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Beat language-learning frustration, reach your goals, and how to give a speech 6 weeks after starting to learn a language

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Today's guest post is from Judith Meyer, who writes at Learn Yu and is one of the most accomplished polyglots I've ever met! We met at an Esperanto event, and have since hung out in Berlin. Of course, I made sure that she contributed to the Skype Me Maybe music video last year!

Despite her experience and accomplishments in a varied range of languages, including some dead ones, like all of us she too faces frustrations, and is here to share her approach on handling this frustration! Over to you Judith!

As a polyglot, many people assume that I'm immune to frustration. That I can learn with even the driest of materials. That like MacGyver I could take an old dictionary from the 1900s, add a grammar description written for PhD students and somehow turn that into something resembling conversational fluency in the space of an afternoon. It's not true.

I believe I'm more likely to get frustrated than most of the people reading this. I already gave up on several languages – while mastering or continuing to learn a dozen others.

All of you know how exciting it is to get up one day and say “I am going to learn this language”. Eventually this motivation will peter out however, when the grammar monster takes too many rounds to defeat and you still cannot derive any practical use from your new language. Since I know I get frustrated easily, my aim is usually to arrive at a useful stage as soon as possible, because then I can enjoy my new language a bit and tackle the next level with renewed motivation.

There are two ways to reach a useful stage as quickly as possible: one is to study intensively and the other is to have a good plan. Personally I prefer having a good plan and then I aim to study my new language for a bit every day.

Focus on One Thing Only

Planning means looking very closely at what you really want to use the language for. Ask yourself: if a genie gave you instant mastery of your target language, what would you do with the language then? Use your real goal to guide your language-learning. If you have several goals, settle on one of them for the beginning.

For example, if your goal is to talk to native speakers during an upcoming trip to the country, look at all the great advice Benny has collected, because most of Benny's missions have this goal.

The key then, if you want to reach this goal as quickly as possible, is to be prepared to focus on conversational ability only. Skip anything that isn't likely to come up in conversation, especially vocabulary lists like “animals”, “arithmetic”, “astronomy”… you could spend years learning word lists like that without learning anything relevant to your goal.

If you're learning from a textbook, always ask yourself if you are really going to use these words or this grammar in a conversation before you learn it. Get rid of the idea that you have to follow a textbook religiously – quickly read through everything but don't bother memorizing or practising anything that doesn't seem useful or relevant to your goal.

Ideally, evaluate language courses for their ability to teach you what you need to learn before buying them. Look at the dialogs and the vocabulary lists: there are courses aimed at long-term residents, courses aimed at businessmen, courses aimed at university students, courses aimed at travelers – if you will use the language as a traveler, either get a corresponding language course or try to home-brew one by selectively ignoring parts of the course and supplementing it with a phrase book.

Understanding TV as a Goal

If you're not preparing for a trip, maybe there's a TV series in your target language that you really wish you could understand. That could be your goal, too.

Most courses focus on some kind of conversational ability, but if the thought of understanding this TV series excites you more than the thought of seeking out native speakers in your city, then this could be your first goal. If you focus on what you need and eliminate everything not immediately related to your goal, you could learn to understand a TV series in 30 days, as I did for the Japanese anime “Hikaru no Go”, and this would give you a comfortable base from which to tackle your other goals for the language.

With a traditional textbook approach, it would take years to be able to understand a TV series. This is because the traditional approach tries to raise your language level uniformly: you'll be equally good (equally bad) at everything, so you'll only be good at understanding a TV series when you're also good at writing letters, reading books and discussing the news in your target language.

With the approach I'm suggesting, after one month you will start out being very good at one thing (e. g. understanding that TV series), somewhat okay at related things (e. g. understanding another TV series) and for some other activities it will be as if you hadn't studied the language at all (e. g. reading Japanese). And that's okay.

It's more motivating to develop other abilities now, because you can already do something you like in your target language, and any time you use the language you will also be developing it.

Topic-based Fluency

You can use the same approach in order to quickly reach a very defined goal in other fields as well. For example, I had just started to learn Indonesian when I heard of an Indonesian Speaking Competition organized in Berlin. I had always wanted to participate in this kind of thing, but unfortunately this competition would take place only 6 weeks after I had started to study the language. So I decided to put this approach to the test once again, hoping for Indonesian to turn out to be as easy as they say.

After learning the bare minimum grammar and vocabulary from a textbook, I decided the topic of my 5-10 minute speech would be “How to Learn Languages” and I threw myself 100% into learning how to talk about language-learning in Indonesian, discarding anything that wouldn't be useful for this goal.

In order to figure out which words I was missing, I wrote several texts about language-learning on Lang-8. Trying to write about a topic is a very good technique for identifying the words you don't know or those you're using incorrectly. I also took a few private classes during which I focused on improving my pronunciation and fluency (the speed at which I could recall and string together words). Later I drafted a speech, again noting the words I was missing or had forgotten, I had a native speaker correct it and read the correct version several times.

I'm bad at memorization, so I didn't even attempt to memorize it. Instead, I abstracted the speech the way I would a German or English speech, leaving only key words reminding me of the points I wanted to make, and then I practiced until I could elaborate on every point in Indonesian.

Of course my Indonesian is skewed again: I'm really good at talking about language-learning in Indonesian now, I'm okay at talking about personal things and I can't even say how good I'd be at reading something because I never touched an Indonesian text in all this time.

Focus on the goal. I'm happy though: with the feeling of success from participating in that competition, I have recharged my motivation to learn Indonesian and I can aim for the next level now.

Reading as a Goal

Sometimes what makes the most sense is to aim for is reading fluency (the ability to read texts in a foreign language comfortably), for example if you're studying a dead language or a language whose literature fascinates you.

Also if your boss or professor expects you to be able to deal with foreign language texts very soon and you don't have the time to work on conversational ability first.

If you find yourself in that kind of situation, there are some courses that will help you, courses that are specifically designed to teach you how to read a language while temporarily neglecting other abilities. For example Karl C. Sandberg's “Spanish for Reading”, “French for Reading” and “German for Reading” books, or the “Lingua Latina” series for Latin. If you have at least basic knowledge of German, you can also use the free Eurocom courses.

If you can't find a suitable course, you could also brute force this kind of ability by working with parallel texts and/or computer dictionaries that display translations as you move your mouse over a foreign text (e. g. the Google dictionary extension for Chrome). Several polyglots I know swear by a method called Listening-Reading, whose essence is to listen to an audiobook in your target language while following along in a parallel text.

Working Towards an Exam

You can apply the same general idea to studying for an exam, as Benny did when studying for C2 in German.

First figure out what you need in order to achieve your goal and then, if you want quick results, aggressively discard anything that won't help you towards your goal. Standardized exams are predictable, so do some mock exams to figure out what areas you need to improve and then improve those, don't let yourself get side-tracked.


There is no frustration if you feel that your goal is within reach and that everything you do is a concrete step towards it (keep track). Most language learners do whatever in order to reach wherever: they have no goal other than “becoming fluent in Spanish” and no method other than doing a lesson here and there, listening to some music, watching TV, occasionally talking to people…

That approach is good if you have infinite time and no fear of getting frustrated, giving up or letting the language fade away. You may even reach your goal eventually, in the same way that you'll eventually reach your destination if you keep walking around aimlessly, if you don't give up and go home first.

If you actually want to get somewhere and do so fast, you have to first define where you want to go and then make sure you don't stray from the road.

Thanks for that Judith! For more of Judith's thoughts on language learning, check out her blog Learn Yu!

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