Words are important building blocks of languages. Without knowing them you cannot achieve conversational fluency in any new language you are learning.
So it's no surprise that people often ask: How many words do I need to know to become conversationally fluent?
This question comes without a precise answer, because it depends on the language, and to an extent on your life situation, your personal, and professional interests.
Still, there are estimates. For example, the linguist and polyglot Alexander Argüelles apparently believes that the 2000 most frequent words are those that let you express everything you could possibly want to say, although often by awkward circumlocutions.
"When you learn 90-95 % of commonly used words, you'll understand practically all everyday conversations. The last 5-10% you'llbe able to guess just from the context."
Then looking at the size of foreign dictionaries and the claims of a number of studies, the post notes:
“A vocabulary of about 3000 words (not counting for inflexions, plurals, etc.), then, would be the number necessary to efficiently learn from context with unsimplified text.”
Of course, having a precise number is nice. But, how do I know how many words I've learned? Perhaps the reverse is true: When I understand most of everyday conversations and texts in a foreign language, I probably know between 2000 and 3000 words.
Knowing frequently-used words is essential and will help you understand, as does the context in which you're having the conversation.
And yes, knowing at least some of the 13 body parts, shown on this drawing above, in your target language will be useful. You'll certainly come across many of them in your studies.
But if you're learning a new language, you've probably realized that “communicating,” i.e. participating in a conversation, is not that easy, even if you've practiced tons of words: You have to be able to LISTEN and COMPREHEND and then also to SPEAK.
Listening comprehension is learned with what Steve Kaufmann of LingQ calls listening to “comprehensible input.” A lot of it.
Real conversations are often unpredictable in content. So listening to various kinds of topics you're interested in will help prepare you. With time, you'll start noticing and assimilating certain language patterns, even if there's a great variety in vocabulary.
Also, when you first start listening it will appear that the sound stream goes too fast. It's an experience most language learners share.
I still remember arriving in Italy some years ago. Even after having completed three Levels of the Pimsleur Italian audio program (90 lessons), I could not distinguish individual words while watching Italian TV.
After several weeks, the rapid-fire Italian seemed to slow down for me. I was more and more able to distinguish individual words, then sentences, and finally to understand the context and meaning.
If you're a novice practicing listening comprehension, start out slow, with individual words, phrases, then sentences. Short audio stories are a good next step. Make sure you know the meaning of what's being said.
For the more popular languages, there now are free podcasts and YouTube videos available. Many of the free or fee-based online language programs have podcasts or videos as well (including GamesforLanguage).
LEARNING WORD ORDER and GRAMMAR FORMS
When you learn a foreign language, you're learning how to combine words in a new way that is meaningful in your new language. In other words, you're learning a second (or third, etc.) word-order system.
You're also learning grammar forms that don't exist in your own language. In English, you don't have noun gender, for example. French, Spanish, and Italian have two: masculine and feminine, German has three: masculine, feminine, and neuter.
Or, the language you're learning has a different way of forming a question. A case in point: French has three ways to ask a question, and none of them follow the pattern of English. That means you're learning two different grammar systems that your brain will alternate between.
Dealing with two (or more) grammar systems makes a teenager or adult different from young children learning their first language. Between the ages of two and three or so, toddlers go from one- or two-word “sentences” to quite sophisticated ways of asking questions, saying what they want, telling you what they saw, repeating what they heard, teasing you, etc.
Despite some hits and misses, children seem to catch on quickly which words go into what order, and what grammar forms to use. Most amazingly, often what they say are new combinations, and not just sentences they've heard and are repeating.
Children are able to do that because of their brain's powerful “learning mechanisms,” which allow them to assimilate patterns of usage though listening.
Pattern learning also holds for adults learning other languages. The more we're exposed to the patterns of usage of a language, the better we'll acquire them. However, compared to children learning their native language(s), adults' exposure to a new language - in a class, online, reading, or listening - is typically more limited. (Unless, you're “immersed” in the language in the country or community where it is spoken, etc.)
For becoming conversationally fluent, you need to develop two skills: understand what's being said and create speech that is meaningful and relevant.
You don't directly need reading for becoming conversationally fluent. Children learn to speak in sentences years before they learn how to write them. And in many countries there are still adults who can't read or write.
In fact, I was shocked to read the following, when googling for “U.S. illiteracy rate”:
“According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can't read. That's 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can't read.”
(No wonder then that learning a second language is more difficult for many U.S. adults. If the world's literacy interests you, you may be surprised by the countries at the top of this World Factbook list compiled by the CIA.)
Adults don't NEED reading to become conversationally fluent. But for most, reading is still the most practical way to accelerate their learning in class, with exercises and apps, or with online programs.
