Production courses build up a grammar and lexicon through a step-by-step approach. Image from freeimages.com

Production Matters

Having joked about the state of my French at a recent Linguascope webinar, I’ve been giving Paul Noble’s audio French course a whirl to revive and resume my secondary school language skills. Like the very similar Michel Thomas courses, his series is just magic for improving your language production.

Following a gradual, layering model of tuition, the courses provide a solid blueprint for producing language in the learner’s mind. Step by step, they build up a working grammar and lexicon in the gentlest way possible. As no-tears, get-up-and-running-quickly approaches, they’re honestly very hard to beat. And as a refresher for my français, it’s doing a grand job; I’m already thinking of getting the next steps follow-up.

One Way Street?

What I still miss, though, is language training in the other direction. As audio courses, both the Noble and Thomas series are necessarily a little restrained in terms of teaching comprehension. They give you grammatical tools and vocabulary, but using those alone you are more or less back-engineering any input that comes your way in the real world.

This deficit, of course, is largely down to the format of all formal courses, not just these select few. Thanks to the nature of the medium, they are necessarily finite. They can’t possibly contain enough ‘input training’ to improve that aspect of your fluency.

But thankfully, we can fill the other side of the equation through DIY listening techniques that provide a good comprehensible input model. Comprehension skills arise largely through exposure to unpredictable, everyday language, training your brain to be ready for anything in the target language.

The solution, in this case? A bit of podcast hunting, incorporating resources like News in Slow French into my weekly listens. Together with the Paul Noble course, they’ll make an excellent pairing: production and reception, covered.

Gap in the Market

There’s no doubt about it: courses that focus on production, through building a practical mental grammar, are based on sound learning principles, and are incredibly effective. They’ll form an indispensable part of my language learning arsenal for as long as they’re available.

So, not to take anything away from their usefulness, this recent experience is just more support for a blended, multi-resource learning approach, rather than reliance on a single course. Nothing new there. I do wonder, though, if there’s an opening in the market for a really clever resource that combines all of these elements.

Quelle bonne idée!

A policeman watches a protest march by. Image from freeimages.com

The Language Doth Protest Too Much? Learning from Conflict

We live in contested times. If one form of language best typifies that fact, it is the language of protest. 

It was a point driven home this week, with coverage of anti-Macron demonstrations in France all over the international news. La jeunesse emmerde le front vaccinal screamed the posters, turning on its head Macron’s own promise to (in more delicate terms) pee off the vaccine-hesitant.

Reading Between the Protest Lines

Regardless of whether we agree with the sentiment behind the cardboard, protest placards like these are valuable sources of target language in context. They have much in common with political campaign literature in this way. Both are equally handy authentic resources in miniature for the impartial language-learning observer. Namely, they’re short, snappy and contain very condensed vocabulary and grammar examples. As an added bonus, they provide very up-to-date and topical material for conversation.

Not to shy away from another side-benefit, though, their non-sanitised style is rather useful in another way. Popular protest slogans, like the above example shows, consist of highly colloquial, often profane, everyday language. As gritty as it is, it’s not a bad idea to be familiar with it. After all, learning only polite French is really learning half a language. Incidentally, If you feel the need to brush up on that first, take a look at the juvenilely tittersome Dirty French and Beyond Merde!

The Last Laugh?

After all is said and done, politics can be a dirty business, and one that all too easily sucks us into a void of despair. After de-politicising my social media streams, I try to keep a level-headed distance from adversarial politics now. Viewing it as a resource, rather than a constant rematch between tribes, makes it a lot more fun as a language learner.

That said, if you find your disagreement a heavy burden to bear, learning from protest placards is a way to have the last laugh. It’s the ultimate in turning a negative into a positive.

On that note, thank you, protesters: the word emmerder is now firmly in my Anki notes!

My Teach Yourself Dabbling Shelf

Mastering Beginnings : Dabbling Through the New Year

I set myself a task in 2021: to collect the full set of Teach Yourself language courses from the 1980s and 1990s. That task is nearly complete, with the missing languages now counting in the single figures. I’ve ended up with a really comprehensive language learning library including a bunch of languages I’ve never even thought of studying, from Afrikaans to Zulu.

