Some unusual language-learning strategies

Skiving your language classes? Falling asleep over your grammar book? Going cross-eyed looking at verb conjugations? Sure, these things all have a time and a place, but contrary to what school and university teach us, there are much more fun ways to learn a language.

This year I will be road-testing a few new language learning strategies, which I’ll detail here, split into the categories of basic language learning for beginner to intermediate level (that’s me in Italian, French or Russian) and advanced/improvers language learning (for me, German and Spanish).

Fun and different strategies for beginner/intermediate language learning


  1. Stick vocab around your house, office or car

I’ve just discovered Flash Sticks, a cool company that sells neat post-its with foreign language vocab, which you can stick around here and there. I ordered intermediate Italian and French, which come with a range of more advanced nouns, verbs and adjectives to stick and learn. Try sticking the nouns to the objects (‘il caffè’ on your cup of coffee, or ‘l’ordinateur’ on your computer), sticking things on your desk or computer to memorise throughout the day, or pop them in random places around your house as reminders to study. Of course you can make your own post-its or stickers.

  1. Fun apps

I’ve said it before and will say it again! Apps are a great way to sneak in a little bit of language-learning here and there. I find uTalk and Duolingo fun and effective. Duolingo for grammar/reading/writing, and uTalk to fill in the gaps of vocab and pronounciation. There are millions more apps out there though – any recommendations?

  1. Find a community or language buddy online

The online language-exchange thing is getting huge. I’m really keen to try iTalki’s online tutoring system and Go Speaky for a totally free tandem exchange. I’ll report back on these when I try them. Or find a real language buddy. I use Totalingua to find exchange partners who I can meet face to face in London. Or hook up with a Skype buddy to chat from anywhere in the world.

  1. Flashcards!

Flashcards were my secret weapon at school and uni. I used to use flashcard programs on my computer, which were excellent but probably don’t exist anymore. But these days the buzz is about Anki, which is an online flashcard system where you input the vocab you want to learn and it tests you until you remember it. Maybe only geeks like me find flashcards fun, but they’re simple and effective.

  1. Re-read children’s books

Ok this is not a beginner idea, but for intermediate learners, try to get hold of a copy of your favourite childhood book in your target language. If you’re a fan, try getting Harry Potter in translation as it’s available in many languages and excellently translated too. You can also get the audiobook and watch the film.

  1. Blogs for learners

Before you plunge into trying to decipher Le Monde or read blogs aimed at native speakers, there are actually some out there aimed at giving learners access to real-life language. Try Transparent Language’s selection:

  1. Music in your language

There is definitely some great music out there in whatever language you’re learning. Ok, so I’m a metalhead and tend to go for French death metal and Italian power metal, but if you don’t share my taste, have a look around Spotify for singers or bands who sing in the language you’re learning. Don’t just listen passively though – try to pick out words you know, decipher what the song is about and look up new words you hear. Repetition of a song you love is great to memorise words and cool colloquial phrases.

  1. Follow Twitter accounts in your language/s

I’ve only recently started doing this, and now my Twitter feed is a mess of French, German, Spanish, Italian, English and occasionally Russian. You can even do this by making friends on Facebook with people who post in other languages for a constant source of small bites of authentic language.

  1. YouTube!

Never underestimate YouTube. Look for videos of people speaking the language, especially if they’re tailored to simple language for learners, like these ones by oneworlditalia.


Improve your advanced language skills in un-boring ways!


  1. Switch your devices, games, websites etc to your target language

Juat to get you started, how about switching your iPhone, Facebook, LinkedIn and favourite games to another language? You can play most video games in a range of languages, so why not learn while you have fun? And try making your Google searches in another language, if you’re looking for recipes, advice or answers to questions.

  1. TV and movies

It’s easy peasy to find movies or tv online in your language, or to order the DVDs from Amazon. All major movies have been dubbed (mostly excellently) into several other languages. I’ve seen everything from Lord of the Rings to Pirates of the Carribbean in German, as well as loads of original German movies. Pick simpler and fun movies like Harry Potter, or something you already know in English. I made the mistake of watching Fight Club in German the first time and totally missed some key plot points! If German happens to be your language of choice, I highly recommend the following movies:

  • The Lives of Others – an intriguing and exciting drama about Stasi surveillance
  • The Counterfeiters – a gripping movie about prisoners in WW2 who were forced to counterfeit money for the Nazis
  • Im Juli – a sweet and inspiring rom-com about a hapless teacher who takes a road-trip across Europe in pursuit of love
  • The Edukators – a quirky bohemian movie about a group of activists who break into rich people’s houses and rearrange their furniture to teach them a lesson about the superficiality of capitalism
  • Nowhere in Africa – another inspiring and wonderful movie about a family of Jews who are forced to move to Kenya to escape Nazi persecution and gradually learn to love their new country
  • Goodbye Lenin – another quirky and fun film about a family who try to hide the fact that the Berlin wall has fallen from their sick, DDR-fanatic mother
  1. Reading anything you enjoy

Follow a few blogs in the language. Buy books written in or translated into the language and underline vocab you mean to look up later. Read online newspapers.

  1. Radio or podcasts

You know about TuneIn Radio, right? If you don’t have the app, or the website bookmarked, then do so. You can get radio channels in any language you choose. Either stick it on in the background or listen to 15 minutes of news every morning and try to take everything in.

  1. Plan your next holiday to a country that speaks the language

Make sure you do all your holiday planning using the language, of course. Say you’re going to Berlin – look for accommodation using German sites, search for sights and things to do auf Deutsch and check out blogs and reviews written by Germans. Then make a plan for how you’re going to get as much out of the trip as possible (opening conversations with locals, seeing a movie, play or show there, reading tourist information in German not English…)

  1. Make friends with people who speak the language and set aside times to speak in it.
  1. Make your own ‘scrapbook’ of cool language resources. I’m dying to do this but haven’t found a good way to. I think I’ll start by making a folder of bookmarks of great language sites, blogs and so on.
  1. Participate in online forums in the language

If you’re the type who follows blogs, Twitter or forums about stuff you’re interested, find ones in your target language instead, and particpate actively in them. Reply to tweets, post comments, get involved in discussions. Also, if you’re a gamer, you can live-chat with people in other languages while you play!

So, that’s it. I’m consigning school textbooks, dusty grammar tomes, weighty dictionaries and never-ending verb tables to the dustbin this year, who’s with me?

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