Managing Language Learning When Life Happens

From time to time, I decide that it’s time to get organized. That’s when I prepare a beautiful weekly schedule and I promise myself to stick to it. To be fair, I often don’t. I’m sure that the best language learners manage to do everything they plan 100% (or at least 95%) of the time but the point is you can still be pretty good at languages without being perfect. Today, I’ll tell you how to manage your language learning when life takes over.

Life Is Unpredictable

Here I was over a month ago with my new language learning plan that looked completely doable. 10 hours of language learning per week covering all my language needs. Sweet!
And then life took over. First, we had house renovations to finish off. Getting rid of unwanted things, buying new ones we needed, all a lot of admin with a full-time job+. Then the move came and made me realise that OMG I’m no longer a 23 year old who came to Cape Town with two suitcases. Just after we moved in, it turned out that the house still needed some work so we dealt with builders when working from home. And then we fostered a second dog. This is life and life in unpredictable.
It’s important to schedule your language learning because otherwise you’ll never progress. You need to find the time to study and to practice. Still, sometimes life takes over. You can beat yourself up about it or try to do your best given the circumstances.

When Time’s More Precious Than Ever Prioritize

To see true progress with language learning you need to do many things: listen, write, speak, read… There are grammar exercises to do and mistakes you keep making to eliminate. There’s always more and more you could do. When the circumstances are right you can do all of these things but when life is a bit crazy, you have to cut all the fluff out.
Have you heard about the 80 20 rule? It’s been popularised by self-development and productivity gurus such as Brian Tracy and Time Ferris. According to this rule, 20% of what you do gets you 80% of your results. It’s a really useful thing to keep in mind in terms of language learning.
What it means in practice, is that some of your activities give you better outcomes than others. Now, in my learning and teaching experience what exactly this is depends on a person. For me, it’s the repetitive drilling by speaking and doing exercises that works best. However, I’ve seen people who learn most effectively while actively listening or reading.
Think about when you feel like you’re learning and retaining the most. I’m not talking here about activities you like the most but the ones that you think are the best for language learning. When you have little time focus only on these things. For more tips on what to do when time matters more than money, read my other blog post.

Trick Yourself Into Learning

Prioritizing what works the best is very important so that you spend minimal time learning while getting maximum return. It’s very helpful when you’re tired and finding motivation is tough. It’s much easier to tell yourself “only this one hour class today and I’m done for the week” than feel that it’s just one thing among many other activities to tick off the list. The first scenario feels invigorating (doable, at worst), the second one daunting. Tricking yourself into learning is sometimes the only option to still have anything done!
You can also add additional strategies to your language learning in dire times. Choose a movie or a series in your target language over something in your native language. Read a comic book in a target language for fun. When researching something on Wikipedia for leisure, try reading the article in the language you’re learning. There are many ways to add a bit of language to your life in a way that doesn’t feel like work. I speak more about such things in my post 5 Easy Language Learning Opportunities.

Don’t Be a Douche to Yourself

It’s very easy to be hard on yourself, when things are a bit out of control. After all, you were supposed to be doing this or that and it’s just not happening. How can you be so stupid and lazy? There are people who have three kids, a responsible job AND a side business! Blah blah blah blah blah, your brain continues to make you feel bad. It’s counterproductive.
This isn’t a self-help blog so I won’t go on about what to do about your inner critic. For me, meditating, exercising, sleeping well and breathing deeply helps. You can try these and see for yourself. In any case, allow this voice to stay with you but try not pay attention to it. There are millions of people worse off than you are and millions of people who are better off. You are who you are, just chill and do your best whatever it means.
Beating yourself up about the lack of progress just kills your motivation. It also makes you feel like learning is just another chore. This isn’t good for you and can get you on a bender where you keep improving your mood with short-term pleasure. A day or two of being lazy won’t kill your language learning goals. Being a douche to yourself may turn a small detour into a big one, though. The longer the break, the more difficult it is to get back on track.

Just Do It. Thanks, Nike!

Identify what you consider to be your priorities and just do it. No excuses. For me, those were two sessions of Russian every week. It didn’t matter that some of them happened on a Sunday evening, I kept my promise to myself. Sure, I was ashamed in front of my teacher and language partner that I clearly haven’t done anything since our last meeting. I was ashamed and I forced myself to do it anyway.
Do whatever it takes to keep you going even if it’s at snail’s pace. It does feel well to achieve even the smallest goals.

Ok, meus amigos. That’s it for today. I hope this PEP talk will help you with your motivation and language learning goals when life is a bit too out of hand. Shihemi se shpejti!

Optimize Your Language Learning: When Time Matters More Than Money

When I was a student and I had a lot of time but not so much money, free language learning resources where what I relied on. Only occasionally, I’d spoil myself with a book (that I often wouldn’t use…).
The Internet is full of amazing free resources when you have time to look for them. Many free resources are as good as paid ones and I’m all for not wasting money! Having said that, sometimes paying for resources makes sense. It’s true when you don’t have that much time but money is less of an issue.

1. Pay Only For What’s Worth It

When I say that money is less of an issue, I don’t mind that you need to be a millionaire to pay for your language learning resources. It’s simply that throwing some cash that way may help you progress without spending much time looking for resources.
You should only pay for what’s worth paying for, though. Let me tell you what’s NOT worth it – organised group courses in language schools. You can get a private tutor in places such as Italki or Verbling for a fraction of the price and they’ll focus on your needs only. You can’t win with it, if your focus is truly on language learning (and not, for instance, finding new friends). I write more about this in my post “Do I need a language teacher?“.
Remember that the fact that an app needs to be paid for doesn’t make it good either. Read about a product you want to invest in, before buying it. Many apps have a nice freemium or free trials. This is my favourite way of paying for things – once I know what it’s all about. I’m in general catious with products that don’t give you a sample. If the product is good, what are they scared of?

