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“How has this gone so badly?” I thought.
I was taking the official listening exam in Chinese proficiency, and I could not understand a single word of the recording.
The test was “elementary” level, and I was there, handing the paper to the teacher at the entrance to the classroom, confused. I had studied by myself at home for years, and I had lived for nine months of “full immersion” in my new country. I’d also attended Chinese classes for three hours per week. How could I perform so badly?
When I received by mail the “Not-Passed Diploma”, my confusion turned into frustration. Who was to be blamed for my failure? I had really spent a lot of time studying seriously, religiously, with friends, books, music, movies, and language exchange. Was it me? Was it the teaching system of the school? What was wrong?
It was not my first language learning experience. By the time I began learning Chinese, I was fluent in two languages besides my mother tongue and had studied other languages at a basic level. But this time, I entered into the adventure of an exotic language from a remote place, and I failed.
After some time, things got better, but it was a long and winding road with many obstacles. During the following years, I discovered some secrets about language learning. Certainly, these are not ideas I invented, and most of them have been well-known to many expert learners. But for me they were a discovery, and, in one way or another, made a big change in my perspective of my learning process.
Here’s what I learned…
1. Avoid Shifting Gears Between Languages
A drop of water falling on an uneven surface will follow the direction of the steepest slope. The brain does the same with languages.
In the presence of two messages in two different languages, the brain focuses on the easiest one, often blocking or ignoring the second one.
The brain seems to work at different speeds with different languages. Changing from one language to another implies changing speed, like shifting the gear in a car.
The moment I open a textbook and begin to study, my brain changes gear, which takes a small amount of effort. If for a moment I get distracted by a written text or an audio message in my mother tongue, my brain will shift gear again – no effort needed. In other words, it is easier to “shift gears” from a more difficult language to an easier one than the opposite.
Here’s the simple lesson I learned: while learning languages, don't get distracted by anything in a language different to the one you are learning. This is more difficult at a beginner’s level, because you might need an explanation in a language you can understand, or you might need to check the dictionary. But I always try to create, as much as possible, an environment without distractions in other languages.
Try it for yourself. Which language are you learning? French? Find a free day in your schedule. Try (as much as possible) not to read, listen or even say anything in a language other than French. From early in the morning (or even from the previous night) listen only to music in French, read the news (even if you understand just a bit) in that tongue, and make the effort to think, with simple phrases, in French.
If you want, you can be more radical with this. Remove all material from your desk that is not in French, and set your computer and your phone to French, so when you sit down to study, there are no “slopes” that will change the gears of your brain to non-learning mode, even if it is just for some seconds. Try this, even for half a day, and you will notice the difference.
2. Plan Exhaustion Into Your Study Goals
We’ve all had the experience of making a clear and decisive resolution: I will exercise twice a week, I will not lose my temper at the office, I will study Japanese every day. After a beginning full of energy and determination, our motivation fades out and we find ourselves in the same situation: no exercise, losing our temper and not studying Japanese.
The problem might be bad planning, unrealistic goals or lack of motivation. But there is another aspect we can take into consideration: often we make plans and take decisions for the times in which we will have a lot of energy. Why not plan instead for those moments in which we will be exhausted?
It is good to ask yourself: how do I rest? Walking in the forest? Reading novels? Listening to music? Watching sports? Doing handicrafts? Painting?
Take your preferred way of relaxing, and add an element of your target language.
Like walking in the park? What about listening a language podcast while you walk?
Enjoy reading novels? Look for a book adapted to your level.
Love listening to music? Have you tried learning a song in your target language?
Is watching sports your thing? Then watch the same sports matches you usually would, but listen to commentary in your target language. If this isn’t possible, then look for sports you can watch with commentary in your target language.
Is your favourite “hobby” spending time with friends? Then make a new friend interested in learning the same language as you. Learn together.
Still stuck for ideas? Then listen to the radio, music or news while doing other things, even if you only understand ten percent of the content.
