Alphabets, Grammar & Listening, Oh My!


Does the thought of learning a foreign language give you heart palpitations? We often mistake fear of the unknown for fear of languages –as we cling to our mother tongues for dear life. But once you get over your fear and get familiar with the nuts and bolts of a new language, things don’t seem so scary anymore.

So, here’s the TOP 3 list of what no language learner should be afraid of:

1. The Alphabet
How bad can a collection of new letters really be? Dozens of squiggles that read right to left and connect in confusing ways. Relax and thank your pre-school teacher for showing you a thing or two. Next, break out the songs, order some children’s books and get to it. You may be tracing along the dotted lines for a few weeks but it will be worth it in the end. Take on several new letters at a time and master a handful of representative words for each one (think A is for Apple). Remember to have some fun while you’re at it!

2. The Grammar
Vocabulary isn’t always so scary but grammar can be frightening, no matter what language you’re learning! Nevertheless, abstract rule descriptions are hardly what grammar is all about. Just like with your native tongue, you can learn to understand the grammar of a new language without formal study. You simply need to see lots of examples of natural language and pay attention to the patterns. Opinions differ on how much noticing you really do need to do, so once you’re feeling confident try to check your assumptions with a few Google queries. Above all, don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t able to identify all the tenses by name –most native speakers can’t either!

3. The Listening
You think you know how a word sounds until it is said by a native speaker in conversation and suddenly there’s a stream of language coming at you faster than the speed of light. Your brain needs time to adjust to listening in a new language. Eventually, it will learn to identify where words start and stop by picking up on word ending patterns in the new sound system. In the meantime, the best thing you can do is to give yourself a break and speed up the familiarization process with a little phonics and as much listening as possible.

Of course there are other challenges when it comes to starting off in a new language. Speaking (particularly to large groups) can be a nerve wracking experience that’s made even worse when you are doing it in another tongue. Just acknowledge that mistakes are inevitable, keep a dictionary at your side (’s is free, mobile and pretty handy) and stay positive. With language, new fun lies around every corner.

The Good Language Learner


Do you know someone studying a language who makes more progress in a week than the rest of us do in a month? He or she might be what applied linguists call a good language learner (GLL). In the 70s and 80s, a number of studies were done to research the strategies and behaviors that set GLLs apart. So how can you be more like these language learning superheroes? Read on to find out!

Get active and stay involved
Good language learners are always looking for opportunities to use the new language they have acquired. If you aren’t living in a target language rich environment, then class twice a week just isn’t going to cut it. You need to create opportunities to engage with language on a regular basis– even if that means talking to yourself or a sympathetic listener like your pet!

See the big “language” picture
Yes, language is about mastering lots of vocabulary and grammar points but there’s so much more to it than that! Language is a system and good language learners are aware of the many components that come together to make up comprehensible speech. Learning native speaker phrases and idiomatic chunks alongside stock vocabulary can help you stay versatile while you practice building your own phrases.

Engage with native speakers
Grammar is important, but communication is king when it comes to language learning! The more you chat with locals (even if it is over Skype!), the better. Fostering an interest in the culture and local traditions also helps, as does seeing every interaction as an opportunity to engage.

Pay more attention to what you hear
Re-playing an utterance you have just made can help you notice errors or awkward phrasing in your choice of words. Listening to others speak can also provide you with models of a more native like construction. Good language learners pay just the right amount of attention to their language, i.e. not so much as to become distracted from the conversation but enough to recognize when they wish to re-phrase something.

Don’t worry about making mistakes
Mistakes can paralyze our productive abilities in a new language. Don’t let this happen to you! Good language learners are never afraid to sound silly. Making mistakes and using roundabout ways of saying things is part and parcel of learning a language. Take advantage of incorrect utterances to learn how a native speaker might say the same thing and remember that reducing errors happens gradually as you make more progress in your new tongue!

GLLs are always on the lookout for new language and they will go above and beyond to find it. That means looking outside of traditional textbooks and online lessons to acquire new words from conversations, books, music, films and websites. If you’d like to give some of these tricks a try, immersing yourself in the feed is the perfect place to start as you’ll have access to authentic content and all of the tools (e.g. dictionary, flashcards, practice game) you need to make sense of the language you are learning.

4 Reasons Why Immersion Works

You’ve probably heard that learning a language is a lot easier when you live, study and/or work abroad. So why is immersion so special and how can understanding what makes it work help us achieve our language learning goals?

1. You are motivated to communicate
Chances are, if you are living in a country where the target language is spoken, you will be highly motivated to learn in order to talk to the people around you. Whether it is to master the day to day exchanges e.g. I’d like a croissant please! or laugh along with the native speakers at dinner party jokes, using language to communicate brings social gratification and helps you meet your basic needs. To create the same effect at home, make friends who speak your new language either online or through local exchange groups and join a social media site where posts, likes and comments are in the language you are learning.

2. You are familiar with the context
Meeting unknown language in a real-life environment cues the brain as to the potential meaning. Picture yourself in a desert and someone comes up to you saying water and dangling a cup. You will guess at the meaning and more often than not, you will be right. In the same way, you may not necessarily know what the woman behind the counter has said but you can tell it was similar to thank you and have a nice day. To simulate context at home, choose content on topics that are likely to be familiar to you. Whether it’s a recipe for chocolate cake, an article on economics or a video about whales- you can apply your prior knowledge to make good guesses about what’s being said.

3. You encounter language often
The most obvious plus to an immersion environment is you are surrounded by examples of natural language. This means you are likely to encounter the most frequent words over and over and over again until you can’t help but learn their meaning. It can be difficult to simulate this aspect of immersion at home but you can certainly try. Go around your home and label everything you can see, leave foreign language newspapers and books on every coffee table and keep a running soundtrack of music and/or radio chat in the language you are learning to keep your ears and eyes busy.

4. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells
We find it easier to remember new language when it is wrapped into a dynamic memory or experience. After all, how stimulating are a group of letters on a page when you can hear the word for cookie, smell the butter from the bakery and see a sign labeling the tasty French treat you are about to eat? Give yourself a chance to make dynamic memories at home by creating opportunities for contextualized learning. Follow along to a cooking show or get creative with a DIY project in the language you are learning. You’ll find yourself concentrating hard to understand what’s being said and the physical nature of the activity will give your memory a boost!

While not every language learner can travel abroad, it IS possible to simulate an immersion environment at home via your digital world. Try setting your electronic gadgets to the language you are learning, take virtual field trips to foreign language websites with a browser extension and put together a learning plan where you dedicate a certain amount of time a day to your target language study. Make sure your environment is full of stimulating input and keep mobile on hand to look up new words in the dictionary, create flashcards to practice and read article suggestions from the web that peak your interest and fuel your learning.

Who wants to sound like a native speaker anyway?


Do you spend more than your fair share of study time trying to speak without an accent? You can identify all of the sounds that native speakers are making but for some reason it just doesn’t sound the same when you say it. The frustration of missing the mark when it comes to native-like pronunciation happens to all of us– but it doesn’t have to get you down. Read on to learn how accents work and why having one might not be such a bad thing.

Why is native-like pronunciation so hard?
Researchers know that our ears begin to tune to the language around us even before we are born. By the time we reach our first birthday, the babbling and attempts at speech we make are brimming with the sounds we need to speak our mother tongue. That means studying a language which contains new sounds later on in life, particularly after we’ve passed puberty, can be quite a challenge for the ears and tongue. Extensive exposure to and practice with the phonemes and rhythms of a new language can sometimes help us sound more native, but the odds are definitely against us when it comes to fooling someone completely.

Maybe sounding native shouldn’t be the goal
Most audiobooks, digital apps and classroom programs encourage learners to sound like native speakers of the language they are learning. However, there exists some disagreement over the native speaker standard in the applied linguistics community. That’s because linguists claim everyone has an accent, even in their mother tongue, and that maintaining your accent in a second language may actually be a fundamental part of establishing your identity as a speaker who comes from another culture and linguistic tradition. Consider this, twice as many people speak English as a second language than as a native one! So having an accent means you are actually in the majority and the same can be said for many other world languages.

Why intelligibility should be key
One of the biggest arguments for the native speaker standard in pronunciation is it helps provide a uniform model to ensure we all sound somewhat alike. After all, without a bit of phoneme continuity languages are likely to develop unintelligible variations in new geographies. But thanks to today’s online world and global media services, everyone sounding the same is less of a concern than before. So make sure your pronunciation is clear enough to ensure you will be understood and then give yourself a break when it comes to meeting those near-impossible native speaker standards. Try to be as proud of the way you sound as native speakers are of their regional accents! uses a service called Forvo to provide an audio sound-bite for every word you look up in the language you are learning. Sometimes it is a native speaker saying the word– and sometimes it is a second language speaker! Interested in learning more about audio dictionaries? Groups like the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Langauges are actually traveling the world creating recordings of dieing languages before it’s too late. If you love languages and want to know more, we encourage you to get in touch and get involved! Opens “Data” Doors for Back to School

Edtech startup announces word-list import/export for classroom users

Language learners who prefer studying vocabulary online will now find it easier to unify web-based and classroom efforts. According to the edtech startup, information collected from surfing the Internet in another language can now be converted into working vocabulary lists for the classroom thanks to a new word import/export feature announced today. is an open learning platform that helps users find articles, make sense of language and learn vocabulary systematically as they browse the web in a second language. Its existing 300k+ web and mobile users can now fully integrate the program into their school and workplace activities by exporting lists of words collected on the system. Enhanced word import options will also help new-users quickly enter the platform’s learning loop and find authentic content based on their vocabulary.

“This is an exciting next step in’s move to support classroom-based language education,” said CEO and Co-Founder Dr. Jan Ihmels. “Enriching teacher driven activities with real language collected by users surfing the web reminds students that they play an active role in discovering both the language and culture they are learning.”

The patent-pending technology behind the startup’s algorithm uses big-data paired with cognitive science and applied linguistics research on learning to teach language via digital immersion. released a WebApp tool in June to add to its browser extension and mobile apps and says its focus is on enriching every language learner’s study ecosystem.

“We encourage our users to take a balanced and dynamic approach to language learning,” explained Ihmels. “We are a complementary program and we hope users will see the value in incorporating online language into their classroom learning routines.”

How to speak confidently in a second language


Ever find yourself unable to answer when someone speaks to you in a foreign language? You know what they are saying and you have the words you need but your mind is racing and you are afraid to make a mistake. Something is interrupting the free flow of language and getting in the way of your speech. So what can you do about it? Have a read through this post for starters. 

Pay less attention to what you say
Easier said than done. Nonetheless, making a concerted effort to focus less on what you are saying and more on how you are communicating will make a big difference. How often do you re-play a set of words you are about to use before you speak? We don’t usually pre-plan phrases in our native language, rather we tend to just blurt things out. Second language learners sometimes struggle with the tendency to self-monitor their own speech in an effort to correct mistakes before they are made. But once you stop worrying about how you sound, you can focus on developing your fluency!

Nerves can make you tongue-tied
It happens in our first language so why not in our second? When we are nervous or feel embarrassed our brains tend to shut down and it becomes very difficult to speak. Second language learners often find themselves in such uncomfortable situations when they are overly worried about making mistakes. So how can you overcome your fears? Realize that mistakes are going to happen regardless of your best efforts. Every learner makes them, even native speakers! Give yourself a break and if you really feel obliged, apologize in advance and then just go for it!

