Category Archives: general language learning

Hello Again

I spent the better part of the afternoon responding to comments from a year ago and deleting 16 948 junk emails from my inbox. That’s what happens when you forget to install a spam filter and then stop checking your email for months.

What’s happened in the past 16 months?

Well, my Spanish has improved – slowly, slowly, but ever onward.

I quit Tagalog.

I started Tagalog again.

I quit Tagalog.

I started Tagalog again.

I learned a bit of Esperanto, just for fun.

I quit Tagalog.

Six days ago I started learning Italian.

And I think I’m about to start Tagalog again.

While other languages have come and go, my one constant has been Spanish. I’ve now been learning Spanish for 2 years and 11 months. Some days I’ll binge watch Spanish TV for hours, and other days I’ll spend five minutes skimming over an article or two, but every day I do something.

Next year will be a big year for language learning. We’re planning on spending several months of immersion in Guatemala, with some travel around Central America. Before Guatemala, we’re going to rent a car and drive around Italy for 10 days, which is why I borrowed a half-dozen library books with some variation of “Learn to Speak Italian in Minutes a Day” in the title.

My head is full of ideas, and I miss spilling those ideas out on this blog. It’s been a long time since I’ve written. I’ve thought about reviving this space on several occasions, but I just never knew where to start.

Well, here I am…starting.

It’s time to open the drapes and blow away the clouds of dust in here!

Monthly Language Update – October 2014

We made it!

After a few weeks of chaos, followed by a 1500 km drive, and then some more (ongoing) chaos, we’re once again in Toronto.

In case you’re wondering, this is what the drive from Nova Scotia to Ontario looks like:



It’s strange to move from a monocultural village of 1800 to a teeming mosaic of 2.5 million. On our first night here, we went to our favourite congee restaurant and feasted on squid, tripe and stuffed tofu. The restaurant was packed. Through the roar, I could pick out the sounds of a half dozen languages: Mandarin, English, Cantonese, Tagalog, Russian, Korean.

Our small town in Nova Scotia wasn’t the best place for us. It was mostly monocultural. It was an hour and 45 minutes from the closest airport. Professionally, it was a black hole for me. But we were happy there, and we’d gotten used to the quiet of rural living. Now we’re adjusting to noise and traffic all over again.

But we’re glad to be home! This city is in our blood!

Spanish Update for the Month of October:

Honestly, I slacked off enormously in Spanish this month. I read En Llamas, the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, and I’m about half-way through the third Harry Potter book, although I haven’t picked it up in over a week.

Aside from that, I watched only two TV show episodes, listened to Buenos Días América a handful of times, and completed a grand total of two Skype sessions – both of them in the first week of the month. That puts me at only five hours of Spanish conversation in the past two months.

Next month, I want to focus on increasing my Spanish input: read more, watch more, listen more. I’d also like to complete at least four hours of conversation. I’m aiming for a time-based goal this month of an hour per day.

Tagalog Update for the Month of October:

Taking a step back in October was a very good idea. I focused on review for the first two weeks of October, and since then haven’t done much more than anki and memrise. But now that I’m getting settled in our new home, my motivation is starting to grow once more.

I’m planning on jumping back into Tagalog during the month of November. I’m giving myself the same time-based goal for Tagalog as for Spanish: an hour per day. I also want to take advantage of a semi-immersion situation and be brave when meeting Tagalog-speaking strangers. More on all of that in a future post!

Other Goals

While I do plan on working on both of my languages this month, there are also other things that I want to focus on. In November I need to…

  • Organize my house. We moved from a large house with lots of neat built-in storage to a not-so-large house with non-existent storage. All of our rooms are now packed tight with stacked boxes, and nowhere to put the stuff. Our furniture is too big. Even our fridge doesn’t fit in the hole beneath the cabinets. We have some major thinking, culling and organizing to do.
  • Move more and eat better. After losing my dog, I ate too much and walked too little. I feel unhealthier now than I’ve felt in years. It’s time for a change.
  • Find a job. I’ve spent the past three years teaching adult learners. I absolutely love it, but the pay is low and the professional development non-existent. I’d like to be a part of an educational learning community once again, so I’m hoping to return to French Immersion in the public school system.
  • Help train my in-laws’ new dog. They just adopted an adorable 5-year-old shih tzu who was sorely neglected. He has a great character, but he has a lot to learn – like how to walk on a leash and how to not poop in the house.

I guess all of that should keep me busy!

I hope you all had a great October! And I hope that November is even better!

