Variety adds a bit of a colour to your learning. (Image from freeimages.com)

Five ways to maintain variety in your language learning

Routine and regularity are cornerstones of language learning. But if your structure is too rigid, you might find yourself tiring of the same old, same old. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to work some variety into your language learning plan to keep things fresh.

There is evidence to suggest that a more varied learning approach might prevent context-bound recall. One stock study of Psych 101 classes shows how we remember more when we are in the same environment the material was learnt in. Of course, students can leverage that when preparing for exams. But perhaps an even better approach would be to employ variety to avoid binding your knowledge to specific circumstances. After all, you want those words to flow wherever you are, right?

Let’s take an example to illustrate the point. Do you, like me, sometimes find it easy to recall a word in Duolingo, phone in hand, but struggle to dredge it from memory in conversation? It could be that your mental record of that vocab item is bound to that specific context of using an app on your phone.

So, variety is key. But how can you hit that magic balance between routine and variation to free your recall?

Different platforms

We all have those favourite e-learning tools that we turn to first. Anki, Babbel, Duolingo, Memrise count amongst the most popular quick fixes that we can all build into our daily language task list. And they are excellent at their job; there is no need to use any of these favourites any less.

But instead, we can vary how – or, more specifically, on what – we use them.

Many language learning platforms like these are multi-platform, so you can play them on a variety of devices. Duolingo, for example, can be played on your phone, tablet or on any computer via the browser. Anki, Babbel and Memrise, too, can be played on a device or on the web.

If you always play on the same platform, change that up a little. Work through your Anki cards on the computer one day, and on your phone the next. Vary when you access it, too. Sometimes I will bring up Anki on my laptop during the day, for example, in a few spare moments between work tasks. At other times, I’ll use the mobile app while I’m waiting for a train.

Don’t always make your language app work a phone-in-hand learning session. 

Different times, different places

Just as simple a route to varying your routine is to change your environment. Mobile apps make this easy – you can learn anywhere you like. But even book-based learning can be mobile if you always make sure you have some course material in your bag wherever you go. If you find yourself with a spare half an hour in town, find a coffee shop and settle down with a chapter and a cappuccino.

Flexible resources help here, too. You may have both the paper and PDF / electronic versions of a resource, and these lend themselves to different environments. Leverage that by alternating between them, studying them at different times and in different places. The very fact that you can study the same resource in different formats is a boost to variety in itself.

Keep your scenery constantly changing, and your brain will not have a chance to bind recall with context-based clues.

Veer off course

If you doggedly stick to exactly the same learning materials every day, every week, then feelings of stagnation soon creep in. Pushing through the same course for weeks on end can seem like wading through sludge.

What to do when the beaten path gets muddy? Take a detour. You can achieve this in language learning by having a couple of courses on the go simultaneously. For instance, you might choose to work through both Colloquial French and Teach Yourself Complete French as part of your plan. Throw the new (and excellent) French Tutor into the mix too, and you have a range of course materials you can switch tracks between. Bored of one? Switch to the other for a lesson or two.

The joy of this is not limited just to the change of paper scenery. Different books explain things in different ways. And, given a range of explanations for the same grammatical rules, we often understand better.

It’s like viewing an object from several aspects. Together, those different views give you a much clearer mental picture of the object.

Dare to be non-linear

On that tack, whoever decreed that everybody must work through materials from cover to cover, never deviating from the plan? Naturally, course materials are written with linear progression in mind, and you need some structure. But it doesn’t need to be done to the letter.

From time to time, it does not hurt to jump forward a little. It can be quite exciting to sneak a peek at later chapters of a book. It’s like stealing a glance at what is to come in your learning journey. It reminds me a little of finding out what the ‘big kids’ are doing in the years above you at school. There’s a delicious anticipation about it, a sense of “so this is what I’ll be doing when I’m even better at my language!”.

In many ways, however, it is a completely legitimate way of pre-preparing yourself to learn future material even more effectively. By breaking away and racing ahead, even just for a moment, your brain can get a little head start. And, by the time you come to study that material for real, who knows what subconscious cogitations it has been subject to? You will positively run with it!

Back to the future

Breaking away from the linear is as valid for electronic resources as it is for book-based courses. For example, Duolingo offers more than just the familiar step-by-step, topic-based tree. It also features a Practise section, which selects a random set of words and phrases to test you on. There is no way to tell which topic Duolingo will throw at you, except that it will be one you have studied.

