Using the New Memrise App to Learn Everywhere

Memrise Logo

Memrise’s new free app means you can learn efficiently anywhere. Except the bathroom – that’s weird.

To say that I am a big fan of learning would be a monumental understatement. I really think continued learning is one of the most important things you can do with your life.

That dedication to always learning new things means that when new tools come up to make it easier or more efficient I am all over them. The latest of those is the free app out now from Memrise – and it is fantastic.

Best of all when used properly you can learn a substantial amount of information with a fairly minimal time investment and not even feel like you’ve studied.

Enter the Memrise App

I’ve been a big fan of the Memrise site for a long time now. If you’ve never used it, it’s basically a community driven Spaced Repetition System (SRS) learning tool that comes with user generated memory hooks (‘Mems’ as Memrise calls them) already built in for you. Along with Anki it’s my favorite way to memorize large volumes of information, like target language vocabulary for instance, permanently. Right now Memrise and the associated app are both free, although there are plans to have paid courses in the future.

Previously, the single flaw I really found with Memrise was the fact that there really wasn’t a good way to make it mobile. They had a beta app out but it really wasn’t the same – you could also pull the site up in the mobile browser but it was honestly a bit of a pain to use that way. I don’t mind sitting down and putting an hour in doing my reps on Memrise, but I think SRS tools really shine when you can use them in your downtime.

That’s all been fixed by their new app.

The free Memrise app syncs with your account on the website so that all of the courses you’re subscribed to are available on your phone. The interface works perfectly, and all of the really large courses I’ve subscribed to load quickly. It even gives you the option of downloading the courses to your phone so that when off wi-fi you don’t burn through all your plan’s data usage.

How to Use the Memrise App Efficiently

In my opinion where the Memrise app really shines is as the perfect way to make little chunks of inevitable downtime extremely useful. Since – if you’re like me – your phone goes with you everywhere, you can study everywhere. Combine this with the fact that the heart and soul of SRS is small chunks of spaced out study rather than large sessions and it makes for a perfect opportunity for learning.

Every time you have a few moments – waiting for a bus, standing in line, waiting to be seated at a restaurant, etc. you can pull out your phone and learn or reinforce five or six new vocab words. There are lots and lots of these little chunks of dead time each day, and over the course of a month it adds up to hours and hours of study time. The best part is, you don’t feel like you’ve actually studied, you just realize one day that you know a ton more vocab than you did a couple weeks ago.

Let’s face it, you’re going to pull out your phone during these times anyway, why not personally benefit from it?

A good trick I’ve found is that I made it a rule that I have to do one round on Memrise before I can open Facebook, Twitter or my E-mail on my phone. I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that I do this compulsively, so it makes for a lot of opportunities to learn. Best of all, the courses are broken into small manageable chunks which are further broken into small learning sessions. Each session takes me 30 seconds to a minute to complete so I’m really not inconvenienced at all by doing it before I get to whatever I was originally going to do on my phone.

You can find Memrise on the Apple App Store for iPhone and on Google Play for Android.

Have you tried out the Memrise app? What did you think? Come up with any other good tricks for getting the most out of it? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Memrise

Easy Ways to Maximize Limited Language Learning Time

Hangul by Chita21

It’s a fact of life – most people are busy.

You’ve got a full time job or school to worry about, possibly a family to take care of, and countless other responsibilities. Not everyone wants to spend their downtime studying either, you need a little time to relax and have fun too.

When you add all of that up, there isn’t always a lot of time left for learning a new language. If you’re living in a country that primarily speaks the language you’re learning it’s not as much of an obstacle, but not everyone has that luxury. Thankfully there are some tips and tactics you can use to get the most out of both the limited time you can dedicate to practice and all the downtime you’ve got throughout the day.

Optimizing Learning Time

First we’ll look at some things you can do to optimize the time you can specifically devote to studying your target language. A lot of these have to do with making sure you’re as focused and productive as possible.

  • Have A Plan – Don’t go into a study session not really knowing what your goal is for that session. Studying without a goal almost always leads to aimless screwing around and that’s almost never productive. Instead, go into each study session with a plan not only for what your specific goal for that study session is but also with a game plan for how you’re going to work toward or reach that goal during that session. It can be as simple as ‘Memorize these 20 new words’ or as complicated as ‘Be able to write a poem in my target language’, the important thing is to have a goal.
  • Eliminate Distractions – If you have an hour set aside to study, use that entire hour to study. Do not check Facebook, do not watch TV, do not listen to music, do not get distracted by texts from friends or check your RSS or go read blogs (even this one). You can use a program like Rescue Time or Freedom to shut off your Internet temporarily if you’re not using it to access your materials. If you have to just download everything you need or print it out then turn your phone off and rip out your modem – you’ve dedicated this time to studying and damnit, you’re going to spend that time studying.
  • Take Controlled Breaks – I know, I know I just told you to buckle down and study for the time you allotted, and you should, but you should also take a controlled five minute break every 20 minutes or so. It turns out we tend to remember things better the closer they are to the beginning and ending of our study sessions. By taking a very short break every 20 minutes or so you can maximize your recall from the study session much more than if you sat there and studied for an hour straight. This is not free license to give into distractions and goof off. Your breaks should be no more than 5 minutes and they should be something that you’re not going to get sucked into. That means yes to getting up and stretching, walking around or doing some push ups and no to checking Facebook, your e-mail or just about anything online.

