Pot pourri

Pot pourri : my week in languages

Pot-pourri is a lovely French term, usually applied to a mixture of herbs and spices, or fragranced wood chips. I’ve appropriately appropriated the French for this week’s blog post, which is a bit of a mixed bag. The past seven days have thrown a few interesting things my language-learning way, so here is my digest of the nuggets most worth sharing.

Chocolate-powered language learning

I’ve been revelling in the joys of globalism this week. Namely, this has involved using my Polish language project as an excuse to stock up on edible goodies in the Polish section of Tesco. Covered in target language (slogans and ingredient lists are particularly useful vocabulary mines), and providing a taste of Polish popular culture, what more could a chocoholic linguist ask for?

It might seem utterly normal to kids these days to find products from overseas markets on the shelves these days. But it wasn’t so long ago that there was nothing like this in your local supermarket. As a lad, I would have found this stuff completely fascinating – a fascination that obviously remains with me, as I crammed chocs into my basket earlier this week.

https://twitter.com/richwestsoley/status/1025792767635726337

It’s not just about new words. Filling your life with tokens from your target language culture is the perfect way to truly live your language. I recall friends of mine who have brought Japan into every corner of their home. Foreign language grocery products help to create a bit of a special buzz and vibe around your polyglot project.

If you’re not lucky enough to find a whole aisle in the supermarket for your target language, all is not lost. A look around the local discounter store reveals a huge array of products covered in all kinds of languages. A pack of biscuits, for example, had the ingredients listed on the packet in 8 different languages. Granted, they can often be off-the-beaten-track languages rather than mainstream French and Spanish, but these shops are worth a mooch!

For the record: Advocat bars are absolutely delicious.

OverDrive for public library ebooks

The next addition to my linguistic pot pourri has reminded me of the wonderful, often untapped service that our public libraries are. Whilst re-registering for my local library, I’ve also rediscovered the incredibly handy OverDrive app for online library access. Using your library details (card number and passcode / pin), you can set the app up for e-borrowing. Books will depend on the library, but there are quite a few of interest to linguists on there.

I enjoy wider cultural background reading around my target language too, and there are some great titles on there for that – some very recent. I found Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, for example, which is a very accessible way in to a lot of the Icelandic saga material. Bagging the e-book from the library saved me a few pounds (which I’ll probably spend buying more Polish Advocat bars).

Free target language listening material from Teach Yourself

This one surprised me, I must admit. But then, I grew up as a language lover in the 1990s, when Teach Yourself books were X pounds on their own, and almost double that with the accompanying CDs.

The amazing thing is that Teach Yourself now offer nearly all of the listening material for their language books online – for free – at library.teachyouself.com.

Now, this may not be new to anyone else. Apologies if I’m late to the party. You may be eye-rolling as you read this, thinking “get with the picture, Ritchie!”. But now I have found it, I’ll be a regular visitor, at least for the next few weeks.

It’s not a perfect resource, of course, as the book material is not included. But even without the written page, the recordings offer some great, graded listening practice on their own. It might just be that little extra you need to improve your audio comprehension.

As seems the case so often, many of these language learning boosts were lying right under my nose. I hope you found them useful too! And, as a final favour, please share your recommendations of overseas goodies in the comments – maybe you’ll help me find something even tastier than a Polish Advocat!

Blinkist offers condensed summaries of hundreds of books.

Blinkist : one-stop knowledge shop with some language-learning gems

If you use any social media platform, you can’t have missed them lately; those bold and brash ads, featuring ever-so-slightly smug millennials stating “I read four books a day” and similar. Yes, Blinkist has been on a marketing offensive in recent weeks.

I must admit that a bit of academic snobbery held me back for a bit. The smiling professionals in the ads haven’t really read the books, of course, but read and/or listened to synopses, or ‘blinks’ in the terminology of the service.

You see, Blinkist is, in essence, a library of hundreds and hundreds of Cliff Notes on best-selling non-fiction books. Part of me screams “but that’s cheating!” at the cheek of it. But there’s still something enticing about getting a regular, easy-to-digest snapshot of the latest knowledge and trends, so I gave it a go.

Blinkist for linguists

First off, I wasn’t joining with my linguist head on, but rather as a wannabe polymath. I have a strong interest in society topics – I did a social sciences degree in my free time a couple of years back with the excellent Open University – and I was looking forward to trawling through Blinkist’s catalogue of politics, pop psych and sociology first and foremost.

But surprise – there are actually quite a few titles of interest to linguists there. They go beyond general linguistics topics, too, including hands-on titles like Benny Lewis’ “Fluent In Three Months” and Gabriel Wyner’s “Fluent Forever”, both pretty much essentials in the polyglot community.

