Practicing a foreign language at home
Not getting enough opportunities to practice a foreign language is a common hurdle that halts many learners in their tracks. Many believe that if they simply lived in the country of their desired language, everything would be easier. There are however, many ways to immerse oneself at home, without the need to go abroad. Below is a collection of methods and resources to help you.
Learning through books is a vary traditional, high school classroom approach. I am actually a strong believer that you learn the components of a language separately. This means, you mainly learn listening through listening, reading through reading, and speaking through speaking. I would therefore use books as a single tool in a large toolbox.
However, nothing beats a good grammar book for reference. When you have a question of why a sentence is structured in a certain way, you’ll need it. And when I say a good grammar book, I mean a good 400 plus pager. You can’t condense the structure of a language into anything smaller. Good ones include; Hammar’s German Grammar, A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish, French Grammar and Usage.
When starting out, children’s novels are the obvious choice for practicing your foreign language. If you are not particularly interested in children’s stories however, there are many books out there designed with language learners in mind. These use more grown up stories, but with a very simple language structure. A perfect example is a German series by Andre Klein which follows an Italian immigrant in Germany. Key words are highlighted and translated at the end of each chapter, and questions are provided to test your comprehension of the story. If this is too easy for you, try bilingual or parallel books. These are normal books, which includes the story with two translations. This is great for an instant translation of what you’ve just read to see if you’ve understood it correctly. If you can’t find one you want to read. Simply buy both the English and foreign language version of a book you do.
The best way to start language learning at home is in my opinion through a good language learning audio book like Pimsleur or Michel Thomas. It gives you a grounding on how the language sounds and allows you to practice those hard to pronounce words in private without judgement. This builds confidence without the stress.
Once reaching an intermediate/advanced level, you can use audio books to really consolidate your comprehension. Audible, an audio book site, has a huge catalog of foreign and translated literature. I would recommend starting out with a story you‘re familiar with. Harry Potter in french, for example. This is because it won’t be too important to understand everything as you already have an idea of where the narrative is going. Audio-plays are also a good alternative. These are usually narrated stories with the dialogue scenes acted out audibly. This provides a more realistic listening experience. If you are learning German, check out Monster 1983, a horror/mystery audio production.
This is the perfect excuse to play video games. You’re still learning after all. Steam, a online game store, allows you to to switch the language of compatible games very easily. RPG games such as Skyrim and Mass Effect can immerse you in a world of the foreign language. You need to use and understand you’re language of choice to stay alive! Many console games can also be switched to different languages if you change the system settings.
Germany dubs everything into German, which is great for learning. As a film lover however it is quite jarring to the ears and has the tendency to ruin the experience for me a little. I would recommend instead watching the best films/tv shows the country has to offer. Try looking for films with subtitles in your intended language. This combines reading with listening. Films are also great as you can learn many words through context.
German: Grave Decisions, Gigantics, Wings of Desire, The Edge of Heaven.
French: The Intouchables, Amelie, La Haine, The 400 Blows, Mommy.
Spanish: REC, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Secret in their Eyes, Volver.
There also exists many Youtube channels dedicated to helping language learners. A personal favorite of mine is easylanguages. They interview people on the street about different topics and provide subtitles of their videos amongst other resources.
Ok…it’s all come down to this. I’ve given you plenty of ways to escape it. But it’s caught up with you. You’ve listened to and read as much as you could, but you’ve realized that you’re not speaking any better. It’s what separates theory from practice. You can read as much as want about how to ride a bike. But when you sit on that saddle, how much is that theory going to help you? As I’ve said before, you’ve got to speak to get better at speaking.
If you live in a large-ish city and are learning a popular language, you should be able to find a language meetup nearby. This is where language learners and sometimes natives meet up to speak the language. Try Meetup.com and facebook and search for conversation evenings. These are great as they are often very relaxed and social. If you don’t live in a big city, or just want more practice, a language tandem/exchange online is a possible method for you. This is where you can speak to a native in their language in exchange for your own. This usually takes place over Skype but can just take the form of emails. A useful website for finding people is the Mixxer.
If you feel you are not ready for this, you can of course take lessons. Many colleges have a language centre available to the public. You really need to put the work in after class when enrolling in a course though. It is not enough to simply attend. How many years of high school language class did we all merely attend and learn the bare minimum? Private tutoring is an effective, albeit expensive alternative. It is possible however to find online tutors willing to provide tuition for relatively little. Try searching for informal tutors on the website italki.
Learning with Enjoyment, Relaxation, & Perseverance
The main thing to remember is find resources that you‘re interested in. Don’t pick up a foreign newspaper and start reading about politics if it doesn’t interest you. Likewise, limit intensive grammar studies if you find yourself falling asleep at the desk. What’s great about language learning is that when this happens, you can just simply start watch TV or play a video game. You’ll be relaxing and enjoying yourself, whilst still learning. This is not so easy to do when learning Calculus. It will also make it easier to keep going and persevere to the time when you are satisfied with your language level.