Tricks and Triggers for Opportunistic Language Learning

If you’ve seen the Savvy Language Learner infographic or read many posts on this site, you know that I find a system of routines and triggers indispensable for living in your target language when you’re not living in an immersion setting. In 2016, frequent travel and closely bunched projects have convinced me of the need for even more vigilance and strategery in the use of triggers, which I define as occasions for opportunistic language learning.

Camera CloseupRoutines are the things built into our regular schedule: skim French headlines during morning coffee, watch a Turkish YouTube video at lunch, read the next chapter in a manga novel before bed. We need these routines, but they’re unlikely to yield enough time in the target language (TL) unless we supplement them with triggered time in the TL. And when our routines are disrupted by travel, illness, or (as happens to me) city ordinances requiring prompt snow removal, those triggers can become the only thing keeping us from going weeks without time in the TL. So I’d like to share not only some fresh ideas for triggers and associated TL activities, but also some of the technical nitty-gritty that can maximize the likelihood of our taking advantage of triggered TL time.

Here are some of my triggers:
  • Waiting in line (airport security, store, bank, ticket counter,…)
  • Parking the car (before getting out to do whatever I came for)
  • When airplane boarding is announced
  • Right when the airplane lands
  • Any couple-minute break between activities or responsibilities
  • Exercising
  • Commercial breaks
  • Toothbrushing
  • Going to the loo (sorry)
  • When I get the urge to check Facebook
  • Entertainment I’m not as interested in as the people around me are
  • Waiting for the microwave, toaster, coffee maker to finish
Texting While WaitingHere are some of the activities these events trigger:
  • Check the news in TL
  • Read a super-short chapter, article, or poem in TL (see below for more on this)
  • Watch a music video in TL
  • Watch an interview in TL
  • Review words or sentences in Memrise (not a terribly efficient way to improve in a language, but sometimes fun and better than nothing)
  • Look up a TL word that I recently came across and didn’t know, or a word whose meanings I keep forgetting; read example sentences
  • Try to describe whatever is around me in TL
  • Recite/sing in my head a TL poem or song that I’ve read or heard enough to know nearly by heart

I’ve been using these sorts of triggers and activities for a while, but recently I’ve developed some little tricks that make them even more likely to work:

  • I keep one or more reader apps (e.g., Kindle, iBooks, Google Play, Goodreader) running in the background at all times, each with a different type of content open; e.g., a chapter book in Kindle, short nonfiction in iBooks, a dialogue in Google Play, a poem in Goodreader; or with content in different languages open in each app. This cuts out a bunch of steps otherwise involved in getting to the content (navigating to and opening the app and content), allows me to choose a type and length of content most suitable for whatever trigger, and also adds another trigger: because I tend to obsessively close all apps other than these after using them, I always see these apps open when I’m swiping other apps closed. This (a) reminds me of these apps and content, and (b) when there is time, triggers my actually using one of the apps.
  • I keep the YouTube app and/or a browser tab open at a particular video or channel. This way, (a) I don’t have to start (and reduce) my triggered TL time by thinking about what to watch and navigating to it, and (b) when I’m closing other tabs, I’m bound to come across this one and can (re)watch whatever it is.
  • I keep notifications from social media or other apps deactivated so that they don’t cut into the already short triggered TL time.
  • Something I don’t do consistently, but would like to, is to keep Pinterest open to a content rich page or board, such as Amy Lenord’s boards. Other sources, such as Feedly, might work well for you.
What are some of your language-learning triggers, activities, and tricks?


See also: The Focused Filler, a Simple Language Learning HabitOn the Go, In the Language: Introducing #indwelli, Do What You Feel Like, The Number One Mistake in Language Learning, and What Is Your Favorite Thing to Do?

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