Tag Archives: languages

Learning a language in a formal environment

The second part of our language learning series is about learning a new language in a formal setting. Last week, we talked about immersion, that is learning “on-the-go” by letting all the nuances of the language flow into you almost unconsciously. But there are limits to how efficient this way of learning is without being backed up by formal learning techniques.

Let me draw the scene: a blackboard, tables in a semi-circle around the teacher (preferably a native speaker), textbooks and exercise books. A lot of reading aloud, grammar exercises, writing and speaking prompts that are directed at preparing you to an exam… This form of teaching is far from being communicative-based, and some say it is outdated. I beg to differ, as I believe that learning methodically will help ground the informal experience that is so often incomplete by exploring all the little cogs of how a form of communication functions.

Learning how the language functions
There are numerous benefits to learning a language formally, particularly as an adult, if only to satisfy your curiosity about how it works. For example, understanding grammar, morphology and syntax will allow you to make perfect sentences from the get-go and identify that you may have been making mistakes or using slang or child speech. For example, in Norwegian, many young people would say, “Jeg har snakket med han” (/I have talked to he/) instead of saying, “Jeg har snakket med ham” (I have talked to him). Using this type of slang may be okay (after all, languages evolve), yet it would be useful to know what is right and make the difference between a subject and an object pronoun.

The exhaustive approach of explicit grammar
For those who attend classes, having a teacher explain rules and exceptions will prove beneficial and may answer questions that have been baffling you. Are you thinking back about your time in school, copying rules from a book? Don’t worry, adults will grasp explicit grammar better than children and will be more focused. What they have picked up implicitly from their immersion experience will be validated, corrected or explained. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Memory tricks
Learning in a formal environment will also provide tricks. There are some techniques to learn vocabulary, that your teacher or your book will communicate to you. For example, you can make comparisons with your language and learning first words that are similar. Another technique is to learn by roots, adding affixes. It’s a great way to learn as it forces you to think of how to make an adverb, an adjective, etc, from a substantive. For the verbs, it is knowing how to recognize the root and which ending to add.

In that regard, the influence of Greek and Latin on European languages is also important and being aware of which words are inherited from those two languages will help you identify them and learn them. On the other side of the world, learning what Japanese Kanji represented helped me pick up the meaning of some Chinese ideograms, as they share a common history.

Learning by rote
For some languages with conjugations of verbs or declensions, there is no escaping learning lists by heart. Not doing it will hinder your progression. Think about Latin languages and their numerous verbal forms. Or the Eastern European languages and their numerous cases. My Spanish teacher in junior high had a technique for the most difficult examples: print a list of irregular verbs and tape them somewhere where you can see them several times a day. And that’s how the back of our bathroom door showcased the irregular Spanish verbs in the preterito for several months.

Of course, due to their personal circumstances, some people will learn without a teacher, at their own pace, and it’s perfectly okay. As long as they have the right tools, their self-directed approach will pay off.

This discipline will teach you how to learn a language, which will open doors for your multilingualism.

So, as a conclusion, which of the two approaches that we have covered is the most beneficial? I would say that both are necessary to master a language, but that a good formal approach from the get-go will lay a solid base to whatever learning comes afterwards, be it only formal or in immersion.

Improving your foreign language skills : some tips on how to get from B1 to C1

There’s only so much that a book or a class will teach you. Fluency comes from understanding and using the language you are learning in all kinds of settings, from talking to your doctor to chatting other participants at a meet-up.

First of all, you need to identify which is your preferred way of learning. Personally, I feel more at ease with the written word (learning Norwegian intuitively, in immersion, proved to be a challenge).

Can you learn vocabulary lists by heart and remember them? Or do you need context to fix new words or phrases in your memory? Are you more of a conversationalist who can strike up a chat with the cashier or the bartender, two weeks into learning the language? Do you remember dialogues or could recite back the news report you have just heard?

Most people show a combinaison of these characteristics, but knowing how you function will help you narrow down your options and even learn unconsciously, simply by doing your favourite activity.

Nevertheless, I believe climbing up that extra notch from B1 to nearly fluent proficiency requires an active method:

Read smartly

  • Browse online articles on a theme (let’s say, fjord pollution in Norway) and write down all new words and phrases you meet. Sort them out by category as well: nouns, verbs, adjectives. Do it everyday and after a week, you’ll realise you have assimilated the vocabulary.

  • Read YA literature in your second language. It helps with slang and common vocabulary. I learned a lot about life under Thatcherian rule as well as teenage lingo by reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole!

  • Subscribe to or borrow scientific publications like History magazine or Science Digest. Their articles are well-written in the form of small essays and contain logical operators and stock-phrases as well as technical vocabulary.

Netflix time

Try to log on to an online TV channel (most of them have programmes accessible from abroad) and find something you want to commit to watching every week.

I personally turn subtitles on directly in the foreign language to double the exposure. Although there are slight differences in the transcription, hearing the words while seeing them unconsciously fixes them in your mind.


Find a news podcast and listen to it daily to build up on your reading efforts. Some of them are accompanied by a detailed article using a lot of the specific vocabulary in use in the report. I use Politisk Kvarter, a 15 min programme showcasing three politicians who are invited to debate a hot topic. I often jot down ideas or phrases that I find interesting.

Get active and produce

This is my weaker point, as I often get stuck for words before I have “gathered” a database of words and phrases that I deem large enough to communicate. But immersion, as well as daily conversation on a broad range of topics, will prove beneficial. Think about getting a tutor who is a native speaker. They are likely to reformulate the same sentences several times and mimicking them will help you get confident.

You could also write small presentations or record yourself telling a story. Create one every second day and you will quickly notice an improvement.
For example, write a small presentation of your favourite TV-show. Challenge yourself, so you will have to search for words you don’t know. Twin Peaks relies on the uncanny, House of Cards, Mad Men or New York: SVU deal with the judicial system and office politics, … Think; would you be able to say: “Mulder and Scully are two special agents who investigate unexplained cases. The show hinges on the dynamics between Scully’s scepticism and Mulder’s need to believe.”


For a bit of fun, I love doing crosswords in English (especially skeleton). Doing them in Norwegian, even if I “cheat” and use a special dictionary, helps me learn synonyms, and this has already improved my linguistic abilities.

Think about playing games with native speakers: Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary. My first Chrismas in Norway, we played Kokkelimonke (you have to describe an object). I certainly learned a lot that night!

Keeping in touch with your mother tongue while living abroad (here: French)

We all know that great writing skills and a complete mastery of your target language are necessary when you are a translator. But how do you maintain your fluency and keep up with new terminology when you live abroad?

I’ll speak from experience here and share with you a few tips on how I keep contact with my native French while living in Norway. (They work for other languages as well.)


Library services and loans between all national public and university libraries are entirely free in Norway. In the biggest towns, as well as in the capital, they have multilingual departments. I can easily select French books from their website and have them delivered to the library of my choice.

The same goes for DVDs.

Of course, the films you order will be a couple of years old, but you may discover things you have missed, as well as end up watching movies you would not have watched had you been in France.

Sending a request for a recently published book to be bought is entirely possible. I did it for Du temps qu’on existait and had my hands on the book within the month.


For those who prefer the moving picture, know that some TV content is not geoblocked. I can easily watch the news on TF1 with a one-day delay, and access news and TV content from independent small channels. Though I prefer to log in on to Le Monde or other online newspapers to get quick news, I appreciated being able to watch news reports on recent tragic domestic events.

I also watch Youtube or Dailymotion where users have uploaded French soaps (well, I can be a little bit modern), but my favourite website for audiovisual and radiophonic content is without a doubt INA. Some short clips are free and longer content is paying (you can select to download it or have it burned on a DVD). The last film I bought was Les suaires de Véronique, adapted from Michel Tournier, and I’m discovering “Le petit théâtre de Bouvard”.

Netflix also has a few French speaking films and series on rotation. I recently binged-watched Les revenants and saw Intouchables for the first time.


So far, I’ve not really listened to podcasts in French. I know that France culture.

I mostly listen to free audiobooks that I find on Librivox or Littérature audio. All books are in the public domain, so they are quite old, but it is still a wonderful occasion to discover texts or authors. The readers are extremely competent and their plays, particularly, sound everything professional. My favourite so far : On purge bébé! by Georges Feydeau


Get social and find expats groups on the internet. Try Internations, for example,  or the website Meet up, to see if they have members near you.

If you live in a big town, chances are that you will find an Alliance Française or a Cercle français. They’ll have a small library and organise language classes and weekly meetings.

Think about independent cinemas, as some set up foreign movie cycles and festivals or regularly run independent French films, usually on a Sunday afternoon.


I do not tend to read a lot of French blogs or websites (I need a serious update), but I keep contact with the written word thanks to ebooks books and texts that are in the public domain. Littérature audio links to different websites like Project Gutenberg  where virtually thousands of texts are available.

Of course, if, unlike me, you do not spend your life on archive.org, you can add your favourite French blogs to your feedly and make sure you get a daily dose of general as well as niche terminology in your mother tongue.

Good resolution (and I acted on it): writing an ebook

I had been toying a long time with the idea of writing something about my experience working as a language assistant. The format was not really clear, though. A blog? A guide? A small ebook? A first person narrative?

The more I thought about it, the stronger I felt that my aim should be to keep it professional, in order to help the countless students, volunteers or more experienced educators who would like to join the ranks of «Foreign Language Assistant» succeed in their assistantship and make the most of their year abroad . succeed as a language assistantThe position is usually a one-year-only opportunity and often represents the first steps of a prospective teacher in a real-life classroom; what’s more: in a foreign country with a different set of educational practices and values. I wanted to enlightened the readers about what to expect and give them tips about how best to cope with the challenges of starting a new career in a foreign country. Being an assistant is not a year of being a tourist, but the first step to Continuous Professional Development.

Yesterday evening, I finally put pen to paper and scribbled down in an orderly manner the storm of ideas that were rolling around in my head. The outline of the book is ready and it seems that I would manage to write around 70 or 100 pages on the topic, the goal being to cover everything that can come up before, during and after your assistantship, providing practical professionally orientated information, personal advice as well as support with the aspects that are too often left untouched by training or briefing sessions, such as the psychological effects of culture-shock / reverse culture-shock and second language immersion.

Are you with me in that? It is only a beginning, but I think it’s a first step in the creation of a very useful guide. But now, back to my on-going translation!