Learning languages is fun! No, really!
May 22, 2010 2:59 PM   Subscribe

What are the most interesting, fun, unusual, ridiculous, bombastic, affentoll, and/or funkadelic ways to learn a language?

I've always been interested in languages, and they older I get, the more languages I want to learn. Unfortunately, rote methods of learning are bringing me down.

What are some interesting language learning methods you've come across?

Here are two examples of what I mean:

1) When I hurt my ankle, I saw that a strengthening exercise was to write the alphabet with your feet. I practiced writing kanji for a while, then switched over to connected Arabic script.
2) I fall asleep to German radio so that I hear German in my mid-morning hypnagogic haze.

Even if your method isn't that weird or unusual or funkadelic, I'd love to hear about it. Self-teaching methods are prefered, but I'll take anything. Anecdotes appreciated.

Merci, danke, gracias, and all that jazz.
posted by ElectricBlue to Education (25 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
If you already know a bit of a language, I find listening to music in that language to be a great way to strengthen your comprehension skills. I solely credit La Oreja de Van Gogh for my high score on the Spanish AP test. I listened to their CDs in my car for a month before the test, and it helped my listening ability a lot.
posted by Gordafarin at 3:20 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm coloring Hebrew letters right now; that's pretty fun.
That wouldn't work as well with, say, French, though.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 3:54 PM on May 22, 2010

Some suggestions:

- Trying to make puns in a foreign language is a pretty fun exercise, and it also forces you to explore the boundary between "acceptable (grammatically-correct) nonsense" and "complete nonsense (gibberish)."

- I will sometimes have conversations with myself in different languages in the shower, or doodle phrases and sentences on papers. Even if I'm not actively learning new things from this, I find it's useful to keep the language active in my mind as often as possible.

- I find it interesting to compare the Google Image Search results for words that are dictionary-equivalent between languages, as you get to see some subtle differences in connotation. For example, global warming in English appears to bring up more of an apocalyptic image than the equivalent search in Japanese. (Note that this is completely subjective and unscientific, and only meant to be fun.)

- Simple songs, children's books, radio and television are all good. (But I'm sure that's no surprise to you.)

- While it's far from beginner-level in terms of content, I've always had fun listening to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a bunch of different languages.
posted by caaaaaam at 3:58 PM on May 22, 2010

Watch commercials. Go to grocery stores that cater to a specific ethnic/linguistic group and look for products labeled in languages other than English. Subscribe to foreign magazines. Get e-mail newsletters/event updates for concert venues/playhouses/theaters in a place that speaks the language you want to learn. Turn on the subtitles. Begin practicing a religion or faith which is mostly based around one language group. Move to an enclave with a large population of people who speak your desired language. Marry someone who speaks the language.
posted by mdonley at 4:08 PM on May 22, 2010

You might find some good tips here - Fluent in 3 Months
posted by jontyjago at 5:05 PM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Watch TV and movies that are familiar to you, but dubbed into foreign languages.

Blew me away when I learned I could follow Spanish like this. I mean, I already knew what Indiana Jones was trying to say, but now I could hear him say it in Spanish.

"Camión? ¿Qué camión?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:15 PM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

If I want to learn a language, I always try to find episodes of Sesame Street in that language; they talk slowly, go over basic stuff like numbers, and have muppets!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:39 PM on May 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

Watch TV and movies that are familiar to you, but dubbed into foreign languages.

This is good if you just want to get a feel for the language, but just as a FYI for those who might not know, translated subtitles and voice-overs don't necessarily correspond with the actual dialogue. Sometimes the translations are wildly different, due to timing restrictions and such, or they can be just plain wrong.
posted by misozaki at 5:44 PM on May 22, 2010

Seconding the kids' shows. I don't remember how we lived before YouTube.

Make magnetic poetry. I've forgotten a lot of my Russian since I stopped studying it, but the words that were on my fridge are the words I've retained the longest.
posted by sleepingcbw at 5:57 PM on May 22, 2010

Read kid's books. You'll be surprised how many new vocab words you pick up, and it will help reinforce grammar rules.
posted by Ys at 6:25 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I use lang-8, which is a site where people can write in the language they're studying and other users of the site can correct the writing line-by-line. I find that it's useful to have my writing corrected in detail like that, as it's like looking at how it appears through a native speaker's eyes, and it really helps things sink in if I rewrite them. But the thing I really love about it is being able to connect with other people. Everyone is always so encouraging and I've made some fantastic friends, and that, more than the promise of having my work checked, is what keeps me writing and using the language. I'm also lazy and I lose patience if I'm just reading web sites or books, but if someone's written a comment specifically to me, I feel like I have to understand it and reply. So just in the first couple of months of using lang-8, my reading skill greatly improved as well.

