New Year, New Language Learning.

Written to the song: Blanco — J. Balvin

“Language is not a genetic gift, it is a social gift. Learning a new language is becoming a member of the club — the community of speakers of that language”
— Frank Smith

Volcano Acatenango, Guatemala.

Over winter break something disappointing happened to me. I met a few Israelis and while trying to respond to their Hebrew questions — Spanish came out…sometimes even French. I came to the realization that while actively practicing my French at work and Spanish while traveling, I have completely neglected my Hebrew language learning. While thinking of 2020 goals to set, I realized that language learning needed to be a priority for me. How to learn a language and actively maintain it, is a question I receive often. There are many elements to language learning, and this is how I plan to do it this year:

There are various elements to language learning. There’s oral language (speaking), listening, reading and writing. Finding activities that balance all of these elements is essential for language learning. Here are some ideas!

  1. Podcasts: there are some really fun and creative podcasts available that make maintaining a language both fun and effective. The Duolingo podcast is what I credit my Spanish understanding to the most. They offer podcasts from various communities and Spanish dialects. The speaker presents their story, followed by an English paraphrase to ensure understanding. They also offer a French version as well. Another great podcast is called “StreetWise Hebrew” which combines Hebrew slang, music and culture. I always learn something new from that podcast. Podcasts work on listening skills in language and can teach you new vocab — especially if it’s a teaching-based podcast (like the ones listed above).
  2. Vocabulary/Grammar: it isn’t always ideal but working on grammar is one of the best ways to improve language learning. This can be done by using a language app (like memrise) or a simple language book. I have a chunky Spanish language book that I hope to use more of this year. A few pages a week can go a long way! Verb conjugations, proper noun use, and using the correct “gendered” words can deeply impact a listener’s understanding of your message.
  3. Speaking: one of the hardest and scariest elements of language learning (but also one of the most effective) is speaking! As it combines grammar, vocabulary, and understanding. This can be done through participating in a language exchange, a group conversation circle, or sending voice notes to a friend. Starting is one of the hardest parts, but once you start your language learning will immensely improve. I am going to practice my Spanish speaking by using conversation cards to help me talk about numerous creative topics.
  4. Immersion in the culture: language courses don’t typically teach you slang and swear words. The best way to learn this is jumping in and engaging with people in their culture — but that doesn’t always mean flying over. Immersing in a culture can also be done by watching an international show with subtitles, reading the newspaper in their language, etc. Jumping out of the box of simplified language readings and bland grammar exercises, and learning the true words that are important.
  5. Bonus: think outside the box. I used to get requests to have students studying French at the university to volunteer in my classroom, to continue to practice their French in a French-language environment. Maybe you want to volunteer at an international festival, chat with the cashier at your local Spanish grocery store or try a language conversation app (like “Tandem”).

There is no secret recipe for mastering a language, but doing activities that balance the skills of speaking, reading, writing, and understanding will help you to continuously improve. Something that I always tell myself is that with language — if you don’t use it, you lose it! So get creative this year!

Author of “Q & A a Day for Travelers”.