Field Report: Three Strategies You'll Wish You Knew When You Hit a Wall Learning a Foreign Language

Boy, have I got a useful guest post for you today! Cher Hale's language of choice is Italian - she's best described as a relationship counsellor between humans and the Italian language. Once they’ve fallen in love and the honeymoon period ends, she helps them stay committed until they’re conversational. You can read her vocabulary speed-dates, grammatical musings, and cultural cocktail party facts at The Iceberg Project or on Twitter @cherhale.

In today's post, Cher is lending us a hand to help with the inevitable frustration that comes with the language learning journey.

I sat at my desk and stared at the screen.

The Chinese characters seemed to taunt me as I wrote their literal meaning in English to grasp why one character went after the verb here and after the subject in so many other cases. 

After five minutes, I sighed, rolled my eyes at the Mandarin language, and moved on. 

Four months prior I would’ve let frustration take over.

In fact, when I was learning Italian, frustration was the reason why I stopped lessons, and if it weren’t for my commitment to The Iceberg Project, I would not have reached the level where I’m at now.

With Mandarin I find myself running into the same frustration, but instead of wanting to quit, I feel more at ease and motivated to tackle the language again.

What inspired that difference?

What did I learn in six months that changed my view of frustration?

 When I’m not learning Mandarin or writing for the Italian site, I’m usually reading an academic paper (or watching Doctor Who) – most notably from the Modern Language Journal. On one of my most recent linguistic explorations, I stumbled across a linguist named Stephen Krashen from the University of Southern California.

He talks about the Comprehension Hypothesis, which suggests “we acquire language and develop literacy when we understand what we hear and what we read” (Krashen, 2014).

This means that what comes in – books, audio, and lessons – are more important than what goes out – speaking and writing. 

There is more to this theory, so if you’re interested, read this interview from Language Mastery.

3 Ways to Reduce Frustration

According to Krashen, other polyglots and my experience, there a few key ways to reduce frustration.

1)  Understand that you don’t learn grammar concepts, phrases, or vocabulary until you’re ready to learn them.

This point comes from Krashen, and it’s interesting to note how representative this point is of life.

How many times have you gone through difficult situations and only learned the lesson after the third time?

The lesson was there and had been waiting for you all along. You only needed to develop to a certain level to absorb it.

So when it comes to grammar, know that you won’t learn certain concepts until you’re ready.

You can try hard to memorize usages and nitpicky rules, but studies suggest you need to be at a certain level first.

Like the famous polyglot, Kató Lomb, paraphrased from the original German:

One learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.

 (Original German: “Man lernt Grammatik aus der Sprache, nicht Sprache aus der Grammatik.” – Toussaint and Langenscheidt)

 While this might sound depressing (because you can’t game the system and memorize everything), it’s actually liberating.

What this means for you: When you encounter a difficult concept or don’t understand something, seek an answer. If it’s still not connecting, LET IT GO.

You might not understand it today, but I guarantee that as you continue learning, it and one hundred other invisible things, will become visible. It will be frustrating, but you’ll be more at ease when you let yourself off the hook after honouring that this is how our minds work.

2)  Drop boring textbooks, and pick up content that interests you. 

Some might argue with me, but I think you can use interesting, relevant content in your target language no matter what level you’re at.

For example, Lomb, the polyglot mentioned earlier, used a Russian novel to learn Russian. She never went to a class and learned rules. She used what she had – a compelling novel – and worked through it. 

What this means for you: Find a book, a television show, a magazine, or even memes online that you’re interested in to integrate into your learning schedule.

 Don’t have a schedule or know what to do each day? Read this: Four Easy Techniques for Using Foreign Language Every Day

You can also learn techniques for how to read books here : How to Read in a Foreign Language

For tips on how to watch movies and shows effectively, go here : Are You Wasting Your Time Watching Foreign Language Movies?

My final point is that the more background knowledge you have on a topic, the easier the content will be to acquire, so use content you’re familiar with AND enjoy.

3)  Stop EVERYTHING, and be honest with what is and what is not working.

Humans are creatures of habit – both good and bad.

Out of routine, we use a technique to learn and keep doing it even though we recognize we’re not learning from it anymore.

 Then we get confused because we know we’re supposed to be learning everyday, but we’re not sure what we should be doing that actually works.

 At this point, many of us fall off the wagon…but that doesn’t have to be you.

 What this means for you: Look candidly at the techniques you’re using.

 Questions to ask are:

  • Am I using a material that I hate or find boring?
  • Am I studying at a time when I’m unfocused or tired?
  • Am I still using a technique from when I was a beginner that is no longer serving me as an intermediate learner?

Then, take out a sheet of paper and make three columns.

My worksheet for what works and what doesn't!

My worksheet for what works and what doesn't!

Column I: What I l love doing to learn in (target language)

Colum II: What I dread doing

Column III: What I want to try doing

  • Write 4-5 items per column.
  • Look at column II and either find creative ways to make them fun or let them go.
  • Make plans for trying the activities listed in column III.

This can be tough if we think that memorizing 10 words a day is “supposed” to help, but give it a try. Letting go of things you hate or find boring will reduce frustration and invite more joy into the process.

 The strategies people claim have been effective for them may not be effective for you. Try them out, and if they haven’t proved themselves within a month, wave goodbye.

 Remember, in this process you are the most important person, so make the best decisions for you.

Now, I want to hear from you.

Are you struggling with frustrations that these suggestions didn’t cover?

Have you found other strategies that helped?

Let me know in the comments below!

Thanks for reading this article on Fluent, the Language Learning Blog. If you are feeling stuck right now, why not subscribe to Fluent and check out our language book shop.

Pioneer Nation: 4 Lessons for You and Me

Well hello there fellow language fans, and welcome to a personal post. I hope you'll like this personality, she's sat at the bar with a Gin and Tonic.

So a few months I travelled to Portland - the other side of the world for me, and I attended a business conference. It was called Pioneer Nation and designed to give a lot of practical support to solo-businesses, tiny makers, people with something to say. Well, let me tell you this conference was beautiful. Everyone got to wear a wooden name tag and eat lots of donuts in the morning. But it also taught me something about my business - about Fluent! And I want to share some basics with you, because Fluent is obviously where you've come to read this and that means you care.

Teaching and Learning - It's great stuff!

Teaching and Learning - It's great stuff!

I can't find the time to really put all my 45 pages of scribbled notes into a blog post, but some of the highlights are extremely relevant for Fluent and for language learning. Right now, I'm putting a few of them into practice in the following ways:

  1. I've dedicated the last two months to working on not one, but two Fluent Language Guides. I know - OMG! These books will help you get organised and study your language in a holistic way. No quick and empty promises, instead I'll give you exercise ideas, practice plans and tips of how to learn in line with your own strengths and personality.
  2. The 50 Calls Project (it's free - get involved) is all about offering you guys more of an insight into what I can help with. But actually, you are also helping me so much! The confidence in my knowledge of learning and connecting with people has grown as a result of talking to you, and I keep looking forward to each conversation. And more importantly, I'm really learning a lot about how Fluent can BEST serve you - think guides, courses and really practical answers.

PIONEER LESSON 1: Business Is About Service

Lesson one was a big one for me, because it reminded me that Fluent is about making sure my kinda people get what they need. The first speaker, Chris Brogan, is kind of a big deal. And what he says was the biggest deal of all: In business, we do well when we serve the people we really care about.

This lesson was repeated many times over in sessions with the brilliant Rebecca Rapple and Shenee Howard. Wanna learn how to find a customer? Just learn what people are bothered about!

Here's a list of problems that YOU GUYS ACTUALLY HAVE and that I've never really addressed. Boy, do I swear I will become better!

  • You are embarrassed when you finally get the chance to speak your language
  • You worry that you don't know enough to talk to natives
  • You have been told really unhelpful stories like "language learning becomes impossible after the age of 7"
  • You hit roadblocks and stop studying because even the little ones feel so discouraging
  • You worry about your accent when you speak another language
  • You have been told a million things about "just doing it" by the internet, but they forgot to mention how exactly to manage it all
  • You wonder what the point is because everyone speaks English

If those sound like you, trust me. Fluent will serve you well in future.

PIONEER LESSON 2: Pick one Task & Take Action

This is an important lesson for business owners, right? But have you seen the difference it can make to you as a language learner when you stop thinking "I've got to learn Russian" and just pick a small corner of Russian to start at?

A lot of us are faced with a sense of overwhelm when we face the tasks that he have before us, and taking action is so important. Always keep taking that first step on the big journey. There are mistakes and plateaus and setbacks along every long way.

Some ideas I've discussed with the 50 Calls folks have been..

  • If you are stuck on revising the foundations of your language, you could try switching the screens off and working with an old textbook from a second hand store.
  • If you are struggling to understand native language content in films and TV shows, look for places where people speak slower or shows that you already know. For me, understanding Buffy in French will definitely be easier than understanding something like The Sopranos.
  • If you want to get your kids more involved in language learning, perhaps try to think about your own language from a teacher's perspective. How would you start? Could you weave the foreign language into everyday tasks?
  • Finally, if you want to go from talking to one person to talking to many people at once, how about observing, recording and shadowing more conversations? That can really help take the pressure off and get you more comfortable with the situation before you jump in.

All of these big steps become a little bit easier when broken down into smaller tasks. One of the best ever language learning questions I can ask you is "How can you make this into something less scary?"

PIONEER LESSON 3: Be a Pioneer in Anything

I want to tell you something about the language learners I admire the most. Easy to guess they're not the 32-language Polyglots you can find on Youtube (although I respect the achievements of those guys too!). But my real inspiration and my kinda people are the self-directed learners who are doing their own thing. You are at the heart of what Fluent is about: Motivation, curiosity and commitment!

You're a Fluent kinda learner if you

  • Are not in school anymore
  • Decided to go for it anyway and want to get to grips with this language
  • Are human, too: Maybe you struggle with confidence and homework, but you never give up
  • Think my site is great (of course)

Websites like italki are doing a fab job to help you find your kinds of people, but it can be a lonely place anyway. Especially when you read too much into people saying what you should do without remembering that these are all things that you could do. I'm terrible at that too.

One example? My Russian studies are progressing slow as treacle, but every time I read about other people doing things like reading the news in Russian I feel awful. What I really need to do is remember the pioneer mindset and ask myself "What can I do today that's good enough for me?" It's all about facing up to the scary situations, being the person who says "this is MY thing" and starting something new. That's what you are doing every time you pick up your dictionary. I'm here to cheerlead you.

PIONEER LESSON 4: Ask All The Questions

In this conference, I learnt so much new stuff that I could hardly keep it in my head. I had a wonderful time meeting people, and the sessions were truly valuable. But you know where the real value came in? It was every time that someone had the chance to ask a question. I didn't hesitate to do my part and asked (I think) about all sorts of nonsense from "how can I make more people like my blog?" to "if I barter lessons for design services, is that real money I need to put into the accounts book?"). But what this did was really valuable.

First of all, the person asking all the questions gets a lot out of what they're learning. And secondly, you'll be talking and getting heard by many other people. It's so worthwhile!

Feel like a pioneer yet?

Thanks for reading this (slightly weird) article on Fluent - The Language Learning Blog. Don't forget - if you sign up to our newsletter, you will receive a free Guide to the Best Language Learning Resources AND you'll be the first to know exactly how awesome the Fluent Language Guides are going to be.