How to speak about niche topics without good materials to learn from

In order to progress at the intermediate stages we need to branch out into topics that are interesting to us. The normal recommendations is to read a lot or find podcasts/shows with transcripts (or at least subtitles in your target language) about specific topics in order to learn new words and vocabulary in that area. But what can you do if you are studying a language that is short for resources, or you can't find anything in your particular interest to learn with?

This is a serious problem, because although the solution for progressing past the intermediate stage is simple enough, finding solid material to work with is not. Especially if you aren't learning one of the more common languages. This is incredibly frustrating knowing exactly what to do in order to progress, but not being able to find substantial material to make it happen.

I know what it's like to look and look for hours for good material and not find a single thing!

Because of this problem I have developed my own strategy that I used with Cantonese, to learn targeted vocabulary relevant to my areas of interest.

Here I will lay it out in four simple steps of how to branch out and improve your vocabulary on niche areas without having any material to work with.

 

Step 1 - Keep a diary

The first step is to write out a diary in your target language. Output is a useful way to pick up and learn words relevant to you, but unlike speaking, when we write we have as much time as we want. We can take our time, arm ourselves with a dictionary and look up as many words as we need.

I have tried this before with an italki teacher, but on some topics there are just too many new words, and the process is just too painful and stressful to get through. This way, we take our time looking up the words, and then writing them out in context from the get go helps up to remember and retain the information. Especially if it is in a context of interest to us.

When writing a diary it is worth pointing out that we should re-frame from using a dictionary as much as we possible can. If we think we know a word, but we aren't sure, just go ahead and give it your best shot. At this stage it doesn't matter if what we write is 100% accurate or not.

Of course the whole point of this exercise is to branch out into new areas so inevitably you will end up using a dictionary a lot, which is completely fine.

Another point, is that personally I think it is much better to practice writing out entirely from hand, instead of typing it up from a computer. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, the act of writing words out has been proven to help us remember information. And secondly, we get so used to digital aids, such as spell check and even helping with the grammar, that we can end up relying on it too much. When we come to the later steps and transfer it to a PC, it will help identify some of the gaps that we thought we knew but didn't.

What's more, is that with languages with a different script, like me with Cantonese, this is an excellent chance to practice recalling the new characters/letters from memory, which proves much harder than just recognizing them in reading.

 

Step 2 - Post online for corrections

 

I said in step 1 it doesn't matter at this stage if it is 100% right, and this is why. The next step is to get the text on your computer and post your entry on a website such as lang-8, italki or hellotalk for corrections. Also, you could send it to your language partner or italki tutor if you prefer. Make sure to post with a copy of the text in your original language, in case of any errors on your part that could lead to misunderstanding in meaning.

Once we have the corrections back, if it's on a website like lang-8, then all of the corrections and changes will be highlighted. Compare these corrections with what you originally wrote. Did they use a different form of word, did they use a slightly different construction, or did they have to change the sentence all together. On top of learning new words, this process of writing things down, and comparing it to the corrections from a native is also an incredibly fun way to learn grammar.

 

Step 3 - Transfer sentences to flashcards

 

As you might already know I am a big advocate for SRS flashcards. I think they are an incredibly efficient and convenient way to learn, and store new words and phrases wherever you go.

When we are looking at what to add there are two things we should look for. Firstly, are there any sentences where you have received major corrections in terms of the grammar and terminology used. And secondly, make sure to add the sentences with the new words you want to learn, as the whole sentence in context.

Firstly, adding the corrections from our mistakes into our flashcards is a good way to identify and learn from our gaps and keep on improving our grammar. And making sure to add sentences with new words allows us to learn new vocabulary in our specific field of interest, which is the whole reason we are doing this in the first place.

 

Step 4 - Speak with your partner

Once you have your corrected entry, put it into a google document, or whatever format you prefer, alongside the English and send it to your italki tutor or language partner.

Then simply try your best to talk about your topic of choice using your written text for support and help when you need. Also if there are additional words you think you may need, but didn't cover in your diary entry then it can be a good idea to search them before the lesson and make a "cheat sheet" to refer to as well.

I actually have three different partners right now and cover the same topic three times with different people. This works out well for repetition purposes but also for another reason. Speaking to different people, they are bound to ask different questions, meaning that your conversation will branch off into different directions depending on who you talk to. Either you can push through and continue to look up new words with the help of your tutor, or you will detour into a new niche area all together and end up needing a whole new set of words you don't know yet.

