Developing ‘Your’ Own Most Common Phrases

We all know that the smartest place to start with learning a new language is with the most commonly used words. Word frequency dictionaries exist for the most common 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, etc. words. Grammar and language books begin with simple more common vocabulary. Websites and mobile phone apps such as Duolingo and Memrise as well as language courses such as Assimil, Pimsleur and Glossika, which are based around the most common words.

In my opinion, proper time allocation is an important aspect of language learning (see point 1. below). You should spend the majority of your time focusing on what you will use the most, and the minority of your time on what you will use the least. So evidently focusing on the most common seems to be considered a good place to start when learning your target language. In my limited experience learning foreign languages I’ve managed to use a wide range of materials (check out ‘How’ I Learn French article for specifics). However, aside from phrase books teaching you often awkward, sometimes awkward or just plain unsaid phrases you can use to get a hotel room on a holiday, few resources pay any lip service to the importance of learning and developing YOUR own most commonly used phrases. That’s not to take anything away from these resources as they all give you access to 100s even 1000s of real grammatically correct sentences as examples with the words you’re learning. This is an incredibly important aspect of learning a foreign language.

Language learning resources have to cater to the masses in order to be a successful product, but ultimately we use them to develop our own unique use of the language, our own ‘persona’ in the language they’re teaching us. Considering we’re all unique with different interests, hobbies and occupations, not all common words are equally common to all of us. Along the same vein, not all common phrases are equally common to all of us.

In this article I want to present to you the case that developing YOUR own specific most common phrases is an incredibly effective way of boosting yourself to fluency, especially through that frustrating intermediate stage. Ultimately, this happens for every language learner as they reach fluency. However, in my opinion as with learning grammar applying a little conscious effort will accelerate the process much faster than learning things subconsciously. This is what happened with me in French. Every word I had to look up the definition of I would add to the spaced-repetition system Anki. Likewise, every phrase I didn’t know but wanted to say I would look up, pick an option(s), and add it to Anki. I call this process Following the Breadcrumbs and will go over it in a future post (see point 2. below).

How do you know if the phrase is correct? Well, the best case scenario would be asking a native speaker, but if you don’t have access to one then you can also use sentence searching websites such as Reverso, Linguee or Tatoeba to find examples (see image below). Even if these turn out to be uncommonly said or even incorrect the way you learn them you’ll find this out relatively quickly when you first use them in conversation and get corrected. Don’t be too afraid of starting with something incorrect as it will eventually be corrected by someone. The more an error is corrected the harder it will be to forget.

One specific example of this I experienced with French included using “au moment” for “at the moment“, i.e. right now. I thought this was correct as I remembered it from high school. However, a French friend soon corrected it to “en ce moment” meaning “at the (present) moment / right now” where as “au moment” meant “at the (specific) moment / then“. It took a few weeks before I stopped confusing the two in conversations, but it happened none the less. Mistakes forge long lasting memories and aversions to making the same error again.

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Back to the point of the article and developing YOUR own most common phrases. Doing this is incredibly important as you learn to fill in a lot of conversation dead-space as well as to navigate through sticky ‘influent’ situations in your target language without reverting back to English. I used to always do this. When I came up against an obstacle, e.g. when I forgot a word or didn’t understand something I’d get frustrated and ask in English: “What’s the word for ‘plate’ again?“, “Can you say that again?“, “I don’t understand.“, etc.

Also, you don’t realise but even in your native language you fill in a lot of space with small phrases while giving yourself time to think of what you’ll say next. Once I learnt to say small ‘filler’ phrases automatically such as: “I guess that…“, “You know what I think? I think that…“, “That’s so strange…“, “Ah, I get you. So…“, “What do you mean by… because I thought that…“, etc. it gave me time to think of what I’d say next while continuing the conversation more fluidly.

So make things easy. Focus on the phrases you already use naturally in your native language and find their equivalent in your target language. For example, in English I often notice myself saying “Ah ok, I guess that…” when I agree with someone’s point and want to add my own opinion. So I learnt the equivalent in French “Ah d’accord, j’imagine que…” and now anytime I’m speaking French it slots in naturally and effortlessly in those situations. Another example is, “What’s on for today?“. I learnt “Qu’est-ce que t’as prévu pour ta journée?”. In both of these examples there are numerous ways of expressing these chunks information, but in each case I learnt the one I liked and could remember. Both phrases then became a part of my unique persona in French. You just keep repeating this process with every obstacle that comes your way. As you develop a well-rounded set of phrases unique to you in your target language, your language web grows and the patchiness of your vocabulary fills out. This is a great way of pushing through the intermediate stage to the advanced stage (see point 3. below). I’ll go over this in another post soon.

Below are some examples of the kind of phrases I learnt, but you should come up with your own list of unique things you say and use in conversation. I try to always find at least way of saying a phrase, one option, and learn it until I can say it naturally when I reach that part of the conversation naturally.

  • What’s up mate!?
  • I don’t know / stuffed if I know!
  • I don’t understand.
  • Can you repeat that (more slowly) please?
  • What is this?
  • What does that mean?
  • How do you say…?
  • Where is…?
  • What the f*&^?
  • I don’t give a rat’s arse / I don’t care / I don’t give a s*&^!
  • No kidding? / Fairdinkum? / Seriously?
  • I’m pulling your leg! / I’m kidding / I’m joking
  • Why do…? / Why is it that…?
  • Exactly! / Absolutely! / Of course!
  • Ultimately / in the end / eventually
  • Obviously! / I know! / I can see that!
  • I see / I understand / I get it.
  • The funny thing is… / What’s funny is…
  • What I don’t like… / What I hate is…
  • I (just) feel (so)…
  • I imagine that…
  • I’ve found that…
  • I (just) think that…
  • I (just) want to…
  • …at the moment.
  • …maybe…
  • What do you think of…?
  • What do you want to do / talk about?
  • How has your day been / what have you done today?

As you start learning foreign languages you soon realise that you will always be trying to convey the same messages, you’ll just be using different mediums, i.e. languages. The information communicated stays the same, the language is what changes. So developing YOUR own most commonly used phrases is something well worth focusing your attention on particularly in order to increase your fluency, i.e. the fluidity of your conversations. If you keep good track of your phrases you might be able to speed up acquisition of your next language too because you’ll know what you use a lot and how to learn it.

So what phrases do you say quite often that you will learn, or have already learnt in your target languages? Tell me in the comments below. I’d love to know!

All the best,

Pete

 

This post ties in with three other topics I hope to cover in future posts:

  1. Proper time allocation: spend 80% of your time practicing what you use 80% of the time, and 20% of your time on the things you use 20% of the time. Focus on learning the most common words, but also YOUR most common phrases, especially from a late-beginner stage / early-intermediate because you’re going to use them every day.
  2. Following the breadcrumbs: try and focus on the breadcrumb trail directly in front of you and follow it. What do I mean? Focus more on passing the obstacles (i.e. learning the words/phrases) that directly block your path rather than searching off the path for obstacles that may be much more rarely on your path, or maybe never.
  3. Pushing through intermediate to advanced speaking: Focusing on learning these phrases is important as they will quickly start to fill out your conversations and add personality and colour to your ‘insert language’ persona. These common phrases along with the most common words you’ll learn act as a kind of ‘spider web’ that you the spider in this metaphor build that will catch all the new words that fly your way. This rapidly pushes you through the intermediate stage where your vocabulary is patchy and loosely linked and into the more filled in advanced stage.

 

‘How’ I learnt French

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I will admit upfront that I didn’t start French 100% from scratch. I had studied it throughout high school for six years. However that was around a decade before I restarted it in 2015. So I definitely feel I had a bit of a head start as the basics had well and truly been hammered into me back in the day when I was less than enthusiastic about it.

In a previous post I covered 12 things I learnt from 12 months of French. In the following post I will cover the resources and methods that I used during the past 12 months. I hope it will give you an outline of how I learnt my first foreign language, French, and potentially give you some ideas for your own language learning journeys.

Refreshing what I learnt at high-school

Some great programs to start any language include Duolingo and Memrise. Personally, I’m a fan of Duolingo. So when I took up French this year it was what I started with. I finished the tree in 3 weeks and continued to keep it gold, i.e. all exercises completed and up to date, for as long as possible. The plan was to keep going over the basics until they became rote memorised to the point of automatic, where exercises were well and truly boring.

I like Duolingo because it’s gamified, which makes learning the language somewhat secondary to playing the game and finishing the tree. Each tree focuses on teaching you the 2000 most common words in that specific language. As it’s gamified Duolingo is a relatively fun and painless way of learning and refreshing the basics of a language you’ve taken up.

After I got bored with refreshing the exercises every day, and because I wanted to level up even faster and finally reach level 25, I dived into the immersion section. Unfortunately, the immersion section is limited to the first few languages that Duolingo implemented as they discontinued it (it was originally meant for companies to upload documents they wanted translated). I really liked using this section because it allows you to upload any webpage you find online and then translate it while receiving points for your translations and for when people upvote them if they’re correct. I would just search Wikipedia for things I was interested in learning more about such as the history of the Vikings, of the Roman Empire, the city of Melbourne, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, anything.

The only thing about this section that irritated me is that other people can override your translations and change them if they think theirs is better, and they take your points if they do so. So some people can be pretty petty in that regard.

Pro tips:

  • Once you finish your language in English, you can do the English tree in your target language to change things up
  • Use the language creatively: once things get easy, use every exercise/example in a new sentence that you have to make up on the spot. Say it aloud to practice pronunciation as well. E.g. “The cat drinks milk.” à “The cat drinks milk, but it doesn’t like it.” Or “The cat drinks lots of milk and is very fat.”
  • You can also learn new languages in other languages if Duolingo has the combination you’re after. Unfortunately for me it didn’t have Portuguese for French speakers, but it did however have French for Portuguese speakers. So I started playing around with that tree as well.

Speaking

Speaking is arguably the most important thing to practice when learning a foreign language. So finding other learners who want to speak with you in your target language in exchange for time in your native language is awesome. Furthermore, you will get so much more out of these kinds of interactions than say chance meetings with native speakers of your target language at say parties, in the street or at the gym, etc. If both of you are language learners not only do you already share that passion in common, but you have a mutual understanding of why you both may be overly chatty and keen to speak in your target language. I’ve found this is often times annoying to strangers, or even friends, who may otherwise not be interested in listening to you stumble through basic French phrases as you practice, and instead want the interaction to be as over as quickly as possible.

I used the online website Speaky, as well as the mobile phone app HelloTalk, to find several native speakers of French with whom I could practice French in exchange for practicing English with them. You can chat on both the website and the app, but I found it a lot easier to add them to Facebook or Skype and chat to them on there. The key here is to find only a few people, with whom you have a friendly connection with (i.e. can talk with easily, about whatever) and to try to organise regular practice sessions one or more times a week, for whatever amount of time suits you.

Local meet-ups whether for language-learners or for cultural groups is another way of meeting native speakers who are likely to be more interested in helping you learn their language. Going to these things is a lot of fun as they often involve outings, activities, drinking and eating. They also occur on a regular basis and you’re likely to make a lot of friends even if you only go once or twice. The only downside is that unless you live near or can get to larger cities, finding these kinds of events may be more difficult.

Writing

Continuing on from the above section about speaking. All the native speakers I met on Speaky and HelloTalk, and even at meet-ups, I would end up chatting to most of the time via Facebook chat. I’d ask them to correct any errors I made if it wasn’t too much of a burden to them. This was of constantly getting feedback on any errors I was making, whether things such as minor spelling mistakes to large grammatical issues. I could then save these corrections to word documents, or write them down and practice them later until I no longer made the same mistakes.

I used Lang-8 quite a bit when I felt like practicing writing. I tended to just write about things I had done that day or week. Often I would also try and use new things I had just learnt or previous mistakes that I trying to correct through practice.

I also used Christophe Clungston’s German Volume Method when going through the Complete French Grammar book. He sells this system online so I’m not going to go into too much detail about the specifics other than to say that I found it to be a really good system for rote learning grammar. It does involve a lot of repetition, more of a brute learning program, and isn’t for the faint hearted. But if you’re disciplined and willing to do a lot of reps to nail grammar, pronunciation, spelling, etc. then it’s definitely a powerful method you should investigate. As this system was on the more boring end of the learning spectrum, more like homework than play, I would always do it in short intervals of between 30 mins and 1 hour, and then do something else between sessions.

Reading + Listening

Although these two aspects of language learning are often considered separately I tried to get them to overlap as much as possible. I felt this was a good way of getting more out of each respectively, not to mention saving myself time when I could have 1 hr of listening and 1 hour of reading overlap. By listening while I was reading I was hearing the words on the page being pronounced by a native speaker. By reading while I was listening I would miss a lot fewer words that I would otherwise have missed if I had only been listening. I felt it also allowed me to read a lot more, and a lot faster. Although that may just be because I am a slow reader who gets somewhat bored or sleepy if I read in silence for too long.

Finding both reading and listening resources for the same thing can be difficult. So it’s best to try and find popular well-known materials. Also, materials that you have already read or listened to in your native language are great places to start as you already know the story. This helps you make a lot of inferences about word/phrase meanings as you go, than if you were using brand new material. Furthermore, this highlights the importance of repetition. You get a lot more out of going over a single material several times, than going over several materials a single time. High quality, low quantity > High quantity, low quality. So here are some resources I used that I could find both books and audio books for:

YouTube is full of great resources whether it’s documentaries translated into your target language, short skit comedian channels (i.e. Cyprien and Norman) or channels full of short videos on whatever your interested in whether it be science, history, or literature, etc. If they’re big enough they often have subtitles. E-penser was a good one I liked, which was science based with both short and long videos that I would watch over and over.

I also found websites made for teaching kids at school about the basics of subjects like maths, physics, science, history, etc. such as BrainPop French (it also has other languages including English and Spanish). BrainPop is a subscription based site, although they have a free video section that had dozens of videos, again which I made use of.

I also listened to 100s of hours of podcasts any time I was walking somewhere or traveling on public transport etc. The hours added up really quickly and it was an amazingly easy way to improve my listening comprehension rapidly. Some of the podcasts I really enjoyed and recommend in French are:

I might add that watching the news in your target language is another great way of immersing yourself. I did this for a few months but personally found I reverted back to news in English as I realised I was more interested in local news. French news channels I used were:

In order to learn new vocabulary I used the spaced repetition system (SRS) called Anki. This involves making ‘cards’, each of which you use to practice a specific word, phrase, grammatical rule, etc. in your language, that you add to a ‘deck’, which you revise each day. Each card has a front side, e.g. “I ___ to the shops” (verb: to go), and a back side, e.g. “I go to the shops”. Based on how difficult you found guessing the answer to be you click how soon you want to see the card again, i.e. 10 minutes, 1 day, or 3 days. If you got it wrong you will want to see it again in 10 minutes. If you got it right but it took a few seconds to work it out you may want to see it in 1 day. If you got it right instantly and it was too easy you will want to see it again in 3 days.

The only thing to mention is that you have to be very brutally honest with you answers and how hard they were. I always err on the side of caution and say something was harder than it was, even if I think I may know it. This way you force yourself to revise the cards (i.e. vocab) you’re having trouble remembering, while the cards you find easy to remember have to be revised much less frequently.

I’ve found this to be a really effective way of learning vocabulary. Within several weeks of starting to use it I was up to revising 250 cards a day (~20-30mins), which would have totalled reading several thousand words. I might go into the specifics of how I use Anki to learn specific vocabulary, phrases and grammar in the future. For now I’ll just say that I really recommend everyone using some kind of SRS.

Some great websites to help you make cards to add to your SRS include:

  • Reverso – A great site for finding translations and native example sentences for words or short phrases.
  • Google Translate – for French, it often gave a definition with example sentences for any single word you entered.
  • An online dictionary
  • Google Images – this page has all thumbnails set to small so the pictures you download are all miniature when imported into your SRS.

What would I do differently?

Learning from what I’ve done with French over the past year there are definitely a few things that I’m going to be changing in the coming year where Portuguese is going to be the focus.

Firstly, I think it’s important to state that less is definitely more. Going over the basics repeatedly until it’s rote learnt, before delving into the deeper more tempting waters of language learning is definitely a must. Also applying the high quality, low quantity > high quantity, low quality rule, where fewer good resources that you cover numerous times is much better than using many resources only a few times.

Secondly, I think I will definitely spend a lot more time and effort speaking. Although I feel I did a lot of speaking in French, I know that I could have done a great deal more than I did. It’s a lot easier to spend more time learning passively at home in a comfortable environment using books and podcasts, but putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation where you have to be actively using the language pays huge dividends in the end. The ultimate goal is speaking, so I am definitely going to speak as much as possible next year.

Thirdly, I think I’m going to put a great deal more focus into using word frequency lists. I think I spent a lot more time than I should have learning less frequently used words. This was a result of doing more listening and reading than I was speaking. So I invested more time than I think I should have in learning words and phrases like “murmured uncle Vernon”, “groaned Aunt Pertunia”, “Expelliarmus” and “Whomping Willow” than I did around material I would actually use when having conversations.

 

So that’s a brief summary of the methods I used over the past twelve months of learning French. Hopefully whether you’re learning French or any other language you can gain some insight from what I’ve gone over above. And if you have any recommendations of resources and methods you use to learn your target language please feel free to comment below.

