September 18, 2019 - The link between dopamine, biscuits and learning

Here is a situation you may recognise. It's 4pm. You're busy at work, you finish writing an email and you press "send". One task is finished and there are, of course, more tasks waiting for you. That moment between tasks is just long enough for you to realise two things: one, you're tired and two, the work day is not over. As if by magic, you find yourself in the kitchen, opening cupboards. And low and behold, there are biscuits! Yay!!

"What has this to do with learning, Clare?" I hear you ask. "Why have you brought me to the kitchen to eat biscuits?" Well, once we understand the components of a habit, we can recognise them and then we can adapt them to help us achieve the outcome we want, including developing good learning habits.

A habit is made up of four components: a trigger, a desire, an action and a reward. In our biscuit-eating example, the trigger is the break between tasks and the recognition of tiredness. The desire is to have enough energy to get through to the end of the working day. The action is the move to the kitchen and the hunt for something to eat. And that first, second or tenth bite of biscuit is a reward: you fulfil that desire.
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January 26, 2018 - Learning German with Beyoncé

I promised an update on my adventures in learning German and then Christmas got in the way. Doh!

Everything is going well, however. I started using the Duolingo application at the end of November and I am currently on a 37-day streak, meaning I've practised every day for 37 days. I probably spend 5 or 10 minutes a day working through the exercises and I redo exercises regularly to keep the vocabulary fresh.

Some words and grammatical structures are quite easy to understand, especially when there are clear similarities between English and German. Others are more complicated. We don't have gendered articles in English and this caused me all sorts of problems when learning French. I still make very basic mistakes when choosing between une and un, la and le. When I realised that I had to learn these in German, I hunted for a method to help me recall the article for each word. Thanks to Google, I found and the writer suggested a technique from Akkiz Coskin, a German teacher based in Turkey, which uses visual techniques to link the article with the noun.
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November 30, 2017 - I will survive … in Germany #1!

A couple of weeks ago I went to Germany for the first time. This is a slightly embarrassing admission since I live 50 km away from the German border and it has taken me EIGHT years to cross it. I was excited about my visit: I was going to meet a colleague and friend for the first time outside Skype meetings and I love travelling.

As soon as I got on to the train at Strasbourg, however, I realised I was venturing into unknown territory in more than one way. Beyond bitte and danke, I don't know any German. Okay, on second thoughts, I also know eins, zwei, drei et bis bald. Also, randomly, that Wald means forest and Brot is bread. So my German vocabulary currently stands at 8 words.

It wasn't a problem for most of the two days. My friend Maribel speaks fluent German and some of the hotel receptionists and waiters in Karlsruhe were used to tourists so they spoke a little English when they saw me at a loss for words. But once Maribel left to go home and I was alone with a couple of hours to kill before taking my train home, my limits were very clear to me.
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October 31, 2017 - 3 easy steps to defeat all-or-nothing thinking

It's easy to get sucked into all-or-nothing thinking. We set ourselves an objective for a new habit: write a blog post every month, run 5km three times a week, eat vegetables at every lunch and dinner, listen to more foreign language podcasts, and then life happens. We get busier at work, we catch a cold or twist our ankle, the weather turns horrible, the podcasts become less interesting and our plans fall by the wayside. We decide to start again with the same resolution and we meet a different set of challenges. This can happen over and over again until we feel quite demoralised. It's so difficult to make progress. It's so difficult to make real change!

Coaches are not immune to this phenomenon. At the beginning of the year, I set myself the long-term goal of posting once a month on this blog. In August I proclaimed that my next post in September would be about Neurolanguage Coaching®1. It didn't happen. Neurolanguage Coaching®1 is really interesting and I want it to be a GREAT post. With the return to work after the summer holidays, I didn't find the time to plan and write that great post in September. So I didn't write a post at all. I felt bad. I felt like I'd failed. And when I looked at my October schedule, I thought "Where am I going to find the time to do this great post? What if I can't find the time to do this?"

See? I compounded the problem. In wondering and worrying about my failure to reach my objective, I wasted a lot of mental energy that could have been used to...oh I don't know, do something useful! Write about something else!
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August 15, 2017 - What is language coaching?

A couple of years ago, when people asked me what my job was, I said English teacher. When they ask me now, I say language coach*. Many former language and communication teachers have made the same change but for different reasons; some of these reasons don't benefit you as a language learner.

As a learner, therefore, it's important to understand what language coaching is and how it's different from language teaching.

First of all, let's look at coaching. Go to any newsagent or supermarket press display today and I guarantee that you will see the word "coaching" on at least one magazine cover. That's because coaching is "in". The magazines offer to coach you in business, love, maternity, fitness and nutrition, real estate, style... However, a magazine article can't coach you. None of my blog posts can coach you. Texts contain information and advice but coaching is based on continuous dialogue between the client and the coach.

A client who wants to be coached has an idea of what they want to achieve: it may be to lose weight, revamp a wardrobe or a career, or learn a language. A coaching client should also expect to be the person who decides how to achieve this goal.

An authentic coach is more concerned with listening, understanding and helping the client to make decisions than advising. An authentic language coach is essentially there to support and guide the client on their own language learning journey.
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July 21, 2017 - London is for Language Lovers

Clients often tell me about their plans to visit London to improve their English. I enthuse about their intentions: London is a wonderful place to visit. If the client's goal really is to improve their English language skills, we'll discuss how to make the most of their trip. You see, I love visiting cities on long weekend breaks. However, I know it's possible to do so without speaking more than a handful of words in the native language.

When I visited Paris on my own for the first time nine years ago, I became very familiar with Monoprix, the equivalent of the UK's M&S Food stores, where the only French necessary is "Bonjour". All the counters at the museums and galleries had little Union Jacks or signs showing "English is spoken here" so it was easy to make no effort at all. The same is true for London tourist attractions. Added to this is the fact that London museums and galleries tend to favour self-service cafes and restaurants: you will never really need to say more than "A black coffee, please".

Here are some ideas for making the most of London if you are travelling independently.
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June 8, 2017 - Reading shouldn't hurt!

In my last post, I suggested ways in which you can use foreign language films and tv shows effectively to improve your language skills. In today's post, I tackle some frequently-given advice about reading, and suggest how you can improve your reading skills enjoyably.

Read books in the original version.

This advice can frighten people who are avid readers in their native language. They think it will be too difficult because they don't have enough vocabulary and it will turn a relaxing pasttime into a chore. The trick is to experiment and the most important rule is to read something that you want to read! Here are some suggestions to make reading a pleasure in your target language.

Start simple. I started with the Mr Men books by Roger Hargreaves because they were already in my partner's house! This led on to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "Le Petit Prince" and now I'm working my way through the series by Erik Orsenna that begins with "La Grammaire est une Chanson Douce". In English-speaking countries, children's literature is very highly respected, often combining simple writing styles and intriguing storylines.
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April 10, 2017 - How to turn bad advice into good advice

There's no shortage of advice on how to learn a language. But it tends to be one-size-fits-all and doesn't take into account our personal learning preferences. Over the next couple of months, I'll be suggesting ways in which we can personalise some of the most common pieces of advice to suit ourselves. Because the more we can do that, the more effective and enjoyable our learning will be.

"Watch films in the original version."

Great idea. In theory. The average modern film lasts 2 hours. Maintaining the level of concentration necessary to understand a foreign language film for two hours at a time requires a lot of mental energy. Add in the extra challenges provided by background music, the actors' different accents and articulations, sometimes heavy use of slang or context-specific language and your brain is going to feel over-exercised. This isn't a bad thing – in fact it's great – but it's not something you may be willing or able to do frequently at first.

So how can you increase your film-watching capacities?

Firstly, if you have already tried the experiment, you probably noticed that there were moments where you completely lost the thread and the spoken language just became a meaningless jumble of sounds. This is most likely due to information overload. Studies in neuroscience suggest that we have a kind of breaker in our brain that simply shuts down our information processing capacities when they reach overload.
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February 28, 2017 - What weight training has taught me about language learning

Confession: I can be really slow on the uptake. There are fundamental truths that I have taken a looooong time to understand. I'm going to limit myself to two of my most basic misconceptions here, otherwise this will turn into a very long post and I'll convince myself that therapy is the only answer. Here I'm going to talk about getting and staying in good physical shape and learning a new language. And how taking lessons from one can help you progress in the other.

As I said, it took me a long time to realise that life-and-shape-changing exercise wasn't confined to inhaling chlorinated water lap after lap, long muddy runs or frenetic aerobics classes in brightly-lit gyms. As none of these options appealed to me, I restricted myself to taking regular long walks and wondering why I didn't seem to reap any great physical benefit. When I decided four years ago to make a more concerted effort with physical exercise, I found myself on a coaching programme for weight training. I'd never tried it before. Since then it's become a three-times-a-week habit and an awesome learning process into the bargain.

It took just as long for me to realise that I could learn a second language. Scared by my school experiences, I'd written off learning French as impossible. And as for other languages, my efforts never lasted past the first three weeks. Then a Frenchman happened, followed by a move to France. Learning French became a necessity.

It's true that living in a country where everyone speaks the language helps enormously. You're surrounded by it. There's a limitless supply of stimuli and examples and yes, some language learning does seem to take place by osmosis. In my experience, however, osmotic learning only gets me so far. When I've wanted to improve my game, I've had to train with intention.

Changing your fitness level for whatever reason doesn't happen overnight. It's a long, slow process with many MANY peaks and troughs in motivation. This is why «fitspo» – fitness inspiration – is even a thing. To keep doing it, we need to find mantras that help us show up regularly to practise. Here are some of my favourites, with suggestions on how they can also relate to learning a new language.
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January 30, 2017 - Finding your why for learning a language

In the last blog post, I wrote about ways in which we can make a language resolution become reality. We know that making real and lasting improvement takes time. So today I want to look at how we can strengthen your resolution. And we're going to dig deep into your purpose for making the resolution in the first place.

Often when we make a New Year's resolution, we articulate it as a statement. "2017 will be the year that I get healthy", "I will become fluent in English", "I will give up smoking".

These are great intentions.

If we are prepared to dig a little deeper into why we have these intentions, we help make them happen. If we find and express our deepest reasons for doing something, we find deep sources of motivation. This makes it easier to transform the intention into reality and to keep going, keep finding time to practise, and keep resisting the temptations of rich foods or a cigarette.

A tool called the "5 whys " can be very useful to uncover what we really want from our intentions. As the name suggests, it consists of asking five questions starting with the word "why".

Here's a how a conversation might look for someone who makes the resolution " I want to improve my Spanish".
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January 10, 2017 - From Resolution to Reality

Okay, so 2017 is going to be the year you really improve your language skills. You're picturing yourself chatting comfortably with new friends or charming the airline desk clerk into giving you a seat upgrade on your longhaul flight. Or maybe you're dreaming of nailing that all-important job interview – the normally unsmiling interviewer is nodding his head, clearly impressed at your replies.

And then reality bites. Now you need to move intention into action.

You may be lucky. You may have access to an excellent yet reasonably-priced language school nearby, with a class at your level, scheduled at a convenient time each week. A good class with an expert teacher and motivated classmates is really hard to beat.

However, even the best class is limited in what it can deliver. Your chances of making real progress depend on your level of involvement in the process. You need to be in the driving seat for this journey.

Here are some ideas to increase your chances of success in language learning.
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