Boldly Learning New Languages in Unorthodox Fashion

I think it has been well-established by now that language learning and technology work well together.  However, I realise that I have forgotten one of the easiest, most obvious ways of learning a language with the aid of technology – watching films and TV shows! I, like many other people, have a Netflix account, which I love very dearly.  Netflix has lots of foreign films and TV shows on it, which means that I can watch Danish, Swedish or French crime shows any time I like.  I can also watch French, Spanish, German and Italian films if the fancy takes me!

However, my introduction to foreign dramas did not happen through the beautiful medium of Netflix. Instead, it was BBC Four (one of my favourite TV channels and I’m not ashamed to admit it) which first enlightened me to the potential gloomy, gripping awesomeness of Wallander, Inspector Montalbano, Borgen, and most crucially, The Killing.  The Killing, a Danish crime drama from 2007, is probably my favourite TV show of all time.  It is in Danish with English subtitles and has been remade in the USA too.  I have never seen the US version – I’m a purist – and I’d much rather see bleak, rainy Copenhagen than bleak, rainy Seattle. Allow me to explain the appeal of The Killing.  

Firstly, the main character, Sarah Lund, is like no other female police officer on television. She’s not friendly, she’s not kind, she has no real mothering instinct, and she wears thick, sensible Faroe Island jumpers, jeans, wellington boots and a plain black coat instead of light, pretty, girly clothes that most other female police officers on television wear.  This is especially refreshing because it adds to the realism of the drama (no one has ever worn heels in a hostage negotiation situation before. Let’s all cop on.).

Secondly, I have fallen completely in love with Copenhagen.  In the grey, dark, gloomy light of November, during which the first season takes place, the city is rain-washed and ten thousand times more beautiful and appealing because of it.  In the same way that reading and watching the Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) convinced me to go to Stockholm (which I visited last April, staying in Sodermalm just where all the action takes place), The Killing has instilled in me a wish to study my Masters degree in Copenhagen.

Thirdly, thanks to The Killing, I am slowly picking up a couple of words of Danish. This language is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It is rattly and guttural, like and yet unlike German and other Teutonic languages, and it has a curious, rolling magic to it. I love the way it sounds and how much fun it is to try to pronounce the words. Yes, I usually fail to do so correctly, but hey, at least I’m trying!

Learning a language from a TV show or a movie is certainly easier when you have more than a few words of that language, so perhaps I should try a French, Spanish or German programme next time. But for now, I’ll stick with the Danes. They seem to do drama and crime television like no one else can even dream of. Perhaps it’s the bewitching, enchanting realism of the piece; how normal and ordinary the entire situation seems to be (run down police offices, exhausted, overworked officers, terrible weather), how human the cast are (while some of them are certainly attractive – looking at you Lars Mikkelsen – it’s never in a way that conforms to stereotypes), and how tensely thrilling the plot lines are. With a show as good as The Killing, I tend to just pick up words without even noticing it, and isn’t that an ideal way to learn a language?


Hate to Love You

Today, as I logged onto WordPress to write my blog post, I saw another writing prompt: what do you love about yourself? Rest assured, I’m not planning on launching into a spiel about my awesomeness, but instead, I’m going to write about something that I love and how it helps me to learn languages.
I love clothes. It’s not even an exaggeration to say that I love clothes, shopping for clothes, wearing clothes (duh. I’m probably the coldest person in the Northern Hemisphere and I wrap up like a Pass-the-Parcel parcel on a daily basis) and looking at magazines about clothes.  This is where language learning comes in.  Whenever I can, I buy Vogue, ELLE, Glamour – etc, all the fashiony magazines! Luckily for me, all of these magazine have international editions, so if I’m travelling abroad or if someone I know is going to be hanging around an airport, I do my best to get my hands on a French/Spanish/German copy of Vogue, ELLE, or Marie Claire. Sometimes I even buy Italian Vogue, even though I don’t speak Italian (yet)!
In this way, I learn through reading (a learning method which Stephen Krashen espouses). I accumulate new, useful vocabulary and read different articles. As the language used in magazine articles is generally different from journalistic or literary language, I also get to experience a new kind of register, tone, and writing. I also get an insight into a different culture, because seeing how a country dresses is a fascinating experience. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, because I’ve never seen so many black and white editorials (that’s a ten-or-twelve page feature of clothes and models) than in French Vogue!
Even though I can’t buy them all the time – especially since they cost a LOT – I still follow these magazines on Twitter and I have “liked” their pages on Facebook. In this way, I get to see bite-size chunks of fashion and foreign languages every day, and all for free and from the comfort of my own home.

