Monday, December 21, 2009

Building Good Study Habits

Successful language learning is a lot like successful dieting: it requires discipline, tenacity, and the need to build good daily habits. Unsurprisingly, the typical excuses we make for not following a diet are also very much like the same excuses we make for not studying a foreign language, e.g.:
  • "I'm too busy"
  • "I'm too tired"
  • "It's too hard"
  • "I'd rather be doing something else"
Sound familiar?

Especially during the holiday season, it's easy to fall off the bandwagon, as we say, and let these thoughts and feelings completely derail our language learning plans, making "start over" part of the new year's resolution list. So how can we keep this from happening?

One of the most important habits to build is to find time every day. This doesn't have to be 30 minutes or an hour. It can be five minutes, even two, as long as it's consistent. Of course, to make more solid progress it is helpful to have longer, more focused study sessions, such as 20-30 minutes at a time. But what is most important is to do something every day.

A helpful strategy is to keep a simple daily log sheet. Put it somewhere you are guaranteed to see multiple times every day, such as on the bathroom mirror or refrigerator door. (Don't forget to leave a pen or pencil nearby!) Just write the date, and a couple of words about what your language study effort was for the day. Your effort could be 3 minutes of studying flashcards on the train, watching three or four television commercials on the foreign language channel, or even simply making up sentences and talking to yourself in that language while jogging on the treadmill or preparing dinner.

The idea is to not let too much time pass between sessions. The log sheet will hold you accountable to yourself and give you a sense of accomplishment when you see that you have been diligent in studying virtually every day.

Friday, October 30, 2009

"How to Learn a Foreign Language Online"

I just read this article on and it has lots of good advice and suggestions for online language learning websites. Here's the link:
It compares free and paid programs, such as LiveMocha, Rosetta Stone, and Lang-8, plus lots of others. It also looks at a bunch of iPhone apps as well: AccelaStudy and Byki. They're all different, so you need to read up on their focus and approach to find the one that's best for you.

For example, Live Mocha uses basic grammar instruction with lots of vocabulary and simple exercises, but the best part is giving and receiving feedback from other users who are native speakers of the language you're studying, and want feedback from you on their English.

Rosetta Stone, on the other hand, is strictly immersion-- don't expect to see one single verb conjugation chart or explanation; there's not a drop of English. See my earlier blog post for more description of the pros and cons of RS.

Lang-8 focuses mostly on writing as its niche. And Byki - owned by Transparent Language - has both web- and iPhone- Apps. AccelaStudy seems mostly focused on vocabulary.

But check them out for yourself, along with the rest of the programs in the list. Need help figuring out which is right for you? Send me an e-mail and I'll be glad to help you find the right fit!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Learning Strategies and Short Term Language Goals

My official Arabic efforts are now about 2-1/2 weeks underway, and I have come to realize the value of three learning strategies in working towards my short-term language goals:

1. Learning language "chunks" instead of grammar patterns
2. Using online language resources to fill in some gaps and answer questions, and
3. Getting positive and negative feedback on the accuracy of my speech.

Since I'm only going to Egypt for a week or so, I need basic survival phrases to help me get through the airport. I need greetings, I need to ask for directions, I need to explain my reason for being there, I need to ask how much something costs, etc. And of course, I need to understand some basic answers. As such, learning all the intricacies of grammar is probably overkill, so to speak. I need a well-recognized phrase that I can memorize in a "chunk", which will convey the basic meaning easily without needing to pick and choose words, worry about order, etc. Is it important to be sensitive to social context, follow rules of politeness, etc.? Of course. But most people will realize I only have about six words in my repertoire, and will likely forgive any non-egregious breaches of etiquette. And for that matter, most people will also appreciate my efforts to use any Arabic at all, rather than assuming (as we Americans are reputed to do) that we don't need to learn other people's languages and expecting them to speak in English right from the start. Hopefully they will appreciate my effort in language-diplomacy and then kindly help me find someone who speaks English!

Second, there are TONS of web-based langauge programs available for free. Most of them have "deluxe" versions that require payment but the free basic services are often quite good, and more than enough for a beginner like me. Though I have found a slightly different application of use: Skype. For those of you who don't know, Skype is like videoconferencing over the internet, and it's FREE! I have found a wonderful Tunisian tutor, Olfa, who is in North Carolina, while I am in Pennsylvania (about 800 miles away). We meet once or twice a week on Skype, face to face, and she teaches me the "chunks" as necessary, answering my questions as we go. Of course, it's not perfect and sometimes the sound quality is a little fuzzy, but overall it's a great way to build relationships with people in a way that is much more personal and concrete feeling than simply on the phone. It's interesting, because I often use Skype to coach my own private clients... but this time I'm on the receiving end of the service. And I'm just as happy with it!

Finally, get feedback on how you're doing! I study my Arabic lessons each day (well, almost every day), but then I practice the routines with Olfa during our online sessions, and she corrects me when I am unclear, or confirms when I have communicated clearly. It's so helpful for me to listen to her pronunciation - especially rhythm and stress patterns - and then try to emulate her. Then she tells me how close I get or what I need to change. I try to take notes on our discussions so I don't forget what she tells me, and this helps me build good language habits from the start. So find someone who is either a native speaker or otherwise a more advanced learner than you are and ask them to give you feedback whenever possible!

The sounds of Arabic have been particularly challenging for me, so I'll talk about some of my pronunciation strateges next time.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Learning Arabic

I have a new short-term goal: to learn a few travel-essential phrases in Arabic for my upcoming trip to Cairo, Egypt for Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW). 75 countries around the world will be participating, but here's the link for the Cairo site: .

I will be leading a half-day workshop on cross-cultural communications issues in global business. And since language and culture are at the root of it all, it is only fitting that I make an effort to do a crash-course in Arabic language and related culture before I go! I have 5 weeks before my departure so it doesn't leave much time. I've been doing a lot of reading on Egyptian culture, and now I will be looking online for good self-study sites for language learning. I'll be sure to report any particularly useful findings. Do you have any suggestions? If so, please share!

Of course, I'll also need to follow my own advice from previous blogs. Wish me luck and stay tuned!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Thinking in a Foreign Language

A huge milestone for us as language learners is the point at which we can finally start thinking in a foreign language (L2) instead of relying on mental translation from our first language (L1). Why does it seem to take so long to get to this point, and how can we get there faster?

The short answer is that it's generally a question of the amount of time and frequency with with you actually practice using the L2. If you want to be able to speak with ease, then obviously you need to practice putting your ideas into words and saying them out loud. If you want to be able to write e-mail to friends or coworkers, then you need to practice putting your thoughts down on paper (or on screen, as it were.)

Of course it's great to read, memorize vocabulary, and do workbook-style grammar exercises in the other language, because that adds to your blocks of language knowledge with which you can build your statements and express your thoughts. (And they feel "safe" - we know how to do them, and we do them silently in our heads.) But the skills needed for these activities won't do much to help build oral or written fluency. For the most part, this is all "input," or reception, and somewhat passive learning. You need to specifically practice "output," or the productive skills, that you want to master.

If you can find a person with whom to speak in that language - whether native speaker or another learner - try to have some casual conversation or write e-mail to each other a few times a week. But what if you don't know anyone who speaks that language?

Alternative: Keep a language journal - speaking or writing. Even if it's only for 5 minutes a few times a week, use the simple recording software that's available on every computer, or start a written document or notebook where you just say or write your thoughts. Don't think too much! Perfect accuracy is not the point here: it's training yourself to think and speak quickly in the other language. Even if you repeat the same idea many days in a row (e.g. talk about the weather, your family, your job, your health, your favorite television show...) the repetition will help make certain phrases "stick" more easily and become reflex after a while. Build your "reflex phrase" vocabulary.

You can also target certain vocabulary words or grammatical structures that you want to try to use at least once in your journal that day, and try to use those target forms for a few days in a row until you get used to them too.

