Looking at people who’d already done it, I worked out that it’d probably take me around 1500 hours. If I wanted to do it in 2 years, I’d need to study for around 2 hours a day.
156 days later, I should have done around 312 hours.
So far, I’m on 147.
I’m already way behind schedule, and it’s all because of one little word.
It’s the busiest day of the week. And the reason I’m publishing this New Year’s post on the 12th of January.
And it could be the reason you’re not as far ahead with your language learning as you’d like to be.
If you’re one of those people who keeps telling yourself you’ll start tomorrow (and never getting around to it), keep reading. If you don’t cure your tomorrow-itus now, in December you’ll look back and realise that another year has passed. And you still don’t speak that language as well as you could.
We don’t want that for you!
In this post, you’ll learn a 2-step plan to stop tomorrowing yourself and make 2019 the year you learn a language.
Why “tomorrow” is toxic for language learning
Busy projects, problems at work, vacations, guests. Over the last few months, I’ve had some great excuses to put off learning Chinese until tomorrow.
One little day – it seemed innocent enough. Until I looked back over the last few months and realised that all those tomorrows had added up and I was way off schedule.
Progress (or deterioration) is usually an accumulation of small actions taken over time. Take smoking for example. One little cigarette won’t kill you, but the cumulative effect over a lifetime could.
Missing one study session won’t stop you from learning a language, but putting it off every day will.
Most people focus on today and underestimate the cumulative consequences of their actions (or lack of actions) over time. But if you tomorrow yourself enough, one day you’ll look back over your life and realise you never did any of the cool stuff you planned.
The tried-and-tested plan to stop putting off learning a language
Although I’m definitely one of those people who tends to put things off, there are a few times when I haven’t done this. Like last year, when I managed to go from intermediate to advanced French in a few months. Or recently, when I finished a presentation a whole week before the deadline.
These goals had two things in common, that were missing from my Chinese plan.
They were short-term
Other people knew about them
For my French mission, I booked myself in for the DALF exam a few months away. I could feel the exam date approaching so I knew I couldn’t get away with putting it off. And, as I’d already talked about it on the blog, it would have been embarrassing not to go through with it!
For my presentation, I had a meeting with the reviewer a week before the conference. He was relying on me, so I made sure it got done.
When I made my Chinese plan, I forgot to include short-term goals. And being as I didn’t have a short-term goal, no one was watching to make sure I did it. It was easy to keep lying to myself and tell myself I’d do it tomorrow.
Recently, I’ve adjusted my plan to account for these two steps and I’m getting loads more done.
1. Set short-term goals
I’ve broken my plan down. I’m now aiming to do 65 hours a month, which translates to around 16 hours a week.
This includes downtime activities, like listening to podcasts and watching Chinese TV (even though I don’t understand a lot yet!) and stuff I do on the go, such as revising vocabulary on my flashcard app on the subway or in line at the supermarket.
I know 16 hours a week is loads, so please don’t let that put you off! You can start with any number that fits in well with your life. 15 focused minutes a day is enough to see tangible progress over the year.
2. Check in with a friend
I’ve teamed up with a friend, who I check in with every day. The system is simple: for every hour of Chinese I do, I send him an emoji on WhatsApp. If I stop sending emojis, he knows I’m slacking off and after a while, it gets embarrassing. I’m peer-pressuring myself to stay on track – and it’s working!
The 2-step plan to make sure you learn a language this year
1. Set yourself some short term goals
Choose a short-term goal that you like the sound of. This could be a language exam, a trip to the country or simply the number of hours per month/week that you’re going to spend learning the language. Actually, even if you choose a goal like an exam or trip, you should probably decide on the number of hours you’re going to study each month/week anyway, as this will help you stay on track (see next step).
And when I say “learning” this doesn’t have to be boring stuff like studying from a grammar book or memorising vocabulary. If you’re going to be spending so much time learning a language, you might as well enjoy it! Here are a few posts that will help you find fun ways to learn a language.
Find a friend to check in with each day/week to make sure you’re staying on track. The simpler the system, the better. Sending a thumbs up emoji or a “done” message works well.
If you can’t think of anyone to do this with in real life, there are people online who can help! Try joining the Language Diary Challenge Facebook Group – they’re a friendly bunch so you should easily find like-minded language learners to team up with.
Before you go…
It’s possible that these ideas aren’t new to you. But there’s a big difference between knowing about this stuff and actually doing it. Although I knew about these ideas, I wasn’t applying them, which is why I fell behind with my Chinese mission. If you think these ideas could help you, think about practical ways you can apply them to your life and start doing them asap.
How about you?
Do you have a habit of tomorrowing yourself? Do you have any other strategies to stop yourself from putting things off? Share them in the comments!
Have you ever noticed how cheesy the dialogues in French textbooks sound?
They use the same words and grammar as French people do in real life, but something doesn’t sound quite right.
One of the reasons is that textbook dialogues forget to include a few important little words that French people use all the time, like “bon”, “ben” and “euh”. These are called French filler words – they don’t add meaning but they give French its characteristic sound.
The good news is, they’re very easy to learn and you can use them to instantly sound more French.
In this post, you’ll learn:
9 French filler words that will help you sound more fluent.
An easy trick to stay in “French mode” even when you’re stuck for words.
The little word you should avoid using.
Bonus: How French people greet each other – which cheek should you kiss first?
What are French Filler Words?
Filler words are little words like “er”, “kind of”, “so” and “well”. They’re called “filler words” because we use them to “fill” the time while we gather our thoughts and decide what to say.
Every language has their own filler words. A few examples in French are:
Why should I use French Filler Words?
French filler words are great for a few reasons:
They buy you thinking time
When you start speaking French, you might feel worried about long silences while you try to find the words.
But even natives hesitate sometimes, that’s why they have filler words! If you can use the same words French people do when they’re thinking, this will help you stay in “French mode” while you decide what to say next. You’ll sound more French, even when you’re stuck for words!
They help you sound (and feel) more French
Filler words give your speech a French flavor – it’s like sprinkling your sentences with French condiments.
They improve your listening comprehension
French people use filler words all the time. If you can recognize them, this will help you understand spoken French better.
9 French Filler words (and how to use them)
I can’t think of anyone better to teach you how to sound natural in French than Carrie from French is beautiful, my favorite American in Paris who brings French to life by using real materials (like films and quotes) in her lessons.
So I invited her to give you a little lesson on French filler words, and luckily she said “oui!”.
Below the interview, you’ll find:
An explanation of each word with example sentences.
A bonus lesson about “la bise” (the French kiss on the cheek).
Used together, they signal the end of a story, a bit like “so anyway” or “long story short”.
Imagine you were telling a story about how you lost your keys, at the end, you could say:
Bon, fin, bref… elles était dans mon sac.
Long story short… they were in my purse.
4 – 5: Bon, ben
Bon = good
Ben = uhm
Used together, these filler words mean: “OK, well…” or “so, then…”. They’re often used just before you’re about to wrap up a conversation. For example:
Bon, ben… on s’appelle ce week-end?
OK, well… shall we call each other this weekend?
6 – 7: Donc, Alors
Donc = Then, therefore, so
Alors = Then, so
“Donc” and “alors” are often interchangeable. They have a similar meaning to “bon, ben” (OK then, so then…) but they’re a little more sophisticated.
Donc… on s’appelle ce week-end?
Alors… on s’appelle ce week-end?
So then… shall we call each other this weekend?
This is the sound French people make when they’re thinking. It’s like the English “er” or “uhm”.
As Carrie mentioned, our ears like to stay in the same “sound universe”. If you’re speaking French and you suddenly pronounce “err” the English way, it breaks the flow of the conversation.
Learning to pronounce French sounds, like “euh” when you’re thinking keeps you in French mode – it’s an easy way to instantly sound more French.
You can also use “ben”, which has the same meaning, but sounds a little more sophisticated.
“Hein” is the French equivalent of “huh?”. This little word is great to understand, but best avoided in the beginning stages as it can be perceived as impolite in some contexts (just like “huh?” in English).
More polite versions are:
Bonus: “La bise”
In this lesson, Carrie talked about “la bise”, which is the French word for that kiss on the cheek that French people do when they meet each other. A couple of tips:
French people don’t literally kiss the cheek, they just touch cheeks and make a kissing sound.
If you both wear glasses, it can be a good idea to quickly take yours off so you don’t get tangled!
Et voilà, 9 little words that will instantly help you sound très French. Have you used French filler words before? Do you know any that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments, s’il te plaît!
More from French is Beautiful
If you’d like to keep learning French with Carrie, you can find her here:
Lots of people say they speak a foreign language better after a drink or two.
It seems logical.
One of the trickiest things about speaking a language is the nerves and alcohol lowers inhibitions.
But does drinking really help you speak a foreign language better? Or just make you think you speak it better? After all, alcohol also makes people think they can dance like Beyonce, they should call their ex and that cheese is a food group.
Interestingly, science suggests that the “Dutch courage” effect is real – alcohol really can help you speak a foreign language.
Which is an interesting finding, if not all that helpful.
For a start, lots of people don’t drink alcohol. And even if you do like a tipple, what happens when you need to speak the language over breakfast, or at the airport?
It’s just not practical to crack out the bubbly every time you want to speak a foreign language.
In this article, we’ll talk about:
The science behind why alcohol helps you speak a foreign language better.
How to get the same confidence boost without touching a drop.
Science says alcohol helps you speak a foreign language (kind of)
Last year, researchers invited 50 Germans who spoke Dutch as a second language into the lab. Half were given a drink with vodka in it, while the others got a drink which was alcohol-free.
Once the Germans had finished their drinks, they were asked to have a conversation in Dutch. Two native Dutch speakers (who didn’t know who had drunk alcohol and who hadn’t) listened to the recordings and rated the Germans on how well they spoke Dutch.
Alcohol might improve your pronunciation, but only in moderation
It’s important to keep in mind that the pronunciation gains were linked to small amounts of alcohol. In the most recent study, the Germans consumed less than a pint of beer. Back in 1972, the sweet spot was 1.5 oz of 90 proof alcohol, which is around one shot of strong whiskey. Participants who drank more than that, or who drank on an empty stomach, performed worse than the sober ones.
This fits in with my experience when I moved to Italy. When I went to the pub with my Italian friends, I found that the first drink helped, but any more than 2 and I struggled to keep up with the conversation.
Which is not all that surprising. Large amounts of alcohol impairs concentration, memory and makes you slur your words – not ideal for speaking a foreign language.
So in answer to our question:
Can alcohol help you speak a foreign language?
Yes, but only pronunciation. And only in small amounts.
Why does this happen?
Why does alcohol improve your pronunciation in a foreign language?
One theory is that alcohol helps you open up to a new cultural identity.
Pronunciation forms a strong part of your identity because it links you to a community. If you have a London accent, this could suggest all kinds of things about you including the type of job you might have, your religious or political views, the kinds of things you eat for dinner and certain personality traits.
Learning the sounds of a new language requires you to leave this behind, which explains why you might feel a bit silly when speaking a new language – it doesn’t feel like you.
In the 1972 study, the researchers suggested that drinking alcohol increases “ego permeability” – the willingness to temporarily give up the separateness of your identity so that you can mimic speakers of the second language.
But what about the confidence-boosting effect we talked about at the beginning of this article? Does alcohol help you feel more confident when you speak a foreign language? If we come back to our Dutch speaking Germans, we find a surprising twist in this cocktail.
Can alcohol help you feel more confident when you speak a foreign language?
When researchers asked the German groups how well they thought they’d spoken, there was no difference between the drinkers and the non-drinkers. This means that although their pronunciation was better, the Germans who had drunk alcohol didn’t feel more confident.
One reason for this could be that the participants didn’t actually know if they’d drunk alcohol or not (they were told that they may have a drink with alcohol in it).
In the comments to a recent question I posted about languages and drinking, Nasrul said:
I can’t drink wine because I’m Muslim. But I speak Arabic and English better after I’ve drunk something like mineral water and coke.
I do drink myself, but I remember going to the pub with friends on occasions when I didn’t. At first, I was worried that I would feel awkward, but after a while, I got into the conversations and forgot that I wasn’t drinking.
Pleasant moments, like sitting around a cozy table with friends, could be enough to help you relax into speaking a foreign language.
So far, we’ve learnt that:
Small doses of alcohol can improve your pronunciation (possibly because it helps you open up to a new cultural identity).
Too much alcohol can impair your ability to speak a foreign language.
The confidence-boosting effect of alcohol might not always be real.
Anything that helps you feel more relaxed could help you speak a foreign language better.
What does this mean for me?
If you drink alcohol, why not take advantage of these findings and combine it with language learning? You could meet a speaking partner at the pub and practise chatting over a drink.
But you don’t need alcohol to feel more confident when speaking a foreign language. There are plenty of other ways to increase your self-esteem.
Here are 4.
4 ways to feel confident when you speak a foreign language (no Dutch courage necessary!)
1. Close the cultural gap
If you’re not used to speaking to people from other countries, it can feel intimidating. While it’s natural to focus on your differences at first, research suggests that this kind of “me and them” thinking could make it harder for you to learn the language.
Breaking down cultural barriers will help you speak the language better. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Most cultural differences are on the surface. When you get closer to people from different cultures, you’ll realise that you have a lot in common. Many values, like kindness, friendship and family, are universal.
Put yourself in their shoes
Imagine you come from the culture of the language you’re learning. What does a typical day look like? What time do you wake up? What do you wear? What do you eat for breakfast? You can even go deeper – What keeps you up at night? What makes you smile? This will help you get closer on a practical and emotional level.
When you spend time hanging around with people you like from that culture, you’ll get an insider view that will help you understand and connect with other native speakers. Get tips on where to find these people in step 4.
Don’t take yourself so seriously
When dealing with a new language and culture, you’ll probably have awkward moments where you make mistakes, or you’re not sure what to say or do. If you shut down from fear of mistakes, this will create distance between you and the native speakers you want to talk to.
Arm yourself with a good sense of humour and learn to laugh at yourself. Most people are forgiving of the mistakes foreigners make when navigating their culture – if you let them laugh with you, you’ll never struggle to make friends.
2. Practise a lot (even if it feels uncomfortable)
You cannot think yourself out of feeling nervous.
In fact, trying to convince yourself not to feel nervous makes everything worse, because you create a new problem:
1. You feel nervous
2. You’re nervous about the fact that you can’t stop feeling nervous.
If you accept that nerves are a normal part of learning to speak a foreign language, you’ll make life easier for yourself. So, if you can’t stop the nerves by thinking, what can you do instead?
Take action. The most reliable way to gain confidence when speaking a foreign language is simple: practise until it feels normal.
And you don’t have to start at the deep end – you can gradually build up to conversations. Find a step-by-step guide in this post:
To make speaking a language more enjoyable (and therefore less nerve-wracking) try practicing the language in fun social situations. For example:
Are there any meetups in your area where you can practice speaking the language with like-minded people?
Can you meet a language exchange partner in a place you love? Like at a café or in the park? Can you go to an art gallery or sightseeing? Or how about cooking together?
You’ll probably still feel nervous at the beginning, but that’s nothing to worry about. Remember, the secret is getting started.
The more you do it, the easier it gets.
4. Practise with people who make you feel comfortable
In your native language, there are probably people you feel relaxed around, and others who make you a bit uncomfortable.
It’s no different for language learning. I’ve been learning Italian for years, but there are still people and situations that make me nervous. For example, I get a bit of social anxiety around friends of friends who are very different from me. Or when ordering in shops and restaurants (I feel awkward talking to people I don’t know in English, so in Italian, it’s worse!)
This doesn’t mean you should avoid people and situations that make you feel awkward (remember, nerves are a normal part of language learning). But it does mean that you’ll probably find it more difficult to speak in these situations, so they’re not ideal for practicing.
The best way to improve your speaking skills in a second language is to find people who make you feel comfortable and practise with them regularly.
Where can you find these people?
Online language tutors
One of the best places to practise speaking a foreign language is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here:
Keep in mind that you don’t have to stick with the first person you find. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first tutor, keep looking until you find someone you click with.
Language Exchange Partners
Alternatively, look for people in your area who also want to learn your native language and set up a language exchange:
They help you practise speaking their native language
You help them practise speaking your native language
There are lots of websites and apps that help you find native speakers in your area, so you can meet up and practice speaking over a coffee (or glass of vino if you do drink). Conversation Exchange and Tandem are two examples.
Again, keep in mind that you don’t have to stick with the first person you find. It’s a bit like online dating – you can keep going until you find someone that feels right.
A fab way to feel comfortable and get a lot better at speaking is to join one of our immersion vacations. The vacations are run by myself and a patient native speaker teacher who will put you at ease and encourage you to speak.
To practise speaking a language in beautiful locations, while doing fun and relaxing things like:
Wandering around lavender fields in Provence.
Island hopping across the Italian lakes
Nibbling on tapas and sipping on sangria (or virgin sangria) on the Costa Brava.
By the end, you’ll feel loads more confident because you’ll have spoken the language for a whole week! And you’ll have new friends to practise speaking with.
If you’d like to join us, you can find out more here:
Do you find it easier to speak a foreign language after a drink or two? Do you have any other techniques that help you relax when you’re speaking?
What’s the difference between a Spanish learner and a native speaker?
There are obvious things, like pronunciation and grammar.
But there’s another difference that people hardly ever talk about. Little words that Spanish speakers use all the time, but that you won’t find in a typical Spanish lesson or textbook.
The good news is, they’re quick to learn and instantly help you sound more native.
In this post, you’ll learn what Spanish filler words are and how they can help you speak Spanish better.
19 little words that will help you sound more Spanish when you talk.
The difference between “eh” and “ah” in Spanish (it’s bigger than you might think!)
A video tutorial on how to use Spanish filler words like a native.
A Spanish conversation with realistic examples.
Bonus: A mini lesson on how to pronounce b + v in Spanish!
What are Spanish Filler Words?
Filler words are little words and noises like “uhm”, “so”, “well”, “sort of”, “I mean”, “right” and “you know”. They’re called filler words because we use them to fill in the gaps while we’re thinking about what to say next.
Every language has their own set of filler words. A few examples in Spanish are:
Spanish speakers use them all the time in natural and spontaneous conversations.
Why Should I use Spanish Filler Words?
If you want to sound more native when you speak Spanish, filler words are a great place to start. They’re handy for two reasons:
They buy you thinking time
When you speak Spanish, you might feel nervous about having long pauses while you think about what you want to say next. But even native Spanish speakers hesitate sometimes and when they do, they use filler words.
If you can use the same words that native speakers use when they pause, this will help you stay in “Spanish” mode while you organise your thoughts. You’ll come across as a little more fluent, even while you’re hesitating!
They make you sound (and feel) more Spanish
Filler words don’t change the meaning of a sentence – the sentence would still make sense without them – but they make a big difference to how your speech sounds. Imagine I ask you this question:
¿Quieres ir a la biblioteca? Do you want to go to the library?
Without filler words, you could answer like this:
With filler words, you could say something like:
Pues… ahora mismo, no… Hmm, not right now, no.
Sprinkling in some Spanish filler words is a bit like adding condiments – they’re not the main ingredients, but they add a lot of Spanish flavour. When you use them, you’ll feel more Spanish and your speech will sound more natural to Spanish ears.
That said, not all Spanish filler words are the same. There are different filler words for different situations, so it’s important to learn how to use them correctly.
To help you drop them into the conversation smoothly, Nacho from Nacho time Spanish is here to teach you some Spanish filler words and how to use them in real life. Below the tutorial video, you’ll also find:
An explanation of each word with example sentences.
A video conversation in Spanish so you can see them being used in action.
Nacho.—¿A que no sabes con quién me encontré ayer por la calle?
Katie.—Pues, no sé. Sorpréndeme.
Nacho.—¡Con Alberto! Mi antiguo jefe. Resulta que dentro de poco es su cumpleaños y me ha dicho que estamos invitados a la fiesta que está organizando en su casa.
Katie.—Ah, pues dile que muchas gracias, pero no creo que vaya. Habré hablado con él dos veces en mi vida y en esa fiesta no creo que conozca a nadie.
Nacho.—Bueno, ¿y eso qué más da? Me conoces a mí. Y con él, ya hablarás el viernes. Así que no le vayas a hacer un feo ahora. Encima que te invita…
Katie.—Oye, a ti esto de darle la vuelta a la tortilla se te da muy bien, ¿sabes? Deberías de trabajar de comercial. Ganarías una pasta.
Nacho.—¡Venga, mujer! Que no es para tanto. ¿Tenías otro plan para este viernes?
Katie.—Es que no sé si me apetece pasarme el viernes en una fiesta de un tío que no conozco de nada.
Nacho.—Mira, vamos a hacer una cosa. El viernes por la tarde te vienes a mi casa, nos preparo algo para cenar, nos tomamos un par de cubatas y luego vamos a la fiesta de Alberto. Estamos allí una horita y si nos aburrimos, nos vamos. ¿Eh? ¿Qué te parece?
Katie.—Bueno, vale. De acuerdo. Pero nada de pizzas congeladas como la última vez. O cocinas algo de verdad o no pienso poner un pie en tu casa.
Nacho.—O sea, que si no me lo curro, me quedo sin fiesta.
Nacho.—Venga. Pues, ¡trato hecho! A ver qué tal me sale. 😅
Today’s Spanish Filler Words
So you can keep them all together, here’s a handy list of all the Spanish filler words Nacho and I talked about in the videos.
Ah! (To express surprise, like the English “oh!”)
Bueno (OK, without enthusiasm)
Vale (OK, without enthusiasm)
Venga (Come on)
Vamos (Come on)
Es que (The thing is)
A que no (You’ll never guess)
Resulta que (It turns out that)
Ya (something that hasn’t happened yet, but will in future)
Así que (so)
Encima que (on top of that)
Esto de (this stuff about)
Sabes (You know)
O sea (In other words)
A ver (let’s see/we’ll see)
So there you have it, a few easy-to-remember words that will instantly help you sound more Spanish when you speak. Have you tried using Spanish filler words before? Do you know any others that we missed? Let us know in the comments!
As a language teacher, I’m supposed to tell you that they’re all equally important (a bit like not having a favourite child).
Between you and me, I have a favourite. One that’s more important than the others, at least for most people.
If your main reason for learning a language is to have conversations, the best way to train yourself is by listening to lots of conversations.
Yet it also happens to be one of the most frustrating skills to master.
You might understand quite a bit when you see the words written down or hear them spoken slowly and clearly. But when natives chat at 100mph and mush their words together, it can feel impossible to keep up.
Luckily, with the right strategies, you can train yourself to understand. In this in-depth guide, I’ll show you how to tune your ears into the language you’re learning so you can follow what native speakers are saying.
Why listening helps you speak a foreign language better.
The common problems that stop you from understanding (and how to fix them).
3 techniques to help you keep up with fast and unclear speech: Deliberate, Binge and Passive.
How to find the right listening resources.
Should you use subtitles? A science-based answer.
How to stop panicking and start understanding (+ other useful mindset stuff).
Why should I do more listening in a foreign language?
When you improve your listening skills, you’ll understand native speakers better – a fundamental skill for speaking a foreign language.
But listening has another benefit: It helps you learn how native speakers talk.
Of course, if your aim is to have conversations, you’ll also need to practice speaking. But one of the coolest things about listening is that it helps with your speaking skills. The more you listen, the more you’ll find that the right things “pop into your head” when you need them.
Listening helps you get the grammar right
Time for a little experiment. Let’s say you’re a native English speaker and I ask you which of the following is correct:
Last year I went to London
Last year I have been to London
Which would you choose?
Most native English speakers instinctively feel that the first sentence is right. They can’t tell you why, but they use it correctly even though they don’t know the rule.
When you listen a lot in a foreign language, you’ll pick up grammar without spending so much time memorising the rules. You’ll just know because it “sounds right” – a bit like in your native language.
This happens to me all the time. For example, German has several ways to say “the” (including der, die and das), which can be confusing for learners. But I know that Germans say das Foto. Why? Is it because I memorised it in a list of “das” words?
It’s because I’ve been watching a certain reality TV show (*Cough* Germany’s Next Topmodel) where they talk about photos a lot.
This doesn’t mean you should totally ignore grammar, but it does mean that you can pick up a lot relatively painlessly by listening as much as you can.
Listening helps you learn native-sounding expressions
Languages are full of little expressions that don’t translate logically. Look at the literal translations of the phrase “we’re nearly there” in different languages:
Italian: We are almost arrived (Siamo quasi arrivati).
Spoken French: One is almost arrived (On est presque arrivés).
Spanish: Already, we almost arrived (Ya casi llegamos).
Every language has thousands of little expressions like these and the best way to learn them is by hearing them in natural situations (either in real life, or via TV/films etc.)
Listening is a great way for busy people to learn a language
Just in case you needed another reason to increase the amount of listening you do in a foreign language, it’s the busy learner’s best friend. All you need is a smartphone and some headphones and you can listen as you go about your day without it taking up any extra time.
What if I don’t understand anything?
Have you ever felt a frustrating gap between your listening and reading abilities in a foreign language? When you see something written down (or if someone says it very slowly), you can follow what’s being said, but when they speak at normal speed… woosh!
Straight over your head.
If you understand when you have the words in front of you, it’s not a comprehension problem. The problem must be sound-related – your ears aren’t tuned into the foreign language yet.
There are 2 reasons this can happen.
Problem #1. The words sound different to how you expected
As you grew up, your brain adapted to your native language by zooming in on sounds that were important and filtering out the ones that weren’t. This is good because it helps you understand your first language better, even in unfavourable conditions, like over a crackly phone line or in a noisy pub.
But it means that when you listen to a second language as an adult, your ears play tricks on you. They make you think that the sounds in a foreign language are similar to your native language when actually they’re different.
Problem #2: You haven’t practised enough
At school, I hated Spanish listening exercises.
I remember feeling nervous before the teacher pressed play and the panic that set in as I missed everything that was being said. Then the self-flagellation – if I couldn’t do the class activity, I assumed the problem was me.
In Spanish class, we listened to a 2-minute audio, twice. This means I was listening to Spanish for around 4 minutes a week. It’s not surprising that my listening skills weren’t very good!
When it comes to listening in a foreign language, one of the biggest challenges is the speed – to keep up with native speakers, you have to get faster at understanding.
The best way to get faster at something?
To recap, there are two main reasons why you might find listening difficult in a foreign language:
The words sound different to how you expected.
You need more practice.
In the rest of this blog post, you’ll learn how to adapt to new sounds in the language you’re learning and get more practice (even if you don’t have much time) so you can understand native speakers more easily.
How to improve your listening in a foreign language
To train your listening in a foreign language, we’re going to use three different techniques.
Deliberate listening is all about the details. It’s a process that helps you identify what’s stopping you from understanding native speakers and fix it.
It draws from deliberate practice, a technique pioneered by psychologist Anders Ericsson, whose research suggests that you can become highly skilled in just about anything by following the 3 Fs:
Focus: Break the skill down into parts you can practice repeatedly
Feedback: Analyse your practice attempts and identify your weakness
Fix-it: Come up with ways to address your weaknesses so you can do better next time.
You can apply this technique to improve your listening in a foreign language. Let’s learn how.
Deliberate Listening Method 1: Dictation
In a classic dictation activity, you listen to the audio and write down what you hear. A deliberate listening dictation takes this one step further by analysing your mistakes so that you can fix them.
To get started, you’ll need some audio in the language you’re learning as well as a written version of the audio, such as a transcript or subtitles. If you need help finding these, see the next section: Where to Find Resources.
Step 1: Listen to a sentence and write what you hear. YouTube videos are ideal because you can skip back 5 seconds which makes it easy to listen to the sentence several times.
Quick tips for listening with YouTube videos:
Press the spacebar to play and pause.
Press the back arrow key to skip back 5 seconds.
Step 2: Did you understand everything? If yes, repeat step one with a new sentence. If no, look up the part you didn’t understand on the transcript/subtitles and identify the problem that stopped you from understanding.
Are there words or grammar you’re not familiar with? If yes, take a moment to look up the meaning of the word or investigate the grammar. If you think you’ll come across these words/grammar points a lot in future, make an effort to learn them so that you’ll understand them next time.
Did the words sound different to how you expected? If yes, how? Sounds often change in fast speech. For example, in French, Je ne saispas becomes j’sais pas. Accents can also make things trickier, for example, in Mandarin Chinese, people from Beijing sometimes pronounce the “sh” sound as “r”.
Listen carefully to the part that caused you trouble and repeat a few times. In what way are the sounds different from how you expected? Keep these differences in mind so you’ll be more likely to understand when you hear them next time.
Here’s an example of this technique in action.
Deliberate Listening Method 2: Skipping
The skipping method is similar to the dictation method but requires a bit less effort – for times when you can’t be bothered to go all in! Instead of writing down what you hear, you’re just going to use your ears.
Step 1: Listen to the audio. When you get to a part that you don’t understand, skip back and listen several times.
Step 2: If you still can’t figure out what’s being said, consult the transcript or subtitles. Then follow the rest of step 2 from the dictation method.
If it’s a vocabulary or grammar problem, look it up.
If it’s a sound problem, listen several times and focus on the sounds. In what way are they different to how you expected? Keep this in mind for future listening.
Deliberate Listening Method 3: Shadowing
This is a variation on the technique developed by polyglot professor Alexander Argüelles. It’s a little like the dictation method, but instead of writing, you say what you hear.
Step 1: Listen to the audio and copy the speaker – try to lay your voice over the speaker’s as closely as possible. Step 2: When you find a bit that trips you up, stop talking. Step 3: Skip back a few times and listen to that part as closely as you can. Step 4: If you still can’t understand, consult the transcript or subtitles.
If it’s a vocabulary or grammar problem, look it up.
If it’s a sound problem, listen several times and focus on the sounds. In what way are they different to how you expected? Keep this in mind for future listening.
Step 5: Go back to the tricky part and talk over it again, trying to mimic the new words/sounds you’ve learnt.
Here’s an example of this technique in action.
#2. Binge listening
While deliberate listening is about listening as carefully as possible, binge listening is all about listening as much as possible.
If you want to understand native speakers in the language you’re learning, it’s important to practise a lot. The more you practise listening, the faster you’ll be able to keep up.
Look for some long-format listening (like podcasts or TV shows) and listen as much as you can. Here are some examples of how you can fit listening into your day.
Listen to a news podcast as you eat breakfast
Listen to an audiobook in your car/on your way to work
Listen to a podcast as you do chores in the house: ironing, cleaning the bathroom, washing the dishes etc.
Watch YouTube videos in the language you’re learning while you’re procrastinating online
Watch a film or TV series in the evening.
The best thing about this kind of listening is that it doesn’t have to take any extra time out of your day – listening to a podcast while you’re walking to work or washing the dishes is easy even during busy times.
To get the most out of binge listening, look for materials that are:
1. At the right level
The ideal materials are ones where you can get the general gist of what’s going on, even if you don’t understand all the details. There should be new words and expressions, but not so many that you have to interrupt your listening every few seconds to look in a dictionary.
For lower levels, start with materials that have been simplified for learners. Here’s a list of listening materials you can use:
Beginner to intermediate:
Audio files from a learner textbook
Podcasts for learners
TV programmes for learners
YouTube channels for learners
Audiobooks for learners
Audiobooks and podcasts for native speakers (start with simple ones, like biographies or nonfiction).
YouTube channels for native speakers.
Films (don’t worry if you find these difficult, that’s normal even at high levels!)
More advice on where to find these in the next section: where to find resources.
2. Relevant to the skills you want to learn
If your aim is to have informal conversations with people, then talk shows, soap operas and reality TV are ideal because they will help you pick up grammar and vocabulary to talk about everyday stuff.
