The Language of Pickled Cucumber and Honey

I’ve shared you earlier my story with English, Swedish and French. As Russian is my main learning language right now, I thought I could reflect a bit about why I started to learn it and how has it been for me so far.

Why Russian?

For some reason, as long as I’ve known I want to learn a lot of languages, Russian has been on my list. I’m not entirely sure how it found it’s way there. I recognize, in general, at least 5 different reasons to want to learn a language: exposure, need, practicality, social or cultural interest (I could write another blog post about my thoughts on this!).

To some extent, it’s probably the exposure: the more I listen to a language, the more intrigued I get. In Finland, there are 70 000 people whose first language is Russian, and in 2015 we had 53 000 Russian tourists visiting overnight. So it is likely to hear a bit of Russian in Finland.

In elementary school, I had some friends on my class whose mother tongue was Russian, and sometimes I’d secretly listen to them speaking on the phone with their parents and be intrigued about how the same person sounds so different when speaking another language. I can’t really remember what Russian sounded to me like back then.

In high school a classmate of mine, a girl originally from Russia, taught me some Russian. I learned the letters, and some numbers and colours and simple phrases. I guess after that I had the feeling I always get after learning a bit of a language: I wanted to learn more.

Partly, I guess, it’s also practical: I found it possibly useful for future career opportunities. Many Finnish companies do business with Russia, and Russian isn’t a language everybody learns, so it can help you stand out as a job applicant.

I definitely have a cultural interest for Russian. There are many similarities – generous hospitality, a certain kind of stubborn pride, and, I guess, liking vodka. But the differences often feel more distinct. Russian people are said to be more temperamental, living in the moment and open in their expression of feelings. Russian has an imperial history. When I think of Russian cuisine, I think of pickled cucumber and honey (I’m not sure if Russian people actually eat this or if it’s a Finnish misconception), which somehow sums up how I feel about the whole culture: surprising, perhaps even somewhat strange at first glance, but in fact extremely likeable and brilliantly original.

But there is, I think, a sixth reason to feel drawn to a language. It’s the mysterious appeal you sometimes feel about a language, alluring interest. I think it may be born from a combination of all the other reasons I mentioned, but you may feel it without really being able to recognize any logical reasons behind it.

There are two foreign languages that have this special appeal for me: Swedish and Russian. I could call it infatuation, because it feel a bit the same as thinking about that someone special you like! Haha. I’m just mysteriously drawn to these two languages, they are beautiful and intriguing to me. They are the two neighboring languages to Finnish, yet not related to it at all and not really closely to each other either. Two very different cultures surrounding us, having their own influence on the Finnish culture, and still feel like different worlds.

I can’t explain it any better. Have you ever had that kind of feeling about another language?

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In St. Petersburgh in 2016

A patchy history of Russian courses

I finally got the chance to actually study Russian in university. There were a lot of languages to choose from, but for some reason I jumped straight on a Russian course without a second thought.

However, university studies were much more demanding than upper secondary school, where I had thrived learning four languages at the same time. I really didn’t usually do my Russian homework and because of that, the classes weren’t too useful, either. Every semester I couldn’t even fit the courses in my schedule. I also had a year off from university at one point.

So my Russian studies were really scattered: Course 1A in spring 2011, 1B in fall 2012, 2A and 2B in fall 2014(!) and 3A and 3B in fall 2015. Everytime I just stubbornly moved on to the next level even though I felt like I’d forgotten half of the previous courses (and maybe never learned the other half because I hadn’t really been concentrating on the courses).

So Russian was, after French, the language I most felt like I should have already learned more than I had. That’s why I’ve picked it up now again as my second project after having decided to really start learning languages again last year.

What’s difficult and what’s easy

I’d say Russian has been the most difficult for me to learn of all the languages I’ve studied.

Usually I learn really well by listening and back in school I could, for example, memorise entire course book chapters of French or Swedish just by listening to the recordings. Of course, I only recently started to feel like I can understand French speech at normal speed – the course book chapter recordings were simple and slow. But with Russian, even the simplest chapters just sounded like “lksdjladghksdlsdfhgsuadslkj” in the beginning, even after I had read and translated the text and learned the vocabulary. It took me ages to get the hang of how to listen to the language. There’s something entirely different about the rhythm, structure and sounds of it.

Reading Russian is also kind of difficult for me. No, I actually had no trouble learning the alphabet, when it comes to recognizing the individual letters, but somehow I still read very slowly. Normally I’d say you read by just looking at a word or even the entire sentence, but I still read Russian kind of letter by letter. It’s all about lack of practice, of course.

Another problem with reading is, I can’t tell where the stress on longer words is. If there’s a new word I read and haven’t heard, it’s very difficult to imagine what the word is supposed to sound like, because the placement of the stress makes a huge difference. I’m not entirely sure if there are any rules for this or if you learn to place the stress only word by word.

The cases are so confusing. Yes, Finnish is notorious for them. I don’t know if being naturally familiar with the concept makes it easier or not. I suppose I learn the declension rules easily enough, they are logical enough. The biggest problem is when to use which case! That’s where having cases in my own language is mostly just a stumbling block. The genitive in Russian is used to state ownership, just like in Finnish, but it’s also used with amounts such as a lot or a little, which, in Finnish, is expressed with partitive, also the case used for partial objects, which are, then again expressed in accusative in Russian. Confused yet? I am. Argh!

What’s easy: Verb tenses!
But wait –

That reminds me of yet another difficult thing: verb aspects. They only came in on my last two courses of Russian and I certainly haven’t gotten my head around them yet.
And all the little movement verbs with their prefixes:

входить / войтиto go in, to enter
выходить / выйтиto go out, to leave, to exit
всходить / взoйтиto go up, to ascend
доходить / дойтиto get to, to get as far as, to reach
заходить / зайтиto drop in, to stop by
обходить / обойтиto walk around, to bypass
отходить / отойтиto walk away
переходить / перейтиto go across, to turn
подходить / подойтиto approach
приходить / прийтиto arrive, to come
проходить / пройтиto go by, to go past
сходить / сойтиto go down, decend
уходить / уйтиto go from, to leave, depart

Gahh… Send help.

So, not so many things I’d find easy in Russian, but I guess I enjoy the challenge! And all the more rewarding it will be when I make progress.

I’m still kind of searching my favourite methods to learn Russian. Any ideas are welcomed!

And I’d be happy to hear  about your experiences. Have you learned Russian? Why did you choose to learn it? What do you find difficult or easy? Or did you relate to any of these thoughts with another language you’re learning?

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Kremlin of Nizhny Novgorod

Language learning goals for January 2017

New year is one of my favourite holidays, because I’m such a crazy planner and list-maker and reviewer. I love to look back and say “Wow, what a year” and think about everything I learned and experienced, and I enjoy looking forward and planning and setting goals, too.

I revived my language learning hobby during last year, and it means this year I had one more exciting thing to make plans and set goals for. This post includes not only a review for December and my goals for January, but also a few words about my plans for 2017 as a whole.

This post is inspired by the Clear the list challenge Hosted by Lindsay does languages, Shannon of Eurolinguiste, Kris Broholm and Angel Pretot.

Clear The List

Review: December 2016

Seems than even if beforehand you think that you don’t really have to worry about anything at all and you’ll have plenty of time to do all the holiday preparations, December always just ends up being crazy anyway. It feels like I had more stuff to do than in the last four months altogether.

So I didn’t have time to blog, even though I had some plans for a post or two. I’ll have to save those for this month. But what’s really important, I did manage to squeeze in some language learning!

The bigger picture: Multiple languages but switching focus

Looking at the big picture of my language learning, I had two major challenges:
trying to learn multiple languages at the same time – I hadn’t really done that in a few years – and switching focus from French to Russian. The two goals are related, they both meant I had to optimize the amount of time and effort spent on each language.

In the beginning I did notice that I was kind of drawn to my usual French activities resisted picking up the new methods for Russian, but in the end, I’d say I succeeded in this larger scale goal. I’m definitely more focused on Russian now, while I managed to keep up  a decent pace with the other two languages, too.

Russian

My most important goal was to keep up the tandem learning project: meeting twice a week and doing the pre-tasks assigned to me by my tandem partner. We had to skip two or three meetings due to one nasty cold and some end-of-term panic, but in general, I think we both worked quite hard and it’s been very useful so far!

I also planned to translate two dialogues from my textbook per week, but I’d say I did one per week on average. In addition to that, my intention was to complete one 25-lesson course on Babbel plus 20 grammar lessons. Did 20/25 lessons, and only 9 grammar lessons.

Oh, well. December happened.

French

I did pretty much everything I planned: three sets of Goldlist each week, listening to the audiobook two or three times per week and some Babbel review, although the latter just once a week instead of the two I’d planned.

Swedish

I wanted to read more regularly but I didn’t. I finished Sommarboken the first week, then found myself a new book, Vägen till Jerusalem, but only managed to start reading it in the holidays.

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I only had time to read in the holidays…

Clara Henry vlogs I did watch every week. I didn’t do the test myself and watch a movie without subtitles. Don’t really know if I’m that much into Swedish movies.

But I visited Stockholm and bought tickets to Fotografiska and ordered a coffee and a Kokosboll. 😀 Not exactly a huge achievement for my upposed-to-be advanced Swedish, but at least I didn’t even consider speaking English in those situations.

All in all… I might feel like I did bad because I slipped from so many of my goals, but the great thing about having found the language learning community of the Internet is that I know everyone else struggled to keep up with their routine in December, too. It’s just normal I guess. I still did a lot!

My motto for the new year: Don’t be discouraged! Even if you end up falling off your routine, the most important thing is that you will pick it up again.

Language learning goals for January 2017

So many new things will be starting in January and I’ll be really busy, so I know I’ll have to be realistic with my language learning goals. So I’ll do slightly less in total, but my main goal is to just keep finding time for at least a little bit of languages every day.

I made myself a new tracker (you can see it in the cover picture of this post) to ease my weekly planning and to keep better track on my goals. Each Sunday I’ll plan ahead my language activities for the next week.

Russian

Russian will still be my main project. I’m continuing the tandem learning project, one meeting per week plus the exercises my tandem partner plans for me.

To support the tandem learning I’ll do some textbook practice, Babbel lessons and watch a series and some news.

Textbooks

I didn’t really warm for the translation method I tried last month, but I’ll give it another go. I was translating chapters I’d actually already studied a couple of years ago on my Russian course in uni, because I felt like I’ve forgotten everything, but in the end I think I actually remembered more than expected and it was a bit boring to translate the stuff I already new. So now I’ll move on to the chapters I never studied before. I’ll translate one dialogue per week.

I also really decided to do something about the cases, which I really haven’t gotten my head around. In the holidays I did a kind of a summary poster of all the cases. I thought that would help me remember how they work, because my university Russian did cover all of them – but the thing is, I just haven’t learnt them properly, and making the summary proved me that.

So to begin with, I’ll do all the case excercises from my textbook, two cases per week. There are approximately three exercises per case so not too many, but that’s a start.

Babbel

To be honest, the Babbel lessons have been too easy so far. I’ll see for another month, if it’s any use. I’ll do six lessons per week.

Series and news

I’ve been watching a telenovela series called Бедная Настя (Bednaya Nastya) or Poor Nastya for about 25 episodes so far, and it’s the perfect stress-free language resource for me. It’s a slightly silly melodramatic story set in imperial Russia in the 19th century.

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19th century imperial dresses and uniforms, a huge relationship mess AND you learn Russian. Perfect.

It’s with subtitles and I don’t even try to write down any new words or do anything active while watching it, so not much effort is involved, but I do recognize a lot of words and sentences all the time, so I think it’s useful anyway. I’ll try to watch one 40 minute episode per week.

In addition, I’ll start watching news in Russian at least once a week. The Finnish National Television airs news in Russian every day so it’s very easily available for me.

Swedish

I’ll keep watching the weekly vlog from Clara Henry and try to read the novel Vägen till Jerusalem, let’s say 30 pages per week . (I’m a slow reader in any language)

French

I’ve dropped the French Babbel now, and will simply keep doing my Goldlist three sets per week and listen to an audiobook for half an hour or so.

It’s very little time for Swedish and French, but I hope it’ll be enough to keep me from forgetting too much…

OH. By the way!

I didn’t include a review of last year as a whole, but this tells something about what happened in my 2016 of languages.

I’ve just recently found a French artist, Indila, whose music I’ve really fallen in love with, and I had the most thrilling experience, when listening to the song Boite en argent (well, looping it, to be honest, that’s what I do when I fall for a song).

I’d really listened to it maybe two times before and I started to realize I actually understand what they’re singing. I mean, not just a few words or the chorus, but majority of the whole song. That never happens to me with French songs! I always had to listen again and again and again and then still check the lyrics somewhere and still make an effort to translate it.

So I started paying attention to it, and I actually understand a lot of French lyrics now. So I’ve definitely made a friggin’ lot of progress last year!

Can’t even describe how happy I was!

Plans for the year 2017

New year is always a great moment to make some bigger plans, so I gave a thought or two to the big picture of my languages. Here’s a rough plan for an awesome year in languages:

January–April: Where can my get my Russian in four months?

I think I’ll keep my focus on Russian until the end of April. Perhaps even May, we’ll see. I should be able to make quite some progress in that time. I’m excited to see how much!

May–June: Swedish, how I’ve missed you, don’t go away again

I think I’ll dedicate a month or two for Swedish in May-June. It seems like it’s about time then; it’ll be a year since I left Sweden after my exchange. And for no reason, I just love Swedish. Lovelovelove. I’ll let the midsummer warmth melt the ice. And from then on, I’ll work harder to keep it away!