At the beginning, these new ways of relaxing will feel unfamiliar – perhaps even difficult. You will need time to adapt, but after a while it will be as effortless as the way you used to rest before. And most importantly, your brain will work by itself without you noticing, and will store information that it will bring up again when needed.
You might ask: isn’t it more effective to study with intensity, order and attention? This question is a trap. I am not saying that you should only study in ways that allow you to rest, but there are many moments in which this is the only way you can study. Make the most of your rest time!
3. Before You Take Your First Step, Decide Where You Want to Go
What is my “level” in my mother tongue? Most probably I would say that it’s at least “advanced”, or “native”. But that is hardly a real description. Am I able to write a contract in precise legal terms? Do I understand the slang of my language from different countries or cities, or even age groups? Am I able to explain the intricacies of grammar to a foreigner? Each one of these abilities could be a goal to attain in my own language.
In the same way, each time I decide that I will start (or continue) learning a language, besides finding a reason to learn the language, I need to set clear goals. Not only dreams, but clear specific goals, including the time and resources I am willing to spend on learning a new language.
For example, it might be that I am learning Russian because I enjoy studying “something”, and it happened that I found a Russian textbook at home. In this case my objective is to enjoy the act of studying. It is a valid objective and studying Russian is just a means to attain that goal.
Perhaps I sing in a choir that sometimes performs songs with French, Italian and Latin lyrics. I would like to understand a bit of these three languages to make the singing more meaningful. In that case what I need is good pronunciation, together with some basic ideas about grammar and vocabulary.
We can imagine a more demanding situation: I want to apply for a scholarship that requires a certain level in Japanese, or my boss just told me that in order to get promoted I need to be fluent (whatever that means) in Finnish.
It is then necessary to set clear goals. Here are some examples of goals:
- Within one month acquire vocabulary concerning seafood products.
- By 10th August be able to read in a loud voice fluently, without stammering, and clearly, even if I don't understand what I read.
- At the end of the year understand what the evening news is about in my target language.
- In three weeks decide what kind of materials I need to begin learning a language.
- Pass the intermediate level test in Quenya as a Foreign Language in February.
- Survive my trip to Inner Mongolia.
- Teach a university course in French next September.
Some people explain goal setting in terms of motivation – to stay motivated, you need a goal. That’s true, but it’s also about putting in place habits that mean you’re likely to achieve your goal. This could be attending Chinese class on Tuesdays from 1-2 p.m. Or it might be reading for five minutes in the morning, listening to music while jogging on Thursday afternoons, or watching a video course on Saturdays at 8 a.m.
It’s important to connect your big goals with concrete activities that you can do at very precise moments of your schedule. If you do this, you’ll reach your goals.
4. Create Your Own Learning Activities
For some strange reason still unknown to me, at the language schools I’ve come across they always want to teach many different things, but very rarely do they want to teach you how to learn.
In a restaurant this approach would make sense; we go to a restaurant to eat, not to learn to cook. In language learning, it does not make sense. From my experience of many failures (which led to later successes), one of the most useful things you can do is develop personal learning activities. This is especially necessary when you get beyond the basic level in a new language.
Creating personal learning activities means you examine yourself and your progress (instead of the school examining you), and find direction in your study that’s relevant to you and your goals.
How can you examine yourself? On a regular basis, ask yourself:
- What is my weak point now?
- Which area do I want to strengthen now?
- In which field do I need to acquire vocabulary?
- Where do I commit more mistakes?
- What am I afraid of?
Then create a simple learning activity to address the issues you discover. Not sure where to start with this? Just create something. Try. Fail. Work. Adjust. Change. Practise. Examine. Fail. Try again.
Some of the things I've tried (some of which work only in a full immersion situation) include:
- Going to a shopping centre and trying to buy 101 different things, even if at the end I didn't buy anything. (Don't make the vendors waste much time.)
- Listening to music while reading the lyrics and singing aloud. Then singing without reading the lyrics.
