Peanut butter and jelly, steak and frites, wurst and bier… okay, I’m getting hungry! Those are just a few culinary matches made in heaven. Here’s another one that you might not have thought of: food and language. Bringing language into the kitchen is one hands-on learning technique to make studying a little more palatable! Here’s our recipe for success if you, too, want to blend food and language learning.
Last Updated: 31/07/2020
Food and Language Learning
Cooking is not just an entertaining activity (or a necessity); it can also be an effective way to learn a new language. In this article, we’ll explain just why taking your language practice into the kitchen can be so beneficial. We’ll also give you some concrete activities and tools, “utensils” if you will, to use if you want to try this original method of language learning.
So, why are food and language learning so compatible?
Food and language learning both bring people together
Think about where most conversations happen in your home. Probably at the dinner table, right? Mealtime is usually a communal activity (you do it with others, not alone). And more often than not, it is also a time for people to relax and chat. Therefore, food and language go together quite naturally. Learning a language in a relaxed environment (at home, or in a cooking class, workshop, or another setting we talk about below) makes students comfortable, and more likely to speak up. And as you already know, speaking is an extremely important language skill to learn.
Next, when you cook in a foreign language, you’re doing more than just learning words and expressions. Food can also give you insight into the culture of the people who speak your target language: way of life (table manners, length of mealtime, etc.), gastronomy, agriculture, history, and more. This can help you connect to native speakers more easily, especially if you have a conversation partner.
Food is also a way to get the whole family involved in your language journey. If you want to raise bilingual children, cooking a meal in your target language together makes language practice fun. Kids respond best to activities that don’t feel like school. Cooking is also a good activity for multilingual couples. It’s a way to improve your language skills and your communication in general, and to show your partner that learning their native language is important to you.
Full belly, full mind
Besides being a natural meeting place in your home, your kitchen is the perfect place for hands-on learning. Unlike an office or study, it’s a place where you are free to experiment, create, and get messy. That makes it a great environment for language learning. First, cooking provides exposure to a new lexical field (a family of vocabulary and grammar), that you don’t necessarily learn in language classes or textbooks.
Another related advantage is that instead of just reading vocabulary from a list, learning while doing lets you put what you learn into practice right away. A pomodoro is no longer an abstract concept that you read about in a book. It’s a ripe, red, juicy fruit in your hand, that’s about to become a delicious bruschetta or pizza sauce. Battre isn’t just an -re verb whose conjugation you’re struggling to memorize. It’s a way to take your oeufs from jiggly whites to stiff peaks.
Speaking of beating egg whites, associating movements with vocabulary words is a useful memory technique. If you ever went to camp as a kid, you might remember the name game ice breaker. Everyone sits in a circle and comes up with a dance move to go with their name. Campers then go around the circle, repeating each person’s name and unique dance move. It’s a silly but effective way to get people comfortable with each other, and to remember names more easily. The same goes for new vocab. You’re more likely to remember the verbs you just learned because your neural pathways connected the motions of cracking, separating, and beating.
Science says so!
If you’re still not convinced, you might be interested to know that linguists and computer scientists at Newcastle University worked on a 3-year study of this learning method. They gave innovative language/cooking classes to try and prove the efficiency of language learning through cookery. Students received recipes, instructions, images, and videos in their target language – one of seven European languages. The cooking utensils and kitchen tools students used were equipped with digital sensors that could even correct students when they made a mistake due to a language misunderstanding. British researchers are now looking into the possibility of making their “smart” utensils available to home chefs.
How to Incorporate Food into Your Language Practice
There are lots of different possibilities for bringing together two of your hobbies: food and language. Here are just a few:
Movies and TV shows aren’t the only way to practice listening comprehension in your target language!
I personally watch a lot of videos on the Spanish channel Cocina Para Todos to work on my kitchen vocab (and make something yummy while I’m at it!). Mery doesn’t speak toooo quickly, even though it’s not a channel specifically for Spanish learners, and she’s a super friendly host! It’s no wonder she has millions and millions of views!
During the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020, French chef Cyril Lignac started a cooking show called Tous en Cuisine to help people pass the time. Cyril taught a new recipe every day and featured viewers and celebrities who called in via video chat to cook along with him. One YouTuber, Cuisine Geek, made videos of himself trying out all of the recipes. They’re shorter than the full episodes, and in our opinion, easier for language learners to follow along with (especially since the ingredients and steps are listed in the description of each video). Watch all 70+ recipes here: Tous en Cuisine playlist
For beginners in French, the YouTube channel Français avec Pierre has a short playlist of cooking videos. Learn classic French recipes (in French, of course) like Quiche Lorraine and Croque-Monsieur!
MosaTip: In your target language, type “cooking + language” into the YouTube search bar to explore other videos. What chefs or cooking channels do you subscribe to?
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT, makes some of its courses available online to anyone who is interested in the subject. One of those is Speak Italian with Your Mouth Full, taught by professor Paola Rebusco. Over the 13 lessons of her half cooking class/half language class, Dr. Rebusco teaches “basic conversational Italian, Italian culture, and the Mediterranean diet.” All of the course materials (videos, lecture notes, activities) are included, but you do have to provide your own ingredients and kitchen!
MosaTip: If you’re a big foodie, explore the open course catalogue. You might enjoy other MIT classes taught in English, such as Reading Cookbooks: From The Forme of Cury to The Smitten Kitchen, Writing on Contemporary Issues: Food for Thought: Writing and Reading about the Cultures of Food, or Food in American History.
Linguacuisine is a free app developed by a research team at Newcastle University, created for food and language lovers. Choose the language you are learning, browse through their selection of recipes, and then watch the step-by-step video tutorial (complete with translations if you need them) to prepare your dish. You can even contribute your own recipes and videos for other language learners. Linguacuisine is available for iOS and Android.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to travel to a country where they speak your native language, schedule a cooking class, production tour, wine tasting course, or other food-related activity into your itinerary.
MosaTip: Activities like these are more interactive than simply going out to eat at a restaurant, so you’ll have more opportunities to practice your language skills.
With Airbnb’s fairly new “Experiences” feature, you can find a unique workshop or dining experience nearly anywhere in the world. Some of the workshops they highlight include rolling pasta with a real Italian grandma in Rome, and preparing a traditional Portuguese feast with drag queens in Lisbon!
France and Italy are two countries that are most well known for their cuisine. In France, Langueonze offers gastronomy workshops specifically for French learners. If you’re learning Italian, check out Cesarine, a community “showcasing the very best of Italy through food and friendship.” If you are able to travel to Italy, there are tons of culinary experiences to choose from, like market tours, street food tours, authentic dining experiences with a home chef, and workshops on Italian specialties like panettone, ravioli, and tiramisù. They are quite costly, but it’s hard to put a price tag on such a unique food and language experience. Since travel is somewhat limited right now because of the global pandemic, why not try one of their live, online cooking classes to tide you over?
MosaTip: Tour guides in most major cities can speak at least some English. And once they find out that you are an English speaker, they might try to modify their visit to cater to you. If it is a private tour, be sure to let them know that you’d prefer to practice your target language skills.
Recipes and cookbooks are fun resources for practicing your reading skills in your target language. (And a practical way to measure your level of comprehension… If your dish doesn’t turn out right you may have misunderstood the recipe!)
In the “olden days,” if you wanted to add a foreign-language cookbook to your collection, you had to bring it back from your travels in your suitcase. And seeing how heavy cookbooks tend to be, that wasn’t very practical. These days, you can purchase cookbooks in any language on websites like Amazon. Or, if you’re into technology, you can also print out or download recipes from the internet to your phone or tablet.
Choose a recipe that looks good, and translate it. You should write down your translation (in case you want to make the recipe again). But you should also add the most important words that you’re likely to come across in other recipes – think onion, flour, salt, bake, chop, etc. – to your learning stack in your MosaLingua app. That way, you’ll memorize them with our Spaced Repetition System and won’t have to look them up next time you see them.
MosaTip: Make sure to work through the entire recipe before you begin cooking. If you try to translate as you go, you might realize halfway through that you’re missing certain ingredients or tools.
These websites feature recipe collections in other languages, similar to Allrecipes:
- French recipes: Marmiton
- Spanish recipes: RecetasGratis
- German recipes: ChefKoch
- Portuguese recipes: Tudogostoso
- Italian recipes: Il Cucchiaio d’Argento
MosaTip: If you’re American, bookmark a good measurement conversion website right now. Most other countries in the world use grams and liters instead of cups and ounces.
Like I mentioned, food can be an easy way to involve your loved ones in your language learning endeavor. But it can also be a way to connect with other people in your town who are native speakers of or who are learning the same language as you. Here are a few websites that can match you up with other foodies in your city.
These are just a few ideas, but the possibilities are endless! In the comments, tell us how YOU bring together food and language in your own life or share your favorite recipes in your native language with our readers. Bon appétit and happy learning!
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