Now that you hopefully have a good grasp of how to learn a language, we can turn to some great activities to do as you approach the intermediate stage. Although they are best suited for intermediate learners, I’m including them in the beginner section as they can be highly beneficial even for upper-beginner-level learners.
Drill your language using content
The purpose of drilling with content is use content to focus on a key aspect of your language and develop it with the help of the broader context. This is a core intermediate activity that is optional for beginners.
Get a piece of content that you already understand 90–98% of. This will ideally have a written component, such as a text, video with subtitles, or podcast with a transcript. You will then read or listen to your content multiple times (up to ten, even). Repetition is a powerful principle that ensures you remember what you learn. Each time you will read more carefully and try to gain new insight.
The reason you read the content multiple times is that understanding the entirety of text, audio, or video content at once is usually too difficult. It’s impossible to remember the meaning of all new words and forms as well as comprehend the meaning of entire sentences and how they flow together to make a broader point on your first read through. The best approach is to chunk it up into manageable activities so that nothing is too difficult.
Here are the key phases:
Skim read for broader context—lets you derive meaning from context more easily
Brief read—read quickly without looking anything up, try to guess the meaning of key words
Deeper read—read again, focusing on those parts that are still unclear to you
Lookup—search for the meaning of key words and forms that are preventing you from understanding fully
Repeat reading—as many times as necessary to understand the text
Alternate between lookup and repeat reading as much as you need.
At some point you may narrow down to a component of the language you would like to focus on improving. You can also follow-up by using the resource for a range of activities. Here are some ideas:
Practise listening to an audio recording
Drill some key vocabulary with flashcards
Produce a written summary of the resource
Read the text aloud
Send the written summary to a native to be corrected
Discuss it with a tutor
If by the end you can comfortably understand the content, congratulations! You are now measurably better at your target language.
Reading is probably the best way to continue to improve your understanding of vocabulary and grammar. It is a great exercise, even if your objective is to speak.1 Vocabulary size is strongly correlated with time spent reading,2 so it’s a great way to boost your vocabulary.
There is nothing objectively wrong with listening instead, however written content has everything easily accessible to be referenced, returned to, and looked up. It is also better in terms of sheer quantity of content available to learners, meaning there are more things that interest you available in the written form. Reading and listening are simply different ways of accessing the core components (vocabulary and grammar), which remain largely unchanged between the two content types. Feel free to listen to audiobooks or podcasts if you prefer.
The key to extensive reading is that you read widely and a lot. Content you use will need to already be 98% understandable to you. Use the Resources chapter to find some good tools and content to read.
Find a book
The most common way learners tend to get lots of language exposure is by finding a book they enjoy reading. Graded readers, which are tailored to your level, are ideal. Learners often find books for teens or even pre-teens that they enjoy enough to read. If the book is a translation of one you have already read in your native language, that will help you read a more difficult book without losing track of what is happening. Here are some books that are commonly re-read by learners:
The Harry Potter series
The Goosebumps books
The Little Prince
In addition, there are books written specifically for learners at various levels. You can find them on Amazon.
The purpose of language is communication and to communicate you need to speak. Conversation is a great exercise because it gets your brain actively utilising the knowledge you already have, greatly improving your understanding and fluency with the language. It also exercises the skills of speaking and listening in tandem, it exposes you to native speaker content, exposes you to new forms and vocabulary, and lets you get help and feedback in real time. Many learners report a burst of insight that can come from beginning to speak as their target language turns from memorised rules and phrases into a living language that they can interact with.
Principle: Get feedback on your ability
A good way to catch errors is to find ways to get feedback on any mistakes you are making. While your language should get better with time on its own, it can be helpful to catch some mistakes you are repeatedly producing so that they don’t become a permanent feature of your speech or writing. Try asking for feedback from your tutor or language partner. You can also try your hand at writing and sending small texts to native speakers to be corrected.
Other than listening and speaking skill, which has already been addressed, there are three common barriers learners experience beginning to speak. I will address each of them with a section. They are: knowing when to start speaking, getting conversation practice, and confidence.
When to start speaking
Some people emphasise speaking as early as possible, even on the first day. The first time speaking a language can be a powerful experience, as well as great way to solidify knowledge recently gained. Keep in mind that speaking can be very hard for beginners without a tutor or highly accommodating language partner. In addition, there is plenty to be gained by doing other activities and leaving speaking for later. For that reason, it is a completely valid and common choice to avoid speaking almost entirely until you are at a lower-intermediate level. Many people find speaking helpful and prefer to start earlier, while others only speak early because they find it fun or motivating. When to begin speaking is your choice—there is no proven best time.
How to get conversation practice
The best way to practise speaking is to find a native speaker and start a language exchange, an activity in which you each spend time speaking each other’s language. You can do this by organising with people in your real life if you have any native speakers around. If you don’t have anybody nearby, the best option is to do an online exchange using Skype or any other internet calling service. You can find people very easily by using a community dedicated to language exchanges. Use the section in the Resources chapter to find a service that works for you.
There are other methods of getting practice. If you live in a big city, there are often meetups for language enthusiasts or more generic meetups that are often attended by expatriates and travellers. Use Facebook groups and meetup.com to help you find them. You might get lucky and find a native speaker there who is willing to let you practise if you ask them. The country associated with your language may have a community of speakers in your city. You can also pay for a tutor to get conversation practice, either online or in real life if available.
The next big barrier to fluent speech is usually a lack of confidence. Having the confidence to just try even if you might be wrong ensures you maximise your opportunity to practise speaking.
If you are feeling nervous or anxious about starting to speak, it is best to ease yourself in. Find a good conversation partner. Most people will be accommodating. A good partner will understand your level and speak at an appropriate level for you. In return, any help they give using your language will be good practice for them. Make sure you are clear about your level and your initial difficulty will not be a problem. If you have the money, hiring a tutor can be a good way to ease yourself into speaking with less pressure.
The initial hurdle of starting to speak is the largest, but there is no way around it. After that, speaking becomes increasingly easier, even when first speaking any future languages you may learn.
Key tip: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
Don’t shy away from trying things because you are afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are a natural part of the process of learning and will not necessarily hinder your progress. Conversely, trying to use the language absolutely correctly every time can slow your progress by reducing the amount of practice you get.
Most mistakes simply fix themselves over time without correction. As long as you are getting lots of input and basing your language production off that, you will probably be fine. Listen closely next time you are near a young child. They make mistakes all the time, yet all will learn to a native level given enough time.
For more information, read the chapter on mistakes