Three Surprisingly Easy Ways to Improve Your Language-Learning

Have you ever studied another language, only to hit a wall you can’t seem to get past in terms of your comprehension? I have too; I studied French and Spanish from junior high school through college, and beyond on my own, yet I’ve gotten rusty in both and struggle to really speak and understand either the way I feel I should by now.

But I’ve come up with a few strategies to improve my abilities in both languages, and wanted to share them with you in the hopes you’ll benefit from them too.

I’m not talking about the common tips, like to practice, practice, practice — sure, do that whenever possible. But we already know that, yet many of us still struggle to get to an intermediate level in our language(s) of study.

I also won’t suggest classes — again, nothing wrong with that approach, but I’m assuming that many of us have gone that route already but need help breaking past the classroom-level of proficiency. See, formal, structured lessons often involve learning by rote (think verb conjugations like hablo, hablas, habla, hablamos…). But when it comes to being able to pick up more off-the-cuff forms of communications, it’s not as easy — at least it hasn’t been for me.

Besides, I’m also making another assumption that, like me, you may be unable or unwilling to spend a lot of time and/or money on formal education, one-on-one tutors and so on.

Well, I believe we don’t have to. Right now I’ve been looking for little ways to incorporate my target languages into my daily life, and here’s what’s been working for me so far:

I. I’ve changed my display languages on everything I can think of, from my Kindle to my web browser. I’ve set most of them to French, since I’m weaker in that language. I really like this strategy because I already have an idea of what the prompts mean from having read them in English for so long, yet now seeing them in French teaches me new words I don’t know yet but should.

For instance, in searching for my trash bin in my Gmail account, I realized it was in the area marked “corbeille.” That didn’t sound like the word “trash” to me, so it prompted me to Google it; I found that it meant “little basket.”

Which I found adorable — definitely much more pleasant-sounding than “trash!”

But most importantly,  now I know the word for “basket,” which is a word I probably never would have thought to look up otherwise but one I think is common enough to be very useful.

This strategy also helps me review terms I do know but may have forgotten; for instance, when I go to the area where my sent messages are, I see that they’re called “messages envoyés.” This reminds me that the verb “to send” in French is envoyer. Pretty handy verb to keep in mind, I’d say!

II. I read websites, blogs and books in my target languages. I’m surprised by how many language-learners have only read educational books in their language of study; after formal classes end, they read no more.

Granted, many people also don’t read much at all, even in their native language. But I love to — so recently I decided to do some of that reading in French and Spanish. It’s even easier to do now what with the proliferation of affordable e-books.

I do choose somewhat simple books; I’m not talking about reading translations of Shakespeare. Not ready for that!

What I do is think of subjects I enjoy reading about — let’s say heath and careers. I then type these terms in French or Spanish into Amazon so my book results come up in my preferred languages.

I should note here that before doing this, I often have to do a Google search for a translation of the subject I’m interested in, like when I wanted to search for tips on a healthy life. I forgot the word for “healthy” in French is “saine” and Googled that first so I could do my Amazon search. Just FYI!

I then preview my matches using the “Look Inside” feature to get a sense of whether a particular book is just challenging enough to be educational for me, while also not being so difficult I’m looking up every single word. I also make sure to choose books that seem to have an interesting flow and approach; I know if I choose a boring text, I’ll never read it and defeat the whole purpose. If you’re curious to see the kind I prefer, here are the health books I recently bought in Spanish and in French.

A while back, I also bought French-English and Spanish-English dictionaries for my Kindle. That way, when I read books in French and Spanish and come across a word I really can’t figure out, I just highlight it for its translation, much as you can get definitions of English words using the Kindle’s built-in English dictionary. The translation function is just as easy, once you download the language dictionary you need and go to your settings to make it the default dictionary for that particular language. (FYI, I went with this one for French and this one for Spanish; others I’d checked had reviews saying they didn’t work properly as default dictionaries. In those cases, you’d have the book on your Kindle just like any other book, but the ability to quickly translate a specific word as you read would not be functional.)

I love this aspect of reading foreign language e-books so much; I remember how tedious it used to be to have a physical dictionary on hand for every unknown word, but with an e-reader, the answers are right there so you don’t have to lose your flow or forego the chance to properly learn a new word!

Incidentally, I would have thought it would be possible to just search Amazon for “health books in French” or to type “health” and click a language option, but I haven’t found that to be the case. So, this is why I go about my search this way.

On a related note, I don’t recommend going to the international sites of Amazon, like French Amazon at amazon.fr if you plan to download French books to a Kindle for example; from what I’ve read, you might encounter problems since some books are licensed for use in specific countries. So if you try to use Amazon France for that in the U.S., it won’t work for some books. Plus I believe you may have some payment conversion issues and whatnot. I’ve never tried this though, so if I’m wrong and you know doing this has worked for you, do share!

