Like climbing a mountain, making the most of your language lesson involves preparation!

Acing preparation for a good one-to-one language lesson

I’ve attempted Icelandic a few times in my life. That sounds ominous, that ‘attempted’, doesn’t it? Well, the truth is that I’ve found the language a real challenge each time. I’ve usually learnt it in the lead-up to a trip, then put it to bed for a while after my return. But last year, I decided to collect together the fragments of multiple start-stops and have a proper go at learning it upp á nýtt (back from scratch). 🇮🇸

Now, Icelandic is still extremely challenging to learn. I’d put it on a par with Russian for grammatical complexity, with the added downside that there is very little commercial material for learning the language. And I am far from the perfect student, squeezing my learning in here and there – and, perhaps ill-advisedly, learning several other languages at the same time.

However, over these past few weeks, I feel I’ve turned a corner. This week in particular, I had a one-to-one conversational Icelandic lesson on iTalki. And guess what? It actually went quite well! I’m not fluent by a huge stretch. But I stumbled, faltered and ummed and aahed just a little bit less. For the first time in forever, I feel I can actually speak Icelandic (after a fashion!), and not just rattle off phrases, parrot-style.

In this post I’ll look at how good preparation helped me to get the most from that lesson. I’ll also consider how that preparation could have been better, to squeeze even more out of my hour of speaking time.

Getting started

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I like to sketch out a few broad topic areas with rough vocabulary notes before a lesson. These topics are generally things I’ve been up to since the last session: travel, work, family / friends news and so on. For this lesson, I chose three: commuting to London, booking a trip to Iceland, and how I’d been practising Icelandic in the meantime (finding interesting articles online to translate).

I try to stick to a few rules in these pre-lesson notes. For example, complete sentences are out. Instead, I’ll write out vocab items and partial phrases, avoiding the temptation to create a script to read from. The aim is spontaneous(-ish!) conversation and flexibility as a speaker, rather than rote production of phrases. (Sidenote: there is definitely a place for the latter, especially in the very first stages of learning – Benny Lewis in particular has produced some brilliant guidelines on using scripts as a complete beginner.)

Sample preparation sheet

Here’s my prep sheet for this week’s lesson (complete with notes I scribbled during the lesson itself!). I typed it up in Evernote, then printed it to scribble on during the lesson. (Fellow Icelandic learners, please don’t use this as a learning resource yourself, as there are bound to be errors in it! It is really just my personal, rough scaffold for chatting, warts and all.)

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Because I already have a basic level in the language, the notes are slightly more complex or specific words and phrases to fit around that. In some cases it is brand new material, like “eins mikið og hægt er” (‘as much as possible’). I try extra hard to fit these in, as I’m more likely to memorise them through active usage. Other items include conversation cues, or main points of a story I want to tell. These simply keep me speaking and prevent the conversation from drying up.

This approach works a treat for me. It gives the start of the lesson a focus, so we can get right into it. It also provides the teacher with a lot of student-produced language – perfect for getting your grammar tweaked and vocab suggestions thrown your way.

Room for improvement

Of course, nothing is perfect. One shortfall was my lack of subject material. I’d managed to prepare three general “things I’ve been up to” sections, but started to struggle for novelty after 20-25 minutes, repeating myself a little. That wasn’t a problem, as there are always alternative activities to do in a lesson. But perhaps five or six rough prepared subjects to chat about would have bridged the gap.

Also, what you can probably tell from my notes is that I don’t always follow my own advice about brevity. Some of my lines are almost sentences. Not only that, but they tend to read in a slightly linear way. Like a script, an order is implied: I did A, then I did B, then C happened, then D will happen. I didn’t leave myself much room for improvisation.

Now, I wasn’t robotically reeling of those sentences in that exact order. But in future, I could make them even more efficient. As they are, they’re a little more fixed and restrictive than I’d like them to be. As a Social Sciences student, I found Tony Buzan’s mind-mapping techniques a fantastic support in note-taking; I think they’d work a treat in this scenario, too.

More than just the lesson

Lastly, what I haven’t mentioned above is all the other prep you do between lessons. The one-to-one hours are just single, brief points in your language learning schedule. Between lessons, you have to make a success of self-directed, wider learning, too. As I mentioned above (and in my chat notes!), I’d been a good student that week. I’d actively vocab-mined and exposed myself to lots of Icelandic in use by seeking out and translating online articles. (Nothing high-brow, mind – most of them were about the twists and turns in Iceland’s journey to pick a Eurovision song!)