2. Be Wary of Reviews

Just because someone on the Internet said that something is good it doesn’t mean that it’s good. We have this expression in Polish that in a non-literal translation means that someone gets excited over every sh*t (byle gównem się podnieca). I don’t think these people mean harm but they may just not know what they’re talking about.
Just look at the hype around Duolingo. It’s really not a bad product and it has its uses. What it won’t do, though, is teach you the language on its own. You can use it to complement your study but you can’t fully rely in it.
A design and user-friendliness are often things that people pay attention to. This is why you should read reviews from people who know something about language learning and/or teaching. You can find many reviews by teachers, language learners and polyglots. They’re the ones to be trusted.

3. Minimalism Rules – Don’t Buy Too Much

A new passion can result in you spending a lot of money on it. The more you spend, the more probable is that your money will go to waste. Seeing that you have disposable income (unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth) you’re probably at a stage in your life when you work quite a bit. In fact, the reason why you spend money on resources is because you want to save time.
This means you probably don’t have time to use every app/book under the Sun. You should be picky with what you buy and spend your time on.
What usually works for me is one book called something along the lines of Teach Yourself [Language or Learn [Language] which claims to be a complete guide for a given level or two. Sure, these books can differ in quality but between a book like this, a teacher, an a good app for vocabulary learning, you’re pretty much sorted. The only thing you may want to invest some time in looking for are additional resources for listening comprehension. If you still have time left, find a great language partner for additional practice.

4. Schedule Your Learning Commitments

Even with three tools you should plan your learning. It’s easy to get distracted and your motivation will vary. Insert your language learning commitments into your calendar and stick to it, whether you feel like it or not.
If that doesn’t work for you because your schedule varies a lot, at a minimum write down language goals such as: 1 lesson, 2 x 30 minutes with the book, 3 x 15 minutes with the app. Squeeze it in as convenient, just not all on a Sunday evening, asseblief.
I’d lie if I told you I’m good with sticking to a schedule but I can tell you then when I’m good at it I always see quick results.

5. Value Your Time

If a resource or a teacher isn’t working for you, change it. There are certain thing in language learning that work for everyone. For instance, being systematic. In general, though, we are all different and something that works for others may not work for you.
Whatever happens just don’t get discouraged from learning altogether. It may happen that you try many teachers before you find someone who you like. It’s much better to waste a bit of time early on in the search of what works then lose your mojo completely later on.
Tutors can be really bad. Even before my Russian language experiment, I encountered some pretty bad Russian teachers. This means I’ve had lessons with +/- 20 people before I settled on who’ll help me. The is true for for apps and books.
When frustrated breathe in and out. Remember that language learning is a long term game!

I hope this has been helpful for you guys. I will soon right something for those of you who have more time than money! Language learning can be customised to all needs 🙂 Uvidíme se! Knús!

How to Find a Great Language Partner

Language partnerships are on the rise thanks to the insane development of technology. Boy, has it’s changed the language learning landscape!
I remember really struggling to find people the first time round when I started with my Spanish (+/- 10 years ago). Now Spanish isn’t even my main language focus but I have short conversations in Spanish with people daily 😀
Language partnerships, both profound and superficial are an amazing tool to improve your language skills. Today I’ll share my insight about finding a great language partner.

Who’s a Great Language Partner?

Ha! It depends on your level. In the very beginning anyone will do. Having super simple conversations with as many people as you can is the way to go.
The more advanced your level, the more tricky it gets. A great language partner is someone you like to talk to… BUT if you enjoy the conversation too much you may be tempted to use another language to express yourself (usually English).
Here are some traits you should look out for in a conversation partner:

  • talkative – your conversation partner should have things to say and be easy to talk to
  • engaging – they should also encourage you to speak
  • focused – if their language goal is important to them, they will help you stay motivated
  • nice – yes, someone simply being a nice person makes exchanges much more fun
  • good in the target language – a native speaker means nothing. I’ve seen embarrassingly bad grammar and poor vocabulary from people who chuckle when they hear an accent. I’ve also seen amazing skills in people who’ve been studying for a relatively short time. A native speaker or not your language partner should have a decent level in the language they help you with.
  • NOT trying to get into your pants – probably more of a problem for female learners but a big problem nonetheless.

Having a language in common may speed the process up, particularly for beginner to intermediate levels. Even at higher levels it really helps with accuracy. Needles to say that the skills you both have in the language in common must be decent for it to be helpful.

Where to Find a Great Language Partner?

There are many places you can try to look for language partners. I’ve found language partners on Internations, Meet-Up and Couchsurfing. However, for the sake of simplicity you can go straight for places aimed at finding language partners:

  • Italki – You can advertise that you’re looking for a language partner or browse what’s been posted by others. It’s pretty cool that as a predominantly language teaching platform they allow and facilitate language partnerships.
  • Tandem – I haven’t been using this app for long but I’m already a big fan. There are countless users and you can chat to numerous people at the same time. You can have calls but you can also leave a message or a voice note and come back to the conversation whenever it suits you.
  • HelloTalk – It’s very much like Tandem but less user friendly and seems to have less people on it.

