Monday, 4 June 2018

How to Develop your Speaking at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Plus Growing your Vocabulary with Speaking

Speaking is one of the four core skills that you need to develop when learning a foreign language.

For many people speaking is the ultimate language skill that they are trying to develop when learning a foreign language. Isn’t it cool to just open your mouth and start speaking a foreign tongue smoothly and effortlessly?

Speaking is arguably the most difficult foreign language skill. It requires quick and spontaneous verbal action in various situations. So, how do you develop your speaking to be able to do so? Let’s look at developing this skill at elementary, intermediate and advanced levels.

A quick note before you jump to your level below: even if your level is not, for example, elementary, I recommend not to skip this information as a lot of stuff that is relevant for elementary level learners is very relevant for intermediate and even advanced learners, too.

At the very start of elementary level, when you are just beginning to learn your foreign language, there is actually not much that you would be able to say. What you could do though is start preparing for speaking later. For example, you could practise your pronunciation.

When practising your pronunciation, you could follow a structured approach and train separate sounds, sounds in context and intonation. Or, if you don’t have time to work on your pronunciation separately and closely, you could just repeat words and phrases that you are learning after a speaker and read aloud in addition to reading in your head. Thus, you will be preparing yourself for speaking by reducing the physical barrier that each language learner faces.

By physical barrier I mean the inability of your organs of speech to move easily to produce the sounds of the foreign language you are studying. These sounds are different from those of your native language, so your organs of speech are not used to moving in a way they demand. When you try to pronounce words and phrases in your target language properly, your tongue, lips and soft palate refuse to move in the right way, it’s awkward, annoying and even painful. So, you feel like a clumsy toddler who is about to kick up a tantrum because she cannot articulate words properly and blooming adults don’t understand that she demands a bug and not a mug.

Whether you work on your pronunciation in a structured way or just repeat after a speaker and read aloud, you work out your facial muscles and train your organs of speech to deal with the new sounds and intonation. Later when you speak, you will be able to articulate in your target language without battling with your body over each and every sound or combination of sounds that are not typical of your mother tongue.

Once you have acquired some 400 words and phrases, you could already start speaking. However, as an adult language learner, who is used to having complex conversations in your native language seasoned with sophisticated vocabulary, mumbling some separate words or simple phrases seems like an embarrassing and pointless activity. So, you could think that it’s better to keep it quiet till you are able to give a lecture on your favourite quantum physics in your target language.

While there is certainly some truth in it and not everybody is happy to listen to you slaughtering their mother tongue trying to tell them some banalities, it misses a couple of points. First, Rome was not built in a day and the earlier you start with your speaking, the sooner and better your speaking develops. And, second, speaking doesn’t always mean communication (i.e. information exchange), well, at least not real communication when you speak with someone with a primary task of exchanging some information with them.

Other kinds of speaking, that are not real communication, include doing some speaking tasks or exercises and speaking with yourself. With these kinds of speaking, you eliminate the stress of real communication and focus primarily on the form (the language) and not on the content (what you are saying). Of course, what you are saying is still important and you cannot just talk absolute nonsense but in these artificial settings how you convey your message (making sure your pronunciation is comprehensible, using the right words and grammar structures) is more important than what you actually say.

While you are likely to struggle with a free flow speaking at elementary level, speaking tasks or exercises are more manageable as they are limited to a certain topic or situation. For example, when you speak based on a certain topic, you could introduce your family, describe your house, talk about the weather outside, etc.; when you act out a certain situation, you could improvise a dialogue in a restaurant, at the airport, at a grocery store, etc. using some typical phrases you have learnt.

If you use a course book for your language study, you have probably come across speaking exercises. And have probably skipped them. Indeed, when the task reads “Discuss with your partner...” or “Speak in groups of four...” etc. your instinct is to dismiss the task if you study alone. The problem is you are not just skipping a task that doesn’t seem suitable, you are skipping a chance to work on your speaking.

You don’t actually need a partner or a group of people to do this kind of exercises. This is especially true if you have a collection of false mustaches and a flair for acting :𝄽) And if you need other people’s input, you could hit a record button on your phone camera while you are speaking and upload this video in some language learning community to initiate a discussion.

Another kind of non-communication speaking is speaking with yourself. Unlike speaking exercises, this kind of speaking is free flow and can happen any time you feel like it, you don’t have to sit down, open books or switch on your computer and give a talk on a specific topic or act out a specific situation. You could just talk about whatever you want when you go about your other tasks like cooking dinner. For example, you could talk about your feelings or what is going on in your life.

If you prefer dialogues to monologues, you could pretend to have a conversation with a German or French friend. If your kids catch you muttering to yourself “Entschuldigung, ich bin Ausländer und spreche nicht gut Deutsch” or “Ca va tres bien, merci. Et toi?”, just explain that their mum hasn’t gone crazy and is just speaking to Hans or Marie. After all, who says that only kids can have imaginary friends?

Speaking to yourself will also help you get used to the sound of your own voice in this language and make you used to speaking it, so that you could actually open your mouth and speak this language in a real situation and not just smile, nod and say “Ja” and “Nein” (or “Qui” and “Non”), freaking out when you hear yourself, too.

As you progress to intermediate level, you will be able to have free flow spontaneous conversations more easily, so you could try real communication, for example, with a language partner online. Yep, time to make it real!

With speaking exercises, especially if you prepare for them rather than speak spontaneously, you think more about your vocabulary and grammar and keep a closer eye on using them correctly. With real communication, unlike with speaking tasks, you need to focus on both what you say and how you say it, and, consequently, you are prone to making more vocabulary and grammar mistakes and noticing them less.

Similarly, when speaking with yourself or your imaginary friends, you are more relaxed as obviously there is no one else who listens and can reply. Well, at least, if you don’t believe that Hans and Marie are real and you don’t actually hear them talking to you (time for a doctor appointment if this is the case lol). In contrast to it, when you speak to a real person you don’t know if they are going to understand what you are saying, if they are going to understand it the way you intended, what they are going to say in reply, etc.

So, with real communication, for example, with a language partner, you have less relaxed settings with more uncertainty and a higher probability that you will be making language mistakes. No wonder that learners, especially at the start when they are still new to communication in their target language, are not comfortable with speaking and sometimes are simply afraid to open their mouth.

There are a couple of things though, that could help you overcome this psychological barrier. First is dropping your ego and accepting that you will be making mistakes and your language partner might think you are less intelligent than you actually are because of how you speak in their native language. And this is ok, as mistakes are an inevitable part of learning and your language partner is not an examiner or a job interviewer whom you need to convince that you are smart.

For example, even if you are a CEO of a big successful company, you need to accept that you are just a foreigner when it comes to your target language, a foreigner who is bound to make silly toddler level mistakes. Just relax, breathe and keep speaking. If you are determined to improve your speaking, you won’t be this clumsy toddler forever, you will learn.

So, embracing your clumsiness and silliness when it comes to speaking this language, curbing your perfectionism and giving yourself permission to make mistakes so that you could learn from them, is one of the ways to deal with the psychological barrier when speaking.

Second thing you can do to reduce this psychological barrier is not comparing yourself to other learners or native speakers and focusing on carving your own way of developing your speaking. It doesn’t mean that you need to completely ignore what others are doing and dismiss their experience altogether. It means that you need to accept that different people have different circumstances and preferences which impacts the end result.

For example, if you are an introvert and speaking is not something you prefer doing when learning your target language, your speaking might be not as developed as that of someone who keeps chatting away in their target language with their three hundred and thirty-three friends slash language partners on Skype.

So, turning down the competitive jealous notes, so that they don’t blare out loud and drown you in negative emotions, you need to turn up the inquisitive notes that make you notice what others do, adapt some of it for your own study and learn by the mistakes they make.

Once you have made it to advanced level, it is important not to stop improving your speaking. Some of the challenges you could set for yourself are, for example, audio only and group conversations.

Audio only conversations could be either phone conversations or Skype ones without video. Such conversations can be quite challenging as you don’t see the person you are talking to, the movement of their lips, their gestures, facial expression, etc., so it’s more difficult for you to understand what they are saying.

For example, you could have audio only conversations with your language partners via Skype. Just explain to them that the purpose of this inconvenience is practising your target language in a variety of settings. After you have practised in this way, you will be able to have more successful interactions over the phone, should you need to make a phone call in this language.

Another challenge you could set for yourself to improve your speaking is group conversations. Having a group talk is very different from having a dialogue. With a group conversation, you have to deal with individual accents, manners of speech, vocabulary preferences of more than one person. On top of it, if you are discussing something, you have to deal with multiple ideas, opinions and perspectives, and of course, express your own, too.

Group conversations can be either online or face to face. It’s easy to have an online group conversation: you can initiate a group call with some of your language partners, provided that you have more than one of those. Alternatively, you can post in your language learning community asking if anyone wants to have a group call with you.

If you struggle to engage your conversation partners at the start of such a call, you could draw and send out some sort of agenda or plan for this meeting to avoid awkward silence at the beginning or stalled conversation throughout. It is also helpful in the case when your partners have different language abilities so that those who need it could get prepared for the call beforehand.

Face to face group conversations are more difficult to organise but there is nothing like meeting up in person with people you share your language learning passion with. Also, if you don’t have too much time for your language practice, you could both work on your language skills and have a night out. Just find people in your area who speak the language you are learning and meet up with them for a beer and a chat. There is actually an app that can help you with your quest Meetup

Face to face interaction with a group of people is really beneficial for developing your speaking. It can be quite challenging not only because you are talking to more than one person. In addition to it, when you meet somewhere, there is a lot going on around: music playing, other people chatting, a waiter interrupting, people turn and move about while talking and not just sit facing you all the time as on Skype.

Even when you are speaking your target language in less challenging settings, for example, with your usual language partners on Skype, you can sometimes find yourself not really fluent even with your advanced level. And that’s absolutely normal. Sometimes the gods of smooth effortless conversation are not on your side and you feel you cannot find the right words, are screwing your grammar and on the whole feel like you are far from being advanced at the language you are learning. Just remember that this can happen even when you speak your native language, so relax and keep talking.

Growing your Vocabulary with Speaking

When it comes to growing your vocabulary, speaking and writing are two activities that help you make the vocabulary, that you have picked up while reading and listening, your own. It means once you have used a new word or phrase while speaking or writing, it becomes personally meaningful to you and you are more likely to remember it and use it again and again.

Very often, however, language learners struggle to recall words that they need while speaking. Unlike with writing, you cannot just look it up, you cannot put a conversation on hold and start looking for this word. It is especially frustrating when you cannot recall a word or phrase you have literally just come across the other day while reading or listening. You feel this word would be just right for what you are trying to say, would be a perfect match for the situation, would just nail your idea. But no, it’s gone and you have missed a chance to add it to your vocabulary.

Of course, if you cannot recall a word or phrase, there is a workaround and you can often paraphrase (i.e. use other words) to keep the conversation going. Very often though, a substitute phrase or a lengthy description instead of one word that you cannot recall or vigorous gesticulating and saying “Well, you know that thingie”, leaves you deeply unsatisfied and wondering if you do all this reading and listening for nothing.

There will be fewer instances like this and your chances of solidifying your new vocabulary with speaking will increase if you do not just read and listen but actually learn the new words and phrases you come across. When you use My vocBlocks and practise with Memoriser’s spaced repetition schedule, you learn new words more effectively, spend less time on it and, consequently, have more time for speaking and other creative language activities that give you a chance to use your new vocabulary and make these words your own.

If a word “repetition” makes you yawn, I get it. Some people might think that repetition equals rote learning. With vocBlocks it is not the case. You do different exercises to practise your new vocabulary, you play the sound and you can liven up your new words with your own images. Isn’t it cool to have a picture of your husband next to the new Spanish word “gruñón” you are learning?

In addition to your own pictures, in My vocBlocks you can record the context in which you have come across this word as a reminder. And when you use vocBlocks LookUp for reading online, the context is recorded automatically for the words you have looked up. With the familiar context to refer to, you are not learning “cold” words: you recall the text this word came from together with emotions and thoughts you had when you were reading it.

Working on your new words and phrases with vocBlocks helps you plant them in your brain so firmly and deeply, that they just roll off your tongue when you speak. All you need to do is spend about five minutes per day doing exercises with Memoriser when you get notifications in your inbox.

The result: you will be using these new words when you speak, will be using more and more of your new words when you speak, will be growing your vocabulary with speaking.

Happy speaking!

Want to develop all four core foreign language skills? Check out our other posts to learn how:

How to Develop your Reading at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Listening at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Writing at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Enter your email address at the right to receive updates from our blog and not to miss any upcoming posts.

Monday, 14 May 2018

How to Develop your Writing at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Plus Growing your Vocabulary with Writing

Writing is one of the four core skills that you need to develop when learning a foreign language.

Let’s first define writing. “Writing is a medium of human communication that represents language and emotion with signs and symbols. In most languages, writing is a complement to speech or spoken language. Writing is not a language, but a tool used to make languages be read." [source]

As you know from history, people used to scribble on cave walls, clay tablets, bark, papyrus, etc. This was all writing. In our digital age, we are witnessing a shift from handwriting on paper to creating digital documents by typing.

Handwriting on paper still plays a big role, however, especially when one thinks about education in general and learning languages in particular. After all, there are so many brilliant resources for learning languages in the form of physical course books.

So, in this post, by writing I will mean both handwriting and typing, as learners of foreign languages are likely to be using both modes.

A quick note before you jump to your level below: even if your level is not, for example, elementary, I recommend not to skip this information as a lot of stuff that is relevant for elementary level learners is very relevant for intermediate and even advanced learners, too.

At elementary level, you will mostly be dealing with separate words and short phrases. So, at the start, you will be taking writing in your target language in baby steps, too, and your writing will be limited to separate words and simple phrases or sentences.

As nowadays the tools for correcting spelling are quite advanced and reliable, you might be tempted to skip learning how exactly the words you are trying to remember are spelt. After all, as a busy adult, you don’t have too much time for learning your foreign language and might want to save time on tasks that do not seem too important.

However, you need to be cautious with setting the bar too low here. The reason you can get away with spelling mistakes in your native language is because they are minor mistakes. For example, in your native language, it’s not a problem if you cannot remember if the word “company” is spelt with an “a” or an “o”, you just type it and a spell checker will correct it. A spell checker is your best friend when it comes to typing: it won’t look down on you because of your gaffes, will never accuse you of being ignorant or uneducated.

With your target language, however, if you set the bar too low and are too relaxed about spelling from the start, you risk skipping more than just correct spelling. As a beginner, who doesn’t know anything about the language yet, you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Spelling of any language is a system that you need to gradually understand and get used to. So, aiming at getting your spelling correct when writing is far from being a waste of time.

For example, if you learn French, you have noticed that the spelling is not phonetic, i.e. there is a big gap between pronunciation and spelling of the words, so spelling is an extra pain in the rear when you learn new words. It doesn’t mean that French words have some random spelling, though it might well seem so for you as a beginner. There are certain combinations of letters that produce certain sounds, so as you keep writing in French and aid your practical efforts with theory, you memorise these combinations of letters and get more comfortable with these weird clusters.

Another example is Russian. Once you have come to grips with the Cyrillic monsters, the spelling system is not as bad as French but still not phonetic, so you have to learn correct spelling. While you probably don’t have to obsess about spelling adjectives with one “n” or double “n” (“н”/“нн”) correctly (even native speakers can get it wrong), other spelling rules help you with adequate language acquisition. For example, spelling of nouns with an “o” or an “a” (“o”/“a”), an “i” or an “e” (“и”/“е”) in the roots of words correctly helps you recognise related words by the same root and not get lost among all different forms of these words.

Even if you aim at getting your spelling 100% right, you will be making spelling mistakes from time to time. That’s where a spell checker comes in: it will correct your minor mistakes and typos. So, don’t get paranoid about spelling but keep your eyes and mind open to learning how words are spelt and when writing the words you are learning aim at spelling them correctly.

With the writing exercises in vocBlocks’ Memoriser, we have been trying to keep this balance of using your time efficiently when learning new words and practising accurate spelling. By default, the tool will accept minor spelling mistakes and typos so that you could progress with your task quicker. However, if you see that the spelling mistake you have made is not a typo and you would like to make sure you get the spelling 100% accurate, you need to click the thumb down button below the answer before you proceed to the next word. Thus, you will signal to Memoriser that you are not happy with your answer and would like the word to be shown again.

One of the very effective and level appropriate activities at elementary level is simple dialogues. So, in addition to writing separate words and sentences, you could practise writing dialogues that you are putting together from the phrases and words you are learning. Of course, here comes a question of time as usual: it is much quicker to copy and paste. However, if you would like to remember the words and phrases better, you’d better type them from scratch: it will take longer but it won’t be a waste of time as you will eventually learn the words and phrases from these dialogues quicker as well as the whole dialogues to perform them in front of a mirror or with your language partner/teacher.

As you progress to intermediate level, you will be able to manage more complex input, i.e. read and listen to more complex materials in your target language, and also produce more complex output yourself both in writing and speaking.

How much you speak and how much you write depends on your language goals which could be set by answering the question whether you need to use your target language in oral or written form more in order to achieve your personal or professional goals.

However, even if your primary goal is speaking rather than writing, you shouldn’t neglect writing if you are serious about your target language acquisition and would like to take it beyond casual conversations. Compared to speaking, writing gives you more precision and accuracy with your grammar and vocabulary.

First, when writing, you are likely to use more precise and advanced vocabulary and grammar, simply because you have more time to think, verify your ideas with some language community/a native speaker/a teacher, refer to a dictionary or other source, etc.

Second, while grammar and vocabulary mistakes don’t sound too bad when you speak, they are very visible when you write. And it is not only easier to catch these mistakes, it is also easier to correct them: with writing you get a second chance, you can go back, reread and amend.

For example, it is very easy for learners of English to mix up different phrasal verbs, especially when speaking. However, if you want to sound more authentic when speaking English, phrasal verbs are a must. So, before you confuse your foreign friends with a sentence: “I’d like to sing on with you, guys” while you meant to say “I’d like to sing along with you, guys”, you need to practise phrasal verbs by doing some exercises or using them when you compose something in writing.

With ready vocBlocks Phrasal Verbs you have exercises where you need to fill in the gaps in sentences by typing a correct verb. Unlike many vocabulary learning applications, vocBlocks allows you to free type your answers and not just choose them from the available options. We believe that writing answers from scratch without any prompts is a more effective and efficient way of learning these words that will ensure that you spontaneously use them later in speaking.

At intermediate level, you can also start using your writing for real communication, especially if you are too shy to communicate via speaking and mainly speak with yourself in the mirror, your cat or your language teacher.

In the old days, when it came to written interaction with native speakers of the language you were learning, you had only “snail” mail. Today, you have at least three modes of online communication in writing at your disposal: texting, emailing and posting.

If you are very new to any of these three modes in your target language, it’s easier to start with emailing. For this, you will need a language partner whom you could actually send your emails. They don’t have to be long at first, and if you and your partner hit it off, you can gradually increase the length of your emails. Obviously, you should be sensible and leave your war-and-peace-volume creations to your journal or diary, otherwise, your language partner might disappear quietly and politely.

Compared to emailing, texting (i.e. exchange of instant messages via Skype, WhatsApp, etc.) is trickier as very often it is real-time conversation albeit in the written form. So, you have to read (+ understand, of course) and type your messages quite quickly. Don’t worry though, the speed means you can be more casual with your grammar and vocabulary, use shorter phrases rather than sentences, slaughter punctuation, shorten those long words you cannot spell properly anyway and cherry top it all with acronyms. When you cannot find the right words, with texting it’s ok to resort to “non-verbal” communication like emojis and pictures.

Parallel to emailing and texting activities, you could practise your writing by creating posts, commenting and posting questions on social media, blogs and forums. For example, there are public and private Facebook groups for those who learn foreign languages where you could find like-minded language geeks and native speakers for general and language-specific advice (polyglots Olly Richards and Lindsay Williams have very helpful Facebook groups, for example).

Please, note though, that the primary purpose of this activity is sharing and getting information while developing your writing skill is a nice bonus. If you need to purely practise your writing, there are places where you can post your masterpieces and ask the community for a feedback and possible corrections. For example, italki’s notebook and busuu’s social have lovely communities happy to help you in your writing endeavours. Please, note, however, that not all corrections are made... hm, correctly, so you need to check the credentials of the user who made them.

At advanced level, you could add other, more challenging, writing activities to your writing range: writing essays or blog posts in your area of expertise or, if you happen to be a vlogger, you could write scripts for videos in your target language to reach new audiences.

For example, if you love travelling, you could practise your writing by blogging in your target language and telling the world about a hairy cow you got spooked by in Scottish Highlands, a scorpion on a stick you munched in China, an ostrich race you cheered in New Orleans; if you are a parent, you could blog and vent about your kids and rant about other parents in your target language; if you love cooking, you could translate into your target language and post some of your favourite recipes that help native speakers of your target language discover your national cuisine; if you are an avid reader and read a lot in your target language, you could write book reviews in this language helping others discover great books and find the ones suitable for them.

Well, the possibilities for writing at advanced level are endless, you just need to keep your eyes open for them and keep your writing development in mind.

Growing your Vocabulary with Writing

Writing plays an important role in growing your vocabulary as it makes learning new words more efficient. Of course, you can pick up new words by reading and listening but if you plug in writing, you can greatly increase your efficiency with learning new words.

With this in mind, we have included writing exercises into vocabulary practice with Memoriser. Once you have selected words you would like to learn from Ready vocBlocks or recorded your own in My vocBlocks and sent them to Memoriser, you are offered a range of exercises with these words. The most challenging, writing exercises conclude the learning stage. With these exercises, you look at the pictures, translation or explanation of the new words you are learning and type them in your target language without any prompts.

So, with reading or listening you need to come across a word multiple times before you remember it. But if you have to recall and write it yourself while doing some vocabulary exercises, with vocBlocks’ Memoriser, for example, or use this word while writing your own texts, you will remember it quicker.

Of course, speaking also helps you remember new words because you have to recall and actively use them yourself rather than just see or hear them. However, compared to speaking, when writing, you spend more time with the vocabulary you are learning, can work with a dictionary and other sources, can research different examples of usage of these words, look at the grammar side, etc.

There is a Russian proverb: “Что написано пером, не вырубишь топором”, which can be roughly translated as “What is written cannot be removed”. While this proverb is not actually connected to learning languages, it perfectly reflects the nature of writing: writing produces tangible stuff. So, when you use the new words you are learning in writing and not just in speaking, you remember them better.

Happy writing!

Want to develop all four core foreign language skills? Check out our other posts to learn how:

How to Develop your Reading at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Listening at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Speaking at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Enter your email address at the right to receive updates from our blog and not to miss any upcoming posts.

Monday, 23 April 2018

How to Develop your Listening at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Plus Growing your Vocabulary with Listening

Listening is one of the four core skills that you need to develop when learning a foreign language.

Listening is a skill that can get overlooked, especially when the main sources of your target language are written texts. With modern technology today, however, when video and audio content has become so easily accessible and so widespread, you have to develop your listening skill in your target language, so as not to miss out on lots of opportunities to progress with your study and get access to more content and more exciting content. So, let’s look at how to develop listening at different levels.

A quick note before you jump to your level below: even if your level is not, for example, elementary, I recommend not to skip this information as a lot of stuff that is relevant for elementary level learners is very relevant for intermediate and even advanced learners, too.

At elementary level, when you are just starting to learn a foreign language, your vocabulary is limited, so listening is not something you would do a lot. Still, when learning new words, it is important that you not only read them but also listen to how they are pronounced.

First, listening to separate words will help you get used to the sounds of your target language before you actually start speaking and producing these sounds yourself. If you love how the language sounds, be careful not to get carried away: stick to separate words and short phrases you are able to understand.

As you won’t be able to understand much at this point, listening to larger doses of language doesn’t make too much sense. You are likely to get distracted and start daydreaming about sunny beaches of Italy if you are listening to Italian, busy streets of Morocco if you are listening to Arabic or luxurious spas of Turkey if you are listening to Turkish. In other words, your “listening” will have nothing to do with language learning listening.

Second, listening to separate words will help you avoid some pronunciation mistakes. For example, it will ensure that you put a stress in the right place, catch silent letters and don’t read them, notice certain sounds peculiar to this language and later work on them closely as part of your pronunciation training.

If the spelling of the language you are learning is not phonetic (what you see is not what you read), listening plus using transcription symbols for precision are a must .

Many good dictionaries, as well as a dictionary plugin vocBlocks LookUp, have both audio pronunciation for the words and their IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) transcription. So, it’s worth getting acquainted with the IPA symbols because with transcription you see exactly which sounds comprise this or that word even if you don’t hear them clearly with audio.

For example, it is important for learners of English who can be certain of one thing only: uncertainty that they are reading new words correctly. So, every time you come across a new word and check its meaning in the dictionary, don’t forget to click that sound button and check its pronunciation. You might be surprised even if you are an advanced learner!

Even with languages which spelling is closer to pronunciation like, for example, Russian, you still have spelling rules that dictate that words are spelt not exactly the way they are pronounced. So, a dictionary with audio and transcription is very useful to ensure you learn a new word in all its dimensions and not only how it’s spelt.

However, listening to separate words won’t get you too far, as people speak in phrases and sentences and not in separate words. Well, at least if they are being eloquent and polite and not just shouting to someone to shut up or get lost.

Some languages like, for example, French have such wonder as ellison. Simply put, when speaking, French folks link words to each other so that poor foreigners have trouble saying where one word finishes and the next one starts. I am pretty sure that ellison was invented by French as some secret language weapon aimed at causing headache in foreign heads. So, even if you have been diligently checking audio pronunciation of separate words in French but haven’t had a chance to regularly listen to phrases and longer texts, you might discover that you cannot recognise even familiar words in sentences when ellison happens.

French joys aside, even if words do not blend with subsequent ones in the language you are learning and are pronounced very distinctly from each other like, for example, in German, they still sound different when they are included into a phrase or sentence: neighbouring sounds affect each other and do not sound the same as when they are isolated. Assimilation, reduction, insertion, all sorts of phonetic wonders happen there. You don’t even want to know if you are not a linguist. On top of it, intonation comes into play and some more meaningful words are stressed while others, especially auxiliary ones, are barely audible.

While at the beginning it’s phrases and short dialogues that you might want to tackle, as you progress to intermediate level, you need to increase the length of the audio pieces you listen to. But even at intermediate level, it’s better to stick to the materials for learners as most of the native level stuff is way too difficult for you at this point and your brain might not cope with this ordeal.

Please, kindly respect your grey cells and the language you are learning: your target language is there to transmit information and your brain is there to process it. If neither is happening, the language is just noise. Whether pleasant noise, as in the case with French, or not too pleasant, as in the case with German, but it’s still noise.

By the way, if you adore German as I do, you don’t really get it when people cringe when they hear it. The reason is, when you understand a language, the question whether it sounds pleasant or unpleasant is irrelevant as you don’t just listen to the sounds, you get the information you need. Or don’t need, if your language partner is telling you (for the fifth time!) the story of how he got drunk at his grandma’s birthday celebration.

Even though your listening materials should be suitable for your level, they need to be varied. And I don’t mean just varied content (different genres and areas of knowledge). In addition to varied content, you need to make sure you listen to your target language spoken by people of both sexes, different ages, social and ethnic backgrounds, etc. Obviously, it shouldn’t be native level stuff at this point with some cockney English thrown in, that actually natives would struggle to understand. Still, it needs to be spoken by different people with a variety of individual and group characteristics rather than just by a couple of youtubers whose language learning videos you are subscribed to or by a couple of speakers with perfect pronunciation who recorded audio for the whole course book.

At advanced level you can start gradually moving all your listening to the native level realm. This might be challenging at first but will eventually open up for you a whole host of opportunities to get loads of audio information in your target language. This, by the way, will help you increase your language input dramatically if you don’t have much time for reading but are able to do listening regularly while doing some mundane tasks like cleaning your lovely cosy dwelling, taking your fluffy animal companion for a stroll or taxiing your teenage divas to parties.

As with reading, advanced level is the time for you to focus on the content rather than the language itself, and switch some of your usual listening activities from your mother language to your target one. For example, you could listen to news in your target language or, if you are not too keen on keeping up with reality and are a fan of fiction, you could listen to some radio drama or audio books in your target language instead of in your native one as you usually do.

Listening Immersion

With listening, just like with reading, you need to immerse yourself in the language you are learning. Again, as with reading, by immersion I do not mean plunging into the native level materials: they should suit your level as you need to understand most of what you listen to.

Saying that, if you are not used to listening, you are likely to struggle to understand any material at the very start. Compared to reading, listening is a different path of acquiring information. So, if you have been mainly reading in your target language, i.e. have been taking mainly this path, your listening path lies there neglected and overgrown and you won’t be able to easily use it at first. With practice though you will improve and will be happily striding along your listening path enjoying your walk.

When you are just starting to immerse yourself into your target language through listening, there are some tricks that will help you understand better, so that you persevere with your listening and not give up so easily at the start.

First trick is listening to the same audio more than once. Usually, when listening for the second time you understand more. If you still feel that you are not happy with how much you have understood, listen to it for the third time. And probably fourth. Each time you will be able to catch more and more details, understand the text clearer and clearer.

It doesn’t mean though that you need to put some audio on repeat and bore yourself to tears listening to the same thing over and over again. If you are bored, you are very likely to zone out and even fall asleep, especially if you do your listening just before bedtime. Instead, choose several audio pieces for listening, rotate them, add new ones and drop the ones you have had enough of after a few repetitions.

What you will not get tired of listening to multiple times is songs. Well, at least, if you like the ones you have chosen. When listening to songs, rhythm, rhyme and melody help you remember the lyrics in no time, which is a definite bonus! Just don’t complain if you get an ear-worm or start noticing annoyed faces of your family members whom you have been terrorising with your singing performance in Russian, the language they don’t understand and, eh, don’t like.

Second trick helping you understand better, is listening with your headphones on. This will help you hear more clearly and also avoid distractions if you are listening while doing something else. You can turn up the volume if you still don’t hear clearly enough. Just make sure you don’t overdo it: even developing your foreign language listening skill is not a valid reason for you to go deaf. If your pink Swarovski-studded headphones do not match all of your outfits, don’t worry - you won’t always have to wear them while listening in your target language. Better listening comprehension is a matter of time and practice so gradually you will be able to understand more even when you don’t wear your headphones.

Third trick is sticking to the familiar content when choosing listening materials: you will be struggling with the language (the form), so the content should be more or less familiar to compensate for it. For example, if you are not too interested in politics and haven’t been keeping up with the news in your native language, including news programmes into your target language listening practice from the start is probably not a good idea.