January–June: French – from understanding to speaking

Last year, I’ve taken a huge leap with my understanding of French, but I still don’t know how well I actually speak… I’ll come up with a way to practice speaking starting in February and gradually add the amount of practice towards the summer.

July–September: New (old) language!

If I’m happy enough with my progress, perhaps I can give myself the permission to dig out another language I used to study ages ago. Japanese, or German? We’ll see!

October–December: Fight the freeze

It get’s harder to think what I actually want to do, the further in the future we go, but right now I think I could try out some sort of a review cycle, changing which language I have my main focus on, brushing up my existing language skills (of course learning some new stuff too). How often should I give more practice to a language to prevent it from freezing? Or how much time is little enough continuously, to keep up a language or even make some slow progress? I’ll see if I can start finding the answers. Any of your experiences would be interesting to hear!

That’s my plan. I’d love to hear about yours.

I hope you all have an amazing, thrilling and wonderful year in language learning!

Language learning goals for December 2016

Lately, two language blogs have really inspired me to try new methods and keep up my learning: Lindsay Does Languages and Joy of Languages. They gave me the idea to start using Instagram for practicing my French, and also made me think it is possible to keep learning multiple languages at the same time – something I gave up on earlier this year because I felt like it wasn’t going anywhere.

The most important thing these blogs have given me, though, has been ideas on how to set myself some proper goals. They both do a monthly goal-setting post where they specifically describe what they want to accomplish with each language they are learning.

Based on their example and my own learning methods, I set myself some weekly goals already this month. I managed to stick to them perfectly with French, but I did a bit less than planned with Russian and Swedish.

Next month I want to give it a go and officially join the Clear the list challenge! It’s a goal-setting challenge hosted by Lindsay Does Languages and Eurolinguiste.

Clear The List

 

Learning multiple languages

Katie Harris of Joy of Languages has an approach for learning multiple languages that I really love. She uses the terms sprint language and marathon languages. It’s intuitive: The sprint language is her main focus, she learns it daily and immerses herself in it with activities like TV, reading and radio, to make some serious progress. Marathon languages are the ones with more relaxed goals. They are being kept up so the stuff you already learned doesn’t get forgotten.

I find the division very helpful. The two concepts describe really well the amount of focus you should give to one language and the pace you can expect to keep up with the others, if you want to keep learning several languages AND actually make progress in one of them. Otherwise you will only keep treading water with all of the languages and learning nothing new.

I’m working on applying this in my own language learning right now.

Switching focus

I’ve been mainly learning French for more than half a year now. And I’m happy to say it’s been very fruitful! My understanding has improved and my vocabulary broadened. Just on the course of this month, after writing small things every day on Instagram, I’ve noticed it has gotten easier to form sentences and express my thoughts. The words come more easy to me now. I still haven’t practiced speaking enough, but at least I feel that an ordinary, not-so-simple conversation in French would not be impossible (like it used to be). And confidence is an important factor in speaking, so it is something!

I’ve found a really nice flow with French right now; I really enjoy everything I do with it. In that sense, it feels a bit difficult to take it down to less. But I also feel like I’ve reached a certain level where it is safe to concentrate on something else for a while.

I have a strong reason to dedicate more time for Russian right now. I joined a program at my university called “Each One Teach One”, and found a Russian student who wants to learn Finnish. We have already met a couple of times and practiced a bit, and I feel like it’s going to be great fun. But it is really difficult for me right now. My ability to speak Russian is far from impressive.

In order to make the most of the tandem learning, I have to support it with other things. That’s why I feel like I need to make Russian my main focus (or sprint language) now.

Learning goals for December 2016

The languages I’m learning right now are French, Russian and Swedish.

Russian

Because my Russian learning has been very unorganized so far, it will probably take some time to find the best methods. And the tandem learning thing is totally new for me. Trial and error it may be, but hopefully learning will happen.

My goal is to be able to keep up a very basic conversation (which also includes widening my vocabulary a bit, because I really do suck at surviving with a tiny vocabulary). I also wish to finally get some basic grammar in my head, so the cases wouldn’t be such a nightmare (yes, being said by a native Finnish speaker – the irony, I know…)

Tandem

We’ve made a great plan with Natalia, my tandem partner, and I’m super excited to get going! We’ll meet twice a week to discuss half an hour in both languages, on a chosen topic. We’ll also find for each other some pre-tasks, such as videos to watch, to support learning some words and phrases related to the topic.

Babbel

I checked what Babbel has to offer for Russian and unfortunately it’s rather basic stuff only. However, even my basics of Russian seem very rusty so perhaps it’s exactly what I’ll need to brush it up. I’m sure it’ll help with the grammar at least.

So I’ll try completing the Beginner’s course number three (1 and 2 seem too simple) which has 25 lessons. I’ll also do at least 20 grammar lessons in addition to that.

Translation

Because my tandem project will include both listening and speaking activities, and the Babbel courses will support grammar and speaking, what is left to be covered is reading and writing.

I think I’ll try the translation method: translating short dialogues first from Russian to Finnish, then back to Russian. I’ll use my course book from the courses I took at uni because I feel like I never really properly did my homework on those courses…

My goal is to do two dialogues per week. No idea if it’s too much or too little. Trial and error!

French

In order to make space for Russian, I should take French down a bit. How? I want to keep doing my Goldlist. And no way I’m going to leave out the Harry Potter audiobooks. I had actually wanted to check some French tv series and music, too… My goal next month is to keep up the great feeling of learning French, and enjoy all the things I can do with it – while doing much less.

Goldlist, audiobooks and Babbel

I guess the solution is cutting down how many days of the week I use for learning French. I’m thinking three days. Don’t know if it’s too much, but less feels like too little. So I’ll do three rounds of Goldlist a week, and listen to the audiobooks maximum three times a week.

Also, my current Babbel subscription of French ends around Christmas. I’m almost done with the last In-depth course they have, and lately I’ve noticed the other courses on grammar, vocabulary and words and sentences feel a bit too easy. So I think I will just keep using the review manager and reviewing what I learned so far, until my subscription ends.

TV and music

Because I got some great tips last month for both music and tv series and I really want to try them out, I’ll try to find the time to watch a series or listen to French music at least once a week. My goal is to at least check the recommendations and find out which series and artists I like.

Swedish

My “de-frost” project. Some time early 2017 I think I’ll take it as a sprint language to actually improve (or de-frost) it… Now my goal is to at least keep using my Swedish, and try and stop more frost from forming.

Lately I’ve been doing two things and I think I’ll just attempt to keep those up:

Reading

I still need to finish “Sommarboken” by Tove Jansson, that was my goal for this month. Then I’ll find another book and keep reading, just more regularly than this month.

Watching video blogs

I’ve found vlogs by Clara Henry amusing, and great practice for listening, so I’ll keep watching those every week.

Put myself to test

I’ll test my understanding of Swedish at the end of the month by watching a film without subtitles.

Instagram

I’ll keep using Instagram for practicing, but haven’t quite decided yet what to do with it. I should focus on Russian there, too, but I still want to keep writing some posts/making small videos in French, because it’s so much fun. Perhaps I’ll go for whichever language I feel like every day, but at least three days of the week must be Russian!

 

Harry Potter et la magique des livres audios

Final part of my very effective French-learning combo of last few months is listening to audiobooks. Not just any audiobooks, though, as the title of this post implies.

Why Harry Potter in French? In general, books are at their best in the original language, so why not find something originally French to listen to?

Starting to listen to audiobooks in a new language is tricky. I have tried listening to a couple of originally French children’s books before, with bad results. Although they probably were simple enough language, my brain just was not adjusted to understanding French at that speed. The normal speed French is spoken at, that is. The French narrators (at least in children’s books!) seem to always read in a very lively manner, changing their voice a lot – muttering, growling, whispering, reading even faster when depicting anger or excitement – making it totally incomprehensible for a beginner.

The magic of Harry Potter books as a perfect language learning tool for me is that I have read them a ridiculous amount of times, both in Finnish and in English. So many times that I practically know them by heart.

When I first started to listen to the first one, “Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers”, at first I did struggle. It sounded pretty much like “Aprés blahblahblah Harry blahblahblah baguette magique et blahblahblah, dit-il.” But even though I could only catch a word here and another there, I could still follow the story, as my memory was filling in the missing parts. At first I got tired soon and could only listen to it for five minutes at a time.

Pretty soon it got better. I started to pick up words I’d just written in my Goldlist or structures I’d run into in Babbel, catch whole sentences and even figure out the meaning of words that I heard repeatedly I didn’t know before.

Now, three and a half books and 45 hours later, my listening has improved dramatically, and I’m really looking forward to the audiobook moments. Any bus ride, waiting time or longer walk passes happily with ‘Arry Potter et ses amis.

My vocabulary sure has grown. Of course, some of the words are not the most useful ones for everyday life: baguette magique, balai, moldu, cape d’invisibilité… But many times an actually useful word or a whole phrase gets stuck in my head after hearing it in the book, and I keep repeating it in my head and trying to think of situations where I could use it.

I can recommend to anyone who tends to read their favourite books again and again, to try out how they sound in another language. You know you’re going to enjoy the story, and it’s really amusing and interesting to hear how the familiar characters sound like in another language.

If I manage to find the rest of the audiobooks somewhere, I think I’m going to listen through the whole series. That would mean almost a hundred hours of listening. I think after that much practice I should be able to follow a book I haven’t read before!

Why I love the Goldlist Method

I’m a huge believer in the power of vocabulary. That’s why even my blog is named ‘Twenty thousand words”. I kind of view my goals of language learning through the idea of knowing enough words to be able to express myself and understand.

I know, I know – on the one hand, every language learner needs to learn vocabulary, and on the other hand, it takes more than knowing the words. Of course I don’t try to learn languages by only cramming vocabulary in my memory.

But it’s a question of focus. I know people who like to pay as little attention to vocabulary as possible. I like to actively, constantly and consciously build my vocabulary all the time, in addition to other learning methods.

This stems from two things: Firstly, previous experience. When I learned Swedish, it was after my teacher started to give lists of words to learn and have vocabulary tests every week, that my ability to speak and write just rocketed. It resulted in me finding the words more easily in every situation and that gave me more confidence.

Secondly, I’m the kind of person that even in my own native language I select my words very carefully and take time to find the most exact expression possible. So it’s quite hard for me to start speaking a new language (sure it’s hard for everyone but I guess I struggle more than average). Of course, it’s something I just need to practice – trying to make myself understood with the words I do know. In any case, because I really can’t change the way I am, it makes things easier for me to keep broadening my selection of words every day.

Ok, I guess, there’s a third point: I just like learning vocabulary. I enjoy words. Just marveling how they sound and look like. Seeing the connections to other languages I know. Sometimes suddenly even realizing what could be their etymology.

I suppose that’s why I’m really in love with the Goldlist method.

The Goldlist method

There are many different methods out there for learning vocabulary. Flashcards and spaced repetition is popular, for example – and as I mentioned in my previous post, I like that techinque in Babbel review manager. I never felt like making my own flashcards, though.

My current method of learning vocabulary is the Goldlist, and it is the best thing ever. For me, that is.

It was developed by “Uncle Davey”, David. J. James, and it is described in full detail here. Very brief explanation: you write down words in sets of 25, go through the list after 2-8 weeks and leave out one third of the words, the ones you remember the best; you write the rest of them again, and after 2-8 weeks you go through them again and leave out one third, and so on.

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An opening of my French Goldlist

The theory behind it is, that you’re not cramming your short term memory with words, but putting them straight to your long-term memory. You end up repeating only the words that are tougher to memorize. And you simply learn by writing the words. I love that. “From the pen to the hand, and from the hand to the brain”, said my German teacher. At least for me, that actually works.

Goldlist is not a fast-forward button of vocabulary study, using it takes quite a lot of time (like any other method, I think). And it is certainly not for everyone, I can imagine.

Here are some reasons why I think it suits me so well:

1) I love empty notebooks

Ever bought a notebook just because you couldn’t resist the empty pages? I do that every know and then, buy new notebooks even when I have no idea what I could use them for. I pass by the shelf with notebooks every time I go to a bookstore. I take pleasure in writing on an empty page of a brand-new Moleskine. Most of the time, I carry around at least three different journals.

I don’t know if I’m just strange in that way – but I think at least the an behind the Goldlist method shares that strangeness. You get a reason to buy those notebooks and enjoy filling them up page by page!

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Me and my stash of spare notebooks

2) I’m busy but like to take a few breaks throughout the day

I don’t really have a fixed day or hour for my language learning, I just take a break here and there, whenever I have time. Goldlist is excellent for that kind of schedule. I can always find a moment even in a busy day to write one set of words. One Goldlist session takes about 20 minutes for me. In between working on two projects, for example, I may use the Goldlist session as a way to clear my head from the previous task, so it’s easier to take on the next one.

I actually find my Goldlist learning sessions a relaxing moment. The whole process of taking out the notebook, writing down the numbers, carefully writing each word and enjoying how they look like on the paper, and then reading through the whole list is somehow soothing to me.

3) I enjoy words

Yeah, like I said, I just like to pay attention to words. That’s what you do with Goldlist – take one word at a time, and just let it sink in.

Trial and error

I have had some trial and error experiences with the method. Three things I have noticed are important to remember:

1) Use it parallel to other learning methods, especially reading or listening

A year ago, I did try to use goldlisting for “defrosting” the little skills I had, meaning that I didn’t use any other methods. The problem is, I don’t know if it worked or not, because that way I had no point of reference, no way to prove I was learning (except for the fact that I did remember the 30 % of words of each set of words even after a month or two).

The best thing about Goldlist is when I listen to my audiobooks and recognize a word I have written a while ago. And that’s the thing those people who go “never only learn vocabulary” mean: you need to meet the words you have learnt in contexts they can be used in, so you actually learn to recognize and use them.

2) Don’t try to sprint

Sometimes I had weeks when I had a lot of time and got very excited about my Goldlist and wrote 5 to 10 sets of words a day. Usually that phase was followed by weeks of not using my Goldlist at all. That is not very good.

It doesn’t matter really, if I sometimes have even longer breaks from goldlisting – I actually dug my list up after a break of over half a year, and because the whole point is you learn words straight into your long-term memory, I could actually remember approximately one third of the words and was thus able to continue from where I had left it.

However, I still think a better way is just to constantly do one to three sets of words a day. That way, my vocabulary keeps growing slowly and steadily. When I have more time for language learning, I can just use more time on my other study methods, and experience the results of my widening vocabulary when it gets easier and easier to read, listen and speak.

3) Try to find everyday context

I think this is something I still need to work on: Actually using the words I learn for producing text or speech. The set of methods I now use mainly improve understanding speech or written texts.

My vocabulary book has an example of each word used in a sentence, and I always read those, but even more motivating is when I can think of a situation or a sentence where I could use the word in my own life. Sometimes, especially when I do the distillations, meaning that I leave out the words I think I have best memorized, I scribble down small sentences below the list of words, using the word in a sentence I think I could actually use somewhere.

But in general, I do need to find ways to more actively use my French every day. Now I’ve found the Instagram Language Challenge quite helpful for that!

Just Babbeling On

I mentioned in the previous post I’d write about the learning methods I’ve been using for French. So today’s post is about an online course at Babbel I’ve been following for half a year. I’ve had some weeks when I did not use it, but all in all I’ve managed to stick with it quite well. I’ll try to get to the bottom of why it’s worked for me.

I’m not an expert on different online courses or language apps. I actually only tried Duolingo before. I know a lot of people who use Duolingo and have managed to actually get to a decent conversational level by using it. I tried it twice for basics of German, and also took a level test in French and tried some of the bit more advanced stuff.

For some reason, Duolingo was not for me. I got bored with the exercises, first of all. Even more importantly, I was annoyed by the system they had to encourage you to revise – the level bars that keep going down when you don’t practice. I guess a perfectionist like me just had to keep the bars full, and I found myself having to repeat the basics over and over again, even though I already knew them by heart. Finally, I got tired of sentences like “My pretty duck drinks juice”. I swear I do have a sense of humour, and Sh*t Duolingo says on Twitter really is a good laugh. And I know it’s a bit like reading a children’s book first, and that can be a great way to learn. But I don’t know, maybe I’d rather actually read the children’s books then. I just like to learn useful stuff.

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Babbel I first found through their blog, where I really enjoyed reading some of the user portraits and “tips from polyglots how to learn any language” kind of stories. When I started to think following a course might really help me get some structure to my French learning, Babbel was the only one I had really read some experiences about, and I decided to test it. I liked the free trial – it’s free to test one lesson of each course, and there are several courses from beginners to intermediate, plus grammar, listening and speaking, and different themes, so you actually get to play around quite a bit before you need to make up your mind. To subscribe the courses, you have to pay a bit, but I think the price was very reasonable, you get access to all of the courses, and in the beginning, having paid money for it was a good motivator to really regularly use it.

The exercises themselves are quite simple and in a way quite similar to Duolingo: lot of repetition, exercises for writing, speaking and listening, and you just learn a few new phrases per lesson. Somehow I still find them a lot less boring than Duolingo. Maybe it’s because they are more coherent. Each lesson includes a dialogue in the end, with a couple of characters discussing some issue, creating a clever little story. I already start guessing from the sentences introduced in the lesson what the dialogue is going to be about, and that keeps me interested throughout the lesson. For an occasional laugh, instead of ridiculous sentences, the dialogues often have a funny twist in the end.

The topics and phrases are mostly very everyday, and I often think: “Hey, I could really use that sentence!”, and get encouraged to imagine myself in a situation where I use it, maybe even change the phrase a bit to better fit my needs. I think that is very fruitful, because textbook/course-form of language learning always has the risk that you only learn the textbook phrases by heart, and don’t learn to apply them in real life.

