tonton.
Watch her talk: Positive Language Learning for Kids and Their Adults at the Women in Language conference.
Women who will inspire you to learn Spanish
42. Marina Diez from Notes in Spanish
Marina Diez presents the Notes in Spanish podcast, together with her English husband Ben. She brings her native speaker knowledge to the show, injecting it with her fun personality and sharing cultural tips on Spain. Marina is also in charge of the design and development of worksheets and supplementary materials.
I’m a big fan of Notes in Spanish and have spent many an afternoon wandering around the streets with my headphones getting a quick Spanish lesson with Marina!
43. Chiqui from Hablaele
Chiqui is my Spanish teacher and the woman who’s inspiring me to learn Spanish right now! Her friendly, bubbly style of teaching puts you at ease immediately and helps you get speaking. She’s organised, experienced and knows how to work with her students to get the best progress possible.
She also creates materials for Spanish learners over on her YouTube channel.
You can book classes with her on her website hablaELE.
44. María Ortega Garcia from Compass Spanish
María is the creator of the line Compass Spanish where she offers online Spanish courses, support and guidance to students of Spanish. She has been running her own online education business since 2011, offering online lessons as well as retreats and immersion courses in Spain.
Follow the charismatic and adorable Fiona Tian as she teaches you survival Mandarin around Taiwan. Each video has a practical theme like “ordering from a menu”, “riding the subway in Chinese” and “arriving at the airport”. Fiona was brought up in a bilingual English-Mandarin household and her connection to both cultures makes her the perfect person to give you insights into the Chinese language and culture.
46. Yangyang Cheng from Yo-Yo Chinese
Yangyang teaches Mandarin in a clear and simple way, from the English speaker’s point of view. On her YouTube channel, you’ll find tutorials, cultural notes and interviews with native speakers.
Women who will inspire you to learn English
47. Cara Leopold from Leo Listening
Cara Leopold is a listening skills specialist. Her work deals with one of the biggest frustrations for intermediate and advanced language learners: after all this time, why can’t I understand TV and films?
Her method helps people break free from subtitles so they can fall back in love with their favourite films and TV shows.
On her hugely successful YouTube channel, the passionate and experienced Gabby Wallace shares her tips on how to learn English, with a unique focus on listening, speaking and conversation. She speaks Portuguese & Spanish too!
The woman who will inspire you to learn Vietnamese
49. Elisabeth Jackson from More Vietnamese
Elisabeth is an English Language (EFL) Teacher from the UK who has lived and taught in Vietnam and Bulgaria, learning the local language both times. She’s dabbled in other languages (namely Korean and Esperanto) and is currently learning Spanish. Vietnamese remains her best language and she blogs about it at More Vietnamese.
Listen to her talk: Why You’re Struggling with Listening and What to Do about It at the Women in Language conference. Update: the 2018 event is now closed, but you can get your tickets for this year’s women in language here.
The woman who will inspire you to learn Japanese
50. Fran Wrigley from Step Up Japanese
Last but not least is Fran, a Japanese teacher and kanji obsessive. Fran worked in teaching and translation in Japan before returning to sunny Brighton in 2014, where she set up her school Step Up Japanese. She believes in the power of building a community for language learners where they can support each other and learn from each other’s mistakes.
Her mission is to show the world that the Japanese language is as logical and simple as it is beautiful … and to eat huge quantities of edamame beans along the way.
So there you have it, 50 amazing women who are inspiring the world to learn languages. This list is based on the women who have inspired me, so it’s a bit biased towards the languages I interact with the most. I’m sure there are loads of other fab women out there inspiring people to learn languages – please share the love and add them to the comments!
You start off feeling enthusiastic about eating salads and end up feeling enthusiastic about… well, nothing really.
Apart from maybe hiding under the duvet until April.
At least that’s what happens to me every year. No matter how motivated I am at the beginning of January, by February I haven’t achieved anything or worse, I’ve gone backwards.
So this year I decided to do things differently: instead of attempting something big, I’d start with a couple of itsy-bitsy changes. Something so easy I couldn’t say no to – like reading one paragraph in my Spanish book.
I hoped that once I’d planted the seed, these tiny habits would grow organically and help me on my quest to become fluent in Spanish, without constantly battling (and losing) against my flaky willpower.
This micro experiment turned out to be a big success: I ended up reading 600 pages in Spanish in January – probably more than I read all year in 2017!
But last month wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.
My mission to become fluent in Spanish threw up some challenges too: I struggled with time-wasting habits (I’m looking at you Facebook!) and realized that my listening isn’t as good as I’d like it to be.
Which got me thinking: could I apply this “make-it-so-easy-you-can’t-say-no” philosophy to other areas of Spanish and get similar results? Would this technique help me nix my time-wasting habits and improve my listening in Spanish?
Keep reading to find out:
How I managed to read 600 pages by forming good language learning habits.
How I plan on breaking time-wasting habits in February (hasta luego social media!).
My problems with listening in Spanish + how I plan to fix them.
How I’m becoming fluent in Spanish by forming good language learning habits
This year, I set myself the micro-task of reading 2 paragraphs per day (one in the morning and one in the evening), and I ended up reading 600 pages in a month!
This experience has shown me that when it comes to making big changes, starting small is best.
To get into the habit of reading more in Spanish, I used BJ Fogg’s tiny habits technique, which consists of two main steps:
Make the habit so small you can’t say no.
Do it immediately after a habit you already have.
For me this was:
After I make my morning cup of tea, I’ll read a paragraph of my book. After I finish washing the dishes in the evening, I’ll read a paragraph of my book.
This technique worked well because it helped me do the hardest bit – get started. By the time I got started, it was easy to keep going. Actually, it was fun, because there was no pressure. Once I’d finished the paragraph, I could stop if I wanted to (and I did sometimes). But most of the time I kept reading out of choice, which made the whole thing more enjoyable.
Riding on the crest of this good habit wave, I added another couple on:
After I brush my teeth, floss one tooth (I usually end up flossing them all). OK, this won’t help me become fluent in Spanish, but it’s interesting to see how the tiny habits have spilt over into other areas!
Of course, there were some down points too. Like last week when I didn’t read as much because I had the winter grumps and was feeling demotivated. But the great thing about my tiny language learning habits is that even if I’m tired, cranky or busy, I can still do them because they’re so easy. Usually, this would be when I’d let everything slide, end up feeling guilty and struggle to get started again.
But doing just a tiny something on these days helps me stay in the habit, which naturally expands again when I feel better or have more time.
Will I keep bookworming through February?
I suspect that once the initial enthusiasm has worn off, the amount I read in Spanish will drop a bit. But I’m hoping that my tiny reading habits will help me stay in the game and still get quite a lot of Spanish reading done.
What’s stopping me from becoming fluent in Spanish? Time-wasting habits!
In the 70s, the baby boomers had LSD and weed. For Gen X, it was cocaine and ecstasy.
And Millennials? We’ve got coffee and Facebook.
Sometimes I like to think this addiction doesn’t apply to me, especially when the conversation moves on to how obsessed people are with their smartphones these days. But the truth is, I’m just as hooked as everyone else in my generation.
Most of the time I don’t even enjoy using social media (unless I’m using Instagram for language learning). But somehow I find my fingers reaching for my phone and before I know it, I’m staring vacantly at pictures of what a friend of a friend ate for breakfast, I’ve lost 20 minutes of my life and I’m feeling like a small part of me has just died.
If I could stop constantly chasing little dopamine hits on my screen, I’d have a lot more time on my hands.
Of course, I’ve tried to stop procrastinating on social media before. Sometimes it works for a bit, but sooner or later I find myself with the same problem. Just because I decide to do something, doesn’t mean I’ll actually do it.
What I learnt last month is that to make real changes, it helps to start itsy-bitsy.
So this month, I’m going to start unravelling my social media dependence with one tiny habit:
Every time I open my phone to go on social media, I’ll revise one Spanish word on my flashcard app.
