Don’t just practice–engage!

No bout succeeds without practice, but practice needs a bout!
No bout succeeds without practice, but practice needs a bout!

Learning languages is like boxing.  I have to work out and practice–like Rocky in the meat locker or running up the stairs of Philadelphia Museum of Art.  But I also have to remember that I have to get in the ring.  I’m doing my language exercises so that I can “go the distance” and successfully engage in conversation.  Lately I’ve been struggling with my language study because I lose sight of how all the learning-exercises fit together and how it all fits in my daily schedule.  With recent concrete experiences I’m discovering practical ways to balance learning exercises: to practice my language on my own, but always with the end that I will be talking to people.

I’ve made a cycle through my Farsi resources.  For a long time, I was reading articles and listening to podcasts.  I memorized lots of vocabulary.  I finally burned out on these exercises for two reasons.  One, I was too isolated.  I couldn’t sustain language-learning without my ultimate end before my eyes, that is, the end of talking to people.  Two, my schedule changed and I didn’t have the same kind of time to dedicate to these activities.  I was bored because I was stuck with the same vocabulary words and didn’t have time to look for more.

As a result, I recently turned to the internet and Skype.  I’ve found several generous Iranian students of English through italki who patiently help me with my Farsi.  Two problems have arisen from these conversations.  One, the time difference and my work schedule conspire to block frequent meetings.  Two, my vocabulary is not good enough to say precisely what I want to say and to understand others’ responses.  I’ve recently had a couple of Skype conversations that were frustrating because I was asking people to translate what they said and help me translate what I wanted to say.  The talk was not exactly “conversation.”  Previously I ran into the same problem with our neighbors.

I can classify my learning problems into two categories: time and skills.  I have to work, spend time with my family, and have a social life (even with non-Farsi speakers!).  So I need to figure out how much time I have to work on my language and when.  This re-analysis would be a good task for the new year.  I need to be honest about my time, what I’m spending it on, and how much can I spare on my language.  Also, managing my language time so that I don’t get stuck in an unproductive rut like where I found myself this fall.

For my skills, I have to work constantly with an eye on balance.  I need the vocabulary and I need conversation.  Like a boxer, I have to do push-ups and hit the bag; I also have to get in the ring to spar.  I can’t do one without the other.  Sparring–conversation–shows where my weaknesses are so that I can go and work on the areas that I’m weak in.  Learning vocabulary is the push-ups and punching-bag workouts, but with the goal of engaging with a partner.

One exercise that I’m working on, I’ve mentioned before.  I’m working on dialogues to repeat.  I’m writing ones in English so that language-learners can use them for multiple languages.  Then I’ll translate them into Farsi, and then into Somali.  On Skype these work well because I can have lots of different partners and so repeat the same dialogues over and over.  This reinforces vocabulary as I converse.  I can also use my “unproductive” Skype time to translate something concrete that I can use again later.

I will succeed if I use the little time that I have for languages well.  I will use my time well if I am balancing exercises on my own with conversations with other people.  The goal for both is to “go the distance” in Farsi–and then any other language.

Can you tell me about times when you ran into time problems?  How about problems balancing learning on your own and practicing with others?  I’d love to hear your stories.

25 thoughts on “Don’t just practice–engage!

  1. Pingback: What I learned about language-learning: 2012 « Loving Language

  2. Michael

    My ideas below may help you practice the language you learn even on your own more comprehensively and productively.

    1. Prepare your own list of everyday topics in order of priority and importance based on your needs for potential practical use.

    You can make a plan of issues (list main ideas or key concepts) to cover each topic comprehensively in terms of its content. As you know a daily life topic, for example “Shopping” includes various situations, concepts and issues related to the topic.

    Always try to think of potential situations and issues connected with a topic that may be important to you or you may encounter and how to best express your thoughts.

    2. Make your own list of materials (aids, resources) to practice a daily life topic and select the most relevant content at all levels for your needs.

    There are Internet resources, textbooks, phrase books, conversation books, audio/video recordings, TV, radio programs, online and face-to-face communication, and reading materials to practice daily life topics.

    You can also create your own materials on each topic to include the most important content at your own discretion for your potential use.