One other reading tip, albeit on a smaller scale: I also follow Twitter users and media sources who post in French and Spanish. While I’m not the best connection for them since I struggle to respond and comment meaningfully in those languages, I do enjoy reading their updates and find that this helps me pick up more casual forms of communication.

III. I look for shows I can watch in other languages. I prefer doing this online instead of via TV since it’s easier to find what I’m looking for, including some programs that are made specifically for language learners yet aren’t the kind of dry lessons that we often get from traditional classroom learning.

My preference is to watch news segments, because I can often get a sense of what’s being said through the visual cues and context even when I can’t catch or understand every single word. I learn and retain new words much better this way versus reading a vocabulary list and trying to remember it. That works only up to a point for me.

On a related note, I find native speakers often speak too fast for me to understand; this happens to me often with Spanish shows. So, when I’m having a hard time finding a show that’s a good pace for me, or let’s say it’s late and I’m a bit tired, sometimes I’ll watch a show aimed at older kids. I find characters on these shows speak a bit slower yet still provide a good lesson in vocabulary and sentence construction.

Well, that about rounds up my top three tips for improving my language skills. Between a mix of research and trial and error, I’ve found these strategies have been helping me. I hope they help you as well!

One-Liner Wednesday: Comedy

“Comedy is the art of telling the truth about what it’s like to be human.”

-from The Hidden Tools of Comedy: The Serious Business of Being Funny by Steven Kaplan, published in 2013 by Michael Wiese Productions.

Note: This post was written as part of LindaGHill’s One-Liner Wednesday. Check it out and take part if you can; it’s a lot of fun!

Area Man Uses Ebola Excuse to Extend Vacation Days

By SOME KERNELS OF TRUTH Nov. 17, 2014

Idaho Falls, ID — David Allen of Idaho Falls has been formally documented by his employer for lying about being exposed to Ebola and voluntarily going into isolation in his apartment for 21 days. According to his employer, Mason Construction Services, Allen is in fact healthy and was never exposed to the dangerous virus.

“He just wants to have more days off than we provide. I was suspicious of his excuse right away, because last week he tried negotiating for more vacation time but his request wasn’t approved. Then he calls us today with this story, after not traveling anywhere and without any other cases in the state,” said Allen’s supervisor Adam Grant.

David Allen, however, denies his supervisor’s claim.

“I really do need to stay home for 3 weeks to be sure I’m not carrying Ebola; if I end up showing symptoms at work, I’d be exposing everyone there. I’m the kind of responsible employee who wouldn’t do that to my coworkers and supervisors,” Allen said via phone to reporters.

When asked when and how he became exposed to Ebola, Allen can pinpoint the exact moment.

“Well, I’d just gone to pick up my friend from the airport on his return home from a work conference in Washington. As I waited for him, an African-looking guy walked by me; he looked sick and started coughing right in front of me before I could move away. I think that’s enough risk,” said Allen. However, Allen says he has not seen a doctor as of yet, which is why he cannot provide the documentation his employer has asked for.

“I don’t want to see a doctor and have my suspicions documented, because I hear they send people to your house and incinerate all your belongings to prevent the spread of the virus. I have a lot of cool comic books I collect, and also pet mice. I figure I’ll just quarantine myself and see what happens; I’ll go if I get sick, but hopefully I never show symptoms and I can return to work in 3 weeks,” said Allen.

Allen’s coworkers agree with supervisor Adam Grant, saying they don’t believe Allen’s bizarre claims since he has been known to miss work for a variety of unusual reasons.

“I’m not sure if he’s very sickly, a hypochondriac, or just plain lying,” said a coworker of Allen’s at Mason Construction Services who declined to give her name. “Back when swine flu was big in the news, he said he couldn’t come in because he had it. He also once said he had SARS,” she said.

According to another anonymous coworker, Allen’s excuses aren’t always so grand, but they do follow a predictable pattern.

“David does sometimes call out sick with more routine illnesses like just having a cold, but the day before he’ll be talking up a storm about how bad he’s feeling. Whenever he does that, I know he’s planning to be out the next day, and I’m always right,” he said.

Allen says he doesn’t understand what his previous absences have to do with his current voluntary isolation.

“I’m doing this for their safety too. Besides, all of those past absences were valid. And of course I’ll talk about feeling sick before I’m out, because I’m sick! This is ridiculous,” he said.

He then told reporters he had to end the call to get ready for his friend’s birthday dinner, but then quickly clarified that he would not be going out due to his self-imposed quarantine.

“I, uh, meant I’d be joining them over Skype; I have to get ready for it because I do want to look decent when I log on to tell my friend happy birthday. Of course I’m not going out or anything; I, uh, definitely can’t go anywhere for 3 weeks to be safe, which is the whole reason why I can’t go to work,” he said with a nervous laugh.

