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.
How fluent are you in the language you're learning? Can you read and understand spoken language pretty well? But your ability to give "quick responses in conversations" is lacking?
There's definitely a way to learn and practice to speak more naturally.
I have a very particular reason for wanting to work on speaking more fluently. It's for French. Curiously enough, it's not that my French is particularly bad, but ... Well, I talk more about it at the end of this post under the heading: My Own Project for Speaking More Fluently
1. LISTEN AND REPEAT, PUSHING YOUR BOUNDARIES
Whatever level you're at and using resources you like, start listening to phrases and sentences, and repeat them aloud whenever you can.
Learning how to say things with some fluency is not a one-time practice. Rather, it's best to go back to working on the same phrases, sentences, or even conversations again and again. That way, your pronunciation will get closer to that of a native speaker.
Close is good. If you're learning a language as an adult, perfect native pronunciation may take much longer, or may not happen at all.
In most languages, when words are used in expressions or in a sentence, they become part of a stream of sounds. Letters are dropped, stress changes, there are contractions, etc. This has to be practiced.
It also helps to memorize short conversations and repeat them to yourself when you're in the shower, as you prepare breakfast, or while jogging, etc.
Online language programs are perfect for practicing natural, rapid speech because you can try as many times as you want. Frequent repetition is key.
Interjections are short words, usually said at the beginning of a sentence, that express strong emotions.
They can be learned together with vocabulary and practiced as part of conversations.
Common interjections in English are "hey" "oh" "good!" "right!" "now way!"
Some common French interjections would be: "Ouf" (Whew), "Zut !" (Darn), "Mais/Bah oui !" (Why yes!), "Quoi !" (What!), "Allez !" (C'mon!)
Common Spanish interjections: "¡Ay!" ( Oh), "¡Ojalà!" (I hope so ), "¡Vaya! (Wow!), "¡Claro!" (Of course!), and mostly in Spain: "¡Guay!" (Cool), "¡Vale!" (Okay!)
Common Italian interjections: "Magari!" (I wish!, If only!), "Bravo! (Well done!), "Dai!" (Come on!, Come now!), "Boh! (No idea!), "Basta!" (Stop!), "Peccato!" (Too bad!)
Common German interjections: "Aha!" (I get it), "Hä?) (I don't understand), "Also..." (Well...), "Wau!" (Wow!), "Ach nee!" (I knew it!), "Klar!" (Of course!)
The best way to learn to notice and use interjections in a language you're learning is to watch films or TV series. You can do this online, which also gives you the chance to repeat snippets of language aloud without annoying others.
Repeating aloud is absolutely essential for learning to say interjections. Seeing and hearing them as part of conversations puts them into context and shows you their exact meaning.
3. PAUSES AND FILLERS
Besides interjections, you can learn to add pauses and fillers to your speech. Fillers are sounds, or words and phrases that are an essential part of conversational speech, but don't have much meaning in themselves.
They mark a pause when someone's speaking, or a moment of hesitation, as the person is considering what to say next. They help to keep the conversation going.
Speech fillers have to be practiced, since they impact on the intonation and rhythm of spoken language.
There are three good reasons why you should learn to use fillers in the language you're learning.
For one, it'll help you navigate better through a conversation. For example, if you just can't find the word you're looking for, you won't be stuck in an awkward silence. Instead, you can use some "hesitation sounds" of a few filler words, as you think about how to reformulate or how to get onto another topic.
Secondly, it will help you keep conversational contact with the person you're speaking to. With fillers, you can keep your own part of the conversation going, or indicate interest in what the other person is saying.
Thirdly, it will make you sound much more like a native. Most native speakers of a language don't hold conversations in full, perfect sentences all the time. They hesitate often enough, break sentences off, change topics as new ideas occur to them, etc. The fillers will help you do that too, without feeling like you're stumbling.
Fillers in American English that I hear a lot in conversations are: "uuh" "uhmm" "err" "well..." "yeah" "like" "right," or the phrase "you know."
French conversational fillers (mots de remplissage, mots bouche-trou): "euh" "bah" "hein" "bon" "ben" "alors" "bah" "eh bien."
To find YouTube videos with TV series, romantic or action films you can watch, do a search, for example, "youtube serie tv français" "youtube series tv español" "peliculas en español youtube" "peliculas completas en italiano youtube" "deutsch filme youtube komplett" - and so on.
4. LISTEN, RECORD, AND REPLAY YOU OWN VOICE
Yes, it's hard to listen to your own recorded voice. I used to try to avoid it as well.
But, recording and listening to your voice and comparing your pronunciation to that of a native speaker is a very powerful technique for improving.
Start with words or short phrases, then work yourself up to full sentences. You have a lot to listen for: individual sounds, rhythm, intonation, the flow of what you're saying.
In different languages, stress is used differently. Listen for it and try to imitate.
In different languages, the same letters that we have in English may have a similar sound, but are pronounced less or more distinctly or explosively.
And, when you are recording yourself, you can practice difficult word combinations, saying them faster and faster.
5. RELAX and MUMBLE
You will unlikely hear this tip from a language teacher: In conversations don't worry about mumbling some of the words, especially their endings.
In casual conversations, most native speakers don't use the enunciation of a TV announcer. Especially when they speak in a local dialect, they talk quickly, mumble, mutter, ramble, blurt out things, drop endings.
In German, "to mumble" is called "nuscheln." In French, you'd say "marmonner." In Spanish, it's "mascullar." And for Italian, the equivalent seems to be "borbottare."
The huge advantage when you learn to mumble a little in a language you're learning, is that you can slide over some of the tricky grammatical parts. It's especially good for endings that are supposed to change in different grammatical context. A neutral mumble can easily suggest the right ending.
All my reading - dozens and dozens of classic and modern novels in college and later on, and more recently, all of the Harry Potter novels in French - did not make me conversationally fluent in French. For sure, I have all the vocabulary that I need, but now I must practice the skill of speaking fluently.
I am fluent in Dutch, though I've done very little reading in it. What I have done for years and years is speak with others and imitate their natural conversational speech.
Repeating normal- and fast-speed sentences, adding interjections, pauses and fillers, and finally recording yourself and playing back your voice - all these together are bound to increase your ability to give "quick responses" in a conversation and become more fluent.
MY OWN PROJECT FOR SPEAKING MORE FLUENTLY
What I need to work on is relaxing when I speak so that I don't over-pronounce each individual word. Not just in French, but in all languages that I speak and am learning.
What's wrong with my French? Not that much really, except ... Well, let me back up a little. I learned French in a classroom setting: in grades 4 & 5 in the Netherlands, then from grades 6 on through grade 11 in Canada, followed by a French Honors university program.
At the end of my studies, I had great reading skills, a large vocabulary, and adequate writing skills. But my listening skills were lacking. I could understand the news (local French Radio) and formal lectures in French, but I could not follow fast conversational French. I also could not hold my own in natural, fast conversations with French speakers.
Later, when we started to regularly visit family in French-speaking Fribourg, Switzerland, my listening and speaking skills had already improved a lot. But even now, when I participate in conversations, my contributions are nicely constructed sentences, painstakingly pronounced. I resemble an announcer, who interrupts a group of people who are pleasantly chatting away.
My goal for further improvement is to be ready for our visit to Switzerland next year. With a French friend and with my husband I'm now practicing to not over-pronounce, to speak faster, to add interjections and fillers, and to “mumble” here and there.
As with the word "à," the accent grave on "ù" only serves to distinguish between words otherwise spelled identically. In fact there is only one word you need to remember, but the difference is important:
"où" means "where," while "ou," written without the accent, means "or."
The circumflex accent is used on top of any of the vowels (â, ê, î, ô, û).
Most commonly, it indicates that historically a letter had fallen away, most often a missing "s."
In many cases the circumflex accent minimally affects the pronunciation of a word.
Common words with the circumflex accent:
"bâtiment" (building) - "théâtre" (theater)
"prêt" (ready) - "être" (to be)
"connaître" (to know/meet) - "le dîner" (the dinner)
"l'hôtel" (the hotel) - "tôt" (early),
"bien sûr" (of course) - "ça coûte" (that costs).
The c-cedilla "ç" mark under the "c" - when it is followed by an "a" or an "o" - shows that the "c" is pronounced like an "s" instead of a "k."
Common Words with a "ç":
"ça" (that/this/it) - "français(e)" (French)
"glaçons" (ice cubes) - "garçon" (boy, sometimes still used to call the waiter).
Note: "ça coûte" (this costs). The word "ça" starts with an s-sound; "coûte" starts with a k-sound.
Reading William Alexander's very enjoyable "Flirting with French - How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart," I was reminded again how difficult it is indeed for adults to become fluent in a foreign language. Yes, I still believe that using every opportunity to SPEAK ALOUD is key. (The topic of: The Three S's of Language Fluency). Mr. Alexander's many hilarious anecdotes also make it clear that there are many obstacles to overcome before an adult can speak a foreign language fluently. However, he also found that the process of learning French has its own rewards.
Listening and Understanding
When my wife and I arrived in Italy several years ago, after having studied Italian with the 90 lessons of three Pimsleur Italian courses, we felt quite confident. Watching a television show the first evening quickly destroyed our illusion. We could barely distinguish words, even less understand what seemed to us to be just rapid-fire Italian. After a couple of weeks of watching and listening, however, and doing the homework that our tutor gave us, we started to hear individual words. And sometimes we guessed the meaning from the context of the show or movie.
Understanding is obviously crucial - without it, there is no conversation. Listening/understanding is considered a passive activity, but it's importance should not be underestimated. When we marvel at the ease children learn a language, we should not forget that their listening already starts before they are even born and it still takes them several years before they can speak fluently.
Daring to Speak
Overcoming the fear of speaking a foreign language is a big step for many adults. There are no shortcuts to speaking. You have to do it as often as you can, starting with reading aloud, repeating, recording your voice, etc. What only could be done in "language labs" in schools and colleges in the past is now possible with many CD or online language courses.
In learning Italian and Spanish I have found that recording myself and comparing my pronunciation to that of the native speaker works best for me: I begin to hear the sound differences and while I'm often not successful in imitating the native speaker completely, I seem to get a little closer with every try. (And voice recognition programs just frustrate me!)
But speaking as part of a conversation obviously requires more than just pronouncing words more or less correctly. You have to recall vocabulary, consider word order, tenses, conjugations, and other grammatical idiosyncrasies to form sentences in a particular language. And, you have to do it in "real time."
Now, while learning vocabulary is essential, it's been our own experience that we recall words much better if we learn them in context, i.e. with phrases and sentences we would use ourselves. (That is also the idea of the travel story approach of gamesforlanguage.com!) When you recall and adapt phrases and sentences that you have heard and memorized, you have to think much less about word order, conjugations, endings, etc.
Yes, some apps and translation gadgets may help you look up a forgotten word or two, but for a real one-on-one conversation they are also a distraction.
We now know that, as we grow up, we lose our ability to distinguish certain sounds. Asian language speakers find it difficult to distinguish "l" and "r" sounds, as they don't exist in their languages. English speakers have trouble with French nasal sounds, German speakers with the English "w." While certain sounds can be learned with a focus on the mouth mechanics (a previous post), chances are that an adult will rarely speak a newly acquired foreign language completely without an accent.
But stop worrying about your accent and start speaking. You will never become fluent in any language, if you don't start speaking. And once you start speaking, you'll also find out that there are quite a few words that you are missing. This will give you an incentive to use one or two of the many apps that help you learn and memorize new words.
We especially like lingua.ly, which let's you read articles and collect the words you don't know into a vocabulary list. You can practice those words later and then delete those you now know. In addition to the Apple and Android apps, there is also a Chrome extension, which you can apply to any document you read online.
A new very slick iOS app is Drops, available in the App Store, which is a lot of fun! They currently have 5 languages (English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish) You can play 5 minutes for free every day (for additional minutes you either have to pay or watch a commercial.)
Living with a Foreign Accent
I have been in the United States for quite a few years, but I still have a German accent. As I can't eliminate it, in spite of earlier "accent reduction" tutoring, I'll just live with it. And I do speak English quite fluently - maybe better now than French, which I had learned in my twenties while living and working in Switzerland.
I have been told that my accent in French is not quite German (maybe Swiss German?), but I can clearly hear my German accent when I record myself while learning and improving my Italian and Spanish.
I recently heard Henry Kissinger on a TV show. His German accent is certainly much stronger than mine, but nobody would argue that he does not speak English fluently.
My point is: Once you dare to speak, you can always work on improving your accent. But do not let your accent be the reason for not speaking.
As lifelong language learners - by necessity and passion - we have used many different methods for learning a new language:
English and French classes during our school years in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada
Assimil records, tapes, and books
Berlitz and other classroom courses to learn/improve French
Immersion French courses in France
Pimsleur CDs to learn Italian and Chinese
Various CD and online courses, including Babbel, Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, our Gamesforlanguage, etc. to learn Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.
Books and dictionaries for the above and other languages
Classroom courses also involved reading novels and newspaper articles (activities that online add-ons such as Lingua.ly can now also make more accessible for more advanced learners.) And for us, a story or interesting text made language learning both relevant and effective.
Overcoming Boring and Frustrating Beginnings
But beginning to learn a new language with CDs or online was often boring and frustrating: Many courses start out by teaching vocabulary and word combinations that seem useless and nonsensical. (Even Duolingo, a program we like a lot ourselves, started out with strange sentences, but is now constantly improving!) While various grammar points, word order, etc. can obviously be practiced with out-of-context sentences, it's been our experience, that we recall vocabulary much better, if (a) we learn vocabulary in context and (b) we learn useful, everyday language.
With our Gamesforlanguage courses we are using a travel story right from the start: The vocabulary grows from a few simple words in an airplane to phrases and sentences that describe a young man's experiences as he travels through various European cities.
A Mystery Story for Non-Beginners
For our German 2 course, ( the full 76-lesson course is online and can be played for Free with simple registration), we are using a mystery story. Michael, the young traveler from our German 1 course, returns to Berlin. The young woman who sits beside him in the airplane gives him a book, “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” which she does not want to finish. Without giving away too much, let's just say that this book plays a key role in the story.
Each lesson is built around 4-8 dialog or story sentences, which are broken up into words and phrases - then heard, read, practiced and, re-assembled again, and finally recorded by the learner. German 2 will add another 700 NEW words to the 700 words of German 1, many of which will be recalled in various games of German 2.
Learners will again have to exceed certain point thresholds with each lesson, before they can unlock the next one. We believe that getting “to the end of the story” will not only be a worthwhile incentive to learn, but will also make learning more fun AND effective. We are planning to add French 2, Italian 2, and Spanish 2 courses with a similar mystery story in 2016.
You can't become fluent in a foreign language without practicing to speak. This appears to be self-evident. But learners often seem to forget it, when they practice flashcard apps on their phone or on mobile devices, and do so without repeating and pronouncing the foreign words and phrases. Yes, learning vocabulary is important and yes, it's difficult to practice aloud in public, at work, or even at home while others are listening. However, there are no shortcuts: You have to practice your pronunciation and learn to speak.
The opportunities to speak are obviously greatest with week- or month-long language immersion programs, and also exist with private tutors or even in classroom settings. Learners are constantly encouraged and challenged to speak. With textbook- and CD/DVD-based, or online language programs speaking can become an option. Even with popular programs, such as Duolingo, speaking is only required in, maybe, 30% of the exercises. However, in most online programs, including Duolingo and our GamesforLanguage, learners obviously have the option to repeat the foreign words and sentences they hear and read.
All our GamesforLanguage courses have a “Say It” sequence, which is especially popular with many beginners who are reluctant to use the “Record It” feature towards the end of each lesson. In “Say It,” the learner hears a word or phrase spoken by a native speaker, which then is followed by a “Say It” command. With time to repeat the word or phrase several times before it appears on the screen, the learner can then correlate the audio, i.e. what s/he heard with the spelling of the word/phrase. In these examples for German and French, you can see how it works. Repeat each “game” a couple of times and you'll be surprised how much you'll learn and remember.