Distractions: Good or Evil?

I logged on to write my blog today and a writing prompt popped up on the screen: ‘Write About Evil’.  I thought this over for a minute and came to the conclusion that when one is trying to write an essay or get some study done, distractions are the most evil thing in the world.  I have written previously about one of my favourite distractions, Buzzfeed, and today I am going to investigate another distraction – music!  It’s not such a big distraction for me because, unlike many of my friends, I never listen to music when I’m studying.  I can’t concentrate when there is any background noise WHATSOEVER while I am trying to write or learn vocab or verbs! (For this very reason, I bought a pair of industrial headphones to wear while studying for the Leaving Cert, and let me tell you that they worked a treat!  Now I use them when my neighbours have parties, which, in my exhausted opinion, is far too often.)  That said, music can be very distracting.  If there’s a new album out by my favourite band or I have an earworm (NOT as gross as it sounds! It’s just the slang  term for a song you can’t get out of your head.) then music can definitely be a force for evil.  However, all is not lost.  Music can also be educational!

I’m going to segue into radio for the purposes of this blog entry, because it is a distraction which is often musical.  I LOVE listening to the radio.  Every morning, I wake up to the sound of Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1 as my alarm clock.  I am deadly serious about this! I like to hear the news and Spin Southwest read their news from Twitter. That’s not news.  They also play Miley Cyrus and Pitbull, neither of which I consider as “music”.  So Morning Ireland it is, and I feel so informed (and yes, smug too) for the rest of the day.  The radio, just like listening to an iPod or Spotify, can be a distraction, but just like music again, it can also be a force for good!

Now I get to the point of this blog entry… Listening to music or the radio in other languages is an EXCELLENT way to a) learn a language, duh, b) get used to hearing how a language sounds and absorbing those sounds/accents/etc, c) hear local and national news from that country, d) hear some awesome new tunes in a different language!  There are loads more reasons than this – listening out for the weather reports can help you to focus on learning your vocab for describing weather, you might hear a news report or a guest speaker on a radio show who will fascinate you, and you might hear a ridiculously catchy jingle that you just can’t get out of your head. *sings in falsetto: “N-R-J!!!”* 

When I was studying for my Leaving Cert aurals and orals, I used to listen to the radio in Spanish and French while I was going about my room during the day.  To this day, I like to listen to for French tunes and Radio 3 on for Spanish.  One of my favourite radio programmes is an indie/rock show every night on Radio 3.  That’s my favourite kind of music (toss in a little electro or poppy influences á la The Cure circa the 90s and that’s my ideal song), and as many of the songs are in Spanish and the presenters are speaking Castellano, it is absolutely perfect for me!  I haven’t yet found a German radio station but I have listened to some German songs lately in preparation for my German aural, which was on this week.  To find songs in other languages, I check out their Top 40 listings online and search for any songs that look like they’re in German on YouTube or Spotify.  YouTube is a goldmine for songs in other languages. I like to look for the lyric videos because then I can understand what the song is saying! 

Finally, I shall leave you with a link to a Demi Lovato tune which is especially beloved by some of my friends.  It is a translation of her song ‘Skyscrapers’ into Spanish, renamed ‘Rascacielos’.  Enjoy! 🙂

The Key to Language Learning?

I am currently working on one of my Language and Technology essays, which requires a lot of hanging around in the languages labs evaluating the different CALL packages. Today, I tried one called Clef, which aims to help students with different aspects of French grammar. (So this is the preview of my essay that you’ve all been waiting for… be cool, guys!)

Clef offers over 50 different options that a student might need help on, such as irregular verbs (like Avoir, Être, and Faire), all the tenses, the pronouns, etc, etc! I only had a few minutes, so I decided to revise Être. All I had to do was type in the tenses of the verb with the various pronouns. It wasn’t taxing, but I don’t think I really benefitted from it either. One aspect which was irritating was that I couldn’t get the ‘Ê’ to come up in the writing space (unlike many CALL and WELL packages, there was no “accents” option) and I was taxed for this at the end of the lesson.

Otherwise, it is certainly a useful website. I like using WELL and CALL packages to practice and revise, but sadly they are only useful up to a point. I can’t practice writing, I can’t test my levels of comprehension of written texts, there are no listening files, and I can’t practice speaking, which some might say is the most important aspect of language learning! I hope that listening files exist in some place – I think there are some on Deutsche Welle, which I shall be making use of when studying for my German aural exam next week – but it’s a real shame that if these programmes exist, they aren’t available on the computers in the languages labs here in UL.

Laughing in Spanish

My name is Muireann, and I am addicted to Buzzfeed.  In case you don’t know what Buzzfeed is, it is a news-pop culture-entertainment-adorable baby animals-sports-music-literature website. It frequently has excellent articles about current affairs (especially during the recent shut down in the U.S.), music and pop culture (I recently read an excellent analysis of Drake’s music career and how different his style of rapping is to more seasoned rappers such as Jay Z and Kanye West, with a focus on the sociological reasons as to why he has been so successful), but most importantly, they have lots and lots of pictures of tiny kittens in teacups and ducks going down waterslides.

Whenever I study using the internet, I have to ban myself from using Facebook, Twitter and Buzzfeed. They are distracting and time consuming when I am supposed to be writing essays or revising themes in French literature, but in addition to this, Buzzfeed frequently makes me laugh until I cry. This is not ideal when I am working in the library, as you can imagine! However, last week I learned that Buzzfeed could actually be beneficial to my education rather than hindering my learning experience.

I study Advanced Spanish, and frequently read many websites in Spanish just to increase my vocabulary and to immerse myself in Spanish for a little while. If I have only a few minutes, it’s easier to read an article in Spanish Vogue online rather than crack open a copy of Don Quijote in the original Castellano. Plus even though Don Quijote might be a classic, the vocabulary I would find in an article about blusher and bronzer is undoubtedly more useful to me at the moment. Last week, I discovered that Buzzfeed is available in Spanish. I was (no joke) overjoyed to see this, and promptly started reading articles about pugs (“26 Disfraces que prueban que los Pugs siempre ganan en Halloween”), Disney princesses (“15 Terribles lecciones de amor que apprendimos de las Princesas de Disney”) and student life (“La Diferencia Entre El Primer Y El Último Año De Universidad”). Buzzfeed in Spanish is as easy and simple to navigate as the other versions of Buzzfeed (it is being launched in Portuguese and French too) and has most of the same articles as in the English-language edition. It’s still as funny, irreverent, as gif-filled and as interesting as the other version. Users can vote on articles being “génial”, “lindo”, and “WTF”, just as they can vote in the English language version on whether articles are “funny”, “cute” and “WTF” (some things don’t change). It’s just as wonderfully time consuming as it is in English and I can’t wait until the French version becomes available!

It makes me very happy to think that now I can procrastinate and study at the same time. 



Grammar and Google

This week I created my profile on Vocabulix, which is a great website helping students to learn English, German and Spanish. It has some really good resources which I have used in the past and will definitely use in the future, such as verb tables and vocabulary drills and self-testing aids. When I am writing an essay or completing homework for a Spanish or German class, I always recheck my work for mistakes. When I need to check my Spanish verbs, Vocabulix has the verb tables laid out for 14 tenses in Spanish. Whatever I need to check, it will almost certainly be there! The obvious problem is that not all verbs are available and there are only three languages on the website. However, there are three language options for the website – Spanish, German and English – which makes it useful for native speakers of all three languages. The website is not brilliantly laid out – it is rather old-fashioned, simple and frill-free. There is a feature in which one can invite friends and communicate one’s progress to others, but I haven’t used it and probably won’t. On the whole, it is a good website and I shall continue to use it.

A Review of A TELL Package – GramEx Français

It was a while before I could get to review GramEx, because it is only available in the languages building. Whenever I tried to use the computer rooms, they were taken by classes. Finally, one morning this week I left my house before 9am and luckily found an empty room.  The amount of trouble it took to actually access this had put me off a little even before I’d started it. 

                However, I found that once I had started GramEx Français (one of my advanced languages) that it was almost worth it.  As it is obvious from the name, the TELL package is specifically aimed towards improving the grammar of languages.  In the labs at U.L., it is available in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.  The GramEx Français offers a range of grammar to revise: the pronouns, verbs, indefinite and definite articles, and the passive voice among others.  I didn’t have time to check out all of the different options because it was early morning and I was pressed for time in case a class or a group came into the classroom, so instead I picked three options: les articles, les démonstratifs, and les pronoms relatifs.  The programme starts off by summarising the information which students are about to revise.  Then, the student picks the number of exercises he or she wishes to do.  These exercises take the form of sentences with a blank space, where one of the options (such as qui, qu’ or que) is supposed to go. The student clicks on the correct answer out of these multiple choices.  The answer is corrected (often with a ‘Bravo!’ or ‘Formidable!’ or an explanation of the answer which was selected but happens to be wrong. If the student picks the wrong answer, then there is an opportunity to go back to correct that.  Once the entire selection of exercises is complete, the student must try to complete the ones that he or she made a mistake on earlier. 

There are a lot of really good points to GramEx Français, especially in the pronoms relatifs category. There, students must first test their knowledge of subjects and objects.  I liked the way that I could choose how many exercises I wanted to do, because it suits when one is stuck for time, or perhaps studying for a test and just trying to quickly review grammar.  It’s also easier to click into GramEx than go online and resist the temptation of Twitter and Facebook! However, the sheer hassle that it takes to actually access the TELL programme in the first place is very off-putting. The languages labs are not open late and if a student has class until six or meetings in the evening (as I often do) then it’s not easy to find the time to access them.  During the day, it seems that the labs are occupied just whenever I have an hour to spare! This is not ideal for language learners.  I would recommend GramEx and I’d like to use it again, but it remains to be seen if I’ll get the opportunity!

Learning Without Technology

This week I decided to try what it would be like to learn – or at least to do homework – without the help of the internet.  Usually, if I’m doing some language homework, I open up WordReference or Google Translate as a useful place to look up the odd word or two. This weekend, however, I needed to go to the library to get some work done. I find it hard to concentrate at home and there are more resources in the library, such as bigger dictionaries and grammar books.

I didn’t bring my computer with me in order to avoid procrastination on Twitter or some of my favourite websites (ASOS), so I was left completely with my books. In order to work on my German and Spanish homework, I collected two large dictionaries just in case I needed them and sat near the languages books in the library. It was really helpful to have the dictionaries beside me, and I found that after a few minutes, it was much easier to concentrate than it would be if I were using my computer to look up words.

