In this section, you’ll find some ideas for different resources and approaches that should help when learning a language. Classes and formal study are only part of the picture, and you need to find ways to apply your learning, extend your repertoire, and practice your new-found language skills.
I’ve not included here the more obvious additional resources such as travel guides and phrase books. These have their place as references, but phrases can be very situation-specific and the ‘translations’ are often misleading as indications of the actual grammar and vocabulary used.
The advice is based on sound language learning principles and experience of self-study as a language learner. Not every approach or resource will work for everyone at any given stage in the learning process, but having a menu to choose from opens up a world of possibilities.
Please note I’m not linked to, or receiving any incentive or payment from, any organisations mentioned here.
There is a wide range of applications available, from dictionaries to ‘translation’ apps, learning apps and full courses that you can subscribe to (usually for a fee). Many of the free apps are worth exploring to find one that suits your own learning style and ambitions. Often the introductory or basic levels are free, whilst you need to pay for more advanced or ‘premium’ content. What you invest is up to you, but often it only needs your time and commitment.
Examples I’ve found particularly good for different reasons include Duolingo and Babbel for learning, and dictionaries produced by VidaLingua (Spanish and French). DuoLingo was fun but for a language where I was a complete beginner (Romanian), I found progress frustratingly slow. I also like to see the rules while I’m learning rather than work them out myself, which DuoLingo leads you to do. Babbel seems more ‘formal’, more like a course, and for a Russian refresher this is just what I needed. However when it says ‘Choose a subscription to get access to all features’ it does remind you that a cost applies for further progress.
I tried some translation apps for Romanian-English and Romanian-Italian, both by AllDict, and found their pronunciation helpful, but in general I preferred using the dictionaries which also included pronunciations. The dictionary builds up your own personal list of words you look up. This I found rather limiting. The AllDict apps also had exercises which might be worth trying but again I didn’t really attempt these.
Social Media & Conversation
There are a number of ways conversation can help with your own language learning. Of course, engaging in conversation is a great way to practice both speaking and listening, but buses and trains can also offer (surreptitious) listening opportunities. This can test your listening and interpretation skills as well as give some ideas for idiomatic usage. Compare, for example, the speech of younger and older people. What words do they use? Does the grammar differ?
Social media offer numerous opportunities too. If you have friends and colleagues abroad or just in a study group, you can still converse with them in the language you’re trying to pick up, on WhatsApp perhaps. It can be real-time or delayed, text or spoken, giving you the chance to either respond straight away for fluency or take time for a more accurate response. Your cellphone/mobile’s predictive text and spellchecker can give text corrections and suggestions if you’re unsure, so easing the path to familiarity with the language.
Twitter and Facebook, and professional network app LinkedIn can provide translation of people’s posts, so following interesting people and topics can yield some great vocabulary, and show grammar in use. Instagram is widely used for people teaching languages, so follow someone in the target language for hints and tips too.
E-Books and AudioBooks
A useful resource for expanding your vocabulary is an e-reader and an e-book in your target language. Find something on a subject you’re knowledgeable about, or a book you’ve already read in your own language. That way you can make links between what you read and your prior knowledge.
E-readers commonly have the advantage of an in-built dictionary. Choose the dictionary language and highlight a word or phrase you’re unsure of and you can expect helpful clues and translations. Foreign language novels or short stories can also help you to learn idiomatic usage – the way people really speak, the phrases they often use.
Listening to an audiobook in your target language whilst reading the same chapters in a print or e-version can develop your listening skills and comprehension. Can you get the gist of what’s going on before or after you’ve read the same in your own language? Can you pick up the detail you need? It takes practice, but can be a great resource. If you’re struggling a little, play at a slower speed to give you time to follow it.
Especially if you travel or live in a multi-cultural city, visit tourist attractions etc, scavenging can be a useful approach to finding resources in different languages. Leaflets are usually written in quite simple language and available in different translations (or at least interpretations). This can expand your specific vocabulary as well as giving a chance to test your knowledge and understanding.
You can often find cheap guides, dictionaries and even foreign language texts in secondhand bookstores. If you’re abroad, find a guidebook, cookbook or phrasebook written for a native in your target language. This can again provide subject-specific vocabulary and usage, and things like guides and cookbooks are often step-by-step in short paragraphs with pictures for clues. A phrasebook written for someone learning your native language can give an insight into how your language and theirs compare. I found particularly useful insights in a small; guide to conversation in English for French speakers.
Menus can be interesting, e.g. in an Italian or Turkish restaurant, where dishes are named in the target language, and menus may even be in different languages. Having said this, don’t steal them! If they offer free takeaway versions that’s fine, but don’t resort to theft. At the very least you can use them while visiting and perhaps pay them the courtesy of return visits to explore further!
Magazines and newspapers in foreign languages can help pass the time as well as expand your language skills. Next time you’re travelling, buy one that’s in your target language instead of your own. Newspapers in particular may also be available free in hotel lobbies, on flights or in public transport centres, and have the double benefit of picking up on current affairs.
A ‘native speaker’, seeing you reading something in their language may even strike up a conversation… who knows?
So much is now accessible via the internet that this is rather a catch-all category. For example, e-books and applications in various formats are generally available this way. Ironically, you’re reading these pages on the web, too, so the InternationalEyes website fits neatly here as an example. So too do learning resources such as the British Council and BBC, and their equivalents in other countries.
By media, I’m referring more to visual and broadcast media including streamed movies and series, news and current affairs programmes, radio broadcasts and podcasts.
News and current affairs programmes whether on visual or radio broadcast are often used in language learning, and rightly so. Speech tends to be a little more formal and a little slower than normal, but still largely natural. Podcasts have the (dis)advantage of a more natural pace and delivery, and there are some excellent podcasts on languages such as Coffee Break French and Spanish which have associated ‘premium’ materials for subscribers alongside.
Series and movies on streaming platforms (or DVD) can be a fantastic resource as long as they’re produced in the target language, not dubbed afterwards. Watching the mouth move to a voiceover in another language can be more than confusing. Documentaries can be helpful as they should be engaging and give visual clues but without the risk of confusing overdubs. Sitcoms, comedy shows and series can offer a stereotypical or biased perspective of course, but also offer speech at a more natural pace. Any of these may include subtitles, though this can be distracting and take some getting used to.
The tourism and hospitality industries are, by nature, international, and publications are regularly made available by such international organisations as the UN World Tourism Organisation or World Travel and Tourism Council. If you can seek out the official bodies for your industry or interest, see if they have free online publications in different languages. This makes your reading relevant, potentially interesting, useful, and language-expanding! Sometimes they include infographics which can help as cue cards too.
Airports and rail stations are prime places to pick up things like timetables and passenger guides. Local government offices abroad will have information for local residents, and if there’s an ex-pat community these may be in the local language and English for example.
Websites of international relations bodies, whether governmental or otherwise may also have publications in many languages, and a country’s embassy or consulate often has part of their site devoted to their own language.