Optimizing Downtime

So now you know how to get the most out of your structured study sessions, but what if you don’t have the time to have structured study sessions. My first question would be ‘How much time do spend watching TV every night?’. Even excluding that, there are thousands of little moments of downtime each day, times when you’re waiting on something or not doing anything, that you can add up into a substantial amount of study time.

  • Master Passive Learning – Just because you can’t go live in a country that speaks your target language doesn’t mean you can’t master passive, immersive learning by building your own language bubble. When you’re in the car, at the gym or anywhere else you can have your headphones in or music playing listen to dialogues in your target language that you’ve selected or listen to music in your target language. Label everything in your house in your target language using sticky notes. Use your relaxing TV time to watch TV in your target language. Essentially every time you can be exposed to input in your target language make sure you’re getting it.
  • Use In-Between Moments – There are countless moments in your day when you just sit there waiting for something. Maybe you’re waiting for an elevator, for a website to load, for the microwave to finish, for your turn to order at a restaurant – frequently with the proliferation of smartphones people use this time to check in on Facebook and Twitter. Instead, use them to practice a phrase or grammar structure you’re working on or to flip through some flashcards of new vocab.
  • Talk To Yourself – It doesn’t have to be loudly, particularly if you’re at work or on the subway or something (although muttering to yourself in a foreign language might guarantee people give you a little space to get comfortable), but talking to yourself in your target language is not only a good way to reinforce what you’ve learned and solidify it in your memory – it’s also a good way to develop the muscle memory for speaking. Speaking a language is a skill, and just like other skills the muscle you use to practice that skill (your mouth and related bits in this case) need to build up the motor pathways from repeated practice to make the skill feel most natural. The more you chat to yourself, even if you just move your lips and don’t vocalize, the more used to speaking that language you’ll get.

With all of these tactics you really have no excuse for being too busy to learn a language – so go get started! If you have any other helpful ways to pack more practice and study into limited share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Chita21

The One Reason Every Traditional Language Class Fails

Classroom Chairs by James Sarmiento

This is really not the best place to be learning a second language.

If you’ve gone through the school system or have attended a university in the U.S., chances are you’ve spent some time in a foreign language class. What’s more, unless you majored in that specific language, you probably don’t speak it all that well for having spent so much time in class. In fact most people, when asked, could barely function in the language they studied.

I was no different. At UC I took almost four years of Japanese classes. At the end of those four years I could maybe carry on a two-minute conversation in Japanese. Maybe. There would probably be a lot of ‘What does ________ mean?’s involved and the other person would have to speak slowly. Turn on a Japanese TV show or movie and I could have picked out a word or two, maybe a sentence here or there, but I was still chained to subtitles. I wasn’t alone in that. I was one of the better students in the class – no one was anywhere near fluent.

The teachers weren’t to blame either. They were fantastic. Were it not for the unconventional methods of our teachers we wouldn’t have even made it as far as we did. Not to mention none of the classes with any of the teachers hit what I would consider fluency. That suggests it wasn’t their fault.

So if all the students with all the teachers get equally poor results all the way across the board what does that mean?

It means there’s something wrong with the system.

Thankfully the thing that’s wrong is easy to figure out, primarily because it’s a standard part of all traditional language classes. Most of the class is spent in your native language.

Think about it. If you’ve ever taken language classes (and I assume if you’re in the U.S. most of you have) how much time was spent explaining new grammar points in English, going over new vocab in English and talking about homework, grades, schedules and all the other minutia of class in English? When you compare that to the minuscule amount of time you actually spend conversing in the target language in these classes it’s apparent why they never really work that well.

The same goes for the homework in most of these classes. Written homework is the most common, because it’s easiest logistically. Second comes listening practice, usually off of CDs or maybe online materials depending on the class. Last comes speaking homework, usually done in the form of preparing for presentations you have to give in class. Have you ever had a language teacher tell you to go out and chat with a native speaker for 30 minutes for homework?

So how do you mitigate the effects of this system and get the most out of your language instruction?

Make a point of speaking your target language whenever you can.