An example for this, was a few weeks ago I was chatting to my italki tutor about the different type of sites at my work. We got through the conversation pretty well talking about several technical things without much issue, until I mentioned that we have an air separation unit (distillation column) on one of our sites and she asked me to explain how it worked. Now, it has been a while since I covered this in uni, so frankly I was trying to scramble my brain to remember it clearly in English first before I tried to explain it. Needless to say there was a ton of new vocabulary I needed to learn in order to speak about this.

So what do you do in a situation like this? Well what happened is I explained it on an extremely basic level with the words I already know and said I would speak about it in more detail in the future.

Then, next time I go to write a diary entry I can use this as the topic for my piece, follow through these steps and take it into my next lesson on italki.

Conclusion

 

Notice how this is a cyclic process of continual improvement and you won't learn all of the words you need to talk about specific areas on the first day. The process of writing out an entry before works as a gateway to let you speak about interesting topics with your tutor.

Then when it comes time to speak, this helps you identify your gaps, as well as other potential interesting topics for discussion. You can then this as your point of reference going back to step 1 on this list and start over.

Have you learned a language with finite resources to a high level? How have you dealt with the task of learning to speak and understand specific topics without having appropriate material to use? If you are learning a language with a plethora of materials to work with, then how do you approach learning about specific topics? I am interested to hear your thoughts, so let me know in the comments below!

Everything you need to know about SRS flashcards

What is an SRS flashcard?

Flashcards are study tools used to help remember small pieces of information. You put a question or prompt on the front of the card with the answer on the back and you test yourself. Look at the prompt and see if you can recall the answer from memory.

Now with smart phones and tablets, we can easily get access to SRS flashcards apps wherever we go, but what does SRS even mean?

SRS stands for spaced repetition system. They are electronic flashcards and have timers set for when you should review your cards. Initially the time starts off very short, and every time you successfully get a card right, the interval until your next review increases.

This is based on the forgetting curve. Let's say I learn a new piece of information and instantly review it. When I first learn a new piece of information I will forget it very shortly after, so the system pulls it up for review in 10mins time. Every time I get it right, the time between review increases as every time I review or relearn that piece of information the memory gets strengthened.

This process of reviewing and relearning over extended periods of time is how flashcards work, and a good way of getting information into your long term memory.

The idea is the cards you remember easily, you review infrequently. This means you focus the majority of your attention on the cards you have the most trouble with, making it an incredibly efficient way to learn.

 

But what about learning things out of context?

 

One of the biggest so called drawbacks I hear with flashcards is that you are learning out of context. This has been popularized with apps such as memorize or duo-lingo which is probably why flashcards can get a bad stigma.

The fact is that a lot of SRS apps out today, are input based meaning that we can choose what we put in. Because we control what we put in, we are only learning out of context if we choose to learn that way. By adding whole sentences, instead of words or phrases we can capture the context it was in, and use it to learn more effectively.

Most SRS flashcard apps are incredibly customisible, you can even add pictures and audio along with the text as well.

 

How to use them effectively

 

As I said before, flashcards are input based making them incredibly versatile, so how best you use them completely depends upon what your current goals are. So here, I will outline four ways I have used flashcards in the past, along with the benefits and drawbacks of each type.

 

Native to target language

 

In this set up we put our native language on side 1 of the card, and our target language on the back. Like I said before, capture entire sentences to make sure you learn from context.

When you see the prompt in your native language on side 1, you practice recalling the sentence in your target language from memory. This cycle of prompt followed by recall is a good simulation for the sorts of things you will have to do when you first start conversations, and is a very good way of activating your vocabulary to be able to use them in conversation.

The downside to this method, is that generally there is a lot more than one way to say a particular sentence, so you could be correct and just have said something different than what's on the answer side of the card.

Because of this, I recommend this type of set-up is extremely useful in the early stages of language learning when we are struggling to activate our vocabulary enough to speak, but once your vocabulary starts to grow in the upper beginner and intermediate stages, I think it starts to lose it's value.

 

Sentence mining

This is probably the most useful type in the long term, and it is something I have used to help me learn to read in Chinese.

What I do here, is have the target language on side 1, and practice reading the cards, and then on side 2 I have the English along with some audio. In the case of Chinese, I have also added the rominization to help with the pronunciation of each character. I mark the card as right, if I can get the readings right as well as knowing the meaning.

Because this is input based, it is a good way to build up your passive vocabulary. And past the intermediate stages I think this is the most important aspect. Let me explain.

When we start to get comfortable with speaking, we can start to paraphrase words, and talk our way around things without remembering what a specific word is. On top of this there are multiple ways to say the same thing, so although you might know one yourself, a native speaker could potentially say the same thing in 4, 5 or even more different ways. Nothing will stop a conversation faster than if you can't understand what the other person is saying. What's more, due to the nature that there are billions of other people on the planet and only one of you, we spend a lot more time listening and reading than we do speaking. 

