Alphabet Texts

Textual Time Machine: Turning to the past for motivating target language texts

Gary Barlow and Margaret Thatcher accompanied me on my language learning this week. This surprising turn of events was thanks not to celebrity friendships and psychic messages, but rather a lucky stumble across a treasure trove of motivating target language texts.

In truth, I was getting a bit tired of language learning textbooks. Dialogues about holiday scenarios and sanitised snippets of everyday life in the target language country weren’t sparking my fire at all. As such, I was struggling a bit to motivate myself to read.

Then, I happened upon the Icelandic media archive timarit.is.

Tantalising texts: balancing subject and level

It is not possible to overestimate the benefits of hitting upon just the right texts to motivate your language learning. There are two strands to bear in mind on that search, sometimes complimentary, sometimes conflicting: subject and level.

Subject is important to inspire you to read in the first place. For example, I’m not interested in race car driving at all. So trying to plough through an Icelandic magazine article on Formula One is going to turn me right off. Music or travel, on the other hand, and I’ll be hooked in – especially if the text contains some new information that will be interesting or useful to me personally.

Level is simply the complexity of the language. But level interacts with subject, at least in terms of motivation. If the subject matter fascinates you, even a very difficult text will be one you gladly pore over. And if you are familiar with the subject matter, guessing new vocab from context is a hundred times easier and less frustrating.

Textual Time machine

Enter timarit.is. It is a grand, online collection of digitised newspaper and magazine media by the National and University Library of Iceland. This incredible service makes accessible publications that stretch back decades, fully readable and downloadable in PDF format.

Now, you might well chuckle at my first searches. A whole world of information at my fingertips, and my first selection was anything but highbrow. I grew up during the boyband explosion, so anything that whips up nostalgia around that will pique my interest. So that settles it: what had Iceland to say about Take That in years gone by?

That’s the trick though: don’t shy from your geekiest interests. Be shameless! Dig around and find some material to explore and reminisce over. The whole point is to connect, to personalise, to enmesh your learning into your life – even the cheesy parts. There certainly was no shortage of vintage cheese on offer here, like this cutting on “Gary Goldboy“:

Tímarit (mbl.is)

Gary Barlow, 1996 (timarit.is)

Sometimes the time machine can throw some real zingers of historical nuggets your way, too. I happened across the following (probably apocryphal) story of said popstar moaning about the cost of beer in Berlin in 1996. Celebrity gossip ages quite well, it seems – still served with an eye-roll and a heap of scepticism.

Beer outrage (timarit.is)

Beer outrage, 1996 (timarit.is)

Our history – their eyes

Popsters aside, I am also a bit of a news and current affairs junkie. When I get fed up of the current dirge (which happens a lot lately), I turn to the recent past. Exploring political history, especially what happened in your own lifetime, can be an enlightening exercise.

Trawling the pages of timarit.is reveals an unusual passion: reading about my own country through the eyes of another. I spent a good few hours typing in the names of figures associated with big political events, then seeing the Icelandic take on them through archived, authentic texts.

Callaghan or Thatcher? They decide today! (Timarit.is)

Callaghan or Thatcher? They decide today! 1979 (timarit.is)

The marvellous thing about timarit.is is the sheer depth of chronology. Facsimiles go back to the turn of the 20th Century. I leapt from Thatcher, to Wilson, to Attlee, reading excitedly each Icelandic take on a turning point in my country’s history. Fascinated is an understatement.

Target language culture?

But just a moment: British bands and British politicians? It’s all a bit Anglocentric, so far. However, you can use these as a springboard for tropes closer to your target language. After reading about Thatcher, for example, I searched for the phrase ‘first woman’ in Icelandic. Which other trail blazers would pop up? Well, I wasn’t disappointed. I learnt all about Iceland’s – and the world’s – first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.

Vigdís voted president! (Timarit.is)

Vigdís voted president! 1980 (timarit.is)

Of course, I have my own target language country fascination already: Eurovision. And there is no shortage of material there! I can’t explain how enthralled my inner nerd becomes when reading about the songs that I obsessed over for years as a superfan. Simply magical.

