Language-learning Workouts


 Language-learning Workouts

Workshop with Janis Hanson

August 23, 2013 — Blended Learning Institute

University of Wisconsin – La Crosse

Handout: Language Learning Workouts August 2013 Program

Tour of toys
Participant introductions
A plan!  (or more playtime)
Final words from Janis
Loitering and/or one-on-one help

I hope you will add comments and suggestions on the blog.

Correction:  The ESL/TESOL site is at

Thank you for attending!

Language Exchange Websites

I have limited but very positive experience using Skype for language exchanges.   In the past two weeks, I have used The Mixxer to meet with three conversation partners, two from Spain and one from Mexico.  I will be back for more!  I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get on board.

For an overview of how to get the most out of language exchange websites like The Mixxer, see Judy’s excellent post on HubPages.  Be sure to scroll down to her list of hints and tips.

The page for Frequently Asked Questions on The Mixxer addresses technical questions clearly.  I’m guessing most language exchange websites have a similarly useful page.

I can recommend two sites that offer extensive lists of conversation topics:

One of my language exchange partners, Reggie Mora from Mexico, pointed out a couple gaps in the support available for language exchange participants.  The protocol for accepting and rejecting partners is unclear.  In his words, we need to look more closely at the “ética” — the ethics — of using language exchange websites.   He also pointed out the need for available lessons about social interactions, which would be especially useful for intermediate learners.   Food for thought, Reggie – thank you!

Crowdsourced Language Learning Programs

Duolingo and LiveMocha are two widely used crowdsourced language learning programs. They are works in progress, so learners can expect a few glitches along the way.  But the programs are essential for any serious do-it-yourself language-learning toolkit.  And the price can’t be beat.

      • Price:   Free
      • Languages:  English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
      • Focus:  Translation
      • Pros:
              • Variety of translations accepted.
              • Useful forums to discuss translations with other users.
              • User-friendly interface.
              • Good review of basic vocabulary and some grammar.
              • Surprisingly mesmerizing.
      • Caveat:
              • All learners, regardless of level, have to start with the novice-level lessons.

      • Price:  free (in exchange for your time assessing students’ work in your native language)
      • Languages:  35 total, including Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish
      • Focus:  Depending on the level – vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, speaking, and listening
      • Pros:
                • Learners can start at any level.
                • Wide variety of lessons and topics available.
                • Reliable microphone and audio components.
                • Quick response to speaking and writing samples due to large number of users.
                • Easy to use (once you get the hang of it).
      • Caveat:
                • To continue using the program, you need to correct other students’ oral and written work in your native language.

Vocabulary Self-collection Strategy

It’s easy to find recommendations online for the “Vocabulary Self-collection Strategy” (VSS). Teachers sing its praises as an approach to help children take an interest in strengthening their native-language vocabulary.  Developing a personal vocabulary self-collection strategy can support intermediate and advanced foreign language learners, too.

A systematic strategy for vocabulary development can also provide advanced learners with fruitful reading, writing, listening and speaking opportunities.

In section A, below, you will see my personal ten-step vocabulary self-collection strategy.  In section B, below, you will see a sample word processing document that I put together using the ten steps.

Please try out my strategy and let me know how it works for you.  I welcome your comments and suggestions.


Section A:  My 10-step Vocabulary Self-collection Strategy

Step 1:   Find a suitable online article in your target language.

Use the “five-finger test” if necessary to determine suitability.  A suitable article for an intermediate/advanced adult learner will have 2 – 5 new/challenging words out of ~250.

Step 2:  Upload the URL, PDF or doc file on .

Read the article on the Lingro site, and use Lingro to look up words from the document that you might like to learn.  Lingro will keep track of the words you select and the sentences in which the words are found.

Step 3:  Open a word processing program.

Use two screens, one for a new word processing (e.g., Word) document and the other with the Lingro site.

Step 3:  Select 5 – 10 worthy words, and copy/paste the sentences into your document.

Find the sentences you collected on Lingro (step 2), select 5 – 10 vocabulary words, and copy/paste the corresponding sentences into the word processing document.

Recommendation:  Also copy/paste the URL for the article or information about the file.

Step 4:   Make a three-column table for your vocabulary words.

Make a table with three columns and one row for each vocabulary word.   Put the 5 – 10 vocabulary words you chose in the left column.

Step 5:  Add target-language and native-language definitions in the second and third columns.

Open Word Reference in the second screen.   Look up each word.  Put an appropriate target-language definition in the second column and an appropriate native-language definition in the third column.

Step 6:  Make additional tables, one with only target-language definitions and one with only native-language definitions.

Using copy/paste, make two additional tables.  Use the table tools to delete the native-language definition column for one of the tables and the target-language definition column in the the other table.

Step 7:  Write a paragraph in which you use a form of each of the vocabulary words.

Recommendation:  Underline or highlight each of the vocabulary words.

Step 8:  Find a friendly native-speaker of the target language who will correct your sentences.

Recommendation:  Use a site like The Mixxer to find someone who will help you.

Step 9:  Review the words in your tables.

Suggestion:  You can cut each row and then fold the paper in the middle to make flashcards.  You can separate the words you’ve learned easily from those you haven’t.

Step 10:  Pat yourself on the back and start over with a new article.


Section B:  A Sample of my Work

(The URL for the article)

(Sentences with the words used in the article)

Muchos de los productos para niños emplean el concepto de interactivo porque se estableció que este sistema es capaz de aumentar la concentración y en consecuencia, lograr un mayor progreso en la lectura y escritura.

Los autores del estudio reconocen que este tipo de materiales pueden proveer cierta motivaciónn inicial para el aprendizaje, aunque rarament se mantiene constante.

Y es esta relación triádica (niños – adultos – tecnologías) la que va a definir el grado de dominio que el niño va a tener sobre los distintos instrumentos tecnológicos disponibles a su alcance” concluye Ribon.

La tecnología interfiere en las relaciones sociales El mayor desarreglo que se le  atribuye alas pantallas es intensificar el  aislamiento.

Y elegían agarrar los muñecos de esas series y jugar con ellos o vestirse con sus  ropas.

Dos científicas británicas investigaron durante 12 meses a distintas familias y confirmaron que hay siete creencias muy arraigadas.


(Definitions from Word Reference)

lograr conseguir achieve
proveer proporcionar supply
alcanzar coger reach
desarreglo desorden disorder
agarrar coger grab, catch
arraigada establecido, difícil de eliminar rooted, settled
lograr conseguir
proveer proporcionar
alcanzar coger
desarreglo desorden
agarrar coger
arraigada establecido, difícil de eliminar
lograr achieve
proveer supply
alcanzar reach
desarreglo disorder
agarrar grab, catch
arraigada rooted, settled

(My paragraph — still in need of native-speaker input)

Logro preparar un buen gazpacho todos los veranos.  Los agricultores de nuestra parte nos proveen jitomates ricos en agosto. Y los agarro alegremente cuando voy de compras en el mercado al aire libre que tenemos en verano.  Por eso, el éxito de preparar un buen gazpacho está a mi alcance.   Pero siempre cuando paso ni unos pocos minutos en la cocina, la dejo desarregladísima.   Pero no me preocupo por el desorden porque mi deseo de preparar un buen gazpacho me está bien arraigado.

(My paragraph — after help from a coach)

Yo logro preparar un buen gazpacho todos los veranos.  Los agricultores de nuestra parte nos proveen  ricos jitomates en agosto. Y los agarro alegremente cuando voy de compras en el mercado al aire libre que tenemos en verano.  Por eso, el éxito de preparar un buen gazpacho está a mi alcance.   Pero siempre cuando paso unos pocos minutos en la cocina, la dejo desarregladísima.   Pero no me preocupo por el desorden porque mi deseo de preparar un buen gazpacho me está bien arraigado

English Listening Practice Online

The BBC Learning English site has a strong focus on audio programming.  There are a lot of podcasts available on the site, and many are suitable for intermediate and advanced learners.   However, in an effort to make the English easily understood, most of the speakers sound wooden.  For starters, Six-minute English deals with current issues, but the readers’ speaking styles are consistently unnatural.  English at Work includes skits with unrealistic, amateur acting.   This is the venerable BBC, for heaven’s sake, and we know there are a lot of charming Brits out there who are ready to disarm us with their voices.  The podcast listener is multi-tasking — driving and listening, for example – and we want to hear voices of people we’d like to meet over a pint.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I am still a BBC fan on many fronts.  Two of the BBC Learning English programs without podcasts have more pizazz.  Words in the News highlights vocabulary from videos about deliciously unusual topics, and there is a follow-up vocabulary quiz for each video.    The Flatmates dialogs are tongue-in-cheek, which is what we want from the Brits (speaking on behalf of the Yanks).  There are a lot of British expressions on Flatmates that we don’t use in the U.S.; but the actors are fun to listen to, and the follow-up exercises and quizzes look helpful.