So what now?

Well, it is the season for New Year’s Resolutions, so I had a crackpot idea. What about working through each of them in 2022, attempting to complete the first chapter in every one?

The Dabbling Library

You crazy fool! I hear you cry, what’s the gain in that? After all, a bunch of introductory chapters won’t result in a very strong working knowledge of any of them. A bit of a lot, but not a lot of much.

That all depends on your goals in language learning, though. Of course, I still have those core projects with the aim of high-level functional or conversation fluency, like Gaelic, Greek and Polish. And I have my maintenance projects to retain fluency in languages like German, Norwegian and Spanish.

But there’s a huge amount to be gained from casual dabbling, and my little TY cache promises to be fertile ground for that.

A Little Goes A Long Way

For one thing, I’ve learnt over the past year-and-a-bit of master study in linguistics that knowing about languages – regardless of your ability to speak them conversationally – is invaluable. Even a brief foray into how wildly disparate tongues work can give you a whole new perspective on how humans do this whole language business. Exploring beyond the Indo-European bubble, for example, helped me to dismantle some sticklers of limits to my linguistic thinking. Arming your mind with a thousand varied examples is great prep for linguistic research.

My single-chapter dabbling spree is a chance to fill in some telling gaps, too. Some of those languages on my TY shelf are close siblings to others I know well. Catalan, Portuguese, Italian… I’m expecting my Spanish to help prise the door open a little bit more than the very first pages. Just learning a few regular sound correspondences and cognate (mis)matches can provide a working knowledge beyond the concrete words and structures you learn from the page itself. That’s not to mention the bird’s eye view you get of particular language families, particularly on how close pairings differ.

And finally, there’s the caveat that building bridges with languages doesn’t require absolute fluency. Just a few words – a hello, a please, a thank you – is enough to make a human connection. Knowing just jó napot (good day) in Hungarian was ice-breaker enough to strike up conversation with restaurant staff in Birmingham. A smattering of 100 or so Hebrew words was ample for having a hybrid French-Hebrew conversation with Israelis in a bar in Paris. In short: don’t discount the value of even a tiny bit of knowledge.

Dabbling Down on Languages

So, wish me fun, enjoying this lot. I would ask for luck, but when language is the pleasure it is to all of us, we don’t need too much of that. Because that joy is the clincher, it’ll remain very low-key in terms of organised study, particularly since I’m ever-wary of goal exhaustion.

But please, feel free to join me on this journey mastering beginnings, if I’ve convinced you. Giving old books a new lease of life is an easy and really affordable way to start your own dabbling shelf!

A retro cassette tape. Image from freeimages.com

Retro Corner : De-Digitising Language Learning

Yes, it escalated. I’m not only seeking old Teach Yourself language books – I’m now hunting down the retro cassette packs too. How incorrigibly 1990s of me!

Now, this is not just a case of me giving into my obsessive-compulsive collector traits. My latest second-hand drive is all part of a general strategy to wean myself off 24/7 digital connectivity. Apps and social media are excellent language learning companions, but like many, I’m beginning to feel the digital fatigue.

Duolingo (bless their hearts!) didn’t help much by adding a new level of challenge recently – diamond tournaments – which, obviously I had to spend far too much time on. My Gaelic and Norwegian may have come on in leaps and bounds lately thanks to that little carrot-and-stick, but I can almost see a phone screen when I close my eyes now.

I’m being gamified to distraction.

Yes, it’s definitely time to rebalance the digital with some offline learning. And so I’ve sourced a few of these old Teach Yourself packs, a 30-year-old Walkman, and created a little retro language corner.

A retro 1980s handheld tape player from Sony

My gloriously retro Sony tape player

Language Learning, Fast and Slow

There’s something warm and fuzzy about popping a cassette in, and forward-winding to the spot you want. I’m about to sound like a right old codger, but it’s almost more satisfying finding your way around a resource, as opposed to doing a quick click, jump and gaining instant gratification online. This contrast is another case of language learning, fast and slow, where slow can bring along a heap of easy-to-overlook joy.

