Ten Tips for Walking the Camino de Santiago

Note: today’s post is a bit different. It’s about travel, rather than language learning. For me, travel and language learning are intertwined. While each is enriching on its own, they’re exponentially richer and deeper when combined.

The Camino de Santiago – a network of walking trails snaking through Spain and the rest of Europe, all of them ending in Santiago de Compostela – will always hold a special place in my heart.

The Camino is what launched my passion for language learning in the first place – something that has enriched my life enormously.

It was also a truly unparalleled travel experience. I traveled with my Dad – the first time that we had ever undertaken such a long journey with just the two of us. We traveled slowly, by foot, walking nearly 800 kilometres from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Most night we stayed in albergues, simple and inexpensive accommodations with bunk beds reserved for peregrinos (pilgrims, or people walking the Camino).

The Camino is growing ever more popular with travellers interested in a unique cultural experience. If you’re considering this adventure – and I highly recommend that you do – I’d like to share a few tips for a successful Camino de Santiago.


Just follow the yellow arrows…

1. Learn some Spanish before you go.

Obviously I’m a bit biased here. After all, I’m a language blogger. Of course I’m going to suggest that you learn the language before you go.

But speaking some Spanish opens so many doors! Many of the albergue hospitaleros and cafe owners that I met spoke no English. Being able to speak Spanish meant that I could ask for help, share stories, and connect more deeply with the people that I met. Even the simplest greetings – thank you, you’re welcome, please, hello – can help you connect with locals.

Mi Vida Loca and Coffee Break Spanish are two engaging (and free!) introductory courses that can help you learn some of the standard tourist phrases. If you want to dive in a bit deeper and really learn Spanish, you can check out my Spanish from Scratch post for suggestions on how to get started.

2. Pack light.

There’s really no need for a massive 60 litre bag, especially if you’re walking the highly developed Camino Frances. There are towns and villages every 5 km, so it’s relatively easy to get what you need along the way.

I recommend a 30-40 litre bag with just the bare minimum: a change of clothes, shoes for the shower, a sleeping bag or light blanket, a simple first aid kid, rain gear. My bag – an ultralight 32 litre backpack – weighed about 7 kg fully loaded with snacks and water for the day. Your feet, back and legs will thank you for limiting the weight!

There are many water fountains along the way. We found that two 500 ml bottles each were plenty. We’d drink our fill in the morning at the albergue, fill up our bottles before leaving, and then fill up again any time we found a source of drinking water.

An extra advantage to packing light is that it’s easy to find what you’re looking for in your bag, and packing up in the morning goes much more quickly.


Everything that I carried with me. One dry sack contained a silk sleep sheet and a down blanket; one held a full set of clothes and some extra socks; and the third held gear for cold or wet weather. The semi-transparent packing cube held toiletries, notebook, pen, flashlight, first aid kit, phone charger, laundry kit and other small odds and ends. The black thing under the baseball cap is an ultralight messenger bag made from a repurposed parachute. In addition to what I was carrying on my back, I also wore boots, a full set of clothes, and a small neck pouch with my passport, cell phone, money and cards.

3. Take care of your feet. (And your knees. And your back.)

Even if you’re fit and strong, you can expect some aches and pains along the way. I’d say that 90% of the people I talked to struggled with minor physical problems at some point during the walk – even my Dad, and he’s annoyingly robust. There are four questions that you’ll hear over and over again on the camino:

Where are you from? Where did you start? Where are you heading today? How are your feet?

Make sure that you leave with well broken-in boots. Don’t buy new shoes for the camino!

Take care of blisters before they start. There are various approaches to blister care, but here’s what worked for me: a generous layer of vaseline in the morning, double socks (a thin coolmax liner and a merino wool hiking sock), stopping to air out my feet and change my liners two or three times per day, and slapping on a piece of compeed as soon as I felt even the hint of a hot spot.

While my feet didn’t cause me any problems, my knees did. I hurt my knees on a steep downhill on day one, and they ached badly for over a week. A few times I considered taking a bus and resting for a few days, but in the end I managed to walk through it. I bought a pair of knee braces on day three and a pair of hiking poles on day five. What a difference they made! If I could start over, I would have had the poles with me from day one.

