How I used the internet to painlessly relearn a foreign language & you could too

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Because of travel when I was young, I used to be able to speak Spanish pretty well. But from 2003 through 2019 I forgot a great deal of what I once knew.

I was fine with that because I figured the only way to get good again would be to go live in a Spanish-speaking country, something I couldn’t realistically see myself doing.

But it turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong about that. Things are totally different now than they were when I was learning the first time around back in the early 2000s.

Over the last year I’ve found many ways to practice Spanish every day that are extremely effective, and not only painless but outright enjoyable.

I found that not only could I relearn Spanish from my home in the UK, I could learn it much faster than if I were living in Spain and just relying on daily life to instruct me.

As a result I can now speak vastly better than I could 12 months ago, without having done anything that felt like work. Here I’ll list off the methods I’ve used and the pros and cons of each.

While I offer a number of Spanish-specific examples, you can likely find identical resources in every major language.

Before that I should concede that I had the wind at my back in two respects:

  • Spanish is roughly the easiest language for English speakers to learn , and is useful so highly motivating to practice, which meant early on I could make massive progress in just a few months.
  • I could already go slowly through a newspaper and kind-of understand it, or watch a Spanish movie and half understand what they were saying. If you’re starting from a lower level it might take longer to reach escape velocity.

But if you have okay French from when you were a teenager, and a bit of slack in your schedule, you should be able to make similar progress to me.

Alright, here goes.

1. Watch Netflix in your foreign language.

Why it’s useful

By this point most of us already have Netflix or a similar streaming service. And most of us like to watch TV — maybe too much in fact.

If you don’t, let me be the one to inform you that Netflix costs as little as $9 a month. Less if you share a password. And I’ve read that we’re currently living through the ‘television renaissance’—so it’s time to fall into line and start enjoying TV like everyone else.

One thing that’s not immediately obvious about Netflix though is that it’s incredible for learning foreign languages.

For many programs you can opt to watch with audio and subtitles in whatever mix of languages you like. In theory you can make practicing the language you want to learn as more-ish as ‘just one more episode before I go to sleep’.

For the shows I loved I could choose any combination of English/Spanish audio and English/Spanish subtitles, depending on how naturally challenging it was to understand—allowing me to alternate between practicing vocabulary and practicing listening.

None of this ate up extra time from my life, because I was already watching a few hours of TV a week anyway, but now I was simultaneously learning another language.

Netflix has become so popular for this purpose that there’s now a Chrome extension that adds all sorts of useful features for language-learners.

Drawbacks

Which audio and subtitles you have access to depends on the show and which country you’re in. I could get some shows in Spanish in the US, but not the UK — go figure. So you might have to be a little flexible if your current favourite show isn’t in the language you want to learn.

Fortunately you can sort shows according to the languages they’re available in by going to the Netflix audio and subtitles pages.

For some reason Amazon Prime almost never offers subtitles or foreign language audio, I’m not sure about the others.

What to watch

There’s no accounting for taste but I’ve watched in Spanish: Narcos, Casa de Papel, Élite, Rick and Morty, Big Mouth, The Crown, Sex Education, Wild Wild Country, Russian Doll, and La Casa de las Flores.

2. Listen to ‘News in Slow Language-X’.

Why it’s useful

What really took me to the next level though was the News in Slow Spanish podcast. The same company produces News In Slow French, Italian and German, and there are likely analogues in other languages too.

Each week they release four episodes describing and discussing events around the world. There are both intermediate and advanced versions, so there’ll likely be an option you can follow along with.

While it’s not the Financial Times, the information and commentary are legitimately interesting for their own sake — I rarely get bored while listening.

And if, like me, you already follow the news, that gives you a big head start when trying to pick up on what’s being said. That means you can follow discussion of surprisingly challenging topics, while learning new words through context.

Each show comes with a transcript, and you can roll over uncommon words to see what they mean, though I rarely used those features as they’d require pulling out my phone and I’d usually listen while cooking or cleaning.

News in Slow Spanish has hundreds of hours of old episodes in their archives, going back to 2016. I estimate I’ve spent about 100–200 hours listening over the last year.