Here, it is about jumping backwards rather than forwards, offering an opportunity to strengthen material you have already covered. Rather than choosing – and therefore expecting – a particular topic, you hand the choice over to the platform. How about that for a bit of unpredictability? Give that a whirl regularly, and your brain will benefit from handling more unexpected material.

In the wild

Our learning resources and plans, of course, necessarily represent a safe bubble of predictability. This is no surprise; nobody wants to be overwhelmed when they first start learning a foreign language.

However, you can carefully stage-manage your gradual release into the wild of everyday language use. After all, there is no greater variety than the real world. A mindful choice of media materials like podcasts and news sites can be a safe dip of the toe into the waters of real-life language.

For a once-weekly dose of current affairs variety, I like the News In Slow … range for French, German, Italian and French students. The podcasts are free, although you can subscribe for extra support resources too, if you prefer to layer some structure on top of that. The language is slow and simple enough to get the gist as a beginner, but current enough to feel relevant.

If your language is not amongst that list, you can often find news programmes in your target language by trawling national broadcaster and other media sites. The Icelandic television company RÚV, for instance, has a daily news programme for kids called Krakkafréttir. And for Norwegian (Bokmål), learners can take advantage of KlarTale.no, a news resource aimed at readers with dyslexia and speakers of Norwegian as a second language.

As always with authentic texts, a bit of Googling will go a long way. I recently unearthed a treasure trove of simplified Icelandic texts intended for school learners. The authors probably never realised how useful they would be for those learning Icelandic overseas!

Gradual exposure to real-world, real-time resources will definitely keep your linguist brain on its toes.

Mix it up, max it out

I hope that the above points convince you that a combined structure-variety approach will maximise what you get out of your learning time. We are not learning robots, and mechanical, unchanging and unbending routine will do no human being much good in the long run.

Follow the variety principle, and keep your learning fresh!

A bear hunting resources. Probably not language learning ones, though. From freeimages.com.

We’re going on a resource hunt! Finding language learning freebies on educational sites

We’re going on a bear hunt, sing the children in Michael Rosen’s children’s book of the same name, gorgeously illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. And that’s what much of my recent language work has felt like – if the bears are target language resources out in the wild of the web (a stretch of a metaphor, I know).

The children’s book reference isn’t by accident, as I have recently held in mind a recent podcast that suggested a lack of utility in them for language learning. The key argument is the use of low frequency vocabulary and lack of real-world application. Resources for youngsters, the advice goes, is the last thing a language learner should be plumping for.

However, I tend to disagree on two points – firstly, that this material isn’t useful, and secondly, that it features low-use, unhelpful vocabulary and structures. My own ‘bear hunt’ this week has produced some brilliant evidence of this.

Fun factor

First of all, children’s books are flippin’ fun! And fun means motivation, and motivation means staying power and progress. If you’ve found certain young adult books rewarding in your native language (like Harry Potter, for example), it’s a big carrot to get you reading in the target one.

But secondly, not all children’s books are about low frequency, fantasy words. To that end, my resource trawl turned up a very serendipitous find. It was a prize that convinced me more than ever of the utility of books for youngsters in your language learning arsenal.

Resource hunt bonanza

I am always on the lookout for useful digital media in my target languages. This week, on a regular trek through Google, I stumbled across an absolute goldmine. It was the website of Iceland’s education department, Menntamálastofnun.

A bit dry and official, you might be thinking. But in fact, the site is a treasure trove. Scores of school textbooks are available to download for free in PDF format on subjects from history to maths. Incredibly, for many of them, entire audiobook versions are also downloadable. Reams of reading and listening material, pitched at young adults; it’s almost too good to be true!

Not just stories

The key point here is that children’s books are not just about fantasy stories. They include non-fiction books that cover many aspects of life, from the prosaic to the historical and cultural. And that setting is a vital part of any language learning project.

Faced with such a richness of reading, it’s important to go for what you love. In particular, a set of books on Icelandic history, aimed at Icelandic school students, caught my eye. Written for the average Icelandic 10-year-old, the syntax isn’t complicated. But the ideas, constructions and concepts are incredibly useful for learning about Iceland. And, crucially, they are excellent practice for talking about why I like learning Icelandic myself.

Even much simpler books aimed at even younger students have their place. This primary school level book on the kitchen, for example, could never be accused of a lack of real-world application. Stuffed with food and cooking words, it makes for excellent prep for shopping and cooking in Iceland!

Spoilt for choice?

Admittedly, my Icelandic textbook find is a stroke of luck largely thanks to choosing a ‘small’ world language to study. The pressure on the government of a tiny country like Iceland to support the language is relatively high. In larger countries, there are any number of competing educational resource companies. Each is trying to make money from the textbook publishing market. In that environment, freebies are a rare and precious thing. (Note: that isn’t to say that there aren’t some tidbits, like this free guide to linguistics from Routledge.)

It is true that we are spoilt as Icelandic learners. It’s even possible to get full, official courses in Icelandic as a foreign language for free online. But that isn’t to say that a bit of hard digging on your own resource hunt won’t turn up educational goods in other languages.

True, books for youngsters may not always accurately model everyday, face-to-face language in the target language. But there is more to language than face-to-face use. And these resources make a captivating way in to many aspects of the target language culture, as well as wonderful motivators.

Have you found similar caches of free resources for school students in your target language? Let us know in the comments!

Melodi Grand Prix 2018

Living the language learning dream

I’ve written recently about learning a language through your interests. By binding your life’s passions with your learning goals, something special ignites. Living the dream as a language learner is all about throwing everything into it, about living life to the max, but through the language. And this weekend, I got the chance to do just that in Oslo.

I’ve always loved music, big arena events and the excitement of live TV. Add languages to that, and it’s no surprise that Eurovision has been a fascination of mine from an early age. Some countries are closer than other when it comes to sharing this love. Fortunately, for me, one of them is Norway – pretty handy for a Norwegian learner! So, what better reason to come to Norway than a couple of tickets for Norway’s Eurovision preselection show, Melodi Grand Prix?

Slice of life

It’s no longer just about the songs, of course – nine out of ten of the entries this year were in English, not Norwegian. But being part of such a big event of national interest drags you straight into the centre of the Norwegian microcosm. You see a real slice of life, being a popular family event; surrounded by cheering, proud citizens of all ages and backgrounds gives you a lovely feel of what it’s like to be a part of Norway.

More importantly, there’s the chance to chat. There’s something about a concert that breaks down barriers, and it was easy to swap opinions and discuss favourites with people sitting nearby. In fact, it was pretty unavoidable, once your cover is blown as an utlending (foreigner)… Everybody wants to know what you think of their national songs!

Melodi Grand Prix 2018 - a major part of living my Norwegian learning dream!

Melodi Grand Prix 2018

Dip in, dip out

Unless you are moving to a country to live, it is hard to embed yourself fully in social and cultural life. But this kind of intense dip-in, dip-out relationship can be a real shot in the arm for language learners. With Norway, of course, high costs dictate that visits (for now) are generally short weekend trips like this. But it’s enough to feel part of something, to keep passion alight, and to make friends that will slowly fasten you to your target language lands.

Choose your dream – and live it

This is what living my language learning dream looks like. Now, seek out what you love about your chosen cultures, and throw yourself headfirst into it. You will construct deep and rewarding connections that will last well beyond you have reached proficiency in a language.

The weekend inspired me to reflect on my experiences as a shy learner of Norwegian. Hear my thoughts below!

The world is even more accessible today, with a range of foreign language TV available online.

Netflix’s foreign language TV bonanza

The Internet truly has made the world smaller. That’s lucky for linguists; a raft of foreign language TV is instantly at hand. Anglophone subscription TV services have been a little slow to catch up, but are finally opening up to content in languages other than English. Netflix in particular has done language lovers proud, even producing several non-English projects like Dark and 3%. Here are a few of the overseas gems I’ve been enjoying recently.

German 🇩🇪

Dark

Mysterious and other-worldly, there’s more than a touch of Grimm to the production of the Netflix offering Dark. At once disturbing, mysterious and intriguing, it’s already getting a lot of positive criticism. If you liked the Netflix smash hit Stranger Things, you might well get sucked in to this very quickly!

Icelandic 🇮🇸

Hraunið (The Lava Field)

This crime series puts a uniquely Icelandic slant on the Scandi noir genre. Full of impressive, sweeping landscape shots, it boasts a dark storyline and some very quirky characters.

Norwegian 🇳🇴

Nobel

Gritty and hard-hitting, this series follows a Norwegian Special Forces officer in Afghanistan. It can make for difficult viewing, but provides a vehicle for some stunning performances by the cast.

Portuguese (Brazil) 🇧🇷

3%

I’m not actually learning Portuguese, but I enjoyed this series so much that it deserves a mention. Set in a dystopian near-future, young adults battle it out to reach ‘the offshore’, a paradise reserved for the few. It makes for compelling viewing. And if you get hooked, no problem: a second series is in the making.

On the list

These are just the few that I’m watching right now. Others are on my list to get round to on Netflix, including:

That’s plenty of watching hours in the pipeline – hopefully Netflix will continue to support international projects like these, both through funding / production, and simply making other series available across their platforms. Bring on the binge!

Colourful balloons

Children’s books for linguists: creative ways into languages

Being a linguaphile and a bibliophile often go hand in hand. I love languages and I love books. Both of these passions go straight to the heart of what it means to get creative with words. Certainly, tapping into creativity (often to the point of being bizarre and fantastical) has helped me to get ahead in languages. And there are few more creative resources in any language than children’s books!

There are some obvious benefits to using children’s books as language learning resources. The language in them will be accessible as a beginner, for one thing. Structure, vocabulary and topic will generally be very straightforward. What’s more, the subject matter can be familiar and predictable, especially in the case of children’s fiction; this is a gift to the active language learner, who likes to make educated guesses at new words rather than look everything up.

Culturally embedded bedtime reading

Native works can be a great introduction to the cultural background of your target language. For instance, children’s stories and fairytales often proceed from a long history of folk storytelling. In some cases, these date back to an ancient oral tradition. The highly popularised work of the Brothers Grimm, for example, draws together hundreds of tales from the collective consciousness of their time. The morals and aphorisms contained within them are echoed in popular culture to this day, being constantly recycled in modern media.

Their themes will be familiar to many non-native speakers, too, thanks to the ancient pedigree of many of the stories. One of my favourite children’s books in a foreign language is this huge tome of Norwegian eventyr. Many of these fairytales seem very familiar to anyone who was brought up with the Grimm’s traditional brand of fairytale, and it is easy to imagine the Proto-Germanic tribes – probably ancestors amongst them – telling versions of these long before they were written down.

Norwegian Fairytales

Norwegian Fairytales

Non-fiction

The place of children’s books in your language learning goes beyond storytelling, too. Reference material in the target language can be a brain-stretching replacement for easier, less challenging tools like Google Translate or a bilingual dictionary. A favourite of mine is this illustrated Icelandic dictionary for children. It is much more rewarding to look up an unfamiliar word here. It may use a little more brain-power, but it adds some valuable target language exposure to your reading.

The Icelandic Children's Dictionary - children's books for reference can be excellent resources

The Icelandic Children’s Dictionary

Children’s books in translation

Children’s books translated from another language might put the cultural purist right off. After all, what is authentic about that? But there are huge benefits for the learner of a foreign language here, especially if you know the original work well.

The Harry Potter books have been my guilty pleasure for some years. I know the stories so well, that tackling them in any new language is a lot easier than facing completely unknown territory. It was actually in German that I read them first, having stubbornly held back from the popular wave of Pottermania. I picked up the third installment, Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, from a station bookshop near Cologne. I was one of the teachers on a school trip, and the excitable chattering of the kids about heroic Harry finally piqued my curiosity.

Years later, and I’ve read Harry Potter books in several languages now, including Norwegian, Russian and Spanish. Each time, they have been an amazing boost to my overall language competence. It is also quite a fancy party piece to recite spells in a number of tongues. Thanks for that, J.K.Rowling!

You can start with much simpler stories than Harry Potter. For example, here are a couple of Icelandic primary readers that I picked up in Keflavík Airport. They are, in fact, translations of anglophone children’s books, so the stories may well be familiar to many learners. (They are also brilliant for learning the names of animals!)

Icelandic Primary Readers

Icelandic Primary Readers

So there is a peek into some of the – perhaps – more surprising items on my otherwise very grown-up language learning bookshelf. There is no shame in reverting to your childhood reading habits when learning a language. And, being generally quite affordable, books for little ‘uns will spare your pennies, too. Here’s to reliving our childhoods through languages!

Preparing for GCSE means copious notes!

A GCSE Too Far? Giving Languages Their Point Back

Following this week’s GCSE results, there has been the usual seep of comments putting a downer on languages in schools. Simon Jenkins’ Guardian article presented a particularly cynical version of this view, which provoked (no doubt as intended) some thorny reaction.

But through the indignation language-lovers feel reading such comments, there are some difficult lessons. The sensation “little point to learning languages” headline is supported by an isolationist British narrative in some of the popular press, and picked up by parents and students alike. “Having a point” is felt subjectively – if the audience decides it doesn’t, then no amount of utility in a subject will matter.

Testing the waters

However, Jenkins enters more interesting waters when it comes to the delivery and testing of languages. His line goes that the establishment wrongly chooses to revere languages, as they are so easy to “test, quantify and regiment” as discreet units. As such, they fit neatly into our our hyper-regulated world of numbers, grades and economic comparisons of worth.

And here is the problem; as living, breathing, real-world systems, languages wither when we isolate them as objects for testing. No wonder that their utility fades away in the transformation to the exam paper. Pupils and parents have keen noses; they can sniff out those “exam only” subjects.

Content and Language Integrated Learning

Increasing the authenticity of learning materials, and in which settings we use them, is key. This is one of the core principles of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), an approach that may just be able to give languages their ‘point’ back. CLIL seeks to extend foreign language teaching beyond the language classroom and into the world in the best possible cross-curricular way. The model is simple: use the foreign language to teach other subjects in school.

International schools have followed a similar approach for decades, teaching through English. And plenty of research such as this study by the University of Gothenburg suggest that the benefits are felt in other languages as well as English. Nonetheless, it has little foothold in schools around the English-speaking world.

Breaking free from GCSE

For now, it seems like an unfeasible, colossal paradigm shift to start using a method like this in British schools. It is incredibly hard to break Modern Foreign Language teaching out of the chains of the exam testing system. The current setup demands hard numbers for comparing, listing, economising. There is little room to manoeuvre in the current climate. But for the survival of the subject, languages must cease to be an isolated, ‘made-for-testing’ discipline.

Nonetheless, there are things we can do to encourage CLIL principles outside the curriculum. Finding personal meaning is a large chunk of realising utility. It’s a strategy that can lead to great success in making listening material suddenly more accessible. Likewise, coaxing students to research their favourite topics via foreign languages may be one route to breaking the subject free.

As common as MOOC

As independent language learners, we can also bring these ideas directly into our own learning. In a world of MOOCs and free online training courses, there is no shortage of cross-curricular material in languages other than English. Khan Academy is available in Spanish, offering courses in Maths, IT and Science. Coursera has a huge catalogue of free online courses across a range of languages. For example,  why not try learning some Educational Psychology in Brazilian Portuguese?  Or perhaps you fancy learning iOS app development in Spanish at Udemy.

A little commitment is a good first step. Teaching languages? Try to introduce your students to some of these resources. Learning languages yourself? Pick a course in your target language, and start expanding your mind! With some canny thinking, we can free languages from that ‘academic use only’ box.

Digital scrapbooking can be a wonderful way to link your language learning to real-world memories

Scrapbooking, linguaphile style

As a linguist, I love travel. I love that act of putting myself out in the world. I love immersing myself in the unfamiliar. And I love interacting with everyday objects from other cultures and systems, the ephemera that are mundane to their native users but exotic and exciting to me. Tram tickets, event flyers, receipts from wonderful restaurant experiences – they are all physical objects soaked in language and tethered to the culture they belong to. As cultural symbols, they appeal to the collector in us. But there’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding clutter. That’s where digital scrapbooking can be a great strategy for the travelling linguist.

Digital scrapbooking

Maybe it’s something I notice more as I get older, but the drag of stuff on my life seems more and more noticeable these days. Perhaps it’s because we live in a system where stuff is getting cheaper and easier to amass. But over the past few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to declutter and cut away the dead wood.

Sadly, that includes the boxes and files of bits and pieces gathered over years of travel. Museum entrance cards, train reservations, old magazines in German, Spanish and so on… Somehow I’d held on to all this clutter, considered it precious, yet never glanced at it once since bringing it back. Aside from the nostalgia stirred by dredging it out of the cupboard to chuck, it was almost entirely unnecessary.

Ticket for the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Ticket for the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

There’s another way modern life can help us, though. In an age of high-quality camera phones and vast (often free) cloud storage, it’s no problem to digitise these physical language links and discard the original. We can also organise them using myriad free tools, too. (Of course, we now face the brand new problem of digital clutter – but that’s a topic for another post, another day!)

Scrapbooking tools

Note-taking applications seem ideally suited to digital language scrapbooking. All of them allow the creation of documents / notes, to which you can add text and multiple images. Simply snap your tickets / leaflets / receipts instead of keeping them. Many of them also have more advanced formatting features for laying out your memory pages.

As well as keeping your memorabilia together, you can use them as travel diaries and learning logs, too. I like to record notes of conversations I’ve had, or new vocabulary I’ve come across. Juxtaposed with visual material, they become more meaningful and vivid as language memories.

All of the tools below are cross-platform, so you can enjoy them whatever the make of your phone / tablet / computer.

Evernote

Evernote is the justified king of note-taking apps. Notes have rich text formatting, and you can add not only pictures, but sound to your pages! Imagine using that to record clips of your conversations with native speakers…

However, there are some caveats. The basic version of Evernote is free. Unfortunately, this limits use to a maximum of two devices – not handy if you want it on a phone, tablet and computer.

Additionally, the basic tier allows only very limited upload traffic a month Evernote – just 60mb. If you’re adding lots of pictures to your notes, then that will run out extremely quickly. To work within the limits, make sure your pictures are tiny / compressed first – but even then, you’ll probably want to upgrade sooner or later.

Microsoft OneNote

OneNote is a completely free offering from Microsoft, with great integration into its Office services. One of the nicest things about this app is its reflection of real-world notebooks; you can create separate ‘books’ with multiple sections and pages. Ideal for repeat trips, or a trip with multiple destinations. You can also choose authentic-looking paper backgrounds for your pages, too. Great if you want the look and feel of physical scrapbooking!

Scrapbooking a trip with Microsoft OneNote

Scrapbooking a trip with Microsoft OneNote

Google Keep

Google Keep is a minimalist’s dream. Totally free, its simplicity stands in stark contrast to the two apps above. There are fewer formatting and organising options, but that makes for a click-and-go process that is hard to beat on ease of use.

As well as apps, Google Keep is available via the browser at https://keep.google.com/.

Trip scrapbooking with Google Keep

Trip scrapbooking with Google Keep

Language travel scrapbooking is a great way to stem the build-up of holiday detritus; it’s also a superb way to track memories and keep a learning journal all in one. And the best thing: it’s free to give it a go, thanks to the apps above!

Are there other apps you can recommend? Feel free to share you own tips in the comments!

The Houses of Parliament, the seat of British politics

Politics is good for you (and your language learning!)

We’ve all had enough of politics, right? Well, a bit of it might be good for you, if you’re learning a foreign language.

One of the biggest advantages of following politics in your target language is not just in new vocabulary learnt. It’s about the polemic – the skill of explaining and arguing a point. The skill of using language for argument and persuasion – rhetoric – is fundamental if you’re preparing for spoken exams that require you to discuss an issue, for example.

In fact, it’s a vital skill even if you’re not aiming for A-level oral exam stardom. Learning a language truly to communicate means being able to discuss, and not simply state facts. And if politics is anything, it’s an arena for (sometimes very heated) discussion. Introducing some politics into your language learning can provide a communicative dynamic that other topics struggle to ignite.

A new picture – or the wider picture?

So with so much politics about these days, why should we go after even more? Well, if you’re sick of politics in your own country, overseas political scuffles can be a welcome distraction. On the other hand, you can gain a fuller picture of your home country issues by following how they are perceived abroad. It’s truly fascinating as a British learner to see how political parties in other countries approach topics like Brexit. You can gain a unique perspective on your own country that the home media will never provide.

Following overseas political developments pays off in other ways, too. Through widening your own political lens, you appreciate much more the interconnectedness of the world. As linguists, we’re already great at seeing beyond borders. But bringing an explicitly political slant into your learning really plugs you into this global aspect of humanity.

Where to start

As with all authentic materials, the best place to start is personal interest. There’s little fun in only following a kind of politics that you don’t subscribe to in your home country. So begin with the political party / parties you support, and find their analogues in the target language country.

Doing this is as simple as googling “political parties in [your target language country here]”. You should get plenty of results, with Wikipedia articles being amongst the most useful. The following table from Wikipedia, for example, shows not only the current parliamentary parties in Norway, but also lists their ideologies. Great for matching your own politics to a target language party!

Politics in Norway - parliamentary parties listed on Wikipedia

Politics in Norway – parliamentary parties listed on Wikipedia

Once you’ve found a party / parties you’re have an interest in, take to social media to find out more. Major parties will invariably have a Facebook and Twitter account to follow. Their websites may also have blogs or news feeds, which you can add to your news reader if you have one (Feedly is quite good).

It’s always a good idea to follow target language accounts in your daily social media feeds. For one thing, it means that you’ll regularly be exposed to snippets of language, even when you’re not in ‘learning mode’. It helps to maintain a degree of language immersion in your day-to-day, which ultimately will lead to greater fluency.

Politics : the perfect package for new language

Once subscribed, the format of the language can be ideal for learning. Political language on social media is packaged perfectly for this purpose – possibly for all the wrong reasons! For one thing, it regularly consists of largely superficial soundbites. However, these represent concise, condensed nuggets of vocabulary and structure, and can be very easy to memorise. Consequently, you can work them into your own conversations or discussions in the language without too much effort.

Additionally, the format of some social media platforms is perfect for presenting language to learners. Twitter, with its character limit, forces the author to make snappy, impactful arguments in just a few words. Logical argument and rhetoric can often become keener under these circumstances, when the ‘fluff’ is pared down.

Twitter feed of the German SPD

Twitter feed of the German SPD

There is, of course, the danger of the ‘filter bubble’ or ‘echo chamber’. If you only follow parties you broadly agree with, you will lack a challenge to your argument. If you can stomach it – and are a real sucker for political punishment – it can be useful to follow some opponent organisations too.

Alternatively, to supplement all this you can also follow political news on target language news sites. In German, for example, I find that Spiegel.de and the Frankfurter Allgemeine sites are superb for political news and commentary. Their advantage is (at least in theory) being non-partisan with a more balanced overview. The disadvantage is that they contain much weightier, wordier texts – a far cry from the soundbites and slogans of political feeds.

Control the flow and reap the benefits

As with all things, moderation is important. I’ve written an earlier post on the importance of detoxifying your social media feeds. Politics can be frustrating and exhausting to follow. But if you make it work for you as a linguist, it can be a real boon to your language (and wider) learning.

Podcasts can be a perfect gateway to your own interests in the target language culture

Perfect podcast picks for language learners

The podcast has been a wonderful invention for the linguaphile. Just ten, twenty years ago, language aficionados would need all manner of equipment to tune in to overseas broadcasts. These days, thousands of them are just a click and a download away. All you need is a pair of headphones to immerse yourself in your foreign language, whenever, wherever.

However, as with many facets of modern life, the problem is often too much choice. How do you set about finding suitable native language podcasts as a learner? Some material might seem linguistically beyond your level, for example. And the topic matter is not always guaranteed to switch on your interest, either. News and current affairs programmes in French, for instance, may provide scant fun if you have enough of politics in your regular exposure to home news.

Personal interest as motivator

The best strategy comes in combining both those needs: accessibility and interest. If you hit upon some foreign-language content you are really interested in, a couple of magical things happen:

  1. You feel more motivated to focus on the language through personal interest
  2. You use your existing knowledge of the topic to make educated guesses about the language you don’t know

In short, if current affairs are not your thing, avoid the news podcasts. Even excellent learner resources like Deutsche Welle’s News in Slow German will be useless if you don’t get excited by the news. But if you’re learning French and love Motocross, then you’ll try really hard to get all the details from anything you find on the site Moto Verte!

I’ve seen the personal passion-motivator work for reading, too; as a language teacher, I’d regularly bring in target language magazines I’d picked up abroad. Suddenly, kids who were hard to reach in German class were poring over complicated texts in computer and football magazines, intrigued by the content. What’s more, they were managing to understand it through sheer determination. Personal interest sparks learning – almost by stealth.

Starting point: national broadcasters

When hunting podcasts, you do have to do a little digging to unearth the interesting content hiding behind the ubiquitous current affairs programmes. Fortunately, national broadcasters all over the world create heaps of it, on all sorts of topics. One of the best places to start on the search for the perfect podcast is by finding out the national broadcaster in your target language country; the Wikipedia list at this link is an excellent place to start.

After finding out which organisation produces content in your country of interest, you could just check out their website. Broadcaster websites aren’t always the easiest to navigate, though. And they can be a little overwhelming if you’re still not very confident in the language.

Instead, head to iTunes (or your podcast app of choice), and search for the broadcaster name under podcasts. It should throw out lots of options, like this search under Spanish broadcaster RTVE:

Podcast search on iTunes for RTVE, the Spanish national broadcaster

Podcast search on iTunes for RTVE, the Spanish national broadcaster

Some broadcasters are better than others, admittedly. Spanish learners are in luck, as RTVE has programmes from all walks of life. I love food (come on, who doesn’t?!) as well as health and fitness topics, so one of my personal favourites is weekly journal Alimento y salud (Food and Health). These are fields that many of us know a lot about from our own lives. So even when the language is fast and furious, I can usually fill the gaps with an educated guess.

The format is lively, too; recently, the programme ran a fascinating feature on space cuisine for orbiting astronauts. Great for individual learners, but also worth considering as an interesting listening task for classes!

Off the beaten podcast path

Podcast hunting is perfect for sourcing free, engaging material for off-the-beaten-path languages, too. This can be a major boon, given that listening material specifically for learners can be prohibitively expensive. The student CD to accompany the intermediate Norwegian course Stein på stein, for example, is over £20 – and that’s not including postage from Norway. Instead, a bit of mining can uncover a wealth of listening material for no cost at all.

That free material can be challenging, for sure. After all, it’s intended for native speakers, first and foremost. But if you hit on something you love, it can really switch you on to the target language.

As a Norwegian learner, I’m lucky that Norwegian broadcaster NRK has a great range of special interest programmes. One in particular – Språkteigen – is all about the quirks of language. I honestly can’t think of a better programme for a language geek to be practising Norwegian with!

Podcasts are an invaluable, immersive resource for language learners. I hope some of the tips above provide a good starting point for your own mining. And maybe, along the way, you’ll hit that gem – the foreign language podcast that you become a real fan of. There are few better ways of getting really switched on to your target language culture!

Time is precious

Time to learn? Fitting languages into busy lives

As a language geek, I’m often asked: “how do you find the time?”. My answer: most of the time, I don’t.

Most self-directed learning is an imperfect process. Adults don’t have time to subdivide their day into neat lesson-shaped slots, as others did for us in school. Learning has to fit around sometimes very hectic lives.

Using ‘dead’ time

A strategy I use every day is making use of what I call ‘dead’ time. It’s time standing, sitting, waiting, otherwise just doing very little. These are our ‘engine idling’ moments. Here are some of the things I do when waiting for a train, bus, haircut, or friends to show up for coffee!

Anki decks

The odd few minutes here and there are ideal for Anki flashcards. I make self-testing on Anki a daily tactic, but, like most humans, I’m susceptible to procrastination. Getting this ticked off during ‘down time’ is much better than leaving it until just before bed!

Reading practice

With smartphones, it’s the easiest thing in the world to tap up some news articles to read. You don’t even need to read the whole article – just looking at the headlines in your target language is some great minutes-long language gym. Right now, I’m actively learning Norwegian, and maintaining German and Spanish. A nose at NRK.no, Spiegel.de and ElPais.com is the least I can do to keep them ticking over.

Don’t even have time for that? Then subscribe to a Read Later service like Pocket (my favourite) to queue material for later. These services facilitate perfect browsing and bookmarking for even the busiest linguists. Several services can also recommend potentially interesting articles after learning your preferences.

Socialise

There are myriad social groups for all kinds of interests on Facebook, and other social media. Find a couple that grab you, and lurk for a while. Read what others are posting in your spare moments. When you feel more comfortable, try commenting in the target language yourself. It can be quite a thrilling experience to join a thread for the first time in a foreign language!

Another trick is to search twitter for #yourcountryname. For instance, I sometimes check #Norge or #norsk for Norwegian – you’d be surprised what comes up, and it’s almost all in the target language!

Casting a wider net

Podcasts and spare moments are positively made for each other. The match is so obvious, I’ve left it ’til last. But the trick is not to be a perfectionist. If you only have time for five minutes of a podcast in your target language, it’s still worth it. Don’t think (like I used to) that it’s pointless unless you can sit down and listen to the whole thing.

That said, some language podcasts are made with our fleeting minutes in mind. For a daily dose of listening practice and current affairs, I love ‘news in easy language’ services. Some recommended ones include:

🇫🇷 French: News in Slow French
🇩🇪 German: Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten (News in slow German) by Deutsche Welle
🇮🇹 Italian: News in Slow Italian
🇳🇴 Norwegian: Språkteigen (a show about language – not aimed at new learners, but it’s often easy to guess unfamiliar words as the topic is so familiar!)
🇪🇸 Spanish: News in Slow Spanish
🇨🇳 Chinese: Slow Chinese

Any other favourites, or biggies I’ve missed? Please share in the comments!

Don’t overdo it

Even the most avid efficiency-seekers amongst us shouldn’t downplay the importance of dead time for a bit of rest. Not even the geekiest brain can (or should) be switched on, full steam ahead, 24/7.

I recommend Headspace for ensuring you turn the volume down regularly. It’s a programme of short meditations that fit perfectly into the ‘between moments’ described in this article. The first ten are free, so it’s worth a try!

Fill your spare minutes, but be kind to yourself.
Balance is key for an active, healthy linguaphile brain!