Language Learning Hack: Start With What You Love

1 Posted by - April 24, 2013 - Adventures in Multilingualism, Kids

So I’m learning languages, with my toddler, but as we visit each country then eventually leave, I’m realizing: right, I have to keep studying these languages… forever.

That’s the thing. If you don’t use it, language slips away faster than New Year’s resolutions. It’s a never ending battle. You have to be constantly persistent! It’s — hey wait, a second.

That’s a really negative way of looking at it, no?

Anyway that was me before. I had a really bad internalized attitude about language learning. Whether I picked that up from growing up in a monolingual culture or because the deeper I go, the greater the challenges (and sometimes the frustrations) — it occurred to me in the past year that my conversation with myself about studying languages was all wrong. I don’t “have to keep studying these languages forever”. I get to study them. In fact, I decided to stop using the word “study” which had become so tied up with guilt and obligation that it wasn’t the joyful, amazing, interesting thing that had drawn me to want to learn language in the first place.


I used to watch movies in Spanish or Arabic or Mandarin, but I don’t know about you, but that’s way too passive for me. I don’t translate as much as I should and if I encounter something I don’t understand I’m less likely to look it up. Plus, watching a movie means sitting down for 2.5 hours. Which rarely happens anymore with a three year old and an infant. So I decided to change things up. It’s been absolutely brilliant.


I made one big switch: I chose something I loved to do, something that relaxed me, something that I would do no matter what, even if it happened to be in another language.

For me that meant my guilty pleasures: I switched a good portion of my leisure reading… magazines, blogs and news from English to Spanish.

Reading about French cheeses in Spanish *mind blown*

It’s a little embarrassing my choice of free-time reading but often I like to curl up with a glossy mag that is totally packed full of beautiful photos of things I won’t buy or do or make, and just read the soothing, ever-so-helpful advice — even if it’s designed to sell ad space.

I am so making that raspberry tart.

Now I read it in Spanish.

I find out about celebrity baby bumps and the latest fashion, but completely en Español. If I’m surfing online, just taking a little break, I get my news from a Spanish-language newspaper online. It’s really awesome and strange to read about Jessica Simpson’s baby in Spanish, just as much as it’s weird to catch up on the situation in North Korea in Spanish as well.

Summer soup, yum.

But here’s the thing: I’m COMBINING my “studies” with something I’d do anyway. I’ve added no extra time to my day. And I’m incentivized to read in Spanish not because of some high-minded goal to become fluent but because, “OMG, What does that article on People Español say about Leonardo DiCaprio?”

It totally works.

I seriously need to get back to Greece.

Take the things you love, the things you’ll do anyway, then permanently switch them to the language you’re learning, so you’re passively picking it up as you go. The key: something you really miss if you don’t make the effort. In the beginning it’ll be slow, but even if you’re just skimming sometimes, translating other times, the net positive is that you’ll be using the language on a daily basis without the mental baggage of it feeling like “work”. In fact, at this point, for me, it feels like goofing off. I’m like, “Okay I have to stop reading Spanish celebrity gossip and get back to work!”

Okay this is now officially embarrassing. But it’s been amazing. Guilty pleasure? Do it in a foreign language.

I’m a total slacker.

  • Alana – Paper Planes

    I’ve always been interested in learning other languages and have been consistently (but slowly) learning Thai while living in Thailand. I seem to get a burst of inspiration/focus/determination…and then I lose it becoming overwhelmed by how there’s SO MUCH to learn and that I will never, ever be able to understand or use it like I do English. I think another thing that is frustrating is that I’ve always been one for words, reading a lot and writing a lot for work, I get it…so I want to just ‘get it’ in another language, and I can’t!

  • helena – a globaltraveller just longing to hit the road again

    That’s a really useful advice! I’m currently learning Portuguese – but living in French speaking Geneva, and speaking mostly English at work and a mixture of English, French and Swedish with my friends – and have to force myself to ‘study’ for my weekly class and always end up doing it last minute. It’s the whole ‘study’ thing that puts up a resistance, although the only reason I’m learning Portuguese is that I love the language.

    I will try your approach and start reading blogs, magazines and even perhaps easier books in Portuguese from now on. Thank you for an amazing blog!

  • Roy4comcam

    Espera un minuto. ¿Ha utilizado este lenguaje truco de aprendizaje para ayudarle a aprender chino, tailandés, árabe o acabas de empezar a hacer esto para español? Desde esos otros idiomas utilizan diferentes alfabetos qué no usted todavía tiene que “estudiar” su fonética primero y ganar algo de vocabulario elemental para poder disfrutar de los placeres culpables?

    • Christine Gilbert

      To answer your question, I just started doing this with Spanish. My reading level is much better in Spanish than it is in Arabic or Mandarin (I haven’t studied Thai) — for example, I read your comment and understood it without pausing to translate. However, I will say that there’s a huge difference between Arabic and Mandarin in that Arabic uses a 28 character alphabet. Yes it’s different than what we use, but I learned it in the first three days of class. I study Arabic completely in it’s native script because while you can translate it over to roman characters you miss some of the accents and vowel markers that change the meaning of words. Mandarin however is totally different. The characters are like learning a third language and you’re right it’s not something that you can do without a significant amount of study.

      However, for any language there are also bilingual magazines — even if it’s just the in flight magazine for an airline — where each article is translated into English. So if your language skills aren’t high enough to read with some basic fluency then that might be a good middle step.

      That being said I did read magazines in China, I just didn’t get very far. It’s funny because they have these names for pop stars in Mandarin and it’s fascinating to see who they are obsessed with — Avril Lavigne was HUGE in Beijing.

      But yeah that’s the plan… I’m doing this now completely with Spanish but I want to pull in Arabic and Mandarin too. Those are definitely a little tougher with Mandarin being the hardest. I’ll be sure to report how it goes.

      • roy4comcam

        Thank you for the explanation. I am fascinated with language learning in fun ways. Spanish was easy since I lived in Nicaragua when I was a toddler. Dutch I learned by immersion (Music, TV, food, magazines, public transportation, friends) during the four years I lived in Holland.

        Meanwhile I’ve attempted to learn Hebrew, French, Arabic, Japanese & German. French and German were easier than the others because of my understanding of Spanish and Dutch.

        Languages with other alphabets used to overwhelm me. Arabic was the easiest of those because of the short alphabet and the phonetics have similarities to Spanish. Spending time in Iraq helped, except for the differing dialects between the Arab countries. Why is it when a person goes to study Arabic by default they throw Egyptian Arabic at us and then you go to Kuwait and they can’t understand you?

        Two trips to Tokyo: Japanese uses three alphabets, OMG! Pick one! Waaay easier to speak than to read for me. Only got lost once!

        When Hebrew is written in newspapers they leave out the vowels! (the little dots below the letters) I need vowels people!

        Russian? It’s all greek to me… Even the word for “Hello” took me 30 times to listen and repeat before I pronounced it correctly. To me it sounds like “sdrahtsfweetsya”. huh?

        Gotta love the diversity of this planet, reading from right to left, driving on the WRONG side of the road, picking up grains of rice with sticks and so on! Cole and Stella are very fortunate to be exposed to all of this. I will most certainly be paying attention to the language section of your blogs, oh and of course the food and the pictures and… oh heck, just keep doing what you’re doing!


  • Carmel

    I seem to remember someone telling me about reading romance novels or some equally easy type of literature in Spanish. It seems like a better plan than mine to read “Cien Años de Soledad”…still haven’t gotten around to that.

  • Daynne@TravelnLass

    Christine – have you tried Chrome-polyglot? It’s quite remarkable. Scatters words (in whatever language you want to learn) throughout your ENTIRE web browsing experience. Lots of customization, you can turn it on or off; set it for novice, intermediate or advance; mouse-over the L2 words to view the original language; adjust translation probability (the number of scattered words); adjust min. word length (for words like “be”, “if”, etc.) and more.

    Talk about passively picking up your chosen L2 while doing something you normally do anyway – especially interesting to read my own blog posts interspersed with Vietnamese! ;)

  • Susan

    This is such a good idea! I’ve been thinking that I should pick up some of the Spanish language mags at the grocery store.

    I used to try reading children’s books for easy language acquisition. I ended up with this huge collection of Thai kiddie books, which is an awkward stash of belongings to have when you don’t have children. “Oh, this random pile of foreign language books for kids? Just a hobby of mine…”

  • craig van waardenburg

    This is great stuff. Your blogs and your readers replies are really inspirational. I’m glad I found you all.

  • Tracy Z

    Ah that’s great advice, I’ll try it with French!

  • Sarah Somewhere

    Can’t believe I missed this one! I am so going to buy the next trash mad en Espanol I see! Thank you for the awseome tip, I’ve been struggling with the ‘study’ concept too.

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  • Paul Farrugia (globalhelpswap)

    What a great idea Christine!

    You could do it with cook books too and say that you will not eat at all that day until I understand what the hell I am reading!

    Boot camp for language learners! :)


  • Lingo Live

    I found these tips really relatable and innovative. It just proves that anyone can learn, and that we’re running out of excuses!