Monday, 16 October 2017

Why You Don't Speak the Foreign Language You Learnt at School

and why it shouldn't stop you from learning it now

‘I don't speak French,’ you tell your friend. ‘I can say a couple of words and phrases but that's it. I studied it for 10 years at school but somehow I don't speak the language’.

So, you feel that if you couldn't learn to speak a foreign language in 10 years, surely learning a language is not something worth taking up and adding to your arm long list of commitments of a busy adult. Who would want to waste another 10 years without seeing any substantial result? Why invest your precious time and focus your attention already spread thin on something futile?

But what if I told you that you don’t speak the foreign language you learnt at school because you were not actually learning this martyr of a foreign language for 10 years? What if I told you that you were just being taught?

Learning vs Being Taught

Let me explain the difference between learning and being taught using cat food analogy. Imagine you have a cat and as a responsible loving owner, you feed him his cat food regularly. One day, when you work from home, you leave some breakfast leftovers on the table before rushing to your study to take a conference call. While you are busy working, your Fluffy Fluffington gobbles the sausage leftovers, helps himself from your glass of milk and saunters into your study purring smugly before curling itself shamelessly on your lap.

Now, why do you think this cat is more excited about some leftovers and not so much about its highly nutritious balanced and delicious cat food? Firstly, eating only cat food all the time is boring and, secondly, the cat knows that it will be given its cat food at some point, so again, it’s boring. With the sausage, there is this fresh new taste as well as the taste of adventure and action: the whiskered thief carefully planned the escapade, assessed the risk of being caught, calculated the time needed for looting while anticipating the taste of the succulent booty in its mouth all the time.

When you were taught a foreign language at school as a kid you were given that cat food, same boring cat food you were guaranteed to get. Most likely there was the same textbook you hated or the same activities you didn't really want to take part in or the same teacher you didn't get along with. You were not in charge and couldn't change much, so just chewed the cat food you were given. And you didn't worry about not getting this cat food: an apocalypse needed to happen to get rid of school.

When you learn a foreign language yourself as a busy adult, it’s a different story. It is that sausage that you choose yourself, work on getting and enjoy much more. Don't like the textbook you have? Into the bin. There are others to try. Don't like speaking? To the bookstore. There are self-study books to buy. Don't get along with your tutor? To preply. There are others to contact.

And there is no guarantee that you will have time to study as planned, your kids might get unwell, your job might get crazy or your spouse might kick up a tantrum and demand your undivided attention. The sausage might be gone before you know it.

I am actually not saying that being taught is always boring and I am pretty sure the cat enjoys its cat food too. What I am saying is that the sausage off the table has a much more exciting taste, a taste of conscious choice.

Conscious Choice

When you select the content for your language study based on your own interests and what’s going on in your life, when you manage to find time to fit your language study around your other commitments, when you do more of what you like whether it's reading, listening, writing or speaking, conscious choice, when learning a foreign language, is a game changer in terms of end results.

Choosing content. If you are interested in traveling, for example, and are getting ready for your next destination, why not read about this place in your target foreign language? I am pretty sure you don’t exactly have a guidebook in this language lying around, but you can just google it using the relevant words in your foreign language. Once you are back, you can speak about your travel adventures and the sights you did in your target language with your language partner or tutor.

When you choose the content for language learning yourself, you are more likely to enjoy it and are actively involved with it. These chances are even higher if this content is relevant to you personally.

Choosing time. It is not an easy task for you as a busy adult to find time for your language study. It's often really hard to find any slot whatsoever, where you could squeeze in some French (German, Spanish, etc.) So, once you have managed to find this slot in your day (or your week) this time slot is sacred. After all, it is not easy to get yourself into the habit of getting up half an hour earlier to do some reading in your target language or to convince your colleagues at work that you are not avoiding them during lunchtime when you go back to your desk to do some grammar exercises or to talk your spouse into looking after the kids every evening while you are having your Skype lessons.

All these difficulties with finding or freeing up time make you treasure the little time you have for your language study and you are more likely to stay focused and use this time more efficiently.

Choosing activities. Doing more of what you like is a dream come true. When learning your foreign language at school, were you not happy because at each and every lesson your teacher asked you to voice your opinion on some topic in the language you were learning? Or were you bored to death by grammar exercises and were itching to just chat in your target language? Well, guess what? It’s you who decides now, so you get those grammar self-study books or ditch grammar exercises completely and keep chatting away with your language partners. Whatever works best for you, you are the boss!

Doing something you like is quadrillion times more effective than doing something you don't like. You need to try to have all four core language skills covered of course but it is your choice on what activities you would like to spend more of your time.

3 Mistakes to Avoid

When restarting learning a foreign language you studied at school, there are 3 mistakes you need to avoid. Making any of these mistakes can stall the whole process so you need to recognise them before your language journey even starts.

Mistake # 1

The first mistake is treating your language study as something you have done before and turning it into revision. If you dig out your old textbooks (you still have them, you hoarder?) and start revising, you risk losing motivation as it’s certainly not motivating to feel you have forgotten so much of what you knew before and cannot even introduce yourself properly in this language now. Besides, let’s face it, school textbooks for teens are not really exciting for a thirty-something-year-old.

Things that interested and motivated you earlier might not interest and motivate you anymore. And things that seemed boring are probably exactly the ones that make you tick now. In other words, you have changed, so why would you want to treat your foreign language study as something that should be the same?

For example, at school you had those super boring texts about all those famous people (and I don’t mean celebrities by that) and historical events, while all you could think of was that party or that date and your makeup and outfit decisions. Now that you yourself are making history (you do vote, don’t you?) you are more likely to enjoy this kind of texts and even consider reading on some news in your target language (of course, once you have upped your level to at least intermediate).

Don't get me wrong by the way, I am not saying that learning a foreign language you used to study at school is the same as learning a language you have never learnt before. Of course, you have forgotten a lot but once you start reviving this corpse of a foreign language of yours, you will start remembering words, grammar rules and even phrases you didn't even know you knew. Human brain is an incredible thing indeed!

So, revive not revise.

Mistake # 2

The second mistake to avoid is studying the language exactly the same way you were taught at school. Have you even asked yourself why your teacher just loved all those grammar exercises? Or why your teacher avoided grammar completely? Or why your teacher never spoke the language they were teaching so your listening experience was very limited? Possible answers are: mainly grammar because grammar was easier to teach and assess with a class of 30 unruly teens; no grammar, because the main task was to teach pupils to communicate in the foreign language and grammar got neglected; teacher not speaking much in the foreign language because, well, perhaps they were just not fluent themselves.

Besides, at your age (I'm not saying you are old!) you do have a wealth of experience to guide you through the learning process, including the knowledge of what learning activities help you learn best (it's usually the ones you enjoy doing most).

For example, if you learn better while listening rather than reading and it’s writing that helps you activate your passive vocabulary and not speaking, you are free to choose to listen and write more as you are the one who decides now not a teacher who has a class full of different pupils, curriculum to follow and education standards to adhere to.

So, formulate not replicate.

Mistake # 3

The third mistake you might make is shying away from new ways of learning a foreign language just because you are so used to the traditional ones (I am guilty of this one myself). Say, for example, you have never tried Skype lessons or language learning websites or spaced repetition software. All those are there to make your language learning easier and save you time.

With Skype it’s easier to organise lessons and find a teacher, as you have a bigger worldwide pool of teachers. And you save time on commute as you don’t have to get to the venue where the lessons are held. With language learning websites it’s easier to find the learning materials you need and download them instantly or complete the tasks online saving time on having them shipped to your house or getting them from a bookstore. With spaced repetition software it’s easier to learn new words while saving time on both organising your regular study of new vocabulary and the learning itself.

Saving time and effort when using all these new ways of language learning is vital for you as a busy adult. You don't have as much time for studying a language as you did when you were at school and yet you might want to see results faster this time (certainly before 10 years go by). Seeing results will keep you motivated. Lack of time is not the end of the world and certainly not the reason to abandon the idea of learning a language, but you do need to use the time you have more efficiently especially if you want to progress at a pace faster than that of a snail.

For example, at school you could afford not to learn a lot of new words as you were not required to understand much beyond texts you had in your textbook. When learning by yourself, even though you have less time, you might want to grow your vocabulary faster so that you could start using the materials that are not adapted for the learners of this language because (let’s face it) they are a bit boring and there are less of them at hand while you have loads of materials for native speakers on the Internet.

With new words it's spaced repetition software that will help you learn more vocabulary while spending less time on it. is one of the tools, for example. Wherever you have Internet connection you can use any five-minute slots to revise your new words. And you don't have to plan your revision and remember to do the exercises, it is organised automatically for you: your progress for each block of vocabulary is tracked with reminders landing in your inbox prompting you to revise.

Once you have grown your vocabulary sufficiently and upped your foreign language level, you can switch the language of some of your downtime activities from your native to your target foreign which will add more time to your daily language study without you having to sacrifice anything for it. You can watch movies with subtitles, listen to songs with lyrics or just read memes in this language on Facebook, for example.

So, innovate do not stagnate.

Happy learning!

Monday, 2 October 2017

4 Core Foreign Language Skills You Need to Develop

In conversations around foreign language abilities, it is the word ‘speak’ that you hear most often.

‘I spoke Spanish with a Spanish guy I met on holiday’, your friend narrates beaming with delight.

‘I can speak four languages’, your colleague announces proudly.

‘I haven’t spoken French for ages, so it has got a bit rusty’, you tell your new neighbour who turned out to be French.

Speak, speak, speak. No wonder that when one starts learning a foreign language, speaking is the first thing they have in mind. Speaking is not the whole story though. There are other core skills to be developed as well. They are reading, writing and listening.

So, when planning your foreign language study, you need to make sure you have all four skills covered.

Why is it important, when do you need to start developing each of these skills and how do you do it?


Why. Reading is that necessary input without which you won’t produce any output, be it in the form of speaking or writing. Reading as much as possible is the key here: the more you read, the more you come across the same words and grammar structures in the wild, recognise them, observe their behaviour and learn about their habits in their natural environment.

When. You can already start with reading from level A (elementary), once you know some two hundred words. Starting reading early is vital as this will give you that language fluid that you need to keep things flowing and keep things real as opposed to just studying grammar rules and doing textbook exercises.

By the way, I am not saying that studying grammar rules and doing textbook exercises is bad. It’s a great shortcut to understanding how language works so it would be silly not to use it and rely only on your empirical observations, i.e. reading and listening.

How. As your primary task with reading is to keep things flowing, you need to ensure that the reading materials you use are suitable for your level, so that you don’t get stuck. For example, books specifically designed for learners are marked as suitable for levels A, B or C (elementary, intermediate or advanced).

Research shows that unknown words should constitute only about 5% of the given text. If it is much more than that, it is likely that these reading materials are not suitable for your level. In this case, reading can turn into constant looking up of unknown words and a real struggle, so eventually you get fed up and give up.

Saying that, looking up unknown words when reading is essential. And it’s not only because it helps you understand what you are reading. Consulting a dictionary ultimately helps you grow your vocabulary.

So, a dictionary is your best friend when you read. With modern technology, you have online dictionaries and (even better!) dictionary plugins, so there is no tedious leafing through paper dictionaries. And no excuse not to look up new words!

However, it is not enough to just look up words to grow your vocabulary. It is more effective to record them so that you could revise them later. It is especially the case if you don’t read a lot or if your language level is quite high (intermediate and above). In both cases you won’t be coming across the same words many times, in the latter case because the words you don’t yet know with your high level are words that are not used too frequently.


Why. Like reading, listening is that input that ensures you can produce output in the form of writing and speaking. Unlike reading, listening happens at a speed over which you have little control. And with pronunciation different from your native language. And with a variety of individual accents of speakers. And with possible surrounding noise on top of it all. So, you need to practise listening in your target language regularly to be on top of all these challenges specific to listening.

When. As in the case with reading, with listening you also need to start early to keep things real. After all, it’s a language people use in real life, well, unless you study, for example, Latin. Simple dialogues are really good for those who have just embarked on their language journey so that from the very start you are exposed to the speech and not just separate words. The difference is not only in quantity (more words at once) but also in quality, as words change how they sound depending on what other words surround them. Also, not all words in a sentence are equal: some are stressed while others are not and you might not hear them clearly.

How. Again, as with reading, you need to make sure listening materials are suitable for your level. Audio materials that are specifically designed for learners of elementary and intermediate levels do not only have easier content in terms of vocabulary and grammar (simpler words, simpler grammar structures) but are also read slower, more distinctly and often with a standard pronunciation, i.e. not with some region-specific accent.

Knowing that, once your level is high enough for you to start using authentic materials designed for native speakers and not just learners of this language, you might need to deliberately include materials with various regional and even foreign accents, by people with different social and educational background, of different ages and speech abilities, etc.

Even with audio designed for learners, it’s not always easy to understand everything that is being said. One thing that helps is turning up the volume or, better still, putting on headphones. Or sometimes both!

Listening is also a means of growing your vocabulary, especially if you cannot spare too much time for reading but are perfectly able to listen, for example, on your way to work, while cooking or cleaning, etc. In this case transcripts can be really handy. Once you get a chance to look at them, you can locate the words you don’t know there to see how they are spelt and record them for learning. It will be a piece of cake to learn this vocabulary if you listen to this audio materials more than once.

And very often you do need to listen more than once. For example, if you have read something in your native language and haven’t understood it, what is the next thing you do? That’s right, you reread it. It also works when you read in a foreign language: even if you know all the words in a sentence, it sometimes doesn’t make sense so you have to reread it. The same trick works with listening. Very often listening tasks in textbooks ask you to listen to the same audio twice. When listening for the second time you understand the text even better and are able to make out more details as well.


Why. While reading and listening are input, writing and speaking are output, so we are talking about creating in your target foreign language not just consuming. Most modern languages are written languages, so, unless your target language doesn’t exist in a written form, you need to practise writing as a separate set of skills. Even with the Internet where video content is highly popular, writing is still an important creative language activity people engage in, examples being posts, comments, short instant messages and emails.

When. As you consume content in your target language while reading or listening, technically you are still engaged in passive language activities. You are still an observer and a recipient of all this language goodness. If you want to make those words and grammar structures that you see and hear, part of your active vocabulary, you need to start using them yourself. Writing provides this opportunity. Thus, you need to start practising your writing skills from the very start. It doesn’t have to be essays, of course, putting just a couple of words in a finished sentence at the start will already do you a ton of good in terms of building your active vocabulary.

How. With the Internet, you have loads of opportunities to develop your writing skills in a natural way. You can write comments to the posts you have read, reviews of the products and services you have used, participate in different discussions and forums, post on social media, send personal instant messages and emails to your language partner/s and teacher, etc.

The only thing I would strongly recommend here is to make sure you do it not only to practise your language skills but you actually have something to say. It’s such a waste of everybody’s time (including your own) if, for example, you bug someone with questions just to practise constructing interrogative sentences in the language you are learning and have no interest in the answer whatsoever. If this is something you need to do in order to practise putting together this kind of sentences, it’s totally fine to write them, just don’t address them to anybody pretending that you need an answer. It’s just not nice at all.

If you study alone though and could do with some feedback and have your mistakes corrected, please use the specific places where you can post your literary masterpieces for them to be checked by the community of learners and teachers. One of them is italki’s notebook. It’s important you check the credentials of the person who corrected your piece though, as these corrections can be made by people whose language level is not much higher than yours. Still, it’s a great way to get a fast feedback for free without bugging innocent people.

Another popular activity you can engage in via the Internet is sending instant messages and emails to other speakers of your target language. Exchanging instant messages (for example, via Skype) is an important writing skill which has its own peculiarities. Instant messages tend to be short and you need to write them fast. It can be quite challenging especially if your level is not too high (don’t worry though, you will get there with some practice). Native speakers are likely to use spoken language in this kind of communication, abbreviate some words or just not write full sentences.

Writing emails is a different kind of writing as emails are not intended for real-time communication and are longer messages that have a certain structure. Emails are also more formal though nowadays they tend to become less and less formal with friendly conversational style being more and more preferable even in corporate settings. With emails, as well as other personal messages and online comments addressed to a specific person, you need to make a habit of rereading them to make sure they sound nice and polite, as it’s not face to face communication where you can use your voice, gestures and facial expression (smiling) to communicate your best intentions. It’s worth putting an emoticon or even an emoji sometimes, if your message sounds a bit blunt.

In any of the forms described above, writing is a great way to grow your vocabulary. When you use the new words you have been learning, you solidify your knowledge of these words by including them into your active vocabulary. It means you learn how to use these words and start using them yourself as opposed to just recognising them while reading or listening (passive vocabulary). For this, you need to actively try to use the new vocabulary you have been learning. For example, you can revise these words just before writing an instant message or a comment and pick out the ones you might use.


Why. As I mentioned earlier, just like writing, speaking is a creative language activity, it is means of expressing yourself in your target language. And while you can get away with just writing when it comes to distant communication, with face to face communication speaking is the only alternative. So, (surprise!) you need to learn to speak in your target language.

When. Speaking, as well as writing, is a means of learning how to use words and grammar structures yourself and building your active vocabulary. So the earlier you start developing your speaking skills, the better. While with writing you can usually go back, read through your piece and edit it if needed, there is no such luxury with speaking. You have to think on your feet which can be challenging if your level is not too high. There is nothing to worry about though. Compared to writing, speaking tolerates loads of imperfections like incomplete, broken sentences, interjections and even relaxed grammar. Bearing this in mind you should just go for it and practise speaking from the very start.

How. For those who have just started learning a language, there are super simple dialogues that you can memorise to make your first steps in interacting with others, for example, to introduce yourself and talk a bit about the weather. Busuu has them for quite a few languages. Memorising simple conversational phrases will boost your confidence, as there is nothing more amazing than being able to have even a simple conversation in the language you have just started to learn.

At first you might struggle with pronouncing separate sounds, words and especially whole sentences in your new language to the point that your conversation partner might not understand what it is you are trying to say. And this is completely normal. Your organs of speech are trained for the sounds of your native language or the language you speak the most. So, at first, there will be a physical struggle with some sounds and combination of sounds that do not exist in your native language. And you can forget about any decent speed of speech. Little kids who are just learning to speak, sound cute and funny for exactly the same reason: their organs of speech are not developed enough to articulate all sounds properly.

With time your organs of speech will get used to this new job you appointed them to do and things will get easier for you and for those who try to understand what you are saying. It doesn’t mean that your pronunciation will be perfect, well, unless you work hard on making it such. It’s not a big problem though. Some adults learning a foreign language never get around to getting rid of their accent completely as it doesn’t hinder communication in most cases. Foreign accents are sometimes considered by native speakers sexy too.

On the other hand, if your accent is so thick that it makes it difficult to understand you, it is the phonetic practice that you need to engage in. It usually boils down to learning about the sounds and intonation specific to this language in theory and practising correct pronunciation.

Even if your level is quite high, you can actually express yourself in the language you are learning and your pronunciation doesn't hinder communication, you might still freeze up when you need to speak to someone in your target language. Very often it has nothing to do with your foreign language abilities and is just a psychological issue, for example, fear of making mistakes.

Just like writing, speaking is a great way to grow your active vocabulary. Again, you need to look through the words you have been learning before speaking and choose the ones that might be suitable for this particular utterance or conversation. Make sure you know how they are used and maybe write them down to remind yourself to use them when you speak.

Happy reading, listening, writing and speaking!

Monday, 18 September 2017

How I Resumed Studying German After a Five Years Break

Missing German

I really want to restart my German study, I thought looking at the German text books on the shelf. They had been there dusty and neglected for around five years. The only phrase in German I remembered and could say fluently was 'Sorry, my German is quite rusty, I haven't spoken it for quite a while.'

I kept this phrase in my head just in case I came across someone who spoke German so that I could use it before switching pathetically to English which every German speaker I have met so far speaks. I missed speaking German and it would have been such a shame to miss a chance to speak it just because it got rusty.

I absolutely need to restart my German study, I thought looking at the DVDs in German on the shelf. I had spent so much time and effort in the past to get so far as B2 level (i.e. upper intermediate) and started enjoying German films in the original.

So it would have been an absolute waste to let it rust further. I didn’t feel though that my level was B1 (i.e. intermediate) anymore let alone B2. I felt I forgot a lot of what I had learnt so hard. So, I needed to restart studying asap before it sank even lower.

A Fresh Start

I was dreading going back to studying German though. It was really intimidating.

These textbooks I started but not finished a while ago were intimidating. Would I be able to just pick up where I left off? I really doubted it.

These DVDs in German I watched a while ago were intimidating. Would I understand half of what is said in these films if I watched them now? I didn't think so.

And the gigabytes of B2 level digital study materials stored on my hard drive for future use were screaming guilt at me whenever I dared to open the file with intimidating 'German study' name.

All of this volume of German language goodness was so overwhelming that I dreaded to even approach it, never mind taking any action.

One day I got so sick of being bullied into stupor by my German study possessions that... I boxed all this stuff and donated it to the local language centre.

I needed a fresh start. I told myself, I am not returning to the textbooks I once used and films I once watched only to feel regret that I have forgotten so much stuff and that I have to start all over again.

I then erased ruthlessly all the digital materials from the hard drive. I'm not at B2 level anymore, I thought, so I don't need them. At least not now. I need to take it step by step. And by the way being a busy adult, I accepted that these steps would probably be teeny tiny ones.

I decided to make a fresh start. To make my German study fresh, i.e. different from what I had been learning before, I chose to study Business German this time. It will also align well with other recent activities and interests, I thought.

So, I subscribed to the Business German podcast Marktplatz by Deutsche Welle on iTunes which had transcripts and additional texts with comprehension exercises online. These types of activities had two out of the four skills covered: listening and reading.

To have writing skills covered I registered on the website for learners of German by Goethe Institut with opportunity to write answers to the questions they asked around different topics and also make general comments on the texts they offered on these topics.

Finally, to have my speaking skills covered, I joined italki, which is a website that helps learners of different languages find language exchange partners.

Mind you, no storing of materials this time which would bury my will to study under its unmanageable volume. I even decided to print out only one Marktplatz lesson at a time to avoid piles staring at me from the shelf.

Lovely! I was back on track with the solid plan covering training all four core skills backed by fresh language resources from such trusted websites as Deutsche Welle and Goethe Institut, several potential language exchange partners who answered my messages and, perhaps most importantly, language learning aligned with my current activities and interests. I was happy! And I happily forgot about German for another month.

A Habit

My psyche though didn't forget and kept reminding me. For the whole month the thought of not going through with the decision I made to resume my German study was gnawing me, biting at my peace of mind.

I tried to shrug it off by saying to myself that I was too busy. It didn't help. Reading a book while you are too busy to study German? Enjoying a meal with your friends while you cannot spare half an hour to study German? Booking cinema tickets while you don’t have time to study German? Boy, it was annoying!

Then one day I was talking to a friend of mine and mentioned that I was planning to resume my German study. There it was. A commitment. How would I feel if next time we met she asked me ‘How is your German study going?’ Would I be able to admit to someone else what a massive procrastinator I was?

So, I needed to get the ball rolling. I started reading the texts from Goethe Institut Website online, doing the exercises and writing answers in the comments section from time to time. What a joy! My German self shook off the dust it had gathered in years of neglect, spread its wings and soared up high.

It lasted for three days. Then work happened. Then I was too tired. Then it was my holiday. Then post-holiday blues. And then I just didn’t remember to study. My German started gathering dust again.

‘So, how is your German study going?’ my friend asked me. Damn, it was bad. Had to admit a defeat to her.

‘Why don’t you just put it in your calendar?’ she asked.

Indeed, why don’t I?

So, I created a weekly event in my calendar called ‘German study’. I carefully chose time and day for study when I knew I had nothing on.

I then made an announcement to the family proclaiming this hour as ‘sacred no-disturbance-tolerated’ time. Now it was official. My German study had its day and its time in my week.

Once a week wasn’t much but it was better than nothing. I focused on listening to the Business German dialogues, translating unknown words with vocBlocks built in dictionary and finally repeating the whole dialogue sentence by sentence after the speaker. My aim was to get better at understanding when listening, enlarge my vocabulary and improve my pronunciation.

The only problem was that new vocabulary kept piling up. Also, when I tackled the next dialogue I sometimes came across the same words I had encountered in the previous dialogue, the words I was supposed to have learnt already but just didn’t get around to.

So, I started creating one vocBlock per dialogue to learn vocabulary in bite sizes. Once I recorded the unknown words from the dialogue I was working on, I sent the vocBlock straight to Memoriser to do the exercises daily so that I was on top of the new vocabulary portion by the next week’s dialogue and also didn’t have to look up the same words again.

As calendar worked so well for me, I decided to make the most out of the vocBlocks’ reminders. I chose not only frequency (every day) but also time for the reminders to land in my inbox (10 pm).

Doing the exercises every day helped me learn the words quicker. It was important for me as I had a new dialogue to listen to and write out new vocabulary from every week so I needed to keep the rhythm of learning new words to avoid any backlog which would have built up if I had skipped exercises.

More importantly though I gradually formed a habit of studying every day for just 5 minutes.

Later I had to allow more time though as the number of vocBlocks increased and I had to not only learn new words but also revise the ones I had learnt before. But it was no problem as my German study started to snowball.


It turned out that the most difficult thing was to actually start and then form a habit to study regularly.

As you have seen, for me the trick was

- to carefully select and block an hour for German study in my calendar and

- learn new vocabulary with the vocBlocks language learning productivity tool also based on calendar.

Once the habit was there, my German study started to gather momentum and to my surprise I eventually found myself wanting to study more.

