Katie Harris is the founder of Joy of Languages, a site dedicated to helping make language learning a joy instead of a chore. She was bored to tears with languages in school, but eventually figured out a more fun, effective approach to language learning that is focused on communicating with people and enjoying authentic listening and reading content. With a Masters in Linguistics from Cambridge University and an MRes in Speech, Language and Cognition from University College London, Katie does a great job peppering in just enough linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience to help language learners, but always keeping the focus on fun and efficacy. We first met at the 2019 Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava where I attended her talk How to Learn a Language by Watching TV and Film. Her philosophy was right in line with my “Anywhere Immersion” approach and I was eager to get her on the podcast.

In the interview, we discuss:

  • Katie’s “origin story” and why―despite getting good grades in other subjects―she struggled with languages in school.
  • How Katie later fell in love with languages while studying abroad in Italy.

“Instead of memorizing things for a test, languages became about communicating with people. I wasn’t worried about having everything perfect; I just tried to use what little I had…”

  • Why she made a rule to not hang out with English speakers while in Italy.
  • Why most school materials are unmotivating and why choosing your own topics and materials can be more fun and effective (especially for intermediate and above learners).
  • Why video is such a powerful tool for learning languages (“You’re literally eavesdropping on other people’s conversations!”) and Katie’s tips for getting the most out of  TV shows and movies.

“Languages are about people. If you don’t have real people, films and TV are the next best thing.”

  • Why, in some ways, videos can be even better than real people when learning a language!
  • How to make the jump from beginner learner materials to authentic materials intended for native speakers.
  • Why reality TV can be a better genre for language learners than films.
  • Why you should use subtitles (ideally subtitles in the target language), how reading subtitles transforms videos into a source of reading input, too, and Katie’s favorite subtile tool.
  • How to use “bidirectional translation” and dictation to get more out video-based language learning.
  • The pros and cons of using subtitles in your native language.
  • The importance of getting comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, and not understanding everything you hear or read.
  • Why mentality is more important that ability (learning languages is about exposure and practice, not intellect).
  • The difference between consciously “studying” and subconsciously “acquiring” a language.
  • Why thinking “I should know this” holds you back as a language learner (“Stop shoulding all over yourself!”).
  • Why the hard part of learning a language is not the language itself, but the discipline and patience it takes to get enough exposure and practice.
  • Why Chinese is different, not difficult.
  • Katie’s WHY for learning languages and how that influences how and what she learns.
  • How to avoid overwhelm and develop effective, sustainable, bite-size language learning habits.
  • Why language learning doesn’t always have to hurt or be a masochistic undertaking. Fun is effective!

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