Using media to supplement your language learning

Ever “accidentally” distract yourself from your language study by binging on some Netflix or mindlessly scrolling through social media? We’ve all been there, but those seemingly malignant distractions can actually be beneficial to your language learning! Here are a few tips for making the most of those distractions:

Social Media: Join a Group/Event Page

Look through pictures and captions (pictures can help you to understand captions, since they provide visual context), read posts, and pay attention to comments. As you read, focus on what you DO understand, or on words you notice REPEATING over and over in posts. Try to get yourself used to focusing on what you do understand, and letting go of the rest, unless it seems truly interesting or vital to you. If you’re a beginner in the language, consider that just reading the TITLES  of various groups (and then reading them aloud) is going to be good reading & pronunciation practice for you.

Do something active: post in the group—even just a few words! Try to engage someone in an exchange of info. Or, construct posts that you’d want to make. Write them down and practice them aloud, without reading them, as if you were responding in oral conversation.

Benefits of searching for & following pages on social media:

    • you discover some current, popular topics relevant to native speakers
    • you get to follow meaningful linguistic exchanges back and forth among native speakers.
    • you’re likely to see relevant vocabulary repeated over and over again, since people are discussing the same topic. You might see useful and repeated expressions of thanks, excitement, anger, agreement, etc.
    • The language used on Facebook can be colloquial and conversational, which should be useful for you! Just keep in mind, it might contain errors (autocorrect is NOT just a problem in English)

How to find a group:

  • You might search for a “humans of…” group, a news outlet, or a social cause you’re already interested in.
  • It’s usually best to do your search in the target language (one caveat: “humans of…” groups often are titled in English regardless!)
  • If you’re a beginner in the language, consider that just reading the TITLES of various groups is going to be great reading practice for you!


Netflix for learning vocab in context

We spend a good chunk of time trying to memorize vocabulary items, and they’re often coming at us only in writing, and often without a context. While it’s useful to create your own written context (for example, trying to put a word you’re learning into a meaningful sentence), you really need to see, hear, and experience vocabulary being used in authentic contexts.

This is especially true for listening, which is the most neglected skill in language learning! Your ears and brain need to practice picking the word out of a stream of sound, linking the sound to its meaning, and understanding how the surrounding words (and grammar) function together to make that word meaningful.

  • Which leads us to…captioned and subtitled movies & TV!

Subtitles (in English) or Captions (in the target language) can help you notice words and phrases being used, so that you can rewind and listen to exactly how the words are being used. Next time you’re watching a show in your target language on Netflix, turn on the captions in the target language, if available. Read them as you’re enjoying the show. Pause and rewind when you want to focus on how a particular word is used. First, can you actually hear the word being used? Next, what words surround it? Are there prepositions involved? What about tone, facial expression, or gesture? Now, try to use the word in a similar context (create a similar sentence, use it aloud, try it out on a native speaker) to solidify your understanding!

Photo by from Pexels


Let’s Explore H5P

H5P is a set of tools that allows non-techies to create interactive online content. For language instructors, this means being able to create presentations, video quizzes, audio quizzes, etc for out-of-class work. Activities can be self-grading, with feedback available to students as they work.

A paid version of H5P can integrate with your LMS (at UVA A&S, that means UVACollab) so that you can see individual students’ performance on the tasks. A free version is available at for any user.

Let’s look at some samples of H5P content!

“Drag the Words”: vocabulary in context (from a ‘bank’ students select the word that suits the sentence/paragraph)


More samples coming soon!


Fueling Japanese Fluency with Manga and Anime

This post come from Language Commons Assistant & Researcher Tessa Short, who is a student at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. She has been studying Japanese throughout the course of her undergraduate career and studies English and second language acquisition pedagogy at the Curry school.

Are you interested in learning Japanese and familiarizing yourself with Japanese culture? Do you already have some experience with Japanese, but you’re looking for a meaningful, fun context to bring to your language learning? Try using Japanese manga (comics) and anime (animated video) to supplement your language studies!

Manga and anime introduce Japanese language learners to a wealth of content easily missed in traditional classes while reinforcing the skills that build into your reading and listening comprehension. Broadly, what makes studying Japanese through manga and anime meaningful is that you encounter new Japanese grammar patterns, phrases, and words in the meaningful context of the manga’s art, characters, storyline, and more. You have to learn the Japanese in order to make sense of the manga, and at the same time, the manga helps you make sense of the new Japanese.