This is why I put such an emphasis on building up our comprehension in the language, and sentence mining is a good way to do that. When you are engaged in interesting content, listening or reading, if you come across a sentence you want to know, but don't understand, then add it to your deck.

On top of this, once your deck starts to get quite large, you effectively have a big bank of example sentences you can look at wherever you go. If you want to see how a word is used in different contexts, you can search your deck and come up with all of the different examples where it is used and compare.

This is a good way to help build up your passive vocabulary and comprehension of the language. The downside to this method, it it doesn't practice activation, so you might end up understanding words when they are used, but not be able to recall them when it comes time to speak yourself.

Another disadvantages is that making the decks from scratch can become time consuming and cumbersome.

 

Learning a new script

This one should be fairly self explanatory. In languages such as Greek, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and so on, they don't use the same Latin script as we do here in English. This means if we want to achieve a good level in the language, then we have to learn how to be able to read and write.

With languages where there is a different alphabet, such as Greek or Thai, I recommend learning the alphabet first, as you will just end up slowing yourself down further down the line. But for the Chinese languages and Japanese, it becomes a bit more tricky when each potential new word has it's own character. In this situation there is a case to be made for learning to speak at a decent level first, before moving onto the Characters.

That being said, if you want to reach a high level, this is extremely hard to do if you can't read and write, and flashcards are an incredibly useful tool to aid with this.

I simply put the sound of the letter/character in the Latin alphabet, accompanied by the general meaning in the case of characters, and put the character itself on the back. If the sounds are hard to spell out in the Latin alphabet, then it can also be a good idea to add audio onto the flashcards as well.

When you see the prompt on side 1, practice writing the new character/letter out by hand. You can do this either by carrying around a small practice book with a pen, or by finding some sort of app or draw pad on your phone. In general I prefer using pen and paper if I can, but having the option for both is really useful, in case you get caught in a situation where you can't have a book with you and would like to practice for a few minutes.

 

Listening and transcribing

 

What we have on this set up is just the audio on side 1 of the flashcard, and the target language as well as the English translation on the back of the card. When we hear the audio on side 1, practice writing out the sentence by hand, and then compare it with the answer on the back.

This is good for two things. One, it helps you listen, and two, it helps you practice writing full sentences out by hand. While the listening practice is fairly limited as text to speech is usually pretty slow, it can still be a helpful addition to your study tools and help you get used to writing out sentences in full if you are dealing with a new script such as Japanese or Russian.

 

What apps would I recommend?

My personal favorite app is Anki. This is because it is incredibly customisable, easy to use and you can sync across all devices. This means I can add cards on my PC, and then sync across to my phone. If I spot a mistake or want to edit something when I am reviewing on my phone, I can change it there and then and then sync back to my PC.

This makes it very easy to make changes, and allows your the flexibility of changing between devices.

Anki is free on Android and PC, but unfortunately for Iphone users it costs £20 on the app store.

If you are looking for a slightly cheaper alternative then flashcards deluxe is also a very clean, easy to use alternative for only a few quid. If you are looking for a free alternative then quizlet is also quite good.

 

Conclusion

 

SRS flashcard apps are incredibly useful and a good solution to the old problem of having a big notebook of things to remember, but never knowing when to review them. In addition to this you can carry around a bank of words and phrases you want to learn and take it wherever you go.

If you are out and you hear a word or phase you want to learn, you can make note of it in your cards, and then add the rest of the information and finish making the card later when you have time.

What's more is because they are on your phone, it allows you to utilize "dead-time" here and there just reviewing a few minutes at a time throughout the period of a day.

The SRS system makes learning more efficient, allowing you to focus on the words that you are having the most trouble with.

This is a great supplement to have in your arsenal but is still no substitute for spending time with the whole language, listening and reading, and practicing speaking with people in real life.

Do you like flashcards, or do you prefer other methods? Let me know in the comments below!

5 Ways to learn gramar without a grammar book

If you want to speak accurately and confidently with native speakers then grammar is an important part of language learning. However if you are like me, whenever you have gone to study grammar in the traditional sense, either from a grammar book or through exercise drills, shortly after starting I find myself, fed-up, bored and wanting to find anything else to do.

I find the whole approach in general, a very unnatural and just not very fun way to learn. So here are five alternative fun ways in which you can learn and practice grammar, as well as practicing and improving other skills as you go.

 

1 - Input

This is probably something most people don't associate with learning grammar, but the best and most valuable way by far is just by absorbing content. By spending time with the language, listening and reading you are naturally exposed to all of the correct language and constructions used, as well as building up your comprehension and understanding of the language while you go.

Research by Stephen Krashen has shown that the only way we acquire a new language is through comprehensible input. This means listening and reading to material that we can make sense out of. At a beginners level this will be short dialogues, with transcripts and wordlists to help us make sense of it, and as we get better we progress onto more interesting and demanding content.

While listening and intensive reading reading are both valuable ways of picking up grammar, probably the most powerful form of input for this is extensive reading. Reading content you are comfortable with and enjoy, and exposing yourself to large volumes of material you will be exposed to the correct constructions over and over again. Unlike listening we can take our time and notice more, see the structures in front of us and with enough repetition to let all of the structures  sink in naturally.

 

2 - SRS Flashcards

This might seem like an odd activity to associate with grammar, especially considering when a lot of people think of flashcards, they think of learning single words out of context.

Well this is a mistake, we should always be learning from context and whenever we transfer words over to our flashcards we should always make sure to take the entire sentence or at least the phrase. Otherwise we run the risk of memorizing a ton of words, and not being able to use any of them or even understand them in context.

So how do flashcards help with learning grammar? Well, this depends how we use them. If we add loads of sentences to our decks, with our target language on the front, and an English translation on the back. Similar to extensive reading, we will get exposed to the correct structures over and over again. This is better for learning specific, more difficult constructions, as we get exposed to the same sentence many times through our deck.

The other alternative, which is what I recommend doing in the earlier stages, is to put English on side 1, and your target language on side 2. This way, we see the English and practice recalling the sentence in our target language from memory. If we get the word order or conjuration wrong, we instantly see the correct version straight after. Recall, followed by instant feedback, built into the SRS system is a very efficient way both to learn new words and improve grammar at the same time.

However there are limitations to this method. For one there are multiple ways to say the same sentence, so although what you say may be right, it might not necessarily be the answer on your card. Also, past the Beginner and lower intermediate stages, there is only so much exposure you can get through flashcards, which is why this should supplement and not replace our listening and reading.

 

3 - Keeping a diary

Keeping a diary is probably my favorite option on this list. Not only can we learn words that are relevant to us by writing about things we are interested in, but also we can pick up grammar as we go.

When we write stuff down, compared to speaking the whole process is much slower. Combined with the fact that seeing the words down in front of us makes us a lot more conscious of how we word things, and a lot more conscious of our mistakes.

The main problem with writing, is that it can be hard to get feedback, and without feedback then we won't know what our mistakes are, and won't be able to improve our grammar.

If on the other hand we get it corrected by a native speaker, we can compare the corrected version with the original and easily identify our gaps.

We can easily post entries online to be corrected for free using websites such as lang8 or italki, and all we need to do in return is correct texts from our native language. Using this in combination with other items on this list, such as putting the corrected sentences into flashcards, or speaking about the topics with your teacher will really help to take your learning to the next level.

 

4 - Speaking

Speaking either with a tutor or with a language partner online is a great way to improve our grammar. If we make a mistake we can get feedback instantly, help get rid of bad habits and improve as we go. Additionally we build up our speaking ability and listening comprehension.

Again here, the key is feedback. Similar to writing, just output alone won't be enough to improve if we are not getting any feedback from our mistakes, so it's best to find a partner or teacher on a website like italki, or an app such as hellotalk.

Another key thing to point out is here, is that in the initial stages the main focus should be on communication and not grammar. Therefore the teacher correcting every single one of your mistakes could harm your confidence and be counter productive. Everyone has difference preferences and learning styles, so it is important to communicate to your tutor exactly what it is you want, so they can help you better in your lessons.

If you want to focus on grammar, then be sure to ask them to correct your mistakes, and to go a step further what I find really helpful. is for them to make a note and send it to you at the end of the lesson. This can easily be done in the chat box over skype or with tools such as google docs. And if they send you example sentences, then you can also combine this with flashcards to get the repetition we need to learn.

 

5 - Apps

There are a lot of apps available for free on smartphones now, such as Duolingo, that you can use to help you learn a language wherever you go. While these apps by themselves are very limited, there are a few exercises to help you practice output, and word order.

By utilizing a spare few minutes here and there throughout the period of a day, this can be a fun way to get some extra exposure and improve your grammar without needing huge time commitments or investments of energy.

 

Conclusion

 

Language learning is a holistic process, and we shouldn't be practicing single skills in isolation. If you look at the recommendations on this list they either fall into one of two categories. Getting exposure to the language, or output followed by feedback.

Taking this approach to learning grammar we can build up all of our skills at the same time, while also improving grammar as we go.

A quick caveat to end is that when first starting out learning a language, we shouldn't let learning grammar slow us down. What I mean by this, is that the most important aspect is communication. If we freeze every time we go to speak, worrying about word order, and verb endings and so on, we will never get to a point where we are confident at speaking.