What’s more, it’s cheap and easy to recreate that retro learning hygge. I’ve spotted plenty of these old TY book and cassette packs going on eBay in my recent hunts. While CD-based packs are still a bit pricier (being a bit less obsolete), you can regularly pick the cassette versions up for a steal. If you have something to play them on, there are bargains to be had.

Retro Teach Yourself book and cassette language packs from the 1990s

Retro Teach Yourself book and cassette language packs from the 1990s

Retro Happy Learning

Of course, you can always go that little bit further. After all, creating a happy learning space is all about triggering warm memories and feelings associated with studying. To that end, I have my eye on a couple of old Coomber cassette players now, the exact same models that our teachers played Tricolore French cassettes on in the early 90s.

Nostalgia, combined with sheer geekdom, can be a great motivator in language learning.

Teach Yourself Gujurati (1995) cassette

Teach Yourself Gujurati (1995) cassette

Goal setting. Image of a dart board and a dart hitting bullseye from FreeImages.com

Goal Setting Or Less Fretting?

With the new year approaching, there’s lots of talk about goal setting and language targets on #langtwt. So what are mine?

Well, let’s start with what were mine? In 2021, for one thing or another (mainly the fact that it was a mad busy year), I didn’t manage to stick rigidly to all my concrete language learning plans. Things like weekend podcast listening and daily reading sometimes slipped though the gaps between uni assignments and work commitments.

Goal Setting – Quick ‘n’ Easy?

Now, I usually talk a lot about quick ‘n’ easy tactics for daily learning – the kind of things that you can do in five or ten minutes every day. The idea is that they take little effort, but have great cumulative effect.

The thing is, sometimes quick ‘n’ easy is too much if you’re already overloaded. It’s so easy to promise to slip in a podcast on a train or while you’re relaxing after work. But it’s equally easy to forget that brains need occasional rest. Sometimes, I was just too tired to do anything but chill to music, rather than podcasts or read novels. And that is absolutely OK.

Quicker ‘n’ Easier : Weave Goals Into the Everyday

That said, where I wove language learning into my daily, often online routine, I had much more consistency. Idling on social media threw lots of target language my way. iTalki lessons were often chances to catch up with teachers I consider friends, so I’d gladly find time for an hour here and there.

And it worked.

For instance, I’m proud of how my Greek has come on over the last twelve months, largely thanks to that simmer on a low heat approach. Somehow, those low stakes, minimum outlay tactics just clicked. I’m already planning how to carry those successes over to my other language projects.

Goal Setting or Less Fretting?

This much more organic approach worked brilliantly for me at a time when time was in short supply. That’s why my 2022 goal setting will be more about everyday immersion strategies like this, rather than concrete levels or progress markers.

All the old favourites will still be there, of course. I’ll be working mainly on Gaelic, Greek, Icelandic, Norwegian and Polish, as well as maintaining my German and Spanish. I’m sure I’ll find time for some dabbling, too, as well as revisiting some of those languages in limbo where I have gone beyond just dabbling, but not quite taken off in (French, Hebrew, Irish, Swahili).

The fact is that I don’t even know where I’d begin if I were calendarising all of those. Better to go with the flow and just enjoy them!

A Christmas tree decoration up close. Image from freeimages.com

Christmas Favourites : Perennial Linguaphile Picks for 2021

I’ve done a few Christmas gifts for language lovers posts in the past. Perhaps that’s more out of wishful thinking than anything else… After all, who doesn’t like making their pleas to Santa public?

But looking back, it’s a case of plus ça change. The same book series, the same piles of lovely stationery. Linguaphiles never really change. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Many of those old gift ideas are still going strong on a solid five stars. And some have since expanded to include new languages and features.

So what’s in Language Santa’s sack this year?

Dream Books

My top picks for Chrimbo books hasn’t changed much. In the absence of any fantabulous new grammar series or language courses, the set-collector in me is still captivated by a couple of ranges.

ROUTLEDGE GRAMMARS

Because honestly, you can’t beat them, can you? Many have seen updated editions recently, and a couple of new languages have come out in the Essential Grammar range (cue shrieks of excitement): Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian, and West Greenlandic. Music to the ears of anyone looking for more ‘off the beaten track’ language resources.

And I can barely contain my excitement that finally we’re getting an Icelandic Essential Grammar from Routledge. It’s due out on 21st December, just in time for Christmas. Oh my, it’s like they knew

This year also saw the addition of Intermediate Persian and Intermediate Korean to the Grammar and Workbook titles, too. Thanks, Santa Routledge.

SHORT STORIES IN…

These were an exciting addition to the language learning market when they appeared. There have been short stories collections for learners before, of course. Penguin have a great couple of titles in French, German, Italian and Spanish.

But what’s nice about these is that they’re written with key structures and high frequency vocabulary in mind. They’re also available in lots more languages, including some underserved ones like Icelandic and Turkish. What’s more, they all match. So, if you’re studying multiple languages, you’re getting similar input in both, and one isn’t being neglected over the other because of a resources mismatch.

It’s great to see that two more titles are in the pipeline for 2022: Irish Beginners and Japanese Intermediate. For our 2022 wish list, could I ask the Short Stories Santa for a Gaelic, Greek and Polish too?

TEACH YOURSELF TUTORS

If you hadn’t noticed, I’m a bit of a TY fanboy. It’s a nostalgia thing – I love a bit of language learning vintage.

TY reinvigorated their range with the excellent Tutor series a couple of years back, and they’re still fresh and relevant. While there haven’t been any news ones added to the range yet (pretty please, Teach Yourself!), the fourteen titles there are already classics in polyglot circles, and again, represent a fair few languages without masses of material available for learners otherwise.

Verdict? Still solid stocking fillers (if you have quite large stockings).

Tech Toys

2020, was all about the VR. Most likely, the pandemic and rolling lockdowns had something to do with that. But VR has proven it’s not just a flash in the pan. Its user base is growing, and it’s still a fantastic immersion tool for language learning.

It wasn’t all rosy with tech, though. Two years previous, I was raving about a brilliant Chinese voice assistant crowdfunding for development on IndieGoGo. A friend of mine had even invested, and there was some really positive hype around it. Following it up to post this update, I was sad to learn that the project hit serious difficulties, leaving a lot of people disappointed. Still, with the language learning potential of general purpose voice assistants, competition was always going to stiff.

At least we still have VR. My tip for 2022? It’s still get an Oculus! Christmas is the best excuse.

Wear It With Pride

Finally, alternative items that weren’t on my radar over previous Christmas seasons include funky wearables. Maybe hiding behind this newfound sartorial daringness is the pandemic, and successive lockdowns where we all gradually felt less self-conscious about what we had on. But I really started to like more fab ‘n’ fun clothing over the past year, like these linguist t-shirts on Etsy. Amazon lists some fancy (and also quite bizarre ones) too.

I’m just sprucing up my wardrobe ready to step out at the 2022 round of polyglot events.

Syntax is a lot like putting the puzzle pieces together in the right order. Image from freeimages.com

Syntax Games : Working Out Your Own Rules

I’ve been happily gambolling through the Enchanted Forests of Syntax this university semester. It was the turn of that particular branch of linguistics in my taught masters programme, and probably one of my favourite courses so far. Probing how parts of sentences fit together, like chains of molecules governed by the binding rules of organic chemistry, has felt like uncovering deep secrets of the human mind.

It was a chatty and relaxed final tutorial, and the conversation turned to our tutor’s own experiences as a student of syntax. To our fascination, she explained that her introduction wasn’t through course books, but rather a kind of simulated fieldwork.

Here’s how it worked: a guest speaker of a small, undisclosed language, with very few speakers, would attend their tutorials. The students’ task was to interrogate the speaker’s native language knowledge (in English), in order to build up some generalisations about the grammar of the mystery language.

