Keep your language learning colourful - change things up from time to time.

Managing Anki decks with options groups

Well, the football didn’t go England’s way this week. Commiserations, fellow polyglot fans who were also hoping. But when anticlimactic gloom ensues, sometimes you’re motivated to very productive distractions. I’ve spent a useful chunk of time this week optimising my Anki flash card decks.

With Anki, as with all things, it’s easy to get stuck in your ways. When something works straight out the box and does the job, it’s tempting not to tinker. How many people, for example, never touch the advanced settings on a new phone, console or TV?

Change things up a little

That said, sometimes you just need to be brave and change things up a little. The experimenter’s ethos is key: it might work; it might not. But it’s worth trying!

Yes, Anki works straight out of the box. And it does a fantastic job like that. But, with some tweaking, you can fit it around your goals and lifestyle much more neatly. Here’s how I’ve tweaked it to fit my goals and lifestyle more neatly lately.

The problem

The problem is that I rotate a lot of languages in my learning routine. Some I’m actively learning right now. Others I’ve learnt in the past, and want to ‘rest’ them for a while before returning to them in the future. And some of those I want to bring out of their rest phase, and work on maintaining, rather than growing them.

The way I was doing this before was quite efficient, on the whole. I normally nest all my language decks in a superdeck called ‘Languages’. When I was ready to rest a language for a while, I’d simply rename its deck into ‘Rested Languages’. This deck had a learn / review limit of zero in its settings, effectively turning it off. When I was ready to restart that language, I’d move it back. I talk about this cycle in a previous post.

The trouble is, it could feel like a clunky kludge at times. Removing a whole deck from your stack renders the language invisible. It’s almost like you’ve given up on it – it’s no longer in your Anki hall of fame, it no longer feels like yours. I love seeing the long list of languages I’ve worked on in Anki, and removing one smarts a little. It’s like parking you classic, but disused car, in a dark, dusty garage. Or shutting away your pet in a kennel. Or lots of other slightly sad metaphors… In any case, it felt wrong.

If only there were some way of keeping decks where they are, but adjusting the new card / review settings separately from the rest…

Anki Options Groups

Roll on Anki options groups. By default, all the decks in a superdeck have the same settings. If you have a limit of ten new cards a day on the superdeck, all the subdecks share that limit.

However, you can set up separate ‘options groups’, and apply them to individual decks in a stack. This gives you control over the settings for that deck alone, and allows you to keep the deck where it is, but make it behave differently.

Getting started

It’s easiest to do this in the desktop program. Next to each deck, you’ll see a little cog symbol, which you can pull down to access a deck’s options.

Changing the options on a deck in Anki

Changing the options on a deck in Anki

Your decks will be set to the default options to start with. Pull down the cog menu in the top-right corner of the options form to add a new batch of settings.

Adding a new set of options in Anki

Adding a new set of options in Anki

The key setting here is ‘New cards/day’. In this example, I’m setting that to just two, as these are rested languages that I’ve reset all the scheduling on, and am drip-feeding as new vocab at a slow pace each day.

Adjusting options in Anki

Adjusting options in Anki

When you press OK, you’ve created an options group that you can use on your other decks, too. For instance, I’m currently sharing that ‘Minor languages’ group above with my Greek and Hebrew.

Grades of activity

It’s a great way to manage your study if you have lots of languages. It also pays to spend some time deciding what your levels of activity will be before creating options groups. Mine, for example, include:

I can’t underestimate how satisfying – and motivating! – it is to see all the languages I’ve worked on in the same list again. No more dusty attic of lost languages – they’re all in one place again. Give it a go, and get a little bit more tailor-made learning from this amazing, free tool!

Anki - with lots of language decks!

Anki – with lots of language decks!


Football: beautiful game, beautiful way to learn languages?

As an Englishman (despite being based in Scotland), I must admit to getting a wee bit excited over the past couple of weeks. And I think I can be forgiven. It’s not incredibly often that the World Cup goes our way. You see, it’s not always about Eurovision with me – football gets a look-in, too.

It was a long time coming for me, this love of football. As a sports-shy teen, I was more interested in books than boots. But there’s something wonderfully enticing about international sports competitions – something that plays right into the hands of language lovers. Pelé’s jogo bonito (beautiful game) can be a beautiful way to switch on to languages, not least in the role model department.

Multilingual football players

Football players often get a bad rap for being overblown idols. We all know the stereotype of the precious, overpaid divas (perhaps fairly earned by a few!). But look a little closer, and there are some remarkable people hiding behind the headline-hoggers. Some of them make perfect polyglot pinups.

