Use Trello To Learn a Foreign Language

Time is the only tool that will help you learn a foreign language.  That’s really the secret.  It’s nothing fancy.  Natural ability will only take you so far.  The rest that is needed is lots of exposure to your foreign language of choice and time.

For the past few weeks, I have talked about how I use one of my favorite tools, Trello, to keep my life organized.  Here are parts one, two, and three.  Today I want to show you how Trello can be useful in helping you learn a foreign language.

How to Learn a Foreign Language:  The Lomb Method

Dr. Kató Lomb was a Hungarian translator and interpreter.  She was an accomplished polyglot who spoke English, French, Russian, and German fluently.  She also translated Polish, Bulgarian, Danish, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, Latin, Italian, Slovak, and Ukranian. Her book Polyglot:  How I Learn Languages describes how she learned so many languages.

Dr. Lomb argued that the linguistic gift or being good at languages can be simplified into an equation:

(Invested Time + Motivation)/Inhibition = Result

In other words, succeeding at learning a language is dependent on the amount of time you invest, your level of motivation, and the amount of negative inhibition that you have to fight.

What is negative inhibition? Negative inhibition can be poor self-confidence.   You are afraid to speak to a native speaker of a foreign language because you are afraid that you will make a mistake. Another source of negative inhibition is trying to translate exactly what you think in your native language because you are afraid of using simple vocabulary in your target language. This is caused by a concern that people will think that you are stupid.

I think the above equation can be applied to any learning attempt. Math used to be my least favorite subject in school. I didn’t consider myself “good” at math so I wanted to spend the least amount of time on the subject as possible. Since I didn’t want my math scores to ruin my GPA, I had to fight my instinct to avoid math and studied to improve my math ability. After spending more time on the subject, I realized that I was not as bad at math as I had thought. Math simply required more time than other subjects.

Integrate Foreign Language Study Into Your Daily Systems

Where does Trello come in to this equation?  One of the key takeaways that I learned from reading Polyglot is that you need to spend time studying your target foreign language every single day.  The best way to hold yourself accountable is to make foreign language study a project. Break down your study time into small increments and assign yourself tasks to complete.

Here is a sample board for how to break down language study into projects and tasks.  For this sample board, I used the two foreign languages that I study:  German and Japanese.

My German is much more advanced than my Japanese.  The tasks that I assign myself for my German project show that.  For my German project, one of my goals is to read and listen to more news articles.  International news is an easy way to listen to native level materials with a mental cheatsheet included.  If you are already familiar with news and current events, you should already have some idea of what they are talking about.

If you look on the sample board, under weekly goals, one of my goals for the week is to listen to three Tagesschau newscasts.  The Tagesschau iTunes feed has a list of the topics included in the program. By going to the website and checking out the articles about each topic, I have a list of vocabulary related to the topic. My plan is to listen to a broadcast once for my first test of comprehension and then to look up more about the topics included in the broadcast.

I use labels to indicate my progress on a task.  If you click on the Tagesschau card, you will see a label above it indicating where I am in my goal for that week.

Listening to podcasts is a great way to integrate daily language learning into your life.  For many busy professionals, our time is very limited.  I listen to podcasts when I am exercising or on my commute to work.

My present to myself last Christmas was a new pair of headphones so I wouldn’t have to listen to gym music any longer. The United States Foreign Service Institute produced several full German courses that is now available in the public domain. Since the course was produced in the 1960s, the vocabulary is dated.  My goal has been to listen to pronunciation and to try improve my accent.

Keep Language Study Fun

On the Trello board, I also have a goal of translating an article on wearable tech from SXSW that was posted in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.  My time studying German and Japanese comes out of my limited free time.  To keep myself motivated, I read articles about concepts that interest me.

I have a German dictionary installed on my Kindle. There are a lot of great free and cheap ebooks available on Amazon such as the German editions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories including Der Hund der Baskervilles: Kriminalroman  and Sherlock Holmes: Gesammelte Romane und Detektivgeschichten .

I also subscribe to several German blogs about productivity and vegetarian/vegan cooking. Finding and reading blogs about your interests is an easy way to get used to reading native level foreign language materials. Most bloggers use informal and conversational writing styles which are much easier to read than news sites.

To make sure that I am actually studying German, I try to translate one or two articles per month.  When I translate an article, I translate in three passes:


  1. First pass:  read the article for fun.  Document any words that I remember/find interesting in my language progress notebook.
  2. Second pass:  translate the article.  Note new vocabulary and memorize new vocabulary in context.  I write the entire sentence on a flashcard and memorize the sentence.
  3. Third pass:  detailed grammar analysis.  I note any sentences with new grammar and study in detail why each sentence was written as it was.

I use labels on my Trello board to document my current pass.  I also set a due date on my translation to make sure that I keep myself on track to complete my translation.


Try Journaling in Another Language

Under goals for this week, I have two goals to write a German and Japanese Lang-8 entry. Lang-8 is a community based website where you write diary entries in your target language.  Native speakers will correct your entries.  As part of the community, you also correct entries from users who are learning your native language.  Lang-8 is a great platform to make new friends and learn more about other cultures.

I write diary entries in both German and Japanese.  As my Japanese is very basic, my entries are very basic.  Mostly I write about places in Japan that I would like to visit or my hobbies.  For German, I write a more detailed entry about what I am reading/thinking about.

I translate everything into German using a rough translation framework. I don’t translate word for word. I focus on concepts instead. By avoiding word for word translation, I make the process less painful. I also want to use more natural phrases, and concept translation works better in producing more natural sounding German. After I have completed my translation, I post it as an entry to Lang-8. Hopefully, I receive some corrections.

Also, consider journaling your victories.  Learning a new language takes years of study.  It’s easy to lose motivation when you don’t see yourself making progress.  Write about what you have learned.  You’ll motivate yourself to keep studying.

Soon you will be making new friends and communicating in a new language!


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