15 Activities to Vary Your Language Learning

It’s easy to get into a rut when you set a routine studying languages, especially when self-studying.  So here are a few exercises I’ve found that you can use to mix up your routine and re-motivate yourself (let me know if you have more ideas in the comments section!).  I think the important thing is to be willing to try new methods, or use materials (including material aimed at children) that you wouldn’t normally use for yourself in your native language.  If you expand what you are willing to work with, you will find that there are a lot of resources out there, even if you are learning a less-commonly-taught language.

  1. Podcasts [rather obvious] For Turkish, I love Turkish Tea Time.  If there aren’t very good podcasts in your target language (I find them to be beginner-heavy for all but the most popular languages), then listen to BBC news podcasts in your target language. You won’t understand all of it; pick up what you can to attune your ear to the language as spoken at a native pace.  Radio Free [Asia/Europe/etc…] also broadcasts in a number of less-popular languages (like Kyrgyz and Khmer)
  2. Make Your Own Podcasts! Use a Youtube Video-MP3 converter (like http://www.youtube-mp3.org/) to generate MP3 files from videos, news broadcasts, or anything else in your target language on Youtube.
  3. Watch Dubbed Disney Movies Blockbuster Disney movies have been dubbed in hundreds of languages,
    usually somewhat professionally (meaning not one guy reading the script in monotone).  You’re probably already familiar with the plots and can predict the dialogue, so watching it dubbed in your target language is a really easy way to ease into watching films in the target language. Also, subtitled disney songs…

  4. Watch Dubbed Classics Like with Disney films, you will probably find the language fairly predictable and easy to understand.  The choice of voices, however, may be totally different than what you would have imagined for those characters.  Chinese dubbing on awful 80’s American movies (and old bollywood flicks) makes them fantastic (in a ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ kind of way) and horribly hilarious.
  5. Watch Foreign Movies with Subtitles in the Target Language All Chinese films and TV shows have Chinese subtitles (due to regional difference in dialects); with languages like Turkish, we’re not so lucky.  It’s really hard to find Turkish material with Turkish subtitles.  But…there are plenty of foreign (and American) films with Turkish subtitles.  Pick a popular film in a language you don’t know and watch it with subtitles in your target language.  Because you can’t understand what the actors are saying, you will have to rely on the subtitles (along with visual clues). 
  6. Watch Kids Cartoons These usually use simple language and sometimes have subtitles in the target language.  If you can stand the saccharine, watch sing-along songs. If you can’t, just stick to regular programs, or cartoon series made for language learning. BookBoxInc has cartoons for a few random languages; Muzzy is a great classic (we used to watch it in French class); Peppa Pig (and here) is a modern-day Muzzy.
  7. Watch the News For beginning-intermediate learners, the news usually uses a predictable set of words and subject headlines across the bottom of the screen – which you can use as ‘cue words’ – making it far easier to understand than a full TV show.
  8. Random Writing Exercises (1) Randomly pick a word from the vocab list in the back of your book and write as much as you can about it – describe it, write about a related memory, write about a thing you associated with the word.
  9. Random Writing Exercises (2) Write down a series of cues or situations.  Stick them in a cup and pull them out one prompt.  Write a dialogue or a short story based on the prompt. Your prompt is oranges? Write a dialogue with people haggling over the prices of oranges.  Write a narrative of how an orange got from tree to table.  Write about a memory you have that involves eating an orange.
  10. Summarize a Plot This can be verbally or written – think of a book you just read or a movie you watched, and create a short summary (depending on your language level) of the main story.
  11. Write Strange Stories I used to do this when creating reading comprehension exercises for my 7th graders in China – it’s surprising what you can create with a first-year vocabulary.  Blue sheep stealing taxis and driving around the city, flying giraffes acting in films.  The more ridiculous it is, the more vocab you can use, and the easier it is to remember.
  12. Story Telling from Photos This is something I used to do with my university students in Urumqi. Choose 3-5 photos or pictures (they don’t necessarily have to be related). Look at each picture and describe it in as much detail as possible.  Then try to create a story from the pictures, linking each to the others.  Again, the stories can get pretty far-fetched and ridiculous, but as long as you’re putting your language into use, it doesn’t need to be logical. 
  13. Translate Magazine Stories If you can, grab a bilingual in-flight magazine (they’re usually labeled ‘complimentary’, so it’s OK to take them). The articles may be insipid, but they usually cover a comfortable array of topics and will provide a lot of new vocabulary in context.  If you get stuck, you can also look at their English version of the article. Turkish Airlines has all of their magazines available online here. If you can’t grab a bilingual magazine, try finding a middle-of-the-road magazine (like “Life” or a travel magazine) online – one that will expose you to a lot of new sentence structures and vocabulary in context but isn’t filled with a lot of jargon (or worse, international names in indecipherable translation).
  14. Read Childen’s Story Books Kids books are great because they’re usually very descriptive of action and will help you build a natural foundation in dialogue.  Classical story books will also help you get a cultural bearing in the language. As your language skills increase, you can move on to young adult novels, which generally have plenty of description of culturally relevant daily events and activities.
  15. Watch Commercials, Read Advertisements These teach you as much about cultural values and desires as they do about the language.  They are also a great medium for learning colloquial language, but in short bite-sized snippets.
  16. (ok, so 15 +1) Memorize Poems Find a recording online, listen to it and read, and repeat until you have the rhythm in your head.  This is great for practicing intonation, word stress, pause.
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