Of course, another trick to aid your listening practice is transcripts. If you have a transcript of the audio you listen to, you can refer to it if you struggle to understand just by listening. But do try other tricks to make out as much as possible before you go ahead and grab the transcript.

Saying that, transcripts are indispensable, when it comes to growing your vocabulary while listening, as it’s not always possible to record a new word for learning when you hear it.

Growing your Vocabulary with Listening

While listening immersion is very useful for you to develop your listening skill and surround yourself with as much language as possible, transcripts are really useful if you would like to grow your vocabulary with listening.

It doesn’t mean that you have to refer to transcripts to fish out every single word you don’t know. If you do it, listening will no longer be an immersion experience plus you might end up with lots of new words 80% of which you don’t have to know at this point and will struggle to memorise.

Instead, I would recommend working with keywords (i.e. words important for understanding of the texts you are listening to) and also with words that you have heard several times.

Thus, you won’t be learning “cold” words which have little or no association for you. If you choose keywords, they will already be familiar as you will recall the context in which they were used. Besides, with keywords, as well as with words you have heard several times already, you will have had several repetitions of these words before you start working on putting them into your long term memory.

If you listen in your target language a lot and pick out several words per audio, it makes sense to automate your vocabulary learning with a spaced repetition tool, such as vocBlocks.

With a free dictionary plugin vocBlocks LookUp you both look up new words by clicking on them in your transcripts and have them saved for learning on a spaced repetition schedule.

We know that context is important when learning new words, so the words you have looked up with vocBlocks LookUp will be saved with the sentences in which they were used in your transcript. So, you will be able to refer to the context when learning your new words to avoid rote learning. And of course, you will have translation, transcription and audio pronunciation of these new words recorded automatically.

Happy listening!

Want to develop all four core foreign language skills? Check out our other posts to learn how:

How to Develop your Reading at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Writing at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Speaking at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

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Monday, 2 April 2018

How to Develop your Reading at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Plus Growing your Vocabulary with Reading

Reading is one of the four core skills that you need to develop when learning a foreign language.

First of all, let’s define what reading is. This might seem like a silly question but reading separate words, phrases and even simple dialogues in your target language, is still not reading per se. What you need to get used to is reading texts. And understanding them of course! So, how do you develop reading at different levels?

A quick note before you jump to your level below: even if your level is not, for example, elementary, I recommend not to skip this information as a lot of stuff that is relevant for elementary level learners is very relevant for intermediate and even advanced learners, too.

Starting to read texts when you are at elementary level is not simple and is very different from reading short phrases and recognising separate words here and there. Reading texts is super important though, as you won’t get too far with your language without it: being able to read and understand texts will take you further from just being able to make an order in a restaurant, ask for directions or sing a happy birthday song to your foreign friend in their language.

Besides, unless your goal of learning your target language is just a little bit for travelling and amusing your friends, you might get bored with “Une table pour deux, s'il vous plaît” kind of phrases after a couple of months of studying such stuff. So, once you have built up your vocabulary and have about 400 words under your belt, you need to grab a book and make it serious.

When starting with reading though, forget about the books for native speakers: they are too difficult for you at this point. And it’s not only words that you won’t be able to understand. Even if you are ok with looking up most of the words in these texts seating comfortably in your favourite armchair, leisurely leafing through a folio of a dictionary and biting off your fruit cake, grammar structures will be way too difficult for you to understand the meaning of the sentences.

What you will need instead is graded readers. These are books specifically designed for language learners. Search for elementary or A1/A2 level books, choose the ones you like and voilà!

Well, actually, even with easy books, this “voilà” of reading will not happen at once. But don’t be discouraged! Taking it step by step or page by page (even paragraph by paragraph at the very start) is absolutely fine. Even with this snail pace of a half-dead frozen tortoise, you will feel elated that you can read and understand some coherent text in your target language! Just don’t be too harsh imposing on yourself a whole chapter or even a few chapters for reading in one go, don’t risk getting fed up with too difficult a task too quickly, keep your reading effort sustainable.

When choosing what to read, you are likely to be not too spoilt for choice, even if the language you are learning is English, German, French or some other widespread tongue. Very often children’s books pop up as an option. So, if you cannot find anything other than books for underaged adventure lovers, you will have to dig out your inner child in you and read on till you progress to the next language level where you will have a wider choice of literary masterpieces. You might actually find reading the books in your target language, that you once read in your native language as a child, really sweet.

If you choose children’s books though, you might want to keep in mind that all these sweet fairy tales and wise fables have a very specific vocabulary. So, unless you are a children's author who has the ambition to translate their books into a foreign language and need to know their dragons, magic wands and fairy dust in this language, you might want to choose very down to earth and contemporary children’s books that tell simple stories about kids going to supermarkets, cinemas and parks with their parents or teenagers getting up to some mischief, making friends and enemies and falling in love for the first time.

Gradually, as you progress to intermediate level, you will be able to understand texts in your target language better and quicker and you will have more books to choose from. Even if you are experiencing language learning plateau, i.e. do not feel that you are developing your reading as fast as you were at elementary level, you need to keep reading in your target language.

First, if you stop reading at this point, there is a risk that your reading skill will deteriorate and it won’t be easy for you to restart reading and build up momentum again. Second, even if you feel that your reading is not as challenging as it was at elementary level and that you are not learning as much, it is important to keep reading as it provides you with your target language input that you need in order to be able to speak and write in this language.

