Language Exchange – So What Do You Want to Talk About?

languageexchangesYou’ve found one or more language partners or conversation tutors. You’re all set to practice speaking, and it works very well at first!

But after a few weeks, you realize that you’re talking about the same thing every time. You find yourself stuck in uncomfortable silences, clock-watching or maybe even making up excuses to sign off early.

After receiving several emails from readers asking me what I talk about during language exchanges, I’ve compiled a collection of topics with related questions. These are all themes that have worked well for me as a student, a teacher, or a language exchange partner.

None of these topics are overly serious. I prefer to keep language exchanges light and fun. While a good language exchange partner will eventually become a friend, and serious topics will come up naturally, I would never try to force them.

And so I present you here with 32 weeks’ worth of topics for language exchange. Your first session will just be basic introductions and setting the tone for future exchanges, taking you to 33 weeks. One or the other of you will probably cancel at least four times throughout the year, bringing you to 37 weeks. That leaves you with 15 weeks to discuss your zombie plan, which sounds about right to me.

(That was a joke. Sort of. I would love to someday have a language exchange about zombie plans. It would be a true cultural exchange.)

A few tips:

  • If you’re a beginner, you might want to stretch one topic over several weeks.
  • You can use themes for one or both languages. If your partner never runs out of things to say in English, then you might not need to set a topic at all for his/her half of the exchange.
  • These topics are varied and are not meant to be discussed in order. Choose the ones that interest you the most and discard the ones that bore you.
  • Consider setting the topic in advance with your partner so that you can look up vocabulary and think about your answers.
  • Ask your partner to help you word the questions in your target language.
  • The questions are just suggestions. Come up with interesting questions of your own to enrich the conversation.
  • Take advantage of conversations to work on several different language skills: asking questions, answering questions and understanding your partner’s responses.
  • After a conversation, consider writing about the same topic and posting your paragraph to italki or lang-8 for corrections from native speakers.

Print conversation cards: topics for language exchanges

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The Topics

1. Languages

  • What languages do you speak?
  • What language(s) do people speak in your country?
  • What language(s) are you learning? Why?
  • What do you do to learn a language?
  • What’s hardest when learning a language?
  • What are your best tips for someone learning a language?
  • Are there any other languages that you’d like to learn?
  • What do you think is the most beautiful language?

2. Jobs

  • Where do you work?
  • What do you do?
  • Describe a typical day.
  • What’s the best thing about your job?
  • What’s the worst thing about your job?
  • How did you become qualified for your job?
  • Describe your very first job.
  • If you had to change jobs, what would you do?
  • What’s your dream job?
  • Describe the best / worst job you’ve ever had.
  • Have you ever made a big mistake at work?

3. Family

  • Describe your family members. (even better with photos!)
  • Do you have any children?
  • Would you like to have children?
  • How are things different today than they were when you were a child?
  • Do you prefer big families or small families?
  • How often do you see your extended family?
  • Do you get along well with your parents / siblings?
  • What’s your best childhood memory?

4. What’s your favourite…

  • …tv show?
  • …food?
  • …sport?
  • …hobby?
  • …music?
  • …movie?
  • …colour?
  • …animal?
  • …season?
  • …book?
  • The possibilities here are endless! Use your imagination.

5. Animals

  • Is it common to have pets in your country?
  • Do you have any pets?
  • If you don’t, would you like to?
  • Did you have any pets as a child?
  • What’s your favourite animal?
  • What kind of wild animals are there in your country?
  • How do you feel about zoos?
  • If you could choose to be an animal, which one would you like to be?
  • Do you think that animals have emotions?

6. Health

  • Do you think that you’re a healthy person?
  • What do you do to take care of your health?
  • Do you have any bad habits?
  • Do you think that people in general are healthy now?
  • What do you think is important for health?
  • What is health care like in your country?
  • What are some health issues in your area?
  • How do you deal with stress?
  • Have you ever had to stay in the hospital?
  • What one thing could you do to be healthier?

7. Your Region

  • Describe your country or region: geography, languages, food, weather, services, etc.
  • What’s the best thing about your country?
  • What’s the worst thing about your country?
  • If I were coming to visit you for a week, what would we do and see?
  • Do you live in a big city or a small town?
  • Do you have any favourite places?
  • How long have you lived in your region?
  • Have you ever lived anywhere else?
  • Would you like to live anywhere else?

8. Cars and Transportation

  • Do you have a car?
  • Do you need a car to get around in your region?
  • Is there public transportation where you live?
  • Have you ever travelled by boat / plane / train / etc?
  • What’s your favourite mode of transportation?
  • Do you like to fly, or does it scare you?
  • What’s the longest trip you’ve ever taken?
  • What was your worst transportation experience?

9. Inventions

  • What machines do you use often at home or at work?
  • Which ones would you not want to live without?
  • What do you think is history’s most important invention?
  • What do you think is the most useless invention?
  • What invention would you like to see in the next five, ten, hundred years?
  • If you were going to invent something, what would it be?

10. Books

  • Do you like to read?
  • What kind of books do you like to read?
  • Do you have a favourite book?
  • What’s your favourite reading spot?
  • Do you ever reread books?
  • What’s the last good book that you read?
  • If you hate a book, do you still finish it?
  • Do you prefer ebooks or paper books?
  • Do you prefer books or movies?
  • Did you have a favourite book as a child?
  • Do you think that reading is important?

11. Would you rather…

  • …live in the country or live in the city?
  • …be very rich or very good-looking?
  • …be able to visit the past or the future?
  • …have a boring job that pays more or an interesting job that pays less?
  • …give up your internet connection or your car?
  • …be too cold or be too hot?
  • …be abducted by aliens or chased by zombies?
  • …have a year off with pay or work for a year for double pay?
  • Use your imagination to come up with interesting or silly questions!

12. School

  • Did you like school as a child?
  • Did you ever get in trouble?
  • Who was your favourite / least favourite teacher?
  • What was your best / worst subject?
  • What’s the school system like in your country?
  • Did you go to college / university?
  • Would you like to go back to school?
  • Were (are) you a good student?
  • Do you think that education is important?
  • Do you think that uniforms are a good idea?

13. Holidays and Gift-Giving

  • What holidays do you celebrate?
  • What’s your favourite holiday?
  • What’s your least favourite holiday?
  • Describe a childhood holiday memory.
  • Are holidays now different than they were when you were a child?
  • How does gift-giving work in your culture?
  • What was the best gift that you ever received?
  • What was the best gift that you ever gave?
  • Have you ever received a funny or terrible gift?
  • Have you ever given a funny or terrible gift?

14. Food

  • What’s your favourite food?
  • Is there anything that you can’t stand to eat?
  • Do you like to cook?
  • If you were preparing a special meal for someone, what would it be?
  • Do you prefer to eat out or at home?
  • Where do you buy food?
  • If you had to choose a national food, what would it be?
  • Do you have a garden?
  • What was your favourite meal as a child?

15. Five Senses

  • What scents do you love? Hate?
  • What sounds do you love? Hate?
  • What flavours do you love? Hate?
  • What textures do you love? Hate?
  • What views do you love? Hate?
  • What do you think is your most important sense? Least important?
  • If you had to give up one of your senses, which one would it be?
  • If you could strengthen one of your senses, which one would you choose?

16. Outer Space

  • Does your country have a space program?
  • Do you think that space programs are important?
  • Do you like to look at the nigh sky?
  • What qualities do you think astronauts need?
  • If you could, would you like to travel to outer space for a vacation?
  • Do you believe in extraterrestrial life?
  • Do you like science fiction books or movies?
  • Do you think that humans will ever colonize another planet? Do you think that they should?