- Creating a database of phrases and vocabulary from a novel, and reviewing the list using a free flashcards app.
- Reading an article every day in my target language, and talking about it at lunch with friends or colleagues. This worked much better when they didn't know I was doing it as a language learning activity.
- Keeping a diary in my target language. One or two phrases a day.
I didn’t choose these activities randomly or because they came to my mind. I chose them knowing that, at that moment in time, I needed to improve my vocabulary or listening skills, or reach some other concrete goal. I also chose them because they work for me. They deliver the results I want.
These activities work best when you persist at them. In my experience, they don’t seem very useful to start with. But after few weeks I really begin to notice the effects.
What do I do when I need ideas for creating or improving these personal learning activities? I draw inspiration from other learners, by reading blogs and websites.
5. Love Mistakes and Laugh at Yourself
I was supposed to teach at the university. I had to pretend that I was able to teach an entire semester in the language in which I had failed so many times. I knew my pronunciation was just terrible and I had not mastered the vocabulary.
So, I found myself in front of a classroom with almost one hundred students who were surprised to see that their new teacher was a foreigner hiding under a local name. I was so nervous that I had diarrhea that day, but that is another story. I tried to calm myself and began to speak. I greeted the students and thanked them for joining my class, but after some seconds a question came to my mind: “What are you doing here? This is ridiculous.” Suddenly I got nervous again, blushed and started to sweat profusely.
I survived the semester without using a single word in English (or any other language besides Chinese). Every week I had to give birth to a new lecture. It was both a very tiring and enriching experience.
Did I perform well? Of course not. One year after the end of the semester I had dinner with one of the students, who is now a very good friend. He told me, laughing, that he didn't understand much of what I had said during class the year before. I loved that! It was another fantastic failure diploma, and coming from a friend it was a real treasure.
I enjoy my classes. I don't know if the students always do, but I do. One of the things I like is that we laugh at my mistakes. Often I mispronounce words, I forget terms, or forget the right stroke of a Chinese character. Sometimes my students cannot understand my questions, or I cannot understand their answers to my questions. Often they just smile, sometimes they laugh, they imitate my tones, they try to correct me on the spot. There is only one way to survive, and that is to learn how to enjoy failure. This has many advantages. First, we laugh, and it is good to laugh. Second, because I visibly enjoy failure, my students are not ashamed to correct me. Third, I no longer feel afraid of making mistakes.
There is a moment in which it’s particularly useful to laugh at yourself: on really bad days. We are not machines, we are not computers. In theory, once an app is installed on a phone it will work in spite of the weather and the day of the week. Human beings are not like that. It might happen that, for unknown reasons your Spanish is less fluent on Mondays. Don't get frustrated. Smile!
Even if you make hundreds of embarrassing mistakes in one day, your friends are still your friends.
6. Love Silence
Love silence, speak less. I know this sounds like poor advice. And I profoundly believe in the standard methods of language learning: listen more, speak more, read more, write more. Yes, and at the same time: love silence, and speak less.
Love silence. After each failure (grammatical mistake, wrong pronunciation), big or small, don't ignore it so as not to lose motivation. Instead, stop, in silence, and ask yourself: what went wrong? What can I learn from this? Even better, write down your mistakes. Which important word were you not able to say?
Loving silence, interior silence, enables you to be a better listener. I have seen trillions of learners who attain an intermediate level but don't progress any further. Even if they are often corrected by others, they don't notice it because they are too busy listening to themselves.
Loving silence also enables you to think a microsecond before speaking. For some language learners who love talking, it is difficult to turn long, rich, complex phrases in their mother tongue as they appear in their brains, into the simple, poor, ugly phrases in the language they are learning, but it is necessary to pass through that step.
I might want to say “Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.” But if I want to translate that into the language I am just learning, I will fail. I need to learn to stop a bit, and turn that into something much simpler, like this: “I am tired. Should I sleep or work?”
7. Don't Forget Memorisation
Memorisation has bad press. We have heard many times that good education, including language learning, is about understanding, creativity, practising, or many other things, but it’s certainly not about memorisation, as it was in the past, in the dark, oppressive, terrible past.
Memorisation is the ugly duckling of learning. It’s boring, takes so much time, and so often is useless. These characterizations are partly true, but I would still say “train your memory”. Then you might discover that memory is a fantastic realm to be explored.
One of the best ways to train your memory is through image association. This technique has been used for millennia and is about far more than simply improving your memory. I would go as far as to say that it’s a way of living, of seeing reality, of “reading” the world around us.
Image association not only helps you memorise and recall isolated facts. It helps you develop various habits of the senses and the imagination that reshape your brain.
After you’ve entered into this realm of memory training, you’ll find that the way you learn is completely different and far more effective. You’ll also have little patience for phrases such as “I have bad memory”.
Because these techniques are about a new way of seeing the world, they take time to learn, and cannot be applied immediately. The time you invest will be repaid with a high interest rate.
8. Master the Art of Language Exchange
“We are here in front of a cup of coffee for the first time, ready to help each other to learn a language. Now what?” This is a common scenario in the first session of a language exchange.
How do you get past this awkward stage?
After finding a language exchange partner, one of the first things I do is to establish a common goal. If we don't have a common vision, the language exchange will hardly work.
In my case, language exchange partners come from two sources: friends-of-friends and websites. When you find people on websites, check out their profile to see why they want to learn a language. A person might write that he or she is interested in meeting new people, romance, or cultural experience. I avoid people who want these things. Instead, I search for people who want to learn a language, because that’s my focus. Also, I never contact anyone who wants to learn ten languages, because most probably they lack real motivation, and might not persevere.
For reasons unknown to me, for the first session of face-to-face language exchanges, almost all my exchange partners choose a place more expensive than what their budget would allow for a habitual meeting. I almost always begin with: “let's go to a cheaper place.”
After we order a cup of coffee or dinner, I introduce myself and explicitly say that my focus is to learn a language. I let my exchange partner know that I have strong motivation, and that I have some experience teaching and learning. I also explain what I expect from them (“Don't worry if you don't have experience”, “It's ok if you aren’t a grammar superhero”, “If after some weeks you don't want to continue, just say it”, etc.). Finally, I outline the rules of the game (one hour for your language, one hour for my language, frequency and time, etc.).
I have been doing language exchanges for years. Other people might have different experiences, but in my case they evolve in one of two directions:
- After a few meetings we both realise that we are not going anywhere and the exchange naturally dies.
- We meet for a long time, end up being friends, and after a while we don't care much about language.
In almost all cases, I need the exchange more than my partner does, so it is up to me to arrange the meetings and to prepare the material for both languages. Often I go to their place, spending more time travelling. If we’re short of time, I sacrifice my learning time. And all that is fine. It is normal that I, being the one who needs it more, should add fuel to the engine to keep it working. I should not expect my learning partner to have the same amount of interest and make the same effort; it's part of the game. In almost all cases, sooner or later my learning partner gets influenced by my enthusiasm and becomes more active, making the entire experience rich and pleasant (In my current exchange it is the opposite, he is more hardworking and says that I always arrive late).
I’d also say that an effective language exchange session requires a clear direction. The direction might be given by a textbook or a selection of topics, or a clear goal, such as preparing for a test. I try never to arrive to a session without knowing what we will do that day. With a private teacher, it is not so different. Unless I’m still at a basic level, I don't allow a private teacher to take the reins of the class. I always let my teacher know what I want, and what I need.
Learning is my objective and I need the help of others. I can use many means to learn such as books, recordings, and language apps. But I don't use people. Even if it might mean going slower or losing some good opportunities, I try to create situations in which both my exchange partner and I receive something. At the same time, sometimes I allow myself to be used. I have my goals, others have theirs.
Language exchange is something very personal and what works for some might not work for all, but one of the key components of a fruitful exchange is laughing lots and having fun. Show gratitude when you receive help from others.