How can we learn a language when we’re stuck at home in the crisis? This week’s post begins with a quick catch-up on my life here in “semi-lockdown” London. Then, let’s think about how to learn languages at home during the coronavirus crisis. I’ll give you some top tips from time management and across all four language learning skills. If you want it visual, the vid embedded at the very bottom of this piece is my recent vlog covering the same ground (“Keep calm and learn langs!”). In the body of the post, I’ve also included some my tips videos on individual topics.
Life in London during the COVID-19 crisis
Here in London there’s a state of “semi-lockdown”. Cafés, bars, restaurants and pubs, gyms, sporting and artistic venues have closed. Other shops are open at the discretion of the owners. An increasing number of non-essential ones are closed. Parks and public spaces are still open.
Worryingly, people are not always keeping a safe distance. I was surprised when I went out in the park near my house on Sunday morning that the local Herne Hill Farmers’ Market was running as usual. Less busy, but some people too close. The Blackbird breadshop-cum-café was open to sell food, but only allowing three people in at a time.
The law firm I work for four days a week instituted home working for everyone at the beginning of the week. I usually work one of my four days from home in any case, so I was already well set up but on Tuesday I went into the office for the last time for the foreseeable to pick up some papers.
What about you? If you’re an employee, are you now working from home or is there a “split working” system in place (with only specific sets of staff on-site on a given day)? Are you a “key worker”, still expected to brave transport systems, clients, patients? If you have a business or are a freelancer, are you already feeling the pain and are there ways you can adapt?
With all these changes and, most of all, worries about your own health and that of family members, it may seem trivial to post about how to learn a language at home in the crisis. But language learning is what we do on this site. I’m all for carrying on so far as circumstances allow. So long as we manage to stay well and safe, the crisis could bring upsides as well as downsides for our language learning, as well as for our wider lives.
Language learning: crisis downsides
Disruption to physical classes
Is attending a group language class part of your language learning life? If so, the class may now have been cancelled. In the same way, if you have face-to-face tuition one-to-one, you and your teacher may no longer be able to spend the time together. What about attending physical language learner meetups or exchanges? I expect they’re “off” for an indefinite period.
I’m not a member of any face-to-face classes at the moment, but I have been hit by a number of cancellations. I was due to go to Berlin next weekend for a language business workshop and I was very much looking forward to the Polyglot Cruise from Barcelona in April. The workshop will move online. The Cruise will take place in a year’s time. As the Germans say, “aufgeschoben ist nicht aufgehoben” (postponed is not cancelled).
I expect, like me, the first few days following any big shift in policy on working, public spaces and so on where you are will have left you busy putting new work, business and other arrangements in place. You probably didn’t have as much time as usual for language learning.
Your kids may now be home all the time. Depending on their ages and whether you’re on your own or have a partner, time may now be going on home-schooling or keeping them entertained (or both!).
Then your work duties may have increased as your organisation or business tries to cope with the crisis.
Yes, all these changes would disrupt any language learning. If you haven’t started yet a language yet, it may seem like you just have too many worries for this to be a good time to start.
But, wait! Let’s look again. Yes, there are downsides but could this be a time of opportunity as well?
Language learning: upsides of the crisis
More time for language learning?
Many of us will have more time than usual.
If you’re a student, your lectures may have been cancelled or put on hold and exams the same. If you’re in work, your hours may have been reduced.
In my day job as a lawyer, I’m busier than ever (lots of business and contract law questions are thrown up at a time of crisis).
Even so, I no longer have to spend up to two hours a day on what is often a tiring (and sometimes a stressful) commute.
Those of us who work in offices will doubtless sometimes miss our colleagues. At the same time, we may find that having fewer distractions enables us to do our work more efficiently. That too may free up more time than you’d think.
A reality check on what matters?
Big shocks in life often lead us to re-evaluate our priorities in life. The realisation that normality is not so solid as we tend to think could be just the push to focus what really matters to you. Maybe that’s finally getting down to starting to learn a language, getting back to one or ramping up engagement with one you were learning anyway.
So, here are some of my top tips for making language learning success in a time of crisis.