Eurovision Iceland 1992 (timarit.is)

Eurovision hopefuls for Iceland in 1992, feeling ‘well rehearsed’ (timarit.is). See here for the resulting live performance!

The fact that all this material is downloadable in PDF format is invaluable. I can simply load them onto my iPad (I use GoodReader for PDFs) and study them on the go.

Other languages

Timarit.is is a truly golden resource. As an Icelandic learner, I am beyond lucky to have open access to such a library. But where does this leave learners of other languages?

Sadly, while there are paid archives like the German http://www.genios.de/presse-archiv/, free materials like timarit.is are hard to come by. Perhaps Iceland’s size has made the task of collating and gaining rights for so much material a little easier than elsewhere. Still, even on paid-for sites there is some useful information.

The archive of German publication Spiegel is a good example. You can search editions back to 1946, although you must pay for the full issues. However, the cover thumbnails are intriguing in themselves as pieces of social history. They also contain a fair bit of useful target language in the form of headlines and subtitles.

Spanish news outlet ABC also offers its Hemeroteca (newspaper library) for information time travellers. I found this article on Spain’s first Eurovision victory, by Massiel back in 1968, particularly charming!

With a bit of Google search grafting, there should be something to find out there for all learners.

Archive sites are goldmines for language learners searching something a bit different to read. Do you have a favourite or recommended source of texts? Share them in the comments!

 

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!

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!

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Berlin, where have you been all my life?

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

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

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

Why Berlin?

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

Zip in and around with ease

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

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

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

A Berlin for everybody

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

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

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

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

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

History – and language – on every corner

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

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

The day-to-day

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

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

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

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

Context can help language learners in familiar situations abroad, like the coffee shop

Context has your back: Why it’s OK not to understand everything

I have a confession to make. I failed miserably in my foreign language last weekend. But it was still fine. Context had my back!

Before you feel sorry for me, it’s not as bad as it sounds. We fail in our native languages all the time, for lots of reasons. We don’t catch things, we mishear words, we don’t hear above the noise. It’s a normal part of comprehension not to comprehend everything at first.

Imagine the scene…

Here’s how it went down. I’ve just spent a quick, cheapie getaway weekend in Oslo to practise my norsk and enjoy one of my favourite countries. It was a real budget immersion weekend, with low-cost flights from Norwegian.com and a free hotel stay thanks to air miles.

I threw myself into every social situation, ordering food and drink, going to a concert and even sorting out a free tour of parliament using my Norwegian. On the whole it went well, but there was one conversation that stands out from a coffee shop:

Rich: Er melkekaffe som en latte?
Servitør: Ja, ********.
R: Ah, jeg ville gjerne ha to melkekaffeer. Takk.
S: **** ******* spise **** ?
R: Nei, takk. Kanskje senere.
S: Åtti kroner.
R: Is milky coffee like a latte?
S: Yes,********.
R: Ah, I’d like two milky coffees. Thanks.
S: **** ******* eat **** ?
R: No, thanks. Maybe later.
S: Eighty kroner.

Yes, those asterisks are bits where I hadn’t a clue what the other person was saying.

It might have been nerves. It might have been background noise. The server might have had an unusual accent. But I found myself struggling to understand what I thought must be the most basic Norwegian.

Measuring language success as social transaction

So, success or failure? Well, I could beat myself up about not understanding every single word that was said to me. In fact, I felt like I barely caught anything.

But on the other hand – I got my coffee! There was no serious breakdown in communication. I guessed what was said to me, and didn’t get any funny looks when I made up an answer. As a social transaction, it was as successful as one I’d have in my native language. I’d filled in the uncertain bits by guessing from experience what was meant. In short: I’d winged it.

Winging it is normal!

This got me thinking about how I operate in English, and I realised that I rely on context in English just as much as I do on 100% comprehension! In a noisy café in Edinburgh, I’d be making the same assumptions and filling in the same gaps with context. I made myself understood, and I understood what was required of me in that interaction. No self-flagellation required!

