It is time to make your language learning colourful

To learn well you need to repeat stuff.  To repeat stuff without sending yourself into a coma or boring yourself and giving up entirely, you need to add variety and “colour”.  You need to choose the right “colours” for you, if language learning is going to be fun. 

What you need will be different from what other people need, but this is my colour spectrum.  You just need to adapt it to suit yourself.  I am an incurable scribbler, so writing forms the backbone of my system.  You may be a speaker, a listener or a mover by nature.   Most people like to use various combinations.

I will use Dutch as an example but each language has its own special features, just as people do.

Red, the bold, active colour

Red serves as a reminder to take another step towards being bold in the use of your new language.  This may be as simple as greeting someone in Dutch and asking how they are.  It may mean deciding on a task, mugging up a couple of phrases and then launching yourself into the conversation without further worrying.

Orange, the colour of friendship and communication

I plan to invent for myself a family of Dutch people to speak to.  I will try to find a motherly, encouraging type, a fun-loving younger brother type, an awe-inspiring older-sister type and an authoritative or advice-giving type.  Eventually it would be good to have about eight people to interact with.  They need not live near me because I can phone them.  In the early days a voice recorder can help me practise until I am ready to go live because phoning is harder than speaking face to face.

Yellow, the colour of enlightenment  (Yellow, the colour of enlightenment)

Enlightenment comes in sudden flashes but mostly in a steady glow.  The things that will keep my generator powered on a daily basis seem to be about the most boring thing you can imagine, much frowned upon by modern linguists.  These humble methods are copying and dictation.  They are out of fashion because they have been allowed to go stale through lack of innovation but here are their benefits, which really do “kick ass”.


I start a new language with about a week of dictation, several short sessions using a CD.  I don’t try to spell the words right, just write down my own way of remembering as precisely as possible what I hear.  It doesn’t matter to me whether the Dutch word for house is spelt house or haus or another way.  If I hear heu-use then that is what I will write.  This sharpens up my listening.  Later I will see how phrases are written and it usually comes as quite a surprise.


Then for several weeks I will copy one page (or at least a paragraph) of the text book into an A4 notebook.  This makes me really look at every word and I often find that I have made a mistake when copying.  Mistakes are good.  The brain loves to linger on something and get it right, rather than dashing forwards regardless. 

If you copy things out you know that you have really looked at every word presented.  This gives a sense of security.  I don’t worry about remembering everything because words re-appear in different contexts and they gradually stick.

Each day I look for the phrase in that page or paragraph which will be of the most useful to me and I will highlight it, underline it, and/or repeat it in the right margin.  At the end of the week these are the phrases to look at when building a mini conversation with a virtual orange family of contacts.

Green is the colour of plants.  For me it stands for nature and fresh air in general.

Walking with a small vocabulary notebook is a brilliant way of boosting your new language skills.  If you have a dog this is even better because dogs encourage you to go out regularly.  Even people without a dog can walk round the block or down by the river or through the woods.  Last summer I had to cycle six miles to work and six back.  Then I attached a few words in big print to my handlebars and glanced at them occasionally when the path was clear. 

Blue is the calm, sensible colour which I associate with organisation and planning.

An A5 diary is the backbone of my system.  It gives a page for each day and I use Monday to Friday, leaving the weekends for more creative things.  On the left I note the title of what I have been copying in the A4 notebook.  This will be in Dutch but in the first week it might be “introducing yourself” “introducing a stranger to your friend” “How are you (informal)?” “How are you (friends)?”.  Writing it down makes you realise the subtle differences in what you are learning today from what you learned yesterday.  It shows you where you missed a day.  After a while it shows you all the progress you have made.  Appreciating progress is totally, utterly and absolutely vital.  Nothing motivates like progress.  Success breeds success.

On the right there are three sections.  They show an envelope, a telephone and a flower.  In the first I would write reminders in general, near the telephone I would put suggestions for future conversations and the flower section is the place for interesting things to follow up  (see indigo).

Indigo is for creativity

At the weekends I would leave aside the copying routine and branch out into finding ways of practising the useful phrases I’d been collecting.

Another idea would be to explore the internet for short videos in your target language.  Googling things like “Free Dutch Podcasts” can lead you to all sorts of unexpected goldmines.  One site I found recently was 2bdutch which gives lots of help.

Then I want to start a sort of Dutch photo album where I can include pictures with captions in Dutch.  There could pages for whatever interests you.  In my case there would be a page for nature in general in the early stages.  As my range of vocabulary increased there could be separate pages for plants and animals and weather.  For learning Dutch there would need to be a page for cycling.  You could include the lyrics for a couple of your favourite songs.  There would definitely be a page for a photo or two showing the best moments of your life.   A plastic folder for slotting pages in and out is ideal for this because it can evolve over time.

Violet is for spirituality, or your core values, or what makes you tick.

It is important when learning a language to know the words for these.  Actually it is more useful that knowing long lists of fruit, vegetables or other nouns.  What is it that you are aiming at this year?  Include some of those verbs.

Good luck, and please tell me how you are getting on.  Just click on the comments box below.


About Fun with languages

Blogging about learning languages, making it fun Hobbies: paragliding, cycling, reading, BBC radio 4.
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