Listening Comprehension in a Foreign Language – 12 Ways to Improve It

Listening comprehension in a foreign language

Improving listening comprehension in a foreign language is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most challenging skills to master. The amount of time needed to understand a language is enormous. Unfortunately, not everyone succeeds in this field.

Not everyone reaches the finish line and has the pleasure of saying, "I understand most of everything I hear."

On the contrary, the bodies of poor souls who surrendered along the way colorfully decorate the entire length of the route. Everyone has their theory of why they failed.
"My ears are too small." 
"I can't listen to German for long because I start to sob."

And who knows, maybe the above is partially true. However, these reasons are not as important as the list you are about to see.

Here are 12 reasons why you have trouble understanding a foreign language.


LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM

Understanding a spoken word is complex. It's affected by many factors.

LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM

1. Limited vocabulary

7. Lack of concentration

2. Problems with pronunciation

8. Problems with interpretation/culture

3. Trying to understand everything

9. Problems with natural (i.e. colloquial) speech

4. Insufficient listening practice

10. No visual support

5. Too fast a pace

11. Passive listening

6. One-time listening to recordings

12. Insufficient knowledge of grammar

1. LIMITED VOCABULARY 


Insufficient knowledge of vocabulary is one of the main culprits. No wonder you have trouble understanding if your vocabulary is very limited! As you listen, each word and phrase at your disposal becomes your foothold.

Think of it as a puzzle - the more elements that fill the outline of an image, the easier it is to see what the picture is. Similarly, when listening, each subsequent word allows you to understand better what the general meaning/message of a given conversation or recording is.

There are two significant milestones for most languages:


1st milestone - 3000 words

Knowledge of the 3000 most frequently used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 95% of texts and conversations (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). It is worth remembering that, in this case, we count one word as all variations of a given word and its family of words.

For example: "run," "running," and "runner" are counted as one word by this classification.


2nd milestone  - 5000 words

Knowledge of the 5000 most-used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 98% of texts and conversations ((Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).


The minimum vocabulary required to listen effectively

If you want to be sure that you will understand to some degree recordings and conversations of all kinds, you should aim for a vocabulary of at least 2.5 - 3 thousand words. But as always - the more, the better!

So you don't know that many words? Come on, get to work! Don't be lazy!


2) PROBLEMS WITH PRONUNCIATION


Listening comprehension in a foreign language 12 ways to improve it



Issues with pronunciations are one of the hidden reasons why your understanding suffers; hence, many people are entirely unaware of it. 


How does sloppy pronunciation cause difficulties in understanding?


(I) Incorrect phonological representations

Each of us, as part of the so-called phonological memory, uses phonological representations.


A phonological representation is the way you think a word sounds.


If your phonological representation largely coincides with the actual pronunciation of the word, then everything is fine, and your brain should recognize the word.

It is worse when your interpretation of the pronunciation of a word completely diverges from its actual pronunciation. The result is a complete lack of understanding, although you often KNOW the word (Rixon 1986: 38). You pronounce it in your "specific" way.

For example, if in your head the pronunciation of the word "gist" sounds like / gɪst / with a hard " g," then you may not completely understand it when you hear its correct pronunciation / ʤɪst/.


(II) Lack of knowledge about assimilations


A separate problem is the so-called phonetic assimilation phenomenon


Phonetic similarity (phonetic assimilation) - a common phonetic process in which a sound changes to be more similar to a neighboring sound. The essence of every phonetic preference is coarticulation, whose mechanism of action is the influence of a given sound on the articulation of sounds that are adjacent to it. - Wikipedia

Assimilation simply means that the pronunciation of a letter can change due to the letter before or after it.

A typical example of assimilation in a language is when a word ends in a consonant, and the other begins in a vowel. Most often, such words "merge" in pronunciation and are pronounced as one.


E.g. "It is", which we pronounce as / ɪtɪz / /, not / ɪt ɪz /.


How to deal with these problems?


I) Try to accurately internalize the pronunciation of the words you learn

It will affect not only your ability to understand, but also your ability to learn vocabulary. As research shows (Fowler, 1991; Pierce et al. 2017), phonological representations can affect your coding ability, which is an early step in the process of learning and remembering words.


II) Learn the pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet of the language

I know that most people won't do it, but I recommend delving into the sounds of your target language.

It's worth knowing which of them are in your native language and which are not. With this knowledge, you'll know which ones require your special attention.

Read more: Master Pronunciation of a Foreign Language.


3) TRYING TO UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING

Great, you're ambitious, but the level of ambition should be in proportion to your current level of capability. Efforts to understand everything do not make sense if, after the first hearing of the recording, you do not know whether the conversation is about politics or whether they offend you. 

Listen for the gist, and only then for details - it is the best strategy.

Attempts to pick out individual words by ear make sense only when you can understand the overall meaning of the recording.

If you have not reached this point yet, it is worth listening to the recording again.


4) INSUFFICIENT LISTENING PRACTICE


Good listening comprehension in a foreign language is the most time-consuming language competence. Don't expect 20 minutes of listening a day to work wonders. You should aim for a minimum of 1 hour of listening per day!

I can already hear those moans: "Well, he's crazy! More than 20 minutes! Lord, I have a life! "

Contrary to appearances, it is not so difficult. All you have to do is plan your day well. After all, you can listen to music or recordings almost anywhere! At home, gym, shop, commuting, and often even at work!


5) TOO FAST A PACE



Many people feel that one of the biggest obstacles preventing them from understanding a language well is the high rate of influx when listening.A constant stream of words creates the impression that you always miss essential information, which can make you unnecessarily stressed. Fortunately, it is quite easy to get rid of this problem these days.


(I) Manipulation of the recording speed

Almost every movie and music player nowadays is equipped with speed control. YouTube is a good example. If the average tempo of the recording prevents you from understanding, lower the speed to 0.75. You should immediately notice a big difference.


(II) The word "please."

In the case of conversations with foreigners, the matter is even more straightforward - ask them to speak more slowly and clearly. Most people shouldn't have any problem with this.

They don't want to do it? A quick blow to the temple should subtly encourage them to cooperate.


6) ONE-TIME LISTENING TO RECORDINGS 


Repeated listening to a given recording or conversation is not always possible. However, if it's possible, you should always listen to your materials more than once if you have trouble understanding them.

Here's a simple plan you can stick to:


(I)) Learners at levels A1-B1


Find a recording/video on YT or something similar, and listen to it over and over again.


When should you move to the next recording?

When you understand about 80% of the recording, i.e., you grasp its gist - hunting for particular words at this level is pointless. 

However, it is essential to become familiar with the prosody of the language and to improve the ability to capture the most common words in a given language.

It is a particularly useful listening system when you want to learn a language for which there are practically no listening materials.

At the time when I was doing my first major language project (learning Swedish from scratch to a level B2 in about four months - a full story here), I could listen to one radio program, lasting about 10 minutes, even a dozen times. This is how long the phonetic identification of "theoretically" simple words that "theoretically" I knew took me.


(II) Learners at B2-C2 levels

Here the matter is much simpler. Assuming that you are indeed at this language level, you should know between 3 and 5 thousand words. Thus, your understanding should range between 95-98%.

Since you are already quite advanced, listening to recordings repeatedly does not make sense, After all, you are already able to identify the essential words appearing in a given language. At these levels, the most important thing is to listen to as many language users as possible to get used to the variety of accents and language patterns.


7) LACK OF CONCENTRATION


Sometimes, problems with understanding are dictated by nothing else but a good old lack of concentration. Each of us knows the moment when, after 2 minutes of listening to the interlocutor, you completely sail away to ride on a pony in a happy place in your head, while saliva begins to gather in the corners of your mouth.

Where does this state come from, and how to remedy it?


(I) Ditch boring recordings

Listen, you are not in an interrogation room in Guantánamo. Nobody compels you to listen to things you don't enjoy. If the subject of the recording causes your eyes to spasm, then change it. Simple logic works here - the more you like a topic, the more willingly and longer you will listen to it.


b) Chunk your listening sessions

There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing.

If the recording is too long, break up your listening session into many parts.

For example, instead of watching one 40-minute episode of a series in one hearing, try to do it in two or three sessions. Everything according to the slogan: "A large elephant is eaten piece by piece."


(III) Avoid adverse conditions

Sometimes the conditions are not conducive to listening. Maybe a bunch of airheads is rehearsing Tibetan throat singing it's a demonstration in defense of the rights of bakers. 

In this situation, there are only two things you can do, depending on the nature of the problem:

  • find a quiet place to listen
  • Keep on listening

If this does not help, get into a fight with some guy in the YT comment section to vent off.


8) PROBLEMS WITH INTERPRETATION / CULTURE




Sometimes the culprit of communication problems is the cultural gulf between interlocutors (Underwood). Interestingly, this problem also occurs among native speakers of a given language. There is no simple remedy.

The only solution is to continually broaden your horizons and explore the culture from which your target language originates.

A classic example of misunderstanding is an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Doing so in the Middle East, West Africa, and South America is a delicate suggestion that you intend to violate the dignity of your interlocutor's rectum. A classic faux pas!


9) PROBLEMS WITH NATURAL (I.E., COLLOQUIAL) SPEECH


The difference between the natural, colloquial language spoken by native speakers and the one that is usually taught in language schools, or which can be heard on the radio, can be huge (Hedge).

In real life, a situation where the interlocutor speaks to you very slowly and clearly shows that:


  • a) he will get a stroke soon
  • b) thinks you're "special" and it's not a compliment!


(I) Various accents and dialects

Another problem in this category is the variety of accents and dialects. Unfortunately, the uniformity of languages varies dramatically.

For example, in Germanic languages (e.g. English, German, Swedish, Dutch), after driving only 20 km, we may come across a completely different dialect.

For many, this is a huge shock. They spend years convinced that they understand the language well, and suddenly it feels as if they were starting all over again.!

A great example is the Scottish accent, which causes a lot of problems for many people who comprehend very well (classic) English.

P.S. Here is some stand-up of the most famous Scottish stand-up comedian, Frankie Boyle: YouTube (heads up - it's full of swear words!)

If you want to be sure that you will be able to understand native speakers without significant problems, you need to diversify the materials you listen to. It should always be a mix containing both colloquial (e.g., videos on YT) and more formal speech (radio, news, etc.).

Listening to different dialects is not necessary unless you need the ability to understand them for some reason (i.e., moving to a specific region).


10) NO VISUAL SUPPORT


In real life, communication with our potential interlocutor is more abundant with body language or facial expressions. The value of this additional information cannot be overestimated, as it often helps to understand the meaning of the speech, despite the lack of understanding of individual words.

It would be a mistake to limit listening only to the radio or podcasts.

It's worth enlarging your listening toolbox to include audio-visual materials  (e.g., TV series or YouTube videos). They will not only speed up your pace of understanding but will also make learning more enjoyable!

11) PASSIVE LISTENING



Many people equate listening to a purely passive activity. Nothing necessary but crash in your armchair and start your favorite podcast! Of course, there is nothing wrong with it, and I usually prefer this type of listening. There is an alternative - active listening.

While listening actively, you should try to make a note of the recording text and words you do not know. Although this is a time-consuming process, it has a positive impact on your understanding.


12) INSUFFICIENT KNOWLEDGE OF GRAMMAR


Lack of (good) knowledge of grammar is one of the last obstacles on your path to full understanding.

It is interesting that the lack of knowledge of grammar does not prevent complete understanding, but only makes it difficult.

I'm sure you know people who went abroad, and after 5 years they still don't know the language. Despite this, they can communicate with native speakers at a basic level, using the requisite words, gestures, and the occasional grunts.

I like to explain this phenomenon, and also the role of grammar in understanding, using the following metaphor.

Imagine that words are building blocks, and grammar is nothing more than a logical mortar holding them together. When we have both, we can create a beautiful "palace of comprehension." If the mortar is missing, the only thing we can do is to stack the bricks on top of one another. This way, we will build "something," but it will certainly not be a palace - more like a swanky privy.

Read more: Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice.


IMPROVING LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - SUMMARY



As you can see, problems with listening comprehension in a foreign language are very diverse. Therefore, to effectively benefit from the advice contained in this article, you should analyze your particular situation as accurately as possible and choose the tips that apply to you.

Regardless, for many language learners, the two main factors which usually impair their listening comprehension are limited vocabulary and insufficient listening practice - these are always the right places to start.

Good luck!


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It's enough to download ANKI, and you're good to go. Memorizing things like "phonetic associations"  and such can be really easy!

 

Why Adults Learn Languages Faster Than Children (A Data-Driven Post)

Why adults learn foreign languages faster than children

I like to collect all sorts of nonsensical sayings about language learning. There is an overabundance of them, but one of my favorites is: "children learn quickly."

"Nonsense?!" you might say with indignation. "Don't all children speak well at a young age?"

No.

I don't think we should be putting on a pedestal the mental achievements of a being for whom one of the more impressive skills is the ability to fart and sneeze simultaneously.

But let's not rely on guesses and assumptions. It's time to put on some "scientific" trunks and dive into the sea of scientific research to find out what the real pace of children's learning is.


Why Adults Learn Languages Faster


SIZE OF VOCABULARY IN CHILDREN AGED 1-7 years


To be able to count anything, we need to start with basic data and look at the average vocabulary of children aged 12 months (when they start to say the first words) up to the age of 7.

Due to the availability of data on this subject, I will use the numbers given for an average American child. I think that these numbers will still be a decent reflection of the average child for other languages, especially considering that English is one of the most lexically developed languages in the world.

DEFINITION OF WORDS

Remember that in linguistics, there is no single and strict definition of a word. Depending on the data, one word is, well, just one word (a unique selection and order of letters). In other studies, the word and all its inflections are counted as one word. For example, according to this classification, the words "jump," "jumped," "jumping," etc. are treated as one word. If you see a particularly large number in this table, it means that each word is counted separately.

The other data pool describes the average expressive vocabulary of children as follows:

  • Children speak their first words around the 12th month. Some children need a little more time - about 16 months. However, it is believed that the later time horizon is still within the norm.
  • At 18 months, children usually use about 50 words (but we don't worry too much unless they have less than 10-20).
  • At 24 months, children usually have expressive vocabulary of 200-300 words (but we don't worry too much unless they have less than 50).
  • At the age of 3, children can have 500 to 1100 words in their vocabulary.
  • At 5-7 years, children have a vocabulary of 3000-5000 words.

SIZE OF VOCABULARY IN CHILDREN - EXCEPTIONS

Of course, it is worth remembering that this is average data. Depending on the child's intellectual predisposition and the upbringing, he or she may develop faster or slower.

For example, a child in the ninetieth percentile at 16 months knows the same number of words as a 26-month-old child in the tenth percentile.

Why this range?

There is at least one study (Hart and Risley, 2006), which suggests that the size of the vocabulary of a child aged three is closely related to the number of conversations that adults have with this child. Interestingly, the differences in language development and IQ in such children were still visible at the age of nine!

It is, of course, only a curiosity for anyone interested, especially current and future parents.

Let's return to our example. We already have the most important data; now, it is time for some calculations to prove that adults learn languages faster than children.

 

How Many Words a Day Does an Average Child Learn?



As an example, let's choose a 5-year-old child. And not just any child! Suppose he is little John von Neumannand he already knows 6,000 words - a number that is well above the average for this age.

Of course, let us assume that the child of this age also has decent grammar and can put these words together quite appropriately.

This extraordinarily well-developed child had about 1,825 days from birth, or 1,460 days since pronouncing the first word, to master 6,000 words.

His average learning pace is therefore:

  • 3.29 words per day (from birth)
  • 4.11 words per day (from 12 months)

How do these numbers make you feel?

I can only assume that "Well, four words a day. Respect. Hats off. How do they do it?!" is not the first thought to cross your mind. There is nothing impressive about these numbers. Instead, they show one thing: young children learn very slowly.

If you can stand the deadly pace of learning 5 words per day, you'll do better than our wise, exemplary child. It's heartwarming, eh?

Read more: You Don’t Learn Languages Like a Child – Start Learning Grammar and Vocabulary.


The Pace of Learning in Older Children


It is worth remembering that for every person, also for a child, the so-called snowball effect applies.


The snowball effect states that the greater your knowledge (especially in a given field), the faster you can learn.


It means, more or less, that the older the child is, the more new words will be learned per day on average. Many sources say that later in adolescence, this number ranges between 10-14 words (Lipsett / Mehrabian and Owens numbers are from Language Development - An Introduction; Robert E. Owens, Jr .; Allyn and Bacon; 1996).

I will repeat my question: Is such a pace in any way crazy and exceeds the capabilities of an adult? Surely not.

Remember that the snowball effect also applies to you - the more words you know, the faster you will learn more. Besides, as an adult, you have a whole range of attributes and skills unavailable to children:

All these factors make you a real harvester of knowledge!


Adults Learn Languages Faster - Summary 


Let it be said again - adults learn languages faster than children!

I have witnessed incredible language acquisitions of people who thought that they could not learn quickly (or that it was impossible), and who within 10 months reached the level of B1 / B2 in the language of their choice (you can read more about it here).

Such a pace of learning exceeds the abilities of even the most gifted children. I think that if we would like to learn something from children, it would be to be persistent in pursuing a goal.

I hope that moving forward you will be more optimistic about your abilities!


How to Learn Finnish Fast – from Scratch to a b1 Level in 3 Months

Learn finnish fast
Do you want to learn Finnish fast? Great! I have a great pleasure of showing you a case study, or a magical transformation as I like to call it, of one of my superstar students. Kate took my language learning course Vocabulary Labs quite many months ago and very quickly morphed into a learning beast! She learned Finnish to an A2 level in 3 weeks and a B1 in about 3 months as verified by one of her local language schools. What makes it even more impressive is that Kate is a busy mom of 2. She has no time to waste.

Another cool thing about this case study is that I collected all of Kate’s emails throughout the course. They will give you a detailed picture of how drastically one’s approach to learning can change once they switch to different learning strategies and start violating memory principles.

This article also gives me yet another chance of showcasing a core philosophy promoted by the Universe of Memory.

Learning is mostly a lonely struggle. It’s what you do at home that really matters. Choose a bad learning strategy, or focus on the incorrect things and you can kiss your progress goodbye.

If that wasn’t enough, Kate also shares her advice about encouraging your family to join you in your language mission. It seems that the key strategy which has eluded me for years are thinly veiled threats of starving your significant other. Who would have thought?

Learn Finnish fast – the Pre-course Evaluation

The pre-course evaluation

One of the indispensable parts of the Vocabulary Labs course is a pre-course survey which I send to each member before the course starts. It helps me evaluate the state of knowledge of all the participants as well as their propensities and current learning styles.

Below you can find some of Kate’s answers from the said survey. Her original goal was to learn German, but at the very beginning of the course, she decided to change it to Finnish.

  • What languages do you know currently and at what levels? Which one is your native tongue?
    Russian is my native tongue.
    I know English at C2.
    I used to know French at B2-C1 and some Latin, but I’ve forgotten most part of both by now. Also, I tried learning Japanese and German, but I’m about A0 in them 🙂
  • How much time can you devote to learning per day? Be as realistic as you only can.
    About an hour if I’m enthusiastic, not more than half an hour if there’s no interest, but only my will power involved.
  • How much time do you spend learning your target language every day? Please give me the approximate numbers for the following categories: reading, listening/watching, writing, talking.
    I‘m not learning German now.
  • What are you reading/watching/listening to?
    I don’t read or watch much (if we speak about fiction or things like news and films), I listen to audiobooks. It isn’t because I don’t like reading or watching. The only reason is that I can listen doing something else at the same time, while reading and watching need total concentration (well, watching a film + crocheting is possible, but with reading even this is out of the question). The majority of what I read/watch is in English (articles, lectures, etc. on the Internet).
  • Who do you talk to (teachers, friends, etc.)?
    Students. But that’s in English. In German, I don’t talk to anyone.
  • How do you learn and revise your vocabulary? What systems/apps/ websites are you using? (the more details the better)
    To learn German, I used Duolingo. I did it because I was interested in whether a program can really teach you anything. It taught me a couple of things, but not much. To study some C2 vocab when I was getting ready to take my CPE exam, I used Quizlet. I created flashcards myself, but I didn’t use them much – it was rather boring.
  • What do you (currently) like/dislike about language learning?
    There isn’t anything that I dislike. Languages are part of my life and have always been. I just enjoy them.
  • What are your strengths/weaknesses when it comes to learning? (discipline, concentration, etc.)
    I remember and understand things quickly – these are my strengths. I drop things easily if I’m bored. This lack of persistence is my weakness.
  • What are your favorite hobbies/pastimes?
    Usually, I’m up to my ears in work, which is also my hobby. When I’m too tired of work, I just relax doing nothing.
  • What is your current vocabulary size in your target language? 
    In German it’s about 100 words, I guess. Not more. Although I’ve never counted them. And they’re all my passive vocabulary.
  • How many new words do you learn per day?
    Zero.
  • How do you currently learn grammar?
    I don’t learn it in at all.
  • What is the quickest you have ever learned a language?
    A year – I was able to talk to a native speaker after a year of studying. But the level wasn’t high, so it all depends on what you mean by “have learned”. If it’s totally independent use of the language, like C1-C2, then my only achievement is English, and it took me many years to reach this level.
    To finish answering, let me say that although I’m very curious about your system, I’m at the same time very skeptical about it. In other words, I don’t really expect much and regard it more like an experiment of some sort. I don’t remember when and how I found your first article about memory and language learning, but I certainly liked it, because I rarely subscribe to receive e-mails. So, I was very interested to find out that you’re launching this course. Judging by your articles, the course is going to be interesting, regardless of my expectations 🙂

Learn Finnish fast – Kate’s Progress!

Meet Kate!

Meet Kate!

Once the course starts, all the participants receive e-mail reminders about their progress. It helps me keep track of their learning pace and any potential problems. It also makes for a great read later on! These e-mails create an amazing narrative and show how much people, and their learning capacity, can change within just a couple of weeks.

Here are Kate’s e-mails.

Update #1 – Beating 2 months of learning with Duolingo in 5 days

Hi Bartosz,

I’d like to share my impressions of your course. At the very beginning, I was skeptical (and I wrote to you about it). Well, seems like I’m not skeptical anymore)) Bartosz, your E.V.A. method is mind-blowing (both literally and figuratively). Its simplicity and effectiveness are just amazing.

Now, more details. My initial aim was German, but right at the beginning of the course, I changed my mind. Since I’ve already tested how Duolinguo works using German, I decided to pick up some other language and see what I will achieve using your method. Then I was going to compare my Duolinguo achievements in German with the achievements in the new language. For the experiment, to be totally honest, I chose a language which looks absolutely alien to me: Finnish. It has nothing in common with the languages I know, since it belongs to a different family.

Duolingo experiment

My Duolingo experiment (which I carried out 2 years ago) lasted for about 2 months. I spent on it an hour or more daily. I learned some words and got some understanding of some grammar structures, but that’s about it. I don’t think I could say anything in that language except for the phrases which were repeated multiple times and which I simply knew by heart. I wasn’t satisfied with the results and deleted Duolingo after two months.

I started using your method on May, 5th. On May 10th I realized I’ve already achieved more than after 2 months of Duolingo. And that’s not because Finnish is easy and German is not. Actually, it’s the other way around. In German, there were notions easy to grasp since they’re similar to English in some way. Many words looked familiar, too. Finnish, ha-ha) Nothing in common either with Latin, or with English, or with Russian.

Maybe, pronunciation is easier, but nothing else. Still, I already know more than 100 words and CAN USE them. And it’s very inspiring, of course, to see this progress.

I didn’t believe at first that B1 in 4 months is achievable, but now I think it is pretty possible if I just keep doing it at the same pace (which is not highly demanding, by the way).

As for the biggest takeaway from the Grammar Module — that’s Deep Learning. I haven’t yet been doing it for long, but it already brings in the results.

Read more about deep learning here.

Update #2 – First 1000 Finnish words and A2 level in 3 weeks

Hi Bartosz,

I’m happy to share my experience of using your course, which is very pleasant indeed.

First of all, yesterday I finished my first thousand of Finnish words (yes, I was waiting with this email just to be able to boast). 400+ of them are regarded by ANKI as mature. This would have never been possible but for the techniques, I learned from you. I do study grammar as well from time to time, but as it requires more concentration and can’t be done 5-10 minutes in the morning, then 3 minutes while the kids are playing in the sandbox, I study little grammar in comparison with vocabulary.

I’ve got a textbook in Finnish. I don’t use it, but what I do is open it once a fortnight and see if I can understand something in there. In the beginning, it didn’t make any sense, but now the first four or five units are pretty easy to understand.

Hungry for more

The method has changed my perception of language learning so much that sometimes I feel my progress is slow. At this moment I remember my words “I’d call reaching A2-B1 in 3-4 months a tremendous success”. I know this phenomenon of greediness from my students, and now I’m experiencing it myself. Funny, but when I was doing Duolinguo making no progress whatsoever, I didn’t feel that I was going too slow.

At the end of the third week of my experiment, I found an online placement test offered by some Finnish language school in Moscow. The result was that they suggested I join their second-semester group (which means I’d achieved in 3 weeks what they were studying for 4 months at the same price which I paid for your course).

Update #3 – 1500 Finnish words + convincing her husband to learn as well!

Thanks for monitoring the progress 🙂 I’ve learned a bit more than 1500 words (today it’s the 80th day of my learning), and I’m progressing further. This learning thing seems to be infectious: my husband started on Finnish, too. His pace is slower – just 5 words, but in spite of this, some progress can already be seen. Now I’ve got a partner to practice my skills during breakfast time :)) Totally free and always available.

2800+ Finnish words

Summer is over, a new school year has started, which means a lack of time. Well, no time at all, actually. So, I set my daily word limit to 10 (it used to be 20) just to make it doable. Right now the number of words I’ve learned is 2800, which is quite a lot. I decided to take a lesson with a native speaker to see if I will be able to speak. Yes, I’m able to speak and, which is even better, the natives can understand it! It’s more difficult to understand what they say, but I’m sure it’s a matter of practice. I’ve tried lessons with 2 different people, and both couldn’t believe that I’ve been studying Finnish for 4 months only (I took those lessons at the beginning of September, which was exactly 4 months since I started this language from scratch).

Plans to take the officialYKI test

Now my plan is to try taking their YKI test. It takes place only in Finland, but the more I learn the eager I am to visit that country. And if I visit it, why not taking the exam? There are three levels on which you can take it: A1-A2, B1-B2, C1-C2. I’m thinking of taking B1-B2. I would attempt at C1 if it weren’t for my extra-busy teaching time till the end of May. I just won’t be able to find the necessary time. However, B2 looks achievable.

Best wishes,
Kate

P. S. “B2 looks achievable”. In a year. God, who could have thought I’d ever say this…

A short interview with Kate

A short interview with Kate

While writing this case study, I was also able to catch up with Kate and ask her a couple of questions about learning and her family. It’s truly inspiring to see how much effort and sneakiness she put into encouraging them to learn Finnish fast as well!

What do you do?

I’m a teacher of English. I’ve been teaching for 15 years. I have experience of working at school, but for the last ten years, I’ve been a freelance teacher.

Why exactly did you decide to learn Finnish instead of German?

I’ve chosen Finnish because at first learning it was part of an experiment. I was interested to find out whether the system you suggest really allows people to learn languages faster than usual. For this purpose, I needed a language which is different from the ones I was familiar with.

Since I studied Latin, such languages as Italian, Spanish, etc. were out of the question — being familiar with Latin makes it easier to learn them, so it wouldn’t have been clear whether it’s Bartosz’s system working or just my experience. German is in certain ways similar to English. Moreover, by the beginning of the experiment, I had already tried learning German, so this language wasn’t new either. So I was looking for a language from a different language family. Finnish, which is a member of the Uralic family and looked totally alien to me at the beginning of my experiment, was a perfect choice.

My 2 cents: That’s a great approach. It’s really to fool yourself into believing that you can learn fast if you learn a language that is similar to the ones you already know. For years, while I have been devising my learning strategies, I used languages which I knew nothing about to minimize any background knowledge interference.

Did you have to force your husband to learn Finnish or was it his choice :)?

Yep. I told him I wouldn’t feed him if he didn’t start learning at least 5 words a day. Speaking seriously, I didn’t force him, but it wasn’t his choice either. I started by creating an ANKI profile for him and added 3 words there every day.

It took less than a minute to revise them during breakfast time, and in about ten-fifteen days he realized he could say simple phrases. It inspired him and he asked me to increase the number of words up to 5. Then 7. Then 10. Then he started reading to learn some grammar and listen so some dialogues on Finnish sites. So that’s how it happened.

My 2 cents: Let’s take a second to appreciate Kate’s brilliance. She didn’t wait until her husband makes up his mind. Instead, she created a separate ANKI account and flashcards to kickstart his progress. Sure, it would be better if he produced them himself. the thing is that probably he wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for Kate’s initiative. If you’ve been contemplating how to force your loved ones to take up a new language, you might benefit from this strategy.

Do you currently have some opportunities to use the language? If not, how do you maintain it?

Right now, I don’t have many opportunities to use the language unless I read/listen to something or exchange a couple of phrases with my husband. I used to have 1 lesson a week with a native speaker (I started in September to see whether I would be able to understand something and make myself understood, I liked the person I talked to, so I continued the speaking sessions till February. In February I had to quit because I was fully concentrated on my work).

Do you use methods from Vocabulary Labs at your work? Did they affect the results of your students? How?

Yes, I used the methods. One of the methods (or ideas, probably) that I used was to set a certain minimum of what has to be learnt/done every day. I prepared the materials in such a way that the goal of doing them every day was achievable pretty easily. It resulted in my students having covered LOTS of stuff. Much more than was covered by those who studied less systematically.

Another one is, of course, ANKI. I explained to the students how to make cards. Some of them started using it right away, others didn’t want to. I didn’t insist much. In about 3 months it was easy to detect who was and who was not using ANKI without even asking them. The formers’ level grew much more rapidly.

My 2 cents: That definitely sounds familiar. Even after one week of private coaching, I can already hear whether my clients use ANKI or not.

Do you use the said methods in your daughter’s education? How exactly does it look like?:)

The only method I’m using in my daughter’s education is ANKI. We just use it to learn words. For example, when we watch a cartoon or just talk about something while walking and this or that word pops up, we write a sentence with it in ANKI (and a picture! you can’t make a card without a picture, it’s almost a crime).

My daughter’s pace is 3 words a day, but we often skip writing new words (not because she isn’t willing, but because I’m a lazy and irresponsible mother). She never skips revising, though. She can’t read in English yet, so I read the sentence aloud making a pause where she has to insert a word. Sometimes she makes sentences herself for the new cards.

