Monthly Archives: September 2013

Making Language Learning Less Sedentary


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Over the past few months, I’ve found dozens of amazing resources for learning Spanish: Skype language partners, online games, free TV shows, music, language learning communities, podcasts…

In addition to all of this computer-based learning, I also have some fantastic grammar books (Yes, that’s right. Grammar books. That are fantastic. That I enjoy doing.) and a mid-sized pile of children’s novels.

I’m absolutely enamoured with Spanish right now. In fact, I’d rather say me encanta el español, because I can’t think of an English equivalent that has quite the right feel to it.

There’s a problem, though: I’m always sitting.

My job – a mix of group language classes, writing, and online and face-to-face tutoring – is relatively sedentary. And now my hobby is too. I feel like I’m always staring either at a screen or at a page.

My body doesn’t appreciate it. My back is starting to complain. My butt is starting to widen. Twice-daily dog walks, frequent stretch breaks and regular exercise aren’t enough to cancel out the hours and hours of sitting.

I’d love to find ways to make language learning itself more physically active – not to take more breaks while learning, but to learn and move at the same time. This would obviously be much easier to do in a total immersion environment – I could take dance classes or go on group hikes or just meet a friend for a walk and a chat. Even a local Spanish-learning buddy would help.

However, I live in a vast expanse of farms, cows and hardware stores. There isn’t a thriving Spanish community here. Trust me, I’ve looked.

So here’s the challenge: find ways to make self-studying a language less sedentary and more active.


1. listening to podcasts or audiobooks while walking, cycling or cleaning the house

I love to be outside. I hike or cycle whenever the weather allows it. I walk twice a day, every day, no matter the weather. I love the idea of multitasking and working on my listening skills at the same time. Unfortunately, I have a stupid Windows phone (*mutter mutter*) which isn’t compatible with any apps or podcasts, so I can’t download anything. But I use my phone’s wifi connection to listen to Notes in Spanish in the house while I’m puttering.

Incorporating more podcasts and audiobooks into your language study is an easy way to make learning more mobile.

2. standing instead of sitting

My husband and I are – ahem – vertically challenged. We bought a house built by and for giants. So our kitchen counters are the perfect height for standing and working. I try to do the bulk of my sedentary Spanish work standing at the kitchen counter. If you’re not a short person living in a tall person’s house, then it’s easy enough to rig up a standing desk using boxes or milk crates on your regular table.

Standing while doing ordinarily sedentary activities goes a long way towards reducing the negative impact of too much sitting.

3. shadowing

I read about this technique by the polyglot Dr. Arguelles on the How To Learn Any Language forum. The basic idea is to walk briskly while listening to a dialogue and repeating every word a split second after you hear it. I see the value in this, and I know that lots of people enjoy it. There’s just one problem: I really didn’t like doing it. Still, it’s worth trying if you’re looking for a more active approach to language learning – and I refuse to give up on it forever. Maybe I just haven’t found the right materials yet. I plan on trying it again for a future blog post.

If you can make it work for you, shadowing combines serious language study with physical activity.

4. doing target-language exercise videos

I have to admit that this suggestion makes me laugh – mainly because the idea of doing exercise videos in any language makes me twitch. I’m more of a go-outside-and-play type. But I’d definitely try it!



An exercise video in your target language could help you get fit – while improving your vocabulary.  

5. watching target-language movies while walking or running on the treadmill

The treadmill isn’t my best friend. Again, I’d rather be hiking, paddling or cycling than running on a human hamster wheel. But I do turn to the treadmill in the dead of winter, when the snow’s up to my knees and the windchill is -30C. I have access to a few Spanish-language movies – Volver and Pan’s Labyrinth are both available from the library – and many movies that I can watched dubbed. While we have an ancient treadmill in the basement, I know that there are a lot of gyms that let you choose what you watch – consider bringing your own movie or flipping to a target-language channel.

That human hamster wheel can make movie-watching an active rather than sedentary activity.

Aside from the standing desk, all of these solutions focus more on listening than on any other skill – and that’s perfectly ok. There’s no such thing as “too much listening” when learning a language.

Out of all of these approaches, I think that the most appealing one – for me – is to listen to more podcasts and audiobooks while on the move. So that means that I need to replace my crappy Windows phone with either an Android or an iPhone. Right? Right? Now, if I can just convince my provider to let me out of my contract a year early. I mean, it’s obviously for a good cause…

Any other ideas? How do you make language-learning more active?

