Getting Past the Intermediate Plateau

Today we have a guest post by Olly Richards of

Behind The Scenes at the Fluent Spanish Academy

An illustration of the stages of learning

If you’re starting to learn a new language, the internet is awash with advice and resources geared towards beginners.

But as you make progress with your new language, and hit the dreaded intermediate plateau, it becomes more difficult to know exactly how to study.

When I decided to create an online course to learn Spanish, I decided to focus on this problematic intermediate stage, in order to help the disproportionate number of Spanish learners who find themselves stranded there.

But how do you help someone learn intermediate Spanish?

What is the best way to learn Spanish when you’re stuck at the intermediate plateau?

And how do you do this online?

If you deliver classes face-to-face, the direct interaction with students allows you to help them more intimately. How can you get people results through online learning?

Attempting to solve this problem has been one of the most interesting challenges I’ve faced so far in the development of language materials.

Conceptualising An Intermediate Spanish Course
On the one hand, I have the memory of becoming fluent in Spanish myself, and my ideas for how to learn a new language in general. On the other, I know that not everyone can follow my path, and must contend with their own unique circumstances.

A photo of Olly with some students

When I first created the concept for the Fluent Spanish Academy, I had a broad idea of the resource I wanted to create.

But I also knew that it would need to be moulded over time, depending on the feedback from members, and the results they got in their Spanish.

After all, it’s not just about the quality of the materials you make, it’s about how students interact with them, and that can be hard to predict.

For this reason, the Fluent Spanish Academy first launched as a BETA group. I set a low monthly membership price, and invited people to join in return for their direct feedback on the content. 100 members joined, and the doors stayed closed for around 4 months while I worked with everyone and listened to their feedback.

So, what exactly was inside?

Well, after a lot of deep thinking about the nature of the intermediate plateau, and why it’s difficult for Spanish learners, I realised three things:

1. You need to begin to study the whole language, rather than a diet of structured tuition

2. You need learning advice from more experienced others (such as a friend, tutor, or fellow learners), so you know what to improve and how

3.You need a community of other learners, so you can stay motivated for long enough to break through the intermediate plateau.

The main features of the Academy therefore addressed these three points primarily.

Here’s how…

1. Study The Whole Language
One of the main strategies that helped me become fluent in Spanish after learning the basics was to immerse myself in the whole language. Listening to Spanish spoken in groups, emailing friends, reading books, and so on.

The difficulty for the intermediate learner, however, is that this kind of activity is often far above your level, and it can be difficult to feel like your studying is productive.

For the Academy, then, I created the following:

  • Weekly audio lessons, where I present natural dialogues in Spanish, full of real, conversational phrases you’ll hear on the street. This gives the learner exposure to useful, authentic language in a context that isn’t overwhelming.
  • Short stories in Spanish with accompanying audio, which focus on specific areas of grammar, such as the imperfecto vs preterito, or ser vs These give reading and listening practice that is comprehensible, not too long, and via the medium of story.

One of the main pieces of feedback I got from the BETA stage was that members needed more challenging, unstructured listening practice. So, I added:

  • Short, spontaneous conversations in Spanish between native speakers from different countries. These come fully transcribed, and give the learner the challenge of listening to real Spanish with different accents, plus the ability to read along and check any difficult parts.

2. Advice On Your Spanish
When I was learning Spanish, I was lucky enough to have some very astute mentors. They were both native and non-native Spanish speakers who were very generous with their feedback and pointed out areas of my speaking that needed improvement.

They would give me incredibly useful “meta” feedback like: “Olly, when you begin sentences in Spanish it sometimes sounds a bit unnatural.” Or: “You know, in the Canary Islands you should say X. Y is from Spain!”

This kind of feedback helped me correct my errors quickly, learn Spanish fast, sound more native-like, and learn things that I would never have learnt from a book.

In the Fluent Spanish Academy, I wanted to replicate this advice, because I know just how important it was. Therefore, every month, we have a special live training session, where I teach members specific learning strategies that have helped me, plus certain shortcuts I’ve used to master difficult areas of Spanish.

3. A Community To Stay Motivated
This was a no-brainer, but harder than I thought to get right!

With new members joining the Academy from all around the world, we had a ready-made community of Spanish learners. I thought about the ideal way to organise the community, and I created a private forum for the website, organised into different message boards, with special areas for discussing resources, asking questions, arranging meetups etc.

At first, it was on fire!

Everyone was so enthusiastic to get started that the conversation and interaction in the forums was better than I could have ever imagined. However, after a few months, the buzz started dying down. I wasn’t sure why that was, but eventually I realised it was because in the era of social media, people only head to one place for their conversation… Facebook.

Although I had specifically decided not to host the community on Facebook at the beginning, because I wanted to try and encourage depth and focus, I eventually made the decision to migrate the forums over to a private Facebook group.

Luckily, it was the best decision I’ve made so far!

The new Facebook group quickly took off, and there was an instant rekindling of community and motivation, I suppose because…we’re all on Facebook already, and that’s where the conversation is happening!

What was great about this move, though, was the new possibilities I discovered as a result. I began to use the interactivity of the Facebook group to organise special monthly challenges. I would give everyone a special daily study aim for the month, together with supporting materials and accountability partners to make sure they study.

As I write this piece, for example, we’re gearing up to spend an entire month focused on improving Spanish past tenses. Every day, members will receive special exercises on the imperfect vs preterite (e.g. Comió or comía? Fue or iba?), and they have to check off their progress on a public tracking sheet after studying every day.

This has had the wonderful effect of gathering everyone around a common aim, and the community has become far more lively as a result!

Innovation In Learning Spanish Online
I’ve learnt the 8 languages I speak in non-conventional ways.

As a result, I’m a big believer in innovation in language teaching.

I find that language learners often get trapped with the conventional study methods they were taught at school, but can find their motivation and progress transformed when exposed to more independent and community-based ways of learning.

That’s what I’m trying hard to do with the Fluent Spanish Academy, and certainly, the results and feedback from our members so far suggest that it’s working!

The Academy is by no means perfect, but it’s been a fascinating journey creating this community, and I look forward to turning it into the single best resource for Spanish learning on the entire internet!

Dream big, right?

About the writer
Olly Richards is a language teacher, consultant and author, and speaks 8 languages. He runs, where he blogs regularly about language learning.

English, Language, Language learning, Spanish Leave a comment

Going through the motions

Russian verbs of motion

In English you can use the verb to go to indicate any kind of travel – it doesn’t matter if you’re going on foot, by bicycle, car, bus, train, boat or plane. There are other verbs you can use: walk, stroll, hike, cycle, drive, travel, sail, fly, etc, but you can also just use go.

In some other languages the verbs you use for motion depend on how you are going. In German, for example, gehen is used when you go by foot, and fahren is used when you use some form transport, such as a car, train, bus or bicycle.

Other German words for motion include:

– reisen = to travel
– fliegen = to fly
– laufen = to run, to go, to walk
– spazieren = to stroll, to strut
– spazieren fahren = to go for a drive, ride or run
– spazieren führen = to take sb for a walk
– spazieren gehen = to go for a walk or stroll
– schreiten = to stride, walk, proceed, strut, stalk
– wanderen = to wander, roam, drift, ramble, hike
– führen = to sail, carry, fly, pilot, take, lead

The German word fahren comes from the Old High German faran (to proceed, go, travel), from Proto-Germanic *faraną (to go, travel), from the Proto-Indo-European *per- ‎(going, passage), which is also the root of the English words fare and ferry, and related words in other Germanic languages.

In Russian you have to think not only about how you are going, but also whether you’re coming back or not. There are two main verbs for to go, each of which has several aspects:

ходить/идти (пойти perf) = to go (on foot), to move; to wear (smth); to go (to), attend, visit; to run (trains, ships); to work, run (clocks); to lead, play, move (in games); to tend, take care of, nurse.
ездить/ехать (поехать perf) = to go (by horse or vehicle), to ride, to drive; to come; to visit; to travel

Ходить and ездить are the indefinite imperfective aspects. They are concrete verbs refering to motion in one direction, a definitely directed motion, or a single, completed action.

Идти and ехать are the definite imperfective aspects. They are abstract verbs refering to motion more than one direction (e.g. there and back) or indirect, or repreated or serial actions.

Here are some related expressions and examples of usage:

– Ходи́ть пешко́м‎ = to walk, to go on foot, to hike
– Ходи́ть го́голем‎ = to strut
– Ходи́ть босико́м‎ = to go barefoot
– Ходи́ть вперева́лку/вразва́лку/вразва́лочку‎ = to waddle
– Ходи́ть на лы́жах‎ = to ski
– Ходи́ть на цы́почках‎ = to tiptoe
– Ходи́ть в похо́д‎ = to hike
– Часы́ не хо́дят = The watch doesn’t work
– Поезда́ сего́дня не хо́дят = There are no trains (running) today.
– Идём в кинотеа́тр = Let’s go to the cinema.
– Идёт дождь = It’s raining.
– Идёт снег = It’s snowing.
– Он часто ездит в Китай = He often goes to China.
– Сегодня вечером мы идём танцевать = We’re going dancing tonight.
– Пойдем на пляж = Let’s go to the beach.
– Я люблю ходить пешком = I like walking
– Мы ходили в паб = We went to the pub.
– Ты пойдёшь завтра гулять? = Will you go for a walk tomorrow?
– Она ездила в Петербург на машине = She went to St. Petersburg by car.
– Они будут ехать домой на поезде = They will be going home by train.

Other verbs of motion in Russian include:

– Бегать / Бежать = to run
– Бродить / Брести = to stroll
– Гонять / Гнать = to drive
– Лазить / Лезть = to climb
– Летать / Лететь = to fly
– Плавать / Плыть = to swim, to sail
– Ползать / Ползти = to crawl
– Возить / Везти = to transport, to carry (by vehicle)
– Носить / Нести = to carry, to wear
– Водить / Вести = to lead, to accompany, to drive (a car)
– Таскать / Тащить = to drag, to pull

More about Russian verbs of motion

Sources: Wiktionary, Reverso,

English, Etymology, German, Language, Proto-Indo-European, Russian, Words and phrases Leave a comment

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 9 Comments

A Tragic Goat Song

A tragic goat

How is the word tragedy connected to goats and songs?

The answer is that tragedy comes ultimately from the Ancient Greek word τραγῳδία ‎(tragōidía – epic play, tragedy) which comes from τράγος ‎(trágos – male goat) and ᾠδή ‎(ōidḗ, – song).

Apparently the goat reference comes from satyrc drama, which featured actors dressed in goatskins playing satyrs. Or because at Athenian festivals a goat was given as a prize for the best play or performance, and then sacrificed, and a τραγῳδία was a lament for the goat.

Another idea from Athenaeus of Naucratis (2nd–3rd century BC) is that the original form of the word was trygodia from trygos (grape harvest) and ode (song), as the festivals took place during the grape harvest

Tragedy entered English during the 14th century as tragedie, when it meant ‘a play or other serious literary work with an unhappy ending’. It came from the Old French tragedie, from the Latin tragoedia ([theatrical] tragedy). It came to mean an unhappy event, calamity or disaster at the beginning of the 16th century.

Sources: Wiktionary, Online Etymology Dictionary, Oxford Dictionaries, English Word Information

English, Etymology, French, Greek, Language, Latin, Words and phrases Leave a comment

‘Cuisinez-Vous Le Français ?’ Mixing Learning with the Joys of Cooking

Cuisinez-Vous Le Français ?

Today we have a guest post by the Language Chefs from Cuisinez-vous le français

The new online tool, ‘Cuisinez-Vous Le Français ?’ is a fun way to learn French in a friendly, foodie manner. This new method, comprising of one recipe each week using a dedicated, online platform, allows you to improve your culinary and language skills. ‘Cuisinez-vous le français ?’ provides all the ingredients needed for a successful lesson! The kitchen becomes a medium for cultural and linguistic classes as our chefs use cookery to introduce new language points and motivate you.

How it works
Subscription to the programme allows access to a new video every week. This video is made available at three speeds (slow, normal and fast) along with the subtitles, script and an easy-access dictionary. These tools have been developed with the goal of improving your pronunciation and comprehension. Our combination of theory and practice is essential in the learning of a foreign language! Subscription for a year will provide you with 52 videos, made available on a weekly basis, for 52 euros.

Un délicieux concours
Do you want to win a year of tasty French recipes? All you have to do is post your photos of these chocolate profiteroles which you have made on our Facebook page and we will reward the most original photo with a one year subscription and a ‘Cuisinez-vous le français ?’ apron! 3, 2, 1 cook!

For any information, please contact
Thibault le Marié – – 06 47 40 40 47

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Needle Mouse and the Clockwork Octopus

Hedgehog (針鼠/針ねずみ/蝟/ハリネズミ)

There’s a Japanese word that means ‘needle mouse’ when literally translated. What kind of animal do you think it is?

It is in fact a hedgehog. It is written 針鼠 and pronounced harinezumi: 針 (hari) means needle, pin, hook, stinger; thorn, hand (of clock), pointer or staple. 鼠 (nezumi, nezu, shi, sho) means rat, mouse or dark gray. Harinezumi can also be written 針ねずみ, 蝟 or ハリネズミ.

In Mandarin Chinese the character 蝟 (wèi) means hedgehog, and also vulgar, wanton, low, many, varied or porcupine. The simplified version is 猬. Another Chinese word for hedgehog is 刺猬 [刺蝟] (cì​wei) – 刺 (cì​) = stab, prick, irritate or prod.

The word 針鼠 is not used in Chinese, as far as I know, and appears to be a Japanese coinage.

I was inspired to write this post after reading about the needle mouse / hedgehog in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, which I finished yesterday. It’s an interesting book that I enjoyed very much, and that includes references to Japanese language and culture, and elements of history, fantasy, sci-fi and magical realism, and also a clockwork octopus, and other clockwork creatures.

