Strategies for avoiding kanji

Supposing you only want lower-intermediate conversational skills. What can you do?

This post is a complete antithesis of my last one.

Recently, someone wrote to me, “[In my opinion] trying to learn Japanese without learning the Kanji is futile.” Well, actually, if a person only wants to learn Japanese for travel or for the goal of attaining lower-intermediate conversation skills, they can avoid all of the Japanese scripts—kanji, hiragana, and katakana. They can just use romaji (the Latin alphabet—similar to English, Spanish, French, and German).

Supposing you only want lower-intermediate conversational skills. What can you do? Surprisingly, there are a lot of study materials you can use. I expect that there are websites and apps that can help you. Since I learn languages almost entirely from books and audio courses though (many of which cost money), these are mostly what I’m going to talk about below.

First, I would start every language with fun courses. I say this because it’s hard to be truly committed to a project in the beginning. (See my article, “A honeymoon for language success”, for more information.) In this regard, I recommend starting with Dr. Blair’s Japanese in No Time, an audio course available from audiobook clubs such as eStories and Audible.

I also find JapanesePod101 entertaining, at least in some “seasons.” Different levels and seasons have different writers and hosts. If you try a season and don’t like it, try another. (My favorite is Beginner Season 1.) Those podcasts are free for the first week, and include PDF documents if you want to read along with the dialogs. If you like them, my personal preference is to get a Basic membership for $21 every 3 months (automatically renewed until you tell them to stop). Keep going with podcasts for as long as you can because they’ll help you with your listening skills, without which you can’t carry on a conversation.

If you can afford the Premium membership for JapanesePod101, you can listen to a podcast episode and then listen several times to the dialog-only track in order to get away from the English and listen only to Japanese. You can even download the dialog-only tracks to an MP3 player and play them in shuffle mode to improve your listening even more. To save money, I prefer to study it for a few months with the Basic membership, then switch to Premium membership for a couple of months to listen to the dialog-only tracks.

When you’re ready for serious studies, try the (completely audio) Michel Thomas series. It breaks the grammar down into small pieces and gets you speaking and creating sentences. (I wrote a review about it last month.) An audio course I enjoyed less but still learned from is Pimsleur. You can download the first lesson for free from the official Pimsleur website. If you choose to continue, either search your public library or you can buy lessons cheaply if you join one of the audiobook clubs I mentioned earlier. There are books for learning which only use romaji, but I would study audio courses first so that you learn good pronunciation skills. Some learners have purportedly ruined their Japanese pronunciation by starting with books, and then native speakers couldn’t understand what they said.

If you want to improve your pronunciation, the Fluent Forever website sells an inexpensive course (Pronunciation Trainer) which is written both in Japanese scripts and in a phonetic script (International Phonetic Alphabet) somewhat similar to the Latin alphabet. I haven’t tried it, so I can’t comment on its quality or usefulness.

A course book which uses romaji from beginning to end is Teach Yourself Complete Japanese. There are some reading passages, but you can skip over them. Other options include Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day, Get Talking Japanese, Japanese for Dummies, and probably many more. I enjoyed Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day–which is in a workbook style–and I used Complete Japanese for listening practice, but I haven’t tried the other courses in this paragraph (so I don’t know if they’re any good).

Most of the beginning grammar reference books are written in both Japanese scripts and romaji, so you can get by with just the romaji. In fact, my favorite is written entirely in romaji (even the example sentences). It’s called Japanese Verbs and Essentials of Grammar. What worked for me was creating my own sentences aloud over a period of weeks until the grammar became easy, and then I could remember it to use it in conversation. The book summarizes all of the basic grammar of Japanese in about 100 pages, including hundreds of verb endings to help you communicate many nuances of meaning. This book helped me to achieve lower-intermediate conversation skills earlier this year.

You also need vocabulary. Topical vocabulary books are perfect for conversation practice. Two I use are Barron’s Japanese Vocabulary by Nobuo Akiyama and Japanese Vocabulary for English Speakers: 9000 Words by Andrey Taranov, both of which include romaji for every word. Bookstores also have paper dictionaries entirely in romaji, but they tend to have few words. However, you can always use Google Translate and look at the romaji down below. There’s even a button that allows you to hear the word or sentence in Japanese.

Finally, you need to practice conversation. Hire a tutor if you can (for example, from italki) or find an exchange partner. Or use an app such as Amikumu to find another Japanese learner near you that you can practice conversation together with over a cup of coffee. Or find a Meetup group near you that practices Japanese conversation together. Italki tutors are the most expensive but most efficient resources I’ve found so far without living in Japan. However, in my case, I couldn’t find tutors early in the morning when I wanted them because early morning for me is nighttime in Japan.

If you follow these steps (or use other resources which others recommend or which you find yourself), you have the potential to go all the way to the lower-intermediate level without learning any kanji, hiragana, or katakana. Personally, I started Japanese in a high school class, so I was forced to learn the Japanese scripts. Also, I want to read novels in Japanese, so this was never an option. Nonetheless, I’ve found romaji-only and completely audio resources helpful along the way.

Strategies for mastering kanji (for beginners)

Take it slowly and enjoy the language.

This article is for anyone who has been learning Japanese as a beginner. As you would have found out by now, Japanese has three writing systems: two alphabets called hiragana and katakana (about 50 letters each) and thousands of Chinese characters (called kanji). Once you’ve learned the hiragana and katakana (which doesn’t take as long as total beginners might expect), you need to choose a strategy for learning kanji. Actually, this is done for you in beginner textbooks, but eventually you’ll have to take up the responsibility for mastering kanji yourself (unless you’ve chosen to avoid them completely and stick to conversation skills only).

Because kanji are used both for native Japanese words and for borrowed Chinese “words,” the characters have multiple pronunciations and sometimes multiple meanings. In my experience, it’s almost impossible to memorize all of those pronunciations and meanings at the same time, so I end up learning each character multiple times before I feel that I really know it.

Actually, I consider these various pronunciations and meanings to be merely intellectual constructs–that is, they exist in scholarly studies of the language, but not in real life. What exists in real life is words. Sometimes, one kanji can be used by itself to represent one word. Sometimes, it’s combined with hiragana to form a word. But usually, two or more kanji are combined to make a word. A kanji’s pronunciation varies depending on which word it’s in. In reading and writing, people don’t read and write kanji, they read and write words. So, my strategy is to memorize words.

Specifically, I memorize from one to three example words that contain the kanji I want to learn. I can always come back and memorize more words later in order to learn additional pronunciations that I didn’t learn the first time. Fortunately, as I’ve said, both the kanji to learn and the example words have been chosen for you in beginning textbooks and readers. You ought to learn how to read and write (or at least, read and type) individual characters, but then if you’re going to memorize anything, memorize the vocabulary in your textbook, and you’ll automatically start getting used to the kanji in words.

Learning to write (not just type) is helpful in preparation for reading handwritten Japanese, which often looks very different from typed Japanese. It also helps you to get used to recognizing character parts, so that complicated characters look less complicated.

There is something more important than kanji, and that’s grammar. Even if you set aside a year and memorize 2000 kanji–enough to read a newspaper–Japanese will still be gibberish to you unless you also know the grammar. So that’s where I prioritize my studies: grammar first, then kanji. Grammar is essential for conversation skills, too. You can’t say or understand much without grammar. In fact, in Japanese, sometimes a sentence will seem to say the exact opposite of what it means until you understand the grammar.

My advice, then, for beginners, is to buy a two-volume beginning textbook series, such as Genki, Yookoso, or Elementary Japanese (my personal favorite). These all teach about 300 kanji–but more importantly, grammar. There’s still a lot more grammar to learn after you finish these books, but they’ll give you a good foundation. In fact, I would start with the Michel Thomas series first, as it breaks down the grammar into small pieces and forces you to make sentences aloud. If you can’t afford Michel Thomas, Duolingo will do, as long as you also make up your own sentences in Japanese using the grammar which Duolingo teaches you. Then buy one of these textbook series and continue your studies.

If you would like additional help with kanji, many people have found success in a series of textbooks called Remembering the Kanji by James W. Heisig. Nobody recommended that series to me until recently, and I already know around 600 kanji. By now, I’m familiar with the character parts introduced in Heisig’s books, so I don’t need the books. But other people swear by them.

