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 foreignlabels 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.
Some time ago we wrote a blog post Fluent in Ten Days? The idea for it was related to the more outrageous marketing claims and promises that we found on the internet as we started GamesforLanguage.com. Most people understand that you can't become “fluent” in a foreign language in 10 days, even if you studied 24 hours a day.
The term “language fluency” is actually a speech language pathology term and refers to fluid as opposed to halting and slow speech. However, to most foreign language learners “fluency” denotes a high level of proficiency in speaking, and in comprehending spoken language.
But there's a catch. “She speaks like a native” would indeed be high praise for a young bilingual child – although he or she may not even know how to read and write, and therefore not really be “proficient” in the language. Or, on the other hand, a person may be quite proficient in reading a foreign text, but unable to engage in a conversation.
Thus, achieving “fluency” in a language is mostly understood as being able to communicate with ease in conversations. On the other hand, when you evaluate someone's “proficiency” in a language, you usually want to determine the level of proficiency in each of the four language skills.
The Four Language Skills
The four essential skills when learning a foreign language are commonly described as follows:
Listening/Comprehension: the ability to understand the meaning of foreign speech
Speaking: the ability to produce foreign speech and be understood
Reading: the ability to read and understand foreign texts
Writing: the ability to write foreign texts
Foreign language organizations in most countries have developed proficiency tests for each and all of these. This wiki link details it for the US. Indeed, proficiency testing has become quite an industry.
More options today
Anybody who wants to improve his or her foreign language fluency as well as proficiency in the four language skills, can choose among an extensive offering of foreign language apps, online courses, books, CDs, audio, traditional, or immersion courses, personal tutoring etc. (A brand new website, Sites For Teaching, ranks educational websites by popularity.)
As we describe in another blog post, the four language skills boost each other. Still, each learner may also sometimes have to decide on which of the skills to focus most: either because of a special current need, or because of a particular interest or aptitude.
But for an adult to become both fluent and proficient in a new foreign language, it will certainly take more than 10 days, more like between 100 and 1,000 days...
Our June 2013 entry about the Spanish song "La Paloma" has been one of our most read blogs for several months now. Here is the part of our November 2012 blog again, which had suggested Edith Piaf's famous "Non, je ne regrette rien" as a wonderful song to learn and practice French with.
Listening to foreign songs is an excellent way to memorize key phrases and expressions – and having fun doing it. Sometimes, you may even start humming and repeating the refrains without exactly knowing the meaning. In an earlier blog - 6 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language - we had suggested listening to songs as tip #4, as listening to music and songs can also fuel your enthusiasm for learning a new language. Lifehacker also has a post about music and foreign language learning.
Non, je ne regrette rien...
Many may remember Edith Piaf's famous song: “Non, je ne regrette rien.” You can hear her on this YouTube clip. English translations of the song, (even if they are not always correct) are easy to find, e.g. here.
It's no mystery why many people make listening to foreign songs part of their language learning practice:
The repetition of the refrain, especially with an “ear-worm” melody, anchors key words in your memory.
Key constructions become obvious and you can remember them readily. For example, the phrase “je ne regrette rien” makes it easy to see how negations are constructed in French: ne...rien or ne...pas, or to pick up on the ni...ni (neither-nor) construction.
From song lyrics such as “je n'ai plus besoin d'eux” (I don't need them anymore), you can derive related key phrases such as “j'ai besoin” or “je n'ai pas besoin.”
And, you may learn some new vocabulary that your typical language course may lack, e.g. “balayé” (swept, “broomed” away), “chagrins” (sorrows), “je me fous” (I don't care).
Moreover, songs exaggerate and stress the sounds of some words and thus make them easier to understand and imitate.
While Edith Piaf's "Non je regrette rien" may be particularly memorable and instructional, there are many other French songs and lyrics you can find on the Internet.
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.
Often, when I'm in the kitchen preparing lunch, I'll grab my laptop and put on an Italian soap. For me it's a good way to sharpen my Italian listening skills.
