Phyllis Soley and Richard West-Soley picking flowers. My Nan - my hero.

My language hero – a personal dedication

Our love of languages is so much more than words on a page. It is about the journey language facilitates for us, and the people that join us on that journey. The most special of these people become our language heroes, for one reason or another. And with this post, I mark the memory of a very, very special language hero of mine: my Nan, Phyllis Soley.

Nan was a sharp and witty lady. Although she didn’t learn languages herself, she was a dab hand at general knowledge rounds on TV quizzes. But she saw something in my love of languages that she appreciated and wanted to nurture.

Books, books and more books

She spotted early on that my fascination for language was tightly bound with a love of books. My very first language book – Teach Yourself French (the lovely old 80’s blue cover version!) – was bought with my couple of pounds of pocket money on one of our many family trips to Burnham-on-Sea. Barely even 10 years old, those early days rummaging around the tiny language section set off a journey of exploration that had no end.

When I was a bit older, I graduated from the little seaside bookshop to “the big Waterstones” in Birmingham. After the half-hour train journey from our home town, Nan would wisely ask the staff for a chair. She knew I’d need lots of time looking at the language books. Nan never complained, but sat there patiently, watching me pick out countless courses and grammars. It was a passion she was happy to indulge.

Years later, when her legs failed her, she’d still sate my hunger for books, insisting that I buy a new tome from her to me on birthdays and at Christmas. My shelves are still full of books she gifted me.

Everyday hero

In 1995, when I won a place to study languages at the University of Oxford, she was my chief cheerleader. My whole time there, she would send care parcels and pocket money to ease the bumps. To my student shame, she would even take in my laundry with Mum on my home visits. In a hundred ways, Nan typified my family’s love and encouragement for the path I’d chosen to follow in languages.

One certain language-based memory I have is particularly special. A fervent fan of the Eurovision Song Contest in the 1990s, I tended to travel back home from uni to watch it each year. Naturally, I would insist on all members of my family watching it too. Back then, of course, the songs were in the national language of each country – a bit of a linguist’s dream-come-true in those pre-Internet days, when foreign-language TV was something you needed a special satellite dish for.

In May of 1997, I travelled home for the weekend, and watched it at her house. It was just Nan and me, that night – and the UK won. She sat patiently with me through all of those songs in Norwegian, Estonian, Polish and more – and was rewarded with a win.

Nan didn’t mind watching at all – or at least, never admitted to it. She knew I loved music and knew I loved languages, and joined in the fun with me. (I’m sure it could get annoying, years later, when I’d call after the show and request the lowdown on all her favourites, in detail!)

Celebrate your everyday heroes

Language heroes don’t need to be amazing linguists themselves. They are more often than not the loving people around us, who encourage and nurture. As much as the teachers and inspirational figures that guide us, they help us to achieve our goals. Maybe it’s that person who bought your first language book, or took you on your first holiday abroad where you spoke a foreign language. It might even just be someone who kept you going with kind words. Whatever they did, we are lucky to have them in our lives, and perhaps, one day, we can do the same for others.

As a linguist, it feels fitting that I created a tribute to her through language – in fact, in her own words. Some years ago, I gave Nan a dictaphone and said she could record whatever she liked, in order to relieve some of the boredom of being wheelchair-bound. The result was a collection of recordings of Nan retelling her early life story. It’s a wonderful, precious thing that we’ll cherish forever. (And, incidentally, it permanently preserves her lovely Stourbridge accent – something of interest if you like exploring British dialects!)

We said goodbye to my wonderful Nan only very recently, which is my reason for celebrating her in this post. It’s important to find a hero like Nan for your journey. Someone who will always believe in you; someone who will be your greatest fan. She will always be with me, by my side, proud of me and egging me on. She will always be my hero.

Phyllis Soley - my everyday language hero

Phyllis Soley – my everyday language hero

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Berlin, where have you been all my life?

Language learning isn’t finite; it’s a lifelong process, and isn’t meant to have an end. As such, languages never count as ‘finished’ or ‘learnt’, but require upkeep and maintenance.

With this in mind, I’ve been planning some exciting mini-trips to German-speaking towns over the past few months. Since graduating from university, I’d taken my German for granted a bit. As my first, and strongest foreign language, it was a bit of an oversight that needed some correction. And, looking in the right places with the right tools, you can unearth some real bargains, and make maintenance breaks a regular thing.

Bremen was my first German weekend of 2017, back in May. It was a great way to ease back into travelling the country – an intimate, friendly and compact city well served by budget flights. I loved every minute of it, and it left me ready for the big boss of German cities: Berlin.

Why Berlin?

As a student, I’d shunned Germany to focus on Austria and Switzerland. The southern German-speaking countries had a special draw to me then, with my fascination of dialect. (Germany is just as rich in dialects, though – something I overlooked as a student!) Berlin was a chance to redress the years of negligence, and really get to know this icon of Germany.

Zip in and around with ease

Berlin is an excellent place for a weekend hop-over or short stay. For a start, many low-cost carriers serve the city. From the UK, I flew in to Tegel for £40 (FlyBe), and am flying out of Schönefeld for £30 (EasyJet). From the US, although obviously more expensive, there are still budget options such as Wow Air.

What’s more, connections from the airports to the city are easy and excellent. The Berlin public transport system (BVG) is comprehensive, fast and good value. A Tageskarte (day ticket) for all zones A, B, and C – including the airports – is currently just €7.70. And that covers local trains, trams and buses. (For most of your full-day activities, a ticket for zones A and B will suffice, making it even cheaper.)

All this makes Berlin the perfect candidate for zipping into and around if you have a limited budget and a short time.

A Berlin for everybody

The huge selling point of Berlin is its diversity of attractions. There are museums, exhibits and sights that will appeal variously to all kinds of interests. And entry fees are, on the whole, very reasonable! Pretty impressive for a major city (and welcome to a Brit suffering from a weak pound!)

Traditional museum buff with a love of antiquity? The Pergamon Museum is probably top of your list. Like showcase architecture and spectacular views? Then head to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower).

As for me, I’m a political history nerd. Hungry to learn everything I could about the old East German regime, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a period the city has come to terms with through openness; the Stasi Museum (€6.00) and DDR Museum (€9.50) are intriguing, often disturbing, but ultimately extremely enlightening places to spend time. For the linguist, they offer tons of reading material in the form of short summaries of key events with each exhibit. These are in German and English, just in case you need some translation support!

Deciphering East German soldier speak at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Deciphering East German soldier speak in an exhibit at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

History – and language – on every corner

The city is also full of symbolic, charged landmarks of political history, like Checkpoint Charlie and the restored Reichstag. To dig into the significance of each, I used the German language version of Wikipedia to do my planning beforehand. Additionally, public buildings have dedicated websites, like the Reichstag website – essential for booking the highly recommended (and free!) lift to the roof to view the cupola. The Reichstag reception also has piles of books and leaflets in German, all free to take away with you after your visit.

YouTube is a great pre-trip resource, with some excellent historical clips for fact-digging in the target language. I walked through the Brandenburger Tor, from East to West, after refreshing my own memory with German documentary footage of citizens streaming to freedom one November night in 1989. That made for a pretty special way to rei-imagine Berlin’s history.

The day-to-day

Besides the grand cultural experiences, there was plenty of chance to practise my more prosaic German. Berliners come across as open and friendly people, and it was easy to turn everyday conversations into a little bit more.

Being used to waves of tourists with little or no German, shop and restaurant staff seem more than happy to have a little chat if you want to go beyond “one piece of Streusel, please!”. Being curious and asking questions helps – “wie heißt dieser Kuchen?” (“what’s this cake called?”) was a simple but effective conversation starter in the bakery! Just the slightest hint of an accent will turn the simplest of questions into a chat about why you speak German, too.

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

In short, I don’t know why I left it so long. Berlin, where have you been all my life? Multiple trips back are a foregone conclusion; the charm of the city and the inexhaustible pot of things to do ensure that. As an affordable mini-trip for Germanists in maintenance mode, I can’t recommend it enough.

