Improvised Russian: Tricks From a Language Fool in Kazakhstan

I've got a guest post that took me down memory lane today, back to my old job which had me travelling to Kazakhstan on a regular basis. The country became one of my favourite travel destinations. Kazakhstan is exciting, lively, full of nomadic promise, and delightfully different from my own country.

Guest writer Marta is Polish, and recently spent a few nomadic weeks in the country. I was so excited when she agreed to tell us her story!

Off to Kazakstan!

Crossing a busy four-lane road in an unmarked place with bags of groceries for a mere £10, my mind woke up — I’m in Kazakhstan. One of these “weird” countries that I could always find on the map (being the 9th largest country in the world it’s pretty hard to miss…), but whose mention did not conjure any images in my head. Well, at least not up until one famous comedy film. Borat certainly raised awareness about the existence of this vast land, but at the same time permanently stained the popular opinion about it.

A pack of 20 cigarettes costs the same as a taxi ride here: 60p. Yes, less than a pound. (*Ed.: 60p is roughly $1 US)

Last time I was in a bar I paid around £3.50 for five beers. If those are the prices of typical “luxury” goods, imagine how cheap food here is.

Here's how I got on on the language front:

Annoying Russian

Russian is one of the languages that annoys me. As a native Polish speaker I always expected myself to just “pick up” Russian with a mild amount of effort, but, to tell you the truth, I never had motivation to put even this mild amount of effort into learning Russian.

Due to the history of the last 70 years the language is still demonised among my family members who lived during the USSR, and even among my peers. I saw no reason to study Russian. I also managed to convince myself that I was incapable of memorising the Cyrillic alphabet. Buying into my own fairytale has made it much harder for me to learn it: like a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a bad teacher who stifles students’ interest in a subject due to a lack of talent.

Surprised Kazakhs

Why am I talking about Russian though if I’m in Kazakhstan, is there not a language called Kazakh? Well… Kazakh has a status of a “state” language here and even though it’s spoken by the majority of the population (over 60%), the de-facto official language of wider communication here is Russian. This means that most Kazakhs are bilingual, especially in cities, and the 30% large Russian minority has no reason to learn Kazakh.

All road signs are bilingual and most shops or cafes have notices and menus in both Russian and Kazakh (sometimes also in English). Government employees are required to speak Kazakh and you do hear it a lot on the streets.

However, Russian remains a lingua franca and hearing a shelyeldyk (foreigner) speaking Kazakh provokes a very surprised and enthusiastic reaction, probably similar to the feeling I experience when a foreigner knows even two words of Polish.

If I had to choose whether to learn Russian or Kazakh, I would have definitely tried to learn some Kazakh during my stay. However, because my mother tongue belongs to the same language family as Russian, for survival purposes that was my chosen language of communication. Although you’ll decide for yourself to what extent you can call my speaking attempts communication.

Embracing the "Imbecile"

Your travelling fools. There is a lot of pollution and dust in Almaty

Your travelling fools. There is a lot of pollution and dust in Almaty

Originally the Kazakhs are descendants of nomadic Mongol tribes. This fitted quite nicely with the purpose of my visit to Kazakhstan which was to practice a modern nomadic lifestyle — not so much sleeping in yurts, but combining remote work with travelling.

I was planning to do what I mostly do at home, with occasional sightseeing ventures and excursions. I say all this only to provide myself with an excuse for not having learned more Kazakh or Russian while there, otherwise who would be writing for the LinguaLift blog and helping the students? I realise it’s a bit of a lousy excuse.

The point here is that even without learning anything formally I still had to communicate with people and, get things done.

In the process you will abandon timidity and that sense of shame a lot of us have when we speak a foreign language imperfectly and come across as simpletons, imbeciles or simply ignorant foreigners.

The Magic Word in Russian

A word that became my favourite and one that my Russian speaking friend teased me about was the word можно, mozhna. It means “one can”, “it is possible” which is exactly the same as Polish word można pronounced almost identically. It became my keyword and a magic spell to accomplish the impossible, like buying salads on the market or anything requiring communication really.

How To Use можно

  • Say Можно and point at things.

Very handy if you purchased a membership to a gym in Almaty (like I did) and want to ask whether you can use a piece of equipment which someone turned into a shelf for their phone.

  • Say Можно with gestures.

A door is closed and you want to get into a building? Give the guard a questioning look and make a forward motion towards the doors. You’ll be sure to find out when the answer is no.

  • Use Можно + noun.

If you were clever enough to look up a required noun before jumping straight into talking attempts (not like me then!). In comparison with option 1, this gives you endless opportunities, such as buying 300 grams of салат из моркови с чесноком for 60p.

Here is my favourite “salad lady” from the Green Bazaar.

Here is my favourite “salad lady” from the Green Bazaar.

If you realise you know nothing in the local language try to find an equivalent key word. Combined with gestures and pointing it will work wonders.

The Polish connection

Because of the degree of similarity between Polish and Russian, sometimes I forgot I didn’t actually speak the language. I don’t think I have to remind you that passive understanding and creative verbal production are two different things.

When we travelled to Kyrgyzstan for two nights (for the necessary re-entry to Kazakhstan to prolong the tourist visa) we booked a room in a guesthouse. We arrived late and the only people on the site were two elderly builders who clearly had no idea that anyone was meant to appear so late in the evening.

I opened my mouth and... no words came out.

I realised I didn’t know the word for room, book, reserved, email, message or anything that would explain the connection between the guesthouse and us two standing in their unfinished front yard!

Thankfully it wasn’t too hard for the men to figure that two foreigners with backpacks at a late hour out of the tourist season could only be looking for a room. And sure enough when they said the word комната I exclaimed да! with relief.

Polish and Russian are quite similar, but really not to the point of mutual intelligibility. Yet, I have a feeling that identifying yourself as a fellow Slav can produce a warmer attitude and potentially lower prices.

Knowing I was Polish, the instructor in my gym tried to convince me to be more chatty, a very optimistic reaction to me saying that I understood him only немного (“a little bit”).

The taxi driver in Cholpon-Ata in Kyrgyzstan having heard I was from Польша (Poland) simply started to refer to me as Польша.

*Польша, все нормально? (Everything ok, Poland?) were his last words to me when we were leaving the cab.

Mixing Languages: A Fluency Trick

Preserving endangered languages, buying locally grown vegetables — I am all for supporting anything and everything local. However, there were moments in Kazakhstan where linguistic globalisation provided me with some much-needed vocabulary.

On the way back from Kyrgyzstan we had to catch a marshrutka (mini bus) in Bishkek. We didn’t have enough som (Kyrgyz currency) left, but we figured since the bus goes to Kazakhstan the driver would also accept Kazakh tenge.

The key was to ask.

Fearlessly I approached the driver with two sets of notes in my hands and while vawing them in front of him I asked “mozhna mix?”. After a 3 second thoughtful calculation of the amounts he said slowly: mozhna. Success!

The lesson here is to figure out the words that can be present in the other person's reality. Regardless of where in the world you are, you will find some piece of shared reality with the locals.

все нормально - That's all good

Travelling opens our eyes to our own ignorance.

I confirmed that Russian and Polish are similar, I’m less shy than I thought, and that it’s possible to communicate even with a very limited amount of vocabulary if you keep your ears and mind open. It has also evoked a desire to actually master Russian (since I work at LinguaLift, I'll be trying our own course.

Maybe next time I will be less of a walking circus of pointing and gesturing. все возможно!

Do you have any stories from a Russian speaking country?

How far did you get with немного, "spaseeba" and можно yourself?

Marta Krzemińska is a language coach and blogger at LinguaLift - she's an aspiring nomad and a speaker of Toki Pona.

5 Chinese Learning Resources You’re Going to Love

Eyes to the East, everyone, today's blog post is all about Chinese learning! I'm not yet trying my hand (and brain) with this approach, so to help you guys if you're interested in Chinese, I brought in an expert in the form of language blogger Teddy Nee. You might remember him from his previous article on Fluent, comparing English to Chinese on the world stage.

Today Teddy will be sharing his top 5 Resources for Learning Chinese. Enjoy his recommendations:

“China” is a word that we frequently see or hear, for example in newspaper, TV, books, etc. There might be Chinese people living in your neighborhood, your country, or doing business with you. I am also certain that you can see Chinese people almost everywhere you go, from Africa to Europe, America to Australia.

And of course, chances are you're using “Made in China” product today. China’s economic growth is massive. It is huge and powerful, so much so it cannot be ignored. China can lay claim to being world’s fastest growing major economy, a global hub for manufacturing, and the largest exporter of goods in the world.

These facts motivate many learners to learn the official language of China, which is Chinese Mandarin, or simply called Chinese. Keep in mind that there are also many dialects spoken throughout China, and spoken by Chinese descents around the world, such as Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, etc.

5 Top Resources I Used For Learning Chinese

Chinese was a mandatory course in the school I attended. It is my second foreign language and to be honest, I found it challenging to learn. I have spent many years learning it and I am staying in Taiwan at the moment, so Chinese is my daily language now. Here I want to share with you five Chinese learning resources that have helped me so much in the progress.

1.     Peggy Teaches Chinese

Peggy Lee, an experienced Chinese instructor, has so many things about Chinese language and culture to share with you in her blog “Peggy Teaches Chinese”, and her YouTube channel. She offers free online video lessons and also private tutoring.

She began her teaching career in 2008. Today, Peggy Lee’s YouTube channel has gained over 13,000 subscribers, and she has taught students from all over the world. She received Fulbright Fellowship scholarships to teach Chinese at the University of Arkansas and she is pursuing her graduate studies in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language graduate program in National Taiwan Normal University.

Her teaching style professional and interactive, so Peggy (my old university buddy, by the way) and her channel are guaranteed to bring you up to date quickly.

2.     Practical Audio-Visual Chinese

Taiwan is one of many popular places to learn Mandarin. I had a chance to be part of a big student community in Mandarin Training Center (MTC) of National Taiwan Normal University in Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei city.

We used Practical Audio-Visual Chinese, which is available from level 1 – 5. This learning material covers daily conversations followed by grammar notes. Students don’t only learn about the language, but also the culture.

Many learning centers in Taiwan use Practical Audio-Visual Chinese series as teaching material. You can also purchase them at Amazon. 

3.     Zhongwen

I like reading very much, it is one of my methods to learn languages. As for Chinese, it may be troublesome and time-consuming to draw characters stroke by stroke, and it can be more difficult if you don’t know the stroke order. Writing Chinese character strokes starts from left to right, top to bottom, and inside out.

In order to save time checking words in the dictionary, I installed a plugin in Google Chrome called Zhongwen: A Chinese-English Popup Dictionary.  It works just like the name suggests: An explanation box will pop up whenever you highlight the Chinese characters you want to understand. Zhongwen also detects whether more than one characters form a word. I am very satisfied with the service. I still use it until today, so you should definitely grab this plugin if you are a Google Chrome user.

4.     italki

If you want to learn by having language exchange, you can find your language partners in italki, a language learning website based in Shanghai. By having headquarters in China, italki is accessible by China’s huge population. Founded by American and Chinese entrepreneurs in 2007, italki is officially registered in Hong Kong.

Besides finding language partner, you also can take classes and read articles about Chinese language. There are 85 Professional Teachers and 188 Community Tutors at the time I'm writing this.

I like italki because it offers hassle-free payment process and I like the way the information is arranged on its website. Everything can be done with several clicks on your mouse. I also like its Language Challenge program, where participants learn any languages within the given period of time.

5.     Hacking Chinese

Hacking Chinese is a blog run by Olle Linge from Sweden, offering language coaching, lecturing and teaching, as well as consulting and analyzing to students.

Olle covers everything about Chinese language and culture in his posts. Despite knowing Chinese as a foreign language, he is currently enrolled in a master’s degree program in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language in a university in Taipei.

Besides Olle’s articles, you can also find abundant resources about learning Chinese, such as reviews on some Chinese learning platforms, podcasts, and many more. There are also Hacking Chinese Challenges to help you learn by building language skills through daily practice and friendly competition.

Have You Tried These Chinese Resources Yet?


My New Year Language Challenge: The First 15 Days of Italian

Ciao everyone, today I'm quite excited to be sharing my guest writer Tanja's first update on how she is getting on with the italki Language Challenge.

“Monolingualism is curable”

italian challenge2

Ciao a tutti! Today’s title is quoting a local professor who always used to say this to her students. I think it’s a charming notion - and a good one. I am now a little more than two weeks into my italki Challenge adventure, I have had eight sessions since January 15th, so I’m slightly ahead of schedule. I said my first sentences in Italian in November and now I am reading a book about Greek philosophers, watching films about murders in Sicily and having conversations about social movements in Europe during the 70s, all in Italian. None of this comes easy, but it’s doable.

Staying motivated

italki is providing the challenge participants with weekly motivational emails. As they have correctly pointed out, most people remain motivated in the first week - it’s further on that it gets harder. I admit I initially did not even consider three hours a week too much of a challenge. Intensive courses with five hours a day: that’s what I call intense. And yet, there have been midweek 9pm sessions after a full day of work and appointments when “sleep” seemed like a much more attractive option. No matter how tired I was, I always felt a sense of achievement after attending. It's similar to the feeling you get when you’ve made yourself go for a run - both because I’d opted out of being lazy and because my lessons have in fact been enjoyable throughout.

I did cancel my offline lessons (for the duration of the challenge, at least), for two reasons: a) It would have been tricky to fit more lessons into my week, b) I figured that it’ll be easier to eventually assess my “italki-progress” that way.

Learning with italki

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to pick a second teacher. Three lessons a week with one person seemed excessive, especially with my usual teacher's very time-consuming (for him) method of making Anki cards to address frequent mistakes I make. Since we are not following a strict course of study anyway, I opted for asking another teacher whether she’d like to help me along. It’s working out very well - I stick to similar grammar topics across the board (recently: pronouns, next up: future tense) and yet they both do things very differently. My second teacher sends me stuff in advance while I receive my other teacher's materials after the lesson. The homework varies, the conversations focus on very different topics.

The Skype sessions feel more one to one than even offline lessons, because everyone is so focused. At the same time, exercises deemed too time-consuming are immediately assigned as homework, so that no valuable teaching time is wasted.

I can see myself taking Skype lessons for a while

Are there disadvantages? Well - depends. What you don’t have in these lessons is interaction with other learners, so for people who like to compare themselves with others that might be a disadvantage. The lessons are also intense and you can’t escape your teacher - which is what a surprising number of students in classrooms seem to try to do. For me that’s not an option, there is nobody else except the native speaker teacher to listen to me, so I am not nervous to speak “in class”. Personally, I can see myself taking Skype lessons for a while, while I had not committed to regular courses for a long time.

Have I studied hard?

Surprisingly, with three lessons a week, I lack the time to do my “usual” kind of studying: making lists, checking them twice etc. Both teachers give me a fair amount of homework, which I appreciate. Since life continues on, however, I have not had huge amounts of time to do other studying with my own books. I have tried hard to get my hands onto “immersion materials”. In an attempt to familiarise myself with Italian culture, I have developed a slightly unhealthy obsession with Commissario Montalbano, even though I don’t even like detective series very much. I first checked it out because it was on Prime (editor note: This is Amazon Prime, click here for a free trial through Fluent's Affiliate link) for free, and now I have ordered the DVD set (with English subtitles). I have also watched a few episodes of other shows on youtube, and while it’s still very difficult to even get the gist, it’s nice to be able to listen to “real conversation at original speed”.

It’s all Greek to me

Speaking of comprehension: I’ve noticed a number of weird issues. A few weeks ago, I downloaded some podcasts and it took me until the third one to notice that the guy was alternating between Spanish and Italian, using the former to explain the latter. Clearly my brain was just set to “foreign”. I hope this will stop happening in the future when Italian becomes much more “my language”.

Also, accents: My new teacher comes from a different region which I assume means she speaks with a different accent. I couldn’t say, though, and I have long had the theory that learners can’t really tell accents apart in the early stages of learning. How else would any young Brit on a language exchange ever understand Bavarians?

Core Language Skills

Practising reading, writing, listening and speaking at the same time is essential for my personal definition of “becoming fluent”. Various blogs suggest learning very basic grammar and then spending most of your time learning vocabulary. This seems a fair approach if you are learning a language for communication, because as we all know it’s perfectly possible usually to understand speakers with poor grammar skills. This is true, by the way, for native as well as non-native speakers, and that is my issue with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). Their tests, similar to language entrance exams at national universities, would be quite a challenge for a lot of native speakers who can’t actually summarise articles in their mother tongue, or find it hard to have an ad-hoc conversation about “advanced” topics. When “measuring” language skills, the inventors seem to more or less cater for an “academic” clientele. I have a lot more to say about that (maybe some other time) but, for now, I’ll admit that I am said clientele and that I do want to know the stuff required on those levels.

With my knowledge of language structures and my familiarity with cognates, I have a fair understanding even of intermediate texts because I just know the words from other languages and have a knack for guessing from context. What I lack is a solid grammar foundation that is taught at levels A1 and A2. That’s because my lessons are mainly focussed on speaking, with the “learning” happening in between sessions. This suits me fine, because I really don’t need to have someone sit on the other side of the internet while I do gap-fills. Grammar is not, however, drilled into me. As I have mentioned before, drills never made me fluent in French, so I am interested to see if I become better at the basics as my speaking and my comprehension progress. The above-mentioned approach insists that grammar will become much easier once you already “know” the language. Also (and I am sorry I forgot the source, I have been reading zillions of blog posts) it was said somewhere that you can’t learn a language, you just get used to it. That sounds good, right?

What have I learned?

I have learned that Italian has some seriously long words, that language apps are not always perfect (for example, one insists that “tazza” is another word for “toilet”, but all my dictionaries disagree, though who knows about colloquialisms) but mostly useful (I think the 3400 words app has had some real effect on my vocabulary skills). I finally figured out my HD receiver and found out that I have an Italian news channel! The most important insight however is that I really like Italian, so I am very glad to be diving into it.

Note from Kerstin: Core Skills Book

If you are interested in finding out more about the four core language skills and how you can train them in your language learning, I recommend you check out my book Fluency Made Achievable, which comes with targeted exercise ideas and a 3 Week Planner for Fluency.