As the conversations fly back and forth, I keep hearing the words "magari" and "mica," both of which are integral features of casual Italian conversation. To understand their meaning you have to also understand the context in which they are used.
"Magari" can have different functions in a sentence (adverb, conjunction, interjection), and its meaning varies by context.
magari - maybe, perhaps [adverb]
Magari c'è un altro motivo. - Perhaps there's another reason.
magari - if only [conjunction]
Magari fosse vero! - If only it were true!
magari - I wish!, Yeah, right! [interjection, a little scarcastic]
Hai vinto qualcosa? - Did you win anything?
Magari! - I wish! / Yeah, right!
Magari! - you bet! [interjection, positive response]
Ti piacerebbe andare in Italia? - Would you like to go to Italy?
Magari! - You bet! / I certainly would!
"Mica" is typically used as an adverb, for particular emphasis.
mica - at all [adverb]
Mica male questo vino. - This wine isn't bad at all.
non mica - not at all [adverb]
Non sto mica bene. - I'm not well at all.
Non ci credo mica. - I don't believe that for a minute.
Non sono mica nati ieri. - I wasn't born yesterday.
*Meaning: I know a thing or two ... I didn't just fall off the turnip truck.
How can you start using "magari" and "mica" in your own Italian conversations? Begin by paying attention to these words when you listen to Italian. And when you speak, just slip them in casually. Will that work? You bet! Magari!
Arriving at one of the world's great cities is always a thrill. If, in addition, you've made the effort to learn the local language, you'll have added another dimension to your experience. And while you're exploring the city, you can continue to engage with its language. Here are 4 easy ways to keep on learning. I tried them out while recently visiting Oslo, Norway's capital. (Oslo's stunning new opera, above)
1. DECODING SIGNS WHILE EXPLORING ON FOOT
Oslo's Karl Johans gate (right) is a pedestrian way that sweeps through the city from Sentralstasjon (central station) to Slottet (the royal palace). It is lined by cafés, shops, office buildings, and is always bustling with activity. As you stroll along this street, you meet a constant stream of visual language: signs on buildings and apartments; signs regulating car and bicycle traffic; advertising signs in stores, etc. Some of these are translated into English, but many are not. It's fun to guess the meaning of these signs, and armed with a small dictionary, you can decipher many of them. Since many words and phrases pop up in various locations, you'll start to recognize and learn them.
For Norwegian, knowing another Germanic language (such as English, Dutch, or German) is helpful. An ad on a tram (left) reads: "ring billig til utlandet": "ring" (American: call); "billig" (same word in German: cheap), "til" (to/until); "utlandet" (close to German "Ausland" or Dutch "buitenland," meaning "abroad.") Sometimes though, you have to chuckle at the shift in meaning. For example, a sign at an Oslo Parking garage (right) reads "LEDIG" (Vacant); the German word "ledig" means "unmarried." Or, you have to be beware of out-and-out false friends: Norwegian "barn" means "children" in English.
2. LISTENING TO ANNOUNCEMENTS ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Oslo has an excellent network of buses, trams, subways (T-bane), ferries, and local trains that take you to practically any point in the city and to many towns in the surrounding county Akershus. A 7-day all-inclusive pass helped us round out our sightseeing. Just for a start, we took the T-bane to the Holmenkollen hopp (ski jump); the tram to Vigelandsparken, an amazing open-air sculpture park (see a sculpture by Gustav Vigeland, left); and the ferry to Nesoddtangen (a village 4 miles south of Oslo).
Stops on trams, buses, subways, and trains are shown visually, but they are also announced aloud in Norwegian. For me, this was a fun way to learn the correlation between spelling and pronunciation. Norwegian has many silent letters, plus a few letter combinations that are totally unpredictable for a native English speaker. Listening to the names of stops, as well as to lengthier general announcements is a good way to get the music of the language into your ear. Moreover, everything is spoken in Norwegian first, and then in English, allowing you to double-check that you've really understood the meaning.
3. READING DUAL-LANGUAGE TEXTS IN MUSEUMS
Oslo offers a host of interesting museums, some housed in spectacular buildings, others tucked away in formerly private apartments. Each exhibit provides well-constructed, colorful background stories - in Norwegian and English. As you read about the artists, the individual works of art, the history of the city, etc., you can have a language lesson to boot.
From dual-language plaques, we learned about Munch's lengthy stays in Berlin and Paris and his bohemian life there (Munch Museum); we read that Ibsen had lived abroad for 27 years and the reasons why he did his best writing outside of the country (Ibsen Museum); we discovered that, when in 1905, the Danish Prince Carl and his British wife became King Haakon VII and Queen Maude of Norway (Hollenkollen Museum), they and their children became avid skiers (see the royal family, right, and read our recent blog Language Politics).
4. SPEAKING THE LOCAL LANGUAGE
Last but not least, it was fun to try out our practical, phrase-based Norwegian. We are far from fluent, but every time we made a purchase, ordered food or drinks, bought tickets, or asked for directions, we practiced the language we had so far acquired. Waiters in cafés or restaurant were usually multilingual and when our Norwegian didn't suffice, they joined us in language-switching back and forth between Norwegian, English, German, and sometimes Spanish and Italian.
When you think about it, a city offers a lot of free and fun resources for language learning. You just have to become aware of them and use them as they come up. Keeping a 3"x5" spiral notebook with you to write down any new words or phrases you see or hear, will help you remember and learn.
More and more online language learning sites are adding games or game-like features to their course repertoire. And that is for good reason: Making language learning more entertaining can also produce better results. All four language skills – listening/comprehension, reading, speaking, and writing - can well be practiced with interactive games or lessons/exercises that have game-like features.
Some baby boomers and older learners may not (yet) be as used to learning with games as generation X, Y, Z, but it seems inevitable that the trend of learning with games will continue.
Clearly, Gamesforlanguage.com was created with the idea that learning a language with games can be fun and effective. But we have also learned that players should observe a few “rules” or practices to get the most out of our games. Here are our five (5) tips which are based on our own experience and on comments from our users. We have also incorporated them into our list of suggestions: “How to play and learn?”
1. Be mindful and pay attention to the spelling
When new foreign words first come up, take a moment to study them and memorize their typeface/appearance, especially when special foreign letters, accents, umlauts, etc. are involved. You'll have to recall the specifics later when you have to write them.
2. Limit the new vocabulary you learn daily to 15-20 words
It's easy to be carried away by easy games and just move on to the next set of new words. However, our brain is only able to handle so many words or expressions a day and move them from short-term to long-term memory. The number of new words one can learn a day may vary, but we suggest a range of 15-20.
3. Repeat the native speaker's word's and phrases whenever you can
Learning to speak a new foreign language requires pronouncing the foreign words. This may feel awkward and strange at the beginning, but you have to do it as often as you can. Most online language programs have recording features and you are asked to emulate the native speaker (see also 5. below). But don't even wait until you can record. Take every opportunity to repeat a foreign word, phrase or sentence, right from the start.
4. Play some games every day
Especially at the beginning it's important that you get into a learning habit. Set a time that fits best into your schedule. Just 15-20 minutes for 5 or 6 days in a row will be better than an hour or two once a week! The daily practice will have you soon naming objects and activities in your new language. This way you are sure to move the new vocabulary into your long-term memory.
5. record your voice and compare yourself to the native speaker
We have not been able (yet) to make recording your voice into a real game. Some language courses are using voice recognition and voiceprint spectrograms to compare your voice to the native speaker's voice. This may be fun to watch, but can also be frustrating, especially at the beginning. However, you can make your own game out of imitating the native speaker by acting the part with gusto. And you should really focus on listening and hearing the difference between your pronunciation and that of the native speaker. That is a sure way to improve.
Games for learning languages are evolving. There are many gaming features that can make them more challenging and exciting. Not all of them are make learning more effective, but more research will be needed to understand what the trade-offs are.