My language learning 2019

2019 has come to a close, and Tet is round the corner. In this post I’ll be reflecting on 2019, updating you on what study habits I’ve kept up with and what I’ve changed about my language learning routine.

I’ve started with a general status update of my languages, then moved into a month-by-month breakdown of how I’ve been studying in 2019.

Vietnamese

Barely maintaining

It’s such a long time since I’ve been in Vietnam. However, I went to a Vietnamese food festival this year and spoke Vietnamese for the first time in ages!

I still read a little Vietnamese on Instagram and occasionally think to myself in Vietnamese. I am definitely rustier than I used to be, but the language is still there.

Other languages

Russian: Main language

Living in a country where I hear Russian every day, this language has been my only priority in 2019. Focusing is a good thing! I’ve made huge improvements over the last 12 months. I think I’m still working towards B1 level, but in the autumn both a native and non-native have told me they think I’m there already. Nice to hear!

Dropped/Not maintaining:

  • Spanish (2017) – I’d like to pick this up again in 2020 or 2021, once my Russian is a solid intermediate level.
  • Bulgarian (from 2016 and 2017) – Russian messes with this due to similarities (it’s like French and Spanish – totally different languages but similar in some ways). I don’t think I can speak Bulgarian now.
  • Korean – nothing, although I can still read Hangul and remember random words.
  • Esperanto – I rarely message a friend or two in Esperanto. When I do, I tend to understand their messages, but I have to translate when I want to reply.

So, onto my year of language learning…

January to May

Studying Russian – elementary/pre-intermediate level

  • Group lessons
  • Italki lessons
  • Anki study

June to August

Russian Challenge: RFA summer

Anna of Russian for Americans ran a 3-month challenge for the summer. I wasn’t aiming to win, but the fact I was logging my study and posting my log on instagram weekly meant that I got in more study than I would have done otherwise, and was more aware of what skills I was/wasn’t practising.

I’m glad I took part!

September to November

Studying Russian – pre-intermediate level

  • Group lessons
  • Italki lessons
  • Anki study

December

Studying Russian – upgrading my speaking

I wrote about this in December.

2019 was focused on one language – Russian. I’ve made solid progress this year. I’m able to hold conversations with okay fluency and I can manage daily life (including doctor’s appointments if I have to) but not very accurately. I still have a way to go until I feel comfortable – where I can speak the language without thinking too much. The way I could speak Vietnamese by 2014!

Over to you: How was your language learning in 2019? What are you language learning plans for 2020?

Goal: upgrading my fluency in one month

My language studies are ticking along nicely but my speaking ability has hit a bit of a plateau. I can manage daily interactions like ordering in a restaurant or buying tickets. I can have a conversation with a native speaker, but it is not easy. Some days I have a ‘good Russian’ day, but more often I have a ‘not very good Russian day’. I remember going through the same phase in Vietnamese.

The problem: To be honest other than simple transactions like shopping and arranging appointments, I don’t actually speak Russian very often. At work, some colleagues speak to me in Russian but my work-related vocabulary is limited so I have the habit of replying in English. And due to my busy autumn, I’d been slacking on language exchanges.

This means that when I speak, I can’t always remember the words I want to use and I make lots of mistakes. I’m sure you know this feeling!

The goal: Improve my fluency by having conversations in Russian for 30-60 minutes, 4 times a week for the whole of December

The weekly plan to get there:

  • 2 conversation lessons on italki.
  • 1-2 one-on-one language exchanges.
  • And/or 1 language exchange event.

Bonuses:

  • Have more short 5-15 minute interactions in my daily life. Aim: 2 per week.
  • Record myself speaking 1-2 times a week. Replay the audio and improve it.

Of course I’m also going to keep up my Anki flashcards, my weekly Russian lesson and try to fit in 1-2 podcasts to continue building my vocabulary.

Over to you: What are you doing this month to improve your Vietnamese (or other language you’re learning)?

You may be interested in: 12 tips to improve your speaking skills in Vietnamese

My language learning in 2018

We’re in 2019 already, and Tet has long since passed but I’m going to sneak in with an annual review of my language learning in 2018. In this post I’ll be reflecting, updating you on what study habits I’ve kept up with and what I’ve changed about my language learning routine. I’ve started with a general overview, then moved into a month-by-month breakdown of how I was studying.

Vietnamese

Kind of maintaining

Each year my time living in Vietnam grows a little more distant. Nowadays I only read things on Instagram and very occasionally message a friend in Vietnamese. I don’t speak to anyone in Vietnamese, though I still think or speak Vietnamese to myself sometimes!

When learning other languages, I sometimes write ‘translations’ of vocabulary in Vietnamese, where a word matches up better than one in English. So I’m confident that my Vietnamese is still there, though it’s growing rustier.

Other languages

Russian: New language

As usual, my choice of language was influenced by work. I started a new job in February so Russian became my focus for pretty much the whole of 2018.

Spanish: Kind of maintaining

I learned some Spanish at the end of 2017, getting to the level A2 where I can hold conversations (albeit with some problems). In early 2018 I was still using Spanish on instagram and following some Spanish accounts.

I listen to Spanish music weekly if not daily, but this does not do much to maintain my language. I attended some language exchange events in 2018 and sometimes used Spanish. I still understand okay, but my speaking is struggling due to my focus on Russian. When I try to speak Spanish, I end up speaking a strange mixture of Spanish and Russian.

Dropped/Not maintaining:

  • Bulgarian (from 2016 and 2017) – Russian messes with this so much I don’t think I’d be able to speak purely Bulgarian now. I’d still say my Bulgarian is better than my Russian, and I borrow from it when learning and speaking Russian.
  • Korean – nothing at all.
  • Esperanto – I very very occasionally message a friend or two in Esperanto. Again, I can understand their messages, but I have to keep looking up words in the dictionary in order to reply.

So, onto my year of language learning…

January

Maintaining Spanish

I kept up with Anki, and listened to a couple of podcasts but I missed having a 25 minute walk to class that was perfect for podcasts. I assessed how my listening was doing by transcribing some audio and went to one language exchange while visiting a friend.

February to June

Starting Russian – beginner level

It was quite strange starting Russian after being about A2 level in Bulgarian, as some words are very similar. I found I could understand a surprising amount, particularly once I got used to Russian ways of pronunciation.

By learning a few basic Russian words and mixing them with Bulgarian, I managed to complete some transactions in my first few weeks like buying (and negotiating the price of) a winter coat and having a guy in the phone shop get an app working on my phone.

After a few weeks at work, I started beginner level Russian lessons once a week. Most of the time I was the only student attending the lessons, which helped me to make faster progress. A few months later I joined the elementary level group.

Anki SRS

  • I started Duolingo but did not do it for long.
  • I managed a few pictures/captions a month for Instagram Language Diary Challenge, #iglc.
  • I went to some language exchange events with a friend, but spent more time listening than talking.
  • I used Anki a lot, as usual.

June to December

Studying Russian – elementary level

I levelled up in my classes at work, and for a couple of months it was me and a guy who’d studied some Russian at university. More people joined the group later (and he levelled up).

In the autumn I started 1-2-1 language exchanges, after having success with these in Spain the previous year. This only lasted a few weeks, but I still have a couple of people I’m in touch with and plan to do more of this in 2019.

  • I continued #IGLC. Sometimes I wrote longer pieces of text which led to starting a blog in Russian about my travels and adventures that occur when living abroad: More Russian.
  • I tried to find an online speaking tutor but ended up finding teachers, which is not quite the same thing.

2018 was focused on one language – Russian. I’ve made great progress in many ways. Anyone who finds out I’ve only been learning it for a year is impressed by my progress. I’m able to hold conversations and my fluency is okay, but there’s still a lot I can’t say or talk around. I also have a long way to go before being fully comfortable in my daily life and interactions.

