Language Learning Productivity Games

Do you ever watch people playing poker and wonder how they manage to pull off that perfect poker face, leaving you to wonder if they’re in a position to negotiate, or if they have a hand full of 2’s?  Learning to speak a language should be like handling a poker face at its best; following your muscle memory and going with the flow of the activity, feeling the realness of it all and not having to think too hard or worry too much about it.

I’ve designed some games for you to start getting that feeling when learning your target language, making it feel a bit more effortless.  They’re designed around the concept of productivity techniques such as classical conditioning and memory palaces, and while I can’t take credit for that, I can tell you how to use this concept to integrate language-practice with your daily activities, so that it doesn’t feel like too much of a time commitment.

Here are some games you can play while:

    1.   Cooking dinner

Some people recommend covering your house with flashcards that label objects in the target language.  This can certainly help, but this game takes things one step further.  Instead of labelling, speak the foreign names of objects and ingredients aloud, each time you use an item while cooking a meal.  For those that are more advanced, attempt to say recipe directions in the target language i.e.  “use one spoonful”, “use 15 ounces,” etc.  Some recipe suggestions would be pasta salad, potato salad, grilled cheese, chicken with berries, fruit salad, sub sandwiches, cobb salad, spaghetti and meatballs, sushi, cheesecake, macaroni and cheese, pizza, and stir-fried ramen noodles.

Mini-recipe suggestion:  Homemade yakisoba

1–Boil a pack of ramen noodles as usual, but only pour in about half of the seasoning packet.

2–Meanwhile, stir fry some soy sauce, water and white wine with celery and salmon [or tofu].  Heat the resulting sauce so that it burns off and there are only a few drops of liquid left.

3–Take the heat off the stove, drain the ramen noodles and mix them with the stir fry in the pan.  Save the ramen broth and seasoning packet for future use.  Serve with chopsticks and a lemon wedge.

    2.   Walking somewhere or going for a jog

Ever heard of a memory palace?  The concept involves picturing your favorite house or building, then virtually “placing” each item on your to-memorize list in different rooms, so that you can better visualize what you need to remember.  It may be easier to remember the athlete’s magazine doing yoga by the fireplace and the omelettes breakdancing with the nerds on the breakfast counter, than “core exercises 101, eggbeaters, green peppers, white onion, shredded cheddar cheese, tofu squares and gluten-free bread”.  This game takes an adaptation of this technique–the next time you go for a run or walk around your neighborhood, practice [if only in your mind] certain categories of foreign words in certain parts of the path.  Develop a regular route and place the same categories in the same locations, so that it comes second nature.  For example, “block 1–pronouns.  The storefronts–food and beverage words.  The university medical campus–health words.  The construction zones–survival phrases.”  This can even condition you to think in the target language every time you pass a certain part of the neighborhood, even if you’re just passing through as part of an errand or in the middle of something else.

    3.   Doing the laundry

Many fun-loving people have seen laundry hampers as more of basketball-hoops rather than clothing-containers.  Use this to your advantage, and finally do your whites.  Do your laundry as usual, and when placing dried clothes back into the hampers, place the hampers at least 7 feet away from the dryer.  Toss each article of clothing into the hamper of your choice, saying aloud the color of the garment in your target language as you do so.  Each basket counts as two points, but they only count if you correctly name the corresponding foreign language word.  For a more advanced version, name the foreign word for the garment’s size, shape, or clothing type. Keep track of the points you get during each laundry session and track your progress over time.

Keep experimenting with these productivity games.  While they are no replacement for vigorous university-language courses, or other formal teaching methods, the ability to work their way seamlessly into your everyday activities makes these games ideal for getting at the personal core of language learning: living and truly feeling the language.

— Alaska Lam

Want more time saving tips and tricks? Follow Alaska on Twitter at @thebusypinata and check out her amazing new productivity website!

Tips and Tricks for Host-Family Living

You survive the eight (plus) hour plane ride, you give the customs officer your best smile and get your passport stamped, then you somehow find your way to your group/professor/team in a foreign airport; the logistics alone of a study abroad can be daunting to say the least. Add a host-family set-up to the mix and it’s downright terrifying. Not only are you practicing a language that you know very little of, but you’re trying to personalize and adapt to your new living conditions respectfully with your limited vocabulary. Factor in the aspect of actually getting along with your family and you can see that it’s a fragile set-up.

In spite of these challenges, the benefits have been proven time and time again; students of a foreign language learn best when immersed in conversation with native speakers. Thus, living with a host family (for any amount of time) is a huge advantage in learning a new language. As a student of both German and Swahili, I have had the privilege of living with two families – one in a suburban town in northern Bavaria (a region of Germany) called Bad Neustadt an der Saale, the other in a modest village in the Tanga region of Tanzania called Lushoto – to practice my language skills.

Considering how similar my German home was to my American home in suburban Michigan, I am going to focus on my home-stay in Lushoto, Tanzania. Living with my host-family there in East Africa was an experience which I think provided me the greatest linguistic improvement for such a short span of time, especially considering that I had only taken two years of Swahili prior to my visit, in comparison to five years of German before my home-stay in Bad Neustadt.

On the day I arrived at my host-home in Lushoto, I wrote the following: “We pulled into a narrow road, lined with street-vendors and small shops and then turned into a court-like opening where a gaggle of neighborhood children were playing soccer. As soon as the bus pulled up, the children noticed it was stuffed with “wazungu” (white people in Swahili), they came rushing to the bus in a frenzy… I cannot recall a time when I was so nervous or so out of my comfort zone as that moment, standing on the porch and saying goodbye to Mama (our professor), Alfred (our tour guide), and Esther (our Swahili teacher)…”

I consider myself an exceptionally outgoing person. Seldom do I hesitate to approach someone with a question, concern, or even a compliment, and I have often been described as “too talkative” and thus “distracting” throughout my schooling career. Even with these tendencies, stepping into my host-home in Lushoto for the first time rendered me speechless. That’s simply the effect of living in a host-home: you are automatically the guest, the “other” – the cultural specimen. Now you represent yourself, your university – and in your host-family’s eyes – your country. Everything is new from the toilets to the kitchen to the electricity (or lack thereof) and even the chickens clucking around in the backyard. It’s all new and you must navigate this new space with grace and gratitude. It’s a tall-order for the student, who is probably only 19 or 20 years old. So in order to make this experience just that much smoother, here are my tips, tricks and insights into how best to navigate a foreign host-home.

  1. They don’t expect you to be a genius – Especially as Americans who “typically” spend little time learning foreign languages, your host-family will not expect you to be giving a dissertation in their native language. In my experience, my family was thrilled when I could string together even the most basic of sentences, boiling down complex situations into generalizations such as: “Most people…”; “Typically…”; “I like…” etc. Even just throwing out vocabulary like “table,” “education” or “sibling” (or asking about such words) will impress your host family and give them hope that Americans do, in fact, take the time to learn foreign languages.
  2. Hook onto the essentials – There will be words and phrases that are crucial that you nail down. For example, knowing how to ask for directions, telling time, and asking where the bathroom is. After a few days living with my host family, I still hadn’t showered. One aspect of this issue was that I didn’t think I needed one yet; the other was that I didn’t know what the word for shower was. When my host mom asked if I wanted to shower later that day, I gave an enthusiastic “ndiyo” (yes) and made a mental note of the verb “to shower”: kuoga. As an added benefit, I have not since forgotten that word, as it was so crucial to my life in Tanzania.
  3. Charades go a long way – In the episode of communicating my need for a shower, my host mom illustrated the otherwise unknown verb, “kuoga,” with vigorous scrubbing and imaginary water streaming from the space above her. Her movements made the question clear – “Do you want to shower?” Taking a cue from my host mom, don’t be afraid to add a little jig or some hand-motions to your conversation – you might feel silly, but you’ll be better understood and maybe even become closer to your host-family on account of your tom-foolery.

All in all, living with a host family during your time abroad is a sure-fire way to get the most linguistic improvement out of your study abroad. 10/10 would recommend. “Asante, kwa herini!” Thank you, goodbye all!

— Britt Boyle

Starting a new language? Use it from day one!

Don’t be afraid to sound silly! Trying to speak a language is one of the most important hurdles to overcome!

Lost for Words

Fear is the main point that slows down the early stages of language learning for many a learner; a fear of actually using the language…

Lets talk about getting over this fear, and turning it into amazing progress! The secret? Speak from day one. It takes a little preparation, and isn’t easy, but overcoming that early fear will pay dividends in even a pretty short time.

When we start a language, most will be dreaming of confidently chatting with native speakers, weaving beautiful sentences with ease, without stopping to think in our first language. Yet despite the usual (and completely understandable!) main goal of using the language, nearly everyone tends to spend a good while flicking through a textbook instead.

That drag through the textbook  also tends to go on a bit longer than originally intended. Why? People are generally concerned of ‘reaching a certain level’ before they can talk.


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Tones: checking it’s right

Sounding like a native speaker can be one of the toughest but most rewarding hurdles to overcome. Here are some tips on using tonal inflections to get your point across!


Tones are a frustrating thing the first time round, and for most foreign language learners these days that frustration seems to come from learning Mandarin Chinese (until such a day as we see a huge boom in Yoruba, Thai, Vietnamese and Panjabi study).

Mandarin has, comparatively, a simple and regular tone system in which each syllable pronounced carries one of four tones or, in rare cases, carries no tone and is unstressed. The tones are well known to educated Chinese speakers too, who before entering university take an exam in which tone marks must be added to a text.

When imagining these tone contours, we say that our highest tone in speech is 5 and our lowest is 1. The first tone, flat and high, sees the tone stay at 5. The second tone, ascending, goes from 3 to 5. The third tone descends slightly then rises; we can see…

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Can I have the language of origin? Language Knowledge is Key to Spelling Bee Success

“Bouillabaisse”, “Scherenschnitte,” and “Rhodochrosite.”

All three of the words above can be found in nearly any English dictionary, but they probably don’t look familiar upon first glance. While words like these do not typically pop-up in normal conversations, they recently made an appearance on national television during finals of the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Spelling Bees are well-known throughout the United States as a platform for students, usually aged 9 to 14, to test their vocabulary knowledge by spelling words onstage in front of a large audience. These young competitors could encounter any word from the English language, but the biggest challenge is the uncertainty of which word they will face when they step-up to the microphone: will it be a common word, or something a little more intimidating, such as “pyrrhuloxia”?


Since there are over a million English words listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, it is very likely that students at an advanced spelling level are asked to spell words that they have never before seen or heard. If you’ve never seen the word before, how could you possibly know how to spell it?

Your first instinct might be to spell the word the same way that it sounds.This can be helpful at times, but there are many English words that are not spelled phonetically (take for example “gnome”, “tsunami”, or “psychology”).


During a Spelling Bee, competitors are allowed to ask a few questions about their word, such as its definition or how it would be used in a sentence, but the most insightful question of them all is the language of origin. It is very common for languages to adopt specific vocabulary from other languages, and English is no exception. By knowing the language that an English word originated from, spellers have a better chance of identifying special patterns from that language, especially if they have dedicated time to learning bits and pieces of foreign languages.

Learning German, for example, could be immensely helpful when faced with a word like “Gummihandschuh.” This word means rubber glove, but a literal German-English translation of this word is “Rubber-hand-shoe.” The German language is notorious for mashing numerous root words together to create one massive, compound word. By knowing the definition and recognizing the root words that make-up a compound word like this, a speller has a much higher chance of spelling a German word correctly.

Another helpful tidbit of knowledge comes with knowing which letters of the alphabet are exceptionally common in each language. Latin and Greek are the two most common languages of origin referenced during the spelling bees, but a very interesting distinction can be made between these languages in regard to the letter “k.” In a Latin-derived word,  you would rarely ever find a word that contains the letter “k.” This is very useful with a word like “hippocrepiform’, since it is much more likely that the /k/ sound is represented by the letter “c.” On the other hand, Greek-derived words are significantly more likely to utilize the letter“k,” which could make all the difference between spelling a word correctly or incorrectly.

Every word that composes the English language has a history behind it, and its spelling often reflects the characteristics of its original language. Whether you are a champion speller or just beginning to learn a new language, you may find your English spelling skills improving when you learn a new language.

–Emily D.

Hebrew learning app reviews

Anyone learning Hebrew out there?

Mr Multilingual

I’ve been trying to refresh my Hebrew. I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten quite a bit.

So, I thought why not try some apps? They’re free/cheap enough, most of the time. So, I searched and found two that I like. Here’s a quick review of each.

Hebrew Letters Numbers Free


No matter what language, numbers are always my weak point; so, I needed something to help me revise the Hebrew numbers. This app, made specifically for children, helps with learning and practising numbers 1 – 10. It also has a section each for the aleph-bet (Hebrew alphabet) and for colours.

Screenshot_2015-05-07-09-04-35 Screenshot_2015-05-07-09-09-05
The user hears the letter/number/colour pronounced and tries to click the right one.

Because it was made for (apparently young) children, though, there the corresponding written word for the vocabulary is left out. That would benefit me. But, at the same time, the encouraging exclamations of כל הכבוד…

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