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How I became trilingual during the pandemic.

My tips for learning several languages in a particular context.

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

I’m not the passive type. And if you are reading this, neither are you.

However, the various restrictions and confinements comforted us a little in a new and unusual daily life where passivity was waiting for us, patiently.

Although we all, more or less, fell into this chill trap in the extreme (naively thinking that this period would only last a few weeks), this way of life is not the purpose of the human being.

We desperately need challenges, challenges, projects, and goals to feel fulfilled.

It is with this in mind that I decided to make the most of what could have been a break.

But no, it wasn’t. We are stronger than that.

I have set myself three goals. First of all, I want to learn more about digital marketing by taking the challenge to set up my own company (modestly). This dynamic led me to the second objective, that of writing and especially on Medium. The third objective had been on my mind for a long time, to become trilingual.

It is on the latter that we will focus on today.

Build an action plan.

The challenge seemed high, but not out of reach.

Learning a language can seem abstract, intangible. This is why it is preferable to imagine several axes of learning so as not to go off in all directions and waste your time.

Especially since we have many tools at our disposal thanks to the richness of the Internet and applications. We’ll talk about that later.

1) Choose the language(s) you wish to learn.

It may seem obvious, but too much choice kills choice.

The second part will allow you to know if your choices are judicious, quite to readjust them (nothing was set in stone).

For my part, I chose English and Spanish (being native French).

My choice was above all strategic. English because it is the universal language, and to master it well is to multiply one’s chances of an international career but also one’s ability to speak with a maximum of people when traveling for example. I also like English very much.

I still feel that American culture is predominant because I find it easier to understand the American accent. I still find it difficult to understand the British accent and even less Australian. It can come with practice, as my roommates are English from England, I develop my hearing every day. It all depends on your goal, as understanding all accents may not be necessary (we’ll talk about these goals very soon).

Spanish because my ambition is to work in the United States and I know that the Hispanic culture is very strong and that mastering Spanish is often in demand. Furthermore, Spanish is a language spoken in many Latin American countries, outside of Spain then (no kidding).

Then this language has common roots with French, which makes it easier for me to learn it (not always…). I also chose this language because I personally really like the sound of the spoken language, especially with the famous rolled “r” (they come softly with practice).

I find this sounds similar to Italian, but strategically, Spanish is spoken in more countries. On the other hand, Italian is constantly being asked if you project yourself into the world of luxury.

2) Write down the purpose of this apprenticeship.

Writing the reason(s) for this apprenticeship is essential for me. Because it is in moments of discouragement that one will refer to it.

For me, learning English and Spanish was for both personal and professional purposes.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

On a personal level, it is the ability to be able to talk to more people. Although I am introverted by nature (less and less because I am interested in people, without appearing intrusive), knowing that I can be connected to more people through the mastery of an additional language comforts and reassures me. I see it as the ability to afford us to have more exciting exchanges and conversations with more people.

Professionally, I have been aspiring for some years now to a career with an international scope, where I could work in relation with various teams from different countries. It is this multicultural aspect that I like very much and which is part of my open-mindedness (I think!). I have always been interested in external cultures because I find them rich and exciting. Sometimes strange and hard to pin down, but that’s the beauty of our world, isn’t it? #poet

Anyway, I find it deeply enjoyable (with some pride in the background though) to be able to understand someone in a foreign language and respond to them.

Because learning a language is certainly about being able to express yourself, but it is also about being able to listen others.

For although we are selfish beings, having a one-sided dialogue can quickly become boring (and pointless).

So, write down the underlying objectives of this language learning, they can be personal, professional, romantic, family, friendly… and keep them available. Because you will surely refer to them during your learning process!

3) Set deadlines

Set up several of them, in the short term and the long term.

This will allow you to measure your progress, to see your evolution tangibly, and not to get discouraged.

Because learning a language is a lot of work, regularity, and perseverance. It can be a long process. But it is worth it.

