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!

Edinburgh Castle is a stunning backdrop to the Edinburgh Fringe each August

Edinburgh Fringe for Language Lovers: Shows for Linguists!

Edinburgh Fringe has filled the streets of Scotland’s capital for another colourful August. There are literally thousands of shows available to see. The sheer number of them means that there is bound to be something of interest to everyone. And that includes linguists!

After trawling through the masses on offer, here are some promising-sounding events for students / teachers / fans of languages. Inevitably, it’s the ‘mainstream’ languages of French, German and Spanish that crop up most. But amongst them, there are shows that will appeal to non-speakers, too. And that’s a great excuse to take along a friend or two to spread the language love!

French

The festival can’t get enough of Piaf this year. There are at least five cabaret shows featuring chansons from the renowned songstress! They include:

If you prefer your music folksy, then a set from Les Poules à Coulin looks like a good bet. For dance / physical theatre with a French slant, check out “La Maladie de la Mort d’Après Marguerite Duras”. Check the website, though, as some performances may be in English translation.

Something that really captures the imagination is a bilingual puppetry and storytelling event in French. “The Wonderful World of Lapin” looks like a particularly cute way to introduce the little ones to a bit of français. Most likely, quite a few big ‘uns would also find it magical!

German

German is a little under-represented compared to French (keine Überraschung, sadly!). However, there are a couple of interesting listings that might be worth a punt.

Absurdist theatre your bag? Well, there’s a show for you, performed in German with some English explanations. “Leere Zeit – Idle Time” is on at theSpace on the Mile, a venue that promises a global aspect to its line-up.

For some more classical, musical entertainment, you can enjoy Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos in the church setting of Broughton St Mary’s.

Spanish

As ubiquitous as Piaf is for French, you can’t seem to get away from Flamenco at this year’s Fringe. There are three shows that feature the quintessential Spanish musical / dance style:

The poetry of Lorca takes centre stage at “Frost and Lorca”. The event features artwork by Sir Terry Frost, inspired by the Spanish writer; the presentation is in Spanish and English, so should be suitable for non-hispanist friends!

And for a proper melting pot of storytelling, try “Mimi’s Suitcase”, which blends English, Spanish and Persian to explore themes of identity and displacement.

Even the good old Edinburgh Ghost Tour gets the Spanish treatment this year. “Tour de fantasmas en español” sounds like a fun way to get a stock Edinburgh tourist tick and practise español at the same time!

Russian

Although it’s chiefly English-language comedy, Abi Robert’s show Anglichanka (Englishwoman) is worth a mention. Abi spent considerable time in Russia, and weaves her many tall tales into a wonderfully hilarious hour of laughter. I caught her performing a similar show at my very first Edinburgh Fringe (quite) some years ago, and it’s great to see her back at the festival with more of that hugely funny format!

Culture (without the language)

As well as the above shows, there are hundreds more without a specific language hook, but of cultural interest to linguaphiles. Russia is under the spotlight in several satirical / topical shows, for example.

Less controversially, Russian classical music is on the programme at a number of concerts. Scottish Sinfonia’s line-up sounds like quite a treat. Likewise, you can learn about imagined lives in Russia at theatre events like “The Girl Who Loved Stalin”.

If the aim is to steep yourself in the culture of Russia (or many other target language cultures), then there is a wealth of choice.

Edinburgh Fringe: take a punt

I’ve always found that the best way to enjoy the Fringe is to take a risk. With shows priced so reasonably, you can easily try something you wouldn’t normally see. Thought you hated Piaf? Give her a chance at one of the several shows on offer. Irritated by flamenco? Then give the Scottish twist on it a chance! Personally, the German absurdist theatre tempts the risk-taker in me. It could be worth a shot! And if not, then at least it gets me out of the house for an hour or two…

Have you managed to catch any of the shows above? Are there any others that you’d recommend? Please share in the comments below!

The French flag flying in front of a town hall

Grammar on a budget: CGP French handbook [review]

I’m a big fan of school revision materials as cheaper alternatives to expensive language textbooks. CGP’s foreign language GCSE revision guides are a case in point. The publishers may be targeting teenage students, but the material is just as effective for older, recreational learners.

