Melodi Grand Prix 2018

Living the language learning dream

I’ve written recently about learning a language through your interests. By binding your life’s passions with your learning goals, something special ignites. Living the dream as a language learner is all about throwing everything into it, about living life to the max, but through the language. And this weekend, I got the chance to do just that in Oslo.

I’ve always loved music, big arena events and the excitement of live TV. Add languages to that, and it’s no surprise that Eurovision has been a fascination of mine from an early age. Some countries are closer than other when it comes to sharing this love. Fortunately, for me, one of them is Norway – pretty handy for a Norwegian learner! So, what better reason to come to Norway than a couple of tickets for Norway’s Eurovision preselection show, Melodi Grand Prix?

Slice of life

It’s no longer just about the songs, of course – nine out of ten of the entries this year were in English, not Norwegian. But being part of such a big event of national interest drags you straight into the centre of the Norwegian microcosm. You see a real slice of life, being a popular family event; surrounded by cheering, proud citizens of all ages and backgrounds gives you a lovely feel of what it’s like to be a part of Norway.

More importantly, there’s the chance to chat. There’s something about a concert that breaks down barriers, and it was easy to swap opinions and discuss favourites with people sitting nearby. In fact, it was pretty unavoidable, once your cover is blown as an utlending (foreigner)… Everybody wants to know what you think of their national songs!

Melodi Grand Prix 2018 - a major part of living my Norwegian learning dream!

Melodi Grand Prix 2018

Dip in, dip out

Unless you are moving to a country to live, it is hard to embed yourself fully in social and cultural life. But this kind of intense dip-in, dip-out relationship can be a real shot in the arm for language learners. With Norway, of course, high costs dictate that visits (for now) are generally short weekend trips like this. But it’s enough to feel part of something, to keep passion alight, and to make friends that will slowly fasten you to your target language lands.

Choose your dream – and live it

This is what living my language learning dream looks like. Now, seek out what you love about your chosen cultures, and throw yourself headfirst into it. You will construct deep and rewarding connections that will last well beyond you have reached proficiency in a language.

The weekend inspired me to reflect on my experiences as a shy learner of Norwegian. Hear my thoughts below!

Amazon Echo Dot - Alexa for Language Learning

Alexa: Your Personal, Digital Native Speaker

It’s a language learning ‘secret’ that isn’t so secret any more: changing the language setting on your smart devices is a brilliant way to create a personalised immersion environment without going abroad. And the recent explosion of artificially intelligent digital assistant devices is taking this one step further. Voice-activated gadgets, like Amazon’s Alexa, place a (robotic) native speaker right in the centre of your home.

Swayed by the temptingly low price on the entry-level Amazon Dot, I’ve been getting to know Alexa for the past few months. First off, it’s a cliché, but this is definitely the kind of gadget you ‘never knew you needed’. After eyeing the unit with some cynicism for the first few weeks, soon I was constantly asking it to play music, convert currencies and measurements, tell me the weather forecast or simply the time. It’s both easy and fun, and gives you that sense of the future is now!

You digital language assistant

But it’s not just about voice-activating mundane, daily tasks. Ever alert to new learning opportunities, changing Alexa’s language settings was top of the list of experiments to try. And it works a treat, especially for pronunciation; suddenly, I was having to focus intently on expressing my commands in a nice, clear German accent so that Alexa could understand. (Incidentally, I’ve also found switching the language of Apple’s assistant Siri has these great pronunciation drill benefits!)

Interacting is as simple as asking a question like “”Alexa, was sind die Nachrichten?” (Alexa, what’s the news?) or “Alexa, wie ist das Wetter heute?” (Alexa, what’s the weather like today?). For more capabilities – including lots of silly (but briefly entertaining) games – there are hundreds of extra installable skills on Amazon. A useful hit list of the most useful can be found here.

The only snag with Alexa is that it is currently only available in English or German. Great news for Germanists, who won’t feel underrepresented in the language learning world for a change; but a pretty large black hole for everyone else.

Skilling up Alexa as language tutor

However, all is not lost. Users can still download Alexa Skills from Amazon, which augment the device’s capabilities. Already there are a good number of language learning skills, although they vary greatly in quality. It’s clearly early days for the device in terms of educational skills, but the start is promising.

A simple search on Learn Spanish or similar will yield plenty of results for you to try out. Here are a couple of links for the more mainstream languages:

Feedback ranges from decent right down to downright terrible on some of the skills available. However, the facility to give feedback on Amazon is a route for users to shape and improve Alexa as a language learning tool. Try new skills out, and write an honest review for each one – your thoughts will help developers to tweak and adapt Alexa skills for an incrementally better experience.

