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Sounds like a dance move or an exotic cocktail but in fact, the Swahili Swerve is what I call my recent “abrupt change of direction” in my language learning journey. I’d been plodding along quite nicely this year. I brushed up my Spanish to use at a wedding in March, my Polish teacher was here again over the summer so I ploughed on with “the terribly difficult Polish language” (his words, not mine) in preparation for my trip to Warsaw in November. But then all of a sudden, out of the blue, I’m sitting in a jeep at Kilimanjaro airport at the start of our Tanzanian holiday and our driver Tito (who became my Swahili teacher for the next few days) was greeting us in Swahili, “Karibu”. Oooooh something shiny and new! Within the first 15 minutes of our drive, I’d learnt a few phrases and from there I was off!
On arrival at our first lodge, news quickly spread amongst the staff that there was a Mzungu (white foreigner) learning Swahili and by dinnertime I was happily communicating with them and having a great time. Every time I went to the bar, to the buffet to reception or generally wandered around the complex, staff started talking to me and handing me their own handwritten list of useful words for me to learn. They were so sweet, polite, patient and encouraging that over the next week I continued to learn and practice with Tito and talked to anyone along the way who would listen to me.
So, how is this possible? How can you start speaking a brand-new language and making basic conversation with locals in such a short time? It’s true that my experience of learning and teaching languages gives me a head start, but there’s really no magic here. And that’s why in this post I would like to share my own tips on how to get going with a new language in 15 minutes flat!
- Rule 1: No fear! Probably the most important rule when it comes to learning and, most importantly, speaking a new language. If you are afraid to speak, you will not progress. End of story. Forget the shame, swallow your perfectionist adult pride and just give it a go, right from the start. This strategy always works for me (see The Polish Project). In addition, the locals were sooo patient and supportive that I never once felt stupid, even when I made mistakes. That was a huge help. Once you get over your fear, your progress will be unstoppable. If you are unlucky and the native you speak to is unsupportive and doesn’t want to help you, find one who does. There are always plenty out there, I promise. If you don’t have the luxury of having a patient native to practice with, YouTube should be your next option. There are thousands of videos with natives giving you the “First 20 words/phrases” in whatever language you want to learn. Listen and repeat out loud as many times as possible. Talk to your friends, family, the cat, whoever will listen. It doesn’t matter if they understand you or not, the point here is to find and listen to your own “language voice” as early as possible.
- Rule 2: When you’re starting out, don’t learn grammar right away. Focus on useful phrases and learn by heart, word for word. Once you get deeper into the language, you can see the patterns and figure out some basic grammar. But at the beginning, keep it simple and most of all, practical. Learning “Everything is great thank you” or “I’m fine thanks, how are you?” can be used immediately and much more often than “I go, you go, he goes…..” yawn, yawn
- Rule 3: Be a parrot Listen and repeat, listen and repeat. Every time Tito taught me a new word, he repeated it at least 4 or 5 times and I copied. Not only does this give you chance to get used to the sound of the word and help you learn it (and drive the other person in the jeep i.e. my husband, mad) it helps with accent. It’s no good learning a new language if no one understands you because your accent is all messed up. I’ll talk about the importance of a good accent in a future post but personally, I think it is essential and the sooner you start working on it, the better.
- Rule 4: Choose an easy language Listen out for words you might already know and create hooks. While Swahili sounds like an difficult, exotic language, it’s actually classed a level 1.5 for English natives i.e. relatively easy. If you want to see progress quickly and you have a choice, aim for an “easy” language. For example, if you are a native English speaker then French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are considered easier than say Bulgarian, Russian or Turkish. Swahili is phonetically easy for English speakers and I was amazed at how many words I already knew. If you’ve ever watched The Lion King, you probably have a lot of words already; Simba, Pumba, Jambo, Hakuna Matata! Finally, a vocabulary “hook” or mnemonic is really helpful when you are learning brand new vocabulary. Try to find a connection between the new word and your own language e.g. the Swahili word for “Yes” is “ndio” which sounds a bit like “indeed” which is close to “yes”. There’s your hook.
- Rule 5 Have fun with it Learning should always be an enjoyable experience and add something positive to your life rather than cause stress. Will I use my Swahili in the future? Honestly, I don’t know. It is the most spoken African language and around 90 million people speak it so yes, perhaps. Personally, the most important part of my Swahili swerve to me was making a connection with the local people and seeing how much they appreciated my efforts. Their big smiles and positive reactions constantly reminded me of my favourite “language learning” quote:
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.” (Nelson Mandela)
Maybe you have a trip planned and want to give a new language a try? Follow my tips above and let me know how you get on. As always you can add comments below or add your name to the box on the right to follow my blog.
A question I often hear from my clients. Considering that most of my clients are German and the Germans love having certificates, not a big surprise. But also, not an easy question to answer.
Of course, sometimes there is a necessity for a certificate. Universities often require a TOEFL certificate from foreign students. But for the average language learner like me who doesn’t need a certificate for higher education, is it worth the time and effort?
On a cold, rainy Sunday back in December I got up early to take a train to Stuttgart to spend my day taking the Japanese JLPT N5 exam. JLPT certificates are the gold standard when it comes to learning Japanese. They test vocabulary, grammar, reading and listening skills and can be taken on just two specific dates (in July and December) every year. Unfortunately for me, they didn’t test my sushi-eating or karaoke-singing skills but despite that, I still managed to pass and am now the proud owner of an N5 certificate. The question here is, was it worth it? The travel costs, exam costs, stress, the sleepless nights (the night before the exam I dreamt that once I arrived in Stuttgart, I was actually a contestant on Takeshi’s Castle, wearing a strange outfit, a pink helmet and being introduced to General Lee. Ganbarimasu!!) However, I can honestly say, for me personally (Takeshi’s Castle nightmares aside) it was definitely worth it. And here’s why:
- Let’s face it, when it comes to reaching tough targets, we all need a bit of a push. A fixed deadline and a clear objective combined with a dose of personal pride (nobody wants to fail) can be very motivating.
- Exams often force you out of your comfort zone to tackle tricky material and skills that you might normally avoid, which in my case are my Japanese listening skills. However, listening comprehension was 30% of this exam so I was forced to practice it and stop avoiding it.
- Revising for exams can help you reassess your learning methods in general and may open up new methods or bring you back to ones you had forgotten about. When I first started Japanese, I often used Quizlet to learn my vocabulary and phrases. After a while, I got bored of it but then rediscovered it during my exam preparation. Revising also helps you see how much you have actually learnt so far. Learning a language often feels like a huge, unmanageable, never-ending task but looking back over what you have done and focussing on what you already know rather than what you don’t yet know, is a nice feeling.
- Everybody loves a benchmark. When it comes to any kind of skill, we all like to know where we are in the big picture. Although most people have no idea what JLPT N5 means, I can see where I am and where my next target should be.
- Finally, I have to say I was AMAZED at the number of fellow Japanese learners (strugglers) willing to sacrifice their Sunday and battle their way (without outfits or helmets or General Lee) through this exam. I was expecting to be in a dingy room with a handful of other language nerds like me, plus the usual gamers and cosplay girls. Not so! There were literally hundreds of people there. It’s nice to know, I am not alone.
Of course, there can be a downside. So, before you rush out and register for that exam, consider the following points:
- Cost. The costs can soon add up: registration, travel costs, materials, extra lessons etc.
- How’s your exam attitude? Bit nervous about such things? Totally normal, most people are. So nervous you want to vomit and run out of the exam room faster than your Takeshi’s Castle contestant legs can carry you? Give it a miss. There’s no point putting yourself through that much stress.
- Are there plenty of preparation materials? Mock papers and workbooks help you prepare not just for the content, but also the layout and structure of the exam. People often fail exams simply because the paper didn’t look the way they expected it would or the question format was unclear. Make sure you know exactly what a typical paper looks like, what you will have to do and how much time you will have to do it.
- But most importantly, the main question should always be, is the exam relevant? Will you be learning things you really need? Of course, there is always some random vocabulary on the essential learning list. For example, I had to learn the the verb sasu, which translates as to put up one’s umbrella or to wear a sword in one’s belt. What??? Look carefully at the vocabulary you will be required to learn. TOEFL is often the first English certificate people think of but there might be a more useful exam for you e.g. something with more of a business focus like TOEIC or BEC. Ask your teachers, do your research and think carefully before you commit.
Personally, having a clear target, a bit of pressure and now feeling proud to have passed my exam, I am glad I did N5 and I’m planning to take N4 in December. Ganbarimasu!
Have you ever taken a language exam or are you planning to do so in the near future? As always, feel free to add your comments below.
So, here we are at the beginning of a new year, looking ahead at what we want to achieve and once again, I’m making a new list of goals. You may remember I did the same last year. I had 9 goals on my list and here’s how I got on:
- 2 goals ticked off 100% (Japanese and slow cooking)
- 3 goals adapted and then ticked off 100% (I started learning Polish instead of Italian, I learned to loom instead of knit and loomed a jumper for Polo, my dog)
- 1 goal got 30% ticked off (still a few more kilos to go)
- 3 goals were complete failures (guitar, book proposal and (gasp) my cake decorating skills! Still no idea how the hell that didn’t happen.)
Despite those 3 flops, I’m pretty happy with what I achieved. So, I decided to make a list again, consider what went right and what went wrong last year and make a few adjustments to my strategy.
My list for 2019 turned out to be very “language learning” dominant, so I thought I would share a separate “language goal list” with you and my tips for sticking with it. When people make their bucket lists, learning a language often comes high up along with travel, learning a musical instrument and getting healthy/losing weight. Surprisingly, when I recently took a look at dayzero (a website where people share their bucket lists) “Kissing in the rain” was also featured very highly! Just head to Sheffield on a Friday night and have a few drinks. Job done.
But moving away from the random targets, why is it that things like learning a language, playing an instrument and losing weight are often on these lists. Unfortunately, it’s because they are often the things that elude us. They take time, dedication, some discipline and are long-term projects. While my 24-hour Polish Project had its advantages, I know a lot of what I learned has already slipped away as I have been totally focussed on my Japanese for the last few months. In many ways, languages are the same as health and music. They are never really short-term projects, but rather a way of life. While that all sounds a bit daunting (especially the health part as cinnamon rolls are currently my “way of life”), let me share my language targets for this year plus some tips on how I intend to reach them:
1. Do the next JLPT (Japanese Proficiency) certificate in December
How? So, this is a good example of smart goal. The key here is the deadline. I’ll talk about the pros and cons of language exams in another post soon but registering for and taking part in an official exam really kept me on track last year. Finally getting my certificate also gave me a real motivation boost.
2. Refresh my conversational Spanish by mid-March
How? Again, I have a deadline (wedding in Madrid in March) but I have also tried to make the language focus quite specific. I initially wrote “Refresh my Spanish” but then realised that is way too vague. What does it even mean? How much? Refresh what exactly? Better to prioritise exactly what I want to use it for. In my case, to chat to any Spanish people on our table (although the bride is actually English. Hopefully we are not on a Brexit table!)
3. Refresh my Polish for a trip to Warsaw in June
How? Once again there is a date. It isn’t fixed yet but I am definitely going to Warsaw with a friend sometime around June. As I am still very much a beginner, my focus here will be on travel survival phrases and some basic small talk. Again, I have already planned what I need to focus on.
4. Start learning Turkish
How? Turkish is going to be another 24-hour experiment (like the Polish Project) but this time only using the Duolingo app. No idea yet where this journey will take me but I’m excited to start something totally new (the only word I know is Döner) and get more experience of using apps to learn languages which I can also pass onto my clients.
5. Read at least 4 books in German
How? One of my non-language learning targets for this year is to read more fiction. I realised that I’ve spent the last few years mainly reading coaching books and I really miss reading fiction. Luckily, my German is good enough to do this quite easily and I feel that it’s a good way to keep my language level up in a passive way. The key here is fun. It‘s something I like doing that takes little effort.
So what are your goals? Do you have any language learning plans for 2019? Feel free to add your targets in the comments below. Sometimes just writing them down can give you the motivation to get moving. And as always, if you would like my posts sent straight to your inbox, feel free to follow me by using the box on the right.
I have been busy. Not writing posts (yes, it’s been a while) but I’ve been working hard, catching up with family, travelling, doing my tax returns (wow I’m becoming really German), getting ready for Christmas ….the list is endless.
So, what about my language learning? When I am supposed to find time to do that? Tricky. According to a lot of books and websites out there, I have nothing to worry about. They are all happy to tell (sell) you a system. “Learn a language in 24 hours!”, “Learn while you sleep!” Funny you never see many books out there titled “Learn a language in 3 years”. That’s approximately how long I’ve been learning Japanese and I still feel like a beginner. Not exactly a bestseller title, I guess. Let’s face it, nobody wants to hear it’s going to take them 3 years to learn a language. It’s gotta be 3 months or 3 days or 3 hours for goodness sake.