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

Anki, the vocab monster

Did you think learning vocabulary in a foreign language was just about memorising lists of words? Well, there’s a science to it. And Anki, a free flashcard learning system, has it down to a tee.

I’ve made frequent mention of the program in previous blog posts, and it’s formed a key part of my learning strategy since I started experimenting with it last year. I’m using it to drill and practise a couple of different languages, but here, I’ll focus on my experiences with it to achieve a decent working vocabulary in Polish.

Getting started

I hear it from several language-loving friends, and I felt the same at first: it’s a little bit intimidating at first. Its basic, unstyled interfaces can be offputting for the newcomer, and for certain things – like styling your cards – it is helpful to know a little tech magic like HTML. However, there are some helpful videos on the fundamentals at this link. And further assistance is just a YouTube search away, as there is a vast number of active users online, posting tips and hints. This excellent video introduction is a good example, and a great place to start.

Of course, all the magic is under the hood; it’s in the algorithms that Anki uses to drip-feed you vocab, day by day, and decide which words need more practice, and how often. It just requires a little work on your part, in curating your word lists.

feeding the Anki monster

There’s one key rule to maintaining pace with Anki: keep filling it up. Treat it like a vocabulary monster than needs a regular bucket of new words every so often to keep it fierce. You can add hundreds of words in one fell swoop at the beginning, and let the program do its stuff over the following weeks and months. It will select 25 new words from the bank a day, adding them to previously viewed words to recycle in each session. Eventually, it will run out of new words, and you’ll just be in memory maintenance mode.

Adding huge swathes of vocabulary in one go isn’t practical, though. It’s boring, for a start. And how do you decide on a source right at the beginning of your language learning journey? Also, vocab learning should be – in my opinion – an ongoing, lifelong process, and I feel my own use of Anki should reflect that.

Instead, then, I decided to just stay a few weeks ahead of myself with adding words. I chose a primary text for learning Polish – a very old edition of Teach Yourself Polish – and made a note to myself to add 2-3 chapters of vocabulary from it each week. I did this religiously, and within a few weeks I’d added a whole book’s worth of words.

However, making this a regular habit also allowed me to add in extra sources of vocabulary when I came across them. Along the way, I started to use the excellent Routledge Basic Polish – A Grammar and Workbook and Intermediate Polish – A Grammar and Workbook. As I found useful words in the examples, I’d add those in too. To keep things tidy, I’d add a sub-deck of flashcards to mark vocabulary from different sources separately.

Vocabulary mining

As well as books, I found two other useful ways to mine for vocabulary: self-interrogation and headline hunting.

In the first case, I’d actively interrogate my vocabulary as it was presented to me each day. If the words ‘shirt’, ‘trousers’ and ‘dress’ popped up, I’d ask myself: have I come across the word for ‘t-shirt’ yet? I’d check my vocab list, Google Translate the missing word, double-check it in Wiktionary, and add it to the bank if necessary. (I always use a couple of electronic resources with word-checking – never just a single one. Cross-referencing ensures you don’t end up with any dodgy mistranslations in your word bank!)

Headline hunting speaks for itself – I’d find a new site, and scan down the headlines for new or unusual words. Again, I’d Google Translate, check in Wiktionary and add to the bank. If I only do this once a week, it still generates a trickle of extra vocab to keep the monster fed.

Notably, I decided that vocabulary didn’t just mean ‘words’. Throughout my mining, I’d take model phrases, sayings, turns of speech – anything that I thought could be useful. Doing so meant that I could use Anki to revise simple structure, as well as dictionary items.

Tags are key

Crucially, I’d also add keywords to each vocabulary item. These were mainly based on broad topics that I could assign to each individual word; examples were ‘food and drink’, ‘clothes’, ‘colours’ and so on.

This turned out to be invaluable, given that the vocabulary was not thematically organised in the source material. After adding the words along with keyword tags, I could sort topically later on, pulling out all the ‘colours’ words for revision, for example. It’s especially satisfying when you call up a search list like this, and see how many different sources have gone into building your learning material.

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

First-pass learning

The very act of adding words to Anki doubles up as a sort of pre-learning phase. I never make a conscious effort to remember vocab as I’m typing it into the app. But inevitably, some items will catch my attention, and there’ll be a fair bit of residual recall when they pop up later in the program. I call this ‘first-pass learning’, and it’s often enough to provide a hook by the time the words get a second pass when popping up as scheduled.

This ‘learning proper’ phase could happen any time, in any place, thanks to the Anki app. I usually find myself squeezing those 10-15 minutes into train journeys – it’s a great way to fill otherwise ‘dead time’.

For Android users, the experience is still completely free, thanks to a third-party tool app on Google Play. However, for us iPhone people, the iOS app is a slightly pricey purchase at £23.99 / $24.99. Nonetheless, there are ways to approach that price tag on a budget of nothing. I bagged some free iTunes vouchers on Swagbucks for mine – see here for my experience with that!

Lieutenant Anki, language-learning regiment

The greatest thing is that Anki has regimented and regularised my vocabulary learning. Where I could be a little chaotic, now I have organisation. The system forces you to stay on top of things, too; miss a couple of days, and the list of words to learn and revise grows bigger and bigger. Stick to little and often and you won’t work up a backlog!

I’ve now thoroughly learnt over 1000 Polish vocabulary items. In fact, Anki has been so successful at drilling them, my vocab level has far outstripped my grammar – one possible downside to blitzing your words like this! But as I learn grammar at a slightly less frenetic pace, having a large knowledge of words to use with new structures is definitely a bonus. And I’m still experimenting with ways to drill grammar and structure in Anki, too.

In short, I’m now hooked on Anki. I’m proud of my curated word lists, as they are a record of how far I’ve travelled on each language learning journey. They’re highly personal, and, for that, I’m all the more motivated to work with them and learn them. If you’ve ever tried and have felt put off, please persevere – it’s definitely worth it!

The French flag flying in front of a town hall

Grammar on a budget: CGP French handbook [review]

I’m a big fan of school revision materials as cheaper alternatives to expensive language textbooks. CGP’s foreign language GCSE revision guides are a case in point. The publishers may be targeting teenage students, but the material is just as effective for older, recreational learners.

These language revision guides are largely topic-based, vocabulary-driven textbooks. But French learners can now learn the nuts and bolts of the language on a shoestring; CGP’s KS3 & GCSE French Grammar handbook presents the fundamentals of the language in its trademark concise, colourful way.

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook – (almost) pocket-sized

Grammar, bite by bite

In fewer than 100 pages, the book presents French grammar in palatable, bite-sized chunks. Each major point takes up just a page or two, with simple explanations and clear examples. And the book is packed with colour-coded tables of word forms and conjugations, making it ideal for visual learners.

You can instantly see the attraction of the layout for engaging students on Key Stage 3 / GCSE courses. But it serves as an incredibly accessible grammar guide / refresher for adults, too. Who doesn’t love a bit of colour to aid learning?

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook

The trademark full-colour CGP layout

Clearly, a guide like this won’t be as comprehensive as a benchmark reference work like Routledge’s French Grammar and Usage. CGP will take you a fair way, though; the range of tenses is covered in the short guide, and even the present subjunctive gets a mention. Unless you’re taking French to advanced / university level, chances are that this little book will cover your basic to intermediate needs. At A5 size, it might even fit in your (admittedly large-ish) pocket.

Talking about language

The guide also offers a lot of support if you’re not comfortable with the jargon used to talk about language (metalanguage). More ‘grown-up’ texts can automatically assume the reader grasps grammatical terms about parts of speech, for example. In the CGP grammar guide, however, they all receive clear, plain English explanations. Thanks to the ‘no fluff’, concise style, the material manages to avoid being patronising, too.

French grammar for under a fiver

CGP’s KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook comes in at under a fiver on Amazon.co.uk right now. This compares very favourably with more ‘mature’ basic reference guides, like Teach Yourself’s French Grammar You Really Need To Know.

There is also a companion workbook available at the same price, with practice tests and quizzes. This is in a slightly less pocket-sized A4 format, dwarfing the actual grammar guide. But it is worth paying the little extra for; it offers lots of reinforcement, with a full answer key provided at the back of the booklet.

It’s perhaps not a completely like-for-like comparison, as the Teach Yourself book has many plus points of its own; it has a highly communicative approach, and at twice the length of the CGP guide, it can afford more page space for extra examples and exercises (which are in a separate book in CGP’s case). However, if you’re on a tight budget, CGP has all the necessary points covered.

It’s a great addition to the CGP range, and a release that means learner texts needn’t cost the earth. French is the only language offered right now, although it would be very welcome – and not inconceivable – to see the same title for German and Spanish if this release does well.

Which language do you choose out of 7,000 in the world?

Free for all: language courses from Live Lingua [review]

Language learning can be an expensive business. Course materials can be so expensive. And despite free resources like podcasts, online video and websites, sometimes, nothing beats a good coursebook. If only they were free, right?

Free for all

Well, thanks to the efforts of one online organisation, they can be. Live Lingua is primarily an online language lesson service that connects teachers with students. In that respect, it’s a lot like iTalki and Verbling. But where it is different is in a very special side-project on the website.

The organisation has sourced and catalogued a whole range of free, public domain language learning material – both texts and audio files – which you can download from the site. These materials are chiefly courses that have been used in US overseas projects like the Peace Corps. As such, they’re tried-and-tested learning methods that have been employed in real-world settings to great effect. And they’re just as sound resources as their (often very expensive) commercial counterparts.

Worth digging for treasure

There is a huge amount of material on the website; scores and scores of PDFs and MP3 files from courses across a wealth of languages. Learning Arabic? They have courses in nearly a dozen different varieties of it. Learning off-the-beaten track languages? Try their courses in Ilokano or Q’eqchi’. There is a vast catalogue for more mainstream languages too: linguaphiles can feast on their free offerings in French, German and Spanish.

However, one thing is worth bearing in mind. A fair bit of the material is quite old. The resources have been collected from decades of foreign language teaching in US military institutions. That doesn’t make it any less pedagogically sound, of course; I’ve learnt a huge amount from old texts like Teach Yourself Polish (1948)! But it does mean that the format might be a bit rougher that what you might be used to.

With the texts, this can be quite charming; learning from a PDF course that looks like it’s been drafted on a typewriter is quite an experience! (Incidentally, some commercial resources can be similar – I have used the Greek Basic Course from Hippocrene, which is typeset as if from a vintage Olivetti!) Not all of the PDFs are like this, by any means – some are clearly 80s and 90s texts that are formatted in a much more familiar way.

However, it does become apparent when you start delving into the sound files. Some of the older courses have been ripped to MP3 from cassettes, for example. Because of this, the sound quality can vary from dodgy to excellent. But it’s worth persevering – there are some real treasures to be found by careful digging.

FAST learning

As passionate a linguist as I am, I haven’t had time to try all the courses (yet!). But of the ones I’ve been exploring so far, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) FAST courses are amongst the best. They’re concise but cover lots of vocabulary, structures and grammar. There’s good support for listening with fairly good quality MP3s files. And they’re also quite modern-looking texts – not that the typewriter font bothers me in the older ones anyway!

The organisers have taken care over the scanning of the material, too. Hyperlinks have been added to the PDF contents pages, for example, making the resources much more interactive than simple scans.

I’m currently working slowly but happily through the FSI FAST course in Polish. It has a good communicative approach, focusing on everyday interactions – perfect for preparing for a trip to Poland. Written in the 90s, the cultural information is woefully out-of-date;  “You must still count on spending considerable time queuing up in each store” is probably not the case in modern-day Poland! That said, it’s a fascinating snapshot into a transitional period of contemporary Polish social history.

Go and have a dig at Live Lingua – you might save yourself a fortune. You might even happen upon your next language amongst the huge collection. Anyone fancy learning Sesotho with me? 😃