12 Ways to Improve Your Second Language with Popular Culture

by contributor · 6 comments

By Melissa Dedina
Photo credit: Ed Yourdon

Language classes are fantastic.  I know I could never have learned my second language without a textbook and a teacher to go through it with me, because that’s just how my brain works.

However, I did eventually get to the point where the classroom setting couldn’t teach me much more, and more importantly, if I had to memorize another list of words (and make example sentences from them!) I was going to poke my eyes out.

I have known people who were disciplined enough to literally sit down with the dictionary and memorize vocabulary from it, but along my language journey I made an essential discovery: I am a slacker.

What follows is a list of some of the things I did next, all of which I found more entertaining than sitting down with my arch-enemy, the dictionary.  They helped me leave the entry-hall of “intermediate” and actually join the (in my case) Czech-speaking world.

Many of these suggestions aim to increase cultural competency as well as language competency.  It’s hard to fully appreciate one without having the other – no matter how well you know the words and structures of the language, if all your cultural references are to your home culture, people will still have trouble understanding you!  Plus, no matter how much you know about the culture, if you don’t speak the language well, you won’t understand its heart.

This series of articles will appear on Multilingual Living every other week in conjunction with Language Refresh 101, which is all about how to strengthen a faltering language.

Below is the second in this series of posts on how to improve a second language, this time using popular culture.

1.       Read books. Novels are entertaining, plus you get a massive sense of accomplishment from finishing one.  Not literature for the ages, not at first.  Find the equivalent of John Grisham or J.K. Rowling and read that. In fact, at first you might want to read the actual John Grisham or J.K. Rowling (or whatever interests you) in translation, since you already know the story going in.
This was essential for me as a very beginning reader, but eventually I found it helpful to limit translations and try to concentrate on books originally written in the language (though I still indulge in the occasional translation).

2.       I would note that children’s books, which seem like they should be easy, can actually be pretty difficult because they contain lots of very specific vocabulary that you often don’t run across in adult life.  For instance, motion words like wiggle, wobble, writhe, hop, crawl, skip, slither, sneak, trot, gallop, and scoot, not to mention nonsense words like heebie jeebies.
As an intermediate speaker I was happy to know your basic walk, run and jump.  I was able to discuss complex points of politics and religion long before I could have a proper conversation about children’s topics!  I’m not saying it’s not worth the effort; just don’t fall into a depression when you can’t understand “even” a book for kids!

3.       If you can handle it, join a book club!  If not, find reviews or criticism of the book to read through.
If you are very ambitious and less of a slacker than me, write your own book review or refutation of a review you read. Just mentioning that was a bit too much like homework for me, though.

4.       If you don’t have the stamina for whole novels, read newspaper articles. There is a wide range of vocabulary, not too difficult, plus you learn what’s going on in the world.
I didn’t get much mileage out of newspapers myself because at first it would have taken me a week or more to get much use out of a single newspaper, and it’s really only socially acceptable to read a newspaper in public the day it’s published!  Online newspapers can be a gold mine, though.

5.       Listen to music. Listen to what’s popular today, but just as importantly, listen to OLD music.  Find out what was popular in the 1960’s to 1980’s, for example, because those are the songs everybody remembers from their childhood.
If you’re lucky you can raid your in-laws’ music collection to find some treasures.  Otherwise, ask around or just turn on a classics radio station (if not available in your area, find some streaming stations online – you might be surprised what is available).

6.       Multilingual Mania wrote a piece on the benefits and pitfalls of learning a language through music.  She listened to songs over and over and kept a notebook with words she learned from them.  And check out this post by Susanna Zaraysky on how music can make you multilingual.
I did the same with songs and also with my Harry Potter book that was my constant companion for the five months it took me to read through!  If you are diligent like Melanie, or like me the first year or two, you will write the words down and look them up in the dictionary (a much more tolerable method for me than straight up vocabulary lists).
If you can’t quite be bothered, like me since I embraced my inner slacker, you will get excellent practice learning to infer from context.

