Tapping into your interests can reignite the language spark

Tap your interests to reignite your language fire

Some language learning tips are so fundamental, that we come across them again and again. And my own recent experience reminded me of one the most transformative and powerful: personal interests are the greatest motivator.

For the past few months, I’ve been slogging away at Icelandic. For the most part, I’ve used quite traditional textbooks to learn from. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this; in fact, I love formal grammar (I’m weird like that), and I learn a lot that way.

But in terms of speaking, I’d reached something of an impasse. It had all started to feel a bit one-note – solid, but not exciting.

That was, until Söngvakeppnin.

Söngvakeppnin is Iceland’s annual televised contest to select an entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. Now, I loved Eurovision for as long as I can remember, and I’ve often used it in language learning and teaching as a fun source of target language. And it turned out that a bit of it was just what I needed to reignite my Icelandic fire.

Fire and ice

Now, new learning had a focus. Articles started to pop up about the contest on Icelandic broadcaster website ruv.is and news outlet mbl.is. The songs – all in Icelandic – suddenly appeared on Spotify. And, most excitingly, I found out that I could watch the selection programmes live via the Icelandic broadcaster’s official streaming service, Sarpurinn.

Even though the language level was high, I wanted to consume all the information I came across. I’d translate articles carefully to get all the latest contest gossip. I’d listen to interviews and listen more intently than ever to get all the details of what was being said. In learning terms, I was on fire. Much like an Icelandic volcano.

All at once, I had a captivating way into Icelandic language and culture. And specifically, thanks to a very patient (or masochistic?) teacher on iTalki, to talk about. Preparing for a conversational lesson on something you find intensely interesting is no longer homework, or a tedious slog – it’s a huge amount of fun. It’s hard work without the slog!

Gaining from your interests

The results were clear. I could chat endlessly on the topic. It wasn’t passive chat, either – I was asking questions and was eager to hear the answers. I was totally switched on to using the language practically and purposefully.

It wasn’t that I was suddenly an expert at speaking Icelandic – I know that I was still making plenty of errors. But this time, I was stumbling less when I hit them; they held me back just a little less. I was speaking less self-consciously, and I felt like I was flying in the language.

Isn’t that what fluency is about? Communicating in a flowing manner, if not necessarily perfectly in every grammatical respect?

Go beyond your textbooks

People feel compelled to follow formal language courses when starting out. But never forget to seek out what interests you, even if you are just beginning in a language. If it interests you enough, you will find a way to understand it – and you will learn. Find what you love, and give it the target language treatment!

Finally, take heed from the sentiment of this, my favourite song from this year’s Söngvakeppnin, and aldrei gefast upp – never give up!

Podcasts can be a perfect gateway to your own interests in the target language culture

Perfect podcast picks for language learners

The podcast has been a wonderful invention for the linguaphile. Just ten, twenty years ago, language aficionados would need all manner of equipment to tune in to overseas broadcasts. These days, thousands of them are just a click and a download away. All you need is a pair of headphones to immerse yourself in your foreign language, whenever, wherever.

However, as with many facets of modern life, the problem is often too much choice. How do you set about finding suitable native language podcasts as a learner? Some material might seem linguistically beyond your level, for example. And the topic matter is not always guaranteed to switch on your interest, either. News and current affairs programmes in French, for instance, may provide scant fun if you have enough of politics in your regular exposure to home news.

Personal interest as motivator

The best strategy comes in combining both those needs: accessibility and interest. If you hit upon some foreign-language content you are really interested in, a couple of magical things happen:

  1. You feel more motivated to focus on the language through personal interest
  2. You use your existing knowledge of the topic to make educated guesses about the language you don’t know

In short, if current affairs are not your thing, avoid the news podcasts. Even excellent learner resources like Deutsche Welle’s News in Slow German will be useless if you don’t get excited by the news. But if you’re learning French and love Motocross, then you’ll try really hard to get all the details from anything you find on the site Moto Verte!

I’ve seen the personal passion-motivator work for reading, too; as a language teacher, I’d regularly bring in target language magazines I’d picked up abroad. Suddenly, kids who were hard to reach in German class were poring over complicated texts in computer and football magazines, intrigued by the content. What’s more, they were managing to understand it through sheer determination. Personal interest sparks learning – almost by stealth.

Starting point: national broadcasters

When hunting podcasts, you do have to do a little digging to unearth the interesting content hiding behind the ubiquitous current affairs programmes. Fortunately, national broadcasters all over the world create heaps of it, on all sorts of topics. One of the best places to start on the search for the perfect podcast is by finding out the national broadcaster in your target language country; the Wikipedia list at this link is an excellent place to start.

After finding out which organisation produces content in your country of interest, you could just check out their website. Broadcaster websites aren’t always the easiest to navigate, though. And they can be a little overwhelming if you’re still not very confident in the language.

Instead, head to iTunes (or your podcast app of choice), and search for the broadcaster name under podcasts. It should throw out lots of options, like this search under Spanish broadcaster RTVE:

Podcast search on iTunes for RTVE, the Spanish national broadcaster

Podcast search on iTunes for RTVE, the Spanish national broadcaster

Some broadcasters are better than others, admittedly. Spanish learners are in luck, as RTVE has programmes from all walks of life. I love food (come on, who doesn’t?!) as well as health and fitness topics, so one of my personal favourites is weekly journal Alimento y salud (Food and Health). These are fields that many of us know a lot about from our own lives. So even when the language is fast and furious, I can usually fill the gaps with an educated guess.

The format is lively, too; recently, the programme ran a fascinating feature on space cuisine for orbiting astronauts. Great for individual learners, but also worth considering as an interesting listening task for classes!

Off the beaten podcast path

Podcast hunting is perfect for sourcing free, engaging material for off-the-beaten-path languages, too. This can be a major boon, given that listening material specifically for learners can be prohibitively expensive. The student CD to accompany the intermediate Norwegian course Stein på stein, for example, is over £20 – and that’s not including postage from Norway. Instead, a bit of mining can uncover a wealth of listening material for no cost at all.

That free material can be challenging, for sure. After all, it’s intended for native speakers, first and foremost. But if you hit on something you love, it can really switch you on to the target language.

As a Norwegian learner, I’m lucky that Norwegian broadcaster NRK has a great range of special interest programmes. One in particular – Språkteigen – is all about the quirks of language. I honestly can’t think of a better programme for a language geek to be practising Norwegian with!

Podcasts are an invaluable, immersive resource for language learners. I hope some of the tips above provide a good starting point for your own mining. And maybe, along the way, you’ll hit that gem – the foreign language podcast that you become a real fan of. There are few better ways of getting really switched on to your target language culture!