The Voice of America Learning English site offers video and audio podcasts and lessons for  English learners at two levels, intermediate low (level 1) and intermediate high (level 2).  The level-two lessons are organized by the following topics:  current events, world, America, entertainment, history, business and economics, and science and technology.  There is also a small section for level-two learners about business English, which included topics such as introductions and email.  The VOA site is beautiful, indeed, but I find myself with the same question: why don’t they hire people with more engaging voices?  I think the Scottish man and the Spanish woman on the Show Time Spanish podcasts have spoiled me.  They speak Spanish fairly slowly and deliberately for the benefit of non-native speakers, but they are so appealing that I wish I could join them for a few glasses of tinto de verano.

Fortunately, there are several American public radio podcasts that also feature interesting people.  And better yet, the transcripts are free.  These programs are a good fit for advanced learners, who, like all learners, benefit from repetition.  When a podcast comes with a transcript, we can alternate reading the transcript with listening; and with this repetition, we understand and remember more of the target language.  Alternating reading with listening also makes it possible for us to focus on longer segments. Let me recommend three of my favorites, all of which include 10 – 15 – minute segments:

NPR  Fresh Air

PRI This American Life (which goes well beyond American shores)

PRI Living on Earth  (check the archives for the scripts)

Last but not least, it would be difficult to imagine a post about listening to English online without mentioning TED talks.   When it comes to 15 – 20 – minute presentations, we have the whole package here:  a speaker, a video, a transcript, and power-points or pictures to emphasize key points.  I am hoping for TED talks in Spanish someday.  The time will come.

English Grammar Practice

For many years, the Rong Chang  ESL site and the Charles Darling Guide to Grammar and Writing (sponsored by the Capital Community College Foundation) have offered ESL students clear grammar explanations and supporting exercises. The Rong Chang site has two sets of grammar exercises, one for beginning ESL students and the other for advanced students.  The venerable Guide to Grammar and Writing includes 174 interactive quizzes and an index with over 400 references.

I can also recommend the British Council site, which has a long list of grammar topics with explanations and exercises.   The Learn English – Feel Good site has an impressive list, too, with the explanations and exercises identified as appropriate for beginning, intermediate and/or advanced learners.  As part of this list there is a special section for advanced learners that focuses on English writing skills.  Jennifer Frost’s English Grammar site caught my eye, and I’m planning to take a closer look at her work.

Websites that support native speakers of English who want to improve their skills can also serve advanced English learners.  Perhaps the most widely recommended resource of this type from the U.S.  is the Purdue Owl.  You might also be interested in the University of Ottawa Writing Centre’s  Hypergrammar link.  But wait – there’s more:  I just discovered that The University of Chicago Writing Center updates their page about grammar resources four times a year.  This is the place for grammar-lovers to check again and again.

Please comment with tips and recommendations for grammar sites.

The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast!

Many of us need a guru in order to stick with a do-it-yourself language-learning program.  I’ve found my guy: Josh Kaufman, author of The First 20 Hours:  How to Learn Anything… Fast!

I first read about Kaufman in a Boing Boing interview; then I found his Tedx Talk online.   While the best way to get a handle on Mr. Kaufman’s ideas is to see him for yourself, I can’t resist including four tips here, with reference to the quest to improve language skills.

Kaufman:  Deconstruct the skill.

Language learners might consider looking at the usual practice of deconstructing language learning into the usual four domains:  reading, writing, speaking, and listening.   When I looked at my own language study from this perspective, I couldn’t hide from the fact that I was coming up short on writing and speaking practice.  With this in mind, I’m working on a more well-rounded approach.  Some learners, however, may need to focus on one or two domains more than the others; and some learners may have a critical need to work on grammar or on vocabulary related to a specific area of interest.    Deciding what you need to work on is essential.

Kaufman:  Learn enough to self-correct.

Identify a few select resources that will help you with trouble spots, and choose tasks that don’t require too much or too little reference to these resources.  Language learners need good dictionaries and reliable grammar resources; but if we need to use these resources too much or too little, we are not at the optimum level of self-correction to boost our skills.  I have settled in on Word Reference, the Enrique Yepes grammar resources,, and the Kindle New Dictionary Hispano Spanish-English (Version 2013).  Of course, what meets my needs as an advanced learner might be different from what a learner at a different proficiency level might need.

I have grappled with the best ways to spend my time studying Spanish.  When I started doing online exercises, I chose materials that were so easy that I didn’t have much need for self-correction.  This meant I wasn’t getting the biggest bang for my buck in terms of time spent.  Similarly, I wasn’t getting the biggest bang for my buck when I was reading a book in Spanish that required me to look up several words in most paragraphs.   Self-correction is important; but with such challenging material, I hardly had time to self-correct most of my errant efforts to guess the meaning of vocabulary from the context.   With this in mind, I am using the 5-Finger test as a guide for choosing appropriate reading materials for my Spanish-language proficiency level.  Give it a try.

