A chamber of mirrors - reflective, just like talking to yourself can be!

Talking to yourself: tap your inner voice to be a canny language learner

Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, some say. But it’s actually the hallmark of the very canny linguist, too.

Ask most experienced language learners, and they will tell you that the secret is speaking, speaking, speaking. But it’s easy to overlook how useful speaking can be, even when you don’t have a partner. When it comes to talking to yourself, something is most definitely better than nothing.

So don’t be shy (of yourself!). Here are some strategies and key reasons for talking to yourself in the target language.

Mine for missing vocab

When you are actively learning a language, you should be mining for vocabulary all the time. The problem is knowing which vocabulary will be most useful to you. Where should you spend your mining efforts? Well, talking to yourself is a good way to find out.

Try this exercise to start identifying missing words in your mental dictionary. First, set yourself anywhere between one to five minutes with a timer, depending on your level. Use that time to chatter aloud about your job, your day, or some other common topic in the target language. You will almost certainly stumble across thing you lack the words for, but want to say. Don’t worry – just make a note of that missing vocab in your native language. At the end of the five minutes, you should have a list of a few items to look up and add to your vocab lists.

Record, play back and perfect

Time spent talking to yourself is a resource you can maximise the value of by recording it. Set yourself timed challenges to chat about a particular topic whilst recording on your phone or computer. This topic-o-matic I created as a help for my own speaking may be useful if you are struggling for themes.

The resulting recording can be handy in many ways, including:

  • Checking your accent : Listen out for sounds you could improve. But equally, be proud of yourself by noting when you sound particularly authentic!
  • Revision : Build up a library of recordings on your phone, and play them back regularly in order to revisit and consolidate your topic-based material. (Note that this can be amazingly effective for other subjects too – I successfully revised for my Social Sciences degree by recording notes in my own voice and listening back to them regularly on the bus!)

As you grow more confident, you can go a step beyond simple voice recording, and try video. Practise in front of a mirror first, having a bit of fun with facial expressions, gestures and voice. Language is a performance!

If you are really brave, and feel your videos might help other learners, perhaps even consider sharing them on YouTube. There are many linguists who vlog their progress for all to see – just search YouTube for ‘How I learnt X‘ and you get a whole raft of sharers!

Talking to yourself before talking to others

Talking to yourself is an excellent rehearsal method before real-life language encounters, too. For example, I attend a lot of one-to-one iTalki classes on Skype. They invariably involve some general conversation to warm up the lesson. And that always goes better when I have warmed up a little beforehand by running through, out loud, what I’ve done in my life since the last time I met the teacher.

Make auto-chatting a regular part of your pre-lesson warm-up techniques, and you will notice the difference.

Run through the basics

Speaking alone offers a good opportunity to run through the basics, too. You are unlikely to find a teacher or speaking partner who will relish listening to you recite numbers, days of the week and months, for example.

Instead, you can try working some of this repetitive speaking into your daily routine. Number practice, for example, pairs up brilliantly if you attend a gym and like the cardio machines. Likewise, you can quietly recite sequential vocab to the rhythm of your feet as you walk along the street. And, like working out, getting your mouth around these very common words may help build up a certain muscle memory for speaking your new language.

Inhibition-busting

Successful language learning involves breaking down many inhibitions at lots of points on the way to fluency. Just think of that end goal – communicating with strangers – and you realise that it requires a lot of self-confidence.

Talking to yourself is a good intermediary step on the way. For one thing, it is something that doesn’t come naturally to many of us. It also reminds us that a key outcome of language learning is getting those words out there, into the world, through speech.

The greatest thing is that you can be silly about it. It’s a safe testing ground to try out all sorts of language. Next time you shower, give a thankful awards acceptance speech in French. Reel off a victory speech on becoming German Kanzler. Explain the secrets of your phenomenal success in Spanish. Be larger than life, and have fun with it!

Talking to yourself in mindful moments

Once a week I go for a one-to-one session in the local park with my trainer. I like to go as unencumbered as possible, so I leave my phone at home. That simple act frees my mind up completely, as it would otherwise be occupied by checking texts, emails, doing my Anki cards or – something I hate in others, but still do myself – idly browsing whilst walking.

Instead, I have some mindful moments to walk, connect to the world around me, and talk to myself! OK, so maybe not out loud (all the time) when I’m on the street. But it’s a good ten to fifteen minutes when I can just prattle in the target language, at least in my head.

