It’s not a secret, I’m a textbook nerd. Whenever I go to a bookstore I have to force myself not to buy new ones. Textbooks give me a feeling of safety, with their neat structure and the topics arranged in a coherent way. For an anxious person, being organised can be a reassuring thing.
I also find some comfort in grammar and vocabulary exercises. When I feel stressed or tense, focus on a small, specific task like a fill in the blanks exercise often helps me detach from my thoughts. In time, it became more and more a way to practice mindfulness.
On the other hand, I’ve always loved to immerse myself in authentic materials as soon as I could.
When I was 13 or 14, I definitely learned more English translating Spice Girls songs than I did in school. While growing, learning more languages, then training to be a teacher, I got used to recognising the potential for learning in almost everything. Even when I’m only watching a movie for pleasure, I can never turn off my teacher-brain. It’s all an “oh, this scene would be perfect to learn some idiomatic expressions!” or “I’m going to make myself an exercise to practice the past tense with this song”.
So I put together these two quirks of mine and try to create my own textbook.
I believe that making creativity into a daily component of language learning is a never-failing antidote against boredom and loss of motivation. When you make your learning materials relevant and pleasant for yourself, practising and remembering new things isn’t such a hard task any longer.
Here are three examples of exercises I created for myself for different languages and one I created for my students of Japanese. You can try them out as they are or adapt them to your taste. I hope this can be of inspiration, so that you can start building your own textbook, too. If you have any idea or material to suggest, please leave a comment: I’d be delighted to try it out.
1. Write about your day and practice the past tense with the heroes of Spanish indie rock
In this song, a man pretty much just tells us everything he has done from morning to evening. His relationship has ended and memories of his ex still pop up in his mind sometimes.
This is a perfect material to use as an inspiration to write about your own day. You have the past tense, the actions, some of the words you need.
I started with listening, trying to understand what he is singing. Then I got the lyrics and analysed them, looked up words I didn’t know, translated into Italian. Finally, I wrote about my own day following the structure of the song.
For fellow grammar geeks, you can also copy the lyrics and leave a blank for every verb in the past tense. Then write the verbs in the infinite above the blanks or, to make it more challenging, in random order at the top of the page. And you’ve guessed it, try to conjugate the verbs in the correct form back into the lyrics.
Want more Spanish songs for inspiration? Here is a playlist in español I made on Spotify.
2. What if? Practice conditional through a classic Swedish love song
Om du lämnade min nu is a moving love song in Swedish by Lars Winnerbäck and Miss Li. The song is an exploration of the theme “What would I do if you left me now?”.
I used it for my weekly song translation practice and I couldn’t help noticing how it’s all in the conditional tense. This is something I haven’t formally studied yet, but I obviously feel the need to use in real life quite often. The song came as a perfect occasion to start understanding the grammar through a bunch of examples and to write my own sentences and paragraphs too.
I made a list of themes to write about, like “What if I was a man” or “What if I was rich”. Then I wrote some sentences from different points of view, just like in this duet.
Here is a big playlist of Swedish music where you can find more songs to work on.
3. French proverbs: Amélie’s colleague tests Nino’s knowledge of popular wisdom
Recently, I watched Amélie after many years. Not only was I delighted to realise it’s still one of my top 10 favourite films, but it also gave me some ideas to practice French.
There is a scene towards the end of the movie when one of Amélie’s colleagues wants to make sure Nino is a good lad and tests him on French proverbs. According to her, no one who knows proverbs well can be completely bad.
Needless to say, a little bulb lighted in my teacher-brain. For intermediate learners wanting to advance, proverbs are a good thing to know. So I rewatched the scene, wrote down the proverbs and looked for an idiomatic translation in English and in Italian. Then I watched it again a few days later to practice. To review, I’m thinking of making flashcards with the first half of the proverb for me to guess the second half and the meaning, or the meaning to guess the proverb in French.
4. Get used to listening to authentic Japanese with Terrace House
Oh, Terrace House. Don’t get me started on why I love it. From a strictly Japanese learning perspective, it has a bit to offer to every level. Different ways to introduce yourself and talk about your day, your likes and dislikes, informal language, dialects and accents, slang and fast-paced dialogues: you name it.
As a beginner learner of Japanese, how many times have you heard the standard introduction formula 私は．．．です。どうぞよろしくおねがいします? In a show where every few weeks someone new moves into the sharehouse, you’ll have plenty of chances to jazz up that formula.
Take for example the very first scene of the Aloha State season: Lauren and Yuya meet and introduce themselves. Here you can hear how two young people actually talk when they first meet.
Listening to it while reading the script will give you an idea of how words melt together and sound like in real life. You can highlight new vocabulary you’d like to learn and look it up. Then write a short presentation about these two people using the new words.
As an advanced learner, one can pick up a lot of slang and popular expressions through the conversations among the commenters. One of them, Yama-san, talks particularly fast and this can help you train your listening skills. Watch the show with Japanese subtitles, or write down the script beforehand. Then listen to the scene and try to identify the words the members of the panel say. Don’t forget to analyse the script and pick up new words and expressions. To add an extra layer, at the end of the study session you can do some shadowing – once you master Yama-san speed, your spoken Japanese will flow.
Do you ever make your own exercises using authentic materials? What is your favourite kind of resource and how do you adapt it? Let me know your ideas in the comments.