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 (upcoming)

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

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

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Sunday, 18 February 2018

Pronunciation Pain. Part 2 - Welcome to the Language Gym

In the previous post, we tried to answer the question if you actually need to improve your pronunciation and how much it is ok for you to deviate from the standard pronunciation based on what you use your target language for. We examined what pronunciation and standard pronunciation is, the motives or reasons why you might want to get rid of your foreign accent, your chances of improving your pronunciation as an adult language learner and your pronunciation goal.

When drawing your language learning plan, you need to look at the whole picture and based on your language learning goals, areas of improvement, the time and other resources you are able to allocate to your language study, decide how much effort you are prepared to spend on improving your pronunciation.

The reason for this analysis is that pronunciation is a separate skill that requires specific work with full focus only on this skill.

What is Pronunciation Training?

So, what pronunciation training actually entails?

Depending on what your areas of improvement are, you might need to work either on separate sounds or intonation or both. If either of these two is off, your pronunciation might hinder communication, i.e. understanding.

If it is both separate sounds and intonation that you need to work on, usually, pronunciation practice starts with working on separate sounds.

Working on Separate Sounds

Here you are likely to need IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet) or any other transliteration system, especially if the language you are learning is not phonetic, i.e. words are spelt in a different way than pronounced. English is one of the examples of a language with traditional (read: nightmarish) spelling, i.e. the spelling that has stayed the same even though the pronunciation has changed a lot over the centuries. That’s why, by the way, English words are transcribed in our Ready vocBlocks and when you make your own vocBlocks transcription pops up automatically from the built-in dictionary.

When working on sounds, you might want to read or watch some theory on how certain sounds are pronounced, i.e. how and if your tongue, lips and soft palate move to form these particular sounds. It is especially important for the sounds that are very different from your native language. For example, /θ/ and /ð/ in English if you don’t have any such sounds in your mother tongue.

Don’t be surprised if your mouth refuses to articulate the sounds of your target language the way they should be pronounced and if your facial muscles hurt after the training. Articulating sounds of different languages requires work of different muscles, so if you have been speaking mainly your native language or if you have been articulating the sounds of your target language in an incorrect way, different muscles have been working, so the ones that are working now, when you are training correct pronunciation, hurt. Yep, welcome to the language gym!

When practising separate sounds, you need to monitor that your organs of speech are positioned and move correctly. While you won’t be able to see your soft palate or fully see your tongue, the position and movement of your lips can be easily monitored when you practise with a mirror.

And even if you don’t think much of this technique, don’t just brush it off as unnecessary: you will be surprised how easily your organs of speech slip back to the familiar moves they have got used to over the years of speaking your native tongue. Even when you think your organs of speech move and/or positioned correctly, a check in the mirror might prove otherwise. So, grab that mirror, beaut, to check you really round your lips in the right way for that /əʋ/ sound!

It doesn’t mean, of course, that from now on you are compelled to stare in the mirror every time you speak your target language. It’s necessary for your phonetic training, of course, but that’s where it ends. And though phonetic practice can turn out to be addictive for you if you are a bit of an actor or if you don’t mind checking that you look gorgeous while speaking your target language, it would be a bit on the wacky side if you pulled a compact mirror out of your briefcase in the middle of a contract negotiation with your foreign partners, glanced at it while pronouncing your /θ/ and packed it back smiling and nodding with satisfaction.

First of all, while having a real life conversation in your target language you are much less likely to be in control of your language per se, including pronunciation. You will have to think what to say not just how to say it!

And, secondly, you won’t have to think about your pronunciation. The muscles that work when you speak are just that, they are muscles. As other muscles in your body, after a long enough period of working out (phonetic practice) they start taking care of themselves. Same way as you don’t have to constantly think of correct posture or hold your stomach in after you have been working out in the gym for some time, you will be articulating sounds correctly without constantly making an effort to do so.

Working on Sounds in Context

The next step of phonetic practice is working on short phrases, sentences and tongue twisters so that you could train the sounds that you have been working on at the first step, in connection with other sounds.

The main feature of this kind of practice is exaggeration: you need to articulate the sounds you are working on very clearly and distinctly, much more clearly and distinctly than they are pronounced in real speech.

Again, this doesn’t mean that you will be articulating the sounds in this exaggerated manner in real life conversations going forward. Absolutely not. If you did, you would sound really weird (nobody does it) and you would sacrifice speed which is one of the parts of good pronunciation. But when training, you need to focus on one thing at a time (it’s not speed at this point) and exaggeration is necessary for you to learn to articulate the sounds correctly.

At this step of your phonetic practice, you might find it useful to monitor your pronunciation by recording your voice and playing it back to yourself. While listening to your own voice is not the most pleasant thing in the world, treat it as a necessary evil that will help you avoid slipping back to your old pronunciation mistakes or making new ones. For the next (third) step of your pronunciation training recording and playing back your voice can also help avoid any mistakes.

Working on Intonation

This third step is working on intonation. Intonation is the music of the language so just as with musical notes that people look at when playing a musical instrument or singing, you might need to employ some graphic means to mark whether the intonation goes up or down, which words in the sentences are stressed and where pauses are made.

You can mark the sentences and texts, you are working on, either based on the standard intonation patterns or by listening carefully to the audio of native speakers. A combination of both, i.e. marking texts while listening to the audio and applying your theoretical knowledge of standard intonation patterns is all the more effective and accurate, especially if your musical ear is a bit deaf.

Please note that the texts you use for this purpose should be the ones designed for language learners even if they were not specifically designed for training pronunciation. With real stuff from youtube, for example, you risk copying all sorts of deviations from the standard and might struggle with the complexity and irregularity of real thing that you don’t need for your phonetic training.

After you have marked the text, you need to repeat it sentence by sentence after the speaker copying the intonation, stressing the right words and pausing in the right places. If a sentence is too long, you can stop the recording where the speaker pauses and repeat a part of the sentence before listening and repeating the next part.

Working on Speed

Once you feel confident enough with intonation, you could challenge yourself with repeating these texts with the same speed as the native speaker(s) of the recording.

Speaking in your target language with a native-like speed is quite important as (like other elements of pronunciation) it impacts communication.

It is like driving on a busy road: you need to have approximately the same speed as others so as not to break the flow (in the case of speaking, the flow of conversation). Too slow and other road users get impatient, too quick and other road users get uncomfortable.

If you cannot imitate the speed from the first attempt, don’t worry, it’s not that easy, especially if you are physically struggling to articulate all the sounds of your target language. It’s a matter of practice to make your target language speech quicker and more native-like, so keep trying!

And, by the way, if the text you have chosen happens to be a heated argument between two friends or spouses, an exchange of quick emotional remarks, good luck with that! It’s a tough but good practice which you might actually enjoy if you are a bit of an actor.

Now that you have an idea of what phonetic training is, you can decide if and how much time you can spend on it and (if it’s a yes) add working on the sounds, intonation and speed of your target language to your language learning plan.

Happy articulating!

Monday, 29 January 2018

Pronunciation Pain. Part 1 - Do You Need to Improve Your Pronunciation?

When one starts learning a foreign language, pronunciation is probably not the first thing on one’s mind. On the one hand, there are new words to learn and new grammar structures to understand and remember. On the other hand, there are new routines to be organised and new habits to be built for learning to actually happen in your busy adult life. So pronunciation can get pushed to the back burner very easily.

As a result, one day you might discover that even though you can recall the right words at the right time, build sentences and in general speak the language, people have trouble understanding you. Even if you have been working on your reading, listening, speaking, writing skills and tackling grammar, if you haven’t been taking care of your pronunciation, it might become that rain that spoils your language parade.

What is Pronunciation?

So, what is pronunciation exactly? A quick definition from Wikipedia tells us that “Pronunciation is the way in which a word or a language is spoken.” [1]

There is no mention of a foreign language, as you might have noticed, and, in fact, pronunciation is not limited to the sphere of learning languages. Pronunciation of native speakers can also differ based on their age, social class, education, residence, etc. So, when you speak your mother tongue you also have an accent, i.e. a certain “manner of pronunciation” [2].

For example, Birmingham or Brummie accent of the British English is seen as uneducated or working class. "Peaky Blinders" is a popular British TV series based on a story of a criminal gang from Birmingham. The members of the gang speak with Brummie accent:

So, accents are deviations from standard pronunciation. But what is this standard and who says what is standard, i.e. correct, and what is not?

In the past when there was not much communication between different regions, there were lots of dialects and not just one (standard) language. Depending on where you lived, you spoke a certain dialect which your neighbours might or might not have understood.

Later, “modern Nationalism, as developed especially since the French Revolution, has made the distinction between "language" and "dialect" an issue of great political importance. [3]” The linguist Max Weinreich wrote that ”A language is a dialect with an army and navy” [3].

So, what happened is a certain dialect was called a language based on certain social, political, cultural, or historical considerations and the pronunciation typical of this dialect became standard.