On the other hand, if you want to pass an oral exam, then it’s probably better to listen to news programmes and documentaries because they’ll help you learn how to speak in a more formal register.
3. Something you like
Listening in a foreign language is like cracking a code. It takes effort to decipher the unfamiliar sounds and understand the meaning.
When you don’t like what you’re listening to, you won’t feel motivated to crack the code because you don’t care about the message on the other side.
On the flip side, if you choose materials you like, you’ll be motivated to put in the work because you want to know what they’re saying. Also, as you’re going to be spending a lot of time doing it, you might as well pick something you enjoy!
If you like listening to the news in your native language, look for ways do this in the language you’re learning. If travel or photography is your thing, try and find podcasts about these topics. If you’re a reality TV addict or a Netflix fan, can you find some series in the language you’re learning?
Foreign language films and TV shows are tricky to understand in a foreign language, even at very high levels (so don’t worry if this is still a struggle for you!)
Subtitles can be a really handy tool, as long as they’re in the language you’re learning. Avoid subtitles in your native language – it’s too tempting to read them without making an effort to understand the foreign language.
When it comes to subtitles in the language you’re learning, while most people agree that they can help you learn a language, some worry that they’re not good for listening skills because you end up reading most of the time.
With passive listening, you just let the language wash over you without understanding what’s going on.
If you’re at a beginner to intermediate level, this could happen a lot when you try listening to materials for native speakers. It could also happen when you have the radio on in the background.
For learning to happen in a foreign language, you need to be able to follow the gist of what you’re hearing – it can’t happen through osmosis. For this reason, passive listening is probably the least effective of the 3 techniques, so you should focus most of your energy on the first two: deliberate and binge.
That said, passive listening can be handy sometimes, for the following reasons:
Being surrounded by the language helps you build a personal connection with it, which boosts motivation.
Getting used to not understanding everything is a good skill to have, it means you won’t panic so much when you hear the language in real-life situations.
It can help you get used to the rhythm and intonation of the language.
Improve your Listening in a foreign language: Where to Find Resources
Now you’re ready to start listening more in a foreign language, you’ll need some stuff to listen to! If you’re learning French, Spanish, Italian, Russian or Mandarin, you might find these posts useful:
Here are a few other handy resources which are available in lots of different languages.
One of my favourite resources for training yourself to understand native speakers is the Easy Languages YouTube Channel. The presenters go out into the streets and ask passersby interesting questions like “What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done?”
The answers are usually entertaining and the format gives you an example of natural speech, as well as a sneak peak into the culture of the language you’re learning.
The videos have subtitles in the language of learning and smaller subtitles in English so you can go back and check bits you didn’t understand. I like to cover the English ones up with a bit of folded paper to make sure I don’t cheat and read those ones first!
Here are links to some of the most popular languages:
If the US Sitcom friends and your school textbook had a love child, it would be the Extra Series. This educational sitcom follows the story of four young friends who share an apartment and is available in 4 languages: English, Spanish, German and French.
It’s cheesier than cheese, but if you can get past the hammy acting and over the top dialogues, it’s a really handy listening resource for beginner to intermediate levels.
Nowadays, there are lots of podcasts with slow-read audio to help learners understand better. Their websites often come with transcripts (look for links in the show notes/comments) which are handy for checking bits that you couldn’t make out in the listening. Here are a few I’ve found on iTunes and YouTube.
There is also the News in Slow series, which is available in French, Spanish, Italian and German.
A little word of warning – “slow” materials are a fantastic stepping stone to help you get used to listening in a foreign language, but try not to rely on them too much. The unnatural speed means that they don’t give you much chance to practice keeping up with normal native speech.
Coffee Break Season 2
The Coffee Break Podcasts are fab at any level, but season 2 and upwards are particularly good for improving your listening skills. Over the course of the series, Mark Pentleton and his team tell stories based on conversations, which are read at a clear yet natural pace. Once they’ve read the story, they go into key vocabulary and grammar points to help you understand the dialogues in depth.
If you’re learning an Asian language like Mandarin, Korean or Japanese, check out Viki.
They have a “Learn mode” with interactive, dual-language subtitles where you can click on a word you don’t know and get the definition. As with Easy languages, it’s a good idea to cover up the English subtitles with a bit of paper so you don’t get tempted to cheat and read them first!
In Learn Mode, you’ll also find very user-friendly commands so you can skip back and listen to phrases you didn’t understand several times (a bit like on YouTube).
Skills that will help you listen in a foreign language
Now you’ve got the techniques and the resources, let’s talk quickly about personal skills that will help you deal with the challenges of listening to a foreign language.
Skill #1: Tolerate ambiguity
When you’re listening in a foreign language, you’re going to spend a lot of time not getting stuff – that’s normal. If you have a tendency to get frustrated when you don’t understand things, you’re going to make life unnecessarily difficult for yourself. Accept ambiguity as a natural part of language learning and you’ll be able to remain calm and keep moving forward.
Skill #2: Have a growth mindset
People with a fixed mindset convince themselves that they can’t do something because they’re not good at it. People with a growth mindset recognise that all skills are hard at the beginning – they know that if they keep practising, they’ll make progress.
Learning to listen in a foreign language is all about perseverance. Stick with it and you’ll get there!
Skill #3: Be an observer
Get into the habit of observing native speakers – which words, phrases and sounds do they use? The more you observe native speakers, the more you’ll be able to make educated guesses about what they’re likely to say in certain situations, which will help you follow conversations more easily.
Listening in a foreign language can be a pain in the ear sometimes, but with the right kind of practice (and perseverance), you can do it!
Think about a typical day and decide:
When can you squeeze in some deliberate and binge listening?
Which resources are you going to use?
Keep chipping away at it and in a few months, you’ll understand native speakers much more easily.
Do you have any other strategies for improving listening that I didn’t mention in this guide? Or can you add any more good resources to the list? Let us know in the comments!
You’re walking along the streets of Paris and you see a delicious croissanty thing in the window of a boulangerie.
You don’t know what it’s called, but you know you want one.
So you let the sweet smell of French pastries pull you towards the counter, where the serveur asks:
Bonjour, vous désirez?(Hello, what would you like?)
You have 2 choices.
Point and say “one of those please”
Point and ask: Comment on dit ça en francais? (how do you say that in French?)
The first will keep you stuck in touristville. The second is an example of a powerful little French conversation phrase that will help you:
Learn a new French word.
Strike up a conversation with a French person.
Show French people you meet that you’re interested in their language and culture.
French Conversation Phrases that Make Speaking Easier
They say that speaking French is hard.
In reality, it’s not the speaking bit that’s hard (that’s the goal!). The tricky bit is when you try speaking, but you get stuck.
When you don’t know (or forget) a French word.
When French people reply too fast and you don’t understand what they’re saying.
When you try really hard to speak French and they reply in English!
Learning a few strategic French phrases will help you navigate these problems smoothly so you can take back control of the conversation and keep talking.
Voilà 6 French conversation phrases that will help you do that, brought to you by my lovely French teacher, Manon.
Learn these phrases by heart so you can drop them into the conversation quickly when you need them. If you need some help memorising them, here are some flashcards you can download (+ tutorial on how to use them):
Of course, you’ll also need some French people to practice with! Later in this post, we’ll talk about how to find them. First, let’s dive into the phrases in more detail.
French Conversation Phrase 1: “Comment on dit ça en français ?”
How do you say that in French? (literally: how does one say that in French?)
Possibly the most useful French phrase you’ll ever learn. Not only is it a great way to learn some new words, it’ll also help you connect with French people who are normally happy to teach you a few words in their language – especially if you ask them in French!
Also, the fact that you’re learning these words in real life situations makes them far more memorable compared to learning them from a book or dictionary.
Quick tip: Keep a notebook with you (or use the notes app on your phone) to write down the new words you learn.
French Conversation Phrase 2: “Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire ?”
What does that mean?
Use this one when you hear or see a word and you don’t know the meaning. It’s particularly useful question in restaurants – just point to the word on the menu and ask the waiter!
You can also ask: Qu’est-ce que c’est ? (what is that?)
By asking this question in French, people will be more likely to reply to you in French, which gives you an opportunity to keep the conversation going. But even if they switch back to English for the definition, at least you’ve shown the French person that you’re learning their language, which makes it easier to go back to French once you get unstuck.
French Conversation Phrase 3: “Pardon, je ne comprends pas”.
Sorry, I don’t understand
A handy phrase for if you get lost mid-conversation. A word of warning: try not to use this phrase in isolation because French people may interpret it as a cry for help and switch back to English. If you use this phrase, make sure you follow it up with another request, like:
Pouvez-vous répéter s’il vous plaît ? (Can you repeat, please?)
Pouvez-vous parler moins vite s’il vous plaît ? (Can you speak slower, please?)
This way, the person you’re talking will know how to help you.
French Conversation Phrase 4: “Pouvez-vous répéter s’il vous plaît ?”
Can you repeat, please?
When you just need to hear the phrase again. If they repeat and you’re still having trouble understanding, try to identify the problem and ask another question:
Are they speaking too fast? Ask: Pouvez-vous parler moins vite s’il vous plaît ? (Can you speak slower, please?)
Is there a word you don’t know? Ask: Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire ? (What does that mean?)
French Conversation Phrase 5: “Pouvez-vous parler moins vite s’il vous plaît ?”
Can you speak slower, please? (literally less fast)
For those times when your French speaking partner is going at 100 mph and you’re having trouble keeping up!
French Conversation Phrase 6: Pouvons-nous parler français s’il vous plaît? J’aimerais apprendre.
Can we speak in French, please? I’d like to learn.
Sometimes you might say something to someone in French, but they reply in English!
There are many reasons this might happen:
They’re busy, and using English is the quickest way.
They’re not aware that you’re trying to learn French, so they reply in English to make life easier for you.
They’re used to dealing with tourists, so they default to English without thinking about it.
They want to practice their English!
If you can see that someone is busy trying to do their job and you’re not confident about your ability to speak French quickly (totally normal at first!), it’s probably best to go ahead and use English. There are better ways to practice speaking, which we’ll talk about in the next section.
But in situations like 2 – 4, if the person seems friendly, you can simply explain that you’re learning and ask if they would speak French with you. With this technique, you’ll find that many people are happy to chat to you for a little while in French.
However, if you don’t feel comfortable with this, there are other ways to practice speaking French…
Where can I find French people to practice with?
Lots of advice on speaking French will tell you to just “give it a go” and speak to people in French whenever you get the chance.
If you’re extroverted and you find this easy, c’est super!
But this approach doesn’t work for everyone. In the beginning, it can be tricky to practice speaking French with people you meet randomly – in shops, restaurants or on the train – because these people aren’t there to help you learn French, they’re just going about their day. This puts an extra (unnecessary) layer of pressure on you to be able to have a normal conversation.