17. Talents and Hobbies

  • Do you:
  • …play any sports?
  • …play any musical instruments?
  • …draw or paint?
  • What are you good at?
  • What are you trying to get better at?
  • What would you like to learn how to do?
  • What did you like to do when you were a child?
  • If you could be really good at anything, what would you choose?
  • Is there anything that you’re really bad at?

18. Guilty Pleasures

  • Is there a song that you love – even though you’d never admit it?
  • Do you have any habits that you love, even though they’re bad for you?
  • Do you like reality television?
  • What food do you always overeat?
  • Is there anything that you love to do – but only if there’s no one else around?
  • Is there anything that you spend too much money on?
  • Do you spend too much time on the computer?

19. What would you do if you could…

  • …do whatever you wanted for an entire year?
  • …live anywhere in the world?
  • …plan the perfect day?
  • …eat only one food for the rest of your life?
  • …go on a vacation anywhere in the world?
  • …have a superpower?
  • …live in another time period?
  • …win the lottery?
  • …meet anyone, living or dead?
  • …be invisible for a day?
  • Use your imagination to come up with interesting questions!

20. Money, Money, Money

  • What do you like spending money on?
  • What do you hate spending money on?
  • What’s the last thing you bought?
  • What would you do with one thousand dollars?
  • What would you do with a million dollars?
  • Do you think that money is the most important thing when choosing a job?
  • Is debt a big problem in your area?
  • Did you get an allowance as a child?
  • Have you ever regretted buying something?
  • What big purchase would you like to make?

21. Homes

  • Describe your home.
  • Are people in your area more likely to live in houses or apartments?
  • What kind of home did you grow up in?
  • Describe your dream home.
  • Are people in your area more likely to rent or to buy a home?
  • Is it difficult to buy a home?
  • Describe your first home after you moved out of your parents’ home.
  • What’s important to you in a neighbourhood?

22. Ouch!

  • Describe a time that you got hurt.
  • Have you ever broken any bones?
  • Have you ever stayed overnight at the hospital?
  • Have you ever been in a car accident?
  • Are you accident prone?
  • Did you ever do anything dangerous as a child?
  • Do you think that people are too safety-conscious now? Or not enough?
  • Have you ever embarrassed yourself by falling or knocking something down?
  • Have you ever gotten in a physical fight?

23. The Unexplained

  • Are you a superstitious person?
  • What are some superstitions in your culture?
  • Do you believe in ghosts?
  • Were you scared of monsters when you were a child?
  • Do you believe in good luck or bad luck?
  • Do you believe in extraterrestrials?
  • Do you like scary books or movies?
  • What gives you the creeps?
  • Are you afraid of the dark?
  • Would you like to be able to read minds?

24. Travel

  • What was your best / worst travel experience?
  • If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?
  • Is there a place that you wouldn’t want to visit?
  • Have you ever lived in another country?
  • Do you like all-inclusive vacations?
  • Would you rather travel independently or on a tour?
  • Would you rather visit a city or a wild area?
  • What do tourists come to your country to see?
  • Have you ever travelled all by yourself?

25. Pet Peeves

  • Do you have any pet peeves?
  • What do people do that really annoys you?
  • Who is the most annoying person you know?
  • Do other drivers (transit users) ever annoy you when you’re in your car (on the bus/subway)?
  • Does one of your colleagues or family members have a habit that bothers you?
  • Do you have any habits that might bother other people?
  • What do you do when someone does something that annoys you?

26. Social Media

  • What social media sites do you use?
  • How do you use them?
  • Do you enjoy using them?
  • What’s the best thing about social media?
  • What’s the worst thing about social media?
  • Do you think that social media has changed the way that people communicate?
  • Are you concerned about your personal information being on the internet?
  • Do you think that it’s possible to get addicted to social media?

27. Fears and Phobias

  • Are you afraid of spiders or insects?
  • …snakes?
  • …storms?
  • …flying?
  • …germs?
  • …heights?
  • What scares you most?
  • Do you have any fears that you know are silly?
  • What scared you most as a child?
  • How do you deal with things that scare you?
  • Do you sometimes like feeling scared?

28. Cell Phones

  • Do you have a cell phone?
  • How often do you replace your cell phone?
  • What features do you look for on a cell phone?
  • Do people in your area talk on the phone while driving?
  • What’s the best / worst thing about cell phones?
  • What do you think about talking on cell phones in public places?
  • How often do you send or receive texts?
  • Do you think that children should have cell phones?

29. Chores and Housework

  • Are you a tidy or a messy person?
  • Do you clean all at once or a little bit at a time?
  • What chore do you hate the most?
  • Do you prefer to clean the house or work in the yard?
  • In your area, are chores divided by gender?
  • How is housework shared in your family?
  • Did you have to do chores as a child?
  • What chores do you think children should be responsible for?
  • Would you pay someone to clean your house?

30. Weather

  • Does it get very hot or very cold in your country?
  • How many seasons are there in your country?
  • What’s your favourite / least favourite season?
  • Is extreme weather common in your country?
  • Does your country experience snow / hurricanes / tornadoes / frost / etc?
  • Have you ever experienced a natural disaster?
  • What climate would you prefer for a vacation?
  • Do you think that the weather is changing?
  • Is there talk of climate change in your area?

31. Goals

  • What are some goals that you’ve made in the past?
  • What would you like to achieve in the next month? Year? Five years? Ten years?
  • Are you good at sticking to your goals?
  • Have you ever failed to achieve a goal?
  • Do you prefer short term or long term goals?
  • What are you working on right now?
  • Do you think that it’s important to set goals?
  • Do you make New Year’s Resolutions?
  • What does success mean to you?

32. Habits

  • Do you have any bad habits?
  • Do you have any good habits that make your life easier?
  • Are you usually early or late?
  • Are you a tidy or a messy person?
  • What bad habits annoy you in other people?
  • How can a person get rid of a bad habit?
  • How can a person develop a good habit?
  • Do you think that it’s possible to change?
  • How do your habits affect your life?
  • What habits are very common in your country?

Print conversation cards: topics for language exchanges

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What are you waiting for? Go have a conversation!

Do you have any no-fail lots-of-fun conversation topics that you like exploring with your language partners?

Monthly Language Update – August 2014

Maybe it’s the years that I spent in school – as both a student and a teacher – but I always feel as though September is the start of a new year!

With regards to languages, though, I don’t have any radical changes planned. I’ll keep moving forward in the same way that I have been over the past few months.

Spanish Update for the Month of August:

Goals for August:

  • Finish El último héroe del Olimpo - DONE! 
  • Watch at least eight TV show episodes – DONE!
  • Finally finish up the last few chapters of my Practice Makes Perfect Verb Tenses book – DONE!

Super Challenge Update

I continued chipping away at the Super Challenge, a massive-input challenge with a goal of reading 100 50-page “books” and watching 100 90-minute “films” in Spanish by December 31st 2015.

spanishchildrensnovelsreading – 30.2 “books” completed

This month I finally finished the fifth and final Percy Jackson book, El último héroe del Olimpo. If I’m honest with myself, I was done with this series after book three, but I finished all five out of sheer stubbornness.

Overall, I liked the series. The author obviously did his research, and I loved all of the Greek gods, monsters and heroes. That said, by the fifth book, reading started to feel like a chore.

I started reading Los Juegos del hambre, and I was pleased to find that I’m enjoying it much more.

aquinohayquienvivawatching – 16 “films” completed

I watched four more episodes of Aqui No Hay Quien Viva (“No One Could Live Here“) on YouTube. I mentioned it last month – it’s a silly, funny, light comedy show with 90+ episodes. We tend to watch a lot of dark, violent shows with immoral characters – Hell on Wheels,
The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones – so it’s nice to watch something upbeat in Spanish.

