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.
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.
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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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 »