Watch this space

In summary, Alexa is an excellent investment for Germanists, but hit and miss for students of other languages – at least for the time being. There is a sizeable clamour around Spanish support on Amazon’s developer space, with pressure for other languages too. It would only seem a matter of time before she becomes more than just bilingual.

Marker pens - a cheap immersion tool!

Four immersion tips for FILLING your home with language!

One of the keys for success in language learning is putting your languages everywhere. Wherever you turn, put learning opportunities in your way by filling your life with the target language. There are some well-known tips for doing this in your digital life, like switching the language of your phone or computer.

No place like home (for immersion)

But some of the best tricks are old school, and involve a few simple home hacks. The home is one of the easiest places to put immersion tactics into practice. Here are some of the simplest, and most fun!

Magnetic Poetry

No longer just a kitschy gift, magnetic poetry can now help you learn a language. Now you can get that immersion effect every time you get hungry (yum).

The great thing about these is the potential for sentence building practice. As well as the usual concrete nouns, you’ll find all sorts of function and connective words too. Using these, challenge yourself to create five original fridge sentences a day. Or, if you’re sharing the fridge with a fellow learner, use them to leave messages for each other!

The fridge magnet word blocks are available in:

LED Lightbox

These tinseltown throwbacks are the ultimate in snazzy home text features. They generally have two or three rows for letters, so you can add a couple of words as a centrepiece. Maybe there are a couple of words that just won’t stick, however hard you try? Pop them on the lightbox and put them on show in your living room. Right by the TV is a great place if you don’t want to miss them!

An LED Lightbox

The LED Lightbox – make your target language a fancy home feature!

The one drawback is that they’re generally only available with English alphabet text – that means no diacritics or special characters. However, I haven’t been shopping for one outside the UK, so it’s perfectly possible that foreign character set versions exist. And failing that, you can get creative with a black marker, or make your own letter tiles with some perspex and a stanley knife.

I picked up a great lightbox from The Works in the UK for just £10 (see pic above). Amazon have a few options too, including one with a rating of over 4/5 stars. It even includes emojis! 

Dry wipe boards

Even more back-to-basics than the LED lightbox is the dry wipe board. These are pretty ubiquitous in stationery shops; I picked up a mini one for a couple of pounds in The Works. Alternatively, you can get a slightly larger and more robust version from Amazon for under £20.

Either way, they’re excellent, reuseable means to put your vocab / learning material of the week on display in the home. Display them somewhere prominent – perhaps even on the back of the front door, so you see it every time you leave. Go crazy with colours and illustrations like a Tony Buzan mind map – make sure you can’t miss / forget those lists!


Stickers are like marmite – linguaphiles will love them or hate them. If you’re a stickler for a pristine home, they’re probably not for you. However, if you don’t mind temporarily defacing your furniture and fittings with sticky labels, then they can be a great technique for recycling everyday vocab and increasing immersion.

You can grab a pack of white labels and make your own for next to nothing. However, I’m a great fan of the “in 10 minutes a day” series of books, as they come with a whole section of ready-made stickers to label your life with language. In fact, the whole approach of this series of books is to make language an integral part of your daily life. They’re made for immersion!

The “in 10 minutes a day” books are available in a range of languages, including:

Frictionless immersion

Immersion should, at least in part, be frictionless; that is, it should offer a good degree of exposure to language without a hugely off-putting degree of effort. The techniques above are largely quick and easy, and tick this ‘little effort’ box.

In fact, the hardest part of them is probably making them regular habits. To this end, try using weekly goals or to-do / reminder apps to keep the cycle going. The habit-forming is worth it: you’ll make your living space a dynamic, ever-changing language learning zone!

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Berlin, where have you been all my life?

Language learning isn’t finite; it’s a lifelong process, and isn’t meant to have an end. As such, languages never count as ‘finished’ or ‘learnt’, but require upkeep and maintenance.

With this in mind, I’ve been planning some exciting mini-trips to German-speaking towns over the past few months. Since graduating from university, I’d taken my German for granted a bit. As my first, and strongest foreign language, it was a bit of an oversight that needed some correction. And, looking in the right places with the right tools, you can unearth some real bargains, and make maintenance breaks a regular thing.

Bremen was my first German weekend of 2017, back in May. It was a great way to ease back into travelling the country – an intimate, friendly and compact city well served by budget flights. I loved every minute of it, and it left me ready for the big boss of German cities: Berlin.

Why Berlin?

As a student, I’d shunned Germany to focus on Austria and Switzerland. The southern German-speaking countries had a special draw to me then, with my fascination of dialect. (Germany is just as rich in dialects, though – something I overlooked as a student!) Berlin was a chance to redress the years of negligence, and really get to know this icon of Germany.

Zip in and around with ease

Berlin is an excellent place for a weekend hop-over or short stay. For a start, many low-cost carriers serve the city. From the UK, I flew in to Tegel for £40 (FlyBe), and am flying out of Schönefeld for £30 (EasyJet). From the US, although obviously more expensive, there are still budget options such as Wow Air.

What’s more, connections from the airports to the city are easy and excellent. The Berlin public transport system (BVG) is comprehensive, fast and good value. A Tageskarte (day ticket) for all zones A, B, and C – including the airports – is currently just €7.70. And that covers local trains, trams and buses. (For most of your full-day activities, a ticket for zones A and B will suffice, making it even cheaper.)

All this makes Berlin the perfect candidate for zipping into and around if you have a limited budget and a short time.

A Berlin for everybody

The huge selling point of Berlin is its diversity of attractions. There are museums, exhibits and sights that will appeal variously to all kinds of interests. And entry fees are, on the whole, very reasonable! Pretty impressive for a major city (and welcome to a Brit suffering from a weak pound!)

Traditional museum buff with a love of antiquity? The Pergamon Museum is probably top of your list. Like showcase architecture and spectacular views? Then head to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower).

As for me, I’m a political history nerd. Hungry to learn everything I could about the old East German regime, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a period the city has come to terms with through openness; the Stasi Museum (€6.00) and DDR Museum (€9.50) are intriguing, often disturbing, but ultimately extremely enlightening places to spend time. For the linguist, they offer tons of reading material in the form of short summaries of key events with each exhibit. These are in German and English, just in case you need some translation support!

Deciphering East German soldier speak at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Deciphering East German soldier speak in an exhibit at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

History – and language – on every corner

The city is also full of symbolic, charged landmarks of political history, like Checkpoint Charlie and the restored Reichstag. To dig into the significance of each, I used the German language version of Wikipedia to do my planning beforehand. Additionally, public buildings have dedicated websites, like the Reichstag website – essential for booking the highly recommended (and free!) lift to the roof to view the cupola. The Reichstag reception also has piles of books and leaflets in German, all free to take away with you after your visit.

YouTube is a great pre-trip resource, with some excellent historical clips for fact-digging in the target language. I walked through the Brandenburger Tor, from East to West, after refreshing my own memory with German documentary footage of citizens streaming to freedom one November night in 1989. That made for a pretty special way to rei-imagine Berlin’s history.

The day-to-day

Besides the grand cultural experiences, there was plenty of chance to practise my more prosaic German. Berliners come across as open and friendly people, and it was easy to turn everyday conversations into a little bit more.

Being used to waves of tourists with little or no German, shop and restaurant staff seem more than happy to have a little chat if you want to go beyond “one piece of Streusel, please!”. Being curious and asking questions helps – “wie heißt dieser Kuchen?” (“what’s this cake called?”) was a simple but effective conversation starter in the bakery! Just the slightest hint of an accent will turn the simplest of questions into a chat about why you speak German, too.

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

In short, I don’t know why I left it so long. Berlin, where have you been all my life? Multiple trips back are a foregone conclusion; the charm of the city and the inexhaustible pot of things to do ensure that. As an affordable mini-trip for Germanists in maintenance mode, I can’t recommend it enough.

A ribbon on a gift.

Gift ideas for language lovers

OK, Christmas is gone. But I bet you’ve got a whole raft of birthdays coming up in the coming months. And some of those birthdays will be for language lovers, right? And we’re pretty hard to buy for, right? Well, here are some tips from a typically fickle linguist to help you choose the perfect polyglot pressie (and avoid the obvious, like ‘a dictionary‘).

Films with foreign language soundtracks

For a cosy immersion evening with your favourite language, there’s a film to suit every taste. Check on the back of the DVD or Blu-ray, or in the online specs, to see what languages are available. This Blu-ray edition of Disney’s Frozen, for example, includes the Spanish and Portuguese soundtracks as well as the original English. An ideal gift if you’ve caught your linguist secretly singing along to this rather brill Spotify playlist, which contains every language version of the torch song “Let It Go”!

Animated films are great for linguaphiles, as the stories can be familiar and predictable, full of clues for getting the gist if you’re watching in another language. There’s also less of an issue with mouths not matching dubbed soundtracks, which can be off-putting for some. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, though, so if you want something a bit more serious, check out these lists, curated by IMDB, of the top films originating in each country.

Mini flashcard sets

Several companies create flashcard sets for language learners, which, neatly boxed and colourfully presented, make great little gifts. Physical cards make self-testing a bit more fun, and lend themselves well to group learning games too. Don’t be put off by the big, bold packaging – they’re as useful for adults as they are for kids! Doing a quick search for “[your language] flashcards” will do the trick, but here are a couple of favourites for starters:

A Readly Subscription

Reading magazines on your favourite topics in the target language is a superb way to connect language-learning to your real-life interests. eMagazine service Readly curates hundreds of magazines across a range of languages, including French, German and Swedish. You can browse their full range of titles by country here to check whether you’ll make your favourite linguist happy with a gift card!

You can read the magazines on a range of devices, including smartphones and tablets, and also download magazines to view offline. Perfect for a bit of light reading as you jet off on a language-learning hol.

iTunes or Google Play credit

Many popular language learning resources now come in mobile app format. A few are completely free, like Duolingo, but others cost hard cash, being full-on pay-up-front apps like Anki flashcards, or following a freemium model (pay for extra features or subscriptions) like Memrise.

Not only that, but there’s a wealth of foreign language material on mobile stores, like books, music and films. The costs can add up for a enthusiastic language hacker, so mobile credit is always a very well-received gift.

Gift cards – for free!

If you’re on a super-tight budget, you might even consider using a survey site like Swagbucks to work up some iTunes, Amazon, or other store credit. One thing that’s better than a lovingly given gift card is one that cost you nothing (except a bit of time)!

Give yourself

Finally, you could give the ultimate gift – yourself. Interested in finding out why we love this language-hacking lark so much? Then commit to help us learn, or learn along with us. Give us half an hour a week when we can teach you what we’ve been learning, as teaching others is an excellent way to consolidate what we know. Or, if you have a language that we don’t know, offer us that half an hour a week to teach us something new. We all have valuable skills, and they often make the very best presents.

If that little lot didn’t quite hit the spot, then take a look at the wonderful Emmafull blog, which is packed with original gifting and crafting ideas. She’s also behind the idea of subscription gifts, which seem perfectly suited to this digital, decluttering age.


Language travels on a shoestring

Despite brill online face-to-face services like iTalki for practising and learning languages with native speakers, you can’t beat time spent in the country as the best way to immerse yourself in your chosen language. Seems like an expensive way to fluency, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be, with a range of web tools for sourcing super-cheap travel to your target language country.

Top of the list, and indispensable to the travelling linguist, is Google Flights Explore. It’s not particularly well signposted online – in fact, it’s practically clandestine, and you have to be told by someone else ‘in the know’ before you can find it! Why the experimental extension to Google’s flight search is not promoted more is a mystery, but it’s second-to-none at sourcing cheap flight offers with very general search terms (and I mean very – you can pop in ‘Scandinavia’ or ‘Eastern Europe’, and it will check the lot!).

For instance, say you’re learning Polish. Enter your preferred airport of origin, then Poland as the destination. You can adjust the length of the trip if you like, but the default 3-5 days is a good short break duration if you’re looking for a cheap getaway to practise your language skills. You don’t even need to add a date, as when you select your start and end points, you’ll be presented with a list of destinations along with time charts of the cheapest flights to each. It will even order them, with the cheapest, on average, at the top.

The example below shows that I can get to Warsaw from Edinburgh for as little as around £20 return (USD$25, although prices in your local currency appear when you click through to one of the flights on the time chart).

Google Flights Explore example

Google Flights Explore

Switching to a traditionally more expensive flight destination, such as Norway, still yields great results; a quick search today threw out some £30 returns on London-Oslo routes. It’s just as handy for longer-haul flights, too; flying from New York, Norwegian students can get to the country for under USD$300 return in a sample search made at the time of writing.

But how to minimise costs when you get there? Accommodation will be perhaps the biggest expense on the tick-list. It’s no big secret that, for value, you can’t really beat private rental services like AirBnB. Combining with the sample Polish flight search above, you could add a private room in a shared house for just £11 a night at the time of writing. That amounts to less than £100 for a 5-night stay, flights and accommodation included.

But there are more benefits to using these services like this than low rates. For a linguist / cultural explorer, a private rental property will likely:

  • come with a direct contact, and so more opportunity to meet a local and practise a bit of language as soon as you’re off the plane
  • give you a more authentic experience of what it’s like to live in the target language country, especially as it’s more likely to be self-catering (think of all that shopping vocab you can practise!)
  • give you day-to-day, lived experience of the language if you’re in a shared property / room in someone’s home

Compare that to the often sterile, internationalised hotel reception experience, and private accommodation offers big boons for the language traveller!

There are ways to minimise living costs while you’re there, too. They may not be glamorous – buying food supplies at supermarkets rather than going out to eat, grabbing a cheap pølser i brød (hotdog) at an Oslo kiosk for tea – but again, they bring you into direct contact with the target language, rather than sanitising your experience through safe, familiar settings like restaurants.

It might seem an extreme measure – and, intuitively, an outrageously unaffordable one – to ‘pop abroad’ when you need some target language practice. But it needn’t be bank-breaking, if you know where to look. Commit to a cheap cultural scouting trip once every month, or at least couple of months, setting yourself a tiny budget and seeing what you can do with it. Your inner linguist will thank you!