Category Archives: Language Learning

A simple process for powerful language learning

Language learning need not be difficult or particularly complicated. There are numerous YouTube videos and thousands of articles on learning languages so why one more?

Well, I believe I’ve cracked the process and if it resonates with you I believe you’ll get a tremendous amount of value out of it.

First off, it must be said that this process is intensive and it is intended to be so. You’re busy, I’m busy and the brain really responds well to extreme focus for a defined period of time.

All you need is a foreign language audio and preferably a translated text. Your goal is to distance yourself from the English as soon as possible to prevent interference and to start thinking in the target language instead.

Given that, let’s look at the bulk of the method I have been trialing and enjoying with French:

  1. Choose an audio program that is not too far above your level
  2. Listen to the audio twice (at least)
  3. Listen to it one more time and this time transcribe what you hear. This is not a translation, you simply start and stop the audio as you need to and write down what’s being said.
  4. Check your transcription and distill the new language structures, vocabulary and phrases by writing them down. Pay particular attention to any transcription mistakes.
  5. Listen to the audio again but this time shadow the text to solidify the learning. Shadowing is simply repeating along with the audio as closely as possible.

This process usually takes up an hour, but it can be condensed, especially if the audio isn’t too long or difficult.

The strength of this process is that it hits so many inputs and outputs that learning is multifaceted and extensive. The focus on listening intently early on helps with comprehension and input. At step 4 you analyse the text and pick up on all the details.

Step 5 is training your linguistic acuity and stretching your brain’s ability to track what you’re hearing. It trains output and builds even more synaptic connections to the language.

The main reason this is so effective? It mirrors natural learning by focusing on listening and assimilation first and the mimicry later. You already engaged with this process in learning your mother tongue.

Important point – step 3 can be safely done once. In subsequent days focus more on steps 2, 4 and 5, putting in as many repetitions of listening and shadowing as possible.

Give this process a try and I guarantee you’ll be excited by your progress. If you did nothing else this simple process will take you a long way towards fluency in your target language.

Bonne chance!

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Why you likely won’t learn a new language (and what to do about)

There’s this curious phenomenon out there we call instant gratification. In short, it feels good to indulge and we like the quick hits of pleasure we get from such indulgence. However, instant gratification is likely the insidious cause behind most failure to stay the course and follow through on a project.

The project many of us undertake is learning a new language. We jump out of the gates eager to learn but “instant gratification bug” starts gnawing away while asking “are we there yet?” We end up discouraged and looking for the quick fix, the “secret method” that ends all our frustration.

However, we quickly learn that instant gratification has lied to us again, or at least hurled false expectations at us.

Enter… Apps. Frustration and quick fixes is the secret to all marketing but more than ever it is the secret to what makes us buy apps and subscribe to services. This is very much the case with language learning.

Have a think for a moment about what you are trying to achieve when you take on a new language. That’s right, you’re looking to acquire (quickly) what took thousands of years of linguistic evolution. Also, you’re probably looking to short circuit the traditional method of learning the language a native speaker took to become fluent.

Language apps feed off this way of thinking. Let me make this perfectly clear so that everyone reading this gets it:

You will never learn a language from an app.

Never? Those are some strong words but I feel I need to spell it out because there are far too many of us who have bought the rhetoric and thought we could become fluent speakers of a language because of (a) our intense desire for instant gratification and (b) we buy the marketing behind these apps.

Apps can absolutely get you started on a language and support your efforts as you progress but what really counts is what the brain determines is real, relevant and useful. Some apps are better than others but trying to substitute language experience with a static one dimensional approach sentences you to failure.

The “I know a lot but can’t speak” conundrum

Here’s what is wrong in a nutshell. Any learning that you do in your bedroom or on the bus is irrelevant until it is accessible to your tongue in the heat of a conversation. Most people who spend time with a language without speaking it or even trying to speak it are creating this gigantic reservoir of language knowledge in the back of their heads but it is only connected to a tap that drips words out.

I’ve been there and in fact am there right now to a certain extent. Purely intellectual learning of a language is ineffective and your brain won’t produce the language when you need it because it hasn’t acquired it in a way that makes it absolutely real and accessible.

This is why people ultimately quit, saying “yeah I tried to learn that” and usually following up with “X language is hard”.

Here’s another hard truth:

There are no hard languages, your method of learning just sucks.

That’s right. You tried to learn either:

  • Too fast
  • Too much at one time
  • Didn’t review or try to recall the language at regular intervals
  • Avoided actual expression at all costs
  • Believed the idea that you only need a few hundred words or so

Imagine how well you’d be able to speak English if you tried to learn it in that fashion.

