7 life hacks to boost your language-learning
After years of learning Spanish in my free time, I realised I was making some fundamental errors. I was always looking for a quick fix. I cycled between different online courses, books and apps. I’d throw myself into something new determined this time it would be different. But then, life would get in the way. I’d get frustrated with my lack of progress and give up. I knew this start and stop pattern was wrong, but I didn’t know how to break the cycle.
Then it clicked. You don’t ever stop learning a language. You can’t bury yourself in one thing and expect to become fluent. Pardon the overused cliché, but you have to live and breathe the language. But how do you immerse yourself in it when you can’t shift your life to a new country?
Well, there is no right answer. But there are simple things you can do to make sure you’re getting a daily dose of your target language. Below are some ideas with pointers which have worked for me. They’re free (or low-cost), easy to squeeze into a busy schedule and more fun than your average grammar textbook. They’re mainly activities I do every day anyway, so it made sense to switch some of these things over to my target language.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure you enjoy it, mix it up and be consistent.
1. Listen to a podcast
If you’re not using podcasts, why not?! There’s no excuse with lots freely available on streaming platforms. Podcasts bring your learning to life by shining a lens on different cultures, points of view and accents in an authentic way. Some people like to listen on their daily commute, while cleaning or in the shower. Fitting in 5 minutes here and there is a great way to break up the podcast into manageable chunks.
I love to listen to podcasts featuring 2 or more people in conversation. These tend to mirror how people speak in real life, which is exactly what we love here at golingo – a conversational approach!
If you have enough time…try to listen to the whole episode in one go first. Then listen to it again with a transcript, if available. And finally, listen to it one more time. Here are some recommendations.
- Various languages
2. Find a playlist
Sometimes, listening to a podcast is a bit too intense. So if you’re like me and listen to music while working, swap out your focus playlist for something in your target language. Streaming platforms like Spotify have playlists in every language to suit any mood. It might take a while to find something you like, but half the fun is discovering new artists and genres.
When I started doing this, I understood virtually nothing. But soon you begin to recognise the odd word and then the odd sentence. Before you know it, you’re singing along, even if you are making up most of the words.
If you find a song you can’t get enough of, get a copy of the lyrics and learn the words! Soon you’ll be impressing your friends at karaoke night. Here are some songs to get you going.
- English: The Lazy Song (Bruno Mars)
- French: Je ne t’aime plus (Manu CHAO)
- Spanish: Porque te vas (Jeanette)
- Italian: Ancora tu (Róisín Murphy)
- German: Für Frauen ist das kein Problem (Max Raabe)
- Welsh: Ar Lan Y Mor (Max Boyce)
3. Watch TV shows and movies
Given my language-learning challenges over the years, I’m in awe of people that can speak another language fluently. And when I ask them how they did it, 80% of the time they’ll say they watched a lot of shows in their target language. I’m sure they also spent a lot of time throwing themselves into situations where they needed to practice speaking, but I can’t help but feel this must be one of the best ways to boost your listening comprehension. Afterall most shows and movies involve some sort of dialogue, reflecting spoken language and real-life conversations.
As a beginner, I started by searching for short YouTube videos, some aimed at language learners and others for native speakers, especially kids. I fell into the trap of pausing the video at every word I didn’t understand which was painful. I quickly realised the best thing to do was just to sit back, relax and watch the whole video through to get the gist. Even if I had no idea what was going on, I could understand bits and this was good enough.
Streaming platforms like Netflix now have a huge range of content from lots of countries. Watch the shows in their original audio (undubbed) and switch on the subtitles: in your native language if you’re a beginner; in the target language if you’re more advanced. I try to watch 10-15 minutes of a show at a time without pausing. At the end of this period, if I don’t quite know what’s going on, I’ll rewatch it, look up the odd word, slow down the audio etc.
4. Read an article
Catching up with the news in Spanish over a coffee has been an easy addition to my morning routine. It’s interesting to see how world events are reported in different places as well as get a deeper insight into the culture of a country. In reality, I only have enough time to squeeze one article in each morning, but that’s more than enough.
I skim the article first to get the gist and go back to the beginning to fill in the gaps. I’m not bothered about understanding every word or sentence (using a dictionary in the morning is a step too far for me). But, if there is a repeating word that seems important, I will make the effort to look it up. It helps if you’re already familiar with the news item. Here are some suggestions.
- English: News in levels
- French: Le journal en français facile
- Spanish: Hola qué pasa
- German: Nachrichtenleicht
- Italian: Easy Italian news
Not a news person? There are lots of free articles and blogs out there so find something that interests you. Entertainment news is great for colloquial vocabulary to use when speaking.
5. Read a fiction book
If you read a lot or want to read more, it’s a no brainer to switch some of this to books in your target language. This might sound intimidating, but there are lots of short stories out there written for language-learners of all levels, some freely available online.
Be realistic though. It can be draining (and demoralising) if you pick something too difficult. Set a realistic target. Start by reading a paragraph or one page. Don’t stumble on the meanings of individual words or sentences – just try to get the gist. There are some words you’ll need to learn, but it will be more enjoyable if you spend more time reading than looking up words.
Don’t know where to start? There are lots of blogs online with recommended reading lists. Teen and young adult fiction are great for intermediate learners. It helps if you already know the story or have read the book in your native language (I started by reading a page of Harry Potter a night before bed).
6. Keep a journal
To be honest, writing is my least favourite part of language learning, but the benefits are huge. Writing is a great way to engage your brain to produce language and think creatively. A lot of learners, including myself, fall into the trap of consuming too much language passively (through listening and reading). Actively having to express yourself through writing and speaking is just as important and necessary practice if you want to communicate in your target language.
When living in Spain, I kept a diary (more accurately, a few bullet points) of what I did each day in Spanish. Not only was I getting (much-needed) practice of the past tense, but it was also a great way to reinforce new words and keep a record of ways to say things like a native speaker. If something new happened that day, I’d write it down. Recalling words, structures and being creative with my existing vocabulary while committing them to paper cemented what I knew and showed me how to use this to express more.
You don’t have to write down your life story. Keep it short (3 bullet points) and mix it up by trying to write one new thing down each day. Try to express it in a way you would say it to someone so you can reuse these phrases in conversation.
7. Try a conversation on golingo!
Ok, so I am biased here. But there is a genuine reason we decided to create golingo. Lack of regular speaking practice is a consistent error I’ve made throughout my long history of language learning. No matter how much I learnt, I always seemed to fall flat on face whenever I had to speak. I tended to start conversations with “Lo siento, no hablo español muy bien” in the hope the person could speak some English. After the conversation, I would think of ways I could have said what I wanted to, if only I had practiced more.
Speaking requires regular nurturing. It can’t be learnt, like vocabulary or grammar. It requires confidence, which only comes with more practice. But finding opportunities to speak is hard. Language exchanges are great but can be intimidating or require forward planning. We all know we should practice more speaking, but what if you can only carve out 5 minutes in a day?
This is where the idea for golingo came about. A virtual city you can dip into, visit different locations and engage in short-form, simulated conversations based on real-life scenarios, all for free! Give it a go!