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Archive for the ‘My language learning’ Category


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
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: 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…

FutureLearn Italian course – weeks 1 and 2

I’m in the process of completing the FutureLearn beginner’s Italian course, which is free to participate in, although you need to pay if you want to get a certificate of completion.

While I’m doing the course, I’m hoping to write notes on my responses to the activities from a teaching perspective. Week 1’s are a few general thoughts on the course, and from week 2 onwards they’re quite in-depth reflections on how each activity is set up, my responses to them and what I feel I have learnt/could learn from them. Not sure how useful they are to anyone other than the course creators (or even to them?!) but since I’ve written it, I thought I’d share… 🙂

Very happy that due to a couple of weekends with no other plans and a national holiday, I’m on track with the course (it’s halfway through week 2 on the timeline at the moment). I’m mostly watching the videos in between doing other things, like my physio in the morning or the washing up in the evening, so it fits nicely around life. Not sure if that will continue, but I hope so, since week six is timed perfectly to end on the day that I fly to Milan for my first ever trip to Italy 🙂

Week 1

Videos at normal speed – options for half-speed, subtitles in English/Italian, can watch as much as you like. Pre-teaching some vocab and set up context beforehand – all positive points and help the learner get supported exposure to ‘normal’ Italian. Comprehension task is more of a memory test – can you remember which city she said?

Multiple-choice questions can sometimes be guessed without having looked at the content, but better on this course than on the dyslexia one, where you really didn’t need to read the content to answer them! (By the way, I’m half-way through the dyslexia course and will write about that when I’ve finished it…currently looking like that will be at some point in August)

Jobs – spelling test. Useful! Interesting activity design.

Spelling Italian vocabulary

Scaffolded nicely through the week. Could be useful to have the vocabulary in some kind of clickable form so you can just listen to the words you want to, not all of them (they’ve done this a little with some Quizlet grammar quizzes, but not with the vocab) All slides are downloadable for review, but would be more useful with the sound too

Grammar videos, e.g. intro to regular -are verbs and fare is clear, and he says that it’s normal to make mistakes at the beginning – supportive message. Would be useful to have more time to repeat the phrases after each one, and perhaps a ‘can you remember’ type activity within the video to aid memorisation, though I know it makes videos longer than current 4 minutes.

Week 2

Clear task before you watch video: “Watch the conversation between Mike, Anna and Lisa. Who is oldest? Who is youngest?” Advice to switch off subtitles, or use Italian only – little bits of learner training are useful.

Focus on communcation (ages) – one brief question and answer, then a little test – good way to introduce functional language.

Numbers and age (vocab) – all of the numbers, plus six phrases connected to stages of life (e.g. baby, teen, middle aged) in about 5 minutes. Woah! First time I’ve struggled to keep up (thanks to French/Spanish) – information overload. Receptively (the numbers he asked at the end and the multiple choice – can guess from three options), not too difficult because of other languages. Productively, no time to repeat, though you can watch the video again as many times as you want to and download the slides – lack of opportunity to drill yourself repeatedly on one word. Perhaps better to break into separate videos (0-10, 11-20, 21-100, ages), with some practice between each. A Quizlet set would also be very useful at this point (there have been a few scattered through the course so far, mostly for conjugations)

Grammar – conjugation of ‘avere’ (to have) – practise it alone, then combining it with ‘essere’ (to be) – good to see some revision. Comments on the quiz remind you of which forms you’re using once you’ve answered, though that only helps if you know grammar terms like ‘second person singular’ All quizzes have short sentences – good that it’s not just matching person to conjugation, but giving you a tiny bit of context.

Exploring Italian gives you some useful extra phrases for conversations from the original dialogues, e.g. ‘Veramente?’ ‘Really?’ – not accompanied by audio or any practice at all though. For example, maybe you could watch the original video again at this point to hear them being used in context. Or a little gapfill? Feels like this is extremely useful language that isn’t really being taught

Personal details comprehension questions are pretty impossible – the address one is OK, but you need to memorise an entire phone number, then answer a question using the word ‘indirizzo’, which hasn’t been introduced previously. ‘Mike ha un indirizzo di posta elettronica.’ – I interpreted this as ‘Mike doesn’t like email.’ (!), not Mike has an email address. Again, comprehension questions should be at same time as video, not a memory test.

