The curse of a b2 level aka the language learning plateau – what it is and how to get unstuck

The curse of a B2 level might sound like a title of an F-rated horror movie but it’s a very real thing. In fact, it affects most language learners,

What is the curse of a b2 level (aka the language learning plateau)?

The language learning plateau is a phenomenon describing one’s inability to progress past the intermediate stages of language learning (i.e. a B1/B2 level). Typically, the main reasons are using inefficient learning strategies, or not using any learning system at all.

 

Let’s break down step-by-step why a B2 level is a final station for most language learners and what you can do to fix go beyond this mark. Time to break that curse.

 

What’s a B2 level is all about

 

What? You thought I would skip a dry, boring and theoretical part? No way! That’s where all the fun is!

Let’s take a look at requirements which one would have to meet in order to be classified at a B2 level. They are a part of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

 

Description of a B2 level (B2 INTERMEDIATE)

At this level, you can:

  • understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
  • interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

 

Brief explanation: this level can be depicted as a FULL conversational fluency. You can have real conversations with native speakers about a variety of subjects.

Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at quite a deep level.

Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey most of your thoughts but you still, for the most part, lack precision. Compared to a B1 level, you can discuss more topics with more precise vocabulary.

Still, any topic that differs from typical, conversational standards will probably throw you off.

 

How many people master a language at a C1 or C2 level

The curse of a b2 level - what it's all about and how to get unstuck

 

English proficiency in the world

 

Now that you know what a B2 level is all about, let’s take a look at the level of English proficiency in different countries around the world. It’s only natural since this language is still the most popular choicem Our starting point is the EF English Proficiency Index. For brevity’s sake, I will skip the part where I lambaste the reliability of those results.

 

Countries with the highest English proficiency

 

Here is a list of countries which were classified as the ones with “very high proficiency” i.e. a C1-C2 level. Pay very close attention to the top dogs. Almost every country in the top 12 has either English as an official language (e.g. Singapore) or it’s a Germanic-speaking country.

 

Very High Proficiency

 

Why is it important? If you’re learning a language which is similar to your native tongue, it will be CONSIDERABLY easier for you to master it. Since English is also a Germanic language, it’s not difficult to notice a pattern here.

Of course, there are other factors at play here but this is the most important one for me from the memory standpoint. The way information familiarity modulates your working memory and increases your learning capacity can’t be ignored.

A good example is my mission from a couple of years ago where I learned Czech from scratch to a B1/B2 level in about 1 month., even though my learning system at that time was far from perfect. Yes, I specialize in memory, so I knew what I was doing but I also already spoke Polish, Russian and German. Those languages helped me establish my initial familiarity with Czech vocabulary at about 80%.

 

Countries with moderate English proficiency

 

Now it’s time for countries whose English proficiency can be characterized as about B2 level.

 

The curse of a b2 level aka the language learning plateau

 

As you can see, once we drop outliers like the top 12, the level drops to a B2 level and below. But let’s not stop there.

Here is an excerpt from one of the official Polish reports about German Proficiency in Poland. Let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about self-evaluation here of people who probably wouldn’t be able to describe language requirements for any level. The reality, in other words, is less rosy.

German proficiency at a B1+ level has been achieved by more than 53% of language learners., of which 22% mastered the language at a B2 level, 19% at a C1 level and 12.5% at a C2 level.

In other words, the amount of German learners who claim they have mastered this language amounts to about 16%.

 

The magical number 20

 

In different reports, the number 20 is the reoccurring theme. It seems that only less than 20% of learners of any language get past a B2 level. That is of course if you believe that these numbers are reliable.

Scientific studies are less forgiving in this department.

Long (2005, 2013) that the number of learners who achieve a C2 level is anywhere between 1-5%.

From that, we can only conclude that students who achieve a C1 are also relatively low (read more about in The Handbook of the Neuroscience of Multilingualism).

I rest my case. Let’s move on.

 

The curse of a B2 level – the two main reasons why you are stuck

1. No learning strategy and no system

 

One of the most surprising facts about how people learn is that most of them have no organized system of learning. You might think that’s an exaggeration but I assure you it’s not.

Here is an excerpt from a recent study (Schimanke, Mertens, Schmid 2019) about learning strategies at a German university.

To get a better insight on how students actually learn, we have conducted a survey among the students of our university (HSW – University of Applied Sciences) about their strategies and learning behaviors.

Overall, there were 135 students participating in this survey from all 6 semesters and between 18 and 31 years of age. 68.1% of the participants were male, 31.9% female.

Only very few of them deliberately make use of learning strategies, such as spaced repetition or the Leitner system. 94.8% of the participants just repeat the learning topics randomly to have them available during a test.

The terrifying thing is that we’re not talking about a bunch of clueless people without any education. We’re talking about bright individuals who will shape the future of their nation.

And yet, almost all of them rely on something I call a let’s-hope-it-sticks strategy. It’s nothing more than spitting on a wall and hoping that something will set. But it rarely does, right?

You can read, reread and cram all you want. Most of the knowledge you gather this way will be forgotten by the end of the next week.

There can be no effective learning if you’re not optimizing your repetitions.

 

2. Concentrating on passive learning

 

Passive learning can be a very effective learning tool provided that you’re already at an advanced level (especially a B2 level and higher). It can also be relatively useful if, for one reason or another, you are already familiar with a language you want to master (e.g. because it’s a part of the same language family). However, passive learning is a terrible tool for language rookies.

The body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort). Other studies quote numbers between 7-60.

I will let it sink in!

That’s a lot. Of course, the number varies because it all depends on your background knowledge, emotional saliency of words and so on but it’s still a very big number.

Let’s delve into its consequences.

We know that in most languages 5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).

It means that as long as you are stubborn enough, eventually you will get to about a B2 level. It doesn’t matter how crappy your learning method is. As long as you soldier on, you will get to the finish line even if that takes you 10 years.

Why?

Because it’s almost guaranteed that you will amass a sufficient number of repetitions (7-60) of the words which occur in a language with a frequency of 98%! But what if you want to really master a language. Or two. Do you believe that you will be able to pull that number of repetitions for the words which occur with a frequency of about 2%? Of course not.

Think of any rare word from your native tongue like “cream puff” or “head physician”. How often do you hear them in your daily life? Not that often, right? And that’s the problem. C1-C2 levels consist of rare words like these. That’s why your chances of getting there if your default learning style is passive are very thin. Unless you have 20 years of spare time and are willing to spend most of your waking hours surrounding yourself with a language.

 

Real vocabulary gains from reading and listening at the early stages of language learning

 

 

 

Below you can find some findings which closely echo the results I have obtained from my experiments.

 

Vocabulary gains from reading

 

Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) specifically looked at the number of words acquired from a simplified version of a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which had 21000 running words. The novel was read in class during six class periods. It was found that the average vocabulary pick-up was five words.

 

Lahav (1996) carried out a study of vocabulary learning from simplified readers. She tested students who read 4 readers, each one of about 20 000 words, and found an average learning rate of 3–4 words per book.

 

The above survey indicates that reading is not likely to be the main source of L2 learners’ vocabulary acquisition. If most words were acquired from reading, learners would have to read about as much as native children do – that is, a million words of text a year. This would require reading one or two books per week. If, however, teachers can expect only small quantities of reading, then word-focused activities should be regarded as a way of vocabulary learning.

 

Vocabulary gains from listening

 

Vidal explored incidental vocabulary acquisition from L2 listening (2003), and compared gains from listening with reading (2011). These studies analyzed the effect of a large number of variables (e.g. frequency of occurrence, predictability from word form and parts) on learning. Knowledge gains of 36 target words were measured with a modified version of the Vocabulary Knowledge Scale, on which learners could effectively score 0 to 5.

 

 

Out of the maximum score of 180, readers scored 40.85 (22.7%) on the immediate post-test and 19.14 (10.6%) on the one-month delayed test. Listeners scored 27.86 (15.5%) immediately after listening and 14.05 (7.8%) one month later. The main finding is that both reading and listening lead to vocabulary knowledge gains, with gains from reading being much larger than from listening. An effect of frequency occurrence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 occurrences) was found in both modes but this was considerably stronger in reading. More repetitions were needed in listening (5 to 6) than in reading (2 to 3) for it to have a positive effect on learning.

 

Some caveats

 

At the risk of repeating myself, I would like to stress one more time that your learning capacity is affected by your background knowledge. If you’re a Frenchman learning Spanish, the aforementioned numbers won’t apply to you.

At the same time, there are just a few studies around which test long-term retention of vocabulary for almost any method. That’s a pity because 3 months is a cut-off point proving that words have truly been stored in your long-term memory. The studies quoted above also share this problem. Retesting the students of the above experiments at a 3-month mark would surely yield much worse, and realistic, results.

Anyway, the point I would like to drive home is that passive learning is an ineffective language acquisition tool for beginners.

 

The curse of a b2 level – how to get unstuck

 

The curse of a b2 level aka the language learning plateau

Photo by Tomas Tuma on Unsplash

 

The most important element you should concentrate on is to develop some kind of learning system. Ideally, it should encompass the following strategies:

 

Summary

A B2 level is achievable to almost anyone as long as you pursue your learning goal with dogged persistence. However, moving past this level requires from you the use of systems which will allow you to focus heavily on rare words which make up about 2-3% of a language since it’s almost impossible to master them just by learning organically (i.e. reading, listening and talking).

If you stick to smart learning methods, you will surely overcome this hurdle.

Have you ever experienced the curse of a B2 level? Share your stroy in the comments!

 

Here is why most Spaced Repetition Apps don’t work and how to fix it

 

Regardless of whether you use Spaced Repetition Apps or not, you can’t deny that there is some controversy among language learners whether such programs are truly effective. Some people swear by it while others prefer more old-fashioned pen-centered strategies. It gets even better! Even among SRS enthusiasts, you can find different militant fractions. Some claim that Memrise is the best. Other that Quizlet is the way to go.

 

For many, it can be quite difficult to wrap their head around what’s true and what’s not. Let’s sort it out so you can finally know the answer.

 

What’s the scientific consensus about Spaced Repetition Apps

 

 

If you have ever seen one of the aforementioned squabbles online, the first thing you need to know is that opinions that SRS is ineffective are completely detached from reality. Spaced repetition is among the most thoroughly researched memory-related phenomena in the world. Its efficacy has been replicated in hundreds of comprehensive and extensive studies (read more about choosing the best language learning methods).

 

It is effective on a variety of academic fields and mediums. 

 

Spacing effects can be found in:

 

  • various domains (e.g., learning perceptual motor tasks or learning lists of words) such as spatial44
  • across species (e.g., rats, pigeons, and humans [or flies or bumblebees, and sea slugs, Carew et al 1972 & Sutton et al 2002])
  • across age groups [infancy, childhood, adulthood, the elderly] and individuals with different memory impairments
  • and across retention intervals of seconds [to days] to months (we have already seen studies using years)

 

Source (probably the best article online about the spaced repetition, well worth checking out)

 

The benefits of spaced study had been apparent in an array of motor learning tasks, including:

 

  • maze learning (Culler 1912)
  • typewriting (Pyle 1915)
  • archery (Lashley 1915)
  • javelin throwing (Murphy 1916; see Ruch 1928, for a larger review of the motor learning tasks which reap benefits from spacing; see also Moss 1996, for a more recent review of motor learning tasks).

 

Heck, there are almost no exceptions to this phenomenon. Sure, there is maybe 5% of studies which haven’t replicated these findings. But upon reading more about their design and methodologies used, one might conclude that they are often an example of bad science.

 

The only notable exception I have seen so far is that children can often fail to exhibit a spacing effect unless they process learning material in a certain way. This, however, is a topic for another article.

 

Where does all this controversy about the effectiveness of SRS programs come from then? I will get to it soon.

 

First, let’s concentrate on what makes learning truly fast and effective.

 

Encoding – the most important criterion for effective learning

 

 

A simple model of memory

 

 

Here is why most Spaced Repetition Apps don't work for you and how to fix it

 

The process of memorization can be depicted in the four following steps:

  1. Retention intention
  2. Encoding – involves initial processing of information which leads to the construction of its
    mental representation in memory
  3. Storage – is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
  4. Recall – is the retrieval of stored information from memory

 

Let’s concentrate on the second step of this process. Clearly, you can see that it’s a gateway to the land of remembering. But what does encoding really mean?

 

Encoding is any kind of attempt of manipulating a piece of information in order to increase your chances of memorizing it.”

 

What’s more, there are two kinds of encoding.

 

Two types of encoding

 

 

Shallow encoding

 

 

Shallow encoding doesn’t help you to connect the piece of information with other meaningful information nor does it help you to further your understanding of it.  It usually concentrates on meaningless banalities.

 

Example: you are trying to memorize the word “skada” (Swedish for “to damage”). The prime example of shallow encoding would be to start counting the number of vowels or consonants in this word.

 

Deep encoding

 

 

The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make a meaningful connection between different items. The more the better.

 

Deep encoding is so powerful for your learning that it even shows up in brain scans as increased activity in key brain areas associated with memory. It is this activity that appears to give deep processing its memory advantage. (source: How Memory Works–and How to Make It Work for You).

 

So what’s the example of deep encoding in the world of language learning? Creating sentences or saying them out loud, to be more precise.

 

Interestingly, every time I say it, there is always someone who seems surprised. I guess the reason being that we don’t appreciate enough how complicated it is for our brains to create a sentence.

Why creating sentences is so complicated

 

 

Why most Spaced Repetition Apps don't work for you and how to fix it

In order to create even the simplest of sentences you have to:

 

  1. remember actively the words you are currently learning
  2. remember all the other words in the sentence actively
  3. connect them in a meaningful way
  4. apply all the known grammar rules
  5. choose the appropriate register of the sentences (i.e. a form of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting)
  6. remember the pronunciation of all the words in the sentences
  7. pronounce all the said words by using your muscles

 

As you can see, it’s not that trivial to produce a sentence. And that’s why this process is so meaningful and memorable for your brain.

 

Initially, a lot of my students grumble about having to create many sentences. They say it’s too exhausting. I agree. The thing is that producing sentences equals knowing and being able to use a language!

 

To make your inner geek happy, it’s worth mentioning that encoding is very often connected with two other principles of memory which make your learning even more effective:

 

The level of processing effect (Craik & Lockhart, 1972)  – the more you process a given piece of information, the better you remember it.

 

The generation effect (Slamecka & Graf, 1978) – active production of a given piece of information increases your chances of permanently storing it in your long-term memory.

Read more about optimizing your language learning here.

 

Interesting, right? Now it’s time to answer the most important question – what if somebody is too lazy to actually go through all the trouble of producing sentences?

 

Consequences Of Lack Of Encoding (i.e. why most Spaced Repetition Apps don’t work)

 

 

I hope that the following paragraph will help you make a very important decision – never ever use or buy any learning app. I don’t care that you read that Gabriel Wyner is working on a revolutionary app or that Memrise has a better algorithm now.

 

The most important and effective thing you can do for your learning is to create multiple contexts (i.e. sentences) for a word you want to learn. Simply repeating ready-to-use flashcards, especially the ones without any context, won’t work well. This simple fact renders all the memory apps combined useless. ANKI is really all you need.

 

Think for a second about the solution those apps dish out to you. Most of the time they simply give you ready-to-use flashcards, often without any context! Or meaningless games which perpetuate shallow encoding. Or even when you see a flashcard with a word in the context, it was not encoded by you and thus it will be way harder to remember.

 

Time to stop looking for magical solutions. You won’t find them in apps.

 

To my chagrin, I don’t see any big company talking about this. Of course, the reason is obvious. If you pay for an app, you have to be convinced that it’s truly magical and life-changing. I don’t think they would sell well if the owners started screaming from the rooftops “They are sh*t! What’s truly magical is the effort you put into encoding your vocabulary”!

Read more about Common Language Learning Mistakes and How To Fix Them With Lean Language Learning.

SRS programs are just a white canvas

 

 

SRS programs

 

The right way of thinking about such programs is seeing them as a white canvas.

 

Algorithms underpinning them are close to perfect in themselves. Unfortunately, some people crap in their hand and insist on smearing it until they get a one-eyed unicorn. The next thing you know is they are running around the internet and screaming that SRS programs don’t work. You can’t be lazy when you learn.

 

I know that doing ready-to-use flashcards seems “quicker” to use because you don’t have to invest too much energy into producing them. However, in reality, they are more time-consuming in the long run because you need to spend more time repeating words unnecessarily.

 

It has to do with the mechanism of passive rehearsal which is simply a mindless act of rattling off a cluster of pre-prepared information. Many years ago it was actually proven that it has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

 

If you ever want to use such flashcards, simply treat them as a source of vocabulary to learn. Other than that, simply encode your vocabulary and you will be fine. All ready-to-use flashcards can do is create the illusion of time-efficiency while slowing your progress down at the same time.

 

To sum up, currently there is no other technology, including virtual reality, which is as effective as spaced repetition programs. However, if you don’t actually put in the effort and try to produce sentences for the words you learn then you waste most of the potential of this software.

Quick learning is not about time but about the effort.

 

How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language – Learn a Language On Your Own (Part 5)

How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

 

Here we are – the fifth part of the guide. Listening. You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve ignored it!

I was actually convinced that mastering grammar and vocabulary is, more or less, enough to have a decent conversation with foreigners. And that these competences will take care of the rest.

Boy oh boy, was I wrong! Of course, like all the theories, it all seemed rosy until it got confronted with reality.

How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

 

It all started with my theory which I considered to be really brilliant at the time. Just don’t laugh too hard!

My “Brilliant” Theory

 

Years ago I was obsessing about German. I rolled up my sleeves, got down to work, learned about 8000 words and got a pretty good grasp of grammar. Basically, I could say almost anything I wanted without being too vague. It felt great!

Not so long afterward, I got a chance to visit France. I met an elderly German couple there. “That’s my chance to socialize! That’s my chance to SHINE!”, a naive thought crossed my mind.

I approached them and asked them some questions. You know, just an ordinary small-talk.
What happened just a moment later left nasty scars on my linguistic self-esteem.

What came out of their mouths was an absolute babble. They could have, as well, farted with their armpits. My face went red as I asked them, time and time again, to repeat what they had just said. Just one more time. But slower. DAMN YOU! Slower and clearer I said!

And there I stood with glassy eyes, staring at the debris of what was once my theory…

Listening As A Key Skill

 

I guess, what I am trying to say is that listening is extremely important. Since then, I’ve met many people who are fully functional in the language of their choice just because they understand what they hear.

It’s not that surprising when you think about it. EVERY complex skill is comprised of a number of smaller elementsThese elements, in turn, are comprised of even smaller elements.

So you can say roughly that communication is nothing more than being able to understand what you hear and being able to express yourself. But as I so painfully learned, listening is much more important. That’s what makes any kind of social interaction possible.

Since then, I established listening and speaking as a core of my language skills. These skills require an immediate response.

 

Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

 

Listening provides you with more sensory channels, such as emotions, hearing visual stimuli (when you listen and watch something). That’s why it’s much easier for you to remember real life conversations than excerpts from articles.

The final and essential reason to opt for listening is that nobody cares if you read or write slowly. While doing these things, you can typically take your time to double-check anything your heart desires.

“Smith is such a slow reader. I think I’ll fire him.”. Yep, I also have never heard of such a situation. However, it is important to note that writing and reading are interconnected with speaking and listening. And the progress in any of these areas influences one another.

Preparation

 

Do you have to go through the preparation before listening practice? Of course not. But don’t be too surprised if you end up getting frustrated quickly or bitterly realize that your progress is excruciatingly slow.

So where should you start?

FIND THE RIGHT RESOURCES

You might wonder what “right resources” means. The answer is – it depends.

Beginners / Intermediate Learners

If you fall into this category, you should find some simplified materials where the speech is slower, clearer and ideally – transcribed. 

Advanced Learners

If you’re at least on a B2 level, it means that the only right solution for you is to lay your hands on original programs, talk shows, movies, etc. in your target language.

GET YOUR RESOURCES HANDY

Do you know this annoying feeling when you promise yourself something and then you can’t seem to force yourself to follow through?

Why is that?

Well, the research (and experience) has it that if you need to spend more than 20 seconds to start doing something, there is a big chance that you’ll fail. The “activation time” should be as short as possible.

Choose one or two programmes to listen to and make sure that they are just a click away.

Some Tips Before You Start Listening

 

MENTAL PREPARATION

 

  • Come to terms with the fact that you are not going to understand everything for a long time.
  • Listen as often as it’s only possible. Listen while doing household chores. Listen when you’re at the gym. Listen when you’re in a car. You get it. LISTEN!
  • Don’t get annoyed when you don’t understand something. Stress is your archenemy in learning. It’s like with Tibetan throat singing, you won’t be able to wrap your head around it at the beginning. Hmm, I need to work on my comparisons.
  • And no matter what, don’t give up you softie! Grin and bear it!

 

MATTER-OF-FACT PREPARATION

 

  • Do not translate into your native tongue. You should be fully focused on a speaker, not the translation process.
  • Listen to something you enjoy.
  • Prepare before listening – quite often it’s possible to check what the news or some program is about. Thanks to this knowledge, you can prepare vocabulary beforehand. If you’re not sure about words which might be used, try to brainstorm them.
  • Remove distractions – you know why. Interestingly, they’re a welcome addition when you already understand much as they make your listening practice more natural.
  • Set a goal. You can listen for meaning, for sounds, for tones, for a melody or for stress.
  • If you find listening extremely boring, try to gamify your practice – e.g. give yourself 1 point each time when you hear a word starting with P. Or drink one shot of Tequilla. Whatever, just make sure it’s fun for you.
  • Build sound recognition. Do you know the most distinctive sounds of your target language? No? Then move to the Part 3 of this course. Such knowledge can considerably accelerate your understanding capabilities!
  • Be aware of how the language changes when it’s spoken. I can’t stress this one enough. If you know how the sounds connect, when they are deleted or inserted, you’ll need much less time to progress!

Look at this example: What are you going to do – Whaddya gonna do?

Being aware of the fact that when a consonant of one word neighbors a vowel of another word, it makes you pronounce these two separate words as one, can help you tremendously with your listening practice.

That’s why you pronounce – “it is” as one word – “itis” 

Another example from English is the transformation of [d] and [y]. When these sounds neighbor each other they are transformed into [dʒ]

[d] + [y] = [dʒ]

Strategies To Follow During Listening Practice

 

How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

 

Throughout the years I’ve managed to come up with quite many solutions on how I can improve my listening capabilities.

Digest them at your own pace, take what you need and ignore the rest.

  • Listen for the gist of the conversation. Once you understand it, move on to details.
  • When you watch materials in original, observe mouths of actors/hosts and read their lips.
  • Try to understand the non-verbal communication of your speaking partner (actors, etc.)
  • Listen to the melody of the language.
  • Once you get accustomed to the melody of the language try to separate the ongoing flow of words by (e.g.) pressing your fingers against a table every time when you hear that some word is accented. It’s my favorite trick. Interestingly, sometimes when I listen to French and perform the said activity, I can understand almost every word. Once I stop, my understanding goes down significantly.
  • Listen to the first and last letter of a word. It’s especially helpful when you’re just starting your listening practice. In this case, this technique will help separate various words. S ..sm…(smile?), smi…(smirk? smite?), smit… (smite?!), smith (I knew it!)
  • Use logic to conclude what will follow (get in the habit of guessing).
  • Listen to a recording more than once. At first to understand the gist and then to get details.
  • Speed up the speed of recording to extend your comfort zone and then move back to an actual pace.
  • Remember that listening is an active process, note down any phrases or words which you find interesting or simply don’t understand.

That’s all folks!

Do you have other (weird?) listening strategies which you frequently use? I’d love to hear them!


 

Master Pronunciation Of A Foreign Language – How To Learn A Language On Your Own (Part 3)

Master Pronunciation Of A Foreign Language

Why even bother with studying pronunciation?

Well, as always, there are no easy answers. Some say it’s important to master the pronunciation of a foreign language. Some say it’s a waste of time

The question is – why should beginners and semi-advanced learners care?

There are some obvious benefits – the better your pronunciation, the bigger a chance that native speakers will understand you. It means that there is always some minimal amount of work that has to be done in order to talk with native speakers.

Otherwise, each person will soon get discouraged from talking to you and leave or get black-out drunk to match your level of mumbling.

But what comes next after you reach the level, where native speakers have no problems understanding you? Does it make sense to reach for the Holy Grail of learning languages – speaking with no accent?

Considering the amount of time needed, I dare to say no. It’s better to spend this time mastering grammar and vocabulary. I have never seen any point in pronouncing everything perfectly while still mixing up words and butchering grammar.

Many people claim to have achieved the level where there is no difference between them and native speakers. I believe that very often this is simply an exaggeration.

Typically, the longer someone talks to a native speaker, the bigger the chance that “the truth gets revealed”.

Ultimately, I’ll leave that for you to ponder. So what should you do to achieve good pronunciation as quickly as possible?

And to avoid such mistakes:

0. BRIEF (AND NOT SO BORING) THEORETICAL INTRO

 

It won’t take long, I promise. If you’re interested in practical tips, move to point 1.

To speak clearly, we must first understand what the (highly simplified) building blocks of pronunciation are.

  • Phonology – can be seen as “abstract, grammatical characterization of systems of sounds or signs”. Which means – what is the difference between sounds. What makes French language French and English English (and Hodor, Hodor, Hodor)
  • Phonetics – deals with “physiological production, acoustic properties, auditory perception, and neurophysiological status” of sounds. Basically, how to produce sounds.

As you can see, mastering pronunciation requires learning the aforementioned elements of a language of your choice.

Now, how to do it practically…

1. IDENTIFY ALIEN SOUNDS

As children, we have the ability to distinguish different sounds and “assemble” them into words (in other words, we combine phonemes into morphemes/words).

The sad part about learning new languages is that we mostly lose this ability when we grow up.
It means, that without preparation very often we won’t even know that we pronounce something incorrectly.

That’s why the first step to get familiar with pronunciation is to identify the sounds which you might even be not aware of.

How to do it

look it up in a dictionary

Every good dictionary has a description of sounds typical of the given language. What’s more – as I’ve written before, always try to choose a dictionary which includes phonetic transcription of words.

google it

” Language x (e.g. Swedish) phonology” will usually deliver best results.

visit mylanguages.org

It covers 80+ languages. Choose the one you want and click “alphabet”.

Now, after using any of these methods, you’ll end up looking confused at the strange set of characters. They are part of the International Phonetic Alphabet. They look scary but are not so difficult to learn.

To become even more aware of the differences between your native and target language, you should learn the sounds of English language. Here you can find an interactive phonetic chart for English.

2. TRAIN YOUR MOUTH TO PRONOUNCE SOUNDS

Congratulations, by now you should know more or less, what sounds you should pay attention to. To imitate them as precisely as it’s only possible, you need (ideally) combination of a couple of methods.

learn how to produce sounds mechanically

It’s a great starting point – grab a dictionary or some textbook and read a description of how you should pronounce given sounds. If the description is accompanied by a picture – even better.

Usually, the biggest problem is how to pronounce vowels. Since your tongue moves up and down, forward or backward, you have plenty of positions to experiment with.

Once (it seems that) you nail the target sound, try to memorize what the position of your tongue and lips was. And don’t be too quick thinking that it is over. You have to check it first. (see feedback)

start small

Choose only one or two sounds to begin with. Let’s say that you have no idea how to pronounce /æ/.

You check how to produce this sound on Wiki. Then you pick up a word or two and try to pronounce this sound as closely as possible. Say, this word is “tab”.

 

Master Pronunciation Of A Foreign Language

 

Once you are sure that the sound is pronounced decently, you can move on to other words.
Sounds like a lot of work but I assure you it’s not.

When I was a child I suffered from a really bad speech impediment and couldn’t pronounce a truckload of sounds in my native tongue.

Can you imagine how I talked to my parents or friends?
– “mc wohn sdno”
– “Yes honey, of course, we love you”

I used this method to learn how to express myself like a normal human being.

record yourself

Find some interesting text, grab a microphone or use your mobile and start reading aloud using the aforementioned rules.

How can you tell if you produce new sounds effectively?

It won’t be difficult – assuming that you did everything right, your mouth will hurt.
It means that you use muscles which haven’t been used before.

Of course, If you’re learning a language with a different alphabet, you should learn how to read it first.

3. LEARN HOW TO HEAR THE SOUNDS

 

Now, you can start practicing your hearing. You’ve successfully identified the sounds which are new to you. It’s time you started noticing them in sentences!

Such knowledge gives you immediate head-start when it comes to listening to and communicating with foreigners.

Remember, however, that grammar rules concerning your target language might alter your understanding of speech. Some sounds blend, others are silent or reduced.

For example, in French “à” followed by “le” combine to form “au.”

4. BE AWARE OF MISTAKES

It’s always safe to assume that you pronounce sounds at least partially incorrectly until you receive some kind of feedback. Such assumption can save you hours and hours of tears and frustration.

5. FEEDBACK

You need final confirmation of how awesome your pronunciation is. And who’s better to do it than native speakers?

If you have a tutor or friends who can help you – then great. Ask them all the questions you have and to correct you if there’s something wrong.

If you are on your own, try www.rhinospike.com
You can ask native speakers there to record some text for you and then you can use it to compare it with how you speak.

You can also use Google Translate or http://www.forvo.com/ to compare pronunciation of single words. But how will you know that you sound good enough?

You will sound in unison with the recording. Simple as that!

FINAL WORDS

As you can see, learning how to pronounce sounds can be turned into a relatively easy to execute the process. However, as always when it comes to mastering such complex task, the better you try to be, the more time-consuming it is.

And don’t beat yourself down, if it doesn’t work right away. Good things take time.

A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him David Brinkley

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Do’s and Dont’s of Learning Languages – How to learn a language on your own (Part 2)

Dos and donts of learning languages

By now you should know clearly why you want to learn a language.

And don’t you ever forget about it. Let it be your guiding light. Now it’s time to learn how to organize your learning.

1. GET READY

Describing what it means to be ready is always quite tricky. The reason is simple – there won’t be many situations in your life when you feel really ready and the conditions are conducive. However, in the perfect sugar-coated world your readiness should involve three elements:

Being ready physically

Comfort is important. Before you start learning, make sure that you’re not hungry, tired or sick.
Get some snack or a nap if you have to. Otherwise a few minutes deep into the learning you will start having dirty fantasies about rubbing a chocolate on your chest while being wrapped up in sheets.

Being ready mentally

“Never despair, but if you do, work on in despair.”
Edmund Burke

Do your best to clear your head before you get down to learning. Stress is probably the worst enemy of effective studying. It dumbs you down drastically. Meditate, take a walk – do what it takes to unwind.
Anything is better than suddenly realizing that instead of being focused on learning you catch yourself plotting against your boss.

And come to terms with the fact that you’ll probably never be able to speak a language like a native speaker. Let go of the ideal you nurture. I know it all too well. I combat my anxieties and fears on a daily basis.

Being ready emotionally

Incite emotions and get excited. Think about all the things you’ll be able to do with your newly acquired language! Imagine the world of possibilities! Make it vivid, so vivid that you almost feel that it’s real. Get yourself pumped.

Watch some motivational videos (like this one – Rise and Shine) or read an inspiring article.
Or maybe create a set list which gets you in the mood. Survivor’s “Eye of the tiger” seems like a natural choice here!

2. CREATE A SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT

Each one of us should have a safe haven. A place which immediately can be associated with learning.
The place which immediately triggers the willingness to learn in you.

But it’s hard. It’s hard to draw a distinct line between your working and play space and the one for learning.
Still, try to find yourself a nook you can call your own. Go to cafe or library if you can’t find it under your roof.

Once you have it, get rid of all the potential distractions. Turn off the music*, put aside anything that may distract you.
And don’t get too comfy. If you sink into an armchair it will smell your weakness and lure you into the oppressive clutches of sleep!

A supportive environment means also one more thing. Tell your beloved ones to give you some space and keep everything relatively down.

3. FOCUS AND HAVE A REMINDER

Now you have a place where you can learn! Congratulations! There shouldn’t be many things left which may distract you.

Next thing on the checklist – stop multitasking. Decrease your cognitive load. Regardless of what you’ve heard – that’s another thing which dumbs you down. If you do two things at once, divide your attention and intelligence by two. It basically makes you equivalent of a retarded shrimp. And I can tell you they’re not very good at learning languages.

Get yourself a reminder of why you want to learn. It can be a piece of jewelry given to you by your ancestors/wife/husband. A picture of your dream house. Anything which gets you going is just fine.

If you’re single, hang a picture of some person who inspires you.

Dos and donts of learning languages

Whenever you find yourself distracted let your reminder work its magic.

4. BE REGULAR

The chance is that if you’ve ever stuck to some routine I don’t have to convince you why it’s so extremely important to be regular.

If not, let me tell you what has been told thousands of time – it’s better to learn 10 minutes per day than to do it once per week for 2 hours.
But why? The numbers don’t add up. Well, math is a cruel mistress.

There are dozens of rules which govern learning. One which is (probably) the most important for you is:

Spacing effect – you remember things better if they are distributed over a long time span and the bigger the number of repetitions

If learning each day is not a habit for you, you should do all in your power to develop it.
Set some time aside every day for learning – e.g. 25 min at 19:00 .

5. LEARN IN SMALL DOSES

You might have heard this saying before – learning is a marathon, not a sprint. Truer words have never been said. But …

When it comes to regular learning, try to slice your learning time into pieces if you plan to learn for more than 1 hour.

We’re only human. Our attention span is anything between 20 -40 min. After that time your thoughts start wandering into unknown directions. That’s perfectly ok. Just be aware of this fact and prepare beforehand.

Take a 10-minute break every 30 minutes. This is, of course, a mere suggestion.
You have to experiment a bit to see what works for you.

Also, don’t forget about the Serial Position Effect. We tend to remember the most items from the beginning and from the end of our studying It means that the more breaks you have the better you take advantage of this phenomenon.

6. CREATE SYSTEMS (and why they beat goals)

I believe that goals are a great starting point. But it’s only a first station in your journey.
They won’t carry you very far. However, as great as they are, they have their limitations.

Let’s assume that your initial goal was to learn 10 words per day or 15 min per day. If you fail to stick to this goal, you’ll start feeling bad. “I can’t even do this one thing right”. Every time you fail, the chance that you’ll return to your learning schedule decreases. After some time, caught in despair, you stop learning.

What if you manage to actually follow through? You might be so content with yourself that you’ll stop there.

And this is a gist of problems with goals. They limit you in one way or another.

So why are systems better?

A good system is characterized by two things. It facilitates wanted behavior and makes it difficult to yield to unwanted one.

Who needs strong will when you have systems?!

Example:

I know that I have a very strong inclination to browse various websites after a few minutes of working on my computer. That’s why I downloaded the app which blocked these websites for better part of the day (here you can find other blocking apps)

Leechblock – for Mozilla
StayFocusd – for Chrome

Thus I increased my chance to stay focused while learning. What’s more, the only objects which I keep on my desk are books and dictionaries. It considerably decreases the risk of getting distracted.

So go ahead. Think about how you can create the system to facilitate your learning.

7. (LEARN HOW TO) LOVE THE GRIND

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”Stephen King

Discover an appreciation for what you have to do. Anybody could learn in perfect conditions. But as I said, it rarely happens. Grit is born out of pain. Every time you force yourself to learn you build your habit. Brick by brick.

And don’t compare yourself to others and their progress. Everyone has his own fight to do.
And we all start with different gear and skills.

Just show up. Day by day. That’s the secret.

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”Martin Luther King Jr.

Laying the Foundation For Learning a Language – How to learn a language on your own (Part 1)

learn a language on your own

You probably have felt this burning need inside to learn a new language once or twice in your life. But there’s a good chance that you didn’t know where to start.

It’s like standing in front of the dark forest. You know that you have to get through it in order to get what you want.

But it’s scary and lonely, and you’re hungry, and… look! What a mess! I must clean my room and do some other … stuff. The point is – not knowing the way is probably one of the biggest obstacles on the way to master the language.

And that’s the ultimate goal of this series of articles – to show you where to start, what to do and what to avoid. Each part of the series is devoted to a different issue.

You will learn how to tackle every component of learning a language – including notoriously gruesome grammar and vocabulary.

I really do hope that it will help you get started.

I’ve learned 8 languages so far and I know one thing – if you can’t create the system which emulated what you do, there is a good chance you have no idea what you’re doing.

Without further ado:

0. CHOOSE THE LANGUAGE

I assume that you already have a pretty good idea which language you would like to learn.

If you’re still on the fence – check this article. it should help you make a right decision.

1. MOTIVATION

This is where it all starts. Sure, other things are important as well. But ask yourself this – why do I want to learn this language?

There are no wrong answers. The reason should be valid for you, not for others.

Do you want to get a new job? Impress your wife? Visit some country? Be able to read Manga?

Remember – if your motivation is flimsy there’s a good chance that you’ll drop your project as soon as some obstacles get in your way. You definitely don’t want that to happen! Can you imagine the surge of anger after you realize that you put hundreds of hours into the project which is a flop?!

You’ll probably punch some nice, old lady to vent! That’s why you should make sure that your motivation is strong enough to pull you through your darkest hours.

Your desire to learn is a foundation – cherish it.

Let it be a constant reminder of why you do what you do. Reinforce right motives as often as you can – they will be your shield against all the distractions and temptations

 

Learn a language on your own

 

Your initial momentum will help you break down all the barricades.

But can you increase your motivation or is it something constant? Well, great news everyone! You can. If there is something I’ve learned about learning, in general, it’s that: the faster your progress is the more and harder you’re willing to work to see even more impressive results.

So how can I increase my progress? Read on. We will get to that. My personal favorite to boost my motivation is betting.

How does it work?

Bet with someone that you’ll learn, let’s say, 300 words in 2 weeks (set a deadline. If you lose you have to suffer consequences – e.g. pay your friend 200$. If you win – great, you’ve achieved your goal. It’s worked wonders for me!

What are other great ways to keep yourself motivated? Read the Forbes article.

2. CHANGE ATTITUDE OR DIE

Another pivotal part of laying the foundations is getting rid of the mental barriers you’ve been cherishing up to this day.

One of the most widespread (and harmful) beliefs concerning languages are:

I believe that that they are terribly destructive (and obviously not true) and seriously impair your learning ability if you do not become aware of them.

That’s why you need to become more mindful and learn how to overpower your inner demons of procrastination and laziness.

So go ahead – slap yourself every time when you catch yourself having these thoughts. The words which you use to describe yourself shape your reality. That’s why you should remove all the negative terms from your vocabulary, as well as the word “can’t”.

Way too many people are stifled by their own preconceived beliefs about what they can and can’t do. Don’t be one of those people.

3. SET A GOAL

But why? Do I have to? Nope, you don’t have to do anything. But if you’re vague about what you want to achieve, you ‘ll probably never do it.

You have to see the target to be able to shoot it! Remember, your goals should be SMART.

So what is a good goal?

  • I want to learn Spanish at a communicative level to be able to get by in Mexico in 2 months
  • I want to learn Russian only to read the works of Dostoevsky in original in 4 months
  • I want to speak German fluently to get the job in the company XYZ in 7 months

I believe that determining an initial level of language which you want to achieve is essential. It has a great impact on the learning methods you should choose and as well on the scope of material.

Be as specific as you only can. You can, of course, learn a given language without purpose if you’re passionate about it but most people will simply give up after some time.

 

4. GET THE RIGHT RESOURCES (and not too many of them)

Let’s start with basics and explain why you shouldn’t use too many learning materials. The reason is simple – having too many options paralyze our ability to make decisions.

That’s why I typically provide myself with the three following things:

A pocket dictionary.

Why is it indispensable? Think about it…that’s right! The smaller the dictionary the more useful words are included there.

Don’t waste your time and money on any big dictionary at the beginning (or at all).  The good dictionary should include the most important meanings of a given word.

If you can see only one meaning for each word – skip this dictionary and look for another one. Another quality of the great dictionaries is that they always contain the most popular phrases including given words.

And finally! Pronunciation! Always check if a dictionary has a phonetic transcription of words. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to read these strangers symbols right now. It’s not that difficult.

A good grammar book.

Usually, any which is not dedicated to advanced learners is just fine.

A phrase book.

It shows in a very neat way frequently used phrases and sentences.

That means you can memorize them and use them right away!

5. SET A DEADLINE

If you think you shouldn’t set one then you’re not serious about your project. Even if you don’t achieve exactly what you wanted in the given period of time – that’s ok. The world hasn’t ended. Draw conclusions and move on.

Read Six things about deadlines by Seth Godin

GET TO WORK!

If you have any questions or comments regarding this article, or maybe some other burning problem, drop me a message. And don’t forget to subscribe if you enjoyed reading this guide.