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Frequently asked questions for an experienced language learner

| 38 comments | Category: learning languages

Last week I shared some FAQs for a long-term traveller, and taking a bunch of questions that readers have been sending me on Facebook, Google plus, twitter and the LHL email list, now I’ll discuss some language learning issues that people have been wondering about.

Note that I discuss FAQs about the website and my missions separately here.

As you can see, half of these are requests for advice and the others are curiosities about my personal experience as a language learner. Feel free to ask more questions in the comments (after searching the site to see whether I’ve answered it already or not), and you can get an interesting more in-depth discussion about what is causing you problems if you ask the Fi3M community in the forums.

How do you stay motivated to keep learning through the long intermediate stage?

This one is never a problem I have because my work in a language is not study focused. [Or when it is study-focused I have a short term looming deadline I can't escape, like when I sat the C2 German exam.]

Studying over the long term can get boring quickly, but I aim to practically use my language as often as I can. If I have a looming coffee date in the language that I’ve set up even if I’m not in the country, then my motivation to study is very strong and I’ll do some SRS flashcards, maybe read some text to have hard words highlighted, or even study grammar to fine tune my mistakes.

This way I am doing more than simply speaking, but speaking is always the core. The fact that I know I’m going to use the language for real means that I’m motivated to improve it ever so slightly just before the meeting. Each one of these “last minute” study sessions adds up.

When you are learning and using it, and serious about improving, the motivation will always be there.

Have you ever used a foreign language you know well to learn another one?

Yes – one of my favourite books to help me get the basics of a language is the Assimil de poche series, written in French. I learned a lot of my Hungarian, Turkish and many other languages with this book. Interestingly enough, I find their Irish one (L’irlandais de poche) to be among the best introductions to the language that I’ve come across; way better than so many English attempts.

And there have been countless times where someone helps me to learn a language, explaining it in another language to me, which is not English. Many of my Italian friends are those I met in Spain, on the Erasmus exchange program. So when I visited them in their home town, they helped me advance in Italian, constantly explaining things I didn’t understand in Spanish, since they wouldn’t speak English themselves.

How can you join in on a conversation when you don’t understand every word?

This question screams perfectionism to me, which is a terrible mentality to have for language learning.

You don’t need to understand “every word” to join in on a conversation!

When I’m learning a language, there will be many times that I barely understand half of the words I’m hearing. This is obviously to be expected. Accept it.

What you can do instead is learn to extrapolate, based on the mountains of context and non-verbal cues, and fill in the gaps thanks to the one or two words you do understand. I gave a detailed example of how I did this in the initial stages of re-learning German here.

And for your part of the conversation, don’t forget to use connectors to ease the flow.

What about keeping up with a group of natives?

This is an intimidating situation, but you can’t just skip over the frustrating bit, study passively until you are “ready” and then feel comfortable “some” day. You have to dive in and force yourself to get used to it. When you are focused and trying to engage, or at least keep up, with time your skills will improve.

To ease along this process, just try your best to keep up and fake it a little. Nod politely and guess what they are saying. Encourage them to do all the talking, to ease some pressure off yourself.

When not with them in person, expose yourself to as much natural content of natives as you can! Download podcasts (NOT language learning ones, real ones), listen to online radio or watch a movie without subtitles. The level you should have here is more or less the same for keeping up with a conversation two natives are having in front of you. These speakers will not slow down for your benefit.

If you’ve downloaded audio, then use a tool like Audacity to slow it down, so you can hear things a little easier if they are speaking too quickly for you, and send tricky segments of the text to Rhinospike to have a native help you out with a transcription.

Then turn on the subtitles on the movie, but only have subtitles in the language itself to help you associate the sounds with the written word. Translated subtitles are next to useless for learning a language, because most people will just read them and not need to listen at all, perhaps only picking up random new vocabulary, but not training themselves in focusing on understanding the native language on its own merit.

As with everything, try, try, try again and with time your skills WILL improve in keeping up with natives. Accept that it will be frustrating, and that this is totally natural, but will pass.

