A few months back I reviewed one of my new favorite language learning mobile applications, HelloTalk. Since, I’ve partnered with them to bring you this post inspired by Lara. All opinions are my own. I hope you enjoy it!
As I’m getting ready to take on my next language, I’ve been thinking a lot about my progress with Mandarin this past year. The difficulties that I had with it were completely different than those that I had when I studied Italian, German, and Croatian.
There were things with Chinese that took me longer to grasp but others that came to me quickly and they had little to do with my past language learning experiences. Mostly because every language is unique and they need to be approached a little bit different.
Despite the differences between languages, there are a few study methods that work across the board that learners can bring with them as they venture on new languages. Methods that, when recycled, make them more efficient as learners.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on what it takes to be a more effective learner, but I wanted to reach out to others studying language, as well as those who develop products aimed at language learners, to open up a discussion about the obstacles they encounter and what they’ve done to overcome them (and if you’re interested in talking with me about this, I’d love to hear from you via email or in the comments below).
In working with HelloTalk, a language exchange app, I took the opportunity to ask Lara for her thoughts on what language learners struggle with and how to overcome it and here was her response:
“Language learners’ [biggest] struggle [is] to keep learning everyday, especially when they face textbooks which are boring and motionless. The best way to keep a regular learning rhythm is to balance the Input and the Output.
Only native speakers [understand] the nuances [of their] language, [and] in which conditions they should use different words. This cannot be learned from textbooks. A partner or someone you can really practice (output) what you’ve memorised and learned (input) with would be an encouragement.”
There are a few things that really stood out to me in her response:
- Motion (or momentum)
- Regular learning rhythm
- Cannot be learnt from textbooks
I didn’t realize it until after I had made the above list, but those three things are all aspects of learning that I constantly promote on my music education site. So why wouldn’t I think about them in the same way for language?
As language learners, we all have different strengths and different aspects of learning that we struggle with (just like musicians). For me, personally, it varies from language to language, but there is one solution that has worked without fail regardless of what I’m struggling with.
That solution is to talk with native speakers on a regular basis.
It’s worked for me hands down every.single.time.
Whether I’m frustrated by my delayed speaking skills or my comprehension has some catching up to do, chatting with native speakers has been the only thing that has gotten me through it and to the next stage.
And now that I’m on my seventh language, there are a few things that I’ve noticed about my progress. Until I actually use the material that I’ve learned several times in a conversation, I haven’t really learnt it. It isn’t ingrained in my memory and it isn’t something I’d be able to spontaneously pull up and use in a conversation unless I’ve been practicing them within that exact context.
The only way I really make the vocabulary and grammar rules my own is by using them in real life. Exercises in a textbook or call-and-response with a podcast are simply not enough.
The same goes for music. It isn’t until I get on stage and try to apply all the things that I’ve practiced that I find out what’s stuck with me and what needs more work.
The change of environment is pretty significant when you really think about it.
So let’s talk about the three things that stood out to me in Lara’s response.
Motion or Momemtum
When you’re studying on your own, working with your preferred resources, whatever that might be, your environment tends to be pretty structured.
There is almost always a next step, a next page or a next audio track and you can move through the material pretty much uninterrupted. There may be a concept or a grammatical aspect that you stumble over, but there really won’t be any surprises. Your progress appears to be seamless.
Chats with native speakers, however, are a completely different ball game. There’s a certain degree of improvisation and guessing that go on (especially at the beginning). It can feel uncomfortable, but it’s a lot closer to the way you’d use a language while out and about, and you won’t get that flexibility from any book or podcast. The only way you’re going to get it is by talking with several different speakers and by getting your conversation practice in.
For example, in Chinese, there are a dozen different ways to ask someone where they’re from. When I first started doing language exchanges, nearly everyone I spoke to asked me differently. I had to learn the same question, albeit worded differently, anew each time I spoke with a new partner. Out of the dozens of resources I had used to learn Chinese prior to that point, only about three of the variations I heard during chats were included. That means my vocabulary improved much more quickly and overall I became significantly better speaker by talking with people than I was while studying on my own.
So how does momentum play into this?
Most resources provide you with a set way of saying different things and they then quiz you on the information that they’ve given you. They are limited in what they can provide you as far as input goes (there are only so many pages, audio tracks, or flashcards), conversations are not. When you transition from the text- or audio-based learning environment to using a language with other speakers, there’s a pretty good chance that they will use a sentence pattern or a word you haven’t learnt. When this happens, you’re going to lose any momentum you’ve had up until that point. Especially when you first start using the language in a conversation.
And that’s okay.
Eventually the time that you stumble over yourself will lessen. But the only way that you’re going to stop getting hung up is if you continue to practice with other speakers regularly. Once you get used to having curveballs thrown at you (in the form of new words and new sentence structures), you’ll start to figure out how to maneuver around them and keep the conversation moving.
You’ll start to maintain your momentum and when you do, it can be a really great motivator to keep working at it.
Getting to this stage, however, can seem pretty scary. It definitely kept me from engaging in the languages I was learning for far too long. And that’s why it’s important to find a good language partner.
When you rely on friends, family, or even on conversations with strangers on the street, you’re not going to get as much out of the conversation as you will if you find someone to exchange languages with.
Why? Because a language exchange partner, if serious, is going through the same process as you. They will be more understanding of where you’re at and will also have a better idea of the kind of feedback you need to improve.
The only way you’re going to get better at conversing and using a language is by, you guessed it, using the language.
We all go through that awkward stage where we make a ton of mistakes, don’t understand anything being said to us, and find ourselves unable to say the things we’d like. It’s natural. Young children go through the same thing as they learn their first language and tantrums often happen because of their frustration at being able to express what they want or need – not that I’m suggesting you get that upset if you’re struggling. 🙂
Teachers, of course, through something like iTalki are always a good investment, but serious language partners definitely come in close second.
The point is, if you are hoping to gain any level of fluency in your target language, the sooner you start conversing with native speakers, the better off you’re going to be. Mistakes happen in language – we even make them in our native languages – so learn to accept them. Use them to figure out what you need to work on and maintain your language learning momentum.
Regular Learning Rhythm
This point is one that I make more than any other as a music instructor. “10-15 minutes of practice every single day is better than one hour of practice every few days.”
It’s all about maintaining your rhythm, setting a schedule, and taking little steps forward each and every day. You want to be consistent with your study.
A lot of language tools market their products as faster and easier, but really, there’s only consistent and effective. It isn’t about finding the fastest and easiest method to learn a language, but finding a consistent and effective study schedule. It’s about making the most of the time you spend studying. That’s really the only shortcut.
If you want to cut down on the time needed to learn a language, then it’s all about maximizing the time you spend learning and doing so on a regular basis.
How can you maximize your time?
By applying your language skills and stepping outside your comfort zone. By really pushing yourself and not settling into a comfortable study schedule.
That often means having conversations with native speakers that you may not feel prepared to have.
Textbooks and other resources that are laid out for you are “comfortable” language learning tools. Conversations with native speakers can help you get outside of your comfort zone and show you where the gaps are in the language that you’re learning.
Real time feedback is so very crucial, regardless of the stage you’re at with your learning. So get that on a frequent basis. Don’t rely on a once-a-week tutoring session to get your speaking practice in. Do it a little bit almost everyday (or at least as often as possible). You’ll see a much bigger improvement by using the language everyday in conversation than you will by hiding away in your room with a textbook full of scripted conversations.
Cannot Be Learnt from Textbooks
Textbooks and other sources are great for picking up new vocabulary and understanding grammar concepts, but they won’t ever do the same for your language development as using the language you’re studying with another speaker.
Textbooks and other similar resources provide you with the tools to you need to construct conversations in another language, but it’s up to you to take those tools out of the box and go build something with them. Having a box full of tools that you never use will only allow them to collect dust tucked away in their corner, and eventually, you’ll forget all about the fact that they’re even there. Later on, when you go to use them, you may have forgotten where you put them!
Languages are also more fluid that textbooks allow. You see it all the time – “learn the French your teacher wouldn’t teach you in school” or “you’ll never find these Chinese words in a textbook.” There is so much more to language that what you can learn from a book – subtleties in tone, in gesture, in facial expressions. The only way you’re going to learn those parts of conversing in a target language is by conversing.
And those unspoken aspects of a language can often play an incredibly important role. They can change the meaning or tone of a conversation and take it to an entirely new level.
Just think about conversation through chat or email. There are a lot of things you can’t express through text, one being sarcasm. Emoticons may help, but they’ll never replace body language or facial expressions.
Plus, if you ever plan on traveling somewhere where your target language is spoken, learning the different forms of unspoken communication that go on there can be crucial both to how you enjoy the trip and even your safety.
A quick recap
There are a lot of different ways to learn a language, but if you really want to improve quickly and truly learn a language beyond textbook dialogues and vocabulary lists, chatting with native speakers both in-person and online through tools such as HelloTalk and Skype can be an irreplaceable part of your learning.
It honestly took me far longer to realize this than I would have liked (it took me forever to get on board with lessons through iTalki), but now that I’m conversing with native speakers and taking language lessons, I sincerely regret not having started it sooner. Lessons and conversations have done so much more for my language learning than any other tool I’ve used.
Please keep in mind that I’m not saying I don’t like other kinds of resources! I still like to use texts and online tools to build my vocabulary and understanding of grammar as I struggle my way through conversations. It ensures that I improve in the time between each conversation. But the chats and lessons that I have also ensure that I better understand the grammar and vocabulary that I am working through.
So take your language tools, build something beautiful! Go out, talk to people, make new friends and open yourself up to new experiences.
Please don’t forget to visit HelloTalk! A huge thanks to Lara for the inspiration behind this post!