What helped me was Reading Japanese by Eleanor Harz Jorden and Hamako Ito Chaplin. This university textbook introduces only one kanji at a time, 25 per chapter (425 total) and then gives a lot of reading practice with it, while reviewing earlier kanji at the same time. Each chapter ends with more reading practice, so that each kanji is reviewed multiple times. When I studied that book, I never needed to memorize anything. It also provides a little practice at reading handwritten Japanese, a skill rarely taught elsewhere.

For beginners, strategizing learning kanji is simple: Select your textbooks and readers. It’s only when you finish those textbooks and readers and ask yourself, “now what?”, that you’ll need to take the initiative in your kanji learning. Focus on grammar first, then kanji. Learn conversation and practice listening, as with any other language. Mastering Japanese requires patience and persistence. There’s no need to rush and fret. Take it slowly and enjoy the language.

Streaks versus habits

The habit will carry them forward, but the streak will eventually end.

We sometimes hear of people who studied a particular language course (such as Duolingo) or used a particular study tool (such as Anki) for X days in a row without missing a day. It’s called a “streak.” Examples are a 60-day streak or a 100-day streak or even longer. I applaud those who achieve it, but I don’t have any negative opinions toward those who try and fail.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” (Will Durant, sometimes attributed to Aristotle). This famous quote reminds us that a habit is a key to success, not a streak. When a foreign language learner achieves a streak of longer than 20 days, they have probably established a habit. The habit will carry them forward down the long road toward a high proficiency in a language, but the streak will eventually end.

The problem with streaks is perfectionism. If a learner sets a goal of a 90-day streak and then misses days, they could feel disappointment and guilt–even embarrassment, if they told others about their goal first. And then when they try again, self-doubt can creep in which may or may not eventually lead to quitting. In my case, perfectionism tends to lead to procrastination, which in turn leads nowhere.

Progress in a language comes from habits, not streaks. Missing days–even a few days in a row–is not necessarily enough to prevent a good habit from forming. And it’s certainly not fatal to a language project, which is more like a marathon than a sprint.

It’s not even necessary to achieve a 20-day streak in order to establish a habit. There are probably plenty of things that each of us does only once a week or once a month which have nonetheless become habits. The requirement for establishing a habit–as the quote earlier states–is to do an act repeatedly. When it comes to language learning, even a few minutes a day can lead to gradual improvement. And it doesn’t even have to be every single day.

New Year’s resolutions are not much different. If you make a resolution at the start of the year, you have the whole year to meet it before you have really failed. If you fail to establish a habit in the first month or two, that’s no reason to give up until the next year.

By all means, aim for a streak. But the streak should not be the real goal. A habit leading to eventual completion of the course or some other quantifiable accomplishment is the underlying goal that matters.

Comparative Review: Michel Thomas, Paul Noble, and Language Transfer

Their approach relies on understanding rather than on memorization.

Michel Thomas, Paul Noble, and Language Transfer courses are completely audio, and they’re all of excellent methodology and good recording quality. I would recommend any one of them as the first or second course for anyone starting to study a foreign language on their own. In fact, they are the courses I use myself.

Since I don’t get paid for this review, I can do so honestly. My only bias is that I prefer to start learning a foreign language using completely audio courses (after a honeymoon period, which I talked about in an earlier post). These three series all qualify. I like to study in bed with my MP3 player–in the dark, when I wake up in the morning. Since I set my alarm early, this is the best time of day for me to be consistent in my studies. Also, in the summertime after work, I like to lie down on the grass in a park and look up at the trees or the clouds while I study one of these courses.

I’ve used Michel Thomas (Total and Perfect) for Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and a little bit for German. I’ve used Paul Noble for German. I’ve used Language Transfer for German and I’m now using it for Swahili. My plan was to use all three series for German and then write this comparative review. However, I realized that it will take a few more months for me to complete all of the Michel Thomas German courses. In order, the courses are: 1. Total German, 2. Perfect German (which includes the Vocabulary Builder module), 3. Masterclass German, and 4. Insider’s German. By that time, my experiences with Paul Noble and Language Transfer might not be fresh in my mind anymore. Because of this, I’m writing this review now before completing Michel Thomas German.

I’m using the name Michel Thomas for brevity; the series is actually called “The Michel Thomas Method” because Michel is not personally the teacher of many courses in the series, such as Japanese and Russian.


What They Have in Common

All three courses have three goals: (1.) To start learners speaking and forming sentences, (2.) to teach the basics of the grammar, and (3.) to teach learners how to recognize cognates when they encounter them in the future, for fast vocabulary growth.

