The coastline of Banff, Aberdeenshire

Finding a Language Retreat : Peace and Quiet to Reset Your Learning

Do you have a retreat? A place to escape to, just you and your books? Maybe you have a few places that earn that title.

I’ve spent a bit of time at one of mine this week. And it has reminded me of the importance of pace, pause and a change of scenery in learning.

Macduff, viewed from Banff, Aberdeenshire - a special place, and a language learning retreat of mine

Macduff, viewed from Banff, Aberdeenshire – a special place, and a language learning retreat of mine

Sometimes, our special places are not always those we choose for ourselves. Instead, life moves in mysterious directions, and we end up drifting along its currents to surprising destinations. So it is with Banffshire for me.

A born Midlander, family, friends and work have conspired together to move my centre of gravity to Scotland over the years. Specifically, to Edinburgh, a wonderful place to come to rest. But Banff and Macduff, nestling in a far-flung corner of Northeast Scotland, have exerted an ever-stronger draw in recent years.

Thanks in part to family circumstances, and partly to their natural beauty, Banff and Macduff have become important pins on my personal map.

As a Midlander, of course, the sea was always something special. Being landlocked, it was only on long trips to the faraway coastline that we ever managed to see it. Perhaps, then, that is why Banff and Macduff have captured my affection and imagination.

Reset with a Learning retreat

Why, then, are our special places so useful as learners?

Well, if you are anything like me, life tends to pull you in all directions. Work, social life, family commitments are fulfilling, but take an energy hit on the body and soul. Somewhere in between it all, we need to fit our passion for language learning. It can sometimes feel, though, that languages are playing second fiddle.

Sometimes, we just need a reset. And a retreat can do that.

Leaving behind the to-and-fro for a while, travelling light (apart from your trusty books, of course), can be a tonic. For a start, it’s a chance to focus on what you love most – learning languages. Calendar cleared, long journey ahead of you, you can get down to study as soon as your train / bus / plane leaves. It’s time to focus on what you learn, how you learn, cocooned by a peace and quiet that rarely comes in the day-to-day.

Choose your landscapes carefully, and they can really inspire, too. For me, Icelandic is an important, currently active language project. And there is something very Nordic about the sweeping seascapes and weather-battered heath on the journey up north to my selected spot of Scotland. Reading the Icelandic sagas (albeit in simplified form) and glancing through the train window, it is engrossing to imagine the action taking place in settings not unsimilar. It does not hurt that some of the stories actually wind their way through Scottish soil on the way, too.

A language retreat can connect your subject to the whole world around you, as well as free you from distractions in order to refocus on learning. Near or far, find and nurture that special place for you and your books. Your brain / blood pressure will thank you for it.

A vast array of colourful baubles, as varied as your own mass sentences can be. (Picture from freeimages.com)

DIY mass sentences technique : self-made repetitions for grammar mastery

I’ve talked about the utility of mass sentences previously, including the vast resources at Tatoeba and Glossika. It can be particularly helpful in drilling language patterns through high exposure to model content and multiple repetitions. However, it’s possible to replicate some of that power under your own steam.

I got the following idea from a fellow member of a Facebook language challenge group I’m a member of. Now, his particular sticking point was German cases, but the idea lends itself to all sorts of material you need to master.

With the help of his teacher, he created a set of ‘model sentences’ as a corpus of focussed learning material. In this case, the sentences chosen covered all of the permutations for cases with articles, for example. Fellow Germanists will recognise the challenge of learning those as a beginner! For instance, this set could include:

  • Der Hund kommt. (The dog is coming – nominative)
  • Ich sehe den Hund. (I see the dog – accusative)
  • Ich gebe dem Hund ein Eis. (I give the dog an ice cream – dative)
  • Das ist der Korb des Hundes. (That is the dog’s basket – genitive)

They can be much more complex than that, of course, including adjectives, prepositions that take certain cases, and so on. The important thing is that they are clear examples of the grammatical points the learner is finding tricky.

Drilling your mass sentences

Once the set is complete, the sentences can be added to your drill tool of choice. That is, unsurprisingly, Anki in most of our cases in the group (it helps having an Anki wizard as the group founder!). You could equally well use a tool like Quizlet or Educandy.

Of course, they can be a ‘mass’ as you like, incorporating from just a few sentences to hundreds. But you should have at least one sentence per grammatical point you’re trying to drill. The only golden rule is to check your sentences with a teacher before you start to drill them. You want an error-free collection of source material!

Conquering the foothills

Since I am currently learning Icelandic, I had plenty of opportunity to put this into practice recently. Four cases, definite and indefinite forms of nouns and both strong and weak adjective declensions had me pretty much stumped for months. The perfect testing ground.

Having started with my sentence stash a couple of weeks ago, I can already see significant progress. Finally, I’m latching on to some of the patterns thanks to repetition. Somehow, those cases are sticking!

Example of DIY mass sentences in Icelandic drilling masculine nouns in the dative case.

Sample of my DIY mass sentences in Icelandic (here, drilling masculine nouns and adjectives in the dative case).

Like all techniques, naturally, it is no magic pill. It can be a gradual and sometimes uneven process, for many reasons. For one thing, our brains are attracted to certain elements first and foremost, partly due to links to other material we’ve happened across. Mine particularly likes the masculine indefinite accusative adjective ending, which reminds me of the German -en ending (German is my first and strongest foreign language). The Icelandic nýr > nýjan (new) maps pretty neatly onto the German neu > neuen.

Whatever the cause, though, that tiny victory is a little foothill of the vast mountain range of Icelandic that I’ve managed to conquer. I now proudly seize upon any chance to use masculine nouns in the accusative when chatting to my tutors! (I know – I will have to move on from that habit at some point…) With a bit more mass sentences graft, I’m hoping that they all start to fall into place soon.

If you’ve not done so before, have a go at making your own sentence corpus to learn from. Incorporate your own most fiendishly difficult grammatical sticking points. You can reap some of the benefits of a mass sentences technique without relying on third-party word banks or subscription sites. Not only that, but you’ll increase your recall power through this hands-on approach to making your own materials.

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!

Alphabet Texts

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

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

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

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

Tantalising texts: balancing subject and level

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

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

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

Textual Time machine

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

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

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

Tímarit (mbl.is)

Gary Barlow, 1996 (timarit.is)

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

Beer outrage (timarit.is)

Beer outrage, 1996 (timarit.is)

Our history – their eyes

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

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

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

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

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

Target language culture?

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

Vigdís voted president! (Timarit.is)

Vigdís voted president! 1980 (timarit.is)

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

Eurovision Iceland 1992 (timarit.is)

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

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

Other languages

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shipwrecks in Scotland (from freeimages.com). Perhaps Doric was spoken aboard these vessels?

Doric Scots: Treasure Trove of Nordic Gems

As language learners, we often focus on cultures that are far-flung. With our eyes and ears fixed on the far away, any richness around us can end up playing second fiddle. But occasionally, when you take a moment to pause, you realise the beautiful relevance of the local to your learning. So it is with Doric Scots and my journey with learning Icelandic and Norwegian.

Doric Scots

Doric is the dialect of Scots that is typical of Northeast Scotland, particularly Aberdeen and the surrounding fishing towns and villages. It boasts a very particular vocabulary of its own, which differs a fair bit from the Scots heard elsewhere in the country.

Although based in Edinburgh when I’m here, I’m lucky to be surrounded by friends and family who speak this colourful, unique and linguistically intriguing variety as their home tongue.

Scandi-Scots

The most curious thing is its substantial overlap in vocabulary with North Germanic languages. As a student of Norwegian and Icelandic, it is constantly throwing up nice surprises. Now and again friends will use a word that is unfamiliar in English. However, there is often more than a slight chance that it has a cognate somewhere in Scandinavia.

It’s certainly true that some of this North Germanic vocabulary is well attested throughout Scotland. Bairn (child) and kirk (church) are two that even south-of-the-border anglophones will recognise.

That said, Doric adds a whole raft of other northern terms like thole (bear, stand) and muckle (much, lots) that give the dialect a special Nordic twist.

Routes and roots

How they ended up in Doric, but lost to the rest of English (and even Scots), is unclear. Perhaps they were brought here by Viking invaders who assimilated into the local culture man hundreds of years ago. Maybe they travelled here by more peaceful routes via visiting sailors, fisherman and traders. There again, maybe they were more widespread, longer ago – perhaps standard English used to have these terms, and has since lost them.

Not knowing for certain lends these special words a delicious mystery. Words are stories, histories, and trying to fathom their beginnings is a unique delight of etymology.

It’s also worth pointing out, along the way, that there once lived a full-blooded, bona fide North Germanic language on Scottish soil: Norn, a language close to Faroese and Icelandic, which flourished until relatively recent times on the northern isles. Little surprise, then, that the language group still has such a presence in some modern-day varieties of Scots.

Memory tricks

But beyond the delightful surprises, could these similarities have a more practical purpose?

Spotting links between the local and the far away object of study can be a huge support when it comes to memorising vocabulary. It assists in creating memory hooks – multiple points of reference that pin a new word into the neural net of your brain. Rather than a single pair of points – English and Icelandic – you can now create a memory that is fixed by a third point, the Doric translation. Noting that gráta (to weep) corresponds to Doric / Scots greet holds that entry much faster in memory.

Examples

Now, I am a backseat etymologist. The list below is not based on extensive research of mine, but of frequent questioning of ever-patient friends and extensive excursions on Wiktionary. As such, here is a list of some touchpoints I’ve spotted between Doric, general Scots and North Germanic languages. It is far from complete or exhaustive, but shows some nice crossovers between Doric, Icelandic and Norwegian.

I have checked these entries with handy Doric-speaking friends, as well as the brief but brilliant Doric word list here. My conclusions proceed from superficial observations (and lots of fun trying to spot patterns), so please let me know in the comments if you know a different etymology, or reason for the overlap.

Doric / Scots terms with Nordic analogues

  • bairn : child
    🇮🇸🇳🇴barn
  • bide : wait / stay
    🇮🇸bíða (‘stay’ in Doric Scots – archaic English sense of ‘wait’ matches Icelandic bída)
  • breeks : trousers
    🇮🇸buxur 🇳🇴bukse – a word the rest of English has all but lost (although you can still hear britches / breeches in old cowboy films!)
  • claes : clothes
    🇮🇸klæði (cloth – the more usual Icelandic term for clothes is föt) 🇳🇴klær
  • ee / een : eye / eyes
    The plural in -n is remarkably similar to the Norwegian øyne (eyes)
  • fit / far : what / where
    The interesting thing here is not that the words have cognates in Doric – after all, the Standard English what / where come from the same route. What is interesting is that the Doric retains an initial fricative sound, just like the Nordic counterparts 🇮🇸hvað / hvar 🇳🇴hva / hvor
  • ging : go
    🇮🇸ganga (walk) – the Doric retains the Germanic -ng- that the shortened Standard English root has lost
  • greet : cry, weep
    🇮🇸gráta 🇳🇴gråte
  • het : hot
    Still close phonetically to the Standard English hot, although the different vowel echoes the Icelandic heitt
  • hoast : cough
    🇮🇸hósta 🇳🇴 husta (and also, husten in German!)
  • mate : food
    🇮🇸matur 🇳🇴mat
  • muckle : much
    🇮🇸mikill
  • oxter : armpit
    🇮🇸öxl (although this means ‘shoulder’ in Icelandic!)
  • quine : woman
    🇮🇸kona  🇳🇴kvinne – also note that Standard English has a cognate in the word queen
  • smit : infect
    🇮🇸smita 🇳🇴smitte (and of course, the Standard English word smitten in a more figurative sense)
  • thole : bear, stand
    🇮🇸þola
  • tint : lost
    🇮🇸týnt (it is not clear whether Doric only retains the past participle, or also an equivalent to the infinitive týna – to lose – too)
  • tow : rope
    🇳🇴tau
  • teem : empty
    🇮🇸tómur 🇳🇴tom

Much as we can do this with Doric Scots and Nordic languages, you can scout English for other traces of history that can help your learning adventure. Greek, Latin and more have made their mark in similar ways. As well as memory aids, the payoff is a deeper, richer understanding of the language you call your own mother tongue.

Often, learning a foreign language can teach you much about the lesser-spotted intricacies of your own – particularly the twists and turns of its pathways through social geography and history.

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.

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!

Colourful balloons

Children’s books for linguists: creative ways into languages

Being a linguaphile and a bibliophile often go hand in hand. I love languages and I love books. Both of these passions go straight to the heart of what it means to get creative with words. Certainly, tapping into creativity (often to the point of being bizarre and fantastical) has helped me to get ahead in languages. And there are few more creative resources in any language than children’s books!

There are some obvious benefits to using children’s books as language learning resources. The language in them will be accessible as a beginner, for one thing. Structure, vocabulary and topic will generally be very straightforward. What’s more, the subject matter can be familiar and predictable, especially in the case of children’s fiction; this is a gift to the active language learner, who likes to make educated guesses at new words rather than look everything up.

Culturally embedded bedtime reading

Native works can be a great introduction to the cultural background of your target language. For instance, children’s stories and fairytales often proceed from a long history of folk storytelling. In some cases, these date back to an ancient oral tradition. The highly popularised work of the Brothers Grimm, for example, draws together hundreds of tales from the collective consciousness of their time. The morals and aphorisms contained within them are echoed in popular culture to this day, being constantly recycled in modern media.

Their themes will be familiar to many non-native speakers, too, thanks to the ancient pedigree of many of the stories. One of my favourite children’s books in a foreign language is this huge tome of Norwegian eventyr. Many of these fairytales seem very familiar to anyone who was brought up with the Grimm’s traditional brand of fairytale, and it is easy to imagine the Proto-Germanic tribes – probably ancestors amongst them – telling versions of these long before they were written down.

Norwegian Fairytales

Norwegian Fairytales

Non-fiction

The place of children’s books in your language learning goes beyond storytelling, too. Reference material in the target language can be a brain-stretching replacement for easier, less challenging tools like Google Translate or a bilingual dictionary. A favourite of mine is this illustrated Icelandic dictionary for children. It is much more rewarding to look up an unfamiliar word here. It may use a little more brain-power, but it adds some valuable target language exposure to your reading.

The Icelandic Children's Dictionary - children's books for reference can be excellent resources

The Icelandic Children’s Dictionary

Children’s books in translation

Children’s books translated from another language might put the cultural purist right off. After all, what is authentic about that? But there are huge benefits for the learner of a foreign language here, especially if you know the original work well.

The Harry Potter books have been my guilty pleasure for some years. I know the stories so well, that tackling them in any new language is a lot easier than facing completely unknown territory. It was actually in German that I read them first, having stubbornly held back from the popular wave of Pottermania. I picked up the third installment, Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, from a station bookshop near Cologne. I was one of the teachers on a school trip, and the excitable chattering of the kids about heroic Harry finally piqued my curiosity.

Years later, and I’ve read Harry Potter books in several languages now, including Norwegian, Russian and Spanish. Each time, they have been an amazing boost to my overall language competence. It is also quite a fancy party piece to recite spells in a number of tongues. Thanks for that, J.K.Rowling!

You can start with much simpler stories than Harry Potter. For example, here are a couple of Icelandic primary readers that I picked up in Keflavík Airport. They are, in fact, translations of anglophone children’s books, so the stories may well be familiar to many learners. (They are also brilliant for learning the names of animals!)

Icelandic Primary Readers

Icelandic Primary Readers

So there is a peek into some of the – perhaps – more surprising items on my otherwise very grown-up language learning bookshelf. There is no shame in reverting to your childhood reading habits when learning a language. And, being generally quite affordable, books for little ‘uns will spare your pennies, too. Here’s to reliving our childhoods through languages!

A duck on a riverbank

Papping your horn at Greek ducks

I’m sitting here imagining a duck in the middle of a big Greek road, as we drive ever closer towards it in our hire car. “It’s not moving!” I shout, panicked. “Quick! Pap ya horn and scare it out of the way!”

No, I haven’t gone mad, and it isn’t some strange nightmare. It’s an example of keyword vocabulary learning, popularised from the 1980s onwards by Michael Gruneberg and his Linkword system. It’s the reason I haven’t forgotten the Greek word for duck – πάπια (papya) – since I learnt it from one of his books in the late 90s.

The idea is simple. You find a word or phrase in your native language, which sounds similar to the foreign vocabulary item you’re learning. You then build a vivid mental scenario, including both the native and the target language word, like my duck example above, and spend some moments visualising it to create a strong association. If you use it for several languages, you might like to add a ‘cultural marker’ too, like setting the scene on a Greek road in my example – it helps to avoid polyglot confusion!

Do be daft

A good rule of thumb is the sillier the better, and this is for quite sound psychological reasons; memory researchers refer to salience as the degree to which certain information stands out in the mind, facilitating learning, and daft yarns like “pap ya horn at the duck in the road” fit the bill (pun intended) quite nicely. For a bit of added razzmatazz, you could try sketching out some of your funnier scenes, too, either digitally or the old-fashioned way. Anything goes to make them more memorable!

I’ve personally had a lot of personal success at vocab learning using this method (maybe because I have a slightly madcap imagination – it helps). What’s more, I’ve recommended it to family and friend, many of whom place themselves in the “but I’m no good at languages!” camp, and they’ve been impressed at how well it helps them remember, too.

Nonetheless, the technique hasn’t gained universal acceptance, and is certainly not particularly visible in formalised language teaching, such as the modern foreign language classroom. This is despite some promising results in studies such as this one from a UK school in 2002, which found that student progressed more quickly than expected when using Linkword courses as part of their language studies. In fact, Gruneberg and others have sometimes felt it necessary to defend the approach, for example, in this article from the Language Learning Journal (Aug 2007). From being quite common sights on bookshop shelves some years ago, you won’t find the original books on sale any more (although a range of apps is available on the website), making the approach a bit of a forgotten gem.

One tool amongst many

The issue is, as with all language learning techniques, that it’s not a complete system, but rather another useful tool in the array that you’ll need to learn a language. Brilliant at building stuck-fast vocabulary memories, there are a couple of obvious drawbacks:

  • It doesn’t lend itself well to grammar learning (although you can use it to learn some sentence-building items, such as conjugated verbs like ‘is’, for example)
  • It depends on finding good sound analogues in the native language to work – for instance, can you think of a good English keyword to build into a story for the Polish word zwycięstwo (victory)?

Nonetheless, I’m still convinced that this is a great way to build a modest vocabulary when you begin a new foreign language, supplementing the rest of your learning. Those memories I formed back in the late 90s are still holding fast!

Combine moves to power up!

What I like to do is combine it with our firm favourite flashcard software, Anki, for a double whammy. You can add a custom field to your language note types – I like to add a ‘Hint’ field, which will contain a brief ‘silly story’ to help me remember the word. You can then make this field visible in your test cards, so you get a reminder of the association every time it pops up:

Anki screenshot showing custom fields in a user-defined note type

Anki screenshot showing custom fields in a user-defined note type

Anki screenshot showing a test card with a custom field added

Anki screenshot showing a test card with a custom field added

There’s a decent YouTube tutorial on doing the above at this link. You can also see more about how and why I style my Anki cards in this earlier post.

So, if you’ve not come across keyword vocab learning techniques before, give them a go; they may just be the hook that you need to remember your first few hundred words in a new language. And a bit of silliness is always welcome!

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.