language learning

Read this before talking with a native.

Read this before talking with a native.

Native.jpg

We’ve all heard it before. When learning a new language, the most effective way is to start speaking the language as quickly as possible. Although I do agree with this statement — especially if you’re conversing with a native speaker — you need to make sure you’re doing it correctly in order to get the most out of it. Sometimes jumping into the deep end and figuring out how to swim later is going to do more harm than you realise.

“But I want to learn a new language as quickly as possible!”

Yes, I get it. You don’t like the idea of slowing down, but there are some important things to consider before you even begin thinking about speaking to a native speaker.

 

Building up your database.

Eager learners cut to the chase and start talking to a native at the first opportunity. That conversation sounds a little something like this:

Eager learner: Hello
Native speaker: Hey, how’s it going?
Eager learner: Sorry, understand I not.
Native speaker: Oh, okay…. bye.

Okay, so it’s not going to be that ruthless, but what you’ve just witnessed is a wasted opportunity. What could’ve been a 5-minute conversation about where to find the local supermarket, became an awkward conversation that ended abruptly. Not having a basic foundation to work from will make the experience slow and frustrating. It’s important to have a basic knowledge of words and sentences before you start conversing with any native speaker. Rather than speaking and writing, the first few exercises you should be focusing on is reading and listening. You want to build up a database of words and phrases first, then once you feel confident with them, you can give those words a test run by conversing with a native speaker.

How do you build up your vocabulary database? Learning the 1000 most common words in your language is a great starting point. 80% of everyday language is constructed using only 20% of the language. Here’s one effective method that allowed me to learn the 1000 most common words in only a matter of months. Another effective way of building up your database is learning common phrases as well. Once you start to get confident with both words and phrases, you’ll be able to recall the words whilst talking to a native, making the conversation seamless. If you feel that there are still gaps when speaking, it’s a sign that you need to go back and build on your database. Expose yourself to the language as much as possible. Read books, articles, and comic books. Listen to audiobooks, music, and podcasts. Take note on the spelling, pronunciation, and rhythm of the language. What is important is that you close your mouth and open your eyes and ears.

The reason I learned another language was to surprise my multilingual girlfriend. I only had a few months to surprise her as I wanted to do it on her birthday. I focused on building up my database first, then when I felt confident enough with a few words and phrases, I started to talk to native speakers. It was liberating to be able to hold a conversation for a few minutes than for it to continuously stop, and start, and ruin the flow of my learning. Was I able to surprise her? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

 

What happens when you focus on speaking and writing?

Prioritising speaking and writing first can lead to all sorts of problems. Let me explain. Say that you’ve started learning a new language. You’ve immersed yourself in the culture, and you have picked up a few phrases. Now, you can even translate a few words. Feeling confident, you decide to write in your journal using only the new language. It reads a little something like this:

“Today a great day. I go visit my friends. We watching very funny movie. I am laughing.”

For someone who has only just grasped the language, this is great! Sure, there are grammatical errors, and the tenses are all over the place, but that’s understandable. After all, everything is still new. So what’s the problem? With no one to correct your writing, you’re going to constantly be making mistakes and not pick up on what is wrong with what you just wrote. From now on, you’re going to assume that the phrase, “we watching very funny movie” is correct, and so you will use that structure to write new sentences:

“I running to shop.”
“She reading scary books. ”
“They swimming in pool.”

By spending time on our database first, you’ll come across sentences that are in the correct format, allowing you to recognise what’s wrong, and what isn’t. How is it that children are able to learn a new language? When I was young, I didn’t read through a grammar book and study what a ‘conjunction’ is. Children are exposed to children’s books, they hear their parents talking to them, and they hear the people around them interacting with each other. For years, they are exposed to the correct way of conversing.

This doesn’t mean you have to live in the country for a few years in order to pick up the language. I know quite a few people that have moved to a different country and never really integrated themselves into their new environment. Even after 30 years, they can’t speak the native language as well as a ten-year-old! As such, you can expose yourself by reading native books, watching films and talking to the locals online. You don’t need to be in the country for that.

 

Getting feedback.

With any skill that you’re trying to learn, feedback is essential. When conversing with native speakers, it’s important that they constantly correct you on what you’re saying. Remember the poorly constructed phrases I wrote earlier? It’s important to share your written work with natives, let them critique your work and give you constructive feedback. That way, you can understand where you are going wrong. The same applies to talking. Once you’re confident about speaking to a native, make sure they stop and correct you every time you say something wrong. Otherwise, you’re always going to assume the greeting, “Hello my friend, how are you very much?” is always correct and will use it on every person you meet.

 

What to bring to the table.

I find that it’s important to be prepared when speaking to a native speaker. Similar to the wasted opportunity that we mentioned earlier, you don’t want to spend 60 minutes talking to a local and come out of the conversation with nothing learned. An exercise that I like to do is write out a paragraph or two in my chosen language. It could be something as simple as writing about what has happened during the day. I’d then take this paragraph to a native speaker and ask them to correct any mistakes. With an exercise like this, you have to check your ego at the door as there are going to be tons of corrections — especially if you’re relatively new to the language. The first time I did this, my paragraph was riddled with mistakes, and I was told that even a seven-year-old could write better than me, but I knew I had to continue doing this as it was beneficial for my learning.

Swedish Feedback.jpg

These corrections helped me understand where I was going wrong. Now that I’m aware of them, I should be making those mistakes less frequently. This technique is a simple feedback loop that will speed up your learning rate. Getting constant feedback is important to the development of your learning, and it should be included in not only your writing but also when you talk as well. I favor writing feedback exercises over talking because it can be difficult for the native listener to constantly stop you when you make a mistake whilst talking. Sometimes he/she let mistakes pass, and you don’t get the right amount of feedback. With a pen and paper in their hand, I find they're more comfortable correcting your mistakes. Some people are too shy to say that you’re wrong. Hence, make sure you decide on the right person to give you feedback.

 

Where can I find native speakers?

It’s all well and good to know what to bring to the table before you sit down with a native speaker, but where exactly do you find one? The obvious answer is in their homeland, but what if you can’t afford to take frequent trips out to the motherland? Don’t fret, below are a few options that’ll do the job.

 

iTalki.

This is a website that I’ve been using for quite a while now, and I’ve never had the need to leave the house — or even my pajamas. iTalki connects learners with teachers. From Swedish to Yiddish, there are a plethora of different languages to learn from and an endless amount of native speakers to converse with. It’s easy to set-up, and once everything is confirmed, you share Skype details with each other and move the conversation over there. Just remember to keep in mind everything I mentioned before you look into this. You don’t want to waste your hour because your foundations are weak!

 

Local Communities.

If online isn’t your thing, and you'd prefer a face-to-face interaction, then finding local communities in your chosen language would be for you. Meetup is a website that brings people together based on what you enjoy. You can start a group yourself or join one locally. It’s a great way to meet new people with similar interests.

 

Friends and Family.

Do you have any friends or family that can help you with your chosen language? Are you not asking them because you feel embarrassed? Nonsense! Put your ego to the side and ask for some help. You’ll be surprised that a lot of them are willing to give their time to you. When I started learning Swedish to surprise my girlfriend, I reached out to my cousin who is half Swedish. We talked on a weekly basis, and she really helped me out at the beginning. Since surprising my girlfriend, she’s continued to help me.

 

Conclusion.

Conversing with a native is essential to further your understanding of a language, but it should not be your focus if your foundations are limited. Make sure you first dedicate time to learning new words, then take it up a gear and learn common phrases. Always ask for feedback, and don’t be ashamed to make mistakes — we all start somewhere! I’ve documented my entire journey of learning a new language. If you want to see my journey and find out what other techniques I’ve learned along the way, click here to find out more.


 

Learn Something New.

1-minute Report Card.jpg

A weekly report of tips, tricks & my current progress with learning a new skill.

 

What I need is a deadline.

What I need is a deadline.

Deadline v2.jpg

I had given myself an impossible goal, at least that’s what I thought at the time. I wanted to surprise my multilingual girlfriend by learning one of her languages and randomly start using it with her. The chosen language was Swedish and I decided to surprise her on her next birthday, which gave me just under 12 months to hit the deadline. With a goal set so far ahead, I thought I’d easily complete it. Stupid me for thinking such a thing! Knowing I had almost a year before the surprise I immediately took a back seat, there was no sense of urgency and I let time fly by. Fast forward 9 months and I was nowhere where I wanted to be. Sure, I studied every now and then. I could understand a few words, construct a few sentences, but enough to surprise my girlfriend? Definitely not. With 3 months left I realised I had to pick up the slack if I wanted to successfully surprise her. I decided to commit to a minimum of 10 hours a week of deep practice. I would use flashcards, converse with locals and log into Duolingo for multiple hours. I’ll be honest with you, it was horrible, but I brought this upon myself. This could have been avoided if I had studied properly from the beginning. Did I successfully surprise her? I’ll let you be the judge of that. 

In my experience, I found setting a deadline one of the main motivators that pushed me to hit my goal. Not only did it hold me accountable, but it put some added pressure that pushed me to get off my lazy arse. In this blog, not only will I share with you my experience with deadlines, but I’ll explain why having a deadline for your goals is not a bad idea for you to implement in your everyday life.

Get your priorities in order.

Having a checklist of tasks to complete is very useful, especially when you have so much to do! You could either track it with a pen and paper, or you could use an online management tool like Trello. The problem with a to-do list is that we can fall into the trap of piling on more tasks without getting a chance to complete anything else. You start off with 3 important tasks, but then reality kicks in and you have to add another 10 more by the end of the week. Sound familiar? Well, it did for me. It wasn’t until I started adding deadlines to each task that I realised what was the most important item to complete. Adding a deadline allows you to step back and discern what needs working on immediately. Tasks with a shorter deadline tend to get bumped up to the top of the list, helping you to create a little order in your list of priorities.

Warren Buffett had a more interesting approach to prioritising his list. When talking with his personal pilot he asked him to write down his top 25 goals. Having done that, Buffett told the pilot to circle his top five most important goals. Once that was done, the list was now split in two. The first list with 5 important goals, the second with the remaining 20. Then Buffett said, “Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

It’s a cut-throat approach to prioritising. but maybe this is what is needed in order to reach your goals. This way of thinking doesn’t have to just be for your life goals, it can also be used for your to-do list for the week or even the day! Understanding what your priorities are in all aspects of your life is important, and setting a deadline for each task, goal or challenge, allows you to establish your level of priority for each one. 

Move with a sense of purpose.

In hindsight, I realised that giving myself a lengthy timeline was my downfall. Knowing that I had an entire year to learn a new skill I moved with no purpose, sure I had a goal, but it was so far away I thought I could take my time and learn at a slow steady pace. There was no sense of urgency, there was no commitment to learning 2 hours a day, there was nothing pushing me to go and study the language. Once I realised that the deadline was looming, that’s when panic set in and I realised if I don’t take this goal seriously, I willmiss the deadline.

Robert Greene, the author of the book Mastery phrased it well,

“The feeling that we have endless time to complete our work has an insidious and debilitating effect on our minds...For this purpose you must always try to work with deadlines, whether real or manufactured.”

The only thing that got me moving was knowing that the birthday was soon fast approaching. The idea of failure and having to wait another year in order to surprise my girlfriend was enough to light a fire under me and get to work. 

Having a deadline not only helps you to understand what needs working now, but it actually gets you moving and completing the goal. Learn from my mistakes and not set your goals too far in advance. Which leads me to my next point.

Set shorter deadlines.

Setting a goal and giving yourself a deadline is great, but setting one too far into the future that you forget about the goal, is just as bad as not setting one at all. We’ve all been there, it’s a new year and along with it comes new resolutions. Losing weight for the year, getting on top of finances or reading more books for self-improvement are a few of the top ranking new year's resolutions every year. How many are able to stick to their new year's resolutions for the entire year? There’s about a 30% drop off rate from the first week, that increases to 40% after the first month and about 60% fall off the wagon after 6 months. Statistically speaking, you have less than half a chance of sticking to a new year’s resolution.

One reason I believe that so many can’t stick to their resolutions is that they don’t break down their goals down into smaller, manageable deadlines. Looking back, I realised that I should have broken it down into quarters, or perhaps monthly and maybe quite possibly weekly. For this reason, I now keep a weekly report card on my learning status. I honestly grade myself from the previous week, basing it on the number of hours I’ve committed to achieving my goals and deadlines. Ever since I implemented this into my life, I have found that I’ve been holding myself more accountable and getting closer to the main goal. 

Keep that sense of urgency alive in you by constantly giving yourself shorter deadlines to work towards. No matter how little, all of those little victories add up, and sooner than later you’ll find that you’ve achieved the big goal you set out to do. Duke Ellington, the famous composer, and pianist said it best, “I don’t need more time. What I need is a deadline.”

Hold yourself accountable.

Setting yourself a deadline is one thing, but to announce it to the world is a whole different story. Why would you want to do such a thing? To keep yourself accountable of course! When I realised that I only had 3 months left on my deadline, I made a commitment to myself that I would study for at least 10 hours a week, sometimes that would mean studying for 2 hours in one sitting! If I didn’t share this commitment with anyone I could have easily kept it to myself and no one would have known that I had failed. I knew I had to find someone to hold me accountable. After searching the internet for such a service, I came across a website known as Stickk.com. Not only do you announce your commitment to the online world, but you pay a fee to an anti-charity for not achieving your deadline. Sounds ridiculous, but I was sold. Stickk.com utilises the psychological power of loss aversion, the idea of losing something is a great motivator to achieving your goals than getting something for completing it. So I invited a few friends to follow me on my journey and got one of them to referee my progress. Ironically, if I had failed one week I would have to fork out $20 to the anti-charity that campaigned for an independent Britain. I was pretty much funding an organisation that wanted to push my overseas girlfriend further away from me.

How did I do? Out of the 13 weeks of intense studying, there were only two occasions where I was unable to commit to a minimum of 10 hours per week. Which meant I had to fork out $40 to the anti-charity. At least it wasn’t the full $260! Having friends following my progress and the thought of losing out on a relatively large sum of money really motivated me. If you decide to do something similar I recommend increasing the stake to an amount that you’re uncomfortable ‘throwing’ away.

A screenshot of my profile on Stickk.com

A screenshot of my profile on Stickk.com

A screenshot of my profile on Stickk.com

My final thoughts.

Everything I’ve shared with you in this article has come from first-hand experience. I too have wondered endlessly with no real direction to achieving my goals. It was only when I decided to give myself a deadline, whether small or big, that it help me establish what the next step was. I can totally understand the stress of giving yourself a deadline and not achieving it. This doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it just gives you some perspective on where you are on your journey. Remember, constant feedback is never a bad thing. Hopefully, by reading this article you would have understood the psychological benefits of constantly giving yourself a deadline and how it far outweighs the little-added pressure on hitting your goal - sometimes a little pressure is good for you! I would recommend at least giving this a try with something small, you can then see if it help motivate you or not. Since experiencing the 3-month deadline for learning a new language, I realised the importance of having a deadline in general. Not only have I placed a deadline for each of my main goals, but I also do it with small tasks throughout the months, weeks and even days. Give yourself one and see how it goes. I wish you good luck on your journey!