Eight Different Anki Cards: a Peek Inside my SRS

Thanks for commiserating with me last week during the Great Whine-Fest of 2014™. I’m happy to report that I didn’t quit, and that taking a big step back this month was a great idea. My motivation is climbing once again. I may even start a new lesson in my Tagalog course next week.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing fun, unstressful language activities: reading books in Spanish, listening to a few podcasts while doing errands, and running through my anki decks every day.

I love anki.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with anki, it’s a free* spaced repetition software that allows you to build your own decks and practice what you’re learning. Difficult words come back more often, and easy words are spaced farther and farther apart,. The algorithm allows you to spend the bulk of your time on new or difficult stuff, while reviewing stuff you already know just often enough to ensure that you don’t forget it.

* Anki is free for desktop and android. The iPhone app is quite expensive at 25 dollars.

I started using anki in May 2013, and – with the exception of a 6-week break in March/April while I was walking the Camino de Santiago – I’ve used it nearly every day since.

Here’s a look at anki when I opened it this morning:


I have five decks that I run through most days:

French – vocabulary: words that my students stump me with. Sometimes a student will ask me something like “How do you say hinge in French?” and my mind draws a blank. I add those words to anki to help me become a better teacher. This is my smallest deck, with between 0 and 3 reviews most day.

Spanish – basic vocabulary: English-Spanish deck that I started in May 2013. I don’t add new words every day, although I do try to add a bunch every week or two. Most of the cards are very simple word-for-word translations, sometimes with a few examples. As I’ve grown as a language learner, my cards have gotten more varied.

Spanish – practice makes perfect: cards built from the exercises in the Practice Makes Perfect workbooks. Most of them are either English-Spanish translations of sentences, or else cloze sentences with missing words.

Tagalog: a variety of cards all mixed up together. By the time I started learning Tagalog in May 2014, I didn’t want to clutter up my anki dashboard with more decks. My Tagalog deck includes vocabulary cards; grammar cards; translation cards; audio cards; and conversation cards. This deck takes about 3/4 of the time that I spend on anki every day.

libros: sentences pulled from novels. These are mainly words that I want in my passive vocabulary. Reviewing the cards in this deck is pleasant, quick and very unstressful.

So what might you see if you opened one of my decks?

1. vocabulary: L1 -> L2

These are words that I want to be able use when speaking or writing. They come from everywhere and anywhere: Skype conversations, books, courses, articles, texts that I’ve written, movies or TV shows.  A lot of the cards in this deck are very simple (one word on each side), while others include example sentences.


2. vocabulary: L2 -> L1

Most of my Spanish vocabulary cards go from English to Spanish. They worked very well for me, so I followed the same pattern when building my Tagalog deck. Except that I found myself reading or listening to a sentence filled with familiar words that I couldn’t process!

I knew that happy = masaya, but for some reason this didn’t necessarily translate to masaya = happy. And so, for tricky words in Tagalog, I build two cards, one going from English to Tagalog and the second going from Tagalog to English.


3. picture vocabulary

Don’t like translations? Picture cards are great for concrete nouns and verbs. I really like picture cards, but they do take longer to create.


4. sentences from novels

I started creating cards by pulling sentences from novels this month, when I realized that using an ereader meant that I could both read extensively and highlight unknown words without breaking my flow. After finishing En Llamas, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy, I went back through the highlighted words and added some to anki. These are often words that I was able to understand from context, but that I’d like to add to my passive vocabulary.


5. sentence translation

While some learners will avoid translation at all costs, I find it very useful at times. I use translated sentences to practice grammar and sentence structure:

I also use translated sentences to help build my ability to carry on conversations:


6. cloze deletion

I use cloze cards in a relatively unsophisticated way, usually to practice grammar concepts (por vs para; ser vs estar; verb tenses). There are some much more creative uses of cloze deletion in language learning, and it’s definitely something that I’d like to explore further!


7. conversation practice

I created these cards when I was first starting to learn Tagalog. I found myself needing to repeat the same short conversations or descriptions over and over again. While I did this with tutors and with my husband, I also found it very useful to practice out loud by myself.

In this card, I’ve put a question on the front (Do you have any siblings?) and prompts on the back (name, work, residence, description, etc)


8. audio

I add audio cards very intermittently. On the front, I add an mp3 audio clip from one of my courses (nothing is actually written on that side of the card). On the back, I put the transcript in Tagalog. I find spaced repetition of audio extremely useful, but I’ll admit that these cards take a bit more effort to make – and so I don’t make as many of them as I might.


So there you have it! My anki decks!

It might seem like a lot, but I’m actually kind of lazy.

The vast majority of my anki cards are very quick to make (hence the very limited picture and audio cards).

I like to keep my total daily time on anki at around 20 minutes, so if it starts taking much longer than that, I lower the number of new cards per day.



I hope that you found something in this post useful! If you use anki, please share in the comments how you organize your cards or decks!

Motivation (Or Lack Thereof): a Rant of Sorts

OK guys, let me just say it:

I’m seriously struggling with motivation right now.

Not with Spanish. My love affair with Spanish continues unabated. If I could do nothing but watch TV in Spanish, read books in Spanish, twirl in flower-filled meadows with Spanish, then I’d have no major complaints.

But Tagalog? Tagalog and I are going through A Rough Patch.


Please…tell me more.
(source: ambro on

I’m not sure what it is…

  • The fact that I still babble like a toddler after nearly six months of daily study?
  • The fact that native material is so far beyond my grasp that the only texts that I can sort-of-kind-of-mostly understand are in my textbook?
  • The fact that I still find myself falling into the trap of translating word for word every time I try to express myself?
  • The fact that I can understand every single word in a sentence, and yet have no stinking clue what the sentence actually means?

I’m going to go with all of the above.

This isn’t a post about ways to keep up motivation when it’s lagging. It isn’t a post about pulling the positive from the negative. I’m not looking for encouragement, or tips, or suggestions.

No, this post is about complaining! Whining! Grumbling and groaning! 

Oh come on, don’t tell me that you don’t enjoy a good whine every now and then.

Here’s the thing: I don’t really like doing packaged language courses.

When I was learning Spanish, I had so many resources to pick and choose from. I could play games, read interesting articles with full audio, watch TV made for learners, listen to great podcasts, even read simple books within a few months.

(And yes, I do realize how annoying that last paragraph is if you’re currently feeling about Spanish the way that I’m feeling about Tagalog. Sorry. Please feel free to tell me off in the comments.)

Only a bit of what I did in Spanish felt like work: anki, grammar exercises, audio drills. But it was ok to do the boring stuff, because it helped me have more fun with the fun stuff.

Well, in Tagalog right now, everything is the boring stuff.

I want the fun stuff! Where is the fun stuff?


It’s OK. I’m OK.

This is just that predictable 5.26 month itch.

I’ll keep doing my daily study for the month of October: anki, memrise, reviewing what I’ve already learned, working a bit in Elementary Tagalog, clawing my way through every painfully tiny bit of progress.

This too shall pass.



Graeme Weatherston

In the meantime, please grab some cheese and a glass of whine, and share your language-learning woes in the comments. Come on guys…tell me I’m not alone in this.

(Please note: this is a positivity-free zone. I reserve the right to delete any inappropriately upbeat or helpful comments. Remember what no one’s mom used to say: if you can’t say something grumpy, then don’t say anything at all.)

Let’s Talk Languages! Connecting With the Online Language Community.


A few weeks ago, I shared some of my favourite language blogs with you. While blogs are great for motivation and tips, some people might not feel comfortable – or even interested – in connecting with the authors by leaving comments.

Besides, leaving a comment might help you connect with one blogger and his or her readers, but it won’t help you connect with the thousands of non-bloggers who are out there talking languages – people just like you who are working hard to learn their first, second, or tenth* foreign language.

*Ten languages! Ha! I can barely keep up with two. 

I highly recommend that any language learner connect with other language learners. Message boards and forums are some of the richest places to ask for advice, share resources, commiserate, seek out inspiration, or just chat with other language geeks who actually get it.


Let’s connect! (image by renjith krishnan on

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 9.18.34 PMHow To Learn Any Language

HTLAL is a well-established and well-respected forum that’s been around for years. It’s the place to be if you want to talk about languages – learning them, speaking them, dreaming about them, maintaining them, living them. New posters are made welcome, and many of the regular posters are extremely experienced and generous with their time and advice.

The real gold nuggets are hidden in the language learning log board, where learners of all levels can post their thoughts, experiences, suggestions, questions and complaints. I keep two logs on HTLAL: Stelle Speaks Spanish and Stelle’s Taga-Log.

(My super-top-secret user name is Stelle. Shhhh. It’s a secret.)

HTLAL isn’t perfect. It suffers from a clunky interface, an absentee administrator, and intermittent loading problems (although it hasn’t had any load time problems for the last few months). The forum software hasn’t been updated in years, making it hard to use on mobile devices. With the lack of updates and the benign neglect, it seems inevitable that the forum will one day disappear.

Until that day, though, it remains one of the best places I’ve found to talk about languages with serious, committed learners.


I’m not an early adopter. No, really. I had never even listened to a podcast before I started learning Spanish last year.

That explains why it took me so many years to start using the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet”. Reddit is basically a site where people can submit content – links, videos, discussion topics, images, articles – which is then commented on and voted up or down by thousands of other members.

Reddit can be a bit overwhelming at first. It’s an extraordinarily busy site with thousands of subreddits (or areas of interest). To use Reddit to talk languages (which is all I’m interested in doing on that site), I would recommend following only related subreddits, and unfollowing anything else.

I read (and sometimes comment on) the following subreddits:

The best thing about Reddit is that its membership self-moderates. Spammers and trolls are quickly downvoted and disappear before long.

Lots of the language discussion on Reddit is actually beginner-focused. There aren’t as many serious and useful discussions as there are on HTLAL or on Polydog. But it’s an excellent source of free resources, and there are subreddits for just about any language.

(My super-top-secret name was already taken, so I had to go with stellere.)

fluentin3monthsFluent in 3 Months – forum

The popular language learning blog Fluent in 3 Months also has a forum. While, not surprisingly, many of the posters adhere to Benny’s “speak from day one” philosophy, it’s open to any language learner, regardless of his or her approach.

Fi3M not as busy as the other forums and message boards mentioned in this post. It’s also heavily weighted with beginner language learners. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a beginner – everyone was a beginner at some point – a well-balanced forum also needs some more experienced members to provide a different perspective.

The Fi3M forum can be a good source of encouragement and suggestions for resources if you’re learning a new language. There are some gems in the language mission section.

(Again, I had to go with my second-favourite super-top-secret user name , stellere. I’m very unlikely to start new posts on Fi3M, although I do try to encourage people learning Spanish and share suggestions and resources when I can.)

If you’re passionate about language learning, it can sometimes be hard for the people around you to understand why – especially if you’re learning a language that isn’t widely spoken in your area. Forums and message boards can help make language learning seem a bit less solitary!

Why not start by browsing the learning logs on HTLAL, Polydog or Fi3M – and maybe creating one of your own? You might be surprised at how much fun it is!

Monthly Language Update – September 2014

No point in beating around the bush:

My goals for the month of September were much too ambitious, and I didn’t even come close to accomplishing them.

Too many things happened this month. We sold our house (well, conditionally – we just have to do a million small things and a few big ones first), we bought a new house, we cared for – and said good-bye – to our beloved dog. It’s been crazy.

Next month will no less crazy. We’re moving halfway across the country, where I’ll have to find a new job. Oh, and we have to decide: do we want to spend the next few years travelling, or do we want another puppy? Tough call, guys. Seriously.

Even if it hadn’t been a crazy month, my September goals for languages – and for Tagalog in particular – were just too stinking big.

Lesson learned: my goals for the month of October will be much, much smaller.

Spanish Update for the Month of September:

Goals for September:

  • Read Los juegos del hambre (The Hunger Games) – DONE! I finished The Hunger Games and I’m currently halfway through the second book in the trilogy.
  • Watch at least eight TV show episodes – almost, but not quite. I watched seven TV show episodes in September.
  • Take a class in Spanish on coursera: Innovación educativa con recursos abiertos – Errrr…half done? Sort of? I audited the first two weeks of lectures, then realized that I wasn’t really enjoying it. I decided that RTVE podcasts were both more interesting and more challenging, so I’ll stick with those for now.

Super Challenge Update

I’m still working on the Super Challenge, a massive-input challenge with a goal of reading 100 50-page “books” and watching 100 90-minute “films” in Spanish by December 31st 2015.

spanishchildrensnovelsreading – 38.1 “books” completed

This month I read Los juegos del hambre, by Suzanne Collins. I absolutely loved it! I got my hands on the other two books in the series and immediately started on En llamas, the second book. The book count doesn’t include the reading that I’ve done in En llamas, since I only log a book when I’ve finished reading it.

Reading this series has been a great experience so far! It’s the first time that reading in Spanish feels as good as reading in English. I’m no longer using a timer to keep myself on track. I just read…and read…and read. I feel liked I’ve really levelled up – I’m now at a point where reading a young adult novel in Spanish is as enjoyable (if not as quick) as reading the same book in English.

tiempoentrecosturaswatching – 19.9 “films” completed

I watched two more episodes of El Tiempo Entre Costuras on DramaFever. It’s a period drama about a seamstress who secretly sews coded messages into the seams of dresses during the Spanish Civil War. The costumes and the setting are fantastic!

I also watched five more episodes of Aqui No Hay Quien Viva (“No One Could Live Here“) on YouTube. I’m really loving this show! I’m comfortable with the characters and actors, and each episode is easier to understand than the last.

Other Spanish this month:

Honestly? Not much.

As I mentioned earlier, I audited two weeks’ worth of lessons in a coursera course. While the lectures were easy to understand, I just didn’t feel that I was getting much out of them, so I stopped after week two.

During the month of September, I only spent three hours talking on Skype with Spanish tutors.

I listened to Buenos Días América two or three days per week. I also listened to a few  other interesting podcasts, in particular:

Goals for October:

  • Read at least five days per week
  • Watch at least six TV show episodes

Tagalog Update for the Month of September:

Yikes. Tagalog didn’t go well this month. I’m slowing way down in October, focusing more on review and less on new material.

Goals for September:

  • Finish lessons 10 and 11 of Elementary Tagalog – almost. I have a few exercises left in lesson 11.
  • Finish units 9 and 10 of Teach Yourself Filipino – DONE!
  • Learn to sing two new Tagalog songs – no. I did listen to Freddie Aguilar’s Anak a few times.
  • Transcribe two more short Tagalog cartoons – no. 
  • Translate four more Napoleon easy readers – no. I translated only one easy reader this month, and have yet to have my translation corrected.

tagalogbookCourses: Elementary Tagalog and Teach Yourself

I’m still chipping away at my two courses. Elementary Tagalog jumped several levels in difficulty in lesson 11. For the first time, I found myself reading paragraphs and having absolutely no idea what I was reading! It’s very frustrating to understand every single word, but not be able to make sense out of the sentences.

This month, I’m going to slow down. I know that I have less time to spend on Tagalog, and I also want to spend more time reviewing.

Other Tagalog this month:

  • Spoke on Skype for three and a half hours with two italki tutors
  • Listened several times to Freddie Aguilar’s famous song Anak
  • Kept up with my anki and memrise decks

Goals for October:

  • Keep up with anki and memrise decks every day
  • Spend at least 15 minutes five times a week reviewing past learning
  • Finish lessons 11 and 12 of Elementary Tagalog

Happy October, everyone!

Singing the Praises of italki

I know that I’ve mentioned italki a thousand times on my blog, but it bears repeating:

italkiitalki is one of the most powerful tools that I’ve used as a language learner.

It’s been a huge part of my language learning since I first registered in July 2013. I’ve visited the site nearly every day, and I credit the connections that I’ve made on italki with a lot of my progress in both Spanish and Tagalog.

I’ve been getting some new readers lately (Hello! Welcome!), so I thought that I might briefly share some of the many benefits of this site for language learners.

Not-so-free resources on italki:

  • italki is the best source of online language tutors that I’ve found. I’ve taken well over 100 tutoring sessions since I started learning Spanish (and then Tagalog). I have four scheduled for next week alone. If that’s not an endorsement, then I don’t know what is! Tutors vary in skill, experience and price, but I’ve been extremely satisfied with my experiences so far.

italki regularly hosts challenges for members, encouraging them to complete a certain number of lessons in a set time period. Participants pledge a set amount of credits to participate, and winners get their credits back plus extra credits as a prize.

I love this funny, inspirational italki challenge video by English teacher Brian Foley (who doesn’t seem to be actively teaching right now, but who would probably be very easy to talk to!)

I’ve won two italki challenges so far, and I’m looking forward to the next one. For a pledge of 100 ITC (10 dollars), you can join the October Challenge. Finish 12 lessons during the month, and you win back your 100 ITC plus 200 more!

Looking for a Spanish tutor? I highly recommend Auri, Mati and Rocío.

Looking for a Tagalog tutor? I highly recommend Fats and Joanna.

Free resources on italki:

  • You can find a language exchange partner. Search by language, location, even gender, and connect with someone who is interested in trading languages. I’ve met and spoken with partners from Spain, Argentina, Mexico and the United States.
  • You can find a penpal. Sometimes schedules just don’t match for language exchanges, but I’ve had several penpals in both Spanish and Tagalog. I write in my target language, then they correct my message and respond in their target language, and so on. This is a great way to start communicating with native speakers if you’re feeling anxious about Skype conversations.
  • You can post your writing and have it corrected by native speakers. I go through periods where I post two or three paragraphs per week, and I’ve found that the corrections that I receive are timely and very useful. Writing is great practice, but it’s much more valuable if you have someone to help you reword and correct your work.
  • You can ask quick questions in your target language. Not sure if you should use “para” or “por” in a sentence? Not sure what verb tense to use? Not sure how to say “I’d rather not eat liver and lima beans tonight?” in your target language? Just ask, and someone will probably answer.
  • You can browse through useful articles (if you’re learning English, Mandarin, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Italian or Russian). Articles contain some real gems about grammar, culture, study strategies, and the way that “real people talk”.

I teach a very limited number of French lessons on italki. I’m not actively looking for students right now, but I have written a few articles on italki that might be of interest to you if you’re learning French:

If you’re not already a member of italki, then I highly recommend that you check it out!

Note: If you join and purchase credits using this link, you’ll provide me with the equivalent of 30-60 minutes of tutoring at no cost to you. To Be Fluent is a personal, non-commercial blog, and I’m posting about italki because I think that it’s one of the best tools out there for language learners. If you think that you might someday like to try out online tutoring, and if you’d like to support my language learning at the same time, then please consider signing up using the referral link!

“Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen – a Treasure Trove for Language Lovers

In case you didn’t know, Disney’s Frozen was big last year. Really big.

Let It Go was the song of the hour. You’ll find video after video on YouTube, some with millions of hits: parodies, covers, children belting it out in the carseat.

It’s everywhere.

There haven’t been any official translations of Disney movies into Tagalog, but the talented DisneyDubAmy on YouTube has translated and recorded several Disney songs. Let It Go was the very first Tagalog song that I learned. And trust me when I tell you – I sing it loud enough that the dog leaves the room!

For side-by-side English and Tagalog lyrics of Bumitaw, click here.

Tip: you have to sing it loud.

While Bumitaw is an unofficial Tagalog translation, the song (and the movie) have been officially translated into dozens of different languages. Try googling “let it go + your target language” and see what pops up.

I like both the Latin American Spanish version by Carmen Sarahí and the Castilian Spanish version by Gisela. If you’re learning French, the gorgeous Anaïs Delva performs in both the Canadian and the European versions.

Actually, all of the singers who voice Elsa are incredibly talented, as you can see from this video in 25 languages:

What’s that you say?

You’d like to translate Let It Go for yourself, with the help of Google Translate?

Well, I’m happy to report that it’s already been done for you! Melinda Kathleen Reese ran the lyrics through multiple layers of Google Translate, and ended up with this masterpiece:

(And if you think that’s good, you should check out her versions of Wrecking Ball or Royals.)

Now go! Sing! Twirl in the snow! Unleash your inner Disney princess!

I know that I will. Much to the dog’s dismay.

Reading Books in Spanish: Don’t Make the Same Mistakes That I Made!

I love to read. I’ve been a bookworm my whole life. When we were kids, my sister and I would take out stacks of library books every week, and then curl up on the couch to read for hours. My mom liked to say that we were holding the couch down, since we each sat on a different side, with the pile of books between us.

(We almost always returned our books late as children. I’m 36 now, and I owe 6 dollars and 40 cents to the library. Some things never change.)

One of the best things about learning foreign languages for me is picking up a book and reading it.

Reading! In a whole other language! How cool is that, right?

I’ve made some mistakes along the way, though. Today I’d like to share my two big mistakes – and maybe save you some headaches in the process!

My big mistake number one: reading something that’s too hard

Like many language learners, I got my hands on a copy of Harry Potter when I started learning Spanish. It was a kids’ book, so it seemed like a good way to start reading in Spanish.



I started with dual copies of the book, one in English and one in Spanish. I figured that I would be able to read it without too much difficulty, using the English book if I got stuck.

I was wrong.

At that point in my journey, Harry Potter was simply too difficult for me.

The text itself was complicated, with verb tenses that I’d never seen before. There were dozens of unknown vocabulary words per page, many of which I had never come across naturally in everyday life:

  • lechuza (owl)
  • escoba (broom)
  • varita (wand)
  • hechizo (spell)

I struggled my way through a chapter or two, but it was absolutely no fun. I’d claw my way through a page, and then stop, feeling exhausted and frustrated.

Let me tell you:

Harry Potter is hard.

Solution to big mistake number one: read easier stuff

After slamming Harry Potter shut in frustration (for the nth time), I accepted that I needed to read something much easier – something that I could understand with at least a 95% comprehension rate.

Enter Roald Dahl.


This is more like it!

I started with Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate. This was a book that I knew well in English, so the story was familiar enough to figure out new words like “repollo” (cabbage) through a combination of familiarity and context. Most of the verbs were in preterite and imperfect past tense – verb tenses that I hadn’t formally learned yet – but they were easy to understand using root words and context.

(Confession: I skipped over all of the songs in Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate. They were too hard for me at the time, and therefore boring.)

In all, I read four novels for children over the course of four months:

  • Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate, by Roald Dahl – a book that I was very familiar with in English.
  • Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo – a book that I knew well in French, and one of my absolute favourites.
  • Charlie y el gran ascensor de cristal, by Roald Dahl – I’d read it once or twice as a child, so I had a general understanding of the story. I also knew the characters from the first book, and was familiar with the writing style.
  • Las Brujas, by Roald Dahl – this one was completely new to me, but I was well-prepared by the time I cracked the spine.

