Speaking is like a skyscraper. Aim high, but watch your foundations too! Image by createsima on freeimages.com.

Speaking without foundations (and putting it right)

As I sit at the station tapping away at Anki, I’m impressed at the level of the vocabulary I’ve reached: interactive, futurism, equality… All those lovely advanced words! I enjoy a moment of language learner pride, before I remember that when it comes to everyday speaking, I’ve still got a bit of work to do.

It’s a problem you might recognise yourself, if you’ve tried any of a number of accelerated learning techniques with your languages. For me, it was all about grappling with Icelandic in all its glory immediately. I leapt straight into the language a few years back, working with iTalki tutors in a conversational format and lapping up that wonderful vocab.

The pattern was this: prepare a topic to talk on, and chat about it in the lesson. Some of the themes were challenging even by first language measures: politics, social media, technology. But using an “islands” approach, it seemed to be working out really well. I absorbed and consolidated a huge amount of vocabulary and grammar structures.

Speaking high and dry

For sure, it is a learning strategy that builds a solid level of competency, and fast. It has made me quite adept at prepared chat, a wonderfully useful and transferable skill for other areas of life such as public speaking and work presentations. It’s a technique I still use, too. I recently completed the #30DaySpeakingChallenge in Icelandic, and created a short speech on often quite complex topics for every one of those days.

But it is a very particular type of competency, or fluency, that this technique builds.

The crunch comes when you come to speaking a language in the wild. For me, it became painfully clear on trips to Iceland than I almost completely lacked the basic, practical, and social foundations needed to operate on a day-to-day level in the foreign language. Navigating social situations – even producing the most basic of niceties and stock repsonses – felt like pulling teeth.

Yes, I could rattle on about materialism, propaganda and language learning techniques in wonderful Icelandic. But when it came to ordering a sandwich on Reykjavík’s Laugavegur, I was lost.

That’s great – but can you just order a coffee, please?

Swallow that pride!

The warning signs were there well in advance, of course. For instance, I would haplessly flounder after the social glue at the end of lessons. Phrases such as “have a nice week, see you soon!” got stuck in my mouth like treacle toffee. I could clumsily construct them based on grammatical rules and vocabulary. But they never sounded natural.

Now, there is no shame in recognising these lacks, however late. And this is certainly not to bash accelerated learning techniques – I still use and love them. We all learn in different ways, for different reasons. It was always a source of huge motivation to prepare speaking topics on the things I found most interesting.

But here’s the crucial lesson to take: it’s easy to assume that by learning the high-brow stuff, the everyday stuff follows automatically, almost like a side-effect. Sadly, it doesn’t quite work that way!

Two tiers

Instead, it helps to view language learning as a two-tier process. You can leap straight in with advanced topic-based speaking challenges for speed learning. But, at least alongside that, there needs to be a nod to the social reality (if, that is, you are learning the language to use in a social setting some day – not the case for everyone!).

Some of the best resources for this are perhaps those that budding hyperglots might tend to dismiss as too basic. In fact, foundational primers like Teach Yourself – especially those aimed at more casual learners, like the TY “Get Started” series – are gold for training in social speaking. Yes, they can be light on grammar and more obscure vocabulary. But you do that elsewhere because you love it and seek it out! For the stuff at ground level you are liable to skip, you could do a lot worse than go back to one of these courses.

Their strength is in building social muscle memory for the language. This is the more automatic level of trigger-response in language, operating generally below the level of full consciousness. It’s also how a lot of the social interaction in our first language occurs. Just consider how unthinkingly you fire off “no problem” or “you’re welcome” when somebody thanks you. There is close to zero cogitation going on around how to form a grammatically well-formed sentence!

To this end, I’ve returned to what you might call the ‘baby chapters’ of Teach Yourself Icelandic and Colloquial Icelandic. And it constantly surprises me how much of the little stuff I had missed.

The best thing? It’s never too late to go back and learn it.

Many routes to the same destination – walk them all

Admittedly, speaking without foundations is a human flaw baked into the informal, conversational lesson approach, since it is only natural to seek meaningful chat with tutors. But perhaps we can also find time to squeeze in some ‘real world’ modelled dialogues too, like ordering a coffee or checking in at a hotel.

The crux of it all is that there are many routes to that same destination of fluent speaking, none of them mutually exclusive. Treading several different paths gives you a much more rounded feel for the language than a single one.

Diving right into a language and speaking without foundations is an exhilarating and exciting way to learn. But check out your foundations now and again, too!

An owl - not the Duolingo one, but probably related. Image by Pamela Benn on freeimages.com

Approaching Duolingo : One Way to Catch An Owl

In case you hadn’t noticed, Duolingo released its Scottish Gaelic course early this week. And naturally, I leapt straight in like a pig in mud!

Like many, I had waited patiently and eagerly for this release, not least since I study Gaelic at evening classes in Edinburgh. Despite a resolution not to race ahead, Duolingo’s early Christmas present was a gift too good not to open straight away. As expected, it is a joy of bite-sized vocabulary snacks.

Devouring unit after unit, it struck me that there are many ways to systematically approach a resource like this. The question of how to tackle Duolingo also cropped up recently in discussion with excellent iTalki tutor Marcel, who is running a Duo-challenge WhatsApp group I’m part of. Personally, I prefer a two-wave method. I outline it here in the hope that it helps others who, at first glance, find a huge topic tree a bit overwhelming, and wonder how to tackle it.

The two-wave approach to Duolingo

This method has a lot in common with the forward-loading approach to course books, which is one of my favourite ways to tackle language learning material. It involves an initial, exploratory reccy through the material, combined with a systematic and focused follow-up.

