One day I was at my bike mechanic’s in Toronto, trying to initiate an intelligent conversation about an awful screeching that was emerging from the heart of my bike. It was a bottom bracket but the word “bottom bracket” wasn’t a part of my vocabulary at that point.
In Russian, this piece of metal is called “каретка“: a nice little word that both Google Translate and my Russian-English dictionary translated as “carriage“. Well, nice try. A wide-eyed stare of my bike mechanic gave me a cue that a “carriage” is anything but a part of bike anatomy. Reaching mutual understanding revealed to be quite challenging if not merely impossible.
And so I was standing there, nearly performing a magic sangoma dance with finger pointing and gnashing to describe my bike problem until something clicked.
I pulled out my phone and soon had the name of the bike part I needed to be fixed. Bottom bracket it was. My beloved Cannondale stopped making heartbreaking noises and I emerged on the sunlight with almost a “Eureka!” feeling.
I could use Wikipedia to learn a language. And, as I later discovered, the Free Encyclopaedia has more to offer to the struggling language learners than a mere translation of technical vocab. So let’s dive right in.
Why should you use Wikipedia for language learning?
When you don’t know where to start, start with Wikipedia.
This ultimate human knowledge database allows you to quickly gain the basic background information of any subject from the Normandy landings to the phonological system of Maori to the biography of Grumpy Cat.
But despite being free, written in 303 world languages and containing billions of articles by natives of each language, Wikipedia remains largely undiscovered by the good part of language learners.
Which, ladies and gentlemen, is a shame.
Wiki can be used at any phase of your language learning journey (and even when you haven’t started one yet). It is an incredible tool that opens a lot of opportunities for both beginners and advanced language learners.
Quick warning: you shouldn’t consider everything written in Wikipedia to be valid, scientific and grammatical. After all, the opinion of a rocket engineer can be overridden by any school kid with an F for both physics and liberal arts. So set right expectations from the beginning: think of Wikipedia as of a large repository of texts in your target language. Your brain will figure out what’s grammatical after collecting enough language data.
Now, how do you use this multilingual information hub proudly called Wikipedia to learn a language on your own?
#1 Translate specific stuff
It’s hard to find what you are looking for if you don’t know what you’re looking for. That was the case with that notorious bottom bracket and – later – with a bunch of linguistic terminology I desperately needed to translate in French.
And as you may have figured by now, Google Translate is not the place to seek help from. Dictionaries, unless they are specifically designed to deal with your topic, are of no use as well.
But Wikipedia is a gem. You can simply search for an article related to the term you need in a language you know, say, in English. And thanks to the “Languages” tab, you immediately get a flawless translation of all the untranslatable stuff.
Moreover, should you read the article you pulled out and you’re guaranteed to grasp a dozen other related terms within your topic. Thus, a “bottom bracket” quickly connects in our brain with a spindle, a crankset, bearings, sprockets (and other words you don’t know how to pinpoint to your bike). It is certainly not a part of “survival” everyday vocabulary. But naming stuff with words other than “this thing over there” makes you look more intelligent.
#2 Practice narrow reading
Narrow reading is a sprint vocabulary building technique invented by language learner and linguist Stephen Krashen. Instead of trying to grasp a handful of words from here and there (typical classroom approach), he suggested reading within one topic, one author or one genre. And, considering the number of specialized articles on any subject possible hosted on Free Encyclopaedia, you can learn a language with Wikipedia using just this technique.
For example, in one period of my life, I was interested in two things: lucid dreams and Greek. And as I always try to kill two bird with one stone, I decided that it was the time to merge my main interests for productivity reasons. The problem was that I had no idea how they called lucid dreams in Greek.
But, using Wikipedia magic described just a section before, I landed on “Συνειδητό όνειρο“. And so there was a whole world ready to be read, learned and explored davantage with inbound links, “see also”, “read more” and – God help us – whole categories.
Wikipedia acts as a good seller: everything that can spark your interest is already linked to another page, which, in turn, is linked to a dozen other pages. By the end of a count, you end up creating a reading list filled to the top with Ψεύτικο ξύπνημα, Ύπνος REM and Παράλυση ύπνου.
Honestly, no matter what language I read in, I always end up finding something interesting to read later.
#3 Read featured articles in your TL
Learning a language with Wikipedia can be incredibly fun when you narrow-read stuff that personally interests you. The sad truth is, however, that by no means all pages are available in your target language. English and top-10 most spoken tongues are predictably responsible for roughly 80% of all the content on Wikipedia.
Nevertheless, there is something that only your target language will have to offer.
Think about it. No one will write about Italy better than Italians themselves. Now search “Italy” in Wikipedia and throw a quick glance at the “Languages” tab. You’ll see a gold star next to Italiano. It means that Italians made a pretty good damn job in putting together a complete, unbiased (haha) and comprehensive article about their country.
It is not always gonna be the case. But still, keep looking for these stars. You didn’t choose your target language out of the blue: you had a reason for learning it. Whether it is an upcoming trip, work requirement or a simple attraction for the culture, knowing a thing or two about the country is always helpful.
#4 Stock up with free language learning resources
My favorite way of using Wikipedia for language learning is exploring the language itself – preferably even before taking any decisions. A quick overview of grammar, writing system and phonology tells me exactly what I’m getting into and what I should start with (and if I should start at all).
So if I’m thinking about learning Thai, I head to the Wikipedia page for – you guessed it – Thai language and scan it until the frustration comfortably sets in.
Because usually, I don’t like what I see at all. For example, with Thai, I see three types of aspiration, 18 vowels, 19 diphthongs, three triphthongs, and five phonemic tones. After this little intro to Thai phonology, my brain gently whispers me to press Ctrl+W.
The rightmost thing to do in this situation is to control your “flight” impulse and scroll down to find real goodies. At the very bottom of every language page, you’ll find learner’s resources, dictionaries, keyboards, literature, word lists, and glossaries as well as some software for ear training.
And this is how you take the most of Wikipedia for language learning.
#5 Explore the annals of the TL culture
When it comes to setting on the course, my biggest headache is to find time worthy resources (the more the better) that I could read, listen and watch for months to come. So having a full list of movies, books, and podcasts ready to be explored is a must.
And guess what Wikipedia is? Right, the full list of movies, books, and other media in any language. Categories like “Films by language“, “Books by language” or even “Magazines by language” are notably worth checking. So do it right now.
Obviously, Google Search does the good job as well. But it can sometimes become surprisingly clueless to what I’m actually looking for. So having backup options like Wiki is always a trump card.
Do you use Wikipedia for language learning? If so, how does it help you? I’ll be happy if you share your thoughts in the comments below!