Language Learning and Pleasure


Language Learning and Pleasure

Welcome to the Five Week Linguist show. If you want to learn a language or you teach a language, you’ve come to the right place. Join Janina each week for tips, resources, and advice for making engaging language learning happen anytime, anywhere.

Welcome to the Five Week Linguist show. I wanted to talk today about play pleasure in learning a new language. These are so important. So early in my career, I realized how essential fun is. It was definitely seen as something counter-intuitive. Learning isn’t fun. And it isn’t always fun. And it can’t always be fun. It shouldn’t always be fun, but I saw my role in teaching languages at school as something really… That most people just really didn’t want to sign up and do. I mean, the statistics will back me up on that. I think they would be kind of depressing if I researched them. They’re certainly easy to find, but the number of people in the United States who actually speak another language based on what they did at school, I want to say, it’s something like 1%. That’s according to the Atlantic, an article I read. I’m sure there’s more statistics out there. I want to say that the vast majority of people study languages for very limited periods of time and for very limited purposes, generally speaking, in high school for some kind of graduation requirement. And oftentimes, the study beyond that is to fulfill a college or university entrance requirement, or when they get to university to do more languages there.

And I realized the fun early on was really essential. And to be very honest with you, it was essential for me to get through the day. Here I had all of this stuff to teach and I had to find a fun way to do it that wasn’t going to get kids mentally exhausted and that I was going to enjoy my day. Every single day, I’m proven that it’s right, that the gains, the fun, the engagement work. And I wanted to dig a little bit deeper into the research behind that.

Language Learning and Pleasure: Dopamine

A few years ago, I started really thinking about neuroscience and, specifically, about dopamine. So, of course, our brains… That’s released when we get pleasure, our pleasure receptors. All of you that are neuroscientists out there, please forgive me for what I get wrong here. I’m certainly not a scientist and you’ll know more than I do, but I think that was my takeaway as a layperson. We have a pleasurable activity and we get something out of it.

So, I started really thinking about that with Duolingo. So, about five years ago, I think Duolingo’s been around longer than five years, but about five years ago it really caught my attention. More and more and more, I would hear people talk about their experiences with using it. And I say Duolingo, and I think there’s many other great programs out there that do the same thing, but essentially it’s that gamification piece, right? It’s that really getting into something and really enjoying it. I think that Duolingo used to count fluency in terms of percentages, which that’s another story. I don’t think they do that anymore. It’s not accurate. It doesn’t show an accurate reflection of what people do. It’s really about the amount of time and the amount of exercises that you’ve done accurately. They’ve made a lot of evolutions, but bottom line is that it’s giving you a reward, right? You’re investing your time in something, and you’re getting a reward back. You’re seeing your quote unquote fluency or percentages or whatever it is they’re counting. These numbers are going up.

So, other programs do similar things. As I said, I really love the Flash Academy. That is fun. It’s got tons of games that you play to learn languages. And I have another one that I really love for beginners and it’s called uTalk. I think the app is called uTalk and that it may come in a different software package called EuroTalk some places and instant immersion. It’s really user friendly and F-U-N. But that same concept of just getting in there, picking up something for half an hour a day when you’re beginning and really enjoying yourself is a perfectly valid way to learn.

It also has gotten me thinking over the years about play. And some of this has been, I think, to really validate what I knew, what I saw the results of what I was doing in my classroom and for myself as an independent language learner, get results. I found that every bit of engagement and anywhere that I could incorporate fun into my learning, be it through games, whether they’re competitive or not, be it through activities, be it through movement, be it through music, be it through food, be it through movies and television and drama and plays and reader’s theater and high interest content, be it through technology, be it through board games, every single way that I could marry a learning objective or deliver a learning objective through that, the more success I saw my students have. And the more that I did for myself, the more success I found myself having. For example, reading graphic novels in French, reading magazines in French that are simple and easy.

