Keeping language learning going when school is out!

Girl Learning Language Outside

This week schools in Alberta have closed to minimize community spread of the COVID 19 virus. These are not the first worldwide to close, nor likely the last. However, since Alberta is home to very vibrant school language programs , it occurred to me that some parents and older students may be wondering how to keep their language skills up when their French Immersion, Bilingual Programs, or other second language program has closed down. Teachers will be providing support online for core subjects, but the minimum number of hours they program for may still leave some people searching for tips to keep up listening, speaking, reading and writing in German, Spanish, Mandarin, Ukrainian, Arabic, Punjabi, Italian, or another second language programs they are studying in. The key is to follow your interests and practice authentic language in context. The tips below are written to the person wanting to practice, but for parents, consider each instruction to have the phrase “or your child” tacked on.

Language Apps

Language apps do not replace a teacher, but they are always advancing. I use them to learn the basics of a new language or strengthen the ones I already know. If you already know the language, you can start with a placement test. If not, start from the beginning. If you get bored, move up a level; if you are struggling, repeat a level. I have experience with Duolingo and Memrise, but there are others you can find by searching online and most have a free version. Duolingo has recently added stories, which are a real hit, but if you are studying more than one language, you will recognize the story! Memrise has a rapid practice function where you work against the clock. Some days I like it, but other times it is too stressful. Most of these apps have Leaderboards (for the competitive) and Friend lists (so you can compare with and encourage others). The important take-away is to set yourself a regular, if not daily goal, and tailor the experience to your needs.

Video streaming

With the many affordable online streaming apps, often feeding directly to our TVs, films and TV shows in other languages are at our fingertips. More and more allow you to search by language or “international”. Once you have found something to watch, got to the settings to see if you can change the language or the subtitles. You may also be able to do this with streaming services from TV stations from other countries. I recommend subtitles in the same language as is on screen. That way your listening is reinforced by reading the words in the second language, rather than blocked out because you are busy reading English. This especially helps when the speech is in dialect, too fast for your ear, or you have hearing challenges. These shows can be a great way to add to your knowledge of the language and culture in context. I learned how to say “not until after the autopsy” from my favourite German police procedural show. Perhaps you weren’t looking for that phrase, but you get my point: follow your interests!

YouTube channels

Speaking of following your interest, do you have a favourite hobby or want to learn about the country where the language you are learning is spoken? YouTube is an excellent source of such videos. My son lives in Japan so my husband and I frequently watch videos about different places we may visit the next time we are able to go. I learned about the specialty foods in Hokkaido before a work trip there and was able to know what the “must try” foods were. Ever hear of Ghengis Khan – the food, not the warrior? Search YouTube and you will see one of the meals I had a chance to try.

E-books and audio books

Whether from the library, an author’s website, or Storybooks Canada related sites (Global Storybooks Portal etc.), there are many e-books and audio books in other languages available online. Some even read to you!


While you are checking online for music videos for sing-a-longs or movement breaks (to get the wiggles out), check out Lisa Anderson’s blog Speech Thru Song. Lisa is a musician, composer, and singer as well as a French and Spanish as a Second Language Teacher. She has compiled an amazing list of resources and information about how music can help you learn a second language.

Connect with a Speaker of the Target Language

Do you know someone who speaks the language you are learning? Maybe it is a relative or elderly acquaintance who is feeling isolated and lonely. Write them a letter in their language and send it by email or snail mail. Alternatively, you could use the phone or Skype/Facetime to talk to them. If, however, the timing isn’t right, record an audio message and send it to them. They would be thrilled!

This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully you are now inspired to keep up your or your children’s languages while schools are closed. Even once our schools reopen from the COVID 19 precautions, there is always summer break to overcome!

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