As a prime example, Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku is a standout. With six languages – or more, if you count the fact that he is currently learning German – he earns the badge of hyperglot football star, let alone polyglot. Truly a world citizen. And Lukaku has more than that to celebrate right now, with Belgium making the final four for the football trophy this week (allez les diables!).

Breaking the stereotype

On the other hand, Brits have a pretty poor record when it comes to language learning. For whatever reason, it’s a reality language teachers are working hard to change in British schools. But with international signings going both ways, some British players, like Gary Lineker, have managed to overcome this national stereotype in the past. Modern football is anything but an exclusively anglophone field (pitch?). The message to sports-mad kids is clear: love football? Then embrace language as an integral part of that!

For an inspirational line-up, there is a handy YouTube video profiling polyglot players with four or more languages (with rather more recent examples than Gary Lineker!).

Multilingual football teams

It’s also notable how multilingual teams are the norm these days. Players drafted from all over the world must learn to communicate with each other from day one.  Just look at Tottenham Hotpur: its current squad includes speakers of Dutch, French, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili.

And it’s not always the case that English rules all as lingua franca. International sports sites must cater for all areas of the world, and English is not spoken by everybody. The FIFA site reflects this nicely in its language options, with material in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Russian and Spanish. The multilingual nature of sites like this make for excellent target language resources.

Football news

Similarly, it goes without saying that the World Cup is a fantastic time to access foreign language content about national teams in particular. And if you get into the football, you benefit from that boost to learning that is personal interest. Learners are much more likely to stick with texts that contain exciting, valuable info, rather than those with little relevance to their lives.

Most media outlets will have dedicated World Cup mini-sites, like this section from French newspaper Le Monde. ‘Unofficial’ news sources such as this YouTube channel on football in Spanish can also be great stretch goals for comprehension.

So, football can be a wonderful way in to the world of language learning, whether you need resources, or just some new, inspirational role models. Could it be what you, your language buddies and colleagues, your kids or your students need to spark the passion? With a week of the World Cup to go, milk the multilingual excitement for all it offers!

Finally, best of luck to Belgium, Croatia, England and France next week… With perhaps an understandable, healthy and sportsmanlike bias towards England on the part of this proud, international linguist!

Metalanguage helps you to talk about the cogs and wheels of language

Metalanguage : learning to talk *about* your target language

One of the biggest challenges for language students is to maintain a 100% target-language environment during lessons. Holding everyday conversations is one thing. But when it comes to discussing the language itself, we often lack the tools. We need metalanguage.

Metalanguage refers to the set of terms for describing and analysing language. You probably learnt such terms at school in your native language lessons: verb, noun, pronoun and so on. But typically, these aren’t presented in the target language when you are learning from foreign language course material. This makes chatting about your learning incredibly difficult.

Keep the target language flowing

I recently noticed what a positive effect metalanguage can have in my Polish lessons. With my teacher, we’ve been covering noun cases lately – always a tricky topic for English-speaking students of the language. My attempt to keep speaking Polish was constantly thwarted by having to switch to English: “ohhhh, that’s genitive plural“, “does that take the instrumental?” and so on. It was getting tedious.

Quick fix: I learnt the names of the Polish cases in Polish. For fans of tongue-twisters, they are: mianownik, biernik, dopełniacz, celownik, narzędnik, miejscownik and wołacz (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, locative and vocative). Some quite challenging vocabulary in one go, there!

Metalanguage: unlocking further vocabulary

Of course, language lesson is the environment where knowing these will help prevent breakdowns in the 100% target language flow. However, you might think that metalanguage is of limited use beyond teacher talk.

However, learning words like these helps you to do more than just talk about language. They can be keys to new and extra vocabulary in themselves. Through spotting links between the names of the cases and other Polish words, for example, they have also consolidated my own expanding neural network of Polish words.

How does this work? Well, let’s take the word for dative in Polish, celownik. This derives from the word cel (goal, aim), and in turn, relates to celowo (deliberately, on purpose). Quite natural, then, that the noun case for direction, or doing something to someone/something proceeds from this family of words. Instantly, these terms are no longer in isolation for me, but in a group. Crucially, grouping of related terms strengthens recall, something borne out by memory research.

Several (overwhelmingly European) languages, rather annoyingly, stick to Latin terminology for analytical grammatical terms. German, for example, uses Verb and Präsens (Present Tense), amongst others. But often, there are alternative ways to describe language phenomenon, which are not simply borrowings. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that you can also use Zeitwort (verb – literally ‘time word’) and Gegenwart (present – in the grammatical and literal sense of ‘being present’) instead. It pays to persevere with your dictionary.

See your own language differently

Finally, learning these terms, and what they refer to, not only helps you become a better speaker of your target language; you also come to know your first language on much closer terms.

As a case in point, I grew up in the classrooms of the 1980s, where the grammar of my own language barely featured in English lessons. It was only after switching on to foreign languages that I began to understand how my own worked. Learning terms like passive voicevalency and indirect object opened up a whole new world. My English improved along with my practical language skills. Getting to grips with metalanguage is a vital step on the way to earning the label ‘linguist’.

It’s certainly worth researching metalanguage in the languages you study. Whether to keep your native language lapses to a minimum, or unlock and consolidate further vocabulary, talking about your language in your language is an effort that pays off.

Coaching and languages: the travelling partner you need?

Language learner are used to working with others. These tend to be language specialists: teachers, conversation exchange partners or fellow students. But support in learning languages does not have to be in the target language. Not convinced? Well recently, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a coach on achieving my self-set language goals. Through coaching, I’ve been able to focus on improving how I learn, rather than just cramming content. And I’m completely sold on the usefulness of it to your learning toolkit.

It helps to know that I’m in good company. Multilingual mogul Benny Lewis has sung the praises of coaching repeatedly. In particular, he recommends the free app, and is an active member of the platform’s forum and goal-sharing community. I’ve used the app myself, and it is wonderfully simple. Even if you only take advantage of the daily goal reminders, it can be an incredibly powerful motivator.

You can take this a step further, though, and seek out a real-life, human coach to work with. This can be face-to-face, or, more likely these days, online via Skype or similar. For the past month, I’ve been scheduling weekly slots with a coach online. The experience has been nothing but positive, and I’m excited to share how the process can unstick even the stickiest, most disorganised linguist!

Search for the hero inside yourself

Coaching builds on the principle that, in many cases, the answers are already inside ourselves. They just need coaxing out. Avril, my coach, puts this succinctly: she is my tour guide. She shows me around and points things out that I might miss. But the landscape is one of my own making.

How can we not know ourselves, and how can a coach help bridge the gap? The problem is that we are all embedded in busy, often chaotic lives of overlapping priorities.

Coaching in the eyes of a coach

Maybe it’s best to let a coaching expert do the talking here. Cameron Murdoch, experienced coach and mentor at Coaching Studio, puts it like this:

Coaching is often about being challenged by the coach by them using powerful questions. Quite often you have the answer yourself, but it needs another person to draw it out.

The coach also acts as an accountability partner type figure so you set targets but they make sure you achieve them. They help you also if you hit a brick wall and help you tackle issues that develop that could stop you. They also help celebrate achievement as well as walk through problems.

It’s a way of opening up the mind to push you out of your comfort zone and into the learning zone – but making sure you don’t step into the panic zone. They push you just enough to learn, but not to panic.

Quite simply, a coaching partner can push you where you won’t push yourself, and help you see things when you are too close to the issues to see them yourself.

Talking with Avril recently, we likened this to a pile of tangled wool of difference colours. A coach can help you to pick out strands of the same colour, and place them neatly on their own to analyse and optimise. Instantly, you then see what needs doing. In this way, a coach lifts your goal-oriented activity out of the chaos and makes it visible; and that makes it so much more manageable.

Plan of action

For me, a key ‘obvious’ was simply organising my time better.

I instinctively knew that one key to making my learning more systematic would be to use calendar blocking. In fact, it was so ‘obvious’, that I’d even written an article about it. But, somehow, your own advice can be the hardest to put into practice.

Instead of learning bits and pieces here and there, I agreed with my coach to allocate half- or full-hour slots of time where I could sit down and focus entirely on a chapter of a course book, or active reading of a news article.

What helps keep you on the straight and narrow is a sense of accountability. These are not empty promises I’ve made myself. Rather, every week, I have to report how I’m getting on to someone who is following me along the road. The effect is surprisingly motivating!

Finding a coaching partner

Apps like include an option to contract with a human coach through the app. You can do a simple Google search for coaches too, although be aware that the kind of coaching I’m talking about here is not life coaching, and it seems that Google tends to favour those results above other goal-oriented coaching services.

On a personal level, I can recommend checking out Cameron Murdoch as a coach or source of pointers and other coach recommendations. He’s quite an inspirational guy for many reasons; you’ll see some of these on his LinkedIn profile.

Be a guinea pig

However, you might well know somebody working towards a coaching qualification. If you’re lucky enough to be offered a set of sessions as their guinea pig, that’s a superb opportunity.

Even if that’s not an option, I believe that the standard hourly rate (anything from £25 upwards depending on the coach’s experience) is still well worth it if it unlocks a higher tier of learning.

Typically, you will also specify a finite block of coaching time – say, ten sessions – so, unlike fitness training, for example, there is an end point in sight. This helps in budgeting, especially if you’re not keen on the idea of another outgoing bill / subscription ad infinitum. Of course, you might choose to carry on a coaching relationship if you think you need the helping hand!

I’m still travelling my coaching journey, and have a number of sessions to go. But already, I can see its huge value as a language learner. Whether through an app service, or with a real-life human being, give coaching a try: it might just set you right back on track with your languages.

Open mic, ready for your voice

Voice in my head: developing polyglot personalities

If you learn more than one language, there is one question you hear more often than any other: how do you avoid getting mixed up? There are many answers to this. But one key strategy, for me, is developing a distinct voice for each language.

When you think about it, differentiating your languages by voice makes complete sense. Languages have patterns of pitch and tone quite distinct from one another. The voice you developed growing up with your native tongue adapted to fit the phonology of that language. It’s not surprising if the fit is a little less snug in French, Spanish, German and so on – at least without a little modification.

But changing your voice can feel intimidating. Our voice is a fundamental element of the self we project into the world; altering it can feel too bold, too cheeky. It’s no wonder that school students in the language classroom can feel reluctant to really get stuck into a foreign accent out. As adult learners, we face exactly the same fear. So how can we best approach a multiple voice approach to language learning?

Have fun with it

It’s important to remember that language learning regularly challenges us to act counter to our everyday inhibitions. Whether it’s speaking with strangers, supplementing our broken speech with frantic hand gestures, or trying to mimic how others sound, linguists are so often thrust out of reasonable, human comfort zones.

The best learners acknowledge this, and embrace the challenge head on. In short, it pays to be a clown!

It’s something we are naturals at as kids, chiefly because kids feel less embarrassment when they are playing around. For instance, this is one area where you needn’t feel guilty about wallowing in linguistic stereotypes. Have a hoot combining your French with dodgy Allo Allo accents. Watch back old episodes of Eldorado and have a go at your cheesiest Spanish. The important thing is to let go of your fear of sounding foolish through having fun.

It’s all very childish… So enjoy it!

Experiment with pitch

You can create instant results by simply experimenting with the pitch of your voice. Spanish and Russian feel more natural to speak when I lower my voice, for example – something my friends still find hilarious (even though I’m not deliberately trying to make them laugh!). (“Is that your Spanish voice again?” Yes. It is. I’m so glad you find it funny!)

On the other hand, I’m aware that the my voice is higher when I speak Norwegian – perhaps because this is easier with a tonal accent.

A lot of this is also to do with the voices you are exposed to as a learner. I listen to a lot of podcasts, for example. And through those, I hear all sorts of voices at all sorts of pitches. It has become a great, accessible way to ‘window shop’ for voices you are comfortable to use as a model. In fact, there are some well-documented techniques like shadowing, which use audio mimicry to drill your foreign language accent.

Exaggerate differences

Once you have a hook on the aural ‘feel’ of a language, you can focus on those differences as a means to differentiate. This is especially helpful if you study pairs, or sets of similar languages. These present a very particular set of advantages and challenges to learners.

I’ve studied both Polish and Russian on my language travels. As Slavic languages (albeit from different branches), they looked and sounded extremely similar to me as a beginner. But gradually, I found a way to mark the line between them through voice.

For instance, I sometimes find it easier to think of the sound of language in terms of shape. Through this lens, Russian is a language with quite sharp edges to my mind. On the other hand, the sound shapes of Polish seem much softer and curvier. When developing my Polish and Russian voices, I place a lot of weight on reflecting these demarcating characteristics.

(Disclaimer: after lots more study of both languages, I realise how different they can both be, now! Sorry for my previous ignorance, Polish and Russian natives! 🙂 )

Own your language

All this, of course, can greatly add to your sense of ownership over the foreign language. It’s vital to claim a language as your own, if you want a life-long relationship with it. And carving out a voice, even a personality, within it, will help you stake that claim.

It’s about feeling at home speaking it; saying “this is my German / Spanish / Uzbek” and being proud of the speaker you have created. Educational psychologists pore over methods to increase ownership in learning; as a language learner, voice work is a handy shortcut to do just that.

Voice in my head – split personality?

Finally, it’s interesting to see how this phenomenon plays out in bilinguals in the real world. Personally, I’ve found myself intrigued by polyglots who report a personality change when speaking another language. Through playing with voice and accent across my active languages, I think I can recognise that, too. Building up a distinct voice and personality in a language will inevitably create ‘another you’.

There is some research evidence to support this, too. However, the effect could be down to situational, rather than psychological factors (ie., bilinguals use different languages in different situations, and they would naturally act differently in those situations anyway – e.g., with colleagues rather than with family). Environmental or otherwise, though, it’s a fascinating thought, and one you can have a lot of fun with as a learner.

Developing a voice in your foreign languages goes hand in hand with perfecting an accent. Have fun playing around with it. And enjoy your polyglot personalities!

Plasma ball

How starting over can boost your language confidence

It’s important to recognise the brain’s need for pause now and again. But it might help our guilt-ridden, study-obsessed selves to note how effectively a rest can restart our engines.

I’ve experienced this effect recently, after picking up Modern Hebrew again. Like a few languages, I’ve had an on-off relationship with Hebrew since I was very young. Just like my other ‘side’ projects, though, I’ve never run with it consistently for very long.

Not that it hasn’t been useful; a trip to Israel in 1999 and a random conservation with Israelis in a Paris bar rank amongst the great opportunities I’ve had to use it! At around the A2 level, it was certainly a working, useful knowledge of the language.

That said, I never really had great confidence in my abilities to speak Hebrew well. I drifted off into other languages and other hobbies. Then, something remarkable happened: I picked it up again after a long break.

Starting from scratch – with an advantage

What I did was to reset my Anki decks. In particular, I removed all previous scheduling information from my Hebrew cards, and moved them back into an active deck. In essence, I set up Anki to start all over again with the language.

Note that I hadn’t touched these cards in over a year and a half. Back then, my last Hebrew adventure, I’d had a course of Hebrew lessons through iTalki. During that period, I amassed around 1000 vocabulary cards. But I’d long since ‘rested’ these by moving the whole set into a dormant Anki deck.

zzzRestedLanguages - where my dormant languages go to sleep for a while!

zzzRestedLanguages (bottom) – where my dormant languages go to sleep for a while!

Something wonderful happened in the first few days of reinstated Hebrew. I amazed myself at how much I could remember. Not just words like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, either, but more complex vocabulary nouns like ‘driver’, ‘newspaper’ and phrases like ‘I work in London’. It was still there. I could still speak Hebrew!

Confidence lost – then refound

It might seem crazy that I sounded so amazed. After all, I’d actively learnt Hebrew on and off for a while. But I’d not spoken it in so long, I had written it off. I’d lost my confidence. And that happens so easily with languages you don’t use.

The lesson to take from it, of course, is that our brains are much more robust than we realise. We should have confidence in our abilities; we often underestimate them when we’re in the thick of learning, and it isn’t until much later that we realise how solid our first passes were.

This also serves to remind ourselves of the hard work we spent in the first place. All that work – surely it’s worth revisiting those ‘rested’ tongues now and again? You earned the right to be confident through hard work. Starting over can bring that confidence back.

Where next?

So, where next? As a perennial dabbler, I have a few to choose from. An earnest fresh attack on Greek and Russian would be a good place to start. I’ve not used either properly in a while, and definitely feel that confidence deficit with both.

If you choose to resurrect any of your former language adventures, I’m certain it can also remind you that you have everything to feel proud and confident about as a learner!

Sunbeams in a forest - pace yourself and go for a walk!

Pace and pause

We’re human beings, not machines. And sometimes, it’s importance to acknowledge that fact by respecting your learning pace, and building in opportunities to pause.

I’ve written before on the topic of learner burnout, and it’s definitely a topic that bears repeating. It’s also easy to forget about if you’re in the thick of something you love.

I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. After a packed February, thanks to the iTalki language challenge, I was buzzing. It was an amazing learning experience; my head was spinning with the mental stimulation. But packing in regular lessons for 5+ languages, as well as work, family and friends, takes energy. I was drained.

Still, I kept going on, and after an equally hectic March and April, the crunch came in May. My head just needed a little bit of rest.

Recognise it

The vital course of action under these circumstances is to recognise it. It can be hard to admit that something you love is tiring you out. Know that this doesn’t diminish your passion for it in any way. We only have a finite amount of energy, and all things – fun and mundane – can tap into that. And it happens to everyone!

Don’t feel guilty

Secondly, there is no shame in it. We all tend to place a burden of expectation on our own shoulders. If you’re driven by achievement in a field that you love, you can sometimes expect a little too much from yourself. Then, when your body and brain start to complain, it’s hard to admit that you need to turn it down a notch. Learner guilt steps in.

However, taking breaks is essential for keeping a steady pace. We are simply designed that way! It’s all a question of mental self-awareness and self-care, and there is a ton of advice online about that. For starters, here are some excellent reasons to shun the guilt when building in time off. Athletes pace themselves; learners must too.