All the best,

Pete

12 things I learnt from 12 months of French

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It is coming up on almost a year since I began my first language learning journey with French! I am confident to finally say that I feel I can speak a second language ‘fluently’, which for me was something just over a year ago I never thought I would have achieved. So I thought I would write a post about things I learned over the past 12 months (see this post for a post about the specific resources and techniques I used). Firstly, I’m writing this article as a kind of record for myself, on which I can hopefully improve on the next language learning iteration that I begin next year. And secondly, in order to give other language learners potential tips to aid in their own language learning journeys (I will add that I welcome all comments and criticisms). I will do my best to avoid the standard stuff that seems to be endlessly beaten into us all by other ‘get to fluency in two shakes of a lamb’s tail’ polyglot bloggers and the like, and leave you with topics from which you will hopefully be able to draw inspiration and insight into your own language learning journey.

As a bit of background: I studied French throughout high school 10 years ago, but since then I had not actively tried to improve or even maintain it. My passion for languages was only recently reignited after the sudden realisation that I had an ever-growing circle of foreign friends who each spoke several languages. As a result of my prior experience with French at high school I thought it a more realistic place to start after a brief flirtation with learning Brazilian Portuguese the year before (which failed miserably for reasons I will cover below). I spent the entire 12 months learning French from my home city of Melbourne, Australia, but plan to go to France next year for a few months to really polish things off.

So here we go, 12 things I learnt from 12 months French.

1. Avoid screaming from rooftops.

I had a failed attempt at learning Brazilian Portuguese that I started in 2014. I had been tempted by the number of Brazilians I always heard speaking Portuguese at the gym where I trained Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. I really wanted to communicate with them, however, upon starting to learn the language I severely underestimated just how much work would be involved. At the time, I was so motivated before I had even really started that I went around telling anyone and everyone at the gym, as well as my friends and family, about my plans to learn Portuguese.

Within two months I had lost all motivation and I gave up on learning Portuguese at that time. Little did I realise that I had set myself up to fail in part by announcing my plans so proudly and loudly to all the world. There is a French saying, “ceux qui parlent le plus sont ceux qui en font le moins”, effectively translating to “those who talk the most are those who do the least.” So in hindsight what I did was completely the wrong approach regarding an action I wanted to undertake and complete in the long term.

Scientists are beginning to understand why you are more likely to fail things if you are always screaming your plans from the rooftops. I will aim to spare you the scientific jargon, though see this study if you are interested, but in simple terms your brain receives a rush of endorphins both when you complete an action and also when you talk about completing that action (see this brief article). By announcing to everyone that you are going to do something and succeed at it, e.g. “I am going to learn Portuguese and become fluent by the end of the year!”, you have given yourself a premature sense of completeness before having even started the task.

Take away message: Even though it may seem counter-intuitive, if you truly want to succeed at anything whether it be weight loss or learning Portuguese, you may increase your chances if you keep your intentions and plans as private as possible, at least until things are underway. Also, if you decide to tell someone avoid saying things in a satisfactory way, e.g. “I have started learning Portuguese and I plan to be fluent by the end of the year!”, and instead frame it in an dissatisfactory way, e.g. “I want to become fluent in Portuguese, make sure I don’t give up, yeah?”.

2. Set goals.

It is important to set goals, both long-term and short-term, in order to have direction in your language learning journey as well as in order gain periodic satisfaction, and subsequently feed your motivation, as you travel along your chosen path.

Long-term goals are important, as you need to know what your ultimate aim is (e.g. “I want to be fluent in Chinese!“) even if it is seemingly unobtainable. I would argue that it is better you make your long-term goal unobtainable. That way you are more likely to overshoot more humble and realistic goals.

“Aim for the sky and you’ll reach the ceiling. Aim for the ceiling and you’ll stay on the floor.” – Bill Shankly

For me in the case of French my long-term goal was to reach native fluency, not ‘native-like‘, but ‘native‘ fluency, i.e. to be indistinguishable from a native speaker. Of course it is highly unlikely that I would ever reach this goal, but I would rather treat fluency as the ceiling while aiming for the sky and hopefully ending up somewhere in between the two.

“Divide each difficulty into as many parts as necessary to resolve it.” – René Descartes.

Short-term goals can range in scale from something that can be completed today, to something that may take weeks or even months to complete. They are important because you need to know how you are going to reach your long-term goal. Like hiking a 50km trail that is marked every kilometre with sign posts. By you focusing on reaching the next sign post instead of the end of the trail you break a large task down into its smaller and more manageable parts. In doing so, short-term goals give more frequent bursts of satisfaction maintaining your motivation to stay on the path long enough to achieve the long-term goal(s).

Examples of short-term goals:

  • Finish a section in Duolingo each day/week.
  • Finish the Duolingo French tree.
  • Finish my first book in French.
  • Learn 25 new words a day.
  • Have my first full conversation in French without using English.
  • Aim to read an entire sentence, paragraph, and page of a book without having to look up a single word.
  • Watch and be able to follow a series episode or a film in French, with and without French subtitles.
  • Make my first friend whom I only knew through French (i.e. they did not speak English)
  • Finish every exercise on a page, in a chapter, in an entire grammar book.
  • Practicing a certain grammatical feature until it becomes natural and free of active-thought.
  • Finish all episodes of the Coffee Break French season 4 podcast.
  • Finish every episode of Game of Thrones TV series dubbed in French.

Make a list of both long-term and short-term goals. Tick them off as you go. Be proud of what you achieve big or small, and just keep going.

3. Develop good habits. The earlier the better.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

A habit is defined as a behavioural routine that is repeated regularly. Developing good habits is important in so many aspects of life, let alone language learning, that I am hoping to cover it in detail in a future article elsewhere. For now I will touch on it briefly.

Developing good habits early on is probably the most effective way to achieve both your short-term and long-term goals on your language learning journey. If your long-term goal is the final destination of your journey, and the short-term goals are your the numerous ‘sign posts’ along the way, then good habits are the small steps that get you from sign post to sign post and ultimately to your final destination.

