For many, speaking in a foreign language is the goal and reason for learning it. And, the best advice for learning how to speak, is: Just do it! Speak as often as you can, including reading aloud, repeating and practicing phrases, recording yourself, and obviously finding a native speaker to talk to.
Now, once you've reached a level of fluency where you can hold your own during an hour-long casual conversation in your second language, you may be surprised to find that you've hit a plateau.
That's what happened to me in French. I had been meeting a friend for a bi-monthly French-language lunch but I wasn't thrilled with my progress in speaking. So, I started reading the Harry Potter series in French. From meeting to meeting, I did notice that my vocabulary was increasing. However, after a few months, when I was getting well into the fifth Harry Potter tome, I again noticed that I had hit a learning plateau. I was improving some, but not to my satisfaction.
Then I decided to do an experiment. I put Harry Potter aside, and started writing as much as I could in French: e-mails to friends, journal bits, posting some on Lang-8.com, and racing through Duolingo.com, which includes translating into French, and writing down dictated sentences.
At my next French lunch chat - which was a few days ago - I clearly felt that I had again broken through a plateau. And this time, it was writing that had gotten me there. Yesterday, I came across the YouTube video of a talk by Judith Meyer, that she held at the June 2014 Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. She too experienced writing as a useful supplement for improving conversational skills.
So if you've reached a plateau in your second-language conversations, try adding some writing practice - chats, e-mails, journal pieces, etc. - in that language and you may find yourself happily moving to a higher fluency plateau.
We all marvel at the ease with which young children can learn one or even more languages. They can't read or write, but when they are immersed in a language, they learn to understand and speak it within weeks.There are some self-teaching language programs that would like you believe that their method can make you "learn a foreign language like a child." The implication is clear but wrong: no method lets an adult learn like a child does.
A recent Op-Ed article by William Alexander in the New York Times, The Benefits of Failing at French, summarizes some of the key differences between the ways adults and young children learn languages:
"...[a 2-year old brain has] 50% more synapses - the connections between neurons - than an adult brain..."
"...adults can't help but hear the second language through the filter of the first..."
"...[we] try to get everything right from the get-go and are self-conscious about our efforts."
Train your Brain while Learning
Yes, learning a foreign language requires more effort for an adult than for a (young) child. (The learning advantage that children have over adults begins to disappear between the ages of 6 to 8, according to some psycholinguists.) But think about it: for an adult it's a "twofer." Even while we grown-ups are struggling with learning a language, our "older" brain is gaining some huge benefits. There are even studies that conclude that language learning is likely to be more beneficial than popular brain exercise programs such as Luminosity. (see also our post Baby Boomers and Foreign Languages.)
And as Mr. Alexander points out: "Not only is that [i.e. studying a language] a far more useful and enjoyable activity than an abstract brain game, but as a reward for your efforts, you can treat yourself to a trip abroad"...
Many adults still have bad memories from their foreign language learning days in school. Unless they had a family connection to the foreign language they were learning, had friends who spoke it, or just had a natural curiosity about language in general, children and teenagers often saw required language classes as a necessary evil.
However, as adults they may come to see the benefits of speaking a foreign language. They may encourage their children to do so and – motivated by TV or web-based marketing campaigns – may even want to start learning a foreign again themselves.
“Wanting” to Learn
Learning a foreign language has never been easier than today. A couple of decades ago, options included traditional classes, books, records, self-teaching tapes and CDs. Now you can learn with online self-teaching courses, online personal tutors, you can skype with language partners, listen to MP3 audios, watch videos, join language community networks, etc.
But as Lingq's Steve Kaufmann, somewhat provocatively states: “Nobody can teach you a language. – You have to learn yourself.” And while this notion may be argued by some language “teachers,” most of us adult language learners also know how hard it is to stay motivated.