Furthermore, as soon as you're able to read news articles, blog posts, even books in your new language, you have several potential benefits:
For one, reading is another way to assimilate the word-order and grammar patterns of a language.
Also, reading will expand your vocabulary and teach you how to guess meaning from context.
Finally, by reading you acquire ideas and facts about topics you want to talk about. Everyday conversations don't stop at questions such as “Where are you from?” “What work do you do?” They are also very much about ideas, events, and if you're brave, about history and politics.
I very much like the motto of the late Dartmouth Professor John Rassias, a effective promoter of the immersion teaching method: “Don't learn to speak a language, speak to learn it.” Speaking fluently can only be learned by actually speaking.
You won't learn to speak automatically just by doing lots of reading or listening. Yes, both will expose you to the characteristic word-order and grammar patterns of the language. Listening will train your ear to the language's sounds, which is essential when the sounds are quite different from your native language.
But, speaking a foreign language involves transforming your thoughts into specific sounds by training your vocal chords and moving your mouth in a certain way. It also means creating a stream of sounds that has the particular rhythm, pitch, and intonation, etc. of the language.
All of that has to be practiced aloud, typically by imitating native speakers. A teacher or tutor will be able to correct your pronunciation and point out different ways the tongue or mouth can produce the desired sounds.
Apps or online programs that have recording features are quite effective for improving your pronunciation. By playing back your own recordings and hearing how you sound next to the native speaker, you can work on making changes.
As a novice, start out slowly. Listen and repeat as often as you can. Don't be discouraged when you hear yourself for the first time. Memorize conversations, even act them out, mimic the native speakers – have fun sounding like a native!
FROM REPETITION to SPEAKING FREELY
It's very hard to have a genuine conversation just with sentences that you've memorized.
So how does one progress from a “low intermediate” level - where you can ask and answer basic questions - to speaking freely about everyday topics?
Certainly, repeating words and sentences aloud, and learning them by rote are essential techniques for a beginning learner.
But then, conversations with friends or exchange-partners who are native speakers, or a tutor who only uses the target language are the best way to improve your conversational skills in your target language.
Talking with someone is a complicated back and forth that creates a context for words and sentences. With talking come all kinds of “filler words and sounds” that are normal for a casual conversation.
Participating often in such open-ended conversations will expose you again and again to the typical patterns of the language you're learning and prompt you to use these patterns yourself.
So yes, learning 90-95% of words commonly used is an excellent language learning goal. And if you learn them in context, rather than as words in a list, you'll be building conversational skills.
Even if you understand all the words, you still have to decided whether someone is asking for something or telling you what you should do. You have to figure out how to formulate a question, express a reasoned opinion, or how to comment to a fast-moving conversation of your friends or family.
Getting to that level of fluency takes more than just words, it also takes much listening and many conversations on a variety of topics. And it takes friends and conversation partners to practice with.
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook,Twitterand Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.
2017 is approaching fast. Will learning a foreign language be one of your 2017 goals?
January is definitely a key month. And there's some good news: A survey published by the Boston Globe in 2014 showed that 76% of the people who keep their resolutions through February 1, will keep going.
You have at least a three-in-four chance to reach your goal by year end. So, what should you be taking into account?
“Learning a Language isn't always easy...”
Languages Around the Globe blogger Brian Powers recently pointed out in a post with the above title that “for most of us learning a language from scratch isn't always a walk in the park.”
For many language learners that may even be an understatement.
Based on school experiences, some may feel that they are “just not good at learning a foreign language.”
Others get discouraged when they don't progress fast enough.
And some just give up because they get bored and can't stay engaged.
While you may have some strong beliefs about learning a foreign language, you should keep the following in mind:
If you were able to learn your native language, why shouldn't you be able to learn another language?
Were your expectations for fast progress unrealistic?
Couldn't you overcome boredom with more interesting and engaging methods?
Surveys show that “keeping up the motivation” and “not enough time” are the two principal difficulties that learners list when learning a foreign language.
The excuse that there's “not enough time” may also hide other reasons. Most adult learners are usually quite motivated at the outset, only to realize that real progress is slow and takes more time and effort than they had anticipated.
Also, there are different levels of motivation. The need to understand and speak a new language may be different for someone who has a new job assignment and career in a foreign country, than for someone who intends to travel there for a short vacation. But “keeping up the motivation” is certainly a difficulty that cannot be underestimated.
There are few things (if any) in life we can learn half-heartedly. As children we seem to learn many things playfully. Still, it takes us quite a few years to fully acquire our first language. The same is true for complex skills such as playing an instrument or doing various sports.
