learning languages

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 amazon.fr 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!