A picture of an open book. Image from freeimages.com

No Stress? No Stress! Are languages without accent cues good for the memory?

Some years ago, when I started learning Russian, I had one huge bugbear. Stress marks – or the lack of them.

If you’re a Russian learner, you’ll recognise that initial frustration. Firstly, Russian is an unfixed (or phonemic) stress language. That means there’s no predictable rule to determine where the stressed syllable of a word falls. Stress patterning varies from language to language, even in the same family. Russian’s close cousin Polish, for example, is a fixed-stress language, with stress so regular that you could set your watch by it. In Polish, almost without exception, the penultimate syllable of every word carries the weight.

So, with unfixed stress languages, stress can come anywhere, and that gives you a little bit of extra information to learn with each new word. Granted, some languages do give you a helping hand. Greek, for example, has stress as unguessable as Russian, but (so considerately!) the stressed syllable of a word is always marked with an accent. Thank you, Greek!

Not so in Russian. And it’s crucial to know where the stress is, especially in words with the vowel ‘o’, which is pronounced differently in stressed and unstressed positions.

Nightmare!

An excerpt from a Russian textbook. No stress is marked.

No stress = more stressful?

But perhaps it’s less of a nightmare than it might seem at first glance…

Memory Stress Test

The fact is that unmarked stress does leave you to provide that extra information from your mental lexicon, which is tough at first for non-natives. In the early stages, it will involve a lot of looking up in a dictionary, where stress is usually indicated.

But as I gained confidence in Russian, a bit of magic started to happen. I started to enjoy a big boon of satisfaction when recognising a word ‘in the wild’ straight away, knowing where the stress was from previous learning and exposure.

It’s just a guess, but I wonder whether the extra bit of brain work is actually a helping factor in committing  those vocab items to long-term memory. You have more information to store away with each word, and more mental heavy lifting involved to recognise and retrieve them when reading. In short, that’s more work to master them, and more work means more time for your brain to mull them over. It’s like a constant fill-in-the-gaps challenge to keep the language-learning mind in a constant state of workout.

Extreme ‘Fill-in-the-gaps’

The effect is even stronger in the case of Hebrew. Now Hebrew is quite a different kettle of fish, but the same phenomenon crops up for learners in another guise. On one hand, the stressed syllable is quite regular in Hebrew. Rather, it’s the entire category of vowels that isn’t usually indicated at all in text.

An excerpt from a Modern Hebrew text. No stress - but no vowels either!

The great Hebrew vowel challenge!

That means that the onus of filling in the phonetic shape of the word is completely on memory and experience. As a learner, you have to draw on all sorts of clues to match the word on the page to the item and its pronunciation.  It’s a kind of fuzzy-matching process that really sharpens your recognition of vocab.

I haven’t come across any research into this yet, but it might make a good dissertation topic for some enthusiastic linguist at some point!

Polish revision from the past

More Joy With Old Books : A Polish Boost from the (Not So Distant) Past

More joy with old books this week, as I came across a 30-year-old Polish course that turns out to be just what I needed.

I was after something systematic to work through and cement some colloquial turns of phrase. My fluency is quite stop-and-start in Polish, and I struggle to speak fluidly in conversation. Given the length of time I’ve worked with Polish over the years, I knew I needed to up my game.

The problem is mainly a lack of regularity. That doesn’t stem from a lack of interest at all; Polish is very dear to me, being one of my central language projects. That fascination dates right back to my teenage years. But I’ve just let it simmer, barely spending an hour a week on it for so long. Thanks to the efforts of my very patient Polish teacher, it’s remained solid – just – but it’s high time I repaid his hard work by being a more conscientious student!

But what to use? I’ve found some gems of old course books in many other languages, so I knew there might be something shiny lurking in the not-so-distant language-learning past for me.

Strong Polish Cheese

So along comes the cheesily-named Już mówię po polsku (I speak Polish already). Yes, thank you – I do speak Polish already. Just not as well as I want to. So what are you going to do about it, book? 

