Tag Archives: language learning

5 Ways to Actually Learn a Language

Learning a new language is a goal many of us have but few of us ever achieve. OpenLanguage provides a highly-effective, convenient, and entertaining language learning system that will put you on the road to linguistic success. In addition to an effective learning system, however, it’s important to focus on how you approach learning a language. Here are some key ways that will help ensure that you don’t just study a language but that you actually learn it.

1. Choose a language you actually want to learn

The fundamental thing that will result in language learning success is of course motivation – you can have all the resources in the world, but if you’re not up to using them you’ll get no where. Thus to be truly successful in learning a language, it’s best choose one that you really want to learn. Maybe you have a close friend that speaks Spanish that you would like to be able to communicate with in their native language. Maybe your company also does business in China and learning Chinese will help advance your career. Or maybe you love Japanese films and want to be able to understand them in their original language. Whatever the reason, choosing a language that motivates you enough to push through those periods of difficulty is the key first ingredient in the recipe for language learning success.


2. Find ways to connect the language to the real world

Language learning is traditionally the stuff of classrooms, water-damaged textbooks, and endless repetitive exercises. What this method fails to acknowledge is that language is about people, not words and grammar points. And, believe it or not, the people that speak the language you want to learn do not live on page 76, exercise 3; they live in the real world, using that language to talk to parents, write work emails, and fall in love. Seek out ways to connect the language you’re studying to the worlds where its actually spoken. This could mean finding music or TV shows in that language to see what native speakers are into, seeking out versions of the websites you love to find out how they actually talk about stuff, or (of course) finding someone who speaks that language natively to chat with. In doing this, you’ll better understand how the language is used and feels when spoken by real people, which is almost always different from how it is used and feels when being taught from a textbook. OpenLanguage is unique in that it provides real language taught by real people, making this real world connection a central part of your studies. Through this real world connection, the language you’re studying will go from feeling like a fossil that you study as a specimen to being a living, breathing thing that you actually want to continue to get to know.


3. Try to continue studying even when you’re not “studying”

It’s easy to study for a little bit and then go on with your day without ever once thinking about what you were learning earlier. But to really internalize a language, which is the ultimate goal when studying a language, you have to bring that language with you wherever you go. You’re walking to your car – how do you say “car” in Italian? You head to the store to buy some bread – what’s the right way to say “bread” in Arabic? You just remembered that you need to call your friend – how do you say “I call my friend” in French? By teaching your brain to constantly think about the language you’re learning, it will become second nature to constantly reinforce everything you’ve been learning.


4. Go back

Make a point of regularly going back to things you’ve previously studied. You may be years into your studies, but upon returning to beginner topics you may be surprised to find things that you’ve been doing incorrectly all along. Often times these things that were glossed over earlier on in your studies will add a great deal to your now more advanced abilities. Most importantly, going back is an important motivational tool: remember that lesson that was once so difficult for you to understand? Go back and listen to it after a few months of studying and realize how much you’ve progressed.


5. Make your learning your own

People love to make big statements about one-size-fits-all language learning tricks, but the bottom line is that you have to make your learning your own. Did that trick or method of studying that you just tried work? Keep doing it. Are you learning Russian in order to communicate effectively during a month vacation in Russia and don’t care much about being able to write the alphabet? Then focus on speaking. Do you only feel like learning how to talk about food and don’t care about learning hospital-related vocabulary? Then food it is. Learning a language is about enriching your life and reaching your goals, and getting there requires initiative on your part to find the method and approach that fits your needs.


The Serendipitous Joy of Learning a Language

Language products often look very similar. Despite the expansion of new technology that has transformed books to computers to smartphones and tablets, the learner actually finds a very similar set of content for most languages. It’s understandable since the function of languages has not changed nearly as much as the technology. However more importantly, the approach of producing language learning content is still stuck in the industrial economy despite the change in technology.

Looking through a wide range of books, softwares, websites and apps, you’ll find a similar list of topics for languages as varied as Arabic and Chinese. Learners start from basic greetings and introductions and move up to shopping, wining, dining, etc.

I’ve always wondered how much the learner misses out when the majority of learning materials look so similar. What if you want to learn to express things that are NOT on the list? For example, proposing to your Chinese girlfriend? Talking to an emergency phone operator in Spanish? Or debating about the status of the European Union in French? As niche as these needs might be, they reflect how language acquisition and usage take place in real life. It’s often far more serendipitous than textbooks and softwares prepare us for.

Sadly it’s far more efficient to produce a largely similar set of phrases in any given language than to try to capture the richness of situations and the language used. Industrial era publishing economics still dominate digital era language learning content production. The same content simply moves from paper to touch screens. The technology innovation is way ahead of content innovation. Most content providers have yet to catch up with a new reality of leveraging technology to provide a living and breathing landscape of language learning. Adaptive learning algorithms won’t help us fundamentally expand the border of language learning if the core content is still a stale set of 500 phrases.

