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How to learn a language

It’s New Year’s Eve, a time when a lot of us make resolutions for the coming year. One of them may be to finally learn that language you’ve been meaning to work on for years. But where do you start?

I often describe myself as a language addict. These are the languages that I’ve had a go at learning so far and the levels I’ve reached (based on the CEFR):

  • C1/Advanced: French, German, Spanish
  • B1/Intermediate: Polish
  • A2+/Pre-intermediate: Czech, Russian
  • A1/High beginner: Italian, Mandarin
  • A0/Beginner: Greek, Thai, Bahasa Malay, Japanese, Maltese, Vietnamese, Lithuanian

It’s definitely true that learning one language helps you to learn another, but I wouldn’t say that I have any particular talent for language learning – just lots of tried and tested techniques, and many many hours of practice at it. Over time, this practice has become more focussed and more efficient. Here’s how…

(By the way, if you don’t want to work your way through this quite long blog post, you can download this one-page pdf summary instead.)

ŸMake it a habit

As with anything you want to add to your life, habit formation is the most important thing you can do.

5 minutes a day

Even if you’re super busy, you can definitely find 5 minutes each day (see below for how!) It adds up really quickly – in one week that’s 35 minutes. In a year, it’s 1825 minutes, or over 30 hours. That’s the equivalent of twenty 90-minute classes, or 10 weeks of lessons if you’re having them at our school 🙂

Record what you do

I have a calendar where I make a note of whether I’ve completed my daily habits. Since I started using it, I’m much more likely to do them, as I hate seeing a ‘X’. In this example, the ‘P’ in the top left corner means Polish:

Record achievements

Sneak it into your day

I’ve tried lots of different ways to do this. With Polish, I currently use a few apps in the mornings and read in the evenings before bed (see ‘surround yourself with it’). Again, this is all about habit formation – making it ‘normal’ makes it easier.

Memrise at breakfast

It takes me about 10 minutes to eat my breakfast. While I’m doing that, I work my way through four Memrise sets of Polish, one of Lithuanian and one of Mandarin. I always revise old vocabulary first, aiming for a minimum of 1500 points in each set to maintain my streak. If I haven’t hit 1500, I’ll learn a few new words. I love memrise because it uses the principles of spaced repetition to keep reminding me of vocabulary and testing my memory of it. Since I started using it about 8 years ago, the site reckons I’ve learnt 8836 words as of today – I won’t pretend I’ve remembered them all, but even if it’s only half of them, it’s still a lot of vocabulary!

Carry a few flashcards with you

Sentence cardsWhen I was learning Russian, I cut up bits of yellow paper to create flashcards – yellow because it makes me happy. One side had a sentence in Russian, and the other had some kind of prompt. This was generally a picture or series of pictures if I could think of one, but occasionally an English translation of one or two words from the sentence if I couldn’t.

Sandy's sentence card holder TM

Sandy’s sentence card holder TM

I kept 10-15 of these cards with me all the time, in a little pouch with two pockets. When I was on the bus or waiting somewhere I’d flick through them to test myself. When I thought I knew one, I’d put it in the second pocket. Back at home, I’d take out anything that was in the second pocket and add an equivalent number of cards from the pile that was waiting for me.

i know the ones on the left

Left = ‘known’, right = unknown

After a year, the pile of sentences I’d learnt was about 3cm tall. I would periodically test myself on the whole pile and see if I’d forgotten any of them – generally I’d still remember about 80-90% of them.

Use apps/websites when you’re waiting

If, unlike me, you have a smartphone, then building your vocabulary using language apps is probably a much more productive way to spend your waiting time than looking at social media (again) and pretty easy to fit into your day. Here are four I’ve tried:

  • Memrise (the one I’ve used almost every day for years)
    + Spaced repetition managed automatically
    + Some curated sites created by the company (look for XXX 1, 2, 3 e.g. Polish 1, Polish 2…)
    + Can create your own content
    + Can choose to ignore words if you don’t want/need to learn them (only via the website)
    + Unlimited range of languages/content, with more company-curated sets added all the time
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Not all sets have audio
    – Can be challenging to find the sets that work for you
  • Quizlet (the one I use as a teacher)
    + Quick and easy to create your own content
    + Unlimited range of languages/content
    + Can take other people’s content and edit it to suit you
    + ‘Star’ words to choose what’s most challenging/important for you
    + Fairly easy to find what you need (here’s some help if you’re learning English)
    + Audio automatically added
    + You can choose the games you play, including matching games, spelling, etc.
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can use it again offline on the app
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Although there is now a spaced repetition option, it’s pretty clunky
  • Duolingo (the one everyone else seems to use – I’m not a huge fan)
    + All content created by the company, so shouldn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can suggest alternative answers
    + Mostly sentence level
    + All content has audio
    +/- Limited languages available
    – No teaching before testing – you need to not give up easily
    – Not that helpful for beginners, as there are no language explanations
    – On Apple devices, (I think) you can test out of level 1, but have to earn gems to test out of other levels, so not ideal for higher-level learners either. On Android, I believe you can test out of any level
    – Multiple choice options often nonsensical, so don’t really test you
    – No ability to tailor what you’re learning
  • Lingodeer (my current favourite!)
    + All content created by the company, so generally doesn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can correct any mistakes which are there
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can study it again offline (great for flights!)
    + Very clear language explanations, available at the start of each category and by clicking on any word while in ‘test’ modes
    + Wide range of activity types
    + Can choose what to revise
    + Can ‘test out’ of whole sections at a time
    + All four skills tested, including chances to record yourself speaking and to write characters from Kanji and Mandarin
    + For Japanese, there’s a great ‘story’ function where you can listen to somebody and record yourself
    + Multiple choice options are logical and really make you think
    + Everything has audio, and the pictures are very cute 🙂
    + No annoying advertising or Freemium prompts!
    +/- Limited languages/content available, with about 8 languages at the moment (more than are listed on the site!), though more being added
    – Only available via the app, not on browsers
Repeat what you hear

Don’t just read or listen to it, say it. Having a go at pronouncing the language you hear makes your brain process it a little bit more, meaning you’re more likely to remember it. Listen and repeat improves your confidence with pronunciation over time. Read and repeat gets you experimenting with sound-spelling relationships. Try a few words or phrases each day while you’re doing other things, and again you’ll notice it building over time.

