If you want to get better at something, you have to practice. That goes for sports, yoga, singing, playing an instrument, etc. It also holds true for becoming fluent and proficient in a foreign language.
I belong to an online group of polyglots. The enthusiasm and talent of most of the members is high and I find this very inspiring. Many of us are fluent in several languages and are shooting for several more. It's a great goal to have, but even talented polyglots need to practice in order to learn and get better.
Practice takes time, which is a limited resource. So it's a good idea to have a plan to make your learning most effective. Some, but not all of the seven “ingredients” below are typically provided by traditional classes, online or self-teaching courses, CDs, books, etc. You can greatly enhance and accelerate your learning, if you include them in your own, personal Foreign Language Practice Plan:
Generally speaking, these three (3) basic ingredients belong to "practicing" a skill:
- doing something regularly
- doing something with focus
- doing something with the goal to improve over time
And then there's the whole question of how practicing can be both fun and effective. Here are my 7 ways which I've been using for my fifth and sixth languages:
1. Practice in Small Chunks
Devote some of your time to practicing your new language in small chunks (also called "chunking"). Take individual words, phrases, idioms, set expressions, and go over them with focus and intensity. Do them multiple times and use different ways to practice: listen & repeat, see & say, listen & write, say & record, listen with eyes shut, etc.
2. Practice All 4 Language Skills
Not only will it come in handy to know all four skills - reading, listening, speaking, and writing, with time they'll begin to boost and strengthen each other. [See also our blog: How the 4 Language skills boost each other]
3. Practice at Different Levels
Vary the level of difficulty. What you learn with easy texts is different from what you learn with texts that are highly challenging. So, for example, alternate between reading a simple text and puzzling out a tough grammar structure. Or, listen to a basic audio after practicing speaking and recording yourself. Changing around is also a way to keep things interesting.
4. Engage Your Senses
The more senses you can involve when you're acquiring a language, the more effective you'll be. Listen to the audio of a story or song, watch a movie or YouTube clip, read aloud or record yourself, write things out by using the motion of writing or typing, play interactive games on touch screens, etc.
5. Always Think of the Context
Why the context? Because in communication words take on different meanings in different contexts. Even when you practice your small chunks, you should have the context in mind. For example, is it a formal or a casual situation? Is the tone serious or humorous? Does the word have another meaning that doesn't fit the context? To communicate effectively, you need to practice with more than simple word lists.
6. Practice often and regularly
We may not all have the time and opportunity for long daily practice sessions. But, if you can set aside some 10-15 minutes for language practice every day, you'll progress faster than committing the same 60-90 minutes every week. The reason may be that daily practice helps move foreign words and phrases from short-term to long-term memory.
7. Reward Yourself
Practice takes discipline and isn't always fun. You need to keep your focus, challenge yourself, as well as tolerate a certain amount of boredom. Rewarding yourself after a good practice might just help you stay motivated. For some people, a gamified program works nicely. Others may want to give themselves points that add up for a special treat. For those with a serious goal in mind, the ultimate reward could be a trip to the country where you can experience the language and culture first hand.
The seven practices described above overlap in many ways, similar to what a physical exercise plan may do to the muscles in your body. Keeping them in mind as you develop your personal Language Practice Plan will help you select your practice materials. In fact, just as you may use various exercise equipment and activity - weights, machines, running, etc., you should experiment and try out different practice materials - books, audios, online programs, CDs, or traditional courses, apps, etc. For the best results, you need to tailor your Personal Practice Plan to your own needs and goals.
A recent blog “Learning Grammar with WordDive” reminded me that indeed there are many ways for adults to learn a foreign language. The author notes: “WordDive is primarily about 'diving' into language through its vocabulary” and “When studying with WordDive, you are exposed to grammar structures integrally in the course of the learning process." We agree that adults can learn grammar structures "integrally," somewhat similar to the way children learn them "through numerous repetitions and imitations."
Games and “The Story”
Our approach at GamesforLanguage is different: We teach vocabulary and grammar structures with short games and “The Story” - a sequential and connected series of dialogs and short narratives that tell of a young man traveling in European countries.
