Let's dally in the valley: rhyme can be a great aide memoire. Picture from freeimages.com.

A Rhyme to Remember : Wordplay Vocab Fun

I was really struggling to learn a new word lately. It was κοιλάδα (kiládha), or valley, in Greek. Nothing would make it stick. That is, until I realised the power of rhyme.

The word  has an obvious and natural rhyme in Greek: a much more foundational, essential word, namely Ελλάδα (Elládha), meaning Greece. Suddenly, I had a way to anchor the new word to the existing one in memory:

η κοιλάδα στην Ελλάδα
i kiládha stin Elládha
the valley in Greece

It creates such a musical phrase, and one that is so easy to picture in the mind, that suddenly, remembering it is no longer a bane. Finally, it stuck!

Rhyme is a brilliant aide memoire for words that stubbornly refuse to settle in your mental lexicon. Like other techniques such as rhythm, rhyming enlists sound effects and wordplay to add a memorable dimension to learning material.

So why is it so effective?

Rhyme and Reason

Rhyming is a triple whammy when it comes to language learning. First of all, the creation of a rhyme anchors one new word to another existing one, neural-networking on what you already know. But it also creates a story, a vivid mental picture that helps with recall (much like a beefed-up version of the Linkword system). That valley in Greece of mine is a really nice tableau to bolster the words with a visual cue.

But even more powerfully, rhyme circumvents the ‘words in isolation’ problem of learning new vocabulary. Instead of a lone word, we have added value in the grammatical context of the rhyming snippet, even if that is simply the odd article or conjunction as above. Every little helps. 

Like Lego, rhymes are extendable, too. You can expand the lexical scene by tagging on more and more rhyming words, with your memory the only limit. Another difficult-to-remember word for me in Greek, for example, is χιονοστιβάδα (chionostivádha), meaning avalanche. As another -άδα (-ádha) word, I can simply build it into my little poem:

η χιονοστιβάδα στην κοιλάδα στην ελλάδα
i chionostivádha stin kiládha stin elládha
the avalanche in the valley in Greece

Read phrases like this out loud, and the rhythmic dimension also becomes very clear – yet another support to bolster the memory.

Rhyming Grammar

In fact, learning whole snippets of language in rhyming couplets, rather than individual words, can support grammar acquisition. The following German pair serves as a great example of the dative case with feminine singular nouns:

  • an der Wand (on the wall)
  • in der Hand (in the hand)

You can build rhythmic rhymes like this into more extensive ‘mini poems’ to contain a range of vocab and grammar points. This can be a lot of fun: teaching German, I regularly worked the rhyming game into my lessons. In advance, I would put together a daft bit of verse containing the central words and structures for the current topic. Nothing too extensive – just a few lines of rhyming couplets. Perhaps something like this:

Ich habe einen grünen Hund, er ist ziemlich klug,
Er spricht mit Katzen jeden Tag, und fährt dann mit dem Zug.
I have a green dog, he’s pretty clever,
He talks to cats every day, and then takes the train.

Admittedly, that is a pretty nonsensical scene. And you have to think a little creatively to make this stuff scan! But it is worth the effort: in there, we have some animal vocab, a transport word, and a host of important grammatical points: adjective endings, verb conjugations and so on. Two lines, but packed with handy language learning gems.

These poetical delights would be on the whiteboard when my students entered the room. As the lesson kicked off, we would read through the lines together. Then, I would rub out a few random words, and we read again, reciting the missing words from memory. The process would repeat – rubbing out, reading, rubbing out, reading –  until nothing would be left on the board.

But – as if by magic! – the students could now recite the whole thing. At the end of the lesson, I would ask them to try again from memory once again, and, to their surprise, they could reproduce the whole thing. What a great confidence boost for kids who so often doubted their language learning abilities.

A Rhyme-Honoured Tradition

The power of rhyme is hardly a secret – it is a famously great technique for aiding memory. We have myriad oral traditions of epic poetry to prove the point. For millennia, stories have been passed from generation to generation through memorised verse; ancient texts such as Beowulf may have literary lives stretching back long before they were ever written down.

But you don’t need to be a literary genius to benefit personally – just a handful of words will suffice for some verse. And let’s face it: as beginners, we only have a handful of words to play with. But that makes more a greater creative challenge, right? 

And for when words fail, you can turn to online, multilingual rhyming dictionaries like the following:

The wordplays needn’t stop at rhyme, either. You can play around with other techniques, such as alliteration, to create more memorable vocabulary notes. Duolingo has recently introduced the phrase deiseil agus deònach (ready and willing) into its Gaelic course, for example. Doesn’t that trip off the tongue nicely?

Rhyme Stone Cowboy

So, a little rogue rhyming can go a long way to making tricky vocab stick. Next time you feel the uphill struggle, maybe try going for a ride in the kiládha stin Elládha

Search those etymology dictionaries for evidence of semantic change! Picture from freeimages.com

Semantic Change : The Double Lives of Cognates

When I was young, I was a very silly girl. Not in the familiar, modern sense, of course, but in the long-lost meaning of those two words in English: a happy child.

Semantic change – words taking on new meanings over time – is a fascinating garden path of surprising twists and turns. And it’s not only a fitting focus for linguistics nerds, either. Travelling back down the path of language change can lead language learners to the crossover points that tie foreign languages to our own. It can be thoroughly eye-opening to learn of the double lives that words in related languages have come to lead. Ultimately, comparing cognates also bolsters our armoury in the quest to gain a deeper understanding of vocabulary.

A Worsening Situation…

Take silly, for example. Its rather dramatic journey from happy to daft can be traced back to the Old English form sælig. Back then, it covered a range of happy nuances from happy, to blessed, to fortunate. Germanists might recognise its family heritage here: it is cognate with the German word selig, which today means blissfully happy. So what happened to poor old silly in English?

Historical linguistics studying semantic change identify several broad flavours of meaning drift. What silly shows is pejoration, the application of a more and more negative meaning over time. It happens frequently in the history of words: knave is a rather old-fashioned word for a rogue, but originally just meant a boy, or servant. Of course, the opposite – amelioration – can happen too; just think of how bad, wicked and sick have been used in recent decades. And knight went the opposite way of knave, starting out as a mere boy but coming to take on quite haughty responsibilties. German cognate Knecht, of course, knew its station – it remains quite a lowly word.

On a slightly dispiriting side note, from a social standpoint, pejoration does seem to affect words for women with some degree of disproportion in English. For example, hussy, mistress, tart and wench all started out as quite neutral, uninsulting words. Language is the mirror of human culture, whether that be its pleasant or ugly side.

Straight and Narrow

Then, of course, we have girl. Back in Middle English times, the word referred to a child of any gender. Now, it is quite exclusively a female designation. And that is a classic case of narrowing of meaning from a general category to a more specific one.

Although cognates of girl don’t pop up in any high frequency vocab in related languages, there is an amusing, more obscure German analogue in Göre – a cheeky young childGöre has retained the gender-vagueness English lost, but has gained the slightly negative connotation of naughty (pejoration again!).

Learning More About Semantic Change

Taking a deep dive into semantic change is a fascinating way to work backwards in a language, revealing the maze of cross-language touch points. When the changes are as dramatic as the handful of words above, it can be fun tracing out this secret life of cognates.

Of course, pejoration, amelioration and narrowing are just a couple of a range of recognised processes of semantic change. To fall down this very addictive rabbit hole, check out Lyle Campbell’s chapter on the subject in his Historical Linguistics primer. The Wikipedia article on semantic change also gives a really helpful overview.

And if you find yourself hunting etymologies but lack access to behemoth resources like the OED, then Wiktionary is, as ever, always on hand. That site is fast becoming a second home…

Question marks after a mix-up. Image from freeimages.com.

