My grandparents came from Russia, but they spoke Yiddish (a dialect of German). My grandfather made a point of learning enough English to run a small business and joke with his grandchildren. My grandmother, on the other hand, hardly spoke English and knew only a few phrases. It always annoyed me that our conversation consisted of “Be a good girl”.

My grandmother used to watch her shows, as she called them (soap operas- daytime TV dramas). I could never figure out why she wanted to, since she couldn’t understand English. One day, when I was about sixteen years old, I was sitting with my grandmother watching one of her shows. I got up to go the bathroom and when I came back, I casually asked my grandmother, “Did I miss anything?” Just hearing myself ask her that made me laugh.


And then the shock. In good English, with an East European accent, my grandmother started telling me about the show: “Well, this woman just left her husband, this one is pregnant with that man’s baby, etc., etc. When she realized that she had forgotten herself and that I heard her real English, she clammed up (became very silent) again and went back to using short phrases.  


I really don’t know why she did this, but she could obviously understand and speak English, but did so only secretly. There might have been two reasons for this. First, by pretending she didn’t speak English, she didn’t have to interact with people, even her own family. The second, perhaps the real reason, was that she probably thought her English wasn’t good enough to share.


My grandmother comes to mind when I have a first class with students who immediately say “My English isn’t too good.” I usually know the first thing I have to teach them: confidence. Here’s how to feel better about your language learning:



Imagery (symbol of an idea) for Language Learning


Just like anything else you want to do or learn, picture yourself as being successful at it. Imagine yourself listening to a TV show or movie in your target language and painlessly understanding every word. Think about about visiting your new language’s country and being able to have a significant conversation with a native speaker. The cliche about positive thinking does work, of course, if you work at it.



Don’t Apologize for Making Mistakes


You’ve probably heard this before, that mistakes are necessary, and an integral part of language learning, but it’s true. Almost every student I’ve taught apologizes for a mistake. And I ask the student not to. When you apologize for something, it means you’ve done something wrong. And that makes you feel bad.


Of course, you will make mistakes in learning a language, but you have nothing to apologize for; you didn’t do something wrong that requires an apology (like stepping on someone’s foot). When you make make a mistake and someone corrects you, your teacher, native speaker or a fellow student just say “Thanks”. Just try it, it feels a lot better than saying “sorry.”





You’ll be surprised about how much more you know than you think you do. When I’m trying to get a student to tell me the meaning of a word, I’ll often start the word and in a flash, the student guesses it correctly. For example, if I ask a student what the word ‘ill’ means, I will say the first two letters of the word; s-i.  If the student still doesn’t know, I’ll add a third letter; s-i-c. Often the student comes out with the word ‘sick’ and surprises him/herself. I’m really happy, but not surprised, it’s not magic; somewhere the student read or heard that word and the brain stored it and spat it out (from ‘spit it out’- overcome resistance to say something) when it was needed. So if you’re not sure, just guess!


Less is More


You will learn a lot more by memorizing fewer words each day or week. It’s better to learn one new word or phrase and use it, rather than forcing yourself to learn several new pieces of language and trying to store them up. What’s the point of memorizing all those words if you don’t use them in your speaking or writing?resistance to say something) when it was needed. So if you’re not sure, just guess!


One of my favorite things is when a student comes out with (says) a word or phrase the following week after learning it. If nothing else, this shows how fast the student learns. Again, it’s how many words you can use, not how many words you can memorize.



Stick to Simplicity


Much of the conversation in languages is informal. Even formal language situations don’t need high-level vocabulary unless you plan to use your target language for academic purposes or some other occasion that requires it. Instead, concentrate on the basics so you can comfortably converse with native speakers. That will certainly make you feel like you’ve made progress.


Don’t Get Stuck on Official Labels


While it’s true that official language levels, such as the European Language Levels (CEFR) are good for you, instructors, and employers to gauge (measure) how well you’re doing with your language progress, it can also scare you into thinking you’re not where you should be in your language learning.


“[The CEFR] ranks language ability on a scale from A1 (beginners) all the way through to C” (masters of a particular language). It’s simply a way to describe one’s ability in a particular language,” writes italki teacher Ms. Help in her article Understanding Language Levels. “It is an international standard, used both in and beyond Europe”.


The problem with this labeling system is that you will probably try to fit yourself into a language level. Remember, these are general levels based on thousands of students.  But in reality, you may be at B level for writing and C level for speaking. It’s very common for students to be at different levels at any given moment. Some students worry that they can understand the language, but have trouble speaking it. But this is normal! It’s just the natural order of things that first you understand and then you speak. It doesn’t mean that your language learning or skills are lacking.



Try Not to Compete With Others


This is the hardest thing to do. We often judge ourselves by someone who we believe is doing better than we are. While that may be true, remember this; there will always be someone better than you are, and there will always be someone worse than you are.


If at all possible, try to "compete" with yourself. This doesn’t mean getting angry with yourself if you don’t improve every day.  But it does mean giving yourself credit when you make progress in the language. This is the kind of thing that makes you proud of yourself and encourages you to continue learning.



When You Dream in your Target Language


Dreams have always been a mystery to almost everyone, including sleep experts. But one thing is widely recognized; when you dream in your target language, you’re taking a big leap in using that language. And you don’t have to be fluent. It’s been discovered that people often dream in their new language with words they didn’t think they knew before, according to “The link between dreaming and language learning”.


So when you dream in your new language, you’re getting closer than you think to reaching your dream of speaking and using your target language.  And that should feel pretty good.



Understanding Language Levels

“The link between dreaming and language learning”


Ilene Springer is a long-time italki tutor of English. She teaches intermediate, upper-intermediate and upper-level students, including advanced and proficient. She has been a writer for national magazines, such as ‘Cosmopolitan’ and is the author of The Diary of an American Expatriate. Please visit her website at


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