How I Learned French

While I was travelling in Mexico a few years ago, I ran into some backpackers who spoke astonishingly good Spanish after having studied the language for only about a month or two.  I was embarrassed talking with them because I’d been studying the language for years, and yet I didn’t quite have the confidence and natural flow of speaking that they did (although, to be fair, my vocabulary and grammar knowledge was more extensive than theirs).  I asked them how they’d learned Spanish so well so quickly, and they’d told me they attended immersion programs in southern Mexico and Guatemala.  I thought, “Hell, I should be able to do the same thing,” so I started looking into intensive language courses in languages that I was interested in.  

I’d had some interest in French for a while, so in June of 2012, I booked a ticket to Lyon and signed up for an intensive summer course at the Université Catholique de Lyon.  It actually ended up being a great decision because this was one of the funnest summers of my life!  The program organized excursions and activities for us multiples times a week, and the other students and I would get together for dinners and drinks.  The teachers were all great, and I learned a lot and practiced speaking a lot in my classes.  Best of all, in contrast to some other language programs I’ve been to, the students all spontaneously chose to speak in the language we learning, French, instead of English.  This meant that, even though none of us were native speakers, we were immersing ourselves in the language.

I also got incredibly lucky with my housing situation.  During my second week in Lyon, I stopped by a cafe that hosted language exchange meetings, and I was lucky enough to be there just as a young French woman was putting up an ad looking for someone to practice English with.  We started speaking to each other in a mix of English, pidgin French, and hand gestures, and ended up hitting it off really well.  Marie invited me to visit her flat, where I discovered she was looking for a new flatmate, and so I ended up living at her place all summer.  I spoke with her and her roommates in French 100% of the time.  After this summer, about two and a half months learning French intensively, I spoke French at a B1 level.  

After that summer, I took the opportunity to take courses in French wherever I lived, including an upper division French conversation class at the University of Texas and a class at the Alliance Française in Prague.  These classes were more for maintenance than anything else, and I didn’t improve much through these courses.  (I now think it would have been better just to find language partners to talk to on Skype and consume French media by myself rather than go to a class).  

At the end of 2015, I decided that I wanted to make an effort to really improve my French and get it to a good level.  I started reading novels in French (my favorite writer at this time was Amélie Nothomb), and watched the French TV series Les Revenants (with English subtitles).  I already had a solid grounding in grammar from my language classes, so the best grammar book I used when I wanted to take my French to the next level was: Difficultés expliquées du français… for English speakers, a very literally entitled book, but the French grammar book that has been the most useful for me in my French studies.

In the summer of 2016, I decided to sit for the C1 exam of the DALF.  I prepared over a roughly two-month period by doing the following:

  • I read the news in French every morning, looking up any words I didn’t know in a monolingual French dictionary (usually the French wiktionary) .
  • I also watched a lot of Youtube videos, equivalent to roughly one hour per day.  Listening comprehension was always my weakest point (moreso than speaking or writing), and to improve my listening comprehension skills, I would listen to TED talks and other Youtube videos in French, and transcribe the text.  Transcription was the most effective method for improving my listening comprehension.  By the way, it’s important to learn a language by consuming media you’re interested in.  I was really into Game of Thrones at this time, so I followed the “TheGrandTest” channel which had great episode recaps and analyses in French.
  • I got a tutor on Preply to talk to me twice a week, just so I could have speaking practice with a native speaker.
  • I wrote one essay per week on the writing topics of some practice DALF exams that I found, under exam conditions.

I was not living in France at the time I was preparing for (or sitting for) the exam, but this didn’t prevent me from doing lots of things to practice and improve my French.  A couple of months after I sat the exam, I got an email telling me that I’d passed.  I had the highest score of the students sitting the exam that day.  Language learning never ends, and a language exam certificate is not the end all and be all, but I love being able to say that I’m officially fluent in French.

How I learned Italian

In October of last year, I went to Italy to work for three months as a volunteer English teacher at a middle school and elementary school.  I found the opportunity through an organization that was advertising on Workaway, a website I highly recommend for anyone looking for opportunities to be immersed in a foreign language without having to spend a lot of money.

I was placed in the town of La Loggia, just south of Torino, and lived with an Italian host family (I didn’t get paid, but the free lodging and food and the experience were well worth it for me).  Now, I was expected to speak English with my host family (which I did), and I was kept surprisingly busy with my 20 hour a week teaching schedule (lesson planning, took a lot of time, of course).  But I did use the opportunities I could take to practice learning Italian.

