The Single Trait That Will Make You a Better Language Learner

0362 by Cia de Foto

Spending too much time in your own little world won’t make you a better language learner.

I completely and fully reject the assertion that some people are ‘just good language learners’.

Occasionally I also hear it phrased as someone being ‘gifted with languages’ or maybe ‘having the language gene’. It doesn’t matter how you put it, it’s wrong. On top of that and far worse whenever I hear it used it’s either to denigrate the achievement of some hard-working polyglot or as a pathetic cop-out for why they can’t learn a second language.

The fact is anyone can learn a new language or ten, while some people might hit the proper method more easily or naturally it doesn’t confer on them some magical advantage. You don’t need some imaginary ‘gift’ to learn a language.

That being said, there is a particular personality trait that makes you substantially more likely to succeed at learning a new language – but it’s something you can learn.

Social People = Better Language Learners

If you are a serious introvert please don’t leave because you need to hear this the most – people who are extroverted and more willing to take social risks make for much better language learners.

Language is at its core an inherently social thing. Its purpose is to communicate ideas with other people, to share experiences and knowledge. Sure, this can be done through the written medium in a relatively non-social way, but that’s an extension of language not the core of it.

If you’re learning to speak a language, to reach fluency in it and make it a part of yourself, you’re going to have to be social. You’re going to have to take risks.

Ok, if you’re one of the very small number of people who are learning a language solely to read it, maybe to enjoy some classics in their original form or because you’re studying a dead language, then fine. Being social may not be a huge benefit to your progress. You can leave now.

Now that two out of several thousand of you have left, we can move on.

Use of a language is a skill (like swimming) not a knowledge (like history). That means that to get good at it you have to treat it as such. After 10 hours who’s going to be the better swimmer, the person who spent those 10 hours in the pool practicing or the person who spent 10 hours reading books on swimming?

Languages are no different. Study will only take you so far, at some point you have to dive in and practice.

That’s what makes social people such better language learners, they take more risks and create more opportunities to practice their target language. The more willing you are to step outside your comfort zone socially in your use of your target language the more diverse opportunities you create to improve your skills.

Accepting Failure & Taking Risks

I think in general the main reason people miss out on opportunities to practice their target language as much as they could is because of social anxiety.

There can be a lot of causes of social anxiety, but a big one is the fear of looking strange, awkward or foolish in front of someone else and the resulting embarrassment. Fear of embarrassment can be serious business – I’ve known people who would become physically ill if asked to speak on stage in front of a group for fear they’d embarrass themselves.

Learning to let go of that fear and embrace your failures makes it much easier to take these social risks and open up additional opportunities.

I’ve talked a lot about how great failure is. I love failing. It’s really the best way we learn, and it’s definitely not something you should be scared or ashamed of. Particularly in the realm of language learning 99.9% of people who speak the language you’re learning will be ecstatic you’re learning their language and will be infinitely patient and supportive of you even if you make nothing but mistakes.

As for the 0.01% that will find out you’re learning a language and then deride, patronize and embarrass you for not magically being perfect at it from day one, we have a special term for them.

It’s asshole.

Be confident and practice under the assurance that the vast majority of people will gently correct your failures and you’ll learn a ton from them and that the tiny minority of individuals who will seek to bring you down for your mistakes are wretched things leading such dejected and miserable lives as to only be able to find momentary joy in crushing the spirits of others. You can ignore them.

Maximizing Your Return by Leaving Your Comfort Zone

The best learning occurs just outside of your normal zone of comfort. If you’re comfortable then you aren’t progressing fast enough.

That means you should always be looking for ways to push your social comfort zones in order to practice your target language.

This can mean different things for different people. For some pushing their comfort zone is going to mean getting on iTalki and chatting with someone over Skype half a world away who they may or may not ever talk to again. For others it might be going to the local international market or a restaurant from the same country as your target language and practicing with the staff there.

The point is to find your boundaries and step out of them.

