on November 15 2012 07:01 pm 4

7 Low-Tech Ways to Study a Foreign Language

Chalk doesn't require electricity. It's eco-friendly, too!

Chalk doesn't require electricity. It's eco-friendly, too!

I wrote notes for this article during a power outage–one of the almost-weekly power outages in this district, where the city’s public WiFi is more stable than the electricity. Or it would be if WiFi worked without electricity. (Three cheers for technological leapfrogging!)

Point being, I’ve noticed a lot of the foreign language learning tips going around these days focus on using technology. Sure, the internet and modern gadgets are great for studying and practicing a foreign language, but not everyone has access to the same technology.

If you don’t own an iPod and your internet connection’s too slow for Skype, there’s more you can do besides doing gap-fills in a workbook. I’ve collected a few of those things below. There’s no theme here–just some ideas for practice.

I’m afraid a lot of these aren’t very good for those of you working with writing systems you don’t know well yet. Some are, though, and you may be able to adapt some of the others.

1. Read Aloud

This is my new favorite thing! It’s helpful for improving pronunciation because it gives the muscles you use for speech practice in forming the right sounds. You do need that physical practice in order to speak well. Just pronouncing the words in your head isn’t enough. You may also find new words and grammar structures stick in your head better when you hear them as well as see them.

Go slowly with this. Try not to mutter or skip words words or phrases you find difficult to pronounce. If fact, it something’s difficult, go over it a few times until you can pronounce it more smoothly.

2. Act Out Dialogue

Take a dialogue from your textbook or a stage play, or write one yourself and act out the lines. Of course, if you do this by yourself, this means acting as two people, but I doubt that will cause much psychological damage. :)

By doing this, you’re not only seeing and hearing the language, but you’re also using movements that can help you remember important phrases. What’s more, if you choose the right dialogues, you’re also working with phrases you’ll need often. That’s why it’s useful to pick dialogues that are related to the conversations you might actually have in real life.

3. Play With a Whiteboard or Chalkboard

Have a collection of stubborn “vocabulary words” you just can’t seem to remember? Try drawing them as pictures. Or draw a picture to illustrate the word and write the word under it. The goal is really just to get some extra visuals for that word.

Of course, you can do this with paper and pens or crayons, too, but there’s something about having a re-usable surface that encourages play. This way you’re not worried about wasting paper or what to do with all the silly drawings you’ve made.

4. Play Example “Seek and Destroy”

This is really more like “Seek and Create.” In your written material (anything you have), look for an interesting grammar structure, phrase or even a word you don’t know quite how to use. Then create your own sentences based on that example. Naturally, before you do, you may need to learn a little more about that phrase or word using your learning resources (grammar textbooks or whatever you have).

Because this relies on previous knowledge, it works better with grammar structures that “close to your level”–those you’ve seen before and basically understand, but don’t quite know how to use.

Another option is to look for examples of something you’re working on in your class or by yourself at the moment. Learning to use the conditionals? Hunt down examples, then use those examples to make your own sentences.

5. Memorize a Poem

If you like poetry, you’re probably doing this already. Think you hate poetry? Then you’re probably not looking in the right place. Remember, there’s plenty of silly, snarky, darkly humorous, and bawdy poetry out there to suit all tastes. If you’re into silly, children’s nursery rhymes are a good place to start. I’m not promising you’ll learn a lot from this, but it’s one more way to stay involved with your target language.

6. Get Graphic

Find a picture with a lots of things happening in it, like a busy street scene or the inside of a restaurant packed with customers. Describe what you see either verbally out loud or in writing.

You can do this no matter what level you are. If you’re a beginner, try one-word descriptions like “bicycle,” “blue,” and “sit.” Of course, the higher you’re level, the more descriptive you can aim to be, adding your thoughts about the scene, too.

7. Write Your Friend a Letter

Yes, by hand. On paper. It doesn’t matter if your friend doesn’t know the language your learning. Choose a friend you haven’t talked to in while and write to update them on what you’ve been doing lately. Don’t worry about making notes or drafting, just aim to write a complete, grammatically correct sentences give the letter a logical flow.

One of the good things about doing this is that it gives you practice with the vocabulary you need to talk about your everyday life. You might be surprised by the “common” words you discover you don’t know.

If you don’t know your target language well enough or you’re still learning the writing system, then write a post card. I think you can do that. At least give it a try with the help of a dictionary: “Paris is beautiful. I like it. The weather this spring is very warm.” and so on. Nothing fancy, just a few sentences.

Keeping a few of these ideas ready to go makes it easier to squeeze in a little extra practice while you’re sitting around the house and don’t feel like staring at a computer screen…or, you know, while you’re waiting for electricity to come back.

Related posts:

  1. Using Google For Language Study: Phrase Searching
  2. 10 Ways to Get Started Learning a Foreign Language Today
  3. How to Learn Foreign Language Vocabulary When You Have No Time to Study
  4. Dealing with Interruptions in Your Language Studies
  5. Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning: A More Efficient Way to Use Vocabulary Lists

Filed under Grammar,Vocabulary

4 Responses to “7 Low-Tech Ways to Study a Foreign Language”

  1. Jerry says:

    This is a great article but I have a question. If you read aloud without the guidance from a native speaker, don’t you reinforce bad pronounciation? Thanks, Jerry

  2. Amelia says:


    Sorry for the delayed reply. I’ve been a bit swamped lately. To answer the question, I think as long as you hear the language on regular basis (preferably daily, whether in person or from recordings), there isn’t much risk.

    It depends on the language, too. If the language has variable stress placement (where the stress could fall on any syllable) and/or non-phonetic spelling, there’s more risk of “guessing” some words incorrectly. There again, though, getting plenty of listening will reduce that risk.

    If you’re concerned, you could stick with reading transcripts of audio material, so you’ll be able to hear everything pronounced correctly. That way you can both read along with the speaker and later by yourself. And, of course, help from a native speaker is great when you can get it, too.

    The thing is if you don’t speak enough, your pronunciation and fluency will still suffer, so it’s something of a balancing act.

  3. Alicia says:

    It’s amazing how effective these simple tips can improve one’s learning experience. I always use tips #1,2 and 7. I’m going to start using the other ones, too!

  4. Amelia says:

    Thanks for your comment, Alicia! Glad you found the tips useful.

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