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 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.

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!

A dictionary won't always help you learn words in their natural habitat: the sentence.

Sentence building: Go beyond words with Tatoeba

Learning and assimilating vocabulary in a foreign language isn’t simply a case of learning lists of words: context matters. Just like a careful zoologist observing animals in the wild, it’s important to study words in their natural habitat: the sentence.

Conversely, a lot of reference material for language learners fails to provide this context. If you’re looking for single words in your foreign language, there are myriad look-up tools available. Unfortunately, only a few take steps to set the word in situ; Google Translate, for example, is surprisingly better than many online dictionaries at providing context. If you type in a single word, many entries come with a list of translations and a useful list of cross-referenced, related terms too. Arguably a lot more useful to language learners than the actual machine translation feature!

Google Translate is great for single word look-ups, too!

Google Translate is great for single word look-ups.

However, there is little else online in terms of whole-sentence reference, Apart from “basic phrases in…” pages. Indexed, systematic lists of example sentences, complete with translation support, are harder to find.

Habeas corpus (linguisticus)

One open-source resource, though, is changing that. Tatoeba – from the Japanese ‘for example’ – is a vast, and rapidly growing, corpus of thousands of sentences in scores of languages. Moreover, it’s expanding continually through user contributions. And you, as a native speaker of your own language (even if it’s English!), can help expand it further.

With many of the entries including native-speaker audio, it is a fantastic (and still quite untapped) resource for language learners. It’s full of colloquialisms, handy turns of phrase, and authentic language use. There are many ways you can work it into your own learning; here are just a few ideas for starters.

Words in context

Learnt a new word, but not sure exactly how native speakers use it? Type that single word into Tatoeba, and if you’re lucky, a whole load of sentences will come up. It’s a fantastic way to put your new vocab into context, something which definitely helps me to commit new words to memory. If sound is provided, it’s an instant way to practise / improve your pronunciation too, much like the brilliantly useful Forvo website for single words.

Putting your vocab in context with Tatoeba.

Putting your vocab in context with Tatoeba.

Build your own sentence lists

With your free Tatoeba account, you can save your own word lists to store favourite sentences. Simply click the list icon next to a sentence – you’ll quickly start to build quite extensive, custom ‘vocab in context’ learning resources.

There are also collaborative lists, which means you can work together with others. This might be with classmates, or perhaps even a teacher you’re working with remotely on iTalki. Conversely, it’s also an excellent way for teachers to collate and share useful phrase lists as teaching resources.

Combine with Anki

Anki Flashcards is a firm favourite of many linguaphiles for drilling vocab. You can combine it with Tatoeba by exporting your lists from that site as CSV files, then importing them directly into the Anki program. For now, the Tatoeba export will only extract the text, and no associated sound files. But if you’re willing to fiddle, here’s a short guide on including available sound files in your Tatoeba-Anki port.

If you’re a polyglottal sucker for punishment, you can even export the lists with a translation other than your native language, in order to practise two languages at once. See the screenshot below for a rather scary Norwegian-Greek export setup – I’m sure you can think up even more testing pairings!

Changing the language pairing in a Tatoeba export.

Changing the language pairing in a Tatoeba export.

Find ready-made Tatoeba Anki decks

If all the to-and-fro of exporting puts you off, then don’t despair – some Tatoeba decks have already been imported to Anki as shared desks. Check here for a list of them (several including sound files).

Contribute

Finally, the best way to grow the resource is to become part of it. You can add, correct, record and otherwise extend Tatoeba as a member. If you’ve found it useful, it’s an excellent way to give back.

Tatoeba is one more tool in the linguaphile’s online arsenal, and can be worked into a learning routine in many ways. Feel free to share your own experiences and tips in the comments below!

 

Spanish flag

Spanish Grammar Bites: The personal ‘a’

I love language quirks. Little things that your foreign language does, well, just differently. The Spanish personal ‘a’ is the perfect example of that for me.

Learning these little foibles isn’t just a case of speaking correctly – it sets you apart as someone that really knows the language well.

The rule

In essence, the rule is:

When a verb takes a direct object, if that object is a human being, put a before the object.

This might seem a bit strange at first, as ‘a’ means ‘to’ in Spanish. Two examples make this a bit clearer:

  • Veo el castillo (I see the castle)
  • Veo a la mujer (I see the woman)

You’re literally saying ‘I see to the woman’ in Spanish, which might strike a non-native speaker as a little odd. When translating sentences like this into English, there’s no equivalent – you’d simply leave it out. It’s very particular to Spanish, though, and getting it under your belt will mark you off as someone who is a real language master!

In context

Seeking out an example of this in context, I found a nice little headline featuring a personal a:

¿Te gustaría encontrar a tu doble? Would you like to meet your double?

Because your double is (hopefully) another human being, and it’s the direct object of encontrar (to find), it has to be preceded by the little a.

Flippin’ el – watch out

The personal a comes with all the baggage of the usual a, too. Specifically, note that a will combine with a following el (the – masculine singular) to become al, too. So, we have:

  • Veo a la mujer (I see the woman)
  • Veo al hombre (I see the man)

Spanish personal a: video

Here’s a quick ‘n’ easy video to illustrate the grammar point – definitely one of my favourite Castilian quirks!

Change may be accelerated by societal pressures.

Change, society and the language learner

Language never stands still. As learners, we study a moving target. The only constant is change.

It’s something that hits you when you learn from old textbooks. Many old, forgotten language courses still have mileage in them, especially if you like learning the nuts and bolts of grammar early on.  You do have to keep one eye on the relevancy of the language learnt, though.

For instance, I’ve learnt a lot over the last couple of months from a Teach Yourself Polish edition that was originally published in 1948. It’s no longer available in print, but it really suits my learning style; I’ve not found a gentler, clearer introduction to Polish grammar in anything newer.

Language reflects social change

Saying that, the world, and the vocabulary that reflects it, have changed a lot since 1948. I won’t find the Polish for computer or mobile phone in there, for example. Neither will I be able to talk about my job (developing language learning software). I can’t even talk about recent political events (what’s the Polish for Brexit or fake news?).

These sweeping and rapid changes tend to affect the content words of a language. Generally speaking, the function words – those nuts and bolts like articles, conjunctions and pronouns – are slower to change. It has taken centuries, for example, for English to whittle down the pronouns ‘thou’ and ‘ye’ to a single ‘you’.

Brave new world

However, we live in times that see status quo smashed and long-held tendencies bucked. One explanation for this may be the increasing speed of information flow through society. Social media facilitates this flow,  catalysing societal change; language, mirroring society, reveals these changes in an ever quicker pace of change.

Recent developments in Sweden, and more recently, Norway, illustrate this society-language two-step nicely. With the emergence of new gender categories such as trans and non-binary, language was left wanting. Swedish han (he) and hon (she) no longer reflected the reality many want to talk about. Broad support to plug this gap led to the adoption of a new, gender-neutral pronoun, hen. The Swedish Academy finally recognised the word in its official word list in 2015. Today, Norway’s Labour Party leads calls for the same in Norwegian, continuing a pace of language change that does not even leave function words untouched.

It’s worth noting that there is nothing truly new about gender neutrality in language. Languages like Finnish and Turkish have long lacked a marker for gender in the equivalent of he/she. The difference is that their systems, presumably, evolved over millennia of language change; Swedish and Norwegian hen have emerged in just a few years, testimony to this new world of rapid change.

Stay ahead of change

So how can the language learner cope in this world? Well, sweeping functional changes are still rare in language, despite the hen example. Changes in usage and convention can happen from generation to generation, like shifts in the Swedish use of ‘you’. Still, these changes won’t make you unintelligible (and nothing a few days in the country won’t cure!).

Otherwise, there are a few tactics you can keep in mind to protect your language skills from becoming outdated.

Be on the lookout

It is important to arm yourself with cultural awareness when using slightly older materials. With old texts, bear in mind that the political world may have shifted; my 1948 Polish course, for example, is littered with military terms, doubtlessly useful to friends and relatives of Polish service personnel settled in the UK post-war. Less useful to me, I’m aware of the vocab I can probably ignore for now.

The names of countries may even have changed; pre-1989 German materials are historical documents in themselves, attesting to a still divided country. The terms for languages themselves may be different; texts on Serbo-Croat for learning the language of Yugoslavia have been swept away in favour of separate texts on the Serbian and Croatian of now independent countries.

Actively build vocabulary

Be aware of how the world has changed; actively seek to plug gaps your learning resources. Google Translate is being updated constantly, so great for finding single terms on modern life. Use tech / computer / lifestyle magazines in the target language to mine for new terms (Readly is a useful subscription service featuring many foreign titles).

Keeping ahead of language change with Google Translate

Keeping ahead of change with Google Translate

Read all about it

Read current affairs in your target language as widely as possible. Online news is (generally) a cost-free way of doing this. Here is a nice list of foreign language outlets to start with. Expose yourself constantly to the topics of the day, and note any new terms for learning. I use Evernote and Anki for adding terms to my vocab bank.

Intimidated by advanced news texts as a beginner? Some media outlets cater for learners of the language. German learners might like to try this podcast by Deutsche Welle, featuring the news of the day in deliberately slow, uncomplicated German. A similar service for Spanish learners is provided by NewsInSlowSpanish.com.

Embrace it

Finally, don’t see language change as a hindrance. Rather, be intrigued by it, and strive to follow developments in your target language country. Learning how a language has changed / is changing can increase your familiarity with both the language and the society it belongs to.

It illustrates perfectly how language should never be studied in isolation on a textbook page, but ‘in the wild’ as a living, breathing creature.

Thanks again to the brilliant NRK radio programme Språkteigen, who recently ran the story of ‘hen’ in Norway, and provided the inspiration for this post!

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!