We will always make mistakes, even when I use English, so striving for perfection will only slow us down in the long run. If you follow these five steps, you will not only improve your grammar, but your listening, reading, writing and speaking will all improve at the same time.

Do you like studying grammar? If you don't, then what approach do you take? Leave a comment and let me know!

Top 10 Beginner Mistakes I wish I knew when I started learning a language

Making mistakes are an integral part of language learning, both using the language and trying to figure out what works for you. That being said, here are 10 mistakes I wish I knew when I first started learning, and 10 mistakes you should definitely avoid!

 

 1.) Spending too much time with English

 

This was probably my biggest mistakes when I first started learning Cantonese. It's all too easy to completely rely on English explanations with courses like Pimsleur, or listening to podcasts like innovativepod101. The thing is, the vast majority of what you will be listening to is English, and if you rely on techniques like this you simply won't get enough exposure to learn the language.

This is how teaching at school works in England, and why me and many others learn a language for years at school and don't get anywhere.

Instead what you need to do, is spend time with the language listening and reading. Find a good beginner course, and dissect the language dialogues, listening and reading many times over. Listening comprehension is the hardest and probably the most important skill in language learning, and if you don't spend enough time listening form the start, it will only cripple you later down the line.

If you enjoy audio courses or podcasts then great, use this as a supplement, but don't let this make up your core study time. There is simply too much English to make proper use out of it.

 

2) staying with beginner resources too long

 

Another huge mistake I have seen people make is staying with beginner material for too long. Using and listening to short dialogues designed for a beginner, never changing your strategy and then getting frustrated when you cannot understand native speakers or movies.

Language learning is progressive, and in order to keep progressing we need to ramp up the difficulty as we go. Finding more interesting and difficult material is key and if we don't progress from using beginners material then it will be impossible to progress onto the intermediate and advance stages. Most people wait way too long before moving on, and this can be a massive waste of time and energy.

 

 

3) Keeping a notebook of new words and not doing anything with it

This is something I think we have all been guilty of before. If we don't write down all of the words we want to learn, how will we know to come back to them? Keeping a notebook and having endless lists of words you need to remember, but never going back to study them. The notebook just sits there and collects dust.

 

Instead what we need is to be strict about what words we decide to learn, and have a set method for how to learn them. My personal favorite is using SRS flashcard apps, such as Anki.

 

 4) Trying to do too much

Language learning is about being consistant, and doing what is sustainable over the long term. When I first started I went days without studying, then when it came to the weekend I tried to make up lost time so sat down to try and do 3-4 hours in a single sitting. Not only is this not sustainable, it's downright ineffective. Sitting for long periods of time your concentration will be gone, you won't enjoy what you're doing and studying so infrequently it will be hard to remember anything.

One of the most important aspects of language learning is consistency. Turning up day after day, over the long term. It is much much better to do 30mins a day every single day, than it is to do 5 or 6 hours over the weekend.

 

5) thinking you can learn a language through 5mins a day on an app

How many times have you heard your friend say they are learning a language then only to find out later they are spending about 5 mins a day on Duolingo? There are a few major problems with this. The first is that you cannot learn a language in 5mins a day, in order to learn we need a huge much of exposure and at only 5 minutes a day it will take years and years before you start to make any serious progress.

Furthermore, a lot of these apps teach you random disconnected pieces of information, half of which aren't even that useful, teaching you words like "Penguin" and "Lion" before you learn how to say words like "because" or "and". Similar to the point about spending too much time with English, you simply don't get enough exposure to the language in order too learn properly.

I believe apps can play an important role in language learning but when used to supplement our study instead of replace it.

 

6) waiting until you are "ready" to start speaking

Waiting until you are "ready" to speak a language. This is a catch 22, because we don't start speaking until we feel ready and we won't feel ready and comfortable speaking until we speak a lot. Why you don't necessarily have to Speak from day 1, I think it is important that we don't wait too long before we start. We should set a goal of when to start so we don't wait until we feel "ready", for me this is typically 1-2 months after I start learning a language.

 

7) Spending too long reading about language learning

Reading about language learning online is incredibly useful, it has helped me and many others navigate away from mistakes and get on the right track a lot quicker than relying on trial and error through our own experiences. The problem here, is that if you get drawn in and end up spending more time reading about language learning than actually doing it, it starts to become counter productive.

There is a plethora of experienced language learners online offering their tips and tricks, and if you get sucked into the rabbit hole you can spend hours upon hours reading strategy's without actually starting to implement anything yourself. Also, what works for one person might not necessarily work for you, so you won't know how best you learn languages until you get out there and actually do it for yourself.