You'll be surprised how soon some phrases become "natural," and how much you can say without thinking in the L1 or translating into L2 if you actively practice using them enough!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reading Aloud and Pronunciation

Recently I was asked: "when we read aloud aren't we just reinforcing bad pronunciation patterns?" What a great question, especially since students in language classes spend a lot of time reading dialogues and other exercises together. The truth is that reading aloud can be a mixed blessing.

The practice of reading aloud can help build linguistic reflexes, helping the tongue adjust to the sound combinations, and getting the brain used to word patterns, etc. This latter piece is also the case with reading silently, but reading aloud can help it "sink in" more for some people because (a) you have to pay more conscious attention to the words to have them register in your speech, and (b) speaking creates auditory input - even if it's your own voice - which is useful for auditory learners. So reading aloud can have real benefits for language development.

A drawback, however, can be the reinforcement of what the person called "bad" (presumably foreign-sounding) pronunciation. To improve the accuracy of your pronunciation, there are several steps you can take.

First, see if you can find text that also has an audio track, either from a textbook, online, or even if you can get a fluent speaker to record the excerpt for you. Then you can listen to the pronunciation while reading along, and try to imitate what you hear.

Additionally, it is very helpful to record YOURSELF as you read. You will hear things on the recording that you don't notice while you're actually speaking in the moment. When you notice something that sounds too "foreign," try to work on it until it sounds like what you think it should be.

Finally If you can get someone to give you some corrective feedback - confirming what is clear and giving suggestions for what could be improved - on not only your free speech but your voice recordings (so you can listen to them together, objectively) that would be the most helpful.

One way or another, since reading aloud won't likely change your pronunciation, but not reading aloud also won't change your pronunciation, you might as well practice reading aloud for the other benefits it can produce. And if you can follow some of the suggestions I've given above, you can then add the pronunciation benefits too. So keep practicing, and good luck!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Read-Aloud Dialogue Practice

We're all very familiar with the model dialogues that are written in textbooks and other materials. They are supposed to demonstrate ways to use new words and phrases in context and conversation. These dialogues have the potential to be very useful, but they don't usually have the best results. This is not because of the dialogue, but because of how we use it.

When working by yourself or with a partner, don't just read the lines of dialogue aloud, the way you would read a paragraph out loud to the class or read a story to a child. When we do that, we tend to worry more about "sounding fluent" in public, which usually means reading as quickly as possible. When that happens, it is almost as if the words on the page are only processed in two places: our eyes to read them, and our mouths to say them, bypassing our brains completely! So the question is, how can we really make these dialogues as useful as possible for maximum learning?

For me, there is one simple rule: when practicing a model dialogue, you cannot read (with your eyes) and speak at the same time. Here's how that works:

First, since it is a dialogue, consider the conditions of real conversation: we make eye contact with people when we talk to them. You can't do that if you are both reading from a page, right? So when it is your turn to read, take a moment to look at the next phrase, try to memorize it - even if just a few words - then cover the paper with your hand and look at your partner, then say as much as you can remember.

If you forget, that's okay! Your partner can help you, or you can simply look at the page again. But if you look at the page, you must not speak again until you have stopped reading and are making eye contact with your partner.

That also means that the listener's behavior must change. When your partner is speaking, you must make eye contact with him or her, and really listen to what he or she is saying. You cannot be planning ahead, reading your next line in anticipation of your turn. That's not conversation, is it?

Of course, this takes a lot longer than simply racing through it the old-fashioned way. But it's an investment of time. It will really help with overall conversational skills because you are truly thinking about the phrases as you go, which helps with memory and application. Don't rush, and don't be frustrated. Learners - take your time! And teachers - make sure to give your students enough time to do it!

Finally, I recommend practicing the entire dialogue (or parts of it, if it is very long) four times. Why four? Because the first time the speakers are just getting used to the words and phrases. The second time is more fluent and gives the material a chance to "sink in." The third and fourth time learners will change roles, with the same experiences as in the first two times, but they get to experience all the lines from both perspectives. You'll be surprised how important that is, and what a difference it makes!

So give it a try, and then come back and leave us a comment about how it works for you and/or your students!