Now, does that mean we have to be like children and learn that way? No and yes.

Firstly, No – you are smarter than a child and you’re able to make logical connections, infer grammar from language and remember much better than a child.

As polyglot Steve Kauffman of LingQ says (paraphrasing):

A child’s brain might be optimised to learn language better than an adults but I can learn the same amount of vocabulary in 6 months that a child learns in 5 years.

Steve Kauffman’s method, which he speaks about at length on YouTube, is through intensive reading. The platform he found – LingQ – is geared around reading texts and highlighting learned words so that you can essentially see those words light up in the text and review them as a matter of simply reading.

I have adapted this idea based on the work of another polyglot – Robin MacPherson, who says that the job of becoming highly skilled in a language is done by the time he feels confident reading adult-level fiction in said language.

So apps can prove to be good entry points into language learning and some are great at supporting ongoing learning (Clozemaster springs to mind) but they can’t be the sole resource utilised.

Never underestimate the value of immersion in an input sense, through YouTube videos in the target language, reading, podcasts and even radio. These things can prove to be invaluable in the quest to master a language.

Combine these with a  healthy dose of output through writing and especially speaking and mastery can be yours.

I talk more about how to use apps and other language learning methods in my book Fluently Speaking – A Modern Guide to Mastering Any Language.

 

 

 

 

 

fiction in a new language

 

Creating a schedule for language learning that works

How can you learn a language effectively in the busy deadline driven world that we live in?

Learning a language takes work and often that means time we don’t have. It often leads us to try and “hack” the learning process in an effort to speak fluently without going through the teething stages that inevitably arise.

First, let’s tackle that idea of language “hacking”. The term “hacking” has become prominent over the years with a number of well known public figures using “hacks” to learn skills in record time. Tim Ferriss is probably the most popular proponent of hacking and he has carved out a niche in the skill-development field by focusing on these ideas.

In the language learning field, the Irish Polyglot Benny Lewis has used the term “language hacking” a lot and even produced a series of Teach Yourself language books with the hacking approach in mind.

Simply put, hacking is ruthless effectiveness. It is refining the content of a language down into usable chunks that can be systematically practised repeatedly.

So the first point in learning a language effectively with time pressure is this: Distill down the input you need to become fluent. Focus in on key structures, vocabulary and situations.

This distillation process is a skill in itself, which is why people who have learned multiple languages find subsequent languages relatively easy to acquire.

Materials/resources

Find a limited amount of quality material, preferably with audio, and focus on learning the language progressively every day.

The key here is every day. Find something that you can focus on often and work through the material progressively.

Good audio resources accompany many of the beginner language courses such as Teach Yourself, Routledge’s Colloquial Series and Assimil. The key is to process the lessons in a focused way. My personal approach is to spend a week on each chapter of a Teach Yourself book, listening and really getting inside each of the audio lessons. After the 19 or so weeks you’ll find yourself knowing the course inside out and more importantly, understanding the language contained within.

There is more you can do in order to really gain maximum benefits from audio lessons and I go deep into those ideas in my book Fluently Speaking. For example, shadowing the audio (speaking the language in sync with the speaker) is a great practice and one worth adding to your language toolkit.

Speak now

Begin speaking right away, even if it is to yourself at first. I like to acquire and organise the material I learn and package it in speaking challenges. Some of these speaking challenges, particularly early on, involve learning language for a specific situation and then videoing myself speaking it.

Speaking assignments like this are great at developing your internal language machine. Predominantly, however, you’ll want to speak with actual native speakers either live out in the world or with a tutor/speaker via Skype or similar. Italki is a popular service and I highly recommend going there for quality speaking partners and tutors.

Find topics or situational conversations you’d like to become proficient in and start engineering your learning around those areas. This is probably the most important key to “hacking” a language — learn that which is practical to you.

There you have it — language learning need not be complex. With a bit of thought you can begin learning a language immediately with a focus on progression and practicality.

The next post will cover language games and apps and how to integrate them into your language learning lifestyle.

My book Fluently Speaking — A Modern Guide to Mastering Any Language is available in the Amazon Kindle store and UK users can find it here in the Amazon UK Kindle store.

Language learning doesn’t have to be hard

canstockphoto146393Do you recall learning your native tongue? Was it hard? Did you struggle with it? Sure you did, but as a child you were just introduced to a complex world without the skills required to even walk or talk.

However, the language acquisition process was relatively simple. Grammar books? No. Vocabulary lists? No. Instead, we learned to speak our native language competently through exposure while acquiring all the vocabulary we needed to express ourselves in a vast range of topics.

So why, as adults, do we complicate the language learning process to the point of struggle and ultimately quitting?

Maybe it’s just human nature or the fact there is so much information out there. I suspect it’s both, which is why I felt the need to address it in my new Kindle book — Fluently Speaking — A Modern Approach to Mastering Any Language.

You see, I’m one of those “overthink it” types who wants to find the perfect system, course or book to learn anything. This approach has caused me to learn many different skills but with a degree of neuroticism attached.

In my first book, Skip the Gym and Get Strong Anyway, I documented how I had finally worked out a way to exercise with simplicity and flexibility. Fluently Speaking emerged from a similar journey, this time out of the language learning jungle I kept getting lost in with both Czech and French.

Stop doing what doesn’t work

We humans are funny creatures. There is a tendency in us all to keep striving and pushing to acquire and improve our skills with methods that do nothing but raise our blood pressure.

This is a marketer’s dream. Get enough people frustrated and then offer them a way out with a plethora of apps, books, courses and gadgets.

Hence, we acquire a great deal of information, watch YouTube videos and search for the best “stuff” that will magically make us better. This is a common trait of the “self help seeker” who constantly feels they aren’t enough and need that extra book or to attend that course.

STOP doing that with language learning!

I spent years combing the Internet for Czech resources trying to find the magic pill that never existed, all the while leaving what I had acquired sitting on a shelf or in a document folder on my computer.

Stop acquiring and start using is the first principle in Fluently Speaking because it is the most important. Simplify your resources down and focus on one or two at a time. Really get inside them, learn them inside out. OWN those resources.

Only by owning the language in the courses and books you acquire can you develop the kind of COMMAND of the language necessary to have the words on your tongue with little thought.

Fluently Speaking prescribes an inexpensive and simpler way to learn a language. The resources and processes I describe in the book are designed to take the unnecessary pain out of the process so you’re free to learn a language smoothly and naturally.

*Fluently Speaking in the Amazon Kindle Store now

Glossika language learning — totally worth the investment

glossikaIn November I stumbled across the Glossika language learning method and decided to invest in the Czech course to finally get me to fluency in the language. Needless to say that 6 weeks on I am pleasantly surprised and enthused by the results.

For years I had struggled with learning Czech. It was my first language so this was not totally a surprise. It also can be a devilishly difficult language — not because it is inherently difficult but more because the grammar complexity is something native English speakers aren’t used to.

So I learned Czech in fits and starts — a lot while I was in the country and only superficially elsewhere.

Without speaking Czech I felt as though I was losing the language and besides, I had other languages I wanted to move on to.

Glossika to the rescue…

Utilising a Mass Sentence method in a predetermined schedule, Glossika’s audio programme reinforces the conversational grammar and vocabulary native speakers use everyday.

This makes a lot of sense to me now that I have discovered the “grammar first” approach to learning languages is not only backwards it can lead to frustration and ultimately quitting the language.

Glossika works because it crams in simple and then more complex structures in a workable order and in a way that mirrors natural language learning.

While my main language learning project at the moment is conversational fluency in French using more textual analysis and audio listening techniques, Glossika is providing me with a structured and manageable way of building my Czech, seemingly effortlessly (I’m not forcing it).

I just plug in an listen to the spaced repetition audios (organised by day number) and then listen and read the new block of mass sentences when the schedule calls for it. This is great!

In short, if I was starting to learn a new language tomorrow, I would grab a Teach Yourself book or Assimil programme and become acquainted with the audio, vocabulary and simple grammar while using Glossika to consistently introduce and reinforce new structures.

Get speaking right away

In my last post I spoke about the need for input and lots of it. Listening to audio and understanding it thoroughly before moving on to my complicated language is how we naturally learn languages.

For me, it’s like the sun rising and gradually illuminating the land below — the darkness of ignorance in a language gradually subsides and you’re able to see and understand more and more of the language.

Glossika compared to other popular methods

Glossika contains far more audio and sentences than most language learning programmes you’ll find. I’m a fan of Assimil, however Glossika has far more language audio for you to absorb and a method for practicing it.

In my opinion, Glossika is far less tedious than Pimsleur and again, contains much more language for your brain to absorb.

I like Assimil and the Michel Thomas method, but I’ve found Glossika better in that it focuses on language you would use most of the time when speaking with native speakers. In the Czech programme, the focus is on the informal form of the language. I think a grounding in the formal structures is good, most of the usual language programmes focus specifically on that style.

It took me a lot of experimentation to arrive at what really works in language learning. Glossika really does give that missing piece I had been searching for and I heartily recommend it!

The path to true mastery of a foreign language

Learning a language is a massive undertaking and knowing where to start and how to progress can be incredibly difficult.

Also, how do you know how good your knowledge and facility with the new language is? What are the metrics?

These questions form the basis of an effective strategy for learning a foreign language and can be the start of a productive and rewarding experience.

However, the task is to stay on track and not feel like you’re not making progress. Continual improvement requires patience but you should also be mindful of the traps and pitfalls.

Trap #1: Collecting too many resources

I think one of the biggest challenges is finding the right content. After learning two languages to varying degrees (my French is very much still in progress) I can now, with the benefit of hindsight, see what I was doing wrong.

I wanted everything — every book, course and piece of content I could get my hands on. This, I believe, is the wrong way to go about learning a language.

For starters, it’s a strategy that is very much like consumerism — accumulation without necessarily deriving benefits from the acquisitions. Every piece of content, be that book or course, should be useful and studied to the point where it is fully comprehensible.

Don’t just grab everything. One or two really reliable sources up front is a good starting point. Once you’ve mastered these sources then move on and find new mountains to conquer.

Too many resources is one way to get confused and create overwhelm. Having laser-like focus on a few resources will serve you very well, in part because of the repetition factor. Think of how you learned your mother tongue. Words, phrases, intonation and word stress all sunk into your brain through constant exposure and repetition from our environment. 

Repetition is important, so finding a good resource to learn from is vital.

The resource(s) you choose should be suitable for your level but gradually allows you to increase vocabulary and recognition of the structure and sounds of the new language.

Output (writing and speaking) are not the focus in the early stage. Completely saturate your brain with the new language. Start to see the connections and repeat these learnings through a schedule of reinforcement.

Some resources have this repetition element built in. Glossika works on the basis of saturation of a large amount of sentences, almost as if you were growing up in the culture of the language you’re learning.

Trap #2: Focusing too much on grammar too soon

Glossika resources make a great analogy: To climb the mountain that is fluency in your target language you need to to rise above the forest that is the grammar. Getting stuck in the forest will only serve to keep you stuck and worrying too much about whether you’re getting everything right.

This is a bad place to be. You will make mistakes and this is actually the process of learning. Trying to be perfect will keep you stuck — you’ll be too afraid to converse for fear you get something wrong (and that people will laugh at you). This fear is understandable but it’s what Professor Carol Dweck calls the fixed mindset. Instead, take the growth mindset and realise that getting bogged down in the detail too soon is hurting your progress (and likely a justification for not willing to try speaking the language for fear of failure).

Is grammar important? Yes, but it will likely hinder your progress if you begin to obsess on the details to soon.

Remember this: The language should be fun, especially early on. Start from a position of enjoyment and begin speaking as early as possible. Do that and you’ll develop a foundation of language understanding and reinforcement that will serve you well as you progress.

Input and output

I always thought the aphorism “you have two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a reason” was irritating. It is a bit lame but is totally valuable advice for language learners in my opinion.

For the most part, be sure to take in the new language often then test your output in speaking and writing. I’m a big fan of the “more input is good” approach, as long as it is done in a progressive way and you’re listening and reading texts relevant to your current level.

Once you really understand the texts/audio, move on and conquer the next level and beyond. Repetition of these basic materials is vital for your progress. Learn and reinforce the language like a native would when learning as a child.

The benefit you have as an adult is that you can make the connection between words and objects/concepts much faster than a child can.

TOP TIP: Build up a log of new words and structures. I like to use a Google Spreadsheet for this. Any new words I find I write them into the spreadsheet with sheets for different things (expressions, common constructions, everyday nouns, emotions…) This way you can go back and revise new words and constructions, which you can then use in your writing and speaking.

Keeping score

Track your progress both in terms of inputs and outputs. Keep track of the reps you’re doing with your material. Repetition pays dividends and tracking this will give you a real boost in confidence.

Tracking outputs is tougher but it could be as simple as writing 20 sentences a day and/or tracking conversations. The latter is harder to quantify because to me speaking is the outcome of learning not necessarily a quantifiable metric.

In short

Live as if the language is part of your daily reality. Do whatever you can to get the target language in front of your eyes and ears often and reinforce everything you learn through repetition.

Don’t be concerned too much with all the resources you’ll need. Just get started on something that suits your level and absolutely own it! Make it a part of your being.