ŸŸSurround yourself with it

Even if you’re not living in a country where the language you want to learn is around you all the time, you can still add it to your life in lots of different ways.

Label your home

A classic 🙂 Here are some of my Russian labels:

Russian has taken over my fridge!

and a Polish man doing the same:

Make little posters or index cards

The process of categorising and copying information over to another piece of paper goes part way to helping you to remember it. By then sticking them up, you see it lots more times and remember it for longer. Here are some I made for Russian:

Index cards everywhere!Surrounded with postcards to be more interesting!

Read to read

Extensive reading is one of the best ways to improve your knowledge of a foreign language. I’ve been reading in Polish for about ten minutes every night before bed for 2.5 years now, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for learning. I started with the first Harry Potter book when I was a low A2 level, choosing it because I was familiar with the story and knew that would help me to understand more.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Polish cover)

Originally I could read 2 pages in about 10 minutes, and now I can read up to 6, depending on how tired I am. I estimate that I could understand about 10-20% of any double-page spread when I started, and now it’s about 70-80%.

Importantly, I read to read, not to learn vocabulary. My aim is to finish the book, not to understand everything. It takes a bit of a mindshift to do this, as you have to stop worrying about what you don’t understand and concentrate on what you do.

When I first tried to read a John Grisham book in German, I wrote down every word I didn’t know and translated it into English. After three pages or so of the book, I had around 150 words and felt pretty depressed – oddly enough, I stopped reading it! In Paraguay, I went to a weekly Spanish meeting. We took an article from the Economist and translated it word for word. This was the result, from which I don’t remember anything!

When I started reading Harry Potter, I only looked up words if they appeared repeatedly and felt important for the story, limiting it to 2-3 per double page. Now, if there aren’t any words in that category, I’ll pick one word to look up at random. I’ve now nearly finished book 4 and really look forward to it every night.

Writing a journal

Writing is the easiest of the four skills to neglect. Writing a journal worked really well for me in Russian as my teacher looked at it and replied each week.

Russian journal

Russian journal

With Polish, I wrote a couple of sentences a day for a few weeks, then gave up because nobody else was reading it. I almost never write in Polish, and this is something I need to change in 2019 if I want to pass the B1 exam I’m thinking about taking!

Podcasts and radio

Apparently there are now over 600,000 podcasts available, so there really is something for everyone. I experimented with listening to the news in other languages when I was at uni, but got bored with listening to the same things over and over again, especially considering I didn’t listen to the news in English. If you’re learning English, here’s an introduction to podcasts for language learning, including some of my favourites.

Alternatively, choose a radio station playing the kind of music or presenting the kind of programmes you like. This is particularly easy if you have a smart speaker – “Alexa, play radio station Antenne Bayern“. I’m now really good at traffic updates in Bavarian German 😉

As with reading, listen to listen, not to understand everything. You’ll understand more and more as you become familiar with the rhythms of the language and build up your vocabulary from other places (like the apps above).

Make it aesthetically pleasing

Do you prefer to look at a plain black folder or a multi-coloured one? What about a page of text or a page of pictures? By carefully choosing the things you use to learn a language, you’re more likely to want to look at them again.

Stationery that makes you smile
Two notebooks, both alike in dignity

Which one to buy? Both of course!

All of my language-learning notebooks have pictures on them, sometimes themed (like the Polski język ones I have here), sometimes just fun, like the ones I used for Russian above. At various times I have also bought a Kung Fu Panda and a Pirates of the Caribbean folder. Because I enjoy looking at them, I’m more likely to pick them up and use them.

Pictures – colour in printed ones or draw rubbish ones!

Whenever possible, use pictures to help you remember things – your brain responds to these much better than words. You can colour in ones you have printed, like these ones I used to help me learn daily routines in Czech:

Coloured in pictures to help me learn Czech daily routine

or draw your own ones, regardless of how rubbish you might think your own drawing is!

Sentence cards with pictures

Think about colours and layout

Laying out what you are learning in a consistent way does some of the work for your brain. Colours also attract the eye, and again can be used to help you to process information.

Show patterns

I often use layout to help me to remember grammar. With gendered words, I always have masculine on the left, feminine in the middle and neutral on the right. If I can remember the position, I can remember the gender.

Colour-coding mistakes can help you to focus on them without needing long explanations:

Deciphering the rewrite code

And you can combine both layout and colour, which is particularly good for grammar:

Index cards everywhere! Time time time...And here are stress patterns in Greek numbers:

Categorise languagef

As I said above, the process of categorising language helps your brain to process it, and therefore remember it for longer. Vocabulary is the easiest thing to categorise, but you can do it with phrases too. Here’s a page one of the two vocabulary notebooks I filled in a year of studying Russian:

My vocabulary notebook - English

Every page of the notebook had a fold down the middle so I could test myself.

I planned to do this with Polish, managed a couple of pages, then got bored and decided Memrise would be enough.

Highlight exceptions

Judicious highlighting helps your brain work out what to focus on. Highlighting letters or words (like in the picture above) helps you to notice what is different, and the extra attention you therefore pay to these exceptions or unusual things means you’ll remember them for longer. I find this works particularly well for spellings.

Make your brain work, but not too hard

Learning a language means you need to do some processing. The more processing you do with a single item, the more likely you are to remember it. However, it’s easy to get frustrated if you have to do too much processing – that’s when you end up giving up.

