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.
HAPPY NEW YEAR! Yes I know it’s already the middle of January but it is still January at least. And what better time to finally get moving with my Langauge Coaching website and blog. January may be a cold, sober, no party kind of month but there is something special about the start of a new year. Hopes and plans for the upcoming year all still seem possible. I always get excited when I buy myself a new diary (just can’t get used to digital ones) and look at the pages of the year ahead, waiting to be filled with something new. Read the rest of this entry »