Accent - sometimes you can be too good! Image by Betty Miller from FreeImages.com

Great accent, shame about the rest!

How is your accent in the language you’re learning? I’m pretty pleased with mine. In fact, I think it might be a little too good.

Before the eye-rolling starts, let me explain. This isn’t an embarrassing lapse in modesty and perspective. The fact is, accent is one of the things I really strive to perfect very early on in my learning. The trouble is, a very good accent can give a false impression of general overall proficiency, even if you’re not quite there yet.

There’s Norway you’re Norwegian…

It’s something that has cropped up plenty of times in my language adventures. This weekend, I spent a couple of nights in lovely Trondheim, Norway. Now, my Norwegian isn’t bad at all. It’s one of the languages I immerse myself in most, watching Norwegian TV, getting my news from Norwegian sources and reading fiction in Norwegian. I’d say I hover around a B1/2 – an achievement I’m proud of and not bad for someone who doesn’t live in the country.

That said, Norwegian is a patchwork of sometimes vastly different dialects. I don’t always cope with that diversity, especially when I come across a new variety. And Trøndersk, of which Trondheim’s dialect is a prime example, is particularly unique.

The sticking point is this: I have worked on getting a solid Oslo pronunciation under my belt. Because of that, when I rattle off a request in a hotel or shop situation, I sound like I have a pretty solid grasp of a colloquial, spoken variety of the language. When I get the reply in full-on local dialect, I get that gut-turning feeling of the rug being pulled from under my feet.

Yes, who hasn’t felt that when learning a language? But when you make a special effort to sound like a native, it can compound the problem.

Great accent – shame about the listening skills!

Language heptathletes

This is, of course, the nature of language learning. It is a multi-skill discipline. In effect, we are all heptathletes competing across reading, writing, speaking, listening and other combined events at our own linguistic Olympics. Just like a heptathlon, every one of us performs differently across those skills. Accent is one of those areas that some struggle with, but others take to straight away.

Focusing on accent early on – as your special event, so to speak – is no bad thing by any means. For many of us, it is part of the fun of language learning. It’s all about trying to pass, attempting to shed the baggage of your first language background, trying on a different culture for size, the giddy thrill of let’s pretend. A great accent means hearing the sounds of a different place, a different people, a different world leave your lips. For me, it’s one of the most exciting parts of learning a language.

Maybe you are a natural mimic and love to imitate foreign language sounds from the get-go. It could be, like me, that you are fascinated by dialects and accents as a route to the authentic heart and soul of a target language culture. Perhaps you’ve worked hard on accent-improving techniques like shadowing.

But an accent-heavy focus might leave you scrambling to keep up your first, amazing impressions when you speak to locals abroad. The problem is partly one of over-rehearsal. As actors will confirm, you can prepare your character to death. You know your part so rigidly that there is zero room for flexibility. Learning to speak your part too convincingly can leave you little time to focus on being prepared for the unpreparable.

The answer? Keep loving accent and pronunciation work, but introduce some systematic wider focus into your study to redress the imbalance.

Perfect accent – with a side of syntax

The best kind of resources for skill-balancing are those that take a blended approach. They provide plenty of speech modelling to keep our accent ambitions fulfilled. But they also feature content that trains variable syntax alongside accent.

Personally, I find mass sentence methods like Glossika incredibly helpful. Glossika drills native-speed pronunciation through a bank of hundreds of well-formed, colloquial sentences. Crucially, it includes stylistic variants on a theme that might trip you up in natural speech. The Scottish Gaelic version, for example, exposes you to not only “càit a bheil …?” (where is …) but also the shortened, more colloquial form “cà’il …?” amongst other alternatives.

For an even tighter focus on listening skills, it pays to keep your ear to the ground for new techniques. For a start, there is some excellent advice on listening coming from language teachers in schools, so it pays to keep up-to-date with what is going on in the teacher circuit. Many of their confidence-improving techniques for young students are as applicable to us as individual learners.

Let it go…

Finally – and this might be the most drastic and hard-to-swallow piece of advice for all who love working on their accent – is to deliberately try not to be so impressive. Let a little of your true self colour how you speak a foreign language. Cultivate a ‘learner accent’.

If you want to keep the fun stakes high, maybe even try a different foreign accent within your language – German with a French accent, anyone? Have fun being non-native! It’s still an accent, right?

What are your experiences with accent training in language learning? Let us know in the comments!

Listening can be one of the most challenging skills in a foreign language. Image from freeimages.com.

The Listening Monster: Language teacher tips for taking the sting out

Same objectives, different worlds – the polyglot and school classroom teaching communities strive for identical goals, but it often feels like they are leagues apart. It’s a perfect match waiting to be realised, as both have so much to learn from one another.

That’s why it’s always a hugely positive eye-opener when I attend teacher conferences. I’m no longer a classroom teacher myself, but I’m lucky enough to remain part of that world through my work creating language resources for schools. And as a lone ranger language learner in my free time, there are always lots of tips for tweaking my own study. This year’s #TeachLang conference was no exception, with a focus on that notoriously challenge foreign language skill, listening.

Listening: The dreaded monster

It’s no secret that listening – and actually comprehending – is one of the big, bad, dreaded monsters of language learning, whether in the classroom or for independent learners. Perhaps like me, you’ve given podcasts a go in a language you’re working on, only to feel disillusioned at how little you understand. Or maybe you feel flummoxed by those oh-so-fast responses by native speakers when travelling.  Either way, listening can be flippin’ hard.

Teachers know this only too well. It can be a challenge to keep students feeling confident with such an overwhelming, brainpower-intensive task. Thankfully, there were some excellent nuggets of classroom wisdom on offer at the conference.

Martine Pillette in particular summed up the right initial approach to listening with her focus on tuning down the pressure to get everything at once. In short: you can get a lot from authentic listening resources without understanding every single word. A shame nobody told that to my inner critic years ago!

In this kinder-to-yourself method, you focus on mini-tasks at more abstracted levels instead of word-for-word comprehension straight away. For example, start by simply trying to identify the general topic of a segment. Listen out for individual words to note down, rather than grasp whole sentences. In essence, train yourself to catch gist. This kind of focused listening reminds me a lot of Benny Lewis’ active method for consuming podcasts.

Prediction exercises

Dovetailing into that was a lovely segment from Jennifer Wozniak around the use of prediction in listening exercises. Key to the predictive approach is preparation. With some basic knowledge of what the listening text is about, which words do you expect to come up?

Take a podcast on technology in Icelandic, for example. You might figure that the words tölva (computer), farsími (mobile phone) and gagnvirkur (interactive) are probable candidates for inclusion. Before listening, note them down – look them up in a dictionary if needed – and see how many of them come up on your first pass. You can tick them off, bingo-style, as you hear them. How many did you get?

Jennifer Wozniak talking at the Linguascope #TeachLang Teach Languages conference, February 2020

Jennifer Wozniak talking at the Linguascope #TeachLang Teach Languages conference, February 2020

These are just a couple of the fantastic classroom techniques that teachers are sharing to take stress out of listening. They hardly scratch the surface, of course, and it’s well worth a rummage in live stream archive of the Linguascope Facebook page to see what else a bit of back-to-school can do for us.

As for me, I’m just off to play some Icelandic listening bingo. Wish me luck!

What techniques do you use to cope with listening practice in your foreign languages? Let us know in the comments!

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II for the iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming to fluency – language immersion in the Apple Arcade

Nothing like a bit of fun and games, is there? Of course, for most of us, language learning is the fun and games. But what if we could turbocharge that a little? I’d been mulling over the idea of getting back into gaming as a way to unwind of late. As if right on cue, Apple’s email invite to its new mobile games subscription, Apple Arcade, popped up in my inbox.

I used to love gaming as a kid, from my early VIC-20 days to my beloved Commodore 64. But for one reason or another – maybe with the disillusioning burden of real, adult life – I let that fun fall by the wayside. Nowadays, I’m more likely to be making games than playing them. Time was ripe to turn the tables.

Naturally, everything in my life has to involve language learning in some form or other. So it’s handy that many contemporary apps and games adhere to localisation standards which provide multiple translations. There is a crossover world out there just waiting for people like us!

Gaming genres for learners

The trick to learning through playing is to find gaming genres that contain copious amounts of text. You might instinctively start searching for word puzzle games, but they tend to lack more complex, sentence level material.

It turns out that quest-style role-playing games (RPGs), where you explore worlds and interact with characters, are ideal. The language is often in the form of colloquial dialogues with everyday, natural speech. Many of them are also full of fun, fantasy vocabulary, which goes down a treat if you enjoy foreign language Harry Potter books and the like.

And luckily, Apple Arcade features a lot of them.

Many of the platform’s quest games are available in more than ten languages, including the ‘biggies’, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. There is one caveat: usually, only the text is available in translation, rather than the full spoken audio dialogue. This makes gaming language practice more of a reading comprehension activity than anything else. But that’s incredibly useful in its own right, akin to watching Netflix in English with foreign language subtitles. You can always turn the English dialogue sound down too, if it distracts.

So what have I been playing this week?

CAT QUEST II

For my first outing into lingua-gaming, I plumped for the comic-style Cat Quest II by Singaporean indie outfit The Gentlebros. Love cats and dogs? No problem, as you can play as both in this cutesy RPG. The eye-catching graphics reminded me a lot of the bold, brash worlds I used to explore in arcade games like Pac-Land as a kid, making this title hard to resist. Download, boot up and switch to German: I’m ready to play.

Kudos to the developers for the delightful German translation. It avoids being the Google Translate hatchet job you might expect from a studio with less cash to splash than one of the behemoth firms. A heap of care and attention has gone into it, including cute, native play-on-words and puns for the character names. Even the quirky place names on the maps have been translated!

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II for the iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II for the iPad on Apple Arcade

A spot of shopping in German: Cat Quest II on Apple Arcade

YAGA

What grabbed me most about Yaga is its basis in Slavic folklore. It has an authentic-sounding, haunting soundtrack to match. Not only that, but – rather appropriately – it is also one of the few games available in Polish.

You play the hapless, one-armed blacksmith Ivan, desperate to change his luck. The point-and-click, adaptive dialogue is a fun and immersive way to practise any one of an impressive fifteen languages.

Gaming for language learners: Yaga for iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Yaga on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Yaga for iPad on Apple Arcade

Another friendly chat in Yaga on Apple Arcade

MOSAIC

For lovers of dystopian noir, Mosaic is a bit of a treat. Dark, moody and more than a little bit trippy, it is also one of the few games offering a Norwegian Bokmål translation.

The game story takes place in a rich point-and-click environment where you play our beleaguered everyday anti-hero. But perhaps more uniquely, the exploration of his world also makes use of several self-contained games-within-a-game. Understanding the target language instructions is key to getting anywhere with these.

Gaming for language learners: Mosaic for iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Mosaic on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Mosaic for iPad on Apple Arcade

In-game puzzing på norsk within Mosaic on Apple Arcade

Gaming for All

After playing my way through a few of these, one thing strikes me: it’s so easy to get started. Perhaps one of the best things about mobile gaming as a learning tool is this accessibility. Devices are so ubiquitous that there is no need to fork out for a console as well.