So, I used to, when I was learning French, I read lots and lots of supermarket quizzes. At the till, they’re lots of magazines, of course, while you’re waiting, that you pick up that’s uncommon… Or rather common, rather, all over many places in the world and supermarkets that while you’re waiting, you can pick up a magazine and perhaps you’ll be tempted to buy it. They tend to be things recipes, things like that. I would buy magazines and I would soak them up. They have a lot of quiz magazines in French. What kind of parent are you? What kind of friend are you? Et cetera. Not anything to take too seriously, but they were great learning activities for me. Great input that I genuinely enjoy putting my feet up and reading.

In digging deeper, I think about 10 years ago, I went to an ACTFL conference, that’s the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages, where I was speaking. I went to one of the most packed sessions. I think it was the first one that I saw. And it was all about Google’s 20%. The teacher was a Spanish teacher. And I want to say she worked in an international school. She talked about how she had adapted what she understood to be Google’s policy in giving their employees 20% play time.

Now, I don’t really know what that looks like in reality. I would imagine that they’re certainly going to consider productivity, but that playtime was essentially for people to be working on their own projects. So, even though it’s probably not really playtime by the real definition of play, I think it’s really valuable because it encourages people to invest time in things that are interesting. And as I understand it, a lot of the Google apps that we use have come out of that. I’m certainly grateful for them. They’ve done nothing but serve me. I’ve loved the Cloud documents. Throughout the entire coronavirus pandemic, a lot of kids from all over the world, that’s how they were learning. They were meeting their teachers on Google. So, whether or not they came from that Google play, I think the idea of giving people time to work on things they’re really passionate about is important and can be really valuable.

And in showing people how they can, in my case, how can you learn a language and do something you really enjoy at the same time? I know a lot of teachers use that 20% time for free voluntary reading. A lot of language teachers. So, Stephen Krashen, amazing SLA, second language acquisition researcher, has long promoted the pleasure reading cart so that language teachers should have a reading cart, shelf, whatever, Kindle, whatever that looks like in their classroom articles and people can read. They should have a portion of their class time spent just reading for pleasure. I think it’s really important and really great way to learn languages.

Language Learning and Pleasure: Play

I also got thinking about the National Institute for Play. So, I watched a TED talk by Dr. Stuart Brown. He founded this National Institute for Play. So, he found that there wasn’t a whole lot of research on play. Of course, it’s a very difficult area to research. But one thing he does say is that play should have really no other purpose than enjoyment. And I know that doesn’t necessarily fit into the models that we have for traditional education, right? We know that we have to sort of dedicate some time, some effort, some space into getting over the rough spots and maybe doing things that we don’t always necessarily want to do. But I think a really good takeaway for independent language learners is to really explore what they like and incorporate it into whatever language learning routine they might have. And I want to share a few that you can adapt to any level and any language.

You can travel. You can make friends so easy now on apps like Pillow Talk. I think there’s a few other out there. I think there’s sites like Busuu that allow people to do language exchange. You can buy target language cookbooks and cook and taste all the different kinds of foods. And I think that there are lots of tutorials of recipes in target languages on YouTube. That’s been one of my very favorite discoveries. Just chatting.

One of my uncles is the most amazing man. He has two degrees from Harvard, Harvard undergraduate and Harvard law. And he has one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever met. And at the same time, he has the kindest heart in the world. So, he can really connect with humans, just people. He can really empathize with them. And he told me when I was on my struggle to really want to be at that native Spanish level, he said, “You know what? At the end of the day, you should just get a beer and go talk to people.” That’s it. He speaks Spanish. He practiced law for many years in Venezuela, high level international law. And he really values education. And he said, “It’s really just about getting out there and talking to people and being comfortable. And of course that’s not going to work in a classroom, but you get the idea. Go talk to people, chat with people.”

Language Learning and Pleasure: Dating and Friends

Dating. I think this can, obviously, be a really difficult one. I’m curious about what apps are out there. I love the show 90 Day Fiance. I absolutely love it. I love all the different series. I’ve been obsessed since it came out in 2014. I follow all the couples. And a lot of them will say we met on an app. Some of them will be really specific. A friend of a friend on Facebook, that kind of thing. Obviously, you have to be careful about people you don’t know, but I think there’s lots of people out there who are doing fun, international dating. And while it may not be the most practical thing for life, it certainly will accelerate your progress and it will give you a lot of motivation. So, if the person that you like and you want to get to know better, or that you love, happens to speak another language, that can be a really quick route. And it’s fun, too. It’s great to spend time with someone you really like.

Language Learning and Pleasure: Games

Games. We talked about gamification. And I think if you’re in a group, it’s really fun to play games like charades or Pictionary or Scrabble in the target language.

Films, television shows and plays. The internet is the ultimate language learning lab. Go on Amazon Prime. Watch [Yabla 00:15:17]. that’s specially made for language learners. Netflix. Get the extension called Netflix for language learners. There’s so much content out there in I don’t even know how many languages. Netflix has done a really good job of making new content for their audiences in different countries.

Language Learning and Pleasure: Apps

Talking online. So, I’m doing five weeks of Italian lessons on Italki. The price was so reasonable and the teachers are great. It’s just an half an hour of conversation every day, or five days a week, rather, for five weeks. And I am going to post some check-ins on my progress there. So, you can see how that works.

Back to those computer games we talked about. The apps. So, things like Drops, Flash Academy, Duolingo or Memorize, uTalk, they’re great fun.

Language Learning and Pleasure at the Table

Parties. I think this is a really fun idea if you’ve got groups of people. I do a lot of this in my class, but of course it looks different when you organize it for adults. You have license to kind of do this however you want. Obviously, I have a lot of parameters. I’m working with young people and it’s in my class. It’s not really a party necessarily, but really more about talking and conversation. We always bring food so people talk. So, it’s a simulation of an activity of people meeting for the first time or getting to know each other a little bit better and practicing language at the same time. But if you’re an adult, you have so much license to do this. You could do a wine tasting. You can have a dinner club where everybody gets together and brings a dish from your target language country. Everybody sits around and talks. How fun is that? You could host that at a restaurant even. That’s one idea, or theme parties.

So, back to my class, I tend to do a lot of themed parties. And I say parties and those are in quotes because they’re not really parties, they were class activities, but everyone might pick a different famous person from your target language culture. And you have to research that person. You have to be able to answer everything about them. So, how old they are. Let’s say it’s French. You could pick someone who really fascinates you from the French culture. Maybe Sarcosy or Marie Antoinette. I mean, it could be anybody who’s a native French speaker. You research that person and you come dressed up as that person and you speak French the whole night. It’s really fun and it’s a great way to learn languages.

Language Learning and Pleasure Reading

Reading. I can’t tell you how valuable reading is for learning languages. I talk about Dr. Stephen Krashen a lot because his contributions to communicating the research on how people learn languages has been so helpful. It’s concise. It’s easy to understand, and it’s practical and easy to implement. The guy knows what he’s talking about. And he did one study, among the many he’s done, about hyper polyglots. And if you know Steve Kaufman from The Linguist, amazing guy, former diplomat from Canada, and a Hungarian. I want to say some civil or government worker or professor. I’m not really sure, but regardless, this person lived in Budapest for their entire life. They did all of their pleasure reading. They both really focused on input, but the hyper polyglot who spoke maybe 20 languages, and I’ll have to check that paper again to be sure, it’s all they did is their pleasure reading in other languages. They never lived outside of Hungary.

So, the takeaway there should be don’t ignore going on Italki or talking to people, language exchange, any of those things, but invest time in reading. Invest time in reading. Whether that means, in my case, I get summers to spend some time reading because I’m just too busy during the school year. I spend so much time reading things that have to do with my job that I don’t often want to sit down and read. I need to listen to audio books. That’s the only way I can consume that. I don’t have a lot of time to put my feet up, but audio books are valid too. But the takeaway needs to be read. It can be anything you like. It can be silly magazines, blogs, cookbooks, horoscopes, whatever interests you. There’s great tools to help you read. So, check out Readlang, that’s a browser, and it’ll really help you pick up new vocabulary from newspapers online or magazines.

Research any topic you’re interested in and read about it. That’s another great way to read and then learn something at the same time, which is really language immersion. Reading about history is something a lot of people are interested in. History, travel. You name it. You can read and find content in your target language.

I love word games, crossword puzzles, and word searches. And I linked a few there for you. They tend to be more geared towards beginners, but they’re there to download if you’d like to use a… I’ve got seven Spanish and seven French. And if you travel to target language countries, you can, of course, buy more localized ones, but feel free if you’re doing French or Spanish to download mine.

Listening to music. I think music is a great gateway into vocabulary, pronunciation, and culture. But remember, they’re written in a certain form. So, they’re more like poetry. They don’t always make sense. And they’ve got lots of symbolism, et cetera. With that said, the artists, the music, it gives you a great insight into what life is like now in your target language culture for different people and in the past. So, it’s a great tool. Try That’s especially for language learners.

Exercise classes. This is one of my very favorite tools to learn a language. YouTube is one of the largest search engines in the world, and there are exercise classes in different languages that are being posted online. So, yoga in French. And I have some blog posts about that. Some links to those. I love [foreign language 00:23:09] if you’re learning Spanish. You can even walk. That’s one of my… Not a proper language exercise class, but I like to use my Fitbit, put my tennis shoes on and walk and listen to books on Audible. But whatever you like to do for exercise, there’s material out there that’s probably for free

I wanted to talk also about just a couple of a fun little activities to do, whether that’s on your own or with a group, to really help you get language into your life, on top of the things that we talked about. I love, love, love, love money jar. So I’m really committed to having one space or one time in my life that I dedicate to languages. And for my Five Week Linguist, it’s not about completely mastering the language in five weeks, because that would be absurd, it’s about finding space in my life. And a lot of times, quite frankly, it’s on my commute or some small part of my life, but it’s that commitment to doing it longterm that realistically helps me stay engaged.

So, for example, I might do five weeks of reading. If it’s summertime and I’ve got more time, I get to read for pleasure. Sit outside and read and soak up language and grammar and vocabulary. I might spend five weeks abroad. So, for years I had a French partner and we would spend some portion of time in France during the summer when I wasn’t teaching. I might spend five weeks doing some intense grammar review. So, some of those rough spots are necessary. Or I might spend five weeks doing binge-watching, those tools that we talked about. Really committing to watching a few series and really soaking up some language.

So, whatever that time is, I like money jar. So, it’s exactly like it sounds. It’s a jar and you can organize it in a way that works for you. So, for example, every time that you stick to your goals, you put, I don’t know, 1,5 for every day you stick to your language routine. Or maybe if you’ve got a group, maybe you’ve got a group that you’re learning and you’re having your quote unquote parties or your dinner clubs, your language learning clubs, anytime people don’t speak a language, they put money in the money jar. But something that’s going to build up that’s realistic to stick to. Every week I do my language learning routine, I’ll put 10 bucks in there. Something. And then that can turn out to be a great reward for anything that you want. I like to use things like that for building up money to do the things I want to do. Right now I’m working towards studying in Italy next summer.

Night classes. I think they can be a great way to learn a language. I know a lot of organizations like the Goethe Institute, which does German, or Dante, which is Italian, or [foreign language 00:27:14] that does French. Instituto Cervantes. They have schools all over the world that offer night classes. The British council if you’re doing English, for example. You can go meet like minded people and learn a language at the same time. And so that money jar could add up to something like that. Or classes on Italki.

Well, I do hope that this episode gave you some, first and foremost, permission to have fun when you’re learning a language because if you don’t have fun and you don’t have variety, you will stop and you will never learn a language. You won’t get all the great benefits out of it. And that I’ve given you some really concrete ideas on how you can use play and pleasure and fun to build a longterm sustainable language learning plan. Until next time.

Thank you for listening to the Five Week Linguist show with Janina Klimas. Join us each week here and visit us at for more resources for learning and teaching languages.


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