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Rhythm and intonation


Imitative production 
Free production










Role playing
Virtual conversations



        Many language learning courses have been critized for being too formal (e.g. separating the "four skills", listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and behavioristic, and hence doomed to ellicit reproduction of stimulus rather than real learning.

On the other hand, strictly sequencing the introduction of materials leads to the necessity to avoid error at all costs, since you cannot possibly progress to the next stage without mastering the preceding stage.

This may hold for courses based on analytical activities as well as for rather communicational courses such as Berlitz' and the more recent audio-lingual and audio-visual methods.

So what can we do to learn a foreign language?

In this document we try to classify activities relevant to language learning. It might be useful for autonomous learners, for textbook authors, and for teachers who wish to design classroom handouts.

It is meant to be only a short survey. We have tried to focus on a few good ideas rather than building up a 'comprehensive' list of activities that comes out being redundant.

First of all, it is very important to decide what proficiency level you want to achieve, depending
on the use you intend to make of the language. Check out the
Certificates & Diplomas page for different levels of assessment.

For answers to specific questions, see the
How to page.

L1 means the student's mother tongue, and L2 stands for the foreign language.


        Most languages use alphabets, other use syllabaries, and a few use ideographical scripts.

If the script is 'phonic' (e.g. an alphabet), get familiar with it by using it everyday: write in your own language, but making use of the foreign script.

If the characters are complex (e.g. Chinese), learn to
identify the characters as a first goal. You may use a flashcard program like VTrain for that purpose. Next, you have to learn the order of the character strokes.
Note that even for such difficult scripts, the latter should not be completely dissociated from communicative activities.

In case two writing systems coexist in a language, it is advisable to learn the more complex one first. This is the case for traditional Chinese characters, which are still in use in Taiwan (R. of China), but were replaced in mainland China by simplified characters.

For information on how to use foreign scripts on your computer, see
Using foreign alphabets.



Pronunciation exercises may be aimed at two kinds of skills :

· Pronunciation of phonemes
Rhythm (prosody) and intonation

In case several pronunciation standards coexist in a language, it is advisable to learn the more complex one first. For example, when learning Spanish, it is better to learn the variety spoken in Spain first, since there "z" is pronounced like English "th", while throughout Latin America it is assimilated to "s". It would be easier to adapt from Castilian Spanish to Latin American Spanish later than reversely.



  We suggest two stages:

1. Discrimination of similar phonemes (phonemic awareness)

As the target language often makes use of phonemes inexistent in your own language, you have to focus on seemingly similar phonemes.
It is especially important to consider
phonemically distinctive features (minimal pairs), i.e. those which yield similar yet different words.
E.g., Chinese students have to learn to tell between English "lime" and "rhyme", Spanish speakers have to distinguish "ban" from "bun", etc.

On this stage, a broad phonetic transcription is more useful than a narrow one.
E.g., when learning English, you do not need to explicit features other than vowel duration to distinguish bit [bit] from beat [bi:t], etc.

Now, A "systematic" explanation of the sounds of a language to foreigners does not prove very useful. Mostly, the only effective way of introducing the learner into any foreign sounds is to take the phonemes of
their own language as a starting point.
The teacher should refer to
local variants of the students' native language whenever useful. Often enough, certain "foreign" phonemes not present in the standard form of their language are actually present in some dialect of it, in nursery language, in a cartoon character's pronunciation, etc.
This is why any lectures about pronunciation should be cut out on the spot by a pool of teachers that are aware of the phonetical nuances of the students' mother tongue.

The phonemes that are
not present in the students' native language should be introduced last, making a contrastive study with the sounds the learners already know.
By the way, it is useful to use impressive song choruses as memory pegs for single phonemes. (E.g., you may draw ESL students' attention to the "a" sound in "Batman", a song by the American pop singer Prince).

2. Orthophonic pronunciation

In order to come close to native pronunciation, phonetic features rather than phonemic ones are emphasized.
E.g., in Spanish, the first ‘e’ in ‘perro’ is more open than in ‘pero’.

At first, these studies should follow only one of the native pronunciation standards that exist for the target language (e.g. General American or Standard Received English), in order to prevent confusion.

A contrastive study between the native and the target language can be useful. The student would build the chart of the International Phonetic Association (IPA) by themself.

Rhythm and intonation

  Mastering rhythm and intonation patterns will make your speech sound natural in a foreign language. Those patterns can be displayed using plain strokes or even a music score. The latter is by far more exact, but it is not indispensable.


        Communication being the downright goal of the language phenomenon as such, these activities must constitute the driving force of our work. Any other learning activities, including analytical ones, are probably more effective when prompted by a personal, immediate communicative need, than when pursued "systematically" in a structuralist approach.

The communicational one is a "natural" approach to learning. Be open to
think in the foreign language right from the start. You don't need to understand every word to do so. Children don't give up speaking just because they hear words they do not know. Don't be afraid to ask!

When you learn, communicational skills like listening / reading comprehension, and oral / written expression, are difficult to isolate from each other.

Especially for these activities,
teacher feedback is most important. Correcting students' mistakes becomes the most important of the teacher's roles. Such mistakes should be discussed to a suitable extent, and corrected versions of the sentences must be memorized thereafter.

FYI Language courses based on communicational activities have been criticized for their focusing on oral and colloquial language, for dodging literary registers, and for not handling interference with the learner's first language properly (instruction is carried out without using the mother tongue as a medium of instruction).


· Listening
... to songs, radio, movies, or conversations.
· Dictations
 Trying to decipher lyrics from songs can be included in this section.
· Reading
· Substitution tables
Not only new vocabulary, but especially complex morphological systems (e.g. the conjugation of French verbs and declension of German substantives) require intensive exposure to them to allow for implicit learning. In them, the item is embedded into one of its usual contexts.
A substitution table is built on a given sentence pattern. It consists of several text columns, each one of which is formed by words that can play the same role within the sentence. The student should go through all the possible combinations to get acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of each item:

  The happy broom takes the animals
  A(n) black footstep cleans a(n) postcard
  My pregnant neighbor breaks my speaker
  Your gorgeous lollipop throws your book
  Our heavy bird makes our apple-pie

Random sentence generators

These are computer programs that create sentences according to a given pattern, in a similar way to the substitution tables discussed before. Such an application should allow the user to make any changes to the pattern, of course.


· Multiple-choice tests
Related to a given text, a question is followed by several possible answers. It would be useful that one of the options be absurd enough to make the reader laugh.


· Translating back
Take advantage of original texts in the foreign language translating them into your own language and thereafter translating them back into the target language, several times. Doing so is the only way of assuring you interiorize the lexical and grammatical phenomena and achieve a "natural" style.
· Pattern drills
These exercises are aimed at learning given syntactical patterns. The student is prompted with a list of questions (s)he has to answer using a given pattern. The list may also consist of clues (e.g. pictures), so that the learner has to construct both the question and the answer, using two given patterns, one pertaining to the questions and one to the answers.
A note for authors : make sure that the difficulty of such an exercise is produced by the pattern rather than by any new words to be looked up.
Traditional pattern drills are not of communicational essence, but consist in mere reformulation of given sentences, with prompts such as "convert into interrogative", "... passive" or "... reported speech".
By the way, the user can be motivated by some humorous contents in these exercises.


· Free speeches
Frequent monologues in the foreign language are a good thing if you don't bother about your neighbors' opinion of you. They are the first step to thinking in that language, and will elicit hidden needs for self-expression ...
· Speeches / Compositions
These are not meant to be spontaneous, but a response to a given topic. Learning is most effective if the topic   touches you. Nevertheless, a teacher or textbook can make suggestions such as :

  - An open question
  - Describing a picture
  - Reporting an event
  - Text analysis:
In such an exercise, the text is usually followed by several open questions, although it is advisable for the student to develop a routine for this kind of task.
  - Defending one's views on a disputed topic
  - Writing an essay with a preset structure
· Translating

... into the foreign language (this task is different from pattern drills, since emphasis is put on meaning).


        Learning a foreign language requires thinking about it and problem solving. This is also a fact for children. Hence, a "natural way" consisting in passive exposure into the language, as suggested in the marketing campaigns of certain language learning programs, is worthless. A language simply cannot be learnt without an active engagement in analytical work.

