Compared to other skills, a language has a pretty low bar to entry. You don’t need to buy special equipment to learn a language, you just need your brain and a little resourcefulness. Of course, if it were all that simple, we’d all be walking around as polyglots. But if you want some practice, having a few language-learning exercises in your back pocket is a good way to get your brain working no matter where you are.
Here, we have some exercises that can inject a little extra language in your day-to-day life or help you explore a language more deeply. You can adapt them in any way that works best for you. The most important thing to remember is that learning a language doesn’t happen overnight. Even short, simple exercises are an important step to feeling more confident speaking the language you’re learning.
5 Smart Language-Learning Exercises
Choose A Word Of The Day
The idea of a word of the day as a language-learning exercise is a little old-fashioned. It brings to mind the kind of person who would drop “sesquipedalian” in a sentence multiple times a day. Yet focusing on just one word a day can be very useful.
The first step is, of course, choosing a word. You’ll probably have luck simply searching the internet for “[Language] Word of the Day,” but you can do whatever you want. Keep a list of words you’re having trouble with; choose from vocab lists; or open a dictionary at random, close your eyes and point.
What you do next depends on the word. You’ll want to know what it means, of course, but you’ll also want to understand how it fits into the rest of the language. If it’s a verb, find out if it’s irregular and conjugate it. If it’s an adjective, figure out what kinds of things it usually describes. A preposition can be extra tricky, because the way they’re used differs so much from language to language. If you’re the type of person who keeps a language journal, a word of the day is a great feature to add, but the only requirement here is spending a few minutes a day studying a new term and adding it to your linguistic repertoire.
You’re not going to learn an entire language with this method, admittedly. It would take far too long to build up your vocabulary a single word at a time. This language-learning exercise is more to ensure your knowledge keeps growing once you’ve gotten through all the basics.
Collect And Explore Synonyms
The thesaurus is one of the most helpful writing tools out there. You’ve probably learned, however, that synonyms don’t necessarily mean the same thing. For example, “big” and “vast” are synonyms, but you wouldn’t talk about a “vast dog.”
When you’re learning a new language, it’s important to pay attention to these words that have a similar meaning but are used in different ways. One of the biggest pitfalls of using a translation app for everything is that it erases some of these subtleties. To learn from this, you can take special note of a word’s synonyms and how their usage differs.
A good bilingual dictionary will give you some insight into the words, but the best way to learn how to use similar words is to listen to other speakers and take note. Is a certain adjective mainly used for describing specific things? Is a noun you learned actually a bit old-fashioned to everyday speakers? Making lists of synonyms and figuring out where the differences lie can make the difference between natural and unnatural sounding speech.
Translate What You See And Hear Around You
This exercise can work in either direction. If you see or hear something in the language you’re learning — which may be more or less likely depending on where you live — make sure to try to bring it into the language you’re learning. And of course, any text or audio you see in your native language can be translated into your learning language. To really hold yourself accountable, actually write out these translations so you can check them against another translation.
This language-learning exercise may seem obvious, but there’s another benefit that makes it important. By focusing on the language you’re running into on a daily basis, you’ll be working on exactly the kind of stuff that’s most important to know. Translating street signs or menus in your head will prepare you better for traveling to another country than choosing sentences at random.
If you’re struggling to naturally stumble upon the language you’re learning (which is reasonable), you can always force it to happen. Low-tech hacks like hanging sticky notes up around your home or carrying around flashcards can help to add just a little bit more learning to your day. And then there’s the tool that gives you access to content from all over the world at the touch of a button: the internet. There are countless ways you can use the internet for language learning, from following social media accounts in the language you’re learning to reading news articles from around the world. The key is to make it natural and seamless to run into the language you’re learning on a daily basis.
Find The Reasons Behind Patterns You Observe
One of the best feelings when you’re learning a language is when a concept finally “clicks.” It’s hard to predict when it’ll happen. Sometimes, you can turn the same concept over and over again in your mind and feel like you’ll never fully “get it.” The secret to finding these moments is to pay special attention to patterns.
Depending on how you’re learning, you may have an instructor or app that points out a lot of patterns along the way. Even if you’re on your own, however, you will probably start to notice them. Maybe you’ll see that all adjectives have the same suffix, or that irregular verbs have a factor in common. Patterns underlie so much of how language works.
Once you’ve identified a pattern, the language-learning exercise doesn’t stop there. Ask why exactly that pattern exists. The advantage of learning a language when you’re an adult rather than an infant is that you can really dig deep into how the language works. If you can’t figure it out on your own, you can always search language learning communities like those on Reddit and see what other people have found. When you’re really able to understand the quirks of a language, you’re more likely to remember how to speak it.
Start Thinking In The Language Early On
There’s a mythical moment of language mastery where a person thinks in another language for the first time. If you ask most multilingual people, however, they struggle to remember when exactly this switch happened. Maybe they remember the first time they dreamed in the new language, or they just know that one day they were thinking and realized it was in a different language.
The thing is, you don’t have to wait for that to happen. You can try thinking in your learning language pretty much as soon as you start. It’ll be a challenge at first. It can kind of feel like you’re holding your breath, and the return to your own language is like a big gasp of air. The point is to try your hardest to see what you can do in another language. If you don’t know a word for something yet, see if you can rephrase the thought to slot in some vocab you do know. Find the areas you notice you keep getting stuck on and focus your studying on that. You’ll be carving neural pathways that will come in handy later on. Plus, you’ll be able to feel your progress over time.