I’m sure there are some other great places and if you know them let me know in the comments’. More isn’t always better, though. If you just use the ones I’ve mentioned you’ll be covered for your language partner needs.

Have you tried out language partnership as a method of language learning yet? Let me know your thoughts 🙂 Multumesc pentru citit! Do zobaczenia!

Should I Study a Language at University?

Ahoj! Studying languages is pretty tempting for people interested in humanities. It also seems like a great way to become fluent in a language. However, considering the cost of studies and the time you need to complete a degree is getting a language degree a good return on investment? Here’s your chance to listen to someone who obtained a Master’s Degree in English Studies 9 years ago.

Consider Your Goals

Would you like to work as an interpreter or a translator? If yes, I would say that getting a language degree or studying applied linguistics is a good idea. You can become a professional in this industry without having a degree but getting one opens many doors for you. Studying languages helps you to connect with people who are interested in working in the industry as well as with those looking to hire. This can prove invaluable.
If you’re after money (and who isn’t?) go for rare languages. Graduates of sinology can demand way higher rates than those with a degree in French or English.

Would you like to work as a teacher? If yes then unless you’re set on working in schools, there’s no need to get a degree. There are many qualifications, among them prestigious ones such as CELTA and DELTA, that allow you to become a teacher. Such diplomas and certificates are available for many languages. They usually cost a fraction of the price of a degree and are much less time consuming. With a certificate in hand you can join the labour market and start getting valuable experience that will allow you to charge more faster.

Would you like to work as… you have no idea what it is that you want to do? Well, getting a language degree will certainly boost your language skills. Still, this can be done in many other cheaper and faster ways.
In general, during your studies you’ll dive into literature, history or linguistics. Does this sound fascinating or do you feel lukewarm about it? Keep in mind that very few people make it into academia. There are also few direct work opportunities other than translating or teaching.
Sure, having any degree may mean slightly higher earnings. In some cases it gives you better chances of getting hired and promoted. However, the market is oversaturated with graduates of humanities. Like it or don’t, but you may end up landing a job way below your education level. Soft skills are simply not particularly valued.

Would you like to move to a country where the language is spoken? PLEASE DON’T SPEND 3-6 YEARS GETTING A LANGUAGE DEGREE. Unless it’s from Oxford, Cambridge or an Ivy League university, of course. Yet again, like it or not but employers (almost) always prefer native speakers for language jobs (writing, editing, proofreading and similar). They’re also prejudiced against degrees from countries were a given language isn’t spoken.

Manage Your Expectations

Another important thing with studying languages are your expectations. First of all, the level you’ll reach after completing your degree differs depending on a language. In many countries popular languages have a minimum entry language level (often B1 or B2). With less popular languages it’s often assumed you speak no language initially. This limits where you can get in 3-6 years.
Language studies are very good at teaching you academic language skills and good grammar. Pronunciation courses are often a part of the curriculum. Your accent will therefore be often better than that of a typical speaker from your country. You’ll also read complex and difficult texts and listen to challenging recordings. If you wanted to study in another country or pass language exams, you’d be very well prepared to do so.
Unfortunately, language studies have their limitations. There are many lectures and not so many opportunities for you to speak. When you do get an opportunity to speak you often have to conquer the fear of both 1) speaking in front of the group and 2) doing so in a foreign language. What you speak about when you do speak is highbrow stuff. It’s great in that context but in real life you’ll sound funny.
You also learn A LOT of vocabulary but upon graduation you don’t know that you need tickets for the 8PM show in the cinema or that an alternative to a bottled beer is a draft. And this is after you’ve written your thesis in that language!
What does this mean in practice? That people after language studies are often not actually fluent, particularly in the spoken language. You can’t rely fully on your studies to learn real life language.
It also means that people who graduate often deal with an impostor syndrome. Their degree sets the expectations of others very high. In reality, they may not be confident at all in a language. Speaking in a workplace is another cup of tea that discussing Derrida.

Before You Go

Look, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t study English literature, if you love it. I did! I have a roof over my head and I’ve had some sort of job most of my professional life. To be fair these jobs were partially due to the fact that I’m fluent in three other languages but I digress… The point is, you’ll make it one way or another, if you’re stubborn and hard-working.
Having said that, don’t go into languages if it’s just something to study. There are simply better things to study that will give you more professional opportunities (how about marketing or project management?). If you want to learn a language there are other ways to do so. That’s also true for language teaching.
If you do decide to study a language, make sure that you know what you’re doing it for. Ok, that’s it for today!
Buena suerte! Vi ses!

Language Exams: To Take or Not to Take

I could write a book about what I think about language exams because it’s so complicated 😀 However, I’ll spare you that and just summarise my points as concisely as I can in this blog post.
Language exams definitely require a lot of preparation and they often not cheap. Like any exams they’re also stressful. This means that it’s good to have a reason to take them. Here are some of the motivations.

You Have to Pass an Exam

This is the most common motivation for taking language exams. Maybe you’re considering moving countries or studying abroad, maybe your boss told you you need to do it. If that’s the case keep the following in mind:

  • Make sure that you know where and when to take it. Also, register in advance and ideally pass it way before your deadline to allow additional time for a retake.
  • Prepare for this specific exam
  • Make sure you know what score you need and plan your study accordingly

Remember that you have to be realistic about your timeline. People can learn a language very fast but you should know your limitations. If you’re short on time, invest in an intensive course or ideally both that and a private tutor.