New Podcast! The Full Online Learning Guide with Breanne Dyck

breanne podcast

Welcome to episode 10, a little milestone for the Creative Language Learning Podcast! Thank you guys so much for tuning in, sharing the podcast and responding to it so often.

Do you have any dream guests you'd like to hear from? Special topics, questions or discussions? Leave them in the comments below.

This time, I am talking to an expert in the area of course design and online education. Breanne Dyck knows how to make people learn, she's got lots of information about neuroscience and learnt quite a few languages herself.

It’s not abstract motivation that keeps us going. It’s all about checking in along the way.

In this Interview you'll be finding out about

  • Why languages are the daddy of self-teaching
  • The big mistake all self-learners tend to make
  • Where the MOOC concept comes from
  • What you should consider before you start even looking for an online course
  • The difference between a MOOC, an online course and Duolingo
  • How to avoid wasting money on unsuitable courses

  • What motivation is really about

Click here to Listen on Stitcher and Here to Listen in itunes

Article of the Week

What is a foreign language worth?

Tips of the Week

Out of the following fabulous three tips, Breanne chose number 1 as her Tip of the Week! Keep immersing yourself in the target language through Facebook and practice switching from and to the target language without translating everything in your head.

1) Language Immersion by Facebook on Language Surfer

2) Beat the Leaderboard on Memrise like Leszek Trybala

3) Translate to Beat the Plateau, a tip from Dr Rebecca Braun at the Guardian Live Q&A

Tips and Links from this Podcast

Breanne is holding three major webinars, the Elevate series from 3-6 December 2014. If you're curious about making your own online course, this is THE place to be.

Google, in case you have not heard of it

Rozuku, an easy course creation website

Udemy, an online course marketplace with reviews and thousands of courses

French Grammar for Beginners, my awesome online French course for grammar reference and simple explanations, online course marketplace

Breanne Dyck's Blog at MNIB, about the science of learning and teaching online

Reddit, where you can find communities about anything and any language

The Best Japanese Movies, Anime and Games

An Article by Angel Armstead

Do you love Japanese culture as much as I do?

Since I’ve been studying Japanese the longest out of the three languages I’m studying, I want to showcase some of my favorite games, shows and movies.

I'm actually still on the hunt for my favourite Japanese novel. I currently don’t have any favorite Japanese novels as I still have problems with much of the writing system. I don’t have that problem with some of my games because they typically use kana, which I'm pretty comfortable with by now. I’m also able to easily find info to help out with games that don’t rely on just kana.


I guess I should warn anyone reading this that the types of movies I watch are not meant for children. My favorite genre is Horror and was quite happy to find Horror in Japanese.

Battle Royale

This is one of the first non-animated films that I watched. I didn’t like the movie at first at all because of my bias with The Hunger Games. I did later like it the second time around as I paid more attention to specific characters.

Battle Royale is a movie in which an entire class is selected to be a part of "Battle Royale.” In it the students are drugged up and taken to an island and basically told "kill or be killed in three days". There is no other option as collars are placed on the students' necks while drugged up. The teacher in this game can eliminate anyone he wants to because of that collar. One of the things that I found good about it was the returning character Kawada. He was in a Battle Royale before and lost someone close to him. In this one he’s in, he shows that it doesn’t have to be "kill or be killed".

One Missed Call

This is one of the movies I accidentally found due to Netflix. I sometimes look up foreign movies on Netflix so I do still get the DVDs. It’s a great way to find foreign language films and watch them in their original language. One of my biases towards this was the ringtone. I like playing piano and did like learning this (Right hand only) on piano (listen here if you dare!). Plus it’s the only movie I’ve watched where your ringtone was a real ringtone of death!

In this movie your cell would ring as normal but with a strange ring tone. The caller id would show the call coming from you. In the call you’d hear your own death and what time it will take place. Almost everyone uses a cell phone. I’m a big fan of horror so using something so commonly used is what interested me in this movie.


Another movie I got from Netflix. My original reason for watching was to make sure that a story I was working on wasn’t exactly like this movie. Fortunately it wasn’t. Seeing the future is a liability for anyone in this movie.

Premonition starts off kind of regular. A man is driving his wife and kids and stops at a pay phone. He sees a piece of a newspaper clipping which talks about the death of his family and even shows the time. But before he can prevent it, the crash from the paper clipping happens. One of the things I liked about it was the idea of seeing the future through mediums like newspaper, radio, etc. It also showed seeing the future wasn’t entirely a good thing. Most would want to change a horrible future but changing it may be worse than allowing the future to take its course.


All of these games can be played in either Japanese or English.

Eternal Sonata

This is an RPG (role playing game) about Chopin on his deathbed and the strange world and unique people in it.In this game you have the option for English subtitles with English or Japanese audio. I have switched between playing this game in Japanese and in English. That’s a good point because you can switch back and forth in the game. In some games you don’t get to switch the language once you choose it.

Pokémon X/Y

First Pokémon game that I know that allows you to pick the language that you can play in. Before this game, I would import the games to play them in Japanese. If you pick Japanese you can switch between kana and kanji. You cannot change to English or any other language once you select the language you want to play in. Unfortunately it does not have my other two target languages as an option. I’m still happy that I can play it in Japanese.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Worldwide Edition: Stairway to the Destined Duel

This was the first game I ever got that was multilingual. For language learners, the downside is you cannot choose between kana or kanji. The Japanese is written correctly so I do have problems with the kanji but I’ve gotten a lot better than when I first played it. You can change the language within the game anytime that you want, even during a duel, which is brilliant.


I don’t watch anime as much as I used to. I think once I moved on to games in Japanese and Horror movies I kind of forgot about anime. So these shows aren’t the newest.

Ah! My Goddess

This was the first anime that I watched for more than 5 minutes. This was back when I couldn’t stand anime. A boy accidentally calls a Goddess hotline and asks the Goddess to stay with him. It’s a comedy. I don’t remember how I found this anime since it wasn’t on TV. I originally got the VHS tape and didn’t have subtitles as an option. It was also my first year of Japanese class and didn’t understand most of it. I still liked what I saw.


Inuyasha is an anime starring your average teenager Kagome Higurashi. Everything changes on her fifteenth birthday when she is dragged to the past and forced to continue in a life she lived in the past. There is a lot of fighting in this show with random monsters but there is also a lot of comedy in it. Even though the story is kind of serious, it still has times where it’s fun and light.

Probably the second anime that I watched and liked although it was also one I turned off originally within five minutes. I decided to give it a second chance after seeing the main villain in the show. I had taken classes a little bit longer by the time I got into this show and I watched it in English & Japanese. Though most times I still prefer the Japanese version. I like to hear a target language as much as possible.

Listen to my piano rendition of Inuyasha on YouTube.


I'll confess something: I hated this show so much at first. A friend of mine got me into the video game so I decided to watch the show again. I wanted to learn the names of the cards. I eventually found a way to watch it in Japanese. Typically shows like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! are hard to find in thier original language, so by the time I started watching this show I could understand a lot more Japanese. Maybe that’s what helped me like it eventually - the confidence booster in showing me that I understood a lot more Japanese than even I realized.

I liked this show because of the emphasis on Ancient Egypt, pharaohs and Egyptian deities.

What's your favorite language show?

So that’s my list, but there are many more great Japanese games and books out there. What are your favorite movies, games, books or shows that you’ve watched in your target language?

Guest Post: It's language, Jim, but not as we know it

Welcome to a particularly exciting week for millions of young people here in the UK. It's A-Level results week! The rush for university places UCAS Clearing season is on and everyone's focusing on exams. In this week, we'll have a couple of guest posts from experts, starting with tutor Sally Holmwood. In this article, she revisits what it is that we are learning for: exams or life?

International Readers: A-Levels are the UK's school leaving exams at 18, and GCSE are the ones at about 16. They love exams in this country.

It’s Language, Jim, But Not As We Know It!

The things you leave school knowing – some dates and long division – so much of it has been of no use to me. Schools should teach the basics of cookery, first aid, how to look after your money and how to speak foreign languages – useful things.
— Jane Asher, actress

Jane Asher is right – languages are useful. Yet, as one BBC article illustrates, for some time there was a worrying decline in their take-up amongst pupils at GCSE. Another article written since then reports a change for the better. But the question remains: What could be dampening young people’s enthusiasm for learning languages? 

Lingo show picture ©bbc, exam pic © albertogp123  on Flickr

Lingo show picture ©bbc, exam pic ©albertogp123 on Flickr

Live, Love, Learn…

I think back fondly to my experience of learning languages at school as a time of great discovery. I went on excursions to Dieppe and the Moselle Valley (editor's note: hey look that's where I am from!) and took part in exchanges (like those you read about in my previous guest post). I was actively encouraged to venture beyond the confines of the language syllabus and spent time reading books and magazines and listening to German radio stations at home. The more opportunities I had to explore and to take control of my own learning, the more enthusiastic I became about languages.

Once a week, we had a conversation class with a native speaker.  There was an obligation to practise certain things in those lessons but spontaneity/fluidity of general conversation was important too. 

Conversation Killer?

Remembering those classes, when I began work as a private tutor myself, I did not hesitate to lead into lessons with a few minutes’ general conversation in the target language. The first lesson after a school holiday was the perfect opportunity to practise a variety of tenses and grammatical constructions with questions to engage my pupils. Following one half-term holiday, I began a general conversation with one of my pupils. “Was hast du letzte Woche gemacht? Wie war das Wetter? Was hast du am Liebsten gemacht? Was willst du während den nächsten Schulferien gern machen?”  