No lesson is perfect (since no student is!), but I enjoyed this one and got a lot from it. Not every lesson goes so well, of course. Time is the biggest constraint on prep, and I’ve lost count of the occasions I wish I’d spent more of it on getting ready. Without exception, the better prepared you are to use language actively in a one-to-one, the more rewarding it is.

Books on a bookshelf

Bilingual books: tips and tricks for free online reading material 📚

Thanks to a recommendation from another polyglot friend, I’ve been exploring bidirectional translation as a new language learning method lately. It involves working with parallel texts in your target and native languages to strengthen vocabulary and grammar. The only snag: it can be difficult to source books with dual language versions of interesting texts.

Now, Penguin offers a good range of bilingual story books available in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish, but an eager linguist will quickly eat through those and be left wanting.

Blockbuster books – in miniature

However, it is possible to get high quality translations of popular texts in many different languages, completely free. The trick is to use Amazon’s ‘free sample’ feature for Kindle books. This allows you to have the first few pages – sometimes a whole chapter or two – sent to your registered device. Simply browse the Kindle bookshop for foreign language titles of interest, then click ‘Send a Free Sample’ on the product page.

To help root out some titles, you can filter Kindle books by language. You can then filter out the fiction books (here are the French ones, for example), or look for non-fiction books that fit your own interests.

What use is a few pages of a story? Isn’t it frustrating to come to a sudden stop after one or two chapters? Well, it doesn’t have to be. If you choose translations of books you are already familiar with – Harry Potter books are a popular choice – then you already know the stories, and are just enjoying parts of them again in your target language. And, of course, if you really like them, you can purchase the full versions from Kindle later.

Pott(er)y for books

I’m like a broken record on the benefits of translated children’s books – particularly the Harry Potter series – for language learners. But they’re great language learning helpers for so many reasons:

  • the stories are familiar, so you can use gist make educated guesses about new vocabulary
  • the language is not particularly complex, as the intended audience was originally youngsters (particularly the early volumes)
  • the stories are broken up into fairly short chapters – an ideal length for the focus of a lesson or learning session

As a starting point, here are links to the first Harry Potter books on Amazon Kindle, in a range of languages. As an extra bonus, most of these titles can be borrowed in full at no cost if you are a Kindle Unlimited member!

And, of course, you can download the matching excerpt from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in English, so you have a perfect bidirectional pair.

Kindle samples are a goldmine for linguists to root around in. That goes particularly for those seeking texts for bidirectional translation, but more generally for anybody looking for quality, interesting reading material. Have you come across any gems? Share them in the comments!

The Commonwealth Games offer local linguists some amazing opportunities.

Commonwealth Games 2022 : Birmingham’s Local Language Boost

In December, you might have noticed the fanfare around my hometown, Birmingham, winning the chance to host the Commonwealth Games in 2022. The decision has generated a lot of local pride. No wonder, as all four corners of the world will grace Brum for the two-week event. But as well as a wonderful opportunity for local commerce, the event represents concrete opportunities for linguists.

Languages of the Commonwealth Games

The last UK hosting was the hugely successful Glasgow games of 2014. For that event, Capita Translation and Interpreting produced a really useful infographic to illustrate the languages spoken in competing Commonwealth lands. Due to the origins of the Commonwealth, English dominates.

However, quite a few ‘mainstream’ foreign languages make the list, too. In 2022, locals have the chance to hear French, Portuguese and Spanish on the streets of Birmingham. And with both volunteering and commercial job boosts going hand-in-hand with hosting the games, speaking one of them might well be a route to opportunities for local learners.

Ready-made motivation for the classroom

For local language teachers, the chance for games tie-ins are unmissable. What better motivator can there be for languages than the chance to use them practically on the street?

What’s more, international games also offer rich pickings for fun lesson topics. Much like the Eurovision Song Contest, they are great for topics like countries, numbers, like/dislike phrases, descriptions and more.

I’ve used an Excel spreadsheet to create sweepstake-style cards to play classroom games with country names, for example. You can easily spool cards from Excel in a mail merge. Here is a sample list I have used (in CSV format). Although this one is based on the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest final, it is useful for other events, and – of course – extendable!

Beyond Birmingham

There are plenty of events to work into your learning or teaching beyond Birmingham, of course. While local pride make Brum a special highlight for me, forthcoming extravaganzas include:

  • 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang (the official site is available in Chinese, French, Korean and Japanese)
  • 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia (the official site is a bit of a goldmine for linguists, with French, German, Spanish, Arabic and Russian versions!)
  • UEFA Euro 2020
  • 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (the official site is also in French as well as English and Japanese)

Plenty of resources for languages-sport crossovers there – have fun mining them!

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!

We feel enthusiasm for chocolate, but it's not healthy to gorge on it!

Rationing enthusiasm for more effective language learning

Some things can be moreish. Chocolate, for example. You might think you can’t get enough of it. Your enthusiasm for the sweet stuff takes over, you race through your stash of secret supplies, and before you know it, you’re feeling bleugh. Those four Mars Bars and the family size Galaxy have done you no good.

Likewise, if you enjoy learning languages, extreme enthusiasm can be a hindrance. That sounds like a terrible thing to say – enthusiasm for learning is truly wonderful, of course. But, at the sharp end, it can be too much of a good thing.

When I’m on a learning kick, and the enthusiasm bug bites, I speed up. I want to devour words, rules, facts, figures.

And often, that means I rush ahead and skip the basics.

Dangerous enthusiasm

Now, I could pick any number of languages I’ve tried learning in the past to illustrate this. For example, the Icelandic language truly fascinates me. Historically a pretty conservative language, it’s as close to Old Norse as a modern foreign language gets. And as Norwegian learner too, there are tons of common points of interest between the two. It’s just incredibly interesting.

I spent a good year thrashing away at it some time ago. I did reasonably well, too, learning lots of grammar in particular (I am a total grammar boffin). However, I never really gained any colloquial fluency.

The reason for that is the chocolate problem. I found the language enthralling, and developed a real taste for it. But that meant I raced ahead, guzzling up the interesting stuff long before I should have. That’s a great recipe for learning without practical application.

I became the kind of linguist who could explain and conjugate complex verb paradigms in Icelandic, but couldn’t tell the time, count or say hello. Oops. Not so handy in Reykjavík.

DeFEating my nemesis

Because of this, Icelandic was always a bit of a ‘nemesis’ language for me. Every time, it would entice me a little too much, and I’d gorge on it to the point of saturation. Every time, it beat me, leaving me bursting with grammar, but with little practical application.

But I like a challenge, and if anything, Icelandic is the perfect vehicle to exercise a new, restrained enthusiasm. I picture myself down but not out, bellowing “you shall not beat me!” at it from the boxing ring floor. To that end, I’ve returned to the language recently, and thanks to a really good teacher on iTalki, am systematically filling in the gaps in the basics. We’re using a set of beginner’s resources that are available for free: Íslenska fyrir alla (Icelandic for everyone), and, for a change, I’m sticking to the plan.

Pig out – but not too often!

So, to return to chocolate (what a great idea), taking it bite by bite is advised. Little, but often. It doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes pig out – but don’t let it ruin your diet!

Headphones - great for listening to a podcast or ten!

Podcast essentials: mining overseas charts

As a podcast junkie, I’m always looking for new sources and recommendations for foreign language programmes. So I was particularly excited to happen across the website iTunesCharts.net recently.

The site provides iTunes charts across a range of regional stores, including France, Germany and Spain. It lists all digital media, including songs, albums and TV programmes. But most usefully for linguaphiles, it compiles charts of the most popular podcasts in each country too.

It is possible to find this information yourself by switching your store region in  iTunes. However, iTunesCharts.net is quicker and easier if you study any of the clutch of ‘mainstream’ languages: French, German, Italian or Spanish.

Listening material that switches you on

The site addresses a common issue for linguists: finding interesting material in the target language. Not dry, sanitised language for learners, but engaging, entertaining programming in topics that grab our attention: the kind of stuff you’d listen to in your native language. And it’s current, up-to-date, regularly published material that can plug you straight into the culture of your target language country.

Here are direct links to some of its national podcast lists:

They are brilliant places to mine for listening material. Additionally, though, they offer a great way of finding out what’s currently popular where your language is spoken.

Podcast your life!

Podcast listening has been a bigger part of my own language learning strategy than ever in recent months. Instead of listening to programmes in my native language, I’ve tried to replace them with similar material in the target language. I don’t watch TV; instead, I make my foreign podcast picks my entertainment. It’s a conscious effort to bring language into my everyday, and not just the bit of my life labelled ‘learning time’. It’s all about living the language, rather than just studying it.