 

8) trying to remember big lists of vocabulary out of context

This is extremely similar to the problems of relying on apps like Duolingo and memrise, learning vocabulary is incredible important when first starting to learn a language. However if you just learn big lists of words out of context this will do little to nothing to actually boost your comprehension, and you run the risk of knowing a ton of words in isolation without actually knowing how to use any of them.

Instead, what's better is to get a lot of exposure to the language through listening and reading and gradually building up your comprehension and known words. Be selective about the words you try to memorize, and when you do decide to learn a word or phrase, make sure to capture it in context and learn the whole sentence as opposed to just the single word.

 

9) Choosing the wrong language

 

In language learning passion and motivation are everything. In order to learn a language you need to put in the time, and if you aren't motivated or you aren't enjoying the process it won't happen.

Let's say hypothetically you are deciding between learning Japanese and Spanish. On the one hand you think it would be really fun and interesting to learn Japanese, you love Japanese food, you have Japanese friends and love watching anime and reading manga. On the other hand you think it would be a lot easier to learn Spanish because it is closer to English, and think it would be useful to learn Spanish because of the amount of native speakers. Which do you think is the right choice in a situation like this?

If you start off learning a language you aren't passionate about, when it turns out that learning Spanish isn't as easy as you originally thought, you will start to burn out and give up. If on the other hand, you get excited even thinking about the idea of being able to use the language with your friends, travel to the country, watch movies and read books in that language, then without a doubt this is the language you should learn, regardless of it's perceived difficulty.

At the end of the day it doesn't matter how "hard" or "easy" a language is, if you have the drive you will learn it, everything else is just a matter of time.

 

10) Not setting appropriate goals

When I first started learning Cantonese, I had one goal and that was to become "fluent". I had no real idea of what fluency actually meant or how much it was open to interpretation, and I had no real time goal or way to break this down into steps.

Setting goals is an incredibly powerful way to boost your learning, but the goals need to be specific, measurable and have a specific deadline for when you are aiming for completion. As a beginner one of the most common goals I set, is aiming to complete a beginners text book or a certain number of chapters within the first month of studying. If you know specifically what you are aiming for, and how long you have, you can break down exactly what you have to do each day in order to achieve that goal.

 

Conclusion

These are some of the most common mistakes when first starting to learn a foreign language. I hope reading this will help you save some of the pain that I had to go through, so you won't have to. But at the end of the day, mistakes are inevitable and you won't know what works for you until you get out there and try things out for yourself!

What are some of your biggest mistakes that you wish you knew when starting to learn your first foreign language? Let me know in the comments below!

Speak from day 1?

One on the most debated topics in language learning is if we should speak from day 1, or if it's better to wait and build up our vocabulary first. In this post, I am going to break down the pros and cons of each, as well as my personal take on things.

 

Speak from day 1

 

The idea behind speaking from day 1, is that in order to get good at speaking a language, we have to speak a lot. There is no way around that. And too many of us wait until we are "ready" to start speaking. If we find a nice tutor or partner online, and equip ourselves with a good dictionary along with google translate, we can start speaking right from the very first day. The idea is to get out there, and make as many mistakes as possible in order to learn and use the language right from the start.

 

Advantages

 

The first major advantage to this is that it gets you over the hump straight away. A lot of people are scared when it comes to speaking a foreign language, apprehensive they aren't ready or don't have enough words, that they are going to make mistakes and make a fool of themselves. Of course, this is always much worse in our heads than in reality. Speaking from day 1 gets us over the hump, out of our heads and speaking from the very start. So all that's left is to keep practicing and gradually improve.

Another major advantage point, is that in order to speak about yourself, you are going to look up and learn the words that are most useful to you straight away. Instead of just learning from a textbook, you are learning words that are relevant to your life and you can use straight away.

Another point is that if we are speaking on a regular basis, especially as a beginner, we can easily see and track our improvement. If on day 1 we can barely get out a few words, then after a month if you able to have basic conversations, this is extremely motivating. You can feel a real sense of progress and accomplishment. And this in turn will breed more success and more motivation.

Speaking also helps identify the gaps in your knowledge, and it helps you to notice. You are more likely to remember a pattern in your listening and reading if you have used it before in conversation or has someone corrected you. This can help you target your weak areas and give you a more directed approach to learning as opposed to working your way through a textbook with no real game plan.

 

Disadvantages

 

The major disadvantage to speaking at day 1 is that it can be very frustrating and difficult. With next to zero known words and an extremely bad comprehension of the language, everything your teacher or partner will say, will just sound like a bunch of random sounds. Most tutors in this position will switch to English and try and teach you the language instead of just speaking with you, and this is an incredibly inefficient way to learn.

Because you will be straining your  brain, struggling to think of words or understand anything, this could give you very negative associations with the language you are trying to speak and the first few weeks could be demotivating. Unless you are one of those people that can just slog through, then this can be very disheartening and in the worst case could just make you give up all together before you even really started.

Another major danger of this approach is ingraining bad habits. You will be making so many mistakes when you first start out, your teacher won't be correcting everything you say and will be doing all they can in order to keep the conversation going. Because of this, you are likely to make the same mistakes over and over again, and this could become ingrained and result in you having to put in extra work to "unlearn" these things later down the line.

 

Waiting to speak

The whole point behind this approach is simple, when we first start learning a new language we don't have enough words to speak. Speaking from the start is unnecessarily difficult, and even if we can string a few sentences together, we won't be able to understand what the other person is saying. Therefore, the number one priority when starting a new language should be to build up your listening comprehension.

 

Advantages

 

The main advantage of this is that not speaking from the start allows you to focus all of your attention on comprehension. You can spend all of your time listening & reading, building up your passive vocabulary and comprehension of the language. This means that when we finally do get around to speaking, we understand a lot more of what the person is saying and have a significantly higher chance of engaging in a successful conversation.

Also, because there is an enormous emphasis on input, this means that when we do finally speak, we would of absorbed and got used to the sounds of the language. This means that we are much more likely to have good pronunciation when we start speaking. Not only that, it also gives our brain time to get used to all the new structures and patterns in the language making you more likely to speak with correct grammar and less likely to fossilize mistakes from speaking too early.

Also, because your passive vocabulary will be relatively large when you start to speak, all you need to do is activate the words you can already understand. As a result of this your speaking ability will improve much much faster than if you simply spoke from the beginning.

 

Disadvantages

 

The main disadvantage of waiting to speak is that if you keep on waiting until you are "ready", you may never start. The majority of the time, we don't feel ready or confident until we start to actually speak and practice, and putting this off can encourage you to keep doing so and end up never actually speaking at all.

Also, if you are not speaking the language yet, and an opportunity comes up for you to practice, you will most likely squander it. Whenever you first start speaking a new language, no matter how good your comprehension is, it is going to be hard. And unless you are used to speaking, then if an opportunity presents itself you will mostly likely just waste the opportunity and end up not saying much if anything at all.

Another major disadvantage is without some form of output, it becomes much harder to identify where your gaps are. You won't learn words and phrases that are relevant to you at the start, and you will mostly likely just miss out incredibly common words that just happened to not be in the particular book or course you chose to study with.

In addition, output helps us to notice. If we make a mistake and get corrected on it, or hear our tutor/partner use it in conversation, next time it comes up in our listening and reading we are much more likely to pick up on and pay attention to it. This cycle of hearing it, using it then hearing it in context over and over again is an incredibly powerful way to learn new words.

 

My Approach

Now I have covered what I think are the main drawbacks and benefits of each approach, I will go over my solution. The main drawback from speaking from day 1 is that you simply don't have enough exposure or words to carry out a successful conversation. You won't understand what they say, and you will most likely ingrain bad habits. The main drawback of waiting, is that unless you set a target, you may keep waiting until you feel "ready" to start speaking and never get round to it.

Therefore, I think it is best to start speaking early on, but not from day 1. Set a goal for when you want to start speaking. For me, I usually set the goal of 1 month after I start learning a new language, and leading up to that point all of my energy and effort goes into building up my comprehension and understanding of the language. If you don't want to set the goalpost in time,  you can set a goal to speak when you reach a certain number of known words if you are using a  system like LingQ, or if you are sentence mining on a flashcards app like Anki you can set the goal of speaking when you reach a certain number of sentences in your deck.

Whatever you decide, by setting a goal you are removing the danger of waiting until you feel ready, while still allowing you to focus on building up your comprehension and understanding of the language in your initial stages.

When I do start speaking I typically do 2-3 one hour sessions on italki a week to compliment my normal study, however the main focus still is on listening and reading in order to build up my comprehension of the language.

 

Conclusion

 

I think this offers the best balance of both sides. You are speaking early and will get in the practice at speaking and learning words relevant to you but not so early that you can't even contribute to the most basic conversation.

Speaking 2-3 times a week on italki, is long enough to get serious practice and improve, but it is short enough as to not take over your other study and to maintain doing it as part of a sustainable routine over the long term.

Weather you speak on day 1 or wait, or if you follow my approach, the main focus is still on building up comprehension and speaking is only to supplement that.

Follow the fun, if you enjoy speaking from day 1 and makes you feel a sense of progression and accomplishment then do it. If you are not comfortable then build up your comprehension first, but remember not to wait too long and set a goal of when you will start to speak.

What do you think do you speak from day 1 or are you more comfortable with waiting and building up your passive vocab first?

How To Set Goals That Actually Work

Goal setting can be an incredibly powerful tool, not just for language learning but for anyone trying to improve a certain skill. If done right, it can increase motivation and efficiency, and have you progress must faster than if you just did random bits of study. So why is it that goal setting, remains one of the most underused tools in our arsenal?

 

why traditional goals don't work

Whenever we think of goals in language learning, a lot of people will no undoubtedly think of something along the lines of "I will be fluent in Spanish after 1 year". When setting goals, it's all to easy to focus on the end result, sure we all want to be fluent, and it can be motivating to think about as a long term goal, but in order to break it down into steps you need to be more specific.

It's way too vague. First off, there it's completely ambiguous what fluency actually means. Setting vague goals make it impossible to break down into smaller steps, because there isn't enough clarity in what needs to be done, or even when you have reached your goal.

The other problem is that the goal is too big. Fluency, whatever definition you use, requires a deep understanding of the language, and requires a massive amount of time invested. When first starting a new language it can be incredibly overwhelming, you wouldn't even know where to begin. With a good goal you need clarity about what you are aiming for, and it needs to be able to be broken down into smaller steps.

The other major problem is that you can't control it. We all progress at different rates, and language learning is not a linear process. It's not quite as simple as putting in x amount of hours and then you will be fluent. Concentrating on goals you cannot control could just result in frustration and demotivate for the learner. Instead it's better to focus on things we can actually control.

Taking this on board, I have seen people say things like "I want to reach A2 level after 3 months". While this is better, the goal is smaller, better defined and over a shorter time frame. There is still ambiguity on what A2 actually is, it's just too abstract.

 

So what does a good goal actually look like?

The first thing is to focus on things you can control. By not focusing on achieving some loosely defined level, and instead focusing on the process, you remove the stress and uncertainty, and this will help you gain clarity and structure to the learning process.

There are two main ways in which I do this, but first you need to define what it is exactly that you want to improve. If you are starting off in a new language, your target should be to build up your comprehension of the language. For me right now, my current medium term goal is to improve my reading & writing in spoken Cantonese. I want to get it to a level where I can comfortably read one of my comic books without having to stop and use a dictionary every other page.

This in itself, is still quite vague, but now we know what skills we are aiming to improve we can set a series of short term goals to achieve our more long term ones.

The best thing to do, is to pick a book or resource of some time and aim to complete it in a set time frame. You are not aiming for perfection, you are aiming to go through and finish. For example, when I first started to learn how to read and write Chinese, even the most common characters looked way too complicated to remember, and I had no idea how to break them down.  Therefore, a good starting point was remembering the Hanzi and learning how to break complicated characters down into their smaller parts in order to remember them. I set a goal of going through and learning all 1500 characters from the book in 3 months. Because it's a specific target in a set time frame I can break that down into learning 50 characters every 3 days.

Another good target for beginners is aiming to be able to hold a 15 minute conversation after 3 months, and enrolling in something like the add1challenge.

Once that was achieved, the next step is to learn how to use everything, and this is where I set a series of new goals. Firstly, to complete the textbook wedding bells in 2 months. I know the book consists of 20 chapters, so I can figure out exactly how much I need to do each day in order to meet that goal.

 

Focus on Routine

In contrast, the other type of goal I implement is routine based. You aim to put a solid routine in place, and do something X amount of times per week. A good example is when you are ready to start speaking your target language, you can aim for 3 lessons on italki per week. Another example for me right now, is I am aiming to write two entries by hand in my Diary every week and post it on lang-8 for corrections.

This could also be something as simple as watching an episode from your favorite tv drama every night in bed, while you relax.

This may seem simple but don't underestimate the power of a solid routine. Setting a goal like this, allows you to turn up every week, over a long period of time in order to get serious results. You focus on the process, and not the results to make consistent progress without the stress of focusing on whether or not you are "where you should be" in your learning.

 

Conclusion

The key to setting a successful goal is clarity. You should know exactly what you need to do, and how much you need to do each day in order to achieve your goals. If you can't deduce this, then your goals are too vague.

With a series of small shorter goals, another important aspect is it has to be progressive. You can't jump straight into trying to read a novel over a period of a few months, you have to start with something much simpler. In my case a text book, then onto comic books or Children books, and finally onto more complicated and interesting content.

Setting the right goals can do wonders for your language learning, it can increase your motivation, hold you accountable and keep you on the right course. What kind of goals do you set in your language learning? Do you prefer specific targets, or more routine based goals? Let me know in the comments below!