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Trilingual Diaries: Unconventional Ways to Learn a Language From Home

by Errol De Jesus

This post is a part of a series called Trilingual Diaries, where I share my experience learning Spanish, keeping my Japanese sharp, and fostering a trilingual household. All opinions expressed are my own, and the aim of this series is to give other language learners an inside look at being a polyglot. Read on and get inspired! 

Even in times of self-imposed isolation, we can still become proficient in a language. I fooled myself into believing that my environment had a direct impact on whether or not I could speak a language. The key to learning a language is effort. Here are some ways to think outside the box when it comes to not just learning a language but learning a different culture as well. 

Bringing Culture Home 

Home made altar for Day of the Dead celebration
My son Chris with the altar that I built for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Last year in October, I wanted to make an altar for Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). What inspired me the most was seeing pictures of Dia de los Muertos being celebrated on social media. People uploaded tutorials on decorating sugar skulls and baking pan de los muertos (bread of the dead). When I saw those images, it was hard not to want to be a part of that. I didn’t want to just witness a culture—I wanted to be a part of the conversation.

My husband Javier wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. I remember him saying to not even bother because “we’re not in Mexico.” Still, I messaged my sister-in-law for some pictures of their ancestors, found some photos of my deceased loved ones, and made the altar out of some shoe boxes and a shawl. 

Home Is Where Immersion Begins   

Surrounding myself in languages makes me more inclined to speak them. I go out of my way to watch baraeti-bangumi (variety shows) in Japanese, listen to nursery rhymes in Spanish with my son Chris, and watch anime in Japanese with Spanish subtitles alongside my husband Javier. I also read bilingual books with my family.

Learning Spanish by reading to children
La Gran Festival de Los Olores (The Big Festival of Smells)by Pato Mena is one of the many books we’ve read together.

I do have the advantage of talking to my husband Javier, who is a native speaker of Spanish. For Japanese, however, I turn to Rosetta Stone’s Live Tutoring. In the thirty minute sessions with coaches, I’m able to feel as if I’m in Japan again. The coaches know about the crowded trains, the karaoke boxes, and the sakura (cherry blossoms) that bloom in the spring. I’m able to maintain my Japanese and keep what I’ve learned about the culture close to home. 

Embracing Internet Subculture 

I’ve drastically improved my Japanese and Spanish through the web. I’ve traveled the world without leaving my home country, let alone my own house. How? Engaging with communities online.

Full disclosure: if you’re going to follow in my footsteps, please be aware that you could stumble upon the dark corners of language learning that neither I nor Rosetta Stone condone. Have fun, use good judgement, and stay safe out there! 

Skype BBS (Bulletin Board System)

When I want more than 30 minutes of conversation, I turn to Skype keijiban or BBS sites. There are many thriving online subcultures there. It’s very easy to find people who want to talk about everything from celebrity gossip or classical literature. You have the option to chatto (chat), tsuuwa-chatto (voice chat), or douga-tsuuwa (video call).

For the last six years, I’ve used BBS sites to talk to Japanese people who have helped me perfect my pronunciation, taught me slang, and provided me a window to Japanese culture that you couldn’t find in textbooks.

A typical post will include the user’s age and gender. Sometimes there are only words like gakusei (student) or arafō (around forty years old). Other words to look out for include NG (no good). For example, some users are only interested in text chatting so they’ll write tsuuwa NG (voice chatting is no good).

Also, Japan’s “lol” is w, short for warau (to laugh). Sometimes it’s written as w, www, or (笑). If you use lol, they’ll think you’re referring to League Of Legends. But hey, BBS boards are great places to connect with gamers too, if you really want to mix language learning and fun. I highly encourage it.

Also, Japan’s “lol” is w, short for warau (to laugh). Sometimes it’s written as w, www, or (笑).

When I studied Japanese in college, most conversation was limited to the classroom. At first I used Skype BBS as a way to continue speaking Japanese outside of class. Then I got a rush out of voice chatting with Japanese people and tricking them into believing that I was an actual Japanese person. One time, I voice chatted with someone who I thought was Japanese but turned out to be from France. He also thought I was Japanese, so it was pretty funny when we revealed that both of us were learning the language.

