A shy student’s advice on learning new languages

Patrícia Oliveira. Image: Evana Ho / ANU
20 June 2022

People learning a foreign language are often told that the best way to improve their skills fast is through immersion: by living in a country where that language is spoken, and by practicing speaking with other people as much as possible.

Patricia Oliveira Calado, who is doing a Bachelor of Languages and a Bachelor of Arts, respectfully disagrees. She is extremely shy and has developed strategies to supplement her formal language learning that have helped her advance quickly – without having to talk to other people.

Patricia is bilingual in two languages (Portuguese and English), fluent in three others (French, Arabic, Spanish), at an intermediate level in two (Chinese and German) and at a basic level in a further three (Russian, Latin, Ancient Greek). She is currently studying six of those languages at ANU and another remotely at a different university, having completed the beginner’s courses at ANU.


On being shy

Some people say that they fear the unknown, and I don’t. I’m shy of people but not of things. I’m not afraid to move to a new country, try out new things, or eat new food – I just have difficulty talking to people.

I’m not the kind of person that has lots of friends. I think people might think that I’m a bit cold when I speak to them because I just don’t speak too much. I feel very shy about talking to people that I don’t know in general.

During class, my heart is beating so hard I don’t need to exercise!  But as hard as it is, I’m generally one of the most talkative people in class. I really like good grades, and because there are participation marks, I can get over it and speak :)

Immersion: not what it’s cracked up to be

People generally say that if you want to improve your speaking ability you should speak to other people. You’ll improve your pronunciation because you’ll be practicing, you’ll improve your grammar because you’ll be practicing – they just essentially say you’ll improve everything because you’re practicing.

I disagree, because when you’re speaking, you’re going to make mistakes and the person you’re talking to probably won’t correct you, so you’ll just keep making those same mistakes. The other person might understand you, but if the goal is speaking the language correctly, then that’s not the way to go.

When it comes to pronunciation, again people seem to think that it will just come at some point in the future; if you just keep talking it will improve. But think of all the people who came to Australia in their 20s or 30s and have now lived here for decades, using English every day, speaking in English at home and with their children and they still have very thick accents. You only improve pronunciation if you actively practice it (or if your ears are really good and you just instinctively pronounce things perfectly from the get go).

Another thing is that students often practice with each other (especially in class). That’s worse because now you’re hearing a person speaking the language you’re learning wrong, and you’re speaking it wrong. It’s just not good at all!

One thing at a time

There are lots of things you can do to improve your language skills, but it’s about what will be the most efficient way of using your time. Even in an ideal scenario where you can afford to take one or two years to learn, that’s still a long period of time. So you really want to be as efficient as possible so you can finish as quickly as possible. 

Learning a language is not about the journey; it’s about the destination. The sooner you’re there, the sooner you can relax and enjoy.

In class, teachers generally teach all the competencies (reading, writing, listening and speaking) at the same time. I think people take longer to learn because of that. In my opinion, reading and listening comprehension should come first, then writing, and finally speaking. Reading and listening are passive activities, and it’s generally easier to understand language than to produce it, so that should be the first stage. As for writing and speaking, they are essentially the same thing, except that speaking is harder because pronunciation is involved and because you don’t have time to think through what you’re going to say, so mastering writing is a step towards mastering speaking.  

Strategies for improving

How would this look in practice? Well, since I’m studying at university I can’t exactly follow my ideal study plan, but I try to work around it. I generally ignore speaking since there’s no assessment that grades speaking at ANU. There are oral presentations sure, but everyone always writes a speech and then reads it, so I do the same, but I memorize it instead. For writing I don’t do anything in particular; I think that if you know your vocab and your grammar, writing takes care of itself. So, here are some strategies I followed to improve in certain aspects for different languages at different stages.

Fluency and pronunciation

Pronunciation is very important to me. I’m very self-conscious when I know that I have bad pronunciation, so it’s one of the things I work hard at.

One foolproof method to improve pronunciation is called shadowing: essentially you listen to something and try to say it (mouth it) at the same time. I find this helps the mouth to go in the right position for each sound, so over time, my pronunciation improves. At the moment, I spend on average 10 minutes a day listening to an audiobook in Spanish while following along with the text. The chapters are half an hour to an hour long, so instead of actually doing 10 minutes per day, sometimes I just do it one day for an hour, and then don’t do it for the rest of the week. 

The content I choose depends on the level I’m at. For French and Spanish I could use actual French and Spanish literature to practice pronunciation, and I only listened to each text once because I was at an advanced level. But for Chinese, I had to use the texts in the textbook and I listened to them over and over and over again. In the beginning I couldn’t read it at the same rate because they were speaking too fast, but after 10 or 20 times I could do it.

For my presentations I do something similar. For example, with a Chinese presentation I gave recently I wrote the text, then put it into Google Translator in Chinese. There’s an option to click on the mic for it to read it aloud for you, so I do that. Even though it’s a computer-y voice, it doesn’t matter. It’s quick and fluent so it works. I follow it along and try to do it 100 times (yes 100 times); if it’s a presentation in a language I’m better at like French or even German, 50 times might be enough. Anyway, I always do that and it works very well. I’m able to pronounce things much more fluently.

I don’t know exactly how many hours it takes to achieve perfect pronunciation. I think around 60 hours is probably enough (going off of how much I practiced for French), but I’m keeping track of how much I practice Spanish pronunciation, and later I do the same for German and Russian to try to come up with a specific number.

Vocabulary and grammar

Vocabulary is the thing that I focus most on, because in order to be able to practice reading/listening comprehension with original materials, you need to know a certain amount of vocabulary. Of course you can always use graded content, but sometimes it’s hard to find, or there isn’t enough, and you almost always have to pay for it.

So, I think that 3,000 words would be enough to understand about 95% of a newspaper article or a YouTube video. I’m trying to get to the 3,000 word mark in German so I can test my theory. At the moment I know around 2,000 words and I can understand around 80%. It allows me to follow a video and have a good idea of what it is about, but it could be better.

Also, vocabulary should be learned by frequency. Routledge has frequency dictionaries for all major languages, and that’s what I use. Learning word lists is a bit boring though, so at least in the beginning, using something like Duolingo might be helpful. No one is going to learn a language by exclusively using Duolingo, but if you don’t mind the repetition, Duolingo one hour per day can definitely be a stepping stone. After that, spaced repetition apps are a good idea.


When I’m looking for an app for anything related to language learning, I want something consistent. It needs to be something that’s at my level and something where there’s enough material that I can do it consistently for say, a few months.

If I’m going to use graded material then I can start even when I’m at a beginner level. But if I want to use original content then I make sure to focus on vocabulary first. I don’t see the point in reading things I can barely understand (unless I’m practicing pronunciation, but that’s a different story).

For example, with Chinese, I recently found an app called The Chairman’s Bao and they have news articles appropriate for each HSK level. So this semester I’m trying to spend around one hour per day writing Chinese characters and one hour reading HSK 4-5 news articles.

For Arabic though, which I learned several years ago and then kind of stopped, I had a huge problem with reading. And it was really annoying because I can speak and write pretty well, my listening comprehension is also very good; I just couldn’t read because written Arabic doesn’t have short vowels. So you either read the word and recognise it in a millisecond and can read it properly, or you don’t, and for whatever reason I couldn’t. So I took an intensive Arabic course at IFPO over the summer holidays that focused on media Arabic and reading comprehension, and it was great! It was crazy – 3 hours per day, and we read newspapers, Arabic literature, internet websites – we read everything, and now I feel much more confident reading. 

Now to build on that, and consolidate my reading abilities, I’m trying to read one article a day in Arabic this semester. For the sake of consistency, I specifically choose RT because they have short articles (it takes me less than 10 minutes to read one), while if I had picked the BBC or any other news agency there would be some long articles and some short articles, so it would be harder to keep track. Another reason to read articles from RT is that their writers are Russian, so it’s significantly easier to read their articles because the writers are non-native speakers, and they write in a way non-native speakers write. So, RT is a good place to start but I definitely want to move on to something more difficult and more authentic soon.


Listening is the easiest thing to practice, and I would recommend students watch short videos on subjects that they’re interested in. I try to watch on average 10 minutes per day of videos in German, Spanish, French, and Arabic. And I do this while eating/cooking/tidying things, etc.

Again, you should be above a certain level of competency in the language before you start to do that. If you’re watching a video and you don’t understand most of it, you’re going to get bored very quickly. Maybe there is some benefit in it, but it’s not going to be that much. I would say this: focus on memorizing vocabulary first and then watch videos.

Personally, I never watch videos unless I can understand about 85% of it. With Chinese, I don’t watch videos at all because I just don’t understand it. I don’t feel comfortable doing it. If I wanted to practice listening in Chinese though, The Chairman Bao’s app has a listening option, so I would listen to the news articles.

Don’t read or watch content for children

Children’s “things” aren’t necessarily easy in my opinion. For example, Chinese children are supposed to know around 3,000 characters by grade six – that’s HSK 6! So I don’t think it’s useful for someone doing Chinese 2 or 3 to be reading books meant for Chinese children.

Also, the vocabulary they learn is quite different from what we learn. We learn a lot of high level vocabulary, especially at ANU; words related to politics, the economy, idioms, literary Chinese – things that children even in sixth grade wouldn’t know. Small children on the other hand, first learn the names of things: objects in the house, animals, plants, food, etc. So there is quite a difference between what children are able to say and what adults are able to say. Graded content (books, videos, news) is a much better option.

Final words

I change what I do every semester, not only because I do different languages but also because as my level improves I need to focus on different things. 

While I have a general plan I follow (pronunciation -> vocabulary -> listening -> reading), I know that I can’t always do it that way, either because of time or circumstances or because there’s something more pressing to do. I definitely think that for some languages you need to focus on some things more than others. Chinese: writing characters. German, Arabic, and Russian: the grammar. Spanish (because I’m Portuguese and the spelling of the two languages is quite different): spelling.

I’m always trying to improve and I actively try to find where my weaknesses are and then come up with a way to address them. I think that’s the way to go. And the most important thing is to keep working at it. If you simply attend classes you’ll get to the advanced level and you’ll feel disillusioned because you won’t be at 100% fluency and comprehension. Use the classes as a guide but know that the real work happens at home – you have to actively and independently work at it.  

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Updated:  20 June 2022/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications