How Flashcards Helped Me Get Back To Language Learning

You guys might remember a recent post from Angel Armstead, our resident Japanese language and video game buff! Today, Angel is sharing a bit more about how she uses flashcards to get back into the action.

Something as simple as flashcards have helped me get back on my way into language learning. I still have a very busy schedule. I'm working on creating my own coffee business. I want to complete a novel and I've decided to create my own video game. That doesn't even add in the miscellaneous stuff I do such as piano practice or other emergencies that steal time from me.

I use these Kanji Flashcards every day.

I use these Kanji Flashcards every day.

So How Did It Help?

For the most obvious reasons is that they can be taken anywhere. I can take a break from writing and look at my few vocab words or Kanji characters. It's the convenience behind using flashcards anytime and anywhere that made it easy for me to continue to learn Kanji characters and new vocab. When I had stopped language learning altogether because of lack of time I could have used them then. It wasn't until I decided to stop procrastinating that I realized I could do some language learning in a simpler way.

The big thing about flashcards is that they really help me with is the Kanji characters. It's good for vocab too. But all through college I didn't feel like I could learn the Japanese writing system. With the flashcards I feel like I have really memorized certain characters. When I see them in other written works I still remember what the character stands for and other ways to use the same character.

Why Point Out Something That Most People Already Know?

A lot of people I know don't think something simple as flashcards can help much with anything. But in my experience, flashcards are such a great fall guy! Even when you're too busy to listen to a lesson or meet with a teacher, you still have a minute or two to spare for a few words that day. That's all it takes to keep going, after all. A lot of people don't realize how something so simple can help out so much.

Recommended places for Kanji Cards

If you're interested in grabbing your own Kanji card sets, here are my own recommendations: I went to two separate places for kanji cards. One was, but the cards I typically use the most are the ones I got from Their cards do make it obvious which meaning is Japanese and which is the original Chinese meaning. The Japanese meaning will be in hiragana and the Chinese in katakana. They also have kana flashcards. Typically learners of Japanese learn the kana first. It's even more important if you're going the flashcard route. The meanings on kanji flashcards will be in kana.

Language Learning Methods: Will Immersion Teach You A Language Faster?

As I was replying to a comment on this lovely blog the other day, I got to read more about one of my regular reader, Angel. She is a Pokémon nut and challenging herself with the impressive language combination Mandarin, Japanese and Russian. Such an ambitious and fearless lady. You'll be hearing more from Angel very soon as a regular writer here on the blog

In her comment on my blog, Angel mentioned immersion classes. She says:

Another reason I'm reviewing Japanese again is one of the interviews I saw in your book mentioned immersion. I want to take immersion classes once I finish reviewing everything (and) make sure that I'm not just going by the level I ended up at in college.

img ©wikipedia

What's an Immersion Language Course?

Immersion is an interesting topic, and one of those words that always come up in language learning a bit like "polyglot method" or "language exchange". There is a bit of misinformation and myth around when it comes to the topic, so I decided to give you guys the Fluent summary.

First of all, let's look at the word. The OED has immersion as the "deep mental involvement in something" and points out that in foreign language learning it means your teacher will only teach you using the foreign language. That's all - immersion is not dependent on where you take the class or who you're learning with, it just means fewer explanations and more target language content. You do not have to live anywhere but where you live right now to make this work.

Advantages of Immersion in Language Learning

Many language learners dream of immersion classes as they promise quick results and otherwise unattainable levels of confidence, all wrapped up nicely with an impressive target language accent.

And all of this is kinda true - immersion works particularly well when building up to bilingualism, that means speaking two languages at practically native level all the time. This type of class challenges the brain in unique ways while forcing a learner to engage with the way language is used. There's no time for getting lost in grammar and rules, the point is to listen, copy and learn how to use language right.

Some more reading about advantages of immersion can be found over at Omniglot.

Guided Immersion Classes

Stephanie from To Be Fluent is an immersion language teacher in Canada, and she's keen to point out that sometimes explaining complex grammar and style issues does require English. But here's how she describes her classes:

We do lots of grammar, and also lots of reading and discussion. We read an article and discuss current affairs every morning. We also work a lot on oral interaction: asking and answering questions, telling stories, listening to dialogues (most of them work-related), doing role-plays of work-related situations (ex. running a meeting, giving instructions to a new recruit, dealing with problems at work, writing a memo). We also make time for "fun stuff" like watching French TV shows and playing games.

Immersion classes sound great! The key ingredient that the learner must have along with some determination is clearly time: It cannot happen while you're spending most of your days out of the foreign language environment. A true immersion environment requires at least a few hours spent speaking the new language, every day. That's probably why many people develop a simplistic view that learning a language comes naturally as a result of moving to a new country. The better logic looks like this: No fluency without classes, no immersion without time, but time can definitely equal immersion and will give you results.

Andrew Weiler, who writes at, makes the important point that people forget the dream of "Learning like a Child, naturally, carefree" is bobbins, because adults are not children. Immersion classes used too early in language learning will result in frustration and the feeling that you're "stupid" for being unable to learn just by copying. Your ego thinks it can understand things first time, and you'd be denying yourself a core understanding if you jumped straight in at the deep end.

And furthermore, immersion is a teaching method that focuses on communicating by sound and vision and can neglect important learning methods like note-taking and revision. The way to use it is key here.


Immersion is a trendy word among language learners and I have an allergy to trendy sometimes (anti-authority streak? teenage rebel?), so I do not personally use the word when describing how I teach or learn a language. The thing I find particularly important when I teach a language is that "immersion" must not mean "there is a teacher rambling at me in a foreign language and I can understand every 6th word".

Immersion will be right for you if you can follow these three simple rules:

1) Commit

As we've seen above, immersion means putting in the hours to study a language. Of course listening and reading are core parts of this, but producing target language sentences every day is another big part. Immersion classes work extremely well as language learning holidays or short programmes, but they're much rarer as ongoing programmes over the years. So when you decide that this is your chosen language learning method, make sure your schedule can handle it.

2) Structure

Good immersion tutors know that the key is to adapt your teaching and content to the skills or the learners. With that in mind, it's easy even for complete beginners to learn through gentle immersion, and I believe that the structure of guided lessons is a perfect environment. If you feel that you have to tackle immersion-style learning all by yourself, make sure you have Skype and italki ready for real world practice.

3) Know Your Limits

If an overambitious learner may use a bombardment of random target language content as a learning technique, they might as well just look at a flag for an hour. Don't put unreasonable demands on your understanding. Instead, know that it is a lot better for your learning to address the words and structures that you don't know, than to hope you will just assimilate them as if by magic. The "copy and speak" method does work, but only if you actually understand the input that you are getting.

Thanks for reading this 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!

Kerstin's 3 Steps for Learning Topical Vocabulary

Topical vocabulary means the words and expressions that all relate to one topic, for example cookery, education or firefighting. Today's article introduces a foolproof 3-Step Method, plus get involved by posting your next vocab topic in the comments, and we'll feature you in a blog article next year.

Why is this useful?

If you make it your goal to learn all the words in a language, you'll never know when you're done. Setting a goal like "500 words" is also though, because who counts all the new words they're learning?! So bring on the topical approach. You can get into a topic you're interested in and feel like you're really getting somewhere.

Learning topical vocabulary is not difficult - here are 3 steps to success:

3 steps to learning topical vocab.jpg

1. How much do you know about this in English or your native language?

The key here is to set your goal posts right, so that you'll know the detail of what your topic is all about. Plus, remember that language is never isolated from what it talks about. In other words, the success in remembering vocab is based on knowing what you're talking about. If you want to write like an expert about history, better know the facts before the words.

For example, I once worked at the fabulous Panaz, who make all kinds of flameproof fabrics. I was their Export Sales Administrator, on the phone all day taking and confirming orders in French. I could have learnt all the words for fabric and upholstery I wanted, but these customers wanted someone who first knew her stuff, and then knew all the words for it.

So here is Step 1: Be sure you know what you're talking about, and then you'll know which words and expressions you need.

2. Note it down, then relax-repeat-remember

Forget talent - repetition is the heart of success. Many people recommend "SRS", which means a spaced repetition system. In other words, you will have to go over words again even if you remembered them today. The repetition of running through those lists is what makes it go in, so it's got to be a routine for a week or two. Remember Fluency MC? It's relax - repeat - remember.

For more ideas on getting that vocabulary to stick, check out 6 Techniques for Learning Vocabulary.

Step 2: Follow the 3 R's: Relax, repeat, remember.

learning a language attitude.jpg

3. Test yourself twice

It's easy to check how many words you know, so make your first test an article in the paper and a TV show about your topic. With libraries, the internet, YouTube and Facebook at your service, I challenge you to find something you couldn't read a lot about in almost any language. How about searching for the #tag on Twitter (see below)?

Now for the second test, maybe a little bit more daunting but this is going to be more fun too: Have a conversation, chat about the topic, go listen to someone and say what you think! Of course it should be possible to bring most conversations around to your chosen topic (and an amusing challenge, too!) eventually, and then throw in the new words, ask questions and feel the power. You've just become an expert!

Step 3: Test yourself once by consuming, and twice by producing language.

Twitter search result for "Flameproof" in German - there really is media for anything

Twitter search result for "Flameproof" in German - there really is media for anything

Favourite topics?

As always, I want you guys to get involved and think about how this article will serve you best, so you are invited to write a comment below and tell me what your vocabulary topics are. How about Christmas, cookery or knitting? Or look at the cool Sally Holmwood, who's currently studying personal banking words for her part-time job in an international bank.

Don't miss out on the launch of the Fluent Guide to Vocabulary Learning for Self-Directed Language Learners.

Thanks for reading this 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!

3 noteworthy techniques for remembering vocabulary once and for all

Welcome back, Fluent readers, hope you are enjoying a spectacular day. Today, let me share three tricks with you that can boost your memory - without brain surgery! 

The following three techniques might seem counter-intuitive - there's talk of switching off or going back to school! But there is a lot to be said for considering your own productivity levels and best hacks before you set off learning something.


In this article, I'm sharing three ways that were very successful for me for learning languages in the past 20 years. Which one is your favourite? Let me know in the comments! 

1. Be accountable and smart with your lists

This one is for the times when you feel like putting in the graft of language learning - and so you should! 

Vocabulary lists are crammy and annoying and remind you way too much of high school, but you know what? That part of your teacher's methods wasn't all bad. Surprise pop quizzes and learning words by rote have their place, because the method establishes important routines and reminds you that language learning requires accountability.  It also has an even more important use: applying your words.The reason no one ever managed to learn a language from someone who points at stuff and names it is that this taught them zero about making sentences.

So when you are writing a vocabulary list and doing your own revision, here's what you need to do: 

  • Commit yourself to knowing at least 90% of all the words in your list before you move on to another
  • Ask someone else to quiz you on this so you don't cheat
  • Keep lists in a file for repetition after a set a mount of tim  after a few weeks
  • Write down the prepositions and other connections that go with a particular verb. For example, don't just study the German word "auf" but connect this knowledge with the cases it corresponds to.

2. Build strong associations

This technique is as old as the hills and still completely under-appreciated because it just feels contrary to instinct. So let me surprise you by saying: yes, it works to remember a word through a really complicated picture or idea. The trick is to make it something that makes you smile.

For example, a student and I once tried to find a good way of relating to the French word for cloud, which is "nuage". We decided that, since the word sounds a little like "new age" in English, we could think of a cloud.....of smoke! Since then, I have been completely unable to forget the word.

3. Relax already!

The best way of remembering is when something's fun or relaxing. We have seen this in students successfully using music, poetry, art and stories for their vocab. Want an example? What do you think of when I write #thicke? Gotcha. Think of Fluency MC - relax, repeat, remember. It works. But the key to making things stick with this technique is that you must follow the most important rule to get the best results: 

Know your limits!

Repeating what you learn is great, but it's based on not trying hard. As a result, you have got to take the "relax" part very seriously. Make sure you don't try to push towards ambitious goals - one word per song will be fine, after all you weren't really trying anyway. Repeat a few things that you really love, not 1000 things that you feel indifferent about. 


I hope you found at least one tip above that will rock your world, and if you did you might enjoy my upcoming book: The Ultimate Guide to Language Skills.

Got any better ones? Leave me a comment here or say hi on Twitter or Facebook. Can't wait to meet you (in pixels).


How you can make your progess visible with a tracking routine

Here on the Fluent Language blog, we have previously covered the idea of invisible progress and how it affects your motivation. No language learner will find it easy to maintain high motivation and dedication when they feel like they are going along without much direction. So how do we make the progress a little more visible?

This is a look behind the scenes of a language tutor's work - all the prep and track work that students might not see, but that will be an important part of the service. My aim is not just to help my students learn, but to keep them going and keep an eye on what's already been covered and I do track every lesson. 

The Eureka moment doesn't come without Eureka work

Think Outliers and practice hours and remember that you are working systematically towards the moment when it all falls into place. Not as beautiful a story, but achievable.

Here are a few steps that you as the language learner can take in order to keep track and stay motivated. 


© dmachiavello  on Flickr

©dmachiavello on Flickr

Step 1: Decide where and how you will keep track

You will need a consistent place to do this, and one that is easy to use and very accessible. Basically, what we are looking for is a template which can be as low-key as a desk calendar or as high-powered as Evernote.

The important things are as follows:

  • Make sure it's accessible enough for you to use all the time. If you travel, a paper notebook might be better than an app that needs to be online all the time. 
  • Make it consistent, so that once the template works for you, you'll only need to fill it in. Predicability is key here. 

For me, formatting and printability were more important than universal access so I settled on creating a template that works for me, in MS Word. 


Step 2: Write desired objectives

Self-taught learners in particular should have an idea of where they want to get to. The key to planning is to mke sure your objectives actually make sense. So write down a 1 month goal, a 3 month goal and a 12 month goal. This can be as poetic as you like, so "Have a conversation with a real German market trader" can go up there.

Step 3: Break it down into smaller tasks

I insist that you cannot actually have that market chat without taking lots of individual steps, and here's how I may break them down: 

  1. Learn all the numbers and currencies
  2. Cover question making strategies in German grammar
  3. Select items I would like to buy
  4. Learn words for products
  5. Learn market-relevant verbs and phrases
  6. Arrange for travel to the German market

You should be looking at the long-term goal and breaking it down into smaller steps, then list the smaller steps as SMART goals.

Smaller steps for arranging travel to the German market?  

  • Research German market towns
  • Choose trip destination
  • Ensure trip dates match market opening times
  • Choose travel companion
  • Book flights
  • Book accommodation
  • Exchange money
  • Sort out visas
  • Leave space in my suitcase for purchases from German market

If it looks so simple that it's all obvious now, remember your original goal was to talk to a German market trader. How did you think that was going to happen? 

Step 4: Check in regularly

The check in dates are the ones you chose in your objectives, and you are looking for an idea of how much closer you have come to the overall goal. These check ins are a great contribution to knowing whether your language learning project is running on time or behind, and they will also give you a chance to fix anything that's going very wrong. 

Should you be checking in and realising you've been way too ambitious, you only need to stay calm and work out what you actually got done. That's your realistic working pace. Apply it to future goals, without judgement. You will now know if you can achieve the end goal in a year or not, and will be able to add 2 months on at the end if required.  

Plan, Track and Optimise With The Language Habit Toolkit

language habit toolkit

If you want a step-by-step guide to creating your personal language learning system, check out the Language Habit Toolkit, featuring language trackers, goal-setting guides and a review sheet to help you cut out the unnecessary and speed up your progress to fluently communicating in any language.

Thanks for reading this 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!



4 techniques for switching your brain into language mode

Have you ever heard of a phenomenon called "Priming"? Priming is what psychologists call it when your brain adapts to the environment around it without you realising. For example, you might automatically walk slower in a nursing home than you do in a gym. The brain helps your body to adjust, and this also affects your memory and even your confidence and the whole way you interpret situations.

Priming in language learning

Recently, the concept of this environment idea has been in the news from one angle, called "Thinking of home makes it harder to learn a language".  It's a cool piece of science, and definitely another argument to get your cork boards out or browse the internet for flights to Switzerland, Mexico or Moscow.

© morethanmaths  on Flickr

©morethanmaths on Flickr

Here's how priming can work against you

I teach many people in their lunch hour and often experience that those students are more hesitant to go ahead and talk. Having thought about the learning environment and what it means for your performance, I came to the conclusion that these students need to make a switch from work mode to learning mode.

It's not easy, because many people who work in management or office-based roles are in an environment that looks a bit like school, but demands a completely different behaviour. Professionals don't just go out and try things. They are expected to control their creativity and maintain a professional image at all times. When you think about the good mindset for language learners, it's a contrast: You'll do well if you can combine curiosity, discipline and a complete disregard for embarrassment!


Make your language learning happy place

Now, how can we make our brains help us with what we're learning? Try out some ideas that learners and teachers can use to make priming work in the right way:

1. Listen to target language songs and watch some movies

I will not promise you that watching an awful lot of films in a foreign language will magically beam fluency into your mind. To be honest, that would be immersion misunderstood. The real benefit of surrounding yourself with the target language is that you stay engaged with it and develop knowledge of the country. In terms of the priming benefit, it will work magic. Plus, you get to do it while putting your feet up or driving.

2. Relax before speaking

Schedule your learning sessions for the right times. For example, I like doing my chatting in Spanish on the drive back from Zumba - partly because the Spanish lady is captive in my car, partly because we've just spent an hour having fun and dancing around. Others also swear by having a nice glass of wine to relax or using breathing exercises.

Another great tip is to create a learning corner in your home - somewhere quiet, free from distractions and full of positive associations. 


3. Visualise success

School classroom teachers have known for a long time that putting up posters and displays around the classroom can get pupils in the right state of mind for learning. They don't have to be written in the foreign language, but just reminders of what's great about the country you're learning about. Take a tip from this and create your own language learning displays full of things that interest you about your language. They could be recipes, tickets from old trips, tourist brochures or printouts from the internet. I particularly love vintage posters.

You can find more inspiration on my Pinterest boards for German, French and Russian

4. Warm up

In my teaching role, I try to start my lessons off easily with some smaller warm-up activities like asking students how they are or offering them a drink. Recently, I received the great tip that using the same warm-up activity every time for regular students is actually helpful - here I was worrying people would get bored, but the learner's perspective was that knowing "what's coming" allowed them to prepare and feel confident at the start of the lesson. That puts every learner in the right state of mind for success.

Does your tutor or group class do the same? I'd love to hear about your favourite warm up.

As always, I would love to know your thoughts and favourite tricks - and sign up for more if you enjoyed this post! 

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Four easy techniques for using foreign language every day

Most language learners I work with live in a native language environment. If you're one of those learners, you've probably decided to get involved in a foreign language out of love and curiosity. You may be taking weekly classes or sitting down with a self-study book every so often.

For many students, this leaves the question:

What’s a great system for using my target language every day?

Here are my tips for making language a part of your routine:

1. Schedule it

Repetition is powerful, and notebooks are your language learning tool #1. No matter if you are attending a class, seeing a tutor or working through a book chapter on a regular basis, make sure you schedule 3-5 short sessions every week during which you just revisit your notes.

You can structure the progress further with the following techniques:

  1. Do your homework - there are always exercises which focus on getting you involved in the topic you're learning, so sit down and do them. If you don't have a specific exercise, ask your tutor or have a little search around on the web.
  2. Colour code your notes the second time you see them, for example by highlighting everything that's easy in green and the bits that you cannot remember in red. Next time, you will be efficiently revising the critical bits only.

Record your notes once a week and listen to the recording in the car or on your walk to the bus stop.

The bilingual shopping list

The bilingual shopping list

2. Use your language in simple tasks

Simple, everyday tasks are great for learning. Household chores are for plugging in the headphone and revising with a language podcast. I often try to write my shopping list in another language - sure, the first time I looked up 9 out of 10 words in the dictionary, but next time I know I won't!

Other ideas for smuggling the target language into simple tasks:

        3. Create a language board

        Visualising your learning is creative, fun and proven to work. Life coaches use vision boards with their clients, schools use displays in classrooms.

        Language learners should work on two boards:

          1. The Motivation board, where you collect what inspires you to learn a language. Train tickets from your first trip to Seoul, a letter from a pen pal, pictures of the place, recipes, flags...what can you add?
          2. The Study board, preferably a cork or magnetic pinboard where you write out your lessons for the week. This is where you paste big colourful verb tables, handy phrases and examples of the language in use. Filling it up in 14 days could be your new challenge.

          Maybe start on a digital board maker like Pinterest, then get busy with craft materials - this is particularly fun if you have kids to entertain, too! I would recommend creating something big and present. Let it claim a space in your home by putting it up on the walls to help your brain through visualisation.

          4. Involve friends or family

          The key to getting your loved ones involved in your new mission is to avoid putting pressure on them. You need to find ways of getting partners involved that doesn't force them into something they may lack passion for, but at the same time - use this great resource!

          Nothing unites people like a quiz (img © minneapolis institute of arts )

          Nothing unites people like a quiz (img ©minneapolis institute of arts)

          • Ask a friend or partner to quiz you on vocabulary lists - this is a way to make them feel like they are helping you, without having to put in too much effort.
          • Kids are great to learn with here, because you can often enthuse them for learning along with you. Simple songs, secret codewords and nicknames are playful and will keep your target language present in your mind.
          • Designate set times for speaking in the target language - for example, a weekly walk with a native speaker friend or the half hour of breakfast time.
          • Take your loved one on the journey with you - planning joint trips, attending the theatre or eating traditional foods together is fun, not stressful.

          As always, thank you for reading the tips - share yours in the comments and don't forget to sign up for the Fluent Language Learning Newsletter if you liked this:

          Fluency Masterclass, Part 4: Speaking

          United States Government Work

          Talking to strangers can be intimidating to some, but talking to a foreigner in your newly acquired foreign language? Wow, that's something daunting (even mega extroverts like me don't like the thought of that).

          Well, fear not. After you have so diligently practised your  core skills in reading, writing and listening, you should already notice the confidence levels rising significantly. If you have read aloud, you have in fact made large strides in your speaking. Time to get chatting!

          Prepare set dialogues

          English tutor Mike Shelby, who writes helpful articles on all sorts of aspects of language learning, recommends that you pretend you're an actor for this one. What a fun idea! Find a real-life dialogue or even create your own script and get playing. There are many predictable situations you can use for this, for example greetings, shopping or restaurant bookings.

          Practice mirror techniques

          No, sorry, it doesn't count as French mirror practice when you spend 10 minutes putting a lot of Chanel make-up on. Mirror techniques are all the ones you use when you are checking yourself and getting used to yourself speaking the new language. The easiest way to do this is to record yourself using a smartphone, webcam or a cheap little dictaphone.

          But don't neglect the real mirror either: if it's difficult to make a particular sound, read up on how to do it (a th in English, a Spanish ñ, a German umlaut..) and then try to look at your mouth as you pronounce the words. This can be a helpful trick for learning about the sounds you're producing.

          Recite something you love

          pic by  mustafakhayat

          Rliberni's language blog gives readers a great tip for becoming a confident speaker: Learn through recital! If there is a piece of poetry, song or even a newspaper headline that you really love, just learn it. How cool will it be to impress your German friends by pulling some Loriot quotes out of the bag next time you see them? Or how about spicing up the next date with a bit of Appolinaire?

          Okay, then. Maybe not quite, but appreciate how poems are crafted to bring out the beauty in language through rhythm, rhyme and vocabulary.

          Make mistakes

          If this sounds weird to you, then think about how little practice you're going to get worrying about getting things wrong. That's right. On to the next one. 

          You are ready. Do it. Honestly, just try.

          The abovementioned techniques are fantastic ideas to help you get started, get prepared and almost ready for talking. But the final step is entirely up to you. Just go out and talk to someone! You could have a go at Verbling or Italki or meet up with a local language tutor. Many cities also have a language exchange or café somewhere - try a local school or university for example.

          Or if you like it bold, phone up a company abroad and going nearly through with a hotel or restaurant booking. Cheeky! If you need it, the German for "I'm going through a tunnel" would be something like "Entschuldigung, ich höre Sie gar nicht mehr....mir ist grad der Empfang weg..." 

          Thanks for reading this 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!