Give yourself as many ‘hooks’ as possible

Imagine a large, heavy picture you want to put on the wall. You use a single picture hook, and pretty quickly it falls down. Now use three or four – it stays up for a little while longer, but eventually it still falls down. Now use twenty hooks – it’s likely to stay there for much, much longer. And the bigger the hooks, the better.

The same is true of new language items, whether vocabulary or grammar. Here are some possible ‘hooks’:

  • Meaning
  • A situation/context
  • An image
  • Something that makes you laugh/surprises you
  • (Odd) connections to other things you already know
  • Translation – preferably at sentence level/within a larger context (this could be to other foreign languages you know, not just your native language(s))
  • Collocations for vocabulary/common verbs used with the structure for grammar
  • Examples in use – if you create them yourself and get them checked, the hooks will be bigger and stronger
  • Encounters – each time you see/hear the word, you’re adding a little hook
  • Using it yourself – saying/writing it adds a pretty big hook or makes the hooks that are already there bigger

Each ‘hook’ you give yourself keeps that bit of language anchored in your brain for longer and more securely.

Hide translations

Humans are lazy. We always take the easiest route. That means that if we see a word in a language we’re comfortable with, we’ll read that before we make the effort to process something more difficult, like the language we’re learning.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid translation entirely, as that can just make you feel frustrated. Instead, make your brain work harder to see the translations so that processing the foreign language becomes the easier route. Two ways I’ve done this are by writing the English in yellow pen:

English is on the right – look carefully!

and by writing it in tiny letters in a different part of the page, or on the other side if possible:

English is in tiny letters

Avoid arrows

When you get two answers the wrong way round in an exercise or copy two words next to the wrong definitions, it’s tempting to draw arrows to correct them instead of crossing them out. Don’t! This adds an extra step of processing, where your brain has to ‘undo’ what it first saw. It might not look as pretty (unless you use Tippex/whiteout) but it makes life easier for your brain! Number 5 in this picture is an example – I don’t remember what it means though!

Use monolingual dictionaries as soon as you can

Again, humans are lazy. I use Google Translate all the time, as do many of my students. But, and this is important, NOT for learning. For that I use a monolingual dictionary as soon as I can, preferably a learner’s dictionary if they exist.For Polish, I’ve been using PWN. For English I tend to recommend:

My university teachers would be pleased to hear this, as they used to tell us all the time to go monolingual, but it took me ages to listen to them. Now I prefer the information that I can find there, including collocations, example sentences, alternative uses, phrases, and (especially online) pronunciation and conjugations. It also provides extra reading practice, and the fact you have to process the language more means you are more likely to remember it more, or be more picky about which words you look up. If you’re a teacher, persevere with persuading your students – it’s worth the effort!

ŸBe proud of your mistakes

Mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they show that you are learning. As with reading to read, this can require a shift in your mindset, as far too many of us have been brought up thinking that mistakes are bad.

Collect them, highlight them

Try creating a ‘My favourite mistakes’ page. Once a week/after a lesson/when you’ve done some writing, choose one mistake you made which you know you make a lot. Add it to the page, along with the correction. In the correct version, highlight the bit that you had problems with. This will draw your attention to it. This photo shows problems I was having with Czech accents on words:

Rewrite them

With the journal writing I mentioned above, I was motivated enough and had enough time on my hands to rewrite my entries and colour-code the mistakes, which made a huge difference to the accuracy of my writing.

Colour-coded rewrites

Colour-coded rewrites

It was great to see how the things I was making mistakes with changed over time, even in the few weeks that I did this for.

ŸPersonalise language

Making the language you are learning feel like yours can be hugely motivating, and adds some of the ‘hooks’ mentioned above.

Use your own experiences and opinions

Personalise example sentences so they mean something to you. For example, only learn ‘I like chocolate’ if you actually do. If you don’t, change it to ‘I like cats’, ‘I like computer games’ or whatever is most relevant to your experience. You’ll remember it faster, and it adds another ‘hook’.

Learn what you need first

When learning a foreign language, I try to start with numbers and food, as these are normally the things I need first on arrival in a new country. If I can eat in a restaurant and understand prices, then I can get a long way. Phrases like ‘How are you?’ and ‘I’m ____ years old.’ are much less immediately relevant.

If you’re not sure what you might need first, consider working your way through a course (maybe online or using a book) and feel free to skip bits that don’t appeal.

Be selective

It’s easy to feel like you need to remember every new word or phrase you come across, but this is impossible. Choose the language which most appeals to you and/or which is most relevant. Start with ‘easy wins’ – the more you build up your vocabulary, the easier it is to understand things you read and listen to, and the more you’ll be able to learn new vocabulary and grammar from all the extensive reading and listening you’re doing (by surrounding yourself with the language as above).

Record phrases you like

When you’re listening to or reading something, write down words and phrases you like and want to use again. If you’re talking to somebody, ask them to repeat it so you can make a note of it. Again, by picking out what you’re interested in and things that appeal to you, you’re giving yourself more hooks.

ŸRise above the word

If you’re self-studying, it’s very easy to just learn lists and lists of vocabulary. While this is useful, in the long run, you need to do more to truly learn the language.

Look at chunks

When you’re reading, look at the words that appear around that new word you’ve just written down. Is there a preposition (in, on, from…) after the word? Is there an adjective before it? Are there other words a bit further away in the sentence that might be connected? These are all hook that can help you to better use new language.

Write out conversations

Take grammar structures you’ve learnt and have a go at using them in conversations. Would the other person in the conversation use the same grammar to reply? For example, in English a present perfect question can be followed by a past simple reply. Can you make the structure shorter or add to it in any way? For example, English relative clauses can often be reduced, or added into other sentences. If you can, ask somebody to check the conversation for you, or have a go at recording it with somebody else you know who’s learning the language.

