All posts by Amy Whitney

Anyone who has started to learn a second language knows this decision is an adventure. This blog was created to share the personal challenges and successes that are surely on this road. To express the emotions that come with desire to develop this new skill. An adventure that becomes a very person mission that you feel you would do anything to accomplish it.

My ideas to improve my conversational skills in a new language

Recently, I have had a number of things that have been making me frustrated while trying to learn a second language. I think it has to do with a couple of things. Firstly, I am impatient. I want to learn this language more than anything I have ever wanted before. The second issue is that I am still struggling to speak easily in conversation despite the amount of practice I have done and the large amount of vocabulary I know. Does this sound familiar to you?

I have been studying the language I want to learn in a serious way for about 8 months now. There has been progress, I can do things I could not do 8 months ago. I can actually talk to a native speaker to communicate simple ideas, I understand quite a bit when reading and listening too. These are all signs of progress which is good. However, I have felt like my progression has slowed down instead of continued to accelerate. Obviously I have learned some new things but, likely not the right things that will help to improve my flow in conversation.

So, I had to start reflecting on what is preventing me from learning this language quickly. Why is it taking me so long to learn?  I have a few ideas, maybe you guys can leave your comments below and share some of your own discoveries to help other language learners get over challenges they are facing.

The goal I am working on right now is to be able to have a 30 minute conversation in my new language without feeling anxious or feeling like I am constantly straining my ears to understanding what the other person is saying to me. My goal is not fluency right now, it is only to be at a stage where it doesn’t feel difficult to communicate. So I asked myself: What part of the conversation is the most difficult?

learn english better

My first realization was that I was frustrated in general with the language. For the first time since I have started learning, I actually considered taking a break from learning for a while. That is not going to happen, I don’t want to lose the progress I have made.

I don’t know about you but when I am frustrated I do not learn very well, my focus is very poor and I am even less receptive to criticism or corrections. In fact, when I am in a frustrated state of mind, the corrections have received actually take away from my confidence while speaking! What is interesting is that I WANT corrections, I need to know how to speak like a native speaker and how they would say it naturally. So, why am I losing confidence and feeling like a failure when I make a mistake? I can tell you, it is not in my mindset, it is my natural emotional reaction. I think it comes from the school system and how it is ‘bad’ to be wrong.

You may want to read my last article I wrote about problems with learning in a classroom or a group environment to understand what I am talking about in more detail.

I noticed I needed to focus on improving the areas where I am struggling during my conversations. Lately, I have been avoiding my grammar and verb textbook because I am trying to stop thinking like a word-for-word translator or conjugating verbs like a grammar textbook; however, there were 2 past tenses that I have been unable to use in conversation because I am always doubting myself. I can’t remember the verb ‘rules’ and which verbs have the exceptions. So naturally, I have not been using it and I have forgotten the rules. To my surprise, I was able to review the 2 tenses and the rules in less than an hour (rather than the month it took me to learn the first time). I have no idea why I didn’t do this sooner.

A concern that I really needed to address (to look at), was my reaction to corrections. Consciously, I know that corrections are what I want and need. My emotional reaction says something different. I decided to make this into a positive mental game. Every time I make a mistake (and the other person is nice enough to correct me), I give myself a point or make a note to myself that this is a positive thing. ‘Mistakes’ signify that I am speaking outside of the vocabulary and grammar that I am comfortable speaking. The more mistakes I make, the more corrections I receive, the more I can learn in one conversation.

Be brave to start a real conversation

As I said before, I have a good vocabulary base in the language but I noticed I am using the same words over and over again instead of new vocabulary or verbs. Active vocabulary refers to the words that are easy for you remember and you feel comfortable and confident using them. Lately, my focus has been on building new vocabulary but I clearly need to strengthen some of the original vocabulary I studied and ‘learned’. When I am speaking, I know that these words are in my head but they are not part of my active vocabulary. I have too many words that are part of my passive vocabulary.  Words that feel like they are stored in the basement of a library, that is super difficult to access, instead of being accessible at the front of my mind easily. I will leave some more information about the vocabulary app I use at the end of this article, it’s a really good one and it’s free!

I have changed my approach to ‘learning’ the vocabulary in my word this time. When I see a word, I try to put it into at least 3 sentences. I have been surprised by how many words I could not do this with. Usually this happens with verbs that I am unsure of the conjugation or how it works grammatically in an actual sentence. I also I have to say the sentences out loud. Yes, I talk to myself all the time, luckily it is usually in my car but I do it while walking too. When I speak out loud, I can identify words that are difficult to say and I work on the pronunciation.

This last idea for building active vocabulary is my favorite one. I have a few different language exchange partners and I have noticed we all want the same thing… We want a customized recording from a native speaker. So, I send them a list of words I am trying to learn and they make a story out of the words. It is so easy for the native speaker to record 5 minutes of audio in their own language. The benefit for me is priceless. I can review hundreds of vocabulary words in less than 30 minutes of audio. Beyond that, you get to hear the accent of the person you are practicing with. Not only will you be able to understand them better when you speak but you can try to mimic the accent and how they say the words or sentences. I appreciate these recordings so much.  I even try to create a dictation so I can study the grammar of the story, test my listening comprehension,  identify new words in the audio and learn what they mean.

Please tell me what ideas you have or ideas that have helped you with your conversations. Don’t forget to follow this blog so you know when I release a new post. I’ll try to  give you guys an update to share if my new techniques are helping my progress with conversation.

As I promised, the application or website I use  for reviewing words is a flashcard app called Brainscape. It’s a free app and you can build your own flashcard decks or purchase one of their existing flashcard decks for the language you are learning. This website or phone app uses a system called spaced repetition, which shows you words you are not confident with more often than the words you know well.

Happy learning!

The Big Problem with Learning Languages in a Classroom

Recently, I was talking to a girl I know who decided to start learning a language to be able to travel comfortably later this year. She is studying to be a lawyer at a university already, so she decided to take the language course through the university. The previous week, I had recommended a website where she could find a native speaker to practice with, a service that is free, (www.conversationexchange.com.) This was her response,

No, not yet. The reason is that I am worried about saying something wrong. I am kind of nervous to try, It’s also very uncomfortable for me to talk to people for the first time especially by Skype. Sometimes when I am in my language class, my professor will ask me a question. Even if I think I know the answer, I don’t want to say it because I think I might be wrong or I think I might have misunderstood the question.”

Where does negative feeling of being ‘incorrect or wrong’ come from??? Well, I will tell you what I think…

Schools from all around the world use a similar method for teaching groups of people. They present the information to the students, they ask some questions to make sure the students understand, theembarrassed girl intermediate englishy do some exercises and then they give you a test to evaluate your performance. This is the system I know and see the most often in public schools since, I was a child. Of course, there are exceptions. So what is the problem with the system?

There is only one goal for the student: To try to be correct!

The education system values these ideas: it is bad to make errors, to be incorrect or to not know the answer. If you are not correct, you will receive a penalty such as a lower grades or marks, social humiliation and you will likely feel stupid for not knowing the answers.

We are not borne with this knowledge, which is why we are in school or a course. The only way to learn is to make mistakes until you figure out how to do it correctly. This teaching method is accepted and is used because it allows teachers to measure results. The issue with this style of teaching is very clear when you compare learning a subject like math to learning a language. Math requires practice of a method to learn how to find the right answer. Language is creative and there are dozens of ways of expressing the same thought. There is no single answer that is right or wrong, just lots of practice to figure out how to say it better.

Anyone who is learning a language knows that you need try to use it. What happens is: we make lots of mistakes, ask lots of questions (questions that feel like stupid questions) and we need to be corrected all the time! In order to learn ANYTHING you need to try you start by taking a few guesses or tries until you find the answer.

I want you to imagine you are in a classroom and the teacher decides to ask you a question. You aren’t sure of the answer. This isn’t your fault because the teacher has not taught you or given an environment where you can safely ask the question. Next, you are classroom learning a languageforced to respond with either a guess or to announce to the entire class that you do not know the answer. Then you feel like an idiot, you feel stupid, you feel that everyone else in the class must think you are stupid too and of course, the teacher thinks you don’t remember anything they have taught you. This is a perfect example of the social humiliation aspect of being incorrect. If you are correct and you know the answer – you are allowed to skip the penalty for not knowing something new.

Where is the encouragement to try even if you are incorrect? Why is there no system to reward students for trying? The harder you try, the more you should be rewarded. A person who tries all the time, without fear of being embarrassed, receiving poor grades or looking stupid will perform better, they will learn more. They will ask more questions too.

Unfortunately, after going through an educational system that values ‘being correct’ above everything else; we develop a mental attitude that makes us hate the feeling of ‘being incorrect’. It has created an ego inside of us and that ego has one goal: I must be correct so I can be reward by the education system. Making mistakes is an unavoidable part of learning, teachers know this fact but the method of teaching does not create the optimal environment for learning.

I cannot offer any solutions to the problems in the teaching methods I have talked about today, but I hope that by telling you my opinion, you will be aware of your natural desire to be ‘correct’ all the time and where it comes from. Please share your opinion in the comments below and let me know if you like the educational system or if you feel it could be improved.

Be sure to follow this blog if you liked this post. Visit my website at http://www.realenglishconversations.net/.

Keeping your Motivation Momentum for Learning Part 3

The biggest motivator is progress, hands down (without any doubt). At times you can forget to look at the amazing progress you have made. Personally, I am not very good at documenting my progress on a calendar or even taking measurements before I start on a goal.  For this reason, it can feel like I am not making any progress.

To view part 1 of this article Click Here ‘Are you lacking discipline or motivation to learn English’

To view Part 2 of this article Click Here ‘Finding the long term motivation to learn another language’

What I find to be an effective way to appreciate my progress is to look back one month. It seems to be enough time that I can still clearly remember with clarity how I was feeling or what my skill level was at during that time. It is also enough time to make noticeable progress.

Motivational Quote Learn English

Last month I was working on my listening skills. Something I have be struggling with since I started to learn another language.  I decided to give a bit of special attention to my listening comprehension for about 3 weeks, mainly to improve conversations. I started listening to more challenging audio of conversations than I was comfortable listening to. I also had real conversations through language exchanges with native speakers. I really tried to focus on the sounds, tried to separate the sounds into words I was hearing and most importantly, I stopped trying to understand every word I was hearing.

The first time I listened to a 100% Spanish conversation I could only understand about 50% of what was said and I could only handle 10 minutes of listening at a time. My brain was overloaded. How was I feeling when I heard a difficult conversation? I was feeling frustrated that I could not understand more and that I was still overwhelmed by the speed of the conversation.

One month later: I can listen to 2-3 hours of Spanish audio at a time without my brain feeling tired or overwhelmed. The ‘intermediate’ audio now seems slow. Initially I could not hear that the hosts were actually speaking slower. I now understand 80-90% of all the words and can now learn new words just from listening to the audio.

Have I made progress? Absolutely but the truth is, if you asked me if I have made any progress since last week, I would say, “No, I do not feel I have made progress since last week.” This is why it is very important to remember back to a period of time you can still remember well; and make sure it is enough time where you have had time to make progress.

Momentum Quote Learn English

What if you cannot recognize any progress? Firstly, you need to ask yourself if you have been studying and if you method is working. If you are not sure, I would suggest trying a different technique. Sometimes we are stuck in a certain learning style but trying something different can be an easy solution to see more progress. If you are confident in the system you are using but you cannot recognize your results, you might have to find a way of recording you current level for comparison at a later time.

I use a goal tracking app to track how many new words I have learned, how many hours I have studied, hours spoken and hours I have listened to my target language. This is another tool I use to stay motivated. When I see that I have learned 2500+ words in 8 months or that I have studied over 400 hours… that’s cool. I have no choice but to recognize I have come a long way.

What methods have worked for you to stay motivated? Please share your strategies so that others can learn from your ideas!

P.S. – A side note, but a great piece of advice I would like to share with you about listening comprehension. If you struggle with understanding what you hear:

  1. Try to figure out what the person is talking about, in general. Stop trying to hear every word.
  2. Do not stop to think about a word you recognize: you either know it or you don’t. If you know the word, your brain will be able to process the meaning, don’t worry about the ones you don’t know or recognize.

Finding the Long Term Motivation to Learn another Language Part 2

I have already explained the difference between will-power and motivation. If you missed that blog post, you can find it here.

The next logical question is: How can I develop long term motivation after my initial motivation fades away?

There are various methods for maintaining your motivation that you might find online or in books. Most of them involve a structuredaily-motivation-910 where you set a goal, make a plan and take daily action toward achieving your goal. Personally, I have not found these to be very effective for more than 1-2 weeks. What happens is that I am naturally motivated to do something for the first few days, then for the next few days I am having to use my will-power to actually bring myself to do the task ‘that I am supposed to do’. Take note of the wording: I am supposed to do. By the end of the second week, the tasks to achieve the goal is starting to feel like a chore, a responsibility and I am not looking forward to doing it most of the time.

I recently found a motivation strategy that is working very well for me. To start, I use the typical goal setting steps:

  • Determine my end result
  • The date I want to achieve it by
  • The steps I need to take on a daily basis to achieve it

The next step is creating a vision that is so real you know it is going to happen. It is the type of vision that you can feel inside you. I want you to think about how it is going to feel when you reach your goal and what you are going to be experiencing when that happens. If this step only takes you a few minutes to think about, it is not vivid enough. It may even be something you develop over a few days. Develop your vision while you are naturally motivated within the first few days where you start to take action!

I will share with you my personal goal for learning another language, this is my plan:

End Result: To be able to have a conversation with any Spanish speaker, with any accent, in any type of situation without struggling and without feeling nervous. After this point I will work on improving my grammar and try to improve my level of the language to a higher level.

Date to Achieve My Goal: November 2015 for my trip to Colombia (10 months from the date of this post).

Steps I need to take on a daily basis: Learn something new, chat or talk with a native speaker, practice what I have learned, identify where I need to improve the most and give extra focus to that.

My vision: When I arrive to Colombia in November… I can feel the warm tropical air of the coast as I exit the airplane. When I am taking a taxi to my destination, I can have a pleasant conversation with the taxi driver and listen to him boast about how awesome his country is and why I am going to love it so much. I want to experience shopping at the local markets, be able to ask about the foreign fruits and vegetable and how they are used in cooking. I will have the opportunity to discover restaurants, bars and cultural events that a non-Spanish speakers will never even know about. I want to be able to ask locals about their culture and have discussions with interesting people I encounter along the way. I will feel small experiences during my trip that will fill my days when I move and live in South America.

My moment of recognition for reaching my goal is not going be on a certain date, or a particular number of words I know or a certain ‘level’ of the language that I reached. I will know I have accomplished my goal when I am living out my vision and what I feel in that immersion situation. I want this so badly, there is no way it is not going to happen.steve jobs quote

I don’t know if you can feel my vision the way I do, but I have so much motivation when I think about this experience, this vision, that I am unable to stop myself from studying Spanish. I have created a love for the language and a bit of an obsession, really.

The key is to feel your goal. To imagine how much better it will feel to live in that moment I have envisioned. Achieving that feeling that is very far away, beats the procrastination that may be tempting today. In other words, it might seem like a more enjoyable activity to watch a movie or go out with a friend instead of studying but neither of those activities will be as gratifying as taking a step towards reaching a bigger goal. I am not suggesting that you spend every free moment working on your goal, but do not allow other temptations to get in the way of achieving the minimum amount of daily dedication you would like to contribute to your long term goal.

I know that I have so much more work to do, but it doesn’t matter. I know that I have to work at it a little bit each day, it’s not going to happen overnight. This is a big goal and big goals can be very challenging to achieve. I find that each day as I am working towards learning a language, it feels like I am not making any progress. It seems like I am no better today than I was last week. I will share some of the obstacles I have faced with maintaining motivation in next week’s article and share some strategies for overcoming them.

Continue reading part 3 of this post by clicking here.

Are you lacking discipline or motivation to learn English? Part 1

Where does our self-discipline come from? Why can some people operate in a way that allows them to accomplish anything, while others can hardly maintain their existence? How can we change the negative feeling of discipline into the positive feeling of motivation?

I was thinking about the difference between self-discipline and motivation. The word discipline, in general, has a negative sound to it. It is a word that makes you feel like you have to do something even though you do not want to.  Whether it is the type of discipline you receive for bad behaviour from someone else (example: being disciplined as a child from a parent). Or self-discipline which creates negative feeling about yourself when you do not complete a task you have decided to do. Therefore, you are disciplining yourself.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.
‒Nelson Mandela

The type of discipline I am speaking about in this article is self-discipline. We praise ourselves when we have self-disciple because it means you have the ability do something, even if you don’t want to do it. Discipline is also known as will-power. Everyone has a different amount of will-power within themselves and the amount of will-power within a person changes from day-to-day. It is also different from one person to the next.

I would like you to think about your will-power as a bank account. Your will-power (or discipline) will run out each day if you are not careful how you use it. Everyday activities are taking withdrawals from you will-power account, or in other words, taking away from the amount of will-power you have left for the day. Going to work, taking care of kids, doing some exercise, eating healthy and learning a second language are great examples that typically require discipline and will power.

Where does motivation come from? How is it different than will-power or discipline? Unlike discipline, the word motivation has a positive energy. Motivation comes an idea to improve something. Motivation also creates action. When you take action towards a goal, you will have results, which can create more motivation.

Motivation starts with a great idea. One that is really going to help you to improve you life in some way. The motivation comes when you decide to take action on this great idea. At the beginning, you will see progress and some results. The idea is new, interesting and exciting, so you naturally have a high level of motivation to do the activity every day.

But then… something becomes difficult or it is not as intereMotivational quote to learn englishsting anymore and the natural motivation dies.

This is the point in time where you need to decide: Am I going to use my will-power every day until this goal is complete? Or am I going to figure out how to stay motivated? When you are motivated about an activity, you do not need to withdrawal or deduct from your will-power account to complete that activity.

Find the second part of this article by clicking here. This is part one of a four part series. Follow this blog to receive updates when I post a new article! Thanks for reading :)

-Amy

Is learning English one of your Greatest Accomplishments?

In June of this year I turned 30 years old. I heard many comments near my birthday from other people relating to  being in my 30’s. The most common question was: How do you feel about being 30?

The truth is I feel like I have the life experience of someone who is much older, maybe even 40. So my answer to the question is typically: I have done a lot of great things already and I don’t have any regrets about not taking action on the things I wanted to pursue. I feel pretty good with what I have accomplished so far!

What have I accomplished so far that make me feel this way? And how do these accomplishments compare to my feelings about learning a second language? Well, here are the highlights:

  • I started my first business at 20, it has been successfully operating for over 10 years now.Success Quote
  • I have travelled to many countries.
  • I found a wonderful husband who feels like my best friend for 12 years now.
  • I own my own home.
  • And I know exactly what I want to do with my life in within the next 5 years.

For someone that is 30, other people may think I have had ‘success’ or accomplished a lot in my life so far; however, none of these things compare to the feeling I have inside when I think about how it will feel when I am able to communicate easily in a second language. I cannot wait until I am able to live the moment where I am in another country and have conversations with new friends in another language, just like the conversations I have now.

There is something different about the process of working through the constant challenges of learning a new language. It is a humbling experience that makes you feel excited, frustrated, super-smart, very stupid, brave, intimidated and embarrassed all in one day! It is nothing like starting a business where you can blame the economy, lack of experience or any other factor – learning a language is personal and the challenges affect you on a personal level.

Success is often determined by money; even though learning a language does not have a monetary impact on your life, I still consider it a huge accomplishment. I even believe it will be one of my greatest success stories. By experience the process that you must go through when learning a language, it is amazing feeling of success when you finally reach your goal. It’s a set of challenges that you have to deal with and overcome them. These are the type of skills that make you a better person at the end of the day, a more productive person that thinks creatively, has discipline and doesn’t give up when things get difficult.Success picture

I hope you guys realize that you have already accomplished a lot, especially if you are reading this blog post in English. Take a minute to recognize how far you have come and give yourself a moment to find that feeling of success you will have inside when you can finally communicate in your new language.

How to get over feeling stupid speaking in a new language

Audio Blog Learn English(Audio will open in a separate window)

I’m certain that everyone learning a language feels uncomfortable most of the time when they are trying to express themselves, especially at the start. How can we build up our confidence and stop

Learn English Intermediate feeling like we are less intelligent because we are not able to express ourselves as well as we can in our native language?

I am currently learning Spanish and feel as though I am at an intermediate level at the moment; however, I still feel very frustrated and still feel embarrassment when I am trying to communicate in Spanish instead of English. It is not the fact that I have a limited vocabulary or that I have a hard time fluidly speaking a thought… it is more the fact that I am unable to appear at my usual intelligence level when I am speaking in Spanish.

I know I am speaking like a caveman, like an uneducated person, mispronouncing words, mixing up grammar, speaking in the wrong tenses etc. etc. However, this is part of the process of learning how to use the language that you have learned and deliver it to the person you are speaking with. It is so different speaking a new language compared to writing, reading or hearing it!

During a chat with one of my favorite language exchange partners, I expressed the emotions I was experiencing when I try to communicate in my target language, particularly about feeling ‘stupid’ so often. Feeling like I was a 3 year old child again that could not understand what is being said to me or being able to speak what I am thinking with ease.

My friend said he also felt very stupid speaking in English. He was not confident that people could understand what he was saying and was not always able to understand what is being said to him all of the time. Furthermore, he believed other people viewed him as being stupid while he spoke English.

This is when I realized my perception of his English skills versus his view of his own English skills were completely different!

  1. I know my friend is extremely intelligent, capable of a level of thinking most of us can only aspire to have for brief moments of time.
  2. I am impressed with how well he can speak in English about complicated topics. Even though it is still slower than a native, the vocabulary is impressive.
  3. I can usually understand everything he says to me the first time. The grammar or conjugations of the verbs might be in the wrong form but I can hear the root of the word and know exactly what he is trying to say.
  4. If anyone sees him as being stupid because he cannot speak a new second language quickly, the person making that judgement is stupid!
  5. If the person that he is speaking with cannot understand what he is saying, the other person is simply not trying to understand.

After I stated these points to my friend, he naturally felt more confident for the moment. He also gave a piece of advice to me which was to enjoy the entire process of the journey while learning a new language.

The truth is you cannot appreciate how far you have come in your journey without experiencing the frustrations and challenges along the way. You will feel much more pride and success from your accomplishments after experiencing the challenges along the way to your final goal.

Feeling stupid speaking English

I have noticed that most people I meet who have decided to learn a new language are generally very smart and skilled people. For this group of people, learning English is just one of the elements they are improving in their lives as part of many different goals and dreams they have. Look at the other people around you and see how many are content with only existing day to day…work, eat, sleep, visit with friends etc. Welcome to the club of awesome people in this world! The ones that aspire to be better and live an amazing life.

We all have an ego. For me, the belief of having a high intelligence level is my most valued asset. Learning a language is like a kick to the ego every time I try to use it. Rather than letting my ego protect itself from being beat up everyday and stop my progression, I take every moment I feel stupid and turn it to motivation to be better next time I speak my new language!

Learn English Conversation