One of the best things about working on the joy of languages blog is that our readers are always sharing smart ideas about how to learn a language. This week’s post is inspired by Anne, Ken and Vanessa, who suggested keeping a journal as a way to improve your speaking skills in a foreign language.

I loved this idea and wanted to get as many people involved as possible, so I’ve decided to set up a language diary challenge on Instagram, together with a little giveaway (more on this later).

First, let’s talk a little about how keeping a language diary can boost your speaking skills.

Writing to improve speaking

Writing to improve your speaking may seem counterintuitive at first. But writing helps develop the skills you need to communicate fluently. To speak a language well, you need to:

  • practice organising your thoughts into sentences
  • learn vocabulary to talk about everyday events
  • identify gaps in your knowledge

A language diary helps with all of these things on a daily basis. It’s a powerful way to improve your vocabulary, grammar and ability to express your ideas – all essential for speaking.

When you keep a language diary, you’ll:

1. Learn useful things

By writing about your day, you’ll be practicing using the vocabulary and grammatical structures that you need to talk about day to day stuff. You’ll learn how to communicate about things that are important to you and the people around you, which is much more useful than the random word lists most language courses give you.

2. Remember faster

Humans are hardwired to remember stories better than other types of information. The little snippets in your diary act like mini stories, which make the grammar and vocabulary easier to remember and reuse. You’re also likely to repeat a lot of the same words and structures, which naturally makes them more memorable.

3. Use the language

When we learn a language, most of us focus on “passive activities” like reading and listening. But if we want to use the language to communicate, we should focus more on activities that help us produce the language. A language diary helps you draw from the vocabulary and grammar you’ve been learning to build sentences you can use in real conversations.

4. Learn consistently

Keeping a diary is a great way to add consistency to your language learning and make sure that you practice using the language you’re learning in some way every day.

Learning together
I started the language diary challenge on Instagram so that we can work together to help each other learn a foreign language. Research shows that people are more likely to achieve their goals when they work together as a team, so I thought it would be great way to get a community of language learners together.

And Instagram is the perfect place to write a little something in the language you’re learning each day.

  • It’s based around photos, which makes it visual and fun
  • Pictures facilitate memory
  • You can connect with the language learning community on Instagram, which includes support and corrections from native speakers.

Get involved!
To join in, all you have to do is post a photo or video to Instagram, write a word or phrase about it in the language you’re learning and use the hashtags #languagediarychallenge and #joyoflanguages.

What level do I have to be?
You can join in at any level. If you’re a complete beginner, you could use the challenge to learn simple sentences, or individual words. For example, you could post a picture of a beer and write the word “beer” in the language you’re learning. If you’re advanced, you can write sentences with sophisticated vocabulary and a variety of tenses. The important thing is to write a little something in the language you’re learning.

Free stuff!
In each #languagediarychallenge, I team up with a top language learning company to give away a language themed prize. So far, we’ve given away awesome prizes from italki, add1challenge, FlashSticks, Lindsay Does Languages and irregular.endings.

Join the #languagediarychallenge
I hope you’re feeling inspired to join us for the language diary challenge! To recap, there are 3 steps to join in:

1. Follow joy of languages on Instagram.

2. Post your picture or video on Instagram and write a word or sentence about it in the language you’re learning.

3. Use the hashtags #languagediarychallenge and #joyoflanguages.

4. Bonus step! Take a look around and leave a comment to support the other learners on the challenge!

Looking forward to seeing your progress on over on instagram.

Now I’d like to hear from you: Are you joining the #languagediarychallenge? What are you going to write/speak about? Let us know in the comments below.

If there’s one thing I love more than learning languages, it’s sitting on the sofa in my pants. Fortunately, these activities aren’t mutually exclusive, so I’m always on the look out for ways to combine my two favourite pastimes.

I’ve had a lot of questions about Spanish recently so this sleepy Sunday seemed like the perfect time to share some of my favourite resources for learning Spanish the lazy way.

Coffee break Spanish: This laid back podcast does exactly what it says on the tin. The lively presenters give you short ten minute snippets designed to feel “like going for a coffee with your friend who happens to speak Spanish”. The podcasts go through the basics at beginner level right through to advanced conversations and are perfect to listen to whilst snuggled up on the sofa with a cup of something delicious. The basic podcast version is free for all levels.

Telenovelas: If you’ve seen me on instagram, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Spanish soap operas, otherwise known as telenovelas. I love having a guilt free pass to binge watch bad TV, safe in the knowledge that I’m buffing up on some Spanish.