    3. Read helpful advice/suggestions on how to practice listening comprehension, speaking, vocabulary, reading, writing on a daily life topic.

    4. In my opinion it would be especially helpful to prepare a list of activities to practice and to master a daily life topic with vocabulary on it. Can you prepare a list of real life topics in order of importance for yourself with a detailed plan to master each topic (by developing your listening comprehension, speaking, reading, writing and vocabulary skills)?

    I believe it’s a good idea to learn and to practice each daily life topic comprehensively (thoroughly) before proceeding to the next topic as I described in my English learning article “Logical mastering of a daily life topic in English”. Thought-through (selective) content on each topic for practice based on one’s needs is necessary to first encompass relevant content for one’s needs as there is an enormous amount of diverse content in language resources.


    1. Focusing on a particular life activity is an interesting idea. I haven’t read your article yet, so I’m not sure why you need to “master” a daily life topic before moving to another. In real language usage, you’re thrown into a new situation before you may have a chance to master the language around it. I really like your idea of taking time to list the resources you may have available.

      Thanks for a thoughtful comment!


      1. Michael

        My ideas to practice real life topics comprehensively are suitable for learning and practicing any language. If followed through my suggestions learners would develop language skills thoroughly including vocabulary on each topic. A lot of language learners practice real life topics superficially and not comprehensively and not thoroughly, especially vocabulary. And then they wonder why they haven’t achieved high level skills in listening comprehension, speaking, vocabulary, reading and writing a foreign or a second language. Thematic logic matters a great deal in learning and practicing a language to master it sooner.


      2. Good point. I think a deep knowledge of one area can certainly help as you move to other topics, especially when it comes to grammar.

        At what point do you say someone has “mastered” a topic?


      3. Michael

        I mean mastering a daily life topic based on relevant content at one’s own discretion according to one’s purposes and needs for one’s potential practical use.


    2. Michael


      In my view it is expedient to master a daily life topic in English in the following order:

      1. Learners listen to and pronounce each sentence of English speech (thematic dialogues and narrative texts with transcripts).

      2. Speaking on each conversation topic (imitation of dialogues (role play) and narration of texts previously listened to, ready-made thematic questions and answers with helpful content for using in daily life, narrations/telling stories, talking points and discussions of issues).

      3. Learning of additional conversation sentences and vocabulary from English phrase books, conversation books, websites with thematic conversations and thematic vocabulary, and general thematic English dictionaries that provide useful usage sentences. Making up one’s own sentences with difficult vocabulary for potential use in daily life.

      4. Extensive reading of thematic texts and materials from various sources.
      Telling the content of thematic texts.

      5. Writing on real life topics.


  3. Michael

    You may find the following book by Reader’s Digest useful: Hints & Tips to Make Life Easier Practical Solutions for Everyday Problems. Search for the book on
    There may be other books with similar title published recently. I do not know which book may be the most up-to-date.
    By searching on for “tips to make life easier” you may find some important websites on this topic.

    Let me know what reading materials for daily living you deem very helpful for language learning and practice/use.


    1. Hmm, good question. The best I know is Barry Farber’s that I mentioned in another post.

      The self-improvement and time-management and goal-setting sites are good for getting going, but I don’t know much specific to language-learning.

      Many of the language-specific ones are by people who mainly work with languages in their job. Since I do languages in my spare time, I haven’t found many that try to work around work and family.


  4. Michael

    The book by Reader’s Digest Hints & Tips to Make Life Easier Practical Solutions for Everyday Problems covers a wide range of daily life topics with highly helpful tips and relevant content to make one’s life easier and better.
    It’s a general practical self-help (advice) book for daily living. Just browse the content of this book (read the description of this book on to have a better idea about it. Public libraries and book stores may have it.

    Publications (books) with tips (advice, suggestions, ideas) on how to learn and to practice a foreign/second language are a totally different kind of books. They focus on language learning issues only.


    Language Learner Strategies: 30 years of Research and Practice (Oxford Applied Linguistics).

    How to Learn English Quickly, book by Michael Mitchell, 390 pages, 2009.

    How to Learn English Quickly 2: Topics and Vocabulary, Michael Mitchell, 402 pages, 2012.

    Learning Foreign Languages: Tips for Foreign Language Students, Online Resources for Language Learners, Brandon Simpson, 116 pages, 2008.

    All about Learning English: Tips, Tricks and Techniques [Hardcover], 212 pages, 2012.

    Learning to Learn English Learner’s book: A Course in Learner Training, 118 pages.

    Learning to Learn English Audio CD: A Course in Learner Training [Audiobook] [Audio CD], 2011, Gail Ellis (Author), Barbara Sinclair (Author).

    The Independent Learner: A Practical Guide to Learning a Foreign Language at Home from Scratch to Functional, 196 pages, 2009.

    Language Logic: Practical and Effective Techniques to Learn Any Foreign Language, 416 pages, 2007.

    Language Learning: How to Learn Any Language [Kindle Edition].

    How to Learn Any Language, Barry Farber, 192 pages, 2006.

    How Languages Are Learned (Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers), 232 pages, 2006.

    I can also provide you with website links to highly helpful language learning tips selected by me as a result of my exploration. Can I post website links here?
    Let me know if there is some useful information for you in these resources.


  5. Michael

    Unfortunately your anti-spam device does not accept my list of websites with language learning tips (ideas). I’ve tried to post them unsuccessfully twice.


      1. Michael

        I’ve got interested in language learning tips (ideas) and in issues of how to become a better language learner. This is important for easier, more productive, quicker, more enjoyable and more successful language learning. I’ve searched on for information on these issues. I’ve selected the most important links in my opinion:

        Let me know how helpful my links are for your activities.


  6. Michael

    I’ve always supported learning and practicing set phrases in context. In my opinion vocabulary should be learned and practiced first through input (listening and reading), and then used through output (speaking and writing) on each real life topic. But vocabulary is a broad concept; it includes not only phrases, but also separate words, idioms, proverbs, sayings, etc.

    My idea below may be important to you to improve your language materials.
    As you know word combinations in speaking are unpredictable. There are different word collocations/phrases and synonyms to convey a thought in a language.

    It’s possible to encompass in ready-made materials a wide variety of phrases for each conversation topic. It is a good idea to prepare a potential list of phrases with sentences on each conversation topic, for example fixed conversational phrases that do not require English grammar knowledge (greetings, forms of addressing a person, thanks, well-wishing, apology, agreeing, disagreeing, emotions, etc.). Practicing with such materials can help a learner easier choose the most appropriate word combinations to convey a thought. Multiple frequent reading of such sentences will gradually ensure firm memorization of vocabulary and contribute to developing good speaking skills.

    By combining the most inclusive phrase books, conversation books, general English thematic dictionaries, software, audio and video aids and websites you can create the most practical and thorough content for mastering each conversation topic in English for all levels including a wide selection of ready-to-use phrases, vocabulary and sentences for daily use. Your own ready-made materials could be superior to (more helpful than) any conversation book or a phrase book in terms of useful comprehensive content and vocabulary.


      1. Michael

        I highly value comprehensive monolingual and bilingual thematic English learning dictionaries that arrange vocabulary by subject matter and topics, and provide word meaning explanations with usage examples in several sentences for each word or phrase meaning. I also know website links to thematically arranged vocabulary, including phrases and idioms.

        You can combine reading texts (from newspapers, magazines, books, online, etc) with reading thematic dictionaries to accelerate learning of vocabulary in addition to listening and speaking practice. Thematic approach (not random content) matters a great deal in learning and practicing a language to master it sooner.

        In my opinion a learner should be selective in choosing first the most frequently used vocabulary to learn from thematic dictionaries for his/her language needs and use. This also applies to content of materials for listening, reading and speaking practice. Have you selected materials with appropriate helpful thematic content for your needs for listening, speaking, reading and vocabulary practice? Some planning for short (if you are busy) daily classes on your own won’t hurt.


  7. Thematic dictionaries are a good idea, and I think they would be great in English.. But most languages don’t have them. In Farsi and Somali I had to make my own. I would read articles on topics I liked, and I would memorize the most common vocabulary. I also would take the 100 most common words in the language and just learn them.

    Planning for daily, short classes would be essential to real learning. However, I haven’t been doing enough of that these days.


    1. Michael

      There are quite a lot of ready-made conversational dialogs on a multitude of topics with authentic natural wording with useful content (vocabulary) for practice at all levels of difficulty from basic to advanced levels. It’s hard and time-consuming for learners on their own to create such dialogs with diverse content as this would require a lot of imagination about potential content of conversations in various situations and issues of discussions.
      Therefore it is a good idea for learners to select ready-made dialogs with the most practical helpful content at all levels of difficulty and with the best wording in terms of vocabulary. So learners can select at their own discretion a number of ready-made dialogs on each real life topic. On the basis of those ready-made dialogs learners can create their own dialogs taking into account their potential needs, preferences, circumstances and personal situation.

      After listening to and reading dialogs learners can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on each dialogue that require long answers to make easier for them to imitate (reproduce, act out/role play) each dialog to practice speaking in the target language.


      1. Michael

        When practicing speaking using ready-made dialogs on one’s own it is a good idea to record one’s speech on audio and to compare it with the original text or audio recording.


    2. Michael

      In my opinion a learner should always keep in mind the following 7 aspects when learning and practising English (and select the materials with the most helpful relevant content for your needs on each daily life topic):

      PHONETICS / PRONUNCIATION: How good is your English pronunciation? What materials do you have and use to practise your English pronunciation?
      Learning English from scratch ought to start with learning English pronunciation through explanations, demonstration of correct articulation/pronunciation and through exercises/practice. Learning English pronunciation should cover major rules of reading English letters, the articulation of vowels and consonants, stress in words, in phrases, rhythm and intonation in sentences, and doing practical phonetic exercises that include listening to and pronouncing of words, phrases and sentences.

      GRAMMAR: Do you have and regularly use self-study books or Internet materials with explanations, usage examples of English grammar, with grammar exercises in the form of dialogues, questions – answers and short texts containing sentences that most likely can be used in daily life, and with a key (answers to grammar exercises) for self-check to practise English grammar?

      VOCABULARY: Do you have and use English phrase books, conversation books, thematic English dictionaries and Internet materials with thematic English vocabulary the list of which I gave you in the past?

      LISTENING: Do you listen to English dialogues (conversations) and texts on each daily life topic important to you at all levels of difficulty? Do you retell them and compare your speech with the original texts?

      SPEAKING: Do you practise speaking English on daily life topics with native English speakers preferably teachers of English?
      It is a good idea for language learners to prepare questions and speech on a chosen topic in advance for easier and better communication with native speakers (with more inclusive meaningful content to get more productive results).
      It is useful for learners to prepare potential questions and answers with helpful content on all everyday topics, and to practise speaking. To show different ways of expressing a particular thought they can make up several potential questions and answers on one point in this speaking activity.

      READING: Have you selected texts at all levels of difficulty for reading on each topic with important content for your needs? Do you practise reading and retelling thematic texts?

      WRITING: Do you practise writing your thoughts on various topics and issues of real life? To make your writing better make up a plan of main ideas and issues, and also check a list of vocabulary on the topic from English phrase books, conversation books, thematic English dictionaries and websites with thematic vocabulary.


  8. Michael

    Thematic English reading materials can be combined with English phrase books, conversation books, thematic English dictionaries, English synonym dictionaries, websites with thematic vocabulary, and vocabulary practice books (with lexical exercises) for comprehensive, logical and intensive learning of English vocabulary. Some language learning materials including thematic dictionaries that are available in English only can be translated into the language(s) you learn to make bilingual materials.

    THEMATIC GENERAL ENGLISH DICTIONARIES (extremely important for logical and quicker vocabulary learning):

    1. Longman Language Activator (Unique idea production English dictionary, very valuable for solid vocabulary learning).
    There is also Longman Pocket Activator Dictionary. Longman English dictionaries are the most authoritative.
    2. Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English.
    3. The Oxford-Duden Pictorial English Dictionary (1995, 816 pages).
    4. Oxford Learner’s Wordfinder Dictionary.
    5. Word Menu (dictionary by Stephen Glazier, Random House, USA, over 75,000 words arranged by subject matter).
    6. Cambridge Word Selector/Routes.
    7. NTC’s Dictionary of Everyday American English Expressions (over 7,000 phrases arranged by topics).


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