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?
Feel free to add any comments below. And as always you can sign up to receive my posts straight to your email in the box on the right.
Apparently you can do pretty much anything in 10 minutes a day: get six-pack abs, declutter your home, meditate and reduce stress, cook a Jamie Oliver dinner and of course, learn a language. So why the obsession with 10 minutes? Why not 7 and a half minutes or 13 minutes? Well, first of all, people tend to hate uneven amounts of time (Does anyone set their alarm clock for 7:03? No way, it’s gotta be 7:05 right?!) And of course, the idea is that no matter how busy you are, everyone should be able to put aside 10 minutes at some point in their day to work on something specific. 10 minutes sounds less scary than a quarter of an hour but a bit more meaty than 8 minutes. So, considering there are 1440 minutes in a day which means we all have 144 slots of 10 minutes available to us, how come we are not all walking around with six packs, in perfectly decluttered homes, serving up Jamie Oliver dinners and speaking about 10 languages perfectly? Why do we still find it hard to follow the “10 minute a day” rule?
Well, I decided to put the theory to the test and aimed to do 10 minutes of a) exercise b) playing guitar and c) learning Japanese, every single day for 6 weeks. And this is what I found out:
- I nearly always did more than 10 minutes. Once I actually got started on my yoga mat or with my Japanese textbook or my guitar, I found I was motivated to continue. It felt easy to do more than 10 minutes. But knowing that I only had to do 10 if that was all I wanted to do or had time for, really took the pressure off.
- It really is amazing what you can achieve in 10 minutes. Just 10 minutes of yoga made me feel better. More refreshed and relaxed. You can easily learn a new chord on the guitar in 10 minutes. And 10 minutes of vocabulary learning is so easy to fit in.
- You start to build good habits. Doing something on a daily basis makes things become more routine and habit-like.
- You break things down into manageable steps. Learning a chord on the guitar, rather than struggling your way through a whole song is much less intimidating. Spending 10 minutes learning a couple of new Japanese phrases or memorizing 5 Kanji is simply more fun than opening up a textbook and slogging through a whole chapter.
- If you miss a day, it’s not the end of the world. If you had only planned one really long session a week and you missed that, it would be much worse. Combined with the fact that you probably did more than 10 minutes on some days (see positive point 1) you know you are still ok. And of course, you could always do a little bit more tomorrow!
- Despite those 144 time slots available, there are still days when you just don’t manage it or let’s be honest, you just don’t feel like it. Knowing you HAVE to devote 10 minutes of your day to something does create a certain amount of pressure. There was only one week out of 6 where I actually did all 3 activities for 10 minutes every day.
- It can get a bit boring. Sometimes you get a bit stuck for ideas of what to do each day so you do the same as you did yesterday. Good for repetition of something but can quickly be the road to snoozeville. Which brings me nicely to my next point.
- When learning a language every day, beware of something called False Fluency. Research shows that if we learn the same thing every day, the brain starts to get lazy. So, for example, if you try to learn the same 10 words every day, by day 3 or 4, your brain no longer needs to try as hard to recall the words i.e. it thinks yeah, yeah, I know that. Studies show that interval learning i.e. intermittment learning is more effective for long-term memory. So, if you do decide to learn a language every day, make sure you are mixing it up i.e. one day vocabulary, the next day a bit of grammar, next day phrases and then back to the vocabulary again.
Despite the negatives, I did feel happy with my progress after 6 weeks. So, if you are planning something similar here are my ideas for making it a success:
My top tips
- Have your materials/equipment ready. Often we put things off because it seems like a hassle to just get started. But if your guitar is stood in the living room, the yoga mat is right there ready to be rolled out (the dog actually helps me do that!) or you have all your language stuff in one box so you can just pick it up and begin, it makes things a lot easier.
- Use 10 minutes that would normally be wasted. By this I mean, if possible use up “dead time”. It takes 10 minutes for a pan of spaghetti to cook. My guitar is right there next to the kitchen so it was easy to just pick it up and strum away until the pasta was done. Multi-tasking at its best. My other favourite “dead” time to use is commuting time. Great for using language apps or listening to a podcast. Again, just make sure your materials are at hand so it is as convenient as possible.
- Mix things up. If I get bored with something, YouTube is the first place I go. There are gazillions of useful short videos which can teach you how to do pretty much anything. Languages, 10-minute yoga routines, guitar lessons and it’s all for free!
- Don’t overload. As you’ve probably already realised, I wasn’t just committing to 10 minutes a day, I was actually committing to 30 (exercise, guitar AND Japanese). Some days it worked but others it really was just too much. I found I had weeks where 2 things went really well but the other got totally neglected. Again, I think that’s natural but it does make you feel a bit guilty. Keep things realistic.
- Accept there will be days when you won’t manage it or you are just not in the mood to put those unflattering yoga pants on. Accept it, focus on tomorrow (and buy new yoga pants!)
- If you are having a good day, go with the flow and do more than 10 minutes if the mood takes you.
- Track your progress. Nerdy I know but ticking things off a list, whether it’s an app or in my case a whiteboard that I put up in the office (which my husband writes silly comments on!) is strangely satisfying. I like this so much I sometimes even write things on the board AFTER I’ve done them, just so I can ceremoniously tick them off. Yes really.
So on the whole, there are lots of benefits of taking small slots of time and trying to make use of them. I would definitely recommend giving it a go and seeing how it works for you. Let me know if you give it a try or maybe share your own personal “learning tips” in the comments below. I’m off now to do a bit of Portuguese ready for my holiday next week. Estou ansioso! (Ha! Learned that in my 10 minute podcast last night!!)
So, you might remember that at the beginning of the year I posted my resolutions for 2018. Now, the weather may be making us all feel like it’s still January but April is here and there is a hint of sunshine on the horizon. So, how are we doing with those resolutions? An essential part of sticking to goals is to regularly review them. This way we can celebrate the successes, analyse the things that are not going so well and decide what to do about that. So here goes with my list:
1. Work on my Japanese and take the JLPT certificate
Progress: Not too bad. I’ve been gradually plugging away at my Japanese and I think I can register for the exam in June with a view to doing it in December. Still finding it tough but I’m motivated to carry on and that’s half the battle.
Action: Keep going. Maybe work more on speaking and not get too bogged down in the scary world of Kanji symbols.
2. Practice more guitar and buy an electric guitar
Progress: Zero. I can honestly say I have only picked up my guitar once since Christmas and that was during a slightly wine-filled, emotional “I can play Eric Clapton” (honestly??) kind of moment. Don’t know why but it just hasn’t happened. I guess other goals have taken priority. But I still want to do this and there are still 9 months left to get going.
Action: Take a new approach. Dump Eric and switch to Rammstein (yes, honestly). Choose a couple of songs I really like to inspire me to practice more. And, take a trip to the incredibly cool “Cream” Frankfurt guitar shop (they sold a guitar to Elvis!) and look at the electric guitars. Oooooh, the power of shopping!
3. Knit a pullover for my dog Polo
Action: None. If he gets anymore clothes he’ll need his own walk-in closet.
4. Learn how to knit
Progress: Successful workaround. Instead of knitting I discovered the wonderful world of looming (a kind of knitting for dummies). And I loomin love it! Never, ever imagined this could be my thing but in the last few weeks I have made 2 dog pullovers (first one had to be scrapped as it was way too small and looked like some kind of bizarre crop top), 3 hats (for humans) and I’m now working on a scarf. No idea who on earth is going to wear all this stuff but I don’t really care right now. Honestly surprised how much I’m enjoying it. Totally relaxing. If you fancy having a go, take a look at loomahat.com for some great videos for beginners.
Action: Keep going for as long as I’m enjoying it. Keep an open mind and be happy to let my goals take me in unexpected directions.
5. Lose 10 kilos
Progress: No kilos lost yet BUT I have gone back to the gym. And I’m happy to say it’s a friendly local gym with no green smoothies or Lululemon yoga pants in sight. Love my new functional training programme (picture lots of swinging around on ropes, crunches while throwing a 2kg ball at the wall) and I’m totally motivated. I feel like freakin’ Rocky. And thanks to my super-duper birthday present from hubby I can listen to music without dragging my phone around with me and constantly faffing with my headphones. AirPods are amazing!
Action: This girl can. Stick to the gym routine and cut down on sugary stuff (but after the Easter stuff is eaten of course!)
6. Work on my cake decorating skills
Progress: Although I’ve done some baking since Christmas I haven’t done much decorating.
Action: Absolutely not worried about this goal. It involves cake and frosting. As good as done.
7. Learn Italian
Progress: Well I still love Benedetta but my Italian failed after about 3 weeks. I decided to give Duolingo a go as I’ve heard a lot about it, it’s the biggest language learning app in the world and I was curious. Honestly, very disappointed. Quite good for learning vocabulary but find it hard to believe that people really learn how to make fluent conversation with this method. Got bored, frustrated by the lack of grammar info and structure and gave up.
