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!

Confessions of a Book Addict

I think I may officially be addicted to books.

The thought dawned on me when I read this article about a woman trying to pare down her book collection, especially since she’d just gotten an e-reader. I’ve been trying to do the same, since I too have had my beloved Kindle PaperWhite for over a year, but have still been having the hardest time doing it. That’s when I realized that I just might have a problem. Maybe I love books, and reading overall, too much. In fact, ever since getting my Kindle, I read even more than I used to.

Getting this Kindle really kicked my reading addiction up a notch.

“User” indeed: getting this Kindle really kicked my reading addiction up a notch.

But is it really possible to be addicted to something like reading?

To find out, I did some research (of a very scientific variety: I Googled “what is an addiction?”). I came across an article from Psychology Today which said that an addiction can involve an activity “that can be pleasurable but the continued use of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work or relationships, or health.”

Hmm. I think all of these criteria apply to me and reading. I mean, I haven’t lost a job because of it, but I have stayed up late reading on work nights, finding myself dragging through the next day as a result. That has to affect the quality of my work; for instance, it may explain why I’ve made typos such as calling a colleague named Tony “Tiny” in an email. (On a side note: I saw my typo right as I clicked “send” on the message, but hoped he wouldn’t notice it. Oh, but he did; while he didn’t acknowledge it, he corrected his name back to “Tony” in my email below his response. Made me laugh and feel bad at the same time, since my typo clearly bothered him!)

I’ve also neglected returning calls or responding to friends’ emails and text messages because I’ve gotten too caught up in my reading, whether it be a book or online articles and blogs, intending to read for just a few more minutes but then finding an hour or more has passed without me noticing.

The health factor applies too, since reading is a sedentary activity — I’m sad to say I don’t have one of these neat treadmill desks, and not just because of its cost, but also because of the space it would take up and the noise it would make in my small, old apartment building with its thin walls, floors and ceilings. (I once had a stationary bike that I thought would be quiet enough to use at home, but no; the neighbors downstairs banged up to me. Same thing happened when I’d play music at a normal level. My goal, though, is to be able to get one of these in the future, if I move to a house or ground-floor apartment.)

So this means time spent reading is time spent not being as active as I could be, although I do try to squeeze reading in during times when I’m already sitting, like in transit on the bus or train. I tell myself that helps minimize the amount of sitting I’d be doing overall. I did once toy with the idea of taking a book to the gym I’d joined, but it was usually too crowded there to use each machine for long; plus I’d need to walk at a slow pace while reading, which is not ideal for a workout. No, to me reading while walking is better done at home with a treadmill desk, which can be used for long stretches in order to minimize the effects of sitting.

Signs of an Addiction

I also looked up common signs of an addiction and came across the website for the Promises Treatment Center. According to their list of symptoms of addiction to anything from drugs to activities such as gambling, I really might be a reading addict. Here are a few of the signs I relate to the most:

  • “Noticeable fluctuations in mood.” I actually do get sad when I finish a great book, especially when I don’t have another one lined up that I’m eager to get to — hey, is that like an addict’s search for the next fix? — so, reading definitely can affect my mood.
  • “Loss of interest in activities that they used to enjoy.” It’s true. I once used to like chatting on the phone, watching TV, going to movies, but now…I don’t. At least, not as much as I used to. I mean, I still talk to friends and family on the phone and of course socialize in person, but I don’t spend as much time going out or talking on the phone as I once did. And although I do watch a few select shows on TV, I usually DVR them and then take weeks to get through them. (Not that TV is something we should be watching a ton of, but you get my point.) To be fair, I think all of this is a function of my evolving tastes as I grow older as well as the difficulty of coordinating busy schedules among several people, but a part of me does wonder if my renewed love for/addiction to reading is another significant culprit!
  • “Fluctuations in sleep or energy levels.” As I said above, I have let my reading interfere with my sleep schedule, which can affect how I feel the next day. Actually, it can affect how I feel for days afterwards, since throwing off my sleep pattern makes it hard to sleep at a normal time on subsequent nights, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Is This Really a Problem, or is it Normal?

I recently read comedian Marc Maron’s second book, Attempting Normal (published by Spiegel & Grau, April 30, 2013). In it, he says he has “hundreds of books” in what he calls “an empire of unread and partially read books.” This amused me, since I too have multiple boxes and shelves of books I’ve read, or mean to read soon.

Marc Maron Attempting Normal book from Amazon

I particularly enjoyed his explanation about why he loves to read so much:

“Reading is like a drug. When I am reading from these books it feels like I am thinking what is being read, and that gives me a rush. That is enough. I glean what I can. I finish some of the unfinished thoughts lingering around in my head by adding the thoughts of geniuses and I build from there.”

This made me feel better about my own passion for reading. I never thought of reading in quite this way, in terms of feeling like I’m thinking the words I’m reading, but it instantly resonated with me as I read it. I do like that about reading! I not only learn from what I read, but the process also feels like I kind of experienced what the author said and described. That might explain why I like to read books about life in other countries; I haven’t gotten to fulfill my desire to travel to places like Japan, for example, but a part of me feels like it’s already familiar to me because I’ve read about it so often.

As I was feeling reassured that maybe my approach to reading isn’t so bad after all, another thought popped into my mind. Maybe Marc Maron and I both suffer from the same addiction — after all, he does call reading a drug! — so I shouldn’t assume I’m okay based on what he wrote. That might be like someone with a dental cavity telling someone else with one that it’s common and nothing to worry about. Having two or more people share the same affliction doesn’t mean things are supposed to be, and stay, that way!

Ultimately, then, I really don’t know what to think about all of this. My instincts tell me to read up on this some more, but that could be the addiction talking.

But you know what? I’m okay with that — missed phone calls, lost sleep, and all.