How to Learn a Language with Twitter

A woman I once worked with in Germany was committed to learning the local language. She estimated that after a couple years of paying for books, class tuition, and language courses, she spent over $2500. And that number doesn’t even include her time spent or the gas it took her to get to class. (She now speaks German very well, by the way.)

$2500 is a considerable amount of money, but not that unusual. People spend thousands of dollars on airfare, lodging, and tuition for in-country language courses. They buy $500 language software. They pay $10 to $25 an hour–or more–for tutoring sessions.

Sign in Mumbai, India
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All that is fine, especially if you have the money. But if you’re willing to pay all that, why don’t you add in something to supplement–or in some cases replace–your expensive materials? I’m referring to something free. Something available to anyone with an Internet connection, as well as a computer, laptop, or mobile device. Something that requires no time or money commitment whatsoever. And something that’s surprisingly effective.

Why don’t you learn a language with Twitter?

Once  you set up an account at the main site, you can get going with your language learning by following any of these six steps.

1. Follow people who speak the language you’re learning.

One of the nice things about Twitter is that it’s not just globally available, but also globally popular. Whatever language you’re learning, I’m willing to bet that you can find people who use it on Twitter.

If you’re learning French, for example, you can go to a French speaker’s profile and read his or her tweets.

Tweeters tend to use casual language, and their Tweets often resemble spoken language more than, say, news reports do.

If you read a person’s profile, you’ll:

  • Encounter words that are actually being used for communication, not for teaching a language–no textbook language here
  • See concise messages thanks to Twitter’s character limits
  • Be exposed to slang and common phrases

While I’m reading profiles, I open up another tab in my browser and go to Google Translate. I’ll copy and paste a word or entire Tweet into GT and take note of the meaning. Google Translate isn’t perfect, but if you use a little common sense and intuition, you can make out a correct translation. The convenience of GT makes up for any of its translation impreciseness.

Something I just started doing is writing people’s Tweets down in my language journal. Then later I’ll convert my journal entries to flashcards and study them in depth. When I started using this trick, I could feel my language skills improving pretty rapidly.

How do you find people to follow? Well, to get started, you can search for a word from your target language, using the Twitter search box. If you’re learning Spanish and one of your hobbies is soccer, then search for the Spanish word for soccer: fútbol.

That search should bring up plenty of profiles. Then once you’ve found a couple people you like and who Tweet about subjects you’re interested in, you can follow them and follow some of their friends.

(Don’t worry. It’s not stalking. It’s social media.)

Don’t forget to look for videos. Some people will post videos of themselves talking, so be sure to get some listening practice in and watch those.

2. Tweet in the language you’re learning.

Inevitably, a couple of the people you follow will follow you back. That’s the nature of Twitter. You interact and communicate with strangers. People float an idea out to the world, and other people they don’t know butt in to the conversation.

(It’s only weird if you think about it too much.)

When people post interesting things, reply back to them in their language. Don’t be shy. You’ll get practice writing and putting words together to form coherent ideas. If you get stuck on how to say something, you can rush over to Google Translate.

Are you going to make mistakes? Yes.

But who cares? You’ll get better with practice. And if you make a mistake that’s so embarrassing that you’re mortified, just delete the Tweet.

Apple Store in Sapporo, Japan
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3. Get free instruction.

There are quite a few Twitter accounts that are devoted only to providing language instruction. They give out Tweet-sized lessons in grammar or vocab. Or they’ll link out to a website with in-depth language lessons.

You might think that this instruction is lower quality because it’s free, but I’ve seen some amazing lessons out there for the hefty price of $0.

There are so many of these accounts that I can’t even list them all, but here a few to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

If you know of any more accounts, feel free to mention them in the comments below.

4. Change Twitter’s language settings

Recently I discussed rapid language learning and explained the importance of “immersing” yourself in the language. One of the ways to approximate immersion is to change your social media language settings to the language you’re learning.

In Twitter, do this:

  1. Click the settings button at the top of the screen. (This is the button that looks like a cog.)
  2. In the settings menu, click Settings. The settings page opens, with the Account page open by default.
  3. In the Account page, change your language via the Language menu near the middle of the page.
  4. Click Save changes at the bottom.

Boom–you’ve just increased your exposure to your foreign language, almost effortlessly.

5. Discuss strategies with friends

There are a lot of language enthusiasts on Twitter who enjoy talking about anything related to learning languages. I’ve met a lot of interesting people on there.

As with a language-learning forum, you can trade tips, strategies and techniques.

But unlike with a forum, you won’t be arguing about minutiae because you’re maintaining one-to-one relationships with real people. When people take each other as individuals, they tend to have better manners.

It’s like you get the best, without the worst.

If you’re a language enthusiast, be sure to add me as a friend.

6. Read vocabulary words in context

Sometimes you’ll learn a vocabulary word in a course or a glossary and not really understand how to use it. Or maybe you logically understand how it’s used, but you don’t know it viscerally.

You can use Twitter to find vocabulary words being used in their natural context. Go to the Search bar at the top of the page and type in your word or phrase. Then just scroll through the results and enjoy.

Wrapping Up

Can you learn a language using only Twitter? Probably not. Or even if you theoretically could, I don’t know why you would want to limit yourself like that.

But given Twitter’s ease of use and availability, as well as its being free, I don’t know why you wouldn’t make it a part of your studying routine.