So, I started to wonder, is there anything to this idea? How much can I really learn in a short time? Let’s put it to the test. Enter the 24-hour Polish project! Rather than sign up for pricey classes or an online system or buy a book, I came up with my own plan. And here is how it worked:
- First of all, why Polish? There’s a guideline created by the US diplomatic service which rates how difficult foreign languages are for a native English speaker to learn. This ranges from category 1 (easiest) to category 3 (most difficult). I already speak a category 1 (Spanish) and a 1.5 (German) and some 3 (Japanese) so I decided it was time to turn my hand to a 2, which Polish is. More challenging than say French (a level 1) but not as mind-boggling as Chinese (a level 3). In addition, I wanted something totally different from all the languages I have ever learnt before. And, importantly, a language where I was a COMPLETE beginner. What I mean by that is I really couldn‘t say anything at all. No hello, no goodbye. No one white wine, please. Nothing. When I wracked my brain for anything I possibly knew in Polish, the only word I came up with was vodka. That was it. And I wasn‘t even pronouncing that right (as I now know).
- Duration. I settled on 24 hours (to test the “learn it in a day” theory) but split the 24 hours of learning over approximately 6 weeks to make it manageable. In total, I spent 11 hours with my “teacher” and 13 hours learning on my own.
- Tools When it comes to starting a new language there are so many methods and systems to choose from it can be pretty overwhelming. I’ve tried a lot of them in the past but this time I decided to go back to basics. No fancy memory tools, no bank breaking Rosetta Stone systems, no boring evening classes listening to Bernhard bang on about his trip to Warsaw and no, not even an app (gasp)! That’s right, I completely ditched the digital and went old school. Just, one second-hand dictionary, a small phrasebook, blank cards to write my vocabulary on and an empty exercise book. AND of course, a (relatively) willing Polish native who also speaks English to give me “lessons”.
- How? So, Irek (my native speaker) was rather apprehensive. I explained to him over a couple of vodkas how I planned for this to go. That he would need to do nothing, no preparation, just answer my questions and help me with pronunciation. Even after the third vodka, he was still somewhat sceptical. Happy to help but confused about how it would work in practice (him not being a teacher) and how I would learn such a terrible language like Polish (his words not mine!) but in the end, he agreed. And for the next six weeks, our lessons went something like this:
Me. How do I say “I’d like a table for two people, please”
Irek: Stolik dla dwóch osób, proszę
Irek: I’m sorry. Polish is such a terribly difficult language.
And that’s basically how we continued for 6 weeks. I asked questions, he gave me examples and I wrote them down in a way I could read them and understand them (rather than using the Polish spellings). In each lesson, we would review what we had done in the lesson before. We used the phrasebook to select useful phrases that I wanted to learn and worked our way through general vocabulary topics like numbers, days, weather, colours, food, drinks, household objects etc. After a few lessons like that, we went on to the scary world of conjugating Polish verbs (11 different conjugation groups plus irregular verbs!) and some basic adjectives. Not too much kill-joy grammar but a bit to help me start forming my own sentences. During the 13 hours on my own, I learnt the phrases/words from my cards or wrote up my lesson notes to repeat them/tidy them up and see if I still had questions.
- Result After my 24 hours I went from a vocabulary total of 1 word (vodka) to 200 words (and only a few of those involve alcohol). I have a basic grasp of some grammar and in my opinion most importantly, I know 60 useful phrases. 60! That’s quite a lot. It means I learnt around 18 new words each session and approximately 5 new phrases. And when I say learn, I don’t mean “wrote down to learn at a later date”, I mean words and phrases I now really know and can reproduce. Of course, you’ll get the language bulimics reading this who “learn 500 words in one day” and pass their test tomorrow. But that wasn’t my aim. Learning a language is not a contest to see who can learn the most, the quickest and then spew it out the next day in a test. It’s about learning something that will stay in your long-term memory so it will be of some use to me in the future. And I feel confident that I’ve done that and the experiment was a success.
So, what have I learnt from this experiment?
1. It is REALLY good to speak from day 1
This is one of the biggest challenges for everyone learning a language and one of the best things about learning with a real native speaker rather than simply using a book or an app. There is nowhere to hide. No matter how bad you sound, no matter how much of a muppet you feel, you are forced to speak out loud, right from the start. This is a huge help when it comes to pronunciation and getting used to your “new language” voice. And it’s fun. You deal with the shame right at the start, get over it and start to make progress.
2. Phrasebooks are a great learning resource
One of the biggest mistakes people make when learning a new language is, they start by focussing on grammar and vocabulary. While both are important, it can take a while before you can really put a useful sentence together. I play tennis (which I don’t), she plays tennis, we are playing tennis etc is all very nice but of no real use to me. That’s why when it comes to being a beginner, the phrasebook is your friend. After just one lesson I could already say, Hello, How are you? I’m fine, My name is Rebecca, What’s your name, 2 large beers please, Cheers! More importantly, after just one lesson, I had an immediate feeling of “success” and felt completely motivated to continue. I can’t emphasise enough how important that is when learning any new skill.
