Millions of people around the world are attempting to achieve the preeminent multilingual title. It’s an attractive goal; an expanded language repertoire opens new job opportunities, increases the possibility of connection with a broader range of people and — let’s be honest — it’s cool to show off.
Thus, it’s no surprise that language-learning apps like Duolingo and Babble are consistently popular at the Apple Store. For beginners, these apps are great. They establish a foundation for basic and necessary exchanges, build vocabulary and teach grammar concepts.
However, for intermediate-level language speakers — that is, those who are familiar with grammar rules, have a substantial vocabulary and have put the language to use — these apps are less appealing. There’s a point when typing answers into a box and parroting a monotone computer voice starts to feel tedious and, frankly, like a waste of time.
That is not to say language learning apps are useless. They’re certainly better than nothing, and many, like Duolingo, are free. However, at an intermediate language level, you have the ability to take advantage of more rigorous resources, ones that prepare you for the application of language in the real world.
Avenues for Ear Training
Unfeigned listening — which is a life skill for which even non-language learners should strive — is an essential step toward achieving fluency. Interpretation of fast-moving and lengthy conversations requires a high degree of focus, a familiarity with grammatical structure and vocabulary and a lot of practice.
Listening to a movie or TV show plot unfold is conducive to all three of these requisites, as, in order to understand what is going on, one must pay attention at length — noting context clues, picking up idioms and hearing verb tenses in use. Also, a storyline intertwines learning and entertainment, which is key to ensuring language practice does not become a chore.
Therefore, watching movies or TV shows in your target language is a particularly engaging and effective strategy for training your ears. On Netflix, shows and films are available in Spanish, French, Hindi, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish and Danish, among other languages. If this list does not include your target language, YouTube provides an almost endless stream of movie clips and other videos that are uploaded by various native speakers. Look out for closed captioning options on both Netflix and YouTube as well.
Podcasts are fruitful resources for intermediate-level language practice as well. On iTunes, you can change your country or region to one in which your target language is predominantly spoken. The resulting podcasts — most of which are free — are numerous and sundry. From the extensive list of topics, you can choose one that interests you, so that you don’t feel obligated to follow along — you just want to.
An article by FluentU suggests that the more difficult, but arguably more productive, foreign language podcasts to follow include those with “niche subjects, like cooking, cars, DIY instructions, [and] economics,” as well as talk shows and those involving any kind of humor. These also might be the most entertaining.
Many of the world’s most iconic books became popular when first printed in a multitude of world languages. There’s a good chance your favorite classics have been translated to other languages. Conversely, many of those books you love likely emerged in another language and were later translated to English.
Regardless of the production process, a book of interest in your target language is a practical tool for advancing dexterity. Books also provide a storyline from which you can pry new vernacular and review grammar in context — again, while enjoying the process.
In the Information Age, it takes seconds to figure out if a book is available in a certain language. Simply look up your favorite or world-renowned books. My brother recently gave me “Fuego y furia,” the Spanish version of “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff. A few years back I was gifted a Spanish version of the Roald Dahl collection, and I loved it.
Reading and reflecting alone is a valuable pursuit, but can be enhanced with company. If you can find a group of peers with skills of similar or of more advanced levels, look into starting a virtual book club in your desired language. Not only will you gain insight and comprehension practice from reading the book yourself, but you will be compelled to put your new understandings into words and to listen to others’ analyses of the book.
A Contentious Verbal Exercise
Someone once told me that having conversations with a more fluent speaker is the best way to heighten proficiency. When you’re alone, however, this opportunity is not always readily available. Ideally, you have a friend that you can have virtual conversations with in the language you hope to speak. But even if you have a fluent friend, their willingness to call regularly is not always promised. Therefore, most of the time you may have to settle for a conversation with yourself.
Silly as it sounds, talking to yourself is a worthwhile pastime for an intermediate-level language learner. Just as a child might play for hours with action figures, narrating their activities and dialogues, you can use your imagination to fabricate a two-part conversation between yourself and an imaginary salesperson, traveler, server or friend — and you play both parts.
Truth be told, it’s bizarre, which is why this might be an activity for the shower or another secluded space. Nevertheless, it is a low-stress, high-reward technique that will leave you more equipped to articulate responses in myriad circumstances.
If you have reached an intermediate-level in your language of choice, further progress is obligatory. Resources are abundant; if you cannot access Netflix or podcasts or books or the internet, you will always have yourself.
You alone are capable of extensive conversational practice, at any place and at any time. Again, use your best judgment to determine appropriate moments to begin a discussion with your imaginary associates.
Ultimately, it takes just a little courage to bypass those episodes where you feel like you sound foolish. Native speakers will almost always appreciate the effort and be honored to understand.