Mix-Up Management – Laughing Off Word Confusion

We all get things wrong when we’re learning a foreign language. Given that we get things wrong in our first languages all the time (just look at Malapropisms and Spoonerisms), there’s absolutely not a drop of shame in that, of course. What’s more, the odd comedy word mix-up can be a rich source of effective educational moments. My go-to personal anecdote (retold so many times I won’t go into detail here) involves the German words Durcheinander (mess) and Durchfall (diarrhoea). Enough said.

Mix-up bloopers are at the fore of my mind lately, as they keep cropping up in Greek. Like German, Greek likes deriving native vocabulary with prefixes, so there is ample scope for someone like me to make repeated comedy slip-ups. The perfect funny word mix-up doesn’t always have to be with near-identical words, either. In fact, the most hilarious of them are usually only similar in a shared prefix or syllable. Here are some of my most frequent howlers of late:

κατάσταση (katástasi) – situation κατάστημα (katástima) – shop
σημαίνει (siméni) – it means συμβαίνει (simvéni) – it happens
απόγευμα (apóyefma) – afternoon αποτέλεσμα (apotélesma) – result
θεός (théos) – god θείος (thíos) – uncle

The greater the difference in meaning, the funnier mistakes can be. Depending on your appreciation of inappropriate humour, they can lighten the heaviest of moods. One of my best recent Greek openers is:

  • How is the coronavirus shop in Greece at the moment?

The Same But Different

But there’s another class of mix-up which has little to do with how similar the words are. Instead, the confusion occurs when the words have been learned together, creating a kind of messed-up context effect. A somewhat embarrassing recent example of mine involves the pair:

  • θαυμάσιο (thafmásio) – wonderful
  • απαίσιο (apésio) – awful

This antithetical pair isn’t particularly similar, save the -σιο (-sio) ending. The problem is, I learnt them together in the same chapter of Teach Yourself Greek about twenty years ago. And because of that, they’re united in unholy matrimony forever more.

You can see where this is headed, friends. They’re obviously both great words for reacting to another person recounting news or a personal story. During a recent Greek conversation class, my teacher was explaining how his elderly grandmother has quite serious diabetes, which is why she is shielding during the coronavirus crisis. My reaction?

Wonderful!

Oops. Good job he has a good sense of humour too. It wasn’t the first time, of course – that was responding to news of an earthquake. And for sure, it won’t be the last.

The Mix-Up Upside

Inappropriately funny outcomes are actually great news, though. No, honestly, they are! After you crawl out of the hole in the ground you fell into, these moments actually create huge extra salience in your memory. Weight is attached to them. You easily remember those laughs you had over comic misunderstandings. Sometimes you even give them names. With my Greek tutor, I’ve dubbed the shop-situation one ‘the Richard error‘, for instance. I will never forget those words now.

That said, if they prove persistent, it can be a good idea to be a bit more active in ironing them out. For me, the best remedy is simply ensuring to drill vocabulary in context rather than as isolated words. Learning the Greek for situation in a full sentence provides further sound cues like prosody and rhythm, which ultimately cements the word in memory along with its active usage.

One method for this is customising Anki vocab cards to include a field for an example sentence. For native-translated source sentences you can turn to a simple Google search, but I particularly like to use the Tatoeba corpus site for its language-specific search features. Corpus engines with mass sentence archives from subtitles, like Glosbe.com, are also extremely handy.

An Anki card in Greek with a sample sentence to help avoid a mix-up with other words.

An Anki card in Greek with a sample sentence to help avoid a mix-up with other words. This is another from the mass of kata- prefixed words that can be so tricky!

Talking of comedy, one of the most fun things about subtitle databases is their out-of-context hilarity. My sample sentence above, for example, means: “Babies are not good at building roads, look.” I haven’t a clue where this comes from (and to be honest, it’s probably best left a mystery). Needless to say, it makes me chuckle every time it pops up. After all, it ticks the be a clown box, and that is no bad thing when learning languages.

In short, if you find yourself confusing shops for situations, laugh it off – that humour is doing your vocab memory a favour.

 

Vintage TV set for franchise hopping! Image by FreeImages.com

Franchise Hopping for Fun Televisual Language Learning

This week I’ve been practising my languages alongside tuneful trolls and celebrity sambas – all thanks to a bit of franchise hopping.

International rollouts of TV franchise successes are nothing new. I remember my excitement in the early noughties on discovering that the UK’s Pop Idol had a German version. Yes, it had the slightly unwieldy name Deutschland sucht den Superstar (Germany is looking for the superstar). But it was the same glitzy, shiny, melodramatic format that I loved in the UK.

Back then, of course, it was still pretty difficult to find clips online to watch (28.8k modem, anyone?). Needless to say, I came back from a trip to Cologne that year with both the series CD and DVD. I still have them somewhere, in my piles of foreign language authentica.

Nowadays, of course, it’s a completely different story. With whole shows widely available through national broadcaster platforms, there are few barriers to enjoying overseas versions of your favourite shows.

So what’s so great about franchise hunting as a language learner?

Franchise Fun

Franchise exports are excellent language learning resources for a number of reasons:

  • the format is familiar, so you can guess a lot of vocabulary from context
  • they are fun to watch, especially if you are already a fan of the original
  • franchise exports are often some of the biggest shows, so are both really easy to find, and have lots of supporting material on social media channels
  • transplanted shows often include local twists that give an insight in your target language culture
  • they can be a stepping stone to get to know well-known personalities in the target language country, which you can then track down in more home-grown shows

‘Easy to find’ is always a winner for language learning resources, of course. The simplest way to track down a particular franchise in a foreign language version is to locate its entry on Wikipedia. For instance, on the entry for The Masked Singer, you can find out local names for the show’s incarnations, and marvel at just how far the show has travelled.

The online encyclopaedia can throw out some quite surprising facts, too. Before my franchise hunt, I would never have guessed that the Masked Singer started life as a South Korean series. Now that’s a great excuse for Korean learners to watch some gloriously silly TV – not to mention further temptation in my way to learn Korean some day!

Local Twists

Another thing to look out for in franchise exports is how they are adapted to the local audience. There are often some lovely cultural twists; Norway’s 2020 edition of Maskorama, for example, featured the staple Nordic troll as one of the singers. And that’s not to mention the cultural crossovers. Looking up China’s The Singer (another South Korean export), UK learners can enjoy watching home-grown talent Jessie J storm to victory in the 2018 series.

Once you’ve located the show itself, you can then follow its social media trail for even more authentic material. Instagram is great for short texts and videos. For example, Skal vi danse– or ‘Norwegian Strictly’ to UK viewers – features bite-sized interviews and behind-the-scenes presentations which make for great listening practice. Likewise, the comments are great for reading some often very colloquial language (if you can handle the barbed tongues of irate viewers!).

Franchise telly might be as far away from highbrow as you can get with authentic material in the target language. But it can punch well above its weight as a bit of fun practice content!

Banff and Macduff Harbour - what a great place for some downtime.

Downtime : A Self-Improvement Christmas

As the year winds down, many of us find ourselves in this quiet in-between time, wedged between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. That little sandwich of calm is felt more keenly than ever this year, with many back in strict lockdowns again. Real life goes into suspended animation: we have a dose of downtime.

The question is: how to fill it?

One of my annual traditions is the Christmas holiday learning project. Trying to learn or improve a skill when I have the time and space to do it has become a fun challenge and a geekish treat. Sometimes the focus is language learning; often it is something computerish. In fact, teaching myself how to develop Flash games (a good twenty years ago now!) eventually led to a whole new career in educational software.

Mental Block

This Christmas, I had a particular new skill in my sights to delight my inner (and outer) nerd: C# and Unity, the games development platform. It’s important not to fall behind in a fast-changing profession, and Unity is everywhere in mobile gaming at the moment. Surely there is huge untapped potential for language learning applications there?

Somehow, though, there was a missing piece. My brain knew it; every time I settled down to do a tutorial or two, I’d feel sluggish and lacking in concentration. What was wrong?

I’d forgotten the true meaning of downtime: restoration.

This isn’t just about doing nothing. Downtime needn’t be aimless, results-free rest time. It can be a time for motivation and realignment of your goals, too.

Things just come to you when you pause, you see. Plans, dreams, hopes, old and new. Escaping the four walls and going for long walks along the sea, for example, I’ve found myself staring at the ships moored off the coast, looking them up on a marine tracker website and marvelling at the places they are coming from and going to. It’s recalibrated my sights on Iceland and Norway, and filled me with a renewed enthusiasm to take those languages forward in 2021.

Ships moored off the Macduff and Banff coastline – sailors need downtime too!

Downtime Abbey

All this is not to say we should simply down tools, lie down and daydream away this quiet time. As language enthusiasts, we worship at the temple of self-improvement, and it would be masochistic to deny ourselves the joy of it. Knuckle down, power forward and level up. It’s what we do.

But I’ll be fitting in lots of pondering, thoughtful walks as well as Christmas telly and stuffing leftovers this year, too. Give yourself a little replenishing downtime as well. Your next big adventure might be swirling around in there, waiting to emerge, fully formed, from a well-rested mind.

Mouth of the River Deveron between Macduff and Banff - what a great place for some downtime

 

Pidgins - or pigeons? Picture by Lozba Paul, freeimages.com

Feeding the Pidgins : Perfectly Imperfect Communication

One of the language learning lifelines that has kept me going during lockdown is our little Gaelic chat circle that meets weekly on Zoom. We started off as an in-person pub chat group back in January, but as normal life started to shut down in March, our ever-enthusiastic organiser decided to keep us going in cyberspace. Thank heavens for organised folk.

Our the months, the pendulum has swung back and forth with numbers, as is always the case with these things. Some weeks we manage a proper little group chat, and occasionally there are just two of us. But there is always someone there, and the determination never fades: nothing but Gaelic for half an hour!

Perfectly Imperfect

The remarkable thing is that none of us are remotely fluent. In fact, most of us are hovering around A1/2, with our main point of commonality being the Duolingo Gaelic course.

How on earth do we manage?

Not badly, all things considered. We communicate enthusiastically and fluidly amongst ourselves, gossiping on all kinds of topics from home life to politics. To do that, we do supplement, where we have to, with the odd English word or two. Feumaidh mi a dheanamh an washing up a-nis! (I have to do the washing up now!). A bheil lockdown ann a-rithist? (Is it lockdown again?) But we have a good online Gaelic dictionary loaded up in the background to share any pertinent new vocab.

We might sometimes use our own loan translations too, like “coimhead sgìth” (literally “looking tired” using the verb ‘look’ instead of something more idiomatic – probably with coltach!). Imagine our happy surprise then, when it turns out that some of these made-up-on-the-spot forms are attested and used in first language speech too (no doubt due to the influence of English, mind). I do sometimes shudder to think what a pedant or purist might think, listening in.

But still – it works!

Pidgin Fanciers

What we’re doing feels, in some ways, like the creation of a pidgin. Just like our peppered-with-English Gaelic, pidgins arise from the need to communicate using limited knowledge of a base language. Just like grander-scale pidgins, more than two languages can end up in the mix too – a couple of us have some Irish, so that gets thrown into the pot as well.

In essence, we use what we have to say what we want.

The upside? We have become really good at that handful of colloquial structures we all share. An toil leat…? (Do you like…?), an robh thu…? (were you…?), nach eil e…? (isn’t it…?) They are all pretty much ingrained now!

But I know what you’re thinking: but what about all the errors and mispronunciations being reinforced without any correction? As real-life pidgins progress, the divergences from “standard” grammar may crystallise into something new and more ordered: a creole. As creative as it sounds, that isn’t quite our goal.

Fortunately, we have a couple of safeguards.

Taming the Pidgins

Firstly, we do have a very competent speaker who attends quite often, who has been a brilliant source of guidance and advice. Secondly, a couple of us still attend formal Gaelic classes as well, so there is always an external guiding hand to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Finally – and anyone can do this, even without access to more knowledgeable speakers or learners – we note down anything we are unsure about during conversation and pledge to read up on it after the chat. Whether in textbooks or via a Google search, the info you need is never really find.

In short, don’t let a lack of vocabulary and grammar knowledge stop you from trying to speak a language. Have a go at feeding the Pidgins. As for us, we’ll certainly keep on throwing them crumbs – it’s got us through two lockdowns, and it’ll get it through the next!

Are you looking for some more Gaelic resources after exhausting Duolingo’s course? Check these out!

Christmas is coming! Make it a language learning one.

Christmas Gifts for Language Lovers : 2020 Edition

It’s here again! And if you’re struggling for Christmas gifts for language-loving friends (or yourself!), you’re in the right place. Let me fill you in on a couple of the more exciting goodies 2020 has to offer.

Virtual Christmas

2020 was the year that Virtual Reality became portable and affordable. And the fantastic Oculus 2 Quest headset is more than just a fancy gaming device – it has real potential for language learners.

Whether for roaming far-off locations in Wander, or adventuring in German, Japanese, Spanish or more, it’s a whole new world out there. And given the year we’ve all had, getting out and about virtually might be just what the doctor ordered.

More Books (Because… Well, Books!)

Every year, there are always a few juicy new titles out for language lovers. This year saw the expansion of the quite wonderful “Short Stories In…” series by Olly Richards, including Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish. An absolute dream for Nordic nerds like me!

Even more excitingly, they are available as audiobooks from Audible, making them perfect reading and listening pairs for learners. For next year’s Christmas list, I’m asking Language Santa for versions in Greek and Polish, please…

Disney+ Subscription

Consuming media translated into our target languages has long been a favourite pastime in the polyglot community. I’ve lost count of how many fellow linguists have enjoyed the Harry Potter books in multiple translations.

Disney, too, is a frequent favourite – and who doesn’t love a cute Disney animated classic? Lucky for us, then, that Disney+ makes them available with a generous selection of foreign language soundtracks. Plenty more, in fact, than Netflix seems to offer on its range of shows.

It’s my mum’s gift to the family this year (thanks Mum!), and already I’ve been getting lost in the likes of Norwegian Aladdin, German Beauty and the Beast and more. Happy, cutesy, language Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

However you spend this year’s holiday, have a wonderful one. I’ll be spending a good chunk of the downtime on my languages, as I’m sure most of us will. Well, that, and the odd mince pie. Merry Christmas!

Oculus Quest 2 : Screenshot of a street in Rome in the Wander app

Oculus Quest 2 : Virtual Language Hopping

You can bend almost anything to language learning. And this week, I’ve been using that excuse to justify numerous hours of VR gaming.

I recently gave in to my curiosity and plumped for an Oculus Quest 2 headset. Admittedly, it’s not my first foray into virtual reality. The technology has been edging into the mainstream for a couple of years now, and I got an early shot at it when a colleague – way ahead of me on the curve – brought his gear into the Linguascope office at the end of last year.

It blew my mind.

There’s something inspiringly sea change about it. I was in awe – you pop on that headset, and it just feels like the future. To put that into perspective, I grew up watching the likes of Back to the Future Part II, with its crazy holographic shark heads, and Tron, which placed players in the game. Those childhood fantasies were finally here.

That said, while playing it in the office, it wasn’t the footloose and fancy-free dash into the virtual sunlit uplands just yet. The tech seemed nascent, rather than ready. I was put off by the clunkiness, the wired nature of the headset, the need for a separate computer to run it.

Oculus Quest changed all of that.

It’s not only light, portable and powerful. It has some fantastic draws for language learning aficionados.

Oculus Quest 2 : Wander

Of course, VR has incredible potential to transform language learning directly through purpose-made applications. Mondly were the first to develop a language app for the Oculus platform, with an immersive conversation simulator. Sadly it remains available only for the older Rift headset.

In fact, the winning hook on the Quest 2 isn’t a language app, or even a regular, run-of-the-mill game in a foreign language. Rather, it’s the immersive Google Street View experience, Wander, that has me billing and cooing (in various languages).