My favourite thing on Babbel, however, is  certainly the Review manager. The vocabulary you learn on the exercises appears there, and you can revise with flashcards or writing – I always use the flashcards. The clever thing is, they tell you how the revise manager works: each time you get the phrase right on first attempt, it is moved to the next level and the revision interval gets longer. If you get it right on the second try, the interval stays the same, and if it takes more tries, the interval gets shorter. You can see which level all your vocabulary is on.

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Review manager on Babbel

I find this very motivating. I can follow the progress of my vocabulary building up, and I know it makes sense how often I revise a phrase. The more difficult ones to learn will be revised more often, and the easy ones that already are in the long-term memory, will not cram the process and make me bored.

I often still spend a lot of time revising, and only take on a new lesson maybe once a week. However, I think this course has been very useful for my overall learning. It hasn’t perhaps taken my French to a new level, but it’s been great for defrosting what I already knew but had forgotten. I actually had already learned quite a lot of grammar, and building sentences and that kind of stuff, back in school. Babbel has also been a great basis for my other two learning media, audiobooks and Goldlisting, which both would be much less useful on their own.

I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences on different online courses and language apps!

A piece of baguette

My Project French is going quite well!

I’ve found a nice and efficient combo of learning methods which work for me.  For a couple of months now, I’ve been learning with

  • An online/mobile app course from Babbel
  • Goldlist
  • Audiobooks

I think I’ll blog in a bit more detail about each method soon!

This time, however, I wanted to share some thoughts about how I find learning French – which aspects of it are easy, which are difficult.

I can’t actually come up with too many easy things. As a whole, French just is not a piece of cake. More like a piece of baguette, with a tough crust you need to get through before it gets easier to chew. (Such a clever analogy, I know.)

A pretty nice share of the vocabulary is easy to memorize due to similarity to English. It also makes guessing the meaning of many words possible, and I find I can read even rather complicated texts, although my oral skills are not very advanced.

For instance, last summer I did an internship where I had to go through a lot of texts from the European Commission, and just for fun, I checked some of the reports in French. I was surprised to be able to actually read through several pages of “COMMUNICATION DE LA COMMISSION AU PARLEMENT EUROPÉEN, AU CONSEIL, AU COMITÉ ÉCONOMIQUE ET SOCIAL EUROPÉEN ET AU COMITÉ DES RÉGIONS: Feuille de route pour une Europe efficace dans l’utilisation des ressources” , and the like, quite effortlessly! Pretty awesome.

The most difficult aspects are related to verbs, I think.

Irregular verbs are a pain in the back, as in any language. I’m so happy my French teacher made us memorize a whole lot of them early on. That’s one of the few things I think have stuck in my head pretty well from those lessons (in addition to useful sentences like “Je détéste les olives.”).

And when to use imperfect and passé composé? Imperfect is for describing a state, or continuous or incomplete action in the past, and passé composé is for already completed or single events, right?

That’s strange to me – in Finnish, the imperfect describes something that happened not too long ago and is somehow new information, whereas the perfect describes something that happened maybe longer ago, but is somehow related to something that is currently happening…

Err, wait. Now that I tried explaining the Finnish tenses, I started to feel that maybe the French way actually makes more sense. Well, I never said Finnish was easy, did I?? Maybe this is not one of the difficult things in French, after all, at least now that I know how it works. But I remember it used to be confusing!

Finally, I have to admit I have no idea what the subjunctive is used for, I just vaguely remember from my French lessons back in school, that there is such a thing, and that it is weird. Brr.

In addition to verbs being tricky in many ways, I feel that the French way to build sentences takes some effort to grasp. It’s hard to explain, but I take an example from a book, originally in English:

“The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn’t think they could bear if anyone found out about the Potters.”

And the French translation goes:

“Les Dursley avaient tout ce qu’ils voulaient. La seule chose indésirable qu’ils possédaient, c’était un secret dont ils craignaient plus que tout qu’on le découvre un jour. Si jamais quiconque venait à entendre parler des Potter, ils étaient convaincus qu’ils ne s’en remettraient pas.”
The Dursleys had everything they wanted. The only unwanted thing they had, it was a secret of which they were afraid more than anything that would be found out one day. If ever anyone would hear about the Potters, they were certain they could not bear it.”

(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling)

Of course, it’s a book, and spoken language is different, but I think that particular something is there in spoken language, too.

Somehow the sentences seem more complicated, there’s always an additional curlicue.
I actually kind of like that. It’s like making every sentence a carefully, lovingly wrapped and decorated gift.

I guess that is something you can pick up through just hearing and reading a lot of French. After all, anything can become easy, with enough practice.