What to do when you can’t do anything

Jazz musician Miles Davis.

Miles Davis knows a lot about language learning. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often talk about the various things I like to do that fit my current situation in life.  I usually practice speaking during my 45 minute commute to and from work.  During work, I listen to Spanish radio and podcasts.  When I am home, I will the use some program that is computer based to supplement what I am learning through those two methods.  It’s a great routine and it has worked great for me.

Some of you may be thinking, “Sounds great for you, but I don’t have all that available.  I don’t have an audio course to use or a podcast to listen to.  I don’t have a software program to help me out.  Even if I did, I don’t have the freedom to do all that at work or on my commute like you do.”  I feel for ya.  We can’t control what life throws at us, but we can make the best of what we have and run with it.   Specifically, I have learned a couple little tricks that require no outside material except your brain.


In case you don’t know I am a big fan of SYL or Speak Your Language.  I have written about it extensively over at Womenlearnthai.com.  To summarize, you use as much of the language you know and fill in the gaps with another language, probably your first one, to keep from stopping.  This works with both vocab and grammar.  I recommend this, because it lets you practice what you know, without being held back by what you don’t know.

There are a couple major ways I do this.  One is to just speak your thoughts out loud, saying what you can in your target language and using English to make up for what you lack.  Talk about what ever is on your mind.  Maybe relive a conversation you had the night before or pre-live a conversation you will have at work.  Don’t worry about what you don’t know, just focus on what you do.

One can also translate what you hear.  Translate the radio or translate a meeting you are in.  Translate a conversation you are overhearing (don’t spy though!).  The same concept applies.  Don’t stop to think too much.  Speak (or think, if appropriate) everything you can and use English or what ever language you want to keep you from going too slow.

Kung Fu it!

I wrote a post about learning like a kung fu master.   Once again, to summarize  memorize one or two sentences from an existing dialogue.  Many course books have these, but you can get them from a novel or movie as well.  Practice the short two or three sentence dialogue in your head or out loud until you have mastered it.  Then start changing the sentences.  Improvise with them.  You only need a couple of sentences to do this.  Start with simple changes, but then change them more and more.  Lets say memorize a sentence like, I have a ball.  Then change it to as many things as you can like, You have a ball, he has a ball, he has a house, he is a house, she is a house, she was a house, she was a cow, ect.

You want to master that one or two sentences to the point that you don’t even have to think about it.  Try to think of things faster and faster.  Then start changing two things at a time.  Then three things and so on.  Sometimes we worry more about quantityand forget about quality.  As

one my private Jazz teacher taught me, “Miles Davis usually played less notes than most people did, but what he did with those notes was more exciting, deep, and  moving than all the notes played by his peers.”  I think the same applies to Language.




Filed under How to learn

2 responses to “What to do when you can’t do anything

  1. Love the Miles Davis references.

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