How I practiced German and Italian & built skills at the same time
You don’t know a language, you live it.
You don’t learn a language, you get used to it.
khatzumoto — ajatt.com
Living your life in a certain language is a decision. If you are studying a foreign language, the country you live in may or may not help you get better at it. In the end, getting fluent in a language is up to you. Being surrounded by Spanish all the time can be helpful to improve, but going to Spain is not essential. You can learn from home, wherever country you happen to be at the moment. The most important thing is creating ways to get used to your target language. Finding ways to live the language.
In 2021, I did an experiment: I wanted to live foreign languages through skill building. I picked four different hobbies that seemed fun to me. My goal was to practice these skills in two foreign languages I was learning at the time: German and Italian. In the first semester, I would practice skills in Italian. In the second, I would do skills in German.
I divided my projects by quarter (click on each project to read more about them):
- January to March (Q1): Chess in Italian
- April to June (Q2): Cooking in Italian
- July to September (Q3): Pen Drawing in German
- October to December (Q4): Singing in German
For each one of these four skill building projects, I used different tools and resources. With Chess in Italian and Singing in German, I took weekly lessons with a teacher. For Pen drawing in German, I used an e-book written in German. And with Cooking in Italian I learned with YouTube videos.
Bringing the Future to the Present
Three years from now I see myself taking a yoga lesson in German, in Berlin. I see myself taking a singing lesson in Italian, in Rome. I can picture myself hanging out with local friends in these two cities, in German and Italian. I see myself living the languages I’m currently learning. But I started doing it now, in the present.
There is a difference between learning a language and living a language. It’s about how much we do in the language, with the language. You can learn a language and not do much with it. But, if you are living a language, you are putting it to use. You are using the language as a means to do something else, instead of as a goal in itself.
These were my initial intentions for the skill building projects:
- to feel more comfortable and at ease, while using the languages I’m practicing
- to experience taking lessons of different skills in foreign languages
- to try new things using a foreign language
- to spend more time with my target languages
- to increase my motivation to learn and spend more time with German and Italian
- to build self-discipline
- to have fun 😃
Using the Language and Getting Used to It
How do we get used to something? I would say that by habit. By doing that thing repeatedly over a long period of time. We get used to languages the same way: by using them. Using a language doesn’t necessarily involve speaking or writing. Those are just two of the four basic activities when learning a foreign language. We can read, listen, write, or speak.
According to Stephen Krashen’s Input Hypothesis, in the beginning, it’s better to spend more time reading and listening. That’s how we increase our comprehension levels. We leave writing and speaking (output) for later. It turns out that reading and listening are activities, and they are a form of usage. More recently, Krashen highlighted the importance of using compelling input when learning languages. Ideally, our input should not only be interesting, but compelling. ‘[…] so interesting you forget that it is in another language,’ in Krashen’s words. That’s why I thought hobbies (ie. fun and compelling activities) could be a great choice to get better at my target languages.
The Fun Factor
Once we get ourselves to an intermediate level (ie. B1 or B2), it could be a good idea to start doing things in the language. This is the moment when we can pick up a new skill or try to improve an existing one, in our target language. When I encourage people to take on a hobby in a foreign language, I’m inviting them to have a fun experience.
Learning to play the guitar in Spanish, or learning how to play tennis in Spanish can be fun. The fun factor is key here. It’s all about enjoying your activity, your practice time. If you’re going to learn a new thing anyway (ie. how to play the guitar or how to cook), why not do that in the language you’re studying? It takes a little bit more effort, and it might sound a bit strange (is not what everybody else is doing), but… who cares?
Leave the Country or Live the Language
One of the commonplaces of language learning is that, in order to get fluent, you have to live in a country where your target language is spoken (ie. someone learning Spanish should move to Spain). But moving countries is not essential to learn languages. You can get better at them without leaving your city. You just need to be strategic, you need to be smart about the process. It’s all about creating a good environment. It’s about setting the right conditions for language learning to happen. For many people, moving to a different country is an easy and practical solution. That’s how they manage to be surrounded by their target language most of the time. But this is only one way of doing it.
If you don’t want -or are not able- to leave the country you live in to learn a new language, that’s totally fine. You don’t have to leave your country. The alternative is to live your target language, wherever you are now. Create immersion environments at home to spend more time with your language. If you’re learning Spanish, load your favorite podcast app with Spanish content. Change the language of your electronic devices to Spanish. If you watch content on Netflix, change the audio to Spanish and use Spanish subtitles. Are you into gaming? Play on servers from Spanish-speaking countries. Team up with players from Spain or South America. You get the idea.
Start Using Your Target Language Before You Are Ready
Instead of waiting to have the ‘right’ conditions to start (ie. living in Europe), I did these skill building projects in Argentina, where I currently live. I didn’t wait until reaching a C2 level in German or Italian. In fact, I would estimate my German level as B1 and a B2 for Italian. I didn’t take a test that qualified me to learn to sing in German or to take chess lessons in Italian. I just tried doing it even though I didn’t feel one hundred percent ready for it. It sounded like a fun growth experience 🙂.
The whole point of all this is to start enjoying your language before you are ready. I hear you say you are not quite ready to pick up a hobby in Spanish, German, or whatever language you are learning. You are probably right. Maybe it’s too early, and you are under-prepared. But, do you even need to be fully prepared to learn a hobby in a foreign language? This is a hobby, a safe place where you can explore, have fun, and where you don’t have any obligations. You are free to do whatever you want. You are the only person who decides when to start. Six months, one year, five years from now, are you going to be completely prepared? Your vocabulary will be larger but, is that going to make any difference? If not… why would you wait then?
Find an Excuse to Spend Time with Your Language
What do you do when you want to spend time with someone? You suggest a plan, invite them to do something together… or just find an excuse to meet them! If you want to spend more time with your target language, you can also find all sorts of excuses. Picking up a new hobby in Spanish or French can be such an excuse. In my case, I love learning new things, getting better at existing skills, and improving in many life areas. That’s one of the reasons why I try to combine languages with skills.
What’s your excuse to spend time with your language? Think of all the things you enjoy doing during a normal week. What brings you joy and happiness? Is there a way to continue doing that in the language you’re learning? If you are a student, is it possible to get translated copies of your textbooks? When I studied piano at a music conservatory in Argentina, I bought textbooks in English. Even though the courses were in Spanish! That was a good opportunity to spend time with the language while adding new vocabulary.
What I Learned in 2021
There were lots of learning opportunities derived from these four skill building projects. Beyond the domain-specific skills I acquired or got better at this year (ie. chess, cooking, pen drawing, and singing), I learned that:
- it’s okay to miss a day or more if you have unexpected events (I had a family emergency at the end of January 2021)
- if I start missing days I try to revert the tendency as soon as I can (otherwise I create a non-practice habit, the opposite of what I want)
- I thrive on practice routines, creating a plan, knowing what I’m gonna practice in advance, having a practice order
- framing the training and exercises I do as preparation for play or performance time, helps me enjoy more my moments of practice
- I enjoy a lot the weekly interaction with a teacher, mentor, or instructor. It’s highly motivating to me.
- I appreciate having a variety of learning projects (some intellectual, others more manual)
Living your life in a certain language is a decision, an act of will. Don’t pretend you don’t have control over how you live your life or in which language you live it. You are in control. Choosing a language is your decision. Practicing a skill is also your decision. And so is practicing a hobby in a foreign language.
Picking up a hobby in a foreign language is always challenging. But it’s also an immensely rewarding experience. An experience worth living and a great memory for the future. If you still haven’t done it, I hope you try living a foreign language through a hobby 🙂.