Don’t do it in a non-committal way either. Go all in. Taking the first step of joining a Meetup group based around your target language is a fantastic first step, actually going to one of the Meetups is another, but once there you actually have to approach people and chat with them. If you go just to be there and hang out alone in a corner being shy then you’re not really getting any benefit from the experience.

If you’re already fairly outgoing, push your boundaries in other ways. It’s great to memorize the dialogue necessary to order a coffee in your target language then go to a restaurant where you can actually use it and repeat it there, but that’s very rigid and controlled. Do that, but rather than stop there go on and ask an open ended question like how business is going, what their favorite dish is or something like that.

That way you can push the conversation beyond the rigid dialogue you practiced beforehand and get some free form practice outside of your normal comfort zone.

In the end, forcing yourself to be a little more and more social and take more risks will lead to drastic improvements in your language skill that would take forever to come, if they ever even did, if you focused the majority of your effort on introverted study.

Have you seen more success with language learning by being more social or outgoing? Have any tips for people who have a lot of social anxiety? Help everyone out and share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Cia de Foto

Why Chinese is Easy

Homework by Simon Shek

I’ve heard it since I was little – Chinese is THE hardest language in the world! Back then before I knew anything about the language I would stare at the beautiful characters and wonder, exactly what makes it so hard to learn Chinese? It wasn’t until I got much older and decided to tackle learning the language that I have come to think that not only is Chinese not the hardest language to learn, but that I think the reason why people say it is is because of a fear of something different.

This is not to say that learning a language is easy – all languages require that you give time, dedication, a lot of hard work and effort in learning and practice and even to go out of your comfort zone regularly. However, I disagree that Chinese is any harder than any other language.

It’s So Different

The assumption that European languages are easier to learn than Chinese (largely because of them being “similar” to English) is what I think really drives the claim that Chinese is the hardest language to learn. Well, that and perhaps also a general ignorance about the language.

Yes, Chinese is different – in some ways. From European languages, it’s definitely different in that it has a logographic writing system instead of alphabetic. But does that necessarily make it harder to learn? Not at all! As I’ll discuss later, Chinese grammar and sentence structure isn’t too different from English which, in my opinion, makes it much easier to learn and remember. The point is really that any language can be difficult. Even between European languages there are huge differences – particularly between languages of different families (Romance, Germanic or Slavic) – that can make them difficult to learn.

Chinese isn’t as hard as one may think!

“Those Symbols” Are Meaningful

For a beginner, looking at a block of Chinese text can seem daunting – for a native English speaker there is no easily identifiable way to pronounce anything or get an idea of what it’s talking about. European languages are “easier” in that many use the same characters (some have a few additional letters or different letters) as English and many words have been shared between languages, giving us a leg up on meanings.

Many of the characters used are meant to look like the word they are supposed to represent. For example:

Shān Chuān Rén

Can you guess what these might mean? Okay, perhaps not immediately, but what if I pointed out to you that the first one kinda looks like a mountain. Can you see it now? Okay, going through the rest: a river, a tree, the Sun and the legs of a person walking. It helps if you’ve got an active imagination.

Much of written Chinese lends itself nicely to memorization techniques, like in the cases above.

I Can’t Memorize 3,000 Characters!

With many languages, our approach to learning is to memorize the most 2-3,000 most common words which will enable you to participate in most conversations and to read newspapers. The nice thing with Chinese is that you don’t have to memorize 3,000 characters though! Learning the basic words and a handful of radicals will enable you to figure out the meanings of other words.

Zhōng Xiǎo Xué

The words above are for ‘big’ ‘middle’ ‘little’ and ‘learn’. Once you know these words, suddenly you also know:

大学
Dà Xué
University

中学
Zhōng Xué
Middle School

小学
Xiǎo Xué
Elementary School

Many words are like this and if you know the characters you can often get the idea of what a bit of text is saying. Putting the words “electricity” and “talk” together gives you the word for “phone” or “electricity” and “view” gives you “television” or “fire” and “mountain” together give you “volcano”. While this isn’t true 100% of the time it IS valid for the majority of common words and phrases.

What are Radicals?

Another way to get clues as to what a word means are the radicals – or one of the components to the character. Knowing how to identify the radicals will help you look up words in the dictionary (although who cares anymore with handy apps like Pleco?) and in many cases can give some clue to meaning or pronunciation, or at the very least help you create a memory hook to remember a word.

Some examples:

林 晶
Lín Jīng

Remember those words from above for “tree” and “sun”? Well, the characters for them are also radicals. As you can see above I have a few words using those same characters. The first one is two trees together – can you guess what it means? Forest! The second is a trickier one – it’s three suns and means “sparkling” or “bright” (and having three suns would be terribly bright wouldn’t it?)

While Chinese has a character for water (水) it also has a radical for water (氵) and by knowing this radical you can get the idea that all these words have something to do with water/liquid or flowing: 洪水 Hóng Shuǐ (flood), 果汁 Guǒ Zhī (fruit juice), 电流 Diàn Liú (electric current) or 啤酒 Pí Jiǔ (beer). If you’re looking at a menu in a restaurant and see a list of words that all contain the 氵 radical, you’ll know those are the drinks! Similarly, knowing that 艹 is the radical for plant and is always on the top of the character you’ll be able to figure out which items on the menu are vegetable dishes.

Radicals may not always help you directly with knowing a word’s meaning or pronunciation, but as I mentioned earlier knowing them can help in many cases and often help in creating memory hooks.

Wait! Traditional vs. Simplified is Hard!

Lots of people fret about whether they should learn the traditional or simplified characters – which is something I think is pointless to worry about. What is your purpose in learning? Are you going to Beijing? Then learn simplified and don’t worry about the traditional. Going to Taiwan? Then traditional it is. Want to read Journey to the West? Simplified.

Aside from purpose making it clear which you should learn, I’ve learned both and I really don’t know why people fuss about it. In extreme cases it’s not much different than remembering there are two ways to say the same thing. More often than not though, the simplified versions aren’t that far from the traditional counterpart. Hacking Chinese had a great example of this:

銳 - 锐
銘 - 铭
釘 - 钉
鎮 - 鎮
釣 - 钓

Traditional is on the left and simplified is on the right. As you can see, all that changed is the radical. So much of what you need to remember is the two ways to write the simplified radicals, not every single character. This is much easier to do than people make it out to be!

Characters, Radicals, Traditional vs. Simplified, This is Why Chinese is Difficult!

I can understand if all the technical discussion above can make Chinese seem difficult. However, I find it a lot easier to remember all these things as I’m a very visually-based person and Chinese lends itself to a lot of visual memory hooks.

Furthermore, Chinese is really consistent which I hope you got the idea from with my examples of multiple trees = forest and electric talk = phone and so on. If you know a handful of single characters or words your vocabulary is instantly doubled once you start combining them!

Another great example of this consistency is, for example, when reading menus if you want to order stir-fried beef the word is literally “fried cow meat” (炒牛肉) whereas we have the obvious problem of “cow meat” being “beef” in English thanks to borrowing many food terms from French.

Beyond vocabulary Chinese doesn’t have genders, three different levels of the word “that” like languages in the Altaic family do (Turkish, Mongolian, Japanese, Korean), politeness levels or verb conjugation.

The Grammar is Simple

One of my favorite things about Chinese is how the grammar is nearly the same as English, but much more simplified. The word order is the same (Subject-Verb-Object, or “I go to the store”) unlike many other languages like Japanese where the structure is Subject-Object-Verb (“I to the store go.”)

For European languages, learning the grammar is where most of the work is at – all those rules for conjugations and the exceptions. But Chinese grammar is simple! The majority of the work in Chinese is just memorizing words, which you’d have to do anyway.

Learning the rules and exceptions to those rules of verb conjugations in Japanese was one of the things that frustrated me most when I was first learning it (which, in retrospect is silly as it’s mostly logical and easy, especially compared to Romance languages!) whereas in Chinese, none of this is a problem. Everything is in present tense unless you throw in a word to indicate otherwise such as “yesterday” or “tomorrow”. For really simple sentences, you can just use Le (了) which indicates that an action has been completed. Simple as that! Context and listening will tell you if something is happening now, happened in the past, or will happen.

Sounds NEVER get Dropped!

This is one of the big things for me – when you memorize a word and it’s character it is always pronounced like that. In other languages, like Japanese sometimes syllables get dropped in the middle of the sentence. Yes, you get used to them after a while and it becomes natural (as it should) but for a beginner it can be incredibly annoying.

English is notable for dropping sounds in pronunciation and a messed up spelling system – just look at the words subtle, enough, phlegm, gnostic or scene. There is no consistency between spelling and pronunciation! ‘Enough’ could just as well be spelled ‘enouf’. Or ‘fish’ could be spelled ‘ghoti’ using the gh from ‘tough’, the o from ‘women’ and the ti from ‘nation’. C, Ch and K can all be pronounced the same way (‘care’ ‘Chris’ and ‘kitten’).

The inconsistencies of English pronunciation are displayed wonderfully in the poem English is Tough Stuff. Here’s the first verse:

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

But you’ll never have to worry about any of this mess with Chinese. There’s only one way to pronounce each word and it is always the same.

So the Grammar is Easy but What About the Tones?!

Ah yes, tones. Chinese does have them – four for Mandarin – which distinguish between words. Many other languages have tones too – even English although the use is slightly different. Rather than meaning, tones in English indicate mood, emphasis and sometimes indicate that a sentence is a question.

Learning the tones isn’t and shouldn’t be difficult. Once you understand the, in my opinion obvious, difference between the four tones it’s only a matter of remembering which word is what tone. This may sound complicated, but there are tricks to making this easier.

Even if you mess up a tone in conversation the other person(s) will still understand what you are saying thanks to context. They may correct you, but they won’t be clueless. If I’m talking with a Chinese person about places we are going to go to and I accidentally say I’m going to the “bastard” ( 王八 Wáng Bā) instead of “Internet cafe” (网吧 Wǎng Bā) they may get a good laugh at me but they will know what I mean.

What Actually Makes a Language Difficult?

Having spent a lot of time learning how to learn I’ve come to the conclusion that learning any language is hard work but the level of difficulty hinges on having the right attitude, motivation and method.

Your attitude when you are approaching a language can hugely determine your success – generally if you think something is really hard then you’ll treat it as if it’s hard and it will become hard. But if you approach a language with a positive “this is simple!” attitude you’re changes of success will be much greater.

Similarly, if your motivation isn’t in line with your desires or needs then success will be difficult to attain. Learning French because you want to go to French and communicate for pleasure or business is a much better and stronger motivation than learning French to pass a class you have no real interest in. Whether it’s to understand a favorite show, communicate with others in that language, conduct business or whatever, you need a reason that will really motivate you to study and practice.

Finally, the method you use to learn a language also plays a significant role in how successful you’ll be. Not everyone learns the same way – sometimes even the way something is phrased can change your understanding of a particular element. Even though my attitude was positive and my motivation to learn Korean was extremely high, simply switching which grammar book I studied from made a huge difference. The way the grammar was explained in the second book was MUCH easier to understand. I find using an SRS (spaced repetition system) to learn vocabulary to be much more helpful over writing words over and over.

Chinese is one of my favorite languages and so of course it saddens me that people pass over this rich language because of a stereotype that it’s difficult. If you’re having difficulty with a language, take a step back and figure out why. Maybe you need a new grammar book, maybe you need to find a new source of motivation or perhaps your attitude is negative. If it’s your attitude, go take a break and play! Come back later when you are in a good mood.

What do you think? What has made a particular language easy or difficult? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Simon Shek

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

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