To set your deadlines, you can use a paper or digital calendar or organizational applications like Trello (my fav’), notepads (I use Evernote because I like the ergonomics and they have an extension for Chrome I found quite useful), or a to-do list on the very first page of your learning notebook (because it will be essential for you, it was essential for me).

The point is to divide your goals into two parts.

There are those on the short term which are spread over the week, or by day if you are very rigorous in your organization. Having tested both aspects, I prefer to set weekly objectives to allow me some flexibility in the organization. Often, I take advantage of my motivation at the beginning of the week to do more than half of these weekly objectives, which leaves me more time to finish them at the end of the week where I often feel more like chilling out.

Research available learning tools.

There are tools in all forms: digital, paper, audio, video, through people…

The whole thing is to have a global vision of what exists to be able to choose the solution that suits us best because everyone is different.

1) Mobile applications & useful websites

I’m not counting my school learning here. Because I consider that the level that I have acquired today in English and Spanish does not depend on my past learning at school. Unfortunately. I don’t really agree with the way we are taught languages in France in reality. I have had this impression of starting from scratch every year. Let’s talk about other ways of learning that I have found to be more effective based on my personal experience.

I first started with the application Duolingo. I really liked its playful aspect and its design. You want to go back to it regularly to achieve the beautiful golden coats of arms in all areas. The UX is really well thought out I must say! But once I had acquired a basic vocabulary, I was stagnating. I needed an application more focused on grammar and oral expression.

So I switched to Babbel. The classes are longer, between 20 and 30 minutes, I would say. But more structured and more in-depth. We see grammar rules, we work on listening and speaking. I took a step by paying for the application a few months to make the necessary progress before leaving to live in Spain.

Spoiler alert: I decided to move to Madrid at this moment.

After 3 weeks in Madrid, then once again I stagnated. In other words, I could see that I was unable to hold a conversation in Spanish and that it took me a lot of time and effort to construct a sentence (They may be patient with foreigners, Spaniards, but they also have a life). On the advice of my new friends, I turned to the application Preply. I was able to find face-to-face classes (Visio) with teachers all over the world starting at 3€. I finally chose 5€ because I found 3€ completely underpaid for a one-hour private lesson. I started with 2 hours per week, and I quickly saw that I would need more if I wanted to improve my level quickly (because there is nothing more frustrating than not understanding the locals). So I took 5 to 6 hours a week on Preply, which is a bit expensive but to save time and have a good level, you have to go through it I think. (Hence the 5€ per class which makes sense with a weekly rhythm like that). I improved my level enormously, it was a big step for me, although it was scary at the beginning.

Other websites crossed my learning path.

Word Reference, which is a site that provides precise definitions of vocabulary and expressions. All the more so since it embellishes them with concrete examples.

I also use Linguee, especially for expressions or “ways of saying” that are sometimes different from our native language, mainly in English.

To immerse myself in American and British culture, and especially in their colloquial language, the famous slang, I follow accounts in English and Spanish on Instagram where there are only publications with text. Comments can be a source of learning (and entertainment, needless to say) about generational colloquialisms and abbreviations. It also allows you to immerse yourself in these languages daily and to retain the written word in a foreign language. I also use the Urban dictionary site for the slang that escapes me (English only here).

The Deepl translator accompanies my daily life, especially for my Medium articles that I translate from French directly into Deepl to keep my writing style, but that I review sentence by sentence afterward so as not to lose the initial meaning of my sentences. Because constantly relying on a translator stops learning, obviously.

