Languages I’d regret not having learned

I enjoy these languages so much that I miss them like friends whenever I neglect them.

There are languages I want to learn someday or at least dabble in more (such as Swahili and German). There are languages I think I ought to learn but don’t really want to (Spanish and Mandarin Chinese). And then there are languages I really love and would regret not learning. It’s not a question of guilt, but simply that I enjoy these languages so much that I miss them like friends whenever I neglect them. These are the languages I want to focus on for the foreseeable future. 

To make time for them, I’m putting away the languages I don’t really want to learn and delaying other languages I like. I already know that Japanese, Russian, and French belong on this short list. Anything else? Yes: Indonesian! So, I’m now learning these four languages. 

Now that French is getting closer to advanced (C1)–not there yet but getting noticeably closer to it–I have a desire to bring all four of these languages to the same point eventually. I don’t know if I’ll find enough resources to do that with Indonesian, but I want to try. 

Why Indonesian? I love the way it sounds and like some of the TV, YouTubers, and music from Indonesia. I’m still a novice though. I dabbled in it two or three times in the past, but didn’t retain anything because the vocabulary is completely different from any language I’ve learned so far. At least it’s easy to pronounce and the grammar is easy for beginners, which will help me to learn it quickly.

My favorite courses (Michel Thomas and Language Transfer) aren’t available, so I need to learn it a different way in the beginning. I chose the Mass Sentence Method, using Glossika, Book2, and Vocabulearn. There will be a lot of listening-and-repeating of audio, but that will prepare me for conversation better than most textbooks would. And, I can play detective, figuring out the grammar for myself rather than being taught it by a course. 

Later, I plan to use LingQ to help me to learn to read the news and internet articles, to give me things to talk about in conversation and to help me get to the intermediate level faster. 

What languages do you have the strongest desire to learn? When you’re old, will there be any languages you’ll regret not having learned? Do you know?


(Photo by Rakicevic Nenad from Pexels)

Blurred lines in language learning

Distinctions are a lot more blurred than we think.

People often have questions like: What are good methods for learning grammar? For learning vocabulary? What is language learning vs. language maintenance? As I think about the answers given in YouTube videos, podcasts, and blogs, I’m starting to realize that the distinctions we often make are a lot more blurred than we think. 


Grammar vs. vocabulary: The best way to learn either vocabulary or grammar is to use it (through conversation, reading, writing, etc.). Vocabulary memorization and grammar exercises help, but the new information isn’t readily available for use until the learner has used it a few times. That’s why some people think they’ve learned a lot of vocabulary through a tool like Anki but then they can’t remember the words when they need to use them. Textbooks often separate the two into grammar exercises and vocabulary lists, but any good method can be used for both. Like Anki? Create an Anki deck of example sentences from your grammar book. Like grammar drills? Make your own using the grammar you’re learning and the vocabulary you’re learning. I create sentences aloud to learn either new grammar or new vocabulary. The more of either I learn, the greater the variety of sentences I can create, and this helps me tremendously when I finally practice conversation. 


Input vs. output approach: When most people start learning a new language on their own, they bury themselves in a textbook, app, podcast, or other resource, and only turn to reading, writing, listening, and speaking later. However, greater numbers of independent learners have been jumping into either “speaking from day one” or heavy input through reading and/or listening from the beginning. I discovered last year, however, that at least for me personally, I learn faster and retain the language longer if as a beginner I combine the three: listening and/or reading, speaking practice, and grammar. Language teaching professionals and textbook creators have been aware of it for decades, but we independent learners can be stubborn or slow to figure it out. 


Learning vs. maintenance: A lot of people stick to a particular method when they first start learning a language. For example, Assimil courses use the bidirectional translation approach. (For example, a French person learning German would translate a dialog from German into French, check their work, then from French into German, and check their work again.) Later, after they’ve achieved an intermediate level, they start another language using their preferred method and maintain their intermediate and advanced languages by watching movies and television or reading for pleasure in those languages. However, for the more commonly learned languages, plenty of interesting material for reading and listening are available even to high beginners, and technology is bringing native material within their reach, too. Furthermore, some people hold off on deep grammar study until they reach an intermediate or advanced level, so hypothetically that could also be used to maintain a language. 


Beginner vs. intermediate vocabulary and grammar: As a complete beginner, I tend to stick to “beginner” vocabulary and grammar (word order, verb conjugations, high-frequency adverbs and adjectives, the most important verbs, etc.). It doesn’t take long, however, before I actually want to talk about something such as my hobbies, interests, and lifestyle–and ask other people about theirs. For this reason, some intermediate-level grammar and vocabulary becomes useful pretty quickly. Furthermore, some people point out that it’s inefficient to spend a lot of time learning high-frequency words that they can easily learn through frequent encounters with them anyway. Start with some intermediate vocabulary from day one and you’ll learn the beginner vocabulary with little effort. Some of my thoughts are easier to express once I’ve learned some intermediate grammar, too. However, I believe that it’s better to pick and choose the grammar I wish to learn rather than try to learn all of it. 


Learning for pleasure vs. learning for a practical need: Some people (Olly Richards and Lindsay Williams are examples) started learning languages for pleasure or travel but later found ways to earn a living off of their language-learning skills. I learned two of my earliest languages (French and Japanese) with the intent of using them in careers (teaching and interpretation, respectively). When I changed my mind and didn’t pursue those careers, I continued the languages as hobbies. Lindie Botes mostly learns languages for pleasure, but now she lives overseas and uses at least one language in her daily life and work. It’s unrealistic to consistently put the two into different categories. Some people are brave enough to cross the line or to live in both worlds simultaneously. 


Feel free to blur the lines when you learn a foreign language.

Learning to talk in a foreign language

Many language learners have difficulty with even putting a sentence together.

Many independent language learners–following the approach typically taught in schools–get good at grammar and/or vocabulary, but when it’s time to converse, they have difficulty with even putting a sentence together. There are a number of ways to resolve this problem.

Conversation involves at least two components: understanding what the other person is communicating and then somehow communicating your own thoughts. Understanding combines listening, paying attention to non-verbals such as facial expressions and gestures, and some background knowledge of the situation and culture. Speaking ideally should also include non-verbals and background knowledge (because it’s easy to assume that the other person knows what you’re talking about, but maybe they don’t). However, in this article, I’m only going to talk about forming sentences aloud, which is a major component of conversation.


Translating in your head? No problem

Thinking in your native language is often blamed for problems with forming sentences quickly, but that’s not necessarily the cause. It’s possible to get quick at thinking in your language, translating in your head, and still forming sentences aloud in a reasonable time. And with practice, you’ll find yourself translating less and less. Eventually, you’ll only translate when you try to say a sentence using a grammar form that you don’t know well.

Also, avoiding translation in the beginning is difficult for most people who learn languages on their own. Very few beginner courses are free of translation, plus translation is an excellent method for learning another language. In short, don’t concern yourself about whether you’re translating or not: Just pick a robust method of learning the language, practice often, persevere, and trust the process.


Many options available

All methods require a lot of time. Immersion by itself is known to work in the long run, but can be too slow, frustrating, and/or boring for many adult beginners to start with. Nonetheless, it’s certainly an option for those who want to use it. At the intermediate and advanced levels, some sort of partial or full immersion (i.e. a lot of listening and speaking) are mandatory for advancement, and certainly some listening practice is needed at all levels to make your speech sound less strange and foreign. Furthermore, technology is making it easier to read and listen more at an earlier stage in your learning. Just don’t feel obligated to get only or mostly input in the beginning if you don’t want to. This is just one approach to solve the problem.

Writing is another approach that some learners report has helped them greatly with their speaking. Whether you do the exercises in a grammar workbook, do creative writing in your target language, participate in text chats on the internet in that language, or keep a daily journal where you write only in that language, writing a lot can get you used to the grammar, vocabulary, and sentence formation in general. All of these will make it easier to speak later–but not necessarily easy. If you tend to avoid conversations in your native language, expect even more difficulty in another language–but writing a lot for a few months could make other approaches easier later on.

A specific form of writing that makes conversation a lot easier for me personally is to select a topic, then write some deep questions in the target language that might be asked in conversation, each followed by a one-paragraph answer of how I personally would answer it. Even if those specific questions don’t come up in conversation, I find I’m more prepared and can converse a lot more easily. (I write about this method more in depth in other articles on my blog.) A related method taught by Benny Lewis in his Language Hacking textbook series is to script a paragraph where you describe an aspect of your life (your family, a hobby, your favorite music, etc.) and then memorize that script so it’s always available whenever you converse in that language. Similarly, you can write and memorize quick answers that you can give to common questions such as whether you’re married or how long you’ve been learning that language.

A translation method could make it easier to understand how sentences are formed so that you can start forming your own sentences in conversation. Luca Lampariello, an Italian who has brought at least his Russian and English to very high levels of proficiency and who does public speaking in both languages, starts every language with a translation approach. He reports that it hasn’t worked as well for him for Japanese, but for European languages (not just languages similar to Italian), he reports very positive results. Bidirectional translation (Luca’s and Assimil’s method) involves translating a short text from your target language into your native language or English or another language you know well, comparing it to an existing translation, then translating it back into your target language, and checking it again. Innovative Language podcasts (such as FrenchPod101) are potentially good sources of texts (dialogs) that have both the target language text and the English translation on their downloadable PDF’s. Assimil textbooks are specifically designed for this method.

Audiolingual courses (such as the old FSI courses that are in the public domain–in other words, legally free for download) have been criticized and are therefore underutilized as an option. In my personal experience, they make a good supplement to other methods and resources, and have certainly helped me in the area of speaking and forming sentences. Specifically, the Russian grammatical forms that I feel most comfortable using in conversation are the ones I learned in an audiolingual course (Modern Russian 1 by Clayton Dawson, et al.). This particular textbook is not in the public domain, but Indiana University has made the audio freely available to the public. These courses are all very dry and tedious and won’t appeal to the average language learner, however.

Mass memorization of sentences, phrases, or dialogs is another method which requires a lot of patience but can make your speech a lot smoother-sounding and probably easier. But “mass” is the keyword here in that just memorizing a few dialogs or a few hundred sentences might not be enough to make speaking easier. However, it could be enough to immediately improve your pronunciation and especially your prosody (accent, rhythm, and intonation). You don’t even have to memorize anything completely, just repeat them many times over a period of days or weeks. Also, as I found out when I dabbled in Tagalog, it can be difficult for a complete beginner to start at the sentence or phrase level instead of with individual words–plus it’s a lot harder for me to memorize anything as a middle-aged adult. Book2 and Glossika both use this approach, and they provide thousands of sentences for you. In both cases, you can even select a source language that isn’t English: for example, you can learn Spanish from French or Vietnamese from German.

Sentence mining can be combined with mass memorization. Sentence mining means that you select sentences (or, if you prefer, 2-5 word phrases) yourself from your reading or listening. Combining mining with memorizing means that you can be sure that your speech will sound more natural and comfortable to any native speaker of that dialect that you converse with later. The disadvantage is that it’s difficult to collect both the audio and text of a sentence together. If you only copy the written sentence and memorize it, how do you know if you’re pronouncing it correctly? You can always pay a native speaker to record the sentences for you, but that’s not always possible or convenient.

Finally, you can just converse a lot in your target language–preferably with a paid tutor if you can afford one–even as a beginner. This is the “speak from day one” approach popularized by Benny Lewis. It can be the most painful and difficult way at first–but like almost everything in life, it will get easier with a lot of practice. A good tutor will be patient with you and can help you a lot along the way, but you might have to try several tutors before you find one that you can work well with. Of course, practicing conversation is the only way to get good at it, but this approach starts a lot sooner than most people are comfortable with. It can be combined with any approach above for best results, using other methods on the days when you don’t have a session with your tutor.


My own path

As for me, I like to start with some listening to get used to the way a language sounds, then follow an audio course that specifically trains learners to create sentences aloud (my favorite of which is Michel Thomas–except for Mandarin Chinese). If no such course is available, I write the grammar I want to learn in a notebook and make a lot of my own sentences aloud (which works really well for me with Japanese and Korean, but which I find harder to apply to Russian)–and I also have to do more reading and/or listening, if I have to do it this way. Eventually I start spontaneously talking to myself in the language a little bit. From that point on, I purposely practice talking to myself with the help of a dictionary and/or topical vocabulary book. It’s hard at first but eventually becomes fairly easy. Then, I do a lot more listening practice to dialogs for beginners for a few months, then hire italki tutors for conversation practice via Skype for a few months. This approach works really well for me, but of course not for everyone. I explain each of these steps at length in other blog articles.


No one-size-fits-all

Don’t believe anyone who claims that everyone should learn a language in a particular way, especially if they downplay all other methods. Every successful foreign language learner has their own path of learning that works well for them. There is no method that works for everyone. Likewise, there is no method that doesn’t work for anyone. I’ve just summarized many different approaches–any of which, when followed for a long time, will make forming sentences in conversation a lot easier.

An exception is if some kind of mental or emotional illness (such as a social phobia) prevents you from conversing even in your native language. In that case, an input approach (mostly listening but with some reading) can at least allow you to understand what the other person is saying, even if you can only give brief answers yourself. Add writing if you enjoy it.

Try any of these methods and persevere with it if you enjoy it, or try another method if you don’t. They work best in combination: For example, I discovered that I improve in a language faster and retain it longer if I work on grammar, conversation, and listening every week.

An update

The Add1Challenge for German was an overall success.

I apologize for not posting lately, but the past few months have been busy and stressful. My mother passed away last month in her sleep at the age of 89. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease seven years previously, so her death was expected. However, her house had a reverse mortgage, so the house reverted to the bank after her death, and my relatives and I will have to move out very soon. We’ve lived in that house for 35 years and accumulated a lot of material possessions that we’re now decluttering and packing. This has left me with little time for language learning or participation in social media. 

The Add1Challenge for German was an overall success. I don’t recall ever improving so much in one language in such a short amount of time (3 months). I think it was because I combined studying (Michel Thomas, which worked great for me), conversation practice (with italki tutors), and listening practice (“Nicos Weg” videos via Yabla and “Deutsch, Warum Nicht?” podcasts on Deutsche Welle). My speaking skills didn’t improve as much as I had hoped, but after 90 days I was able to converse about both language learning and a little bit about technology/computers (general questions like, “What apps do you use?”, “Do you think you spend too much time on social media?” and “Have you ever gone without a cell phone for a few days?”). 

After the A1C, I spent a couple of months on ancient Greek and learning to read the New Testament of the Bible in it. I can now read 1-3 John and half of James (having to look up some words that I have a hard time remembering, especially in James). 

I attended my college reunion but didn’t speak any German there, very little French, and just a few minutes of Spanish. I spent a lot of time with the French department, which showed me a lot of hospitality. (I got my BA in French in 1989.) It turns out that the Spanish club speaks almost entirely in Spanish but the French club speaks almost entirely in English. Thinking back, I don’t remember speaking enough French when I was a student, so that must have been the case when I was a student there, too. I met the Chinese teacher but didn’t meet any teachers or students of German. Maybe I should have done my Add1Challenge in Spanish and spent more time in the Spanish department. (There was a blizzard during the reunion weekend. See photo.)

Leading up to and following Mom’s death, I was stressed and only wanted to read, so I read a lot of French first and now Japanese. I read my first Star Trek novel in French! So my French reading skills are improving. Reading is about all I’m doing now. 

I have more posts in mind for this blog, but they’ll have to wait–probably until early next year. 