One's motivation to learn is likely both genetic (“wired” for language, music, walking, running, winning, etc.) and environmental (copying, competing with, encouraged by siblings, friends, parents, teachers, etc).
As adults, the goals and challenges we set ourselves arise from various sources, family, friends, jobs, as well as our own feelings, interests, desires, fears, etc.
Being aware of our motivation for achieving a goal is often not as simple as it sounds. But for any long-term project - as learning a new language clearly is - knowing your motivation is essential.
If you want to “spark” your language learning motivation, have a look at an earlier post of ours HERE.
What does “engagement” mean in this context? To be “engaged” implies that you do more than just attend a language class once a week, listen to a couple of CDs, take online lessons once or twice per week, or open a vocabulary app or a course book from time to time.
It means that you have been hit by the language bug and are getting involved with the new language in many different ways. Maybe at the start, you'll watch a foreign movie with subtitles or read dual-language books. Then you'll graduate to reading newspaper articles and books on topics that interest you. You'll watch TV and movies (without subtitles!), regularly listen to audios and podcasts, and meet people to talk to, either in person or online.
(Talking with native speakers is really the best way, and many believe the only way, to practice speaking and to improve your fluency.)
There are lots of ways to make language learning more interesting. If you're planning a trip to a country or region where the language is spoken, you can start learning about its culture, history and politics. If you love the country's food and wine, great – there's another entry point for making new discoveries.
Just think how engaged you are with any activities you enjoy. The more you can connect the target language with those aspects of life that are fun to you or you feel passionate about, the more engaged you'll be, and the more fuel you'll add to your motivation.
If you've read this far, you may already know what my five tips are about:
Tip #1 - Know exactly, WHY you want to learn a new Language!
The reason for learning a foreign language has to be strong enough to keep you going when things get tough, as they invariably will. It's no secret that the stronger the need, the stronger the motivation to keep learning.
So take a good look at WHY you really want to make it a 2017 goal. Write down the reasons and the benefits and attach them to your fridge or somewhere else where you can see them daily.
People's reasons are always quite personal. They differ from individual to individual: A job opportunity and/or moving to another country, a new partner or family member, exotic travel plans, etc. all will bring different urgency and time considerations with them.
Tip #2 – Determine what engages – or what bores you!
Determining what engages or bores you is essential. This has both to do with the way you learn and with what keeps you interested.
For some, attending live language classes, being motivated by peer pressure, etc. is the way to go. Others learn well on their own, with language books, CDs/DVDs, apps, online programs or tutors.
The earlier you find ways to connect your learning and practicing method with your areas of interest, the better. That's also why the first few months of learning will be the hardest. Without knowing the language basics and having sufficient vocabulary, your choices will be more limited.
Finding the right venue or program will take some careful consideration and will also depend on #3 and #4 below.
Tip #3 – Research what's offered online and in your neighborhood
What is offered in your neighborhood or community in language learning resources will depend greatly on where you live. Live language courses will often only be available for certain languages, but you may be able to find private tutors if you can't find any courses.
Many public libraries have language courses on CDs or DVDs, or they may have online courses for download.
Even many fee-for-service online programs have free trial offers. Take advantage of them until you find a program that's a good fit for you.
One note of caution: Don't get caught by the marketing hype. Learning a new language as an adult takes work and effort. But the right teachers and tutors can make a huge difference in how you learn. That's also true for online learning programs that keep you learning and practicing.
Take your time, if you can, and find one that keeps you going and engaged.
Tip #4 – Determine the time/resources you can commit
If you're setting a goal for 2017, you may already have a deadline or a commitment. You may even have a budget and/or time allocated for learning.
If you can spend 3-4 weeks in an immersion-style course in a language school, good for you. You'll make great progress.
If you learn best in language classes and you can find one in your community, great as well. (You'll certainly want to figure out what extracurricular language activities you should add.)
If you're a self-learner with a limited budget and/or time, you should plan when and how you're going to learn.
Experience has shown that daily exposure to the target language is key: 15-20 minutes every day will be more effective than 2 hours once a week.
So, whether learners are taking classes or using CDs, DVDs, apps or online programs, they should allow for daily connection with the language they are learning.
During the early stages, this may be just learning 5-10 new words a day, playing a language game (such as GamesforLanguage offers), doing a lesson, reading a page in a book (ideally aloud), listening to a song, recording yourself reading, etc.
Later, with the basics behind you, you can plan reading online articles, books, and watching movies and videos, etc. of topics that interest you.
Tip #5 - Set some reasonable expectations
Depending on the language you're learning, basic fluency should take between 500 and 1000 hours of study. This is according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). For further opinions, read up on a discussion on Quora.