Packing light is really important for your knees, feet and back. While a bag might seem light when you’re just walking around the neighbourhood, it will take its toll if you carry it for 20+ km day after day for weeks.


582 kilometres to go…and grateful for that brace and those walking sticks!

4. Develop a zen attitude towards communal living.

People will snore. They will also rustle bags at 5 in the morning, flash light in your eyes in the middle of the night, toss and turn in the bunk above you, and cut their toenails at the table. Let it go. Bring a good pair of earplugs (even better, bring a dozen – there will be people who’ll need them!), be conscious of the impact of your actions on others, and try to be zen about communal living.

The positives – shared meals, stories and laughter – will far outweigh the negatives!


Communal living at its finest!

5. Walk your own walk.

There’s no “right way” to walk the Camino. Start where you want and follow the route you want. Be kind to yourself and take a day off if you need one. If you don’t want to stay in the albergues  – then don’t. There’s nothing wrong with staying in a private room if it fits your budget. If you’re struggling or injured, then don’t fret about taking a bus or sending your pack ahead if you need to.

Walk your own walk.

And let others walk theirs.


Everyone has to walk their own walk.

6. Get fit before you go.

If I could change one thing about my camino, I would start a bit lighter. I worked very hard to get my pack under 7 kg – but it would have been even better to lose 7 kg of body weight.

You will get fit while walking, and the Camino Frances is certainly not reserved for elite athletes, but I think that some people exaggerate how easy it is. I personally found it challenging, and I’m a relatively fit person who walks regularly. To start again, I would definitely have done more long hikes at home before heading to Spain.

7. Don’t rush.

Stop and sit by the water. Take your shoes off. Have a cafe con leche. Talk to the people sharing your road. Share a snack with another pilgrim. Stop in bars and shops along the way. Make new friends.

I’ve heard about the dreaded “bed race” in the summer, where pilgrims start walking while it’s still dark because they’re afraid that they won’t get a bed in an albergue. We avoided this altogether by walking in March and April. We often left at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning, and only arrived at our destination at 5:00 in the evening, because we stopped so often along the way.

They say that the camino provides. Trust in your camino – and give yourself time to actually experience it.

8. Plan a bit…

We carried an excellent lightweight map book by Brierley. We also carried a detailed printout that we received at the Pilgrims’ Office in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and another one that we received from the albergue in Estella. The printouts had an up-to-date list of private and public albergues, as well as services available in each town (pharmacies, bank machines, grocery stores and bars/cafes/restaurants).

It’s important to know if you need to buy food before leaving the following day. It’s also important to know how long you’ll have to go in between bank machines and pharmacies, since you don’t want to run out of money or basic supplies.

We learned this the hard way when we ran out of food one evening and had to walk until lunch the next day on an empty stomach. We’re breakfast people, and the route was all uphill – it was a tough morning!

We liked to plan our route a few days in advance, walking with a general idea of which towns we wanted to stop in.


Don’t forget to plan a stop at the wine fountain! We met one young man who missed it by taking an alternate route – and decided to backtrack eight kilometres to find it.

9. …but try not to plan too much.

The unexpected can and will happen.

A few times, we stopped after only a few kilometres due to discomfort or general tiredness. One of those days, we stopped in a really cool albergue – right next door to a bar with the best  bocadillos (sandwiches) and drinks in 800 km! We felt like family, laughing and talking with the owners for the better part of the evening. It was one of our best memories from the entire Camino – and if we’d “stuck to the plan” and powered through the discomfort, we would have missed out.

Another day, we planned on walking only 20 km, but we felt good and pushed on to 28. We ended up in Grañon, one of the world’s truly special places. We slept on mats on the floor in the loft of an old church, shared a simple meal of salad and lentils with a dozen strangers-turned-friends, sat by the wood stove to sing along with a guitar, and exchanged stories and experiences in a half dozen languages.