The first wave

When you first open up that course, it is all about getting to know the terrain. Like hacking your way through undergrowth, you need to clear a path first.

Duolingo prevents users from accessing material out of order by locking lessons until the previous one is completed to the first of five XP levels. However, unlocking to this first, blue level is usually just a matter of a few short introductory lessons. So, in the first wave, you simply steam ahead, unlocking topic sections just to level one before opening up the next one. In no time at all, you’ll have blued up a good portion of your tree (or maybe even all of it with a shorter course like Gaelic).

Don’t worry too much about retention at this stage. The aim is to have fun, notice the shapes and sounds of the language, and lay down some passive pre-knowledge before we get serious. Above all, it is the no stress stage. Just explore and enjoy your new language!

The second wave

When you have unlocked a fair few topics, the second wave can begin!

At this stage of your Duolingo attack, you go right back to the very first topic section. Work through slowly and carefully, one by one, hammering each topic to level up fully to gold before moving on to the next.

Note that there is no speed pressure here. You can gold a topic up in a single sitting, or take days to do it. The important thing is that, during this more focused stage, you resist the temptation to move on before a topic is gold.

The second stage is where the deep learning occurs. But thanks to the familiarity you have from the first pass, you already have a ground layer to build on.

A snapshot of my progress through Duolingo Scottish Gaelic, showing how the two-wave approach works.

A golden wave works its way through Duolingo!

Own the vocabulary

Here is the crucial turbo-boost you can engage during the second wave: make the vocabulary your own. Duolingo shouldn’t simply be a passive resource. For long-term learning, you should record all those new words and phrases in your own, separate collection for drilling.

Anki is hard to beat on that score. Every time I meet a new item in the lessons, I look up a detailed definition using a resource like Wiktionary, and add it to an Anki deck. Since Anki will also drip-feed that vocabulary to you using its clever spaced repetition algorithm, you effectively double the learning power of the Duolingo course.

And that’s all there is to the two-wave approach. Familiarise first, study systematically, and make the material your own as you go. A simple but effective way to catch an owl!

How do you approach Duolingo courses? Do you use a different technique? And have you started Gaelic yourself? Let us know in the comments!

The Polish flag. Photo by Michal Zacharzewski from FreeImages

Five reasons the Polish language is so special

Polish can feel like a real challenge as a learner. I should know – I’ve been at it for a few years, and progress still comes in fits and starts!

But studying Polish is incredibly rewarding, thanks to its fascinating features. Here are five very special reasons to give this unique Slavic language a go.

Strange…  but familiar

Coming to a Slavic language as a newbie to the group can be daunting. The vocabulary and grammar can appear quite alien at first, with few hooks and similarities to other languages you might know. Of course, that is half the charm for many learners. But it does add a certain level of challenge!

However, thanks to its geographical placement, Polish has absorbed more than its fair share of borrowings from neighbouring languages that might be more familiar. For example, Polish has a very productive verb-forming suffix -ować, which produces an abundance of easy-to-guess words formed from Latin roots:

akceptować to accept
awansować to promote
pasować to fit, suit
oferować to offer
sugerować to suggest

Not only that, but the neighbouring German language has also made its presence felt. Some common borrowings that German speakers will recognise include:

dach roof (from Dach)
handel trade (from Handel)
kształt shape (from Gestalt)
malować to paint (from malen)
reszta the rest (from Rest)
urlop holiday (from Urlaub)

Incidentally, the influence goes both ways: Polish donated to German the words Gurke (cucumber – from ogórek) and Grenze (border – from granica).

Like English, Polish has absorbed so much from its long history of interaction with other languages, but still keeps its very distinctive flavour.

Harking to the past

Sometimes, though, familiarity can be a bit dull. Many Slavic languages, like Russian, simply use the familiar Latinate calendar names for the months. How boring, eh?

However, Polish preserves some of its pastoral past by retaining the ancient Slavic terms to demarcate the year. They may be trickier to remember at first, but they have a beauty and storytelling magic all of their own:

styczeń January (from stykać – to meet, where the old year meets the new)
luty February (from an Old Polish word meaning ‘fierce cold’)
marzec March (from marznąć – to freeze)
kwiecień April (related to kwiecie – flowers)
maj May (this one is actually a gift from the Romans, celebrating the goddess Maia)
czerwiec June (from the word czerw, a lava used to produce red pigment)
lipiec July (from lipa – a linden tree, which blossoms in this month)
sierpień August (from sierp – sickle, useful for harvest time!)
wrzesień September (from wrzosy – heather, with its purple bloom at this time of year)
październik October (from paździerz, part of a flax plant used for making fabric)
listopad November (literally ‘falling leaves’)
grudzień December (from gruda – hard ground during frosty times)

You really get two-for-one when you learn the months in Polish. Learners can pick up extra off-the-beaten-track vocabulary like sierp (sickle) along the way!

A dash of Gallic

One thing that surprises newcomers to Polish is its pair of fancy-sounding nasal vowels ą and ę. The sound ą is reminiscent of the -on in French bon, whereas the ę is almost like -em in Portuguese bem. This handy video gives some nice examples.

If you have studied other Slavic languages, these nasal sounds can seem quite unexpected. But the whole thing lends a real Gallic twang to the sound of Polish that adds more than a dash of sophistication to proceedings.

Long but logical

Polish also has its quota of satisfyingly long words to get your language learning chops around. These occur frequently with some conjugated verb forms, and especially in the conditional tense. Although they appear beastly at first, they do display an order and logic (honest!) when you drill down. That said, add in the presence of consonant clusters typical to the Polish alphabet, and they can seem like fiendish tongue twisters.

Here are a few:

krzyknęłybyśmy we (f.) would cry out
podróżowalibyście you (pl.m.) would travel (from podróżować)
potrzebowalibyśmy we (m.) would need (from potrzebować)

Conjugations like those provide the kind of mental gym that will keep your mind positively chugging over.

Jumping particles

And that leads us to the last, quite magical feature of Polish in our special list: mobile morphemes. It’s those devilish verb endings above again, the ones that help create such long words. Well, you’ll never guess – they can actually break away and join other parts of the sentence. And not necessarily verbs!

For instance, a vanilla form of the question ‘whom did you see?’ (fam.pl.) would be:

Kogo zobaczyliście?

However, that -ście can have a mind of its own. It may just as well decide to join the ‘whom’, giving us:

Kogoście zobaczyli?

Yes, that’s a verb ending on the end of a question word. The mind boggles. Polish is truly a fascinating creature!

(For those wanting the linguistic nitty gritty, these endings behave as detachable clitics in their own right.)

Starting your Polish adventure

Convinced by the magic of Polish? Fortunately, there are some easy routes into the language.

An excellent place to start is the Duolingo Polish course. Although not the most extensive course on the free language learning site, it is nonetheless a pretty solid and comprehensive introduction. The course is particularly handy for vocabulary building, but also covers lots of drills on fundamental grammar principles.

Appetite whetted by those long verb conjugations? Polish Verb Blitz by Geoglot is an inexpensive app available on iOS and Android which takes a reference-drill approach.

Polish Verb Blitz for iOS

Polish With John is a superb blog for learners featuring reading and listening content for various levels.  Disclaimer: the site is created by my indefatigable Polish tutor on iTalki. But I can quite dispassionately say that the listening material is excellent and incredibly helpful.

Book-based materials

In terms of more traditional book-based courses, both Teach Yourself Complete Polish and Routledge Colloquial Polish are worth a punt. Now, both publishing houses offer their listening material for free online (Teach Yourself at this link and Routledge Colloquial here), so you can even listen before you buy.

Routledge, to be fair, have always been a language geek’s dream. The Polish catalogue also includes a concise, essential grammar of Polish, as well as a much heftier comprehensive overview of the language. Now that’s some real language learning fodder for the hungry.

And have I mentioned before how much I love the new Tutor series from Teach Yourself? There’s a Polish version of that, too!

Finally, much older coursebooks can be forgotten gems worth unearthing. I started my Polish journey in earnest with a 50p copy of the original Teach Yourself Polish, first penned in 1948. Those old tomes have a relentlessly systematic approach to grammar that is sometimes missing in newer books.

Polish can be a challenging language to learn, but also a fascinating and rewarding one. Have you given it a whirl yet? What are your favourite features, words and quirks? Let us know in the comments!

 

Fluffy dice in a car. Picture from freeimages.com.

Rolling with It as a Language Learner in a Random World

Ever noticed how life throws opportunities at you as a language learner – just not always the ones you had imagined?

So it transpired again at this year’s Language Show Live. The long-running show is an annual outing for the Linguascope crew, and a chance to catch up with fellow language enthusiasts and educators from around the world.

One of my highlights is chatting to delegates in foreign languages – especially when they don’t expect it. It’s worth it for the surprised smiles alone.

Richard West-Soley at Language Show Live 2019

A vision in yellow! Manning the Linguascope stand at Language Show Live 2019

Of course, at these events we always wish for opportunities to speak our strongest languages, or those we are actively working on at the moment. Wouldn’t it be nice if I got the chance to speak a bit of Norwegian or Icelandic?, I thought. Or exchange a few words in Polish?

But, of course, life rarely seems to oblige in the expected fashion.

Rolling the language dice

The first roll of the language dice turned up a lovely group teachers from Spain. Quite literally, since they wanted to know all about Linguascope’s funky dados hablantes (Talking Dice). They were enthusiastic and positively brimming with product questions, but keen to chat about them in Spanish.

Now, I have a long history with Spanish, as it was one of my degree languages along with German. But I must admit, I’ve woefully neglected it in recent years. I’d feel nervous about speaking it in a professional setting, given advance warning. But here, I was on the spot, with no time to get anxious. Lovely, friendly people in need of information, and me, eager to please.

And you know what? My castellano all rose back to the surface, relatively intact and fully functional. And after years of not doing much with it at all, it was actually fun to be speaking the language again.

There is a reason for everything, of course. Life works in mysterious ways. And so it happened that I had to use my Spanish several times over my show days. Reassurance that, once learnt, a language never really leaves you. And perhaps life’s way of saying oi – don’t forget about your Spanish? You never know. I might even start taking better care of it again!

Pot pourri

Spanish was far from my only surprise at this year’s event. A very multilingual delegate had me guessing which was her native language. We started in Spanish, then tried German, and then… Dutch!

Confession: I don’t speak Dutch. I could never claim Dutch it as one of my languages. But, armed with perhaps fifty words (mainly from Eurovision songs) and making the rest up from German (handy to know how the sounds in close languages relate to one another), I managed to say a couple of things and raise a smile.

Admittedly, my ‘Dutch’ wasn’t operating at any functional level – unless you count the smiles and social lubricant as a function, of course. And maybe that is the whole point – language is a social tool, however little of it we possess.

Plot twist

And, surprise twist ending alert: I did get my chance to speak Norwegian. It was just a quick hello to cam for a show promo video, so it wasn’t exactly a chat. But there’s the proof that the Universe was listening to me all along. It was simply choosing to lead me on its very own path.

Polyglot life prepares us well for the randomness of social life. Any time, any place, any language, seize the opportunity to connect. Life is too serendipitous to expect it to conform to our own whims. Just work with it!

