Non-verbal communication, such as hand gestures, are just as vital as speaking when it comes to real-life language use

Speaking without words: optimising your target language with non-verbal communication

Sticking to your target language isn’t always easy. But it’s a rule worth sticking to. Denying yourself the luxury of speaking your native language is vital in building up mental ingenuity and spontaneous, flexible thinking as a linguist.

However, it is a thing easier said than done. Especially when your vocabulary is limited as a language beginner.

Unpolished Polish

My most recent experience of this has been in Polish. I’ve been learning the language quite casually for a while. I really enjoy it, but maybe haven’t had as much time to spend on it as I’d like. As such, my level isn’t particularly high just yet (maybe an A2), but I can get by.

Just over a year ago, I visited beautiful Gdańsk for my first taste of Poland. I knew my Polish wasn’t brilliant, but I was determined to try and use it. Fairly quickly, I realised that this meant mastering more than just words. It was all about supporting my speaking with purposeful non-verbal cues and pointers.

Thrifty speaking shortcuts

You can pave the way for an efficient speaking-signing hybrid language by careful vocab prep. The trick is to learn words and constructions that have a general, rather than a specific application.

Demonstratives are essential – put this (one) and that (one) at the top of your list. Also, non-specific placeholder words like somethingsomeone and somewhere can be linguistic lifesavers when you are short on vocabulary. Add like …like this / like that, and you have an instant tie-in to hand gestures, pointing and more ways to get your intentions across without being a walking phrasebook.

Likewise, many languages have polite constructions for requesting something. Examples include Polish poproszę, French je voudrais, German ich möchte, Icelandic ég ætla að fá, Norwegian jeg vil gjerne ha and so on. These are transactional workhorses that you can use again and again. They combine perfectly with the general pointer words or gestures above.

If you lack those, even just saying the word/phrase for please, followed by the item you want, should work. If that still doesn’t work, gesticulating wildly will eventually yield the desired results. Just don’t be tempted to lapse into English!

Finally, words of possibility are very useful when combined with hand-talk. Just a simple is it possible? or can I?, combined with some pointing, will make it quite clear that you are asking for permission, for example.

Not just crutches

The fact is that planning for all these non-speech cues and helpers prepares you for real communication. How often is that you have tip-of-your-tongue moments in English, or struggle for the right word for something? And, like me, most people use gestures all the time to supplement everyday native language chat. So much of our regular interaction is non-verbal.

These are not simply crutches for the initial stages of language learning – they are part and parcel of human communication. Language is not simply words. It is an process set in a context of bodies, places and intentions. Working with that fact in your first steps learning a new tongue is no bad thing.

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!

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!

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!

An open dictionary.

Vocabulary building: frequency hacks for faster fluency

It’s not surprising that foreign languages can seem overwhelming to new learners. Vocabulary is the memory monster of language learning, scaring beginners away. Foreign language dictionaries are beasts of books. Even beginners’ word lists and glossaries in textbooks can top 1000 words!

There are ways to tackle vocabulary systematically. Books like the excellent Mot à mot (French), Wort für Wort (German) and Palabra por palabra (Spanish) can be great road maps to a language. They present a broad range of words and phrases for more advanced learners, arranged by topics like family and education. Even humble phrase books, like the Lonely Planet range, can prove a handy (and cheap) tool for basic, thematic vocabulary.

Generally speaking…

Guides like these bring some order to the chaos of words in the dictionary. However, they are predominantly situation-specific. They equip you to talk quite narrowly within set parameters, like ‘at the doctor’, or ‘ordering in a restaurant’. Surely, the goal of true fluency should be the ability to communicate generally and more freely. You might learn how to ask for headache tablets in a Japanese pharmacy, for example. Or you could request a shirt in a different colour in a Swedish department store. But is this limiting your ability to communicate?

Vocabulary with vigour

Fortunately, there’s a completely different approach to learning vocabulary. It’s an efficient hack, cutting out slack, and It’s also totally free. It involves applying the principle of word frequency to your vocab drilling. Did you know, for example, that the 100 most frequent words in English account for around 50% of the language you’re likely to come across in the language?

In that top hundred most common words, you’ll find lots of function words like the articles ‘the’ and ‘a’, but also content words such as ‘thing’, ‘look’ and ‘day’. The same goes for other languages, and you can leverage this fact to ensure that the stuff you’re learning is the stuff you’ll come across more often than anything else. Stretch the limit to the 1000 most common words, and you’ll cover 75% of what you hear and read.

Finding your frequency

The first step is to find a frequency list for words in your foreign language. There are some superb commercial lists available, like this Spanish frequency dictionary from Routledge. But thanks to online collaborative and Open Source projects, a lot of material is available for free too.

The first place to look is Wiktionary’s catalogue of links to frequency lists. It’s quite exhaustive; you’ll find links to the big, mainstream languages, as well as smaller ones like Estonian and Lithuanian. There aren’t many commercial resources for learners of these less common language choices; frequency lists like these can be a real boost to your learning material.