You Want to Have Some Proof of Your Language Skills

This one is more tricky because then you have more options when it comes to choosing exams. Consider your needs carefully and make sure that you take an exam that will suit you. Any official exam will do for general professional purposes. If you would like to have more options for the future, however, you may want to choose a specific exam. For instance, with English exams the US may have a strong preference for IELTS but European countries often accept other official language exams too.
Honestly, I haven’t seen a difference in how potential employers and clients treat me since I passed French language exams. Many companies still have internal language tests. There’s a good reason for that too! I’ve heard of a number of situations when someone exaggerated their languages skills and was unable to perform their job.
It doesn’t have to be wilful misleading: sometimes people pass language exams but completely abandon the language after them. Two years of no language exposure can really get you from hero to almost zero. Many places prefer exams taken in the last two years, some exams also have an expiration date.
If you want to make sure that an exam can really help you Google is your friend. You can also contact student advisors of local language schools and ask them for help.

You Want Some Motivation to Keep Learning the Language

With your main motivation for the exam being, well, motivation, taking a language exam is a great tool. By preparing to an exam you have to practise your active and passive skills on a variety of topics. Your vocabulary will grow and you’ll definitely see a lot of improvement in your spoken and written language skills. You’ll also learn a lot about the country’s culture and history, while working with old exam papers.
The best thing you can do for your motivation is to commit to an exam date. In other words, don’t be me! I’ve been postponing my C2 Italian language exam for over a year now. In my defence it’s mostly, because the local Dante Institute refuses to organise it for one person only and flying to another city here costs and arm and a leg.

Should You Take a Language Exam?

If you have to do it – yes! If there’s a chance it’ll improve your career prospects – yes! If it help you to motivate yourself to keep learning – yes!
So when not to take such exams? Well, language exams are academically oriented. This means that to pass them you need to learn how to write in for official and non-official purposes. At higher levels you have to write essays and give speeches.
If you’re only having fun with the language or speaking it is enough for your needs, preparing for such formal exams may suck the fun out of it.
What’s more, it’s questionable how much such exams really prove. As I mentioned before, many companies will still give you some kind of test to check your skills. This often means that your performance will be tested during job specific tasks.
Sure, it’s great that you have your German exam but can you communicate with a Germn speaking client? This is what your employer wants to know. In other words, an exam can be helpful to get your foot in the door but don’t count on it being a free pass to get jobs requiring language skills.

I hope that you’ve found your answer to the question: “Should I pass a language exam?” in this blog post. If you have any questions, the comments’ section is there for you 🙂 À bientôt mes amis ! Udanego weekendu!

Language Experiment: 12 Days of Russian Lessons

I heard about the Polyglot Gathering 2020 from a student of mine before the pandemic was a thing. Sigh. The silver-lining is that the gathering moved online and therefore I was able to attend it. I’m still going to comment on some speeches but I’m waiting for the organizers to upload them on their channel so that you guys can also access them.
Okay, so to get to the point, which is something I always have a problem doing (you see!) in preparation to this gathering I decided to give my Russian a quick boost. As you can learn from the post Lessons on My language Failures I’m up and down with my language learning. This means that in a year and a half of “learning” Russian I perhaps did two months of study with months on end of not doing ANYTHING with it.
Nonetheless, the gathering was there on the horizon with its language practice opportunities and I knew that “Извините пожалуйста, где находится банкомат?” (Excuse me, do you know where the nearest ATM is?) was not the best conversation starter. I decided to try an experiment and do a lesson of Russian every day for the remaining 12 days. I used professional and community tutors on italki and only stayed with a teacher, if I liked them. Below are some of my findings.

1. Some Teachers Are Great, Some Are Hopeless

Instant enlightenment. I guess it’s something that I learnt a long time ago but somehow forgot about it because I was lucky with teachers for a long time. Community tutors or professional teachers alike can be great or totally not.
During my experiment I had lessons where teachers expected ME to lead the lesson. This means there were uncomfortable silences and prolonged pauses. Sure, anyone can be in a situation when they need to gather their thoughts but if your teacher makes you feel it’s your job to lead the lesson, they suck.
I enjoyed the following mixture of teacher’s characteristic:

  • Nice

    I’m not kidding, just a nice person who smiles from time to time makes it much easier for you to learn. When they don’t make you feel judged and encourage you it’s really important for your progress. We all know we sound silly in the beginning when learning a new language so someone who can put us at ease is gold.
    And yes, unfortunately not all teachers think it’s important. I literally had a teacher roll her eyes at me when I was struggling with telling the time in Russian. NOT cool!
  • Prepared

    If a teacher comes for the lesson unprepared it’s a bad sign. Even if you’re just doing informal conversation practice and they have no questions/activities prepared for when the conversation dies out this means they’re not prepared.
  • Good at explaining the language

    This is one thing at which non-native speaking teachers are often much better than native ones. It’s simply because they’ve been through the process. Teaching courses are theory and somehow they don’t really really understand certain problems of learners.
    Having said that, I find native teachers fluent in at least one foreign language with a lot of experience really good at it too.

2. Progress Sometimes Comes Later

This is something I heard Lydia Machova saying during her speech at the gathering and I can totally relate to. For the most part of my twelve day experiment I couldn’t see much progress. Sure, I could introduce myself much better after doing it 9 times (I’ve tried 9 different teachers) but other than that I didn’t feel like my Russian was getting any better. This was obviously very frustrating. I started doubting myself.
Weirdly, the progress came only a week or two after the conference, when my Russian was downgraded to two lessons a week, homework and some vocabulary learning. One day out of the blue I was able to use vocabulary and structures learnt during the experiment. I guess the take home message here is that you just have to be persistent and the results will come.