Bingo could be good for your speaking, too! Image by Michiel Meulemans on FreeImages.com

Speaking Bingo Sheets for Snappy Active Vocab Recall

When it comes to making vocabulary stick in memory, there are few more effective methods than actively working new material in your speaking practice.

Regularly engaging with new words and phrases in a foreign language is constructive recycling. They gain a salience in the brain beyond words on a page, helping to cement solid neural pathways. Practical use is a sure-fire way to move new material from passive to active knowledge, which is one reason that the Active Recall memory method works so well.

But sometimes, it is not enough to simply hope they come up in conversation. We need a systematic approach to target new vocab.

Polyglot pals, I present to you: speaking bingo sheets!

Speaking bingo sheets

In essence, speaking bingo sheets are simply preparation notes for conversation lessons – with a twist. Instead of a static list of items, they are a dynamic grid of entries that you tick off as you use them. And, like real bingo, you can add in an element of reward (and punishment, if you like!).

To get started, take a 3×3 grid. In each box, add a word or phrase from your recent language learning work. A three-square grid for nine items in total is ample, as more can get unwieldy. My own use of them has evolved from longer checklists to these snappier grilles, and the tighter focus feels much more amenable.

Ideally, all the items should be in a related topic (as it’s easier to fit them into a single conversation then!). As you use them while speaking with your tutor, you tick them off. Simple!

A speaking bingo sheet for Icelandic displayed in Notability for iPad.

Speaking Bingo Sheets needn’t be on paper – here’s one of mine in Icelandic on Notability for iPad.

If you need a bit of extra motivation, you can add a checklist of achievements and rewards below the grid. Your prizes can be as simple or elaborate as you want. A single line? A choccie bar with your coffee. A full house? Allow yourself to buy  that language learning book you’ve been eyeing up for months. You can add punishments too, but just enough to engender a bit of self-discipline. Be kind to yourself – the last thing you need is extra stress in something that should be a joy!

Your teacher can be in on the plan, if you like. But equally, bingo can be for your eyes only. And they’ll be left wondering just why you are so focused in your speaking today!

No lessons? No problem!

I use speaking bingo as part of my regular one-to-one conversation lessons with iTalki tutors. However, they lend themselves to all sorts of other learning situations, too.

If you are practising in situ on holiday, for example, you can set yourself a daily ‘speak sheet’ – nine things that you must try to say to native speakers. They can be as prosaic (“can I have a serviette, please?”) or as whacky (“do you know where I can buy a llama?”) as you like (or are brave enough to say). Unleashing your speaking game in the wild can not only be a bit of silly fun, but also great for building social confidence.

Even if you are nowhere special, with no native speakers within harassing distance, all is not lost. We learn a lot by teaching – or simply explaining – to others. In this case, simply make it your goal to explain each one of those grid items (meaning, pronunciation, etymology etc.) to nine different friends and family members.

However you do it, there is always a way to recycle, recycle, recycle, and move those words from passive to active memory.

Adapting for the classroom

Finally, there are also numerous variations of this you could try with a class of students. At an introductory level, each student could prepare a grid of questions like “what’s your name?“, “how old are you?” and so on. Then, with five minutes to mingle, their objective would be to ask – and record the answer – of every item on their grid. Prizes for a full house!

Structure and flexibility

Speaking bingo sheets are a great framework for using vocabulary and making it stick. They are flexible, in that you can create them from whatever material you choose. But they are also structured, lending some scaffolding to the otherwise very free realm of conversation.

Experiment, adapt and give them a go. And let us know how you get on in the comments!

 

How many languages should we learn at once? How many pieces of the jigsaw do you need? Image by Gary Fleischer on freeimages.com.

How Many Languages Should You Learn At Once? [Spoiler: it’s up to you!]

Every so often there is a ripple in the polyglot ocean, and that old, bebarnacled behemoth “how many languages should you learn at once?” rises to the surface again. A couple of social media posts on that perennial debate caught my eye recently, with passionate punters in both camps.

The conundrum is this: do we concentrate on a single language project at a time, maximising our efforts to progress more quickly and efficiently? Or do we indulge our love of languages, learning several at a time, aiming for the same goals but over a longer period of time?

Spoiler: there is no single, right answer to that question, however much the pundits claim!

Guilt-busting

The accepted wisdom currently seems to have swung in favour of “resist the temptation” when it comes to multiple languages. Narrow focus is the key to success. Now, I must admit to a pang of guilt every time I hear this nugget. As much as many, many of my polyglot friends, I am guilty of full-on Aladdin’s Cave mode. I am a veritable magpie with shiny new languages. If I really want to reach fluency quickly, so the recommendation goes, then I should probably drop a few for now.

Although concrete advice like this errs on the prescriptive side, it does mean well. And as a guideline for the goal-oriented learner, it is sound, too. If your language journey has a very well-defined, practical purpose, such as preparing to live in another country, or pass an exam, it is certainly the safe path to travel.

But are utility and economy of time really the alpha and omega of language learning for pleasure?

The explorer approach

The danger of prescriptive advice is that it selects a single path out of many – black or white, right or wrong. It is exclusive. Specifically, it sets up the end result as the only meaningful objective.

The reality of language learning is much more nuanced. The point for many of us is in the process, as well as the result.

Does a multilanguage process slow down progress compared to a one-at-a-time approach? In terms of pure mileage covered, it stands to reason, yes. But in other ways, not so much. It depends on what you are measuring the progress of. Chiefly, learning multiple tongues simultaneously takes some beating as a big picture approach to developing a deep understanding of language.

I like to view all my language projects as part of this much larger whole. What I learn in one helps carry the others along, too. Most obviously, this yields dividends when studying quite closely related languages, such as German, Icelandic and Norwegian. In this case, it is less about how many languages you learn, and more about which ones. Learning within this group helps to develop a keen instinct for the shared history, shape and feel of Germanic languages.

But even zooming out to more distant leaves on the tree, we can deepen our understanding of language at another level of abstraction. You develop a feel for what language, in a much more general sense, is trying to do, how humans perform communication. In particular, you start to see recurring patterns in how information is coded across very disparate groups.

What is a subject, and how is it given precedence in the sentence? How does language encode time and space, and what commonalities are there between far-flung groups? How are individuals and collectives represented in different ways by different languages?

All these question relate to how human beings package up and present information to carry out specific social functions. Studying a plethora, rather than just one at a time, opens the eyes of learners to the human jungle in glorious technicolour.


Incidentally, the ‘big picture’ argument for polyglot learning has a lot in common with the ideal of the polymath ‘all-rounder’.

Incremental and cumulative

Perhaps, too, we are asking the wrong question when making a choice between quick and slow learning. The most generally applicable piece of advice is simply this: make your learning incremental and cumulative, whatever the speed. Just keep building. And fast is not always fantastic.

This more ambling, strolling path to fluency reminds me of Dawkin’s explanation for the slow evolutionary development of eyes. As he explains, the eye did not simply flash into existence, fully formed. Instead, it evolved over aeons, from an initial small cluster of photosensitive cells on an early life-form, to the complex organ we see in so many incarnations today. At each stage, what was to become the eye was still useful and functional, even though it lacked the finesse of its current form.

Slow language learning is the same. Even if it takes longer to reach high-functioning fluency, the interim skills are nonetheless useful at every step. Just like evolution, language progress is incremental and cumulative, at whatever speed you take it.

A joy, not a chore

We should also remember what brings us to languages in the first place: the sheer joy of it. Too much rigidity can take the edge off any pleasure and turn it into a chore, and this is no exception. Of course, regularity and habit are crucial to ensuring progress. But we should be careful not to deny the place of flexibility in our passion, too.

For instance, I completed my first 30 Day Language Challenge in October. I tackled that one in Polish, and am now into November’s event using Icelandic as my challenge language. The daily speaking topics give me some structure and focus, but I maintain the freedom to use a different language in each challenge.

That’s a great compromise for me and fellow shiny-object fiends. We all have times when we are drawn more to one language than another, and that is absolutely fine. Basing our routines around short, sharp, fixed-term projects like the 30-Day Challenge gives us the best of both worlds: variety and structure.

What’s more, there is nothing to stop you switching modes with the ebb and flow of your own life. Sometimes an exam or a foreign trip will require a change in gear. Stay flexible; what is right for you now may not be in a month’s time.

How many languages? You decide.

I personally strive not to view my learning as a race against time. Nor as a sprint, or even a jog. I prefer it to be a glide, giving me the leisure to take in as much of the view as possible.

But this is not a personal manifesto. What works for me may well not work for you. But it is a friendly nudge to listen to what you want, rather than worry about the many shoulds and shouldn’ts whooshing past us on social media.

Joy should never be prescriptive. Although the booming edict ‘Learn But One Language At A Time’ is well-meant advice, the peer pressure it carries, coming from the mouths of experts, is powerful. One size never fits all. We are a rainbow of different circumstances. Consider at your leisure and select the answer that suits you.

TTS can lend your learning some robotic voice magic. Image by Oliver Brandt on FreeImages.com

Disembodied Voices : Using TTS as a Native Speaker Boost

Native speaker modelling is a prerequisite for learning to speak Modern Foreign Languages. But when listening materials are scarce, or you struggle to find exactly the material you want to learn, then text-to-speech (TTS) can lend a helping hand.

Text-to-speech : native speakers out of thin air

TTS, or speech synthesis, has come on in leaps and bounds since the early days of tinny Speak ‘n’ Spell voices. At first mimicking chiefly (American) English, many projects have since diversified to conjure native speaker voices in many languages out of thin air. Polyglot TTS technologies such as Google Cloud’s offering are at the edge of machine learning developments, and sounding more and more human all the time.

Using these disembodied tongues for language learning is nothing new, of course. Switching the language of your digital voice assistant has become a pretty well-known polyglot trick for some robotic speaking practice. Siri has been speaking fluent Bokmål on my phone for a while now. As a result, I’ve become a dab hand at asking what the weather will be like in Norwegian!

TTS Toolkit

But as handy as voice assistants are, you can leverage the power of TTS much more directly than tapping into Siri or Alexa. At its most basic level, plain old TTS is brilliantly useful for hearing a spoken representation of a word or phrase you are unsure of.

For example, if you are tired of guessing how to reel off “das wäre sehr schön” in German (that would be very nice), never fear. Simply paste it into Google Translate and hit the speaker icon. The platform already offers and impressive number of languages with speech support.

Google Translate offers TTS features.

Google Translate offers TTS features – simply type / paste in your target language and click the speaker icon.

But it gets even better. Several other resources allow you to do more than just listen; they offer a download function too. This way, you can keep your most useful speech synthesis files and incorporate them into your own materials. Combined with vocabulary mining tools such as mass-sentence site Tatoeba, you can begin to curate large, offline collections of target language material with text and audio.

One notable and powerful multilingual voice synthesis site is TTSMP3.com. For a start, it offers plenty of language options. On top of that, several languages include a choice of voices, too.  More than enough to sate your curiosity when you wonder “How do you say that?”.

