Three Surprisingly Easy Ways to Improve Your Language-Learning

Have you ever studied another language, only to hit a wall you can’t seem to get past in terms of your comprehension? I have too; I studied French and Spanish from junior high school through college, and beyond on my own, yet I’ve gotten rusty in both and struggle to really speak and understand either the way I feel I should by now.

But I’ve come up with a few strategies to improve my abilities in both languages, and wanted to share them with you in the hopes you’ll benefit from them too.

I’m not talking about the common tips, like to practice, practice, practice — sure, do that whenever possible. But we already know that, yet many of us still struggle to get to an intermediate level in our language(s) of study.

I also won’t suggest classes — again, nothing wrong with that approach, but I’m assuming that many of us have gone that route already but need help breaking past the classroom-level of proficiency. See, formal, structured lessons often involve learning by rote (think verb conjugations like hablo, hablas, habla, hablamos…). But when it comes to being able to pick up more off-the-cuff forms of communications, it’s not as easy — at least it hasn’t been for me.

Besides, I’m also making another assumption that, like me, you may be unable or unwilling to spend a lot of time and/or money on formal education, one-on-one tutors and so on.

Well, I believe we don’t have to. Right now I’ve been looking for little ways to incorporate my target languages into my daily life, and here’s what’s been working for me so far:

I. I’ve changed my display languages on everything I can think of, from my Kindle to my web browser. I’ve set most of them to French, since I’m weaker in that language. I really like this strategy because I already have an idea of what the prompts mean from having read them in English for so long, yet now seeing them in French teaches me new words I don’t know yet but should.

For instance, in searching for my trash bin in my Gmail account, I realized it was in the area marked “corbeille.” That didn’t sound like the word “trash” to me, so it prompted me to Google it; I found that it meant “little basket.”

Which I found adorable — definitely much more pleasant-sounding than “trash!”

But most importantly, now I know the word for “basket,” which is a word I probably never would have thought to look up otherwise but one I think is common enough to be very useful.

This strategy also helps me review terms I do know but may have forgotten; for instance, when I go to the area where my sent messages are, I see that they’re called “messages envoyés.” This reminds me that the verb “to send” in French is envoyer. Pretty handy verb to keep in mind, I’d say!

Google chrome language settings CROPPED

In Google Chrome, you can set your preferred language(s) and turn off automatic translation options in the “advanced” settings area.

II. I read websites, blogs and books in my target languages. I’m surprised by how many language-learners have only read educational books in their language of study; after formal classes end, they read no more.

Granted, many people also don’t read much at all, even in their native language. But I love to — so recently I decided to do some of that reading in French and Spanish. It’s even easier to do now what with the proliferation of affordable e-books.

I do choose somewhat simple books; I’m not talking about reading translations of Shakespeare. Not ready for that!

What I do is think of subjects I enjoy reading about — let’s say heath and careers. I then type these terms in French or Spanish into Amazon so my book results come up in my preferred languages.

I should note here that before doing this, I often have to do a Google search for a translation of the subject I’m interested in, like when I wanted to search for tips on a healthy life. I forgot the word for “healthy” in French is “saine” and Googled that first so I could do my Amazon search. Just FYI!

I then preview my matches using the “Look Inside” feature to get a sense of whether a particular book is just challenging enough to be educational for me, while also not being so difficult I’m looking up every single word. I also make sure to choose books that seem to have an interesting flow and approach; I know if I choose a boring text, I’ll never read it and defeat the whole purpose.

A while back, I also bought French-English and Spanish-English dictionaries for my Kindle. That way, when I read books in French and Spanish and come across a word I really can’t figure out, I just highlight it for its translation, much as you can get definitions of English words using the Kindle’s built-in English dictionary. The translation function is just as easy, once you download the language dictionary you need and go to your settings to make it the default dictionary for that particular language. (FYI, I went with this one for French and this one for Spanish; others I’d checked had reviews saying they didn’t work properly as default dictionaries. In those cases, you’d have the book on your Kindle just like any other book, but the ability to quickly translate a specific word as you read would not be functional.)

I love this aspect of reading foreign language e-books so much; I remember how tedious it used to be to have a physical dictionary on hand for every unknown word, but with an e-reader, the answers are right there so you don’t have to lose your flow or forego the chance to properly learn a new word!

Incidentally, I would have thought it would be possible to just search Amazon for “health books in French” or to type “health” and click a language option, but I haven’t found that to be the case. So, this is why I go about my search this way.

On a related note, I don’t recommend going to the international sites of Amazon, like French Amazon at if you plan to download French books to a Kindle for example; from what I’ve read, you might encounter problems since some books are licensed for use in specific countries. So if you try to use Amazon France for that in the U.S., it won’t work for some books. Plus I believe you may have some payment conversion issues and whatnot. I’ve never tried this though, so if I’m wrong and you know doing this has worked for you, do share!

Another reading tip, albeit on a smaller scale: I also follow Twitter users and media sources who post in French and Spanish. While I’m not the best connection for them since I struggle to respond and comment meaningfully in those languages, I do enjoy reading their updates and find that this helps me pick up more casual forms of communication.

III. I look for shows I can watch in other languages. I prefer doing this online instead of via TV since it’s easier to find what I’m looking for, including some programs that are made specifically for language learners yet aren’t the kind of dry lessons that we often get from traditional classroom learning.

My preference is to watch news segments, because I can often get a sense of what’s being said through the visual cues and context even when I can’t catch or understand every single word. I learn and retain new words much better this way versus reading a vocabulary list and trying to remember it. That works only up to a point for me.

On a related note, I find native speakers often speak too fast for me to understand; this happens to me often with Spanish shows. So, when I’m having a hard time finding a show that’s a good pace for me, or let’s say it’s late and I’m a bit tired, sometimes I’ll watch a show aimed at older kids. I find characters on these shows speak a bit slower yet still provide a good lesson in vocabulary and sentence construction.

Well, that about rounds up my top three tips for improving my language skills. Between a mix of research and trial and error, I’ve found these strategies have been helping me. I hope they help you as well!

Why I Love the Internet: E-Learning Edition

We’re so lucky to live in this era, what with the vast array of technological gadgets that exist, our access to the Internet, and the ability to watch a live feed of a spacecraft launch by NASA online.

While most of us recognize this on an abstract level, it can be hard to fully appreciate and make use of these advantages to improve our personal lives in the long run, beyond sending emails and using social media.

See, sometimes I’ll fall into a pouty mood and wish I’d learned more practical skills in college and grad school; the programs and courses I took were more theoretical, focused on the history of communications or the evolution of higher education. Why didn’t I take courses in business or computer programming? I sometimes wonder regretfully. (You see, writers and educators don’t make a lot of money. Ahem.)

But then I have to remind myself that I really have no excuse not to learn about any one of these subjects right now. It doesn’t even have to cost me a cent, thanks to the wide range of courses we can take online for free.

So, in researching some of the options out there, I thought it might help others if I shared the information I found. You may know about some or all of these resources, but if not, take a look — especially if you’re contemplating a job/career change. As an advocate of finding work that fulfills you, I wholeheartedly encourage this; it’s never too late to learn something new or add to your skillset.

If you did already know about these options, I’d love to hear your thoughts on them. Or if you knew but haven’t used them yet — what are you waiting for?! Let’s do this!


I love Coursera’s description of itself and its mission on its website:

“Coursera is an education platform that partners with top universities and organizations worldwide, to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.”

What I like most so far about Coursera is its eye-catching, user-friendly layout. Right on the home page you’re asked, “What would you like to learn about?” I did a test search for “computer programming” and got many matches, which I could then further refine by language, institution, certification eligibility, and more. From my initial look at it, Coursera looks like a great option.


According to the edX website:

“EdX offers interactive online classes and MOOCs from the world’s best universities. Online courses from MITx, HarvardX, BerkeleyX, UTx and many other universities. Topics include biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, finance, electronics, engineering, food and nutrition, history, humanities, law, literature, math, medicine, music, philosophy, physics, science, statistics and more. EdX is a non-profit online initiative created by founding partners Harvard and MIT.”

Note: MOOC stands for Massive Online Open Courses. Taking part in one as an auditor means you have access to the same information and resources as official students in the class from the host institution do — the upside? As the edX site states, “You decide what and how much you want to do.”

I find edX’s interface to be similar to Coursera’s in terms of its visually-appealing design and user-friendly interface. On the home page, you can use a drop-down menu to search for the topic you’re interested in, or you can browse through icons with descriptions of courses.

Open Culture  

Here’s how Open Culture describes itself on its website:

“Get 1000 free online courses from the world’s leading universities — Stanford, Yale, MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Oxford and more. You can download these audio & visual courses (often from iTunes, YouTube, or university web sites) straight to your computer or mp3 player. Over 30,000 hours of free audio & video lectures, await you now.”

While I found Open Culture’s website layout a little less visually appealing and easy to navigate than the others, it still seems to offer a lot of decent options from which to choose. Definitely worth a look.


The mission statement on Udacity’s website is very compelling:

“Education is no longer a one-time event but a lifelong experience. Education should be less passive listening (no long lectures) and more active doing. Education should empower students to succeed not just in school but in life. We are reinventing education for the 21st century by bridging the gap between real-world skills, relevant education, and employment. Our students will be fluent in new technology, modern mathematics, science, and critical thinking. They will marry skills with creativity and humanity to learn, think, and do. Udacians are curious and engaged world citizens.”

I’m a total believer in this kinds of hands-on, experiential education.

What also really stood out to me about Udacity was the fact that their courses are “taught by industry leaders excited to share their expertise from companies such as Google, Facebook, Cloudera, and MongoDB,” according to its website. While I’m all for university courses, I also like to learn from current professionals in the field, so I think it’s great that Udacity does this.

I did a quick search for computer programming again, and found many matches; it helps that Udacity is focused on technology. The results even indicated which courses are appropriate for each student level, from “new to tech” through “advanced.”

From what I saw, though, some courses are only free for a two-week trial period; the one I looked at would cost $199 a month otherwise, but also includes services such as verified certificates as well as feedback and guidance from coaches.

However, a little digging can produce free courses such as an “Intro to Java Programming” course I found on the site, offered in partnership with San José State University.

I think I might start my e-learning adventure with Udacity — especially because I like how they refer to their students as “Udacians,” which to me sounds like a term referring to the residents of a recently discovered planet with a thriving civilization.

Getting to learn online and sound cool and science-fictiony at the same? Just another reason why I love the Internet.