So, unless you plan to study 10 hours a week for the easiest language, you're not likely to reach conversational fluency by the end of the year.
What about Benny Lewis' promise “Fluent in 3 months?” The answer is: if you use his single-minded approach and immersion strategies, you could get there.
And indeed, all of his techniques and hacks are very useful – IF YOU PRACTICE THEM REGULARLY AND CONSISTENTLY.
However, most of us will not be able to do so. We therefore need to set more realistic expectations and goals.
Here are some realistic goals that may work for you:
Take a class and complete it, with all the required homework, etc.
Learn with an app or online course, and plan the number of lessons you want to complete each week, and the number of words you want to learn and review daily.
Read an easy novel in your target language after three or four months.
Be able to watch and understand a foreign movie without English subtitles after 9 months.
It's very easy to be too optimistic at the beginning. Don't overestimate the time you have available or are willing to commit. Start slowly and get into a learning habit. Then add practice time.
Eventually you want to do something in your target language DAILY - learn/review vocabulary, play a language game, do a course lesson, read a chapter of a book or article, listen to a podcast, watch a movie, etc. - anything that really interests and engages you.
And, if you do so, your language skills will certainly grow (as the acronym above implies!)
Learning a foreign language as an adult is a big challenge. You need to stay motivated and put in the time.
Your efforts will show best if you have regular and frequent exposure to the language. To do that, engage with the language in as many ways as you can. Start making it part of your life!
Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. He's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.
The travel stories in our Gamesforlanguage courses use real street names, places, restaurants, hotels, etc., many of which we visited ourselves.
In future blog posts, we'll provide additional details for each of the cities our young travelers visit in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. (You'll already find posts on Frankfurtand Paris.)
David is our traveler to Spain. His first stop is Barcelona, often named as one of the top ten travel destinations in Europe. (And no, the photo above is not Dubai, but of the W Hotel right at the beach in Barcelona.)
Visiting Barcelona? Here's a short introduction to this lively, bilingual port city. We'll also list a few basic terms in Spanish and Catalan that will help you in your travels.
We'll follow David's discoveries in Barcelona, for those of you who have done or are doing our Spanish 1 course: David en España.
In our travel-story course, you learn daily conversational Spanish. The Spanish vocabulary listed here is a combination of some words taught in the course as well as other useful terms. We've also added Catalan equivalents.
The first published novel actually includes a “Walk in the Footsteps...” to “give a flavor of the setting for 'The Shadow of the Wind', and can be used as a starting point to explore more of the world of the novel, many of the locations and sceneries.”
Many places that we're familiar with and our traveler David visits as well, are described in the novels which span the first half of the 20th century.
The Catalan language
Because our course teaches Spanish, we don't include information about the Catalan language. However, the city is clearly bilingual. Catalan is a language spoken in three regions of Spain: Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands, as well as just across the border in southern France and a small community on Sardinia, Italy. It's also the official language of Andorra.
While 98% of Barcelona's population speaks Castilian Spanish, a majority, around 60%, also speaks Catalan. You'll hear Catalan spoken as you walk around town and you'll see many signs in both languages. You'll notice that many of the names of streets, parks, villa, museums, etc. on your street map will be in Catalan.
If you'd like to know more about the Catalan language and why one should not consider Catalan a “melting pot” of Spanish, French, and Italian, read this excellent post by the Spanish Linguist.
The territory of Spain, according to its constitution of 1978, is organized into 17 autonomous communities, and 2 autonomous cities. (see map)
In its second article, the constitution “recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all.” [Wikipedia]
While the “autonomous” label and “self-government” language in the constitution would indicate a substantial degree of independence of many communities, the tax levies and its distribution by the central government in Madrid remain an area of contention for many, not only for the proponents of secession in Catalonia.
A referendum in 2006, gave Catalonia an higher degree of autonomy than stated above. But a wish for more independence has obviously remained. And language has long been part of politics, with some bitterness on both sides.
Quick Facts about Barcelona
Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is a cosmopolitan port city located on the Mediterranean Sea in the northeast of Spain. It is the second largest city in Spain, with over 1.6 million inhabitants. Its metropolitan area has a population of over 4.6 million.
The history of Barcelona appears to go back over two thousand years, though details of its founding and early times remain elusive.
Ruins from Roman Barcelona (then called Barcino) date back to the 1st century AD. These can be visited in what is now the gothic part of the Barcelona's medieval city. In his Blog, the travel writer Richard Varr describes the site as “The world's most Extensive Underground Roman Ruins.”
Barcelona belongs to the world's major global cities and has been called one of the world's leading tourist, economic, trade fair and cultural centers.