3. You Need That Homework and You Need It to Be Good

You’ll spend so much more money on your lessons, if you don’t work on your own. Still, not all homework is equal. It was drilling what I’d covered during lessons that really helped me not some random exercises.
Don’t move on to anything else before you feel more or less at ease with a new topic, otherwise you’ll be repeating your mistakes and they will fossilize. Ask your teacher to slow down. That’s what 1-on-1 teaching is made for and that’s why it’s much more efficient than group work.
You can also create you own homework by expanding to weaknesses that came up during lessons. I’m, for one, a bit cavalier with Russian cases because my native language has given me quite a good intuition about them. The intuition can only get me so far, though. I can’t get away without drills for the cases that I find counterintuitive and these are really difficult to work on.

4. Personality Differences Can Hinder Your Progress

I mentioned a number of things when it comes to teachers in point 1 but this one needs a separate paragraph. As much as someone can be a good teacher there are certain issues that may hinder your progress, namely, major personality differences. If you’re supposed to be getting frustrated with your teacher or your conversations won’t flow because you’re very different, rather change them.
During the experiment I would decide whether to stay with a teacher or nor after one lesson. This doesn’t mean 7 teachers I rejected were bad teachers but it means that their teaching style and/or personality and/or beliefs would not make us a good match longterm.
For instance, for many people it’s surprising that I’m Polish and I live in South Africa. Add to that that I moved here for work (as a woman!!!) and you may get into certain conversations you don’t want to be having.
I understand genuine interest. “How come did you end up in South Africa?” and similar are just good conversation starters. However, I can’t deal with what I’d call interrogation driven by someone’s lack of appreciation for all kinds of diversity. I’m not interested in explaining my life choices to people who are there to teach me a language.
This experiment did cause me a bit of fuming but actually, more sadness about how some people see the world. Still, I ended it walking away with two great Russian teachers whom I gladly share with you: Anastasia and Marina.

5. Your Attitude Is Crucial

Did I manage to have a lesson every day for 12 days? Sure! This doesn’t mean that these lessons were equally effective, though and I was to blame too. Particularly on the weekend I really had to push myself to even attend a lesson and my attitude was just wanting to be done with it. A great teacher can help you with motivation but when you’re very tired or low the learning process is much less effective.
When not participating in an experiment book a lesson for when you know you can concentrate on what’s being discussed. Don’t add a lesson to a day that you know will be long and frustrating.

7. There’s Something About Kickstarting

When you struggle with language learning motivation it’s a good idea to kickstart your progress by making an intense effort like I did in my experiment. The thing is, life’s busy and language learning can be slow when you just put two hours a week into it. A crash course is a great idea to start with and whenever you feel like you’re getting nowhere you can just do a challange similar to the one I just did.
My 12-day Russian marathon has certainly improved my vocabulary and knowledge of important phrases A LOT. I advanced from using Polish words and hoping for the best to actually knowing basic Russian words, phrases and structures beyond my survival travel vocabulary. More importantly, my motivation to learn Russian has been high ever since I completed the experiment.

PEP Talk

Learning a language is a commitment and sometimes it may feel like a chore but whatever your goal is you’ll feel amazing, if you achieve it. You’re reading this blog so you’re probably a person who values their time and money and wants quick and sustainable results.
To do better in a language you must learn better. To learn better (= smarter rather than more) you need motivation. You can spend years and years in language courses and schools putting your progress in someone else’s hands or really commit and become intermediate or higher in a year. These are completely achievable goals with the right tools.
I know it, because I did it before and I’m trying to crack the code of how one can do it over and over again. This is because I also know that trying to optimize your language learning process means going against years if not centuries of old school and ineffective language teaching. If you don’t fight for yourself you’ll loose your motivation, money and perhaps even the interest in learning a given language. We can do it!
Bonne chance à vous et a moi ! À bientôt !

5 Easy Language Learning Opportunities

Thinking about language learning as a game is a great way to go about it. Sure, you’ll need to put some hard work too but to succeed it really helps to have fun. When you think about learning a new language in that way, you start to see opportunities in many different place. Here are some things that’s been working for me:

1. Social Media in Your Target Language

Did you know that an average user spends almost 2 and a half hours on social media in 2020? Even if you’re not a heavy social media user, setting your social media in your target language will give you everyday exposure.
It’s also pretty easy to learn vocabulary that way because you’re dealing with an interface you already know. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can set your phone to your target language too.
I’ve been mostly successful with this technique apart from one dreadful episode when I was having a go at Arabic (you can read about lessons from my language learning failures here). I was unable to do anything on my phone because I was so confused. It took me a few hours to set my phone back to a language I could actually understand!
You can also use social media to learn languages by following certain accounts. I’ve written about it in my post “How to Use Instagram to Help You Learn a Language“.

2. Sticky Notes

Whenever my student struggles with a particular word or expression for a long time I ask them to write it down and stick it to their fridge. They laugh but they do it and it helps. If you’re dealing with a number of words you’re trying to remember, you may spread them around the house too.
Looking at a given expression a few times a day, will help you remember it. Stubborn expressions are, well, stubborn so you need to defeat the enemy with their own weapons.
Sticky notes are also super useful for learning household vocabulary, when you stick names of items in your house in your target language on these items. Are you worried about the environment? Most sticky notes are recyclable (have a look at the FAQ section of Post-It, for instance).
A fair warning: this method has its limits. The more sticky notes around, the more likely you are to stop paying attention to them. You should also change them regularly because feeling that you “know” a word will make you overlook it.

