School’s almost out! How are you going to retain all the language skills you’ve learned over the school year? Or better yet, build on them?
Formal language programs (the kind delivered in classrooms around the world) are often highly structured and follow a prescribed curriculum. We know that language learning doesn’t just happen in a classroom! The summer is a fantastic way to build on that by incorporating informal learning and exposure to authentic language.
Here are some ideas to help you maintain — and even build — your abilities in all four skill areas (reading, writing, speaking and listening) in the languages you love to learn. There are seven suggestions for weekly activities. If you do rotate through them, committing to doing one every day, by the time you’re at the end of the list, you can start the list over the next week.
1. Learn a song a week
Think about a song you really love in the language you’re learning. Look it up. Find the lyrics on the Internet and print them out. Listen to the song and sing along with the words. Then, challenge yourself to try and remember the words without looking at the lyrics sheet. Play the song every day at least once. Listen to it while you’re driving, waiting for the bus, making breakfast or out for a run. Listen to it over and over again until you can sing it all the way through without looking at the lyrics. The next week, choose a new song and repeat the process. By the end of the summer, you’ll have a decent repertoire of songs in your target language! (Skill area: listening)
2. Watch a movie a week in the target language
Watching movies is a great way to get exposure to authentic language. Turn on the sub-titles if you need to. If you’re up for a challenge, leave the sub-titles off and just enjoy the film. Set yourself a goal such as: Watching movies by the same director or watching a different genre of movie every week. Watch an action movie one week and a comedy the next, for example. Keep notes about the movies you watch and any new words or phrases you’ve picked up. (Skill area: listening)
3. Read one news article a week once a week in the target language
News is a fantastic way to get exposure to authentic language – and learn what’s going on in the world. There are a few different ways to read the news. You can buy a foreign language newspaper and choose one article a week to work on. Or once a week, you can go on line and find a news article on a topic you’re interested in and read it through. Read for content and meaning, trying to get the gist of what it is saying. Then read it again to get the deeper meaning and the details. If you prefer a more structured approach, dissect the article to find the “5 Ws” (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) in the article and write them down on a separate sheet of paper. Find one or two new vocabulary words an add them to your list. (Skill areas: reading and possibly writing, if you choose to incorporate it).
4. Volunteer an hour or two a week for a language exchange with a native speaker
Language learners really benefit from working with native speakers. Check out programs at your local library or immigrant services organization to see if they have language exchange programs. These programs match people of two different languages so they can enjoy informal conversation and learn from each other. You spend an hour with that person speaking your native language in order to help them learn it. They, in turn, spend an hour with you teaching you their native language. It’s a great way to meet new friends and build your conversation skills. Having a regularly scheduled weekly appointment helps to ensure that you’ll commit to each other and to learning. (Skill area: speaking)
5. Once a week, use a self-directed activity book or online exercises
To help you practice your skills in a more structured way, get yourself a self-directed activity book or find an Internet site that has free online activities. (One of my favorites is Spanish Now.) Be sure to look for a resource that includes answers so you can check your own work. Once a week, sit down with your work book or at the computer, complete one unit in the activity book. Check your answers. If you made errors, challenge yourself to figure out what they were and how to build on those areas. It’s OK to review concepts you already know and it’s even better if you try to build on your current skills by delving into new areas such as more complex verb conjugations or sentence structures. (Skill areas: Reading and writing)
6. Build your own vocabulary list
Many of the activities listed above give you the chance to pick out new words, write them down and learn them. You can write them in a notebook, create your own flash cards or do whatever works best for you. It is important to write them down, say them aloud and try to incorporate them into your speech. If you’re stuck for ideas, look around your house. Do you know all of the words for household items? Food? Clothing? You can build your own theme lists, if the idea appeals to you. Take the time to learn words that may not appear in your course textbooks. Chances are, those words will come in handy some day! (Skill areas: Reading and writing)
7. Once a week, check out a new restaurant, store or cultural event that specializes in your target culture or language
Choose one day a week, say, Thursday, where you make a point to try a restaurant you’ve never been to where they serve authentic food from someplace where your target language is spoken. Try to speak to the staff in the target language. Ask questions about the menu. Alternately, find the shops around your city that import food an other goods from the countries where your target language is spoken. Find out where they are located and go there. Explore the store and find one or two new products to try. Talk to the staff and tell them you are curious and want to learn. Chances are, they’ll be pleased to help. Finally, make a point to find out about cultural events such as festivals, concerts, dance performances or plays in your target language. Go. Have fun. Soak it all in. Experience authentic sounds, smells and tastes and make these part of your language experience. Find out what’s going on in your local community and become a part of it. This may be easier to do in urban areas than in smaller towns, but it may be worth a trip into town, too. (Skill areas: Reading, writing, speaking and listening.)
We know that the more time we invest in learning, the more successful we’ll be over the long run. This summer, make your language learning experience your own. Have fun with it!
How Long Does it Take to Learn a New Language?
Formal, Non-formal and Informal Learning: What Are the Differences?
The many faces of non-formal learning
Formal, non-formal and informal learning: The case of literacy and language learning in Canada
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.