So, what can you expect to see in manga and anime?

Here are a few specific benefits of using manga and anime for language study:



One element of Japanese that is uniquely emphasized in manga is onomatopoeia (onomatope in Japanese), or sound words that add oompfh to the actions on the page. Flipping through a typical manga, you can see several onomatopoeia peppered through, especially in panels with a lot of action. According to tofugu, there are five different categories of Japanese onomatopoeia: giseigo (vocalizations of living things), gisongo (non-vocalized sounds, animate and inanimate), gitaigo (“communicate conditions or states”), giyougo (communicate actions), and gijougo (communicate emotions). As you may have noticed, only the first two categories, giseigo and gisongo, correlate directly with what native English speakers consider to be onomatopoeia. The other three, which tofugu terms “ideophones,” communicate through sound something that is typically silent; for instance, the gitaigo “kirakira” is an ideophone that communicates the state of being “shiney”(FluentU)– this example can be seen throughout the popular anime LoveLive!.  Tofugu warns that ideophones, because they break with what many native English speakers consider to be onomatopoeia, can be especially challenging– all the better to tackle through Japanese manga and anime! Refer to the hyperlinked Tofugu article for an excellent explanation of Japanese onomatopoeia and examples of each category.


This final panel from Ore Monogatari features an example of Japanese onomatope

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Many Japanese learners feel that they are missing out on studying casual Japanese spoken by friends and family. Anime and manga are great ways to familiarize yourself with less formal language that you don’t always see in Japanese courses. Of course, you could just study such casual language with language learning apps like Memrise, but using anime and manga to familiarize yourself with such language has an added advantage: meaningful context. Because you see this new casual language in the context of the anime or manga characters’ daily interactions, what you hear and learn is more meaningful, easier to comprehend, and more readily recalled because your brain is already hard at work making sense of the casual language in context of those daily interactions. Anime provide an excellent platform for listening comprehension practice with casual speech, forcing your ear to parse out what grammar, phrases, etc. make the casual speech meaningful, while manga provide a similar degree of practice in reading comprehension of casual speech.

Japanese Talk Online gives an example of a particular colloquial Japanese grammar. Japanese Talk Online also published lists of anime and manga useful for Japanese learners.


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An example of colloquial speech from the manga Bleach

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In addition to all the previous benefits, manga and anime are also great ways to get to know different cultural norms of Japan! Some Japanese manga and anime feature illustrations of and characters’ interactions with Japanese temples and festivals, as well as feature characters in traditional Japanese kimono or yukata. However, manga and anime go beyond this in terms of the culture they are able to communicate, as many also feature phrases or manners that are esoteric and unique to Japanese culture. For instance, often Japanese manga and anime will feature characters saying ittekimasu (“I will go and then come back”) when leaving their homes, which is a cultural norm of Japan to say when you are leaving home. There are also some manga and anime which more clearly address the culture unique to Japan. Shinpaideshou recommends Oguri Saori’s Daarin wa Gaikokujin (My Husband is a Foreigner) as a manga that meaningfully presents readers with the cultural norms of Japan. Goodreads also has a list of manga depicting the history of Japan.


Rurouni Kenshin, a manga that also has an anime adaptation, is set in Meiji-era Japan.

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Avoiding the Summer Language Learning Slump

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It’s the summer. You’re sitting on a comfy beach chair as the water’s waves catch a dancing reflection of the sun’s rays. Or, maybe you’re at a new internship, spending day in and day out organizing data and enjoying the office vending machine. What you might not be doing, however, is brushing up on all of that language learning you did over the past academic year!

While it’s certainly important that you spend some time relaxing this summer, it is equally important that you do not do yourself a disservice by losing your fluency in a foreign language. So, how do you combat this while enjoying your summer?

books in LC

Consistent, regular, and *fun* practice– that’s how you keep your fluency from slumping. This means setting aside some part of your daily routine, whether it be five minutes or an hour. You might think of this as ‘language maintenance’–staying current and connected to your language learning, able to jump right back in when the fall semester rolls around.

