Top Tips for Language-Learning on the Fly

Hello! Bonjour! ¡Hola!

Languages learning can be a ton of fun and definitely paves the way for some incredible opportunities, but with all the stress of school and work and life, sometimes it just seems too daunting to start knowing you can’t devote all your time to it. But don’t be discouraged! There are plenty of ways to get some basic skills going — or keep up with what you’ve learned — while you’re too busy to take a proper class or fly to Europe for some immersive experience.

While apps like Duolingo and Memrise are great — and I definitely recommend them — they don’t do much for learning in the real world. So instead, here are some strategies and activities for practicing your comprehension skills in whatever your chosen language when you think you’re just “too busy right now.”

Sticky Notes Galore

This one is good for getting some more practical vocab down. Take a pad of sticky notes and write the word for a bunch of household items on individual slips, then tack them on whatever you wrote (e.g. For Spanish, I’d write “la mesa” and stick it on my table). This way, you are constantly surrounded by the language you’re learning and can easily string together some basic sentences, even if it’s just to yourself. Trust me — you’ll pick up on things like “dishes” and “dirty” so fast you’ll be secretly chewing out your roommates in no time!

Switch Up Your Phone Language

This one can be a little daunting at first, but the payout is lovely. Our phone settings have access to a huge array of languages because they’re sold worldwide, so it shouldn’t be hard to find what you’re learning on the list, sometimes even the specific dialect. It won’t change the language of any posts or messages you get, so you can still read the major stuff — and because you can likely already identify things by their app icons, it’s pretty manageable for starting out. Plus, it gets you familiar with the translations for words and phrases you actually use, like “download,” “post” or “share.” Bonus? You can change Siri’s language too for some reaaaally weird conversations with her (it?) that will keep you practicing your speaking and listening.

Convince a Friend to Join You

Languages are always harder when you’re learning them alone. My latest attempt at Hungarian, for instance, keeps being stalled by the fact that I have no one to tell me if my butchering of the words seems even remotely correct. Two heads are better than one — even if neither really knows what they’re doing — because you’re more driven to push through it. You could start with just an app or something (if you link up on Duolingo you can compete for the most XP each week, which worked as a decent motivator with my long-distance friends). Or, if you’re feeling brave, try texting — even if it’s only a few messy words — in your language of choice. If you see them enough, you could even try working it into your real conversations! My roommate and I are trying that with sign language by incorporating some basic actions while we’re speaking to get used to using it.

Be an International Social Butterfly

Another way you can get some real-life practice is working with other native speakers. University is a diverse place: you probably know at least one friend who knows a second language. If not, there are usually initiatives like the Tandem program on-campus, to connect you with other enthusiastic language learners. There are even a number of free online programs for Skyping with someone abroad who wants to learn English, in exchange for teaching you their language. 

Hit Up Netflix

If you’re too busy re-bingeing Friends, Grey’s Anatomy, Gossip Girl or The Office, you may not have noticed that Netflix has a ton of international movies and shows too. Often the dubbing will go on automatically, but find a show that interests you and change the settings to keep the original language with English subtitles (or whatever your native tongue is). Even though you’re reading the words, hearing them in your chosen language at the same time both helps with your auditory skills and will drill in some basic words and phrases. You can also change an old favourite to a different language — either subtitled or dubbed — and since you already know everything that’s going on, you can focus more on the words than the story. I watched The Road to El Dorado in Spanish back in first year and called it “studying” for my SP100 final — and let me tell you, it was wild.

Try Some New Music

Like the whole Netflix shebang, hearing the lyrics in a different language can get some of the words stuck in your brain. Try swapping out your usual study playlist for some new jams until you find some style you like. Spotify is great for this because they have playlists based on genre as well; so if I’m learning French, but I am a pop kind of gal, I can hit up something like “QuéPop” to get the sound I like with the language I want. If you want to take it a step further, try learning the lyrics to a song you end up loving, then learning the translation (I 100 per cent did this with “Despacito” this summer). You’ll learn more about the meaning of the words and the song while gaining some impressive sing-along abilities!

You’ll be a polyglot in no time, dear readers! Just take this Top Model’s advice and …