This is a great strategy particularly for languages in maintenance mode – languages you are already proficient in, but want to keep at a good level. German and Spanish will always be my strongest foreign languages, for example, being my degree languages. But through podcasts, I can actually enjoy keeping them strong and fresh.

Stretch yourself

That’s not to say that beginners can’t also gain a lot from a well-chosen podcast. In my own experience, my Norwegian comes on in fits and starts. I’d say I still hover around a B1/B2 in terms of proficiency. However, I love the NRK podcast Språkteigen. It’s a programme about language aimed at native Norwegian listeners, and it really stretches my comprehension.

But despite not being an advanced speaker, the topic switches me on enough to stay focused and enjoy each episode. Being a favourite topic of mine also helps; I can often guess new words from the context. It’s win-win: I regularly improve my Norwegian, and I learn lots about my favourite topic at the same time!

The iTunesCharts.net site is a real goldmine for the linguist. I now have more podcasts than I can fill my spare time with, but it’s always good to have choices! I hope you find something useful in there too.

 

The Globe

Tips from a language junkie

I admit it – I’m a language junkie. I’m perennially curious, always looking for something new to learn. New languages are pretty, shiny objects and I’m a restless polyglot magpie.

Not surprisingly, a question I’m asked a lot is “Don’t you get mixed up learning all those languages?”. It’s an understandable question, to which I’d reply, first off: have faith in your brain! It’s more adept than you realise at keeping things separated. Children brought up bilingually manage it neatly, so why shouldn’t your mature, adult brain?

There are a number of things you can do to help keep things compartmentalised, though. For instance, users of Anki might want to take advantage of custom cards, so you can colour-code those belonging to your different languages. There’s a good beginners’ guide on doing this on YouTube at this link. Here are a couple of mine; the key is to make your different language cards as distinctive as possible (I like to use flags):

A customised Icelandic card in Anki

A customised Norwegian card in Anki

If you prefer to keep your lists the offline way, you might think about colour-coding your vocab notes by language, too.

Secondly, there are several reasons why learning more than one language can be more effective and beneficial than just learning one.

I try to pick just one language within a major group to focus on (for instance, Norwegian from North Germanic, and Spanish from the Italic languages). That’s not to preclude others from that group completely – it’s just that the main focus language will become the ‘anchor’ for that group. Instead of learning Icelandic (another North Germanic language) from scratch, for example, I’ll relate it to Norwegian as my base language.

Take the Norwegian word dør (door), for example – in Icelandic, this is dyr. Contrasting and comparing cognates like this gives you a real feel for the language group as a whole. This way, you can build up an instinct for the regular patterns of change and difference between languages, which deepens your understanding of each one.

Be a bluffer!

What’s more, learning patterns like this can give you some productive rules for ‘guessing’ or ‘bluffing’ in other languages. To take Spanish as an example, with a little learning you can learn how to ‘Portuguesify’ your Castilian, and fake enough Portuguese to get by in simple situations. You’ll spot that Spanish initial ll-, for instance, is often ch- in Portuguese, so you can guess that llegar (to arrive) in Spanish is chegar in Portuguese. You might also see that Spanish diphthongises a vowel (sticks two or more vowel sounds together) where Portuguese doesn’t, so huevo (egg) in Spanish is ovo in Portuguese. It doesn’t always work, but pattern-spotting is definitely a good way to get a working version of a new language up and running, based on something you already know.

Cross-reference your vocab

I also like to use my stronger languages to check for gaps in my nascent ones. If I learn a new word in, say, Norwegian, I’ll check whether I know that word in my other languages too. My OCD streak dictates that I hate gaps and imbalances in my knowledge, but it’s not hard to look up the missing words and make a note of them (in Anki, in my case). At the simplest level, you could do this in a vocab notebook or Excel spreadsheet:

English German Spanish Norwegian Polish
dog der Hund el perro en hund pies
cat die Katze el gato en katt kot

It’s also a great way to start spotting similarities and relationships between the languages you’re learning.

The underlying message of this post is: you don’t have to settle for just one foreign language if you have the time and motivation! Have faith that your mind is more than equipped to deal with multiple tracks, and enjoy the extra benefits that learning more than one can give you.