Language study motivation tip: Pen pals and online friends

Through all my years of study, I’ve found that one of the best ways to stay motivated is to regularly communicate with people who speak the language I’m learning.

For those students who do not have friends or family who can help them with this, having a pen pal can prove to be a fantastic alternative. Not only is it a lot of fun, but it’s a wonderful way to practice your writing, spelling, and grammar in a practical setting. By reading your pen pal’s writing, it will help you to pick up good habits, and in wanting to better communicate with them, it can encourage you to learn a little faster than you might do otherwise.

There are so many options to pick from now with all of the freedom offered by the internet. Aside from traditional snail mail, you might consider email, dedicated websites or apps, and even instant messaging if you’d prefer faster, more immediate conversation.

These varied options also allow you to tailor an experience that best suits your needs. You could choose to go for something more formal, or something a bit more casual. You could connect with someone who is simply interested in teaching you their language, or you might meet someone who will teach you in exchange for you helping them with English.

If it’s something you’re interested in, here are some of the options you might consider…

  • Email

For those students who are nervous to hand out their home address to a stranger (and rightly so), email can prove a safer alternative. It also boasts the advantages of being cheaper, faster, and easier to write. After all, there’s no need to worry about bad spelling when you have a spelling checker installed for the appropriate language.

Email is also a good option for those who would prefer the ease of sharing websites, videos, and other internet resources while learning.

  • Websites and Apps

There are a countless number of websites and apps available for those who are looking to connect with people who are fluent in the relevant language. Depending on what you’re looking for, there are websites available that are structured around a more formal learning experience, aimed at connecting you with tutors and lessons; or you could choose for something a bit more casual – allowing you the opportunity to simply meet and chat with people who speak the language you’re learning.

For those who would prefer a shorter and faster form of communication, instant messenger services are also a good option.

  • Snail Mail

Then for those who prefer the whimsy of traditional snail mail, there is of course the option of post. If the idea of buying a dedicated letter set and sending or receiving small gifts from another country makes you light up, this might be your best option.

In a world where everything seems to be turning more digital, it can feel like a breath of fresh air to receive a personalised letter that has been written specifically for you. For those who enjoy bullet journals, keeping detailed organisers, or for those who simply love the idea of getting mail that has travelled a good distance of the globe to reach you, this can be another really fun way of staying motivated while studying.

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Language learning tip: Using Newspapers and Radio

One of the best study tips I heard while learning Dutch, was to read newspapers and listen to the radio. It struck me as being a fairly dull tip when I first heard it, and admittedly, some news sources can be quite dry – however, if you select the right material, it can be a fantastic way to boost your language studies.

Keeping In Touch With The Culture
If you don’t have the opportunity to visit or live in another country while studying the language, reading newspapers and listening to radio is an excellent alternative. It allows you to effortlessly keep in touch with current events, and cultural news.

I feel that a large part of learning a language, and speaking it well, is understanding the culture as well. A perfect example of this would be the English habit of apologizing for literally everything, versus the Dutch mentality of apologizing only if absolutely necessary. It’s a small detail, but it makes a big difference in the speaker’s fluency. Radio and newspaper outlets allow a small glimpse into this mindset, and can prove to be an excellent learning tool.

If newspapers aren’t your thing, you might consider special interest blogs. There’s something out there for everyone, and you’re bound to find something that will peak your interest.

Radio and Podcasts
There are plenty of excellent websites online that will allow you to start listening to either local radio stations, or foreign language podcasts. Both of these are excellent resources. When I was learning Spanish in high school, I would let a Spanish radio station play in the background while browsing the internet, and I found it really helped to get be accustomed to the sound of the language and how a lot of the words were pronounced.

The radio station I preferred had a very cheerful host, which made it a lot more fun to listen to. In that regard, I’d highly recommend choosing something that appeals to your interests; be that music, news stations, or one of the many podcasts that cover a wide range of topics.

Translating Newspaper Articles
For those students who are on a more advanced level, and are looking for a challenge, I recommend finding a newspaper written in the language you’re studying, and to translate one of the articles into English.

This is not the most exhilarating exercise by any means, but it is a fantastic way to challenge and improve your language skills, especially if you’re looking to be able to use your language in a business setting. Doing this not only improves spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, but it’s also a excellent way to learn the more professional tone for the language you’re learning.

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How to gain authentic travel experiences

Came across this interesting article on today, entitled “Authentic? Tourists, you’re kidding yourselves”


It’s beautiful in Oaxaca City. The Mexican town so easily charms you with its colonial architecture, its paved streets and brightly coloured buildings.