Language learning at home: top tips
Revise the basics of good language learning methods
First, if you’re new to the language learning game or want a quick refresher on methods, check out my free Language Learner Pro video course. You can get it by joining the free How to Get Fluent Email club (the sign-up box in at the bottom of this article).
I surveyed other approaches at the beginning here. Should you book lots of online one-to-ones and “just speak”. How about a systematic build out of key phrases and structures. Another approach is lots of listening or reaind input before you start speaking.
All successful approaches involve a lot of interaction with materials or conversation partners, a lot of focus, a willingness to make mistakes and tons of forgetting and frustration.
If you take this to heart, you won’t put all your faith in apps like Duolingo that just seem easy or fun. They’re great as a supplementary tools, but on their own, they won’t get you really learning (just like you won’t build up your body if you don’t break out a sweat in the gym).
To repeat: if you haven’t followed my free email/video course yet: sign up now! (Box at the bottom of this post).
Make language learning at home a habit
Make sure you get language habit. A regular slot for focussed language study or exposure helps. A little, often is better than binging once a week. I like a thirty-minute morning slot. It feels great to have some productive work under my belt before life starts to distract me.
If you already have a slot in place, sticking to it more than ever may help you to structure the expanse of endless days stuck indoors.
If you’ve already been learning for a while, you may need to re-anchor a good habit that the changed circumstances have disrupted. On my commute to work, I usually review my Japanese words and phrases flashcards on the commute.
The last time I wasn’t commuting was last summer during a one-month mini-sabbatical (unpaid leave). The whole goal last year was to use the time to focus on Basque and Japanese and I did a lot. I never managed to build in that lost flashcarding “dimension” to my home study day, though. Can you do better?
How about expanding an existing slot? That could mean spending forty-five minutes instead of thirty or an hour instead of forty-five. Don’t overdo it, though. If you’re going to do focussed study for longer periods, mix up what things that you’re doing. Doing, say, an hour and a half on German strong verbs in the past tense would be what’s called “massed practice”. The cognitive psychologists tell us that we learn better if we mix it up a bit: thirty minutes focussed listening; thirty minutes flashcarding and then thirty minutes on those strong verbs, for example.
If you were already putting in thirty minutes in the morning, could you now set up a second “satellite slot”. It could be another thirty minutes during your lunch hour (the time you used to spend in line at the works canteen or chatting with your colleagues). Fifteen minutes last thing in the evening might work for you.
What’s the purpose of the satellite slot? How about reviewing what you’ve recently covered or preparing the ground for what’s coming up?
What about the human contact when learning a language at home?
Words on a page, yes, video and audio, bring them on! Still, we all need human contact too. Language is about interaction. How can that work for language learning in a time of crisis?
If your language classes have been disrupted, now could be just the time to start try one-to-one lessons with a teacher on an online platform. The one I use is italki. There I find value-for-money-teachers, scheduled and paid for lessons. The lessons themselves take place on Skype (or similar).
You won’t be alone. This morning I had a lesson with one of my regular Basque teachers and she said she’s busier than ever in the crisis.
If your physical group arrange group lessons have been cancelled, could you set up informal live lessons online up with your physical class teacher? You could either engage the teacher yourself or with other members of your group (to divide the cost). If the teacher’s a freelance, the continuity of income could really help them.
If you haven’t worked one-to-one with a teacher before (in person or online), check out my series of Quick Tip Tuesday vids on just this topic over on the YouTube channel. I’ve put them all together in one playlist.
Another low-cost way to get some human contact if you want to learn a language at home in the crisis is a language exchange (tandem). You can find tandem partners on italki, too. Sure, start with a few “Where are you from? What do you do?”-type opening sessions. Longer term, though, the key is to agree topics to talk about in advance. Otherwise, you’ll either find you’re running out of things to say or are stuck in a comfort zone of familiar patter. Make sure you insist on a fifty:fifty language/time split.
Lots of great language learners get practice talking to themselves. As you get up and ready in the morning or go about jobs in the house, you could try and describe what you’re doing in your target language, even if it’s just “I’m scratching my nose. Erm, no, not supposed to be touching my face…” Can you say that in your target language yet?
How about new project recording yourself at regular intervals during your confinement to the house? Just use your phone and keep a short audio diary, each day for a month, three times a week, whatever fits. When you look back, maybe you’ll notice some progress.
Get some comprehensible language input at home
A big part of language learning is spending time getting “comprehensible input”. That’s the jargon for reading and listening to things you (largely) understand. It’s great for consolidation and for acquiring language effortlessly through context.
If you want to learn a language at home in the crisis, it’s time for some extensive reading and audio.
On the reading side as a beginner or intermediate learner, look to materials “graded” to your level. There’s lots available across many languages. If you can’t find things, consider children’s books. Texts with pictures could also provide a crutch.
Upper intermediate or advanced learners? Blow the dust off that pile of native-level reading matter! Things to remember: factual books like history or memoirs are often easier than novels. Translated creative literature will tend to be simpler than originals in the language.
As for extensive listening practice, binge-listen the audio that comes with your language course (or previous, lower-level courses that you’ve already completed).
Podcasts for all levels are numerous, at least in major languages. There great for learning a language on the move, but no reason why you can’t wash the dishes to one or chill out with one on your sofa. You could also try a subscription audio book service like Audible.
If you like pictures with your audio, some “language” YouTubers offer beginners or intermediate material. For upper intermediate to advanced, YouTube and NetFlix are the obvious place to start. If you change your location settings on YouTube, you’ll be shown more random stuff that’s popular in “over there” as well.
Don’t forget that terrestrial broadcasters often have their own catch-up players embedded on their websites. I make a lot of use of national German broadcaster ARD’s Mediathek, for example. For Russian, try a YouTube channel like Russian TV Series or the MosFilm or LenFilm YouTube channels.
“Keeping it relevant” is one of my four principles of language learning. How about giving your “extensive” reading and listening a really personal touch by starting to consume target language content about your favourite interests? Lower beginners could find out whether there are relevant websites with simpler content aimed at children. If you’re upper intermediate, dive right in!
This could be just the time to take up a new hobby or learn a new skill through your target language, too, providing it doesn’t involve getting out and about and meeting up with others. Birdwatching from your balcony? Cooking from tinned food? Growing vegetables in the back garden? Family psychology…?
What ever the interest, it’s time to stop putting it off. Listen! Read!
Next step: get interactive with your interests and hobbies online.
Look for online discussion groups on Facebook and elsewhere. Get into conversations about your shared passions (or worries) on Instagram or Twitter.
Who knows, such exchanges might lead to a language tandem with somebody with a shared interest, something more. Shared enthusiasms are a great basis for lasting friendships.
Don’t be afraid either to ask your one-to-one teacher or existing exchange partner to discuss the interest or hobby with you.
Don’t neglect writing practice
To get good at a foreign language you need to practice all four skills (listening, speaking reading, writing). I’m often guilty neglecting writing practice in my foreign languages. We’ve already mentioned contributing to the discussion in Facebook Groups or on social media.
How about keeping a written diary of these extraordinary events?
If you go with my idea of learning new stuff in your language through text or audio, consider writing brief summaries of what you’ve learned each day. Maybe that’s something you could do in an evening “satellite slot”.
If you’re doing some writing remember to reuse “chunks” of language as much as possible. If you want to sound natural in your target language, imitation not invention what it’s all about.
You could then have your teacher correct your written work with you during an online lesson (with you both in the same Google Doc, for example).
Don’t forget your friends!
Here then, are some thing you can be doing from home, despite the crisis. Remember, it’s a time not only of uncertainly and worry but also an opportunity. Remember, too, that it’s a time to pull together. Do you have friends who are fellow learners or your target language or even native speakers? Now, more than ever, it’s time to check in on how they’re doing. A quick email, asking how it’s going by messenger, a full call you should really have scheduled long ago by phone or Skype. Which will it be?
Over to you
How’s your crisis been so far? Let me know how it’s impacting your language learning in the comments below. If you have questions on the tips or others you’d like to share, that’s the place for them, as well.