Learn Efficiently by Understanding Comfort Zones

Empire State Pigeon by ZeroOne

Getting out of your comfort zone doesn't have to be this extreme...

Learning a new skill is hard, time consuming work. Whether you’re learning a new language, learning to play guitar or learning to breakdance – it all takes a lot of effort. Luckily, we can make it an easier and more efficient process if we understand our comfort zones. Few people do, and I see the same problem coming up again and again in people learning all sorts of different skills. They either don’t understand their comfort zones, or they understand them but don’t know where to focus their efforts to maximize learning. As a result, they either sit at a standstill and never progress, or they drive themselves into the ground and never make any progress. So how do they fix it?

Understanding Comfort Zones

Comfort zones are exactly like they sound – the zones of differing levels of comfort for an activity. By comfort, I mean any type of comfort, social comfort, mental comfort, physical comfort, emotional comfort, whatever. The type of comfort applicable will depend on whatever skill it is you’re trying to learn.

Now you can divide these zones into as many as you like in general but for our purposes only three are important. These three zones are the Easy Zone, the Challenge Zone and the Frustration Zone. Each of these is represented in the picture as a concentric circle. The green is the Easy Zone, the yellow is the Challenge Zone and the Red is the Frustration Zone. Let’s look at each one of these in detail as applied to someone learning a new language.

Comfort Zones Diagram by Adam Wik

These are the three basic comfort zones you can occupy while trying to learn a new skill.

The Easy Zone

Any practice or learning that requires little to no effort and generates little to no discomfort falls in the Easy Zone. In the case of learning a new language, some things that would fall into the Easy Zone might be occasional work with a computer program, a one hour language course conducted mostly in your native language or for some people, flipping through some flashcards.

Lots and lots and lots of people fall into the trap of never leaving the Easy Zone. This isn’t surprising, people don’t like to be uncomfortable. The problem is, practice in the Easy Zone is just too easy. The reason it’s called the Easy Zone is that nothing you do here is any real challenge. As a result, you’re never pushed beyond your current limits and never make progress. People who focus all their efforts in the Easy Zone feel like they put in a lot of time, but they stagnate because it’s halfhearted.

The Challenge Zone

The Challenge Zone is the sweet spot. This is where all the most efficient learning happens. Practice here is challenging, like the name would suggest, but not so difficult as to be frustrating. For a language learner this might be writing a letter or e-mail in the target language, ordering a meal in the target language or having a short conversation. Anything that causes a good bit of discomfort goes here, whether that’s the mental discomfort of struggling with new sentence structures in an e-mail or the social discomfort of having to have an actual conversation with a native.

The reason the learning happens here is because this is the not-too-hot not-too-cold Goldilocks zone. When you focus your efforts on this zone you’re working on things that are far enough beyond your current level to challenge you, which is what forces you to grow. The real trick is to not go too far into…

The Frustration Zone

If you hit the Frustration Zone, you’ve gone way too far. The Frustration Zone encompasses any practice that causes so much discomfort, is so difficult or so stressful that it burns you out and makes you frustrated with your attempts. Some examples for a language learner might be trying to understand an entire movie, read a whole book or take a college course in the target language way before they’re ready.

Now that isn’t to say those three things aren’t great ways to learn a new language, but if you jump into the them too early they can seem impossible. After a while of throwing yourself at something that seems impossible, frustration inevitably sets in. Frustration leads to quitting, or at best a lot less practice because you dread doing it. A lot of people dive into things with the best of intentions and wind up pushing it too far. They never get any further than the people who keep it too easy because they burn out and quit before they make any real progress.

Making It Work

The first step to making your learning more efficient is to figure out where the Challenge Zone is. Sit down and think about all the practice you could possibly do, and figure out what makes you uncomfortable or what seems hard but isn’t so daunting that you would have almost no chance of success. Once you’ve got that, just focus all your efforts into those activities.

The list will change from person to person and from skill to skill, but as long as you keep most of your practice time in-between way too easy and way too difficult, you can guarantee you’ll be learning something and you won’t be likely to give up in frustration.

Have any experience stepping outside your comfort zones? What are some things you’ve found help you learn more efficiently? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: ZeroOne

The 6 Keys To Efficient Language Learning

The Key of My Mind by ul_Marga

These are the keys that will help you unlock the door to fluency.

There are a lot of opinions out there on how to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language. While there are likely some that are a bit more misguided than they are helpful, for the most part they’re all valid as long as they help you reach your goal. In all my time researching languages, studying all the ways people acquire languages, talking to successful polyglots and becoming one myself, I’ve noticed a common thread that runs alongside all the success stories – including my own.

The common denominator was that regardless of the learning methods people used, all of them adhered in one way or another to these six key principles. No matter what your personal study method is applying these six pieces of advice will go a long way to making you another one of the success stories.

1. Start Speaking Immediately!

This is the very first of the six key principles because it’s not only the most helpful, it also is the one people seem to have the most trouble with. That’s also why it gets the exclamation point, I am yelling this at you from my computer. Can you hear it?

The fact is, if your goal is to speak a second language fluently, then you need to be speaking it. I’ve talked before about how language is a skill – if you want to learn a skill you start practicing that skill right off the bat. Putting it off doesn’t make any sense, you will never improve until you start practicing.

If you wanted to learn to play the guitar you wouldn’t set out to learn all the scales and chord progressions before you ever put your fingers to the fret-board – that would be crazy. If you want to learn to play the guitar you pick up a guitar and start practicing. Sure, at the beginning, you’re going to sound horrendous. Who cares? The longer you stick to it the better you get.

Languages are just like that. If you want to speak, you need to start speaking right away. Only know how to say hello? So what!? Go find a native speaker and say hello. Practice is always more valuable than study.

Putting it into practice

If you literally know not one single word in the language you’re learning, go to the list of phrases on Omniglot.com and memorize as many as you can (I particularly recommend ‘My hovercraft is full of eels’). Then go out and find someone to use them on. Maybe it’s at a local international restaurant or market, maybe it’s on Lang-8, maybe elsewhere. The point is to get speaking right away.

2. Relax. Mistakes Happen.

This ties very, very heavily into step one above. Being scared of making mistakes is the single biggest reason people don’t start speaking from day one. They’re scared.

“I’m not ready to start speaking yet,” I hear, “what if I make a mistake?”

Who cares?

“People will laugh at me!” they squeal. “If I don’t perfectly speak my target language every time I open my mouth everyone will think I’m an idiot!”

Who cares?

First of all if you met someone who you knew did not speak your language natively but was in the process of learning it and they made a mistake in their speaking, would you think they are stupid, mock them, think less of them, laugh at their mistake? No. (Incidentally, if you would do those things, please go away. I don’t want you on our website.) You wouldn’t do those things because they’re horrid. Of course someone who’s learning a second language is going to make mistakes, it’d be even weirder if they didn’t.

So if you understand that you and every other decent human being would never even consider mocking or thinking less of someone who made a mistake while speaking a language they’re learning, why do you expect it to happen to you?

In my experience it’s a much bigger problem that people are too polite. Native speakers will gloss over my mistakes and ignore them for fear of offending me by pointing them out, when what I really want is to have my mistakes pointed out!

On top of everything else, mistakes are how we learn. Your brain is wired to better remember things that have a situational or emotional attachment. When a native speaker corrects you on something, you will remember that grammar point forever. Learn it from a book and it might be gone before you’ve finished your morning coffee tomorrow.

Putting it into practice

Learn to accept your mistakes for what they are, positive and valuable learning opportunities. I love making mistakes. I feel that way because I know when I get corrected I’ll remember what I made a mistake on – guaranteed.

If you have a severe paralyzing fear of making mistakes then I suggest you go and practice making some mistakes. Yep, that’s right, practice making mistakes. Find a controlled environment (Lang-8 is a good choice again) where you can consciously or otherwise make a few little mistakes and know you aren’t going to get burned at the stake for it. If you need to, say something wrong on purpose.

After a while, you’ll find you don’t worry so much about it and can start trying new grammars and things without having any idea if you’re doing it right in the hopes that you’ll be making a mistake and getting a correction.

3. Surround Yourself In The Language.

Most people accept that a great way to learn a new language is to go live in a place that speaks that language natively. While this is hardly a magic pill solution, you can mimic the same conditions without ever leaving home.

As we mentioned in key number one, the most valuable way you can spend your language learning time is practicing. That being the case, doesn’t it make sense to restructure your environment so you’re almost constantly practicing your target language?

When you surround yourself in your target language, you can’t help but be practicing. You get on the computer, you’re reading your target language. You listen to music, it’s in your target language. You write a shopping list, you write it in your target language. You get the point. You are always practicing.

Putting it into practice

The easiest way to put this into practice is to go through every thing you have control over and change it into your target language. Start reading the news in your target language, start playing video games in your target language, looking up recipes in your target language etc. The more things that you can change into being in your target language, the more practice you’ll be getting – that means more and faster improvement.

4. Get social.

The point of learning another language is to be able to communicate. Sure, you may be learning it because you like movies in that language or literature in that language, but if your goal is fluency it’s because you want to talk to people. So go find some people to talk to!

The value of having a native speaker is immeasurable. A native speaker is a walking grammar reference. Not only that, they’re the best kind – an implicit grammar reference. They may not know what the conditional past-participle subjunctive is, but who cares!? They can listen to you say something and then tell you, “No, that sounds funny. We would say….” In that one little sentence is a billion times more help than in stacks and stacks of grammar books.

As if that weren’t reason enough to make friends with a native speaker, they also are a walking dictionary. The time it takes to ask a native speaker, “Hey, how do you say…?” and get an answer is always going to be shorter than the time it takes to look a word up in a dictionary or with an electronic translator. Even if you could look it up faster than you could ask, with an actual human you get synonyms, antonyms, slang versions and example sentences. Win.

Now, don’t take what I’m saying the wrong way. At the risk of sounding a bit ‘after-school special’ the biggest, most important benefit you get from being social with your language learning is friendship.

Well, friendship and someone to practice with…

Putting it into practice

Even if you aren’t a very ‘social’ person, it’s easy to meet new people to practice speaking with. The easiest, lowest commitment way is to send a message to one of the people who has corrected one of your posts on Lang-8 and politely inquire if they would be interested in exchanging Skype info.

Now don’t expect everything to be about you. They’re going to want to practice speaking your native language as much as you want to practice using theirs. Usually you can agree on a good 50/50 split, if need be agree to switch languages every other time that you chat.

The slightly more advanced method is to use Couchsurfing.org to find language partners. Sign up, search in your city filtered by language and ask to meet for a coffee. Remember, unless you’ve agreed beforehand on some kind of teaching arrangement, if you badger them with language questions and demand they fulfill the role of unpaid tutor they may not agree on a second meeting. Treat it as a friendly chat and if you feel like they’ve gone out of their way to be helpful, buy them a coffee or something. The point is still to make new friends, not find a free teacher.

Find Real Motivation.

Learning a new language is hard work. Now, that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, enjoyable and rewarding hard work – but it’s still hard work.

If you really want to be successful, you have to make sure your motives are the right ones. It might be hard, but you need to be really honest with yourself here. Some people may be able to pull it off, but I’ve found that for most if you have the goal of speaking another language fluently just because you ‘think it would be cool’, than you probably aren’t going to have enough drive to get there.

If you want to become fluent, you need to live it. At every second you should be thinking about or in your target language, when people walk into your house they should feel like they needed to have their passports stamped at the front door. This kind of dedication is crucial if you want to be more than a little successful. This kind of dedication is hard to maintain if you don’t have what you consider a really good reason for doing it.

Now, this is a subjective thing – I’m not going to pass judgement on the validity of anyone’s motivations. If you are the kind of person who is seriously driven to impress people by learning a second language and showing off is your sole motivation than that’s fine. The key is to be honest with yourself.

A student of mine once told me that even though he was taking an intensive one-on-one conversational English course, he was learning Italian a lot faster through self-study than he was learning English. He figured it was because Italian was a lot more similar to Spanish (his native language), but when I asked him about his motivations I got to what I think was the real cause.

Asked why he wanted to learn Italian, he became wide-eyed and gushed about his dream of touring through Italy, his love of Italian food and how all of the best movies and books were Italian. He was seriously driven to ‘be Italian’. Then I asked him why he was learning English.

“Oh, I have to for business,” he curtly replied. “It’s a requirement for my company.”

See the problem?

Personally, my motivation is a combination of love and fascination for languages themselves (hence my linguistics degree), and the drive to meet people and have fantastic experiences. For me languages, as much as I love them, always wind down to just being the tools necessary for really communicating with new, awesome people in different, awesome cultures.

Putting it into practice

This one is simultaneously the easiest and the hardest to put into practice. Easiest because putting it into practice only requires you to take a minute to sit down and examine your motivations, hardest because we have a bad tendency of being more dishonest to ourselves than anyone else.

Sit down for a minute and think about why you want to learn a new language. Be honest with yourself. Write down your answer even. If you find that it’s something you really genuinely are passionate about than this exercise will not only have confirmed your dedication but strengthened it by identifying what really motivates you.

If you find that your motives don’t really hold up to your own honest scrutiny, then you may want to try and find new motives or just accept that you may not have the drive to go all the way yet. Really, if your motives are that weak, it’s probably not a big deal to you if you quit anyway.

Have Fun!

Yes, I am yelling at you again. For good reason though, too many people forget this part of language learning and it is as huge of a determiner of success as the other five.

If you’re going at learning a new language like it’s a chore, work or something you have to do – then the whole experience is going to be like pulling teeth. That’s bad. Do you know what happens when a task is tedious, tiresome or boring? You don’t do it! You procrastinate, you make excuses, you forget about it completely; none of these behaviors are conducive to learning a new language.

Imagine two people, one commits to 1 hour of language study per day because they have to do it. This person rigidly schedules each study session and is bound and determined to grind their way through it. The other person doesn’t set any specific study time but every day they find that at some point they really want to do something in their target language. In the end, they only spend about 30 minutes a day working with their target language, but they’re excited to do it. Who do you think will have progressed more after a few months?

Putting it into practice

Have fun! I know this sounds contrary to everything you’ve ever been conditioned to do courtesy of public education but don’t study! If you force yourself to study when you don’t want to, you’re just going to continue to build anger and resentment around your target language – not a good thing.

Instead, go find something you already think is fun, and do it in your target language.

Do you love to read? Go find some of your favorites that have been translated into your target language and work your way back through them, or go find some new favorites. Do you obsess over martial arts? Go find some tutorials or watch some videos about your art in your target language. Are you the most hardcore knitter on Earth? Guess what? Run some knitting terms through Google Translate, do a search, and dive into your target-language-knitting wonderland.

When I was studying Japanese, I did two things that made me want to study – I found the Harry Potter series translated into Japanese and I found a bunch of old SNES games in the original Japanese. Which sounds better, learning Japanese slaving over a grammar book and kanji lists, or playing Chrono Trigger in Japanese with a dictionary sitting next to you? Exactly.

Like I said, in general the method doesn’t matter so long as it really helps you meet your goal. No matter what method you use though, implementing these six key tips will make your path to fluency not just shorter – but a whole lot more fun too.

Have you given any of these a shot? Do you think it should have been 7 key things? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Danielle Margaroli

A New, Free, Open-Source Tool for Learning any Language

Benny the Irish Polyglot from over at Fluent in 3 Months has just announced a new, free, open-source tool called Learning With Texts or LWT. I could explain exactly what it is, but Benny does it better, so go ahead and check out the demo video below.

For more details beyond what you saw on the video or to jump right in and get started using Learning With Texts, head over to the Learning With Texts Introduction page on FluentIn3Months.com. Happy language learning!

Lessons from the Master: A Finger Pointing at the Moon

Hello Moon by Stephen Poff

Don't miss all that heavenly glory.

“Don’t think. Feel. It is like a finger pointing out to the Moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” – Bruce Lee

It might surprise some to learn that, in addition to arguably being the greatest martial artist that ever lived, Bruce Lee was a philosophy major. His writings, heavily reflecting both his love of martial arts and his love of philosophy, are widely regarded as some of the best on martial philosophy. However, for some reason people often fail to see the applications outside of martial arts.

Take the quote above for example. Lee often expressed that his study of martial arts was the best method of self-expression he could find for himself. His martial arts were not an end in and of themselves, but rather a path to self-knowledge. The finger pointing at the Moon was study of the martial arts itself – if you focus only on the study of martial arts you miss the ‘heavenly glory’ of self-knowledge.

On a slightly more shallow level, this quote expresses another truth about martial arts training. Many people who study a martial art get hung up on whether or not their style or their training method is the best it possibly can be. People argue over whether to do kata or sparring, if traditional arts are better than contemporary arts, if hard styles or soft styles are better and on and on when really – none of this matters.

True proficiency in the martial arts comes when you have gotten beyond the training and can ‘feel’ what you need to do intuitively. When muscle memory takes over and, rather than thinking, you just react; then you are a proficient martial artist. People who focus too much on analyzing the training miss out on the true goal of being able to blend elements of the art together in new ways without needing to think about it.

So what other areas of life can we apply this to?

Language Learning

If there is one area where people most seem to completely miss the Moon for their focus on the finger, it’s in the area of language learning. People go crazy about figuring out which method is the best to learn a new language. They try local courses, Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, online programs and everything else they can. As much money and time as they spend focusing on finding the perfect learning method, they never realize that studying a language isn’t the answer and that you can learn it all for free.

When people start getting too obsessed over the method, they completely lose track of what their goal was in the first place. In the end, all language learning methods are fine as long as they get you where you want to go. Personally I’m a big advocate of learning through immersion and speaking from day one, but if you find a way that works for you that is entirely contrary to everything I suggest – awesome! What matters is that you reach your goal, not how you reach it. Don’t concentrate so much on the method that you miss out on your goal.

Entrepreneurship / Business

I know that most of the people who are interested in living the kind of life Caroline and I are working towards tend, like Caroline and myself, to feel a very strong proclivity toward entrepreneurship.

It makes sense, particularly given that owning your own business and being able to make a living without being tied to one particular location is a huge asset in really being free to live how you want. The problem is, entrepreneurship can be really complicated. Do I start a blog? Do I develop a product? Do I try to make my living off of affiliate links or advertisements? How do I handle all this social media stuff?

Most people, when faced with a complicated situation, turn to the experts for advice. This is where a lot of people can get into trouble though. Not because the experts give bad advice, the majority of the real experts give fantastic advice. The problem is that the prospective entrepreneurs fall victim to paralysis by analysis and information overload. They get so hung up on optimizing minutia like post timing and Twitter strategy, that they lose sight of what they were trying to do in the first place.

If your goal is to build a fantastic blog then worry about creating awesome, useful content before you worry about your social media strategy. If your goal is to sell a new product, make sure you’ve created an incredible product and are connecting with your customers before you worry about tweaking every little bit of your sales pitch.

General Self-Improvement

By now you should be seeing a bit of a pattern. When people set out to do something, it’s an extremely common mistake to focus on the method more than the goal.

Once you’ve realized this tendency you can check yourself in any endeavor you take to improve yourself. Whether it’s learning a new skill like swimming, or working towards your dream of traveling the world. Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and there are always systems and methods to help you do those things. Always remember though that those systems and methods are just fingers pointing to the Moon, if you concentrate on them too much you’ll never realize your true goal.

Do you have any other specific areas where you’ve found you or others tend to focus too much on the finger? How did you get past that tendency? Share with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Stephen Poff

The Biggest Mistake in Learning a Language: Studying

Study Study by Lethaargic

Think studying for hours is the best way to learn a language? Guess again.

Tons of people every year decide they want to learn to speak a second language and every year they inevitably decide to do the one thing that will guarantee that they’ll never be successful – they study that language. I’ll pause for a second to allow for shocked gasps….

I know it seems counter-intuitive – particularly in a culture that forces everyone to spend at least the first 18 years of their lives constantly studying things – but the only way you can do more harm to your goal of fluently speaking a language than studying it is to never start learning at all. Thankfully, there is an easy way to reach fluency and it doesn’t involve countless hours slaving over a textbook, slamming your forehead into mile long vocab lists or parroting back sentences off of a CD.

What is it? We’ll get to that shortly. First, I want you to meet Maria.

Maria’s English Exasperation

Maria was a student I had as an ESL teacher a while back. To be polite I’ve changed her name, but Maria held a very high position in the Venezuelan branch of a large international corporation and had been studying English for years. The problem was, she still couldn’t speak it.

Maria had spent four years studying English at a university in Venezuela, one year at an English school in Scotland and another six months on top of all of that at a language school in Houston. Add in all of her self study with textbooks and the like and Maria had spent a lot of time studying English.

When she finally arrived at the language school I was teaching at, she was honestly a little bitter. She felt like no matter what she did she could never learn English. Coming to our school was her very last attempt – if Maria couldn’t make it work here, she was ready to give up entirely. In fact, she almost gave up before that when she saw the score she got on her placement test – 10%.

So, what did Maria have to show for her years and years of studying English? Well, she had a fantastic command of the grammar – but only explicitly. If you asked Maria to tell you the first-person-conditional-future-perfect-progressive form of ‘fly’, she’d reply with ‘If I will have been flying.’ Fantastic. If you asked her what she did yesterday, she might say, ‘Yesterday I go at restaurant in 4th street and have eat a dinner.’ Not so fantastic.

All those years spent studying meant she had a huge vocabulary and knew tons of grammar, but had never practiced actually using any of it. She could tell you want the subjunctive form was, but couldn’t make small talk. She knew the definitions of words like equivocate and transliteration, but had serious trouble ordering a latte. Obviously, this caused her lots of frustration.

So what made all of those years of language study practically useless to Maria? She, and I assume all of the teachers she had studied under previously, had been treating English as if it were a set of facts to be memorized. They forgot that speaking a language is a skill. See, language is like juggling.

Language = Juggling

Bear with me here.

Imagine, for a moment, that you have to individuals with the same goal; to be world class jugglers. Person A does exactly what Maria did. He gets every book he possibly can on juggling, he watches tons of videos on juggling, he enrolls in a prestigious juggling college and attends hundreds of lectures on the finer points of juggling physics, gravitational theory and detailed breakdowns of advanced juggling techniques.

Person B doesn’t bother with any of that. He grabs two oranges off the kitchen counter, and starts trying to juggle. Of course, for the first few weeks a lot of fruit finds itself bouncing on the floor or off the surprised head of Person B. He keeps at it though, and does his best to juggle every day, even if only for a minute or two.

After one year, who would you bet is a better juggler – Person A who did more reading than juggling, or Person B who never read a thing and juggled all the time?

Learning a language is no different. If you want to speak a language you practice speaking a language. You don’t wait until you’ve learned some grammar, or developed a ‘big enough’ vocabulary whatever that is, you start speaking from day one.

How did things turn out for Maria?

The very first day, after I saw her placement test and she related her history of frustration, I threw her grammar book right out the window. Not literally of course, the school frowns on the defenestration of school materials, but we spent the next two weeks talking. Just talking. Any topic I could come up with, we discussed. We read the newspapers and talked about the articles. We watched videos on my phone and chatted about them. For 4 hours a day, for two weeks straight, we talked endlessly. Every time she would make a mistake in her speech I would correct her and write down the proper sentence in her notebook.

By the end of those two weeks, Maria had made more progress in her ability to speak English than she had made in a decade’s worth of study.

Go Practice

If your goal is to speak another language fluently, stop studying and go speak! Don’t worry about making mistakes or not knowing enough words, just practice, practice, practice. I promise you it will do more to help you meet your goals than anything else you can do.

Has anyone else found themselves in a situation like Maria’s? Do you completely disagree and think that language study is the key to fluency? Let us know what you think in the comments!

Photo Credit: Lethaargic

3 Free Online Resources You Can Use to Learn Any Language

Working Lat(t)e by Kuba Bozanowski

Internet required. Coffee optional.

I used to be a rabid consumer.

Maybe it was the fault of the culture, maybe it was because I’m also a raving bibliophile and it meant acquiring more books, maybe it was because I felt like I had to spend money to make any progress – whatever the reason, when I first started learning Japanese I threw paycheck after paycheck at the problem at the bookstore.

Any book, software or audio set that promised to have me speaking Japanese in no time at all got whisked off to the checkout line. Naturally, after having spent several hundred dollars on language courses, I was speaking fluent Japanese by the end of a few weeks right?

Yeah, you know better. All that stuff didn’t get me anywhere.

The truth is, you don’t need to spend a dime to learn a new language. Caroline and I successfully completed our entire 6 month Korean fluency challenge without purchasing a single thing. One of the main keys to our success was our use of three particular websites.

These three websites are all free to sign up and use and, best of all, can be used to learn any language as long as someone else out there speaks it.

Lang-8

The first resource is Lang-8.com – a free community of language learners where you can post journal entries in the language you’re learning and then have them corrected by native speakers.

After signing up for a free account, you write posts in your target language and correct the posts of people learning your native language. Easy.

Are you an absolute beginner and don’t even think you know enough to make a single post? No problem! Find some recent entries written in your native language by people who speak your target language and correct them. Before long, you’ll start getting friend requests (Caroline received around 70 in our first week using it).

Most of the people who send you a friend request are also learning your native tongue and would be more than happy to exchange Skype info. You teach them a little English, they teach you the basics of their language and most of the time you form a new, genuine friendship.

Everybody wins.

You’re not limited to reading your own posts either. You can go dig through tons and tons of posts written in your target language by other people and then corrected by native speakers. Not that you should have any shortage of reading material, what with the Internet and all, but it’s a good option if you’re bored of reading news and blogs in you target language.

Rhinospike

Text is great, but if you want to be able to actually speak a new language you’re going to need to know a thing or two about pronunciation too. That’s where Rhinospike.com comes in.

Rhinospike has a similar community structure to Lang-8 – except instead of native speakers correcting the grammar in your entries they record themselves reading the text aloud and then post the recording up on the site.

Used in conjunction with Lang-8, that means you can not only get your entries’ grammar corrected, but also download a free recording of a native speaker reading it. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a large selection of recordings other people have had done that you can browse through and download.

There are a ton of potential uses for this. The most obvious is that you can have a native speaker reading your posts to compare your pronunciation to, but there are so many more. You can post articles, short book excerpts, news stories, vocab lists, all sorts of things and then download them to your iPod or whatever to always have native audio to listen to. You can write out little dialogues and then pretend that you’re one of the speakers, answering the questions rather than parroting back what the recording says. You can even record yourself on your computer right after the native speakers recording and compare to dial in on speaking with a native accent.

The pre-recorded library is, on it’s own, a fantastic resource even if you don’t request anything recorded for yourself. Glancing at it now there are 380 recordings in the Korean section. One of those is the first 633 of the most common words in Korean, and another is 310 of the most common verbs in Korean. If you’re looking for some good listening comprehension practice rather than worrying about pronunciation, just jump around to random recordings and see if you can figure out what they’re saying.

If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could download all the recordings to load onto your MP3 player and then just put it on shuffle.

Couchsurfing

I’m trying not to use the ‘last but not least’ cliche, but it fits here. Couchsurfing.org is the single best free resource available for learning a second language.

The key to learning a new language is, has been and always will be speaking it with native speakers. I guarantee you after one month a person who spends an hour per day chatting in their target language with a native speaker will speak better than a person who spends five hours per day digging working through textbooks. Couchsurfing provides a fantastic way to meet new friends who speak your target language.

There are three main options for how to go about doing this. The first is to travel. Unless you already travel a lot, or want to travel a lot, this will probably be the least useful to you. All you have to do is search by language spoken next time you’re looking for a couch to stay on while traveling. Tell the person up front that you’re learning their native language and would like to practice a little while you’re staying with them if that’s ok. Don’t expect them to give you an intensive course or anything, this is free remember, but usually people are more than happy to help.

The second option is to host people who speak your target language when they’re traveling to your city. Again, be upfront when responding to their couch request and let them know that you’re learning their language and would like to practice a little if they don’t mind. Chances are, they’ll want an opportunity to practice their English with you too.

The third option is to just do a search in your own city and then send a nice message to a native speaker in your area who has marked that they’re open to meeting for coffee that you’re learning their native language and would be interested in meeting sometime to chat about it. Not everyone will be interested, and some people may just chat with you over Skype instead, but you can often find someone who is cool with meeting up to chat.

Now, when traveling or hosting, don’t expect the person to spend a long time coaching you and giving you lessons, unless you’ve already agreed on something like that beforehand. The focus of the site is still to travel and meet new people, so if you’re hosting remember that your guest probably has things they want to do and see and if you’re traveling remember that your host has a life.

The real magic, in my opinion, happens long after you or your guest has left. In my experience, when you stay with someone or host someone in your house, you tend to wind up becoming friends. Not to cheapen the relationship, because I think the friendship is more valuable in the end than the end goal of learning a new language, but having a friend who speaks a language you’re trying to learn is the greatest way to make tons of progress quickly.

Have you used any of these resources in the past? Are there any others that you think I should have included? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo: Kuba Bożanowski

Fluent in 6 Months Challenge: Success!

Update: I’ve since written a more comprehensive article on specifically what we did in our Korean study to meet our 6 month challenge, you can read that update here.

It’s now the 20th, which means that yesterday marked exactly 6 months from the day we set out on our fluent in 6 months challenge. So how did it work out? Um, did you notice the title…. Success!

So, let’s run through the criteria we set in the original challenge and see how we’ve managed.

  • Production – At this point, we’ve been able to have several conversations with native speakers, both verbally and written, in-person and over the computer. This, in my opinion, is the biggest triumph. We’ve chatted about a fairly wide range of topics, from food to politics to lots in-between and our longest conversation so far lasted for about an hour. That full hour of no English whatsoever is what I consider the biggest achievement. We understand most of the contractions/slang that we run into most frequently. We still run into words we aren’t familiar with, particularly in new topics, although since the meanings can be explained to us in Korean a raised eyebrow and cocked head usually are enough for the person to explain what we missed.
  • Written Comprehension – Our written comprehension is on par with our speaking level. We can get the meat of pretty much every news story we read, though each usually has at least a word or two we’re not familiar with (remedied by a quick dictionary check). Nearly all of our news has come in Korean for the past few months, though we didn’t get nearly as much of it before our 1,000 word challenge. We’ve also been working through a few books we picked up during our 2007 Korea trip. I feel confident I could pick up just about any book in Korean and read it without a dictionary and at least get the general idea.
  • Listening Comprehension – Lastly, listening comprehension. Like I said in the Production section, we’ve had more than a handful of spoken conversations. At this point we have no trouble understanding most people at a normal (that is to say, really fast feeling) rate of speech. We have had some trouble with a few of the southern dialects we’ve hit – particularly one person from Jeju, but other than that there have been no real snags. We’ve also been able to start watching Korean TV shows (something we did even before we started learning) without the use of English subtitles. Again, we don’t get everything, and sometimes a pause or two are required to reach for a dictionary, but overall we don’t have any problems in that department either.

    So, like I said before, big success overall. I’m compiling everything we did that I think worked, and everything we did that I think was a waste (though it’s looking like it may be several posts worth) so keep an eye out for those coming soon!

How To Remember Anything Forever with Memory Hooks

At Rest by DigitalART2

Now you can learn to never forget too.

I have always had a serious problem with remembering things.

I forget people’s names after I meet them. I could never memorize any vocabulary in foreign language classes. I forgot to do my homework. I forget everyone’s birthday. Sometimes, I walk into a room and can’t even remember why I went in there in the first place.

It’s kind of a big problem.

Or at least, it was a big problem until I figured out a nice little trick to chisel anything I need to remember into my brain, with only a half-second of effort. Now, I can read a vocab word, hear someone’s name or be presented with an interesting bit of information just once and never forget it.

So what’s the big trick?

Tapping Into Emotional Memory with Memory Hooks

What does emotional memory mean? To simplify it a bit in order to not get too bogged down in psychology and neurology stuff, there are several ‘levels’ to our brains. To generalize a bit, the really analytical stuff, math, logic, language etc. all happens in the higher, newer levels of your brain. All of the more subconscious stuff, emotions, impulses, desires, heart and breathing regulation & long-term memory, for example, are down on the lower, more primal levels of your brain.

Now, if you’re like me in the past, you try to memorize something by activating those higher levels of the brain. Usually by sitting and repeating it over, and over, and over until it is drilled into your brain. The problem is our brains don’t really like that.

Our brains may be built to hold a lot of information, but when it comes to living things efficiency is always the rule. This is one reason people like taking the path of least resistance. Our brains are no different, they don’t want to just suck up every last tidbit of information and store it forever, that would be inefficient. Your brain only likes to store things that matter.

Sure, to you, all those words on your vocab list do matter. To your brain though, not so much. Your brain really only wants to store information in the long term that it knows will really impact your life. For instance, it’s not necessary to remember for twenty years that there were exactly 134 tiles in the back-splash of your parents’ kitchen when you were a child. It is important to remember that planting your hand firmly on the burner of a hot stove is a stupendously bad idea.

How does your brain tell which one of these things is important to file away for life? By the emotional response the event triggers.

Counting the number of tiles in your parents kitchen is likely to elicit no real emotional response – other than boredom which is anathema to our brains. Slapping your hand down on a hot burner, however, will trigger lots of emotions – pain, fear, excitement, possibly confusion. All of these emotions trigger the release of lots of chemicals in your brain, it knows it’s something really important and it remembers it.

Here’s a good test, which is easier to remember – an exciting, wonderful or traumatic event from your childhood, or what you ate for breakfast last Tuesday? Which memory is more vivid?

Unless you have a very unique brain, or a car crashed through your wall while you were having breakfast last Tuesday, the childhood memory is probably way easier to recall, even though it was so much farther in the past.

This is the reason why the old-school, repeat-it-10,000-times rote memorization method just doesn’t work. There’s no emotional attachment, other than boredom, so your brain just doesn’t want to hang on to that information.

The trick then is to find a way to make your brain form an emotional attachment to the information.

Hooking Up Your Memory

What’s the best way to form an emotion attachment to the info? Memory hooks.

A memory hook is a strong visualization of some kind that hooks a strong emotion into the memory of whatever information you’re trying to store. Essentially, you take whatever information it is, a name, a vocab word, a definition, whatever, and then come up with some kind of visual that reminds you of that piece of information.

The visual can be anything, though it needs to be as vivid and detailed as you can come up with, and needs to have some kind of emotion tied to it. Any emotion will work, although I usually go for humor since coming up with ridiculous situations is easier for me. Longer, more involved action sequences also tend to work better than isolated mental images too.

Rather than try to explain the process, I think it’s a little easier to just walk you through one I used during our Korean challenge to memorize the phrase ‘chalmokkesumnida‘.

Now, chalmokkesumnida is a phrase used to begin a meal, similar to ittedakimasu in Japanese on bon appetite in French. Since that was the case, I wanted to have some kind of mental image that tied into meals.

When I say ‘chalmokke’, to me it kind of sounds like ‘Chow Monkey’ in English. Now a Chow Monkey would obviously be some kind of monkey that brings chow. Alright, so far I’ve got a monkey bringing food to someone or something.

Next, the ‘sumnida’ part kind of sounds like ‘Suupa da’ or ‘It’s super’ in Japanese. So now, the people the monkey is bringing the food to speak Japanese. From there, I figure if anything is going to be super, it’s chow monkey. Ok. He’s now a food delivering monkey superhero, complete with a cape, mask, and big ‘C’ emblazoned on his chest delivering food to hungry people everywhere, or at least in Japan.

Now, we take it one step further. You have a hungry family all sitting around their breakfast table in Japan one morning, a father, mother, and two kids. There’s no food on the table, and one of the childrens’ stomachs growls loudly. Suddenly, Chow Monkey blasts through the wall like a furry, simian Kool-Aid Man and dumps a breakfast feast onto the table. There’s food from everywhere, it’s like all the buffets of the world rolled into a giant katamari of breakfast-deliciousness. Their eyes glistening in hunger, everyone at the table shouts ‘Chow Monkey suupa da!’ with joy and dives into the food as Chow Monkey soars away to save another hungry family.

Is that ridiculous? Sure. But now every time I sit down to eat, I think of Chow Monkey and ‘Chow Monkey suupa da’. From there ‘chalmokkesumnida’ flows right out.

Now, written out like this, it makes it look like an extremely involved process. Really though, all of this happens in a split second. Your brain comes pre-installed with a fantastic imagination, and it doesn’t take much thought to come up with something goofy like this. Chow Monkey was born a few seconds after sitting down to eat with some Korean friends.

It may seem silly, but next time you need to remember something give it a try. Before you realize it, whatever you were trying to memorize will be burned into your mind like the Banana Phone song. Just see if you don’t think ‘chalmokkesumnida’ next time you sit down to eat.

Have you had any success with this technique? Share some of your mental images and memory hooks in the comments!

Update: If you’re interested in learning more about memory hooks I discuss them and the above example in more detail along with other memory strategies in my book How to Learn 1,000 Words in 30 Days on Amazon Kindle.

Fluent in 6 Months: Progress Update

Having learned from my Winter Molt Challenge that regular progress updates are not only tedious to produce but, honestly, probably not that interesting to read this is going to be the only check in for this challenge until you get our final result.

We’re now a little past the halfway point and I am extremely pleased with our progress. Our 1,000 words in 30 days mini-challenge worked out really well, though I’ve found it a little difficult to quantify exactly how well we did. I can, however, tell a huge difference in our comprehension as a direct result of the vocabulary boost.

We both now regularly read the news in Korean everyday. We are also working through Korean books. I can’t say we have 100% comprehension at this point, but it’s sufficient to read and then usually be able to relate about 80% to 90% of what happened.

What I am most pleased about overall, is that we are no longer slaves to English subtitles on Korean shows. Much like the books we don’t always get everything, but we can now enjoy an entire TV show in Korean without the aid of an .srt file. Of all our accomplishments, I find that one to be the biggest and most motivating.

I’m also finding that our conversations with native speakers are becoming progressively easier, with much fewer corrections being necessary.

With roughly two months left, I’m eager to see how our challenge ends. Given our progress so far, I have to say I’m extremely optimistic.

Learn Languages with Chrome

Cloud Gate by Anca Mosolu

This isn't the chrome we mean, nor is it what we mean when we refer to 'The Cloud'...

No, not chrome the metal – Google Chrome. After I talked about using it to automatically translate pages you would normally view in your native language into your target language, several people have been asking how to do it. Enough people have asked that I decided to just make it into a quick how-to.

For those who have been living under rocks for the past year or two, Google Chrome is a web browser developed and released by Google. Personally, I’m fond of it. Not just because it’s fast, but because of all the handy little tricks you can make it do – at this point, I’ve almost completely been converted over from Firefox. You can get Google Chrome from Chrome’s download page.

Now that that’s taken care of, to make Google Chrome translate pages from your native tongue to your target one, open Chrome (derp) and go to the Options menu by clicking on the little picture of the wrench (spanner if you’re across the pond) and selecting Options.

The Options menu will open, and you then select Under the Hood.

Once you’ve done that, go to where it says Web Content and click on the button that reads Language and Spell-Checker Settings.

This opens a new menu where you can add and select new languages. Click on the Add button, and use the drop down menu that opens up to find your target language. Once you’ve found it, select it. After you’ve selected it, it will be added to your Languages list. Click Display Google Chrome in this Language and it will then prompt you to restart. Make sure you don’t have any important windows open (though Chrome will save them for you) and click Restart.

Congratulations! Chrome is now in your target language! Now, in addition to being able to learn all of the words relating to just operating Chrome, every time you visit a page in your native language, a bar will appear at the top of the screen asking if you wish to translate this page into your target language. All you have to do is click the word for ‘Yes’ (usually the one on the left) and Chrome will automatically translate everything it can on that page into your target language.

So to recap, that’s: Options>Under the Hood>Web Content>Language and Spell-Checker Settings>[Your target language]>Add>Restart (The button, not your computer).

Now, it is still important to seek out genuine, native speaker written content whenever you can. This is an automated translator and it is hardly perfect. That being said, Google Translate is one of my favorites as far as actually coming up with proper translations. If you want similar functionality, but just can’t bear the idea of changing your browser into all your target language (why not?), you can always go download the Google Translator Chrome extension.

Once it’s installed, it will add a little translate icon to the top of Chrome, which you can then click and have it translate the page you’re on into the language of your choosing. The best part about using either of these methods, is that when a page is translated you can hover over a word to see what it originally said. This is a fantastic way to let you read a little beyond your level in your target language, without needing to constantly reach for a dictionary or copy/paste into a translator.

Any other tricks you know to make Chrome (or any other browser) help you learn a language? Share them with us in the comments.

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