Illustration by Carolina Búzio
Learning a new language takes time and effort. But why grind away at a textbook when you can find ways to integrate language learning into everyday life? This not only avoids the long, dark time of grammar books and practice exercises, but actually makes your learning process more interesting and relevant. Go after the vocabulary you want, pick up real expressions, and absorb the textures and details of language in a way that traditional textbooks simply cannot provide. Here are a few tips to make language learning a habitual, integrated part of your life.
1. Embrace authentic language
We’ve all heard that watching films is a great way to learn a language. You don’t have to limit yourself to films shot in that language; watching your favorite film with subtitles can be a revelation, particularly as you may already be very familiar with the dialogue. Watching dubbed films can also be fun. (Or, as the case may be, about as much fun as slamming your finger in a car door.)
But what about all those other excellent sources that the digital age is waving tantalizingly under your nose? What about audiobooks and podcasts? TV series? Online comics and graphic novels? For those of you who watch illegal sports streams (yes, we know you’re out there), have you ever tried watching a Portuguese stream, or a Spanish one?
And we haven’t even touched on music: a powerful conveyor of spoken rhythm, cultural sensibility, and soul. Go beyond the obvious choices — say, the French predilection for accordion music and Edith Piaf — to find the genres that you love. Or travel back in time to find your favorite childhood Disney songs in German, Spanish or Italian. You may find that you even want to sing along with them. Take a deep breath, make sure only consenting adults are within earshot, and go for it. Jingles and songs learned in any language stick in the mind for decades, long after the grammatical nuts and bolts have faded.
Language teachers call these “authentic texts,” which is simply another way to say that this is real, living, breathing language. Whether it’s Hindi rap or the ingredients on a packet of Finnish cornflakes, there’s no better way to discover the true character of a language.
2. Use your devices
Think of the technology you use on a daily basis. How about changing the display language? Your computer, your smartphone, your browser, your apps, Facebook, your GPS, and of course any games you play.
It might be worth making a mental note of how to change the language back though, just in case.
3. Build associations with your environment
Your environment is full of vocabulary. Sticky notes are your friends when it comes to labeling every object in your house, and this has the added side benefit of driving your housemates or loved ones crazy.
Handy tip: Don’t just label stuff, build associations with useful vocabulary. For example, if you’re learning Italian, don’t just write l’interruttore della luce (the light switch) but also accendere (to turn on), spegnere (to turn off), luminoso (bright) and scuro (dark). Reading these associations regularly will help solidify them in your mind. Try making little sentences with them as you go about your day — talking to yourself can be invaluable.
4. Less is more — when you do it regularly
You’ve got a lot on your plate. Make it a habit to learn as much as you can every day — and can is the operative word here. You’ve got half an hour? Great. Only 15 minutes today? No problem. It’s still better than cramming for a weekend and then doing nothing for a couple of weeks.
What’s important is that you learn regularly, and that you find time for it in your daily routine. If you’re able to integrate language learning into your day instead of trying to set aside “extra” time for it, the chances of it becoming a habit are much better.
5. Use those little spare minutes
Anyone who’s quit smoking knows how often we make little pockets of space and time for ourselves, during which one’s hand wanders invariably to a pack of cigarettes. They are easily filled with a dose of language learning. When you’re waiting for the bus, whip out your notepad. While you’re walking the dog, listen to that foreign language podcast. Waiting at a cafe? Scan the headlines on Der Spiegel or Le Monde instead of Huffington Post.
6. Find someone to talk to, even if it’s you
Finding a native speaker to talk to is an absolute must if you want to learn a language. A tandem partner (somebody who wants to practice your language) is a great way to do it. Can’t find one? Get someone else who’s learning the language, a classmate or colleague. Practice can be as small as a few words here and there: You can help that Russian tourist in their own language, or insult the other soccer team in Spanish. If there’s really nobody around who speaks the language you’re learning, check out remote options via Skype, a chatroom or forum, or join a Facebook group that uses the language.
And don’t be afraid to chat to yourself in the language you’re learning: everybody who’s ever learned a language has done this at one stage or another. It’s perfect for building your confidence, trying out new words, or practicing a structure so it becomes second nature.
7. Pursue your hobby in your new language
Hobbies may not necessarily lend themselves to language learning at first glance, but if you dig a little deeper you will find opportunities. If you like yoga and live in a big city, there’s a good chance that there’s a class in your language. Gourmands will find a wealth of terrific recipes in other languages. And if you’re more a fan of carpentry, do-it-yourself home improvement, or the intricacies of a good French knead, you can be quite sure there’s a Youtube video out there for you.
Time to get lazy, productively…
Speaking of Youtube: It’s a fabulous way to lose hours of your life. So next time you’re bored at work and need a distraction, at least waste time in the language you want to learn. Cat videos are highly advisable, and available in every language.