It’s also interesting from a language-learner’s perspective, because there are lots of different registers in the show. The characters come from different generations, social and educational backgrounds, and they each have their own way of speaking.

I also watched three episodes of Buffy la Cazavampiros and one episode of Los Simpsons.

Other Spanish this month:

I finally finished the Practice Makes Perfect Spanish Verb Tenses book! I started working in this workbook over a year ago, but I put it away for months and months. It feels good to finish. Now I just have to apply the more complex grammatical constructions during conversations.

During the month of August, I spent four hours talking in Spanish over Skype with two tutors – four and a half hours fewer than during the month of July.

I’m still listening to Buenos Días América most weekday morning. I’ve also listened to several interesting podcasts on RTVE. In particular, I enjoyed Tanzania, la tierra del Kilimanjaro on Nómadas and El español y su importance creciente on Futuro Abierto.

Goals for September:

Tagalog Update for the Month of August:

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been learning Tagalog for four months now! Let me tell you, I am learning slooooowly. I don’t feel like I’ve improved much over the past month, despite focusing on the language for more than an hour every day. I keep reminding myself that I’m in no rush to learn.

Goals for August:

  • Finish lessons 8 and 9 of Elementary Tagalog - DONE!
  • Finish units 7 and 8 of Teach Yourself Filipino DONE!
  • Find a good children’s TV show DONE! (variety of short cartoons and stories)
  • Learn to sing a song in Tagalog DONE! (Bumitaw)

tagalogbookCourses: Elementary Tagalog and Teach Yourself

This month, I worked through lessons 8 and 9 in Elementary Tagalog. In July I learned how to use mag- verbs. In August, I learned -um- verbs. They’re definitely a bit trickier for me, but I do feel that I’m getting more comfortable with verbs in general.

In August, I also worked through units 7 and 8 in Teach Yourself. The topics in both courses complement one another, although I find that I rely more on Elementary Tagalog for grammar explanations.

Other Tagalog this month:

  • Spoke on Skype for six hours and forty-five minutes with two italki tutors
  • Listened to three newbie podcasts on KalyeSpeak
  • Created a 30-minute YouTube playlist of short Tagalog songs, stories and cartoons
  • Transcribed and translated a short Tagalog cartoon: Pixie Can Share
  • Read nearly every day from my book bin full of easy stuff
  • Learned to sing Bumitaw (the unofficial Tagalog version of Let It Go) - very loudly
  • Kept up with my anki and memrise decks

Goals for September:

  • Finish lessons 10 and 11 of Elementary Tagalog 
  • Finish units 9 and 10 of Teach Yourself Filipino 
  • Learn to sing two new Tagalog songs
  • Transcribe two more short Tagalog cartoons
  • Translate four more Napoleon easy readers

Happy September, everyone! What are your language goals for this month?

Pixie Can Share – short cartoon with Tagalog transcript and English translation

One of my goals for the month of August was to find a children’s show in Tagalog that I enjoyed. Last month, I watched a few episodes of Jollitown, but they felt a bit like half-hour fast food commercials with more English than Tagalog.

After some digging, though, I found lots of short cartoons from Jollitown on YouTube.

I like them because the voice actors use normal children’s voices, not the awful squeaky cartoon voices that I find hard to understand in any language. They’re a bit heavy-handed with “the moral of the story is…“, but they use simple, natural, conversational language – which is exactly what I need right now.

Yesterday I spent the better part of an hour transcribing a four-minute cartoon. It was a huge challenge for me, but it’s amazing how clear and slow everything seems now that I actually know the words that are being said.

(Many thanks to J for helping me with the many, many words that I guessed and butchered!)

Since I went through the trouble of transcribing it, I figured that some of you might be able to use it!

**Spoiler alert: Pixie is pretty bratty, and she’s a champion fake-crier. And while the narrator claims that she changes at the end, I remain skeptical.**

Pixie Can Share

PDF with Tagalog transcripts and English translation: PixieCanShare

I’ve almost certainly made mistakes – please feel free to correct me!


This is just a screenshot, so don’t drive yourself crazy multi-clicking on the play button. I just put it here for the *millions* of people pinning Tagalog learning resources.

Reading Easy Stuff

readingesasytextsI used to teach grade one French immersion. My students came to me without a word of French, and were expected to function exclusively in that language within just a few months. At least a third of them spoke a language other than English at home.

These kids had to learn to read. And they had to do it in French.

By the end of the school year, all of those six-year-olds could read – in their second (or third) language.

After having taught reading and literacy to children for years, I’m a firm believer in the importance of easy books. The kids who advance the fastest aren’t the ones who cart thick books around with them or the ones who start “reading” chapter books before they can sound out simple words. The kids who learn the fastest are the ones who take in a steady diet of just-right books.

For children, an independent reading level is 95%. That means that – in order to best benefit from a text – a child should be able to make out more or less 95% of the words on his or her own. Anything less than that, and the result will probably be frustration, boredom and lack of progress.

So what does this have to do with you? 

Well, if you’re learning a language, then you’re probably reading. Lots of language learners focus on intensive reading, where you might re-read the same text multiple times, combing through it for new words, grammatical structures, and expressions. That’s important work.

But no less important is extensive reading: reading lots, for pleasure, without stopping to look up words unless absolutely necessary. It’s my favourite kind of reading, the kind that has the biggest impact on my progress. And I think that the 95% number can be applied to extensive reading for adult language learners.

I talked about how to do this when I shared how I was using children’s novels to learn Spanish:

I aim for 95% (or better) comprehension for extensive reading. Anything less than 95%, and a book is probably better suited for intensive rather than extensive reading. To figure out if a book is the right level for you, choose a random page. Count the number of lines on the page, and the number of words on one line. Multiply the number of words on one line by the number of lines on the page, and then multiply that number by 0.05.

Using a page of Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate as an example:

  • 29 lines on the page
  • 10 words in a line
  • 29 x 10 = 290
  • 290 x 0.05 = 14.5

So if there are any more than 14 unknown words on that page [that you can't easily infer from context], then it’s not at a 95% comprehension level. Read the page, counting the words that you don’t know. If there are fewer than 14 – then you’re good to go. Any more than 14, and you might find the frustration level too high to really enjoy the experience of reading for pleasure.

from Using Children’s Novels to Learn Spanish

That’s all well and good if you can find books that you can read. But what if your reading level is so low that a novel that you can read with 95% comprehension simply doesn’t exist?

(ahem…me and my new friend Tagalog)

So where can you find just-right texts if you’re at a low level in the language? Is extensive reading even a possibility at this level? Yes, it absolutely is. And what’s more, I think that it’s crucial for beginners to read and re-read a variety of texts for pleasure – no matter what their level may be.

Enter the book bin!


A book bin is exactly what it sounds like:

A bin. Of books.

Of course, you can also use a box, a shelf, a bag or a pile on your nightstand. Or you could just collect all of your texts electronically on a tablet, if that’s what floats your boat! The important thing is to have a collection of just-right texts that you can read with a high degree of understanding.