Another Day, Another Challenge

At the beginning of August, I announced my intention to take part in a six-week challenge, logging all of the time that I spent studying or practicing Spanish.

The six-week challenge ends today.

Here are my final numbers:


1. A simple approach to organizing language learning works best for me.

Instead of trying to stick to a complicated schedule, I make a point of doing five things:

  • talk to someone every day
  • listen to something every day
  • read something every day
  • write something every day
  • practice vocabulary every day

Sticking to this ensures that I hit all four components of language – speaking, listening, reading and writing. I try to spend at least 15 minutes on each those five tasks, for a minimum of 75 minutes of language study per day. In reality, I often spend longer, since it’s hard to stop once I get started!

2. Tracking my practice is a good way of ensuring balance.

Tracking minutes isn’t useful to me. I won’t keep timing myself and writing down every minute that I spend on Spanish now that the challenge is over. But tracking practice by jotting down what I do every day is useful. It lets me see patterns over time and make sure that my learning is balanced over the course of a week or a few days.

image courtesy of winnond /

3. Self-reflection is important.

I was well-aware of the importance of self-reflection in learning – at least I should hope so, after ten years of teaching! But taking the time to think about what I’m doing in Spanish over the past six weeks has really helped me to refine my approach and to focus more on what is helping me to improve.

For instance, thinking about how I read children’s novels led me to approach a Spanish-language TV show differently. I’m now watching Desaparecida (a great show, by the way) the same way that I’m reading Harry Potter: watch a scene with English subtitles, and then immediately rewatch the same scene without them. Sure, it takes me twice as long to get through an episode of the show, but the returns are huge. This show would not be accessible to me otherwise.

I also realized that certain resources are less useful to me now than they were when I first started learning Spanish. This doesn’t mean that the resources aren’t good; it just means that my needs as a learner have changed. For instance, I’ve realized that half an hour on Duolingo (review to come!) is not as useful to me as half an hour reading a novel or listening to podcasts. I still like Duolingo, especially for beginners – but it’s no longer the best use of my limited time.

4. The more that I progress in Spanish, the easier it is to spend more time practicing.

I’m finally reaching a level where I can do the things that I would normally do – except that I can do them in Spanish now. Reading novels, watching TV shows, chatting with friends – these are all easy to incorporate into my day.

5. Comprehensible input is key.

While I’m still spending a lot of time in Skype language exchanges, I’m also spending more and more time just listening to stuff. As my comprehension improves, more materials become accessible to me, so I listen more, and my comprehension improves, and – it’s a cycle. But not the vicious kind. While I still try to spend at least 30-60 minutes in conversation every day, I spend about twice as long reading and listening.

I don’t think that input (listening and reading) is more important than output (speaking and writing). But I don’t that output is more important either. I think that the two are deeply linked and that I progress fastest when I give equal attention (although not necessarily equal time) to both input and output.

6. I like learning languages. A lot.

Honestly, I should have started learning a language years ago. I feel as though my brain is in rapid-fire for the first time in years. Learning a language is also making me a much more reflective and flexible French teacher – although I do have to be careful not to project my own preferences in language learning onto my students.


I’ve already started thinking about starting a fourth language – but I don’t want to start until my Spanish is a bit more solid.

That said, I may possibly have ordered a Tagalog resource from Amazon.


But more on that another time.

What next?

With a new full-time French course starting next week, I won’t be able to spend quite so much time on Spanish over the next few months. Still, I think that I have a solid enough base at this point to continue improving, even if I’m spending a little bit less time every day on learning. I’m still going to aim to hit all five categories on my list, for a minimum of 1.5 hours every day.

My goals over the next few months are to:

    • continue improving my spoken Spanish through regular Skype conversations. In addition to speaking more fluently, I’d also like to improve my accent and my speed.
    • continue expanding my active vocabulary to the tune of 20 new words per day (the default on my anki deck)
    • move away from “learn Spanish” resources and focus mainly on native Spanish resources (books, TV shows, movies, radio programs) by the end of September. This means finishing the last 10 episodes of Destinos and finding a good radio program before October 1st.
        • finish working through the Practice Makes Perfect books by November 26th, the six-month point of my Spanish journey.  (Learning grammar will be the exception to my “all native materials all the time” rule.) 
      • read five novels before Christmas: Charlie y el Ascensor de Cristal (Roald Dahl), Las Brujas (Roald Dahl), and the three first Harry Potter books (which will hopefully be accessible without tandem reading the English versions).
    • apply what I’ve learned as a language student to my own classes so that I can be a better language teacher.

VeinteMundos – a Fabulous Free Resource for Spanish Learners!


As I mentioned in my last post about children’s novels, I like to learn through reading. While I’m generally more drawn to novels, I also make an effort to read articles on a regular basis.

This is easy to do with VeinteMundos, a beautifully designed free site chock full of articles with supporting visuals. The name “VeinteMundos” refers to the 20 countries that claim Spanish as an official language. Every two weeks, VeinteMundos offers a new article highlighting an aspect of one of those countries.

The articles are split into four categories: arte y cultura; viajar y geografia; sociedad y economia; y historias cortas. The beauty of this is that not only will you practice your Spanish, you’ll also be able to immerse yourself virtually in the many cultures of the Spanish-speaking world.

Each full-length article includes:

  • text with mouse-over translations for new vocabulary and an embedded dictionary that allows you to double-click on any other word
  • an audio recording of the article so that you can read and listen at the same time
  • a summary of the article with easier text for beginners
  • grammar, comprehension and vocabulary exercises at various levels of difficulty (note: I’ve never used any of these, so can’t speak to their quality)
  • multiple videos and sites related to the topic (both embedded and linked)
  • several videos and sites about travel and culture in the highlighted country (both embedded and linked)

I get a notice in my inbox whenever a new article is posted. I read the article once with the audio to get a general idea, and then read it again more slowly, taking time to puzzle out any new words or expressions. The embedded dictionaries make this extremely easy to do! If I find the article particularly interesting, I might revisit it a third time, either reading the text with the audio or listening to the audio on its own, without the text.

I use a variety of different resources, and I am generally more drawn to fiction – novels, movies, television shows. I probably don’t spend more than an hour on Veinte Mundos every few weeks. But that hour is time well-spent! I think that this could easily become a key resource for someone who prefers to learn through nonfiction and informational text and video.

Check it out – I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do!

Click here for a list of past Veinte Mundos articles.

Using Children’s Novels to Learn Spanish – or Any Other Language

spanishchildrensnovelsI love to read.

I was that kid who hid a book in her desk while pretending to listen to the teacher. My seventh grade teacher never called me on it – probably because he was just glad that I wasn’t talking for once.

Not much has changed. If I don’t have a book on the go – and another in the wings waiting – then I feel a little bit lost.

So it makes sense that novels would be an important part of my language learning.

I spend anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes reading in Spanish every day. My Spanish level is such that I’m not yet ready to tackle adult novels. I’ll save Gabriel García Márquez for some time in the distant future. For now, I’ll stick to children’s novels – not difficult to do, since I love children’s literature in English and French as well.

Why children’s novels?

  • they’re generally accessible, written in simpler language
  • high-quality children’s books are full of rich vocabulary
  • they’re shorter – and a bit less daunting – than novels written for adults
  • they come in a huge range of difficulty levels, meaning that you’ll likely find one that works for you
  • they’re fun

I use children’s novels in three different ways:

Extensive reading – or reading for pleasure


Extensive reading for me means reading lots, without stopping to look up words. The purpose of extensive reading is to read for pleasure, absorbing vocabulary and grammar almost accidentally. If I get lost in a story, then I know that I’ve chosen the right book. The first book that I chose to read in Spanish was Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate by Roald Dahl.

When reading extensively, I guess the meaning of unknown words based on context. The only time that I look up a word is if it keeps popping up over and over again, and it’s leading to frustration or a breakdown in comprehension.

The characters in Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate were always “gritando” something or other. While it wasn’t keeping me from understanding the story, it was a bit annoying. Eventually I looked that word up and found out that “gritar” means “to yell”. That was the only word that I had to look up in that book – and I will never, ever forget it now.

A few tips for extensive reading:

      • At least at first, it helps to read a book that you’re already familiar with in your own language. This will help you to understand the context and guess the meaning of unknown words more easily.
    • Choose a book that you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy reading it, then look for something else. Life is too short to waste time on books that you don’t like.
      • Extensive reading is a habit. I think that it’s better to do it for 15 minutes every day than for an hour twice a week.
    • It’s better to read something slightly too easy than something slightly too hard.

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, 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.

Intensive reading – or reading to practice skills


I absolutely love the book Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. I think that it’s beautiful and sad and poetic. I read it out loud in French to my students three years in a row, so I know the story really well. While the vocabulary in Despereaux is rich, it was easy for me to guess the meaning of new words based on context. It was the perfect book to read extensively – starting at the beginning and reading right through to the end.

When I finished Despereaux, I felt a bit lost. I had nothing else to read, and the idea of restarting Charlie didn’t appeal to me. So I started reading Despereaux again, this time focusing on just one chapter at a time and reading it very intensively.

My method for intensive reading:

1. Read the chapter once from beginning to end, just enjoying the music and the rhythm of the language.

2. Read the chapter a second time, this time looking for unknown words that I jot in my notebook. (While I’m quite happy dog-earing my books, I simply cannot write in them.) I write down  completely unknown words and words that I’ve guessed from context but am not quite sure of. If there’s an entire sentence or paragraph that puzzles me, I’ll turn to my French copy of the book to get the gist of it.

3. Look up the unknown words on SpanishDict and add them to my anki deck.

4. Read the chapter a third time, this time out loud, recording myself using my cellphone.

5. Read the chapter a fourth time, listening to my recording and reading along. If I notice that I stumble somewhere in the recording, I make a mental note of it.

6. Read the words or sentences that I struggled with a few more times, to practice pronunciation.

The chapters in Despereaux are short – usually between two and five pages – so doing all of this generally takes me between 20 and 30 minutes. I don’t do it every single day, but I try to intensively read a chapter of Despereaux a few times a week. I’m not sure if I’ll make it through the entire book – as with anything related to learning Spanish, I’ll move on if it stops being enjoyable.

While it might sound a bit dull to read the same thing multiple times, it’s not! (I know, I’m surprised too.) I just fell naturally into this pattern of reading multiple times for various purposes, and I’m amazed at how much vocabulary and sentence structure I’m learning. I also feel that my reading speed has increased and my pronunciation is improving.

A few tips for intensive reading:

    • You have to really love a book to be willing to spend so much time with it. My approach to language learning is “If I don’t like it, then I’m not doing it“. That applies to intensive reading as well.
    • It’s impossible to get lost in a story if you’re continuously stopping to look up words or reading the same text over and over again. Even if you’ve chosen to read a book intensively, I think that it’s worth reading it extensively as well, simply to appreciate the story. I chose to read this one extensively first, but I think that you could also do the opposite: work your way slowly through an entire book, and then re-read it for pleasure when you’re finished. This, of course, makes it even more important to really love the book!
  • Figure out a method that works for you. I just fell naturally into this pattern of reading. But you might find that something else works best for you – listening to an audiobook while reading along, making note of grammar points or verb conjugations, writing short summaries after each chapter. Really, intensive reading is about reading a text slowly and deeply, but the only “right” way is the one that works for you.

Tandem reading – or reading two copies of the same book at once


When I got my hands on Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal, I expected it to be my next pleasure read.

Until I read an entire page and realized that I didn’t understand anything.

I felt frustrated and disappointed, and my first thought was to tuck it away for later – but I didn’t have anything else to read. Instead, I went to the library and picked up a copy of Harry Potter in English. I’m now reading the novels in tandem: first I quickly read a page in English, and then I read the same passage more slowly in Spanish. This makes it much easier for me to understand the story and all of its very specific vocabulary.

It’s not exactly extensive reading, since I can’t just curl up and read for pleasure. It’s fun, but it’s definitely more work than Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate or my first run through of Despereaux.

And it’s not exactly intensive reading, because I’m not digging deep to figure out vocabulary and sentence structure. My goal is simply to enjoy the story – which, at this point, means reading the same thing in two languages.

Tandem reading falls somewhere in the middle for me. My hope is that – as I get used to the rhythm and my overall skills improve – I’ll be able to read the other books in the series extensively, without relying so heavily on the English versions.

How do you read in your target language? Do you prefer to read intensively or extensively? Any suggestions for books that I should add to my reading pile?

Happy reading!