Well, Już mówię po polsku was first published in the 1990s, and certainly carries over that cheesy title vibe into the text itself. Anyone who went to school in the 80s and 90s will remember that corny, dad-joke type of humour that fills language textbooks of the time. Tricolore, anyone?

But the text is solid. It’s aimed at those making the leap from A1/2 to B1/2, with graded reading passages and dialogues with a different grammar focus each chapter. As such, the texts aren’t hugely challenging for me to understand. But this touched on a methodology my Polish teacher has passionately shared with me: the utility of readers slightly below your maximum comprehension level.

This approach works wonders for intermediate learners, because you are retreading high-frequency, colloquial language – exactly the kind that I am struggling to produce in a flowing way during conversation. It reminds you of idiomatic turns of phrase you might have forgotten. And it restrengthens pathways to weakening basic vocabulary. In short, it’s perfect for someone who tends to run before they can walk, cementing all those cracks in the foundations.

Już mówię po polsku - Polish revision from the past!

Już mówię po polsku – Polish revision from the past!

Gems in Not-So-Usual Places

So I found my regular extra reading and listening thanks to a bit of book archaeology. Naturally, coming across linguistic antiques like this requires a little deeper digging than usual. Już mówię po polsku is the kind of text you will only really spot when rummaging through second-hand marketplaces online, or in old bookshops. It still seems to be available – just about – from some Polish booksellers like this one or this one, including the CD. It’s certainly not as ubiquitous as the usual Teach Yourself or Colloquial courses.

That said, if you want some systematic (if cheesy) Polish reading, it’s worth dusting off your trowel to dig up a long-lost copy!

 

Multilingual World : Playing Our Part

Multilingualism is still alive! At least that’s the message we got loud and clear from Eurovision this weekend, with four of the top five songs in a language other than English.

Yes: thankfully, the world (well, Europe, at least) isn’t sleepwalking into an anglophone beige. It’s a welcome theme that ran through the whole week. A lot of it came from the Eurovision immersion, naturally. I spent a good chunk of time devouring home-spun news articles from my favourite countries and artists in the lead-up to Saturday’s final. I just love getting other takes on my favourite show, and most of the best ones aren’t in English.

But the whole jamboree (very appropriately) also coincided with the Polyglot Gathering. I spent a few great hours chatting and listening to talks online, switching from room to room, language to language, using everything but English. Proper multilingual merry-go-round stuff. The fun of it all got me thinking about how to de-anglify my life a little bit more.

Little Multilingual Things

One of the easiest, lowest-outlay, little things  we can do, in order to dent the preponderance of English online, is produce more multilingual content ourselves. I follow some lovely folk on Twitter who regularly switch between a number of languages for status updates.

Side note: I realise the irony of me writing this blog in English right now. Ahem.

Anyway, these things are sometimes easier said than done. Namely, there are two hurdles to getting starting ab initio here:

  1. A fear of alienating those followers who don’t understand the language of choice
  2. A fear of making mistakes and looking silly (“you’re not a real polyglot, you fraud!”)

It’s easy to deal with the first quibble. Most platforms have a translation feature now, so an unfamiliar language is understandable with a single click. Twitter is great for this – I use the ‘translate tweet’ option so often that I completely take it for granted .

The second problem is a little harder to tackle, as it comes from a very human – and probably ubiquitous – place of wobbly self-confidence. But going back to the Polyglot Conference, it helps to remember how utterly supportive our language learning community is. I sat in a room for fluent Germanists on Thursday, and the acceptance of all levels of fluency really warmed the cockles of my heart. I’m sometimes one to clam up when I think my mistakes will show – especially with my stronger languages, for some reason – but I’ve never felt more at ease. It reminds me that polyglotism isn’t some lofty refuge of geniuses, but something we can all aspire to.

Making the Effort

In short, there are really no serious obstacles to extending this wonderful world where Italian, French and Ukrainian can take their places quite naturally next to the anglophonic behemoth. I’ll be making more of an effort to do just that over the coming weeks.

Language and music - the Eurovision 2021 stage. Photo by EBU / STIJN SMULDERS.

