10 Unconventional Language Learning Ideas You Have To Try

Adult language learners most often cite that their number one language learning shortcoming is the lack of time they feel they have to commit to their projects.

It can be difficult to balance work, family, school, errands, hobbies and other interests with learning a new language.To boot; even when we manage to make time we often find ourselves out of energy, unmotivated or just plain bored with the learning methods we typically use.

There’s no reason why learning a language needs to be a colossal yawnfest. [Tweet]

We can combat the tears of manic boredom with the gamification of our projects and the integration of learning into everyday activities.

Check out some of these unconventional language learning strategies designed to both help you save time and keep things light.

1. Study In The Shower

I don’t know about you, but I always manage to do some of my best thinking in the shower. You can read more about that here.

Perhaps its just the relaxing nature of the hot water, but time and time again, I manage to carry on conversations with myself in Russian, or think of blog ideas, or just generally clear my thoughts so that I can approach my problems from a new angle.

The problem with shower thoughts however is that they’re a lot like dreams – we so often manage to forget them the moment we set foot outside into the merciless, icy clutches of the bathroom.


With arm hair and nipples erect, our thoughts turn to how inadequately warm our towels are and how much of a Lovecraftian nightmare it is to pull pants up over damp legs; our brilliant plans and schemes spiraling down the drain with the bathwater.

That, however, is exactly why some entrepreneurial genius invented this thing. It’s really just a notepad for your shower, and any serious language learner should buy one, and damn right it’s an affiliate link!

Not only is this great for recording your thoughts before they fly out your ears; if you’re learning a language with a new writing system, such as the trifecta of brushstroke terror that is Japanese, it becomes a marvelous opportunity to practice your characters while your brain is buzzing with heightened thought process.

Want to make it even more fun?  Bathtub Crayons. ‘

Bath crayons! That’s right; you no longer have to draw with your finger on the steamy glass.

These ridiculously cheap childrens’ bath toys allow you to draw all over your shower or bathtub walls just like a little kid. Combine that with your language studies and you know you’re doing something horribly right.

You know you want to.

Just don’t get them mixed up with the sharpies. Mom might get mad.

2. Create a”Swear Jar”

I mentioned this idea a few months ago in another post, but I feel like it’s good enough to go over again.

Once you’ve mastered some fundamentals it’s time to get serious about creating as immersive a learning environment as possible – unless of course you can actually immerse yourself, in which case you should still do this because it’s fun and easy.

This works best if you’re learning with a friend, significant other or family members as you can help enforce each other’s mishaps..

Grab a jar, and during select times (or all the time if you’re really feeling like the Titan of Tongues) commit to only using and speaking your target language.

Any time that you break the rules you place a dollar (or whatever, a cookie if you really want) into the jar and record this slip-up on a piece of paper (or whatever, a stone tablet if you really want…)

At some predetermined time or after some predetermined number of mistakes, the participant(s) with the fewest slips can claim the entire jar as their own.

Alternatively you could put this money towards language learning materials or books that you’ve been trying to save up for.

This sounds like it may also be a really fun monthly activity for foreign language or ESL teachers to use in their classrooms or conversation groups. I haven’t personally used it in a classroom setting, but I’d be extremely curious to know how it works out if anyone’s interested in giving it a shot!

3. Video Games

I don’t really pretend to hide just how hopelessly and inexorably into gaming I am. If I’m not learning languages or doing LATG things I’m probably slaughtering little pixelated Roman soldiers by the thousands or building horrible spaceships filled with zombies.

Or something.

And lets face it – geek chic is in and a huge portion of the language learning community is nerdier than purple duct tape overalls.

Maybe gaming isn’t your thing, but if it is you’re sitting on a treasure trove of new vocabulary just waiting to be conquered at sword-point.

Most big name video games right now support at least three to five additional languages. These are most commonly Spanish, German, Russian, French and Japanese. Some of the games lack full audio support, but just reading the subtitles engages your brain in a meaningful way while you waste your time doing something you’d be doing anyway.

Unfortunately if you’re not learning one of these languages, or a select few others that manage to make the cut from time to time, this may not be the best strategy for you.


There are still certain games, such as Minecraft, that offer support in an absolutely absurd number of languages including but not even remotely limited to Cornish, Manx Gaelic, Esperanto and even Pirate.

I find that this strategy works due to the often highly repetitive nature of many video games. It’s kind of like flash cards except a lot cooler.

While much of the vocabulary in certain games is rather niche, you never know when the zombie apocalypse could begin and when it does it’ll really pay off to know how to yell “QUICKTOSS ME THE CHAINSAW!” in French.

So put on your cape and your wizard hat and change your game settings to your target language!

4. Try Teaching

So this one may not be especially unconventional, but chances are you haven’t bothered trying it because lets face it – it’s kind of a lot of work.

An idea probably best reserved for more advanced learners – teaching your new language to a beginner might be just the reinforcement you need to not only keep your own motivation up but to build speaking confidence and motivation in others.

There are actually plenty of resources available for those interested in reaching out to others in a teaching capacity. A quick Google search will reveal all sorts of tutoring opportunities with both paid and volunteer organizations.

The website iTalki in particular allows users to teach online video chat courses and actually make a little bit of money while they’re at it. I’m not entirely sure what their policy is on non-native speakers, but chances are if you’re going to try to make money teaching a language you’re going to need the skills to back it up – so this probably isn’t the route to take if you’re a language newbie.

5. Look For Foreign Language Recipes

Food is the great unifier. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, chances are pretty good that you eat. One of the most enjoyable topics that I encountered while running ESL conversation groups was food, not only because everyone can relate, but because it often resulted in some amazing dishes from around the world showing up for conversation groups.

Learners frequently compare and trade recipes, bring in an assortment of entrees and deserts from all over the world and everyone generally has a good time.

It’s all well and good to eat foreign food prepared by a foreigner, but what about trying to cook your own foreign dishes using recipes written in your target language! 

You can probably find any number of foreign language recipes simply by running a few Google searches.


If that doesn’t work, you can always try connecting with other language learners and trading recipes directly. If you’re learning via a language exchange on Skype, have your partner(s) write you some of their favorite dishes and email or IM them to one another.

Just keep in mind that if you’re American, chances are the recipe you’re receiving uses The Metric System!

Cleavers, knives, complicated foreign measurements, broiling hot surfaces and limited proficiency in the recipe’s language – don’t worry,

I’m sure you’ll be fine.

6.Create a Grocery List

"The New Fred Meyer on Interstate on Lomb...Moving on; if you eat food – which we’ve established that you do – you probably also have to buy at least some of it.

This extraordinarily easy language hack turns what is normally a mundane task into a bonafide safari of veggie spelunking. [Tweet]:

Just write your grocery list in the language you’re learning. Most smart phones have grocery list or notepad apps that allow you to write your list using an alternative keyboard – this may be a decent alternative to writing by hand if your handwriting is poor or if the mobile option is simply more appealing to you.

You can download any number of language dictionaries or translator apps to your phone. As you do your shopping and inevitably come across items you either forgot, or suddenly decide that you need to have, you can do a quick search for the word and actually add it to your list.

This is a great way to expand your food vocabulary and make your shopping trip a little bit more interesting..


7. Pandora, Spotify or Rhapsody (Internet Radio)

We all know how great listening to music in our new language can be a great way to learn, but you can actually find a lot of foreign language content on the various popular Internet radio systems currently available.

Internet Radio – for those of you who don’t already use it – allows you to customize your playlists as well as discover similar music to things you’ve liked in the past. Likewise it will gradually come to learn what you dislike as well and will avoid similar artists or songs.

