Greek microblog content from Instagram (screenshot).

The Way of the Microblog : Kitchen Sink Inspiration and Language Learning

It’s all about the foreign language microblog for me lately. Short, snappy snippets of target language piped directly to your social media streams: what’s not to love?

In fact, I’m practically drowning in them at the moment. That’s thanks to the notorious and mysterious algorithm (TM), of course, which is a fact of life these days; like one thing, and you get a ton more of the same thrown at you, for better or for worse.

Happily, in the case of us language learners, it’s generally for the better. Take my Instagram feed; its AI wisdom has decided to channel reams of Greek pop psych, heartwarming quotes and concise self help my way. It’s twee and a wee bit naff, granted. But every one of those posts is a 30-second language lesson.

This latest bite-sized adventure all started with a single Greek account, gnwmika.gr. It exclusively posts what you might call ‘fridge magnet’ content: folk wisdom and kitchen sink inspiration.

The great lesson imparted here, in true, lofty microblog style, is:

“Beautiful things will make you love life. Difficult ones will teach you to appreciate and respect the beautiful ones.”

I know – deep, eh.

Anyway, I hit follow and thought little else of it… Until things escalated. Next thing, I’m being shepherded to not only more of the same, but anything and everything Greek. Poetry, history, celebs, TV… the lot. It’s become a rabbit hole leading to some well obscure (but fascinating) places. And, crucially:

…my Greek is so much better for it!

Fill Your Little (Microblog) World Right Up

It all plays in marvellously to the fill your world with target language strategy. Since our worlds are ever more digital, one of the easiest ways to do that is to follow the monkeys out of accounts we find fun and engaging. Add one or two, and let the system start popping more and more into your suggested follows.

Now, the only catch is that the algorithm (TM) is smothering me in Greek. I’d love a bit of Gaelic, Icelandic, Norwegian or Polish (and the rest). So, if you’re reading this and have some good microblog recommendations to kick the cycle off again…

…please let me know!

A group of toy gorillas - possibly singing cartoon themes? Image from freeimages.com.

Animated Language Learning with Cartoon Themes

There’s an underexploited, rich seam of fun, bite-sized authentic materials out there. Especially if you find yourself reminiscing wistfully on your childhood television memories. Bring on the cartoon themes – in translation!

Now, I’m not talking about the big, blockbusting Disney feature animations. Those are, of course, a different subtype of this genre (and no less handy for language learning).

Instead, this is about pure nostalgia of the small-time kids’ shows of yesteryear as an engine for language learning. It’s about reliving those half-forgotten, often very modest-budget productions with some of the catchiest tunes composed for TV. Many a bored moment I’ve spent idly browsing YouTube, wondering along the lines of “what did ‘Dogtanian and the Muskahounds’ sound like in Polish?”. And yes, YouTube really does have almost everything in its cartoon themes annals. As obscure as you care you conjure up, it’s probably there.

And go on then… While we’re at it, let’s throw Disney back into the mix. Just not the big cinema headliners, but the cartoon series of decades past with some of the biggest earworms of all.

Ah, the soundtracks to our childhoods.

It’s not just a trip down memory lane, of course. It’s the geekiest (and most satisfying) of language learning party tricks to memorise the lyrics to these wee jingles, ready to reel off and impress friends and family at the slightest cue. And, like all automatic, rote memorisation tasks (like the mass sentence technique), it’s a brilliant exercise for phonetic finessing of pronunciation, accent and prosody. That’s not to mention the extra vocab you’ll pick up along the way.

Cartuneful Lyrics

Remarkably for non-pop songs, some lyrics sites even include entries for these childhood gems, like this entry for Spanish Duck Tales (or Patolandia!). Failing that, some helpful native speakers have occasionally added them in the video comments themselves, as with this upload of Gummi Bears in Greek.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to transcribe them as you hear them first, of course. They just help with some of the more magical vocabulary. No way was I going to get that “περιπέτεια συγκλονιστική” meant “astounding adventure” without help!

Remember, too, that these shows touched the hearts of so many around the world. As such, they make a lovely way to make a native speaker smile. And probably think you quite odd, too, but there’s no shame in that!

Which cartoon theme tunes are you particularly fond of? And do they exist in your target languages? Let us know in the comments!

Headphones - great for listening to a podcast or ten!

Honest Podcast Pruning

Foreign language podcast episodes are fantastic language learning tools. But if you’re anything like me, you end up following far too many programmes to manage.

It’s great, of course, to have lots of choice. But what’s not so great is to get resource overwhelm when you have too many to count. Where to start?

It became pretty much do or die with my podcast list lately. I felt bogged down when I checked my podcast app. It seemed like there were just too many to catch up on. The crux of it: I just wasn’t listening to them any more.

Some pruning was in order.

Podcast Pruning

There’s a little self-honesty strategy you can try to prune your podcasts. Most podcast programmes have a ‘latest podcast’ list, which lists all episodes in order of recency. In iOS it looks like this:

A screenshot of podcasts listed by decency in iOS

The latest podcasts view on iOS

Now, go to play them from the top. No cheating. For each one, if your reaction is a reluctant, groaning must I? or can I just skip this one?, then your heart is probably not really in it. Of course, this isn’t a hard-and-fast acid test. There may be times when we are just not in the mood. But in my experience, that reeeeeally? wince is generally a sign that your interest isn’t fully committed.

So if our hearts aren’t really in it, what are these podcasts doing on our lists in the first place?

Well, it comes down to what we think we should be doing and what we want to be doing. There’s quite normative – even moralistic – sense of what ‘worthwhile’ language learning content is. That’s skewed by lots of outside influences that discount our personal interests. And, with learning, an invested, personal interest is key. There’s little point bashing your head against a brick wall with unmotivating content. Always ask will this content spark my interest beyond language learning?

So, the next time you find yourself avoiding your podcast app, or staring, uninspired, at a list of countless foreign language podcasts you have no desire to plough through, consider an honest podcast pruning!

The Black Country flag. Black Country English has undergone the processes of language change just as any other variety has.

Language Change – Up Close and Personal

The constant churn of language change is an ever-present backdrop for every speaker and learner of a language. Sounds change, words come and go, phraseology shifts. What was common parlance a century ago can be a complete archaism today.

But the classic textbook examples – napron, methinks, thou art and such like – can often seem  a bit dry, distant and theoretical on the page. It’s rarely that we see it up close and personal, not just in our first languages, but in our particular varieties of them. We’re used to thinking of traditional dialects as timeless, apart from Standard English; somehow they were always just so.

It made a nice change, then, to notice real-time language change in my own family vernacular of late. I’ve been conducting a piece of research into Black Country dialect, which has turned up all sorts of fascinating texts. And some of the forms in there had me boggling at how our local speech has altered in the last 150 years or so.

Vocabulary items, as you’d expect, drop in and out regularly over the course time. That doesn’t stop them being surprising when they pop up, though. My searches turned up things I’ve never heard a West Midlander say in my life. But there they are, in black and white, as examples of typical Black Country speech in newspaper articles both pillorying and honouring the dialect over time.

Welly Enough

My first ooh – I’ve never come across that before!  is the word welly for nearly. Take this lovely example from the story “How Leyvi Crafts Got Rid O’ The Mice“, which appeared in an edition of the popular “Tom Brown’s Black Country annual” in 1889. The narrator, bemoaning the stench from a bottle of poison, exclaims:

“The smell on it’s welly enough to kill a christian, let aloon a mouse!”

And then there’s the sign-off from a humorous letter to the editor in dialect, from the 1890s. After speaking his piece, the writer rounds off:

“well mr Editer i’n sed welly all as i wanted”

So what became of the welly? I’ve asked our resident Black Country expert (aka John, my stepdad), and he hasn’t a clue either.

Bear in mind that sometimes the word remains, but its form is different. Who knew, for example, that Black Country had an Old English -en plural for fleas, just like oxen? As one commentator in 1892 writes:

“…the Black Country mother may be heard to declare that ‘her babby has been peffled all o’er wi’ fleen.'”

I know. Not a nice image.

Better Nor That…

And then there are constructions that have changed a fair bit, too. I grew up around some very broad and proud speakers of Black Country English, who nonetheless formed comparisons as in Standard English: “better than that“, for example. Switch that out for nor, and you end up with the kind of phrase you’d more likely hear in the early 20th Century:

“…yow oughten to ha’ known better nor that…”

One of the most unusual lost phrases I’ve come across yet is the use of without as unless. It was nestling in a local yarn published in 1906:

“I dow know, without yow goo to Dr. Brown’s…”

Again, it’s lost on my family when I press them (no doubt ever nearing their limits of patience) for clarification. A hundred years can do a lot to a language.

How has your local speech changed in the last century or so? Let us know in the comments!

Two different copies of Teach Yourself Swedish, freshly arrived from eBay!

Luck of the eBay Draw

The stars aligned for me this week. Not one, but two 1990s copies of Teach Yourself Swedish arrived in my postbox. Used, super cheap, but both so pristine you’d think they’d never been removed from their original bookshop shelves. Winning the eBay language learning lottery!

Why two copies of Teach Yourself Swedish, you ask? Isn’t that just being greedy?

Well first, is there really such a thing as greed when it comes to books? Our love knows no bounds. (Note: it probably is possible to have too many books, but I’m not there yet.)

Secondly, they’re actually different books.

A Long Time Ago in a Language Learning Galaxy Far Away…

You see, Teach Yourself has been going for donkey’s years, and by the 80s and 90s, the company had accrued a whole back catalogue of vintage language learning titles. As I’ve said many a time before, older language learning material shouldn’t be written off – it’s solid, albeit usually more grammar-based learning, and often very inexpensive.

But clearly, things needed a refresh. So Teach Yourself set about recommissioning a lot of those old tomes with completely updated replacements. It started in the late 80s, with updated French, German, Italian and Spanish titles. At first, these appeared in the 80s blue style covers.

But, come the 90s, Teach Yourself went arty in glorious technicolour. The book covers positively exploded in shapes and colours. Many are things of beauty (at least to my geeky eye), and it’s one of the reasons I love collecting them.

The Double Life of TY Books

However, those books had a double life during the transition. Older courses saw reissues, but with the bright, shiny covers. One last hoorah before they were retired.

But then, their successors (or usurpers?) came along, in their shiny, new covers – sometimes the same ones as the old course! Teach Yourself Gaelic, for example, recycles the same wrap even as it transitions from the old Roderick MacKinnon course to the updated Boyd Robertson edition. You can only tell the newer edition from a big yellow New! box in the corner. (No, that text was never going to age well.)

This clearly isn’t the case with Teach Yourself Swedish. Both the R.J.McClean and Vera Croghan books have their own wonderful designs. But for all intents and purposes, they were both still new language books in the 90s.

It’s just one has a much older soul. And I love it all the more for it.

A pristine copy of Teach Yourself Swedish by R.J.McClean (1992)

A pristine copy of Teach Yourself Swedish by R.J.McClean (1992)

The eBay Bookseller Lottery

With the wonderful quality of these two titles from that crossover period of the early 90s, I clearly lucked out on the eBay wheel of fortune. Items from the eBay book giants are generally in great condition; some just require a bit more TLC than this pair.

Of course, you can’t tell the condition of books from eBay supersellers until they arrive. That’s part of the fun, of course. But it does lead to the occasional sigh of deflation, as one described as very good lands on your doormat in a rather more dishevelled state. That doesn’t happen too often, thankfully.

And it a couple of quid a pop, it’s a fun gamble!

A Capsule Language Learning Library?

Sometimes, it feels like I’m permanently on the road. With family, friends and work spread out across the country,  I travel a lot. Anything that makes that easier is a win in my book, so I’m all for minimalism and streamlining. Lately, I’ve been taken by the idea of the ultra-simple capsule wardrobeit worked for Einstein, Steve Jobs, and a host of others, after all – and in that spirit, I’ve been trying to pare down my togs to a few essentials that I can fit into a travel bag.

But if we can do that with our clothes and feel instantly lighter, why not try it with other things… like our language learning materials, for instance?

Now don’t you worry. I haven’t decided to donate all my language books to charitable causes just yet. But the idea strikes me as a decent one for the language learning traveller: deciding on a core set of books that provide the max learning learning on the go, but don’t weigh down your carry-on. (Obviously a couple for each language project, assuming you just focus on one per trip – I’m not talking polyglot minimalism here, just resource minimalism! )

In any case, it’s a fun exercise to try with your (probable, if you anything like me) heaps of books. As with a capsule wardrobe, it’s good to set a limit on the number of pieces. Because books are a bit heavier and (gulp – forgive me saying this – marginally less essential) than clothes, I think two (only two?!) is a good number to play the game. A good course book and a decent reference volume go pretty well together, I think.

Here are some of my attempts, limiting myself to two (really only two?!) books per language:

Gaelic

You can’t beat a Colloquial for in-depth language tuition. I find they always double as reference works too, so you have a double whammy right there. My other choice is quite a grammar-heavy look at Gaelic verbs, but with lots of side references to other aspects of the language too. Every time I dip into it, I come across something new. Solid.

German

Less of the learning material, more of the reference here, with German being my second language and strongest foreign language. Hammer’s Grammar is the definitive reference on all things Deutsch, and Wort für Wort has kept me in advanced conversation topics since I did my German A-level in the last century.

Greek

Who amongst us doesn’t love a good Routledge? I have a special soft spot for the Essential Grammar series, since they’re almost as comprehensive as the, ahem, Comprehensive series, but a bit less overwhelming. Twin that with a Teach Yourself (and you know I love me a Teach Yourself), and we’re ready for that trip to the islands.

Handy bonus: all of the Teach Yourself audio is available online in the TY library app, too. Or, if you have a Kindle, you can get the book and the audio in a single format.

Polish

Never one to shy away from being predictable, I paired up my Polish outfit to match my Greek one. Well, if it works…

Ready, steady… Capsule!

So there you go. Four of my essential Summer outfits.

Apart from the fun element of challenge to it, capsuling your books makes you think hard about what you already have. It  helps you to take stock of your materials. and decide what your core strategy is. And it keeps you ready to run and learn – whether that’s on holiday, or up the road for some study time in the library!

Which textbooks are your hero items? What would make your desert island cut? Let us know in the comments!

Publications written in Black Country dialect.

Back at Home with Dialect

I’ve had dialect on the mind lately. As a language learner, that’s nothing new; learning how my target languages vary across geography has always been a fun (and useful) distraction.

But this time, it’s a case of back to my roots as I research my local Black Country dialect for a university project. It’s a winding path that led me to the Black Country Living Museum this weekend, the sights and sounds of my home region at every turn. The caws, shaws and ays tripped off the tongues of the fantastic volunteers, all well-versed in Dudley spake. I lost count of the times I was wistfully reminded of how my grandparents talked.

A chain-making forge at the Black Country Living Museum.

A chain-making forge at the Black Country Living Museum.

It‘a a timely reminder that we don’t always have to look to the language books for linguistic diversity. Regional dialect is just not always feted for that. In fact, pundits often paint it as something far less worthy of our attention.

At least, that was my experience growing up as a Black Country kid.

Doing Down Dialect

My family have always spoken the local dialect. Happily, naturally, barely even aware of it. At school, though, I learned that a different standard was set. Broad Black Country was a tongue subtly shunned. Although dialect shame was no longer as explicit by that time (some shocking attitudes prevailed just a decade or two earlier), it was clear that “doing well” meant “speaking proper”.

Later, at uni, I worked hard (though likely, without even too much conscious awareness) to flatten out the giveaway vowels in my own accent, which were so eagerly pointed out as entertaining during Freshers’ Week. No, not all dialects are created equal in the eyes of the hoi polloi. But those clumsy attempts to escape it also stir up the mirth. Heck, they even dissect Liam Payne for it of late.

