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!

Describe It! Speaking drill game for fun practice prompts

I’m always looking new ways to make speaking practice fun. It was BBC’s Just A Minute that inspired me to put this basic drill activity together. From a bank of many random concepts – TV shows, celebrities, countries, landmarks – the program draws one each turn. You then have sixty seconds to describe and discuss it without pausing.

Describe It! Speaking dill game

Describe It! Speaking dill game

It’s perfect for adding into your pre-lesson warm-up routine. And you can tailor it to your own level and needs – simply make your descriptions / spontaneous monologues as simple or complex as you can handle. Try answering these questions about the topics that pop up if you’re stuck for words:

  • What is it?
  • What do you think about it? Do you like it?
  • Who does it involve?
  • What else is it connected to? And is it controversial in any way?

Click here to open the prompt applet in a new window. As an HTML5 widget, it should run across all sorts of platforms.

Help it grow!

I put this together originally for my own use, so some of the concepts might seem a bit UK-centric. However, if you have some good ideas for items to add to the data bank, please share them in the comments or tweet me! I’ll add good ones to the activity on an ongoing basis. I hope others find it useful (and appreciate the silly humour that drives it! 😄).

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!

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

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

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

Free for all

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

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

Worth digging for treasure

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

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

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

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

FAST learning

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

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

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

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

While you’re at it, check out these FREE grammar apps on Android!

Eurovision 2017 Logo

Add some Eurovision sparkle to your language learning!

The Eurovision Song Contest may be over for 2017 (congratulations, first-time winner Portugal!), but it can still be a sparkling, magical resource for teaching and learning modern foreign languages.

Eurovision and languages have gone hand-in-hand for me since my early days of crazy fandom. Aged 15, I became intrigued by this exotic musical competition full of unusual-sounding tongues. It fuelled my nascent passion for languages, and it’s a dual obsession that continues to this day. Eurovision is why I can say ‘love’ in 20+ languages. It’s why I know all the country names so well in French. And even with the explosion of English-language songs since 1999, it can be a wonderful learning resource for ‘normal’ folk, too! 

Here, I’ve collected a few ideas for getting started with Eurovision as a language-learning resource. Admittedly, the links here will be old-hat to dyed-in-the-wool fans like me. But if you’re just a marginally less insane lover / learner / teacher of languages, you might find something useful in here for your own learning.

Eurovision can be fun, serious, silly, touching – but most of all, memorable. And it’s that memorability that gives the material salience and staying power when you’re learning a language!

Videos and lyrics

As talking points for a lesson, Eurovision clips are perfect. They’re short – the three-minute rule makes sure of that – and they are wonderful time capsules of fashion, too, giving you loads of material for discussion. Do you like the stage / set? What do you think of the clothes? Would that song be a hit today? You can go on and on.

The official YouTube channel of the Eurovision Song Contest is the first stop for video clips of songs from past contests. If you can’t find the exact entries you want there, a quick search on YouTube along the lines of “Eurovision YEAR COUNTRY” (like “Eurovision 2017 France”) will always throw up some good results.

Waxing lyrical

For a bit of text support, there is a fantastic lyrics site with every Eurovision entry to date on it: The Diggiloo Thrush (you may have to stop tittering at the name before you look it up).

I’ve used Eurovision lyrics to mine for fresh vocab. For instance, I’ll take a song I like in a language I’m learning, look up the text, and note any new words in my vocab bank (I use Anki currently for this). If I really love a song, I’ll also try to learn it, so I can sing it in the privacy of my own shower. T.M.I., I know, but whatever it takes to learn!

Eurovision gapfills

If you’re teaching others, you can use lyrics to make interactive activities for your students, too. Copy and paste your chosen song text into a document / Textivate game or similar, removing some of the words to make a gapfill. Play the song to the students and get them to fill in the gaps as they hear them. It’s a brilliant way to focus the ears on the sounds of the target language.

There are lots of ways to approach this with different objectives. For instance, you could remove all the non-content words, like ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘then’ and so on. That hones the attention on all those little connective words that we need to make our language flow. Alternatively, take out the content words (you’ll find ‘love’ quite a lot in Eurovision songs!) to practise concrete, topical vocab.

Language awareness

A game I liked to play with my own language classes, back in the day, was ‘guess the language’. I’d prepare clips of Eurovision songs in a range of languages including the one(s) the class was learning. Of course, you can throw in some sneaky difficult ones. Dutch is great, if they’re learning German, or Italian if they’re learning Spanish, to throw them off the scent.

It’s an engaging and competitive way to get students thinking about how languages are related to one another, and where the language they’re learning fits in to the bigger picture. It’s ‘meta-knowledge’ in the sense that it’s about what they’re learning more generally – language – than knowledge of the language itself. But it’s an excellent way to show the target language within its global context.

Eurovision: national reactions

National press can go crazy over Eurovision, generating a raft of headlines and articles for consumption. Right after a contest, you can easily find web articles from countries that did either well or badly, by simply going to the homepage of the national broadcaster. This article from Norwegian broadcaster NRK, for example, describes the high mood of the team after scoring a top ten placing in Kyiv this year.

Why are these articles useful? Well, they’re usually quite simple to read. They’re about a well-known, universal field – music and entertainment – so they won’t contain too many complex notions like other news articles might. Also, they’re full of those vocab items like dates, numbers and such like, which are simple, but a pain to learn. Excellent practice!

Where to find broadcaster links? Well, Wikipedia provides a very handy list of EBU member stations at this link. Also handy for looking up programming in your target language, even when Eurovision isn’t on!

Eurovision is a marvellous, fun, colourful, diverse and happy medium for language learning. What’s more, all of the material is freely available online for you to get creative with. With over 60 years of history, there’s a treasure of resources to play with, so get out there and bring some Eurovision magic into your language learning!