When you start speaking French, it’s normal to make lots of mistakes and take ages to string a sentence together, but you might worry that this could be annoying for the French people you speak to.
You just need to find the right people to practice with.
Look for situations where you can set up a “learning agreement” with French speakers. These are situations where the French person knows you are a beginner and they are there to help you speak. This could be:
A language exchange partner: Find a French person who is learning your native language – they can help you practice speaking French while you help them speak your native language.
A conversation tutor: Meet a native French speaker for 30 minutes or an hour of conversation practice and pay them in exchange for their time.
These options take the pressure off because you’re giving the French person something in return for their time and effort – you don’t need to worry so much if the conversation is a bit awkward at first.
Also, they know you’re a beginner, so they’re expecting you to speak slowly and make mistakes!
Finding patient French people to help you is one of the most important things you can do to make progress in your speaking.
So where can you find these people?
The best place is to find native French speakers online is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors. They are usually pretty good value (sometimes less than $10 an hour).
If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here:
If you find you often put off practicing French because you’re busy, this is a great option – you can squeeze a lesson in whenever you have a spare 30 minutes, from wherever you are (as long as you have an Internet connection).
Alternatively, if you don’t have the budget for lessons, you can also use italki for online language exchanges.
Face to Face
If you’d prefer to connect with French people face to face, look for native French people in your area and set up a language exchange. Here are a couple of tools you can use to find them:
One word of advice – when doing language exchanges, be sure to divide the time equally (e.g. 30 minutes in each language) and be strict about sticking to it so that you both get a fair chance to practice. Remember to ask:
“Pouvons-nous parler français s’il vous plaît? J’aimeraisapprendre” (Can we speak in French please? I’d like to learn)
If you’re planning on travelling to France soon, you can use these tools to meet up with the locals. I used conversation exchange when I went to Paris and it was great. I got to practice speaking French with Parisiens who showed me some of their favourite local spots – a French teacher and local tour guide rolled into one!
By learning the few French phrases from today’s post, you’ll be able to keep the conversation going, learn some new words and connect better with French people.
Have you tried using any of these French conversation phrases before? How did it go? Let us know in the comments below!
You know that dream where you’re standing in front of lots of people and you suddenly realise you’re naked?
Everyone’s staring at you.
Panic squeezes your chest and makes your hands and voice go all wobbly. You want to escape but for some reason, you can’t.
This happened to me last Friday.
Only it wasn’t a dream. Luckily for me (and everyone else in the room) I wasn’t naked. But the rest is true.
It happened while giving a talk at the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana for the Friday Language Learning Event. My brain turned to swiss cheese and I kept forgetting what I wanted to say. At one point, I was shaking so much that I had to grab the mic with both hands.
It reminded me of how I used to feel when speaking a foreign language – that moment when the nerves make your mind go blank and you can feel people waiting while you scramble to find the words.
So I’m using the same technique that I used to overcome my fear of speaking a foreign language. It’s a strategy that’s so useful, I’m actually looking forward to my next chance to speak in public.
It’s not fancy. There are no Jedi mindset tricks or motivational quotes with a beach in the background. It’s not a quick fix either – you actually have to put some time and effort in.
But it works. And you can use it to feel more confident when you speak a foreign language.
In this post, you’ll learn:
Why most advice on how to get over your nerves doesn’t work.
The reliable way to deal with your fear of speaking a foreign language.
A practical step-by-step guide to help you build your confidence and start speaking.
The simplest way to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language
I’m not a naturally confident person.
I used to (sometimes still do) get very anxious about things like speaking foreign languages, job interviews and public speaking. I’ve tried all kinds of tricks to get rid of my nerves, such as:
Telling yourself that you’re not nervous, you’re just “excited”
Asking yourself: “what’s the worst that could happen?”
Making the listener(s) less intimidating by imagining them sitting on the toilet.
None of it worked. Why?
Because trying not to feel nervous is a bit like trying not to think of a giant grasshopper crossing the road holding an umbrella. What are you thinking of?
These methods made me feel worse, because they made me focus on my nerves and turned them into a personal problem that I couldn’t get rid of.
How I learnt to feel confident when speaking a foreign language
Despite not being naturally courageous, these days I don’t get particularly nervous when speaking a foreign language. And the reason is simple: I’ve spent an awful lot of time doing it.
There is only one strategy that helps me feel more relaxed when speaking a foreign language, and it’s this:
Do it until it feels normal
There’s a quiet confidence that comes with having done something many times, that you can’t get any other way.
When I gave my talk at the polyglot conference, I was petrified because it was my first time – no amount of preparation or “positive self-talk” could have changed this. But somewhere between my shaky hands and fluttery stomach, there was a glimmer of hope: I survived.
Next time, it will be marginally less terrifying. If I keep doing it, one day it won’t be terrifying at all. I know this because there are many things that used to scare me – like living in a foreign country or teaching – that are now a normal part of my life.
I know this “just do it” advice is easier said than done, and it’s not something that happens overnight. That’s why in the last part of this article, I’ll give you a step by step guide on how to gradually build your confidence in speaking a foreign language.
But first, let’s talk about why action (and not thought) is the simplest and most effective way to deal with your fear of speaking a foreign language. We’ll start by looking at why we get nervous in the first place.
Why do I feel nervous about speaking a foreign language?
Your brain has evolved over millions of years to protect you from danger. That’s why most people are afraid of heights to some degree – as you walk towards the edge of a cliff, your mind starts shouting “danger!” “danger!” to make sure you don’t get too close to the edge and fall off.
But why do we feel afraid in situations which aren’t dangerous, like speaking a foreign language?
Although fear is nature’s handy way of keeping you safe, it’s not very sophisticated. It can’t differentiate between physical threats, like falling off a cliff, and social threats, where the only thing at stake is your ego. Which could explain why more people are afraid of public speaking than death!
Trying to talk yourself out of feeling nervous can be counterproductive because it makes you feel like nerves are something to be avoided, when actually they’re just a normal biological response to the fact that you’re taking on a new challenge.
Doing things that scare you regularly (and surviving), shows your mind that they are no longer a threat, so the nerves eventually start to die down.
You can’t “think yourself” out of being nervous. The only way to become more confident with something is to do it until it feels normal 💃 #speakalanguage
Confidence doesn’t come from changing your thoughts, it comes with experience
This is why you’ll never find lasting confidence in a flashy Instagram quote or self-help book. The path to self-assuredness is a lot less sexy: it comes from doing the same thing over and over until it’s not new anymore.
It’s an intense awkwardness that gradually declines with experience until it almost disappears (a few jitters may remain, but that’s nothing to worry about).
Nerves are necessary if you want to do new and cool things that will help you grow, like speaking a foreign language. The more time you spend doing these things – even if they feel awkward – the faster you’ll feel at ease doing them.
This doesn’t mean you have to run around like an adrenaline junkie doing things that terrify you all day (although if you did, you’d probably get confident in those things pretty quickly).
There’s a gentler way.
Two ways to get out of your comfort zone
Have you ever watched people go swimming in the sea? Some run up and dive in head first. Others wade in inch by inch as they get used to the temperature.
The end result is the same: they’re both swimming in the sea.
If the ”just start speaking” approach feels a little too uncomfortable, you’re not alone. For many people (myself included) striking up a conversation with a stranger is intimidating in their native language – the idea of doing it in a language you’ve just started learning could be enough to put you off for life!
You don’t have to dive head first out of your comfort zone. Dipping your toe out works just as well.
Aim for the right level of nerves – a little speaking challenge that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable, but not so much that you traumatise yourself (more ideas on how to do this in the next section). Once you get used to that, try something else that makes you slightly uncomfortable and so on.
The confidence-boosting effect of these little steps will add up over time and help you feel more relaxed when speaking a foreign language.
How to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language: A step by step guide
Prepare for your conversations
If the idea of speaking a foreign language is scary, not knowing what to say can make it even scarier! Learning words and phrases that are likely to come up in conversation will help you to communicate more confidently.
Here are a few ways to prepare for your first conversation in a foreign language:
Learn basic greetings and pleasantries
Learn how to ask and answer simple conversation questions: Where are you from? What do you do?
Think about the kinds of questions people might ask you and learn the answers (you can ask a native speaker to help you with this – see the next section!)
Learn some small talk phrases: If you can talk about the weather, food and sport, you’ll have a great foundation for conversations.
Learn phrases to keep the conversation going, such as “How do you say that?”, “What does that mean?”, “Could you repeat please?”, “Could you speak slower please?” If you can ask these questions in the language you’re learning, you’ll be able to avoid awkward pauses when you don’t understand someone or when you don’t know a word.
Listen as much as you can: When you listen a lot, you’ll hear common phrases being used over and over. The more you listen, the more these phrases will pop into your head naturally when you are speaking. As a beginner, you can practice listening with textbook dialogues, audiobooks or podcasts designed for language learners.
You don’t have to start with a full-blown conversation. There are lots of ways to ease yourself slowly into speaking a foreign language.
Here are some suggestions.
Start by chatting to people online
Chatting online (via text message) is handy because there’s no time pressure. You can look up words you don’t know and think about the sentences carefully before you type them. Also, the other person can’t see your face which makes things a lot less nerve-wracking at first!
There are lots of different resources you can use to type little messages in the language you’re learning. HelloTalk is a great app where you can connect with native speakers via text message (a bit like WhatsApp for language learners). You can also try looking for Facebook groups where people practise chatting together in the language you’re learning.
Don’t overthink it, just type your first message then see what happens!
Practise speaking before you meet native speakers
It’s a great idea to get used to speaking in the language you’re learning before you try having a conversation with native speakers.
Practising speaking before you meet native speakers will give you the opportunity to practice grabbing all that grammar and vocabulary that’s floating around in your head and organising it into sentences so your conversations will run more smoothly when you try the real thing.
Practise speaking in situations where you have permission to be a beginner
Speaking a foreign language in real life situations – like with a person sitting next to you on the train – can feel scary because there’s pressure to have a normal conversation. You might worry about mistakes, forgetting words, or making the poor person wait for ages while you string a sentence together.
At first, it’s useful to find people where there is a “learning agreement” – that is, people who know you are a beginner and have agreed to help you learn. Usually, this will be a language exchange partner or a tutor.
This takes the pressure off for two reasons:
You’re giving them something in return for their time (teaching them your language in the case of exchange partners, or a little bit of money in the case of tutors)
They know that you’re a beginner, so they expect you to speak slowly, forget words and make mistakes! It’s a safe place to practise speaking a foreign language without the pressure of having to perform well.
Where can you find speaking partners like this?