So, what are some things you can do for that daily practice? Here are a few ideas:


  • Keep a summer journal in your foreign language– write down every detail of that lovely trip on the beach so that you’ll never forget it! Or, if you’re stuck behind a desk all summer, make your journal aspirational, and write about all those exotic trips you’ll be taking next summer.
  • Try out a new app (or ten!) The app market is inundated with helpful language learning apps like Memrise, Duolingo, and more; you should find one that works with your target language and learning style and use it each day for a few minutes!
  • TV is your friend. You could also start watching a TV show in your foreign language as a way to practice listening and, with subtitles, reading comprehension. Netflix has a bunch of content in a variety of languages; Roku channels like Viki also have a lot of options!
  • Be a (participant) observer! If you are in a city that has different language enclaves, try to visit them and get in-person practices speaking the language and seeing it used by native speakers. If you aren’t comfortable engaging in conversation yet, try just to listen, or observe how people interact, carry themselves, use gesture, etc. Those elements of language learning are seldom taught in the classroom!
  • Finally, try to find a language partner to speak with regularly, like once or twice a week, over the summer– this could be a past classmate you had in your language course, or maybe even a native speaker in your town! Online tools like HelloTalk, iTalki, etc can connect you to tutors and teachers abroad if you don’t have local access!


This is far from an exhaustive list of ways you can maintain your language over the summer. Just remember: keep studying consistently, and keep it fun.


Return from Study Abroad: frustrations, and finding a path

This post comes from Language Commons Assistant and guest author Dom Giovanniello, recent UVA grad. He spent the 2016-17 academic year studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan.


The beautiful thing about study abroad is that everything is an adventure.

Whether it’s taking a taxi, making a friend, or even just sitting down at a café, every mundane moment represents an exciting learning opportunity or challenge. To be sure, studying abroad can be exhausting, and you’ll inevitably long for the comforts and predictability of home, but you’ll also miss the constant excitement that being abroad provides.

When people talk about study abroad they tend to mention culture shock, maximizing your experience and learning the language. And while there is some discussion of returning home, no one really talks about how to maintain and build off of what you’ve learned once you do get back.

Last year, I spent two semesters studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan with CET Academic Programs. It’s been almost a year since I returned from Jordan, and although I’ll always have the memories I made there, maintaining the language skills I developed requires a lot of effort.

Going from being immersed in a foreign culture and constantly speaking another language every day to sitting in class was a huge struggle for me. I found classroom language learning unstimulating and unsatisfying, and I realized that my goals had completely changed. I’ve never wanted to be a professor or specialize in literature, and after using colloquial Arabic in everyday life, studying Arabic in class left me wanting. That’s not to say that UVA’s program isn’t good (it’s fantastic), it’s just that I missed the excitement of studying abroad. At the same time, I found that some of my other classes on the Middle East weren’t as satisfying either. No matter how good the professor and how engaging the material, a classroom can’t compare to the real thing.  

In many ways, it’s been incredibly frustrating – dedicating a year to studying a language and then not being able to use it in the way that I want and had grown used to. I’ve had to find new ways to keep my language skills from declining and to experience the same excitement that I always felt studying Arabic. That being said, I wouldn’t trade my study abroad experience for anything. I made so many new friends, learned a ton – not only about Jordan, but also about myself and my own culture – and grew as a person. Studying abroad opened up so many doors for me, both academically and career-wise, and it gave me a newfound appreciation for everything that I have. It inspired me to pursue a law degree. I hope to use that, along with my Arabic skills, to positively impact U.S. foreign policy and to help restore the United States’ reputation and moral standing. And although it may be over (at least for now), and my Arabic may be getting rusty, the impact of my study abroad experience will never end.

Last Language Standing: an experiment in competitive language practice

On 4/10/18, the Language Commons hosted UVA’s first Last Language Standing Challenge, a competition in which teams battled to keep their team’s language in use for an entire day. It was an experiment in ‘competitive language practice’ that sought to encourage language use outside of the classroom through a bit of friendly rivalry.