This is so small, it should be easy to do. If I really want to go on social media after that I can. But something tells me that once I get started with one Spanish word, I’ll probably do 10. And by the time I’ve done 10, I probably won’t feel like going on social media anymore.
What else is stopping me from becoming fluent in Spanish? Listening skills
I’ve been learning Spanish for a while now, so I’m always surprised by how little I understand when I watch Spanish TV. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching channel 9 from the Fast Show.
As I already speak Italian and French, it didn’t take long for me to start understanding slow, simplified Spanish, like the kind you hear in textbooks, or that native speakers use with foreigners. I could also understand written Spanish quite well, and managed to watch a few Spanish TV series with Spanish subtitles.
This meant I was feeling a little too cocky about my listening skills and got a shock when I turned off the subtitles and realized how little I could understand!
I have to remind myself that understanding TV actually comes much later than people expect. After reaching a quite an advanced level in Italian (C2) and living in Italy for several years, I still don’t understand everything on Italian TV, especially if the characters have strong regional accents. Similarly, I have an Italian friend who’s lived in America for 10 years and speaks English so well he’s often mistaken for a native, but even he doesn’t understand everything he hears in American films.
So the first step is to be realistic and not panic when I understand less than expected.
Another thing that trips me up with Spanish listening is the regional variation: after spending a while getting used to Mexican Spanish, I was shocked to realize I hardly understood anything in the Spanish spoken in Spain. Some people say just pick a variety and stick to it, but I’d like to understand Spanish speaking people from all over the world!
How I plan on boosting my Spanish listening skills
I simply haven’t spent enough time getting used to real, spoken Spanish. So this month, my plan is to binge listen to different varieties of Spanish.
This is a great excuse to re-watch all the Spanish-language TV series and films I’ve already seen, this time without subtitles.
As a rough estimate, I’d say I can understand around 50 – 60% of what’s being said, which means I can usually follow what’s going on, even if I can’t understand all the details yet. By starting with series I’ve already seen, I’ll have an even better chance of following what’s being said.
Binge listening to Spanish-Language TV and podcasts
To learn from films and TV, it’s important to be able to follow the dialogue. For this reason, I’m going to use videos and TV series with Spanish subtitles that I can turn on and off. This way, when I come across big chunks of dialogues that I don’t understand, I can go back and listen again a couple of times, and if I really don’t get it, I can watch it again with the subtitles.
That said, in times when I can’t be bothered to go into so much detail, I’m just going to put my feet up and watch. Now I can understand at least 50%, I can learn a lot by just listening to hours and hours of dialogues. I did this a while ago with French (with TV shows that had no subtitles) and after lots of binge-watching, my French listening got pretty good. My speaking improved too.
I’ll also be listening to as many Spanish podcasts as I can when I’m walking somewhere or cleaning the house. At the moment I’m listening to news podcasts, which is nice because it makes me feel like I’m in Spain (apart from when they read the weather in Granada). Speaking of which, I’m on the lookout for some good podcasts for Spanish speakers, let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions!
As I love watching foreign-language TV shows and listening to podcasts, this part won’t require much motivation, which allows me to add another so-easy-you-can’t-say-no habit to my language learning routine.
Language learning goals for February
To recap, I’ve set myself 3 very simple goals to move forward in my mission to become fluent in Spanish:
1. Reading in Spanish: Read a paragraph in the morning and one in the evening.
2. Break my time-wasting habit: review one Spanish word on my flashcard app every time I get tempted to go on social media.
3. Binge listening in Spanish: watch lots of Spanish-language TV and listen to podcasts.
I got the bus over to the South of France, looking forward to a whole month of French immersion.
As soon as I got there, I realised that the “strong and optimistic” version of me who set those goals in July was an idiot because the current “on holiday” version of me didn’t feel like doing anything that remotely resembled studying.
Instead of 90 minutes “focused study” every day and one writing exam practice per week, I did a bit of focused study occasionally and one very half-arsed practice for the writing exam in the whole month.
I did, however, do lots of fun things in French like:
Chatting to French waiters.
Reading books, magazines and newspapers.
Listening to podcasts about the areas I was visiting.
I tried to orchestrate my trip so that I’d be able to speak as much French as possible, by booking rooms in Airbnbs where the ads were written in French (a good sign that the host would be happy to speak to me in French rather than English).
But the first Airbnb turned out to be an unsociable dorm-type set up where people scuttled in and out of the kitchen to cook and take their food back to their room.
So I spent the first week alone, wandering around museums listening to French podcasts, drinking wine and reading Tintin.
The following week, My Italian partner Matteo came out to visit. He’s also learning French so we spent a week speaking our new language – a mixture of French, Italian and English, or as we like to call it “Fritalianish”.
Luckily, in the last 10 days, I found an Airbnb with a lovely, sociable host, Mireille. We hit it off immediately and I spent an amazing few days with Mireille and her friends, chatting in French the whole time (pausing only to stuff my face with lemon tarts and rosé).
With the deadline looming, it was time to start thinking about the DALF exam more seriously.
While I wasn’t feeling confident about any of it, there was one particular part which scared the crap out of me…
The production orale, otherwise known as the speaking exam.
In this part, you’re asked to read 3 French documents related to humanities/social studies or science then give a 10 to 15-minute speech on the topic.
In short, something I would find difficult in my native language.
I made a decision (which later paid off) to throw myself into the difficult bit first, so I started practicing this as much as I could during Skype lessons with my online French tutors.
My god was it painful!
By now, I could chat reasonably comfortably in French in informal situations, but a formal speech? My poor tutors had to put up with excruciatingly long silences while I dug around my brain and tried to string a sentence together.
I started to regret my decision to take the DALF exam. But it was too late to back out now.
During our first lesson, she said she thought the higher level DALF exam (C2) was too ambitious. Given that I was already halfway past my deadline and wasn’t anywhere near as far along as I’d hoped, I agreed.
We decided to go for the lower level DALF exam (C1).
I felt a bit relieved.
Manon was (rightly) still a bit dubious about whether I’d pass the C1 or not.
End of September
I had a bout of migraines which knocked me out for almost a week.
When I wasn’t being sick and my eyes could handle the light from the TV screen, I curled up on the sofa and watched reality TV in French.
Where did the first week of October go?
Time was whizzing by and I still didn’t feel ready for the exam. Time to get serious and come up with a game plan.
Got a throat infection. Spent another few days curled up on the sofa watching French TV.
Once I’d recovered, I continued following my game plan as best as I could.
End of October
Things started looking up. I realised I could now understand almost everything I heard and read in French.
All that time listening to podcasts, watching TV and reading must have paid off.
I did some practice listening and reading tests and they went pretty well. Sometimes I got close to 100%. But other times I didn’t understand the questions properly or ran out of time and only just scraped the 50% necessary to pass.
I kept doing practice speaking tests with my online conversation tutors (3 x week by this point, sometimes more). After many, many practice sessions, I stopped being so terrible at it.
But with all that focus on the speaking test, I’d forgotten about another difficult bit – the writing section!
I did a couple of practice writing tests which were disastrous. The fact that I had very little experience writing in French combined with the tricky spelling system meant that I kept making babyish spelling mistakes that made my tutor cringe! Certainly not C1 level yet.
Beginning of November
I still wasn’t sure if I’d pass.
But I was starting to feel happy with how far I’d come. Looking back to July, I realised that I’d already made a huge amount of progress in my French. No matter what happened in the exam, I’d already moved past the intermediate plateau.
I began studying French every waking hour I wasn’t working or eating. Probably 4-5 hours per day, sometimes more.
When I had the energy, I was doing practice exams. When I didn’t, I was curled up on the sofa with YouTube videos and French TV series. I also watched lots of news and Tedtalks in French. Aside from being interesting, I thought they’d help me pick up vocabulary that’d be useful for the exam.
My writing skills were still pretty crappy for C1 level. I realised that I probably shouldn’t have waited until a few weeks before the exam to start learning how to write in French.
One week before the exam
Great news! My tutor Manon was impressed with the progress I’d made. Despite her reservations about my writing, she believed I had already reached C1 level.
All I had to do now was make sure nothing went drastically wrong on the day…
How the DALF exam went
Next, I’ll give some detailed information about the DALF exam, talk about how it went on the day and give a break down of my results.
Listening (compréhension orale)
The listening part of the exam takes around 40 minutes. First, you listen to a long recording (around 8 minutes) which is taken from formats such as interviews, lessons or conferences. You can listen twice. You can take notes as you listen and you get a few minutes between each to complete your answers.
Next, you listen to a series of short radio broadcasts, typically newsflashes or adverts. You can only listen once.
For this part, it’s important that you understand spoken French well because they often pick radio samples with fast speech where the audio is a bit distorted.
As I listened to the 8 minute dialogue the first time, I panicked because the first part included a fast advert with quite a lot of sound interference. It whizzed by and I wasn’t able to concentrate on what they were saying. Luckily, the second time around I managed to catch it.
I wasn’t worried about the second part as I often got full marks in the practice tests. But in the real test, my mind wandered for a moment and… that was it. I’d missed the information I needed and I couldn’t listen again. Luckily, that only happened on a couple of questions, so it didn’t really matter.
Reading (compréhension écrite)
In the reading section, you have to answer a series of questions on a long-form article (1500 – 2000 words). It lasts for 50 minutes.
Despite the fact that I understood written French quite well, there were a couple of things that tripped me up in the practice tests:
I’m a slow reader! For me, it’s tricky to read a 2000 word document in French and answer a series of questions in 50 minutes.
Sometimes I found the questions a bit vague and struggled to pinpoint the kind of answers they were after.
Luckily, these things didn’t hold me back on the day. I felt a bit rushed for time, but I managed to answer most of the questions well.
Writing (production écrite)
The writing exam has two parts. In the first section, you read a few documents (total: 1000 words) and write a summary. In the second section, you write an argumentative essay based on the contents of the documents.
This is where things went wrong!
When I started writing, I was so aware of my weakness in that skill that I overanalysed every word.
Is that right?
Does that sound too babyish?
Needless to say, I got behind schedule. In fact, I was only halfway through the second task when the examiner shouted: 10 minutes!
10 minutes later, the examiner was standing over me saying “Madame, s’il vous plaît” as I scribbled down the last sentence.
Leaving the room, it all felt like a blur. I’d written the last part so fast, I was sure I’d made loads of mistakes. I didn’t know if I’d passed.
In the end, my writing was the result that surprised me the most – the lowest of the 4, but I was expecting much worse!
Speaking (production orale)
Before the speaking exam, the examiners give you a few documents on a topic (you can choose between humanities/social sciences or science). Then, you have one hour to read the documents and prepare a speech on the topic.
The actual exam lasts for 30 minutes: 10 – 15 minutes for the speech, followed by a discussion with the examiners on the same topic.
Interestingly, although this was the part that terrified me the most at the beginning, by the time the exam rolled around I’d practiced it so many times I felt ready – I was even looking forward to it!
When you walk into the exam room, you choose two topics by picking numbers at random. Next, you get a few minutes to sit down with the two topics and pick the one you prefer.
I got lucky.
One of the subjects was about learning and technology and as a language teacher, I have lots to say on the subject.
The actual exam was nowhere near as intimidating as I’d imagined. I gave my speech, then had a lovely chat with the examiners, nerding out about the role of technology in language learning and teaching.
When I left the room, I was elated – I couldn’t believe that the most difficult bit had gone so well! It felt nice to know that I’d just done something that seemed impossible a few months ago.
If all that exam stuff sounds terrifying, don’t worry, it sounded terrifying to me a few months ago too. If you’ve been toying with the idea of taking the DALF exam (or any other language exam) then I say go for it.
It might not be smooth sailing the whole way through, but it’ll be worth it!
My most important tip for exam preparation is to start with the terrifying bits first. That way, once you get to the exam, you’ll feel confident.
Do you have any other tips to add?
Or, do you have any questions about the DALF exam? Let me know in the comments below!
Imagine a man who does 70 push-ups a day.
What kind of person comes to mind?
An intense overachiever with willpower as strong as his biceps? A tanned guy with an intellect as small as his Speedos?
You might not imagine a soft-spoken behavioural psychologist at Stanford University who used to struggle with his weight.
Back in 2011, after a year of failing to see the number on the scales go down, BJ Fogg decided to apply insights from his research on human behaviour to his own weight loss attempts.
And the results were surprising.
Just one year later, he’d lost the weight and made some impressive changes to his lifestyle, including a 70-a-day push-up habit.
Most impressive of all, he’d done it without relying on motivation or willpower.
The surprisingly simple way to learn a language
Learning a language and weight loss are similar: they’re typical examples of those big, exciting ideas that fill us with enthusiasm on New Year’s Eve. Yet when it comes to actually making those changes in January – eating broccoli instead of cake, or studying instead of watching Netflix – most of us would rather not bother.
You could blame it on a lack of motivation and assume that these kinds of changes require a will of steel that’s not available to everyone (well, at least not to folks like me who stand in the fridge door nibbling on cheese whilst deciding what to cook for dinner).
But Fogg’s experience showed the opposite: his technique worked because he’d found a way to make lasting changes which don’t depend on motivation or willpower.
Read on to find out how Fogg’s tiny habits technique can help you create small but powerful language learning habits so you can achieve more this year. You’ll learn:
How to learn a language easily, without making massive changes to your life
Why you don’t need to feel motivated all the time
The best way to create a language learning routine you can stick to
How to keep going for long enough to get amazing results
Why motivation doesn’t work
It sounds logical enough.
To achieve big goals, you should do big things. To lose weight, you should go to the gym 3 times a week and eat celery all day. To learn a language, you should sign up for a language course and study really hard all the time.
We know these things are difficult to stick to in the long term, so we try to increase our motivation to help us keep going when things get gruelling. This explains why the internet’s full of “motivation hacks” to help you achieve this or that goal.
But realistically, who can keep their motivation consistently high enough to keep doing these things when they don’t feel like it?
I’m guessing not many. If you could, you probably wouldn’t be reading this post. If I could, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post.
Approaches that rely on willpower or motivation are flawed because they ask you to “try harder” in the exact moment that you can’t be bothered to do anything. If I’m unmotivated, I don’t want to try harder. I want to eat cheese, and no amount of articles I read on lifehack is going to change that.
So what’s the solution?
Tiny habits, big results
Professor Fogg knew that trying to boost motivation isn’t helpful for long-term changes. But he also knew that people tend to avoid doing difficult things when their motivation is low.
So he looked at the problem from a different angle.
What would happen if, instead of trying to increase motivation, he made changes that were so easy, it was almost impossible to say no?
What if, instead of trying to do a few big things that were difficult, he did lots of teeny-tiny things, that were easy to repeat and make into habits? Say a couple of push-ups here, or a sip of water there?
Over the year, these tiny habits accumulated, leading to the outcome that Fogg had hoped for: long-term weight loss.
Think about the things you do every day, like opening the curtains, brushing your teeth or putting your shoes on. Do you need lots of willpower to do these things? Probably not. You just do them.
The same idea applies to learning a language: if you establish lots of tiny language learning habits, you won’t need to feel highly motivated to do them. And over time, you’ll find it easy to make sustainable progress toward your language goals.
Tiny habits may not sound as sexy as inspirational resolutions, but they work better.
As Fogg points out: when you know how to create tiny habits, you can change your life forever.
So if you want to learn a language this year, forget about big plans you’ll never stick to. Start with a tiny language learning habit.
How to learn a language with tiny (but powerful) language learning habits
To establish effective language learning habits, there are 3 steps you’ll need to follow:
1. Choose your tiny habits
Think about the outcome you’d like to achieve. Now break it down into a list of teeny-weeny actions you can take to get there.
Here are a few examples:
Press play on my audio course
Practice pronouncing one sound
Learn one word
Read a newspaper headline or the title of a book chapter
Do one exercise from my textbook
Review one verb form
Press play on a YouTube tutorial
Listen to one song
Say/write one sentence
Note that to keep things really tiny, it helps to choose habits like “press play” rather than “listen to a 30-minute podcast”. The outcome might be the same, as you’ll probably listen to the whole thing once you’ve pressed play anyway, but keeping it tiny makes it easier to get started. More on this later.
2. Hook them onto existing habits
Now you have your tiny habits ready, you’ll need something to remind you to do them, as BJ Fogg calls them, triggers.
To make his tiny habit system as effective as possible, Fogg looked for simple triggers which would integrate smoothly into daily life, without having to worry about post-its or alarms.
He found that the best way to do this was by attaching the behaviour onto habits we already have, such as brushing our teeth, getting home, or going for a wee.
The trigger for his push-up habit gives a very clever (if perhaps not hygienic!) example of this:
After I pee, I’ll do twopush-ups
The keyword here is “after”. By adding your new tiny habit directly after something you already do several times a day, it’s easy to repeat.
This mini celebration can be whatever you want it to be, ranging from eccentric little dances or saying “I’m awesome!”, to more sober versions, like smiling, or thinking “well done”.
Many people struggle with this part because it feels a bit silly. But if it’ll help you set up your habit faster, it’s worth a go. To be honest I’m just happy to have an excuse to do the running man in socks on my kitchen floor.
Building language learning habits: The virtuous cycle
How do 2 push-ups turn into 70?
The tiny way of course!
Getting started is the hard part. But once a tiny habit has taken root, it will naturally expand over time.
If you’re in the habit of doing two push-ups, it’s easy to build up to 5. Once you’re in the habit of doing 5, it’s not hard to do 8. By doing this several times a day, you’ll suddenly find you can rack up 70 push-ups without much effort.
Now imagine this in terms of language learning. Let’s say every time you get in the shower, you practice rolling your Rs once. By force of inertia, you’ll probably end up practicing for a few minutes anyway, especially once it starts getting easier.
If you say one sentence to yourself whilst washing the dishes, you might still be talking to yourself as you walk around the house (this happened to me after lunch today).
Once you’ve watched one foreign language YouTube video, you’ll probably end up watching a few more.
And so on.
Writer Sonia Simone recommends planning your tiny habits when you’ve got some spare time afterwards so you can take advantage of this forward motion. Just make sure you don’t start secretly planning to do more every time, as that’ll make it harder to get started.
As long as you’ve hit your tiny goal, you’ve won. Sticking to these goals, no matter how small, sets off a positive chain of events, helping you feel good about your efforts and encouraging you to let your language learning habits grow over time.
Building language learning habits: Troubleshooting
If you struggle to make your language learning habits stick, there are a few reasons this might be happening:
Your language learning habit is too big
Remember, your language learning habit has to be so small that it’s easy to do, even on days when you don’t feel like it. If you’re still feeling resistance, the habit is probably too big.
Strip your language learning habits down so that they’re so tiny, you could even do them on duvet days. Things like “press play on a French video” are much better than “write a paragraph in French”. Make the habit so easy, you can do it every single day (or several times a day), no matter what your mood is.
This is the most important step because repetition is the key to lasting change.
Avoid falling into the temptation of setting bigger targets so you can progress faster. It could hold you back in the long run. Just focus on doing your tiny language learning habits and the rest will come.
You’re too busy
What if you have one of those days, weeks or months where you’re so busy you barely have time to take a shower or wash your socks?
Keep those days in mind when you choose your language learning habits. Choose habits that are so small and easy, you can still do them on your most chaotic days. Then, when those days come around, remind yourself how important it is to keep up your habit during these times – that should help you make the tiny effort to get it done.
Your schedule is unpredictable
Let’s imagine your tiny language habit is to practice counting in your head in Spanish whilst you brush your teeth.
What if you go for a few drinks after work, then wake up the next morning on your friend’s sofa with a fuzzy mouth and a cat on your head, realising that not only did you not brush your teeth, you also forgot to practice counting in Spanish?
It’s no biggie to miss your habit once in a while. Just make sure you get right back to it. Writer James Clear has a “never miss habits twice” rule, which should help you stay on track.
If your schedule is always different – for example, if you travel a lot – hook your language learning habits onto things you do every day, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. A few examples are: getting out of bed, getting dressed, leaving the house, washing your hands, taking your shoes off…
Problem: You want to know everything, yesterday
One problem with the tiny habit technique is that it goes against that initial surge of motivation you get when you first decide to make a big change, like learning a language.
At this stage, it’s tempting to charge ahead because it feels like you’ll make faster progress that way. But without good language learning habits, that rhythm will be difficult to maintain.
Remember that this technique works because it’s all about baby steps. Be patient. Pour that initial enthusiasm into repeating a few tiny language learning behaviours until they become automatic, then celebrate as you watch them grow.
My tiny language learning habits
This year, I’m going to use the tiny habit technique to start reading more.
Reading in a foreign language awesome: it’s fun, helps you pick up vocabulary naturally and get exposure to typical sentence structures without feeling like “studying”.
Despite the benefits, I’ve always struggled to get into the habit of reading foreign language learning books. I either find more exciting things to do, like eating cake and watching Netflix, or try doing it right before bed and fall asleep on the first page.
In last week’s article, when I talked about my language goals for 2018, I mentioned that I’d like to build up to reading for 45 minutes in the evening. However, since researching this article, I’ve realised that having such a big number in my head probably isn’t the right strategy, as it will make things difficult to get started.
So I’ve decided to keep things simple. I’m just going to focus on two tiny habits each day and hope that by force of inertia, I’ll end up reading a decent amount.
Here are my two tiny language learning habits:
After I make a cup of tea in the morning, I’ll read a paragraph of my book After I finish washing the dishes in the evening, I’ll read a paragraph of my book
I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!
Your tiny language learning habits
Just reading this article probably won’t help you improve your language skills much.
If you want to benefit from these ideas, it’s time to take action. Grab a pen and paper and write a list of tiny language learning behaviours that:
Hook on easily to your existing habits
Are so tiny, they barely require any effort
Remember to follow this structure:
After I (+ existing habit), I will (+ tiny language learning habit)
Examples of language learning habits
In need of a little inspiration? Let’s imagine you’re learning Spanish. Here are some tiny language learning habits you could get into:
After I make my morning coffee, I will read one headline in a Spanish newspaper.
After I get in the shower, I will practice saying one word with the rolled r sound.
After I leave the house, I will put my headphones on and press play on a Spanish podcast.
Which tiny language learning habits are you going to start doing? Let us know in the comments below!
This time last year, I set some language learning goals for 2017.
Some went better than planned.
Others went horribly wrong.
Which made me wonder: why did some goals keep me motivated right up to the finish line, while others got relegated to the bottom of my to-do list, behind more important activities like reading BuzzFeed or staring out the window with my finger up my nose?
Looking back, I found something interesting: the successful goals had 3 basic principles in common.
And, just as importantly, in the goals that bombed, at least 1 of these 3 principles was missing.
In this article, I’ll share these 3 important keys to setting successful language learning goals, so you can use them to achieve more in your own language learning goals this year.
Let’s start by looking at the language learning goals that went well last year, and why.
Language learning goals I smashed in 2017
Have a 15-minute conversation in Mandarin Chinese
At the beginning of 2017, I did the Add1Challenge, an online language programme where you learn as much as you can in 90 days, with the aim of having a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker at the end. In this challenge, I studied Mandarin for around 1 hour a day and managed to stick to it most days.
Here’s my level when I started the challenge.
And here I am having a conversation with my Mandarin tutor 3 months later. I did 45-minutes in the end, and I’m pleased with how the challenge went.
I got 83% overall. The pass mark is 50% so that’s a pretty good result. I’ll write a post with more details in January.
Go on a language adventure
Another goal was to go on a language learning adventure abroad.
Back in August, I caught the bus over to the south of France and tried to speak French the whole time. This was mostly successful, apart from a couple of exceptions, like spending the first week in an antisocial Airbnb where I struggled to find people to chat to, and when my Italian other half Matteo came to visit for a week. Although I still managed to practice French as Matteo’s learning French too so we ended up speaking Fritalian (a mixture of French and Italian).
The last 2 weeks went well because I found an Airbnb with a really sociable French host and met some lovely people via Couchsurfing. I even manage to make a few friends who I communicate with entirely in French and have been back to visit since.
Why were those 4 goals successful? Looking back, I discovered that they shared 3 basic principles.
1. Choose a clear, short-term deadline.
In the case of the #add1challenge, this was the end of the challenge. For Italian and French, it was the exam date.
2. Focus on one goal at a time
When I started my French mission, I was trying to do 5 things at once, but I wasn’t doing any of them well (or enjoying any of them). So I sacked everything else off and decided to focus exclusively on French.
This worked really well: I became more focused and had more time to dedicate to learning French, so I made better progress. I watched and read more stuff in French, and increased the time I spent chatting to native French speakers online via italki. Doing this, I felt more immersed in French culture, which made the whole process more rewarding.
3. Make it a habit
For each of these goals, I made sure that I set up some strategic language learning routines.
This means that I decided when and where I was going to learn a language each day and tried my hardest to actually stick to it. I didn’t always manage, but I frequently did, and that was enough to make progress over time.
Here are some examples of the habits I got into:
Set aside a specific time every day to work towards my language learning goals.
Listen to foreign language podcasts as I go about my day.
Looking at these 3 principles, the reasons I failed to meet my other goals are now obvious. Let’s look at the language learning goals that didn’t work and why:
Read loads of Italian books
I’ve got a big pile of Italian books that I’ve been wanting to read for years, so last year I set myself the goal of reading them.
But somehow I just didn’t get around to it.
I kept telling myself I’d start tomorrow until it got to October. But by October I realised it was too late, so I gave up completely.
Keeping in mind our 3 principles, there are 2 reasons this language learning goal failed:
The deadline wasn’t short enough
My deadline was a year away, which made it very easy to keep telling myself that I’d “start tomorrow”. It would’ve been more effective to break this goal down into smaller steps, say 1 book every 2-3 months.
I didn’t set up an effective routine
While I have gotten into the habit of reading before bed, I only manage to read a page or so before I fall asleep, and I’m often so sleepy I can’t remember what I read, so I have to read it again the next day. Not the best strategy for getting through 1000s of pages in a year!
In July I realised that I had to stop pursuing this goal. If I’d continued with Spanish, I wouldn’t have had as much success with my French mission.
Learn to discuss more complex topics in German
My German goal failed for the same reason my Spanish one did: too many things at once. I started the year studying German for an hour a day but gradually gave it up as I focused more on my other goals.
Last year’s language learning goals: an overview
Overall, I’m pleased with how much I learned in 2017. Even the goals I didn’t meet taught me some valuable lessons that I can put into practice when setting goals for learning a foreign language this year.
Once I’ve reached my Spanish goal, I plan on doing something similar for German. It’ll take longer than my previous French and Spanish missions because German is more difficult, and my current German level is lower.
I predict that it’ll take me around one year to reach fluency in German, studying for 2-3 hours per day. If I was starting from scratch, it could take around 18 months.
A year is a long time, so I’ll need to break this goal down into fewer, short-term deadlines. I’ll think more about this when I’m ready to get started in June/July.
Go on a language adventure
I’d also like to go on another language learning adventure over summer. It’s too far away to think about the details yet, but I’m hoping it’ll involve travelling to a different country and chatting to the locals in their language.
Build effective habits
Read in a foreign language for 45 minutes per day
This year, I’m aiming to get into the habit of reading a foreign language novel for 45 minutes before bed.
What are your language learning goals for 2018? Share them with us in the comments below!
I’m a fraud.
I write articles about things like “how to reach your language learning goals”. But half the time, I don’t actually reach my goals for learning a foreign language.
If you’re someone who gets enthusiastic about learning new things, this might sound familiar:
You get excited about a big goal, like learning fluent Spanish in 1 year.
Reality hits and you never do it.
Conventional wisdom says you failed because your goal was too unrealistic. By setting a difficult goal for learning a foreign language, you “set yourself up to fail”. You should have gone for something easier, like “learn how to have a basic conversation about myself and my family”.
The problem with audacious goals is that by their very nature, they’re harder to achieve. You’re more likely to fail, which makes them intimidating to pursue.
But that doesn’t mean you have to settle for uninspiring goals.
You can make big language learning goals work for you by following a few simple principles. In this post, you’ll learn:
Why audacious language learning goals help you learn a language faster (and enjoy it more)
Why it’s OK not to reach your goals all the time.
How to set goals that help you make loads of progress in your target language (whether you reach them or not)
The moonshot factory
“X” is a radical research and development lab at Google, also known as the “moonshot factory”. It’s a place where scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs get together to work on far-out projects, like reducing road accidents with self driving cars, or “project Loon”, an attempt to bring balloon-powered internet to 4 billion people who don’t have access.
Projects they describe as “uncomfortably ambitious”.
But the team at X aren’t worried about the fact that their projects are unrealistic. They know that to drive dramatic change, they have to aim high. Or “shoot for the moon” as it were.
Of course, the audaciousness of these projects means they’re likely to fail. A lot. So how does the team at X motivate themselves to work towards big dreams, when they know that failure is almost inevitable?
Why it’s OK not to achieve your language learning goals
There’s an idea in motivational psychology that you should always set achievable goals so you can “set yourself up to win”. Because if you lose, you’ll get disappointed and decide you don’t want to play anymore.
Like a spoilt child losing at a board game.
Give yourself more credit than that. You can handle the slight inconvenience of not reaching your goal for learning a foreign language.
When you go for an audacious language learning goal, there are 2 possible outcomes:
You’ll reach it (which would be amazing)
You won’t reach it, but you’ll have pushed your limits and achieved way more than you would have otherwise.
Surely it’s more satisfying to work towards something exciting and challenging and miss the target slightly, than achieve a goal you knew was going to be easy all along?
The view that big goals are demotivating is linked to the idea that failure is something to be avoided. If we think we might fail, we’d rather not try at all.
But wouldn’t it make more sense to change the way we see failure, rather than changing the goal? What if the solution, instead of settling for uninspiring goals, was to throw all your energy at exciting projects, without worrying if you fail?
Not the trite “aim high and all your dreams will come true” philosophy. More of a “dream big and you’ll probably fall flat on your arse but it doesn’t matter” kind of philosophy.
The all or nothing trap
The idea that you should only set goals you know you can achieve creates an oversimplified view of success:
Reach goal = good
Don’t reach goal = bad
But this all or nothing view ignores all the good stuff in between.
Imagine you wanted to learn Spanish to an advanced level in 1 year, but you ended up at intermediate level instead. You’ve got 2 options:
Feel disappointed because you didn’t reach your language learning goal.
Crack open the Cava and celebrate the fact that you still learned loads of Spanish in a relatively short time.
Not reaching your language learning goals can be demotivating, but only if you decide to see things like number 1. If you take the second approach, you’ll get the motivation boost that comes from having an exciting language learning goal, and the satisfaction of celebrating your progress. The fact that you fell short of your original objective doesn’t matter that much.
The power of close enough
The importance of setting “realistic” goals is so well accepted that I’d always seen my inability to do it as a shortcoming, something I needed to change if I wanted to be successful.
Lately, I’ve been questioning this idea. Yes, I usually fail to meet the unrealistic goals I set.
But does it really matter?
At University, my study plans were so over ambitious, I can’t remember a single day when I stuck to them. But I followed them as closely as I could, and that was good enough to get into Cambridge and win a prestigious scholarship for graduate research.
When it comes to learning languages, I never manage to do everything I had planned. Yet somehow I end up learning the languages anyway.
It’d be nice to say that I did these things thanks to a well organised and executed plan. But it’s not true. Everything I’ve ever achieved is the result of loads of messy near (and often far) misses.
If you always followed goals you knew you could achieve, life would be like a game of tetris, where the pieces fell so slowly you never moved off the bottom row: it would get very boring very quickly.
The key to making audacious goals work for you is to pat yourself on the back for your “close enoughs”. This way, you’ll stay motivated to keep chasing your fun goals and make lots of progress on the way.
Of course, this philosophy does have limits. If you perceive something as so unrealistic you don’t stand a chance, it’s almost impossible to get motivated. Don’t deliberately set out to fail.
Just know that everything will be OK if you do.
Next, let’s learn 9 keys for setting audacious language learning goals which will:
give you the best chance at reaching your big language learning goals.
help you learn as much as humanly possible (whether you actually reach them or not).
9 keys to setting audacious language learning goals
1. Choose something exciting
The first step is to choose a goal that gets you excited about learning your target language. Some people like to aim for an exam, so they can confirm their level, but if that makes you yawn, there are plenty of other options! If you’re a beginner, how about aiming for a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker? If you’re lucky enough to be able to travel to the country of your target language, how about being able to do everything you need on your trip, without reverting back to English? If you’re a higher level, why not try making a native speaker friend with whom you communicate entirely in your target language?
2. Keep it short
Next, it helps to make the goal relatively short term (6 months or less). Anything longer and it’s tempting to slack off: the lazy part of your brain will always try to convince you that you can do it later.
3. Make it very specific
Research shows that the more specific a goal is, the more likely you are to achieve it. Goals like “be able to speak for 30 minutes without reverting back to English” are better than “learn fluent Spanish”.
It’s great to have an ambitious goal, but unless you break it down into little, actionable steps, it will remain a vague idea that you keep putting off to “someday”. Now you’ve got your big goal, take some time to think about how to break it down into concrete actions. For example, if your goal is to learn to speak quickly, you might decide to do 3 online conversation lessons a week with an online tutor on a site like italki.
5. Plan for failure
When I set audacious goals, I always imagine that Super Future Katie, who goes to bed early and always does her homework, will do all the work. Now I’ve never met this woman, so I’m not sure why I keep expecting her to swoop in one day and solve all my problems. It’s just not going to happen is it?
If you know that on Sundays, you’d rather stick a pencil in your eye than do anything productive, make that your day off. If reading the news feels like a chore in your native language, don’t force yourself to do it in the language you’re learning – go for something more enjoyable. The more you can plan for you, the fallible human being and not the superhero version, the easier it is to take action towards your language learning goals.
6. Don’t rely on willpower
If you’re excited about your language learning goal, it’ll give you plenty of motivation to get started. But somewhere along the line, that enthusiasm will start to wear off. It’s not a good idea to count on willpower when this happens because it has a habit of failing us when we need it most – that’s why most gyms are half empty in February.
The best way to combat this, is to make language learning a habit. This way, there’s less risk of overthinking things and talking yourself out of it. There are 2 ways to do this and the most successful approaches use a combination of both:
Think of lots of little ways to integrate language learning into your life, like listening to podcasts on your commute, or writing your shopping list in the language you’re learning.
Be as consistent as possible. This normally means setting aside the same time every day to squeeze in a bit of language learning. Choose a time when you’re able to block out distractions – early in the morning is ideal, but if you’re a night owl, evenings can work too!
7. Book it
It helps to have concrete arrangements which force you to take action towards your goal, like booking your exam, or a holiday in a little town where no one speaks English. This is because at some point, a little voice will pop into your head and try to dissuade you. “What if I skipped this exam session and did the one a few months later?” “I’m not ready yet, maybe I should wait until next year to practice my language skills on holiday”
Maybe it won’t turn out exactly as you’d hoped: maybe you’ll get a lower mark than you wanted, or even fail your exam. Maybe you won’t get by in Spanish on holiday as easily as you’d hoped. But we’ve already established that it doesn’t really matter. You’ll learn so much more by having a go and falling a bit short, than by putting it off. Once it’s booked, it’s much easier to ignore this voice and keep going anyway.
One thing that puts people off chasing big goals is that it can feel a bit scary. But there’s no need to take it so seriously! When it all gets too much, remind yourself that reaching your goal is just the cherry on top: the important thing is all the progress you make as you work towards it. When it comes to language learning goals, it really is the taking part that counts!
My language plans for November
My exciting language goal for the moment is to reach advanced level French, which I’m hoping to verify by taking the DALF C1 exam at the end of November.
Knowing this deadline is coming up has motivated me like nothing else: I’ve made more progress in the last few months than I had in the 3 years before. I’m still not sure if I’ll pass or not, but whatever happens, I’m thrilled with the progress I’ve made.
Here’s how I’m following the 9 keys for setting audacious language goals
1. Is it exciting?
Ok, so doing an exam isn’t a very thrilling prospect, but being able to certify that I’ve got advanced French is. That’s my moonshot and I’m excited about it.
2. Is it short?
Yep – I started working on the project back in July.
3. Is it specific?
Yes – I’m taking the C1 DALF French exam on the 27th November. It doesn’t get much more specific than that!
Yes and no. I’m good at integrating French into my daily life, by listening to podcasts etc. Not so good at studying at the same time in the same place every day. This is what’s holding me back most at the moment. In the morning I think “I’ll study later”, but then life gets in the way and I don’t get around to it. This month, I want to get into the habit of studying in the morning, before I start my day.
7. Did I book it?
Yes! This part was tricky as my terrified brain was doing everything in it’s power to talk me out of it. But I tried not to listen and booked it anyway.
8. Did I find a community?
Yes, I joined clear the list, an online blogging community where language learners share their goals and cheer each other on. In fact, you’re reading one of my clear the list posts right now!
9. Am I taking it lightly?
I’d be lying if I said that the prospect of doing a big scary French exam didn’t stress me out from time to time. But reminding myself that the real aim is to make progress in French, and I’ve already done that, certainly takes the pressure off.
Checklist for setting audacious goals for learning a language
1. Is it exciting?
When you’ve got an inspiring language goal, it’s much easier to motivate yourself.
2. Is it short term?
Try to keep the deadline under 6 months. Any longer and it’s easy to keep putting off.
3. Is it specific?
Language learning goals like “be able to speak for 30 minutes without reverting back to English” are better than “learn fluent Spanish”.
4. Did you break it down into actionable steps?
Break your language learning goal down into a series of small, actionable steps (and actually do them!)
5. Did you plan for failure?
Make your plan around the fallible human being that you are (not the super future you that doesn’t exist!)
6. Did you make it a habit?
Don’t rely on willpower, build habits instead.
7. Can you book something?
If you can book something related to your deadline like an exam date, or a trip where you only speak your target language, it helps you beat the powerful urge to chicken out at the last minute.
Whenever you feel stressed out, remember: it’s the taking part that counts! Even if you fall a bit short of your language learning goal, you’ll still have made loads of progress.
What do you think?
Which language are you learning? What kind of audacious language learning goal could you set to help you make more progress? Share it in the comments!
Want to learn some handy Italian travel phrases to buy food?
In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to speak Italian in supermarkets, delis and markets. It includes 3 Italian audio lessons, where you’ll learn the following skills:
How to ask for things in supermarkets
The right way to order food at the deli counter
How to pay for things at the till
And, just as importantly, you’ll be able to understand the kind of phrases shop assistants will say back to you.
With each lesson, you’ll find a transcript, so you can read the Italian dialogue followed by a mini grammar and vocabulary tutorial.
How can I remember Italian words and phrases?
One of the hardest parts about learning a language is remembering all that vocabulary! To make new words and phrases stick, it’s important to review them regularly.