In the mornings before I went to school, I would go to a cafe for a cappuccino and to read the newspaper in Italian.  This was during the season just before Renzi’s ill-fated constitutional referendum, and every day I would read with anticipation about the political drama that was consuming the country.  After the referendum, of course, there was the American election to read about.  Now, I actually had done some things to study a bit of Italian before I came to Italy.  I already spoke French and Spanish, and I knew some basic words and grammar from an online course that I’d taken for one month some years before (the course was from Livemocha, which was bought out and destroyed by Rosetta Stone a few years ago).  Anyway, I knew enough from that course to understand that the grammar of Italian does not differ appreciably from that of Spanish or French, and to be able to predict some of the cognates.  I also downloaded the Collins Italian dictionary app on my phone (at about $25 it’s a bit of an expensive purchase, but it’s very high quality, and I recommend it to everyone), and used it to look up any words that I didn’t know.  I was reading Italian for about one or two hours a day, and my reading comprehension increased very rapidly, to the point where I didn’t need a dictionary most of the time to understand the articles.

Northern Italians buck the stereotype of openness and sociability that most Italians have.  Southern Italy is more the place to go if you want everyone to talk to you in Italian.  I had a difficult time making friends outside of the school setting (where I was expected to speak English), and this was exacerbated by the fact that I was staying in a small town rather than in a proper city.  But I took the opportunities that I could get to speak to people in Italian.  I had long conversations every day with the women who worked at the cafe and at a couple of the bars around town where I would stop in for a snack or a beer after class.  I talked quite often to the librarian at the municipal library and the receptionist at the gym where I worked out.

I was lucky to meet a couple of girls who agreed to do a language exchange with me (one was Italian and another was a Polish girl who’d been living in La Loggia for a year and spoke Italian very well).  With both of them, I asked that we speak 100% English one day and 100% Italian the other, alternating days speaking English and Italian.  I feel like this is a better way to do a language exchange than say speaking 30 minutes of English followed by 30 minutes of Italian in one session, the reason being that by speaking the whole time in the one language, you really get into the mode of thinking in that language.

Since I had the weekends off, I sometimes travelled by myself around Piemonte.  One weekend, I visited the Abbey of San Michele which involves hiking up the side of a small mountain.  I ran into a couple of Italian engineers as I was coming out of the train station, and we agreed to hike to the abbey together.  We spoke in Italian the whole time, and I surprised myself with how much I could say and understand after only a few short weeks in Italy.

By the end of my time in Italy, although I wasn’t “fluent” in Italian, I could read quite comfortably, and I was capable of having long conversations in Italian.  I still keep in touch with one of my language partners from La Loggia, and we write each other emails in Italian.  What I learned from this experience is that you don’t have to be so “hardcore” about learning the language to improve your language abilities by a lot.  Many polyglots advocate never speaking English, and, although this is an effective method, it’s not realistic for a lot of people.  I probably could have improved my skills a lot more if I made a bunch of flashcards or did a lot of intense listening comprehension training, but I wanted to relax and learn by doing what I enjoyed doing: talking to people or reading the paper with my coffee.

Two polyglots who have greatly influenced my approach to language-learning

The best way to acquire a new skill is to find out about other people who got really at that skill and do what they did.  A couple of years ago, I went to Prague for the express purpose of learning the Czech language.  Anyway, I started off taking classes at a language school, but I ended up dropping out of it because I became bored and frustrated with the teaching methods.  The classes were just really slow and boring, and I never felt like I was really improving in spite of all the grammar drills we were doing.  I decided to learn Czech by myself by just reading my textbook during the day and trying to find conversation partners, but even this approach, which is more or less the approach I use now, left me feeling stalled.  Now my Czech wasn’t hopeless, I could have fairly long conversations with people, albeit with a lot of grammatical infelicities, and I could watch Czech TV, provided there were subtitles (in Czech), but I really felt like I’d reached a plateau, and I certainly didn’t feel “fluent.”  So I started googling and looking up blogs of polyglots trying to find tips and “best practices” for learning a new language.

There are plenty of polyglots now who are internet celebrities in some way, and I was always impressed by how good they could get at so many different languages.  Thankfully for me at that time, a lot of them happened to have blogs or to have written articles about their approach to language learning.  Two polyglots, Gabriel Wyner and Chris Lonsdale, have had the biggest influence on how I think about and approach language learning.

Gabriel Wyner

Fluent Forever

Wyner is an American opera singer (who actually studied engineering in college!) who had to learn German for his opera career and ended up developing an affinity for language learning.  He studied at the famous Middlebury College language schools, and then lived in Austria for a year, becoming fluent in German.  Afterwards, he studied French, Italian and Russian, and became more or less fluent in all of these languages.  

His book, Fluent Forever, is actually the product of a master’s degree that he pursued while he was living in Austria.  Wyner did a lot of research on language acquisition and in his book he identifies and espouses three keys to learning a language:

  • Not translating.
    One of the philosophies of the language programs at Middlebury College is that you should learn a language naturally without translation.  If you’re reading a text in a foreign language, don’t use a bilingual dictionary.  Instead, use a monolingual dictionary in the new language.  According to Wyner, this is the key to reaching the point of thinking in a new language very quickly.  Wyner advocates watching TV programs in the new language (without subtitles) and reading books and newspapers without a bilingual dictionary.
  • Using effective memorization techniques like mnemonics and spaced repetition.
    One of the interesting strategies that Wyner advocates is getting a hold of a list of the most frequent words of a language, and building flashcards out of them.  He advocates using mnemonics and flashcards with a spaced repetition feature to learn these words to build up a large vocabulary efficiently.
  • Focusing on pronunciation.
    As an opera singer, Wyner had to work with voice coaches to learn how to properly pronounce the roles he was performing.  It turns out that learning and understanding how to produce the sounds has cognitive benefits in terms of listening comprehension, in addition to speaking the language in a more understandable way.

Wyner gives a persuasive and well-informed account of his program.  I tried out all of his techniques when I first learned about them, and they gave me a lot of new tools to try to get past the plateau that I’d reached with my language learning with Czech.  

Since I’ve read his book, I’ve developed a lot of disagreements with the program that he lays out and the advice that he gives.  I think that going through frequency lists and building flashcards, or watching TV programs without subtitles can be very difficult habits to maintain.  Even though his program is backed up by cognitive science, I think it is often quite frustrating and a lot of work to follow his advice, and this can really kill your motivation when you’re trying to learn a language.  If you’re the He-Man, eat-your-veggies type about language learning (as I was when I was in Prague), I think his advice can be very good.  But I think most regular people (as I am now) will try to follow his advice for a short time and then give up (as I did, eventually).  

That said, Wyner’s book is at the very least an inspiring read for anyone who’s interested in learning languages, and I love the idea of really trying to ground your approach to language learning in a systematic method that’s backed by science.  Even though I no longer take all his advice, he offers so many practical and inspirational tips and strategies for learning a language that I would feel irresponsible not making aspiring polyglots aware of his approach.  I think that his approach is definitely worth a try.

Chris Lonsdale

How to learn any language in six months

Chris Lonsdale went to China in the eighties and became fluent in Mandarin in six months.  I was really curious about his TED talk because the idea of learning Chinese in only six months was astounding to me, and I was initially skeptical about it, but after finding out about his method, and listening to his story, he came across as quite convincing.

There are a lot of really good ideas in his TED talk, which I’ve linked, and much of his advice has been echoed by other polyglots (which is a sign that it’s very good advice), but Lonsdale has one piece of advice that I wanted to highlight because I think it is very important and I did not find it mentioned by any other polyglot.  In his talk, he introduces the idea of finding a “language parent,” someone who speaks the foreign language and teaches it to you in a way that is similar to how a parent teaches their child how to speak a language.

What are the characteristics of a language parent?

  • The language parent speaks to you only in the new language.
  • The language parent works to understand what you are saying.
  • The language parent uses words that you know.
  • The language parent does not correct your mistakes.

When I went to Ukraine, I effectively had a language parent from day one.  The receptionist at my hostel in Lviv found out that I was studying Ukrainian, and agreed to speak to me only in Ukrainian to help me practice.  Because she had the night shift, I’d go back to the hostel every night, and we would talk, actually talk, to each other in Ukrainian for one or two hours.  Now it wasn’t like I could speak Ukrainian out of thin air.  Czech and Ukrainian are very similar languages (analogous to the way in which Italian and Spanish are similar) and so I could recognize the cognates, and also I had studied some Ukrainian from a textbook before I’d come to Lviv.  Even so, I was amazed at how much I understood of what she said just from intonation, expression, and context.  And even though I was mostly fumbling through my conversations with her, she didn’t spoil the thing by trying to correct me or to teach me the grammar.  We were just enjoying a conversation together, and this went a long way in developing the ability to speak fluidly.  Not only that, it built my comfort for speaking with others in Ukrainian, and gave me a base which allowed me to communicate solely in Ukrainian while I was in Lviv.

When I was building simplang I tried to incorporate the best advice from both of these polyglots in the lessons.  There’s a heavy emphasis on phrases for everyday communication, so that whether you’re speaking with friends, teachers, or your own personal “language parent,” you can start communicating from day one.  The flashcard system also makes use of the principle of spaced repetition.  You don’t have to make a thousand flashcards, because we’ve already done it for you, and because our flashcards feature authentic speech from native speakers, you can also use them to help train your pronunciation.