They might seem inane, but telenovelas are actually a deceptively savvy learning tool for several reasons. Firstly, the actors tend to speak slowly with exaggerated intonation, making their speech easier to follow compared to other types of TV programmes and films. Also, the acting is usually so hammy that it’s possible to follow the plot without understanding every word. This provides plenty of context from which to deduce the meaning of words, a strategy which is often thought to boost vocabulary learning. Finally, telenovelas are based around the day-to-day lives of the characters, so you get exposure to lots of relevant vocabulary that you might not come across in standard text books. Of course, not all of the words in Spanish soap operas are applicable to every day life. Still, it’s good to know I can cry “how dare you betray me Alejandro!!” in Spanish, should the need ever arise.

Netflix: I’m so happy to see the growing body of Spanish language shows on Netflix. From well received series like club cuervos to documentaries about Pablo Escobar, now you can watch Netflix and brush up on your Spanish at the same time. Many of the shows are available with closed caption subtitles which allow you to read while you listen, a big plus if you struggle to follow the audio alone.

Learn Spanish the lazy way

So there you have it. Three fenomenal excuses to get into your pjs, make yourself a tasty snack and plant your behind firmly on the sofa for a few hours. Happy learning!

Now I’d like to hear from you. Are you learning Spanish at the moment? Do you have any lazy learning strategies? Let us know in the comments below.

Happy Valentines Day everyone!

There’s an old Italian proverb that goes moglie e buoi dei paesi tuoi. Roughly translated, it means “choose wives and oxen from your own town.” Today, it’s often used to suggest that you’re better off with a partner who comes from the same country as you.

More people are living and working aboard than ever before. As a result, lots of people are proving the old Italian saying wrong and entering into happy relationships with partners of different nationalities.

For many, this means a relationship where both partners have different native languages. Like me and my partner Matteo: my native language is English, his is Italian.

I get asked tons of questions about what it’s like being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t speak the same first language as me. So in honour of the big V-day, I’m sharing the answers to three of the most commonly asked questions:

1. You must be completely fluent in Italian by now, right?

Finding a boyfriend or girlfriend from a foreign country is often singled out as the easiest way to learn a language. But this kind of relationship is a bit like moving abroad: it provides a good opportunity to boost your language skills, but it doesn’t guarantee success on it’s own.

Firstly, it depends on which language you speak together. If your partner is fluent in your native language, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of using that language all the time, particularly if that’s the language you used when you first met.

And even if you speak together in your partner’s native language, your other half may not be the best person to help you perfect your language skills once you get past a certain level. It’s well documented that people who spend a lot of time together develop similar speech styles: if your significant other communicates with you in their native tongue, they’re likely to simplify their speech to some extent.

Even though we communicate in Italian most of the time, my relationship with Matteo doesn’t stretch my Italian skills as much as you might imagine. He doesn’t dumb things down on purpose; he’s just subconsciously adapted his communication style to match mine. And I find myself doing the same thing when we speak in English.

2. Do you get each other’s humour?

Yes and no.

We have lots of laughs together and in many ways we share a similar sense of humour. But the language barrier means that sometimes we need to explain jokes to each other, particularly if they involve cultural references or wordplay. Some people might find that tedious, but we love sharing English and Italian humour with one another, and getting a laugh when the penny finally drops.

3. Is it hard to get along with each other’s friends and family?

Luckily most of our friends and family are open minded, loving and patient: everyone gets on well, even if they don’t speak the same language. In my experience, cultural awareness trumps language skills when mixing with family and friends: people tend to be more understanding of language mistakes than they are of cultural faux pas.

It’s surprising how easy it is to form bonds with people with non-linguistic communication like smiling, helping and sharing. When Matteo first met my family, he didn’t speak any English, but it didn’t seem to matter that much. My dad took him out to play golf anyway and they had a fun day together. When Matteo did things around the house, my mum was really pleased to see that I had met a nice, helpful bloke. For us, when meeting friends and family, it seems that actions really do speak louder than words.

Of course, if our mums meet, they won’t be able to talk to each other all that much. But that might not be such a bad thing after all!

Now I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who speaks a different native language? What did you find challenging? What did you find rewarding?

 

 

Mein Gott, time flies. Yesterday marked the end of my three month German Add1 challenge. I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made over the last ninety days, especially when I think back to the first day when I could barely speak a word.

Three months later, I’m able to express myself quite well, albeit slowly and with a lot of mistakes. Here I am having a lovely chat about language learning with my German tutor, Paul. Just to confuse matters we’re talking about French, Italian and Japanese, in German (turn on the subs to find out what we’re saying).

Throughout the experience, I learned three important lessons about language learning that I wanted to share with you:

1. Consistency will get you everywhere

Language learning often suffers the same fate as other good intentions like saving, dieting or going to the gym. We start off with bags of enthusiasm, only to burn out and sack it off after the first week or so. It’s very easy to lose motivation in the first few weeks as it can feel like you’re putting a lot of work in and not getting much back.

But language learning is all about the accumulative effect. Small steps each day add up to big results over time. My favourite thing about the Add1 challenge was that it placed just as much emphasis on building consistent study habits as it did on the final result. All I had to do was make sure I got my study time in each day, without worrying too much about where it was all going. And by the end of it, as if by magic, I found I could have a basic conversation in German.

2. Real expectations lead to real progress

Am I fluent in German after three months?

Hell no. And I’m OK with that.

Reaching fluency in such a short time isn’t necessarily a realistic goal for everyone, especially if you’re squeezing a language in between a full time job and other commitments.

For some, aiming impossibly high pushes them to work harder and achieve more. This approach doesn’t work for me. When my expectations are impossibly high, it doesn’t take long before overwhelm kicks in, leading me to hit the f*** it button and start skipping study sessions.

For me, 3 months just isn’t long enough to reach true fluency in a language. But it is long enough to get to grips with common words and simple grammatical structures and to hold a basic conversation with a native speaker. By aiming for something I’m confident I can achieve, I’m more motivated to practice and, ultimately, to make more progress.

3. Looking back helps you move forward

Before the challenge, I had already heard of the benefits of recording your language progress on video. In truth, it was something I’d always shied away from as I felt a bit silly. Watching yourself on video or hearing your voice can be painful in your first language, never mind in a new one, when your accent sounds weird and it takes five minutes to get a word out.

However, this time I was taking part in an online language challenge, an integral part of which was posting a progress video each month. Despite my initial scepticism, this turned out to be an extremely useful motivational strategy. When learning a language, it’s  common to look at your level and get down on yourself because you’re not where you want to be yet. Having old videos of yourself is extremely encouraging as it gives you an objective measure of your progress. Going back just three months makes you realise how far you’ve come in such a short time, and perhaps more importantly, what you can achieve if you keep going for another three months.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Which of the 3 lessons did you find the most useful and how can you implement it in your own language learning? Or, if you’ve taken part in a language challenge, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

 

 

Today is Sunday and like most Sundays, I’ll probably be overtaken by a strong urge to sit in my PJs all day eating chocolate. This means that the chances of me opening a German grammar book are very slim.

I’ve been learning German for over two months now and I’m loving it. That said, anyone who’s studied the grammar system will know, it can be a real pain in the backside. In fact, most days I’d rather cover myself with bees than revise the German case system.*

Fortunately, there are more pleasant ways to learn German that are compatible with my Homer Simpson lifestyle. YouTube is full of free video resources which offer a bit of light relief for lazy language learners like myself.

German Extra

Imagine the sitcom Friends and the BBC learn German website had a love child and you’ll get an idea of what German Extra is all about. It follows the story of four young friends who share an apartment in Berlin. It’s cheesier than cheese, but if you can get past the hammy acting and over the top dialogues, it serves as a really enjoyable resource for beginners. The actors speak very slowly, using basic vocabulary, simple sentence structures and lots of repetition. The episodes have subtitles in German so you can pause and look up any words you don’t know without being distracted by English all the time. This series has been my go to resource for when I had lost the will to do any other type of studying (which happens far more often than you might imagine).

Easy German

Easy German is a series which takes place “on the streets” of Germany. The presenters visit various locations across the country and talk to people about current affairs and topical events. The interview format is ideal as it gives you the chance to hear German as it is used by native speakers in the real world. To help lower level learners follow the dialogue, there are big subtitles in German and small subtitles in English. I find this feature really handy as although I try to follow the German subtitles as much as possible, I can glance down to the English ones when I don’t know a word. The episodes are also very short, so you can squeeze them in between whatever else you’re doing.

Learn the lazy way

Sometimes, giving yourself permission to sit around in your pants and watch silly videos is the best thing you can do for your language studies. It exposes you to grammar and vocabulary in realistic contexts, helps you pick up some new expressions and boosts your listening skills.

Above all, learning the lazy way gives you the chance to recharge your motivation, so before you know it you’ll be ready to take on that German case system again.

Now I’d like to hear from you.

What do you do on days when you can’t face studying from books? Do you have any favourite “lazy” language learning strategies? Share them in the comments below!

*No bees were harmed in the writing of this article.

 

 

 

You never fail until you stop trying. Albert Einstein.

Happy (nearly) New Year everyone!

As one year draws to a close, our thoughts often turn to how we can better ourselves in the coming year. Learning a language is something that always features highly on people’s lists.

That said, many of you will be familiar with the dismal statistic which states that only 8% of people actually stick to their New Year’s resolutions. This means that by February, most people’s language projects will be but a distant memory.

Research-backed ways to succeed

Thankfully, not all resolutions are destined for the same fate. Research on the psychology and neuroscience of motivation is full of useful tidbits to help you stay on track.

Here are two of my favourites that will increase your chances of seeing your language projects through to 2017.

1.  Boost motivation through teamwork

How often do you keep the promises you make to yourself?

Flying solo towards your goals might seem like a good idea at first, but most people run out of steam in the first few weeks.

Almost everyone puts more effort into the commitments they make as part of a team compared to the ones they make as individuals. Research at Stanford University shows that people who feel like they’re working in a team (even though they may not physically be working together) are more interested in the task and more likely to perform better.

Language learning is often a solitary activity, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reap the benefits of teamwork. There are increasing numbers of online communities which provide the opportunity to work together with other language learners.

Lately, I’ve experienced the value of teamwork in the language learning process first hand. I’m currently learning German as part of the Add1 Challenge, a three month online programme which unites language learners from all over the world. Even though we’re all working on different language projects, everyone is moving towards the common goal of having a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker. Being part of such a community makes you accountable to other people (making you far more likely to actually study) and gives you access to a friendly support network.

Get into the team spirit by participating in an online language learning community such as the Add1 challenge or the one on Benny Lewis’s site.

2. Set tiny goals

Working towards a large goal like “learn language X in 2016” can be overwhelming. In the past, I used to struggle with vast and ill-defined targets, a well known motivation killer.

Research shows that setting smaller subgoals is highly beneficial to learning. For example, Bandura and Shunk (1982) demonstrated that, over 7 sessions, people who were instructed to complete 6 pages of maths problems per session completed the task faster and more accurately than people who were given 42 pages from the outset.

Reaching a goal (no matter how big or small) gives you a little hit of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure (Schultz 2002). Setting tiny targets and achieving them regularly boosts your mood and keeps you feeling positive about your language learning.

One strategy that has been working well for me lately is to set mini daily goals, for example, to complete one lesson from a text book, or to study for half an hour. Such goals are generally easier to reach and give you the chance to celebrate each tiny step on the language learning journey.

Now I’d like to hear about your language learning plans. Have you got any language goals for 2016? Are you planning on using teamwork or tiny goals to help you succeed? Let us know in the comments below!

 

References

Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivationJournal of Personality and Social Psychology41(3), 586.

Priyanka B. Carr, Gregory M. Walton (2014) Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 169.

Schultz, W (2002) Getting formal with dopamine and reward, Neuron, 36, 241.

Christmas is a time when most of us joyfully leave our good intentions at the door (glass of bubbly and Ferrero Roche at 10.30am, anyone?)

For many, this means putting language learning on hold until January. However, there’s one sneaky technique you can use to practice your languages without lifting a finger (leaving your hands free to raise that glass of bubbly). There’s no need for computers, books or pens. You don’t even need to be alone. You can do it wherever you are and whoever you’re with.

The little voice in your head

Most of us are familiar with the internal dialogue in which we silently talk to ourselves, for example, when adding up numbers, remembering things people said earlier or imagining future conversations. That little voice in your head, or “inner speech” as psychologists call it, can be your best friend when it comes to language learning.

Thinking in a second language is often viewed as something reserved for very advanced levels, akin to dreaming in a second language. However, speaking silently in your head in another language is something you can choose to do at any level.

For example, if you’re just starting out on your language learning journey, take a look around the room and see which words you recognise: Do you know how to say tree? Chocolate? Cat? What about knife, fork and plate? Do you know how to describe family members? Can you use basic grammatical structures to make short sentences about the people and things around you?

For more advanced levels, try listening to your own inner dialogue and the conversations around you: can you say these things in your target language?

Making a habit of it

At first the process can feel a little slow and unnatural, but the more you practice it the more automatic it becomes. I’ve been using this trick for years and it always works a treat.

