Social distancing honestly hasn’t been too challenging for my generally-introverted self, but I’m ITCHING to speak a foreign language, travel, and discover something new. Given that I was supposed to arrive in London today, my #wanderlust is hitting a little harder than usual. But even though we can’t travel physically, learning a foreign language is the best way to discover a culture from a distance. (That, and food.) Here are my tried-and-tested tips to learn a foreign language when stuck at home!
Quick disclaimer: I am not entirely a self-taught language learner. I started French in high school, majored in French in college, and lived in France for a year and a half. However, I’ve used all these strategies for French, as well as Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, insert-language-of-the-week-here, etc. and they are crazy effective!
Where to start?
If you’re at the beginning stages of language learning, you probably want to understand the basics first. There are a million and one language learning sites out there. All of them work to some degree, I use Babble for Spanish, and I love it! One of my favorite things about Babbel is that they use human voices and engage you in real-life dialogue (no weird sentences about a horse driving a car). This helps you progress super quickly!
It’s available as an app and on desktop, so whether you’re sitting on your couch or… I guess… sitting on your couch, you can learn! Right now, you can get 25% off a year’s subscription to Babbel. This works out to a little less than $6 a month, and is SO worth it!
How to immerse yourself at home
Everyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language will tell you that immersion is the best way. Your first reaction may be, “Well that’s impossible since I’m stuck here!” But how much time do you spend in a day listening to music, watching tv, or listening to podcasts? If you’re anything like me, it probably works out to a fair number of hours.
Netflix has an amazing selection of foreign language series and movies. To search by language, go to the desktop site and simply type your target language into the search bar. From there, pick TV Shows or Movies. Some of my favorite series on there are Call My Agent (French), 3% (Portuguese), and La Casa de las Flores (Spanish).
Start with English subtitles, but if you’re more advanced, watch with the subtitles on in your target language. This is something I have done for a loooong time. Whenever I come across a word I don’t know, I will rewind 15 seconds to see if I can gather context clues. If I still have no idea, I’ll open WordReference on my phone, and write down the definition in a notebook. To really learn a foreign language, you need to be able to fill in the gaps in conversation, so don’t focus on understanding every single word!
To REALLY level up, I’ve taken to putting the words I’ve learned from shows into Anki. This lets me practice with spaced repetition, one of the best-proven strategies for committing information to memory.
Not only can this technique help you learn a foreign language’s vocabulary, but by utilizing Word Reference, you can look through the forums for idiomatic expressions and common sayings that utilize the vocabulary. Mastering slang and expressions will make you sound like a native, even if you sometimes make grammar errors (guilty).
I spend probably 5 hours a day listening to podcasts on Overcast. You can set and save your listening speed for specific podcasts, meaning you can set your foreign language podcasts to 0.5 or 0.8, but still listen to the rest of your podcasts at normal speed. If you’re an NPR junkie, Radio Ambulante is a Latin-American focused podcast in Spanish with SO many interesting episodes.
For music, search for the type of music you like in your target language. I know music is a super personal thing for people, so I’m not going to give too many recommendations on this one. However, I’ve really been digging this Spanish Goth Darkwave Punk playlist I found a while ago. (Think of The Cure, Tears for Fears, etc. pero en español)
Finally, almost every rabbit hole you can fall into on YouTube or Reddit exists in other languages. Think about the words you use on a daily basis that you would never learn in a classroom! One of my guilty pleasures is YouTube fashion and makeup videos, and they proved to be SO useful when I was shopping in Paris.
Challenge yourself to spend a day only consuming media in your target language! Add onto these suggestions with the news or memes to fill time as you see fit.
If you’re trying to learn a foreign language, you know you need to speak it. Italki is an AMAZING website to talk to native speakers. You can use it for general conversation, assistance with grammar, or even test prep.
At the end of last year, I took the DALF C1 exam to prove my fluency in French. I worked with an amazing tutor named Marion Harduin who gave me recommendations for books, helped me with my grammar and technical writing, and even spent time outside of our lessons correcting my work. The DALF is scored out of 100, you need a 50 to pass, and I got an 84!
I owe much of this to Marion, who was so knowledgeable about the test and gave me personalized feedback. I got to pick my own learning schedule, and it cost way less than hiring a private tutor in person. Definitely try out Italki if you want to practice speaking, as there isn’t really a substitute for talking with native speakers.
Writing (and Talking pt. 2)
Journal in your target language (or talk to yourself in your target language!)
I recently learned that some people don’t have an internal monologue when they’re thinking (how!?). Mine is so strong that sometimes it ends up being an external monologue. If you also have the tendency to talk to yourself, try doing it in your target language! I speak SO much better when I am talking alone rather than being guided by a conversation, and I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that the fear of messing up is removed.
Journaling is also a great activity, as you can come back and “proofread” your journals later to see if you’ve made any mistakes. Learning from the mistakes you frequently make is a great way to improve.
You’re probably like, “Duh, Al”, but reading has always been one of my favorite ways to learn a foreign language.
I love to read, and I am obsessed with analyzing beautiful phrasing and metaphors. Seeing and recognizing literary devices in another language is a super useful skill. Every language has its own onomatopoeia, animal sounds, etc. and you never know when you may need to know them!
There are so many benefits to reading in your target language, not to mention the sense of accomplishment from finishing a book in a foreign language.
I hope some of my tips for learning a foreign language when you’re stuck at home make social distancing a little more fun. Stay motivated by thinking about all the AMAZING conversations you’ll have with locals once we can all travel again!
Want more specific recommendations about any foreign language learning resources I mentioned, or have any tips you love to learn languages at home? Leave a comment!
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