After reading four books for young readers, I picked up Harry Potter again.

And I could read it! Without looking at the English copy! Without frustration, boredom or feelings of inadequacy and despair! It was a miracle!

Take-away lesson: read easy books.

I can’t stress this enough. Easy books are much more useful than difficult books. You will advance more quickly if you choose books that you can read with 95%+ comprehension. The books that you can read will gradually increase in difficulty as you keep turning pages.

I was able to read a children’s novel as my first Spanish book. My French helped me a lot with that. You might need to start even easier, with easy readers or texts written for language learners. You can get a peek at how that looks for me in Tagalog – a language in which I’m not yet ready to read a novel.

My big mistake number two: reading something that’s too boring

After reading four children’s novels and the first two books in the Harry Potter series, I found a new series: the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.

I really enjoyed the first two books! I liked the main character’s voice, and I thought that the modernization of Greek gods and myths was very clever. It took me several weeks to get through each book, reading most days for 20 or 30 minutes. That felt about right.

Then came book three. And while the books hadn’t changed much, my interest had plummeted. I started putting a timer on for 20 minutes at a time, and I checked the timer more than once each session, waiting for it to ring.

The truth is that I didn’t really feel like reading them anymore. But I’d already paid for them, and my book budget was tight. And besides, I’d already read so much of the series…I may as well finish it, right?


And besides, they’re so colourful…


Life is much too short to read books that don’t grab you. I decided long ago that I wouldn’t finish a book in English that I didn’t love; so why was I reading boring books just because they were in Spanish?

I wasted three months on the last three books of the series. It took me a month to get through each book, and – while they were at an appropriate level for me – I no longer looked forward to my nightly reading.

I’m not saying that the last three Percy Jackson books aren’t any good – just that they weren’t the right books for me.

Solution to big mistake number two: read stuff that’s actually interesting

losjuegosdelhambreI happy-danced in my living room when I finished the last page of the last Percy Jackson book in August. I was so relieved!

I started reading my current book, Los Juegos del hambre, by Suzanne Collins.

And within a week, I was three quarters finished. I don’t have to use a timer anymore. If anything, I have to put my alarm on so that I remember to go to bed at a decent time.

Take-away lesson: read books that you like.

A little bit obvious, isn’t it? And yet I fell into the trap of reading books that I didn’t like “because I should finish them“. Never again!

Read books that grab you because you love the story, or the characters, or the world that the author created. If I’d abandoned Percy Jackson a few chapters into book three, I probably would have read a lot more Spanish over the past three months.

Recap: Captain Obvious says read books that you can actually read. And that you actually like.

Don’t make the same mistakes that I made!

spanishbooksWhat’s next for me?

After the Hunger Games, I plan on reading a Spanish book. That was actually written in Spanish. By a Spanish speaker.

Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquival is already waiting on my night table. I hope that I’ll love it. But if I don’t like it, I’ll ask myself two questions:

  • Is it boring because it’s hard? Then put it away until later.
  • Is it boring because it’s boring? Then put it away forever.

What are you reading right now? I hope that it’s something that you love!

¡Buena lectura, amigos míos!

Language Blogs That Tell a Story

The online language learning community is an interesting place.

There are lots of enthusiastic and extroverted polyglots, but there are also quieter, more introspective learners. Some people learn one language to mastery over a period of years, while others dabble and jump from one language to another. Some bloggers make a living online, while others only blog as a hobby.

It really doesn’t matter to me whether or not a blogger is selling a product, or how many languages they’re learning.

What matters to me is that they have a story to tell.

Above all, I look for good storytelling in blogs. Sure, I love it when you share suggestions and resources – but even more importantly, share your story. Tell me what works for you and what doesn’t. Let me get a peek inside your life.

languageblogsHere are fifteen language learners who have a story to tell, each with a unique voice.

* I’ve pulled the bloggers’ photos and names directly from their “About” pages. If your picture is here, and you would prefer that I remove or change it, please let me know. 

* This list is alphabetical, not preferential! I’ve only included active blogs that have been updated in the past month. 

16KindsScreen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.01.24 PM

Wiktor is a teacher, translator and (of course) language learner who’s currently focused on learning Portuguese. He has an interesting approach to organizing his blog posts, using numbered paragraphs that are very easy to read. He also puts out an interesting weekly post with links to language-learning posts and articles from all around the interwebs.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.28.53 PMActual Fluency

Chris is an aspiring polyglot who is proficient in English, Danish and German. He’s currently focused on learning Russian and Esperanto. He’s a self-proclaimed introvert with problems focusing, which provides an interesting perspective on language learning. In addition to regularly blogging about his progress, Chris also produces a podcast featuring interviews with polyglots and language learners.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.42.52 PMThe Compassionate Language Learner

I don’t know the author’s name, but the compassionate language learner has an engaging, open and relatable writing style. They blog about learning languages – French and German, mainly, although they’ve also learned others in the past – while living with anxiety and depression. The blog provides an important different perspective in the sometimes one-sided ocean of super-rah-rah language blogs.

fluentin3monthsFluent in 3 Months

Benny and his blog are pretty well-known in the online language community. His posts and videos are extremely upbeat, and his focus is always on encouraging people to jump in and speak the languages that they’re learning. After travelling the world and learning several different languages to various levels, it looks like he’s now focused on maintenance and on helping his girlfriend learn languages.

fluentlanguageFluent Language Tuition

Kerstin is a German and English teacher who has also studied French, Italian, Latin, Spanish and Russian. Her posts are always thoughtful and thought-provoking.  She shares encouragement, strategies and suggestions applicable to anyone. Kerstin is a huge supporter of new language learners and language bloggers. She’s very approachable and open to discussing anything with anyone.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 6.32.32 PM


Bill grew up bilingual, and decided a few years ago that he wanted to learn more languages, starting with German. His blog features tips and suggestions useful for anyone learning any language. He delves into topics that aren’t often explored, like how to think in a foreign language. He doesn’t blog as often as some of the other people on this list, but I take something away from his blog every time he posts.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.20.24 PM

I Simply Love Languages

I love that Dani’s blog approaches languages and learning from a different perspective. She loudly proclaims her love of grammar and literature – two aspects of language learning that don’t always get the love they deserve on language blogs. Her blog’s name says it all: she studies languages – and lots of them – simply because she loves them!

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 4.58.52 PMI Will Teach You a Language

Olly is a polyglot who shares tips and suggestions for anyone interested in learning a foreign language. His advice is straightforward, useful and encouraging. Olly is currently blogging his way through learning Egyptian Arabic – a language that has always fascinated me! I also enjoy reading about a language learning journey from day one, following along with the learner step by step.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.31.21 PMKoko the Polyglot

Over the years, Koko has worked on numerous languages, but his current focus is on Japanese and Catalan. One of the things that I love about his blog is that he talks a lot about goals, and he doesn’t hesitate to discuss the goals that he wasn’t able to meet, like the italki challenges that he participated in. It’s honest and refreshing – and what’s best, he focuses on what he gained by trying.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.00.29 PMLanguage Surfer

Ron’s was one of the very first language blogs that I started reading, and it remains one of my favourites. He started learning languages in the US Navy, with an intensive Arabic class. He’s currently working on German and Spanish, and he blogs about balancing learning languages with family life. He has a very strong voice, and you can tell in an instant that Ron writes for people rather than for Google.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.37.48 PMLearnLangs

First of all, can we just take a minute to admire Judith’s profile pic, with her standing in front of a colourful sea of language resources? Judith is a polyglot with lots of experience learning languages and designing language learning resources. She’s currently working on a resource for Mandarin-learners. Her blog is full of tips, suggestions and descriptions of what’s worked well for her so far.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 4.54.21 PM Lindsay Does Languages

I discovered Lindsay’s blog through italki, when she blogged her way through the first six weeks of learning Portuguese as an absolute beginner. Her posts and videos are funny and upbeat, and filled with useful info. My favourite thing about Lindsay’s blog is that it feels real. You get the impression that the Lindsay that she shows on her blog is no different from the one who exists in the real world.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.23.19 PMLoving Language

Richard is a very well-informed teacher and learner. He shares his experiences with motivation – and sometimes the lack thereof – when learning languages. He takes obvious joy in the interesting differences that exist between languages and has a passion for communication in general. His current focus – on learning Somali – is fascinating.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.33.58 PMMore Vietnamese

Ruth’s focus is on learning Vietnamese, but she provides suggestions and tips that are applicable to any language. There are no gimmicks here – just solid, sensible advice for language learners. Ruth’s focus and long-term commitment to her language are inspiring and refreshing. She simply loves Vietnamese and is willing to put in the time, effort and love necessary to really learn a language!

serialpolyglotThe Serial Polyglot

Kass writes about learning languages, a passion that she put on hold for over 20 years. We all understand how life can get in the way sometimes, and there’s something very inspiring about coming back to a lifelong passion! Kass’ current focus is on Irish and Dutch. On her blog, she shares tips, suggestions and anecdotes about her current journey and what’s working for her.

Are there any other language blogs that you enjoy reading? Or perhaps you have a language blog that you’d like to share? I’m always looking for unique voices, fresh perspectives, and – above all – good stories.