The Japanese for clockwork octopus is ぜんまい仕掛けの蛸 (zenmaijikake no tako) or 時計仕掛けの蛸 (tokeijikake no tako). In Chinese it’s 发条章鱼 [發條章魚] (fātiáo zhāngyú).

Sources: Jisho, MDBG Chinese dictionary

Chinese, English, Japanese, Language, Words and phrases 1 Comment

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 5 Comments


ага (aga)

A useful Russian word I learnt recently is ага (aga) [ɐˈɡa/ɐˈɣa], it is an interjection similar to yep, yeah, aha and uh-huh in English. It shows that you’re listening, but don’t necessarily agree with the speaker.

Here are some examples of usage:

– Окей, ага, круто = Okay. All right. That’s cool.
– Ага, я так и думала = Here, I’ll show it to you.
– Ага, я слышу тебя = Uh yeah, I can hear you.
– Вероятно, лучше думать таким образом, ага = It’s probably best to think of it that way, yeah.

Synonyms include:

– да (da) = yes, but, really
– так (tak) = so, thus; like that; so much; just so, then, well, yes
– угу (ugu) = yep, yeah

Sources: Wiktionary, Reverso,

English, Etymology, Language, Russian, Words and phrases 1 Comment

A load of old claptrap

Claptrap is a great word that means ’empty verbiage or nonsense’. A claptrap was a also device that produced a clapping sound and was used in theaters to encourge applause from audiences. It can also mean ‘a trick or device to gain applause; humbug’. Synonyms include waffle, hot air and palaver.

The word apparently comes from Theatre slang and refers to theatrical techniques or gags used to incite applause.

It first appeared in print in Nathan Bailey’s dictionary of 1721, which defined it as, “A Clap Trap, a name given to the rant and rhimes that dramatick poets, to please the actors, let them get off with: as much as to say, a trap to catch a clap, by way of applause from the spectators at a play.”

Over time the meaning of claptrap expanded to showy or insincere platitures or mawkish sentimetality, and from there to mean rubbish or nonsense.

Sources: Wiktionary, World Wide Words

Do similar words exist in other languages?

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Horse horse tiger tiger

馬馬虎虎 (mǎmǎhǔhǔ)

In Mandarin Chinese there’s an idiomatic expression that translates literally as “horse horse tiger tiger”. What do you think it means?

There is some interesting discussion about this idiom on the podcast Global Pillage, where they discuss idioms and customs from around the world. Suggestions for the meaning of this idiom included “social classes don’t mix”, “only date within your tax bracket”, “you wait for a bus for ages, and three come along at once”, “six of one, half a dozen of the other”

This expression is written 马马虎虎 [馬馬虎虎] (mǎmǎhǔhǔ) and means “careless,casual, vague, not so bad, so-so, tolerable, fair” and is a reduplicated version of 马虎 [馬虎] (mǎhǔ) “careless, sloppy, negligent, skimp”.

Here are some examples of how it’s used:

– 你的中文讲得好棒啊 (Nǐ de zhōngwén jiǎng de hǎo bàng a) = You speak Chinese well
– 马马虎虎,马马虎虎 (Mǎmǎhǔhǔ, mǎmǎhǔhǔ) = Just so-so

– 那家餐馆的服务马马虎虎 (Nà jiā cānguǎn de fúwù mǎmǎhǔhǔ) = The service at that restaurant is so-so
– 他马马虎虎地做事 (Tā mǎmǎhǔhǔ de zuòshì) = He does his work carelessly
– 他这个人做事比较马虎 (Tā zhège rén zuòshì bǐjiào mǎhǔ) = He’s a sloppy / rather careless person

The origins of this phrase are uncertain. The earliest known use was during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). It might be related to 模糊 (móhu – unclear, fuzzy) or 麻糊 (máhú – careless), or it might have been borrowed from the Manchu mahu (wry, face) or lahū (not adept, unskilled [especially at hunting and dealing with livestock]; scoundrel, hoodlum).

I remember reading somewhere, though I can’t find any confirmation, that this phrase is borrowed from the Sanskrit word मोह (moha), which means ‘magic employed to bewilder, error, bewilderment, foolishness, wonder, infatuation, delusion, confusion, amazement, distraction, inability to discriminate, perplexity, ignorance, loss of consciousness, hallucination’. Has anybody else read or heard this theory?

Here’s an alternative story about its origins.

Source: MDBG Dictionary, Wiktionary, Sinoglot, Sanskrit Dictionary for Spoken Sanskrit, Learn a Chinese Charachter a Day, StakeExchange.

Chinese, English, Idioms, Language, Words and phrases Leave a comment
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