A couple of my friends are really into "extensive reading." The general idea is to read a great number of books written for native speakers, particularly graded readers, that are at (or even slightly below) a level at which you can read fluently without translating. (For example, books that have an average of two to three new words per page.) The focus is generally on the reading, not answering questions about the book or anything else that can be easily graded. However, my friends select books by using guide books (such as 読書記録手帳) that have information on the approximate level and word count of each book, and they keep track of the number of words they've read. (They are Japanese, learning English - I don't believe there's anything like that for the other way around.) There are three rules my friends follow (and I'm borrowing the wording of one of them, here):

1) Don't look up dictionaries, especially while reading a book.
2) If you find some words, phrases, and sentences which don't make sense to you, don't be bothered with them and move on to the next sentence.
3) If you feel you're not enjoying the book anymore, don't hesitate to throw it away and go on to another enjoyable book.

I still can't quite break the habit of looking up new words, and I'm limited in the books I have available right now, but I've adopted some of the extensive reading ideas and I really think it's helped. I used to get frustrated even with books for kids or fairy tales, but starting with books even easier than those helped me feel like I was reading more fluently. I get them out of the library, incidentally -- something I didn't even think of until recently, embarrassingly enough, so in case you haven't checked to see what your library has, do so!

This is a good summary, and this site has a lot of information about starting English extensive reading programs.

If you're into video games at all, try playing some in the language you're studying. Most of the ones I play are above my level, but I'm motivated to know what's going on, I enjoy the game so I keep going, many words get repeated enough that I get familiar with them, and the emotional intensity means I remember the words associated with the story better.

I picked up a fair number of Japanese words just from taking an interest in Japanese cooking, so maybe cooking the food made by people who speak your target language would help. Terms, or parts of terms, that I picked up just by reading cookbooks and cooking blogs written in English show up in different contexts too, making them easier to remember. I also learn a lot of assorted cultural trivia, too. Plus sometimes I try reading recipes written in Japanese, or picking up an ingredient and reading the directions on the back.

I listen to a lot of Japanese music, but I specifically like learning Japanese kids' songs, and I find it easier to remember words if I'm singing them in context. For example, I got this book, Best Loved Children's Songs from Japan out from the library (and it sure will be a sad day when I have to return it). I made a YouTube playlist with all of the songs in the book in order, and I listen to it all the time while working on other things. Through that, writing out the lyrics and unknown words and playing it on the piano, I got to know them pretty well, and then I sing them in the car or while doing chores.

Finally, I read somewhere (and I wish I could remember where I picked this up, it's driving me crazy that I can't and I'm sorry that I can't give a source for it) that people had the most success with learning a language when they felt that it would lead to being rewarded professionally in some way. So perhaps find a way to tie language learning to your career?
posted by shirobara at 7:16 PM on May 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

There's only one way:

Go to a country where the language is the official language,

Try to find a new significant other that knows no other languages. Go to parties - anything that's full of interesting, curious people, who are a little tanked. Travel from one side of the country to the other - the slower means of transportation, the better. Try a bicycle, or by foot (hitchhiking is OK!) Do your worst.

C'est simple, n'est-ce pas?

Anything else is like playing with yourself, when you want to be the next Don Juan. Not saying it won't help, but it ain't the real thing. I'm in a language course right now, and what we're learning/speaking is like a third language - somewhat of an amalgamation between our shared native language and the language we want to learn. No one understands my accent in class, because it's, Parisan.
posted by alex_skazat at 7:31 PM on May 22, 2010

Things that worked for me:

- Start a personal journal or blog
- Write all your school notes/memos/to-do lists in that language
- Find a translation of a book you're already familiar with (I used the Bible & Harry Potter)
- Make friends with bilingual kids. They're more forgiving than some adults
posted by chara at 7:32 PM on May 22, 2010

Oh yeah! With each language I've learned, I always try to get through The Little Prince once I'm up to a grade-school reading level. It's to the point where I know the first few chapters by heart, so unusual vocabulary is not an obstacle. یک بره برایم بکش!
It's famous for being translated into just about any language you're studying, and some full translations can even be found online.
posted by Gordafarin at 7:47 PM on May 22, 2010

Sing karaoke songs in your language of choice. Bonus, if you end up at a karaoke bar in that particular country, busting out a song in the native language is sure to get you some free beers!
posted by MsKim at 8:10 PM on May 22, 2010

I have nothing to contribute beyond the story of how Ben Franklin and John Adams learned French. Franklin honed his skills in the arms of his French mistress while John Adams from a book of French funeral orations. Guess, who was considered more popular and politically astute?
posted by jadepearl at 8:28 PM on May 22, 2010

Comic books are one way I have used. Children's books, too. I listen to music and read the lyrics sheet along with it. Once you can sing a song in another language and understand what you're singing, you probably have the first person tenses of a lot of common verbs down pat.