When the challenge ended at 4pm, more than 350 students, faculty, and staff had participated in the challenge by chatting and playing games in their world languages (Team Hebrew even did some karaoke). Six language teams managed to win by keeping their languages in use for a full six hours. Twelve teams participated, representing half of UVA’s taught world languages. Student speakers of Amharic even fielded a team of their own! Congratulations to the winning teams:

  • American Sign Language
  • Chinese
  • French
  • Hebrew
  • Japanese
  • Russian

LLS was a hit with language students and faculty: participants reported having lots of fun, staying on for hours to chat, play games, take advantage of the free food, and meet new people. Some even participated in multiple teams, utilizing their multilingual skills!

The LLS Challenge indicated a clear interest, on the part of UVA students, in putting their world languages to use for meaningful communication. As we plan for the 2018-19 academic year, the Language Commons will be exploring new ways to support this interest, in coordination with other UVA organizations, world language programs and student organizations!


Innovating Foreign Language Studies at UVa: The ePortfolio Peer Consultants

britland cover.jpegThis guest post comes from Joanne Britland, a Ph.D. candidate of Spanish in the UVa Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. As Project Manager for the Foreign Language Learning ePortfolio Project (FLLeP), she helped coordinate the ePortfolio Peer Consultant (ePPC) program from 2015-2017. She is also a graduate teaching instructor and currently teaches Spanish 3300 (Spanish Texts and Interpretation).


Teaching and learning foreign languages are great passions of mine. I’ve taught Spanish, Portuguese, and English in the United States, Spain, and Brazil in positions at the university, high school, and elementary school levels. Through these experiences, I’ve realized the importance of integrating technology into the classroom and enjoy discovering innovative ways to do so. At the University of Virginia, I’ve had unique opportunities to combine technology with foreign language learning through using ePortfolios in my Spanish courses and by working as Project Manager for the Foreign Language Learning ePortfolio Project group (FLLeP), led by Emily Scida, Karen James, and Yitna Firdyiwek.

ePortfolios in UVA Language Programs: a massive undertaking

Serving as Project Manager has been an exciting role because as a member of the team, I’ve witnessed first-hand the logistics and inner-workings of implementing an ePortfolio program at such a large institution. This execution was no small task; the foreign language ePortfolio project at UVa encompasses 7 foreign language programs in beginning, intermediate, and advanced intermediate language courses (about 95 sections per semester). It involves 60 foreign language faculty and 3,500 students each semester!

An ePortfolio Peer Consultant setting up for a consultation.

Peers as Mentors: the ePortfolio Peer Consultant Program

With so many instructors and students utilizing ePortfolios, technical issues were inevitable, which is why the project leaders designed the ePortfolio Peer Consultant (ePPC) model. At the outset of the program, these consultants were students who had previously taken a foreign language course using ePortfolios in the project’s pilot year. They worked as peer mentors to provide technology support for students enrolled in courses integrating ePortfolios. The ePPC program has since evolved and expanded and now includes students from other disciplines outside of the foreign language departments. The consultants do incredible work mentoring and supporting their peers and instructors. They help with technical issues regarding the ePortfolio platforms, make class visits to introduce ePortfolios to students, and provide office hours for assistance. Furthermore, they are responsible for implementing FolioFest, an event held at the end of each semester for students to showcase their ePortfolios to the university community.

Foliofest 2017: students share their eportfolios with peers, faculty, and staff

Grad Student Research into Teaching and Learning: everyone benefits!

The ePPC program is truly groundbreaking, and the consultants contribute to the success of the overall foreign language ePortfolio program. However, the benefits are not limited to the students they assist; the program also positively impacts the ePortfolio consultants. For this reason, I decided to explore some of the advantages of the ePPC design beyond providing technology and troubleshooting assistance. More specifically, I wanted to find out how some of the learner-centered goals of ePortfolios in the classroom are also achieved through the ePPC program. This led me to create my own study outside of my work in Hispanic languages and literatures.

Joanne participating in the 2017 ACTFL conference in Nashville, TN

When designing the project, I decided to focus on two specific goals: learner autonomy and digital literacy. The results of the study demonstrated that the program fosters these two skills for the ePortfolio consultants as well as the students they assist. I was able to present these findings at the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) National Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, and at the AAEEBL (Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning) Southeast Regional Conference. It was rewarding to be able to engage with teachers and researchers from around the world and discuss exciting possibilities for using ePortfolios and technology in foreign language education. There is still much to be done in this area of research, and I am currently working on expanding the project to study how additional learner-centered goals are attained through the ePPC program.


We look forward to learning more about your research soon, Joanne! Thanks for this introduction to your work and the work of the ePPC program at UVA!


Designing for Reflection & Self-Awareness Using ePortfolios: The J-Log in Japanese 2020 Courses

Reflection, self-awareness, and effective use of learning strategies are all recognized as important behaviors of successful language learners. Students in Mieko Kawai’s Japanese 2020 classes are developing these skills through their ePortfolio “J-Log” (Japanese Log).

mieko kawai1
Mieko Kawai is Senior Lecturer of Japanese in the Department of East Asian Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. She specializes in Japanese linguistics and pedagogy. 

In the J-Log, Japanese language students regularly react to three prompts: Shinakucha = (things I ‘have to do’), Shitai (things I ‘want to do’), and Souka! (‘Aha! moments’). These prompts encourage students to plan, document, and reflect on their learning process. As they increase their awareness of grammar, Japanese culture, and Kanji characters, learners are also developing metacognitive awareness, which helps them to self-regulate and stay motivated to make progress.

The idea for the J-Log came from Kawai’s Japanese colleague Tomoko Marshall, who introduced the log in spring 2017 in Japanese 2020 courses. Marshall notes that her goal in implementing the J-Log was to introduce an element of choice into the language learning experience, in order to encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning.

Mieko Kawai, who has incorporated the J-Log into an ePortfolio in her current 2020 courses, states:

The goal of the J-Log is to help students become more aware, self-directed, intentional learners.  Students articulate, in writing, their short-term and long-term goals in learning Japanese, connecting their own lives to the course work.  In the next step, they design their own small learning activities, and then self-assess after doing that self-planned activity.  

Caroline Barrington
ePortfolio  J-Log reflections by Caroline Barrington, 3rd Year

The J-Log in the ePortfolio helps my students develop metacognitive skills that help them realize who they are and how they learn, and how they can apply their learning in non-language contexts or other disciplines. Keeping their log, and reflecting, help them see patterns — when and how their learning comes to be successful (or unsuccessful) and meaningful, with visible evidence of growth.   

Student feedback indicates the importance of the J-Log to their learning and motivation. Izzy Burke, a 2nd year studying Japanese Language & Literature and the Batten School’s B.A. in Leadership and Public Policy, says “language study requires a great deal of individual effort and creativity if you want to make progress, but sometimes it can be a challenge to stay motivated when you also have academic commitments and extracurriculars. The J-Log has given me a chance to pause my routine and reflect on my progress, mistakes, and future goals in learning Japanese.”

Students also reported finding value in the creative possibilities afforded by the ePortfolio, which is hosted by Digication. Caroline Barrington, a third Year English major and Japanese learner, notes, “The J-log has helped me think of some ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas for remembering certain aspects of Japanese; like how singing in Japanese helps me with pronunciation and speed of speech.” Izzy Burke notes “the format of the E-portfolios also gives me a chance to personalize my J-log. Recently I’ve been experimenting with a “vlog” style format, and have enjoyed it so much that I plan on keeping a video-journal to track my progress when I study abroad in Hakodate, Hokkaido this summer!”

izzy burke
J-Log video “vlog” by 2nd year Izzy Burke

Kawai notes a final benefit of the eportfolio J-Log: that students share ePortfolios with one another, making them a powerful tool for collaborative learning:

By commenting on each other’s posts, students have opportunities to read what others are doing, and organically learn from peers.  Those students who may not traditionally see themselves as successful language learners tend to bring great contributions to the learning community, by analyzing and synthesizing their learning, and giving supporting comments to others.  

The opportunities for reflection, creativity, and collaboration, afforded by ePortfolios, help to create a community of self-aware learners who can drive, plan, and evaluate their learning. The role of ePortfolios in helping to organize, collect, reflect on, and assess learning activities was recently recognized as a “high impact practice” by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). Beyond the language learning context, ePortfolios are in use across the UVA College of Arts & Sciences, from Chemistry to Spanish. At the end of each semester, a FolioFest showcase event is held to celebrate excellence in ePortfolio learning in the College.