These language revision guides are largely topic-based, vocabulary-driven textbooks. But French learners can now learn the nuts and bolts of the language on a shoestring; CGP’s KS3 & GCSE French Grammar handbook presents the fundamentals of the language in its trademark concise, colourful way.

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook – (almost) pocket-sized

Grammar, bite by bite

In fewer than 100 pages, the book presents French grammar in palatable, bite-sized chunks. Each major point takes up just a page or two, with simple explanations and clear examples. And the book is packed with colour-coded tables of word forms and conjugations, making it ideal for visual learners.

You can instantly see the attraction of the layout for engaging students on Key Stage 3 / GCSE courses. But it serves as an incredibly accessible grammar guide / refresher for adults, too. Who doesn’t love a bit of colour to aid learning?

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook

The trademark full-colour CGP layout

Clearly, a guide like this won’t be as comprehensive as a benchmark reference work like Routledge’s French Grammar and Usage. CGP will take you a fair way, though; the range of tenses is covered in the short guide, and even the present subjunctive gets a mention. Unless you’re taking French to advanced / university level, chances are that this little book will cover your basic to intermediate needs. At A5 size, it might even fit in your (admittedly large-ish) pocket.

Talking about language

The guide also offers a lot of support if you’re not comfortable with the jargon used to talk about language (metalanguage). More ‘grown-up’ texts can automatically assume the reader grasps grammatical terms about parts of speech, for example. In the CGP grammar guide, however, they all receive clear, plain English explanations. Thanks to the ‘no fluff’, concise style, the material manages to avoid being patronising, too.

French grammar for under a fiver

CGP’s KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook comes in at under a fiver on Amazon.co.uk right now. This compares very favourably with more ‘mature’ basic reference guides, like Teach Yourself’s French Grammar You Really Need To Know.

There is also a companion workbook available at the same price, with practice tests and quizzes. This is in a slightly less pocket-sized A4 format, dwarfing the actual grammar guide. But it is worth paying the little extra for; it offers lots of reinforcement, with a full answer key provided at the back of the booklet.

It’s perhaps not a completely like-for-like comparison, as the Teach Yourself book has many plus points of its own; it has a highly communicative approach, and at twice the length of the CGP guide, it can afford more page space for extra examples and exercises (which are in a separate book in CGP’s case). However, if you’re on a tight budget, CGP has all the necessary points covered.

It’s a great addition to the CGP range, and a release that means learner texts needn’t cost the earth. French is the only language offered right now, although it would be very welcome – and not inconceivable – to see the same title for German and Spanish if this release does well.

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!

Study material for a course

Course books for linguists: save cash with revision guides

When you commit to learning a foreign language, it’s not unusual for a first step to be seeking out good course material. There are plenty of very well established courses, the best including audio material. The staple Teach Yourself series, for example, was always my favourite place to start when starting out on a new language project.

Unfortunately, it can be an expensive business. Course books, audio CDs, dictionaries, grammar reference guides – it all adds up. Fortunately, there’s a cheaper alternative if you’re after simple beginner materials. And they come with some unique advantages over traditional courses, too!

The wallet-saving secret:
Revision guides intended for first-level language exams at high schools.

It was through writing reviews for several revision guides in recent years that I realised how useful the could be beyond their target audience. For a start, they’re comprehensive; the best guides from publishers like CGP include:

  • Thematically organised vocabulary lists and phrases
  • Grammar reference broken into bite-sized chunks
  • Audio material for listening practice
  • Word glossaries at the back, which double up as handy simple dictionaries

Moreover, they’re cheap. Aimed at schoolkids, they’re meant to be an affordable route to getting the best grades. CGP’s GCSE French (Edexcel) revision guide is just £12.99. For comparison, the full Colloquial French course is £19.99 for the book, and £10 for the CD on Amazon.

Horses for courses

OK, it’s not a completely fair comparison, like for like. A revision guide, by definition, is concise and snappy. It’s meant to remind, not to teach. Conversely, a full course will give you lengthier explanations and more extensive examples.

But sometimes, less can be more. If you want an at-a-glance list of useful words or grammar points, then maybe you don’t want all the extra fluff. Revision guides give you all the content, with very little padding and hand-holding.

What’s more, the CGP guides come with useful extras like online library versions. You might prefer not to lug the physical book everywhere. No problem: just access it via an internet-connected device. You’ll find it much harder, generally, to get the electronic version of a full-blown course as a free addition to the hard copy.

Weighing it up

Here are some key advantages and disadvantages to bear in mind when choosing cheap and cheerful course materials over more ‘grown-up’ stuff:

Revision guides Full courses
Cheaper
Concise but comprehensive
Can include audio material
At-a-glance learning material, no ‘fluff’
Many include online versions at no extra cost these days
Great quick reference
Often fun, colourful publications rather than boring old black-and-white
More extensive examples and explanations
Audio material usually more comprehensive and varied
May include more ‘grown-up’ topics and more relevant examples for mature learners

Going off-course

One final point for consideration is language availability. As schools are the target market, you’ll only find guides for languages commonly taught in schools. As an example, the CGP GCSE guides are available only in French, German and Spanish. Not much luck if you’re after cheap materials in Basque, Finnish or Norwegian.

If you can find a good fit for your language, though, consider revision guides.
Made for kids, great for all beginner linguaphiles!

Learn tricks with verbs to get your conversation flying high above the clouds

Verbs made simple: make your conversation fly

English speakers have it easy with verbs. Aside from those pesky irregular ones, you’ve only got -s and -ed to worry about.

That’s why verbs can be the first brick wall anglophones hit when they begin a foreign language. Look at Spanish – every tense has six forms, one for each person (I, you, he/she/it etc.), and all of them are different from the word you’ll find in the dictionary. Look up hablar (to speak) as a total beginner, and it won’t tell you about hablo – hablas – habla – hablamos – habláis – hablan. And that’s just the present tense!

Now, I don’t mean to scare anyone off learning verbs. There’s actually a logical beauty to conjugation systems, especially for dyed-in-the-wool language geeks like me. The patterns might be unfamiliar, but they will come with time and patience.

However, there are a couple of tricks you can use as a total beginner to get your conversation flying, and not struggling to take off in a pea-souper of verb endings.

Cut-price verbs

Tables of verbs will easily overwhelm a beginner. It’s just a massive wall of words if you don’t know the language very well. But ask yourself: how much of that detail do you actually need as a beginner?

Chances are that as a newcomer to a language, your conversations will mainly be talking about yourself (I), or the person you’re speaking to (you). You’ll probably be doing most of that in the present tense (making general statements) or the past (talking about what happened). So why not cut the padding, and just focus on the four combinations of those things? In English, that would look like:

Present Past
I speak spoke
you speak spoke

In many languages, you can ask a question by simply changing the intonation of your voice. So you won’t even have to learn any special question forms. Pick out your simplified verb parts, and add them to your favourite vocab drilling program like Anki like you would with any other word or phrase. Paper flashcards are great for learning these verb parts, too.

But wait…

Ah, you might be thinking. My foreign language has several different past tenses according to what you’re talking about! Spanish, for example, has the preterite for single, completed actions, and the imperfect, for repeated or habitual actions in the past.

Well, just take one of them. If you’re talking about stuff that happened in Spanish, then the preterite (the ‘story-telling’ past) is probably the best. In German, the perfect tense might be best, as it’s used as a ‘conversational past’. Whichever tense you choose, if you use it incorrectly, most native speakers will be forgiving and still understand. And comprehension is the name of the game, right?

So, here’s our ‘essential conjugation’ for the Spanish verb hablar (to speak):

Present Past (Preterite)
yo hablo hablé
hablas hablaste

The same goes for languages with different familiar and polite words for you. Pick just one, for now. Make it the one that makes most sense for you – I used the familiar in the Spanish above. If you’ll be speaking with peers and other students, then probably the familiar one is best. If you’ll be in lots of formal situations, learn the polite one.

To be, or not to be

Of course, you can go one step further, and not learn any endings at all. The trick is to find phrases that you can just slot that dictionary form – the infinitive – into. Then, just look up your word, pop it into your sentence, and voilà! Neatly-formed sentences without any effort.

Taking Spanish and French as an example, here are just a few stock phrases you can use with an infinitive:

Spanish French English
Hay que … Il faut … I/you/we must …
Me gusta … J’aime … I like …
Voy a … Je vais … I’m going to …

Just look up a verb in the dictionary, and wodge it on the end. Simples!

It’s all about making your job as a learner easier. Simplify – you’ll be communicating all the sooner for it!