Device-based gaming also works out pretty cheaply, especially with platforms like Apple Arcade being subscription-based. For a flat monthly fee, you get access to unlimited games. Not only that, but Apple are pushing new games to users all the time, keeping things nice and fresh. And although I’m a shameless Apple boy myself (could you tell?), Android users can enjoy similar features with Google Play Pass.

Admittedly, you do need a certain level of competence in the language already in order to get the most out of it. Quest-based games seem a good fit for upper beginner / intermediate learners, as well as maintainers. That said, the slower pace of some of these types of game means that you have time to pause and look up unfamiliar material.

All in all, for mindful escapism with a dash of language practice, mobile gaming is proving hard to beat. It’s another very welcome way to unwind, capturing a bit of that youthful gaming fun I lost and flexing my lingua-muscles at the same time.

Are you a language learning mobile gamer? Do you have any recommendations for top titles? Please share them in the comments!

Cross-referencing vocabulary in Excel after some tidying is applied with IFERROR.

Excel for Polyglots: Comparative audits to keep languages in sync

Duolingo, Memrise, Anki, Microsoft Excel. Huh, wait – Excel? How is that a language learning app?

Well, the Office software has some handy features that just happen to be right up our street as language learners. Namely, the ability to curate and administer lists in table form. And it just happens that this can be particularly useful if you learn more than one language.

One source of frustration as a polyglot learner is the discrepancy of vocabulary level between languages. This can be most obvious with fairly close language pairs. For instance, when practising Icelandic, I often realise that I know a term in Norwegian – but not the language I am trying to speak.

So how best to address these discrepancies?

Language auditing

Getting into the habit of performing a regular language audit, such a revisiting beginner materials is a good strategy for any learner. But one particularly powerful method for multi-language learners is the comparative audit.

In short, a comparative audit is simply taking stock of which words you know in one language, but not the other.

At the very early stages of learning a language, this can be as easy as scanning down a list. But when you get to the point of having hundreds and hundreds of words in your vocab store, the task is mammoth.

Enter Excel, data wizard!

Microsoft Excel and VLOOKUP

Most of us will have used Excel or another spreadsheet program at some point. But like me, you might not have gone beyond basic numerical information and a few simple sum functions.

It turns out that Excel is pretty good at handling textual data too. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yes, vocabulary lists! And it has a special function, VLOOKUP, which allows you to compare data between two tables. Sounds just perfect for our comparative audit.

Here’s how to enlist Excel to your polyglot cause in a few simple(-ish) steps.

Step 1: Port your data into Excel

First things first – you have to get your vocabulary data into Excel. The easiest way is to export from your program of choice as a CSV (comma-separated values) or tab-delimited text file. If you use Anki, this is as easy as heading to File > Export and selecting ‘Notes in Plain Text (*.txt).

Ensure that you only export the basic data and no media or tags. Ideally, you should just be exporting a word and definition / translation field. My Norwegian and Icelandic decks, for example, are populated by vocab notes with an English and Target Language field.

Export a separate file for each of the two languages you want to compare. In my case, I end up with two files, norwegian.txt and icelandic.txt.

Exporting data from Anki

Exporting data from Anki

Step 2: Import your vocab into Excel

In Microsoft Excel, create a fresh spreadsheet document, and head to File > Import. Select Text File, hit Import and locate your first exported vocabulary file from above. To preserve accented characters in our Anki list, select Unicode (UTF-8) as the File origin.

Importing vocabulary into Excel

Importing vocabulary into Excel – note that ‘Unicode (UTF-8)’ has been selected as the file origin to make sure accented characters are handled correctly.

Create a second sheet in the same document, and import your other list of vocabulary into that. You should now have a two-sheet spreadsheet document, each sheet showing a list of words in a different language. For clarity, make sure you name your sheets too. Simply double-click on the tab titles “Sheet 1” etc. to do that.

Step 3: Format your lists as tables

In each sheet, click and drag across the table to select your whole vocabulary list as a block. Now, click Format as Table in the Home section of the function ribbon / toolbar. It doesn’t really matter which style you use – I choose the colour I like best!

Once that’s done, change the new column headers to something more meaningful than the default values. I use English and Norwegian in my example below. One caveat – you need to have a column with the same title in both your tables for the VLOOKUP trick to work. Here, English will be my common column between Norwegian and Icelandic.

Vocabulary data formatted as a table in Microsoft Excel

My Norwegian vocabulary data formatted as a table in Microsoft Excel

Now, instantly, these is already more useful to us than static lists. Formatting as a table means you can use the column heading drop-downs to sort and filter your entries. Try it – sort alphabetically on the target language column. You’ve turned your data into a nifty dictionary! Not our primary goal, but a nice trick on the way.

Before we go on, it’s a good idea to name our tables so they are easy to refer to later. To do this, click anywhere in your table, then switch to the Table tab in the ribbon / toolbar. The simpler, the better – below, I just call mine Icelandic.

Naming a table in Excel

Naming a table in Excel

But now it’s the turn of our star, VLOOKUP. This is where the real magic happens.

Step 4: Adding a comparative column

Click on the target language column header of your second table and copy it (CTRL + C). Now, go to your first table, select the cell next to the target language column header (C1 in my example), and paste (CTRL + V). It should add a blank new column within that table. Let’s fill it up!

In the first cell under that new column header, we type in our VLOOKUP formula. This will depend on what you have named your tables and sheets, but mine looks like this:

=VLOOKUP([@English], Icelandic, 2, 0)

Let’s dissect that just now. The first item in the brackets is the column of the first table we’ll use at the lookup – the English entry. The second item, Icelandic, is the table we’ll look for a value in. Remember, we named that table a little earlier. The third item, 2, is the column number we’ll look for that item in, which is the target language column of the Icelandic table. Finally the fourth value, 0, is a flag to Excel that we want exact matches only.

If that boggles, simply start typing =VLOOKUP( in the cell. That calls up Excel’s formula hints and point-and-click formula building, which should help you tie things together accurately.

After doing that, something special happens – suddenly, the whole column is filled with entries. If the English term was found in the Icelandic table, the corresponding Icelandic word is pulled in. If not, we simply get #N/A.

A quick note if that doesn’t work immediately: check that the data type of the cells in that third column are set to format as General, not Text.

A cross-referencing table in Excel using VLOOKUP

Our first step in creating a cross-referencing table in Excel using VLOOKUP.

Not very tidy, is it? That #N/A is simply stating that the lookup resulted in nothing at all.

Step 5: Tying off the loose ends

We can make it all look better by wrapping it in another Excel formula, IFERROR. Change the formula in that first cell to:

=IFERROR(VLOOKUP([@English], Icelandic, 2, 0), "-")

This tells Excel to carry out our VLOOKUP function, but to return a dash if it results in an error (i.e., no data). Suddenly, it’s looking a lot neater.

Cross-referencing vocabulary in Excel after some tidying is applied with IFERROR.

Cross-referencing vocabulary in Excel after some tidying is applied with IFERROR.

Now it is crystal clear where you know a word in one language but not the other. To make things even clearer, click the dropdown on that third column, and filter it to show just the dashed elements. There is your list of words to work on in the second language!

Filtering your vocabulary items in Excel.

Filtering your vocabulary items in Excel.

Alternatively, filter on everything but the dashes to revel in the wealth of words you know in both. Enjoy that moment of pride!

For reference, here’s an example Excel file comparing sample vocabulary in French and Spanish.

Where to go from here?

What you do next is up to you. But now, you have the data in your hands, and data is power: what you know, you can act on. Export the filtered list of gaps to work on learning missing vocabulary in any number of ways.

Clearly, you can take these techniques a lot further, too. Currently, the table only checks one way, such as Icelandic to Norwegian in my example. But you can experiment with the same techniques to create much more complex and comprehensive spreadsheets to interrogate both ways.

Lastly, I’ve used Microsoft Excel in this example, but the same functionality is available in other spreadsheet programs, too. The free alternative Google Sheets, for example, has its own VLOOKUP function that works in an almost identical manner. Play around with the tools available, and you can add that dull old spreadsheet package to your list of exciting, innovative language apps!

Have you given this trick a spin? Have any interesting and useful variations on it? Please share in the comments!

Accept yourself as a wonderful, fallible human being. Image from freeimages.com.

Be fallible! Building resilience as a language learner

Human beings are fallible. We all make mistakes.

But our natural instinct is often to feel shame, and try to hide those mistakes. And so, this week, I give you the pep talk I would have loved as a newcomer to language learning. It is a lesson in the art of self-acceptance as a wonderful, fallible human being.

Starting out

When we engage in any passion, we get excited. We skip, run, and plough headfirst and giddy into new experiences. We race ahead, full of anticipation, eyes darting gleefully about, trying to take it all in. Learning new skills can be exhilarating!

Sometimes, however, we fall.

There’s no escaping the fact that sometimes, failing can feel like a painful knock. And it comes in many forms. It could be the local who brushed you off rudely after your attempts to speak the language. It could be a grumpy teacher giving corrections in an unhelpful, unsympathetic tone. In these days of lives lived online, it may frequently come in the form of unrequested, unconstructive feedback. A recent article of mine, for example, attracted commentary which came across as, shall we say, well grounded, but not exactly friendly.

What do all these things have in common? They all involve a stumble or a fall in front of others who react negatively. And they involve a degree of shame that can leave us questioning our credibility in what suddenly seems like an insurmountably giant world. Shame is a terrifyingly fierce demotivator. All at once, that excitement pales against a niggling feeling of being a fraud or impostor.

Now, it is easy to let these things hurt us. What is harder, but so much more useful in the long run, is to let these things galvanise us. So how can we best buttress ourselves against mean-spirited engagements?

Embracing your fallibility is key.

Fantastically fallible

We are all fallible. We all make mistakes. Not to do so is simply not to be human.

Look at it this way – if we refuse to accept we are fallible, it is tantamount to saying we have nothing to learn. That we are perfect already. And resting on your laurels is a great way to stop learning anything at all.

It’s a salient point in a world full of ‘perfect’ polyglot role models. Who do you relate to more – someone who admits that the road is sometimes bumpy, or someone who claims to have all the answers?

Cultivating thankfulness

As language learners, we expose ourselves to the risk of being very fallible in a very public arena. The trick to developing a thicker skin is to cultivate a thankfulness and gratitude for every smarting knock.

Yes! If someone knocks you down, thank them for it. They have given you a gift – even if it was with a grimace.

Feedback of all kinds helps us to improve, even the curmudgeonly kind. See that negative shroud as a product of the kind of day the other person is having, rather than a fault of your own. Then take whatever lesson was wrapped in it, move on, and grow.

In learning and using foreign languages, we ultimately deal with people, and people are inherently unpredictable. Many will be lovely. Others not so much. Simply face them all with no expectation but to learn. Putting yourself out there with this shield of thankfulness is an excellent way to practise and build resilience.

You might worry that your failures come from trying to do too much, too soon. Are you putting yourself out there too early? Are you trying to run before you can walk? But it is only through pushing boundaries that we progress. For a little extra support, you can also try safe environments to make mistakes amongst friends, like the excellent 30-Day Speaking Challenge.

Keep trying to run. Those falls are worth the ground gained.

Stand up. Invite criticism. Accept that it might not always be constructive. And be proud of yourself as a fallible, but ever-learning human being.