Do you feel like a different person when speaking different languages?

Yes. Part of the way I separate languages in my head and not mix them up, is to create a ‘personality’ that I associate with the languages.

So everything changes for me when I switch to that language; my body language, the topics I would be likely to discuss, if I’m chilled out, or more outgoing, etc. based on what’s more appropriate in that language and culture.

There are so many benefits to attempting this. It convinces that person not to speak English with you, when you lose major typical English-speaker traits, and thus makes them more comfortable around you and feel less that you are a “foreigner”, and open up to you more.

I curse way more in some languages than others, and act like a clown or more cultured, based on what I know works with people my age in that place. Ignoring such cultural aspects is a huge mistake when learning a language.

What language do you dream in?

I’m no expert on dreaming, but it seems to me that language is not an aspect of dreaming in any real sense. Language is a means of communication between two people and at best you can consciously force yourself to self-dialogue during the day in the language as I suggest below. But if you’ve spent all day with some noise on in the background and you think you were dreaming in that language because of it, it’s really just that. You THINK you were.

I could think that I speak Japanese in a dream, without ever studying it or knowing a single word of it. The same way I can think that I’m flying, or that a supermodel is tearing my clothes off. It’s a figment of my imagination.

So in my dreams I will think that I’m speaking some language with someone depending on where the dream takes place, and I’ll generally do this for any language that I’m actively working on or using.

But the fact that I think I’m “speaking” the language in my dream is meaningless as far as I’m concerned, since apart from distinguishing actual words on occasion, a dream flows in a way that makes actual “conversations” or even full sentences to simply not take place nearly all the time. It’s an illusion of speaking that you will remember in a blurry way in retrospect that we tend to with dreams. It didn’t really happen!

Shorter, less cynical answer: Probably half in English, a quarter in the current active language, and another quarter in a language I have learned before, even if I’ve forgotten it.

How do you stop thinking via English?

Thinking in English and translating it is a terribly slow way to communicate. Through constant real-life exposure, you will be forced to think quicker and the words will come out without you having to go via English.

One way of helping this is to learn vocabulary by images instead of dictionaries, and to force yourself not to say the word in English in your head.

I don’t think in English when speaking any language; the weird phrasing and direct translations and wrong word order make this an important point to work on.

Another thing that has helped me immensely is to force my inner dialogue to be in that language. So if I go to the fridge and it’s empty, I won’t think “Shite! I forgot to buy X!” but “¡Joder! Se me olvidó comprar X!”  if I wanted to encourage a Spanish mindset. This will be grammatically wrong and lack words in initial learning stages, but I’ll still do it as much as I can and it’s very effective in keeping up momentum and not switching back to English, even when alone.

Making sure the interfaces for all of your devices is in the target language also helps for virtual immersion when you aren’t with people, and doing as much as you can (reading, watching movies etc.) in that language without “relaxing” in English can squeeze that nasty English right out of you! Abandoning English altogether was the reason I could learn to think in Spanish so quickly in the first place.

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These are just some of the questions that I get asked a lot. I try to cover anything else I get asked on the blog, but in general I explained the vast majority of my learning process in the Language Hacking Guide. You’ll also get the general gist of most steps I take in learning a language by reading through as many blog posts as you can.

But if you think there is a question I still haven’t ever answered, feel free to ask it below. If it’s a really interesting question I may devote a whole blog post to it! Otherwise I’ll try to answer here or in a second FAQ post some time later :)

Once again, don’t forget to ask complex questions to the very active Fi3M forum, and don’t forget to subscribe to the email list to find out what my next language is by Monday!

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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.

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Comments: If you liked this post or have anything to say, please leave a comment! I love reading them :)
Just keep in mind that I’ll delete any rude, trolling, spammy, irrelevant or way off-topic comments. Also, use your REAL name, not a brand or business one, and don’t link to your site in the comments unless it’s relevant to this post.
If you have a general language learning question, please ask it in the forums. Otherwise please use the search tool on the right for any other question not related to this post.