Radio, TV, and online marketing ads by companies such as Rosetta Stone and others make many “want” to learn a foreign language. But sustaining the efforts through the many months that it takes to become proficient or fluent in a new foreign language are much harder. And those that are enticed by marketing slogans such as “Learn a language in 10 days” or similar ads, are the first ones who are disappointed when this proves to be just wishful thinking: “Wanting to learn” usually has to be supported and sustained by strong reasons, if the learning is not to be abandoned early.
“Needing” to Learn
In the language teaching community, it is no secret that an adult's strongest motivation for learning a second or third language is the “need to learn.” Such “need” is often caused by external circumstances: moving to another country, wanting to learn the language of one's significant other, fulfilling an educational or an employer's requirement, following a particular career path, etc.
Even when we marvel about how easily young children pick up a second language, we should not forget that they also do so most naturally when they need to be understood by their caregivers and/or playmates. (Games, play acting, etc. can also motivate them during more formal instruction!)
The “need” to be able to communicate in a foreign language is by far the strongest motivator for learning it. So what are you to do when you don't really “need” to learn but just “want” to?
Setting Goals and Staying Motivated
Even without external “needs,” we are all able to accomplish the goals that we set our mind to, i.e. goals that we “want.” In respect to learning a foreign language, this just requires that we set realistic goals and are deliberate about how to stay motivated. We explored this topic in previous posts: “7 Ways to Stay Motivated When Struggling to Learn a New Language,” and “7 More Ways...”
But it also requires that you settle on the right learning method for yourself. This may take some time. For some, attending adult education classes may both be possible and effective; others may find the audio-only lessons work best for them; both free as well as fee/subscription-based self-teaching courses can easily be found on the internet and often tried out before committing.
During our stay in Barcelona and travels though Spain in 2012, we became keenly aware of the brewing conflict between Spain and Catalonia, a juxtaposition we initially did not understand.
Is Bilingualism the Answer?
Our previous post, In Barcelona Speaking “Spanish” Is Not Enough..., only touched the tip of the “language iceberg.” We were surprised at the time how many people appeared to be truly bilingual. A recent Reuters article: Catalan language revival fuels backlash in Spain reminded us of the language issues we had learned about during our stay. The article points to bilingualism as a potential solution, but disagreements remain. With the monarchy's fallen popularity, even the new King Felipe VI, who is fluent in Catalan, is not given much of a chance to heal the divisions.
More Than a Language Conflict...
Our friend in Barcelona, Fabian, recently updated us on the events since our visit: huge demonstrations; a human chain of about 2 million people from southern France to València in 2013; even bigger demonstrations planned for September 2014 and the planned referendum for independence of Catalonia on November 9. Fabian also sent us a link to an in-depth and quite balanced review of the situation, written by an English journalist, Gary Gibson: Spain's Secret Conflict, which includes interviews with many players. It is now obvious to us that, while language is an important issue, it is clearly more than that: cultural, historical, economical, emotional, political, and many other aspects are mixed into the disagreement.
Young children generally learn a language by listening, repeating, and speaking. By contrast, adults who use self-teaching language courses for learning a second (or third) language, also are asked to practice their reading skills by most programs. (There are exceptions, of course, such as Pimsleur's audio courses.)
For English speakers acquiring a Germanic or Romance language, the similarities of these languages to their mother tongue is certainly a big bonus.
Frequent reading can obviously increase your foreign vocabulary tremendously. Once an English speaker has grasped some of the basics of a new language, reading may be the easiest language skill to acquire. This is especially true if reading is done on the web. Online dictionaries - or even better - Google's Chrome Extension, Lingua.ly, and other translation tools can quickly help you find the meaning of unknown words or expressions. Just compare this to the cumbersome way of the past, when you had to consult a hardcopy dictionary to look up words.