Action: Adapt the goal. Learn Portuguese. Now this doesn’t mean I’ve given up on Benedetta totally but we have planned a trip to Spain and Portugal and I figured maybe I’d be more inspired to learn something I can actually put into practice in the near future.
8. Use my new slow cooker
Progress: Done. Made quite a few nice dishes and am very happy with it. For anyone out there looking for a slow cooker I can highly recommend the Morphy Richards Sear and Stew Slow Cooker
Action: Keep trying new recipes at least twice a month.
9. Book proposal
Progress: Now this a biggy and needs to be approached with the slice and dice method. One of the first “slices” I had to get through was setting up a blog and writing more. And of course, testing if anyone liked what I was writing and thought it was worth reading. Well, while my follower list is still tiny (remember you can add your email to follow me!), I’m getting a good amount of traffic and lots of positive feedback.
Action: Research potential publishers and their book proposal guidelines. Try to get something published in a magazine/on a website. Just writing that actually made me slightly sick with fear but it’s the next logical slice and it has to be done.
So, what’s the takeaway here?
Chicken fried rice please! No, seriously, reviewing progress is an essential way to reach, your goals. Remember:
- If your plan is working, give yourself a pat on the back, make sure you keep things interesting and push yourself to keep going.
- If it’s not working, try to figure out why. Maybe you need a bit of inspiration or a new approach? Or maybe (like my Italian) you need to adapt the goal completely. Right now, Italian is not really relevant but Portuguese is. It’s still a new language, just a different direction. Be open to adapting your goals.
- Accept (like my guitar playing or cake decorating) that you can’t work on everything at the same time and sometimes other things (like looming) can take over. But there is still time. I can’t keep making hats forever.
- Keep working on the bigger goals using the slice and dice method. The big goals (like my book proposal) are best approached one step at a time to make them feel less overwhelming.
So how are you doing with your targets? Sometimes just putting your goals in black and white can push you to stick to them, so feel free to comment below and put yourself out there. I can probably loom some cheerleading pom poms and give you a cheer!
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When my clients ask my advice on how to improve their English, one of my top tips is always: Forget shame. If you feel ashamed and embarrassed every time you slip up, you will never improve. To become better at anything, we have to try, we have to take risks and when it all goes wrong, we have to get up, smile, carry on and most importantly, try again. I hate to use the word “ass” two weeks in a row in my post (sorry mother!) but this time it really is unavoidable. When you speak a foreign language, there will always be times when you make mistakes and fall on your ass (there it is again). Some mistakes are more dramatic than others, but they are going to happen, whether you like it or not. So what to do? Take a tip from some Olympians.
Did anyone catch any of the ice-skating during the recent Winter Olympics in PyeongChang? I’m not into winter sports but I always like to watch a bit of figure skating. That combination of sparkly, sequinned outfits and amazing athletic talent and skill. However, there’s always that moment in every performance where you kind of hold your breath. When the skater is getting ready to do a jump and everyone is wondering if they will land it. Sometimes they do but sometimes they don’t. Even the top skaters in the world are not perfect every single day. But in order to gain points and get a medal they have to take risks. And what’s really striking about these skaters, is that when they fall and it all goes wrong, they pick themselves up and carry on. Hold the tears in, put on a brave face and try to make up for the fall with the rest of their performance. Imagine being the best in the world but still going out there knowing that you might fall in front of millions of people? Wow. They really don’t let shame get in their way. As the American Mirai Nagasu recently said (just before becoming the third woman ever to land the elusive triple axel at the Olympics) “I’m definitely going for it. No guts, no glory. If I fall, I’ll take the fall and just keep going.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to compare having a conversation in Italian with the talent and commitment of being an Olympic figure skater. But there is a lot we can learn from them. Don’t let those falls and mistakes put you off. Learn from them, smile and just keep going. And it least be grateful you don’t have to display your grammatic ability in front of millions of people in a sequinned outfit!
What are your top tips for learning and speaking a foreign language? Feel free to comment below. As always you can follow my blog by adding your email address to the box on the right.
Learning a language can be a bumpy ride. You’re cruising along, doing pretty well and feeling rather proud of yourself when yet again, something comes along to trip you up. One of these fun things is something called a false friend. Now, I don’t mean someone who goes shopping with you and tells you that you look great in that bright pink dress and you should definitely buy it, when in fact you look hideous and are at risk of frightening little children on the street. But it’s not that different. In language terms, a false friend is a word that you think is your friend (because it seems easy to remember as it looks/sounds almost the same as the word in your native language) but in fact has a completely different meaning. In other words, it’s going to trip you up and watch you fall on your language-learning ass. Let me give you some examples:
1. irritiert (German) versus irritated (English)
If you are irritated in English, it means you are annoyed. Someone on the underground is talking on their phone at the top of their voice. Worse, someone is sitting opposite you, chomping loudly on a strange German sandwich creation of raw pork mince and raw onions (welcome to the wonderful world of Mettwurst) and failing to close their mouth while they do so. Your blood pressure is slightly up. As a friend of mine always says, you’re feeling a bit “Grrrrrrrr”. That’s the English version of irritated. However, when I first came to Frankfurt, a German friend of mine often said “Ich bin irritiert”. I often wondered what her problem was. Why is she so irritated all the time? She’s smiling and doesn’t seem annoyed; what’s that all about? Only later did I discover that “Ich bin irritiert” translates into English as “I’m confused/I don’t understand”. Aha! That explains a lot. Vice versa, a client of mine once showed me some emails he had been writing in English to a guy in the London office. On more than one occasion he had written: “I’m irritated by your presentation”, meaning of course he was confused/there was something he didn‘t understand. London was not impressed.
2. Rezept (German) versus Recipe (English)
This one comes up a lot. Especially when you live in a country where people are obsessed with their health, have an Apotheke (pharmacy) on every corner, enjoy describing their illnesses to you in excruciating detail and apparently make more visits (up to 14 a year!) to their doctor than any other country in Europe. In German, Rezept has a couple of meanings. It is not only used as recipe for cooking, baking etc. but also as the word for prescription, as in the holy piece of paper you get from your doctor to go to the nearest Apotheke (never more than about 100 metres away) and get your medication.
For me, this came up again a few months ago. Although I remember doing lots of painful role-play conversations while struggling my way through my Deutsch Heute textbook at school, I don’t remember any of the roleplays evere covering “Mother falls on tram and breaks her wrist”. Long story short, mother fell over, broke her wrist, tram transport in Frankfurt came to a halt, ambulance came, so did the police (who tried to fine me 500 euro for not having my passport with me!) went to the ER, she had an operation and my husband had an extra unexpected week of his in-laws. Sorry Deutsch Heute but “I’d like a Bratwurst please” just doesn’t cut it in those situations. Anyway, when she was finally being discharged from the hospital, the surgeon (who actually spoke excellent English) still fell for the false friend and told her he would give her a “recipe for the painkillers”. Mother was confused (irritiert) and probably also a bit irritated (genervt) and replied, “What? I have to make them myself??!” Brilliant.
3. sensible (German and English) versus sensitive (English)
This one not only comes up in German, but also in Spanish and French. All these languages use the word sensible as we in English would use the word sensitive/delicate:
|“Sie ist sehr sensible.”||“She’s very sensitive.”|
(likely to start crying)
|“Es ist ein sensibles Thema.”||“It’s a sensitive issue.”|
(A delicate issue that needs to be handled with care.)
|Sensible in English on the other hand means reasonable/practical.|
|“She’s a sensible child.”|
(you can trust her to make the right/reasonable decisions)
|“Sie ist ein vernünftiges Kind.”|
My parents have spent their life telling me to wear “sensible shoes”. If you’re not sure what that means, forget crazy Jimmy Choo (instruments of torture) high heels and picture some comfortable Birkenstocks or some hiking boots. Sensible shoes. My dad even took this advice to such an extreme that on the morning of my wedding, he arrived at my room to pick me up with a Tesco shopping bag in hand, insisting I needed to wear “sensible shoes” (i.e. my sweaty running shoes rather than my pretty strappy high-heeled sandals) with my wedding dress to avoid tripping on the cobbled streets on my way to the castle. “Sensible shoes Rebecca!“ Sweet of him to worry about me but was never going to happen!
Unfortunately, the list of false friends goes on and on. For more help with German/English false friends, I find this list pretty helpful. What about false friends in other languages? Are there any you always mix up? Feel free to share your stories below and remember you can subscribe to my blog by adding your email address to the box on the right.
I hate to admit it, but like lots of other hopeful people, I went back to the gym in January. A free month-pass to a fancy, luxurious gym helped me along my way. But while I was there today, burning some butt on the cross trainer and admiring the beautiful people (who can actually afford to be members) in their lovely lululemon yoga outfits, sipping their green smoothies, it struck me again how similar fitness and language learning are (green smoothies and yoga posing aside):
1. You can’t outsource it
Let’s start with the bad news. Nobody can do it for you. Unlike green smoothies and nice outfits, you can’t buy fitness. Even if you pay for a trainer, you still have to do the work. In the same way, you can’t buy yourself a language. No matter what some smart marketing people like to tell you; “Get fit in 10 days!” “Speak fluent Japanese in 30 days!”. And even if that were possible, what happens after? Can I train really hard for 10 days and then be fit for the rest of my life? One month of intensive Japanese and I’m fluent forever? Of course not. Like fitness levels, language ability declines as soon as you stop using it. It’s best to accept from the start that it really is a never-ending project.
2. There will be ups and downs
You know those weeks. The weeks where you had the best intentions but it just didn’t work out. You feel ill so you can’t go for a run. You are too tired to learn any vocabulary. No time for the gym. No time for your language class. The key thing here is to accept you had a bad week, don’t weigh yourself down with guilt and get back on track. Going back to the gym when you’ve been a way for a while can be pretty brutal. The same as turning up for a class and knowing you’ve missed a couple of weeks of new grammar and vocabulary. It’s downright uncomfortable. But all is not lost. Try to focus on the small wins as you get back into it, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the big ultimate goal. In the end, starting again rather than just giving up altogether is the key to long-term success.
3. It’s good for your health
So here comes the good news. The benefits of physical exercise are well-known but did you know that learning a language is also good for your health? More and more studies are proving that learning a foreign language improves your memory, increases your multi-tasking abilities and can even delay the onset of dementia. Recent studies have shown that bilingual people who develop dementia do so up to 5 years later than monolingual people.
4. You never completely forget
So even if you’ve had a long break from the gym or a language, there’s an amazing thing called muscle memory which means you never really start from zero. It’s a complex topic but scientific evidence suggests that your body and brain still retain parts of what you trained in the past. How many times have I met clients who tell me they remember “nothing at all” of the English they learnt years ago. In my experience, never true. There’s always something still there to build on.
5. It gives you a high
Aaaaaaah, the feel-good factor. The thing we are all praying for when we are struggling away on the treadmill and feeling crappy. It does exist, I promise. You just have to wait a bit longer for it to show up than you might like. According to studies, people experience this “kick” after exercising for a certain length of time (it can differ from person to person) and pushing themselves. In the same way, it might take a while to experience the “feel-good factor” from your language learning. However, when you start to improve and finally get rewarded, levels of dopamine (another feel-good chemical) in the brain increase. The reward could be, for example, getting something right in class, finally figuring out how the hell to form the past perfect continuous tense, or best of all, having your first proper impromptu conversation with a native speaker and that person complimenting your skills. Sounds nerdy I know, but the feel- good factor really does kick in and it’s hugely motivating.
So, try to keep these things in mind on your language learning journey. I’m off to drink a green smoothie, buy myself a fancy gym outfit (if I can’t afford the gym I can at least have the accessories!) and get my Japanese grammar book out. Feel free to leave a comment below with your thoughts on this or subscribe to my blog. Just add your email address to the box on the right.
So last week we talked about our plans for 2018. But how do we make these plans a reality? How do you get there?
1. Get inspired
When you start making your list of resolutions, try to choose goals that really inspire you. Goals that YOU feel excited about. Don’t choose goals just because someone else has or you think you should. Be true to yourself and decide what would really make you happy. Also, make sure your list is not full of boring “to dos” rather than enjoyable goals. This year, I finally have to get myself a German passport (thank you Brexit) but that is boring and tiresome. It’s a “to do”, not a goal. Goals should be fulfilling and fun. What are mine? Click here to see my list.
Once you’ve got your list and you’re feeling all fired up, decide what to tackle first. Starting too many projects on January 1st is a bit overwhelming. Does it make sense to do some of them first depending on the season, or money you have available? Do some of them have a very specific deadline? Why not start with a smaller one (to get a quick motivational success) but also take a smaller step towards one of your bigger goals. A goal that will need longer to reach and more steps. Which brings us nicely to my next two points.
What exactly is my target? How will I know when I have reached it? One of my goals is to improve my guitar skills, but what does that actually mean? I can play a few more chords or I’m ready to stand in for Slash if Guns N’ Roses tour again (I’ve got the curly hair at least!). Try to set specific targets and give them deadlines e.g. learn five new chords by the end of January or practice for 10 minutes every day. While you are defining, it also helps to take a reality check. It’s nice to think big (watch out Slash) but setting unrealistic goals can set you up for disappointment and failure. Once you’ve reached your goals you can always aim higher with the next ones.
4. Slice and Dice
Take a look at the goals you’ve defined and work out the individual steps you will need to take to get yourself there. Maybe you first need to enrol on a course or buy the right equipment (yipee a shopping step). Every goal can be divided into smaller steps. According to Brian Tracey, author of the fabulous book “Eat that Frog”, “A major reason for procrastinating on big tasks is that they appear so large and formidable when you first approach them”. He talks about the “salami slice” method of laying out each step in detail and then resolving to eat one slice at a time until you’ve finished the whole sausage. I prefer to see the steps as Pringles. Once you start, there is no stopping you.
5. Find your crew
It helps to hang out with people who have similar goals to yourself. I’m only guessing but I doubt that top athletes spend their spare time hanging out with couch potatoes. Of course, it’s nice to have different friends with varied interests but if you are trying to shift a few kilos, spending time watching your friend eat donut after donut is not going to help you. Telling someone who firmly believes learning a foreign language is “a waste of time because we have Google translate” (excuse me while I punch something) is not the kind of cheerleader you want. Which brings me nicely to point 6.
6. Tell someone
Making a commitment and taking responsibility for your goals is pretty important. Once you’ve found your “crew” who you know will support you, tell them about your goals. They will be happy to support you, even if it just means asking from time to time how you are getting on. Often people are afraid to say their goals out loud because they know it somehow makes them real and visible. But in some cases that is exactly the affect we want. When I decided to run the London marathon a few years ago, I told everyone I knew as I wanted to raise as much money for charity as possible. I collected lots of money but it also had the positive affect that I felt this huge level of commitment. I had to do this. People were somehow counting on me. If you really don’t want to tell anyone, at least write it down. Put in on paper, stick it on the wall and make it real.
7. Accept the curveballs
There will always be times when things don’t go as planned, despite the best intentions. You get ill so you can’t keep up your new exercise regime. You have a crazy week at work and your brain is just too tired to learn Spanish. We all go through this. It’s ok. What’s important is what you do next. Do you throw in the towel or do you carry on? If things are not going as you planned, reassess. Maybe there is a better approach. Or even reassess the goal and change it if you realise it isn’t right. Remember, if you want to stop failing at something, stop giving up.
8. Be nice to yourself
When those curveballs come, don’t beat yourself up. NATS (negative automatic thoughts) are a central concept in cognitive behavioural therapy and apparently most of us experience thousands a day. It’s the background talk that goes on in your head every day. For example, you tell yourself, “I’m so lazy, I’m never going to learn this, I’m not good at, I will never manage that”. We are so used to doing it, it happens automatically and is difficult to control. But imagine that was a person standing next to you, saying all those negative things to you all day. You wouldn’t want to hang out with that person! Yet we do it to ourselves all the time. Would you talk to your best friend like that? Be nice. Give yourself some credit rather than criticism for a change.
9. Integrate, don’t add on
There are only 24 hours in a day and as far as I’m aware that is not likely to change anytime soon. No matter how much you convince yourself “next month will be easier”, most likely those magical extra hours you crave will never appear. Instead, try to identify your current “dead time” slots. No matter how busy you tell yourself you are, we all have them. One dictionary definition of dead time is a “period that does not count toward a purpose”. For example, it takes 10 minutes to boil a pot of pasta (with the purpose of you eating it) but there is no reason for you to stand and watch it boil. That is dead time. You may have to commute to work. The purpose is for you to get to your place of work. But the time you spend doing that is dead. Unless you use it. Identifying these slots and filling them with something that helps you reach your targets means you don’t always need to find extra time. Integrate as much as you can, rather than constantly adding on.
10. Enjoy the journey
There are no guarantees of success. I can’t guarantee that I will pass a JLPT Japanese certificate this year. It is a goal and I know if I work at it and follow the guidelines above, I should be able to do it. But even if I don’t, if I have enjoyed the journey, all is not lost. I can honestly say my Japanese lesson yesterday was fun. It brightened my day. For once I totally understood what I was doing and got (nearly all) of my homework right. My Sensei even clapped. Reaching goals doesn’t have to be a struggle all the time. You’re also allowed to have fun along the way. Bansai!
Agree or disagree with these tips? Got some more you would like to share? Please add them in the comments below. Remember you can also add your email to the box on the right and receive notifications of my posts in your inbox.