Of course, with new languages you might not always find the perfect words and sentence structures for each situation. However, by force of habit, you’ll be surprised how quickly your inner voice starts chatting away, making use of the words and structures you already know.

Learning new things

Now let’s imagine you see uncle Bob slumped in the corner after Christmas dinner and you suddenly realise you don’t know the words for “uncle” or “drunk”. Going through this thought process is valuable as it helps you to identify gaps in your knowledge. Then, if you get chance, you can quickly look the word up on your smartphone.

One advantage of this method is that new information is learned through familiar situations and emotional connections, which has been shown to make things easier to remember. Phrases relating to real-life situations, like “uncle Bob is drunk again” are far more likely to stick in your head compared to boring sentences found in textbooks.

Consolidating 

However, let’s imagine you’re at the dinner table, or you don’t have a smartphone with you. Even when it’s just you and your noggin, you can still use inner speech to strengthen your language skills.

In this case, you can place the emphasis not on learning new information, but on learning to express your ideas by organising what you already know into utterable sentences. This is one of the biggest challenges people face when learning to speak a second language, so having a simple technique that allows you to practice this skill is invaluable.

So go ahead and pour yourself a second Glas Wein or grab another cioccolato. You can be safe in the knowledge that no matter what happens to your waistline come January, your language skills will be in tiptop shape.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Or should that be… Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noël, Frohe Weihnachten…

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. Bruce Lee

Goals. Most of us are pros at getting started but a bit clueless when it comes to actually crossing the finishing line.

I recently had a similar experience in my own language learning missions. Despite a lot of initial enthusiasm (or wild optimism?) my accomplishments turned out to be a bit flat.

My first goal was part of the italki challenge, where I did six lessons with native Mandarin speakers over the space of two weeks. My aim for this challenge was to describe my friends and family in Chinese.

The second was to learn some basic German phrases to use in shops, restaurants and travel situations.

Looking back, I can see I did one thing right, but I missed something really important which ultimately slowed my progress.

What I did right

I followed the #1 rule for achieving just about anything and everything:

1. Set small, well-defined goals

One of the main reasons people give up on languages is the sheer volume of new things to learn. When you think about a language as a whole, each new word or grammar rule feels hopelessely insignificant by comparison. Vague goals compound the problem as they make it impossible to track progress and give the impression that you’re getting nowhere, in spite of all your hard work.

Ill-defined goals such as “to get by” are kryptonite to motivation. What does “get by” even mean? How will you know when you get there?

Over 50 years of studies in goal-setting theory show that setting specific goals leads to higher success rates. For example, the idea of earning 500 dollars a month produces far better results when compared to the more general goal of earning some extra cash.

The same principle applies to language learning.  Dividing the mammoth task into small, well-defined goals gives you a clear destination to aim for. More importantly, you can track your progress and give yourself a little pat on the back when you get there.

Where I went wrong

Although my goals were small and well-defined, I didn’t give nearly enough thought to how I would bring them to fruition in the real world.

For example, a lot of my study time in German was based around audio and texts from my self-study book, with relatively little time practicing the actual skills I was trying to develop. Which brings me to rule number 2:

2. Practice practice practice. Then practice some more. 

If your goal is to order in shops and restaurants, you should practice ordering in shops and restaurants. It sounds so simple, but it’s easily overlooked. How many people focus diligently on grammar rules and vocabulary lists even though their primary goal is to communicate in everyday situations?

This tactic rarely works because the brain learns new information in a way that is context dependent. This means, if you spend a lot of time memorising grammar rules and vocabulary, you’ll get good at remembering grammar rules and vocabulary. But unless you put them into practice, you’ll probably struggle to use them in the real world.

Once you’ve got a goal in mind, think of ways to integrate plenty of practice time into your study sessions. For example, you could simulate ordering in a restaurant with an online teacher, a language partner, a friend, your dog, a tape recorder, a mirror… the list is endless. The important thing is to act out a situation where you use the language in a way that’s similar to the goal you’re working on.

When you nail these skills at home, you can draw from them far more easily in real communication situations.  And voilà, before you know it, you’ll have mastered that goal and it’ll be time to move onto the next.

What are your language goals? How are you putting them into practice?

Let us know in the comments below!

The science of never giving up: how to keep learning a foreign language

As one year draws to a close, our thoughts often turn to how we can better ourselves in the coming year. Learning a language is something that always features highly on people’s lists.
That said, many of you will be familiar with the dismal statistic which states that only 8% of people actually stick to their New Year’s resolutions. This means that by February, most people’s language projects will be but a distant memory.