Language and Music : A Double Whammy Treat This Week

It’s an exciting week ahead for lovers of language and music. Firstly…

It’s Eurovision Week!

As you’ll know, my polyglot passions and love for the content are tightly intertwined, so Eurovision is a very special treat once a year. Even more so this year, since the 2020 event was cancelled due to the worsening Covid-19 situation. There will be a lot to celebrate in Rotterdam on Saturday the 22nd.

Since the free language rule was reintroduced in 1999, however, the non-English entries have dwindled. Saying that, there are still rich pickings for those eager for songs in other tongues. Italy and France are currently the top favourites to win – and both sung in the countries’ native languages. Malta, while mainly sung in English, is a vehicle for a very handy colloquial French phrase, “je me casse” (I’m outta here). And, admirably, Denmark has elected to sing in Danish this year, and what a catchy little synth bop it is, too. It has been quite a while since we last heard Danish sung at the contest!

I still keep my hand in writing about the contest, and you can follow my regular bookies’ roundup articles at esctoday.com. Have to keep on top of those odds!

The Polyglot Gathering (Online)

Appropriately, Eurovision week coincides with another jamboree of coming together in language and culture: the Polyglot Gathering. It’ll be my first, although I got great vibes from my inaugural Polyglot Conference in Slovenia too, and expect the level of linguistic revelry and ribaldry to be at least as high.

Due to the ongoing Coronavirus crisis, it will be quite a different gathering this year. Originally slated to take place in Teresin, Poland, it would have been the perfect opportunity to practise my Polish. Fortunately, the organisers have planned in a couple of online practice rooms for Polish learners, so I’ll still get my polski fix (as well as all the rest!).

It’s still not too late to register at the official site if it takes your fancy. I hope to see many of you there!

In Other Language News…

Oh – and bookshops are open to walk around and browse again where I am. It has been too long, friends. Absolute heaven. I hope you’ve experienced a bit of a return to the ‘good old days’ where you are, too. Long may things continue to improve!

Books for learning Greek

Get Ur Greek On : A Week of Word Play Fun

I continue to work on levelling up my Greek lately. And as ever, it’s trusty old word play and linkword fun that help me get a grip on new vocab.

Thinking up creative ways to break down new words into familiar, memorable sounds can be a challenge. Story-based methods have always helped me, creating lots of funny hooks to grapple with. That said, a couple of them this week have really stretched the limits of my imagination…

Here are a few recent off-the-wall ‘scenettes’ I’ve come up with. I’d ask you kindly not to laugh, but actually, that’s the whole point!

(I’ve just noticed they all begin with α, too – a complete coincidence, as they’re just words related to whatever I was chatting with my iTalki tutor about!)

αποταμιεύω – to save (money)

apotamiévo

The story: I know a girl, Tammy. She hasn’t got much money. A poor Tammy, if you will. And that is why she has to save money! A-poor-Tammy + évo (a pretty common verb ending in Greek) = to save money.

αγκαλιάζω – to hug

angaliázo

Hugs are great, but they can be awkward. Sometimes, I’ll go in for a bearhug and we’ll meet at a really strange angle. Angle + ázo (another common ending!) = to hug.

αηδιάζω – to disgust

aidiázo

I’m actually very good friends with Cameron Diaz (honest – not). But once, she did this really horrible thing. Seriously, I was disgusted. I just screamed AYYYY Diaz, OH! so my feelings were pretty clear. Ay-Diaz-oh = to disgust.

Multi-language Word Play

All fun and games, for sure. And honestly, it can really help with vocab learning.

But if you study multiple languages, one concern might be that your stories get mixed up. When thinking of ‘to save money’ in French, for example (probably something like économiser), the a-poor-Tammy story looms large, and might threaten to blow you off course. In this case, just add an extra layer of storytelling: Tammy lives in Greece, of course. When picturing her, she’s looking forlornly across the bay, ruing her lack of dosh, from the caldera of Santorini.

Sorted!

