How to learn a new language and actually getting confident enought to speak it

How to learn a new language and actually getting confident enought to speak it

Feb 8, 2022 10:00 AM
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Dominic Zijlstra
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Polyglot Clara speaks 7 languages. Here she shares her process, which you can also use to learn any language from zero.
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Polyglot Clara speaks 7 languages. Here she shares her process, which you can also use to learn any language from zero. She shares her methods for handling overwhelm, avoiding plateauing at a certain level, finding fun immersion content, and how to overcome your shyness to speak
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Welcome to another episode of the podcast. Today. I'm joined by Clara. Clara is from Italy and she really likes languages, learning languages and she's a bit of a polyglot. I don't know how many languages do you speak right now, Clara?
Currently counting my native language, I think seven.
Yes. Wow. That's very impressive. And yeah, besides languages, Clara is also into a personal knowledge management apps. She works for roam research, so, welcome Claire.
Thank you Dom, for having me. It's a pleasure. Yeah. Great, great to have you here. So yeah, let's talk a bit about how you got into language learning, like why you're so interested in it and how did you become so, so proficient in.
Oh, yeah. So basically it's kind of like a life commitment pretty much because I started with English. So my native language is Italian. And when I was like super little, my parents used to put like English cartoons of like VHS's and stuff like that when there was so VHS at the time. And so they, they really wanted me to learn languages and they encouraged me to like, learn about other cultures and, and expand my knowledge.
And that sense, because both of my parents, even though they don't really speak four languages, they've always been fascinated by that. So they kind of instilled that into me. And that's how I started. And then both academically, as well as in my free time, I've always been engaging with foreign languages because I did a language like a foreign language based high school right here in Italy, and then a foreign language degree, a university.
So that's how I did that academically. So. You know, like the very traditional learning path, but then at the same time, I've also been very interested in sort of self-learning and doing that with, with foreign languages. Of course. Right. So what was the, the first foreign language, I guess, English who makes this a child and the next one?
Next one was I think French in middle school. I haven't, I haven't really got, got them back to French, but that was like chronologically speaking. The second language. Then in high school, I did German, a Russian as well as continuing with English, then a university. I took a Portuguese in Japanese and then after that I did.
So the first language I really did. On my own was Korean as well as Peniche. Right. So that was the new one and I'm learning Dutch path. Nice. So yeah, you mentioned like both academic learning and then, self-learning can you talk a bit more about that? Like, what is the academic approach? What is your own approach and how do they differ?
Yeah, so when I first started, of course, I don't know about other countries, but in Italy it's very grammar focused, right? So you really drill a lot of grammar and you hardly speak like there's barely any speaking and barely any listening. So it's mostly reading, lots of reading, comprehension of texts.
Also cause I did a lot of literature at the time as well. So that kind of tied into that. And then just lots and lots of grammar. The, the thing that they used to do as well. Well, in high school, as well as universities, they would make you do a sort of the European framework tests. So the et cetera. So that was a huge thing as well.
Back in the day when I was attending university in high school, I remember doing a bunch of those tests for all those languages. So it was, it was a type of learning that was more focused into kind of passing tests and not really actually being able to use the language. With people.
Cause I remember a lot of my classmates at the time, they could understand the language, you know, fairly well, not too well, but then when it came to either listening, comprehension or speaking, they would just get lost. So that was one thing that I noticed at the time. And then. After my academic type of learning, then I went on to learn languages by myself.
And I just got stuck because I was using that same method. But for Korean, for example, I would just do a bunch of grammar lessons. And I couldn't, I just couldn't understand if I watched, you know, YouTube video in Korean or I had to speak to Koreans for work. So. Then it got me thinking that the only language that I was fluent in at the time was English.
And so I started thinking, oh, what is that? It's different than I'm doing in English versus what I'm doing for the other languages. And the answer for me was that I was consuming. A lot of content in English, both written content and audio video, et cetera. And I wasn't doing that in other languages. And that was the, the sort of life part of the rabbit hole in comprehensible input and all the hypotheses from Stephen Krashen.
So that's what I went into. Then I started researching a little bit more. And then I started focusing, I changed my approach for Korean at that time. So I focused a lot more on reading lots and lots of content for natives in Korean, as well as listening watching lots of shows, et cetera. So, and in a year and a half, I got to an intermediate level in Korean.
I was also using it every day for work. So. But yeah, so that was pretty surprising. So from then on, I started just trusting input based methods and yeah, that's how, that's how, for me it's different. When it comes to an academic approach, it's very, it's much more formal and it's a really grammar based.
