34 quick actions you can take today to improve your foreign language

If you’re anything like me, you like quick things you can do to improve a foreign language. It’s not that I want to get out of the hard work necessary to reach a high level – it’s just sometimes, you want to do something quick and beneficial and get on with it.

I’ve put together a list full of these types of actions – some will take you a few seconds, some might take an hour, and there’s a lot somewhere in the middle.

I’m not suggesting you go through the list one by one and do them all. Just take a look, see what you like, and try a few out.

Here we go -


1.Change your phone language (thirty seconds)

2. Find a radio station in your language for when you’re driving (five minutes)

3. Create a language study plan (twenty minutes)


4. Get on Skype and find a language exchange partner (thirty minutes)


5. Find a series of books to start reading (twenty minutes)


6. Spend some time practising a certain sound you have trouble with (fifteen minutes)


7. ‘Surf’ the dictionary – open it up, pick a word, and read the definition. Choose a word from the definition and look that one up. Keep going (twenty minutes)


8. Find out when the news from the country is on tv where you are. Put the channel and time in your diary for the next week (five minutes)


9. Start a language learning diary (ten minutes)


10. If you’re taking classes, have a chat with your teacher about what you need to work on most and figure out a strategy to get better (fifteen minutes)


11. Write your shopping list in the language (five minutes)


12. Change your computer language (thirty seconds)


13. Watch a movie in the language (ninety minutes)


14. Download Anki and start using it (five minutes)


15. If you read gossip magazines, find a website in the language so you can get your gossip and spend time with your language (fifteen minutes)


16. Find a tv series you can get on DVD or online to watch (fifteen minutes)


17. Now see if you can find a forum about the show – you’ll get deeper insights to the storyline, get reading and writing practice,and probably learn some slang that’ll make you sound more natural (ten minutes)


18. Choose a particular character whose accent you like and try to emulate it (ten  minutes)


19. Write a summary of the last movie you watched in the language (ten minutes)


20. Label everything in your room or house with sticky notes – especially handy if you’re planning to move to the county your language is spoken (twenty minutes)


21. Make one big, specific, attainable goal for the language AND decide how you’re going to achieve it (twenty minutes)


22. Pick up a book and read a chapter out loud (thirty minutes)


23. Start a language learning chain  (five minutes)


24. Memorise the words to your favourite foreign language song (thirty minutes)


25. Find a list of the 200 most common words in your language, and check that you know them all (twenty minutes)


26. Hop online and plan a dream holiday in your language (tip – use the local Google) (forty minutes)


27. Spend some time reading about a topic you love and look up any words you’re unsure of – now you’re ready to bore someone talking about it! (thirty minutes)


28. Ask a friend or search online for idioms in the language and try to memorise them for your next conversation (thirty minutes)


29. If you’re planning on visiting or moving to the country your language is spoken in, start to read up on the country in your language (thirty minutes)


30. Search for some twitter feeds or blogs in the language to subscribe to (fifteen minutes)


31. Write down all the reasons you have for learning the language and stick it up on the wall somewhere you’ll see it often. Look at it when you start to lose motivation (ten minutes)


32. Record yourself speaking in the language and play it back – you might be surprised how good your accent is, or you might find new things to work on (twenty minutes)


33. Figure out how to change your keyboard to your languages version – often the punctuation keys will be in different places and there’ll be special character keys (ten minutes)


34. Spend some time reading about the language. Knowing its history and its influencers can be really interesting and give you some extra insights into how the language is put together (thirty minutes)


So, how’s that? Found something to have a go at today?

What else would you add to this list? Any ideas or things you’ve done in the past? Let me know in the comments.

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Trying a new technique to improve

There are dozens of mistakes you’ll see people making every single day. But what’s the biggest mistake you could make?

It’s simple. Trying to ‘save time’ or ‘double check’ or do anything by using English. It’s easy to fall into it without meaning to.

I’m guilty of it on occasion. If I’m in a class and I miss something the teacher has said, or I read a word I’m not 100% on, it’s instinct to turn to whoever I’m sitting with and ask ‘what was that?’ or ‘what’s this word, again?’.

It’s something I’m working on. It’s not like I don’t know how to ask these questions in Spanish. So why do I still do it??

Just because I can? Because I know everyone else in the room also speaks English? Because it’s quicker? Because it’s easier?

I don’t know. But, I am trying to change it. I’ve made a rule this week. Absolutely no English during Spanish Time.

This is a pretty basic thing. It’s not mind blowing. But it is something that makes all the difference in the world when you put the effort in.

Starting yesterday, any time I say anything in English it’s going to cost me a gold coin. I was going to make it $5, but I rarely have any notes on me while I usually have lots of $1 and $2 coins.

This serves two purposes – hopefully force me out of this dreadful habit, and also stop me from wasting the little bits of money that always seem to disappear.

And in the end? I’ll buy myself something nice when I go on exchange next year. I’ve already got myself one of those little money boxes you can’t open without wrecking it.

So, we’ll see how it goes! I’ll let you know. If it works, I might add more little incentives to get stuff done.

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A simple way to avoid losing motivation

At one stage or another, everyone experiences something that has them considering quitting. In my experience – both personal and discovered while talking to other language learners – one of the most common reasons for slowing down or quitting all together is when we can’t see the improvements we are making.

When it seems like you’re stagnating without improving it can get really discouraging. This can often happen once you’re past that first period of initial progression. As language learners we put hours and hours into learning and improving. If we’re not seeing that improvement, it’s easy to question why we’re bothering with it all.

Of course, giving up at this stage is the worst thing you can do. But how do you push through? I wanted to share one thing I’ve done on and off in the past and want to get back into now.

Show yourself what you’ve already accomplished

Grab yourself a small notebook and a pen. Every day you have class or do anything related to language learning (which is hopefully every day), write something down in you target language.

If you watched a movie, write a sentence or two about it. If you learnt some new words, try to make a sentence out of them. If you learnt a new tense or rule, write it down.

You can write down anything you want. Maybe you heard a line in a song you wanted to remember. Maybe you heard a joke you understood that you probably wouldn’t have got in the past. Intersperse these extras among the things you’re learning. Just don’t stop filling that notebook.

It can seem a little bit silly in the beginning, but after a fortnight or so you should have a good little compilation of things you’ve already accomplished. As you keep going it just gets better and better.

Now it’s easy to see exactly how far you’ve come. When you’re no longer making massive progress every week but trekking along at a slower pace it’s especially handy to be able to look back. You can see the progress happening over time. It’s great to realise that word you’d swear you’ve only just discovered you actually learnt a month ago – and then you can also see how much you’ve learnt since then!

Anyone else have an easy way to keep yourself on track?

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Finding foreign language resources

A couple of days ago, I received this comment from a reader, Jonathan. I thought it was a great question and I started to get long-winded replying. I decided others would probably benefit from hearing it as well, so I turned it into a whole post for everyone.

Here’s the comment:

I was just wondering how/where you found books to read in the languages you’re studying. Because I’ve never been exposed to media at all in the languages I’m studying, so I have no idea what the good authors/books/movies are. Add to that fact there aren’t glaring signs in my city saying ‘Foreign language books here’ etc., even if I did know where to look, I wouldn’t know what to look for…

First of all, I don’t worry at all about finding ‘good’ authors or anything. You don’t need to be reading classics or high literature. You could be reading children’s books or tv guides or graffiti – as long as it’s in your target language, it’s great.

The number one way to find resources in your target language is to ask a native. A friend, a teacher, a stranger online, anyone. They can help you through the process of finding something as well as actually getting your hands on it.

The number one thing to remember when finding resources is to remember what sort of things you like. You might find a book in the language you need that seems perfect, but if it’s on a topic you hate you probably won’t have much luck with it.

If you don’t keep a native on hand to help with these situations here are a few tips to help you out -

For finding books:

  • Most cities actually do have at least one foreign language book shop. It’s true they’re not always the easiest to find, but you should be able to Google it. Try ‘Brisbane foreign language books’.
  • A lot of libraries won’t have much selection, but bigger ones will. If libraries near you have websites, have a look at it or give them a call before making the trip.
  • I find op shops and second hand book shops sometimes have language sections. Depending what language you’re after, you might get lucky.
  • If buying locally isn’t an option, look for an online book shop based in the country. As long as the shipping doesn’t cost too much, it can be a great way of getting books to you. Bonus tip: book shops will often have ‘featured authors’ or ‘book of the week’ type sections. These are perfect for finding new material.
  • Ebooks are another option – you can find so many translations on the net.

For other reading:

I feel like sometimes it can be easy to forget that there’s so much of the internet that’s not in English. I’m doing a course at uni this semester called ‘Communicating Between Cultures’ and I read in the textbook today that only 27% of internet users do so in English. There’s a plethora of websites out there in practically every language – you just have to find them.

  • Try reading blogs in the language. This will give you a more personal and colloquial version of the language.
  • Another idea is to find news or gossip sites in your language. If you’re someone who keeps up on these types of things why not read it in the target language?
  • Look for forums on topics you enjoy. One of the most effective ways to keep your motivation up is reading on topics you’re interested in anyway. I know I’m much more likely to read a Spanish travel site than a Spanish football site.

The trick is that you have to search in the language. Search ‘cycling blog’ or ‘DJ forum’ or whatever it is you’re into in the language. No point searching ‘Dutch cycling blog’, you won’t get the best results. You can also try changing which Google you’re using – normally I use google.com.au, but changing to google.fr and choosing ‘pages from France’ will certainly give you the results you’re after.

For finding music:

I find it better to pick one album or group at a time and listen to it really often. That way you can really absorb the lyrics and get to know it better. When you get sick of it, find another.

  • Search online for the music charts in the country your language is spoken. Make a list and download a few songs. When you find something you like, grab the whole album.
  • Once you know one band you can easily find more using iTunes Genius or Spotify. Both of these services can find similar music to things you already have.
  • If you’re having trouble finding a version to download, there’s always YouTube. You won’t be able to put it on your iPod, but you can listen.
  • As far as I know, most online radio stations have the option to change languages.

For finding movies or tv shows:

  • In most decent sized cities you should be able to find foreign language cinemas or movie viewings every few months.
  • I find it easiest to find movies online. If you, again, change your settings in iTunes or wherever you download from you’ll find all sorts of things.
  • Foreign Films is a good resource for, obviously, foreign films. You can search by country and while you cannot watch the movies on the site you can at least get ideas to download.
  • Searching ‘Italian language movies’ or ‘Finnish tv shows’ should take you to a Wikipedia article listing lots for you to choose from. How many there are to choose from will depend on the language.

I hope these tips are useful next time you need some new materials.

Can you think of anything I’ve missed? Let us know in the comments!

What are your best tips for finding resources in your target language?

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Learn Australian English!

Image courtesy of muffytyrone on flickr

Image courtesy of muffytyrone on flickr

Today is Australia Day, a day where everyone has the day off work to get together in someones backyard to drink and listen to the countdown of the Hottest 100 songs of last year. In celebration, I wanted to share a bit about our particular way of speaking – or as we like to call it, proper English. We have a bit of an amalgamation of British and American English, with our own personal flair thrown in every now and then.

The Australian accent

One thing about Australian English that tends to spin out visitors from other places is how similar we all sound. It’s not like in London where you can travel 500 m and hear a completely different accent. Here, you can travel from Perth to Melbourne – which is about 3,300 km – and hear exactly the same accent.

We don’t have regional accents in Australia – we have more class, or maybe lifestyle, based accents.  There’s only three – broad, general, and cultivated.

The broad accent you’ll recognise from Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin. You’ll find this as you go further out from the cities as a lot of farmers and more isolated people tend to talk like this.

Then there’s the general accent, which a huge majority of people speak with. Think Hugh Jackman for this one.

Last but not least is the cultivated accent. This used to be the most desired accent, as it has a bit of a British twinge to it. Back when we tried everything to seem more fancy and refined, the cultivated accent was pushed upon the educated.

Apparently, some people see the Adelaide accent as a little different to the rest of the country, but I’ve never taken much notice of it. As you all know, Australia was a penal colony settled by those sent away from England. The theory is that the first settlement in New South Wales then spread out to most of the country, but Adelaide was settled a little bit later, leading to a slightly different accent.

