Normally, when we speak about learning a language, we speak of discipline and efficiency.

Yet, a sense of Freedom and Joy are even more important to insure your success.

It is the same idea as when you are developing a fitness program. Finding a way to WANT to learn the language, and finding ways to make it deeply enjoyable, will help carry you through the months.

The beauty of the internet age for a language learner is that you have almost unlimited options for your studies. Whatever your personality, your schedule, your needs and desires, you can easily find countless materials to help you.

There is so much variety, that you never have to feel stuck or struggling.

Always remember that you are learning this language as a free and autonomous individual. The language exists to serve you, not the other way around.

Look for tools, materials, videos, podcasts, movies etc. This approach to learning will bring you joy. This joy will carry you through better than any guilt or sense of obligation.

Learning a new language is a lot of fun. As you explore, it is like discovering a new city in an exotic country. Things are different, but they have their own logic. There are many sights to see and many adventures to be had.

Therefore, as you begin or continue your journey in a new language, remember your freedom and joy. They are your greatest allies.

The most vital step in communication is understanding what someone else is saying to you.

The following questions approach how to foster this understanding.

  • How can you develop your comprehension of your new language?
  • What are the best activities to achieve this?
  • What tools and materials can you use?
  • What kind of program will most efficiently support this?
  • How can you keep this enjoyable and exciting?

 

Keep your ability to understand a language separate from your ability to speak it. They are not the same and they require different types of skills. Keep them compartmentalized. Understanding what is happening in a football game is not the same as being able to play in one.

 

Address the challenge of understanding first. The more you understand, the more comfortable you will be when you attempt to communicate. If you don’t understand, there will be zero possibility of communication.

 

HOW DO YOU DEVELOP YOUR UNDERSTANDING?

You develop it through listening, reading and watching.

What allows you to understand when you read or listen?

VOCABULARY

The more words you know, the more you will be able to understand.

I see a ??? on the road.

I see a moose on the ???

I see a moose on the road.

(We will deal with memorization tools in a coming post.)

GRAMMAR

Knowing grammar makes your understanding much more accurate:

I eat an apple…I ate apples…… I will not eat an apple…I could eat an apple…I wanted to eat apple pie…you can’t eat an apple.

(Also a coming post)

 

A WIDE ARRAY OF MATERIALS

Have a wide array of materials available. Make sure they are enjoyable and attractive to you. Usefulness is in the eye and ear of the beholder/listener.

  1. Reading materials:

The key is always to find reading materials which are enjoyable to you and level appropriate

  • Books
  • Children’s books
  • Young adult books
  • Comic books and anime
  • Readers: books with edited stories and vocabulary notes (Used in intermediate college courses)
  • Websites (that appeal to you)
  • Blogs (that interest you)
  • Close-captions in movies. (In the foreign language)
  • Podcast transcripts

 

  1. Listening materials

Again, the key is always to find reading materials which are enjoyable to you and level appropriate

  • Podcasts
  • Radio
  • Books-on-tape

 

  1. Audio-visual materials

Doable and fun

  • Movies
  • Videos
  • Television programs
  • News programs
  • Variety shows
  • Talk shows

Once you have a variety of possible things to read, watch and listen to, begin to explore. Read or listen to each for a few minutes to see what works for you. The only rule is to find things which you are motivated to work with and learn from. If you don’t like it, throw it away. There are no “shoulds” here

 

Have fun and go on an exploration trip to find these materials. You are not committed to anything. You will keep the wheat and throw away the chaff.

 

In future posts we will talk about efficient and fun ways of developing grammar skills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(This is the first in a series of posts meant to help you organize your own learning program)

 

WHAT IS THE PERFECT LANGUAGE ROUTINE?

The one that works for you through time.

How long, how often and what you do will vary from person to person and from time to time.

THE LANGUAGE DIET

You can think of a language program as a healthful diet which provides you with all the nutrients you need. What are the essential language foods which you must eat on a routine basis?

 

There are three essential elements (three main food groups):

  1. Input

Information you read, listen to or watch.

  1. Output

Your speaking and writing practice

  1. Memorization

Systems to help you remember information efficiently

 

Here are many of the types of activities which you can use to make sure you are consistently covering all three bases. (We will cover each of these activities in future posts.)

1    Reading

Books, magazines, websites, newspapers, articles, readers

2    Listening

Recordings, podcasts, radio, native speakers you meet

3   Memorizing systems

4   Watching and listening  (natural language)

programs, movies and videos

5   Speaking practice

6  Writing practice

7.  Language workbooks

8   Vocabulary development

9   Grammar development

10  Programs like www.duolingo.com

11  Programs like www.yabla.com

12  Studying language books

13  Studying recording programs

14 A skilled teacher can help you with each of the three areas

In the next post we will cover the activities related to input.

 

 

CONVERSATION TRAINING (PART 2)

THE EXERCISES

In this second part, I am giving you a sequence of exercises to practice conversation.

  1. BECOME FAMILIAR WITH THE MATERIAL
  2. Your first task is to get very familiar with the material on a sheet you want to practice with. Read it, get comfortable with the pronunciation, the meaning and the grammar of all the words or phrases.
  3. Write sentences, if you like
  4. Practice making sentences with the material open in front of you. Make sure you feel competent doing this. E.g. I work at home with my friends in the morning. I live in a house in Arizona.
  5. Think of this as practicing a dance, a sport or a song.
  6. Take your time. Speed is not relevant when you are first training. (It will come later.)
  7. At this point you are reading fragments to create meaningful sentences.

 

  1. TRAIN YOUR SHORT-TERM MEMORY
  2. Read and select the fragments you want: eg (I work) (in my house) (in the afternoon)
  3. LOOK AWAY FROM THE PAGE! Speak the sentence naturally and clearly from memory.
  4. Do so maintaining the logical units. (I live) (with my Mom) (in the country). Not I……. live……. With… my….Mom……. in the……. Coun…..try
  5. If you did not remember the words: look again
  6. If you did not like your performance, say the sentence again.
  7. Practice this way until it becomes fairly easy for you.

 

  1. CREATE SENTENCES WITH A PROMPT
  2. Cover all but the column containing the verbs.
  3. Pick one verb (randomly or in order)
  4. Generate 3 to 5 random sentences with this verb.
  5. It’s ok to be repetitive. You are training, not solving the world’s problems.
  6. Generate 10, 20 or more sentences this way.
  7. Stay focused relaxed and keep moving. (No analysis)

 

  1. CREATE FREE-FORM SENTENCES

When you are confident you remember many or most of the words, start practicing without notes. (Keep the sheet handy in case you need it.)

You can practice directly in the new language or your can translate your own sentences.

 

SAMPLE PRACTICE SHEET

I want to eat                         je veux manger                   Quiero comer

I must work                          je dois travailler                  Tengo que trabajar

I can leave                            je peux partir                        Puedo salir

Sleep                                    dormir                                   dormir

Sing                                      chanter                                 cantar

Drive                                     conduire                                manejar

Cook                                     faire la cuisine                        cocinar

Read                                     lire                                         leer

Play                                      jouer                                      jugar

 

Just using this sheet you can generate many simple sentences. If you add words like “because”, “therefore”, “but”, “and”, “in the morning”, etc.” you can make up little stories.

 

Remember that you are NOT trying to be relevant or incredibly smart: you are making routine sentences every day. You are becoming comfortable speaking.

In the third part we will talk about setting up your practice.

CONVERSATION TRAINING (PART 1)

If you want to feel more confident and skilled in your new language, use the following exercises.

Becoming good in a language simply means that you use it a lot. The more you use it, the more familiar and comfortable it becomes to you.

Many people learn vocab and grammar, but they never practice putting the whole thing together.

Practice with very simple words and structures. This is like practicing your forehand, backhand and serve in tennis. Repetition helps. It makes you feel confident and prepared.

 

THE BASIC EXERCISE

 

  1. Create 10 to 25 random simple sentences 3 to 5 times a day. Do so for a month. (Keep going after that if you want.)

– Short, easy, mundane sentences are perfect:

i.e. I want to sleep in my house!!

I eat avocados with my cat.

Etc.

  • You are creating a habit of generating clean, clear sentences.
  • Do the best you can and ignore any mistakes you might have made.
  • You can jot a quick note for yourself to investigate AFTER the session is over.
  • Start and do all your sentences without stopping. It should only take a few minutes. No complications. No analysis. No self-critique. Get it done.

 

  1. Focus on good pronunciation. (Always.)
  2. To the best if your ability, do not use written materials while making sentences.
  3. If you need to, you can look at the sheet – if you feel stuck. Then turn it over before you make the following sentence. This an oral exercise.
  4. Above all: stay comfortable and relaxed.
  5. Speak slowly and clearly
  6. Use logical units. (In the morning) pause (I brush my teeth) pause (Then) pause (I drink coffee) pause (in my room). Short groups of words which naturally go together.

 

In the next part, I will explain how to use your existing materials to do this conversation practice.

