Can you use a language without talking to people?

Last week, I had a little reminder how language learning is viewed by non-nerds. I was sitting with a few friends in their beautiful garden and trying to talk them all into joining my next German course (Lancaster library, 27 August, 6pm, it'll be awesome, sign up here). One friend admitted he was tempted, but told me "But you're the only person I could talk to in German."


What can we do if not talk?

Now, I know that communicating with real people in a foreign language is one of the most rewarding benefits of the whole undertaking. On the other end of the spectrum, I suppose, I am content to learn a language just for the pleasure of pronouncing the new vowels, writing the words and understanding new people. But that brief conversation made me think. Between full-on linguistics and the most practical "speaking" application, what are the other great things that language learners get to do? 

The trick is to focus back on the core skills: speaking, writing, reading and listening. That's right, speaking is actually only 25% out of everything that you can do, so here are some ideas for things that the other 75% give you, and which make language learning extremely worthwhile for anyone.

Discover new musical worlds

Sigur Rós - not just for Icelandic learners Photo from scurrvy on Flickr

Sigur Rós - not just for Icelandic learners
Photo from scurrvy on Flickr

While the English speaking music industry is probably the largest one on the whole planet, looking into another country's musical history will take you on a journey that is nothing but amazing - honest. Music is this magical thing that doesn't even require you to understand any lyrics in other to connect. Take for example Sigur Rós who have made a career singing in a minority language and on occasion gone for half an album in words that they completely invented. But I believe that becoming aware of the lyrics of that song that you really love or learning more about a place through the words to a specific song is what makes music into that extremely powerful and moving thing. 

For me, listening to pop songs was one of the first ways in which I applied my language skills, way before I knew a lot of native speakers or spent more time travelling to a country. It's brilliant because you can repeat the recording as many times as you like, pore over new words in the lyrics and imagine what the world was like for the person who wrote it. One example of a great musician that has kept on giving since I moved to the UK is the music of Billy Bragg.

Dive into that internet 

Here's a good number from Wikipedia: 45.1% of content on the internet is not written in English. Let's start with Wikipedia itself, a website which all of you are guaranteed to have used at least once in the last month. It is famously created by its own users, and switching any article into a different language version can really make a difference to the amount of information on offer - or how about switching the whole thing into your target language and discovering the Article of the Day? There are currently 285 language editions of this site, so no more excuses.

Write, draw and illustrate

Writing has always been a good way for me to focus my mind and make sure I remember things, and the kinetic learning advantages of really putting those words into practice and reproducing sentences are absolutely excellent. So use your new language as an output of your own creativity and connect what's in your mind with real images and words. The application of your writing skill could start off really simple, for example by making notes of words that start with a new letter or drawing a picture along with a sentence. Moving on, how about chatrooms or online forums? And in time you may even want to build up a blog, diary or your own fiction and poetry.

Here's an example of how to get started (this one done on 53 Paper) . Hope you draw better than I do.


These ideas are obviously only a small start and there is SO much more out there that you can do when you learn a new language? I can think of foreign cooking or news podcasts.

 What do you think - are there better ways of using your language without speaking? What's your favourite thing to listen to?

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