As a language educator and entrepreneur, my challenge is to recognize the serendipitous nature of language learning and trying to enrich learners exposure to the width and depth of the language they’re learning. It might very well mean different things to different learners. A tourist’s language needs are very different from a professional expat’s whose needs are yet different from someone who is learning the language as a hobby. But the common thread is always high frequency language in high frequency situations for that different target learner. That’s why language courses should always evolve and expand to reflect the richness of real life experiences. The best kind of journey is often the one that takes you to a different place and leads you to new discoveries. True of life and true of language learning.

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!



Top 5- Ways to Achieve Fluency in a Foreign Language

This week’s Top 5 answers the question that every language learner wants to know- how do you achieve fluency in a foreign language?  There are no magic shortcuts, but simply studying from your textbook every week probably won’t get you the results you’re looking for.  The following tips will get you out of the textbook and push your language learning to the next level.

Consume Media-  The most fluent language speakers I’ve encountered are consumers of media in the target language.  Whether its tv shows, movies, or music, regularly listening to the language will attune your ears to the sounds of the language and allow you to better understand native speakers and speak with more natural intonation.

Experience the Culture- Plunging into the culture is a great way to begin speaking more of the language that you study.  If you enjoy food, drink, dance, or other hobbies of a specific region of the world, it helps connect you to the language in a whole new way.  You’ll find yourself picking up new vocabulary and be able to converse with the natives on a deeper level.

Follow Your Interests- Turn your hobby into a learning opportunity.  Whether it’s art, music, sports, or anything else, learn the vocabulary of your interests and develop the confidence to talk about it in the language that you study.

Chat with Natives- If you are in the country of the language you’re learning, this is easy!  Walk outside and chat with people at the convenient store, chat with your cab driver, or simply order food at a restaurant using the language.  Fortunately, even if you aren’t living in a country that speaks the language you’re studying, the internet makes it easy to converse with natives through online social networks for language learning.

Immerse Yourself in the Language- This one really sums up the best ways to learn a language. And you don’t have to live in a country that speaks the language to do this. All of these things revolve around finding ways to incorporate language learning through things that you can enjoy.  Find things that interest you and find people that speak the language that you’re learning and talk about those things.  Watch movies or listen to music that you enjoy. Speak as much as you can, and don’t worry about making mistakes.  Creating an environment that revolves around the language you’re studying is the best way to truly emerge as a fluent speaker.

Speak Like You in a Second Language, not a Robot

Yahoo recently paid $30 million for the news reading app Summly and its 17-year-old founder Nick D’Aloisio’s time. If you havn’t used this app, watch this intro video as Nick and British actor and Summly investor Stephen Fry walk you through what Summly is all about.

‘Summly thinks like you, not a robot’. That’s the line that stuck with me after watching the video. It’s true for Summly’s intelligent algorithm summarizing news stories and magazine articles for its user. It’s also true for anyone who is learning a second language. Having been a language learner myself and now a language startup entrepreneur, I’ve used too many books, CD ROM’s and software programs that teach learners language that people don’t actually use in real life. They compel you to learn sentence structures that comply with a syllabus, an exam; or expose you to voice actors who are made to speak so slowly and robotically to dumb it down for learners at the expense of how one really speaks in real life. Often the human construct of how one acquires a language does more harm than good to a learner.

Why shouldn’t we learn a new language as how it’s used in the real world?  Grant it that a learner needs a more ‘controlled’ environment that gradually introduces them to the varying difficulty of a language. But the best kind of learning happens when it’s relevant to the real world. I recently talked to a beginner learner of Chinese who was proud that he was able to figure out how to get his dry cleaning done with his very limited Chinese. He was able to do it and learn new words and phrases because he went down to a dry cleaner and had a real exchange. The context helped him piece together new words and phrases from his existing knowledge. And he’ll internalize it because going to the dry cleaner will be a routine and he will lot of chance to practice what he’s learned.

Now, the challenge is how do we help learner create this kind of authentic language environment away from the target language country and how do we make it into a standardized learning process that they can repeat and internalize? Real human interaction and exchange are key. That’s why at OpenLanguage, we’d like to think of our job as capturing those authentic moments in life, making into meaningful learning pieces that help learners acquire a new language in both a natural and effective way. Rigidly following a grammar book or syllabus is as unhelpful for an adult learner as throwing them in the wild target language environment and hope they’d magically acquire the language. We’re very insistent on the comprehensible approach of teaching languages. That’s why our lessons are centered around a core dialogue that’s high frequency and natural, we then extract the vocabulary and grammar structures from it, not the other way around.

We want to present language to learners in a way that’s rich with context and authenticity. We don’t want to disembody language from real life and have learners simply memorie words, phases or repeat after a robotic voice.  We believe that learners should learn languages in a way that preserves who they are, how they are going to use it. In short, we want to make sure that you speak like you in a new language, not a robot.