What do I mean by recognizing cognates? To use German as an example, German verbs in their dictionary form end in -n or -en. The letter d in English is often equivalent to the letter t in German. Let’s apply these two facts to learn two German verbs. The German word for “to dance” is tanzen (pronounced “tantsen”). The English word “to do” is tun (pronounced “toon”) in German. Without this information, learners might waste time trying to learn words by mindless memorization or by inventing crazy word associations (called mnemonics). Instead, they can make connections in their minds between tun and do, and between tanzen and dance, with little effort. Then, they use the words enough times in the course to remember them.

Michel Thomas summarized the philosophy behind this style of teaching: “What you understand, you know. And what you know, you don’t forget.” The approach relies on understanding rather than on memorization. Contrast this with Pimsleur, which uses a Spaced Repetition System to memorize some of the target language, whether you understand it or not. Nonetheless, the three courses in this review all review the vocabulary and grammar frequently enough to help you remember.

As a result, all three courses ask learners not to write anything down, do any homework, or make any effort to try to remember anything. The teacher takes responsibility to teach in such a manner that learners remember most of the material by the end of the course. Learners may repeat lessons (or entire CD’s) if they don’t feel comfortable moving on, but nonetheless, less review is usually needed than with traditional textbooks that have vocabulary lists, dialogs, and grammar drills.

Optional written components are or will be provided with these courses which can be used if necessary: Paul Noble’s and Michel Thomas’ courses include booklets, and Language Transfer courses will eventually include full transcripts. These resources should be used as a last resort in my opinion, but they are (or will be) provided unless a customer buys a course used or in an audiobook format (rather than CD). They can be especially helpful if a learner can’t tell exactly what is being said. Did the speaker pronounce an n or an m, for example? I imagine that these supplements would be especially helpful at the end of the course, both for review and to see the connection between sound and spelling.

All three courses operate in this way: First, they teach a tiny grammar point (such as how to say “I want to” followed by a verb) or a new vocabulary word. Then they say a sentence in English, such as “I want to sleep.” Then they ask learners to pause the audio and translate the English sentence into the language they’re learning. When learners resume the audio, they’ll hear another learner attempt the translation and a correction by the teacher or a native speaker. Paul Noble does it slightly differently by omitting the other learner from the recording, but simply has a native speaker model it. Then, the courses continue with the next grammar point or vocabulary word. Occasionally, they review lists of words that were previously learned.

After even 10 or 20 minutes of studying each day, learners have said quite a few sentences in their target language, and gained a tiny bit more confidence in speaking it. This confidence and skill accumulate little-by-little to a good result by the end of the course. However, as with any beginning course, learners still have a long way to go. No one language course can bring beginners up to a high level of proficiency. But any course they study after one or two of these courses will be much easier and probably more effective because of the confidence and skills taught by these three courses, in my opinion. For this reason, I like to study these courses first before any others.

By the end of any of these courses, learners have been introduced to the present, past, and future tenses, plus word order, genders, and some grammatical cases.


Differences Between These Three Series

Paul Noble’s apparent goal is to teach the most difficult grammar points to beginners without confusing them. He might have created the course specifically to help those learners who feel overwhelmed by the grammar in an ordinary language classroom. Paul avoids grammatical terminology at all costs, even to the point of his explanations being very wordy, repetitive, and even strange. For example, in the German course, Paul avoids the term accusative case and instead describes it with phrases like “the victim of the situation” and “the thing that’s having something done to it.” (I’m quoting from memory, so this wording is approximate.) He teaches only a tiny bit of vocabulary, some to show how words are formed and some to practice grammar with. Working with such a small vocabulary also means that some of the sentences might seem a bit strange or unexpected to some learners. The German accusative case is practiced by making sentences about kissing a baby, a mother, and a man. The only voices you’ll hear in his courses are those of Paul and a native speaker. There is so much review that it annoyed me, but not nearly as much as Pimsleur.

Michel Thomas teaches more grammar and a lot more vocabulary than Paul Noble, reviewing just enough to help retention but not enough to annoy me. Unlike Paul, when Michel spends a few minutes reviewing vocabulary, I know that he will shortly introduce something new for me to learn–even if it’s just one word. By contrast, Paul can spend half a CD just reviewing old material.

Michel adds an element which some people love and others hate: the two additional students on the recording. The teacher (whether Michael himself or someone else) teaches a very small new grammatical point or vocabulary word, says a sentence in English, and asks the learner to translate it into the language they’re learning. The learner is supposed to pause the CD, think through their answer and say it aloud, then resume the CD. One of the two students (taking turns) tries to answer it, then the teacher helps the student to correct their errors themselves before (s)he (or a native speaker) models the correct answer. The learner should then repeat that correct answer aloud.

What’s annoying is that some Michel Thomas courses include a student who is a very slow learner, frequently making the same mistakes over and over. A few reviewers assume that they make the mistakes on purpose. I don’t think so. I think Michel’s courses include slow learners so that listeners who are slow learners themselves can take courage knowing that there is nothing wrong with being a slow learner. Who likes being the slowest student in their class? But the constant mistakes by the slow learner on the recording can seem tedious and annoying to a fast learner.

Language Transfer (LT) is very similar to Michel Thomas, except that the teacher only has one student who is replaced by another from time to time. Mihalis Eleftheriou, the sole creator of these courses, uses only volunteers as students. That means that anyone who can travel to Mihalis’ location in Spain can volunteer as a student and become immortalized on these recordings. Mihalis is planning tours of Europe so that other Europeans can participate without traveling to Spain. Someone with a lot of money may commission a course, but usually courses are paid for by donations and volunteers, including native speakers to check the work and non-native speakers to be students, to write transcripts of the lessons, to propagate the courses, and so forth. Mihalis is also looking for additional teachers who can learn his method from him and help him create courses more quickly. Donors may cast one vote per dollar donated to request which courses LT will make available in the future.

All three courses want the learner to think instead of passively learning or memorizing, but Michel Thomas more so than Paul Noble, and Language Transfer more so than either of the other two. When Paul teaches something new, his native speaker models it. When LT teaches something new, Mihalis presents a few puzzle pieces and asks learners to come up with the new word themselves, and then he models the correct answer. Michel Thomas sometimes does it one way and sometimes the other.

LT does not have a native speaker on the recordings, so the teacher’s pronunciations are approximate. Mihalis also speaks quickly, giving the learner little opportunity to hear and repeat the rhythm and intonation (although LT does try to teach intonation). However, it is impossible to learn a language completely from any one course. With this in mind, I start with one or more of these courses to learn the grammar, and then move on to other courses where I can improve my pronunciation.



Paul Noble courses are only available in French, Spanish, Italian, and German. They come in a box with 12 audio CD’s, one video DVD containing an introduction by Paul Noble, and a review booklet.

Language Transfer and Michel Thomas are constantly developing courses in additional languages (Language Transfer at a faster pace), so it’s best to check their respective websites for a current list. Amazon is another good place to look for Michel Thomas courses because they have two-CD “Start” courses for sale which are not listed on the official Michel Thomas website. These are the languages under development, for which full (Total and Perfect) courses are expected within the next two years or so. Also, Michel Thomas has finally created a series for intermediate-level learners–using a dialog-based format–entitled Insider’s French, Insider’s Spanish, Insider’s Italian, and Insider’s German. I haven’t used them yet personally.

For beginners, Michel Thomas courses start with the “Total” course for complete beginners, followed by the “Perfect” course. In the second edition, each contains around 8 audio CD’s for the more popular languages. For some languages (such as Japanese and Greek), the “Perfect” course contains only about 4 CD’s (plus a DVD of computer programs, which I haven’t tried because I rarely study languages on a computer). When the “Perfect” course contains 8 CD’s, the additional CD’s comprise the “Vocabulary Builder+” course, which are also sold separately. If you’re already a high beginner, I recommend skipping “Total” and “Perfect” and starting with the “Vocabulary Builder+” course. Note that the “Start” courses are included in the “Total” courses. The “Start” courses are meant as an inexpensive way to try out the Michel Thomas method and see if you like it before investing a lot more money in the “Total” course.

Spanish, French, Italian, and German also have a “Masterclass” of two CD’s, which is meant for study after the “Perfect” or “Vocabulary Builder+” course and before the “Insider’s” courses. I have not tried the “Masterclass” courses yet.

At the time of this writing, Michel Thomas has courses for Spanish, French, Italian, German, European Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Dutch, Greek, Egyptian Arabic, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese. These are essentially the foreign languages which are the most popular or in demand for learners in the UK. It also has “Start” courses for Hindi, Korean, Norwegian, and Swedish. I don’t know which ones Michel taught personally, except that they would only be European languages. He didn’t teach Russian, and he didn’t teach any of the languages for which only Start courses exist.

As for Language Transfer, shorter “Introduction” courses are created first, and later “Complete” courses. However, lessons are published one-by-one as they are created, so some “Complete” courses are incomplete. When they are finally completed, they have over 100 lessons (each 5-10 minutes long). At the time of this writing, only Greek and Spanish have complete “Complete” courses, with German and Swahili in rapid development in late 2017.

At the time of this writing, LT has “Introduction” courses for French, Italian, Turkish, and Egyptian Arabic, plus English for Spanish speakers. “Complete” courses exist for Spanish, Greek, Swahili, and German.

While Paul Noble and Michel Thomas are both published on CD (and also available for download at Audible), Language Transfer is only available via streaming or download. It can be streamed via YouTube, SoundCloud, or the Language Transfer website. It can be downloaded (one file at a time) via SoundCloud by clicking the More button to the right of each lesson, then Download. As a reminder, LT is the only free series of the three. However, public libraries sometimes have the other series. That is how I took the Michel Thomas Japanese courses for free.


What Order to Study Them In

What if you like this approach, and you want to use more than one of them (assuming you’re a beginner and can afford them)? Here are my recommendations.

Paul Noble goes at the slowest pace (with more review and a lot less vocabulary taught than its competitors) and focuses on mastery of a few grammar points which are difficult for most beginners. Therefore, if Paul Noble is available in the language you’re learning, I recommend starting with it unless you simply can’t afford it (about $50).

Follow it with Language Transfer if you’re learning Spanish, French, German, or Italian–then Michel Thomas after that. This is because, in those four languages, Michel Thomas has about 20 hours of courses for purchase (“Total” followed by “Perfect,” then “Masterclass,” and finally “Insider’s”), and they add up to a lot of money.

If you’re studying any other language, study Language Transfer and Michel Thomas in whichever order you prefer. Of course, many languages are only available in one or the other.

If you also plan to study a Pimsleur course, I recommend studying it after these three series. Pimsleur can be more stressful in some languages, a lot more tedious (boring for some people), and more expensive. It also doesn’t teach grammar explicitly, but useful expressions instead (following the Functional-Notional Approach). However, Pimsleur has the advantage over these three series in that it will help you more with the rhythm and intonation of the language. These three courses can mess up your rhythm if you study Pimsleur first. Even a few Pimsleur lessons can help. On the other hand, at this point, Pimsleur will actually seem too easy. It might be better to find a more challenging course to continue with–plus conversation practice with another person.



I have been enjoying and learning a lot from all three of these series. Because they are completely audio in nature and don’t require any homework or memorization, they are perfect for studying in bed or while lying on the grass in a park. There is no such thing as a totally stress-free language course, but these come close. The Russian Michel Thomas series was very helpful in preparing me for conversation. The German (all three) and Swahili (Language Transfer only) courses–which I’m currently studying–will no doubt do the same.

Polyglot Conor Clyne (the “Language Tsar”) credits the beginning of his interest and confidence in language learning to the Michel Thomas series. I expect that others will say the same about the Paul Noble and Language Transfer series, since they are all similar.

Finding vlogs in another language

The important thing is to enjoy it even if you only catch the jist of what’s being said.

If you’ve learned a language to the intermediate level or above and you want to improve your listening comprehension, one way is to watch vloggers on YouTube in your target language. But how do you find them? I’ll show you my way. Think of a topic which is interesting to you and make a phrase out of it. Try to be specific. For me, it might be “trip to Paris” or “study abroad in Japan.” Type that phrase into Google Translate and find the equivalent in your target language. Then copy and paste that into the YouTube search box. Browse the results for vlogs and try out a few. As you’re doing that, also try out the related channels and recommended videos that show up as you’re watching them.

If you get too few results, remove words or try a different phrase. In many languages, there aren’t many videos on YouTube except news broadcasts.

When you find videos you like and can partially understand, either add them to a private playlist or subscribe to the channel. At first, you might not find many vloggers that you even partially understand. The important thing is to enjoy it even if you only catch the jist of what’s being said.

What do you do when you don’t understand any of them? That means that your listening skills in that language are still too low–even if your overall proficiency is higher. Listen to a lot of easier material. For example, try Lingq, read graded readers that include audio CD’s, listen to Innovative Language podcasts, buy a listening course such as SmartSpanish, or practice conversation with a variety of tutors or language exchange partners.

Some people (such as Steve Kaufmann) argue that listening is the most important skill you can learn in another language. Others (such as Olly Richards) claim that it’s the hardest skill for most learners. If they’re right, it’s worth it to invest time into listening practice. But make sure it’s not too difficult for you. In addition, don’t cram a lot of practice into one day, but do a little a day. I hope you find vloggers you enjoy listening to.

How I use italki

Taking on a leadership role and preparing for lessons–rather than expecting my tutors to do so–is one of the main keys to my success.

Italki is a marketplace of foreign language learners, tutors, professional teachers, and exchange partners. Students can often find tutors within their price range for one-on-one Skype tutoring sessions. If not, they can at least find free language exchange partners for Skype practice. (For example, if you’re a native French speaker learning English and I’m a native English speaker learning French, we can converse in English for 30 minutes and in French for 30 minutes, meeting by Skype or a similar program once or twice a week.) There are several websites like italki, but they don’t offer as many languages as italki does. (By the way, I get no financial benefit from writing about this or any other product.)

Italki also has other services, such as articles of language-learning tips published by various teachers. There’s a place called the Notebook where you can write an essay of any length in your target language (the language you’re learning) and have it corrected by volunteers–usually native speakers. There’s also a place where you can post opinion questions about languages and cultures and people can respond in a discussion format. And there’s a place where you can post questions about specific words or expressions that you don’t understand in your target language. So even if you’re broke, you can probably find italki useful.

Some (perhaps many) italki tutors and teachers are only prepared to teach the basics of their languages–maybe enough to carry on simple conversations or prepare for travel. Some are trained to answer grammar and vocabulary questions as preparation for exams. In my experience, many can adapt to help intermediate and advanced learners. Their usefulness above the beginner level, however, usually requires that the student prepare for the lessons and take the initiative, rather than the teacher. In that case, informal tutoring is cheaper and more appropriate than professional lessons.

This spring, for example, I hired 23 tutors for 30-minute Russian conversation practice sessions (many of them for only $5 each), then kept about half of the tutors. (How I select and weed out tutors will be the topic of a future blog entry.) Between them, I had between 2 and 4 sessions a week over a 3-month period, except for a couple of weeks when I wasn’t available. At the beginning, I couldn’t say much in Russian. By the end, I probably attained the lower-intermediate level (CEFR B1) in conversation–but not reading or writing! I previously did something similar for French, Spanish, and Japanese (but with fewer tutors), all with the help of italki.

As I said, taking on a leadership role and preparing for lessons–rather than expecting your tutors to do so–is recommended, and it’s one of the main keys to my success. First, I met my own prerequisites for conversation practice. (See my blog entry, “Ready for conversation practice,” for details.) Then, I brainstormed a list of simple conversation topics that interested me, grouped related ones together (such as travel, languages, and climates), and arranged them so that topics requiring more vocabulary came after topics which required less vocabulary. When I scheduled each lesson with a tutor, I announced which topics I wanted to talk about and they would tell me whether the topics interested them or not.

For example, the first session I had with each of my 23 tutors, I asked them to converse with me about travel and/or languages and/or climates. In 30 minutes, we can’t talk about all three, so the tutor was free to select from those three topics. One teacher would ask me questions like, “What countries have you traveled to? What did you like about them? Where do you want to go next?” Another would ask me, “What’s the climate like in your city,” and also tell me about the climate in their city. Another would ask me how I learned my languages and what I think of their language. Every conversation was unique and interesting. No two teachers had exactly the same interests.

I answered each question with long answers. Sometimes I would explain the reasons for my answers. Sometimes I would give examples. Sometimes I would compare two things (for example, Japan and South Korea–two places where I taught English). If I had given short answers, I would still be a beginner. Long answers are necessary for improvement. Also, long answers keep the conversation interesting for both the student and the tutor.

