Unconventional ways to learn a language if you’re stuck at home and on a budget

Posted on October 26, 2020

Even with the motivation to learn, the barriers to acquiring another language can seriously hinder progress. It can be time-consuming and expensive without adults slowly teaching vocabulary in a high-pitched voice because they think you’re a cute baby. So, since we’re no longer babies, here are a few ways to learn a language on a budget and have a little fun along the way.

1. Become a baby

The best way to pick up a new language is by doing it in almost exactly the same way you learned the first one. If you’re just starting out, observe all the time. Listen as much as you can to things in that language and make it as easy as possible to see and hear the same vocabulary in your day-to-day life. Without repetition, most people forget within an hour half of the information they learn.Footnote 1 And, if not reinforced, the material they retain eventually fades from the short-term memory instead of lodging itself in the long-term memory.Footnote 2

2. Become a chill baby

Then speak, but only when you’re ready. Babies don’t feel pressured to speak, so neither should you. One of the biggest barriers to learning is anxiety, because when students focus on their concerns, little room is left to concentrate on the material. This is especially true when it comes to language learning, because so much of the content is used in a social performance setting. When you eventually do feel confident enough to speak, remember that, like babies, you’ll say “goo-goo” and “ga-ga” a lot before you perfect a language. Making mistakes is important; that means you’re learning. But there’s no need to rush it.

3. Use your home

Get lots of sticky notes and start labelling things in your house in the language you want to learn. The best part about this strategy is that you see the labels every day, and that repetition, along with object association, will help solidify the vocabulary in your brain. Repetition is important, but so is placing labels around your house, because it evokes another memorization strategy. Elaborative encoding is a mnemonic process that stores new information with pre-existing information to make the memory even stronger. So since you’re familiar with your home, adding "une porte" to the door will increase your odds of retaining that new term.

4. Enter the old book palace

Think of any book you’ve already read in your native language. Buy it in the language you want to learn, and as you’re reading, skip one chapter ahead and look up the new vocabulary. When you read the next chapter, you’ll crystallize the new information with an old story. The memory palace technique is a memorization method used by record-holding memory champions. The practice involves placing to-be-memorized items in a spatially familiar area. By combining a familiar, interesting story with a new language, we can retain the information longer by building upon already existing memories.

5. Change your phone settings

Switch your phone’s primary language to the one you want to learn. This will make it difficult if you want to use a map, but there’s no better teacher than necessity. When we have to learn something new, we’re pushed beyond our comfort zone. Plus, how often are you on your phone? This method can add several hours a week to your language exposure. Maybe just learn the basic directions in that language before making the change. In his article on HuffPost, Zack Simon outlines many other ways in which your phone can help you learn a new language.

6. Play video games

This is the trifecta of language learning, because you see the context, hear the language and read the language. One of the most effective processes for memorizing is called episodic memory formation. This process cements ideas and objects to a single place and time by developing associations between stimuli.Footnote 3 Most video games work for this method, but those based in a non-fiction world are especially good, because there is more exposure to useful vocabulary.

7. Read comic books

Don’t understand full novels in your target language yet? No problem! Take your pick of any genre, because comic books have them all, for both adults and kids. These books have drawings to further explain the context if you don’t understand a word or phrase. Humans learn from stories; at least, we have for over 20,000 years. Because we’re social beings, stories have the power to draw us in and keep us engaged. An obstacle to language learning can be loss of interest, especially when we acquire knowledge through drills and repetition. But with comic books, we can enjoy learning through an adventurous tale and simultaneously increase motivation and productivity.

8. Maximize your bathroom time

Let’s say you go to the bathroom twice a day for five minutes. Over the course of a week, that’s 70 minutes you could have also spent learning a language. This is such a good opportunity to review new vocabulary words and grammar rules. This method, called spaced learning, enhances episodic memory through repetition over time. Rather than learning something all at once, reinforcing a memory over time can enhance memory retrieval.Footnote 4

The bathroom method can work with something as simple as a word-of-the-day technique. All you need is a blank piece of paper, a pen, and a small hand dictionary. Every time you’ve “got to go,” write a new word from the dictionary on the piece of paper. You can also put up on the wall the conjugations of the most common verbs or a number list with the pronunciation beside each number. Better yet, do both. You can post whatever you need or want to learn, and adapt it to your language level. You’ll be surprised how well this method works.

Progressing in another language doesn’t always have to break the bank or take a huge chunk of time out of your day. Sometimes all we really need is to go back to the basics.

Do you have any tips for learning a language on the cheap from home? If so, let me know in the comments.


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Courtney Anderson

Courtney Anderson

Courtney Anderson

Courtney was born and raised in Montana and now lives in southern France, where she is forever working on her French. She graduated with a journalism degree with minors in international development and Latin American studies from the University of Montana. She is a journalist and an English teacher with a passion for the outdoors.




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Submitted by Galina on November 19, 2020, at 15:44

Watch movies and series or videos in your target language with subtitles in your first language or vice versa. Write in your target language if you are intimidated to talk. Not only listen to songs in your target language but also check the lyrics, translate them and then learn how to sing your favourite songs as if you were learning a poem by heart. Associate learning your target language with positive emotions, funny situations and anything that helps you remember. In order to immerse yourself even more in the culture associated with your target language, find some recipes in that language and try to prepare them. Use of the dictionary is highly encouraged for even tastier results. :)