Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading on habits, as I am trying to create new habits to become a better educator, wife, friend, family member and woman. All of us have goals that can be achieved with some minor habit tweaks, and learning a language is no different. We simply cannot say that we will learn to speak Italian in a year but only commit to studying once a week for 20 minutes.

BJ Fogg is the creator of a course he calls Tiny Habits. According to BJ, a new habit can be started in only five days, but it truly has to start in a tiny way. We cannot expect to start studying 5 hours every day when we don’t study at all now. If you sign up for his free five day course, you will pick 3 tiny habits of your choice and do them for 5 days. What’s a tiny habit? Well, it could be doing 2 push ups after taking a shower. You could take out your vitamins when you make your coffee. You can even just floss one tooth!

He wants us all to start doing something that is only 30 seconds each, which is something all of us can fit into our busy schedules. Once we start that action, continuing the action isn’t normally a problem.

How can we apply this to language? We could say one new word each day while we drink our coffee. We could conjugate a verb before brushing our teeth. We could read a sentence in that language after we finish our lunch. You get the point.

Starting a language habit is really no different from starting another habit. The key is simply to start. Which new tiny language habit will you start this week?


Measure Your Progress

When people start learning a language, everyone says things like “I want to be fluent” and “I want to speak (insert language here.)” After some time, most of us are unable to see how far we’ve actually come and just how much we’ve improved our skills.

Instead of celebrating our accomplishments, we focus on our failures. Instead of being proud of the words we do know, we lament about all the words we don’t know. It’s very hard to remember how we sounded when we first began speaking our foreign language of choice.

If you’ve been working on your accent or vocabulary or general fluency, it is difficult to continue and easy to give up.

I challenge you to take a short video of yourself speaking or even just reading aloud. Or perhaps write a few diaries now and date them. Then, continue studying and practicing as usual.
Girl Writing
Six months or one year later, watch that video or read that diary. If you have been practicing and studying, then you should be pretty shocked to see how differently you spoke and/or wrote. I bet it will even motivate you to study more!

Take the challenge today and let me know how you did.






Photo Credit: Rui Fernandes

Foreign Language Frustrations

8025692978_ddec2400e8_z          Photo Credit: Jazbeck

It’s natural to feel frustrated when you are not learning or remembering as fast as you want. It’s easy to get down on yourself because you aren’t able to converse about certain topics with fluidity and ease. It is so easy to give up. Many people do. There’s a reason not everybody is multilingual. It’s hard.

I’m here to help.

When you were a baby, you had to practice sounds all day long to get it right. When you were a toddler, there were probably some words you couldn’t pronounce and sounds you couldn’t make. People probably giggled at you, but you kept trying. You repeated them again and again until you got it right.

You didn’t give up.

You couldn’t give up.

Now that you’re older and you’re learning a second (or third or fourth) language, you expect to hear or read a word once and commit it to memory. Nope! It doesn’t work that way. If it did, everybody would do it and it wouldn’t be special.

Learning a foreign language is very special.

It is the key to communicating with people outside our own cultures. It is the only way to understand the plight of foreigners in our own country. We have to be able to feel helpless so that we can really empathize with others. Have you ever thought about how difficult it must be to work in another country and communicate all day in a foreign tongue? When people come to the US for any reason, they are expected to speak in English. That’s hard. English is hard. A lot of it doesn’t make sense. When English speakers visit other countries, a lot of us expect those same people to communicate with us in our language. That should never be the case. Ever. You cannot stop learning.

Is learning a foreign language difficult? Yes.

Does it take a long time to become fluent? Absolutely!

Should we give up because we’re not good at it yet? Heck no!!

So then what can we do to stave off the foreign language learning blues? Well, there are lots of things we can do. For example, dial it down a little and focus on all the words you do know! Take a short break from your current study schedule and have fun with the language you’re learning. Learn to laugh at yourself. As adults, we can take ourselves much too seriously. Language mistakes can be funny. Embrace that!

Try some of the following activities and let me know if they ignite that learning passion again.

  • Listen to music in that language
  • Make a dish from that culture
  • Celebrate a holiday that’s not your own
  • Translate a song you love
  • Find a penpal or language partner
  • Read a comic strip
  • Read a magazine
  • Learn a dance from that culture
  • Read a children’s book*
  • Try a cultural craft from that country
  • Memorize a quote you love in that language
  • Play a fun, easy game like hangman or Scrabble
  • Join a meet up to find other language learners

As always, if you have any other tips, please comment below. We can all learn from each other!

*Disclaimer: just because a book is for children, doesn’t mean it will be easy to read. For example, Dr. Seuss uses many words that aren’t really words, so they won’t make sense in another language even if you use the dictionary. Just go with it and don’t stress if you don’t understand all the words. Kids read books they don’t understand all the time. Let’s take a lesson from them!






TED Talks for Language Learning

Sometimes I love to listen to music while I drive because it makes getting through traffic more fun. Other times, I consider my car to be a little learning center. I love to listen to podcasts and NPR, but other times I will pick a TED Talk and listen to that while I drive home. Up until recently, I had no idea that I could do this in Spanish as well. I did a little more research and found out that now you can listen to TED talks in 43 different languages!!!

Game. Changer.

This is fantastic because if you are at all familiar with TED Talks, you know they are a great way to learn about so many different topics in a short time.

For language learners, it is also quite useful to practice hearing different accents, vocabulary and speaking styles. What a great way to practice listening comprehension!

Here are just a few ways to use a TED Talk in your language class

  • Create a debate about the topic
  • Ask students to write critiques of the talk
  • Have students prepare their own “TED Talk” about a topic
  • Use the topic as a starting point for meaningful conversation in class
  • Dissect the talk grammatically
  • Have students make a list of vocabulary / grammar structures they hear

There are so many fun ways you could use these in your classroom. I encourage you to give this a try! Also, feel free share how you’ve used TED talks in class.

TED Talks in 43 Languages



The Best Games to Practice and Learn a Language

Learning a language should be fun!

It doesn’t matter which language you’re learning, and it honestly doesn’t matter what age you are. If you’re having fun, you’ll remember the lesson better. Adults enjoy playing games and laughing just as much as children do, but we sometimes forget that.

Whether you’re teaching a language, or learning one yourself, games are a really fun way to do “homework” without feeling like a drag.

For example, I Spy is a great game to promote conversation. It’s free, it’s easy, and you kind of trick the student into talking. You can play this anywhere, and in any language, whether you’re in the classroom or in the car.

I remember being in Spain and looking for towels. I couldn’t remember how to say the word “towel.” I was trying to describe them by saying the words I could remember. I told her “it’s something I use to dry myself off.” In essence, I was actually playing I Spy with the her!

Another quick, fun game that’s also FREE is Hangman. I love playing Hangman with my students in English and Spanish. It’s a great way to practice letters, vocabulary and spelling. It’s also great for two people or group lessons if you put students in teams.

Any of the following games work fabulously in an ELL class, as well as a foreign language class. Instead of describing the words in English, you simply describe them in the language you study. Bam! It’s a great way to do family/friend time while keeping those tongues sharp.

Apples to Apples Junior (green box) is a great game for young and adult learners. The words are perfectly conversational; however, it’s not too easy.





The adult version of Apples to Apples (red box) is also a lot of fun, but there are a lot of proper nouns in there like “Oprah” and “World War II,” which might be more difficult for younger speakers to explain even in their native language.




I love Scrabble for vocabulary practice. Plus, it’s super fun if you’re as competitive as I am!

It’s a great game for up to four people, but you have to be careful that you don’t spend the whole time silently thinking of words to use. We are practicing language after all!



Hedbanz is a fun game where you put a card on your head. You can either practice asking questions to find out the word on the card or you can have teammates describe it to you. It’s a fun, silly game to get you talking no matter how you play it. There are adult and kid versions, so you can choose based on difficulty level.



Taboo is another favorite of mine for private and group lessons. It’s even more difficult than the games listed above, as there are words that you cannot use to describe the word you’re looking for.

It’s a wonderful game for EFL classes and there are so many variations that you could use to get students talking. Even if you don’t use it for language practice, it’s just a really fun game to play.

There are so many ways to learn a language and you don’t have to feel like your only option is workbook exercises. The best way to learn is by using a variety of different methods, so why not use some really fun ones?

Are there other games you love that help you with your language skills or are there other games you love to use in the classroom? Let me know and I’ll add them to the list.

There’s (Language) Power In Numbers

There is an apparent strength that occurs when people work together to accomplish anything. It’s very hard for one person to carry a cooler down a pier, but get another set of hands, and suddenly it’s a manageable task.

Photo Credit Daniel E Lee

Things like owning a dog, losing weight and even cleaning the house become easier when we have just a little bit of help.

6824854509_d73a3af10a_zTom Brady is one of the most talented players that the Patriots and even the NFL have seen in a very long time. That being said, it would be pretty tough for even Brady to win a game without a single one of his teammates.

We all need help

Photo Credit Keith Allison

So why do we try to learn a language alone as adults and think we’ll be successful without even one other person?

