The Secret to Learning a Second Language (by Matthew Ray)

Since the launch of Ziggurat Language Services SL, back in 2003, I have been offering our new students, whenever possible, the First Class.

The First Class is a session that is done before the language training begins in a company; the presentation has the objective of making students aware of the “secrets” to learning a foreign language. Those secrets are a mix of “reality checks” about what one really needs to do to learn and maintain their second (or third) language, as well as some common-sense strategies to guarantee successful learning.images

Before you can successfully learn a language, you need to accept the following truths/realities.

  1. No one can teach you a foreign language, you have to learn it.
  2. You are the only one who can guarantee your success.
  3. It is very important to maintain what you have learned in your second-language, which will require daily contact with the language, for the rest of your life!

These three reality checks bring us to a clear conclusion: unless you develop the habit of including daily contact with the language you are learning, you will not progress very much or, worse yet, you will lose any progress that you have made.

There are three factors that most affect whether or not you learn your second language:

1. The Psychological Factor
2. The Contact-Time Factor
3. The Listening Factor

1- The Psychological Factor: you become what you think about all day long
I have met thousands of people over the years that think they have some sort of inherent problem that inhibits them from learning another language (a genetic defect?). They say things like “I’ll never learn English”, “I’m a disaster with languages” or “I’m going to die without knowing English“. Thinking these thoughts is very dangerous, since you will eventually believe them and they will negatively affect your ability to learn.

Your mind is the “muscle” that you use to learn a language, and you can greatly increase the rate of learning by speaking positively (and honestly) to yourself. So rather than thinking that you will die before learning English (or Russian, or French, or German…), tell yourself that you can learn the language, that you will overcome obstacles and that you are determined to be successful. And remember this… all of my students have been much better than they thought they were. Think about that before you start criticizing yourself.

2- The Contact-Time Factor: 120 hours of class is the equivalent of a weekend of practice
How can someone living in Paris, for example, expect to learn English if the only contact time they have with English are the 90 minutes of class they have each week? If you want to learn, you must increase your contact time with the target language.

Imagine doing a 120-hour language course perfectly, without missing a single day. In reality, that’s only the equivalent of about one week of contact (as the following calculations show):

1 day = 24 hours – Sleep (8 hours) = 16 hours per day awake (24 – 8 = 16)
Total -> 120 hours ÷ 16 hours = 7.5 days

To increase contact time, you need to incorporate the target language into your daily routine. If you dedicate 5 to 15 minutes per day, that’s around 6 more days of annual contact time; but more importantly, by maintaining constant contact with the language, you are avoiding losing progress, which will further motivate you to keep learning.

The path to learning a language is not a sprint, but rather a marathon; you need to maintain a steady pace for a long time.

3- The Listening Factor: if you improve your listening skills, the other skills will quickly follow. If your listening (comprehension) skills are limited, then…

  • You will be more nervous and tense when interacting with other speakers, which makes communication (and learning) even more difficult.
  • You won’t be able to learn new vocabulary because you can’t hear new words when you communicate with other speakers.
  • Your pronunciation will be limited too, since the first step to correct pronunciation is hearing the correct pronunciation. If you can’t hear the difference between shit [ʃɪt] and sheet [ʃi:t], for example, then how do you expect to pronounce them correctly.

Students often avoid listening practice because they get frustrated when they only understand a fraction of what they are listening to. However, to get to the point where you can understand 80% of what you listen to in your target language, you must first pass through the stage of understanding 10%, 20%, 30%, etc. The more you listen, the sooner you will reap the benefits of understanding more of your second language. If you improve your listening skills, I promise that the other skills will quickly follow.

Check out our ‘Learning Tips’ section on the blog.

Remember… There is no Shortcut
I once had a coach who often said “no pain no gain”. Learning requires effort; it doesn’t have to be painful, but it does require determination, dedication and consistency. Don’t kid yourself anymore; take responsibility for your language learning. In the end, whether you learn or not is up to you, and it has nothing to do with a genetic defect. 🙂


Ziggurat colabora con TEDx Sant Cugat


Matthew Ray, director de Ziggurat Language Services, vuelve a participar en TEDx Sant Cugat por segundo año. TEDx Sant Cugat tendrá lugar el próximo 28 de mayo en El Siglo y ya están disponibles las entradas.

Este año, ‘Second Chance’ es el título del evento, donde participarán como ponentes Albert Bosch, Laura Rosillo, Eduardo Torras, Dory Sontheimer, Joaquim Garrabou, Gema Campo, Raül Romeva, Eva Pellicer y Quim Moya. En el siguiente enlace podréis leer más sobre ellos: Speakers 2015.

Matthew instruirá y ayudará a los ponentes a preparar sus charlas para que cumplan con los estándares que TED marca. Además, les servirá como guía para orientarles a la hora de crear una presentación que consiga transmitir el mensaje que cada ponente tiene marcado.

Making New Year’s Resolutions for 2013

So, here we are again… at the beginning of another New Year; it’s the perfect time to think about your New Year’s resolutions. A resolution is a firm decision to do or not to do something and it is quite common to begin a new year by making resolutions to change things in your life that will make you happier.

According to a recent study carried out by the University of Scranton in the state of Pennsylvania (USA), the top ten New Year’s Resolutions in the US last January 2012 were the following:

1) Lose weight
2) Get organized
3) Spend less, save more
4) Enjoy life to the fullest
5) Stay fit and healthy
6) Learn something exciting
7) Quit smoking
8) Help other in their dreams
9) Fall in love
10) Spend more time with family

Interestingly, 47% of the 2012 New Year’s resolutions in the US were self-improvement or education-related resolutions. That is… improving your life by learning something new represented almost half of the resolutions; an example would be learning a foreign language.

It’s true that a lot of people make resolutions and don’t carry them out for more than a few weeks or months. But one of the most exciting findings of this study was that “people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make resolutions.” Ten times more likely! So there is no question…making resolutions is better than not making resolutions.

I can guarantee that knowing English will create very interesting opportunities in your life, so why not commit to improving your English in 2013? If you haven’t already made a resolution about your commitment to English in 2013, now is the perfect time to do it.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when making your resolutions.

  • Make reasonable resolutions that are easy to carry out. The goal is to be able to follow through with your resolutions, so don’t overdo it. For example, instead of promising to study English every day for an hour, just promise to do something with English for an average of 3 to 10 min per day (watch television, write, listen to music, read the Ziggurat Daily Vitamin, etc.)
  • Ask someone close to you for support. I have found that telling people in your life about an important resolution and asking them for support can be very helpful. For example, my wife knows that this year one of my resolutions is to return to the gym and go regularly, like I did during the first half of 2012. If she sees that I’m not following through, I expect her to remind me of my promise to myself.
  • Create a resolution with someone close to you. This is a variation of the previous tip; but instead of having someone support you, they actually make the same resolution and you carry out the resolution together. For example, I could find a friend to go to the gym with me, which would make it more interesting and would add a little peer pressure. Do you have someone in your life who is trying to improve their English too? Why not set up a “team resolution,” as I like to call it, with them.  You and one or more people work together in 2013 to fulfil your resolution of improving your English.
  • Write down your resolutions and leave them in a visible place. This is very important. I recommend writing down your commitments to English in 2013 and putting them in a visible place. We all need to be reminded of our objectives, or they can get lost in the busy day-to-day obligations of life. If you see your list of resolutions daily (on the bathroom mirror, on your nightstand…) it will be more difficult to “forget” or abandon them.

As I always say, no one can teach you English, you have to learn it; and you are the only who can guarantee your success. Learning English, therefore, is a personal, internal process that you control. Only you can decide if you are going to learn English or not. And if you don’t learn, it’s not the teacher’s nor the government’s nor the education system’s fault; it’s your fault.

If you’ve been trying to learn English for the last several years but haven’t been able to reach your objectives, why not make this year different? Making an English resolution will make you ten times more likely to reach your English objectives in 2013!

May your 2013 be a prosperous and productive year in which you carry out all of your English resolutions. Happy New Year!