3. Creating your own course has benefits
Of course, there are benefits of taking lessons with a qualified teacher (I have to say that being a teacher!) but there are also benefits of not. First of all, it’s cheaper or maybe even free (a lot of native speakers are happy to help you in exchange for some practice in your native language). And, I basically built my own course. I focused on the words and phrases I wanted to learn e.g. “Another white wine please” rather than “When does the next ferry leave?” (I hate boats!)! Rather than getting bogged down by a language programme or a teacher’s personal agenda, I made sure that what I was learning was relevant to me. A very important factor to keep motivation levels up. And of course, doing a one-to-one course rather than a group course meant I could steer things the way I wanted (sorry Bernhard!) and ask as many questions as I liked without feeling stupid or under pressure if I didn’t immediately get something.
4. Learning with a person rather than an app is much more fun
Moving away from an app and YouTube and having face-to-face lessons with a native also increased the fun factor. Not only did I learn about the language, but also we talked a lot about Poland, the culture, food etc. That was great.
Learning from apps can be very mechanical. Having a laugh together (not sure he has yet recovered from my Babka mistake) is much more fun than getting something right and a cartoon character waving at you with a thumbs up.
However, I also found out that…………
5. Not all digital is bad
After just trashing digital learning, I now have to admit that I did miss my YouTube videos just a little bit. When I’m learning a language, I find podcasts and videos really helpful for learning pronunciation. Once I was at home, learning my cards on my own, there were a few times when normally I would have looked words up online to check the pronunciation. I missed not having that option. What’s more, while writing my own cards was good for learning, it wasn’t so great when the stack of cards got really big and I dropped them all over the floor of the number 12 tram during rush hour! Having all my vocabulary stored in one place on my phone suddenly became very appealing.
6. It’s important to write out/spell things properly from the start
Pretty obvious when you think about it but when I started off, I was impatient to get going and decided to only write down the words as I heard them (rather than using the proper Polish spellings which take some getting used to). While this got me off to a good start from a speaking point of view, it became a problem later on. Every time I wanted to look up a new word in the dictionary, I suddenly had no idea how to pronounce the word written in front of me or even find the word I was looking for. So, around halfway through the project, I rewrote all my cards with the proper spellings. It took a lot of time but I realised it would be worth it in the long run. Nevertheless, I did still keep my own personal pronunciation notes written under the words to help me out.
So, what’s the takeaway here?
All in all, the Polish Project was
- Successful: I’m pretty happy with what I am now able to do in Polish.
- Informative: I’ve learnt more about language learning methods.
- Inspiring: Although I’ve been focused on my Japanese for an exam recently, I’m totally inspired to keep up my Polish and really improve. And I am definitely planning a trip to Poland next year to practice.
- Fun: I can honestly say I enjoyed it. It was sometimes tough to fit it into my schedule but I genuinely enjoyed every step of the way.
So, what’s the plan for 2019? After the success of this project, I’m keen to do a comparison. Enter the 24-hour Turkish Project! 24 hours of Turkish. It’s also a level 2 language and I’m a complete beginner (the only word I know is Döner). BUT……. this time ONLY digital. The Duolingo app and nothing else. Already excited to compare the results!
Did you start any new languages this year? As always, feel free to comment below and share your experience.
Dziękuje za przeczytanie!
Germans LOVE idioms. I can’t say for sure if they actually use them more than us English speakers but it is sometimes my impression. I’m constantly being asked to come up with an English equivalent to some random bizarre phrase.
So, what exactly is an idiom? It’s basically an expression with a figurative meaning that is different from the literal meaning. While it’s nice to know some and they do make a language more colourful and fun, when you are speaking a foreign language they can go wrong very quickly and cause major confusion/embarrassment. So, before I share some of my favourite German ones (and their English equivalents), a few words of advice if you are planning to add idioms to your foreign language repertoire:
- Don’t just translate them word for word from your native language and hope for the best. While some can be translated directly and still have the same meaning, many don’t translate at all.
For example, in English, if you’re the gooseberry (Stachelbeere) you are the extra person on a romantic date i.e. you are spending the evening with a couple. I assume you are the gooseberry because your spikey skin makes you no fun to hang out with and you make the evening uncomfortable for the other two. But in German, you’re the third wheel. As in the extra wheel on a bicycle. Unnecessary and just downright silly. One of my Bulgarian clients once told me that in Bulgarian, you are the lamp. Meaning you are the desk lamp leaning between the couple and generally getting in the way.
- Learn them by heart so you get them exactly right. Even the slightest mistake in an idiom can mess it up completely. It’s like learning a joke and then getting the punch line wrong. Nobody’s laughing with you, just at you.
- Be careful when using them in business. People might take them literally. I once had a Russian client whose new Australian colleague kept telling her to “Shut up!”. Naturally, she was horrified and I was too until we figured out he was using it to show his surprise e.g. Mr Smith just got fired, “Shut up!” in the sense of “no way, really, get outta here!”. That is an extreme example but misunderstandings can easily happen if someone takes your idiom literally.
- Make sure your idiom is still in popular use. How many times have I heard the Germans describe heavy rain in English as “it’s raining cats and dogs”. Yes, it is an English idiom but, in my opinion, a bit out of date. Can’t remember the last time I heard a native use that phrase. Maybe you learnt it in school but that doesn’t mean you should believe everything your textbook (from 20 years ago) told you. Deutsch Heute told me that every Imbiss (snack) stand in Germany served Schaschlik (some sort of kebab as far as I’m aware). Really? My search for Schaschlik still continues.
Anyway, despite the pitfalls, it can be good fun to use idioms, so here are 5 of my favourite German idioms (with their literal English translation and their real equivalent)
1. Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof (Literally): I only understand train station
So, this has nothing to do with stations, rather the person is in a state of confusion and hasn’t understood anything you just told them. A good English equivalent would be “It’s all Greek to me.”
2. Ich glaube ich bin im falschen Film (Literally): I think I’m in the wrong film
The speaker can’t believe what is happening e.g. “I can’t believe my eyes/This can’t be happening”.
3. Affentheater (Literally): Ape theatre
Probably my current favourite phrase to describe the Brexit situation i.e. “What a charade”. Enough said.
4. Ganz grosses Kino (Literally): Really big cinema
This can actually be used when referring to films but can also be used to mean something was visually amazing or impressive. English version, “It was amazing/epic”.
And of course, they wouldn’t be German idioms if there wasn’t one involving sausage:
5. Die beleidigte Leberwurst (Literally): The insulted liver sausage
This is used to describe someone who is insulted and sulking for a petty reason. One of my clients recently used it to describe Bayern Munich after their defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt in the cup final. Sticking out their bottom lips and marching off into the changing rooms in a huff. Perfect example. The English equivalent would be “to be in a huff/to get bent out of shape”. No idea why it has to be leberwurst (liver sausage) or even sausage at all for that matter. But Germany wouldn’t be Germany without some wurst.
Obviously, there are hundreds more of these. These are just 5 of my favourites. Let me know (in the comments below) if you have any idioms you like to use and their translation.
So, it’s been a while since my last post. Not sure about you, but this hot weather has put me in lazy summer mode and I’m finding it hard to put much effort into anything at the moment. One thing I have been doing (while lazing around on the balcony) is learning/reviewing a bit of vocabulary.
When it comes to making progress in a language, there really is no getting away from learning vocabulary. But it can often feel intimidating. Like this “to do” that you can never tick off the list. Like a marathon you can never finish. Or a marathon where you get to the end and then find out you’re actually doing an ultra-marathon and there’s another gazillion kilometres to go! Where does it end??
As a result, people are always on the lookout for a quick fix. My clients often ask me “What’s the best way to learn vocabulary?” and my answer is always the same. Despite what a lot of books and people might tell you, there is no best way. If there was and it was proven, wouldn’t we all be doing it and speaking six million languages like C3PO?
Maybe it’s a strange comparison but think about dieting for a minute (bear with me here!). How many times do you hear that one specific diet is THE best way to lose weight. But if that were really true, wouldn’t all overweight people do it, lose weight and that would be the end of it? The point is, like dieting, learning vocabulary is a personal thing. While eating grapefruit all day brings great results for one person it might make you sick to your stomach. Just because it works for someone else, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Try different methods and tailor your own system which is both manageable and most importantly, sustainable.
So, I’m happy to share my own top 10 tips with you. Feel free to adopt, ignore, mix and match or add sugar to any of them. And remember, results may vary!
1. When you come across a new word, use your intuition and look at the context. I was recently in a situation where I introduced my dog Polo to a group of Germans. They asked me if he knew any tricks. His tricks are limited (although he does a great one where he poops in the middle of a zebra crossing and holds up a huge line of traffic!) but he does know the basics. Polo only speaks English so I told him to “Sit” and then said “Paw” to which he very politely lifted his furry paw in the hope of getting a treat. One of the Germans then asked me “What does paw mean? I don’t know that word”. Really?? You just watched him lift it! Intuition and context. Don’t expect a language to be fed to you on a spoon. Use your head and make an educated guess.
2. Use as many senses as possible. Learning is a multi-sensory process. Using multiple senses creates more cognitive connections and improves the retrieval of what you have learnt. For example, if you are using an app to learn vocabulary, use headphones and listen to the word as well as reading/writing it. If you are in a situation where you only hear the word, write the word down so you can see it or look it up in Google. Even better, click on Google Images and get a picture to match your new word.
3. Make sure it’s relevant. We talked about this in my last post about homework. It’s always hard to learn things if they are not relevant or useful. One of the problems of learning from a textbook or even an app is that the words you learn are dictated to you by the person who created it. And they often work through topics e.g. food, family, jobs. While some of that vocabulary is useful, it’s not really necessary at an early stage to learn the names of 30 different professions or exotic fruits that you might never need. Creating your own flashcards (for example on Quizlet) means you only learn what you really need/want and is relevant to you.
4. Never be ashamed to ask. You know how it is. You’re sitting in your class and someone uses a word and everyone seems to know it (or pretends they do) but you haven’t got a clue and you’re too ashamed to ask. Get over it!If you can’t figure out the word from context, ask a native. I’ve been learning German for years and I still do this from time to time. Most people are more than happy to tell you (lecture) you on its meaning and uses. Why be ashamed? Kids ask questions all the time because they want to learn new things. Asking (non-“paw”-related questions) and wanting to learn is not a sign of being stupid, it’s a sign of intelligence.
5. Mix and match. Always using the same method to learn can quickly get boring. Tired of Duolingo, try watching some YouTube lessons. Bored of your flashcards, try the post-it method. I use Duolingo for my Spanish but I use old school flashcards and textbooks for my Japanese. As I said before, it’s a bit like dieting. Eat the same slimline milkshake every day and you’ll lose weight but you’ll also quickly lose interest. Variety is a good way to keep things sustainable.
6. Look out for your new words. While you can’t beat active learning i.e. creating flashcards, writing sentences, using words in conversation or emails etc., don’t underestimate the importance of passive learning. With this I mean reading something or watching/listening practice. A lot of language learners start by sitting with a dictionary while watching a film or reading a book. I tried it too. And it didn’t last long. There is nothing more boring or frustrating than looking up every other word. It takes forever and kills all the fun. But that doesn’t mean passive activities are not useful. The key is to accept you won’t understand everything but if you keep your eyes and ears open long enough, your new-found vocabulary will start popping up all over the place. You’ll see/hear it in context which strengthens your understanding of a word. No major work involved, just a bit of attention.
7. Use it or lose it. This one is hard if you don’t live abroad or you don’t have many opportunities to use your target language. But to transfer a word to your active vocabulary range, you need to use it as soon as possible and numerous times. Studies have shown that simply speaking a word out loud to another person helps us learn a word more effectively. I like this method and often have “phrase of the week” that I inflict on my husband. A while ago I learnt the German phrase “Man munkelt / rumour has it”.
Husband: What’s for dinner tonight? Me: Man munkelt we’re having pizza.
Husband: What time will you be home tonight? Me: Man munkelt about seven.
Husband: Can we please give it a rest with the Man munkelt!!
Sounds silly but “Man munkelt” is now firmly fixed in my active vocabulary.
8. Use mnemonics. Use what? Read any book on memory skills and you’ll soon come across mnemonics. Basically they are learning techniques that assist learning, memory and retrieval skills. Which is kind of ironic because a lot of people don’t know the word mnemonic and have a hard time remembering it! The Germans call them “Eselsbrücken / donkey bridges”. A bit random but memorable at least. So, how do you create a “donkey bridge”? For example, people often remember words better when they are linked to an image. If you are creating your own flashcards i.e. on Quizlet, there are tons of images you can copy and paste from Google images.
Another mnemonic method is to try and break a word down into sections. For example, I remember the German word “erinnern” (to remember)by switching the first two letters (er-re) and thinking that the second part of the word sounds like “inner”, so to keep something “inside”. People have all kinds of strange mnemonics for words. For example, I remember the Japanese word Samui (cold weather) by thinking it sounds a bit like Samoa where it’s NOT cold at all. My sort of twisted logic but it works for me! Mnemonics are very personal, so you really need to make your own to suit your own logic.
9. Review. There’s no getting away from this one. You have to review your new words. There is no magic pill. Some ways of reviewing are proven to be more effective than others, like SRS (spaced repetition system), but whatever method you choose, there is no getting away from it. Try to find a way that is fun and fits into your schedule. But quit the moaning, accept it and do it.
10. Have some fun. It doesn’t all have to be painful. The more fun you have, the quicker you will learn. Watch series, films and YouTube videos. Listen to podcasts. Listen to music in your target language and try to translate the lyrics. Learn a song in your target language, go to a karaoke night and sing it! (my current goal in Japanese). Read a blog on a topic you love. Think of your favourite book and find a version in the target language. Ther are plenty of ways to keep learning fun.
So, that’s my list. Maybe you have some other tips you would like to share? As always, feel free to comment below. To follow my blog, just add your email address to the box on the right. Until next time, happy learning!
Say the word homework to most people and they normally screw up their face into the same kind of expression. The same expression they have if you say “tax return” or “train strike” or in my case, “sugar-free”. Yuck! It’s the same when you type the word into Google and click on images. Up come a range of pictures, mostly of kids, with mountains of books and their little heads in their hands in utter despair. The only person looking happy is an owl with a hat on. And while I love Hedwig, we all know that owls are the ultimate nerds of the forest.
So, the question is, when it comes to learning a language, or anything else for that matter, is homework useful? Can anything that makes me feel so “oh go away” really be good for me? Well anyone involved in education or who has kids in school will know the debate on this is huge. A lot of research has been done into homework and the negative effect it can have. A lot of children are overloaded with work leading to anxiety and to them getting less involved in extra-curricular activities. Not good at all.
However, I’m not being graded and I’m not trying to get into university. I don’t have parents breathing down my neck. I’m not learning multiple subjects. So, this post is more aimed at the adult learner like me. Someone who takes a regular language class and would like to see progress. As a teacher and a learner, I honestly think homework can be a good thing, and this is why:
Most of us need a push
Let’s be honest, very few of us have endless amounts of motivation. Whether it’s the gym or work or learning Japanese, motivation fluctuates. Over the years I have found that most of my clients respond well to being given homework. They often admit that given the choice of self-determined homework (choosing an activity to do themselves) and being given something specific by me, they are much more likely to complete it if it is “prescribed”. I know that feeling too. The slight shame when you have to tell your teacher that you haven’t done it. That can sometimes be enough to push people. It’s like having a buddy who you go to the gym with. You don’t want to let them down.
Research into the way we learn has shown that learning information in different environments helps us retain information. We often associate information with a situation or place. For example, maybe you run into someone from work in the supermarket. You don’t know them that well but you know their name. But now you’re in a totally different environment and that person is out of context and you forget their name or maybe even where you know them from. According to Benedict Carey, author of “How we Learn”, research shows that “the more environments in which we rehearse, the sharper and more lasting the memory of that material becomes.” Doing homework takes you away from your language class situation. You could be at home, on the bus or sitting in a cafe. Every time you are being exposed to different outside influences and as a result your memory of that material becomes strengthened.
It needs to be relevant and manageable
Of course, not all homework is made the same. As a teacher it is important to set homework that is relevant and that the learner will be able to complete. There’s nothing worse than being given homework you simply don’t understand. Or even more frustrating, spending your precious time learning random vocabulary you will NEVER need. Following coursebooks can often cause this problem. You might think that in the early chapters of a beginners Japanese textbook we would be learning basic skills such as buying things or ordering food. I, on the other hand, found myself learning the special word for the little office at the train station in Japan that deals with lost and found items on the shinkansen (yes only the bullet trains, not the regional trains) so I could call and tell them I had lost my sweater on the train and that sweater had a picture of a horse on it! Because these things happen on a daily basis and my wardrobe is full of equestrian prints. I’ll say it again. Make. It. Relevant.
To me, this is the most important factor. When it comes to learning, accountability is essential. Any serious (rather than, I can make you fluent through hypnosis in 24 hours) kind of teacher will tell you, the moment you take responsibility for your learning is the moment you really start to see improvement. A teacher is there to inform, guide and coach but they can’t do the work for you. Nobody can give you a language, you have to take it.
Some of the most effective homework I have done for my Japanese learning was creating my own sentences. Looking at vocabulary and grammar structures we had covered and then making up my own sentences. Thinking of scenarios I might find myself in when in Tokyo and writing out dialogues. More white wine and karaoke, less horse sweaters! Of course, this takes real motivation and it won’t happen every week but combined with exercises given by your teacher or from a textbook, it can massively improve your skills.
So, what are your thoughts? Homework good, yes or no?
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