At first they looked confused. Then they thrust a piece of paper towards me in indignation: “I have not learnt those questions – I have learned these questions.” Once upon a time, even pupils who were less confident might have bravely attempted to answer such spontaneous questions. These days, however, the approach to modern language learning seems far more (painfully) formulaic.

Testing Times!

Many of my younger friends sat their GCSEs last year, studying hard until the bitter end and earning grades to be proud of! Yet some say that, even after years of learning a language, they still feel barely able to string sentences together in spontaneous foreign conversation! However, the paragraphs they had memorised in response to the set oral questions remain etched on their brains…

I do love the way that children’s television is embracing foreign languages with shows like the carefully researched “The Lingo Show” for its younger viewers. It is a great way to inspire young children to learn. As those youngsters move up through the education system, the pressure will be on their teachers not just to hit targets and climb league tables but to keep pupils’ interest in learning foreign languages alive! 

Less isn’t always more

If given more opportunities to engage in general conversation and to respond to general questions, rather than listening out for rote clues to rote answers, pupils will start to feel happier and more confident to use the languages that they are learning. They will get more enjoyment out of using those languages and feel inspired and motivated to continue learning them. 

Next time you come to practise your language skills, consider your reasons for learning the language. Are you listening out for specific phrases so that you can give the one reply that you've learned for them? Or do you hope to take the language you have learned and be able to adapt it for use in real-life situations? For if you do, then perhaps it’s time to look for a more flexible approach to your language-learning..

About Sally Holmwood

Sally lives and works in West Sussex, England. She splits her working week between individuals of all ages with special needs, and languages (specifically German and French). Sally loves to make time to travel the world when she's not working - sometimes Europe, sometimes even further afield! Furthermore, she is a big fan of great television: SherlockBonesThe Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who.

You have GOT to follow Sally on Twitter or Facebook, she is fab! And don't forget to check out her tutoring services at Indigo Languages.


Guest Post: Safety first… sanity second?

 Today I'm very happy to be able to feature a guest post from fellow language tutor Sally Holmwood. I'm a German who was mad about Britain and English learning as a teenager, Sally is a Brit who's mad about German and Germany! Only good things can come from this. She's writing about the topic of foreign exchanges - find out how they changed her life!

Safety first...sanity second?

Brits have a worldwide reputation for being the kings of Health and Safety but this time they may have taken things a step too far! I recently came across articles by both the Daily Mail and BBC, explaining a Welsh Council’s decision to halt exchanges to foreign towns amid safety concerns.

Any adult knows that there is a risk involved in anything we do. It seems a great shame, however, to withdraw such a great opportunity from pupils without first exploring all possible avenues of making it the safest experience it could be.

The linguistic and motivational benefits of spending time in a native setting are crystal clear, as recent Fluent blog guest Mickey Mangan demonstrated so beautifully. And school exchanges have long contributed to making language learning greater for students from anywhere.

Impressions of Neheim, Germany  ©sally holmwood

Impressions of Neheim, Germany
©sally holmwood

Take my own story, for example…

At 12 years old, I wrote a letter in very basic German to be sent, along with those of my classmates, to a school in the Sauerland.  We’d only recently begun learning German and such interaction was seen as a valuable part of the learning experience. Our school had a long-standing link with the St. Ursula Gymnasium and ran a biannual exchange programme. A few years, and several letters, later and my pen-friend, who had initially chosen to write to me because I had a guinea pig, was standing infront of me with her family, ready to take me back to Germany for two weeks!

In the mid-90s, we had two 10 day stays at each others’ places, and I loved every minute. I was a mood board pioneer and glued all kinds of weird and wonderful mementoes into a diary – receipts, tickets and even chocolate wrappers found their way in, much to the amusement of my friends. We went on several guided tours, and I became so keen to hear and speak German that I asked my teacher to allow me to walk around with the German group!

Since those school days, I have been back to my “German home” of Neheim so often in the last 20 years that I now know my way around. In some of my favourite shops, assistants know me by name. I have fond memories of a Junggesellinnenabschied (hen night) with all its traditions and would urge any visitor to experience the town’s centuries-old Jägerfest celebration to experience local culture at its best. 

Exchanges are a challenge with huge benefits                 

Diversity Abroad, a leading US website dedicated to international mobility, cites so many benefits to taking part in an exchange programme of any description – increased self-confidence, maturity, improved problem-solving skills, and a greater understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses among them.

