Learning a new language takes guts.
After all, it’s a project that requires time. A lot of time.
If you don’t have the support of a class or teacher, it can be tough to keep yourself engaged in the process.
And if you do have that support, it can still be tough!
Whether you’re learning your chosen language through immersion techniques at home, or enrolled in a university or community class, you’ll start to tune out if the methods you’re using don’t hold your interest.
So how can you keep this from happening?
Simple: Put that gutsy attitude to work for you.
Take that same curiosity and out-of-the-box thinking that made you want to learn a language in the first place, and use it to take control of your learning and get creative with your techniques!
While this might sound like I’m leaving it all up to you, getting creative doesn’t mean learning all alone or without help.
It just means exploring routes you may not have considered, some of which may benefit your progress towards fluency immensely.
In this post, I’ll equip you to get started on an independent and creative approach to language learning, so you can keep your motivation going strong and learn faster and better than you ever thought possible.
You’ll be on your way to being a confident, self-directed language learner in no time.
A Self-directed Learner? What’s That?
Basically, anyone who decides to take control of their studies and find what works for them is a self-directed learner.
A self-directed learner might be an adult choosing to take up a language in his or her free time after work.
A self-directed learner might also be a university student enrolled in a number of language classes who chooses to go beyond the requirements and try out different language learning methods after the school day is over.
So how do you know if this is the right approach for you? Well, it’s quite simple, really…
All Language Learners Can Afford to Be More Creative
Classes and classroom mentalities aren’t the only ways to learn new information. Even if you’re studying on your own, it’s easy to keep thinking like you’re taking a class. But with self-directed learning, there are a whole lot more options out there!
Think about it—most classes are designed to cater to groups of 10 to 30 children or adults, as they should be. Organized lessons and textbooks and quizzes help the instructor keep track of everyone’s progress. Not all learning is classroom learning, though, and you can always afford to think outside the box. You’re one person, so even if you’re taking a class, classroom rules need not apply to you when you’re not in the classroom.
Unfortunately, if you’re like most people, the only learning style with which you’re familiar is the one used in schools and universities. You may try to emulate this at home with varying levels of success and, likely, waning interest.
Things can be different, though! You can stay motivated and work towards fluency by getting creative.
Even being creative in small ways will keep you motivated and learning until you reach your goals.
Here are three tips to start you off with breaking the mold!
3 Creative Ways to Have a Blast with Self-directed Language Learning
1. Ditch method loyalty, and try all sorts of things!
Just as some people might try to create a makeshift classroom and curriculum in their house for their language study, a lot of learners are liable to stumble upon one method and stick to it, regardless of how much value it has for them personally.
There are a huge variety of language learning methods out there, and they all have some value.
The benefit of being a vagabond language learner of any kind is that it allows you the freedom to experiment.
Experimentation keeps things fun and exciting, because there’s always something new to try. As long as it’s in the target language, it certainly can’t hurt you!
Here are some ideas of ways to branch out:
- Media-based immersion. This means watching TV and movies, listening to radio and reading novels—all in your target language! This is meant to imitate the experience of living in a country that speaks your language. YouTube has plenty of material in major world languages, and TuneIn can lead you to radio stations in your target language! For a huge selection of handpicked videos that are just right for your level and pre-filled SRS flashcards (more on this later), check out FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
- All kinds of language learning books. This might sound contrary to what was said above, but many people are unreasonably turned off by all textbooks. Textbooks can be an important resource; you just have to make them work for you. For popular languages, there are endless options. These can give you vocabulary for everyday circumstances and present grammar in an easy-to-understand way. Some newer books are pretty engaging and provide a lot of variety. Check out the Teach Yourself series (easily found on Amazon for many languages) for cheap, well-designed instructional books to use alongside whatever other methods tickle your fancy.
- SRS flashcards. These are flashcards that are timed using an algorithm that maximizes the utility of your memory! This means that you can forget about forgetting vocab and grammar items. The great thing about SRS is that it works well with other methods. If you’re not sure where to start with making your own flashcards, you can always use the system recommended by famous polyglot Olly Richards in his guide to learning foreign language vocabulary through SRS, “Make Words Stick.”
- Shadowing. This is a method promoted by polyglot Alexander Argüelles in which the student repeats audio in the target language, concentrating on rhythm and accent. The key is to speak each word as close to simultaneous with the audio as possible. For example, you could try shadowing an audiobook or a slowed-down dialogue created for beginners. Here’s a video that explains shadowing in plenty of depth.