Get over any stage fright or shyness you might have about talking in front of people. It’ll only hold you back. Whenever the teacher asks something offer to answer. Even if you don’t know it, offer to answer and get corrected. Even try to answer questions they ask in English in your target language. The worst case scenario is you get it wrong, get corrected and learn something. Sure you might feel embarrassed for a minute, but at the end of the semester when you speak better than all your classmates it will have been worth it.

The next thing to do is to hunt down native speakers and practice with them whenever you can. You can use services like iTalki.com or even CouchSurfing.org to find people online or in your area to chat with. The point is to put the time in to find someone because practicing one on one with a real live native speaker will be the best thing you do to advance your ability in your target language.

Lastly, get the most out of your teacher. I don’t mean be obnoxious, but if you have questions ask. Request clarification or extra explanations about grammar. Ask if there would be better ways to say certain things. They are there to help you, so let them help you.

If you’re taking a traditional language class keep these things in mind if you really want to get the most out of it and get on your way to fluency.

Have any other tips you would add? Any other reasons you think traditional classes are effective or ineffective? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: James Sarmiento

How We Define Fluency

Dictionaries in Class by Ijiwaru Jimbo

Everyone talks about fluency. They say this method is guaranteed to make you fluent. This course will make you fluent. This computer program is the key to fluency. Become fluent in 10 easy steps. Or maybe they’re one of the people who claim only children can reach ‘true’ fluency in a language. The thing is, no one actually takes the time to explain what fluency means!

Why is that a problem? It’s a problem because in my experience ‘fluency’ is one of those words where if you ask three people on the street what it means you’ll get five different answers. To clear up any potential confusion when we talk about fluency here, I’ve decided to explain what we mean when we say ‘fluent’.

The Flow

When you break it down, the word ‘fluent’ essentially means flowing like a liquid. It means behaving like a fluid. It means having a certain flow. This forms the primary criteria for what we consider fluency – namely, the ability to carry on a conversation in a fluid, flowing way.

What’s that mean?

It means neither you, nor anyone involved in the conversation, is seriously inconvenienced by your speaking or comprehension level. A fluent person doesn’t have to constantly be asking what words mean, or ask people to repeat themselves. They also don’t have to sit there for several minutes conjuring up the one word they need.

There are a few things to note here. The first is that fluency in no way requires literacy. In most languages literacy will develop a little along with fluency, but in some (notably Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and languages with similar writing systems) it’s possible to be highly fluent but completely illiterate. The second thing to notice is fluent doesn’t mean perfect.

Reject Perfectionism

There seems to be a widespread idea that you’re not fluent, or at least not really fluent unless you speak your target language perfectly. This is completely and totally untrue. People don’t even speak their native languages ‘perfectly’. For example, I’ll assume since you’re reading this your native language is English. Do you know which of these two sentences is the ‘perfect’ English sentence?

1. I wish I was able to speak another language.

2. I wish I were able to speak another language.

Native speakers will use both of these all the time. One of them, however, is technically incorrect grammatically. I say technically only because I’m a descriptive linguist and think grammar should reflect usage not dictate it, but I digress. Clearly, if native speakers can’t even be relied upon to speak perfectly how can anyone else?

Add into that all the ‘um’s and verbal space fillers, all the times people say one thing but mean something else and all the nonsensical words that are slowly absorbing into common usage like ‘irregardless’ and you come to understand that native English speakers often speak pretty poor English.

Instead of worrying about speaking perfectly, worry about speaking as much like a native as possible. You can have relatively terrible grammar, but still count as fluent in my book if you can have conversations on everyday topics with a variety of people without any significant difficulty.

Fifty Shades of Fluent

Ok, popular as they are, I feel a little cheap for having referenced those awful books. Regardless, fluency isn’t a finish line – it’s a sliding scale. A gradient. You can have two people with very different speaking levels but have both of them be considered fluent in my book.

In fact, if you look at the Common European Framework you can see that by my definition everything from a B2 up is fluent. In fact, there are probably some people in-between B1 and B2 I’d even consider fluent. The point is that a lot of levels can fit in there. You can have what I would consider basic fluency at around B1, and what I would call maybe native fluency at C2.

So if ‘fluent’ is something that applies to such a wide range of levels, and you don’t have to be perfect to be considered fluent, why should I even care about it?

Conversation Is King

The sole purpose of language is to communicate ideas, feelings and information with one another.

That’s it.

Your particular goal may vary, but for most people when you boil it down they want to learn a new language so they can talk to new people. If your goal is to talk to people, then fluency is really the only goal. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be able to get your ideas across and understand theirs without dragging the whole process to a halt.

Whether you’re B1 or C2, if you’re fluent you can have spontaneous conversations and if you can do that then mission accomplished.

How to Get There

There are lots of ways to get to fluency, the trick is to start today and don’t stop. You can try one of these three language learning methods, you can find some native listening material to practice with, try out some of these free online language learning resources or start out from the very beginning.

