5 Unconventional Ways to Learn a Foreign Language


Wish you could communicate with your company’s Japanese suppliers? Afraid to hike the Andes because the little Spanish you crammed in your head in high school has since evaporated? Want to impress the hot Portuguese guy/ girl in your dance class?

Whatever your reason, it seems like everybody is trying to get on the foreign language boat these days. Then they remember how difficult/ time-consuming/ misery-inducing learning a language can be, and it’s out of the boat and back to the safety of the dry land that is their first language.

But learning a language doesn’t have to be painful. Repetition, scientifically proven to be the key to language learning, is really the only thing you need. Of course, repetition is boring. If you are not one of the few who can press through that boredom, there is still something you can do to achieve consistency. You can use the things you already do and already like.


There are 4 skills you need to practice to be able to use a language thoroughly. Listening. Speaking. Reading. Writing. My 5 uncoventional tips come to you in the form of action plan. 4 verbs based on the 4 skills of language, plus a bonus 5th verb. All 5 of which can be done online. Most, with the help of a website you already know.
Listen. Speak. Read. Write. Go.

LISTEN: Youtube

The easiest material to work with is music. To find foreign language music, start with what you know. Studying Italian? Andrea Bocelli from the “Time to Say Goodbye” duet. South Korean? Gangnam Style’s PSY. There’s no end to the Spanish-speaking artists. Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Enrique Iglesias…
What if you don’t know any singers in your chosen language? Try a Google or Wikipedia search. Or try looking up a music award show for that language and listening to tracks from the nominees. The beauty of Youtube is that you only need to find one video and a list of similar videos pops up in a sidebar.

If, like me, you’re a Disney freak, then you are set for life. Linguist-types have all been drooling at the multilingual version of “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen. 25 languages/ dialects. I suspect that’s a high even for Disney, but you can find about 10 years worth of Disney in many European languages as well as Chinese and Japanese.

Extras: Check out movies, news, podcasts, and vloggers of interest. Don’t forget the value of passive listening. Leave your playlist running while you do the household chores.

Speak: My Language Exchange

I’d wager about 90% of our language-based communication is speaking. Ironically, this is the skill least emphasized in a traditional learning environment. Maybe that’s why you can take 6 years of Dutch in school and still not feel fluent. The easiest way to practice speaking is with a native speaker. Failing that, a fellow student will do. Of course, many people don’t like being befriended only for their linguistic ability. As an English-speaker in Japan, I know this only too well. Plus, if you’re working in a less commonly-studied language, you may not find anyone nearby. Probably not many speakers of Afrikaans in the ATL.

Check out My Language Exchange. Native speakers practice with you for free. In return, you talk with them in English. And guess what? English is both the most learned and most spoken second language in the world. You are in high demand. Sign up for a free account., take your pick of their 115 languages, and get to practicing.

Extras: Practice singing along on youtube, or try shadowing movies to get the rhythm and intonation right.

READ: Yahoo

Every English-speaking Internet user is familiar with Yahoo. Most, however, have never given any thought to how far it reaches. There are 60+ Yahoo country sites. Find them at Everything Yahoo.

What to read? Beginners need something quick and easy to build confidence and vocabulary. Horoscopes! They’re super short, and tend to use simple language. (Some of the languages only have the horoscopes in English though.) For intermediate readers, or if your language only has English horoscopes, try travel or entertainment articles. They’re medium-length with non-technical vocabulary and the added perk of possibly finding your next vacation spot or discovering a new singer.
Extras: Try changing your language on Facebook so that the language interface is in your target language.

WRITE: Blogger

The most emphasized skill in many traditional programs, this is probably the skill we use least in real lives. Still, there is value in developing this skill. It is a productive skill, increasing your ability to express yourself. But unlike speaking, there is a time delay between production and reception. You have time to re-read, and correct your own mistakes.

Set up a blog and start writing. Who cares if it’s bad? Set it to private and no one has to see it. Post about your daily life, random topics connected to your new vocabulary, a specific niche, or even the language-learning process itself. Decide on a blogging schedule and stick to it. (It’s best to start out slow, and get more frequent if you need to.)

Extras: Start out on Twitter. 140 characters is easy-peasy. Except in Japanese, where you can write your entire life story in 140 characters. Added perk of Twitter, you can follow other tweeps and practice your reading at the same time. You may even pick up a language exchange partner!

GO: Amazon

Immersion is the best way to learn a language. Wouldn’t you love to go up in a hot-air balloon over a Norwegian fjord? Now think about your job, your family, your debt. Took the air out of that balloon pretty fast, huh? I moved to another hemisphere just because. Maybe you can’t, either because you have no desire to or because you have obligations.

Don’t worry though. You can try artificial immersion. The principle behind immersion is that you take away the comfort of your first language, forcing yourself to depend only on the language you are trying to learn. If you are in a foreign country, this is usually very easy, as everyone around you is using not-your-first-language. But with a little willpower, there’s nothing to say you can’t recreate some of that in your very own home.

Enter Amazon.

Amazon is available in about a dozen countries. If you want to learn a major European language, one of its offshoots or Chinese or Japanese, then Amazon is the place for you. Stock up on DVD’s and books in your target language. You can even get English ones which have been translated. Reading Hunger Games in Italian was great for me. My Italian is not good enough to read a book of that length and understand it. But because I’ve already read Hunger Games (several times) in English, I could let go of trying to figure out the plot and concentrate on the language.

Turn off the computer, filled with English-speaking temptation. Marathon foreign language movies and sing along to CDs. Buy a foreign language cookbook and use it to make food from somewhere your language is spoken. Try learning something native to somewhere your language is spoken.

If you don’t live by yourself, or you can’t sacrifice a whole day, then a few hours will do. Remember though that the shorter the period of time you use, the more consistent you need to be. If you can only immerse for 2 hours after you’ve managed to get the kids to sleep, do it as frequently as you can. If you’re the kind of person that can stand it, watch the same thing repeatedly. I can’t tell you what watching the Ikemen Desu Ne series 9 times in a month did for my Japanese. To this day, entire lines will pop out of my mouth in relevant situations. Added perk? I don’t have to worry about heinous grammar mistakes. They were good enough to be on tv, they must be good enough for me to repeat word-for-word.

Extras: Try going to a restaurant, if there’s one in the area and ordering in the foreign language.


These tips are designed to be used in conjunction with a text-book or class-based study method. They don’t involve actual studying or grammar or word lists. You’ll pick up grammar and vocabulary the way a first-language learner picks them up, hearing and seeing them in use. Like a first language learner, you need the structure of studying to make sure you know the rules to be able to produce well on your own.

Using all of these tips together makes for a great online practice program. But you can choose to focus on the tips in the areas you are weakest in, or want to develop most.


Question of the Day:

What ways do you use to learn a foreign language?

Let us know in the comments below!