Another time, I met a Japanese girl who was born and raised in Germany—she could speak both languages perfectly. I also met a weird guy who asked if he could take his shirt off halfway through our awkward conversation. Here’s a good trick if you find yourself in a situation like that: say denwa kirimasu (I’m hanging up now), drop the call, and block the user. 

Join Facebook Groups 

Joining language learning groups are some of the best ways I maintain daily exposure to Spanish and Japanese. You can search for groups and request to join them. Once you’ve been granted access, read the rules and guidelines before posting or commenting. Some groups may have special rules.

Oftentimes, language groups are treasure troves of resources like podcasts, blogs, or products. Besides changing your language settings, these groups provide that human connection that makes learning exciting. I’ve joined multilingual parenting groups where I’ve met military moms in Japan.

Sometimes parents use these groups to schedule playdates. Some users use it to meet up with language partners. Just like Skype BBS, it’s a means to connect and you need to take precautions with whatever information you share. 

Interact on Instagram

I’ve saved so many snippets from the lives of people from Japan and Mexico that it feels like I’m there. I know that I’m on Instagram every day, so I might as well incorporate language learning into social media. Through Instagram I connected with an Indonesian translator who knows Japanese. We still video chat with our children from time to time.

See What’s Trending on Twitter

I check on what’s trending in Japan and Mexico every day. I also challenge myself to tweet in Japanese or Spanish every week. It’s through Twitter that I’ve established friendships with other language bloggers and language learners. I love reading tweets in Japanese about learning Spanish

Productivity and Time Management Life Hacks 

Finding language partners can be time consuming, so I mostly reserve that for the weekends. Rosetta Stone’s Live Tutoring is something that I can do during the week because it’s more time-conscious. In an ideal world, I would spend all day learning a language, but as a busy mom I’ve found ways to immerse myself productively. 

Batch Your Daily Tasks  

I use a to-do list to schedule specific language-learning tasks like writing tweets in Spanish and Japanese or commenting on Instagram posts from Spanish-speaking moms that I’m following. I group those tasks by priority or convenience. During my son’s naptime, I get most of my writing and studying done. Watching TV and listening to music is better when I’m busy with my son, because we’re actively singing or watching something together.

Time Management Techniques  

I find it easy to get carried away with tasks, so I work in 30-minute increments (25 minutes of focused work, 5 minute breaks). This is known as the Pomodoro technique and there are plenty of timer apps out there to help. For bigger tasks I focus for 50 minutes with a 10-minute break.  

Tips for Focusing 

  1. I’m the kind of person who likes to have a million tabs up in my browser, so I use a Google Chrome browser extension called OneTab to consolidate them into a specific category and save them for later.
  2. I turn off all notifications on my phone and laptop when I’m studying. It takes time and discipline to get used to it, but it’s definitely helped me study better.
  3. Another helpful way to stay focused is to set reminders. Make sure they are specific. Don’t say “study Spanish” but “study 10 minutes of reading in Spanish and 20 minutes of learning new vocabulary in Spanish.”

If I’m engaging on social media, then fun distractions are welcomed. Sometimes I have to use a machine translator like deepL or Reverso to make sure my writing is correct. I find that with more time I spend on Rosetta Stone’s modules, the less I worry about being correct. The modules give real-life examples with words that I use every day. I never knew that toothpaste was dentífrico! I’ve been saying pasta de dientes (paste of teeth) for years. I had always expected my husband Javier to be the one to teach me these things, but we’ve become comfortable using Spanglish and weird Spanish. 

Thanks to that repeated exposure with Rosetta Stone and social media, I feel more confident when I speak. Even if I mess up, I’ll get corrected and learn something new. A mistake won’t ruin the beautiful connection that you’ve made with a person or a language. It’s all a part of the process.

Regardless of where I am in the world, I know that I can still learn a language and make other cultures a normal occurrence in my life. There are so many communities out there with friendly, encouraging polyglots and language learners to join. Sometimes you have to weed through the trolls and creepers, but it’s worth it to find all the hidden gems that make learning a language enjoyable.

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