To start finding great new foreign music all you have to do is discover a few bands or artists that you enjoy. You can use YouTube or Google to shop around for a favorite or two, and then run a search on the radio program of your choosing.

Pandora, for example, will then attempt to find other music similar to whatever you searched for, thus building your library and expanding your musical horizons.

The three most popular Internet radio stations are Pandora, Spotify and Rhapsody – another affiliate link (below).

8. 100 Photos

This was another activity that I mentioned a few months back;  it is worth revisiting because it’s always been a favorite.

I call this exercise 100 photos, but you can call it whatever you please. It consists of grabbing a camera (or your camera phone) and heading outside into the wild.

I know, scary stuff.

Actually, try not to make it too wild. Go somewhere you’re somewhat familiar with – down town, into the woods, or even just walk around your home. Take a collection of photographs of anything and everything that strikes you as interesting – or mundane for that matter.

You could even combine this with number 6 and take photos of your exploits raiding the grocery store.

Regardless of where you find inspiration, take your new collection of photos home and either upload them to your computer, leave them on your phone, print them off or have them developed if you’re using film.

Alternatively for the lazy among you, you can simply use an existing photo album, such as those embarrassing college pictures filled with glazed faces and dixie cups  you keep hidden on your Facebook page.

Personally I find that having a physical copy of the photographs helps.
Choose a photo at random from your album and, with a timer, give yourself 30 seconds to describe out loud the photograph in as much detail – in your target language of course- as possible. Try to gloss over mistakes and cram as much vocabulary and description into the time limit as possible.

As soon as the timer is up, grab another picture and repeat the process.

This exercise is great because it really draws extra attention to your snap recall ability. With time, you’ll get faster and more creative as you really reinforce vocabulary you’re working on and dredge up older words you thought you had forgotten.

9. Creative Writing

Taking notes is boring. I’m horrible at it myself and take every opportunity not to do it, even if it really is one of the best ways to learn.

But we can make writing in our new language much more interesting by getting creative.

It doesn’t matter if you have the storytelling capacity of a mime, you can still write a super short story – maybe even as short as 2 or 3 sentences, about anything you like.

There’s also poetry. Just listing rhyming words and then trying to pair them up in interesting ways can really expand your own perceptions of your current lexicon.

What I mean by this is that as you write – regardless of how much or in depth it may be, you are actively discovering new ways to use old words. Chances are if you’ve been studying a language for a few months, you’ve already learned the most common 1,000 words. 1,000 words may sound like a lot – and it is a lot- but you’d be amazed at how many words you actually know and the incredible number of ways you can use them..

Combining 1,000 words in new and unique ways will open up tens of thousands of new pathways for conversation later on.

10. Scavenger Hunts

In the same spirit as the grocery list, why not take things a step further and create for yourself a linguistic adventure that takes you all over town?

Create a list for yourself, a friend, or even an entire class, and set out to locate each of the items on the list. The area in which this hunt is conducted can be as large as a city or the entirety of a vacation destination or as small as a single room or bucket full of odds and ends.

A scavenger hunt is an incredibly scale-able exercise that can be created for virtually any level. Advanced learners can create complex and abstract requirements such as ‘a painting of an old man’ or ‘an airplane landing on a runway’ and newer learners can hunt for chipmunks and celery.

Another great group activity – you can conduct this search with a friend or family, making sure to spend as much time communicating between yourselves in your new language as possible.

Consider pairing this adventure with the swear jar to really make things challenging.


If you’re looking for something new to help maximize your learning efficiency without significantly interrupting the flow of your busy schedule, or looking for great ways to add some excitement back into a stagnating language project, give some (or all) of these a try!

After you’ve tried some of these strategies, please leave a comment and let me know how it went!

What are some other nifty tips, tricks and activities that you like to use in your projects?

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Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he’s not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

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Brian Powers

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he's not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

  • Charlotte Etienne

    These are great ideas, I love the 100 pictures idea because it’s very practical and works for any level.

