Know someone who has the gift of the gab for new languages? Someone who loves to challenge themselves to learn a new tongue? Be it for work, for practical reasons, or purely for pleasure, there are many ways to tackle a new language, from immersion, to rote memorization, and everything in between. These days, thanks to technology, we have even more options at our fingertips. If you’re looking to give a gift to a perpetual student of languages, or someone who has just embarked on learning their first foreign language, here are some gift ideas, culled from our own personal experience:
CLASSROOM TIME: Most of the time, when we have wanted to tackle a new language, our first port of call was to see what classes might be locally available. And, few things are quite so successful, we must confess, at keeping us on track and disciplined in our studies. Whether it’s a one-evening-per-week session, a five-days-per-week intensive immersion, or a lunch time class near one’s workplace, there are many options out there. If your prospective recipient really wants to learn their targeted language but happens to be struggling on the self-discipline front, check out local classes and give them the gift of some classroom time. Can’t find any local classes? Check out online options. The website italki, for example, helps connect folks with tutors in varying languages all over the world. Even once-per-week sessions, we find, help keep one’s studies on track. There’s quite nothing like being held accountable every few days, never mind the opportunity to connect with others who share your interest, while getting in some practice - both oral and aural - at the same time.
VOCAB BUILDING APP: Recently, we’ve been trying to brush up some of our foreign language skills and found that there are many more resources available online since we last made a serious effort to improve. Most noticeably, a whole crop of apps designed to augment one’s studies have cropped up, making it easy to transform a bus ride or time spent waiting in line at the post office into productive, vocab-learning time. In the interests of research, we downloaded a whole host of apps to test them out. Eventually, we honed in on one: Drops. Why did this one stand out? Because we really wanted to focus on building our vocabulary, using other sources for grammar study and practice. The great thing about Drops is that it really does make vocab studies feel rather game-like with lovely visuals and varying ways of interacting with words, from quasi-spelling them, to mix and match scenarios, amongst other techniques. Users progress through different topical units, accruing a wide range of words over time. We also like the fact that a voice says each word as you practice it and we always try to repeat each word after the recorded voice, to further cement it in our subconscious. The free version of Drops allows you 5 minutes of practice every ten hours, earning bonus time for regular practice. After several months of using the app this way, doing 5 minutes in the morning when we woke up and 5 minutes at the end of the day, we availed of a discount offer to upgrade to full access. Now we can practice whenever we want - and we can use the app to practice vocab in more than 28 languages. If only we knew a quarter of them! Suffice it to say, we think this is a pretty swell app to gradually build up one’s vocabulary in one or more foreign languages and is well worth considering as a gift to the language learner in your life.
CHILDREN’S BOOKS OR WORKBOOKS: When studying a new language, it’s often fun to have some basic stories in the form of children’s books to practice one’s reading skills. There are many fewer bookstores these days, and even less foreign language bookstores. So, you’d think it would be easy to source foreign language books online, no? That’s not always the case (unless, perhaps, you happen to speak the foreign language yourself and can order directly from a native language site). Depending on the language you are looking for, children’s books can sometimes be pretty hard to source, or, where there is some availability, the selection may be thin on the ground. For that reason, if you are willing to do a bit of due diligence - researching a source and placing an order - a couple of children’s book in your recipient’s language of choice can make for a great gift. For bonus points: consider trying to source the foreign language edition of some of their childhood favorites. Do check local listings, you may be lucky enough to find there is still a local bookstore focusing on the language your friend or family member is studying - for example, residents of New York, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco (among other cities) looking to study Japanese are lucky to have the bookstore Kinokuniya, in their backyard. Failing local options though, online sources you may wish to check out include: Schoenhof’s Foreign Books, Powell’s, or Amazon.com’s foreign language section. For bonus points: in the card accompanying your gift, you may wish to put your recipient onto The International Children’s Digital Library which makes a number of children’s books available online in a variety of languages.
WET-ERASE PRACTICE CARD: If your gift recipient is just beginning to learn a language that uses an alphabet they are not familiar with, the first step will likely be to learn that new lettering system. Part of getting any alphabet solidly under your belt is knowing how to write it and that can take some practice. Enter a simple laminated practice sheet. Why laminated? So you can use a wet erase marker and practice on it over and over again without wasting paper. Pre-made sheets are available for purchase for Hangul (Korean), Hiragana (Japanese) and Arabic, among other alphabets/languages. That said, if you can’t find a pre-laminated sheet that meets your needs, we know from personal experience, that it’s easy peasy to create a practice sheet in a word processing program (or download one from the internet) and bring it to a copy shop to get it laminated. Pair it with a pack of wet-erase markers and, boom, gift away!
BLANK FLASHCARDS: Whether or not your gift recipient will be practicing vocab online, we have found that it’s invariably handy to have physical cards to hand to generate custom vocab packs, or simply to have an offline version available while in transit or WiFi access is sketchy. Pre-printed cards exist but our teachers always tended to emphasize the benefits that come simply from creating one’s own cards and we second that bit of advice, having experimented with both routes. Moreover, blank cards gives one the flexibility to add slang and/or words and phrases that may not be in your text book (but that you’d still like to learn) into your study rotation. Pair a box of blank flashcards with a language appropriate dictionary, a set of colored pens and/or a pack of highlighters to create a “super study pack.”
IRREGULAR VERBS REFERENCE: For many languages, irregular verbs can be among the trickiest things to master. And, interestingly, even with today’s wealth of online resources, it can sometimes be hard to find the infinitive for a given verb form, or to quickly reference less commonly used verb forms. Chances are, however, that a book cataloguing all the forms for key verbs is already available. For example, if your gift recipient is studying Korean, you may wish to check out 500 Basic Korean Verbs, if they are studying French, 501 French Verb - or, Russian, The Big Silver Book of Russian Verbs. You get the idea! Once your student is deep enough in their studies, one of these can be an invaluable resource.
KEYBOARD SKIN: This is another one for folks studying a language that uses an alphabet different from their native one. In this situation, chances are they will at some point like to avail of the corresponding foreign language keyboard on their computer. One can usually follow along (or type by mouse click) via a mini onscreen keyboard in the other language, but it might be easier for your language learner to use a keyboard skin that shows both their native alphabet and the alphabet of the language they are studying. Just be sure to double check your recipient’s computer model to make sure you order them a correctly sized skin.
MOVIES & TV SERIES: One of the reason’s folks often embark on learning a new language is because they’re big fans of the/a culture that uses that language. If that was the motivating factor for your gift recipient, consider exploring the entertainment options available in that language. Local opportunities can arise in the form of a film festival. For example, the MFA here in Boston periodically hosts a series of films from a particular country or region. If you have a similar such venue in your area, you may wish to consider gifting your recipient access to a series in the language they are studying. Another option is in the form of digital content. For example, DramaFever has gathered together a great selection of Asian content, from movies, to TV dramas, many of which can be accessed for free. For full access, however, one can subscribe a variety of ways - be it directly online, or via Amazon.com (among other avenues). If your gift recipient is studying Chinese, Korean or Japanese, we venture to suggest that a subscription like this might well be welcome. Similar channels exists for other languages and/or language groups, and Netflix seems to be really beefing up its foreign language options too, so if your recipient doesn’t have a Netflix subscription, that could also be an option. Last but not least, if you’re looking to snag some foreign language DVDs, do check out eBay which we’ve found to be a great place to connect with overseas sellers and/or buy used copies of films (usually more affordable and no less enjoyable!). Just be wary of pirated copies - not only are they illegal, but the quality is often second (or even third) rate. Bonus: if you want to go further than the whole nine yards and are gifting a specific movie or TV series to someone, see if you can lock in a transcript. That way, your recipient can easily check something that they heard in the language they are studying, while still availing of subtitles in their native tongue.
MUSIC: As with movies and TV, music offers another way to immerse oneself in another culture and another language, be it lounging around at home, on your commute in the morning, or while working out at the gym. Even if you don’t know what kind of music your recipient likes, no problem. These days, it’s easy peasy to gift digital credit which they can then use to buy the music of their choice. Based on personal experience, the iTunes store seems to have a stronger international catalogue than, say, Amazon.com, but it looks like the latter may be making efforts to catch up.
CULTURAL IMMERSION EXPERIENCES: Last but not least, consider treating your gift recipient to a bit of cultural immersion by doing something fun. Plane tickets to a destination where the studied language is spoken will typically be too expensive but local options are often plentiful - be it lunch in Chinatown if they are studying Chinese, an evening of Korean karaoke for the Korean language learner in your life, or dinner out at the Frenchiest French restaurant you can find for the Francophile wanting to practice their French food vocabulary. Other cultural immersion gift ideas include: a cookbook for dishes made in a region where the language is spoken and/or a subscription to a magazine written in the language being studied.
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