Mini dictations

Take one sentence of something you’ve listened to and use it as a dictation. If there’s a transcript for the audio, or lyrics for a song, check how correct you were. This is a great way to spot little grammar mistakes you’re making, and to better understand the rhythms of the spoken language.

Try out a corpus

A corpus is a collection of language as it is really used. For learners, this can help you to expand your understanding of particular items of vocabulary or grammar structures. My favourite English (and Spanish/Portuguese) corpus tool is the collection at BYU, particularly the new ‘word’ function. This is a snippet – there’s far more information as you scroll down the page:

BYU corpus word feature screenshot

Lizzie Pinard has an introduction to using www.wordandphrase.info/academic which shows you a lot of the features.

I use NKJP for Polish, for example to check whether I’ve chosen the right verb to go with a particular noun.

Be patient

Nobody learns anything overnight. But with language learning people seem to find that particularly frustrating – ‘I already speak my language. Why can’t I learn this one?’ Patience is key to getting to the level you want to achieve.

Grammar will come – don’t agonise over it

If you’ve read this whole post, you’ll notice that mentions of grammar are few and far between. Although I do have a grammar book, I only glance at it occasionally, and I’ve never done a grammar exercise in Polish. My grammar has improved though, through exposure, reading snippets of grammar explanations, and trying to notice patterns. Reading and listening to as much of the language as possible will help you to develop an instinct for correct grammar. Exercises might help you get there a bit faster, but they’re not essential.

Think about the process of children learning

Think about how children learn their first language. They start with essential everyday words, like ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then add vocabulary they need all the time, then add grammar later. It takes them a couple of years before they say anything, years when they have 24/7 exposure to the language they’re learning. When we learn a foreign language, we generally expect to speak from day one, and don’t give ourselves a ‘silent period’ to absorb what we’ve been exposed to before we have to produce it.

Children also make lots of mistakes, but they persevere, and eventually they speak the language they need to the level they need to in their everyday levels, providing the conditions are right for them.

It’s a long process, and it’s not easy, but it’s worth it in the end.

Be kind to yourself

Languages are big, complicated beasts from the outside. It can feel pretty daunting when you’re starting out. But if you’re kind to yourself, if you allow yourself to experiment, to make mistakes, and to try out the new language you’ve learnt without fearing failure, you’ll make it. As with everything in life, there’s no point beating yourself up if you find something challenging – all that does is makes you feel depressed. It doesn’t actually make you learn any more effectively.

ŸDon’t listen to me!

If you were patient enough to read the whole post, you’ll see that although I’ve tried everything I’ve described, I don’t do all of it now. Not everything works for everybody, and not everything works all the time. Be flexible with your learning, experiment, and work out what works for you. That way, you’ll enjoy the process a whole lot more.

Good luck!

P.S.

These tips are all based on my own experience. I know there’s science behind at least some of them, but I’m feeling too lazy to find the links! If you feel like sharing them, please do…

Questions

As an experienced language learner, I know that it’s important for me to speak as much as possible in order to improve my language. That can be easier said than done though (no pun intended).

Since I came back to Poland after a few weeks away this summer, I’ve noticed I’m much more confident when speaking Polish. There’s been a real difference in my interactions, which I think marks a step change in my progress. Reading Scott Thornbury’s recent post W is for (language learning in) the Wild, I finally realised what this difference is: questions.

Let me explain.

In my first year in Poland, I went through somewhat of a silent period. Having previously learnt Czech and Russian really helped my understanding of Polish, since they are all Slavic languages. However, it meant that whenever I spoke, it was some kind of weird mix of all three languages, and people often struggled to understand me. Without realising what was happening, I mostly stopped trying to interact, and would switch to English whenever I knew it was possible.

Last summer, I went for a weekend away with organised by my flamenco teacher in Bydgoszcz. At least half of the people on the trip couldn’t speak English, but they were curious about why I was there, and wanted to share their own experiences of English and/or the UK – many of them have family who live there. They were also very patient with me, and supported my efforts to communicate.

A few fellow flamenco learners in the beautiful surroundings of Gzin

A couple of weeks after that I moved into my new flat, and shared it for six weeks with the previous owners, who didn’t speak English. I’ve written previously about that experience of immersion and how much it helped my confidence.

Despite these positive experiences, I still felt like I could only make statements, or follow where my conversation partner led.

Now I’ve realised that I’ve started to be able to instigate conversations too, because I’ve begun to experiment with asking questions. I’m still not hugely confident with the grammar of questions, and mostly stick to question words and rising intonation, but I now feel like I can steer what’s happening or fill lulls in the conversation when my conversation partner has run out of things to ask. It also now feels rather less like the Spanish inquisition.

What particularly made me think in Scott’s post was the fact that the Japanese hitchhiker he describes had been prompted to use a particular list of questions by his English teacher. Maybe I should come up with a list of Polish questions that I can use in a variety of situations, to help improve my confidence and make it easier to start conversations.

Have you ever done anything like that with your students? What kind of questions would you include on the list?

Minor tweaks, major changes

For the last couple of weeks one of my Ukrainian friends was staying with me. I love spending long periods of time chatting with non-native speakers of English, because it helps me to notice all kinds of things about my language which would probably never occur to me otherwise.

One of our discussions ended up being centred around ‘go’, and how adding or subtracting a single word to certain collocations could completely change the meaning, at least as far as I could tell without checking it in any reference materials.

Look at the photos below. Imagine you are talking to your friends the day after the photo was taken, telling them about it. Write one sentence that you would use to tell your friends about what you were doing. (There are 9 of them, so it’ll be easier to remember if you write them!) Start each sentence with ‘I went…’

1. You’re one of the girls in the photo.

Ballet class

Image from Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

2. You’re in the audience watching this.

Ballet performance

Image from Pixabay

3. You’re one of the people in the club.

Club in Mexico

Image from Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

4. You’re one of the people in the couple.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

5. You’re one of the people on the rink.

Ice Skating

Image from Wikimedia Commons

6. You’re one of the children.

Ice skating lessons

Image from Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

7. You’re in the audience.

Ice Skating show

Image from Wikimedia commons

8. You’re one of the people in the picture.

Football training

Image from Pixabay

9. You’re in the crowd.

Football friendly

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Hopefully you now have a list that looks a bit like this:

  1. I went to ballet.
  2. I went to the ballet.
  3. I went dancing.
  4. I went to dancing.
  5. I went ice skating.
  6. I went to ice skating.
  7. I went to the ice skating.
  8. I went to football.
  9. I went to the football.

I realised a few things when we were having this discussion:

  • I don’t think I would use the words ‘classes’ or ‘lessons’ in any of these examples, just the preposition ‘to’.
  • One little word, like ‘to’, can completely change the meaning of the sentence. (I knew that already, but hadn’t come across such a clear example outside the realm of articles before.)
  • I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a discussion like this with my students.
  • I really should do more work with contrastive forms whenever I can.

What sentences did you come up with? What things have you realised about English or your own language recently?

How to learn a language every day (IH Journal Issue 42)

Issues 42 of the IH Journal has just been published.

IH Journal Issue 42 cover

My article is about various ways to make language learning part of your daily life, without expending too much effort. Hopefully it will be useful both for students and for teachers wanting to explore new languages.

As always, I’d recommend taking a look at the whole issue,  which you can access through the links on the right-hand side of the main IH Journal page. Some of my highlights from this issue are Katy Simpson describing three reasons why we should all be (ELT) feminists, lots of ideas from Kylie Malinowska to make the most of YL coursebooks, and Maria Badia’s ideas for using the Oxford Owls e-readers, a resource I had no idea existed, but will certainly be recommending to parents in the next academic year. Emily Hird pulls together some of these threads by showing us how to be more aware of everyday sexism in materials we use, and suggests some ways of dealing with it.

On immersion

For the past six weeks or so I have been sharing a flat with a couple who only speak a few words of English and German. When I moved in my Polish was probably hovering around A2, having received a boost over the summer from my reading, writing and use of a grammar book. I was still quite hesitant about speaking, and had only really started to build my confidence during a weekend away organised by my flamenco teacher, again with a few people who didn’t speak any English but who still wanted to communicate with me. Both the people on the flamenco weekend and the couple I was living with were great interlocutors for me, patient, happy to rephrase and repeat themselves as much as necessary, and supporting me in trying to communicate my ideas. The woman I lived with was also very good at correcting me consistently which had a massive impact on my grammar.

One of two kittens entertaining us when we weren't dancing flamenco :)

One of two kittens entertaining us when we weren’t dancing flamenco 🙂

Six weeks on, it’s like I’m a different person. I feel like my Polish is probably now into B1. I can speak about most everyday things, my accuracy has improved in quite a few areas, and my confidence is at similar levels to my much stronger languages. I’m not normally shy about pushing myself to speak, which is why the last year has been so strange for me as I was very reluctant to speak Polish if I didn’t have to. I felt like I didn’t really know what language I was speaking in, and it was a real mix of Polish, Czech and Russian. I’m very glad to be past that point, and feel like I’m now in a very good place to continue improving.

On reflection, I’m also wondering whether having such a long (almost) silent period has also helped me to speak more fluently and more confidently at this point than at the same point with other languages. A year of building my vocabulary and listening to and reading whatever I could has certainly helped me improve my understanding, and I feel it’s also made me more accurate when I finally did speak, although I’m sure Czech and Russian probably also had something to do with it.

This is the most conscious I’ve ever been of my speaking progress, as I’ve either already been at least B2 when I’ve been immersed in a language, or I haven’t been in a complete immersion situation for more than a couple of hours at a time. Six weeks of having to speak Polish most mornings and evenings for at least a few minutes meant I had no choice but to communicate. Talking about things which were relevant to me and trying to explain things which had happened during a very eventful few weeks, sometimes with Mr. Google’s help, extended my language and provided a huge amount of motivation.

I know that it’s theoretically possible to create similar situations through the use of Skype conversation partners for example, but I’ve never had the motivation to do it before, confident that I’d eventually learn as much as I needed to through constantly plugging away at the language. After this experience of immersion, I think I might try harder to recreate it with the next language I want to study (not sure what yet!)

I’ve only had two or three Polish lessons, and I’m wondering just how much and how accurately I can learn without having any, even though I know I definitely want some at some point as I need correction. Watch this space…

How I’m learning Polish

Slowly. Without lessons. Mostly by myself. These things will hopefully all change as we move into the next academic year, but until then I’m…

Using Memrise

I started doing this as soon as I found out I’d got the job in Poland. I’ve been using a range of different sets, and spend 5-10 minutes on there every day.

Leeds University beginners’ Polish
The best Polish course I’ve found on memrise, though I didn’t find it until much later than the other sets linked here. It has a range of useful vocabulary sets, with words and phrases I’m highly likely to need. Unfortunately though, quite a few of the words don’t have any audio.

Beginner Polish
This was the first set I used, and I finished it a few months ago. It has a lot of useful vocabulary, but not so many complete phrases.

Beginner to Intermediate (no typing)
There is a lot of incredibly random vocabulary here, and I’m not sure I would describe it as beginner, though some of the words scattered through the sets are. The first 19 or so levels are quite useful, dealing with verb conjugations, but then set 20 is clause linkers, most of which I ignored. I’m about halfway through, and find that the lack of typing means words sometimes take a while to stick in my head. There are also some words which are a bit confusing because they are presented completely out of context, so it’s not always clear which meaning of the English translation they correspond to. Most of the words have audio though, which is helpful. There are times when I think ‘When am I ever going to need that?’ often shortly followed by said word being key in an article I’m skimming in the magazines left in the school kitchen, or appearing in film subtitles 🙂

Days and Months
Colours
I found these two sets when I was trying to find something more useful than the Beginner to Intermediate set. They are short and quick to finish, which was motivating.

For a long time I got a bit too lazy, and memrise was the only thing I was doing for Polish. It felt like once I’d reached my daily goal, there was no need to find the time to do anything else. Some extra practice came to me, like buying things from the counters in the supermarket or reading subtitles when I went to the cinema, but it wasn’t much. About a month ago, I decided it was time to change this, and have now added a few other things, starting with:

Harry Potter

Inspired by Lizzie Pinard, I downloaded the Polish version of the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone audiobook way back in September. I enjoyed the books the first time round, as well as the films, but haven’t read/seen them for a long time, so this is a great opportunity to revisit them and learn at the same time.

Until about a month ago, I’d only listened to the first two chapters once or twice each, but then I decided that if I was really serious about learning Polish just doing memrise wasn’t going to cut it. I put the audiobook on my iPod, and before I listened to any podcasts each day, I had to listen to some Harry Potter. I’m about 2/3 of the way through the book now, and try to listen to each chapter at least twice, and often four or five times, before moving on to the next. Every time I listen I notice more of the vocabulary, and some of that ‘When I am ever going to need this?’ vocab from the Beginner to Intermediate memrise set has actually come in quite useful here! It’s also a great way to help me pick up on the pronunciation of words I had only seen and not heard before, and to notice the case endings which are used throughout Polish.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Polish cover)

Having enjoyed puzzling through Game of Thrones in Russian previously, I decided to buy the book of Harry Potter a couple of weeks ago. I tend to read one or two pages every night before bed. I finished chapter one last night, and want to go back and listen to the audiobook chapter again as I now understand so much more of the text. This is the last thing I do each night, and I read until I can’t keep my eyes open. Before that I…

Write in my journal

Writing is often the skill which is most neglected when learning a language. My receptive skills are pretty good in Polish, around pre-intermediate level I’d guess, because of the Czech and Russian I have learnt before. Unfortunately, my productive skills are lagging far behind this. I’m reluctant to speak because I end up producing a mix of Czech, Russian and Polish, though this is getting easier as time passes. A lack of practice doesn’t help.

I’ve had previous success with journal writing in Russian, and I try to do it with my students, so on the same day I started reading Harry Potter, I also decided it was high time I started writing a journal in Polish. By writing, I’m forcing myself to produce the language, but I have none of the time pressure of being in a conversation. I tend to only write the date and two or three sentences about what I did that day or some general fact about me if the day was quite boring. I’m trying to push myself to pick out something different to write about each day, even when the days are very same-y. This is also because nobody has read or corrected my Polish writing yet, so I don’t want to compound a particular mistake too much until they do! The whole process takes a while because I’m also…

Reading a grammar book

[The image is an affiliate link…I’ll get a few pennies if you buy through it]

Of course, saying it like that makes it sound really dull, but two things make it much more interesting. The first is that Discovering Polish is very accessible, with a limited amount of metalanguage and lots of examples to support rules. The second is that every time I pick it up it’s because I’m looking for a particular bit of grammar which I need for my journal but have no idea how to use. Whenever I start reading about it, I normally end up finishing a whole section or even a whole chapter. There are a couple of bits I’ve read more than once, and I’ve already noticed that these rules are starting to sink in. By reading more about the grammar, it’s also helping me to notice grammatical features when they appear in other places, like the Harry Potter book or…

At the cinema

I’m currently living right next door to the cinema, and have an unlimited card, so have been making full use of the combination of this and my summer holidays to go to the cinema as much as possible. However, the only dubbed film I’ve made it to is The BFG, which while it looked beautiful, was way too linguistically complicated for me to understand much of what was said. This wasn’t helped by me not doing any preparation before I went, like watching trailers or clips of the film in English first to know some of the language. It’s also a very long time since I read the book so I didn’t really remember the story, though I did manage to pick the main events up well enough from the images. It’s temporarily put me off watching dubbed films, though I know it shouldn’t because I got a lot out of watching Zootropolis a few months ago.

The subtitles are quite good for picking up bits and pieces of language, but I do have a tendency to ignore them completely after a while, especially if it’s a particularly gripping film. I should definitely go and see more dubbed films, and maybe even venture to a Polish film or two.

In the future

I really want to be able to communicate confidently in Polish and understand much more so that I can:

  • go to the cinema to see any film I like without needing to prepare first
  • understand everything at my flamenco classes
  • volunteer at Guides or Scouts
  • speak to parents and low-level students without an interpreter at school
  • deal with life admin without needing an interpreter
  • socialise more easily with monolingual Poles
  • and generally have as independent a life as possible here.

To do this, I’m planning to continue with everything I’ve described above, time permitting. I have CDs of the next two Harry Potter audiobooks which I found very cheaply in a second-hand DVD store, so that’ll keep me going for a while.

I’m also hoping that we’ll have higher-level Polish classes at school from October, which I should be able to join in with. This should give me more opportunities to speak. I have a few Polish friends here, but we almost always speak English, and it’s very hard to change the language of a relationship if you’ve started in a different one. I’m hoping to get a few more friends and to start the relationship in Polish if I can 🙂

I will inevitably come back to the blog at a later date to reflect on my further Polish learning, so watch this space to find out how it goes.

Future Learn Italian course – week 3

This is a continuation of my reflection notes made while doing the Future Learn Beginner’s Italian course. You can also read about weeks 1 and 2.

One of the benefits of doing the Future Learn course in the correct weeks is that you benefit from the moderators being online. It’s possible to sign up for a course and complete it whenever you like, but during the set period of the course (in this case six weeks), various moderators are available to respond to questions in the discussion thread, normally within 24 hours. Last week I posted a comment to ask about online dictionaries, and was referred to a list by one of the moderators which included both translation and monolingual online dictionaries. I was impressed at how quickly I got a response. This was useful, though in future it might be more beneficial to have a page on the course where you can go to for extra resources like this, as I would never had found it without the moderator. Moderators would then be able to refer participants to it if they can’t find it themselves.

Another advantage of studying the course in the specified time is the ability to use the tips sent out in the summary email at the end of each week. These are pulled together based on comments and questions from the discussion threads. At the end of week 2, this included a response to user requests which I was very pleased to see:

To help you to practise listening comprehension, a downloadable audio version the dialogues will available from next week.

Perhaps the dictionary links could also have been included here?

Week 3

The video story is working well for me. I’m enjoying learning more about the characters, and am quite pleased that they don’t seem to be going down the line I’ve seen before in this kind of video of boy meets girl, lots of slightly strained sexual tension, then they fall in love at the end of the story. Instead, Mike and Anna both have partners (Sarah and Leonardo) who they tell each other about in the first video for this week, introducing descriptive language. As mentioned previously, I also like the fact that the videos are at normal speed, but you have lots of options to help you: no, English or Italian subtitles; watching at half speed, downloading the transcript, and from this week, downloading the audio.

Generally, the videos are very well produced, both for the story and the language introductions.

As in previous weeks, the ‘Try it yourself communication’ activity again relies on you being able to use the four or five phrases they’ve introduced so far, or going off and finding your own phrases/using what you know already. These are examples of what has been introduced: https://quizlet.com/132508088/focus-on-communication-7-flash-cards/ If they don’t have long, black hair or aren’t tall or thin, there aren’t many people you can describe 🙂 I know they’re trying to separate the functional language and the vocabulary sections, but I don’t really feel like commenting because I don’t know what to say. I feel like a more specific prompt would be useful. This is the task at the moment:

Do you have any questions about how to describe people and things? Are you unsure about something? Share your comments and questions in the discussion below. Don’t hesitate to help other learners if you know the answer, or to share links to helpful resources.

I clicked ‘mark as complete’ without adding anything.

The vocabulary introduction is the next stage. To me, it would make sense to flip these two steps in the course. There is an extra practice activity though you have to do a bit of guesswork – are her eyes green or light? Is her hair short and black, curly and black, short and curly?

Noun and adjective agreement video: refers back to previous grammar units very clearly, so it’d be easy to find them again if you wanted to. Slight confused by this random question at the end of the grammar quiz, which doesn’t appear to practise noun and adjective agreement, and must have slipped past whoever was checking the course!

Mike e Leonardo sono _____. gentile/studenti

The ‘Exploring Italian’ section throws out a whole load of new language again, and does nothing with it apart from showing us a couple of example sentences. The phrases include: “stare insieme con (to date someone)” and “essere fidanzat-o/a/i con (to be engaged to)” Questions in the comments section reflect this: can we have the audio or hear the pronunciation? Speculation on the grammatical forms… On the plus side, the examples mostly use the characters from the video, so at least the context is maintained. [In the end of week email, the moderators said that audio files will be available for these sections from next week. Great to see how they respond to the comments.]

Italian sounds: vowels. Aha, it turns out they can easily put in sound files, as there is one to accompany each of the words used to introduce the vowel sounds. I feel like this would be a more useful way of introducing the vocabulary, or at least they could have a vocabulary list with the audio to accompany the videos so you can listen repeatedly to particular words you want to practise with ease. Lots of comments in this case to show that the differences between /e/, /ε/ and /o/, /ɔ/ haven’t been made clear. It’s OK for me because I understand the phonetics, have lots of practise differentiating sounds, and the example words they’re using to equate the sounds are from English, my mother tongue, but a lot of the course participants will have trouble distinguishing these pairs as they are so similar. A little more explanation would be useful, or indeed, a video showing you the physical differences between the sounds, rather than just an audio file!

The directions video goes nicely with where I’m up to on the Memrise Learn Basic Italian course: level 5 is called ‘Here, there and everywhere‘ and covers directions too (and, randomly, numbers and times!) The first question in the comprehension quiz asks you where Mike wants directions to. The answer was given in the introduction to this video, when the phrase ‘post office’ is pre-taught. This is an example of the importance of choosing which language to pre-teach carefully and/or ensuring that comprehension questions actually require you to comprehend the materials! The use of a map in the video with Mike and a stranger is also reflective of my experience as a tourist. I’m enjoying seeing clips of Sienna, and like the fact that it’s not just in the sunshine! Mike feels like a real person in a real city with (fairly) real reasons for needing to speak Italian.

I like the fact that the ‘focus on communication’ video begins by the teacher acknowledging that although we often use GPS nowadays, it’s still useful to be able to ask for directions. The communication quizzes generally test passive recognition of collocations, which I think is fairly useful. There was another quiz on Learning Apps to help us, this time matching the two halves of sentences. It’s good to explore this app, which I learnt about last week. Lots of people have been motivated to post in the comments, mostly writing short conversations with directions in them. These add extra reading practice. There is also peer support when people have questions about the language, for example what ‘vicino’ means, which was mentioned in the video, but never explicitly taught. I learnt it from memrise yesterday! (They teach it in the next video)

More vocab for directions in a video (the previous video was focussed on communication, or what I would class as functional language). It’s noticeable that the previous three or four stages have had about 200-300 comments, but this stage has nearly 1000. This is the difference when there is a clear task to complete. I’m not sure if this would be possible, but perhaps the interface could be adapted so that you can post your comment, then read the others. At the moment, you have to view all of the comments to see the box to post your own, so often it’s difficult not to look at other people’s answers before you write yours. There are so many different ways that people have chosen to give directions to Mike to help him find Anna – a genuinely engaging and motivating productive task, probably the first one on the course so far!

