The lazy expat mom’s guide to language learning

The lazy expat mom's guide to language learning

Lazy? Moi?

Aaron Myers of The Everyday Language Learner is the idea guy behind today’s post. I discovered his website quite by accident, and I love his approach to learning languages. I’ll let him fill you in on the rest:

“Today’s post is part of a language learning moms blog carnival. These posts are written by moms, for moms, and are intended to be a great resource of encouragement, advice, tips and ideas. 

If you’re a mom or if you know a mom who is a language learner (or would like to be), please enjoy this post, share it with others and visit the other participating bloggers via the links below.”

Da jia hao/salut tout le monde/hi everyone. My first thought when Aaron asked me to take part in this blog carnival was “I can’t do that — I don’t know anything about language learning.” But of course that’s not true; I know a great deal about what works and doesn’t work… for me. Learning a language is like many other things in life: you might have to try out several techniques to figure out what’s right for you.

Here’s what helped me learn a lot of French, and not quite as much Mandarin. (Most of them don’t require too much work. Because that’s just how I roll.)

1. Mix it up. Lihong was my Mandarin tutor in Singapore, and one of the things that made her a great teacher was her refusal to allow the slightest hint of boredom to creep into our lessons. We did a lot of reading, but once I got past the absolute beginner stage, we also chatted about our lives, watched movies, did some role-playing, and moved our lessons into the streets of Singapore. My favourite class took place in a market, and my assignment was to haggle in Chinese — so much fun, I forgot I was learning. The monotony of doing the same thing over and over again is the kiss of death.

Labels for language learning

Tea and wine for breakfast, anyone?

2. Get sticky. One of the books we used in our lessons had these neat little stickers for labeling various vocabulary items. I found it useful to have memory prompts around the house, because I learned even when I wasn’t trying to. Learning the word for cup while looking at picture of a cup helps imprint the word onto your brain, but learning the word while you’re actually holding a cup makes a more powerful association between the two.

3. Find a study buddy. Having a friend who’s a native speaker will accelerate your learning, but it might be difficult to build relationships when you’re just starting out. If you’re taking classes, it’s a great idea to pair up with someone to work with outside of the classroom — ideally someone who’s at roughly the same level as you. A study buddy keeps you accountable, gives you confidence, and keeps you from feeling isolated.

Reading in the target language

I love a good mystery in any language.

4. Re-read your favourite books. When I was younger, I loved Agatha Christie books and couldn’t get enough of them. So when I re-read those books in French, I had a head start: because I was already familiar with the characters and plot, I could concentrate on the narrative. (I don’t think this is cheating!)

It also freed me from the tyranny of the instant definition. When I read a word I wasn’t familiar with, I didn’t put down the book and reach for the dictionary. I was able to figure out its meaning within the context of the sentence, so I just marked the page to look it up and write down the definition later.

5. Become a (visual) media junkie. Television can be your friend. Watching the news is an excellent way to pick up some new stuff, because there are lots of visuals to help you follow the story. Aaron suggests watching cartoons — he has a soft spot for Dora the Explorer because she uses simple language and a lot of repetition. And don’t forget Hollywood! When I lived in Bordeaux, a friend and I would see English-language movies with French subtitles. I always took a notebook with me to record new words and phrases — it was very helpful to process the audio in English and the subtitle in French at the same time. Of course, you can do this at home by turning on the subtitles of foreign language DVDs.

Learn a new language with your children

Perfect if you’re just starting out.

6. Care for your young. If your kids are also learning the language, you can “help” them with their homework, or offer to check it for them when they’re done, or quiz them on their vocab words. You’re being a good mom, right? Nobody has to know you have an ulterior motive!

For example, when Younger Daughter recently made a “day in my life” video for a French assignment, I happily played the role of the mother. (Typecasting!)

7. Embrace technology. As much as I love old-school, low-tech learning aids like books made of real paper, there’s been a bit of a paradigm shift since the olden days when you and I were in school. People, we have the technology! You can find millions of sites online to help you in your quest to learn a new language, from traditional lessons, workbooks and quizzes; to audio files; to live chats. Here’s a sampling of what I do:

This is just the tip of the iceberg; as long as you have an internet connection, there’s really no limit to what you can do.

Swearing helps you learn a new language

8. Swear a little. I know it’s very juvenile of me, but I think it’s interesting to know a few swear words in the language I’m learning. I’ve never actually used any of these words in conversation, but there have been a few occasions when I’ve really, really wanted to.

9. Flirt.
I don’t necessarily recommend this for women who have partners, but I was once chatted up in France. I learned a few new words, which is always good, but more importantly, it gave me the opportunity to use my French in conversation with a native speaker. One thing I’ve learned the hard way: you can sit at your desk, memorizing and conjugating like crazy, but unless you start speaking your new language, you’ll find it very difficult to actually communicate with people. Which is kind of the point of learning a new language, wouldn’t you say?

Flash cards for language learning

Like good friends: there when you need them.

10. Become a flasher. What I like best about flash cards is that they’re portable and they contain bite-sized bits of information. So you can keep a stack in your purse and pull them out whenever you have a few spare minutes: in the doctor’s waiting room, in line at Starbucks, whatever.

You can buy flash cards, but you’ll get more bang for your buck if you make them yourself: not only can you choose the words and phrases you want to focus on, but the act of writing them out will help fix them in your mind.

11. And the best way … Pull out all the stops. Obviously, moving to a country where your target language is widely spoken is an ideal way to become proficient. But just because you’re immersed in a language doesn’t mean you don’t have to make an effort. Why don’t I speak Mandarin well? Because I’m lazy, and in Singapore just about everyone spoke English. Learning Mandarin was an academic exercise, not a necessity. In contrast, living in France was sink or swim. I learned because I didn’t have much choice. I had to overcome the laziness.

Please check out today’s posts from these other moms who know a thing or two about learning a language:

Xie xie/merci/thanks!


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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15 Responses to The lazy expat mom’s guide to language learning

  1. Rachel says:

    I used to watch Brazilian soap operas. Not only did it improve my listening and comprehension, I had a lot of conversation material with locals (aside from the normal where are you from stuff).

    And I love your idea of reading your favorite books in the other language. I’m so going to try that!

    • Maria says:

      Soap operas — brilliant! They recycle the same themes over and over again, so the repetition helps. And it’s fun to look at the clothes. 🙂

  2. Super tips, the thing about a language buddy is a great idea too! I speak to my best friend in Dutch and she replies in English! A great way for both of us to learn, even. I also learnt lots of Dutch watching quiz shows, as they post the questions up so I could easily read them at the same time

  3. Consuelo says:

    Great post! Some of the things that worked for you were helpful for me as well. Having a tutor that is a friend you can chat with was probably one of the things that helped me the most. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a novel in Turkish regularly. I think I need to start that one up again. Thanks!


  4. Judy says:

    Watching TV shows and reading books? Goodness me you are seriously good if you can do that. I was immensely proud if I could direct a taxi to my intended destination or ask for something in a store without humiliating myself by having to mime it (have you ever tried miming antacid?).

  5. Franck says:

    The study buddy tip is key! My buddy is my wife, and she is competitive. So I have to keep up with her. Thanks for sharing your insights in this post!

  6. Leslie says:

    Maria, I love, love, love your writing style. You’ve got great ideas, and you share them with flare, a tiny bit sassy, and that makes you sound like a real person. I didn’t think I was going to like the part about “swear a little,” when I read the subhead, but you epressed it so nicely, that I couldn’t help but smile. Wow! What a great skill you have of conveying your personality through your words. I too love old-school low-tech things like books with real paper, but there is a world of technology to help with language learning. Thanks for the reminder. I liked all of your tips.

  7. Pingback: You can learn a new skill! « Loving Language

  8. Pingback: Encouraging the language learning of others « Polyglot Posturings

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