About a month ago she asked me whether she could have lessons with someone who speaks English. I found a teacher on iTalki, and now they’re having lessons. I write out the words which are an active vocabulary for the lessons, and then my daughter learns them. If not for this learning, the lessons would mainly be a waste of money (as well as my speaking sessions in Finnish). Backed up by ANKI, however, they are fine: my daughter enjoys talking to someone from far away and understands more and more. I used to have lessons with my daughter last year. She’s a quick learner, but now she’s progressing quicker than she used to.

My younger daughter (3.8 years old) is always near my elder one when she’s revising. Side effect: the younger one knows half the words, too.

My 2 cents: I am raising my son (22 months) bilingually ,and I am also optimizing his words repetitions with ANKI. Of course, he is way too small to do it himself,  being the lazy bugger he is, but I do it for him to optimize his learning curve.

What are the three main takeaways you learned from Vocabulary Labs?

1) I found out that learning a language can be amazingly quick. Finnish is more difficult than any other language I’ve come across so far (ok, Latin can compete, but it’s a dead language), yet the pace with which I learned it was quicker than, for example, French. Knowing that a language can be learned fast is, actually, a very important takeaway. It motivates and gives hope thus making me succeed.

2) The one that I’m using in my work: better take a small step every day than sit for 10 hours once a month.

3) ANKI. Needless to comment I suppose.

3a) Switching my mobile to Finnish. It’s a tiny detail, but it reminds me of what I’m supposed to be doing every day.

Actually, I have forgotten many things from the course since it’s very big. Now that I have some free time, I’m going to revisit it 🙂

  • Are you planning to learn another language anytime soon?

I’m not planning, but dreaming of learning Swedish as soon as I reach B2 in Finnish (which I hope will happen by the end of summer if everything goes as planned).

Finnish from scratch to a B1 level in 3 months – the Learning Plan

Language strategies

In this section, you can find a rough plan which Kate used in order to learn Finnish fast to a B1 level as verified by a language school. As a reminder, if you’re looking for a more detailed version of this blueprint, please read another case study of mine “How to learn German from scratch to a B2 level in 5 months“.

Let’s start with the learning resources Kate has used to accomplish her mission.

Finnish learning resources

Kate only four things:

  • ANKI
  • Frequency lists (in the form of ANKI decks)
  • Websites to find native speakers to talk to
  • FinnishPod101

I can only smile when people shake their heads in disbelief upon hearing that you don’t need more than a handful of resources to learn a language. Interestingly, the opposite is true. The more learning resources you use, the smaller your chances of being able to use them efficiently. What’s terrifying, even one small piece of paper which you scribble on can be counted as a separate resource. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s a fact.

The best ANKI decks for Finnish vocabulary

One of the fastest ways to learn a language is to start with vocabulary lists. Here are the best English-Finnish ANKI decks I have been able to find.

Please keep in mind that those lists are supposed to be a basis for your own ANKI deck. Nothing can replace the effort you put into creating your own flashcards and sentences.

This deck should be enough to take you from zero to about a B2 level. It also includes examples and audio.

And here are other noteworthy frequency lists of Finnish words:

How to talk with FInnish native speakers for free

Organized lessons are, of course, a great idea. However, in the era of the internet, it’s absolutely not necessary to pay for them in order to talk with native speakers.

Here is a list of great websites where you can arrange language exchange with language enthusiasts.

My absolute favorite is definitely Italki. This is also the website that Kate has used to find a language partner.

The learning plan

Learn finnish fast

  1. Download ANKI
  2. Download a frequency list (e.g. in the form of ANKI decks)
  3. Calculate your daily goal.
It’s a number of words you need to learn daily in order to achieve your goal withing a certain timeframe. You should base your calculation on this article – how many words you should need for every language level.
  1. Start creating sentences with the words from your frequency list.
Don’t learn passively. Actually use the information you want to memorize.
  1. Be systematic
  2. Use deliberate practice to quickly acquire grammar
  3. Talk with yourself to consolidate grammar and vocabulary
  4. Once you learn 2000-2500 words, find a language partner if you want to.
Of course, the more words you know before your first conversation, the better for you.
  1. Don’t forget about listening. Try to start practicing your listening comprehension only once you learn at least 2000 words if you want to optimize your learning time.
Of course, there are many nuances to this strategy but this learning plan should allow you to learn Finnish fast.

Summary

Way too many people think that learning boils down to devoting vast swathes of time to your learning projects. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, effective learning is all about energy and effort you put into your learning. Very often one hour of honest work can beat 10 hours of bumming around. If you add effective learning strategies to this mix, rest assured that your progress will know no bounds.

Do you want to ask me or Kate something about this mission? Let us know in the comments.