Do you find language learning boring?
Not long ago, my answer to this question would have been a resolute no. I’d always enjoyed learning languages because it never felt like work.
I used to ditch textbooks as soon as I could in favour of more interesting things like reading books, watching TV and films, listening to music and most importantly, finding lovely native speakers to chat to. I’d dive head first into the culture and come out the other side being able to speak the language. It was fun.
But that changed recently.
Language learning got boring
As my language goals got more ambitious, my learning style changed for the worse. I tried to capitalise on my new found motivation to learn a language “the proper way”, by using textbooks, learning grammar rules and memorising words.
And let me tell you, it was dull as hell.
Learning this way choked the life out of the languages I was learning. I love languages, but I don’t give a shiz about grammar and vocabulary unless I can see it being used in real life. The living language that comes up in authentic materials, not those cringey conversations in textbooks.
Don’t get me wrong, textbooks are useful in the beginning to get a basic idea of how the language works. And later, they come in handy as a reference. But there’s nothing more boring than learning grammar and vocabulary out of context.
Learning with authentic materials
I like learning that stuff little by little as it “pops up” in books, films, TV series, music and conversations with native speakers. When I can link grammar and vocabulary to a real conversation, a character in a book, or a scene in a film, it comes alive. I learn better this way because I’m genuinely interested in finding out what people are saying and I want to learn how to talk like them.
Of course, it’s hard to learn from an impenetrable flow of words, so it’s important to choose materials that are the right level. This is where resources like graded readers, the easy language series and slow spoken podcasts come in handy. Materials that use the language in real and engaging ways but in simple and slow speech that learners can understand.
November language learning review
My November language missions got off to a bad start because I’d planned too much time on the textbooks. I wasn’t interested in the materials I was using and I struggled to get motivated. So halfway through the month, I pulled the plug on my original plans and went back to my old learning style:
- I swapped my German textbook for the Easy German YouTube videos.
- I put my Italian grammar book back on the shelf and spent more time working with TV series.
- I cut my flashcards down to maximum 5 new words a day, so I could spend less time rote memorising words and more time engaging with the language in authentic contexts.
These changes worked and I feel like I’ve finally got my language learning mojo back.
Language goals for December
My priority for this month is to keep learning with authentic resources I enjoy, including:
– Books, websites, magazines, TV, films, radio, and music
– Chatting to native speakers on italki
Using the language
One problem with authentic materials is that the learning can be quite passive: you absorb a lot of language through listening and reading, but you don’t practice using it.
I’m going to make my study sessions more active by doing the following:
- Mini talks: In each session, I’ll speak aloud for a few minutes about what I read or heard. This will give me the chance to practice using any new grammar and vocabulary that comes up.
- Bilingual translation: I’m going to translate short dialogues into English and back into the language I’m learning. This technique will help me hone my listening skills and practice building sentences.
- Recycling: I’ll revisit grammar and vocabulary and use it in new contexts, either by writing example sentences or using them in conversation questions for my language tutors on italki.
Pop up grammar
I’m not going to sit down with a textbook and study grammar in a linear way. Instead, I’m going to investigate grammar questions as they “pop up”. For example, if I’m reading something in German and I hear the word “alles” (everything), it might remind me that I sometimes see the word “alle” (everyone) and that I don’t fully understand the difference between the two. When questions like this pop up, I’ll make a note to investigate them further once I’ve finished reading/listening.
Good pronunciation is probably the most important language skill you can develop. It’s the first thing people hear when you open your mouth and it has a strong influence on your perceived mastery of a language. Clear pronunciation helps you manage conversations smoothly, blend in more easily and allows you to feel closer to a culture and its people. This month, I’m going to give pronunciation the attention it deserves.
eff it days
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a little lazy voice in your brain won’t stop shouting “eff it, let’s just sit around in pjs all day eating cheese” (or is that just me?!). When this happens, I’m going to give in to temptation and do “lazy” activities in my target language like watching TV and films. And probably eat too much brie.
I might look up the odd word or grammar point that comes up, but I won’t force myself to do anything if I don’t feel like it. This way I can recharge my batteries whilst still getting exposure to the languages I’m learning.
At the moment I’m learning 5 languages. Each month I have a sprint language, which I focus on intensively, and 4 marathon languages, which I study in a more relaxed fashion. In the sprint language, I immerse myself in the language as much as possible through daily activities like watching TV, reading and listening to the radio. My sprint language for December is Chinese.
I’m planning to join the add1challenge in Chinese which starts on the 12th Dec, so this month’s all about Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is one of my newest (and weakest) languages and I’m still using beginners material to get a basic idea of how it all works. In December I’m aiming to whizz through these and get onto authentic materials as quickly as possible. Here’s the plan:
- The textbooky stuff
– Assimil: I’ve got around 30 chapters left and I’m hoping to finish this before the month’s up.
– Pimsleur: I’m going to listen to the Pimsleur level 3 Chinese course on my walk to work. I’m aiming to do one 30 minute lesson per day.
- Authentic(-ish) materials
I’m going to read one graded reader story per week and watch one video on FluentU per day. On lazy days, I’ll switch off my brain and veg out in front of some Chinese TV on viki.com
I’m aiming to do around 3 lessons per week with native speaker tutors on italki
I’m going to learn about Chinese pronunciation by working my way through these videos from the lovely Yangyang at yoyo Chinese.
I’m aiming to learn around 5 new words per day. I’ll do this by choosing the most useful words I come across in my reading and listening and adding them to my Chinese flashcard set.
This month’s Italian goal is all about pronunciation.
My Italian accent certainly isn’t bad: I’ve even managed to fool people into thinking I was a native speaker for short amounts of time. But it’d be really cool if I could manage to do this for longer periods of time, and more often.
Sounding exactly like a native may not be a realistic goal, but it’d be nice to get as close as I can.
To do this, I’m going to work on two areas:
1. Sound training
To improve your pronunciation you need to train your mouth muscles to adopt the right mouth positions, and your ears to hear the differences between sounds which seem similar to non-native ears. I’m going to focus on the pronunciation of one sound per week by using my Italian pronunciation book, watching YouTube videos and practicing tongue twisters.
2. Sentence training
As well as individual sounds, it’s important to pay attention to whole sentences and paragraphs in order to imitate the speed, rhythm and intonation of native speakers. To do this, I’m going to pick a short dialogue, listen several times and analyse how the Italian sounds differ from the English ones. Then I’ll record myself reciting the scene and try to make my pronunciation as close as possible to that of the native speaker.
I’ll also going try the shadowing method, developed by polyglot Alexander Arguelles, which involves talking over a track and trying to match your speech as closely as possible to the native speaker voice underneath.
Lastly, I’m going to play around with the audio editing software audacity which will help me compare my pronunciation to that of the native speakers.
I’m aiming to do this for around 30 mins per day (apart from weekends!) with sound and sentence training on alternate days.
As well as pronunciation, I’m going to keep working on my listening and learning about Italian culture by watching 30 minutes of TV per day and watching 1 Italian film per week.
Spanish, German and French
In November I developed a language learning routine which has been working really well for me, so I’m going to continue using it for Spanish, German and French this month.
Each week, I pick a 5 minute dialogue (with original language subtitles) and do the following:
- Pronunciation warm up: tongue twisters, songs etc.
- Speaking practice: a 3 minute mini talk – what can I remember about the dialogue?
- Listening: watch the dialogue and check, did I miss anything out?
- Bilingual translation: listen to 1-2 minutes of the dialogue and take notes in English. Then translate the English text back into the original language. Note down any new grammar and vocabulary.
- Listening: listen to the original dialogue and check against my version. Correct any mistakes.
- Pop up grammar: investigate any grammar questions that come up during the translations.
- Shadowing: listen to the dialogue again and read along, trying to match my speech as closely as possible to the native speakers’.
- Vocabulary: add a few new words to my flashcards and review vocabulary from the last few days.
- Recycling: once the dialogue’s finished, reuse the new words and grammar to write example sentences and questions for my language tutors on italki.
This technique is motivating because I can use it with resources I enjoy, like TV shows and films. And it’s effective because it squeezes all of the important language skills in over a relatively short amount of time including speaking, listening, reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.
It looks like December’s going to be full of language learning fun, I can’t wait!
As always, I’d love to hear your ideas on the topic. Do you sometimes find language learning boring? What do you do to make it more exciting? Let us know in the comments below!