Schedule it

Moreover, a short break doesn’t need to be an unstructured, indeterminate halt to learning. Being proactive about building in pace and pause means planning it constructively. Done constructively, a learning break is less about downing tools, and more about taking a short breather.

Define your break period clearly; give yourself a week or two in the calendar, deciding a clear return / resume date. That way, you can also keep teachers, learning partners and language buddies up-to-date on when to expect you back.

Planning a period of pause can also help you administer apps and services you use to learn. At this link, for example, learners discuss how to pause (or ‘suspend’) Anki flashcard decks during a period of downtime. Personally, I’ve also found it useful to move ‘sleeping’ languages into a separate Anki deck I’ve named “Archived“, with a daily card limit of zero. Whatever learning platforms you use, explore settings and features that can help you organise your rest space.

Try something new

Sometimes, a change is as good as a rest. While you’re resting your language brain, why not try something totally different? As long as it’s not too mentally taxing, going off on a tangent could leave you feeling refreshed. I’ve been following this Udemy course on creating digital art as a distraction lately, and it’s been a great diversion.

It can sometimes seem like one lifetime isn’t enough to cram in all the learning we want to do. But one lifetime is all we have. And making the most of it means respecting pace, and building in pause. Keep that in mind, and you’ll be a better language learner for it!

Polish words in a dictionary

2000 words and still not fluent? My Polish Anki experiment 🇵🇱📱

Would you be impressed if I told you I know over 2000 words in Polish? What about if I told you that I still can’t actually speak Polish?

As crazy as it sounds, it’s true. At least, it was true – I’m working on the speaking part now. But for some time, I’ve been exploring ideas of what fluency really means in language learning. Common sense dictates that, of course, fluency isn’t just knowing hundreds of words in a foreign language. But sometimes, you have to try something to confirm what common sense tells you. So I set off on a little Polish experiment: what if I just learnt all the words first?

Away with words

The language-canny amongst you might already see where this was heading. I should add that I never expected to reach conversational fluency this way. Rather, it was a trial to see just how far mass vocabulary learning can take a learner. There are plenty of courses that focus on rote-learning of vocab (Vocabulearn Polish, for example). Just how effective is the approach on its own, or, at least, as a springboard for more rounded learning later on?

Also, a disclaimer: I wasn’t completely new to Polish. I’ve had a casual interest in the language and culture ever since this formative TV moment at the age of 17. I’d learn a little Polish before, and knew the fundamentals of grammar. But fundamentals is perhaps an overstatement – I knew a handful of set phrases, a couple of noun cases and one verb conjugation.

The process

The whole thing was done pretty much on the cheap. I set about building a list in Anki based on a really old Polish text that I picked up for 50p in a second-hand bookshop: the 1948 edition of “Teach Yourself Polish”. Chapter by chapter, I’d strip the pages for new entries, and add them to Anki, tagging for parts of speech and topic. After I exhausted that (it contains maybe 1500 individual vocabulary entries or so), I turned to other texts I had at home (but never completed), like Routledge’s Colloquial Polish.

As I built the lists, I cross-referenced carefully using tools like Wiktionary, to check for mistranslations, obsolete terms and so on. That’s a pretty important step when using a text from 1948! However, the core vocabulary of a language doesn’t typically change drastically in any 70-year period, so I ended up with a pretty solid list of everyday words in the language (as well as some nice little oddities like jaskółka – a swallow, and borsuk – badger). 🐦

Input, test, repeat

I started doing my daily Anki routine right after my first words had been input. That meant that, for some weeks, I was learning words from early chapters, while typing them in from later ones. I found that helped, in fact; I’d become familiar with words for the first time when entering them, and then have an ‘echo’ of them when they came round in Anki. I certainly had a lot of success with recall that way.

Thankfully, there’s no damage that can’t be undone when learning languages. I’m back on track now with a structured textbook and regular one-to-one lessons with a Polish teacher. Those months learning the entire vocabulary of “Teach Yourself Polish” weren’t wasted – I now have a massive word bank at my disposal (even if learning to put them together is taking a lot of effort!).

Lessons learnt

So what did I learn, besides 2000 words, and how to be a walking dictionary?

Well, it clearly demonstrates two distinct mental processes when it comes to linguistic memory. There is the mental dictionary. And then there is the rule book. They can be learnt in isolation, but to really speak, they need to be learnt together.

Also, without learning them together, your power to retrieve words from memory can be a little mechanical and clunky. I had never practised firing off reams of words in the flow of conversation. I could answer like lightning if asked “what’s the Polish for apple?“. But when the time came to try and speak, my retrieval was just too slow to be useful.

It’s necessary to practise your vocabulary in the full stream of everyday speech; your brain must get used to pulling words quickly from memory as soon as they are needed.