Removing yourself from your comfort zone and actively embracing an environment that boasts new traditions will inevitably be difficult and intensely challenging. But to be part of such an experience is incredibly character-building.  And there is, of course, the added bonus that you return home at the end of your stay with a host of new life-long foreign friends.

About Sally Holmwood

Sally lives and works in West Sussex, England. She splits her working week between individuals of all ages with special needs, and languages (specifically German and French). Sally loves to make time to travel the world when she's not working - sometimes Europe, sometimes even further afield! Furthermore, she is a big fan of great television: Sherlock, Bones, The Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who.

You have GOT to follow Sally on Twitter or Facebook, she is fab! And don't forget to check out her tutoring services at Indigo Languages.

Fun and Motivation: Meet Mickey Mangan, host of the Lernen to Talk show

This week, I'm very pleased to share the story and successes of Mickey Mangan.

Mickey is best known on the internet as the host of the Lernen to Talk show. He has done all of us language learners a big favour by charting his progress as a native English speaker learning German during a year of living in Germany and taking his language skills from very basic to very comfortable.

If you have never seen or heard of the LTTS, I recommend you watch Mickey's own short introduction to the show.

I had the pleasure of speaking to him last week, highlights of which will be available to watch on Wednesday. (Note this interview is written as paraphrases, not word for word transcripts of Mickey's answers.)

Hey Mickey, thanks for chatting to me! I am definitely a fan of LTTS and I get a lot out of the episodes both as a teacher and as an expat getting to see her home country in real life snapshots. You mention right at the start that your goal is to show others how much improvement attacking a language like a fun, passionate project can bring. Are you a linguist by trade?

No, I actually went to university and took Mechanical Engineering. My first foreign language was Spanish, and I would say that yes, I liked it at school but after all those hours leading me to high school graduation I still didn't feel as though I could actually speak any of it. Think about it - that's approximately 1000 hours spent on a language and the result didn't feel like anything resembling fluency. I was left with a sense of wasted time.

I made the most of every day and I had such fun using the language in real life.

When I went on to university, the desire to make all those hours count stuck with me, and so I enrolled on a Study Abroad semester in Chile. That was my first experience of living in a country and going from these low-level speaking skills to full confidence (what many people would consider fluent). I made the most of every day and I had such fun using the language in real life.

Did you take Spanish in the partner university in Chile?

I took Engineering modules, but the experience of my own subject paled in comparison to the energy and stimulation I felt from focusing on understanding it all in Spanish. I found myself doing better at my own subject because it was taught in another language. That extra challenge just kick-started my interest.

On my return from Chile, I was filled such excitement and appreciation for taking the learning experience into real life that I just wanted to go abroad again and learn another language.

Was that the motivation behind LTTS as well?

Yes and no. My semester in Chile gave me a clear appreciation of how much and how fast progress in language learning can be made. But the real idea for LTTS came at summer camp!

I had a job as a counsellor at Concordia LV, a camp which provides this immersive foreign language experience for children. When I was there, I could see that those students who really signed on to making the most out of camp were the ones that improved the most. I wanted to show them what can be achieved in language learning by talking to people, and eventually the idea of the videos was born.

Fast forward to your trip to Germany. How and why Germany?

The programme was CBYX. It had a lot of attractive aspects for me in particular, being an engineer interested in sustainable energy sources for example.

The point of the Lernen to Talk show is having fun and instilling motivation.

And in the LTTS videos, you have managed to document a full year of language improvements. Did you ever feel that you might not achieve your goal?


Actually, I must say I knew with 100% certainty that I would be fluent in German within a year. In fact, as I was filming the LTTS I always had the final time lapse in mind - I couldn't wait to cut the videos together and just show all this progress. I felt that having this as a project and attacking it with a sense of fun really kept my motivation going. The point of LTTS is having fun and instilling motivation.

And from the comments that you receive on your videos, I can tell that it has worked!

Finally, I noticed how confident you are right from the start. How aware were you of your own progress?

I didn't feel it very strongly in the first two months, but after those two I moved to a different place and suddenly made contact with so many new people who all met me for the first time. They were so impressed with how much German I had learnt in just two months that it really boosted my confidence. Progress can be so microscopically incremental for a language learner that I would really say the best way to stay encouraged is to change your environment completely. Find a new person to practice with or join a new group, so that you can get the positive feedback.

Progress can be so incremental for a language learner that the best way to stay encouraged is to change your environment completely.
— (my favourite thing Mickey said)

So, now that your CBYX year has come to an end, would you say you're "done", a finished product now fluent in German?

Well. I would confidently write "fluent" next to my German and Spanish on my CV - but fluent is a meaningless word by most measures - but really I wouldn't say I'm fluent until I can fully enjoy a novel in the language.  With progress comes more interest and motivation, so now I want to discover Goethe.