With a little Google digging, you may also find specialist TTS projects devoted to your particular language of study. For instance, Irish learners are spoilt by the Abair website (Abair means ‘say’ in Irish). Not only does it provide downloadable Irish narration, but it does this in a choice of three different regional accents. If you learn Irish too, you will well know what a godsend this is!

Irish TTS in a range of regional dialects on the Abair website.

Irish TTS in a range of regional dialects on the Abair website.

Incorporating TTS MP3s

With your MP3s downloaded, you can now incorporate them into your own resources. Easiest of all is simply to insert them as media in PowerPoint presentations or Word documents. I personally like to add them manually to Anki cards to add audio support when I revise vocabulary.

The quick and easy way to reach Anki’s media folder on the desktop program is to open up the Preferences panel, then the Backups tab, and finally to tap the “Open backup folder” link that appears. In the same location as that backup directory, you should see another folder with the name collection.media. Anything you put in here will be synced along with the rest of your Anki data.

Note: always back up your Anki decks before tinkering in the program folders!

Anki's media folder

Anki’s media folder

Drop your saved TTS files into this folder. Note that subfolders still don’t seem to work reliably, so keep everything in that single folder. Logical file naming will definitely help!

Finally, when you create / edit a vocabulary note, use the following format to add your sound as a playable item, replacing filename as appropriate:

[sound:filename.mp3]

When viewed on your device, you should see a play button on flashcards with embedded sounds. Magic!

Anki card with embedded sound

An Anki card with embedded sound

If you prefer an even easier route, then there is an Anki plugin specially created for automatically including TTS into notes. I prefer the manual method, as it satisfies the the tech control freak in me.

A human touch

Of course, TTS is not a perfect substitute for a native speaker recording. For those times when only a human voice will do, Forvo is a goldmine. The site is replete with native sounds across a dizzying array of languages, all recorded by native speaker volunteers. Just as with the TTS examples above, the sounds can be downloaded for use in your own resources, too.

To round off our trek through native speaker sites – real and synthesised – just a final note on copyright. If you intend to share the resources you create, always check the usage notes of the website of origin. Sites commonly have fair use policies for non-commercial projects, so making resources for personal use is usually not a problem at all. If you plan to sell your resources, though, you may well need to opt for a commercial plan with the respective platform.

Robotic resources can plug a real gap in native speaker support, especially for niche languages, or niche subjects in more mainstream ones. Do you use TTS in innovative ways in your own learning? Have you come across other specialist or language-specific TTS projects? If so, please share in the comments!

You can still be accountable even as a lone ranger. Photo by Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo on FreeImages.com.

Staying Accountable as a Lone Language Learner

How do you stay accountable in your solo language learning?

I know I sometimes find it difficult as an individual learner. It’s an important consideration for anyone studying on their own. But there’s a clue: one answer is to aim for less of the on your own and instead, build elements of community into the approach to study. And that’s something that was thrown into sharp relief for me recently, as I took part in the 30-Day Speaking Challenge for the very first time.

Accountable together

The challenge has been around for a while now, but I’d managed to find one reason after another to put it off. I finally bit the bullet this month, and discovered a cheery, well-oiled machine well into its paces as a regular event. Run by online teacher and fellow polyglot Jonathan Huggins, the challenge brings together daily speaking tasks with straightforward, big-hearted peer support through shared Google Docs. Simple, but motivating. I’m not sure what kept me away for so long!

The particularly wonderful thing about the challenge is the way every participant helps keep everybody else on track. You not only record, but you listen to the recordings of others learning your native language, and chip in your native knowledge where you can. It creates a huge positive vibe of mutual support, and it seems like the completion rate for daily recordings is very high. That’s undoubtedly almost entirely due to the warm buzz from peer feedback and encouragement.

Learners maintain their daily recordings in order to remain an active part of this mutual motivation club.

I’m currently two thirds of the way through October’s challenge, which I’m tackling in Polish. Some of the daily topics can be tough, but I keep coming back for more every day. It has me convinced – so much so that I’ve already signed up to do the November challenge in Icelandic!

So why has the challenge been so effective for me and others?

Social checkboxes

With language learning, I’ve long been a fan of regularity and routine. Creating a regime to follow gives scaffolding to your overarching goals, and brilliant productivity tools like Evernote help manage these daily tactics precisely with checklists and plans.

Adding a social layer to this self-management brings something a bit special to these regimes. In essence, your checklists receive a potent, people-powered turbo-boost. Suddenly, it’s not just you. It’s a whole bunch of other people you want to run with and not let down.

Staying accountable means making sure that there is someone – besides you – to give reason to your checkboxes.

Keeping it fresh

It goes beyond that a simple motivational boost, too. Letting other human beings into your learning opens you up to a whole other realm of ideas and techniques. This aspect of socialised learning ticks a crucial box: part of staying accountable to yourself as a learner includes keeping up-to-date with new or different resources.

For instance, during this current challenge I found out about the very useful SpeakPipe site. SpeakPipe offers a web-based voice recording app, which saves recordings for a month and provides a URL for you to share them with others. It’s instant, works on pretty much any device, and takes the fuss out of making a quick recording.

But what is even handier is the function to download those files to keep offline forever. Using it on the challenge has resulted in a little bank of MP3 files I can use as both a record of my progress in Polish, and as revision materials for the topics I speak about.

Staying accountable by downloading your daily recordings on Speakpipe.

Speakpipe allows you to download your recordings as MP3s to keep forever.

There is also a sneaky side-benefit to these short daily recordings. They play perfectly into the language islands technique beloved of famed linguistic impresario Luca Lampariello. In this approach, islands are rehearsed snippets of target language that you have available for instant insertion into conversation. It’s a quick fluency tip that works well, and by the end of October, I’ll have ended up with thirty little Polish islands of my own!