It doesn’t mean, however, that you cannot or shouldn’t step up your reading game. While reading a lot is probably more important than reading more challenging texts at intermediate level, it’s a good idea to introduce new types of texts so that your vocabulary could get more varied. For example, you could start reading a newspaper from time to time (better stick to just one newspaper or news website at first) or some easy history books if you like history and would like to read more and more of such books as you progress with your language.

Once you have built up your language skills to advanced level, you don’t have to search for advanced level books for reading: books written for native speakers should be ok for you to read. Though, of course, it depends on a particular book: even if you are an advanced learner of English, it doesn’t mean that you will be able to read Shakespeare in the original (not every native English speaker can!)

While with elementary level the advice for reading is “Just start!”, for intermediate level, it is “Keep going!”, for advanced level, the recommendation is “Don’t stop!”

So, if you find a particular article or book difficult, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t learnt much or that you will never master your target language. If you try reading an academic article from a scientific periodical in your native language, you might start having doubts that you can speak this language either. So, with reading at advanced level you shouldn’t think about the language too much and focus on the content instead.

Thus, you can switch some of your usual reading, that you do in your native language, to your target language. For example, if you don’t have much time to read for pleasure, your excuse for reading novels could be reading them in your target language. Or you could split the time you allocate to reading news between your native and target languages. A nice bonus of such double news coverage is two different perspectives of the same events.

Reading Immersion

Whatever language level you are at, elementary, intermediate or advanced, you need to enjoy your reading. So, the texts you choose for reading need to be interesting (at elementary level they should be at least not super boring) and not too difficult for you. Thus you will be able to have immersion experience with your reading which is, actually, the whole point of this activity. Immersing into the language when reading helps your brain to get used to processing large amounts of information in your target language.

Sometimes learners use books with parallel translation into their native language to ensure they do not miss any detail of the story when they read it in their target language. For immersion experience, however, reading parallel translation is not too helpful.

First, you have this sharp contrast of total clarity in your native language and “walking in a haze” feeling in your target language, which doesn’t contribute to your confidence as a language learner.

Even if you understand everything in your target language, when you reread the same part in your native language, it feels as if you have just walked out of a haze and, suddenly, what you have read is crystal clear. This happens because your brain is more used to your native language than to your foreign language, it doesn’t mean that your foreign language skills suck. The more you read in your foreign language, the clearer you understand and this feeling of walking in a haze will gradually go.

Second, you are not training yourself to tolerate certain ambiguity and uncertainty which is an inevitable part of reading in a foreign language. So, next time when you don’t have access to translation to your native language for a certain book, it will be quite difficult for you to put up with this ambiguity and uncertainty and enjoy reading this book.

Third, with parallel translation you break the flow of reading in your target language, the translation serves as an unnecessary distraction in this respect.

With this in mind, it is actually ok not to understand all the details if they slow you down and do not contribute much to the general understanding of a plot or a news story. Instead, you need to focus on the story itself and keep reading to find out who the killer was in the detective story you are reading, if Jane will marry the love of her life in the romantic novel you have picked out or why another Hollywood couple decided to get a divorce from an article in Daily Mail.

Having said that, slowing down a bit to look up unknown words, so that you could learn them later, is essential as reading is also a great means of growing your vocabulary.

Growing your Vocabulary with Reading

Looking up and learning unknown words will ensure that you spend your reading time more productively, that you grow your vocabulary.

This is especially important if you don’t have much time for learning your target language and don’t have too much exposure to it through either reading or listening, so you won’t come across the same unknown words often enough to finally work out their meaning through different contexts and remember them naturally. This is, by the way, how you learnt your native language through years of exposure to the language, through multiple repetitions of the same words in different contexts.

However, if you have been struggling with a text trying hard to understand it and not lose a will to live at the same time, the last thing you want is breaking your hard-earned reading flow by looking up words in a dictionary and then recording them for learning.

Luckily, there is technology to help you out. I am not talking about online dictionaries or Google translate. I am talking about a pop up window with translation or explanation of an unknown word you click in the text, that you are reading online, and automatic recording of the words you have looked up, so that you could review them later and choose the ones you want to learn.

So, you don’t have to navigate to a different tab with a dictionary, type in the word, track down the translation among the numerous ads and, five minutes later, return to the original tab with the text you are reading after getting lost in all the open tabs in your browser. What was I reading about again? Duh! Oh, and on top of it, there is copying and pasting of the word and its translation, so that you could save and learn the word later.

So, how do you keep your reading flow and get a pop-up window with translation or explanation (or both in one window if you need them both) plus have them saved automatically? You need to get a free dictionary plugin vocBlocks LookUp.

Once it’s installed, you will be able to Ctrl double-click any unknown word in your text and read its translation or explanation. The tool will save all the words that you have looked up together with their translation, transcription and audio pronunciation into a vocabulary block (vocBlock) and send you an email reminder so that you don’t forget to learn these words by doing various exercises.

Happy reading!

Want to develop all four core foreign language skills? Check out our other posts to learn how:

How to Develop your Listening at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Writing at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Speaking at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Enter your email address at the right to receive updates from our blog and not to miss any upcoming posts.