If you like learning about language as well as how to learn them, particularly how language develops and changes, Blinkist doesn’t disappoint. For instance, I love Guy Deutscher’s writing on language. I was more than chuffed to note that the platform includes his Through The Language Glass. It’s great to get a second shot at that in summarised, audiobook format.

Blinkist: enhances, rather than replaces reading

So, do I feel like I’ve ‘read’ the books I’ve listened to so far? Well, not really. I think a service like this inevitably skips the detail and nuance that make book-reading such a joy. But I do feel like I have a good overview of the main points. And it’s a nice way to ‘dip in’ to a book you might buy the full version of later on.

Also, there are a few texts on there that I’ve already read. For example, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct was a set text on my language degree syllabus at Oxford back in 1995. The Blinkist summary is a brilliant way to revisit it, lighting up all those pathways and connections that I formed long ago on my first reading of it.

And that’s the strength of the platform. As a way in, or a way back, it’s a wonderful resource to work with non-fiction texts. And, if you like podcasts as much as I do, the similarity of the format will fit right into your routine. It’s also a very likeable format. The titles are read in a fairly neutral American accent, with a mix of male and female narrators. It feels like the team have taken care to make them as pleasant to listen to as they are quick and easy.

While it will never replace reading full books, Blinkist is one more tool in the arsenal of sites and services to keep you well-informed. And as a linguist, there’s lots to get your teeth into. With a free seven-day trial, it’s well worth a nose!

Parroting accents may not be the best way to fluency

Accentuate the positive: accents and language learning

This post comes to you from beautiful Belfast, where I’ve spent a wonderful weekend attending a wedding with good friends. The trip has been a treat in more ways than one. As a linguist, accents have always piqued my interest. And at every turn in this great city, I’ve been hearing some wonderfully rich local talk.

Most of the accents I’ve heard are some variety of the central Belfast lilt itself, while others are from further afield. A couple of times, I’ve been lucky enough to catch a bit of Ulster Scots, as impenetrable as that is to the untrained ear! During one taxi ride, I have to admit to the crime of nodding along while understanding barely half the conversation. I really should know better as a language learner!

Accents upon accents

But what I find most fascinating is how local speech patterns impinge upon the English of those who speak it as a second language. This should be nothing new to me, of course, as I hear chimeric accents all the time in Edinburgh. But, surrounded by them all the time, it’s often easy to miss the hint of Scots that inflects the accents of EFL speakers north of the border. Belfast reminded me of just how much the environment affects our acquisition of a foreign language.

I’ve always found that mixing of accents an incredible thing. It’s like a grafting of our life experiences, manifest through our personal travel and migration history, onto speech. Our experiences are etched, in sound, into the way we talk.

In Belfast, for example, you might hear it when the pure, short vowels of a Polish native speaker meld into the open, broad ones of Ulster English. And if you focus closely enough on your own speech in a foreign language, you will detect similar touch points. These are the lines where your speech past meets your language learning present, and both flow into one another.

Foreign versus local

As a language-obsessed kid, I would often dream of learning a language so well that I’d pass for native. Whenever I start a new language, there is still a bit of me – that dogged perfectionist – that would love to reach this goal. But is that goal attainable – or even desirable? Is it so bad that our accents in a foreign language are marked by our linguistic past? Is it such a disaster that sometimes I sound a bit English when I speak German?

Of course, the idea of environment affecting learning throws up the opposite question: when aiming for ‘perfect accents’, should we select neutral varieties as our model for our foreign language speech? Or is there value in allowing the places we spend time in making their mark on our emerging voices? Is Belfast, Edinburgh or Birmingham English any less valid as a learning goal than ‘standard’ English (whatever that might be)? In some language environments, like Norway, for example, it is near impossible to avoid absorbing some local hue if you are in the country for any length of time.

These two things are in tension all the time – sounding foreign versus sounding local. And spending time in Belfast, and loving the sound of these accent hybrids, reminds me that it’s really not worth worrying about perfection when it comes to your accent in the target language.

Think how stilted the English variant RP sounds. And it is far from neutral; ironically labelled as such, it actually comes with a lot of social, class-ridden baggage. Accents, whether they are local, minority, niche, sociolect, jargon or brand new hybrids that arise in the mouths of non-native learners, give colour.

Accent pride

It wasn’t until I went to university that I realised I even had an accent in my native language. It was the first proper excursion out of my bubble of home, and it was quite a realisation. It’s always a surprise awakening when you realise that you carry these geographical and social markers that you are barely aware of as a youngster.

As a young English assistant in Austria, I could barely escape it – I strove to tone down the Midlands low diphthongs (like ‘oi’ for ‘ai’) when I realised that the kids were starting to pick it up. “Do I really sound like that?” I thought. Even today, this is something I have to be aware of when speaking a foreign language. My natural set of vowels is lower and broader than most of the languages I’ve learnt, and I try to bear that in mind when mapping my own voice across. (Incidentally, it actually helps a lot with Norwegian, which – to my ear – shares a lot of characteristics with my own English accent!) Certainly, the way you speak your native language can create challenges – and opportunities – in your target language.

But pride in your accent can be a positive act of social defiance in many ways. Personally, I felt slightly ashamed of my Midlands twang for many years. During our formative years, the media drills into us a certain prejudice about accents, and the notion of how people ‘should’ sound. I grew up with my local accent routinely ridiculed on television, for example. Similarly, people in Newcastle and Liverpool have had to put up with countless research studies that position their accents as the ‘least popular’. Shamefully, this speech snobbery continues today.

Don’t worry – be happy

So where does this leave us? The crux of it is, again, that worrying too much about accent in a foreign language is futile. One one hand, it is impossible to escape the fusion of elements when you learn another language. On the other hand, this is where the colour is, the aspects that make you you.

Enjoy the variety, and don’t break your head trying to fit some kind of imagined standard. Your accent – native or target language – is a product of all your life experiences. Be proud of it!

Richard West-Soley aboard the SS Nomadic at Titanic Belfast in July, 2018

Aboard the SS Nomadic at Titanic Belfast

Keep your language learning colourful - change things up from time to time.

Managing Anki decks with options groups

Well, the football didn’t go England’s way this week. Commiserations, fellow polyglot fans who were also hoping. But when anticlimactic gloom ensues, sometimes you’re motivated to very productive distractions. I’ve spent a useful chunk of time this week optimising my Anki flash card decks.

With Anki, as with all things, it’s easy to get stuck in your ways. When something works straight out the box and does the job, it’s tempting not to tinker. How many people, for example, never touch the advanced settings on a new phone, console or TV?

Change things up a little

That said, sometimes you just need to be brave and change things up a little. The experimenter’s ethos is key: it might work; it might not. But it’s worth trying!

Yes, Anki works straight out of the box. And it does a fantastic job like that. But, with some tweaking, you can fit it around your goals and lifestyle much more neatly. Here’s how I’ve tweaked it to fit my goals and lifestyle more neatly lately.

The problem

The problem is that I rotate a lot of languages in my learning routine. Some I’m actively learning right now. Others I’ve learnt in the past, and want to ‘rest’ them for a while before returning to them in the future. And some of those I want to bring out of their rest phase, and work on maintaining, rather than growing them.

The way I was doing this before was quite efficient, on the whole. I normally nest all my language decks in a superdeck called ‘Languages’. When I was ready to rest a language for a while, I’d simply rename its deck into ‘Rested Languages’. This deck had a learn / review limit of zero in its settings, effectively turning it off. When I was ready to restart that language, I’d move it back. I talk about this cycle in a previous post.

The trouble is, it could feel like a clunky kludge at times. Removing a whole deck from your stack renders the language invisible. It’s almost like you’ve given up on it – it’s no longer in your Anki hall of fame, it no longer feels like yours. I love seeing the long list of languages I’ve worked on in Anki, and removing one smarts a little. It’s like parking you classic, but disused car, in a dark, dusty garage. Or shutting away your pet in a kennel. Or lots of other slightly sad metaphors… In any case, it felt wrong.

If only there were some way of keeping decks where they are, but adjusting the new card / review settings separately from the rest…

Anki Options Groups

Roll on Anki options groups. By default, all the decks in a superdeck have the same settings. If you have a limit of ten new cards a day on the superdeck, all the subdecks share that limit.

However, you can set up separate ‘options groups’, and apply them to individual decks in a stack. This gives you control over the settings for that deck alone, and allows you to keep the deck where it is, but make it behave differently.

Getting started

It’s easiest to do this in the desktop program. Next to each deck, you’ll see a little cog symbol, which you can pull down to access a deck’s options.

Changing the options on a deck in Anki

Changing the options on a deck in Anki

Your decks will be set to the default options to start with. Pull down the cog menu in the top-right corner of the options form to add a new batch of settings.

Adding a new set of options in Anki

Adding a new set of options in Anki

The key setting here is ‘New cards/day’. In this example, I’m setting that to just two, as these are rested languages that I’ve reset all the scheduling on, and am drip-feeding as new vocab at a slow pace each day.

Adjusting options in Anki

Adjusting options in Anki

When you press OK, you’ve created an options group that you can use on your other decks, too. For instance, I’m currently sharing that ‘Minor languages’ group above with my Greek and Hebrew.

Grades of activity

It’s a great way to manage your study if you have lots of languages. It also pays to spend some time deciding what your levels of activity will be before creating options groups. Mine, for example, include:

I can’t underestimate how satisfying – and motivating! – it is to see all the languages I’ve worked on in the same list again. No more dusty attic of lost languages – they’re all in one place again. Give it a go, and get a little bit more tailor-made learning from this amazing, free tool!

Anki - with lots of language decks!

Anki – with lots of language decks!

football

Football: beautiful game, beautiful way to learn languages?

As an Englishman (despite being based in Scotland), I must admit to getting a wee bit excited over the past couple of weeks. And I think I can be forgiven. It’s not incredibly often that the World Cup goes our way. You see, it’s not always about Eurovision with me – football gets a look-in, too.

It was a long time coming for me, this love of football. As a sports-shy teen, I was more interested in books than boots. But there’s something wonderfully enticing about international sports competitions – something that plays right into the hands of language lovers. Pelé’s jogo bonito (beautiful game) can be a beautiful way to switch on to languages, not least in the role model department.

Multilingual football players

Football players often get a bad rap for being overblown idols. We all know the stereotype of the precious, overpaid divas (perhaps fairly earned by a few!). But look a little closer, and there are some remarkable people hiding behind the headline-hoggers. Some of them make perfect polyglot pinups.

As a prime example, Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku is a standout. With six languages – or more, if you count the fact that he is currently learning German – he earns the badge of hyperglot football star, let alone polyglot. Truly a world citizen. And Lukaku has more than that to celebrate right now, with Belgium making the final four for the football trophy this week (allez les diables!).

Breaking the stereotype

On the other hand, Brits have a pretty poor record when it comes to language learning. For whatever reason, it’s a reality language teachers are working hard to change in British schools. But with international signings going both ways, some British players, like Gary Lineker, have managed to overcome this national stereotype in the past. Modern football is anything but an exclusively anglophone field (pitch?). The message to sports-mad kids is clear: love football? Then embrace language as an integral part of that!

For an inspirational line-up, there is a handy YouTube video profiling polyglot players with four or more languages (with rather more recent examples than Gary Lineker!).

Multilingual football teams

It’s also notable how multilingual teams are the norm these days. Players drafted from all over the world must learn to communicate with each other from day one.  Just look at Tottenham Hotpur: its current squad includes speakers of Dutch, French, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili.

And it’s not always the case that English rules all as lingua franca. International sports sites must cater for all areas of the world, and English is not spoken by everybody. The FIFA site reflects this nicely in its language options, with material in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Russian and Spanish. The multilingual nature of sites like this make for excellent target language resources.

Football news

Similarly, it goes without saying that the World Cup is a fantastic time to access foreign language content about national teams in particular. And if you get into the football, you benefit from that boost to learning that is personal interest. Learners are much more likely to stick with texts that contain exciting, valuable info, rather than those with little relevance to their lives.

Most media outlets will have dedicated World Cup mini-sites, like this section from French newspaper Le Monde. ‘Unofficial’ news sources such as this YouTube channel on football in Spanish can also be great stretch goals for comprehension.

So, football can be a wonderful way in to the world of language learning, whether you need resources, or just some new, inspirational role models. Could it be what you, your language buddies and colleagues, your kids or your students need to spark the passion? With a week of the World Cup to go, milk the multilingual excitement for all it offers!

Finally, best of luck to Belgium, Croatia, England and France next week… With perhaps an understandable, healthy and sportsmanlike bias towards England on the part of this proud, international linguist!

Metalanguage helps you to talk about the cogs and wheels of language

Metalanguage : learning to talk *about* your target language

One of the biggest challenges for language students is to maintain a 100% target-language environment during lessons. Holding everyday conversations is one thing. But when it comes to discussing the language itself, we often lack the tools. We need metalanguage.

Metalanguage refers to the set of terms for describing and analysing language. You probably learnt such terms at school in your native language lessons: verb, noun, pronoun and so on. But typically, these aren’t presented in the target language when you are learning from foreign language course material. This makes chatting about your learning incredibly difficult.

Keep the target language flowing

I recently noticed what a positive effect metalanguage can have in my Polish lessons. With my teacher, we’ve been covering noun cases lately – always a tricky topic for English-speaking students of the language. My attempt to keep speaking Polish was constantly thwarted by having to switch to English: “ohhhh, that’s genitive plural“, “does that take the instrumental?” and so on. It was getting tedious.

Quick fix: I learnt the names of the Polish cases in Polish. For fans of tongue-twisters, they are: mianownik, biernik, dopełniacz, celownik, narzędnik, miejscownik and wołacz (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, locative and vocative). Some quite challenging vocabulary in one go, there!

Metalanguage: unlocking further vocabulary

Of course, language lesson is the environment where knowing these will help prevent breakdowns in the 100% target language flow. However, you might think that metalanguage is of limited use beyond teacher talk.

However, learning words like these helps you to do more than just talk about language. They can be keys to new and extra vocabulary in themselves. Through spotting links between the names of the cases and other Polish words, for example, they have also consolidated my own expanding neural network of Polish words.

How does this work? Well, let’s take the word for dative in Polish, celownik. This derives from the word cel (goal, aim), and in turn, relates to celowo (deliberately, on purpose). Quite natural, then, that the noun case for direction, or doing something to someone/something proceeds from this family of words. Instantly, these terms are no longer in isolation for me, but in a group. Crucially, grouping of related terms strengthens recall, something borne out by memory research.

Several (overwhelmingly European) languages, rather annoyingly, stick to Latin terminology for analytical grammatical terms. German, for example, uses Verb and Präsens (Present Tense), amongst others. But often, there are alternative ways to describe language phenomenon, which are not simply borrowings. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that you can also use Zeitwort (verb – literally ‘time word’) and Gegenwart (present – in the grammatical and literal sense of ‘being present’) instead. It pays to persevere with your dictionary.

See your own language differently

Finally, learning these terms, and what they refer to, not only helps you become a better speaker of your target language; you also come to know your first language on much closer terms.

As a case in point, I grew up in the classrooms of the 1980s, where the grammar of my own language barely featured in English lessons. It was only after switching on to foreign languages that I began to understand how my own worked. Learning terms like passive voicevalency and indirect object opened up a whole new world. My English improved along with my practical language skills. Getting to grips with metalanguage is a vital step on the way to earning the label ‘linguist’.

It’s certainly worth researching metalanguage in the languages you study. Whether to keep your native language lapses to a minimum, or unlock and consolidate further vocabulary, talking about your language in your language is an effort that pays off.

Coaching and languages: the travelling partner you need?

Language learners are used to working with others. These tend to be language specialists: teachers, conversation exchange partners or fellow students. But support in learning languages does not have to be in the target language. Not convinced? Well recently, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a coach on achieving my self-set language goals. Through coaching, I’ve been able to focus on improving how I learn, rather than just cramming content. And I’m completely sold on the usefulness of it to your learning toolkit.

It helps to know that I’m in good company. Multilingual mogul Benny Lewis has sung the praises of coaching repeatedly. In particular, he recommends the free app Coach.me, and is an active member of the platform’s forum and goal-sharing community. I’ve used the app myself, and it is wonderfully simple. Even if you only take advantage of the daily goal reminders, it can be an incredibly powerful motivator.

You can take this a step further, though, and seek out a real-life, human coach to work with. This can be face-to-face, or, more likely these days, online via Skype or similar. For the past month, I’ve been scheduling weekly slots with a coach online. The experience has been nothing but positive, and I’m excited to share how the process can unstick even the stickiest, most disorganised linguist!

Search for the hero inside yourself

Coaching builds on the principle that, in many cases, the answers are already inside ourselves. They just need coaxing out. Avril, my coach, puts this succinctly: she is my tour guide. She shows me around and points things out that I might miss. But the landscape is one of my own making.

How can we not know ourselves, and how can a coach help bridge the gap? The problem is that we are all embedded in busy, often chaotic lives of overlapping priorities.

Coaching in the eyes of a coach

Maybe it’s best to let a coaching expert do the talking here. Cameron Murdoch, experienced coach and mentor at Coaching Studio, puts it like this:

Coaching is often about being challenged by the coach by them using powerful questions. Quite often you have the answer yourself, but it needs another person to draw it out.

The coach also acts as an accountability partner type figure so you set targets but they make sure you achieve them. They help you also if you hit a brick wall and help you tackle issues that develop that could stop you. They also help celebrate achievement as well as walk through problems.

It’s a way of opening up the mind to push you out of your comfort zone and into the learning zone – but making sure you don’t step into the panic zone. They push you just enough to learn, but not to panic.

Quite simply, a coaching partner can push you where you won’t push yourself, and help you see things when you are too close to the issues to see them yourself.

Talking with Avril recently, we likened this to a pile of tangled wool of difference colours. A coach can help you to pick out strands of the same colour, and place them neatly on their own to analyse and optimise. Instantly, you then see what needs doing. In this way, a coach lifts your goal-oriented activity out of the chaos and makes it visible; and that makes it so much more manageable.

Plan of action

For me, a key ‘obvious’ was simply organising my time better.

I instinctively knew that one key to making my learning more systematic would be to use calendar blocking. In fact, it was so ‘obvious’, that I’d even written an article about it. But, somehow, your own advice can be the hardest to put into practice.

Instead of learning bits and pieces here and there, I agreed with my coach to allocate half- or full-hour slots of time where I could sit down and focus entirely on a chapter of a course book, or active reading of a news article.

What helps keep you on the straight and narrow is a sense of accountability. These are not empty promises I’ve made myself. Rather, every week, I have to report how I’m getting on to someone who is following me along the road. The effect is surprisingly motivating!

Finding a coaching partner

Apps like Coach.me include an option to contract with a human coach through the app. You can do a simple Google search for coaches too, although be aware that the kind of coaching I’m talking about here is not life coaching, and it seems that Google tends to favour those results above other goal-oriented coaching services.

On a personal level, I can recommend checking out Cameron Murdoch as a coach or source of pointers and other coach recommendations. He’s quite an inspirational guy for many reasons; you’ll see some of these on his LinkedIn profile.

Be a guinea pig

However, you might well know somebody working towards a coaching qualification. If you’re lucky enough to be offered a set of sessions as their guinea pig, that’s a superb opportunity.

Even if that’s not an option, I believe that the standard hourly rate (anything from £75 upwards depending on the coach’s experience) is well worth it if it unlocks a higher tier of learning.

Typically, you will also specify a finite block of coaching time – say, ten sessions – so, unlike fitness training, for example, there is an end point in sight. This helps in budgeting, especially if you’re not keen on the idea of another outgoing bill / subscription ad infinitum. Of course, you might choose to carry on a coaching relationship if you think you need the helping hand!

I’m still travelling my coaching journey, and have a number of sessions to go. But already, I can see its huge value as a language learner. Whether through an app service, or with a real-life human being, give coaching a try: it might just set you right back on track with your languages.

Surround yourself with symbols of your target language culture, like the cherry blossom of Japan

Language idols: inspiration amongst friends

Sometimes there are people who happen upon a language learning system that just works. Sometimes it’s planned, sometimes it’s accidental. But those people are great sources of inspiration and ideas for people like us.

As an example, I’ve always been particularly awed and encouraged by the linguistic adventures of two friends – let’s call them Aaron and Bob, to spare their blushes. And in this post, I’ll introduce you to them, and hopefully pass on some of that inspiration. I promise, their story has a lot to motivate other language lovers!

The full whammy

Aaron and Bob embody possibly the noblest motivation for language learning: cultural fascination. They’ve been learning Japanese together for some years now, driven by a mutual love of all things Nippon. And they are shining examples of the wonderful technique of ‘going the full whammy’ with language learning.

The crux is that they don’t simply learn words and phrases. They positively soak their lives in all things Japanese. Art, cuisine, music – when you visit their home, it’s in every corner. Once a month, for example, they receive a subscription box of Japanese sweet treats from Tokyo Treat. (It turns out there are loads of these – Japan Crate and DokiDokiBoxie, for example.) There are always some lying around, and they’re particularly generous with guests!

This love of Nippon had the kind of humble beginning a lot of us are familiar with: musing over dream holidays. As Bob explains:

The very start of it was not long after we first moved in together (about 10 years ago!), we were daydreaming about places we’d like to go on holiday one day, and we both agreed that Japan was a dream destination. But we thought we wouldn’t be able to get much out of it without knowing some of the language. Several years later, we had better jobs, so bigger holidays became a possibility. We were looking for something new to learn together and thought Japanese would be a good option because we were both complete beginners and had friends who had studied it at uni. Aaron found beginners’ classes and we signed up together in early 2011.

The passion and inspiration seems to have snowballed since then, turning into a huge, loveable oni (Japanese monster / ogre) that has somehow captured everyone who surrounds the lads! 👹

Bringing friends along for the ride

Perhaps one of Aaron and Bob’s biggest triumphs is in socialising their learning. Through their generosity of spirit, they have managed to bring all of their friends along for the ride in a celebration of Japan.

Although we may not be learning Japanese with them, our hosts regularly bathe us in their cultural finds, be they unusual sweeties, or home-cooked, Tokyo-inspired treats. They make us laugh with stories of the Japanese monster scene, and teach us how those strange emoticons are really meant to be used. They share favourite pieces of art on social media, and introduce us to their cache of Japanese furries at home. Every step of their language learning journey really is a celebration. 🎉

For them, this creates a constant positive feedback loop around the language learning experience. It’s fun to share for both the lads and us friends; they create a cloud of good vibes around Japanese, which becomes a huge motivator for continuing the journey.

Two heads are better than one

I think what helps the pair, too, is the sense of joint enterprise. Learning together throws up myriad opportunities for fun, as well as solidarity in the more staid, but still essential components, like mutual testing and exam practice. It’s wonderful if you have a partner ready to learn with you like this, but if not, you can still source a language buddy online. For example, sites like iTalki can help you locate fellow-minded learners across the globe if there’s nobody nearby who shares the passion.

Going to the target language country together offers a great opportunity to egg each other on, too. They’ve recently returned from a trip to Japan full of stories. I’m particularly impressed at how they’ve made the most of curious, talkative eldery Japanese citizens in bars – cultural exchange, barroom style! Moreover, when abroad, we often seem different and conspicuous – so why not make a point of it, and chat about those differences with locals? They have that skill down to a tee.

Language is everywhere

There are some caveats, of course. You could say that Aaron and Bob chose their language very well in terms of immersion and availability. Japanese culture seems to enjoy a good deal of cool factor in the West, and is quite accessible for lovers of the alternative. Target-language-ising their lives might have been a bit harder if they’d been learning, say, Albanian.

But nonetheless, with a bit of research, you can fill your playlists with music from anywhere, these days. Spotify and YouTube include representatives from the whole world over. Put some music together, look up some recipes, and hold a celebration night for your target language culture. Or simply insert a few of these things into your usual gatherings. Make culture your inspiration.

Aaron and Bob’s approach is to take one language and culture, and do it in style. This might get tricky if you’re learning multiple languages, but there is a bit of that approach that any learner can adopt, polyglossic or otherwise. In short, we could all benefit from being a bit more like Aaron and Bob!

Open mic, ready for your voice

Voice in my head: developing polyglot personalities

If you learn more than one language, there is one question you hear more often than any other: how do you avoid getting mixed up? There are many answers to this. But one key strategy, for me, is developing a distinct voice for each language.

When you think about it, differentiating your languages by voice makes complete sense. Languages have patterns of pitch and tone quite distinct from one another. The voice you developed growing up with your native tongue adapted to fit the phonology of that language. It’s not surprising if the fit is a little less snug in French, Spanish, German and so on – at least without a little modification.

But changing your voice can feel intimidating. Our voice is a fundamental element of the self we project into the world; altering it can feel too bold, too cheeky. It’s no wonder that school students in the language classroom can feel reluctant to really get stuck into a foreign accent out. As adult learners, we face exactly the same fear. So how can we best approach a multiple voice approach to language learning?

Have fun with it

It’s important to remember that language learning regularly challenges us to act counter to our everyday inhibitions. Whether it’s speaking with strangers, supplementing our broken speech with frantic hand gestures, or trying to mimic how others sound, linguists are so often thrust out of reasonable, human comfort zones.

The best learners acknowledge this, and embrace the challenge head on. In short, it pays to be a clown!

It’s something we are naturals at as kids, chiefly because kids feel less embarrassment when they are playing around. For instance, this is one area where you needn’t feel guilty about wallowing in linguistic stereotypes. Have a hoot combining your French with dodgy Allo Allo accents. Watch back old episodes of Eldorado and have a go at your cheesiest Spanish. The important thing is to let go of your fear of sounding foolish through having fun.

It’s all very childish… So enjoy it!

Experiment with pitch

You can create instant results by simply experimenting with the pitch of your voice. Spanish and Russian feel more natural to speak when I lower my voice, for example – something my friends still find hilarious (even though I’m not deliberately trying to make them laugh!). (“Is that your Spanish voice again?” Yes. It is. I’m so glad you find it funny!)

On the other hand, I’m aware that the my voice is higher when I speak Norwegian – perhaps because this is easier with a tonal accent.

A lot of this is also to do with the voices you are exposed to as a learner. I listen to a lot of podcasts, for example. And through those, I hear all sorts of voices at all sorts of pitches. It has become a great, accessible way to ‘window shop’ for voices you are comfortable to use as a model. In fact, there are some well-documented techniques like shadowing, which use audio mimicry to drill your foreign language accent.

Exaggerate differences

Once you have a hook on the aural ‘feel’ of a language, you can focus on those differences as a means to differentiate. This is especially helpful if you study pairs, or sets of similar languages. These present a very particular set of advantages and challenges to learners.

I’ve studied both Polish and Russian on my language travels. As Slavic languages (albeit from different branches), they looked and sounded extremely similar to me as a beginner. But gradually, I found a way to mark the line between them through voice.

For instance, I sometimes find it easier to think of the sound of language in terms of shape. Through this lens, Russian is a language with quite sharp edges to my mind. On the other hand, the sound shapes of Polish seem much softer and curvier. When developing my Polish and Russian voices, I place a lot of weight on reflecting these demarcating characteristics.

(Disclaimer: after lots more study of both languages, I realise how different they can both be, now! Sorry for my previous ignorance, Polish and Russian natives! 🙂 )

Own your language

All this, of course, can greatly add to your sense of ownership over the foreign language. It’s vital to claim a language as your own, if you want a life-long relationship with it. And carving out a voice, even a personality, within it, will help you stake that claim.

It’s about feeling at home speaking it; saying “this is my German / Spanish / Uzbek” and being proud of the speaker you have created. Educational psychologists pore over methods to increase ownership in learning; as a language learner, voice work is a handy shortcut to do just that.

Voice in my head – split personality?

Finally, it’s interesting to see how this phenomenon plays out in bilinguals in the real world. Personally, I’ve found myself intrigued by polyglots who report a personality change when speaking another language. Through playing with voice and accent across my active languages, I think I can recognise that, too. Building up a distinct voice and personality in a language will inevitably create ‘another you’.

There is some research evidence to support this, too. However, the effect could be down to situational, rather than psychological factors (ie., bilinguals use different languages in different situations, and they would naturally act differently in those situations anyway – e.g., with colleagues rather than with family). Environmental or otherwise, though, it’s a fascinating thought, and one you can have a lot of fun with as a learner.

Developing a voice in your foreign languages goes hand in hand with perfecting an accent. Have fun playing around with it. And enjoy your polyglot personalities!

Plasma ball

How starting over can boost your language confidence

It’s important to recognise the brain’s need for pause now and again. But it might help our guilt-ridden, study-obsessed selves to note how effectively a rest can restart our engines.

I’ve experienced this effect recently, after picking up Modern Hebrew again. Like a few languages, I’ve had an on-off relationship with Hebrew since I was very young. Just like my other ‘side’ projects, though, I’ve never run with it consistently for very long.

Not that it hasn’t been useful; a trip to Israel in 1999 and a random conservation with Israelis in a Paris bar rank amongst the great opportunities I’ve had to use it! At around the A2 level, it was certainly a working, useful knowledge of the language.

That said, I never really had great confidence in my abilities to speak Hebrew well. I drifted off into other languages and other hobbies. Then, something remarkable happened: I picked it up again after a long break.

Starting from scratch – with an advantage

What I did was to reset my Anki decks. In particular, I removed all previous scheduling information from my Hebrew cards, and moved them back into an active deck. In essence, I set up Anki to start all over again with the language.

Note that I hadn’t touched these cards in over a year and a half. Back then, my last Hebrew adventure, I’d had a course of Hebrew lessons through iTalki. During that period, I amassed around 1000 vocabulary cards. But I’d long since ‘rested’ these by moving the whole set into a dormant Anki deck.

zzzRestedLanguages - where my dormant languages go to sleep for a while!

zzzRestedLanguages (bottom) – where my dormant languages go to sleep for a while!

Something wonderful happened in the first few days of reinstated Hebrew. I amazed myself at how much I could remember. Not just words like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, either, but more complex vocabulary nouns like ‘driver’, ‘newspaper’ and phrases like ‘I work in London’. It was still there. I could still speak Hebrew!

Confidence lost – then refound

It might seem crazy that I sounded so amazed. After all, I’d actively learnt Hebrew on and off for a while. But I’d not spoken it in so long, I had written it off. I’d lost my confidence. And that happens so easily with languages you don’t use.

The lesson to take from it, of course, is that our brains are much more robust than we realise. We should have confidence in our abilities; we often underestimate them when we’re in the thick of learning, and it isn’t until much later that we realise how solid our first passes were.

This also serves to remind ourselves of the hard work we spent in the first place. All that work – surely it’s worth revisiting those ‘rested’ tongues now and again? You earned the right to be confident through hard work. Starting over can bring that confidence back.

Where next?

So, where next? As a perennial dabbler, I have a few to choose from. An earnest fresh attack on Greek and Russian would be a good place to start. I’ve not used either properly in a while, and definitely feel that confidence deficit with both.

If you choose to resurrect any of your former language adventures, I’m certain it can also remind you that you have everything to feel proud and confident about as a learner!