It’s nice to have an idea of where you want to be and when you want to get there. But stay open to the unexpected. There’s magic where you least expect it.

10. Talk to strangers.

Be open to experiences, and be open to people. The best part of the Camino for me was the definitely the people that I met along the way. After several weeks of communal living, we didn’t hesitate to invite anyone to sit with us for a drink or a meal. Some people, especially the ones who’d just started their camino and were feeling tired and a bit bewildered, were a bit shy, but no one ever refused us – and we always parted as friends.

Call out “hola!” when walking into any store, restaurant, or business establishment. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, a “hola” and a genuine smile will show that you respect the people who are making your trip possible.

Silence can be a beautiful thing. I spent hours walking in silence, with only the sounds of my footsteps, the wind and the birds as a soundtrack. But the silence and the talk were two sides of the same experience. Each was more beautiful because of the other. So talk to farmers, shopkeepers, other walkers, road workers, policemen, the sky, birds, donkeys.

Especially donkeys.


Well hello there!

Buen camino, my friends!

Reading Books in Spanish: Don’t Make the Same Mistakes That I Made!

I love to read. I’ve been a bookworm my whole life. When we were kids, my sister and I would take out stacks of library books every week, and then curl up on the couch to read for hours. My mom liked to say that we were holding the couch down, since we each sat on a different side, with the pile of books between us.

(We almost always returned our books late as children. I’m 36 now, and I owe 6 dollars and 40 cents to the library. Some things never change.)

One of the best things about learning foreign languages for me is picking up a book and reading it.

Reading! In a whole other language! How cool is that, right?

I’ve made some mistakes along the way, though. Today I’d like to share my two big mistakes – and maybe save you some headaches in the process!

My big mistake number one: reading something that’s too hard

Like many language learners, I got my hands on a copy of Harry Potter when I started learning Spanish. It was a kids’ book, so it seemed like a good way to start reading in Spanish.



I started with dual copies of the book, one in English and one in Spanish. I figured that I would be able to read it without too much difficulty, using the English book if I got stuck.

I was wrong.

At that point in my journey, Harry Potter was simply too difficult for me.

The text itself was complicated, with verb tenses that I’d never seen before. There were dozens of unknown vocabulary words per page, many of which I had never come across naturally in everyday life:

  • lechuza (owl)
  • escoba (broom)
  • varita (wand)
  • hechizo (spell)

I struggled my way through a chapter or two, but it was absolutely no fun. I’d claw my way through a page, and then stop, feeling exhausted and frustrated.

Let me tell you:

Harry Potter is hard.

Solution to big mistake number one: read easier stuff

After slamming Harry Potter shut in frustration (for the nth time), I accepted that I needed to read something much easier – something that I could understand with at least a 95% comprehension rate.

Enter Roald Dahl.


This is more like it!

I started with Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate. This was a book that I knew well in English, so the story was familiar enough to figure out new words like “repollo” (cabbage) through a combination of familiarity and context. Most of the verbs were in preterite and imperfect past tense – verb tenses that I hadn’t formally learned yet – but they were easy to understand using root words and context.

(Confession: I skipped over all of the songs in Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate. They were too hard for me at the time, and therefore boring.)

In all, I read four novels for children over the course of four months:

  • Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate, by Roald Dahl – a book that I was very familiar with in English.
  • Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo – a book that I knew well in French, and one of my absolute favourites.
  • Charlie y el gran ascensor de cristal, by Roald Dahl – I’d read it once or twice as a child, so I had a general understanding of the story. I also knew the characters from the first book, and was familiar with the writing style.
  • Las Brujas, by Roald Dahl – this one was completely new to me, but I was well-prepared by the time I cracked the spine.

After reading four books for young readers, I picked up Harry Potter again.

And I could read it! Without looking at the English copy! Without frustration, boredom or feelings of inadequacy and despair! It was a miracle!

Take-away lesson: read easy books.

I can’t stress this enough. Easy books are much more useful than difficult books. You will advance more quickly if you choose books that you can read with 95%+ comprehension. The books that you can read will gradually increase in difficulty as you keep turning pages.

I was able to read a children’s novel as my first Spanish book. My French helped me a lot with that. You might need to start even easier, with easy readers or texts written for language learners. You can get a peek at how that looks for me in Tagalog – a language in which I’m not yet ready to read a novel.

My big mistake number two: reading something that’s too boring

After reading four children’s novels and the first two books in the Harry Potter series, I found a new series: the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.

I really enjoyed the first two books! I liked the main character’s voice, and I thought that the modernization of Greek gods and myths was very clever. It took me several weeks to get through each book, reading most days for 20 or 30 minutes. That felt about right.

Then came book three. And while the books hadn’t changed much, my interest had plummeted. I started putting a timer on for 20 minutes at a time, and I checked the timer more than once each session, waiting for it to ring.

The truth is that I didn’t really feel like reading them anymore. But I’d already paid for them, and my book budget was tight. And besides, I’d already read so much of the series…I may as well finish it, right?


And besides, they’re so colourful…


Life is much too short to read books that don’t grab you. I decided long ago that I wouldn’t finish a book in English that I didn’t love; so why was I reading boring books just because they were in Spanish?

I wasted three months on the last three books of the series. It took me a month to get through each book, and – while they were at an appropriate level for me – I no longer looked forward to my nightly reading.

I’m not saying that the last three Percy Jackson books aren’t any good – just that they weren’t the right books for me.

Solution to big mistake number two: read stuff that’s actually interesting

losjuegosdelhambreI happy-danced in my living room when I finished the last page of the last Percy Jackson book in August. I was so relieved!

I started reading my current book, Los Juegos del hambre, by Suzanne Collins.

And within a week, I was three quarters finished. I don’t have to use a timer anymore. If anything, I have to put my alarm on so that I remember to go to bed at a decent time.

Take-away lesson: read books that you like.

A little bit obvious, isn’t it? And yet I fell into the trap of reading books that I didn’t like “because I should finish them“. Never again!

Read books that grab you because you love the story, or the characters, or the world that the author created. If I’d abandoned Percy Jackson a few chapters into book three, I probably would have read a lot more Spanish over the past three months.

Recap: Captain Obvious says read books that you can actually read. And that you actually like.

Don’t make the same mistakes that I made!

spanishbooksWhat’s next for me?

After the Hunger Games, I plan on reading a Spanish book. That was actually written in Spanish. By a Spanish speaker.

Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquival is already waiting on my night table. I hope that I’ll love it. But if I don’t like it, I’ll ask myself two questions:

  • Is it boring because it’s hard? Then put it away until later.
  • Is it boring because it’s boring? Then put it away forever.

What are you reading right now? I hope that it’s something that you love!

¡Buena lectura, amigos míos!

Language Blogs That Tell a Story

The online language learning community is an interesting place.

There are lots of enthusiastic and extroverted polyglots, but there are also quieter, more introspective learners. Some people learn one language to mastery over a period of years, while others dabble and jump from one language to another. Some bloggers make a living online, while others only blog as a hobby.

It really doesn’t matter to me whether or not a blogger is selling a product, or how many languages they’re learning.

What matters to me is that they have a story to tell.

Above all, I look for good storytelling in blogs. Sure, I love it when you share suggestions and resources – but even more importantly, share your story. Tell me what works for you and what doesn’t. Let me get a peek inside your life.

languageblogsHere are fifteen language learners who have a story to tell, each with a unique voice.

* I’ve pulled the bloggers’ photos and names directly from their “About” pages. If your picture is here, and you would prefer that I remove or change it, please let me know. 

* This list is alphabetical, not preferential! I’ve only included active blogs that have been updated in the past month. 