So, to my regular one hour a week study and daily review of vocabulary I later added reading texts on the same topics as the dialogues and doing the exercises for these texts. I then started speaking to a language partner once a week and gradually added various downtime activities which I by the way alternate to keep my motivation high.

These downtime activities include at the moment listening to songs in German while looking at the lyrics, watching films with subtitles plus reading articles and memes from my Facebook feed.

I now feel a need to add grammar practice as it’s more efficient to brush up grammar rules in theory from time to time rather than come across the same grammar patterns, again and again, trying to deduce the rule out of many separate occasions.

I am by no means at the end of my German study. There are loads to learn and loads to try out. There are fiction and nonfiction books I am planning to read, films and documentaries to watch, podcasts and lectures to listen to. And there is culture to smell and taste :)

Hope my experience I have shared here, will help you restart your language study too.

Happy restarting!

Monday, 4 September 2017

What is vocBlocks LookUp and How to Use It

What is vocBlocks LookUp

vocBlocks LookUp is a dictionary extension for the Chrome browser you can download from the Google Store for free.

It makes your reading online easier as you can Ctrl + double click unknown words to see their translation or definition plus audio pronunciation directly on the web page. Note: please use Alt + double click on Mac.

But there is more to vocBlocks LookUp than just a dictionary you have a click away. vocBlocks LookUp packages the words you have looked up together with the context in which you have come across these words into a vocBlock so that you could learn them.

Where to Find vocBlocks LookUp

You can download vocBlocks LookUp from Google Chrome Store. Just click on the blue ‘Add to Chrome’ button in the top right hand corner of the window. Once the extension has been downloaded, you will be able to use it straight away.

Looking up Words when Reading Online

With vocBlocks LookUp you can look up unknown words in two ways.

You can Ctrl + double click the words you need to look up (please use Alt instead of Ctrl for Mac) and a pop-up window with definition or translation will appear on the same webpage. Please note that the extension will ask you to sign in before you will be able to use it.

Alternatively, you can look up words by opening vocBlocks LookUp in a separate browser tab and copying and pasting or typing these words into the lookup field.

To open vocBlocks LookUp as a dictionary app in a separate tab, you need to click on the blue block symbol you have in your Chrome toolbar. Here you get the same look and feel as in the pop-up window.

Translation, Definition and Pronunciation

Depending on your level, goals or just personal preferences you can choose between translation into your native language and definition in your target language.

For example, if your level is intermediate and above, definition might be more suitable as it can give you a better idea of the meaning of the word especially if there isn’t any equivalent in your native language or there are several equivalents and the translation doesn’t provide a clear picture. Choosing definitions also helps you bypass your native language increasing the level of immersion into the target language.

On the other hand, if your task is translation into your native language, you will obviously need to choose translation to make the process quicker.

If you would like to have both translation and definition for one and the same word in one window, you will need to choose more than one combination of languages under ‘Options’ in the vocBlocks LookUp window (see the screenshot below). For example, if you are learning English and would like to have both translation from English into your native language and definition in English, you will need to choose two combinations of languages: English - your native language and English - English.

In the same way, it’s possible to have translation into more than one language in the same window. For example, if you are learning German and would like to boost your English at the same time (English not being your mother tongue), you can choose the following two combinations of languages: German - your native language and German - English.

The history will be available on the right hand side as a list of words you have looked up so should you need a quick access to a word you looked up before you can do so easily and quickly.

You can also have several tabs for different words open so that you can flick between them if, for example, you need to compare synonyms.

Words come with transcription, as they do in a dictionary, and audio pronunciation. To listen to the way words are pronounced, you need to click on the sound icon.


Once you have looked up a number of new words, the extension will automatically package them into a new vocBlock called, for example, ‘Memoriser unit: New words, en-en, 10 Sept 2017’ and send it to Memoriser for learning. As with any other vocBlocks that you have in Memoriser, the tool will be sending you email notifications reminding you to practise.

The words in these automatically created vocBlocks will be recorded with their definitions and/or translation. The extension will also automatically record the context (the sentences) in which you have come across these words. You don’t need to learn the context of course, it’s there to remind you of how the word is used and to help you remember it better.

If you decide you don’t need to learn all the words you have looked up, you can edit the vocBlocks the extension created for you and leave only the words you need to learn. Just click 'delete' button for the word you don't need when doing the exercises.

We hope that you have found this information useful. But if we missed anything or you have a question please do not hesitate to drop us a line.

Happy reading!