Australian English is non-rhotic, meaning an Australian will never pronounce the ‘r’ at the end of words or right before a consonant. Things like ‘father’ and ‘mother’ are pronounced ‘fah-thah’ and ‘muh-thah’. Words like ‘cure’ or ‘tour’ sound like ‘cue-wah’ and ‘too-wah’.

Australian regional words

What will give away where someone is from is certain vocabulary.

When a Victorian would say ‘really?’ after hearing something surprising a Queenslander will say ‘truly?’.

When a Queenslander would say ‘togs’, someone from NSW would say ‘cossies’ or ‘swimmers’ and a Victorian or South Australian would say ‘bathers’. All refer to what you wear in the pool or at the beach.

‘Footy’ can refer to either Australian football (also known as ‘Aussie Rules‘), rugby league or rugby union, depending on where you are and which is more popular there. At the bar you’ll ask for either a pot, a middy, or a schooner of beer.

Australian vocabulary

Everyone knows the ones like ‘outback’, ‘the bush’, and ‘g’day’. You might not know the rest.

When others might say ‘bad’ or ‘dead’, we’ll say bung. So you’ll often hear people talking about their bung knee or a bunged up car.

We put tomato sauce on our chips, not ketchup on our fries and we put pasta sauce on our spaghetti. I don’t drink coffee, but a lot of Aussies freak out upon finding a flat white doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Meant to means supposed to. As in I meant to go to the shops today but I ran out of time.

Monday week means a week from this next Monday. We say half an hour rather than a half hour. A fortnight is two weeks. Don’t even get me started on this ‘bi-weekly’ crap Americans like to say. Are you doing twice a week? If not, it’s not bi-weekly. It’s fortnightly or ‘once every two weeks’.

If you’re cheap and a wine drinker, you’ll have some goon – cask wine that comes in a cardboard box. If you’re going somewhere for a barbie, you’ll bring your food and drink in an esky. I don’t even know another word for this – they’re plastic boxes you fill with ice to keep stuff cold.

If you’re driving and need to turn around and go back the other way you’ll chuck a U-ey. We fill the car up with petrol and we do so at the service station, also known as the servo.

If someone’s really far away, they’re out woop woop.

No matter where you are, you’ll find we love to shorten everything. Usually these shortened words will end in -o or -y/ie. A barbecue is a barbie, a smoke/lunch break at work is smoko, and breakfast is brekky. A present is a pressie and Christmas is Chrissy. A tradesman is a tradie, but more specifically a carpenter is a chippie, an electrician is a sparkie and a brick layer is a brickie. A fireman is a firey and a paramedic or ambulance driver is an ambo. A politician is a polly, a journalist is a journo and a musician is a muso. We buy our drinks at the bottle-o. If something seems a bit odd or suspect then it’s suss. We also suss things out. As an example, as a teenager if you want to go to a party, your mum or dad will ‘suss it out’ – check the time, if parents will be there, if there’ll be drinking, etc.

As for clothing, jumpers are sweaters, not dresses. We wear thongs on our feet. If it’s warm, we’ll wear a sleeveless top, called a singlet, and our sunnies, or sunglasses.

A bogan is the equivalent of a ‘chav’ in England or a ‘knacker’ in Ireland. A dole bludger is someone who’s figured out how to live on welfare permanently and doesn’t try to find work anymore.

We also nickname everyone. If you hang out with Australians and haven’t been given a nickname, well, you’re probably not as well liked as you thought.  Almost everybody in any given group will  have a nickname, sometimes from their first name or from their last name if the first won’t work. Basically you take the first syllable and add a suffix to it – Jono, Macca, Tomo, Davo, Stevo, Shazza, and Wazza are all common nicknames.

Spelling and grammar

As Americans on the internet love to ignore and yell as incorrect, we use -ise for words like ‘recognise’, and we spell ‘colour’ and ‘favour’ and the like with a ‘u’.

We pay with cheques and line up in queues.

When talking about addition and subtraction at school there is definitely an ‘s’ at the end of the word maths.

The letter Z is pronounced ‘zed’.

My favourite differences

An American ‘bell pepper’ is really called a capsicum. Squash is what we call the little flat yellow vegetable, anything bigger and orange is a variety of pumpkin, which we eat year round.

If you want to go to McDonald’s, just ask for Macca’s.

When you’re watching the footy, you barrack for your favourite team. We get a good laugh at Americans ‘rooting’ for teams as here a root means the same as ‘shag’ or ‘fuck’. As in ‘they were rooting’ or ‘have a root’, though you wouldn’t say this in front of your grandparents. If you’re really tired you might be rooted or buggered.

The word ‘farther’ does not exist here; neither does ‘gotten’ (we say ‘further’ and just ‘got’ when others would use those words). Despite a certain famous ad campaign, we don’t use the word ‘shrimp’, we say prawn.

At a fair or fete we get fairy floss rather than cotton candy.

We sleep under a doona and wear skivvies when it’s cold.


I hope everyone has a great day today, Aussie or otherwise. Anyone want to share their favourite words/phrases from your country? This stuff fascinates me.

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Recall vs. Recognition

You know how multiple choice tests are almost always easier than short answer tests? It all comes down to different ways of remembering information and being able to think of it when you need to.

When it comes to learning a language, learning vocab is one of the biggest things. More important than grammar in the beginning, definitely. What a lot of people tend to ignore or just not realise is that there’s two different ways you need to be able to use the words you learn.

Recognition is when you see or hear a word and know what it means.

Recall is when you think of what you want to say and know the word you need.

Recognition gets the most attention when learning vocab, but you shouldn’t ignore recall. Recall is also the more difficult of the two, generally speaking. However, once you can recall a word it would be very strange if you couldn’t recognise it as well. This is another reason to focus on recall – you’ll be able to recognise a word without actively trying to.

Add the fact that recall is what you’ll be relying on in real life conversations, and it’s surprising how little emphasis most language learners place on recall.

How to make sure you’re using both:

  • If you use flashcards, use them both ways. Sometimes start with the word and think of the meaning and sometimes start with the picture/description and think of the word.
  • If you don’t use flashcards, start. Then refer back to the previous point.
  • Expose yourself to as much language as you can. The more you come across words the more likely you are to remember them.
  • When you do come across new words, make sure you look over them later. Seeing it once will rarely commit it to memory, unless it’s a particularly funny/odd word. I read somewhere that you need to be exposed to a word 5-15 before it will stick in your brain.
  • Change up your study routine. Practise pulling out words from speech you hear as well as doing text based vocab work.
  • Keep a diary of your language journey, completely in the target language. It doesn’t have to be big – just ‘Day one. Swedish. Hello. Bye. Car.’ to begin with is great. As you learn more you can add more detail and length. This will force you to both go over what you’ve just learnt briefly and use recall to write it down. Bonus advantage to this: you can see what isn’t quite committed to your memory yet by what you don’t write down.

Hopefully this helps to make sure you’re being as well rounded in your language learning as possible. Working in recall is definitely frustrating at times, but completely worth the effort.

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Quick language tip – use Google images

One of the things I have difficulty with sometimes is thinking directly in the target language. I find myself having to stop and think ‘okay, tree, tree, tree… oh, yeah - träd’ before I can move on. What I’m trying to do is cut out the unnecessary middle man of my language learning – English.

When I’m reading in another language, when I come across a word I don’t know the first instinct is to grab the dictionary and look it up. I try to let the word go the first time or two I see it to wait and see if I can figure it out from context. After I’ve seen it a few times and can’t extrapolate the meaning, it’s time to act.

Language learning with Google
What I’ve started doing over the last few weeks is leaving my dictionary for Google images. It’s great – I search the word I don’t know and up pops a picture of it. This is obviously best for nouns but simple verbs can work, too.

As far as I’m concerned, anything I can do to eliminate English from my time in Swedish is a good thing. I’ve been taking this idea a bit further lately – when I make flashcards, I try to use a picture now instead of the English.

Does anyone else utilise images in their learning? I’d love new ideas, so if you have some, please comment!

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