Forgive me if this post is long-winded. but! it was originally an email I sent to a friend who asked for language learning tips, so please just channel that energy into thoughts and prayers for her and her husband who had to read it.
If any of y’all chill with me on IG, you already know that a huuuuge part of my self-development efforts over the last year has been learning French. I should say “solidifying my French” because, as I found out when I went full immersion, I do actually speak French. Whodathunk! Now, it’s just a matter of confidence and expanding my vocabulary.
It’s been more than ten years since I first started learning French, and I’ll write another post about why I decided to buckle down and actually get myself speaking fluidly, but for now we’re gonna talk about how I’m doing it. Texas is a magnificent place but man is it hard to truly practice a language other than Spanish, so I spent a few weeks figuring out a way to recreate the environment that would help me listen, speak and write more often without feeling as rigid as the courses I’d taken in school and privately after graduation.
Step one was to figure out what exactly it was that had worked before.
How Did You Learn Your Native Tongue?
I took time to journal and ask myself how I’d learned English and, surprise! it certainly wasn't from playing on an app for 17 minutes per day. I listened to it for about two years before I ever spoke a word; I was slowly walked through the alphabet; I read to myself; I read aloud, I played with others; I watched to TV; I listened to songs; I learned words from my parents and had my classmates tell me that those were actually bad words (peer evaluation!). I didn't learn your first language in a bubble and shouldn't have expected to learn my second, third or even sixth that way*.
So Digital Immersion is simply a method of surrounding yourself with your target language by using online tools- it helps for those of us without the ability to travel to learn. Before digging into strategies, I'll say this in case I haven't said it before: The most important thing you need to learn a language is intention. Without knowing why you want to learn a language, your desired "end" results (though there never really is an end to language learning) or simply what you would like to say, you'll be trapped in a circle of learning and forgetting how to say "Bonjour, comment allez-vous?" ad infinitum. Because that’s how I was. I’d be around it (watch a movie, take a course, date another French-speaker) but was never quite intent on speaking. The minute I was, and focused in on that intention, it all just worked. And I’d surprise myself with how much I knew.
Okay! Here we go.
Podcasts are listed as number one because they have been a serious game-changer for me. Akin to my vehement belief that you need an intention to fully be invested in learning a language, I also hold very dear the belief that it is imperative that the media you consume is of interest to you. A "French" podcast where you're read a passage or news clip slowly, listen to a scripted dialogue, or simply learn vocabulary words is the same as being back in a stuffy old high school French class. Find a podcast on a topic that actually interests you and you'll find that after making that first move, "studying" won't feel like a chore, you naturally broaden your vocabulary and your comprehension will skyrocket because you are actually engaged with the content.
Movies are great because it's a long work, so you have time to fall into a groove, and really pick up on the non-verbal queues and conventions of story-telling in film to help you understand the plot of the film, which will help you grasp the language. If you must use subtitles, only use subtitles in your target language. Being able to read the words as they're spoken will help you comprehend the spoken language. BUT! No English subtitles. It will just distract you.
3. NEWS MEDIA
Reading news articles (not opinion editorials) is both a great way to stay an informed global citizen, and learn vocabulary words relevant to today's world. It's how I learned how to say "sexual harassment" and "strike". You'll retain the vocabulary better because you'll have an actual point of connection between the word and its meaning- as opposed to having a list of words to memorize. It also carries the added benefit of allowing you to engage in conversations about current issues.
Listening to music in your target language has a myriad of benefits. It's a fun boost for your oral production because singing song lyrics focuses your mind on how to speak without having to figure out what to say. In addition to that and adding words to your vocabulary, it's a way that you can "study" your language even in the company of others. Everyone loves a good tune, regardless of language.
My suggestion is to create a playlist on Spotify of a couple songs you already like (or perhaps hitting "Browse" and Top 40 by Country if you don't yet have a favorite artist in your target language. Throwing back to middle school computer time, to look up the lyrics, type the artist and song title + "paroles" (which means "lyrics" in French) and you'll have a stanza-by-stanza of the lyrics so that you can associate the sounds you're hearing with the words you see written down. Another protip: copying & pasting les paroles into Google Translate can give you insight into the overall meaning of the song if you find yourself stumped. This exercise may feel a bit "basic" and like cheating (I've had struggles with being determined to understand ever-y-thing I read, saw and listened to), but it will without a doubt help you foster a deeper connection with the music and it's a nice way to study when every other exercise feels like too much. Just turn it up and jam out!
An exercise that was suggested to me that I love is after reading an article (or blog post, or listening to a short podcast) sitting and writing a small paragraph summarizing what you understood of the passage. It's a low-stress activity where you can monitor your comprehension and practice your written production of language. And nobody is keeping tabs on how many times you use Google Translate!
5. REAL WORLD APPLICATION
Just as speaking the language of Shakespeare doesn't go over well when talking to teens, speaking the language learned in your high school text book won't necessarily prepare you for communicating with humans, whose language has evolved both with technology and time (much to the chagrin of the Academie Française). Following people of your age group and interests on social media is a great way to get a feel of how people actually talk. Folks on Reddit and Instagram aren't writing poems to lovers adrift at sea, they're chatting with friends and by reading and listening to the way they speak, you'll get a solid feel for the practical use of the language.
*Currently only on number 3.