I love words. Maybe I have an innate appreciation for them, or maybe my affection was born of necessity – because I was an immigrant and never wanted to be behind. Either way, I’ve been interested in language and vocabulary since my early teens.
Even so, learning vocabulary can be tedious – even for a logomaniac (my word-of-the-day a few weeks ago). So, in case it helps anyone else, here’s a way I discovered to make it more fun. My challenges when trying to learn new words in a language with which I had some familiarity were:
- If the language (or its alphabet!) is still new, it can get tiring to read very much or for very long. Instead, you need bite-sized pieces, or you might not want to start in the first place.
- Finding words that you don’t yet know – but that you want to know – is difficult. Vocabulary resources often give you words that are too advanced – or that are so obscure as to be useless to you; for example, species of birds or anatomical terms used only by doctors.
- Remembering words is tough, especially when introduced to you by Word-of-the-Day sites or other sources that don’t provide context. You may memorize the word, but then be unable to actually use it when it would work in a sentence.
My unusual solution? Instagram.
For those who don’t know, Instagram is a social network on which users post photos with captions – like Flickr, Picasa, or Photobucket before it. You post one picture at a time, with as much or as little of a description as you like – and on a theme or at random. So, it’s perfect for language learning!
Here’s how you use it: First, think of a topic you like. For me, it’s travel (obviously); for you, it might be fashion, cooking, babies, or sports. Then, get an Instagram account (you don’t have to post anything yourself!) and follow accounts that focus on your topic, in the language you want to learn. Scroll through the photos from your accounts every day or two, and write down any words that you don’t know. (I like to use flashcards, but that part is up to you.) Rinse, and repeat.
The more advanced you are in your language knowledge, the longer the captions on the accounts you follow should be. So, for travel buffs learning beginner Russian, you might follow @tourismintheheart, @puteshestvie, and @locomotion_world. However, if your Russian is advanced, you might follow @the_travel_world, @st.online, and @landscapes_ru – which all have longer captions, with more complex words.
If searching for your topic in your language doesn’t turn up any meaningful accounts, look for government or cultural organizations located in the country of the language. For example, the Fotografiska Museum in Stockholm has an excellent Instagram account that can help you learn Swedish (I presume), and the city of Khabarovsk has an account useful to Russian learners. Or, you can pick interesting people whose first language is the one you’re learning, and follow them. Two Russian ones I’ve discovered are @life_in_tokyo and @_albina. Many of these accounts will actually write their captions in two languages (one of them often being English), so you can get a sense of the meaning without immediately running to Google Translate – and its dubious accuracy in languages other than French and Spanish.
Here’s why I like this method (and no, the fact that I came up with it is not one of the reasons!):
- Most of the photos on Instagram are beautiful and fun and certainly more interesting to look at than text dictionaries.
- The captions often describe a story or an idea or a place, and the visuals are memorable. So, when I review a word later, I can mentally tie the definition back to something visceral.
- Reading Cyrillic can get tiring when you’re out of practice. Knowing that I’m only trying to make it through a few sentences makes me willing to do it every day.
- The captions are written by native speakers of the language, so they use words that are in common parlance right now. (Unlike me, who likes to use words of all sorts, regardless of their timeliness.) I don’t have to worry that I’m learning an outdated term, and I can easily identify commonly-used words that I don’t yet know.
After two months of this, I can confidently say that my Russian has improved significantly. Even if I’m not sure how often I’ll need to use the Russian words for sourpuss or tribe. On the other hand, I feel confident that the word for customs will come in handy.