Language Skills: how we can learn from the world around us

Turning accidental language learning into fun practice

Like language skills, all subjects come with practical applications in the ‘real world’. Classic examples include mental maths being handy when calculating the expected cost of supermarket purchases. Whilst having a good knowledge of written English and grammar helps you to appear professional.

This is even more evident in language learning; a subject designed for its practical applications. Languages have fantastic applications in the outside world as we can learn from our surroundings without even realising it.

Taking advantage of multiculturalism

In the United Kingdom, for example, we are surrounded by multiculturalism. There are a host of foreign cuisines in our restaurants and takeaways, plus a great variety of music genres and a whole range of recipes, films and series.  All this can help us to understand different languages.

Using Labelling

Even in supermarkets, we have a whole range of products emanating from all around the world. But how is buying ham from the Italian meats section in Tesco helping me to learn languages you ask?  Well, more than likely you have selected an item labelled ‘prosciutto di Parma’ or something to that avail, from the aisle labelled ‘antipasti’. These words may have become commonplace in our tongue. However, they are in fact loan words or ‘calques’ from other languages.

If you were to travel to Italy, sit down at a restaurant and study the Italian menu. The knowledge that you subconsciously picked up from your weekly supermarket sweep will help you to recognise that the ‘antipasti’ section of the menu refers to starter-type foods. It also allows you to understand that ‘prosciutto’ refers to cured ham, and that ‘di Parma’ suggests its origin.

Improving language skills for students

We are surrounded by little snippets of foreign languages daily. This can become the most fun and beneficial way of improving language skills. Listening to Luis Fonsi and Justin Beiber’s ‘Despacito’, or to Shakira singing about her truthful hips can be a fantastic accompaniment to language studies at both school and university. ‘Mi casa, su casa’ – everybody sings along to this line and to a language student, they have just seen an example of personal pronouns and the use of the formal voice.

It’s amazing how things like this suddenly come back to you in an exam situation. I remember during my A-level Spanish listening exam, I gained an extra mark from being able to recognise that the word ‘muslos’ meant ‘thighs’. That was all thanks to a Pitbull song (I don’t need to go into more detail with that example I’m sure!).

Related: Discovering Technology for Language Learning

Language skills we can pick up naturally

These weird and wonderful little ways of picking up bits and pieces of foreign languages often pass by unnoticed.  It is no coincidence that many other nationalities, such as the Spanish, on the whole have a better command of English than we do over another foreign language.  They are constantly surrounded by English songs on the radio, quotes in English on clothing, gifts, marketing etc..  The correlation between the omnipresence of this foreign tongue and their ability to understand and communicate in that language is evidently positive.

Fun and Interactive

What I love about this way of learning is that not only is it a fun and interactive way of picking up vocabulary, but it is also very practical. It teaches day–to–day phrases and words, colloquialisms and general chit chat that academic learning specifications often overlook in favour of the more ‘serious’ topics and complex, formal grammar. In this way, it complements academic language learning perfectly. It can also be a great way of getting family and friends involved in the process.

So this week, why not attempt to cook dinner using a recipe written in Italian (perhaps keep the pizza delivery number at hand just in case!). Or have a good read of that Argentinian wine label. Play some reggaeton music whilst you’re in the car and watch a French drama with the subtitles on. You’d be surprised at how helpful this could be.

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