By way of comparison, I notice a huge difference between my Polish and Icelandic. For me, the two languages are approximately at the same level on paper. However, speaking Icelandic in full sentences from the start, I come to a complete, faltering stop much less often.

Curating your own lists in Anki

It was also a great lesson in vocab organisation. Because I’d diligently tagged all of the entered words, I could leverage Anki’s search and filter to pull up custom vocab lists based on topic, or even parts of speech. What are all the adverbs of time I’ve learnt in Polish? Search the deck on ‘tag:adverb’ and ‘tag:time’, and hey presto. What about all the words for colours I’ve learnt? Pop in ‘tag:colours’ and there they all are.

This is important because of the power of ownership in language learning. These were my lists – they have particular salience to me, as I create and curate them. When entering them, I thought hard to think up tags that might be useful for sorting later. It’s quite satisfying to interrogate a mass of words in this way, and see the patterns and orders in them. And it works wonders for helping them stick in memory.

Interrogating lists of Anki words by tag

Interrogating lists of Anki words by tag

Gist king

Even in the absence of full syntax, it is now much easier to get the gist of most Polish texts.  Words alone are certainly not useless; they just serve the user better in a passive capacity.

The boosted banks are also a fantastic advantage now I am learning Polish in a more rounded,  systematic fashion. As I learn new structures, I have a ready-made treasure of words to drop into them.

Incidentally, it gave me a wonderful bird’s eye view of certain differences between Slavic languages, too. As a former learner of Russian, it was fascinating to see where Polish completely matched, or totally diverged from Russian.

An experience to repeat?

Has the experience been useful? Incredibly. Would I do it again? Certainly not with a completely new language that I knew nothing about in terms of grammar.

However, the sense of purpose and diligence it gave me was invaluable – I felt very actively engaged in the process of learning Polish. Not only that, but it was a masterclass in how to use Anki and take ownership of your vocabulary. As such, I shall definitely incorporate the same approach into further learning – only as a complimentary, rather than a principle, strand!

Sunset in Israel, winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest

Next stop: Hebrew? Thanks again, Eurovision!

As a Eurovision-obsessed kid, I’d often let the contest dictate what language I’d learn next. Whether it was the languages of my favourite countries (Norway, Iceland, Poland) or the language of the winning country I’d travel to the following year (Estonia, Sweden), I’ve come into contact with dozens of different languages thanks to the contest.

Last night, Israel won in spectacular, clucking fashion, with the supremely fun “TOY“. So… next stop, Hebrew?

Well, I’ve been there before. It’s a nice full-circle moment for me with languages, as a lover of old Israeli entries. From my early teens, I was motivated to dive into Hebrew through foot-tapping Eurovision songs.

From that on-and-off dabbling with the language, I eventually managed to reach a slightly shaky A2 in it, although many years later! There is a lot to be said in favour of slow, gradual, no-pressure learning. And now, what better reason to pick it back up than a potential trip to the 2019 contest?

Where it all began

The whole saga takes me right back to where my interest in Modern Hebrew began – the very first Eurovision Song Contest I purposefully watched, back in 1993. Sometimes, you love songs less for their quality, and more for how they connect to your life. And as a 15-year-old language geek, I was fascinated by the awkward, quirky but loveable entry from Israel, “Shiru” (‘sing!’).

I was so full of questions. Who is the lady on her own? Why doesn’t she join the rest of the group like the piano lady? And why are they dressed like they’re going to a fairytale wedding? To tell you the truth, I still don’t know the answers.

After that contest, I raided our little local library in Stourbridge for any books on the language. The choice was a bit limited – much more on Biblical Hebrew than Modern, for example – but with the few resources I could dig out, I picked up the right-to-left script quickly enough. I was always a fan of code, and at that age, the Hebrew alphabet was like some mystical cipher.

I also happened across a real gem of a tome that I grappled with for years – a dusty, old and very analytical volume on Hebrew verb paradigms. A lofty academic text, that was really beyond my understanding at the time. But it was like dark magic to me – a secret rule book that would open doors to great understanding if I spent time with it.

Of course, that was my first introduction to a non-Indo-European language. No wonder it was so fascinating – it was utterly different to the French and German I was learning at school. Verbs behave completely differently in Semitic languages, and the quirks had me hooked.

All that – from a chance encounter with a Eurovision song!

Yes, the contest can be whacky and just plain odd at times. But it has led me into so many language adventures – I’m quite happy to let that continue!