Many online programs now provide recording options for learners. While for some hearing their own imperfect intonation (compared to that of the native speakers) is stressful when played back, frequent use of recording features will not only improve your pronunciation, it will also make you more confident when speaking. (And if the voice recognition feature of your favorite language program frustrates you – just turn it off. )
As your language skills start to improve and you begin to read paragraphs, articles, and maybe soon books, read aloud whenever you can. Don't worry, if you can't yet pronounce each word correctly. At the start, it's more important that you keep trying to convert the written words into spoken language than trying to sound like a native. Think about how long it takes children to pronounce each word of their own native language correctly and give yourself time to improve.
The earlier you start using your speaking skills in real life situations, the better. But unless you are living in a foreign country or a neighborhood were the language is spoken, have a foreign-language friend or partner, or are traveling, your options will be limited. Online communities, using Skype, Facetime and similar networks can open the doors to speaking and communicating, but such arrangements have to be planned and scheduled.
Maybe not everybody can muster the time or commitment that Benny Lewis promotes with Fluent in 3 Months. But if you watch his clip and consider the points above, you will conclude as well:
To become fluent in your target language, start SPEAKING it whenever you can - right from the start!
Creating a habit is not easy – but the start of a new year is a great opportunity to set some goals. Make 2016 YOUR year to become fluent in your target language!
The truism proposed at the beginning: “You can't become fluent in a foreign language without practicing to speak it,” also means that any adult serious about language fluency has to plan where and how to practice speaking. In addition to the suggestions above, you'll also want to include speaking opportunities into your language practice plan.
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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!
Recently reading David McCullough's fascinating book "The Greater Journey – Americans in Paris", I was intrigued by this sentence (p. 202):
“Except in infancy, he had never lived in Paris. As a consequence of schooling in Switzerland and Germany, he spoke French with a slight German accent...”
Who was he?
He was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (left, painting by Alexandre Cabanel [1823-1889]), the improbable president of the Second Republic, and later Emperor Napoleon III, who
“...in 1830, having tried and failed in a ludicrously inept attempt to overthrow King Louis-Philippe, he had been exiled to the United States, where he stayed only briefly before settling in London. (Like Louis-Philippe, he spoke English with ease and, as Thomas Evans had discovered, preferred conversing in English when he did not care to have others nearby understand what was said.)” (p. 203)
For History Buffs
If you are interested, you can read more about Napoleon III in the Wikipedia entry. Except for history buffs, not many English speaking language learners will know much about Louis-Philippe or about Napoleon III.
Clearly, both were quite adept in speaking more than one language. “The London Saturday Journal” (Volume 3 – Page 56 of January 1840, digitized by Google Notes) reports that Louis-Philippe, besides German and English, also spoke Italian: “[he] speaks these three languages fluently, without the slightest foreign accent.”
Both his and his successor's foreign language skills were acquired during their school years and during exile (the latter not necessarily an experience to emulate).
There are plenty of examples of people who became highly successful in a foreign country even though they had a noticeable foreign accent. Similarly, McCullough describes the experiences of many American scholars and artists that had come to Paris by the 1830s:
James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F.B. Morse, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sumner just to name a few. They all had to learn French, and very likely, never lost their American accent. Still, they had no trouble communicating and loved their stay in Paris.
After all – if Napoleon III could become emperor of France with a (slight) German accent in his “native” French – you certainly should not give up learning the foreign language in which you want to become fluent!
You Want to Practice Your German?
Our games and travel-story based courses are also a great way to practice your German.
With our German 1 and 2 coursesyou'll learn and practice German for FREE - with stories of a young man traveling through Germany and - its sequel - solving a "Blüten"-mystery in Berlin. "The Story" and easy games will let you forget that you are actually learning German!
And you can also listen to both Stories by clicking on German 1 or German 2 on our Podcast page
If you want to learn to speak a foreign language, is it really important to practice aloud? My experience has been that although the benefits of practicing listening, reading, writing, and speaking overlap, each foreign language skill also needs its own practice.