Introducing formal/informal in a clear, easy way – the clips from the videos are great because they put all of the functional language into clear contexts and add a bit more language around them.

Culturally the difference between via/viale/strada is interesting, and sets you up for the quiz afterwards where you have to decide whether a word is connected to an address, email or telephone number, but that’s a minute that would perhaps be better spent elsewhere.

Lots of grammar terminology being thrown at you in the grammar videos at this point, without necessarily checking/glossing e.g. singular/plural, definite article. Should become clear as you work through the video, but a brief definition/comparison to English the first time it’s introduced might help e.g. ‘singular, when you have one, or plural, when you have many’ (see later…)

Discussion point 2/3 of the way through week two asks you to describe your family. There’s an example, but it’s before you’ve been introduced to any of the family vocab (which is the last third of this week’s course), so it relies on you understanding the example, making guesses, and using what other people have written. I guess it’s test-teach-test, but could be off-putting. Why not get us to do this after we’ve been introduced to the vocab? On the plus side – lots of reading practice in the comments. 859 things for me to read if I so choose 🙂 Comments demonstrate that a lot of the people doing the course have some level of Italian already, as they’re adding lots of things which haven’t been introduced. Fairly normal for a beginner’s course in any of the big languages, but could be off-putting for someone who is genuinely a complete beginner.

Good to see a Quizlet set after the communication video to help you practise some of the family vocab (family, sister, father, mother), along with some of the other things which have come up – extra jobs, one or two numbers. Would be good to have other key family words in there (brother, child, son, daughter, husband, wife) rather than using ‘sister’ so many times, though all sentences seem to be taken from the video – good for context. There’s one English mistake in there ‘How is your family?’ rather than ‘What is your family like?’

Family vocabulary video is good because finally the words are introduced twice over with time for you to repeat them, once in the context of Marco’s family tree, then repeated again. At the end, they ask you to find some words yourself (cousin, grandchild, uncle) ‘using the family tree and a dictionary’. It would be useful if they recommended an online dictionary to use, as for learners with no experience, they will probably just go to Google Translate. Actually, that’s what I did too. From that, I don’t know if ‘cugino’ is the same for masculine and feminine – there’s no information to support the learner as there might be in a learner’s dictionary.

For practice, there’s a link to a crossword. Would be useful to see more of this kind of thing throughout the course as an option to go further. This really tested whether I’d taken it in, and made me go back and look at the words again, something I haven’t really been motivated to do at any other point in the course so far. The only other repetition I’ve done is to watch each video in Italian twice, and to watch the numbers one twice. I didn’t bother to do any more practice with them, as I know I can recognise them, but I’m also very aware that I can’t produce many of them at all. I learnt about a new app in the process which looks brilliant – lots of options for creating interactive activities.

Definite article video is much more scaffolded than previous grammar videos, with an explanation of what that terminology means and when you use the definite article. Grammar quizzes separate the singular and plural articles, and as with all the grammar quizzes, if you get it wrong, there’s a comment underneath to help you self-correct. Might be useful to add one more quiz pulling them together and making you choose between singular or plural. I know that adds time to the week, but the two 10-question quizzes could be reduced slightly to balance it.

Summary of the week video seems a bit pointless to me (but then I’ve never been a fan of that kind of thing!) I just clicked on the transcript as it’s faster to skim. To me it would make much more sense to have the discussion task where you share family info at this point in the week, after you’ve studied it, so you can actually put it into practice.

General feelings about week 2: useful language has been introduced, but there’s a lot of it, and not much opportunity to practise. Receptively, I feel like I know more; productively, I’m not so sure, especially the numbers, and the family words which are more different to English.

Thai Day 5

I’ve almost collected the set of teachers at Baan Aksorn 🙂 with a third new one today. It was a completely different lesson, and much more like how I approached learning Russian. This was mostly because I knew I only had three hours left, and therefore wanted to collect as much knowledge and language as possible to help me with my own self-study later.

