How To Practice A New Language While Cooking

Cooking is the perfect time to multitask.
Cooking and language learning represented by a young man and woman in their kitchen preparing a meal with lettuce.

We’re forever talking about all the ways you can get immersed in a new language and weave learning into your everyday activities. But if you’ve ever tried to actually put this into practice, then you know it’s not always as intuitive as it sounds. Making your dinner prep into an educational activity is a great (and fun) way to multitask, but how do you actually learn another language while you cook? Do you pull up some international recipes? Do you stage a foreign-language cooking show in your apartment and pretend to be the host? Do you yell at someone else to do the dishes in another language?

Combining language learning with cooking is a smart idea, though, and not only because it gives you an excuse to eat. It’ll give you a chance to practice your food vocabulary and master your command of the imperative verb form — not to mention become more intimately acquainted with the cultural context of the words you’re speaking.

On top of that, hands-on learners (people who learn best by touching and doing) will find this approach to be much more suited to their individual learning style than merely gazing at a book all day. By associating tastes, movements and tactile sensations with words (you know, like the acrid sensation of onion vapors in your eyes, or the fuzzy skin of a kiwi), you can make language learning a more well-rounded, sensory experience. And you can reward yourself with food at the end. That’s really the main point.

Here are a few approaches you can take to make your kitchen adventures into a learning experience.

1. Label Your Stuff

Ah yes, the classic sticky note approach. Except this time, you’re labeling ingredients you’ll need to read international recipes and talk about what you’re making, so you know you’ll soon have a reason to practice your new vocabulary, instead of hanging around awkwardly waiting for an opportunity to bring up your desk lamp. This is an easy step you can take before you even get your hands dirty in the kitchen. Just start by looking up the words for all the items in your fridge and pantry. Don’t forget to label your kitchen tools and appliances, too!

2. Practice Some General Food Vocab

It’s never a bad idea to get super familiar with basic terminology like “bread,” “milk” and “eat.” These are the building blocks you’ll need to have more complex conversations about food later on. Try learning these words before you start cooking, and then look for opportunities to recall them when they feel relevant in your day-to-day life.

Here are some vocabulary primers to get you started, complete with audio pronunciation voiced by a native speaker.

3. Look Up International Recipes

Once you’ve got some basic vocabulary down, you’ll want to take things to the next step: learning to read and follow international recipes. This will not only require you to learn the words for the various ingredients, but also familiarize yourself with measurements and culinary verbs that are conjugated in the imperative form (for example, “chop the onion” is different than “I chopped the onion”).

To find international recipes that are written in the language (and not just adapted to English), your best bet is to Google the name of the dish as it’s called in that language. You might need to look up individual words in the recipe as you’re working through it, but the idea is to challenge your existing reading comprehension abilities and try to guess what things mean before confirming them yourself. And you’ll probably want to double check them — unless you’re okay with maybe having a weird sloppy mess on your hands.

4. Watch Cooking Videos

If you’re feeling comfortable enough to raise the stakes even further, try watching a cooking video in another language. This might actually be easier than struggling through a written recipe with no visual aids to show you how it’s done, but the added challenge is that you’ll have to flex your listening skills to comprehend the language as it’s actually spoken, as well as decipher some of the casual banter that inevitably comes with the territory.

5. Plan A Dinner Party

Once you’ve gained a little bit of confidence in your foreign-language culinary aptitude, a fun way to take things to the next level is to plan a dinner party for a date, your family or a few friends. This gives you an opportunity to not only execute several international recipes at once, but to practice your conversation skills at the table. At the very least, you can practice saying things like “thank you” and “enjoy your meal” if no one else at the table speaks the language.

Here are a few language-specific guides for throwing a dinner party to inspire you.

6. Dig Into Some Culinary Culture

Words can be rather empty without an understanding of the cultural context they describe. Though you don’t have to change your language settings in order to research the culinary traditions of the language you’re learning, it’s always worth it to gain a deeper appreciation of the culture and history that gave rise to its most beloved dishes.

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