venerdì 6 dicembre 2013

Learning a new language: my tips and tricks :D


Here we are with my first post in English!

If you are looking for the Italian version it's here

This is an introduction to a series of posts about foreign languages! Soon there will be also Italian lessons. (Yes you read it right: Italian, for free, from an Italian :D)

  As most of you, I have studied a foreign language during the years of school. If we exclude a bit of French in Primary school, I have studied mostly English until the final year of university. This is when we consider taking classes or being forced to take exams and certifications.

Since a couple of years ago, however, I started a second foreign language after a looooong time since I started from the scratch for the very first time. It has been a real challenge!


Everyone has different methods to study and learn a foreign language, so my post might not work for you. Nevertheless I wanted to share with you my method to learn a language in an almost (at least for me) natural way without too much effort.
With Internet the possibilities to improve a new language are basically infinite, including texts, audio files and small exercises. Apps for your smartphone are also available today and, at least for the European languages they are really complete and well developed.

The scholastic method I have always found is based on small learning units in which they teach specific words for specific situations and in the mean time they explain a small grammar rule.

In my honest opinion this method often turns out to be quite.... uncomfortable. I am not saying that this is not the best or that there are no studies to support the idea that this allows the most absorption of new words. For me it just never worked: when I wanted to practice with the new language I was unable to create even a simple sentence because A) I did not have the grammar structure (how do you create a condition? which preposition goes here? which article?) B) I lacked the words because "in class we still haven't learned the words about "the kitchen""

What do we care about how to say "knee" if we do not even know how to ask for a fork at the restaurant?

A funny scene from the movie Lost in Translation
And that is why I ended up learning languages almost by myself. Moreover group classes are soooo boring... Different people have various learning speeds, different doubts and different practice possibilities!

How do I learn a new language, then? First of all I do an attentive research in the web: I look for courses, movies and magazines in the language I want to learn.... At first I try to find videos with subtitles in Italian or English in order to have a direct connection "word-meaning".

A language is learned in the following order: First of all you learn to comprehend what you read, you then start to understand what you listen, afterwards you start to write decently and finally to speak.
This is the natural order, and this is the same that I follow in the self teaching process.
For German I had found a free online course which had both audio file and PDFs: TOP. No writing or speaking exercises that at the very beginning throw you in a dark feeling of crisis and make you feel stupid. Reading and listening exercises with following translation train your "ear" gently and without stress.

I used to practice with this course every night at home and after a bit I started to learn more and more. Afterwards I attended a group class (at least a couple of those I think are necessary) and I started to try to speak when I was visiting Germany. There, in one of the waits in the airport I found a magazine called "Deutsch Perfekt". A magazine writing about curiosities and news of German speaking countries and advices and tips to improve your German. It is written in German for people who are still learning, with dictionaries and texts in different levels. I started purchasing it almost one year ago: at that time I was able to read the easy texts and the medium difficulty was too hard for me. Last July, when i moved away, I was able to read the medium but not the most difficult texts. Now I can read also the most difficult ones even if sometime I still need a dictionary. Inside the magazine there are also grammar exercises and small pages to be collected. The same publisher has magazines also for people studying English, French and Italian.

Examples of front and inside pages of Deutsch Perfekt

At the same time I started listening to the radio. Maybe I couldn't get a word at the beginning but with the parallel reading of texts out loud I started to recognize more and more words and to at least get what they were talking about!
If I had to write a postcard to Germans that was written in German and sometime I made a facebook status in German instead of Italian or English. Moreover, knowing German people, I tried to speak in German whenever possible, or at least whenever my genetic laziness allowed me :P allows you to find and call via
skype a trainingpartner to practice the talking
To learn new words I usually base my research on what I need for survival: what do I need to know to go shopping or if I get lost in the streets on one hand and on the other hand what I need as chit chat. Seeing what I miss the most during talking I later decide what is to be reviewed.

Something that I should have done and I did not, was to find a smart and easy way to learn what, in a language, is defined as "most difficult". In German, for example I have a lot of troubles using the right article. Not even once it is the right one!
To simply learn by heart a word with the respective article turns out to be quite... mechanical. One of my past teacher though, gave me a good tip: when I am reading something I should search and highlight all the nouns with different colors, red for feminine, blue for masculine and green for neutral. This way the visual memory will be stimulated, more efficient.

Ok now... let's see again what is my method:

1) basic grammar review (after the usual ceremonies).
  • Positive and negative sentence
  • Questions
  • Verbs in past present and future form (at least regular verbs... If a verb is irregular either they will understand anyway or they will correct you, no harm done!)
2) Find whatever is available in the web in the new language, possibly open source! 
I suggest to start with,, and apps surely available for every language you might want to learn. For German I use Duolingo, whereas for Japanese Obenkyo and JA Sensei. I used to have also busuu and babbel on my phone, until internal memory issues forced me to uninstall them! Just have fun with them!

3) More complex grammar review:
  • Secondary sentences: causal, temporal, conditional ed hypothetical
  • towards infinity and beyond... that is everything you notice you might need during a conversation
4) Listen and watch stuff in that original language and try to find chances to speak. Concentrate also in understanding what is "most difficult".

5) Force your mind to THINK in that language... have fake conversations in your mind or in front of the mirror, ask and reply to questions in the language you are studying.

6) last but not least: just one language at a time. no matter if they are similar or not, there is a high risk to mix them up and to not be able to pass from one to the other without going mad!

So... These were my advices, or at least how I started to learn a new language.
Hope it was useful!

Let me know how you study a new language and if you know good apps or websites for a specific language!