The Grammarly tool, especially the Chrome extension, helps me a lot when writing my articles or emails. The extension highlights my mistakes and offers me a correction. This allows me to note my error and to understand it. If I don’t understand it, I make the step of searching on the Internet in order not to do it again in the future (this research process is part of the learning process, laziness should not prevail, never). Grammarly also makes it possible to correct errors of inattention and God knows that they are frequent…

And of course, I used a lot of streaming platforms (Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Youtube for my part) to learn English and Spanish. I started by putting movies and series that I knew by heart in the original version with subtitles in my native language to coincide with the written word. Then slowly, I opted for the subtitles in the language of the film. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s difficult at first, even for a while. But it was this effort that allowed me to understand the pronunciation of the words, the accents, and intonations. It also allowed me to identify common expressions that I could use again.

2) Go and live in a country nearby.

In other words, where travel restrictions are a little lighter.

Photo by Caroline Selfors on Unsplash

After acquiring some basic Spanish skills, I decided to go and live there directly. My career being somewhat on hiatus, my job search leading nothing conclusive, I decided to take the lead #proactivity.

It is at this precise moment that I can thank Espace Schengen for having freed me from the visa procedures, procedures completely frozen for more than a year because of this damn virus.

It is in August 2020 that I decide to go to Madrid, the city most affected by the Covid at the time #laughs.

In spite of the anxiety of some and the incomprehension of others, I still made this short trip of barely 3 hours from Lyon.

And it was without regret.

Because immersion is still the best solution to practice daily with natives who will be credible to correct you.

Although this immersion is somewhat complicated as a global pandemic, it is still possible. For my part, I was constantly connected to the current situation of the borders, safety, and hygiene measures between France and Spain.

I didn’t take the time to procrastinate, I made up my mind very quickly and I booked my flight five days later because I knew that the situation could change at every moment without delay.

Working in digital marketing, I knew that I could get by working remotely or looking for a job directly in Madrid, the procedures for working in Europe being less.

Well, now… The job search process is still ongoing despite many interviews, there is no denying that the health crisis has hit our economy and our labor market hard. Difficult to project oneself. But that’s another debate…

3) Erasmus and expatriate exchanges

Another opportunity to make IRL encounters thanks to digital: the Meetup application. It allows us to meet people who are in line with our hobbies and passions. Those are the starting point for research. And, it results in many free and paid events, which are organized punctually or regularly. This app allowed me to find events such as “international exchanges” to practice both of my languages with locals, expatriates, and Erasmus students.

Facebook groups are also very useful for joining groups of strangers. You keep in touch via WhatsApp (via a group with often hundreds of people!) where relationships are intuitively created according to affinities.

The trick is to get started.

I won’t hide the fact that I had a lot of apprehension in the beginning, whether it was about my ability to express myself or to socialize. It’s always impressive to launch yourself into this extreme socialization experience in another language, but you’ll see, you’ll be so proud when you come out!

Just for taking up the challenge. Then you’ll do it again because getting out of the comfort zone is essential to progress in learning a new language.

4) E-Learning Platforms

You’ve probably already heard of MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). They are platforms that enable online learning. The courses are often at a reduced price because they are already filmed and downloaded on the platform. As for the teachers, they can be experts in their field, academic professors, or passionate amateurs (like you and me #blink).

For my part, I used Udemy quite a lot via courses that lasted less than 2 hours (regarding my language learning only, because you have courses in all areas). I filter my search according to the reviews, more than the marks because some participants put very low marks without even having participated in the course. This undermines the credibility of the work provided without any justification (yes, I myself produce courses on Udemy as a teacher… Why? Does it feel like a real-life experience?).

Coursera is one of Udemy’s biggest competitors, I propose it to you in order not to offer you only one platform, but I have never used it for my personal learning.

5) Creative and manual methods

To re-energize my language learning, I have also integrated more manual and creative methods so as not to lose motivation in the long run. Being a very visual person, I will propose methods that are easy to memorize using the sense of sight. But if you are rather auditory, I recommend you to choose youtube channels or podcasts. Expresso English has helped me a lot to improve my grammar thanks to short episodes of less than ten minutes.

I used the tree arborescence method to master a maximum of vocabulary on a theme that I chose. The principle of the game (because the principle is to give it a playful side) is to write down all the words that go through your head on a subject. Nouns, verbs, adjectives… Anything. You then write the translation underneath so that it is visually easy to remember. I also applied this method by putting only adverbs or verbs on a specific topic. It’s up to you to choose what you think is useful to learn!

You can also choose a theme and find a vocabulary through drawing (writing remains essential…). Simply to further illustrate each word, each idea to always keep your brain and your memory alert.

The notebooks accompany me a lot during my apprenticeship (I have too many of them…). I like to use a very small format for vocabulary. A larger one for sentences that you hear regularly, and whose grammar is less intuitive. Another specific notebook for my one-to-one lessons with my teachers on Preply where I highlight my recurring mistakes. And sometimes even another one for expressions or colloquial language #slang. The interest is to take formats that can accompany you in your travels to be able to check them from time to time. Learning must be regular, let’s not forget it.

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Test & Learn.

It’s my digital-savvy mindset talking #growthhacking.

It’s all about constantly trying new methods and keeping those that are in line with the way we function and learn. Sometimes the mind needs something new. So we must not skimp on this desire at the risk of giving way to demotivation that could be too strong to catch up with it.

We really have to assume that “trying” is part of the learning process. That the stage of mediocrity will indeed be present at the beginning but that it will not last (I promise you!) if rigor, patience, and regularity take part in your learning.

Don’t give up if progress is slow to come.

I’m not going to lie to you on this point, although I love learning languages, progress is still slow. It takes a lot of effort for the brain to build sentences with different grammar and pronunciation than our native language, of course.

Learning by rote is important but the practice is essential. Some people will only learn by mimicry and constant practice rather than focusing on grammar rules in a book. For my part, I like to combine the two. Because practicing without understanding sentence construction can be just as tedious as learning grammar.

And the learning and progress time remains more or less the same, for having tested it with friends! He learned by mimicry, I learned by the methods I mentioned above. After six months, we realized that we had about the same level. The difference was in his confidence to express himself better than mine, but that my sentences had fewer errors than his. Choose your side!

Never stop learning.

In reality, we never master a language perfectly if one is not a native speaker. It takes time, work, and immersion but also practice. Because you know the frustration of losing your level when you are no longer in the same environment where you used to practice daily.

Therefore, sometimes we must drop our perfectionist mask. Not easy, we who want to avoid the stage of mediocrity and be good at everything! I will talk about it in this article.

Is the perfect mastery of each of our apprenticeships the ultimate goal?

In language learning, the important thing is to understand people around you and to express yourself correctly in return. Although the accent, grammar, and vocabulary can always be improved, learning should be fun. And people are not as strict and uncompromising as one might think.

In reality, they are patient (if they are interested in you, other aspects beyond my control come into play, my friends).

Dreams and hope are part of human nature, it’s what keeps us awake.

So, why not always push the boundaries of learning and challenge ourselves with new challenges?

For my part, once I have the Spanish language that requires less effort, I think I will challenge myself. That of learning a language whose alphabet is completely different from ours.

Once again, there is the strategic aspect (always, because I think it’s good to do things for fun, but if you can associate it with your career so that this activity is profitable and gives you security, I’m not saying no).

I thought about Chinese because it is increasingly spoken on all sides of the world. In particular, Mandarin is increasingly visible on job offers.

The challenge could be big because learning is at the level of the spoken language, which is still quite different from the languages I have mastered so far, but also at the level of the written language, where you have to deal with signs and not with a classic alphabet. But this is precisely what I find curious and challenging.

I have also thought about Arabic, which is also spoken a lot and has a different spoken and calligraphy.

Whether it is one or the other, there is a plurality of dialects for each of them. The interest is not to be able to connect with all the languages of the earth but to learn, progress, and open up to the world.




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French Digital Marketing Manager living in Madrid & English Writer about emotions, leadership & marketing. My world’s point of view with a pinch of sarcasm.

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