Last year my husband and I spent a month in Barcelona. We had rented an apartment and found this to be a brilliant opportunity to practice our nascent Spanish in daily situations - such as shopping, banking, getting around the city, or socializing with locals in our neighborhood café.
Practicing Reading aloud
But Spanish wasn't the only language we "practiced aloud." One weekend, our nephew, his wife, and their 4 year old daughter Céline came to visit us. They live in Switzerland and are French-speaking, so for three days we conversed only in French. The first night, I was the lucky one to read a bed-time story to Céline. She wanted to hear Raiponce (Rapunzel, in French) and had brought her own book. When I started, it was immediately apparent that Céline was not tired at all and I found myself reading to her aloud for close to an hour. In between bouts of reading, Céline peppered me with questions why Raiponce did this, or Raiponce did that. French is my 4th language and I'm fairly fluent, but let me tell you, discussing the storyline of a complicated fairy tale with a chatty 4 year old can be challenging.
The next day, I felt the effects of my brief but intense immersion experience. My French brain was working in high gear: I found that words came more easily to me and the sometimes awkward French sounds flowed more smoothly.
Producing Foreign Language sounds
Practicing a new language aloud starts with sounding out individual words and phrases, but also includes repeating - aloud - longer sentences. These might not always sound perfect, but the effort to recreate the music and intonation of a sentence is excellent practice in itself. Producing the sounds of a foreign language is in part a mechanical process that involves position of the tongue, movement of the muscles in the mouth, and guiding your breath. Your mouth is definitely multitasking.
There are many audio courses, YouTube clips, etc. that teach pronunciations and the particular sounds of many languages. We find that imitating practice by recording your own voice and comparing it to the native speaker works best for us, and we have included this feature in all our courses. In addition, we often find that we can remember a sound better when we see the written word. That's why we have also a “Say it” section: You hear a word or phrase, are asked to repeat it, then see it written for a moment before you hear the next one.
Reading and listening are great ways to rapidly improve your understanding of a foreign language, but don't forget, practicing and speaking aloud will get you ready for conversations: they may be with kids about a fairly tale, or with peers about anything at all!
Much has been learned about language acquisition by children. There appears to be some consensus by linguists that by the age of seven, children will have fully acquired the intonation and sounds of their first language. On the other hand, when they learn another language later in life, they will rarely equal the intonation of a native speaker in that language. Does this mean the goal of foreign language “fluency” will be elusive to an adult?
A recent Wikipedia entry surfaced the following definition:
“Language fluency is used informally to denote broadly a high level of language proficiency, most typically foreign language or another learned language, and more narrowly to denote fluid language use, as opposed to slow, halting use. In this narrow sense, fluency is necessary but not sufficient for language proficiency: fluent language users (particularly uneducated native speakers) may have narrow vocabularies, limited discourse strategies, and inaccurate word use. They may be illiterate, as well. Native language speakers are often incorrectly referred to as fluent.” [Wikipedia: "Fluency"]
For Americans, there are wonderful examples of well-known public figures who came to the US as teenagers or adults and whose English could not be called anything but “fluent” - although their accent may still identify them as non-natives.
Henry Kissinger was 15 when he arrived in the US in 1938.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was 21 when he arrived in the US in 1968.
Arianna Huffington was 19 when she moved to England in 1969
Martina Navratilova was 19 when she came to the US in 1975
Most readers will have heard at least of one of these celebrities on radio and/or television. And you probably would call their English fluent – even though their more or less distinct accent makes it clear that they learned their English later in life. (Other examples, such as Albert Einstein, Leoh Ming Pei, the famous architect, Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court Justice, etc. could also be listed, but their voices are less well known.) It's likely, however, that most of these immigrants already had a basic knowledge of English when they arrived in the US. And, they perfected their new language in school and/or through diligent study.
So for all of you who shy away from learning a new foreign language or improving an “old” one, because you fear that you won't be able to speak it fluently: It is certainly not too late to start (again). You may never sound exactly like a native. It may even take an extended stay in the foreign country to give you full “fluency.” But learning and practicing to speak, read, and write another language will open up a new world and - as an added benefit – it will keep your brain neurons moving...