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Language Learning in the Modern Age

Language learning abroad through immersion in Rome
You can learn a language through direct conversation and immersion and you can also use many modern electronic tools to accelerate and customize your way of learning.

The world has never been more accessible, largely due to the abundance of digital media options that are a central aspect of everyday life. As a result, there are now more ways to learn a language than ever before. In spite of the many new opportunities, while English continues to be the lingua franca worldwide, fewer native speakers seem to devote time to learning to communicate in other languages.

While I was born in Canada, I’ve lived all over the world, and I can tell you that learning the local language has always been instrumental in my ability to truly engage with the people in another country. It’s no exaggeration to say that knowing Turkish while I lived in Istanbul from 2014-2017 likely saved me an incalculable amount of money—from basic transactions such as taking a cab to buying fruits and vegetables at the local market.

Learning a language isn’t necessarily just about practicality; it’s also about paying respect to the people and cultures hosting you abroad. I also consider learning a language an investment in my personal growth while being an invisible badge around my neck that declares, “I may not be from here, but I respect and appreciate your culture.”

Since 2010 I’ve lived in Norway, Turkey, Canada, Nicaragua, and South Korea as well as other countries. I will draw from personal experience to talk about how my approach to language learning has changed as technology has developed, but also the fundamental principles that remain the same. The truth is, if all you do is sit in front of a screen or device and practice a language you’ll never be fluent. Nonetheless, there are also ways you can use online tools to enhance immersion in daily life while in another country.

Technology can either be an impediment to progress in language learning or your greatest aid. Here are my favorite tested strategies to ensure it’s the latter.

Video Conferencing 

Even before you arrive at your destination country, you can start to practice with a partner overseas—that’s due to the magic of video conferencing. When I’m talking about video conferencing, I’m largely referring to using Skype, but there are plenty of other options I’ve used, such as Zoom.

Teachers are now instructing students in almost every major language through video conferencing. I happened to have found my Turkish teacher through Facebook, but just a touch of Googling should enable you to locate an online teacher. What I appreciate about Facebook is that there are usually reviews that help you gauge whether the teacher is a good match. I always ask for the email or contact of one or more former students before enrolling for added assurance. If the teacher or school is legitimate, they’ll have no problem with such a request.

There are many benefits to video conferencing. For one, you don’t have to be in the country to start practicing this way of learning. Even before I left for Turkey, I began to practice Turkish online through video conferencing. The practice paid big dividends upon arrival since I was already comfortable speaking to locals.

Video conferencing is also convenient since it isn’t location based. My teacher lived in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, but my fiancée and I lived and practiced our Turkish lessons at our apartment in Istanbul. We paid a special rate to practice together so we could help each other once the lesson was over. Video conferencing also tends to be a lot less expensive, which might be something to consider, especially if you broker a deal for both you and your partner or a friend to practice at the same time.

Language learning in Istanbul
I had the luxury of learning Turkish via videoconferencing from our place in Istanbul.

I found video conferencing no less interactive than learning in person. I also appreciated that the teacher would send homework to me digitally. I would complete the homework and send it back. We could then go through a review during the following class. Perhaps what I appreciated most was getting to know my teacher better and gaining a real insight into life in Ankara as well as Turkish culture. By the end of my stay, we were talking about events in the news in Turkish as well as world politics, and that added meaningfully to my experience living in the country.

Using the Power of Print to Learn

To devote yourself to learning a new language, you need to dive in, and that means total immersion. I know some people are keen on such methods as labeling everything in their house, etc., and I do think that’s a great tactic, but I also want to draw your attention to Pinterest.

While Pinterest might be known as a social media site driven by appealing photography—it is also a language-learning goldmine. If you perform a search within Pinterest (for example, “common Spanish verbs"), you’ll find yourself in handout heaven.

I put a handout in each room of my house with the appropriate vocabulary for that space and even filled the back of one door with printed grammar handouts. I went as far as printing off words relating to my job (teaching at an international school) and leaving them on my desk.

The free resources available on Pinterest are a reminder that language learning is really in your hands. You can spend an afternoon printing off handouts and place them in strategic locations, and the time investment can pay off for the rest of your language-learning journey while overseas.

Plan Your Language Learning AND Learn on the Fly

The following concept is relatively straightforward, but it has made an incredible difference everywhere I’ve lived: Though you might be learning language basics (e.g. “colors”) that don't mean you can’t skip ahead and try to learn more vocabulary based upon personal upcoming events and adventures.

