You know those rockstar language-learners who seem to excel at picking up languages with ease?
I am not one of those people.
As proof of this, I have spent more than half of my life learning Japanese and there are still scenarios where I find myself scratching my head, unable to understand what is going on.
I find myself both reassured and intimidated when I read articles that consistently rank Japanese as one of the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn. But the reality is, I am a researcher of Japanese religion– there is no getting around the need for a command of the language.
Last year, I was lucky enough to do a year-long language intensive program in Japan, where I focused on studying Japanese 5 days a week, 5-7 hours/day. Did my Japanese get better? Yes. Am I fluent now? …Define “fluent.”
After the language intensive ended, I worried about how to keep my newly acquired language skills fresh. Thus in an effort to stay up on my language skills, I adopted the following 5 practices.
These practices will work for learning any language, but are aimed at people who have already received some formal instruction in the language and are looking for additional ways to include the language in their lives.
Podcasts are having a moment. They are a great source of entertainment for commutes, workouts, doing chores around the house, or any other downtime throughout the day.
There are many language-learning podcasts, but why not challenge yourself and go for the full immersive experience by listening to podcasts in the language you are trying to learn.
I started listening to the daily podcasts put out by NHK, Japan’s national news station, and it’s a great way not only to stay fresh with my Japanese, but also to get Japanese perspectives on international and domestic news. I don’t always understand every word of the story but I can easily look up unfamiliar vocab on my phone as I listen.
If you aren’t sure where to start, temporarily change the region on your iTunes to a country where your language is spoken, go to the section labeled “Top Podcasts” and you’ll find some good places to start.
If you don’t use iTunes a Google search should work too.
2. Children’s Programs
This is a great excuse to watch TV guilt free. How else can you watch cartoons and claim to be “working”?
I like watching kids’ shows in Japanese because they are easy to understand, teach you about the culture you are studying, and they don’t take up too much time.
The average children’s show is 20-minutes long, that’s about the same amount of time it takes me to eat breakfast and finish my coffee.
There are lots of options on Youtube.com. My current favorite? Chibi Maruko-chan.
3. Changing the language on your OS
While podcasts and cartoons are great listening practice, what about improving your reading skills? For as much time as we spend on our phones, we may as well be picking up some new language skills along the way.
Switching the default language for your phone and/or computer will force you to learn new vocab throughout your day and will keep reinforcing that vocab each time you use your phone.
This is particularly helpful for languages with different writing systems than English (like Japanese, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic), as reading skills become even more important to keep fresh.
4. Follow social media accounts in that language
Most of us use social media way more than we care to admit.
A great way to get in some extra language practice is to follow social media accounts that use the language you are learning.
I follow several dozens of accounts Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts in Japanese.
Some are news services, others are blogs, a few are people I know personally.
As I’m mindlessly scrolling through my social media sites, I’m given tiny, 140-character opportunities for language review.
Incidentally, because they rely heavily on kanji (Chinese characters), you can say way more in Japanese than you can in English with 140 characters.
This is also a great way to stay connected to current events and trends in other countries.
5. Make use of idle time
The Japanese have a great product for kids that lists all of the kanji characters they need to know for each grade level (about 200 per year) on a waterproof poster that can be stuck to the wall in the shower or bath. I used to have one and it was nice to have something to look at while I was lathering up.
While I don’t believe in occupying every idle moment you have, the well-placed vocab list by your toothbrush or laminated flashcards by the bath are nice things to have around the house as gentle nudges to keep the language integrated into your daily life.
The point is to look for a few places in your environment where you are regularly idle for a few moments each day, and couple that idleness with some language review. Emphasis on review.
Because you will be multi-tasking (brushing your teeth, boiling water for tea, etc), these are not the places to learn new things or really flex your concentration muscles. Rather, this is a time for reinforcing the things you already know.
Whether you’re looking to dust off your high school Spanish, preparing for a trip to France, or someone like me who needs language skills for your career, the best way to learn (and retain) a language is to use it every day.
These are five of my favorite daily practices, but I know all of you have some great ideas too, so let’s hear about them in the comment section below.