We started with a list of things I thought it would be useful for me to understand/say which hadn’t come up in previous lessons, such as:

  • What’s your name? My name is…
  • Where are you from? I’m from…
  • What do you do? I’m an English teacher. I’m a teacher trainer.
  • How old are you?
  • I don’t know.
  • I don’t understand.
  • I can’t remember.
  • And you?
  • Can I sit here?
  • How to respond when somebody says ‘thank you’

I also asked about how to talk about the past and future because I know it only needs a couple of words in Thai. I’m not sure how many conversations I’ll end up having where I have to describe actions, but at least this gives me the option to do so.

When I asked about morning/afternoon/evening, I discovered that Thai divides the day into a lot more parts than English. We also looked at days of the week and how to say ‘last/next week/month/year’.

We talked a bit about family and showed each other some pictures. At this and various other points in the lesson the conversation was a mix of English and Thai, with my teacher sharing bits of information about herself and her family in Thai that I could understand, glossing any new words she used. This was great as it felt very personal, and gave me a good reason to concentrate because I was learning more about the person sitting in front of me, rather than thinking in the abstract. I could also try to edit and repeat some of the phrases to talk about my life.

When we’d run out of my questions, there were 40 minutes left. I decided the best thing to do would be to flick through the speaking textbook I had, with my teacher giving me a lightning quick guide to any new language that came up on the page which wasn’t immediately obvious. Thankfully my teacher was happy to do this. Because I have the CD I can go back and listen to the pronunciation myself later, learn the vocabulary, and do some of the controlled practice exercises, so we focussed on grammar and structures. In this way we covered:

  • Where is…? Which one…? Where do you…?
  • What is he/she like?
  • Who? Whose? With who?
  • and, with, also, but
  • Possessives
  • Suggestions
  • How long have you been here?
  • Comparatives
  • Happy birthday! It’s my birthday.
  • What’s this? What’s that? How do you say _____ in Thai?
  • Why…? Because…
  • Tag questions of the ‘…, right?’ variety
  • Basic conditionals for facts and advice. (If this, then this./If this, you should…)

There was no practice, and I remember hardly any of it, but that was exactly what I needed from my teacher. I’ve got plenty of time to practice it myself later, and I wanted to make the most of the short amount of time I had with an expert.

My teacher today was a big contrast to the other two teachers, although I’m not sure how much of this was because of the way I wanted the lesson to go. Very early, she told me not to worry too much about tones. I think it’s important to get the right pronunciation from the beginning though, so I’m glad that my first teacher was strict about this, even though it was frustrating at times. All three of my teachers were happy to answer my questions, but this one actually said to me it’s good that I was asking so many questions, and she thinks Thai students should ask more questions too. She checked at one point whether she was speaking too much English because of the explanations, which I was really pleased about, and she tried to tell me things in Thai whenever she thought I could understand. This was great because I sometimes have to fight to get my teacher to avoid English, especially because I can be lazy about it if I’m not forced to speak the language I’m learning. If I’d had lessons for longer, I’d definitely have wanted to rely a lot less on English, but the information cramming I wanted from my last three hours wouldn’t have been possible just in Thai.

Things I know about Thai that I didn’t know this morning

  • When you talk about siblings, whether they’re older or younger is more important than whether they are male or female. In fact, the word for sibling translates literally as ‘older younger’ rather than ‘brother sister’.
  • The word for cat is แมว. Go to Google translate and listen to it 🙂
  • There is a different word for ‘year’ if you are aged 1-12: ‘khuap’, not ‘pii’
  • The Thai day is divided into 8 different sections, varying in length from 1-6 hours.
  • In passing: all of the things listed above!

Reflections on learning languages as a beginner/121

It’s good to have a mix of teachers because each one will prioritise different things for you, although you have to be prepared to be adaptable too.

Having clearly laid out notes from the teacher is incredibly useful as a reference.

The world's neatest notes

The world’s neatest notes, and yes, they are handwritten, not typed!

Flexible teachers are key – being able to respond to your student’s needs and moods is important for their motivation.

Having the teacher share bits of their life with you puts you on an equal footing and relaxes the atmosphere a lot. If they do this in the language you’re learning and you understand, it’s another high! If not, it motivates you to try to understand. This also helps to build rapport.

For every structure, you need an example. Otherwise it’s going to be very difficult to know how to actually use the language once you’ve left the classroom.

The end, for now

I’ve really enjoyed my experience of studying intensively, and of trying to put bits of my Thai into practice in the afternoons. I think I’ve got everything I set out to get at the beginning of the week. While it’s nowhere near the immersion that my students had in Newcastle, it was still valuable to reflect on the difficulties of learning a new, completely different language, which has few connections with any language I speak already. At the same time, it’s interesting to see how some bits of language are fairly universal, and that no matter how distant they may seem, you can still find some common hooks to hang things on (for example Thai and French). It’s made me think a lot about the role of the teacher in the beginner classroom, and having three teachers in such a short space of time has taught me something about how personality can affect the lessons too (in a good way!) The plan now is to take away what I’ve learnt this week and the resources I’ve been given, and continue to develop my Thai over the next three months.

I hope you’ve enjoyed following my journey this week – I’ve certainly got a lot out of it. In case you missed any, here are all of the posts:

Apologies for the bombardment of posts! 😉 Normal service should be resumed next week as I return to Chiang Mai for the next CELTA.

(If you’d like to read about another teacher’s reflections on learning Thai, try these from Peter Clements.)

Thai Day 4

Things feel like they might be clicking, at least a little. Every time I woke up last night I had bits of Thai in my head, and there was some internal monologuing when I was having my breakfast this morning.

I asked to do numbers today as this is the set of vocabulary which I think is most useful on a daily basis. I was familiar with 1-10, but didn’t know the tones, I was getting very frustrated with myself because I was having trouble with falling and rising tones again. My teacher was also frustrated at times from the tone of her voice and the way she said ‘no’ to me. She would tell me which tone it should be, which I normally knew, but I just couldn’t work out where to start the sound or how to get it out of my mouth. I couldn’t ‘hear’ what I was meant to be producing confidently enough for it to come out. As before, copying them is normally fine, but plucking them out of thin air is really difficult. We spent over an hour on the numbers, including a little bit of controlled practice with me saying numbers based on digits in the book. This was a real challenge because of the different way Thai approaches large numbers (see below), plus remembering the word, plus remembering the tones. A lot of processing had to happen here!

We spent 70 minutes on numbers, then moved on to time. This was only 20 minutes, but felt like a whole lot longer! At this stage I discovered that I can produce the falling tone with very little problem when saying เที่ยง /thiang’/ (noon), probably because it has a diphthong (a vowel sound made up of a slide from one vowel sound to another) in the middle of it. Changing tones in a diphthong feels much simpler and more natural than doing it in a monophthong (single vowel sound). Using that as a reference point I was able to produce falling tones in other words much more consistently because I got the sound in my head and could play off it. Now I just need to find a word I can use as a reference for a rising tone. Using the numbers to tell the time also helped me to feel more confident with them, and it felt more useful doing this than producing random numbers large and small (that context thing again).

The last hour was with my second teacher again. We did adjectives, with a break in the middle for some diet-related phrases. I also asked for a sentence structure to go with the vehicles I’d learnt, so now I can say how I travel(led).

I’ve spent the afternoon in Ayutthaya, a town full of temples just north of Bangkok. During the day I’ve had a few opportunities to use my Thai, both actively and passively. I understood numbers I heard over the station tannoy and on an advertising truck that was blasting out over loudspeakers as I walked around Ayutthaya. On the train, I told the people opposite me where I was going and understood some of the vendors as they walked past. I ordered food at a restaurant using my new phrases and was understood, and I understood when the woman passed on my order to the cook, although it then turned out she spoke English anyway! I also said a couple of phrases in Thai to the people at the restaurant as they were trying to get me to book a room – I managed to tell them I’m studying Thai in Bangkok and I go back today. I did a boat trip, and heard the woman organising say the time it would leave to her friend. All of these bits of speaking and understanding were little highs, exactly why I keep studying languages 🙂

Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Ayutthaya

Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Ayutthaya

Things I know about Thai that I didn’t know this morning

  • 1 is หนึ่ง /nung/, but every other time 1 appears in a number (11, 21, 31 etc) it’s อ็ด /et/
  • There are distinct words for 10,000 and 100,000, rather than being multiples of 1,000 as in many European languages. I think this is a feature of many Asian languages.
  • Thai time works in six hour blocks. The most confusing section for me is 7pm-11pm, where the hours are counted 1-5 again.
  • (I think) Conditionals just involve the use of ‘if’ plus a basic sentence structure, which can be as short as a single verb.

Reflections on learning languages as a beginner/121

Numbers take a lot of thought, and we don’t practise them actively anywhere near enough in class.

I’ve thought this for a long time, since even at very high levels of proficiency in some of my languages, I still have to think hard to process numbers. For a beginner, it’s a real struggle.

Having reference words that you’re confident with the pronunciation of can make you feel much more sure about transferring that sound to other words.

Frustration is cyclical. Just because you’ve got it right once, doesn’t mean you’ll get it right the next time you say it. Repetition, repetition, repetition, as long as it’s improving your confidence. If it’s not, drop it, move on, and come back to it, or both the teacher and student will get depressed and frustrated. Something later in the lesson might just be the necessary trigger to solve the problem.

Sometimes my teacher was doing other things in the lesson, like filling in the register or making notes about non-lesson-related things. I know she was listening to me because she could correct me, but it was a bit demotivating, as I felt like I was boring her. I also know I’ve been guilty of doing exactly the same thing as a teacher in the past. I’m not sure how to keep the teacher engaged in the lesson more, since they/I have probably done this hundreds of times before and will again. It’s hardly the most cognitively engaging part of being a teacher to listen to somebody maul very basic bits of your language repeatedly, even though you know that sometimes, just sometimes, they’re capable of producing it correctly.

When I was producing sentences which I was 100% sure I would need to use in real life, I was much more motivated and engaged.

Being able to use some of the language today has made me feel like all the effort this week is worth it.


Here are all of the posts:

Thai Day 3

I was tired today, and it made a huge difference. It took me a while to get into the lesson, and I asked if we could do some writing at some point as I thought it would be more useful for me to consolidate what I know that try to cram in anything new, since I don’t really feel like I know a lot of what we’ve done so far, unless I already had a vague idea of it before starting the lessons. Because of my tiredness, I also noticed the slight impatience in the teacher’s voice at times, making me quieter when I was unsure, and more likely to use a high (questioning) tone than I probably would have been if I’d been more awake – I was very unsure of my pronunciation and was trying to check everything.

My teacher decided reading practice would be more useful for me, so we looked at one group of consonants, called ‘middle class consonants’. First I read them as their letter names – every consonant in Thai comes with an associated word, since some of them have the same pronunciation but different characters. For example, the /s/ sound can be accompanied by the word ‘pavilion’, ‘hermit/saint’ or ‘tiger’ depending on which character is used:

Three 's' sounds

Three ‘s’ sounds

Three of the consonants were then combined with the vowels, which was good revision from Tuesday, especially as it turned out I’d forgotten most of the vowel characters. Finally, they were combined with random vowels, meaning I had to remember tones at that stage too – a middle consonant plus a short vowel uses a low tone, whereas a middle consonant plus a long vowel uses a mid tone. That whole process took an hour.

In the next hour we moved on to the ‘high consonants’, repeating a similar process but with both middle and high consonants appearing in the final reading practice, adding further to the tonal complexity: high consonant + short vowel = low tone; high consonant + long vowel = rising tone. I got particularly frustrated with myself at various points during this process as I found it hard to get the rising tone right. I could repeat it again and again with no problem, but as soon as I had to produce another tone before it, I lost it completely. I also found it unnatural to have two consecutive rising tones, and tended to use a rising tone followed by a falling one. I need to remember to split it up more, and over-emphasise the initial fall to make the rise more dramatic.