Even in the early days of learning, before the sentences flow, there are things you can do. Try naming the objects you see on a journey (another lovely mindfulness-inspired exercise that helps you to notice the world around you). Did you see something intriguing or beautiful, but didn’t know the word for it? Make a mental note and look it up for your vocab lists later.

Fake it ’til you make it

However, if you do have your phone on you, it can be the ultimate talk-to-yourself prop. Feeling brave? Then why not walk down the street, pretending to have a conversation in the target language with an imaginary interlocutor?

To the naturally shy (like, believe it or not, me), or generally faint-hearted, this may seem like an utterly crazy idea at first. 😅 Pretending to have a conversation on your mobile? In public? Who even does that?!

But, like talking to yourself in general, there is method in the madness. It is a fantastic way to get used to speaking your target language in front of unknown others. If it feels too odd at first, a word of advice: you’ll sound less silly if you really try to sound authentic, rather than speaking in your native accent. Try to be convincing – it’s easier than it sounds, as most passers-by won’t have a clue what you are talking about…

Speaking, speaking, speaking

The ideas above represent just a few of the ways self-talking techniques can boost your learning. Try talking to yourself – it’s free, easy, and could be the perfect halfway house on the way to real-world, person-to-person fluency.

The next time you pass somebody muttering to themselves, try not to think they are insane. Like you, they might be learning a language! 

Building languages into your daily routine as habit is the first step to polyglot success!

Essential habit-forming apps for language fluency ⏰

Efficient learning hinges on habit. A little, every day, will go a long way. “We become what we repeatedly do” writes motivational mogul Sean Covey, and this could not be truer for linguists. If you want to become a polyglot, languages must become a regular fixture in your daily routine.

Inevitably, we are all human, and most of us need a helpful nudge now and again. Fortunately, there are some excellent self-organising tools to build those nudges digitally into your day. Here is an updated list of some favourites I couldn’t do without!

Evernote

Probably one of the most fully-featured and best-known note apps, Evernote has earnt its status as essential app. It also has a free, basic plan, which will suit many users; this limits note upload size, but as linguists, we deal mostly with words rather than pictures – handily making most of our notes pretty small! You can also access it on pretty much any of your devices (although you will have to choose just two on the basic plan).

At its simplest level, it’s excellent for storing your lists of vocab. You can tag notes with language / topic titles, making them easy to search through later on. The ability to have multiple digital notebooks is great for the polyglot, too – you can set one up for each language.

Habit-boosting Evernote

But in terms of habit-forming, there are some brilliant extra tools in here too. You can create quite rich to-do lists using the checkbox feature.

Example of an Evernote productivity list to help create a routine for your language learning - ideal for forming a habit

Creating language routines with Evernote

I’ve had great success organising my time using Evernote with Brian P. Moran’s 12 Week Year system. Evernote allows me to create weekly to-do lists as part of that plan. For example, these include tick boxes for things like:

  • listening to foreign-language podcasts
  • reading a certain number of target language articles
  • doing my Anki flashcards
  • getting my daily Duolingo fix

At the end of a week, I score myself on my completion rates, aiming for 75% or above. In the same Evernote note, I can also note down comments such as ideas for improvement or amending tasks. It’s a great way to stay on top of projects like multiple language learning.

Incidentally, I use this system to organise my work and fitness projects too. I’ve really noticed a difference since I started!

Wunderlist

Wunderlist is another staple app with a superb free tier. This is to-do organisation as its very best; the tick box is the very heart of this service.

However, here is the real magic: Wunderlist can supercharge your language habit formation with its recurring to-do items. Is there something you need to build in daily, like vocabulary testing? Add it as a repeating item, and Wunderlist will remind you every day at the selected time. You can even have shared to-do items with linguist buddies, using the app’s social features.

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Streaks

The Streaks app lends itself so well to languages, that ‘Practise Spanish’ is one of the examples on its home page. This is a to-do app with a difference; it borrows gamification ideas from educational apps as a motivator.

The premise is simple – the user is motivated through the challenge of maintaining an unbroken run of successful regular task completions. In this way, it will be instantly familiar to fans of language systems like Duolingo. Streaks allows you to add this feature to any area of your life and learning.

Streaks is currently only available on iOS, and costs £4.99 / €5.49 / $4.99USD.