Practice makes perfect
That doesn’t mean you should memorize set phrases or rehearse what you are going to say hours in advance. Natural conversation is a somewhat unpredictable beast and you need to be prepared to create new sentences on the fly and re-formulate your thoughts to fit whatever questions might come your way. So how can you do this? Practice speaking about new topics, anticipate what you might be asked and develop different responses as you go. Stringing together practice speech will light up your brain and make it easier for you to access the same verbal pathways later on when you need them.

For more tips check out our post on strategies for improving speaking skills. You can use’s practice games and dictionary to help activate your language and keep words fresh so they are ready for you to use in fluent conversation when you need them. Don’t forget to check out our article suggestions to keep on top of current events and ensure you never find yourself without an interesting topic to discuss! Re-imagines Browser Based Learning with Extension Upgrade

ChromeExtensionAnnouncing new look, feel and streamlined functionality for Chrome language tool, a free cross-platform solution that allows users to learn a language while browsing the web, announced today the release of a new version of its popular Chrome Extension tool. The upgrade provides users with enhanced control over word collection and display options and defines a separate web-based learning zone for practice and review. The slimmer, drop-down design also reflects the tool’s enhanced suitability for learners in professional and office-based settings. is an open learning platform that helps users find articles, make sense of language and learn vocabulary systematically as they browse the web. With the new extension, users visit a website, select the words they want to learn, receive in-page definitions and create flashcards to view later. Unlike translation and dictionary tools, now divides the experience into two complementary stages: learning vocabulary from context and dedicated practice and review.

“Surfing the web in another language is an essential learning activity because it unites learners with real language that is relevant and meaningful to them,” explains CEO & Co-Founder Dr. Jan Ihmels. “Going without whole-page translation acclimatizes users to target language rich environments and teaches learning from context. The new extension is also a pretty handy tool when you need to interact with foreign language text in a professional or research based settings.”

The patent-pending technology behind’s platform uses big-data paired with spaced repetition to help users bootstrap their way to fluency. released its first Chrome Extension last August and has since grown by 300k users, adding a web and mobile apps for iOS and Android to its ecosystem of learning products.  The new extension is available for download for free in the Chrome Web Store.

Back to School for Language Learners

Education Concept

‘Back to school’ can be an especially challenging time for language students: the subject and the medium by which it is learned are one and the same! To pick up where you left off, make sure you keep your motivation high, engage in some targeted review and come to class (whether it be virtual or traditional) fully prepared.Try these helpful tips and ensure a successful start to the semester!

Make a plan.

Self-efficacy, or the ability to take a task and break it down into manageable pieces, can have a major impact on success in language learning. Before someone hands you a syllabus, think about your goals for the year, how you plan to achieve them, and what you are willing to commit to in order to meet them. Decide what YOU want to learn, then make a plan and put it into action. For more ideas, check out our blog entry on How to build a language learning plan.

Join a club.

Languages are meant to be used for communication and it can be pretty hard to get your textbook to talk back. So, enquire at your school to see if there’s a language club you can join (PS. If there isn’t, you can always start one!). Alternatively, check your town or local county for language enthusiast groups or simply google online forums. No matter where you end up, putting yourself in the company of individuals who can help energize and support your learning efforts will be a winning move.

Do your homework.

Were you assigned some review over the summer? Get to it and make sure you spend a few hours reading and listening to your language to activate all of those dormant vocabulary stores. Next, find out what your teacher has planned for you and do some early research to get a head start on the semester. Will you be studying a unit on Nearealismo in Intermediate Italian? Read an article or two to get you excited about the topic or rent a film and see Anna Magnani in action. Enhancing your familiarity with new vocabulary can make a big difference in word acquisition rates.

Come prepared.

You’ll be learning heaps of new words with every language class you attend. What tools will you need to be successful? Make sure you are equipped with the basics (think dictionaries and flashcard makers). You may also want to try a few gamified apps and tools which serve authentic content to help you learn REAL language from subjects you care about. Give a try and throw a few more apps in the mix to build yourself a diverse ecosystem of complementary tools that will help you make the most of your learning when the pace picks up.