As a result, I saw my family dialect as something to resign myself to. I never really gave it the time of day. It was background noise, something to be borne, something I just ended up with. What a shame that is. But what a common story it is, too.

(Re-)Learning to Love It

Learning that dialect – yes, even my own – fascinates and occupies linguists, had a profound effect on me. Only recently have I come to regard mine at something special, something worthy of study in its own right, just like one of my foreign languages. I’m approaching Black Country English with the kinds of mental tools that I’d approach a foreign language with. And I’ve realised how richly unique it is.

If social pressure ever prompted you to lock your own dialect in a dusty mental cupboard, try revisiting it with fresh eyes. Check out local societies working to document and promote it. Leaf through a dialectology primer to find out where yours fits in, and why it’s special. Reappraising mine as something with an important linguistic story to tell is a response to that language-obsessed youngster, seeking a skill to make himself special by looking further and further away.

You already have something unique. Treasure it.

A bag of books from the gift shop at the Black Country Living Museum.

A bag of books. What better souvenir?

Eurovision 2022: Belgium’s Jérémie Makiese at the Second Semi-Final — EBU/SARAH LOUISE BENNETT

Happy Eurovision, Language Lovers!

Well, didn’t that year pass by quickly? It’s only Eurovision Day again!

It’s no secret: a love of Eurovision and language learning always went hand in hand for me. The song contest was the main reason I became so captivated by the idea of foreign languages as a kid, so I have a lot to thank it for.

But of course, things have changed over the years. The language rule was relaxed in 1999, allowing countries to enter in languages other than their official ones. In practice, that meant English for almost everybody. That said, enough brave and proud souls still keep the languages coming. France, Italy, Portugal and Spain: I’m looking gratefully at you in particular!

Still, there are always a few extra tongues that sneak in each year. In fact, this year we’re spoilt, as the final will include:

  1. Breton (for the second time for France, the last being in 1996)
  2. Dutch (for the first time in a final since 1998)
  3. Icelandic (most recently featuring in 2019 and 2013)
  4. Italian
  5. Latin (in the Serbian song – the last time being the repeated word Lapponia in Finland’s 1977 entry)
  6. Lithuanian (for the first time since 1994 – unless you count Samogitian as a dialect, in which case 1999)
  7. Portuguese
  8. Romanian (thanks to Moldova)
  9. Serbian
  10. Spanish (including a little in Romania’s entry)
  11. Ukrainian

Now call me an optimist, but that’s pretty good going for a competition which no longer enforces a language rule. And if we’re including the semis, we also had Albanian, Croatian, Greek and Slovene in 2022. Thumbs up to all those countries proving that English language participation still isn’t a given, even after 23 years of the free language rule.

In any case, however you are marking this great day, have a wonderful, joyful Eurovision.

And enjoy the languages!

Learning Devanagari on Duolingo (Screenshot)

Learning Devanagari ‘Just Because’ : On Not Needing a Reason

Have you ever learnt anything just because? Without any specific motivation or goal in mind? Learning something for the heck of it is a valid goal in itself, of course, and exactly how I’ve ended up with a basic knowledge of Devanagari script.

It all started off with an equally woolly, goal-diffuse pastime: collecting old language books. Some time last year, I added a lovely, pristine copy of the late 90s Teach Yourself Nepali to my collection. I bought it for the sake of completion, if anything. It filled a gap in my TY hoard.  But true to my New Year’s dabbling promise to myself, I spent a little time working through the first chapter. I found myself fascinated by the script, but a bit overwhelmed by the book’s everything-at-once introduction to it.

After a bit of Googling and Wikipediation, I realised that Devanagari is the script of choice for both Nepali and Hindi. What’s more, I remembered, Duolingo has a Hindi course. Surely I’d find a gentler introduction to the script there.

And didn’t I just. Duolingo introduces Devanagari very comfortably and gradually across the four initial lessons of its Hindi course. Each one contains just a subset of letters, and there’s no pressure to progress until you’re ready for the next tranche of beautiful, curved characters.

Casual Devanagari

So I started spending five minutes here and there on it. I approached it as a bit of fun, a pattern-matching game. As the lessons don’t contain actual words, that’s all it was – and it was all the more fun for it. I felt I was testing my memory, keeping my visual recognition skills sharp, and having a bit of fun casual mind-gaming.

Not only that, but it turned out to be a handy way to get my score up on days when I was too busy, or too tired, to do full-blown language lessons in the app. In five minutes of short practice lessons, I could clock up enough XP to keep me afloat for another day. Devanagari became my free pass.

Months later, I’ve almost learnt Devanagari by accident. I’ve barely noticed those characters settling into my synapses. And it’s there, if I ever need it, for learning Nepali, Hindi, or any of the other languages that are written in it.

It’s a far cry from my experiences as a schoolteacher, where there was often a pressure to justify language learning in utilitarian terms. To students, to parents, to ‘core’ subject staff – you name it. For sure, there are many very practical reasons to learn a language, and we all became adept at tripping them off, on cue.

But my Devanagari journey serves as a nice reminder that there doesn’t have to be a point at all, beyond ‘just because’. If there’s enjoyment, if there’s contentment, if there’s curiosity and it’s satisfied, that can be the whole point. Learn what you like.

An old, brick-style mobile phone. The notification problem was significantly less noticeable with these! Image from freeimages.com.

Creating a Notification-Free Language Routine

We’re slaves to our mobile devices these days. At least that’s what a whole tranche of research suggests, popularised in books like How to Break Up With Your Phone, Digital Minimalism and Smart Phone, Dumb Phone. Mobile operating systems bake in an addiction-dependency loop, the notification system being the carrot to our donkey brains. We just can’t help coming back for more.

I took a short study break away recently, in order to get some well-needed head space. My mistake? I didn’t plan any notification downtime. And it was my language learning apps that rudely interrupted my calm most, calling me to constant action. Green owl, I’m particularly looking at youIt’s time for your lesson! You were knocked out of the top ten! There’s still time to move up in the Diamond league!

Now, I’m a good lad and I always do my daily Duo. But the nagging began to feel a bit… stressful.

Pavlov’s Notifications

There’s an element of shtick to all this, of course, that Duolingo has very successfully spun into social media gold. It’s genius, to be honest; a top-class case study in building a brand identity. That mock menace is all part of the fun in the learning. It’s often great to have bad cop on our backs, cajoling us into action when we’d rather just idle.

But it can all feel a bit Pavlov’s dogs at times.

As a bit of a control freak myself, I find that aspect particularly unsettling. How much control have I ceded to my phone’s notification system? To what extent am I still enacting my own free will here? And how well has that notification system trained me to keep running back for more endorphin hits, even sans notification? Checking the phone first thing in the morning, walking to various destinations (never a great idea), last thing at night…

If I were a dog, my trainer would be collecting an award right now.

Granted, we’re not talking about mindless entertainment or trivial content. Those language learning pings emanate from some of the best educational apps out there: Duolingo, Anki, Glossika. Surely that isn’t a waste of time?

Well, no. But as part of a wider problem of notification addiction, I thought it was time to wrest control back just a little. To start using these resources on my own terms again.

Off With His Notification!

So it’s off with the Duolingo notifications, for a start. As much as I love the competitive side of it – daily targets, leagues, monthly quests – I hate being told what to do (it’s that control freak in me again). I already love doing my daily lessons. I’m not going to forget, so you don’t have to stress me out by reminding me every five minutes that I’ve dropped out of the top ten.

Likewise, I’m always on the lookout for more non-digital opportunities to learn and practise foreign languages. I’m building up an old-school language library, and taking time to go through those wonderful, physical materials mindfully, and far from my phone. I build in plenty of one-to-one and group classes to get time with real human beings. I’m using my devices for more slow learning tasks like reading books and listening to podcasts, which complement the fast-and-furious educational app mode (variety is key!). And I’m trying to follow general advice around breaking phone addiction: having a no-scroll rule for morning and night, and giving myself a phone curfew.

It is possible to break notification addiction, while still benefitting from wonderful resources like Duolingo. You just have to cede to your own inner control freak now and again.