Maybe the biggest failure was that I unquestioningly paid £8 for two lattes in Oslo. *ouch*

Context is king

Context works when two speakers share the same common values or experiences. In my example above, it’s how a coffee shop works. Thanks to globalisation, that’s a pretty standardised environment these days. Whatever you think about globalisation and cultural imperialism, they definitely help when trying to speak a foreign language!

When contexts differ, then you can prepare yourself for speaking by observing how things work in the target language country. Just hanging back and watching / listening to people interacting naturally before you works wonders. You can also pre-arm yourself by researching attitudes and cultural traits before a trip; this article contains some very interesting points about context differences across several cultures.

Be kind to yourself

It’s important not to be too hard on yourself when you manage these ‘by the skin of your teeth’ situations. Remember that you’re probably doing it regularly in your native language, too. If you read a transcript of your conversation on paper, you’d no doubt understand it in almost all its detail. But you didn’t need to in order to get your coffee!

Having a conversation in a foreign language can be quite a feat. Never beat yourself up for not getting every word – context always has your back.

Aeroplane

Language travels on a shoestring

Despite brill online face-to-face services like iTalki for practising and learning languages with native speakers, you can’t beat time spent in the country as the best way to immerse yourself in your chosen language. Seems like an expensive way to fluency, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be, with a range of web tools for sourcing super-cheap travel to your target language country.

Top of the list, and indispensable to the travelling linguist, is Google Flights Explore. It’s not particularly well signposted online – in fact, it’s practically clandestine, and you have to be told by someone else ‘in the know’ before you can find it! Why the experimental extension to Google’s flight search is not promoted more is a mystery, but it’s second-to-none at sourcing cheap flight offers with very general search terms (and I mean very – you can pop in ‘Scandinavia’ or ‘Eastern Europe’, and it will check the lot!).

For instance, say you’re learning Polish. Enter your preferred airport of origin, then Poland as the destination. You can adjust the length of the trip if you like, but the default 3-5 days is a good short break duration if you’re looking for a cheap getaway to practise your language skills. You don’t even need to add a date, as when you select your start and end points, you’ll be presented with a list of destinations along with time charts of the cheapest flights to each. It will even order them, with the cheapest, on average, at the top.

The example below shows that I can get to Warsaw from Edinburgh for as little as around £20 return (USD$25, although prices in your local currency appear when you click through to one of the flights on the time chart).

Google Flights Explore example

Google Flights Explore

Switching to a traditionally more expensive flight destination, such as Norway, still yields great results; a quick search today threw out some £30 returns on London-Oslo routes. It’s just as handy for longer-haul flights, too; flying from New York, Norwegian students can get to the country for under USD$300 return in a sample search made at the time of writing.

But how to minimise costs when you get there? Accommodation will be perhaps the biggest expense on the tick-list. It’s no big secret that, for value, you can’t really beat private rental services like AirBnB. Combining with the sample Polish flight search above, you could add a private room in a shared house for just £11 a night at the time of writing. That amounts to less than £100 for a 5-night stay, flights and accommodation included.

But there are more benefits to using these services like this than low rates. For a linguist / cultural explorer, a private rental property will likely:

  • come with a direct contact, and so more opportunity to meet a local and practise a bit of language as soon as you’re off the plane
  • give you a more authentic experience of what it’s like to live in the target language country, especially as it’s more likely to be self-catering (think of all that shopping vocab you can practise!)
  • give you day-to-day, lived experience of the language if you’re in a shared property / room in someone’s home

Compare that to the often sterile, internationalised hotel reception experience, and private accommodation offers big boons for the language traveller!

There are ways to minimise living costs while you’re there, too. They may not be glamorous – buying food supplies at supermarkets rather than going out to eat, grabbing a cheap pølser i brød (hotdog) at an Oslo kiosk for tea – but again, they bring you into direct contact with the target language, rather than sanitising your experience through safe, familiar settings like restaurants.

It might seem an extreme measure – and, intuitively, an outrageously unaffordable one – to ‘pop abroad’ when you need some target language practice. But it needn’t be bank-breaking, if you know where to look. Commit to a cheap cultural scouting trip once every month, or at least couple of months, setting yourself a tiny budget and seeing what you can do with it. Your inner linguist will thank you!