Crazy, right?

So look around you at your circle of family, friends and even coworkers. Is there anybody that could speak with you or that can just hold you accountable?

If not, don’t fret. There are plenty of ways to find an online language exchange partner. Not only will you improve your language skills, but you might even make a new friend!

5807486716_417393ceed_oThese are just a few of the sites that can connect you with other like-minded polyglots:

Are there any other language exchange sites that you’ve used and liked? Please let me know and I’ll be happy to add them to the list!

Photo Credit Ryan Tir

Is Rosetta Stone Really Worth It?

People ask me all the time whether or not buying a language learning program like Rosetta Stone is worth the investment. Admittedly, it has a hefty price tag, but it is significantly cheaper than when it first became available.

Rosetta Stone was at one time under contract with the US Army, and is now collaborating with four year universities to offer online language learning programs for credit. The software definitely has some obvious benefits and is clearly effective.

Is it right for you?

Well, that really depends on the kind of person you are. Are you the kind of person who starts a project and sees it through, or are you a serial project starter who frequently moves on to the next project once you start to lose interest?

I’ve found that if you have the dedication it takes to go home after a long day of work, then open up your computer and be productive, then this type of program would be perfect for you.

On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who is always going to ‘start tomorrow,’ then, maybe it’s best if you sign up for a traditional classroom course.

If you are the kind of person who feels like Rosetta Stone is the right fit for you, then by all means, jump right in! I personally think the idea of studying a language at your leisure, while in your pajamas sounds like a pretty good time!

Of course, it’s still wildly beneficial to combine your e-learning with some conversation appointments with a private tutor or native speaker over coffee or tea. By using the language skills you learn on the computer, you’ll be able to put them to good use in conversation with that person.

Whichever method you choose, try your best to stick with it. Learning a language cannot be done overnight, and you are bound to lose interest at some point when the going gets a little tough. Believe me. It will be so worth it when you’re traveling the globe and can rattle off your dinner order for you and all your friends.

Rosetta Stone has so many different languages available, so whether you’re interested in studying English, Spanish, Italian, French, Chinese or Japanese, you’re bound to find a language that intrigues you.

Buena suerte!




Fun, Educational Gifts for the kiddos

We are officially in the midst of the chaotic Christmas season, which inadvertently leads to insane amounts of extra clutter and toys that will bore kids as soon as the wrapping paper is thrown away. This year, whichever holiday you celebrate, consider giving educational gifts that will not only be fun, but will keep them mentally stimulated.

Here is a list of some fun Spanish learning ideas for various ages.
52 Weeks of Family Spanish

Bite sized lessons to get you and your family learning throughout the year!

The Everything Kids’ Learning Spanish Book

In my opinion, this book is great for all ages, so give it a try

My First Bilingual Little Readers

Great for parents and teachers to start reading in Spanish

Everyday Words in Spanish: Flashcards

I love this set of flashcards! The pictures are great and the words are big and easy to read. Great for studying and bulletin boards!

Oso pardo, oso pardo, ¿qué ves ahí? (Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See) (Spanish Edition)

Kids love the story in English, so why not try it in Spanish?

La Oruga Muy Hambrienta (The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar) (Spanish Edition)

This book is fantastic in any language!

If you’re looking for more specific recommendations of educational gifts, please let me know. I’m happy to help with recommendations!


Interview with Jeffrey Benson, Author and Educator

Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to become acquainted with Jeffrey Benson. He is an experienced educator who just finished writing a book titled Hanging In–Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most. The book is due out in January, but I am so excited to give you a sneak peak into the book before it becomes available in January, 2014! You can order your copy prior to publication from ascd.org.

HangingIn cover

I should tell you that Jeffrey has a remarkable way of writing that makes this book an appropriate read for really just about anybody. Even if you don’t work with this demographic, chances are, you know somebody with these learning difficulties. People who can especially benefit from this book are: adult students earning their teaching degrees in special education and administrators in particular, social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, occupational therapists, school nurses, legislators who vote to fund programs, parents of students with special needs… basically everybody.

I reached out to Jeffrey to do this interview because many people have come to me asking for language learning help for students with learning difficulties. Here is what he had to say:

What types of learning difficulties do you normally work with?

I have worked with students whose primary disability–or at least what was the barrier for full inclusion–were social/emotional. That said, so often those disabilities were endlessly interplaying with dyslexia, dyscalcula, attention difficulties, executive functioning weaknesses, non-verbal learning disabilities, Aspergers, etc. etc.

Do you feel like students with learning difficulties benefit from learning two or more languages? If so, how?