The grammar is frustrating. After 9-10 months of learning a language with cases, I’m starting to get a feeling when writing (and occasionally when speaking) that I need a case… But usually I don’t know which one and end up guessing. Sometimes I’m right, but often I’m wrong. I’m sure this ability will continue to develop in 2019! I wish there was a Lexical Approach textbook for Russian, as I have much more success noticing patterns than learning rules.

Over to you: How was your language learning in 2018? How’s it going in 2019?

How I learnt Vietnamese – Part 2

Seven years ago I started learning Vietnamese. Wow! It’s been a bumpy ride at times. I’ve worked hard but also taken long breaks. I reached an intermediate level, what I’d call conversationally fluent some years ago and have been learning other languages since then.

However, Vietnamese remains my best language. How did I get there?

3 years ago I arrived in Vietnam and went here

Cruising the river at Tam Cốc in March 2011

Part 1 recap

March 2011 – August 2012

I talked about phases 1-3 in my Part 1 blog post. In summary:

I taught myself some words and phrases, practiced them in my daily life, took a course and nailed the basics. I then hit an expat plateau where I was able to deal with daily situations and introduce myself but I wasn’t making much progress.

Part 2

Phase 4 – the intensive study

September 2012 – May 2013

I took a placement test at two language schools but neither one had a course available at the right level for me. I waited for a new class to open but eventually I bit the bullet and signed up to intensive, daily Vietnamese classes at the largest course provider in Saigon – the University of Social Sciences & Humanities.

It was the best thing I ever did. (In terms of learning Vietnamese at least. :P)

In September I joined Elementary 3 (though they offered me the option of Elementary 4). It was a turning point. I learnt so much in that first course and plugged so many gaps in my knowledge. My comprehension and ability to have conversations shot right up, although only one of my teachers actually provided speaking practice in class…

I still hung out with friends and practiced Vietnamese outside of class. I’ll never forget when a couple of months later I shocked one of my friends. She was talking to someone in Vietnamese and I chimed in with the conversation. She was so surprised!

I took a second course and after completing it I took the proficiency test Chứng Chỉ A (Vietnamese Level A) in spring 2013. It’s not necessary to take it, but I was curious to see how I’d do.

Phase 4b – the immersion attempt

It was then Tết 2013 and I spent a few weeks in central Vietnam. I started in the South Central region (Nam Trung Bộ) and travelled as far as Huế.

It was awful.

The trip was good, it was the language side of things that was awful

I had been excited about the immersion experience but here I was and I couldn’t understand people! Although I’d been cushioned in a classroom environment, I had also interacted with people in Saigon. While not fluent, I could hold conversations. But there in the countryside, while people could understand my Saigon accent (when I didn’t mess up my tones), I couldn’t understand them. My confidence took a real hit and I just clammed up.

After a few days, we met up with other young people who were back home for Tết. People who grew up in the south central countryside but now live in Saigon. I could understand and chat to people again! Maybe my Vietnamese level wasn’t so awful after all…

Phase 4c – one more intensive course

After the trip I chose to extend my time in Saigon and take another intensive course, Intermediate 1. Before leaving Vietnam that summer, I wanted to really push myself to learn more Vietnamese by taking my driving test and a Korean class taught in Vietnamese.

At this point I became fed up with my classes (like I had done with French years earlier) and decided enough was enough. Of course I still loved the Vietnamese language and planned to continue with it (that’s when I started this blog!).

Phase 5 – maintaining Vietnamese while living in Europe

June 2013 – August 2014

I went back to the UK for the first time in 2.5 years!

I was making a lot of changes in my life, so learning more Vietnamese wasn’t going to be a priority. However, this was not going to be permanent to I had to keep practising and maintaining my level.