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  • Delwin Campbell

    Avez-vous essayé d’apprendre deux langues simultanément? Maintenant je m’essaye au français et au suédois. Je vais à une classe du suédois à l’université, et j’apprends le français tout seul depuis six mois (et je peux le parler mieux). Vous recommandez à moi me concentrer sur le suédois?  

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      D’après moi il vaut mieux étudier une langue à la fois : http://www.fluentin3months.com/how-to-become-a-polyglot/ Mais encore mieux qu’étudier (tout seul ou à la fac), c’est parler !!

      • Delwin Campbell

        Bien sûr, je cherche toujours des parleurs du français! :)

      • Delwin Campbell

        Bien sûr, je cherche toujours des parleurs du français! :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/stevenjc Steven Collins

        Salut Benny!  J’ai lu que c’est bien possible d’apprendre deux langues aux même fois si les deux langues sont très différent.  En ce cas, c’est plus dur de les mélanger.  

        Mais si les deux langes sont similaires - ça, c’est un problème.  En 1996 j’ai essayé d’apprendre le français et l’espagnol aux même temps à l’université – c’était vraiment une catastrophe et j’ai dû laissé tombé l’espagnol.  Mais l’année prochaine, j’ai réussi à étudier le français et l’allemande aux même temps sans confondre les deux.  Ils sont très différents, n’est pas?

        Que penses-tu?

        Merci bien!

  • Anonymous

    I remember your mission to pass yourself off as a Carioca in Rio at least for a brief time during conversation in Brazilian Portuguese. I was wondering, since you have a  Castillian accent in Spanish, have you ever been mistaken for a Spaniard in Latin America, or is it more like “oh, you’ve learned your Spanish in Spain”? Great post, again, Benny! Boa sorte na sua próxima aventura.

  • http://twitter.com/amontaristos Marios Amontaristos

    2 and half years ago, I started studying spanish. A few months later, I decided to start practicing. And I did it using IRC chat rooms. A bit later, I went on to talking (via MSN) with microphone. This gave me some boost and now I can speak spanish with some ease, even if my vocabulary is not big enough. I’ve studied french much more, but I haven’t practised enough (if at all). Apparently, diving in the language is more important than plain studying it. What’s your opinion about chat rooms? Do you think that they can be helpful? (at work I cannot use a microphone, but I can connect to the ICQ chatrooms, where there are many rooms divided by language!)

  • Randybvain

    Forcing oneself to think in the target language is great idea! I do it all the time. This helps to automatise speaking and gives the clue which words, phrases or syntax should be refreshed or learned.

  • Randybvain

    Forcing oneself to think in the target language is great idea! I do it all the time. This helps to automatise speaking and gives the clue which words, phrases or syntax should be refreshed or learned.

  • Nicholas

    Could you give a little bit more detail of your “different personalities?”  Like maybe a breakdown by language and what your dominating personality traits are in that language?  

    I don’t know if I have a different personality in German than in English, I’ll have to ask some of my friends that converse with me in both languages.  Though one time I mentioned off hand (in English) that I spoke some German, so a German there asked me to say some stuff in German (that is the worst question ever, isn’t it?).  I couldn’t think of anything better so just said what I had done that day, and she remarked that while I was animated and energetic speaking English, I sounded bored while speaking German.  In that case I think that it was simply the case I hadn’t spoke the language in a little while and was searching for words, and that is was a boring topic.  At least I hope I’m still not boring in German :).

  • Nicholas

    Could you give a little bit more detail of your “different personalities?”  Like maybe a breakdown by language and what your dominating personality traits are in that language?  

    I don’t know if I have a different personality in German than in English, I’ll have to ask some of my friends that converse with me in both languages.  Though one time I mentioned off hand (in English) that I spoke some German, so a German there asked me to say some stuff in German (that is the worst question ever, isn’t it?).  I couldn’t think of anything better so just said what I had done that day, and she remarked that while I was animated and energetic speaking English, I sounded bored while speaking German.  In that case I think that it was simply the case I hadn’t spoke the language in a little while and was searching for words, and that is was a boring topic.  At least I hope I’m still not boring in German :).

  • Alanjazz

    Benny, ¿usted ha intentado de aprender un idioma prinicipalmente por medio de leer e escribir? (No digo sin hablar, pero aumentado por leer e escribir.) Veo que su metodo de aprender idiomas extranjeros por medio de hablar funciona bien, pero ¿no se pase que es más difícil escribir después de haber aprendido oralmente? Estudio francés y mi nivel de escribir es más bajo que él de hablar a causa de ese modo de estudia.

    Diría tengo un nivel de español intermedio, y vivo en un lugar donde no hay ningun hispanohablante. Hablo con hablantes nativos con Skype, pero no es lo mismo que vivir en un país latinamericano o España, claro. Entonces, leo cuentos para niños y obras simplificadas. Cuando hay la oportunidad, leo en voz alta a un(a) amigo(a) hispanohablante, y aprendo palabras con ello(a)s. ¿Qué opina usted? ¿No es también un metodo funcional de aprender? 

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Escribe en lang-8 y te corrigen. Así aprenderás a escribir mejor!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Escribe en lang-8 y te corrigen. Así aprenderás a escribir mejor!

  • Alanjazz

    Benny, ¿usted ha intentado de aprender un idioma prinicipalmente por medio de leer e escribir? (No digo sin hablar, pero aumentado por leer e escribir.) Veo que su metodo de aprender idiomas extranjeros por medio de hablar funciona bien, pero ¿no se pase que es más difícil escribir después de haber aprendido oralmente? Estudio francés y mi nivel de escribir es más bajo que él de hablar a causa de ese modo de estudia.

    Diría tengo un nivel de español intermedio, y vivo en un lugar donde no hay ningun hispanohablante. Hablo con hablantes nativos con Skype, pero no es lo mismo que vivir en un país latinamericano o España, claro. Entonces, leo cuentos para niños y obras simplificadas. Cuando hay la oportunidad, leo en voz alta a un(a) amigo(a) hispanohablante, y aprendo palabras con ello(a)s. ¿Qué opina usted? ¿No es también un metodo funcional de aprender? 

  • Valerie

    I was wondering, how much do you actually use your SRS? I follow Khatzumoto’s AJATT blog as well, and it seems like he religiously does his SRS reps every day….and, well, sometimes I can go for a week where I’m really good at doing that, but most of the time I just don’t want to spend time doing that when I could be watching a video in my target language or something. (I don’t have a smartphone so it’s not like I can just do it while waiting in an elevator or something, though that’d be nice.)

    I understand how useful SRS software can be…. so what’s your policy on it?  Can you get any kind of benefit from it if you’re not doing it everyday?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      I’m not as well organised as Khatz. I use SRS mostly when I’m stuck waiting somewhere – not typically every day, or just before meeting someone who speaks that language. I get a good benefit even from not using it every day.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      I’m not as well organised as Khatz. I use SRS mostly when I’m stuck waiting somewhere – not typically every day, or just before meeting someone who speaks that language. I get a good benefit even from not using it every day.

  • Valerie

    I was wondering, how much do you actually use your SRS? I follow Khatzumoto’s AJATT blog as well, and it seems like he religiously does his SRS reps every day….and, well, sometimes I can go for a week where I’m really good at doing that, but most of the time I just don’t want to spend time doing that when I could be watching a video in my target language or something. (I don’t have a smartphone so it’s not like I can just do it while waiting in an elevator or something, though that’d be nice.)

    I understand how useful SRS software can be…. so what’s your policy on it?  Can you get any kind of benefit from it if you’re not doing it everyday?

  • Beanilika

    Watching movies in the target language (in my case, Portuguese) is such a fantastic way to practice listening comprehension and learn new vocabulary.  I used to live in a city with a huge number of Brazilian movies in the public library and I learned tons from watching movies, but now that I’ve moved, I can’t find a place in my new city to rent/borrow some, and so far I’ve had no luck with online video hosting websites – I guess I don’t know what to search for? I do watch short videos on Youtube and such, but I’m really looking for full films.  Any suggestions? I’m sure for less common languages it can be even more difficult.  

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Specific resource seeking questions like this are best asked in the forums, as I would advise you more to simply meet up with Brazilians using social media searches as I describe in the post linked in the article.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Specific resource seeking questions like this are best asked in the forums, as I would advise you more to simply meet up with Brazilians using social media searches as I describe in the post linked in the article.

    • Anonymous

      Netflix has a good supply of Brazilian movies. Most are DVD but some are streaming. You can also buy dvds from ebay for around $10, including shipping.  I, too, use films for learning.  I am using the book “Cinema for Portuguese Conversation” by Bonnie Wasserman. The book has 14 chapters about 14 films, almost all Brazilian. The text is Portuguese. The book is available at Amazon.

    • Anonymous

      Netflix has a good supply of Brazilian movies. Most are DVD but some are streaming. You can also buy dvds from ebay for around $10, including shipping.  I, too, use films for learning.  I am using the book “Cinema for Portuguese Conversation” by Bonnie Wasserman. The book has 14 chapters about 14 films, almost all Brazilian. The text is Portuguese. The book is available at Amazon.

  • Beanilika

    Watching movies in the target language (in my case, Portuguese) is such a fantastic way to practice listening comprehension and learn new vocabulary.  I used to live in a city with a huge number of Brazilian movies in the public library and I learned tons from watching movies, but now that I’ve moved, I can’t find a place in my new city to rent/borrow some, and so far I’ve had no luck with online video hosting websites – I guess I don’t know what to search for? I do watch short videos on Youtube and such, but I’m really looking for full films.  Any suggestions? I’m sure for less common languages it can be even more difficult.  

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YEW4LA7KKTNJYLUKC6FFR52GOE Mantu Sarker

    I like this site very much;)
    http://www.trekbd.com/

  • Agent 755, gender offender.

    I find I’m oddly more outgoing en español, which is odd, considering it’s my second language and I can’t express myself well. I try. It’s oddly difficult to find penpals de países español, at least in my experience.

  • http://twitter.com/gracet07 Grace

    If I sold my car, left everything behind, bought a plane ticket to Peru, could I join you?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      That’s one hell of a commitment! Shouldn’t we start with coffee? :P

  • http://twitter.com/Wiktor_K Wiktor Kostrzewski

    This is a great resource. And pretty inspiring, too…Good luck with your next trip!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Using: Nearly all the time that I’m out of the house
    Learning: As much as I can, depending on how much I’m working.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I’ve also found the English ‘r’ in certain dialects of Portuguese, in Dutch and in languages that pronounce things the foreign way, and use them for English words.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_4K4E6K55LAAKMCWLSU27NLLV6U Joel

    “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”

    ‒Rita Mae Brown

    http://www.miamibeachlanguages.com/english-classes/

  • http://www.mezzoguild.com/ Cardinal Mezzofanti

    Of course.

    I met several Scandinavians in Georgia learning the language while I was working there.

    If your English is good, check out TLG:

    http://www.mezzoguild.com/2011/11/21/rare-language-learning-opportunity/

  • Amanda Patterson

    I just have one thing to comment on here, and that is on dreaming. I talk in my sleep. So I know for a fact when I was living in Chile I dreamt at least occasionally in Spanish because my host sister was startled one time by my middle of the night outburst in Spanish -grammatically excellent and in Chilean slang I might add. I was super excited when she later told me about it, as I’d only been in Chile a couple weeks at that point.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      I suspect your sister may have been exaggerating. Sorry.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Not so interested in learning Latin to be honest, but I can understand a large amount of it since I’ve learned most of its offspring!

  • Vladimir Georgiev

    Det er muligt at lære hvert språk,når du har den riktige motivation :)