Yo! After a 1.5+ year long nerve injury and the general life changes of graduating from college, I'm done with Powlyglot. If I find myself sharing my language experience in another format later on, I'll probably link to it here, on my personal site, or on Twitter at @mpvboehme. Thanks for reading.
Hack Your Hobbies for Everyday Language Immersion

Hack Your Hobbies for Everyday Language Immersion

You just got home late after a long day of classes or work. Maybe you had an exam, or a big project due. You’re tired.

Now what’s more likely to be your next move after such a long day – will you diligently set out to complete your daily tasks, or will you resolve to let yourself relax for the night watching House of Cards?

I know there are many days where I’ve been lured in by that second option – after all, all work and no play? That sounds really boring.

But when this becomes a habit it can have devastating effects on your language-learning goals. It’s incredibly easy to forget what you’re not using, and unless you already have a high skill level in the language(s) you’re studying, you’re going to see that skill level drop quickly.

Neither one of us wants that to happen.

So what if your relaxation was also a form of studying?

Luckily, with the invention of the internet and an ever-metaphorically-shrinking globe, it’s pretty easy to make sure you can get a daily dose of immersion without giving up your precious free time.

Here are some ways I’ve been working on my language skills, even on the off days.

Reading Comprehension

Let’s start with reading comprehension – probably the easiest skill to work on through hobbies due to the sheer ubiquity of the written word. Basically every media-based hobby can help you with this in some way, whether it be reading, playing videogames, or investing all of your time (and probably money) into Magic: the Gathering.

If you’re the reading type, books are the obvious go-to answer to get some extra practice in. There are an enormous amount of books available in basically every language, and libraries go a step further by making many of them free to read.

A great way to boost your reading skill, especially as a beginner, is to read translated books you already know in your native tongue. I’m quite enjoying Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal, and already knowing the context of the book gives me a huge advantage when picking up new vocabulary as I read.

If you’re not a big fan of books, you can head to your local videogame store for some more interactive study methods.

Many games released in recent years have the option to display text in several different languages, making them a great way to casually boost your reading comprehension. Naturally, some games are harder than others – for example, playing a story-driven RPG like Bravely Default (3DS) may just leave you frustrated if your reading level isn’t already pretty decent.

Keeping up with the townsfolk in Animal Crossing is a great way to get daily reading practice.

Keeping up with the townsfolk in Animal Crossing is a great way to get daily reading practice.

For those looking for a more casual experience, Animal Crossing can be very rewarding for beginners and advanced learners alike. Specifically, Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS) is a great resource because it’s meant to be played in short, daily bursts. Simply checking in on your town is an easy way to get an extra half hour of practice every day!

If you want to find out if your game has other languages available but can’t find an option for it, try changing your system language. I know many games (specifically, 3DS games) that will check what language your system is in and use that for the in-game display automatically.

Outside of the games themselves providing options, some consoles (like the PS3 and the original Nintendo DS) are region-free, meaning that you can import games for them from other countries and they’ll work on your system.

As for Magic: the Gathering (or any other trading card game), getting your hands on the foreign cards you need isn’t always easy, so it’s not quite as accessible. What I can say about playing with foreign cards is that critical thinking + language practice = good things.

Oh, and as an added bonus, reading any of these things out loud will help improve your pronunciation.

Listening Comprehension

This skill deserves a little extra attention, since it’s a little less accessible to practice than reading.

Heavy Rain (PS3) is easily the best resource I’ve used lately for practicing my listening skills, but you’d better come prepared. With full voice acting and subtitles, along with a very choose-your-own-adventure style of gameplay, you’re forced to make quick decisions in response to your language of choice (with English subtitles, if you’re not feeling ready to go all in yet).

Heavy Rain has plenty of dialogue to help you work on your listening skills.

Heavy Rain has plenty of dialogue to help you work on your listening skills.

Music (like that found in the Powlyglot Playlists) is also a great way to immerse yourself, as long as you know the difference between actively listening to a song and ignoring the lyrics to listen to the instrumentals. One of them will help you, the other isn’t going to do much of anything.

Other than that, movies and other programs like Wakfu are my favorite ways to practice listening. DVD and Blu-ray releases often have several audio and subtitle options to choose from, and some of my favorite pieces of media are foreign films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Amélie.

Vocabulary Building

Vocabulary acquisition is a rather broad practice that will happen naturally as you do anything with a language. Due to this, things like books and movies are bound to teach you a few new words here and there.

Videogames, however, can do quite a good job of teaching you very specialized vocabulary based on what game your playing. Books and movies have specialized vocabulary too, but the repetitive nature of videogames means you’re a little more likely to remember it. This can end up helping you learn many words you wouldn’t have thought to look up otherwise.

