Advance Your Foreign Language Skills in Two Minutes

How to Advance Your Language Skills in Two Minutes

There are some things that will only take two minutes to do.

You can slice a juicy tomato in two minutes.

You stir milk into your steamy coffee in two minutes.

You can sharpen your pencils in two minutes. Remember pencils?

You can eat a sticky ice cream in two minutes. (Ok, maybe I can eat a sticky ice cream in two minutes.)

You can also practice and advance your foreign language skills in two minutes.

In this post I’m giving you sixteen ideas that will help you do just that.

 Next step? Set a timer. For two minutes. Then pick one of the activities below and give it your best.

 1. Write as many words as you can remember about a certain topic (weather, food, members of the family, emotions, things that are made of metal, things that taste sweet, etc).

Alternative: shout as many words as you can remember about a certain topic.

Alternative: record the words on your phone. Review them for accuracy and pronunciation.

2. Pick five words. Make up a jingle that includes those words.

3. Practice action words in a foreign language by doing the action.

4. Open your fridge. Name all the food inside in the foreign language.

5. Write a haiku that combines your native language and the foreign language creatively.

6. Doodle five words you want to learn like so: write the word down as you normally would; doodle around it to make it look like what it means.

7. Translate a line from a movie you saw recently into the foreign language. Do an impression of the character.

8. Walk around the house. Look for objects that start with the letter A in the foreign language. Start again with B. And so on.

9. Get a stack of sticky notes and a dictionary. Go around the house and label 10 objects that you don’t know the word for. Look up the unfamiliar words in the dictionary.

10. Write 10 words that start with the first 10 letters of the vocabulary. One word that starts with A. One word that starts with B. One word that starts with C.

Bonus points: Make a sentence using as many of those words as possible.

11. Have an imaginary conversation with your coffee. Practice small talk. Ask it where it came from? Take it from there.

Bonus points: Have the same conversation with your coffee table.

12. Read a recipe in the foreign language. Write down five words that you just learned from that recipe.

13. Go outside. See how many things you can name out there.

14. Compose a text message in the foreign language.

15. Go to a news website in the foreign language. Check the headlines.

16. Grab a piece of paper. Start a list like this: if I had another two minutes, I would … See how many things you can come up with. Reset your timer.

What’s next?

Pick an item from the list.

Type “timer” in Google.

Set it for two minutes.

Hit enter and have fun.

How to Train Your Study Skills

Train your study skills

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of reading about how limited my willpower is, and how I should use it wisely. Preferably as early in the day as possible. Preferably on something productive, not on abstaining from a run to the bakery.

See, when you’re learning a foreign language, that’s not the only thing you’re doing. You’re probably also working a job, studying full time, traveling or raising children. These are huge drains on willpower. And at the end of the day, or in between multiple tasks, you won’t have a lot of willpower left for a foreign language study session.

This is why, if you want to see some progress, you should focus on strengthening your study skills, not your willpower. What matters is not just how much willpower you have, but developing your skill to get back to the task at hand. So changing your habits (for the better, hopefully) is more about skill than it is about will.

I came across this notion while reading the book Change Anything by Kerry Patterson et Co. I thought it was a brilliant idea, because willpower I do not have. (Remember, I live right up the street from a bakery. My limits are already tested every day.)

Willpower, the authors say, is a concept that urges you to rely purely on a tough-it-out model. While it may be useful and doable to do so, not everything on our to-do list has the same urgency. So let’s conserve the willpower for when we really need to tough it out. For the other tasks, let’s choose to act in key moments.

This is important:

“If you interrupt your impulses by connecting with your goals during crucial moments, you can greatly improve your chances of success.”

What does this mean when you’re learning? And how can you apply it?

It means that you need to learn and practice the following skill: when you feel the urge to stop (the impulse), that’s when you need to intervene with a rule. 

Are you going to accomplish your goal if you stop now? Clearly not! Are you going to get closer to it? Not if you stop. So what is the obvious choice? To keep going.

This strategy works for whenever you feel an “impulse” to do something that might be detrimental to your goal.

The impulse to procrastinate.

The impulse to quit.

The impulse to multitask.

Recognize them for what they are: fleeting impulses. And be equipped with the skills to push past them.

“When it comes to personal change, you don’t have to be pushing yourself to the limit all the time. You need to focus on only a handful of moments when you’re more at risk.”

What rules will you follow when temptation arises?

Establish the rules in advance of facing a challenge, and you’re more likely to follow them when you’re faced with the challenge.

The pattern is this:

When I’m ____________ <key moment>, I will ________________ <trained skill>.

Here is an example of a rule to establish in advance:

Challenge: I feel like I’m procrastinating by just constantly going for snacks when I’m trying to study a foreign language.

Rule: I am allowed to get up once, go for a snack, take the snack to my desk and return right back to work.

Here’s another example:

Challenge: I always get distracted when I’m trying to complete a lesson.

Rule: Every time I get distracted, I will close all the tabs in my browser, and put my phone in a different room. NO EXCEPTION! No resistance! No questions asked!

The skill you’re training is to follow the rule.

It is very important that you observe what your “key moments” are (the ones when your impulse kicks in), and tailor the skills that you train yourself to rules that will make you push through. View this as an experiment in which you’re both the researcher and the subject. Notice the words in italics? They matter.

Every time you have used the skill to follow your rule, is a time you’ve successfully pushed through resistance. You’ve made progress.

The goal is progress, not perfection.


Further reading: Change Anything by Kerry Patterson et Co.

Escape the tyranny of deadlines

Escape the tyranny of dealines on PanglossityI love deadlines. I especially like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
Douglas Adams

Setting deadlines when we’re learning another language can helpful, but it can also easily turn into yet another artificial pressure we create that commands our state of mind. This, in turn, commands our feelings about the learning process.

Having deadlines sets the pace, but if you let them overtake the process, you will not experience the fulfillment that comes with making progress.

Instead, make a commitment to show up every day, to open that workbook, to log into that app, to notice the progress bar change color. Don’t let the deadline rob you of the experience of learning.

Motivation, sustainable motivation, rarely comes from a deadline. My students come to me desperate to learn a foreign language, or to improve their language skills, because they want that promotion, that job abroad or they need to pass that exam. In other words, they have a deadline. The promotion will not be there next year, the job abroad closes applications in three weeks and the exam can only be taken twice a year.

But the students that are really successful in advancing their language skills are those who see what’s after the deadline; those who show up every lesson with their work done, with a myriad of questions, with the eagerness to learn.

The students who achieve their goals are the ones who, no matter how tight or far away the deadline is, do not put “that date” at the center of their journey.

The students who let their learning process fall under the tyranny of the deadline usually binge-memorize, forget faster and have a more superficial approach. The sad part is that they make themselves miserable in the process. Often a nervous wreck, often procrastinating, often lying to themselves about their progress.

Think about it. Which one would you rather be?

Commit to the process. Show up every day.

Image: A Canterbury Pilgrimage illustrated by Joseph Pennell and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, 1885

Energy Intelligence

Smart Language Learning  - Energy Intelligence

The theory of multiple intelligences, developed by Howard Garner,  is well-known among educators and learners. It states that we all are equipped with a different combination of “intelligences”, and this combination is what enables us to learn in a specific manner. Garner first outlined eight categories of intelligence, later used by teachers to convey the information to learners: visual, kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic. He later added existential (spiritual) and moral intelligences to the list.

Loosely connected to Garner’s theory – in its use of the notion of intelligence – is the concept of energy intelligence. I came across it in this article by Josh Allan Dykstra. Based in strengths assessment theory, the energy intelligence is aimed at measuring what energizes a person, rather than what they’re good at. Being good at something does not necessarily imply that we also feeling energized by that thing. For example, you may be fairly good at math in school, but after an hour of working on math problems you start feeling drained and miserable.

The question is: does applying energy intelligence theory work in language learning?

I believe it does, and the reason is simple.  As human beings, our actions are often dictated by our emotions. We don’t feel like learning when we get back home from work, so we don’t. We feel bored when we’re struggling with vocabulary drills, so we stop. Too often when we’re learning, we focus on what we think we should master rather than on directing our attention to what makes us feel energized and joyous.

When you’re energized, you get things done without really feeling like you’re trying. Trying would also imply some sort of resistance, an effort to stay busy or feel productive. Feeling energized, similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, is based on the assumption that you do your best work when you’re feeling at your best, while going with your will, not against it.

There are a few things that you can do test out this theory and take advantage of it.

1. Pay attention to what energizes you when you’re learning or focusing.

Is it writing down ideas? Is it freewriting? Is it doing audio lessons? Is it practicing new expressions out loud? Create an “energizing log” and write in it whatever activity you’re doing when you feel at your best without feeling like the effort exceeds the reward.

2. Make sure that you’re energized by something you’re actively pursuing.

Sure, I feel great when I listen to smart people being interviewed on podcasts. But that’s not a product of my brain. My brain just processes information. It does not reflect or act on it. I’m taking that a step further by noticing that I’m also energized when I’m brainstorming and wordmapping around the concepts that I’ve discovered on the podcast.

3. Enable energizing activities.

Enabling good habits is crucial in forming good habits. A simple example would be placing a glass of fresh water next to you if you want to get into the habit of drinking more water. By seeing the water, your brain will be triggered into feeling thirsty and wanting to drink. The fact that the water is readily available eliminates the effort and enables you to take action.

Similarly, we can enable energizing learning habits by making it easier to get into an energizing state. That could mean simply having a dedicated spot or a dedicated ritual for that state.

4. Use energizing activities to get started.

If you know that something feels good, gets you in the flow and helps you get work done, start with that something. Start with it even if it doesn’t connect immediately with what you should be doing. Starting a project is, very often, half the battle, because it builds momentum. Momentum is a learner’s best friend.

5. Use knowledge of what energizes you to get back on track.

You can use energy intelligence to your advantage when you need to refocus. If you find yourself procrastinating and dreading to get back to the work that you were doing, it helps to remind yourself how energized you feel when you’re actually doing it. Again, trick your brain into re-starting (your conversations, your learning sessions, your reading, your classes) and it will only get better from there.

Original image: L’Energie Moderne by Georges Hugnet (French, 1906 – 1974) from The Met online archives

Language and … personal development?


A good 70 percent of my students are professionals. A good 70 percent of my students want to learn a foreign language as an extra skill that will advance their career. A good 70 percent of those get something more in return.

How do you feel about made up statistics?

I thought so. But at least my guess is informed by the years of teaching and years of asking all sorts of people “Why do you want to learn another language? What’s in it for you?”

The truth is this: I set out to find research about the effect that learning a foreign language has on personal development. I found no such study. If you come across one, please send it my way. Professional development is clearly impacted by being bilingual or multilingual. But how does learning a new language make us grow and evolve on a personal level? Does it change the way we communicate? Does it change the way we view challenges and set goals? Does it force us outside of our comfort zones? Does it open up new ways of perceiving the world around us?

Let me tell you a few stories. Stories about people that I’ve worked with and the transformations I saw in them while they were learning a foreign language.

Let’s start with Aimee.

I first started working with Aimee in the middle of her two year long maternity leave from a market research position for large hospitality group. Aimee was a hard-working career woman who loved what she was doing for a living (a typical Sociology major), but had found herself stuck at home with a toddler and little intellectual stimulation. She was at an upper-intermediate level of English and always thirsty to learn more.

Honestly, Aimee was, at the time, my most advanced student. She was sharp, quick and confident. I thought the main reason Aimee had for wanting for work on her English skills was just to have some interaction with an adult while being stuck at home during the day.

I loved working with her because she wouldn’t say no to any challenge, and she would diligently do her homework.

Yes, your teacher really cares about these two things.

I started to slowly introduce advanced and proficiency materials into our lessons: a lesson based on a TED Talk here, an article from The Economist there, a “look what British skit I found, let’s see how much you understand” playful email a week all the way over there.

Aimee just took the ideas and ran with them. We spent an hour talking about Jamie Oliver’s TED talk on teaching children about food and how Aimee would apply it to raising her child. We would connect Charlemagne’s blog on The Economist with sociology ideas she remembered from college. Then, Aimee started doing these things by herself. First, she showed me a new British series she was into  (It was Smack the Pony but don’t Google it if you’re at work). She couldn’t understand everything, but she got most of the jokes and if she didn’t, she asked me about it (if you want to make your EFL teacher blush during a lesson, do just that).

Another time, Aimee was really excited that she could watch The Hunger Games in English, without subtitles or dubbing. Her favorite new words in English were “chatterbox” (usually to refer to her now-learning-to-speak-and-will-never-shut-up-but-look-how-cute daughter) and “brick and mortar” (simply because it’s so descriptive).

We continued to work together even after Aimee returned to work. She confessed that studying a foreign language, and going in depth with it, helped her in her job tremendously. Having worked with metrics her entire career made Aimee really good at goal-setting and working through objectives, but studying a foreign language opened her up to new ideas, that she would not have listened to or read in her native language. She took some of these ideas and applied them in her marketing department. She took other ideas and started up a conversation with her new German expat manager. Some of them became seeds for new projects, both personal and professional. Aimee now feels more fulfilled in her career because she has the freedom to explore side projects at work. She’s also the one to start a conversation about Smack the Pony (yes, she still watches that).

I watched her go from a fluent but still insecure English speaker to a fully fluent and can debate anyone under the table confident speaker.

The three short ideas from Aimee’s journey:
1.     Be curious.
2.    Capitalize on your strengths.
3.    Always apply what you learn.

*The names I use are slightly changed, but the stories are 100 percent real.

Image: Charlotte du Val d’Ognes by Marie-Denise Villers (1801), currently on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.