I also read the news on google reader and don't stop to look up words unless I am totally stuck.
posted by winna at 8:54 PM on May 22, 2010

An acquaintance in Puerto Rico once advised me that the best and easiest way to learn a language is to take a lover who is a native speaker.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:41 PM on May 22, 2010

ob1quixote beat me to it. Pillowtalk is the way to go.

If that's not feasible, you could put an ad on Craigslist or a similar forum, looking for native speakers of the language you want to learn. Propose an exchange, or offer to pick up the tab at your local café in return for some conversation.
posted by Paris Elk at 10:10 PM on May 22, 2010

Well, I would say one thing you should do is to stay away from attitudes like this: "There's only one way..." although I guess it is bombastic. If you can get to a country where the language you want to learn is spoken, great! But many of us can't. This does not mean learning another language for real is impossible outside the country. That is a fact, because many other people have succeeded in this endeavor before. Also, read this. To be honest, that post makes me fairly angry and I'd like to use stronger words in response but I'm working on being nice so I won't. NEXT!

I expected to see links to these two and I haven't so far: you want unusual and fun? There ya go.

It's mentioned in the links above, but: SRS, SRS, SRS, SRS. If you aren't using this with whatever you may be learning (language or otherwise) you're wasting your time.

The internet makes virtual immersion not just a possibility but it means that it the only reason you won't be able to completely surround yourself with language materials for native speakers in the language you want to learn is if you are lazy. Just Veoh is probably enough to learn how to speak a language if you are really hardcore. But, you know, there is probably wikipedia and a few newspapers online in most languages you may want to learn. Not to mention buttloads of podcasts and Youtube videos. And I'm ignoring a vast amount of other resources that are available; this is the extremely condensed version of "finding shit online that is in the language you want to learn." Set Google to search only for materials in the language you want to learn and go nuts.

Also, shirobara's post was super fantastic (of course I'm biased since I'm learning Japanese too...thank you for all the awesome, awesome info shirobara). That's how you want to think if you really want to learn another language, I believe.
posted by dubitable at 10:28 PM on May 22, 2010

I see that others have already suggested the sleeping dictionary.
posted by atrazine at 1:22 AM on May 23, 2010

A dear friend of mine who speaks about a million languages and is otherwise wonderful and brilliant posted her hackerish tricks to learn languages here.
posted by paultopia at 3:05 AM on May 23, 2010

I thought about adding this to my comment, but since it is an attitude, not a technique, I thought in the end that it didn't really apply. I'm changing my mind, though, because when I forget this, it makes the process frustrating and not fun at all.

I try not to compare myself to anyone else, ever. I believe the notion that a person either has a knack for languages or they don't is just a way of giving up before even starting, but it doesn't change the fact that there are always going to be people much better than me who have spent much less time on the language than I have, people who have been more diligent than me or people who have resources, skills and opportunities that I don't. When I think about where some of the people I studied with in college are now and I start to feel downhearted, I have to remember it's absolutely pointless to wallow in my own insecurities, because the one thing it's guaranteed not to do is make me any more proficient.

So I truly admire someone who can write "Most of the languages I learned fluently fell out as a by-product of things I was already interested in doing, plus a dash of social engineering and about an hour a week of study," but if you, like me, could never write such a sentence in a million years, it doesn't mean there is no value in what you're doing. Ignore any piece of advice that makes you feel like a dunce. (I stopped reading an otherwise decent blog that argued that, since little kids are able to learn their native languages easily, adults have no excuse to find those languages difficult.) And I think it's obvious that living in a country and forcing yourself to use the language there will make you more fluent than any amount of writing diaries or singing songs in your home country, but going on to claim that any other approach is worthless is shamefully unhelpful.

Among people learning Japanese, at least, I feel like it starts to be a competition at times, but I think people with that mindset are completely missing the point. Find the ways that work for you, put them to good use and ignore everything else!
posted by shirobara at 6:19 AM on May 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Perhaps a bit of a boring response compared to most here, but I rather enjoyed using Rosetta Stone. It takes a sort of shotgun approach to vocab, so you suddenly find that you know the word for windowsill and other words like it that are not really likely to be needed daily, but for me that was the bonus. I concentrated my studies on the 3-5,000 key words of the language so that I could use them without thinking or hesitating and allowed myself to dip in and out of Rosetta almost as though it was way of passing time.
posted by Biru at 10:58 AM on June 16, 2010

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