Listening to a foreign speaker when you're just starting to learn a language does feel overwhelming: You can't even distinguish individual words, nor can you understand any meaning. That is why most online language courses combine reading with listening. Associating a written word with its pronunciation is an important step towards remembering its meaning. Here, repetition is key. After listening to the same audio again and again, you gradually start to distinguish where words and phrases begin and where they end. That is why GamesforLanguage and other programs recommend listening to the audio of each lesson or level as often as possible.
Writing skills in a foreign language may often even lag behind speaking. You may never write like a Thomas Mann in German, express yourself like a Flaubert in French, a Cervantes in Spanish, or an Eco in Italian. However, writing out words and phrases in a foreign language is a good way to practice them as it also helps memorization.
For many English speaking adults, speaking a foreign language fluently seems to be the hardest skill to master. You can only master foreign sounds by speaking them out loud. But at the same time, you have to deal with the inhibitions and the angst adults feel in the face of potential embarrassment. Online programs that have learners record their voice and compare it to that of a native speaker are probably just as effective as those that use voice recognition. Beginners can easily be frustrated and discouraged, so you should use what works best for you. (see also our post on Mouth Mechanics)
For most adult language learners speaking a foreign language fluently may be the ultimate goal, but fluency can only be achieved with frequent practice. Learning words and expanding your vocabulary is important and essential, but so is listening, reading, and practicing aloud. All four language skills in fact support and enhance each other, but unless you start speaking, you won't become fluent!
Words and phrases are the building blocks of a language, but you also need the know-how for putting them together. So, the best approach for learning a new language is acquiring some language basics (useful vocabulary, an understanding of how to create sentences, essential grammar, the sounds of the language).
Once you've done that, you'll want to increase your vocabulary, right? The more vocabulary you have, the better you'll be able to express yourself.
Here are 6 proven ways to learn and practice vocabulary:
1. Use Flashcard Programs
Flashcard programs are available for free or for a fee to anyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone. The most popular program is probably memrise.com. But quizlet, anki, antosch-and-lin also have good features and plenty of fans. One reason good flashcard programs work well is that they are based on the principle of spaced repetition and prompt active recall. The key is to practice often and to sneak in practice time whenever you need a break, are waiting in line, or have an extra ten minutes.
2. Label items around your house
Learning the words for items that surround you in daily life is an excellent idea. By labeling these items in the language you're learning, you'll easily build up useful vocabulary and keep the foreign words in your memory. You could even add some relevant short phrases. Write your own post-it notes or use a program - for example Flashsticks.com - that provides labels you can download.
3. Keep a small notebook
Writing down words by hand is still the best way to embed them in your memory. Handwriting seems to activate deeper learning. According to Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris, in What's lost when handwriting fades: “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. ... [And with this] learning is made easier.” This YouTube video gives you a few cool tips and tricks on how to keep a vocabulary notebook.
4. Create a Mind Map
A mind map is an ideal way to cluster and organize your vocabulary. Visuals, colors, diagram-links all reflect how the brain thinks and they reinforce how the brain makes associations. The combination of words and images you create yourself activates both sides of your brain. Such mind maps are a great way to individualize the way you learn. The following video by the creator of Mind Maps contains a host of ideas and tips.
5. Learn Songs in your new language
Music helps to activate the whole brain for learning. So it's no surprise that songs are particularly suited for immersing you in a foreign language. There are various reasons for that: songs help with pronunciation and memory, and teach you the rhythm and flow of a new language. Also, because you can easily find songs you enjoy, you're likely to go back to them again and again. As the popular polyglot Benny Lewis suggests in his blogpost Sing to learn languages: "A good approach is to memorize the lyrics of a song and practice them repeatedly until they've become second nature." (On our own blog, we have a few suggestions for French, German, Italian and Spanish songs.)
6. Read news articles other texts online
You can easily read news articles and other texts online with a browser extension that provides you with the translation of individual words and their pronunciation. Popular examples would be Google's "Language Immersion Chrome Extension," and Lingua.ly. A similar idea is behind Steve Kaufmann's LingQ.com site. By reading online, and tagging plus seeing the translation of the words you don't know, you can increase your vocabulary rapidly, especially if you use the linked flashcards to practice them later.
These 6 Tips aren't in any special order. Everyone has different preferences. But if you combine some of these tools in a way that works for you - and if you have fun using them - they're bound to give your vocabulary a huge boost.
Often when we suggest to our older baby boomer friends that they should start learning a language ahead of a trip abroad, we hear: “I am too old to learn another language.” Or, “I was never good with languages at school.” Or, “There is not enough time to learn enough before our trip.”
The third excuse may often be the most valid one, as one certainly can't learn a new foreign language in 10 days. But learning some essential vocabulary and expressions is easy. For us, happily preparing for the trip will add another dimension to any upcoming travels. (See also our post: What a great Trip! And we'll speak with the Locals!)
A Second Language and Brain Health
Learning a new foreign language as an adult is not really difficult, but it takes effort and some discipline. Our brain is certainly able to acquire new vocabulary and new grammar rules. In fact, research has shown that such mental exercises can be especially beneficial to an older brain. A study at the University of Edinburg - described in this blog post, Learning a second language may help brain health, confirms what other research has found as well.
Baby Boomers and the Recognition of “Need”
In the language community, it is no secret that both children and adults only learn a second language “when they really need to.” Can the recognition that learning a second language is beneficial to their brain health motivate baby boomers enough to get started? It is still an open question, but as a worthwhile long-term project with multiple benefits, it really should.
Baby Boomers and the Web
The Internet has brought language learning to each connected home, making it free or affordable for many. Most of the baby boomers - even the first ones - are computer “literate.” Indeed, many are quite adept at using computers and, increasingly, mobile devices, smart phones, and tablets. Playing electronic/computer games does not have to be the purview of children and young adults, as we know quite a few seniors who love to play various games on their computers or mobile devices.
Language Learning “Gamification”
Most online or app-based language programs are increasingly using gamified lessons. Our Gamesforlanguage.com uses games as a key teaching tool, but we are not alone. And for good reason: Those who play language games also exercise their gray cells and have fun doing so. They don't feel guilty. They are learning a new language at the same time! And, if they start early enough, they can also make it part of their preparation for the next trip abroad!
In Part 1, we present 3 Tips for those who are just starting to learn a new language. Once you've settled into a comfortable routine for learning and practicing and have begun to acquire language basics, then the learning opportunities just continue to expand.
The 4 language skills - reading, comprehension, speaking, and writing - can all be tackled separately, but they support each other as well.
Here are our top five(5) tips for non-beginners:
1. Start reading online articles
The plethora of foreign articles, magazines, or online newspapers available on the web allows you to chose your area of interest. For words you don't know you can use Google translation or even better, use Lingua.ly. This free Google extension makes it easy to expand your vocabulary – read our review HERE – as it also lets you practice your new words with flashcards. Or you could use sites like LingQ.com, which combines reading text with creating and practicing with flashcards. And increasing your vocabulary is key for both reading and comprehension.
2. Read Foreign Books with an English Translation alongside
Many foreign books are translated into English – or even vice versa. Knowing “'the story”, i.e. the context of the narrative, often makes the discovery of unknown words easy and fun. I, for example found reading the original Spanish “Zorro” by Isabel Allende very enjoyable. As I described in my blog post, Zorro: 1 (big) Thing to Learn Spanish, you can experiment with which version you read first. And if you want to practice new words that you pick up while reading - there are many sites that also let you create your own flashcards. (Read our review of Quizlet.com.)
3. Listen to foreign language songs and/or watch Youtube clips
As we pointed out in recent blog posts for popular French, German, Italian and Spanish songs, you can find the English translations of many songs and discover the typical foreign language constructions in many of them. And – at the same time – by memorizing the lyrics, you'll also begin to “get” the melody of the language and anchor new words by repetition to music. A quick web search will let you find many sites and apps that use music and songs for language learning, such as (for Spanish) jamtok.com; (for currently 7 languages) lyricstraining.com; or (for currently 13 languages) earwormslearning.com, and many others.
4. Listen to audios, watch foreign videos or movies
Clearly, both for comprehension and speaking you need to train your ear. Again, the Internet provides plenty of opportunities. Many language programs offer downloadable MP3 audios that you can listen to while driving, jogging, or washing dishes. And even if you can't see original foreign movies (with or without English subtitles) in your local movie theatre, you should be able to buy or download foreign movies on Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, or even on your local cable channels. For example, we have found that foreign language “soaps” are a great way to acquire everyday expressions: When we first listened to the Italian soap “Un Posto al Sole” during our stay in Italy, we barely understood a word. After a month or so, we could distinguish words. Now, eight years later, back in the US, we still have fun in following the same characters on the RAI website.
5. Practice to Speak & Write
While reading and listening are important passive activities, you need to use your skills actively if you want to get good at writing and speaking. Once you feel comfortable with writing, you can join online communities on Facebook or those provided by language sites, such as busuu.com, babbel.com, and others. You can also practice your speaking skills by reading aloud, recording your voice and comparing it to native speakers with many language programs. Voice recognition is gaining some ground, but can often be frustrating for many beginners. Nothing beats having conversations with a native speaker. If you don't have a friend or acquaintance to practice your foreign language with, there are online tutor sites available such as lingolearn.com, or you can join foreign language video call sites such as languageforexchange.com or Livemocha.com (recently purchased by Rosetta Stone) and many others.
And we agree with LingQ's Steve Kaufmann: “Nobody can teach you a language – you have to learn yourself – with help, of course.” Thanks to the opportunities on the Internet, there is much help available and you can make learning a new language fun and interesting – and doing so even at home!
Childhood memories can be strong, and if a foreign language is connected to one of those memories, they can become the seed for a choice or an experience later in life. I still remember the riddle which my grandmother used to entertain us children and our friends:
"Was ist ein piccolo viech mit quattro haxn?"
The words "piccolo" (small) and "quattro" (four) are Italian words. But "viech" (animal) and "haxn" (legs) are Austrian dialect. We children always found this funny.
This riddle became more relevant when my parents took me and my two older siblings on a trip to Venice, Italy. I was five or six. We went by car from Carinthia (southern Austria) along the Slovenian border and the Italian coast north of Venice. It's a distance of 265 kilometers, which now would take about three hours. At that time it took us closer to five.
For our drive to Venice, we left very early, at about four in the morning. I remember arriving in Venice as the morning was in full swing. The outdoor market was bustling, with vegetables and fruits heaped up at the stands. St. Mark's Square with its pigeons and small vendors was fascinating. And then there was the language. I loved the sound of Italian. It's melody was as exotic to me as the smells and sights of the city.
This early trip to Italy was an experience that lingered in my memory. When I was seventeen, my older sister and I drove to Italy, this time starting out from Vienna. We both agreed that our first stop should be Venice - to recapture the magic we had experienced twelve years earlier. Then we slowly made our way to Rome. We stayed at camping places, sleeping in the car (an old beetle!). Armed with a phrase book, we did everything in Italian: asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant, buying fruit at the market, flirting with the guys. At the end of our three weeks, we had pretty well mastered Italian as the language for daily (tourist) living.
Life and work happens, but I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to recapture Italian. It took some years before I could make my dream a reality: to learn Italian from the ground up, and to do this in Italy. My husband was newly retired and I was able to continue my editorial work over the Internet. To prepare for out five months in Rome, we had gone through a series of Italian audio lessons. Once settled into our rental apartment in Trastevere, we found a tutor for daily Italian lessons. She taught us to write in Italian, discussed newspaper articles with us, explained grammar points, and helped us hone our conversational skills.
Needless to say, our stay in Rome was great, and all the more so because we were able to engage with locals in their language. And so, a child's funny puzzle and a childhood trip to Venice had provided the incentive for later language adventures.
Learning a new foreign language as an adult is not difficult per se: Remember – you learned your first language as a child. But - when we marvel at how easily a child learns a language, we often forget a crucial factor: As an adult, you cannot spend as much time learning a new language as children do in their early years.
And yes, adults do differ in their aptitude for learning a new language, as much as they differ in their ability for learning to play piano, sing, dance, play tennis, drive a car, etc. But the fact that you've acquired your first language should give you confidence that you can also learn a second language. The only question is: Can you mount and sustain the effort needed for success?
Benefits of the Internet
The internet makes is easier than ever to learn a new language. In the past we were limited to books, records, tapes, CDs, classes, personal tutoring, and such, when we had little contact with native speakers. Now we can use mobile apps and connect to interactive online language programs, online tutoring, language forums, and global community chat sites. We can read foreign newspapers online with the help of online dictionaries and programs, and we can watch foreign video clips, TV programs, or movies.
The Challenge Beginners Face
However, before you, as a beginner, can benefit from the many additional opportunities of the internet, you have to acquire some basic knowledge of the new language. And, assuming that you don't live in a country where the language is spoken, you have to create sufficient exposure to the language, so that it begins to “stick.” If you watch children learn their first language, you realize how important exposure and repetition is: As soon as a children start talking, grasping the world with language seems to be their main occupation. Here are three (3) basic tips for adult beginners who want to manage their learning proactively:
1.Determine Your Available Time and Schedule
If you are motivated to learn a new language - realizing that it takes time and effort - think about when and how much time you can allocate to learn. Once a week will not be enough. Ideally, you should learn daily: 10 minutes for 6 days will be better than 1 hour, once a week. Maybe you can schedule some time in the morning, or at lunch break or perhaps in the evening. And especially, if you take a traditional classroom course, or engage a one-on-one tutor, you have to allow time for homework and reviews. Put it on your schedule and try to stick to it as much as you can.
2.Test Materials/Systems/Programs That Fit Your Learning Style
Unless you already know how you best learn, finding the right program may take some research and experimentation. If classroom courses or personal tutors work best for you, you can also get advice for additional materials. If you are an auditory learner, audio CDs (e.g. Pimsleur) may work for you. If you are a visual learner, traditional language books may be an option. However, we believe nothing beats the interactive online language programs and mobile apps that you can find on the internet. This article in PC Magazine: The Best Language Learning Software provides a good list, and the language learning universe has even expanded since the article was published last year.
But don't believe the “Fluent in 10 days” marketing promises or buy the $350 program that you see advertised - at least not yet. Even most fee-based CD or online language programs have trial subscriptions or short courses or let you start with free, such as Lingq.com. There are many completely free programs as well, especially for the well-known European languages, e.g Duolingo.com or our gamesforlanguage.com.
Moreover, you may find that using more than one system or approach is a great way to go: By alternating between various programs, you can strengthen different skills or just avoid the boredom that often creeps in with one single program.
3.Commit the Time
Whatever methods you chose, it is important that you commit the time to learning and practicing. Practice is key – whether learning to play the piano or learning to speak another language. You have to practice! Only with practice can you move vocabulary, that you just learned, from your short-term to your long-term memory, or learn to pronounce the new foreign sounds. That's why many of the online language programs send out periodic or daily reminders. Duolingo is especially good at that. By getting reminded of your practice “streak,” you may be motivated not to break it! And if you're able to sustain your effort, you'll be amazed at how much you'll have learned by the end of your beginner course. You may be able to read short online newspaper articles or understand chunks in the foreign movie you are watching...
Once you have mastered some basics of the new language, you can even find more opportunities on the internet to hone specific language skills – which is our topic of Part 2: Tips for Non-Beginners.