How do you say I eat an apple? What about the apple is eaten?

Gradually, the students built a picture of how syntax and morphology worked for that speaker by initial random stabs in the dark, deduction and hypothesis testing.

Solving a Syntax Mystery

Besides just sounding flipping exciting – like a linguistic detective story, or practical prep to send linguists off to decode alien languages à la Arrival –  it seems like a brilliant way to get to know really well how a new language works. As far as learning by doing goes, this kind of stuff is at the top of the tree.

And beyond the syntax classroom, there are numerous ways the technique could be used in a language learning setting. It lends itself nicely to language quest tasks, where students could be tasked with interviewing a native speaker to make a series of observations about the target language. Conversely, the teacher could mindfully choose and provide a set of sample sentences, and then challenge students to deduce the rules of Language X from them.

For instance, what can you tell about Scottish Gaelic from this set of sentences?

  • cheannaich mi bò – I bought a cow
  • reic thu bò – you sold a cow
  • tha a’ bhò mòr – the cow is big
  • an do cheannaich thu a’ bhò? – did you buy the cow?
  • ceannaich bò! – buy a cow!

At first glance, we can work out that:

  • ceannaich / cheannaich are forms of the word buy
  • it looks like the verb comes first in Gaelic, followed by the subject (Gaelic is VSO)
  •  / bhò are forms of the word cow
  • a’ is a definite article which seems to turn into bhò
  • adjectives usually go after the noun in Gaelic
  • an do is a way of asking a question in the past

…and so on. Now, that’s a lot of grammar from five sentences! And working out and listing these in a ‘rule discovery’ task is a great way to start understanding and memorising them – not to mention a great logic puzzle for mental gymming.

Glossy Examples

You can choose to provide even more information in your deduction lists, too. Linguistis often present sentences like these alongside glosses. These are simply word-for-word translations, along with extra linguistic annotations that show how the sentence works. Glosses add some valuable extra support for teaching the morphological bits and pieces alongside the syntax.

An example from Swahili:

Niliwaona watu wanasoma vitabu. I saw the people who are reading books.

Ni-li-wa-ona wa-tu wa-na-o-soma vi-tabu.
subj I.past tense.obj noun class 2 (plural) them.see noun class 2 (plural).person subj-they.present tense.relative marker (noun class I plural).read noun class 8 (plural).book

And as an extension task, students might try and produce grammatical sentences armed with the sample sentence, plus a mini extra glossary:

  • u- – subject pronoun marker ‘you’ (singular)
  • -sikia – hear
  • -nyama – animal (noun class 1/2)
  • -kimbia – run

Now, how do you say you heard the animals running?

A Pint of Syntax

Admittedly, it’s the language geek in me that thinks you could have endless fun with this. But even if it never makes it to the secondary classroom, it makes a perfect game for a festive linguaphile get-together. Proper linguists’ pub quiz fare.

Just remember to invite me along!

A fault line. Learn to love yours in language learning! Image from freeimages.com

Finding Fault : Learning from Past Performance

Going through some old files the other day, I came across a bunch of Icelandic MP3 recordings I’d made for an old 30 Day Speaking Challenge. A long time ago.

Needless to say, when I played them back, I didn’t feel too impressed. The accent, the grammatical errors, the stoppy-starty delivery. Not my finest work I tut-tutted.

But, listening on through gritted teeth, something started to happen. I found myself silently correcting the mistakes. I was almost willing handy hints for improvement back in time to that previous version of myself.

Fine to Be At Fault!

Old, imperfect language learning work is never anything to feel shame or embarrassment over. Most obviously, it shows us how far we’ve come.

But as ‘faulty’ resources, they’re actually far from useless. They give us chance to review and remedy mistakes that we were prone to in the past. Yes, they do crystallise errors. But as such, they also serve as great anti-examples of language use, as well as remind us that we no longer make them.

The same goes for non-language material, too. Some years ago, I made some ‘talking revision notes’ for a social science module I was taking with the Open University. Listening back to them, beyond the initial cringe, I ended up in a kind of mental conversation with myself: lots of “yes, but what about…” and “that’s one way to look at it, but…“. It is such a great way to interrogate past knowledge with a present outlook.

