Category Archives: The OpenLanguage Learner Series

Koestel Family

Raising Multilingual Children: Interview with Franck Koestel from

Today we focus on language learning for the little ones. Children have an amazing ability to learn new languages. As parents, how do we inspire and help them acquire new languages? Listen in as OpenLanguage co-founder Jenny Zhu talks to Franck Koestel from, one of the most popular blogs on the topic about inspiring children to learn languages through daily activities and create rewarding family bonding experiences. Both Jenny and Franck have a professional as well as deeply personal interest in the area and they share their own trials and triumphs in raising multilingual children. Whether you are in similar situations as them or simply would like to ignite your children’s interest in languages, we hope today’s conversation will help you along the way.

OpenLanguage Learner Series: Inspiring Children to Learn Languages



Electronic Dictionaries: help or harm?

I first came to Shanghai, China in February 2011 without knowing a single word of Mandarin Chinese. Before I got here, my friends told me that Shanghai was a big cosmopolitan metropolis where people were used to speaking at least English and Mandarin Chinese. However, it wasn’t until I got off the airplane that I finally understood that I was in ANOTHER country with a completely different language and culture, thousands of miles away from home. I was terrified.

Wise words can be fuzzyCreative Commons License Kevin Dooley via Compfight

Breaking down the language barrier is definitely the most difficult thing I have had to overcome here in China, because it’s not only about learning and memorizing grammar rules and new words. It’s also about understanding why things are said, as well as when, with whom, and how they are said. I guess it’s the same for every language you learn, right? But, with learning Chinese there is a difference: there are thousands of characters! 

Studying a language that uses characters is extremely confusing at first. When many of us grow up, we learn that “a” is “a”, “b” is “b”, etc. We give each and every single letter a phonetic value that stays the same even if we study other languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, even German or Norwegian (although their alphabets include a few different letters).

In my first Chinese class, my head almost blew up when I was told that “你” is pronounced “nǐ”. After a lifetime using an alphabet, I was now going to learn to read what I thought were “drawings”. That was when I was introduced to the world of the electronic dictionaries. When I started my Chinese class, I felt like an outcast because most of my classmates had at least a dictionary app on their mobile devices and were using it to follow the class. Meanwhile, I was still carrying around a cumbersome Chinese – English dictionary.

Slowly but surely, I decided to put aside my “chubby” friend and explore these amazing tools until, finally, I got used to them. What I came to realize as time passed by is that most students rely completely on these devices or apps for everything when they are learning a new language, Chinese in this case. I remember most of my classmates were scared of speaking Chinese without consulting with their Electronic Dictionaries first.

So my question is: Are Electronic Dictionaries harmful or helpful to a language learner? 

Personally I believe that it all depends on the user. It is true that these devices are programmed to support many languages, many words, and many sentences; but, what they are missing is the “human” factor which is nothing more than the real situations of daily life and the interaction with other people.

Electronic Dictionaries make literal translations, therefore they will translate “¿qué onda?” (Spanish) as “what wave?”, because that is the direct translation.

  • qué = what
  • onda = wave 

However, “¿qué onda?” is a very common phrase we use in Spanish to say “what’s up?”.

Dependency on these machines is inversely proportional to the confidence the language learner has with their own language skills. In other words, if the fear of mispronouncing a word or phrase or writing them incorrectly is never overcome, the fluency with the language will depend on the usage of the device.

Electronic Dictionaries are helpful if they are used as a studying tool, but become harmful once our communication skills depend on them.

universal thank you noteCreative Commons License woodleywonderworks via Compfight

Don’t get me wrong, I still use my dictionary app when I don’t know a word I hear or see on a sign and will probably use it forever because, the truth is that we will never stop learning new things about a language. That’s the beauty of it!



Interview with Jason Levine, the Fluency MC

I recently had the pleasure of talking to one of the most prolific superstar English teachers on the web, Jason Levine. Known for his flamboyant original rapping of English grammar, Jason has inspired and motivated learners around the world to embrace learning English. In this conversation, we talk about why the merge of entertainment and learning is important; how to balance the two elements and make them work; the role of collocations and why the most basic principles of ‘relax, repeat and remember’ are critical to learning any languages. 

If you think learning a new language is too hard, watch this chat as two teachers committed to making the experience easier and enjoyable share their experiences and thoughts.

