5 lazy ways to practice a foreign language

Learning a new language isn’t easy. I’m not suggesting that you’ll become fluent by half-assing it. (So un-knot those knickers, please.)

But it’s summer, the season of laziness. I feel guilty being unproductive (#AmericanProblems) but sometimes I just don’t want to analyze news articles or read French literature. Soooo in the same way that I equate eating jam with getting my five a day (what? There’s fruit in jam) I have a few ways to “study” that are so painless, you’ll think you’re just chilling drinking rosé pink lemonade. You can have a lazy day and still feel like you did some work. (As long as you don’t make every day a lazy day.)

Watch TV with subtitles

I don’t like watching movies and TV dubbed in French, just as I wouldn’t like watching French movies dubbed in English if that were a thing. I always go for VO – version originale – because it’s just more enjoyable to watch. And can you blame me if most all of my favorite TV shows are in English? (Most French people will probably tell you the same thing. And if you’ve watched French TV, you’ll know why.)

So if my brain or uterus hurts and I just feel like binge-watching some Netflix, I put on the French subtitles and BAM I can call it learning. And I actually have learned a ton by doing this, so it’s not like the jam-for-fruit excuse (although I have eaten a lot of fruit via jam). I pick up new words and expressions no matter what I’m watching. I jot them down in the moment, and then look them up and study them later on. They’re not necessarily things that are difficult to understand, but things that are new to me or that I wouldn’t use actively, even if I understand them passively.

I also think it’s really interesting to see how humor is translated, since it’s often based on language or culture. For example, a play on words like “I love you from my head tomatoes” can’t be translated literally. In French, the translation was “Je t’aime de tout mon coeur de boeuf” because “coeur de boeuf” is a kind of tomato. (Bonus points if you know which Netflix series I’m talking about. Still haven’t decided if I like it.)

And when Phoebe says she’s late for her Green Eggs and Ham discussion group, well, that won’t make any sense in a culture that doesn’t know who Dr. Seuss is. So in the French version, the discussion group was about the “madeleine de Proust” and the effect on “le mémoire.” Lol?

Jill has some interesting observations on using Netflix to improve your language skills too. (She analyzes subtitles and dubbing simultaneously because she’s not as lazy as I am.)

Find language exchange partner

I have done this in Chicago, Paris, and Lyon in Spanish, Italian, and French via conversationexchange.com. It’s a little like dating – you send someone a message online, and you decide to meet up for coffee. Sometimes it’s awkward and you leave it at that. And sometimes you make a new friend. If you click, then doing a language exchange just feels like hanging out with a friend. You can try new cafes and restaurants, get ice cream, take a walk around a cool neighborhood – whatever you both like to do.

You need to have at least a basic conversational level, but it’s okay if you’re not fluent. I’m definitely not fluent in Spanish, but forcing myself to speak the language has helped me make lots of progress. Luckily, my language exchange friend is very patient and loves mid-afternoon snacks as much as I do.

Set an itty bitty daily goal on Duolingo

Duolingo is an app and a website for learning foreign languages. Its mascot is a happy green owl. You can either start at the very beginning or take a placement test. Activities introduce new vocabulary and grammatical concepts and require you to recognize and produce words and sentences, written and speaking.

Does it work? If you don’t combine it with additional practice, probably not. But it won’t hurt, and if you use it as a tool, it can help. Take notes and repeat everything out loud to maximize your results. (But don’t use this as your only teaching source and take it with a grain of salt – when I was helping my dad with his Duolingo in French, I noticed a few errors.)

What’s good is that you can set a daily goal of how many lessons you challenge yourself to complete, and Duolingo will track your progress. My advice is to set that goal at a level that you can realistically complete every day, no matter how busy you are. Do you have 30 minutes every day? Maybe not. But I bet you can squeeze in 5 or 10 minutes. You can always do more if you want to, and it’s better to do a little tiny bit every day than to put it off for a week (or forever) because you don’t have time to do a lot at once.

Listen to podcasts

I’m a huge fan of podcasts. I always recommend that my students listen to podcasts to improve their aural skills, because listening without a visual challenges your ear more. There are also many to choose from, so you can choose something that interests you that isn’t too long for your attention span. I like getting a few minutes of news in French and Spanish, and sometimes other podcasts from France Inter. If I’m traveling outside of France I’ll squeeze in something like “ItalianPod 101” or “German survival phrases.

If you’re learning French, try French Etc, les Infos en français (or en français facile, where they speak a little slower), or one of the podcasts from France Inter. If you go for a language learning podcast, try out a couple to find one you like. (Because I’ve heard some that are booooring.)

Why is this lazy? You can listen while you chop vegetables, put on your makeup, lie in bed with cucumbers over your eyes. Yes, it will work better if you concentrate and take notes, but listening and repeating isn’t a bad start.

Do a “guilty pleasure” activity in your target language

Things that are a “waste of time” in English turn into “studying” in your second language. I stand by this, as long as you don’t abuse it! (Please don’t spend all your French study time watching Allô Nabilla.) You can learn things about the language and culture by watching reality TV, reading magazines, falling down the YouTube rabbit hole… whatever.

The bottom line is that a little lazy language study is better than nothing at all. It shouldn’t be torture, after all, and you can learn a surprising amount doing these things. But of course, they will work better as a complement to a language class or more active study. That said, I have had a lot of students who credited their excellent English to watching TV shows and playing video games. (…and not to my awesome teaching. Thanks guys.)

Have you tried any of these ideas? What has helped you to learn a new language?

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3 thoughts on “5 lazy ways to practice a foreign language

  1. Cool post I do all of these things to help me learn! I will try the conversation exchange thing though, the only thing I don’t do, I feel like I have all the skills I need know but just require the practice!

    1. Awesome, that’s great! I think conversation exchange is a great way to improve active language skills since most of the learning we can do independently tends to be passive. I’ve met some cool people through language exchanges, I hope you do too!

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