I’d been having a ball there, drinking in the bars, hanging out in the town square by the church, wandering the narrow streets, drinking in the flavour of the place. I’d never felt threatened or unsafe. I’d actually been wondering what all the fuss was about.

Gang warfare? Drugs and guns? Not in my Mexico. Definitely not in peaceful Oaxaca.

So it was kind of a shock when I found out about the shootings. I’d been chatting to a local woman, talking about the happenings in the town, when she mentioned the two teenage boys who’d been shot and killed – basically executed – in the town square a few nights ago.

When we’re in a foreign country, most of the time we have no clue what’s happening just outside. It’s in the interests of the host nation to keep it this way for the sake of their

That’s the thing about travel: you’re in a bubble. You can convince yourself that you’re getting the authentic experiences, that you’re mixing with the locals and taking in the culture and learning about a society, but if you’re only doing the normal tourist thing, coming in for a week or two and checking out the sights, then you know nothing.

A bit harsh, but that’s exactly what happens with people who endure the long flight from Auckland to Santiago, only to spend days lazing by the pool at the Ritz Carlton.

You’re barely scraping the surface. You’re floating along in the ideal world, sampling great food and chatting to friendly people and experiencing the absolute best that a country has to offer.

Nothing wrong with all that of course. However, if you wish to really enhance your travel experience, especially when you’re going to a non-English speaking country, I suggest you learn a bit of the local language. You don’t need to be able to talk politics in the local lingo, but being able to say hi and order a beer goes a long way towards building relationships. In turn this increases the likelihood of you finding a local friend who will take you further down the rabbit hole.

For those of you fortunate enough to escape the NZ winter, enjoy yourselves and hope you enjoy some “authentic travel experiences”.

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7 Language Learning Myths Holding Us Back

Found an interesting article on Forbes debunking the myths of language learning holding us back in the social, economic and political marketplace. Although the writer is American, it’s still relevant in a Kiwi context. Essentially the author provides a great response to the commonly held belief: Why learn a foreign language, if everyone else is learning English?

Myth 1: Everybody already speaks English (or they’re learning it).

Yes, about one quarter of the world population speaks English to some degree. What about the remaining 5.4 billion people sharing our planet?

Myth 2: Spanish, French and German are the most spoken languages in the world (besides English, of course).

At last count, about 77 percent of American college students in language courses were studying Spanish, French or German. Those languages and English are spoken natively by less than 13 percent of the global population. To put that into context, Javanese and Bengali claim more native speakers than German and French, but they are scarcely studied by American students.  If we exclusively learn European languages, we will continue to leave billions of people out of the global conversation.

Myth 3: China speaks Chinese. India speaks Hindi. America speaks English.

You may rush to learn Mandarin Chinese because you will be working in China, only to find that you should have studied Cantonese. You may find yourself in a region of Paraguay where Guaraní is more helpful than Spanish, or in an Indian state where Tamil is spoken more widely than Hindi.

Our world is not two-dimensional—state lines do not determine cultural practices or mediums of communication. As language learners, we need to do our research on which communities we are hoping to connect with, and what we can do to best facilitate exchange.

Myth 4: It is impossible to learn a language after my sixteenth birthday.

Yes, learning a language becomes less natural as we grow older, but it is absolutely possible regardless of age. In fact, most language software is built with adult or college-aged learners in mind. It is never too late.
Myth 5: It is too expensive to learn anything other than Spanish.

Resources are more available in some languages than in others. More universities offer Italian than Vietnamese— that is the reality. Even so there are so many affordable or free resources online. Many libraries, for example, partner with Mango Languages, thereby offering seventy different languages to patrons for free! A few Google searches may uncover the wealth of opportunities to learn languages online or in-person near you.

Myth 6: Urdu won’t help me get a job. Turkish is useless. I will never find a place to use Vietnamese.

In a rapidly globalizing world, it is tough to make a resume stand out.  Sometimes “out-of-the-ordinary” is just what you need. Some federal departments, for example, are giving scholarships to students to learn Azerbaijani, Indonesian, Punjabi, and more. Furthermore, many of these underrepresented languages are spoken in major emerging markets. To do work in these up-and-coming economies, we might be better off learning Hungarian, Polish or Thai.

Myth 7: Language learning is unnecessary with modern translation technologies.

Think about the last time you misinterpreted sarcasm or could not connect a cultural reference. In her recently released book, Erin Meyer asserts that the English spoken in the United States is the lowest context language in the world, meaning it requires minimal cultural context in order to understand. In other parts of the world, communication is not as simple. Language instruction introduces us to the nuances of cultures, allowing us to build productive personal and professional relationships with people from unfamiliar cultures.