Five Great Reasons to Use a Language Lab

Language labs get a bad rap these days! The very term ‘language lab’ can conjure up images of obsolete technologies and ‘drill-and-kill’ grammar & translation activities.

The Language Lab at UVA was redesigned and reopened in fall 2016 as part of the larger Language Commons, and since then we have witnessed its potential for supporting authenticity, interaction, and flexibility in language learning. In the Language Lab at UVA, we find that working in a lab space can in fact spark creativity (by both instructors and students!), and meaningful engagement among learners. Read on for some great reasons to use a language lab.

Language Lab youtube activities

1. Document student work easily. Both instructors and students can record students’ oral or written work and save it for assessment in or out of the lab. Students can listen to and self-assess their work, or save recordings to their ePortfolios as evidence of their language practice and development.  As an instructor, you can utilize lab recordings in formative or summative assessments, and can offer audio or written feedback on the recordings. Whether your lab utilizes  language lab software or not (we use SANS Virtuoso Digital Lab Technology), these tasks can be accomplished in a lab space.

2. Offer immediate, personalized feedback. Using our lab software, an instructor can utilize their headphones to ‘drop in’ on students working individually, in pairs, or in groups. This allows the instructor to observe student interactions and offer oral or written feedback, without pausing the work of other students. You can also easily pause the whole class to offer quick feedback that is relevant to the whole class.

lab small

3. Shake up class routines. It can be a challenge to reset the tone or direction of a class when you feel it’s off-track. If your students resist working with unfamiliar classmates, or are often using English as their ‘working language’ in class, a lab class might help get them re-engaged. The simple act of moving your class can shake up seating arrangements, moods, and motivation. In the lab, you can randomly pair up students so they ‘meet’ people they don’t usually work with, or drop in ‘unannounced’ on their group work, via your headset, as a way to encourage a focus on communicating in the target language. After a lab class, you might open a conversation with students about the experience, to discover ways to bring more engagement back to your home classroom.

4. Design for differentiated learning without distraction. If you have multiple levels in your class, you might be looking for ways to design and implement differentiated learning activities within the confines of your classroom. In the lab, you can assign group work involving a task appropriate to each group’s level. Since students are working together with their headphones on, they can better focus without the distraction that can result from hearing other students work, or comparing one’s own level to someone else.

5. Provide a structured environment for exploring authentic material. As language educators, we strive to encourage meaningful and authentic communication, which often means utilizing authentic materials. The language lab allows for use of authentic materials in a structured environment, in which the instructor can easily send out or direct students to particular authentic online resources. Since the instructor can guide students’ work by monitoring their computer screens, offering quick oral feedback, or sharing the instructor screen with students, instructors can help students to develop strategies for interacting effectively with authentic texts. (Of course, students can also access most resources on their own devices these days! As an instructor, you might want to experiment with conducting activities using both the bring-your-own-device and language lab setups, to evaluate the opportunities provided by both options).


Do you utilize a language lab? How does it support your teaching and your students’ engagement in active, meaningful learning?
The UVA Language Lab is a 24-seat facility utilized by UVA’s world language programs,  Check our website to learn more about our Language Lab, part of the UVA Language Commons. If you’re a UVA language instructor looking for ideas on how to use the Lab in your teaching, join a Language Lab user group meeting or attend a demo. 

Studying a Language Independently: How to set and stick to learning goals

“How long does it take to become fluent?”

Language instructors, college language majors, and bilinguals everywhere often hear variations of this question. The underlying assumptions of the question are, of course, that A) there is an agreed-upon end point to language learning known as “fluency” and B) there is a path, well-trodden and sign-posted, to reaching that point.

Fluency is itself a nebulous construct–one that individual language users might variously define as comfort in using a language, ease, precision, correctness, a ‘native-like’ accent, excellent reading skills, or ‘the ability to think’ in another language. The path toward fluency is just as varied; each language learner’s experience is a unique jumble of stops and starts, progress, missteps, adventures in grammar land, opportunities taken and squandered.

For many learners, the ephemeral goal of ‘fluency’ can make learning more difficult, by setting us up for ‘failure’ to reach it. A 2015 Guardian article by Helen Parkinson titled “Face it: you probably won’t become fluent on your year abroad” highlights the gap between learner expectations and reality during an educational experience abroad. For those brave souls engaging in independent language study, without a textbook or instructor, the goal of ‘fluency’ can seem especially difficult to reach.