Get inspired.

Any subject can become tedious if we’re not inspired by it. Think about why you chose to study a second language in the first place and round up some material to help you get enthusiastic about the year. Maybe it’s a new album, a film, a dance class or a book about travel– whatever you try, take a second every day to remind yourself that language learning is fun!

Are you headed back to a US college or university and passionate about languages? The Student Language Exchange operates language exchange groups in over 20 universities with its users relying on online texts and free platforms like to support informal tutoring sessions for less commonly taught languages. Sign up to start a new chapter on your campus– promote linguistic and cultural diversity and make new friends at the same time. Hurry, applications are due by September 16!

5 Travel Tips for Language Learners

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Everyone knows it’s easier to learn when you are in the environment where your language is spoken. Not only are you more motivated to communicate with the locals, but you are surrounded by newspapers, signs, t-shirts– target language text in abundance! Context is key and there’s more than enough new vocabulary for the taking. But target language input still needs to be rendered comprehensible.

So how can you make the most out of a trip abroad to boost your language skills? Check out these fun tips for travelers and bring home some new words and phrases along with the souvenirs.

1. Order from Bilingual Menus- Food is one of the most enjoyable categories of vocabulary to master. After all, what could be easier than eating your way to fluency? Make sure you avoid the “English Speakers” menu at all costs and if you do get a copy, try and compare it to the target language version so you can guess the meaning of new foods. Remember, local specialities will often be featured on the menu boards at more than one restaurant. Arm yourself with a mobile dictionary (with’s free iOS and Android apps you will be well equipped!) and shop around for the right breakfast, lunch and dinner, taking note of common menu items. Create flashcards for the new dishes with a learning platform like and pick up a few take-away menus to jog your memory when you return home!

2. Take Snapshots of Signs- There’s always so much to see when you are traveling to a new place. But don’t just photograph the monuments and scenery– take shots of the signs and banners too! From shop windows advertising products and sales, to open markets and the most common phrases for Exit, Entrance and Bathroom– you will find it is easier to understand what signs are telling you when you are in the local environment and have access to contextual clues. Also, try to say what you see out-loud. Ask locals if you are having trouble and note how they pronounce the words. Remember to do your best to guess at a sign’s meaning but take a picture so you can double-check your understanding when you get home.

3. Browse Comic Books and Magazines-  Many comic strips and magazines have international versions. If you typically read National Geographic or even something light like Tom and Jerry, you are more likely to pick up on the new language as characters, themes and columns will already be familiar to you. This gives you an edge when it comes to guessing the meaning of novel vocabulary. It also helps your brain to have colorful and descriptive images which provide visual cues. So stop by a news-stand and gather some light reading material when you first arrive. It’s the perfect way to pass time on busses and trains. PS. This type of material fits easily into your suitcase for further study when the trip is over!

4. Study the Labels- Everything from your water bottle, to condiment jars, and shampoo and conditioner will have a label. Pay attention to imperative verbs encouraging you to use or try the product and descriptive adjectives which illustrate its benefits. You probably already know what a product does and what it does and doesn’t contain– or at least you can take a good guess! Use this prior knowledge to decode ingredients and slogans. Look terms up in a dictionary like’s and create flashcards to help you learn and remember the new terms. You never know what novel and intriguing language you will find!

5. Travel like a Local- Monuments and tourist towns typically offer guides, maps and brochures in a number of languages, including the local tongue. Take advantage of the parallel texts to pick up brochures in both your native and target language. Read about the place you are visiting in English and then go off and do a tour. When you have finished, sit yourself down in a coffee shop or cafe and go through the local language tourist brochure. You will already know what is being described, which makes it easier to guess what new words mean. An added bonus is when locals ask you what you liked about their hometown, you’ll know just how to talk about points of interest without resorting to translations or pointing at an image in your guidebook!

Remember that being in a new place not only enhances your access to language but also helps to strengthen your existing vocabulary. For example, you may learn new ways of using a word or encounter an unfamiliar meaning for a familiar term. Prepare for you trip by ensuring you have the dictionary, flashcard and learning  tools you need to look words up and remember them ( mobile will do the trick). And above all, interact with native speakers as much as you can while you are abroad. Travel communities like are a great place to start as they often have meet-ups in central places and forums with helpful hints that only a local would know.   

All you need to know about language aptitude

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We all know someone with a high aptitude for languages. While the rest of us struggle, they seem to hear everything and pick up new words without even trying. It’s a shame that when it comes to aptitude you’re either one of the lucky few to be born with it or you aren’t, right? Wrong.

The dictionary definition of aptitude is actually a natural or acquired capacity for learning. That means any language learner can enhance their aptitude if they go about it in the right way. Since aptitude for languages is closely related to working memory, it’s best to first understand how the mechanisms that help us trap and retain language work, and then consider some strategies.

The Visuospatial Sketchpad
In 1974, Baddeley & Hitch proposed a model of working memory in which a central executive managed and processed information gathered from two sub-systems: the visuospatial sketchpad and the phonological loop. Have you ever stared hard at a page and then closed your eyes? Give it a try now and notice how the image lasts for a few seconds, even when you can no longer see it. That’s the visuospatial sketchpad at work. While everyone has one of these, the amount of time it takes for an image to disappear varies depending on the individual. People with higher aptitude tend to be able to hold an image in mind for longer amounts of time.

So, what does this have to do with language learning? When you first start reading in your new language, your brain is not used to the novel letter combinations (or perhaps you’re even working with an entirely new alphabet/script). This makes it difficult to visualize words and hold them in working memory long-enough for them to be learned and transferred over for long-term storage. A lot of time is wasted in checking back and forth to look-up new terms in a dictionary or use them in productive exercises. Vocabulary is the most basic component of language and if your ability to acquire words from written text is hampered, it can have a severe impact on learning and progress.

The Phonological Loop
Of course language is both written and spoken, so acquiring new vocabulary can also be done with your ears. Have you ever recited a telephone number over and over until you found a pen to write it down? That’s the phonological loop at work, allowing you to record bits of audio and play them on repeat until you have a chance to process and understand what you have heard. Some people can hold longer strings of numbers and sounds in memory than others and they tend to be individuals with a higher aptitude for language learning.

Why is that? Well spoken language happens in real-time and there isn’t a pause button for native-speaker conversation. You may not have understood exactly what was said, but if you can record it and replay it in your mind, then you can also save it for later processing. It’s like having an internal voice recorder that can help you get better at parsing speech, unpacking chunks of language and acquiring new words from context. If your sound to letter mapping is accurate, it also allows you to look up words in a dictionary (like’s) and learn their written form.

Improving Language Aptitude
So what can you do to boost your aptitude for languages? Train your brain! Both the phonological loop and visuospatial sketchpad respond to strategy training. Just like stretching before a run, set 20 minutes aside to practice looking at words in your target language and then writing them down from memory. Juggle a few items at once and mix up the order in which you produce them. Gradually increase the time intervals and amount of terms. Don’t worry about learning the content or definitions, simply focus on form. Repeat the process for spoken language. Focus on  holding in memory longer strings of speech instead of worrying about what the language means or how to respond. You’ll notice a difference right away, as written vocabulary become easier to work with and spoken language, easier to hear.

For more info on improving your ability to hear and understand target language speech, check out this article from the author of the Fluent Forever Blog. Once you’ve amped up you aptitude for extracting new language, the sky is the limit! Keep up the strategic effort and use a free platform like to stay on top of all of the words you are learning. Create dynamic flashcards, play fun practice games, see vocabulary in authentic contexts and help ensure your new words make it into long-term memory.