A Language Learner’s Guide to Lockdown

By Talia Bagnall

We are living in strange and scary times.  The Covid-19 pandemic has affected every part of the world and every part of our lives, so it’s no wonder that we’re struggling to adjust.  It certainly doesn’t help when celebrities, influencers, or Susan-next-door tells us they’re using the time off to become fluent in Norwegian.  Between working or studying from home, looking after children, checking up on neighbours, searching for loo roll, watching the news, and general worrying, most of us don’t have the time nor the desire to pick up a textbook.

It’s important to know that we don’t have to “use” this time at all – staying at home and looking after our loved ones is enough.  That being said, if you are beginning to get bored of the TV or you’re missing your conversation class, learning a language from home can be a welcome distraction and a fun way to pass the time – no textbook needed.   

1. Down the rabbit hole

If you’re looking for inspiration, treat yourself to an hour or two in the vlogger vortex of Youtube.  You can watch videos about absolutely anything in almost every language, and watching a video on a subject you know (from cats to conspiracy theories) in another language is a simple way to pick up vocabulary.  There are also plenty of channels dedicated to language learning, as well as polyglots – someone who speaks at least six languages – sharing their skills.  If you don’t weep with jealousy, you might find some tips on how to learn a language quickly, or be motivated to give at a go yourself. 

2.  Le Netflix et Chill

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be spending lockdown plonked in front of the TV or laptop, binge-watching a series.  Thankfully, you can do this and feel smug if you watch in a foreign language.  Most online streaming sites have a (limited) selection of foreign films and TV, and Netflix lets you play around with the language of the audio and subtitles, so you can make it as easy or as challenging as you like.  Even better is Walter Presents on All 4, which currently has 76 critically acclaimed different series from around the world.  Go on – you’re studying!

3. There’s an app for that

Language apps are some of the easiest and most popular ways of learning at home.  There are hundreds of free apps to choose from, but probably the best-known is Duolingo, which offers over 30 languages, from Spanish to Hindi to Gaelic.  The app focusses on fun, interactive quizzes, with the aim of building vocabulary quickly.  This means that before you learn to say “Hello, my name is Susan” you’ll learn “Susan eats green trousers”.  Either way, it’ll give you a giggle, and a sense of humour is essential to both languages and lockdown.  If you do lose motivation, the slightly sinister green owl will send you passive-aggressive notifications or guilt-tripping emails.  You’ve been warned. 

4. Music to my ears

Speaking of apps, any music-streaming service will have thousands of singles, albums, and playlists in foreign languages.  Music is one of the best ways of learning a language, as rhyme and rhythm help us to memorise vocabulary, as well as it being a lot more fun than verb tables.  If you’re a podcast fanatic like me, listening to a podcast in a different language is a challenging way to improve your listening skills, as well as hearing different accents and dialects.  Or if you’re searching for something more interactive, then Coffee Break Languages, run by Glasgow-based Radio Lingua, provides short and sweet episodes focussing on a specific language or cultural topic.  You’ll have learned something new by the time you can say “Un café, s’il vous plaît”. 

5.  Words of wisdom

In times of crises, we often look for the right words to give us hope or comfort.  Sometimes these words might not be in our own language, but the sentiment is universal.  Whether it’s “Kia kaha” or “Al mal tiempo, buena cara”, these sayings might be the most useful language lesson in lockdown and beyond.