Catalan Art Nouveau architecture, called “Modernisme,” developed between the years of 1878 and 1910, and was an expression of Catalonia's striving for its own national identity. Barcelona claims to have the greatest collection of Art Nouveau Buildings of any city in Europe.
Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics, which revamped the harbor area and many buildings, and created a several mile-long beach area with cafés, restaurants, promenade, etc.
David arrives at Barcelona's El Prat Airport
David is a young student who learned some Spanish at home and later studied it in school. His father is from Spain and his mother from Mexico. This will be his first visit to Spain.
On his flight to Barcelona, Michael chats in Spanish with the flight attendant and with the woman who sits next to him.
He arrives at the busy International El Prat Airport, which is located 12 miles from the center of the city. (Visitors using certain discount airlines may also arrive at the Reus and Girona airports, which are about 60 miles from Barcelona, so watch out!)
David's aunt picks him up. Otherwise, he would have gotten into town by taxi, bus, or train.
As David goes through passport control, he continues to use his Spanish. Responding to the standard immigration/passport control questions, he has to explain why he is traveling to Spain and how long he will stay. Following the Spanish, you'll see the Catalan equivalent in parentheses.
the flight - el vuelo (el vol) the flight attendant - el auxiliar de vuelo (el auxiliar de vol) the airport - el aeropuerto (el aeroport) the passport control - el control de pasaportes (el control de passaports)
Districts of Barcelona
David's aunt and uncle live on Carrer de Mallorca (Spanish: Calle de Mallorca). This large street runs through the neighborhood (Spanish: barrio) of la Dreta de l'Eixample, and is close to Plaça de Cataluña and el Passeig de Gràcia.
Barcelona is divided into 10 administrative districts, which consist of 73 “barrios.” Each of the 10 districts is referred to by number and a name. (see map)
The old town stretches mostly across districts 1 (Ciutat Vella) and 2 (Eixample). It's in the latter where the barrio “Dreta de l'Eixample” is located.
Again, some relevant vocabulary, first Spanish, then Catalan in parentheses.
the street - la calle (el carrer) the neighborhood - el barrio (el barri) the square - la plaza (la plaça) the promenade - el paseo (el passeig) the district - el distrito (el districte) the old town - el casco antiguo (el nucli antic) the city - la ciudad (la ciutat)
La Sagrada Familia
David and his cousin María walk over from Calle Mallorca to Antoni Gaudí's spectacular church “La Sagrada Familia.”
Begun in 1882, the project became Gaudí's life work. At his death in 1926, only part of the church was finished. Construction resumed after the Civil War (1936-1939) during the reign of Franco, and continued after Franco's death (1975). The building is now projected to be finished in 2026.
“La Sagrada Familia” has been called the most unconventional church in Europe. Gaudí used the natural world and its curves for his inspiration and avoided straight lines and angles as much as he could.
For his constructions, he developed his own architectural techniques. Some of these are on display in the museum of the church as well as in the Casa Milà Exhibits (see below).
the church - la iglesia (la església) the Civil War - la Guerra Civil (la Guerra Civil) the nature - la naturaleza (la naturalesa)
El Paseo de Gracia (Passeig de Gràcia)
As they walk through their neighborhood, his cousin María asks David if he wants to join her for some shopping on the Passeig de Gràcia.
The Passeig de Gràcia is a wide avenue with shops and businesses that leads from Plaça Cataluña to the neighborhood of Vila de Gràcia. (The photo left is taken from the roof of Gaudí's Casa Milà, see also below)
A little history: Originally, Passeig de Gràcia was called Camí de Jesus and connected the city of Barcelona to the nearby town of Gràcia. With time, small houses, cafés, restaurants, shops, theaters, and dance halls were built along the stretch.
In 1897, the town of Gràcia was formally annexed by Barcelona. It became fashionable to live on the Paseo and to have one's house build in the Modernist style, by architects such as Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and others.
Today, the Passeig de Gràcia has retained its appeal. Most of the older buildings have been restored; villas, shops, and fashion houses have multiplied. Along the avenue, which is lined with trees, there are street lamps and benches.
Here is a link to more history and a walking tour along the Passeig.
On the Passeig de Gràcia there are also many restaurants and cafés. In Spain, a café is called “una cafetería.” David and María order “una horchata” (a tiger nut milk drink; in Catalan: orxata), “un cortado” (espresso with a dash of mik; in Catalan: tallat), and “magdalenas” (small cupcakes).
In 1900, Count Eusebi Guëll, a wealthy and influential Catalan owner, bought land in Gràcia. He employed his friend Antoni Gaudí to design an estate for the rich. The park was built between 1900 and 1914. Gaudì's imaginative designs and architectural solutions were inspired by natural organic shapes.
Only two houses were built, though neither was by Gaudì. Because the project was not commercially successful, the family Guëll gave the land to the city in 1923 as a public park. It officially opened in 1926.
Gaudì lived in the park between 1906 and 1926 in a house built by the architect Francesc Berenguer.
In 1984, the park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
the park - el parque (el parc) World Heritage - Patrimonio de la Humanidad (Patrimoni de la Humanitat) to design - diseñar (dissenyar)
Other Places to visit in Barcelona
The Olympic Stadium (Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys): Built for the 1929 International Exhibition, the stadium was renovated in 1989 for the 1992 Summer Olympics. It is located on Montuïc, a hill in Barcelona that overlooks the harbor.
Casa Milà(picture left)popularly known as “La Pedrera” was Antoni Gaudì's last civil work and built from 1906 to 1912. It is an apartment building located around an inner court yard and incorporates many innovative features of its time.
The gallery in the building's attic exhibits many examples of Gaudi's design and engineering concepts. From the top you get a stunning view of the city. (see photo)
The building is a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Picasso Museum (Museu Picasso): The museum opened in 1963 and houses an extensive permanent collection of Pablo Picasso's works presented in five medieval palaces.
Joan Miró Foundation (Fundacío Joan Mirò): A collection of Miró's art, exhibitions of contemporary art, and Espai 10 and Espai 13, a Laboratory for Contemporary Art - “where artists have the right to fail.”
David's next Stop
From Barcelona, David takes the train to Granada. There he gets together with a friend he had met in Boston.
(Going from Barcelona to Granada by train, is a nearly 600-mile trip. Taking the train is the most inexpensive option, and the trip can take between 8 to 12 hours. You can, of course, also fly to Granada, which takes about an hour and a half.)
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitterand Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.
For many adults, listening to and then speaking a foreign language remain key challenges. And that may be so even after several years of school and college instruction.
Hearing and producing the new sounds of another language take a special effort. Plus, we may be shy about speaking up, afraid that we'll make mistakes.
A popular marketing promise of some language programs contains some wishful thinking: “Learn a second language like a child.” It implies that by following such program learning will occur as effortlessly as young children seem to learn their first language.
No matter that children spend nearly all the waking hours of their first few years just listening to and then learning to speak the language of their parents and caregivers. Once in kindergarten and school, it'll take them several more years to learn how to read and write.
What we may consider “effortless,” actually involves quite a bit of struggle and effort. As infants, children first learn to understand the meaning of the words, gestures, and expressions others use to interact with them. At the same time, they start using their own vocal chords to replicate the sounds of words they hear. It's only after much trial and error that they can make themselves understood.
Clearly, it takes time and effort to develop good listening and speaking skills in a language. Children learning their first language have the advantage of being immersed in the language on a daily basis. They hear their native language and speak it all the time. (In fact, they can even handle more than one language!)
For adults, who are learning another language, listening comprehension and speaking are important skills to practice. However, many language programs focus more on reading and writing, than listening and speaking – with the exception of predominantly audio programs such as Michael Thomas, Pimsleur, and some others.
THE IMMERSION TEACHING METHOD
We recently had a conversation with a friend of ours, who spent over 30 years teaching German to English speakers in U.S. colleges, as well as English to German students in high schools in Germany.
He firmly believes that students progressed most in his classes – both in the U.S. and in Germany - when he taught with a method that uses immersion. In particular, he found the Rassias method to be very effective.
John Rassias, former professor of French and Italian at Dartmouth College, believed in the motto: “Speak to learn a language, not learn to speak a language.” The Rassias method, which continues to be widely used, combines theatrical techniques and rapid-fire drills to fully engage the learner in the target language.
My experience with college language teaching in the U.S. was pretty similar. In a classroom, you can create an immersive environment by staying in the target language and explaining things using gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, pictures, reformulations, etc.
But clearly, getting students to understand and speak in their new language in class does require a lot of extra theatricals and energy. And, no matter what you do, if you have a large class, students won't be speaking much in the target language.
Teachers at international language schools, such as the Goethe Institute, the Alliance Française, or Berlitz, often create an immersive learning classroom. But unless the school is located in a country where the language is spoken, students rarely use their target language outside of class.
(Some language schools, e.g. the Middlebury [summer] Language Schools, ask students to sign a pledge to only speak in their target language.)
It seems that one-on-one lessons taken in person or online via Skype may provide the best chance for immersion learning, if you can't be in a country or region where people speak the language. That's especially true if the tutor pushes you to speak a lot.
HOW ABOUT ONLINE LANGUAGE PROGRAMS and APPS?
New technology has made it convenient to learn a language online and doing so has become very popular. But to what extent can online programs and apps provide immersion learning, and with it, fluency in listening and speaking?
Immersion learning, especially for beginners, is not easy to create in an online program. But training listening and speaking in foreign language is a challenge that different programs have attempted to solve in various ways.
Having developed our own GamesforLanguage courses and reviewed a number of other language learning programs, here's a quick snapshot how these programs encourage listening and speaking (in sequence of our development/review).
Each of our course lessons (we call them “Scenes”), start with a dialogue of an ongoing travel story. The learner reads and hears sentences in the target language, which he or she might encounter while traveling, but may or may not fully understand.
New words are then taught and tested with various games in which learners see the words and are encouraged to repeat them. In the listening game “Say It,” the player hears and is asked to repeat a new word, which then appears for just a moment. In another listening game, “Balloon Words,” the player hears the word and has to pick the correct one from three words with a similar spelling. In both, no translation is given so that the attention can remain on listening and repeating.
After other translation and writing games, learners can then record the sentences of all story-dialogues at the end of each lesson, as often as needed. This helps to both memorize phrases and expressions, and to get close to the pronunciation of the native speakers.
Are you now thinking, but isn't “Rosetta Stone” total immersion? Yes, there are no English translations and you are indeed “immersed” in the foreign language throughout a session.
I only bought Level 1 of Spanish, quite a while ago, so that's all I can comment on. The four Levels are set up as pictures and short sentences that describe the pictures.
You hear a sentence, identify the corresponding picture, and then are prompted to record your voice. My voice recording often gets rejected even after several tries. But it's not clear why some sentences are accepted and others aren't. Rather than improving, I just get frustrated.
Is there a boredom factor built into Rosetta Stone? People do seem to give up easily on the kind of "immersion" this program offers. It may be because in each lesson you go through repeating dozens of unrelated phrases and sentences. On top of that, many grammar lessons are in the form of simple pattern drills, where you just click on one word each time. And, because everything is done with pictures, it gets hard to remember what each picture is supposed to mean. (See our 5 Rosetta Stone reviews)
This program has a fairly traditional approach: A lesson starts with a flashcard exercise where you are asked to “Study the words and their spelling.” Then you go through exercises to practice writing, reading, listening, speaking, and basic grammar. Most of the exercises work from translation. Explanations are in English.
For listening practice, I particularly like the dictation exercises (“Write what you hear”), and the part where you complete the sentences of a conversation by adding a word that cued from the English translation of the sentence. In both of these sections, you see and hear language in context.
Speaking practice is up to you: It's best to repeat words and sentences as much as you can. Most lessons have a section for practicing sounds that are different from English.
My main beef with Duolingo is that it has me often write English translations, which I find a huge waste of time. I'd rather be writing answers in the target language. I would be learning so much faster. To avoid writing in English, I've set my “native” language to another language I'm learning. (I now have an account to learn Italian from Spanish.)
I do like the “voice recognition” part because it makes me say things out loud, which I sometimes forget to do. (Of course, there is no REAL voice recognition with feedback.)
Duolingo's newest addition are the Chatbots. At this time, they're available for French, German, and Spanish conversations. What you do is chat in your target language with a “partner” by writing predictable answers to questions and comments, with help from pictures. It's really quite neat.
You hear and see what your Chatbot partner is saying. You can check the meaning of the vocabulary, and get feedback for what you've written. To practice speaking, though, you just have to push yourself to say out loud whatever you hear and see. (see also Duolingo and Babbel: How They Differ)
At the moment, Language Zen is only available for learning Spanish online. The addition of Spanish Music (songs and lyrics) to its courses let's you focus on listening.
In general, you hear a lot of Spanish in this course. You learn new Spanish words and phrases by hearing them (and seeing their spelling and English translation). Next, you hear the Spanish word or phrase and have to identify the correct English translation among five options. When you click on the correct translation, you'll hear it again, see it spelled in Spanish, and are thereby induced to repeat it yourself.
Speaking is an important part of the course. Once you've heard and learned a few words, you are asked to translate an English sentence into Spanish – either by saying it (or by writing it). The voice recognition software is actually pretty good. It has adjusted to my voice, as well as Peter's voice and accent, and writes what it hears.
You can correct any spelling (or hearing) mistake. Click on “Check Answer” and you now hear the correct answer. If you're correct, move on, if not, you have one more chance to say or write the correct Spanish translation.
We very much like the fact that you're encouraged to say (or write) Spanish words and phrases quite often, and that you're not asked to say or write sentences in English. (see also our detailed Language Zen Review.)
This is a new app for Spanish, created by Larkwire. It can be used hands-free. The program is very well done and clearly focuses on listening and speaking. So far, four (4) Levels have been released, from Beginner to Intermediate (with higher levels to come).
Each lesson (almost 250 to date) has you listen to and repeat individual words and sentences, with an emphasis on individual sounds, intonation, and the rhythm of the language. Since the purpose of the program is to repeat what you hear, that's what you do. English translations are spoken and written, so you do hear lots of English not just Spanish.
Brief pronunciation lessons teach you the basic sounds of Spanish. You're told how to produce the sounds and are given examples. Then you record yourself, play back your voice, and compare your pronunciation to that of the native speaker. This is a great feature. (See also our SuperCoco Review.)
Lingualia is an online program (with iOS and Android apps) to learn Spanish or English. All word definitions, audios, fill in the blank and unscramble exercises, image identification, etc. are in the target language.
If you want, you can set the interface language to English, Spanish, and now also to German. So, if you're learning Spanish and if you set the interface language to Spanish, everything will be in Spanish.
In the program, you're not asked to do any translations (though translations with google are available).
With Lingualia you can work seriously on your listening skills. The program contains 200 rapidly spoken conversations, one at the beginning of each lesson. You can listen to them as often as you want, with or without seeing the text.
There's less chance for practicing your speaking skills, unless you make a special effort to constantly repeat individual phrases of a conversation as they scoot by. There are no exercises to practice sentences. There's no recording feature to play back your voice. (See also our Lingualia Review.)
Having worked at Pimsleur both as author of the first three German courses and co-author and development editor of various other courses, I'm both familiar with and fond of the Pimsleur approach. We have not (yet) published a review of this program, which started out with audio tapes and CDs, and now also has MP3 files for download. In addition, there's an interactive product called Pimsleur Unlimited, which can be downloaded on your computer or mobile devices.
With a Pimsleur Audio course, you listen and speak right from the beginning. The Narrator guides you along (first in English and later in the target language) and gives explanations. After you've heard the initial dialogue, you learn new words by hearing and repeating them, usually by building them from the end.
As a lesson progresses, the Narrator gives you the English cues for the words that you've learned, sometimes prompting you to make new combinations. However, the audio lessons are hard to navigate beyond listening in sequence.
Pimsleur Unlimited contains the 30-minute audio lessons, Flashcards and Quick Match to practice new words and sentences, plus a Speak Easy part to practice the conversation. Except for Speak Easy, where you participate in the conversations, everything is prompted from English.
In all, Pimsleur does a great job pushing the learner to say everything aloud. Its particular audio method (backward buildup, anticipation of the answer) is very effective to train the ear and help the learner get a good pronunciation.
THE ONLINE/APP TEACHING DILEMMA
As this quick survey shows, none of these programs (including our GamesforLanguage courses) can provide a true immersion experience, the way a live conversation, or online session with a tutor can.
Online courses or apps have to rely on images (e.g. Rosetta Stone, etc.), writtentext, or English audio to transmit meaning to the learner. A teacher or tutor can do that with gestures, mimic, different sounds, or alternate expressions in the target language, etc., all options that apps or online courses do not have.
The online/app dilemma then is this: Images are rarely sufficient for explaining the meaning of thoughts, feelings, and complex activities, etc. in the target language. You require a teaching language to translate from. (I don't know if Lingualia is an exception for beginners, who may use Google translate in the early stages.)
Translations, however, take the learner away from the the target language. The moment the learner hears or reads the translation in his or her native language (English or otherwise), immersion is interrupted.
THREE POWERFUL IMMERSIVE TECHNIQUES
Still, using online programs and apps to learn can give you a good basis for getting started and progressing in a language, for learning vocabulary, expressions, and pronunciation.
My advice: Don't just click on the correct translation or answer.Repeat and speak the words and phrases you hear and learn in such programs. Without speaking and trying out the new sounds you won't become fluent.
So, what can you add - besides a regular language tutor - to strengthen your immersion experience in the language and become more fluent?
Watch a film or YouTube video in your target language, without English captions (or with captions in the same language).
Listen, with attention, to an audio book. If you can, follow along with the text in your target language.
Listen to a passage from your audio book, and then read and record the same passage. Play back and compare. Do this several times. This is really powerful.
And remember: learning to become fluent in a new language is a long-term project. Use as many different means and methods to read, listen to, or speak the target language every day. Daily “exposure,” if not “immersion,” will get you there.
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a life-long language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands and Canada. You can follow her onFacebook, TwitterandInstagram, and leave any commentswithcontact.
Disclosure: Several of the language learning companies mentioned above are partner sites with revenue sharing should you decide to subscribe.