For example, when I lived in Norway in 2010, I had just arrived and was learning the fundamentals, but I knew we’d be going skiing the following weekend, I started to research vocabulary related to skiing and outdoor sports. I then typed in the relevant words on my phone and tried to incorporate them into my day of skiing—including foods Norwegians enjoy eating at the chalet.

Skiing in Norway
I learned some key words before setting off skiing in Norway and all the subsequent activities such as eating at a chalet.

Nowadays, you can quite literally learn languages on the fly. If you find your vocabulary lacking, use a tool such as Google Translate (though, like most instant translation tools, the accuracy is often a bit hit or miss) or an online dictionary with language translation, such as English-to-French. However, I’ve seen friends use tools such as Google Translate as a crux to avoid truly learning a language, so I’d certainly recommend that you be wary of that temptation.

To ensure that I didn’t fall into that trap, I always carried around a notebook in which I’d write down any phrases that I had researched online and used that day. Then, I’d come home and check out whether Google Translate was indeed correct in its translation. Using this process, I was effectively adding words and phrases to my lexicon.

Language Learning Applications

I’ve tried nearly every free language learning application in existence. There are a few applications that I have found especially valuable. I tend to stick to free software, since moving to a new country can be expensive, and I don’t necessarily like to add extra costs. Admittedly, I’ve used paid software-driven programs such as Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone in the past, and they have value. Use a package such as Pimsleur in the weeks leading up to your departure to another country in order to familiarize yourself with pronunciation.

My favorite language learning software is Duolingo. Duolingo is a fun, game-based language-learning website that makes it very easy to visualize your progress. The software set up very logically, and the content is progressive. You learn new words and grammar and then have the chance to make use of that knowledge through repetition. The software also lets you know what you need to practice based on your performance.

At the same time, I have always liked to have a sense of control over what I’m learning, and with Duolingo you cannot choose the subject matter. The software called Memrise works in a very different way. Memrise is a program that utilizes online flashcards in a game-based style. I always use Memrise when I arrive in a country to practice language basics such as numbers, colors, directions, and simple questions and answers. I love the fact that because of the built-in features you can practice language groupings such as colors for a week and become nearly an expert.

I’ve also had friends use programs like Babbel and Anki with some success, so these may also be programs you want to investigate.

TV Shows and Movies Can Be Valuable for Language Learning

Inevitably, one day you’re going to come home from work and decide that you need to throw on a movie and take the night off. We all need downtime, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be wasted time from a language learning perspective.

With the surge of viewing platforms such as Netflix, it’s quite easy to find correct translations for your favorite shows and movies.

When I first lived in South Korea, I used to watch North American TV Shows and movies in English with Korean subtitles. Later, I started watching Korean TV Shows in Korean with English subtitles. Finally, I started watching Korean TV shows with no subtitles at all. I’d recommend watching the original content of the country where you're living. Beyond the obvious language learning, you’ll also gain further insight into the culture. Conversing with others about popular TV shows is also a great icebreaker if you wish to make local friends in another country or city abroad.

South Korea temple
When living in South Korea and enjoying its culture it helps to find practical and creative ways to learn what is a complex language for those from the West.

Language learning is all about making sure you’re exposing yourself to as many opportunities as possible, so making use of the time when you’re watching TV or a movie can be invaluable. One tip that I found useful is to watch movies you know very well in the language you’re trying to learn. You’ll find that it is much easier to pick up on the vocabulary and the translation into local vernacular, especially when you know lines from the original movie.

Find Meetups

Given the evolution of the internet and technology, it’s never been easier to join and organize a meetup via sites such as www.meetup.com. Though I’m a huge fan of using technology to springboard your language learning, there’s unmistakable value in meeting up in person. The web can help with that as well.

I used sites such as Facebook to find language learning events and exchanges when I lived in Istanbul. I went to one, in particular, every Monday night. The meetup group would spend the first few minutes speaking in the language in which we were most comfortable in (typically English), then the rest of the time speak only in Turkish.

I also used meetup.com to link up with other groups of people who were looking to practice Turkish. I had great success with language exchanges where I would help someone practice his or her English. In exchange, my partners would help me practice Turkish. The meetup helped me develop a group of friends in Turkey and that also helped me to became better acquainted with the culture.

I would add that you should start by going to Facebook events as well as events on meetup.com that have a substantial following, or at least a decent amount of people attending. On the one hand, it’s great for networking and language growth, but it also adds a layer of protection. Sadly, some people use these meetups for nefarious purposes, so you want to ensure that—until you know how the group functions—you exercise some common-sense precautions.

Podcasts

Podcasts are one of the best ways to learn a language, in my experience, but they’re often not even considered for the language learning process. Fortunately, there is currently no shortage of podcasts for most languages. It’s best to subscribe to several, give them a listen, and determine which podcast best suits your learning needs.

The best part about learning a language through podcasts is that you can do so while involved in other activities at the same time. For example, you might not find time to study that day, but spending an hour learning French through a podcast at the gym does indeed count as studying. You can listen to a podcast while you’re making dinner, cleaning the house, working out, or anything in between.

I used to listen to Turkish language podcasts on the bus to and from the school where I worked. The ride was about 40 minutes, so I had 80 minutes each day dedicated to learning Turkish in addition to any other planned study.

Language learning requires finding time to practice, and podcasts provide flexibility because you don’t have to be seated at a desk with a laptop in the classic learning position.

Change the Language on All Your Favorite Devices

At first, you’re going to be at a bit of a loss when you change your devices to use another language. I know I was a bit disoriented by the language when I moved to South Korea, but I became much more intimately familiar with the Korean characters and language because of new language settings. The device language settings helped force me to learn how to read and speak Korean.

Another option is to try downloading another keyboard onto your smartphone and become familiar with the keys, and then switch over to the keyboard in that language completely. This technique does make a big difference. You’re forcing yourself to think in another language in a significant way, especially considering how often we now use our smartphones.

Listen to Local Music and Popular Musicians

Again, this is another strategy that will serve to improve your language skills. You’ll become more immersed in local culture. Whether you end of liking the music or not, it’s worth investigating what’s popular, and diving into a country’s music history. In many respects, contemporary music is a direct reflection of a popular cultural movement that’s often worth trying to understand. At the same time, listening to or watching traditional music live is a way to learn and experience underlying cultural influences.

In Turkey, I ended up working for a magazine and writing an article on a popular Turkish group’s concert. I was given a VIP pass to the event. My assignment occurred because I understood why the group was relevant, and the magazine trusted my cultural understanding of the context of the band enough to be able to put together a piece describing the show. It also helped that when I met the group, we talked in Turkish initially. In many ways, your knowledge of a foreign language is what makes possible unexpected opportunities.

From a pragmatic standpoint, listening to local artists and hearing their lyrics is also good for the development of language skills. The cardinal rule of this form of learning is to provide yourself with as many opportunities as possible to absorb a new language. So if you don’t feel like taking out a notebook, try playing a song in the background while you engage in other activities.

Putting Language Learning in the Modern Age to Practice

All of the above techniques offer different ways to use modern technology to your advantage, but I’m an enormous believer in the notion that these are all just tools to help promote learning and not necessarily the core language immersion and understanding that is the end goal. You need to take what you’ve learned with these tools out into the streets and try them on for size. You can talk all day on Skype with your teacher, but ultimately, that’s only helpful in providing you with the confidence to speak at your local market, order a meal at a restaurant, manage transportation, etc.

Many people argue that knowing English is “good enough.” Sure, you may get by using English, but you won’t thrive. Learning a language is about showing respect for your hosts and demonstrating that you value their culture. Your hosts will greatly appreciate that you are investing time and energy to learn and even adapt to their way of understanding the world and expressing themselves. Down the line, if you go a professional route, knowing the local language can help you get a transfer or start a business.

While it’s never been easier to learn a language, it's never been harder to find the motivation. I can tell you, from personal experience that learning a language opens doors you never thought possible. Ultimately, you have to recognize or even build those doors and boldly walk right through.


Christopher Mitchell Christopher Mitchell is a travel writer, blogger, travel influencer and podcaster who is originally from Toronto, but has lived all over the world. He's grateful to have spent significant portions of his life abroad in cities like Seoul, Istanbul, and Oslo. At this point, he has travelled to nearly 80 countries, and written about many of those adventures on his site, and for publications across the planet. You can follow his travels and content on Instagram and Twitter.

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