  • siglinde

    hello, can someone advise me a good webpage/app or else to manage collaboratively scavenger hunts online?

  • Love your creative approach! For me, anything that gets me writing is good (aside from writing exercises in a grammar book, i just don’t enjoy that). So grocery list, labeling, texting, commenting, and yes, creative writing (as in, a journal) works. Writing, especially full sentences, seems to really rev up my brain and makes the language stick so much better.

  • I do love the idea of 100 pictures! I will use it for sure with Russian and advice it to my students of italian.
    I like and use the grocery list and looking for recipes in a foreign language, i think that’s extremely useful, since you can really apply your knowledge and do something concrete at the same time.
    I noticed that my students like a lot when we play “Memory”: we first study the vocabulary, then i make them sit around a table and spread all over cards with pictures of the words we studied. every time one student takes a card, s/he has 10 seconds max to tell the name of the object. If it’s right s/he will get 1point. They like it a lot and for me it’s really enjoyable!

    • That sounds like a really great activity! Let me know how 100 Pictures worked out for you!

  • Daryl Flamm

    A thought on #4. I believe it was Elbert Einstein that said “If you can not explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. So step number four would make a lot of sense to anyone who is trying to understand where their weak areas are. I’m personally not at that level yet, but do find myself testing my knowledge of mandarin by trying to explain one basic rule to a friend. If I stumble while explaining how to count in mandarin or explain the tones to my friend, than I don’t understand it well enough.

  • Hi Barbara!

    That’s really great to hear! I think you should definitely go for the writing! It doesn’t matter how basic it is.

    Thanks for the awesome story. I like your point about the grocery lists – cooking for yourself will save you a lot of money, but tourists are often drawn to “touristy” things – which of course includes frequently eating out.


  • After landing in Sweden in the summer of 2013 for a 6-week stay, I quickly discovered I’d studied all the wrong vocab–I was prepared to ask “touristy” questions (location of the bathroom, ordering in restaurants, requesting a different hotel room, etc.), but I was not square on what I’d really need to live there in our flat/neighborhood as members of the community.

    Just as you’ve suggested, I found the grocery list and recipe books to be very helpful, especially since we ate out very little, but shopped and cooked daily. I watched cartoons with my kids, who were happy to absorb the language through shows they were familiar with, as well as new shows. I bought books in Swedish while there and read them when returning home (children’s books and novels that were on my reading list, anyway). I made myself speak Swedish, even when people I encountered were happy and eager to switch English.

    I’m continuing to study Swedish (along with Netherlands and Spanish), and I’ve changed the language on just about every device, app, and browser setting possible to keep Swedish a part of my daily life, along with more typical strategies like daily conversation and classes. I think my next step is to move into writing: I’m already a fiction writer, and plan on a career as a literary translator, so maybe some flash fiction in my target languages won’t be TOO painful!

  • Shana, I’m thrilled to hear that you’re going to give it a shot and I can’t wait to hear how it goes.

    You’re right – it’s a very easy exercise to custom tailor to your individual or group needs.

    Thanks a lot for your comment!


  • Shana Thompson

    I love the idea of the swear jar! There are so many ways this could lead to productive language practice. e.g. Two language enthusiasts (friends) keeping track of each other’s jars ($.25 for each sentence/time not in the target language) and then reward money can be equaled out and spent for a night on the town! Thanks for sharing. Always down for new competitive language learning techniques!

    I’ll report back after I try it out:)


  • Hi Mike,

    That’s an awesome story and a great parenting strategy.

    Ahhh Runescape, I haven’t thought about that in more than a decade.

    Thanks a lot for your comment and for reading!

  • IronMike

    My wife homeschools our kids. They were studying German a few years ago, and my wife would allow them to play Runescape as long as they were in the German world. When I returned from deployment, I laughed to myself as I was relaxing on the couch and my two boys, then 11 and 12, were debating on the difference between hatchet and axe auf Deutsch!