A new calendar means new language learning resolutions. But how to stick to them? (Image from freeimages.com)

Calendar blocking: a little book to bust your rut

Oh, how the days of a new year sometimes seem to melt into an ambling, amorphous mess. From the high hopes of resolutions to the January Blues, language learning motivation can be in short supply in this cruellest of months. Dry Vocabanuary, as one friend succinctly puts it. One thing is keeping me on track at the moment: calendar blocking.

You see, my natural, inborn tendency – despite the treasure of posts on language learning planning and productivity – is to veer into disorganisation. I try not to beat myself up too much for this. As Daniel Kahnemann explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow, human brains evolved to try and make it easy on themselves. They can make an effort when they really have to, but even then, only in short bursts, like a surly teenager.

What helps in bucketloads is a routine to act as a stricter, more explicit executive in charge of self-direction. So, every night, I put on Manager Ricky hat. I imagine my tomorrow self as a third-party employee to delegate to. With my larger objectives in mind, I plan my next day’s work and study in more-or-less hourly chunks.

The resulting plan is loose and flexible enough not to feel stifling, with in-built breaks (Pomodoro is your friend!). But it defines goals tightly enough to prevent focus-drift into an unproductive mush.

In short, it makes me a better worker and learner.

Calendar blocking with purpose-built pads

Now, who doesn’t like a new item of stationery? There is something exciting and motivating about a fresh, shiny, empty notebook that e-tools like Evernote – however brilliant – can fail to replicate.

To that end, I treated myself to the organisational geek’s perfect purchase for a productive 2020: this natty daily planning pad! This purpose-designed calendar blocking pal is simplicity to use. The star of each page is an hour-by-hour rundown of the day, with extra space for the most important to-do items. Being compact at just A5 size, it also discourages over-planning. The overarching ethos is keep it clear, keep it simple.

Calendar blocking with a brand new pad!

Calendar blocking with a brand new pad!

You don’t need a special pad, of course. I just like new stationery, so any excuse. But any medium will work, as long as you can map out the day in roughly hour-long sections, and cross-reference with key to-dos.

Your very own Hogwarts

So far, so good using the pad. In the most satisfying way, it does feel a little like writing your own special daily school timetable. If you are a fan of ambitious personal improvement regimes, or want to create your own personal Hogwarts of horizon-broadening lessons, then this will appeal greatly.

Admittedly, I am not quite at the point of scheduling lessons in potions and transfiguration. But there is always a sense that this is my à la carte plan for developing myself in ways that are magical for me. Namely languages – and if you are reading this blog, chances are that will be your magic, too.

Have you employed other productivity hacks into your language learning routine? Let us know in the comments!

A thistle. Learn Gaelic, know Scotland a little better. Image from freeimages.com

Exhausted Duolingo Gaelic already? Try these resources for size!

Got your Gaelic fix with Duolingo but hungry for more? You’re not alone. The ubiquitous language learning platform delighted users with its latest addition. But like all first-phase courses, it is not the lengthiest – yet.

More will almost certainly be in the pipeline, particularly given the popularity of the course. But you don’t have to play the waiting game – there are scores of great resources available to keep you going.

Never fear – as an incorrigible bibliophile, I’ve beavered my way through a heap of beginners’ materials, so you don’t have to. And however solid and ever-present the Teach Yourself and Routledge Colloquial courses are, there’s more to language learning life than just those. So enjoy some of these less obvious newcomers’ picks below for a varied foray into elementary Scottish Gaelic!

Ceumannan – Stòrlann

Ceumannan means footsteps in Gaelic, and is also the name of the secondary level textbook used to teach Gaelic in schools. Despite being aimed at kids, it covers all the ground you’d expect of any good primer course. So much so, in fact, that it is the textbook of choice in my Gaelic evening class at Edinburgh University.

Book one is the chunkiest of the five-volume set. This is its strength – the basics are thoroughly recycled again and again in different contexts throughout the book. By the end of it, you should really have mastered the basics of Gaelic syntax.

Ceumannan, the elementary Gaelic course for schools - and adult learners!

Ceumannan, the elementary Gaelic course for schools – and adult learners!

Publishers Stòrlann have also made available all of the listening material on the free Ceumannan website. The site itself is beginning to look a little clunky and dated (the Flash games, for example, will no longer work for many), but it is still a goldmine of material for learners.

Gaelic without Groans – John MacKechnie

This next resource is a real treat, especially if you like the quirkiness of language manuals from a bygone age as much as I do.

John MacKechnie’s Gaelic without Groans dates from the middle of the last century, but saw multiple reprints over the decades. Although out of print now, you can still pick up second-hand copies very cheaply online or offline. It’s always popping up in second-hand bookshops across Edinburgh, for example.

This short, friendly and joyfully eccentric introduction to basic Gaelic is a gem. MacKechnie adopts a chatty, informal style from the outset, introducing a point of basic grammar in each concise chapter. Core vocabulary appears in bite-sized chunks at the end of each section, with good old-fashioned drill exercises to hammer the points home.

John MacKechnie's Gaelic without Groans - a quirky joy from the cover to its contents!

John MacKechnie’s Gaelic without Groans – a quirky joy from the cover to its contents!

The very observant might notice a couple of discrepancies with one or two spellings, compared to much more modern learning resources. However, the differences are generally very minor. And in any case, they serve as a window onto the world of a language with plenty of dialect variation, and still undergoing many of the processes of standardisation.

Gaelic without Groans really is a joy – well worth a couple of pounds if you come across it!

Gràmar na gàidhlig – Michael Byrne

Michael Byrne’s Gràmar na Gàidhlig is another concise but packed book. Chock full of example sentences, it describes key points of Gaelic grammar in short, snappy sections. If you are struggling to understand the nuts and bolts in your other books, Gràmar na Gàidhlig puts them in terms that are very easy to understand.

The book itself is part of Gaelic language history, being a translation of the first Gaelic grammar with explanations completely in the language itself. In this English edition, you can take advantage of its clarity of instruction as a second language learner too.

BBC materials

As with Ceumannan, some of the most useful resources can be those aimed at young people. BBC Bitesize, the revision website, has a low-profile but very handy section for Gaelic learners. The target audience is students revising for Scottish school qualifications, but all learners will find the short grammar summaries useful. Some sections, like this page on irregular verbs, contain some really practical vocabulary lists, too.

Of course, the BBC in Scotland has a history of Gaelic instruction that goes further back than the Internet days. Former flagship Gaelic offering Speaking Our Language still has legendary status. That’s thanks in part to some pretty cheesy dialogue and hammy acting, but nonetheless, it is an excellent place to learn some Gàidhlig.

Supporting course book for BBC's Speaking Our Language

A supporting course book for BBC’s Speaking Our Language

The excellent site LearnGaelic.scot has repackaged some of the Speaking Our Language material for use online, including supporting exercises. That said, you can also catch repeats on BBC Alba, or find the programmes in their full, original, 1990s glory on YouTube. Revel in the nostalgia those yesteryear fashions inspire!

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Finally, if apps are your thing, you can still get a little vocabulary and grammar practice beyond Duolingo with Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz by Geoglot. Available on iOS and Android, the app doubles as a reference and drill tool. John MacKechnie would probably have loved those translation-based games.

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Life beyond Duolingo

So there you have five places to continue your Gaelic beyond the green owl. Of course, this list can only scratch the surface of what is available. Honourable mentions must go to Gaelic in Twelve Weeks, and the now antiquated original edition of Teach Yourself Gaelic, and all the others yet to cross my path.

But for a bit of resource-hunting of your own, try perusing the items at Stòrlann, the Gaelic publishing house. And, of course, a trip to any good second-hand bookshop in Scotland!

Hopefully, this little selection shows that whether on page or screen, there is life beyond Duolingo. Explore, enjoy, and please share any of your own resource tips in the comments below!

A firework mid-display! Image from freeimages.com

New year, new goals: a language resolutions toolkit

New year, new decade. And time again for lots of New Year language learning resolutions and great intentions.

Twitter is awash with plans, hopes and dreams from language enthusiasts far and wide. We certainly know what we want out of 2020. But how to best go about it?

Arm yourself with the right kit with these top tools for staying on track!

Get your streak on in Anki

One of the most motivating, keep-on-track features of platforms like Duolingo is the streak feature. However, this is not always available in staple, bare bones vocabulary drill tools like Anki.

That is, until Review Heatmap came along!

This desktop Anki add-on helps you keep daily momentum by offering stats like streak and past performance. The heatmap graph allows you to glance forward and gauge how many card reviews are coming your way in future. An excellent way for language geeks to stick to daily vocabulary resolutions.

Review Heatmap in lovely magenta.

Review Heatmap in lovely magenta.

Resolutions reminders

Establishing a new routine and changing ways can be tough as a typical creature-of-habit human being. Thankfully, there are plenty of to-do list apps to help organise our resolutions, and Wunderlist has been one of the best (not to mention free).

You can organise goals and subgoals using the rich, tiered reminders in the app. Personally, I like to take a weekly tactics approach, with regular repeated tasks. This is a piece of pie to set up on Wunderlist, with phone notifications to remind you when items are due to be ticked off.

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Now, since I first began proselytising about the app, it seems to have caught the attention and imagination of the bigwigs. The upshot is that the company and app will morph into Microsoft To-Do by May 2020. So somebody was clearly listening!

Luckily, everything that made Wunderlist so great looks set to stay. So, jump straight into Microsoft To-Do if you want to give to-do organising a go with your languages. Existing Wunderlist users can easily import their data into the new app, too.

Evernote for ever-ready resolutions

Talking of list-writing applications, cross-platform Evernote allows for to-do tick lists as well, amongst a geeksome cascade of other features.

Evernote is as much a place to plan as it is to collect, study, write and do just about anything else you need language-wise. Clip a web article into it to translate and create a vocabulary list from. Create your weekly plan in it, and let the app notify you when a review is due. Email yourself a list of words while you’re at work to pick up and work with later. Or snap a page of exercises from a textbook, and complete your answers in the note rather than deface your book. You can even share that note with your tutor for marking.

However you use it – and there are as many ways as there are users – Evernote can be a real workhorse for language learning.

And it’s free to use on a basic plan!

Write to remember with apps and reusable pads

My love of lists and notes betrays my true colours. I am a big proponent of good, old-fashioned writing to remember (as no doubt many of us are!).

I just love a scribble. And one of my all-time favourite techniques to take advantage of this for language learning is the brain dump. Regularly recycle what you’ve learnt by letting it all flow, as creatively as possible, onto a single page. Incidentally, this makes for a great weekly tactic in your resolutions to-do list above!

Now, for the sake of saving paper, I enjoy using sketch apps on my tablet to splurge:

A brain dump of elementary Irish

A brain dump of elementary Irish

However, nothing quite beats traditional pen and paper. Thankfully, there is a tech-savvy way to work traditional media into your 2020 resolutions without working through a forest:

Rocket Pad - stick to your writing resolutions without wasting trees! Image from Amazon.com.

Rocket Pad – stick to your writing resolutions without wasting trees!

The best of resolutions

And before you set off, keep in mind the best of all language learning resolutions: have fun. Language learning should never be a chore, but always a joy. Explore, dabble, and never feel guilty for doing what you love.

Just revel in that love of words.

Good luck with all your language learning goals and resolutions for 2020. Happy New Year – and happy learning!

Ulangi – an Anki beater? [review]

Looking for some variety to your vocabulary routine? Ulangi is a new kid on the block, and is a promising new alternative to spaced repetition apps like our old favourite Anki. However, it comes with a few very special bells and whistles.

I know what you’re thinking. Anki is tough to beat in terms of learning science and control over your material. But ulangi manages to bundle that together with some features that make vocabulary mining a lot more streamlined.

One-stop shop

Here’s the thing. Like many of us, I am used to skipping between various apps and websites to research and then store/drill vocabulary. For instance, I often start off with a quick look-up of a word on Google Translate. Then, I’ll cross-reference that in Wiktionary to double-check its meaning. I might even search for example sentences containing that word on Tatoeba. Finally, it reaches my Anki deck!

Ulangi circumvents this circumlocution via the Discover tab. It really is a one-stop shop for vocabulary list-building. Type a word in English or the deck language, and matching references will pop up from services like Wiktionary and Google, in the app itself.

Ulangi allows you to source and collate vocabulary via its Discover tab

The discover tab is a comprehensive word-finder and list-builder

Better still – with a single tap, you can add them straight to your decks. For Wiktionary entries, that includes grammatical information like the part of speech, so you get a whole dictionary entry in a click. It works really smoothly and makes vocab mining very easy.

Expert editing

You can edit these terms before adding, or add them wholesale. I found that the automatic categories – often provided with Wiktionary entries, for example – sometimes needed tweaking before adding to your word lists. That’s no problem with the Edit before adding feature. It’s a little detail which shows that quite a bit of thought has gone into the app.

Now, one of the big advantages of Anki is that you can administer and fine-tune your vocabulary in the desktop app as well as the app. Ulangi interfaces with Google Sheets via an add-on in order to expose your decks’ entries for expert editing. While the process is a little fiddly, it will likely appeal to the tech geek in many of us.

Variety show

While vanilla Anki offers just its spaced repetition drills, Ulangi has a couple of extra games for off-piste learning. I especially like the multiple choice activity, which is perfect for doing a bit extra after the usual cut-off point of being ‘done’ with your Anki decks. It’s also a nice change from the “be honest” self-marking approach when you can be marked by the app automatically,

Additionally, you can play the more arcade-style Reflex and Atom, which are great additional twists on your vocab practice. These are separate from the main spaced repetition drills, so fall neatly into that “practise for fun” category.

Ulangi has a range of activities to practise your vocabulary

Atom is a fun twist on traditional spelling activities

Pick your languages

Ulangi requires you to specify the language of your deck from a predefined pot of 25. These include all the familiar faces like Chinese, French, Japanese and Spanish. But it’s also nice to see some more niche ones present, such as Polish and Norwegian (hoorah from me for those!).

Of course, specifying the language unlocks all those extra look-up features above, as well as text-to-speech audio on cards (something you’d need an extra plugin for in Anki). You can choose languages that aren’t included, but those funky facilities won’t be available then. It will be a treat to see which extra languages the developers add in coming months. Wishlist, developers: Iceland, Irish and Scottish Gaelic!

Ulangi flashcards include a handy text-to-speech utility if you select a language for your deck.

Built-in features like native text-to-speech make for a rich experience

Ulangi – By language geeks for language geeks

With its layered features and clean, no-nonsense look, Ulangi is very much an app for language geeks by language geeks. As a home for our precious words, it’s a pleasure to play around with and get to know.

The free version is fully functional, but so much care and attention has gone into the app that it more than justifies the £6.99 price tag for the premium version. A growing fan base will be following future developments with enthusiasm!

Ulangi is available from the iOS App Store and Google Play for free, with premium membership of the service at £6.99.

Like Irish and Scottish Gaelic, the landscapes of both countries can be remarkably similar. Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland. Image by Jeff Osborn, FreeImages.com.

Birds of a Feather Learn Irish and Scottish Gaelic Together

There are a ton of benefits to learning closely related languages together. And polyglot pairs don’t come much closer than Irish and Scottish Gaelic, island cousins with a fascinating history.

Under the extensive Dál Riata kingdom, Old Gaelic formed a continuum that stretched from Ireland to much of the West coast of Scotland. In the latter, it ultimately displaced the Pictish language, which many researchers believe was a Brittonic Celtic language more closely related to Breton, Cornish and Welsh.

The language, spanning two islands, was at the height of its cultural and political power in the eleventh century, after which a string of conquests began to erode its dominance. Politically separated and marginalised for hundreds of years, the two language groups went their own way, developing into distinct tongues with a much reduced mutual intelligibility.

Neither language has had it easy. Systematic neglect and aggressive anglicisation saw  both pushed to the peripheries of their respective lands. But now, thanks to individual and local government efforts, they are blossoming again. Gaelic in particular is starting to enjoy the revival efforts that gave Irish a shot in the arm, not least with the recent release of a brand new Duolingo course.

So how similar are they?

Perfect complements

Despite those long years apart in the wilderness, they remain remarkably close, particularly in grammar and syntax. They share some of the very typical – but, to newcomers, often surprising – features of Goidelic languages. When you get your head around those in one of them, then the heavy mental lifting is done for the other, too.

For instance, word order in both follows the verb-subject-object pattern, rather than the more familiar subject-verb-object of English and many other Indo-European languages. Just compare the phrase “the cat is big” in Irish and Scottish Gaelic to see the family resemblance:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
Tá an cat mór. Tha an cat mòr.

And yes, the accents go up in Irish and down in Scottish Gaelic – a satisfyingly quirky distinction!

But here’s our first difference: in the spoken rendering of that pair of sentences, you hear one of the phonetic foibles that set them apart, too. Tá/tha (‘is’), which must be amongst the top ten most frequent words in both languages, are pronounced /t̪ˠɑː/ and /haː/ respectively. The discrepancy really colours both languages, and is one of the first things to listen out for when trying to tell them apart (that, and the heavily rolled Scottish ‘r’!).

Verbs

And that tá/tha leads us on to one of the big differences for beginner learners: verbs in the present tense. Now, Irish still has a synthetic present. That is, it conjugates its present tense as a single word by changing endings on the verb stem.

However, Scottish Gaelic has lost that in favour of an analytic, or periphrastic formation – one that relies on auxiliary, or helper structures. It just so happens that this auxiliary is the very same tha (from the verb bi, to be).

Let’s take the verb ith (to eat), identical in Irish and Scottish Gaelic in its root form. Here is the present tense:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
ithim tha mi ag ithe
itheann tú tha thu ag ithe
itheann sé/sí tha e/i ag ithe
ithimid tha sinn ag ithe
itheann sibh tha sibh ag ithe
itheann siad tha iad ag ithe

The Scottish Gaelic form maps literally onto the English “I am at eating” and so on. It is a form that exists in Irish, but it retains its present continuous sense in that language. In Scottish Gaelic, it completely replaces the simple present tense forms.

That’s not to say that the pressures of change have left the Irish present tense untouched. In earlier Irish, all six persons of the present were different forms. Today, as you can see, only the first person singular and plural (I eat, we eat) have distinct forms, while the others are the same. For that reason, you still need to use the pronouns tú, sé/sí, sibh and siad to make clear who you are talking about in the Irish present.

Two to be

Talking of to be, you will have to get used to two ways to say it in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. That may be nothing new, of course. If you have some Spanish, you will sympathise after trying to get a grip on ser and estar.

Irish and Scottish Gaelic distinguish between the regular ‘to be’ and a special copula verb, which speakers use predicatively to identify and classify. It is quite an unusual concept to an English speaker, and the logic behind use of the copula can seem complex at first.

Take the identifying phrase “I am Richard”, for example. Handily, it is identical in Irish and Scottish Gaelic. But it does not use the verb bi (which would be táim or tha mi respectively). Instead, we have:

🇮🇪🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
Is mise Richard.

Again, become familiar with it in one language, and it will make complete sense when you come to learn the other!

There’s a doctor in me!

But wait – here’s one case where Scottish Gaelic goes off-script again. When talking about roles or professions, Irish uses a simple sentence with the copula, such as “I am a doctor”:

🇮🇪 Is dochtúir mé.

However, Scottish Gaelic uses a construction with bi that translates as something more like “I am in my doctor” (stifle those giggles!):

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 Tha mi nam dhotair.

Not only that, but there is an alternative way to express it which is more or less “it is a doctor that is in me“. This uses both the copula (shortened to ‘s) and the verb bi (tha):

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 ‘s e dotair a th’ annam

It is the fascinating differences like these that make learning Irish and Scottish Gaelic together so rewarding.

Chuck an ‘h’ in

And this leads us on to the final observation in this beginner’s roundup. Did you notice that the word dotair for ‘doctor’ appears in two forms in the Scottish Gaelic sentences above? Well, that is due to a really important feature that both languages share, the phenomenon of lenition.

Lenition, as my Gaelic class teacher helpfully summarises, is the tendency to chuck an ‘h’ in at the beginning of words. The -h- is just orthographical, of course. The actual change is a softening, or weaking, of the initial consonant sound (lenis means ‘weak’ in Latin).

In short, under some grammatical conditions, this softening occurs to certain sounds. For instance, in both languages, lenition is triggered after the definite article the with feminine singular nouns:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
woman bean wife bean
the woman an bhean the wife a’ bhean

(Note also the difference in meaning that has crept in with bean between the languages.)

Lenition is device in so many grammatical contexts in both languages, many of them identical. It is also used to indicate the past tense:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
kiss póg pòg
kissed phóg phòg

If there is a difference between the languages, it is in how far sound changes like this are reflected in the orthography. Irish spelling seems generally a lot more indicative of phonetic phenomena, including coarticulation effects like eclipsis. Take ‘our boat’ in both languages:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
boat bád bàta
our boat ár mbád ar bàta

The spelling rules of Irish dictate that the phonetic changes of r + b are marked. However, Scottish Gaelic is a little less fussy!

Vocabulary

Core vocabulary – the words that have been everyday terms for hundreds and hundreds of years – are still, pretty much, identical twins across the two languages. Here are a few food pairs in Irish / Scottish Gaelic:

  • arán (aran in Gaelic) (bread)
  • bainne (milk)
  • feoil (feòil in Gaelic) (meat)
  • iasg (fish)
  • im (ìm in Gaelic) (butter)
  • ispín (isbean in Gaelic) (sausage)

That said, a thousand years was enough to throw out a fair few differences in common terms, too, even if some words share a common root:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
carrot cáiread curran
potato práta buntàta
soup anraith brot (cf. English ‘broth’)

What with those terms, and all that ‘eating’ earlier, I realise how fond I am of edible examples. I blame the wonderful food on offer in both Ireland and Scotland!

Goidelic adventure

For my part, I am still very much at the beginning of my Goidelic adventure. As such, this is very much a beginner’s overview of how the two languages relate to one other.

But already, studying both of them together has been a wonderful way to experience fairly recent language change in action. If you have any interest in historical linguistics, studying Irish and Scottish Gaelic at the same time is eye-opening.

And even if you don’t, they are a pair of very beautiful languages to get to know.

 

Geoglot Verb Blitz Apps