- Babbling. Babbling is a stage of language development that all babies go through before they say their first words. Even though adults learn differently from babies in some ways (and also have mature musculature to their advantage), I think babbling can work well for adults, too! I like to think of it as the cousin of shadowing. Instead of focusing on following audio word for word (as is explained in the video linked above), focus on simply imitating the sounds you hear. This works well for fast-paced talk radio or movies—audio in which you can’t yet distinguish exact phrases or words. This is great for producing native-like intonation, the “music” of sentences and phrasing that sometimes gets lost when we think too much about each specific word. Think of it like you’re mocking the speakers!
Try a lot of methods and see what sticks. Just because you try a certain textbook or program doesn’t mean you have to stick with it forever, and it certainly doesn’t mean you have to only use whatever you started with.
If you’re a fan of immersion, try cracking open a textbook once in a while. If you love the organization of textbooks or audio courses, try listening to native talk radio or using SRS flashcards to shake things up. You never know what’ll improve your fluency!
Different tools are great for different things. As someone taking control of their language learning, you have a level of independence that works only to your advantage. You can create your own curriculum (or supplement your classes) and decide on any combination of methods to use.
So keep an open mind, because there’s a lot out there. And on the other hand, if something isn’t working or bores you, toss it out and try something new!
2. Leverage your time to your advantage
If you’re taking on a language on top of work, school or family responsibilities, the task can seem pretty daunting at the beginner stage. Time is a commodity hard to come by these days, so how are you supposed to learn a language? Or say you’re in a class, but need to learn more outside of the classroom—with a full course load and a job, things can start to seem impossible.
But remember that with self-directed learning, you don’t need to limit yourself to traditional classroom time blocks of 30 minutes or an hour. You don’t need to imitate your three-credit college French class!
Life is made up of three-minute chunks, not long stretches.
Most people just don’t have hours of empty time to fill each and every day. Nevertheless, you probably have some three-minute chunks of time between classes, during breaks at work, early in the morning, during your commute, etc. You can easily take advantage of these moments—and they add up fast!
So, what can you do with three minutes?
- SRS programs are made for short sprints of repetitions. If you have an SRS program on your phone, you can quickly review some flashcards whenever you’re on public transportation or waiting in line. It’s short, it’s quick and it doesn’t even draw attention!
- Podcasts are another great resource for limited periods of time. Many podcasts aimed at language learners, like the LanguagePod101 series, are quite short in length, and great for a moment of free time. Many podcasts aimed at native speakers—like news and culture podcasts—are also in the three-to-five-minute range. You can find these by searching for “news” in your target language on iTunes. You can also find interesting podcasts by switching your iTunes country to the one in which your language is spoken. All of the suggestions will now be in your target language! (While you can’t buy anything outside of your actual region, you can still download the free podcasts.)
- Are you used to curling up with a good book for an hour or two? Well, it may seem counter-intuitive, but books also work great for short sprints. It takes some getting used to, but fitting in a page or two whenever you have a chance really does count towards larger reading goals. You can find books in your target language through Amazon third-party sellers, Multilingual Books (a site that specializes in selling books in a number of languages) and Project Gutenberg.
- The same methods can be applied to TV episodes and movies—if you can download them onto your phone or tablet, they’re available all the time for some quick language practice. Waiting for a spare hour or two is too restrictive—imagining a movie or TV episode as something that can be broken up into smaller bits is freeing.
Everyone is busy, but it’s what you choose to do with your small amounts of free time that really matters.
3. Treat yourself like a kid again!
I think it’s unfortunate that at some point after elementary school, teachers and textbooks stop using colors and pictures to teach people. They stop trying to engage adults and excite them visually or with humor.
Remember when you lamented the lack of pictures in a book when you were a kid? That’s the kind of attitude you need with language learning. But you might have to create visual excitement yourself. Think of language learning as an excuse to revert back to childhood. You get to experience the whole world a second (or third, or fourth…) time over!
Pretty good deal, isn’t it?
But what exactly should you do?
For a start, use the three C’s.
The three C’s for language learning are color, cartoons and comics.
Bringing color into your language learning life will give you relief from your drier textbooks, and the language will seem way less scary and intimidating. Remember how your elementary school classrooms looked—bulletin boards covered in construction paper decorations, walls plastered with drawings, alphabet across the chalkboard, maps on every bare surface? You can’t help but get a jolt of energy from it, can you?
So how can you implement this? Get yourself to the store and buy some big boxes of crayons. Get some markers and construction paper while you’re at it, too. Make posters captioned with target language text from a favorite TV show or book. Practice your writing and then draw a picture to go along with it.