I had decided to study more grammar once I had finished my homework, so I went to the bookshelves to look for some suitable books there. I used two books, one for each language (Practising Spanish Grammar: A Workbook by Christopher J Pountain, and Essential German Grammar by Guy Stern). It worked well and I got some really good work done. I think it’s a good way to study when I really need to avoid distractions. There are a lot of good languages resources in the library and it is especially helpful for grammar books. However, because there are other people around, and because it is supposed to be a quiet place, it’s not a great place to study a language. When studying a language, one often needs to listen to recordings or practise the pronunciation of words. For this reason, the LRA is better, although it doesn’t stay open as long! :/

Week 1 – Reviewing Language Learning Websites and Blogs

When I’m studying for a test in any language, I almost always go on line to revise my grammar. It’s a great place to find verb conjugations, tests and, of course, on line dictionaries. However, I haven’t really used the internet as an actual learning resource before for any of my languages.  Out of the three languages that I am studying, German is my beginner’s language, and therefore it needs the most work. For this reason, all of the blogs and resources I investigated this week were aimed towards students beginning to study German.

  1. Duolingo

I have heard excellent things about Duolingo. It is available as an App, which is excellent for people with smartphones like myself. If I’m at a train station or in a café waiting for a friend and have a few minutes to spare, I can tap into the Duolingo App and learn a few new words of vocabulary while I wait. It’s also free, which makes it even more valuable for students! Learners can log in via Facebook or set up their own accounts, and there are separate sections for both Beginners and Advanced students. Learners study by following mini-lessons.  They listen to the pronunciation of new words and test themselves as each lesson progresses. As each lesson is completed, the student builds up points and moves further through a “Language Tree”.  Even after a couple of lessons, I had revised some basic vocabulary, which was very useful. There is a tab at the top of the page called “Vocabulary” where the student can see all the words he or she has learned so far. It’s a great resource and I can see it becoming very useful.  There is a similar tab called “Immersion”, where it is possible to read and translate articles from the language being studied. I’m not sure if my German is ready for that yet, so I’ll progress with the lessons for a little while longer.  At the bottom of each page, basics such as umlauts, verb conjugation, the noun genders and other tips are displayed, of which the umlauts and noun genders are very helpful to new students of German.

The appearance of the website is excellent. It is well-laid out and very colourful. The student is guided in her learning by a cartoon owl, which is both sweet and undoubtedly symbolic of the knowledge that each student will one day have! Each new phrase and word is read aloud to the student, and the student sometimes has to translate each phrase, either aloud or by typing the phrase out. I think the points-winning system for every completed level is an excellent incentive to keep learning.  The only problem I had with the website was the reading aloud of each new phrase. While it is very useful, it is not convenient if the student does not have headphones or is (like I was at the time) in a library.  Otherwise, I would give Duolingo 5/5, and I’ll definitely continue to use it for my German throughout the year. I don’t know how well it caters for students of an advanced level in a language, but I intend on investigating as soon as I can. I also might even try to learn another one of the languages offered, such as Portuguese or Italian.


  1. Deutsche Welle

Deutsche Welle is a website which does exactly as the name describes – it sees the world in German.  Here, students can find articles about international and German news, podcasts in German, videos, reports, live-streaming of German TV, worksheets and more. It’s an excellent resource which I have used for a previously.  In the past year, I have found out a huge amount about German culture, current affairs and politics from this website, and therefore it has been invaluable. It’s not difficult to navigate after the first attempt, although there is so much to choose from that one can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the choice of options.  For example, with twenty minutes to spare, a student could read an article, listen to a podcast or watch a webisode of one of their web shows, such as ‘Ticket nach Berlin’ or ‘Jojo sucht das Glück’.  Each of these web shows depicts a student of German, so the German used, while challenging, is not too difficult to follow.  I always enjoy reading the articles on the Top-Thema part of the website, as the newer or more complicated German words are highlighted and form a glossary at the end of the article. In the rest of the website, the articles are much more difficult and would be more suited to advanced speakers of German.

The layout of the website is, as I have mentioned, well-done, although it is a little confusing at first. I feel that a student would want to have at least a few words of German before trying to navigate or use any of the resources that Deutsche Welle offers.  While they are excellent, they are not for the student who has only one or two words.  It’s a really interesting and valuable website and deserves persistence. I plan on following the web shows ‘Ticket nach Berlin’ (where learners of German travel around Germany on a type of scavenger hunt while making their way to Berlin) and ‘Jojo sucht das Glück’, but I think it will be a while yet before I try to watch any of their live-streaming shows. I would give this website 4/5 because it is not suited to someone who is a complete novice at German!


  1. BBC Languages German

This website has a lot of good points to it.  It seems to be firmly aimed at the tourist or complete beginner, as there are lots of fact sheets about Germany and the German language. The guide to the alphabet is particularly useful, and anyone who has ever struggled with an umlaut will appreciate it! There are also lots of lists of essential phrases for different practical situations.  The ‘Talk German’ section did not seem to be particularly useful to me. There are several videos but they didn’t load successfully for me. Perhaps, like many BBC things, they are available only to British users. This is a shame but there is solace to be found in the link to the BBC Bitesize German page. The Bitesize section caters to GCSE students and it is an excellent resource.  It is perfectly suited to beginners students as there are audio files, writing exercises, readings and speaking exercises for both foundation and higher levels of German.  There are also lots of grammar resources.  This is the best part of the entire website, in my opinion, as the rest of it is a bit of a let down.

It is slightly complicated to navigated, some of the files don’t work and most of it is comprised of links to other websites. That said, they are excellent websites – Deutsche Welle, ARD, ZDF, etc. – and could doubtless be very useful. All in all, since it is not as useful as I had hoped, I shall award this 3.5/5 – three stars for the BBC Bitesize page and half a star for the links of phrases.


  1. Memrise

Memrise is another language learning website which seems to be aimed mainly towards beginners.  It offers basic vocabulary and grammar lessons for free. Users set up accounts and are sent emails to remind them to study their German by ‘watering’ the knowledge that they have previously ‘planted’.  I think this is rather sweet and combined with the colourful background, the first impressions of the website are very good. The USP of this website is the way that users learn off their vocabulary.  As each new word or phrase is introduced, learners must pick a meme which will help them to remember this new piece of vocabulary.  Typically, many of these involve cats! Students can also add their own memes to help them to learn.  There is a lot of repetition which can get a little tiresome after a while.  However, I have to admit that it is definitely good for learning off new vocabulary.  There are also a wide range of courses (all free) from which users can choose how many words they want to use.  Each new phrase is also read aloud for the student, so if the student is in the library, he or she would need to have headphones. I don’t think it is available as an app, so for that reason learners are confined to using Memrise on computers.  However, this is not a huge disadvantage.  Memrise is also limited to vocabulary and grammar, and there are no articles, podcasts or webshows available.  Therefore, I would give Memrise 4/5, because of the creative use of memes, the good use of repetition and testing of knowledge, and the ease of use.  Sadly, the unavailability of other resources is not good, but I think I will use Memrise in the future to revise and possibly to learn other languages too.


I really feel like I’ve learned something from this task, mainly that I’m not limited to my books and the library when it comes to studying German (or indeed any language).  I’ll definitely continue to use these websites in the the future, and will find out if they work well with my advanced languages of French and Spanish too. I might even try out Italian or Russian!

A Portrait of the Blogger as a Slightly Confused Languages Student

I think it’s fairly clear from the title of my blog that I am a languages student! I study French, Spanish and German. As a secondary school student I also studied Irish and English. I love English and enjoy coming across new words and learning their etymological roots. I am a real wordnerd! In this blog I’m going to document my experience of learning languages, with a special focus on SLA (Second Language Acquisition) through technology.  I follow Spanish, French and German teaching accounts on Twitter to help me, I have “liked” many pages on Facebook which focus on language learning and “Foreign Films” is my favourite category on Netflix, so I really rely on technology to help me with studying! I am the PRO of my university’s International Society, which is a society specifically for students on Erasmus and study abroad placements. Every day, I switch between English and my other languages to communicate with members, both online and in real life, so I am always learning and looking for new ways to say things!