The point is to find something you like, start it and don’t stop until you get there!

Have anything you’d like to add? Is your definition of fluency different, or do you agree with ours? Let us know in the comments!

P.S. If you were wondering, sentence number 2 is technically grammatically correct.

Photo Credit: Ijiwaru Jimbo

Learn Languages Better with Short Study Sessions

Stopwatch by Wwarby

When it comes to language learning, sometimes shorter can be better.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s feeling like I’ve wasted time.

Now that doesn’t mean I have to be productive 24/7, I consider having fun or relaxing valuable uses of my time in most cases – I just hate working hard toward a goal and feeling like I have nothing to show for it.

When it comes to language learning that trait used to make me a huge perfectionist. If I was going to spend a few hours on Anki trying to learn 30 new words for the day I needed to really know them at the end of it or I would feel like all that time doing SRS reps was a waste. To be fair I understand it wasn’t, but it was still kind of discouraging nonetheless setting out to learn 30 words and only remembering 20 or so the next day.

Then I figured out the trick to learning more effectively and keeping myself motivated – short, targeted study sessions.

The Benefits of Brief Language Learning Sessions

Motivation – I noticed that if, instead of trying to do a massive amount of studying in one go, if I just sat down to learn 10 words instead of 30 I could get all of them without any problem. Even if it’s something as minor as learning a small handful of words the fact that I could consistently achieve the goals that I set had a surprisingly strong motivational effect. It also boosted my confidence and made me eager to go study each day.

Retention – Of course you might say 20 words out of 30 per day is still better than 10 out of 10. That would be true if I stopped there, but once my motivation was back I started adding more brief study sprints. If I broke up the words into ten in the morning, ten in the afternoon and ten at night I could learn all 30 with no problem and spend less time overall to do it. I’m assuming something about the study sessions being in smaller, more digestible chunks helps me handle the volume of new information better.

Avoiding Burnout – Maybe this should be lumped under motivation, but I think it’s important enough to get its own category. In the same way that timeboxing helps you to go complete tasks you really don’t want to do, breaking study sessions up helps you work on language learning even when you don’t feel like it. When you know you’ve only got ten words to learn and then you’re done, it’s hard to justify blowing it off no matter how out of it or demotivated you feel.

Maintaining Focus – When you dive in to study a huge volume of stuff all at once, there’s a tendency for most people to wander. I see it all the time at commercial gyms when people contract ‘screwarounditis’ – they drift aimlessly from machine to machine, do a few reps of each and leave. Whether it’s exercise or language learning when people come into something without a concrete plan and are presented with a million options for what to do they often just screw around. By having tightly restricted study sessions with a clear goal you avoid this bad habit and maximize the efficiency of your learning periods.

The Caveat

It would be irresponsible of me to suggest you study less and not mention the one caveat – non-study learning time.

I say this because I’m worried some people will look at this and take it as an excuse to study less. That’s not the point. In terms of effort and reward you still get out whatever you put in. Having shorter, more efficient study sessions is a great way to maximize your return on that effort, but it won’t get you all the way to fluency unless you combine it with countless hours of non-study learning time.

What do I mean by that? I mean all the time you can pack in where you are experiencing or using the language but not actively studying it. Watching TV or movies, reading, listening to music or chatting with friends in your target language are all good examples. That time, where you actually use what you learned in the study sessions, is key if you want to be conversant.

Do you prefer shorter study sessions or longer ones? Do you have any other tips or benefits to it that I missed? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Wwarby

How to Memorize Phrases and Vocabulary Instantly Using Music

Music by Brandon Giesbrecht

Music can be an extremely effective memorization tool.

There are a lot of things that can seem daunting for the new language learner, but few things have a reputation for being so tedious and time consuming as learning vocab.

While I’ve talked in the past about some of the things you can do to learn words from your environment, easily memorize new words, or even quickly memorize a whole list in order, I want to share one more method I like for memorizing whole sentences in just a few seconds – singing.

Tunes as Memory Hooks

I have to credit Benny from Fluent In 3 Months for the original idea for this technique. (If you’re learning a new language and haven’t been there, I highly encourage you to go check it out now.)

If you’ve ever noticed how quickly you can memorize lyrics to songs you like, or how sometimes an unwanted tune complete with lyrics can get lodged firmly in your brain without your consent – this technique works on the very same principle.

There’s something about our brains that makes us hardwired to latch onto tunes and hold onto them forever. While occasionally this can lead to frustration and self-induced head injuries (such as after accidentally hearing “Mmm Bop”) it can also be used to our advantage by hooking information we want to memorize onto those catchy tunes.

How to Memorize with Music

  1. Choose something to memorize – This technique works best for sentences, rather than individual words. This makes it really useful for people on the plane over who need to flash memorize important phrases. For our purposes we’ll choose “Where’s the bathroom?” in Japanese which is トイレはどこですか or “Toire wa doko desu ka”.
  2. Choose a tune that fits the sentence – Depending on the length of the sentence and the number of syllables, you’ll want to find a tune that has the right beat to it that is nice and catchy. Most kids tunes or nursery rhyme songs work wonderfully. The “desu” in “Toire wa doko desu ka” is pronounced more like “dess”, so a good fit given the number of syllables in this case would be the tune “Mary Had a Little Lamb“.
  3. Swap the lyrics for your sentence – Put your target language sentence that you want to memorize in wherever it fits in place of the original lyrics. In our case, we’re replacing the “Mary had a little lamb” part with our “Toire wa doko desu ka”. For the “Little lamb, little lamb” refrain part we’re putting in “Doko desu ka, doko desu ka”. We’ll get to why in a second.
  4. Sing it – Now that you’ve got your new lyrics, sing your tune! You don’t have to do it out loud if you you’re in public, but I think it helps a little. Just keep singing it over and over again in your head and pretty soon it’ll be so etched into your memory so well you’ll never have to worry about forgetting it again. While you’re singing it helps to associate some image with the tune to help you remember what the meaning of the sentence is. After all it doesn’t help if you’ve memorized “Toire wa doko desu ka” but don’t remember what it means.
  5. Refine the song – Once you’ve got the basic tune down you can sometimes use parts to reinforce grammar concepts to use in other sentences. That’s why we made the refrain part “doko desu ka, doko desu ka” which on its own means “Where is it?” Knowing that, you can change the object at the beginning with each verse. You can start with “Toire wa doko desu ka, doko desu ka, doko desu ka” then move on to “Toshokan wa doko desu ka, doko desu ka, doko desu ka” (図書館はどこですか? Where is the library?) for the next verse and so on. You can often even fit words with more syllables than really fit, such as “toshokan”, if you’re fiddle with the pacing of the song a bit.
  6. Use your sentences – When you need to ask where the bathroom is in Japanese, you’ll have no problem remembering how because that tune should pop right into your head. You don’t have to ask it melodically, but it’s easy to memorize that way. In the above example, because of how the “Where is it / doko desu ka” part is separated out you can easily apply new vocab you learn into that sentence structure to ask where something is, the song should have taught you to put it right before “doko desu ka”.

It’s as easy as that! While this technique is definitely directly useful to people who are already on their way to a foreign land and need to pick up some survival phrases quickly, it can also be used in general to memorize new sentences. I’ve even found practicing the sentences in song helps people start bridging the gap between broken, contemplative speech patterns and truly fluid, conversational delivery.

Have you used this technique in the past? Do you have any additions or tips to make it work better? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Brandon Giesbrecht

Learning Languages with Duolingo

Duolingo Home Screen

Duolingo's lessons are laid out in a convenient skill tree

We recently were invited to give Duolingo – a new online language learning system – a try during their trial period before they’re open to everyone (their official launch will be on June 19th, 2012). After using it for a while, here’s what we think.

Duolingo first caught our attention because of its unique concept. The site’s goal isn’t just to teach people languages, but to crowdsource the translation of the Internet into as many languages as possible. By having language learners learn and practice by translating actual sentences from the web the content gets translated and people learn – everybody wins.

The best part of this method is the language learners aren’t the customers, they’re the workers. The real customers are companies and sites who want their content translated. That guarantees that as a language learner the site will always be free, since you’re paying with your time instead of your money.

So how well does it work?

The Pros of Duolingo

  • It’s Free – I know I mentioned this one already, but it’s a big selling point for me. Duolingo is totally free. It’s not free in a frustrating ad supported way either, as of right now there are no ads and no paid premium version they try to push you into. Since their real customers aren’t the users, you get to learn for free.
  • They Make Language Learning a Game – The lessons are presented in a skill tree. As you master each skill it unlocks the skills below it. Each lesson earns you points which go toward leveling you up in that language. You also earn puzzle pieces for translating sentences, though it’s unclear what these do at this point. In each lesson you have so many hearts, for every mistake one heart is lost and if you lose them all you have to try the lesson over again.
  • Duolingo Lesson Complete

    Each lesson is a game, and you can share your success on Facebook and Twitter

  • It Keeps You Accountable – While there isn’t as robust of a social aspect as Fitocracy or some other gameified personal development programs, you can follow friends to keep on top of their progress and act as extra motivation. It also integrates with Facebook and Twitter allowing you to be very public about your language learning. If that’s not enough, Duolingo can even e-mail you everyday if you hit a certain time without logging in to study.
  • Duolingo Grammar Correction

    Duolingo gently corrects your grammar mistakes

  • Integrated Grammar – Most of the lessons offer a little bit of explicit grammar explanation at the beginning, but it’s entirely optional. I didn’t bother with any of them. Instead, the lessons work the grammar into the practice. For instance I chose to do German and I’ve learned ‘Ich trinke‘, ‘Du trinkst‘ and ‘Er trinkt‘ all without slamming my head into a desk covered in conjugation tables. By learning through sentences you pick up the grammar intuitively rather than through memorization.
  • You Learn Through Use – Duolingo’s system gives you practice translating sentences both from and into the target language, copying down spoken sentences for listening comprehension, speaking through the microphone and identifying pictures in the target language. The questions are varied enough that you get experience reading, writing, listening and speaking.
  • Duolingo Translation

    Duolingo's interface allows you to peek at the translation of any word

  • It’s User Friendly – The interface is fun and easy to use. You can quickly flip between languages if you’re feeling like learning several at once and navigating around is a breeze. If you make a minor mistake like a typo it generally recognizes it and tells you, but doesn’t take a heart away. Additionally you can mouse over any word to see its definition – though it will chide you for peeking if it’s a word you’ve already been introduced to.
  • Immediate Access to Native Content – Duolingo lets you jump right in and translate actual native content from the web with the first lesson. Each translation section is picked to have vocab or use grammar points from the lesson you just completed, though they often have plenty of new vocab as well. This is a great resource since it’s important to have exposure to genuine native material as early and often as possible.
Duolingo Skip Lesson

If you're already an advanced learner you have the option of skipping ahead

The Cons of Duolingo

  • No Real Conversation – If you want to be able to speak a language fluently, the most important thing in your language learning is actually speaking with native speakers of your target language. There really is no substitute for it and currently Duolingo has no way of allowing you to converse with any native speakers.
  • Heavy Focus on Translation – I realize that translation of things is the primary goal of the site, but there’s a little bit too heavy of a focus on translation and not enough on producing novel content. The user isn’t tasked enough to try and put together sentences that they’ve never heard before, which is a key skill in achieving fluency in a language.
  • Limited Language Availability – This is a minor point, and one they’re working on, but currently only Spanish, French, German and English (for Spanish speakers) are available. They’ve said they plan to add Italian, Portuguese and Chinese (presumably Mandarin) soon, but for now if you’re learning a language other than these, you’re out of luck.

Overall, Duolingo is a pretty good system for a getting a little extra practice learning a new language. It’s not perfect, and it definitely isn’t enough on it’s own to bring you to fluency, but it’s a good start and a good way to keep up practicing while having some fun.

The main value in Duolingo comes from the fact that it’s completely free. In my opinion were they ever to charge for access to Duolingo I wouldn’t use it. It’s fun and helpful, but I couldn’t justify paying for it.

My advice for language learners would still be to focus the majority of their efforts on practicing with a native speaker and immersing themselves in native content as often as possible. If you want to add in an hour or so each day of having fun earning some points on Duolingo, then go for it. It won’t be enough on its own but it’ll help add to your other efforts. The site will be open to the public in ten days, so if you’re learning one of the languages they offer go sign up!

Do you have any thoughts on Duolingo? Any other language learning sites you particularly like? Share them in the comments.

3 Methods for Learning a New Language

Lost In Translation by Tochis

Lost learning a new language? Try one of these methods.

Most people who set out to learn a new language have no idea where to start. Do they follow this program, or that program? Do they take courses, buy books, go with a computer program, a set of CDs? Maybe it’s best to just do all of it.

I’m not going to say here which way I think is best (though I certainly have my opinions), but rather give some options for the wayward language learners who are adrift on their linguistic journey but have, as of yet, failed to develop any cohesive plan for how to get to their destination. Each of these three methods is broad, and all of them have their pros and cons, but hopefully you can find something you’ll like.

Remember that these are just general strategies, and not set in stone. You can use one, none or all of these. The person who reaches fluency isn’t the one who chose the ‘correct’ method for learning, they’re the person who chose not to quit.

The Traditionalist

The Traditionalist route is that of the classroom. Included here are not only literal classroom classes, but also tutors and self-study courses since, let’s face it, almost all the self-study courses out there have nearly identical study structures to what you get in a college class. I’m not going to describe how they work or how to follow this route, you should already know. You enroll in a class, find a tutor, or buy an expensive computer program.

This route is best for people who need more guidance. If you’re the kind of person who wants to be taught, but doesn’t want to put a lot of the back-end effort in acquiring and cataloging your own study materials, this route is for you. Now that’s not to say this is for people who are lazy, it’s still going to be a lot of work – you just don’t have to do any of the prep.

Pros

  • Guided study, often with a teacher.
  • Extremely structured environment.
  • Increased accountability.

Cons

  • Often very expensive.
  • Little to no control over material.
  • Limited one-on-one attention.

The Robot

The strategy of the Robot is to divide and conquer, making this strategy best for severely analytic people or those who need lots of small, measurable goals to shoot for. The first step is to learn as much vocabulary as possible from the target language, often with a focus on frequency lists. Once an appreciable amount of vocabulary has been memorized, often in the neighborhood of the 2,000 most common words, students using this method begin to study grammar and using their vocab to read.

Once grammar has been internalized, or even while learning it, real communication with native speakers begins either through text or in person chats. The idea is to learn enough vocab to be mostly able to read, then learn grammar and combine the two into speech.

Pros

  • Extremely systematic and goal oriented.
  • Easy to study on your own.
  • Most resources required are available for free.

Cons

  • Can take an extremely long time to get to speaking.
  • Monotony of study can be discouraging.
  • You have to find your own materials.

The Socialite

The strategy of the Socialite is to start communicating as soon as humanly possible. This strategy is best for extremely outgoing people and those who really want to start interacting in the language right away. Students using this strategy generally start out like the others, as spending time learning some basic grammar and vocab is necessary, but also seek out native speakers as soon as they can.

Whether this means moving to a country that speaks their target language natively, or just finding a bunch of new friends locally or online who are native speakers, a priority is put on spending as much time as possible chatting. This chatting, and subsequent corrections and explanations by the native speaker, form the base of the learning method with slightly more traditional ancillary study filling in the gaps.

Pros

  • Speaking from day one means better communication skills.
  • Access to native speakers ensures natural sounding speech.
  • Conversation based approach prioritizes learning around utility and interest.

Cons

  • Can be scary or intimidating when just starting out.
  • Puts more responsibility on the student to perform.
  • Easy to drift focus or lack cohesive goals.

There are probably hundreds of other general language learning strategies, but I think these three cover the widest range of people. Like I said before, there’s no reason you can’t mix and match – the idea is just to give an idea of some of the methods people use so you can find one that suits you best. The most important thing if you want to learn a new language is to go out right now and get started.

Have you used any of these general methods? Do you have a favorite, or even a fourth you think I should’ve added? Share it with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Tochis

10 Ways to Find Native Listening Material

I am on your side by Kevin_Morris

Coffee and book not required.

Having access to lots and lots and lots of native spoken material for listening comprehension is extremely important. Unfortunately, not everyone is surrounded by speakers of their target language. If you’re one of the lucky people who can travel to a country where their target language is the spoken, then this article is not for you. You have no shortage of access to native listening material.

If, on the other hand, you’re stuck in a country that doesn’t speak your target language – listen up. You can find native speaker listening material to practice with, and it doesn’t require plane tickets.

  1. Podcasts – With a quick search you can find podcasts in almost any language. You don’t have to limit yourself to instructional or lesson focused podcasts either (though there are certainly tons of them). It can help more to find podcasts for native speakers of your target language about a topic you’re interested in.
  2. YouTube – Just like with podcasts a quick search in your target language can open up a whole world of videos. You can search for topics you’re interested in, instructional videos, movie reviews or anything else. If you find a video you particularly like or with particularly useful conversation in it then you can download the video off of YouTube and then rip the audio to an .mp3 with AoA Audio Extractor. Then you can listen to it wherever you want.
  3. Movies – Movie services like Netflix are constantly adding more and more foreign movies, most of them subtitled and not dubbed. You can also buy a lot of U.S. movies re-dubbed in other languages off of Amazon. If both of those fail you there are tons and tons of streaming sites you can find that feature movies and shows from various countries or, if you’re feeling a touch unscrupulous, there are plenty of torrent sites out there featuring foreign media. You can also use the Audio Extractor linked to above to pull the audio off these and make the conversations into .mp3 files to listen to while you do other things.
  4. RhinoSpikeRhinospike.com is a service where you can have a native speaker record text in your target language and post the .mp3 file for free. In return you can record audio files for people learning your native language. There are a lot of great ways to make using Rhinospike more efficient, from writing conversations to have recorded to downloading off of the archive, but it’s useful enough just using it as intended to get free, customized, native-speaker produced audio to practice with.

  5. Music – Listening and singing along to music in your target language may not be the best way to improve conversational listening comprehension, but it is a great way to work on pronunciation and mimicking native accents. It can also go a long way toward easing you into thinking in your target language as you find more and more songs from your target language endlessly looping in your head. With Pandora, GrooveShark and Spotify you have no excuse for not finding some music you like in your target language.
  6. Audio Books – Audio books may require a little more hunting depending on what target language you’ve chosen, but the benefits are endless. You get hours of material written by a native and read by a native on a range of topics and including conversations. Plus, like the rest of these you can put them on your .mp3 player of choice and listen to them while you’re doing other things. Win.
  7. News – Whether or not you have a TV service that gives you access to international news stations, most post videos online for free. A quick search in your target language for the word ‘news’ and ‘video’ should turn up tons of results. Newscasters are often trained to speak quickly but clearly in whatever accent is that country’s most neutral, so they make a good example to try and match.
  8. TV Shows – Okay, maybe this should be lumped in with movies, but it’s easy to find tons of TV shows to watch in your target language. Barring that you can usually find the more popular U.S. TV shows dubbed into your target language. Re-watching every episode of Lost in your target language is an excellent, if time consuming, way to get some practice.
  9. Skype – As you practice more and more on things like Lang-8 or start poking around on CouchSurfing or social networks in your target language, you’ll begin to make friends who speak the language you want to be speaking. This is easily the best thing ever for learning a new language. That’s not to say you should view these people as nothing more than tools for conversation practice, you should be aiming for real friendships, but usually people are more than happy to have a quick chat on Skype. Make some time everyday, even if it’s just five minutes, to have a quick video chat with someone on Skype and you’ll progress faster than you know it.
  10. ForvoForvo.com is similar to RhinoSpike, except with a focus specifically on the pronunciation of single words or phrases. While this means you can’t get whole conversations recorded like you can on RhinoSpike, it does offer an excellent opportunity to get those really tricky words or sounds that you always have trouble with smoothed out and perfected. Best of all, you can focus on all the particularly difficult phonemes or make playlists of similar sounds to build your own target language tongue twisters.

These are just the first ten options for finding native audio that came to mind, there are tons more out there. If you have any you’ve particularly liked using in the past, share them with us in the comments! We’re always looking for more suggestions.

Photo Credit: Kevin Morris

Learning Languages with Sticky Notes

stickynote by J_O_I_D

These can be a powerful language learning tool

I’ll be honest, I have a sticky note addiction. Whenever I need to remind myself to do something, or make a note of something for later, I reach for a sticky note. Though they have brought about some changes in my note taking habits even my iPhone and Evernote aren’t enough to quell my brightly colored addiction.

Thankfully there is an outlet which not only lets me plaster the entire house in sticky notes but is highly productive and helpful as well – language learning.

This is hardly a revolutionary idea. I’m sure everyone who’s giving learning a second language a shot has, at some point, written out vocab on sticky notes and plastered them onto the item they describe. It’s a fantastic tool for learning since you get both the positive effects of randomized spaced repetition and the added benefit of a lot of tactile context associated with the word. When you see the word for ‘refrigerator’ in your target language every time you go to have a snack or grab a drink the association forms before you know it.

That makes sticky notes an excellent solution for those who want to learn the names of everything around the house without worrying about a lot tedious memorization. I think we can do a little better though than just slapping nouns on everything.

Maximizing Sticky Note Efficiency

  • Use Multiple Notes – Sure it’s great to tack the word ‘refrigerator’ on your icebox and learn one new word, but why stop there? Instead, put up a handful of sticky notes with not only the name of the item they’re stuck to, but some example sentences using various grammar structures. Underneath ‘refrigerator’ you could have, ‘I open the refrigerator’, ‘He closed the refrigerator’, ‘Is there any bacon in the refrigerator?’ or whatever else. That way you don’t just reinforce the word every time you see the note, you reinforce a bunch of words and grammatical structures.
  • Actively Engage the Notes – I know for most of you this is going to sound stupid and obvious but it needs to be said. You cannot learn via osmosis. It’s not enough to just tack notes up everywhere if you never really engage with them. Every time you use that object or see that note you should read it and the example sentences that come along with it and think about them for a second or two. When you open the door read ‘I am opening the door’ off the note aloud in your head. This active association of the word or phrase with the action will go a long way toward solidifying these terms and sentences in your memory.
  • Include Adjectives – Is that just a door, or is it the large, brown, squeaky bedroom door? Language isn’t just about nouns, so make sure to include some adjectives in there too. You don’t have to go overboard, but this will add a lot more flavor to the sentences you should already be including.
  • Continue to Expand – As you learn new words and sentence structures add more sticky notes to things you’ve already labeled. Did you just learn how to form a question? Start adding questions to all of your sticky notes. Did you learn a new verb like ‘pound’? Go through and label all the items you can ‘pound’ on – the door, the desk, the keyboard etc. – with new sentences incorporating the word. If you find you have too many sticky notes, remove the old ones you have memorized but keep trying to repeat the sentences in your head. Your learning materials should grow along with you.

Now making these sticky notes can be a process that spreads out over weeks, it doesn’t have to be all done at once. Once your house is covered you’ll quickly find you’re picking up more and more each day and, more importantly, starting to think more in the target language – a crucial part of speaking fluently.

Have any other suggestions for how to make the use of sticky notes more efficient fot language learning? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: J_O_I_D

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