The best way to set up good long-lasting habits is to be realistic with your minimum daily workload and where you set the bar. So set up a daily routine. Start small, at a level that is easy to complete and that will not drain you even busy days where the rest of your life demands your attention. This way you will not feel angry, frustrated or guilty if you cannot meet your expectations. If you find yourself experiencing this then you have set your minimum workload bar too high. It is much better to set the minimum workload bar low, at a level you can finish every day no matter how busy you are. As an example, two men could achieve exactly the same amount of work in a day. One man sets his minimum workload bar incredibly high level while the other man sets it at a more realistic low level. Despite both men achieving the same amount of productivity, one goes home feeling unsatisfied and guilty if the amount of work falls below where he set the bar, while the other returns satisfied and proud when he overshoots his low set bar by a mile. Who would you rather be?

Develop one or two key habits that become your daily routine, which take only 10-20minutes to complete. No matter how busy life gets you 10-20 minutes should be achievable even on your busiest of days. Always find time to complete your minimum, even if that means playing Duolingo while in the bathroom (Yes, I am guilty of doing this time to time).

When my father would lecture me on saving money for things I wanted to buy as a child he would say “Count the pennies and the pounds will count themselves.” In other words, if you have good daily habits of say putting away a few pennies each day, then soon enough you all have enough money to buy what you want, i.e. you will have achieved your goals.

I am a firm believer that in the case of these kinds of habits you should rely on discipline over motivation. Be disciplined in doing your minimum daily routine, and rely on motivation to take you beyond that when and if you feel like it.

Examples of good daily habits to add to a routine:

  • Score 20xp on Duolingo per day (10 minutes required) (goal: getting to level 25 / finishing the tree)
  • 1 podcast episode per day (10 minutes required) (goal: finishing the series)
  • Read X number of pages of reading per day (goal: finishing the book)
  • Write a diary post in your language each day (goal: keeping a diary for a year)
  • Complete 1 exercise section in your grammar book each day (goal: finishing the entire book)
  • 1 episode of your favourite TV series per day (goal: finishing the series).

One great habit is constantly putting yourself in uncomfortable positions. More on this in the following sections on uncertainty, relish in your errors and shy away from comfort.

Examples of more general language learning habits:

  • Do not revert to your native language when you run into difficulties explaining something unless it is absolutely vital. Be creative! Work around the hole you just found in your vocabulary. Cannot remember the word for car? Describe it: “it is like a bike with four wheels and an engine and goes ‘vrroooom!’”.
  • Always try and use new things you have recently learned when having a conversation with someone, even if you know you are about to screw it up. For things to move from passive vocab into active vocab you have to use them in conversation, if you make an error you are more likely to remember the correct usage next time anyway.
  • Do not shy away from difficult topics or difficult environments (i.e. talking with someone in a loud street), ironically the added noise is likely to force you to concentrate even harder than you otherwise would in order to understand things.

 4. Experiment with everything. Learn how you learn best.

Adapt what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” – Bruce Lee 

I will try and avoid beating you over the head with this 2×4 titbit that I know is often touted as if new information, but we are all different, and thus we all learn in different ways. We all have different interests as well.

It may be tempting to follow to the letter the instructions of an Internet polyglot sensation, but this is what has worked for them and is unlikely to work as well for you. Imagine you notice someone in the street wearing a particularly dashing outfit. Assuming they do not beat the shit out of you as you pull their pants down and unbutton their shirt, and assuming you manage to put on their entire outfit, it is unlikely that you will ‘pull it off’ (pun intended) as well as they did. Despite being the same outfit that moments ago looked amazing on the now naked man standing before you, it was tailored to fit him and not you. So, instead of ripping off the clothing of randoms in the street, find your own ‘outfit’ that is tailored to make you look your best. In other words, develop your own language learning method without relying on an exact replica of that of someone else. As Bruce Lee states in the above quote taken from his book The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, “Adapt what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” In other words, experiment by trying everything, which may include starting out by using someone else’s method, keep what works, discard what does not work, and develop your own unique method. This applies to everything and anything you want to master in life.

Over the past 12 months of learning French I have not just learnt the French language, more importantly I have learnt how to learn a foreign language. I have tried many different techniques and materials, how long to spend on them, when to change, how to get the most out of my time, etc. and it is still very much a work in progress. This is why people who learn languages increase their speed at picking up each consecutive language. As you pick up each consecutive language you learn how you learn. You use trial and error to periodically improve what works for you, keeping what is useful and discarding what is not. Thus the process becomes more and more streamlined and efficient.

So experiment with everything with the ultimate goal of learning how you learn best. Develop your own method by keeping what works, throwing away what does not, and by recognising and embracing your uniqueness.

5. Less is more.

As mentioned in the previous section experiment and try everything for a while or from time to time, but not forever. I have battled with this on and off this year where the process of looking for new methods and materials, etc. becomes addictive and starts taking up more time than it should. It is natural if you are passionate about learning something. However, you have to try and be aware of when this happens, pull yourself back, regroup and focus on productively using the majority of your time to use what you know already works, instead of constantly looking for what may work better. To really know what works you have to stick with it for a time and see how it goes. Although it is all right to drop something if it is clearly not working, you should try to avoid using that as a constant excuse to look for something new to start. Do not be a serial starter and serial non-finisher.

Soon after starting French I had countless textbooks, TV series, podcast series, movies, etc. It was incredibly fun shopping, buying, receiving, opening, browsing all of these items. However, just like screaming from the rooftop as you start a language, amassing resources that you “plan” on using but never actually get around to using is all talk and no action. These things amount to no more than wasted money unless you end up using them. So in my case I resigned myself to only buy and/or start something new, whether it be a TV series or a grammar text book, once I had finished the one I was already in the middle of, assuming that if I had gotten that far into it I liked it enough to finish it. This saw me work through more material than previously as I viewed getting the next thing as a gift and reward for finishing the present one. By doing this I achieved more short-term goals more often, which made everything a great deal more motivating and satisfying!

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10 000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10 000 times.” – Bruce Lee

Revise and repeat. Again less is more. It is a great deal more effective to spend your time revising what you know or are currently working on than it is to waste it constantly delving into new material once. Two ways I put this into practice was to focus on to listen to the same Français Authentique podcast episode, usually lasting around 10 minutes. I would listen to it 5-10 times until I understood hopefully every single word. I did exactly the same with the free videos on BrianPOP French (~5 mins), watching them with and without subtitles repeatedly, looking up what I did not understand, and then rewatching until I understood everything. This does take a little bit of discipline and focus, at least earlier on in the beginner stages. Hence why it is also best to keep resources you do this with to a relatively short length, i.e. 5-10 minute podcast or video. Choosing carefully the resources you do this with is imperative in order to give yourself the best possible scenario of staying focused. If you choose something you are not interested in you are much more likely to zone out even if it were in English and you understood 100%. Five minutes of intense concentration and effort is better than 1 hr of being zoned out.

Take away message: Once you have found the materials you like stick with them and finish them, using the prospect of search for and buying new materials as a reward for completing the present ones. It is better to revise and repeat short pieces of material until you reach near 100% comprehension, than constantly shift to new materials.

6. Using dead time wisely.

After mining the depths of the Français Authentique podcast I stumbled across one of Johan’s rules where he talks about looking for ‘les temps morts’ or ‘dead time’ in your day and how to get the most out of it. ‘Dead time’ is time spent doing something mundane that you could also spend doing something else say learning a second language perhaps. There are only 24 hrs in the day, but using ‘dead time’ more efficiently but overlapping it with your language learning like hitting two birds with one stone or ‘une pierre, deux coups’ as the French would say. As ‘dead time’ is mostly identified whilst you are doing something else, often using your hands, possible language learning activities tend to be restricted to listening or reading.

For me it became a bit of a strategy game to see just how many extra minutes a day I could squeeze out of my ‘dead time’. Eventually I was racking up 3-4 hours of podcasts while I worked, walked, did chores, etc. So as covered in section three above, “Count the pennies and the pounds will count themselves”. Get into the habit of using your ‘dead time’ wisely and you will improve all the more rapidly.

Examples:

  • On public transport you can read books, listen to podcasts or audiobooks, surf foreign language websites or play on apps like Duolingo on your phone
  • Walking, running, training at the gym all allow you to be listening to a podcast or audio book, etc.
  • Jobs that are mindless and repetitive also allow you to be listening to podcasts and audio books, etc. I did this while doing lab work for hours a day during my PhD.
  • Listening to podcasts or audio books whilst Cleaning the house, hanging out laundry.

7. Pseudo-immersion.

In a similar vein to proper use of your ‘dead time’ for language learning, if you can get your language learning to bleed into as many realms of your life as possible via ‘pseudo-immersion’ you are putting away a great deal more pennies and it all adds up. Ideally, we would all experience 100% immersion in our target language by moving to a country where it is spoken. However, for many of us learning foreign languages from our own homes in countries where that language is not the native language this can be a little hard at first. Thus, I recommend attempting ‘pseudo-immersion’, whereby you try and change as many parts of your life over into being carried out in the language you are learning. It can be difficult at first, but it pays off in the long run by giving you an experience as close to full immersion as you can have in your own country.

Not only can you start ‘pseudo-immersing’ yourself in your target language in your online environment (i.e. apps, social media, etc), but you can start pursuing your hobbies and interests in the context of that target language easily enough. This is especially easy if you enjoy reading. In fact, language learning has probably been the main driving force that has gotten me to read much more than I ever previously did.

Examples of how to ‘pseudo-immerse’ yourself:

  • Set things like your phone, your Facebook, and other programs and webpages in the language you are learning.
  • Find music in your target language to delve into if you are a big music listener.
  • Interesting in reading a book that is also a best-seller or classic? You will most likely be able to find it in your language. Not only can you read Aristotle’s The Republic, the entire Harry Potter series, and The Four-hour Work Week, but you can do it in your target language.
  • Into gaming? Buy the games in your target language
  • Watch the news every morning while you drink coffee? Find a 24/hr news website in your target language.
  • Interested in podcasts about news, current affaires, crime, history, comedy, etc.? You will likely be able to find something along the lines of your interests once you get bored with the language learning podcasts and have reached a more advanced level.
  • Try and surround yourself with native speakers. Whether you meet them online, at language meet-ups, or just by chance through friends or in the street, try and make the most of these opportunities.

8. Speak, speak, speak.

I hear most post people reading this saying, “No shit Sherlock!” to me right now. In all serious though, like exercise this tends to be something we all know we should do, we all say we will do, but ultimately never get around to doing as much as we should. Over the past year I spent a lot of time speaking, but I definitely think I could have done more. If you are not in a 100% immersion experience where you are in that country it is almost certain that you are not speaking as often as you should be.

For the majority of us we are learning a language in order to speak it, not just read it. While I feel there is slight carry over from listening, reading and writing into speak, and vice-versa for all those categories. If you want to really improve speaking you have to speak.

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to recognise someone you met once years ago, but how hard it is to remember their name? In the same way it is much easier to recognise and understand words you have read or heard only a few times previously compared to pulling them out of your memory mid-conversation.

Furthermore, have you ever met someone who trained for a marathon by reading books or watching YouTube instructionals, but not actually doing the physical training? Again, while listening, writing and reading are incredibly important skills to develop, speaking is as important if not more so depending on your priorities. In saying this I am assuming that you desire to have real life conversations and will not be restricting yourself to passive activities like reading books and listening to podcasts forever.

Speaking is a hard skill to develop. The bad news is that you have to do it to improve it. The good news is it only gets easier. Not only does it require on the spot thinking with initial monologues filled with ‘ummmms’ and ‘ahhhs’ while you search for that stupid imperfect conjugation for the verb ‘to go’, but it is also a very personal act that puts you in the lime light for all the world to see and judge you. I compare it to improv, a form of theatre where everything is improvised on the spot with no prior planning. Conversation is exactly this. You never know what is going to come up or where things are headed. Like improv the only way to get good at speaking is to do as much of it as possible. If you want to run a marathon you have to practice running, if you want to have long in-depth conversations with natives, you have to practice speaking. The Language Surfer has written a good post diving deeper into the specifics here.