While it’s often helpful to be relaxed about making mistakes, it’s also short-sighted to ignore all mistakes without making systematic efforts to improve.

Kaufman:  Remove barriers to practice.

We all know about barriers to improving our language skills:  no native speakers to talk to, no time or cash for an immersion experience, no time to do even one more thing, and then: “Now that I have 15 minutes free, I need to veg out.”

Kaufman talks about the need for just “a little bit of will power.”   If we schedule 20 minutes five days a week for language study and we have a specific set of resources on hand, there is no reason we can’t just get started.   This blog is a collection of starting points for the advanced learner.  Start somewhere, anywhere – it’s better than nothing.

We can also identify new ways to integrate language study into our daily life.  Here’s my personal before-and-after list:

Before (without Spanish) After (with Spanish)
Morning Sudoku and crossword puzzle online sentence-jumble game in Spanish and Spanish-language trivia tests 
Listening to NPR while doing gardening & housework Listening to podcasts for advanced learners
Reading the local morning paper Using to read el País and el Clarín
Reading magazines to fall asleep Reading Selecciones by Reader’s Digest on my Kindle, using a point-and-click dictionary
Unexpected waiting at the hairdressers or at the doctor’s office Carrying a book in Spanish in my car at all times

Kaufman:  Practice for at least 20 hours.

Kaufman discusses the inevitable frustration barrier that people experience when they learn a new skill.  The same is true for those of us struggling to rise above a language-learning plateau. We hit a wall and feel stupid and want to stop.  But here’s where the importance of 20 hours comes in:  if we know that feeling stupid is a natural part of skill development, we can also see that we are bound to get past a choke point or two in the course of 20 hours.   Besides, if we commit to just 20 hours, we’re not looking at an interminable future of frustration.  After 20 hours, we are bound to have improved our skills, and we can decide then if we want to improve some more or just coast.

Kaufman concludes his Tedx talk saying, “The major barrier to skill acquisition isn’t intellectual, it’s emotional.”  True, indeed.


Spanish Grammar Practice

Enrique Yepes (Bowdoin College, Maine, USA) has compiled a terrific set of grammar resources for intermediate and advanced Spanish learners.

My favorite sections of his site are the Online Advanced Spanish Grammar Book and Links to Spanish Grammar Exercises Online, both organized by topic.

His list of resources for the grammar exercises reads like a “Who’s Who” of online Spanish support:

•Aitken: (basic level, sound and images)
• Arana: (mostly advanced)
• Aula Virtual Español: (levels 1-2)
• BBC: (all levels)
• Instituto Cervantes: (various formats)
• Kelm : (excellent for listening at all levels)
• Learn Spanish: (basic levels)
• LeLoup: (mostly intermediate)
• MERLOT (reference):
• Nelson: (mostly intermediate)
• Quia: (mostly beginning)
• Soto: (mostly advanced)
• Stroud: (mostly advanced)
• Szego: (all levels)
• TeachMe123: (all levels)
• Tutorial: (mostly beginning)
• Yepes: (mostly advanced)

[Note to Professor Yepes:  You’re my hero.  Thanks for your fine work.]

The secret to success: Self-discipline trumps Pimsleur

I understand that beginners can benefit from using an audio-based language-learning program.  However, after reading two reviews of the well advertised Pimsleur Approach, one such program, I continue to contend that effective language learning, as much for beginners as for advanced learners, is rooted in self-discipline.   Take a look at these reviews if you’re interested in criteria for choosing a program for beginners; but also consider the stronger message in each review, which is the importance of having self-discipline and a clear plan for improvement.

One of the reviews is posted on the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse TESOL website.  Kayla Ahonen, one of my fall 2012 undergraduate TESOL students, wrote about her mom’s experience learning Spanish using Pimsleur materials.   This review provides persuasive anecdotal evidence that the audio-based Pimsleur approach can work well for a beginner who wants to use commuting time for language learning.  Kayla suggests, however, that the most valuable assets for a language learner are “desire, partial immersion to encourage acquisition, and time alone.”

On his website Fluent in Three Months, Benny Lewis also wrote a review of the Pimsleur Approach, which he used for beginning lessons in Hungarian.  In addition to listing pros and cons of the approach, he provides specific suggestions for how to organize the language-learning experience.   The critical importance of homing in on a plan is, again, emphasized.


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