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Why you’re no language superhero (yet) Von Jeanette Mooney


If you’ve ever started and never finished an online learning course, welcome to the club of the 97 percenters.

If you’ve been learning Chinese for the past year and still can’t tell a taxi driver you mean the other airport, you’ll probably miss your flight.

Apparently, you’re just not serious enough about learning, and probably going about it all too willy-nilly. And, if you’re honest, when was the last time you sat down to think about how good your Chinese, French or Finnish needs to be for that next vacation or business trip? I spoke to a language superhero to find out where we’re going wrong.

Gabriel Gelman says that you need to think more about the way you learn. If you want to get serious about learning you’ve got to focus on two things: your goal and your why. Forget cramming and aimless input. Get yourself a strategy, a roadmap. This means reverse-planning your goal, starting with a simple question.

Ask yourself this: What does your ideal day look like once you’ve reached your goal?

That could well be telling that Chinese taxi driver exactly what airport by when and a coffee shop en route. Gabriel goes on to say that, “With language learning it’s not all about the grammar first.”

Role play: play out situations with the specific vocabulary and add grammar to your corrective practice and feedback loops.

Get your situational vocabulary needs met first and worry about the grammar later. Feedback received in your day-to-day use of situational vocabulary will boost your confidence in use, and help you to correct the grammar as you go along.

So what does your ideal day look like, and where does your reverse engineering start?

Gabriel’s top tips

  • Listen to podcasts and audio
  • Create a stack of flashcards (real ones)
  • Mosalingua
  • For more on Gabriel’s approach, go to Sprachheld (German)

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Jeanette started out as an interpreter and today works as a translator of words and ideas, designing ways to enable others to go beyond what they know and do. She likes to call this: purpose by design. This post is the result of a chat with Gabriel on how and why we learn.


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