In practical terms, imaginative techniques like these aren’t exactly a one-stop shop for fluency. The catch is that retrieval still isn’t instant, initially; you have to access those funny memories. What they are, though, is a first leg up to remembering a content word in the flow of conversation – a set of extra grabbers for your word-by-word lookup mental dictionary. It’s the actual use of those words in conversation that really starts to cement their foundations in long-term memory and begin to make them automatically available.

Note to my Greek teacher: when my attention wanders and I appear to be looking into space blankly, I’m thinking of Tammy. Don’t worry – I’ll be right back with you.

Three books for learning Scottish Gaelic

From My Bookshelf : Gaelic Books You Might Have Missed

I’m an absolute hound for language learning books. Not least when I have a new project – the excitement of a new language is the perfect catalyst for a bookshop raid. And since starting Gaelic a couple of years ago, my little reference library has blossomed.

But it’s not the Teach Yourself and Colloquial course books that spark the real excitement (however wonderful they are, too). Rather, it’s the little gems that are a bit harder to find, the titles you only come across in either really well-stocked shops, or little specialist ones. Often they hail from much smaller publishing houses, too, so have an individuality and authentic voice all of their own.

Here are three of my favourite ‘little finds’ from my Gaelic bookshelf!

A Gaelic Alphabet (George McLennon)

When I started Gaelic, I was – like many – bamboozled by the spelling. With the benefit of a good teacher and lots of hindsight, that system seems completely logical now – perhaps much more so than its quirky English counterpart! But back at the beginning, all that talk of broad and slender consonants, and caol ri caol ‘s leathann ri leathann was utterly alien.

I came across this book long after it had finally clicked, but I’d have loved to find it at the start. McLennon systematically works through all the letters of the Gaelic alphabet, giving copious examples of how words containing them sound. There are lots of nods to the Gaelic world too, making it a true treasure if you’re just starting out on your journey.

Gaelic Verbs Systemised and Simplified (Colin Mark)

I must admit, I have a thing for verbs. When starting a new language, I always go straight for them, eager to find out how to express past, present and future. Maybe it’s the storyteller in me.

Gaelic verbs, like the spelling, might seem to operate in quite an unfamiliar way for the new learner, especially those coming from SVO languages like French, German or Spanish. This book breaks it all down, explaining the quirks from dependent forms to verbal nouns. It gave me the knowledge and confidence to create Scottish Verb Blitz, an app that I still practise with today.

Gràmar na Gàidhlig (Michel Byrne)

I’ve flagged the excellent Gràmar na Gàidhlig before in my pick of post-Duolingo resources, but it bears mentioning again as a golden Gaelic pick. Translated for English-speaking learners from a highly successful purely Gaelic version, it’s a clear and accessible reference and learning guide if you like exploring the nuts and bolts.

It is getting harder to source now, although I’ve seen copies here and there in the second-hand bookshops of Edinburgh, and you can also still buy it direct from the publisher here.

Honourable Mentions

This trio is perhaps at the forefront of my mind right now, as I’ve found myself using them a bit more often lately. But there are so many other perhaps lesser-known Gaelic resources out there, some still in print, others available second-hand.  I can’t leave out Gaelic without Groans, for instance, which is simply from a whole other world, and a cute and quirky joy to read. Then there’s An leabhar mòr (the great book), a more recent compendium of illustrated verse in the language. 

It’s a good sign of continued, thriving interest in learning the language, of course – as well as testimony to the treasure of books, large and small. If you give them a go, I hope you love these titles as much as I do.

The Polish flag. Photo by Michal Zacharzewski from FreeImages

Polish Podcasts for Intermediate Learners

When you’ve smashed the barrier of your first thousand words or so, course books and learners’ guides simply won’t cut it any more. You need to step it up a level. But it can be hard to find resources that are accessible for learners while still presenting engaging material you want to listen to.

No problem – here are some excellent resources if you’re an intermediate Polish learner and want some fun edutainment as well as a language workout!

Polish with John

There are few teachers more dedicated than Jan to spreading the joy of Polish. He publishes regular and frequent podcasts on many interesting topics, ranging from language learning to history and beyond. Jan has a lovely, clear voice that is easy for learners to understand, and even provides transcripts of each short programme. Highly recommended, and it’s worth supporting the great work he’s doing!