7.       Watch movies: same as with music, focus on classics.  Also TV shows, new and old.  Find out what people watched in childhood and watch that.  (It’s useful even just to know titles and summaries.)

8.       Like with books, if movies are too difficult or time-consuming, start with the evening news, or, even better, commercials!  Commercials are actually great because they repeat often enough for you to catch what you missed the first time and they have catchy, easy-to-remember slogans and simple stories.

9.       Quote from movies, TV shows, commercials. Again, figure out what other people quote from and watch that (i.e. in an English context it is more useful to quote from The Godfather or The Princess Bride as popularly quoted movies, rather than movies less well remembered).

10.       While watching current or classic shows/movies, read about the actors, what else they’ve starred in, etc. Does your language have its own IMDB?
I also found the entertainment section of the newspaper, with its interviews with celebrities and articles on aspects of daily life to be a rich source of cultural information, presented in easy-to-digest segments.

11.       I slightly cringe to admit this, but reality TV is actually pretty informative.  I watched the national version of American Idol and a Big-Brother type show when they first came out, and both were full of different kinds of people in ordinary circumstances, using all the informal language and slang that that implies.  Reality TV kills your brain, but sometimes in a useful way.

12.       My husband tells about sitting in front of the television in the early 90’s, watching Dallas with the original English soundtrack turned on, repeating every line the characters said exactly as they said it.  His parents thought he was possessed, but he speaks top-notch English now!

I hope you enjoyed these 12 tips for how to improve your second language with popular culture. Stay tune for the next post in this series!

Have you implemented any of the suggestions listed in this post? How did they work for you? Do you have additional tips and suggestions for how we can improve our languages with the help of popular media? Share it in the comments section!

Melissa Dedina is an American married to a Slovak, based in Prague, Czech Republic, raising a 3.5 year old daughter with English, Slovak and Czech. Melissa speaks English and Czech and understands Slovak, her husband speaks Slovak and English (and Czech, French, Hungarian and some Russian), and their daughter K speaks English and Slovak-Czech. You can follow their language learning and language mixing experiences at Where Going Havo?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nathalie Tolchard April 13, 2011 at 2:42 am

I agree 100% with those tips!
I’ve been using most of them to improve my spoken English (I’m French). I’ve only recently discovered tip N.12 when I felt the need of speaking more fluently and faster. I was driving along listening to an English programme on the BBC and started reapeating everything I heard as fast as possible – like an interpreter would do. It does actually work and has become a nice way to spend time when I’m stuck in a traffic jam! It’s also a very good exercise for the brain and I sometimes do it when listening to programme in my own language.


2 Sarah @ Bringing up Baby Bilingual April 17, 2011 at 10:58 am

You make an excellent point that reading books for children in your non-native language can be discouraging at first!

Here’s two techniques I recommend when taking notes of new vocabulary you encounter while reading: jot them (and their definitions) in an address book whose pages are tabbed and marked with the letters; that way your entries stay in rough alphabetical order.

Also, try to include more information than just the definition (or translation): what other words are related to it but are different parts of speech? Does your dictionary provide any idioms or expressions that use the word? For example, for “to move” you might also note mover, moving (adjective), to move up in the world, and immobile.


3 Jose October 8, 2012 at 4:23 pm


Thank you for your tips. I try to follow what a great Spanish philosopher used to say: Do what you struggle with the most (or something similar, it´s not easy to translate it from Spanish to English).
And for me the toughest thing to do, to achieve, when it comes to learning a new language, is to educate my brain, to get it used to “think” in English. And what I do for it is to try to think in English all the time, even when I am alone.
Apart from that I try to focus on listening since it´s what I need the most to understand the native speakers. It gives you a lot of confidence when you can understand.


4 Lauren March 8, 2013 at 1:12 pm

I disagree with number 7. I had an Italian exchange student come over and we watched a movie in Italian together. The movie was Up In the Air, so it wash’t a classic, but they were all speaking so fast I could barely pick anything out. The other ways seem like a really fun way to improve a second language.


5 sibondavyi alexis January 23, 2014 at 10:22 am

that,s true because it has helped a lot and it is still doing so.


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: