Learning a language at a later stage in your life is hard. Your time is at a premium and your plate’s already so full that taking on all that new information is a serious challenge. Here’s how to passively attach a new language without much effort or time with the help of technology and the things you already own.
Photo remixed with ~nostalgic-stock.
It’s an old adage that practice makes perfect, but studies have shown that passive learning can have a similar impact to active learning. The key is immersing yourself in a language without having to visit another country. The basics of this post come from the idea of task-based learning, or the idea that you learn a language better when you practicing it. Combining that with a passive environment, you will start picking up on words and their meanings.
You can’t passively learn a language and expect fluency in it, but you can boost your understanding in creative ways. Which is to say, you’re probably not going to learn complex verb and tense rules with these methods. The idea here is to make you house and gadgets speak to you in as many ways as possible and to surround yourself with a new language without disrupting your daily activities.
If you’re concerned that you’re an old dog who can’t learn new tricks, don’t be: Studies have shown that adults can pick up a second language with considerably more ease than most of us think. Even if it has been 10 years since your high school French class, some of that knowledge is still stored up. If you didn’t take a foreign language, consider learning a language that you’re geographically embedded in already. If you’re surrounded by foreign speakers, it’s an easy way to pick which language to concentrate on.
If you’re not living in a cultural pool of language, romance languages like Italian, Spanish and French are often cited as the easiest for English-language speakers to learn and they’re widely supported in technology. Let’s start by changing your computer to a new language.
Make Your Computer Speak Your Language
If you’re in front of the computer all day, making a few simple changes to your settings can help you learn common phrases in another language. This includes changing the interface language, browser extensions and more. The idea is that if you’re familiar with a program, you won’t have trouble navigating it, and you’ll slowly pick up words as you go along.
Browser extensions are a simple way to set your browser to quickly swap languages. We’ve heard before in various textbooks that reading the news is an excellent way to learn a new language, and if it’s in a context your familiar with (whatever that context may be), you can easily swap your language in your favourite browser. If you read one or two articles in another language a day, you’re bound to pick up on some of it.
- Chrome: Auto-Translate is a useful extension for switching languages on a website with a simple key stroke. The official Google Translate works in a similar way, but shows a small pop-up instead. These are different from Chrome’s built-in translation because you can translate any page on the fly, regardless of the language it’s in.
- Firefox: TranslateMenu offers a quick, right-click language swap to your browser, so you can flip it any way you like. It’s handy for a quick back and forth to compare text if you get confused. Foxlingo, however, is your one-stop-shop for everything related to translation in Firefox. It features a huge language database, different translation services, grammar check and auto-translation. You can use it to either translate a page from English to a language you’re learning, or the other way around.
- Safari: Safari has less options, but Translate does a quick translation through Google Translate, but not much else.
You can change the language of your operating system without affecting the keyboard or browser search language, which means you’ll only see the systems basic UI in a new language. Provided you know your operating system well, you won’t have any trouble navigating the menus and you’ll accidentally learn a few words along the way.
- Windows: Start > Control Panel > Clock, Language, and Region > Regional and Language Option > Keyboards and Languages > Display Language
- Mac: System Preferences > Language & Text > Drag the language you want to the top of the Language tab
This typically only affects the menus, taskbars, and preference panels. It won’t have any affect on the basic workings of your day-to-day activities.
Use Your Smartphone And Apps To Take You To Bi-Lingual
The same basic premise goes for your phone. Even the most basic of phones have language options, usually found under your settings. For smartphones, like your operating system, you can set it so it doesn’t change the keyboard or text in your browser.
- Android: Settings > Language and Keyboard Settings > Select Language
- iPhone: Settings > General > International > Language
But here’s where the fun can really start on a smartphone. Some apps include different languages and with the language setting changed, you’ll get to learn through them as well. One note of caution first: don’t use this with apps that have in-app purchases unless you’re confident you won’t accidentally download something.
Not all apps are created equal in the language world, in fact, many don’t have multiple language options for the simple fact they’re made by a single person. That said, they’re out there, and here are a few that I found the most helpful on iOS:
I also used the Spanish-language news app for Telemundo to try to keep up with what was happening.