My Book Bin Filled With Just-Right Tagalog Texts

tagalogsonglyricssong lyrics

I haven’t learned all that many Tagalog songs yet. But when I do learn one, I make myself a lyric sheet with the Tagalog on the right and the English transliteration on the left. This song sheet is from the unofficial Tagalog version of Disney Frozen’s Let It Go. While I’m more likely to read while singing to the YouTube video at the top of my lungs, sometimes I like to just read the words.

tagalogdialoguestexts from courses

I’ve made a book with copies of reading comprehension exercises from one of my language courses. Depending on the length, I either type them out or scan them after working through them in the lesson. These are texts that I’ve already read intensively. I usually spend a few minutes of every session reading at least a page, marking my place so that I can pick up where I left off next time.

tagalogstorybilingual picture books

Bilingual picture books are a great resource for beginners! I bought four bilingual Tagalog-English picture books from Pinoy Culture in Toronto. Each page has text in both Tagalog and English. I read the Tagalog, trying to understand it as best I can, and then read the English, matching the words.

tagalogeasyreaderhomemade easy readers

I have a set of easy readers that my young students loved in French. They use very simple, straightforward sentences, with lots of repetition and simple present tense verbs. I’m working on translating them into Tagalog, with the help of my husband and tutors. I use sticky notes to cover the French text, creating lift-the-flap bilingual books.

tagalognotebooklanguage notebook

I mentioned my tutoring notebook in an earlier post. It’s a collection of useful phrases, vocabulary, paragraphs that I’ve worked on with my tutor – basically anything that I’ve learned during a session and that I know I’ll want to review again. I find it especially useful to re-read corrected paragraphs, since I generated them myself and they’re full of the words that I personally need.

hardtagalogbooksomething too hard

I always let my students have one aspirational book in their bin. Usually it was something non-fiction with lots of pictures of trucks, baby animals, or snakes eating rats. This is my aspirational book: a Tagalog picture book about the People Power Revolution of 1986. I haven’t yet felt the urge to push my way through a page or two – but it’s there in case I feel like it one day.

So how do I use a book bin?

The answer is ridiculously simple:

  1. Collect a variety of readable texts
  2. Set a timer for 10, 15 or 20 minutes
  3. Read

It doesn’t matter what I read, or in what order. All of the texts in the bin are useful, so I just read whatever I feel like first, and then pick up something else. I might read the same picture book three times one day, understanding a bit more every time. The following day I might focus solely on texts that I’ve already read intensively, so that I understand almost every word that I read. It really doesn’t matter. I don’t stop reading until the timer sounds.

And that’s it.

Easy, right?

I’ve got an extra chair on the front porch and some hot water in the kettle if you care to join me.


How much does it cost to learn a language?

Possible answer number one: absolutely nothing!

Possible answer number two: a small fortune

"Oink-oink" in Tagalog. And Spanish. And English. (source: Posturize on

“Oink-oink” in Tagalog. And Spanish. And English.
source: Posturize on

OK, so that answer was kind of useless. Exactly how much have you spent on language learning, Stephanie?

A few people have asked me how much money I’ve spent learning languages, and my automatic response has always been “almost nothing”. Except that I started crunching the numbers and realized that I was kind of lying.


I absolutely think that it’s possible to learn a language without paying a cent. But I think that there’s another more important question at play here:

Right now, what do you have more of: time or money?

Every person’s situation is different. But no matter your personal circumstances, nearly everyone has a limit to both time and money. It’s a never-ending balancing act figuring out how best to spend both.

Let’s use me as a case study and take a look at my numbers over the past 15ish months.

1. courses and programs (books, software, audio, etc)

I didn’t need to buy any courses or programs when learning Spanish. Free resources – Destinos, FSI Basic Spanish, Duolingo, Notes in Spanish – are plentiful and of very high quality. Since I already spoke English and French, I felt pretty comfortable with my slightly messy and chaotic approach to learning Spanish.

With Spanish, I decided that I had more time than money to spend – especially since resources were so easy to find. Cost: $0

tagalogresourcesA year later, I started learning my second foreign language: Tagalog.

While there are lots of Tagalog-speakers all around the world, it’s not a very popular language for non-heritage speakers to learn. There are far fewer free resources and there’s nothing comprehensive that I can follow step-by-step. The idea of cobbling together a program based on what I could find online was overwhelming to me – especially since I had no idea if it would work. Tagalog’s grammar and sentence structure are pretty far out of my comfort zone.

With Tagalog, I decided that I had more money than time to spend – especially since there was no guarantee that I’d find appropriate resources. Cost: $85 for two courses (Tara Mag-Tagalog Tayo and Teach Yourself Complete Filipino)

2. Books

spanishbooksI read a lot when learning a foreign language. I prefer novels, and I’m old-fashioned when it comes to books. I like being able to turn pages and feel the paper between my fingers. I don’t like reading novels on a screen.

In any decent-sized city, the public library will be able to provide you with books in most common foreign languages. I don’t live in a decent-sized city. I live in a village that’s part of a pretty good library system – so long as you only want to read in English.

I was able to request three Spanish novels through interlibrary loan, but two came up as missing and the third was only available for two weeks – no renewals allowed. I’m currently waiting for three Tagalog picture books from the Halifax Public Library. They’re the only three Tagalog-language books in the entire province. And they’ll take up to nine weeks to get to me.

I decided that buying books was worth the cost. I stopped buying books in English and instead started looking for well-priced books in Spanish (easy to do through Amazon or Chapters online) and Tagalog (easier said than done!). Once I move back to the Toronto area, I’ll stop buying new books and use the library and second-hand bookstores instead.

I’ve bought 15 Spanish books since May 2013. Cost: $154

I just ordered my first four picture books in Tagalog this month. Cost: $35

3. tutoring

italki tutors

my upcoming italki tutoring sessions

My biggest gains in language learning have come from one-on-one conversations with a native speaker.

You don’t have to spend any money at all on Skype conversation practice. Free conversation exchanges are some of the most valuable and rewarding language learning experiences that you can have. You give your time in exchange for someone else’s time, and you both get to practice your target languages. Many of my language partners were also teachers, so I was getting a high quality conversation class in exchange for offering the same. Beautiful, right?

But there’s a time cost to language exchanges. Half of every conversation takes place in your first language, not your target language. There’s the hassle of scheduling a time that works for both of you. And sometimes – not often, but sometimes – language exchange partners just stop showing up.

If time is tight, then tutoring makes sense. The entire hour takes place in your target language, you can choose a time that’s convenient for you (and not feel guilty if you don’t have time for a week or two), and your tutor will almost always be there on time – after all, it’s his job.

Since I started taking classes on italki in July 2013, I’ve taken almost 130 sessions with various tutors. Most of those sessions were “free”, paid for with credits that I earned by teaching French classes. However, I did purchase credits three times – once when I was first starting out and unsure about teaching over Skype; and twice when I was already teaching over 40 contact hours per week at work and had to cut back on online teaching.

In other words, every time that I decided that I had more money than time, I purchased credits.

I’ve purchased italki credits three times in the past year. Cost: $300

One last look at the numbers:

It was very interesting for me to write this post, since I consider myself a frugal language learner.  I generally tell people that I don’t spend much money at all on language learning.

Well, it turns out that that was a big fat lie! Please, pass the humble pie!


Kind of like this. Except made out of humble instead of apples.
(source: KEKO64 on

Since I dove into language learning in May 2013, I have spent:

  • $300 on tutoring (could have been avoided by doing language exchanges or teaching more)
  • $189 on books (could have been avoided by not living in the middle of nowhere)
  • $85 on Tagalog courses (could have been lowered by using only one course instead of two)

…for a grand total of $574. (Excuse me please while I go breathe into a paper bag.)

But here’s the thing…

That number could easily have been much much higher, just as it could easily have been zero.

Every time that I made a decision to spend money on language learning, it was because – at that particular moment – the time that I saved was worth more than the money that I spent. 

Money is tight right now, so my language learning budget is set at zero for the foreseeable future. At this particular moment, money is worth much more than time, so my spending habits will change accordingly.