Standard dialect/language and standard pronunciation are backed by institutions, i.e. government, schools, etc. and spread by media, formal literature, published textbooks, dictionaries, etc.

Obviously, over the years these institutions have influenced populations of their countries with regards to how people speak, but the reality is much more complex than the pure standard, as non-standard dialects still exist (e.g. Scouse and Tyke dialects in the UK; Bavarian, Swabian and lots of other regional dialects in Germany), the population is not homogeneous (different age, social, regional, ethnic groups) and the standard itself changes over time.

Showing your True Colours

So, unless you are a phonetics professor teaching standard pronunciation, it might be ok to deviate from this standard and show the world what you are by the way you speak. And this includes a foreign accent too. After all, your primary goal when speaking a foreign language is to be understood and not to conceal that you are not a native speaker, isn’t it?

If you haven’t been trained to be deployed as a spy in a foreign country, you can predict with a 99.9% accuracy that if you ask your friend, who is a native speaker of the language you are learning, whether you sound like a native to them, they are likely to reply that you do not. It doesn’t mean straightaway that your pronunciation is not good, in fact your pronunciation might even be very good and not deviate a lot from the standard. Why would your friend say it then, you might ask. Is he/she just trying to piss you off? This actually might be the case but even if your friend has no intention of making you angry, their answer might mean lots of other things some of which have nothing to do with your pronunciation.

For example, it might mean that you don’t speak with a local, regional accent that your friend is used to. Or, perhaps, your friend haven’t learnt any foreign languages themselves and it’s difficult for them to understand what exactly is not “right” with the way you speak and they think you don’t sound native because you tend to use more formal words that you learnt from books rather than more informal ones they expect to hear in conversations. Or you don’t look or have manners same as local people and that influences the overall impression you produce.

Examining your Motives

On the other hand, if you know that you have a distinct foreign accent and it bothers you, before you commit to improving your pronunciation, you might want to double check your motive. This will help you decide how much (if any) of your time, money and effort you are prepared to invest into your pronunciation training.

To verify the reason you want to get rid of your foreign accent, you might want to ask yourself these questions:

Do you find that people have difficulties understanding you because of your accent and you are struggling to reach your professional and/or personal goals because of it?

Do you feel that you do not belong to a group of native speakers, for example, your friends, your colleagues, etc. and think that improving your pronunciation might help to feel one of the group?

Do you feel that people think that you are less intelligent because of your foreign accent and improving it will help you look and sound smarter?

If you have answered “yes” to the last two questions, then pronunciation is probably not the root cause of the problem, and improving it might not be the solution.

If you are trying to improve or rather change your pronunciation to become one of the group of native speakers or just to build better relationship with them, you might find that other stuff can get in the way, for example, cultural, religious or social background shared by these native speakers that you don’t share.

If your accent is not too thick and your friends or colleagues don’t have too much trouble understanding you, pronunciation is most likely not a problem for building relationship with them. In fact, people notice your foreign accent much more when they have just met you but once you have spent some time with them, they might even forget that you speak with a foreign accent.

So, instead of trying to be someone else and trying to change your pronunciation that doesn’t actually get in the way of being understood, you might want to find something you already share with the people you are trying to connect with. This could be same interests, hobbies or just the same place you visited on holidays. If you still struggle, a bit of good-natured humour (not too much sarcasm!) can go a long way.

As to you feeling seen as less intelligent because of your foreign accent, people might not even have this idea about you and it’s all in your head. Depending on what foreign accent you have, native speakers of this language might have different stereotypes about it, if any at all. In fact, stereotypes associated with certain accents are not limited to the stereotypes native speakers have towards non-native speakers.

For example, in American movies villains often speak with a British accent. Some examples include Scar in “The Lion King”, Magneto in “X-Men” and Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs”:

And in this scene from The Big Bang Theory Raj talks about American accent that makes everything sound stupid:

Even if native speakers do have certain stereotypes connected with your accent, it’s not a reason to despair. Once the native speakers, you are trying to build relationship with, get to know you better, very often the power of stereotypes fades and they treat you based on your personal characteristics and actions.

However, if you find that native and non-native speakers have difficulty understanding you because of your accent and it has a negative impact on your career or personal life, then you definitely need to consider pronunciation training.

Adults and their Pronunciation: You Can Do It!

As an adult speaker of a foreign language, you might want to know that research has shown that accents “remain relatively malleable until a person's early twenties, after which a person's accent seems to become more entrenched.” [2] These “neurological constraints associated with brain development appear to limit most non-native speakers’ ability to sound native-like. Most researchers agree that for adults, acquiring a native-like accent in a non-native language is near impossible.” [2]

Not good news if you were thinking of turning into another Queen of England in terms of your English pronunciation.