It’s now two days into week 4 and I haven’t finished week 3 yet, and didn’t have time to do any over the last three days since the last things I wrote…

Because I know I won’t have time to catch up next weekend either, and want to finish the whole thing before I get to Milan, I’m tempted to rush (though not enough to stop writing this!) Instead of watching the full video for the conjugations of ‘andare’ and ‘venire’ I listened to enough to hear the pronunciation of the verb forms, then looked at the transcript. This was probably more useful than watching the video more times as I spent time thinking about and trying to memorise the verb forms, instead of just listening to the next thing the teacher said. I’d like to be able to see the forms and listen to them individually, as I’ve said before about the vocab. Managed to get most of the quiz right, but have trouble with tu/lui/lei endings because of Spanish – I feel like there should be an -s for tu!

Introduction to consonants – good that there are Italian example words which you can listen to as many times as you like. However, I don’t really like the fact that there are English example words because these can be misleading. For example /p/is aspirated in the British English ‘pit’, but not in the Italian ‘papà’, at least that I can hear.

Discussion point task at this point:

Write a description of you or someone that you know in the comments. You may include:

  • Hair colour
  • Eye colour
  • Height
  • Etc.

For example: Mia moglie è bionda, ha gli occhi marroni, non è molto alta, ma è molto carina e simpatica!

I have no idea! I can’t really remember any of these words and initially thought we hadn’t even studied them, then looked back up this post and realised they were at the beginning of this section. Directions in the middle confused me – seems like a very random order! Having looked back, this was my contribution, which required quite a lot of effort to produce:

Mia mama ha capelli longhi. Non ha capelli neri. Lei non è alta, non è piccola.

The final section for the week promises to introduce these things:

You will learn to ask for the time and the related vocabulary. Moreover you’ll also learn the names of public places and the present tense of the verbs ending in –ere and –ire.

This feels like a lot, though it may be the fact that it’s 21:30 as I write this. Not sure I’m mentally in the right place to manage all of this, but I want to try and finish the week!

The video has a few lines of dialogue, then some text messages. I think that’s the first real reading practice we’ve had so far on the course, and it’s an interesting and different way to introduce it, again well-produced too. The subtitles have the times in numbers and in words, which is great. In the comprehension quiz, I have no idea what some of the words in the final question mean ‘Anna incontra Mike oggi pomeriggio:’ but have managed to guess the answer. ‘incontra’ is like ‘encontra’ in Spanish, so I know that means ‘meet’, but I have no idea about the last two words.

How to tell the time: “You have already learned the numbers.” Hmm…not really. I’d recognise them at a push, but I wouldn’t say I’ve learnt them yet. Just started doing them on memrise, which will probably be what helps me to remember them.

There’s a Quizlet quiz to help you practise some of the questions. This is good for recognition, especially the scatter mode, which is the only one I can be bothered to play at this time of night. One of my bugbears in general (not just on this course, but in many online materials) is the disregard for punctuation, especially capital letters. Learners need to see how and where capitals are used correctly, as rules for capitalisation vary and some languages don’t have them at all. There are no capital letters at all in the set at the moment 😦

The second video about time has lots of examples of times, in sentences too. Very clear. It was also good that they clarified that in informal spoken Italian you normal use 1/2/3, but when talking about official things e.g. opening hours or train times, you use the 24-hour clock. The ‘try it yourself’ quiz tests whether you recognise if times are formal or informal, rather than your understanding of the numbers themselves.

The extra practice quiz involves writing out a time in words, but only accepts one possible answer in each case, which is a bit frustrating when you have something like 20.45 and there were three possible ways to say it in the video. I couldn’t be bothered with this after one question (again, time of day/tiredness).

The next grammar video introduces new conjugations for verbs ending in -ere and -ire, comparing them to -are. It’s all in a clear table on the slide, so you can see that many of the forms are the same across all three conjugations, reducing the processing load needed to retain the information. “Don’t worry if it seems difficult. It will become familiar very quickly.” – I like these supportive messages 🙂

The grammar test always puts the options in the ‘correct’ order (I, you, he/she/it etc), so if you can understand the question, you don’t necessarily need to remember the verb form very confidently, just the order. Having said that, it’s helping me to remember that -i is a second person ending, not third person (Spanish again), because I keep seeing it in the same position in the list.

The last set of consonants are introduced to round of the unit. These ones are different to English, or have no equivalent. If they have no equivalent, there is an example from Spanish, though I’m not sure these match up, at least to my South American experience. I guess many people may know those sounds, but otherwise it seems odd. I’ve just noticed that all of the phonetic symbols are there too – my eyes had completely skipped over that column with the consonants! Two new symbols in my IPA arsenal now: /ɲ/ for ‘gn’ in ‘gnocchi’, /λ/ for ‘gl+i’ in ‘figli’ and ‘gli+a/e/o/u’ in ‘familia’ etc. The latter sound is equated to ‘ll’ in Spanish ‘llave’ or ‘llamar’ which I don’t think is the same sound.

OK, it’s 22:11 now, and I’m not sure how much of this I’ll actually retain, but I’ve at least seen it. Numbers continue to be a challenge, and I clearly can’t remember the description vocabulary, so should probably revise both of them. I know it’s not going to happen though, because I’m busy and unless it comes up on the course I won’t make the time to do it.

I haven’t downloaded any of the slides or extra resources yet, and just go back to the page I need using the ‘to do’ list if I’m not sure about something. Still feel like I’m learning, but pretty passively. This is mostly my own fault, but I also don’t feel like the course is making me be particularly active at points when I should be able to produce target language. It tests you at various points, but normally before rather than after the fact.

Roll on week four…

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