 

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French is a wonderful language to know. It has fewer native speakers than Mandarin or English, but it its presence is widespread throughout the world. In Europe, Africa, Asia and Canada, knowing French will allow you to communicate in many places.

French is of course a language connected to a lot of culture, art, music, cinema, high fashion, gastronomy etc.. It opens access to wonderful opportunities. France – especially Paris – is the most visited place in the world.

So now that you have made French your new language of choice, what are some things to know about learning it?

First of all the great news:

French is a cousin of English. Even though English is a Germanic language, it has been massively influenced by French vocabulary and even grammar. 29% of English words come directly from French and another 29% come from Latin – sometimes through French, sometimes not. (French, of course, is a direct descendant of Latin.) This means that 58% of words we use in English are the same or similar in French. This is an enormous advantage. (Try learning Mandarin or Hindi and see the difference!)

Even English grammar has been influenced by its French counterpart. Word order, plurals and other aspects are again close relatives. You will find a completely different picture if you learn German or Hindi. Word order, logic, and vocabulary will at first seem quite alien.

Like English, French has no declensions (see who, whom and whose). Russian, German and Arabic do and this makes learning them more of a challenge.

These 2 things – friendly vocab and grammar – will allow you to progress much faster.

What are the challenges when you learn French?

1. Spelling

French spelling is a bastardized and corrupted version of Latin. It often does not make sense to an English speaker. This is one of the first challenge you will encounter. Unlike with Spanish, what you see is not what you get.

The good news with French spelling is that it is consistent. Once you have leaned that eau is pronounced Oh (as in beau), you can count on it always being the case. English spellings on the other hand are notoriously inconsistent.

2. Pronunciation

English is a kind of German containing 60% of French words. But the two languages are not pronounced similarly at all. When it comes to sound, English is very Germanic. French on the other hand is Latin which has evolved through the mouths of its Celtic inhabitants and Germanic invaders. So the logic of pronunciation is quite different.

French contains several sounds which do not exist in English. This can become a challenge. You will really need to listen to a lot of French to become acquainted with these new sounds.

3. Gender (masculine-feminine)

As the French say: “Vive la difference”.  All nouns in French are either masculine or feminine.This gender is based on the the origin of the word and its ending, not on sexual logic. This usually annoys English speakers. “Why,” do they say “is table feminine and  wall masculine. It makes no sense!”

It makes sense, but only if you understand word derivation and endings. Gender can be learned but is is a bit of a work until you get used to it.

Those really are the greatest advantages and challenges when one is learning French. Its beautiful sounds and wonderful culture make it worth it in the end. Definitely one of the easier languages to learn for a native English speaker.

 

Effective language learning follows certain principles. At the most basic level, you must make sure that your input and your output are balanced. Input refers to how much of the new language you listen to and read on a daily basis. Output is the way you train yourself to speak.

Input in your language program.

The two most important things you can do here are to listen to the new language intensively, and to read as much of it as possible.  Yes, it is useful to study basic grammar and vocab, but it must be reinforced by a lot of listening and reading. There are so many rules of syntax and so many special cases and exceptions, that unless you are massively exposed to them, they will never sink into your long term memory and automatic recognition. Nowadays there are many (free or very inexpensive) foreign language podcasts available on the internet. If you choose them well, they will be your primary tool to develop your capacity to hear/read and understand a new language.

Output in the language program.

Before you start to speak in a language, you need to feel reasonably comfortable with your pronunciation. You don’t need to be perfect but you want to feel confident and competent.

Once you can read and sound the language comfortably, and once you have read/heard a fair bit of it (input), it is time to try your hand, or rather your tongue at making sentences.  It is always useful to learn basic greetings and daily life utterances. It is a good place to start. Then, as you learn different points of grammar and particularly verb tenses, you can begin by translating the examples back into the new language. This is a great way of testing whether you actually have learned the new patterns. Then try you hand at making little conversations. For example, once you have learned the past tense, see whether you can describe an enjoyable vacation you took in the past, or an interesting life event. Verbs will normally control your ability to speak a language.

This is just a brief introduction, but make sure that you cover both bases: listening/reading and speaking practice. Whatever method you use they will have to be balanced. Good luck on your learning journey.

 

 

 

Should you learn Chinese characters? Yes! Absolutely. Is it challenging? Yes. Is it time-consuming? Yes. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely and completely. Can’t you learn Mandarin using Pinyin (the roman alphabet transcription)? Yes you can, up to a point. You can definitely learn a lot of the basics in grammar and vocabulary. You can absolutely learn the pronunciation of the sounds and of the tones of the language. Pinyin is an amazing and indispensable tool which will save you much time and frustration.  Could you learn enough Chinese to be able to function in a professional or social situation. Yes. Again, up to a point.