Data laser

Google Sheets magic tricks for language learners

The best language partners not only open your eyes to new words, but to new techniques. It is always the case with excellent iTalki teacher and polyglot friend Marcel Balzer, for example. Never short of fantastic tips, he recently shared a gem of a trick for language learning through the free, online spreadsheet software Google Sheets.

The magic happens thanks to the cross-pollination between Google Products, namely Sheets, and Google Translate. Using a simple formula, you can translate the text contents of one cell into another.

It is very easy to set up. Say you create two columns, A and B, headed German and English. In cell A2, you add a new German word you come across. In cell B2, you have the following formula:


As soon as the word is entered into the first cell, a handy quick translation will pop up in the second. You may recognise the short codes de and en as international abbreviations, which you can substitute for the languages you are learning. See this link for a full list of them.

You can be as creative with your pairings as you like; I’m currently experimenting with cross-translating vocabulary lists in Norwegian and Icelandic, for example. Great for filling gaps in a weaker language by referencing a stronger one!

Using automated Google Translate in a Google Sheets spreadsheet

Using automated Google Translate in a Google Sheets spreadsheet

Google Sheets Combo power

Google Sheets has many more tricks up its sleeve for the linguist open to a bit of tech exploration, though. With some imagination, you can create some quite powerful learning applications by combining them.

You can, for example, join together the text in several cells to create a single line of text. For example, if you have “j’ai” in cell A2, and “mangé” in cell B2, in cell C2 you could add:


The TEXTJOIN method pulls together the text contents of cells, and requires a couple of arguments, or pieces of information. The first ” ” is a space in quotes, and tells TEXTJOIN what to place between the words it joins together. Here, I use spaces, but you could use hyphens, commas, or whatever else is appropriate. The TRUE simply tells TEXTJOIN to ignore any blank cells that contain no text – if you want them included, change this to false. Finally, there is a list of all the cells containing the content you want to join (A2, B2). This can be as long as you need.

This is useful for words and phrases on their own. But more usefully, I found, was to use this along with target language words to build URLs. To explain why, it might be useful to outline one of the main methods I use to mine for new vocabulary.

The vocab mining process

When I actively seek out and check new vocabulary, I have a step-by-step routine. This will start in one of two ways, depending on which direction I’m learning it in. Sometimes, for example, I will realise that there is a gap in my target language vocabulary by comparing it with my native and other languages. It’s important to actively interrogate your languages like this, always looking out for gaps. Alternatively, I will just come across new vocab already in the target language when I read or listen to podcasts.

Google Translate

Once I have a word to look up, I use dictionary resources (online and offline), as well as Google Translate, to find a translation. Of course, Google Translate comes with many caveats, being a very blunt instrument for linguists. As a former teacher, I feel the pain of anyone marking a piece of homework that has so obviously gone through the Google mangle. However, as a quick vocabulary look-up tool, it is hard to beat.


Of course, you have to keep your wits about you when using it. And so comes the final step for me: Wiktionary. Wiktionary is a crowdsourced multilingual dictionary, full of detailed entries for countless words in a whole raft of languages. This includes multiple meanings, contextual examples and even detailed etymologies for many entries – all things that provide real hooks for the learner to understand and assimilate new lexical items.

By now, I should have a good overview of how the word fits into the target language. At this point, I will add it to Anki for learning and testing. The Anki entry may include brief usage notes from Wiktionary and other sources.

That’s a fairly simple procedure, but it does involve a bit of jumping around from site to site. However, if you look at the URLs of Wiktionary pages, they have a very regular form. For example:

You can leverage this kind of regularity when automating tasks. But how?

Chain of command

Enter TEXTJOIN, combined with the power of Google Translate! The chain goes like this: with an English word in cell A2, an automatic translation (say, into Icelandic) pops up in cell B2. Cell C2 then takes the output in cell B2 and builds a link to the relevant Wiktionary page, which I can click to check the entry:


This builds up a full link to a Wiktionary page referencing the word in B2, and the position on the page where the Icelandic entry appears (if it exists). Suddenly, it is a lot quicker and easier to perform my three-step vocab lookup.

Tip of the iceberg

There is a vast array of other methods available in Google Sheets. The above example is a fairly simple chain, but much more complex processes are certainly possible with a bit of creative play. They can be used in myriad ways, too. Google Sheets can be viewed by multiple users at the same time when shared, for example, and Marcel explains that he uses his along with his teacher during online lessons. New words are added to the sheet as they come up, and can be instantly cross-referenced.

Modest Marcel insists that the trick was not his invention, and merely came to him via another helpful polyglot colleague. Nonetheless, I am extremely grateful for the inspiration, which has triggered hours of geekish exploration! I pass it on in the hope of helping more fellow linguaphiles in the same way. Harness the power of Google, and happy learning!