10 Things You Should Know Before Learning A New Language

Language learners are a brave bunch who take on one of the most daunting intellectual challenges in life. I have experience of both learning languages and helping people learn languages as well as meeting a lot of inspiring learners along the way. I’ve learned some valuable lessons about how to learn a language that I hope will be useful to you. Note that I am primarily writing for the busy adult learner. If you are student preparing for a proficiency exam for instance, this post might not be the most applicable.

1. It’s NOT going to be easy. 

Language learning is not like many other subjects or skills where there’s a more linear and structured system of teaching and learning. Language learning is a lot more fluid and challenging. Whether you are learning a new language out of necessity or as a hobby, realize that it’s not going to be easy. You are going to have to put in a lot of work on a daily basis, run into frustrating moments and be forced out of your comfort zone. You are not going to succeed if you think it’s going to be easy with minimal effort. But at the same time, you’ll find it to be a deeply enriching experience that expands your horizons and let you interact with a new world.

2. Define your own goals.

Your teacher should not define your goals. They offer you advice and guidance to help you get there. But no one knows what you are trying to achieve better than you. If you are learning the language to help you get through daily life in a new country, it’s totally OK just to learn the basics. I’ve seen many students struggle and suffer in learning because they outsoure learning to teachers and books. Most foreign language teaching content (perhaps with the exception of ESL) is written for school students who can dedicate 2 hours a day to learn a language. Are you that person? Are you learning a language to get credits? Do you have that much time? If not, don’t let other learners’ goals dictate your learning. Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time learning things not relevant to you and ultimately cause you to give up.

3. Go through a boot camp period in the beginning.

To say that each language has its peculiarities is an understatement. You really need to go through a boot camp phase in the beginning to build a solid foundation to get the hang of things. The foundational knowledge in each language is different. For instance, pinyin (the Romanization of Chinese characters) and tones are an absolute must for any learners of Chinese. Without them, you are not going to learn the language. These things should be dealt with obsessively in the beginning. But they need to be approached in a way that encourages students rather than discourage them. I’ve seen many teachers who obsess over certain technical aspects of the language as a an end in itself rather than a means to an end. For example, many English teachers in China make students transcribe IPA after hearing a word instead of helping them using IPA to learn pronunciation and speak the language. Disembody the language is one of the most harmful things one can do to teach or learn a language.

4. Self-learning is an illusion.

There is plenty of products designed for the self-study learner. I’ve indeed seen many learners do well studying primarily on their own without going to a class or working with a teacher. But DO NOT confuse that with learning on your own and never interacting with a person. The truth is no language can be learned without a combination of input, study, practice, feedback and review. These are pillars in the language learning feedback loop. Not going to a class is fine  but you need to get practice and feedback from other sources. Don’t obsess with what, but make sure you understand why.

5. Embrace the repetitive nature of learning. 

Repetition is key in language learning. As dull as it sounds, there’s no way around it. Don’t expect to hear a new word or phrase and be able to internalize it, our brains do not work that way. In order to move new language from your short term memory into long term, you need to repeat hearing, saying and using it. But repetition doesn’t need to be dull and uninspiring, there are many ways to let yourself embrace and enjoy the repetitive nature of learning. One key element I found is that software programs make the worst repetition coach. Rather, find repetition with a human element. A real person can say the same thing 10 times but sound differently with emotion and intonation thrown in. In a similar way, you need to repeat what you hear and apply the same kind of real life subtleties that make learning alive.

6. Smaller chunks everyday work better than big chunks once a week.

The gym analogy effectively illustrates the point: it’s much more effective to do 20 minutes of workout per day than to do 90 minutes of workout once a week. There have been numerous studies on how shorter but more frequent chunks work better than longer and infrequent chunks in language learning. Smaller chunks are easier to implement and you are less likely to be bogged down by them. Many learners gradually dread the 2-hour language class and many stop going. We all know the slippery slope of missing one session, feeling guilty and unprepared and missing even more afterwards. But this isn’t saying that doing smaller daily chunks require no effort. You still need to find the time and space for it. So utilize ‘dead time’ throughout the day, e.g. the daily commute. If we can use it to read newspaper, listen to music or nap, so can we use it for language learning.