What do you have more of right now – time or money? The answer to that question will help you figure out how much you’ll spend on learning a language.

 Ways to save money when learning a language:

  • do more language exchanges and fewer tutoring sessions
  • tutor your language online and use the credits to purchase tutoring hours
  • look for meet-ups and free classes at libraries and community centres
  • make friends who speak your target language.
  • look for free resources online – forums and blogs are a great place to find reviews and recommendations for books, courses, videos and native materials
  • look for second-hand books and language courses in stores or online
  • use the library for picture books, novels and language courses
  • swap and trade materials with other language learners

Beware these money pits when learning a language:

  • Spending money on classes or tutors, but not doing anything on your own in between. An hour or two a week without any self-study in between is a waste of money. I’m speaking here as both a language learner and a language teacher: no one can teach you a language in an hour a week if that hour is spent reviewing basic greetings for four weeks in a row.
  • Buying too many resources – which you then compare, research, dabble in, post questions in forums about, and order on your language bookshelf by colour and/or height. Spending too much time researching resources is a form of procrastination, and buying everything that Joelanguagelover2014 recommends on the internet is pretty much lighting a money bonfire. Pick one or two resources, start using them, and stop double-guessing your choices.
  • Spending money on language classes that move too slowly for you or are too far below your level. You’ll be better off self-studying, doing language exchanges or working one-on-one with a tutor.

Please share your tips for saving money when learning a language!

Why am I Learning Tagalog?

When I tell people that I’m learning Tagalog, I generally get one of two reactions:

  1. Taga-what?
  2. Oh. (pause…) Why?

The fact is that most Filipinos speak beautifully in English. I don’t need to learn the language. But, despite that, it just made sense to choose Tagalog as my first non-European language.

source: Vlado on

source: Vlado on

So why Tagalog?

For love. My husband immigrated from the Philippines in his mid-20s. Never mind that he speaks perfect English. Never mind that we’ve been together for 13 years and I’ve never felt any need at all to learn Tagalog. Never mind that he’s perplexed and a bit amused at the fact that I’m learning Tagalog. I’m doing it for love. Right?

(By the way, whoever said that marrying a native speaker was a foolproof way to learn a language – you’re a big liar.)

For family. My in-laws can all speak English very well. When I’m in the room, they speak English. But they speak to one another in Tagalog when I’m not part of the conversation, and J is constantly engaged in rapid-fire Taglish on the phone with his parents or siblings. While I don’t need to speak Tagalog to be fully integrated in the family, I’d really like to wow everyone with my Tagalog conversation skills in the nearish future. So I guess you could say that I’m doing it to impress my in-laws. Luckily for me, they’re very easy to impress.

For money. Nah, just kidding.

For daily run-ins with Tagalog-speakers. There are a lot of Filipinos in Canada. Walk down a street in any major city, and you’ll probably cross some Tagalog-speakers. Once I learn Tagalog, I’ll be able to eavesdrop on even more people on the subway! I’ll also have lots of opportunities to practise once we move back to Toronto.

For travel. We’re hoping to go to the Philippines in the next few years. Of course, we’re  interested in visiting areas with local languages other than Tagalog, but we’ll also spend some time in Manila and the surrounding areas.

For sheer language-loving fun. Code-switching (changing from one language to another when speaking) is not only accepted in Tagalog, it is Tagalog. Tagalog – or “Taglish” – is peppered with English words, expressions and interjections, to the point that today’s Tagalog is a rapidly changing language. From a linguistic perspective, I find this absolutely fascinating. Tagalog offers the challenge of a completely different grammatical backbone, while still using the Roman alphabet. And if I don’t know how to say a word, I can just say it in English with a Filipino accent, and no one will care. Perfect, right?

Why Tagalog?

Well…why not?

What made you decide to learn a language?

Monthly Language Update – July 2014

July’s been an interesting month! I’m on holidays, which should mean that I have more time for languages. But the truth is that the less I have to do, the less I get done!

Still, I’ve managed to do at least some Spanish and some Tagalog nearly every single day. I call that a success!

Spanish Update for the Month of July:

Super Challenge Update

Just in case you missed earlier mentions of the Super Challenge, it’s a massive-input challenge. The goal is to read 100 50-page “books” and watch 100 90-minute “films” in your target language by December 31st 2015. This challenge is perfect me because…

  • I’m at a level where I need massive input in Spanish
  • I like the long-term marathon feel of the challenge
  • I’m really lazy and I like that I can track my progress simply by tweeting updates

spanishchildrensnovelsreading – 23.3 “books” completed

I’ve decided to stop counting articles for the Super Challenge, and to only log actual books or novels. This month I finished the fourth Percy Jackson book, La Batalla del Laberinto and started the final book in the series. I’m most definitely ready to be finished with this series! I’m less than a quarter of the way through El Último Héroe del Olimpo, so that will probably keep me busy for most of August.

Once I finish, I have three books to choose from: Los Juegos del Hambre, Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkaban and Como Agua Para Chocolate. I’m not sure which one I’ll end up reading first, but I hope to start before the end of the month

aquinohayquienvivawatching – 12 “films” completed

On my tutor’s recommendation, I started watching Aqui No Hay Quien Viva (“No One Could Live Here“) on YouTube. It’s a silly comedy about a group of nosy, obnoxious, ridiculous people living in an apartment block. Apparently it was very popular in Spain when it was airing. It’s a challenge to watch comedy, since I don’t understand every single word. But it’s a good challenge!

I’ve also started watching El Tiempo Entre Costuras (“The Time in Between“) on DramaFever. It’s a period drama set during the Spanish Civil War. The costumes are beautiful and the story is compelling.

Other Spanish this month:

During the month of July, I spent eight and a half hours talking in Spanish over Skype – seven 60-minute sessions with tutors and three 30-minute sessions with a language partner. Some days the words just pour out of my mouth. Other days…not so much.

I also listened to a lot of podcasts. I try to listen to a minimum of 30 minutes per day, while walking the dog or working around the house.

Goals for August:

  • Finish El Último Héroe del Olimpo
  • Watch at least eight TV show episodes
  • Finally finish up the last few chapters of my Practice Makes Perfect Verb Tenses book

Tagalog Update for the Month of July:

I spent a week with my Tagalog-speaking in-laws, which was a very cool experience. It wasn’t exactly immersion, since they spoke a lot of English, but when they were speaking Tagalog, I was able to pick out a lot of words and express myself using simple sentences. Everyone – parents, siblings, uncles, cousins, various other people who are related (or not) in various other ways –  was extremely encouraging.

Fact: it’s very easy to impress my Tagalog-speaking family!

tagalogbookTara, Mag-Tagalog Tayo!

This week, I completed lesson seven in this book.

Each lesson includes a variety of exercises: grammar, reading comprehension, listening comprehension, writing, vocabulary. I like the pace of the lessons, and really enjoy working my way through the book.

In lesson 7, I finally started learning to use verbs, which has really opened up a lot of possibilities during conversations. I’m starting to feel like I’m building a strong base in the language, which is exciting. I use this resource nearly every day.

teachyourselfTeach Yourself Complete Filipino

I just finished unit 6 in this book.

This turned out to be an excellent choice as a secondary resource. Each lesson includes various dialogues and exercises, following a family living in the Philippines. While I do glance at the exercises, my study is mainly focused on the dialogues.

I don’t use Teach Yourself every day, but I do try to learn a new dialogue a few times per week. I listen to each new dialogue multiple times, until I feel completely comfortable with all of the expressions and sentence structures.

Other Tagalog this month:

  • Five hours of Skype conversations with several different italki tutors. I’ve now settled on a few that I really like.
  • Listened to the first three newbie podcasts on KalyeSpeak - a great podcast for learners!
  • Watched the first two episodes of the children’s show Jollitown on YouTube. They were…weird. I don’t know that I’ll be watching any more.
  • Kept up with my anki decks and started working my way through several courses on Memrise

Goals for August:

  • Finish lessons 8 and 9 of Tara, Mag-Tagalog Tayo!
  • Finish units 7 and 8 of Teach Yourself Filipino
  • Find a good children’s TV show
  • Learn to sing a song in Tagalog

Happy August, everyone! What are your language goals for the rest of the summer?

Learning Spanish from Scratch – a Self-Study Guide

I get a lot of emails asking me how I learned Spanish. The truth is that I just jumped in without any direction at all, using a variety of different programs and resources, adding them and dropping them as I figured out what worked for me.

I’m not an expert, just a learner like you. I’m not suggesting that my way is the way, and there are almost certainly more efficient learning paths out there. But when I was starting out, I would have loved to have seen a detailed self-study plan that had actually worked for someone.

And so, dear blog reader, I’m making one just for you!

(As I’ve learned more about language-learning, I’ve also heard great things about programs like Assimil and Teach Yourself. However, this post is aimed at people who, like me, are interested in learning Spanish from home using free resources.) learnspanish

Based on my experiences over the past year, this is what I would suggest to learners wanting to self-study Spanish using free resources.

This post is divided into three parts:

spanishabsolutebeginnerYour very first month…

OK, so you’re a complete beginner. You know nothing. Nothing.

No hay problema, friend!

Just start. Don’t wait or research programs or try to calculate how long, exactly, it will take until you’re able to speak Spanish. Pick a resource and just start.

Recommended resources:

I really like Pimsleur as an introductory language course. It’s 100% oral/auditory, and you’ll be able to verbalize simple requests and statements within the first half hour. It’s an amazing feeling! Pimsleur works well for establishing a good accent right from the start.

Pimsleur is not a free program, but I have never and will never pay for a Pimsleur course. I think that they’re grossly overpriced. However, if my library – a small library in a town of 1800 people – was able to get it for me, then I’m sure you can get it from most libraries. I think that the full 3-part Pimsleur course has 90 lessons, but my library only had the first 16 lessons. I found them very valuable.

edited on August 25th to add a new resource: I’ve heard nothing but good things about Language Transfer, a free audio introduction to Spanish modelled on Michel Thomas. I’ve listened to parts of it, and it seems to build very logically and surprisingly quickly.

Mi Vida Loca is a fun, simple introduction to the Spanish language for absolute beginners. It’s an interactive video course with a story that unfolds over 24 episodes. I started it too far into my Spanish journey, and found it too easy, so I never finished it. But if I were starting over, I would use it from day one. The story is engaging, the production value is high, and there are full transcripts available.

Duolingo is in no way a standalone language course, no matter what anyone might say. But it’s a fun, addictive, gamified approach to learning languages. It’s good for learning vocabulary, gender and basic sentence structures. (read my review of Duolingo here)

I think that it’s important to study vocabulary explicitly, especially at the beginning stage of learning a language. You have to decide what works best for you: paper flashcards, electronic flashcards, word lists, spaced repetition software. I use anki, a free spaced repetition program. Whatever approach you choose, I recommend that you create your own decks or lists from day one, adding the vocabulary that you learn through your various resources. Downloading pre-made decks doesn’t provide the same rich learning experience.

I also recommend listening to music from day one. It’s a nice way to immerse yourself in the culture right from the start.

Come on in, the water's fine! source: taoty /

Absolute beginner? Come on in, the water’s fine!
source: taoty /

What an hour a day might look like at this level:

  • 30 minutes Pimsleur or Language Transfer
  • 10 minutes vocabulary practice
  • 20 minutes alternating Mi Vida Loca and Duolingo

What an hour and a half a day might look like at this level:

  • 30 minutes Pimsleur or Language Transfer
  • 15 minutes vocabulary practice
  • 25 minutes Mi Vida Loca
  • 15 minutes Duolingo
  • 5 minutes singing along to a Spanish song

Extra “free” Spanish: listen to Spanish music in the background while going about your daily life

spanishbeginnerintermediateBeginner / High Beginner / Low Intermediate:

Now you’ve got a bit of basic Spanish under your belt. You might not be able to express everything that you think, and you don’t understand everything that you hear, but you’re well on your way! The road from beginner to intermediate can take some time. Don’t rush it; just enjoy the journey.

General advice for this level:

Build your momentum. Use a variety of resources so that you come across the same vocabulary and sentence structures in multiple contexts. Don’t spend hours trying to come up with the “perfect” plan; just choose a few resources that interest you and commit to them.

Create a simulated immersion environment:

  • switch your phone and computer to Spanish
  • listen to Spanish radio and music in the background
  • make a Spanish news site your homepage
  • follow Spanish speakers on Twitter or other social media (I have a Spanish twitter list here, if you’re looking for people to follow).

Get into the habit of thinking in Spanish. Narrate your actions internally as you go about your day-to-day life. Make a quick note of any vocabulary that you’re missing so that you can look it up and add it to your vocabulary study later.

Plan on at least two weekly conversations with native speakers. Try to write a text and have it corrected by native speakers at least twice a week. Take note of important vocabulary – the words that you lack when speaking or writing are the ones that you personally need the most.

Keep growing your vocabulary, using whatever approach works best for you. Whether you use flashcards, SRS or word lists, remember that vocabulary study is meant to support your Spanish learning, not to overwhelm it. Fifteen minutes per day is my upper limit for anki; any more than that, and I start getting restless.

At this stage, I highly recommend making an effort to hit all four language skills daily: listening, speaking, reading and writing. I posted a description of how that looked for me about two months into my own Spanish learning adventure. howtolearnalanguage

Recommended resources:


Destinos is one of the best resources that I used as a beginner. While it’s a whole language course, with workbooks, textbooks and additional audio, the only part that I used was the video, which is available for free online. The story is dated and a little bit cheesy, but you’ll be amazed at how much your listening comprehension will improve over the course of 52 episodes. (read my review of Destinos here)

I’ve also heard very good things about Extr@, a 13-episode sitcom (complete with laugh track) for Spanish learners. I previewed one episode, and the actors speak very clearly. The story is silly, and the laugh track is annoying, but the show seems charming.

Notes in Spanish is an excellent podcast for Spanish learners. Marina and Ben, the hosts, are entertaining and very pleasant to listen to. The beginner podcast has quite a bit of English in it, but it has some interesting expressions and good cultural insight. The intermediate podcast – which is where I started, towards the end of Destinos – is all in Spanish and gave a real boost to my listening comprehension.

Keep listening to music. It’s also a good idea to listen to Spanish radio or watch Spanish movies and TV shows with English subtitles. Native material will probably still be beyond your listening ability at this point, but it will help you to internalize the rhythm and music of the language.


It’s time to find a language partner! Yes, you’re probably a bit nervous. But it’s ok. The only way to learn to speak a language is by speaking it – and you’ll improve quickly once you start! I did all of my language exchanges over Skype, 30 minutes of Spanish followed by 30 minutes of French or English. I found my language partners for free on italki and on Conversation Exchange. If you have more money than time, you might consider getting a tutor instead of a language partner; Spanish tutors on italki are very affordable.

You can read my in-depth review of italki here, and my tips on language exchanges here.