Even though every session was unique, I still had a chance to repeat a lot of the same grammar and vocabulary, so I could improve from week to week. Teachers also corrected my errors and taught me words I didn’t know. At first, I didn’t study them, and I kept forgetting the same words and making the same mistakes over and over. Later, I started memorizing what the tutors taught me, and then I improved my conversational skill faster.

To prepare, I first studied topical vocabulary books (such as those published by Barron’s and those compiled by Andrey Taranov). I read through lists of words, but didn’t try to memorize them. Then I wrote example questions on each topic and how I would answer them–all in the target language. Even though tutors asked me different questions, this step nonetheless prepared me somehow. Finally, I practiced talking to myself on these topics in the target language. By that time, I was ready for conversation practice. I needed a lot of help and corrections at first, but after many sessions with different tutors, it became easier and I became more fluent–though I still made many mistakes, especially in Russian (because the grammar is irregular).

It was rare, but in the worst-case scenario, I simply read aloud to the tutor what I had written, and they corrected me. Toward the end, I started using italki’s Notebook feature to have my questions and answers corrected before the tutoring sessions.

Of course, in the spirit of conversation, I asked my tutors questions in the target language, too, but most of them asked me questions most of the time to give me the maximum speaking practice. Besides, I’m introverted, so asking questions and keeping conversations balanced is not my forte.

How do you practice conversation? How do you prepare for it? Have I provided any tips that you would like to try?

A honeymoon for language success

The languages for which I’ve completed a honeymoon phase successfully are the ones I’m strongly motivated to study.

It’s common knowledge in the polyglot community that motivation is the key to success. Good study habits might be more important, but I believe it’s impossible to establish a habit without some kind of motivation. Famous polyglot Alex Rawlings recommends writing a list of 10 reasons why you want to learn a language. It’s not easy, or even always possible! But if you can write such a list, those reasons will keep you motivated.

Barring that, what helps me to stay motivated is to start off with what I call a “honeymoon phase.” Others have remarked that when you start learning a foreign language, it feels like a honeymoon. That is, the language might be new and fun to you as you learn interesting things about it and hear yourself speaking it. Disappointments, frustration, and boredom might not have surfaced yet. Thus, it feels a little like a honeymoon.

However, I use the term “honeymoon” for a deliberate language-learning phase at the beginning of my studies of a new language. During this phase, I attempt to fall in love with the language before I become committed to it, set goals, or even study it seriously. This phase even helps me to decide which language I want to study next.

There are some things I do during this phase–but not all of them:

  • Find out where it’s spoken.
  • Find out what sounds and tones are in it (phonetics)–usually via Wikipedia.
  • Listen to news broadcasts and other audio in the language.
  • Watch videos to sample TV, movies, vblogs, fairy tales, etc.
  • Sample music–both modern and traditional.
  • Watch traditional dances.
  • Watch videos for very small children, and see if I can pick up a few words.
  • Listen to podcasts for beginners learning the language.
  • See what the writing looks like.
  • Study the language with short audio courses such as Speak … with Confidence or Dr. Blair’s … in No Time or … for Children.
  • Find out what kinds of courses and references I can use to study it (but don’t start them yet). Keep a list. Think about which course I’d like to start with after the honeymoon phase is over.

There are also things I don’t do during this phase:

  • Spend a lot of money.
  • Study a serious course.
  • Read a lot about grammar.
  • Try to master all of its pronunciation at once.
  • Memorize vocabulary.
  • Study with a tutor or language exchange partner.
  • Take a class.
  • Make commitments with myself.
  • Set goals.
  • Ask others to keep me accountable.

These are all things I do once the honeymoon phase is over, if I decide to continue with that language. I might decide not to continue, as a result of not gaining enough appreciation for the language or culture or finding it hard to find courses and references I can use to learn it.

The languages for which I’ve completed a honeymoon phase successfully are the ones I’m strongly motivated to study, while those for which I haven’t completed it are lacking motivation. If I lack motivation, I tend to quit it sooner or later.

Are there any languages that you think you might persevere in and be more successful at if you either (1.) write a list of ten reasons to learn it, or (2.) spend a few weeks deliberately playing with the language but not studying it seriously? Are there languages that you have quit learning that you would like to try again with one of these two approaches?