SBS Polish

Strictly speaking, this podcast isn’t aimed at learners. It’s actually the regular Polish news bulletin of Australian broadcaster SBS. However, the stories are broken down into short, digestible clips, and feature material on international current affairs that should be familiar to many listeners. I’ve not found a Polish easy news alternative like the excellent News in Slow… series, but this is the next best thing!

Real Polish

Piotr has been on the podwaves for some years now, building up a loyal band of Polish learners. His programmes are in a longer, documentary-style format, and also feature a chatty preamble where listeners can send in an audio introduction. It’s a nice sociable touch to a great resource, backed up by full transcripts and resources for subscribers.

Polski Daily

This is another great learners’ podcast entirely in Polish. That’s just what you need when you’re aiming to think in the language and not simply translate from your native language when speaking. Like Jan and Piotr, Paulina selects material from a broad array of themes, with a big nod to cultural life in Poland.  On the website you can also enjoy some cosy interviews in the lovely Real Talks with Poles series.

Lepiej Teraz

Radosław is a life coach from Poland who publishes a monthly podcast on many aspects of self-improvement. Like SBS Polish, this isn’t aimed at learners, but rather native speaker professionals. That said, a lot of the themes will be familiar to listeners, so context and gist help. Also, Radosław is another podcaster with a great voice for listening to!

Have you found other gems on your own podcast hunts? Please let us know in the comments!

A bird's feather: the result of exaptation? Image from freeimages.com

Exaptation : Extreme Language Change

In 1990, linguist Roger Lass transplanted an idea from evolutionary biology to historical linguistics: exaptation.

Exaptation is the repurposing of existing elements for brand new functions. In biology, the classic example is birds’ feathers: originally believed to have developed as heat-retaining insulation, they provided a convenient basis for flight. A lucky accident, if you will. And there are plenty of instances that fit that bill in language change.

Lass’ classic example involves the development from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. PIE had a system of alternating vowels (called ablaut) to mark aspect in verb stems. For instance, a present stem might show -e-, while -o- signified perfect and -ø- (zero, or no vowel) was the marker for aorist. Ancient Greek actually preserved that pattern quite well, and Lass gives the examples:

  • Present: lpo (I leave)
  • Perfect: léloipa (I have left)
  • Aorist: élipon (I left)

However, Proto-Germanic did something quite odd. Instead of using it to indicate aspect, it repurposes it to show number in the preterite tense. Look at these examples from Gothic:

  • Present: beitan (to bite)
  • Preterite 1ps: bait
  • Preterite 1pp: bitum

Considering that -a- is the Germanic reflex for PIE -o-, here, we have the same alternation – -e-, -o-, -ø- – but representing something else entirely.

An Idea with Wings?

Cross-discipline metaphors rarely fit exactly like a glove, and it’s clear this isn’t quite like feathers being exapted for flight. For a start, feathers still fulfil both functions: a cosy coat as well as flying apparatus. In general, with exaptation, we’re talking about wholesale transformation of something that had ceased (or was about to cease) to be meaningful any more. Lass called this morphological ‘junk’ initially, but this has been a source of disagreement. Just what is ‘junk’ in a language?

Still, it’s a compelling metaphor, chiefly because it gets the imagination churning. How can things change so drastically in such a short time? What does language look like while it’s changing like this? Does it happen a lot? Can we see it happening now? Sometimes the best ideas are the ones that spawn more questions.

Exaptation hasn’t gained universal acceptance as a theory just yet, some three decades on from Lass’ initial paper. Some say it just boils down to reanalysis, like many similar changes. Others maintain that it’s a very particular direction of reanalysis, so it is unique and worth a place of its own in the textbooks.

Whatever its status, it does throw up some absolutely fascinating examples of extreme change.

You can access Lass’ original 1990 article at this link!

A dark forest, a good setting for an Anki horror story, perhaps? Picture from freeimages.com

Coming Up Blank : An Anki Horror Story

I lived through an Anki horror story this week. 🧟‍♂️

There I was, skipping merrily through my list of vocabulary, words flying past at a rate of knots. This is going well, I thought, with naive overconfidence.

But then it hit me. I stopped fast in my tracks. Staring blankly at the word on the screen, nothing would rise from the depths of memory. A void. I was peering into the darkness, teetering on the brink. Brain, don’t fail me now.

Then, I scrambled to think back, at the edge of desperation, to the time when I first added that word to Anki. Where did I get it from? Could I just recall what chapter it was in, which website I found it from, where I heard it?

Suddenly, I could see the textbook page, the colour of the background, the shape of the word. Almost sobbing with relief, I realised the ordeal was over.

It had come back to me.

What a close one!

The Right Way To Anki

OK, flippancy aside – why was that a horror story, you ask? After all, my visual memory must be great.

The problem here is that I had fallen foul of the dastardly context effect, and the word was, in essence, tied very tightly to the circumstances I learnt it in. Having to dredge up the exact setting of a vocabulary item on a page to recall it isn’t very efficient in the flow of conversation in the target language.

I only had myself to blame, of course. In my haste to add the word to my Anki collection, I broke the golden rule: only include items in context. That means as few isolated words as possible, and more contextualising phrases and full sentences showing the word in use. Learning dictionary-style does not work (believe me – I learnt that the hard way!).

I’ve seen the results for myself; switching to a more phrase-based vocab drilling routine works wonders for your conversation skills. It’s the rationale behind platforms like Glossika, which you can replicate with your own DIY sentence-based vocab strategy. In short: it works.

So yes, of course I should have known better, guv’nor. But my Anki horror story was a timely reminder to get back on the right track (and we all need those now and again).

Colours and lights make for a multimodal experience, just as learning should be. Picture from freeimages.com

Multimodal Learning for Restless Brains

I’m always studying something. It’s something that leads friends and family to think I’m some kind of superlearner.

Oh, I wish that were true.

Firstly, I’m always studying because I enjoy what I choose to study. And despite that fact, in many ways, my natural thinking pattern isn’t particularly conducive to long periods of close study. I get bored easily. I daydream. I’m impatient. I’m always thinking of the next exciting thing to learn, not the one I’m currently trying to grasp.

To be fair on myself, these are pretty universal human traits. Most people reading this will see a little of themselves in there, too! So how did friends and family come to think of my erring brain as a particularly effective learning machine? Largely thanks to a few tricks to get around those anti-focus tendencies. In particular, one big trick.

Multimodality

In pedagogy, multimodal usually refers to multi-sensory learning – including visual, audio, kinaesthetic aspects and so on. But the crux of it is variety, satisfying your brain’s craving for stimulation and novelty. In fact, your different modes don’t have to cover the whole spread of senses. They just need to provide an ample range of media and context to give the restless brain regular scene changes.

One thing that really helps me, for instance, is to have both a hard copy and an electronic copy of a text. I switch from one to the other, reading on multiple devices, and in multiple places. I can dip in and out, ten minutes here, ten minutes, there, and my brain doesn’t even have a chance to get bored. It’s a gem of a trick that works for course materials, reference texts and literature.

Multimodal PlanNing

To get the most out of multimodal learning, it’s best to be organised; the first step is always a plan of exactly what you want to get through.

Right now, I’m ploughing through a mountain of book chapters and papers for two linguistics assignments due soon. I know what I have to read and take notes on, and have a tick-list of the material in Evernote.

But to make sure I get through it, in spite of my natural tendencies, I ensure the material is multimodal. I have my reading in a number of formats – PDFs on my phone, tablet, laptop, hard copies in my bag , audiobooks and video summaries where possible – basically, everything, everywhere. Reading in one format and one place to start with, then picking up in a completely different modality elsewhere, really helps stymie reading fatigue.

And a nice side-effect? The range of environments helps beat the context trap, too, not tying your recall to a single backdrop.

When my essays are submitted, and I’m free to return to my language learning materials, one thing’s certain: it’s going to be multimodal!