So why learn the characters? There are 2 primary reasons.

1. It will make learning vocabulary 100 times easier.

2. It will allow you to penetrate the language in depth.

Pinyin is fantastic but it only allows you to skate on the surface of the language. It never allows you to understand how  Chinese  is put together.

1. Learning vocab: many if not most of Chinese words (in the spoken language) are made up of two characters.  For example the word for intuition is made up of the character for straight and the character for feeling. When you know the characters it becomes trivial to learn this new word. Intuition is simply a way to understand something straight, directly, by using your feelings. Learning Chinese when you know characters becomes a simple additive task. You keep building on what you already know.

On the other hand, if you only know pinyin you can become overwhelmed by the quantity of words that look and sound exactly the same. Here are 2 random examples showing this problem.  There are 44 separate characters pronounced luo. There are 94 pronounced zhi. Some have the same tone and some don’t. But it becomes very challenging to remember or to identify a new word when it has 93 possible homonyms. On the other hand if you know the character, the word has a place, a context and a point of reference.  It becomes very easy to associate and remember. I’m really good at memorizing vocab (having done it in 11 languages since I was 9 years old),  but I had a tough time expanding my vocabulary in Chinese until I learned the characters. They just didn’t stick because there were too many words that were exactly alike.  (“Which zhi is that again? And there was no way to make clever associations to remember the words. What are you going to associate with #56 zhi?

2. Understanding the language in depth.

Learning the characters allows you to understand how the Chinese language operates and how its speakers think.  Here are a few examples: To forget is made up of the components for perish and the one for heart.  To consider: brain and heart.  So by understanding the characters and their components, you get a living lesson of how the concepts were put together as the language evolved. You “get” it. There is no way to do this just using pinyin.

When you hear Mandarin speakers communicating, they are always relating a word or a concept to another one. How do they do this? By referring to characters of course!

So if you are serious about learning Chinese, roll up your sleeves and learn the characters. Not 50 or 300! Learn what Chinese children learn:  3,00, 3500 will do the job. There are amazing methods (see my other post on Chinese characters) that will help you do this in a systematic and enjoyable way. Learning the characters is like boot camp. You need it.  So you just go crazy and you do it. Once and for all. Then you enjoy the rest of your life.

We tend to hypnotize ourselves into thinking learning characters is impossibly difficult. That is an illusion. It can be done. It can be done fast. It will absolutely transform your experience of Mandarin.

The flower of learningPassion, in any area of our life, improves our performance and insures that our motivation remains high. Learning a language is not an instantaneous process. Many advertisers tell you you can learn Chinese or French in a month, 10 days or  even 3 days. This is of course unrealistic (I mean absurd).  It takes time and application to develop fluency in any language: ask any baby.  It is possible to learn smatterings of shopping language or travel  language in a few hours. And it is fun to do so.  But it is a very limited kind of knowledge. Most of us want more: to be able to communicate on a deeper level.

So what sustains us in the months it actually takes to learn a language? Passion and enjoyment. Learning a language is like  a relationship.  You spend as much time with it as you can. You listen to it talk to you. You talk “to it”. You make plans for it. You work to understand how it operates.  As we all know, passion is definitely  one of the elements that sustains a relationship. It really makes it much easier.

So! Make sure you are passionate about some aspect of the language you are learning. You can be passionate about your goal. You really want to know this language; and this sustains you through the weeks. You can be passionate about the culture and want to understand it better. Nothing allows you to connect with a culture as learning its language will.  You can be in love with this language itself: its sounds, its grammar, its script. This makes it easiest to keep going. You can be passionate about an individual whose native tongue is the language you are learning. That also makes it very easy.  You can have a great need to know this language for career reasons.  That need will make you passionate too.

So rev up your passion. Keep reminding yourself of the payoff, write down your goals and post them even. Imagine what it will be like when you are fluent, when people compliment you, when you make new friendships. Talk to people who have learned it and find out how they did, what advice they have.

Whatever the type of motivation you experience, you also want to do two other things.

1. Make sure you understand how to learn a language, and this one specifically. Get”maps” for your journey. Be realistic about what has to happen. Explore learning materials and learning options.

2. Make sure you use a learning path which you deeply enjoy, which suits your personality and learning style, and which rewards you for learning.  Boredom is never a plus.

Success is an internal experience, measured only by you. The more you know what you are doing, the more you enjoy yourself and the more passionate you are about the language, the easier it will be for you to sustain yourself on the path of learning.