The biggest example of this for me is with Monster Hunter 3: Ultimate (3DS/Wii U). I’ve only ever played the Monster Hunter games in Spanish and French. Because of this, I know all sorts of words like claw, fang, tail, and scale that I probably wouldn’t have learned under any normal circumstances.

For a more custom vocabulary experience, my favorite choices are Pokémon X and Y (3DS). Not only can you play the games in 7 different languages, but you can nickname every Pokémon you catch to create a new set of vocabulary for yourself. I’m currently nicknaming everything I catch in French after fruits and vegetables that they look like, and it’s honestly pretty adorable to have a little blue Azurill named after blueberries.

Any other ideas?

How do you incorporate language-learning into your favorite activities? Better yet, do you have any hobbies that help you practice speaking another language? I’m sure we’d all love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

  • http://collegeinfogeek.com/ Thomas Frank

    Pokemon Y in Japanese… impossible. I am excited to start reading ハリーポターと賢者の石 once my vocab levels are higher, though.

    Since you mentioned music, I think it’s good to also mention podcasts as well. There are tons of them in every language, and you can just throw one on when you go to the gym or need to drive somewhere.

    Awesome post!

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      Yeah, Pokémon is definitely one of those story-driven RPG’s I was mentioning. Unfortunately, many reading materials probably won’t be very enjoyable (or manageable) until your reading level is already pretty decent, especially in a language with a different writing system. But even playing in English, the vocab strategy of nicknaming everything in Japanese would still work great!

      Podcasts are a great idea as well – I just don’t listen to many myself so I didn’t think of it. I’ll have to look into that as a resource. Thanks for the suggestion!

      • http://www.mycollegeadvice.org/ Katie Dwyer

        In addition to language learning podcasts, there are also some great ones out there that let you listen to the news in different languages. Once your language skills are decent, getting headlines or quick news blasts is a great way to boost listening comprehension while getting tons of cultural information as well.

        (An embarrassing aside: I used this same method to do a bit of accent immersion before I moved to Northern Ireland. Some of those accents are tricky, and it’s double embarrassing to be misunderstanding in your own language!)

        • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

          Listening to the news to get cultural information in with your practice is a great idea! I’ll have to go find some for myself.

          Accents are one of my favorite things to study and learn in any language, even English! It’s fascinating how we shift the sounds around. Nice job on making a point to understand Irish accents instead of just assuming you’d understand it all – I bet it saved you quite a few headaches. :)

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  • http://www.mycollegeadvice.org/ Katie Dwyer

    This is great advice! I’m not a gamer myself, but I can absolutely imagine how that could make a huge difference in a really fun way.

    I am a huge advocate of watching movies with subtitles–at a lower comprehension level the subtitles are the language you’re trying to learn, and later you swap over. Also, reading children’s books in a second language is a great way to learn, and gives you an excuse to look up old favorites to see if they’ve been translated.

    Thanks for this great advice!

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      It’s super important to make sure we’re having fun as we learn, or else we might burn out!

      The note you made about making sure to swap the subtitles over as you get better is good, too. I love watching movies in Spanish or French with the subtitles on – it lets me practice reading and listening at the same time!

      Thanks for reading!

  • Lucie

    I’m not really keen on video games, but the first support I used to improve my language skills was definitely songs! (with printed lyrics, it’s easier to understand then). Then to read a book you already read in your mother tongue is great too, as well as watching films in OV. The subtitles can help your reading skills, but I’m convinced you should watch it once with the subtitles, and once again without, because even if it’s more comfortable, for the simple reason that, in the real life subtitles don’t appear at the bottom of your field of vision.

    Then, with Youtube it’s easy to find any content you’re interested in : anime (for Japanese), interwiews… A good training is to watch a film in OV, and then to watch interviews of the director and/or some of the actors about the film you just saw. At an advanced level, as Katie said, watching TV news in your target language (BBC or CNN for English, RTVE for Spanish…) and/or reading online newspapers (Le Monde or Le Figaro for French, El Pais for Spanish…).

    Other things can be learned now with smartphone apps, I don’t have any precise ones in mind, but there’s a lot of choice and varied contents.

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      Having the lyrics in front of you while listening to music is really helpful. I actually go over an easy way to do it in an older post: http://powlyglot.com/spotify-tunewiki-for-listening-comprehension/ .

      Looking for interviews and news reports is a good idea, too. Reporters and the like generally speak very clearly, so they’d be a good place to work on your listening skills!