While the various games help the learner to practice all four skills (listening, reading, writing, and speaking), the dialogues and narratives introduce and repeat grammatical structures, which he or she will recognize and/or, at times, be alerted to.
For example, already in the second Scene (lesson) of our French 1 course, we bring in the subjunctive, with the sentence “Je suis contente que vous parliez...” in our dialogue (left). We then briefly explain it in our “Deal no Deal” game (see right). Twenty Scenes later, the expression “je suis contente" is used again, but with the subjunctive of another verb. Will we teach all subjunctive forms of these particular verbs? No, but the learner is alerted to the context in which such forms are used and will start to recognize new subjunctive forms as they come up.
Learning the vocabulary, i.e. the foreign labels of objects, actions, feelings, etc. (see also: Language Learning with Pictures and/or Words) is clearly important and necessary. Romance and Germanic languages have many similarities to English, which help English speakers to remember words and phrases, even if certain grammatical constructions are different.
For example, in our story our traveler is asked :
“Do you also need something?” and he answers: “I need a travel guide.”
In Spanish one would say:
“¿Necesitas también algo?” and “Necesito una guía de viajes.”
and in Italian:
“Hai bisogno di qualcosa anche tu?” and “Ho bisogno di una guida turistica.”
Rather than drilling the conjugations for “necesitar” and “avere bisogno,” the learner picks up the second and then the first person singular as part of the question and answer. And he or she remembers the meaning of “you need” and “I need,” because it is connected to the “travel guide” of the story, with “guía”/ “guida” (guide), “viajes” (voyage), and “turistica” (tourist) being closely related to their English meanings.
Based on our own experience of learning several foreign languages as adults, we know that we can best retain and apply words and phrases, when they relate to objects, actions, feelings, etc. that we encounter in our own life. (That's why we chose a travel story.)
And while our approach is somewhat different from WordDive's, we agree that the discovery of grammatical structures during the learning process is rewarding and more effective than drilling conjugations, tenses, etc.
For some learners, more detailed explanations are necessary, for others explanations are just confirmations of their own discoveries. The extensive offering of free or inexpensive apps and online courses allows learners to choose and combine different approaches that fit their needs and learning styles.
The French pronoun "en" may be little but it's not to be ignored! It's a very common and useful word, and worth the effort to get to know better.
In a recent Facebook post, we listed the following uses:
- Meaning "from there" / "from it":
Tu as été à Londres? Oui, j'en arrive. - You've been to London? Yes, I just came from there.
- Meaning "about it" / "of it":
Il parle beaucoup de son voyage. Il en parle beaucoup. - He speaks a lot about his trip. He speaks a lot about it.
- Meaning "some" / "any":
Je viens de faire du café. Tu en veux? - I just made coffee. Do you want some?
- With expressions of quantity:
Est-ce que tu as vu beaucoup de films de Truffaut? Oui, j'en ai vu beaucoup. - Have you seen a lot of Truffaut's films? Yes, I've seen a lot of them.
For a more thorough look at the pronoun "en" go to: How to use that awesome French pronoun EN by Stanley Aléong
Our Quick French No 1 introduces you briefly to "y." Check that one out, too and you'll know two of the most ubiquitous words of the French language!
When you're learning a new language, how much do the four skills – reading, listening, writing, and speaking - boost each other? For example, how much does reading help your listening or speaking? Or, when you practice listening, does that help your reading or writing? The answers are yes, and quite a bit. But there are limits. No doubt, reading will increase your vocabulary and your understanding of how the language works. Still, reading alone does not make you a fluent conversationalist. By the same token, listening alone will not make you a brilliant Facebook chat partner in your new language.
Many adults today start learning a new language by reading, and listening to corresponding audios. Apps and online language courses are ideal for that, with hard-copy textbooks, classes, and tutorials providing support and/or alternatives.
Once you've mastered the basics - essential words and phrases and the fundamentals of grammar - reading will certainly accelerate your progress. Reading is a fast and pleasant way to increase your vocabulary and internalize the structure of the language. Most of all, reading sharpens your ability to guess the meaning of unknown words. When reading new texts, you'll encounter unfamiliar words, and often it's the context that helps you guess what they mean. This ability will get better the more you read.
To keep you reading, it's crucial that you read books and articles that genuinely interest you. And whenever you can: Read aloud. The Internet has become a huge resource for foreign language materials. Besides online courses, you can find an endless supply of newspaper articles, social media posts, books for downloading, etc.
Reading is clearly essential for learning a language. However, reading alone is not sufficient if your goal is also to speak and write fluently, and to listen to fast speech and understand what you're hearing.
Understanding foreign sounds and words seems initially more difficult than reading: by correlating the sounds of the words to their spelling one tries, at the same time, to understand what they mean. If you're part of a conversation, you can ask for something to be repeated. Aside from that, as with a rapid-fire conversation in a TV episode, you can't double-check and analyze what you hear.
For the beginner, spoken language always seems fast. But with a little patience, you can build up your listening skills right from the beginning. Start with listening to individual words and phrases, then songs and short podcasts, and eventually, TV episodes and/or radio. As you're training your ear to distinguish the end of one word and the beginning of the next, you'll notice the fast stream of words gradually slowing down.
You'll need good listening comprehension when you're in a conversation with others. Practicing to just listen is an excellent way to sharpen this skill. And once you have progressed beyond the basics, reading will increase your listening vocabulary, and speaking will help you apply it.
Writing freely in a foreign language may be harder for some than speaking. If you want to exchange Facebook chats or emails with foreign friends, or even post comments in the language you're learning, you have to be able to spell and put sentences together that others can understand. A good first step for writing is to copy suitable words and phrases, and to start using these when you write. Then continue doing this with full sentences, or even longer texts.
The point is to write a lot and to write often. When you're ready, begin keeping a simple, daily journal in your new language. It's okay to make mistakes. If you can get your writing corrected - either by an email friend or on a foreign language writing site - you'll make progress fast.
If you want to learn to converse in a foreign language, you have to practice speaking. It's as simple as that. Of course, listening with understanding is necessary too. However, conversing in a language presupposes that you can produce the foreign language in a way so that others can understand you. This involves mastering the correct "mouth mechanics." And, it's not enough to remember the vocabulary, you also have to be conscious of the underlying grammatical fabric – and what's different from writing – you have to do so in real time, without consulting dictionaries and grammar books.
Practice speaking by listening and repeating words, phrases, and short sentence. Then record your own voice, play it back, and compare yourself to the native speaker. Do this until you have acquired a series of common, useful expressions. In addition, read aloud whenever you can (see above).
But nothing beats engaging in real conversations. So once you've mastered the basics of pronunciation and intonation, find a "practice" partner to converse with over coffee, on the phone, on skype, etc. Don't become one of those people who say: "I learned French for four years, I can read Harry Potter in French, but I can't really speak; all I can say is 'Bonjour' and 'Au revoir'."
THE BOTTOM LINE
I've only touched on some of the ways in which the four language skills are both distinct and related. Each person may experience language learning somewhat differently or want to practice one skill to the preference of another. But the bottom line is that a language learner that wants to master all four skills will need to practice each of these - reading, listening, writing, and speaking - with a certain amount of special attention.
In English, when you say to someone: "Have a good day!" you're not ordering them to have a good day, you are expressing a wish: "I hope you have ...." or "May you have ..."
When you wish someone a good day, etc. in Spanish, you are saying something similar:
"¡Que tengas un buen día!" (familiar) and "¡Que tenga un buen día!" (formal) both mean "[May you] have a good day!"
I hope that...
The verb form that is used in such wishes is the subjunctive mood. Look at the difference:
Tienes un buen día. - You are having a good day.
¡Que tengas un buen día! - Have a good day!
The combination "que+subjunctive" implies "may ..." or "I hope that ..."
Following are a few other common wishes in Spanish:
¡Que tengas una buena estancia! - Have a good stay!