Find a community tutor on italki
The best place to find people to help you speak a foreign language is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here:
It’s great for busy people because you get private conversation lessons and you can squeeze one in whenever you have a spare 30 minutes and an internet connection.
Find a language exchange partner
Alternatively, you can find native speakers who want to learn your native language and set up a language exchange. There are lots of websites and apps that help you can find native speakers in your area, so you can meet up and practice speaking over a coffee or beer. Conversation Exchange and Tandem are two examples.
A little word of caution – when doing language exchanges, be sure to divide the time equally (e.g. 30 minutes in each language) and be strict about sticking to it so that you both get a fair chance to practice.
Don’t take yourself so seriously
Earlier, we talked about how confidence in speaking a foreign language starts with “an intense awkwardness” that declines with experience.
In the beginning, you’ll almost certainly make mistakes and look silly at times. That’s nothing to fear! The sooner you can make friends with that awkward feeling, the more confident you’ll feel speaking a foreign language.
You don’t have to be perfect, and native speakers don’t expect you to be either. If you can learn to laugh at yourself, you’ll give native speakers the chance to laugh with you. This will help you get closer to your speaking partners and make the experience more fun.
Time for some action
If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this: it’s normal to feel nervous when speaking a foreign language. Take the first small step and just keep going. It’ll get easier, I promise.
Get more tips on how to speak a foreign language
Join our free 5-day email course and learn:
– Proven ways to deal with speaking nerves – even if you’re shy
– How to have your first conversation
– Where to find people to practice with
– How to stop fear of mistakes from holding you back (and even enjoy them!)
– Words to help you sound more fluent
– How to have fun with native speakers
What do you think?
Do you ever feel nervous speaking a foreign language? Do you think it gets easier with practice? Let us know in the comments below!
In August 2008, I had an Italian lesson that changed my life.
I’d already taken two years of Italian classes, but I still couldn’t have a basic conversation. Back then I hated languages (and wasn’t any good at them either).
Then I met Francesca. A tiny Roman teacher in her 50s who rode a scooter to school and didn’t believe in pens and paper.
There was something unusual about Francesca’s classroom. There were no desks or books, just chairs in a circle. And only one rule: NO ENGLISH.
Instead of spending hours explaining irregular verbs, Francesca made us have conversations in Italian.
At first, my brain melted. I spent half the time not understanding what people were saying, and the rest feeling awkward about making others wait while I strung a sentence together. But the more I practiced, the easier it got.
And after a few days… I was speaking Italian!
Not amazingly well, but it was an exciting start. I knew that if I kept learning Italian through conversations like this, I’d eventually learn to speak it well.
I’d discovered a simple key to fluency: Practice speaking Italian as much as you can.
It sounds obvious, but before I met Francesca, I’d never thought about it.
If you want to have conversations in Italian, you need lots of speaking practice
The idea is simple, but the reality is hard.
What if you forget a word and get stuck mid-sentence?
Or you say everything perfectly, but don’t understand the reply?
Or you get really nervous and your brain freezes up?
How can you find Italians to practice with?
Won’t people get impatient if you speak too slowly?
What if people keep replying in English?
These problems are all surmountable, with the right strategies.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know to start speaking Italian. From phrases to keep the conversation going when you don’t know a word, to strategies to help you deal with speaking nerves.
You’ll also learn:
The nuts and bolts of Italian conversation: basic greetings, simple questions and small talk
How to stop people from replying in English.
Where to find speaking partners to practice with.
Time-sensitive: We’ll also be sharing how you can learn to speak Italian in Italy, by joining us for our next Italian immersion vacation.
But for now, let’s learn how to have a conversation in Italian.
Get ready to have a conversation in Italian
The fastest way to prepare for Italian conversations is to learn words and phrases that are likely to come up in everyday conversation.
This means going against the traditional classroom way of learning languages: you don’t need to memorise all the rooms in a house, or names of sports before you can start having conversations with Italians.
In this section, you’ll learn key Italian conversation skills such as:
Basic greetings and pleasantries
Asking and answering small talk questions
Talking about yourself in Italian
Stopping people from replying in English
Managing communication breakdowns
Let’s start with the most important skill – managing communication breakdowns – because once you’ve mastered this, everything else will be easier.
Managing communication breakdowns: The 6 most important phrases you’ll ever need in Italian
When people say they’re nervous about speaking a foreign language, usually they’re not scared of speaking it (that’s the goal!), they’re nervous about all the things that could go wrong, such as:
In other words, if you’re nervous about speaking Italian, you’re probably nervous about the communication breakdowns that could happen.
In the video below, you’ll find 6 phrases to help you deal with these situations smoothly. The more you use them, the longer you’ll be able to keep the conversation going in Italian. And the longer you can keep the conversation going in Italian, the better you’ll get at speaking.
Come si dice questo in italiano?
How do you say this in Italian?
Che cosa vuol dire questo in italiano?
What does this mean in Italian?
Scusi, non ho capito*
Scusa, non ho capito
Sorry, I didn’t understand (formal)
Sorry, I didn’t understand (informal)
Potrebbe ripetere, per favore?
Puoi ripetere, per favore?
Could you repeat, please? (formal)
Can you repeat, please? (informal)
Potrebbe parlare più lentamente per favore?
Puoi parlare più lentamente per favore?
Could you speak slower please? (formal)
Can you speak slower please? (informal)
Possiamo parlare in Italiano per favore? Vorrei imparare.
Can we speak in Italian please? I’d like to learn.
*Note: Avoid using “non ho capito” (I don’t understand) in isolation, as people may see it as a cry for help and start speaking English. Be sure to follow it up with another phrase, such as “Puoi parlare più lentamente?” (can you speak slower?) or “Puoi ripetere?” (can you repeat?), so the listener knows how to help you.
Learn basic greetings in Italian (+ other pleasantries)
First things first – let’s start with names.
The easiest (and most natural way) to introduce yourself to someone is to shake their hand and say:
Sono… [+ your name]
Sono Katie (I’m Katie)
Sono Matteo (I’m Matteo)
An even easier (and very common) way is to just hold your hand out and say your name.
If you want to ask someone their name, you can say:
Come ti chiami?
Or the formal version:
Come si chiama?
Knowing when to use the formal address in Italian is not always easy (even Italians have problems with this!) but as a rule of thumb, use it with people over 50 who you don’t know very well and in formal situations such as in hotel receptions or fancy restaurants.
Here are some more lessons to help you master basic greetings and pleasantries in Italian:
Learn how to ask and answer simple conversation questions in Italian
Once you’ve learnt the basic pleasantries, it’s time to pick up some common conversation questions in Italian.
As in English, the first two questions that are most likely to come up in conversation are:
Di dove sei? Where are you from?
Che lavoro fai? What job do you do?
You might also need the formal versions of these questions:
Di dov’è? Where are you from (formal)
Che lavoro fa? What job do you do (formal)
You’ll also need to know how to answer those questions…
Di dove sei? (where are you from?)
The simplest way to tell people where you’re from is to use “sono” (I am) + your nationality.
Sono americano (I’m American – for males)
Sono australiano (I’m Australian – for males)
Sono italiano (I’m Italian – for males)
If you are female, change the last “o” to an “a”
Sono americana (I’m American – for females)
Sono australiana (I’m Australian – for females)
Sono italiana (I’m Italian – for females)
If the nationality ends in an “e”, it’s the same for males and females
Sono inglese (I’m English – for males and females)
Sono scozzese (I’m Scottish – for males and females)
Sono francese (I’m French – for males and females)
If you want to give the city, you can say “sono di” (I’m from) + the city:
Sono di Londra (I’m from London)
Sono di New York (I’m from New York)
Sono di Roma (I’m from Rome)
Che lavoro fai?
To describe your job, use “sono” (I am) + your job.
Sono insegnante (I’m a teacher – for males and females)
Sono in pensione (I’m retired – for males and females)
Sono impiegato (I’m an office worker – for males)
Sono impiegata (I’m an office worker – for females)
Sono studente (I’m a student – for males)
Sono studentessa (I’m a student – for females)
To find your job (and check the pronunciation), try using a good Italian-English dictionary, like WordReference.
Learn how to talk about yourself in Italian
When you meet Italian people, they’ll probably ask you about yourself and your interests. It helps to have some pre-prepared soundbites so you can talk about these topics without having to stop and think too much.
One way to do this is to memorise a paragraph or two with basic personal information. Some ideas for topics that will come up frequently are:
Why you’re learning Italian
Your opinion of Italy and Italians (Italians love to ask this!)
If writing in Italian feels too tricky at the moment, you can start by writing the paragraph in English and translating it into Italian using google translate.
But don’t stop there!
Google often translates things too literally, so you’ll probably end up with a few bizarre sentences. Before you memorise your script, get it checked by a native speaker to make sure there are no mistakes.
Where can you find these native Italian speakers?
I’ll show you later in this article, in the section called: “where to find Italian speaking partners”.
Once you’ve found your Italian speaking partner, you can simply take your text along to one of your sessions and ask them to help you correct it.
If you prefer a digital solution, try submitting your text to the “notebook” section on italki, where a native speaker should stop by and give you some corrections.
How to make small talk in Italian
The stereotype is true – Italians love to talk about food!
Learning how to talk about food will give you a great basis for light conversation in Italian. Here are some good questions to ask.
Quali sono i piatti tipici della tua regione? What are the typical dishes of your region?
Mi puoi suggerire alcuni ristoranti buoni? Can you recommend any good restaurants?
Ti piace cucinare? Do you like cooking?
Che cosa ti piace cucinare? What do you like cooking?
Che tipo di vino ti piace? What kind of wine do you like?
Mi puoi suggerire un buon vino? Can you recommend a good wine?
Preferisci la pizza napoletana o romana? Do you prefer Neapolitan pizzas (soft with thick crusts) or Roman pizzas? (thin and crispy)
Just in case you need them, here are the formal versions of those questions:
Quali sono i piatti tipici della SUA regione? What are the typical dishes of your region?
Mi PUÒ suggerire alcuni ristoranti buoni? Can you recommend any good restaurants?
LE piace cucinare? Do you like cooking?
Che cosa LE piace cucinare? What do you like cooking?
Che tipo di vino LE piace? What kind of wine do you like?
Mi PUÒ suggerire un buon vino? Can you recommend a good wine?
PREFERISCE la pizza napoletana o romana? Do you prefer Neapolitan pizzas (soft with thick crusts) or Roman pizzas? (thin and crispy)
And making some nice comments about Italian food is bound to get you in the good books!
Adoro + food name (e.g. adoro la burrata = I love burrata)
Lo adoro! I love it!
Che buono! How tasty!
È molto buono.It’s really tasty!
Mi piace molto. I really like it
It’s also handy to learn some phrases to talk about food from your region because Italians will almost certainly ask you about this sooner or later.
Il piatto tipico della mia regione è… The typical dish of my region is…
Di solito mangiamo… Normally we eat…
È un tipo di… It’s a type of…
Si fa con… It’s made with…
How to talk about the weather in Italian
Another classic small talk topic is the weather – Italians talk about it just as much as British people do! Here are some handy phrases:
Fa caldo oggi It’s hot today
Fa caldissimo! It’s really hot!
Fa freddo oggi It’s cold today
Fa freddissimo It’s really cold!
Fa freschetto Literally, it’s a bit fresh – often used in summer when it’s not as hot as expected, or at the end of summer, when it starts to get cooler).
The best small talk topics draw from your own interests: if you love football, why not learn a few questions to chat about Italian teams? If you’re into music, asking about classic Italian bands would be a great way to get Italians talking.
Once you find a speaking partner to practice with, you can ask them to teach you some phrases to help you talk about your favourite topics in Italian.
How to stop people from replying in English
You finally pluck up the courage to try speaking Italian, then something frustrating happens… They reply in English!
Getting Englished is a common problem for language learners and it can knock your confidence before you’ve even started.
Keep in mind that the reason Italians reply in English often has nothing to do with your language skills. I’ve been living in Italy for 7 years and my Italian is pretty good, but people still reply to me in English at times.
Italians normally speak English to foreigners for the following reasons:
They’re trying to be nice – they assume you’d rather speak English because it’s easier.
They’re working in a busy bar or restaurant and assume it will be quicker to use English.
They serve foreigners all day and use English out of habit.
They want to practice their English!
If you can see that a person is very busy and you’re not sure about your ability to speak Italian quickly, it’s probably better to go ahead and use English.
In other situations, there are a few techniques that will reduce your chances of getting Englished:
1. Have the first phrase ready in your head
You get to the front of the queue, your mind goes blank and errrhm… errrhm… errrhm…
Before you get your sentence out, the server has switched to English.
Deciding what to say and getting the phrase ready in your head will help you deliver it smoothly and increase your chances of getting a reply in Italian.
2. Sound confident
We’ve already seen that “non ho capito” (I don’t understand) is best avoided in isolation because it gives the listener a chance to jump in and start speaking English.
Sometimes, it’s better to say:
“Non ho sentito, puoi ripetere?” I didn’t hear, can you repeat?
Italians will be less likely to switch to English when you use this phrase because you sound more confident – it’s not that you didn’t understand, you just didn’t hear 😉
Another handy phrase is:
“Non mi viene la parola” The word doesn’t come to me
This is a phrase Italians use when they momentarily forget a word. When you say it, Italians will assume that you normally know the word, you just forgot it for a second!
You can learn more phrases like these in our free webinar:
The webinar is hosted in our private Facebook group – click on join and we’ll let you in asap.
3. Look Italian
If an Italian can tell that you’re a foreigner from your appearance, they’ll probably start speaking to you in English. You can reduce your chances of this happening by observing and copying Italians:
What do they wear?
How do they move?
What do they say in certain situations?
If you can give off an Italian vibe rather than a tourist vibe, people will be more likely to speak to you in Italian. Here are a couple of guidelines that will help you blend in:
Dress smartly – Italians like to keep it formal and rarely wear sportswear outside the house or gym. You’ll see some denim and trainers, but they’re generally smart or put together in a fashionable way. You’ll also see lots of leather jackets and sunglasses!
Avoid showing too much skin – Italians rarely wear skimpy clothes. Even in very hot weather, they opt for long and flowing rather than short and skimpy to stay cool.
When you walk into a shop, it’s polite to say “buongiorno/buonasera” to the staff when you enter and “arrivederci” when you leave. With young staff in informal shops, you can use “ciao”.
Don’t drink cappuccinos or lattes after midday – they’re considered a breakfast drink in Italy.
Don’t order wine with pizza – the traditional Italian combo is pizza + beer.
4. Avoid big cities
If you get the chance, visit small towns that aren’t popular tourist destinations. You’ll be less likely to run into Italians who speak English, which will give you a great opportunity to practice your Italian.
5. Ask people to speak Italian with you
If you’re a native English speaker, it’s doubly hard to learn Italian because you’ll find lots of Italians who want to practice their English with you.
Over the years, I’ve learnt that the best way to deal with this problem is to simply ask:
Possiamo parlare in italiano? Vorrei imparare.
Can we speak in Italian? I’d like to learn.
Once you’ve explained the situation, most Italians will be happy to chat with you for a little while in Italian.
That said, in the early days, it’s not always practical to insist that people speak Italian with you, as the conversation might be slow and stunted. When you’re just starting to speak Italian, it’s better to practice in situations where there’s a “learning agreement”.
5. Set up an Italian “learning agreement”
Speaking with random people in shops/restaurants/public transport can feel intimidating because:
You don’t know the person
There’s pressure to have a normal conversation, which might make you might feel embarrassed about mistakes and long pauses (a completely normal part of language learning!)
I sometimes feel awkward talking to strangers in my native language, never mind one I just started learning!
In the beginning, it’s better to find speaking partners where there is a “learning agreement”: a situation where you are the learner and your speaking partner is there for the sole reason of helping you speak Italian.
It’s hosted in our private Facebook group – click on join and we’ll let you in asap.
Read and listen to things that will help you have better conversations in Italian
It’s difficult to have meaningful conversations in Italian by memorising phrases alone.
You also need to get lots of exposure to the Italian language through reading and listening, so you can start to absorb common words, phrases and grammatical structures. When you read and listen to Italian regularly, things will often “pop into your head” when you need them, helping you speak in a more fluid way.
Here’s an article with 38 resources to help you learn Italian. In it, you’ll find lots of tools to help you start reading and listening to Italian.
You’ve got the basic greetings and small talk down, you know how to talk about yourself and manage communication breakdowns and you’re doing lots of reading and listening.
You’re ready for your first conversation in Italian.
What to do if you feel nervous about speaking Italian
Whatever you do, don’t try not to feel nervous about speaking Italian.
It’s a bit like trying not to think of a pink elephant.
It’s not possible to “think yourself out of” feeling nervous. The more you try, the more you focus on your nerves and the worse they get.
Besides, a bit of nervousness is a good thing – it’s a sign that you’re about to do something exciting that will help you grow.
The key is to start slowly and do something that gives you the right level of nervousness – think dipping your toe out of your comfort zone, rather than pole vaulting out of it.
Once you get used to doing that, try something else that makes you a bit nervous.
Follow this cycle and you’ll make sustainable progress in speaking Italian without traumatising yourself.
Next, you’ll find a few suggestions for how to gently nudge yourself out of your comfort zone and build up to having conversations in Italian.
Warm up by chatting in Italian online
Chatting online in Italian is a great way to ease yourself into real Italian conversations.
People can’t see your face (unless you want them too) and the writing format gives you plenty of time to think about what you want to say. You can even use an online dictionary to find the right words as you chat.
Here are a few resources you can use to practice your Italian online:
HelloTalk is a bit like WhatsApp for language learners. You can use it to find native Italian speakers and do a language exchange via text messages. There are built-in tools to help you learn during your conversation, such as a translation button, which helps you understand the Italian messages. Once you get used to texting, you can practice speaking by sending audio messages (just like WhatsApp) and setting up video exchanges.
Follow Italian teachers online
There are some brilliant Italian teachers with online communities that chat together in Italian. Why not join them and practice your Italian by writing in the comments? Two of my faves are:
To take part, all you have to do is post a photo or video and write/say something in Italian every day for 30 days. It’s a great way to get daily practice in Italian and meet a fab community of language learners (you might even win a prize at the end!)
Alternatively, if those options are outside of your budget, you can also use italki to set up online language exchanges. Find Italians who are learning your native language by selecting community > language partners, then set up a Skype call where you speak for 50% of the time in English and 50% of the time in Italian.
If you prefer face-to-face chats, try conversation exchange to find native speakers who live in your area.
If you’re in Italy, you can use conversation exchange to meet locals who will help you practice speaking Italian and show you the places they normally hang out. I did this in Paris and it was great – like having a teacher and a local tour guide all rolled into one!
Italian immersion vacations
A fast and fun way to improve your Italian speaking skills is to join our next immersion vacation in Italy. In these vacations, we give you as much Italian speaking practice as possible so you can make a huge jump in your speaking skills after only a few days.
Full Italian immersion in beautiful locations.
Patient Italian teachers who encourage you to speak.
From these figures, we can estimate that it takes around 1500 – 2000 hours to get comfortable in Mandarin Chinese.
At the moment, I have a basic conversational level in Mandarin Chinese (turn on the subs to see what we’re saying).
I can chat about simple topics, but it takes me ages to string sentences together and communication isn’t exactly natural – my tutors and I still sweat through each lesson!
It’s taken me a few hundred hours to get here (learning very intermittently – if you studied consistently, you might be able to do it faster). Being as I have a headstart, I’m guessing it could take me up to 1500 hours to become conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
Studying for 2 – 3 hours a day, allowing for the odd day off and holidays, that’s around 2 years.
Everyone’s different of course – it may take me more or less time, but at least now I have a ballpark figure to aim for.
That sounds intense!
Let’s not sugarcoat it: becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese takes a long time.
Of course it does, it’s Mandarin Chinese.
But don’t let that put you off. If you’re worried that learning Mandarin takes too long, you’re probably making one of the following assumptions:
1. Learning a language is painful
It doesn’t have to be. Here are a couple of articles that will help you enjoy learning Chinese:
The better your Chinese gets, the more you’ll be able to improve by doing fun stuff, like reading and watching TV.
2. You have to be fluent before you can enjoy speaking Mandarin Chinese
Don’t wait until you’ve studied for 2000 hours to start enjoying your Mandarin Chinese language skills!
That number is fairly arbitrary – nothing magical will happen when you get there.
For long-term projects like learning Mandarin, it’s important not to focus too much on the endpoint. If you do, you’ll spend the whole time worrying that you’re not good enough yet.
Fluency is an accumulation of many teeny things learnt over a long period of time. Each new thing you learn, no matter how small, will help you connect better with the Chinese culture and people – that’s something you can enjoy right from day 1.
And if you keep it up, you’ll become conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese. It’ll take time, but it’ll be worth it!
Your 6-step plan to becoming conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
Most people who decide to learn a language try to motivate themselves by focusing on how great it’d be to speak it one day.
Most people give up after a few weeks or months.
What most people don’t do, is think about the practical steps they need to take and develop a system that helps them do it daily.
Having a system to learn Mandarin Chinese is key because it helps you study consistently over a long period of time (the only way to get results). It also helps you:
Learn Mandarin faster and to a higher level.
Focus on the right things.
Beat the procrastination beast (or at least tame it).
Learn in a healthy, happy and productive way.
I’ve created a system to help me become fluent in Mandarin Chinese from home, which I’ll share with you shortly.
That said, my system may not work for you because…
We all have different lives:
– Some people can move to China and do full immersion for 9 months.
– Others have 4 kids and struggle to carve out 15 minutes between pulling fingers out of noses and picking up socks.
We also have different goals:
– I’m learning Chinese to chat to people, so I’m not particularly interested in writing Chinese characters by hand.
– My fiancé loves calligraphy and is learning Mandarin precisely because he wants to write Chinese characters by hand.
For this reason, the following 6-step formula for learning Mandarin Chinese is completely customisable: you can adapt it to create your own system that fits in with your life and goals in Mandarin Chinese.
Step 1: Set your priorities
Why do you want to learn Mandarin Chinese? What exactly do you want to do with the language?
I want to learn Chinese so that I can have comfortable conversations with Chinese people. For this reason, it makes sense to spend the bulk of my time doing activities that will boost my conversation skills, such as:
– Listening to realistic conversations
– Increasing my vocabulary
– Working on my pronunciation
Take a moment to define your priorities for Mandarin Chinese: Why do you want to learn Mandarin? What do you want to do in the language? Choose activities that will help you develop these skills.
Step 2. Decide what NOT to do
As my main focus is conversations, I’m going to avoid activities like:
1. Memorising the stroke order of characters.
2. Working through a grammar book from start to finish.
3. Playing on apps like duolingo.
These activities might improve my overall knowledge of Mandarin, but they’re not a very direct route to my goal of having comfortable conversations. If I spend lots of time on these things, I’ll end up feeling like I’m studying hard but not really getting anywhere (a common problem in language learning).
I’ll make faster progress by focusing on the activities I mentioned in step 1.
Your turn: Which activities are NOT useful for developing the skills you defined in step 1? Write a short list.
You now have my permission to NOT do these things.
Step 3. Choose the right learning materials
Now you’ve decided what (and what not) to focus on, it’s time to pick the right learning resources.
Here are some examples of skills you might focus on, together with resources you can use to practise them.
Find an online conversation tutor or language exchange partner on italki
Work through a book specifically designed for the exam as this will help you get used to the exam questions.
Find a tutor on italki who is familiar with the exam and can give you tips.
Practice makes perfect! Do as many practice exam questions as possible.
A good study system will probably use a combination of these resources. To get the best results, mix and match them in a way that fits in with the goals you defined in step 1.
Step 4. Choose your daily learning time
Learning a language is a bit like going to the gym. Most people start off with loads of enthusiasm, but it’s tricky to keep going for long enough to see the fruits of your labour.
The key to learning Mandarin Chinese is to make it a habit. Something you do:
At the same time
In the same place
If you have an unpredictable life and this isn’t possible, 2 out of 3 will work fine too.
I try to study Mandarin Chinese for 30 – 60 mins in the morning. This works well for me because as my day goes on, life has a habit of getting in the way. Later, I do another 30 – 60 mins either between classes or when I get home from work. Finally, I squeeze in an extra 30 – 60 minutes by making the most of my dead-time (more on this in the next step).
Your system may look similar or totally different, depending on your job and family situation.
Think about your day. When and where can you block out some time for Chinese? Is it in the morning or in the evening? If you prefer, you can break it up, for example, 3 x 15 minutes throughout the day.
When you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to go for something small because if it feels too big, you’re more likely to procrastinate. Start by setting yourself something really easy to do (like 2 minutes) and gradually build up to your ideal daily learning time.
Step 5. Use your dead-time for learning Mandarin Chinese
Waiting for the train? Stuck in traffic? Long queue at the supermarket?
If you’re smart about how you use your dead-time, you can carve out loads of extra time for becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
Here are some examples of how to use your dead-time to learn Mandarin:
Use a flashcard app to review vocabulary as you wait for the bus/train.
Read a graded reader on the train/bus.
Chat to native Chinese speakers on HelloTalk instead of going on Instagram or Facebook.
Listen to a podcast/audio course in the car or as you walk to work.
Listen to a podcast/audio course as you do the dishes/clean the bathroom etc.
If you have friends who are always late, play on your flashcard app or read a graded reader while you’re waiting for them to arrive.
When do you have dead-time during the day? Which activities could you do to learn Mandarin Chinese during this time?
6: Make Mandarin Chinese a part of you
After spending lots of time around language learners, I’ve noticed they usually fit into one of two categories.
Those who focus on how “weird” the new language and culture is compared to their own. The idea of speaking the language and adopting a new culture makes them feel a bit silly.
Those who throw themselves into the new language and culture so that learning it becomes a part of their identity.
The learners in group 1 hold themselves back, while those in group 2 usually end up speaking the language very well.
Learning a language requires loads of time and energy. Especially one like Mandarin Chinese. If you’re not willing to make the language and culture a part of your identity, you’ll struggle to stay the course.
Once you start seeing yourself as “the kind of person who’s learning Mandarin”, it’s only natural that you’ll learn it well.
Avoid these common pitfalls
Becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese is a big undertaking and you’re likely to hit a few walls on the way. Here are some of the most common obstacles and how to overcome them.
1. All or nothing mentality
With things we feel we “should” do, like learning a language or going to the gym, it’s easy to get into an all or nothing mentality.
Missed a gym session? Might as well watch Netflix and eat ice-cream.
But slipping up every now and then won’t make a big difference – it’s what you do next that matters.
If you planned to study Mandarin Chinese for an hour and you spent the first 20 on Facebook, just cut your losses and get straight back to it. You can still fit in 40 minutes, which is a whole lot better than nothing.
There are 2 reasons we procrastinate:
1. You don’t like the activity
Solution: Find ways to learn Chinese that you enjoy – that way it’ll be much easier to sit down and do it. Here’s a list of fun resources for learning Mandarin Chinese you might find useful: The Lazy Person’s guide to learning Chinese.
2. It feels overwhelming
Solution: The secret lies in getting started. Make it really easy for yourself by setting tiny targets and building up over time. If you’re having trouble starting, here are a couple of posts that will help:
I have a habit of telling myself that I “don’t have time” to do the things I know I should be doing. But if I look at my day honestly, I see loads of moments I could put to better use, like spending 40 minutes online shopping for a bathmat or doing research for an article and getting lost in a YouTube web for 25 minutes.
It’s human nature to give excuses for why we don’t do things.
The problem comes when you believe the little lies you tell yourself, because they’ll stop you from doing things you want in life, like becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
Train yourself to notice when you’re making excuses so you can stop doing it. Remember: if you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.
4. Obsessing over grammar
Languages are a “learn-by-doing” kind of thing. Spending months working through grammar books and getting lost in fiddly details will slow down your progress.
The best way to learn grammar is to see examples of it being used in real life: read a lot, listen a lot, and pay attention to the sentence patterns. Don’t feel like you have to know all the grammar before you start using Mandarin – you’ll make faster progress if you learn it as you go along.
5. Beating yourself up
Imagine a child is learning a foreign language. What’s the best way to help them?
Deride them every time they make a mistake. Tell them they’re stupid and that they’ll never learn.
Give them lots of praise and encouragement.
It’s obvious that the first approach is not conducive to learning a language, yet it’s what most people do to themselves in their heads! Be kind to yourself and celebrate your efforts in Mandarin Chinese, no matter how small.
6. All work and no play
Learning a language doesn’t have to feel like hard work all the time. The more you enjoy the activities you do in your daily learning time, the easier it will be to get your bum in the seat. Watching Mandarin Chinese TV series instead of doing grammar exercises? It’s allowed!
Become fluent in Mandarin: a step-by-step guide
1. Set your priorities
Why do you want to learn Mandarin? Your answer to this question will help you decide what to focus on and make faster progress.
2. Decide what NOT to do.
Which activities are NOT useful for developing the skills you defined in step 1? You have my permission to NOT do these things.
3. Choose the right learning materials
Find materials that will help you improve: speaking, understanding conversational Chinese, boost vocabulary…. (see step 3 for suggestions).
4. Choose your daily learning time
Build a Chinese habit and make impressive progress over time.
5. Use your dead-time wisely
Learn Chinese in your dead-time: waiting for the bus, doing the dishes etc.
6. Make Mandarin Chinese a part of you
See yourself as the kind of person who’s learning Mandarin.
7. Avoid common pitfalls
All or nothing mentality
Obsessing over grammar
Beating yourself up
All work no play
Listening to native Spanish speakers is a humbling experience.
They blurt their words out so fast, sometimes it’s impossible to keep up. And it can be discouraging – after all that studying, shouldn’t you be able to understand spoken Spanish better by now?
Why you’re still struggling to understand spoken Spanish
If you find listening to native Spanish speakers overwhelming, it could be because you’re used to the “learner friendly” version of Spanish in textbooks and apps: slow and clear with simple grammar and vocabulary.
These tools are great because they make it easy to get started – like learning to ride a bike with training wheels.
But Spanish speakers don’t talk like that in real life. They mush their words together, mix up grammar structures and use words you won’t find in your Spanish course.
If you want to understand natural spoken Spanish, at some point you need to take off the training wheels and practice listening to real conversations.
With the right tools, it’s simple.
Train yourself to understand spoken Spanish with Juan from Easy Spanish
The conversations are fun, spontaneous and 100% authentic Spanish.
Importantly, Juan adds dual subtitles so you can check what you heard against a word-for-word Spanish transcription, and consult the English ones if you get stuck.
It’s my absolute favourite resource and I’ve recommended it in practically every post I’ve ever written about learning Spanish (see below for a step-by-step guide on how I used Easy Spanish to train my listening skills).
That’s why I’m excited to bring you today’s interview with Juan from Easy Spanish. In line with Juan’s mission of giving you inside access to authentic language and culture, our chat will transport you to a little plaza in Mexico, where you can see Mexican life unfold in the background with builders, policemen, and friends laughing together.
Why learning Spanish with classes, books and apps is not enough.
How to train yourself to understand real spoken Spanish, without leaving the house.
A special technique Juan has used to learn 3 languages.
Some naughty Mexican slang (caution: don’t use these words with your friends’ parents!)
For extra listening practice, the interview’s almost entirely in Spanish – if you need a little help figuring out what we’re saying, turn on the English subs.
SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: Once you’ve had the chance to watch, check below for details about Juan’s exciting new project, and how you can help him get it going.
Help Easy Spanish go to Spain!
Easy Spanish is an independent project – to keep it going, Juan relies on donations from Spanish learners like you.
His next mission is to record episodes in Spain so he can keep giving you inside access to language and culture from all over the Spanish speaking world.
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