Examples of what you can do:

  • Speak more, to natives, even to yourself. One exercise I try to use involves having a conversation with myself as I walk around, discussing and describing things that I see.
  • Read aloud. A great way to practice pronunciation and word patterns, and common phrases, etc.
  • Write more and read it out. This is a more controlled way of firstly being creative with the language, i.e. creating unique sentences, but then also being able to correct them using websites like Lang-8, etc.
  • Talk about a topic. Practice discussing new themes with which you may have trouble. Look for the wholes and fill them in. Strengthening through exposing weaknesses.
  • Drill grammar and short phrases. A great way to fix common mistakes you make as well as learn by rote phrases you will always need to use “How do I say…”What is that?”I do not know.”

To find native speakers:

  • Go to language meet up events, either for your specific language or for language learners in general, i.e. Mundo Lingo.
  • Use apps like HelloTalk or internet webpages like Speaky.
  • You can also get access to tutors via sites such as Italki.

 9. Relish in your errors.

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – John Powell

“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” – Richard Branson

The quickest way to improve at something is to be the person who makes the most mistakes. I learnt this in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu as well as language learning. I had my arse kicked 100s of times before I got to a point where I had the ability to hand out an arse kicking of equal measure. Equally, I screwed up many a grammatical rule before I started to be able to nail it all the time.

My coach always tells me “the only difference between you and I is that I have failed many more times than you have even tried.” It is the same with native speakers of languages. How many English speaking primary school student misspell things like ‘girl’ as ‘gurl’ or read out ‘through’ as ‘throw’ or worse haha, and this is after years and years of daily exposure to English.

It always seems peculiar to me that once out of childhood we start to look down on errors and their committers, like every new endeavour an adult embarks upon should be effortlessly perfect the first time it is undertaken. We forget how many seemingly ‘stupid’ mistakes were just a part of every day life when you are learning to do anything as a kid.

The easiest way to find out what you need to work on is looking at to your errors. Focus on eliminating what you get incorrect and eventually all that remains is correct. Follow the trail of breadcrumbs, as examining one error usually leads you to two or more other errors or points of improvement that you could work on.

Examples of how to do this:

  • In terms of accent reduction, work out which sounds you have trouble with and then YouTube videos on how to say them properly. I am pretty confident that whatever language you are learning someone has put a video up online outlining how to pronounce its tricky sounds (likely the ones you are caught up on). You can also search websites like Forvo for samples recorded by native speakers of words you find tricky to pronounce, listen, say aloud and repeat, each day, each week, until you have it nailed.
  • Spelling issues: if you set your phone to use a certain language’s keyboard it will show you spelling errors, and you can set dictionaries in programs like word to other languages, which will underline errors.
  • Grammatical issues – practice specific exercises going over them in a grammar book, writing them out repeatedly, saying sentences allowed using them, adding them to your Anki deck, etc. Also use websites like Lang-8 where you can upload text you have written to be corrected by native speakers.
  • Ask native speakers to correct you whenever they notice errors, telling them you are keen to improve and it would really help. They will feel rude and avoid it if you do not specifically ask I have found. Especially once in that intermediate/advanced zone where they understand what you mean but you still make numerous. If you can record yourself having conversations, or keep track of text messaging conversations and where you are corrected this is a great way of keeping track of errors to work on.

So try not to expect immediate perfection from yourself. You are unlikely to fix errors the first time you notice and then practice them, but simply by having drawn attention to them and being conscious of them being an issue is likely to see them fix themselves in the short or long term. Every time an error is pointed out to me, it creates a memory that I am likely to remember next time I try to use whatever it was I made the mistake with.

10. Riding the wave of comprehension to fluency.

Once you have built solid base and are able to comprehend between 80-90% of a given text or conversation, you can start learning new words, new grammatical rules, etc. through context. I think of this like a surfer riding a wave. If the surfer wants to get to the shore the quickest way in is to catch the next wave. It also happens to require a great deal less effort than paddling all the way in. If the shore is your goal in language learning, say ‘basic fluency’ for starters, if you can find the right materials of which you can understand ~90% you can ride the wave of comprehension to fluency (the percentages used here are somewhat arbitrary, with no empirical science to back it up, but they give you an idea of what you should aim for. With practice over time you learn to dial it in.) Moreover, it is a great way to learn how new words are used, in what context, the small nuances in differences between their literal translation in your native language. For instance, I always had trouble with the French words for English’s ‘in’, such as ‘à’, ‘en’,‘dans’, ‘chez’, ‘dedans’ etc. Learning the small differences became a great deal easier when reading them in context, and it is the same with all vocabulary.

Like a surfer has to practice catching and staying on each wave he catches, it is the same for the language learner. You should analyse the materials you are using every now and then to see whether or not you have fallen off the wave. For example, if you understand 100% of your materials then you are not learning anything new. If you understand <80% of your materials then you will be spending more time using a dictionary than learning through context. If there is no discomfort and things have seemingly become effortless, they are probably getting too easy. If you are suddenly having to look up every second word than with previous materials you have probably jumped slightly too far ahead and need to backtrack slightly. This trial and error with practice so do not lose heart.

One easy way is counting up the words on a page of what you are reading and work out the % of words you had to look up. If ~10% of the words are highlighted you are probably in the right zone. Doing this with spoken/listening materials is a little more difficult and requires intuition.

11. The Negative Goldilocks Zone.

As outlined above in the section Riding the wave of comprehension to fluency, if you start to feel a little too comfortable it is likely you are not learning as much as you could be. Comfort is the enemy. Avoid it.

There something I am going to call ‘The Negative Goldilocks Zone’ or an ideal level of discomfort, the inverse of Goldlocks searching for the ‘just right’ soup or bed. The Negative Goldilocks Zone is the zone of optimal discomfort and thus optimal rate of learning. If you are too comfortable, whatever the area of learning is, it means that you are probably not challenging yourself enough and thus not learning as much as you could be.