If you’re learning a language that uses a different writing system, make posters with all of the characters you plan to learn that month.
If a specific character is giving you trouble, draw a picture to go with it. You’ll have a blast and feel like a kid again!
I know, I know. You’re a very intelligent and cultured person. You got into your target language for poetry, for film, for high literature! That’s great and all, but have you thought about what cartoons can do to get you to that point?
Esoteric media like literature and arthouse films are wonderful, but they’re hard to understand for beginners and intermediate learners.
Cartoons are full of plenty of visual humor that you can grasp even when you don’t understand a lick of your target language. They use a smaller vocabulary since they’re aimed at children. As an added plus, I’ve found that the voice-overs used for cartoons tend to provide much clearer speech than your run-of-the-mill TV show or movie.
If you don’t know where to start looking for cartoons in your target language, I would suggest trying to find dubbed versions of shows you liked as a kid. Search for the TV show in English (or other language) on Wikipedia, and then switch the site language to your target language—this is an easy way to find changes in the title when it was dubbed.
Then, you can search that title on YouTube or a video-sharing website in your target language. If you want to own the cartoons, you can try Amazon third-party sellers, or buying through the regional Amazon website of the country in question. (Just make sure that you have the right equipment to play them!)
Another idea is to find network websites of certain shows. Nickelodeon, for instance, has regional networks (Dutch Nickelodeon and German Nickelodeon, for example) in a number of different countries, each with its own website. Many are region-locked, but if you can find a way around that, these websites often have a good number of complete episodes.
If you don’t have a specific cartoon in mind, I personally like to search “[target language] cartoon” (in English) on YouTube and see what the wellspring of the Internet will give me.
As an additional idea, raw beginners can try cartoons meant for very small kids, ages 3-6 (preschool age) or so. These tend to be five to ten minutes in length and meant to be educational for native speakers of your language. This is great for the adult learner, because the characters point out certain objects and repeat things over and over.
A great example is “Pocoyo” (or “Pocoyó”), a Spanish kids’ show that has been dubbed in a number of languages. These kinds of shows are harder to find, but many English-language shows have been dubbed, so if you’re familiar with those, you might be able to find them in your target language. Just use the same techniques as above to hunt stuff down.
To get more leads on cartoons for toddlers and young kids, I would also suggest checking out forums that discuss your target language—this is especially helpful if you don’t live in the country. Surely someone does, and can tell you what’s on TV. After that, again, check out YouTube, Amazon and TV network websites.
Once you find some favorites, you can try applying some of the creative techniques above to get the most out of this great resource (shadowing the voices to your heart’s content, doodling pictures of the characters to keep you entertained or writing out the titles of the show in crayon).
The rationale for using comics is similar to that of cartoons—comics have comprehensible input with plenty of context for you to easily pick up vocabulary and expressions. Still, many people avoid comics and head straight for novels and classics, even when their level isn’t high enough just yet. The resulting lagging motivation and frustration is something that’s easy to remedy.
Comics have visual humor aplenty, and the text is broken into smaller pieces. This gets you reading more from the start—comics aren’t as intimidating as straight literature.
As for finding comics, use the same techniques as above to see if your favorite childhood comics have been translated. Use the Wikipedia technique to find titles of translated comics, then search for those on Amazon—with luck, third-party sellers will have what you’re looking for.
Multilingual Books, again, is a good resource.
If you already collect vintage comics, MyComicShop.com has a variety of older comic books in a number of different languages. You can also search for fan-made translations of favorite comics online.
Comics have an even more convenient medium, however—webcomics! Webcomics can be short form (think newspaper comic strips) or long form (think graphic novels, superheroes and manga), but I find short form to be especially helpful in learning a language.
Here’s a (Japanese-language) example of a webcomic about a Japanese woman living in Nanjing, China.
Webcomics are addictive and fun to read, and you get exposed to a sense of the humor in your target language. To dig these up, I recommend Googling in your target language “best webcomics” (“webcomics” might remain the same word depending on what your language is). You can add a nationality if you want to get more specific.
Once you’re reading comics regularly, try entering some short sentences into your SRS (with English definitions on the back of the cards!) so that you don’t forget all the new words you’re learning.
If you’re working with a new writing system, copy out the sentences in colorful marker and crayon to practice your penmanship.
There you go—three ways to get creative with your language learning.
A lot of creativity just has to do with a simple change in mindset.
Take control of all of the different ways to learn out there, and get experimenting!
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