How to Learn a Language Every Day
by Sandy Millin
For a given value of ‘learnt’, I’ve ‘learnt’ ten or more different languages. For at least the last five, Russian, Thai, Italian, Mandarin and Polish, my studies have been largely computer-based. I’ve found making languages a part of my everyday life, including at weekends, has given me the largest amount of progress. So how do I do this?
Little and often
The first answer is by aiming for ten minutes of the language every day, regardless of what form it takes. This might be using an app, watching a song or a children’s cartoon on YouTube (Peppa Pig is ideal, with its simple storylines), or reading a couple of pages of a book which I’ve read before in English. It could also be more academic, like looking back over some vocabulary studied in class, reading or listening to a coursebook text again, or doing a couple of grammar exercises. The important thing is to do something. To help me keep track of this goal, I started to make a note on an unused calendar every day, for example ‘R’ for Russian, or ‘P’ for Polish. If I didn’t do anything, I put ‘X’. Since I hated seeing X’s, I would push myself to spend a few minutes ‘languaging’, just before bed if necessary, purely so I could write something. It might be pop psychology, but it works for me!
The main app that I use is Memrise. I find it addictive, which is useful when you’re trying to motivate yourself to study every day. It’s free to register, and it’s currently possible to sign up with Facebook or Google logins if you don’t want to create a separate account. Once you’re in, choose your language in the ‘I speak’ box, then choose the language you want to learn. There are lots of options for courses, and my tip is to try a few different ones to help you find what works for you. Some have audio, some don’t; some require you to write, others don’t. Personally I find I learn the most from courses with audio and writing, but it did get pretty frustrating with Thai when I still couldn’t write ‘hello’ after thirty or more attempts!
Once you’ve started studying a course, Memrise uses spaced repetition to remind you when to revise words. According to their Science page*, “Research suggests that reminders are most effective when they occur just before a memory fades completely and that successive reminders should be separated by longer and longer intervals”. I’ve been using the site for over five years, and I can still remember some of the Mandarin words I studied in my very first course. It’s great to be able to rely on the site to tell you what to revise and when, rather than having to figure it out yourself.
Another feature of Memrise which motivates me is their daily goals. You can choose how many points you want to aim for each day, and it will show you your ‘streak’: the number of consecutive days you’ve achieved this. Mine is set to 1500 points for each of my courses, which translates to either revising 10-15 old words, or learning 5 new ones each day. I’m currently studying four Polish courses and three Mandarin ones, and it takes me a total of 20-25 minutes each morning to achieve my goal for all seven courses. As I write this, I’m on at least a 47-day streak for all of the courses, and for two I’m up to 113 days. I really don’t want to lose these streaks now, so I make sure I find time for Memrise every day, usually over breakfast and in between putting the washing up away, making that chore marginally less boring!
Another resource which I use as part of my daily routine and while doing chores is podcasts. These are like radio programmes, except you can listen to them whenever and wherever you want to. There are thousands of podcasts about hundreds of different topics and from all over the world. The BBC alone has a huge range of them, all downloadable for free. You can listen to them online, or download them to your computer, phone, or mp3 player, and effectively create your own personalised talk radio station. To download I use the free Apple Podcasts app on my iPad, and iTunes on my computer, listening to most of them while walking to and from work or while doing physiotherapy exercises in the morning. For Android, you can use the apps Podcast Republic and Podcast Addict for free, or pay a small fee for Pocket Casts. You can search for podcasts from within the programme, or you can find them online and then add the feed to your apps. You can also choose to subscribe, so that new podcast episodes are automatically added without you having to remember to check up on the feed.
Podcasts are a great way to gain lots of exposure to the stream of the language you’re learning, without worrying about how much you’ve understood, because you can go back and listen as many times as you like. Often, you can play the podcast at half or double speed too, so you can find the speed which is most comfortable for you. I have a more complete guide for learners at Independent English, which includes a list of some of my favourite podcasts for English learners and a range of activities to try.
Building on the familiar
While we’re on the subject of extensive exposure to the language, one of my greatest achievements recently was finishing the first Harry Potter book in Polish. It took me nearly seven months, but by reading two pages every night before bed, and not worrying about how many words I understood, I made it through to the end. I was inspired to do this by Lizzie Pinard, a friend and fellow blogger, who had read Harry Potter in French, Italian and probably a few other languages, and made me realize that if she could do it, I could too! As the book tells a story I knew, it didn’t matter if I didn’t understand every word, because I could still work out roughly where I was in the narrative. That in turn helped me to understand more of the text. By the end of the book, I’d learnt a few more words, noticed in context a lot of the things I’d learnt on Memrise, and been exposed to a range of grammar structures which I’d only read about before. I’ve just started reading book two, and I now find that I can read four pages a night without two much trouble, something which would have been impossible last year. It’s given me a real sense of progress with my learning, and has helped to motivate me.
These are my three daily language learning habits, through which I have seen a massive growth of my vocabulary, and been exposed to a whole range of structures, increasing my confidence when it comes to speaking. All you and your students need to do is add ten minutes of learning every day and you’ll see that progress too!
Author’s Bio: Sandy Millin is the Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz. She is also a teacher trainer and materials writer, and has recently published an e-book with The Round called ‘Richer Speaking’, a project which came about through the connections she has made through the online community. She blogs at http://sandymillin.wordpress.com and tweets @sandymillin.
*https://www.memrise.com/science/, retrieved 19th March 2017