16KindsScreen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.01.24 PM

Wiktor is a teacher, translator and (of course) language learner who’s currently focused on learning Portuguese. He has an interesting approach to organizing his blog posts, using numbered paragraphs that are very easy to read. He also puts out an interesting weekly post with links to language-learning posts and articles from all around the interwebs.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.28.53 PMActual Fluency

Chris is an aspiring polyglot who is proficient in English, Danish and German. He’s currently focused on learning Russian and Esperanto. He’s a self-proclaimed introvert with problems focusing, which provides an interesting perspective on language learning. In addition to regularly blogging about his progress, Chris also produces a podcast featuring interviews with polyglots and language learners.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.42.52 PMThe Compassionate Language Learner

I don’t know the author’s name, but the compassionate language learner has an engaging, open and relatable writing style. They blog about learning languages – French and German, mainly, although they’ve also learned others in the past – while living with anxiety and depression. The blog provides an important different perspective in the sometimes one-sided ocean of super-rah-rah language blogs.

fluentin3monthsFluent in 3 Months

Benny and his blog are pretty well-known in the online language community. His posts and videos are extremely upbeat, and his focus is always on encouraging people to jump in and speak the languages that they’re learning. After travelling the world and learning several different languages to various levels, it looks like he’s now focused on maintenance and on helping his girlfriend learn languages.

fluentlanguageFluent Language Tuition

Kerstin is a German and English teacher who has also studied French, Italian, Latin, Spanish and Russian. Her posts are always thoughtful and thought-provoking.  She shares encouragement, strategies and suggestions applicable to anyone. Kerstin is a huge supporter of new language learners and language bloggers. She’s very approachable and open to discussing anything with anyone.

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Bill grew up bilingual, and decided a few years ago that he wanted to learn more languages, starting with German. His blog features tips and suggestions useful for anyone learning any language. He delves into topics that aren’t often explored, like how to think in a foreign language. He doesn’t blog as often as some of the other people on this list, but I take something away from his blog every time he posts.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.20.24 PM

I Simply Love Languages

I love that Dani’s blog approaches languages and learning from a different perspective. She loudly proclaims her love of grammar and literature – two aspects of language learning that don’t always get the love they deserve on language blogs. Her blog’s name says it all: she studies languages – and lots of them – simply because she loves them!

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 4.58.52 PMI Will Teach You a Language

Olly is a polyglot who shares tips and suggestions for anyone interested in learning a foreign language. His advice is straightforward, useful and encouraging. Olly is currently blogging his way through learning Egyptian Arabic – a language that has always fascinated me! I also enjoy reading about a language learning journey from day one, following along with the learner step by step.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.31.21 PMKoko the Polyglot

Over the years, Koko has worked on numerous languages, but his current focus is on Japanese and Catalan. One of the things that I love about his blog is that he talks a lot about goals, and he doesn’t hesitate to discuss the goals that he wasn’t able to meet, like the italki challenges that he participated in. It’s honest and refreshing – and what’s best, he focuses on what he gained by trying.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.00.29 PMLanguage Surfer

Ron’s was one of the very first language blogs that I started reading, and it remains one of my favourites. He started learning languages in the US Navy, with an intensive Arabic class. He’s currently working on German and Spanish, and he blogs about balancing learning languages with family life. He has a very strong voice, and you can tell in an instant that Ron writes for people rather than for Google.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.37.48 PMLearnLangs

First of all, can we just take a minute to admire Judith’s profile pic, with her standing in front of a colourful sea of language resources? Judith is a polyglot with lots of experience learning languages and designing language learning resources. She’s currently working on a resource for Mandarin-learners. Her blog is full of tips, suggestions and descriptions of what’s worked well for her so far.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 4.54.21 PM Lindsay Does Languages

I discovered Lindsay’s blog through italki, when she blogged her way through the first six weeks of learning Portuguese as an absolute beginner. Her posts and videos are funny and upbeat, and filled with useful info. My favourite thing about Lindsay’s blog is that it feels real. You get the impression that the Lindsay that she shows on her blog is no different from the one who exists in the real world.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.23.19 PMLoving Language

Richard is a very well-informed teacher and learner. He shares his experiences with motivation – and sometimes the lack thereof – when learning languages. He takes obvious joy in the interesting differences that exist between languages and has a passion for communication in general. His current focus – on learning Somali – is fascinating.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.33.58 PMMore Vietnamese

Ruth’s focus is on learning Vietnamese, but she provides suggestions and tips that are applicable to any language. There are no gimmicks here – just solid, sensible advice for language learners. Ruth’s focus and long-term commitment to her language are inspiring and refreshing. She simply loves Vietnamese and is willing to put in the time, effort and love necessary to really learn a language!

serialpolyglotThe Serial Polyglot

Kass writes about learning languages, a passion that she put on hold for over 20 years. We all understand how life can get in the way sometimes, and there’s something very inspiring about coming back to a lifelong passion! Kass’ current focus is on Irish and Dutch. On her blog, she shares tips, suggestions and anecdotes about her current journey and what’s working for her.

Are there any other language blogs that you enjoy reading? Or perhaps you have a language blog that you’d like to share? I’m always looking for unique voices, fresh perspectives, and – above all – good stories.

Conversation for Absolute Beginners – Questions Cards in English, French, Spanish and Tagalog

A few weeks ago, I shared some tips and suggestions for working with a language tutor when you’re an absolute beginner. Today I’d like to expand a bit on one of my suggestions:

conversation cards for beginners

hand-written conversation cards - perfect for practice during tutoring sessions

When I first started learning Tagalog, I knew that I wanted to practise conversation right from the beginning. I also knew that repetition was important, but that having the same conversation over and over can get tedious for everyone involved. Conversation cards can randomize the experience and make it more engaging for both parties.

While I personally prefer the multi-sensory approach of hand-writing my own learning materials, I also use printable question cards with my beginner French students.

If you’re an absolute beginner – or if you’re teaching one – then you might find these printable question cards useful!

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 5.42.56 PM

print cards in English | Spanish | French | Tagalog

* Questions use the informal / familiar register.*

Tips for using conversation cards:

1. Take turns asking questions

It’s best if both people have access to the cards. If you’re working with someone face-to-face, then you’ll only need one set. But if you’re working over Skype, send a copy to your tutor or language partner.

While it’s important to practise speaking, it’s also important to work on your listening skills. Taking turns asking and answering questions keeps the session more engaging for both people, and lets you work on both speaking and listening.

To practise formulating questions, consider writing a few words on the back side of each card. For instance, you might just jot down “brothers / sisters” on the back of a card. If you get stuck, you can flip it over to see the complete question: “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”.

2. Introduce new questions at a reasonable pace

If you’re an absolute beginner, you might start with just two or three new questions per session, asking and answering them several times. Ask your tutor or partner to help you word things naturally.

These questions are not meant to be used in order. Choose the questions that are most relevant or interesting to you personally.

3. Review often

It’s important to review often, especially at the beginner level. As you work on new questions, make sure to continuously review older questions. So if you and your partner or tutor have agreed that a pace of three new questions per session is enough of a challenge for now, by the fourth session you should be able to ask, answer and discuss twelve different questions.

4. Expand on your answers

Some questions (What’s your name?) have simple answers, but most are more open-ended.

Consider the question: Do you have any brothers or sisters?

At first, you might only be able to answer “Yes, I have a brother.” But your eventual goal should be to add details and have a conversation about your brother:

Yes, I have a brother. His name is Tom. He’s 25 years old. He goes to school in Toronto. He’s studying engineering. My brother is funny and smart.

As you improve, you and your language partner or tutor can prompt one another for more details:

What does your brother like to do?

What does your brother look like?

5. Practise in between sessions

Talk aloud to yourself, to your cat or to your plants in between sessions. You can use the cards to practise asking and answering questions. You might also consider using an SRS like anki to review questions and answers.


an example of an anki conversation card with a question (Do you have siblings?) and prompts for possible answers

With a set of simple questions, you can enjoy conversing in another language – even if you’re an absolute beginner!

print cards in English | Spanish | French | Tagalog

*If you notice any errors or typos in any of the cards, please let me know!*

If these question cards are too easy for you, you might want to take a look at the language exchange topics that I shared earlier this week.

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

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.29.42 PM

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

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.29.42 PM

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 freedigitalphotos.net)

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

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 freedigitalphotos.net)

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!