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Katelyn McGill

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Thoughts on Language

Language Learning with Five Senses: Sight

I cannot commit a word to memory until I’ve seen it written. Preferably multiple times. Ideally with some photographic assistance. Once I realized that, I started powering through reading material in my target language.

Yet again flying to Poland, I am surrounded by a language very different to my own. Consonants brush past my ear. I don’t have a chance to absorb their meaning.

Winnie the pooh in Polish and English

Opening the in-flight magazine, I see my native language peppered throughout the blocks of Polish text. My eyes savor the unfamiliar words at their own pace. I imagine the sounds, decipher the meaning and relate text to imagery. The pages awaken words that laid dormant and forge new connections.

Words on a page require your undivided attention. As an avid multitasker who is mildly addicted to podcasts and Instagram, giving my mind nothing but text to absorb is surprisingly refreshing. I can break apart the words into bite-sized meanings, put together the puzzle of an entire phrase, or let the page transport me into a story. Language learning is a generally social endeavor, but reading is one of the times when it can be delightfully solitary.

Books aren’t the only way to absorb language with your eyes. If you are in an immersive setting, you are surrounded by signage, advertisements, graffiti and pamphlets. Everywhere you turn is an opportunity to enjoy a new bit of vocabulary.

Another way to think about learning through your sense of sight is to imagine how you learned new words as a baby. When you learned to speak, someone would say “ball” and point to a ball. Your mind had a direct connection from word to object. The thing existed because it had a name. As adult learners, we don’t have a kind and patient person who will follow us around telling us the word for everything we see. That’s why we put sticky notes on our trashcan to remind us it’s “basura”. Trust me, if you take the time to do this, the visual reminder will never leave your head.

Eine Tasse, which means "a mug" in German, written on a sticky note on coffee mug to learn German

This image-to-word can be reverse engineered thanks to the modern wonders of the Internet. The next time you encounter a word you don’t know, try an image search. The context of the word plus the variety of images may help the meaning click on a deeper level.

Vorto app interface with

When I studied Latin in high school, I used to draw pictures of the words on my cards. It helped me remember. These days, I can’t imagine taking the time to make flashcards by hand, much less drawing visual reminders. Selfishly, we created Vorto with ourselves in mind. As Michal was putting together the learning interface, he added images. That’s why, when you add a word or phrase to your library in Vorto, it’s automatically paired with the top result from a Google Image search (don’t worry, it’s the safe search). The algorithm can yield some strange results, but I’ve found that the more unexpected images burn the meaning into my brain even more than expected.

Whether you take the digital or the analogue approach, I highly recommend incorporating more eye candy into your language learning routine. If I take my own advice, maybe the next flight to Poland won’t leave me feeling so exasperated.

Thoughts on Language

Talk with your Hands

Do you love learning new languages but can’t gather the cash to travel abroad? Have a hard time speaking without moving your hands? Want to get in touch with a whole new community?

September 24-29 is National Deaf Awareness Week in the United States. The week focuses on promoting the positive aspects of deafness, encouraging social inclusion, and raising awareness of the organizations that support those who are deaf.

Colleen tells us how she merged her love of languages and kinesthetic learning into an obsession with American Sign Language (ASL).

Thoughts on Language

Language Learning with Five Senses: Hearing

We all learn best when the experience is meaningful. Engaging all five senses makes a stronger connection to the information we are trying to absorb. Each sense can become another hook onto the information and makes the meaning deeper and more lasting. As babies, we tried to put things into our mouths to understand them better. So, let’s try to be a bit more like babies and approach language learning from all the senses.

In this series, I’m going to talk about how to stretch yourself beyond the typical boundaries of textbooks and language exchange. I will be using my target language, Spanish, as an example. But it will be pretty clear how you can apply these ideas to any language you are learning. So without further ado, here are some ways to engage your ear holes into the language learning process.


If you’re learning Spanish and haven’t yet listened to Radio Ambulante, you are in for a treat! Each episode is thoroughly researched, emotionally engaging and well-produced. To top it off, each episode has an English and Spanish transcript available. Because this show covers all of Latin America, you also get a chance to expose yourself to many accents and types of slang.

Of course, it may be hard to find quality podcasts in your target language. The selection may be narrow, or you may not find topics that interest you. But the nice thing about Podcasts is that they are free to listen and easy to produce. So keep searching! The subject matter may even give you some nice material for the next time you are in conversation with a native speaker.

Native recordings

While learning your target language in a classroom or with a textbook, the language you are hearing may not be the most natural. That’s where native speakers become your friends. A great source for finding native material in EVERY language you can imagine is Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages. They pull heavily from WikiTongues that has a vast library of native recordings.

Self Recordings

This one is the most difficult but also most rewarding. After you hear a lot of native recordings, you might think that you talk with the same accent that you hear. Don’t be fooled. Shannon Kennedy has an excellent explainer in her blog about how recording yourself can help your learning, along with some excellent examples.

If you don’t want to record videos, try sending voice recordings to language partners on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. You can listen AND get feedback at the same time.

TV Shows

According to the 2013 EF English Proficiency Index, which included 60 countries, the top three countries in terms of english proficiency, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands, all use subtitles instead of dubs for everything except for children’s programs. Meanwhile, Spain, Italy, and France, which mostly use dubbing for movies and TV, have only moderate to low English proficiency.

Want to get Swedish-level proficient in your target language? Start by finding shows that were written in your target language. Up next on my Netflix queue is Casa de Papel!

If you can’t find shows that interest you in your target language, don’t fret. Just type the name of your favorite TV show and your target language in the YouTube search bar and start enjoying your old favorites with an educational twist.

Follow the socials

This one might accidentally engage other senses as well, but following people who speak your target language on social media is a great way to pipe native content into your cochlea.


This is the type of audio input that goes straight to your soul. Music was how I learned some of my first Spanish words, and when phrases are set to melody they can stick with us for a lifetime. I don’t think a single person reading this will forget the word despacitoAnd I remember learning the subjunctive tense and then feeling the joy of identifying it in a Shakira song. Beyond grammar, listening to songs in your target language will explain why the heck everyone is asking “el anillo pa cuando?” And at that, I’ll leave you with some of my favorites.

Thoughts on Language

Trail Talk

Hiking doesn’t seem like an inherently language-oriented activity, but the last several hikes we’ve been on have involved speaking and hearing multiple languages. There’s something very satisfying about greeting your fellow hiker. As a result, I had to get very good at the jumble of consonants in the Polish “cześć” or the gutteral sounds of the French “Bonjour” and the inevitable “Je ne parle pas français” when my fellow hikers have follow-up questions. Beautiful hikes draw locals and out-of-towners alike, which made for a fun game of guess the language when we were hiking to the Old Man of Storr. And there’s something special about the patience that hikers have. We’ve all developed an appreciation of the progress you can see after taking one step at a time.

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