7. Create fun and reward in learning. 

We are all triggered by pleasure. If you are going to spend a lot of time doing something, it had better be fun. But when I say fun, this doesn’t mean fun in the sense of watching a comedy. It’s the kind of fun and joy that feel when you are fully engaged in an activity. Often you need to create that sense of fun for yourself by choosing resources and activities that are relevant to you and also find rewards to stimulate and motivate yourself. Once again, the reward isn’t the same kind of reward you get from eating a piece of chocolate cake. In language learning, rewards often come when you are able to complete a task using the language you’ve learned. This could be that the taxi driver took you to the right place based on the instruction you gave him or you were able to buy groceries from your local shopkeeper. The key is put yourself out there to find and create these opportunities that give you a sense of reward and accomplishment.

8. There’s no magic moment in language learning. 

I’ve seen many people think as long as they study for X number of hours, memorize X number of words and phrases, they will be able to speak the language. (Language books and schools are partly to blame for the misconception.) The truth is this will not happen. You need to constantly be hearing, learning and speaking the language and be able to get feedback and use it to improve. If you only get the input part and never practise or produce any language on your own, you are not going to learn how to use it. Once again, be obsessed about the feedback loop and constantly repeat it. Stop thinking that you are going to magically speak the language one day because you’ve put in the work to read books or memorize vocabulary. And stop trying to get everything perfect so that you feel secure and confident when using the language. You are going to sound imperfect in the beginning. That’s part of the deal. But you’ll get better. The magic of language learning happens in the everyday, the mundane, the miscommunication.

9. Mix and match products and services. 

There’s no single silver bullet solution in language learning. A single class, book, software program or app won’t solve all your problems. You need the elements in the feedback loop that I mentioned before: input, study, practice, feedback and review. Being in the language learning business for 8 years now, I’ve come to realize that different products and services excel at different things in that loop. My own startup, OpenLanguage for instance is focused on input and learning technology. But we don’t provide teachers. But we suggest that students work with a teacher or language partner when using our product and we are also looking at ways to work with schools and teachers. As a learner, this is something you need to realize and try to mix and match different products and services who do different things well. I’ve yet to see one company that does everything well and I am not sure that has to be the only way. I think collaboration will make our industry better.

10. You are not going to look at the world in the same way. 

If you are ready to take on the challenges posed in the previous 9 points, you’ll likely be rewarded in the most profound and fulfilling way for all your hard work. To borrow the words from the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, learning a new language will give you a ‘passport for your soul that allows you to travel freely across national borders’. You will see different sides of the world; connect with people and civilizations that you never dreamed of understanding; and you will also create so many wonderful and serendipitous personal and professional opportunities that enrich your life.


Interview With Benny Lewis: Busting The Language Learning Myth

I first met Benny in the summer of 2012 when he was learning Chinese and used our sister site ChinesePod as a resource. He is a real-life polyglot, speaking 8 languages fluently. He also writes the very popular Fluent in 3 Months blog where he shares his learning experiences and tips with fellow learners. He is a full-time career language learner, blogger and traveler, something many of us dream of doing. As unconventional as his lifestyle and learning path go, Benny has some rather widely applicable lessons for all language learners.

Q: How did you get started in language learning?

A: I am not a linguist by trade. In fact, until I was 21, English was the only language that I spoke. I had also done quite poorly with languages in school. So I am not naturally talented with languages. I actually have a degree in Electronic Engineering.

The transformation happened when I moved to Spain after graduation. I discovered that learning languages wasn’t so hard when you apply the right method! You also have to stop making excuses that you are too old, don’t have time, too shy to speak, etc. In fact, I lived in Spain for quite a while without learning any Spanish because I made a lot of excuses for myself. Myth 1: being in the country where the language is spoken doesn’t naturally lead you to speak the language; And not being there doesn’t mean that you won’t learn the language. It all starts with whether you set your mind to it.

After finally successfully reaching a confident stage in Spanish, my travels led me elsewhere. Dozens of countries and many languages (8 of which I speak fluently) later, I am now a full-time language hacker!

Q: When you are learning a new language, what approach do you take? 

A: I start with defining the goal I am trying to reach. For me, it’s always to use the language to communicate with people and get me through travels in that country (I learn a language and I travel to the place where it’s spoken). I think defining your personal goal is absolutely critical because it will determine the kind of approach and resources you use. Different people have different goals. For example, some learners have the goal of reading poems or novels or writing essays in the target language, which is very different from mine. Myth 2: there is no single approach. The approach you take depends on your personal learning goals. You need to define the goals for yourself before starting to learn the language.

Q: A lot of adult learners have the same goal as you, i.e. to use the language to communicate in everyday life. What advice would you give them? 

A: If that’s your goal, then you have to realize that you need to get natural input in the language first, then study, speak and review it constantly. It’s a feedback loop. In my case, once I get the input, I start speaking immediately while studying the language in a more structured way and I always try to get feedback so that I can improve. Myth 3: there is no magical moment when you’ve done x hours of study and suddenly you can speak the language. You can start speaking a new language right away. The important thing is the feedback loop: get input, start speaking, study, review and improve. You have to do these things in a cycle and do them frequently. 

Q: You seem to be especially good at picking and mixing resources that suit your needs. Any tips for our learners?

A: Let’s get to myth 4: there’s no single product or solution that will get you there. You need to look for things that help you complete the cycle I just mentioned. Different products and services excel at different things. Some have very natural and engaging dialogues, some do speaking well. The key is to mix them. Say you might have a phrase book or app that you really like which gives you good input, but if you don’t break that down and focus on using the language with real people on a regular basis, you won’t succeed.

Q:I totally agree. Instead of focusing on the ‘what’, we need to focus on the ‘why’. It’s not about what the product it is, but why you are using it to achieve a certain purpose. Given that we’ve just started a new year and many learners have language learning as a New Year’s resolution, what suggestions would you give them?

A: The most important piece of advice is that set a specific goal. Myth 5: ‘learn a language’ isn’t a helpful goal because it’s far too general. You need to set specific goals or milestones and come up with concrete steps and activities to achieve them. So instead of saying ‘I want to learn x language in the new year, tweak your goal into something like ‘I want to be able to learn x number of phrases so that I can start a basic conversation with someone.’ And then come up with actual steps to achieve your goal. It’s also very important that you check on yourself or get someone to help you to make sure that you’ve followed it through.

Q: I must ask, the name of your blog is ‘Fluent in 3 Months’, can someone really achieve fluecy in 3 months? 

A: 3 months is a target I set for myself where I need to achieve a level of fluency which enables me to travel to the target language country and live there. But I am doing this on a full time basis. I immerse myself in learning the language. The moment I wake up, when I am on the bus, etc. I am always learning. For the average busy adult, they are not going to have that much time. So you need to integrate learning into your daily routine and make sure that you are using dead bits of time to study. It often means that you’ll do shorter chunks but frequently. It also means that you’ll probably need to give up 2 hours of TV every night and spend that time on learning instead. I’ve never seen someone who can learn a language without putting in the hard work. Myth 6: there’s no short cut to learning. If you don’t spend time on it, you are not going to learn.

Q: Very true. But there’s a lot that one can do to spend their time more efficiently and get the most out of their learning. 

A: Definitetly. Myth 7: you have to suffer in order to learn a language. You need to work hard, but it doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy it. And simply putting in the hours and going through motions doesn’t mean you are learning either. So it’s really important to find resources and activities that are relevant to you, contribute to your success and are what you enjoy. Only then will they work for you. 


Interview With Aaron Myers: How To Succeed As An Everyday Language Learner

Today I talk to Aaron Myers of The Everyday Language Learner, a blog dedicated to empowering regular people learn a new language. 

Aaron has been called a ‘language learning guru’ by many. But what I found most impressive isn’t the guru part, but his attitude that anyone can succeed at language learning given the right approach and resources, a view that I passionately share. 

Most of the learners on OpenLanguage are busy adults juggling work, life and learning. I asked Aaron for some practical methods, activities and tools that can help you make the most out of your learning.

A few key takeaways from the interview:

  • Finding a learning path that suits you, your lifestyle and goals. At the risk of sounding like a life-coach, effective learning does start with knowing who you are and what you want.
  • Knowing the key elements in learning a new language. You need input, study, review and practice to form the basis.
  • The importance of natural, comprehensible input. If you are learning a language to communicate in real life, then expose yourself to real language, not vocab and grammar lists.
  • Setting up anchor activities to make learning part of your daily routine.
  • It’s extremely important to have fun with learning. Find resources and activities that will help you enjoy learning.
  • Learn smaller chunks regularly rather than one big chunck infrequently.
  • What to do when you hit a learning plateau: raise your language needs. We only learn a language to the level of our needs.

I hope you find these tips useful and applicable. Thoughts, comments welcomed!