We all know that the best way to learn a language is to talk to native speakers. That's why we are all here on this website, but sometimes, it's not possible to speak with natives; we don't live in our target language country, we don't have an Internet connection, we are sick of sitting at a computer for hours, we need to go for a run, we have to go to work, etc.


But we can keep on learning and absorbing language during the time that we aren't engaging with native speakers. Make sentences up in your head while walking to work. Write short stories, make friends with Google Translate. Here are some more ideas to help you continue to learn your target language when you're alone.


Put it in context


The best thing you can do for your language learning is to put it in context--make it natural. Step away from the computer (unless you are using italki to speak to native speakers), and use your language in the real world, even if that world doesn't speak your target language.


For example, if you have to write an email for work, after you've written it, sit down and try and write it in your target language. You'll be using language in a way that is natural to you, writing about the kinds of things you would normally write about. The same goes for your reading or listening. Read and listen to things you are interested in already. In this way, your attention is already caught. If you like cycling, for instance, search for cycling material in your target language.


Flash cards


Memorizing new vocabulary is hard. It doesn't seem to matter how often you look at those flash cards; the new words just don't stick! Flash cards can be useful--you can spend a lot of effort trying to memorize a lot of words, but don't actually seem to retain much. Many language experts suggest that learning a language subconsciously is a better way to learn. It is, after all, how babies learn.


Focusing on your learning could actually slow the process down. Staring furiously at flash cards trying to absorb the information is hard work. How about giving yourself the space to absorb the new language in a more natural, even subconscious way?


Use Post-it notes to put your new vocabulary into context (this is a great one for beginners), and stick them to the actual object you are trying to remember. Then it really starts to take hold. This is great for learning household items. Use a dictionary to translate from your language into your target language. Write it down on a Post-it note (sometimes, a scrap of paper with sticky tape works better) and stick it onto the object you need to learn. Stick it onto the bed, door, wall, fridge, table, etc. if you can, stick them onto objects at your workplace, too.


As you walk through your home, the note will catch your eye and it will trigger your memory because it puts the learning of those words into a more subconscious natural state. Every time your eye glances over the Post-it note, the word will lodge a bit further into your brain. You aren't forcing yourself to remember the words, and as most of us know, forcing ourselves to learn something doesn't result in much, and definitely isn't fun.


Learning new words in isolation gives you nothing to make associations with. If we can associate a new word with its surrounding language, it will mean more to us, making it more familiar and it will stick that much easier. When writing flashcards, always write an example of when or how to use the word on the back of the card. Don't memorize the definition of the word or the word by itself. Instead, memorize the use of the word. For example:


New word: kick


  1. Definition: to strike with the foot or feet:
  2. Usage: “He kicked the ball,” “She kicked her brother”
  3. Write “kick” on one side and the usage on the other. Adding a photo of someone kicking a ball will help or even better, draw a picture in your mind!



Get tactile - Don't be afraid to draw!


The very process of physically making marks with a pen on paper helps to access your right brain, which is what enables us to make memories and to focus. You don't have to be good at drawing to make a useful illustration that will help you remember. All you need is a stick figure performing the action, or a simple drawing of the object.


Remember playing Pictionary? Try drawing a more difficult concept as you would have done in a Pictionary game. Try to make it as easy as possible for someone else to guess what it is.


The process of drawing your word or phrase will help keep it in your head. Draw new words and visualize them, using your drawings. If you are learning a language with a different alphabet, draw the characters or letters in the sand while you are on holiday or in your kid's sandbox, whatever works!


If we open up more of our senses to our language learning and involve touch, as well as sight and sound, we embed the information into our brains in different ways at the same time, thus making it easier to retain. Why do we learn language faster when we are immersed in the culture? Because all our senses are engaged! So when we don't have the culture to immerse ourselves in, we can still try to engage our other senses.


Hand-write a short text or story based on your Post-it notes


Storytelling can benefit language learning. After all, that's how our ancient ancestors learned and passed on their language and culture through stories round the campfire. Make stories or short texts out of your new language. It helps put it in context, and as we know, context makes it stick.


Here's how: Photograph everyday scenes around your home or on your way to work, print them out and write the Post-it note on them. Write about what you see in your photos. For example, if you take a photo from your bedroom window, you could write: From my bedroom window, I can see cars on the road, trees and houses, people in the distance and beyond them, mountains and sky.”


To raise the level, add descriptive words to your existing text. For example: “From my bedroom window, I can see cars on the potholed road, trees still bare in the fresh spring breeze waving their branches, houses trickling thin plumes of smoke from their chimneys, two people in the distance chatting about something funny, and beyond them, snowy mountains and a clear blue sky.”


Talk to yourself (in your head)


After you've had a conversation with someone, ask yourself how you would have said it in your target language. Or just before you are about to speak with someone, ask yourself how you might say it in your target language. This way, you are thinking about speaking in a way natural to you about subjects you are familiar with and likely to want to talk about in your target language. Then go to Google Translate--or preferably italki, as Google Translate does vocabulary well, but not so well with grammar. Write down what you would have said, and ask people and/or Google to translate it to see how close you were.


One thing to note with Google Translate is it's great to use it like a dictionary, but remember that its grammar and phrase recognition isn't perfect yet, so italki is still a better way to find out how close you were.


Quality, not quantity


If you were using Anki or a similar flash card app, you might spend all day learning 20 words and only remember one, but if you choose only one word to start with and practice using it in context, you've not only remembered a word but you've practiced the surrounding vocabulary associated with that word.


Try to find as many ways as you can in one day to use the word, even if you are having conversations in your head. For example: Take the word busy. As you go about your day, use the word busy in context. When you are cooking, say to yourself, “I'm too busy to cook, I should get take-out.” Or when you go grocery shopping, you could say to yourself, “This store is really busy, I'm going to come back later.”


If you don't know the target language, just drop the new word into your native language. This will help you remember the word in context. It's not perfect, but it's better than just learning a list of words that have no associations. For example, learning the French word for busy when you don't know what the surrounding language is, you could just say, “I'm too occupé to cook.” You are learning the word in context; the rest of the language will come.


Keep it simple


Language learning can get complicated pretty quickly, especially if you are focusing on language grammar rather than language production. I always encourage my students to speak as much as they can and not fear mistakes. If your grammar is wrong but I understand you, then we have communicated effectively and that is the main thing.


Studying grammar is a big turnoff for some people. Native English speakers especially shy away from language learning due to their bad experience with boring grammar drills at school. Language learners from other countries seem to do so much better because they have learned English not only through school but also through watching their favorite movies and listening to music in English.


There are hundreds of apps and websites that can make your language learning easier and fun. Some of them are quite in depth--you have to sign up, be involved in the community, etc. So try a website that offers only one service. The following great websites are a lot of fun, and can help with memorizing your vocabulary.


  • Babadum lets you guess or test your vocabulary knowledge. It also gives you great ideas for flash cards, and you can draw your own flash cards based on the drawings you see on the website. You can also test yourself in different ways, using pictures or just words to make it harder. Although memorizing lists of words is not the best way to retain the language, what Babadum does do is allow you to see patterns in words and their relation to your own language. You'll find yourself knowing the answer without really knowing why, then you'll start to realize that there's a lot in your own language that can give you clues about your target language. However, this is only true of languages that use the same alphabet, or are all Latin languages, for example.
  • Vidtionary is a great resource for creating a concept/visualization around your new word. If you can memorize the word via concept or visualization it will help it stick in your head. Here's how it works: click on a word and watch the visual definition of that word, memorize the visual definition along with the word. For example, the word reflection shows images of clouds reflecting in the glass walls of buildings, the sun reflecting on the water, etc. Think about these images in your head when you are thinking about your new word.
  • The Lyrics Training website lets you choose your language and then listen to music in that language. This is a great way to subconsciously absorb the language as you work, or work out, or whatever else it is you are doing that means you can't focus on your language learning.
  • I'm sure we've all been on YouTube searching for movies and video clips in our target language, but here's a tip: if the movie has closed captioning, turn it on. Listening to and reading your target language at the same time can be helpful, and it's a lot more productive than listening in your target language and reading subtitles in your native language. If you are reading subtitles in your native language, you'll block out the target language conversation while you concentrate on your own language. If you listen and read in your target language, your brain will be using two skills to help you understand, so you'll get it quicker.


And so there we have it--seven tips to help you learn alone. Some might work better for others. Try them all out, and see which ones work best for you. And don't forget your brain is always open, soaking up new things, even when you aren't focusing. Sometimes the best time to learn is when we're relaxed and not trying too hard!


Image Sources


Hero image by danisabella (CC BY 2.0)