If we are considering students with language based disabilities, I’ve seen no evidence that the struggle they have with their primary language is the result of any unique demands of that language; i.e. if you are not learning one language effectively, you will not learn a second language effectively. I am speaking here of students over the age of 10, when learning a second language is no longer done without concerted effort. It would be interesting to see any studies of students who grew up bi-lingual and the types of language based learning disabilities in that population. But by the time I’ve worked with students, it is past the age when one learns multiple languages through childhood immersion. We should offer them the option of learning a second language, and in consultation with parents, definitely give them an opt out. My students with non-language based learning disabilities benefited from any subject that they were drawn to master–sometimes it was a second language–but i always supported an opt out for them as well, given the level of intention one needs in order to be successful in acquiring a second language.

Many students feel frustrated that they haven’t had much/any success learning a foreign language. In your experience, are there certain techniques that work better for students with learning difficulties?

You would need to see where the individual’s breakdown was in learning their primary language–and what interventions were helpful there–and go into the second language study fully prepared to employ those interventions from the start. If you can’t understand the barriers they have in their primary language, it just seems cruel to ask them to learn a second language. I would allow any student to go for it, and use my relationship with him/her to guard against overwhelm, and to see what we can learn together about the difficulties in language learning for the student. Are there general guidelines? Sure: use visuals and objects and role plays to continually offer various “ladders into the pool”–don’t teach from one mode; repeat the very same lesson in the interest of comfort and fluency, so don’t be in a rush; be prepared to articulate very clearly every rule; don’t assume anything will be generalized until it is; be prepared to break a task into a smaller step; be prepared to listen to the student as he/she explains their sense making to hear where there is even a subtle mis-understanding; don’t get lost in the weeds–move on from a frustrating spot and circle back to it in another context rather than crucifying the kid on one rule; celebrate success

Many parents have also come to me sharing their frustration. They want to help their children as best they can, but they don’t know how. What are a few techniques that you can recommend for parents and teachers to aid their students more effectively?

Listen to the kid! So often they reach overload and no one is noticing in their own anxiety to push the kid on. Instead of pushing the kid into new territory, have fun playing with/reviewing what the student can already do–it can only help to build fluency and a sense of competence. Almost no student actually becomes bi-lingual in school, so don;t ruin what has to be for almost everyone a life-long effort to learn a second language. For all but a few inherently strong language learners, schools provide exposure, so be clear about whether you are trying to help the kid pass this very difficult course, or whether you are holding out hope that the kid is on the way to being bi-lingual. For most people, bi-lingual is not happening, and even less so for a student with a language based learning disability. Have fun with it so it stays fun. Follow the student’s lead.

Of course all learning difficulties are not alike, so treatment and techniques will differ for each person. What is your advice for parents with children who have learning difficulties?

1) Patiently be willing to do important things with them again and again and again and again. Having a disability is not a moral weakness (to paraphrase Ed Hollowell)–it’s hard to get things mastered without a lot of gentle repetition.

2) Prepare the student for the environment AND prepare the environment for the student. That means be prepared to teach them what they might not see or learn as most kids do, and take out of the environment unnecessary barriers to learning the most important stuff.

Jeffrey cover photo 5 - Version 2

Jeffrey Benson has worked in almost every school context in his 35 years of experience in education: as a teacher in elementary, middle, and high schools; as an instructor in undergraduate and graduate programs; and as an administrator in day and residential schools. He has studied and worked side by side with national leaders in the fields of special education, learning theory, trauma and addiction, school reform, adult development, and conflict resolution. He has been a consultant to public and private schools, mentored teachers and principals in varied school settings, and has written on many school-based issues. The core of Jeffrey Benson’s work is in understanding how people learn–the starting point for everything that schools should do.

Jeffrey and his colleagues also have a website called LeadersandLearners.org where they have posted a curriculum he co-wrote on promoting dialogues in school that you should check out.

You can contact Jeffrey directly at: JeffreyBenson@LeadersAndLearners.org

It’s Raining Chairs!

On a rainy day a while back, I was talking with Vicky on the phone and she screamed, “ahhhh, it’s raining chairs!” We both started laughing and she explained that it’s a popular expression in Greek, although it doesn’t quite translate the same way into English.

raining chairs large
Photo Credit: Jamie McCaffrey

On the other hand, I’m sure there are people in other countries that think “it’s raining cats and dogs” is equally outlandish!

I love how every language has its own set of colorful proverbs and idioms that make it so beautiful and unique.

So on this rainy day in Boston, I’ll be looking out my window and celebrating the raining chairs!

What are some of your favorite expressions in English or any other language? I’d love to hear from you!