You can use a mix of complex and simple games on iOS to start embedding this stuff into your brain. The results are mixed, but a few you might find helpful include:
All of these games support multiple languages, so they’re worth looking into if you’re giving this a try. As these are all mobile games, it’s generally easy to understand them (and we already know Tetris is good for our brain), although it’s probably best to use apps you’re familiar with at the start of this process. Some, like Dark Meadow, are nice because you get an English language track with subtitles for your language, just like you would with a movie, but with the added context of interacting with it as well.
In the App Store description, on the left hand side beneath the price in iTunes, you’ll see the languages an app supports.
For Android, there doesn’t appear to be a way to tell if an app supports another language at a glance. That said, almost all the official Google apps integrated the overall language settings in, while other smaller apps didn’t. It’s trial and error, but feel free to share any in the comments you’re aware of that offer multi-language support. Unfortunately, it also changes how you search, so if you’re a constant Googler it might make things more difficult.
You can apply this to a lot of console and PC games as well, and many consoles support different language settings for menu screens and games. Again, as a learning experience, this seems best for simple, instructional situations and not full-fledged narrative-based experiences, but your mileage may vary.
Hack Your Home For More Fluency
You can change all you want on your computer and phone, but if you don’t enhance those with other tricks, you’ll only get so far. One of the old tricks of language teachers everywhere is to place sticky notes on everything in your home with the objects name in the language you’re learning. Yes, everything, the mirror, the TV, the door and the contents of your pantry. Cover your house in sticky notes so you can’t get away from it.
The kitchen is a great place to learn a new language, which is exactly why a school in France is doing just that by creating a talking kitchen. You can’t really set your kitchen to talk to you and instruct you to do things like the school does, but there are a few ways to integrate it in. The easiest is cooking in your language of choice and there’s a few ways to do it.
Cooking with a foreign-speaking teacher is a surprisingly easy way to pick up on language. Unfortunately, finding the right programs when you don’t understand the language is difficult. The best way is to search for cooking shows, then pick a show that looks interesting and follow the directions. I found a nice collection in Spanish on El Gourmet, where you get the video instructions and the recipes. It takes a little while to start understanding it well enough to cook an entire meal, but if you combine it with the above mentioned sticky notes, you will be able to cook a delicious batch of cookies after just a few viewings.
If you learn best by hearing things, there’s no better way to do so with a new language than to watch the news in another language. You can always watch films with subtitles to help you out as well, but as that’s completely passive with no interaction on your part, it’s not going to get you as far.
Sleep learning has long been discredited, but some believe studying before sleeping is a good way to retain knowledge because it gives the brain time to organise and compile the information overnight. Consider throwing on a language learning podcast while you do your nightly duties. Even having it in the background is helpful, but if you tie it in with what you’re physically doing you’ll get more out of it. So, if you’re brushing your teeth and washing your clothes, pick an episode that concentrates on the words associated with the bathroom.
As much of a butchering as it typically is, listening to covers of English pop songs in another language is a weird, but useful way to pick up on another language. You’re not going to get a perfect translation here, this is more about context, but you’ll get an idea of what words mean. For instance, there’s a surprising amount of Beatles songs in Spanish.
If you have a supermarket or small boutique shop based around the language you’re studying, by all means, shop there. There’s almost nothing better than reading flyers for food items and shopping to help you learn another language. This isn’t going to work for every language of course, but for some, Spanish especially, it’s a dead-simple way to pick up on small things, which eventually lead to bigger ones. If you get stuck at the store, the iOS app Word Lens can translate on the fly.
To be perfectly clear here, you will not suddenly be able to speak another language fluently and you probably won’t magically read an entire article without swapping back and forth. In my experience, I was able to comprehend words and situations better and my vocabulary improved in a couple weeks of practice. Even if I can’t repeat the words back, I can understand based on context. Vocabulary is almost always the first part of a language course, so consider this your starting point to bigger and better things.