Five stars - what you hope to get from your TV picks in a foreign language! Image from freeimages.com

Joyful, Joyful TV for Maintenance Language Impetus

I type this fresh from the jubilance of seeing my favourite Stjernekamp (Star Fight) contestant sail through to the final of the popular Norwegian TV series. Alexandra Rotan, known to many as one third of Eurovision act Keiino, sang her heart out and won a place in the final two.

Watching light entz and pop culture in your target language is always a popular tactic in polyglot circles, and for good reason: it’s just plain fun. I spotted a recent #langtwt tweet cheekily polling people’s favourite ‘trash’. And while I’m far too nice to call it that, I do get the sentiment – it’s content which is far from high-brow, but unthinkingly, unchallengingly cosy and feel-good.

So it is with the wonderfully joyful Stjernekamp.

The Sun Always Shines on (Target Language) TV

The thing is, I’ve not been making a deliberate effort to get more of it into my life lately. Norwegian is one of my most beloved and strongest foreign languages, but currently, I’m just maintaining it rather than working actively on it. The reason it keeps budging its way in, hitching a ride on Stjernekamp and other vehicles, is impetus.

Back in my active learning phase, I’d done the groundwork already. I’d followed norsk favourites like Stjernekamp, Skal vi danse and Maskorama on all my social media channels, filling my daily scrolls with target language. I’d downloaded on-demand apps from Norway, and set up notifications for all those shows. And they’re all still there, popping up in my line of sight, without any effort on my part.

And that is the very essence of maintenance.

Keeping It Light

Granted, it’s getting easier and easier to do this today. A click of the Subscribe button, and you’ve forged a pipeline supplying language input 24/7. With international TV franchises, a lot of that input is warmingly familiar, too.

But a word of caution: I’ve found the tone of what you choose really colours your attitude towards the language. Stjernekamp – much like other musical reality shows, like the BBC’s Strictly – is a thing of pure joy. Frivolous, fanciful fun. In my Norwegian fallow season, it has become what the language is to me. My heart leaps a little when a notification pops up.

On the other hand, for some languages, I ignored those instincts. I added – gulp – serious news feeds instead. Now, I’ll backtrack a little here, as I’ve sung the praises of adding current affairs feeds in the past. That’s because in some cases, it does work a treat. For instance, many apps, like NRK’s news service, allow you to select the topics to be alerted on. Science and technology? Tick for me. And other services, like podcast series News in Slow and Radio Prosty Polski, break the stories down into short, manageable chunks.

On the other hand, the Polish TVP Info app just gives you everything in all its shocking, miserable detail. And, especially lately, everything in the news can be a bit… hmm… depressing? That’s not to mention the elevated style of news articles and frequent pomposity of style. Give me singing, dancing celebs over that any day. Needless to say, I dejectedly swipe away most of those TVP alerts. I clearly need to spend more time streamlining my Polish apps and socials to redefine what Poland is to me in a much happier light.

The moral here, of course, is be mindful about your media. It can make the difference between switching on and off to your target language(s).

What pop culture media helps you stay switched on to your target languages during a maintenance phase? Let us know in the comments!

 

Books for restoring!

Restoring Books at Home

If you hadn’t noticed from my recent blogging fervour, restoring second hand language books is my latest hobby obsession. There’s something beautiful about rescuing discarded treasures from forgotten bookshelves, and making them useful again. Plus, they’re dead cheap. It’s a hobby that can easily become addictive thanks to the bargains to be had.

That said, if you want a smart, tidy bookshelf, some of those books will need a little tender loving care. When first faced with slightly grubby, neglected and bashed about titles, my first thought was: how on earth do you clean a book? I mean, plain old soap and water isn’t going to help matters here; nobody wants to read a damp Teach Yourself.

Thankfully, paper-friendly clean-up isn’t too hard at all, and you may well have many of the tools at home already. Here are some of the best methods I’ve found for brushing up my ever-increasing hoard of yesteryear’s language learning resources.

By way of disclaimer, I’m no expert – just a book lover who has Googled this stuff endlessly over the past couple of months! If you’ve come across different advice or have other book-restoring tips, please let me know in the comments.

That’s the Spirit!

My number one, can’t-do-without item for sprucing up tatty books is surgical spirit. It’s excellent for cleaning glossy-cover paperbacks for a couple of reasons:

  1. It’s not caustic, like bleach-based or similar solutions
  2. It evaporates quickly, so doesn’t drench and damage pages
  3. It has strong antibacterial properties

For covers, I dampen a kitchen towel with some spirit and wipe outwards from the middle of the covers to the edges. Always be careful not to scuff or over-dampen the card edge. Done well, this can make glossy colour picture covers positively pop.

Teach Yourself Polish book cover

Teach Yourself Polish, 1993 – now with added shine

For book edges, you can apply some spiritual cleaning by switching to a dab technique. Moisten your cloth or towel, and simply pat the sides of the book down slightly, taking care not to rub too vigorously.

Boots do a 500ml bottle of surgical spirit for just over a fiver, and it lasts for ages.

Fighting Foxes

Foxing – those little brown spots on the sides of books – used to give me the heebie-jeebies. I assumed they were organic marks, like mould, which might spread to other books.

Fortunately, foxing is almost always completely harmless. It’s generally the result of reactions between paper chemicals and air, amongst other things, more or less akin to rust on metal. Granted, they’re not the most aesthetically pleasing, so you wouldn’t be blamed for wanting to improve the appearance of foxed books.

I’ve had great results by gently filing away fox marks with a nail file (also a great remedy for yellowing book edges). Note that it does take some time and requires some care, being a destructive process, if only mildly so. For good measure, I dab the filed edge with a cloth slightly moistened with surgical spirit afterwards.

Book restoring - fox marks on an old book

Foxing – before filing

Book restoring : after filing fox marks away

Foxing – after filing

Getting Things Straight

Perhaps one of the most common types of damage you’ll come across is page creasing and dog ears. It’s tempting to go straight for these with you hands to try and uncurl them, but this can cause even more damage and breakage if the crease is old and worn in, or the paper is thin.

Instead, get yourself an egg-cup of warm water and a cotton bud. Dampen the bud slightly, and use it to tease out the dog-ear and roll it flat. It’s a much gentler way to get things straightened out.

If you’ve had to do a lot of de-creasing, you might also find it helpful to press your book back into shape. You can use boards (like flower-pressing boards, for example) and a vice for this, but it’s much simpler to leave it under a bigger, heavier book for a day or two.

Holding Your Nose

If there’s one rogue smell you notice most on a second hand book, it’s the dreaded smoky house. I’ve had a couple of books that quite obviously spent a lot of time around tobacco, and if that’s not your thing, it can be quite off-putting.

Luckily, you may well have the magic treatment in your kitchen cupboards already. Bicarbonate of soda or baking powder work an absolute treat on smelly items. Seal the book with a spoonful of powder in a freezer bag, and leave it for 2-4 weeks. It’s honestly astonishing how effectively it minimises odours.

Cover Up

After all that hard work making your old books beautiful, you want to keep them that way. And plastic book jackets are the way to go! They’re available at loads of places online, as well as major bookshops – I’ve been picking them up for around 60p each at Blackwells.

They come in a range of sizes to fit standard book dimensions. As you work with more and more books, you will become geekily acquainted with those measurements. Say “Teach Yourself” to me, and I’ll fire back 198 millimetres! like a shot. (Told you I was becoming obsessed.)

Plastic book covers

Plastic paperback covers

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat…

Unfortunately, there are bigger nasties than a bit of foxing and yellowing. Sadly, some books end up in much worse states than these techniques can remedy. But all is not lost, and a bit of Googling throws up all sorts of heavy-duty book rescue tips.

This post – pictures not for the squeamish! – shares a particularly impressive restoration story about a cache of roach-soiled tomes. And if you can stomach taking on truly filthy material as a restoration project, innovative cleaning techniques range from putting a book in the oven on a low heat to treat infestations, to using fancy UV-C sterilisation boxes. Thankfully, the big eBay book sellers don’t sell anything quite so unsettling, and I’ve never had to turn to these extreme techniques. I’ll think I’ll stick with standard scuffs, dust and dog ears, personally.

But it’s good to know that even the most unfortunate volumes can be saved!

The Spanish flag

Resurrecting Spanish : How Old Languages Never Really Die

I’m writing this post, rather excitingly, from sunny Valencia. Yes, cheap EasyJet city breaks have returned! And this brief Spanish jaunt is particularly pertinent, as it’s my first trip overseas since the pandemic started. A promising sign the world is opening up again, and I’m filled with gratitude at that. Monumental.

It’s also notable for being my long-overdue to Spain – and to Spanish.

I’m going back to my roots with this one. Spanish was one of the first languages I chose to learn (rather than have chosen for me by the school curriculum). As a young school lad, I started learning with the long-forgotten BBC textbook España Viva in readiness for a holiday with my mum. The (distinctly 80s-ish) pictures of Spanish day life piqued my appetite to experience it for myself, to immerse myself, to connect with it. And what a thrill it was – that trip is one of my earliest memories of the pure joy of communicating in a foreign language.

Spanish Steps

By coincidence not long afterwards, my school laid on a special “spare time”, two-year after-school GCSE Spanish course for keen linguists, probably to gain a well-needed GCSE league table boost. I lapped it up, and then just kept it going – all the way to college and university. I was Rich, the German and Spanish scholar. It was part of my identity, what people knew me as.

But then, I graduated – and Spanish stopped.

Of course, the signs were there that I was drifting away from the Hispanic. My Spanish had always played second fiddle – albeit a loud one – to German at university. Although I loved studying the language, I chose to spend my year abroad in Austria as I wanted so ardently to study the dialects there. Then, after finals, I fell straight into a German-speaking job.

I had no Spanish-speaking friends, no contacts in Spain, and no real footholds in Spanish pop culture to keep it regularly in my life. And with each passing year that separated me from uni, I found fewer and fewer reasons to keep running with it. Even after retraining as a teacher, the only jobs I could find with my stronger German were teaching it alongside French, not Spanish. Ironically, that very poor third-placed French of mine became more important for work than the language I spoke, once upon a time, quite fluently. It seemed like my Spanish was doomed to oblivion.

But then, Valencia – and it was like an old friend turning up on my doorstep after years apart.

Practising my Spanish on market day in ValenciaPractising my Spanish on market day in Valencia!

Why do we let go of languages?

As my story shows, our connection to language may wax and wane for all sorts of reasons. It may just be, as with me, that life takes you in a different direction. There could also be cultural, or political reasons that your target language country no longer feels like a home from home.

On the other hand, external forces can nudge us, too. Knockbacks from others, like unforgiving native speakers in the real world (as opposed to the cocoon of education), can frustrate the effort to keep up your level. I remember feeling horribly deflated when told that my Spanish accent was “a bit non-native” in some recordings I did for a language game in the mid-noughties. Just as well I have my German, I thought. When feedback isn’t coming from a tactful, supportive teacher, the no-frills nature of real-life feedback can feel barbed.

Going Easy on Yourself

That said, I was probably taking myself far too seriously, back then. I’m supposed to be good at Spanish, I told myself. If my accent is bad after years of study, what’s the point? And it’s exactly that kind of destructive perfectionism that can wreck our relationship with a language, too.

Thankfully, time has tempered that perfectionist streak. Back in Spain, I don’t feel that pressure to be good because I’m supposed to be! any more. And, with a more relaxed approach, I’ve found Spanish coming back to me more than willingly.

And guess what? Nobody commented on my funny accent. Everybody understood me. And I understood them back.

I might just have rekindled that old friendship.

In many ways, it’s hardly surprising that a trip abroad reawakens an old passion for a language. The excitement of on-the-ground immersion is what keeps many of us fuelled. But it’s worth remembering that old languages never die; they’re just off doing other things, waiting for you to get back in touch in your own time.

Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

Going Old School with Language Learning Flash Cards

You might have noticed that I’m partial to a cheat sheet in my language comings and goings. There’s only so much you can hold in short-term memory before a speaking class, and having a scaffold to hand – even gamifying it, where possible – can be a boon. Crib notes, cheat sheets, flash cards – they’re par for the course in language learning. And everyone seems to have their own favourite label for them.

Now, my first thought when making these things is: which app is best for this? But to be honest, I’ve been a little apped out of late. Sometimes, the tech can take the focus while the language takes a back seat, and that defeats the whole object. Too often I’ve spent time faffing with note settings and layout before getting down to the main event.

Flash Cards on Cue

As if on cue, our evening class Gaelic tutor recently prompted the group to dispense with the tech and go old school. Our homework task was simply to create paper crib notes for the material we were finding trickiest, and set them in prominent places around the home. She calls them ‘bingo cards‘, by the way, proving that everybody in the world does seem to have a different term for these linguistic comfort blankets.

So, out came the colouring pens. I’m a fiend for new stationery – a predilection I’ve noticed is shared by a lot of us bookish linguaphiles. I had a fresh pack of Staedtlers just begging to feel useful. I knew it – they weren’t just an impulse buy, after all.

The Magic in the Doing

As with all these things, the magic is in the doing, as much as the result. Investing a bit of time and creative energy into your resources doesn’t half help you cosy up to your language. I was pretty loved up in my index card creations and their technicolour irregular verb decorations on one side, and English prompts on the other:

Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

Homemade Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

I must admit, I didn’t overthink (or even plan) them. Rather than faff, I just had fun. The colours don’t have any special significance apart from separating tenses from each other. But it doesn’t matter – they say little things please little minds, but I was quite content to keep my mind little and my thinking nice and simple with them.

The verdict? They’ve already helped me in Gaelic convo starters – a lot.

Sometimes old school really is the best school – especially when it provides an excuse to buy more stationery.

Greek flag. The Flag of Greece. Photo by Michael Faes, FreeImages.com

Your Greek Learning Library – for Just Over a Fiver!

If you walk into any high street bookshop, language learning can seem like an expensive business. Brand new, shiny textbooks are a not inconsiderable purchase for many, requiring careful deliberation. Modern Greek is no exception. A glance at off-the-shelf prices for some popular titles includes an eye-watering £34.99 (TY Complete Greek) and £42.99 (Colloquial Greek).

But brand new doesn’t necessarily mean better.

You might have followed my recent efforts to recreate the bookshop shelves of my youth. Buying (and in some cases, buying back) those old language learning titles made me realise something: there are some fantastic, used language learning books out there. Some are out-of-print; some of them are simply earlier versions of the same, expensive, new resources. True, a few references and social contexts might have been updated. But chapter for chapter, they’re often almost exactly the same.

And the best thing? They’re all cheap as chips.

Greek on the Cheap

So which three used book treasures should be at the top of your Greek learning list? There are quite a few to choose from, but here are some tried-and-tested favourites to set you on your way. They’re titles I’ve used – and am using – myself, and they’re all extremely effective in different ways.

At the time of writing, all of them were available for £2-4, including postage, on eBay.

COLLOQUIAL GREEK (N.WATTS)

Routledge Colloquial, the mainstay of many a serious language learner, still feature this excellent title by Niki Watts. However, the 1990s edition of the book, available for a snip at eBay, is just as solid a resource as the current print. What’s more, the dialogue audio is available for free on the Routledge website – and many of the dialogues are identical between the editions. Even where things differ, that’s a good opportunity for you to use your nascent Greek powers to make sense of it all on the fly!

TEACH YOURSELF Modern GREEK (S.A.SOFRONIOU)

The old version of Teach Yourself Greek saw reprints well into the 1980s, and is a traditional language manual with a much more old-fashioned, grammar-based approach than Colloquial Greek. However, that step-by-step route is methodically perfect for building up a sound knowledge of morphology and syntax, helped by the fact that the book is arranged into short, easily digestible chapters. Use it side by side with a more modern, communicative course book, and you’re hitting the language from all sides. I know iTalki teachers who still swear by this book!

Hugo’s GREEK IN THREE MONTHS (Z.Tofallis)

Like the Colloquial and Teach Yourself titles, there are alternative incarnations of Hugo’s Greek in Three Months. I recommend the older version for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the second edition was completely rewritten by Niki Watts, author of the Colloquial title, and it’s nice to have a variety of different educators on your bookshelf. Secondly, that older title is a little gem, containing some lovely list sections on colloquial and idiomatic Greek, and a unique taster of modern Greek literature in the appendices.

Brushing up old books – quick tips

Here’s the rub: shiny, new books can be attractive for that very reason. There’s nothing quite like getting an untouched, pristine copy of a language learning book in your hands. Used book are just that, and when they drop onto your doormat, they sometimes turn out to be quite obviously so.

But don’t let it put you off! It’s quite easy and inexpensive to spruce up tatty old books. As a self-confessed germaphobe and long-time OCDer, there are some techniques that clean and sanitise enough to satisfy even me (and I’m a right fusspot). There’s enough material there for a whole article, and I’ll most likely write one soon, but in the meantime, here are some quick tips:

  • use surgical spirit (rubbing alcohol) and a soft cloth to gently buff glossy book covers – this brings a real shine back to them, and the alcohol both evaporates quickly (not saturating the book) and has antibacterial properties
  • moisten cotton buds to tease out dog-eared pages gently, rather than ripping / breaking delicate damaged paper with your fingers
  • carefully sand the page edges of books with a nail file to lighten yellowing and remove small marks like foxing
  • leave books to flatten between boards topped with heavy items (like other books!)
  • deal with any ‘old book’ odour by leaving the book in a plastic bag with a spoon of bicarbonate of soda for a week or two (or longer)
  • invest in some plastic dust jackets to cover your books in – after you’ve given them a loving makeover, these will protect them for even longer!

There’s a real Zen about giving old books some TLC in this way. It’s both very chilled and extremely satisfying – especially when you marvel proudly at your learning stash, realising that you saved yourself pounds and pounds in the process.

A memory knot tied to a finger (image from freeimages.com). Greek passive verbs like 'remember' can be tricky to conjugate.

Greek passive verbs in the past – quick tricks

I’m all for pattern-spotting and quick heuristics for faster fluency. If something will help me communicate faster, it’s a win in my book.

That’s why I was recently chuffed to add a special new trick to my Greek arsenal. Specifically, it relates to the past tense of passive verbs. Well, I say passive, but many Greek passives correspond to active forms in English, and are quite high frequency:

θυμάμαι thimáme I remember
κοιμάμαι kimáme I sleep
φοβάμαι fováme I fear

Passive Knowledge

Passive conjugation is very different from the active in Greek. You usually come across it quite late in Modern Greek textbooks, too, so it can be an issue for many beginner to intermediate students.

Thankfully, there’s a shortcut that works for many of them. Namely, -άμαι (-áme) often becomes -ήθηκα (-íthika) in the first person past tense. Strictly speaking, that past is actually the aorist, the tense that expresses a single, completed action in the past. So we have:

θυμήθηκα thimíthika I remembered
κοιμήθηκα kimáme I slept
φοβήθηκα fováme I feared

Of course, that’s not the whole picture. But that -ηκα (-ika) fragment appears almost everywhere in other passive conjugations, like a variation on a theme. With a few extra rules, like -ζομαι > -στηκα (-zome > –stika) and -εύομαι > -έυτικα (-évomai > –éftika), you can cover even more:

ονειρεύομαι onirévome I dream ονειρεύτηκα oniréftika I dreamt
εργάζομαι ergázome I work εργάστηκα ergástika I worked

Once you have those active rules down, it’s pretty easy to extend it to other common conversational forms like ‘you …’ – for that, simply replace -a with -es:

θυμήθηκες thimíthikes you remembered
εργάστηκες ergástikes you worked
κοιμήθηκες kimíthikes you slept

As a rule of thumb, it works quite well for speeding up conversation forms. And of course, if you misapply it, or use it on a verb that doesn’t fit the pattern, the person-and-tense markers of -ηκα/-ηκες are strong enough that (hopefully) you’ll still be understood. There’s no shame in mistakes when you’re learning – especially if they don’t get in the way of communication!

I’m a big fan of learning frequent forms over whole verb tables generally – it’s a trick that just works. Hopefully, with this handful of –ηκα and –ηκες, you’ll be set to speed up your own Greek conversations too!

Polish verbs of motion - my mistake-ridden brain dump!

Slavic Kryptonite: Vanquishing Verbs of Motion

Every foreign language has its kryptonite. Sometimes it’s a common sticking point that takes most learners time to really get. Other times, it’s a personal stumbling spot for an individual learner. For me, it’s verbs of motion that are my strength sappers.

So why are they so difficult? Or, rather, why do I find them so difficult? I’m not denying the possible existence of some polyglot supermind that simply understands them at a click of the fingers (and I bow down to that mind!). But, for me, verbs of motion take time to grasp as a native speaker of a non-Slavic language. Namely, they have an extra layer of granularity compared to the comparatively simple come and go in English.

First of all, like many languages, Polish makes a distinction between going by foot and going by vehicle. Nothing strange there – for example, decidedly non-Slavic German does the same with gehen and fahren.

But in Polish (as well as many of its Slavic sibling and cousin languages – perhaps all of them, although I’m sure someone better-versed can correct me!), there is also a split between going once and going frequently or repeatedly. These can be formed from quite unsimilar roots, too; to go (on foot) in Polish is either iść or chodzić. So, we have:

  • idę do szkoły
    I go / am going to school (now)
  • chodzę do szkoły
    I go to school (regularly, as I work / study there, for example)

Brain Dump Horror

So far so good, then; just a few extra nuances and verb tables to learn. Now, I thought I had those covered, but there’s always room for revision. So, one evening this week, I decided to do a brain dump to check what I remembered. Brain dumpage, of course, is always worth doing regularly to audit your language skills. I splurged as much as I could remember onto a sheet of paper, then checked my results against a good grammar book.

It wasn’t pretty.

Polish verbs of motion - my mistake-ridden brain dump!

Polish verbs of motion – my mistake-ridden brain dump!

Present tense? No problem. Past and future? A disaster.

To be fair, I could have seen it coming. My poor iTalki Polish teacher has been subject to my unconfident fumblings for the right going word for some time already.

It was time to sort it out.

Verbs of Motion : A Strategy

Here’s the thing: knowing conjugations and grammatical intricacies off-by-heart are important for serious study of a language. But if your goal is to speak fluently, then simply having a few common forms confidently in memory is arguably more useful. In any case, some linguists, like Bybee, argue that this is how we build up and reference our native languages too – not as grammatical tables and rules, but as interconnected exemplars in the mental lexicon, ready-for-use, pre-conjugated models from exposure that we use for reproduction.

Of course, you could say that my Polish-learning brain was doing a bit of that already. If you look at my red-bepenned brain dump above, the past tense bits of to godid get right were the first, second and third person masculine forms – probably frequent parts in my own conversation.

But then, what about what I do with other people? The we bits of the paradigm clearly needed some work. And then, talking about friends and family – for that, let’s add in the they parts. Gradually, a picture emerges of what I need to add to my vocab drilling. This useful list at the ready, I then add them into Anki as individual vocab items, and they’re on the conveyor belt to stronger recall. Here are a few for illustration:

  • pójdę
    I will go (on foot, once)
  • (po)jadę
    I (will) go (by transport, once)
  • szliśmy
    we went (on foot, once)
  • jechałem
    I went (by transport, once)
  • jeździłem
    I used to go, would go (by transport, multiple times)

…and so on. Fingers crossed, talking about moving and shaking will start sorting itself out soon.

Break it down, build it up

It’s a great trick, but time-old and simple: break a bigger problem down to slowly build up your competencies. You can apply it to verb patterns in many foreign languages, not just Polish, as well as any other aspect that seems too multifaceted and complicated to grasp all in one fell swoop.

The next time I do a brain dump of Polish verbs of motion, I hope I’ll get a few more right. And if I do, I expect it will have more to do with working on those key forms, rather than developing a photographic memory of entire verb tables.

Polylogger makes tracking your study hours easy. And it can throw up some revelations! Image from freeimages.com

Polylogger Revelations

I finally boarded the Polylogger train and joined the enthusiastic activity tracking community a couple of weeks ago. And to tell the truth, it’s been a bit of a revelation.

Chances are you might well have beaten me to the best seats already. Polylogger already has a well-established, sizeable, active and very sociable fanbase on social media. In fact, it was on Twitter that I first spotted fellow language aficionados singing its praises, so it seemed timely to hop on board already. Better late than never!

Getting started was a cinch. It’s quick and easy to sign up, and the study diary tools are a piece of cake to use. When you get into the swing of things, logging – and watching those graphs grow – is real language geek fun. I love being motivated by what other people are working on, and have already spotted a couple of new resources I didn’t know about through community entries.

But to make the most of the tool, it was what I should be logging that I needed to sort out first and foremost.

That is, what counts as a study session? Just those substantial chunks of time, like hour-long iTalki sessions? Or every little thing, including the odd couple of minutes minutes here and there on casual language apps, or a brief podcast listen during breakfast?

The great #langtwt community, once again, had the answers. It should definitely include the latter. After all, those little bits and pieces all add up. So, off I went, logging my language learning life.

But what secrets did Polylogger have to reveal?

Polylogger : exposing your true habits

By far, its most scandalous exposé for me is the mismatch between what I think I focus on, and what I actually do spend most of my time on. Let’s call it delusion-busting, since I certainly had a very different idea about what I was getting up to. In my mind, I split my main language learning time equally between Greek and Polish. They’re my current active learning projects right now, and I’ve been having at least one iTalki lesson in both every week, as well as fitting in independent activities. I’d actually set Polish as my default language, assuming it was the one I was prioritising most, even attending extra group classes with my tutor.

The thing is, the Polylogger stats do not lie. Shockingly, I’ve actually been spending hours more on Greek. Pretty much twice as many, in fact. How could I not know that?

After analysing the diary stats, the reason jumped out (and was pretty easy to guess in any case). It’s back to that logging every little thing strategy. The numbers show that I naturally fall to Greek when I do my little daily pass-the-time activities like Anki, Duolingo and Glossika. In the long run, that was a massive added value for Greek, and none for Polish. Polish was certainly no poor cousin, and I was working in a couple of major sessions a week – just not the cascade of extras that Greek enjoyed.

No wonder I’ve been finding Greek easier and easier while my Polish level continues to edge along so gradually. Thanks to Polylogger, I can start to rethink my strategy and redress that bias.

Polylogger has been a revelation in itself, providing extra focus and deeper insights into my learning. Whether you’re new to the tool too, or a seasoned user, feel free to add newbie @richwestsoley to your circle!

A big slice of cheese. And Anki moved mine! Picture from freeimages.com

Who Moved My Cheese? Anki media folder, Mac edition

It is actually a fair while since I last tinkered under the Anki hood. I haven’t needed to, to be honest. I’d set everything up just right for my current clutch of active and maintenance languages way back, and everything was chugging along nicely.

But polyglot dreams never sleep for long. The need for a fresh round of customising came from an exciting new side project, Croatian. Easy, I thought. I’ll rustle up some cute Croatian card layouts, complete with a cute wee flag.

The problem: everything had changed!

Frustratingly, it was no longer possible to access the media and backup folders from the app itself. There must be some rationale behind this, of course, and it’s not hard to reason why. Wrong moves when messing with app files can be dangerous for your precious vocab database.

But, for low stakes operations like simply dropping an image into the media folder, it seems reasonable to have access to it (with a helpful dose of caution!). Unfortunately, there’s a dearth of how-to out there right now. It took a bit of Googling and re-Googling to find the answer. But, finally, I sorted it.

And here’s how!

Anki media folder (Mac)

The Anki library folder now lives in the following place on a Mac:

/Users/[your_username]/Library/Application Support/Anki2/[your_anki_name]

However, the path is probably hidden to you from the Library level up. To get round that, bring up your username folder (Users/[your_username]) in Finder. Then,  hold down command (⌘), shift and the full stop (period, .) key to show hidden files and folders. You should now see a whole load of extra items, including the Library folder. Drill down from there along the above path, and you should end up in your Anki directory.

If it’s not there, then it’s also worth trying the ‘all users’ version of that path:

/Library/Application Support/Anki2/[your_anki_name]

Once you’ve located it and entered the (now) secret lair, it’s still collection.media we’re interested in as before. You can drop whatever you like in here, and refer to it in your card templates and other custom Anki items – just like in the old days!

Once you’re done, of course, you might well want to hit command (⌘), shift and the full stop again go hide all those oddly-named bits and pieces – until the next time!

 

Social bookending can help glue your foreign language conversations together. Image of paper dolls from FreeImages.com.

Social Scaffolding from the Past

Social bookending is one of my favourite foreign language conversation hacks. In a nutshell, it’s the process of building a bank of starter, fillers and closers that support you in everyday speaking. It’s a topic I return to again and again, as it’s well worth spreading the word. As far as fluency tricks and convo prep tricks go, I find it’s amongst the most effective.

Social Glue: Fast and Slow

That said, you wouldn’t know it from looking at most language learning resources. In pretty much all the books I’ve come across, learning social glue is a purely cumulative affair, gradual and measured. Quite reasonably, of course, textbooks tend to build up that bank of colloquialisms over the course of many lessons. Which is great if you want to stick rigidly to the route the book intends for you.

But not if you need to get up to scratch quickly and hold fluid conversations early on.

For the straight-in-at-the-deep-end language aficionado, It’s beyond handy to have all of those conversation helpers in one place. And it’s even better to have them right in front of you, speaking bingo sheets style, to glance down at during convo practice. I highly recommend starting your own foreign language social script crib sheets!

Lessons from the Past

With a bit of digging, though, you might get a head start. During my recent foray into language book past, I found out that social speaking scaffolding hasn’t always been such a DIY affair. In fact, a couple of now out-of-print books dedicate whole sections to listing everyday idioms and colloquialisms. Not bad for the days before ‘communicative’ approaches became the norm!

For instance, the 1984 edition of Hugo’s Greek in Three Months was a revelation. The author not only devotes several pages to conversational turns of phrase, but a whole chapter on sayings and aphorisms! Granted, the latter are a bit more niche, and requires a bit of picking and choosing. And, casting a glance down both lists, they’re a bit of a random potpourri. But it’s a lot more of a social language reference than we’re used to in many modern guides.

A page from Hugo's Greek in Three Months (1984) listing some useful social fillers.

A page from Hugo’s Greek in Three Months (1984) listing some useful social fillers.

Greek in Three Months isn’t alone in throwing in these nice colloquial surprises. A much older book in terms of first editions, Teach Yourself Icelandic, includes pages and pages of useful colloquial phrases. Similarly, they seem a bit haphazardly thrown together at first sight. But as a collection of everyday language, they’re a brilliant starting point for creating your own crib sheet of favourites.

A page from Teach Yourself Icelandic (1986) listing idioms and colloquial phrases - great social glue for your conversations.

A page from Teach Yourself Icelandic (1986) listing idioms and colloquial phrases – great social glue for your conversations.

Nothing New Under The Sun

If anything, these social bookending reference lists from the past show that that there’s really nothing new under the sun in language learning. We stand on the shoulders of the giants who went before us, rediscovering their linguistic adventures through our own eyes, and fashions – in learning as much as in clothes – come, go, and come again. Those past learners and educators continue to provide us with a rich source of discovery.

And maybe there’s some inspiration there for present-day course writers and book publishers, too. Teach Yourself, Routledge: how about a few ‘social filler crib sheet’ pages in your next editions?