Moreover, the learner should not simply "study grammar" linearly, following a syllabus, but integrate this activity where needed into their communicative intents. Contrasts to their native language must be highlighted carefully.

Training in speed of reaction and communicative competence can only be achieved through communicational activities as those described above.


· "Fill the blanks" / cloze tests
This kind of exercise is often a word discrimination test. It can be a multiple-choice test. (In case this is implemented on a computer system, the program should display an explanation about why the right answer is right.)
· Word completion tests
Crossword puzzles, Scrabble ®, hangman.



These exercises are especially important for learning non-isolating languages. For example, for languages with complex declensions (mainly substantives and adjectives) and conjugations (verbs), like German or Russian, or for languages with conjugations, like French or Spanish.

· "Fill the blanks" / cloze tests
(See above.)
· Conventional morphological exercises
Reproducing morphological variants, like entries of declension or conjugation tables. It is best done using full sentences.


· Chomsky trees
Syntactic analysis according to Transformational Grammar.
· Sorting given words
... to rebuild a sentence.


        In the long term, foreign vocabulary is learnt most effectively by way of massive exposure to and genuine production in the language. But if you need to accelerate your learning, which may be the case if you are preparing for an examination, you need to engage in explicit memorization activities.

Now, traditional methods based on recitation (e.g. of conjugation tables) or grouping do not create mental associations between the items and real-life usage. Therefore, it is more effective to memorize them in context (full sentences) instead.

  If you need to learn... ...try
  vocabulary in context
morphological variants of a word
(e.g. French verb conjugation)
syntactical patterns (sentences)
flashcards or substitution tables
substitution tables

pattern drills



Paper flashcards usually contain pairs of items; for example, an English word and its Spanish cognate overleaf.

They can be a great help if used properly. The German psychologist Sebastian Leitner discovered a simple yet powerful way of using flashcards.

Leitner's card file system

His method makes it possible to learn in a "selective" manner, reducing study time by allowing you to concentrate on the most difficult items. Read more about its advantages.

By the way, a powerful alternative to paper flashcards is vocabulary learning software, e.g.
VTrain (Vocabulary Trainer). Read about its advantages over paper flashcards.



  The Bulgarian physician Georgi Lozanov devised a language learning method called Suggestopedia, sometimes marketed under the brand name Superlearning®.

The Suggestopedic method consists in exposing the student to an audition of pairs of items (flashcards), following a certain rhythmic pattern. At the same time, instrumental baroque music in Largo tempo (60 beats per minute) is played back.

This kind of soothing, rhythmic music is intended for inducing a state of relaxed alertness on the learner. This method is supposed to improve recalling performance by at least 25%.

Learn more about this method from the
Suggestopedia page.


        Most real life situations consist in interaction with other people's speech.

Nevertheless, contrary to a widespread opinion, the sole practice of conversations with
native speakers has little effect on most skills, with the notable exception of listening comprehension. The main reason for this is that the native speaker will hardly provide detailed feedback on our mistakes, and in most situations it would not be possible to take notes either.

On the other hand, conversations with (non-native)
peers can even be harmful, because mistakes typical for speakers of our own language will more likely take root.

Role playing

  The kinds of situations that can be embedded into this activity provide richer contents than everyday life and the actual relationships between peers, thus allowing the use of a wider vocabulary. In particular, it is useful to portray typical situations at an office, at a shop, at the customs clearance etc.
The character played by each member of the team and the course of events should be defined carefully.

Chats & MUDs

  MUDs (multi-user dungeons) have the advantage over regular Internet Relay Chats (IRC) that they consist in role-playing in a three-dimensional environment. Most of the communication occurs via keyboard chatting, but some implementations incorporate visual effects.

A MOO is a form of MUD.


  Artificial intelligence is being applied to try to allow the computer to "recognize" the meaning of user input (via keyboard or speech recognition) and to give an adequate response, so as to simulate interaction with a human being.
The M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has developed such an Intelligent Tutoring System.
    Updated: 2016 January 30
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