¡Que tengas suerte! - Good luck! (May you have luck!)
¡Que tengas buen viaje! - Have a good trip!
¡Que te mejores! - Get well soon! (May you get better!)
¡Que (te) vaya bien! - Good luck (to you)! / I hope it goes well (for you)!
¡Que aproveche! - Enjoy your meal! (Spain)
Getting the feel for the context in which the subjunctive is used (rather than learning a bunch of rules) is a good way to start learning this verb form. ¡Que te vaya bien!
When you're learning a new language to communicate, grammar should not be your main worry. Focus rather on understanding and speaking, and discover grammar points along the way. And, importantly, grammar is best consumed gradually, in small doses, and in little steps. My current experience with learning Swedish reinforces this notion for me again and again.
Simple Grammar Explanations
Find a book or site that gives you simple explanations, ones that you can relate directly to the vocabulary you're learning. For example, as you're practicing basic phrases and sentences, you can discover - step by step: the gender of nouns; articles (definite & indefinite); pronouns (including the familiar and formal "you," and when to use these); present tense verb endings; conjunctions (and, but or); question words (who, what, where, when, etc.); and the word order of simple statements and questions.
Once you've grasped a grammar point, you'll reinforce your understanding every time you see the structure again - as you're learning new words and phrases or reviewing old ones. For example, in Swedish, I learned that the definite article is attached to the end of a noun. So now I know the difference between "torg" (square) and "torget" (the square). Whenever I see the “-et / -t" (neuter gender) or the “-en / -n” (common gender) ending, I keep this in mind for understanding the meaning of the word.
With a knowledge of some essential phrases and grammar basics, you're now ready to learn a handful of prepositions, as they're used in common expressions. Some of them you may have encountered already in phrases you learned, others may be new or have a second, less obvious meaning. Each language has its own favorites. For example, in Swedish I started with: av (of, by); från (from); hos (with, at); i (in, on, before [time]); på (on, in, at); till (to [a place]); med (with); över (over, above, across, past [time]); åt (to [a person]).
Research & Discovery
As a next step, choose a simple text that interests you, about half a printed page long. Now, using a dictionary, try to read it for meaning, or even try to translate the sentences into English. Pay special attention to what holds the text together: the connecting words (and, but, also); negative words (not, never, no one); time markers (today, tomorrow, yesterday, soon, earlier, etc.); verb tenses. At this stage, you're beginning to understand how the language works.
I'm a huge fan of keeping a small spiral (3"x5") notebook in which I write down, in pencil, phrases I want to memorize. I also list essential grammar points. For example, for Swedish, I noted down the phrases: "en kvart över twå" (a quarter past two) and "en kvart i twå" (a quarter to two). This phrase pair helps me recall that, in general, "över" means "past the hour" and "i" means "before the hour."
In my experience, grammar is something you build from the ground up, slowly, step by step. As you're learning your new language, you become aware of and want to understand grammar points - all in the context of phrases and sentences that you are reading or hearing. In short, grammar is not something you learn first and then apply but rather something that you discover and learn over time.
The use of the single letter "y" and its combination with forms of the verb "aller" is confusing to many French beginners. However, it's really not that difficult. (The picture on the left shows the cover of “On y va!”, a French lesson book used by Swiss high school students in the 80s and 90s.)
Recently, we listed the following uses of “y” in a Facebook post:
"y" = here, there, about it, on it (referring to something that was mentioned)
- "On y va." - Let's go (Lit: We are going [there].)
- "J'y suis, j'y reste." - Here I am (and) here I'm staying.
- "Marseille? Oui, je vais y aller." - Marseille? Yes, I'm going there.
- "Trois jours à Paris! Penses-y!" - Three days in Paris! Think about it!
- "Le pont d'Avignon? On ne peut plus y danser." - Avignon Bridge? You can't dance on it any more.
- "La Tour Eiffel? Est-ce que tu y es déjà monté?" - The Eiffel Tower? Did you already go up on it?
Moreover, you can combine various forms of the verb “aller” (to go) and “y” (there) to create commands that are commonly used in daily life.
An excellent explanation of these commands can be found in
French Conversation – How to use Vas-y, Allez-y And Allons-y by Stanley Aléong
Let us know any comments or questions you have and - keep on learning.
Learning a new language - playfully...
There's nothing wrong with Flashcards, I love them for practicing vocabulary and we use them in our games as well. But learning only with traditional flashcards - or sticking only to list learning, for that matter - is bound to keep you in the rank of beginner. To bust through the beginner ceiling, you have to learn to use phrases and sentences as part of communication. That's where context learning comes in. Here are three simple reasons for learning German in context.
German consistently uses pronouns with specific verb forms (as opposed to Italian or Spanish, for example). But because some of the German pronouns are multi-functional or are part of an idiom, you need the context to understand what's going on.
A perfect example is “sie/Sie”:
- Wann kommt sie? - When is she coming? [she - subject]
- Wann kommen sie? - When are they coming? [they - subject]
- Und kommen Sie auch? - And are you also coming? [you(formal) - subject]
- Ich kann Sie nicht sehen. - I can't see you. [you(formal) - direct object]
- Ich kenne sie nicht. - I don't know her/them. [her/them - direct object]
The word "sie" can also refer to a "feminine gender" object or animal:
- Die Hütte dort, siehst du sie? - The hut over there, do you see it? [it(f) - direct object]
- Die Katze dort, sie wartet auf ihre Milch. - The cat over there, it's waiting for its milk. [it(f) - subject]
And the German “ihr/Ihr” could mean in English: “you” [plural familiar], “her” [indirect object], “their” [possessive pronoun], “your” [formal] or also “to her” in various German idioms.
When learning the various uses of “sie/Sie” or “ihr/Ihr,” it is useful to have specific phrases or sentences in mind.
Articles and Cases
In German, articles and noun cases are matched – often in mysterious ways for beginners:
- “der” is not only the masculine article, as in : [der See] Der See ist .... - The lake is .... [m – subject), "der" can also can precede a feminine noun, as in:
- [die Frau] Ich gebe der Frau ... - I give (to) the woman ... [f, indirect object]
- [die Kirche] Das Tor der Kirche ist .... - The door of the church .... [f , possessive]
- [die Stimme] Die Anzahl der Stimmen ... - The number of votes ... [f pl, possessive]
Similarly, “die” is not only the feminine article, "die" is also the plural form for all nouns that are a subject or a direct object, as in:
- [das Haus] Die Häuser sind ... - The houses are ... [neuter, pl subject]
- [der Baum] Die Bäume sind ... - The trees are ... [m, pl subject]
- [die Straße] Die Straßen sind ... - The streets are ... [f, pl subject]
- Ich sehe die Häuser, die Bäume, und die Straßen. - I see the houses, the trees, and the streets. [direct objects]
Some words change their meaning, depending on the context. For example (as shown by a post circulating on Facebook), the word "Bitte" has multiple meanings. As a simple statement “Bitte.” basically means “Please.”; but it can also mean "Go ahead."; or "I don't mind"; or “You're welcome.”; or “Here you are.”; or “Not at all.” In addition, the question "Bitte?" is often used as “Pardon me?"
While “Danke” simply means “Thank you,” in a specific context, it can mean: “Yes, thank you.” or “No, thank you.”
And, the much-used word “gut” (good) can change its meaning in idioms such as:
- “Gut, das machen wir.” - Okay, we'll do that.
- “Mir geht's gut.” - I'm feeling great.
- “Mir ist nicht gut.” - I'm not feeling well.
- “Jetzt ist es aber gut.” - That'll do.
- “Schon gut.” - That's enough.
Learning vocabulary is clearly necessary – and Flashcards are a great tool for that – but simply knowing groups of words is not enough to really understand and speak German. It's best to learn those words in the context of a topic that interests you. You will better remember the words when you recall them as part of meaningful phrases and sentences. Moreover, when you use them in new sentence combinations, applying the grammar rules will be much easier. And we certainly agree with author Andy Hunt whom we had quoted in a previous blog: “Always Consider the Context ... because it is important for understanding the world around us."
After you've initiated a conversation (see Part 1 ), you'll want to have a few topics up your sleeve to sustain it.
Know some basic information about the city and have a few phrases ready so you can introduce the topics that interest you:
- "He oído que ..." (I've heard that ...)
- "He oído mucho sobre ..." (I've heard a lot about ...)
- "He leído sobre ... en mi guía de viajes." (I've read about ... in my travel guide.)
- "Un amigo me ha contado mucho sobre ..." (A friend told me a lot about ...)
- "Hay mucho que ver en ..." (There's a lot to see in ...)
Know also a few interesting historical facts about the country. This means that you should learn how to say dates. Remember that in Spanish, dates follow this format: day, month, year.
- "Las olimpiadas de Barcelona se inauguraron el 25 de julio de 1992." (The Barcelona Olympics opened on July 25th 1992.)
- "¿No vivió Washington Irving allí?"
Say something about your stay in the country, where you're going, or where you've been, etc.
- "Me quedo casi tres semanas ..." (I'm staying almost three weeks ...)
- "Visito a amigos." (I'm visiting friends.)
- "Hoy sólo quiero explorar el casco antiguo." (Today I just want to explore the old town.)
- "Yo voy pasado mañana ..." (I'm going the day after tomorrow ...)
Learn to listen as well as talk. Be able to ask questions and make comments to show your interest in what the other person is saying:
- "¿Cuándo fue fundada? " (When was it founded?)
- "¿Cuándo fue eso?" (When was that?)
- "¿Quién es/era ...?" (Who is/was ...?)
- "¿Qué es eso?" (What is that?)
- "¿De qué está hecha?" (What is it made from?)
- "No sabía." (I didn't know.)
- "No estoy seguro, pero creo que sí." (I'm not sure, but I believe so.)
Obviously, the old stand-by, if you did not understand:
- "¡Eso ha sido un poco rápido de más!" (That was a little too fast!)
- "¡Podría repetir eso por favor!" (Could you, please, repeat that!)
Practicing some of these conversational phrases and expressions ahead of time will be quite helpful and impress your Spanish speaking contact. While such phrases will obviously not be sufficient for an intensive discussion, they will boost you confidence in speaking. The next step will be to add a few more topics and strategies to your conversational skills. In our last blog on this topic (Part 3), we'll guide you on how to close a casual conversation with a Spanish speaker.
Many language courses - be they books, CDs, online programs, or apps - are structured around learning particular vocabulary topics: “survival words & phrases,” such as greetings, numbers, directions, shopping, time, days, months, etc., or "categories," such as colors, food items, parts of the body, animals, objects found in the home, etc.
Clearly, these words and phrases are important to learn and know. However, if they are just introduced as a list and without context, they are difficult to retain. That's why GamesforLanguage.com has chosen a “Story-Approach”: Each new word is introduced as part of an ongoing story – a young man traveling to the country of the foreign language that is to be learned: Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.
Will this young man use all the vocabulary contained in the various topics mentioned above? Probably not. But the 700 words that make up the many phrases and sentences in each GamesforLanguage course will not only be more useful, but also easier to remember and apply. And that is what's important to most learners: acquiring vocabulary that they can use in daily life.
And for learners who already have some background in one of the four languages, GamesforLanguage provides a fun and effective way to “brush up” on their foreign language. They can skip the “Memory Games” and immediately focus on “Snap Clouds,” “Shooting Gallery,” or “Word Hero” to test their vocabulary; practice translation and sentence building with “Word Invaders” or “Shoot Out”; and train their pronunciation with “Record It.” Interacting repeatedly with the elements of “The Story” - hearing, saying, writing, and recording words, phrases, and sentences in context - is an effective way to memorize, retain and learn to apply the language you're learning.
This YouTube clip for French shows how all the new words of "The Story" are playfully being learned in various easy games. And learning with a story that continues from Scene to Scene keeps up one's interest more than the often unrelated dialogues so many language programs are using!
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