Independent Language Learning: a special goal-setting challenge

Whether you’re preparing for a new job abroad, or trying to understand the Nollywood films you’ve gotten addicted to, it’s admirable and exciting to want to develop new language skills. You can start by establishing some reasonable goals. For those studying a language independently (sometimes referred to as “self-directed” or “self-access” learning), it can be especially challenging to establish, and then meet, language learning goals.

Thankfully, we are not wholly without guidance in setting individual learning goals.  One widely-utilized resource is the ACTFL proficiency guidelines, which provide “a description of what individuals can do with language in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading in real-world situations in a spontaneous and non-rehearsed context.” The ACTFL proficiency guidelines might feel inaccessible to beginning language learners, though–after all, the guidelines are meant to be interpreted by the language teaching community, not necessarily by learners. Ideally, they would be interpreted and scaffolded by a trained tutor, but such scaffolding is not always available to independent learners.

Tips for setting, and sticking to, reasonable language learning goals.

So, how can independent learners approach the nebulous task of setting, and following through on, attainable language learning goals? Here are a few tips to get started.

Get a sense of what ‘beginner’ and ‘novice’ language ability really looks like (ie, what you CAN DO as a novice learner).

The NCSSFL-ACTFL ‘can-do’ statements can help learners to set and monitor their learning goals, by describing what language users at each proficiency level are able to accomplish (and under what conditions). The can-do statements are written for language teachers, but they’re pretty general and fairly accessible to non-experts. Not all of the statements written for a particular level will apply to you, but you can select some tasks that do.

On a related note, focus on learning to do what you’ll actually do on a regular basis! Consider skipping the textbook’s lesson about booking a hotel room in your target language. A hotel in a tourist spot is very likely to have an English speaking staff (or website). Focus on tasks you will need to complete in the target language, or that you’ll be doing on a daily basis, such as introducing yourself to new people, asking and understanding info about prices or numbers, thanking people appropriately, etc).

Find your motivation.

Spend a minute writing down what it is that truly makes you interested in learning this language. Maybe you want to seem like less of an ‘ugly American’ while abroad. Maybe you’re hoping to have an easier time making small talk with new colleagues & their families. Maybe you just love all things Japanese, or maybe you want to be able to put a patient more at ease in your hospital. Write down your sources of motivation, and come back to them when you start to slip.

Be reasonable about your availability.

Forget the websites and programs telling you to master a language in 7 days or 40 hours. Focus on how much time you can devote to regular, active practice. Consider the time you DO have, and the tasks you want to accomplish, and see if you can devote daily, or near-daily, time to active speaking, reading, listening, and/or writing practice related to those tasks.

Are you learning a language for travel? Work on your English!

If you’re going abroad as a novice or intermediate-level learner, you’re likely to find yourself using English to engage in meaningful communication, at least from time to time. Sadly, a 2016 BBC article actually called native English speakers “the world’s worst communicators.”  If you’re a native speaker of English, there’s a good chance you need to work on modifying your English to be appropriate to non-native speakers, or speakers of other World Englishes. To prepare, try watching or reading English language news sources from overseas, to learn how English is utilized in the place you’ll be visiting.

Limit distractions.

We’re all living in a distracted world, and technology is not always our friend. Here’s Helen Parkinson again, on tech as a barrier to language learning on study abroad:

Technology is another factor that can prevent our total immersion into a foreign culture, because it gives us unlimited access to the English speaking world. After a day of French seminars, the lure of an evening spent binge-watching British TV or chatting in English on Facebook is often tempting.

By spending every night using anglophone social media, however, we’re missing out on amazing opportunities to consume our target language – such as going to a foreign cinema or theatre.

When you’re in the midst of your daily language study time, turn on your phone’s “do not disturb” feature, or close your email. Or, to make technology work for you, use social media connect to the culture and language you’re studying, by following famous people/groups/causes that post in that language. Is there a “humans of New York” page for Paris, perhaps?


Have you tried any of these tips? What else do you do, as a language learner, to set and stick to reasonable expectations for yourself?