Accountability everywhere

I’ve discussed staying accountable in the context of the 30-Day Speaking Challenge here. But social accountability is on tap in plenty of other places besides this excellent cheerleader for peer encouragement. You can satiate your need for positive feedback by keeping up regular iTalki lessons, for example, or attending a language café.

Additionally, there are myriad other community-based mini-challenges that run regularly and are worth checking out. Some are language-based, like LanguageJam, whereas others are not specific to language learners, but can be adapted to foreign language practice, like NaNoWriMo.

And of course, there is no warmer home for polyglots than the thriving polyglot Twitter community. Share, encourage others and thrive – even as a lone ranger!

Where there are fellow learners, there are friends to keep you on track. Seek them out.

Creating language learning resources with a bit of translation magic!

In a rut with resources? Create, create, create!

Do you ever tire of using the same old resources again and again? Or maybe you just can’t seem to hit upon exactly the right resources to switch you on.

Maybe all you need is a bit of DIY.

I was feeling the drag with Duolingo of late. As much as I love the onerous owl, it was all getting a little repetitive. The addictive pressure of leagues added to the more-of-the-same platform fatigue. Not wanting to go cold turkey (I still find it a wonderful way to learn and practise), I scaled back a little.

Predictably, the move left an owl-sized hole in my heart at first. Yes! I even missed that frenzied, everyday point-piling practice. But most of all, I missed Duolingo’s translation method of learning, something that really works for me.

Waiting for the owl…

So I started wondering how I could bring some of that same magic to my learning in different ways – and maybe even extend it to my languages without a Duolingo offering yet, like Icelandic and Gaelic. “Waiting for Duolingo” has become something of a phenomenon amongst the language learning community, summed up in one spot-on tweet I came across recently:

https://twitter.com/ohnonero/status/1181996626094825472?s=20

Admittedly, I can see both sides of the argument here. One the one hand, there is a wealth of learning materials available. It certainly does seem a limiting shame to focus on a single one.

But on the flip side, a lot of people get a lot of joy and benefit from the ease of the Duolingo format.

The solution? Recreate those methods that work best for you, but in your own resources!

Method in the madness

First of all, I should explain what it is I like so much about the Duolingo method. There is actually something very traditional about the way the platform presents and drills foreign language material. In fact, it has a lot in common with the traditional exposition-practice method of old. Typically, this approach presents a set of model sentences as examples, then uses translation exercises – from and into the target language – to help students internalise them.

This method fell out of favour in language pedagogy for a number of years. You can understand why: it is challenging. It is hard to keep students switched on during a marathon of what amounts to a linguistic mental gym. This kind of learn-by-constant-modelling flies the flag for the old chalk ‘n’ talk of old-fashioned classrooms, while more communicative methods promised to get kids speaking sooner. However, as Duolingo shows, there is a place for both.

Digging for gold

Now, one of my favourite things is digging out forgotten old language learning materials. Look beyond the sometimes quaintly dated content, and the constructions and grammatical models are just as relevant to today’s students. The original tranche of Teach Yourself books, for instance, can be language learning gems that need just the lightest dusting off to be enlisted into the action again.

Teach Yourself Maltese (1965)

A 1980s reprint of Teach Yourself Maltese (1965) from my eccentric collection of language books.

These long-lost books completely fit that old exposition-practice mould. But even better, they are cheap! You can pick up copies from second-hand booksellers online for mere pence. And many old, out-of-print volumes are available as scanned PDFs if you look hard enough online (like this reworked, archived copy of Teach Yourself Irish).

And because of the similarity of approach between this and Duolingo’s method, I started thinking: could I turn this material into something similar?

A resource is born

A couple of weekends of code-tapping later, and it started to emerge: the Polyglossic Text Machine! Or Sentence Driller. I can’t decide which yet (and as it is chiefly for my own use, it doesn’t really matter!)

I compile lists of model sentences from my ancient books, and the program turns them into interactive translation exercises. I love it; I am burning through material, just like I pecked through all those sentences the green owl prepared for us. And those structures are sticking.

Creating resources to drill foreign languages based on ancient translation exercises!

Creating resources to drill foreign languages based on ancient translation exercises!

The project is put together in a programming language called Haxe, which compiles to HTML5 for deployment on the web. Haxe is actually quite easy to get into, and at some point, I would love to do a tutorial series on using it to make language games. Please get in touch or comment if this is something you would find useful!

No programming required!

That said, I realise my luck in already having the skills to do this from the ground up. It is completely a geek’s game; not everybody has the time or interest to develop electronic resources from scratch.

But it needn’t be so fancy – there are lots of free tools around that replicate this kind of drilling game without programming skills. If you have sourced some material you think will make brilliant drill fodder, try feeding them into build-your-own-activity resources like the following:

Custom resources are not simply about getting exactly the kind of resource you want. The huge added benefits include ownership and familiarity. By researching and creating them, you make your first pass of the material. When you come to the actual learning and practising, you are already one step ahead!

Finally, my focus above has been completely digital. But creating and learning buddy up across any media. For example, do you learn well through storytelling? Then take a look at this study, which showed how creative storytelling noticeably improved active foreign language production. And for further reading on the topic of creation and learning, this lovely article offers several ideas.

Don’t wait for the perfect resources to come along. Take inspiration from the things you like best, and create your own!

A lecture hall - which learning styles reign here? Photo by Gokhan Okur on FreeImages

A Tale of Two Learning Styles : Accelerated Input vs. Restraint and Repetition

Learning styles are like fine wines – there’s one for every taste, occasion or whim. And this week, I had the chance to return to a mode and pace that enthusiastic, independent learners sometimes miss out on.

On Wednesday, I started Scottish Gaelic classes at the University of Edinburgh. Gaelic is one of Scotland’s three official languages, and an introduction was long overdue (although I’ve picked up plenty of Doric!). Judging by the first class, it will be a really fun and rewarding experience. But as a language enthusiast, learning with others represented a gear-shift to a different pace, too.

Instead of the familiar, accelerated pace of lone language cramming, it was the measured, slow-but-sure approach of learning in a large class.

House rules

Now, I deliberately avoided learning any Gaelic beforehand, as I believe it is important to have the shared experience of learning with my classmates. And a second rule: I will also resist any extracurricular extras in Gaelic, to make sure I follow the plan. (Not wanting to look like a swot may also lie partly behind these decisions!)

But changing gear shed some light on the great benefits of a more restrained, gradual, cumulative learning approach. And we can replicate those benefits as lone learners outside the classroom, too.

Language learning, fast and slow

If you are a language learning enthusiast, you are probably well acquainted with what we might call the ‘classic polyglot mode‘. Course books, target language media and authentic texts are joyful things to soak up, to savour, to devour. It really is a kind of accelerated input method as we race through, learning at breakneck speed.

Now, this is an absolutely valid method (and the one I find myself most naturally slipping into as a perennial dabbler). What’s more, accelerated learning has strong evidence to back it up as an effective choice in a jungle of learning styles and approaches. For instance, in one study of maths students, subjects performed better on tests after an intensive course, as opposed to a longer pathway. Meanwhile, extreme learners like Tim Ferriss have almost turned rapid language learning into a sport.

Learning fast can be fun, exhilarating and yield great results under the right conditions.

Turning down the temperature

The other method is probably the one most familiar to us from our school days. Mixed ability groups work through carefully planned material, week by week. Here, the teacher controls the pace. Due to the mixed abilities within a large group, it can be a more pedestrian approach, to be sure. Characteristically, it features repeated exposure to a small set of material at a time.

Here, the key advantages are expert modelling by the teacher, and heavily repeated input.

Compared to accelerated, individual learning styles, the restrained, intensely focused classroom situation gives learners ample time to perfect a skill before moving on. In this semi-immersive environment, especially if the teacher uses a lot of target language, exposure to learning material is very high.

Conversely, as rapid crammers, the repeat-practise-learn cycle is reversed. When we move through a language quickly, we agree a sort of contract with ourselves, promising to drill the material in situ, on location, when we ultimately throw ourselves into a target language environment. In the classroom, it is practise, practise, practise before we consider it learnt.

To make a building analogy, accelerated learning builds high, and reinforces later. The traditional classroom secures each storey to the max before moving on.

The benefits of repetitive modelling

As eager as we might be to dial up the speed, there is plenty of research supporting the effectiveness of prolonged, repeated modelling. For example, using neuroimaging techniques, it is possible to see mental pathways strengthening through repetitive work, as this study demonstrates. Repetition “induces neuroplasticity” – it actually changes your brain.

Functionally, that means that new skills stick. This EFL classroom study notes that students “benefited from the opportunity to recycle communicative content as they repeated complex tasks“.

Additionally, there are further advantageous effects replicating the sentence modelling of mass sentence techniques. Children in this classroom study actively produced particular sentence structures more readily after repetitive exposure. This “sentence frame” effect gradually builds a library of mental models a speaker can confidently draw upon at a snap.

Common sense, perhaps. But a reminder that language learning is a marathon, not a sprint.

Building slow learning into your fast routine

Of course, there is no need to wind down all of your learning to a snail’s pace, or put a brake on the things you love. But there are ways to introduce a little slow into your routine. Slow learning does have a nice ring to it, admittedly. A little like slow food, it is all about considering the object of interest as something wholesome, worth taking time over.

So here are a few ideas for grafting this ethos onto your more usual accelerated route.

Focused speaking

If you have regular conversation sessions with a tutor on iTalki, try selecting a very narrow topic for just a part of that lesson. Use a mind-mapping technique like the brain dump to  collate a pool of vocabulary, and talk, talk, talk it out with your tutor for 5-10 minutes.

For added effect, arrange with your tutor to return to the same topic over the course of consecutive sessions. Discounting boredom, you should become really good at speaking about it whenever the occasion arises!

Peer teaching / sharing

Teaching others is a wonderful way to recycle and revise material, not least because it also slows you down and allows you to repeat familiar material out loud. ‘Teaching’ need not mean anything formal – simply sharing your latest words and phrases with (hopefully, vaguely interested) family or friends will do.

Setting your pace

Alternatively, you can take your foot off the pedal by carefully planning your learning with productivity tools like Evernote or Wunderlist. If you feel you are rushing through a course book too quickly, devise a learning plan that allocates a whole week (or more) to a single chapter. And, importantly: don’t deviate. I find calendarised plans and tick lists some of the simplest but most effective tools for pacing my learning.

Recycling beginners’ resources

Finally, spare a thought for your old, forgotten resources. Revisit them regularly, and revel in your improving abilities. You probably know the material so well now that you can do the exercises in your sleep!

Learning styles : a best of both worlds approach

Becoming a classroom student again taught me the common sense I had long forgotten: the more you practise, the better you get. Never fear, you can of course still steam through your languages at a rate of knots. Gradual and fast ‘n’ furious learning styles are not mutually exclusive. And there is no greater joy for the polyglot than consuming courses!

But, now and again, give your brain the time to form new pathways through good old repetition and rote.

It is built to do so.