VeinteMundos is a digital magazine that also happens to be one of the best websites out there for Spanish learners. Every two weeks they put up a new article from somewhere in the Spanish speaking world. The text has a mouseover dictionary, and there’s full audio to accompany it. The reader’s voice is pleasant and slow enough to follow along. The stories are interesting, and include links to related video and websites. (read my review of VeinteMundos here)

I think that the upper-beginner level is the perfect time to read your first novel. I recommend starting with a children’s novel that you’ve already read in your own language. If you own a copy in both languages or if you have access to the audiobook, even better!

The first children’s novel that I read in Spanish was Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate by Roald Dahl. After that, I read (in order): Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, Charlie y el Gran Ascensor de Cristal by Roald Dahl, and Las Brujas by Roald Dahl. While many language learners want to start with Harry Potter, I found it very difficult as a beginner. It was much more accessible after first tackling four simpler children’s novels.


Writing short texts is a great way to consolidate what you’re learning. Lang-8 and italki both provide platforms where you can post a text and have it corrected by native speakers. Shorter texts tend to get corrected more quickly and more comprehensively.

I know that some people think that grammar is a bad word. Personally I like grammar – not because I like grammar in and of itself, but because I like Spanish. Learning grammar helps me speak Spanish more clearly and correctly, so I like it!

I used the Practice Makes Perfect Verb Tense book. I used a gift card to buy it, so it wasn’t free, but at less than 15 dollars it was very affordable. It’s a very US-centric resource, with lots of pop culture references, but it explains concepts well and moves along at a steady pace. You could also try the About Spanish site, which is free and comprehensive, but plastered in obnoxious ads.

Duolingo (which I mentioned in the section for absolute beginners) is very useful for basic sentence structure and verb tenses – although I think that it’s less useful after you’ve finished the first 3/4 of the skill tree.

Really looking to go far?

FSI Spanish Basic is probably the most comprehensive free Spanish course available. It was created in the 1960s for American foreign service workers, and it’s now in the public domain. FSI Spanish Basic is a full course, with downloadable audio and textbooks, including dialogues and lots of different drills. It’s dated, and it can be dry at times, but it works. I think that FSI is best started at a high beginner or low intermediate level; it might be too overwhelming as a complete beginner. (read my review of FSI Spanish here)

Soon you'll be swimming without a flotation device. source: anekoho /

Soon you’ll be swimming without a flotation device.
source: anekoho /

What an hour a day might look like at this level:

  • 15 minutes reading a novel or an article
  • 10 minutes vocabulary practice
  • 25 minutes watching Destinos, intensively listening to Notes in Spanish or having a Skype conversation
  • 10 minutes writing or grammar study

What an hour and a half a day might look like at this level:

  • 20 minutes reading a novel or an article
  • 15 minutes vocabulary practice
  • 30 minutes watching Destinos, intensively listening to Notes in Spanish or having a Skype conversation
  • 15 minutes writing or grammar study
  • 10 minutes Duolingo, singing along to Spanish songs, or reading a Spanish twitter feed

Extra “free” Spanish: listen to Spanish music or podcasts in the background while going about your daily life; listen to podcasts or FSI while going for a walk; watch Spanish movies and TV with subtitles

spanishintermediateadvancedUpper Intermediate / Advanced:

This is where Spanish gets really fun!

At this level, you’re moving from learning the language to actually using it.

At an upper intermediate or advanced level, you need lots and lots of input from native material: books, TV shows, movies, podcasts. “Levelling up” feels infinitesimally slow when you’re at a higher level, but luckily the stuff that you get to do with the language should be fun enough to keep you motivated.

General advice for this level:

As much as possible, live your life in Spanish. The focus at this level should be less on formal study and more on massive exposure and input. That said, it’s important to keep pushing yourself. Aim for more complex conversation topics, take note of important vocabulary, and write out your thoughts.


Keep up with regular conversations (either in-person or over Skype), which will get more and more interesting as your level improves. If you’ve been working with the same language partner or tutor for a long period of time, you might need to make an effort to push yourself by discussing more complex subjects.


Read lots and lots. I think that reading is the best way to build vocabulary, internalize sentence structure and strengthen grammar in any language. I generally prefer novels over shorter texts like articles or blog posts, although I do read those as well. I’m currently reading series for children and young adults. I’m on the fifth and final book of the Percy Jackson series, and then I’ll move on to the third Harry Potter book. I do plan on reading adult literature originally written in Spanish before the end of 2014.


Lots of input is important at this level. Notes in Spanish Advanced and Gold serve as a good bridge between resources for Spanish-learners and native Spanish audio, but there’s still quite a jump from one to the other. With practice, it gets easier.

I’ve become a podcast addict lately! I like listening to talk radio shows with lots of visual imagery and interesting topics. RTVE (Spanish Public Radio) offers a wide variety of high-quality podcasts. Some of my favourites are Nómadas, Fallo de Sistema and Futuro Abierto. I listed more of my favourite podcasts and shared more details about them here.

Get your news in Spanish. 

While I still take a quick glance at CBC / Radio Canada to stay up to date with what’s happening in Canada, I get the bulk of my news in Spanish now. I listen to the daily podcast Buenos Días América while walking the dog. I read Democracy Now or Amnistía Internacional with audio and full transcript a few times a week. I read articles on BBC Mundo, Voz de América or El País. I listen to Spanish talk radio while doing stuff around the house. I don’t watch the news on TV, but if I did, I’d almost certainly do it in Spanish.


While I love movies, I find that – from a language-learning perspective – television series can be more effective, especially when you’re just starting out with native audio/video. There’s more repetition, and you have more time to get used to the actors’ voices and mannerisms.

Watching a dubbed show that you’ve already seen in your own language can be a very powerful learning tool. I’m currently watching my way through my box sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Spanish. At the beginning, the dialogue seemed impossibly fast. But after a full season, I’m finding it much easier to follow along. When I have a few free minutes in the evening, I might also watch an episode of The Simpsons online.

Original Spanish television is also a great resource for learners, since it includes not only words but also body language and cultural references – both of which are key for truly understanding a language. Drama Fever is an excellent source of original Spanish television with English subtitles can easily be turned on or off. A few of my favourite shows on Drama Fever are Isabel, DesaparecidaFrágiles and El Tiempo Entre Costuras. Unfortunately, I think that Drama Fever only works in North America.

RTVE is another very good source of free Spanish television without subtitles.

A note on grammar:

At the upper intermediate and advanced levels, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to use advanced verbal constructions (“If I’d known that you were going to be there, then I would have come.“). Practice Makes Perfect and FSI (both of which I mentioned in the section for beginners and intermediate learners) include grammar appropriate for advanced learners. Reading helps internalize complex structures, but I think that it’s also important to explicitly practice them in conversation or in writing in order to truly make them yours.

The world is your ocean! source: Gualberto107 /

The world is your ocean!
Gualberto107 /

What a typical day looks like for me at this level:

  • 15 minutes checking out the news over breakfast
  • 10 minutes vocabulary practice (anki)
  • 30-60 minutes listening to podcasts (I do this while walking my dog)
  • 30 minutes reading a novel (I read every night before bed)

You’ll notice that – except for vocabulary study, which I do on my phone in blocks of 2-3 minutes throughout the day – none of this is actually time-consuming “study”. I’ve just replaced activities that I used to do in English with the same activities in Spanish.

Other Spanish activities that I do throughout the week:

  • at least once a week (although I aim for twice a week when I can): hour-long conversation on Skype with my tutor
  • at least twice a week (more often if my schedule allows): watch an episode of a TV show
  • once every week (or two): write a text using some of the complex grammatical structures that I’ve been practicing in conversation
  • once every week (or two): intensively read an article, reading it multiple times and digging through it for new words and turns of phrases

So there you have it: my step-by-step approach to learning Spanish. There are lots of other great resources out there, and I’m always keeping my eyes open for new stuff. But this is what worked – and what’s still working – for me!

If you’re self-studying Spanish, I’d love to hear about your experiences! What works for you? What do you struggle with? What do you enjoy?

How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately

I love languages.

I love learning them, of course. But I also like teaching them, talking about them, writing about them and reading about them.

Every time I read something interesting about language-learning  - a blog post, an article, a book – I add it to my mental file, synthesizing bits and pieces with personal experience to create an ever-growing and ever-changing understanding of how to best learn languages. Many of these bits and pieces are variations on the same theme.

Once in a great while, however, I read something that seems completely new.

How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately, by Boris Shekhtman, is one of those rare gems.

howtoimproveyourforeignlanguageimmediatelyThe Good

This short, brief book is one of the best general language learning resources that I’ve come across.

Shekhtman briefly (very briefly!) describes seven communication tools that can make a foreign-language speaker sound more fluent and natural, regardless of their level. It’s not about how to learn a language, but rather about how to organize what you already know so that you can use it more effectively.

When you read and think about the communicative tools, they all seem very obvious – it’s just that they’re so rarely verbalized. This book is about making communicative tools explicit, naming them and practicing them. And it just makes so much sense.

I think that this book is a must-read for any independent language learner.

The Bad

The book is very short. I would have liked to have delved deeper into each communicative tool.

There are also lots of small editing mistakes – typos, line breaks, grammatical errors, awkward phrasing. While they don’t harm the overall message, the mistakes are jarring at times. Some of the examples of how native speakers might say something made me laugh out loud because they just…weren’t how native speakers might say something. This book is obviously self-published, and it would have benefited from a good editor.

Despite its flaws, I still think that this book is well worth reading.

A Brief Look at the Seven Communicative Tools

1. show what you know

Expand answers to questions so that a conversation doesn’t become an interrogation. So if you get a question like “Do you have any brothers and sisters?”, instead of answering “Yes, I have a brother.” add as many details as you can (within reason):

Yes, I have a brother. His name is Mark. He’s a student and he lives in Toronto, the biggest city in Canada. (etc. etc. etc)

This allows you to “show off” and actually let people see what you can do. It also makes the conversation much more comfortable for both speakers.

2. build islands

This is probably the most well-known part of this book, at least in the online language learning community.

The idea is that learners build “islands”: fluency around a particular theme. Shekhtman describes these as “well memorized and frequently used monologues”. The idea is to become fluent within particular narrow themes using short monologues, which give you a place to “rest” in conversations.

A new learner might have islands like “my family”, “my job”, “my hobbies”, “my favourite movie”, etc. An advanced speaker going off to China as a diplomat might build islands like “Canadian-Chinese relations”, “Chinese immigration to Canada” or “differences in political systems between China and Canada”. So, as you can see, islands can apply to any level of communication.

This leads to very fluent communication around common topics of conversation, creating a much more comfortable and rewarding experience for both learner and native speaker.

The really cool thing here is how it can link to “show what you know”. In my description of my brother, I could easily slide onto an island about Toronto, or about my family, or about my opinions on small towns vs big cities.

Shekhtman really emphasizes that islands have to be practiced over and over again.

3. shift gears

When the conversation starts getting too complicated, use this strategy to change the subject and bring the conversation back to one of your islands. Shekhtman shares some strategies to sidestep a difficult topic, change the subject with a link, change the subject with a question or introduce a new topic – and, of course, swim back to one of your safe islands.

This tool is more a diversionary tactic than a true communication strategy. But that doesn’t make it any less useful. The fact is that it’s uncomfortable for both parties when communication breaks down. Shifting gears can help make the conversation more fluid and enjoyable for both parties.

While the goal is to change the subject gently and naturally, I found that some of the example conversations in the book were a bit abrupt or awkward (like saying “To be perfectly honest, I’m not very interested in that.” Yikes! There are gentler ways to change the subject!). But the
general idea is very clearly described in the book.

4. simplify, simplify

While you can shift gears and swim back to an island during a casual conversation, sometimes you need to discuss or relate something specifically – and changing the subject to your favourite food just won’t cut it. I like that Shekhtman differentiates in this way between casual conversation and conversation with a specific purpose.

In this chapter Shekhtman emphasizes the importance of thinking in your foreign language and using simple structures and vocabulary from your foreign language. If you think in your first language, you’ll tend to think in complicated structures that you can’t yet use in your foreign language. The idea is to use simple vocabulary, simple sentence structures, and simple grammatical structures to get your point across.

5. break away

Here Shekhtman emphasizes the importance of using grammatical structures from your foreign language – and breaking away completely from your first language when communicating. It’s important to learn to think in your target language.

This is almost an extension of “simplify”, except that it’s much more focused on using the target-language grammar and sentence structures. So many language learners talk about how they just throw grammar study to the side, because it’s not important. But I think that’s disingenuous. Everyone learning a foreign language *has* to learn grammar – even if that’s not what they choose to call it. Grammar doesn’t mean working your way through a textbook – it means figuring out how a foreign language works and then applying it in new situations.

6. embellish it

In this chapter, Shekhtman talks about learning devices specific to the target language in order to make your speech longer, more expressive and more natural. It was this chapter that made me giggle a few times, because some of the examples of “more natural” speech were anything but:

“Oh – you undoubtably are surprised that I haven’t said anything about my morning exercises. Just imagine – I do not like to do morning exercises. I do not do morning exercises. I do not think it’s healthy at all. I’ll tell you directly that I consider them to be harmful to one’s health. Really, is it good, right after your sweet dreams, to be doing such abrupt moves – running, jumping, sitting, standing, turning, and so on and so forth?”

Is it just me, or is that very much not the way that a native speaker would speak?

Still, I do like his overall point: learn exclamations and repetitions (Oh! Right. etc), sentence starters (You know,… In my opinion,… Of course,… etc) and other modifiers and expressions to try to sound more colloquial – and to give yourself some “breathers” in speech.

Using expressions and language-specific hesitations make your speech sound more fluent, while also giving you the opportunity to slow down and collect your thoughts. Hesitations are also specific to each language – while they serve the same purpose, “umm…” sets you apart immediately as an English speaker, while “euh…” sounds natural in French conversation.

That said, I think that you have to be a bit careful with really colloquial expressions. While they can make you sound more like a native speaker, poorly used (or overused) they sound very strange.

7. Say what?

This chapter is basically an overview of the skills that you can use if you don’t understand a conversation. Rather than dissolve into panic, there are simple things that you can do: ask questions, ask for clarifications, infer meaning from known words, ask the speaker to slow down, repeat or reformulate a thought.

I think that this emphasizes the importance of learning the “help me” sentences right from day one. Yes, basic greetings are important for beginners, but so are sentences like “I’m sorry, could you please speak more slowly?”

Self-study students who aren’t interacting with native speakers might not realize just how important these sentences are – until they find themselves drowning during their first
conversation, despite their confidence when responding to prompts during a course.

So how am I going to use all of this?

I’ve already started working on building islands with my Tagalog teacher. I’m not completely memorizing my islands, as described in the book. I just want to get really comfortable with all of the structures, so that I can change and recombine them at will.

I’m also working on linking to my islands when having a simple conversation (very simple, since that’s all I can do at this point).

I’ve learned the “help me” sentences already. I hand-wrote them in my tutoring notebook, and also practice them regularly using SRS.

Look for a post in the near future about how island-building in Tagalog is going so far!

Final thought: if you’re looking for a resource to help you improve your confidence and skills while conversing in a second language, I highly recommend this book!