I also found it difficult pluck the sounds out of the air when trying to remember vowels and how to combine them with consonants, added to the challenge of trying to remember which character represents which vowel. I kept having to return to the vowels page in my book to remind myself how to produce them. One thing that did help was thinking about the vowels in relation to each other. For example, อ is a more open version of โ. It was also helpful trying to link things back to the phonology of English, particularly when producing some of the ‘words’ during the reading practice. For example: แกะ sounds like ‘get’ without the /t/ sound at the end.

I’d had enough of reading at this point, and the lack of context for the words, many of which probably don’t have any meaning, was getting me down a bit. It was useful for familiarisation with the script though, and I definitely feel more confident with some of the characters than I did before.

I changed teacher at this point as my Tuesday/first half teacher had another class to teach, so I was back to my teacher from yesterday after a break. I asked to revise some of the vocabulary we’d studied, going back over the nouns from yesterday, then experimenting with making more sentences with the words from Monday. That took 30 minutes, and for the last 15 minutes I finally felt up to looking at something new.

One more vocabulary page added 11 more words, mostly extending my transport vocabulary, and then a brief grammar page introduced personal pronouns and possessive adjectives. With about 7 minutes left, there wasn’t time to add the adjectives from the next page, and I thought activation was more important. I tried to make some sentences using the pronouns and possessives, but was feeling uninspired, so asked my teacher to make questions I could answer. Because you use full sentences to answer a question in Thai, this was a good exercise in sentence manipulation, without me having to come up with the ideas myself.

Things I know about Thai that I didn’t know this morning

  • There are different types of consonant: middle class, high class and low class.
  • The types of consonant and whether it is combined with a long or short vowel determines the tone of the vowel.
  • The words for ‘today’, ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’, so I can already discuss the past, present and future, rather than being restricted to the present.
  • The words for ‘tiger’ and ‘top’ (as in clothes) are the same but with different tones, as are the words for ‘sit’ and ‘film’.
  • There are only five/six pronouns in Thai. I knew that ‘I’ is different for males and females (there is a longer and shorter one for females, hence 5/6), but I didn’t realise that the third person pronoun is the same for ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ and ‘they’.
  • The pronouns don’t change when used as possessive adjectives (unlike English with, e.g. ‘she’ and ‘her’).

Reflections on learning languages as a beginner/121

Reading aloud is good for familiarisation with sound-spelling relationships. It’s also a lot of work, and I think it’s of very limited use in classes with more than 2-3 students.

Giving students thinking time when they’re reading aloud is very important, particularly in a different script – they need time to process decipher the characters, process the word, formulate the sounds in their head and mouth, then try to produce it.

Separating out ideas and language during productive stages is vital. It’s hard to marshall ideas while simultaneously trying to work out how to express them. This is the stage when I feel I translate the most – I work out what I want to/can say in English within the bounds of my language ability, then translate it to Thai slowly and laboriously.

It’s far easier to recognise new language than it is to produce it yourself. Answering questions is much easier (and more motivating?) than producing sentences.

When I decided to make a question rather than a sentence, but the teacher answered ‘good’ instead of answering my question, it depressed me a little.

The exercise of producing lots of self-selected sentences is motivating, as I can choose what words I want to add to my vocabulary and control the speed at which I do this.

You need to know your teacher’s name so that it’s easier to ask for help.

Playing with the language makes you feel more relaxed – I enjoyed the last 45 minutes of the lesson more than the first two hours, even though both were useful.

As I said yesterday, I’d still like more opportunities to play, not just with the words but with the way the materials are exploited. Reading things again and again is useful, but is a bit depressing after a while. Some variety in the way it’s taken off the page would be interesting. Maybe the teacher could point at random words for me to repeat, or have flashcards, or write things on the board for me to experiment with. Three hours of looking either at the paper or at my eyelids (I close my eyes a lot when I’m trying to remember things) gets quite same-y.


Here are all of the posts:

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