3. Labels

This is a trick that I discovered on a toilet once when I had nothing to read so I started to study labels on the toilet paper packaging. Labels for cosmetics, cleaning products, medication, packed food and similar are usually translated to a number of languages. It’s easy to understand what it says in your target language as you can compare it to the language you know.
Labels are a cool tool because they give you naturally sounding words and expressions and not just a translation without the context, which is often the case with dictionaries. You can also squeeze this trick in quite easily, when doing your household chores or waiting for a cup of tea to brew.

4. Podcasts

Language learning podcasts such as coffee break languages or news in slow… are great for beginners and intermediate students, while more advanced students can benefit from actual podcasts in their target language.
You can listen to podcasts when shopping, commuting or cleaning the house. You can also add them to you runs or dog walks. In other words, whenever your hands are free you can squeeze a bit of listening comprehension in.
Just a note to working with language learning podcasts: make sure there’s not too much banter in a language different to your target language. Some podcasts can be very entertaining to listen to and teach you a lot about the culture of a given country, but if there’s not enough of the target language you’ll unlikely to see any progress.

5. Daily News and Content

If you follow the news, you can switch to listening to it or reading it in your target language. I’d recommend reading at lower levels, unless there’s an “easy news” option you’ve found.
You don’t read the news? Try reading about things you’re interested in, in your target language.
In the beginning shorter articles work better, you can even just have a look at the headlines daily. The point of building habits like this is that they will be more and more helpful as your understanding increases.
A good way to work with news and content is also reading about the same topic in two languages which significantly increases your understanding. Spend 10 minutes a day doing that and you’ll see for yourself what I mean.

I hope this list of language learning opportunities will be helpful to you. If you don’t know how to use a method for your level, let me know in the comments section and I’ll gladly help. Do you have your own tricks? Do share!

Adiós por ahora, queridos amigos! Hablamos pronto!

Lessons from My Language Learning Failures

I’m usually a pretty productive individual but I must say that I’ve been struggling with having things done in the last two months (because COVID). My workload is the same (touch wood) as before and if anything I have more time for doing cool things such as working on my Russian. And yet, I haven’t even done a Duolingo lesson in over a month.
I don’t think I have to tell anyone that life is tough at the moment, even for those fortunate enough to still have jobs. All I’ve been really doing is reading a lot and playing computer games, which are both coping mechanisms I’ve been using since childhood.
I think this is a perfect opportunity to speak about my language failures. I’m fluent in four languages but I could have been fluent in at least 7 had I been more consistent, motivated and productive. Why would I talk about these failures? Because there are lessons there to be learnt there, of course.

The Unheimlich German

German was not my language of choice. In the early 90’s German was THE language you learned as a second foreign language after English in Polish schools.
I was definitely not excited about learning it. I liked school but languages weren’t really my thing back then plus I didn’t find German particularly appealing. Also, my father’s wife at the time was a German philologist and she never failed to remind me how little of German I knew and how many mistakes I made. The school experience was full of grammar exercises, memorising vocabulary and little speaking practice. After 3 years of German and knowing only the bare essentials I was thrilled to move on to French traumatising my parents outraged at my decision of abandoning what I started. Their reaction was nothing else than sunk cost fallacy and I proved them wrong quickly.
Learning French in high school taught me I loved learning languages. After 2 years of learning with a group of beginners, I realised that by ACTUALLY learning what’s assigned you can get to an intermediate level in that time. While others still struggled with the basics, I decided to spend three weeks of my summer on a French course. When I got back to school I asked to be moved to a more advanced group of people who had 3 years of French ahead of me. The teachers didn’t love the idea and everyone expected me to fail. I was stressed, I was shy but I ended up being completely fine. I finished the year with a B in French and concluded it with the matric exam (A-levels equivalent) on both the basic (CEFR B1) and advanced (CEFR B2) level. I got 98% on B1 and 78% on B2.
What was different between my German and my French? In both cases we’re talking about 3 years. In high school I had 5 hours of French as opposed to 2 hours of German in middle school, but this doesn’t account for the difference. Most people who started with me as beginners in French spoke little French towards graduation, not more than I spoke German after middle school. Similarly, as much as there was no evil stepmother to discourage me from French, I had a number of teachers against me and the population of Paris during my course.
What really differed was: my motivation, my determination to succeed, my eagerness to show that the system is outdated and my genuine interest in French.

The Evasivo Spanish

If you google my name, you’ll find some bios of mine saying that I’m currently learning Spanish (to be fair you’ll find some saying that I’m learning Russian too, sighs). Spanish has been on my wishlist for years and years and I’ve had numerous attempts at learning it. I had two language partners during my studies I’d see regularly (it didn’t help with my Spanish that I made out with one of them and then he told me he wasn’t ready for a girlfriend!). I tried studying with books and with apps later but without much success.
In the meantime I became fluent in Italian by attending two intensive summer courses with two girlfriends and doing some annual courses in between. I took my first intensive summer course in Italian in summer 2008. In summer 2010 I took the B2 exam at my university and got a B+, leaving my examiners on the oral exam with their mouth agape.
What was the difference here? For Italian I had the structure and girlfriends to share my passion with (all hot Italian boys didn’t hurt either). For Spanish I had a liking for the language, for sure but no real structure. Also, by the time I was fluent in Italian between my French and Italian I understood a lot of Spanish which made me additionally lazy.

The Onoorkomelike Afrikaans

When I first came to South Africa, the social circle I ended up hanging out with was predominantly Afrikaans-speaking. That meant that whenever they got drunk (and we got drunk A LOT) they’d switch to Afrikaans, the language that I didn’t understand. I got an exchange partner I saw four times a week and within few months I was able to understand quite a bit of Afrikaans and have basic conversations. When the group and I drifted apart I just lacked the motivation to keep going and today I can only tell people that I speak Afrikaans a bit (n bietjie) or not at all (Ek praat nie Afrikaans nie!), depending on whether they look like someone I want to make the effort with or not.
What went wrong here? It’s complicated. There are millions of reasons why I’m no longer learning Afrikaans. One is that the people who speak it usually also speak English. The other that I feel that maybe a different South African language such as Zulu or Xhosa would be a better choice. Last but not least, my life wouldn’t really change in any positive way if I spoke it.

What about Russian?

I think it’s too early to count Russian among my language failures. The first time I tried to learn was two weeks in high school one summer with a book and CD recordings. Thanks to that experience, I can proudly say “Excuse me, does this train go to Minsk?” (Извините, пожалуйста. Этот поезд идет в Минск?) to this day!
The second time was a month before our trip to Azerbaijan in March 2019. I learnt to read Cyrillic and important survival expressions during a self-made crash course. The third time was three or four months ago when I decided to give it a try again and as you know I failed to build on my newly regained enthusiasm because COVID 19. And also, because I’m myself which means that I tend to have too many irons in the fire and apart from learning Russian I was trying to prepare to my C2 exam in Italian and make myself sound British.

Lessons From This TLDR Post

I’m certainly capable of learning languages and learning them fast too (and so are YOU and anyone who’s willing to put in the work) but the learning process requires the right circumstances to happen:

  • You need something you’re excited about that has to do with the language you’re learning, in other words, you need a strong WHY for choosing a given language in the first place
  • You need motivation and determination
  • You need structure, ideally not entirely self-imposed (get a motivated exchange partner or even better a language tutor or enroll on a course)
  • Strike while the iron is hot – maximise on your initial excitement with learning a new language and get as much done as you can then

Good luck on your language journey and good luck to me too!

How to Use Instagram to Help you Learn a Language

I’m not a fan of social media. I deleted my Facebook over a year ago and it was one of the best decisions in my life in terms of saving time. I think anyone who uses social media knows how easy it is to scroll mindlessly through pictures of children and weddings of people one no longer care about. Here, here.
I do find a lot of value in terms of language learning on Instagram, though. Yes, I’m fluent in French and Italian but it doesn’t mean that I can just stop working on these languages. This is why my feed on magda_linga is full not only of Russian but also if Italian and French resources.

Who to Follow?

Instagram has a lot of good accounts with language learning content. There are three main types of accounts that you’ll see out there:

  • Studygrams – this is something I don’t understand at all and don’t find useful for language learning. Learners on studygrams post what they learn on a given day and what resources they use to do it.
    It’s often location specific as resources include books you can’t get everywhere and it’s difficult to learn anything from following those accounts. Occasionally, there are some study tips but this doesn’t seem to be the main point.
    In my opinion, it’s a great place for moaning and commiseration about the difficulty of a given language but in general talking about productivity and watching other people’s productivity makes you less and not more productive.
  • Polyglot accounts – polyglot accounts are useful not only for people who speak many languages. Yes, there’s a bit of nerd content there such as info about Polyglot Gathering 2020 and polyglot specific content but such accounts are also full of language learning tricks and tips. They rarely focus on a specific language, rather go to the “backend” of language learning providing you with super useful hacks on how NOT to spend 10 years learning a language in a language school and still don’t speak the language well.
  • Language specific accounts – language specific accounts are useful for learning vocabulary and some grammar. They do miracles for beginners but they’re also useful for intermediate and advanced students (even just as a refresher). Such accounts are created mostly by language learning enthusiasts, teachers and language schools.

How to Find the Right Accounts?

Search for language learning hashtags and see what comes up. Start with something simple like #learnrussian. You can review accounts that pop in your search and have a look at them. You’ll also see more related hashtags that you can use to continue with your search.
Add accounts that look good to you. Don’t always let the number of followers to sway you one way or another. People often go for what’s visually appealing and not for what will really help you increase your vocabulary.
Observe an account for a week and, if it’s not working for you get rid of it. Your feed shouldn’t have more than 10 accounts (ideally half of that!) for one language because you won’t be able to get value out of it. Remember to be ruthless and unfollow if that’s not what you’re looking for.

How to Use Such Accounts to Learn?

Polyglot accounts are full of language tips. Make notes and check in practice whether they work for you. It’s really the case of different strokes for different folks.
There are rules that are universally true like, for instance, you can’t learn the language without any effort. However, a lot of language learning has to do with your language goal and with your personal preferences.
True polyglots mostly know what they’re talking about so you can trust them to help you actually learn the language and not just spend money in the process.
Language specific accounts give you a lot of vocabulary, often used in a context and with pronunciation. Use them to build your vocabulary and engage with the people you follow to practise your language skills. Even simple replies to posts you write over time will help you a lot in expressing yourself in a language.
Last but not least, remember that Instagram is an additional tool and it won’t work as a principal tool for language learner. If you need to prepare a crash course for yourself, click on the link to get some tips.

Instagram, if used wisely, is a wonderful source of quality language learning content. Fill your feed with words and expressions of a language you’re learning and your time spent scrolling on Instagram won’t be wasted.
Stay tuned for language specific Instagram recommendations and let me know in the comments’ section what you use for language learning.

How to Prepare a Crash Language Course for Yourself

Learning a language and becoming fluent in it is a long process. Sometimes you don’t have time for that or you simply don’t need to be fluent in a given language for your purposes. Is there a way to cover the basics in a short time? Of course! You’ll just have to prepare a crash language course for yourself.
All the apps and resources I mention in this post can be used for free. All you need is a bit of effort, some planning and motivation.

Get a Timeline

How much you can learn depends to a vast extent on how much time you have. 90 days is much easier to work with than 30 days but with enough commitment, you can become conversational in a month.
Once you know how much time you have, make an actual plan of action.
Try to be realistic about how much time you can spend learning. Half an hour daily is enough and you’re likely fail, if you promise yourself to do more than that. Life is busy and unless you have plenty of time on your hands it’s difficult to free up more of it for something that would be nice to do but what isn’t your priority.

Focus on What You Really Need

You have to be realistic how much you can achieve in a short time. If a language you’re learning uses the alphabet you already know, you’re winning.
Remember that for the purpose of basic communication skills, you don’t necessarily need to be able to write. I’d still recommend you use apps such as Duolingo or Clozemaster to learn words but don’t obsess too much about your spelling skills. As long as you can read simple signs and items on the menu, you’re going to be fine. Any forms you’d have to complete will likely be in English, anyway.
Now, it’s a bit more difficult if you don’t know the alphabet of a given language. In this case you should spend the first week simply learning how to read and practising writing words. Trust me, you’ll need it to get around.
One thing that you’ll need in both cases is learn a lot of vocabulary. Focus on learning as many words relating to what you need as you can. If the language has unpredictable plural forms, remember to memorise them along with singular forms.
You absolutely have to cover the following topics: food and drink, asking about directions, numbers, attractions, presenting yourself and having very small talk. You’ll be okay, if you cover that. Remember also to learn basic verbs in useful forms such as “Do you know where…?”, “Could you…?”, “I’d like to…” and similar. If there’s anything that’s important to your well being, for instance, you’re allergic to something or have food preferences such as vegetarianism, learn the whole phrase.

Ignore the Rest

Don’t try to read lengthy articles to remember vocabulary and don’t watch movies to learn either. If you have more time, you can try to surrounding yourself with the language more by doing these things but this isn’t what you need to learn during your crash course.
Your should focus on the basics. If you have 30 days to speak conversational [insert language] there is simply no time for everything. You may decide to continue your language journey later on but during your crash course, you should focus only on what you really need to survive, if it turns out no one speaks English or another language you already know.

Plan Your Practice

You should plan your week in advance (including finding the right resources, downloading apps) at least a day before the next weeks starts. A sample one week course plan, let’s call it Food and Restaurant week, would look like this:

  • Day 1: 10 minutes with Duolingo, 20 minutes of local dishes vocabulary practice list found online
  • Day 2: 30 minutes with fruit and vegetable vocabulary sets on Quizlet
  • Day 3: 30 minutes with “At the restaurant” lesson with Busuu
  • Day 4: 30 minutes of conversation practice with a tutor or a language exchange partner with focus on shopping for food
  • Day 5: 30 minutes with Busuu “Food and Drink” vocabulary
  • Day 6: 30 minutes of conversation practice with a tutor or a language exchange partner, focus on restaurant vocabulary
  • Day 7: Revision of the vocabulary learnt with AnkiApp

Of course, this is just a sample but what you definitely should have in your plan is: vocabulary, conversation practice with the use of a given vocabulary topic and listening.
Add all new vocabulary to AnkiApp and create separate sets for each vocabulary group to track your progress better. That way you have all the vocab always available to practise on-the-go. Learning is important but in order to truly remember what you’ve learnt, you also need to do revisions. A once a week revision is a must. You can also add some additional revision time with AnkiApp to your 30 minutes every day, when waiting in a queue…or on a toilet!
Conversation practice with a different person is non-negotiable. You can’t just learn the vocabulary and hope you’ll be able to use it in real life for the first time. You’ll get a stage fright and you’ll go blank. To be able to do something, you need to practise it. Remember to give instructions to your language tutor or exchange partner such as “Today I want to practise dialogues I’d have when shopping for groceries.”.
If your language tutor isn’t flexible and is insisting you follow their lead, change them. These people aren’t the right choice for you given your goal. You can learn more about finding a language tutor in my post How to find a good language tutor.

Get Over Yourself

Surprisingly, the most difficult thing to do when you prepare a course for yourself isn’t simply being systematic. Don’t get me wrong, some people will not manage to study as planned but these people are also unlikely to expect to manage to have a conversation in a foreign country. Actually doing the work is necessary to see results.
A much bigger issue is that people who actually do the work, often don’t manage to communicate. Why? Because their perfectionism and/or fear of embarrassment wins with their desire to communicate and put their skills to work. This is why you need to get over yourself.
You’re not going to speak the language perfectly after a crash course, you will make mistakes and you will sometimes sound funny. That’s okay! Your goal is to manage to order that coffee in a given language or to negotiate the price. It doesn’t matter how you do it. People will realise you’re a beginner so they won’t be too harsh about your mistakes. Many will also feel happy that you’re trying to learn their language (particularly true for less popular languages). Focus on your objective and ignore the rest. Good luck!

Do remember to comment, if you end up preparing a crash course for yourself 🙂