I started out going through the intermediate-level ones at 0.8x speed, then sped them up to 1.2x, then moved on to the advanced ones at 1x before gradually speeding them one up to 1.7x (normal newsreader speed).

A subscription to the show costs $22 a month, but before you subscribe you can test it out in two ways:

Drawbacks

It costs $22 a month. That’s worth it if you’re listening regularly, especially if you’re smashing through their archives, but you’ll want to remember to cancel if you stop listening.

I wish they’d just distribute the show in MP3s but they want people to use their phone app or website, which are a bit clunkier.

3. Vary the speed.

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See the speed varying thing in the top left?

Why it’s useful

Ideally you want what you’re listening to to push you, but still be comprehensible. Too easy and your mind wanders because you’ve got mental cycles to spare; too hard and your mind wanders because you don’t get what’s going on.

So vary the speed!

Obviously News In Slow Spanish, every podcasting app, and YouTube all let you vary the play speed.

But if you want to vary the speed on Netflix or elsewhere you’ll want to get the Video Speed Controller extension (Firefox, Chrome).

I’ve set it up so ‘d’ speeds up any video 0.1x and ‘s’ slows it down 0.1x. I’m always speeding things up and down so they’re consistently at the limit of my comprehension.

It’s an extremely useful extension for videos in English as well — I expect it has saved me dozens of hours.

If you’re watching something outside your browser, VLC Media Player will speed up and slow down any audio or video files you like.

Drawbacks

You won’t be able to reflect on the meaninglessness of life while waiting for something interesting to happen on House of Cards.

4. Practice spaced repetition flashcards with Anki.

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Why it’s useful

Now you’ll constantly be encountering lovely new words you want to learn. If you’re committed to memorising something — anything! — flashcards with spaced repetition are by far the most efficient way.

Anki is a free and advanced piece of memorisation software for Windows / Mac / iPhone and Android.

It optimises when you repeat cards, so you see and are prompted to recall words just as you’re about to forget them. The average time cost of learning new vocabulary should come to about 1–2 minutes per word. Anki also lets you backup and sync your cards and practice sessions between devices.

Anki is the program people who are serious about learning and memorisation use. As a result the Anki community is big, there are a lot of existing card decks out there, and you can get technical help if you need it.

Drawbacks

While you can do flashcards on the toilet and they’re fun (or at least meditative), they do take up time and feel more like work than just watching TV or listening to the news.

Anki itself is a sophisticated piece of software. That’s great, but means it takes a little while to get up to speed on all its features. If you like memorising things and are committed to learning a language it’s definitely worth setting up an Ankiweb account and learning to use Anki.

But if you really want to keep things simple there’s easier services like Cram.

5. Go through a list of words from most to least common.

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Why it’s useful

If you’re going to be memorising words you want them to be the words you’re most likely to read.

It’s silly to memorise bean-bag at the same time as chair, or nape (of the neck) at the same time as leg. In each case the latter is 10x more common, and 10x more important to know. But that’s what you get when you learn big groups of words by theme.

Fortunately, you can simply pick off all the most common words you don’t yet know by using a language corpus that literally just lists words from the most to least common.

I found such a list for Spanish, went through every one of the most common 10,000 words in the language, and added the ones I didn’t know to my Anki deck for memorisation. That’s efficiency!

There’s no faster way to learn to understand more stuff.

Drawbacks

It does kind of sounds like work huh.

Oh and it can be hard to find a corpus of the most common words people use in informal speech — they tend to focus on words you’d find in the newspaper.

6. Set your phone, laptop, browser and Google to use your language.

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Why it’s useful

You can learn quite a bit of vocabulary by having all the menus and settings in your computer and phone appear in your target language. It slows you down at first, but pretty soon you’ll be back to normal operating speed. Context indicates most of what you need to know.

For MacOS and Android the language settings are right where you’d expect in the settings menus (pictured).

But really the reason to do this is to get apps, websites, and searches to show up in your target language. You’ll learn still much more that way.

To get that you’ll want to change the language on your Google Account here, and the language in your web browser too (Firefox, Chrome).

The way this helps is that if you search for information about e.g. Abraham Lincoln and the first thing that pops up is a Wikipedia article about Lincoln in your target language, you might just go ahead and read that without thinking about it.