That’s why we’ve made a set of vocabulary flashcards to go with each lesson. These are like digital “cards” with the Italian phrase on one side and the English translation on the other. You can use them to:
You’ll find a link to download these flashcards at the end of each lesson, with instructions on how to use them.
Ready to learn how to speak Italian in shops and supermarkets?
Italian travel phrases: How to ask for things in supermarkets
5 Minute Italian Lesson Transcript
Katie: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti a 5 minute Italian, hi everyone and welcome to 5 minute Italian. I’m Katie…
Matteo: And I’m Matteo. Ciao.
K: And in today’s lesson, we’re going to learn how to find our way around an Italian supermarket. We’re going to start with a little dialogue in Italian. Listen and see how much you can make out, then we’ll talk you through the details after.
Imagine you’re in the supermarket, but you don’t know where anything is. So you go up to the poor shop assistant, il commesso, and you start asking loads of questions.
Katie: Mi scusi, dove sono i carrelli?
Matteo: Sono lì, all’entrata.
Katie: OK grazie. E… dove sono le banane?
Matteo: Lì, con la frutta.
Katie: Perfetto. E…Dov’è la pasta?
Matteo: è di la signora.
Katie: Grazie, quale corridoio?
Matteo: Corridoio cinque, vicino al pane.
What does it mean? Italian travel phrases explained
Katie: So we started with: Mi scusi
Matteo: Mi scusi
K: Mi scusi, is the formal way of saying “excuse me” with people who you don’t know very well, like shop assistants. You can also use it to say sorry, for example if you get in someone’s way, you can say mi scusi or just scusi.
Just a quick reminder that you you can find the main vocabulary from today in the show notes below.
M: Then you heard: dove sono i carrelli which means “where are the trolleys”.
K: Dove means “where”, sono means “are” and i carrelli means “the trolleys”
M: Dove sono i carrelli.
K: Then you heard sono lì, all’entrata.
M: Which means “they’re there, at the entrance”. Sono lì, all’entrata.
K: We know that sono means “are”. Italians often omit the word for they. So instead of saying “they are there”, they just say “are there”. Lì means there. So you can imagine him pointing and saying “there” – lì.
M: Sono lì. You might also hear the word là, which means the same thing. To say “there” you can either say lì or là. They’re interchangeable.
K: Then you heard all’entrata which means “at the entrance”. The word all means “at the”. And entrata means entrance
K: And this all is interesting – a means “at” and la means “the” for feminine words, like entrata. In Italian, a and la combine together to give us alla. So to say “at the” for feminine words, you’d get alla.
M: but when alla comes before a word which starts with a vowel, we remove the last a sound. So you get all’entrata.
K: Sometimes it can help to see this visually, so remember you can find this written down in the show notes below the podcast. Next, I said dove sono le banane which I’m sure you can guess means “where are the bananas?”
M: dove sono le banane?
K: Then Matteo replied…
M: Lì, con la frutta.
K: We know that lì means “there”. Con means “with”. And la frutta means the fruit.
M: Then Katie said: perfetto which of course means “perfect. You should say it with a nice Italian accent: perfetto!
K: Then I asked dov’è la pasta which means “where’s the pasta”.
K: Next, Matteo said…
M: è di la, signora. Which means “it’s over there madam”
K: Di là is quite similar to là which means there. Maybe the only difference is that lì or là gives more of an impression of a specific place, so maybe you’re pointing to a specific point while you’re saying it, while di là is more of a general direction. Over there: di là.
M: And then I called you Signora, which is the word you use for women.
K: It’s like saying “maam” or “madam”, and Italians use it frequently. And I’m very sad about this because in the last few years people have stopped calling me signorina, which is used with girls and young women, and started calling me signora.
M: Then you heard grazie, quale corridoio?.
K: Quale, means “which” and corridoio means aisle. And this word is nice and easy to remember because it sounds like corridor – so you can imagine the aisle as being a bit like a corridor.
K: Then Matteo said…
M: Corridoio cinque, vicino al pane.
K: Corridoio cinque of course means corridor 5. Then you heard vicino al pane, which means “close to the bread”.
M: Vicino means close and il pane means “the bread”.
K: then we’ve got this word al, which is interesting, because it’s similar to what we were saying before when we talked about all’entrata at the entrance. A in Italian means at, but it also means to. Then we have il which means “the” for masculine nouns. “The bread”: il pane. So to say “to the”, we say a + il
M: a + il combine together to make al.
K: So how do you say close to the bread?
M: Vicino al pane
K: That’s it for today, thanks for listening to 5 minute Italian. If you’d found today’s lesson useful, please subscribe to us on itunes and leave us a review and some stars 🙂
Grazie, and ciao for now, see you next time, or as we say in Italian,
K + M: alla prossima!
Italian travel phrases: at the supermarket
at the entrance
at (also to)
the (for feminine nouns)
At the (a + la = alla)
the banana (singular)
the bananas (plural)
Vicino al pane
close to the bread
to (also at)
the (for masculine nouns)
to the (A + il = al)
Remember the words and phrases from this lesson
Quiz yourself on the Italian travel phrases you learnt in this lesson with our digital flashcards.
2. Italian travel phrases: How to order things at the deli counter
5 Minute Italian Lesson Transcript
Katie: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti a 5 minute Italian, hi everyone and welcome to 5 minute Italian. I’m Katie…
Matteo: And I’m Matteo. Ciao.
K: If you go to Italy, something I would highly recommend doing is going to check out the deli counters, in supermarkets or in little shops because they have lots of delicious meats, cheeses and salads. It’s also a great way to start to learn about different types of Italian food that you might see on menus.
Let’s imagine we’re in an Italian supermarket at the deli counter. Usually they’ve got one of those little machines where you take a number. So we’ve got our little yellow ticket, now listen to this conversation at the deli counter and see how much you can make out:
Matteo: Buongiorno, mi dica signora
Katie: Un etto di prosciutto
M: Crudo o cotto?
K: Crudo grazie
K: Che cos’è quello?
M: è la burrata
K: Allora prendo due etti di burrata.
M: Basta così?
K: Si grazie
What does it mean? Italian travel phrases explained
Katie: So the first thing you heard was Matteo, the man behind the counter, who said
Matteo: Mi dica signora
K: Mi dica literally means “tell me”. But when Italians use it in these kinds of situations, it’s translation is similar to “what can I do for you?”.
M: You might also hear prego in this situation, which means more or less the same thing.
K: Yes, one of the many meanings of prego!
M: Then, you heard Katie say: un etto di prosciutto.
K: un etto means 100 grams, which is around 6 or 7 thin slices.
M: you can also say cento grammi, which of course means 100 grams.
K: And remember you can read the vocabulary from today’s episode in the show notes. Then Matteo asked the following question:
M: Crudo o cotto?
K: And this question is about the types of ham. Prosciutto crudo is what we in England would call prosciutto, or parma ham. Crudo means “raw”, and it’s called that because prosciutto crudo isn’t cooked – it’s air dried and salted. Cotto means “cooked”, so prosciutto cotto is similar to the normal ham you find in England and elsewhere.
M: The names of some other common Italian meats are bresaola which is salted Italian beef, and salame, which of course means salami.
M: Next, you heard Katie say crudo, grazie. And this is another example of where Italians sometimes use the word grazie, where in english you would normally say please.
K: Then, Matteo said:
K: Which we’ve heard in previous episodes. it means “anything else?” Then, you heard the most important phrase for curious travellers and language learners everywhere:
M: Che cos’è quello?
K: This means “what’s that?” And it’s a great way to get deeper into conversations with Italians and learn more about the culture and the language. I think I spend my first few months in Italy just pointing and things and saying: che cos’è quello?
M: Then you heard: è la burrata.
K: Which means “it’s burrata”, which is one of my favourite Italian cheeses. Finally something for the vegetarians!
M: Burrata looks a bit like mozzarella, in fact, it’s exactly the same as mozzarella on the outside, but when you cut into it, it’s soft and creamy on the inside.
K: Other examples of nice Italian cheeses are Parmigiano, which means parmesan of course, then Fontina, a soft aged cheese from Aosta Valley in the north, and Pecorino, which literally means “little sheep” – it’s a hard, salty cheese made from sheep’s milk.
M: And don’t forget Mozzarella di bufala, which means buffalo mozzarella, the famous cheese of Naples.
K: Matteo’s biased because he’s from Naples so he prefers Neapolitan food! Then you heard…
M: Allora prendo due etti di burrata
K: Allora is one of those very famous Italian words you hear everywhere. It means “so”, or “well”.
K: Prendo literally means “I take”, but Italians use it to say “I’ll have”, when they’re ordering. Then you heard the plural version of etto. Before we heard the singular version: un etto, with an o at the end. The plural of etto is etti. So you get un etto, but due etti, tre etti and so on.
M: Finally, you heard: basta cosi?
K: Basta cosi literally means “enough like this?” but Italians use it to say “is that everything?”
M: Basta cosi? You might also hear: a posto cosi? Which literally means “OK like this?”
K: Let’s listen to the conversation again.
M: Buongiorno, mi dica signora
K: Un etto di prosciutto
M: Crudo o cotto?
K: Crudo grazie
K: Che cos’è quello?
M: è la burrata
K: Allora prendo due etti di burrata.
M: Basta così?
K: Si grazie
K: Right so that’s it for today’s episode – and we’re taking a little break in August, as it’s 36 degrees right now in the city, so we’re doing what all Italians do and we’re going to escape to the seaside for a couple of weeks. We’ll be back in September with some new episodes. In the meantime, if you’d like to get bonus materials for future episodes, including the transcripts of our conversation, you can subscribe to our mailing list. Ciao for now, or as we say in Italian,
K + M: Alla prossima!
Italian travel phrases: At the deli counter
What can I do for you? (literally: tell me)
dried salty beef
salami (nice and easy!)
Che cos’è quello
Cheese which is like mozzarella on the outside, but creamy on the inside
soft aged cheese from Aosta Valley
a hard, salty sheep’s cheese
I’ll have… (literally – I’ll take)
Is that everything? (literally: enough like this?)
A posto così?
Is that everything? (literally: ok like this?)
Remember the words and phrases from this lesson
Quiz yourself on the Italian travel phrases you learnt in this lesson with our digital flashcards.
3. Italian travel phrases: How to pay for things at the till
5 Minute Italian Lesson Transcript
Katie: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti a 5 minute Italian, hi everyone and welcome to 5 minute Italian. I’m Katie…
Matteo: And I’m Matteo. Ciao.
K: In the last couple of lessons, we’ve been learning how to order things in shops and supermarkets. This week, we’re going to continue this theme by learning how to pay for things at the till. So let’s practice a typical conversation at the till in Italy.
Matteo: Buongiorno. Sachetti?
K: Si, due grazie… quant’è?
M: Sono venti e cinquanta.
K: Posso pagare con la carta?
M: Certo. Carta o bancomat?
M: Grazie, arrivederci!
What does it mean? Italian travel phrases explained
Katie: We started with buongiorno, which is better than ciao in situations like this where you don’t know the person you’re talking to.
Matteo: then you heard: Sacchetti?
K: Which literally means “bags?” and it’s like asking “would you like a bag?” Shop assistants don’t give bags automatically, they normally ask.
M: Then you heard: Si, due grazie.
K: Yes, two thank you. Remember with polite replies to questions, Italians don’t say please, they say thank you. Si, grazie.
M: To ask for a bag, you can say: posso avere un sacchetto?
K: Here we meet again the very useful phrase posso avere which means “can I have”.
K: And we’ve got the singular form of the word bag. To say “one bag”, we say:
M: Un sacchetto
K: With an o at the end: sacchetto. And to say two bags, we say:
M: Due sacchetti
K: With an i at the end. And you can have tre sacchetti, quattro sacchetti and so on.
M: But the word can change depending on the region. In the south of Italy, we usually say busta.
K: Which can cause confusion, because it also means envelope. Once one of our friends from Naples walked into a shop in Milan with her hands full and asked for a busta, and the shop assistant stared at her blankly and handed her an envelope. In the supermarket they’ll probably know what you mean, but it can be handy to listen out at the till to learn the regional variation for where you are. You may sometimes hear the word sportina too,
M: Then you heard: quant’è?
K: Which means “how much is it?” Quanto means “how much” and è means it is. And Italians smush the words together, so you get: Quant’è?
M: You can also say: Quanto costa?
K: which means: “how much does it cost?”
M: And: Quanto viene?
K: Viene means “come”. So quanto viene literally means “how much come?” It’s a bit like asking “how much does it come to?
M: Next, you heard: Sono venti e cinquanta.
K: Can you guess how much that means? Venti e cinquanta literally means “twenty and fifty”. “20 euros 50”. Italians use the word “and” e between the euro and the cents. To introduce the price, they start with the word sono which literally means “they are”. They are twenty and fifty.
M: Sono venti e cinquanta.
K: If you need some help with numbers, you can go back and check out episodes 14 and 15. Next, you heard:
M: Posso pagare con la carta?
K: Literally: “Can I pay with the card”, which of course means “can I pay by credit card”. Posso means “can I”, pagare means “pay” and la carta means “the card”. Italians use the word la (the) much more than in English.
M: Then you heard: certo
K: …which means “certainly” or “of course”. Next, you heard the question:
M: Carta o bancomat?
K: Which is a bit of a weird one. Bancomat means debit card. And for some reason in Italy, at the till, they need to know if you’re paying with credit or debit card. Bancomat actually has 2 meanings, it also means cash machine, which is handy to know if you need to get cash out in Italy.
M: Let’s listen to the conversation again.
M: Buongiorno. Sachetti?
K: Due grazie.
M: Sono venticinque e cinquanta.
K: Posso pagare con la carta?
M: Certo. Carta o bancomat?
M: Grazie, arrivederci!
K: If you’d like to get bonus materials, including conversation transcripts, cultural notes, flashcards and invites to our speaking workshops, you can sign up to our mailing list. And if you’re on the list, make sure you check out your emails from us as you’ll find all the bonus materials inside. Ciao for now, or as we say in Italian,
K + M: Alla prossima!
Italian travel phrases: at the till
Would you like a bag? (lit. bags?)
plastic bag (the difference is regional)
Two please (lit. two thank you)
How much is it?
How much does it cost?
How much does it come to?
Sono venti e cinquanta
It’s twenty euro fifty (lit. they’re twenty and fifty)
Posso pagare con la carta?
can I pay by card?
Carta o bancomat?
Credit card or debit card?
Debit card/cash machine (two meanings)
Remember the words and phrases from this lesson
Quiz yourself on the Italian travel phrases you learnt in this lesson with our digital flashcards.
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 language learning habit gradually. Start with something that’s impossible to say no to, like 1 minute per day, then increase by one minute each day over the course of a month until you get to 30. Habits built up over time are much easier to stick to.
4. Use the 2 minute rule
Once you’re in the habit, you may still have days when you don’t feel like doing deliberate practice. On these days, try setting yourself the goal of working for 2 minutes. You’ll probably find that after 2 minutes, you’re happy to carry on by force of inertia. Even if you decide to stop after 2 minutes, the fact that you didn’t skip your study session completely will make it easier to get back into it the following day.
All work and no play makes language learning really dull
So we’ve established that deliberate practice is good: it will probably help you speak a language better and faster.
My problem is, it doesn’t fit in very well with my life philosophy.
It’s the kind of thing people write about on those blogs that tell you that putting butter in your coffee (?!) will make you richer, thinner and better in bed.
The pressure to be the best at everything doesn’t motivate me, it makes me want to hide under the covers. Sure, I want to speak a language well, but I want to enjoy learning it too. Because of it’s not fun, what’s the point?
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!
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