Series, novels and travel, the summer kit for practising languages
Photo: Ben White / Unsplash (CC)
Roser Reyner
Reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in English, watching French television and listening to Japanese music are some of the recommendations that teachers have made

Whether they travel or stay at home, the greater availability of free time that many adults have during summer provides a suitable context for practising the language they have studied during the year or that they want to improve. But motivation is fundamental and, in this respect, among the most widely available leisure options is to use series' current popularity to watch them in the original version with subtitles, or to read a novel matched to each person's level of proficiency. This is what the teachers at the UOC's Centre for Modern Languages are recommending.

What they definitely don't recommend is doing grammar exercises, which is the "main focus of most of the self-learning language apps currently available", stresses the centre's director, Joseph Hopkins, who is also an English teacher. Instead, he recommends "using" the language in whatever way gives each person most satisfaction. "Practising is using", he insists.

One good option could be watching series or films in the original version, if possible, subtitled in the same language, he continues. For example, getting out that old film we like so much and know very well and watching it in its original language. When we do this, "we are processing language, and this is more useful than doing heaps of grammar exercises", he says.

Nathalie Bittoun, a French teacher at the UOC, proposes "using what we have closest at hand", such as the websites of the French television channel TV5Monde or the radio station RFI, where one can find all sorts of things, "from podcasts and videos to exercises for learning the language".

For her part, Takako Otsuki, a Japanese teacher, says that "anyone who has notions of the language and is interested in Japanese films, cartoons or music, has access to a lot of resources nowadays". In particular, she mentions a website where one can practise with song lyrics, written either in Japanese syllables or Western alphabet. Otsuki agrees with Hopkins in that "doing what gives you pleasure is one of the best resources for learning languages". Whatever option is chosen, the Centre for Modern Languages' director underscores that "it is important not to lose contact with the language simply because one is no longer going to class".

Indeed, in the specific case of English, the most commonly studied language at the UOC with about 5,500 students each semester, Spain still trails behind the rest of Europe in the level of knowledge that people attribute to themselves, according to a survey published at the start of the year by Cambridge University, with whom the UOC has a cooperation agreement. Along the same lines, a recent study by the UOC's Employability Observatory concludes that a high level of language proficiency is considered a priority skill by the most advanced Catalan companies, but which most recent graduates do not meet.

The power of leisure reading, "underrated"

Hopkins says that another good option is to read novels in the language studied as a leisure activity; "its power is underrated," he says. According to the teacher, people with an intermediate level of the language can read novels in their original text. However, people with a basic level would be better advised to look for simplified novels in specialized bookshops.

Hopkins has three proposals for English reading: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; The House on Mango Street, and Animal Farm. In French, Bittoun recommends choosing from quality texts adapted to each individual's level to full-text books.

In any case, for those who have the opportunity, "the best way to practise a language is to go to a country where it is spoken", says Hopkins. Simply travelling is an opportunity to practise, says the teacher, and it is worth the effort to put embarrassment aside and communicate in the language it is wished to practise. Takako gives the same advice to those who travel to Japan: "No matter how basic your knowledge of the language is, it makes a big difference and people will be able to give you better information if you ask them something".

Bittoun stresses that there are more French-speaking countries one can travel to than might seem: from Belgium, Switzerland or Luxembourg, to Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, and including Africa or Quebec, in Canada. For anyone interested in an experience that combines tourism and learning language and culture, Bittoun recommends this link.

Intensive courses

As regards intensive language courses, Hopkins explains that these are particularly appropriate for people who already have a grounding, while those who are learning a language from scratch must process a lot of information in very little time and this may be more complicated. The UOC has organized three such courses in July. They have already started and they are aimed at improving English for work purposes.

The UOC's Centre for Modern Languages provides tuition in seven languages: English, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Catalan and Spanish, and each semester it has about 6,500 students enrolled with an average age of 37. New for next year are a level C2 course in Catalan (previously known as level D) and new courses to prepare for official examinations in several languages. In addition, the centre has developed an app, called Trivialang, which helps people practise English, French and German in a game format with about 5,000 questions for each language.