a blog for language learners


Holy molar, that was a long hiatus from the language blogosphere. Life has taken a few unexpected turns. Grad school (I’m working toward a degree in music education) and the accompanying workload is—surprise, surprise–a major time-gobbler (though generally a positive life-change for yours truly). I’m pretty sure that even my close friends who’d glimpsed my first two posts have long since forgotten about my diatribes on the subject of language learning. But instead of wasting any more time, procrastinating as I have so often, I’d prefer to put my head down and start churning these puppies (blogs) out again. 2017 is here, an orange buffoon is in the oval office and I’ve redoubled my goals after slacking a bit the past calendar year. I’m now learning ALL of the languages Duolingo has on offer (okay, maybe I’m not as quick with the Vietnamese or the Hebrew yet), without pretense of taking a quick road to fluency. I’ve learned to love the language learning game as any curious adult loves the hobby they are most passionate about and invested in. So no, I can’t have a conversation with you in Turkish yet. My process is more akin to a composer slowly learning different instruments. More on the comparison with music in a future entry.

In the first Olyglot blog post, I teased how important it is to pump the brain with interesting Native Language Content (once core vocab and grammar are introduced via Duolingo or a similar comprehensive program). No doubt there are many different approaches featuring many combinations of tools and resources, unique immersion techniques and scheduling variants. I believe more is better and that a little of a lot goes a long way. So here’s an in-depth, step-by-step guide to help you keep the language content rolling.

— Step 1: Find your language materials in advance! You don’t want to waste too much time surfing around the net, looking for fresh, updated material. You’re going to have like ten tabs open, maybe even twenty. You might want to relegate all of the time you need to open up these tabs into one session per week (lay out several sources of content for the next day to save time). I am putting out a piece of software for free on this site, that should help with this task immensely. Stay tuned for updates on the specs/launch date (tentatively June 2017). In the meantime, here’s what I’m currently using, usually spread in tabs across a browser window—Duolingo–Memrise–Babadum (an addictive vocab builder)—Learn.lingvist.io, w/ French, German, Russian and Spanish options. LanguagePod101—iTunes podcasts—Easy Languages Youtube feed—and various free streaming TV stations, usually via their official sites. This subreddit page is an amazing portal for even more specific language resources in almost any language you’d ever want to study : https://www.reddit.com/r/languagelearning/wiki/index

Step 2: As noted in the first blog, learning to be able to keep the content running is tantamount. Keep the words flowing. (If you need to stop the words in order to, you know, keep your sanity, I understand and ease up on your immersion). If you’re one of those people who listen to English language news or comedy podcasts or the radio all day, this is your time to shine. You can replace some of your daily music intake with live TV or podcasts in your target language(s). You won’t be able to focus on every word, but you want to keep refocusing back in on the speakers and trying to pick out each word. Remember, just pick them out for now—hear the sounds, the way words connect, the tone and then, a little later when and in what context the same words are occurring. If you know a word’s meaning, that’s great— in an intermediate stage you will most likely have seen/heard many of the words before but perhaps haven’t yet internalized their meanings. There might be 6-8 hours when you can feasibly keep foreign language content on without ruining your life (and those of others around you). 2-4 is great. Shoot for that, I’d say.

You will want to take breaks. You’ll find times when the stream dies, when you don’t have something cued up. Keep your podcasts on your phone updating and play them on the inevitable 20-30 minute commutes. (more on these later). When ANYTHING else is better than another Spanish podcast, learn to push through that wall like a runner training for a marathon. Find sources you like—I used European football (soccer) as I’m obsessed with the beautiful game. There’s always another matching coming on a live stream (you can find a bevy of good sites for this, just search). Find your cultural or informational niche and dive right in. You’re becoming a langathelete. Hit play. Hit play again. Find another movie, another stream. Why not try this all out-immersion technique? Is silence really that cool? (Sometimes, yes it is, and please take that time should you happen to need it.)

Step 3: Learn to be able to tune in–I mean pay super-close attention. Hear every word coming at you (to clarify, you are hearing the words, not necessarily understanding them). Did they just say partido or perdido? Phonetic distinctions become key as you strive to get closer to understanding a large percent of words heard. Make a vague mental list of words that keep coming up and stumping your comprehension (at the beginning these will be numerous, but one can really become attuned to the most often used—these are the one’s you can’t ignore). At first, you won’t be able to execute this task for very long or with much accuracy, nor do you need to. You just keep pushing every day. The running metaphor is apt. Two mile runs are cool at first, but then you push toward a half-marathon. Push, push, push. When free time pops-up, make it your beeswax to tune back in to some language content.

Step 4: Understanding comes later. For now, be happy just to listen. Because language in action is music, and because hearing that music is more than half the battle and you, langathlete, are in it for the long war. Then, viola!–you’re starting to notice words used over and over again, little colloquial exclamations and utterances. Make sure to stay tuned in. Stay curious–always listening. Don’t do that half listen thing that is really just a soft tuning out (think of when you read a book and your train of thought interrupts your mind even as your eyes continue to scan). This is a pitfall that confronts many when they try to maintain their listening focus. Try to stay interested. You’ll have time for those racing thoughts of modern discontent later.

