Category Archives: Personal Development

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.

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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

How to order food and drink in the Czech Republic

Snímek 076Czech can be a daunting language to learn for some but, like the 1000 mile journey that starts with a single step, it can be learned by making the effort early on to speak it as much as possible.

A friend of mine recently departed New Zealand to live in the Czech Republic and has faced the task of starting afresh — new culture, new people, places, weather, food and of course, language.

As he recounted his story of how he successfully acquired a coffee using nothing but Czech it reminded me of how exhilarating it can be to speak a new language and be understood. It also reminded me about how learning languages by making “missions”.

Missions (thanks to Benny Lewis for this idea) is the idea that you prepare for a specific encounter in a new language then go out and test it. Not only does this give you confidence it also provides the feedback you need to progress faster.

So, recounting my own encounters with the Czech language, here is my primer for the beginner or traveler seeking to be able to use just enough Czech to get by.

Note: If you are learning Czech, I have provided some grammar points which give you the jumping off point to learn more grammar. Having learned a lot of Czech, I recommend learning just enough grammar to know what’s going on but not too much too early. Grammar fatigue is definitely a diagnosable condition for learners of Slavic languages! Use one of the common textbook/audio programmes in the initial stages and you’ll go well, such as: Colloquial Czech, Teach Yourself Czech.

Before you start, check out this Czech and Slovak pronunciation guide.

From the top: saying hello, goodbye and thank you

Dobré ráno   Good morning (before 9am)
Dobrý den   Good day 
Dobrý večer   Good evening (after 6pm)

Děkuji (vám)   Thank you
Děkuji mockrát   Many thanks
Děkuji vám pěkně   Thank you kindly (lit. ‘nicely’)
Na shledanou   Goodbye

Making requests

Now you’ve said hello, how do you actually order something? A common way to ask for something in Czech and other Slavic languages is to say “I will give myself…” We would never phrase it that way in English, which serves to show how direct translation between languages is many times not possible.

Dám si jednou kávu prosím   I will have a coffee please (lit. ‘I will give myself a coffee please).

The above example is very common and is constructed from the verb dát – to give.

Alternatively, you could use the verb vzít si – meaning “to take”:
Vezmu si jedno pivo prosím   I will take a beer please

Using the imperative form, you could say:
Dejte mi…   Give me…

Dejte mi jedno pivo prosím   Give me a beer please

This form can sound very direct so use please (prosím) either at the beginning or end of the sentence.

Plurals

Plurals can get quite complicated in grammar terms, but for the most part they just require slight modifications to the noun. For example:

Dám si dvě kávy a tři piva prosím   I will have two coffees and three beers please

For plurals of 2-4 items the nouns decline (change ending) in a predictable way depending on gender. There are some different noun endings in each of the genders but here are the main ones

Feminine: káva => kávy   coffee, coffees
Neuter: pivo => piva   beer, beers
Masculine: salát => saláty   salad, salads
čaj => čaji   tea, teas (masculine noun with soft ending)

Plurals can get a bit daunting for a beginner and for the most part the ones above will fit a number of common menu items. At 5 items and beyond you encounter the Genitive case and the noun endings are completely different. However, there’s no need to worry about this in the beginning stages.

If you know the nominative noun form then you’ll be able to ask for what you want and refine later as you learn more grammar and the modifications needed.

More complex constructions

If you feel like going a bit further and want to be a bit more expressive, try using different forms, such as the conditional.

In English we’re just as like to say “I would like” as much as “I want”. In Czech the conditional is made in a similar way — using the past tense of the verb with some conditional language:

Já bych si dal   I would like (note the past tense of the verb dát)
Chtěl bych ten zákusek   I would like that cake (from the verb chtít – to want)
Rád bych   I would like (using the rád – to like)
Raději bych   I would rather

There is a wrinkle here, and this is where Slavic languages can seem overly complicated. For female speakers you’ll need to add an ‘a’ on the end of the past tense stem.

Já bych si dala; Chtěla bych; Ráda bych

Sometimes you need to know if the place you’re at has something. For this situation use the verb mít – to have in this case:

Máte zmrzliny?   Do you have ice creams?
Máte nějaké zákusky?   Do you have any cakes?

To ask for “what kinds of” you could say:

Jaké máte vino?   What sort of wine do you have?

With or without?

Asking for something with something else we use the instrumental case (don’t panic — it’s a simple noun ending change that is predictable and common). Use the preposition “s” like the s in silence.

Vezmu si jeden čaj s citronem   I will take a tea with lemon (citron – lemon)
Dám si jednou kávu s mlékem   I will have a coffee with milk (mléko – milk)

Instrumental endings
The prefix -em is for masculine nouns (usually these end in consonant) and neuter nouns (usually ending in o).

For feminine nouns, use the prefix -ou (pronounced like the word ‘owe’).

Já bych si dal palačinky se slehačkou   I would like pancakes with whipped cream (from the feminine noun slehačka – whipped cream).

Without — the Genitive case
The genitive case is simple in many ways as the instrumental. Use it after the word bez – without.

Dám si dvě kávy bez cukru prosím   I will have two coffees without sugar (from the word cukr – sugar).

So much grammar in such simple phrases

One thing you can see from these examples is how grammar is woven into the sentences in a seamless way. This is why studying grammar in isolation of sentences is not the optimal way to learn Czech.

Instead, focus 80% of your energy on learning phrases and sentences. Having learned just enough grammar to understand the different cases and how they work, set out to learn language you can use in everyday situations and use it.

I hope, however, this primer into the Czech language can at least get you to use it on your travels. In the next post I will script out a whole bunch of useful travel phrases so stay tuned.

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 plague that is social media

It might take a moment of clarity or an absolute meltdown, but the realization is the same — we are being bombarded with so much distraction and insignificant ranting that social media becomes a troublesome burden rather than some harmless pass time.

Social media is designed to be addictive. Like almost any domain you want to look at, there is no escaping the corporate imperative of having your brain diverted from it’s course and firmly entranced by some new piece of novelty. Cat videos are usually cited here, but the plethora of friends meals, kid photos and their precious opinion about the election infiltrate your retinas and ultimately take up space in your frontal lobes.

So social media is nothing but candy — junk food that ought only be consumed occasionally but often becomes an addiction.

It turns out addiction isn’t an extreme choice of words in this case either. Author and computer scientist Cal Newport says social media is like having a slot machine in your pocket. It’s inherently addictive to seek out novel stimuli and to doubly get the social proof that comes from getting positive feedback in the form of likes and comments on your own posts.

In this way, social media provides a steady stream of dopamine ‘hits’ throughout the day — little pleasurable snacks that keep boredom at bay.

Seen this way, social media hits can be likened to avoidance strategies. With all the responsibilities and problems on one’s plate, what harm could a little mental detour have?

Therein lies the problem. One needs to see one’s addictive behaviour as a problem in order for it to register as something they need to change. One or two short viewings or interactions isn’t the problem — it’s the compulsion to repeatedly disengage from reality and dive into the online world that is the real cost.

To that end, may I suggest going without all forms of social media for 7 days. Go ahead, try it. You will learn a great deal about your habit, your compulsion to use it and you might find, as I have, that there is a tremendously peaceful mental space that opens up.

That mental space is precious to me now and I have to fight hard for it. So many things are banging on the window of my consciousness wanting in. If I’m not proactively setting boundaries for those distractions, my day will be swayed this way and that with little of my conscious input.

Cal Newport, in his Tedx talk Quit Social Media makes the point that social media companies are in the entertainment business and not a savoury one at that. He says that they hire “attention engineers” who borrow principles from casino gambling to make them as addictive as possible.

Yes, your attention is valued that much by media and social media so why aren’t we waking up and valuing our attention enough to limit our consumption of these apps?

The bigger picture

In Deep Work, Cal Newport outlines what is truly valuable in today’s economy (indeed in any economy ever): “The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Cal calls this “Deep Work” as contrasted by the most common type mode of approaching life — scattered, distracted and fragmented attention. Cal argues, successfully in my opinion, that Deep Work is a rare commodity and that anything truly valuable that is being created today is coming from a deep work approach.

On the other hand, what the market does not value is tasks that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value. He says social media is the epitome of low value work (after all, a 16 year old with smartphone can do it!)

This gels nicely with the idea of craftsmanship, a seemingly antiquated idea that dedication by a craftsperson with exceptional skill and expertise leads to inherently valuable and meaningful products. However, that’s a rant for another day.

For the time being, I encourage you to examine the impact social media is having on your life and take the 7 day challenge. I’m betting you’ll learn a lot about the impact of social media and some things about yourself in the process.

I can’t tell you how much freer my life seems without constant detours off into some meaningless piece of fluff content or rage filled hate post.

Beyond the buzzword — Practical mindfulness with ACT

Mindfulness seems to be the self help buzzword of the moment, yet it is still misunderstood by many people to be “just another form of meditation”. However, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a toolbox of mindfulness techniques that not only make sense to the modern mind but are also immensely practical.

The Happiness Trap

Most science-based approaches to psychotherapy typically involve changing thought patterns and beliefs in an attempt to uproot negative thoughts and build a positive outlook. All well and good.

This is certainly true of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) — arguably the most dominant system of psychotherapy in the world.

It seems obvious — thinking creates our problems so what we need is better thinking right? More positive, better quality, less negative.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ‘ACT’ (pronounced as the word ‘act’), being based on mindfulness, says enough of that. Thoughts don’t necessarily cause problems — thoughts are just internal streams of images and words. Fusing with thoughts causes problems. That is, latching onto thoughts as they go by and identifying with them.

Our capacity for mental self-flagellation can be astounding and the temptation is to entangle and get caught up in a wave of unhelpful critical thoughts. Trying to challenge them doesn’t work (it just gives the unhelpful thoughts more power) while trying to change the station to “Radio Positive and Feel Good” just invites a stream of the opposite thoughts.

As Australian psychotherapist Russ Harris explains, ACT focuses on the acceptance that thoughts and feelings will arise and that they’re not necessarily “negative”. The radio station of the mind will broadcast all kinds of messages and that’s okay. To challenge them and dispute them, as is our common tendency, is to fuse with them.

Where mindfulness comes into ACT, and where it offers enormous value, is in the practice of what is termed defusion. If fusion is buying into thoughts and wrestling with them, defusion is the separation from those thoughts and just watching them from an observer position.

Hence, Russ Harris explains that fusing with thoughts is the problem in the first place. Thoughts are just transmissions of the mind — a natural phenomena we all have — including successful people who look cool and confident all the time.

The counter-intuitive

Being a skeptic and familiar with the self-help industry, I’ve become quite adept at discovering the flaws and chicanery of the various half baked ideas passed off as “wisdom”.

The principles of ACT are fundamentally opposed to the central assumptions of the happiness and positive thinking industry. For instance, the idea we’re bombarded with from a thousand angles is that some emotions are bad and to be avoided, while others are pleasant and to be embraced.

Happiness is therefore a warm fuzzy feeling, so we get locked in this cycle of chasing some desirable emotions and avoiding others. But this is a futile search that has no end.

Emotions are just emotions, there is no inherent reality to them. By accepting them and allowing them space to just ‘be’ we cease to struggle and magnify them beyond their natural parameters.

The positive thinking mantra also creates fusion with thinking. The latching onto positive mantras, affirmations, and the practice of blocking of critical thoughts from your inner voices is fusion. It’s identifying and wrestling with thinking that is the problem, so positive thinking often won’t work because the fusion creates the inner struggle.

Anyone who has tried doing affirmations knows first hand the problem with them — they awaken the opposite thoughts and feelings.

You say: “I’m happy, fun and filled with confidence”.
Your mind retorts: “No you’re not, you’re fat, boring and your breath stinks”.

At some level, positive thinking is the denial of reality and creates discontent from the avoidance of your current state of being.

Where positivity fails

As Russ Harris notes, the human mind evolved to think negative. It’s perfectly natural and serves a valuable purpose — to keep us safe and help us navigate uncertain territory effectively.

For years I was under the impression I was somehow ‘broken’ because I had negative thoughts. I had read numerous self help books and was fully under the illusion that I had to eradicate negative thoughts. Needless to say, that approach leads to a superficial connection with reality and is ultimately doomed. The negative thoughts are still there.

I’ve unintentionally destroyed relationships because of positive thinking. There was action that I should have taken that I didn’t because I thought I needed to stay positive. It’s delusional thinking like this that is more about denial of reality than genuine optimism.

Conclusion and Resources

I have to thank fellow Kiwi and renowned confidence coach Dan Munro for the introduction to ACT and the work of Russ Harris. Dan’s video and blog post about “The I’m Not Good Enough Story” based on Russ Harris’ work inspired me to look more into ACT and therefore this enthusiastic post.

I have to admit, the exercise that Dan runs through in the video really lifted a weight off my shoulders and I’ve felt lighter ever since.

Russ Harris has a wealth of information on ACT, mindfulness and how to live a values driven life rather than a goal oriented one on his websites:

Cold showers can change your life (not just make you cold!)

Why would anyone in their right mind even contemplate going through the discomfort of taking a cold shower?

A valid question indeed. which contains the seed of a profound answer: Choosing to be uncomfortable hardens your mind and resolve.

Think about it, almost everyone goes through life making decisions that are easy and comfortable. I mean, why would you even want to be uncomfortable right? Shouldn’t everything be exactly as you want it and even better?

This is the society we live in and we’re paying a price for it. We have more than any society has ever had before. More options, variety, more food, more freedom to travel and do as we please, yet somehow this isn’t enough.

The easy choice is the wrong choice if we want to be happy and fulfilled. Does that mean we should make life intentionally difficult. Yes and no.

It is here we need to make a distinction between masochism and extending our comfort zones. Taking a cold shower isn’t masochism, it is merely an inconvenience we can choose to experience. If we do, we can gain more of an appreciation for having hot water available, which is something most people in the world do not have access to.

We can also develop thicker skin. If the power went off for three weeks we know we could handle bathing in cold water.

Prescription for contentment

But there’s something profound that happens when you start making choices to endure doses of voluntary discomfort: Your mental outlook changes. You shift from needing to have things as perfect as possible in order to enjoy life. You stop being so darn precious about feeling uncomfortable… These cease to be excuses for inaction, whining and not enjoying life as it is.

I know it’s a tough sell, and I’ve gotten a multitude of strange looks for mentioning this idea, but really, it is a small thing you can do to set in motion positive changes. Both in mood (you feel funky for hours afterwards) and in long term emotional states because you develop a level of resilience.

If you’re the sort of person who has to have everything exactly as they want it, taking cold showers will seem utterly foreign to you. No doubt this expectation that your experience must fit a narrow set of standards in order for you to feel fulfilled/happy produces a great deal of discontent. Doing something against the grain is probably the best thing you could do.

Don’t believe me?

Try it. Take a cold shower for 7 days. That is cold from start to finish. Revel in it, look forward to it, abandon hesitation and you’ll notice your days go much smoother.

If you’re really keen to improve your mental outlook, stop having your morning coffee. Maybe that one is for another time 🙂

Here’s a few cool resources for more info: