Change your attitude to learn a language more easily

The other day, I was working with one of my students on an exercise debating the difference between "Übung" (practice) and "Begabung" (innate talent). She had written a little text on the subject and included this beautiful image I wanted to share.

Begabung ist wie eine Wurzel. Man muss graben, um sie zu finden.
— Talent is like a root - you have to dig to find it.

The image is lovely, and doesn't it just ring so true? Innate talents rest in all of us, but we cannot expect them to manifest without our own contributions. Practice is a little bit like digging in that sense - you have to work hard on finding the roots and then the best talents can grow.

In that sense, I decided to collect a few more great sayings from various languages which sum up how practice and talent are related. Do you agree with them?

— More practice means improvement - Chinese saying
Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen.
— No master has ever fallen from the sky - German saying

I find that many learners, and language learners too, feel as if they have to be perfect right from the start, and forget that it is in fact practice which makes you better at your craft. Languages are no exception in this: Remember: there is no gene, there is no innate magical talent, there is a benefit to practice. As another student quoted recently:

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
— Wayne Gretzky, hockey champion

The secret to easy language learning in changing your attitude. Stop willing yourself to be a super-fast learner. Stop thinking you have to prove you're smart by remembering all vocab the first time round. Language is about so much more - it's a way of life, not just a school subject and certainly more than a competition. Take the scenic route.

The last word for today goes to a truly inspirational Twitter post:

Guest Post: The Top 10 German speaking celebrities

Today I'm very happy to present a guest post from babla's blog. This young group blog is full of interesting articles on language learning. And best of all, they publish nearly every article bilingually. For example, the guest post you'll enjoy today was written and published both in German and in English. I am sharing the English version here, and you can also try out the German version. Check out those lovely Germans!

©img of Daniel Brühl: Fotogramas, ©img of Heidi Klum: Citypress, ©img of Mathias Schweighöfer: Stadtbibliothek Neuss

©img of Daniel Brühl: Fotogramas, ©img of Heidi Klum: Citypress, ©img of Mathias Schweighöfer: Stadtbibliothek Neuss

German is not the easiest language to learn, with all the long words, umlauts and articles. However, I can give you some more motivation to learn it because there are some pretty hot Germans you could talk to if you should meet them on the streets.

Heidi Klum
This should not surprise you. Heidi has been in the model and entertainment business for decades and is not only a German star anymore, but recognised worldwide. She is currently filming the 8th season of Germany's Next Topmodel and is also present on US entertainment shows. We love her!

Daniel Brühl
Daniel is not only a pretty face but also very talented. He played in numerous movies but got very famous with "Good Bye, Lenin". He also starred in “Inglourious Basterds” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”. Plus, if your German is still beginner's level, he also speaks fluent Spanish and French

Lena Gercke
As I mentioned Germany's Next Topmodel, I should also talk about Lena. She won the first season of the show and has been successful in the modelling business ever since. Also, she looks so typically German, she has to be part of this list.

Christoph Waltz
This name should be very familiar to you, especially after the Oscar's a few months ago. Mr. Waltz (German-Austrian) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Django, Unchained", a brilliant movie. His acting is wonderful and despite his age, or maybe because of it, he is somebody to learn German for.

Lena Meyer Landrut
I hope all our European readers are as excited as we are about the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest? It is such an event. Lena has participated twice for Germany and won the contest in 2010. We were all very happy. We don't understand though why she sang for Germany again the year after that...

Matthias Schweighöfer
Oh, Matthias... He is something. He is an actor, owns a fashion label, and made his director debut not so long ago. And please, look at his face... Do I need to say more?

Eva Padberg
Coming back to the supermodels, also Eva Padberg should not go by unnoticed. The pretty German is a very successful model, singer and actress. She just does it all.

©gdcgraphics on flickr

©gdcgraphics on flickr

Til Schweiger
Some hate him, others love him. Til is a German actor, director and producer; he belongs in the German television landscape and has even appeared in international films such as “Inglourious Basterds” alongside Brad Pitt <3

Lukas Podolski
To the football fans among us, Lukas is not an unknown person. He plays for Arsenal FC and the German national team. He was born in a small town in Poland but emigrated to Germany in an early age. He chose to play for the German national team... good for us because he is currently the sixth highest goal scorer in the history of Germany, scoring 44 goals.

Mats Hummels

How can this be a list of Germans without another football player in it? That's right, here it comes. Mats! Hmmmm. The end.