So you kind of get real drilled and drilled and tested and tested and tested, whereas a more self learning type of method or more input based method gives you a lot more freedom in the activities that you do. But it also, it's more focused on you actually comprehending what it's being said by natives so that you can then actually speak and have meaningful conversations.
I think the goal is different in those two approaches. The first one is more pass a test and then the other is to be able to use a language with people in real life situations. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. A lot of people are also a bit scared. Maybe we're overwhelmed by the, like the inputs hypothesis because you, while you watch you watch something at first and you understand basically nothing.
Right. So what is it kind of your approach to get better or get comfortable with that? Like how do you, how do you handle that? Yes. So there is that type of obstacle because we're not used and this is what I think we're not used to. Deal with the unknown and with confusion, because if you think about how you know, school makes us learn, is it gives you like a very, you know, a package of concepts then are then explained to you.
And everything is very easy to understand. And there is like a set curriculum. So everything is very predictable. And you'll always know where you are in a sort of, you know, path, whereas when it comes to. Learning a language with input based methods, you sort of gain so much freedom because you can choose pretty much anything you want to do.
But that also comes with a feeling of confusion, like for example, and this is a very recent memory. When I started learning Dutch two or three months ago, I started watching YouTube videos. I was like, I don't understand. And then three months later I can actually get. You know, the main topic of a conversation.
Maybe I don't get all the words, but I get what is being said and the general ideas, but I'm able to do that now because I, I accepted and embraced the confusion and the, what the hell is this type of faith. It's just something that you kind of need to go through. But the difference I think is just that it's, it's very.
Steep and difficulty when you use this type of approach, like you start with like a wall basically, and you have to climb that wall first and then it goes downhill and. Really easy. The more you do it, whereas a typical approach, maybe an academic approach or a grammar based approaches that the opposite, it starts very easy.
But then at some point it gets really hard and that what a lot of people call the intermediate plateau, they just get stuck in that phase. But that, I think it's, it's a consequence of this type of approach. So my just. Recommendation is just to embrace that phase in which you're super confused and not think about it and just keep on consuming content, keep on reading, keep on listening and it'll get easier eventually.
Yeah. I think it's just something that you have to overcome and yeah, very interesting. Of course, that you're learning Dutch, which is my native language. Yeah. When you started that, do you feel like at this point you kind of have a repeatable process for approaching a language?
Or is it still new every time? Like how did you approach that compared to previous languages? Yeah. So now the it's the Dutch is the third language that I'm learning with this man. And I think, yes, I do have sort of guidelines that are very general, but then of course everything changes language to language because of course the content is different.
It can be easier or harder to find content that you can listen to or read. Right. So, but now I think what I generally do when I start. I personally use a lingq L I N G Q for sort of breaking into a language because they have sets of many stories where they introduce you to sort of like the main Syntech structure of a language and the main vocabulary, the most common vocabulary.
And it's repeated a lot of times. So it's kind of, sort of like a natural space repetition system where you just listen and read these stories. So that's kind of what I do at first. I just get very easy stories and read and listen to them. Then what I do next or in conjunction, depending on how I feel like it.
When it comes to reading, I start reading books that I've already read in other languages, and I just switched to my target language. Right. And it's usually books that I, you know, of stuff that I like to read about. So it makes it more fun for me, but I also have all the context and I also have, I can use basically the book, for example, in English.
As a sort of dictionary for the same book that I'm reading this example in Dutch. So what I do is I have like, on my iPad, I keep the same book, like the same page of the book in split view. And I read the Dutch version and then if I get stuck, then I can check the English one. And that's how I go with reading.
And that's what I do for vocabulary acquisition. I just read a lot. And then for lists, I first start with YouTube videos, just because they're easier to understand for me, they're shorter of logs, for example, like just people doing their daily life stuff. So it's kind of easier for me to break into the spoken language like that.
And then once I get more confident, then I might start watching TV series or movies. Made in that language. So it's not stuff that is dubbed. It's just stuff for natives. And I watch, and I watch that, but that only comes maybe, I don't know, a year after I started learning. I've noticed it's not immediate because that is, it gets really hard, really fast.
So yeah. So then when you listen to stuff or when you read stuff so some people will recommend like also to do a space repetition that you do, like this sentence mining, right. Where you'd take out a sentence and put certain words on flashcards. Like, do you do that at all? Or do you just trust that when you read or listen enough, you will hear and see the same words often enough that you are.
Yeah, I do the second option. I don't use space repetition. The reason is very simple. I just don't find it like a fun activity for me. And so I prioritize fun over anything else over efficiency over yeah. Over everything. So for me, if an activity is not fun, it's not going to. I will not be able to make it a habit.
So that's why I don't do it. But I've noticed that if I replaced space repetition, like the time I would spend with space repetition into more reading, then I slowly get the, the words that I need. Plus I get exposed to the same words, but in different contexts. So that actually helps me kind of like reframe the meaning of a single word.
The more times I encounter it. And you know, the more different the contexts are, then I'll get, you know, I'll slowly start to get like a more 360 view of a single word or a type of sentence that is being repeated. And also one thing in books, especially, and books that are, that are translated into a language I've noticed over time that certain translators always come back to the same set of words to describe things.
So actually that's a great exercise in space repetition without using a software or an algorithm you just read and you'll notice over time that. A certain set of words that is always being used. So you get to learn that and memorize it very quickly, actually. For listening. Yeah. I just, again, massive amounts of listening and I don't speak from day one, actually, I haven't still spoken much.
Yeah, I don't do it because I really need to get the sound down from listening first. And then once they get familiar with those sounds enough, I'll feel it inside of me, sort of like an urge to speak. And until I don't have that urge to speak, I will just shut up and listen and keep reading.
But that also helps me not to engrain. Wrong pronunciation and habits as well, because I'm not speaking from day one. So depending on the language, though, of course, there are some certain languages that have a set of sounds that are more familiar to me, other languages that might have a completely different set of sound.
So that of course plays into, into that as well. Right. Yeah. That makes sense. I guess there, yeah, there are different that process. I like to let those peak from day one, but yeah, there's a lot of people also recommending not doing that. So then once you do start speaking, do you just speak with, at every possible opportunity or do you also pick like a language partner that you frequently meet up with and talk with.
That is a great question because I've tried a huge number of like partner, like speaking partner apps and everything. And it just, I couldn't find people who were actually interested in language exchanges for that, you know, like you could actually become friends over time.
Cause I think that's a huge thing. Yeah. One reason for me. And again, this comes back to maybe the goal of learning language in the first place is that I have people I want to talk about. In that language. So I don't really have that problem because when I started learning Korean, I had a bunch of Korean friends where I lived.
So it was very easy for me to then start speaking and have meaningful conversations. If I don't have those people in my life, then it gets very hard to be honest. So I'm not sure exactly on like method of like, how to find. People in your target language cause it's never worked. So it's just like going through life and finding people from different countries and different cultures and then develop.
Friendships with them. And then I start learning the language. That's usually the pattern that I, yeah, actually that makes a lot of sense. Like, I guess in my case, like it's just, what's the case that I first met the people and then decided to learn the language. So I already had the people. Right. So couldn't exactly, because I wouldn't really have.
Like people are a huge motivator for me to learn, like is I wouldn't really have a reason to learn another language if it wasn't for somebody that I had in my life that I wanted to be close to both in friendships where like in relationships as well. And I have, I've also noticed a lot of people as well.
Like they either have like a partner who's from another country or friends work from different countries and that's kind of their main motivator. Yeah. Otherwise I don't think I would be learning a language. Maybe. I don't know. Then yeah, let's talk a bit about it's about apps and tools and stuff.
Cause yeah. You mentioned the link and language acquisition. You're also working for a roam research which is like a personal knowledge management tool. So yeah. Can you talk a bit about which apps do you learn in language acquisition and then maybe more broadly, which apps do you use to learn or to basically manage your Yeah.
So the app I've used the most in time, as well as linq. In general, I don't have like specific apps, like Duolingo, et cetera, that, you know, a lot of people use. I tend not to use that just because I don't find them useful for the type of learning that. Whenever I learn a language. I just want something in which it's easy for me to save words and then encounter them again in an environment that is like easy for me to import either articles or subtitles from movies, et cetera.
So for me, what I need is to have like an environment that allows me to put books, content, just content basically, and then use it to see words and link is just perfect for that use case. So that's what I use. I've tried using. As well, same way. But it's still like, I would need to create some plugins to make it a little more automated because it's very, very, very manual right now.
But yeah. So I just use those two apps really. I have used, are there apps in the past? Like I've dabbled a little bit with Duolingo and apps of the, like there's tons of apps to do that type of things. Yeah, I don't, I don't really use them. I just need something that allows me to import content and work on it.
Saving words, saving phrases, highlighting stuff. That's kind of the main, the main thing that I do, you couldn't do it. I was thinking you could do it manually as in like you have a PDF of a book and you just, I like, you know, words, and then you look them up and you write. The meaning on top of it, basically, that's what I do, but in digital way, which makes it easier because I have easy access to dictionaries, et cetera.
So that's kind of what I did. In terms of what I save, I'm not super into like stats, for example. So I don't really have a way to track how many words I'm saving, what link does it automatically, but I don't look at those stats, but if I were doing it in Rome, I wouldn't really be interested in knowing that necessarily, because the way I kind of.
I understand my own progress is just getting the same content that I was listening to one or two months ago and seeing how much more I can understand that. And then kind of, I can figure out how much of progress from that. So it's, it's very easy. Actually. You could do, you could do this method on any.
Program that allows you to work with texts and create links between texts and, you know, create pages, et cetera. So as long as long as you have that, you can actually do this more manually or not depends on, on the program itself. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And that's also what we've been trying to do with, with traverse, with the templates.
I don't know if you had a look at that one. Yeah, I really like how Well, I like how customizable it is as well. For example, for I've checked out the, the language learning template. So for example, I don't use flashcards, right? In the, the roadmap there is, you know, focus on flashcards, but since it's customizable, I can just decide to swap it for a different activity, for example.
But I like how. I like the template and I like how it's, you know, kind of an adventure sports, you start by no knowing nothing. And then I like, I like how you can go back and forth within the templates so you can actually see how much you've progressed as well. So that's yeah, I, I find that. And it's definitely, it's definitely something to, to check out, especially, well, I'm not into SRS, but someone who's really into SRS I think would find terrors really, really interesting.
Yeah. Definitely. So yeah, let's talk a bit also about you know, obviously you're quite into Roam as well, so you don't use it so much for language learning. So what kind of processes or learning or knowledge do you use rom for and how do you use it. Okay. So one way I use it is to both our work.
Yeah, you don't think you're all Metro itself. That's kind of an inception thingy, but yeah, so I log my work, so I use it in one way as log book. Right. So because of the daily notes pages as well, it's you just start up Rome, you start with your day. So it kind of. It's it's easy for me to use as like a interstitial journaling technique as well.
So I do that for work, but I also do that for, you know, my private life as well. I like to track sort of how much time I spend doing a certain activity, but I also use Rome for learning. So for example, now I'm learning JavaScript and. I have several resources. So what I'm doing right now, I'm kind of experimenting with a importing books or resources into a wrong graph, and then learning from those directly in there.
And then once I'm done, and once I think I have a good understanding of in this case, Then I can reuse those blocks to create sort of like a curriculum. If I had to teach JavaScript to a teammate of mine who wanted to do it, for example, so, and preparing different types of curriculums based on how much time my teammate has to learn it, versus how much time I've had.
So giving basically different roadmaps for learning. Within Rome. So transforming your inputs into outputs that you can then give to other people. The first, first, first use case I had for Rome when I started using it before I was before I started working in Roam, is that I was making videos on YouTube channel language learning.
And I had lots of books that I was reading about several types of topics, but they would help me get ideas for videos or would be the base of research for other videos. And I wanted to have a way to connect. Where those ideas came from with my own outputs and Rome was the perfect place to do that. So that was my first use case as well.
So I mainly use it yes for learning, but then also applying what I'm learning into content, which could be articles or videos, et cetera, or helping somebody else learn what I've learned. For example, Yeah, it's interesting, actually, that you are learning a JavaScript like of the, like it's a programming language.
Is it like your first programming language and how do you find learning programming languages? How does it differ from learning like actual spoken languages? I think that that will be an interesting. Yeah, . It is. It's a great question. I've been into web development, but for a while I've gotten to I would say a decent level of CSS also because like working in Rome, of course you can use CSS within Rome to change, you know, the layout and aspects of, of your graph.
So at some point I had this like urge to change something. And I was like, how, how can I do it? And people were like, yeah, you can use CSS. And then I went into the rabbit hole. That's how it goes. And same thing for, for JavaScript. I, the main goal for me is to like create plugins for Rome that can help.
Language learning for example, or just the small little problems that I have with the things that I do and sort of like being, having the power to just create something that solves a problem, I think is I find it really interesting. So that's why I was drawn to it. As far as programming languages go it's yes, it's my first programming language.
I've been debating whether I wanted to start with closure or JavaScript. I've been thinking about it because of course at Rome, like we use closure. So learning, like learning any of those would be good for, by my job as well. But, I figured I was just going to start with Joe's did, then we'll make the right choice.