So take risks. Search for adversity. Hunt down difficulty and defeat it. Do not shy away from challenges because the payoffs far outweigh any potential failures you may face. Anyway, if you are not failing you are unlikely to be improving. So it is literally a win-win situation when you face adversity and discomfort in these cases. And if you cannot lose the game even when you fail, why are not you playing?!

It is hard as we humans are preprogramed by nature to avoid stressors and discomfort, but no one ever got fit by sitting on the couch eating chips watching YouTube instructionals about how to lift weights. So reveal in your errors, search for discomfort, and aim to be ‘he or she who makes the most mistakes’ and thus learns the most.

Examples of what to avoid:

  • What not to do: You are reading children’s books when you are more than ready to move onto adolescent/adult books, because it is comfortable not coming across anything unknown (you are in the Positive Goldilocks Zone in this case).
  • What to do: to get into the Negative Goldilocks Zone with regards to reading or listening, you do exactly what Goldilocks does in trying out all of her options, but instead of picking the most comfortable, pick the one that is slightly uncomfortable. Pick a book where you have to stop and try and deduce the meaning of the odd word, or a podcast that you have to listen to a few times before you grasp the meaning of all of what is being said.
  • What not to do: Relying upon and only using topics for conversation that you are well versed in so that you make as few mistakes as possible and avoid making a ‘fool’ of yourself.
  • What to do: Aim to make as many mistakes as possible in conversations with natives. Try to keep track of your errors to go and practice later. Have other hobbies, even if it is another language on the backburner

12. Have other hobbies and interests.

 “Ultimately, hobbies give us a constructive way to redeem our time while also having fun. Hobbies make us well-rounded individuals who are able to converse on a wide range of topics, and they teach us invaluable skills.” – Nicole Bianchi

Aside from the very rare individual who scores high on the autism spectrum most of us are unable to funnel all of our attention from every waking hour into a single specific interest, or ‘obsession’. Apart from such behaviour being mentally and physically unhealthy, the majority of us mere mortals have a short-term battery life when it comes to concentrating on any given activity. A battery life which tends to be negatively correlated with the intensity of focus, i.e. the more intense the focus the faster the batter is drained. Taking breaks is thus an important part of learning, especially if you are looking to reach your peak efficiency with the time you invest.

I group breaks into two categories. The first are lazy breaks – characterised by unproductive but relaxing activities such as sitting on Facebook or watching Wheel of Fortune while you recharge. The downside to lazy breaks is that you do not redeem any of the time spend recharging (see the section 6. Using dead time wisely above). The second category is productive breaks – characterised by productive activities such as going for a run while listening to a basic level Portuguese podcast or reading a self-help book on minimalism. The upside of these breaks is that although you are relaxing, you are redeeming a portion of your down time by doing something productive, i.e. productive use of dead time.

I find my limit with any given interest tends to be around 30-60 minutes depending on the intensity of focus. I tend to be much more efficient overall if I rotate through my different hobbies or interests during the day by using both lazy and productive breaks repeatedly. For instance, I will listen to a French podcast as I walk to university, which takes about 30-45 minutes. I will then study for an hour before I need a rest. I may then take a short lazy break on Facebook or get a coffee from the café, and then come back and use a short productive break doing a few Portuguese Duolingo exercises before I dive back into study, etc. You get the idea. Overall I get a lot more achieved by the end of the day even though I have not spent more than 60 minutes at any one time doing something, but because I can stay fresh and maintain interest and focus as I switch through my interests using lazy and productive breaks.

Practice taking breaks. Use lazy or productive breaks in combination. Try and make sure you are getting the most bang for your buck, i.e. getting the best quality results out of the time you invest into whatever your interest is. Which leads me onto the following last piece of advice.

Try to develop several interests or hobbies that you regularly practice. Even if it is only for the sake of having different personal interests that you can talk about through the medium of your new language. The most interesting people tend to be those who are most passionate about their own interests. Whatever you are passionate about, if you truly light up visibly when you talk about it, it will be interesting to others as well, even if it involves cleaning toilets or painting houses. The other side of the blade is that even the most interesting topics can be made boring if poorly delivered by someone who is not interested in them. You can not easily fake interest nor passion.

Bonus piece of advice!

13. Go with the flow. Be adaptable, shift through your interests.

As I said earlier we are all different. No two of us will have the same exact interests. Even for overlapping interests we are likely to have differing thresholds regarding how much time we can spend on them in a single sitting, not to mention how we can best go about implementing that time spent.

Not only have I found my thresholds can vary from day to day, but that I can also begin to lose interest in certain materials or subjects for reasons I may not even be conscious of. For example, sometimes I can watch an entire season of a given French TV show in a single sitting. Sometimes I am not in the mood to even finish a single episode, despite being in the mood for learning French. So I go with the flow. I will try something else like doing some grammar, reading a news article or a book, etc. Maybe I will take a lazy break from French, a lazy break I eat lunch and play video games, or maybe I will take a productive break and practice some Portuguese on Duolingo or watch some Brazilian Jiu-jitsu instructionals on YouTube for my next class.

I try to avoid getting frustrated with myself, and I do not force myself to continue doing anything when I can definitely tell my heart is not in it at that moment in time. Quality time invested = quality results. In other words, I am wasting my time if I force myself to do something when my battery is drained, and I could be otherwise recharging.

If you can develop this kind of habit, accepting that sometimes you are just not ‘feeling it’ and need to shake things up by taking a break and doing something else, you will psychologically end up in a much better headspace.

Conclusion 

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” – Confucius

This piece turned out a lot longer than I expected. So thank you for reading. I hope it has given you some food for thought and helps you become a more efficient language learner and I hope you have gained some insight into your own language learning journey.

Use what I have outlined above as a starting point for developing your own learning methods. Take what is useful, throw away what is not, and incorporate what is uniquely your own! Most importantly enjoy the process. Aim to make your language learning, as well as any other area of interest to you, as enjoyable as possible and the results will take care of themselves. If you do not make language learning a chore it will become effortless.

Please feel free to give me feedback on the ideas outlined above, as well as anything you have learned or developed regarding language learning! I am always keen to learn more!

All the best.

Pete