Tag Archives: 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.

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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!

No limits language learning FLR style

Every now and then someone shows up online or in person who just blows your model of reality out of the water. 

I recently stumbled on Moses McCormick’s YouTube videos (username laoshu505000). Moses is a fascinating guy. Based in Columbus Ohio, he makes it his business to learn every language he possibly can. Through his efforts, he has gained proficiency in more than a dozen languages and distilled his approach down into an effective product he calls the FLR Method.

What Moses brings to the Polyglot community is a wonderful humility but also a sense that nothing is impossible. He basically studies his languages in his bedroom and an adjacent room which he calls “bootcamp stations A and B”.

However, he isn’t confined to his bootcamp quarters merely listening to audio, combing through language courses many of us would be familiar with (Teach Yourself, Assimil, Colloquial…) Yes he does all these things but it is all in service of his primary goal with a language, which is to “level up” — code for getting out into the real world and communicating with native speakers.

The drive to refine

There is something very cool about Moses’ approach which dawned on me after watching this video on how he goes about learning multiple languages at one time.

Firstly, his goal to reach an intermediate level in 4 languages every year changes the game completely. If you’re learning one language only, then there is a temptation to drift in the language and not take it as seriously as you could.

Designating multiple languages in a short time frame entails some serious planning, but beyond that, it requires a high level of organisation and daily commitment.

Moses uses charts to organise his time and resources leading to a very effective approach. Having fairly aggressive timelines to practice his languages, Moses has had to create a lean and effective schedule of learning. He has optimised all his systems and is constantly refining.

Again, without the audacious goal of learning 4 languages a year, the need to refine and constantly improve his approach wouldn’t be as necessary.

A second aspect of Moses’ approach worth noting is his drive to go out and test himself on native speakers. Anyone who has learned even a few phrases of a new language and used them successfully with native speakers will know there is an exhilaration that comes from doing it.

You will make mistakes but as the Irish Polyglot Benny Lewis is fond of saying, people want the interaction to go well and they will mostly help you out. This is true even when your grammar is not so flash.

I have had numerous dialogues in Czech where I left thinking “doh! I should have used the genitive case there not the dative”. That learning would only take place when I went out and tried it out.

So now I don’t beat myself up for making mistakes, in fact, it is necessary to make as many mistakes as possible as early as possible.

An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field. — Niels Bohr.

Because communication is Moses’ primary goal, his approach is to listen, read and speak as much as possible, especially early on. He studies grammar only after having a solid grounding in the dialogues from books and audio programs.

I speak from experience when I say that the grammar first approach isn’t effective, at least not for me. My approach to study languages like science projects actually stunted my progress in Czech — a language with an enormous amount of detailed grammar.

Impossible you say?

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I find Moses to be truly inspirational. He genuinely cares about the languages he learns — he says none of them are useless (as some YouTube commenters have said).

He speaks with a nonchalance about learning multiple languages and the 1-20 year plan he has to study virtually every language you can name. But never do I hear him complaining about how hard a language is, or making excuses. In Moses’ world, excuses never even enter the door.

FLR Method

His 10 years or so experience is testament to the fact he’s a smooth operator in the language learning field. Through his tenacity and experience with multiple languages, Moses has created an approach to learning languages he calls the Foreign Language Road Running (FLR) Method.

His YouTube channel has numerous outlines of FLR but he has condensed all of these techniques into language learning packages that make it easy for the learner to progress week-by-week.

If you think language learning is difficult then FLR might just be what you’re looking for. Moses’ style is very down to earth and doesn’t involve anything complicated at all.

In fact, Moses explains on several YouTube videos how to effectively study a regular textbook like a Teach Yourself or Assimil. His ideas about taking one chapter and repeating the dialogues for an entire week (reading and listening) have been immensely valuable to me. A 19 chapter textbook can seem daunting but if you devoted one week for each and devoured the dialogues, you would have a vast understanding of the language.

Once you’ve got a solid grounding in listening and reading, then, as Moses explains, is when you should begin looking at grammar. It will make much more sense when you’ve got the comprehension from 18-19 weeks of dialogue study.

Applying FLR to French

Since I began learning French in July this year I have learned a tremendous amount. However, I used my old “grammar first” approach so when it comes time to speaking the language I have struggled.

To remedy this, I’m putting grammar on hold and am only using textbooks to study the dialogues. In less than a week of doing this I already feel more confident in the language.

Resources aren’t an issue for me (I have tonnes) but the approach I’m taking is now making those resources come to life. Thanks to Moses, I feel excited about learning again!

Useful links and more french resources

On the joys of learning French and other language exploits

Several years ago, before my first trip to Prague, I picked up a Berlitz Czech phrasebook and began what seemed like an innocent attempt at learning a few words and phrases.

However, like a lot of things I dip my toes into, learning Czech became somewhat of an obsession. Thus begun a fascination with learning languages and the constant bewilderment that acquiring a second language is so undervalued in New Zealand.

It is true to a large extent that to know the people and the country you really need to know the language. I have found the intricacies and idiosyncrasies in languages reveals a lot about how native speakers think and evaluate life, along with the history of the people.

My impediment was this strange notion that “I’ll learn another language when I’ve learned English properly first”. Yeah it’s silly, especially considering the fact I have more of an appreciation for English because I have studied another language.

French impressions — at 3 weeks

If you climbed a mountain then the surrounding hills will seem like a doddle. Czech was the mountain for me. It’s so completely different in structure, pronunciation and scope than English. Czech is highly inflected language — nouns are declined more often than not. Verbs are all conjugated to the point where personal pronouns are largely unnecessary and adjectives, pronouns vary according to which of the 7 cases you are using. It can appear to be a mammoth task to learn Czech, especially straight out of the gate as your second language.

So to my delight, French has been a walk in the park. I can see there is a lot of complexity in the language going forward but right off the bat, French has similar sentence structures to English and of course English is basically a mix of French and German that has evolved over the past 1000 years.

There are plenty of words in French that have similar meanings in English (cognates). I am finding that learning these cognates can be a great way to acquire French quickly.

The really fun part about French, in my humble opinion, is the pronunciation. As a dabbler in languages over the years, I love pronouncing Italian words and sounding Italian when I speak. The entire word is spoken definitively whereas in French the words flow off the tongue (and the back of the throat in the case of the ‘r’ sounds) much more delicately. For the most part, the ends of French words are silent and soft. It really is a joy to speak.

The magic of auxiliary verbs

I share the observation by Benny Lewis (Fluent in 3 Months fame) and Tim Ferriss that a great way to get a grasp on a lot of a language early on is to master auxiliary verbs combined with the infinitive of the verb you wish to convey. That way, the only conjugation you’ll need is for the initial verb, which is easy to remember and master early on.

Auxiliary verbs convey a sentences function, which could be tense, modal aspect… In our cases, the modal verbs are: I must, I can, I will, I may.

English French Czech
I must go to the cinema Je dois aller au cinema Musím jít do kina
I can eat the meat Je peux manger la viande Můžu jíst toto maso
You must listen better! Tu dois mieux écouter! Musíte naslouchat líp!
Can we have some water? Nous pouvons avoir de l’eau? Můžeme dostat nějaké vody?

The initial modal verb in the sentences above allows us to use the infinitive verb to convey the meaning we want. In the first example, I merely have to conjugate the I must verb. I could say I must go, I must eat, I can drink, can I drink… Numerous meanings and sentences by memorising the conjugation of a handful of verbs and then tagging on the infinitive (eat, drink, watch, go…)

In French the verbs to go (être) and to have (avoir) have numerous functions as auxiliary verbs by forming the immediate past (passé compose). Instead of the infinitive verb, and easy to grasp past participle is used instead (as is the case with English also):

I ate breakfast -> J’ai mangé le petit déjeuner
Here, the J’ai is the present tense of the to have verb. Mangé is the past participle of to eat, so the sentence literally says: I Have eaten Breakfast.

I went to the restaurant -> Je suis allé au restaurant
In this example the past participle of to go (allé) is used to convey the meaning I went.

The simple future tense is also easily formulated from the verb to go:

We are going to the market -> Nous allons au marché
As we say it in English, the nous allons refers to we go

I’m not going to let that happen! -> Je ne vais pas permettre ça !

That’s my experience with French after only three weeks. Here are some cool resources that I am using :

  • Memrise — A spaced repetition app that keeps you locked into the daily revision and learning targets with a points system. Social networking also a key feature.
  • FluentU — a range of video, audio and flashcard resources designed to teach you in a more dynamic way than just books and CDs.
  • Coffee Break French podcast — superb resource with lots of free lessons and a premium feature. Progresses season by season from beginner to advanced French.
  • Benny’s insights into French — Straight from the Irish Polyglot’s mouth!

Concluding thoughts

Clearly, French is a popular language with a lot more complexity and richness than presented here by a mere newbie, but I have to say it is proving to be a rewarding experience.

In many ways I’m glad I studied such a relatively difficult and completely foreign language first. Czech is still my first love and I enjoy it immensely. As Benny Lewis is fond of saying, you’re first language will be your hardest because you’re learning how to study a language as well as the language itself.