Finding Fault : A Do-Over

Something you can do, if your previous faults annoy you too much, is a do-over. Rerecord your speaking challenges. Rewrite your previous notes. Create fresh summaries of your learning material including everything you’ve learnt since. But keep both old and new handy as a testament to your progress.

If you’re tempted to delete your old recordings, or trash your old notebooks, pause to think: what can I still learn about my journey from these? Be generous to yourself – to a fault.

Global charity organisations are a great way to tap into target language and support good causes too. Image from freeimages.com

Sweet Charity : Supporting Good Causes Multilingually

An unexpected source of Spanish popped up in my inbox this week. It was a campaign video from Smile Train, a wonderful charity taking cleft lip and palate surgery and support around the world. The video featured the story of little Sebastián Álvarez and his parents, as they navigated the challenges of early life with a cleft.

Smile Train is an organisation very close to my heart, since I was one of those cleft babies – but lucky enough to grow up in a country where repairs are routine. It makes my heart sing to see the charity sharing that opportunity with those who might otherwise never get the support they need.

First and foremost, posts like these give us that heartwarming sense that there are good people doing good things in the world. We certainly need some of that lately. But it’s also a reminder of how powerful it can be to combine language learning with your passions for activism and goodwill. It cross-references your worlds, and paints another corner of it with your target language.

Plug In to Multilingual Charity Initiatives

Smile Train in Spanish found me this time. But many global charities, like Smile Train, Cancer Research or the WWF, have information sites catering for many different regions and languages. A quick Google, like WWF España, for instance, is a great place to start looking for them.

Most also offer newsletter signup in those languages. Newsletter campaigns tend more and more to be packed with rich media, serving short and snappy update videos direct to your inbox. Like hacking your socials to drip-feed target language effortlessly, this is another way to lock in language practice regularly and unthinkingly.

As well as show support for your favourite causes.

What’s not to like?

Lastly, remember that there’s more than one way to support your charity. If you’re not in a position to donate, just signing up and sharing on social media is still valuable awareness-raising.

And if you’re doing that in your language learning social channels, you’re helping fellow learners, too!

Where to Start?

Need some inspiration? Here is my unapologetically unimpartial list for some examples! But charity is personal – make it your own.

Amnesty International France Germany  
Cancer Research Charities Institut Curie (France) DFKZ (Germany) CNIO (Spain)
Smile Train Latin America    
WWF France Germany Spain
Icelandic horses. Image from freeimages.com.

Learning Icelandic and Norwegian Together : Close Buddies and False Friends

There are advantages and disadvantages to learning very closely related languages together. And despite the benefits generally outweighing the snags, false friends are probably the most irksome spot of that downside. Icelandic and Norwegian are one such pairing that seems really popular in polyglot circles lately.

Because of the conservatism of Icelandic, tackling the two often feels like studying contemporary and ‘historical’ Norse side by side (although we need to be careful not to fall into that trap – Icelandic is a modern language that has been developing from Old Norse as long as Norwegian has).

That closeness gives us plenty of hooks to transfer knowledge. For example, Iceland þ (th) will show up as Norwegian t where the latter has inherited the same word:

🇮🇸 þreyttur – 🇳🇴 trøtt (tired)

But elsewhere, even when there is a really transparent cognate pair, meaning and use have drifted in the sands of time.

Traps to Trip You Up

One subtle cognate slip-up occurs with semsom, the relativiser in clauses such as the book that I read. Icelandic and Norwegian agree as far as that is concerned:

🇮🇸 bókin sem ég las – 🇳🇴 boka som jeg leste

But that’s all they can agree on. Firstly, sem is not optional in Icelandic, whereas Norwegian can do as English does and simply say boka jeg leste.

What’s more, they also fall out when it comes to the other, more prepositional use, as in like a cat:

🇮🇸 eins og köttur – 🇳🇴 som en katt

That’s, like, a bit tricky.

Taking a Liking

Likewise, líkur / lik (alike) don’t always map onto each other like for like. While ‘they are alike‘ can be:

🇮🇸 þeir eru líkar – 🇳🇴 de er like

…in Icelandic, you’re more often than not going to come up against that eins again to mean ‘alike’:

🇮🇸 þeir eru eins

As eins clearly derives from the number one, it’s not hard to connect this to phrases like one and the same in English, or en og samme in Norwegian. Still, Icelandic uses eins pretty much everywhere that Norwegian uses like, so it’s another distinction to mark on the map.

Add to the fact that Icelandic uses cognate líka for also (også in Norwegian), and it has even more potential to be a confuser.

Do You Really Like It?

And like it or not, we’re not finished with like yet. It actually turns out that it really likes to mess with us. The Old Norse verb líka has ended up in both languages (just as English ended up with like from a more distant common ancestor). However, in Icelandic, líka is used in purely impersonal expressions:

🇮🇸 mér líkar það (lit. to me likes/pleases it)

…whereas in Norwegian, it works just the way like does in English, with the liker as the subject, and a direct object as the liked thing:

🇳🇴 jeg liker det (I like it)

Not only that: while expressions with líka in Icelandic do translate as like, they’re not the most colloquial way to express liking any more, and may come across as rather archaic. These days, you’re better off with a phrase using skemmtilegur (amusing, entertaining) like:

🇮🇸 mér finnst það skemmtilegt (to me finds-itself it amusing)

Admittedly, these quirks can seem less than amusing as a beginner learner, to be sure.

Crazy House

Funnily enough, it’s the realm of house and home where a little cluster of words diverges quite radically in meaning. Perhaps it’s not surprising for words relating to everyday living arrangements; as customs and practices change, old terms get repurposed and attached to ever more differing concepts. But stand by: this set seems like it went through a tumble dryer.

Norwegian rom will be familiar to English speakers as the cognate room. It meant largely the same in Old Norse – any room or internal space. But in Icelandic, it can now have the meaning bed. There’s quite an interesting theory for how that shift happened here.

Meanwhile, Norwegian seng, which means bed, is cognate with Icelandic sæng – which means duvet. And Norwegian dyne, which is duvet, materialises as Icelandic dýna – which means mattress. Utter bedroom confusion (as if deciding which side to sleep on wasn’t hard enough already).

Honorable Mentions

There are, predictably, plenty of these pitfalls between the languages – far too many for a short article. But amongst the hotchpotch of favourite falseish friends between Icelandic and Norwegian are two more favourites of mine.

Firstly, the word lag can mean layer in both languages. In Icelandic, however, it can also mean song. It’s notably a word in the title of one of Iceland’s most successful Eurovision entries, the boppy Eitt lag enn (one more song) of 1990. In Norwegian, on the other hand, it can mean teamOne more team just doesn’t sound as fun, does it?

Along similar lines, we have grein (spelt gren in some varieties of Norwegian), which means branch to both Icelanders and Norwegians. But in Icelandic, the very same word is used for an article in a newspaper. A case of a word branching out, perhaps?

Variety Show

It’s all fun and games, of course, and one of the reasons it can be so fascinating to learn languages within the same grein of a family tree. For one thing, you end up collecting juicy etymological trivia in droves (the kind of stuff you can spin out for an upbeat language blog, for instance).

But a final point for fellow dual learners concerns the variety of Norwegian you learn. If, instead of vanilla Bokmål, you study Nynorsk, or any of the traditional dialects of Norway under that umbrella, you might well come across a few more cognates and similarities to Icelandic. Bokmål, as the heir to Riksmål and the imported Dano-Norwegian of centuries past, has levelled out some of the more Norsey features of traditional norsk. Dialects often preserve these beautifully. If you’re up for exploring this further, then a good place to start is NRK’s language programme Språksnakk, which regularly answers questions on local vocab features that bear more than a passing resemblance to islenska.

Do you have similar experiences with this or any other pair of languages? Let us know your favourite drifting cognates in the comments!