But yeah, so that's, that's how it started. And one thing I've noticed is yes, the actually when you compare it to natural languages, right. I am a huge Syntex nerd. I love Syntex being in languages, in natural languages. I just love seeing how a language, you know, puts words together. To convey a message versus another language.
And that really helps me with programming as well, because I'm, whenever I read a piece of code. What my brain does automatically is it starts, oh, I see this keyword. It does this thing. And then together with this function does this other thing. And then it creates this value. And I, I noticed that that is exactly the same thing I used to do.
When I was learning languages more formally in a university, I was, oh, I was always. Trying to deconstruct sentences and understanding that. And I think there's a lot of overlap between what you do in linguistics. For example. These types of exercises and what you do when you, when you learn a programming language, you kind of have the building blocks, but at the same time, you want to be able to grab a piece of code and being able to deconstruct it and understand what each.
Piece does and how it all ties together. So I think that's a great exercise that if you, if you do that, if you're used to doing it with, with natural languages, then you can port it very easily to work programming languages as well. Yeah. That's very interesting comparison. So yeah, I guess one question I always ask is like, in all this, this learning journey, basically, what has been the biggest challenge that you faced and how did you overcome it?
Hmm. Okay. So I'm very introverted person. So for me, when it comes to learning, the, the hardest bit is to either share it with others or when it comes to language learning, like actually speaking to people, like I always had lots of anxiety from that. Also one thing is like force. I'm a perfectionist.
So I want to be able to speak perfectly, which is not, is not possible. Like I don't speak perfectly in Italian. So why would, I think you could speak perfectly and other languages, right. But that's a sort of unreal expectation I always have towards myself. So that's the biggest, the biggest challenge is like overcoming my own anxiety.
But language learning has been a huge, a huge hit. With that, because it, you know, I was forced to speak in other languages, but at the same time I noticed with myself, I am way less shy if I speak in four languages, maybe, cause I don't have that emotional connection. Whereas if I would do it in my native language, I would get a lot more anxious.
So it's been therapeutic in a way. Yeah. That's interesting. I've noticed that as well, like for the less best hesitated. Yeah. If you don't care as much, I guess what people think, right. Exactly. And probably you don't. I think it's a different head space as well that you have when you're, when you're speaking in another language, you have way less.
Social cues that you're thinking about. Cause you're focused in speaking on another language. So I think you're less, you know, aware of all the other things that are going on and you're kind of more focused on getting your message across so that could help if you're an introverted person like me.
Yeah. That's actually interesting that you mentioned has space because. Do some people say that you can think in a language? I don't know if that's true or not. Like, I don't know about myself, but do you think in different languages as well? I don't, I that's. That's tricky because when I talked to myself, for example I do talk to myself in English a lot, but also because I think it's because it works.
In English and my personal life with my, you know, my relationships and my friendships. I use English way more than I use Italian. So. I guess I could say that I can think in English, but I wouldn't really know. I, what I do know though is, and it might be correlated, but you know, the thing when people say that you have a different personality or needs different language, that is for me, it's true.
Like, I am a different person in Italian. I'm a different person in English and a different person in brush in and Japanese, et cetera. I remember. When I used to work in Florence before my coworkers used to make fun of me, because I would have like customers from different countries and I would switch personnel depending on the language.
And they would always make you because of that. So, yeah. I'm not sure how, when it comes to like thinking or even dreaming, you know, there's some people who say, oh, I dream in a certain language. I don't know how much of that is true for me. But I definitely noticed that there is a behavioral change. Yeah.
Yeah. I think that's true as well. Yeah, I think we've covered a lot of interesting stuff in this interview. So one thing I also asked at the end is like, who do you suggest that I should interview next? Ooh. I'll need to think about it.
But one person I think you should interview is actually one of my teammates.
Matt, who has lots and lots of great ideas. And he's actually the person who started the roam book club. So he has lots of interesting things to talk about in that sense as well, how to, you know learn from books as well as running communities around around books. So he might be a great person to talk to.
That sounds great. And then finally, if people want to find out more about you or follow you, what's the best way for them to find you. So I would guess for now, Twitter @theindlang I N D L a N G. That's Twitter handle. That's the best way, but I'm also not super active on any social media to be honest. So, but yeah, if you really want to talk to me, I guess that's awesome.
Cool. Thanks a lot for Clara Thanks Dom for having me. It was great fun.

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