Language immersion (i.e. using your target language in everyday life in a country where it’s spoken) is often stressed as one of the most important steps in the language-learning process. There is a good reason for this, and in my own experience, immersion really does help. That said, there seems to be a right and a wrong time to take this leap. If you’ve just begun learning a language, surrounding yourself with its fluent use would likely cause more overwhelm than long-lasting positive retention. Additionally, the act of traveling, let alone moving, to a native-speaking country comes with its own set of challenges, especially if you’re no longer a student.
That said, in our connected world, nothing should stop you from being able to learn a language you’ve always wanted to speak. For this reason, we should be placing more attention on the things we can do in our everyday life at home that will help us achieve basic proficiency in other languages. In honor of International Translation Day, I’ve put together a list of simple steps you can take to improve your comprehension of your target language, whatever your situation.
Note: most of these are rooted in personal experience of degree-level study of the Russian language, but they also apply to many of the more popular languages and can supplement formalized study if you are pursuing fluency.
Utilize Social Media
I’ve written about the often-overlooked positive qualities of social media before and the fact that it can be a powerful tool for bringing people together, but social media also has the potential to bridge cultural (and therefore, linguistic!) barriers. That’s right — social media promotes language-learning, from providing resources for acquiring basic vocabulary to offering insight into the context of languages’ everyday usage. Instagram, in particular, is good for this because of the sheer number of language accounts it hosts that combine visual and audio assets in creative ways, which aid language retention and increase a user’s daily exposure to the material.
These accounts are simple and effective because they tend to highlight just one “high frequency” word or phrase each day. Also called “sight words,” these are the building blocks of languages that typically help children develop their native reading ability — when you learn a new language, you’re effectively rewiring your brain in exactly the same way. French Words is one of the most popular examples of such pages, with almost 600,000 followers on Instagram. In addition to bite-sized pieces of vocabulary, this particular account also features beautiful visuals of French life, captioned in both French and English. And, what’s more, there’s an Italian counterpart. Similar accounts include How to Spanish, which uses video clips of widely familiar TV shows and movies to translate certain phrases, and Russian for Americans, which holds vocabulary quizzes on its stories and delves into the basics of grammar.
There are also accounts that offer private lessons, personalized courses, and other methods of more formalized study in addition to their public content. Such accounts include Russian for Americans, French is Beautiful, and Mariela in Spanish. If you’re not sure where to start, feel free to do your own research via hashtags — this will expose you to all the types of content out there, so you can find what works for you.
If you have an intermediate or advanced grasp of another language, you should also follow journalists, creatives, and bloggers that speak and write in the language you are trying to master? to get more comfortable processing complex information directly from the source. Twitter is particularly great for this because it exposes you to slang and more conversational language as well as more traditional phrases.
Last but not least, there are always online communities like Reddit, where specific forums exist for individual languages and one can get general support during the language-learning process. There, you’ll not only find serious discussions and guides on grammar conventions, but videos and memes — which just so happen to be a deceptively helpful way to learn a language.
Read, Watch, and Listen
One of the best parts of learning another language is unlocking the art of a new culture, from the rich literary traditions of South America to the cinematic brilliance of Japan and all of the music in between. Of course, all of the above can be enjoyed in translation or purely for aesthetic purposes, but where’s the fun in that? If you’re a bookworm, a film nerd, or a music enthusiast, add in the extra element of learning — it’s a great way to trick yourself into language immersion, and it doesn’t feel like work at all.
That said, you don’t need to plow your way through the native text of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” or Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” to improve your reading comprehension in a new language. Some of the most useful creations for adding an extra dimension to your reading are bilingual books, which display the native text on one side of the page with a line-by-line English translation on the opposite side. This might make the reading slow-going, but there’s hardly a better way to expand your vocabulary in a foreign language than by reading literature. If you’re looking to learn French or Italian, many recommend the French/English version of “The Three Musketeers” and this bilingual collection of famous Italian short stories.
If the cinema is more your speed, you’re in luck — foreign-language films and television shows are easier to access than ever before thanks to the abundance of video streaming services. From Netflix to Amazon Prime and even YouTube, there are countless critically acclaimed movies (many nominated for or awarded the Oscar for “Best Foreign Film”) that are subtitled to give you history and vocabulary lessons in addition to quality entertainment. Some personal recommendations include “The Lives of Others” (Amazon), which is about the Stasi in Cold War Berlin; “City of God” (Portuguese), which is about Brazil’s favelas; and the Soviet classic “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” (Russian), which is about one woman’s personal and professional struggles in the big city. Fun fact: Amazon even allows you to sort by original language! It doesn’t get much simpler than that.
Change Your Tech’s Language
This one entails a bit more risk if you aren’t completely familiar with the ins and outs of your “settings” menus — then again, necessity is a good impetus for learning! If you have a smartphone, jump into the technological vocabulary of your target language by changing the operating language on your device (on an iPhone, this option is found in Settings under General > Language and Region). This sounds pretty straightforward, but you’ll need to make sure that you actually look at the words that appear on your screen, instead of just pressing the correct option from muscle memory. Try to commit to it for a few weeks at a time so that it can have the desired effect, but bear in mind — it can be pretty daunting at first. If you don’t like it or find yourself frustrated, you can always change it right back. This technique will get you accustomed to navigating common situations and improve your problem-solving in your target language.
Label Your Household
Thankfully, the only real risk that this method involves is you looking somewhat eccentric to houseguests. But who said there was anything wrong with that?
This technique is as straightforward as it sounds: take time each day to look up the words for a few household items, then reach for some sticky notes and a magic marker and go wild. I’ve found that this is a particularly good way to immerse yourself in a language as you would in a foreign setting, without ever having to leave the comfort of your home. When I had the chance to live in Russia for two months, I’d been studying the language for almost three years in school but still couldn’t name certain specific household items when I went shopping. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, so it’s best to familiarize yourself with them, especially if you’ll get to experience immersion in a native-speaking country at some point in the future.
Explore Your Community
In the globalized world of today, our communities look more like microcosms of human civilization, with major urban centers at the forefront of multiculturalism. The coexistence of different heritages, origins, and traditions in our societies adds to their richness and helps us all to understand one another better — literally. It’s probably more common than ever before to walk down the street and hear another language spoken, which is fantastic, especially for determined language-learners.
Even if you don’t think that there’s a nearby community that speaks your target language, Google it! Cultural centers can be found in just about any-size city, and you can often find speaking and reading clubs for specific languages in most urban areas. If there are neighborhoods where a significant amount of the population speaks your target language, go to that area, eat in those restaurants, and shop at those stores — just to see if you can conduct some simple transactions. The worst that can happen is that your grammar will get corrected. Finally, don’t forget about cultural celebrations: see about Chinese New Year or Dia de los Muertos festivities put on by local groups, and soak up everything you can. Bottom line: never be afraid to ask questions!
To reiterate, immersion in a language is considered the most effective learning method, for most people — but if you start there, you might just discourage yourself and hinder your progress. If you have the time at home, the above methods should help you go the extra mile with your study and prepare yourself for the day you’re ready to immerse yourself in your dream destination. Rather than just cracking open an old textbook or purchasing courses such as Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur, these techniques will give you the nuance and context of actually living in a language.
Learning a language is about more than just memorizing words and phrases; it’s about seeing the world in new terms. For this reason, there’s no better place to practice than at home, looking at things you see every day.
Do you have any tips or tricks for learning a new language at home? Let us know in the comments below!