My goals with German

Arbitrary proficiency goals like B2 or C2 can add stress and demotivate

There was a discussion on Twitter lately about whether it makes sense to the aspiring polyglot (or even the average language learner) to automatically set C2 (high advanced) as their lifetime proficiency goal for every language they’re learning. C2 is the highest level on the CEFR proficiency scale, and represents a highly educated, near-native proficiency. Others in the discussion concluded that a high-intermediate level (B2) would be a more logical proficiency goal for them. Advanced levels are hard to reach and even harder to maintain, and are not always necessary.

I replied that I’m less interested in proficiency levels. Instead, I create a “bucket list” of things I want to be able to do in my lifetime–such as listening to news broadcasts or reading literature. I then arrange the list from the easiest goal to the hardest, and it becomes a continuous source of motivation, which an arbitrary proficiency goal can never be.

Having said that, I’ve only created a list for French so far. (See my article, “My goals with French.” )

My current language project is German, so today, I’m writing my “bucket list” for German and sharing it with you, my readers.

My final goal (so far) is to become a multilingual tour guide. I asked a tour guide which language she gets the most request for tours in (besides English), and she said German. So, I’m learning German.


This year’s goals

Stepping back to the beginning and working my way up to the tour guide goal, my first goal for German is to complete the Add1Challenge. I’m currently one month into this 90-day challenge. Around 100 people are participating this round, but in a variety of languages. I’m one of four people taking the A1C to learn German. We each study independently but use the large group for support and accountability using a social media platform called Slack. The challenge is designed to help us to learn focus, study habits, and conversational skills. At the end, we will be able to converse for at least 15 minutes entirely in our target languages. I can do that already, but with difficulty. At the rate I’m improving, I should find it an easy skill by the end of the 90 days. If anyone wishes to follow my progress, I post a video every 30 days of myself speaking German on YouTube.

I want to pronounce German well, and for this, I bought the Mimic Method German Master Class. I plan to start it soon and finish it by the time I finish A1C.

Another reason I want to learn German is because it’s one of five languages for which a tremendous number of courses and resources have been created (along with English, Spanish, French, and Italian). I bought a lot of beginner German courses that I was curious about and want to try all of them out (even if I don’t finish all of them). Many of them are courses that are out of print, and some of them are so old that they come with audio cassettes. I’ve already completed a few of them: German for Children, Paul Noble Complete German, Dr. Blair’s German in No Time, Pimsleur German (Level 1 only, that is, the first 30 lessons), and Michel Thomas Total German, plus some Deutsche Welle podcasts. I’m currently on Michel Thomas Perfect German, Language Transfer, All Audio German, Yabla, FluentU, and other courses. There are a few more waiting after these. By trying out a variety of courses and methods, I hope to expand my repertoire of methods which I can use to learn other languages. (For example, I use elements from the Michel Thomas method to learn Korean grammar successfully.) Also, I’ll be in a better position to recommend courses to people who ask for recommendations.

My next goal is to prepare for my 30-year university reunion in October. I earned a B.A. French degree at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Minnesota is far from Oregon, so this will only be my second visit to Concordia since graduation. My plan is to arrive a day early and hang out in the foreign language department. Concordia offers bachelor’s degrees in French, Spanish, German, and Mandarin Chinese. I want to converse with the current students and teachers in these languages. Maybe I don’t have time to learn Mandarin before then, but I at least want to use Spanish, French, and German as well as I can. A1C will make me conversational, and the beginner courses will keep expanding my vocabulary and improving my listening skills ahead of the reunion. It will be like a Polyglot Conference for me.


Future goals

When I decide to move on to intermediate courses, Deutsche Welle has one that I’ve always wanted to try (but which is too advanced for me now). It’s called “Top Thema.” It’s at the B1 level and includes a lot of simplified news articles–but about interesting cultural topics rather than just the usual politics and economic articles of daily news reports. The variety of topics is vast, so it should greatly broaden my vocabulary. Each article includes a monolingual glossary (i.e. totally in German), the one-page article, and an audio recording. About 100 articles are published a year, going all the way back to 2007. In other words, there are over 1000 articles available. I’ll use Lingro to help me. Lingro is one of those free dictionaries that lets you read something from the internet, click on a word, and see its translations into English or another language. I’d like to read as many articles as I can until I lose interest.

I would love to be able to read the news and listen to news broadcasts in German, then discuss current events in German with native speakers. When I can do that, I feel like I’ve “made it” in that particular language–even though there are many other things I might not be able to do yet (such as understand slang, watch movies, watch YouTubers, read and write scholarly materials, give public speeches, write business letters, etc.). I generally shy away from U.S. news because it’s “close to home” and often makes me sad or angry. Foreign news topics (such as Brexit) have less impact on me personally, and I’d be more likely to follow it. There are intermediate resources after “Top Thema” which I can study at the B2 level, to help prepare me for watching live news broadcasts.

Finally, I want to create a series of YouTube videos about Oregon history–in German. This will prepare me for a possible career as a tour guide, after I retire from IT many years from now.


Observations and conclusions

If you find yourself losing motivation to continue learning a foreign language, write yourself a “bucket list” like this, arrange the goals from easiest to hardest, and start working on the first one. Also take note of anything you’ve already accomplished in that language, such as courses you’ve completed or skills you’ve learned. You will then be unlikely to lose your motivation again.

You might have noticed that my “bucket list” for German is different than my list for French. Some items are the same and some are different. Each language has a unique list. I plan to create similar lists in the future for my other languages. And your lists will be different than mine. Another interesting observation about these lists is that French is a lifelong enterprise but I can meet all of my German goals in just a few years.

I find that these lists take some of the stress out of learning, while arbitrary proficiency goals like “B2” or “C2” can add stress and demotivate most people (but not everyone). Proficiency goals can also lead to learners evaluating their own proficiency levels inaccurately–or worse, can persuade people to do boring, stressful studies for proficiency exams that are of no use to them personally.

Keep changing your approach, or your languages will plateau

Every time I discover that I have a new skill or that something is starting to get easy, I change my approach.

People speak often of being stuck at an intermediate plateau. I’ve even heard of a beginner plateau. And many of us wonder if we’ll ever get beyond C1 to reach C2 in any of our languages. The plateaus have various causes, but one of the most common causes is that we each stick with a method that worked for us before but it’s not working for us anymore and we don’t realize it.


Luca Lampariello first drew my attention to this problem. He said in a video that you’ll have to do something different to reach the advanced level than what you did to reach the intermediate level. (Here’s a link to the video.


To give a personal example, I went from B1 (low intermediate) to B2 (high intermediate) in French primarily by reading graded readers and then novels, and by listening to similar material. But I was stuck at B2 and made no further progress until I started reading and listening to the news. I’m still at B2 but noticeably closer to C1, at least in reading and listening comprehension. My next steps will probably be to read schoolbooks or textbooks in French, write essays, give speeches and participate in debates, learn slang and a lot of idioms, and listen to a lot of You Tube vloggers in order to attain C1. Once I reach C1, my next steps will probably be to take free university courses (MOOCs) in French and to create documentary-style YouTube videos in French.


Here’s my path–now make your own

Here’s my path from absolute beginner to a B1 conversational level, which I follow for each language I learn. Yours is undoubtably different, but notice how I change my method of study a few times along the way. If you feel stuck at whatever level you’re at, hopefully my example will motivate you to experiment with different methods or materials in order to advance to the next step in your learning. Once you do this successfully with one language, write down the various methods you used and when, and this can be your template for the next few languages you learn. (For more information, read my article, “Templates and Innovation in Language Learning.”


First, I play with the new language, I dabble, I listen to people speaking it on YouTube. I call this the “honeymoon phase” and Shannon Kennedy calls it the “discovery phase” (or something like that). In languages where I skipped this step, I developed motivational problems later. The goal of this first step is to start falling in love with my new language. For me, it means falling in love with the way the language sounds or its grammar–some aesthetic quality of the language itself. For other people, it could mean falling in love with the culture or with the people who speak it, with its literature or music, with a country where it’s spoken, or something else associated with the language. (I also work on my pronunciation a little at this stage and at every stage hereafter.)


I’ve always had a bad habit of talking to myself (i.e. thinking aloud), but now I use it to my advantage to practice speaking foreign languages. I’m introverted and quickly become tired even while conversing in my native language, so talking to myself is how I prepare for conversation practice in each of my foreign languages. I speak almost from day one, but I don’t converse from day one. Logically, if I can’t even talk to myself, how can I expect to be able to talk to anyone else?


However, after my honeymoon phase, I know very little vocabulary or grammar, so even talking to myself is impossible. My approach as a beginner is to create as many sentences aloud as I can, with each new vocabulary word or grammatical form that I learn. This approach is more effective for me personally than memorization or grammar exercises. If I have access to a course that uses this approach (like Michel Thomas), I’ll use it. If not, I skim through textbooks and grammar books for grammar forms and vocabulary I think I can use in conversation, write it in a pocket notebook, and make sentences aloud based on my notes in my notebook. I sometimes use paper flashcards for a couple of days, then throw them away and practice making sentences with the words on the cards. Making new sentences is one of the building blocks of conversation anyway.


At some point, I spontaneously start talking to myself in my new language unintentionally. This happened to me in Russian after about 10 Michel Thomas CD’s and in German during the fifth CD. There was no Michel Thomas or similar course for Korean, so I used my notebook method, and it took a lot longer to reach this stage–but I persevered and got there eventually. Even using the notebook method, I supplement it with whatever audio courses I can find (such as Pimsleur).


I sense growth, now change up my method

Once I start spontaneously talking to myself, I add something new to my routine. I continue learning grammar and vocabulary by making sentences, but I also do deliberate speaking practice. I take walks and talk to myself (think aloud) in my target language as much as I can, using a bilingual dictionary on my phone to look up words I don’t know as I need them. At first, it’s really difficult. But it gets easier and easier and eventually I get into the flow of speaking. Then it’s time to make another change.


I continue learning grammar and vocabulary a little bit, and I continue talking to myself sometimes, but now I spend most of my time listening to the language and building up my listening comprehension. After all, how can I have a conversation with a native speaker if I can’t understand what they’re saying? For German, I’m using the free Deutsche Welle podcasts for beginners. For most other languages, I use Innovative Language podcasts. For Korean and Japanese, I read dialogs from textbooks and then listen to the same dialogs. (I prefer beginner textbooks where the audio is quickly spoken.)


From time to time, I go to the italki website and listen to its teachers’ self-introduction videos. After a few months of listening practice, I can start to understand at least some of the things they’re saying in their videos. Once again, I sense that I can do something that I couldn’t do before, and that’s my cue to change up my methods again.


What’s next? Conversation practice

Now I hire a lot of italki tutors (the cheapest ones I find that I’m interested in talking with) for 30-minute conversation practice sessions. I select topics in advance and prepare them, then I talk with one tutor after another about the same group of topics. When they start getting easy, I switch to the next group of topics. (See my blog article for more details.


Once I can talk on a dozen or so topics, I’ve typically reached the B1 (low intermediate) conversational level. That’s my cue to change my approach again. Now I start reading a lot of interesting material in order to build up my vocabulary as my first step from B1 to B2 (high intermediate). I gradually add listening back into the mix, then more conversation practice with deeper conversations on one topic.


What this means for you

In summary, every time I discover that I have a new skill or that something is starting to get easy, I change up my approach. At the very least, I change the material that I’m reading and listening to. Gradually, I work my way up from beginner materials to materials for native speakers. This is how I overcome plateaus and make progress in each of my languages.


No two people learn foreign languages in exactly the same way from beginning to “end.” We each follow our own path. Even if two learners start out learning in exactly the same way, they’ll diverge at some point along the way. If you interview a bunch of people who learned a language to the high intermediate (B2) level or above, each will have a unique story to tell. In this article, when I describe my own path, it’s by way of example. You can try my and other people’s ideas, but in the end, you’ll end up with your own path.


As you make your own path for learning languages, remember to keep changing your direction from time to time. Otherwise, you’ll realize that you aren’t getting anywhere.

Audio courses and review

I find a certain method of review a great foundation for conversation.

Audio courses vary considerably in how (or whether) they review what they’ve already taught. I group them into three general categories based on how useful I’ve found their review methods. I find a certain method of review a great foundation for conversation.


The most useful: Review by creating new sentences

Some courses teach new material by asking users to create sentences in their target language by translating sentences from English. For example, such a course might teach that hablo means “I speak” in Spanish and español means “Spanish” (the language). “How do you say, ‘I speak Spanish?’” I pause the audio and answer, “Hablo español.” The teacher or better yet a native speaker says the correct sentence, and I repeat.

The course goes on to teach other material and then comes back and reviews the word hablo by asking me to make a new sentence. “Francés means the French language. How do you say, ‘I speak French’?” Answer: Hablo francés. Now I’ve reviewed the word hablo and created a new (for me) sentence in Spanish. After an hour, I’ve said a lot of new sentences aloud, and after 10-12 hours, I find myself starting to talk to myself spontaneously in my target language. That’s a tremendous foundation for conversation.

Courses in this category include Michel Thomas, Language Transfer, and Boostcamp (by Language Transfer)–the same courses I mentioned in my recent blog article, “Creating new sentences aloud, part one.”

Audiolingual Method courses (such as the old FSI courses available for free on the Yojik website) fall under this category as well. Learners are encouraged to memorize the dialogs at the beginning of each lesson. Then, in the grammar drills section, certain sentences from the dialog are used as model sentences for the drills. Following cues, learners create new sentences by substituting words or somehow altering the model sentences (e.g. making them negative, changing them into questions, etc.). They then hear and repeat the correct answers. They’re supposed to do the drills with the book closed. It’s possible, however, to listen to and/or read the drills with the correct answers once or twice first, then do the drills one or more times with the book closed. No matter how it’s done, they review by generating new sentences in their target language or learning 6-12 sentences that exemplify a grammatical point instead of just 1-2 sentences.

Many people claim that Paul Noble is similar to Michel Thomas, but when it comes to review, it’s not.


Somewhat useful: Review by recalling already-learned sentences

Audio courses in this category start off the same way–teaching one or two sentences that exemplify a grammatical point or a useful expression–but review by asking users to recall the sentences they learned earlier. For example, the word hablo is taught with the sentence “Hablo español” and reviewed with the same sentence, “Hablo español.” After an hour, I’ve said “Hablo español” several (or many) times. After 10-12 hours, I’ve learned a fair amount of useful example sentences, but I don’t spontaneously start talking to myself in my target language. (Other people have reported that they do, but that hasn’t been my experience personally.)

There’s a way I get around this shortcoming: After a lesson, I review some of the sentences on my own, and then create new sentences by substituting words from one sentence into another (and hope that I don’t make grammatical errors in the process, since I have no one to check my work). I talked about this in my blog article, “Creating new sentences aloud, part two.”

Courses in this category include Pimsleur, Paul Noble, Rocket Languages, and Glossika. They’re all fine courses. I use them and recommend them to others; I just have to work harder to supplement them in order to get the same results as the courses in the first category.


Less useful: No review

Next you have many courses that include no review whatsoever, but they at least provide a lot of example sentences. I have to split my time between continuing with new lessons and reviewing old lessons. (Granted, even in the first category, I might study a lesson twice, if the material is completely new and difficult for me–but twice is sufficient.) Here, spaced repetition might be useful. Hypothetically, I could review a lesson after a day, a few days, a week, etc. In addition to review, it’s also helpful for me to create new sentences on my own after reviewing the lesson, though I have no way to verify whether I create the new sentences correctly.

Courses in this category are basically audio phrase books, like the old cassette Language/30 courses (some available now for download at eStories). A good contemporary example is Book2 (also called 50 Languages), which is free of charge. I like these courses, too, but they aren’t my first choice.


Some audio courses are primarily lists of words to be repeated. They’re still far better than learning just from a book without audio, but pedagogically they’re far inferior to everything I talked about above. Review means replaying the audio many times, and if I make my own sentences, they’ll probably be both grammatically incorrect and unnatural to native speakers’ ears. I would consider these courses last resorts or mere supplements.

Examples include the Behind the Wheel series and Vocabulearn. Actually, a surprising number of courses aimed at tourists and inexperienced language learners fall under this category. I tend to lose interest after 10 minutes and am not motivated to review them, personally.


No matter what

My approach as a beginner is to create new sentences and to use mostly audio courses whenever possible. A textbook with a lot of audio (e.g. Dos Mundos) or dialogs with transcripts (Olly Richards’ Conversations series or Innovative Language podcasts) are helpful for reading and listening practice and can grow my vocabulary, but I tend to minimize written material as a beginner if I can. While dabbling in Tagalog this winter, I didn’t have that luxury, but in Swahili, I do.

My order of A2-B1 conversation topics

I group topics that go together, such as travel and climates.

When I start practicing conversation with italki tutors (in 30-minute sessions), I practice the same group of topics with several tutors so that I can get good at them. After that, I move on to the second group of topics, and so forth. In this article, I make the list of topics available to my readers, in case anyone finds them helpful.



I can already speak and listen at the A2 level and I already know a lot of grammar before I hire tutors for conversation practice. My preferred path as a beginner is to learn basic grammar and vocabulary through Michel Thomas or a similar audio course, which also gets me speaking the language immediately by translating lots and lots of sentences aloud. After 15 hours, I find myself automatically and unintentionally starting to talk to myself (think aloud) in my target language. Then I purposely talk to myself as I take walks, using a pocket or electronic dictionary to look up words I don’t know. With a lot of practice, my speaking proficiency eventually reaches A2 (high beginner). Next, I listen to dialogs on Innovative Languages podcasts to bring my listening up to A2. Once I can start understanding some of what italki tutors are saying in their self-intro videos, I start hiring tutors for conversation practice. (If you would like more information, please read my article, “Ready for conversation practice”. )


I hire at least three (and hopefully many more) tutors for the first round of topics. In the second round, I choose not to rehire the tutors who have poor conversation skills or are otherwise unsuitable for conversation practice. By the third round, I generally keep about half of the tutors I started out with. After four rounds, my conversation skills have hopefully reached B1 (low-intermediate). It worked for French, Spanish, and Japanese, but I fell short in Russian because the grammar is so complex and because tutors overcorrected me so much that I lost confidence.


Topic selection

How did I select topics? I started by brainstorming the topics that interest me and yet are general enough to interest most tutors. (I avoid geology because it interests me but not many tutors.) Then I tried to imagine how much vocabulary I would need to have even a basic conversation on each topic, and ordered the topics from easy-to-difficult. Finally, I grouped the topics that go together. For the first round, I selected travel–but when talking about travel, people usually talk about climates and weather, too, so I grouped them together. As a polyglot, I also group travel with language. One of my motivations for travel abroad used to be in order to get more exposure to a particular language (before the internet made it possible to immerse myself in a foreign language in my own home). This made the first round of topics clear: travel, climate, and languages.


When I schedule my first round of sessions with several tutors, I tell them that I’ve prepared the following topics and that they can choose one or more of them to talk about from this list: Travel, climate, and languages. I don’t go in-depth into these topics (such as carry-on baggage size), but instead ask and answer questions like “Where have you travelled?”, “Where would you like to travel?”, etc. (In my article “How I use italki”, I go into more detail. )


Tutors can select any one or more of the topics I gave them. One tutor spent the entire half-hour on languages, while another covered all three topics in our session. Even within the same topic, tutors asked me different questions and I had varied questions for them as well. Every session was unique. It never got too repetitive or dull, no matter how many tutors I had (unless a particular tutor had poor conversation skills).


My list of topics

Here is my full list. Each round is much more difficult than the previous one:

  1. Travel, climate, languages
  2. Leisure (TV, movies, sports, music, hobbies, etc.)
  3. Lifestyle (daily and weekly routine), work, food, health and fitness
  4. Childhood, School and past careers


Strategies for success

I start with 30-minute sessions mainly because I get mentally fatigued quickly. However, by the fourth round, I’m usually less fatigued and start scheduling 45-minute sessions. When I approach B2 (high intermediate), I can start handling 1-hour sessions. An outgoing person could probably handle longer sessions much sooner. Of course, longer sessions are more expensive, but I also have fewer tutors by then.


Good tutors ask me a lot of questions so that I do most (or at least half) of the talking. In order for me to get the most out of each session, I need to give long answers to almost every question, volunteering more information than was asked for. (I write about this in my article, “Ask longer questions”–in my opinion, the most important article I’ve written so far. )


Every topic required a lot of preparation. On the topic of leisure, I spent time beforehand preparing to describe my hobbies. For example, some of my tutors had never heard of the sport of orienteering (which is my favorite sport to play), so I had an example map ready to show them as well as enough vocabulary to explain how the sport is played. Likewise, I had to think about my life experiences and be ready to use the past tense(s) in order to talk about my childhood, school, and past careers (round 4).


Then what?

Usually, once I’ve completed these four rounds with multiple tutors, I want to take a long break from conversation practice and start reading in my target language in order to build up my vocabulary toward B2 proficiency. After a lot of reading and listening, I’m then ready for more challenging conversations. At that time, I go into depth in one topic for several sessions. I’ll talk about that in a future article.

Creating new sentences aloud, part two

From a list of sentences, substitute words to make new sentences

As I said in Part One, “Creating new sentences aloud is my main approach to learning languages as a beginner.” If a course already exists which helps me to do that (such as Michel Thomas), I’ll use it. If not, I need to create my own course in some way.


One way I sometimes do that is to take a long list of example sentences with audio (such as Glossika or Book2), learn some sentences by repeating a lot after the audio, deduce some grammatical rules from the sentences, and then substitute a word from one sentence into another to make a new sentence.


Here is an example from the old Glossika Indonesian course. This course is no longer for sale. Glossika now uses artificial intelligence (AI) to generate sentences for each individual learner. But I bought the old course and used it for a while. Of course, I could still use this approach with the new course or with a different source of sentences, such as Book2. Here are a few sentences from the old Glossika Indonesian course:

  • Lihat, temanku di sana. – Look, there’s my friend.
  • Ibunya di rumah. Dia di sekolah. – His mother’s at home. He’s at school.
  • Anak-anaknya di sekolah. – Her children are at school.
  • Saya seorang supir taksi. – I’m a taxi driver.
  • Adikku seorang suster. – My sister’s a nurse.


This doesn’t give much to go on, but after 50 sentences, I noticed patterns and started deducing the grammar. Actually, for the first 10 sentences, I had to look up each word and find out what it meant. After that, I was able to start figuring out which English word or phrase matches which Indonesian word or phrase. (Note that it’s not always a 1-to-1 relationship. For example, the Spanish word “hablo” means “I speak.” Here, two English words equal one Spanish word.)


For example, I realized that the English word “my” is expressed in Indonesian with the suffix “-ku” attached to the end of a noun. Likewise, “his” or “her” is the suffix “-nya.” In the sentences above:

  • temanku – my friend
  • adikku – my sister
  • ibunya – his mother
  • anak-anaknya – her children


From this knowledge, I can create new word combinations, such as “taksiku” (my taxi) or “taksinya” (his/her taxi). If “ibunya” is his mother, then “ibuku” should be my mother:

  • temannya – his/her friend
  • adiknya – his/her sister
  • ibuku – my mother
  • anak-anakku – my children


After each sentence study session, I stop the audio and try to recall as many sentences as I can from today’s session from memory. I then pick some sentences and start substituting words from other sentences to make new sentences. For example, I can make these sentences out of the first sentence just by borrowing words from other sentences:

  • Lihat, adikku di sana. – Look, there’s my sister.
  • Lihat, taksi di sana. – Look, there’s a taxi.
  • Lihat, sekolah di sana. – Look, there’s a school.


And from the second sentence:

  • Dia di rumah. – He’s at home.
  • Saya di rumah. – I’m at home.
  • Anak-anaknya di rumah. – Her children are at home.


I can coin new words such as “taksiku” (my taxi) and create even more new sentences:

  • Lihat, taksiku di sana. – Look, there’s my taxi.
  • Lihat, sekolahku di sana. – Look, there’s my school.


This method works best with languages that don’t have a complicated system of verb endings or case endings. It works well with Asian languages such as Indonesian and Mandarin Chinese, and might work well for someone learning English as a foreign language. Even so, it’s best to meet with a tutor after each 50-100 sentences to correct errors in your source of sentences or in your deductions about the grammar (as well as your pronunciation errors). My italki Indonesian tutor only made a couple of corrections when I read off Glossika’s first 50 sentences with their English translations.


I wouldn’t use this exact method to learn Arabic, Russian, or Turkish from scratch. I could, but I would make a lot more errors along the way and it would be more painful to correct them. However, after learning a lot of grammar, it could certainly be done. This is why Glossika was intended for high beginners, not total beginners.


The sentence-creating approach has weaknesses which you, the reader, are probably already thinking of. I’ll address one or two of them in my third and final installment.




2018 Introductions

Lesser-known polyglots from around the world on YouTube

I like discovering lesser-known polyglots and aspiring polyglots (language learners) from around the world, and introducing them to the global polyglot community on Twitter. Here are the ones I introduced on Twitter in 2018. Let my efforts help in a small way to eliminate the stereotype that most polyglots are white, male, native English speakers. 


Hyunjung Kim is a Korean woman who runs a clothing shop with her husband, and who speaks English, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese. 


Marlon Ramos is a teen polyglot in the Philippines. He speaks 18 languages at different levels of proficiency, but as yet almost nobody has heard of him.  


Shota is from Japan and speaks English, Italian, Spanish, and French. He teaches the Japanese language and culture on his channel, with an emphasis on the correct use and meaning of common words and expressions.  


Shahidah Foster (Language Bae) is a black, American woman who speaks German, French, and Spanish and uses German in her career. She posts a lot of language tips, such as how to prepare for a job interview in a foreign language.  


I only started doing this late in the year, so I’ve only introduced four YouTubers so far. 


Of course, I recommend all kinds of polyglots and aspiring polyglots on Twitter. This kind of introduction is just meant to overcome stereotypes and introduce YouTubers that you are less likely to encounter elsewhere. I hope to discover and introduce many more this year. If this interests you, feel free to follow me on Twitter.