Monday, March 11, 2013

The Tip Grotto: Part 1

Languages can often be incredibly frustrating. For many of us adult-learners, it is after all as if we're returning to childhood, making mistakes, sometimes embarassing ourselves, and other times remaining awkward and speechless. "If only there were someone out there who knew my pain, and could provide some pretty helpful tips to ease this cumbersome, yet self-inflicted process!", you cry...

Well, few things in life are as challenging as changing your way of thinking, and purposefully placing yourself in such a helpless situation - especially for that timespan in which you feel you're making no progress. Page after page goes by, audio courses get boring, and software is used, but still the struggle goes on to say even simplest thing in conversation. Then, a ta-da moment. Suddenly you speak to someone and something clicks. Even a mere sentence here, or phrase there is a great confidence builder, and motivation returns. Wouldn't it be fab to have them all the time?

Now, I'm no teacher - but it's nice to share what one finds helpful. So, in that vein I've pulled together some notes that have really helped me in my own language adventures, and though you may know some of them already, give them a gander and maybe you'll find something new. This is part 1 of The Tip Grotto:

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- Patience Is A Virtue -

This (ironically) took me a while to understand, but learning a language is akin to training at the gym, or learning a song, or writing a book. It is long, difficult work, and you seldom see any noticeable result. My advice to anyone taking a stab at a new tongue is the same advice people give when you're learning anything; keep at it. Attack from different angles, and suddenly you'll realise you know more than you thought. Hey, you already know one language (sometimes two if you're lucky...), so there's no reason you can't do it again right? A little bit each day will do it. Give it time. Don't give it rest. Grrr.

- Make It Yours -

Personalisation is powerful. It creates a very strong cognitive coupling and keeps things interesting, which in turn makes learning more effective.

What do I mean here? Well ... you're the painter, but for example; a friend of mine uses coloured pens with which he writes new vocabulary, each colour matching the word's gender. Similarly, I use post-it notes and write sentences on them, then stick them in weird places around the house. You could keep a 'learning journal' or replace lines of your favourite songs with phrases in the target language. Here in this image, I've written two words to teach myself how the punctuation marks in Spanish work.

Sidenote: Writing things down is very very helpful, just the act of penning a sentence seems to somewhat magically increase retention. It isn't the be-all-and-end-all of course, you still have to peek at them to get them into the folds of that big brain of yours, but it makes it that much easier (1).

- Choose Your Poison, Carefully -

Watch out for false promises. Claims of 'Master German in 1 Hour!' and so on are just not possible, and they lead to disappointment. Having said that (and somewhat ironically), realising that it isn't true makes these courses more effective sometimes. The logic here? Well, once you subconsciously admit that you know they're lying, you tend to approach the material differently and with a different mindset. Knowing it won't take 1 hour to master german lets you throw that expectation out, and learn without pressure, for example.

If you do purchase or come by such a course, note that there is often value in them, but you'll have to do some 'transmuting' of information to get the most from it. For example; many courses just throw hundreds of phrases at you. There's no way to effectively absorb this information without doing something else with it. Pop them on flash cards, or take out key words or vocab and you'll probably find it's much more effective.

- Be Cool, Soda Pop -

This is one of the most important things. The late Michel Thomas, Polish polyglot and in general just a very cool gent, noted frequently that 'stress is an inhibitor to learning' - and as far as I am concerned, he was absoutely right. Languages are particularly daunting, but don't stress! Smile, breathe, and learn in a calm place where you can focus. As before, make it fun and relaxing for yourself in any way you can. Try not to work with the tv or music on too, it really messes with your head and sucks concentration out (interestingly, one type music said to help and possibly improve concentration is classical baroque). The key here, relax, and enjoy the process. You are making progress whether you notice it or not, be proud of that!
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A short tangent here; I am (admittedly) a culprit of the deep sigh. Many times, when I come across a new concept I just can't get my head around, I tend to make some kind of animalistic noise and pray for a divine, Lyra Bellaqua-esque boon to come across my brain (this only happened once, and if you missed my infallible performance of Rachmaninov, then shame on you...). But learning to love these moments is possible. With a moment of oblique thinking, problems become games, and who doesn't like games?

I suppose my closing point here is that the challenges that accompany langauges are numerous, but as many have proved, it is of course totally within your reach! I hope some of these tips have been helpful, good luck to you, and please post any questions and comments below.

Stay tuned for part 2.


(1) There's a great program called Anki which I find invaluable, it's flash cards done right, designed with proper time-based recall and a great mobile app. It's pricey (iPhone/Android version $25) but worth it if you are serious. The app for Mac/PC is free,and super powerful.


  1. Thanks for the tips! (Laughed at 'Be cool, Soda Pop') ;) Maybe I'll have to give Polish another shot sometime. (When my computer broke, i lost the learning software - not that I was doing so great before that point!)

  2. Haha. Yeah I wondered if anyone would get that one. ;) I'm still in post-announcement excitement mode with VM I guess!

    Yeah too bad about your computer. :( If you're finding the Michel Thomas not so effective though, there's also a great series from Routledge (called the 'Colloquials'). I've not tried Colloquial Polish but I've used others and they're nicely put together. You can get them on Book Depository ( for the cheapest I've seen, but Amazon sometimes beats them. :) (Watch out to be sure you get the version with audio too)

    Jimzip :D