The idea is incredibly simple: place the user within a 3D, virtual rendering of Google’s vast, extensive VR mapping of the world. The winning feature for us language bods is the fact that signage is everywhere, particularly in the cities. Wherever people gather, there is a wealth of material to read and decipher.

Japanese signage in Tokyo seen on Google Street View

Japanese signage in Tokyo seen on Google Street View

I must say that the virtual escape is hugely welcome in the year of the lockdown. Forget cheap getaways – how about no getaways? Wander had me exploring all of my old favourites. Berlin, Oslo, Reykjavik – the nostalgia was soaring, and the language was, comfortingly, all over the place. Street signs, shop windows, billboards – it had me feeling that language learner travel buzz all over again.

But it doesn’t stop at the familiarly far-flung. A particularly fun feature is ‘Random’, redubbed ‘Guess the Language’ (by me). Click it to be transported to anywhere in the world. Your mission? Find a signpost or billboard, and try to guess from the text where you are. My favourite so far has to be Kalaallisut (it almost stumped me, it did).

Hours of fun, my friends.

Gaming Proper

Gaming, of course, has long been open to a blend with language learning through conventional play options. Notably, Apple Arcade is bursting with goodies for linguists. Likewise, Oculus Quest has copious titles available to play in multiple languages. Spice and Wolf is an immersive experience available in Chinese (both varieties) and Japanese. Or if you prefer a bit of action, bestseller POPULATION: ONE allows you to play in French, German, Japanese, Korean or Spanish. Fire up those dictionaries!

As for me, I’m off to play a bit more BeatSaber just now. And if get any further into those BTS tunes, I’m going to be ordering Colloquial Korean at some point soon.

Anki Image Occlusion with an IPA chart

Anki Image Occlusion : Lessons from the Medics

It was a long time coming, but I finally did it: I started using Anki for something other than foreign language vocabulary. Anki is steadily creeping into the rest of my life.

I know. What is the world coming to?

Admittedly, the new subject wasn’t a huge leap. I’ve started creating flashcards to drill terms and concepts from linguistics. That said, it does represent quite a departure from the way I usually create drill lists in the app.

The chief difference is the complexity of each chunk of learning material. Rather than one-to-one word and phrase combinations, we have terms with much more complex, interlinking definitions. And however brief, the information is a lot trickier to condense than simple vocabulary. Some of my flashcards were looking decidedly clunky.

If only there were some way to make it all a bit more concise and economical.

Anki-nspiration

So where to look for flashcard inspiration? Well, as it happens, language learners haven’t completely monopolised the Anki world. In fact, the app has quite the double life as a tool for medical students learning, amongst other things, terms and complex definitions!

It certainly pays to see how a diverse bunch of people use the same tool. We can learn a lot from users in other fields. And, nestling amongst the sprawling web of Reddits, there is a ton of general advice on optimising your cards.

Perhaps the cleverest trick of medical Anki users is the use of imagery for testing. Now I’m not talking about simple, one-to-one picture-word correspondences. Ohhhhh no. Medical students take it to another level, condensing lots of information into a single tableau. But to do that, they need to enlist some extra help.

Image Occlusion for Anki

The Image Occlusion Add-On for Anki allows for some quite sophisticated multi-field labelling questions. Obviously, these are ideal for drilling parts of the brain or major arterial pathways. But they lend themselves to pretty much any topic. If you can cover it up, you can turn it into an image occlusion activity.

For instance, you might think that linguistics is a rather text-heavy subject. Difficult to find too many diagrams to label, perhaps. But with a bit of creativity, you can adapt anything to fit the mould. Here’s an image occlusion activity I put together to drill the IPA consonants table and manner / place of articulation features:

Anki Image Occlusion with an IPA chart

Anki Image Occlusion with an IPA chart

Table-based data is actually perfect for these kinds of activity. And if you remember things quite visually, as I do, then making image activities out of them can yield some great memory results.

Fortunately, the Image Occlusion Add-On creators have provided a raft of training videos to learn how to use this incredibly useful tool. And – I’m very relieved to say – it’s not particularly difficult to get to grips with at all.

It is easy to forget that the Anki universe is quite massive. There is a huge amount of inspiration out there beyond our little bubble. Thanks, medical students, for pointing out this particular path!

Searching by tag in Anki

Playing Anki Tag : From Plain Lists to Topic-Based Fun

Anki users, do you tag your cards?

If the answer is no, then perhaps you should think about adding this natty little superpower to your vocab decks. It’s not only a good habit, but it can turn plain old Anki lists into fun, interactive games like this. How? Read on!

Topical Application

To start with, tagging cards with keywords for topic names like colours, animals, or food, or parts of speech like verb, or noun, gives your data greater searchability. In the Anki browse window, you can then filter on these keywords using the tag: notation.

Straight away, this opens up the possibility to conduct a quick and easy language audit. For example, searching on tag:colours quickly shows if there are any gaps in your linguistic colour palette that need filling.

Filtering your vocab cards by tag in Anki.

Filtering your vocab cards by tag in Anki.

Now, wouldn’t it be nice if you could also test yourself specifically on those queries? Say, pull up all of your food and drink words and blitz them for a bit of extra practice?

Unfortunately, you can’t do that straight out of the box. Anki doesn’t provide a way to create a new or virtual vocab deck by tag. But you can easily export them to make thematic test-yourself activities on other platforms.

Playing Tag with Anki

It’s actually pretty simple to get sets of data out of Anki by tag. In the Browse window of the desktop app, start by tapping out a tag: query on your data as above. Then, highlight all of the matching entries that appear in the list (clicking on one entry and then hitting CTRL + A is the fastest way for me).

Selecting notes by tag in Anki

Selecting notes by tag in Anki

Next, head up to Notes in the menu, and select the Export Notes option.

Exporting selected notes in Anki

Exporting selected notes in Anki

As we’ll be using this data on any number of different platforms, simplicity is the order of the day. For that reason, Notes in Plain Text is the best format to choose for our data. Selected Notes should already be the active choice in the Include dropdown. Make sure to untick Include tags and Include HTML and media references to keep the data as plain as possible. Then, tap the Export button.

Exporting selected notes in Anki

Exporting selected notes in Anki

The result should be a .txt file containing a neatly formatted list of your thematic word list. Magic!

From Anki to Beyond

Now you’re ready to drop that into other edu-game services that have an import feature. Educandy and Quizlet are amongst the easiest, and a good place to start. With Educandy, you can simply upload the .txt file directly, and it handles the rest. With Quizlet, you have to open the .txt file, copy the text and paste it into a little box, but it’s still nice and simple.

Now, you have a whole suite of games you can play that focus entirely on your chosen topic. A brilliant way to granulate your Anki practice a bit – or simply create games for your friends (or students) to learn from too.

Anki vocabulary items imported into an Educandy game

Anki vocabulary items imported into an Educandy game

 

Anki vocabulary items imported into a Quizlet game

Anki vocabulary items imported into a Quizlet game

Sometimes you may need to do a little extra work on the other end. In Quizlet, for example, I needed to reverse the order of columns from term-description to description-term as the site default didn’t match my list. Fortunately, that’s just a single button-click on that platform. Phew!

Tag Tips

Anki tagging isn’t perfect, it must be said. Even the most avid taggers will point out that the app’s default tag management features are a bit basic. For some extra control over them, it’s well worth installing the free Search and Replace Tags add-on. There is also the premium add-on BetterTags, which adds some serious extreme tagging power to your app.

Both utilities are incredibly helpful if you end up with near-duplicate or misspelt tags to tidy up. For instance, I realised I had tagged cards variously as ‘animal’ and ‘animals’ over time. Easy to do if you add cards in tranches regularly, rather than all at once. But a nightmare if you are searching for the topic ‘animal’ and only half of your cards appear.

No problem: the two tags combined like a treat with the Search and Replace add-on.

Whether you’re brand new to tagging or have been tagging like a pro for years, it pays dividends to explore these import-export options with other sites. A bit of variety is never a bad thing!