Note: Yet more fake news, my friends; I can’t stop…! I thought I’d use recent headlines to hopefully give you a laugh. :)

Woman Refuses to Visit Tropical Locales Due to Fear of Insects

By SOME KERNELS OF TRUTH Nov. 14, 2014

BOSTON, MA — A woman in Boston, Massachusetts is angering friends over her refusal to travel to any tropical region for fear of encountering exotic insects.

“My friends and I are trying to plan a fun trip for this winter and they keep suggesting places like Puerto Rico and Hawaii, but I hear there are huge, flying bugs in tropical places like that. So there’s no way I’ll go there,” said Melinda Michaelson.

Michaelson’s friends say they don’t understand her staunch refusal to visit a tropical climate.

“First of all, we’d be staying at a nice hotel and would probably never even venture out beyond the tourist areas, which I’m sure are not running rampant with bugs,” said Lisa Andrews, a friend of Michaelson’s. “Besides, it’s winter; why would we not visit a tropical climate? There’s no point in visiting another cold area!” Andrews added.

Fellow friend Angela Ford agrees with Andrews. “I even suggested hot, but dry, areas like Arizona, but Melinda won’t go there either. She started talking about how places like that have scorpions and that was the end of that discussion too, which was really frustrating,” Ford said.

As for where Michaelson would be comfortable staying, she told reporters she is open to “temperate places” but would not elaborate further.

The group has put their vacation plans on hold for the time being, pending further research and discussion.

Note: Just some more fake news for fun, yet based on true discussions I’ve been a part of; there’s always a “kernel of truth” (well hello, blog name shout-out!) to the “fake” stories I write!

Ah, Youth…and Pranks!

The other day, I read a very entertaining post on the Me — Who Am I? blog, all about a funny prank the author and a friend once pulled on a neighbor. I really enjoyed reading it and it brought to mind a few of my own youthful pranks which I felt inspired to share here — perhaps as a form of confession, since I have to admit I do feel bad about them, especially one in particular…here goes!

The chalkboard eraser prank

One day while I was in high school, our history teacher was a minute or two late. While we waited for him, a few of us joked that it would be funny to hide his eraser — no place out of reach, though. We simply put it in his desk, just out of a moment of impishness yet nothing we felt was too over-the-top — we figured he’d think to look in his desk drawers and would find it easily enough and continue his lesson.

We were wrong. By the time he arrived and soon needed the eraser, he didn’t think to look in the desk.

“I’ll be right back; I’ll borrow an extra eraser from another classroom,” he said to us good-naturedly before stepping out of the classroom briefly.

Once he stepped out, we decided to retrieve the eraser and put it back on the chalkboard ledge — both out of an odd combination of more impishness yet also some benevolence. You see, we thought it would be funny for him to come back in and see the eraser was back, proving it had been a little prank; yet he’d also know we’d done the right hing by returning the item to its proper place.

Win-win, right?

Not quite, thanks to our immaturity that soon led us to abandon any thoughts of “doing the right thing.”

Once he came back with an eraser and saw the original one was back, he laughed ruefully and said something like, “Oh, there it is! Let me return this one, then,” and stepped out again. I couldn’t tell if he knew what we were up to at that point, or if he thought he had simply missed spotting it before.

In any case, here is where we let our impish (boy do I love that word) sides take over a little too much — now we thought it would be especially funny to once again hide the eraser.

What comic geniuses we were…

So one of my friends got up and hid it again in the teacher’s desk, and we all waited with anticipation for what would come next.

Soon the teacher returned — only to find the newly-found eraser was once again missing.

Now he was no longer so good-natured.

“OK, where is the eraser?” he yelled.

We all froze and avoided eye contact with him and each other.

Uh-oh, I think we pushed this too far, I thought to myself.

“Who is responsible for this?” he continued, eyeing each of us.

Now many of us were shifting uncomfortably in our seats. No one would admit who was involved, especially since pretty much all of us had been. While only a couple of my classmates had been the ones to go up and hide, replace, and then re-hide the eraser, everyone had been part of the plan and/or at least was enjoying watching it all unfold.

No one was truly innocent.

So we all stayed quiet.

“That’s it. You will all have a pop quiz now if no one admits who did this!” he bellowed.

By now I felt really bad — not so much about the pop quiz, but because he looked genuinely upset. His face was reddening, which was surprising since he was usually not one to get angry easily. Plus, he was an older man, with grey hair and a bit of a limp; I guessed he was in his 60s, and I felt bad thinking we were responsible for agitating him like this and making him go on a wild goose chase for an eraser that was there the whole time.

I also felt he thought we were messing with him maliciously, when in actuality it hadn’t been like that; if anything, he was a bit of a character and we felt it would be fun to “play” with him. To give you some background, he came off a bit like Kramer on Seinfeld — unruly hair, somewhat unusual speaking style and offbeat perspectives. No one disliked him. In fact, we all got a kick out of him, so he just seemed like someone we’d enjoy messing with, almost affectionately.

But while it had initially felt like harmless fun, I suddenly saw how it all must have looked to him: frustrating and disrespectful.

Needless to say, none of us admitted to anything, but since it was obvious one or more of us were responsible for the magical eraser incident, we got that pop quiz he’d threatened.

I don’t blame him!

The person-in-the-bed prank

Fast forward to my college years, when my best friend (then and still today!) showed me a prank I found hilarious. For some reason, this prank I feel less bad about, although I do see how it could scare some people a little too much.

The prank involved taking a pair of pants and a shirt and stuffing them with other clothes or linens to fill them out so they took on the shape of a person. We’d then place this dummy in the person’s room for them to discover when they least expected it.

This was especially easy to pull off in the dorms, when friends often left us in their rooms while they stepped out.

We’d furiously begin making our dummy, laughing hysterically the whole time. The crowning moment was finding some kind of stuffed animal to use as a head peeking out of the shirt; that way we could put something like a baseball cap on it, pulled down low so that it really could look like a person.

We then strategically positioned our dummy under the blankets on the bed to look like someone lying in it — and then we left.

Although we didn’t go far.

We’d linger nearby, somewhere out of sight but not out of earshot — stifling our laughs the whole time.

I still remember one guy returning to his room and yelling, “Oh S&@# — someone’s in my bed!” and running right back out.

We didn’t let him suffer too long, but that brief moment where he really thought someone was in his bed was…priceless.

There have been other pranks I’m sure I’m forgetting; I will share those as they come to me, perhaps in the spring in time for your April Fool’s Day planning!

Or if I feel the need for another confession. :)

One-Liner Wednesday: Wasting Time

“You cannot afford to waste another minute being unfulfilled, unsatisfied, and underutilized.”

-from Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Success, Think Like a Success: Discovering Your Gift and the Way to Life’s Riches, published by Amistad (September 9, 2014).

Note: This post was written as part of blogger LindaGHill’s One-Liner Wednesday. Hope you you found it helpful!

Amazon Contracts with School Buses for Help with Holiday Deliveries

By SOME KERNELS OF TRUTH Nov. 6, 2014

SEATTLE, WA — Amazon insiders report that the company is in talks with school bus companies to create a partnership in which the buses and their passengers will help handle Amazon’s increased delivery demands during the holiday season.

As for how the proposed school bus partnership would work, Amazon employees say packages for certain neighborhoods would be retrieved by the bus drivers at a local warehouse before picking up the schoolchildren at the end of each school day. The drivers would then distribute packages to the children according to each child’s exact block of residence.

“Suppose a child lives on a block where two homes are due to receive packages; he or she would be given those packages to drop off on their way home from the bus,” said a company representative.

According to paperwork outlining the plans for the unique partnership, school bus companies would be paid for these services. As for the children, they will receive academic credit and grades for their work as part of a “Kidternships for the Holidays” program tied into schools’ curricula.

“We are especially proud to be able to provide children and their families with this experience. It is our belief that if children can handle taking on jobs like paper routes, they can assist us with delivering packages. In exchange, we are pleased to provide them with academic credit and valuable work experience,” said one Amazon representative.

Other company sources, however, say the initiative benefits Amazon more than the children.

“Since this program is not a job but is tied in with class lessons and homework, it’s exempt from child labor laws. I have to admit it’s a clever workaround, but we all know it primarily benefits us,” said an Amazon employee who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A teacher from a local school who will be involved in the program agrees. “I have never seen our lesson plans get changed so quickly; even those of us who work here can’t get that done very easily. I don’t know exactly what Jeff Bezos did to get this program rolling so quickly, but I hear it involves implying schools won’t get their own packages delivered on schedule if they don’t agree,” said the teacher, who asked to be unnamed. “And people would be surprised to know that we get a lot of our school supplies from Amazon. We’re as reliant on it as the public is,” she added.

As for how Amazon plans to handle packages that arrive late or damaged, or are not delivered at all, school representatives state harsh penalties will be involved.

“We’ve been forced to…I mean, we have decided to expel children who do not successfully deliver their packages. They will also receive failing grades for that task. This will be made very clear to our students as well as their families at the start of the program, and we do not anticipate any major problems that can’t be resolved,” said a school official involved in outlining the partnership’s arrangements.

Calls to Jeff Bezos as well as Amazon’s official media liaison were not returned as of press time.

Note: This is yet another “fake news” article by me; I was inspired to write it after reading a true piece on Mashable about Amazon partnering with taxicabs to deliver packages during the holiday rush. I responded on Twitter by joking that they should think of doing this with school buses and kids —  and then realized I should write about it for fun! Hope you enjoyed it. :)