You’ll also want to take heed of the following random snippets of advice on your quest to keep the content flowing. TURN IT UP. If you’re listening at home—No sweat. Crank it! You need to be able to hear every word. It’s the hearing of these words, as words not just sounds, that’s the first platform you need to raise yourself up on. And it’s always a matter of “culturing the ear” (a pretentious phrase for exercising the mind’s ear), but for now just enjoy the first step which is building your level of focus and getting your healthy doses of spoken language. If it’s an audio book on your i-pod, raise the volume so there is no question what you’re hearing.

Live TV and radio (podcasts) are often the way to go:
1) Podcast langpod101 offers many free podcasts in general-though beware the continuous promos for their company (same goes with Coffee Break languages, available one itunes, w/ similar promotional tendencies). NotesinSpanish is an old favorite. News in Slow series of major European languages. And SlowGerman! For the German language. If you have the money or the means to acquire them, I’d recommend Michel Thomas—the charming deceased German polyglot eases you into speaking a language and builds up skills through a unique, quasi-participatory method, much aped by others.

2) Radio/Music: try the Tune-In phone app or search on the internet (most stations live streams are available). Music can be fun and of course there are great talk/news options. Search venerable youtube (hint—try searching the word for “music” or “song” in your target language). There’s a great game that combines music and language skills where you fill in missing lyrics in real time with the foreign language video—www.lyricstraining.com

3) Live TV: This is a daily staple of mine. Look for channels that offer a “LiveStream” function. French news on France24 is great, as is Rai News from Italy. SVT for great on-demand Swedish programming. TVPublica from Argentina is a favorite for my Spanish. There are too many to list. And if you’re into a sport called soccer (international football), bonus!–you can watch in your new languages all day and night in the form of live and recorded games available on various sites.

4) On demand/movies: Solarmovie–a massive free link site that I used for years is now dead as of this blog being published, but there are others. And of course titans like Netflix and Hulu… do a specific language search if possible. Look for subtitles. Youtube has uploads that let you tweak the subtitles. It may be useful to subtitle with the language of the movie (that you’re leaning), in order to reinforce the words.

5) Educational: Youtube lesson feeds–extra hint: Find one you think is attractive, funny or relevant in voice, demeanor, content choice, look. There are many examples with hosts of both genders. Easy Languages is the best thing going as it has both the native and English translations (and is available in a whole slew of languages). Special mention goes to podcasts you can put on your phone, I have an iPhone so I load up the podcast section with news programs I have one daily longish (7-30 min) updated news or cultural focus podcast as well as a smatter of others (a couple about futbol and some music, for example). Have at least two titles in your language so you can switch. Euronews has live and canned video in many popular languages as well as updating podcasts for devices. Listening twice is great for comprehension if you can stomach the endeavor–this way you pick up the nuances you might have missed on the first listen.

EQ it! –that’s a music tech term for changing the levels of the bass (low sounds) or treble (high sounds) and sometimes the middle range as well if the phonetics are getting garbled as a result. You want to get the bass stuff out to increase the clarity, especially when using laptop speakers or competing for airspace. Old speakers control this one knob usually called “tone.” If you don’t have a program available that you know can tweak these sonic parameters, there is a master EQ in the system preferences of every computer.

Repeat after the speakers, especially when they pause. Try to pick out the words you hear and repeat those (as a sort of affirmation)–this will start with a scant few and then increase (you’ll be surprised how fast if you stay at it). Muttering and swearing along (even if these are forced reactions) can also help with feeling participatory (which is good!)

A coda on my frustrations of late. Anyone who has progressed to an advanced beginner status (whatever the f that means) of understanding in their target language has probably hit some kind of wall. Confidence bruising commonly occurs when one chances to open their mouth, even when they’ve “rehearsed” some spiel. What is the use of learning a language if it’s quite inconceivable you’d be able to a) put in the time required to learning enough words, hammer home the basics b) speak well enough to speak with someone c) be in a location where you “need” to speak. D) prioritize the language maintenance enough to keep up with some studying…???

On my recent trip to Costa Rica I found myself falling back on my English again. But instead of taking this pitiful devolution for granted, I instead tried to analyze it. I find it fascinating to look at the exact point a conversation breaks down and this switch to a more conversation friendly idiom happens. Usually after an awkward pause following several moments where my interlocutor makes clear they could tell I wasn’t picking up the gist of their more digressive points in our back and forth. How to avoid that moment and “convince” my conversation partner to give me a chance? This is a pressing question for any language learner hoping to speak at a less advanced stage. My next challenge is a trip to Sweden, for a week where I’ll try my hand at speaking a language I only started studying a little over two years ago. Next entry: A thorough review of and reflection on the eminent language learning website, Duolingo.


  1. John Doe

    Nice reads. One piece of advice, try improving the aesthetics of your posts. It’s hard to see the general structure ahead of time. Some titles in bold would already go a long way. To captivate your audience, you’ve got to do that within the first 10 seconds, otherwise, one gets distracted and goes away.

    Anyway, keep up the writing…

  2. Ian Cumberland

    This is a really interesting post with some very positive and useful advice, especially for the intermediate learner. I hope you can write some more as your approach seems very like mine – except more so!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *