The year 2020 may have stunted many people’s plans to travel abroad. However, the time you have at home may now open the door for you to finally be able to cross off one of your bucket list items — learning a language.
Perhaps you and your family have been wanting to learn German or French, or you’ve always dreamt of reading Cicero’s works in Latin. Well, there’s no time like the present to learn a new language. The following tips are some of the best ways to work on comprehension skills, build vocabulary, and gain confidence speaking, all from the comfort of your home.
Tip 1: Watch Your Favorite Shows in Your Target Language
Watching television shows in a second language can be a major boost to your vocabulary development and an excellent way to work on listening comprehension skills. TV shows and movies expose you to everyday speech like colloquialisms and slang, much like an immersive experience would do.
For a fun cultural experience, you can check out a foreign film or show produced by another country. There are a number of easily-searched foreign films and shows on Netflix. In addition, many of the shows you already watch via your favorite streaming services also come dubbed or subtitled. You can learn a ton by watching a show you’re already familiar with that’s just dubbed over in a different language. When you are already familiar with a show, you already have some context, making deciphering meaning much easier.
Tip 2: Find a Penpal and Get Talking!
One of my most impactful friendships was with a Parisian named Clément. After I came down with a bad case of mono in 7th grade, I was stuck at home for several months. I kept up with my French by chatting with Clément via America Online, and slowly but surely, I became a French wiz. The online chat feature allowed me to overcome shyness and develop confidence in my French, which fostered a lifelong love of languages.
Whether you talk on the phone, exchange handwritten letters, or write in a chat or email, your conversations with a penpal will surely help your language skills bloom. Sites like InterPals or Conversation Exchange are a great place to start looking for a partner.
Tip 3: Pick Up Some Books
You don’t need to have a huge vocabulary to read a book in a foreign language. At first, it may seem like a daunting task, but once you get through the first few pages, your confidence will grow. Remember that you don’t need to understand every word. What’s important is to get the gist and only look up the words necessary to understand the overall meaning.
If you’re a true beginner, you can even start with some children’s books, especially those you’ve read in English. Even the simplest of books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle and Bill Martin, Jr. in French, Japanese or German can be very beneficial for learning the basics in a fun way. Amazon and online bookstores such as Language Lizard also tend to have dual-language books that show you English alongside the target language on each page, such as El Jardín de Errol (Errol’s Garden), Mungo Findet Neue Freunde (Mungo Makes New Friends), Un Jour Avec Grand-Père (A Day with Grandpa), or Non Piangere Furbino (Don’t Cry, Sly!).
Beyond picture books, short stories and fairy tales are another great place to start. Go with those you already know, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which has been translated into numerous languages. If you’re a Disney fan, you can also read an original version of one of the many fairy tales Disney has made into films. Disney picked up dozens of tales authored by The Brothers Grimm in German, including The Princess and the Frog (Der Froschkönig, oder der eiserne Heinrich) and Rapunzel. Charles Perrault wrote several French tales that are now beloved Disney movies, including Cinderella (Cendrillon) and Sleeping Beauty (La Belle aux Bois Dormant).
If these fairy tales’ original text seems too challenging, many adaptations have been created specifically for beginning language learners, such as this collection for Latin learners.
Tip 4: Take a Synchronous Course
Few can argue with the many benefits of learning a language under the guidance of a seasoned instructor. Language classes provide you with access to an expert in the field who can help guide you in learning pronunciation and tackling tricky grammatical points. For example, a native English speaker may not understand the idea that in some languages, all nouns are either masculine or feminine; in the case of German and Latin, neither is also an option! A class also brings to life a language in a fun way and provides many opportunities to speak, not only with the teacher but also with the other students.
We at Well-Trained Mind Academy offer synchronous courses for middle and high school students that combine the convenience of online classes with the fun, educational environment of a live class. Students interact in small groups and get personalized feedback from teachers who are passionate about the languages they teach.
Tip 5: Check Out Target Language Songs
It can be tricky deciphering the words in songs, but listening to foreign language music provides a fun cultural backdrop for your learning. Try looking up on YouTube or Google “popular (insert language) songs” to find the greatest hits in the language you’re studying. You can then also Google the song’s name along with the word “lyrics” to learn new words and sing along. You’ll find you understand even more when you both hear the song and read the text simultaneously.
Being stuck inside can be tough for the most extroverted of us! You can challenge yourself and bring excitement to the new year by making these learning strategies part of your everyday routine. And, once you do get overseas, you’ll finally be able to have that conversation you’ve always wanted to have, all while enjoying a pain au chocolat or Sauerbraten. Most of all, learning a language teaches you not just about others, but about your own language and cultural identity. So, carpe diem, and let’s see what language you can learn in 2021!
By Marissa Henry, PhD; French Instructor
My passion for French and online learning started when, sick with mono, I was homeschooled for a few months. My French teacher encouraged me to find a penpal who wanted to learn English so that we could practice each other’s languages. Chatting away online with my French friend allowed me to practice new structures and vocabulary, and take risks in a stress-free environment. When I returned to school, my French teacher couldn’t believe how much progress I made. This experience sparked a life-long love of French studies and showed me that the virtual learning setting is beneficial for all types of learners.