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 🙂

Do I Need a Language Teacher?

Well, do I?

While all of methods have their advantages and disadvantages, I find a mixture of learning with a tutor and self-work with apps and other resources to be the most effective way of mastering a language.

Is It Possible to Learn a Language for Free?

It’s definitely possible to learn a language for free. In fact, I have a friend who has learnt French on her own and boasts about having learnt it without spending a dime in the process. I can also attest that her French is excellent.
It’s certainly possible to get to a high level in a foreign language with no paid help. There are plenty of free resources around the web, materials, events organised by language institutes, language exchange partnerships and language learning groups.
Having said that, I have to admit that to learn solely in this manner you need to 1) be VERY motivated and 2) to know what you’re doing. If you have both, you definitely can succeed. Otherwise, you may decide to make your life a bit easier by getting a language tutor.

What a Teacher Can Help With

First and foremost, a good teacher will give you structure. You don’t have to worry about what to cover next, everything is prepared for you. Be cheeky and keep asking for suggestions on how to work on certain skills more, in your free time.
Another advantage of 1-on-1 tutoring is, of course, that you have your teacher’s full and undivided attention. This means that as they notice what kind of mistakes you make and what you struggle with, they can prepare tailored-made lessons for you.
Last but not least, a language tutor means a certain level of accountability. Yes, they’re a service provider but you’ll see for yourself how it feels to cancel a few lesson in a row, when you’ve shared with them how serious you are about your goal of becoming fluent in a language.

What a Teacher Can’t Help With

A teacher can’t help you, if you don’t want to learn. It doesn’t matter whether you’re learning a language because you should or because you want to, you need to go through the motions.
At minimum it means that you need to show up for a class, participate actively in it and do your homework. Ideally, you should spend some time learning the language every day by reading a short article, listening to something or learning some vocabulary.
The most important thing to remember is that a teacher can’t do the work for you. If you just come to the lessons with no interest you’ll eventually get to an intermediate level and stay there. I’ve seen it many times, particularly working as an in-company language teacher.
Part of the problem is that the more time you spend learning without seeing much progress, the less motivated you are. In the words of Yoda: “Try not. Do or do not. There’s no try.“. If you just want to give it a try, rather wait until you feel stronger about language learning.

The short answer to the question “Do I need a language teacher?” is: “It depends.”. If you’re very motivated and you really can’t spend money on language learning, you can do without a tutor.
If, however, you don’t mind to spend a bit to make your life easier, you should get a teacher as they are real benefits to having one. Now, how to find a good tutor? That’s a question for another post 🙂