If that happens several times a day it’s a big win. Because you have context on the topics you’re seeking information about, you’ll be more likely to be able to understand it, even if it’s on a complicated topic. You’ll also be learning advanced vocabulary on exactly the topics that are most important to you.

Drawbacks

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Obviously at first this is going to slow you down, and if something is too hard to read you might need extra clicks to reach the search results you want in English.

Obscure settings in your phone and computer can be hard to comprehend in your target language (hell, they can be hard to understand in your native language). And when you send screenshots to other people they might find it hard to understand what’s going on.

I had some kinks with formula names in Excel and how in Spanish ten thousand dollars is rendered $10.000,00 but managed to find workarounds.

7. Use the Linguee dictionary.

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Why it’s useful

Which words really correspond with one another across two languages can be a subtle thing. Translations are often slightly off in the connotations they carry. Or a translating dictionary will give a word that’s kind of right but actually the third most common use rather than the most common.

The best translating dictionary I’ve found to deal with this problem is Linguee, which has a website and a phone app. Basically they analyse a vast database of existing translations to find which words are most often used to translate a given term by real people in real situations.

So their suggested translations tend to be on point.

The Linguee website it also very slick and ad free.

Of course in a pinch you can simply Google ‘tomato juice in spanish’ and it will translate anything you like just fine.

Drawbacks

None.

8. Now just start reading and listening to normal things in your target language.

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Alright, over a few months to a year you’ll get more comfortable with the language you’re trying to learn, and it will come time to turn things up a notch.

Were you reading The New York Times in the morning? Now you read The New York Times in Spanish in the morning. (Or BBC Mundo if you prefer.)

The NYTimes in Spanish and BBC Mundo are the only URLs I have bookmarked on my phone, so I’m more likely to remember to visit them. You could also set up an automatic redirect in your browser from e.g. nytimes.com to nytimes.com/es to form the habit.

That’s written material — how about audio?

Do you also listen to a quick news update in the morning like
The Daily? Now you listen to the 5 minute daily news roundup from El País and another from ABC.

(If you just search ‘news’ in your target language in any podcasting app you’ll find lots of options. I guess French learners listen to the Le Monde podcást, and German learners the Der Spiegel podcastēn — I don’t know.)

I still find these native news reports a bit too fast to follow, so for now I’ve got them defaulting to 0.8x or 0.9x speed. But I’ve confidently graduated from ‘News in Slow Spanish’ to just… news in Spanish.

Hopefully by now you’ve set Google and your various devices to the language you’re learning, so all your internet searches are coming back in your target language, including searches about the news, giving you even more opportunities to practice.

Drawbacks

I mean, following the news is terrible for you, so if you can avoid it completely you really probably should.

9. Go travelling and use what you’ve learned.

Understanding people in a noisy environment and speaking comfortably on the fly are skills all their own.

This is both obvious and kind of impossible during the pandemic, but to build those skills you’re going to have to travel a country that speaks the language you’re learning and meet people, or at least find local speakers near you to have natural conversations with.

But the good news is that if you’ve done all the above, the transition to real life use should be pretty smooth.

For the Spanishphiles among you, when the pandemic’s over I can recommend a trip to Medellín. That’s where you’ll find me anyway.

(ADDED 1/10: A reader has pointed me towards this nice travel substitute which I hope to give a go in future: “You can talk to real people from Venezuela and Colombia with Baselang for relatively cheap—this is a good way to practice talking in the fly.”)

———

One method that didn’t work for me was buying advanced Spanish grammar textbooks to work through. I spent a few hours on them but didn’t come back.

I think there’s three reasons for that:

  1. I don’t naturally have a time in my daily life when I’m going to sit down with a book and write in it
  2. it’s just more boring than watching Spanish Netflix or reading the newspaper
  3. I already knew enough grammar that it wasn’t obviously a more effective way to learn anything in particular.

———

I hope the above suggestions are helpful, let me know about any great ones that I’ve missed!

(ADDED 1/10: This story took off on Hacker News and the commenters there had some extra ideas for ways to keep up a language easily.)

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I research the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them at 80000hours.org. More about me: robwiblin.com.

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