[Check out my article on language learning technologies for Kiwis].

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Using technology to enhance language learning

I’m often asked which are the best apps and websites one can use to learn a language quickly and conveniently. The landscape is rapidly changing, so this is my answer as at July 2014, keeping in mind my answers may change in a few months.

Duolingo – probably number 1 right now. incorporates gamification features, making it fun and addictive. Social media integration adds motivation.  Web-based, iOS and Android apps available.

Memrise – flashcard based. not as fun as Duolingo, but helpful in picking up vocabulary. Web-based, iOS and Android apps available.

Social-based language learning platforms like Livemocha, Fluentify, italki and various others.

Many of the apps on the Apple App Store or Android Marketplace are well-designed and useful for beginner language learners.

However, language learning is inherently a social exercise. Unless you’re learning a language purely as an academic exercise, surely the purpose is to communicate with others. Apps like Duolingo and Memrise are great, but in playing around with them, I quickly realise the most important, and best, part of language learning is missing: talking to real people.

Social-based learning platforms address this issue to some extent. But the quality of tutors are highly variable, and the nature of language exchange is such that everyone wants to speak the language they are learning.

Ultimately, all these technology applications are great, and some people do acquire a basic level of fluency by solely using these applications.

Sometimes people ask me if Euroasia has been affected by the advent of such technologies.

Yes and No.

Yes, because people have come to expect instant results. Often apps and websites promise the world, without having to put much work.  This creates unrealistic expectations.

No, because these applications give people a taste of the language and leaves them wanting more.

Euroasia has started offering  live online language classes, and will be introducing audio clips etc to supplement traditional classes. If you wish to join us for our language courses at our physical locations in Auckland and Wellington, our July intake starts next week.

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Event: Design Trends seminar to support orphaned Latin American kids

Check out this upcoming design trends seminar. All proceeds will go to NPH New Zealand, a charity set up to care for orphaned and abandoned children in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Design Trends Seminar

Thursday, 31 July 2014

6.30 – 8.30pm,

Cavit&Co, 547A Parnell Road

Tickets $60

NPH stands for Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos which means ‘Our little brothers and sisters’ in Spanish. NPH cares for over 3,000 orphaned and abandoend children throughout Latin America, all of whom have lived through extreme poverty, neglect or abuse.

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Amazing story of Tim Donner – hyperpolyglot

In the Anglo-Saxon world, it’s unusual to find people fluent in more than one language. It’s even more unusual to find people who can speak more than 2 or 3 languages. So there’s no way to describe Tim Donner except to say he’s incredibly talented. Tim is from New York, and started learning Hebrew at 13. He has since managed to learn 20+ languages. His secret to language language learning? Watch more TV shows in the language you’re learning.

If your 2014 resolution is to learn a new language, you may wish to consider our summer intensives (15 hours over 2 weeks – 4 weeknights plus a Saturday morning) starting on 21 Jan. Courses available in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian and Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. In Auckland and Wellington. Enrol now!

From the Economist:

Mr Doner hardly fits the profile (except for being a left-handed male). He has the will to sit and memorise verb tables, as one must do to come as far as he has. But he is a sociable and confident teen with a ready smile. He loves memorising pop lyrics and watching movies. He virtually inhabits the languages he speaks; as a colleague said on seeing his video, “he shrugs like a Frenchman and frowns like a Russian.” Most of all, it is obvious how much he enjoys speaking his languages with other people, not just learning them for the purpose of translation or reading (or boasting).

What else is he good at? He gets good grades in maths, but finds it frustrating, and struggles with physics and chemistry. He loves history, a big motivator in his language-learning. His father was once a professional pianist, and the young Mr Doner says that after a few years of lessons, he could “sight-read and accurately play pieces in one go”, though he is out of practice now. He can also quickly learn things by ear. This is perhaps the most intriguing clue to his ability—not just a “systemising” brain, but one highly adept at processing and producing in a given compositional system (musical or linguistic) on the fly, plus a world-beating auditory ability.

What’s next for a 17-year-old hyperpolyglot? He still has a year of high school, and then university, where he plans to study linguistics. He has already taken an interest in language science alongside all of the languages themselves. In an e-mail to me, he recommended Mark Baker’s “The Atoms of Language”, a fairly difficult work of Chomskyan theory (though written for lay readers). In our video, he mentions skipping over easy languages like Spanish, instead choosing new languages like Ojibwe, because they pose novel challenges like agglutination or ergativity.

And after college? Everyone, naturally, asks him if he will be a spy, which he laughs off. In any case, he is by now too well-known to disappear into the shadows. Diplomacy interests him, though. And America’s foreign service would be lucky to have him.

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