Did you know any of these German VIP's? Can you think of anyone else?

Kerstin adds: Well, if I may suggest Mr Markus Kavka and Miss Charlotte Roche, alternative music enthusiasts and German music television pioneers!

Fluency Masterclass, Part 3: Listening

Welcome to the next part of the Fluency Masterclass. These four articles feature my best tips on how to boost your proficiency in the four core skills of language learning. I believe that balanced core skills are the best way to become fluent and confident. These Masterclass articles are designed to give language learners of any level new inspiration, and a focus on the core skills

Language Learning Core Skill: Listening

I'll let you in on a secret: My listening skills aren't really world famous. I have a tendency to guess ahead in conversations and get excited, cut in, intterupt and so on. Hey, it keeps life interesting! But as with all weaknesses, it's good to work on them a little. So my tips are in fact good advice for listening in any situation. I have found them helpful for improving my attention span and communication skills.


1) Listen from Day 1

Listening is so important in language learning. It's closely connected to the learner's comfort level and pronunciation skills, and in addition to that it presumes NO language knowledge at all! There is no pressure on learners to respond or produce language, no rule that says you have to pay full attention all the time, and it can be pretty entertaining too. So my advice really is this: Listen from day 1. In fact, make that day 1 about learning your new alphabet and copying the sounds you're hearing. The BBC, for example, has some excellent alphabet resources.

2) Make notes, repeat and summarize

This is such a simple and effective exercise. I recommend you start working on it in your native language before moving on to foreign language situations. Next time you find yourself listening to someone talking at length, especially in a face-to-face situation or on the phone, get out the notepad. Make notes of the most important points of what they are saying, and ensure you don't miss any. If a real notepad and pen are likely to come across just a bit odd, try and make mental notes.

This technique is in fact part of a communication approach called active listening. It emphasizes that it is important to identify the message. In language learning, this means: Don't get stuck on words you don't know. As long as you know what the main message is, stage 1 is complete. Repeat the audio a few times to fine tune every word.

3) Use a transcript - or make your own


A big part of language learning success is in recognising which sounds correspond to which letters on a page. Click to Tweet this

Remember that we are not focusing on one core skill in order to block out the others. Listening is easily combined with other skills. You can read along using a transcript. Or in order to improve your writing skills, write your own version of the transcript and then compare it with an official one. You'll be training your spelling, listening comprehension and speed all in one go!

4) Bring back the music

I wrote about the many benefits of making music a part of your language learning on the Fluent Language blog last year. If nothing else, it's fun! Music is such a great and obvious place to start for learning a language. You can work with specific materials aimed at language learners like the Teach Me Everyday series, or just get right in there and work with songs. Why not read up on how to do it on this blog article.

5) Use a really wide range of sources

Your target language has many sub-sets of language groups, and in real life situations you may never know which one you are going to encounter. So especially when you work on listening skills, it's important to cast the net wide. Take turns listening to the news, rap songs, local dialects and whatever you can get hold of. To get you started, note that many news services do a simplified language version of their own news casts, for example DW in German, RFI in French or Sveriges Radio for Swedish.

There is a wealth of further materials out on the web all about this topic, for example the following articles:

Got more tips? Comment away, I want to hear it!!

And while you're here, don't miss what's new on my blog by joining the Fluent Language Learning Newsletter.

Ja, je suis Global Citizen

I recently watched a nice video from the Goethe Institute, who promote German language and culture. It’s a summary of why learning German is actually a great idea for Brits, if perhaps narrated a bit too pompously for me. But in this video, the narrator states that “schools play a vital role in educating the global citizens of the future”. Global Citizens. Is your Buzzword alarm going off too?

Obviously “citizen” in itself is quite a powerful word. Pupils learn citizenship at school, and from looking at the exam papers this is about understanding the way society is organised. There are questions about all sorts from lobbying to charity and The Cuts™. Citizenship is more than just understanding how society works though -  it’s about getting the sense that the institutions work for you and it’s worth being a part of it.

So what makes the citizen global?



I consulted the master of all plain language definitions on this one: Urbandictionary, and it actually came out with a pretty nice summary:

“ A person that intentionally chooses to consider all countries as potential places to live, work, and play.”

This sounds a lot more fun than what those exam papers showed. More importantly, the website gave us what it thinks the opposite of a global citizen would be: a xenophobe, someone who resists the influence of other cultures and languages out of fear. We have the internet, the United Nations and a lot of rising superpowers who influence our own country’s economy and culture. Add to that the fact that these days almost every company works with clients and suppliers from all over the world, and almost every employee has at least one foreign colleague as a consequence. Now I understand: Global citizenship is a fancy way of saying that we should live the opportunities that are out there in the world. Don’t be scared of how different it would be to live somewhere else, but instead take advantage of your passport and travel the world.

Where does Language come in?

In the video about German language, we hear from companies like Bentley. They’re growing into all markets of the world, and owned by a German company. I can really see how a bit of German, Chinese or Spanish is going to come in handy – they might need you to work abroad for a period of time or show your local office to an international team of visitors. I’ve had jobs which involved travelling all over the world, and I love the absolute privilege of having an international career. Going to China or Russia didn’t make me fluent in those languages straight away, but it’s just such a great sense of achievement and acceptance when you can communicate across a language barrier. Understanding how people live and what values rule in their society is even more important – you will always need to understand your client or partner’s requirements before you can be successful in business. Or did you know, just like that, that in Moscow 8 March is an official holiday?

We don’t tend to put pupils who are learning a foreign language in school into Camp Acquisition – after all, they are learning it because it’s part of the curriculum. But conversely, global citizenship is all about that. It’s about discovering your curiosity about what’s out there in the world and what makes people tick over in the foreign lands. Language is where you can start entering another world, and the potential you are unlocking with that will absolutely change your life if you let it.

I’m not going to start using this term as a fancy buzzword any time soon, but it doesn’t change this: Global Citizenship is really important, and it means an awful lot to me.

Language Learning Motivation: What Drives You?

Image source: Morguefile

Image source: Morguefile

There's been an awful lot of research into language learning motivation, with scholarly articles, curriculum changes and millions of research funding spent on working out what makes us learners tick. Motivation is one of the most significant factors for successful language learning, so there is a lot of value in sitting down and having about yourself and what makes you tick. Here are my ideas about the motivation groups - which camp are you in?

2 camps of learners

To me, there are two key camps, let's call them Camp Requirement and Camp Acquisition. Those who learn for a practical application and out of necessity. They may not feel the joy of learning a language from the word Go, but keep going anyway because they are working towards a clear goal. They have the motivation of requirement.

And those who learn because they are curious about a language and simply learning because they want to get good at this. These guys often love the process of learning just as much as applying their new knowledge and will feel happy with the "lifelong learner" label. They have the motivation of acquisition.

None of these types of motivation is any more valid than the other, and I don't believe that either one will make you a better, more skilled learner. It's simply important to understand your driving forces. Be clear about why you are in this learning process. Make sure your motivation is clear to you, and you'll find it will help you kick through those dips and keep going even in the boring drills. If you have a tutor or teacher, why not try and catch them for a conversation about what motivates you and gets you going. That way, they may be able to support you better - even a busy school teacher is likely to jump at that chance of understanding how to get more out of a student.

No Success without Motivation

You have GOT to stay motivated, you have got to stay excited or keen about learning your target language. This is the only way that you will actually look for chances to speak, you'll listen to things you only half understand and in effect the only way that you can keep going once the lesson is over and you have a whole week to forget all you've just been told.

For me as a language tutor, this brings in an extra responsibility. It's my job to understand, as well as I can, the motivations of my students and help them work towards goals that are important to them. Teachers may sometimes make assumptions about language learners which don't match up with their own inner drivers, and that results in both steering in different directions. I want to make sure that I understand where my students stand, so I'll be my best at supporting them reach their goals, and at facilitating a real sense of achievement.

My Allegiances

I have drawn you a little graph to show just how much variation I find in my own language learning motivations:

You can see how far I was in Camp Acquisition at some points, for example when I took Italian. That was my third language, it was an optional offer, afternoon lessons at school doing something new and fun, with friends - I was in it for social reasons. Later when I took Spanish, the main motivation was more about where it was in my curriculum and my career. I wasn't desperate for another new language, but there was a clearer requirement. These days, my lifelong learner is very keen and I'd say it's nearly all that drives my Russian learning.

This was actually a bit tougher to work out than I thought. It's a great exercise to have a little think about the question "Why is it that I'm putting the effort into this language?" Be clear with your answer about this question and review it on a regular basis. What is your personal language learning driver?