Learning A New Language During Coronavirus

The pandemic has allowed people to pursue passion projects like never before – with more downtime on our hands, many people are reaching for their long forgotten projects that they never finished–or for that matter, even started. One of those passion side projects for many people is learning a new language. This is something that definitely takes time and dedication, and many people are dusting off their old language learning books and programs and giving them another shot.

Learning a language is defintiely something that people start, but because it’s so time consuming, hard, and a bit dry at times, they give up when life gets busy. It’s very easy to not do it for a day. Then that day becomes a week, and the week stretches into a month.

If you want to dive into learning a new language while you’re staying at home during the pandemic, we have a few pieces of advice for you! This is an exciting journey but not one that should be undertaken lightly. You need concentration and focus and a bit of a good work ethic. But there are certainly ways to hack this and ensure that you stay focused with a few sneaky tips.

First of all it’s very helpful to ensure that you have a good program to start with. There are so many on the market, and it really depends on your learning style. Honestly it might take a few to try out before you find one that you like and that you’ll stick with. A few of our favorites are Rocket Languages (check out our Rocket Spanish review here), Rosetta Stone, and Duolingo. Duolingo is free and is a way that a lot of people like to get started. However I truly think that purchasing a program gives you a bit of skin in the game and a bit of impetus to keep going with your studies. When something is free I tend to think that people don’t stick with it enough or value it enough.

Give yourself study hours. Make a goal to work a certain amount of time per day – but here’s the secret: make it a SHORT period of time. The reason? It’s less overwhelming and you’re more likely to stick with it. Also, many times we end up going for longer than we need just because the inertia of just starting has been broken. So, make your goal to do your language learning for about 15 minutes per day and don’t be surprised if you find yourself studying for much longer!

Consume media in your chose language. As soon as you’re able, start to consume media in your chosen language. Start with children’s books first, and go from there. Once you’re reading something actual in the language that you’ve selected you’ll get a huge boost of confidence and the desire to keep going. This is what I did when I was learning Spanish; I got some children’s books to read and I felt amazing – I was actually reading a Spanish book! Then I moved on to more complex books, magazines, and movies. Watch movies in your chosen language in their original language with subtitles so your brain can get used to hearing the native language in its spoken form. Soon you’ll start to be able to pick out words and phrases.

New Online Language Learning Sites

There are several new online language learning sites popping up all the time.  It seems that internet connectivity has reached its tipping point, and it’s so easy to run software over an internet connect as well as stream media.  I think the biggest contribution to the proliferation of new online language courses is also the ability to stream data from the web to people’s mobile phones.  Never before has content access been so easy.

One of the coolest and most popular online language learning sites is LiveMocha.  This site has gotten mixed reviews but overall it’s one of the best online language learning communities out there.

Also recently, Rocket Languages has moved from a more “solid” course that you would do at home to a more flexible course that you can access online from anywhere.  This added flexibility is key to really being able to use it on the go.  And let’s be honest – everyone is constantly on the go these days.

If you’re going to be using the internet to learn a new language, then I highly suggest that you protect your PC from malware and spyware.  Any website is vulnerable to attack, and you could end up with what’s known as a “drive by download” which can infect your PC.  There are a few great programs that can help you to clean your PC of malware and spyware.  One of the best is Spyhunter 4, which you can download here.

Another great tool is Norton 360, which is one of the better antivirus software tools out there on the market.

Another Language Learning Strategy Guide

Learning a new language can be difficult.  One thing that makes it easier is a good solid strategy, as well as some good old fashioned motivation.  This comes in plenty of volume in the Language Hacking Guide, also known as Speak From Day 1 from Benny Lewis.  Lewis is a native of Ireland who has made a kind of profession out of traveling the world and learning all the languages he can; and blogging about it.  Eventually he learned how to learn, and put down his best strategies in a helpful and easy to read Ebook.

One of Benny’s key points is to learn by creating a need to learn. He suggests that most people learning a new language are lazy about it and just revert to their native language most of the time.  This is fatal to learning success, he suggests, and he advises people to get their act together and force themselves to learn the language in question.

He also advocates a strategy of speaking the language right away, no matter how many mistakes you make or how many words you know.  This might be intimidating for some, but it’s a good practical approach.

In this helpful review of the language program it is stated that his book is applicable to all languages and reasons for learning.  However, he does mention that his methods might not be the best for students who need to learn specific things to pass certain tests.  That’s the only drawback.

We suggest checking out his website and blog as well as his book for a bunch of helpful and unique insights into linguistics and learning new languages.

Strategies For Learning New Languages

What are some of the best strategies for learning a new language?  There are a few schools of thought on this.  Some people will encourage multiple hours spent throughout the day.  Others will recommend flash cards.  I’m going to tell you right now that the best way that I have come across to learn a new language is to flat out start using it as much as you can, as soon as you can.  The brain processes learning much better when something is being used in context.  When learning a language out of context (such as with a flash card system) your brain will not associate it as well as if you were using it in practice.

Another method that reinforces learning a language is actually LISTENING to it.  This is something that many people tend to ignore.  The best thing to do would be to start using podcasts and movies in the language of your choice.  In this manner you can begin to see patterns and recognize vocabulary when it is used naturally.

One thing that can actually hinder progress is apathy towards the language you are trying to learn.  A keen interest in the culture and other aspects of the language has shown to be very positive for learning the language in question.  So if you can, start reading about the culture of your language and try to develop an interest.  Sometimes this can be hard to artificially generate, but it can definitely be done.  Perhaps you can find some movies in the target language by a certain director you like.  I did this while learning Spanish through the movies of Pedro Almodovar.  I really liked his style and his movies are excellent.  Talk To Her is one of my favorites.

Good language learning products are also a must.  If you’re learning Spanish for example, you’ll want to get a great Spanish learning program.  These programs are great for people who are learning from home and need some guidance.

All in all, there are several different things that can boost your learning retention.  Check back for more tips and tricks in future blog posts!

Are Bilingual People Smarter?

Does knowing a second language make you smarter?  Studies have shown that yes, bilingual people are in fact slightly smarter, and they have fewer instances of dementia later on in life.  Apparently knowing a second language helps people to work out certain portions of their brain as they filter between two language systems to stay on one.

There is definitely some “interference” when one is fluent in two languages.  In fact, studies have shown that both language parts of the brain are active even when only using one language to speak.  However this interference helps strengthen the brain “muscles.”

This is a stark difference to how bilingualism used to be viewed.  In the past it was thought that knowing and learning two languages would hinder a child’s cognitive development.

But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.

Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle.

In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.   (NY TIMES)

Apparently knowing two languages improves the “executive function” of the brain that is responsible for concentration, planning, and solving problems.

So if you have the opportunity to raise your children in a bilingual environment, then do it!  It will be a blessing later in life, and will enrich their lives greatly.  I know of one native English speaking family that knows a bit of Spanish that is raising two young boys.  They speak to them in English as well as Spanish.  They also travel to Costa Rica on a yearly basis.  These children will grow up with the blessing of knowing Spanish without ever having to break a sweat studying it in a class, and this will be hugely useful to them later in life.

But can learning a new language later in life carry the same benefits?  Studies say yes.  Since certain languages carry representations differently, it can help enhance and work your brain.  For example, English has only one word for the color “blue”.  However Italian has two words to represent light blue (celeste) and dark blue (blu).  Having to discern differences of this sort makes the brain work harder.

If you’re looking to learn a new language, there are many websites out there than can help you to get started.  Your Language Place is a great website that features tips on learning a new language, product reviews, and even some linguistic anthropology thrown in for good measure.

It’s never to late to start learning a new language, and can be a very fun and rewarding experience.

ESL At Harvard?

A look back at an old ESL program at Harvard, and the methods that they pioneered:


Some of Dr. Karen Price’s students at Harvard diverge a bit from the typical Ivy League profile. Refugees and boat people mingle with foreign professionals in a common quest for fluency in English. Price, associate director for ESL research and program development at the university, finds this not daunting but challenging. “Our program is exciting because of the various socioeconomic levels, the various ages and the various educational levels,” she says. “We have such a diversity of students.”

Harvard offers both a year-round, part-time program and an intensive Summer program in ESL. Of the 500 or so students during the school year and 700 in the Summer, only 20 percent are Harvard affiliates. Most come from the surrounding community. All, however, are between the ages of 18 and 65 and are what Price calls “linguistically disadvantaged.”

To help them overcome this, she has researched and is employing a rather novel approach: video captioning. Not to be confused with subtitles–which translate what on-screen speakers are saying into a different language–captions are superimposed on video images as printed supplements to on-screen dialogue. They have commonly been used as an aid to the hearing-impaired.

Bridging the Language Gap

In 1981, Price conducted the first study ever on the potential of captioning for teaching English to non-native speakers. Captioned video materials were shown to 500 literate students from 50 countries. The study’s parameters, Price explains, were as follows: “Measures concerning viewing comprehension as well as extensive background and psycho/socio-linguistic data were oibtained for each subject.

“The effects of these variables, along with segment preference, repeated viewing and order of presentation were evaluated. The results, ” she says, “showed that all viewers, regardless of educational level or language background, benefitted significantly from captioning, even with only one viewing.”

Price attributes this to captioning’s ability to bridge the gap between language in the classroom and language in the street as well as the gap between printed language and spoken language. For example, she says, students who hear a video character say “wanna” can learn from the caption that the actual phrase is “want to.”

Subsequent to Price’s study, captioned video became a mainstay of Harvard’s ESL program and is employed in classroom, language-lab and small-group work. More than 1,500 closed-captioned videocassettes are commercially available, and at least 90 hours of network television programming per day is close-captioned.

“These programs provide the authenticity and situationality of language,” Price says, “and that’s what’s needed. Students find the tremendous variety of captioned programming provides both enjoyment and greater access to and understanding of American culture.”

Simplifying the Equipment

Originally, a decoder box was used to reveal the closed captions “invisibly” embedded in these TV shows and videocassettes. But last year, Price read in a professional journal about the Caption Master VCR from Instant Replay, Inc. of Coconut Grove, Fla.

It boasts such traditional capabilities as four-event, 14-day programming; fast scan with still and slow motion; wireless remote control; stereo sound; and electronic digital clock timer. But it also incorporates a caption decoder and can, therefore, function as a VCR, a decoder box or both.

“Caption Master eliminates the need of an external decoder box,” says Price. “It’s compact — in one piece — and very straightforward to operate.” She acquired a front-loading, four-head unit in June of ’88. With it, captions appear in white letters on black bands at the bottom of the screen, and users can switch the captions on and off at will.

The device serves to simplify and support an approach to teaching ESL that Price finds most promising. “Captioning,” she says, “can make a significant contribution to the lives of individuals struggling to develop the language and cultural skills so necessary to economic, social and professional independence.”

~Dryer, Kymberly G. “Video captioning lets Harvard ESL students read what they hear.” T H E Journal