Coach.me

A free alternative, and one available on Android as well as iOS, is Coach.me. Unlike a standard to-do tracker, Coach.me has several achievement paths that you can sign yourself up to. These contain standard milestones for you to tick off as the app digitally ‘coaches’ you with regular reminders. There is quite a handy one titled “Learn To Speak A Foreign Language”, which contains twelve steps to get you started on any language path.

If you struggle with self-motivation, the app even offers the option of paid coaches. Although none are language-specific, there are a few study specialists on there that may fit the bill.

Hidden gems in the everyday

These are just a few of the sea of organiser apps that stand out for me. Honorable mentions must also go to Google Keep and Todoist, apps not specifically aimed at linguists, but perfect for learning languages. This is often where the best language learning gems are found; very general, everyday apps that can be repurposed for polyglots.

Are there any other favourites that make your top list? Please share them in the comments!

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Berlin, where have you been all my life?

Language learning isn’t finite; it’s a lifelong process, and isn’t meant to have an end. As such, languages never count as ‘finished’ or ‘learnt’, but require upkeep and maintenance.

With this in mind, I’ve been planning some exciting mini-trips to German-speaking towns over the past few months. Since graduating from university, I’d taken my German for granted a bit. As my first, and strongest foreign language, it was a bit of an oversight that needed some correction. And, looking in the right places with the right tools, you can unearth some real bargains, and make maintenance breaks a regular thing.

Bremen was my first German weekend of 2017, back in May. It was a great way to ease back into travelling the country – an intimate, friendly and compact city well served by budget flights. I loved every minute of it, and it left me ready for the big boss of German cities: Berlin.

Why Berlin?

As a student, I’d shunned Germany to focus on Austria and Switzerland. The southern German-speaking countries had a special draw to me then, with my fascination of dialect. (Germany is just as rich in dialects, though – something I overlooked as a student!) Berlin was a chance to redress the years of negligence, and really get to know this icon of Germany.

Zip in and around with ease

Berlin is an excellent place for a weekend hop-over or short stay. For a start, many low-cost carriers serve the city. From the UK, I flew in to Tegel for £40 (FlyBe), and am flying out of Schönefeld for £30 (EasyJet). From the US, although obviously more expensive, there are still budget options such as Wow Air.

What’s more, connections from the airports to the city are easy and excellent. The Berlin public transport system (BVG) is comprehensive, fast and good value. A Tageskarte (day ticket) for all zones A, B, and C – including the airports – is currently just €7.70. And that covers local trains, trams and buses. (For most of your full-day activities, a ticket for zones A and B will suffice, making it even cheaper.)

All this makes Berlin the perfect candidate for zipping into and around if you have a limited budget and a short time.

A Berlin for everybody

The huge selling point of Berlin is its diversity of attractions. There are museums, exhibits and sights that will appeal variously to all kinds of interests. And entry fees are, on the whole, very reasonable! Pretty impressive for a major city (and welcome to a Brit suffering from a weak pound!)

Traditional museum buff with a love of antiquity? The Pergamon Museum is probably top of your list. Like showcase architecture and spectacular views? Then head to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower).

As for me, I’m a political history nerd. Hungry to learn everything I could about the old East German regime, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a period the city has come to terms with through openness; the Stasi Museum (€6.00) and DDR Museum (€9.50) are intriguing, often disturbing, but ultimately extremely enlightening places to spend time. For the linguist, they offer tons of reading material in the form of short summaries of key events with each exhibit. These are in German and English, just in case you need some translation support!

Deciphering East German soldier speak at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Deciphering East German soldier speak in an exhibit at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

History – and language – on every corner

The city is also full of symbolic, charged landmarks of political history, like Checkpoint Charlie and the restored Reichstag. To dig into the significance of each, I used the German language version of Wikipedia to do my planning beforehand. Additionally, public buildings have dedicated websites, like the Reichstag website – essential for booking the highly recommended (and free!) lift to the roof to view the cupola. The Reichstag reception also has piles of books and leaflets in German, all free to take away with you after your visit.

YouTube is a great pre-trip resource, with some excellent historical clips for fact-digging in the target language. I walked through the Brandenburger Tor, from East to West, after refreshing my own memory with German documentary footage of citizens streaming to freedom one November night in 1989. That made for a pretty special way to rei-imagine Berlin’s history.

The day-to-day

Besides the grand cultural experiences, there was plenty of chance to practise my more prosaic German. Berliners come across as open and friendly people, and it was easy to turn everyday conversations into a little bit more.

Being used to waves of tourists with little or no German, shop and restaurant staff seem more than happy to have a little chat if you want to go beyond “one piece of Streusel, please!”. Being curious and asking questions helps – “wie heißt dieser Kuchen?” (“what’s this cake called?”) was a simple but effective conversation starter in the bakery! Just the slightest hint of an accent will turn the simplest of questions into a chat about why you speak German, too.

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

In short, I don’t know why I left it so long. Berlin, where have you been all my life? Multiple trips back are a foregone conclusion; the charm of the city and the inexhaustible pot of things to do ensure that. As an affordable mini-trip for Germanists in maintenance mode, I can’t recommend it enough.

A row of fitness bikes for physical engagement in the gym

Let’s get physical: Language learning through fitness

If you subscribe to one of the many theories of learning styles, traditional classroom or book-based language learning might seem a bit unimaginative. They hit all the familiar targets: visual, auditory – tactile, even, if you use devices or props like Talking Dice. But one kind of learning – kinaesthetic, or physical, movement-focussed – seems conspicuously absent.

Movement can be fun. And sometimes, it seems that kids get all that fun. There are already schemes that pair physical movement with language for young learners, like 5-a-day.tv. In the style of a fitness video, target language is inserted into the routine so the kids have fun moving, and learn at the same time. By all accounts, these techniques are really effective motivators in the primary language classroom. So why shouldn’t adults have a go, too?

Like a superset at the gym, you’re combining two activities here for maximum efficiency. Rather than body blitz and more body blitz, though, these technique engage your body and brain together. Two for the price of one – never a bad deal, and the very essence of hacking your learning!

Get physical with YouTube videos

One of the best things about YouTube fitness videos is that you can follow along even if you don’t grasp every word. Finding them is just a case of trawling YouTube search with some choice keywords in the target language. You could try ‘ejercicios en español’ or ‘Fitness auf Deutsch’, for example. Here are some of of the stand-out channels and playlists I’ve found:

French

German

Spanish

Some of them seem quite gender-specific, but there should be enough variety on YouTube to cater for every taste.

Videos too complex for a class you’re teaching? Maybe devise a simplified routine using parts of the body and direction words, for example – it could make a nice three-minute warm-up to a lesson.

Filling empty time at the gym

If you go to a gym regularly, you’ll be familiar with ’empty time’. It’s those minutes while you’re on a treadmill or machine, robotically repping out your exercises with the brain otherwise disengaged (or in daydream mode).

It’s easy to think of ways to fill this with language learning, and you most likely already do this if you gym – podcasts, foreign language music and such like. But there are other ways to push yourself too, not always necessitating headphones. Great if you find you’ve left them at home when you get to the gym!

Treadmill challenges

Last year, I realised to my horror that I knew loads of Norwegian vocab – but was rubbish at numbers. To be honest, it’s something I hear a lot from other linguaphiles – numbers are dull, boring, everyday kinds of words that just aren’t interesting to spend time learning.

Well, cue the treadmill and some creative gamifying! I find that the rhythm of a moderate jog – that regular thud-thud-thud of your shoes on each tread – is a great timer for some self-testing. I challenged myself to say (under my breath, I’m not an attention-seeker!) a certain number pattern to that rhythm.

For example, I’d start simple and practise 1 to 20 in order. Then I’d switch to recalling them backwards, from 20 to 1. After then, I’d do the tens, then I’d do even numbers up to 50 or so, then odd… There are myriad variations to keep your otherwise disengaged brain occupied.

And the great thing about it is its mindful nature; as you practise, recall becomes almost automatic, and the physical exercise almost easier as your focus is not on getting tired, but reciting your numbers. Very Zen.

More than just numbers

You can adapt this technique to any vocab item. Pick a topic – colours, say – and challenge yourself to say a new, non-repeated word on every footfall. Take it beyond single words – talk about yourself, or tell a story, with a word every tread. Great for practising connectives like ‘and’, ‘then’, ‘but’ and so on, as you form super-long sentences while you work out.

No gym? No worry!

You can take the principle of these ‘footfall challenges’ into any setting. Walking to the shops? Practise your numbers 1-20 as you go. Climbing the stairs? Count them in your target language. It’s a great way to make use of time when you’d otherwise be thinking about nothing in particular.

App coaches

There are hundreds of fitness apps available for mobile devices these days. Every aspect is covered, from nutrition to health monitoring and fitness coaching. Thanks to localisation – the inclusion of alternative languages into app interfaces – you can also enjoy some language practice every time you use these.

Most of the time, accessing foreign language interfaces in your fitness apps requires that you switch your phone’s operating language to the one you’re learning. Scary, I know – but it’s a brilliant technique to increase your immersion in a language generally. My phone has been speaking to me in Norwegian for the past year, and I’ve learnt a stack of vocab from it in that time.

I’ve found the following apps brilliant in ‘foreign language mode’:

  • MyFitnessPal: a food intake / exercise diary app – vocab like ‘saturated fat’, ‘carbohydrates’ and ‘remaining calories’ is now indelibly etched on my brain!
  • Runtastic Push-Ups: a great coaching programme that takes you from 2-3 push-ups to 250 over time. It will bark instructions at you, sergeant-style, in several languages, and provide Rocky-style inspirational quotes. Also check out runtastic’s other coaching apps here.
  • Apple Health / Activity and Samsung Health apps: these are bundled with recent versions of each operating system, and are the default steps / health trackers. Switching your phone language means all your data becomes a learning opportunity!

For sure, there are lots more ways to combine learning with other areas of your life like this. It’s both time-efficient and fun. And it can create a more rounded approach to learning by including physical, kinaesthetic aspects. And, by embedding languages into things you already love, you’re more likely to keep learning.

 

Aeroplane

Language travels on a shoestring

Despite brill online face-to-face services like iTalki for practising and learning languages with native speakers, you can’t beat time spent in the country as the best way to immerse yourself in your chosen language. Seems like an expensive way to fluency, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be, with a range of web tools for sourcing super-cheap travel to your target language country.

Top of the list, and indispensable to the travelling linguist, is Google Flights Explore. It’s not particularly well signposted online – in fact, it’s practically clandestine, and you have to be told by someone else ‘in the know’ before you can find it! Why the experimental extension to Google’s flight search is not promoted more is a mystery, but it’s second-to-none at sourcing cheap flight offers with very general search terms (and I mean very – you can pop in ‘Scandinavia’ or ‘Eastern Europe’, and it will check the lot!).

For instance, say you’re learning Polish. Enter your preferred airport of origin, then Poland as the destination. You can adjust the length of the trip if you like, but the default 3-5 days is a good short break duration if you’re looking for a cheap getaway to practise your language skills. You don’t even need to add a date, as when you select your start and end points, you’ll be presented with a list of destinations along with time charts of the cheapest flights to each. It will even order them, with the cheapest, on average, at the top.

The example below shows that I can get to Warsaw from Edinburgh for as little as around £20 return (USD$25, although prices in your local currency appear when you click through to one of the flights on the time chart).

Google Flights Explore example

Google Flights Explore

Switching to a traditionally more expensive flight destination, such as Norway, still yields great results; a quick search today threw out some £30 returns on London-Oslo routes. It’s just as handy for longer-haul flights, too; flying from New York, Norwegian students can get to the country for under USD$300 return in a sample search made at the time of writing.

But how to minimise costs when you get there? Accommodation will be perhaps the biggest expense on the tick-list. It’s no big secret that, for value, you can’t really beat private rental services like AirBnB. Combining with the sample Polish flight search above, you could add a private room in a shared house for just £11 a night at the time of writing. That amounts to less than £100 for a 5-night stay, flights and accommodation included.

But there are more benefits to using these services like this than low rates. For a linguist / cultural explorer, a private rental property will likely:

  • come with a direct contact, and so more opportunity to meet a local and practise a bit of language as soon as you’re off the plane
  • give you a more authentic experience of what it’s like to live in the target language country, especially as it’s more likely to be self-catering (think of all that shopping vocab you can practise!)
  • give you day-to-day, lived experience of the language if you’re in a shared property / room in someone’s home

Compare that to the often sterile, internationalised hotel reception experience, and private accommodation offers big boons for the language traveller!

There are ways to minimise living costs while you’re there, too. They may not be glamorous – buying food supplies at supermarkets rather than going out to eat, grabbing a cheap pølser i brød (hotdog) at an Oslo kiosk for tea – but again, they bring you into direct contact with the target language, rather than sanitising your experience through safe, familiar settings like restaurants.

It might seem an extreme measure – and, intuitively, an outrageously unaffordable one – to ‘pop abroad’ when you need some target language practice. But it needn’t be bank-breaking, if you know where to look. Commit to a cheap cultural scouting trip once every month, or at least couple of months, setting yourself a tiny budget and seeing what you can do with it. Your inner linguist will thank you!