Talking about the queen though, an acoustic analysis of her Royal Christmas Messages, conducted by a scholar, revealed even her speech patterns “continue to change over her lifetime.” [2]

That's right. The person, who is practically employed to serve as an icon of tradition, also cannot help changing! It’s pretty good news for you as a language learner willing to improve your foreign accent which doesn’t seem that entrenched after all.

So, being pragmatic about your pronunciation, the task of improving it means making it closer to the standard pronunciation while understanding that life is more complex than any artificial standard and it’s ok to deviate, and, on the other hand, understanding that as a non-native speaker learning the language as an adult, you need to be less of a perfectionist as there are natural limitations connected with the way the human brain develops.

Your Pronunciation Goal

How much you are ok to deviate from the standard depends on your overall goal of learning your foreign language according to which you can place your pronunciation goal on the “pronunciation quality continuum” ranging from a very thick accent to a slight accent.

For example, you are learning your target language for pleasure, so that you could ask for directions when you go on holiday or impress your foreign friends with a phrase or two and entertain them throwing in some idioms they don’t expect from you pronounced with your thick foreign accent. Then deviating widely is ok and even cute.

If you are learning your target language for work, for example, to be able to communicate with your foreign partners or to participate in the international level events, then you might want to put your pronunciation goal further away from the thick accent end of the continuum.

If you permanently live and work in the country where your target language is spoken, then you might want to move the pronunciation goal quite far from the thick accent end, based purely on a number of occasions you need to get understood in your daily life. This is especially the case if your career depends on successful communication, for example, if you are in sales or heavily involved in interaction with clients.

So, when drawing your language learning plan, you need to look at the whole picture and based on your language learning goals, areas of improvement, the time you are able to allocate to your language study and other available resources, decide how much effort you are prepared to spend on improving your pronunciation.

To make this decision though you also need to understand what pronunciation training actually entails. If you are not sure, check out our next post dedicated to the specifics of pronunciation training.

Happy articulating!


1. Pronunciation

2. Accent (sociolinguistics)

3. Dialect

Monday, 8 January 2018

New Year - New Language Learning Plan

Happy New Year guys! Yep, 2018. Wow. 2017 went fast. Before you know it, 2019 will be knocking on the door. Hence, if you haven’t done so already, you’d better sort out your language learning plan for this year.

When you learn a foreign language as an adult, you need to have a language learning plan of some sort. Two reasons. First, you need to make sure your busy life and lazy self don’t squeeze out language study out of your day and second, so that you could plan the specific and feasible outcome to stay motivated.

It’s so easy to just forget to study your foreign language when your life takes over, so you might end up going foreign language free for days if not weeks. At the same time, you will have this unpleasant feeling that your target language is fading away and you are not doing anything to prevent it, let alone improve your skills. If you put together a plan in which you indicate time slots in your day or week as well as specific resources for your language study, you are much more likely to stay on track.

On the other hand, if you base this plan on the specific and feasible language learning goal, you are much more likely to stay motivated. It’s no secret that learning a foreign language takes months or years (depending on the level you would like to achieve, how much of your time per day or week you dedicate to your study, etc.). So, at some point, you might feel that you are not making any visible progress. It is especially the case if your level is intermediate or above and if you cannot allocate too much time per day or even per week to your foreign language study. When you have a specific and feasible goal in sight, you don’t feel either stuck or overwhelmed: if the goal you set is realistic, i.e. you have allocated enough time and suitable resources to achieve it, you just keep your eyes on the prize and keep moving, keep making progress albeit a slow one.

When drawing a language learning plan I would recommend setting a goal of working towards a certain language level. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages has six standardised levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) which you can use for this purpose. Alternatively, you can stick to the Elementary - Intermediate - Advanced hierarchy.

Setting a level goal is a good starting point that will encourage you to free up more time for your language study and work towards improving your level and not just maintaining it.

Your language learning planning will be easy if you have an exam booked in your target language.

For example, if your exam is at level B2 and is scheduled for the end of the year, your goal will be to achieve this level by the end of the year. It’s easy to allocate a main resource for this kind of studying too, you just need to choose a good study book designed specifically for those who would like to take this exam. As all four core language skills (reading, listening, writing and speaking) are tested at such exams at the stated level, such books are designed to help you develop each of these skills at this level too.

In this case, your plan might look something like this:

If you are not planning to take an exam and are using different resources for your language study instead of just one course book covering all four core language skills, you might find it useful to set a level goal for each of the core skills.

This will ensure that you work on each of these skills to acquire all-around language ability. Then you won’t find yourself in the situation when you discover that you speak at a decent A2 level but cannot make out what you are being told as your listening skills are somewhat between complete starter and A1.

An additional benefit of this approach is that you acknowledge your current level for each of these skills, identify areas of improvement you did not think of in the first place and allocate more time and resources where they are needed.

For example, after you have acknowledged that the levels of your listening and speaking skills differ considerably and hinder your ability to have conversations in your target language, you set a goal of taking both your speaking and listening to the B2 level but based on the current state of development of these skills allocate more time and resources to listening as you will need to make more progress with it compared to speaking. Then your time and resources for listening and speaking might look something like this:

As your listening skills are at the beginner level, you won’t be able to comprehend a lot even when listening to the level A audio materials. The best way to start is listening to rather short pieces for which you have transcripts, so that after you have listened to them you could read them and use a dictionary to look up unknown words.

The most reliable resource of the audio materials suitable for your level would be audio materials that come with your course book or online course, so you could listen to the audio while you are walking your dog, for example, and work with the transcript of this audio later during your study time.

The idea is to listen to these audio pieces over and over again with your headphones on. Headphones help you hear and understand better while listening to the same piece several times ensures you pick up all details which you miss listening to the audio once. Listening to the piece before your study time also helps you use this valuable study time more efficiently.

Another listening activity is listening to songs in your target language. It’s supposed to be a light enjoyable activity that you could engage in while driving or doing some housework, for example. You don’t have to give your full attention, try to understand everything and wear headphones while listening to songs. It’s a good idea though to have lyrics available for the songs you listen to, so that you could refer to the written text to fully understand them and to pick up new vocabulary this way.

The most important thing here is to enjoy the songs you have selected. If you cringe every time you hear some songs and force yourself to listen to them just because they are in your target language, you might start loathing the language itself not only these songs. It’s not the wisest thing to do as you will have plenty of moments when your language learning motivation will hit its low (I am not trying to discourage you by the way), so it’s better to avoid stuff that puts you off from the start.

Let’s take another situation. Your overall language level is intermediate and your goal is to achieve advanced or native level in reading so that you could read resources available to the native speakers to pursue your hobbies and progress with your target language simultaneously.

Indeed, as a busy adult you don’t have too much time to indulge in your interests and hobbies, so it is in your best interest to transfer from learning materials to native level stuff so that your choice is no longer restricted by your language level and you could actually read the stuff you are interested in in the language you are studying.

For example, switch to reading history books in your target language killing two birds with one stone - learning the language and pursuing your hobby of a history nerd. In this case, you will need to start dipping your toes in the unchartered waters of native level history books. Thus you will start growing the vocabulary specific to this area of knowledge that will make it easier and easier for you to read more of these books in your target language.

It is fantastic of course if you can read history books that you love every day but if you have other reading to do, for example, some professional development books or if you want to watch some movies, you might want to allocate, for example, alternating fortnights to your reading in history. A fortnight is a period that is not too short so that your history reading could gather and benefit from momentum and, on the other hand, you will have time for other stuff you need to read or do.

It is also a good idea to have breaks from your reading routine so, for example, having Fridays and Saturdays off might help you have a rest from your routine activities and, by the way, have some social life too.

No matter what language level you have and what goals you are setting, you shouldn’t forget to keep learning and revising your new vocabulary. Five to ten minutes per day using a spaced repetition tool can make all the difference.

If you don’t acquire new vocabulary and let the vocabulary you have already learnt slip from your memory, you will still be progressing but at a much slower speed.

This is especially the case if you don’t come across these new words too often either because your level is quite high and the words you don’t yet know are not used too frequently or because you don’t have a chance to listen or read in your target language often enough for you to come across them to remember them without using a spaced repetition tool.

To make your language learning plan comprehensive, you might want to add this vocabulary practice as well as intensive study time (if you plan to have any) during which, for example, you train all four skills and focus on your grammar.

So, don’t miss this time of the year to plan ahead: commit to specific language outcomes and a plan of action to make them happen. After all, to put a nail into a wall, you need to focus on its small head and hit it repeatedly, so don’t just hammer around and about with your language learning, specify the language achievements you would like to make, the time you are able to allocate, the resources you have chosen and stick to your plan of action to make those aspirations a reality.

Happy planning!

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