It’s also worth checking out the blog site of Neri Rook. This prolific linguist has published a series of eBooks for free, including several extensive frequency lists. Some of these are accompanied by example sentences, putting the vocabulary into context. It’s a remarkable set of resources to make freely available, and worth making the most of!

Ready, set, go!

When you have your list, there are plenty of ways to start learning it. At the simplest level, paper flashcards are easily made from index / revision cards. Simply write the target language on one side, and the translation on the other, and test away. In the classroom, you could extend this to wall art featuring the most common words in the target language. Alternatively, you could use one of many online quiz tools, like Quizlet, to create interactive games with them.

However, I’m a big fan of the desktop and mobile software Anki for creating electronic flashcards for self-testing. You could take the top hundred and key them all into Anki yourself. But one of the joys of the software is the treasure of publicly shared card decks available. Many of them even have native speaker sound files included. Chances are, someone has already created that electronic card deck for you! Just search on the word frequency and see what comes up (screenshot below).

Shared frequency vocabulary lists on Anki

Shared frequency vocabulary list decks on Anki

Take advantage of the word frequency trick. You’ll become familiar with half of the language you’ll read and hear by learning around just a hundred words. And we all like a shortcut, right?

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!

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.

Parrots chatting

Conversation fillers

A common frustration when you’re moving from beginner to intermediate level in a language (A1/A2 to B1/B2 using the CEFR scale) is the stilted nature of the language you produce – short, functional, clipped and often isolated sentences that make for pretty boring conversations.

One way round this is to work on ‘conversation fillers’ – common little phrases or language snippets that instantly lend a bit of colour and flow to what you’re saying. Think about how you speak your native language; it’s rarely a sequence of straightforward, affirmative sentences, but peppered with padding like “well”, “I see”, “actually”, “anyway” and such like. They give what we’re saying flow and hue, and make us sound less like automata and more like the interesting, messy and complicated human beings we are.

A lot has been written on the topic already, not least this excellent article by polyglot Benny Lewis. I’ve returned to the topic myself as I’m on a language-improving trip to Norway this weekend, and have been digging all my old vocab lists out to brush up on them.

From my experience learning Norwegian and other languages, these are my top tips for reusable padding / flow phrases in your target language. I’ve deliberately limited them to just a few, as it’s important not to overload yourself, and focus on getting a manageable amount of them under your belt. Look them up / get a native speaker to translate them for you, and try and ease them into future conversations. It’ll be a little parrot-fashion at first, but after a while, they’ll become part of your natural repertoire. A great way to sound a little less stilted and more natural, even if you’re still managing that transition from beginner to intermediate.

  • Well…
  • In fact…
  • I see / understand
  • True / definitely / probably
  • I get the impression that…
  • I can imagine that…
  • It seems that…
  • I agree / you’re right
  • You know?
  • …isn’t it?
  • On the other hand…
  • Interesting!

Getting lost in languages: finding your flow

How often do we hear others dismiss language learning as “too hard” to bother?

In my own long and varied experience with MFL, it’s a charge I’ve heard frequently levelled at languages, as much from frustrated students as from family and friends. “I’d love to learn a language, but I’m just no good at it” is such a common defence; “I’ve got a terrible memory for languages” is another.

But what if expending too much effort is part of the problem? This isn’t to say that there’s some magic, easy method to acquire a working knowledge of a language in a short amount of time. No subliminal headphones-while-you-sleep shortcuts, I’m afraid.

Rather, we should be challenging the over-serious, head-breaking, traditional model of language learning; that slightly authoritarian, sit-down-and-learn-your-grammar reputation that MFL has (rightly or wrongly) earnt over the decades.

Recently I’ve been working on interactive resources in Maori and Latvian, two languages I know next to nothing about. A lot of the groundwork for this involved pretty repetitive copy-pasting to create resource files for apps. However, despite the fairly automatic nature of the task, I found myself noticing and picking up language patterns almost subconsciously  during the process. After more than 100 Latvian verb conjugations, for example, you start to recognise present tense endings like -u/-i/-a/-m/-t/-a and other groups more or less instinctively.

In the zone

Not only that, but turning into a bit of a copy-paste automaton for an hour or so was an easy – even relaxing – experience. Talking about it with a  colleague, I likened it to ‘taking a stroll’ through the language. I’d entered that mindful state of ‘being in the zone’, or flow, as described by positive psychologists like Csíkszentmihályi. I had, in effect, created the perfect mind conditions to enjoy and absorb working within the foreign language, almost without any conscious effort.

I do this kind of task very often in my line of work, unsurprisingly, it’s led me to a head chock full of vocab and grammar snippets that I never really intended to learn, but somehow, fortuitously, did anyway. It leads me to re-evaluate the kinds of learning task that we often dismiss in MFL, those that seem to have little worth on the surface, like word searches and simple matching activities. I’ve often a guilty ‘word search snob’ myself, but it’s likely worth rethinking their poor reputation amongst MFL educators in this light. Food for thought when considering whether to include such ‘low-level’ tasks in your language learning regime or resources!

If they’re engaging enough to spark a little of that flow, contain a fair amount of language patterns and paradigms with clear meaning,  then maybe, just maybe, ‘grunt’ language learning tasks have a valuable place in learning.