How I maintain my Vietnamese level each week

Throughout this period I actively maintained my Vietnamese, mostly through Skype conversations and keeping up with friends on facebook. I occasionally did some self-study by reading articles or watching episodes of Qua Tang Cuoc Song but there was no structure to my learning.

Phase 6 – back to Vietnam

September 2014

I realised that two things were holding me back – 1) a lack of structure and 2) not getting enough input. For several reasons, I moved back to Vietnam.


It was hard for me to write sections of this article. Hard to admit I’ve struggled and experienced plateaus. When learning other languages now, I sometimes get frustrated as Vietnamese seems so much easier. But it wasn’t easy. There were times when my confidence was low. There were lots of times when I didn’t learn much, I just kept maintaining what I had.

3 years learning Vietnamese. It's been a bumpy ride.

My first 3 years learning Vietnamese. It was a bumpy ride!

Learning a language will involve ups and downs. The same can be said of anything – from learning to play the guitar to riding a bike. You will go through rough patches. You might think about giving up. What’s key is what you do about it.

What can help when the going gets tough?

Sometimes simply stepping back and realising what you’ve learned is enough of a boost and you can gain new momentum.

At other times you just need to ease off the accelerator, stop learning new things and just maintain your current level. There’s nothing wrong with this!

Finally, preparing for slumps before they happen and not comparing yourself to others is excellent advice. That way, when the going gets tough, you’re able to take it in your stride.

Over to you: How has your language journey progressed? Have you gone through similar stages or had a smoother ride?

Improve your listening by transcribing (study technique)

Today we continue looking at listening. Last week we checked that it’s listening we’re struggling with.

Here’s a technique to help you diagnose your listening problems. The basic idea is that you watch a video or listen to some audio and write down what you hear – ie. you transcribe it.

Why should you do this?

By transcribing what you hear, you are able to compare this with the transcript and find out where you’re having problems. Doing this regularly can help you to find out what your listening problems are.

Focused, active listening is useful. Passive listening alone won’t improve your listening skills. There are many ways to listen actively, but that’s a subject for another day. If you want to use a video or podcast to learn new expressions, we have an article for that.

What you need

  • Some audio or a video that you can mostly understand. You must also have subtitles or a transcript.
  • A pen and paper.

Because this technique is focusing on your listening ability, it’s key that the content should be familiar so that you won’t come across too many new words.

Learning to deal with new words is an important listening strategy, but is only one strategy of the many you need to become a competent listener. Today we’re looking for listening problems, not vocabulary problems. It would also be really discouraging to try this when you barely understand what’s being said!

There are some suggestions for materials at the end of this article.

How to do it

1. Choose a short video or audio

Transcribing is time-consuming, even in your native language. You have to replay the video many times to allow yourself time to write and to check if what you’ve written is correct.

Choose audio under 3 minutes for sure. I recently transcribed a 3 minute audio in English for a lesson and that took me ages. So I’d recommend something shorter – 30 seconds or 1 minute can also be worthwhile.

This doesn’t mean you have to find 1 minute audio clips. Even for a short video like Annie’s, you don’t have to transcribe the whole thing. Just choose a section. For example, if they’re having a conversation, you could transcribe until they change topic.

2. Listen to the audio or video the whole way through

Start off by listening to the material the whole way through. Don’t take any notes or worry about catching every word. The aim here is to just understand the general message or conversation.

If you’re watching a video, turn off any subtitles. If your video has vocabulary that pops up on screen, either don’t watch the video or cover up that part of the video so you can’t cheat by looking at it.

No cheating!

No cheating! I covered up the right hand part of the screen where new vocabulary appears

2. Transcribe the audio or video

Replay the audio or video (still without subtitles). This time pause frequently (for example, every half sentence) so you can write down what has just been said.

A lot of the time you’ll have to replay a segment because you’ve not heard or forgotten what was just said. This is a natural part of transcribing (it’s the same for your native language).

Sometimes there will be a problem word or phrase and even after replaying it a few times you’re still unsure. Don’t worry about it. Just take a guess, write any letters or sounds you have heard. You can also just leave a space and move on. It doesn’t matter if this doesn’t make sense – just write what you hear. This will come in useful when you compare with the transcript.

If you are watching a video with pop-up vocab, you can have a look at the screen after you’ve had a guess.

I didn't know the word for diary before so I had a look.

I had a look at the pop-up vocabulary. I didn’t know the word for diary before so of course I couldn’t understand it.

When you’re finished, quickly read through your transcript looking for any spelling mistakes.

2b. optional replay

You can play the whole audio again with your transcript and check for any mistakes. Or you can focus on the gaps you have and see if you can hear them now you have a fuller picture from your transcript. You may be sick of hearing it by now though, so this step is optional!

3. Compare your transcript with the subtitles

Play the audio or video a third and final time, with Vietnamese subtitles or while reading at the transcript. Compare it with what you’ve written.

I couldn’t find my Vietnamese notebook, so here’s one in Spanish.

Check both for mistakes and words you didn’t hear. Highlight or use a different colour to make a note of these mistakes.

Comments on my problems with the Spanish transcript

In the example above I didn’t have a pencil so I highlighted the two areas I thought were wrong. The first one was actually right (I didn’t know the speakers were boyfriend-girlfriend so I thought it was weird to start the conversation with “Love”).

With the second highlighted area, it turned out to be a verb I don’t know (avisar). Of course I couldn’t understand because I’ve never seen this verb before! This is not a listening problem, but a vocabulary one. In terms of listening, I actually did ok as I had correctly heard some of the sounds.

You can also see on Line 2 some signs of listening problems. The words are squashed up as I had to listen a few times to get the words before “izquierda”. That’s OK.

I was also unsure about “me voy a” before “probar”, but I used my knowledge of Spanish grammar to help me work it out when I replayed the line. I probably should have highlighted that in a different colour because this may be a potential problem.

4. Study

Any new words should be recorded somewhere such as your study notepad or in Anki so you can learn them. If you’ve made any grammar mistakes, this is a good time to go back to your course book and revise that topic.

As for listening, once you have transcribed a few listening extracts, try to look for patterns.

  1. Is there a particular sound you are struggling with? For me, I struggle with the northern Vietnamese r. Northern gi- and d- are usually okay but the r- throws me on a regular basis.
  2. Are there words that you couldn’t separate? For example, you heard a nay (it doesn’t matter if this doesn’t make sense, or you don’t know the tones – just write what you hear) when they said anh ấy. This is a feature of speaking called connected speech and it often causes listening problems (especially in English!). We’ll look at this another time.

Once you’ve done this a few times, this is where you can start to diagnose your listening problems. Then, once you know your listening problems, you can then look at how to tackle them.

Resources

A note on choosing materials:

You can apply this technique to any material that’s relatively easy for you. Ideally when you read the transcript you should be able to understand everything (though a couple of new words is okay). If your audio is harder, use it to learn new words, not to improve your listening.

I was low intermediate when I used Annie’s video above which is for elementary learners. I was able to transcribe it pretty accurately with just a few problem areas. Similarly with the Spanish podcast, the grammar was not challenge so I was able to focus on my ability to listen and hear the sounds.

Some ideas for choosing suitable, easy materials:

  • A dialogue from a textbook that’s either a similar level or even better: a slightly lower level.
  • One of Annie Vietnamese’s diaries.
  • Any videos with subtitles that you can easily understand (but don’t look at the subtitles until you’ve finished transcribing!).
  • A podcast that comes with a transcript. Be careful if it’s a “teaching” podcast as they may have deliberately introduced new words or grammar. Natural speech is better if possible.

If you have interesting audio but there’s no transcript, you can get custom transcripts via Rhinospike.com.

Over to you: What do you do to work on your listening? What problems are you having? Have you noticed any patterns?

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