Tuesday, 31 October 2017

What is Ready vocBlocks and Why Learning These Words

Getting By or Nailing It?

Ready vocabulary blocks are mini dictionaries for anyone who wants to master their English to the degree of a native tongue. Ready vocBlocks are organised by topic and ready for you to learn.

The topics covered are relevant to everyday life and include, for example, your house, your car, nature, the food you eat, travelling, DIY, gardening etc. This is the detailed vocabulary you won’t find in textbooks but these are the words all native speakers know and use.

Ready vocBlocks are not for those who have just started learning English. When you start learning a foreign language, you don’t need detailed vocabulary. You are in a survival mode where you need to be able to communicate on a basic level with limited means.

Once you have progressed to the intermediate level, you feel that you have done a lot. And this is true! You are able to understand and speak your target language and it feels amazing! That’s when you might sit back and relax. Or choose to expand your vocabulary even further.

With the English language, most people would choose the latter and grow their vocabulary further. It’s for one simple reason: English is not just a foreign language, it’s the language of international communication. And with the Internet today this international communication, as well as the vast repository of data available in English, is just a click away from you, so intermediate level might not be enough.

Ready vocBlocks are there for you to help you expand your English vocabulary further or, if you are an advanced learner, to help you fill in any gaps you might have.

For example, if you are killing it at business meetings held in English but are stuck for words for small talk around your weekend plans or if you get lost in a loud banter at the bar with your friends speaking English, you might want to brush up some words every English native speaker (and a lot of advanced non-native speakers!) knows. After all, it’s informal interactions that help you build rapport and gain trust of your international business partners and friends.

The words you might not know and that are known to the native English speakers from their childhood are things you can find in your house, school and office; the food you eat; animals, birds and trees you see around and even zodiac signs your friends mention in their convos. Many advanced non-native speakers know most of these words too.

You can obviously be quite fluent in English without many of these words, but if you are not content with just getting by and want to really understand and speak the language of international communication like a native speaker, to comfortably interact with both native and non-native speakers on a higher (or should I say deeper) level, Ready vocBlocks will do you a ton of good.

You will start noticing these words everywhere once you have learnt them. And what once was just some obscure bits of conversations you totally missed out on, will start making sense.

And, on a side note, there are hidden benefits any knowledge can bring you (check out the nerd style posts in our blog to learn more).

So, if you feel that Ready vocBlocks are for you, read on! A quick guide on how to use Ready vocBlocks is next.

Types of Ready vocBlocks

There are two types of ready vocBlocks:

- vocBlocks illustrated with pictures and

- vocBlocks illustrated with example sentences.

The vocBlocks illustrated with pictures include nouns and verbs which are easier to learn with the help of visual aids. For example, fruit and vegetables, body parts, insects, DIY tools and verbs, etc.

Some picture vocBlocks offer you to further expand your vocabulary based on the words you already know. For example, the vocBlock ‘Countries and Nationalities’ is aimed at learning nationalities based on the knowledge of the names of the countries, like in the pair of words ‘Argentina-Argentinian’. Another example is the vocBlock ‘Animals and their Babies’ aimed at learning the names of the animal babies based on the knowledge of the names of the animals, like in the pair of words ‘horse - foal’.

With picture vocBlocks you learn words by doing two types of exercises. The first type is choosing a correct word for the shown picture from the given variants and the second type is typing the relevant word for the picture.

The vocBlocks illustrated with example sentences include verbs which are learnt more effectively in context. For example, irregular verbs and phrasal verbs.

With context based vocBlocks you learn words also by doing two types of exercises. The first type is choosing a correct verb for the given sentence

and second type of exercises, a more difficult one, is filling in the gap (or gaps) in the sentence with a correct verb.

All verbs have definitions or synonyms that help you understand and remember their meaning.

These context based vocBlocks also help you practise your grammar, i.e. use of tenses, voice and mood of the verbs.

How to Use Ready vocBlocks

Ready vocBlocks with pictures can be used with translation or without it. Most of the picture vocBlocks are translated into French, German, Russian and Spanish.

If you choose vocBlocks with translation, the learning stage will include two types of exercises each with two directions Word-Translation and Translation-Word. So, first, you will need to choose a correct translation for the word, then type translation, then choose a correct word in English based on its translation and finally type the word in English based on its translation. If you feel that you would like to include your native language in the learning process and that you need more time learning these words, you need to choose the vocBlocks with translation.

vocBlocks with translation are also useful if you are learning your second foreign language and would like to boost your English at the same time. In this case, however, you might want to customise the audio for these vocBlocks and record the words in your target second foreign language.

If you would like to bypass your native language, then picture dictionaries without translation are the ones you need. In this case, you will need to choose the English language from the languages drop-down menu. There will be two types of exercises: choosing a correct word for the picture from the given variants and typing in a word for the shown picture. Bypassing your native language is preferable if you don’t need to practise your translation skills and just need to understand and construct sentences in English.

If you have a particular topic in mind on which you would like to expand your vocabulary, you can quickly find this topic or words related to it using search field for Ready vocBlocks.

Once you have chosen a Ready vocBlock, you can either send it to your Memoriser for learning or edit it first. For learning, you will need to click the ‘Learn’ button. For editing, you will need to click the ‘Copy’ button to create a copy of this vocBlock in the section ‘My vocBlocks’. Please note, that once you click the ‘Learn’ button, a copy of this vocBlock will be created in ‘My vocBlocks’ automatically.

We hope that you find this short guide on Ready vocBlocks useful. But if we have missed anything or you have a question please do not hesitate to drop us a line.

Happy Learning!

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. vocBlocks.com 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?

Reading

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 such as our free vocBlocks LookUp, 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.

Listening

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.

Writing

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.

Speaking

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!